Archive for the 'Books' Category

Topping: Renewing the Mind

March 17, 2019

Renewing the Mind
A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education
Ryan N.S. Topping (Ed.)
(CUA, 2015)
xvi + 397 p.

Where I live we have a government-funded system of Catholic schools which educates roughly half of the children in the province. The curriculum is set by the government, with approval from the bishops. Every school has a priest-chaplain, and the school body attends Mass together a few times each year. Sometimes the Rosary Apostolate comes to visit. Students can, and most do, attend these schools for twelve years and graduate knowing next to nothing about Catholic history, Catholic art and literature, Catholic theology, or Catholic ethics, and without any conspicuous adoption of Catholic spirituality or devotion. If the aim is to graduate students with a robust understanding of Catholicism and a strong personal commitment to Christ, these schools are a dismal failure. If the aim is more modest, if it is just that students graduate with a tenacious personal attachment to Catholicism, that the Catholic tradition, broadly considered and roughly speaking, is inherited and appropriated by the next generation, much the same conclusion follows. Clearly, something is amiss deep down.

The problems are multifarious. One, of course, is that the schools have largely surrendered their ability to hire teachers on the basis of religious commitment; teachers who are strongly committed to their faith — and there are some! — must be weighed against those who are wishy-washy or worse, and students can be pardoned for getting a mixed message. Another, no doubt, is the decision to adopt, or allow to be foisted, the self-same curriculum as is taught in the non-Catholic public schools; immediately whatever Catholicism is to be found in the Catholic schools is reduced to a patina. And this is tolerated, I believe, because we have largely lost sight of what a Catholic education should be: not just what it should teach, but why it should teach it, and how, and what it is supposed to achieve.

Into this amnesiac reverie comes this hefty, small-print reader on the philosophy of Catholic education. It is the sort of book about which one writes two paragraphs or twenty pages; my notes on it are the latter, but in this space I’ll steer toward the former.

It consists of a judicious selection of readings from the long tradition of Catholic thinking about education. The texts are grouped broadly into four categories: first, on the aims of education; second, on the subject matter of a Catholic education; third, reflections on effective methods of teaching; and, finally, a lengthy collection of essays and articles on our contemporary situation and signs of renewal in modern Catholic education. The selections are almost uniformly from the top shelf: starting with Plato and Aristotle — yes, they too are part of the Catholic tradition! — up through Augustine and Basil, Bonaventure and Aquinas, to Erasmus, Montaigne, Newman, and Clive Staples Lewis. Among those modern writers who make the cut are Christopher Dawson, Dorothy Sayers (with her Lost Tools of Learning, of course), John Senior, Maria Montessori, Jacques Maritain, and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Some authors appear more than once; Plato and Aquinas, at thrice, share the honours at the top of the heap. There are 39 selections in all.

It is impossible to summarize this wide range of sources in a brief space, but let me mention a few highlights. I had never before seen the Ratio Studiorum written in the 16th century to guide the huge network of Jesuit schools; I cannot say I was greatly inspired by it, but it has been very influential and I was happy to read it. I relished the section from Newman’s The Idea of a University in which he discusses the challenges the Protestant tradition in English literature poses for English-speaking Catholics; I really must find time to read that great book in its entirety. And I was fascinated by Pope John XXIII’s Veterum Sapientia, a 1962 encyclical in which he commended to all Catholic schools the importance of teaching and learning Latin! I wasn’t sure whether to be sad that a papal document of such authority could be such a thoroughly dead letter, or, given subsequent developments, encouraged for the same reason.

A more ambitious person than I would draw on this wonderful collection to synthesize the consistent and foundational principles of Catholic thinking about education through the centuries. It could be that the editor of this volume, Ryan Topping, has done just that in his book The Case for Catholic Education; I’d like to find out. The barest, briefest summation would be something like this: we are made to know and love God, and love of God, the highest Good, should guide and shape our study; the human mind desires to know and love truth, and this desire is not in vain; education has intellectual, moral, and aesthetic dimensions; and, finally, Rousseau was a flap-eared knave.

Facetiousness aside, I recommend this book wholeheartedly to readers with an interest in Catholic education. It is a rich feast.

Roman Civil War histories

March 10, 2019

Alexandrian War
African War
Spanish War
Anonymous
(Landmark, 2017) [c.45 BC]
150 p.

At the conclusion of his own account of the civil war, which brought the story up to the autumn of 48, Caesar had triumphed over Pompey at Pharsalus and, chasing him to Alexandria, had found him dead. Not content to rest on his laurels, Caesar had occupied the Alexandrian harbour and taken Ptolemy, the young Egyptian ruler, into custody.

We have no more history from Caesar’s pen, but we do have these three anonymous works — each by a different author — which relate Caesar’s consolidation of power in the years 48-45.

**

The most substantial of them is the Alexandrian War, which picks up where Caesar left off. We read about Caesar’s tactics, about his decision to permit Ptolemy to return to the Egyptian side as an ally, Ptolemy’s betrayal of Caesar, and the culminating battle at which Ptolemy was killed. In compliance with Ptolemy’s will, Caesar installed his sister Cleopatra in power. (Interestingly, the author says nothing about the romantic intrigues between the two.) Altogether, the Alexandrian campaign took about five months, ending in March 47.

