Under This Sign

Human beings will often interpret and re-invent things so that those things aid them in a particular cause. Usually, those causes are military and political.

Before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine had a dream. It wasn’t a dream about racial equality as much as it was a dream about murdering quite a lot of people and sticking flags in their corpses so he could claim to be the victor.

As much as conflicts ever have winners—usually determined by the person who holds the territory and resources that the sides are fighting over when the smoke finally clears—those winners usually have to credit something with the reason they won. Or, more often, use a concept to justify the horrific crimes and loss of life that result from the fighting of the battle in the first place.

In any case, before there were piles of corpses on, underneath, and around the Milvian Bridge, Constantine had himself a dream—or, as some contend, a lucid vision. In that dream or vision, he looked up at the clouds and they slid happily aside. In the sky, a great burning cross appeared and a great, burning voice proclaimed that “Under this sign, you shall conquer.”

Constantine, having been apparently visited by God and been given his inspiration, ran to-and-fro forcing his legionaries to paint crosses on their shields and pray to the Christian God before the battle.

Constantine won the battle with the help of the Christian God, and forever after was one of Christianity’s most ardent champions. He would, himself, not be baptised until on his death bed late in the fourth century in Byzantium, sensibly realising that a baptism would miraculously cleanse all past sins. A Roman Emperor with so many skeletons in the closet that he needed an extra closet or two, Constantine the Great was probably quite pleased about all this.

One would hope he died grinning.

Later on, King Clovis of not-quite-Frankia-yet (what would come to be known as France) had a similar revelation. He was losing a battle against a tribe known as the Alamanni (who would later be called “Germans”) and glanced upward. Sighing a great sigh, and after much urging from his thoroughly Christian wife, he said something along the lines of, “Show me you can win battles for me, and I’m yours.”

I’m paraphrasing, probably.

The point is that almost immediately upon uttering this promise, the Alamannic lines broke and the Franks won the battle. Clovis would go on to unite a large portion of central Europe, and his progeny would eventually become known as the Merovingians, who would later give way to the Carolingians and the Holy Roman Emperors.

What’s the lesson in all this?

It’s not really a story about God helping a few guys out to advance his cause. Deities are still scientifically in doubt, but ideologically they are entirely sure things. Think of placebo effects. If you can fool yourself into thinking that a sugar tablet can cure you of serious and sometimes-fatal disease symptoms, what happens when you really believe that God has your back?

Do you fight a little harder? Push a little more? Work with that extra aggression that is the difference between winning and losing a fight?

Is that why we make differences between purists and non-purists? Is that why we have to weed out people who ask too many questions? After all, the placebo effect probably stops working if some annoying loudmouth keeps mentioning that it’s just a sugar pill.

Does it work similarly if some annoying loudmouth keeps producing notebooks filled with math that indicates that actually, the likelihood of a great beard in the sky is rather low? Or keeps running about disproving miracles? Or mentions that, really, demonic possession doesn’t seem likely?

What about if they mention that Mohammed was probably just another bloody warlord in a period full of them? Or that Jesus may have just been another poor person trying to explain to people why they shouldn’t hurt each other so much? Or that Marx may just not have wanted to work for a living?

On the other hand, if you wanted to really work this stuff, milk it for all the human-driving potential it had, wouldn’t you just never mention any of the negatives? That Islam is a religion of peace and always has been? That Christianity is just about helping out your fellow man? That Communism is actually about equality?

That globalism is really about integration?

It’s an interesting question, and as more and more of these ideals and ideologies get worked by a series of demagogues in the current world, it becomes germane because it starts to dictate policy right down to the personal level.

What you really need to do is make sure of what you’re being sold—and you’re always being sold something. Break it down, then build it back up. Ask too many questions. Be that annoying loudmouth when you need to be.

How do you apply it without principles, though? How can you know that these things are crimes unless you know what would constitute a crime? What I’m trying to get at, here, is that the key to understanding nearly anything is having something to come at it from. Some concrete base of personal understanding which, yes, while it can vary from person to person doesn’t mean you should. This is the thing about subjectivity—it’s not based in identity. Subjectivity claims that if someone thinks a certain action is a crime, then it is only for that person. This isn’t necessarily true, and nor is it true that mob rule should determine whether or not things are crimes.

We’ve tried that stuff before, and it doesn’t work out that great. Iron laws, from Hammurabi’s Code down to republican rules of law (constitutional documents) have proven the most successful at policing society. Even those, though, are mutable over time, and that’s why you should always build for yourself a series of principles that withstand inquiry.

That way, no matter what sign the enemy is under, you cannot be conquered.

You’ll thank yourself later, or your kids will.

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