Beowulf, pictured

September 18, 2017

Beowulf
Adapted by Gareth Hinds
(Candlewick, 2007)
128 p.

Generally speaking I’m fond of attempts to adapt classic stories into a variety of different forms: poetry, film, music. Granting that such adaptations are usually inferior to their originals, they nonetheless can give a familiar story a new freshness, and when done with affection and appreciation they augment my appreciation too.

Beowulf is an interesting case, for the Old English original is inaccessible to me (still, though I have dormant plans), and all I’ve ever known are a variety of adaptations, some, I believe, more nearly conveying the experience of reading the original than others. Gareth Hinds has adapted the story into a graphic novel, which, given the nature of the medium, means that he is primarily adapting the story rather than the poem, but it’s such a wonderful story, and so well suited to a visual treatment, that I approached it in a spirit of expectation, especially on the strength of a glowing appraisal in a recent overview of Beowulf adaptations.

I’ll be the first to admit that my familiarity with graphic novels is slight, and so I am perhaps not an informed judge, but I thought this was excellent and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It is quite faithful to the original, both in overall structure and in certain details. As to the latter, for instance, there is that brief sequence shortly after Beowulf’s arrival at Heorot in which King Hrothgar’s wife makes an appearance in the hall; it is a notable moment of the poem because it’s the only occasion, I believe, in which a woman enters the action (unless we count Grendel’s mother); Hinds introduces her at the same point, and with the same modest emphasis.

As to the structure of the story, Hinds captures and conveys it brilliantly through the use of three very different colour palettes for the story’s three panels. Each of the three battle scenes are shown in long, wordless sequences of drawings. The monsters are truly monstrous, and, like the poem, this graphic novel is extremely violent (reserved for teens or older, I should think). Where Hinds does use words, they are of an elevated tone befitting the material, and on the basis of the occasional echoes of alliterative verse that I hear in the prose, I believe he must be relying in whole or in part on an uncredited translation.

For me an edition of Beowulf like this could never be a substitute for a verse translation (of which my favourite is Sullivan/Murphy), but as a complement it has much to recommend it. In closing, here are a few photographs to give a flavour of the look of the book:


If ye love me

September 13, 2017

Here is a good recording of Tallis’ If ye love me in rehearsal, sung by the superb ensemble Vox Luminis. I always find these rehearsal videos a bit jarring: it seems incongruous to see such a slovenly assortment of unshaven, rumpled creatures producing such a heavenly sound. I imagine it must have been quite amusing to this group to show up on rehearsal day and find that two of the singers had dressed the same. “Let’s put them in the middle!”

Anyway, the music is divine.

 


Benson: Confessions of a Convert

September 10, 2017

Confessions of a Convert
Robert Hugh Benson
(Christian Classics, 2016) [1913]
128 p.

Robert Hugh Benson was one of the more notable of the English converts to Catholicism who flagged in eminence behind John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton. Not only was he a well-known clergyman of the Church of England, but his father had been Archbishop of Canterbury, and so he had grown up in the elite circles of English society and Anglican religion. He was in his early 30s when he abandoned his position to be received into the Catholic Church, and approximately a decade later he published this brief spiritual autobiography.

It is not a spiritual autobiography worthy to compare with the greatest, but for those who have followed something like a similar course, or for those contemplating something like a similar course, or just for Catholics suffering an acute case of Anglophilia there is much here to hold one’s interest.

Despite his upbringing in a highly-churched milieu, he professes to have had little religious inclination as a child. It was only when he went to university and encountered, surely not for the first time, but with new appreciation, the sacred music of the liturgy that his religious sense was awakened: “It was the music, first and last, and it was through that opening that I first began to catch glimpses of the spiritual world.” With hindsight he considers this aesthetic experience as, in itself, incomplete, but credits it with having turned him in the right direction and urged him forward, a twitch upon the thread.

It didn’t take long for him to take a professional turn toward religion. Perhaps because of the family upbringing he had had, and without any great fervency, he thought it fitting that he become a clergyman, and began to take steps in that direction. It is amusing to read of his general view of the landscape of the Christian world at that time, the exemplar of the parochial English parson:

“The Roman Catholics, I thought, were obviously corrupt and decayed, the Ritualists were tainted, and the extreme Protestants were noisy, extravagant, and vulgar. Plainly there was only one religious life possible, that of a quiet country clergyman, with a beautiful garden, an exquisite choir, and a sober bachelor existence.”

This all changed when, shortly after his ordination to the diaconate, he travelled to the Holy Land. It did not take long for him to perceive that there, at the center of it all, the Church of England was an oddity that meant not very much to not very many. He saw that others regarded him rather as he would have regarded someone from the national Church of Zembla who thought the Church of Zembla the natural via media to which all well-balanced, thoughtful Christians ought to belong: an object of gentle amusement and benign pity.

Upon his return, then, he saw Anglicanism in a new, less flattering light, and he began to think critically about it. He became troubled by the weakness of the Anglican case for continuity with the medieval and patristic Church, and he began to see, too, the need for a living, authoritative voice in the Church to interpret and Gospel in new situations and to answer new questions. He gravitated toward “High Church” Anglicanism, on the reasonable grounds that “faith and its expression should go together”, but he came to wonder if the Anglican service, “rendered so beautiful by art and devotion, was no more than a subjective effort to assert our claim to what we did not possess.” And this doubt, once raised, could not be resolved by backing off of High Church principles; it was prompted by Anglicanism itself.

