Archive for the 'Book Note' Category

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!

Chesterton: William Cobbett

July 17, 2017

William Cobbett
G.K. Chesterton
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1931) [1925]
277 p.

Following my wild introduction to William Cobbett last year, I decided I’d like to know more about him, and so turned to this relatively slim biography. Now, reading one of Chesterton’s biographies with the aim of learning about the subject of the biography is a risky venture, for often his books are as much about himself, or about everything under the sun, as they are about the name on the cover. However I believe that in this case the risk paid off; at least, I finish the book feeling that in addition to having learned something about Chesterton, and about everything under the sun, I have learned something about William Cobbett.

What struck me most forcefully as I read Cobbett’s History was the fierce force of his rhetoric, “every homely word like a hatchet”. Chesterton remarks that his contemporaries praised him for his command of the language, and often did so instead of listening to what he was saying: “He who was so stuffed with matter has been admired for his manner; though not perhaps for his manners.” It was an understandable diversionary tactic on the part of his targets, but one that Cobbett played into by an habitual excess:

“He was ever ready to urge a wise economy of expenditure with the wildest extravagance of words. He praised prudence in a series of the most appallingly imprudent speeches ever made by man. He howled and bellowed all the beauties of a sober and sensible and quiet life. But he was perfectly sincere; and it was really thrift and forethought and sobriety that he recommended. Only, it was the trouble with his forethought that it was, among other things, thought; and of his foresight that he could see a little further.”

And what did his far-seeing foresight show him? One of Chesterton’s recurring themes in the book is that Cobbett was prescient. He felt the onset of things, discerned the shape of things to come, before his contemporaries did:

“Of all our social critics lie was by far the most fundamental. He could not help seeing a fight of first principles deadly enough to daunt any fighter. He could not help realising an evil too large for most men to realise, let alone resist. It was as if he had been given an appalling vision, in which the whole land he looked at, dotted with peaceful houses and indifferent men, had the lines and slopes of a slow earthquake.”

He lived at a time when the Industrial Revolution was beginning to transform English society, when banks were becoming large and powerful, when urbanization was accelerating:

“What he saw was the perishing of the whole English power of self-support, the growth of cities that drain and dry up the countryside, the growth of dense dependent populations incapable of finding their own food, the toppling triumph of machines over men, the sprawling omnipotence of financiers over patriots, the herding of humanity in nomadic masses whose very homes are homeless, the terrible necessity of peace and the terrible probability of war, all the loading up of our little island like a sinking ship; the wealth that may mean famine and the culture that may mean despair; the bread of Midas and the sword of Damocles. In a word, he saw what we see, but he saw it when it was not there.”

All of this he opposed: “There lies like a load upon him the impression that the whole world is being reformed; and it is being reformed wrong.” In other words, Cobbett was substantially what we should today call a conservative, though he was not an ideologue. He saw, quite rightly, the traditional ways of life being upended, and he saw, more clearly than we can see today, what was likely to be lost in the process, even as we see, more clearly than him, what was to be gained. But both the gain and the loss ought rightly to be considered.

What Cobbett loved was “liberty, England, the family, [and] the honour of the yeoman”. Chesterton described his “single creed” as this: “God made man to plough and reap and sow.” He was concerned with more than just the “welfare” of workers, but with “their dignity, their good name, their honour, and even their glory.” Therefore he wanted to encourage thrift and self-control among the poor, in part by granting them control over their own affairs, and he feared and despised an economic system that should make them dependent on others.

In his early life Cobbett had been a patriot — an instinctive one, rather than an ideological one. And he remained a patriot his whole life, though, in Chesterton’s words, a disappointed patriot, for he came to understand that the political powers in England were dens of corruption, and he himself suffered at their hands. He, as a fairly young man, protested to Parliament over the flogging of British soldiers, and for his trouble he was put on trial, and sentenced to two years in prison. Chesterton marks this period of trial and imprisonment as a turning point in his life, the crucible in which Cobbett the fearsome controversialist emerged for the first time:

“The man who came out of that prison was not the man who went in. It is not enough to say that he came out in a rage, and may be said to have remained in a rage; to have lived in a rage for thirty years, until he died in a rage in his own place upon the hills of Surrey. There are rages and rages, and they ought to have seen in his eyes when they opened the door that they had let loose a revolution. We talk of a man being in a towering passion and that vigorous English phrase, so much in his own literary manner, is symbolic of his intellectual importance. He did indeed return in a towering passion, a passion that towered above towns and villages like a waterspout, or a cyclone visible from ten counties and crossing England like the stride of the storm. The most terrible of human tongues was loosened and went through the country like a wandering bell, of incessant anger and alarum; till men must have wondered why, when it was in their power, they had not cut it out.”

A prime example of that “most terrible of human tongues” at work is Cobbett’s History of the Protestant Reformation, which, judging from the attention he gives it, Chesterton takes to be Cobbett’s masterpiece. In this book Cobbett tried to straighten out the distorted collective memory of the English people:

“The impression was one of paradox; the mere fact that he seemed to be calling black white, when he declared that what was white had been blackened, or that what seemed to be white had only been whitewashed.”

