The great primordial source text of all liberation is Exodus in the Bible. There is nothing else in ancient literature quite like it that I am aware of. There are abundant death and resurrection stories from around the world, everything from Dionysos to the Mayan maize god, and many of them got grafted into the central narrative of that most syncretic of all religions, Christianity. But the Exodus story stands alone. I can think of no other ancient story about a god rescuing an entire people from slavery. Exodus remains the touchstone narrative of liberation far beyond the confines of Judeo-Christianity.
It is a remarkable story. A renegade Egyptian of Hebrew parentage guilty of murder and on the run from the law, Moses (an Egyptian name) encounters a god in the desert who refuses to show himself or even to name himself (most unusual by the conventions of ancient literature). That invisible and anonymous god enlists this far from perfect man in an immense project, the deliverance of an entire people from slavery. Moses at first refuses, pointing out that such a man as himself is completely unworthy and incapable of so great a task. Moses eventually does all that God asks. He liberates a whole nation from bondage and leads them out of the land of their oppressor. God takes on the task of fighting the oppressor for these people whom God calls his own. God then promises to guide them to a new homeland.
The complicated part of the story comes on the other side of the Red Sea after Moses and the Israelites leave Egypt. No one comes off well in this part, not the Israelites and not even God. The Israelites come across as selfish ingrates and God acts like a jealous and petty lover. The people complain that all they ever got out of their liberation was starvation in the desert. They loudly insist that they would be better off in slavery in Egypt. God complains that he regrets ever wasting his time and energy rescuing so faithless and petty a people. God resolves more than once to destroy these people and be done with the whole business. Moses plays the role of diplomat between them trying to talk both God and the people out of acting rashly. In the end, God and the people agree to a mutually binding contract, a kind of legally binding fidelity. The people would remain faithful to God and God would remain faithful to them. I can’t imagine a Greek deity like Apollo ever agreeing to such a thing.
The head of Michelangelo's Moses
Liberation is a negative concept. It is freedom from oppression. It is the absence of tyranny. It may not exactly be the same as liberty, but liberation is necessary for liberty. Hannah Arendt perhaps imperfectly defines liberty as the ability to say, “I can and I will.” Liberation is a little less than that. Liberation is getting out of jail. It’s not quite the Freedom of the Open Road.
The Exodus story is the ur-text of liberation, the narrative used by many different groups and peoples to articulate the desire for and experience of liberation. It is certainly the central narrative of Jewish history down to the 20th century and the creation of the state of Israel, the first independent Jewish state in 2000 years. But it is a narrative for other people as well. In the USA, the Exodus narrative played a central role in shaping the American self-conception as a kind of divinely chosen nation with a messianic destiny. Everything from the first Puritan settlements to the waves of westward expansion appeared in the light of the liberated Hebrews lead by God to a Promised Land.
In George Caleb Bingham’s painting, Daniel Boone plays the role of Moses leading the settlers through the wilderness to the land God has destined for them (a role that would have surprised Daniel Boone).
In Albert Bierstadt’s painting, the setting sun, like the Pillar of Fire, guides settlers westward to a new Promised Land.
Albert Bierstadt, The Oregon Trail, 1869
Of all Americans, African Americans lived out the Exodus story most fully and directly. They are the only group of Americans to experience wholesale slavery for generations, and to be brought to this country against their will. Even after the legal end of slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment, segregation laws passed at the end of Reconstruction kept black Americans separate, unequal, and disenfranchised. People who refused to recognize the full humanity of black Americans wrote and perpetuated these laws. African Americans lived out the Exodus story not just once, but many times over.
One of the most moving images to come down to us from the Civil War that ended slavery in the USA is a pair of photographs of a young “contraband;” newly freed slaves were declared “contraband” property forbidden to the rebels. In one picture, he is in the rags of slavery and destitution. In the next picture, he is a drummer boy in the US Army in a fresh uniform.
Why is this pair of images so moving for us? Some would argue that wearing the uniform of any army hardly counts as freedom. Putting on a uniform means willingly giving up a measure of personal autonomy and subjecting one’s self to a hierarchy and to a group. The state of slavery is more than just bondage to a set of legal and contractual obligations, it is the state of “living death,” of being outside all law, all help, all consideration, of being reduced to a mere thing belonging to someone. Things have no rights and belong to no community. The former slave boy in these pictures made the leap from slave to citizen, from thing to person enjoying the full rights and dignity of citizenship.
The sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens commemorated that transition from thing to citizen in probably the finest war memorial of the 19th century, the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first all black regiment in the US military. The monument stands in front of the Massachusetts State House on the spot where Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th began their march south before a cheering throng.
As is now widely known, Shaw fought and died with his men in a valiant but losing attempt to seize the Confederate Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The victorious Confederates unceremoniously threw Shaw’s body into an unmarked mass grave with the bodies of his men. Shaw’s family commissioned Saint-Gaudens to make a monument to their son. At first, Saint-Gaudens had in mind a freestanding equestrian statue of Shaw alone. Shaw’s family insisted that his men be commemorated with him. So, Saint-Gaudens came up with this great bronze relief sculpture showing Shaw riding beside his men while a grieving figure of Victory flies overhead. On the one hand, the figure of Shaw and his horse dominate the sculpture. Saint-Gaudens follows the military conventions, and the prejudices, of his day. On the other hand, the soldiers marching behind are far more than stage props for the heroic figure of Shaw. They have their own heroic dignity, and Saint-Gaudens to his credit spent much time with these figures, more than with the figure of Shaw. Each of the soldiers is carefully individualized. Saint-Gaudens worked from 40 live models of various ages in uniform to get it right and to avoid the usual caricatures or types that white artists at that time resorted to when depicting black people.
details from the Shaw Memorial
Individual studies by Saint Gaudens from live models for the Shaw Memorial
Saint-Gaudens makes Shaw into a kind of Moses, though an oddly passive one. Shaw is clearly in command, but he’s not the one that is leading. Shaw rides alongside, but not in front of, his men. His men, though in a subordinate role, are not exactly inferiors or minions. They are volunteers showing perhaps even more resolve than Shaw himself. They lean forward with sober concentration and determination, leading their commander to their shared destiny.