Life moved on, of course. He joined an Anglican religious community modeled on the Benedictines. In time, his wrestling with questions of authority and continuity led him to adopt the theory of “the Church Diffusive”, as he called it. The Church Diffusive consisted of all churches faithful to the creeds and having apostolic authority — in practice, in his view at that time, Rome, Moscow, and Canterbury. Where these churches agreed, the Holy Spirit was speaking authoritatively; where they disagreed, private judgement prevailed.

The principal problem with the theory of the Church Diffusive, of course, was that the member churches of the Church Diffusive rejected it. If the theory was right, then those churches were religious authorities; but if they were religious authorities, then the theory must be false. It didn’t take Benson long to see this problem clearly.

Part of what he wanted to see in a Church was confidence and authority to speak boldly on matters of faith and morals, as one having not just a duty but also competence to do so:

“In things that directly and practically affect souls…she must not only know her mind, but must be constantly declaring it, and no less constantly silencing those who would obscure or misinterpret it.”

There are those, of course, who criticize the Catholic Church for speaking in just this way — though opportunities for such criticism seem not so plentiful of late as they once were — but for Benson it was a definite attraction; he understood that this confidence was a sign of a healthy authority.

He discussed these matters with friends, and they, in their concern that he might become a Catholic, sent him to a variety of distinguished Anglican theologians for counsel and instruction. He listened to them, and heard their learned explanations of the merits of Anglicanism, but was struck by an insight:

“I suddenly realized clearly what I had only suspected before; namely, that if the Church of Christ was, as I believed it to be, God’s way of salvation, it was impossible that the finding of it should be a matter of shrewdness or scholarship.”

And this applied also to the evidence of Scripture:

“Dogmas such as that of the Blessed Trinity, sacraments such as that of Confirmation, institutions such as that of Episcopacy — all these things can indeed, to the Anglican as well as the Catholic mind, be found in Scripture if a man will dig for them. But the Petrine claim needs no digging: it lies like a great jewel, blazing on the surface, when once one has rubbed one’s eyes clear of anti-Catholic predisposition.”

This insight — that too much subtlety was a defect — seems to have brought him up to the edge of the Tiber, and it was reading Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine that convinced him to take the plunge: it “waved away the last floating mists and let me see the City of God in her strength and beauty”.

He was not, we may say, a happy convert. C.S. Lewis famously described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”, but Benson beat him to it:

“I had no kind of emotional attraction towards it, no illusions of any kind about it. I knew perfectly well that it was human as well as divine, that crimes had been committed within its walls; that the ways and customs and language of its citizens would be other than those of the dear homely town which I had left; that I should find hardness there, unfamiliar manners, even suspicion and blame. But for all that it was divine; it was built upon the Rock of rocks; its foundations were jewelled even if its streets were as hard as gold; and the Lamb was the light of it.

But the setting out towards its gates was a hard task. I had no energy, no sense of welcome or exultation; I knew hardly more than three or four of its inmates. I was deadly sick and tired of the whole thing.”

And so, in 1903, he was received into the Catholic Church. The interesting final act of the book details how people responded to his decision. He describes one Anglican dignitary who thought that approaching the Catholic Church “not as a critic or a teacher, but as a child and a learner” was immoral; he apparently considered religion rightly to be “a matter more or less of individual choices and tastes”, a view that has waxed greatly in prevalence in the interim years without becoming any less daft. In fact Benson was criticized roundly from all quarters, but the spectrum of opinion struck him as noteworthy:

“I have been told that I became a Catholic because I was dispirited at failure and because I was elated at success; because I was imaginative and because I was imperceptive; because I was not hopeful enough and because I was too hopeful, faithless and too trusting, too ardent and too despairing, proud and pusillanimous.”

But then again, somewhat to his surprise, many Anglicans, both of his acquaintance and in the general public, were also supportive of his decision. Even more surprising was the incomprehension he encountered among some Catholics who could not understand why he would abandon a perfectly respectable English church to adopt a “foreign” one. The tribal instinct is strong.

Benson has some sound things to say about the process of conversion. Though he had been largely motivated by fairly abstract questions about religious authority and about what the Church is, the resolution of his doubts involved more than abstractions:

“Catechumens, therefore, must remember that while on the one side they must of course clear the ground by the action of the intellect, on the other side it is far more vital that they should pray, purify motives, and yield themselves to God.”

And again, later:

“The puzzle which God had flung to me consisted of elements which needed for their solution not the head only, but the heart, the imagination, the intuitions; in fact, the entire human character had to deal with it.”

It could hardly be a conversion were it otherwise.

Benson died one year after publishing this book, at the age of just 42, whether from a lingering illness, or suddenly, I have not been able to discover. He accomplished a great deal in his short life, and this memoir of conversion, modest though it is, stands as a fine testament to a man who evidently loved truth, was devoted to God, and had the courage to put first things first.

