Skip to comments.A passionate longing to acquire (and destroy) books~ The cognitive dissonance of Julian the Apostate
Posted on 04/11/2019 6:24:41 AM PDT by Antoninus
In doing some research on the previous post, I ran across this intriguing letter from Julian the Apostate to Ecdicius, the Prefect of Egypt. Julian wrote the letter at the end of January in AD 362 and it follows up on the assassination of George, the Arian bishop of Alexandria, by a pagan mob in his city.
Here is the brief letter in full:
Some men have a passion for horses, others for birds, others, again, for wild beasts; but I, from childhood, have been penetrated by a passionate longing to acquire books. It would therefore be absurd if I should suffer these to be appropriated by men whose inordinate desire for wealth gold alone cannot satiate, and who unscrupulously design to steal these also. Do you therefore grant me this personal favor, that all the books which belonged to George be sought out. For there were in his house many on philosophy, and many on rhetoric; many also on the teachings of the impious Galilaeans [ie, the Christians]. These latter I should wish to be utterly annihilated, but for fear that along with them more useful works may be destroyed by mistake, let all these also be sought for with the greatest care.
Let George's secretary take charge of this search for you, and if he hunts for them faithfully let him know that he will obtain his freedom as a reward, but that if he prove in any way whatever dishonest in the business he will be put to the test of torture. And I know what books George had, many of them, at any rate, if not all; for he lent me some of them to copy, when I was in Cappadocia, and these he received back. [Taken from Julian the Apostate, Letters, Works Vol. 3]
He wrote another very similar letter to a certain Porphyrius (perhaps the secretary of George mentioned above) about six months later from Antioch, indicating that the desired books had not yet arrived.
How many interesting insights into the paradoxical character of Julian can be fit into a single letter? First, Julian reveals his passion for books. Within a few sentences, however, he declares his wish that the books of the Christians be destroyed. This sentiment is very much in keeping with the previous edict of Diocletian and Galerius during the Great Persecution that sought to destroy all Christian literature. More on this topic may be found here, here, and here.
Also of note is that Julian and George of Alexandria were on good terms at one point good enough for him to lend Julian precious books and for Julian to be intimately familiar with the contents of George's library. After George's murder at the hands of a pagan mob in Alexandria, Julian wrote an admonitory letter to the Alexandrian pagans which, again, seems to reveal something quite paradoxical in his character. It includes the following excerpt:
Now compare this letter of mine with the one that I wrote to you a short time ago, and mark the difference well. What words of praise for you did I write then! But now, by the gods, though I wish to praise you, I cannot, because you have broken the law. Your citizens dare to tear a human being in pieces as dogs tear a wolf, and then are not ashamed to lift to the gods those hands still dripping with blood! But, you will say, George deserved to be treated in this fashion. Granted, and I might even admit that he deserved even worse and more cruel treatment. Yes, you will say, and on your account. To this I too agree; but if you say by your hands, I no longer agree. [Taken from Julian the Apostate, Letters, Works Vol. 3]
Here Julian seems to display an admirable desire that the law be enforced by those legally bound to do so, as opposed to a bloodthirsty mob. He expresses his disappointment that his allies, the pagans of Alexandria, have resorted to lawlessness in their desire to destroy George who was viewed as their common enemy. However, his respect for the law apparently doesn't extend to punishing the the murderers of George. He says:
It is a fortunate thing for you, men of Alexandria, that this transgression of yours occurred in my reign, since by reason of my reverence for the god and out of regard for my uncle and namesake, who governed the whole of Egypt and your city also, I preserve for you the affection of a brother. For power that would be respected and a really strict and unswerving government would never overlook an outrageous action of a people, but would rather purge it away by bitter medicine, like a serious disease. But, for the reasons I have just mentioned, I administer to you the very mildest remedy, namely admonition and arguments, by which I am very sure that you will be the more convinced if you really are, as I am told, originally Greeks, and even to this day there remains in your dispositions and habits a notable and honourable impress of that illustrious descent. [Taken from Julian the Apostate, Letters, Works Vol. 3]
So to recap, Julian became furiously angry at the Christians in Caesarea who pulled down the Temple of Fortune and enacted new and severe laws against them. He also expressed his opinion that the crimes of George of Alexandria deserved "worse and more cruel treatment" than to be torn to pieces by a mob. At the same time, he gave the pagans of Alexandria who did the tearing in pieces a free pass while mouthing his profound respect for proper legal procedure.
Such a fascinating and enigmatic man was Julian. Was he a man of intense cunning, like a modern politician who uses the law to advance his agenda, while ignoring it when it hampers him? Or was he simply a true believer who unwittingly practiced situational cognitive dissonance, adopting whatever path seemed right to him at the time, even when his beliefs conflicted in very obvious ways?
I tend to think he was the former.
Interestingly the "uncle and namesake" mentioned above is Julianus who was at one point a high official in Alexandria and later served as Comes Orientis under Julian. He died a particularly horrifying death.
Ancient history ping.
His refusal to do anything to the people who lynched George might be comparable to an official in the early 20th century who might decry lynching but would not try to punish the lynchers even when their identities could be determined.
Julian gets the name Apostate while Pompey remains heroic despite his trampling of the Jewish Temple
An apostate is someone who first believes, then recants. Pompey never believed.
So, apart from the religious issue, he had some good points. "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?"
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