How do black artists see their own history? Jacob Lawrence was only 21 when he first exhibited his series of paintings of the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great Haitian liberator. Toussaint takes the place of Robert Gould Shaw as leader of the troops. Toussaint is not a white officer, but one of the slaves, and their leader in a successful uprising against the slave trade and French colonialism. Where Saint-Gaudens emphasizes the individuality of all of the soldiers in the Shaw monument, Lawrence does the opposite. Lawrence makes Toussaint the leader of a people, and the people in his paintings act and suffer together as a people.
Jacob Lawrence, General Toussaint L'Ouverture (1986 silkscreen)
Jacob Lawrence, The March (from Toussaint L'Ouverture)
Jacob Lawrence, Deception (from Toussaint L'Ouverture)
Even Toussaint himself remains relatively faceless in Lawrence’s paintings. Solidarity and community of a liberated people are the chief strength of the artist’s protagonists. Unity of purpose prevails over the scattered selfishness of the antagonists.
I’ve discussed Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series before in the context of Equality, but it is even more a monument to liberation. What a curious monument it is! It is not made of marble or bronze. It is not even a conventional monumental painting cycle. Instead of huge grand canvases permanently installed, Lawrence painted several very small panels. They are all done in cheap store-bought paints on even cheaper canvas boards. Lawrence fitted out an old suitcase to carry all of these panels from exhibit to exhibit. This is a wandering monument to a wandering and impoverished people.
Jacob Lawrence, "There Were Riots," from the Migration series
Lawrence’s Migration series commemorates one of the greatest mass migrations in the history of the USA, the migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban north beginning in the years after World War I and continuing into the 1960s, long after Lawrence finished his cycle. Lawrence shows the Migration as an Exodus without a Moses. Once again, Lawrence minimizes the individuality of the black figures. Only the white ones have facial features. The tragic paintings express grief in their whole compositions, not just in the faces of the figures. Lawrence goes to great effort to show the Migration as something that people experienced together and not alone.
The Exodus story survived transplant outside the West and the demise of Judeo-Christianity as the central organizing principle of Western culture.
In 1850, the Qing Dynasty that ruled China lay weakened and humiliated by defeat in the Opium Wars against the British. From Guangzhou, the region most affected by foreign influence rose the most unique of Chinese rebellions to date, the Taiping Tianguo (“Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace”).
Wu Youro, Regaining the Provincial Capital of Ruizhou, 1886
The instigator and leader of the Taiping Rebellion, Hong Xiuquan, was a Christian convert who took that conversion in a direction that shocked and horrified both the fundamentalist Protestant missionaries, and the civil service class out of which Hong emerged. Hong embraced Christianity (or a form of it) after failing the examinations for admission into the imperial civil service. He first read a tract written by another Chinese convert, Liang Fa, and Hong later came under the influence of a Baptist missionary, Isaachar Jacox Roberts. Both Liang and Roberts preached a ferocious Old Testament form of evangelical fundamentalism emphasizing God’s righteous wrath and minimizing the role of Jesus except as necessary sacrificial victim. Stories of an oppressed people defying and escaping their oppressor with their god fighting for them were entirely new in China, and so sharply different from the passivism of traditional Daoism or the other-worldliness of Buddhism. These stories fired the imagination of Hong and his followers. Hong believed himself to be the younger brother of Christ and that he and his followers had a mission to subdue China and the world and bring them into God’s kingdom. In the person of Hong, the Christian Great Commission met the Chinese Mandate of Heaven. The Taipings Sinicized the Christian religion and the Exodus story, making them unrecognizable to Western Baptist preachers, and yet less foreign to the Chinese. The Taipings raised a huge and formidable army that very nearly toppled the ruling Qing Dynasty and the Manchu nobility. Hong Xiuquan had every intention of founding a new dynasty thus following the well-worn path of Chinese history, but with an apocalyptic sense of mission that was entirely new to China. The Taipings plunged China into a deadly civil war that ended in 1864 with their defeat and Hong Xiuquan’s death, possibly by suicide.
It could be argued that Mao picked up where Hong left off. The apocalyptic movement that did indeed overthrow traditional China was also a Western import, Marxist Leninism as Sinicized by Mao.
Propaganda paintings of Mao Zedong
Marxism Leninism preached a form of secular apocalypse, a final solution to the abiding ills of humankind, an end to history in a kind of earthly paradise. It is not accidental that the official pictures of Mao cast him in the role of Moses, this time chosen not by God but by History, to lead the working classes to their destined dominion decreed from before time by the dialectics of History.
“Epictetus says that all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control, but we can accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. Individuals, however, are responsible for their own actions which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline. Suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power. As part of the universal city that is the universe, human beings have a duty of care to all fellow humans. The person who followed these precepts would achieve happiness.” (Golden Sayings of Epictetus)
Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher who was once a slave, concludes his Enchiridion (Handbook) with these quotations:
Conduct me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny, Wherever thy decree has fixed my lot. I follow willingly; and, did I not, Wicked and wretched would I follow still. (Diogenes Laertius quoting Cleanthes; quoted also by Seneca, Epistle 107.)