**

[The spirituality of the city of Rome]
Here was this city, Renaissance from end to end, set under clear skies and a burning sun; and the religion in it was the soul dwelling in the body. It was the assertion of the reality of the human principle as embodying the divine. Even the exclusive tenets of Christianity were expressed under pagan images. Revelation spoke through forms of natural religion; God dwelt unashamed in the light of day; priests were priests, not aspiring clergymen; they sacrificed, sprinkled lustral water, went in long, rolling processions with incense and lights, and called heaven Olympus. Sacrum Divo Sebastiano, I saw inscribed on a granite altar. I sat under priest-professors who shouted, laughed, and joyously demonstrated before six nations in one lecture room. I saw the picture of the “Father of princes and kings and Lord of the world” exposed in the streets on his name-day, surrounded by flowers and oil lamps, in the manner in which, two centuries ago, other lords of the world were honoured. I went down into the Catacombs on St. Cecilia’s Day and St. Valentine’s, and smelled the box and the myrtle underfoot that did reverence to the fragrance of their memories, as centuries ago they had done reverence to victors in another kind of contest. In one sentence, I began to understand that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”; that as He took the created substance of a Virgin to fashion for Himself a natural body, so still He takes the created substance of men — their thoughts, their expressions, and their methods — to make for Himself that mystical body by which He is with us always; in short, I perceived that “there is nothing secular but sin.” Catholicism, then, is “materialistic?” Certainly; it is as materialistic as the Creation and the Incarnation, neither more nor less.

It is impossible to describe what this discovery means to a Northern soul. Certainly it means the obscuring of some of the old lights that had once seemed so beautiful in the half-gloom of individual experience, or rather, their drowning in the strong sunshine. Set beside some Roman pomp an exquisite Anglican service: how provincial, domestic, and individualistic becomes the latter! Set beside a Gregorian professor lecturing to Greeks, Roumanians, and Frenchmen, on the principles of restitution or the duty of citizens to the State, an Anglican divine expounding St. Paul’s Epistles to theological students; a friar in S. Carlo beside the most passionate mission preacher in the Church of England; the olive-laden peasants shouting hymns in S. Giovanne in Laterano beside a devout company of Anglicans gathered for Evensong; an hieratic sacrificer in S. Maria Maggiore beside the most perfectly drilled Ritualist in Mass vestments! Oh! Set any section of Catholic faith and worship seen in holy Rome beside the corresponding section of Anglican faith and worship! Yet Anglicans are shocked in Rome, and Dissenters exclaim at the paganism, and Free-thinkers smile at the narrowness of it all. Of course they are shocked and exclaim and smile. How should they not?

Thus, in truth, a sojourn in Rome means an expansion of view that is beyond words. Whereas up to that time I had been accustomed to image Christianity to myself as a delicate flower, divine because of its supernatural fragility, now I saw that it was a tree in whose branches the fowls of the air, once the enemies of its tender growth, can lodge in security — divine since the wideness of its reach and the strength of its mighty roots can be accounted for by nothing else. Before I had thought of it as of a fine, sweet aroma, to be appreciated apart; now I saw that it was the leaven, hid in the heavy measures of the world, expressing itself in terms incalculably coarser than itself, until the whole is leavened.


A hymn to the Virgin

September 8, 2017

It’s the birthday of Our Lady. Here is Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, in a wonderful performance from King’s College, Cambridge:


Sir Gawain, again

September 4, 2017

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Anonymous
Translated from the Middle English by Simon Armitage
(Faber & Faber, 2007) [c.1400]
ix + 114 p.

This is a poem that I love, and, in addition to a Middle English version, I’ve a few different translations in my collection, most notably that of Tolkien. Arguably one doesn’t need, and shouldn’t want, a translation, the original being adequately accessible to any reader willing to put in a little elbow grease, but I heard good things about this translation by Simon Armitage, and sometimes one just doesn’t have any elbow grease ready at hand.

Armitage has retained the basic poetic element of the original: an alliterative line with three (and sometimes four) stresses. When three, the three alliterate, but when four he sometimes opts to include two alliterative pairs. Consider, for example, this short passage taken from one of the hunting episodes:

On the bugles they blew three bellowing notes
to a din of baying and barking, and the dogs
which chased or wandered were chastened by whip. (ll.1141-3)

The first line has three stresses in the pattern aaa, but the second has two pairs in the pattern abba, and the third again has two pairs but in the pattern abab. Occasionally, as I said, he hits all four stresses with the same sound (“trussing and trying all the trammel and tack” (l.1129)), but these are exceptional.

Alliterative poetry is wonderful to read aloud, and I read this aloud to myself as much as I could — or as much as my saintly wife would tolerate in the wee hours while she was trying to sleep. Sometimes the ear picks up the stresses not evident to the eye, as in a line like: “A man quite capable, it occurred to Gawain” (l.848).

A novelty of Armitage’s version is that he has broken the poem up into short segments, almost all of which are short enough to fit on a single page, and has, at the end of each page, interrupted the regular scheme of stresses with a set of four short lines, each having two alliterative stresses, and sometimes rhyming. For example, here is the passage in which Gawain, whose cowardice and unfaithfulness have been unmasked by the Green Knight, gives voice to his regret:

Then he grabbed the girdle and ungathered its knot
and flung it in fury at the man in front.
‘My downfall and undoing, let the devil take it.
Dread of the death-blow and cowardly doubts
meant I gave into greed, and in doing so forgot
the fidelity and kindness which every knight knows.
As I feared, I am found to be flawed and false,
through treachery and untruth I have totally failed, said Gawain.

‘Such terrible mistakes,
and I shall bear the blame.
But tell me what it takes
to clear my clouded name. (ll.2376-88)

I found that I grew very fond of these little envoi as I read; they provided a punchy variation in the rhythm that kept me interested.

