Archive for the 'Books' Category

Cobbett: The Protestant Reformation

October 17, 2016

220px-william_cobbettA History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland
William Cobbett
(TAN Books, 1988) [c.1825]
432 p.

I do not know much about William Cobbett, but based on this book he seems the sort who had a habit of placing his index finger on the sternum of his conversation partners, who made honest but uncomfortable remarks at dinner parties, and who was a nasty thorn in the side of the establishment. He burned with zeal for justice. In this book he sallies out to slay a giant — the historiography of the English Reformation, which he calls “a mass of the most base falsehoods and misrepresentations” promulgated by “crafty and selfish revilers of the religion of our fathers” who are full of “presumption, impudence, inconsistency, and insincerity”.

Cobbett was himself a Protestant, but he despised the way the history of English religion since Henry VIII had been white-washed. Curiously, in this book he evinces little interest in “rites and ceremonies and articles of faith and rules of discipline”; he has no theological purpose. His wants simply to set the historical record straight, and then to argue that, quite apart from doctrinal matters, the Reformation was a social disaster for England.

His general view can be summarized, as gently and succinctly as possible, in the following way:

Now, my friends, a fair and honest inquiry will teach us, that this was an alteration greatly for the worse; that the “REFORMATION,” as it is called, was engendered in beastly lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of innocent English and Irish blood; and that, as to its more remote consequences, they are, some of them, now before as in that misery, that beggary, that nakedness, that hunger, that everlasting wrangling and spite, which now stare us in the face and stun our ears at every turn, and which the “Reformation” has given us in exchange for the ease and happiness and harmony and Christian charity, enjoyed so abundantly, and for so many ages, by our Catholic forefathers.

In other words, to counter the prevailing history in which Protestants did no wrong and Catholics did no right, Cobbett threw his weight heavily in the opposite direction, arguing not only that the motives and methods of the Protestants were evil, but that England before the Reformation was a kind of terrestrial paradise, untroubled by the problems besetting the sceptered isle in his own time. The lopsidedness of this view makes it vulnerable for many of the same reasons that the standard history was vulnerable, but, at the same time, it is rather thrilling to follow his take-no-prisoners approach.

A word-mincer he is not. He cites with evident relish Martin Luther’s description of Henry VIII as “a pig, an ass, a dunghill, the spawn of an adder, a basilisk, a lying buffoon dressed in a king’s robes, a mad fool with a frothy mouth and a whorish face”, and then piles on by calling the king a “savage monster” and “the most unjust, hard-hearted, meanest and most sanguinary tyrant that the world had ever beheld”. Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, is “a name which deserves to be held in everlasting execration; a name which we could not pronounce without almost doubting of the justice of God, were it not for our knowledge of the fact, that the cold-blooded, most perfidious, most impious, most blasphemous caitiff expired, at last, amidst those flames which he himself had been the chief cause of kindling.” Cromwell is “slavish and base”, “the most insolent and cruel of ruffians”. Elizabeth, lauded by Protestant historians as “good Queen Bess”, Cobbett dubs “ripping-up Betsy”, “inexorable apostate”, “horrible lynx-like she-tyrant”, “terrible she-tyrant”, “termagant tyrant”, and “the worst woman that ever existed in England, or in the whole world, Jezebel herself not excepted.” Reformers in general he calls “ruffian devastators” for whom “plunder, sacrilege, adultery, polygamy, incest, perjury, and murder were almost as habitual as sleeping and waking”. By contrast, the Catholic queen Mary — “Bloody Mary” by convention — he cites as an “example of fidelity, sincerity, patience, resignation, generosity, gratitude, and purity in thought, word and deed”. The standard history he assaults from every side.


Though Cobbett, as I said, does not try to argue specific doctrinal points of contention between Catholics and Protestants, and indeed seems to think them almost matters of indifference, he does not forbear to prosecute the case of inconsistency against the Protestant reformers. He wryly notes that the Protestant polemic against Catholicism — the “Scarlet Whore” — risks proving too much: so great was the Established Church’s debt to Catholicism that each polemical assault on the latter could not but weaken the former as well. The Protestant devotion to the Bible, for instance, could only survive in the company of anti-Catholicism so long as the Catholic origins of the Bible were ignored:

To a pretty state do we come, when we, if we still listen to these calumniators, proclaim to the world, that our only hope of salvation rests on promises contained in a book, which we have received from the Scarlet Whore and of the authenticity of which we have no voucher other than that Scarlet Whore and that Church, whose worship is “idolatrous” and whose doctrines are “damnable.”

Similarly he lampoons the notion that there could be any legitimate national head of the Church who promulgates teachings in contradiction of the Pope’s, and yet somehow not have the unity of that national Church with the Church universal be impaired:

It is perfectly monstrous to suppose that there can be TWO true faiths. It cannot be: one of the two must be false. … How is the faith of all nations to continue to be ONE, it there be, in every nation, a head of the Church, who is to be appealed to, in the last resort, as to all questions, as to all points of dispute, which may arise? How, if this be the case, is there to be “one fold and one shepherd”? How is there to be “one faith and one baptism”? how are the “unity of the spirit and the bond of peace” to be preserved? We shall presently see what unity and what peace there were in England, the moment that the King became the head of the Church.

This is not a theological problem, as such, but simply a logical one: the Church of England cannot both be and not be part of the Catholic Church.


But inconsistencies of this sort don’t matter greatly to Cobbett because he believes they didn’t really matter greatly to the Reformers themselves. Instead, to his mind the intellectual case against Catholicism, cobbled and threadbare as it was, was simply cover for the real motive: plunder. There was “plunder at the bottom”; plunder was “the mainspring” from which the rest flowed.

I won’t pretend to adjudicate the motives of the Reformers, but I will agree with Cobbett that it would be foolish to consider those motives without taking plunder into account. There was immense wealth at stake: Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, with the confiscation of their lands and goods, and then appropriation of Church valuables, and his decision to give that wealth to the co-operative noble families of the realm meant that the nobility had powerful incentives to let Henry have his way in religious matters. Cobbett argues that the treatment of Catholics was harsher than that meted out to other religious groups at odds with the king, such as Quakers and Jews, and he attributes this to the simple fact that the Catholics had the wealth that the king wanted.

Whatever their motives, the dissolution of the monasteries was, for Cobbett, the chief calamity of the English reformation, for it did immeasurable harm to rural England. The monasteries had been more than simply houses of prayer: they were the chief landowners, and landlords, in the nation. Each monastery was a central hub for agriculture and commerce, on which ordinary people depended for their livelihoods, and monasteries were, by and large, good for those who depended on them:

…The Monastery was a proprietor that never died; its tenantry had to do with a deathless landlord; its lands and houses never changed owners; its tenants were liable to none of many uncertainties that other tenants were; its oaks had never to tremble at the axe of the squandering heir; its manors had not to dread a change of lords; its villagers had all been born and bred up under its eye and care; their character was of necessity a thing of great value, and, as such, would naturally be an object of great attention. A Monastery was the centre of a circle in the country, naturally drawing to it all that were in need of relief, advice, and protection, and containing a body of men, or of women, having no cares of their own, and having wisdom to guide the inexperienced, and wealth to relieve the distressed.

And was it a good thing, then, to plunder and devastate these establishments; was it a reformation to squander estates, thus employed, upon lay persons, who would not, who could not, and did not, do any part or particle of those benevolent acts, and acts of public utility, which naturally arose out of the monastic institutions?

When the monasteries were seized and the monks and nuns evicted, all those who depended upon them suffered, for the nobles who received the properties did not, by and large, live on those estates, but governed them from afar, and without the personal investment and sense of responsibility that had previously prevailed. Cobbett argues that in time this sea change in English economic and social life gave rise to a new English type: the pauper, the truly destitute citizen who had nowhere to turn for help. It harmed everyone except the most powerful:

To turn the possessors of so large a part of the estates out of those estates, to destroy establishments venerated by the people from their childhood, to set all law, divine as well as human, at defiance, to violate every principle on which property rested, to rob the poor and helpless of the means of sustenance, to deface the beauty of the country, and make it literally a heap of ruins…

[The dissolution of the monasteries was] “a breach of Magna Charta in the first place; a robbery of the monks and nuns in the next place; and, in the third place, a robbery of the indigents, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.”

This line of argument is, for me, among the most interesting and, assuming that the facts are straight, compelling that Cobbett offers. I’d not really considered the Reformation from an economic point of view before, my own interests tending in other directions, but I can certainly see that the “transfer of ownership” (forgive the euphemism) of all those abbeys — and there were hundreds at the time of the Reformation, dotting the landscape across the whole of England –churches, and lands must have had a significant effect on the tenant farmers of those lands. Cobbett follows this thread right down to his own time, arguing that, one thing leading to another, the rise of Protestantism in England was a cause of much of the economic devastation he saw around him, and even led to the national debt (by way of funding wars against Catholics)!


