Saturday, February 27, 2021

George MacDonald, Phantastes


Opening Passage:

I awoke one morning with the usual perplexity of mind which accompanies the return of consciousness. As I lay and looked through the eastern window of my room, a faint streak of peach-colour, dividing a cloud that just rose above the low swell of the horizon, announced the approach of the sun. As my thoughts, which a deep and apparently dreamless sleep had dissolved, began again to assume crystalline forms, the strange events of the foregoing night presented themselves anew to my wondering consciousness. The day before had been my one-and-twentieth birthday. Among other ceremonies investing me with my legal rights, the keys of an old secretary, in which my father had kept his private papers, had been delivered up to me. As soon as I was left alone, I ordered lights in the chamber where the secretary stood, the first lights that had been there for many a year; for, since my father’s death, the room had been left undisturbed. But, as if the darkness had been too long an inmate to be easily expelled, and had dyed with blackness the walls to which, bat-like, it had clung, these tapers served but ill to light up the gloomy hangings, and seemed to throw yet darker shadows into the hollows of the deep-wrought cornice. All the further portions of the room lay shrouded in a mystery whose deepest folds were gathered around the dark oak cabinet which I now approached with a strange mingling of reverence and curiosity....

Summary: It is the day after the twenty-first birthday of Anodos, whose name means 'the way up', although by an appropriate pun you could also read it as 'without way'. He will indeed have to change from being a pun or caricature of himself, aimless and without way, to ascending. In a little cabinet hidden away in a secretary that he inherited from his father, he will find a little woman, who shows him a vision of Fairy Land and promises he will enter it. This indeed happens the next day, when his bedroom becomes a forest.

He soon comes across a little cottage with an old woman and her daughter, who warn him of some of the more obvious dangers of the forest, and in particular the Ash and the Alder, who are malicious trees. After he leaves their cottage, partly ignoring their advice, he has to flee the Ash, and is saved, for the moment, by the Beech, who out of love gives him a special protection to carry with him. He eventually comes across a remarkable bit of marble covered with moss. Cleaning off the moss, he finds that the outer part is soft and also removable, like alabaster, and he scrapes that off, as well, discovering the form of a beautiful maiden. He is inspired to sing to her, and by the power of his song she wakes, but flees him.

Setting out to find her, he comes across a knight in rusty armor, Sir Percival, who warns him of the seductive enchantments of the Maid of the Alder, into whose trap he had fallen and for which reason he will not polish his armor until he has finished a quest. Anodos simply resolves not to be trapped, and continues after his Marble Lady. Soon he finds a white lady who is something like her, but discovers all too quickly that it is the Alder herself, who is working with the Ash. By the wiles of the Alder Maiden, he loses the protection of the Beech, and just narrowly avoids being killed by the Ash. After further adventures, in which he again ignores kindly advice, he enters the cottage of an ogress, and there discovers his Shadow. Now he has a second motivation beside finding the Marble Lady, to get rid of the Shadow, a terrible black shadow which will not disappear even when an ordinary shadow would. It also makes everything that falls into it seem ordinary and plain, as if were not something from Fairy Land. He falls in with a girl who carries a small crystal globe that gives out a beautiful harmony if lightly touched. Out of curiosity, he holds the globe too roughly and it shatters and she separates from him.

Other adventures follow. He comes to a fairy palace, in which there is a library in which reading the books makes you seem like you are living what the book describes, and he reads the story of Sir Cosmo of Prague, who discovers a lady in an enchanted mirror and dies to save her. He discovers that the statues of the palace dance, and only return to their pedestals when he enters the room, and among them he eventually finds the Marble Lady. Singing to her, he frees her again, but again she flees him.

If all of this seems a little random, it is so deliberately; the story is episodic, constructed out of dream-like scenes that have no obvious direct connection. But in Fairy Land, even mere juxtapositions have a deeper connection. All these things will tie together. He will meet the girl with the crystal globe again; he will learn more about Sir Perceval, who will slay the Ash, and Anodos will eventually become his squire. Sir Perceval has a connection to the Marble Lady. And all of these things are thematically bound by the notions of service and knighthood -- 'knighthood' in fact being originally a synonym for 'service'. The Shadow is tied up with Anodos's arrogance, and at one point he even tries to justify it on the grounds that he is above the common mass of people and can see through the enchantments that they take for granted. He repeatedly fails to listen as seriously as he should to the advice of persons of humbler station than he. He thinks that he can avoid the temptation of the Maid of the Alder simply by resolving to do so, failing to consider the significance of the warning of Sir Perceval, who had fallen into her trap despite (as Anodos will later discover) being morally a far superior person to Anodos. His thinking of the Marble Lady as his lady is presumptuous. At one point, he falls in with two brothers and joins with them in saving a kingdom; they both die and he alone survives. He later starts thinking of himself as an equal of Sir Galahad, despite the fact that he already knows that the two brothers who died were far better knights than he.

