Ancient and modern case studies in group apologetics: part 1
The Million Man March on Phoenicia
“that we ought not to be subjected to a worse fate than all the nations even in the very most remote extremities of the earth, who have been allowed to preserve their national customs” – The Embassy to Gaius, Philo of Alexandria
“For instance, grandiose narcissists focus on looking good, so they constantly hunt for opportunities to shine. Vulnerable narcissists focus on not looking bad, so they scan the environment for potential ego threats. The result in both cases is a life filled with course correction. Narcissists constantly search for short-term opportunities to look good or avoid feeling bad.
…The world is seen as predatory. The vulnerable narcissist protects the self from that and fights for the recognition that is owed.” -- The New Science of Narcissism, W. Keith Campbell
This is the second part of the digression on apologia found here.
The first part of this article covers Philo of Alexandria’s reform Jewish apologia On the Embassy to Gaius, written around 40 A.D., and the second part will cover Martin Luther King Jr.’s open letter from the Birmingham Jail.
To be charitable to my group narcissistic readers, I’ll provide group-sensitive links to each document.
Christian readers can read MLK’s letter at Christian Century dot org, and Jewish readers can listen to a ritual recitation of the letter at My Jewish Learnings dot com. Africans, blacks, and Blacks can read MLK’s letter at Africa dot UPENN dot EDU.
In many ways, these documents are incomparable. For example, while Philo’s Embassy is an account of his own and other Judaeans’ apologetic missions to Caligula, as well as a meta-apologia directed toward pagan and Judaean readers of his account, MLK’s letter is a more straightforward apologia directed toward a set of reform clergymen, the Black middle class, and radical Black nationalists. Further, Philo’s efforts failed in the long run while MLK’s were wildly successful.
Nonetheless, the similarities are sufficiently pronounced to support general inferences about the nature and effects of nonviolent group competition in an imperial setting.
Each author is faced with a spectrum of threats posed by the omnipotent outside world – the empire – ranging from brutal physical oppression to comparatively minor incivilities and slights.
Each author’s group identity already bears the marks of narcissistic conflict with this outside world: Philo’s Judaism is heavily syncretized with Hellenism and MLK’s Black identity has become Christian, Protestant, Democratic, and American.
As reformers, each author is positioning himself on the one hand against the hostile outside world and on the other against more radical and less compromising versions of their group self-image.
Each author’s apologia targets the various components of prevailing social legitimacy – components of the prevailing imperial civil religion – to defend and secure recognition or validation for the group self-image.
As discussed in the previous part, the methods employed by these authors can be understood by analogy to the narcissistic defenses of devaluation and projective identification or idealization. Admittedly, upon first impression it seems counterintuitive to speak of Philo and MLK petitioning the world to stop brutal atrocities against their groups as analogous to a malignant form of mental illness.
Upon closer inspection of each document, we discover that the authors’ grievances actually decline in severity along a spectrum from illegal and violent oppression to more benign expressions of status inferiority and unfair treatment. What this means is that all but the most extreme injustices perpetrated against their group were plausibly justifiable under the prevailing civil religion at the time, such that pure reason or common sense alone could not explain the authors’ agendas or the reforms they sought and achieved.
It is only by understanding their agendas in terms of the defense of a grandiose or omnipotent and abstract group self-image that we can fully understand the reforms they sought and achieved. For example, this understanding will help explain why in Philo we see an argument that an absolutely powerful emperor whose word is the law, and whose best friend is Jewish, is actually an anti-Judaean who rules in violation of the law. Similarly, it will help explain why in MLK we find that a civil religion that justified slavery and then segregation for centuries suddenly no longer justifies segregation.
Apologia is the reform language of group narcissism. It simultaneously is a form of verbal pleading designed to avoid immediate injustices and threats to the group, and a means to advance the group self-image and devalue the imperial self-image, as well as rival group self-images.
Apologia helps the group exclude itself by including itself. In effecting this, apologia ends up transforming both the group self-image and the imperial civil religion, creating a feedback loop where group narcissism sustains the universalism of the empire, which in turn sustains group narcissism.