It is fair to say that Cobbett sees no redeeming features in the reign of Henry VIII, and his successor Edward VI doesn’t fare much better. He cites David Hume’s History of England — the “lying book, which the Scotch call our history” — which says that

“All English historians dwell with pleasure on the excellences of this young king, whom the flattering promises of hope, joined to many real virtues, had made an object of the most tender affections of the public. He possessed mildness of disposition, a capacity to learn and to judge, and attachment to equity and justice.”

To which Cobbett offers the acerbic rejoinder:

Of his mildness we have, I suppose, a proof in his assenting to the burning of several Protestants, who did not protest in his way; in his signing of the death warrants of his two uncles; and in his wish to bring his sister Mary to trial for not conforming to what she deemed blasphemy, and from doing which he was deterred only by the menaces of the Emperor her cousin. So much for his mildness. As for his justice, who can doubt of that, who thinks of his will to disinherit his two sisters, even after the judges had unanimously declared to him, that it was contrary to law? The “tender affection” that the people had for him was, doubtless, evinced, by their rising in insurrection against his ordinances from one end of the kingdom to the other, and by their demanding the restoration of that religion, which all his acts tended wholly to extirpate.

So much for Edward VI.


As I mentioned above, Cobbett’s general strategy of switching the labels on those traditionally designated unimpeachably-good or irredeemably-bad leads him to say kind things about Mary I. Now, the tradition had dubbed her “Bloody Mary”, which is, to say the least, rather one-sided, so Cobbett’s defence of her has merit simply as a corrective. In fact, he’s more nuanced in his defence of her than is typical for him: he defends her not as being above criticism, but as being no worse than Henry VIII or Elizabeth, and in some respects better.

He argues, for instance, that she was, at least, not a hypocrite: she persecuted those who held a faith contrary to her own, not (as with Henry and Elizabeth) those who held a faith that she herself had previously professed and defended. Moreover, she persecuted those who departed from the faith of their parents, not (as with Henry and Elizabeth) those who adhered to it; she defended the virtue of filial piety. Also, he argues that she acted as she did to contain and correct a situation created by her predecessors, not one of her own creation; she was a defender rather than an aggressor.

These and other arguments can be legitimately made in Mary’s defence (and other historians have expanded on the case). Though the lengths to which we will go to defend a woman who killed 283 (Cobbett thinks 277) of her religious opponents is necessarily limited. About these executions, Cobbett’s treatment is a mixture of fair and foul. Among his praiseworthy contributions is to point out that, although it is true that Mary re-instated statutes permitting the burning of heretics, statutes that had been previously repealed by Edward VI, it is not often noted that the reason Edward had repealed them was not from a surfeit of tender-heartedness, but because the statutes in question specifically authorized the burning of those who taught “contrary to the Catholic faith”, an awkward fact for Edward since it authorized the burning of his own party rather than his opponents. And although Cobbett correctly notes that Elizabeth executed more of her religious opponents than Mary did, he fails to note that Mary achieved her total in just a few years, as opposed to Elizabeth’s few decades.


Cobbett’s treatment of Elizabeth I is also fairly nuanced. It is true that he peppers his prose with a litany of devastating sobriquets, some of which I cited earlier. Here he sums up his case against her:

Elizabeth was as great a tyrant as ever lived; she was the most cruel of women; her disgusting amours were notorious; yet, she was the most popular sovereign that had ever reigned since the days of Alfred; and we have thousands of proofs, that her people, of all ranks and degrees, felt a most anxious interest in everything affecting her life or her health. Effects like this do not come from ordinary causes. Her treatment of great masses of her people, her almost unparalleled cruelties, her flagrant falsehoods, her haughtiness, her insolence and her lewd life, were naturally calculated to make her detested, and to make her people pray for any thing that might rid them of her.

We seem to have a puzzle before us: Elizabeth was cruel and detestable, but her people nonetheless rallied to her and were anxious for her well-being. The reason is not far to seek: the alternative to her was, by and large, considered worse. The alternative was subjection of England to foreign powers:

According to the decision of the head of the Catholic Church, Elizabeth was an usurper; if she were an usurper, she ought to be set aside; if she were set aside, Mary Stuart and the King of France became Queen and King of England; if they became Queen and King of England, England became a mere province, ruled by Scotchmen and Frenchmen, the bare idea of which was quite sufficient to put every drop of English blood in motion. All men, therefore, of all ranks in life, whether Protestants or Catholics, were for Elizabeth.

The “decision” alluded to was Pope Pius V’s Regnans in Excelsis, a papal bull which condemned Elizabeth’s birth as illegitimate and her claim to the throne as empty. Both charges were true, but if there were ever a case study to illustrate the value of a prudent silence, this is it, for the Pope’s bull put Elizabeth herself in an impossible position, provoked an intense persecution of English Catholics, and, in the end, nearly erased Catholicism from English life. Elizabeth acted from self-preservation:

In short, she saw clearly, that, if her people remained Catholics, she could never reign in perfect safety. She knew that she had no hereditary right; she knew that the law ascribed her birth to adultery. She never could think of reigning quietly over a people the head of whose Church refused to acknowledge her right to the crown. And resolving to wear that crown, she resolved, cost what ruin or blood it might, to compel her people to abandon that very religion, her belief in which she had, a few months before, declared, by praying to “God that the earth might open and swallow her alive, if she were not a true Roman Catholic.”

And so she prosecuted a policy of sustained and quite aggressive persecution of Catholics in her realm, a campaign that has been well-studied and about which I have written before (here). Cobbett also reviews the main features of this policy, and is quite good at conveying the experience of Catholics under what was, in effect, an early police state:

The Catholic gentleman’s own house afforded him no security; the indiscretion of children or friends, the malice of enemies, the dishonesty or revenge of tenants or servants, the hasty conclusions of false suspicion, the deadly wickedness of those ready to commit perjury for gain’s sake, the rapacity and corruption of constables, sheriffs, and magistrates, the virulent prejudice of fanaticism; to every passion hostile to justice, happiness, and peace; to every evil against which it is the object of just laws to protect a man, the conscientious Catholic gentleman lived continually exposed; and that, too, in that land which had become renowned throughout the world by those deeds of valour and those laws of freedom which had been performed and framed by his Catholic ancestors.

In the end, Elizabeth is portrayed as a ruthless and unprincipled monarch, but one whose hand was forced by papal imprudence and who acted to defend England.


With the accession of James I, Cobbett’s history begins to move more rapidly, and he returns to an emphasis on the social and economic consequences of the English Reformation. He argues, for instance, that the decision of the English monarchs to fight “no popery” wars on the continent led to the establishment of the English national debt, a millstone around the necks of all Englishman that continued to be borne in his day (and ours). (Yet I note that he does not consider the possibility that a Catholic England might have similarly fought “no popery” wars on the continent, but fought on the other side.) He describes the Penal Laws against Catholics that continued for generations after the Reformation, barring them from universities, civil or military service, and imposing other disabilities. He argues that James II was overthrown precisely because he suspended these laws and granted liberty of conscience; I don’t know this history well enough to know how plausible that claim is.

Although the French Revolution is not exactly part of English history, Cobbett can’t resist comparing the typical response of the English establishment to militant French atheism with the facts of England’s own history:

Now, in the first place, they saw about forty sorts of Protestant religion; they knew that thirty-nine of them must be false; they had seen our rulers make a church by law, just such an one as they pleased; they had seen them alter it by law; and, if there were no standard of faith; no generally acknowledged authority; if English law-makers were to change the sort of religion at their pleasure; why, pray, were not French law-makers to do the same? If English law-makers could take the spiritual supremacy from the successor of Saint Peter, and give it to HENRY THE-WIFE-KILLER, why might not the French give theirs to LEPEAU? Besides, as to the sort of religion, though ATHEISM is bad enough, could it be WORSE than what you tell us is “idolatrous and damnable”? It might cause people to be damned; but could it cause them to be more than damned? Alas!

And so it goes, as he brings his history up to the events of his own time.


The title of the book indicates that it is about the Reformation in England “and Ireland”. I haven’t said much about Ireland in these notes, and that because while Cobbett does occasionally refer to events in Ireland, he doesn’t give it a sustained treatment, and I don’t know enough to fill in the gaps. The Irish Penal Laws are his chief interest.


This is a highly enjoyable book. Yes, it is cranky, and surely a comparably-toned book written today would rub me the wrong way, but we make allowances for dear English eccentrics, and Cobbett is certainly one, in the best sense.

