Friday, June 11, 2010

The finger

Lately I have been noticing fingers everywhere. For example, in his fascinating book about the methods of conducting business in the early ecumenical church councils, Ramsay MacMullen quotes from Gregory of Nazianzus. With de haut en bas exasperation, Gregory describes the limited capacities of the late fourth-century bishops who drifted into town to attend the first Council of Constantinople in 381:

Some, sprung from the change-tables and the icons you find there; some from the plow, blackened by the sun; some from the never-ending toil of the mattock and how; others, off the galleys or army list, still smelling of bilge-water or with scourge marks on their backs…; still others who have not yet cleaned off the soot of their fiery trade [as blacksmiths], fit only for a beating or the work-mill…now on their upward path, dung-beetles headed for the skies…babbling stupid phrases while not up to counting their own fingers or toes.

A mixed bag, certainly. Now, MacMullen goes on to describe the huge contrast between metropolitan intellectual heavyweights such as Gregory, Augustine, Ambrose, etc., in other words the tiny élite, and the vast majority of voting bishops, many of whom were illiterate—and the challenge, therefore, of reaching any sort of authoritative consensus. However, this passage rang a loud but rather different bell for me. It comes in Gregory’s autobiographical poem De seipso et de episcopis, the purpose of which was not merely to render a fairly devastating judgment on the poor quality of late fourth-century bishops in general, but also to deliver a finely tuned invective against certain individuals—individuals whose claim upon episcopal rank was dubious, for example the rather too recently and expediently baptized Nektarios. How, Gregory wonders aloud, did the flashy Nektarios manage to become so stupendously rich whilst working in the imperial taxation office? And weren’t his accounting methods there well known to be more akin to the throwing of dice?

In other words which is worse, a clever and charismatic but corrupt bishop, or a dung-beetle?

Anyhow, I wondered if the fingers, here, are meant to refer explicitly to the widespread methods of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division that were universally practiced by merchants on the fingers of both hands for commercial transparency on those same change-tables, in markets, and on wharves right throughout the Mediterranean world. Obviously illiteracy was an ancient nuisance, but innumeracy was far, far worse.

Anyhow, time to check the original—and there it is, in volume 37 of J.-P. Migne’s vast Patrologia Graeca, now accessible online (a boon). The Greek is unequivocal: “podasarithmeincheiras” (col. 1179) feet and hands. The Latin translation is pretty watertight: “pedesnumeraremanusfeet and hand, singular. I’m afraid there is nothing at all in the text specifically about fingers and toes. The really fascinating part is that Gregory of Nazianzus’s original formulation was, if anything, the more devastating. A dung-beetle with no ability to carry out routine accounting on his fingers is pretty useless, let us say in relation to charitable donations or church property, but a dung-beetle who cannot even count up to two (hands and/or feet) is far worse than a liability. But then, in Gregory’s view, so was Nektarios—with his well-practiced, not to say subtly grasping fingers.

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