Archive for March, 2012


The Catholic Notion of God — Monsignor Ronald Knox

March 30, 2012

The Old King by Georges Roualt, 1937

If the arguments adduced in the foregoing posts are valid, they commit us not only to a belief in the Existence of God, but to certain views as to his Nature. I do not mean to discuss or even enumerate here, as a text-book of theology would, the various Attributes of God, for fear of unduly crowding the canvas. It is enough for our present purposes to insist that the God who is postulated by a consideration of his works in Nature must be a transcendent God, an omnipotent God, and a personal God.

The very nerve of our contention is that the material world which meets us in our experience does not provide the explanation of its own existence, or of the forces which control it, or of the laws which govern it; that the explanation, consequently, must be looked for in something that is outside and beyond itself. Our thought can only be satisfied by the existence of some necessary Being, to which all this contingent existence around us, the world of creation, is secondary, and upon which it depends.

Upon which, or rather, upon whom. We must always explain the lower in terms of the higher, not the higher in terms of the lower. And the highest form of existence of which we have any experience is Spirit. Man finds himself possessed of this apparently unique privilege, that he can become the object of his own thought. He can focus his attention, not merely upon things outside himself, but upon himself the thinker, upon himself thinking. Adam must have had many strange experiences when he woke in Paradise, but none stranger than that of meeting himself. The difference between this self-consciousness and mere consciousness is as real, as vital, as the difference between consciousness itself and mere life, or the difference between life and mere existence.

This spiritual principle, this self-conscious life within man, is not accounted for (still less explained) by his needs as a mere citizen of the natural creation. It is something altogether outside the scheme of ordinary organic life; it exists for its own sake, and must therefore be regarded as a higher order of existence. It is to this higher order of existence, naturally, that he refers that highest of all possible existences which he calls by the name of God.

It has been a favorite taunt of the unbeliever, from Xenophanes down to Rupert Brooke, that if horses had conceived of theology, they would have imagined God like themselves, if fishes had invented a theology, they would have imagined God like themselves. The criticism is one of those which miss the mark so completely as to provide their own refutation. For the fact is that man is superior to horses and fishes in one point, namely, his self-consciousness, his spiritual life; and it is precisely in virtue of that spiritual quality, and of that alone, that he has dared to conceive of God as like to himself.

He conceives of God not as a Big Man, but as a Great Spirit, lacking precisely those features of inferiority which link man, in his dual nature, to the brutes. Man’s soul, which in memory, in intellect, and in will stands outside of and superior to the accidents of his mortality, is the only mirror he finds in Nature of that pure Act, that tireless Energy which is God.

And if God be Spirit, then he is a personal God. For all our experience of spirit, all our evidence for its existence, rests upon the first-hand consciousness which each man has of himself, and second-hand indications which point to the existence of a similar consciousness in his neighbor. Each spirit, as it is given to us in our experience, is a lonely point of conscious existence. Matter, as we know it, may enter into various combinations and assume various forms; we do not meet with spirit, we only meet with spirits.

And the notion that God is, not a Spirit, but the totality of existing spirits and nothing more; the notion that he is Spirit and not a Spirit is pure mythology. It overlooks that individuality, that incommunicableness, which belongs to all spirits in our experience. It is not suggested, of course, that the Being who created us is subject to all the limitations which our minds may happen to associate with the word “personality”. But in thinking of God as a Spirit, we cannot rule out the idea of conscious individuality; for that idea is essential to our whole conception of a spiritual nature.

We must not conceal from ourselves the fact that in so defining the Nature of God as transcendent, omnipotent, and personal, we have parted company with a great number of the more religiously affected of mankind. We have said nothing, so far, which could not be echoed by a Jew or by a Mohammedan. But we have quarreled, already, with that pantheistic conception of the Divine Being which has had such a profound influence on other religions of the East.

The vice of pantheism is that its theology takes Life, not Spirit, as its point of departure. Dichotomizing the world (wrongly) into matter and life, the pantheist assumes that the animal organism is the mirror of the universe. As, in the animal, matter finds a principle of life to organize it, so the whole sum of matter in existence must have a Life to organize it; a Life which is the summing up of all the life (vegetable or animal) which exists.

This Life is God; God is to the world what the soul (in the widest sense) is to the body. Thus, on the one hand, the pantheist theology contrives to give an explanation of existence which is no explanation at all; for the totality of our experience plus a World-Soul does not, by reason of the addition, provide any account of how or why it came into existence. And on the other hand it encumbers our thought with the concept of a God who is no God; who is, indeed, but an abstraction, as animal life divorced from matter is an abstraction; who can neither affect our destinies, nor prescribe our conduct, nor claim our worship; impotent, unmoral, and only demanding by courtesy the typographical compliment of a capital G.

So sharply is the God whom we Catholics worship — we Catholics, with the Jews and the Mohammedans — divided from the notion of deity which has syncretized, spiritualized, or superseded the many-headed monsters of the pagan East. Is the God of modern Protestantism so clearly marked off horn his Oriental counterpart? I confess that I entertain acute and growing misgivings on this point.

The tendency of Protestantism is to find its evidence of God’s existence rather in some supposed Instinct or intuition than in any inference from premises grounded in experience. But such methods of proof, even granted their validity, would only warrant us in accepting the fact of his existence, without telling us anything about Iris Nature. Most men believe in God; yes, but then a very large percentage of them are pantheists of one shade or another; the common belief of mankind does not, then, proclaim the existence of a Deity who is transcendent. There is in man’s nature an itch for worship, an instinct for religion; yes, but what sort of religion? Why should not Buddhism (for example) satisfy the craving?

Mystics have had direct experience of God’s Presence; it behooves us, then, to trust their experience rather than our own earth-bound imaginations — yes, but which mystics? The Christian or the Buddhist mystics? Unless we are prepared to fall back on the doctrine of Descartes and Berkeley, who would make God immediately responsible for those ideas through which alone we come in contact with any outside reality, it seems to me that all “direct” proofs of God’s existence yield only a blank formula, which we have no intellectual apparatus for filling in.

What kind of God, then, does Protestantism mean to propose for our worship? Our Idealist philosophers, still mournfully chewing the cud of Hegelianism, have no assurance to offer, either that God is omnipotent, or in what sense he is personal. There remains only the moral argument to distinguish Protestantism in its more adventurous forms from the cruder forms of pantheism. Doubtless it will always be held, at least in the Western Hemisphere, that the Supreme Being, however conceived, must be the summing-up of all those aspirations towards goodness which our own moral experience teaches us to indulge.

But is such a God necessarily the Judge of living and dead? Is it permissible to pray to him, in the sense of asking for favors which he can grant? Has he the Attributes of the God whom Jesus of Nazareth preached, and claimed, apparently, to reveal? Surely it is time that Protestant theologians should consider seriously the very fundamentals of their thought; and this question not least, What do we know of God’s Nature; and on what basis of thought does that knowledge rest? For in this matter the ideas of their hall hearted supporters are lamentably incoherent; and such hesitation may easily lend a handle, before long, to the propaganda of Theosophy.

The doctrine of God’s Omnipotence carries with it a further admission which will be of considerable importance in, the permanent possibility of miracle. If the laws of the natural creation are not an expression of God’s Nature, as the pantheist would hold, but merely of his Will, it follows that he is at liberty, if he will, to suspend their action; or rather, to supersede their action by that of higher laws which have not been made known to us. It is only reasonable — would that it were as common as it is reasonable — to have a clear notion as to the possibility of miracles happening, before we come to estimate the evidence, debatable in itself as all historical evidence must be, which claims that miracles have actually occurred in history.

A century and a half ago, it would have been necessary to investigate carefully, in this connection, the philosophic system known as Deism. It was but natural that the triumphs of mechanical science in the eighteenth century should impose on men’s minds the idea of mechanism; it was but natural that the Christian apologetic of the period should reflect this idea in its turn. Deism asserts strongly the first two scholastic proofs of God’s existence, while neglecting the third. If we think of God merely as the First Cause and the Prime Mover, it is not necessary to think of him as influencing the course of the natural Creation here and now.

You may think of him, instead, at some moment in the infinitely remote past, fashioning a world, giving it laws, physical and biological, to guide its movements, and then turning it adrift, like a ship with its tiller lashed, to reach its inevitable and foreseen destiny. Paley’s metaphor of the watch once for all wound up is, of course, the classic illustration of this Deist conception. It represents God as having made the universe, but not as guiding it from moment to moment, still less as actually holding it in being. Such a system was considerably embarrassed to find room for the possibility of miracle. To intrude miracle upon a cosmos so governed would have been to put a spoke in the wheels of the machine, with consequences fatally disturbing to the scheme of the whole.

Deism, nowadays, is cited only as a vagary of the past; it has few, if any, living supporters. It is hardly necessary, then, to remind the reader that laws do not carry themselves out; they are principles which need an executive to enforce them; and to conceive the laws of Nature as acting on their own initiative, independently of God’s concurrence, is to personify those laws, if not actually to deify them. The Catholic notion of God’s relation to the universe is summed up once for all in our Lord’s statement that no sparrow can fall to the ground without our Heavenly Father; there can be no event, however insignificant, however apparently fortuitous, however cruel in its bearing on the individual, which does not demand, here and now, the concurrence of the Divine Power.

I do not mean that Catholic thought bases this belief on our Lord’s utterance; it belongs to natural, not to revealed theology. God alone exists necessarily; our existence is contingent, depends, that is to say, from moment to moment upon an exercise of his will; he has not left the reins, he has not lashed the tiller; he works not by means of the laws, but only according to the laws, which he has laid down for himself in determining the governance of his creatures.

It will easily be seen that, once this view of the Divine economy is grasped, there can be no further talk of ruling out miracles on the ground of impossibility. It is still open to the objector to say that it would be inconsistent with our idea of’ God’s dignity to imagine him as interfering with his own laws; or that it would be a criticism on those laws themselves to suppose they could ever need to be suspended in favor of an individual need. Such objections we shall have to meet later; for the present, it is enough to point out that miracles, so far as their possibility is concerned, do fit into the scheme of things. Indeed, to describe God as Almighty is to admit that miracles are possible.

The difficulty, it may even be said, for our human imaginations is to understand the fall of the sparrow rather than to understand the feeding of the Five Thousand. For in the fall of the sparrow, as in the feeding of the multitude, the Divine Power is at work; only in this case the concurrence of God as the Primary Cause with those secondary “causes”, which we are apt to imagine as complete in themselves, is a thing as baffling to the imagination as it is necessary to thought.

We have been considering only the first article of the Creed which Catholics and Protestants alike recognize, “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” It will be seen that the outline of the Catholic system is already beginning to take shape on the canvas; it begins already to stand out in relief, not only as against the pantheistic religions of the East, never attractive to our fellow-countrymen, but against much vagueness and indecision which is to be read or to be suspected in non-Catholic works of theology.

It is not that Protestantism, in its official formularies, finds or has ever found cause of disagreement with us in such fundamental matters as these. But I shall be very much surprised if the arguments which I have adduced, and the conclusions I have inferred from them here do not cause some of my clerical critics to hold up their hands already at the intransigence, the medievalism of the thought which is here represented. The Catholic notion of God ought not to be distinct from the Protestant notion of God, but I fear that in practice a shadow of difference is already discernible between them.

If this is so, it must be attributed, first, to the departmentalism, the absence of system, which reigns among non-Catholic theologians; partly to the spirit of unauthorized adventure which makes them start out gaily in pursuit of some novel thesis; partly to the extreme incuriosity with which the average worshipper regards all details of doctrine. I wish I could think that my estimate of the situation was exaggerated, and my forebodings of the future a scruple.


The God Who Hides Himself II – Msgr. Ronald Knox

March 29, 2012

Crucified Christ. "Rouault was intimate with the writers who formed the nucleus of the Catholic revival, that remarkable literary, intellectual, and -- to a lesser degree -- artistic renewal among France’s lay intelligentsia in the early 20th century. He counted as friends Léon Bloy, J.K. Huysmans and Jacques and Raissa Maritain, both also passionate supporters of his work. He was close to Georges Desvallires, co-founder with Maurice Denis of the Atelier de la Art Sacre.
The Atelier was precursor to the Sacred Art Movement, a brief effort to reanimate sacred art which French Catholic intellectuals agreed was in a dismal state. Huysmans wrote brilliantly on the hemorrhage of bad taste at Lourdes. Maritain similarly rejected conventional religious art as devilish ugliness. Rouault shared their disdain, fearful of admitting sullen convention into his work.Rouault’s penitential vision and epic sweep suited the temper of the years immediately after World War II. MoMA gave him a retrospective in 1945 and the Tate did the same the following year, pairing him with Braque. He exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1948 and enjoyed a flood of exhibitions in the 1950s. France inducted him into the Legion of Honor and, in 1958, gave him a state funeral.
Today, his work is rarely seen. Yet there is every reason to keep his accomplishment alive. Rouault was a graphically gifted, fastidious craftsman sympathetic to a world in travail. His subjects were few: clowns, prostitutes, judges, self-satisfied pillars of society, the down-hearted, and the Passion of Christ. Setting aside religious dimensions, his cast is similar to that of Lautrec, the youthful Picasso, and Daumier.
A Passiontide sensibility infuses his oeuvre with a distinctive solemnity. Isaiah’s man of sorrows, the crucified Christ, serves as an archetype of the human condition. However devout Rouault’s Catholicism, it is a mistake to pigeon-hole him as a devotional painter. He used Biblical iconography -- as did Max Beckmann and other German Expressionists -- as a source of recognizable metaphors. Every generation faces its Calvary and crucifixions accompany history. The lamentations of Jeremiah still resonate."
Maureen Mullarkey

It is possible to give some account of how the idea of God comes into men’s minds. Or again, if each human being independently discovered the idea of God for himself, we might hesitate to ascribe the phenomenon to mere coincidence. But the doctrine of God’s existence is one that is taught to childhood, one that is often bound up, superstitiously, with national hopes, with social ordinances. Even if there were no God, it is probable enough that many people would believe in his existence; it would not be more surprising than the belief in luck, for example, or the belief in omens.

No, the true lesson of this widespread and obstinate Theism among our fellow-men is a slightly different one. The fact that so many men believe in a God ought to set us wondering whether there are not, perhaps, reasons for such a belief, to which we have not hitherto devoted sufficient attention; or perhaps reasons which we scorned to look into, because we had vaguely been given to understand that they were out of date and unfashionable. Mankind’s belief in God is a rebuke to, and a condemnation of, the careless atheist. For it is the height of rashness or of pride to assume without investigation that so large a part of the race is giving credit to an illusion, for the existence of which no rational grounds cm be assigned.

In a word, the existence of religion is a challenge to us to consider eagerly whether there are not grounds for believing in God’s existence, philosophical grounds which will be as cogent for us as they have been for others. When I say “philosophical”, I do not mean that it is the duty of the bushman or of the charcoal-burner to go through a series of carefully arranged scholastic syllogisms. I mean that there exists among mankind a sort of rough, common-sense metaphysic which demands as its first postulate the existence of a divine principle in things. It can be refined, it can be reduced to terms, by the nice ratiocinations of the philosopher; it is equally valid (we hold) whether as it presents itself to the charcoal-burner or as it presents itself to the sage.

The schoolmen, whose method has left its stamp upon all subsequent Catholic apologetics, distinguished five avenues of approach by which we infer, from the conditions of our outward experience, the existence of a God.

