Archive for November, 2019

Jonson: Plays

November 26, 2019

Volpone, or The Fox
The Alchemist
Ben Jonson
(Random House, 1938) [1606, 1610]
225 p.

With these two plays I launch a modestly scaled reading project in early(ish) modern drama which begins in Shakespeare’s London and will eventually spread to cover England, France, and perhaps Spain up to roughly 1800.

Jonson was a slightly younger contemporary of Shakespeare, and the two were, I am told, rivals to some extent. (“Volpone” actually premiered in 1606 at the Globe Theatre in London.) I wanted to read a few of his plays in part because I am interested in getting to know Jonson for his own sake, but also, I admit, as a roundabout way of getting to know Shakespeare better, by seeing how his own style and approach differed from those of a close contemporary.

These two plays were written when Jonson was in middle age, already an accomplished playwright and poet. Both are classified as comedies, although the comedy on offer is far removed from the happy whimsy of plays like “As You Like It” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; a closer Shakespearean analogue might be “Measure for Measure”, inasmuch as the comedy is often dark and admixed with serious dramatic material.

In a certain sense, “Volpone” and “The Alchemist” are the same play — which surprised me. In both, a scheming pair, master and servant, attempt to con a variety of gullible parties in a bid to enrich themselves, and in both they are eventually discovered and undone.

Volpone and his servant, Mosca, have amassed immense wealth, and use the promise of a future bequest to lure sycophants into giving them more and greater gifts. They accept bribes and are not above a cunning extortion. Mosca, in the traditional role (traceable all the way back to Plautus, whose influence on these Jonsonian comedies is striking) of smooth and crafty servant, is a wonderful creation, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Iago for the depravity of his imagination, shamelessness of his impostures, and creativity of his conniving; he is the character whom I think I will best remember from these plays.

In “The Alchemist” the artful pair are Subtle, a pretended alchemist, and Face, his confidence man. Dangling the conventional alchemical promise of transmutation into gold before their clients, they too amass gifts and goods on credit. They seem much less intelligent than their counterparts in the earlier play, having (for instance, and as far as I could tell) no clear escape plan from the web of contradictory promises they make to all and sundry. As in “Volpone”, Jonson mercilessly skewers the grasping greed of his characters, none more memorably than Ananias, an Anabaptist deacon on whose hypocrisy and narrow moralism Jonson plays with a cackling delight that feels personal. (Jonson had converted to Catholicism a decade earlier, although he returned to the Church of England at around the time “The Alchemist” was first staged.) All of Subtle’s subtle subterfuges come to nought, however, when the master of the house returns unexpectedly from foreign lands.

Coleridge apparently praised this play for having what he considered to be one of the most perfect plots in all literature, but I thought it was ripping off Plautus’ “The Haunted House”.


Comparisons to Shakespeare are inevitable, since he is our pole star for the drama of this period. I have already said that I found Jonson notable darker and more malicious than Shakespeare. There is a difference in the language too; they both wrote in iambic pentameter, but Jonson feels more cramped, lacking the airy spaciousness and aphoristic wealth of Shakespeare’s verse. I also found Jonson’s verse, on the whole, more difficult; one of those Shakespearean scenes of lower-class characters (think of Falstaff at play) in which the jargon and repartee are so quick and opaque that we’re puzzled to death gives an exaggerated but decent idea of how Jonson’s plays read. I was fortunate to find a filmed performance of “Volpone” from London’s Greenwich Theatre, which I watched as I read the play, and this improved by enjoyment and understanding of the play immensely.

Jonson doesn’t rely on soliloquy as Shakespeare does (at least not in these plays), but he does rely on the play-concluding address to the audience that is familiar from Shakespeare:

VOLPONE: The seasoning of a play, is the applause.
Now, though the Fox be punish’d by the laws,
He yet doth hope, there is no suffering due,
For any fact which he hath done ‘gainst you;
If there be, censure him; here he doubtful stands:
If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands.

This must have been a convention of the theatre at the time.


I have enjoyed this brief sojourn with Jonson, and might consider reading another or two of his plays in the future, should they come recommended.

Pieper: Leisure, the Basis of Culture

November 14, 2019

Leisure, the Basis of Culture
Josef Pieper
(Fontana, 1965) [1948]
140 p. Second reading.

