Episode 53: Secular, Sacred, and Profane

As visitors to the U.S. Capitol building rotunda look upwards to the domed ceiling 180′ high above their heads, their gaze is met by “The Apotheosis of George Washington,” a spectacular 1865 fresco painting by Constantino Brumidi. Covering more than 4,000 square feet of the domed surface, the scene depicts George Washington in “apotheosis,” a greek word that means ascending to heaven like a god. Washington is flanked by a bevy of female forms, including, to either side of him, Liberty and Fame, along with 13 angelic beauties who complete the divine circle, each of whom represent one of the 13 colonies from the American Revolution. Bathed in mystic heavenly grandeur, the deified Washington represents the merging of the secular with the sacred in the casting of mythic national and imperial histories.

Our History

Attention class, today we are having a quiz. It is a winner-take-all-quiz, so that if you answer the question correctly you’ll pass the podcast with a perfect grade. If, however, you should select the wrong answer then you will fail and be condemned to live out the remainder of your days listening exclusively to self-help podcasts. Don’t worry, it’s multiple choice so you have a decent 1 in 4 chance of guessing correctly. 

    The question is:  Which of the following correctly describes an essential element of virtually any imperial or national history? 

A. Secular.

B. Sacred.

C. Profane.

D. All of the above.

Did not answer “D. All of the Above”? Well don’t feel bad, listening to self-help podcasts is surely a worthwhile way to live your life.

   Recording this episode on the anniversary of the January 6, 2021 Capitol Insurrection, we felt obligated to make sense of the inevitable swelling up of nausea that memories of the day are sure to inspire, and the proportional part played by the national history and imperial history stories we tell ourselves in making and keeping us sick. Our diagnosis? Those stories are toxic and we are being poisoned. Our prescription? Tell truer and better stories. 

   Think of us as your friendly neighborhood history pharmacists, and from Emperor Aurangzeb to George Washington, we have the dosage you need to cure your history headache.

Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707) with falcon. The last of the great Mughal dynasts, Aurangzeb has often confounded history’s efforts to classify him as either sacred or secular, as a religious crusader or pragmatic politico.

Click to hear Episode 53 Secular, Sacred, and Profane

Sources Referenced and Items of Interest

Mdou Moctar, “Can Colonialism Be Overcome?” (December 6, 2021 New York Times)

Barbara D. and Thomas R. Metcalfe, A Concise History of Modern India (2001)

William A. Christian, Jr., Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain (1989)

Gordon Wood, Review of Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions (September 6, 2016 NYT)

Phillis Wheatley – Poems, Biography (www.biography.com)

Q&A with Jennifer Morgan, Author of Reckoning With Slavery

Pankaj Mishra, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire (2020)

“Too often as historians we have allowed power to tell the story.”

Josh Weiner

%d bloggers like this: