Hands of Bresson

April 18, 2018

In my round-up of favourite films from last year I made a passing remark about the importance of hands in Bresson’s films. I’ve found a Criterion Collection short illustrating the point:

The video is by Kogonada, whose feature-film debut, Columbus, I recently saw and greatly enjoyed.


Catullus: Poems

April 13, 2018

Poems
Gaius Valerius Catullus
(Modern Library, 1949) [c.60 BC]

Catullus, although he lived in the first century BC, when the Roman Republic was already convulsing in its death throes, is nonetheless considered one of the early Roman poets. At least, in my chronologically-arranged edition of The Latin Poets he comes first, so there can’t have been many distinguished poets before him. His poems are apparently influenced by Greek models; things Greek had been considered exemplary by Romans for several centuries already.

Startling to me is the discovery that Catullus’ poetry survived into the present — what part did survive, at least — in a single manuscript. We have a bit more than 100 poems; my edition includes roughly 50 of them, and these 50 exhaust my familiarity with his work.

Based on this evidence, Catullus was a pleasingly personal poet. He did not write epic after a Homeric model (though he did, at least sometimes, use Homeric metre). My favourite of his poems are about his mistress. It seems he and Lesbia had a rocky relationship, for although there are poems expressing love and devotion, there are also ones like this:

My mistress says, there’s not a man
Of all the many that she knows,
She’d rather wed than me, not one,
Though Jove himself were to propose.

She says so; — but what woman says
To him who fancies he has caught her,
‘Tis only fit it should be writ
In air or in the running water.
(trans: Theodore Martin)

Or this one, translated by our very own Jonathan Swift:

Lesbia for ever on me rails;
To talk on me she never fails:
Yet, hang me, but for all her Art;
I find that I have gain’d her Heart:
My proof is thus: I plainly see
The Case is just the same with me:
I curse her ev’ry hour sincerely;
Yet, hang me, but I love her dearly.

I have no idea how closely this verse adheres to the original or form or metre, or even tone, but I like the bleak humour of it.

Alas, the affair with Lesbia did not turn out well. Note how the conventional poetic flourishes of the first few stanzas are transmuted in the fourth to a cold, hard stare:

Dear comrades who with me would go
Should I to distant India roam,
Where Eastern shores are buffeted
By ocean’s foam.

Parthians, Hyrcani, Arabs mild,
And Sacae you would face with me
And that swart race whose sevenfold Nile
Colours the sea.

Or cross the towering Alps to find
The Britons whom no man could tame,
And Gallic Rhine, memorials now
Of Caesar’s fame.

Prepared are you alike to share
In all that shall be sent by Fate;
So bear a message to my girl,
These words of hate.

Bid her farewell and let her keep
The legion of her paramours
And careless break their strength, to fill
Her idle hours.

Nor think at all of my poor love
Which by her sin lies all forlorn
Like the field blossoms that a plough
Has passed and torn.
(trans: F.A. Wright)

There are also a number of poems about his brother, but they are sad poems, for his brother died. Here is a good example:

By ways remote and distant waters sped,
Brother, to thy sad grave-side am I come,
That I may give the last gifts to the dead,
And vainly parley with thine ashes dumb:
Since she who now bestows and now denies
Hath ta’en thee, hapless brother, from mine eyes.
But lo! these gifts, the heirlooms of past years,
Are made sad things to grace thy coffin shell;
Take them, all drenched with a brother’s tears,
And, brother, for all time, hail and farewell!

I wonder who it is that “now bestows and now denies”; it seems a reference to death itself, but was it common for Romans to give death a feminine character? Perhaps it is a reference to one of the goddesses, and I am simply not catching it. Notice that paradoxical “hail and farewell” in the final line; this is the phrase ave atque vale, which this poem has bequeathed us.

Catullus also worked on a larger scale. “The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis” is a kind of mini-epic, obviously on a mythological theme and carrying a suitable grand style. Some consider it his masterpiece, though personally I cannot claim to have cared much for it. Another long poem, “The Lock of Berenice”, seems to be treating its subject in a mock heroic style, rather like Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, but it could be that I’m misinterpreting the translated tone.

My own favourite of the longer poems in this volume is “Epithalamium”, a poem celebrating a marriage. It has sometimes been said that in the wake of the sexual revolution our culture has become more “pagan” in sexual matters, but this is a slander on the pagans. No devotee of our reigning sexual orthodoxies could write a poem like this:

And now, ye gates, your wings unfold!
The virgin draweth nigh. Behold
The torches, how upon the air
They shake abroad their gleaming hair!
Come, bride, come forth! no more delay!
The day is hurrying fast away!

Let him first compute the grains
Of the sand on Egypt’s plains,
Or the stars that gem the nights,
Who would count the rare delights,
Which thy spousals yet shall bless,
Joys in number numberless!

Now disport, and stint ye not!
Children be anon begot.
‘Tis not meet so old a stem
Should be left ungraced by them,
To transmit its fame unshorn
Down through ages yet unborn.
(trans: Theodore Martin)

Add another 30 or 40 stanzas in the same spirit and you have a truly splendid celebration of marriage and marital love.

Having come to the end of the poems in this anthology, I’m rather keen to read more of Catullus, and am debating whether I should buy a volume devoted entirely to him. But on the other hand, the next poet in the anthology is Lucretius, whom I’m also keen to read. Decisions, decisions…


Lecture night: mercy and Malick

April 8, 2018

John O’Callaghan, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, speaks in this lecture on mercy in Malick’s The Tree of Life. He brings that great film into conversation with Augustine’s Confessions, and illustrates the lecture with several excerpts. It’s an excellent lecture, recommended to admirers of the film.


The Vercelli Book

April 4, 2018

The Vercelli Book
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.800]
150 p.

Continuing our explorations of Old English poetry we come to the Vercelli Book, one of the four principal surviving sources for this literature. The Book itself, which resides in the northern Italian city of Vercelli, dates to the 10th century, and is an anthology consisting of a half-dozen poems and a collection of prose works, mostly homilies. It is the poetry that has our attention today.

We will look at the poems in the order in which they are presented in my edition; I assume they follow the same order in the original manuscript.

