Paul Johnson, usually acute, prejudices the case against Henrik Ibsen (1828 – 1906) in the chapter that he devotes to the instigator of modern drama in his Intellectuals (1993), where the author of Emperor and Galilean (1873) keeps company with the likes of Karl Marx, Berthold Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, and Lillian Hellman. Johnson can classify Ibsen under the pejorative label of an “intellectual” only by ignoring Ibsen’s text and concentrating on the biographical details, which indeed make their subject look like a contemptible piece of work. This criticism of Johnson by no means invalidates Johnson’s definition of an “intellectual.” On the contrary, Johnson has defined the “intellectual” brilliantly and his treatment of the phenomenon must bear instructively on any analysis of Ibsen’s play about Julian the Apostate. According to Johnson, the “intellectual,” who appears first in the person of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is a politically committed character for whom “a utopian, socialist future [is] plainly a substitute for a religious idealism in which he [cannot] believe.” An intellectual is often the master of a narrow slice of specialized knowledge who, however, feels “no incongruity in moving from [his] own discipline… to public affairs.” Yet when examined closely, even the specialized knowledge of the intellectual, his peculiar theory, tends to be unconvincing and perverse – a type of pleading by the person to himself to protect his theory from inconvenient facts and to preserve his vision of himself as someone qualified to “counsel humanity.” Writing specifically of Rousseau, Johnson remarks that intellectuals see themselves, not as “servants or interpreters of the gods but [as] substitutes” – that is, of both the gods or God and the sacerdotal clerisy. Johnson writes of that “most marked [of the] characteristics of the new secular intellectuals,” namely “the relish with which they subjected religion and its protagonists to critical scrutiny.”
Rousseau, one recalls, discovered the volonté général or “general will,” which invariably coincided with his own judgments on everything, and which he could cite in order to thwart any appeal to tradition. (The appeal to a transcendent will that validates the subject’s own desires and preferences is a recurrent theme in Emperor and Galilean.) In addressing the case of Percy Shelley, Johnson reminds his readers that consistent with their conviction that they possess absolute truth intellectuals see the status quo of society as “totally rotten” and in need of being “transformed.” And the intellectual – Rousseau, Shelley, or Ibsen – is the man to carry out that complete reconstruction from the very foundations, which he must first abolish.
Much of what Johnson has to say about Ibsen is, as we have noted above, both well-grounded in the biographical facts and in accord with the paradigm of intellectualism. Like Rousseau, Ibsen in Johnson’s portrait suffered from an “inability to sympathize with people, as opposed to ideas.” While in his plays and pronouncements he attacked Mammon, “nothing was near to his heart except his wallet.” Ibsen disliked parliamentarism and told the critic Georg Brandes on one occasion that “the state must be abolished.” The conviction of deep wisdom is present. Johnson quotes the impression that Ibsen made on Gottfried Weisstein, a journalist, who “thought [Ibsen’s] habit of pronouncing truisms with… certitude made him resemble ‘a small German professor’ who ‘wished to inscribe on the tablets of our memory the information, tomorrow I shall take the train to Munich.’” Johnson discovers in Ibsen’s Weltanschauung the nasty little precept that, “Personal liberation was… self-centered and heartless,” the artist-liberator being someone whose basic motives were mere “creative selfishness” and “hostility towards mankind.” Whereas, however, in the chapters of Intellectuals dealing with Rousseau, Ernest Hemingway, or Bertrand Russell, Johnson can find ready reflections of personal perversity in the published work of his subjects – in Ibsen’s case this proves a difficulty. In Brand (1865), for example, Ibsen pitilessly exposes the religious hypocrisy of the eponymous zealot-priest, but he never attacks religion – or Christianity – in itself. Thus Brand is a play about zealotry, not about religion. Moreover Johnson in his chapter omits any mention of the play that Ibsen considered his masterwork, Emperor and Galilean.
In two parts of five acts each, Emperor and Galilean is among many other things a remarkable argument about what already in the 1870s was called ideology, although about this term much caution is necessary. A careful reading of Ibsen’s play indeed suggests that its author, whatever his peccadilloes and idiosyncrasies, whatever his stated politics and hypocrisy in respect thereof, was a theoretician of, to use Eric Voegelin’s coinage, the “second reality.” Ibsen, moreover, had come to a conclusion that ought to stop conservatives and traditionalists in their tracks: All ideology is anti-Christian, and it has been so since the centuries of Late Antiquity.
I. People who graduated college with a baccalaureate before 1980 probably know Ibsen as the author of domestic dramas about women’s rights, moral hypocrisy, sham-marriage, journalistic crusading, suicide, and venereal disease. This picture of Ibsen rests on a topically biased reading of his work that skips over the large-scale historical and mythopoeic dramas of the first half of his authorship and concentrates tendentiously on superficial aspects of A Dollhouse (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), The Wild Duck (1884), and Hedda Gabler (1890). The graduate-school-trained critic who can only see the text through the lens of “race class and gender” will, of course, find the signs of “patriarchy” and “oppression” in The Wild Duck even though these issues stand elsewhere than at the center of the drama. Ibsen’s actual central character is neither Hjalmar Ekdal, nor his wife Gina, nor their daughter Hedvig, but rather Gregers Werle, a self-styled radical who espouses a doctrine that is the vulgate of Nietzsche without ever mentioning that name. Werle fancies himself a superman, beyond good and evil, who has glimpsed a new order of being that he seeks to realize through the manipulation of others to abash standing morality by irrational – and entirely sacrificial – acts. By the time the play reaches its climax in the suicide of Hedvig, pushed to it by Gregers, the audience has learned that Gregers’ father Håkon, the necessary scapegoat in any “race class and gender” reading, has acted more decently than any other character. He has actually used his wealth, which Gregers declares to be evil, to make provisions anonymously for other people.
