Archive for January, 2013

h1

Dante’s The Vita Nuova – A.N. Wilson

January 31, 2013
Through his study of Averroës, and perhaps due to his native temperament, Cavalcanti held the pessimistic view that humans were limited in the sort of ultimate attainment they could achieve. The intellect could never be brought into a harmony based on reason with bodily desires. This affinity for the ideas of Averroës would have lent to his reputation that he was an atheist. The crowning achievement of Guido’s poetic career is his masterpiece, the philosophical canzone Donna me prega (A woman asks me). It is a full fledged treatise of his personal thoughts and beliefs on love. Through it, he transforms all that came before him and influenced him: courtly love, the troubadours, the Sicilian School and his peers of the Dolce stil novo.

Through his study of Averroës, and perhaps due to his native temperament, Cavalcanti held the pessimistic view that humans were limited in the sort of ultimate attainment they could achieve. The intellect could never be brought into a harmony based on reason with bodily desires. This affinity for the ideas of Averroës would have lent to his reputation that he was an atheist. The crowning achievement of Guido’s poetic career is his masterpiece, the philosophical canzone Donna me prega (A woman asks me). It is a full fledged treatise of his personal thoughts and beliefs on love. Through it, he transforms all that came before him and influenced him: courtly love, the troubadours, the Sicilian School and his peers of the Dolce stil novo.

For the five years after the Battle of Campaldino, we can infer that Dante was writing poetry, composing the Vita Nuova, and laying the foundations of his career as a negotiator and politician. This was the period when he began his informal absorption in philosophy, with the ideas of contemporary philosophers forming part of the imaginative process which would eventually fructify in the Comedy. When Dante began to study philosophy in Florence, the prime philosophical school — in the absence of a university — was at the newly built Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, where a pupil of Aquinas, Remigio de’ Girolami, gave lectures.

It was almost certainly at Remigio’s feet that Dante revived his interest in the classical past. The points of overlap between Remigio’s teaching and Dante’s writings suggest that the Dominican lectures went deep. With Remigio, Dante learnt to see Cicero as the great defender of the res publica, and to perceive in history the Divine Mission of Rome. Quite how much Aquinas himself influenced Dante, and how much of his work Dante had read remains a matter of debate.

At this particular stage of Dante’s journey, however, in the 1290s, there as unfinished business, with his earlier self, with the ideas and the poetics he had learnt from Guido Cavalcanti, with his feelings for Beatrice. And the finishing of this unfinished business was the theme of his first book, the Vita Nuova.

We should misunderstand the Vita Nuova if we formed our impressions of it from, for example, the great paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who depicted such famous scenes as Dante drawing an angel, while in distracted grief for Beatrice, or Beatrice in her Beatitude. From Rossetti’s painting, as from many a devout commentary on the book, you might form the impression that the Vita Nuova is about Beatrice, whereas center-stage, and the book’s real subject, is Dante himself.

Ezra Pound was probably right to say that Cavalcanti was more modern than Dante, if by modern is meant less orthodox. But the Vita Nuova is in some senses a very modern, even very modernist, book. And it is possible that in this fact consists the solution of the problem, as well as the problem itself, outlined above, of whether or not Dante rejected Beatrice in favor of the Window Lady or vice versa.

When he was writing the sonnet already quoted — `Oltre la spera’ — his sigh was following Beatrice up to the Crystalline sphere. When he was writing Il Convivio, he was reflecting upon a time when he had devoted himself to free inquiry and philosophy. In one mood, Beatrice was to the fore, in another mood he loved the Donna Gentile. The positions would be incompatible if we were cross-examining counsel in a divorce case. But he is a poet, using the two women as figures for his own moods and preoccupations.