**

The longest poem is Andreas, at about 1700 lines. It tells a legendary tale about how St Andrew the Apostle rescued St Matthew and many others from prison in Mermedonia, the land of the cannibals. This is a legend new to me; it is based on a second-century tale, The Acts of Andrew and Matthew in the City of Anthropophagi, but our Anglo-Saxon poet has taken care to recast Andrew as an Anglo-Saxon warrior, who, though he does not himself wield a weapon, has all of the requisite virtues.

The story begins when St Matthew is captured, blinded, and thrown into prison in a city of flesh-eating madmen, whom the poet describes in grisly detail:

The people of that place, the tribes of terror,
Hungered for unholy food. They ate no bread,
Drank no water, but wolfed down human
Flesh and blood, the corpses of men,
An abominable feast. This was their custom:
They slaughtered strangers who came from afar,
Engorged themselves on their unwelcome guests.
Each foreigner found himself invited to the table,
And the inhabitants ate as many as they were able.
They satisfied their hunger in hideous ways.
First the fierce people would go for the eyes,
Gouging out the beautiful jewels of the head,
Stifling sight with their sharp spear-points.
[21-34]

God calls Andrew to rescue Matthew, and even, incognito, captains the ship which carries Andrew to the terrible city. There is a good deal of unexpected humour during this voyage as God asks Andrew a series of questions, as though he needed to know the answers, and Andrew in turn expresses astonishment at the incredible wisdom of his host. There is in this exchange a rather beautiful capsule expression of the Gospel:

Then Andrew answered the curious captain:
“Dearest of men, how is it possible
That you of all people have never heard
Of the Savior’s power, how the Ruler’s Son
Revealed himself, his grace and glory,
Throughout the world? He gave speech to the dumb,
Hearing to the deaf, sight to the blind.
He gladdened the spirits of the leprous and lame,
Those who were limb-locked, sinew-twisted,
Sick and tormented. He healed the suffering
While here on earth and woke the dead
With a holy word. This man of glory
Manifested his power by means of miracles,
Consecrating wine from water to everyone’s delight.
Likewise from two fish and five loaves,
He fed the multitudes, five thousand strong.
They had come from far, weary and woeful
From their long journey, to enjoy their feast
With pleasant food in the open fields.
Now, my dear friend, you can hear how the Healer,
The Guardian of glory, has offered us his love
Through all of his holy words and works.
His teaching has brought us untold joy.
He has invited us home to the gates of heaven
And the exultation of angels, where we may live
In his fond embrace forever, even after death,
Alive in the dwelling place of the Lord.”
[568-94]

At last Andrew, “God’s adamant warrior”, arrives in Mermedonia. As he disembarks God declares that he will suffer greatly, as Christ did, but that great good will result. A truer prophecy could not have been spoken, for although he succeeds in setting free St Matthew and all the other prisoners, he is himself captured and his bone-house is subjected to all manner of abuse, with even his brain-house bashed and bloodied without mercy. Flowers bloom where his blood splashes on the ground:

Then the holy warrior, the beloved soldier,
Looked back at the long track of his tears,
As his God and Glory-king had commanded,
And saw beautiful, bright groves, blooming
With flowers everywhere his blood had fallen.
His gore had transformed the dead land
Into God’s green grandeur, a garden of light.
[1492-97]

When at last Andrew opens his word-hoard and calls to God for assistance, he is inspired to command water to spring forth from a marble pillar standing nearby. A great flood results, and the people of Mermedonia, seeing the error of their ways, repent, whereupon Andrew stops the flood and restores to life those who had drowned. The Mermedonians build a church and are given a bishop. The poem ends as Andrew departs, leaving them in peace as they sing praise to God:

“There is only one God, our holy Father,
The Lord and Creator of all living things,
Almighty, everlasting. His right and rule,
His promise and power, are glorious and blessed
All over middle-earth. His holy splendor
Makes bright each quickening creature,
Each shining star, each shimmering angel.
We bask in his living light and realize glory
In his holy radiance for ever and ever.
He is the Lord of lords, the King of kings.”
[1770-9]

This is quite a delightful poem, full of lurid incident and imaginative detail. It is, by a good margin, the most macabre story about the Apostles known to me (which is saying something).

*

Among the shorter poems in the Vercelli book is The Fates of the Apostles, a brief (150 line) work relating what happened to each of the twelve Apostles after Christ’s Ascension. At the conclusion of his survey, the poet addresses the reader directly in moving terms:

Now I pray that the person who has read this poem
And finds these words spiritually sustaining
Should humbly pray to this holy host
To grant me aid, shield me from sin,
Support me in my faith, and send me mercy.
I will need kind friends, caring and compassionate,
When I must travel the long, last road
Into that unknown and wondrous land,
Leaving my body behind, a bag of dust,
An armful of earth, a feast for worms.
[104-12]

He then proceeds to pose a riddle which, when solved, will reveal his name. Riddling is a charming tradition in Anglo-Saxon verse, and we’ll see much more of it before we’re through.

*

Next is another short (190 lines), but not simple, poem called Soul and Body, in which two souls return to earth to speak to their decaying bodies.

First comes a damned soul, doomed, it seems, for a certain term to walk the night, and taking the opportunity to unburden itself of the hatred and contempt it bears toward its body:

“You cruel, bloody clod, what have you done?
Why did you torment me, filth of flesh,
Wasting world-rot, food for worms,
Effigy of earth?” [18-21]

If a healthy human being is one in which soul and body are in harmony, this wicked soul is profoundly dissonant. It considers its body to be its great antagonist, and even blames the body for having caused its damnation:

“You tied me to torments
In hell’s dark home, made me a slave,
I lived inside you, encompassed by flesh,
Trapped in my torment, your sinful desires,
Your lusty pleasures. I couldn’t escape.” [37-41]

This soul knows that its body, though now in a state of dissolution, will be reunited to it on the day of Judgment, an event it anticipates with no relish:

“What will you say to God on Doomsday?
You will have to pay for each sin separately,
With each small joint in your hand or limb —
A severe judgment from a stern judge.
But what are we going to do together?
In the end we will endure the multitude of miseries,
The gathering of griefs, you allotted for us earlier.” (108-15)