To a certain way of thinking, the idea that leisure might be the basis of culture is akin to the notion that leisure suits might be the basis of fashion — appealing, but probably not true. But of course much depends on just what one means by “leisure”, and among the many wonderful things about this book is its excavation of an older, nearly forgotten sense of the word that has deep roots in our history.


In one sense, the common meaning of “leisure” — understood as “not work” — resonates with the meaning that Pieper is after. But any hint of slovenliness, triviality, or frivolity must be dismissed: for Pieper, leisure is a high and important business, the highest activity, indeed, that human beings are capable of participating in. Its domains are not sand beaches or movie theatres, but philosophy, poetry, and prayer.

Pieper approaches his subject through a series of traditional dichotomies.

Medieval schoolmen, for instance, made a distinction between two types of intellectual activities which they called ratio and intellectus. Ratio was discursive reason, “reasoning” in the prevailing sense, thinking logically from premises to conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, meant understanding, perception of the meaning of abstract concepts, intentionality, and knowledge of truth. The two are different — though not opposites, certainly, for intellectus is a precondition for ratio, which it underlies and informs. Ratio, like our ‘ratiocination’, is what a computer can be made to do — or could do, if it had intellectus, which it does not. To the medievals, ratio meant toil and labour, but intellectus meant illumination and possession. Ratio was a human activity, necessary in practical and speculative matters alike, but intellectus was on the boundary between humanity and higher realms, a kind of spiritual vision, undiscursive and unmediated, not earned by diligent effort, but received as a gift.

Perhaps this sounds esoteric, but I think the distinction in question is intimately familiar to all of us. It is one thing to laboriously work out the value of an integral, but quite another to understand the meaning of the number 3. It is one thing to prove a theorem about triangles, but another to understand what a triangle is. The two aspects of reason are both constantly present to our minds.

A related dichotomy which the medievals observed was between liberal and servile arts. Servile arts were practical in nature: farming, shoemaking, weaving, planning. There was nothing ignoble about them, for they required real skill and knowledge to do well, and, when used to the benefit of the common good, were good. But they were practical, means to certain specific ends, and derived their value from those ends. They were in that sense constrasted with the liberal arts, which had no such practical aim, required no economic justification, but were done because they were good in themselves, and were their own justification. Does such a sphere of activity really exist? There may be — there are — those who say that it does not, but the tradition of “leisure” is founded on the belief that it does. The liberal arts are rooted in leisure.

Or consider a third contrast — the most surprising thus far — which the tradition draws between leisure and sloth. We are today in danger sometimes of seeing these two as synonyms, but in the tradition they are antonyms. For St Thomas, for instance, sloth is closely related not to rest, but to restlessness, mindless activity. It is the condition of boredom, that peculiarly modern affliction that Pieper identifies as a consequence of the loss of the ability to be leisurely. The besetting vice of a workaholic is sloth, toil not ordered to a suitable and worthy good. The cardinal sin underlying sloth was called ‘acedia’, a word that has unfortunately no obvious cognate in English. Pieper relates it to Kierkegaard’s ‘despair from weakness’ (in The Sickness Unto Death): an unwillingness to be what one really is, a dis-integration of the self, a sadness in the face of one’s nature as a creature made by God. The opposite of acedia, and therefore of sloth, is not work, but instead happy affirmation of one’s being, love for the world, and love for God.

The highest form this affirmation can take is the festival, the communal celebration of the goodness of the world, and the highest form of the festival, in turn, is divine worship, praise of the Creator, which is the most intense form of affirmation of the world available to us:

“The most festive festival it is possible to celebrate is divine worship. And there is no festival which does not draw its vitality from worship and that has not become a festival by virtue of its origin in worship. There is no such thing as a festival ‘without Gods’ — whether it be a carnival or a marriage.”

We are not surprised to learn that festivals and divine worship are both closely allied to leisure as the tradition has understood it. (This angle is treated at greater length in Pieper’s wonderful book In Tune with the World.)