The author then backs up and tells us what was happening elsewhere during the same time period: how Caesar’s deputy Domitius was defeated by Pharnaces in Asia Minor; how Caesar’s forces were triumphant in Illyricum; how Caesar’s men defeated the allies of Pompey the Younger (Gnaeus Pompeius) in Spain; and, finally, how Caesar, leaving Alexandria, went to Asia Minor and gave Pharnaces his comeuppance. The author is very well informed, and has largely succeeded in matching the quality of Caesar’s own historical books.

**

Late in 47 Caesar set sail for the northern African coast, where a trio of leaders loyal to Pompey — one of Caesar’s former lieutenants in Gaul, Titus Labienus; the Numidian King Juba; and the senator Metellus Scipio — remained at large with considerable forces at their command. The African War tells us what happened: how Caesar, in a series of brilliant strategic and tactical moves, emerged victorious over all three. The author, who demonstrates personal knowledge of Caesar and an understanding of his strategic decision-making, was probably a high-ranking officer under Caesar’s command. He does a good job of showing how Caesar gradually improved his position relative to his opponents, and how he responded in moments of crisis. (At the Battle of Ruspina, for instance, which took place on 4 January 46, Caesar was badly outnumbered and eventually completely encircled by Labienus, but improvised a new troop formation that allowed him to defend on all sides while simultaneously breaking the encircling ring at one point to permit escape.)

Interestingly, some of this activity took place during a period with no dates; Caesar had initiated calendar reform, including the insertion of an intercalary period to which no standard dates can be assigned.

**

Having returned to Rome in July 46 — the month of July, incidentally, was then still called Quintilus; it would not be named after Caesar until after his death a few years hence — Caesar again set out late in the year for Spain, where Gnaeus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, remained at the head of an armed force opposed to Caesar. It is difficult to discern the shape of the campaign from the Spanish War, for not only is the text corrupted in many places, but the author has not the qualifications of those we’ve seen thus far; he may have been a low-ranking officer, and is more interested in army gossip — who was defecting, what happened in minor skirmishes, where camps were moved — than in the overall arc of the conflict. What is clear is that the forces of Pompey and Caesar established opposed camps near Corduba (modern Cordova), and finally met in a decisive battle near Munda (the location of which is disputed today) on 17 March 45, nearly a year to the day before Caesar’s final mortal reckoning. It was a massive battle, with over 100000 men on the field, and the fighting was fierce. (Caesar said of the battle, “I fought not for victory, but for my life.”) Caesar’s army was outnumbered nearly two-to-one, yet he emerged victorious. Pompey escaped, but was discovered a few weeks later in a cave, and died fighting. This battle may be said to mark the end of Caesar’s civil wars. His enemies in the field were vanquished — though his enemies back in Rome were alive and well.

**

They form a modest pendant to Caesar’s military chronicles, but nonetheless I appreciated the chance to read these shorter works, which fill in important gaps and are engaging on a number of levels. They are included in The Landmark Julius Caesar, which I have been praising at every opportunity, and continue to praise at this one. If you’re at all interested in this history, and cannot read Latin, this is the edition to get.

Tangled in the web

March 4, 2019
  • Art thieves are the aristocrats of the crime world, retaining something of the aura of a dashing gentleman. Michael Finkel writes about Stéphane Breitwieser, one of the most successful — until he was caught, and caught again. Meanwhile the story of Vjeran Tomic, an art thief whom the French press called “Spider-Man” for his dramatic techniques, is told at The New Yorker.
  • Randy Boyagoda is a Canadian author whose new novel, Original Prin, is both “deeply Catholic and deeply funny”, says André Forget in The Walrus. I’m reading the book now, and Forget is right; the book is delightful — except, perhaps, for my wife, who has to put up with my late night guffaws.
  • Speaking of guffaws, James Geary writes in The Paris Review in defence of puns.
  • Puns may be the highest form of literary comedy, but literary hoax cannot be far behind. J.W. McCormack digs into the history of such hoaxes at Literary Hub.
  • Meanwhile, perhaps perpetrating a hoax of his own, Robert C. Koons argues at First Things that T.S. Eliot was a populist. Actually, his argument is an interesting one.
  • At Catholic Herald, Michael White writes about the premiere of a new piece for tenor and orchestra by Sir James MacMillan, The Hills and Vales Along, based on the war-time poetry of Charles Sorley, who was killed in WWI. We’re MacMillan enthusiasts around here.
  • To wrap up: if you’ve ever wondered if your construction worker might be a well-disguised liberal, or whether your journalist friend might be a secret conservative, put your musings to rest. Business Insider breaks down the political biases of different professions based on campaign contributions in the US. They look about how you’d expect, although it is interesting that the liberal professions (journalism, tech, entertainment, academia) tend to be markedly more liberal than the conservative professions (farming, construction, mining) are conservative. Actually, maybe that is what you’d expect.

For an envoi, let’s hear James MacMillan’s Ave maris stella, beautifully sung by a local parish choir:

Wodehouse: Psmith I

March 3, 2019

Mike at Wrykyn
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2012) [1909]
192 p.

This is the first half of Mike: A Public School Story; the full book was split into two by later publishers eager to distinguish the half that did not have the character Psmith (this half) from the half that did (below). Considering that it was originally part of a larger whole, it has a pleasing structure, beginning and ending at Mike Jackson’s breakfast table, and neatly wrapping up the main plot. Well done, Wodehouse.

Had I been subjected to a blind “name the author” test, I’m not sure I’d have guessed correctly. It is a comedy, certainly, and some of the Wodehousian sparkle is there, and even some of the calling cards (like references to Shakespeare), but overall it didn’t impress in the way his other books have. A major difference was the complexity of the plot; in the Jeeves novels, at least, there are usually several lines of development working in tandem, but here there is really just one — Mike’s fortunes as a cricketer at his new public (that is, private) school. And Mike, as a character, is from the rather dull side of the tracks, I’m afraid.