Brand, Ibsen’s last verse-drama and the play but one that preceded Emperor and Galilean, concerns another of its author’s would-be supermen, this time in the namesake person of Brand, a Gnostic, who like Ibsen in Johnson’s plausible portrait can find no sympathy for actual people. Brand’s Puritanism (he is a preacher in search of a congregation) entails the sacrifice of his infant son, anticipating the case of Hedvig in The Wild Duck. Brand ends with the protagonist’s useless death in an avalanche in the Norwegian Alps, whereupon an invisible voice intones the Latin words, “Ego Deo Caritatus.” An avalanche carries the spiritually dead to their physical deaths at the end of Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken (1899), the last whispered line of which is, “Pax Vobiscum.” Mention should be made of The Vikings at Helgeland (1857), which concerns the transition in Norway from heathendom to Christianity. Adding Emperor and Galilean to these other plays, it is justifiable to claim that Ibsen’s productivity begins in a decades-long meditation on the historical meaning of Christianity, the results of which make themselves apparent in the widely misinterpreted chamber dramas of his last creative phase. It appears that Ibsen began thinking about Julian as a dramatic subject as early as 1864 during the Roman sojourn that saw to completion Brand and Peer Gynt (1867). This coincidence in time of the two works implies that the Julian drama belongs to Ibsen’s thematics of fanaticism and religious derailment, as well as to his more general interest in Christianity.
An oddly charismatic person whose Imperium lasted only three years but whose activity was meteoric, Julian (331 – 363; he reigned 361 – 363) imprinted himself on history through his project of reinstating and reviving paganism, or what he took for paganism, in opposition to Christianity, which he had come to associate, plausibly even, with sectarian strife and the homicidally corrupt regime of his cousin Constantius II (reigned 357 – 361). Julian had two biographers, Ammianus Marcellinus, in whose history of the Empire from Nerva to Valens he figures prominently; and Libanius (314 – 394), the Apostate’s philosopher-acquaintance, regular correspondent, and sometime advisor during his emperorship. Julian himself wrote copiously, his orations, pamphlets, and letters having survived in something like abundance, providing insight into his much-admired intellect. Julian’s modern apologists, most particularly the Eighteenth-Century historian Edward Gibbon and the Twentieth Century novelist Gore Vidal, admire him as an anachronistic proto-liberal, proto-rationalist, and proto-modern specifically because of his hostility to what they regard as the superstition of Christianity. At least one of Ammianus’ remarks about the Apostate, however, makes him endearing from a contemporary non-liberal point of view. It is worth quoting. While in charge of Gaul, Julian “was particularly concerned to prevent the burden of taxation pressing too heavily, power being abused to acquire the property of others, men participating in public affairs who were enriching themselves by the general distress, and departures from the rule of right by a judge going unpunished.”
Prevailing over Constantius in a civil war and acquiring the monarchy, however, Julian, although previously fearful of divulging his religious proclivity, “saw that the time had come when he could do as he liked,” whereupon “he revealed what was in his heart and directed in plain unvarnished terms that the temples should be opened, sacrifices be brought to their altars, and the worship of the old gods restored.”
Secure on the throne, Julian published his tractatus Against the Galileans, one of the chief items along with the Hymn to King Helios in his religious self-articulation. Against the Galileans takes its models in two earlier anti-Christian diatribes, The True Doctrine by Celsus (Second Century) and Against the Christians by Porphyry (234 – 305). Like them, Against the Galileans assumes various premises of Neo-Platonism and of the exotic syncretism of the Imperial Cult up until Constantine the Great; but by their measure, Julian’s tractatus lacks philosophical subtlety. Against the Galileans nevertheless reveals its author as harboring two notions that generate considerable tension between them. One is his sense of the dedivinization of the world, which he blames on the followers of the Nazarene; the other is his quite un-Platonic, instrumental conception of religious practice. Whereas, Julian writes in Against the Galileans, “the prophetic spirit has ceased among the Hebrews [and] Egyptians [and] the indigenous oracles of Greece have also fallen silent”; yet “Zeus [has] granted us through the sacred arts a means of enquiry by which we may obtain the aid that suffices for our needs.” Julian believes that the science of the auguries (“sacred arts”) keeps open communications between earth and heaven; the entrails are for him the readable disposition of the divine will. Julian’s Platonic God who corresponds to “the Supra-Intelligible… Idea of Being” (King Helios), which would never stoop to incarnate itself, scruples not to make its mind known through blood and guts.
Ibsen, studious as to his subject and ever a connoisseur of the divided personality, exploits all the contradictions of his protagonist, whose life the two parts of Emperor and Galilean follow from Prince Julian’s decision in his nineteenth year to flee the royal court of his murderous cousin so as to pursue his interest in philosophy, to his death on campaign in Mesopotamia against the Persians. Julian’s victory over the Persians was to be his victory also over Christ and the final act in the establishment of his mystic “Third Empire.” Readers get in Emperor and Galilean what they miss, because Ibsen has not supplied it, in Brand, the etiology of the zealot’s delusions. Perhaps for this reason Julian strikes one as more sympathetic than Brand. In the situation around which Ibsen structures Part I, Act I, it would be difficult not to sympathize with the intellectually inclined teenager, most of whose family the sitting Caesar has killed off preemptively, to secure his throne against pretenders. The stage directions indicate Easter Eve in Constantinople. A crowd waits before the chapel royal to watch the emperor enter in train for the Paschal Mass; through the crowd’s boisterousness Ibsen would give the audience the temper of the times. Eunapius and Phokion, two Christians, take pleasure in kicking a pagan fruit-seller into the mud only, themselves, to fall squabbling because one professes Orthodoxy and the other the Donatist dispensation; they then revert to the brotherhood of “a few zealous souls” in their common hatred for Potoman, a Manichaean, “a stinking heretic!”
