Eucherius of Lyons: De Contemptu Mundi. (01/20/2001)

Near the beginning of the sixth century, Eucherius of Lyons expressed the concept of the contempt of the world (de Contemptu Mundi) that had always defined the attitude most Christians embraced as the true and proper way to relate oneself to reality. This view was especially taken as divine and compelling truth by those people who were inclined to enter a cloistered existence in complete isolation from the secular world in monasteries and nunneries. Eucherius outlines his reasons for taking this position in a letter he wrote to an apparent kinsman of his named Valerianus sometime around 500 A. D. Eucherius begins making his point about the difference between temporal and eternal life, between the life of the non-believer and the life of the faithful Christian by noting that "[a]s for this present short life, it is so very short, that it is withal most miserable. It is pressed and assaulted on every side with surrounding, inevitable sorrows; it is distressed with many evil defects, and tossed to and fro with secret and penal accidents." Even if it happens to be true that a person's life is not an endless series of misfortunes and miseries, its very brevity makes it undesirable. He puts it this way: "[f]or the felicity we enjoy here is at best but temporal, but the other is eternal; and the fruition of a transitory, uncertain happiness is but a frailty and accident; but the possession of inviolable and never ending joys is triumph and security." The point, of course, is the one always taken by Christianity: it is necessary to give up either the joy or the sorrow of temporal life, which is too short anyway to be of significance, in order to gain the promise of eternal life in heaven with its "never ending joys."

After dispensing with the transitory nature of everything that human beings value in their material existence, simply because it is short-lived, Eucherius argues that honors, like riches, are also tainted by being only temporal in their duration. The ground for this argument, of course, lies wholly in the grasp of the myth of Eden. Man was created as an immortal being whose life was both perfect and everlasting. When Adam committed the original sin of disobedience against God, however, by eating the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of Good and Evil, his Creator rescinded the essential terms of His creation and turned man into a pitiful, resentful, and brutal savage cursed with a miserable existence that lasted for only a short period of time. This gave rise to the argument that man could regain his lost paradise by contemning the world (Contemptu Mundi), which God used as a means of punishment for his original sin, by withdrawing himself from its allurements and living instead a cloistered existence centered on the contemplation of the sacrifice made by the Savior to grant sinful man a chance at redemption, a return, as it were, to the everlasting joys of an otherworldly heaven in place of the punishing fields of natural reality.

Eucherius seals his argument, as many Christian thinkers before him also did, by launching an attack against the philosophers who tended to perceive reality in very different terms. He says, for instance, that Valerian should cast off

"the vain and absurd precepts of philosophy, wherein you busy yourself to no purpose, [and] embrace at last the true and saving knowledge of Christ. You shall find even in that employment enough for your eloquence and wit, and will quickly discern how far these precepts of piety and truth surpass the conceits and delirations of philosophers. For in those rules which they give, what is there but adulerate virtue and false wisdom? and what in ours but perfect righteousness and sincere truth? Whereupon I shall justly conclude, that they indeed usurp the name of philosophy, but the substance and life of it is with us."

This is not at all unlike other diatribes against philosophy written both before and after Eucherius put pen to parchment and recorded what has always stood as Christianity's profound and absolute distrust of the human endeavor to comprehend the world in which we all live and dream. He continues to expound this same ideology in the following terms:

"For what manner of rules to live by could they give, who were ignorant of the first cause, and the fountain of life? For not knowing God, and deviating in their first principles from the author and the wellspring of justice, they necessarily erred in the rest. Hence it happened, that the end of all their studies was vanity and dissension. And if any amongst them chanced to hit some more honest tenets, these presently ministered matter of pride and superstitiousness, so that their very virtue was not free from vice. It is evident then that these are they, whose knowledge is earthy, 'the disputers of this world', 'the blind guides', who never saw true justice, nor true wisdom."

Denying truth, justice, and wisdom to any thinker who does not adhere to belief in the Christian version of God has always been the first principle of militant Christian ideology, the first principle of its exclusionary perceptions of human reality, the first principle of "reason" that underlies and justifies its effortless leap from verbal condemnation of the other to an active campaign of annihilation and genocide against the right of the other to exist.