There is a good deal of cricket in the book, which makes it an amusing tale for a reader who knows nothing at all of the game. For the most part the cricket jargon just adds local colour, like the nautical terms in the Aubrey-Maturin books, but at the story’s climax — the big game — I can testify that ignorance of the rules and structure of the game makes it impossible to understand what is happening.

I confess that I read the book only as a prelude to the books about Psmith, which are the real object of my present interest, but it was reasonably good on its own terms.

***

Mike and Psmith
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2013) [1909]
214 p.

In this, the second half of Mike: A Public School Story, we meet Rupert Psmith — “the P is silent” — who was to become one of Wodehouse’s best beloved characters.

The story picks up where Mike at Wrykyn ended: Mike, removed from his former school for poor academic performance, is sent to a new school, where he meets another new boy, Psmith, and strikes up a friendship. Together they join the Archaeology Club, giving the stiff shoulder to the cricket team, and have a variety of adventures. At the story’s climax, Mike stands wrongly accused of having painted the headmaster’s dog red. We are here deep in the realms of profundity. All comes right in the end, and the novel closes with another mystifying bout of cricket.

This second panel of Mike is much better than the first; the writing livelier, the comedy more inspired, the prose smoother, the story more engrossing, the characters more distinctive. Psmith, especially, is a wonderful creation: loquacious, playful, and dignified; he enlivens every page on which he appears. I look forward to Psmith in the City, the next book about him.

Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities

February 19, 2019

A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens
(Nonesuch, 2008) [1859]
386 p.

Somehow I managed to reach my ripe old age without having read this great novel, a defect that I am happy to have now rectified. Yes, even through these tears, I am happy.

The story is set during the final decades of the eighteenth century, the two cities are London and Paris, and the story follows a family that, with one foot on each side of the channel, gets caught in the crosshairs of the French Revolution. I suppose everyone knows this, although I did not.

It’s a wonderful book in pretty much every respect. The characters are excellent, even the rare female villain, and the amiable old banker, and the kindly old father, and the courageous young woman, and the principled young man, and, of course, the noble-hearted young lover. The writing is, even for Dickens, marvellous; there are sections — such as the passage about the storming of the Bastille, or that scene of spilled wine in the street, or that prophetic vision — that are like orchestral music. It has been ingeniously constructed, with key revelations concealed until the appropriate hour. At barely half the length of one of his typical novels, it is unusually focused and fleet of foot.

Dickens was clearly no friend of the Revolution — its rallying cry he always modifies to “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death!” — though of course he was no friend either to oppression and injustice. He saw the desire of the people for liberty as healthy, but the means followed to that end horrible. He is the patron novelist of the common Englishman, but was able to put a sympathetic aristocrat, and a French one at that, at the center of this book. In the end, he gave us a large-hearted story about the power of love, requited and unrequited, romantic and filial, to shine in the darkness, though the darkness does not comprehend it. I judge it one of Dickens’ best.

Cicero: Murder Trials

February 11, 2019

Murder Trials
Marcus Tullius Cicero
(Penguin Classics, 1975)
[80-45 BC]

368 p.

Cicero was a statesman, an orator, an amateur philosopher — and a lawyer. This volume gathers together four of his most celebrated speeches given in the context of murder trials; in each case he was speaking for the defence. The earliest dates from 80, when Cicero was just 20 years old; the latest from 45, when he had, unbeknownst to him, of course, just two more years to live.

*

The first speech is in defence of one Sextus Roscius, accused of murdering his father. This was a particularly heinous crime for the Romans, being an assault on the Roman virtue of filial piety, and the guilty were punished in a particularly ghastly way: by being tied into a sack with several animals (a dog, a cock, a monkey, and a snake) and thrown into a river. Cicero’s defence consisted partly in blaming the accuser for having committed the crime himself.

The second speech, in defence of Aulus Cluentius Habitus, was given in 66. Cluentius was accused of murdering his stepfather. It is an especially celebrated speech; we have a letter from Pliny the Younger to Tacitus in which Pliny judges it Cicero’s finest oration. It is also, at 140 pages in this edition, the longest of Cicero’s surviving speeches.

In 63 Cicero was called upon to defend Gaius Rabirius for a murder alleged to have occurred 37 years earlier. The victim, Saturninus, had been a radical politician who got on the wrong side of the establishment, was shut into the Senate-house and killed there, presumably on orders from opposing Senators. When the politics of Rome swung around, however, Rabirius, a senator, was prosecuted. Technically the charge was treason, not murder, and the accused faced a crucifixion if found guilty.

The political situation had changed again in 45; Caesar had ascended, alone, to the highest position in the state. A minor eastern prince, King Deiotarus, was accused of plotting to murder Caesar himself when Caesar had been a guest in his home. Allegedly, Deiotarus had a group of men waiting for Caesar to enter a certain room, at which point they planned to stab him. (Had they succeeded, the world would presumably have been deprived, many centuries later, of either Macbeth or Julius Caesar!) Cicero spoke in Deiotarus’ defence, arguing his innocence in Caesar’s own home, with Caesar sitting as judge, a difficult assignment about which Cicero remarks:

“the task of defending a man accused of murder before the very person whom he is accused of murdering seems a formidable proposition, since few people could judge a threat to their own lives without showing greater favour to themselves than to the defendant.”