The Embassy to Caligula
In my short article on Homeric ethics, I concluded with an interpretation of Nietzsche’s classification of Alexander that cast the young conqueror as the logical conclusion of the Greek culture of competition. The Hellenistic empires spawned by Alexander’s conquests created a form of imperial cosmopolitanism and instituted a prohibition on violent conflict among ethnic groups under the aegis of an empire.
Hellenism preserved a culture of Hellenic or Greek (and later, Roman) supremacism but permitted anyone with sufficient wealth to participate in it as a propositional civil religion, with Philo himself being just one example of such participation. It also spread the uniquely Greek culture of literacy and democratic education across the empire, which as we saw in the preceding part of this series gave birth to Jewish or Judaean literacy culture.
The ideal stage for Philo’s performance
Philo’s Embassy begins with a projective idealization of Hellenism in the early Roman empire that is somewhat inaccurate but nevertheless informative for this study, since what the group narcissist identifies with in the outside world is always ideal and a reflection of his own group’s omnipotence.
Philo’s purpose here is to legitimize his group self-image by legitimizing a vision of the empire that will satisfy both himself and his Roman opponents. Because Judaeans did not control the empire – because they were in a vulnerable position relative to other groups – Philo’s idyllic imperial setting that is disrupted by the events prompting his apologia is very progressive and validating of the Judaean group self-image.
Philo begins by describing the utopian rules-based international order inherited by Caligula:
For who -- when he saw Gaius, after the death of Tiberius Caesar, assuming the sovereignty of the whole world in a condition free from all sedition, and regulated by and obedient to admirable laws, and adapted to unanimity and harmony in all its parts, east and west, south and north; the barbarian nations being in harmony with the Greeks, and the Greeks with the barbarians, and the soldiers with the body of private citizens, and the citizens with the military; so that they all partook of and enjoyed one common universal peace -- could fail to marvel at and be amazed at his extraordinary and unspeakable good fortune
In the terminology of Curtis Yarvin, Philo saw Caligula’s inheritance as a flourishing Puritan-Communist empire where all were equal under the law. Philo explains that, at the time of Caligula’s assumption of power,
the rich were not better off than the poor, nor the men of high rank than the lowly, nor the creditors than the debtors, nor the masters than the slaves, since the occasion gave equal privileges and communities to all men, so that the age of Saturn, which is so celebrated by the poets was no longer looked upon as a fiction and a fable
This golden age prevailed for another seven months until Caligula fell ill with an affliction which caused him to indulge in self-destructive hedonism. Philo writes of Caligula that,
[He began to] indulge in abundance of strong wine and eating of rich dishes, and in the abundant license of insatiable desires and great insolence, and in the unseasonable use of hot baths [ed: cold showers are Lindy], and emetics, and then again in winebibbing and drunkenness, and returning gluttony, and in lust after boys and women, and in everything else which tends to destroy both soul and body, and all the bonds which unite and strengthen the two; for the rewards of temperance are health and strength, and the wages of intemperance are weakness and disease which bring a man near to death.
News of this affliction sent the empire into apocalyptic despair about global catastrophes like the destruction of the environment and world war. This despair was eventually mollified by what Philo describes as an imperial PSYOP (THIS IS AN OP!) or what normal people would understand as a marketing campaign. The campaign was necessary because peaceful equilibrium required that the people see the emperor as the bearer of civility and civilization against the forces of darkness, reaction, and barbarism. But Philo explains that this optimism was misplaced, being based as it was upon a PSYOP:
For [all people] rejoiced, from ignorance of the truth, like men who are now for the first time beginning to exchange a wandering and uncivilised mode of life for a social and civilised system, and instead of dwelling in desert places, and the open air, and the mountain districts, to live in walled cities, and instead of living without any governor, or protector, or lawgiver, to be now established under the care of a governor to be a sort of shepherd and leader of a more domesticated flock
This is the setting for what Philo describes as the persecution of the Judaeans at the hands of an irrational and manipulated emperor, and the various apologetic efforts made to stop such persecutions. As one might expect, this isn’t the whole story.