Saturday, June 08, 2024

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People


Opening Passage: 

Britain, formerly known as Albion, is an island in the ocean, lying towards the north west at a considerable distance from the coasts of Germany, Gaul, and Spain, which together form the greater part of Europe. It extends 800 miles northwards, and it is 200 in breadth, except where a number of promontories stretch further, so that the total coastline extends to 3600 miles. To the south lies Belgic Gaul, to whose coast the shortest crossing is from the city known as Rutubi Portus, which the English have corrupted to Reptacaestir. The distance from there across the sea to Gessoriacum, the nearest coast of the Morini, is fifty miles, or, as some have written, 450 furlongs. On the opposite side of Britain, which lies open to the boundless ocean, lie the isles of the Orcades. Britain is rich in grain and timber; it has good pasturage for cattle and draught animals, and vines are cultivated in various localities. There are many land and sea birds of various species, and it is well known for its plentiful springs and rivers abounding in fish. Salmon and eels are especially plentiful, while seals, dolphins, and sometimes whales are caught. There are also m any varieties of shell-fish, such as mussels, in which are often found excellent pearls of several colours, red, purple, violet, and green, but mainly white. Whelks are abundant, and a beautiful scarlet dye is extracted from them which remains unfaded by sunshine or rain; indeed, the older the cloth, the more beautiful the colour.... (pp. 44-45)

Summary: We could all the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by a different title: the Ecclesiastical History of How the English Became a People. It begins not with the English but with the Britons, who are the denizens of Roman Britain and, as part of the Roman Empire, receive Christianity and form Christian polities early. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes begin to arrive in various contexts afterward. But the Britons commit a grave error (indeed, Bede thinks of it as a sin); they do not evangelize the newcomers. Instead this falls to Pope Gregory the Great, who far away in Rome sees what needs to be done and what the Britons are not doing, and who sends the monk Augustine to preach the faith to the Angles and establish the See of Canterbury. The faith spreads among the various kingdoms that had grown out of the immigration of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, reforming the mores and building monastic institutions. This culminates in Book IV with the second non-English figure to play a direct role in the formation of the English as a people, Theodore, a Greek from Tarsus who is sent by Pope Vitalius to become the bishop of Canterbury. Under Theodore, and in part due to his holiness, balanced judgment, and orthodoxy, the English Church is for the first time unified, both institutionally and and as English. From that point, the English Church is blessed with saints, miracles, and increasing political peace, up to Bede's own day. 

It's well known that a major concern throughout the Ecclesiastical History is the dating of Easter; the method of dating used by the Celtic Britons having diverged from that of the rest of the Church, probably due to the need of missionaries to simplify the matter as they were originally spreading the faith. Bede, of course, was interested in calendars in their own right. But the calendrical dispute is much more for him. It is, along with the recurring Pelagian heresy, a sign that the Britons, and some of the English due to their influence, were insufficiently connected to the rest of the year. One reason why Gregory and Theodore loom so large in the history is that they are representatives of the greater Church -- Gregory establishing the close connection between the English Church and the Apostolic See and Theodore representing the fact that the authority of Rome was also the authority of the whole Church, including the Eastern churches. The Church as a whole is one, holy, universal, and catholic. Bede is quick to recognize the holiness of the British saints, whose commitment and ascetic devotion he admires, but the struggle over the Easter dating shows that the links required for apostolicity and catholicity are not as strong as they should be; the hold-outs slowly converting to the Roman method of dating are not merely changing their calendar but re-establishing the essential links, and in particular the Roman link, that makes the English Church apostolic and catholic. Thus the history begins with the conditions that eventually lead up to the divergence, and essentially ends with the most important center for the hold-outs, Iona, accepting the Roman method, a sign that the disrupted channels of apostolicity and catholicity have been finally healed.