  1. In all motion, or rather, as we should say, in all change, you can separate two elements, active and passive, that which is changed and that which changes it. But, in our experience, the agent in such change is not self-determined, but determined in its turn by some higher agent. Can this process go on ad infinitum? No, for an infinite series of agents, none of them self-determined, would not give us the finality which thought demands; there must be, at the beginning of the series, however long, an Agent who is self-determined, who is the ultimate Agent in the whole cycle of changes that proceeds from him.
  2. Similarly, in our experience every event is determined by a cause. But that cause in its turn is itself an event determined by a cause. An infinite series of causes would give no explanation of how the causation ever began. There must therefore be an uncaused Cause, which is the ultimate Cause of the whole nexus of events which proceeds from it.
  3. In our experience, we find nothing which exists in its own right; everything depends for its existence on something else. This is plain in the case of the organized individual; for plants, animals, etc., are born, live, and die; that is to say, their existence is only contingent, not necessary — it depends on conditions outside itself. Now, although the whole sum of matter does not, in our experience, increase or diminish, we cannot think of it as existing necessarily — it is just there. Its existence, then, must depend on something outside itself — something which exists necessarily, of its own right. That Something we call God.
  4. In our experience, there are various degrees of natural perfection. But the existence of the good and the better implies the existence of a Best; for (according to Plato’s sys tern of thought) this Best is itself the cause and the explanation of all good. But this Best is not found in our earthly  experience, therefore it must lie beyond our earthly experience; and it is this Best which we call God.
  5. Everywhere in Nature we observe the effects of order and system. If blind chance ruled everything, this prevalence of order would be inexplicable; it would be a stupendous coincidence. Order can only be conceived as the expression of a Mind; and, though our mind appreciates the existence of order in the world, it is not our mind which has introduced it there. There must therefore exist outside our experience, a Mind of which this order is the expression; and that Mind we call God.

It is often objected that this analysis of the facts is unnecessarily itemized; it repeats the same argument under different forms. For the purposes of the plain man, it may perhaps be admitted that the first three of these arguments are not readily distinguishable. He apprehends God in his Creation, first as all-powerful and the source of all power (1, 2, and 3); then is all-good and the source of all goodness (4); then as all-wise and the source of all wisdom (5). For all the changes that have swept over Europe since the twelfth century, he has not been bullied out of his conviction.

It is true, the little books of popular science which he reads in his corner of the railway train, talk as if all this process of thought were antiquated; as if something had happened in the meantime which made Creation self-explanatory without the postulate of a Creator. Their cocksure implications affect him like briers that flick a man across the face without turning him aside from his direction. They tell him that matter is indestructible, not elucidating their meaning, which is that Man is incapable of destroying it; but even so he will not believe that matter has existed, for no particular reason, from all eternity; in that, stranger still, it brought itself into existence.

They write of Force with a capital F, or Energy with a capital E, as if we had somehow managed to deify those conceptions. But he knows that whereas motion is a fact that can be observed, force is a concept with which he is only acquainted through his experience as a living creature; it is a function of life, and the forces of Nature (as they are called), over which neither man nor beast exercises any control, must be functions of a Life which is outside experience itself.

They write as if Science had made the problem of existence simpler by explaining the causes of things hitherto unexplained — by showing us that disease is due to the action of microbes, or that lightning comes from the electricity in the atmosphere. But he knows that all this only puts the question a stage further back; that he is still at liberty to ask what caused the microbes, what caused the electricity. The thought of an infinite series, whether of causes or of agents, is no more attractive to him than to St. Thomas.

Of course, it is possible to avoid all these speculations with a bovine murmur of “I don’t know nothing about that.” But this is to give up the riddle, and to give it up, not because you cannot find the answer, but because you have found the answer, and have found it to be unpalatable. The lines of our experience, even in the natural world outside us, converge towards one point, presuppose a Creator who has necessary existence, a Prime Mover, a First Cause. But the created universe points to the existence not merely of an uncreated Power, but of an uncreated Mind.

This argument from the order and systems to be found in Creation is not synonymous with the argument from design; the argument from design, in the narrow sense, is a department or application of the main thesis. Design implies the adaptation of means to ends; and it used to be confidently urged that there was one end which the Creator clearly had in view, the preservation of species, and one plain proof of his purposive working, namely, the nice proportion between the instincts or endowments of the various animal species and the environment in which they had to live. The warm coats of the Arctic animals, the differences of strength, speed, and cunning which enable the hunter and the hunted to live together without the extermination of either — these would he instances in point; modern research has given us still more salient instances of the same principle, such as the protective mimicry which renders a butterfly or a nest of eggs indistinguishable from its surroundings. Was it not a Mind which had so proportioned means to ends?

The argument was a dangerous one, so stated. It took no account of the animal species which have in fact become extinct; it presupposed, also, the fixity of animal types. God’s mercy, doubtless, is over all his works, but we are in no position to apply teleological criticism to its exercise and to decide on what principle the wart-hog has survived while the dodo has become extinct. In this precise form, then, the argument from order has suffered badly.

But the argument from order, as the schoolmen conceived it, was and is a much wider and less questionable consideration. It is not merely in the adaptation of means to ends, but in the reign of law throughout the whole field of Nature, that we find evidence of a creative Intelligence. By a curious trick of human vanity, we describe a newly-discovered principle in Nature as So-and-so’s Law, Boyle’s, or Newton’s, or Tyndall’s, as if the discoverer were himself the legislator.

I am not grudging honor to the pioneers of research; I am only commenting on an oddity of phrase. Surely, when a thing is unexpectedly found, we congratulate the person who has found it, but our next question is inevitably, “Who put it there?” And, if there are laws in Nature to be discovered, it is but natural to ask the same question, “Who put them there?” If it needs a mind to discover them, did it not need a Mind to devise them? If the whole of our experience is not a phantasmagoria of unrelated facts, if water does not flow uphill, and gases do not double in volume when the pressure on them is doubled, who was it willed that the thing should be so? Not we assuredly; not Boyle, not Newton. Not blind Chance, for there is a limit to coincidence. Not “Nature”, for there is no such person; she is only an abstraction. What hypothesis is left to us except that of an ordering Mind? Instinctively we speak of a law when we find a natural principle; and have we no right to argue from a law to a Legislator?

I know that to superior persons all this will sound very naive. But it is easy to suspect simplicity in your opponent’s mind, when the simplicity really lies in the facts. There are thoughts so obvious that we are apt not to reflect upon them, so familiar that we are in danger of forgetting them.

So far we have been dealing with the evidences for God’s existence which are concerned with outward nature, not with the inner life of man. The argument from perfection adduced by the schoolmen is not the modern argument from moral perfection. The plain man would probably conceive the relations between God and man in the moral sphere with more of directness, more of concreteness. He would tell us that the voice of conscience was a voice not his own; whose then can it be, if it be not Divine?

Or he would tell us, in Kant’s vein, that the sense of moral duty is the sense of an obligation imposed upon us by a sovereignty outside ourselves — whose sovereignty, if not God’s? Or he would tell us that the sense of compunction which he feels when he has done wrong is not to be explained away as mere disappointment with himself; it carries with it the sense that he has defied a power above himself — whose power, if it be not God’s?

To each his own appeal; there is little need to dwell on this side of the argument; for probably everyone who has the least hankerings after Theism feels the force of it in one form or another. Otherwise I would ask space to argue that the scholastic form of it has a special value, as the truest both to the philosophic and to the devotional instinct.

I have made no attempt in this chapter to deal with the objections which will present themselves to minds influenced by the more intimate doubts of Idealism. I have been forced to assume, what the schoolmen assumed, and most ordinary people assume, that our thought is an instrument adequate to the cognition of objective reality.

Still less have I attempted to ,anticipate the rejoinders of the Pragmatist — who, it seems to me, above all men should wish to be a Catholic, and above all men will find it difficult to become one. I have merely indicated the course which Catholic apologetic takes in this fundamental matter, trusting that the inquirer, if his doubts begin so early in the process, will find access to more lucid and more copious expositions than mine.


The God Who Hides Himself I – Monsignor Ronald Knox

March 28, 2012

Roualt, Head of Christ, c. 1937. Rouault was born in Paris into a poor family. His mother encouraged his love for the arts, and in 1885 the fourteen-year-old Rouault embarked on an apprenticeship as a glass painter and restorer, which lasted until 1890. This early experience as a glass painter has been suggested as a likely source of the heavy black contouring and glowing colours, likened to leaded glass, which characterize Rouault's mature painting style. During his apprenticeship, he also attended evening classes at the School of Fine Arts, and in 1891, he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the official art school of France. There he studied under Gustave Moreau and became his favorite student. Rouault's earliest works show a symbolism in the use of colour that probably reflects Moreau's influence, and when Moreau died in 1898, Rouault was nominated as the curator of the Moreau Museum in Paris. In 1907, Rouault commenced a series of paintings dedicated to courts, clowns and prostitutes. These paintings are interpreted as moral and social criticism. He became attracted to Spiritualism and the dramatic existentialism of the philosopher Jacques Maritain, who remained a close friend for the rest of his life. After that, he dedicated himself to religious subjects. Human nature was always the focus of his interest. Rouault said: "A tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression as the figure of a human."

Philosophers have continually been exercised by the question whether our knowledge of God is a direct or a derived knowledge; whether the idea of God is in some way native to the mind, or whether we arrive at it through our knowledge of other things, his creatures. The mystical temperament, which has a strong influence on the outlook of Protestant theologians, is naturally disposed to claim, if the claim can in any be justified, that our knowledge of God is direct. For it is instinct of the mystic to reject, as far as possible, all interference, all mediation, between God and the soul.

The simplest, the most plausible of all these theories is Traditionalism. As a matter of observation, it is plainly true the origin from which your knowledge of God is derived, or mine, is the assurance given to us in infancy by our mothers or those who were responsible for our education. What if this should be not only the origin, but the justification of the concept? Adam, we must suppose, had in some an experimental knowledge of God’s existence. Did not he, in the strength of that knowledge, make Theists of his sons and they of theirs, and so on down the whole series of history, until at last the information came to our mothers, and through them to us? The evidence we have, in that case, for the existence of God is a tradition, perpetuated through the long course of human history, and resting in the last resort on the testimony of men who had walked with God, who had had first-hand knowledge of the facts.

Or, failing that, there is a possible refuge in Fideism [vocab: Fideism is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths (see natural theology). The word fideism comes from fides, the Latin word for faith, and literally means "faith-ism."].

After all, religion is concerned with the supernatural order, which altogether transcends ours; why should there not be a special, supernatural revelation to man which enables him to apprehend the existence of God; made, if you will, before he is yet old enough to be conscious of the fact? Is it not, perhaps, the best account we can give of this persistent human belief in a Deity, to suppose that there is a special faculty implanted in all of us at birth, but obscured in some of us by faults of training or of character, which apprehends God by a simple act, un-intellectual because it is supra-intellectual?

One philosopher at least, Descartes, would go further than this, and claim that for this purpose no supernatural revelation was needed. The thinking mind, according to his analysis, was primarily conscious of two clear and distinct ideas, itself and God. Outward things, the phenomena of sense, were only mirrored for it through the medium of its own consciousness; but the two facts of its own existence and God’s were guaranteed to it antecedently to any reasoning whatsoever.

At the very basis of all our thought lay the perception of a God who was responsible for implanting in us the ideas with which our thought is concerned; his non-existence was worse than unthinkable, it would destroy the very possibility of all knowledge. You must believe in God in order to believe in anything at all.

This was at the dawn of Idealism; but a theory not altogether dissimilar had found patronage even in the scholastic age — I mean the “Ontological proof” which is usually connected with the name of St. Anselm. The idea of God was necessarily one of supreme Perfection; it was impossible to associate the notion of any fault or defect with the idea of God. But the notion of non-existence is the notion of a fault or defect — indeed, a very considerable one. Therefore it is impossible to associate the notion of non-existence with the idea of God. Therefore it is unthinkable that God should not exist; therefore God exists.

This attempt to prove the existence of God, or to declare the proof of it unnecessary, without reference to the effects of his power which we experience in his visible creation, is a permanent temptation to the human mind. Intellects as far removed from one another as those of Anselm, Descartes, and de Bonald have undertaken it, and it is probable that they will never lack successors. Protestant thought, in our day, is much wedded not to these but to similar speculations.

Thus, you will seldom read any piece of non-Catholic apologetic without coming across some reference to man’s sense of his need for God, or man’s notion of holiness, a notion which can only be perfectly realized in God. The triplication of all such language is that it is possible to argue directly from the existence of concepts in our own mind in the existence of real objects, to which those concepts correspond.

The Catholic Church discountenances all such methods of approach to the subject; some of them, at the Vatican Council she has actually condemned. She discountenances them, at least, if and in so far as they claim to be the sole or the main argument for the existence of God. The main, if not the sole argument for the existence of God — so she holds, and has always held — is the argument which proves the Unseen from the Seen, the existence of the Creator from his visible effects in Creation.

All these efforts at the solution of the problem really depend for their plausibility on a postulate which we do not grant — namely, that it would have been impossible for the human race to infer God’s existence from his creatures. If this were true, then it might be argued that the notion of God must be an idea directly communicated to our minds. Such an argument is perfectly valid if applied to our sense of right and wrong; it must be native to the mind, because there is nothing outside ourselves which could possibly have suggested such a notion to us.

But this is a simple idea, directly entertained; whereas the idea of God is a composite idea, and the attributes which we associate with it, power, wisdom, etc., are derived from our own experience. “If there had been no God,” said Napoleon, “it would have been necessary to invent him” — at least, we may say it would have been possible to invent him. Thus the fact that the idea of God is conceived by our minds does not necessarily mean that it is inborn in us, or that it is directly communicated to us by some supernatural light.

The supposition is an unnecessary one, and now, what has it to say for itself? If it were true, as Descartes held, that the idea of God was a clear and distinct idea, like that of our own existence, why is it that there are so few fools in the world who doubt their own existence, so many who say “there is no God”?

If the existence of God was one of the first principles of all our mental process, then the contrary idea, that there is no God, should be unthinkable — but is it unthinkable? People think it every day. “But at least,” St. Anselm would retort, “it is impossible to think of an imperfect God, and therefore it is impossible to think of a non-existent God.” To which the atheist replies with some justice that, since God does not exist, it is not necessary to think about him at all. You cannot argue from the ideal to the real order of things.

The apologist is on safer ground if he leaves the arena of philosophy altogether, and maintains that the notion of God, so far from being innate in our minds, is something supernaturally implanted in them by a kind of direct revelation. That some such revelation was made to our first parents, we have no ground for disputing; but it would need a robust faith in us to accept so momentous a doctrine on the remote authority of our first parents, even if popular science would give us leave to suppose that we had any. Can we really be certain that in so many centuries of transmission the revelation has remained intact — that the tale has not lost in the telling?

On the other hand, Fideism would have us believe that such a direct revelation is made not once for all to the human race, but to each individual soul. Is it? The argument is surely one of those which admit of no refutation and produce no conviction. It is impossible to disprove the assertion that a direct revelation was made to us at a time of life from which no memories remain to us; but equally it is impossible to prove it. And if some other account can be given of the means by which the race or the individual arrives at the knowledge of God, surely this rather desperate hypothesis is best left in the limbo of mere conjecture.

I know there is a fashion amongst modern apologists to write as if man possessed a religious sense, comparable to his sense of music. This sense (so the argument runs) is most highly developed in the saint, the mystic, who is the real artist, the real connoisseur; in most men it is much less developed; in some it is hardly developed at all. Not that anyone (God forbid!) can be born absolutely tone-deaf to the airs of this heavenly music; but, through lack of development, the talent is nearly buried; there is no response, or practically no response, made by such a soul to the Divine voice within.

