Saturday, March 11, 2023

The Quest of the Holy Grail


Opening Passage:

On the eve of Pentecost when the companions of the Round Table were all assembled at Camelot, at the hour of none when the office was sung and the tables were being set up, a maiden of great beauty came riding into the hall. It was plain she had ridden hard for her horse was still lathered in sweat. She alighted and went straight to greet the king, who wished God's blessing on her.

'Sire,' she said, 'in God's name, tell me if Lancelot be here.' (p. 31)

Summary: The key word in The Quest of the Holy Grail is aventure. This gives us the English word 'adventure', but the term was much broader, to the extent that it is difficult to capture. It can mean a lucky chance, a stroke of fortune, a significant happening, an occasion for adventure, an eventful occasion, a work of divine providence. Inevitably, the quest for the Holy Grail is full of aventures; and it is noteworthy that the knights who fail in their quests have few aventures. Sir Gawain starts out with aventures, but starts finding that long stretches of his hunt involve nothing eventful; when he asks a holy man why this might be, the holy man replies that it is because he has insufficient faith, for only faith can recognize aventure. Perhaps it is because of this that in the context of the Grail quest, happenings that would in other tales seem only strange turn out to be charged with allegorical meanings.

We begin where many Arthurian tales begin, as the knights of the Round Table gather together at Pentecost. This Pentecost is especially significant, because this is the Pentecost when, for the first time, the Round Table will be complete. A sword in a stone in a river has been found, inscribed with the words that only the best knight in the world can draw it. Lancelot refuses to try; Gawain and Perceval try it and fail. But the young man Galahad comes to court and his name appears upon the Siege Perilous, the seat at which none but one can sit without dying; he pulls the sword out easily. Messengers come from the hermit Nascien to say that the long-awaited time of the hunt for the Grail has come, and shortly afterward, all the knights have a shared experience. A clap of thunder shakes the hall, which is suddenly filled with brilliant radiance as everyone is struck dumb, and the Holy Grail, veiled by a white samite cloth, appears and moves through the hall, although no one seems to be bearing it. As it passes, every knight's plate is filled with the knight's favorite food. Then it vanishes. With an entrance like that, of course, all of the knights are excited to learn more, and the quest for the Grail begins. After setting out together, they decide to split up, because they think it would be shameful to seek the Grail together in a band. And thus we find the fatal flaw of the Round Table, which only becomes clearer as the adventure continues and we follow one of its most exemplary knights, Sir Gawain: these are people who for the most part value the honorable more than the sacred.

All of the knights are on some kind of quest, but the story only follows a few. 

(1) Sir Gawain, who spends much of his time with Sir Hector of the Marsh (who is Lancelot's illegitimate half-brother). They will fail, not because they are not extraordinary knights, but because the Grail is not a reward for extraordinary knighthood. They are courteous, brave, noble after their fashion; but the Grail requires humility, and while it doesn't require forgoing honor, it does require holding even your honor to be as nothing compared to what you are seeking. Sir Hector's role seems to be to show an exemplary knight whose pride in honor guarantees he will never even get closed -- he will be turned away quite abruptly, in fact. I'm also struck by how willing he is to give up when a hermit suggests he will fail. Sir Gawain is much more promising; but he too always puts honor above devotion, and his quest is something of a disaster, since in the course of trying to do it, he manages to kill two great and honorable knights, King Baudemagus and Sir Owein the Bastard. Everyone is worse off for his quest, including Sir Gawain himself.

(2) Sir Lancelot of the Lake is the more interesting case, because he has what Sir Gawain and his half-brother do not: humility. Lancelot is a knight who is able to put things higher than his honor. Ironically, this is precisely why he is able to sin so grievously -- the reason the adultery between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere starts is that Lancelot is willing to treat his honor as nothing in comparison to her. He is capable of humility; but his entire life has been misdirected, and therefore he has several failures before he does the one and only thing that can open anything of the Grail to him: repent. His sins mean that he will not have full success; but he will be allowed before the end to have a vision of what he seeks. And, perhaps almost as important, he will have time to spend with his illegitimate son, Sir Galahad, who is everything that Sir Lancelot should have been but failed to be -- literally, because all of Sir Lancelot's talent is an artifact of the fact that his destiny was to be the knight who attained the Grail, a destiny which he ruined.