"Whoe'er yields properly to Fate is deemed Wise among men, and knows the laws of Heaven. (From Euripides' Fragments, 965)
The human condition and our individual fates are immutable and must be borne with patience and courage. These are not the sentiments behind the Book of Exodus, or of two other myths of liberation from the beginnings of the West.
Painted on the walls of the tomb of Menna, a very high and important ancient Egyptian nobleman from the New Kingdom, are scenes of life and work on his estates. The paintings show a very busy and productive estate with field hands, herdsmen, and the ever-present Egyptian bureaucracy of scribes measuring and keeping accounts.
The Tomb of Menna on the West Bank of Thebes, New Kingdom, reign of Thutmose IV
Harvest scenes from the Tomb of Menna
One of those scenes shows the collection of taxes. Money and currency are still far into the future at this point in history. The farmers on Menna’s estates pay in the form of a share of their harvest.
We see the scribes with their ropes measuring out the portion of a field to be harvested for taxes. The farmer pleads with the tax collector to be lenient showing him his youngest children. His wife and his oldest son offer him a bribe in the form of a sheaf of wheat, a cow, and some cooked food.
The scene is one of many little candid glimpses that enliven the otherwise stiff ceremonial formality of the tomb’s paintings. We should not imagine that Menna feels much sympathy for this small family. These paintings show the point of view of the lord of the manor who regards the people living and working on his lands as but a step above the cattle.
The 16th century Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel takes a larger and more philosophical view of the life of the tenant farmer in his magnificent cycle of paintings of the seasons and their labors. In his painting The Harvesters, Brueghel shows the wheat harvest on a hot hazy day in late August or early September.
Pieter Brueghel, The Harvesters, 1565
Some are still working while others are breaking for lunch under a pear tree in the foreground. We are not down there with the farm laborers, but high above in something like the point of view of an angel or some other form of an omniscient onlooker. The whole panorama of the countryside spreads out before us (as it does not to the farmers). We see the village with its church nestled in the trees to the right, a distant harbor with ships in the center, and more hills covered in wheat ripe for harvest to the left. If we look carefully into the middle distance, we can see children playing and laborers bathing in a pond to escape the heat. The world is filled to the brim waiting to be harvested. The trees in the foreground are heavy with ripening fruit. The art historian Norris K. Smith argued that the basic message of this painting is that we are what we eat. If you look closely, the woman cutting a slice off the cheese in the foreground looks a little like the wheel of cheese she slices. The same white color of the porridge that the resting peasants eat also colors their clothes. The women bending over to gather and tie up bundles of wheat look a little like the bundles that they tie. The small figure of a woman on the far right gathering apples has a tiny head that looks just like an apple. The pear tree that the farmers sit under becomes the axis around which the whole composition of the painting turns so magnificently. The land, and nature itself, has its great mysterious cycles that these people depend on for their very substance. And yet that immense nature upon which these people live is ultimately indifferent to their living or dying.
This was daily life for most of humankind for thousands of years, whether in ancient Egypt or in 16th century Flanders or anywhere. People toiled to win their bread out of an earth that was not always generous. They lived and worked to pay for protection and peace from the nobility and the gods who owned the land. People felt dependent upon the land and upon those Mighty Ones who owned it. They knew of nothing different from the past (unless it was something much worse), and they imagined nothing different for the future. They assumed that this was the way life was and would be forever and forever. This immutable order of things was ordained by God in the Scriptures; in toil and by the sweat of our brows shall we win our bread, and kings shall be our nursing fathers and queens our nursing mothers.
Prometheus in Greek mythology was one of the Titans who lived in the earth and rebelled against the gods. Prometheus, not Zeus, was the maker of humankind, fashioning the first man out of clay, according to the Greek myths. Prometheus stole fire from the gods for the benefit of his creation, humankind. Zeus punished him by chaining him to a mountain in the Caucasus and having his eagle devour Prometheus’ liver. Since Prometheus was immortal, his liver repaired itself every night so that the torment could begin again each morning.
Peter Paul Rubens in his magnificent painting of Prometheus’ torment shows a Christian interpretation of the story, likening Prometheus to Lucifer.
Peter Paul Rubens, Prometheus, 1611 - 1612
The righteous hero in this picture is not Prometheus, but the eagle (recognizable to Rubens’ learned and well read audience as an emblem of empire and legitimate authority as well as of Jupiter). Prometheus’ torments may move us to pity at first, but his ferocious expression and his inverted pose recalling the rebel angels or the damned cast out of heaven check our sympathies. Prometheus, justified or not, is that worst of all offenders in the 17th century world of Absolutist monarchy, a rebel against legitimate and divine authority.
The 20th century American sculptor Paul Manship gives us a very different understanding of Prometheus in his famous gilded bronze colossus in Rockefeller Center in New York.
Paul Manship, Prometheus, 1934
Right-side up Prometheus descends from the heavens (indicated by the zodiac encircling the sculpture) as a kind of semi-divine champion of humankind, a kind of liberator bringing something of the power of the gods, fire, to better the lot of mortals. A quote from Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound behind the sculpture makes this explicit, "Prometheus, Teacher in Every Art, Brought the Fire That Hath Proved to Mortals a Means to Mighty Ends." Manship sculpts Prometheus with simplified and straightened forms that suggest machinery. He makes Prometheus into an embodiment of industrial and technological transformation.
The Industrial Revolution and modernity brought a new understanding of Prometheus as the empowering champion of humankind, bringing the forces of nature into human hands. Before industrialism, humankind suffered nature, now humanity could control and use nature. Supposedly Karl Marx once asked why should we fear Jupiter’s thunderbolt when we have a lightning rod. The mysterium tremendum described by the theologian Rudolph Otto as an aspect of God now sits on the noses of missiles in underground silos and aboard submarines all over the world.