The Vita Nuova is modern in the sense that it is a text which devours itself, reflects upon itself, and makes itself, and its author, its own subject. It is a solipsism within a solipsism, ostensibly a commentary on Dante’s poetic career to date and an exposition of his own poetry — some of which is sublime and some of which, the early stuff, is pretty dull. Young poets, as a breed, are as egotistical as any human beings you are likely to meet, but even by the standards of young poets, it is an extraordinary exercise. Who, you might suppose, would be expected to read this disquisition on Dante’s philosophical and poetic development?

The answer, one suspects, is a very small number of people indeed – the circle to which Dante belonged, in which Guido had been preeminent. Dante is in effect saying in the Vita Nuova. “I used to write in your manner. I used to think like you. I used to share your “philosophy of love’: But now — Beatrice is dead, and with her “Beatrice” is dead. I am moving on until I can think of a way of using the Beatrician material to write something entirely different.”

That could be one paraphrase of the Vita Nuova. So, one of the things he does is to take Cavalcanti’s `philosophy of love’ and discard it, Cavalcanti had portrayed love as an aberration of reason, an enemy of peace of mind, a terrible interruption to life. His poem `Donna me prega, the one on which most of his commentators concentrate as the core of his philosophy, sees love as one of the appetites.

Love, in Cavalcanti’s vision, is an illusion. Following Averroes, Cavalcanti had seen love as an interruption to contemplation. Only in the world of abstract contemplation can the reason be satisfied. The Vita Nuova is a tribute to Cavalcanti and to what he has taught Dante, but it is also a somewhat confused farewell to him.

A far greater egotist even than Cavalcanti himself, Dante can yet see that there is something wrong with his philosophy of love. Love is not something which gets in the way of life. If any of these poems, any of these experiences of desire, longing, lust, worship, death, are true love must be central to experience. But what exactly is it?

Paradoxically, for so self-centered an imagination as the young Dante’s, he realizes that his experience of Beatrice in death and of the Donna Gentile in life is an experience of the other. Dante wrote well over three centuries before Descartes locked the Western imagination into the artesian conundrum — how can we know anything except our own existence, our own sensations, our own thoughts?

Aristotle thought it was legitimate to question everything and so did his greatest medieval exponent, St Thomas. Dante was never going to be philosopher professionally, but his sojourn among the philosophers had disturbed his sense that the intellectuals and poets within his own small Florentine circle possessed all the answers.

By the end of the Vita Nuova, he has admitted both to loving the Other Lady — to following philosophical inquiry rather than blind piety, of moving on to new experiences and not being locked in childhood and youth — and he has said that Beatrice or “Beatrice,” that is the beautiful Florentine girl he has loved since nine and all she stands for, will remain the end of all his searchings and inquiries.

The reader of the Vita Nuova finishes the book rather baffled, and the bafflement will not be diminished by many a re-reading of its circular, inward-looking, self-devouring manner. Like so much in Dante it shimmers with paradox. For it opens the heart of the reader to the possibility of new worlds, new imaginative possibilities. What these are, Dante does not himself know. But after this period he was ready to place his literary and intellectual career to one side and enter the arena of politics.

h1

Dante and St. Thomas – A.N. Wilson

January 30, 2013
For Dante, an objective reality existed. “There is no subjectivism or idealism in his world,” Christopher Dawson claimed; “everything has its profound ontological basis in an objective spiritual order.” Unfortunately, Dawson lamented, no one of Dante's caliber followed him... This was unfortunate, Dawson wrote; “otherwise we might have been saved alike from the narrow rationalism of eighteenth-century Classicism and from the emotional debauches of nineteenth-century Romanticism.”

For Dante, an objective reality existed. “There is no subjectivism or idealism in his world,” Christopher Dawson claimed; “everything has its profound ontological basis in an objective spiritual order.” Unfortunately, Dawson lamented, no one of Dante’s caliber followed him… This was unfortunate, Dawson wrote; “otherwise we might have been saved alike from the narrow rationalism of eighteenth-century Classicism and from the emotional debauches of nineteenth-century Romanticism.”