(3) Sir Bors (my perennial favorite among the Grail knights) is Sir Lancelot's cousin. He has an illegitimate son, due to a complicated situation in which he was younger, but he has been chaste since. He is a solid knight, but his real strength seems to be his capacity to endure; he is the knight who seems most actively willing to engage in ascetic practices, and he spends a portion of his quest enduring hardship after hardship. He is perceptive -- he is the first person to recognize that the still-anonymous Sir Galahad has to be Sir Lancelot's son, and he tends to draw the correct conclusions in the situations in which he finds himself. He is the only knight who shows any interest in theology, at one point getting into a friendly argument with a priest over the correct theological account of the role of the family in the spiritual life. Family actually seems to be a key theme in his story; he's related to more than half the major characters in the story, and his greatest trial occurs when he is forced into a situation in which he has to make a choice between saving his brother Sir Lionel from almost certain death and saving a maiden from being raped. Sir Bors (correctly) chooses to save the maiden, and then seeks out Sir Lionel in the hope of saving him. Sir Lionel managed narrowly to avoid death for other reasons, but he is furious at Sir Bors for treating the bond of brotherhood as if it were nothing. Sir Bors is willing to die at the hand of his brother, but Sir Lionel also killing both a hermit and Sir Calogrenant (a cousin to Sir Owein the Bastard, perhaps suggesting that we are getting a thematic link to Sir Gawain's killing of the latter) is the last straw, and the brothers come to blow, Sir Bors being spared having to kill his brother only by the intervention of heaven. His road is long and hard, but he will attain the Grail.

(4) Sir Perceval is one of the most talented knights of the Round Table, but he has an innocence that no other knight has. He is almost childlike at times. This is what will make it possible for him to succeed in his quest, but it is also his greatest spiritual danger, because innocence is not holiness. In direct contrast to the very prudent Bors, Sir Perceval has almost no prudence. It is perhaps notable that he is the Grail knight who most has to deal with the devil, who repeatedly outsmarts him and nearly derails his quest entirely by appearing as a damsel in distress, whom Sir Perceval aids with a complete lack of caution. But his devotion to Christ will eventually pull him through to attain the Grail.

(5) And we thus come to Sir Galahad, Lancelot's illegitimate son. Unlike Sir Bors, who seems to have had a fairly ordinary upbringing, and Sir Perceval, who was deliberately raised by his mother in a sheltered life away from court, Sir Galahad was raised in a family with a tradition of devotion to higher things -- through his mother he is related in direct descent from the brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea. Devotion to the Grail is part of his family heritage. But his success is not really due to that. He has all of his father's talent, but unlike his father he does not devote it to worldly things, and one of his notable features, which makes him unique among all the knights in the book, is that he deliberately tries not to kill people, no matter how bad they are. If they die, they can no longer repent. In the course of his quest he will at one point, with Bors and Perceval, have to kill in self-defense a bunch of knights who are involved in some truly horrible things, and he is still actively distressed at having had to kill them. Of all the knights, he will most fully attain the Grail; and he will die in doing so, unlike his father having fulfilled his destiny.

There are a number of secondary characters who play interesting roles in the story, as well; perhaps the most interesting is Percival's sister, who has a noble but tragic end, and who plays a very significant role in making it possible for the three Grail knights to achieve their quest.