The Industrial Revolution was the biggest transformation in daily life for most of humanity since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. The discovery that divides modernity from the rest of history is that the human condition is not immutable after all. It can be changed. We are not necessarily doomed to win our bread in toil and pain, and kings and queens don’t have to be our nursing parents. It is not destiny to be a peasant anymore. We who’ve lived with this discovery (and with its still unfolding promises and consequences) have a hard time imagining the profound sense of liberation it created for the first generations who lived through the creation of modernity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Science and technology played a central role in that emerging sense of liberation. Newton demonstrated that the laws that govern motion here on earth governed the motions of the stars and planets; that the cosmos ran according to mechanical processes without divine intervention. Great mysterious Nature was no longer quite so mysterious anymore. If those mechanical processes that governed nature could be understood, then they could be harnessed and used. The forces of physics, of fire, water, and electricity that once belonged to the gods, could now be harnessed like a mighty and tireless giant horse to production.
Poets and artists throughout the modern era became mesmerized by power; first by natural power and later by mechanical power.
John Martin, Belshazzar's Feast, 1821
Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Rocky Mountains, 1863
Adolph Von Menzel, Iron Rolling Mill, 1875
Charles Sheeler, Rolling Power, 1939
Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed, 1913
The Eiffel Tower was built in 1888 – 1889 to be the spectacular entrance to an international industrial exhibition celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution. It was supposed to be a temporary structure to be taken down shortly after the exhibition closed.
The Eiffel Tower, photographed in 1889 during the Exposition Univereselle
The Eiffel Tower in 1889 serving as the main entrance to the Exposition
A lot of critics, artists, and authors hated the Tower, considering an eyesore. Petitions circulated among them demanding that the Tower be taken down. The author Guy de Maupassant famously hated the Tower, but had lunch in a café at its base daily. When asked about this, he replied that the café was the only place in Paris where he didn’t have to look at the tower. His opinion proved to be the exception.
The general public loved the Eiffel Tower. A visitor to the Centennial Exhibition could ride an elevator to the top, and have the very new experience of seeing the whole city of Paris spread out like a map of itself. The popularity of the Tower preserved it long past its official expiration date. It is now the most famous landmark in Paris, long ago replacing Notre Dame as the emblematic monument of the city. With regular maintenance, it could last for centuries. Other artists loved the Tower. Seurat painted it before its completion.
George Seurat, The Eiffel Tower, 1888
Robert Delaunay painted the Tower frequently, and included it in many of his other paintings. Both of these artists saw the Eiffel Tower as a kind of benevolent colossus, its own Prometheus, embodying the liberating promise of modernity.
Robert Delaunay, The Red Eiffel Tower, 1911 - 1912
Robert Delaunay, The Eiffel Tower, 1924 - 1926
Instead of the stone of the Great Pyramid or the brick of the Tower of Babel, the Eiffel Tower was made out of a new material created by technology, a new harder form of cast iron (steel construction would be pioneered in Chicago a few years after the Tower’s completion).
The Eiffel Tower under construction 1888
Instead of toiling thousands spending decades piling up stones or bricks, the Eiffel Tower required a comparative handful of skilled workers assembling prefabricated parts in a little more than a year. Compared to the massive bulk of the Great Pyramid, the Eiffel Tower is mostly air, a light slender structure built of struts that stands over Paris with a small footprint.
The Eiffel Tower today
There was another side to the Prometheus story, as Mary Shelley famously pointed out in her novel, Frankenstein. Prometheus who steals from the gods is undone by his own work, by his own pride and presumption. Mary Shelley wrote one of the finest of all inverted resurrection stories. Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates a new being out of parts collected from the dead. He succeeds in doing something that we ascribe only to God and the gods, restoring life to dead tissue. He creates a man, fully alive and fully self-conscious. That man becomes a monster, a twisted failure hated by his creator. This unlovable being becomes monstrous through being hated.
Frontispiece to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, 1831 edition
The great industrial Prometheus of modernity created several monsters in history. He made the world monstrous by remaking it for profit.
For the first time in history, it is primeval nature that needs protection from human incursion, and not the other way around. Wild Nature survives at our sufferance. We see nature not as our mother or our home or as a community of life and non-life that includes us, but as resources to be exploited. In the words of an anonymous Lakota chief, “Earth Mother has become real estate.” We’ve already spoiled our world with our insatiable greed for profits and ever more profits. The exhaust from our engines of commerce and production has already altered the global climate threatening to raise median temperatures and sea levels around the world. Cycles of weather like the monsoons of southern Asia, cycles that huge populations depend upon for survival, are threatened for the first time ever.
Our art, literature, and movies are full of apocalyptic dread over a nature turned freakish and monstrous by our hubristic intervention.
The conclusion of a 1955 horror movie about a giant tarantula created by radiation from nuclear weapons testing
And what has the Promethean hubris done to people, to ourselves? We have the horrors of mechanized warfare, and we live in a world where we are resources to be exploited, spoiled, and discarded just as much as nature.
The Industrial Revolution was the biggest transformation in day to day human life since the invention of agriculture in prehistoric times. It brought unprecedented opportunity and promise to millions of people. The descendants of indentured serfs could now afford to live better than the lords who once owned their ancestors. People now lived with a certain measure of comfort and decency that in previous generations could expect neither in life. Industry made this possible.
As one of my colleagues points out, if the Industrial Revolution had a motto, it was “More and Faster.” Technology and mass production meant that items once made by hand labor one at a time could now be made in bulk quantities in less than half the time it took to make one by hand. The pre-industrial made to order economy was replaced with a machine-made off the shelf economy. Sometimes, mechanical production made superior quality products over hand labor, to more exact and standard measures. Mass production meant that more goods could be sold much more cheaply to many more people. People now enjoyed a measure of domestic comfort unimaginable to the peasants toiling in Brueghel’s paintings, or to the tenant farmers in Egyptian tomb paintings.
