Meet Pelagius (Twice)

I owe this post to Liz Hand, who posted a NY Times article to her Farcebook feed. It was about Kid Fascist, one of the leaders of the Trumpist faction in the Senate. Like many of his kind, our boy is deeply into justifying his hideous policies through appeal to ancient wisdom. According to the article, he places the blame for all of the problems of the modern world in the lap of a man called Pelagius.

Who? You can be forgiven for not knowing this name, but back in the 4th Century CE he was at the heart of a battle for the soul of the young Christian church. On one side we have Saint Augustine of Hippo, the man who invented the doctrine of Original Sin. (Well maybe not quite invented — he wasn’t the only one with those ideas, but his advocacy made it church doctrine.) Ranged against him was Pelagius who held that humans were born free of sin, and had free will to decide whether to sin or not. The Pelagian philosophy lead to the idea that people are free to chose their own lives, whereas Augustine held that only through submission to divine authority, as represented by the church, could we be saved from sin. You can see why Augustine’s views are attractive to wannabe dictators, can’t you? They appealed to the Pope as well.

Augustine, who should not be confused with Saint Augustine of Cantebury, the man who was sent to Britain to convert Angles into Angels, was also a homophobe. I know this because I am fond of quote this passage of his about an event in his home city of Carthage:

“These effeminates … going through the streets … with anointed hair, whitened faces, relaxed bodies, and feminine gait”

That would be Carthage Pride, otherwise known as the Festival of Tanit, a Phoenician goddess who has a lot in common with the great and glorious Inanna/Ishtar, from whom all queerness flows. So thank you, Augustine for that lovely piece of evidence, but you are an awful person. I much prefer Pelagius. But then I would.

Before I explain why, I did promise you two people called Pelagius. The other one is better known as Saint Pelagia. The person who was sanctified under this name was assigned female at birth, and using the name Margarita, became a successful actress in the city of Antioch. As we know from the life of the Empress Theodora, in those days the job of actress involved a lot of sex work, but Margarita was good at it and apparently very rich. Then came a chance encounter with the local bishop, a man called Nonnus. This led to Margarita giving their wealth to the church and becoming a Christian.

However, the new convert did not behave as expected. Instead of submitting to the rule of Nonnus, they stole away from the city, cut their hair, donned male clothing, and started a new life as a eunuch hermit. This Pelagius became a famous holy man. Sadly the life of a religious aesthetic is not easy, and after a few years Pelagius died of starvation, at which point their past life became known.

We don’t know the dates of the life of this Pelagius, or even if they were a real person, but it is definitely possible that they lived later than the other Pelagius. Their official biography states that their birth name was Pelagia, but then who would want a saint who chose to use the name of an infamous heretic? Given their behaviour, it seems to me entirely likely that Margarita would have taken the name of a holy man who believed that people should live true and authentic lives, and find their own way to God.

By the way, cisgender historians looking at this story will almost always point at Margarita’s successful career as an actress and courtesan, and legendary beauty, as evidence that this could not be a trans person. We trans folk know that adopting extreme gender-stereotypical behaviour is a common tactic that some of us adopt in order to try to cure ourselves of unwelcome and dangerous feelings about our gender.

So we have two people called Pelagius, one of whom might have been trans, and the other whose philosophy can be seen as defending the right to self-actualisation. That’s pretty neat, but I have another reason to be fond of Pelagius I. You see, he was British. That is, he came from the Roman province of Britannia. His name is widely accepted to be a Greek version of his original name in his native language. In Greek his name means “the sea”. Which means that in the language of the native Britons his name would have been something like Morgan.