There is something captivating about the story of Claudius Pulcher (The Beautiful) and the sacred chickens. It is a story that contains some of the most classic elements of narrative. There is hubris, there is a battle, there is tragedy, and there are finicky chickens, and offended priests. We even have a witty protagonist. When the chickens refused to eat and the priests would not allow him to go into battle, Claudius said as he tossed them overboard, “Let them drink instead.” What is not to delight the reader? But for me there is also a strange and niggling question. Was the sentence of Claudius for tossing the sacred chickens overboard a just one? The end of the story is a little bizarre for the modern reader. Was he fined for his defeat or for his sacrilege? Would he even have been brought up on charges if he had not lost? Would his action have been excused by the gods if he had been victorious?
This may seem to be a silly story about silly people who believed that chickens could tell you when to go to battle. I have hens and they are the last creatures I would ask such a question. They are afraid of everything as well they should be in their position at the bottom of the food chain. And if I were a greater or lesser god myself, I can’t imagine that I would be tremendously concerned about influencing the digestive tracts of chickens. (Although if there are such beings, I wish I could get them to influence my chickens to quit crapping on the back porch). We are at a temporal, philosophical and theological distance from this story that makes it rather opaque. In fact, one of my first and strongest reactions to the story was a relief that I don’t live in a time and place where a religious observance involving chickens could come that close to getting me executed.
The one question that comes to me again and again is this one: would Claudius have gone to trial for sacrilege if he had won the battle? Of course, I don’t know the answer, but I bet he wouldn’t have. At the very least, I think the consequences would have been a lot less onerous. Why? I think it’s because Claudius’ fate depended at least partly on luck and circumstances beyond his control. The argument seems a little circular from my perspective. Claudius was wrong because he angered the gods and we know we are right to say he angered the gods because he lost the battle. How serious was his crime? Was it judged in part on the outcome of his action.
I suppose that in the ancient Roman world, the senate and the priests might never have made the distinction that I am attempting to make. I think that fulfilling one’s role and achieving the required results of that role were considered the best way to judge whether the gods approved of you and thus how others in society should view you as well. In A Short History of Ethics, Alasdair MacIntyre says that “The society reflected in the Homeric poems is one in which the most important judgments that can be passed on a man concern the way he discharges his allotted social function.” Perhaps, that is the attitude with which Romans of that era would have judged Claudius; I am not an expert on the subject. If so, the fact that he lost the battle would have been enough to show that he had displeased the gods, had he won it, it might be assumed that the gods had their own reasons for accepting him or that they were not grievously offended by a few swimming chickens. Certainly, the senate could have been convinced that all’s well that ends well.
And as a modern human being I can’t help but think that that is not fair. Justice and luck should not be irrevocably enmeshed. Being a social or economic “failure” doesn’t mean a person is a moral failure. This belief that circumstances beyond our control, like social class or lack of education or gender or race or simply the bad luck of getting hurt on the job don’t reflect our worth or morality is reflected in ideas like the American Dream, the idea that anyone can succeed in life regardless of previous circumstances. But unfortunately, I think we are just as likely to turn this idea on its head as the Romans were. Instead of believing in the foundation of the dream that everyone, regardless of former circumstances should have a chance, the pursuit of happiness, the idea that individuals must be judged individually on merit, we have emphasized the possibility of success provided by the dream. We allow the outcome to provide the entire story. We do in fact judge others on by the outcomes of their lives without ever stopping to consider the circumstances that led up to that outcome.
We tend to believe that we have vanquished the petty gods of the past in the way that Rome conquered Carthage in the end, completely and without any fear of return. But I think this impulse to judge others based on the whims of fate, on the outcome of circumstances beyond their control, and I will argue based on a kind of superstition, is innate to humanity. It is a sort of immortal demon and it crops up again and again. It is like the perennial weeds in my garden, never gone, never vanquished. We must pull them up day after day after day. (I should probably display a picture of my garden here as a sort of warning about what happens when you don’t pull up the weeds, but frankly it’s embarrassing.)
In the next few blogs I would like to consider our need to judge people based on things that are beyond their control. Why does this impulse spring up again and again and how does it prevent us from being the kind of moral people that most of us (not all) seem to think that we are?