In 1215, Aristotle’s works had been banned by the statutes of the University of Paris. But largely through the labors of one supremely great and saintly intellect, Aristotle’s thought was saved for the Christian church. This figure, whose gigantic intellect rolls like thunder through the centuries reducing the tentative speculations of our modern theologians to so many squeaks on the margin, was an early recruit to Dominic’s order known to posterity as Thomas Aquinas. He was gigantic in every sense.

When Dante meets him in Heaven, Thomas is immediately recognizable because he is so enormously fat.

I was a lamb among the holy flock
that Dominic leads on the path where one
may fatten well if one does not stray off.
[Paradisio X.94-6, Mandelbaum]

He was in all senses a giant, immensely tall, and rotund. His brother friars nicknamed him the Sicilian Ox.

This intellectual Friar Tuck was one of the most brilliant and influential of all European philosophers. Like Dante, he was viewed with considerable distrust in the Church during his lifetime. In Spain, the philosophy of Aristotle had been brought by the Arab conquerors and at last translated into Latin. So too had the works of the Arab metaphysicians and mathematicians themselves. Naturally enough, the Church viewed with disquiet the arrival of so much new learning, much of which appeared to be incompatible with traditional Catholicism.

Thomas Aquinas was supreme among those intellects of his age in absorbing the new wisdom and seeing whether a synthesis of Greek and Arab insights could not be drawn into the Christian way of looking at the world. He was not alone. It was an extraordinary age, with such giants as Roger Bacon, Albert of Cologne, .known as Albert the Great, Siger of Brabant, Duns Scotus and Meister Eckhart all at work over a fifty-year period in Paris.

Older Dante scholars liked to imagine that Dante must have studied in Paris at some stage, though, in fact, no evidence can be found which demonstrates that he ever left Italy. But what could be truthfully said of the period of the second decade of the fourteenth century when Dante began to write his Comedy, when Duns Scotus had just finished and Meister Eckhart was still teaching at Paris, was that Dante was `far removed from Paris in body but very much there in spirit.

Of all these great thinkers, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) stands out as the most far-reaching and ambitious. He did not live fifty years in the world, but he left Christianity with an intellectual armor which it had not altogether possessed before. This was not because he supplied the Church with a set of answers, so much as because he taught it — hence the extreme suspicion with which he was regarded in some quarters — the robustness to ask questions, to take the Aristotelian habit of asking questions into every single area of life, including the most basic questions about God — namely, is His existence self-evident? Can His existence be demonstrated? And does He, in fact, exist?

He also, in a way which anticipated the work of mid-twentieth-century philosophers, explored the problems of existence/Being itself, questions of language and meaning from an epistemological point of view, as well as the philosophy of ethics, of aesthetics and of politics. In fact, in the post-classical world it is hard to think of any philosopher, with the possible exception of Hegel, who gave his mind to a wider range of issues. Certainly, he must have been one of the most prolific of the philosophers.

His works consist of many millions of words, many or most of them dictated. As has been said by one of his fellow-Dominicans, He worked himself literally to death. He had a nervous breakdown and a complete writing block in 1274 and died a few months later:  This writer clearly discounts the sensationalist medieval rumor, repeated by Dante and Villani, that Thomas was poisoned at the behest of Charles of Anjou.

Thomas was of noble, very nearly of royal, stock. He was a cousin of the Emperor Frederick II and of the Kings of France. Though regarded by Popes and traditionalist thinkers as a radical who was prepared to question everything, he was by no stretch of the modern imagination • radical in politics. ‘Aquinas accepted in toto the traditional hierarchy of aristocratic Europe, as it had existed from Homeric times up to his own day; slavery, warfare, capital punishment were all a natural part of it.

