Archive for the 'Book Note' Category

Douthat: To Change the Church

May 7, 2018

To Change the Church
Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism
Ross Douthat
(Scribner, 2018)
256 p.

My interest in Church politics ranks somewhere below my interest in professional sports, and I last watched a game of professional sports about two years ago. Nonetheless, I have been aware of at least some of the controversies that have been unfolding during these past five years of the pontificate of Pope Francis. My response has been, mostly, to ignore them. For most of history Catholics have not bothered themselves with the minutiae of papal governance, and my basic attitude has been that it will sort itself out in the end, without my contrivance. I owe the Holy Father my prayers and my good will, not my anxious criticism.

This is a defensible position, but, then again, being informed about goings-on in the Church is not a bad thing either, and when the opportunity came up to read Ross Douthat’s new book about Francis’ pontificate, I took it up with curiosity. He gives an overview of the main events thus far, including those that have generated the controversy, sets them in the context of Catholic politics since Vatican II, and speculates on what the likely consequences might be for the future.

Douthat is a broadly conservative writer, but employed as columnist at the New York Times, and so accustomed to rubbing shoulders each day with liberals, and adept at seeing things from their point of view. Something to admire about his book is that, although he has a variety of concerns about what Francis has been doing, his assessment is remarkably even-handed — more even-handed than I would be, quite honestly. He is critical of liberal trends under Francis, but he is critical too of the conservative elements that have resisted them. He does not pretend to know how things will, or should, turn out, but he does raise a number of questions — questions that seem to me to be entirely reasonable.

It is conventional to frame the main disagreements that have roiled Francis’ papacy as being between “liberals” and “conservatives”. I don’t particularly like this language, borrowed from secular politics, but no other terms have gained currency. Generally speaking, it is fair to say that liberals put emphasis on the Church changing to keep up with changing times, while conservatives put emphasis on stability and continuity, and Catholics know that since Vatican II, especially, a conflict between the two sides has played out across many issues, ranging from the Church’s moral teaching to her liturgical practices.

The book begins with an overview of how Church affairs have developed across those fifty years since Vatican II, sketched first from a broadly liberal point of view (“a promising renewal betrayed by the hierarchy”), and then from a broadly conservative (“a temporarily hijacked renewal recovered by John Paul II”). He discusses the dramatic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, not without some pointed criticism (“an implicitly secularizing act, one that undercut the traditional image of the pontiff as a spiritual father”), and then the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis. We learn — which I did not know and am probably not supposed to know — that Bergoglio had been second in voting at the conclave that elected Benedict, and emerged quickly as the favourite at the 2013 conclave.

To Douthat’s way of thinking, the first year of Francis’ papacy was a very promising one, especially against the backdrop of Church history since Vatican II. The Pope brought a new perspective to the papal office, and this was healthy. His pontificate shifted emphasis away from certain hot-button issues (mostly pertaining to the sexual revolution and all its empty promises) toward the Church’s social teaching on solidarity with the poor, economic injustice, and stewardship of the natural world, and the hope was that in so doing he would bridge the divide between liberals and conservatives, reduce the heat on the long-simmering internal controversies, and forge a new Catholic centre. Writes Douthat:

“Part of the promise of his pontificate was that there could be once again in the developed world an orthodox Catholic liberal-left, as in the time of Dorothy Day and Catholic New Dealers and the Christian Democrats of Western Europe. The hope in Francis’s early days was that he would revive a form of Catholic engagement with modern political economy that was populist or anti-plutocratic .. but also orthodox in its theology, countercultural in its attitude toward the sexual revolution, zealous in its commitment to the essentials of the faith.”

But then — alas! — came the Synod on the Family, first in 2014 and then, a second meeting, in 2015, and on those shoals the pontificate struck; its aftermath has, in Douthat’s view, undermined most of that early promise, consumed the good will of both right and left, and ignited a high-stakes debate over Catholicism’s future.

Douthat’s basic reading of Francis’ pontificate, of which the story is the Synod is an important part, is that it is an attempt to make peace with certain aspects of the modern world, and especially with the sexual revolution. I resist that conclusion, but it is Douthat’s view. The Catholic Church has, over the past few decades, as the sexual revolution’s consequences have gradually unfolded, been the principal public institution opposed. This has cost her influence and friends, of course, and there have always been voices within the Church complaining about that, but she has held fast to her teachings in fidelity, she said, to the faith once delivered.