Although I did, for the most part, enjoy reading this translation very much, I found it sometimes lapsed into colloquialisms that I found jarring. Granted, this is not grand, solemn poetry like Beowulf, but still I cringed a little at passages like this one, spoken by the Green Knight as he lays down his shocking challenge to Arthur’s court:

“I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock.
So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts?
Who’ll spring from his seat and snatch this weapon? (ll.290-2)

The point is arguable; the Green Knight is a lively, uncouth character who might, I grant, speak in this way, if only to ruffle Arthurian feathers.

Armitage has also translated the same poet’s magnificent poem Pearl, and I’m curious about it. It is one of the most technically virtuosic poems in the English tradition, and I’m wondering how Armitage grapples with those challenges. Perhaps I’ll read it — in a year and a day.


Pieper: The Silence of Goethe

August 28, 2017

The Silence of Goethe
Josef Pieper
(St Augustine’s Press, 2009)
xii + 67 p.

Some time ago I noted the origins of this little book: Pieper, finding himself confined in a German POW camp, but with access to the complete works of Goethe, passed the time by reading the volumes in their entirety. This in itself was remarkable, but perhaps even more striking was that he then put pen to paper to write about the silence of Goethe.

Silence was a theme that attracted Pieper; another of his books, and a rather good one, is The Silence of St Thomas (the subject of which is, once again, one of the most prolific authors in history). But whereas in that case Pieper focused on what Thomas’ silence — that is, the topics he did not write about, or that he thought could not be written about — told us about his metaphysics and his theology, in this book on Goethe the themes are more modest, the silences of Goethe, like his words, not being as pregnant as those of St Thomas.

In this book Pieper reflects on what Goethe said about the relevance of silence, and of reticence more generally, to a well-lived life. It takes the form of a series of brief reflections on passages gleaned from Goethe’s works.

One of the themes that emerges is that silence is necessary for the health and flourishing of an inner life, for it is a hidden source from which one draws strength:

“What is best is the deep stillness in which, against the world, I live and grow, and gain what it cannot take from me by fire and sword.”

Or,

“There is deep meaning in the mad notion that it is necessary to act in silence in order to raise and take possession of a treasure properly; it is not permitted to say one word, no matter how much that is shocking and delightful may appear on all sides.”

This reminds me of something I once read in St John of the Cross in which he counselled his readers “never to reveal to another what God is doing in your inmost heart”, for by such revelations one risks distorting or destroying that delicate reality. And Goethe, too, seems to have felt that one should be circumspect about the highest things, lest one speak of them inadequately. Writes Pieper, “Even with his closest and dearest friends he remained silent about the most exalted things.” His friends noted that he became silent when talk turned to divine matters, saying, “Our best convictions cannot be expressed in words. Language is not capable of everything.”

Part of what Goethe understood by silence was public silence — that is, staying out of the public eye. “You live properly only if you live a hidden life.” Again, there is a certain irony here inasmuch as Goethe was forever putting his books before the public, and he was one of the best-known men in Europe, but his books were not himself, were not about himself, and so retained a kind of reticence. But it seems he enjoyed the contrast he cultivated between private reserve and public persona: “This is then the great charm of the otherwise questionable life of an author: that one is silent with one’s friends and at the same time prepared a great conversation with them which reaches out to every part of the world.”

He also maintained a prudent silence because he thought that the public did not, by and large, deserve to know his thoughts on various matters, being too preoccupied with gossip and sensation. This might be thought contemptuous, but Pieper defends him by drawing on St Thomas, who, in his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, said of the magnanimous man that “in his attitude to the throng he uses irony” and that he is rightly contemptuous of mean-spiritedness. “Such contempt is as little at odds with humility as it is at odds with truth, since no one’s just claim to honor is being injured.”

In the deepest sense, Goethe saw silence is a preparation for listening, for perceiving and receiving reality more clearly and fully. Says Pieper, “This listening silence is much deeper than the mere refraining from words and speech in human intercourse. It means a stillness, which, like a breath, has penetrated into the inmost chamber of one’s own soul. It is meant, in the Goethean “maxim”, to “deny myself as much as possible and to take up the object into myself as purely as it is possible to do”.” Pieper comments that “It is here that Goethe represents what, since Pythagoras, may be considered the silence tradition of the West”. There is a kind of hope implicit in this silence, since it waits in expectation of something true and good.

The second half of this (already very brief) volume consists of short excerpts from Goethe’s letters. Some of these continue the theme of silence, but others wander further afield. Since they present no clearly unified picture, I’ll conclude by simply quoting a few of those that struck me most forcefully.

**

“For we really ought not to speak of what we will do, of what we are doing, nor of what we have done.”

“A person who is used to silence remains silent.”

“What a person must do allows him to show what he is inwardly like. Anyone can live arbitrarily.”

“We can do no more than build a stack of wood and dry it properly. Then it will catch fire at the right time and we ourselves will be astonished by it.”

“If I had nothing to say except what people want to hear, I would be completely silent.”

“There are three kinds of reader: one who enjoys without making a judgment, a third who judges without enjoyment, and, in the middle, one who judges while enjoying and enjoys while judging. This middle one reproduces a work of art anew.”

“An individual has to give an account of himself. No one comes to his aid.”

“To see people and things exactly as they are and to say exactly what is on our mind — this is the right thing. We should not and cannot do more.”