It can be good to have an Ideal, when it raises you to be higher, but there is a grave danger in it. Pursuing Ideals sometimes tangles us up with our Shadows; we become proud. In such cases, we must learn the lesson of Anodos:

I learned that it is better, a thousand-fold, for a proud man to fall and be humbled, than to hold up his head in his pride and fancied innocence. I learned that he that will be a hero, will barely be a man; that he that will be nothing but a doer of his work, is sure of his manhood. In nothing was my ideal lowered, or dimmed, or grown less precious; I only saw it too plainly, to set myself for a moment beside it. Indeed, my ideal soon became my life; whereas, formerly, my life had consisted in a vain attempt to behold, if not my ideal in myself, at least myself in my ideal.

We err, wander, when we try to see ourselves in the ideal; the foundation of heroism is not our own fancied greatness but doing hard things humbly and small things well. It is easy to set out to find your Ideal; but the thing that you really must do is lose your Shadow.

C. S. Lewis famously said that Phantastes 'baptized his imagination', which I think is not always fully understood. A baptism is a death. That is the whole point of a baptism. But it is not a mere death; it is a death into a new life. What Lewis found in the work, and which is undeniably there, is Death. Death, not as a monster, not as an end, but as a sweetness that opens up rather than closes down the world. It is easy to see why Lewis, who struggled through much of his early career with a very dark pessimism about the world, would be so affected, so startled, as it were, by an imaginative vision in which Death was good and noble and sweet to the mind. It was not a change of understanding, nor a change of conscience, but quite literally a change of imagination. But much of what we call the world is not a matter of understanding or conscience, but merely a matter of how we imagine things to be. Changing that can change much. Phantastes is a fairy tale; it does not establish, it does not prove, it does not exhort. It does not even really show the world itself in a different way. But it does provide a context for learning a new way of imagining the world. That is not everything, but it is a basis for much else. And that is a lesson we all must learn at some point; we could put it in the words of Novalis in the epitaph to the last chapter: "Our life is not dream, but it ought to become one, and perhaps will."

Favorite Passage:

One peculiarity of these books, or at least most of those I looked into, I must make a somewhat vain attempt to describe.

If, for instance, it was a book of metaphysics I opened, I had scarcely read two pages before I seemed to myself to be pondering over discovered truth, and constructing the intellectual machine whereby to communicate the discovery to my fellow men. With some books, however, of this nature, it seemed rather as if the process was removed yet a great way further back; and I was trying to find the root of a manifestation, the spiritual truth whence a material vision sprang; or to combine two propositions, both apparently true, either at once or in different remembered moods, and to find the point in which their invisibly converging lines would unite in one, revealing a truth higher than either and differing from both; though so far from being opposed to either, that it was that whence each derived its life and power. Or if the book was one of travels, I found myself the traveller. New lands, fresh experiences, novel customs, rose around me. I walked, I discovered, I fought, I suffered, I rejoiced in my success. Was it a history? I was the chief actor therein. I suffered my own blame; I was glad in my own praise. With a fiction it was the same. Mine was the whole story. For I took the place of the character who was most like myself, and his story was mine; until, grown weary with the life of years condensed in an hour, or arrived at my deathbed, or the end of the volume, I would awake, with a sudden bewilderment, to the consciousness of my present life, recognising the walls and roof around me, and finding I joyed or sorrowed only in a book. If the book was a poem, the words disappeared, or took the subordinate position of an accompaniment to the succession of forms and images that rose and vanished with a soundless rhythm, and a hidden rime.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended. 