The Quest of the Holy Grail is famous for its speeches -- there are speeches practically every other page, often going into great detail about the allegorical meaning or legendary background of everything that has just happened. One might think that a story with so much speechifying would have equally verbose storytelling, but the reverse is true. The narrative is all very tightly, very vividly written, so much so that it is clear that the contrast between the swiftly moving and colorfully concrete narrative and the more abstract and leisurely speeches is deliberate. I suspect that the author saw his story as a sort of spiritual manual for laymen, but he has with extraordinary skill set the discourse into a grippingly told story to keep the reader moving through. I was very impressed by the artistry of it.

Favorite Passage:

When Bors and Perceval saw that Galahad was dead they plumbed the very depths of grief. And had they not been men of the greatest godliness of life and character, they might have fallen into despair on account of the great love they had borne him. And the people of the country, too, mourned him with heavy hearts.

There where he died they dug his grave; and as soon as he had been buried Perceval left for a hermitage outside the city walls and took the religious habit. Bors kept him company, but never quitted his secular dress, for it was still his ambition to return to King Arthur's court. Perceval abode in the hermitage for a year and three days and then departed this life; and Bors had him buried in the spiritual palace where his sister and Galahad lay. (p. 284)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


The Quest of the Holy Grail, Pauline Matarasso, tr., Penguin (New York: 2005).

White Spirit-Birds in Every Bough Sang Clear

by Anita Moor 

 Across the ocean's sapphire floor, with sail
 Of linen woven from the flaxen fields,
 Following the track of knights who sought the grail
 And bore the Virgin's colours on their shields,
 The monks of holy Brandon steered their way.
 Wondering they saw an island lay before them
 That no chart knew; so, on that summer day,
They landed where the breath of heaven bore them.
"The paradise of birds" was the strange name
The isle was called. No taint of human grief
Defiled the air. They strayed until they came
To a green tree, sun-lit on stem and leaf.
White spirit-birds in every bough sang clear;
Bird-spirits filled the isle both far and near.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Dashed Off VIII

 indwelling as the mode of God's union with the Church

conscientious judgments by summary court vs by deliberative trial
due process in judgments of conscience (cf. cases where we would think someone negligent in reflection)

"All the wicked who have gone before are signs of Antichrist." Aquinas

The prelude to action is sometimes the most important part of the action.

Scotus on the will as a collative power: it can will not only a good but a good as related to another (e.g., wanting X to b Y, wanting to use X for Y, hoping X from Y)

Vermigli in the Commentary on 1 Corinthians argues that "faith is the mother of charity" (he is arguing against the Thomistic view that charity is the form of faith)

"From faith, which is the gift of God, proceeds the efficient cause of repentance....The formal cause is conversion and change; the material cause is the will itself; the objects are the sins for which we sorrow, and the virtues which we strive to attain; the efficient cause is faith and God; the end is the honor of God and our own salvation." Peter Martyr Vermigli (Loci Communes 2.1)

The sacrament of matrimony both signifies the unity of Christ and the Church and brings it about by forming the domestic church.

Natural religion is inherently familial.

Almsgiving becomes satisfaction insofar as it has the nature of sacrifice.

"When through his illuminating power we fix our eyes on the beauty of the image of the unseen God, and through the image are led up to the more than beautiful vision of the archetype, his Spirit of knowledge is somehow inseparably present. He supplies to those who love to the see the truth the power to see the image in himself." Basil
"the goodness and holiness by nature and the royal dignity reach from the Father, through the Only-Begotten, to the Spirit"
"no gift at all comes to creation without the Holy Spirit"
"Moses saw well and wisely that disdain readily belongs to what is trite and easily understood, while that which is much desired is somehow naturally coupled with retirement and scarcity."
"This is the reason for non-scriptural traditions, that knowledge of dogmas not be neglected or despised by many because of familiarity."
"Standing fast in non-scriptural traditions is, I think, apostolic."

"The goods in which a man participates according to the grace of God also indebt him to share ungrudgingly with others." Maximus the Confessor

Receiving grace from God, we must give quasi-graces to others.

hospitableness as a potential part of justice

We come before the tribunal of penance as whole persons, and thus as moral, jural, and sacral, all at once.