In memoriam Josquin Desprez

August 27, 2017

Today is a good day to remember Josquin Desprez, who died on this date 496 years ago. Here is a video I made a few years ago to go along with one of my favourite of his pieces,  Mente tota (more background here).

Incidentally, I’m pretty proud of that video. The closing section, from about 3:10, turned out especially well.

And, since we are remembering Josquin today and not just celebrating him, here is the opening section of Jean Richafort’s impossibly gorgeous Requiem in memoriam Josquin Desprez:


Livy II: Rome’s Italian Wars

August 10, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri VI-X
Rome’s Italian Wars
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by J.C. Yardley
(Oxford, 2013) [c.20 BC]
448 p.

The first volume in this series covered the history of Rome from its legendary founding down to 390 BC, the year of Rome’s “second founding” after the city was sacked by the Gauls. This second volume continues the story for another century.

This was an important period in the history of Rome. After the Gauls sacked the city there was serious consideration given to abandoning Rome altogether, and she had, in any case, been little more than a local power up to that point. However, by the end of this period Rome was the dominant power in the region, ruling most of the Italian peninsula. The story of how this transformation came about — essentially, through a series of wars — is the central thread of Livy’s narrative in these books.

Livy remarks at the beginning of Book VI that his history will be presented henceforth “with greater clarity and certitude” than was possible for the history prior to the Gallic sacking, for the simple reason that the sacking had destroyed the records. We can therefore probably (?) be quite clear and certain that it was Camillus, the man who had led the army in the successful, last-ditch effort to drive out the Gauls, who convinced the Roman people to remain and rebuild their devastated city, and who is therefore honoured as “the second founder of Rome”.

Rome’s neighbours, seeing her in her weakened state, pressed their own advantage, and Camillus led the Roman army in a series of battles with these unneighbourly neighbours: the Volsci, Aequi, Etruscans, Latins, Tibur, Tarquinii, Falisci, Veitrae, Aurunci, and Hernici. The fact that these names are unfamiliar tells you something of how they fared; Rome was, almost invariably and certainly ultimately, victorious in these skirmishes. Her usual pattern, both now and in future, was to defeat the opposing army, subdue the population, pull down fortresses, and, in many cases, send Roman colonists to establish a permanent Roman presence in the conquered city. In some cases she granted a degree of Roman citizenship (which came in carefully graduated kinds). Defeats were seldom permanent however: we often read of Roman victories over so-and-so, but then so-and-so pops up again and again, ready for another drubbing. As we’ll see, even the Gauls, the boogeymen of the Roman psyche, came back.

Although Livy’s focus in this segment of his history is strongly focused on military affairs, we do learn about some of the principal developments in Rome’s internal politics during the rebuilding period. There had always been tension between the patricians and the plebs, and the plebs now sought greater power through a series of reforms: they wanted debt-free loans to finance the rebuilding of their homes, they wanted limits placed on the amount of land any one person could own, and they wanted the consulship to be open to plebs. They were partly successful: interest rates were reduced but not eliminated, land ownership was regulated, and the patricians granted that one of the two consuls could be a pleb (although it would be some years before a pleb was actually elected). In response, however, the patricians created several new offices, the praetorship and curale aedileships, open only to themselves. It was ever thus.

A memorable drama occurred during the rebuilding: Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, who had been trapped on the Capitol during the Gallic siege, and who had thrown down several attacking Gauls attempting to scale the Capitol, thinking himself the saviour of Rome, began to seek power for himself by giving gifts to the plebs and sowing seeds of conflict with the patricians. This aroused suspicions, first of the patricians and soon of the plebs, and he was eventually charged with aspiring to kingly power, high on the list of the worst offences a Roman citizen could commit. The Romans acted decisively: he was thrown to his death from the Tarpeian Rock, his house was razed to the ground, and patricians were henceforth barred from being named Marcus Manlius. Half measures were not the Roman way.

The Gauls returned in 349 BC, and occasioned the emergence of one of Rome’s great heroes: Marcus Valerius Corvus. The story is rather similar to that of David and Goliath: young Marcus volunteered for a one-on-one fight with a Gallic giant who was taunting the Roman army. As he approached, sword in hand, a raven is said to have descended, landed on his helmet, and then, in dramatic fashion, to have attacked the face of the Gallic foe, helping Marcus to a victory, and earning him his cognomen (corvus = raven). The Romans invested great importance in the behaviour of animals, and especially of birds (parenthetically, an entertaining history of Rome could be compiled simply by recounting all of the interventions into Roman politics and international relations made by Rome’s sacred chickens), and the good omen that attended Corvus’ rise to fame foretold good things to come, and so it proved, for it was Corvus who became the principal military leader in the conflicts which would eventually propel Rome into a major regional power, waged against a foe that was the most challenging that she had yet encountered: the Samnites.

The Samnites lived in the hilly country to the south and east of Rome. They were a reasonably wealthy people, their armies were highly disciplined and tenacious, and they were not afraid of the Romans. Rome was to wage three distinct wars against them: the First Samnite War (343-341 BC) opened the hostilities and allowed the two armies to test their strength against one another in three main battles, each of which was won by the Romans, albeit with some difficulty; the Second Samnite War (326-304 BC) was a much more serious and protracted conflict that required the Romans to occupy Samnite territory in order to secure a victory; and, finally, in the Third Samnite War (298-290 BC) the remnant Samnites joined forces with the principal powers surrounding Rome — the Gauls, the Etruscans, and the Umbrians — but even this alliance could not defeat Rome. When the dust settled, her enemies destroyed, what didn’t kill her had made her stronger: Rome was a major regional power.