Chesterton is able to fill in some details about the reception of this fiery work. Although some historians did quibble with this or that detail in Cobbett’s case, his critique survived substantially intact, being substantially true. The most common response to it was, again, to charge him with being impolitic: “It was not really Cobbett’s history that was in controversy; it was his controversialism. It was not his facts that were challenged; it was his challenge.”

Late in his life Cobbett was honoured with a senatorship, a position that called for a willingness to compromise and to speak in platitudes, and therefore a position to which his “cranky common sense” was ill-suited. Chesterton puts it wonderfully:

“The truth is that he was simply a bull in a china shop. His sort of English, his sort of eloquence, his gesture, and his very bodily presence were not suitable in any case to senatorial deliberations. His was the sort of speaking that may make the welkin ring, but only makes the chairman ring a little bell. His attitude and action had about them the great spaces of the downs or the sweeping countrysides; the lifting of the great clouds and the silent upheaval of the hills. His warnings and rebukes sounded more homely and natural when they were shouted, as a man might shout across a meadow a rebuke to a trespasser or a warning against a bull. But that sort of shouting when it is shut up in a close and heated room has the appearance of madness. The company received the impression of a mere maniac. Yet there was not a man in that room who had a clearer head or a clearer style, or a better basis of common sense.”

**

In the end, then, Cobbett appears as a man at odds with his time, a man who loved greatly and who fought the powerful forces that were threatening the things he loved. He was, says Chesterton, a “model husband and father”, but a difficult friend and a fearsome enemy. He was a man who perceived the shape of things to come, an uneducated man who nonetheless grasped the foundations and never forgot them, a man who seemed paradoxical to his contemporaries because he was wider and larger than they were. (Subtract the fearsomeness from this portrait, and, mirabile dictu, one has a decent portrait of Chesterton himself.)

Chesterton sums up the man and his legacy in a passage worth quoting at some length:

“There was never a Cobbettite except Cobbett. That gives him an absolute quality not without a sort of authority. He was a full man and a ready man, but he was not an exact man. He was not a scientific man or in the orderly and conscious sense even a philosophical man. But he was, by this rather determining test, a great man. He was large enough to be lonely. He had more inside him than he could easily find satisfied outside him. He meant more by what he said even than the other men who said it. He was one of the rare men to whom the truisms are truths. This union of different things in his thoughts was not sufficiently thought out; but it was a union. It was not a compromise; it was a man. That is what is meant by saying that it was also a great man.

[…]

That is the paradox of Cobbett; that in a sense he quarrelled with everybody because he reconciled everything. From him, at least, so many men were divided, because in him so many things were unified. He appeared inconsistent enough in the thousand things that he reviled; but he would have appeared far more inconsistent in the things that he accepted. The breadth of his sympathy would have been stranger than all his antipathies; and his peace was more provocative than war. Therefore it is that our last impression of him is of a loneliness not wholly due to his hatreds, but partly also to his loves. For the desires of his intellect and imagination never met anything but thwarting and wounding in this world; and though the ordinary part of him was often happy enough, the superior part was never satisfied. He never came quite near enough to a religion that might have satisfied him. But with philosophies he would never have been satisfied, especially the mean and meagre philosophies of his day. The cause he felt within him was too mighty and multiform to have been fed with anything less than the Faith. Therefore it was that when he lay dying in his farmhouse on the hills, those he had loved best in his simple fashion were near to his heart; but of all the millions of the outer world there was none near to his mind, and all that he meant escaped and went its way, like a great wind that roars over the rolling downs.”

**

The three principal literary works of Cobbett which Chesterton selects for praise are an English Grammar, the history of the Reformation in England, and Rural Rides, which I gather is a kind of opinionated travelogue. Having already read the second of these, and therefore confronted with a choice between the first and last, I believe I’ll opt for the last.

****

[Cobbett and Johnson]
So many things united these two great Englishmen, and not least their instinctive embodiment of England; they were alike in their benevolent bullying, in something private and practical, and very much to the point in their individual tenderness, in their surly sympathy for the Catholic tradition, in their dark doubts of the coming time.

[Rationalism]
Rationalism is a romance of youth. There is nothing very much the matter with the age of reason; except, alas, that it comes before the age of discretion.

Aristotle: Politics

July 9, 2017

Politics
Aristotle
Translated by Benjamin Jowett
(Everyman, 1941) [c.325 BC]
264 p.

Obviously this is a great book, and these notes make no pretence to be anything other than jottings. I might begin by confessing that I’m not, all things considered, very interested in politics or political theory, but I chose this of Aristotle’s works because I’d already read some of those more interesting to me (Ethics, De Anima, Physics), and because some of the others more interesting (Metaphysics, Logic) looked too hard to tackle in my current state of life.

It had been some time since I last spent any extended time with Aristotle. I know people say that his works as they have come down to us lack personality – and may well not be from his pen at all – but that lack of personality is itself a kind of personality, and it was nice to be back in his company.

Aristotle can be counted on to state basic principles clearly. Sometimes these principles are obvious, and sometimes not, but anyway it is part of his thorough method to state them. It feels good just to say them aloud:

The state is a creation of nature, and … man is by nature a political animal. (Bk I)

Or

A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature. (Bk I)

Obvious, as I say, but contrary to the founding principles of much modern political philosophy, and refreshing. Or he says this of the rule of law:

Two parts of good government; one is the actual obedience of citizens to the laws, the other part is the goodness of the laws which they obey. (Bk IV)

With this consequence:

In some states the good man and the good citizen are the same, and in others different. (Bk III)

Sometimes his declarations have the force of aphorisms:

Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all. (Bk I)

Or

The law is reason unaffected by desire. (Bk III)

Or

To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls. (Bk VIII)

Or, in a claim that I am sure must be cited in The Abolition of Man:

Virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright. (Bk VIII).