Arguing Deiotarus’ long and faithful service, the implausibility of the success of the supposed plot, and Caesar’s magnanimity, Cicero succeeded in this case of convincing Caesar to reserve judgment. But this was an exceptional outcome: if one was accused of murder in ancient Rome, one could hardly do better than hire Cicero as one’s advocate; his clients were usually acquitted.

*

With the exception of the last, I cannot say that I found these speeches particularly riveting. In fact, as I read, and reflected as well on my experience reading Cicero’s political speeches, I came to the reluctant conclusion that I am not at all a good judge of speeches. The most celebrated examples from modern times (such as, say, the Gettysburg Address or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) tend to be quite short, certainly by comparison with those included in this volume. High, extended oratory simply has no place in our culture today, and this lack of exposure surely at least partly accounts for the fact that I have no savour for the genre, and no great powers of discrimination.

Having said that, there were some interesting things to learn from these addresses. Perhaps the most surprising was that Cicero, as the defence lawyer, didn’t do the things we expect defence lawyers to do. He didn’t discuss testimony of witnesses; he didn’t discuss forensic evidence. In fact he dwelt almost entirely on motive, attempting to convince the audience that his client had no good reasons to commit the alleged murder. (In the speech before Caesar he added a healthy serving of flattery to his winning recipe.) This strikes us as an oddly limited way to proceed. It is also worth noting that we do not have the speeches of the prosecution in these cases, nor the records of cross-examination, so other aspects of the crime might have come out by those means.

The other peculiar feature of these speeches is how much effort Cicero devotes to constructing an alternative theory of the crime, rather than focusing narrowly on defending his client. In the long defence of Cluentius, for instance, only about one-third is actually specifically arguing his client’s innocence. These countermeasures are largely speculative in content, and no doubt contain their fair share of misdirection, the intention being not to build an air-tight case against another, but merely to raise enough doubts in the judges’ minds.

Cicero did also sometimes argue as a prosecutor. I was interested to learn that he would refuse to act as prosecutor if he thought the accused was innocent, yet he would argue for the defence regardless of the guilt or innocence of the accused, “provided he is not really a depraved or wicked character”, on the grounds that

“popular sentiment requires this; it is sanctioned by custom, and conforms with human decency.”

**

Of the three volumes of Cicero I have read over the past few months, this was the one I enjoyed the least. It is convenient, therefore, that this is the last of Cicero that I have planned to include in my Roman reading project. Based on this limited experience, I would say that my impression of Cicero falls somewhat short of what his reputation would seem to warrant, and this is due in large part, I expect, to the fact that I am reading him in translation. I don’t know what it is like for an Italian or Frenchman to read Shakespeare in translation, but it can’t be much like reading Shakespeare in the original. I would like to read more of Cicero, but it really would be best to learn Latin first.

Aucassin and Nicolette

February 3, 2019

Aucassin and Nicolette
Anonymous
Translated from Old French by F.W. Bourdillon
(Folio Society, 1947) [c.1200]
60 p.

In the annals of medieval love lore you have your Tristans and your Yseults, you have your Lancelots and Guineveres, your Romeos and your Juliets and your Dantes and your Beatrices — and you have Aucassin and Nicolette? I confess that, until I stumbled upon them recently, I’d never heard of this pair. Their love is one for which, naturally, the course does not run smooth, and the basic problem is obvious enough:

Here they sing.

Aucassin was of Beaucaire;
His was the fine castle there;
But on slender Nicolette
Past man’s moving is he set,
Whom his father doth refuse;
Menace did his mother use:

“Out upon thee, foolish boy!
Nicolette is but a toy,
Castaway from Carthagen,
Bought a slave of heathen men.
If for marrying thou be,
Take a wife of high degree!”

“Mother, I will none but her.
Hath she not the gentle air,
Grace of limb, and beauty bright?
I am snared in her delight.
If I love her ’tis but meet,
So passing sweet!”

What follows is a kind of medieval singspiel, in which verse songs alternate with prose narration. This form has been dubbed a chantefable (literally, a sing-say), and the category has been invented specifically for Aucassin and Nicolette, which is our sole surviving medieval example of what was presumably a genre.

It is a delightful creation, plump with good humour and full of energy. It is a celebration of the medieval ideal of “courteous love”, and a fresh, cleansing wind blows through it. Love has captured Aucassin’s heart, and he prefers his beloved to honour, to wealth, to glory — even to the salvation of his soul. In this sense, he is the “foolish boy” his mother decries, but his devotion is so strong that it inspires him to great deeds of another sort, and to heroic virtues of another order. His love, in fact, renders him worthy to be the hero of a medieval romance.

The story is packed with oddities. In one episode Aucassin finds himself at a castle where the king lies in child-bed and the queen rides forth to battle. Joining the fight, he discovers that they fight not with swords, but with crab-apples, cheeses, and mushrooms. In another, Nicolette stumbles in the forest upon a group of rustics enjoying a pastoral picnic, almost as though the Forest of Arden had been transplanted to France.