What, then, is leisure? Pieper unfolds the concept slowly, showing one aspect here and another there, but gradually a picture emerges. It has something to do with contemplation: leisure means “to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision”. It has about it a kind of passivity: “A man at leisure is not unlike a man asleep”. It is something that we can prepare for, but not something we can will to do; Aristotle said that a man could experience leisure “not to the extent that he is a man, but to the extent that a divine principle dwells within him”. Like intellectus, it is effortless apprehension and possession of truth, or goodness, or beauty. It is an end in itself, a step outside the everyday world of ends and means. It reverences the world as something surpassingly good, and, especially through divine worship, embraces everything essential to a full human life.

The primary examples Pieper gives to illustrate what he means by ‘leisure’ are aesthetic experience, artistic expression and enjoyment, philosophical reflection, love, and religious acts such as prayer and worship. These useless things are the highest to which we can aspire.

Reverence is essential: it is only possible to be leisurely, in this ancient sense, if we can look upon the world as something deserving our reverence, something on which we refuse to impose our will but are disposed to simply receive and behold. We allow our will to be formed by what we encounter, rather than the other way around. This is a reason why we in the modern West have lost touch with the tradition Pieper shows us: the whole thrust of modern thought since Bacon and Descartes has been in the opposite direction: “knowledge is power” and the main thing is to impose our will on the world so as to attain mastery over nature. But the older tradition valued doing and making less than seeing:

“Man’s real wealth consists, not in satisfying his needs, not in becoming ‘the master and owner of nature’ [Descartes], but in seeing what is and the whole of what is, in seeing things not as useful or useless, serviceable or not, but simply as being. The basis of this conception of philosophy is the conviction that the greatness of man consists in his being capex universi.

The ultimate perfection attainable to us, in the minds of the philosophers of Greece, was this: that the order of the whole of existing things should be inscribed in our souls. And this conception was afterwards absorbed into the Christian tradition in the conception of the beatific vision: ‘What do they not see, who see him who sees all things?’ [St Gregory the Great]”


Pieper saw leisure as imperilled in his own day, embattled and eroded, of course, because of modernity itself, but facing a particularly acute challenge in his own time and place — post-war Germany — when an ideal of “total work” was gaining political and cultural strength. As the country tried to reconstruct itself, of what possible value could anything not contributing to that effort be? He saw leisure, with its children, philosophy and art, being attacked or discarded as useless. His distress at this turn, in fact, seems to have occasioned the writing of this book.

Today we are less threatened by a regime of “total work” — though I suppose that those required by their employers to carry around a cell phone might disagree. We are less threatened, at least, by this idea as a civic duty or moral obligation. But another threat has taken its place, especially in recent years. Let’s call it “total politics”. This is the view that no field of human action is finally apolitical: power and privilege infect all. It comes mostly from the left wing, where the premise is more widely accepted. Even a disinterested pursuit of truth, to this way of thinking, betrays an unjust privilege, for who but the privileged could afford to be disinterested? But if devotion to truth is just disguised oppression, then all is lost. By a self-fulfilling prophecy, we can fall back only on will and power. Moreover, if intellectual work is really always implicitly political, why should it not be explicitly so? Hence the drift of whole academic departments into advocacy. And art, too, finds it must pass muster with Vigilants, who police for compliance with political nostrums. And so the capacity for human activity to step outside the political, outside the kingdom of ends, becomes constrained. Those borders are patrolled. And leisure, in consequence, cannot unfold its wings.

We also, of course, face a juggernaut of “total distraction” powered by our communication technologies, an ocean of mental noise that drowns out the inner life and smothers leisure. But this is obvious.

It is a very real question whether intellectual work and academic freedom can, or should, survive in this kind of environment. Pieper in his day already perceived a devaluation in the very concept of “intellectual work”, as though one could hire a philosopher the way one hires an electrician. (We have heard of companies hiring ethicists to evaluate controversial practices. “The best ethicists money can buy.”) He saw academic freedom as contingent on the philosophical — that is, leisurely — character of academic work, and judged that it was abdicated to the degree that academic work became merely political or practical.


If leisure is as important as Pieper thinks it is, and is as embattled as it appears, we will naturally ask what can be done to improve its fortunes. And here we run up against a conundrum, for we have already said that leisure is precisely that realm of human experience which is its own justification, an end, not a means. But this implies that we cannot cultivate leisure “in order that” this or that good result may be achieved or this or that bad result avoided:

“When a thing contains its own end, or is and end in itself, it can never be made to serve as a means to any other end — just as no one can love someone ‘in order that’.”