Notice that even here the soul is dissociated from its own true nature; as far as it is concerned, it is the body that will be judged on the last day! The body, of course, cannot respond to this abuse. It is dead:

A corpse cannot speak.
Its head is split open, its hands torn apart,
Dismembered in the dust. Its jaw is gaping,
Its palate cracked, its throat ripped out,
Its sinews sucked away, its neck gnawed apart,
Its gums shredded into a handful of dust.
Savage worms now ravage its ribs,
Drink down the corpse, thirsty for blood.
Its tongue ripped into ten pieces,
A delightful feast for the little devourers,
So it cannot speak to the soul, trade talk
With the wretched spirit. The name of the worm
is Ravenous Greedy-Mouth, whose hard jaws
Are sharp as needles. It is the first visitor
To desire the grave, crunching through ground.
It rips up the tongue, bores through the teeth,
Eats down through the eyes into the head,
Inviting the other gobblers to a great feast,
When the wretched body has cooled down
That once wore clothes against the cold.
Then it becomes the feast for worms,
Cold carrion, a banquet for maggots.
Wise men should remember this. (l.123-45)

Then, in the poem’s second half, a blessed soul visits its body, its “dearest friend, beloved companion”. Here, too, the soul marks its body’s part in shaping its eternal destiny, but in a happy way:

Alas, my lord, if only
I could lead you away to see the angels
And the splendor of heaven, as you appointed for me
Through your good deeds. You fasted here,
Filling me up with the body of God,
Quenching my thirst with the soul’s drink. (158-63)

This body too is decaying in the grave, but the soul has hope:

I mourn for you here, dearest of men,
For a body turned into a banquet for worms,
But God’s will was always that your share
Should be this hateful home, this loathsome grave.
But I tell you truly: Do not be troubled
By this earthly torment — we will be united again
Gathered together for God’s judgment
On Doomsday. Then we shall enjoy together,
A precious pair, the honor and grace
You appointed for us while we were living,
And we will be exalted as one in heaven. (173-84)

Medieval views of the relationship between soul and body are sometimes caricatured as naively dualistic, with the body seen as a kind of prison from which the soul wishes to escape. There is some warrant for this in the tradition, but, then again, there is warrant for the opposite in the writings of, for example, Thomas Aquinas, who sees human nature as a profound and essential unity of soul and body. It is hazardous to generalize about a thousand years of history. This poem might seem to be playing into the dualistic framework, especially in the first half, which definitely presents the soul and body as being in an antagonistic relationship, with the body being basically evil — even a source of moral evil. But the poem’s second half presents the two as “beloved companions”, meant for one another and destined to be reunited, and this is clearly the view we are meant to favour. Disharmony in our nature is the fruit of sin, and is healed by salvation. Dualism can never really sit comfortably with the dogma of the resurrection of the body.

The poem will reappear later, in the Exeter Book, shorn of its happy soul.

**

The shortest poem in the Vercelli Book is a little fragment, On Human Deceit. At just 50 lines, there is not much to it. The poet considers the many ways in which men sin and harm both themselves and others. It is a fragment, and it reads that way.

**

Listen! I will speak of the best of dreams,
The sweetest vision that crossed my sleep
In the middle of the night when speech-bearers
Lay in silent rest. (1-4)

The Dream of the Rood is only about 160 lines long, but it is a powerful and beautiful poem that has been justly celebrated as one of the masterpieces of Old English poetry, and even of medieval literature as a whole.

In it, the poet has a vision of the cross on which Christ died, and the cross speaks to him, telling its story: how it was cut down, formed into a cross, and made an instrument of torture and execution. And then, one day, it was the Son of God who approached:

The warrior, our young Savior, stripped himself
Before the battle with a keen heart and firm purpose,
Climbed up on the cross, the tree of shame,
Bold in the eyes of many, to redeem mankind.
I trembled when the Hero embraced me
But dared not bow down to earth — I had to stand fast.
A rood was I raised — I raised the mighty King,
Lord of the heavens. I dared not bend down. (l.42-9)

I love the portrayal of Christ here as a warrior, preparing for battle. Scripture is clear that he went to his death willingly, and here the poet transmutes that willingness into positive eagerness. Mounting the cross, Christ died:

I saw the Lord of hosts stretch out his arms
In terrible suffering. Night-shadows slid down,
Covering in darkness the corpse of the Lord,
Which was bathed in radiance. The dark deepened
Under the clouds. All creation wept,
Lamenting the Lord’s death: Christ was on the cross. (56-61)

His friends soon came to take his body down, treating it with the greatest reverence. But the cross, neglected or hated, was taken down and thrown into a pit, covered with earth, until one day, many years later (and making a nice connection with Elene, below), the friends of Christ recovered it, adorning it with jewels. The cross then became a sign of love and hope, a miraculous transformation:

The Son of God suffered on my for awhile —
Now I rise up high in heaven, a tower of glory,
And I can heal any man who holds me in awe.
Long ago I become hateful to man, hardest of woes,
A terrible torturer. Then I was transformed.
Now I offer the true way of life to speech-bearers,
A road for the righteous. The Lord of glory,
The Guardian of heaven, has honored me
Above all trees, just as he also honored
His mother Mary above all women.
(ll.93-103)

At the poem’s conclusion, the cross instructs the poet to convey his story to all, teaching them that Christ will return one day to judge all souls.

Then the poet awakes:

“Now my life’s great hope is to see again
Christ’s cross, that tree of victory,
And honor it more keenly than other men.
The cross is my hope and my protection.”
(ll.134-7)

For me, this is the most touching and beautiful poem in the batch, and by a wide margin. Dream visions are not uncommon in Old English poetry — nor in the later English tradition neither — but this remains, I think, among the best.

**

Elene is the second longest poem in the Vercelli Book, at about 1300 lines. It tells the story of St Helena, mother of Constantine, and her discovery of the True Cross. This story is well-known, but the poet has a few surprises for us.

The poem opens with an account of Constantine’s vision of the cross before the Battle of Milvian Bridge and his subsequent conversion. (The poet says, wrongly, that he was immediately baptized.) He then sends his mother to Jerusalem to search for the long lost cross of the Savior.

