Caesar with the soul of Christ
Political Correctness has tacitly legislated against the still-prevailing acronyms that define the hegemonic international calendar (BC-AD), and proposed clear alternatives (BCE-CE). Both the criticism and the suggestion are entirely consistent with its principles. In accordance with the tenets of multiculturalism (a more recent and also more active hegemony), it extends the liberal assumption of formal equality from individuals to ‘cultures’, allocating group rights, and identifying – whilst immediately denouncing – discrimination and privilege. As might be expected from an ideology that is exceptionally concentrated among intellectual elites, the proposed remedy is purely symbolic, taking the form of a rectification of signs. The ‘problem’ is diagnosed as a failure of consciousness, or sensitivity, requiring only a raising of awareness (to be effected, one can safely assume, by properly credentialed and compensated professionals).
Even considered in its own terms, however, the rectification that is suggested amounts to nothing more than an empty gesture of refusal, accompanying fundamental compliance. Whilst the symbolic ‘left’ draw comfort from the insistence upon inconsequential change, with its intrinsic offense against conservative presumptions, reinforced by an implied moral critique of tradition, the counter-balancing indignation of the ‘right’ fixes the entire dispute within the immobilized trenches of the Anglo-American ‘culture war’. The deep structure of calendric signs persists unaffected. Between Christian dominion (invoking ‘Our Lord’) and a ‘common era’ that is obediently framed by the dating of Christian revelation, there is no difference that matters. It is the count that counts.
Political Correctness fails here in the same way it always does, due to its disconnection of ‘correctness’ from any rigorous principle of calculation, and its disengagement of ‘sensitivity’ from realistic perception. A calendar is a profound cultural edifice, orchestrating the apprehension of historical time. As such, it is invulnerable to the gnat-bites of ideological irritability (and dominance is not reducible to impoliteness).
The problem of Western Calendric Dominion is not one of supremacism (etiquette) but of supremacy (historical fatality). It might be posed: How did modernistic globalization come to be expressed as Christian Oecumenon? In large measure, this is Max Weber’s question, and Walter Russell Mead’s, but it overflows the investigations of both, in the direction of European and Middle Eastern antiquity. Initial stimulation for this inquiry is provided by a strange – even fantastic — coincidence.
In his notebooks, Friedrich Nietzsche imagined the overman (Übermensch) as a “Caesar with the soul of Christ,” a chimerical being whose tensions echo those of the Church of Rome, Latinized Christian liturgy, and the Western calendar. This hybridity is expressed by a multitude of calendric features, following a broad division of labor between a Roman structuring of the year (within which with superficially-Christianized pagan festivals are scattered unsystematically), and a Christian year count, but it also points towards a cryptic — even radically unintelligible — plane of fusion.
In the Year Zero, which never took place, a mysterious synchronization occurred, imperceptibly and unremarked, founding the new theopolitical calendric order. For the Christians, who would not assimilate the Empire until the reign of Constantine in the early-4th century AD, God was incarnated as man, in the embryo of Jesus Christ. Simultaneously, in a Rome that was perfectly oblivious to the conception of the Messiah, the Julian calendar became operational. Julius Caesar’s calendric reform had begun 45 years earlier, following the Years of Confusion, but incompetent execution in subsequent decades had systematically mis-timed the leap year, intercalating a day every three years, rather than every four. The anomalous triennial cycle was abandoned and “the Roman calendar was finally aligned to the Julian calendar in 1 BC (with AD 1 the first full year of alignment),” although no special significance would be assigned to these years until Dionysius Exiguus integrated Christian history in AD 525.
Given the astounding neglect of this twin event, some additional emphasis is appropriate: The Julian calendar, which would persist, unmodified, for almost 1,600 years, and which still dominates colloquial understanding of the year’s length (at 365.25 days), was born – by sheer and outrageous ‘chance’ – at the precise origin of the Christian Era, as registered by the Western, and now international, numbering of historical time. The year count thus exactly simulates a commemoration of the calendar itself – or at least of its prototype – even though the birth of this calendar, whether understood in the terms of secular reason or divine providence, has absolutely no connection to the counted beginning. This is a coincidence – which is to say, a destiny perceived without comprehension – that neither Roman authority nor Christian revelation has been able to account for, even as it surreptitiously shapes Western (and then Global) history. As the world’s dominant calendar counts the years under what appears to be a particular religious inspiration, it refers secretly to its own initiation, alluding to mysteries of time that are alien to any faith. That much is simple fact.
Unlike the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar was determined under Christian auspices, or at least formal Christian authority (that of Pope Gregory XIII), and promulgated by papal bull in 1582. Yet a glance suffices to reveal the continuation of Julian calendric dominion, since the Gregorian reform effects transformations that remain strictly compliant with the Julian pattern, modified only by elementary operations of decimal re-scaling and inversion. Where the Julian calendar took four years as its base cyclical unit, the Gregorian takes four centuries, and where the Julian adds one leap day in four years, the Gregorian leaves one and subtracts three in 400. The result was an improved approximation to the tropical year (averaging ~365.24219 days), from the Julian 365.25 year, to the Gregorian 365.2425, a better than 20-fold reduction in discrepancy from an average ~0.00781 days per year (drifting off the seasons by one day every 128 years) to ~0.00031 (drifting one day every 3,226 years).
The combination of architectonic fidelity with technical adjustment defines conservative reform. It is clearly evident in this case. A neo-Julian calendar, structured in its essentials at its origin in AD 1 minus 1, but technically modified at the margin in the interest of improved accuracy, armed the West with the world’s most efficient large-scale time-keeping system by the early modern period. In China, where the Confucian literati staged competitions to test various calendars from around the world against the prediction of eclipses, Jesuits equipped with the Gregorian calendar prevailed against all alternatives, ensuring the inexorable trend towards Western calendric conventions, or, at least, the firm identification of Western methods with modernistic efficiency. Given only an edge, in China and elsewhere, the dynamics of complex systems took over, as ‘network effects’ locked-in the predominant standard, whilst systematically marginalizing its competitors. Even though Year Zero was still missing, it was, ever increasingly, missing at the same time for everyone. “Caeser with the soul of Christ” – the master of Quadrennium and eclipse — had installed itself as the implicit meaning of world history.
(Still to come – in Part 4? – Counter-Calendars, but we probably need an excursion through zero first)