To a conservative, there is nothing particularly troublesome about this state of affairs. Prevailing moral norms vary from time to time, and from place to place, and the Church teaches what she teaches in season and out. Those who have ears will hear. Of course the conflicts between her moral vision and that of whatever culture she finds herself confronting should not be artificially exaggerated, and searching for common ground is good and healthy, but neither should the mere fact of a conflict occasion any serious doubts about her teachings, and certainly it would be foolhardy, in a short-sighted vein, for her to abandon those teachings in order to make herself more appealing. “He who marries the spirit of the age soon makes himself a widower,” said Chesterton; the Church is married to Christ.

And so, in the face of the sexual revolution, with its legacy of broken families, dead children, casual intimacy, and loneliness, the Church would seem to have all the more reason to hold fast in confidence to her teachings, presenting them as winsomely as possible, patiently, against the day when people will, once again, begin to listen. In the meantime, she does her best to treat the wounded and welcome home prodigals. And there might indeed be certain measures she could take to make that treatment more widely available, and make that welcome more fulsome. A variety of reforms, such as a relaxing of the conditions for annulment, have been proposed.

But at the Synod on the Family, an influential group of Cardinals, seemingly but not certainly supported by the Holy Father,

“fastened on the one reform that the Church could not contemplate — at least not without falling into self-contradiction and performing an auto-demolition on its own claim to authority.”

The reform in question was, of course, admitting the divorced and re-married to Holy Communion. This reform seemed (but see below) to contradict Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, a teaching founded directly on the still-shocking words of Christ (in Mark 10 and Matthew 19). This reform, first put forward by Walter Cardinal Kasper (at the invitation of the Pope), was supported by a group hand-picked by the Pope to manage the Synod. But they were opposed by a considerable conservative block; liberalizing language did not garner enough support to qualify for inclusion in the final report. Whereupon the Holy Father ordered its inclusion anyway, and concluded the Synod with a memorable speech berating the opposition.

All of this was remarkable enough. Then came the post-Synodal exhortation Amoris laetitia (which, I confess, I have not read). The many different readings of this document that have proliferated in the meantime testify to its ambiguity. Some claim it is fully consistent with what the Church has always taught about marriage, family, and sacramental life; others say that it introduces a “new paradigm” in Catholic moral theology. Some have claimed to discover, in a footnote — a footnote the Holy Father has claimed not to remember writing — warrant to change the Church’s practice about admitting the re-married to Communion, and several bishops’ conferences have acted on that alleged discovery. These liberal readings of the document follow a pattern familiar from the aftermath of Vatican II: “whatever was novel was taken to control the text’s meaning and implications; whatever was conservative was assumed to be vestigial.” It’s a tactic that seems to have duped the conservative Cardinals now as then.

To these liberalizing changes there has been little resistance from Rome, and some encouragement. Douthat’s interpretation is that, having lost the battle at the Synod, the fall-back position for the liberals has been to decentralize, pushing decisions out to local bodies of bishops, and letting a thousand roses bloom, as it were. (A recent instance.) The problem, of course, is that what is a sin in one diocese can now, apparently, be acceptable in another. This is irrational.

In all of this, my inclination has been to give the Holy Father the benefit of the doubt. When the Synod was happening, my hopeful reading of the turmoil was that he was gentle and cunning; perhaps by seeming to give support to Kasper, he was actually giving the most liberal Cardinals enough rope with which to hang themselves — and this may yet prove to be the final result, but not, Douthat has convinced me, during this pontificate. In the meantime, it is hard to understand the Pope’s actions as anything other than favourable to the liberal faction.

As Douthat said in the citation above, this is troubling for two main reasons: it seems to endorse a position at odds with basic Catholic teaching on marriage and sacramental life, teaching founded unusually firmly on the words of Jesus; and it seems to be at odds with clear papal teaching, both remote and proximate, and if the Pope can teach something contrary to his predecessors, then presumably his successors can likewise teach something contrary to him, and papal authority puts itself at risk of becoming transient and partisan. This, too, is irrational. Popes may not contradict one another on matters of faith and morals.

**

It is perhaps worth pausing for a moment, leaving Douthat and his furrowed brow, to think about the main contested issue — that of admitting to Communion those who have divorced and re-married.

The Church’s withholding of Holy Communion from Catholics in this state does not rest, unsupported, in the air, but is a conclusion from premises, and some of those premises are:

1. A valid Christian marriage is indissoluble.
2. A Catholic may be married to not more than one person at any one time.
3. Married spouses can reasonably be presumed to have an ongoing sexual relationship.
4. Adultery is a grave sin.
5. Marriage is a public commitment.
6. A public commitment to commit a sin makes that sin manifest.
7. A Catholic presumably in a state of grave, manifest sin cannot be presumed to be in a state of grace.
8. A Catholic must be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion.