Part of the reason for Rome’s consistent military success was that she invented new battlefield tactics. During the First Samnite War she deployed soldiers in the phalanx system that served the Greeks so well. However it was found that on hilly terrain the phalanx was too clumsy, and was especially vulnerable to flanking maneuvers. Therefore during the interval between the First and Second Samnite Wars, while they were fighting another campaign called the Latin War, the Romans developed the maniple system that would become their standard fighting formation for centuries: three staggered lines of small groups of men arrayed along a front. The maniple allowed tired soldiers to be replaced by fresh ones in an orderly way, and because of the reduced size of each group they could be more responsive and flexible than the phalanx had permitted.

The Second Samnite War very nearly ended in catastrophic defeat for the Romans. By cunning use of counter-intelligence the Samnites managed to lure the marching Roman army into a gorge — the Caudine Forks — where they became trapped. The Samnite leader consulted his aged father for advice about how to proceed, and the advice came back: let them all go unharmed. Balking, and thinking it must be some mistake, he sent again for advice, and this time the advice came back: kill them all. Confused, he sought clarification, and was told that only two courses were open to him: let them go and thereby make the Romans lasting friends, or kill them and thereby destroy their power to attack. This was wise advice, but he chose instead a middle course: he made the Romans surrender, but confiscated their weapons and humiliated them by making them pass under a yoke as they marched home. Predictably, this did nothing to harm Roman military might, but it did inflame Roman pride and a desire for revenge, and it wasn’t long before the Roman army was back on the field, this time with a focus and power that the Samnites would not withstand.

One of Rome’s great political and military leaders (and Roman leaders tended to be both) during this war was Papirius Cursor, a man whom Livy feels comfortable comparing to Alexander the Great. In fact, there is a very interesting digression (Book IX, 16-19) in which Livy pauses to speculate on how various Roman generals would have fared against Alexander.

Another important figure in Rome during this time was (another) Appius Claudius — in this case, the Appius who conceived and spearheaded the effort to build a major road running south from Rome so as to enable faster and more reliable transport of troops and goods into war zones and occupied territories. It was the first such thoroughfare the Romans built, and it served as the model for many such roads that would eventually cover the Empire; to this day, the road bears his name.

As I mentioned above, the Third Samnite War drew in a number of regional powers who saw it as being in their interest to contain the bourgeoning Roman power, but they proved unequal to the task. When this war ended, Rome was the sole power in central Italy, her rule extending from the Alps in the north to the southern parts of the peninsula, where, however, the Greeks retained control over some coastal regions and of Sicily. Naturally, the Romans would fight them before long, and soon another power from across the sea would enter Rome’s ambit, a power that would be her most formidable opponent yet: Carthage. But that is a tale for another time.

I greatly enjoyed reading this segment of Livy’s history. Whereas the first five books were a nice balance of internal politics and military history, in these five books the military matters moved very much into the foreground. While the long series of battles and skirmishes was sometimes confusing, Livy leavened the narrative with enough asides and personal portraits to hold my interest, and the overall arc of the story was clear. Unfortunately Books XXI-XXX of Livy’s history, covering roughly 290-220 BC, have been lost, so I will have to resume with Book XXXI, which treats of Hannibal and the Second Punic War. I’m looking forward to it.


Louth: Discerning the Mystery

July 31, 2017

Discerning the Mystery
Andrew Louth
(Oxford, 1983)
160 p.

T.S. Eliot used the phrase “dissociation of sensibility” to describe a disorder that he saw afflicting the Western mind: a fault line between heart and head, between love and knowledge, between the inner world of human thought and feeling and the outer, objective world of scientific facts. Eliot discerned this dissociation in the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets and traced its origins as far as Bacon and Descartes, but the point is of wider application and may well have deeper roots. (Louth sees in, for example, Abelard and St Bernard an earlier example of the same bifurcation.)

This little book is an attempt to understand the effects of this dissociation on theology, and more generally on the humanities, which have suffered a crisis of confidence in comparison with the sciences, and also to explore whether anything constructive can be done about it.

Louth begins by noting the centrality of method to the modern understanding of knowledge. The sciences succeeded in finding a method that produced reliable discoveries, and thereby became the modern exemplar of how the right method leads to secure knowledge. The humanities, including theology, have been looking for a comparable method pertinent to their own domain and subject matter ever since, but without any convincing success. The humanities have adopted the “research model” prevalent in the sciences: humanities professors busy themselves with making “discoveries”, and publishing their findings in journals, just as their colleagues across campus do, but in spite of this, there is no cohesion in the humanities, no widespread agreement on what those findings are and what they signify.

Louth sees the historical-critical method as the leading candidate for a “scientific” approach to knowledge in the humanities: the text is analyzed, the context is explored, and the meaning of the text for its original readers is sought and interpreted as having a privileged status. Louth understands why humanist scholars are tempted by this method, but he also believes that its adoption has impoverished the humanities and distorted its subject matter.