Doctor of Peace

 Today is the feast of St. Grigor Nerkatsi, Gregory of Narek, Doctor of the Church. From the beginning of his "Litany for the Church and the Ark of the Lord":

Gathered we all in the holy, universal, apostolic church,
we earthlings in circles, sing there in many groups,
praising with the myriads of spiritual beings angelic;
we join the circles of the luminous kind.
We bless the One coming to you,
the Most Holy Trinity, (with whom) we plead.

You who are above the cherubic arch, the watchtower of the four-faced beings,
and are worshiped by the full circle of the angelic kind,
O Triune essence
who willed to establish this rock at the hands of the holy apostles,
an impregnable city by (your) deliberate miracles,
foursquare, in the midst of the universe.
You made her glorious, radiant from the foundations (up),
brilliant, beyond the brilliance of the Ark.
And you adorned her beautifully, befittingly lavish,
the daughter of Sion that is above.
The many groups of singers there
join their voices with the heavenly ones.
We bless the One coming to you,
the Most Holy Trinity, (with whom) we plead.

[The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek, Abraham Terian, ed. and tr., Liturgical Press (Collegeville, MN: 2016), pp. 121-122.]

Friday, February 26, 2021

Dashed Off IV

love, grace, fellowship as Trinitarian

We do not have purity from ourselves but are upraised to it.

We know of no love incapable of wrath.

Acts makes clear that the household/family itself is important to the Church.

distinctions and the Trinity:
-- Sabellian
-- -- 1. purely conceptual
-- -- 2. founded conceputal
-- -- 3. modal
-- orthodox
-- -- 4. relative
-- tritheistic
-- -- 5. compositive
-- -- 6. count

categorical vs hypothetical prayer
-- hypothetical includes impetratory, categorical includes adoration

Ps 88:21-22 as a template for canonization of saints (cp. Inveni David)

"The totus christus is christus victor." Barth CD IV/3.1

All of the kinds of cause are implicit in the final cause.

Maimonides' gracious ruse interpretation of sacrificial ritual

an emptiness is blowing like a wind across the plain;
the sorrows fall in torrents in a never-ceasing rain

"In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction." CS Lewis

Arrogance is blind to simple wisdoms.

Gersonides: separate immaterial intelligences as the law, order, and rectitude (equilibrium) of phenomena

"No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity." Seneca
"Two most beautiful things will follow us wherever we go, universal Nature and our own virtue....All that is of the greatest worth for a man lies outside the power of his fellow men, and can neither be given nor taken away."
"Once virtue has hardened the mind, it renders you invulnerable from every quarter."

A human emotion is as it were on its way to rational thought.

We do not merely eat food; we make of it a meal, and meal-making is social by its nature -- shared recipes, shared techniques, shared cuisine and style. To make a sandwich or a tempura or a curry is to make it with a host of others, participating in something shared.

God, loving us, gives us grace that we might have fellowship with Him.

the major repulsive characterizations: self-absorption, dishonestly, desperation, pushy cheerfulness

Legal bans are always and only bans to the limit of feasibility.

Spinoza is closer to right when one recognizes that substance is related to accident and mode as final cause; the problem, of course, being that Spinoza denies final causes.

final cause
-- of action
-- of form
-- of existence
-- -- as subject of inherence
-- -- as external source of being

Helen vs. Penelope

All saints recapitulate their ancestral Christ.

Liberty cannot be distinguished from usurpation except with respect to common good.

as-it-were-filial piety toward the natural

Wealth requires the building of material traditions (although individual wealth is sometimes, even often, derived from cannibalizing material traditions already built).

the accumulation of deteriorations

Equality is sometimes used as a hostage-shield for undermining support networks that solve genuine problems, while pretending that no alternative solutions need to be provided.

Much of our sense of Northern and Celtic myth is derived from Christians preserving Northern and Celtic myths.

"Divine grace, predestined in Christ to be given to the whole world, is secretly at work in the whole sphere of history, and thus all myths, philosophies, and poetic creations are innately capable of housing within themselves an intimation of divine glory." Balthasar

Professional codes of ethics must be interpreted not as restrictions of rights but as protections of them.

the warning passages in Hebrews: 2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14-29

the end-use problem in education

negation as failure and 'not-necessarily-p implies not-p'

distributive vs collective pantheism

the arm of God in the Magnificat as the Son of God (Rosmini)

Professional ethics are developed individually and refined cooperatively.

"Need is the stimulus to concept, concept to action." Steinbeck

"...a great many people are capable of returning to virtue's path if punishment is waived." Seneca

Homeschooling is the natural matrix of all schooling.