"minister est sicut instrumentum intelligens" Aquinas ST 1.112.1

exemplar causation (Bonaventure)
idea -> word -> art -> purpose
(foreseeing -> proposing -> doing -> completing)

providing-hospitality vs accomodating-hospitality
-- these are distinct and the customs regarding them often come apart

"He who is sidetracked by the pleasure of the body is neither active for virtue, nor well-moved toward knowledge." Maximus

sacramentum tantum
-- qua rite
-- qua sign-vehicle
-- qua signifying
res et sacramentum
-- qua sacramentalized
-- qua received
-- qua carried forward
res tantum
-- qua divine favor/promise
-- qua Christ
-- qua grace in us

The paradisial mysteries (lignum vitae and marriage) are types of the Church as general sacrament, i.e., of the sacramental economy as a whole.

Pagan mysteries are signs of Christian mysteries, as expressing the human need for mysteries, and as showing certain suitabilities in human nature for certain signs (e.g., sacrifice, ablution, anointing).

Scripture as 'an external symbol with which the Lord seals for our conscience the promises of his friendliness toward us, in order to offer a support to the weakness of our faith' (Calvin's description of a sacrament)
-- Scripture as sign of the covenant

the Septenary as a sign of the completeness and excellent of the sacramental economy as a whole

baptism as an initiation into a company or companionship (2 Tim 2:11-13)

oblation : contrition :: consecration : confession :: communion : satisfaction

It is remarkable how freely 'pastoral' is used by people who have no idea what shepherds actually do; one would expect from their usages that shepherds let sheep do whatever they wish and try to be pleasant and neighborly with wolves.

Christian life under religious vow is concerned specifically with *completeness* of charity.

sacramental signs as notation describing the symphony of heaven

the moral causality of values (present motives why another should act)
-- the value as an object proposes an end (at least a general one) for action

All sacraments have a value within the intercession of the Ascended Christ in Session.

The indelibleness of sacramental character arises from the perfection of Christ's priesthood.

Love, in reaching toward good, forms new values in light of the ways it draws near to good.

sacramental signs as mood-creating, like certain kinds of poetry

Things can only be erroneous relative to the normative.

formal causation -> objective causation -> valuative causation

Hope is always expressed narratively.

Some things are naturally valued for themselves, or else nothing is valued.

Food does not have value for us because it is valued by us; we value it for its value for us.

People have inherent and intrinsic value; they are inherently valuable, i.e., such that they are in themselves reasonably valued; they are, so to speak, subsistent value.

Larissa M. Katz, "Ownership and Offices: The Building Blocks of the Legal Order"
-- "Stripped down, the idea of office is the warrant to make decisions that change the normative situations of others on behalf of others."
-- Katz claims, "There are no natural offices because there is no natural authority for any of us to determine with finality the aspects of our lives that we share with others." [This seems dubious.]
-- "Offices, as artificial creations, presuppose procedures for appointment."
-- "Officials have warrant to discharge their mandate only through the powers they have in that office and are constrained to exercise their powers just for the purposes for which they are conferred -- that is, their mandate."
-- "An office is the warrant that a person has for making decisions on behalf of another or, in other contexts, on behalf of all of us as participants in a legal order."
-- "Owners have large-scale powers to change the normative situation of others, enabling them to set the agenda for things."
-- "Ownership is hierarchical (the entire structure of property rights is based on a chain of authority and so gives rise to the principle, nemo dat quod non habet), positivist (ownership authority depends on law), and impersonal (no one claims authority over others with respect to things in virtue of anything particular to her).
-- "The Office of Sovereign holds the legal system together from beginning to end: it is not only the first office, but it is also the last office: this office is the residual holder of all power, and so all other offices are liable to collapse into it."

the visitatorial jurisdiction of the pope

parenthood as natural office

It's difficult to avoid the sense that most bishops are merely LARPing.