For this very reason, he was distrustful of what we can see as the origins of “capitalism — not merely usury, but the very notions of property were ones which he held up to question. Like most Christians of the Middle Ages, he was anti-Semitic. He believed that Jews should be forced to wear special clothing, that their money was tainted, and should not be used by Christians and that, by virtue of their having urged the Crucifixion of Christ, they were subject to a perpetual servitude.

He denounced Jewish usurers because they were usurers, not because they were Jews. A modern defender of Aquinas, presumably seeing him as less rabidly anti-Semitic than some of his medieval contemporaries, pleaded that, on the issue of Jewish worship as on forced conversion and baptism of Jewish children, Aquinas adopted a relatively tolerant position.

Thomas Aquinas was born, either in 1225 or 1227, at Roccasecca, in the region of Naples, the castle belonging to his father, Count Landulf of Aquino. At the age of five, he was placed in the monastery founded by St Benedict (c.480-c.544), father of Western monasticism, at Monte Cassino in the sixth century. In all the intervening years, between the life of Benedict and the life of Thomas Aquinas, European philosophy had slept. (‘There is no philosophy between the end of the third century after Christ, which saw the death, of Porphyrius, and the middle of the thirteenth century, which witnessed the appearance of the “Summa contra gentiles”)

At Monte Cassino, Thomas was given the equivalent of a boarding-school education, following the medieval pattern of the Trivium and the Quadrivium. In 1239, he had what was a lucky break. The monks were forced to abandon the monastery, and Thomas was sent to the newly founded University of Naples. Frederick II, deemed by orthodox Catholics to be the child of Satan, had founded this university to train civil servants in deliberate opposition to the papal-chartered universities of Bologna and Paris.

It was in every sense a freethinking university which, because of its links with Sicily where Frederick had his court, was in touch with the new learning brought to Europe by the Arabs. It was at Naples that Thomas encountered an Irishman, Petrus Hibernicus, who introduced him to the works of Aristotle. After nearly a millennium of philosophical stagnation, Europe was again reminded of what philosophy was.

Latin Europe had possessed a few bits of Aristotle — a translation of the Physics was known at Chartres, for example — but it was in the Arab world that Aristotle was known, and in the ecumenical climate of late twelfth-century Toledo that Aristotle was translated into Latin and came to be known by such intellectuals as Peter the Irishman.

From the point of view of the mature Dante, who wrote the Comedy and turned much of Aquinas’s hyper-energetic dialectic into deeply charged poetry, three things above all others need to be mentioned out of the whole eight-million-word conversation which Aquinas was having with the world.

First, the notion of ecstasy. Dante’s great poem is about a man who journeys out of the dark wood of middle life into the Empyrean itself. He is transported from earth to Paradise. Few human beings have ever claimed to do this, but one who seems to have made the claim is the Apostle Paul who, in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, wrote to his converts in Corinth in the late fifties of our era,

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third Heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know. And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know: God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.

This was an important Scriptural passage for Aquinas. He interpreted the third Heaven’ to mean the Empyrean (as Dante would do). It is the `spiritual Heaven where angels and holy souls enjoy the contemplation of God. This contemplation could, says Thomas, either be seen as an imaginative vision, such as Isaiah enjoyed (in his sixth chapter) or such as was seen by the New Testament seer in the Apocalypse.

Or it could be seen, as the last great philosopher of the Latin world before the Dark Ages (St Augustine of Hippo) saw it, as an intellectual vision. The point which Thomas emphasizes is that it is not natural for human beings to see God. St Paul was in ecstasy, a word which means being taken out of your normal state, a word which even, says Thomas, implies a certain violence. A mere man cannot see the essence of God.

In a sense, Thomas’s reflections on this strange passage from Paul anticipate the whole problem of knowledge post-Descartes, that is, how can you escape your own sense-impressions into a world of objectivity? As far as our knowledge of God is concerned (and perhaps as far as our knowledge of anything else), Aquinas, who appears to be one of those thinkers who has thought of everything, says you need to leave yourself, in the Cartesian sense, in order to know anything.