The spiritual man discerns spiritual things; he cannot explain to you what his experiences are, or even how he knows that they are real, any more than the musical expert can explain his emotional experiences to the mere groundling. But he knows; he has had an unmistakable experience of God’s Presence; it does not become us, the ignorant amateurs, to dispute his judgment. We can only trust to his higher instincts; and hope that we, too, perhaps, may be privileged to hear now and again some echo of the strains that ravish him.

For the life of me I could never understand how far such authors mean their metaphor to be pressed. Is it really contended that we can argue from a state of mind to an objective reality which lies behind it? If a musical enthusiast, after listening to some rare but gay piece, should tell me that as he listened he could actually see elves and gnomes dancing before his eyes, I should be perfectly prepared to reverence both his own superior sensitiveness to musical impressions, and the subtle power of the art which could evoke such an imaginative experience.

I should not suppose that elves or gnomes had been present, unseen to myself. And I confess that if I lacked the sense of religion quite so thoroughly as I lack that of music, the disclosures of the mystic would leave me in very much the same position. I might feel the mystic to be of a spiritual calibre infinitely superior to my own; I might bestow my admiration on those methods of contemplative prayer which enabled him to achieve his sense of a Divine Presence, his sense of Union. But I should not for that reason be inclined to believe in the objective existence of God, his Angels, or his Saints, if I did not share those beliefs already.

I do not know if I am wholly removed from the generality of mankind in holding such sentiments; but this type of’ argument seems to me both logically unsound and theologically perilous. And the nerve of the fallacy lies, I think, in the use of the word “experience”. When we are asked to let ourselves be guided by the experiences of another in matters of common human importance, we acquiesce (if we do acquiesce) because the experiences in question are such as might have fallen to our lot instead of his; we have eyes, ears, and the other senses corresponding to his. And we can take the measure of his faculties from our own; if he says he saw a thing, we can relate that to our own experience of sight; if he says he heard a thing, we can relate it to our own sense of hearing.

But if a man talks to us of “experiences” in which the faculties of outward sensation played no part, we are no longer in a position to sample those experiences for ourselves by proxy; we have no apparatus for sharing them with him. Where an experience of the outward senses is concerned, we are ready, from the analogy of our own experience, to believe that there was “something there”. But when the alleged experience has been apprehended through the use of spiritual faculties which we either do not possess or do not use, our confidence in the “something there” necessarily evaporates. Which is, I suppose, why the Church tells us that a private revelation may be such as to demand credence from the soul which experiences it, but can never, of itself, demand credence from other people.

Nevertheless the moderns, in their desire for an easy short cut to the proof of God’s existence, are learning to rest more and more weight on this tenuous argument — as I think, fatally. In the same way, they press for more than it is worth the argument, impressive enough in itself, that, when all is said and done, most people do believe in God. Buddhism, Hinduism, paganism have at least theologies of their own; Jewry and Islam acknowledge, no less than Christendom, one God who is both transcendent and omnipotent. In England itself, for all the decline of official Christianity,  how much is there of positive atheism?

Nor is the appeal to history less impressive; with a thousand strange vagaries of presentation, humanity has nearly always, nearly everywhere, attested its belief in the existence of unseen Powers; atheism nearly always, nearly everywhere, has been the reaction of a minority, a protest defying the popular instinct. Must there not, argues the apologist, be something in this popular certainty? Have we not been taught to remember that there is no smoke without fire?

We can hardly account for this vast conspiracy of mankind, determined to bow down before some august Power, conceived as intelligent and present to the worshipper; we can hardly account for the satisfaction of man’s highest instincts through such commerce with the Unseen, except on the supposition (which, after all, cannot be disproved) that the God so worshipped under a thousand forms and in a thousand manners does really exist.

This contention, put in its most naked form, means that each of us ought to believe in God because all the others do — an arrangement not differing much in principle from the economics of that famous country, whose inhabitants lived by taking in one another’s washing. Once more we must insist, you cannot argue from a mere state of mind to an objective reality which that state of mind appears to presuppose. If indeed there were no way of accounting for this strange idea having got into so many people’s heads, then the mere fact of its prevalence might make us suspect that there was something in it. [to be continued…]


The Fourth Part Of A Three-Part Essay – Anne Carson

March 27, 2012

Sappho was an Ancient Greek poet, born on the island of Lesbos. Later Greeks included her in the list of nine lyric poets. Her birth was sometime between 630 and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC, but little is known for certain about her life. The bulk of her poetry, which was well-known and greatly admired throughout antiquity, has been lost, but her immense reputation has endured through surviving fragments. The bust pictured above is inscribed Sappho of Eressos, Roman copy of a Greek original of the 5th century BC. In 2002, classicist and poet Anne Carson produced If Not, Winter, an exhaustive translation of Sappho's fragments. Her line-by-line translations, complete with brackets where the ancient papyrus sources break off, are meant to capture both the original's lyricism and its present fragmentary nature.

Part Four
Inasmuch as we are now entering upon the fourth part of a three-part essay, we should brace ourselves for some inconsequentiality. I don’t feel the cause of this inconsequence is me. Rather it originates with the three women we are studying and the cause of it is the fact that they are writers.

When Sappho tells us that she is “all but dead,” when Marguerite Porete tells us she wants to become an “annihilated soul,” when Simone Weil tells us that “we participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves,” how are we to square these dark ideas with the brilliant self-assertiveness of the writerly project shared by all three of them, the project of telling the world the truth about God, love and reality?

The answer is we can’t. It is no accident that Marguerite Porete calls her book a Mirror. To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.

Which brings us to contradiction and its uses. Simone Weil speaks plainly about these:

Contradiction alone is the proof that we are not everything. Contradiction is our badness and the sense of our badness is the sense of reality. For we do not invent our badness. It is true.

To accept the true badness of being human is the beginning of a dialectic of joy for Simone Weil:

If we find fullness of joy in the thought that God is, we must find the same fullness in the knowledge that we ourselves are not, for it is the same thought.

Nothing and something are two sides of one coin, at least in the mind of a dialectician. As Marguerite Porete puts it:

Nothing is nothing. Something is what it is. Therefore I am not, if I am something, except that which God is.

She also says:

Lord you are one goodness through opened out goodness, absolutely in you. And I am one badness through opened out badness, absolutely in me.

Marguerite Porete’s vision is dialectical but it is not tragic: she imagines a kind of chiastic immersion or mutual absorption by means of which these two absolute opposites — God and the soul — may ultimately unite. She uses various images of this union, for example, iron, which when placed in the furnace actually becomes fire; or a river that loses its name when it flows into the sea. Her common images carry us beyond the dialectical account of God and soul.

For dialectic is a mode of reasoning and an application of the intellectual self. But the soul that has been driven by love into God, the soul consumed as into fire, dissolved as if into water — such a soul has no intact intellect of the ordinary human kind with which to construe dialectical relationships. In other words such a soul passes beyond the place where she can tell what she knows. To tell is a function of self.

This situation is a big problem for a writer. It is more than a contradiction, it is a paradox. Marguerite Porete broaches the matter, early in her Mirror, with her usual lack of compromise:

For whoever talks about God… must not doubt but must know without doubt … that he has never felt the true kernel of divine Love which makes the soul absolutely dazzled without being aware of it. For this is the true purified kernel of divine Love which is without creaturely matter and given by the Creator to a creature and takes away absolutely the practice of telling.

Marguerite delivers herself of a writerly riddle here. No one who talks about God can have experienced God’s Love, she asserts, because such Love “takes away absolutely the practice of telling.” She reinforces this point later by arguing that, once a soul has experienced divine Love, no one but God ever understands that soul again (chapters 19 and 20). We might at this point be moved to question what Marguerite Porete thinks she is doing in the remaining chapters of her book, which number 139 in all, when she gives a step-by-step account of the soul’s progress towards annihilation in God.

We might wonder what all this telling is about. But we are unlikely to receive an answer from Marguerite Porete herself. Nor I think will any prudent writer on matters of God and soul venture to nail such things down. Quite the contrary, to leave us in wonder is just what such a writer feels compelled to do. Let us look more closely at how this compulsion works. We have said that telling is a function of self. If we study the way these three writers talk about their own telling, we can see how each of them feels moved to create a sort of dream of distance in which the self is displaced from the centre of the work and the teller disappears into the telling.

Let’s begin with Simone Weil, who was a practical person and arranged for her own disappearance on several levels. Among other things, she is believed to have hastened her own death from tuberculosis in 1943 by a regime of voluntary self-starvation undertaken out of sympathy for people in France who didn’t have enough to eat. However that may be, when her parents insisted on fleeing France for America in 1942 she briefly and reluctantly accompanied them, leaving behind in the hands of a certain Gustave Thibon (a farmer in whose vineyard she had been working) about a dozen notebooks of personal reflection (which now form a substantial part of her published work). She told him in a letter to use the thoughts in the notebooks however he liked:

So now they belong to you and I hope that after having been transmuted within you they will one day come out in one of your works…. I should be very happy for them to find a lodging beneath your pen, whilst changing their form so as to reflect your likeness…

In the operation of writing, the hand which holds the pen and the body and soul attached to it are things infinitely small in the order of nothingness.

Gustave Thibon never saw Simone Weil again, nor did he follow the instructions of this letter, to transmute her ideas into his own — at least not explicitly. Instead he went through the notebooks, extracted punchy passages, grouped these under headings like The Self, The Void, The Impossible, Beauty, Algebra, Luck, The Meaning of the Universe, and published them as a book with her name on the title page as its author. That is, he made a serious effort to force her back into the centre of herself, and the degree to which she nonetheless eludes this reinstallation is very hard for readers like you or me to judge from outside. But I admire the final, gentle piece of advice that she gives to him at the close of her letter of 1942:

I also like to think that after the slight shock of separation you will not feel any sorrow about whatever may be in store for me and that if you should happen sometimes to think of me you will do so as one thinks of a book read in childhood.

When I think of books read in childhood they come to my mind’s eye in violent foreshortening and framed by a precarious darkness, but at the same time they glow somehow with an almost supernatural intensity of life that no adult book could ever effect. I remember a little book of The Lives of the Saints that was given to me about age five. In this book the various flowers composing the crowns of the martyrs were so lusciously rendered in words and paint that I had to be restrained from eating the pages. It is interesting to speculate what taste I was expecting from those pages. But maybe the impulse to eat pages isn’t about taste. Maybe it’s about being placed at the crossing-point of a contradiction, which is a painful place to be and children in their natural wisdom will not consent to stay there, but mystics love it. So Simone Weil:

Man’s great affliction, which begins with infancy and accompanies him till death, is that looking and eating are two different operations. Eternal beatitude is a state where to look is to eat.

Simone Weil had a problem with eating all her life. Lots of women do. Nothing more powerfully or more often reminds us of our physicality than food and the need to eat it. So she creates in her mind a dream of distance where food can be enjoyed perhaps from across the room merely by looking at it, where desire need not end in perishing, where the lover can stay, at the same time, near to and far from the object of her love.

Food and love were analogous contradictions for Simone Weil. She did not freely enjoy either of them in her life and was always uneasy about her imaginative relationship to them. But after all, eternal beatitude is not the only state where to look is to eat. The written page can also reify this paradox for us. A writer may tell what is near and far at once.

And so, for example, in Marguerite Porete’s original terminology the writer’s dream of distance becomes an epithet of God. To describe the divine Lover who feeds her soul with the food of truth, Marguerite Porete invents a word: le Loingpres in her Old French, or Longe Propinquus in the Latin translation: English might say “the FarNear.” She does not justify this word, simply begins using it as if it were self-evident in Chapter 58 of her book, where she is telling about annihilation. At the moment of its annihilation, she says, God practices upon the soul an amazing act of ravishing. For God opens an aperture in the soul and allows divine peace to flow in upon her like a glorious food. And God does this in his capacity as le Loingpres, the FarNear:

For there is an aperture, like a spark, which quickly closes, in which one cannot long remain…. The overflowing from the ravishing aperture makes the Soul free and noble and unencumbered [and its] peace lasts as long as the opening of the aperture…. Moreover the peace is so delicious that Truth calls it glorious food…

And this aperture of the sweet movement of glory that the excellent FarNear gives is nothing other than a glimpse which God wants the soul to have of her own glory that she will possess without end.

Marguerite Porete’s concept of God as “the excellent FarNear” is a radical invention. But even more radical is the riddle to which it forces her:

… where the Soul remains after the work of the Ravishing FarNear, which we call a spark in the manner of an aperture and fast close, no one could believe. . . nor would she have any truth who knew how to tell this.

Inside her own telling Marguerite Porete sets up a little ripple of disbelief — a sort of distortion in the glass — as if to remind us that this dream of distance is after all just a dream. At the end of her book she returns to the concept one last time, saying simply:

His Farness is the more Near.

I have no idea what this sentence means but it gives me a thrill. It fills me with wonder. In itself the sentence is a small complete act of worship, like a hymn or a prayer. Now hymns and prayers are the conventional way for lovers of God to mark God’s FarNearness, for prayer lays claim to an immediate connection with this Being whose absence fills the world. But Marguerite Porete was a fairly unconventional lover of God and did not engage in prayer or credit its usefulness. Simone Weil, on the other hand, although she was never a Christian herself, had a profound attachment to that prayer Christians call the Our Father. During the summer of 1941 when she worked in the vineyard of Gustave Thibon she found herself repeating this prayer while she worked. She had never prayed before, she acknowledges in her notebook, and the effect was ecstatic:

The very first words tear my thoughts from my body and transport it to a place outside space … filling every aspect of this infinity of infinity.

Prayer seems to have been for her an experience of spatial contradiction — or perhaps a proof of the impossible truth of God’s motion. In another passage she returns to the Lord’s Prayer and its impossible truth:

Our Father who art in heaven. There is a sort of humor in that. He is your Father, but just try going to look for him up there! We are quite as incapable of rising from the ground as an earthworm. And how should he for his part come to us without descending? There is no way of imagining a contract between God and man which is not as unintelligible as the Incarnation. The Incarnation explodes unintelligibility. It is an absolutely concrete way of representing impossible descent. Why should it not be the truth?

Why should the truth not be impossible? Why should the impossible not be true? Questions like these are the links from which prayers are forged. Here is a prayer of Sappho’s which will offer us one final example of the dream of distance in which a writer tells God:

… [come] here to me from Krete
to this holy temple where is
your graceful grove of apple trees and altars
smoking with frankincense.

And in it cold water makes a clear sound through apple branches
and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.

And in it a horse meadow has come into bloom
with spring flowers and breezes
like honey are blowing….
In this place you Kypris having taken up
in gold cups delicately
nectar mingled with festivities:

This fragment was scratched on a shard of pottery by a careless hand in the third century BC. The text is corrupt and incomplete. Nonetheless we can identify it as a hymn of the type called “kletic,” a calling hymn, an invocation to God to come from where she is to where we are. Such a hymn typically names both of these places, setting its invocation in-between in order to measure the difference — a difference which it is the function of the hymn to decreate — not to destroy, but to decreate. Among the remarks on decreation in Simone Weil’s notebooks is the statement:

God can only be present in creation under the form of absence.

For the writer of a kletic hymn, God’s absence is something tricky, perhaps impossible, to tell. This writer will have to invoke a God who arrives bringing her own absence with her — a God whose Farness is the more Near. It is an impossible motion possible only in writing. Sappho achieves it by various syntactic choices: for example, suppression of the verb in the first stanza of her poem. In my translation I supply an imperative “Come!” in square brackets as the first word of the poem, and the sense may seem to require this, but the Greek text has no such verb. It begins with the adverb “Here.” In fact the imperative verb for which the entire poem, with its slow and onomatopoeically accumulating clauses, seems to be waiting does not arrive until the very last word of our text: “Pour!”