It's important to note that Jesus did not stop St. Martha from her work, he merely rebuked her when she put her own concerns above St. Mary's.

the modes of medicinal action
(1) curative
(2) conservative
(3) ameliorative
(4) preservative
(5) mitigative
(6) comfortative

It is pointless to talk of 'the case for' or 'against' markets; there is always a market, and the only question is what kind.

Duties are ways people unite with other people.

the body politic: Plato, Laws 829a; Aristotle, Politis 1253a; Seneca, Ep 95.51f; Epictetus, Diatr. 2.5.24

the sun-literature of the Church (hymns, theological works, writings of saints) and the moon-literature of the Church (novels, hagiographies, poems)

the Church as realized reconciliation with God

the five rites of the consecration of a church: aspersio, inscriptio, inunctio, illuminatio, benedictio

The Church is authorized, and thus has the right, to engage in any reasonable act suitable for furthering its divine mission.

"Thinking that energy pushes things is like thinking cars do division since they move in miles/hour, or thinking lightbulbs can multiply because they use electricity by the kilowatt-hours." Chastek

A free market is not an unrestricted market but a market constituted by free interactions of free people.

Every sacrament achieves its sacramental ends in us.

"In the matter of the validity and completeness of a sacrament, it is irrelevant to ask what the recipient of the sacrament belongs and with what faith he might be imbued; this question has great significance for the salvation of human beings, but is irrelevant to the question concerning the sacrament itself." Augustine (De bapt. 3.14.19)

Augustine on the status of catechumens -- De Civ. 13.7
on baptism of blood & desire -- De bapt. contr. Donat. 4.22, 29

memoria passionis Christi as the foundation for spiritual reception of the sacraments

"We are to erect no artificial opposition between our professional and social activity, on the one hand, and our religious life, on the other." Gaudium et spes 43

What are the minor sacraments (sacramentals) directly instituted by Christ? Lord's Prayer, certainly; foot-washing, Eucharistic hymn; anything else?

Identity (as in 'one's identity) is something received as gift in heritage and in destiny.

"O pater urbis, / unde nefas tantum Latiis pastoribus?" Juvenal

We get many competing views of something whenever there is something to know.

Auer's pathological desire to avoid associating the sacraments with magic -- a test that is inevitably based more on cultural association than on reasoned assessment -- distorts much of his discussion of the sacraments. (It's also self-defeating, because obviously the sacraments are going to look like some kinds of magic, because in the West some kinds of magic are imitations or mockeries of the sacraments.)

Every valid argument is more similar to some invalid arguments than some valid arguments. Every possible world is more similar to some impossible worlds than to some possible worlds. Every coherent system is more similar to some incoherent systems than to some coherent systems.

Our capacity to experiment builds on our capacity to engage in and adapt ritual.

Gennadios Scholarios takes Benjamin to be a type of St. Paul

sacrament, sacramental office, sacramental economy

We may receive sacraments in promise as well as in full attainment.

the problem of induction // the problem of learning from history

Refusal to forgive at least sometimes harms common good in definite ways.

waves // causing something without immediate contact

If we operationalized theology, we would do so by prayers.

classification proper vs classification per reductionem

The existence of cancel culture follows directly from the principles of privilege theory, since privileges are typically understood as protections from kinds of cancellation.

'partially interpreted formal systems'

All scientific experimentation posits some kind of community of inquirers.

We understand reality in light of the unrealized.

Completely to articulate even one observation requires many propositions.

Connecting the analytic a priori and the synthetic a posteriori is itself synthetic (usu. requiring both synthetic a priori and synthetic a posteriori).

Simplification is itself a basic form of explanation. As there are multiple distinct kinds of explanation, there are generally different kinds of explanation you can give of one thing.

Discovery requires an ability to identify valuable novelty.

What Mill's account of induction gets right is that induction is about sameness and difference.

Justification is only as good as discovery.

Reasonable inquirers use both induction and counterinduction, just giving normal priority to the former.