In order to know God, you need to do something like violence to nature. But although God is the beginning and the end of our intellectual journey, He is irreducible. `The ultimate happiness of man consists in his highest activity, which is the exercise of his mind. If, therefore, the created mind were never able to see the essence of God, either it would never attain happiness, or its happiness would consist in something other than God. This is contrary to faith [alienum a fide], for the ultimate perfection of the rational creature lies in that which is the source of its being — each thing achieves its perfection by rising as high as its source.

There is a paradox, therefore, at the heart of human intellectual endeavor. The thing which brings the human mind its ultimate happiness, the knowledge of God, cannot be enjoyed by the mere pursuit of the intellect. (This is why Thomas, after his `nervous breakdown, described all his philosophical works as mere straw.) Mere thinking about God, however exact and sustained, remains incomplete theology unless charged with dilectio, or choosing to be in love with God himself.

Bishop Berkeley took skepticism in the eighteenth century to its ultimate extreme by refusing to believe in matter itself. We can have no certainty of the material existence of bodies outside ourselves, only the mind of God can keep such things in existence. As a good Aristotelian, Aquinas would have thought this was nonsense, which it is, and he would no doubt have approved of another large, fat Christian man, Samuel Johnson, responding to Berkeley’s difficulty literally with a kick against a material object. (`Striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded for it, “I refute it thus“.’)

But Aquinas, as a fellow-philosopher of Berkeley’s, would have sympathized with the absurdity more than Johnson did. Aquinas devised what he called Five Ways to prove God’s existence. In asking the question whether God is self-evident, he refutes the so-called ontological proof of Anselm. God’s self-evidence can never be self-evident to us. It can only be self-evident to God. Even when Paul had been up to the `third Heaven’ and had his vision, he did not know whether his experience was in the body not. He lacked something, which is the full and perfect knowledge which is the lot of angels, says Thomas.

Our minds can operate — here he is an Aristotelian, not an eighteenth century empiricist — to grasp their own limitations. We can see that there things which, with mental equipment, cannot be known. But where-Cartesian philosopher would be tempted to subject God Himself to same set of criteria by which we judge the knowability of material objects, or objects within nature, in a Thomist view of things this is the wrong way round. It is only because of God that anything exists at all. God is the ultimate reality, and our reality only begins to take shape, like the coming into vision of material objects with each sunrise, in His light.

Later philosophers have been divided about the extent to which Thomas was successful in `proving’ the existence of God. For the present purpose — drawing a picture of the mind of Dante Alighieri, and attempting to assess the effect upon it of reading the philosophy of Aquinas — the validity of the arguments is secondary to their imaginative power.

One would note three things.

  1. First, then, the importance Thomas attaches to ecstasy, and his interest in the journey (whether in the body or not) supposedly made by the Apostle Paul to the `third Heaven’ Dante was to make such a journey — the journey in the Comedy is a journey to Heaven in the body – and what Thomas says about this must be relevant. Dante’s journey is one of sanctification. He himself is journeying to blessedness, and he hopes his readers will accompany him. When he has been uplifted out of the present life, it is no accident that he meets Thomas Aquinas.
  2. Secondly, having said that — and this is crucial for any understanding either of Dante’s, or of his contemporaries, way of thinking — what Aquinas was exploring in his philosophy (as was Aristotle) was objective knowledge. There is no skepticism about the possibility of knowledge (as there would be for Berkeley and Hume). The world is that which is the case. This will pose critical, as well as philosophical, problems for the modern reader of Dante.The `story’ — of Dante starting out in the middle of a dark wood and ending up in the Empyrean gazing upon God Himself — is surely an invention, a fiction? Along the way, he will meet mythological creatures such as the Minotaur and the Centaurs; he will also meet real, historical characters; and he will meet angels and figures from the Bible. How much of his vision are we to take as fiction, and how much is real? How we answer this question will depend upon how we read the whole of Dante’s life and age. Thomas Aquinas, a rigorously realist, Aristotelian philosopher, will help us here.
  3. Third — Thomas’s philosophy of politics and law. They are not the only influence upon Dante, but they are a significant part of it. In much of his prose work, Dante is trying to explore the idea of the Good City, and the idea of the ideal political condition of the world. In this, as in other areas of life, he would change his mind radically, at least three times. When living in Florence, he was a Guelf, a supporter of the papal party against the domination of the Emperor. In exile, he became a sort of Ghibelline, and in his book on monarchy he saw the Emperor Henry VII as a universal Emperor.