The effect of this suspension is uncanny: as if the whole of creation is depicted waiting for an action that is already perpetually here. There is no clear boundary between far and near; there is no climactic moment of God’s arrival. Sappho renders a set of conditions that at the beginning depend on Aphrodite’s absence but by the end include her presence. Sappho imitates the distance of God in a sort of suspended solution — and there we see Divine Being as a dazzling drop that suddenly, impossibly, saturates the world.

To sum up. Each of the three women we’ve been considering had the nerve to enter a zone of absolute spiritual daring. Each of them undergoes there an experience of decreation, or so she tells us. But the telling remains a bit of a wonder. Decreation is an undoing of the creature in us — that creature enclosed in self and defined by self. But to undo self one must move through self, to the very inside of its definition. We have nowhere else to start. This is the parchment on which God writes his lessons, as Marguerite Porete says.

Marguerite’s parchment burned in 1310. To us this may seem an outrage or a mistake. Certainly the men who condemned her thought she was all wrong and referred to her in the proceedings of her trial not only as “filled with errors and heresies” but as pseudo-mulier or “fake woman.”

Was Marguerite Porete a fake woman?

Society is all too eager to pass judgments on the authenticity of women’s ways of being but these judgments can get crazy. As a case in point, the book for which Marguerite Porete was burned in 1310 was secretly preserved and copied after her death by clerics who transmitted the text as an anonymous devotional work of Christian mysticism, until 1946 when an Italian scholar reconnected the Mirror with the name of its author.

At the same time, it is hard to commend moral extremism of the kind that took Simone Weil to death at the age of thirty-four; saintliness is an eruption of the absolute into ordinary history and we resent that. We need history to remain ordinary. We need to be able to call saints neurotic, anorectic, pathological, sexually repressed or fake. These judgments sanctify our own survival.

By the same token, Sappho’s ancient biographers tried to discredit her seriousness by assuring us she lived a life of unrestrained and incoherent sexual indulgence, for she invented lesbianism and then died by jumping off a cliff for love of a young man. As Simone Weil says:

Love is a sign of our badness.

Love is also a good place to situate our mistrust of fake women. What I like best about the three women we’ve been studying is that they know what love is. That is, they know love is the touchstone of a true or a false spirituality, that is why they play with the figure of jealousy. As fake women they have to inhabit this figure gingerly, taking a position both near and far at once from the object of their desire. The truth that they tell from this paradoxical position is also fake. As Marguerite says briskly:

For everything that one can tell of God or write, no less than what one can think, of God who is more than words, is as much lying as it is telling the truth.

So in the end it is important not to be fooled by fake women. If you mistake the dance of jealousy for the love of God, or a heretic’s mirror for the true story, you are likely to spend the rest of your days in terrible hunger. No matter how many pages you eat.


Wallace Stevens and decreation here.


How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God – Anne Carson

March 26, 2012

A professor of the classics, with background in classical languages, comparative literature, anthropology, history, and commercial art, Carson blends ideas and themes from many fields in her writing. She frequently references, modernizes, and translates Greek mythology. She has published fifteen books as of 2010, all of which blend the forms of poetry, essay, prose, criticism, translation, dramatic dialogue, fiction, and non-fiction.

Heather King is a Catholic writer who writes on spiritual matters and although we haven’t corresponded for several months, I was thinking of her as I posted this. We share a common interst in Simone Weil and this post (as well as the concluding one tomorrow) would seem to be one she would read with great interest. Follow that link to her blog, which is a regular read for me and should be for you, too.


Part One
What if I were to begin an essay on spiritual matters by citing a poem that will not at first seem to you spiritual at all. Fragment 31 of Sappho says:

He seems to me equal to gods that man whoever he is
who opposite you sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking and lovely laughing –
oh it puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming fills ears
and cold sweat holds me and shaking grips me all,
greener than grass I am and dead –
or almost I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty …

This poem has been preserved for us by the ancient literary critic Longinus, who quotes four complete Sapphic stanzas and then the first line of what looks like a fifth stanza and then breaks off, no one knows why. But the first four stanzas seem to compose a unit of music and thought; let’s consider the thought. It comes to us bathed in light but this is the weirdly enclosed light of introspection. Sappho is staging a scenario inside the little theatre of her mind. It appears to be an erotic scenario but the characters are anonymous, their interrelations obscure. We don’t know why the girl is laughing, nor what the man is doing there, nor how Sappho’s response to them makes sense.

Sappho seems less interested in these characters as individuals than in the geometric figure that they form. This figure has three lines and three angles. One line connects the girl’s voice and laughter to a man who listens close. A second connects the girl to Sappho. Between the eye of Sappho and the listening man runs a third. The figure is a triangle. Why does Sappho want to stage this figure? Common sense suggests it is a poem about jealousy. “Lovers all show such symptoms as these,” says Longinus. So let’s think about what the jealousy of lovers is.

The word comes from ancient Greek zelos meaning “zeal” or “hot pursuit.” A jealous lover covets a certain location at the centre of her beloved’s affection only to find it occupied by someone else. If jealousy were a dance it would be a pattern placement and displacement. Its emotional focus is unstable. Jealousy is a dance in which everyone moves.

Sappho’s poem sets the stage for jealousy but she does not dance it. Indeed she seems to forget the presence of her dancing partners entirely after the first stanza and shifts the spotlight onto herself. And what we see in the spotlight is an unexpectedly spiritual spectacle. For Sappho describes her own perceptual abilities (visual, oral, tactile) reduced to dysfunction one after another; she shows us the objects of outer sense emptying themselves; and there on the brightly lit stage at the centre of her perception appears — her own Being: “I am … ,” she says at verse 15 (“greener than grass I am”).

This is not just a moment of revealed existence: it is a spiritual event. Sappho enters into ecstasy. “Greener than grass I am…” she says, predicating of her own Being an attribute observable only from outside her own body. This is the condition called ekstasis, literally “standing outside oneself,” a condition regarded by the Greeks as typical of mad persons, geniuses and lovers, and ascribed to poets by Aristotle.

Ecstasy changes Sappho and changes her poem. She herself, she says, is almost dead. Her poem appears to break down and stop. But then, arguably, both of them start up again. I say arguably because the last verse of the poem has a puzzling history and is regarded with suspicion by some scholars, although it appears in Longinus and is corroborated by a papyrus. Let us attempt to see its coherence with what goes before.

“All is to be dared because even a person of poverty. . . ,” says the last verse. It is a new thought. The content of the thought is absolute daring. The condition of the thought is poverty. I don’t want to give the impression that I know what this is saying or that I see where the poem is headed from here, I don’t. Overall it leaves me wondering. Sappho sets up a scenario of jealousy but that’s not the poem is about, jealousy is just a figure. Sappho stages an event of ecstasy but that’s not what the poem is about either, ecstasy is just a means to an end. Unfortunately we don’t reach the end, the poem breaks off. But we do see Sappho begin to turn towards it, towards this unreachable end. We see her senses empty themselves, we see her Being thrown outside its own centre where it stands observing her as if she were grass or dead.

At which point a speculation occurs to me: granted this is a poem all about love, do we need to limit ourselves to a reading of it that is merely or conventionally erotic? After all, Sappho is believed by some historians to have been not just a poet of love and a worshipper of Aphrodite on Lesbos but also a priest of Aphrodite’s cult and a teacher of her doctrines. Perhaps Sappho’s poem wants to teach us something about the metaphysics or even the theology of love. Perhaps she is posing not the usual lovesong complaint, Why don’t you love me? but a deeper spiritual question, What is it that love dares the self to do? Daring enters the poem in the last verse when Sappho uses the word tolmaton: “is to be dared.” This word is a verbal adjective and expresses a mood of possibility or potential. Sappho says it is an absolute potential:

pan tolmaton: all is to be dared.

Moreover she consents to it — or seems to be on the point of consenting when the poem breaks off. Why does she consent? Her explanation no longer exists. So far as it goes, it leads us back to her ecstatic condition. For when an ecstatic is asked the question, What is it that love dares the self to do? she will answer:

Love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty.

Part Two
Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in 1310 for writing a book about the absolute daring of love. The Mirror of Simple Soul is a theological treatise also a kind of handbook for people seeking God. Marguerite Porete’s central doctrine is that a human soul can proceed through seven different stages of beginning with a period of “boiling desire,” to an ecstasy in which the soul carried outside her own Being and leaves herself behind. This departure from her own center is not passive.

Like Sappho, Marguerite first discovers in reality certain absolute demand and then she consents to it. Like Sappho she sees herself split in two by this consent and experiences it as a kind of “annihilation.” Marguerite’s reasoning is severe: she understands the essence of her human self in her free will and she decides that free will has been placed in her by God in order that she may give it back. She therefore causes her will to depart from its own will and render itself back to God with nothing left over. Here is how she describes this event:

… a ravishing expansion of the movement of divine Light is poured into the Soul and shows to the Will [the rightness of what is ... in order to move the Soul] from the place where it is now and ought not to be and   render it back to where it is not, whence it came, there where it out remain. Now the Will sees … that it cannot profit unless it departs from its own will. And thus the Soul parts herself from this will and the Will parts itself from such a Soul and then renders itself and gives and back to God, there where it was first taken, without retaining anything of its own.

Now it is noteworthy, in light of Sappho’s account of ecstasy and its consequences, that Marguerite Porete twice refers to herself at the moment when God’s abundance overflows her as:

‘I who am in the abyss of absolute poverty.’

She also describes her impoverishment as a condition of physical and metaphysical negation: Now such a Soul is nothing, for she sees her nothingness by means of the abundance of divine understanding, which makes her nothing and places her in nothingness.

Throughout The Mirror she speaks of herself as null, worthless, deficient, deprived and naked. But at the same time she recognizes her poverty as an amazing and inexpressible kind of repletion; and of this absolute emptiness which is also absolute fullness she speaks in erotic language, referring to God as “overflowing and abundant Lover” or as “the Spouse of my youth.” Even more interesting for our analogy with Sappho, Marguerite Porete twice proposes jealousy as a figure for her relationship with God. Thus she refers to God as “the most high Jealous One” and speaks of God’s relation to her Soul in this way:

Jealous he is truly! He shows it by his works which have stripped me of myself absolutely and have placed me in divine pleasure without myself. And such a union joins and conjoins me through the sovereign highness of creation with the brilliance of divine being, by which I have being which is being.

Here is an unusual erotic triangle consisting of God, Marguerite and Marguerite. But its motions have the same ecstatic effect as the three-person situation in Sappho’s poem. Marguerite feels herself pulled apart from itself and thrown into a condition of poverty, to which she consents. Her consent takes the form of a peculiarly intense triangular fantasy:

… and I pondered, as if God were asking me, how would I fare if I knew that he preferred me to love another more than himself? And at this my sense failed me and I knew not what to say. Then he asked me how would I fare if it could happen he should love another more than me? And here my sense failed me and I knew not what to say…. Beyond this, he asked me what would I do and how would I fare if it could be he preferred another to love me more than he…. And there I fainted away for I could say nothing to these three things, nor refuse, nor deny.

Notice how Marguerite turns the fantasy this way and that, rotating its personnel and reimagining its anguish. Jealousy is a dance in which everyone moves. It is a dance with a dialectical nature. For the jealous lover must balance two contradictory realities within her heart: on the one hand, that of herself at the center of the universe and in command of her own will, offering love to her beloved; on the other, that of herself off the centre of the universe and in despite of her own will, watching her beloved love someone else.

Naked collision of these two realities brings the lover to a sort of breakdown — as we saw in Sappho’s poem — whose effect is to expose her very Being to its own scrutiny and to dislodge it from the centre of itself. It would be a very high test of dialectical endurance to be able to, not just recognize, but consent to this breakdown. Sappho seems to be entering on a mood of consent when her poem stops. Marguerite faints three times before she can manage it. But then, with a psychological clarity as amazing as Sappho’s, Marguerite pushes open the implications of her own pain. Here is her analysis of what she sees when she looks inside Marguerite:

And so long as I was at ease and loved myself “with” him, I could not at all contain myself or have calm: I was held in bondage by which I could not move…. I loved myself so much along “with” him that I could not answer loyally…. Yet all at once he demanded my response, if I did not want to lose both myself and him…. I said to him that he must want to test me in all points.

Marguerite reaches rockbottom here when she faces the fact that loyalty to God is actually obstructed by her love of him because this affection, like most human erotic feeling, is largely self-love: it puts Marguerite in bondage to Marguerite rather than to God. Her reasoning uses the figure of jealousy in two ways. She sees jealousy as an explanation of her own feelings of inner division; she also projects jealousy as a test of her ability to de-centre herself, to move out of the way, to clear her own heart and her own will off the path that leads to God.

For in order to (as she says) “answer God loyally” she cannot stay one with her own heart or with her own will, she cannot love her own love or love herself loving or love being loved. And insofar as she can “annihilate” all these — her term — she can resolve the three angles of the dance of jealousy into a single nakedness and reduce her Being from three to two to one:

“Now this Soul. . . has left three and has made two one. But in what does this one consist? This one is when the soul is rendered into the simple Deity, in full knowing, without feeling, beyond thought…. Higher no one can go, deeper no one can go, more naked no human can be.”

Part Three
Simone Weil was also a person who wanted to get herself out of the way so as to arrive at God. “The self,” she says in one of her notebooks, “is only a shadow projected by sin and error which blocks God’s light and which I take for a Being.” She had a program for getting the self out of the way which she called “decreation.” This word is a neologism to which she did not give an exact definition nor a consistent spelling. “To undo the creature in us” is one of the ways she describes its aim. And when she tells of its method she uses language that may sound familiar. Like Marguerite Porete she expresses a need to render back to God what God has given to her, that is, the self:

We possess nothing in this world other than the power to say “I.” This is what we must yield up to God.

And like Marguerite Porete she pictures this yielding as a sort of test:

God gave me Being in order that I should give it back to him. It is like one of those traps whereby the characters are tested in fairy tales. If I accept this gift it is bad and fatal; its virtue becomes apparent through my refusal of it. God allows me to exist outside himself. It is for me to refuse this authorization.

And also like Marguerite Porete she feels herself to be an obstacle to herself inwardly. The process of decreation is for her a dislodging of herself from a centre where she cannot stay because staying there blocks God. She speaks of a need “to withdraw from my own soul” and says:

God can love in us only this consent to withdraw in order to make way for him.

But now let us dwell for a moment on this statement about withdrawal and consent. Here Simone Well enters upon a strangely daring and difficult negotiation that seems to me to evoke both Marguerite Porete and Sappho. For Simone Weil wants to discover in the three-cornered figure of jealousy those lines of force that connect a soul to God. She does not, however, fantasize relationships with ordinary human lovers. The erotic triangle Simone Weil constructs is one involving God, herself and the whole of creation:

All the things that I see, hear, breathe, touch, eat; all the beings I meet — I deprive the sum total of all that of contact with God, and I deprive God of contact with all that insofar as something in me says “I.” I can do something for all that and for God — namely, retire and respect the tete-a-tete…

I must withdraw so that God may make contact with the beings whom chance places in my path and whom he loves. It is tactless of me to be there. It is as though I were placed between two lovers or two friends. I am not the maiden who awaits her betrothed but the unwelcome third who is with two betrothed lovers and ought to go away so that they can really be together.

If only I knew how to disappear there would be a perfect union of love between God and the earth I tread, the sea I hear

If only she could become what Marguerite Porete calls an “annihilated soul,” if only she could achieve the transparency of Sappho’s ecstatic condition “greener than grass and almost dead,” Simone Weil would feel she had relieved the world of an indiscretion. Jealousy is a dance in which everybody moves because one of them is always extra — three people trying to sit on two chairs. We saw how this extra person is set apart in Marguerite Porete’s text by a canny use of quotation marks: remember her plaintive observation:

I loved myself so much along “with” him that I could not answer loyally.