Eucherius then tells Valerian what he can learn by studying Scripture instead of Philosophy:

"There also you shall hear all these following precepts: That the ignorance of many things is better than their knowledge, and that therefore the goodness or mercy of God is as great in His hidden will, as in His revealed. That you should give God thanks as well for adversity as for prosperity; and confess in prosperity that you have not deserved it. That there is no such thing as Fate, and for this let the heathens examine their own laws, which punish none but willful and premeditating offenders."

This first precept, that ignorance is better than knowledge, has long stood as a primary reason for the fact that cultures dominated by Christianity have always remained backward and stagnant enclaves of bigotry and hatred. Knowledge, learning, and education, have always lifted human communities above the worst instincts people are capable of expressing and performing against anyone who differs in belief from the "hidden will" of the Christian God. The idea that it is somehow wrong to punish only those who act willfully and with premeditation, as Eucherius suggests that heathens do, where Christians apparently fall victim to punishment in equal measure whether they act willfully or not, cuts just as effectively in the opposite direction; that is, if one simply claims to have acted on the "hidden will" of God, a fact that cannot be verified in any sensible way whatsoever, then any crime committed in the embrace of community approval, lynching African-Americans, for instance, because they are damned by skin-color by God, is an act that can stand as perfectly justifiable for generation after generation as it has done in the American south.

But don't stop there either. Consider everything else Christians find offensive in our culture today. They demand the teaching of "creationism," as opposed to science, in the public schools. They are intent on limiting a woman's right to exercise decision making choices over her own body. Many of them advocate the murder of people who provide medical services to women doing just that. These people always claim to be acting out the "hidden" and "revealed" will of God. George W. Bush, the "uniter" not the "divider" of American democracy, has nominated a deeply devout anti-choice Christian to be his Attorney General, to be his chief law-enforcement officer. In his first executive order, the "uniter" has cut funding to international Planned Parenthood organizations-groups that advocate, not abortion, but birth-control. One could almost argue from that fact that George W. Bush epitomizes the ideology that Christians should be ignorant of all things-since he does not seem to realize that preventing unwanted pregnancy through birth-control will necessarily reduce the number of women seeking abortions. Does he even know where children come from? Who will Ashcroft punish? Not hard to see where any of this is likely to go. People who murder doctors have nothing to fear from him, since he can say they are acting out God's will to save the unborn and since Christians always place God's law above human law he is but a single step away from advocating violence against anyone who disagrees with his position. Not that I believe he will do so, but the people who are inclined to follow God's "hidden" will have already been told by the President's executive order and by his appointment of Ashcroft that they are now free to lash out against the other without fear of the consequences.

Eucherius concludes his letter with the following words:

"Take up your eyes from the Earth and look about you, my most dear Valerian; spread forth your sails, and hasten from this stormy sea of secular negotiations, into the calm and secure harbour of Christian religion. This is the only haven into which we all drive from the raging surges of this malicious world. This is our shelter from the loud and persecuting whirlwinds of Time. Here is our sure station and certain rest; here a large and silent recess, secluded from the world, opens and offers itself unto us. Here a pleasant, serene tranquillity shines upon us. Hither, when you are come, your weather-beaten vessel -- after all your fruitless toils -- shall at last find rest, and securely ride at the anchor of the Cross."

I have always found it odd, even disconcerting, that the final resting place of Christian ideology is at the foot of the tree of sacrifice. The problem I have always had with that concept is that it does not affirm life, human, earthly life, but rather, encourages one to give up what human actually is in the blind pursuit of what human can never be or become. At the heart of the ideology is the notion that man must murder the ultimate and absolutely alien other, man must murder God, in order to achieve any hope at all of redemption from his sinful state. That idea isn't just profoundly illogical; it is truly insane. When civil order, and civility itself, is nailed to the cross of that sacrificial altar, what else can the world become but a raging sea of malicious chaos and intent?