At the close of his book, he sums up his admirable motives in writing it, and it seems fitting to quote them in conclusion:

I have now performed my task. I have made good the positions with which I began. Born and bred a Protestant of the Church of England, having a wife and numerous family professing the same faith, having the mains of most dearly beloved parents lying in a Protestant church-yard, and trusting to conjugal or filial piety to place mine by their side, I have, in this undertaking, had no motive, I can have had no motive, but a sincere and disinterested love of truth and justice. It is not for the rich and the powerful of my countrymen that I have spoken; but for the poor, the persecuted, the proscribed. I have not been unmindful of the unpopularity and the prejudice that would attend the enterprise; but, when I considered the long, long triumph of calumny over the religion of those, to whom we owe all that we possess that is great and renowned; when I was convinced that I could do much towards the counteracting of that calumny; when duty so sacred bade me speak, it would have been baseness to hold my tongue, and baseness superlative would it have been, if, having the will as well as the power, I had been restrained by fear of the shafts of falsehood and of folly. To be clear of self-reproach is amongst the greatest of human consolations; and now, amidst all the dreadful perils, with which the event that I have treated of has, at last, surrounded my country, I can, while I pray God to save her from still further devastation and misery, safely say, that, neither expressly nor tacitly, am I guilty of any part of the cause of her ruin.

The Book of Margery Kempe

October 6, 2016

The Book of Margery Kempe
Margery Kempe
(Penguin Classics, 1986) [c.1420]
336 p.

This autobiography, the earliest in English, was dictated to scribes (for Margery could neither read nor write) in the first decades of the fifteenth century. In it, Margery describes her spiritual life and her travels, and gives portraits of English life at the time.

Her writing has about it that same refreshing candidness and lack of pretension that I found in the writing of Julian of Norwich (whom Margery met on at least one occasion). She refers to herself as “that creature” much of the time, and is as matter-of-fact about the storms of her soul and the voices she hears as she is about weather and the hazards of travel.

Much of the book is devoted to Margery’s descriptions of her remarkably vivid spiritual experience. She reports having spoken with numerous saints — sometimes St Peter, sometimes St Paul, sometimes St Katherine or some other — with Our Lady, with Our Lord himself, and even with the Holy Trinity. She had an especially strong devotion to Christ’s Passion, and is regularly reduced to tears at the very thought of his suffering. Indeed, these plentiful tears, which she took as a special gift from God (“tears with love are the greatest gift that God may give on earth”), were also a recurring source of tension in Margery’s social circles, and I came to feel a certain affection for them. Again and again she describes how she was overcome with grief and cried out in great sorrow, with copious tears, abundant tears, astonishing tears, unquenchable tears, while those around her gazed with incomprehension or derided with scorn. “Some said it was a wicked spirit tormented her; some said it was an illness; some said she had drunk too much wine; some cursed her; some wished she was in the harbour; some wished she was on the sea in a bottomless boat; and so each man as he thought.” Margery was aware of the disdain, but, it seems, she remained grateful, for her tears “never came without surpassingly great sweetness of devotion and high contemplation”.

For me, among the most interesting parts of the book were those that described her travels. She made several pilgrimages, including journeys to Santiago, Jerusalem, and Rome. Late in life she volunteered to accompany a young widow from England to Germany. Her accounts are of great interest, partly for their details about the uncertainties of travel at that time, and partly for the descriptions of the places she went and the people she met.

The Book of Margery Kempe is not an immortal classic. It owes at least part of its fame to the mere fact of its survival (in a single manuscript, I note, which can be viewed online courtesy the British Library). I said above that Margery described her spiritual life in the down-to-earth manner in which one discusses the weather, and, as with descriptions of weather, a little goes a long way. But it was genuinely fascinating to read of her travels, to imagine her visiting places that I myself have visited, and to learn, through her, something of the attitudes and character of her contemporaries.


[Heavenly music]
One night, as this creature lay in bed with her husband, she heard a melodious sound so sweet and delectable that she thought she had been in paradise. And immediately she jumped out of bed and said, “Alas that ever I sinned! It is full merry in heaven.” This melody was so sweet that it surpassed all the melody that might be heard in this world, without any comparison, and it caused this creature when she afterwards heard any mirth or melody to shed very plentiful and abundant tears of high devotion, with great sobbings and sighings for the bliss of heaven, not fearing the shames and contempt of this wretched world. And ever after her being drawn towards God in this way, she kept in mind the joy and melody that there was in heaven, so much so that she could not very well restrain herself from speaking of it. For when she was in company with any people she would often say, “It is full merry in heaven!”

[God speaks to his daughter Margery]
“Daughter, you are as sure of the love of God, as God is God. Your soul is more sure of the love of God than of your own body, for your soul will part from your body, but God shall never part from your soul, for they are united together without end. Therefore, daughter, you have as great a reason to be merry as any lady in this world; and if you know, daughter, how much you please me when you willingly allow me to speak in you, you would never do otherwise, for this is a holy life and the time is very well spent. For, daughter, this life pleases me more than wearing the coat of mail for penance, or the hair-shirt, or fasting on bread and water; for if you said a thousand paternosters every day you would not please me as much as you do when you are in silence and allow me to speak to your soul.”

Children’s books: here be dragons

September 26, 2016

Beowulf the Warrior
Ian Serraillier
48 p.

A number of authors have distilled Beowulf into a version intended for children, but this is the only one of which I’m aware that does so in verse. Serraillier condenses the original 3800 lines of the poem into about 800 lines of blank verse. All of the essential plot elements of the story are included, and quite vividly depicted. Overall, the writing would be challenging for young children, but I think would be suitable for roughly ages 10 and up. This edition is complemented by interesting illustrations by “Severin”.


St. George and the Dragon
Michael Lotti
(CreateSpace, 2014)
162 p.

This short novel tells the story of Marcellus, a Roman soldier who encounters a fierce dragon lurking on the outskirts of his father’s estate. The story has a two-fold motion: the conflict with the dragon gradually escalates, on one hand, and on the other Marcellus encounters Christians and is gradually converted to the new faith (taking the baptismal name George). The two arcs come together in a final battle between George and the dragon — but of course we knew that would happen.

It’s a first novel for Michael Lotti, and quite a good one, best suited, I would estimate, for children aged about 8-12. The writing is not as supple and convincing as one gets from the most accomplished children’s writers, but the characters are well developed and the story is an interesting one. I would like to know how much of the material comes from the legends about St George, and how much was Lotti’s own creation. For me the most engaging aspect of the book concerned Marcellus’ encounters with the Christians, and especially with an itinerant Christian bishop named Agathon; there is a good deal of inspiring catechesis packed into those conversations, but I never felt that I was being preached to. I will certainly encourage my kids to read the book when they’re a little older.


The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien
(HarperCollins, 2007) [1937]
300 p.

This was my third or fourth time through this book, but my first with the kids, to whom I read it aloud. I have not a great deal to a say about it, apart from reporting that it was a huge success with the older kids (now aged 5 and 7). Actually, the experience of reading it to them was enriching for me too; I do not recall enjoying it on previous readings as much as I did this time.

It is always amusing to see the light-hearted, gee-whiz attitude this book takes to the One Ring, which we know will later prove to be so doom-laden. I used to surmise that Tolkien had not yet worked out the Ring’s significance at the time of writing, but this time I noticed that he returns to the Ring at the very end, emphasizing that it was a secret ring and that Bilbo never spoke of it to anyone. This inclines me to suspect that Tolkien did know its significance after all.

Das Nibelungenlied

September 13, 2016

Das Nibelungenlied
Translated from the Middle High German by Burton Raffel
(Yale, 2006) [c.1200]
375 p.

The Germanic tradition of stories about the Nibelungs was familiar to me only through Wagner, but for some time I had wished to acquaint myself with the medieval roots of the legendarium, and at long last I arrived at this Song of the Nibelungs, which is one of the chief glories of that tradition. It was written by we know not whom, and we know not when (but probably around the year 1200).

I first noticed that although the story shares a number of characters with Wagner’s version — Sifried, Brunhild, Hagen, and Gunter, principally — the story as a whole bears no resemblance to Wagner’s, not even in the sections about those shared characters. But in adapting the story for his own purposes Wagner seems to have been in good company, for there is a rich and complex manuscript tradition testifying to the malleability and creativity with which medieval culture treated these tales. The translator, Burton Raffel, does not explain why it was this version of the story which he chose to translate, and I rather wish he had.

The basic arc of the story concerns two royal marriages which, poisoned by jealous pride and suspicion, erupt into violence that eventually leads to the downfall of all. Surprisingly (for those coming to the story from Wagner) there are no gods in the cast, and, although there are cursory references to Christianity here and there — the characters hear Mass in the morning, for instance — the poem as a whole shows little interest in religion, and is far from pious in spirit. There are a few magical elements around the edges, as when one character hears a prophecy from fountain sprites, but otherwise the tale is grounded in the political and interpersonal world of its characters.

