I am not bashful about confronting incomprehensible phenomena; but some phenomena especially flabbergast me. Examples might be precognition and materialization, where the one upsets our idea of time and the other our idea of being and nothing. I’m not sure how to describe the example I want to describe in this post. This story is extra strange, and I don’t now how to classify it. It illustrates two things. Human beings can be unspeakably barbarous for unspeakably vile reasons. But human beings at the same time can produce phenomena that totally baffles the rational mind.
Another practical reason I want to call it to mention this--history is full of really strange stories. I am neither historian nor antiquarian but as an explorer of exotic mental phenomena, I want to remind others who still read what awaits them in the written records of humanity, if they follow their curiosity.
The following is an excerpt of a book I’m working on titled: Smile of the Universe: Miracles in an Age of Disbelief. (To be published by Anomalist Books.)
Edward Gibbon published The Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire in 1776, a book religionists attacked for its hostile stance toward Christianity. However, while busy lambasting all the “pious frauds,” Gibbon interrupts his narrative and writes: “Yet the historian who views this religious conflict with an impartial eye, may condescend to mention one preternatural event, which will edify the devout, and surprise the incredulous.” Tipasa, a maritime colony of Mauritania, known for the zealous orthodoxy of its people, had fought off the Donatists and the Arians. Most of the Catholic inhabitants had fled by boat to the coast of Spain from the onslaught of a heretical bishop. Hunneric, who was in Carthage, sent a military dispatch to Tipasa, and the rebellious Catholics were arrested. Brought before the inhabitants of the province, their right hands were cut off and their tongues cut out.
The sequel was attested by the African bishop, Victor Vitensis, in a publication two years after the event; apparently, they whose tongues had been excised continued to speak. In Tipasa, about seventy individuals who had their tongues removed continued to produce articulate speech. Gibbon accepted the historical testimony for these strange events and used the word “miracle” to describe them, quoting Victor: “If anyone should doubt of the truth, let him repair to Constantinople, and listen to the clear and perfect language of Restitutus, the subdeacon, one of these glorious sufferers, who is now lodged in the palace of the emperor Zeno, and is respected by the devout empress.” According to this report, the phenomenon was ongoing, there were multiple witnesses, and the witnesses were credible.
Gibbon states that he was astonished to find “a cool, a learned, and unexceptional witness, without interest, and without passion,” the Platonic philosopher Aeneus of Gaza, who described his observations: “I saw them myself: I heard them speak: I diligently inquired by what means such an articulate voice could be formed without any organ of speech: I used my eyes to examine the reports of my ears: I opened their mouth, and saw that the whole tongue had been completely torn away by the roots; an operation which the physicians generally suppose to be mortal.”
Gibbon refers to further evidence for this astonishing report in an edict issued by Justinian, an account in Marcellinus’s Chronicle of the times, and one of the dialogues of Gregory the Great. The enemies of Catholic orthodoxy, he notes, are prevented by an “incurable suspicion” from accepting the most “plausible evidence” for any Catholic miracle. Why? As Hume had observed, to admit such “miracles” would seem to authenticate Catholic orthodoxy and empower the dreaded Papism. Gibbon, who was anything but a Papist, saw this; still, he chose to include in his history an account of at least one report of something utterly strange and singular, with excellent eyewitness testimony of what Edward Gibbon himself calls a “miracle.” (See Edward Gibbon, (1891), History of Christianity, Eckler, p. 600.