When bishops do not do what is required to purify the Church from within, it always happens that the Church is purified by its enemies from without.

Scripture in text, Scripture in proclamation, Scripture in prayer, Scripture in Church doctrine, Scripture in Church practice

All successful human cooperation, however complex, gets its success from the success of component cooperations constituted by two or three people.

the hyper-LARPing character of almost everything in modern society -- politics, art, religion, science

professional ethics and the demonstrative regress (the ends of the profession qua service serving as a check and means of refinement)

Narrative is the natural language for experimentation -- think of a Faraday memoir. This is suppressed by the Methods format of modern papers, but even there it is not wholly eliminated. Every experiment has a plot, every experiment has a theme, every experiment has characters (the experimenters, the participants, the equipment). Every experiment needs to work narratively as well as abstractly, and it is by thinking through the logic of the narrative that you uncover biases. The convention of this particular 'genre' abhors the deus ex machina.

philosophical field / attention space / system of networks of alliances and oppositions

Politics is a realm of approximations.

"The provisionality of myth must allow itself to be judged by the finality of the Gospel, so taht in this finality the world of myth may attain to its rightful rank and expressive value." Balthasar

natural theology of myth
-- 1. myth as evidence of human tendencies
-- 2. myth as a moral language
-- 3. myth as expression of virtue of religio
revealed theology of myth
-- 1. preparatio evangelica
-- 2. spoiling due to original sin
-- 3. mythmaking as subcreation
-- 4. True Myth

sources of natural religious practice: vow, symbol, experiential association, which together create precedents, which are then mythologized

the light of the Two Trees in Tolkien a depiction of the light of art undivorced from reason

amicable populations vs. political alliances

ethnic vs national uses of flags

Human rights should be upheld, but human rights discourse in partisan politics should be regarded with suspicion, because it is used as a Powerful Justifier, and Powerful Justifiers in partisan politics always need to be regarded cautiously.

As means to the ends of civil society, states have primary (easing and protecting citizen life by preventing interference and impediment), secondary (serving as a forum for negotiation and adjudication), and fallback (stepping in when nothing else can work) functions; state decadence consists in the inversion of the order of these functions, so that fallback functions begin to be treated as primary and primary functions as a sort of safety net for state action rather than civil ends.

the ism vs the istic

If it's an existential crisis, you won't be able to solve it by means of a political party.

"Being as such by itself to the very end 'causes wonder,' behaving as something to be wondered at, something strikign and worthy of wonder." Balthasar

language as kenosis of logos

Levi-Strauss on Father Christmas

Intuitions are not private languages but communicable.

The horror of evil arises from desecration.

the novel as a response to the collapse of the epic
-- this suggests naturally that kinds divide into a few groups
-- -- 1. reclamation: try to find new ways to reclaim epic qualities
-- -- 2. stabilization: try to find a new equilibrium with similar functions to those of epic
-- -- 3. acceleration: try to eliminate epic qualities entirely and replace them with the anti-epic

subcreative fall (art used for domination)

heroisms of the truth, of the good, of the beautiful

conscientious objection & avoiding the profanation of the Image of God

Observation discloses not merely the transient but also the invariant or (relatively) permanent; it implies of suggests something beyond the immediately observed, so that by quite ordinary logical links one observed fact, properly understood, implies other observable facts, and suggests yet other observable facts.

Logic is an instrument of explication.

We can make the same moral claims while expressing different moral sentiments.

To have a meaning is to be a means to a communicative end.

heart-warming as an aesthetic concept

There is a significant, although not absolute, difference between the secure and the insecure working class.

Acts 9: Saul in persecuting the Church persecuted Jesus; this anticipates and grounds the Pauline doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ.

the joy so deep it is almost like sorrow

Luthien, Melian, and Galadriel are all more important and more powerful than their husbands.

Most critical theory that one finds in actual application is elitist in motive and in structure, and is received by academics precisely because it gives them permission to regard with contempt, with dismissal, or with scoffing the masses in their uncritical ignorance.

Societies most often deteriorate through common failings.

"Undoubtedly, the passions need reason. Without it, some would not survive; others cannot be aroused and stimulated sufficiently to produce feelings of wonder." Rosmini

To Show a Heart Grief-Rent

To Keep a True Lent
by Robert Herrick

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No; 'tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

A Great Philosophy

 ...A great philosophy is not a philosophy without reproach. It is a philosophy without fear.

