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Begotten, Not Made - Ulysses And The Arian Heresy

Ulysses, by James Joyce, is a famously incomprehensible book, in part because Joyce seems to assume that all his readers grew up in Dublin and were educated by Jesuits. A good example of this is his cryptic reference early in the novel to Arius, a Christian theologian and heretic from the fourth century who was reviled by the Jesuits. This article delves into the links between Ulysses and the Arian Heresy.

Stephen's Dilemma

Stephen Daedelus, the Hamlet-esque protagonist of Ulysses, starts the novel with a lot on his mind. Appalled by his father's behavior, ashamed of his own behavior at the deathbed of his mother and unsure of his artistic skills, Stephen longs to escape the "nightmare of history" - particularly his own.

In characteristically gloomy fashion, he compares his attempt to separate his own destiny from his boozy father's with the unsuccessful efforts of the Christian heretic, Arius, to separate the Son (Jesus) from the Father (God). He also sees in Arius a fellow soldier in the fight against the domineering Roman Catholic Church, imagining "Arius, warring his long life upon the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father." (p. 25)

Arian Heresy

Arius (AD 256 - 336) was a Christian theologian who claimed that God existed before Jesus. This is consistent with Mark's gospel in which Jesus was a man who ascended into union with God, but conflicts with John's gospel in which Jesus is a divine being who has always been in union with God (also called "consubstantiation").

In the early church, there was an active debate between Arius - who felt it was dangerous to blur the lines between God and Jesus - and opposing theologians - who felt it was dangerous to make Jesus too human. The debate took a nasty turn when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion in the Roman empire.

Constantine's first use of Christian symbols was in 312, just before his battle to capture Rome from the rival Emperor Maxentius. He claimed to have received a vision promising victory if he painted the letters "Chi" and "Rho" (the first two letters of the word "Christ") on his soldiers' shields. Two years earlier, before another big battle, he had claimed to have an identical vision involving Apollo, so clearly he was an equal opportunity employer of deities.

A human Jesus was considered a poor source of authority for a divine Emperor. Nor is a pacifistic Jewish prophet a suitable rallying figure for the official cult of the Roman Military. Finally, the endless squabbling between the pro- and anti-Arius factions undermined Constantine's needs for a single, unified theology to rule the empire.

The process of adapting the intensely personal, pacifistic Christianity theology to fit the governance needs of the militaristic Roman empire is called the "Constantinian Accord." The most public example of this occurred in 325, when Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, specifically to refute the Arian concept of a human Jesus.

In keeping with Constantine's wishes, the council produced the Nicene Creed, which goes a bit overboard on the divine etymology of Jesus: "Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father." Of himself, Stephen is clear to point out that he was "made, not begotten." (p 46)

This Nicene creed made Arius a heretic. In keeping with the new union of church and state, he was punished by both the church (excommunication) and the state (exile and destruction of his writings). Although he was later re-instated by the emperor, he died mysteriously the following day. Embarrassingly, he died on the toilet, apparently after being poisoned while dining with the emperor; hence Joyce's comment "In a Greek watercloset he breathed his last: euthanasia." (p 47) Euthanasia means good death in Greek, another inside joke by Joyce.

Stephan and Arius

In Ulysses, Stephen longs for personal freedom but says of himself: "I am the servant of two masters, …the imperial British state …and the holy Roman catholic church." (p. 24) From Stephen's point of view, Arius is a forgotten hero who fought against the destruction of "true," pacifistic Christian faith, first by the Roman Empire and later by the Roman Catholic church.