From that day on, the story of Christ
And the sign of the Cross, the sacred rood,
Resided in Constantine’s heart, sustaining
His spirit, so that he ordered his mother Helena
To journey abroad with a band of soldiers
To the land of the Jews to seek out the cross,
The tree of glory, the gallows of God,
And see if the holy cross might be hidden
In an unmarked grave in unhallowed ground.

In Jerusalem is a young Jewish man, named Judas, whose family has for generations passed down secret knowledge of the location of the buried cross, keeping this knowledge hidden lest it give aid and comfort to Christians. This section of the poem makes for uncomfortable reading as the poet laboriously berates the Jews for their blindness, ignorance, and foolishness in rejecting Christ and the salvation he brought. It is natural enough that he, a Christian, should think those Jews who rejected Christ to be in error, and, as subsequent developments in the poem make clear, he does not believe that Jews are, as a people, intrinsically inferior to Christians, but he does express his anti-Judaism far more forcefully than we would.

You spit in the face of the Savior and Son,
Who could wash your eyes clean of blindness
With the sacred spittle and heal your hearts,
Saving you from the darkness of devils
And their fiery filth. You condemned to die
The Lord himself who created life
And conquered death — who raised up the patriarchs
From their mouldering graves, their grim fates.
In your blindness you traded light for darkness,
Truth for lies, mercy for malice.
You played deadly games with perjury,
So now you are sentenced to Satan’s realm,
Where no one will hear your unholy words
Or care to comfort your everlasting pain.
You condemned the life-giving power
Of the eternal Light. Now dwell in darkness
For all of your days. You live in delusion
And will die in desperation.
(304-21)

Helena is less scrupulous; she agrees wholeheartedly with the poet, and in a startling passage threatens the Jews of Jerusalem with a fiery conflagration unless they reveal the location of the True Cross. Judas is himself imprisoned for seven days before he relents and agrees to cooperate. A miracle occurs to guide him to the precise spot, and, to Helena’s great joy, three crosses are recovered from an ancient pit, and the cross of Christ is identified by its power to raise a dead man to life.

Then Judas lifted the third cross in joy,
The Redeemer’s rood, the tree of victory,
And the body rose up, intact and inspired
By the breath of life, its own lost soul.
Its limbs were alive, its eyes opened,
Its heart quickened by the power of the cross.
People raised their voices in praise of the Lord,
Honoring the Father and exalting the Son,
Lifting up their voices in a rapture of song:
“Glory be to God, who breathes life into being,
Shaping, sustaining all living creatures
Who celebrate the Creator without end.”
(893-904)

At this point the poet interjects a delightful vignette in which Satan, piping mad, protests this unauthorized theft of one of his souls:

That so-called Savior, Jesus of Nazareth,
Was a misguided boy born in Bethlehem
Of human flesh. He has mocked me, defiled me,
Made my existence an endless misery.
He has robbed me of riches, wasted my wealth,
Stolen my precious stash of souls.
He’s unrestrained. It’s unfair. It’s obscene.
His kingdom spreads like a pernicious plague
While mine is compromised all over creation.
(927-35)

News of the discovery spreads, to great rejoicing throughout the Christian world. Judas is himself baptized and made bishop. Shortly thereafter, at St Helena’s request, a search for the Holy Nails is begun, and another miracle leads to their discovery. One of the nails, in something of an anti-climax, is sent to Rome to be used as a bit for Constantine’s horse.

The poem closes with a charmingly personal passage in which the poet speaks about himself, his sins, his long labours over his poem, and his faith in the power of Christ’s cross.

Now that I have told this sacred story
About the rood, I am old and ready
To follow the final road. My flesh is frail,
My body failing. I have woven these words
Out of study and thought, winnowing them long
Into the night-watch. I too was blind
To the full truth about Christ’s cross
Till my mind was filled with the Lord’s light,
Revealing the depths of divine understanding.
My words and works were stained with sin,
And I was bound in misery, wound in woe,
Before God granted this feeble old man,
Whose mind was missing its careful clarity
Of younger days, a sacred gift, a share of grace.
He opened my heart and soul to the truth,
Easing my body and enlightening my mind,
Unlocking the ancient art of poetry,
Which I have practiced with great joy.
(1231-49)

There follows an acrostic section in which he spells out CYNEWULF, which may be his name, and the poem comes to a close with a vision of the final judgment.

*

The poems of the Vercelli Book, then, are a fairly heterogeneous lot. They are all Christian poems, of course, and the influence of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture is evident in several. There are two saint’s lives, and two take as their centerpiece the crucifix of Christ, but otherwise the poems do not bear a strong resemblance to one another, and neither is it clear that they have been gathered together into one volume for any particular reason. All of the poems have something to recommend them. The greatest treasure is The Dream of the Rood.


Locke: A Letter Concerning Toleration

March 22, 2018

A Letter Concerning Toleration
John Locke
[1689]

In this influential essay Locke sets forth a vision of the relationship between civil and religious authorities. Its basic argument is that the two spheres are “absolutely separate and distinct”, or, in another place, “perfectly distinct and infinitely different”, and that in consequence it is a blunder to mix them. Churchmen ought to have no influence over civil affairs, and civil magistrates, likewise, no influence over religious affairs.

This sounds unremarkable to us because our society has been built along the lines proposed by Locke. This vision of his is our vision too, in practice, and usually in theory also. It is interesting, though, to look at the arguments Locke gives for his position.

Religion, he argues, benefits from separation from civil authority principally because civil magistrates have no special competence in religious matters. Care of souls has not been entrusted to them by God. “Neither the right nor the art of ruling does necessarily carry along with it the certain knowledge of other things, and least of all of true religion.”

The power wielded by civil authority is that of force, but the use of force in religion is absurd, for “God Himself will not save men against their wills”. Instead, religion should be the realm of argument and persuasion, for “the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself.” Indeed, he goes on to argue that it is actually not possible to believe something simply because of an obligation to do so; rather, one must be convinced in order to truly believe. To impose a religion, therefore, simply results in men lying: “A sweet religion, indeed, that obliges men to dissemble and tell lies, both to God and man, for the salvation of their souls!” We see the sense in this view, of course, though perhaps we also feel a tension with our knowledge that the sanction of civil authority for a particular view is itself, for many people, persuasive.