From 1 and 2 we deduce that a Catholic cannot licitly contract a second marriage without an annulment of the first, for in the eyes of the Church, and of God, he remains married to his first spouse; this is just what Christ said, and is the cornerstone of the whole argument. Adding 3 we deduce that a Catholic who contracts a second marriage without an annulment of his first can reasonably be presumed to be committing adultery. With Premise 4 we can reasonably presume that he commits a grave sin. The addition of premises 5 and 6 yields that such a Catholic can reasonably be presumed to be in a state of grave, manifest sin. Therefore, from premise 7, that person cannot presume, and should not be presumed, to be in a state of grace. And therefore, finally (premise 8), that person should not receive Holy Communion.

The peculiar position we now seem to find ourselves in is that there are highly placed churchmen, possibly including the Holy Father himself, who want to change the conclusion of this argument, but do not specify which of the premises they consider to be false. No doubt Premise 1 seems radical, but it is the most securely founded on the words of Jesus; his disciples thought it radical too, but he didn’t see fit to change it on that account. Premises 2-4 and 8 are, similarly, all based on Scripture and are declared in Catholic teaching. Premise 5 is, under normal circumstances, reasonable. Premise 6 is arguably tautological. Likewise Premise 7. The presumption of sexual union (premise 3) is of course not always accurate, and for this reason an exemption from the denial of Communion to re-married Catholics can be, and is, granted in special cases. Otherwise, an attack on any one of these premises is either going to be theologically fraught, frankly unreasonable, or both.

Yet as bad as the denial of any one of these premises would be, the denial of none of them (while denying the conclusion deduced from them) is arguably worse, for it casts doubt on all of them. It’s a difficult position to be in, not knowing which section of the roof might cave in first.

There is some evidence that it is premise 8 that is being challenged most directly. The Pope himself, in that famous, all too easily forgotten footnote, has said that the Eucharist is a “medicine for the sick”. This is true, of course, but can be read in different ways. Some of the Cardinals promoting Kasper’s proposal have taken it to mean that a person could be, objectively and knowingly, committing a serious sin (like adultery), and not to have a serious purpose of amendment (owing to some unspecified range of difficulties), but nonetheless be admitted to Communion. The Church, it is said, should “accompany” that person as he discerns what to do. This is one way to think about Communion, but it has not, heretofore, been the Catholic way.

There is also an unstated premise in the argument above: A marriage should be presumed to be valid. This too seems reasonable (and is affirmed in Canon Law) but there is evidence that Pope Francis denies it, and this might account for the decisions he makes. For if many (or even a large majority) of Catholics are in invalid marriages, those relationships are not indissoluble, and the distinction drawn between the married and re-married ceases to make demographic, and, arguably, pastoral sense. But this cure is worse than the disease, for one trades having a smaller set of adulterers seeking Communion for a larger set of fornicators seeking the same, and without sensibly mitigating the problems of the smaller set (for the re-marriages cannot be presumed to be more valid than the initial marriages). This, quite apart from the legitimate pastoral problems that such a view would create for all (putatively) married Catholics worldwide, for how could one be reasonably confident in the validity of one’s own marriage? I myself do not see a clear path out of these woods along these lines.

**

These considerations make reasonable, to my mind, the dubia which were submitted to Pope Francis after the Synod: several questions posed by a group of Cardinals seeking clarification on the meaning of things written in Amoris laetitia. The Pope, as is his right, declined to answer, which, however, only added to the prevailing confusion, raising afresh the possibility that the Pope actually does not want to speak clearly on these matters, and fosters uncertainty intentionally.

The whole situation has a certain strange quality to it. The papacy is, in its nature, an intrinsically conservative office. The role of the Pope is to be the guardian of Catholic doctrine, preserving it from error and maintaining continuity with the faith once delivered to the apostles. What, then, are we to make of a Pope who, possibly, is not inclined to exercise his office conservatively?

I put the question in that tentative form because the Holy Father has, himself, been quite reticent to speak, and seems more comfortable with ambiguity than clarity on these matters. Those churchmen with whom he has surrounded himself, however, have not been so reticent, and what they have said caused my eyebrows to go up on more than one occasion.

