Sunday, July 27, 2008

What is power?

An excerpt from The Nazarene, by Sholem Asch; an exchange between Cornelius, second in command to Pilate and the narrator of the first third of the novel, with his friend, the Centurion whose slave had been cured through Jesus' word:

I [Cornelius] looked at him in astonishment and distress.
"These are fantasies, fantasies," I returned, vehemently. "Right sense, with its feeling for reality, can make nothing of them. Moods like these are fit only for fatalists who lack the will, energy, and power to command their own destinies. Such men have never known the privileges and never felt the characteristics which make up the Roman; they are devoid of prowess, and therefore do not know the delight of battle, and they have never drained the beaker of victory, they have never experienced the peculiar intoxication which comes with the conquest and mastery by the sword. And just as they are completely alien to such joys, so their character is alien to discipline. Submerged in their passion of submission, they know nothing of the true will to love, will to mastery, to revenge, to combat. They know nothing of life and the world. How, then, should one of them render judgment? This people has been content to accept as its lot the sands and rocky hills of its tiny country. Earth is niggardly to them -- so they lift up their eyes to the heavens and dream of a life above the clouds. What have we Romans to do with such things? Are our national heroes not enough for you? Would you exchange the great Marius, Sulla, Caesar, the god Augustus, our own commander Germanicus, who conquered the world for Rome, in favor of the Jewish patriarchs, so that you may sit with them in the kingdom of heaven?" I ended up jestingly.
But he answered me in full earnestness:
"The achievements of our heroes? Who can number them? They have planted the Roman eagles at the extremities of the world, they have brought under Roman rule countless peoples. Who shall deny their valor? But could they command spirits in the same way as they commanded their soldiers? Could they change their own destinies, determine new fates for themselves? Could they spread out a net beneath themselves to save them when they fell into the bottomless abyss of death? Could they with all their arms and armies dull the tooth of the invisible worm which is called time -- which gnaws so insolently the bodies of the great and the small? Or could they, with all their valor, conquer for themselves a single day, a single minute of time beyond their share, or demand as war tribute one more breath than had been assigned to their lives? Could their triumphs yield them one second of pure joy unembittered by the sick remembrance of the end? What is all their wealth if it consists of the realities which are measured with the gauge of destruction? What are their victories, if victor and vanquished share the same fate, are flung together into the same pit of endless night? What are their deeds, if they are ground by the millstones of destruction and carried away by the winds of the past and extinguished by the nothingness of our limited being? Victory is that which creates eternal values, which are not subject either to time or to poison. Victory is that which creates the eternal joy of ever-enduring possession. Prowess is that which conquers evanescent passions and desires, those that satisfy without fulfilling. Victory over yourself prepares you to receive the great benediction of belief in one perdurable power, which in the fullness of its grace has taken you under its protection, and keeps guard over you in all the worlds, through all time, in all the forms and existences to which you are consigned. Oh, they may crush my bones, my blood may run out on the battlefields of life: God will assemble my shattered bones and gather up my spilt blood, and weave them again into a single wholeness. What fires can destroy me then? What wars can prevail against me? I am the eternity in him. Only one kind of might can give me ultimate victory: the might which comes from fellowship in the union which the only eternal divinity has set up with man. And no one can assure me of fellowship in this union if I do not find it in the faith of the barbarians over whom we rule -- the Jews."
I was staggered by this speech. I took my friend's hand; I said:
"Centurion, what ails you? To whom do you belong?"
"Cornelius, you will not understand me. You are blind and you will not see. I feel that something is being born in me, a door is opening for me, and you cannot pass through it. The name of that door is -- faith."
I said no more to him. I saw that he was a lost man... (pp 176-178)

No comments:

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."