Ignatius of Loyola: Lycurgus of the Jesuits

People who read the classical authors either love or hate Plutarch.  I love him—and am in good company, since Shakespeare loved him, too.

People who love Plutarch either love or hate his fondness for parallels between the Greeks and Romans.  I love it.  The modern mind rebels in the face of such simplification, but I don’t have the modern mind.

People who love Plutarch’s fondness for parallels, however, generally find a couple of his parallels a little unsatisfying.  I’m no exception—and I insist that one of the most unsatisfying of the parallels is the one between Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius, made because both were lawgivers.

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It’s not that the parallel is completely unjustified: there are some real similarities between Lycurgus, founder of the unique Spartan polity, and Numa.  And Plutarch even tries to show that Numa was of Spartan origin, since he was a Sabine and the Sabines represented themselves as an old Spartan colony.  But the laws and institutions established by Numa were not the ones that made the Romans distinctive in the eyes of their neighbors.  At any rate, it is difficult to attribute such centrality to the second king of Rome when the Romans in their glory were defined as a nation that hated kings.

Poor Plutarch just didn’t live in the right era.  If he had, he would have found a much better parallel.  St. Ignatius of Loyola—a Roman indeed in his religious commitment—founded the Jesuits almost exactly as Lycurgus founded the Spartan polity.  And we feel the effects today, though perhaps just barely.

Like the lawgiver of Sparta, Ignatius found his true calling in middle life.  Lycurgus found it in exile in Crete, Ignatius during his recovery from the impact of a cannonball that injured both legs.  Like Lycurgus, Ignatius took his examples from the past but transformed them into something so radically new that he inspired suspicion and jealousy.  And yet, despite their innovations, the Spartans of Lycurgus and the Jesuits of Loyola were both, in their heydays, recognized as the exemplars of their kind.  “All the Greeks know what is right,” said the old man at the Olympics.  “But only the Spartans do it.”  And John Donne, as Protestant controversialist, singled out the Jesuits for special opposition in Ignatius His Conclave.

Now that the religious controversies of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation are largely submerged in an ocean of indifference, even Catholics seem to have forgotten how greatly the Protestants feared the Jesuits.   The dread of Jesuit sophistication is well expressed, in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, when Errour vomits forth literature:

Therewith she spewed out of her filthy maw
A flood of poison horrible and black,
Full of great lumps of flesh and gobbets raw
Which stunk so vilely, that it forced him slack
His grasping hold, and from her turn him back:
Her vomit full of books and papers was,
With loathly frogs and toads, which eyes did lack.

When St. Robert Southwell arrived in England in 1586, intercepted communications identified him only as Robertus.  Elizabethan authorities took the newcomer for elder Jesuit Robert Parsons—and were terrified at the very thought of the Catholic havoc he might cause.  St. Peter Canisius was feared throughout the German-speaking world as the Catholic “Hammer of Heretics.”  And he did hammer them, too.

Jesuits were feared for the same reason Spartans were feared.  The Jesuits were a military order—and, just as Lycurgus organized the Spartan state to produce unparalleled hoplites, Ignatius organized the Jesuits to produce unparalleled soldiers of Christ.  The popular notion that Ignatius set aside warfare and became a man of peace after his conversion is entirely in error.  Ignatius just exchanged the sword for weapons that were far more terrible.

Outsiders faced with Spartans or Jesuits tended to react not just with terror but with dismay.  These opponents didn’t live the way other people did!  The Spartans reared boys and girls separately, not in the household.  They encouraged their boys to steal from the Helots in order to cultivate craftiness.  The Jesuits—and this was a resolution specifically dictated by St. Ignatius—swore to “believe that the white that I see is black if the hierarchical Church so defines it.”  No more scandalous utterance had ever been framed in the whole history of Christianity—not since Christ himself said: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”

Both Spartans and Jesuits, of course, reached their ascendancy and then faded.  Christianity offers orders within the Church no guarantees of everlasting influence.  It is enlightening but not uplifting to observe that the decay of the Spartans and the decay of the Jesuits proceeded from some of the same causes.  Though contempt for pleasure lay at the heart of both armies, worldliness finally crept into both.  Spartan leaders were ultimately subject to greed—and the later Jesuits, despite vows to the contrary, have not been immune.  Despite what you saw in the film 300, the Spartans always officially encouraged the peculiar Greek form of pederasty.  Long, long after Ignatius, some of the Jesuits were involved in a less idealized form of the same vice.  Amongst the Jesuits, as amongst all priests, it was only a tiny minority that fell into this practice.  But the tiny minority was enough.  The fruit of pederasty is fruitlessness.  Both the Spartans and the Jesuits, in their decay, suffered gravely from depopulation.

Yet we can truly say that the glory of both orders endures.  Just between you and me, I would have sided—as the Bible does—with the Persians over the Greeks.  But the laconic courage of the Spartans at Thermopylae is an example that can never be lightly set aside.  Who could fail to esteem the strength that inspired these lines of Housman’s?

The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.
And he that stands will die for nought, and home there’s no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

Even more powerful, the foundational document of the Jesuits—The Spiritual Exercises—is there for anyone to read.  Surely it will inspire more Christian soldiers.

It may even revivify the Jesuits.

  • Tom Riley

    For many years, Tom Riley was the Latin and literature teacher at Trinity Grammar and Prep in Napa, California. He is widely recognized as a poet of the formalist school.

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