Saturday, July 20, 2013

And Listen to the Deep and Solemn Roar

Written on the Sea Shore, Oct. 1784.
by Charlotte Turner Smith


On some rude fragment of the rocky shore,
Where on the fractured cliff the billows break,
Musing, my solitary seat I take,
And listen to the deep and solemn roar.

O'er the dark waves the winds tempestuous howl;
The screaming sea-bird quits the troubled sea:
But the wild gloomy scene has charms for me,
And suits the mournful temper of my soul.

Already shipwreck'd by the storms of Fate,
Like the poor mariner methinks I stand,
Cast on a rock; who sees the distant land
From whence no succour comes--or comes too late.
Faint and more faint are heard his feeble cries,
Till in the rising tide the exhausted sufferer dies.

Like all of Charlotte Turner Smith's Elegiac Sonnets, this is not exactly cheerful. On the other hand, she put the Elegiac Sonnets together while in debtor's prison with her profligate and violent husband, so expecting cheerful would not be entirely reasonable. No doubt life at the time did feel like it had something of the frantic but inevitable doom of a rising tide coming to drown a man who can see the shore but never reach it. The Elegiac Sonnets marks an important point in the history of English poetry, though, since Smith's use of the sonnet showed Romantic poets like Wordsworth the potential of the form, which is why she is often considered the first significant Romantic poet writing in English.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Competent Work in Quiet

So, suppose you are a bestselling author, and not just a bestselling author but a blockbuster author whose name on a book creates explosive sales. You are, however, essentially typecast as an author of a certain kind of book, the kind that made you unbelievably famous, and whenever you try to branch out, people buy your books because of your name, but you are savaged by critics and reviewers. So what do you do? You submit a work under a pseudonym, in a different genre. It takes some time to get it accepted, because it doesn't come with that magic name, but when it finally is, it turns out to be a modest success. It doesn't have the explosive sales that you could get with your real name on the cover, but the sales are solid, being exactly what you'd expect of a book successful in an ordinary way in that genre, and, what is more, the reviews are actually quite good. Your plan is working: you are showing that you have actual writing chops that people will find at least respectable in their own right, that it is not merely the fluke of having become unbelievably famous with your first books, and that much of that critical savaging was nothing more than people trying to make a name as a critic at the expense of an author of name, rather than a genuine indictment of your abilities. But it eventually leaks out that Robert Galbraith, up and coming mystery author with a very promising first novel in the field and another book already sold, is J. K. Rowling. (It's happened before; Stephen King famously published for years under the name Richard Bachmann, and was also a mid-level success as such. Once it came out that Bachmann was King, Bachmann's sales exploded, because King as King had a massively larger market, but Bachmann's sales were already brisk and increasing. The Bachmann name, like the Galbraith name for Rowling, gave King a chance to play around a bit with new things without any of the hype or expectation.)

I've always thought Rowling, despite the defects of some of her work (they are, after all, early novels, however famous they became, and after the first, novels published under extraordinary pressure), was not quite given a fair shake as an author in some quarters, but this whole thing makes me like her even more: there is something very heartening about a blockbuster novelist deliberately not using her name just so she can try her hand at doing some competent work in quiet.

Macrina the Younger: Teacher, Philosopher, Saint

Today is the feast of St. Macrina the Younger. Sainthood doesn't generally run in families, although there are occasionally families with quite a few saints, like the Árpad dynasty of Hungary, for instance. But one of the greatest of all families of saints was that of St. Macrina the Elder. We do not know much about her, except that she and her husband (whose name we do not even know) were confessors, having suffered for the Faith. They had at least one son, Basil, whom we know as St. Basil the Elder. He married a woman named Emmelia, whom we know as St. Emmelia, whose parents seem to have both been martyrs whose names are no longer known, and Basil, Emmelia, and Macrina the Elder moved to Caesarea and became active participants in the life there. Basil and Emmelia had nine, possibly ten, children. (This may be counting children who died in childbirth.) We know the names of five of them, because they are all preserved in the calendar of saints: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Peter of Sebaste, Naucratius, and Macrina the Younger. (Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa are, of course, two of the three Cappadocian Fathers, the third being Basil's friend from an early age, Gregory Nazianzen.) Macrina the Younger was the oldest child. She seems to have had an especially close relationship with Gregory, and it is especially because of him that we know as much about her as we do; without Gregory we would perhaps know no more about her than we know about her grandmother, but he wrote two important theological works in which she is front and center: Life of Macrina and On the Soul and Resurrection. While Gregory's editorial hand should not be ignored (the Life is hagiography and On the Soul and Resurrection is at least partly modeled on Plato's Phaedo), we have every reason to believe that he is being accurate in his account of her, within the limitations of genre conventions. St. Gregory says of her, in the Life, that she raised herself by philosophy to the highest virtue, and that because of this he intends to save her name from oblivion.

