Alypius and the Gladiators
A meditation on the soul and its toxins on the feast of St. Augustine
At the time of the Nicholas Berg beheading by al-Qaeda terrorists, a correspondent wrote to say that he watched the video only up to the point where the knife was applied to the neck, but refused to view the severing. He did right, for reasons given in Book Six, Chapter Eight of Augustine’s Confessions.
Alypius was a student of Augustine, first in their hometown of Thagaste, and later in Carthage. In the previous chapter, Augustine writes that in “the maelstrom of Carthaginian customs” Alypius was “sucked down into a madness for the circus.” Later, when Alypius preceded Augustine to Rome to study law, some friends persuaded him against his will to attend a gladiatorial combat. Alypius thought he could observe the scene calmly and resist the temptation to blood lust. But he was wrong. When a gladiator fell in combat, and a mighty roar went up from the crowd, Alypius, overcome by curiosity, opened his eyes, drank in the sight, “. . .and was wounded more deeply in his soul than the man whom he desired to look at was wounded in his body.” Augustine continues:
As he saw that blood, he drank in savageness at the same time. He did not turn away, but fixed his sight on it, and drank in madness without knowing it. He took delight in that evil struggle, and became drunk on blood and pleasure. He was no longer the man who entered there, but only one of the crowd that he had joined, and a true comrade of those who had brought him there. (tr. J. K. Ryan)
In our decadent culture, we are not yet at the nadir of Roman brutality. But we are at the point where vast numbers of people find entertainment in, and see nothing wrong with, blood lust by itself or in permutation with sexual lust. For such people, and the legal sophists who misuse the First Amendment, the story of Alypius and the Gladiators can mean nothing. They understand that what they put into their bodies affects their physical health. They do not understand that what one puts into one's mind affects one's mental and spiritual health. The soul has its foods and its poisons just as the body does.
To borrow a line from a 1997 Bob Dylan song, “It's not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”