Of course, the Politics is more than just aphorisms; it’s a set of arguments. His principle purpose, as I understand it, is to inquire into the nature of states, and to survey different models of governance, studying their characteristic strengths and weaknesses.

Aristotle has a high view of the state. He writes:

If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good. (Bk I)

This is broadly consistent with the political vision set forth by Plato in Republic, and once again at odds with the main trunk of modern political theory, which (insofar as I understand it) rolled back the state from pursuing a vision of the highest good, opting instead for a more modest role as custodian of peace and guarantor of certain individual freedoms. Of course, highest goods are hard to ignore permanently, and a reasonable argument can be made that those “individual freedoms”, which were originally an alternative to a politics of the highest good, have become in time themselves that highest good. But that’s another story.

Aristotle’s view that the state “embraces all the rest” gives his vision of politics an uncomfortably totalitarian flavour. Here, for instance, he comments on the place of the family and the individual in politics:

The state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part.” (Bk I)

The citizen should be moulded to suit the form of government under which he lives. (Bk VIII)

Neither must it be supposed that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state… (Bk VIII)

That first statement is the opposite of what I would argue: in fact the family is the most basic political community, prior to all others, because parts are of necessity prior to the whole. The second is less objectionable, and can be taken in a banal way – in a democracy, for instance, citizens should be virtuous, since they can hardly govern a polity well if they cannot govern themselves. But there’s something ominous about it too, especially that “should”. The third statement comes from his remarks on education, in which he criticizes the practice of parents deciding for themselves how to educate their children, and argues instead for public education specifically on the grounds that it is necessary to cultivate in children the virtues required for the preservation of the common good: “since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all.” One can see the force of the argument, of course, but I’m wary of any attempt by the state to form the souls of children — especially my children.

The principal forms of government Aristotle analyzes are monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government – rule by one, few, or many. He proceeds by looking at a number of real cases, as well as some theoretical ones (such as that described in Republic). He notes that each of these forms of government can become corrupted, with monarchy devolving to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy, and constitutional government to democracy. By “democracy” he doesn’t mean exactly what we usually mean, but specifically that form of “rule by the many” in which the will of the majority has the force of law (rather than operating under the law). He argues that, whatever the form of government, a healthy government is one that rules in favour of the common good.

As far as I could see, he took no strong position on which form of government was to be preferred, but he did express a mild preference for rule by the many, both because “passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are the best of men”, and because the many, on account of their wide variety of knowledge and experience, may be able to act more prudently and with better reason than the few. I do not find this entirely convincing.

Bad Aristotle makes a number of appearances in these pages. We get, for instance, his famous statement that slavery is natural (“the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master”). Those of us who admire Aristotle would like to chalk this up to limitations in the moral vision of the time and place in which he lived, and this is true to some extent, but he makes things more difficult by acknowledging (in Bk I, 3) that this view of slavery is contested. At least as reprehensible are his views on infanticide (“let there be a law that no deformed child shall live”). He would permit abortion, but only “before life and sense have begun”; he may be bad, but on this point he is, at least, not so bad as we are.

In the eighth and final Book, he has a very interesting discussion of leisure, and in particular of music-making and music-appreciation as leisure activities. As Josef Pieper argued in his wonderful book, Aristotle had a high view of leisure, seeing it not as a time for mere amusement, but for activities which are valued for their own sake. Precisely because leisure activities are intrinsically valuable, they are better than servile work: “The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end” (Bk VIII). I’m not sure just what he means by calling leisure “the first principle of all action”, but when he says that leisure is the “end” of occupation, he means that we do our servile work in order to have leisure. I remember that Jacques Barzun somewhere says that it is the sign of a healthy soul to hate one’s job, precisely because for most of us it prevents us from spending our time on what is intrinsically worthwhile; this chaffing against employment obligations, while wearisome and frustrating, is fundamentally sound. And leisure, on this view, should not be confused with “idleness”, but might be very vigorous and even exhausting. Philosophy, for instance, is a good example of a worthy leisure activity, as are the arts, religion, and maybe even sports. Music enters into this discussion because it is one of those things which we can enjoy for its own sake. It amuses us, but also gives us a kind of intellectual enjoyment which is the special purview of rational creatures.

Music can also serve instrumental purposes, and in this role is crucial to education, in Aristotle’s view, because it has the power to influence and shape the soul and the character of the hearer. He discusses the different musical modes and their effects on listeners, and goes on to argue that its capacity to evoke emotional responses makes music of special value for teaching virtue, which, as was already said above, “consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright”. That music can bear resemblance to moral qualities is almost unique among objects of sense.

I knew that Plato gave attention to music in Republic because of its power to affect the soul, but I was not, until reading Politics, aware that Aristotle had done the same. It would be interesting one day to sit down and compare the two treatments.