Emmelia saw to it that Macrina was educated, but the primary foundation of this education Scriptural rather than classical. The difference is perhaps less than might be thought; Gregory notes the Wisdom of Solomon as being particularly important in the young girl's upbringing. This is actually quite important for Gregory's second work on Macrina: the Wisdom of Solomon, a philosophical work that arose in the context of Hellenistic Judaism, argues against Epicurean materialism, and insists that "God created us for immortality, and made us in the image of His own eternity" (Wis. 2:23). Gregory notes that the Psalms were also especially important for her, and that she prayed them daily. Basil Senior arranged a marriage with a suitable young man, but the young man died before the marriage could take place, and from that point Macrina refused to accept any other marriage proposals, saying that her betrothed was only absent, living before God's face because of the resurrection of the dead. She took care of her mother. Her brother Basil, the oldest of her younger brothers, went off to school and came back a bit full of himself, but, says Gregory, Macrina soon put an end to that:

He was puffed up beyond measure with the pride of oratory and looked down on the local dignitaries, excelling in his own estimation all the men of leading and position. Nevertheless Macrina took him in hand, and with such speed did she draw him also toward the mark of philosophy that he forsook the glories of this world and despised fame gained by speaking, and deserted it for this busy life where one toils with one's hands.

The second brother, Naucratius, became a holy hermit, but suddenly and unexpectedly died from illness while doing his usual rounds, by which he provided for old men and women living in poverty. Naucratius had been one of Macrina's favorite brothers, but she refused to give in to her grief and instead devoted herself to supporting Emmelia in hers. As time passed, Macrina and Emmelia devoted themselves to a more and more ascetic life, allowing themselves no more and no better than what slaves were typically given. You have to keep in mind throughout this that the ascetic life in this period is a philosophical practice: one denied oneself in order to focus one's mind on the most fundamental truths.

Macrina seems to have largely been the one to take care of Gregory and Peter. Indeed, this is precisely what Gregory says of Peter:

At one and the same time he received the names of son and orphan, for as he entered this life his father passed away from it. But the eldest of the family, the subject of our story, took him soon after birth from the nurse's breast and reared him herself and educated him on a lofty system of training, practising him from infancy in holy studies, so as not to give his soul leisure to turn to vain things. Thus having become all things to the lad---- father, teacher, tutor, mother, giver of all good advice----she produced such results that before the age of boyhood had passed, when he was yet a stripling in the first bloom of tender youth, he aspired to the high mark of philosophy.

Emmelia eventually died, and, some years after, Basil as well. Within a year of Basil's death, Gregory set out to visit his sister, and discovered her on her own deathbed. Well, she was not in a bed; Macrina lived ascetically and slept on the floor. But she was dying. Nonetheless, she greeted him cheerfully and they had a conversation:

And just as we learn in the story of Job that the saint was tormented in every part of his body with discharges owing to the corruption of his wounds, yet did not allow the pain to affect his reasoning power, but in spite of the pains in the body did not relax his activities nor interrupt the lofty sentiments of his discourse----similarly did I see in the case of this great woman. Fever was drying up her strength and driving her on to death, yet she refreshed her body as it were with dew, and thus kept her mind unimpeded in the contemplation of heavenly things, in no way injured by her terrible weakness. And if my narrative were not extending to an unconscionable length I would tell everything in order, how she was uplifted as she discoursed to us on the nature of the soul and explained the reason of life in the flesh, and why man was made, and how he was mortal, and the origin of death and the nature of the journey from death to life again. In all of which she told her tale clearly and consecutively as if inspired by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the even flow of her language was like a fountain whose water streams down uninterruptedly.

She died and Gregory performed the rites.

While Gregory had no chance to write down his discourse with Macrina in the Life, he returns to the subject in On the Soul and Resurrection. Again, we have to keep in mind that Gregory is stylizing somewhat in accordance with the genre he is writing, but, again, we have no reason to think that he is not giving us at least the substance of Macrina's views. In this dialogue he calls her "the Teacher". Having come upon her in her illness, he says, he was extremely dejected. She humored this for a while, then, admonished him to remember that the Apostle Paul had said we should not grieve for those who are asleep, as men without hope do. In distress, Gregory responds by asking how it is even possible for a human being to practice their life in such a way, given how terrible everyone recognizes death to be.

