Instances of Discovery

In summer 1970 I lived six weeks in Paris while researching Byzantine Greek manuscripts in the Bibliothèque nationale.  I spent one Sunday at Nôtre-Dame and the Louvre. On that day fifty-two years ago I penned some notes, just recently unearthed, that are a kind of manifesto of my intellectual biography in the half-century since.

A Sunday in Paris

Things have happened the way they have happened, and not some other way.

It’s Mass one goes to in Nôtre-Dame on Sunday morning. In the afternoon there’s Anubis and papyrus rolls of the Book of the Dead and Isis and Cybele and Mithras slaying the bull and various divi Augusti in the Louvre, along with the statue of a priest who may be, the guidebook tells you, Julian before he became emperor, scores of Athenas, and several grotesque images of an Egyptian god named Bes.

But it’s the Sacrifice of the Mass that gets done in Nôtre-Dame on Sunday – and not, one might add, a sermon inspired by Calvin’s Institutes or a liturgical eulogy of the goddess Reason.

Things have happened the way they have happened.

Most people think that’s what tantalizes the historian into a lifetime of studying and interpreting old records. That’s part of it, but that alone simply makes an antiquarian or a chronicler. What really teases the mind of the genuine historian is the corollary – that things did not happen some other way.

Thoughts like these in the midst of the remains of the past are hardly original. There is Gibbon gazing at the ruins on the Capitoline Hill and conceiving The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Macaulay’s majestic sentences about the Catholic Church which had already outlived empires and would probably outlive more; Nietzsche, angry like Gibbon but without the cushion of irony, railing against the triumph of Christianity. Keats saw in a Grecian urn a cross-section of time, and Shelley preaches a slightly annoying moralism in “Ozymandias.” The Romans themselves were haunted by the suspicion that things were gradually running down, and their brash self-assurance is the thinnest of veneers over their sense of inferiority to the Greeks.

The fundamental reflection for the historian in Paris on a Sunday is, however, more nearly objective than polemics or metaphysics or moralizing.

Here's item No. 1236 in Greek and Roman Antiquities: Tibère, Empereur de 14 à 37 ap. J.-C. Luke (3:1) establishes the chronology of his Gospel by dating the beginning of Jesus’s ministry to the fifteenth year of Tiberius. The question is that of Yeats: “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” How do events become so decisive that in their train things happen the way they happen and not some other way?

There is a bust of Constantine (or perhaps of his son Constans) next to the statue that may be Julian. Leaving all the maybes to one side – although they, too, together with the dozens of Romains inconnus and Romaines inconnues, invite musings about historical forgetfulness, which may be as significant a trait of human beings as historical memory – one wonders whether it was Mass one went to this morning because Constantine saw whatever it was he saw or thought he saw before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, or whether Constantine simply realized that Christianity’s hour had come round at last. At what point did it become inevitable that the Louvre would indicate Tiberius’s place in time by reference to Jesus Christ? At Pentecost? With the conversion of Paul? Would the new movement have withered away had the Romans followed the advice Gamaliel gave the Sanhedrin, to let the Christians be? Tertullian, at least, considered the blood of the martyrs to be the seed of the church.

The Louvre won’t let reflection stop there. The question of Christianity and classical culture itself appears parochial as one moves from the section of Greek and Roman Antiquities into that of Egyptian Antiquities.

The period covered there exceeds by about a millennium the time from Pericles to our own day. The remarkable things are not the colossal statues of Amenhotep III or Raamses II, but rather the implements and ornaments of everyday life. Most of what we have from the ancient Egyptians has survived because of the attention they paid to death. But the kind of attention they paid illustrates their high regard for the details of living – the way one earns a living, the games one plays, the ornaments one wears. Scholarship during the last century has made it clear that Egyptian history (like Byzantine history) was far more varied, far less tidy than superficial impressions had suggested, but the Louvre collection makes clear the tenacity of Egyptian delight in the ordinary.

But there were gods, too, and priesthoods and heresies and wars of religion. There is a statue of the god Aton protecting Akh-en-aton, and the ravages of time have done to the statue what the ancient Egyptians did to Akh-en-aton’s reforms – the emperor is headless. Why didn’t this effort at monotheism succeed? Had it done so, would it have gone on to spread so that in Paris today the thing to do would have been to worship the Sun? (And it’s worth remembering that Sol Invictus was Constantine’s original patron deity – some would say the only one he really ever had.)

How did things happen so that we look upon Greece and Rome as part of our family album, while ancient Egypt appears exotic and strange? On Macaulay’s criterion of stability and longevity, prophets at the time of Pericles would probably have recommended putting your trust in Anubis rather than in Athena.

The guidebook tells of the sections on Oriental Antiquities – the rest of the ancient Near East, and the Far East. There isn’t much of Sunday afternoon left, and the perspective has become about as ecumenical as it can in one day. The Chinese and Japanese Dynasties will have to wait.

On the way to the Métro station one passes, in the Louvre courtyard, l’Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, constructed between 1806 and 1808 to celebrate Napoleon’s victories at Austerlitz, Ulm, Tilsit, and other places. In England, one remembers, it’s Waterloo they remember.

Things have happened the way they have happened, and not some other way.