Friday, June 9, 2017

The Case of Kryspus: A Time for All Things

Image result for kryspus quo vadisKryspus is one of the greatest characters in Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis because if the purpose of well-constructed characters in literature is to deepen our understanding of the art of being human, then few fulfill this function as well as the fanatical Christian zealot.

Kryspus, like all zealots, appears (at first) to be the archetype of a warning against immoderate thought and action. The teaching with regard to the virtue of moderation appears to apply universally to any and all philosophies. Its power is such that moderation is sometimes argued to be the true definition of virtue. Aristotle's definition of courage as being the median between the extremes of rashness and cowardice is an excellent example. What has come to be called the Christian teaching of the golden rule also contains this element of the virtue of moderation. Kryspus appears to verify this rule because he appears to us as the pinnacle of an immoderate Christian and thus, perhaps, a very flawed Christian.

The Dominican theologian, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange once remarked that the Church is intolerant in principle, because she believes, but tolerant in practice because she loves. In contrast, enemies of the Church are tolerant in principle because they do not believe, but intolerant in practice because they do not love.  From this point of view, we might blame Kryspus for being intolerant in both principle and practice. Certainly we might consider him to have no regard whatsoever for the true love between Vincius and Ligia, and we are tempted to suspect that his moral revulsion at Ligia is not reflective of his piety, but of a wounded pride - Ligia was to be his pupil, his possession. We suspect that his virtue is an act, that his condemnation of Ligia is the typical moral hypocrisy of a wounded pride.

Likewise, Kryspus passes judgment on the Christians before the slaughter, reminding them that death in the name of Christ is no excuse for sin, that the martyrdom that they have chosen is easier than a life of pure virtue, that they will be judged, and that if they sinned despite the fact that Christ died for their sins, God - who finished His act of love in the Crucifixion and resurrection now sits only in stern judgment. In his condemnation of even women and children who are about to die in the name of Christ, Kryspus appears the epitome of cruelty. He seems to be the caricature of the Christian who hates life that Petronius and even Vincius first perceived when they encountered the Christian teaching.

In a sense, perhaps all of this is true about Kryspus, though we ourselves should not be too quick to condemn him for what are, ultimately, only words - stern, cold perhaps even unloving but not completely without some merit. From a literary standpoint, it is clear that Sienkiewicz builds up this character in contrast to St. Peter and St. Paul, perhaps to teach us to distinguish between the authentic Christian and the religious zealot who calls himself Christian but does not practice love. Yet - yet! Sienkiewicz's masterstroke is to have Kryspus scream at Nero from the cross - to use his last breath on this Earth to publicly humiliate and demean the one character in the book who everyone knows to be the anti-Christ, who everyone knows to deserve to be judged, who everyone knows deserves all of the condemnation that only a stern and hard heart like Kryspus could deliver.

There is a place, Sienkiewicz seems to say, even for this kind of Christian. There are different kinds of Christians. Christianity is not uniformity. Indeed, even today, this multiplicity is evident in the Church, this true diversity - this tolerance for intolerance which makes sure that tolerance never falls into apathy.

photo of Jerzy Nowak, actor who plays Kryspus in the Polish film Quo Vadis

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