Friday, December 09, 2005

The widening circle

Not long after she read my novel Valentine, a friend gave me a postcard reproduction of a popular late-19th-century painting called The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Leon Gerome. It depicts a scene in Rome's Circus Maximus during the reign of Nero. In the foreground, wild beasts emerge from a trap door in the arena floor. In the middle ground, a group of Christians of all ages and both genders kneel in prayer. In the background, other Christians smeared in pitch and bound to crosses are ignited one by one.

Of course, people are still martyred for their faith today, but it seems impossible to imagine the gratuitous murder of hundreds of people as mass entertainment, as was the case in Rome. This was the Rome of Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius, Seneca, Virgil, Cato, Cicero, Ovid and the Plinys; that is, a Rome we were taught to look upon as high civilization. It was this apparent contradiction between lofty ideals and base inhumanity that gave me the theme of Valentine.

Clearly something of the ravenous beast still lurks in each of us, perhaps in our genes, something that is satisfied by hunting, violent video games, murderous films, suicide bombings, and war. The anthropologist Margaret Mead defined civilization as the ever growing circle of those whom we do not kill. Will that circle ever expand to include every other human on the planet?

I walked out of the film Gladiator because I was made uncomfortable by the violence, even though a central character was the "saintly" Marcus Aurelius, who himself, after all, was no big fan of Christians. Would I have done the same from the Circus Maximus had I lived in Nero's time?

It seems that cultural influences such as Marcus Aurelius' Meditations and Christ's Sermon on the Mount take us only so far along the road to tolerance. What if scientists were to identify the gene or genes that incline us towards violence to the other. Would we choose to excise or chemically suppress such genes, assuming that were physically and socially possible, ushering in a Peaceable Kingdom on Earth? Or should we live with our demons and trust cultural evolution and our innate altruism to keep them in check?