While Constantius, his empress Eusebia, and his sister Helena go into Mass (he with blood on his hands), Julian remains outside, where he engages in two overlapping conversations, the one with his old friend and nominal co-Christian Agathon and the other with an anonymous “Philosopher” who is actually Libanius traveling incognito. For Julian the willingness of the priests to acquiesce in the emperor’s homicidal immorality by serving him the Eucharist throws their piety into disrepute; the moral incongruity provokes him to doubt his faith. Agathon’s description of his own Christianity does nothing to console Julian. Agathon, who had been Julian’s childhood friend in Cappadocia, tells how during a general persecution of the pagans, “the more zealous of us… fell like agents of wrath on the ungodly.” He adds matter-of-factly, “many pagans perished in the flames.” Julian too once believed zealously, Agathon remarks. What has happened? Julian answers him first that, “God won’t acknowledge me,” and second that, “I feel repelled by the very Faith and Word that should nourish me.” The first of these utterances corresponds to the passage in Against the Galileans about the cessation of oracles – hence also to Ibsen’s character’s perception of the dedivinization of the world. The second of these utterances is psychologically completely understandable, given the events that have befallen the speaker. Agathon, subject to inchoate “visions,” also tells Julian that he has sought him out because an apparition has designated Julian as “him who shall inherit the empire.”
In the dialogue with Libanius (who like Agathon is a historical person), Julian feels the tug of philosophy, or what passes in Libanius’ version for philosophy, as an antidote to his disgust with the two-facedness of putative Christians. Julian interviews Libanius – what seeks he in Athens, whither he reports himself bound? Libanius’ answer to Julian reveals him as something other than a philosopher in the classic sense, for he responds to the interrogation with, “What did Pontius Pilate look for?” Confronting the man he knew to be innocent, Pilate requested a verbal formula, an abstraction, making him (as G. K. Chesterton once pointed out) a prototypical Gnostic. Libanius too is a Gnostic albeit a congenial one. He is making a Gnostic appeal to Julian, whose disillusionment with the religion in which he was raised and appetite for possessive experience together incline him to respond positively. When Libanius asserts that, “You Galileans have driven truth into exile,” Julian can hardly disagree. Libanius senses also that Julian’s aestheticism renders him vulnerable to recruitment. “A great and glorious world exists to which you Galileans are blind,” he says; “life, in that world, is a celebration among statues and sounds of temple songs, with goblets filled to the brim and hair decked with roses.” Agathon has pointed to Julian as an inheritor of empire. Libanius points to him as, “one who could be ruler of this great and sunlit kingdom.
As Act I closes, Julian learns that Constantius has named his (that is, Julian’s) brother Gallus heir apparent to the throne – Gallus, whom Julian distrusts. Seeing murderous plots everywhere, Julian resolves to leave Constantinople for Athens, where he will devote himself to the study of philosophy. One must add, however, that his conception of philosophy is distinctly instrumental: He wishes to discover the verbal-magical formula that will effectuate his transformation from a vulnerable prince, inconvenient to all, into someone in control of his environment and master thereof. “Born of the godhead” is the figure of speech used by Libanius that seems to work most powerfully on his agitated and terrified state of mind.
II. A number of terms have come into the discussion that require, not only their proper definitions, but also to be coordinated with one another: Dedivinization, gnosis, ideology, intellectualism, second reality, and other associated terms that although not mentioned are implied in the context. It is best to begin with dedivinization, a term that Voegelin coined in The New Science of Politics (1952) and that he uses in The Ecumenic Age (1974), the fourth volume of his Order and History. The anthropological thinker René Girard does not use the term dedivinization, but he refers to the phenomenon in his Scapegoat (1982). In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin writes that, before Constantine, “Christians were persecuted for good reason; there was a revolutionary substance in Christianity that made it incompatible with paganism.” What was this substance? “What made Christianity so dangerous was its uncompromising, radical de-divinization of the world.” Whereas all pagan deities were “intra-cosmic,” in Voegelin’s term, the Christian God was consummately transcendent; even once having come into the world the Christian God left the world again. Insofar as Christianity took notice of the plural deities and half-deities, moreover, it reduced them to mere powers, co-dwellers in this world with human beings and of no higher status than human beings. Commenting on Celsus, Voegelin remarks that to a thoughtful pagan, Christians, in emphasizing their “radical monotheism,” appeared as “factionals in religion and metaphysics,” hence also as promulgators of “sedition against the divinity that harmoniously animates the whole world in all its subdivisions.
Indeed, the progress of the Christian Logos in the Roman Imperium disrupted the understanding of a symbolic harmony between the mundane and heavenly orders. In Voegelin’s summary: “By de-divinization shall be meant the historical process in which the culture of polytheism died from experiential atrophy, and human existence in society became reordered through the experience of man’s destination, by the grace of the world-transcendent God, toward eternal life in beatific vision.”
Modern anti-Christians, like their ancient precursors, invariably claim that Christianity functions as an anodyne to make life easier for believers by obscuring the complexity of reality; they argue that Christianity is a simple idea for simple minds, but Voegelin will have none of this. “The life of the soul in openness toward God,” Voegelin writes, “may prove too heavy a burden for men who lust for massively possessive experience.” In response to dedivinization such persons will seek a counteracting redivinization, under which label Voegelin classifies antique gnosis and modern ideology, both of which attack the actual complexity of existence, as articulated in philosophy and Scripture, by erecting a simplified second reality to deflect awareness of the first, troubling reality. Thus, in Voegelin’s summary: “By re-divinization… shall not be meant a revival of polytheistic culture,” but rather a distortion “in Christianity itself, deriving from components that were suppressed as heretical by the universal church”; such “re-divinization” aims at overcoming the “uncertainty [which] is the very essence of Christianity.” By auguries, one can know the future, but in Faith, one can only be oriented towards a life beyond this one whose perfection must evade “immanentization.”