We are concerned with a realm of human activity that cannot be instrumentalized without destroying it; it must be sought simply for itself. The only path, therefore, or at least the clearest, to a recovery of leisure seems to me the personal: to love it and live it. As a practical matter (so to speak), it means setting aside time for encounters with beauty; it means pondering questions that admit of no technical solution; it means reading widely and deeply in the best that has been thought and said; it means developing a practice of prayerful and attentive silence, and, preeminently, it means honouring and praising the Creator for the goodness of the world given to us.

Or so it seems to me, and in truth I do, in my own life, in a manner consistent with my other duties and undoubtedly hampered by my many faults, try to do all of these things. I do so in some significant measure under the influence of this very book, which I first read many years ago. It would even be fair to say that this blog, for lo! these many years, has been one means by which I have tried to “work my leisure”, to use a phrase from Aristotle. Without claiming that I have been notably successful, for it is always sobering to contemplate the disparity between one’s ambitions and efforts and one’s actual progress, I nonetheless own a debt of gratitude to this book for its, on the whole, good effects in my life. It has been a joy to read it again and find its wisdom undiminished.

O magnum mysterium

November 13, 2019

I can’t quite decide if I like Ola Gjeilo’s setting of the Christmas antiphon O magnum mysterium, but it is definitely tempting me to like it. It is beautifully sung here by The Jasmina’s Choir, from Latvia. (Yes indeed, the International Baltic Choir Competition is upon us once more!)

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.

The canonical setting of this text is, of course, the one by Victoria:

Stevenson: The Master of Ballantrae

November 6, 2019

The Master of Ballantrae
A Winter’s Tale
Robert Louis Stevenson
(Eveleigh Nash & Grayson, 1910) [1889]
330 p.

When we think of Stevenson we think first of Treasure Island, or Kidnapped, or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or, if in winter we get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight, A Child’s Garden of Verses. All were already behind him when, in his late 30s, he wrote this intriguing historical novel, The Master of Ballantrae.

Its story begins during the Jacobite uprising of 1745. A noble Scottish family has two sons; not knowing whether the rebellion will succeed or not, the family hedges its bets: one son, the elder and Master, fights for the Bonnie Prince, while the younger sides with the king. During the conflict the elder son disappears (captured, as it turns out, by pirates) and the younger inherits the estate and marries the woman whom his older brother had loved.

When the Master does eventually return, he finds himself barred from the life he had hoped for, and is understandably resentful. So begins the novel’s long, intricate tracing of the sour rivalry between the two brothers. The Master is cunning and charismatic, a man of great courage and resourcefulness, and he bends all his considerable will to undoing the happiness of his younger brother, a comparatively dull though well-intentioned man entrapped, as it were, by his good fortune.

The book uses an unusual narrative technique. The story is told principally through the voice of a family servant, and is cast as a memoir into which he has pulled relevant material from letters and other sources. The story takes place largely in Scotland, but partly in France, and the long final act actually occurs in New York — first in the city and then, finally and fatally, in the wilderness of the Adirondacks.

Stevenson is, of course, a wonderful writer, with the sturdiest prose and an unerring ear for the right word at the right time. This book is particularly notable for the complexity of the two central characters. The elder brother, whose path in life is beset by so many obstacles and injustices, and who behaves toward his family as the most resolute of devils, is nonetheless portrayed as possessed of an unmistakable nobility of bearing and gifted in abundance with all of the secondary virtues — the ones that can be turned to good or ill. And his brother, less winsome but intelligent and conscientious of his duties, is slowly frayed by a besetting fear of what his brother might next attempt.

There are several references in the novel to the fraternal rivalry of Esau and Jacob, and the book could be read as an echo and elaboration of that Biblical motif.

Solemnity of All Saints, 2019

November 1, 2019

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth;
for the first heaven and first earth had passed away,
and there was no more sea.
And I, John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem
coming down from God out of heaven,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband;
and I heard a great voice out of heaven, saying:
‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men,
and he will dwell with them and they shall be his people;
and God himself shall be with them and be their God;
and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,
and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying,
neither shall there be any more pain,
for the former things are passed away.’

(Edgar Bainton, ‘And I saw a new heaven’)