**

I’ve done little more in these brief notes than skim the surface, picking out a handful of things that most interested me. There’s a lot of detailed argumentation in Politics about effective policies, principles, and objectives of different types of government. For the most part this was more than I wanted, but naturally that’s a reflection of my own limitations.

Grahame: Dream Days

July 3, 2017

Dream Days
Kenneth Grahame
(Dodd, Mead & Co., 1953) [1898]
160 p.

A few years after The Golden Age, Kenneth Grahame published this volume, which can reasonably be considered a sequel: like The Golden Age it immerses us in the experience of childhood, and at least some of its characters reappear from the earlier book.

Abandoning the beaten track, I then struck homewards through the fields; not that the way was very much shorter, but rather because on that route one avoided the bridge, and had to splash through the stream and get refreshingly wet. Bridges were made for narrow folk, for people with aims and vocations which compelled abandonment of many of life’s highest pleasures. Truly wise men called on each element alike to minister to their joy, and while the touch of sun-bathed air, the fragrance of garden soil, the ductible qualities of mud, and the spark-whirling rapture of playing with fire, had each their special charm, they did not overlook the bliss of getting their feet wet.

Unless I am mistaken, these eight mostly-disjoint chapters are more substantial than the briefer vignettes in The Golden Age. Perhaps my favourite of them was “Its Walls Were As Of Jasper”, a marvellous evocation of the experience of reading a children’s picture book with a fully alive child’s imagination.

There was plenty to do in this pleasant land. The annoying thing about it was, one could never penetrate beyond a certain point. I might wander up that road as often as I liked, I was bound to be brought up at the gateway, the funny galleried, top-heavy gateway, of the little walled town. Inside, doubtless, there were high jinks going on; but the password was denied to me. I could get on board a boat and row up as far as the curly ship, but around the headland I might not go. On the other side, of a surety, the shipping lay thick. The merchants walked on the quay, and the sailors sang as they swung out the corded bales. But as for me, I must stay down in the meadow, and imagine it all as best I could.

Of course, a child is sometimes not scrupulous about exactly which book to read, and not always sensible of the antiquity or fragility of a particular volume, which defects land our narrator in a spot of trouble.

Other stories are about a visit to the circus (“The Magic Ring”), about the death of a family friend (“Dies Irae”), and — another favourite — about an elaborate game of make-believe on the high seas replete with pirates, battles, international diplomacy, and, naturally, a princess (“A Saga of the Seas”). In each story we are immersed in the imaginative world of children, into which adult concerns intrude only fitfully and weakly.

There had never been any one like Billy in his own particular sphere; and now he was drowned, they said, and Martha was miserable, and—and I couldn’t get a new bootlace. They told me that Billy would never come back any more, and I stared out of the window at the sun which came back, right enough, every day, and their news conveyed nothing whatever to me. Martha’s sorrow hit home a little, but only because the actual sight and sound of it gave me a dull, bad sort of pain low down inside—a pain not to be actually located. Moreover, I was still wanting my bootlace.

The longest, and, I should think, best-known of these stories is “The Reluctant Dragon”, which, shorn of the narrative frame it has here, has been reproduced on its own and re-illustrated by numerous hands. A boy discovers a dragon in a cave near his home, but an immensely civilized and gentle dragon he is, and when St George arrives in town intent on fighting him to the death, our boy must intervene to preserve the peace. It’s a likeable enough story, but I confess that something about it rubbed me the wrong way — perhaps it was the rather effeminate St George — and it was, for me, among the least successful of these stories.

Being a book by Kenneth Grahame, it goes without saying that Dream Days is gorgeously written; the sheer beauty of its prose is a consolation. Grahame’s next book, published a full decade later, was to be The Wind in the Willows, which thoroughly and rightly overshadowed what came before it, but The Golden Age is nonetheless still a rewarding read.

Caldecott: Beauty in the Word

June 26, 2017

Beauty in the Word
Stratford Caldecott
(Angelico, 2012)
168 p.

In an earlier book, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, Stratford Caldecott, in the guise of a treatment of the classical quadrivium, outlined his thoughts on how education might begin to reintegrate the dissociated sensibility of the West, in which truth, understood as objective and impersonal and more-or-less narrowed to the domain of the sciences, stands on one side, and goodness and beauty, understood as subjective and private, stand on the other, and never the thrain shall meet.

Beauty in the Word is a companion volume, where this time the subject is the classical trivium, but the objectives are comparably deep and far-reaching.

He begins with an overview of competing visions and theories of education, with a particular question in mind: “What kind of education would enable a child to progress in the rational understanding of the world without losing his poetic and artistic appreciation of it?” He argues that education is not principally about conveying information or developing skills, but about formation of character in mind and heart; it is about who we will be, not what we will do. He cites with approval Simone Weil’s famous proposal that the most important thing about education is not what we study, but how we study, and in particular that we promote “the development of attention”, a habit essential to the intellectual and spiritual health of the person. For Caldecott, education is always about the person. “Education is more like gardening than manufacturing.”

In his survey of educational theories, a basic dialectic between didactic and elucidative methods emerges. One side says that education is about instruction, for the child is ignorant and can only learn if told; the other side says that the child has interests and abilities and should be encouraged and accompanied as he or she grows and matures. The one pours in, the other draws out. My own instincts are didactic, but Caldecott (drawing on the ideas of Maria Montessori) mounts a defence of the latter view for a Catholic understanding of education, and in the end he arrives at a middle position:

“The basis for a good education is, on the one hand, the self-motivation of the child to pursue what engages and interests him, and on the other, the creativity, responsiveness, and love of the teacher, who sets the terms for learning and encourages the child to flourish.”