A number of English translations have been made. I tried out three (by Lang, Mason, and Bourdillon) before settling on the last. All were made about a century ago, and all are afflicted to some degree by maladroit archaisms. Bourdillon seemed to be the least egregious offender, but even his version contains its fair share of “honoured wight”s and “gramercy”s, such that I had liefer die than suffer another. This is a work ripe for a fresh look by an enterprising translator of Old French. But, despite these troubles, I enjoyed the book, and arrived in good spirits at the happy ending:

Towards him to her feet leapt she.
Aucassin, when he did see,
Both his arms to her he holds,
Gently to his bosom folds,
Kisses her on eyes and face.
So they left him the night’s space,
Till the morrow’s morning-tide
Aucassin took her to bride,
Made her Lady of Beaucaire.
Many days they then did fare,
And their pleasure did enjoy.
Now has Aucassin his joy,
Nicolette too the same way.
Here endeth our song-and-say;
I know no further.

The book, which is quite short, is available at the Gutenberg project.

The Exeter Book

January 28, 2019

The Exeter Book
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(U Penn, 2017)
300 p.

The Exeter Book is one of four principal surviving sources for Old English poetry, and, of those four, it is the largest. It is a tenth-century codex that has been part of the Exeter Cathedral library since 1072. It is the sole source for almost all of its contents.

The collections of Anglo-Saxon verse I’ve looked at previously — the Junius Manuscript and the Vercelli Book — consisted of, respectively, four and six poems. The Exeter Book, by contrast, contains about three dozen poems, most of them fewer than 150 lines long, and it also contains about 100 verse riddles. This makes it a very interesting and surprising collection, but also makes it rather hard to summarize. Instead, I will write briefly about a few of the poems that particularly attracted my attention.

*

The Book begins with one of the longest poems: a triptych called Christ, the parts of which are a set of meditations on Advent and the Nativity, the Ascension, and the Last Judgment. They are thematically linked, but are not necessarily — and, in fact, probably not — all the work of one poet.

The Advent poems are partly based on the O Antiphons. Here, as an example, is the beginning of the poem based on the antiphon O Oriens:

O Radiance of dawn, brightest of angels,
Messenger of morning, righteous and rising,
Bright light of truth, splendor of sun,
Brilliant beyond stars, imbuing middle-earth
With the grace of growth in all seasons —
You are the illumination and enlightenment
Of all time and the world’s endless turning,
You are the God begotten of God,
Separate and Self, Son of the Father,
Gift and blessing of high heaven,
A child born who has always been
Before beginning, beyond ending…
(V, 1-12)

That, even in translation, is a strong, dense meditation on Christ as the light of the world. (For readers unfamiliar with Anglo-Saxon verse, you should be listening in this poetry for patterns of stressed syllables and alliteration in each line.)

Other of the Advent poems are in honour of Our Lady, such as the one which begins in this way:

O glorious maiden of middle-earth,
Purest of women, most precious queen,
How wisely and justly do all speech-bearers
Praise your name and bless your birthing
With joy in their hearts, delighting and saying
That you are the blessed bride of God,
Lord of the sky, Ruler of heaven.
The attendants of Christ, servants of God,
Proclaim and sing that with your virtue,
You are the Lady of the glorious hosts,
Hallowed in heaven by his primacy and power,
And Lady under heaven of all earthly hosts,
Even those dwelling in hell.
(IX, 1-13)

For me, this is fine devotional poetry, and I intend to revisit these Advent poems again during the Advent season.

The middle section of Christ describes the Ascension, but briefly. The bulk of the poem, apart from bridge sections which link it backward to the nativity poem and forward to the last judgement, is devoted to a charming plan I’ve never encountered before: the “seven leaps” of Christ. The “leaps” in question are (1) from heaven to the womb, (2) out of the womb, (3) onto the cross, (4) from the cross to the tomb, (5) the descent into hell, (6) out of the tomb, and (7) the ascent into heaven. It’s a delightful poem.

The final section of Christ is a stirring depiction of the judgment of the damned and the blessed, written with strong imaginative power.

**

Juliana is one of the few saints’ lives in The Exeter Book. St Juliana of Nicomedia was one of the martyrs of the early Church; she suffered under Diocletian. The poem is probably the work of Cynewulf, one of the few Anglo-Saxon poets whose name has come down to us.

The poem relates how St Juliana refused to marry a pagan and was, as a result, abused and imprisoned. She was visited in prison by a demon who, disguised as an angel, tempted her to compromise, and much of the poem is devoted to their dialogue. It is wonderfully done. The demon is marvellously suave and persuasive, which is already excellent, but, better still, Juliana sees through him immediately. Indeed, she is so feisty that her first response is to leap and throttle him! (One imagines, here, and with gratification, a correspondingly vigorous response were she confronted with one of our oily churchmen!) In any case, in what follows “the radiant maiden” forces the “hell-sprite, man’s fierce foe” to reveal himself and confess his evil intentions before she sends him back to hell:

Then the maiden released that soul-slayer
After his time of torment in the dark abyss.
The dread demon was a bearer of bad news,
Bound to tell the revolting truth
To a host of torturers, the tribe of hell.
That was not a good journey for him.
(561-6)

I would rank Juliana with the best of the saints’ lives known to me. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

**

The Exeter Book also contains a number of poems which scholars call “elegies” on account of their generally meditative tone and non-narrative subject matter. Later English poetry would make this type of poem more familiar to us; it is poetry that tries to capture a mood or feeling.

