Imitation of our betters
Posted on: Mar 08, 2023
We recently (March 7th) celebrated the memorial of Sts. Purpetua and Felicity, two young women, one a noblewoman nursing a young child the other a pregnant slave, who were martyred for their Christian faith in a Roman spectacle in honor of the 3rd century Emperor Septimus Severus’s birthday. A few centuries later the north African Bishop of Hippo Regius, Aurelius Augustinus, in preaching a sermon commemorating this same memorial, and with impressive rhetorical flourish, commended the example of these two martyrs:
This day, coming round year after year, is a reminder to us and represents for us the day on which God’s holy servants Perpetua and Felicity burst into bloom in perpetual felicity, holding onto the name of Christ in the war, and at the same time also finding their own names in the reward. If what I can offer is quite unequal to the merits of these saints, I can still contribute my own enthusiastic feelings to the joy of this great feast. What, after all, could be more glorious than these women, whom men can more easily admire than imitate? But this redounds supremely to the praise of him in whom they believed, and in whose name they ran the race together with faithful zeal….
In heaven the glorious martyrs will be resplendent with the special light that distinguishes them, and the bodies in which they suffered unseemly torments will be turned for them into seemly robes of honor. So then let us celebrate their feasts, as indeed we are doing, with the utmost devotion, soberly cheerful, gathered in a holy assembly, thinking faithful thoughts, confidently proclaiming their sanctity. It is no small part of imitation to rejoice together in the virtues of those who are better than we are.
We celebrate saints because we recognize them as better than we are and the Church exhorts us to emulate them in their virtue. Saint Paul in his letters often tells his readers:
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 1 Cor 11:1
And in the Gospels Jesus tells his disciples that:
Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise. John 5:19
The principle of mimetic desire as understood by René Girard reflects the fundamental human propensity to imitate and so become like the ones we admire. This also provides the psychological and spiritual mechanisms for the phenomena of worldly fashion in both external (attire & behavior) and internal (belief) matters. The same mimetic propensity underlies the teacher-disciple relationship:
A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher. Luke 6:40
However, there is another principle (also explicated by Girard’s mimetic theory) that impinges on the disciple’s path toward becoming like his teacher/model, mimetic rivalry. Our fallen human nature often chafes at the secular hierarchical cursus honorum in which we compete with other fallen creatures. Resentment becomes corrosive to Augustine’s admonition to “rejoice together in the virtues of those who are better than we are”.
Sadly, today such resentment has become ubiquitous as critical theory has replaced rationality in its pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty. In his forthcoming book, The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self, Gil Bailie quotes John Senior:
The student who comes to his teacher and subject primed with what the modern university praises as the virtue of “critical intelligence,” …. rejecting a priori anything which will not stand some superficial dialectical and arbitrary test to tickle his curiosity–such a student may acquire the technology of science and the humanities but he will never experience the reason for either. Such a critical intelligence, whatever its use in the marketplace, is prophylactic of the beautiful, the good and the true.
Learning in the truly classical sense, writes Senior, requires that the student “become assimilated to the spiritual, intellectual and moral model of the teacher.”
Bailie notes, “It is hard to imagine a prospect more repugnant to contemporary pedagogy, but it is one that finds solid confirmation in the widespread appreciation for the value of good models, in the Catholic practice of the veneration of saints, and in René Girard’s anthropology of mimetic desire.”