Thus the English people are formed as such by the formation of the English Church, at least in part, and the English Church develops into a form suitable to a people not by isolation but by greater integration into the broader Church. Nor is this a purely abstract thesis. Bede is recognized as a significant historian in part by his diligence in connecting his account with a diverse array of testimonial evidence, unusual for his time (and, indeed, most times). He does this, however, not for purely scholarly reasons, but because the story he is telling is about himself and his initial readers; the concern for evidence is a concern for situation himself and his readers in such a way that they are clearly connected with the events and people described in the history. It is a book with a 'we' -- namely, the English of Bede's day -- and it is about the identity and nature of this 'we', a 'we' that has grown up slowly but providentially, a 'we' that is deeply rooted and, partly because of it, is thriving in the days of Bede and his readers.  It is not merely a book about a people; it is a book constructed from that people's testimonies and written for that people to appreciate themselves as a people.

Favorite Passage: 

...For when Wilfrid had first arrived in teh province and found so much misery from famine, he taught the people to obtain food by fishing; for although fish were plentiful in the sea and rivers, the people had no knowledge of fishing and caught only eels. So the bishop's men collected eel-nets from all sides and cast them into the sea, where, by the aid of God's grace, they quickly caught three hundred fishes of various kinds. These they divided into three portions, giving a hundred to the poor, a hundred to those who had lent their nets, and retaining a hundred for their own needs. By this good turn the bishop won the hearts of all, and the people began to listen more readily to his teaching, hoping to obtain heavenly blessings through the ministry of one to whom they already owed these material benefits. (pp. 226-227)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Sherley-Price, Latham, and Farmer, trs,  Penguin (1995). 

Friday, June 07, 2024

Conceivability and Possibility

 An interesting argument from Rosmini for the principle that only what is conceivable is possible:

The ideological evidence can also be analysed by reflection and reduced to an argument as follows: all that does not involve contradiction is conceivable. But that which involves contradiction implies annihilation of itself because one extreme of a contradiction annihilates the other. Every contradiction can, in fact, be represented by the formula: a – a = 0. But nothing cannot be, precisely because it is not being. Therefore, all that cannot be conceived, cannot exist. 

This proof is founded on the breadth of thought and intelligence. In turn, this breadth arises because the proper, objective form of intelligence is being and, in the case of human intelligence, undetermined being, which has no limits. The essential unlimitedness of being and of undetermined being is, however, evident per se.

[Antonio Rosmini, Theosophy, Volume 1, Denis Cleary & Terence Watson, trs., Rosmini House (Durham: 2007), p. 396 (section 451).] 

We have to be somewhat careful with Theosophy, since it was published posthumously without Rosmini having wholly revised it. But this is a very Rosminian argument. A potential worry about it is the first premise, "all that does not involve contradiction is conceivable"; but I take it that Rosmini regards this as implied by the close connection between the principle of noncontradiction and being as an object of intellect (hence the second paragraph).

The equational representation of contradiction is interesting, and I would guess is directly or indirectly influenced by Leibniz. It's worth comparing this to Boole's representation, x(1-x)=0, which, because of the equivalence of x^2 and x in Boole's logic is equivalent to Rosmini's; although, of course, there are reasons why Boole gives it in a multiplication-based form rather than an addition-based form.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

I Laid Me Down and Pondered

 Midnight in June
by John Franklin Blair 

I rose from my bed at midnight,
 On a calm, still night in June;
 I saw, shining in through the window,
 The lovely rays of the moon. 

 Then I leaned out of the window
 And beheld the glories of night,
 The trees, with their spreading branches,
 Reflecting the bright moonlight. 

 I noted the gloomy shadows
 Beneath the large maple trees,
 And heard a soft low murmur,
 Caused by the gentle breeze. 

 I gazed for a moment, enchanted,
 Viewing the beautiful scene,
 So quiet, so still, I murmured,
 How blissful, how serene! 

 Then down in the shining meadows,
 I saw the cows and the sheep,
 Upon the soft, dewy grasses,
 All lying fast asleep. 

 And far away in the distance,
 Upon a high steep hill,
 So gloomy, dark and solemn,
 The forest tall and still. 

 I saw the old mill below it,
 I heard the gurgling sound
 Of the rushing mountain brooklet
 That made the wheel go round. 

 I saw the waving wheatfields,
 With many a well filled head
 Which grew to make the flour
 Which gives us daily bread. 

 I laid me down and pondered
 O'er all those things I saw,
 And said, with deep devotion,
 How wondrous is God's law!