Dante would have first come across these ideas in the church of Santa Maria Novella at the lectures given by Dominican followers of St Thomas. I mention them here because they clearly will emerge in his work when it comes to maturity and there is a case for noting when the seeds of an idea are planted in a writer’s imagination even if we cannot be sure when those seeds gestated.

h1

Dante, Boethius and St. Thomas – A. N. Wilson

January 29, 2013
Boethius and Philosophy by Mattia Preti, 17th century

Boethius and Philosophy by Mattia Preti, 17th century

Dante tells us after the death of Beatrice that he gave himself up to the reading of philosophy and two of the works which he studied were Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, and Cicero’s On Friendship, in particular that passage known as the Dream of Scipio, on which Macrobius wrote a commentary. These are two of the most popular `classics’ of the medieval world and in order to understand Dante’s work (or, indeed, the medieval mind generally) one should have a knowledge of them.

Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boethius (480-524) was a Roman aristocrat who served as a government minister to the first barbarian King in Italy, Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Theodoric was an Arian Christian — that is to say, he followed the teachings of Arius, the Libyan who denied the Trinity. Boethius was an orthodox Christian, and he wrote a tract on the Trinity. It is not for this, however, that he is remembered.

He was implicated — history cannot guess whether justly or otherwise — in a plot formed by the Roman Senate and the Eastern Emperor to oust Theodoric from his position. He was put in gaol in Pavia and eventually killed by having ropes twisted round his head until his eyes popped out. He e was finished off with a bludgeon.

Although he was canonized as St Severinus, very few ever think of him this title. (The church of Saint Severin in Paris, for example, commemorates a quite different person, a sixth-century hermit who lived in a hut the site of what would become the Latin Quarter.) Our man is always own as Boethius. And he is famous for the book he wrote while he was awaiting sentence of death, The Consolation of Philosophy, a book translated into English by Alfred the Great, by Chaucer, and by Queen Elizabeth I, and which Edward Gibbon deemed `a golden volume not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or of Tully.

C. S. Lewis, in his Cambridge lectures, said that, `Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it. To acquire a taste for it is to become naturalized in the Middle Ages.

It is certainly to be recommended, if you are to become a real Dante reader, that you read Boethius. To start with, however, it is perhaps enough to know a few salient points. First, Boethius, although a Christian, devoted his last work to seeing what consolation could be derived from the exercise of pure reason. There would come a time for imploring the grace and mercy of God — when he laid down his pen in the evenings, and, presumably, when he came to face his executioners.

But the lofty purpose of his book is not to dip into the consolations of piety. It is to see how a rational person, and it must be added, a gentleman, faces up to adversity, injustice and death. In doing so, Boethius the Roman senator and aristocrat draws himself up to his full height, as it were, and he writes in the polished prose of classical Latin; he lards his text with allusions to Pythagoras, to Homer, to Herodotus and Livy, to Tacitus and Cicero. Condemned by a barbarian king for wishing to preserve the Roman Senate, he says that the documents being used to condemn him are forgeries but, `what is the point of talking about those forgeries in which I am accused of having striven for Roman liberty?