It will not have escaped notice that Voegelin’s phrases find their anticipation in the words and positions that Ibsen gives to Julian in his play. So too Girard’s contention in The Scapegoat – namely that “the profound action of the Gospel text” has the effect of depriving humanity of supernatural explanations for things that have purely human causes – finds anticipation in Ibsen’s protagonist’s desperate espousal of magic and ritual; far from being a modern person, as Gibbon and Vidal see him, Julian exemplifies regression into what Girard calls “weakened variations of myth and ritual.” As Ibsen has Julian say to his friend Basil of Caesarea (Part I, Act II), he wants “communion, face-to-face, with the spirit!” For Ibsen’s Julian, that “the old beauty is no longer beautiful, and the new truth… no longer true,” constitutes an intolerable hiatus. “There must be a new revelation,” he tells Basil. In Part I, Act III, dissatisfied with the abstractness of Libanius’ version of philosophy, and at the same time deeply aware that mundane order chimes but disharmoniously with heavenly order, Julian will turn to the bold promises of another mentor, Maximus of Ephesus (310 – 372). History knows much less of Maximus than of Libanius, the Ralph Waldo Emerson of his age. Maximus, the Alesteir Crowley of his age, nevertheless had a reputation. Eunapius in his Life of Maximus writes that the magus “was passionately absorbed in working marvels.”
Ibsen appropriates a passage from Eunapius almost verbatim (Part I, Act II), giving it to Libanius, telling how in a crowded temple “Maximus performed forbidden arts on the statue of Hecate.” The magus “uttered a mysterious incantation”; he “sang a hymn that no one understood” whereupon “the marble torch flamed in the statue’s hand [and its] face came to life and smiled on them.” Basil and Libanius for different reasons despise Maximus’ special effects, but Ibsen has Julian praise them, as “communion between spirit and spirit,” no less.
Ibsen gives it to Maximus (Part I, Act III) to introduce into the dialectics of the drama one of its key symbols – perhaps indeed its central symbol: “The Third Empire.” Maximus arranges for Julian to be initiated serially in the full range of Mysteries, the climax of these initiations, the “new revelation” for which Julian earlier hoped, being scheduled to occur at a séance that the mentor has organized in Julian’s lodgings in Ephesus. “The Third Empire,” whatever it might prove to be (we shall come to as many of particulars as there are), is linked profoundly to Julian’s sense of unbearable dedivinization and his drive to effectuate redivinization through massively possessive experience or gnosis. At the beginning of the act, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus show up on Julian’s doorstep to warn him off Maximus and woo him back to his abandoned faith. They fail but not before Julian confides to them that, by means of his “spiritually transformed body,” he has “wandered through dark chasms,” heard “shrill voices… without any meaning,” seen “a bluish light,” and, “in the realm of paradise,” heard “angels” singing to him in “anthems.” He has had a vision in which, hovering over the earth in a celestial ship he looked down to see “no green life, no sun… only a lifeless, slimy, black seabed in all its horrible nakedness.”
Such imagery belongs symptomatically to Gnosticism, which as Hans Jonas remarks in The Gnostic Religion (1958), is not only “a-cosmic” but “anti-cosmic.” The Gnostic experiences the failure of reality to correspond to his preferential image of it as betrayal or hostility; he wishes in petulance and alienation to abolish reality and replace it with a utopia that bodies forth his image. Typically, into the place of the unsatisfactory God who has created the unsatisfactory cosmos, the Gnostic puts himself, either as direct deific substitute or as plenipotentiary of a God-who-trumps-God. As Voegelin writes in The New Science, however, “A man cannot fall back on himself in an absolute sense, because, if he tried, he would find very soon that he has fallen into the abyss of his despair and nothingness.” Moreover, that same man “will have to fall back on a less differentiated culture of spiritual experience” than the one which has led to his disorientation, disgust, and vertigo. Ibsen understood these things as a drama of the psyche a century before Voegelin articulated them as theologico-political theory. Julian affirms his plan of cosmic abolition-and-transfiguration when he says to Basil: “This coarse, carnal race shall pass away”; and “the future shall be conceived more in the spirit than in the flesh.”
Ibsen’s stage-directions are always relevant. Maximus appears, “wearing a pointed cap and a long black robe.” He offers Julian an effervescent drink, “a spark of the fire Prometheus stole,” the effects of which Julian describes as dizzying: “In drunkenness there’s freedom.” Maximus tells Julian, “Intoxication is your nuptials [bryllup] with the soul of nature.” In conjunction with Voegelin’s insights, Iben’s text points archly to its own interpretation, so much so that additional commentary on terms like “intoxication” and “drunkenness” would here be superfluous.