I almost wrote that it is grounded in “realism”, but that would not be quite right. The knights at the center of this story — Sifried, Volker, Gunter, Hagen, Rudigor, and a few others — are heroes of legend, which means they fight with superhuman strength, slaying dozens or hundreds of adversaries with ease. The women are surpassingly beautiful. Everyone is impossibly polite: indeed, a significant part of the poem is devoted to the niceties of courtly etiquette, with page after page devoted to the elaborate ceremonies of court: gift-giving, welcomes, and feasts. The author seems to relish the intricacy and formality of these encounters, and the reader — the happy reader, at any rate — will relish them too.

The poem is not all please and thank-you, however. When things go wrong, they go very wrong, and death stalks through these stanzas. The poet’s dramatic strategy is to tell us in advance that things are going to turn out badly, and this is effective, for we as readers are then alert to missteps in courtly protocols and intimations of interpersonal friction:

The king’s attendants hurried \, about, making the royal /
palace fit for a visit \, from eagerly awaited, /
deeply beloved guests. \, Everyone was joyful, /
ready to welcome those \, their king had invited, who would try to destroy him.

(I note with some dismay that when formatted in WordPress the lines are too long for the available space. Slashes inserted to indicate the ends of lines.)

At its most violent, the poem can be quite gruesome. Here the Burgundian prince Giselher speaks following an extended battle against the Huns:

“We can’t afford bodies \, lying under foot. /
Before the Huns can claim \, victory in battle, /
we’ll get to chop them up \, again, which makes me happy. /
And I intend,” said he, \, “to have as good a time as I can.”

“Now that’s the kind of ruler \, I like having,” Hagen /
said. “Only a real \, warrior talks that way, /
gives you the kind of advice \, my prince has given today. /
All you Burgundy men \, should rejoice. That’s all I have to say!”

They did as the prince advised, \, and carried seven thousand /
bodies out the door \, of the hall. Then they dropped /
the corpses down the stairs, \, and left them where they stopped /
rolling. The dead men’s families \, wept and cried, and wrung their hands.

Some of the wounded men \, were still alive, at the start, /
and could have been completely \, healed, if cared for. The jarring /
fall had killed them, every \, single one. Their friends /
and families wailed in sorrow \, for such a bitter, painful end.”

It is worth noting that Giselher and Hagen are not the villains of the piece, but instead something like its heroes. In fact it’s not so easy to say just who the heroes are: everyone has faults, and everyone pays for those faults in the end. To my mind Sifried comes closest to being an unequivocal hero, but (***spoiler alert***) he is killed off in the early going, the victim of jealousy born of misunderstanding. His wife Krimhild is the wronged party who seeks revenge, which might, on a warrior’s code, be the honourable course, but she too is vindictive beyond measure. The poem is morally complex.


The original poem is written in quatrains consisting of rhyming couplets: AABB. Each line is divided into two halves, with each half-line having three (or, in the case of the last half-line of each quatrain, three or four) stresses. Raffel has tried to preserve this structure in his translation, but inevitably compromises were necessary. He has strictly preserved the metrical scheme, as is evident from the passages cited above. He claims to have usually preserved rhyme as well, but to my ear the rhymes are often only approximate, and as I read I was almost never aware of them.

Even with those efforts to preserve the poetry of the original, I confess I often found the translation very “prosy”. Here’s a sample stanza, plucked more or less at random:

Whatever other warriors \, did and were able to do, /
Dancwart and Hagen and many \, courageous, accomplished knights, /
however heroic they were, \, princess, it still remains true /
their deeds were nothing at all \, compared to noble Sifried’s might.

Take out the tabs and carriage returns and — again, judged by my ear — this turns into rather plain prose. It does rhyme, I grant, but it doesn’t sing to me, and I wish it did. Perhaps this can help me explain:

Take out the tabs and carriage \, returns and — again, judged /
by my ear — this \, turns into rather plain /
prose. It does rhyme, \, I grant, but it doesn’t sing /
to me, and I wish it did. \, Perhaps this can help me explain.

That rhymes at least we well as one of Raffel’s typical stanzas, and it has the right stress pattern, but I’d not call it poetry.

Having said that, the stress patterns did sometimes serve as a helpful guide to emphases in the lines. Take this example, for instance:

Then Krimhild’s father-in-law \, approached her, and said to the queen: /
“We ought to be at home. \, Neither of us can feel /
like welcome guests, here \, in Wurms along the Rhine. /
My dear Krimhild, now \, we need to return to my land. It’s time.

In the third line “here” gets a stress, emphasizing that where they are is the problem, and in the fourth line “now” gets a stress, emphasizing the need for immediate action. Were that stanza smeared out into prose, I’m not sure I’d read it in quite the same way.

Despite the difficulties I had with the translation, we English speakers do not have many means by which to get to know this poem, and I am grateful for Raffel’s labours.


Das Nibelungenlied is a great poem, one especially bracing for readers from our culture, for in it we encounter a world quite other than our own, where honour and strength are the leading virtues, and in which courtesy and violence are engaged in a high-stakes contest of wits. It has a cast of characters that is memorable in action and manageable in size, and strong dramatic instincts. In the sweepstakes of medieval Germanic poetry it doesn’t displace Beowulf in my affections, but I did certainly enjoy reading it.

Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

September 6, 2016

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Carlo Rovelli
(Riverhead, 2016)
96 p.

These short “lessons” were originally serialized in the Italian press, and are here collected and rendered into elegant English. Rovelli is an eminent physicist who gives us a series of meditations on developments in physics since 1900.

They are arranged in order of increasing speculation: he begins with general relativity and quantum mechanics, presenting in non-technical language the main points — space and time are dynamic and responsive, and are filled with a restless boil of quantum fields. He proceeds to give brief — and I do mean brief — overviews of modern cosmology and the Standard Model of elementary particles. All of this is solid science; questions linger, of course, and he draws attention to those loose threads and nagging problems, but basically he is describing successful theories.

In the last three sections of the book he moves to topics of greater uncertainty. The outstanding problem of how to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics he broaches with a very interesting discussion of theories of loop quantum gravity, the basic postulate of which is that space-time is quantized. (Rovelli is himself one of the architects of this theory.) Amazingly, and rather gratifyingly, he doesn’t even mention the other principal effort to solve this problem: string theory. This is unquestionably the book’s finest witticism, one that I imagine has raised a few consternated eyebrows in faculty lounges.

The last section specifically about physics tackles the vexing puzzles that arise at the intersection of gravity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. Laying great stress on the time-irreversibility of thermodynamic processes, he argues that thermodynamics has something crucial to tell us about the uni-directionality of time itself. This is a common trope in physics circles, but, correlation not being causation, it seems to me suggestive at best. But then he reminds us of Hawking radiation, in which quantum effects near black holes actually cause them to radiate heat, and one feels a chill of delight running up the spine.

Alas, the same cannot be said of the book’s final chapter, in which Rovelli takes a step back to ponder the implications of all this for human self-understanding. He emphasizes that modern physics has revealed the world to be radically different from the way we intuitively think of it, which is fair enough, and then argues that more such intuitions — those pertaining to human freedom, for instance, or consciousness — are due to be superseded by counter-intuitive scientific explanations. There appears to be nothing more to his argument than the power of analogy. He tries to declare a peace between his commitment to the power of physics to completely describe the world, on one hand, and his commitment to the legitimacy of humanistic values, on the other, but it is far from convincing. And he is rather dispiritingly emphatic in his devotion to immanence:

“Immersed in this nature that made us and that directs us, we are not homeless beings suspended between two worlds, parts of but only partly belonging to nature, with a longing for something else. No: we are home.”

Nothing new here, of course, and this view does have about it a certain poetry — he even cites Lucretius, the patron poet of materialism — but there are such a host of issues being passed over in silence that such poetry as it possesses sounds rather hollow.

The book is written in a lyrical tone, and would be accessible, I imagine, to anyone who has an interest in the subject matter. There is only one equation — Einstein’s field equation for general relativity, which he describes as “the most beautiful of theories,” and I’ll not argue with that.

Newman: Loss and Gain

August 25, 2016

Loss and Gain
Bl. John Henry Newman
(Ignatius, 2012) [1848]
432 p.

This was the first book Newman wrote after his conversion to Catholicism at Oxford in 1845, and, given its theme — about a young Oxford man, Charles Reding, who converts to Catholicism — it is natural, and probably justifiable, to see it as an autobiographical novel. It would be interesting to compare it to his Apologia pro vita sua — this is left as an exercise.