By the 19th century, people could purchase cheaply items once available only to nobles and the wealthiest of merchants, items like glass lamps. Here is a page from a Sears Roebuck catalogue advertising mass produced glass kerosene lamps.
The farmer, shopkeeper, or industrial worker who looked at this page could afford something from among these samples. They are all machine made from templates.
What did “More and Faster” mean for the people who made those lamps?
Workers in an Indiana glass factory, 1908
As everyone from William Morris to Karl Marx pointed out, industrialism changed the nature of work. The worker became alienated from his labor. The skilled craftsman of the made-to-order economy who owned his tools and his workshop, and was usually independent, now became the property-less unskilled paid employee. The once skilled craftsman who had at least a small voice in the running of his community now became the greatest expense in industrial production, labor. Owners saw their employees as an expense to be minimized as far as possible. People worked and survived at the sufferance of their employers. They had no say in how the business was run, and no share in its profits apart from whatever salary their employers saw fit to pay them. Some people began to ask just how truly different was this situation from earlier forms of bondage and peonage.
Lewis Hine, Breaker Boys From #9 Breaker Hughstown PA Coal Company, Pittston, PA, 1911
A number of Roman historians tell us about Spartacus, most famously Plutarch in his Life of Crassus written about 200 years after the events he describes. The ancient historians do not agree much on Spartacus’ origins except to say that he was from Thrace. Some say he was a Thracian captured by Roman soldiers, others that he was a Roman soldier who became a bandit, was captured and enslaved. He was enrolled in a gladiator school near Capua near what is now Naples in Italy.
Gladiator Fight from a 2nd century Roman mosaic floor
Spartacus led a rebellion among the gladiators there. They broke out and fled to Mount Vesuvius. From there, other slaves escaped to join them. Soon, Spartacus raised a huge army of rebel slaves that ravaged estates across southern Italy. The Roman historians note that far from being an army of unruly bandits, Spartacus’ troops were disciplined and highly motivated, that Spartacus was a very able and charismatic military commander. His forces repeatedly defeated and humiliated Roman armies sent out to subdue them, armies commanded by Roman officers who despised Spartacus and his slave army, and seriously underestimated them. Spartacus and his fighters may have looted the estates that they came upon, but they took great care to liberate and take along all of the slaves, including among their numbers women, children, and household servants among field hands and other gladiators. The slave army’s ultimate goal was a mass escape out of Roman territory. After beating many Roman legions sent out to stop them, Spartacus’ slave army fell to the combined armies commanded by Crassus and Pompey. It remains unknown exactly how Spartacus died. He probably died in the battle, but he may have joined his surviving men, all crucified along the Appian Way from Capua to Rome on Crassus’ orders. In either case, Spartacus was never betrayed and his body never identified.
There are no contemporary images of Spartacus and very few until the 19th century. By the 19th century, Spartacus became emblematic for the labor movement. He became an embodiment of the revolutionary rage and solidarity of the working classes. As such, he appears in some striking statues made in the 19th century.
Denis Foyatier, Spartacus, 1831
Vincenzo Vela, Spartacus, 1847
Revolutionary socialists of all types used the ancient rebel slave hero as a kind of flag and a prototype. Some insisted that every worker was their own Spartacus, that the duty to liberate themselves and their comrades belonged to each. Others insisted that the leader or leaders of the party were Spartacus; that revolutionary workers should follow and remain faithful, as did the soldiers of Spartacus in ancient times.
German Communist Party poster, circa 1919
Soviet poster for the Spartacus Games, 1928
Masthead for Young Spartacus, the youth publication of the American Communist Party
In 1918 toward the end of World War I, sailors in the German naval base at Kiel refused orders to sail out and effectively throw themselves at the British naval blockade in a futile effort to break it. They were soon joined in their insubordination by other groups of sailors and soldiers around the country.
German sailors from the First World War
Strikes by German factory workers began in sympathy with the sailors. By September 1918, the German working class that had borne the brunt of the fighting and suffering in World War I was in full revolt. General Erich Luddendorf who ruled Germany from the front, concluded by October that the war could not be won, and ordered Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate and the Social Democrats, an opposition left wing party, to form a new republican government (in hopes that Luddendorf could get a better peace deal from the Allies). By January of 1919, worker rebellions flared up all over Germany. These together became known as the Spartacist Uprising. The nascent German Communist Party called itself the Sparticist League, and tried to take advantage of these spontaneous uprisings. Workers formed councils modeled on the soviets of revolutionary Russia that in some cities like Hamburg and Munich took over and created “people’s republics.” They succeeded in driving out King Ludwig III of Bavaria and turning Munich into a worker state. The German Communists were divided over what to do with this opportunity. Karl Liebknecht wanted to use the uprising as a springboard to launch a coup against the new Weimar Republic. Rosa Luxemburg was anxious not to lose the support of the workers and sailors who started the uprising and opposed a coup. To their horror, the Communist leaders discovered that the workers who rose in rebellion were not interested in taking power or in any dictatorship of the proletariat. They wanted better wages and working conditions. They wanted union contracts, not a worker state. The ruling Social Democrats, blindsided by this uprising, panicked and over-reacted. Chancellor Friedrich Ebert, a revolutionary put in power by his former military aristocrat enemies, called upon the remnants of the German military establishment, with help from far-right paramilitary groups, to put down the uprising. The uprisings began with very little bloodshed, but they ended with street battles and massacres. Both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered by right wing paramilitaries while the Social Democratic government looked the other way. The followers of both would never forgive the Social Democrats for this treachery, and the German left remained bitterly divided, even with Hitler beating down the door to murder them all.