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Thomas Aquinas on the Ars Notoria

 In ST 2-2.96.1, as part of his discussions of observantiae or observances that are associated with the vice of superstition, Thomas Aquinas discusses the ars notoria. Interestingly, this is an article in which the Dominican Fathers translation is not very good at all.* The translation has the generic "magical arts", "magic art", and (once) "notary art". In all of these, Thomas Aquinas speaks specifically of the ars notoria. The notory (not notary) art is a very specific tradition of magical practice, and one that was particularly tempting to monks and friars and the like, because it was for the purpose of learning arts and sciences. 

The ars notoria is notoria because it uses notae, which are magical diagrams. In fact, 'notory' is the English word for 'involving the use of magical symbols and diagrams', and derives etymologically from this particular art. These notae were used in invocations of (usually) angels and (sometimes) demons and beings of the air. As such it is a part of a broader tradition of Solomonic arts, called so because they are connected with legends of King Solomon. The notory art in particular was said to have been delivered to Solomon by the angel Pamphilius on golden tablets, containing various diagrams and prayers and invocations associated with using them. We don't know for sure how exactly the diagrams played a role; they are often similar to images used in ordinary non-magical mnemonic arts, but also to common ordinary devotional symbols. It's possible that they were guides to prayer, like the latter, or that they served as a kind of memory palace, like the former. Since the notory art is heavily associated in what literature we have with visions, they may have been deliberately used to facilitate visions. 

St. Thomas is quite vehement in his judgment of the ars notoriaars notoria et illicita est, et inefficax. In all of his discussion of superstitious observances, St. Thomas is guided by a text by St. Augustine which talks of "compacts by tokens with demons". Direct agreements with demons are associated with nigromantia (black magic) or necromantia (death magic) -- medieval Latin does not make a sharp distinction between the two. However, the ars notoria involves no direct agreements with demons; rather, as St. Thomas sees it, it creates an implicit compact with demons by using signs in ways that attempt to direct spirits of any kind. Notorists usually intended to invoke angels rather than demons, of course, but I don't think Aquinas would consider this particularly relevant; demons, after all, are angels, and use such signs to delude the unwary. Aquinas is not against use of signs of various kinds in prayer; but acceptable signs are either divinely instituted (whether directly by God or indirectly by God's giving the Church authority in matters of prayer) or are signs used in the ordinary way to convey meaning. 

What fundamentally bothers St. Thomas when it comes to the notory art is that its means are inappropriate to its end. The notae are not causes of knowledge; they are usually pretty basic geometrical symbols, sometimes written with various words, letters, and numbers. Inspection of them will not itself give you understanding of the liberal arts or the sciences. Rather, they are only signs that are used when invoking spirits to give you knowledge. And the invocations themselves are attempts to bypass the way of coming to know that is appropriate to human nature (acquisitio scientiae per modum homini connaturalem), namely, the way of discovery and study. God sometimes gives knowledge without discovery or study, but this is not something that can be had by any art, since it is purely a matter of grace, and it is given not for one's own personal interest in learning but for the good of the Church. The ars notoria, of course, is an alleged ars, intended to cause knowledge; but it's actually spirits, whom the invoker cannot actually control, who are supposed to provide the results. In fact, only God can directly enlighten the intellect; Aquinas is very clear that angels, demons, and any other spirits there might be cannot generally do so. When the notory art gets its results, therefore, they are necessarily sham; even if it were actually invoking only angels, angels cannot directly give us knowledge, and the same is true of demons. The demons instead influence our imagination in deceptive and misleading ways. Thus the actual practices are nugatory (nugatoria) and poisonous (noxia) when it comes to real learning. 

While Aquinas discusses the art on general principles, it's perhaps worth noting that actual experience with the notory art seems to conform with his discussion, as far as we know it. Notorists tended to treat the art as effective, contrary to Aquinas, of course, but when you look at the specifics of what they claimed to have learned, it's not particularly impressive, and often just involves remembering things more easily. And we have recorded experiences in late medieval literature of people trying the notory art and finding that it gave them terrible nightmares and repulsive visions.

