Friday, March 9, 2012

486. Marius the Epicurean – Walter Pater

History: Marius the Epicurean: his sensations and ideas is an historical and philosophical novel by Walter Pater (his only completed full-length fiction), written between 1881 and 1884, published in 1885 and set in A.D. 161-177, in the Rome of the Antonines. It explores the intellectual development of its protagonist, a young Roman of integrity, in his pursuit of a congenial religion or philosophy at a time of change and uncertainty that Pater likened to his own era. The narration is third-person, slanted from Marius's point of view, added to which are various interpolated discourses, ranging from adaptations of classical and early Christian writings to Marius’s diary and authorial comment.
Plot: Marius, a sensitive only child of a patrician family, growing up near Luna in rural Etruria, is impressed by the traditions and rituals of the ancestral religion of the Lares, by his natural surroundings, and by a boyhood visit to a sanctuary of Aesculapius.
His childhood ends with the death of his mother (he had early lost his father) and with his departure for boarding school in Pisae. As a youth he is befriended by and falls under the influence of a brilliant, hedonistic older boy, Flavianus, who awakens in him a love of literature (the two read with delight the story of Cupid and Psyche in Apuleius, and Pater in due course makes Flavian, who is "an ardent student of words, of the literary art", the author of the Pervigilium Veneris).
Flavian falls ill during the Festival of Isis and Marius tends him during his long death-agony. Grown to manhood, Marius now embraces the philosophy of the 'flux' of Heraclitus and the Epicureanism of Aristippus. He journeys to Rome (A.D. 166), encountering by chance on the way a blithesome young knight, Cornelius, who becomes a friend. Marius explores Rome in awe and is appointed amanuensis to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius's Meditations on Stoicism and on Plato, and the public lectures of the rhetorician Fronto, open Marius' eyes to the narrowness of Epicureanism. Aurelius's indifference, however, to the cruelty to animals in the amphitheatre, and later to the torments inflicted on people there, causes Marius to question the values of Stoicism.
Disillusioned with Rome and the imperial court, puzzled by the source of Cornelius's serenity, still Epicurean by temperament but seeking a more satisfying life-philosophy, Marius makes repeated visits alone to the Campagna and Alban Hills, on one occasion experiencing in the Sabine Hills a sort of spiritual "epiphany" on a perfect day of peace and beauty.
Later he is taken by Cornelius to a household in the Campagna centered on a charismatic young widow, Cecilia, where prevails an atmosphere of peace and love, gradually revealing itself as a new religion with liturgy and rituals that appeal aesthetically and emotionally to Marius. The sense of purposeful community there, set against the persecution of Christians by the authorities and the competing philosophical systems in Rome, contributes to Marius' mood of isolation and emotional failure.
Overshadowed by thoughts of mortality he revisits home and pays his respects to the family dead, burying their funerary urns, and sets out again for Rome in Cornelius's company. On the way the two are arrested as part of a sweep of suspected Christians. It emerges that only one of the young men is of this sect, and Marius, unbeknown to Cornelius, makes their captors believe it is he. Cornelius is set free, deceived into thinking that Marius will follow shortly. The latter endures hardship and exhaustion as he journeys captive towards Rome, falls ill, and dying is abandoned by his captors. "Had there been one to listen just then," Pater comments, "there would have come, from the very depth of his desolation, an eloquent utterance at last, on the irony of men's fates, on the singular accidents of life and death."
Marius is tended in his last days by some poor country people, secret believers who ironically take him to be one of their own. Though he has shown little interest in the doctrines of the new faith and dies more or less in ignorance of them, he is nevertheless, Pater implies, "a soul naturally Christian” and he finds peace in his final hours as he reviews his life.
Review: Marius the Epicurean explores a theme central to Pater's thinking: the importance to the adult personality of formative childhood experiences. In addition, conscious of his growing influence and aware that he had been misconstrued as amoral, Pater set about clarifying his published ideas. Pater is careful in the novel to distinguish between 'hedonism', as usually understood, and Marius's cerebral, ascetic version of Epicureanism. Marius' quest exemplifies Pater's dictum that we should "be for ever testing new opinions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy":
Thus the novel elaborates Pater's ideal of the aesthetic life – a life based on αίσθησις, perception – and his theory of the stimulating effect of the pursuit of sensation and insight as an ideal in itself. Centrally, Marius dedicates much time, and Pater much space, to examining the Meditations and character of Marcus Aurelius, who was warmly admired in the 19th century as a paragon of intellectual and moral virtue (by Niebuhr, Matthew Arnold, Renan, George Long and many others), but whose Stoicism Marius ultimately finds too bleak and lacking in compassion.
The appeal of religion – whether ancestral paganism or primitive Christianity – is another major theme of the novel. Indeed the novel's opening and closing episodes betray Pater's continuing nostalgia for the atmosphere, ritual and community of the religious faith he himself had lost. Michael Levey, a biographer and editor of Pater, writes: "Pater is able to depict an early, pure Christianity, not yet sectarian, authoritarian, or established, which offers Marius a vision which is ideal because untarnished." Early Christianity, Pater notes, "had adopted many of the graces of pagan feeling and pagan custom ... So much of what Marius had valued most in the old world seemed to be under renewal and further promotion". Marius, however, having outgrown his childhood piety, dies before he has engaged intellectually with the doctrines of the new faith. He remains essentially Epicurean: "For still, in a shadowy world, his deeper wisdom had ever been, with a sense of economy, with a jealous estimate of gain and loss, to use life, not as the means to some problematic end, but, as far as might be, from dying hour to dying hour, an end in itself – a kind of music, all-sufficing to the duly trained ear, even as it died out on the air." His epiphany in the Sabine Hills, where he sensed a "divine companion" and the existence of a Platonic "Eternal Reason" or Cosmic Mind, is not a prelude to religious faith. Readers may feel that Pater makes it hard for them to believe that Marius, with his acute, probing, restless mind, would have embraced Christian doctrines if he had examined them. Instead the novel remains open-ended, leaving us with a provisional ideal of 'aesthetic humanism'.
Opening Line: “As, in the triumph of Christianity, the old religion lingered latest in the country, and died out at last as but paganism—the religion of the villagers, before the advance of the Christian Church; so, in an earlier century, it was in places remote from town-life that the older and purer forms of paganism itself had survived the longest.”
Closing Line: “Surely evil was a real thing, and the wise man wanting in the sense of it, where, not to have been, by instinctive election, on the right side, was to have failed in life.”
Quotes: "Liberty of soul, freedom from all partial doctrine which does but relieve one element of our experience at the cost of another, freedom from all embarrassment alike of regret for the past and calculation for the future: this would be but the preliminary to the real business of education – insight, insight through culture into all that the present moment holds in trust for us, as we stand so briefly in its presence."
Rating: Could not read.

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