A good example is The Wanderer, written from the point of view of a man exiled from his home. It conveys a powerful sense of sadness and longing for what cannot be had again. The poet, bereft of home, sees that ultimately everyone shares his fate:

The wise warrior knows how ghostly it will be
When all this world’s wealth is a wasteland,
As middle-earth is now in many places —
Wall fragments stand, blasted by winds,
Covered by frost — ruined hallways in snow.
Wine-halls decay, lords lie dead,
Deprived of joys — the proud troop
Has fallen by the wall. War took some
On a long death-road; a bird bore one
Over the deep sea; the gray wolf shared
One with death; a sad-faced earl
Hid one in an earth-hole, a bleak barrow.
So the Maker of men laid waste to the world,
Until the old works of giants stood idle
And empty of the hall-joys of men.
(78-92)

Other poems of this kind in The Exeter Book include “The Seafarer”, “The Wife’s Lament”, and “The Ruin”. This is a side of Old English poetry that I have not encountered before.

**

One of the most unusual and intriguing poems in this collection is “The Rhyming Poem”. It is unusual because — it rhymes! This in addition to maintaining the usual requirements of Anglo-Saxon verse, of course. It is, as one can imagine, one of the most difficult poems to render into modern English, and Craig Williamson, so able and fluent in general, confesses his inability to do the original justice. I reluctantly agree with him. For example:

The will is weak, desire droops and curls,
No-faith follows, the heart heaves
Its last, its least — all harrows, all hallows.
Joy fades, lordships fall. Sin spreads
Its wide net, shame serves, pleasure pains.
Thus the world winds down. Hope drowns.
(55-60)

The original’s rhyming couplets are entirely missing, though he has managed to give us some internal rhymes. The style has become compressed and gnomic, though it is hard to know if this is a feature of the original poem or just an artifact of the effort to cram in all the poetry.

In any case, it is good to know that there is at least one rhyming poem in the Old English corpus.

**

Finally, I will say a few words about the dozens of riddles. Riddling is a poetic pastime that, unfortunately, has not had a distinguished career in subsequent English poetry. Tolkien gave us some rhyming riddles in The Hobbit, and I’ve little doubt he did so inspired by these Anglo-Saxon exemplars.

Here is one example, to give the flavour of the thing:

Head down, nosing — I belly the ground.
Hard snuffle and grub, I bite and furrow —
Drawn by the dark enemy of forests,
Driven by a bent lord who hounds my trail,
Who lifts and lowers me, rams me down,
Pushes on plain, and sows seed.
I am a ground-skulker, born of wood,
Bound by wizards, brought on wheel.
My ways are weird: as I walk, one flank
Of my trail is gathering green; the other
Is bright black. Through my back and belly,
A sharp sword thrusts; through me head,
A dagger is stuck like a tooth: what I slash
Falls in a curve of slaughter to one side
If my driving lord slaves well.
(Riddle 19)

Solutions to the riddles are not given in the Book, though in his notes Williamson solves them, or at least describes the solutions that have been proposed. (Some of the riddles, like the one above, are easy to solve, but some have never been solved conclusively.)

A few of the riddles rely on double-entendres for their misdirection. An example is Riddle 25.

I must say that in general I found the riddles to be great fun, but I was only able to solve a handful of them on my own.

**

As I said at the top, there is far too much in The Exeter Book for a blog post to handle. Reading through all these poems has been rewarding for me. Typically I would close my day by sitting down and reading one or two, more than once wishing that I had a scop to sing them to me! Those interested in learning more could profitably consult the Wikipedia page, which includes links to individual pages for roughly half of the poems.

Next in this collection of Old English poetry is Williamson’s translation of Beowulf. I’m looking forward to it.

Cavalletti: The Religious Potential of the Child

January 22, 2019

The Religious Potential of the Child
Sofia Cavalletti
(CGS, 1992) [1979]
250 p.

For the past five years or so I have taught catechism to children who have ranged in age from about age 3 to age 8. My previous teaching experience having been to undergraduate and graduate students, and in the hard sciences, I have found teaching catechism to be a big change, and challenging in several ways. Naturally, there’s the challenge of presenting material in an age-appropriate way. There’s also the difficulty of choosing just what to teach, and in what order. And, of course, the always daunting matter of planning a craft.

Had you asked me a few months ago, I’d have assessed myself as a middling catechist. But today, having read Sofia Cavalletti’s book on catechesis for young children, I am ready to consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I’ve been doing it all wrong all along.

Cavalletti is a foundress of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd programme, which began in Italy and has since spread around the world. I’ve not known much about it, apart from its existence. This book is all about the underpinnings of that program, which grew out of years of experience of teaching the faith to children aged 3-6.

**

Her principal goal is not so much to convey knowledge of the faith as to cultivate the child’s relationship with God. The emphasis is affective and personal rather than didactic and objective. Her desire is to encourage in the child a life hidden with Christ, a living spring, a planted seed. For her, the catechist’s role is to prepare the child to meet Christ, and then to withdraw, unworthy servant that he is. A catechist, she says, must know how to be silent.

A young child, she believes, has a capacity for quiet, even contemplative, prayer. Children are at ease with the transcendent; their relationship to God, especially at a young age, is naturally “open and peaceful”. Much of the catechist’s task is to cultivate an environment in which “open and peaceful” prayer can take place. To this end she recommends the creation of a quasi-sacred space, a ritual space (which, following, in this as in other matters, Maria Montessori, she calls an “atrium”). It is “not a place for religious instruction, but for religious life“; it is set aside for “recollection and silence”. Within this space Scripture is read to the children, in a solemn, ritualized manner, and elements of the liturgy, such as seasonal colours and candles, are present. Quiet time for reflection follows the slow reading. The children are given simple toys, related to the readings, to play with quietly. They are invited to draw or paint quietly. They are invited to pray. In her experience, children become pensive and recollected; the child’s “whole being vibrates, becomes tranquil, and rejoices”.