Stephen's identification with Arius is not just a slap at the Roman Catholic church, but specifically at the Jesuits who had educated him. The defeat of Arius by his enemy Athanasius was a frequent theme of paintings commissioned by the Jesuits. The Jesuits saw their hero's triumph over the heretic Arius as a "warm-up" for their victory over the protestant heretics. Stephen's anti-Jesuit views led Buck Mulligan to observe, "You have that cursed Jesuit strain in you, only its injected the wrong way." (p. 8)

Arius ultimately gave his life remaining true to his fairly obscure but fiercely held views against consubstantiation. Of the hundreds of bishops who had supported his views before the Council of Nicene, only two were willing to publicly support it at Nicene (and they were speedily packed off to exile with Arius and struck from the list of attendees so that the decision of the council could be recorded as "unanimous").

This tenacious hold on a personal philosophy against all comers may shed light on one of the most difficult questions raised by the book: why did Stephen refuse to pray with his dying mother? Interpreted within the light of the Arian heresy, he may have felt that what was at stake was nothing less than the integrity of his "endless…form of forms" (p 60) (this seems to be a fancy circumlocution for soul).

Stephen's personal aspiration is that "you will not be the master of others or their slave." (p. 56) Accommodating his mother's desire would mean sacrificing his personal integrity to please a person who will soon be "beastly dead" anyway. In an extraordinary leap of analogy, Stephen compares the futility of losing his own soul to please a dying woman with drowning while to save a drowning man. "A drowning man…With him together down…I could not save her. Waters: bitter death: lost." (p. 57)

Arius Resonating

In testament to the unity of themes within Ulysses, there are a number of resonances between the Arius heresy and passages that on the surface address other themes. For example, the doctrine of a single entity containing father, son and holy ghost was called "consubstantiation." In his attempt to re-imagine himself as a different person than his father, Stephen complains of "My consubstantial father's voice." (p 47)"

Stephen declares, "I fear those big words that make us so unhappy" (p 38). Clearly, consubstantiation qualifies as one of these words, and Stephen makes it even bigger by imagining Arius "warring his life long on the contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality." (p 47)

Another poignant passage imagines the doomed Jews trying to do their work at the Paris Stock Exchange: "…the gestures eager and unoffending, but knew the rancours massed about them and knew their zeal was vain" (p 42) With Arius and his supporters in mind, the exact same words could be used to describe their efforts to win over the Council of Nicene, knowing that the rancours of the emperor were massed against them.

With a book like Ulysses, this kind of fun never stops. Examples of other Ulysses/Arius free-associations include:

  • Stephen laments the inability of the Irish to make art that reflects their true character because that character has been shattered by their conquerors: "It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant." (p 6) Similarly, the demands of Roman Empire for an imperial religion destroyed the early Christian church's image of itself.
  • "History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." (p 42) Through the Constantinian Accord, Christ's initial message of universal love was transformed into an "opiate for the masses" and used to justify state-sponsored hatred.
  • "Stephen jerked his thumb out the window: 'That is God.'" (p 42) Stephen believes in a personal, accessible philosophy, much closer to the human Jesus of Arius (and the Gnostics) than the inaccessible deity of the Roman Catholic church who could only be approached through state-sanctioned priest/intermediaries.

More on Arius

Arius (AD 256 - 336, poss. in North Africa) was an early Christian theologian, who taught that the Son of God was not eternal, and was subordinate to God the Father. His famous assertion was "If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and that there was a time when the Son did not exist"

Reconstructing the life and teachings of Arius is difficult because the Roman Catholic church destroyed all of Arius' writings (shades of the fate that befell the Gnostics). The only record of his teaching is found in writings of those who denounced him as a heretic. Did Joyce worry that the same fate would befall his "heretical" literary work?

The core of the debate is: was Jesus a man who became a God or a God who became a man? If Jesus was a human who became one with God, we as humans can follow his example. This puts Jesus squarely in the tradition of other great religious figures, including the Jewish prophets, Buddha and Mohamed - humans who were transformed by their experience of God. Jesus as a God who became human is much more a deity on the Greek/Roman lines - a God who for a time masqueraded as a human being.


Copyright 2005 Christopher Keene
"I fear those big words that make us so unhappy" - James Joyce


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