Enthusiasts for books about Oxford men named Charles who convert to Catholicism will note the similarities with their other favourite book, Brideshead Revisited. (Indeed, in this Ignatius Press edition an accompanying essay by J.C. Whitehouse uses the phrase “Brideshead Previsited”, which earns full marks from me.) But (not having read that essay) I would say that the similarities between the two books are fairly slight. Waugh’s novel is a character study in which theology hardly registers (that hilarious scene of Rex’s catechism notwithstanding), whereas Newman’s novel, though not without characters — especially in the sense of “representatives of a view” — is deeply and directly concerned with theology. The book is full of conversation set-pieces in which theology and history and ethics are discussed.

John_Henry_NewmanThere is something didactic about this, and the extent to which it is tolerable will depend on how interesting the reader finds the topics of conversation. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed almost all of them. I expect that anyone who has thought much about religious conversion, or, better, who has experienced a long, drawn-out, and at least partly intellectual religious conversion himself, is likely to find the book quite absorbing and insightful about the process.

Charles is an undergraduate as the book opens, and as near as I can determine it more or less covers the period of his undergraduate career. The Oxford of his day differs from the Oxford of ours inasmuch as religion is for him a focal point of campus life, and religious ideas are matters of general discussion and controversy. When Charles visits the room of his friend Willis for the first time, he finds:

there was much in them which shocked both his good sense and his religious principles. A large ivory crucifix, in a glass case, was a conspicuous ornament between the windows; an engraving, representing the Blessed Trinity, as is usual in Catholic countries, hung over the fireplace, and a picture of the Madonna and St. Dominic was opposite to it. On the mantelpiece were a rosary, a thuribulum, and other tokens of Catholicism, of which Charles did not know the uses; a missal, ritual, and some Catholic tracts, lay on the table; and, as he happened to come on Willis unexpectedly, he found him sitting in a vestment more like a cassock than a reading-gown, and engaged upon some portion of the Breviary.

I’m not saying this scene is absolutely impossible today, or that it was usual in Newman’s day — we know from Charles’ reaction that it was not — but it is more the specific nature of the religious artifacts that excites Charles’ attention, whereas today it would be the mere presence of religious artifacts.

For Charles religion is not about feelings or wishes, but about truth (in this he is certainly Newman’s avatar), and his spiritual journey is in significant measure an intellectual one, a journey toward right belief:

He had now come, in the course of a year, to one or two conclusions, not very novel, but very important:—first, that there are a great many opinions in the world on the most momentous subjects; secondly, that all are not equally true; thirdly, that it is a duty to hold true opinions; and, fourthly, that it is uncommonly difficult to get hold of them.

And again, in conversation with a friend, Charles contends that:

“I did not say a creed was everything […] or that a religion could not be false which had a creed; but a religion can’t be true which has none.”

An interesting issue that the book addresses is the paradox of private judgement in Catholic conversion. If one talks to converts from Protestantism, a common rationale offered in favour of the conversion is that the reign of private judgement on religious matters in Protestant circles leads to religious chaos — each man his own Pope. Catholicism is chosen as the antidote to such chaos, for the Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, dividing truth from error with Christ’s own authority. But there’s the rub: for a convert — and, in a religiously contested age like our own, for cradle Catholics too — Catholicism is chosen, which means that private judgement isn’t quite out of the picture, and indeed stands disconcertingly close to the root. Charles ponders this problem at some length:

Now it need not be denied that those who are external to the Church must begin with private judgment; they use it in order ultimately to supersede it; as a man out of doors uses a lamp in a dark night, and puts it out when he gets home. What would be thought of his bringing it into his drawing-room? what would the goodly company there assembled before a genial hearth and under glittering chandeliers, the bright ladies and the well-dressed gentlemen, say to him if he came in with a great-coat on his back, a hat on his head, an umbrella under his arm, and a large stable-lantern in his hand? Yet what would be thought, on the other hand, if he precipitated himself into the inhospitable night and the war of the elements in his ball-dress? “When the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man who had not on a wedding-garment;” he saw a man who determined to live in the Church as he had lived out of it, who would not use his privileges, who would not exchange reason for faith, who would not accommodate his thoughts and doings to the glorious scene which surrounded him, who was groping for the hidden treasure and digging for the pearl of price in the high, lustrous, all-jewelled Temple of the Lord of Hosts; who shut his eyes and speculated, when he might open them and see. There is no absurdity, then, or inconsistency in a person first using his private judgment and then denouncing its use. Circumstances change duties.

And I do think that the apparent paradox has to be resolved in something like this way: a convert’s judgement gets him so far, as it must, for at that point he has nothing else to go on — unless it be grace, about which more below. But once inside it is foolhardy, and certainly counterproductive, to be standing in judgement over every jot and tittle when his attitude ought rightly to be one of docility and receptiveness, for if the Church is what she claims to be then he can only benefit from opening his heart and letting her graces and truths form him. In the process of transition, a good deal of prudential judgement is called for to get this balance right.

And though it seems that private judgement in religion is a part of the conversion process, there is something futile and even comical about it to one whose conversion is further advanced. Commenting on the tendency of Protestants to claim to discern whether and how Catholicism has corrupted the faith, Charles’ friend makes a good point:

Willis said that he supposed that persons who were not Catholics could not tell what were corruptions and what not.

That is very well said.

Yet it would be a mistake, I think, to characterize conversion — conversion to Catholicism, at any rate — as a principally intellectual process that one undertakes on one’s own. Faith is not something one musters up or merely wills; faith is a gift. It comes to us; we are encouraged to ask for it. Charles’ friend Willis makes the same point to him:

“What you want is faith. I suspect you have quite proof enough; enough to be converted on. But faith is a gift; pray for that great gift, without which you cannot come to the Church.”

I have myself cautioned friends not to pray for faith unless they are serious, because in my experience this particular prayer has a startling likelihood of being answered, and then there’s no telling what might happen.

Even when we receive this gift, though, conversion is slow. We may have moments of particular significance along our way, but nobody, I think, can truly be converted in a moment, for it calls for a renewal and re-alignment along many dimensions, and it takes time to discover them all even when we are pliant — and we are not always pliant:

Conviction is the eyesight of the mind, not a conclusion from premises; God works it, and His works are slow. At least so it is with me. I can’t believe on a sudden; if I attempt it, I shall be using words for things, and be sure to repent it. Or if not, I shall go right merely by hazard. I must move in what seems God’s way; I can but put myself on the road; a higher power must overtake me, and carry me forward.

What I like about this passage is the sense it conveys of the convert being accompanied. Can one who truly feels alone be converted to Catholicism? The name of the Paraclete, I am told, means ‘one who comes alongside’, and in my experience this is what a prospective convert actually experiences. One has the sense of being on a road, going somewhere, but also of the road itself having been somehow prepared in advance. To my delight, Charles makes exactly this point:

He could not escape the destiny, in due time, in God’s time—though it might be long, though angels might be anxious, though the Church might plead as if defrauded of her promised increase of a stranger, yet a son; yet come it must, it was written in Heaven, and the slow wheels of time each hour brought it nearer—he could not ultimately escape his destiny of becoming a Catholic.

This is putting it a little more strongly than I would, but I think he is here undoubtedly describing the real quality of the experience that at least some converts have.

For Charles, living in the time and place that he does, the decision to become a Catholic is not without cost. He becomes estranged from his family and from respectable society. “Yes, I give up home, I give up all who have ever known me, loved me, valued me, wished me well; I know well I am making myself a by-word and an outcast.” He can no longer continue at Oxford, so departs for London, not really knowing what will become of him. In the final act of the novel he lodges in London with a friend, just prior to approaching a priest to request reception — at this point, he still doesn’t know any priests! — and Newman stages a kind of parade, as person after person, having heard of his intentions, knock at his door with the intention, apparently on the principle that someone who gives off believing one thing is ready to believe anything, of diverting him to their particular systems of belief. This section of the book is diverting, but not very successful beyond that. The finale is rescued by the final scene, in which Charles is finally received into the Church:

“Too late have I known Thee, O Thou ancient Truth; too late have I found Thee, First and only Fair.”


[Aphorism touching Church authority]
When an oracle equivocates it carries with it its own condemnation.

[Pondering the Anglican and Catholic churches]
“Now common sense tells us what a messenger from God must be; first, he must not contradict himself, as I have just been saying. Again, a prophet of God can allow of no rival, but denounces all who make a separate claim, as the prophets do in Scripture. Now, it is impossible to say whether our Church acknowledges or not Lutheranism in Germany, Calvinism in Switzerland, the Nestorian and Monophysite bodies in the East. Nor does it clearly tell us what view it takes of the Church of Rome. The only place where it recognizes its existence is in the Homilies, and there it speaks of it as Antichrist. Nor has the Greek Church any intelligible position in Anglican doctrine. On the other hand, the Church of Rome has this prima facie mark of a prophet, that, like a prophet in Scripture, it admits no rival, and anathematizes all doctrine counter to its own. There’s another thing: a prophet of God is of course at home with his message; he is not helpless and do-nothing in the midst of errors and in the war of opinions. He knows what has been given him to declare, how far it extends; he can act as an umpire; he is equal to emergencies. This again tells in favour of the Church of Rome. As age after age comes she is ever on the alert, questions every new comer, sounds the note of alarm, hews down strange doctrine, claims and locates and perfects what is new and true. The Church of Rome inspires me with confidence; I feel I can trust her. It is another thing whether she is true; I am not pretending now to decide that. But I do not feel the like trust in our own Church. I love her more than I trust her. She leaves me without faith. Now you see the state of my mind.”