Instead of meddling in religion, civil authorities should tend to their principal duties, which for Locke are the provision of security of each man’s private possessions, preserving the peace, riches, and public commodities of the whole people, and providing defence against foreign invasion. Since the state does not care for the health or the material well-being of its citizens, if the citizens themselves do not care for them, it should likewise not concern itself with their souls. This is an argument that will be more persuasive to conservatives than to liberals, the latter being less likely to grant the premise of the analogy.

The complementary principle to the ousting of civil authority from religious affairs is the ousting of religious authorities from civil affairs. After all, the two realms are “infinitely different”. Religious authorities should therefore concern themselves with religious matters. And who are religious authorities? Locke’s answer is “churches”. And what is a church? Locke’s answer is as follows:

“A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshiping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of souls.”

This answer poses certain difficulties. How is it that these voluntary societies of men who have joined themselves together of their own accord have also had religious authority conferred upon them? Is it simply because they claimed such authority for themselves? If so, what prevents the civil authority from likewise claiming such authority for itself? A competent religious authority is presumably one who teaches truths about religion and religious practices, but it is hard to see how these voluntary societies, simply as such, become competent to know such truths. And, as it turns out, Locke is aware of this problem and has an answer: no church really knows truths about religion. “Every church is orthodox to itself” is all that can be said. This is a fatal admission for Locke, since it collapses the all-important distinction he wants to maintain between religious and civil authorities.

Even if genuine religious authority existed, however, the neat separation he would like to make between civil and religious affairs is complicated by the fact that they are not actually separable, and this is perhaps clearest in the realm of morality, which bears both on acts (having, in his scheme, civil consequences) and conscience (having, in his scheme, religious import). He does grapple with this problem. His leading principle is a sound one: “Obedience is due, in the first place, to God and, afterwards, to the laws.” (Indeed, this, and not the relativity of religious truth, is the proper rationale for religious toleration.) If, therefore, a civil law imposes upon the conscience of a citizen, he should not obey the law, but he should also accept the punishment prescribed by law. If, however, the law in question pertains to matters that do not properly lie within the sphere of competence of the civil authority, then the citizen ought to protest against the law and refuse to submit. In cases of irresolvable conflict, God alone can judge between the magistrate and the subject. But we must ask: if conscience resides in the realm of religious authority, what are these putative civil laws which impose upon the conscience without thereby also straying outside their sphere of civil competence?

A peculiarity of his system is that, for him, religion is individualistic and purely voluntary. One inherits nothing from others and belongs to no community that precedes one’s voluntary association with it:

“Nobody is born a member of any church… [otherwise] everyone would hold his faith by the same tenure he does his lands, than which nothing can be imagined more absurd.”

(But is it not also absurd to inherit lands?)

The motive underlying the scheme Locke outlines in his essay is the promotion of religious toleration. There is an important sense in which we owe a debt to Locke for making these arguments. After religiously-implicated wars had racked European societies it was important to Locke to lower the stakes of civil government, and removing religion from its sphere of influence was an effective strategy from which, in real and tangible ways, we have benefited. This needn’t prevent our noting the weaknesses in his arguments, nor stop us from thinking about what we have lost as the price of what we have gained, but most of us, most of the time, are probably glad to live in a society where religious toleration is valued. It is perhaps especially true as governments have become more self-consciously secular that the state’s commitment, at least theoretically, to religious toleration has been, so to speak, a saving grace for religious citizens.

The confidence we can have in this at-least-theoretical commitment to religious tolerance is not, however, unbounded, and this is illustrated already by Locke, who concludes his robust defence of religious tolerance by naming a few religious groups that ought not to be tolerated — namely, Catholics and atheists, the former because they “deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince” (that is, the Pope) and the latter because the denial of God’s existence “dissolves all”.

**

As I said at the top, Locke’s scheme for how politics and religion ought to relate is familiar to us because it is the blueprint for our own society’s approach to such matters. I can appreciate his motives, though it is evident that his system tries to make neat something that is in fact messy. His conception of what kind of thing a religion is, akin to a gentleman’s dinner club, is especially weak and certainly at odds with the self-understanding of most religions. Indeed, insofar as his proposal relies on the premise that there is no such thing as a genuine religious authority it could never be acceptable to a Catholic, nor to many other religious groups either, even if we are, for the sake of social harmony, willing to play along for now. Heaven, we are confident, will not be governed along Lockean lines.


Linked links

March 15, 2018

Today a set of items sewn together by threads firm and flimsy:

  • Some of us read not so much for plot as for style, but what is style? At The New Criterion Dominic Green has some ideas about it, expressed with style. It’s a splendid essay.
  • Joseph Epstein has written a nice appreciation of that delightful stylist P.G. Wodehouse. It led me to Roger Kimball’s older essay in a similar vein. And that led me to Christopher Hitchens’ thoughts on the subject. Wodehouse has been an obsession of mine of late; I’ve nearly completed all the Jeeves and Wooster novels. As displays of wit they are hard to beat.
  • And what about displays of Whit?
  • The film that won the Best Picture Oscar this year was del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which Ross Douthat sees as a rather unsubtle example of liberal myth-making. I’ve not seen it myself.
  • Neither have I seen — it was a strictly auditory affair — a recent debate between Jordan Peterson and philosophy’s own Angel of Death, David Benatar. At issue is anti-natalism, a view that holds that sentient life is an evil. (Peterson’s against it; so am I.)
  • I’m more likely to throw my support behind a proposition implicit in the novels of our great English moralist Charles Dickens: that coffee is an evil.
  • You have to wonder what the dickens the consciousness deniers are thinking. (Technical answer: nothing.) The linked essay is a good one, but over contented with its preferred solution, and not quite grappling with the scope of the problem. Most educated Westerners today are committed to a metaphysics that leads where the consciousness deniers have ended up. Do I hear someone whistling past this graveyard?
  • I think so, and I think I know the tune. Didn’t Ian Bostridge mention it in his reflections on the English choral tradition?

