It is the first day of the new year and I feel that this is the proper time when one should turn his attention to Socrates and hear once more his exhortation, “know thyself” and read also over his observation that an unexamined life is not one that is worth living. That life, the life that is worth living, the noble life, is the one that has been thoroughly examined.
So I have chosen today, one day after last year, to be introspective.
The Byzantine Emperor Theophilos, golden apple in hand, is inspecting a long line of women, all petitioners for that golden apple. They are the most beautiful women in the Empire and they are now all lined up in one of the palace gardens in Constantinople, not too far from the monumental church Hagia Sophia where the most important Byzantines go to observe all the rituals of Christianity, the birth, the christening, the marriage the death and a whole host of blessings for a whole host of needs. Hagia Sophia had replaced Apollo’s temple at Delphi in importance and in popularity. In need, even.
His stepmother, Euphrosyne is walking beside him and it is her stern eye that will determine which woman will get the prize. A double prize, as it happens, the golden apple and the title of Empress. That woman, the woman who will get the apple, will effectively be her daughter-in-law. Lots at stake here so the eye must indeed be stern so that the choosing might not err.
Among the gorgeous women is one called Cassia, (also Kassia) Kassiani, in Greek. Cassia is the feminine form of the Roman name Cassius and Cassius-Gaius Cassius Longinus, the Roman was given a frown by the then Emperor of Rome, Julius Caesar, to wit (according to Shakespeare):
“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.”
This Roman Cassius, chose to play a major role in one of History’s highly significant events, that which occurred on the 15th of March, 44BC, the fatal Ides of March. His blade, along with that of young Brutus, had caused two of the 23 stab wounds found in Julius’ assassinated body, an assassination which he, Cassius, had organised.
The Emperor Theophilos had to make a choice, one that was much like Homer’s Paris had to make, a choice between three goddesses. Paris chose Aphrodite, the consequence of which was the ten-year long, Trojan War.
As Theophilos and Euphrosyne, walked along the line of potential brides, (dubbed “The Bride Show”) they asked the women all sorts of questions or make all sorts of comments to them to try and gauge their IQ, their philosophy on things and, quite possibly their prowess in the bedroom and possibly the kitchen. Virginity being the necessary prowess in the former, expertise in the latter.
When they came before Cassia the Emperor proffered this to her:
Through woman flow all things evil
To which Cassia, without losing a beat, responded with:
And through woman flow all things splendid
She was referring to the birth of Christ, the central figure of Christianity and the alleged saviour of the world.
Theophilos had only just turned 18 years of age and he immediately fell deeply in love with Cassia but the choice was not his to make. Cassia too was love-stricken by the young Emperor but the choice was also not hers. Their choice was ripped away from them.
The young man’s step mother, who, incidentally had organised the Bride Show, thought as did Julius Caesar about Cassius, the Roman: that this woman “thought too much” and that “such women are dangerous.” She scornfully tugged at Theophilos’ arm and dragged him away from Cassia, along the line of women, all now trembling with excitement, until they’ve got to a lass called Theodora. (Now, we must not mistake this Theodora with the other one, the infamous Theodora about whom some 300 years earlier, the historian Procopius, devoted many words in his “Secret History”, on allegations about her being a common whore and a very imaginative stripper.)
This is a whole new Theodora.
A choice was made that day and a few months later, the bells of Hagia Sophia announced the happy event. The choice of the bride was not made by Theophilos.
How much of it do we have? How much choice do we have when it comes to the most significant events in our life? The existential events. Events like the time and place of our birth and death. Our genes, our DNA, our blood type. Choice of parents, other relatives, brothers, sisters, aunts uncles, grand parents. What gender we are, how healthy a body or mind accompanies us on our travel through life. What sort of religious, political, social, economic environment we are born. No choice at all to be seen anywhere there. None at all.
All these events, crucial to our existence, are beyond our control, beyond our ability to choose between their variables.
Joseph Carli’s tiny story, “The last lingering kiss” is about a woman showing the need to make a choice. She makes it only to have it taken away from her again, only to turn her back into a creature of a closed convent from which she chose to escape for a few occasional moments.
Nope! Choice is verboten here!
Choice is a very expensive thing. People can be slaughtered for daring to make it. Many, under the Christian Emperor Theophilos, were indeed slaughtered because they dared make icons and idols of holy entities and venerate them. Priests and monks blessed them. Theophilos was, on the other hand, a fierce iconoclast, a smasher of icons. And the story of slaughter because of belief and choice is repeated around Henry VIII and the kings and queens who followed him. Bodies were hanged from bridges!
The Abrahamics will assert that god has created us all and when he did so he gave us the ability to choose, the gift of choice. We could do what we liked. So would the Abrahamics assert.
But he had made us without asking us, without giving us the ability to choose whether we wanted to be made in the first place and in the second place, to be made according to his image. In the third place… ah, never mind.
“Choice,” I ask him. “What choice is that? Where is this choice, exactly?”
I am baffled by the fact that astonishingly awesome minds like that of Mozart or Vivaldi or Beethoven, of Michelangelo, of Sappho of Ezra Pound of Euripides, of Pythagoras and Einstein, minds that gave us the best nutrients for the healthiest of humanity can coexist with the minds of war mongering politicians, too numerous to enumerate and uncompromising thieves and murderers, committers of atrocities beyond belief, also too numerous to enumerate; minds that deplete us of all those nutrients, destroy them all completely, starve humanity of them; I am baffled about the fact that on a daily basis I see both of these extremely opposite types of mind at work, often the one totally ignorant of the other.
Astonishing, wondrous minds that nurture and nourish the human soul on one hand and minds that destroy body and soul on the other. One lot elevates us, makes us humane, empathetic, considerate, loving, happy, while the other builds mountains of blood and gore out of our bodies, clogs our soul with hatred, bitterness, phlegm and everything savage and turns everything we’ve built into rubble.
I disagree with the Abrahamics: we, humans, have no choice, not a single choice on anything of any significance. No god has made us, no god would be so cruel as to make us bereft of choice!
Politics is a cruel lie. A nasty joke where, in a system called Democracy we, the hoi polloi are told that we have a choice. That who governs us is our own choice. We vote whom we choose. No lie is more phosphorescently blatant!
The last day of the last year was one that is still reverberating with the bliss of a wonderful family gathering complete with the sparkling laughter of three tiny tots, grandchildren whose little arms, when wrapped around your neck bring a cascade tears of joy to your eyes. It was a day where we all gorged with mirth and merriment, with boisterous love and with morsels that rivalled the nectar and ambrosia on the tables of Mt Olympus. We are the lucky ones. The very lucky ones. Not that we had a choice in that.
That nanosecond after the clock strikes midnight changes a whole lot of things: a new minute, a new hour, a new day, week, month, year, century millennium…
Empedocles was right: Everything is in a state of flux and the only thing that is stable is this very fact: all things are in a state of flux!
Within that nanosecond we have moved from the past to the present and must ready ourselves to move into the future, all within the next nanosecond.
I feel the vertigo of the slide into oblivion!
And I can not choose to alter any of that.
We, the lucky ones, welcome 2019!
Cassia’s story, by the way, is simply gorgeously romantic. It is a story I very much urge you to read. Not too unlike Joseph Carli’s nun, though much more intense. The sentiments are there and so is the unfortunate end.