In The New Science, Voegelin identifies “The Third Realm” (his term – interchangeable with Ibsen’s) as a species of “immanentist eschatology”: “An attempt at bringing… knowledge of transcendence into a firmer grip than the cognitio fidei, the cognition of faith, will afford.” Voegelin adds, in words superlatively appropriate once again to Ibsen’s Julian, that, “Gnostic experiences offer this firmer grip insofar as they are an expansion of the soul to the point where God is drawn into the existence of man.” Voegelin, making his case for modernity as resurgent Gnosticism, mentions Hegelian speculation as an instance; but under the construction, drawing God into man, one could as easily invoke Nietzsche, whose Birth of Tragedy (1872), with its celebration of the Dionysiac, appeared in print during Ibsen’s composition of Emperor and Galilean. Julian is a Dionysiac, a culturally regressive enthusiast, like Nietzsche. The wine proffered to Julian by Maximus is “Bacchus’ blood… rhythmic flood.” The characterization makes the wine also a parody of the Eucharist, which suggests that Julian’s Gnostic quest draws its deepest motive from his revolt against his Christian faith. In this too, in his self-conception as an Anti-Christ, Julian resembles Nietzsche although at the time Ibsen could have known nothing about the Zarathustra author. During the séance, a spirit tells Julian, “You shall establish the empire… that of freedom… by willing.” Maximus explains that: “There are three empires… The first is that empire founded on the tree of knowledge; then that empire founded on the tree of the cross”; whereas “the third empire is the empire of the great mystery… to be founded on both the tree of knowledge and the tree of the cross, because it hates and loves them both and because it has its living-springs under Adam’s grove and under Golgotha.”
The idea of “The Third Empire,” as Voegelin points out in The New Science, works by drawing the eternal scheme of the Trinity into the temporal-secular order, positing a succession in time by which one regime replaces another, with the necessary codicil that there shall be a third and last regime under which utopia will occur. Readers know that Ibsen, in appropriating his fourth-century episode in the imperial succession, is also writing about modernity because in the context of his “World-Historical Drama,” the phrase “Third Empire” is an anachronism. The earliest precedent takes the form of Joachim of Fiore’s Thirteenth-Century historical speculation, which divides human time into three phases – the Age of the Father, the Age of the Son, and the Age of the Holy Spirit, the last to be ushered in by a Superman whom Joachim calls the Dux e Babylon. Voegelin comments that the Dux or Leader belongs inextricably with (his term) “the Third Realm.” Voegelin finds reflection of Joachitic speculation in “Turgot’s and Comte’s theory of a sequence of theological, metaphysical, and scientific phases,” as well as in “Hegel’s dialectic” and “the Marxian dialectic.” What the Joachitic Dux wills becomes necessary, just as in The Phenomenology of the Spirit Hegel himself, or his genius, is the inevitable goal of the self-unfolding Geist, whose movement must stop with him, and just as the Dialectic of Materialism must issue in the dictatorship of the proletariat in Marx. In Emperor and Galilean, Maximus tells Julian that “The Third Empire” is nothing less than “necessity” and that to avoid it is futile.
External events, entirely fortuitous and over which neither Julian nor Maximus can have exercised influence, conspire at the conclusion of the séance to make plausible the idea of “necessity” as proper to Maximus’ prophecies. Messengers appear bearing news that Julian’s brother Gallus has died and that Julian himself has become heir apparent to Constantius.
III. Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean provides an opportunity to address the question whether ideology – all ideology – is anti-Christian. Self-denominating progressives and other apologists for modernity recur to a tendentious theme, an element of what they call deconstruction, namely that morality is arbitrary and false, a restriction on freedom hence also on creativity and will; and when the propagandists of modernity say this, they have in mind, if not exclusively, then largely and mainly Christianity. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra is not, for example, a sustained attack on Zoroastrianism, nor did Nietzsche write an Anti-Mithras or an Anti-Varuna. Deconstructors attack Western norms, all informed by Christianity, inveterately, but no courageous critical thinker dares to deconstruct Islam. For moderns, Christian morality is false because revelation is a fiction; and revelation is a fiction because its designated origin – in transcendence – does not exist. Only the immanent world exists. Nietzscheans and Marxists employ words associated with transcendence, such as spirit, but solely by appropriation and in usage consciously shorn of any metaphysical connotation. In Order and History, Voegelin would employ the term differentiation or the phrases differentiation in consciousness and “leap in being” to name those discoveries-through-revelation that widen humanity’s idea of existence. The paradigm is the discovery of freedom implied by the transtemporal ontology of Christianity, as preached by Paul. The New Science shows Voegelin working with the idea of the differentiation even though he has not yet formulated the vocabulary: “The soteriological truth of Christianity… breaks with the rhythm of existence; beyond temporal successes and reverses lies the supernatural destiny of man, the perfection through grace in the beyond. Man and mankind now have fulfillment, but it lies beyond nature.”
In Voegelin’s terms, we can say that Gnosticism is a reaction to a differentiation that strikes the subject as intolerably burdensome or frightening. Voegelin writes that, “Gnostic speculation [in antiquity] overcame the uncertainty of faith by receding from transcendence and endowing man and his intramundane range of action with the meaning of eschatological fulfillment.” Under the Gnostic diremption, “civilizational activity [becomes] a mystical work of self-salvation.” Now as Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ illustrates, the reactionary temperament more easily attacks a nameable figure than an abstract idea. Ibsen, who grasps his protagonist as a pure reactionary, gradually concentrates Julian’s philosophical and dialectical case against Christianity into intense, sharply focused animadversion for the figure of Christ. The rhetorical tendencies in modern discourse referred to at the beginning of the preceding paragraph all find a place in the bitter disburdenment that Ibsen gives to Julian (Part I, Act V). “Priests!” So Julian expostulates to Maximus. By addendum: “All my youth’s been a long, dual dread of the Emperor and Christ. Oh, he’s terrible, this mysterious – this merciless god-man! Every path I wanted to take, he always rose up, great and powerful, barring my way with his uncompromising and implacable demands.” Julian adds, “To be fully human has been forbidden from the day the seer of Galilee gained control of the world.”