[A description of Rome]
It was so dreary, so melancholy a place; a number of old, crumbling, shapeless brick masses, the ground unlevelled, the straight causeways fenced by high monotonous walls, the points of attraction straggling over broad solitudes, faded palaces, trees universally pollarded, streets ankle deep in filth or eyes-and-mouth deep in a cloud of whirling dust and straws, the climate most capricious, the evening air most perilous. [Ed. — Personally, I don’t recall the climate being all that capricious.]

[On the experience of Mass in the old Rite]
Each in his place, with his own heart, with his own wants, with his own thoughts, with his own intention, with his own prayers, separate but concordant, watching what is going on, watching its progress, uniting in its consummation;—not painfully and hopelessly following a hard form of prayer from beginning to end, but, like a concert of musical instruments, each different, but concurring in a sweet harmony, we take our part with God’s priest, supporting him, yet guided by him.


McGunn on the Summa Theologiae

July 25, 2016

Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae
A Biography
Bernard McGunn
(Princeton, 2014)
272 p.

The idea of writing a “biography” of a book is an odd but interesting one. Books, like persons, originate in a particular time and place, have a particular character and range of interests, and exert a certain influence in the world. Unlike the life of an individual person, the life of a great book continues over many generations, and the book has the potential to become a permanent cultural possession.

Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is an especially daunting book. The edition I own runs to about 3000 double-columned pages in small type, and though I have often entertained the idea of reading through it in a systematic way — it is structured in such a way as to accommodate brief, step-by-step encounters — yet to this point I have done little more than dabble. Probably I’ve spent more time reading about the Summa than reading the thing itself.

mcgunn-summaMcGunn discusses Thomas’ life and the circumstances under which the Summa was written. He talks about Thomas’ motives in undertaking such a massive effort and about the readers for whom it was written. He discusses several important questions relevant to our understanding of the Summa as a whole, such as Thomas’ understanding of the nature of theology, and of the relationship between philosophy and theology. Although many books on Thomas and the Summa focus on Thomas’ contributions to philosophy — his epistemology, his metaphysics, his ethics — it is fair to say that McGunn is at least and possibly more interested in his contributions to theology. This is fitting; the Summa is a book of theology.

A middle section of the book gives a superb overview of the structure of the Summa, outlining the content of its various parts. Embedded in the pages of the Summa are a variety of focused investigations of specific topics: law, ethics, creation, sacraments, Christ, and so on. McGunn helps us to see how these pieces fit together into the overall logical structure of the work.

The last half of the present book is devoted to the “biography” — that is, the history of the book and its reception after it was completed (or, in the case of the Summa, not completed). Initially Thomas’ Summa faced serious obstacles, mostly on account of his decision to couch his thought in Aristotelian terms, which were viewed with suspicion in some quarters, and certain of Thomas’ propositions were condemned by some ecclesiastical authorities. But the Dominicans took a special pride in Thomas’ accomplishments, and adopted the Summa for educational purposes from an early date. By the sixteenth century Thomas’ star had risen high enough for Luther to designate the Catholic Church as “the Thomistic church” (and, with his usual perspicacity, he identified St Thomas as “the source and foundation of all heresy, error, and obliteration of the Gospel”). The rumour (repeated by Pope Leo XIII) that the Summa was on the altar next the Bible at the Council of Trent McGunn says is false, but Thomas did continue to accumulate honours: in 1567 Pope St Pius V named him a Doctor of the Church — the first person to be so honoured since the patristic period — and toward the end of the sixteenth century the Jesuits adopted Thomas as their official theologian; several of the most important commentaries on the Summa were written by Jesuits (viz. Suarez). But with the passing of time the Summa eventually fell on hard times. The work itself was eclipsed in the scholarly mind by commentaries upon it, and these eventually grew so weighty and dry that they became, in the early modern period, objects of scorn. The rise of modern philosophy occurred without the Summa being a point of reference (except perhaps for Descartes, at second or third hand). McGunn says, incredibly, that when, in the mid-nineteenth century, John Henry Newman wanted to read it, he couldn’t find a copy.

These declining fortunes were reversed by the election of a Thomist to the papacy in the latter-half of the nineteenth-century. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris, in which he praised St Thomas as the Christian philosopher par excellence and recommended not only his example but also his particular ideas as of special and enduring value to the Church. From this point, Catholic intellectuals began to engage with the thought of St Thomas again in an especially intense way. Intense, but far from uniform. The hope of Leo XIII that Thomism could provide a united front with which the Church could contend against the manifold errors of the modern world was not realized, for there turned out to be not just Thomism, but Thomisms, and an interesting section of the book traces these different schools over the course of the twentieth century. There were those who saw Thomism as a kind of trans-historical philosophical vantage point, such as Garrigou-Lagrange. There were those who sought, on the contrary, to understand St Thomas and his contributions in historical context while retaining an interest in his modern relevance (Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain). And there were others who sought to put Thomas into conversation with modern philosophy (Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner). These names are all familiar — I am especially fond of Gilson — but it is helpful to see them placed on a map.

Vatican II, inadvertently or not, brought about a decline in the centrality of St Thomas for Catholic thought. It is tempting to see this as another instance of the oft-repeated pattern whereby the post-Conciliar Church, by a kind of infallible clumsiness, allowed her treasures to fall into neglect. I don’t think it healthy that the Church’s intellectual life be identified strongly with one particular framework, but of all possible frameworks which could maintain a lively presence in the Church’s intellectual life, that of St Thomas is a rich and worthy one. In Fides et Ratio, Pope St John Paul II taught that the Church has no official philosophy, but recommended St Thomas as an exemplar of Catholic intellectual life.


I read the book at a leisurely pace, and enjoyed it very much. McGunn is not himself a Thomist, so he brings an outsider’s perspective, which might be advantageous in some respects. Of course, nobody is free of prejudices, and some of his do come through, not all of which were appealing to me. I got the general feeling that McGunn doesn’t love Thomas quite as much as he ought to. But overall I did find it a worthwhile and interesting book.

The cover of the book, shown above, reproduces Filippo Lippi’s The Dispute of St Thomas, which one can see in the Cappella Carafa at Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, a chapel which I have visited every time I’ve been to the Eternal City and which is dear to my heart.


This volume is part of an ongoing series issued by Princeton University Press of “biographies” of great religious books. Other entries in the series include the Book of Common Prayer, Augustine’s Confessions, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and books from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition too, such as the Bhagavad Gita. I expect many of those would be worthwhile too.

Vodolazkin: Laurus

July 14, 2016

Evgeny Vodolazkin
Translated from the Russian by Lisa Hayden
(Oneworld, 2015) [2013]
362 p.

The press surrounding Laurus has been so positive, and the book made to sound so intriguing, that it succeeded in coaxing me out from under my rock to buy a copy. First published in Russia in 2013, it accumulated a pile of literary awards, and the English translation appeared last year, accompanied by a chorus of praise.

The novel is about a fifteenth-century Russian healer named Arseny. He is a physician, of sorts, though he himself is uncertain how much of his success is due to his medicines and how much to the touch of his own hands. He travels from place to place, even making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His name changes several times; he accepts whatever name those around him wish to use, but it also happens that each name change corresponds to a change in his way of life.laurus-book

It is probably fair to see Arseny as an example of a “holy fool”: a saintly figure whose eccentricities both divide him from others and endear him to them. He lives alone much of the time, often under very ascetic conditions, on the outskirts of towns, even in a graveyard. He dresses in rags, his hair is dishevelled, he eats hardly at all, he seeks the company of the dead, yet he has a penetrating knowledge of hearts, and of the future, and people stream to him for cures.

Figures of this sort have appeared in sacred tradition, but, unless I am mistaken, there is usually something opaque about them. They fascinate precisely because they are so out of the ordinary; we can hardly imagine what is going on in their heads. Laurus is a remarkable example of an attempt to get inside such a character.

One of the more interesting aspects of the story is how it plays with time: telescoping it, folding it back on itself, collapsing the distinction between past and future. Several characters in the story have foreknowledge of future events, and Arseny sometimes simultaneously experiences himself at different stages of his life. The language of the book reflects this: the narrator speaks sometimes in Chaucerian English, sometimes in a traditional narrative voice, and sometimes in modern slang, sometimes all of them in the span of a single sentence. This is an intriguing literary device, although I admit that I am not quite sure why Vodolazkin has done this. It might be an attempt to suggest that a saint, as he approaches God, begins to experience something like the Eternal “now” of God’s timelessness.