When I read this sentence the first time, it seemed odd to me that Marguerite Porete puts the quotation marks around the “with” rather than around one of the pronouns. But Marguerite knows what she is doing: the people are not the problem here. Withness is the problem. She is trying to use the simplest language and the plainest marks to express a profoundly tricky spiritual fact, viz. that I cannot go towards God in love without bringing myself along. And so in the deepest possible sense I can never be alone with God. I can only be alone “with” God.

To catch sight of this fact brings a wrench in perception, forces the perceiver to a point where she has to disappear from herself in order to look. As Simone Weil says longingly:

If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart.

As we saw, Marguerite Porete found a way to translate the beating of her own heart into a set of quotation marks around the word “with.” And Sappho found a way to record the beating of her heart while imagining its absence — for surely this is the function performed in her poem by “the man who opposite you sits and listens close.” This man, Sappho tells us, is “equal to gods”; but can we not read him as her way of representing “the landscape as it is when I am not there”? It is a landscape where joy is so full that it seems to go unexperienced. Sappho does not describe this landscape further but Marguerite Porete offers an amazing account of a soul in some such condition:

Such a Soul. . . swims in the sea of joy — that is in the sea of delights flowing and streaming from the Divinity, and she feels no joy for she herself is joy, and swims and floats in joy without feeling any joy because she inhabits Joy and Joy inhabits her….

It seems consistent with Simone Weil’s project of decreation that, although she too recognizes this kind of joyless joy, she finds in it not an occasion of swimming but one of exclusion and negation:

Perfect joy excludes even the very feeling of joy, for in the soul filled by the object no corner is left for saying “I.”


William James: The Mind as Artist – Jacques Barzun

March 23, 2012

Barzun at age 40. At 84 years of age, he began writing his swan song, to which he devoted the better part of the 1990s. The resulting book of more than 800 pages, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, reveals a vast erudition and brilliance undimmed by advanced age. Historians, literary critics, and popular reviewers all lauded From Dawn to Decadence as a sweeping and powerful survey of modern Western history, and it became a New York Times bestseller. The book introduces several novel typographic devices that aid an unusually rich system of cross-referencing and help keep many strands of thought in the book under organized control. Most pages feature a sidebar containing a pithy quotation, usually little known, and often surprising or humorous, from some author or historical figure. In 2007, Barzun commented that "Old age is like learning a new profession. And not one of your own choosing."

An essay from the master in 1985. I have returned to the practice of mindfulness as my prayer life has been wanting of late. The lecturer I am following early on made the point that one should not confuse mindfulness with meditation (although the two almost always proceed together). The error that arises is that one confuses failures in anger, depression or addiction as somehow being a failure of the mindfulness practice, when, in fact, is nothing of the sort. So I feel good about my umpteenth attempt at developing the practice, convinced that a solid mindfulness practice is also the foundation of a vital prayer life of the heart. Your mind is a road to the heart and for some of us that road is neither wide nor smooth.

Anytime you consider mindfulness you become completely aware of its cousin, mindlessness, the bottle of muddy water which you wish to let sediment settle to the bottom and clear. How much of that is James’ stream-of-consciousness, endless chatter of a mind seems almost nonsensical in some ways. You don’t think at all, René, m’en souvient.  Read a bit further


The part that conventional knowledge plays in the history of culture has never been properly assessed. Conventional knowledge is usually based on some evident truth, above which is reared a superstructure of misunderstanding and fallacy. Conventional knowledge about William James starts with the truth that he expounded the doctrine known as Pragmatism. Next, by verbal and historical association, James is linked with John Dewey, also a Pragmatist. General opinion then assumes that James’s view of the human mind is identical with Dewey’s. Now, Dewey’s being the better known, thanks in his extensive writings on education, the linkage leads directly to the conclusion that James’s Pragmatic psychology finds the pattern of thought in the mental operations of science: the mind of man is a scientist in posse. [vocab: In potential but not in actuality]

In How We Think, Dewey gives the outline of this act of mind, which he calls the reflective. It consists of five steps:

(1)     the occurrence of a difficulty;
(2)     the definition of it;
(3)     the occurrence of suggestions to explain or resolve it;
(4)     the rational elaboration of each suggestion—its bearing and implications; and
(5)     the corroboration of one of them by experiment or other kinds of testing.

Dewey concludes that “thinking comes between observations at the beginning and at the end of a problem.”

This “model” is perfectly good as far as it goes, but the first thing to say about it is that it does not begin at the beginning. It takes for granted a mind already full of objects, ideas, abstractions, generalities, concepts, and rules. If we concede that this is how we think, there appears to be a play on words hidden in the thought-cliche that unites James and Dewey and their Pragmatisms.

For what Dewey describes is either deliberate cogitation or well-established habits for meeting difficulty; he is concerned with reasoning, formal and informal. James begins much earlier, biographically speaking. He begins with consciousness and examines how it behaves in its rawest possible state, before it has acquired enough experience to define problems and canvass clear-cut suggestions.

What does James find? The complex answer is in The Principles of Psychology under the title “The Stream of Thought,” a title which in the Briefer Course published the following year became the influential phrase “the stream of consciousness.” In the first place, according to James, consciousness is not an entity, but a function. The usual notions of a receptacle for ideas, a mirror of external objects, a sensitive plate recording impressions, a subject-spectator watching the “real world” must he given up if we are to understand what goes on not in but as consciousness. Consciousness is clearly involuntary: not I think but it thinks, whether I want it to or not. Languages record an awareness of the fact in expressions like methinks, it m’en souvient, es dunkt mich, and again in “it occurs to me,” “the idea crossed my mind,” and so on. I think is not parallel to I walk. That we have the sensation of owning this self-propelling stream is also true, but making it do our bidding is difficult — and rare. And that is why it is important for education to follow Dewey’s analysis and make out of the five steps a conscious method of organized and sequential thought.

But it is equally important (and for much more than education) to understand the working of the mind in its native, original course. It can be shown, for instance, that a great deal of criticism in the arts is vitiated by ignorance of the way the mind perceives and pre-perceives objects. Thus all theories of “pure” art assume impossibilities in both the making and the witnessing of art. And even in science and mathematics, as more than one great discoverer has testified, the deliberate march of mind in five steps is not so much actual as ideal: it helps to verify rather than to create — the reason being that the mind is natively not a scientist but an artist.

James does not use that figurative way of telling how consciousness works, but the metaphor is not far-fetched, nor is it meant here to bestow an honorific quality, let alone take sides in the foolish, profitless rivalry between art and science. The term is used only as a catchword that may help to remove the conventional error caused by Dewey’s pedagogic intention.

The mind according to James is a stream composed of waves flowing endlessly without gaps. Each wave (or pulse) prresents a crest or focus of intensity surrounded by a fringe. The focus is clear, the fringe dimmer, and what is in the fringe surges forward to become the next clear focus as the previous one fades out. We record this phenomenon in many of our ways of speech. We refer to what is “uppermost” in our minds; we know and speak of what “interests” us and can name what “holds our attention”: all these words imply the focus.

Compared with it, the fringe, aura, or margin is vague and thus not readily namable. It takes the power of a poet to evoke the fringe by offering a series of images to focus on. In life, we have intimations or presentiments of what may come next to mind, but these escape the net of words because the stream has a way of pressing forward as if driven by a purpose, looking toward an end not yet known — quite as in a story full of suspense. The “interest” at the focus wants each following pulse to be equally interesting or attention wanders off to something more promising.

This rough summary of James’s description of the stream shows to begin with that there is a form to thought as it is given to us natively. Thought is not the scattered bits of a kaleidoscope that Dewey dismissed as of no use to him. On the contrary, there is no disconnection at any point, and the sense of making toward a goal on the crest of interest, with troughs of lesser intensity, but true connection, is a fundamental form. We find it embodied in every kind of human discourse, from the sentence to the symphony.

To be sure, the products of art or communication are trimmed and compressed by other operations of the mind. Even the so-called stream-of-consciousness novel is a simplified artifact and not a transcript of the luxuriant shoots of ideas and feelings in the author’s consciousness. The fact remains that the works of the artistic intelligence are not made by imposing on absolute chaos an order from outside, but rather by effecting a distillation of the stream and ultimately respecting its inherent form.

What remains to be said is that in the mode of inquiry Dewey propounds, “purpose” bears the workaday meaning of setting out for results. In the portion of James’s work I have discussed, purpose is an intrinsic quality: the stream moves forward from crest to crest and toward an end without effort and without a defined goal. The mind’s interests, says James, are practical and aesthetic, and these root tendencies must also, I think, be distinguished from deliberate worldly practicality and aesthetic aims. It then becomes clear that James’ Pragmatism differs from Dewey’s in being, as it were, innate — not exclusively a logic and a method, but simply the way consciousness pursues and makes the most of its interests.


Second Thoughts on Kierkegaard by W.H. Auden

March 22, 2012

Perhaps more than any other philosopher, Kierkegaard reflected on the question of how to communicate the truths that we live by -- that is the truths about ethics and religion. In the process, he devised a method of indirect communication, which involved the use of pseudonyms. Writing in “The Concept of Anxiety” under the guise of Vigilius Haufniensis (watchman of the harbor), Kierkegaard observes that anxiety “is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite.” He continues, “Anxiety is a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy,” a simultaneous feeling of attraction and repulsion. Kierkegaard explains: “In observing children, one will discover this anxiety intimated more particularly as a seeking for the adventurous, the monstrous, and the enigmatic.”
Deeper into this text, it becomes plain that the ledge that we both want and do not want to look over runs along the abyss of our own possibilities. In some of his most immortal lines, the watchman of the inner world notes: “Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eyes as in the abyss . . . Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
Gordon Marino, The Danish Doctor of Dread, NY Times article March 17, 2012

A Knight Of Doleful Countenance
Sooner or later it was bound to happen, though for an “Existentialist” writer it is a slightly comic fate: Kierkegaard has become a Classic, to be published in a definitive edition with full scholarly apparatus.
The English translation of his Papirer (Journals and Papers) is to be issued in five volumes, of which the first has now been published by the Indiana University Press [From the New Yorker in 1968]. The translators and editors, Howard and Edna Hong — their translation, by the way, reads very well indeed — have decided to group the entries by subject matter instead of printing them in their chronological order.

This decision seems to me wise for two reasons. In the first place, the journal is a chronicle of ideas, not of events; in the second, it is of enormous length and frequently repetitive. For this we have no right to blame Kierkegaard, since he did not write it for publication, but I cannot imagine any human being reading straight through it without skipping. Classification by subject matter is a question of editorial judgment, which must to some extent be arbitrary. For example, this volume begins with “Abstract” and ends with “The Exception.” Under the “C” entries expected to find some devoted to what Kierkegaard himself always calls “Catholicism,” but found none; I presume they will appear in a later volume, under “R.”

Like Pascal, Nietzsche, and Simone Weil, Kierkegaard is one of those writers whom it is very difficult to estimate justly. When one reads them for the first time, one is bowled over by their originality (they speak in a voice one has never heard before) and by the sharpness of their insights (they say things which no one before them has said, and which, henceforward, no reader will ever forget). But with successive readings one’s doubts grow, one begins to react against their overemphasis on one aspect of the truth at the expense of all the others, and one’s first enthusiasm may all too easily turn into an equally exaggerated aversion.

Of all such writers, one might say that one cannot imagine them as children. The more we read them, the more we become aware that something has gone badly wrong with their affective life — a derangement which, though it may, and probably does, include some kind of sexual neurosis, extends far beyond the bounds of the sexual; it is not only impossible to imagine one of them as a happy husband or wife, it is impossible to imagine their having a single intimate friend to whom they could open their hearts.

It is significant, surely, and sad, that though Kierkegaard was the most brilliant Dane of his time and a famous, even notorious, figure, there are, to the best of my knowledge, no references to him in the memoirs of his contemporaries, no descriptions, friendly or hostile, of what he seemed like to others. All we know about Kierkegaard is what he tells us himself.

I hope that someone will soon write a fully documented history of the Corsair affair. All I know about it is that Kierkegaard challenged its proprietor, Meyer Goldschmidt, who had hitherto praised his writings, to attack him, which Goldschmidt thereupon proceeded to do, and my only information about the nature of the attack comes from the account given by David Swenson in his Something About Kierkegaard:

For several months thereafter, there appeared little articles in the Corsair satirizing one or another feature of the pseudonymous writings. The articles were illustrated with pictures of Kierkegaard walking through the streets, his umbrella under his arm, and one trouser leg depicted as considerably longer than the other. The result of this campaign was that Kierkegaard could not show himself on the streets without being followed by a gaping and howling mob of boys and young men. So deeply did the attack sink into the popular consciousness of Copenhagen that we have from Brandes a narrative of how his nurse used to bring him back from the error of his ways, whenever his clothes were not properly put on, by pointing at him a warning finger and saying reprovingly, “Soren, Soren!”

This must have been very disagreeable, but can it really be considered, as Kierkegaard himself considered it, an example of a righteous man’s being martyred for the sake of the truth? As a scandal sheet, the Corsair was clearly a social evil, and Kierkegaard was not alone in thinking so. For a writer, the normal way of trying to abolish a social evil is to write attacks on it, demonstrating by quotations and facts the kind of evil it represents and does. Such attacks are likely to be the more effective the less the writer draws attention to himself and the more he seems to speak as the voice of public conscience.

But instead of attacking, Kierkegaard demanded to be attacked, and this. I must confess, I find distastefully egotistic. Goldschmidt, incidentally, must have been a stupid man: a moment’s thought should have told him that if he really wished to torment Kierkegaard he should ignore the challenge and go on praising his work to the skies.

If I, suffering, were to have become an object of attack by mob-vulgarity, admiration for me would have increased. But the fact that I myself demanded it shocked men. They felt alienated by anything that went over their heads.

Thus Kierkegaard in his Journals. But was it so unnatural that they should be shocked? Further, is there any evidence, outside his own testimony, that nobody sympathized with him in the persecution to which he was subjected?

Then there is the question of the persecution itself. When a newspaper proprietor has it in for somebody, his usual procedure is to publish innuendos (or facts, if he can get them) about the private or public morality of his victim: it is suggested that he has a taste for young girls or has been involved in some shady financial or political deal. All that Goldschmidt was able to do was to make fun of Kierkegaard’s writings — one would be curious to know if these criticisms were at all funny — and to make fun of his physical appearance.

Caricature exaggerates, but it is only possible if there is some peculiarity to exaggerate. If the Corsair caricatures showed one of Kierkegaard’s trouser legs considerably longer than the other, then it seems certain to me that he must have been somebody, like myself, who was careless about the way he dressed. One would have expected him to laugh and say, “Yes, I am a careless dresser, but I don’t care.” On the other hand, if his feelings were seriously hurt, as it seems they were, he had only to dress more carefully in the future for the caricatures to lose their sting. If the vulgar laughed at him on the streets, it was because they could recognize him as the original of the caricatures. His second attempt to get himself persecuted for the Truth’s sake — his polemic against Bishops Mynster and Martensen–was even less successful.

The public may have been shocked and thought his articles in bad taste, but they read them. Nobody tried to silence him. For all his contempt for the press, he made use of it, and the editors of Fædrelandet were perfectly willing to publish what he wrote. Far from getting stoned or imprisoned, he made the headlines. One has to draw attention to this failure to get martyred not as a personal reproach, which would be cheap and unjust, but because Kierkegaard was continually attacking the Danish clergy of his time for failing to achieve something which, under the circumstances of his time, he was unable to achieve himself.