The role of the teacher is to help the child to grow in understanding and range, and to avoid the trap of a “relevant” education, in which a pupil is flattered or merely allowed to stagnate within their limited horizon. On the contrary, a Catholic education is one which is directed toward helping the student to mature, and also to help them appropriate the tradition of which they are an heir, in order that they can inhabit it and then, in due time, bequeath it to the next generation. “Ideally, Catholicism fulfils and brings to perfection the natural educational process, which is the transformation in creative freedom of a cultural tradition to our children.”

Turning then to the classical trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, Caldecott cites the definitions of Hugh of St Victor: “Grammar is the knowledge of how to speak without error; dialectic is clear-sighted argument which separates the true from the false; rhetoric is the discipline of persuading to every suitable thing.” And this is so, as far as it goes, but he proceeds to deepen each of the three in a trilogy of chapters, and he does so by setting up a catalogue of triplets to be understood as analogies or implications or parallels of the basic educational trivium. His set of “Eight Threes” looks like this:

Mythos Logos Ethos
Grammar Dialectic Rhetoric
Remembering Thinking Speaking
Music/Dance Visual arts Drama
One True Good
True Good Beautiful
Given Received Shared
Father Son Spirit

One could study this table and gradually draw out much of what the book has to say. But, since I am here to do good service, I’ll do some of the drawing out myself.

Grammar he connects to “remembering”. The object of understanding is not simply linguistic grammar, but the grammar of being, the logic of things. “To fill a word with meaning is an act of remembering the being of the thing itself“. Grammar grounds us in what is real, as the foundation of our thought. We give names to things, and though the names themselves are conventions, the things named are not. “Naming is related to the power of seeing; of seeing into the realities, the essences of things.” Nominalists cannot be grammarians.

Language is also our medium for passing on what we know, and thus for the formation of a tradition. To be inducted into a tradition through education is an act of remembering, and a tradition is to be received in a receptive spirit of love, as a gift of something precious. “The ‘spirit of tradition’ is an essential element of education.” We, of course, live in a time when traditions are faltering and dissolving, when amnesia is the objective, and therefore we must be deliberate about guarding and teaching the good things we have inherited. This handing-on, this giving of a tradition to a new generation, is also a personal act, directed to the good of both teacher and pupil. In an anti-tradition, Caldecott argues, the world is simply a pattern of information to be transferred to a new mind. It has no personal element, and is not addressed to the soul, and this is deficient. We should therefore be wary of technologies that make teaching impersonal, or that intrude into the personal connections that constitute a tradition.

Central to the grammar of remembrance is the cultivation of memory and attention, both as indispensable requirements for retention of what is learned, but also as a means of integrating the personality and preparing in the pupil the road to contemplation. This was why Simone Weil was so devoted to attention as the aim of education: because attention is essential to contemplative prayer, and to the intuition of being which is at the heart of a grounded knowledge of the grammar of things. Students will make progress through learning by heart, and also through participation in the arts: in crafts, drama, song, story, and, especially, liturgy, which (in theory) brings these individual arts to an apex:

“If the spirit of tradition is to be preserved and revived, liturgy is going to be the key, for this is the school of memory, the place where we recollect ourselves, where we learn how to relate to each other in God. This is where we learn to accept the past and existence itself as a gift calling for a response of gratitude. Prayer and worship are therefore not extraneous but should be a central element in the life of the school or family. As we pray, so shall we be.”

The second part of the trivium, Dialectic, which is usually interpreted as ‘thinking’ or ‘reasoning’, Caldecott frames as the art of analysis and of discerning the truth. It rightly builds on the earlier stage, being informed by memory and the contemplation of what is real. (This in contrast to, say, Descartes, who began with dialectic, or, rather, began with forgetting, and tried to establish dialectic on a correspondingly thin foundation.) For Caldecott, dialectic is not cold reason, but proceeds in concert with both imagination and feeling, and is always grounded in a sober engagement with real things. Thinking is ‘thinking about’, and its characteristic mode is pondering, not flitting from one thing to the next.

The third stage of the trivium is Rhetoric, traditionally understood as the art of speaking, and especially of persuasion. In this stage one marshals one’s knowledge of things (“Grammar”) and one’s arguments and understanding (“Dialectic”) and conveys them to others with the intention of helping them to see and understand the same truths. Or, put in a more personal vein, by an education in the previous two stages we mature into a certain type of person, and in this third stage who we are, persons formed by a tradition, is communicated to others. Rhetoric makes use of all the resources of language — its music, its imagery, and its web of connotation — to convey truth. Because of its public, performative aspect it is closely related to song and music, and, even more deeply, to liturgy. Caldecott sees this appearance of liturgy as the telos of, or at least as the mature expression of, the educational process as highly significant, for liturgy, at its best, manifests a tradition of truths through a web of symbolic meanings of great rhetorical power. Naturally (and properly) this rhetorical power retains influence over us only so long as we understand or trust it to be grounded in truth. For these reasons, Caldecott sees the Mass as “intrinsic to the educational process itself”.