The most common response, for instance, to the conservative concern that the changes proposed by Cardinal Kasper alter Church doctrine — for instance, on the indissolubility of marriage — has been to say that the doctrine remains unchanged and only Church discipline is changing. This is itself an odd reply, as though a dissonance between orthodoxy and orthopraxy could be somehow advantageous, but, anyway, it is presented as a minor matter. This, at least, is the response to conservatives, but to other audiences they sometimes answer differently. Douthat does a good job of gathering up these Jekyll-and-Hyde replies in a passage that is worth quoting at length (and which, in the book, is liberally footnoted):

“Francis’ defenders, when it suited them, … downplayed the stakes when the pope faced some sort of setback or opposition; the rest of the time, they tended to play up the significance of what he was attempting to accomplish…

“The Kaspar proposal is just a change of discipline, not doctrine … but by the way, the church should establish intercommunion with Protestants as soon as possible. Conservatives are wildly overreacting when they interpret Amoris as a kind of surrender to the sexual revolution … but by the way, the church should offer recognition to gay couples and grant last rites to suicides and revisit Humanae Vitae and for heaven’s sake stop obsessing about abortion. It is ludicrous to suggest that Francis was changing doctrine on marriage … but by the way, his casual comments on the death penalty and just war meant that he was developing church teaching on those issues too, and soon any Catholic who favored capital punishment would be out of step with the modern magisterium. It is absurd to suggest that any core Catholic teaching was at stake in the synodal debates … but by the way, Jesus’ strict teaching on marriage probably reflected his mistaken view that the world was about to end, or maybe we just don’t know what Jesus really said, because after all the Gospel writers didn’t have tape recorders. It is ludicrous to draw analogies between the Amoris controversies and the great debates over Arianism or Gnosticism or Lutheranism … but in fact, now that you mention it, some semi-Arian understandings of Jesus, some semi-Gnostic concepts of the human person, some semi-Lutheran understandings of sin and the sacraments, might actually deserve a home in the Catholic Church. It was ridiculous to say that Catholicism’s intellectual integrity and theological consistency were at stake in the remarriage debate … but in fact it’s time for the church to acknowledge that “theology is not Mathematics,” and if necessary “2+2 in theology can make 5.””

It is hard to know what to make of this sort of thing. Maybe it is just human folly run amuck on Vatican precincts, and nothing to worry overmuch about. Catholicism has survived many things, including, in living memory, a silly season that persisted through most of the 1970s and 1980s, and it will survive this too. And it will. But it is dispiriting, all the same, to contemplate the prospect of future decades contending against the zombie of liberal Catholicism that just won’t die.

And it is possible that this struggle could be a long one, for, as Douthat notes,

“The Kasper proposal pertains specifically to the divorced and remarried but there is nothing in the logic that confines it to those cases. Polygamous unions, same-sex unions, even the unmarried — the same reasoning could apply to all.

After all, if a rule rooted in Jesus’ own words, confirmed by dogmatic definitions and explicitly reconfirmed by the previous two popes, linked to Reformation-era martyrdom and bound up with three of the seven sacraments could be so easily rewritten … well, what rule or teaching could not?”

It could be that there’s a good answer to that question, but I don’t see that it’s unreasonable to ask it in good faith.

**

Given the uncertainty in which the Holy Father has implicitly asked us to stew, we might ask what’s to be done in the meantime. Douthat, looking for the hand of providence, argues that maybe something like this had to happen; maybe, as Eliot said, “to be restored / our sickness must grow worse”. Liberal Catholicism had been exiled from the Church’s highest office for a few decades. Conservatives thought they had established a secure interpretation of Vatican II that was beginning to bear fruit, but, at the same time, we all knew that liberals still controlled most Catholic educational and charitable institutions. Many older churchmen, and some younger, were still in thrall to the elusive “Spirit of Vatican II”. Poor catechesis has meant that many, many Catholics have been more formed by the prevailing secular culture than by Catholic culture, and would be more happy than not to see the latter conform to the former. So the stability we thought we were enjoying under Pope St John Paul II and Benedict XVI was more apparent than real, and now, with a papacy more friendly to liberals, liberals have started to flex their muscles, and the real state of affairs has announced itself. Like it or not, these are the times we live in.

What to do? When, in the summer of 2017, Cardinal Meisner, who had been among the group who submitted the dubia to Pope Francis, died, a remarkable letter was sent by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, to be read at his funeral. In this letter, Benedict said that the Cardinal lived “out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing,” and he noted the Cardinal’s love of the Sacrament of Penance and of Eucharistic Adoration. Perhaps it would not be inappropriate to take from this letter implicit counsel: your anxieties are not unfounded, but trust in God and draw close to him by the means given us. It cannot be the worst course, at any rate.

Eliot: The Idea of a Christian Society

April 22, 2018

The Idea of a Christian Society
T.S. Eliot
(Harcourt Brace, 1949) [1938]
75 p.