A bit farther on in the text, when Julian has been using the first-person plural ambiguously, Maximus inquires, “Who do you call we?” Julian replies: “All those who live under the fear of revelation” (emphasis added). Emperor and Galilean Part I concludes with the announcement that Constantius has died, bringing to an end the civil war between his faction and Julian’s, with the result that Julian has now become, by military and popular acclamation, the monarch of the Roman Empire. Emperor and Galilean Part II traces Julian’s imperial career to his death on the battlefield and dramatizes his increasing obsession, on the one hand, with instrumental religion, and on the other hand, with the inimical figure of “the Galilean.” The play’s English translator Brian Johnston in his study of Ibsen’s Early Drama (1980) contends that Part II of the drama represents a fall from the artistic and intellectual levels of Part I. As Johnston judges, “The determination at every opportunity to demonstrate that the pagans are spiritually bankrupt means that Ibsen, untypically, is not ‘seeing’ them objectively and adequately.” Historically, however, the symbols of paganism were, if not “bankrupt,” then sufficiently attenuated and dedivinized that a new symbolism, one reflecting the most recent differentiation in consciousness, had become necessary – and whether anyone likes it or not this new symbolism took the form of Christianity.
Johnston also accuses Ibsen of falsifying the characters of his chief pagans, of Libanius, for example. Yet Libanius’ own extant works show that he was, as Ibsen depicts him, capable of sycophancy; and this is notwithstanding his willingness to speak on behalf of victims of imperial policy, on occasion. Julian himself, in Ibsen’s representation of him, has many admirable qualities and, as previously stipulated, his transgressions are eminently understandable.
Even a sympathetic contemporary like Ammianus could see that Julian was, ethically and intellectually, a mixed bag. In Antioch in 362, in preparation for his planned campaign against the Persians, Julian exercised his prerogative as Pontifex Maximus so extravagantly – sacrificing literal hecatombs before all of the Olympian altars of the city – as to bring about a significant shortage of edible meat in the city. In Ammianus’ words, “the victims with whose blood he drenched the altars of the gods were all too numerous.” Ammianus adds, “The number of his sacrifices earned him the nickname of axe-man instead of priest, and he was justly criticized for the ostentatious delight he took in carrying the sacred objects himself instead of leaving the task to the inferior priesthood, and in being attended by companies of women.” Having created a scarcity of meat in the butcher shops and having emptied the market-stalls of other goods to provision his campaign, Julian “engaged in regulation of the price of commodities.” The Antiochene senate objected, but, as Ammianus writes, Julian “showed all the obstinacy, though not the cruelty, of his brother Gallus.”
Julian could be pedantic, as well as obstinate. Ibsen sees this. In Emperor and Galilean Part II, Act I, in addressing the Antiochenes about his ambition of restoring the lapsed temples and shrines, Ibsen has Julian say: “Repression and mockery have brought our ancestors’ beliefs into oblivion. I’ve already searched high and low; but hardly anyone could give me a convincing account of how to sacrifice to Apollo or Fortuna.” What Ibsen is telling his readers is that “The Third Empire” is a sham. As the outcome of a dialectic unfolding in history, it is supposed to be an advance on the two previous empires; but it is nothing less than a regression to naïve praxis. It is magic – a magic of formulas. Indeed, as Ibsen plausibly sees, naivety made Julian vulnerable to manipulation by others – by Maximus, for example – and prone to believe in the efficacy of his initiations and transfigurations. Johnston says that Ibsen exaggerates Julian’s reaction to Christianity. Ammianus makes it clear that Julian dictated a law “forbidding Christians to teach rhetoric.” Since rhetoric was almost the totality of ancient pedagogy, that law effectively forbade Christians from teaching, at all. The marks of a Gnostic, or as we would say in today’s language, ideological, regime are visible in Julian’s rule.
Ibsen has Julian refer to Against the Galileans. In an argument with the hymn-writer Apollonaris (Part II, Act III), Julian says that his “refutation” – of the Gospel – will show that “Jesus of Nazareth’s a liar.” It goes beyond composing a diatribe. As Ibsen has Julian remind Apollonaris, Jesus prophesied that “the temple of Jerusalem shall lie in ruins until the end of time,” but that at the very moment the emperor’s delegate Jovian is supervising the reconstruction of the temple, “in all its magnificence.” Nature subverts the attempt with an earthquake, a detail that in the framework of Ibsen’s drama underscores the magical quality of the gesture, the design to alter the structure of reality by an act of pure will. The lines are important precisely because they emphasize the magical character of Julian’s thinking and precisely because they reveal Ibsen’s canny sense of Julian’s complete misunderstanding of the Christ, whom, in his resentment, the emperor has drawn into a this-worldly rivalry. During the same episode, Julian insists concerning Jesus that, “He died; he died thoroughly at the time when Pontius Pilate was Governor in Judea.” In Classical (Platonic and Aristotelian) philosophy and in Jewish and Christian eschatology, there is a Prime Mover who sets things in motion, but the motion has its goal in a beyond. In Gnosticism and in all ideology, there is (one wonders what to call it) a Prime Stopper, who attempts to bring history to a halt by imposing, in Voegelin’s terminology, an “eidos of history.” Ibsen’s Julian is that negation of the Prime Mover. “The Third Empire” is his “eidos,” his stoppage of history. And stopping history, finally, is tantamount to abolishing freedom.
It might be objected to the reading of Emperor and Galilean that has been developing in these paragraphs that it fails to integrate Ibsen’s treatment of the Christian characters. Constantius and Gallus are murderers who invoke the name of Christ; Helena, Julian’s wife, is a pious adulteress who has betrayed Julian with Gallus, and who dreams of bathing in the blood of executed female prisoners from Julian’s wars against the German tribes. Malchus is a profiteer who bribes court officials to obtain liens on the properties of pagans. Agathon becomes progressively more insane and wicked; his hatred for everything non-zealous leads him to climacteric evil in Part II, Act V. Christian mobs attack and kill their pagan neighbors; they squabble and riot over points of dogma. There are three responses to the objection. The first is that no mob or crowd is Christian; Christianity is anti-mob and anti-crowd. The second is that Ibsen is depicting a degenerate age – the late Fourth Century or the mid-Nineteenth Century, one may choose as he pleases – in which pagan and Christian alike are derelict in their proper virtues. The third is that Ibsen’s representations of individual, historically known Christians run to the positive. Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea conduct themselves with dignity and Ibsen gives them speeches that ring true to their literary remains. Basil’s sister Macrina becomes the central moral figure in the climax of the play, when she accompanies Julian’s army as a nurse, and administers to the wounded Julian in his final, hallucinatory moments.