Macrina tells him to leave aside what everyone says and say in particular what he finds unbearable about death. When Gregory begins to talk about the awfulness of seeing life leave the body and not knowing what happens to it, Macrina cuts him off in surprise, saying that he surely does not believe that the soul ends with the body's dissolution. Gregory says that in his grief he responded rather boldly, saying that as far as he could see, the belief that the soul lasts forever depended solely on divine commands and not on any reasoning, so even if the mind accepts that the soul lasts forever, we cannot help but be in doubt as far as our natural impulse goes. Macrina, however, will have none of it:

Away, she cried, with that pagan nonsense! For therein the inventor of lies fabricates false theories only to harm the Truth. Observe this, and nothing else; that such a view about the soul amounts to nothing less than the abandoning of virtue, and seeking the pleasure of the moment only; the life of eternity, by which alone virtue claims the advantage, must be despaired of.

To which Gregory responds by asking how we could possibly have a firm belief in this that would be adequate to the life of virtue, asking her what could possibly be said against the materialist view. This brings us to the first major part of the dialogue, Macrina's argument for the immortality of the soul. There are several stages, but the essential thread is that the materialist view depends crucially on giving an excessive weight to the senses and insufficient weight to the intellect, without which we cannot understand the true character of the sensible world. On the basis of this she points out that once you believe in a God, you have already established that there is a stable immaterial and intelligible world, and thus it makes no sense to balk at the immortality of the soul. When Gregory points out that a person might well have doubts about the existence of God, Macrina responds that the entire world is an argument for God's existence. She develops this point at some length, and concludes that if our external senses recognize the sensible world and we can conclude that there is an immaterial God, we have no reason to shortchange our internal sense of our own minds, which give us reason to conclude that something about us is a matter not of the sensible world, in which we find decomposition and decay, but the intelligible world.

Macrina develops this analogy at some length, arguing that it is founded in the fact that in sensing itself we go beyond sensing, because sensing would tell us practically nothing if we did not also have intellectual understanding. To this Gregory asks her how she would respond to someone saying that in fact this intellectual understanding is all a matter of an impulse the body; and Macrina reponds by saying that if a materialist is actually willing to say this much, they have practically conceded the point, since this is as much as to claim that there is some non-sensible mental cause governing the sensible body but distinct from it in the strict sense, given that you can have the body without the impulse. When Gregory protests that this is more a matter of saying what the mind is not than what it is, Macrina replies that the two are not distinct. If I say that something that exists is not something else, I am interpreting its nature; as, for instance, if I say that a man is without guile, I have actually said something about what his character is. But the materialist has, ex hypothesi, conceded that there is a mind; this mind he claims is an impulse in the body, but that in itself requires that it be distinct from the body as such. This impulse in the body is known not by sensation but by reasoning, and thus is not sensed. To get to the impulse he has to be taking it as a cause. So we already are getting a picture of the mind: it is an unsensed perceptive cause governing the body and not strictly identifiable with it. Even if such a materialist were to try to salvage his position by additional assumptions, he has already given away the primary reason most people ever have to believe that the soul ends with the body, by making it something whose existence, being non-sensible, cannot be ruled out simply because the sensible processes usually indicating it have stopped. In other words, you can't have it both ways: either the mind is such that it just is the sensible processes, which requires denying our having any intellectual insight into our minds at all, or it can't be identified with them, and then one cannot have an argument for its mortality that is dependent entirely on those sensible processes themselves.

This is only about a fifth of the way through the dialogue, but I think it serves to give a general sense of it. It should be noted, incidentally, that analogues of Macrina's argument are found today, although it's usually not immortality itself that is in question; and it has been argued -- by materialist philosophers who have no sympathy whatsoever with Macrina's conclusion -- that at least many common forms of materialism make precisely the sort of mistake she notes: they concede to the mind features that effectively give away the store. This is not to say, of coruse, that modern materialists are making Neoplatonist arguments, but that in fact Macrina's argument, and arguments analogous to it, genuinely identify a potential failure-point of materialism that materialists must specifically build their materialisms to avoid.

