The “Via Media”

Is it possible to please everyone in a speech or in any interpersonal encounter such as in a conversation? Taking a middle path that gives no offence is easier said than done. Perhaps one way to explore this route is to look at how others fared when no practical solution seemed available. Let’s take one such story of Themistius, a court orator, as our example (See Heather, Peter, et al. Politics, Philosophy and Empire: selected orations of Themistius, (trans), Liverpool University Press, 2001).

Themistius, a fourth century philosopher, court orator and senator, found himself caught in a compromising role when asked to deliver a panegyric to the new emperor, Jovian (363-‘64 AD). The problem was simply that the patricians at the Roman court had remained part of the old Roman religious traditions where the unity of ‘imperium’ and ‘sacerdotium’ was expected, while the new emperor was a Christian.  For these patricians, the old religious practices were part of everyday social and political life.

But when a new emperor, Jovian, was chosen, this situation became an issue. As we said, in the Roman Empire ‘throne and altar’ were united, with the emperor being the Pontifex Maximus.  What was the court orator, Themistius, to do?  As a senator and patrician he belonged to the old religious tradition and everyone knew it, and now there was a Christian emperor. How could he deliver a successful panegyric which traditionally praised both roles of emperors?  He had to avoid offending either side, and the topic could not be changed.

Themistius, an Aristotelian philosopher, naturally sought a middle path, but how could he invent a middle path between two different views of the unity of ‘imperium’ and ‘sacerdotium’, given the strong feelings of the patricians on one side, and the rather over enthusiastic Christian Emperor on the other?

Themistius picked the obvious role of religious toleration. But this was easier said than done, as ‘imperium’ and ‘sacerdotium’ were linked in people’s minds. What Themistius did was seek out was what united both sides, and he came up with a simple unifying theme of economic prosperity and social progress. Then he linked these with good civil order (which both sides desired) and, finally and very briefly, with the topic of the unity of ‘imperium’ and ‘sacerdotium’. In this way, he shifted the emphasis of his speech from the contentious issue of ‘altar and state’ to one of prosperity and social progress. Was he successful in pleasing both sides?  Well although history is written by the victors, it seems he passed the test.

Perhaps we can learn from Themistius and seek out what unites people, rather than forcing them on to one side of the fence or the other, even though we may privately think otherwise, as Themistius obviously did.