The prayer encouraged by this method is personal and spontaneous. She finds that it is typically expressed in short, essential phrases. “Jesus, you gave us light.” “Thank you because we are your sheep.” “Thank you, Jesus, for giving us our joy.”

This approach to catechesis is not didactic, but it nonetheless teaches, and the most important lesson, especially for children under 6, is, Cavalletti argues, that God loves them:

“No child … has ever been loved to the degree that he wanted and needed. For the child, love is more important than food… In the contact with God the child experiences an unfailing love.”

For this reason her catechetical approach is founded on a few themes that convey the love of God, the most important being the image of Christ the Good Shepherd, who loves his sheep and calls them by name. In her experience, this image of Christ is the most important key to unlocking the young child’s religious sense. In addition, she commends to the catechist the imagery of baptism and light, of Christ as a gift, and the Gospel parables about the Kingdom of God (the pearl of great price, the mustard seed, and so on). These images and parables are to be presented to the child without dumbing them down, and are not to be “explained, but left to unfold themselves within the child’s heart and understanding”. She dwells on these particular images and stories because, in her experience, children respond most fruitfully to them. Her criterion for assessing a child’s response is worth noting:

“If the child, in relation to a specific Biblical passage, only knows how to draw descriptive rather than interpretive illustrations, then it is better to avoid that text; it is obvious that his understanding of it has stayed on a level of superficiality.”

**

Notice what, by implication, she does not recommend to a catechist of the young. She does not recommend an emphasis on doctrine, after the manner of, say, the Baltimore Catechism. Neither does she recommend beginning at the beginning, with the book of Genesis, nor even with giving the child a barrow of Bible stories; her focus is almost entirely on the New Testament, and especially on the person of Jesus. The method is not historical, but a “method of signs”, leaning heavily on images, metaphors, and religiously rich symbols. She counsels against emphasizing rote prayers like the Our Father and Hail Mary, on the grounds that such prayers risk teaching children that prayer is a separate thing from life; her aim is to teach prayer, not prayers. Neither should the catechist talk much about morality; the focus is on God’s love, not judgment:

“The adult who wants to give children a moral formation should refrain from any promptings of the common kind in the moral order; instead the adult should announce God’s love and help the child to experience and enjoy it in reflection and prayer.”

All of this is specific to the age group under consideration: roughly 3-6. As children age, these counsels change: slightly older children will need moral counsel, and teenagers need heroic exemplars; the time will come for Bible stories and historical understanding; the time will come for set prayers and spiritual disciplines. But all, she argues, will be more healthy and more fruitful if built on a sound foundation of lived awareness of the love of God.

A corollary is the importance of beginning catechesis at an early age. Parish programs that begin at the age of 7 or 8, as is fairly common, are introducing children to God at an age when it is natural for them to think in moral terms, and this risks confusing the face of God for the child, who will tend to see God as a judge rather than a loving shepherd. One wonders if the famous phenomenon of “Catholic guilt” might be corroborating evidence for Cavalletti’s argument.

**

We have all, I am sure, had the experience of meeting a person who has just read a book on a difficult topic — education, for instance, or metaphysics — and is full of enthusiasm because, for the first time, he sees things clearly. We are reluctant to mention to him that if he were to continue in his reading, with another book, or five, or ten, he might no longer see things so clearly, or, rather, he might see that things are not so clear.

I, plausibly, am that naive enthusiast, for this is the first book about methods of catechesis that I have read. Nonetheless, I can only report that I found this book immensely stimulating and rewarding. I have often pondered how to encourage just this inner, hidden life between God and a child — not only with my students, but with my own children too! — but I have not known what to do. Cavalletti’s book is full of promising ideas that I’d like to try, if I can.

***

[Wonder]
Wonder is not an emotion of superficial people; it strikes root only in the person whose mind is able to settle and rest in things, in the person who is capable of stopping and looking. It is only through a continued and profound observation of reality that we become conscious of its many aspects, of the secrets and mysteries it contains. Openness to reality and openness to wonder proceed at the same pace: as we gradually enter into what is real, our eyes will come to see it as more and more charged with marvels, and wonder will become a habit of our spirit.

[Attention]
We should not alter too often or too rapidly the object of the child’s attention… If the child does not have the time to dwell on anything, then everything will come to seem the same to him and he will lose all interest in things.

Caesar: The Civil War

January 13, 2019

The Civil War
Gaius Julius Caesar
(Landmark, 2018) [48 BC]
200 p.

Caesar’s Gallic Wars recounted his decade-long campaign to bring Gaul under the control of Rome. That tale ended in 49 BC, and is continued here, in Caesar’s first-hand account of the momentous events of the years 49-48 BC, during which Caesar and Pompey contended against one another for control of Rome itself.

Though Caesar had succeeded brilliantly in his Gallic campaign, and had been awarded multiple triumphs by the Roman Senate, and had seen his popularity rise, he had also made powerful enemies. In 49 BC, as he wrapped up his campaign abroad, those enemies, led by Pompey the Great, passed a resolution in Rome requiring him to disband his army or be declared a traitor. Caesar countered that he would do so provided that Pompey, too, would disband his army. (It was one of the marks of Rome’s political decline that an army’s first loyalty was often to its commander rather than to Rome, effectively giving powerful generals their own private armed forces.) Pompey refused, and Caesar, in turn, likewise.