Both of Gregory's works deserve to be read more widely than they are, and Macrina the Teacher herself deserves more study. I've only barely touched on the surface here, but one of the reasons I've gone to some length about it is in the hope that other people will dig a little deeper.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Thursday Vice: Boorishness

Boorishness or loutishness is, in the context of virtue ethics, the vice of defect opposed to eutrapelia, the virtue concerned with proper amusements. Its recognition as a vice has a long history, going back to Aristotle, who recognized eutrapelia as one of the eleven vices he discusses in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle has relatively few comments on boorishness, however; besides identifying it as the vice of defect opposed to the virtue of eutrapelia and its opposing vice of excess, frivolousness or buffoonery, he also tells us that the boorish person both does not make jokes himself and objects to other people making them and contributes nothing to the amusement and relaxation of human life, despite the fact that these are necessary to it. The basic idea seems to be not that the boor is merely humorless, but that he is humorless in a way that imposes on others; he attacks people for making completely unobjectionable jokes. That is, it's not about funniness, nor about the ability to get funny jokes. Rather, it's about the refusal to allow space for joking at all. Beyond this, we get very little in Aristotle or anyone else, as far as I know, until Aquinas.

Aquinas's categorization of eutrapelia is somewhat complex. It is associated with temperance as its principal virtue. One of the potential parts of temperance is modestia, which might perhaps be translated as 'appropriateness'. Potential parts are associate virtues, having a great deal in common with their principal virtue, but distinct from it in some circumstance. Thus modestia is a kind of temperance-in-a-broad-sense. It has what appears to be three subjective parts or species: appropriateness in serious changes of body, appropriateness in playful changes of body, and appropriateness in outward apparel. Eutrapelia is the second. As in Aristotle, boorishness is the vice of defect, and, in fact, Aquinas usually just calls it the vice of defect in play, rather than any other name. Aquinas's eutrapelia is arguably somewhat broader than Aristotle's, being something like moderate playfulness rather than just wittiness, so his corresponding vices are broader, as well. The reasoning behind the need to identify defect in play as a vice is that it is against reason to make oneself burdensome to other people by giving them no delight and impeding their delight in other things. This is precisely what one deficient in play does to other people however, since he is not playful and objects to the moderate play of others.

However, because play exists not for its own sake but for the sake of delight and rest, and because delight and rest are themselves for the sake of activity, it follows that deficiency in play is less vicious than excessiveness in play, or, in other words, boorishness is less bad than frivolousness. The boorish person at least genuinely takes serious things seriously, even if he badly errs in trying to make everything serious; but, since play is to make the serious activity of human life possible, the frivolous person, in trying to take everything playfully, fails to treat serious things as they ought and fails also to treat playful things as they ought.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Two Poem Drafts

Night Is Kneeling

Night is kneeling, numinous in prayer,
with its eyes upraised in ancient hymn.
Warm is the wind as it wraps softly
like a prayer shawl for the penitent soul
around the body's frame, fringed with shades.
Stars are singing songs beyond hearing,
a kingly chorus, a choir of light.
Wearily waits a world asleep.
Hope is growing, healing with prayer:
night, faith-healer, fearlessly asks,
laying its hands on hearts in despair,
casting out care.

Elements

A fire has no fear. Its fury can rage
by harmony unhindered, its heat unabated;
it flies across fields, its freedom a danger.

With water it wars, but wave, too, is fearless;
it flows in the furrow and finds its own way.
It wends as it will, but waits as it must.

The earth does not yield in its honor unmoving.
It quietly conquers by keeping its place;
in starkness it stands, to stop all intrusion.

The air is most active, in all it will move.
The wind does not weary; it wears all in time,
harries unhindered and hunts as it will.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Through Many a Superstitious Form

Druidical Excommunication
by William Wordsworth


Mercy and Love have met thee on thy road,
Thou wretched Outcast, from the gift of fire
And food cut off by sacerdotal ire,
From every sympathy that Man bestowed!
Yet shall it claim our reverence, that to God,
Ancient of days! that to the eternal Sire,
These jealous Ministers of law aspire,
As to the one sole fount whence wisdom flowed,
Justice, and order. Tremblingly escaped,
As if with prescience of the coming storm,
That intimation when the stars were shaped;
And still, 'mid yon thick woods, the primal truth
Glimmers through many a superstitious form
That fills the Soul with unavailing ruth.

The See of James the Just

It is the middle of Tisha b'Av, the Ninth of Av, one of the major Jewish fast days. Unlike most other major Jewish fast days, which have some echo in the Christian liturgical calendar, this one does not; it is quite late, dating from the second century, although it may have absorbed earlier fast days, and thus too late to have a direct influence on Christian practice. Nonetheless, it does mark a Christian event worth remarking: the destruction of Jewish Christianity.