A related point is that whether Ibsen was a believer or not (almost certainly not), he understood Christianity as a powerful, radical phenomenon that could only have had a destabilizing effect on the world in which it shone its light of revelation. When Emperor and Galilean Part II, Act III raises the curtain on a distraught Julian seeking solitude at night in Antioch “among the ruins of Apollo’s temple… this head without a nose, this shattered elbow, these splintered loins,” and despairing of the possibility “to resurrect the fallen world of beauty,” it is Christianity that has brought about the dilapidation; or at any rate Christianity, half-understood by those who profess it or understood not at all, has hastened the death of thing that already slouched inevitably towards its grave. As Julian tells Maximus on the occasion, “The Galilean lives… however much the Romans finally killed him; he lives in stubborn men’s stubborn minds; he lives in their defiance and contempt of all visible power.”
IV. Like Ibsen and like Girard, Voegelin proffers a radical interpretation of Christianity and a completely heterodox interpretation of modernity. In The New Science, Voegelin argues that “gnosis was an accompaniment of Christianity from its beginnings” because the content of the Christian differentiation fell onerously on many people who could nevertheless not fall back on an exhausted polytheism. In the Gnostic reaction to Paul’s kerygma begins the process of “immanentization” which is the same, in Voegelin’s analysis, as “secularization.” In Voegelin’s mightily informed view of Western history, Late Antiquity represents the first clash between Christianity and Gnosticism, in which Gnosticism was defeated, but never of course eradicated. Famously, Voegelin believed that a second clash of Christianity with Gnosticism had occurred, beginning as early as the Ninth Century, in which Gnosticism, which is the same as modernity, defeated Christianity, without of course eradicating it. Voegelin discerned “a line of gradual transformation [that] connects medieval with contemporary Gnosticism.” So subtle, however, did the graduation appear to Voegelin to be that “it would be difficult to decide whether contemporary phenomena should be classified as Christian because they are intelligibly an outgrowth of Christian heresies of the Middle Ages or whether medieval phenomena should be classified as anti-Christian because they are intelligibly the origin of modern anti-Christianism.” Better simply to define modernity as the growth of Gnosticism, as Voegelin does. Gnosis appeals to those “who do not have the spiritual stamina for the heroic adventure of the soul that is Christianity” and for whom “it was impossible to fall back into Greco-Roman polytheism, because it had disappeared as the living culture of a society.”
Voegelin adds that medieval gnosis tends to appear as various “experiential alternatives [that are] sufficiently close to the experience of [Christian] faith that only a discerning eye would see the difference, but receding far enough from it to remedy the uncertainty of faith in the strict sense,” as in Joachim’s expectation of the third and final age ushered in by the Dux. Voegelin’s remarks make possible the identification of another constructive anachronism in Emperor and Galilean whereby Ibsen observes a salient characteristic of gnosis hence also of the ideological constructions that gnosis produces. In the “Ruins of the Temple” scene (Part II, Act III again), Julian complains to Maximus that in harnessing his Imperium to realize “The Third Empire” he has failed. The designs of a second reality cannot be permitted to fail, however, because, with that failure, comes the forbidden acknowledgment that the structures of existence persist; that he who wills is not master. Maximus has a ready answer to his client’s hopelessness: It’s not that the goal is unrealizable; it’s that Julian has been going about it the wrong way and he needs to try again. “The empire of flesh has been absorbed into the empire of spirit,” Maximus explains; “but the empire of the spirit is no more the ultimate state, than that of the youth is.” What is the implicit next phase? Julian must become “Messiah… Neither Emperor nor Redeemer… but both in one.” Once Julian has extended grace to himself so as to embody the enigma of “Logos in Pan – Pan in Logos” then, says Maximus, “that [will be] the third empire.”
Voegelin in The New Science describes the varieties of gnosis, which “may be primarily intellectual and assume the form of speculative penetration of the mystery of creation and existence,” or it “may be primarily emotional and assume the form of an indwelling of divine substance in the human soul,” or finally it “may be primarily volitional and assume the form of activist redemption of man and society, as in the instance of revolutionary activists like Comte, Marx, and Hitler.” In the course of the two parts of Emperor and Galilean, Ibsen represents Julian as passing through the range of these varieties, culminating in his conviction that he incarnates the will of rebellion against the unsatisfactoriness of existence. Yet the more Julian ratchets up his libido dominandi, the more his rival in Jesus becomes for him, like Great Caesar’s Ghost for Brutus in Shakespeare’s play, an insuperable obstacle and blocking-agent. On the way to engage the Persians, Julian lapses into desperate rhetorical constructions (Part II, Act IV). For example: “Turn your backs on the sunset, Galileans,” and “look to the east… where Helios dreams.” Does the construction sound familiar? That is because it is the progressive formula of the “Radiant Future,” Nietzsche’s “Sunrise,” which, like “The Third Empire,” is always just about to dawn, but never quite manages to peep over the horizon. On the battlefield (Part II, Act V), just before the clash, Julian tells Maximus of his prophetic dream: “I commanded the memory of the Galilean to be wiped from the earth; and it was wiped away… I had rendered the world Galilean-free – and I found all I had done was exceeding good.”