As an envoi, let’s hear something from that tradition. Here is Herbert Howells’ A Spotless Rose, sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.


Caussade: Abandonment to Divine Providence

March 13, 2018

Abandonment to Divine Providence
Jean Pierre de Caussade, SJ
Translated from the French by Ella McMahon

(Benziger, 1887) [c.1750]
200 p.

The basic counsel of Fr Caussade’s book is that if we wish to discover God’s will for our lives, we should do so by heeding and accepting “the duties, attractions, and crosses of every moment”. This advice he founds on two sturdy pillars of Christian doctrine: God is good, and God is omnipotent. Therefore his good will cannot be thwarted, and his Providence governs the world. Therefore “that which comes to us each moment by the order of God is best and holiest and most divine for us.”

On this conception of the spiritual life, it is not a matter of finding God’s will, exactly, so much as it is a matter of apprehending it. We are living within God’s providential plan already and have only to learn to see it and then to align our own will with that of God by loving and accepting it:

O dear souls who read this, let me repeat to you: Sanctity will cost you no more; do what you are doing; suffer what you are suffering: it is only your heart that need be changed. By the heart we mean the will. This change, then, consists in willing what comes to us by the order of God.

This attentiveness to the present moment, the present moment which “is like an ambassador which declares the will of God”, is the core spiritual discipline to be cultivated. In the months since I first read this book I’ve been trying, by fits and starts, to practice this discipline. It’s not at all easy. If it is truly a path to spiritual maturity then of course we’d not expect it to be easy, but perhaps it is also not easy for some other reasons, which I’ll get to. Fr Caussade writes that the fruit of the attentiveness and openness he advocates is an inner simplicity of spirit, an uncomplicated docility, taking its daily bread from God’s hands and not bestirring itself with worry or frustration. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished:

The work of a soul in this state of simplicity is nothing less than marvellous to eyes and minds divinely enlightened. Without rule, yet exactness itself; without measure, yet nothing better proportioned; without reflection, yet nothing more profound; without ingenuity, yet nothing better managed; without effort, yet nothing more efficacious; without forethought, yet nothing better fitted to unforeseen events.

The growth of this simplicity of heart requires faith and hope and love, and in turn fosters these same virtues in a never-ending, burgeoning cycle:

The present moment is always filled with infinite treasures: it contains more than you are capable of receiving. Faith is the measure of these blessings: in proportion to your faith will you receive. By love also are they measured: the more your heart loves the more it desires, and the more it desires the more it receives. The will of God is constantly before you as an unfathomable sea, which the heart cannot exhaust: only in proportion as the heart is expanded by faith, confidence, and love can it receive of its fulness. All created things could not fill your heart, for its capacity is greater than anything which is not God.

The self-abandonment Fr Caussade recommends is, of course, intended not only for the good times, but also the bad. When we experience joy it is easy to accept it gratefully from God’s hand; when we experience suffering it is not. In suffering we are tempted to reject what the present moment offers us, poisonous waters that threaten to wash us away. But we must not do so, says Fr Caussade, for here is the true test of our simplicity. Instead, we must keep our door open, even as the flood of destruction comes pouring through, not hiding or even shielding ourselves:

Weep, dear souls; tremble, suffer disquiet and anguish; make no effort to escape these divine terrors, these heavenly lamentations. Receive into the depth of your being the waters of that sea of bitterness which inundated the soul of Christ. Continue to sow in tears at the will of divine grace, and insensibly by the same will their source shall be dried. The clouds will dissolve, the sun will shed its light, the springtime will strew your path with flowers, and your self-abandonment will manifest to you the whole extent of the admirable variety of the divine action.

All shall be well, in the end, if we but stay the course. We are asked only to apprehend that everything, whatever may come, “is a banner to guide you, a stay to uphold you, an easy and safe vehicle to bear you on.”

**

This, it seems to me, summarizes the main argument in brief compass. I have attributed the book to Fr Caussade, and the attribution is traditional, although there is some doubt about it. The book was not published until 1861, over a century after Fr Caussade’s death, apparently out of concern that the book advocated self-abandonment to an excessive degree.

You can see the problem: if we should abandon our own will, is it possible that we should carry this self-abandonment so far as to desire, or at least to accept with equanimity, harm to ourselves? Is the health of our own souls included among those self-interests which we ought to be ready to forsake? There were some in Fr Caussade’s time who argued that true submission to God’s will required consent even to our own damnation, if God should will it, and a spirituality of self-abandonment could be quite dangerous in the hands of such people.

In a prefatory essay in this volume, the editor argues that we must therefore set “just limits” to our abandonment, which is sensible, but which makes it sound not so much like abandonment anymore. But he has good reason:

… the Church has condemned this doctrine which, in proposing to man a perfection contrary to his nature, reverses the order of God’s designs. How, in fact, can perfection consist in destroying the most essential law of our moral nature, viz., that irresistible inclination which leads us to seek our happiness? How could love of God require that we rob God of one of His attributes—the one which makes Him the supreme object of our beatitude? How could one of the theological virtues be contrary to another, and charity exclude hope?

A lesser, but still probing, criticism of the discipline of self-abandonment to the present moment is that it turns us away from our duties. If I were devoted to accepting whatever life brings me as a gift from God to be received with love, I might take a rather peculiar view of my children’s misbehaviour, for instance, taking it as an occasion of divine chastisement rather than an occasion for fatherly intervention and correction. I might stay home from work, day after day, preparing myself to receive as a gift the poverty and attendant suffering that I would undoubtedly receive from God’s hand by way of my employer’s boot. Fr Caussade does make some effort to address this problem:

The soul must follow no inspiration which she assumes comes from God without first assuring herself that it does not interfere with the duties of her state in life. These duties are the most certain indications of the will of God, and nothing should be preferred to them.

This is a necessary qualification, but it carves off a rather large — indeed, on some days, a nearly comprehensive — range of activity for exemption from the self-abandonment discipline. Sometimes we have to act. Sometimes we have to fight.

