According to ancient legend, Alexander the Great was born on the day that the second Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was destroyed by fire. The arson had been committed by Herostratus, allegedly because he wanted to immortalise his name. For his abominable crime he was not only executed but the authorities ordered that no one even mention the name of Herostratus again, on pain of death.
So was born the ancient practice of damnatio memoriae, literally meaning the condemnation of memory. Felons would have their names erased from history, and the Romans saw it as a punishment worse than death. In time, it was used not just to scrub out arsonists but defeated political opponents too.
It was the ancient world’s equivalent of state imposed political correctness, and its legacy is now taken up by the modern day statue vandals who seek to, from their own superior moral pulpits, condemn the memory of dead men who can’t defend themselves.
Last month, Stan Grant argued that the inscription on Captain Cook’s statue in Hyde Park should be changed because it was inspired by a Papal Bull issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452.
In his article for the ABC online, Stan Grant asked, ‘Where does it [the inscription on Captain Cook’s plaque] come from? In 1452 Pope Nicholas V sanctioned the conquest, colonisation and exploitation of all non-Christian peoples.’
The first point to make about this is how could something so absurd be taken seriously? Let’s get this straight, according to Stan Grant, a Church of England believing, rural farmhand (Captain Cook) was inspired to become an internationally renowned navigator by a Papal Bull, written in the 15th century by a Catholic Pope in Rome? By the way, the Papal Bull was written 300 years before Cook’s birth.
Cook himself named many Australian places (the Whitsundays, Trinity Bay and the Pentecost Islands) from an Anglican prayer book, not the Catechism. And, the NSW colony that emerged from Cook’s ventures was so anti-Catholic that it allowed just one Catholic priest in its first 30 years, and this priest was a convict!
The second point to make is that the problem with throwing a stone at an alleged sinner is that it can readily become a boomerang. When one starts using examples from more than 500 years ago, it is easy to condemn people before knowing the full facts. There might even be a word for such ill-informed conclusions – bigotry. That the Catholic Church was far from perfect in the 15th century hardly requires a proof, but Stan Grant condemns without context and in doing so shows his (unsurprising) ignorance of the middle ages.
The 1452 Papal Bull in question, Dum Diversas, did mention the things Mr Grant claimed but did so in reference to the overseas territories of the Saracens. The Saracens were at the time conducting rampant imperialism of their own, Islamic style. By the early 1450s they were at the gates of Constantinople.
Pope Nicholas V was desperate to convince European powers to come to the aid of the dying Byzantine Empire. Dum Diversas was a futile attempt to convince the Portuguese to defend Christendom. Pope Nicholas did get the Portuguese to half-heartedly send some ships east, but they were too late. Constantinople fell in 1453. The threat to Europe from eastern invasion would not be defeated for another 200 years at the Battle of Vienna in 1683.
Still, Pope Nicholas V erred by trying to trade off one sin for another, but criticism of Western culture is so often one-sided. Critics rarely mention that Popes, other than Nicholas, condemned slavery in the 1430s (long before Columbus and in reference to the Canary Islands). And, in 1537 Pope Paul II wrote, in another Papal Bull Subliminus Dei, that ‘… the Indians themselves indeed are true men … [We] decree and declare by these present letters that the same Indians and all other peoples – even though they are outside the faith … are not to be reduced to slavery.’
The history of the Catholic Church is far from unblemished but then who is without sin? Why do so many apply a reverse double standard when it comes to judging the guilt of our forebears? The Left are so desperate to find fault with Europeans that our history is forensically held up for judgement. Then a free pass is given to other cultures that have practised the same type of imperialism, or even worse crimes.
For them it is an unmitigated evil that European powers launched the Crusades, but they make no mention of the almost 500 years of Muslim aggression before that.
If we are going to take moral lessons from history then all sides deserve to have the mirror held up to them. No human culture is perfect because man is not perfect, but some cultures are better than others.
The culture that drove Captain Cook to rise from rural England to discover the wider world is a good culture that should be promoted and cherished. The pedants are trying to destroy all mystery and excitement from our history. Captain Cook did discover uncharted waters. He tapped the human curiosity that looks at the horizon and wonders ‘what is over there?’ He lost his life on these endeavours. His amazing story should be held up as an example to young boys and girls who love to discover their local environment for the first time.
The real problem with seeking to rewrite history is not what it does to the past but how it poisons the present. Gleefully pointing out the sins of another allows the accuser to hide from his or her own deficiencies. There is much truth in the old saying of John Howard that a conservative is someone who does not think they are morally superior to their grandfather. There is plenty wrong with modern society, family breakdown, the killing of innocent unborn children and rampant dysfunction in indigenous communities. Condemning the past, especially from a false platform of moral superiority, allows us to dangerously hide from these ills.
Political correctness is not about the present. It is about controlling how we view the past, and as George Orwell said ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’
The statue vandals can do much damage in the short term but in the long term they won’t win. Herostratus has his own Wikipedia entry. As far as I can tell, those who condemned him do not. The one positive from the defacing of statues is that more people are learning of the remarkable life of Captain Cook. As long as we continue to rekindle the flame of our heritage, the vandals will lose.
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