Written on the cusp of the outbreak of the Second World War, during a time of tension and unrest, this essay — originally an address — outlines Eliot’s ideas about the potential futures for British society, and for Western societies more generally.

He saw British society as being on an edge between a Christian society, informed by Christian principles, and a pagan one, shaped by one or the other of fascism or communism. Interestingly, he didn’t consider his contemporary society as belonging to either of those broad alternatives, its formerly Christian character having been gradually worn away by subtle pressures, but rather characterized it as a “negative society”, which he described in this way:

“In a negative liberal society you have no agreement as to there being any body of knowledge which any educated person should have acquired at any particular stage: the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation.”

Western commitments to “liberalism” and “democracy” he took as being largely empty, the meaning of the words having degenerated into little more than self-congratulatory labels. (“If anybody ever attacked democracy, I might discover what the word meant.”) The salient point about a negative society, so described, is that it must eventually give way to something else, something with a more positive view of what it stands for.

The more positive social reality favoured by Eliot is the Christian one, by which he means a civic arena governed by Christian principles, even if many citizens are only nominally religious. This is perhaps the most surprising thing about the general thrust of his proposal, especially for those modern Christians dandled on the knee of Kierkegaard or Hauerwas, who, turning lemons to lemonade, have convinced themselves that a small Christian community of devout believers is actually preferable to a broad social consensus comprised mainly of half-hearted religious adherents. Not so, says Eliot:

“A Christian community is one in which there is a unified religious-social code of behaviour. It should not be necessary for the ordinary individual to be wholly conscious of what elements are distinctly religious and Christian, and what are merely social and identified with his religion by no logical implication. I am not requiring that the community should contain more “good Christians” than one would expect to find under favourable conditions. The religious life of the people would be largely a matter of behaviour and conformity…”

His reasons for favouring this arrangement are that it is better for the lukewarm, for it is better to be unthinkingly compliant with Christian principles than with pagan ones, and it is better for the devout, for why favour conditions that make living the Christian life more difficult? His views are rooted in an appreciation for the ways in which habits and subtle social pressures can support or erode religious faith even in the most intentional and dedicated believers:

“For the great majority of the people — and I am not here thinking of social classes, but of intellectual strata — religion must be primarily a matter of behaviour and habit, must be integrated with its social life, with its business and its pleasures; and the specifically religious emotions must be a kind of extension and sanctification of the domestic and social emotions. Even for the most highly developed and conscious individual, living in the world, a consciously Christian direction of thought and feeling can only occur at particular moments during the day and during the week, and these moments themselves recur in consequence of formed habits; to be conscious, without remission, of a Christian and a non-Christian alternative at moments of choice, imposes a very great strain. The mass of the population, in a Christian society, should not be exposed to a way of life in which there is too sharp and frequent a conflict between what is easy for them or what their circumstances dictate and what is Christian, The compulsion to live in such a way that Christian behaviour is only possible in a restricted number of situations, is a very powerful force against Christianity; for behaviour is as potent to affect belief, as belief to affect behaviour.”

A Christian society, then, would be “not a society of saints, but of ordinary men, of men whose Christianity is communal before being individual”, one in which men “may frequently perform un-Christian acts… [but] must never attempt to defend their actions on un-Christian principles.”

This sort of social consensus could only be realized, Eliot thought, in a society “where the great majority of the sheep belong to one fold”. Thus he argued for an established church, though one in which “the temporal and the spiritual would never be identified”, and in which citizens would favour their membership in the church over their membership in the nation, as reflecting a proper ordering of attachments. How this proper ordering would be established and maintained he does not say.

*

All of this, as I say, may strike a modern Christian, grown accustomed to the oft-repeated dictum that religion ought not to impinge on the social life of the nation, and convinced that sincere faith is superior to nominal lip-service to religion, as topsy-turvy, wrong-headed, or just bad form. And it is true that a close association between the state and the church has risks. But it is possible that the sad state of religion that we observe in Western European societies which have an established church might be anomalies; certainly most cultures historically have considered some cooperation between the sacred and the political authorities to be natural and beneficial. And, even on specifically Christian terms, it seems perverse to claim that fewer Christians are preferable to many, or that Christianity ought to have little influence rather than much. The ambition of the Church is to convert the whole world.