**

Following this overview of the basic structure and meaning of the trivium at a theoretical level, Caldecott transitions in the later chapters to practical questions of how these ideas might be instantiated in the day-to-day education of real children. The trivium forms the core of a classical liberal arts education, which was traditionally an elite project contrasted with a “servile” (or practical) education. But Caldecott points out that the Christian tradition, especially perhaps through the example of the Benedictines, who dedicated themselves to prayer, study, and manual labour, has relativized this hierarchy of “liberal” and “servile”, and that therefore today the liberal arts should be brought, insofar as is possible, to all.

The trivium describes ways of engaging with a subject, but does not specify what the subject should be. (The quadrivium is more prescriptive.) Caldecott proposes three subjects, broadly conceived: nature, culture, and Scripture, and he sketches a curriculum consisting of storytelling, music, exploration (“The study of nature through direct contact with gardens, animals, and wilderness is indispensable”), drawing, dance, drama, and sport. He cautions, wisely, that much reading absent personal experience to which to relate that reading can be fruitless, which is why he recommends balancing book learning with social activities, outdoor activities, and unstructured time for imaginative play. Yet reading is important, and he gives central place to both it and music — reading to children and playing music to them when they are young, and then transitioning them to self-guided engagement with books and music as they grow. They should read good books. (Quoting Charlotte Mason, he writes, “Children have a right to the best we possess; therefore their lesson books should be, as far as possible, our best books.”) He caused my heart to rejoice, casting a kind of in media res benediction over the many hours I have spent and will spend reading aloud to my kids, with this summation:

It makes sense to regard reading stories aloud to one’s children the archetypal act of the Trivium. One is simultaneously remembering a tradition, revealing the Logos, and (by voice, inflection, and gesture) dramatizing a story to communicate that meaning ‘heart to heart’.

Amen to that. In fact, the book seemed to be building toward a peroration of warm, happy contentment when suddenly, in the closing pages, he surprised me by recommending “unschooling” as a reasonable, and even, in some ways, particularly Catholic approach to education! Unschooling is a minority practice among homeschoolers in which children follow no prescribed curriculum but rather follow their own interests, managing their own time as they think best, and learning whatever they happen to learn. This comes back to the discussion at the beginning about the relative merits of prescriptive and elucidative models of education, and to my own instincts for the prescriptive side, I suppose, but I’ve always regarded unschooling as being somewhere between imprudent and idiotic. Caldecott, in an interesting rhetorical move, compares unschooling to NFP, something “regarded by many as an impractical ideal or an ideology, but when practiced in the right spirit it reveals itself as something else entirely”. Well, maybe. But maybe not.

**

There is much to admire about this book. I have not before encountered a book so thoughtful about the structure and significance of the classical trivium. The fact that it is not just a book of theory, but also an attempt to realize its ideas in practical form is also admirable, although I do think that its efforts in that direction are more suggestive than fully satisfactory, consisting of rather “normal” fruit plucked from the unusually rich philosophical reflections that produced it. But then, what did I expect?

**

“Christian education should be wider, not narrower, than that of a secular school.”

[A mother’s smile]
The infant is brought to consciousness of himself only by love, by the smile of his mother. In that encounter, the horizon of all unlimited being opens itself to him, revealing four things to him: (1) that he is one in love with the mother, even in being other than his mother, therefore all being is one; (2) that that love is good, therefore all Being is good; (3) that that love is true, therefore all Being is true; and (4) that that love evokes joy, therefore all Being is beautiful. (Von Balthasar, from My Work in Retrospect; quoted p.134-5)

Serraillier: The Clashing Rocks

June 19, 2017

The Clashing Rocks
Ian Serraillier
(Oxford, 1963)
96 p.

My ongoing, fits-and-starts project to find good versions of the classic Greco-Roman stories for my children brought me to this re-telling of the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. A few years ago I read, and mostly disliked, an adaptation of the same story by Padraic Colum, and I hoped for better things from Ian Serraillier, who in my experience is consistently good.

And he is good here. Not great, but good. The story begins with Jason’s wish to marry Medea, and her father’s tasking him with recovering the Golden Fleece before the nuptials can be celebrated. We follow him and his companions through all of their adventures, and Serraillier, unlike Colum, also tells us how badly things turned out for Jason and Medea in the end.

The problem is that there is too much story here for such a brief book. The narrative moves briskly from one episode to another, and there’s not enough space to develop the characters, or really to develop stakes. At one point Heracles and another Argonaut get left behind on an island; this is mentioned almost in passing, and we never hear from them again. New characters pop up, are named, do something, and then disappear again. I understand that this is an odyssey, and is therefore episodic by nature, but I’d have preferred a more patient rendering. Instead, I found myself reading without much investment. It’s still a fine book that I’ll recommend to my kids, but the quest for my Golden Fleece continues.

This edition includes excellent illustrations by William Stobbs.

The Song of Roland

June 11, 2017

The Song of Roland
Anonymous
Translated from the Old French by Dorothy Sayers
(Penguin Classics, 1957) [c.1100]
206 p.