Karl Liebknecht addressing a rally, 1918
Street fighting in Berlin, 1919
Street fighting in Berlin, 1919
Ironically, the Spartacist Uprising divided and weakened the German left while the right emerged re-invigorated with new and powerful support from the military and industrial establishments frightened by the specter of “Bolshevism.”
Max Beckmann, a veteran of the First World War, commemorated the violence of the end of the Spartacist Uprising in a painting from 1919 called The Night.
Max Beckmann, The Night, 1919
A group of thugs break into an apartment and begin murdering the inhabitants in the middle of the night. A man with a bandaged head breaks the arm of the man being strangled by another on the left. The woman with her back to us has just been raped. On the right another man in a cap is about to throw a child out the open window into the street below. A frightened dog howls while a phonograph in the foreground blares at full volume to drown out the screams. The space of the apartment appears to collapse on its self, intensifying the claustrophobic horror of this scene.
What exactly is happening in this picture? Who are the perpetrators, and who are the victims? Are they the family of a left wing agitator or journalist being murdered by right wing paramilitaries? Or are they simply the victims of criminals and score-settlers taking advantage of the lawlessness? Beckmann gives us no clues.
Beckmann was a deeply pessimistic artist disillusioned with the bloody work of history that he saw all around him. He lived through World War I, flourished in the later years of the Weimar Republic, and then was forced into exile in Amsterdam, and then into hiding during the years of Nazi rule. What Beckmann wanted was not a solution or an end to history, but an escape hatch out of it. Throughout his life, he studied the works of Gnostic thinkers and NeoPlatonists. That fascination with Gnosticism was driven by anger and disgust. “It is all over with humility before God,” he once wrote, “My religion is pride before God. Defiance against God. Defiance that he has created us thus, that we cannot love each other. I blame God for everything in my pictures that he did wrong.” God for Beckmann was the Evil Creator described by Gnostic teachings, a cosmic prison warden always expanding the cell blocks. The whole point of life was to find an escape.
His most famous painting, The Departure, is about escaping from history.
Max Beckmann, The Departure, 1932 - 1933
The painting uses a very old fashioned triptych format, originally created in the 14th century for altarpieces. The 2 wings show violence and madness in a darkened claustrophobic Grand Hotel in hell with muddy colors and confused and collapsed space. In the center, timeless figures from the realm of myth turn their backs onto us and look outward toward the beckoning blue horizon over the sea. This center panel is as expansive as the wings are confined.
In the 12th century, the Fujiwara clan that governed Japan for centuries on behalf of the Emperors, and married into the imperial family, fell from power. The rival Taira and Minamoto clans competed to fill the power vacuum left behind by the Fujiwara. A bitter 5 year war broke out between the two clans to see who would govern Japan, the Genpei War. A major work of literature emerged out of this war, the 13th century Heiji Monogatari, or Tale of Heiji. It was illustrated by a famous series of emaki or handscrolls attributed to Sumiyoshi Keion, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Art.
The opening sentences are surprising to Westerners accustomed to war epics beginning with something like “Arms and the man I sing…”:
“The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.”
How odd that a war epic should begin with a reflection on the vanity of the whole enterprise. Indeed, there have been struggles for power as long as there have been people. There is every reason to expect those struggles to continue as long as people exist. Those who win power can expect to lose it sooner or later, but always inevitably. Power is as mortal and fleeting as those who possess it.
The opening of the Heiji Monogatari reflects the influence of what Westerners call Buddhism, known in the East as the Dharma, which translates variously as ‘The Way’ or ‘The Path’ or ‘The Method.’
Siddhartha Gautama who began the Dharma in the 6th century BC in what is today northern India and Nepal was from a powerful noble family similar to the Taira and the Minamoto. Siddhartha Gautama, according to all accounts, was a prince expected to compete with other princes for power, to ultimately attain the all-powerful and all-dominant status of Universal Monarch or cakkavati in Sanskrit. The Universal Monarch could reign benevolently, but there would always remain the fact that he attained his position not through wisdom or merit, but by force. Prince Siddhartha felt this destiny to be a burden, a prison, and hardly a glorious and fortunate destiny. He knew that all striving for power must end in loss just as life must end in death. He left his princely life behind, including a wife and son, to join the communities of ascetics in India to pursue a holy life. He sought liberation from the cycles of life and death, gain and loss summarized in the ancient Vedic teachings about reincarnation. Just as the life of luxury and the competition for power appeared vain to the prince, so also did the life of extreme renunciation become competitive and vain. Like most educated young men of his time and place, he expected little help from the ancient Vedic gods, Indra, god of war, Agni, god of fire, or Varuna, god of the sky. He would have to find the path to liberation from the cycles of history for himself. The gods would be no help, but then the life of self-mortification was no more hopeful than the life of self-indulgence. The prince quit his fasting and found himself abandoned by his companions in asceticism.
He found what he was looking for at what is now Bodh Gaya in India after sitting in meditation for 49 days under a tree. He became Buddha or The Enlightened One. He discovered the nature of suffering and the path out of it. His discoveries were practical, based on empirical experience, not on doctrines or revelations. The world was a cart with a broken wheel, he taught. The source of all suffering was desire, and the key to liberation was to renounce desire and the self it served. The key to liberation was rightness; right believing and right living rather than self-mortification. Through selfless practices of meditation, right livelihood, and compassion for others, we can find freedom from history, from the cycles of life and death. The Buddha called that freedom Nirvana. The ancient Vedic sages taught that this same freedom from the cycles of life and death, this liberation they called Moksha, came only after several lifetimes of practice and ascending through the social castes to higher sanctity. The Buddha taught that his method was available to anyone, and that they could practice it and see for themselves.