Agriculture is the incorporation of environment into our ritual life.

One reason to turn the other cheek is that sometimes it prevents things from becoming irreparable.

What you really value is often what you will forego pleasure and endure pain for.

Examination in and of itself implies something beyond the examination.

We can only determine whether a sample is random by induction. (This is important for the law of large numbers in the context of induction.)

the fecundity of induction in facilitating other kinds of reasoning

Events are only known as linked together.

statistical sampling as analogical inference

statistica inference and triplex via:
(1) The sample should not be confused with the population.
(2) The sample is derived from the population.
(3) The population is at least adequate to account for the sample.

In actual use, 'All ravens are black' and 'All nonblack things are nonravens' are usually not used in the same universes of discourse.

Narrative sense is the combination of causal sense and profile-fitting sense; often in intricate ways.

Even occult qualities explain/predict in the sense that they assign higher and lower probabilities to different possibilities. Dormitive virtue implies a greater probability of sleeping, and thus a lower probability of not sleeping.

functional explanations as supposing-the-system explanations

-- The end of an object at rest or moving rectilinearly at a velocity is to continue at rest or moving rectilinearly at that velocity unless it receives another end from elsewhere.
-- The change of end in an object moving or at rest is related, by vehemence and direction, to the reception of a new modification of its end.
-- When a body modifies the end of another body, the two bodies act mutually on each other so as to give each other complementary modifications of ends.

use of empty space // use of silence

demonstratives as requiring a demonstrative act (either in the use or presupposed)

three uses of pronouns: substitution, indication, quantification
-- We seem in practice to treat indicated things as if they were nouns. Castaneda holds that indicators have no antecedent, but in fact we seem to treat the indicated things as their antecedents.

The senses cannot distinguish necessary and non-necessary connections; this is different from saying that we do not sense necessary connections.

Modern theories of meaning often err by confusing reference-to and verified-of. We may refer to something with a description that is not verified of it.

Too sharp a distinction between context of discovery and context of justification distorts understanding of theory, which often operates simultaneously in both.

Scientific investigation being a social enterprise, issues of individual belief are largely secondary.

Few things so clearly prove our free will as our capacity to engage in scientific inquiry, which is a rational navigation of alternative possibilities.

yearning as the general tone of the Qur'an

The Meccan suras primarily focus on creation and judgment.

Modern Hollywood uses sex scenes as substitutes for scenes of sexual chemistry.

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Links of Note

 * David Polansky, Populism and Democratic Conflict: An Aristotelian View

* Peter Hartman, The Relation-Theory of Mental Acts: Durand of St.-Pourcain on the Ontological Status of Mental Acts (PDF)

* Victoria S. Harrison, What If the Dead Are Never Really Dead? (PDF), on Chinese folk religion

* Jacob Beck & Sam Clarke, Babies Are Born with an Innate Number Sense, at "Scientific American"

* Ed Simon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: Annotated, at "JSTOR Daily"

* Xinkai Hu, Complete Virtue and the Definition of Happiness in Aristotle (PDF)

* Robert Leider, The Modern Militia (PDF)

* Jeffrey Herf, Heidegger's Downfall, at "Quilette"

* Jeremy M. Christensen, The Garden Atonement and the Mormon Cross Taboo, at "Dialogue"

* Ben Myers, Can God's work in history be discerned? The ambiguities of providence in the poetry of John Milton

* Raphael's School of Athens: Greek Philosophy in the Renaissance, at "Antigone"

* Paul Craddock, 'Coming Out' as Working Class in Academia, at "Lex Academic Blog"

* Lane Brown, Bad Projection is Ruining the Movie Theater Experience, at "Vulture"

* Erin Risch Zoutendam, Reading the Song of Songs as Allegory with the Protestant Reformers, at "Modern Reformation"

* Suzy Weiss, Dishonor Code: What Happens When Cheating Is the Norm?, at "The Free Press"

* Daniel Rubio, Against the New Logical Argument from Evil (PDF)

* Quentin Ruyant, The Inductive Route Towards Necessity (PDF)

* Regan Penaluna, Masham and Me, at "Aeon"

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Three New Poem Drafts


I am shadow;
I am wind;
I am firelights that from the skies descend.