Marching south from Ravenna, Caesar crossed the boundary between Cisapline Gaul and Italy proper — that is, he crossed the Rubicon — with his army intact, thereby violating Roman law and sparking the civil war. It is interesting to note that Caesar passes over this now-famous moment with hardly a comment; it was later writers — Appian, Plutarch, and others — who made much of it.

Fearing that Caesar would march on Rome, Pompey and many of the leading Romans fled south to Capua and then to Brundisium (modern Brindisi). Caesar pursued them and, rapidly building a barrier across the mouth of the harbour, very nearly succeeded in trapping Pompey then and there. But, as it happened, Pompey did escape to Greece where he began assembling an armed force to oppose Caesar.

Caesar, meanwhile, abandoning the chase, went to Rome to argue his case before the remains of the Senate, who decided that negotiations with Pompey should be attempted.

One might naively expect that the Roman civil war would be fought in and around Rome, but in fact this speech before the Senate is the only time in the war that either of the two principals was in the city. Instead, Caesar next proceeded on a course that I did not anticipate: he went north again, first to the southern coast of Gaul, where he established a siege of Marsilla (modern Marseilles), and then to Spain, where he fought a lengthy campaign for control of Ilerda. These episodes are properly parts of the civil war because these cities were loyal to Pompey. Before the year was out, both cities fell to Caesar.

Concurrently (in August of 49) one of Caesar’s deputies, Curio, was commissioned to lead a force against Pompey’s allies in Numidia (modern Tunisia). This ended in disaster for Caesar: there was a clever ruse on the African side, in which they faked a retreat, lured Curio out of his fortifications and into an open plain, where he was surrounded and his army slaughtered. It was the most significant victory for Pompey’s side to that point in the conflict.

With the coming of the year 48, a more direct conflict between Caesar and Pompey was looming. Caesar succeeded in crossing to Greece from Brundisium, and established a camp across a river from Pompey’s camp. A cunning attempt at a flanking manoeuvre by Caesar eventually settled down to a peculiar stand-off: both armies built semi-circular fortifications beginning and ending on the sea, with Pompey’s being entirely enclosed within Caesar’s (like this). It was peculiar because it resembled a siege, but the besieged — Pompey — had ready access to supplies from the sea, and therefore could, it seemed, hold out indefinitely.

But several things happened to break the stand-off. One was that two of Caesar’s senior officers were arraigned for corruption, and in response defected to Pompey’s side, taking with them valuable intelligence, on the strength of which Pompey mounted an attack on a weak point in Caesar’s fortifications, resulting in the deaths of many of Caesar’s men. Caesar’s side was weakened but not defeated. The second thing was that a variety of factors, especially a lack of fresh water, led to Pompey’s being forced to break his army out of the siege and flee, which he did.

Caesar again pursued, and the armies squared off again in August near Pharsalus. Caesar was outnumbered by a factor of two, and his cavalry was barely a tenth as large as Pompey’s. Pompey planned to use his superior cavalry to flank Caesar, but Caesar, anticipating this, placed a specially selected line of infantry to defend that same flank. When the battle began, this anticipation proved decisive; while the main lines fought, Pompey’s flanking manoeuvre failed and, instead, Caesar’s defenders moved around and flanked Pompey, causing the latter’s army to turn and flee for their lives. It was a rout: Caesar reports (how accurately is hard to tell) that he lost just 200 men in the day’s fighting, while Pompey lost 15000.

Pompey, for his part, failed to embody the noble Roman virtues in defeat. He first — before the battle was ended — retired to his tent, apparently stunned, and then, rousing himself, fled. He boarded a vessel and began a circuit of the Mediterraean. As news spread of Caesar’s victory, the tide turned against Pompey, and he was denied entrance at several ports. Eventually he decided to go to Egypt, counting on the support of the young ruler, Ptolomy, and his regents. But the Egyptians, too, could tell which way the wind was blowing, and Pompey was murdered at Ptolomy’s command while coming ashore. His was a sad and ignoble end.

**

The main contours of this story were familiar to me already, most recently from reading Appian, but it was a pleasure to go over them again, in more detail, and straight from the horse’s mouth.

I’ve already remarked that it was a sign of Rome’s immense power that the Roman civil war was fought, not in Rome, nor even much in Italy, but in Gaul, Spain, and Greece.

It is also worth noting a marked difference between Caesar and Pompey in the exercise of power. Pompey took the view that “He who is not for me is against me”; a lack of explicit support was taken as opposition and treated as such. But Caesar’s rule was “He who is not against me is for me”; cities that withheld support for Pompey were, in his judgement, on his side, and he treated them as such. The result was that people who were not sure which way the conflict would eventually resolve — which was most everyone — were more likely to favour Caesar. By not forcing them to take sides, Caesar didn’t create unnecessary resistance.

Another thing that emerges from this account, as from the Gallic Wars, is Caesar’s brilliance as a general. Again and again he wins by out-thinking his opponent, anticipating their plans or luring them into traps. Even taking into account the fact that it is Caesar himself telling us about his victories, it is hard not to be impressed by his superior tactics.

As was the case in the Gallic Wars, Caesar’s writing is always clear and well-organized. His focus is very much on military tactics and strategy, with occasional feints at politics. I have been reading from The Landmark Julius Caesar, an edition whose many virtues I have sung before. Simply put, I do not believe there is an English-language edition of Caesar’s writings to compare with it.

Accounts of Caesar’s subsequent military campaigns, in Alexandria, in Africa, and again in Spain, have also come down to us, though not by Caesar’s own hand. They are nonetheless included in this Landmark volume, and I think I will tackle them soon.