This little article in the Summa, easily overlooked by us, actually played a significant role in the history of magic, because Aquinas's discussion was a major influence on the Church's late medieval condemnations of all varieties of notory art, which were often quite harsh. The late medieval Church was often also worried about the occasionally similarities between notorial and necromantic figures, but this is a secondary issue. St. Thomas gives the first and essential principle explaining why the notory art is illicit in itself: the way one acquires knowledge must be appropriate to the intellect itself. If the signs had a direct causal contribution to your knowledge (as geometrical diagrams do), there would be no problem, because they would just be part of our intellectual discovery; if the prayers were just prayers to God for aid, they would be ordinary religious piety and would not themselves be any sort of substitute for ordinary study; but as mere signs that are associated with invoking spirits, they are superstitious rites inappropriate to learning -- a completely futile attempt to get spirits to do your learning for you, an unnatural endeavor that is both bad for your intellectual life and an abuse of your relationship with the spiritual world.


* Looking into this further, it appears that the translation at New Advent (cited as the Second and Revised edition of 1920) is different from some others. This version of the translation, from 1922, is somewhat better, although still in some ways flawed.

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Omnino Simplex

My rough translation of Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1.3.7. The Latin is here, the Dominican Father translation is here.


It seems that God is not wholly simple. For whatever is from God, imitates Him; thus all beings are from first being, and all goods are from first good. But in things that are from God, there is nothing wholly simple. Therefore God is not wholly simple.

Further, all that is best is attributed to God. But with us, the composite are better than the simple, as bodies mixed from elements than elements that are their parts. Therefore it must be said that God is not wholly simple.

But to the contrary is what Augustine says (Trin. VI), that God is truly and supremely simple.

I reply that it must be said that God's being wholly simple can be manifested in many ways. 

First, by what is said above. For in God there is no composition -- neither of quantitative parts, because He is not a body; nor composition of form and matter; nor in Him are nature and supposit other; nor are essence and actual being other; nor in Him is composition of genus and difference; nor of subject and accident; thus it is manifest that God is in no way composite, but is wholly simple.

Second, because every composite is posterior to its components, and depends on them. But God is first being, as shown above. 

Third, because every composite has a cause, since things diverse in themselves do not come together in one thing except through some cause joining them together. But God does not have a cause, as shown above, because He is first efficient cause.

Fourth, because in every composite there should be the actual and the potential, which is not in God, because either one part is actual with respect to the other, or at least all parts are potential with respect to the whole.

Fifth, because every composite is a thing not conjoined to its parts; and this is manifest in whole of dissimilar parts, for no part of man is man, nor is any part of a foot the foot. But in wholes of similar parts, something said of the whole is said of the part, as part of air is air and of water, water; yet something is said of the whole that is not conjoined to its parts, for if the whole water is two cubits, a part is not. Thus in every composite there is something that is not itself. But even if this could be said of what has form, that it has something that is not itself (as in what is white there is something that does not pertain to the notion of white), nonetheless in the form itself there is nothing other than itself. Therefore, because God is form itself, or rather being itself, He cannot be composite in any way. And Hilary touches on this reason (Trin. VII), saying, God, who is power, is not constituted by the weak, nor is He who is light put together from the dark.

To the first, therefore, it must be sad that whatever is from God imitates Him as the caused the first cause. But it belongs to the notion of the caused that it be in some way composed, because at minimum its actual being is other than that which is, as will appear below.

To the second, it must be said that with us the composite is better than the simple because completeness of good for a creature is not found in one simple thing, but in many. But the completeness of divine good is found in one simple thing, as shown below.

Monday, June 03, 2024

How Beautiful Is Gentleness

by Archibald Lampman 

 Blind multitudes that jar confusèdly
 At strife, earth's children, will ye never rest
From toils made hateful here, and dawns distressed
With ravelling self-engendered misery?
 And will ye never know, till sleep shall see
 Your graves, how dreadful and how dark indeed
 Are pride, self-will, and blind-voiced anger, greed,
And malice with its subtle cruelty?
 How beautiful is gentleness, whose face
 Like April sunshine, or the summer rain,
 Swells everywhere the buds of generous thought;
So easy, and so sweet it is; its grace
 Smoothes out so soon the tangled knots of pain.
Can ye not learn it? will ye not be taught?

Sunday, June 02, 2024