A great philosophy is not a dictée. The greatest is not one that has no flaw.

A great philosophy is not one against which there is nothing to say. It is one that has said something.

And it is even one that had something to say. Even if it could not...[s]ay it.

It is not one that has no defects. It is not one that has no empty places. It is one that has full places.

Charles Péguy, Notes on Bergson and Descartes, Ward, tr., Cascade Books (Eugene, OR: 2019) p. 43.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

For Olden Verse that Smacks of Love and Wine

When I Have Passed Away
by Claude McKay

When I have passed away and am forgotten,
And no one living can recall my face,
When under alien sod my bones lie rotten
With not a tree or stone to mark the place;

Perchance a pensive youth, with passion burning,
For olden verse that smacks of love and wine,
The musty pages of old volumes turning,
May light upon a little song of mine,

And he may softly hum the tune and wonder
Who wrote the verses in the long ago;
Or he may sit him down awhile to ponder
Upon the simple words that touch him so.

James Matthew Wilson has a really nice reflection on Claude McKay at the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

A Poem Re-Draft

Seven Incantations

Seven incantations in the Elven realm are known,
three for power, three for splendor, one that stands alone,
mighty as the morning sun, hidden as the night,
locking and unlocking doors between the dark and light.

First, to use a power you must hold it deep inside,
thus in power's fire's flames unburning to abide.
Dying to your shadow frail, life's borders you will cross;
worthy minds alone may make that journey without loss,
getting by returning thence a threefold work and might:
earth, by which the runes of lore are opened to your sight;
water giving vision of the future to the mind;
flame reforging heart and thought to greater mode and kind.

Seven incantations in the Elven realm are taught,
three for power, three for splendor, one most highly sought.
Force they have for changing, for they change your inmost name;
those who have partaken thus, no longer are the same.

Speak the second spelling and a greater flame descends,
sevenfold its working borne on seven burning winds,
placing strength within the heart and crown upon the head,
lore of those who have advised and force of those who led.
Sightedness of eagle and the subtlety of snake,
fishful swimming through all dreams as though they were a lake,
divination's guidance like the tortoise in his shell,
elephantine toughness to endure the dark and fell,
kinship with all creatures good in land and sky and sea:
by this incantation's might the mind of bonds is free.

Seven incantations in the Elven realm are learned,
three for power, three for splendor, one on which they turn;
rooted are they deep within the universe's rite,
cosmic in expression of the liturgy of light.

Rare indeed the one who finds the third high Elven song;
only those should seek it out whose wills are sure and strong --
not with elemental force nor living souls it pours;
stars instead that rule the worlds with might in endless stores.
By the power of this rite the acolyte may rise,
walk among the rolling suns and change unchanging skies,
master of all charm and shaping, gramarye and chant,
from the cosmic tree receiving seeds of flame to plant.

Seven incantations in the Elven realm are sought,
three for power, three for splendor, one beyond all thought,
signs of power testifying to a higher world,
seven words within whose hearts the universe is curled.

Charm of binding, too, may sound and subtle sages find,
ways to share the course of thought and mingle flesh and mind,
weaker than the flame of stars, yet endless hearth of light,
warm against the winter cold, against the shadows bright,
a never-ending flame that burns with never-ending sign,
a friendship high and hale in which two hearts will intertwine.
Burdens born from trouble may be shared like heavy load;
thought with thought may travel and share a weary road.

Seven incantations in the Elven realm are made,
three for power, three for splendor, one will never fade,
armaments to shake the earth, to walk the spirit way,
inner secrets of the spheres brought down to realm of day.

Sickness has no power; by a word it is unwound,
medic more availing than mere mortal man has found.
Leprosy it washes into skin both new and clean;
blindness it dispatches, giving eye its healthy sheen;
tongues are freed for speaking, lameness let to leap,
tumors brought to level and deep pain made gentle sleep,
souls transformed to healthy life and minds made newly sane,
and by it, too, there is undone the weakness of all strain.

Seven incantations in the Elven realm are found,
three for power, three for splendor, one perfects the round,
full of living spirit and of life unending source,
infinite in wonder and unlimited in course.