This impoverishment he describes with an analogy to conversation: historical criticism is like the conversation of a therapist and a patient. Questions are asked, but the relationship is all one-way. The therapist does not allow himself to enter personally into the relationship on anything like an equal footing. But another model of conversation is provided by that among friends, in which there is both take and give; I learn about my friend, but I also learn about myself through engaging with my friend. We can engage literature, including the literature of the past, and including religious literature, in this way, cultivating a personal relationship. To such relationships we bring not just our analytic powers, but all that we are, including our prejudices and presuppositions, and this is necessary if we are to present ourselves honestly. Such relationships are dialectical inasmuch as we revise our views based on what we learn, yes, but what we learn is also informed by the views we bring to them.

Louth recommends this richer, more personal view as suitable for the humanities in general, and for theology in particular. I’ll return to that in a moment, but first I’d like to ask: when is it appropriate to read in this way? Consider, for example, the reading of authoritative legal texts. Here the forensic, I-ask-and-you-answer, what-did-the-lawmakers-think-they-were-saying approach seems more fitting than a freewheeling what-does-this-say-to-me approach. Similar remarks would apply to authoritative religious texts, if, perhaps, not quite to the same degree, and this raises some doubt in my mind as to its suitability for theology.

Nonetheless, with this “humanistic” counter-proposal to historical criticism in mind, Louth embarks on a two-pronged critique of the cultural supremacy of scientific knowledge, with the intention, it seems, of defending the humanities against assimilation to the scientific model. First, he draws on the ideas of Giambattisto Vico and Hans-Georg Gadamer to mount an argument that the humanities offer us something valuable that science does not, a way of knowing that differs from the scientific way of knowing but is nonetheless sound. And second, he builds on the ideas of John Polanyi to argue that scientific ways of knowing are not, in fact, qualitatively different from those common in ordinary life and in the humanistic disciplines. In this way, he breaks down the dichotomy between the sciences and the humanities that underlies our “dissociation of sensibility”, making room, in the process, for theology to recover its full resources.

We’ll take the first line of argument first. Vico argued that we should not, a priori, expect the humanities to yield less secure knowledge than the sciences, for it is the human world that we know best, from the inside: “In the sciences we study what is alien to us–physical things; in the humanities we study what is connatural with us.” The kind of knowledge we get, and the way we get it, is different from in the sciences, but there is no reason to be radically skeptical about the methods and results of the humanities, in his view. Rather, we are confronted with a great plenitude of worthwhile truths in art, literature, and religion; we can become bewildered, but should not become discouraged. Gadamer followed up on this line of thinking; he argued that the humanities are “subjective”, but not in the sense of being “not true”, but in the rich sense of engaging the whole of a subject. On this view, “the humanities are not primarily concerned with establishing objective information (though this is important), but with bringing men into engagement with what is true”. As Kierkegaard memorably said, “To understand and to understand are two different things.” And since we benefit greatly from this second, deeper understanding, in which truths penetrate our souls and give us depth and even wisdom, we stand in need of this knowledge that the humanities in all their richness can provide.

Polanyi, in his book Personal Knowledge (which I’ve been meaning to read for years), called into question the claim that the sciences have privileged access to truth and reliability. Instead, he argued that “all knowledge is either tacit, or rooted in tacit knowledge. It is not simply objective, but knowledge which has been grasped and understood by a person.” There is always a certain amount of “know-how” involved, and of acculturation into the particular discipline of study. There are always traditions to inherit: ways of thinking, standards of evidence, accepted assumptions, and so forth. Education has an element of apprenticeship in the sciences as it does elsewhere. On this view, the reason the sciences converge to a common understanding of the world is not because its method is so far superior to others, but because of the simplicity of the objects it studies. In all learning there is an encounter between the knower and the thing known, and the importance of the knower — of his or her particular interests, habits, and commitments — varies according to the nature of the thing known. For the objects studied by the sciences, the knower’s characteristics are of low importance, but for the objects studied by the humanities they are high, and this is enough to account for the disparity in agreement that we see in practice.

Polanyi’s stress on the tacit dimension of knowledge, and of the importance of tradition to the reception of tacit knowledge, provides Louth a bridge back to theology, for, given the Christian understanding of God and his dealings with mankind, tradition is inescapably important, and much of what it means to be a Christian is discovered tacitly: “Christianity is not a body of doctrine that can be specified in advance, but a way of life and all that this implies. Tradition is, as it were, the tacit dimension of the life of the Christian…” And Louth emphasizes that central to this inherited tradition is sacred liturgy, which embodies and transmits the tacit and the tradition as nothing else does: “The liturgy unfolds the varied significance of the mystery of Christ, and the fact that it cannot all be explained, the fact that much that we do, we do simply because we have always done it, conveys a rich sense of the unfathomableness of the Christian mystery.”

This suggestion — that the effort to make Christian experience “clear and distinct” is misguided — is one that I have encountered before when reading about Dante, and seems, based on my limited exposure, to be more influential in the Orthodox tradition than in the Catholic. (I note that Andrew Louth is himself an Orthodox priest.) I am sympathetic to it, for it answers to my own experience of Christian faith, which has been interested in systematic theology and apologetics to some extent, but which has been formed to a far greater extent by aesthetic experience, liturgy, and devotions, and by a persistent attraction to “the unfathomableness of the Christian mystery”. Louth comments that much liturgical reform since the Reformation — and, I would add, since Vatican II for Catholics — has consisted in efforts to make the liturgy more easily and clearly understood, which has not only thinned out the experience of the liturgy but also disrupted its continuity with what came before. But if Louth is correct then such efforts have been detrimental to the richness of Christian experience, and perhaps to the robustness of Christian faith.