Of what he calls the “wilting” of Christianity, Kierkegaard says:

It will appear most easily in a Protestant country that does not have the counterweight of Catholicism in the same country. Furthermore, it will appear most readily in a small country, which by being small is only too close to pettiness, mediocrity, spiritlessness; and, again, it will appear most readily in this little land if it has its own language entirely by itself and does not even through its language participate in possible movements elsewhere. It will most readily appear in such a small country if the people are prosperous, have no great differences in life, and have a common and regularized abundance, which is related all too easily to secular security. It will most readily appear in or show itself as the fruits of good days of peace.

Leaving aside the first sentence for later consideration, let us examine the rest of this passage. To condemn a society for being small and provincial is to condemn it not for being worldly, but for not being worldly enough: a provincial society lacks the worldly virtues of broad-mindedness and cynical tolerance exhibited by more cosmopolitan societies. As someone who had to write in Danish, Kierkegaard could reasonably complain that this severely limited the size of his potential audience, but this is a worldly objection.

Further, I cannot believe that the cultural situation in Denmark in Kierkegaard’s day was radically different from what it today there or in any other country, like Holland or Sweden or Hungary, where few strangers can be expected to understand its mother tongue: in such countries both intellectuals and businessmen are obliged, like Kierkegaard himself, to learn the more cosmopolitan languages. I should be extremely surprised, for example, to hear that Bishop Martensen or any other members of the Danish Ecclesiastical Establishment could only read and speak Danish.

Kierkegaard then goes on to reproach Denmark for qualities which common sense surely would regard as blessings — the absence of serious poverty, the freedom from sharp class distinctions, the lack of involvement in war; for being, in other words, a society without gross and obvious social evils. Whether this was really the case I do not know, but it must certainly have been Kierkegaard’s opinion, for never, when he is attacking the Danish clergy for worldly prudence and cowardice, does he specify a concrete issue about which he thinks it their Christian duty to protest.

In England during the first half of the nineteenth century, there were a number of issues one can think of — the slave trade, the treatment of the industrial poor in mines and cotton mills, the criminal law, the unjust treatment of Catholics — about which, to their shame, most of the Anglican clergy remained silent, though a few did have the courage to protest, at the cost of losing preferment. Were there really no comparable issues in Denmark? I have the uneasy feeling that if there were, Kierkegaard would have considered them unimportant.

About Roman Catholicism as a “counterweight” Kierkegaard was acute. In Catholic countries one may find, as in all countries, worldly, even immoral, prelates, but one also finds monastic orders of men and women vowed to chastity, poverty, and obedience: a parish priest may be more stupid and tiresome than many of his congregation, but he is a celibate, who has made a sacrifice which they know they would not or could not make themselves. By doing away with the monasteries and fasting, by not only permitting but encouraging the clergy to marry, by abolishing all visible “works” of self-sacrifice, Luther and Calvin made piety a matter of internal conscience. As C. S. Lewis has said of Calvin:

The moral severity of his rule … did not mean that his theology was, in the last resort, more ascetic than that of Rome. It sprang from his refusal to allow the Roman distinction between the life of “religion” and the life of the world, between the Counsels and the Commandments. Calvin’s picture of the fully Christian life was less hostile to pleasure and to the body than Fisher’s, but then Calvin demanded that every man should be made to live the fully Christian life. In academic jargon, he lowered the honours standard and abolished the pass degree.

Similarly, Kierkegaard says of Luther:

Luther set up the highest spiritual principle: pure inwardness. . . . And so in Protestantism a point may be reached at which worldliness is honored and highly valued as — piety. And this — as I maintain — cannot happen in Catholicism. . . . Because Catholicism has the universal premise that we men are pretty well rascals. And why can it happen in Protestantism? Because the Protestant principle is related to a particular premise: a man who sits in the anguish of death, in fear and trembling and much tribulation — and of those there are not many in any one generation.

There is another aspect of Protestantism which Kierkegaard seems to have overlooked — one which makes the position of a Protestant minister more ambiguous and vulnerable than that of a Catholic priest; namely, that in the Lutheran and Calvinist churches, and increasingly so as time went on, the sermon, the ministry of the Word, took precedence over the Sacraments, the ritual acts of worship. The Catholic priest, of course, also preaches, but his primary function is to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, and give absolution. His right to perform such actions depends not on his moral character or even his faith but on the fact that he has been ordained by a bishop.

But when a man preaches, all kinds of questions begin to arise. While it is meaningless to ask of a priest “Does he celebrate Mass well or badly?” the question “Does he preach well or badly?” is a real one, with a real answer. Preaching, like lecturing, demands an aesthetic gift: a preacher may himself be a hypocrite but still have the power to stir the hearts of his congregation; conversely, he may be personally a holy man but because he lacks a gift for verbal expression he leaves them cold.

Also, the preacher must necessarily address his congregation not as individuals but as a group. As long as his sermon is confined to doctrinal instruction, to telling them what the Church believes and what her creedal formulas mean, this presents no problem, but the moment he turns to moral exhortation, to telling them what they should or should not do here and now, he is in difficulties, for each member of his congregation has his or her unique spiritual problems.

At confession, a priest may give a confessant stupid, even harmful, advice, but at least this is given to a particular sinner, not to sinners in general. But the preacher in the pulpit is confronted by sinners in general. If he is to avoid generalities which will leave most of them exactly as they were before, he must speak of some concrete situation in which he knows they are all equally guilty, and this, in practice, usually means one about which they not only feel no guilt but are convinced that they are righteous. As Bonhoeffer said:

The preacher must be concerned so to incorporate the contemporary situation in his shaping of the commandment itself relevant to the real situation. It cannot be “War is evil” but, rather, “Fight this war,” or “Don’t fight this war.”

He will have small occasion to say either, unless he knows his congregation are going to be shocked; that, in the first case, they are willing, out of cowardice, to appease a tyrant, or, in the second, that they are jingoist patriots who say, “My country, right or wrong.” In doing so, he risks martyrdom. Attacking sinfulness in general is always perfectly safe, for each listener will assume that it is not he personally but people in general who are being attacked. It is only when a preacher attacks a concrete case of worldliness that he is likely to get into trouble. A clergyman in Mississippi can scold his congregation for not loving God and their neighbor, and they will sit there in smiling agreement, but if he tells them that God demands that they love Negroes as themselves the atmosphere will soon change.

Of the Danish clergy in his day, Kierkegaard complains:

Like children playing war games (in the security of the living room), so all of Christendom (or the preachers insofar as they are the actors) plays at Christianity; in the security of worldliness they play the game that the Christian is persecuted (but no one persecutes him, the speaker), that the truth is crucified (but the speaker himself already ranks with the court justices).

This complaint seems to suggest either that they only preached on such texts as “Sell all thou hast and give to the poor” and “Marvel not if the world hate you,” which cannot have been the case, or that such texts are the only ones on which a true Christian may preach, which is heretical. Secondly, it lacks effectiveness, because Kierkegaard does not or cannot specify any concrete issue for which it was their duty to invite persecution and crucifixion.

It is curious that the author of “Repetition,” who could analyze so subtly the difficulty for human beings in their daily life of having to live in and with time, should have failed to see that any church, as a visible organization on earth, has the same problem. Ideally, of course, everyone who calls himself a Christian, whether a clergyman or a layman, should be an apostle, but to imagine that at any time in history this has been, or could be, the case is a sheer Donatist fantasy. It is true, as Kierkegaard says, that “Christianity cannot be `introduced’ into a country as one introduces improved sheep breeding,” but if an individual is ever to become a Christian he must be introduced to the Christian faith, and this is one of the church’s functions.


W.H. Auden on Søren Kierkegaard II

March 21, 2012

"The way we negotiate anxiety plays no small part in shaping our lives and character. And yet, historically speaking, the lovers of wisdom, the philosophers, have all but repressed thinking about that amorphous feeling that haunts many of us hour by hour, and day by day. The 19th-century philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard stands as a striking exception to this rule. It was because of this virtuoso of the inner life that other members of the Socrates guild, such as Heidegger and Sartre, could begin to philosophize about angst. It is in our anxiety that we come to understand feelingly that we are free, that the possibilities are endless.
Though he was a genius of the intellectual high wire, Kierkegaard was a philosopher who wrote from experience. And that experience included considerable acquaintance with the chronic, disquieting feeling that something not so good was about to happen. In one journal entry, he wrote, “All existence makes me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation; the whole thing is inexplicable; to me all existence is infected, I most of all. My distress is enormous, boundless; no one knows it except God in heaven, and he will not console me….”
Gordon Marino, The Danish Doctor of Dread, NY Times article March 17, 2012

Revealed Religion (Judaism and Christianity)
A revealed religion is one in which God is not present as an object of consciousness, either as a feeling or a proposition. He is not begotten by the world, nor does he impose order on its coeternal flux but creates it out of nothing, so that while God and the world are at every moment related, God is not knowable as an object.

While in the aesthetic religion the feelings, and in the ethical religion, the ideas were the presence of God, they are now only my feelings, my ideas and if I believe that what I feel (e.g., God is present) or think (e.g., God is righteous) is caused by my relation to God, this belief is a revelation, for the cause is outside my consciousness.

As one term of a relation, the other term of which is God, I cannot overlook the whole relation objectively and can only describe it analogically in terms of the human relation most like it, e.g., if the feeling of which I have immediate certainty is one which I would approximately describe as sonship, I may speak of God as Father.

There is no longer a question of establishing a relation between God and myself for as my creator he is necessarily related to his creature and the relation is presupposed by my existence; there is only a question of the right relation. The uniqueness of the relation is that it is a relation to an Other yet at the same time as continuous and inescapable as my relation to myself. The relation of the aesthetic worshipper to his gods is intermittent and depends on their pleasure — they do not have to get in touch with him at all. The relation of the ethical worshipper to the Ideas is intermittent or not depending on his pleasure. They are always there to be contemplated if he choose, as a river is always there to be drunk from if one is thirsty, but if he doesn’t choose to contemplate them, there is no relation.

But the relation to the creator God of revealed religion is unbreakable: I. his creature, can forget it as I can forget my relation to myself when I am thinking of other things, but it is permanently there, and, if I try to banish it permanently from consciousness, I shall not get rid of it, but experience it negatively as guilt and despair. The wrath of God is not a description of God in a certain state of feeling, but of the way in which I experience God if I distort or deny my relation to him.

So Dante inscribed on the portals of Hell: “Divine Power made me, Wisdom supreme and Primal Love” — and Landor justly remarked about the Inferno that its inhabitants do not want to get out. To both the aesthetic and the ethical religion, evil was a lack of relation to God, due in the one case to God’s will, in the other to man’s ignorance; to the revealed religion, evil is sin, that is to say, the rebellion of man’s will against the relation.

The aesthetic commands cannot be codified because they are arbitrary commands of the gods and always novel. The ethical commands ought to be able to be completely codified as a set of universal moral laws. Revealed religion shows why this is impossible. A law is either a law of or a law for. Laws of, like the laws of science, are patterns of regular behavior as observed by a disinterested observer. Conformity is necessary for the law to exist, for if an exception is found, the law has to be rewritten in such a way that the exception becomes part of the pattern, for it is a presupposition of science that events in nature conform to law, i.e., a physical event is always related to some law, even if it be one of which scientists are at present ignorant.

Laws for, like human legislation, are patterns of behavior imposed on behavior which was previously lacking in pattern. In order for the laws to come into existence, there must be at least some people who do not conform to them. Unlike laws of which must completely explain how events occur, laws for are only concerned with commanding or prohibiting the class of actions to which they refer, and a man is only related to the law when it is a question of doing or not doing one act of such a class; when his actions are covered by no law, e.g., when he is sitting alone in his room, he is related to no law at all.

If the commands of God were laws of man, then disobedience would be impossible; if they were laws for man, then his relation to God would not be permanent but intermittent. The commands of God are neither the aesthetic fiat, “Do what you must” nor the ethical instruction, “These are the things which you may or must not do,” but the call of duty, “Choose to do what at this moment in this context I am telling you to do.”

Christ the Offense
To one who believes that Jesus was what he claimed to be, the incarnation as an existing individual of the Son of God begotten of his Father before all worlds, by whom all things were made, his birth, life and death are, first, a simultaneous revelation of the infinite love of God — to be righteous means to love — and of the almost infinite sinfulness of man — without the gift of the Holy Spirit it is impossible for him to accept the truth; secondly, a revelation that God is related to all men, but to each of them uniquely as an existing individual, i.e., God is the father of all men, not of a chosen people alone, and all men are exceptions, not aesthetically, but as existing individuals — it is their existence not their natures which makes each of them unique; thirdly, a revelation that the Life is not an object for aesthetic admiration nor the Truth an object for ethical appropriation, but a Way to be followed, an inclination of the heart, a spirit in which all actions are done. Insofar as collectively they considered their relation to God to be aesthetically unique, and individually an ethical relation to his Law, this revelation is an offense to the Jews; insofar as it proclaims that God the Father is not a God but the God, that Christ is not a teacher of truths but the Truth, it is an offense to the Gentiles.

The Jews would have welcomed a Messiah for them alone, but not one who demanded that they give up their claim to be the unique people of God or their belief that the Law covers the whole duty of the individual; the Gentile imagination could have accepted another culture-hero to add to its old ones, the Gentile reason, another teacher to add new stores to its knowledge, but could not accept one who was a passive sufferer, put faith before reason, and claimed exclusive attention. The Jews crucified Jesus on the serious charge that he was a blasphemer, the Gentiles, on the frivolous charge that he was a public nuisance.

Preaching to the Non-Believer
“It is,” Newman observed, “as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.”
However convincing the argument, however holy the arguer, the act of faith remains an act of choice which no one can do for another. Pascal’s “wager” and Kierkegaard’s “leap” are neither of them quite adequate descriptions, for the one suggests prudent calculation and the other perverse arbitrariness.

Both, however, have some value: the first calls men’s attention to the fact that in all other spheres of life they are constantly acting on faith and quite willingly, so that they have no right to expect religion to be an exception; the second reminds them that they cannot live without faith in something, and that when the faith which they have breaks down, when the ground crumbles under their feet, they have to leap even into uncertainty if they are to avoid certain destruction.

There are only two Christian propositions about which it is therefore possible to argue with a non-believer:

(1) That Jesus existed;
(2) That a man who does not believe that Jesus is the Christ is in despair.

It is probably true that nobody was ever genuinely converted to Christianity who had not lost his “nerve,” either because he was aesthetically unfortunate or because he was ethically powerless, i.e., unable to do what he knew to be his duty. A great deal of Kierkegaard’s work is addressed to the man who has already become uneasy about himself, and by encouraging him to look more closely at himself, shows him that his condition is more serious than he thought.

The points that Kierkegaard stresses most are, firstly, that no one, believer or not, who has once been exposed to Christianity can return to either the aesthetic or the ethical religion as if nothing had happened. Return he will, if he lose his Christian faith, for he cannot exist without some faith, but he will no longer be a naive believer, but a ruse one compelled to excess by the need to hide from himself the fact that he does not really believe in the idols he sets up.

Thus the aesthetic individual is no longer content with the passive moderation of paganism; he will no longer simply obey the passions of his nature, but will have by will power to arouse his passions constantly in order to have something to obey. The fickle lover of paganism who fell in and out of love turns into Don Giovanni, the seducer who keeps a list so as not to forget.