Death itself has weaker sway on those who know the end;
spell there is to beat it back and bounds of life to bend,
giving to the body's flesh a force to be unharmed,
unfettered by the graveyard with a life thus rendered charmed,
giving to the mind a light that dark of grave may flee,
something of the life of youth and youth's agility;
such a might is given to the one endowed with rhyme
such that even death may quail, though only for a time.

Seven incantations in the Elven realm resound,
three for power, three for splendor, one for godhood crowned.
By their vibrant power souls in holy place have trod,
changed in stages, bit by bit, to something like a god.

Nectar and ambrosia sweet may give the grace of youth,
wisdom like to ancient sage, eternity of truth.
Power beyond power such as gods alone may know
brings the final chantment as it sets the air aglow,
bright apotheosis laid in layers like the sand,
greater by the growing as it piles band on band,
higher than the mountains, higher than the crystal sky,
higher than the shining stars that live and do not die,
farther than the final sphere, farther than the end
step by step in endless way the final spell shall wend.

Seven incantations sound in Elven land and hall:
three for power, three for splendor, one above them all.


 Today is the commemoration of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who had been ordained by St. John the Apostle. He was killed in his eighties, probably a bit after AD 150; according to tradition, he was killed by being burned alive.

From the letter of Polycarp to the Philippians (chapter 3), probably written around AD 117, a bit after the death of St. Ignatius of Antioch, with whom Polycarp corresponded:

I am writing you these comments about righteousness, brothers, not on my own initiative but because you invited me to do so. For neither I nor anyone like me can keep pace with the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul. When he was with you in the presence of the people of that time, he accurately and reliably taught the word concerning the truth. And when he was absent he wrote you letters; if you study them carefully, you will be able to build yourselves up in the faith that has been given to you, which is the mother of us all, while hope follows and love for God and Christ and for our neighbor leads the way. For if anyone is occupied with these, that person has fulfilled the commandment of righteousness, for whoever has love is far from all sin.

[Michael W. Holmes, ed. and tr., The Apostolic Fathers, 3rd edition, Baker Academic (Grand Rapids, MI: 2007) 283-284.] 

Monday, February 22, 2021

Ptahhotep on the Ethics of Arguing

The Instruction of Ptahhotep is one of the most important surviving works of ancient Egyptian philosophy. It is an eminent example of the sebayt genre, which is governed, in the words of The Instruction of Ptahhotep itself, by the attempt to make straight the paths of the younger generation through discourse, without wearying them, and a pattern whereby princes may speak well. We do not know exactly how old this particular Instruction is; if it goes back in original form to the real Ptahhotep, who was Grand Vizier of the Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi, then it originated in the 24th century BC. The versions that we have, though, are definitely not earlier than about the 12th century BC, so either the extant version is an 'updated' version from that time, or was written probably around that time, in the Egyptian New Kingdom.

The work gives us a contextual frame. Ptahhotep is ninety-six years old, and sees the end of his life approaching. Therefore he asks the Pharaoh to hand down his authority to his son, but this also requires handing down the wisdom of ancient times. The king approves this, and we have a series of proverbs or aphorisms attributed to Ptahhotep, guiding his son in the behavior appropriate to his position.

An interesting thing is that the series of aphorisms begins with an ethics of argument, and one that captures something perennial:

1. Be not proud because thou art learned; but discourse with the ignorant man, as with the sage. For no limit can be set to skill, neither is there any craftsman that possesseth full advantages. Fair speech is more rare than the emerald that is found by slave-maidens on the pebbles.

2. If thou find an arguer talking, one that is well disposed and wiser than thou, let thine arms fall, bend thy back, be not angry with him if he agree (?) not with thee. Refrain from speaking evilly; oppose him not at any time when he speaketh. If he address thee as one ignorant of the matter, thine humbleness shall bear away his contentions.

3. If thou find an arguer talking, thy fellow, one that is within thy reach, keep not silence when he saith aught that is evil; so shalt thou be wiser than he. Great will be the applause on the part of the listeners, and thy name shall be good in the knowledge of princes.

4. If thou find an arguer talking, a poor man, that is to say not thine equal, be not scornful toward him because he is lowly. Let him alone; then shall he confound himself. Question him not to please thine heart, neither pour out thy wrath upon him that is before thee; it is shameful to confuse a mean mind. If thou be about to do that which is in thine heart, overcome it as a thing rejected of princes.

