Procopius and the Amity/Enmity Complex

Sir Arthur Keith was the first to formulate a coherent theoretical explanation for the dual nature of human morality; our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, with different versions of morality pertaining to each. As he put it,

A tribesman’s sympathies lie within the compass of his own tribe; beyond his tribe, begin his antipathies; he discriminates in favor of his own tribe and against all others. This means also that the tribesman has two rules of behavior, one towards those of his group and another to the members of other groups. He has a dual code of morality: a code of “amity” for his fellows; a code of indifference, verging into “enmity,” towards members of other groups or tribe.

According to Keith, this aspect of our behavior played a critical role in our evolution:

I shall seek to prove… that obedience to the dual code is an essential factor in group evolution. Without it there could have been no human evolution.

We are all still tribesmen today. We just have a vastly expanded set of criteria for deciding who belongs to our “tribe,” and who doesn’t. Of course, given the radically different environment we live in today, it can hardly be assumed that the behavior in question will enhance the odds of our survival as it did in the distant past. Indeed, various versions of the behavior have been deemed harmful, and therefore “evil,” including racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. All are manifestations of the same basic behavior. Human beings are typically found justifying their own irrational hatred by claiming that the “other” is guilty of one of these “officially recognized” forms of irrational hatred. Unaware of the underlying behavior, they are incapable of recognizing that they are just as “tribal” as those they attack.

Manifestations of this behavior are easier to recognize in the distant past, now that the criteria that once distinguished ingroup from outgroup no longer arouse the same furious passions as they once did. Some excellent examples may be found in the work of Procopius, a very entertaining byzantine historian who served as an advisor to the great general Belisarius during the reign of Justinian I. Perhaps the best of these is the rivalry between the Blues and Greens of the circus. According to Procopius,

In every city the population has been divided for a long time past into the Blue and Green factions; but within comparatively recent times it has come about that, for the sake of these names and the seats which the rival factions occupy in watching the games, they spend their money and abandon their bodies to the most cruel tortures, and even do not think it unworthy to die a most shameful death. And they fight against their opponents knowing not for what end they imperil themselves, but knowing well that, even if they overcome their enemy in the fight, the conclusion of the matter for them will be to be carried off straightway to the prison, and finally, after suffering extreme torture, to be destroyed. So there grows up in them against their fellow men a hostility which has no cause, and at no time does it cease or disappear, for it gives place neither to the ties of marriage nor of relationship nor of friendship, and the case is the same even though those who differ with respect to these colors be brothers or any other kin. They care neither for things divine nor human in comparison with conquering in these struggles; and it matters not whether a sacrilege is committed by anyone at all against God, or whether the laws and the constitution are violated by friend or by foe; nay even when they are perhaps ill supplied with the necessities of life, and when their fatherland is in the most pressing need and suffering unjustly, they pay no heed if only it is likely to go well with their “faction”; for so they name the bands of partisans. And even women join with them in this unholy strife, and they not only follow the men, but even resist them if opportunity offers, although they neither go to the public exhibitions at all, nor are they impelled by any other cause; so that I, for my part, am unable to call this anything except a disease of the soul. This, then, is pretty well how matters stand among the people of each and every city.

“A disease of the soul,” indeed! It’s too bad Procopius didn’t know about Darwin. He was a brilliant man. If he’d known about natural selection it may well have dawned on him what was going on. Is it really that hard to recognize the behavior he describes among the Blues and Greens of our own day? He had no more patience with the abstruse doctrinal disputes of the Christian divines than with the factions of the circus. The fine points of dogma that distinguished ingroup from outgroup in these disagreements were once the cause of much bloodshed, including outright warfare. Today few remember them outside of theological seminaries. Here’s Procopius’ account of one such dispute:

…there came from Byzantium to the chief priest of Rome two envoys, Hypatius, the priest of Ephesus, and Demetrius, from Philippi in Macedonia, to confer about a tenet of faith, which is a subject of disagreement and controversy among the Christians. As for the points in dispute, although I know them well, I shall by no means make mention of them; for I consider it a sort of insane folly to investigate the nature of God, enquiring of what sort it is. For man cannot, I think, apprehend even human affairs with accuracy, much less those things which pertain to the nature of God. As for me, therefore, I shall maintain a discreet silence concerning these matters, with the sole object that old and venerable beliefs may not be discredited. For I, for my part, will say nothing whatever about God save that He is altogether good and has all things in His power. But let each one say whatever he thinks he knows about these matters, both priest and layman.

Elsewhere he recounts how, with the exception of a single company led by a Goth named Amalafridus who had been appointed a Roman commander, an army sent by Justinian to aid his Lombard allies against their enemies was actually diverted to deal with a war that had broken out over a similar dispute:

…not a man of that army reached the Lombards except this Amalafridas with his command. For the others, by direction of the emperor, stopped at the city of Ulpiana in Illyricum, since a civil war had arisen among the inhabitants of that place concerning those matters over which the Christians fight among themselves.

In short, the ingroup/outgroup aspect of our behavior so well described by Sir Arthur Keith was just as prevalent in Procopius’ day as it is now, and the denizens of our modern “factions” are just as convinced as the Blues and Greens of the circus that their enthusiasms and hatreds are perfectly rational. I have my doubts.

There is no moral to Procopius’ story. What he describes about human behavior is an “is,” not an “ought.” However, it can occasionally be useful to be aware of things that are true.

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