Early in the book Arseny does something which leads to the death of one whom he loves, and this becomes the catalyst for his internal transformation, as he seeks to atone for his sins and those of his beloved. His life becomes one long exercise in the extinction of his ego, until he becomes a kind of window through which others see something radiant. He himself does not really see it. This course of self-denial reaches an apex in a remarkable scene in which he is given an opportunity to re-live that original, fatal decision, and when he chooses rightly it is at the cost of his last shreds of self-possession and respectability.

There is a good deal of religious content in the book. Some have claimed that the experience of reading it has led them to prayer, but I cannot say that was true of me. In fact, although Arseny is clearly an Orthodox Christian, there is relatively little Christian language in the book (there is some), and his spiritual life is not especially clearly focused on traditional Christian elements (as, for example, Christ, or the Church, or the Blessed Virgin, or grace). Alan Jacobs, usually an astute commentator on literary matters, described the book’s spiritual climate as being closer to Hunduism than Christianity; this strikes me as an odd and overly strong claim, but there may be a hint of something to it.

What bothered me most about the book was its tendency to be a bit quirky. I kept thinking of the magical realism of writers like Salman Rushdie or Umberto Eco — wonderful writers (and Vodolazkin, to the extent that he can be judged in translation, is a very fine writer too), but lacking in heft.

Overall, though, I did enjoy the novel, and I found that it improved as it progressed. I’d recommend it.


This review, from the New Yorker, is quite good.


July 10, 2016

By Davide Calandrini

Introducing Heidegger
Jeff Collins and Howard Selina
(Icon, 1998)
173 p.

A Very Short Introduction
Michael Inwood
(Oxford, 2002)
160 p.

Many years ago I embarked on a reading of Frederick Copleston’s eleven-volume history of philosophy, with the intention of reading it alongside a judicious selection of primary sources. Somewhere along the way — roundabout Volume 7, I think, or, put another way, roundabout the time I became a father — that project stalled. Consequently, I never did get to Martin Heidegger.

It would be fair to say that my preparation for reading Heidegger has been inadequate. I have no particular grounding in continental philosophy. I’ve never read Husserl or the other phenomenologists who influenced Heidegger. I’ve not read Foucoult or Derrida or the other gurus whom Heidegger influenced. For some time, however, I have become interested in him on account of the frequency with which his name has appeared in interesting contexts: in connection with Terrence Malick’s films, for instance, or in the philosophical theology of David Bentley Hart. From those sources I had inferred that Heidegger was, in some sense, the modern philosopher of being. Therefore I had mentally paired him with Aquinas, whom I think of as the medieval philosopher of being, and I surmised that reading him might contribute fruitfully to my more-or-less haphazard but more-or-less persistent ruminations on being, beauty, contemplation, and love.


Heidegger has a reputation as a difficult thinker. Insofar as I can tell, this is well deserved. In a sense, his writing is intentionally confounding, for one of his objectives was to subvert and overcome the conventional thinking of the Western philosophical tradition, most especially in its rationalist streams, and so he adopted a quasi-poetic, non-dialectical, non-analytic manner. This was not totally unprecedented in our tradition; arguably, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche adopted similar, if far more elegant, methods, but Heidegger himself seems to have looked to the pre-Socratic philosophers, like Heraclitus, for inspiration.


Both of these short introductory volumes emphasize that Heidegger’s central question was: what is being? (Thus confirming those rumours that had drawn me hither.) He thought that the West, starting with Plato, had forgotten being, and had instead devoted itself to mastering and manipulating (even if only through understanding) beings. We habitually focus on what things are, rather than on the fact that they are. Heidegger believed that the proper task of philosophy should be to draw attention back to this more fundamental question: what is being?

His pursuit of an answer — if indeed he pursued an answer in the conventional sense, which is doubtful — took him in directions that were surprising, at least to me. I would have expected that to answer his foundational question he would have turned to metaphysics, as Aquinas did, but, as I have learned, this way was blocked to him, for metaphysics belonged to the tradition he was challenging. He took a different tack: he focused on experience. He put human beings, and their particular ways of being in the world, at the center of his project. He used an odd word, Dasein, which means literally “there-being”, to refer to the thing we are — an unfamiliar word which he could proceed to define according to his own vision. He did not mean by this word a biological creature, but something expansive: “Dasein [is] that entity in its being which we know as human life; this entity in the specificity of its being, the entity that we each ourselves are, which each of us finds in the fundamental assertion: I am.”

And so he situates himself not in a lofty or abstract vantage point, but within the experience of being alive and conscious and human, and he starts there. His is therefore a philosophy “from the inside out”, if I can put it that way. It is here that the phenomenologists, with their careful attention to the shape and texture of lived human experience, inform his philosophy directly. For instance, when he discusses time — a very important part of his philosophy, as reflected in the title of his most important book — he challenges the linear model of time and its usual division into past, present, and future, for time is not actually lived in that neat way. Instead, the past is always present to us, both in memory and in the world as we receive it, and the future is present to us as we ponder its possible not-yets. The flow of time, too, is more flexible than the objective scientific view would indicate, for sometimes — in the company of good friends, for instance — time is experienced as passing quickly — but at other times — when attending a lecture on Heidegger, for instance — it is experienced as crawling along slowly. Or, to take another case, we do not experience space as geometric in the Cartesian manner, but a person who is distant can be brought near in experience if we see their photo or hear their voice on the phone.

Now, to a certain way of thinking, approaching fundamental questions about being in this way seems misguided and counterproductive. Instead of using the resources of objective, abstract reason, Heidegger has intertwined his inquiry with the peculiarities of human psychology. It’s a muddle. I am sympathetic to this appraisal, but, at the same time, I do not want to jump to conclusions. Before judging, we must do our best to really understand him, and this means taking seriously his critique of the “objective, abstract” principles on the basis of which we would judge him. I admit I’m not sure how to do that, but I if he is truly digging out the foundations, and succeeds, then the objection may not stand. And, to be fair, there is something inside-out about the rationalist tendency to give priority to objective, “scientific” concepts over subjective experience, when those very concepts have been formulated entirely within the framework of such experience, and are only ever present to us in the prior and enveloping context of such experience. Perhaps it is right, therefore, to see the experiential side as philosophically prior, and the objective side as a more or less brittle gloss. (I stop short of claiming this to be Heidegger’s reasoning; I’m simply not sure what he would say about it.)

Speaking of digging out the foundations, Heidegger challenged the usual notion of truth as “correspondence” between ideas and things, along with the concomitant notion that ideas are true or false. (Alarm bells begin to ring; this is a classic self-defeating view. But wait…) Instead, he proposes the notion of truth as “unconcealing”, in which beings are revealed to us in one or another of their aspects, and to varying degrees, at different times and in different contexts. On this view, truth is not saying or thinking the right things about objects, but a process or experience of disclosure or revelation. Our proper attitude is one of reception and attention, rather than judgement. We open ourselves to being, rather than imposing a conceptual framework upon it. Crucially, this is not actually a contradiction of the “correspondence” idea of truth, but rather a preamble to it, conceptually and experientially prior, for unless beings first disclose themselves to us, in the play of light and shadow of unconcealing, in the “field of relatedness”, we cannot know them at all, much less formulate true or false propositions concerning them. On the other hand, this notion of “unconcealing” is not one that we can test empirically to see if it is right, for this would put the cart before the horse, trying to slip the correspondence theory of truth into a crack where it cannot fit. Unconcealing can only be experienced, not verified.

As these reflections suggest, implicit in Heidegger’s view of being is a critique of technology — not of any particular technology, but of the technological mindset. For the tendency of the technological approach to the world, informed as it is by the long tradition of empiricist and rationalist philosophies of nature, is to obliterate the awareness of the truth of being as Heidegger conceives it. It is to approach things in a spirit of domination, rather than devotion. It is to demand, rather than to wait upon. It is an exercise of power, rather than contemplation. For Heidegger, technology leads us away from being toward oblivion. Therefore by advocating the view of being and truth that he does, he lays down a profound challenge to the whole modern project, more or less root and branch, which was explicitly founded on the principle that “knowledge is power”.

