Scaevola and Passion

‘Romanus sum,’ inquit, ‘ciuis; C. Mucium uocant. Hostis hostem occidere uolui, nec ad mortem minus animi est, quam fuit ad caedem; et facere et pati fortia Romanum est.’ (‘ “I am a citizen of Rome,” he said; “they call me Gaius Mucius. A foe I came to slaughter a foe, and to the death my will is no less than it was to the slaughter: it is Roman both to do and to suffer brave things.” ’ Livy, Ab Urbe Condita II.12)

(Lars Porsenna, the king whom Mucius had tried to kill, then angrily ordered Mucius cast into the flames. Mucius stoically accepted this punishment, preëmpting Porsenna by thrusting his hand into that same fire and giving no sign of pain. Impressed by the youth’s courage, Porsenna freed him.)

Is it just me, or is there something about the story of Mucius Scaevola that fascinates the male psyche (or once did)? I keep wondering what’s really so cool about thrusting your right hand into the fire and burning it without flinching. Yet the pagan ideal remains, that thing you cannot banish from your mind. There’s something mysteriously, primitively beautiful about Scaevola’s deed, like the fire of a doomed civilization.

But James Jordan writes,

When we turn to the Roman writers, like Livy and Plutarch, […] the model man for these writers is the self-possessed, stoic man. He is anything but the David of the psalms. And as for God, or the gods, well, He or they are just plain absent. Reading this literature inculcates two false things: that God is not a player in the historical situation, and that the virtuous man is the stoic man. Such dangerous pagan literature can be appreciated by mature minds, but is just intellectual pornography for young minds, continually reinforcing the notion that man is the only god there is – which brings us back to pagan political philosophy.

So what’s the draw? Jordan says the attraction’s pornographic, though I’m not so sure that’s all. Compare the words of Guido de Bres, chief author of the Belgic Confession, to Philip II of Spain (HT: Daniel Hyde):

But having the fear of God before our eyes, and being in dread of the warning of Jesus Christ, who tells us that He shall forsake us before God and His Father if we deny Him before men, we suffer our backs to be beaten, our tongues to be cut, our mouths to be gagged and our whole body to be burnt, for we know that he who would follow Christ must take up his cross and deny himself.

This is passion, I say, the passion of one who believes with the heart and confesses with the mouth, not the stoic dispassion of one who can detach himself from suffering. And yet, if we say Scaevola represents dispassion and de Bres passion, the two look remarkably similar.

Are the two fundamentally the same, or must we find out what differentiates the Christian faith from patriotism for an earthly city?


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