On Talbott on Augustine

Thomas Talbott on Augustine on hell

For based upon his interpretation of various New Testament texts, Augustine insisted that hell is a literal lake of fire in which the damned will experience the horror of everlasting torment; they will experience, that is, the unbearable physical pain of literally being burned forever. The primary purpose of such unending torment, according to Augustine, is not correction, or deterrence, or even the protection of the innocent; nor did he make any claim for it except that it is fully deserved and therefore just. As for how such torment could be even physically possible, Augustine insisted further that “by a miracle of their most omnipotent Creator, they [living creatures who are damned] can burn without being consumed, and suffer without dying” (City of God, Bk. 21, Ch. 9). Such is the metaphysics of hell, as Augustine understood it.

This is an extraordinary misreading of the quoted passage from Augustine. In the sentence quoted, 'they' clearly does not refer to "living creatures who are damned" but to things like salamanders, i.e., beings that were thought to be able to live for a short time in fire. The reason they are relevant in context is that God's ability to create such wonders is thus a reason not to rule out, out of hand, the possibility that Christ's comments in Mark 9 refer to the body, and not just the soul. Nor are we talking about "being burned"; the phrase in ustione sine consumptione means "burning without being burned". Nor does Augustine 'insist' in this chapter on what Talbott claims, because Augustine doesn't think it's possible to know completely what will happen (he goes on at great length in this book arguing that there are things we can't reason certainly about but only know by experience). He is discussing a particular passage of Scripture, Christ's comments about the worm and the fire in Mark 9. He presents three possibilities, that the words of Mark 9 refer only to the spirit, that they refer to both body and soul, and that they refer to body alone; he thinks the first is not a reasonable reading, and he thinks the third is an easier reading of the passage than the second. Of those two, however, he says that everyone should pick the reading they please, recognizing that we do not yet have full knowledge of the things to come. Thus the passage is not metaphysical, but almost entirely exegetical, and the only thing that Augustine insists on here is that bodies will experience pain (if that is how we wish to translate dolor here) from the fire. The animals in the fire example is put forward simply to say that the bodily interpretation of Christ's words cannot be ruled out on grounds that it would make Christ say something impossible. He is not claiming that the damned are like salamanders; he is merely claiming that we can't go around ruling out positions on the ground that God can't make bodies that endure in fire.

This is a common error in reading Augustine, namely, taking some particular thing he says as a categorical assertion. But Augustine's natural style is discursive; he explores rather than lectures. He will rule things out, but he often leaves things open; he will often prefer positions without insisting on them; and he will develop views at length without actually asserting them. He is also much more, as we would say, skeptical than generally recognized; that is, he will often criticize positions for requiring knowledge we could not have. And this is very true whenever he discusses the afterlife; indeed, throughout Book 21 of The City of God he criticizes various positions on this ground. He does think we can and should believe certain things about the afterlife; but this is based on what he thinks is the reasonable range of exegetical positions that can be taken about the explicit statements of Scripture, not on 'metaphysics'. There is no 'metaphysics of hell' in Augustine.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Yet Thought May Grace Them More

Look Home
by St. Robert Southwell

Retired thoughts enjoy their own delights,
As beauty doth in self-beholding eye;
Man's mind a mirror is of heavenly sights,
A brief wherein all marvels summed lie,
Of fairest forms and sweetest shapes the store,
Most graceful all, yet thought may grace them more.

The mind a creature is, yet can create,
To nature's patterns adding higher skill;
Of finest works with better could the state
If force of wit had equal power of will.
Device of man in working hath no end,
What thought can think, another thought can mend.

Man's soul of endless beauty image is,
Drawn by the work of endless skill and might;
This skillful might gave many sparks of bliss
And, to discern this bliss, a native light;
To frame God's image as his worths required
His might, his skill, his word and will conspired.

All that he had his image should present,
All that it should present it could afford,
To that he could afford his will was bent,
His will was followed with performing word.
Let this suffice, by this conceive the rest,
He should, he could, he would, he did, the best.

Plagues of Egypt (Re-Post)

As today is the feast of St. Pietro Damiani, I am re-posting last year's post for the feast.