On the Ninth of Av Jews by tradition remember five major events (although they are not the only events remembered): God punishing Israel with wandering in the desert, the destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar, the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in AD 70, the crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt, and the razing of Jerusalem in the aftermath of the revolt in AD 133. The last three of these all contributed to the end of a clearly Jewish strain of Christianity. Jewish Christians emerged specifically from a Jewish context in which Temple service played a central role; its destruction had the inevitable result that Jewish Christian bonds with Gentile Christians became stronger and Jewish Christian bonds with other Jewish groups became weaker. Nonetheless, an explicitly recognized Jewish Christianity survived until the Bar Kokhba revolt. We do not, as far as I am aware, know exactly what made the Simon Bar Kokhba's uprising take fire, although it may have been rumors that the Romans intended to build a temple to Jupiter on the ruins of the Second Temple, but it did and was successful for a while. An independent state of Israel existed for a couple of years. The Romans, of course, would not tolerate such a thing; if it happened here, it could happen anywhere in the Empire, and so they crushed the entire thing mercilessly. As a result, many Jews were killed, much of Jerusalem destroyed, and the Emperor Hadrian exiled all Jews from Jerusalem. The center of Jewish life shifted to Galilee.

We are told by Eusebius that up to this point all the bishops of Jerusalem were "of the circumcision", i.e., Jews actively practicing at least some Jewish practices; after this point, all were Gentiles. It raises some interesting what-might-have-been questions. Without Hadrian's action, would the specifically Jewish character of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem have continued? Would it have had any effect on Christian liturgical practice? By the fourth century Jerusalem's status as one of the Primary Sees was largely honorary, so it might not have had. On the other hand, its negligible character had a great deal to do with the fact that it relatively little to contribute: unlike Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria, it was not a major city, and seems to have had no distinctive liturgical traditions. Would that have been different?

It is perhaps impossible to say, although no doubt there would have been more post-Apostolic Jewish Christians on the calendar of saints, and we are certainly not talking about strongly and obviously Jewish elements, but simply a form of Christianity with more ethnically Jewish aspects. But it does mark a sharp break in the history of the See of Jerusalem. Here are the Jewish bishops of Jerusalem:

The Jewish Patriarchs of Jerusalem

St. James the Just, St. Simeon I, Justus I, Zaccheus, Tobias, Benjamin, John I, St. Matthias I, Philip, Senecus, Justus II, Levi, Ephrem, Joseph I, Judas

Many of these were martyred after a few years of seriving. Three in particular seem to be on the universal calendar of saints.

St. James the Just, of course, is the 'brother of our Lord' mentioned in Galatians, I Corinthians, and Acts, and to whom the epistle of James is usually attributed. He was active in Temple worship, and he was the architect of the compromise position between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians at what we traditionally call the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15. He was was stoned to death by a faction of Jews. His feast day is May 3 on the Roman calendar.

St. Simeon his successor according to tradition was a continuator of this moderation, having been elected in opposition to a movement in Jewish Christianity in favor of more strongly Jewish practice. The Second Temple was destroyed in his day, scattering Jewish Christians; that they survived at all seems to have been due to St. Simeon's work. He is traditionally identified as being the son of Cleophas and thus Simeon the brother of the Lord (Mt 13:55, Mk 6:3); he is sometimes also identified with the Simeon Niger of Acts 13:1. He was crucified by the Romans. His feast day is February 18 in the Roman calendar.

St. Matthias I seems to have been the bishop of Jerusalem during the Kitos War, a major Jewish uprising, which began with Jewish revolts in Cyrenaica in modern-day Libya and spread from there throughout the empire. his feast day is January 30 in the Roman calendar.

Judas of Jerusalem is said to have been the great grandson of Jude the brother of the Lord, and he was the bishop up to the Bar Kochba revolt; he seems to have survived it by at least a decade, although his Gentile successor, Marcus, seems to have been appointed toward the end of the revolt. Given how thoroughly Jerusalem was destroyed, it may have been viewed at the time as the end of the line for the line of bishops of Jerusalem, and Marcus may have been seen more as the bishop of Hadrian's new Aelia Capitolina at the time. On the other hand, given the tumult of the time and the fact that episcopal succession was not completely regularized by then, it may well be that many of the bishops on the list had overlapping episcopal tenures, and this was just one. Regardless, I find it interesting that at least three names on the list are explicitly associated in tradition with the family of Jesus; it perhaps tells us something about how the Jewish Christian movement survived as long as it did.

