Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life demonstrates the call made on one man to rise above tyranny.
Sometimes another writer writes a book you wish you’d written and it comes out a year after the book you’re glad you wrote.
Let me explain.
June 1st was the 1-year anniversary of my last novel, Kingdom of the Wicked’s (successful) publication. Normally, this is the sort of thing authors enjoy, especially given most books have the shelf life of yogurt and finish up remaindered inside a year. Something about the popular response has been troubling me, though, and I’ve finally been able to put my finger on it. This is thanks to reading Steven D. Smith’s Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac.
Kingdom of the Wicked is a work of speculative fiction. It takes place in a Roman Empire that’s undergone an industrial revolution. My initial academic training was in classics (I became a lawyer later to pay the bills), so I’m well aware pagan Rome had different cultural values from those now present in the modern, industrialized West.
I set out my vision in a piece for The Cato Institute:
I tried to conceive of a world where a society unlike ours produces the ‘progress and growth’ template all others then seek to follow. It is commonplace to point out that Roman civilization was polytheistic and animist, while ours is monotheistic but leavened by the Enlightenment; that Roman society was very martial, while Christianity has gifted us a tradition of religious and political pacifism; that Roman society had different views of sexual morality, marriage, and family structure. In short, I had to imagine an industrial revolution without monotheism.
And thanks to the letters I received from readers, it became clear that many people wanted to live in the world I’d created.
The Roman Empire was not the modern European Union, despite occupying much of the same territory. Its peoples looked like us, and its rulers spoke a language most of us can learn relatively easily. They seem like us, especially their flamboyant writers, lawyers, artists, generals, and politicians. But apart from obvious distinctions (slavery, a taste for cruel entertainment, saucy interior design), they were morally different all the way down. It is this last that Pagans & Christians in the City captures with skill and élan.
I gave my Romans modern science and technology partly to ensure a plausible alternative history. However, I also did it to head what I call “P. J. O’Rourke objections” off at the pass. “In general, life is better than it ever has been,” O’Rourke wrote in All the Trouble in the World. “If you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: dentistry.”
Roman morality. Our dentistry.
The idea that I’d created some sort of ideal vision would not go away, however. It even turned up in serious reviews from reputable outlets. People liked everything from the way I’d organized society to the role of the military to the system of governance to the stable, orderly rituals of Roman religion to the way the health service was run.
There were times when I wanted to shout did you not notice the authoritarianism? Did you not notice the eugenics? Did you not notice the medical experiments on POWs? Did you not notice the torture? (A few people — mainly professional reviewers — noticed the torture.)
Kingdom of the Wicked is not a dystopia — I don’t write them. The society it depicts works. Steven D. Smith has therefore produced the book you need to read in order to understand how different was pagan Roman morality from our own, and why I made the decisions I did as a writer of fiction. Recommending it to my readers will save a lot of time going forward.
The first half of Pagans & Christians in the City is given over to comparative religion. Smith outlines the underlying logic of Roman paganism and emergent (Catholic) Christianity and draws out similarities and differences. He discusses how paganism locates the sacred within the world — it’s an immanent religiosity whereby the divine emerges from the natural environment. Christianity and Islam, by contrast, are instances of transcendent religiosity — they place what is most sacred outside the world, in part because God made the world.
While classicists and scholars of comparative religion appreciate this distinction, it’s not widely known otherwise. For my sins I once spent a couple of years tutoring Latin, losing track of students’ pleading enquiries about what Romans actually believed. That I resorted to suggestions like “read Ovid’s Metamorphoses while stoned” or “go to Japan and get a priest or priestess to explain the significance of The Great Ise Shrine” gives a sense of the magnitude of Smith’s achievement. Without once falling back on theologically similar Shinto (which I’ve pillaged as a novelist and teacher of classics), he takes Roman paganism seriously as a religious tradition on its own terms and renders it real and alive.
In the second half of Pagans & Christians in the City, Smith sets out a bold claim. In short, he argues that paganism never went away. The immanent orientation to the sacred it advances is not only in direct competition with Christian transcendence, but competition between the two orientations continues today — it manifests in the US as “culture wars” — because a number of progressive values comport readily with pagan conceptions of the sacred. This is particularly so when it comes to sex and sexuality. To take two of Smith’s case studies among many: modern liberal democracies have simply abandoned the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim view of same-sex attraction and abortion and substituted the pagan Roman view wholesale.