Similarly, the ethical philosopher will no longer be content to remain a simple scientist content to understand as much and no more than he can discover; he must turn into the systematic philosopher who has an explanation for everything in existence except, of course, his own existence which defeats him. Nothing must occur except what he can explain. The multitude of ordinary men and women cannot return to the contented community of the Greek chorus for they cannot lose the sense that they are individuals; they can only try to drown that sense by merging themselves into an abstraction, the crowd, the public ruled by fashion. As Rudolf Kassner says in his fascinating book, Zahi and Gesicht:

“The pre-Christian man with his Mean (Mitte) bore a charmed life against mediocrity. The Christian stands in greater danger of becoming mediocre. If we bear in mind the idea, the absolute to which the Christian claims to be related, a mediocre Christian becomes comic. The pre-Christian man could still be mediocre without becoming comic because for him his mediocrity was the Mean. The Christian cannot.”

To show the non-believer that he is in despair because he cannot believe in his gods and then show him that Christ cannot be a man-made God because in every respect he is offensive to the natural man is for Kierkegaard the only true kind of Christian apologetics. The false kind of apologetics of which he accuses his contemporary Christians is the attempt to soft-pedal the distinction between Christianity and the Natural Religions, either by trying to show that what Christians believe is really just what everybody believes, or by suggesting that Christianity pays in a worldly sense, that it makes men healthy, wealthy, and wise, keeps society stable, and the young in order, etc. Apart from its falsehood, Kierkegaard says, this method will not work because those who are satisfied with this world will not be interested and those who are not satisfied are looking for a faith whose values are not those of this world.

Preaching to Believers
The danger for the Christian in an officially Christian society is that he may think he is a Christian. But nobody except Christ and, at the end of their lives perhaps, the saints are Christian. To say “I am a Christian” really means “I who am a sinner am required to become like Christ.” He may think he believes as an individual when all he is doing is believing what his parents said, so that he would be a Mohammedan if they had been. The task of the Christian preacher is therefore first to affirm the Christian commands and arouse the consciousness of sin, and secondly to make the individual’s relationship with Christ real, that is, contemporary.

The world has changed greatly since Kierkegaard’s time and all too many of his prophetic insights have come to pass. The smug bourgeois Christendom he denounced has crumbled and what is left is an amorphous, despairing mass of displaced persons and paralyzed Hamlets. The ubiquitous violence of the present age is not truly passionate, but a desperate attempt to regress from reflection into passion instead of leaping forward into faith. The worst feature, for example, of the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis is not its cruelty but its frivolity; they did not seriously believe that the Jews were a menace as the Inquisition believed about heretics; no, it was rather a matter of “We must do something. Why not kill all the Jews?”

It is almost bound to be the fate of Kierkegaard, as of so many polemical writers, to be read in the wrong way or by the wrong people. The contented will not read him or read him only scientifically as an interesting case history. The unhappy and, for the most part, agnostic intellectuals who will read him, will confine themselves to his psychological analyses like The Sickness unto Death or his philosophical polemics like Concluding Unscientific Postscript, which they will read poetically as sympathetic and stimulating reflections of their feelings and thoughts, but they will fight shy of books like Training in Christianity or The Works of Love, either because they are not as unhappy as they pretend or because they really despair of comfort and cling in defiance to their suffering.

Kierkegaard is particularly vulnerable to such misunderstanding because the only force which can compel us to read an author as he intends is some action of his which becomes inexplicable if we read him any other way, e.g., Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. In Kierkegaard’s case there is indeed such an action, but the action is another book, The Attack upon “Christendom.” The whole of his writings up to this one, written in the last year of his life, even the sermons, are really “poetical,” i.e., Kierkegaard speaks in them as a genius not as an apostle, so that they all might have been published, as many of them were, anonymously.

The Attack upon “Christendom,” on the other hand, is that contradiction in terms, an “existential” book. What for the author was the most important book of his life is for us, as readers, the least, for to us the important point is not what it contains, but the fact that Kierkegaard wrote it. For this reason, no selection from it appears here.


W.H. Auden on Søren Kierkegaard I

March 20, 2012

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (b. 1813, d. 1855) was a profound and prolific writer in the Danish “golden age” of intellectual and artistic activity. His work crosses the boundaries of philosophy, theology, psychology, literary criticism, devotional literature and fiction. Kierkegaard brought this potent mixture of discourses to bear as social critique and for the purpose of renewing Christian faith within Christendom. At the same time he made many original conceptual contributions to each of the disciplines he employed. He is known as the “father of existentialism”, but at least as important are his critiques of Hegel and of the German romantics, his contributions to the development of modernism, his literary experimentation, his vivid re-presentation of biblical figures to bring out their modern relevance, his invention of key concepts which have been explored and redeployed by thinkers ever since, his interventions in contemporary Danish church politics, and his fervent attempts to analyze and revitalize Christian faith. Statue in Copenhagen.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I am not Christian severity contrasted with Christian leniency. I am … mere human honesty.
Søren Kierkegaard


Though his writings are often brilliantly poetic and often deeply philosophic, Kierkegaard was neither a poet nor a philosopher, but a preacher, an expounder and defender of Christian doctrine and Christian conduct. The near contemporary with whom he may properly be compared is not someone like Dostoevsky or Hegel, but that other great preacher of the nineteenth century, John Henry, later Cardinal, Newman: both men were faced with the problem of preaching to a secularized society which was still officially Christian, and neither was a naive believer, so that in each case one is conscious when reading their work that they are preaching to two congregations, one outside and one inside the pulpit.

Both were tempted by intellectual ambition. Perhaps Newman resisted the temptation more successfully (occasionally, it must be confessed, Kierkegaard carried on like a spiritual prima donna), but then Newman was spared the exceptional situation in which Kierkegaard found himself, the situation of unique tribulation.

Every circumstance combined to make Kierkegaard suffer. His father was obsessed by guilt at the memory of having as a young boy cursed God; his mother was a servant girl whom his father had seduced before marriage; the frail and nervously labile constitution he inherited was further damaged by a fall from a tree. His intellectual precociousness combined with his father’s intense religious instruction gave him in childhood the consciousness of an adult.

Finally he was fated to live, not in the stimulating surroundings of Oxford or Paris, but in the intellectual province of Copenhagen, without competition or understanding. Like Pascal, whom in more ways than one he resembles, or like Richard III, whom he frequently thought of, he was fated to be an exception and a sufferer, whatever he did. An easygoing or prudent bourgeois he could never become, any more than Pascal could have become Montaigne.

The sufferer by fate is tempted in peculiar ways; if he concentrates on himself, he is tempted to believe that God is not good but malignantly enjoys making the innocent suffer, i.e., he is tempted into demonic defiance; if he starts from the premise that God is good, then he is tempted to believe that he is guilty without knowing what he is guilty of, i.e., he is tempted into demonic despair; if he be a Christian, he can be tempted in yet a third way, because of the paradoxical position of suffering in the Christian faith. This well expressed by the penitent shade of Forese when he says to Dante:

“And not once only, while circling this road, is our pain renewed:
I say pain and ought to say solace.”

For, while ultimately the Christian message is the good news: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good-will towards men — “Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you”; it is proximately to man’s self-love the worst possible news — “Take up thy cross and follow me.”

Thus to be relieved of suffering in one sense is voluntarily to accept suffering in another. As Kafka says: “The joys of this life are not its own but our dread of ascending to a higher life: the torments of this life are not its own but our self-torment because of that dread.”

If the two senses of suffering are confused, then the Christian who suffers is tempted to think this a proof that he is nearer to God than those who suffer less.

Kierkegaard’s polemic, and all his writings are polemical, moves simultaneously in two directions: outwardly against the bourgeois Protestantism of the Denmark of his time, and inwardly against his suffering. To the former he says, “You imagine that you are all Christians and contented because you have forgotten that each of you is an existing individual. When you remember that, you will be forced to realize that you are pagans and in despair.” To himself he says, “As long as your suffering makes you defiant or despairing, as long as you identify your suffering with yourself as an existing individual, and are defiantly or despairingly the exception, you are not a Christian.”

Kierkegaard and the Existential
However complicated and obscure in its developments it has become, Existentialism starts out from some quite simple observations.

  1. All propositions presuppose the existence of their terms a ground, i.e., one cannot ask, “Does X exist?” but only, “I this existing X the character A or the character B?”
  2. The subjective presupposition “I exist” is unique. It is certainly not a proposition to be proven true or false by experiment, yet unlike all other presuppositions it is indubitable and no rival belief is possible. It also appears compulsive to believe that other selves like mine exist: at least the contrary presupposition has never been historically made. To believe that a world of nature exists, i.e., of things which happen of themselves, is not however invariably made. Magicians do not make it. (The Christian expression for this presupposition is the dogma, the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth.”)
  3. The absolute certainty with which I hold the belief that I exist is not its only unique characteristic. The awareness of existing is also absolutely private and incommunicable. My feelings, desires, etc., can be objects of my knowledge and hence I can imagine what other people feel. My existence cannot become an object of knowledge; hence while, if I have the necessary histrionic imagination and talent I can act the part of another in such a way that I deceive his best friends, I can never imagine what it would be like to be that other person but must always remain myself pretending to be him.
  4. If I take away from my sense of existence all that can become an object of my consciousness, what is left?

    a.   An awareness that my existence is not self-derived. I can legitimately speak of my feelings. I cannot properly speak of any existence.

    b.   An awareness that I am free to make choices. I cannot observe the act of choice objectively. If I try, I shall not choose. Doctor Johnson’s refutation of determinism, to kick the stone and say, “We know we are free and there’s an end of it” is correct, because the awareness of freedom is subjective, i.e., objectively undemonstrable.

    c.   An awareness of being with time, i.e., experiencing time as an eternal present to which past and future refer, instead of my knowledge of my feelings and of the outer world as moving or changing in time.

    d.   A state of anxiety (or dread), pride (in the theological sense), despair or faith. These are not emotions in the way that fear or lust or anger are, for I cannot know them objectively; I can only know them when they have aroused such feelings as the above which are observable. For these states of anxiety or pride, etc., are anxiety about existing, pride in existing, etc., and I cannot stand outside them to observe them. Nor can I observe them in others. A gluttonous man may succeed when he is in my presence in concealing his gluttony, but if I could watch him all the time, I should catch him out. But I could watch a man all his life, and I should never know for certain whether or not he was proud, for the actions which we call proud or humble may have quite other causes. Pride is rightly called the root of all sin, because it is invisible to the one who is guilty of it and he can only infer it from results

    These facts of existence are expressed in the Christian doctrines of Man’s creation and his fall. Man is created in the image of God; an image because his existence is not self-derived, and a divine image because like God each man is aware of his existence as unique. Man fell through pride, a wish to become God, to derive his existence from himself, and not through sensuality or any of the desires of his “nature.”

Kierkegaard’s Three Categories
Every man, says Kierkegaard, lives either aesthetically, ethically, or religiously
. As he is concerned, for the most part, with describing the way in which these categories apply in Christian or post Christian society, one can perhaps make his meaning clearer by approaching these categories historically, i.e., by considering the Aesthetic and the Ethical at stages when each was a religion, and then comparing them with the Christian faith in order to see the difference, first, between two rival and incompatible Natural Religions and, secondly, between them and a Revealed Religion which neither is destroyed or ignored, but the Aesthetic is dethroned and the Ethical fulfilled.

The Aesthetic Religion (e.g., The Greek Gods)
The experience from which the aesthetic religion starts, the facts which it sets out to overcome, is the experience of the physical weakness of the self in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful not-self.
To survive I must act strongly and decisively. What gives me the power to do so? Passion. The aesthetic religion regards the passions not as belonging to the self, but as divine visitations, powers which it must find the means to attract or repel if the self is to survive.

So, in the aesthetic cosmology, the gods are created by nature, ascend to heaven, are human in form, finite in number (like the passions) and interrelated by blood. Being images of passions, they themselves are not in their passion — Aphrodite is not in love; Mars is not angry — or, if they do make an appearance of passionate behavior, it is frivolous; like actors, they do not suffer or change. They bestow, withhold or withdraw power from men as and when they choose. They are not interested in the majority of men, but only in a few exceptional individuals whom they specially favor and sometimes even beget on mortal mothers. These exceptional individuals with whom the gods enter into relation are heroes.

How does one know that a man is a hero? By his acts of power, by his good fortune. The hero is glorious but not responsible for his successes or his failures. When Odysseus, for instance, succeeds, he has his friend Pallas Athene to thank; when he fails, he has his enemy Poseidon to blame. The aesthetic either/or is not good or bad but strong or weak, fortunate or unfortunate. The temporal succession of events has no meaning, for what happens is simply what the gods choose arbitrarily to will. The Greeks and the Trojans must fight because “hateful Ares bids.” To the aesthetic religion all art is ritual, acts designed to attract the divine favors which will make the self strong, and ritual is the only form of activity in which man has the freedom to act or refrain from acting and for which, therefore, he is responsible.

The facts on which the aesthetic religion is shattered and despairs, producing in its death agony Tragic Drama, are two: man’s knowledge of good and evil, and his certainty that death comes to all men, i.e., that ultimately there is no either/or of strength or weakness, but even for the exceptional individual the doom of absolute weakness. Both facts it tries to explain in its own terms and fails. It tries to relate good and evil to fortune and misfortune, strength and weakness, and concludes that if a man is unfortunate, he must be guilty.

Oedipus’ parricide and incest are not really his sins but his punishment for his sin of hubris. The Homeric hero cannot sin, the tragic hero must sin, but neither is tempted. Presently the observation that some evil men are fortunate and some good men unfortunate brings forth a doubt as to whether the gods are really good, till in the Prometheus of Aeschylus it is openly stated that power and goodness are not identical. Again, the aesthetic religion tries to express the consciousness of universal death aesthetically, that is, individually, as the Fates to which even the gods must bow, and betrays its failure to imagine the universal by having to have three of them.

The Ethical Religion (The God of Greek Philosophy)
To solve the problem of human death and weakness, the ethical religion begins by asking, “Is there anything man knows which does not come and go like his passions?” Yes, the concepts of his reason which are both certain and independent of time or space or individual, for the certainty is the same whether a man be sick or well, a king or a slave.

In place of the magnified passions of the aesthetic religion, the ethical sets up as God, the Ideas, the First Cause, the Universal. While to the former, the world begot the gods who then ruled over it because they were stronger than any other creature, in the latter God and the world are coeternal. God did not create the world of matter; he is only the cause of the order in it, and this not by any act of his — the neuter gender would be more fitting to him — for to be divine means to be self-sufficient, “to have no need of friends.”

Rather it is matter which, wishing to escape from the innate disorder of its temporal flux, “falls in love” with God and imitates his unchangeableness in such ways as it can, namely by adopting regular movements. (Plato’s introduction of a mysterious third party, the Demiurge who loves the Ideas and then imposes them on matter, complicates but does not essentially alter the cosmology.) Man, however, being endowed with reason, can apprehend God directly as Idea and Law, transcend his finite bodily passions, and become like God.

For the aesthetic either/or of strength or weakness, fortune or misfortune, the ethical religion substitutes the either/or of Knowledge of the Good or Ignorance of the Good. To the aesthetic, evil was lack of power over the finite world, for all finiteness, all passion is weakness, as goodness is gained by transcending the finite world, by a knowledge of the eternal and universal truths of reason which cannot be known without being obeyed. To the aesthetic, time was unmeaning and overwhelming; to the ethical, it is an appearance which can be seen through. The aesthetic worshipper was dependent on his gods who entered into relationship with him if and when he chose; the ethical worshipper enters into relationship with his god through his own efforts and, once he has done so, the relationship is eternal, neither can break it. The ethical hero is not the man of power, the man who does, but the philosopher, the man who knows.

Like his predecessor, however, he is not tempted and does not choose, for so long as he is ignorant he is at the mercy of his passions, i.e., he must yield to the passion of the moment, but so soon as he knows the good, he must will it; he can no more refuse assent to the good than he can to the truths of geometry.