I felt my way through spider's webs;
the spider's threads were woven fine;
the weaving once was yet unfrayed,
and you were mine.

I have rested,
wandered through a dream,
fought dark sorrows beside a lonely stream,

yet here I am,
and I am here with you;
shadows blow around me,
bold and ever new.

Alien Space Station

They stand, proud gates at the edge of the sea,
in kingly splendor in unremembered realms,
which chieftains once served with humble hands;
then they sailed across the oceans of the stars
in dark adventures time does not record.

They have stood, immersed in a sea of dreaming
as rays of light continue their stately drone
for ages none have counted, beyond all tale,
beyond the final years of the sciences that built them,
beyond the peoples who raised their forms;

they stand alone,
the remnants of fantastic means and will,
deaf and dumb and blind, and all alone,
last sentries of a strange nation,
ruining down with the frictions of time.

The Green of Tree

The green of tree is fair and bright,
illumined with an inner light,
a balm to dull and weary sight,
and sharp as blade.

The green of tree is clear and clean,
for eye like water drinks all green
and tastes the sweetness of a sheen
that will not fade.

The roses, I know, are growing here.
The times are but a shadow;
in every blossom hopes appear
amidst a sullen sorrow.
Now grasp the thorns; the pain is dear
or else all life is hollow.

The green of tree is fair and fine
and through the sky is intertwined;
the eye may yet a heaven find
where branches play.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Enwrought with Golden and Silver Light

 He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
by W. B. Yeats 

 Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Monday, March 06, 2023


 I've long criticized modern theological jargon. Theological jargon, even that which has a very good reason behind it, sometimes needs, I think, to be broken up so that it doesn't cover over and choke out more important things; but modern theological jargon often has no good reason behind it all, and is often highly misleading, serving no function except to litter committee reports. I've criticized 'encounter' (in English, unlike its cognates in Romance languages, it means an unplanned meeting, usually by accident) and 'accompaniment' (which in English means a side-dish or a supporting musical part). One that I have not criticized yet, but has been very much in the air the past few years is 'synodality'.

There is a legitimate theological term, 'synodality', which just means that aspect of a bishop's office that has to do with working together with other bishops. A 'synod' is just a meeting of bishops; synodality in the proper sense is just the meeting-power of bishops, which for various theological reasons I won't get into here is always operative, and organizes the whole episcopacy as a sort of council even when scattered throughout the world.

However, in recent years another meaning entirely has arisen; you can't tell it's a new one because it doesn't just apply to bishops but to everyone. It seems to have grown around the false etymology of 'synod' as 'journeying together'. The Greek word synodos seems never to have meant 'journeying together'; hodos, road or path, can figuratively mean a journey (i.e., what you do on a road or path), but this is not its primary meaning. The actual etymology for synodos, as far as we can tell, is a meeting of roads, which (long before it became a theological term) became a way of talking about any kind of conjunction, meeting, gathering, or assembly, i.e., our different paths having come together so that we are in the same place. As I said, this meaning became the standard meaning long before it was ever used in theology, and it is this meaning that was taken up into theology. But the folk etymology is really popular among certain demographics in the Church; and it is perhaps not hugely surprising in our day and age that people really want to take a term that is about the destination and make it all about the journey. Maybe the real synod is the friends we met along the way!

Regardless, we are stuck with people using a perfectly good old word for one thing as new and completely manufactured jargon for another thing, so we should ask what that other thing is. Etymology, after all, however culpable it may be for the existence of the jargon, is not definition. If we read the International Theological Commission on it, after they give the false etymology and misattribute it to St. John Chrysostom by mistranslating his comment that ekklesia and synodos are synonyms, they ramble around trying to make the real meaning of the word somehow fit the way it is used in the new jargon, and in the course of their doing so, it becomes clear that the word is just supposed to mean 'communion'. Over and over and over again they have to use 'communion' to explain it. This is the very worst kind of jargon, in which we have twisted the meaning of a perfectly good word doing perfectly good work in order to replace a word that is already much more clear and much more useful than the new twisted word.