If the preceding arguments are successful, they have the effect of carving out for theology some “breathing space” within which she can live her own life according to her own lights, without being beholden to foreign methods and standards of argument. Louth takes advantage of this space to present a case for the use of allegory in theology. Allegory “sticks in the gullet of modern theology”, and is alien to most Protestant theology (with its stress on the “plain sense” of Scripture), but it was common, and, it seems, natural to the Church Fathers, and Louth sees it as a valuable way of exploring the riches of Scripture. Allegory “does not prove anything, but it is not meant to”; rather, it is a means of entering, prayerfully and imaginatively, into the mystery of Christ. I found this section of the book interesting, but less interesting than what preceded it. I think this is consistent with the overall argument of the book; the main substance comes in the book’s central sections, and the final application is really just an illustration.

The ambitions of the book are so great — quite out of proportion to its slender size — that it cannot be said to succeed unequivocally. It leans heavily on a heavy-weight trio in Vico, Gadamer, and Polanyi, and the weight of its arguments could not be fully felt without consulting those authors, and those objecting to them. Still, the structure of the argument is clear enough, and I am basically well-disposed toward it: there are ways of knowing other than scientific ones, and the humanities risk selling their inheritance for a mess of pottage if they allow themselves to be in thrall to the scientific model; traditions and the tacit are essential to religion; and in some realms one dispels mystery only by doing violence to the subject.

**

[An apostolic Church]
What unites us with the writers of the Scriptures is the life of the Church from their day to ours.

[The richness of Scripture]
It is in point to notice also the structure and style of Scripture, a structure so unsystematic and various, and a style so figurative and indirect, that no one would presume at first sight to say what is in it and what is not. It cannot, as it were, be mapped, or its contents catalogued; but after all our diligence, to the end of our lives and to the end of the Church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the left and right of our path and close about us, full concealed wonders and choice treasures. Of no doctrine whatever, which does not actually contradict what has been delivered, can it be peremptorily asserted that it is not in Scripture; of no reader, whatever be his study of it, can it be said that he has mastered every doctrine which it contains. [quoted from Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine]

[Tactics]
A prejudice against prejudices is an attempt, which was the aim of the Enlightenment, to deprive tradition of its power.

[Intellect and moral character]
It may be that no element of our compound nature is entirely shut out from taking part in knowledge. It is at all events certain that the specially mental powers will never be able to judge together in rightful relation when the nature as a whole is disordered by moral corruption. There is no evil passion cherished, no evil practice followed, which does not cloud or distort our vision whenever we look beyond the merest abstract forms of things. There is a truth within us, to use the language of Scripture, a perfect inward ordering as of a transparent crystal, by which alone the faithful image of truth without us is brought within our ken. Not in vain said the Lord that it is the pure in heart, they whose nature has been subdued from distraction into singleness, who shall see God; or, we may add, who shall see the steps of the ladder by which we may mount to God. The steadfast and prescient pursuit of truth is therefore itself a moral and spiritual discipline.” [quoted from Hort, The Way, The Truth, The Life]


Serraillier: Robin and his Merry Men

July 24, 2017

Robin and his Merry Men
Ballads of Robin Hood
Ian Serraillier
(Oxford, 1969)
60 p.

I came to this book almost wholly ignorant of the Robin Hood stories, my main exposure until now having been pretty much limited to that old animated film. I usually have thought of these stories as the poor English cousins to the (originally French) tales about Arthur and the Round Table. Even if true — and I don’t know if it is true — it can, naturally, still be enjoyable to spend time with one’s poor cousins from time to time.

This book relates a set of stories, tied together by an overall arc, about Robin Hood’s dealings with Sir Richard of Lee, a woebegone knight whom Robin helps at a crucial juncture, an act of generosity which Sir Richard is, eventually, able to reciprocate.

Serraillier, to his credit and my delight, tells the story in verse. If you believe (as I fondly do) that tales of Robin Hood ought rightly to be told in song, around a fire, and under a greenwood, then this will satisfy, for it is admirably suited to the purpose. In a series of abcb quatrains (with occasional sallies at sestets), beginning with

Come, gather round and listen awhile
To a tale of the good greenwood
And a courteous yeoman, a brave outlaw
Whose name was Robin Hood.

and bounding, through field and forest, to the concluding

Meanwhile in the musty cheerless court
King Edward’s hopes grew chill.
He waited, waited … And for all I know,
He may be waiting still.

it works splendidly. The poetry is simpler than other examples of Serraillier’s verse that I’ve enjoyed, and I read sections of it, with only occasional difficulties, to my older kids (5yo and 7yo, at the time). The words are complemented by a set of illustrations; while fine, they did not particularly appeal to me.

The bad guys in the poem are the Sheriff of Nottingham (naturally) and the rich, including the bishops, archbishops, and abbots. This aspect took some explaining to the kids, who didn’t understand why a bishop should be behaving so badly, and why Robin Hood, with all the courtesy in the world, should be trying to take his money. This, combined with the forthright piety of the poem — for Robin is devoted to Our Lady, and his men express a sturdy reverence for Our Lord — took some time to untangle. But if those complications can be overcome this is a book easy to recommend. I believe it is presently out of print, but it was not too difficult to track down a reasonably priced second-hand copy.

If anyone knows of a particularly good source for further tales of Robin Hood and would like to recommend it, please do so!