The traditional image of Buddha, which first appears in India about the 3rd century CE, shows him dressed in the simple robes of a monk, usually seated in meditation. He wears an expression of serenity and self-possession. Like the images of Christ, these are not intended to be portraits of the historical Siddhartha Gautama, but visualizations of his teachings.
Jocho, Amida Buddha, 1053
Zen Buddhism in Japan was created in northern India (created by a sage called Bodhidarma) and arrived in Japan by way of China (where it was known as Chan) and Korea. The Zen practitioner tries to make himself into that perfect image of Buddha through renunciation and disciplined meditation, a series of acts of “letting go” of aspects of the self including one’s conscious reasoning.
Zen meditation, photographed in 1962
The Buddha’s enlightenment was sudden and unexpected. So too must the monk’s attainment of Enlightenment be spontaneous and sudden. The Zen monk tries to recreate Siddhartha Gautama’s experience under the tree at Bodh Gaya in order to find that sudden spontaneous moment of enlightenment.
We can see the austerity and discipline – and spontaneity -- of Zen expressed in the art that it produced.
One of several sand gardens in the Daitokuji in Kyoto
Sesshu, Haboku or "ink splash" painting, 1495
There were those who objected to the rigorous disciplines of Zen, and the demands of more esoteric forms of Buddhism that arrived in Japan from northern India and Tibet. They pointed out that there were legions of people who would never master these things in a hundred lifetimes. Did they have any hope of salvation?
The veneration of the Amida or Western Buddha came out of India to meet this objection. Amida Buddha offered a form of free salvation to all who turned to him and said his name with sincerity. The follower of Amida Buddha could expect to be taken to the Western Paradise upon death. In Japan, this form of Buddhism would be called Pure Land after the Japanese term for the Western Paradise. This form of Buddhism is often compared to Christianity, I think mistakenly. Like Christian salvation, this is a free gift to all believers, but Pure Land Buddhism is still very much Buddhism. Heaven and Hell are not the final destinations for followers of Amida. They are but temporary states. The destiny of the believer is Nirvana, not heaven. Amida Buddha only promises divine help getting to Nirvana.
Pure Land and similar forms of Buddhism are usually dismissed by Westerners as corruptions of Buddha’s original teachings precisely because they superficially resemble Christianity and depart from the discipline and purism of more demanding forms of Buddhism such as Zen. The veneration of Amida Buddha comes out of a central teaching of the Buddha, which the more demanding forms of Buddhism sometimes overlook, compassion. Compassion is itself a discipline, a way of forgetting the self by immersing one’s self in the needs and sufferings of others and by coming to their aid. Japanese Buddhism embodies compassion in the figure of Kanon, a character of ambiguous gender who comes to the aid of all in distress or sorrow.
The Thousand Kanon, from the Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto, 13th century
A Japanese Parinirvana scene from the 13th century
The life of Jesus of Nazareth as told through the religious testimony of the canonical Four Gospels was a failure. He was born and raised in poverty, the son of a carpenter’s family in territory occupied by the Roman Empire, and in a part of that territory, Galilee, notorious harboring numerous bands of nationalist fanatics and what we would call either terrorists or freedom fighters (depending on our sympathies) dwelling in the hills and caves of the region. Most of Jesus’ life is unrecorded. He emerges into the historical record in the last few years of his life. Sometime around ages 27 to 30, he leaves his family and his trade behind to become a wandering charismatic preacher. He lives dependent upon the charity of others with no permanent home. He crossed the religious authorities of his day that condemned him for blasphemy. The Roman occupation forces executed him for sedition when he was about 30 to 33 years old. As far as the Romans were concerned, he was one of many such minor trouble-makers in the territory that they routinely crucified. The religious movement that he started appeared to die with him, his followers scattered and in hiding. He was a young upstart who ended quickly in disaster and failure, one of many such from that time and place.
This young failure would bring to the Roman dominated world of that time something completely new and alien, hope for salvation for everyone. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in her writings, nothing could be more foreign to the world of that time, a world with an economy dependent on slavery and that worshipped success and domination. The common sentiment among virtuous people of that time was the resignation articulated by Epictetus, certainly not hope. Forgiveness of trespasses belonged to the gods and to their appointed representatives on earth, priests and kings. And here this young upstart has the unmitigated gall to pronounce people’s transgressions to be forgiven, and more outrageously, puts the power to forgive into the hands of everyone. Unless we forgive, we will not be forgiven, he brazenly asserts. Even more foreign to the world of Classical culture, this young upstart commands us to love one another. Love one another? Whatever does that mean? When the poets declared that Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All), they certainly didn’t mean anything like what this Jesus meant. They observed that love is a madness, a folly, that not even the gods are immune to, that delicious Venus and her captivating son Eros will have their way with mortals and gods, driving them to joy, folly, grief, and despair no matter what. Their passions build our cities and cause crime among us. And here this Jesus tells us to somehow find our community in this madness that inspires people to everything from art to rape.
Jesus, like the Buddha, wants to be free from history, to break the grim arithmetic of success and failure, strength and weakness, by which the world has always worked. What is more, he wants to bring the world with him; “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” he always said.
Perhaps the hardest, and even most offensive, aspect of the teaching of Jesus is the idea that salvation, the deliverance from death, is a free gift to everyone unmerited and undeserved, completely independent of any effort or virtue. The saint and the scoundrel can be saved together. This categorical rejection of merit as the price of salvation offends Jesus’ closest followers:
“Jesus looked round at his disciples and said to them, ‘How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!’ They were amazed that he should say this, but Jesus insisted, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were more astonished than ever, and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For men it is impossible, but not for God; everything is possible for God.’” (Mark10: 23-27, New English Bible).If someone who is wealthy and accomplished cannot earn salvation, then who indeed can be saved? the disciples rightly ask. The point of this passage isn't to simply bash the rich, it is to demonstrate the meaninglessness of all of our concepts of success and merit in the eyes of God. Jesus says that it is God who saves, that we cannot possibly save ourselves.