The army of Charlemagne, having successfully laid siege to Saragossa, was returning home to France, its rear guarded by Roland and his companions, when, in a narrow mountain pass, they were treacherously set upon by the Islamic forces that had just surrendered to them. The Christians fought valiantly against greatly superior numbers, and went down to a glorious defeat. Their heroic stand became renowned, with the name of their leader unfurled like a banner over the long reconquest of Spain in succeeding centuries. The story was told many times, with many variations, but the present poem, written by an anonymous but accomplished poet, achieved, I gather, something like authoritative status.

We are in the realm of epic poetry. Our poet sings of the bravery and strength of his heroes, of their superhuman powers of endurance and supreme fighting skills. When we see treachery, it is a grand treachery; when we see loyalty, it is a stirring loyalty. We see nothing by half measures. Still, the poet leaves room for some defects of character in his principals. Roland, especially, is portrayed as brave, but confident to a fault, bordering on hubris, and his self-assurance in the face of overwhelming odds leads to his downfall.

Half-measures apply least of all to the violence of the poem, which is plentiful and plain:

Wondrous the battle, and it grows faster yet;
The French fight on with rage and fury fell,
They lop off wrists, hew ribs and spines to shreds,
They cleave the harness through to the living flesh;
On the green ground the blood runs clear and red. (126)

Even the Archbishop, Turpin, is a fighting man, who rides to battle with sword and spear in hand. Here he confronts one of the lesser Islamic leaders, Corsablis:

His golden spurs he strikes into his steed,
And rides against him right valiant for the deed.
He breaks the buckler, he’s split the hauberk’s steel,
Into his breast driven the lance-head deep,
He spits him through, on high his body heaves,
And hurls him dead a spear’s length o’er the lea.
Earthward he looks and sees him at his feet,
But yet to chide him he none the less proceeds:
“Vile infidel, you lied between your teeth!
Charles my good lord to help us will not cease,
Nor have our French the least desire to flee.
These friends of yours stock-still we’re like to leave;
Here’s news for you — you’ll die, and there you’ll be.” (95)

As the Archbishop’s presence testifies, this conflict is explicitly a clash of religions. When the Christians achieve their final victory (as they do), they proceed to smash the mosques (and, for good measure, the synagogues) and force their captives to be baptized — all except the Islamic queen, whom Charlemagne wishes to convert by persuasion. The poem evinces no doubts about the propriety of this course, and certainly no irony. At the same time, the poet seems startlingly ill-informed about the nature of Islam; on numerous occasions he refers to the Muslims as polytheists who worship “Mahound, Apollyon, and Termagant”. Who Termagant might be, I’ve no idea.

Regardless, it is clear that God fights on the side of the Christians. When Roland is beset with troubles, the whole of France is troubled by storms and earthquakes. Charlemagne is granted illuminating dreams that reveal the schemes of his enemies, and the angel Gabriel visits him.

The form of the poem is flexible: it consists of several hundred short sections, or laisses, each of which contains an indefinite number of lines, with the only requirement being that the lines be metrical and that the line endings in each laisse be consonant, having the same dominant vowel (rather than a strict rhyme). This works extremely well, and I found myself greatly enjoying the sound of the poem. Consider, for instance, this culminating passage about the death of Roland:

The County Roland lay down beneath a pine;
To land of Spain he’s turned him as he lies,
And many things begins to call to mind:
All the broad lands he conquered in his time,
And fairest France, and the men of his line,
And Charles his lord, who bred him from a child;
He cannot help but weep for them and sigh.
Yet of himself he is mindful betimes;
He beats his breast and on God’s mercy cries:
“Father most true, in whom there is no lie,
Who didst from death St Lazarus make to rise,
And bring out Daniel safe from the lions’ might,
Save Thou my soul from danger and despite
Of all the sins I did in all my life.”
His right-hand glove he’s tendered unto Christ,
And from his hand Gabriel accepts the sign.
Straightway his head upon his arm declines;
With folded hands he makes an end and dies.
God sent to him His Angle Cherubine,
And great St Michael of Peril-by-the-Tide;
St Gabriel too was with them at his side;
The County’s soul they bear to Paradise. (176)

It is true that I’m not enamoured of some of Sayers’ choices here — in particular her hokey-sounding metrical crutches, like “County” for “Count”, and her penchant for archaisms in a pinch — but basically I like the way the consonant end-stoppings pile up, giving the poem momentum and a certain musicality.

You’ll note from this most recent passage that Roland dies in comparative peace, rather than in battle. Here the poet solves a tricky problem, for his hero has to die, but, as a hero, he can’t simply be killed in combat. In fact, Roland’s death is due to his own over-exertion, he having exploded his veins by blowing too vigorously on his horn.

The blowing of that horn has summoned Charlemagne’s army to return, and, though they arrive too late to save Roland and his companions, they do pursue, overtake, and defeat the retreating Islamic army. In the final act of the poem, the French return to home and the traitor, Ganelon, who betrayed them to the Muslims out of spite toward Roland, stands trial. Thus the poem covers the full arc of Roland’s story.

And we have to put the emphasis on “story”, because the poem apparently bears little resemblance to actual history, even in its broad outlines. It is true that Charlemagne’s army besieged Saragossa in the year 778, but unsuccessfully, and in collaboration with one Islamic faction against another, and it is true that during their return to France, on 15 August of that year, their rear-guard was ambushed and slaughtered, but by Basques, not Muslims, during which ambush Roland, a duke of Brittany, was among the dead. How that rather minor episode in military history grew in the course of time to flower in the legendary battle of Roland against the Saracens is a mystery, though a happy one. The poem teaches us about the relationship of Christians and Muslims a millennium ago, but not much about real historical events of the eighth century.