All of this also raises some interesting questions for modern times. We are living in a period where several longstanding Christian traditions are in a very precarious position in the Middle East. It is a serious possibility that in a few decades Syrian or Chaldean Christianity, for instance, will exist only in exile, and a serious further possibility that if it does it will continue to exist only for a couple of centuries more. Now, both strains are actually quite hardy, so they may survive despite the gloomy outlook. But between active persecution and the ravage of wars made worse by the meddling of Western powers, many Christian groups in the Middle East have been caught between a rock and a hard place for quite some time, with the rock getting rockier and the hard place getting harder. The danger of loss of major traditions is not something confined to the early days of the Church.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Music on My Mind



Of Monsters and Men, "Dirty Paws"

The First Two Wings of the Seraph

Today is the Feast of St. Bonaventure, Doctor of the Church. He is usually known as the Seraphic Doctor, but his older designation was Doctor Devotus, the Devout Doctor. The name 'Bonaventure' may itself be a nickname; it means 'Good Fortune' and is said to have been given to him by St. Francis of Assisi, albeit by a late legend. His given name was Giovanni di Fidanza. His two most important works are the Breviloquium, which is a brilliant summary of the Catholic faith, and the Itinerarium, the Journey of the Mind to God, which is a brief, very dense work full of good things.

The Itinerarium is a meditation on the Crucified Seraph seen by St. Francis of Assisi at La Verna when he received the stigmata. Bonaventure had been the Minister General of the Franciscan order for two years by this point, and it was the thirty-third anniversary of the vision. Bonaventure pictures the six-winged seraph as representing the ascent of the mind to God, each wing representing another step. The key theme of the work is that of speculatio, which in this context means 'contemplation', but is closely connected to the word speculum, which is the word for 'mirror'. Each step in the ascent is a way we find things mirroring God. Each pair of wings is divided into a way in which we see God through the mirror of things and a higher way in which we see God in the mirror of things. To see God as through a mirror is to see him as that from which things come; to see God as in a mirror is to see him as actively working in the things that come from him. With the first and lowest pair of wings the mirror is the material world; with the next pair of wings, the mirror is our own souls; and with the third and highest pair of wings, the mirror is the divine name itself, first the name Being, then the name Good. Thence, of course, we pass over into God himself through the union of love.

Throughout this ascent, Bonaventure's governing principle is omnis effectus est signum causae, et exemplatum exemplaris, et via finis, ad quem ducit: "every effect is sign of its cause, and exemplate of its exemplar, and path to the end to which it leads" (2.12). Thus in the material world around us, recognizing it to be an effect requiring a cause or originating principle, we find the vestiges (vestigia: the word literally means 'footprints', but is usually translated as 'traces') of divine power (for things come from him as an effect), divine wisdom (for things imitate his understanding of them), and divine goodness (for things tend toward him as their universal good). This is reflected in a very great many ways:

in themselves
weight or tendency, number or distinction, measure or limitation

as found in faith or belief
origin, course, terminus

as known in investigative reason
existing, living, knowing

One of the things that makes Bonaventure sometimes difficult to read, and certainly makes his theology difficult to convey, is his facility at thinking multidimensionally about whatever topic he is considering. Each triad noted above is a pattern reflecting the pattern of power, wisdom, goodness, and equally of causal sign, exemplification, way. But the three levels themselves also exhibit this pattern, so that the first triad, as a triad, is a sign of divine power; the second triad, as a triad, is an exemplification of divine wisdom; and the third triad, as a triad, exhibits a path of ascent to divine goodness. Further, the whole series reiterates the three pairs of wings of the seraph and thus the three stages of ascent: the first triad suggests the material world in itself; the second triad, while remaining at the level of the material world, introduces a suggestion of the human mind; and the third triad, while again remaining at the level of the material world, introduces a suggestion of something higher than our own minds because on the basis of this triad the mind can build three kinds of inferences to things more noble than itself. Further, the first triad gives the intrinsic character of that which is contemplated at the first wing of the seraph; the second triad is suggestive of what is contemplated at the second wing of the seraph; and the third triad is suggestive of what is contemplated at the third wing of the seraph. Thus the triads reflect the structure of the work as well as reflecting each other. And we, in knowing the material world, reflect the triads, in whose reflection we see the divine power, wisdom, and goodness. This is not even getting into the fact that there are seven ways in which these triads reflect God's power, wisdom, and goodness -- origin, magnitude, multitude, beauty, plenitude, activity, order -- each of which is analyzable into a triad, and this triad is, depending on which of the three ways we look at it, one of the three triads above with respect to that particular property of creatures.