As in the case of the aesthetic religion, there are facts with which the ethical religion cannot deal and on which it founders.

  1. Its premise “Sin is ignorance; to know the good is to will it” is faced with the fact that all men are born ignorant and hence each individual requires a will to know the universal good in order to will it. This will cannot be explained ethically, first because it is not a rational idea so that the ethical has to fall back on the aesthetic idea of a heavenly Eros to account for it.
  2. Secondly, it is not a universal; it is present or appeals to some individuals and not to others, so that the ethical has to call in the aesthetic hero whom it instructs in the good, and who then imposes justice by force. Art to the elect is no longer a religious ritual, but an immoral sham, useful only as a fraudulent but pragmatically effective method of making the ignorant masses conform to the law of virtue which they do not understand.
  3. Lastly, there comes the discovery that knowledge of the good does not automatically cause the knower to will it. He may know the law and yet not only be tempted to disobey but yield to the temptation. He may even disobey deliberately out of spite, just to show that he is free.

W. H. Auden on G. K. Chesterton’s Non-Fictional Prose

March 19, 2012

W. H. Auden

Auden casts a critical eye on Chesterton’s journalistic pieces and non-fiction essays: a tour of what’s good and what is not.

Oh, and happy 65th birthday to me. Old, sick and alone, I keep myself endlessly entertained — all thanks to being Catholic.


I have always enjoyed Chesterton’s poetry and fiction, but I must admit that, until I started work on a selection for a publisher, it was many years since I had read any of his non-fictional prose.

The reasons for my neglect were, I think, two. Firstly, his reputation as an anti-Semite. Though he denied the charge and did, certainly, denounce Hitler’s persecution, he cannot, I fear, be completely exonerated.

“I said that a particular kind of Jew tended to be a tyrant and another particular kind of Jew tended to be a traitor. I say it again. Patent facts of this kind are permitted in the criticism of any other nation on the planet: it is not counted illiberal to say that a certain kind of Frenchman tends to be sensual…. I cannot see why the tyrants should not be called tyrants and the traitors traitors merely because they happen to be members of a race persecuted for other reasons and on other occasions.”

The disingenuousness of this argument is revealed by the quiet shift from the term nation. to the term race. It is always permissible to criticize a nation (including Israel), a religion (including Orthodox Judaism), or a culture, because these are the creations of human thought and will: a nation, a religion, a culture can always reform themselves, if they so choose. A man’s ethnic heritage, on the other hand, is not in his power to alter. If it were true, and there is no evidence whatsoever to suppose that it is, that certain moral defects or virtues are racially inherited, they could not become the subject for moral judgment by others.

That Chesterton should have spoken of the Jews as a race is particularly odd, since few writers of his generation denounced with greater contempt racial theories about Nordics, Anglo-Saxons, Celts, etc. I myself am inclined to put most of the blame on the influence of his brother and of Hilaire Belloc, and on the pernicious influence, both upon their generation and upon the succeeding generation of Eliot and Pound, exerted by the Action Francaise Movement. Be that as it may, it remains a regrettable blemish upon the writings of a man who was, according to the universal testimony of all who met him, an extraordinarily “decent” human being, astonishingly generous of mind and warm of heart.

My second reason for neglecting Chesterton was that I imagined him to be what he himself claimed, just a “Jolly Journalist,” a writer of weekly essays on “amusing” themes, such as What I found in my Pockets, On Lying in Bed, The Advantage Of Having One Leg, A Piece of Chalk, The Glory of Grey, Cheese and so forth.

In his generation, the Essay as a form of belles-lettres was still popular: in addition to Chesterton himself, there were a number of writers, Max Beerbohm, E. V. Lucas, Robert Lynd, for example, whose literary reputations rested largely upon their achievements in this genre. Today tastes have changed. We can appreciate a review or a critical essay devoted to a particular book or author, we can enjoy a discussion of a specific philosophical problem or political event, but we can no longer derive any pleasure from the kind of essay which is a fantasia upon whatever chance thoughts may come into the essayist’s head.

My objection to the prose fantasia is the same as my objection to “free” verse (to which Chesterton also objected), namely, that, while excellent examples of both exist, they are the exception not the rule. All too often the result of the absence of any rules and restrictions, of a meter to which the poet must conform, of a definite subject to which the essayist must stick, is a repetitious and self-indulgent “show-off” of the writer’s personality and stylistic mannerisms.

Chesterton’s insistence upon the treadmill of weekly journalism after it ceased to be financially necessary seems to have puzzled his friends as much as it puzzles me. Thus E. C. Bentley writes:

To live in this way was his deliberate choice. There can be no doubt of that, for it was a hard life, and a much easier one lay nearby to his hand. As a writer of books, as a poet, he had an assured position, and an inexhaustible fund of ideas: the friends who desired him to make the most of his position were many. But G. K. Chesterton preferred the existence of a regular contributor to the Press, bound by iron rules as to space and time. Getting his copy to the office before it was too late was often a struggle. Having to think of a dead-line at all was always an inconvenience

Whatever Chesterton’s reasons and motives for his choice, I am quite certain it was a mistake. “A journalist,” said Karl Kraus, “is stimulated by a dead-line: he writes worse if he has time.” If this is correct, then Chesterton was not, by nature, a journalist. His best thinking and best writing are to be found, not in his short weekly essays, but in his full-length books where he could take as much time and space as he pleased. (In fact, in my selection, I took very little from his volumes of collected essays.) Oddly enough, since he so detested them, Chesterton inherited from the aesthetes of the eighties and nineties the conviction that a writer should be continuously “bright” and epigrammatic. When he is really enthralled by a subject he is brilliant, without any doubt one of the finest aphorists in English literature, but, when his imagination is not fully held he can write an exasperating parody of himself, and this is most likely to happen when he has a dead-line to meet.

It is always difficult for a man as he grows older to “keep up” with the times, to understand what the younger generation is thinking and writing well enough to criticize it intelligently; for an overworked journalist like Chesterton it is quite impossible, since he simply does not have the time to read any new book carefully enough.

He was, for example, certainly intelligent enough and, judging by his criticisms of contemporary anthropology, equipped enough, to have written a serious critical study of Freud, had he taken the time and trouble to read him properly: his few flip remarks about dreams and psycho-analysis are proof that he did not.

Chesterton’s non-fictional prose has three concerns, literature, politics and religion.

Our day has seen the emergence of two kinds of literary critic, the documentor and the cryptologist. The former with meticulous accuracy collects and publishes every unearthable fact about an author’s life, from his love-letters to his dinner invitations and laundry bills, on the assumption that any fact, however trivial, about the man may throw light upon his writings. The latter approaches his work as if it were an anonymous and immensely difficult text, written in a private language which the ordinary reader cannot hope to understand until it is deciphered for him by experts.

Both such critics will no doubt dismiss Chesterton’s literary criticism as out-of-date, inaccurate and superficial, but if one were to ask any living novelist or poet which kind of critic he would personally prefer to write about his work. I have no doubt as to the answer. Every writer knows that certain events in his life, most of them in childhood, have been of decisive importance in forming his personal imaginative world, the kinds of things he likes to think about, the qualities in human beings he particularly admires or detests. He also knows that many things which are of great importance to him as a man, are irrelevant to his imagination. In the case of a love-poem, for example, no light is thrown upon either its content or its style by discovering the identity of the poet’s beloved.

This Chesterton understands. He thought, for example, that certain aspects of Dickens’ novels are better understood if we remember that, as a child, Dickens was expected to put on public performances to amuse his father, so he informs us of this fact. On the other hand, he thought that we shall not understand the novels any better if we learn all the details about the failure of Dickens’ marriage, so he omits them. In both cases, surely, he is right.

Again, while some writers are more “difficult” than others and cannot therefore hope to reach a very wide audience, no writer thinks he needs decoding in order to be understood. On the other hand, nearly every writer who has achieved some reputation complains of being misunderstood both by the critics and the public, because they come to his work with preconceived notions of what they are going to find in it. His admirers praise him and his detractors blame him for what, to him, seem imaginary reasons. The kind of critic an author hopes for is someone who will dispel these preconceived notions so that his readers may come to his writings with fresh eyes.

At this task of clearing the air, Chesterton was unusually efficient. It is popularly believed that a man who is in earnest about something speaks earnestly and that a man who keeps making jokes is not in earnest. The belief is not ill-founded since, more often than not, this is true. But there are exceptions and, as Chesterton pointed out, Bernard Shaw was one. The public misunderstood Shaw and thought him just a clown when, in fact, he was above all things a deadly serious preacher. In the case of Browning, Chesterton shows that many of his admirers had misunderstood him by reading into his obscurer passages intellectual profundities when in fact the poet was simply indulging his love of the grotesque.

Again, he shows us that Stevenson’s defect as a narrator was not, as it had become conventional to say, an over-ornate style but an over-ascetic one, a refusal to tell the reader anything about a character that was not absolutely essential. As a rule, it is journalism and literary gossip that is responsible for such misunderstandings; occasionally, though, it can be the author himself. Kipling would certainly have described himself as a patriotic Englishman who admired above all else the military virtues. In an extremely funny essay. Chesterton convincingly demonstrated that Kipling was really a cosmopolitan with no local roots, and he quotes in proof Kipling’s own words:

If England were what England seems,
How soon we’d chuck her, but She ain’t.

A patriot loves a country because, for better or worse, it is Is. Kipling is only prepared to love England so long as England a Great Power. As for Kipling’s militarism, Chesterton says:

Kipling’s subject is not that valour which properly belongs to war, but that interdependence and efficiency which belongs quite as much to engineers, or sailors, or mules, or railway engines…. The real poetry, the “true romance” which Mr. Kipling has taught is the romance of the division of labor and the discipline of all the trades. He sings the arts of peace much more accurately than the arts of war.

Chesterton’s literary criticism abounds in such observations which, once they have been made, seem so obviously true than one cannot understand why one had not seen them for oneself. It now seems obvious to us all that Shaw, the socialist, was in no sense a democrat but was a great republican; that there are two kinds of democrat, the man who, like Scott, sees the dignity of all men, and the man who, like Dickens, sees that all men are equally interesting and varied; that Milton was really an aesthete whose greatness “does not depend upon moral earnestness or upon anything connected with morality, but upon style alone, a style rather unusually separated from its substance”; that the Elizabethan Age, however brilliant, was not “spacious,” but in literature an age of conceits, in politics an age of conspiracies. But Chesterton was the first critic to see these things. As a literary critic, therefore, I rank him very high.

For various reasons I selected very little from his writings on historical and political subjects. Chesterton was not himself an historian, but he had both the gift and the position to make known to the general public the views of historians, like Belloc, who were challenging the Whig version of English History and the humanists’ version of cultural history. It must be difficult for anyone under forty to realize how taken for granted both of these were, even when I was a boy. Our school textbooks taught us that, once the papist-inclined and would-be tyrants, the Stuarts, had been got rid of, and the Protestant Succession assured, the road to Freedom, Democracy and Progress lay wide open; they also taught us that the civilization which had ended with the fall of the Roman Empire was re-born in the sixteenth century, between which dates lay twelve centuries of barbarism, superstition and fanaticism.

If today every informed person knows both accounts to be untrue, that the political result of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was to hand over the government of the country to a small group of plutocrats, a state of affairs which certainly persisted until 1914, perhaps even until 1939, and that, whatever the Renaissance and the Reformation might signify, it was not a revolt of reason against fanaticism — on the contrary, it might be more fairly described as a revolt against the over-cultivation of logic by the late Middle Ages — Chesterton is not the least among those persons who are responsible for this change of view. The literary problem about any controversial writing is that, once it has won its battle, its interest to the average reader is apt to decline. Controversy always involves polemical exaggeration and it is this of which, once we have forgotten the exaggerations of the other side, we shall be most aware and critical.

Thus, Chesterton’s insistence, necessary at the time, upon all that was good in the twelfth century, his glossing over of all that was bad, seems today a romantic day-dream. Similarly, one is unconvinced by Belloc’s thesis in The Servile State, that if, when the monasteries were dissolved, the Crown had taken their revenues instead of allowing them to fall into the hands of a few of its subjects, the Crown would have used its power, not only to keep these few in order, but also for the benefit of the common people. The history of countries like France where the Crown remained stronger than the nobility gives no warrant for such optimism. Absolute monarchs who are anxious to win glory are much more likely 4 to waste the substance of their country in wars of conquest than plutocrats who are only interested in making money.

Chesterton’s negative criticisms of modern society, his distrust of bigness, big business, big shops, his alarm at the consequences of undirected and uncontrolled technological development, are oven more valid today than in his own. His positive political beliefs, that a good society would be a society of small property-owners, most of them living on the land, attractive as they sound, seem to me open to the same objection that he brings against the political ideas of the Americans and the French in the eighteenth century: “Theirs was a great ideal; but no modern state is small enough to achieve anything so great.” In the twentieth century, the England he wanted would pre-suppose the strictest control of the birth-rate, a policy which both his temperament and his religion forbade him to recommend.

On the subject of international politics, Chesterton was, to put it mildly, unreliable. He seems to have believed that, in political life, there is a direct relation between Faith and Morals: a Catholic State, holding the true faith, will behave better politically than a Protestant State. France, Austria, Poland were to be trusted: Prussia was not. It so happened that, in his early manhood, the greatest threat to world peace lay, as he believed, in Prussian militarism. After its defeat in 1918, he continued to cling to his old belief so that, when Hitler came to power in 1933, he misread this as a Prussian phenomenon.

In fact, aside from the economic conditions which enabled it to succeed, the National Socialist Movement was essentially the revenge of Catholic Bavaria and Austria for their previous subordination to Protestant Bismarckian Prussia. It was not an accident that Hitler was a lapsed Catholic. The nationalism of the German-speaking minority in the Hapsburg Empire had always been racist, and the hot-bed of anti-Semitism was Vienna not Berlin. Hitler himself hated the Prussian Junkers and was planning, if he won the war, to liquidate them all.

Chesterton was brought up a Unitarian, became an Anglican and finally, in 1922, was converted to Roman Catholicism. Today, reading such a book as Heretics, published in 1905, one is surprised that he was not converted earlier.

If his criticisms of Protestantism are not very interesting, this is not his fault. It was a period when Protestant theology (and, perhaps, Catholic too) was at a low ebb, Kierkegaard had not been re-discovered and Karl Barth had not yet been translated. Small fry like Dean Inge and the ineffable Bishop Barnes were too easy game for a mind of his caliber. Where he is at his best is in exposing the hidden dogmas of anthropologists, psychologists and their ilk who claim to be purely objective and “scientific.” Nobody has written more intelligently and sympathetically about mythology or polytheism.

Critical Judgment and Personal Taste are different kinds of evaluation which always overlap but seldom coincide exactly. On the whole and in the long run, Critical Judgment is a public, matter; we agree as to what we consider artistic virtues and artistic defects. Our personal tastes, however, differ. For each of us, them are writers whom we enjoy reading, despite their defects, and others who, for all their virtues, give us little pleasure. In order for us to find a writer “sympathetic,” there must be some kinship between his imaginative preferences and our own. As Chesterton wrote:

There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern or a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet; the sort of thing he likes to think about.

This is equally true of every reader’s mind. Our personal patterns, too, unlike our scale of critical values, which we need much time and experience to arrive at, are formed quite early in life, probably before the age of ten.

In “The Ethics of Elfland” Chesterton tells us how his own pattern was derived from fairy stories. If I can always enjoy reading him, even at his silliest, I sure the reason is that many elements in my own pattern are derived from the same source. (There is one gulf between us: Chesterton had no feeling for or understanding of music.) There are, I know, because I have met them, persons to whom Grimm and Andersen mean little or nothing: Chesterton will not be for them.


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