Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Put down your dagger and be nice to eunuchs!

In Defense of Eunuchs is a Byzantine work of rhetoric written in Greek. It responds to the slander that was often hurled at eunuchs (castrated men). The author, Theophylact, wrote it in honor of his brother, Demetrius, who had been castrated by their father so he could enter imperial service. The length of the work is comparable to a magazine essay (to use an anachronism), but the format is primarily a dialogue.

Theophylact was born in the mid-eleventh century, became Archbishop of Ohrid in 1090, and wrote this work in the early twelfth century. The Orthodox archbishopric was under the authority of the Church in Constantinople, the center of the Byzantine empire. Today, the city of Ohrid (pronounced okh-REED) is in the modern-day Republic of Macedonia, near the borders of Albania and Greece.

Theophylact is believed to have written In Defense of Eunuchs after both he and the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus traveled to the Greek city of Thessalonica, about 250 km southeast of Ohrid. Two imperial visits were known to have occured between late 1105 through early 1107, so the work could be reasonably dated any time after 1105. This information is explained in Victor T. Cheney's work A Brief History of Castration, based on the French-language work of Paul Gautier, Theophylacte D'Achrida Discours, Traites, Poesies. Cheney loosely translated the entire work into English based on Gautier's French translation. He calls it "The Justification of Eunuchism." (For classical purists, this kind of derivative translation might be considered a twice-warmed leftover, but one needs knowledge of Greek or French to avoid relying on this translation.) All quotations below are from Cheney.

The work opens with a poem and a brief introduction in which Theophylact dedicates the work as a "gift" to his brother and briefly sums up some of the work's main points. What follows is a dialogue he claims to have reconstituted from something he heard in Thessalonica.

The first speaker (believed to be Stephan, a military commander, revealed as an ascetic Christian) briefly levels the accusations against eunuchs that were typical of the era. He says that "eunuchs are the stingiest and most selfish of mortals" and adds "liberty, ambition, jealousy, love of pettiness, pretense, meanness, and undue sensitivity" to their list of vices. Palace eunuchs who serve in the women's quarters will become sexually involved with the women, leading to an "ungodly situation." To highlight the threat to Christian virtue, he references the Sidonian goddess Astarte, who was said to have been born from the remains of a castrated god. On the other hand, eunuchs who are singers, whether in the theater or the Church, are drunken jokers who are sexually active with men. In either case, they are, finally, seen as "bad omens."

The debate pauses briefly to allow the author Theophylact to illustrate the facial expressions of the two men. The accuser is "quiet" but "concentrated," intent "on binding the eunuch in chains" rhetorically. The defendant, himself a eunuch (believed to be Simon the Sanctified, a monk from Mount Athos), smiles politely and launches a lengthy, spirited comeback. Twice he asks the accuser to lay down his rhetorical "dagger."

The eunuch says that his accuser must be referring to foreign eunuchs in Persian harems, and surely it is unfair to attribute the same vices to Christian eunuchs in the Byzantine empire like himself. He name-drops eunuch ecclesiastics: the Archbishop of Thessalonica and the Bishops of Pydna, Petra, Edesse, and Bulgaria, all of whom, he said, "were voluntarily castrated to counter their own passions." He distinguishes these holy eunuchs from those "profligate" ones whose castration is motivated by the idea of consequence-free sex; the latter are not defended by him. Some early Gnostic "heretics" were profligate, leading the Church Fathers to oppose castration, but most contemporary eunuchs are motivated by "purity and piety," so the Church accordingly became more accepting by the twelfth century.

The eunuch notes that the accuser is a celibate ascetic. If the accuser considers his own sex organs to be "superfluous," why would it be blameworthy for another man to choose to remove his own superfluous organs, as one might remove a "sixth finger"? And if the accuser chooses to become thin and pale through fasting, altering his own natural constitution, why is the eunuch's altered body seen as more unnatural?

The eunuch says that "the Bible equates eunuchism with holiness: a eunuch as a servant of God," citing the examples of Daniel and his companions, Nehemiah, and Ebedmelech. Of the scriptures in general, he says that "I honor and worship them as life-giving rules. But I do not consent to be their prisoner." He prefers to "leap over" the old Hebrew laws "in an act of faith." While quoting scripture numerous times, he also makes arguments that appeal to human nature and common sense. Once, for emphasis, he mentions the names of Miltiades and Koroibos, who were ancient, pre-Christian, Greek representatives of dummies.

He says the fourth-century Emperor Constantine was given the honorific "The Great" because he favored eunuchs, overturning past precedents against eunuchs. In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian I criminalized the act of castration but continued to employ eunuchs. The speaker points out that this position is contradictory. He uses the metaphor of a false gold coin that makes the sound of copper when it is struck, implicitly declaring that the worthlessness of the emperor's decision should be apparent to all. "Either abolish castration and never use eunuchs," he apostrophized the long-dead emperor, "or transfer them to the highest posts and favor castration."

On a purely logical basis, the eunuch's strongest argument lies in his claim (if true) that the proportion of eunuchs who are evildoers is smaller than the proportion of non-eunuch men who are evildoers. Furthermore, he says, villainous men express a higher degree of evil than do villainous eunuchs. In other words, men are more likely to commit greater acts of evil than are eunuchs. If this claim is true, then, logically, castration actually reduces the amount of evil in the world. Its average effect on human behavior should be verifiable by "examin[ing] a number of priests from one or two churches, drawing on both your side and mine." It is unfair to condemn all eunuchs based on anecdotes of a few wicked ones who may be statistical anomalies.

Similarly, if church singers are blamed for stirring base passions with innovative melodies and harmonies, it should be recalled that this musical innovation was introduced by male composers, not by the eunuch performers.

The speaker does not express it quite so succinctly. This argument becomes an occasion for colorful speech, such as the repetition of the accusations that a eunuch's evil is "like the produce of an exhausted earth, which lacks good quality and taste" and that imperial bureaucrats "behave like young lions who roar and terrify other animals."

He believes his strongest argument – which he saves for last – is that eunuchs do not suffer from sexually-transmitted diseases because they have taken an irrevocable step that prevents them from sinning in a moment of weakness. They choose this life of purity, and they choose to alter their bodies to "reflect" their free choice. "You have said that many eunuchs are unchaste. This shows that the continent ones are chaste by will," he avers.

Inquiring if he should continue, his accuser is given an opportunity to speak again, and he responds: "That is enough for now." The two men embrace and kiss, and the eunuch triumphantly lifts up his young nephew who had listened closely the whole time.

To close the dialogue, the author, Theophylact, speaks once more in his own voice, as he had done at the very beginning. He indicates only his concern in remembering everything that had been said, since, especially in his old age, "I am not Simonides or Hippias, sages of great memory." What he finally recorded in this treatise he refers to as "merchandise" from his trip to Thessalonica.

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