In this, Jesus and Buddha part company. Buddha insisted that we work out our salvation diligently. Jesus insisted that no one pulls themselves up into salvation by their own bootstraps.
Jesus made many claims for himself as the Son of God and in that mysterious title, the Son of Man. He always referred to God as Father, or more startlingly as “Abba,” Daddy. He never explained any of this. I’m sure most people of the day thought he was mad or blaspheming or both. His followers understood him to be part of God somehow. Later testimony beginning with St. Paul and the authors of the Gospels declares Jesus to be God incarnate, that God became fully human and walked the earth; living, suffering and dying as a mortal. Salvation is a free gift because God accomplished it for us on our behalf.
There are few more vivid images of liberation than those of the Resurrection.
The Anastasis fresco from the Chora Church (Cariye Cami), Istanbul, 14th century;
Christ pulls Adam and Eve from their tombs above a profusion of broken locks.
Andrea Mantegna, The Harrowing of Hell, 15th century; Mantegna very daringly shows Christ from the back as he rescues souls from hell.
Albrecht Dürer, The Harrowing of Hell, woodcut print from The Great Passion, 1510
Giovanni Bellini, Resurrection, 1475 - 1479
Mathias Grünewald, Resurrection from the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512 - 1516
Michelangelo, Risen Christ, drawing, circa 1520 - 1525
The Resurrection was understood as something much more than the resuscitation of a corpse. The promise of the Resurrection was understood as something much more than the usual elixirs and spells of immortality from earlier literature. It was never to be understood as a rescue from the misfortunes, pains, and sorrows of mortality. Nor was it to be understood as a rescue from death itself. The Gospels all agree that Jesus felt the full pain and humiliation of dying and did indeed die. Only now, death became transformed from the finality of extinction to a portal into a new life of immortality beyond the world of the mortal senses.
As profound and revolutionary as the concepts of liberation proposed by both the Buddha and Jesus are, their greatest weakness is precisely in their other-worldliness. Both of the religions that grew out of their teachings preach something like the resignation of Epictetus when it comes to history in this world. In Christianity, we see it already in the writings of St. Paul:
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ … Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, single-mindedly, as serving Christ. Do not offer merely the outward show of service, to curry favor with men, but as slaves of Christ, do whole-heartedly the will of God. Give the cheerful service of those who serve the Lord, not men. For you know that whatever good each man may do, slave or free, will be repaid him by the Lord.” (Ephesians 5: 21 and 6: 5-8, New English Bible).
John Calvin expands upon this idea:
“Do not suppose that by the judgment of men you were thrown into slavery. It is God who has laid upon you this burden, who has placed you in the power of your masters. He who conscientiously endeavors to render what he owes to his master, performs his duty not to man only, but to God … It is God who appoints and regulates all the arrangements of society.” ( Commentary on Ephesians)
"[C]ertain men, when they hear that the Gospel promises liberty ... think they cannot benefit by their liberty so long as they see any power set up over them.... But whoever knows how to distinguish between body and soul, between this present fleeting life and that future eternal life, will without difficulty know that Christ's spiritual kingdom and the civil jurisdiction are things completely distinct. … Spiritual liberty can perfectly well exist along with political bondage." (Institutes, Chapter 6)
Then where is the hope for the slave? We are right back to the resignation of the former slave Epictetus. Seeing no relief for his condition coming from God, why shouldn’t the brutalized slave escape to Spartacus and take up a sword and scorch the earth that has shown him only toil and violence?
William Blake, unlike Calvin and his followers, believed that Jesus’ promise of liberation was for this world as well as for the next. Blake lived his entire life in poverty and most of it under police surveillance. He eagerly supported the French Revolution, and unlike William Wordsworth and Thomas Paine, never repented of his republican sympathies or his support for the revolution. Blake believed in a world made new again here and in the life to come. He was an anarchist ahead of his time, rejecting almost all forms of hierarchy and legalism. He believed that the Reign of Grace succeeding the Reign of Law was indeed a revolution, a spiritual overthrow and liberation; an unorthodox belief, even a heresy, but a heresy of great insight.
What can this Gospel of Jesus be?
What Life & Immortality,
What was it that he brought to Light
That Plato &
Cicero did not write?
The Heathen Deities wrote them all,
These Moral Virtues, great & small.
What is the Accusation of Sin
But Moral Virtues' deadly Gin?
The Moral Virtues in their Pride
Did o'er the World triumphant ride
In Wars & Sacrifice for Sin,
And Souls to Hell ran trooping in.
The Accuser, Holy God of All
This Pharisaic Worldly Ball,
Amidst them in his Glory Beams
Upon the Rivers & the Streams.
Then Jesus rose & said to [men altered to] Me,
"Thy Sins are all forgiven thee."
Loud Pilate Howl'd, loud Caiphas yell'd,
When they the Gospel Light beheld.
I conclude with a vivid image of liberation by William Blake, formerly known as Glad Day, and now known as “Albion Rose …” after the verses that Blake added to it. It is based on illustrations to the writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius showing how the square and circle correspond to human proportions. Blake transforms what he saw as humanity confined in yet another over-arching rational system into an image of liberated energy.
'Albion rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves / Giving himself for the Nations he danc'd the dance of Eternal Death'.
William Blake, Albion Rose ..., hand colored print, 1796
In this figure from Blake’s imagination intended to stand for primordial humankind, Jesus and Spartacus are joined.