Smith thus has to explain just what it was that Roman pagans and the earliest Christians disliked about each other. If you’re Christian and have been raised with the “Romans picked on Christians and chucked them to the lions” narrative, Smith’s grim recounting of monotheistic bigotry, misogyny, vandalism, and what amounts to a war on human sexuality will shock and appall you. If, however, you’re one of those fashionable humanists for whom Roman civil religion and civic nationalism seem sophisticated and high-minded, you will learn how those fine ideals were drenched in blood — both animal and human — and the extent to which Roman sexual liberality was founded on terrifying exploitation of slaves and (sometimes) non-citizens.
The mutual hatred ranged from Daily Mail-esque if Christians move into our street, house prices will go down to all pagan women are sluts and whores to all Christian men are gutless cowards in addition to being the fun police to that’s it, you’re never working again; we’ll pass laws to exclude you and your kind from the labor-market to we’re going to kill you and destroy everything you hold dear. Both sides were equally culpable, albeit in different periods — it depended which lot had their hands on the levers of power.
Embedded in this historical account is a further claim: the (modern) city isn’t big enough for both of them. That is, when immanent and transcendent conceptions of the sacred are forced to share the same piece of real estate, they’ll come into conflict. Each will try to seize the levers of power and enact laws to help their side and hinder the opposition. Smith uses libertarian lawyer Douglas Laycock as foil here, because like most of his (small) tribe, Laycock cannot understand people who refuse to “live and let live”. He’s as mystified by gay couples who sue Christian bakers for refusing to decorate their wedding cakes as he is by Christians who try to pass laws against same-sex-marriage. His objections are reducible to John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle”: why bother, when they’re not doing anything to you?
And this is where Smith’s detailed analysis of two different existential orientations dovetails with his account of the psychological needs that produce religion. These are human constants — almost certainly biologically hardwired — and must be met. Religion facilitates the human desire to make meaning, effect control, and form regularized communities. Importantly, however, it doesn’t require either transcendent or immanent religiosity to achieve these things. It just has to be religion.
I lack a religious orientation. Douglas Laycock, I suspect, enjoys a similar lack. This serves to explain our mystification at adherents of both immanent and transcendent religions. We classical liberals really do spend a lot of time asking, “I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” In doing so we forget how rare we are in the population. Minding other people’s morality is deeply human. It turns up everywhere, a cosmic homeopathic joke with only memories of being funny.
Is it true, though? Is there really a resurgent modern variation of Roman paganism present in developed liberal democracies, including the United States? I’m not interested in what classicists call “fluffwicca” here. They (we) take a dim view of the “Druids” who prance around Stonehenge every Summer Solstice or Morris Dancers with blue hair on English market days.
My answer is no, despite my admiration for Pagans & Christians in the City. Roman paganism is too different from what we now see across the developed world, something Smith manages to convey precisely because he takes the historic religion seriously. Yes, he advances plausible claims for an orientation overlap, and his account of recent US litigation over religious symbols suggests progressivism can exhibit (pagan) religious qualities. Modern scientific secularism also aids immanence and not transcendence (“there is one world, and it’s the only one we have”), but even it can do only so much. While it may be true that the US’s rising cohort of “Nones” are not atheists sensu stricto, they are also not (yet) pagans. There is nothing organized about them.
This is, of course, with the exception of environmentalism. I am loathe to be the reviewer who advises authors to write even partly different books, but had Smith focused on the green movement as immanent Roman paganism he’d have come close to making out the strong form of his case. Whether one scrutinizes James Lovelock’s historic Gaia Hypothesis or considers how activist outfit Extinction Rebellion advances autistic savant Greta Thunberg as a type of child seer, one perceives a blend of immanent pagan orientation with millenarian Christian eschatology. ‘Gaia’, incidentally, was a popular Roman girl’s name.
Immanence is an altered sensibility, though, and while it isn’t (only) Roman it’s certainly not very Christian. That doesn’t mean worse, necessarily, but it does mean different. There’s also a potential degree of path-dependence to both orientations when they become dominant. Monotheistic transcendence can produce particular horrors: wars of religion; abuse of gays; a doctrinaire stance on abortion. If the shift in orientation Smith describes continues apace, then pagan immanence, I think, may produce particular horrors too: eugenics; human experimentation; moral inequality of persons; voracious and sometimes irresponsible sexual appetites.
If you want to live in the world I made in Kingdom of the Wicked, may I suggest you read Pagans & Christians in the City to make sure? Be careful what you wish for, and all that.