Or, putting it the other way around, wouldn’t it be odd if the secular powers-that-be woke up one morning and announced that, since some non-negligible number of citizens harboured doubts about the goals of liberalism, or acted in ways inconsistent with liberal principles, or just lacked fervency in liberal causes, that they would henceforth relinquish their power and influence and be satisfied with cultivating devout liberals who would stand as a “sign of contradiction” to whatever filled the vacuum it left behind? Obviously this is not going to happen, and with good reason. Liberalism is strong enough and confident enough in itself to give the people what it thinks they need, and — as someone has said — to give it to them good and hard. The Hauerwasian preference for small, devoted communities of Christians might be a prudent tactic in the particular historical moment in which Christianity finds itself, but it can never be the state at which the Church aims. No pun intended.

A weakness of Eliot’s proposal for a Christian society is that he gives no indication of how this society might be brought about given our current conditions and the historical trajectory we are on. Probably he has no notion of how this might happen, and this is understandable. It is also probably fair to say that he underestimated the resilience of liberalism, “negative” or not, which is, despite signs of fragility here and there, still very much with us.

The principal value of this essay, to my mind, is its stress on the important support which religious faith draws from being practiced in community and instantiated in social customs and habits, and also its impolitic insistence that Christianity cannot finally rest content with the status of a private pursuit, but ultimately aims at the salvation of souls — as many as possible — and the consequent transformation of society into its own image.

I was helped in my reflections on this essay by hearing an episode of the Christian Humanist Podcast.

**

“A party with a political philosophy is a revolutionary party.”

“Good prose cannot be written by a people without convictions.”

[Understatement]
When the Christian faith is not only felt, but thought, it has practical results which may be inconvenient.

[The self-destructive telos of liberalism]
That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination. By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

[Education and the arts]
You cannot expect continuity and coherence in literature and the arts, unless you have a certain uniformity of culture, expressed in education by a settled, though not rigid agreement as to what everyone should know to some degree, and a positive distinction–however undemocratic it may sound–between the educated and the uneducated.

Catullus: Poems

April 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vercelli Book

April 4, 2018

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the poet awakes:

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Locke: A Letter Concerning Toleration

March 22, 2018

A Letter Concerning Toleration
John Locke
[1689]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

Caussade: Abandonment to Divine Providence

March 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terence: The Comedies

March 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

****

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

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

Susskind & Friedman: Quantum Mechanics

February 22, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old English Daniel

February 13, 2018

Daniel
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.850]
20 p.

Continuing my reading of the poems in the Junius Manuscipt, I come to this narrative poem based on episodes in the Book of Daniel, Chapters 1-5. At roughly 700 lines, it is somewhat longer than Exodus, but it seems to me a much more straightforward poem.

The poet tells the story of the sack of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar and the captivity of the Hebrew people, Daniel among them. Daniel gains favour with the king as an able interpreter of dreams. Meanwhile the king is drunk on hubris, and we hear the story of the burning fiery furnace, and of the three Hebrew men, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, who are protected from the flames by an angel of God. The king has a second dream, and again Daniel interprets, foretelling the seven-years madness of the king. Finally we hear the tale of Belshazzar’s feast, with the strange handwriting on the wall and Daniel summoned to read it.

I noted, in comments on earlier poems in this manuscript, that the poets sought to cast the Biblical characters as warriors, mighty in their fury and dauntless, even when this was without any real warrant in the Biblical text. Interestingly, that does not happen in this poem. Instead, the poet sees Daniel as a different kind of hero: a sage, a man of knowledge who sees into mysteries. I do not know if this was a character whom the poet’s audience would have recognized as familiar.

The poem is odd, structurally. The first dream of Nebuchadnezzar is passed over rapidly, but the second is presented in great detail. Even more oddly, the final panel of the poem ends abruptly, after Daniel is summoned but before he interprets the handwriting — he is given just enough time to berate the revelers for their impiety. And of course those of us who teach catechism classes to youngsters are surprised to read a poem about Daniel that never mentions the lion’s den (though the explanation is straightforward enough: that occurs in Daniel, Chapter 6). In his introductory notes, Craig Williamson notes these peculiar features of the poem and points to a lively scholarly debate about them.

My favourite part of the poem is the song of praise which the three young men sing from the centre of the fiery furnace. The imagery is beautiful and the effect is resplendent; let me write out the whole thing:

The three bold surviviors, wise in mind,
Said to their Creator with a single voice:
“Gracious Father, let the full beauty
Of the world’s crafts, each created wonder,
The heavens and angels, the bright clear waters,
Each of your beings in its own degree,
Everything above in its glory and grandeur,
Praise your power and worship you.
Let the sun and moon, the stars in heaven,
The planets parading in the night sky,
The waters of earth and air, the dew and rain,
Praise and glorify you. Let all souls sing,
Exalting the name of almighty God.
Let burning fire and bright summer,
Night and day, land and sea,
Light and darkness, heat and cold,
Frost and dew, rain and river,
Spring-snap and winter-wonder,
Cloud-drift and snow-drift,
All weathers, all seasons, glorify God.
Let all creatures in the curve of creation
Extol your blessings, eternal Lord —
Lightning-flash and thunder-clap,
Earth-hills and summer-spills,
Salt-waves and spring-surges,
The deep thrum of whales singing,
The high drift of birds winging,
Water-flow and wind-blow,
Cattle in the field, beasts in the wild.
Let the children of men celebrate your love,
Bring you the best of their hearts’ hymns.
Let the people of Israel, your faithful servants,
Praise you, proclaiming your glory revealed
In the wealth of the world, in bright nature’s
Bountiful being, in each creatures’ song.
Your hands hold each heart’s virtue,
Each mind’s making, each soul’s yearning.
We three children of God speak out
With a singular voice rising from the flames —
Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael together.
We glorify God in the sanctity of our hearts.
We bless you forever, Lord of all nations,
Almighty Father, true Son of the Creator,
Savior of souls, Healer of hearts,
Holy Spirit, and all-knowing God.
We celebrate your vision in our way of seeing,
Your powerful truth in our best way of being.
You reign supreme in the realm of heaven,
Higher than the sun-road over the world-roof.
You are a Poet making, a Creator shaping,
The Holy Word weaving itself in the world
Moment by moment from beginning to end —
All light, all life, the soul of our seeking,
The way of our walking in every bright land.”
(ll.363-416)

Admitting all of the necessary caveats about reading in translation, I hear in these lines a joyful lyricism that I’ve not encountered before in Anglo-Saxon poetry — albeit on limited exposure. At any rate, I like it.

The fourth and final poem in the Junius Manuscript is based on the New Testament. Christ and Satan will be our matter next time.

Macaulay: For the Children’s Sake

February 6, 2018

For the Children’s Sake
Foundations of Education for Home and School
Susan Schaeffer Macaulay
(Crossway, 1984)
x + 165 p.

I’ve had a middling, half-dormant interest in educational theory since I was myself a student, but becoming a parent, which includes becoming responsible for the education of new persons, not to mention becoming a de facto teacher in many respects, raises the issues afresh. Actually, it’s that the practical decisions about what school one’s children should attend become pressing, and so one begins to evaluate educational practices, and resorts to theory only in an effort to think things through clearly and consistently. It is true that people have been arguing about how best to educate the young for 3000 years, and nobody has settled the main questions yet (such as “What is the point of education?” and “Why are Teachers’ Colleges not carpet-bombed?”), but, still, perhaps the effort is not entirely worthless.

This little book introduces us, at one remove, to the thought and practices of Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), an English educator who lies outside the mainstream tradition, but whose ideas have, in the past few decades, become fairly influential in the homeschool movement in North America, largely because of this book, or so I surmise.

Mason’s starting point is disarmingly simple: children are people, and should be treated as such. Teaching is a personal encounter; so is learning. As such, each child should be allowed and encouraged to develop at his or her own rate and in his or her own way, not made to comply with an set of impersonal objectives and milestones. Writes Mason,

“We must know something about the material we are to work upon if the education we offer is not to be scrappy and superficial. We must have some measure of a child’s requirements, not based on his uses to society, nor upon the standard of the world he lives in, but upon his own capacity and needs.” (from Toward a Philosophy of Education)

This basic commitment explains why she is a marginal figure in the world of public education, for it is difficult to give a mass education model this personal touch (though, to be fair, Mason was herself a schoolteacher and developed her ideas in that context). It is equally clear, and for the same reasons, why homeschoolers have picked her up, for this approach is eminently suitable to their situation.

Mason also believed that since formal education is a preparation for life after formal education, education should be like life. It should be a matter of enjoyment and interest. Children should be encouraged to be motivated by factors intrinsic to education, like curiosity and a love of learning, not factors extrinsic, like grades. We should aim to foster a loving, joyful environment for learning, in which the pleasure of learning is taught by example.

Since students are people, part of their education consists in developing those stable habits of thought and action that will enable them to be successful students and people: the virtues. In this Charlotte Mason is consistent with the classical tradition, for which moral formation is at least as important as intellectual formation. She sought especially to encourage the scholarly virtues in her students: attention, concentration, self-control, and truthfulness.