Sometimes we have to decide. It has been interesting, in fact, to read a book on God’s will which never really takes up the question of how to discern God’s will. For Fr Caussade it doesn’t arise, because God’s will is whatever is happening. But a common difficulty with which Christians often contend is that of facing a decision and trying to discern which choice best aligns with God’s will. Sometimes — actually, pretty often — this takes a crude form of wanting some sort of private revelation to show the way, but there are developed traditions of discernment, such as that of St Ignatius, intended to help with exactly this kind of question. We are constantly confronted with the need to make decisions. Should I accept what is happening to me, and learn to deal with it, or should I take action to change my situation? I’m afraid that Fr Caussade’s approach to life seems pretty useless in this respect.

It seems to me, in fact, that the method of abandonment, founded on confidence in God’s goodness and Providence, is missing an important theological ingredient: an awareness of the corrupting power of sin and evil. I have to be careful here, so as not to stumble. Sin and evil are contrary to God’s will, yet they undoubtedly affect what happens in the world. How, then, can I truly accept that everything that wafts toward me in the present moment “is like an ambassador which declares the will of God”? Sometimes things that happen are just evil, and they don’t declare the will of God. It is a teaching of Scripture that God brings good out of evil, but this, I think (and hope) is different from a declaration that whatever is is good. Therefore, given the reality of evil (in the phenomenological, though not metaphysical, sense) we must be discerning first, and only docile and abandoned when circumstances call for it.

And this appears to me a problem with Fr Caussade’s approach to the spiritual life. Perhaps I am wrong in my understanding of Providence, in which case I hope to be corrected. Even if I am right, however, I nonetheless do think that the discipline Fr Caussade counsels has rich potential, in its proper place, for fostering humility and a more intimate relationship to God. As I said, I’ve been trying it, with predictably mixed results. Late in the book Fr Caussade notes that his book is addressed especially to readers who “have already attained a high degree of perfection”, and so evidently I ought not to have read it in the first place.

[Love of God]
The earnest desire to love God is loving Him.


Canonic Gloria

March 7, 2018

More music from my beloved Matteo da Perugia, this time a Gloria written in canon:

I do not know who the musicians are. The transcription is courtesy, once again, Jordan Alexander Key.


Terence: The Comedies

March 5, 2018

The Comedies
Publius Terentius Afer
Translated from the Latin by Peter Brown
(Oxford, 2006) [c.160 BC]
xxvii + 338 p.

Terence was a talented young playwright whose literary career, though brief, nonetheless earned him an enduring place in the history of Western literature. Seutonius tells us that he was from Carthage, originally a slave but freed “because of his intelligence and good looks”; in his notes, Peter Brown counsels skepticism about this biography. But we can be more or less confident about his end: he died at an early age (of either 25 or 35, depending on whom you believe).

He left us just six plays, all comedies, and all based on Greek originals from a century earlier. In this tradition of adapting Greek drama he belongs to the same stream of Roman literature as Plautus, and his was an honourable vocation, for Greek literature was considered the gold standard by the Romans, even as Greek territories, during Terence’s lifetime, were increasingly found to furnish a different, more literal, kind of gold. His plays have many of the same features as did Plautus’: Greek settings, Greek characters, scheming slaves, dimwitted soldiers, wayward sons, and the comedic situations typically revolve around the love lives of young men and the conflicts they engender with their fathers. The plays were originally produced for audiences of men, and though there are women in the plays, none have leading roles.

Let’s take a brief look at each of them.

**

Terence’s first play was The Girl from Andros, first staged in 166 BC. Adapted from two plays of Menander, it tells of a young man whose marriage has been arranged by his father, but who meanwhile has conceived a child with a prostitute whom he loves and wishes to marry. A clever household slave tries to help him, opposing the father, to weasel out of the planned marriage. Things look up when a traveller arrives from across the sea saying that the prostitute is actually a Greek citizen (and therefore marriageable). In fact, she turns out to be a long lost sister of the girl the young man was originally supposed to marry! This being discovered, her father grants permission for the young man to marry her instead of his previously-intended daughter, and they live happily ever after.

We see in this play one of the common devices in Terence’s plays: the reveal, in which one of the characters turns out to be someone other than whom we had thought.

**

If we are looking for a good example of how the moral universe of the Romans differed from ours, we might well consider The Mother-in-Law, an amusing comedy in which the central conflict is resolved by the happy discovery that the protagonist is a rapist.

Pamphilus and Philumena have been married for less than 9 months, and he has been away for a few months on business. Returning, he finds that his wife is pregnant, and in fact she gives birth on the very day of his return. Who is the father? What will happen to Philumena now that her disgrace has been discovered? Parents, children, and slaves scheme, at cross-purposes, to control this delicate situation. But then, ever so happily, it falls out that — well, don’t you remember that night, shortly before the wedding, when Pamphilus had been out on the town and had raped that girl in the dark? That was his bride-to-be! The baby is his, and all is disconcertingly well.

Running in parallel to this story is another, in which Philumena has left the home of her husband not because she wants to conceal her pregnancy, but because she cannot stand to live with her mother-in-law. Terence was in fact known and admired for his “double plots”; Shakespearean comedy would eventually inherit this feature, with happy results.

**

Fathers, take care when you offer your sons advice, lest they heed it. In The Self-Tormentor, first staged in 163, a father upbraids his son for failing to make a name for himself, noting that at the same age he, the father, had already fought abroad in a war, whereupon the son, taking the lesson to heart, enlists and is sent to the front, leaving his father behind, aghast, fearful for his son’s life. Thinking only of the hardships his son must be enduring, and angry at himself for his rash counsel, the father vows to enjoy nothing in life until his son’s safe return — he, then, is the “self-tormentor” of the title. All this in the first few pages. Soon enough the son returns, perfectly well, and the play develops into a comedy of situation in which various friends, slaves, and lovers scheme to — you see, they’re trying to… — of course, I’m sure they’re up to something. The play is based on an original by Menander, now lost, though not so lost as I became as the machinations of the plot spooled up. I even read the plot summary at Wikipedia a few times, and I still can’t untangle what happened, or why. I’m afraid to try again.