But there is one kind of “technology”, one way of “making”, that does not, or at least need not, fall prey to the danger of forgetting or obscuring being, and that is art. On the contrary, art has the power to reveal being with an unusual power insofar as it is attentive to being, “conferring brightness on the light itself”. This view of art seems to me to plumb deeply, a depth made all the more evident by contrasting it with the view of art which emerges most naturally from, say, an empirical, materialist worldview, in which it is extremely difficult to make any sense of art, or even of a particular work of art as a coherent unity, and of the experience of art as anything other than a peculiar neural epiphenomenon. And this suggests a paradox: namely, that a philosophical project founded on the priority of objective reality and public knowledge finally fails to deliver a world that makes sense, whereas a philosophy deeply grounded in the subjective experience of the world turns out to have further reach and richer resources.


Another aspect of Heidegger’s commitment to doing philosophy “in the first person,” as it were, giving subjectivity its full weight, is that he discusses matters that I associate with Kierkegaard and his existentialist offspring — matters of personal import about the interior life and relationships with others and with society. For instance, Heidegger has a good deal to say about the experience of being temporal. We are temporal creatures, living our lives in one direction, with our births and our society’s history behind us, and our future decisions and, at some point, deaths ahead of us. We have a certain amount of freedom to shape our own lives, but this freedom is hedged about by factors we cannot control. Our finding ourselves in this situation he calls “thrown-ness”: we are thrown into the world, confronted with forces and facts beyond our control. Yet we look forward, planning, preparing; this he calls “projection,” a kind of mapping out of the possibilities of our lives, including, eventually, death and the end of such possibilities. As I mentioned already, Heidegger is not greatly impressed by the old idea that the past and future do not exist, and that the present, which does exist, is but fleeting and ephemeral. For him, the past and the future are present, in experience, and both greatly enrich and influence that experience.

Yet the present retains a special status, for even if we remember or contend with the past and anticipate the future, each day we live now, today, and now is when the past and the future mingle. Heidegger identifies a temptation that arises in living out the present moment which he calls “fallen-ness”: a temptation to fall away from oneself and into society. A person who lives in this fallen state is one who lives, as it were, by proxy, taking their cues from those around them and “going with the flow”. It manifests itself in idle talk (such as one finds on weblogs like this one, for instance), curiosity, and something translated here as “ambiguity,” by which he seems to mean something like a falling away from deep understanding to surface chatter. Living in fallen-ness is the default state for most people most of the time, he says. But living in fallen-ness obscures Being; instead, one is immersed in and preoccupied with superficialities, alienated from true understanding, care, and moral responsibility — from what he calls “authenticity”.

Now, this language of “authenticity” has been so abused to justify a willfulness that is itself a flight from true understanding, care, and moral responsibility that we might justly groan when we hear it, but I do think that there is a hard kernel of wisdom here which no army of adolescents (of whatever age) can efface. There is an important difference, known to anyone who has tried it, between just going along with society, on one hand, and trying to live with integrity out of one’s commitments to truth and goodness, on the other. Where does society rub up against you?


Speaking of going along with society, Heidegger was a Nazi. He joined the Party in the 1930s, and remained in Germany during the war. Perhaps on analogy with Diogenes of Sinope and his bathtub (and perhaps not) some of his writings seem to try to integrate the aims of National Socialism into his philosophy. Most damningly, despite having lived until 1976, he never publicly disavowed his association with Nazism or condemned Hitler. This personal history has complicated Heidegger’s position in philosophical and cultural circles, to say the least. Was he a true Nazi or not? If he was, to what extent does this undermine or invalidate his philosophy? These are matters of controversy. The two books which have occasioned these notes take different positions: Michael Inwood argues that Heidegger’s philosophical eminence is not seriously impaired by his regrettable political life; Jeff Collins adopts a more ambiguous position.


These two books, by the way, which I turned to because I do not have leisure to read Being and Time itself, and also because I am afraid of it, served me quite well — insofar as I can judge of the matter. Both give overviews of Heidegger’s life, the currents of thought that influenced him, his main interests and ideas, and his influence on other philosophers. The volume by Collins is part of a series (“Introducing …”), and it reads more like a graphic novel than a regular non-fiction book: each page contains illustrations (by Howard Selina) with a paragraph or two of text. (Illustrating a book on Heidegger involves drawing quite a few pictures of a man sitting, looking thoughtful.) The book by Inwood is also part of a series (the Very Short Introductions), and it reads more or less in the usual way. Of the two, I much preferred the former. Not only was it shorter, but I found it significantly clearer, and it spent more time on topics of greater interest to me, such as Heidegger’s philosophy of being.


It was St Augustine who said that he wrote in order to find out what he thought, and this has been my experience while writing these notes. When I began, I was confused by these books and thought I’d write a cursory paragraph of two in vague summation. But as I wrote I began to see more clearly, enough at least to write what I have written, and I finish these notes in considerably better spirits than when I began. Naturally my understanding is still rudimentary, but I do feel that I’ve emerged from this exercise clutching more than just a handful of dust.

Moser: Most Ancient of All Splendours

June 13, 2016

Most Ancient of All Splendoursmoser-ancient
Johann Moser
(Sophia, 1989)
94 p.

I do not read a great deal of poetry, not as much as I should, certainly, and, having never shed my preferences for strict metrical and rhyme schemes, I read very little contemporary poetry. In theory, therefore, I shouldn’t have read Johann Moser’s collection of poems, and, having read it, I shouldn’t have liked it, but I did read it, and I did like it, and sometimes the world is a surprising place.

These poems reveal a poet steeped in history, with wide interests and sympathies. There are poems about Alexander the Great, about the great medieval monastery of St Gall, about Mozart, about Venice, about Gilgamesh, about Galileo, about World War II, about Erasmus, about Solzhenitsyn. There are poems based on musical forms — the caccia, the barcarolle, the berceuse — and there are poems of lament and poems of praise.

There are no poems of rhyme.

Moser is obviously a man of wide education, and an educated reader will be better positioned to understand and appreciate the poems, but they are far from dryly intellectual. On the contrary, a notable qualities of many of these poems is their sensual tangibility, the way they conjure up sights and scents, so that the reader feels present in the past:

Over studded mountains,
\, High-timbered slopes of the Absaroka,
\,  Storms of summer, swarthy-throated,
\,  \,  thundering down the valleys.
Hayfields buckle,
\,  Dust whirls on sagebrush hills,
Lightning brindles blackened skies.
And rain:
\,  Rain over grassy tablelands and wooded hollows,
Over white-bouldered rivers
\,  and bottomlands of cottenwood and aspen;
Slender sheaves of rain —
\,  Purple, gold, across the wilderness,
Trailing to bronze-rimmed prairies eastward.
And now,
\,  The glittering pinnacles of cloud and sun;
Glad arroyos splash,
\,  \,  dazzle amid canyons.
Sunlight showers
\,  through tender-dripping forests
And wet bark of giant spruce,
\,  \,  \,  \,  ponderosa —
\,  Fragrant in the valley winds.
Among clusters of gooseberry leaves,
\,  A black bear shrugs his dusky hide;
A puma sniffs the clear, cool air.
And listen:
\,  Birds are singing in the mountains.

— “Wyoming Rain”

That’s a highly irregular meter to deal with, but it certainly reminds me of the rain storms I experienced as a child on the prairies; I can feel the wind and hear the rain as they sweep across the land.

Here is an excerpt from a more metrically regular (and in that respect also more characteristic) poem, about the Battle of Riade between the Franks and the Magyars:

Then, at Riade, we mustered our brave legions,
\,  Mounting high before us the lofty Whalebone Rood
and Holy Lance of Imperial Constantine.
\,  Over us, unsteady heavens of storm and sunlight;
Packed battalions sloshed in river shallows,
\,  Their kirtles soaked and steaming in the morning heat.
The thud, flash of weaponry; shouts, assaults,
\,  Trumpets honking like wild geese within the bracken,
Sword-hilts slippery with blood and rain
\,  As thick carnage clotted marshy rivulets and streams,
And mounted spearmen butted, wallowed in the mud.
\,  Finally, rearing our banners upwards, we invoked
Lord Saba-ôth, Hoarder of Sky’s Kingdom,
\,  From whose stout-thonged, strong-thewed gauntlet
Angelic Mika-El, fierce sparrow-hawk,
\,  Swooped downwards through thunder-driven clouds,
Bearer of Sun’s blazoned baldric,
\,  Golden-armored, Barb of the Sacred Tempest,
Felled before him the heathen host
\,  That fled to craggy tors, the dense holt and hinterland.

— from “Henry the Fowler”

If, like me, you’d not given much thought to the Battle of Riade, or even, like me, never heard of it before, perhaps you find, as I do, that the poem is nonetheless evocative and exciting. It is rare to find modern poetry that can summon religious imagery and language without losing for a moment its muscular power, but Moser does it here. Just as rare is a poet who both knows and loves the long cultural tradition we have inherited — or could inherit, with enough labour, attention, and love.

I see that this volume has been reviewed at The University Bookman by Thomas Molnar, and his review is better than what I have written here. I recommend you now go there.