Some few paragraphs back the name of René Girard appeared in passing once or twice. With respect to Julian’s increasing, Nietzsche-like madness in the final act of Ibsen’s play, Girard looms as a light for interpretation at least as powerful as Voegelin. The last chapter of Girard’s Scapegoat, bearing the title “History and the Paraclete,” mentions the problem of “Christian” emperors who bloody their hands in massive persecutions and beside whom Julian looks like a paragon of restraint. “Beginning with Constantine,” Girard writes, “Christianity triumphed at the level of the state and soon began to cloak with its authority persecutions similar to those in which the early Christians were victims.” When the putatively Christian society persecuted pagans and Jews, however, it was not in fact enacting the Imitatio Christi; it was behaving humanly, all too humanly, just as human beings had acted since Cain. In an iteration that parallels many an iteration found in Voegelin, Girard remarks how modern people “replaced the ancient myths with those of progress, which might be called the myth of perpetual modern superiority, the myth of a humanity that, through its own instrumentality, gradually became liberated from the divine.” One suddenly recalls the passionate desideratum that Ibsen gives to Julian in the speech just quoted, with its parody of Genesis: “I had rendered the world Galilean-free – and I found all I had done was exceeding good.” If by the “divine,” or better yet the “anti-divine,” from which one seeks liberation, one means Christ, then unsurprisingly liberation will require the removal, somehow, of those simple-minded blocking-agents who, clinging to their Bibles, stand in the way of utopia.
Ibsen brings Emperor and Galilean to its climax in an ingenious chiasm, or exchange of places, that once again shows his thoughts about his subject to have anticipated the analyses of Voegelin and Girard. According to Ammianus, Julian died during the night-battle near Ctesiphon after he received a spear-thrust in his flank, but Ammianus says that the perpetrator remained unknown. Libanius, however, told two stories, the second one being that Julian was killed by a Saracen mercenary fighting with the Persians and the first one being that he was assassinated by a Christian soldier from the ranks of his own army. On the authority of Libanius’ first story, Ibsen gives the role of assassin to Agathon, the putative Christian, actually a zealot, with whom Julian converses in Part I, Act I. On that occasion, Agathon had referred to Julian as “my childhood friend – my brother.” The symbolic brotherhood makes Agathon’s fatal attack on Julian analogous to Cain’s murder of Abel. Abel, one recalls, was in Cain’s eyes a blocking-agent between Cain and God. The spirit of Cain spoke to Julian during the séance, in Part I, Act III, urging him to will. The nature of the wound would make Julian resemble Christ, at the Crucifixion, who also receives a spear-thrust in his flank. Following Girard and decoding Ibsen’s scene through the model of the Passion, the sensitive reader’s sympathy must go to Julian, and Agathon must disqualify himself as a Christian, becoming fused with all crowds and lynch-mobs, including the one that lynched Jesus on the Rood. In a last speech, Julian reconciles with Basil and brings himself to say, “The Galileans are right except – we won’t go into that.” Readers must agree with Basil, who pronounces over Julian’s corpse, “Here lies a glorious, shattered instrument of the lord.”
In addition to claiming that Christianity functions as an anodyne to make life easier for believers by obscuring the complexity of reality, modernity also claims that Christianity is a cause of persecution; sometimes modernity adds that in being so Christianity is just like all the other religions, but more often it excuses those others, leaving the Gospel-Faith alone in the stocks. Girard writes in The Scapegoat, using a verb whose prescience and poignancy he could not have suspected, how “many… still cling to the modernist, traditional vision of Christianity as persecuting.” Ibsen has Julian explain to Maximus in Emperor and Galilean that his use of the first-person plural denotes “all those who live under the fear of revelation.” Girard writes of the “resistance [that] is turned against the light that threatens us.” He points out the irony of that resistance: “This vision of a Christianity that persecuted as much as or more than other religions is strengthened rather than diminished by the modern Western world’s very aptitude for decoding representations of persecution. As long as this aptitude was limited to the immediate historical environment, i.e., the superficially Christianized universe, religious persecution… appeared as a monopoly of that universe.”
The modern utopia, “The Third Empire,” and the discourses that advocate and justify its liberationist program are invariably “free” of something – some blocking-agent. The “myth of progress,” as Girard calls it, is the myth that humanity can extend grace to itself, to borrow Voegelin’s phraseology from The New Science. Of course, extending grace to themselves is what, in the eyes of the utopians, the blocking-agents block. The temptation to remove the blocking-agents is insuperably great, so much so that liberationist discourse becomes increasingly, stereotypically accusatory. Due to the penetration of the Gospel, however, the only way that modern people can persecute their victims is by characterizing those victims as persecutors and victimizers. The entirety of multiculturalism and the whole politics of the so-called rainbow are based on this guilty and duplicitous gesture. Girard writes: “When the Gospel text speaks of its universal diffusion, this does not imply utopian illusions about either the nature of the attachments to it or to the practical results of the parallel process of penetration. It foresees both the superficial attachment of a still-pagan universe – the ‘Christian’ Middle Ages – and the indifferent or ill-tempered rejection of the succeeding universe.” Girard concludes, “The latter is secretly more affected by the revelation and often more constrained for this reason to oppose the pagan Christianity of former times with anti-Christian parodies of the Gospel imperative.”
The death of the spirit is the price of progress,” Voegelin writes: “Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and that He had been murdered. This gnostic murder is constantly committed by the men who sacrifice God to civilization.” Ibsen’s Macrina has the last words in Emperor and Galilean, uttered as she pulls the cloth over the dead man’s face: “Erring human soul – if you were forced to stray, you will be received with favor on that great day when the mighty one comes… to judge the living dead and the dead who live!”
Thomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.