**

As in The Mother-in-Law, rape is central to the plot of The Eunuch, and in an even more disturbing way. A young man falls in love with a slave girl, disguises himself as a eunuch to gain access to her home, and rapes her. It is later revealed that she is, in fact, the long-lost daughter of a distinguished Athenian family, and so a citizen. This is an awful realization, of course, because to rape a girl citizen is a crime, but it’s also a happy realization, because the young rapist, also a citizen, can now marry her. And so they live happily ever after.

There are other plot lines intersecting with this one, involving a jealous soldier, another young man in love with another slave girl, and so on, but Terence makes the rape central to the action and to the happy resolution of the various knots the characters must untie to find happiness. In his notes, Peter Green comments on the centrality of rape in this play and others. He says that, paradoxically, having a female character suffer rape was, for the Romans, a way of saving her honour; an unmarried woman who consented to sex was shameful, whereas a woman who was raped, though of course she suffered, committed no personal fault. She would have, in their minds, been more tarnished had she consented. This is logical, on its own terms, but, speaking for myself, I would still rather not have rapes in my comedies.

It is worth nothing that Romans felt otherwise; The Eunuch was Terence’s first major success. This good opinion lasted, and then did not last; more than 500 years later St Augustine was made to read the play in school, but he remembers the fact only to criticize it, and by the time we reach Erasmus we find him defending the play, and others by Terence, on the weak grounds that they teach us how not to act.

**

Phormio, from 161, is an amusing play in which two fathers, who are brothers, attempt to thwart the intended marriages of their respective sons to unsuitable women. One son they instead plan to marry to an illegitimate daughter of one of the fathers, who has just come to Athens disguised as a slave girl. The title character, Phormio, is a trickster recruited by the sons to thwart the fathers’ plans. Much of the amusement comes from the fact that the daughter whom the fathers want to marry to the son (her cousin) is already, unbeknownst to the fathers, the woman whom that son wants to marry. The fathers are therefore unwittingly trying to prevent the very marriage they are trying to arrange. The play is a good read, with many funny situations.

**

Parenting raises certain perennial questions, and among them are these: how much freedom should I allow my child, and how much discipline should I apply? In The Brothers we see two fathers who take opposite approaches to rearing their sons: Demea is strict, and raises a son who is respectable, while Micio is permissive, and raises a son who openly commits follies and crimes. The former hopes that his son will learn good habits and stay on the narrow path, while the latter hopes that his tolerant attitude, and the absence of subterfuge or deception in his relationship with his son, will eventually bring his son around to an honourable adulthood. The joke is on Demea, whose son is outwardly obedient but secretly just as debauched as the other. This occasions some good comedy, although, as Peter Green says in his introductory notes, while you laugh you cannot help but think.

****

Terence’s fame lasted as long as did Rome. His Latin style was admired by the medievals, and it is perhaps because of this that we have his plays today. Alas, this aspect of his art is closed to me. The morality of his plays has been debated, and not without reason. St Ignatius of Loyola proposed making expurgated versions for use in Jesuit schools; Cardinal Newman actually did so for his school. For centuries, knowing Terence was part of being educated.

In the prologue to one of the plays, he remarks that a production of his previous play had been abandoned because a gladiatorial combat nearby had distracted the audience. The twentieth century was, insofar as Terence was concerned — though also in certain other respects — much like a giant gladiatorial combat. It is rare to find the plays staged today, but they remain interesting and enjoyable to read, even if, as is true, I myself did not enjoy them quite as much as I enjoyed reading Plautus’ plays. I am nonetheless glad to have made their acquaintance.


Susskind & Friedman: Quantum Mechanics

February 22, 2018

Quantum Mechanics
The Theoretical Minimum
Leonard Susskind and Art Friedman
(Basic, 2014)
xx + 364 p.

Books on quantum mechanics tend to come to two main varieties: introductions for non-scientists, which normally focus on the conceptual underpinnings of the subject and avoid mathematics, and technical books written for advanced undergraduates or higher. This book, however, doesn’t quite fall in either camp. It spends a good deal of time carefully exploring the conceptual foundations, but it also does contain enough mathematics — all of it fairly gentle, but pertinent — so that the reader is not only told, but also is able to see, how certain of the most famous predictions of quantum mechanics follow from those conceptual foundations.

Susskind and Friedman begin with a simple quantum system, a single quantum spin, and use it to lay out the unusual logic of quantum states, emphasizing how it differs from the logic of classical physics. They discuss both time independent and time dependent quantum mechanics, emphasizing the value of the former for deducing the energy states of a system and of the latter for deducing how the system evolves in time. About one-third of the book is devoted to an exploration of entanglement, traditionally one of the strangest aspects of the quantum world, but they take some pains to argue that entanglement does not imply any sort of non-locality, as is sometimes claimed. Later sections of the book transition to the topic of wavefunctions and particles, and creep right up to the edge of quantum field theory, so as to peer over for a moment. At the end, they give a nice treatment of the quantum mechanical harmonic oscillator, which is one of the simplest but most important quantum systems.

Susskind is one of the best-known physicists of his generation. It is not all that common, I think, for such an eminent scientist to have a passion for teaching his subject to beginners, so I very much admire what he is doing here. The development of the subject is clear, with intermediate steps worked, and the significance of conclusions are emphasized. The book has a welcoming tone, and the enthusiasm of the authors is evident. They do not refrain from an occasional joke. The book is, apparently, derived from an online course which Susskind has given at Stanford. (Friedman is one of his students, and it is unclear to me exactly what his role has been in writing the book.) The book has been typeset with LaTeX, as is right and just.

It’s a little hard to say who the target audience is. It would be accessible, certainly, to an interested reader who had been trained in, for instance, engineering. The mathematics required doesn’t extend much beyond complex numbers, basic calculus, and linear algebra, and even these are given quick explanations in the text. I could see it being a very good read for an ambitious high school student or beginning undergraduate who has an interest in the subject. Or, for that matter, the target might be me: a trained physicist who has been out of academia for a while and would enjoy a trip down memory lane.

The book is part of a series, in fact, that goes under the title “The Theoretical Minimum”. It was preceded by a book on classical mechanics (to which this volume makes occasional reference), and has now been succeeded by a recent book on special relativity and classical field theory. I’ve not read either of those, but I had enough fun with this one that I might.