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In Which I Rant About Pagans vs. Christians Essay Prompts and the Absurd Notion of Cultural Judgement

December 11, 2012

For those of you more acquainted with my non-blogsphere self, you may know that I’m taking a class called The Ancient Mediterranean this semester. The point of me taking this class was so I could better understand Antiquity because my main time periods of interest–the Middle Ages and Renaissance–loved it, grew out of it. We’re just finishing up the semester and as our final essay before exam, we received this prompt:

Achilles or Perpetua: who is more heroic and what is the basis of their heroism?

I was displeased.

I was even more displeased when the further explanation of this prompt emphasized this division: ancient or modern? It couched it to be in a context of taking in the whole culture, where you could choose Odysseus or Augustus or Alexander or any hero from antiquity to argue against Perpetua or Saint Stephen or the Apostles or any hero from Christianity.

Now, if you look at this very quickly, not really thinking about it because, hey, you have others stuff to do besides evaluating people over a 1,000 years dead, this prompt seems perfectly fine. I did too, actually, until I sat down to write it. It was then that I started becoming very angry.

Because this prompt was basically asking me which culture was better: the modern Christian or the ancient pagan. Which has the “better” heroes.

That. Is. Not. Okay. Ever.

First of all, how would I even answer that? Yes, it would depend on my definition of “hero.” Is it someone who kills a lot of people in an epic manner or someone who only kills to preserve peace and people he/she cares about? Is it someone who actively takes control of their fate? Someone who does something despite all odds? Who has supernatural powers or a special connection to a higher power? Etc. How individualistic these essays turned out is ridiculous, almost to the point of being arbitrary. It’s a bunch of people talking over each other in a crowded room. We could come to a consensus on the hero definition, but we didn’t. Would that even be possible? How would the essay fare outside of the classroom context in an academic journal setting? Other scholars would probably disparage your hero definition and dismiss your argument. Already this assignment is reduced to merely essay practice, to the teacher just seeing if you’re thinking about/doing his assigned readings, to seeing if you know how to write an essay.

But more problematic is I am Catholic. How could I lesson the accomplishment of someone who died for my faith, who I revere as a saint? How could I insult my pagan friends by saying their hero is rubbish and nothing compared to mine?

Perpetua, as the Christians reading this may know, is a Carthagian saint who, with Felicity and their other Christian companions, was put in an arena to fight with wild beasts. The beasts (Felicity and Perpetua specifically faced a ‘raging cow’ aka bull), however, didn’t do the trick and eventually they were stabbed in the heart to the cheers of happy Romans. Achilles is, of course, the hero of Homer’s Illiad from the first line of “Rage–Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles.” He’s on the side of the Greeks in the Trojan War and is fighting despite the fact that there’s a prophecy that if he fights, he will die. The flipside, though, is that it promises he’ll be remembered for all time. For more about these figures, click here for Perpetua and here for Achilles. Here is also the link to the Sparknotes on The Iliad, if anyone wants a refresher.

Returning to the matter at hand, I think one major mistake my teacher made in asking this question was he’s used to talking about things that have long since past. These historical figures are, sure, not alive, but their stories are not dead by any means. There are still people out there who believe in them; they still hold meaningful sway in our everyday cultural consciousness, at least more than other ancient studies material like Tacitus or Herodutus (don’t get me wrong, these people were awesome too, but I don’t walk around with their image around my neck like I do with Saint Joan of Arc; nor does my pagan friend have fond memories of them as she does of Hermes or Morrigan). Achilles and Perpetua matter to religious people and I felt uncomfortable even trying to forget their religious significance and “objectively” choose one or the other (objectivity is impossible). I’m unsure of Achilles’s specific religious significance, but my teacher admitted that The Illiad is “practically the pagan bible,” so given his importance to that work, the same uncomfortable feeling persists.

So say I try to argue this question anyway because I have to turn in the assignment for a grade. By putting up the dichotomy of Achilles vs. Perpetua, I have to choose which culture is better. This is a cultural judgement. My hero is better than yours.

Some of my classmates didn’t over-think this assignment like me, made up their own definition of hero, and picked the one that fit that. I froze up and couldn’t think of my own definition. I was paralyzed by my uncomfortable feeling and the fact that both Perpetua and Achilles are heroes in their own cultural contexts.

Achilles embodies Greek values like courage, ferocity in battle, physical strength, a good death, the quest for honor (timai), and desire for legacy. Perpetua embodies the Christian values of martyrdom, giving all to Christ, holiness, steadfastness, and rejection of worldly vanities and sin.

They even share the some traits: the power of prophecy overshadowing their lives, a special, more direct connection to their respective Higher Power(s), and the ability to, by their actions, infuse themselves with something larger than, beyond their mortal bodies (Achilles, his legacy; Perpetua, God).

They are, in their respective ways, important. Needed. An inseparable part of their own cultures. I’m not going to tear that. I’m not going to throw one of them out like last week’s leftovers. One culture is not better than another: they each have their own quirks and value systems and legitimate points of view, from medieval monks to the Nazi Party. I’m not going to write an essay illegitimatizing one because I personally don’t believe it or don’t like it. They happened. They’re part of our human past. How can you call yourself a historian and tell people they didn’t matter or that they matter less?

Thinking like that make entire avenues of study shut down. College History Departments would close. History books would be rewritten and shortened. This is how things get erased. Who needs the Middle Ages? Our culture is better than there’s so why bother?

This is how thinking gets shut down. This can make people stop asking questions. History can seem silly to us, (why the hell would three people jump into a boat with no destination in mind?) but being confronted with its seeming oddity makes us examine our own culture, how it’s changed (they had beautiful faith: what about mine?). It makes us ask why? Why was it like that? Why did they do that? How could they believe that? How would you live out this philosophy? Who are these people that died?

If you shut down history, the study of the past, the past that is a foreign country, you shut down the chance for your culture to change because no one is asking questions.

If you shove an entire culture to the side by saying it’s not important, you shut down.

 

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2 Comments
  1. What did you end up actually doing for the essay, though, now that you’ve ranted? Depending on the prof, you might be able to essay-ify this rant and add a bit of “what is a hero” in there, and turn it in for your essay.

    • It was a one-paged, single spaced essay and this post is two pages, single spaced (plus I wrote it after class), so…I could talk to my professor about how I was displeased with the prompt, but…his wife just kind of had a baby and I don’t want to burst his happy bubble.
      As for what I turned it, I kind of freaked out, froze up, shut down my brain and wrote about how both Achilles and Perpetua are heroes since they have the similar traits. It felt really awkward though.

      Also a note that you CAN use heroes as a lens to compare cultures, but it’s COMPARING, not judging. but you can’t have the cultural judgement implications.

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