Today is the feast of St. Peter Damian, so I thought I'd talk a little a bit about his letter 78 to John of Lodi, in which he discusses the plagues of Egypt, interpreting them spiritually as a description of wordly life, and connecting them to the Ten Commandments. As he says, "the plagues that occurred in Egypt are nothing but wounds. And what was this heavenly Law if not medicine for these wounds?" (pp. 172-173). He interprets the plagues thusly:

First Plague: Water into Blood, "when the mind, blind to its own condition, disturbs and violates the purity of the true faith" (p. 173) -- faith, like water, gives nourishment. The first commandment is the remedy for this vice, insisting on the purity of divine worship. (Damian actually quotes Deuteronomy 6:4 as the first commandment, and takes it to cover both Dt. 5:7 and 5:8.)

Second Plague: Swarm of Frogs. Frogs are noisy, like "heretics and philosophers" (p. 173), and they live in the mud, just as the heretics and philosophers who chatter nonsense about the faith make their home among the unbelieving masses. The remedy for this vice is the commandment against taking the name of the Lord in vain.

Third Plague: Swarm of Gnats, "the vice of wandering and restlessness" (p. 174), since by their stinging they make it impossible to stay in one place. This restlessness leads to treating sin lightly, and thus as remedy God in the Decalogue commands that we keep the sabbath holy as a day of rest. (As an interesting side note, St. Peter reads the first three commandments as Trinitarian: the first is appropriated to the Father, the second to the Son, and the third to the Holy Spirit, and notes in favor of this that it was the third plague that the magicians of Egypt ascribed to the "finger of God" in Exodus 8:19, which is of course, a name for the Holy Spirit. And, of course, there is the old tradition that the first three commandments, pertaining to God directly, were written on the first tablet and the rest on the second.)

Fourth Plague: Swarm of Flies, which Damian, influenced by St. Isidore, interprets as dog-fleas, which leads to probably the most strained of the interpretations. Dogs are not respectful to their parents, and their fleas make them especially bad-tempered, so the remedy for this is honoring your parents.

Fifth Plague: Death of Cattle. To commit adultery is to be like the beasts, as when Jeremiah 5:7-8 associates adulterers with horses, so the remedy for this is the command against adultery. (This sounds a bit strained, but actually I think this is a quite salvageable association, because cattle and prosperous fertility are associated in the ancient world.)

Sixth Plague: Wounds and Boils. Wounds suggest hatred; boils suggest pride; their festering suggests anger. So the sixth commandment, against killing, is applied as a medicine to it.

Seventh Plague: Hail Mingled with Fire. Ice and fire are opposites, but here they are combined. "Thus those who steal the property of others are both frozen in regard to fraternal charity and on fire with the ardor of their cupidity" (p.177). The thundering and lightning of the storm suggests fear, and the plague is quite clearly one that would be damaging to property. Thus the remedy is the commandment against stealing.

Eighth Plague: Locusts. Locusts are little creatures that destroy all life, so they are fitting symbol for slanderers and false accusers, destroying all the good in their path, ruining harvests of good deeds, and gnawing at the lives of others with specious lies. Thus the eighth commandment, which remedies it, is the commandment against false witness.

Ninth Plague: Darkness on the Land. The coveter of another's wife is someone who acts from an interior darkness, a secret unfaithfulness in his heart. Thus God commanded Israel not merely that they should not run away with or defile their neighbor's wives, which the commandment against adultery covered, but that they should not even covet.

Tenth Plague: Death of the Firstborn. St. Peter takes the death of the firstborn to represent the self-poisoning character of our attachments to worldly things and pleasures, by which we lose our spiritual inheritance rights. Thus the remedy for it is the tenth commandment, not to covet our neighbor's goods.

"On Mount Sinai, that is, on the heights of a holy way of life, we must heal all these plagues that we endured in Egypt, all the internal forms of disease that we had contracted on the even ground of the secular life" (p. 180).

One can wonder whether anything can be made of all this, but even if the Damianian interpretation is wrong in some aspects, (1) no Christian can deny that Egypt represents the worldly life; (2) it is entirely plausible that the plagues in some ways represent the sins of Egypt -- for instance, even commentators with no intention of doing any allegorical reading have often noted that the striking of the waters as the very first volley is a blow against the Egyptian religion, in which the Nile was closely linked with the gods, which, as can easily be seen, fits the scheme; so (3) the only question really is whether we should divide up the plagues individually, as Damian does, or whether we should simply take them collectively.

Peter Damian, Letters 61-90, Blum, tr. CUA Press (Washington, DC: 1992)