The second wing concerns the material world as sensible (and we have opinion or belief rather than rigorous knowledge about the material world precisely as sensible); it is the world as macrocosm ingressing, so to speak, into the mind as microcosm through the senses. Recognizing that everything that is moved is moved by another, we recognize in sensation itself the need for a higher cause of some kind. In each sensation we find an apprehension, a delight or fulfillment of our sensory capacities deriving from this apprehension, and a judgment about what we sense deriving from them both. At each level of sensation we have a suggestion of something divine: the first, in which we apprehend objects through their similitudes in the medium connecting them and us, gives us some recognition of the possibility of divine emanation through which we may know God; the second, in which we are pleased or fulfilled by this apprehension arising from the harmony of the object with our ability to sense them, we have some recognition of the possibility of divine harmony through which we may delight in God; and in the third, in which we abstract from sensible things their changeableness, we have some recognition of divine eternity and immutability. At the sensible level we are most familiar with the quantitative character of the world, and Bonaventure draws on Augustine to identify seven kinds of 'number', which is (you will recall from above) associated with distinction, and thus seven kinds of distinctions in the sensible world, through which we can rise to their exemplar in divine wisdom. And divine wisdom, again, is the second member of the triad of divine attributes reflected by creaturely effects, which goes with the fact that we are considering the second wing of the seraph.

I am simplifying all of this somewhat; there are intricate interrelations I haven't mentioned. And all this occurs in the space of about ten to twenty pages. No other Christian theologian in the history of the Church can seriously rival Bonaventure's capacity for stating his full position with succinctness and concision. His ability to concentrate an extensive chain of reasoning into a few sentences by means of list and analogy is sometimes dizzying. But it is not mere game-playing. It is all very well thought out; he can justify by argument every single one of these reflections of reflections of reflections, and does, sometimes in the Itinerarium itself (although these arguments are stated with the same kind of super-concision) and usually also elsewhere. Bonaventure, even at his most readable (as in his Tree of Life, which is about the life of Christ, or his Legenda maior, which is his official life of St. Francis for the Franciscan order) cannot really be read; he must be unpacked, unspooled, unzipped. Just as in Aquinas we generally get theological reasoning in a form that begins to approach maximal usefulness as a pedagogical reference point for further discussion, what we generally get with Bonaventure is theological reasoning in a form approaching its maximal degree of concentrated conciseness. At least, nobody has ever been able to come up with a more concentrated form. It is a bit much for the mind to take in at once. But by thinking through Bonaventure closely you can always, always, learn a new way to see the world, one you hadn't thought of before.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Fortnightly Book, July 14

I will be moving the next couple of weeks (it's a slow move, and within the same city -- actually just down the road a few miles), so I considered doing something very, very light. But I decided eventually, since I just did a classic work on St. Bernadette Soubirous written by a Jewish author, that I would do another classic work on a teenaged female saint written by a non-Catholic, indeed, by a famous anti-Catholic: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte, by Mark Twain. It's an interesting work: Twain despised the French and hated Catholicism; but he was an ardent fan of the Catholic Church's most thoroughly French saint.

Personal Recollections was a serialized in Harper's Magazine in 1895. Twain insisted on its serial publication being anonymous, not because he did not want to be associated with the work (he said he wrote it for love, and at one point called it his best work, and the work he liked best) but because he did not want the work to be associated with him. The name Mark Twain, then as now, was associated with humor and frivolous mockery, and he wanted to rule out the possibility that this work, at least, would be interpreted in that light, at least in its initial entry into the world. The book was published under his name, and Twain's tactic seems to have worked; it was very positively regarded as Twain being serious and dignified for once. Interestingly enough, it has been hated, absolutely hated, by a large number of critics. Also interestingly, I have never seen them back this up with an argument that made any sense. The fact of the matter seems to be that Twain's book on Joan shows the author to be more complicated than many of his fans; it presents a vision of the world that does not seem to fit with the reasons many people become fascinated with Twain in the first place.