What he leaves behind, then, is the classical era’s last shout in a world taken over by barbarians. In a world where the Dark Ages have engulfed Europe, in which literacy is confined to the few (Theodoric was illiterate) and books were more and more to be found in monastic libraries or not at all, Boethius gives us the world seen through the eyes of a classically educated person. If there were to be a classical revival in our own day, there would be worse ways of starting it than by putting The Consolation of Philosophy on the school curriculum. Here are many of the tropes and types which will become commonplace in so much medieval literature, and which, fairly obviously, are central to Dante.

First, the Consolation is an allegory in which, in his distress, Boethius is visited by the figure of a woman who seemed both eternally young and very old. She is Philosophy, but we shall be visited again and again by this image, of a male figure, whether in a dream-vision or not, being visited by an allegorical female figure. Clearly, the figure of Philosophy as she appears to Boethius influences, not so much Dante’s feelings about the Lady of the Window, as of Beatrice in the Comedy.

Central to the whole book is the puzzle of how God can permit such chaos in human affairs, and how the wise person conducts himself in relation to the unpredictable mutability of things. Boethius is one of the great popularizers of the idea of Fortune’s Wheel. `Will you really try to stop the whirl of her turning wheel? He also paints the classic, as well as classical, picture of the Unmoved Mover.

By the completion of Book IV, with its exposition of how to retain an equable temper in the face of adversity, are conscious of Boethius’ debts to the classical moralists, and also of the influence he spreads over the Elizabethan poets (Spenser above all), on the Augustan moralists such as Pope and Johnson, right down to Kipling meeting with Triumph and Disaster and treating those two imposters just the same. Yet there is nothing trite about Boethius. As well as recognizing his influence in so much of later moralizers, we shall feel there is something which he possesses in common with the Vedic wisdom of India. To be wise is to become close to God’s simplicity.

In reading Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, Dante likewise puts himself in touch with one of the few classical texts widely known by medieval literates. In this book may be found a potted version of Plato’s creation myths in the Timaeus — it is the closest Dante ever got to reading Plato. Here too are the accounts of the soul’s journeys through the universe as it returns to Heaven upon death. (There is no resurrection for Cicero.)

Dante came to these classics of the educated medieval man comparatively late in life. He was old enough to absorb them, hold on to them for what would be useful to him when he came to write his masterpiece. There would always be what a wise English Dante scholar, Father Kenelm Foster OP, called the two Dantes: the classical Roman man who was, if not exactly pagan, a self-conscious continuer in the footsteps of Virgil and Cicero, and the Catholic pilgrim-poet, who would write a Comedy which was about personal sanctification in the Christian mould.

When he came to study philosophy in an informal way in Florence, Dante was perhaps inevitably made aware of the dichotomy between the two stances. There was no university in Florence, but it was not long since the arrival in the city of two comparatively new religious orders – the Franciscans, started by St Francis of Assisi some forty years before Dante was born, and the Order of Preachers, which had taken shape at Bologna in 1220-21 under the direction of St Dominic.

Both these saints, and their orders, played an enormous part in Dante’s life, and in his vision of what the Church had a chance to become. Both their orders were departures from the traditional pattern of Western monasticism, in which a man or woman took a vow to remain in one place for life. The friars, Franciscan and Dominican, were roving preachers, missionaries, lecturers, ascetics and, especially in the case of the Dominicans, intellectuals. Dominic and his order are forever associated with two movements, or episodes, which suggest a somewhat dualistic nature in his outlook and that of his friars. On the one hand, Dominic, a Spaniard who, in his thirties, toured the South of France rooting out Cathar heretics, was the leading voice in excoriating the Cathars, and one of the principal functions of the order he founded was to convert them to Catholicism.

Yet while this part of Dominic’s work must be seen by posterity as an exercise in intolerance (however calamitous we might see it would have been if the fanatical Cathars had come to outnumber Catholics or dominate the religious climate of Europe), the other aspect of the Dominican intellectual life seems to be of an opposite coloring. For with Dominic’s order will always be associated the cult of Aristotle and the growth of Catholic intellectualism based upon debate and inquiry. In Dominic’s spiritual war against the Cathars (which, as we have seen, turned into an actual war in which many were massacred), the Church authorities were only too happy to tap into his order’s resources of ascetic and intellectual strength.