The correct Greek for what the 'synodalists' are talking about is koinonia, which means 'communion'. So why would anyone use the word 'synodality', a pompous, gaudy, gilded neologism, when we have the simple and earnest word 'communion' instead? I suspect it's because the people using the word don't listen. They don't listen to themselves, to hear how they sound; they don't listen to others (or they would realize that most people have no idea what they are talking about); they don't listen to those who have come before (or they would realize that they have already been taught the much more accessible word by people who weren't making fools of themselves by trying to sound fancier than they actually were). This is the usual reason why people use jargon of this sort -- you do it when you aren't speaking to communicate, to make a meaning in common, but to sound a certain way regardless of your interlocutor. Or, indeed, to sound like you mean a lot when you can't be bothered to mean much at all.

The Individualities of the Poets

 Since literary history first ceased to be a mere collection of names, people have attempted to grasp and formulate the individualities of the poets. A certain mechanism forms part of the method: it must be explained—i.e., it must be deduced from principles—why this or that individuality appears in this way and not in that. People now study biographical details, environment, acquaintances, contemporary events, and believe that by mixing all these ingredients together they will be able to manufacture the wished-for individuality. But they forget that the punctum saliens, the indefinable individual characteristics, can never be obtained from a compound of this nature. The less there is known about the life and times of the poet, the less applicable is this mechanism. When, however, we have merely the works and the name of the writer, it is almost impossible to detect the individuality, at all events, for those who put their faith in the mechanism in question; and particularly when the works are perfect, when they are pieces of popular poetry. For the best way for these mechanicians to grasp individual characteristics is by perceiving deviations from the genius of the people; the aberrations and hidden allusions: and the fewer discrepancies to be found in a poem the fainter will be the traces of the individual poet who composed it.

 All those deviations, everything dull and below the ordinary standard which scholars think they perceive in the Homeric poems, were attributed to tradition, which thus became the scapegoat. What was left of Homer's own individual work? Nothing but a series of beautiful and prominent passages chosen in accordance with subjective taste. The sum total of √¶sthetic singularity which every individual scholar perceived with his own artistic gifts, he now called Homer.

[Friedrich Nietzsche, "Homer and Classical Philology", J. M. Kennedy, tr.]

Sunday, March 05, 2023

Metaphysical Animals

 I've been listening to audiobooks in various circumstances (commute to campus, office hours when I don't have any students in, walks), and one I recently finished and liked a lot is Metaphysical Animals by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman. Subtitled How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life, it depicts the interwoven early careers of Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch. It has a particular story that it wants to present -- that the four women were at the very least central figures in breaking the anti-metaphysical spell of early analytic philosophy, which they were able to do in part because of talent and in part because of timing, as they began to come to prominence right as World War II pulled away many British men and created a space for different approaches that could be explored by women and refugee academics. Like any such story, it fits some evidence better than others, but it's vigorously and interestingly told, and backed extensively by contemporary writings; it is also fundamentally a framework that, while the authors develop it extensively, comes from elsewhere -- namely, Mary Midgley herself, who, as the last of the four friends and colleagues to die (in 2018), was a living connection to the period and who had more briefly argued herself for such a story in some of her works. (Midgley is also a significant influence on another, similar work, Benjamin Lipscomb's The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics.) The book does a very good job of capturing the different personalities of the four -- quiet Mary slowly feeling her way to self-confidence, borderline-wild and highly creative Iris, socially polished  but intellectually maverick Philippa, highly talented and indomitable Elizabeth. It also does a good job of showing how they both mutually supported and often seriously challenged each other.