Since children are persons and their education is our responsibility, we owe them, Mason reasons, the best we have. They should therefore be invited to experience and enjoy our best books, our finest art, our most beautiful music, and so forth. She had a word for educational material that condescends to the child’s intelligence, moral judgment, or aesthetic sensibility: “twaddle”. It’s helpful to have a word, because schools are full of the stuff. We can safely assume, with little risk of error, that all politically-motivated educational materials are twaddle. We want to avoid it:

“The person rises to understand, master, and enjoy whatever he is surrounded with in language, ideas, literature, and in appreciation of beauty. If you share with children the very best, carefully chosen to meet their needs, they will amaze everyone.”

This is actually true. In our home I’ve seen it especially with the music that the kids like. It is my practice not to play pop music at home or in the car, so they do not have much exposure to it; we listen to classical music. At the same time, they are members of a children’s choir in which they sing good sacred music: Mozart, Schubert, Handel, and Gregorian chant. There is no condescension to “children’s tastes”, and they rise to the occasion. My six-year-old son sings Latin motets to himself while building Lego. Our three-year-old’s favourite music is Vivaldi’s Gloria; he sings it in his bed at night. Children will feast on what we feed them, but they are, at first, poor judges of quality. Much of teaching consists in supplying a steady diet of good quality nourishment for their minds and hearts.

And not only should children be given the best we have to give them, but they should be invited to experience and enjoy it on their terms, not ours, taking from it what they find, not what we think they should find. In real life, when we read a novel, we all do so to engage with the story we are reading, but how many of us would persist if, upon finishing each chapter, we had to answer a series of questions about it? Is it wise, then, to ask students to do this? Mason thought not, and therefore counselled against reading comprehension tests. Instead, she had her students do “narrations”, in which they would re-tell, in their own words and after their own manner, a story they had read. When you stop to think about it, this is a brilliant and beautiful idea, for everyone loves to talk about something they enjoyed reading, and, more to the point, narrating a story requires a much more thorough and nuanced and personal engagement with a book than does answering a set of specific questions. Try it.

In fact, narration is pretty much exactly what I’ve been doing on this blog all these years; I can speak from experience: it’s rewarding. Since reading this book (some months ago now), I’ve also been having my daughter give narrations of some of the things she’s been reading, and she, too, responds wonderfully to the challenge. I’m a believer.

Since we want children to engage personally with what they read and learn, another of Mason’s recommendations is that they be given real books to read, whole and complete, rather than compilations of short excerpts from longer books, because doing so puts them into sustained contact with another person — the author — with whom they then begin to develop a relationship.

Indeed, the development of relationships — with God, with the natural world, and with other people — is a key organizing principle for a Charlotte Mason-style education. A relationship with God is best developed through experiencing a faith lived joyfully, with prayer and devotion, in the home and school. A child’s understanding of the natural world she thought best fostered by direct contact with nature, through nature walks, in which close observation and full sensory immersion are encouraged. (In many Charlotte Mason homeschools, it seems that such nature walks take the place of a science textbook, at least for younger students.) Relationships with others are cultivated, as we have already said, through books, historical studies (taking care to try to understand the complexity and foreignness of the past, not interpreting everything within contemporary frameworks or judging by contemporary standards), and interactions with the teacher and with other students. And children must also get to know themselves, which was one reason why Mason believed that children’s lives should have plenty of time and space for unstructured imaginative play; I agree with her heartily on that.

*

Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s purpose in this book was to rescue Charlotte Mason’s ideas from the obscurity into which they had fallen, and to present them as providing a compelling educational philosophy for today. She writes well, both about the principles and ideas of Charlotte Mason, and about her own education, which was consonant with Mason’s approach on many points. She has a gentle, thoughtful authorial voice, and, unlike many authors of popular books on education, is not garrulous. (Incidentally, I was surprised to discover, mid-way through the book, that she is the daughter of Francis Schaeffer, the guru of intellectual-leaning Evangelical Christians of a certain vintage.) Although the book is about Charlotte Mason’s approach to education, direct quotes from her are rare, and so it is a little unclear to me how much of the book’s content derives from her, and how much is Macaulay’s interpretation and elaboration.

In a book on education Roger Scruton argued that the purpose of education is not principally to benefit the student who receives it, but to ensure that the culture to which that student belongs is received and perpetuated. I found the impersonal slant of this view jarring, even as I could see the point he was making. The much more personal approach to education proposed in this book is not really inconsistent with Scruton’s concerns though; Macaulay does not propose that there be no core curriculum, or that students, though encouraged to encounter books with their own native intelligence and feeling, somehow create value in things simply by liking them. Rather, she proposes a curated education, in which children encounter what, in the judgment of their teacher, is the richest and most worthy material, whether it be literature, art, music, or what have you. In fact it seems a perfect vehicle for passing on and truly appropriating a cultural tradition, which was what Scruton was advocating.