I greatly enjoyed reading the poem. In my mind, it compares favourably with El Cid, being better structured, and more exciting, and having better characters. I have the feeling that I’d like a tougher, somewhat less mellifluous translation, but I’m not aware of any such.

Jacobs: The Pleasures of Reading

June 4, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
Alan Jacobs
(Oxford, 2011)
162 p.

Jacobs writes about the pleasures of reading, to be sure, but as a whole the book is more interrogative than simply appreciative. He wants to ask himself certain questions, and he invites us to ask ourselves the same: how do we decide what to read? how do we relate to what we are reading? how do we form judgments about what we read? why do we read in the first place?

As to how we decide what to read, he is resolute in his opposition to prescriptive reading lists. He is, one might say, prescriptive against prescription. Taking Adler and Van Doren as a foil, he argues, with moderate success, that ambitions to read “great books” are usually misguided, mostly because they outsource literary judgement and because they proceed on the basis of obligation rather than pleasure. If your reading consists in a great project to “get through” a list of classics, just for the sake of having done so, your reading is immature, impersonal, and not fun.

Instead, Jacobs recommends reading “under the sign of Whim”. Read what you want. Find books or authors that you enjoy, and follow the threads of connections with other books, authors, genres, and styles. Follow your nose. Do not let anyone else assign or evaluate your reading. His ideal of Whim is not thoughtless or arbitrary, but guided by literary judgement and self-knowledge. You should read what your soul desires.

This contrast between dutiful and whimsical readers is less sharp in real life than in the abstract, and Jacobs does take time to explore the complexities. Lists of great books can be helpful to readers who feel that there is something missing from their reading, who want a new challenge. And devotion to Whim can be narrowing, as he acknowledges. He cites the example of Edward Gibbon, who lived with regret at having not read better books when young, on account of his not knowing what the good books were. So perhaps the great books should be treated rather like seeds: fertile starting points, from which shoots and branches of reading grow.

But, all the same, despite the nod of deference he makes toward the “greats”, his aversion to planned or structured or prescribed reading is radical:

“I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a fine one according to schedule and plan.”

To which I can only respond with an awkward silence. Or maybe not: time is limited, and decisions must be made. It only makes sense to deliberate about how one will spend one’s time, in reading as in anything else, and, having deliberated and prioritized, it’s simple good sense to follow through. This, at any rate, is how I decide what to read: I ponder, weigh, investigate, consult, prioritize, and proceed according to plan. The plan is not set in stone, but it does have a certain authority. I would never rather read an indifferent book over a fine one, under any circumstances, if I can help it.

A separate set of questions crops up when we think about how we read. We read newspapers (if we read them at all) differently from novels, and novels differently from poetry. Jacobs distinguishes reading for information, for understanding, and for pleasure. In some cases we stand in judgment over a book as we read, but in others we sit at its feet, ready to be instructed or transported; the trick is knowing when each is appropriate. He cites Machiavelli’s attitude toward the great authors of the past:

“When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for.”

For Jacobs a principal fruit of reading is silence, both interior and exterior, and one of the best motives for a consistent practice of reading is to cultivate this silence. Books foster attentiveness: “books are the natural and inevitable and permanent means of being absorbed in something other than the self”. He proposes as an ideal the experience of a child lost in a book, rapt. Not all reading can calls forth or deserves deep attention, but the best reading — reading for pleasure — does. Following the advice of Hugh of St Victor’s Didascalicon, he describes the experience of attentive rumination on a worthy text in which the reader returns to specific passages, arguing with them, or appreciating their savour. As a means of cultivating this practice, and of slowing down our reading, Jacobs recommends that we read, re-read, and memorize poetry.

Reflections on silence and attention naturally introduce the book’s minor theme: our age of distraction. Jacobs wants to engage the genuine concerns many people have over their sense of being harried, inattentive, and unfocused. In fact the book itself is partially pitched to those who used to be avid readers but somehow can’t muster the energy anymore. He offers no jeremiad; he is himself a blogger, and a twit, and he is candid about his affection for his Kindle reader. At the same time, he sees the problems these technologies bring with them, and he is at least willing to entertain the possibility that the best course is simply to shut it all off, or, if not, to at least regain control over what occupies our attention. He cites with approval this from David Foster Wallace:

“Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

Indeed.

As the book draws to a close, Jacobs turns his attention to how we evaluate books, and how our relationships with books can change over time. He gives some lovely anecdotes, as, for instance, about how Auden found his views on Kierkegaard changing over the course of his lifetime. In order to have such relationships, which are a means by which we can chart our own growth in maturity, it is necessary to re-read those books that have been important to us.

Speaking of Auden, Jacobs quotes his brief primer on critical judgments we might make about a book (or, for that matter, a film, or a piece of music, or any work of art):

“I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good, and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

It would be perverse if a book on the pleasures of reading were not itself a pleasure to read, but there is no danger of that here. Jacobs is an engaging writer. The tone is conversational, the book moves briskly across the terrain it needs to cover, and he salts his text with just enough exasperating and ill-conceived counsel that it held my attention throughout.