On Being Human
by Revilo P. Oliver
FOR READERS who are interested in the evolution of Christianity, I note the appearance of an English translation of the only significant work by Pope Innocent III.(1) It is true that Innocent was a voluminous writer, whose works occupy Volumes 214-217 in Minge’s Patrologia Latina, but all the rest may be left to historians who have to trace in detail the intrigues and propaganda by which the greatest successor of Gregory VIII (Hildebrand) tried to unify Europe by reducing it to an empire ruled by the Papacy.(2)
The kind of Christianity represented by the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of Innocent III (1198-1216) including its quasi-philosophical premises, was expounded by that pontiff in his De miseria conditionis humanae, which has been edited and translated by Professor Robert E. Lewis (University of Georgia Press, Athens; $30.00). The translation is a good one, and you will prefer to use it, unless you are one of the heroic Latinists who can confront without flinching the vulgar soloecisms of Mediaeval Latin, exacerbated by the repulsive misspellings (e.g., “humane” for “humanae” ) that the editor, in keeping with contemporary practice, has sedulously retained.(3)
Innocent III was born Lothair, a son of Thrasimund, Count of Segni, and Claricia, of the noble Roman family of Scotti. The long illness of poor old Celestine III, who was not even allowed to resign his divine office, the prestige and wealth of Lothair’s families, and his own undoubted talents made it easy to have all the skids greased by the time Celestine finally died, and Lothair, at the age of 37, slid into the Vatican with a neatness and despatch that is unique in the annals of the Church. Once Pope, he remembered that he had not yet taken the trouble to be ordained as a priest, so he was in the most unusual position of being able to order his own ordination in the Church of which he was master.
Although political considerations determined Lothair’s toboggan ride to the Papal throne, his elevation was facilitated by his intellectual and theological attainments, which were displayed in several treatises, of which the De miseria conditionis humanae was by far the most widely read and admired. When he was made Pope, the Church, through its unanimous Cardinals, officially approved that work and, so to speak, canonized it. You are thus justified in taking it as an official expression of contemporary Catholicism.
Innocent descants at length on the wretchedness and worthlessness of the human beings with which his god peopled the earth. He reviews and catalogues their weakness, their folly, their selfishness, their vileness, their crimes, and their sins. This is the part that will most interest a philosophic historian. You will find it of great interest to notice how many of the weaknesses and vices in the catalogue really are inherent in our biological species and, as Nietzsche put it, “menschliches, allzumenschliches,” and how many are fictitious, made wrong and evil by the Judaic superstition that had alienated our racial mentality. And if you wish to take the measure of the extent to which good minds have liberated themselves from that fatal obsession, compare Innocent’s work with W. Macneile Dixon’s genial The Human Situation (London, Arnold, 1939; reprinted 1957). The contrast cannot fail to be intellectually and spiritually stimulating.
Innocent goes on to catalogue in detail all the fiendish torments and tortures with which his savage god will afflict forever the ghosts of men and women for having been as human as he created them. The poor wretches, needless to say, can escape from the eternal Hell to which their Creator damned them at birth only by paying and obeying the shamans who dispense a salvation of which the efficacy is guaranteed by God’s Vicar, the only authorized representative of Yahweh & Son, Inc. If your taste in fiction runs to horror stories, you may enjoy Innocent’s naive and artless, but impressive and vivid, descriptions, which must have scared many poor wights out of their wits.
(1) Strictly speaking, this man is Pope Innocent III No.2. Innocent III No.1 was elected by a faction of the Cardinals in 1179, but he was found to have less money than the rival faction, to whom its supporters sold him, and God confirmed the appointment of Alexander III as his plenipotentiary representative on earth. Alexander magnanimously threw his rival into a prison, in which he died with exemplary promptitude. Incidentally, it was Innocent III No.2, with whom we are here concerned, who coined for his position as God’s deputy and terrestrial business agent the title of Vicar (“vicarius”) with which all subsequent Popes have decorated themselves.
(2) Innocent was one of the shrewdest of all the Popes and played the game of holy diplomacy with a bold hand, playing off one candidate for the office of Emperor against the others and changing sides with sure-footed agility. It is conceivable that, but for the obstinate opposition of the great Frederick II Hohenstauffen, who refused to be either bribed or bullied, Innocent might have succeeded in unifying Europe under Papal dominion, appointing kings under the powers given him by his celestial Principal and firing them, if they were inefficient or presumptuous. One minor puzzle: was the wily Innocent really surprised by the diversion of the Fourth Crusade from Palestine to Constantinople? He was obliged by his divine office to protest that diversion, but he was also delighted to appoint a Patriarch in Constantinople and add the conquered Byzantine Empire to his domains.
(3) Years ago, when I was young and zealous, I read Innocent’s screed in Migne, where the spelling at least makes the text less rebarbative. Innocent was an educated man for his day and there is a great deal of Mediaeval Latin that is much worse than this. It is the fashion in some circles today to admire Mediaeval Latin, as did the degenerate protagonist of “Huysmans’ A Rebours.” If you wish an introduction to its uncouth syntax (which comes largely from the earliest Latin translations of the Bible for Jews and Christians in the western half of the Roman Empire), the clearest and most concise is H. V. P. Nunn’s Introduction to the Study of Ecclesiastical Latin (Eton, 3d ed., 1952). The most convenient and useful dictionary is J. F. Niermayer’s Mediae Latinitatis lexicon minus (Leiden, 1954-1965).
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