Joan herself, of course, needs no introduction, although it's perhaps worth pointing that the "of Arc" is not a correct translation, sanctioned by long custom though it may be; we should just call her Joan d'Arc; the "d'Arc" is much closer to being a family name than to being a descriptive one. The Maid, La Pucelle, lived in the fifteenth century and is one of the first historical figures of whom we have a truly extraordinary amount of information, since we have the ordinary historical traces plus the archives of two extensive investigations into her life. Twain's depiction of her is historical romance, based on very close, but also non-slavish, regard for evidence. She was not known as St. Joan when Twain wrote his book, but as Venerable Joan, having received the designation just shortly before in 1894. From her death she was widely regarded as a martyr, but official process did not really get going, at least with any effect, until the nineteenth century, when historians began to look more closely at her life, stirring up interest across a wide segment of the population of the Western world, Catholic or not. She was beatified in 1909, a year before Twain's death. She was canonized in 1920. Twain would not have been impressed; prior to writing the work, he had dismissed the whole canonization process for Joan as an insult to her good name and memory.

One of the interesting features of Twain's version of Joan is that she's not a tomboy. Twain deliberately depicts her as very 'girly'; I've talked about this before, and will quote from that discussion:

But precisely what Twain is showing in this work -- and it is a strength -- is that Joan is very much a girl. She is a teenaged girl, with a teenaged girl's focus, a teenaged girl's generosity, and, when exasperated or sure that she's right and everyone else is wrong, a teenaged girl's saucy impudence, and what Twain draws out is that these are part of what makes Joan rise above everything. Twain's Joan does not go out and fight wars, throw back the English, raise French morale, and face her death bravely because she is masculine or butch; she does it because she's a girl. She's courageous, undaunted, and resolute, and she is all these things because she is a girl. She is uncorrupted by the world, unafraid of men, and does what needs to be done regardless of danger; and Twain's whole point is that every single one of these is connected with Joan's girlishness. In Twain's world a girl, even a very girly girl, a girl as girlish as she can be, can, given the right circumstances and the right cause, put grown men to shame on their own field.

There is plenty of evidence that this picture of Joan is precisely what drew Twain to her in the first place; he has some very disparaging comments about pictures of Joan that try to fit her into her armor, so to speak, by making her a blocky woman with big arms. Twain avoids this assiduously. What Joan looked like we can hardly say, since the only direct portrait that we know existed has not survived. But there is a sketch of Joan in the protocols of the Parliament of Paris, from 1429, that says something about how people imagined her at the time:

Joan parliament of paris

Clément de Fauquembergue, who sketched it on hearing of her victory at Orleans, almost certainly had never actually seen her. But it does seem to show at least that when people of Joan's own day heard of La Pucelle, the Maid, they imagined a slip of a teenage girl, even if she went forth with sword and banner.

In any case, since I ended my previous introductory post with Jennifer Warnes singing a song co-written with Leonard Cohen about St. Bernadette, it would seem somewhat fitting to end this introductory post with Jennifer Warnes singing a song written by Leonard Cohen about St. Joan. But, while very beautifully done, the song itself seems an incomplete capture of St. Joan's martyrdom. So here's a supplement to it. While it was never big in the U.S., here is a very famous New Wave song about St. Joan: "Maid of Orleans" (sometimes "Joan of Arc", although this usually designates another, rather different version) by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark or OMD. No, the sound is not broken; that's how the song begins -- it was the early 80s. But starting about 40 seconds, it stops being quite so 80s-ish and settles down to an appropriately martial heartbeat and the actual song.

Scripture like an Icon

Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox (OCA) priest, discusses interpretation of Scripture at "Glory to God for All Things":

What is the “truth” of the story of Adam and Eve? Fundamentalists think it is their photograph-style interpretation. But Christ says that He himself is the meaning of the OT Scriptures (Jn. 5:39). Surely Christ is the truth of the account of Adam and Eve in a manner that transcends the newspaper-like interpretation. The Pharisees could have seen the newspaper account as clear as anyone, but they did not see Christ and so crucified Him – and – ironically – fulfilled the truth of the creation of Adam.

For the fathers are clear, the Woman taken out of Adam’s side, is the Church, His bride. Adam rests (sleeps) on the 6th day (Friday), and from His side God takes a rib and forms the Woman. And on Friday, Christ slept (died), and “one of the soldiers pierced His side, and from His side flowed forth blood and water…” The fathers see this as the Eucharist and Baptism, that which births and creates the Church.

The whole post is quite good, and quite right.

ADDED LATER: Another good quotation, from an earlier post on the subject:

We never know each other exhaustively nor in the crass manner of modern objectivism. For each of us, fearfully and wonderfully made, is also infinitely referential. Thus knowledge of another is perhaps better described as relation or participation. It cannot mean comprehension.

The same is true of the text of Scripture. To read the text of Scripture without the constant and abiding sense that there is more here than I can see or understand is not to have read Scripture at all, or at least to have read it badly.