With his friars’ love affair with the new learning, the authorities were less happy. Above all they were suspicious of the revival of interest in Aristotle, who denied the Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting. In 1215, Aristotle’s works had been banned by the statutes of the University of Paris. `But largely through the labors of one supremely great and saintly intellect, Aristotle’s thought was saved for the Christian church.”‘ This figure, `whose gigantic intellect rolls like thunder through the centuries reducing the tentative speculations of our modern theologians to so many squeaks on the margin,” was an early recruit to Dominic’s order known to posterity as Thomas Aquinas. He was gigantic in every sense.

When Dante meets him in Heaven, Thomas is immediately recognizable because he is so enormously fat.

I was a lamb among the holy flock
that Dominic leads on the path where one
may fatten well if one does not stray off.
[Paradisio X.94-6, Mandelbaum]

He was in all senses a giant, immensely tall, and rotund. His brother friars nicknamed him the Sicilian Ox.

This intellectual Friar Tuck was one of the most brilliant and influential of all European philosophers. Like Dante, he was viewed with considerable distrust in the Church during his lifetime. In Spain, the philosophy of Aristotle had been brought by the Arab conquerors and at last translated into Latin. So too had the works of the Arab metaphysicians and mathematicians themselves. Naturally enough, the Church viewed with disquiet the arrival of so much new learning, much of which appeared to be incompatible with traditional Catholicism.

Thomas Aquinas was supreme among those intellects of his age in absorbing the new wisdom and seeing whether a synthesis of Greek and Arab insights could not be drawn into the Christian way of looking at the world. He was not alone. It was an extraordinary age, with such giants as Roger Bacon, Albert of Cologne, known as Albert the Great, Siger of Brabant, Duns Scotus and Meister Eckhart all at work over a fifty-year period in Paris.

Older Dante scholars liked to imagine that Dante must have studied in Paris at some stage, though, in fact, no evidence can be found which demonstrates that he ever left Italy. But what could be truthfully said of the period of the second decade of the fourteenth century when Dante began to write his Comedy, when Duns Scotus had just finished and Meister Eckhart was still teaching at Paris, was that Dante was `far removed from Paris in body but very much there in spirit.

Of all these great thinkers, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) stands out as the most far-reaching and ambitious. He did not live fifty years in the world, but he left Christianity with an intellectual armor which it had not altogether possessed before. This was not because he supplied the Church with a set of answers, so much as because he taught it — hence the extreme suspicion with which he was regarded in some quarters — the robustness to ask questions, to take the Aristotelian habit of asking questions into every single area of life, including the most basic questions about God — namely, is His existence self-evident? Can His existence be demonstrated? And does He, in fact, exist?

He also, in a way which anticipated the work of mid-twentieth-century philosophers, explored the problems of existence/Being itself, questions of language and meaning from an epistemological point of view, as well as the philosophy of ethics, of aesthetics and of politics. In fact, in the post-classical world it is hard to think of any philosopher, with the possible exception of Hegel, who gave his mind to a wider range of issues. Certainly, he must have been one of the most prolific of the philosophers. His works consist of many millions of words, many or most of them dictated. As has been said by one of his fellow-Dominicans, He worked himself literally to death. He had a nervous breakdown and a complete writing block in 1274 and died a few months later:  This writer clearly discounts the sensationalist medieval rumor, repeated by Dante and Villani, that Thomas was poisoned at the behest of Charles of Anjou.

Thomas was of noble, very nearly of royal, stock. He was a cousin of the Emperor Frederick II and of the Kings of France. Though regarded by Popes and traditionalist thinkers as a radical who was prepared to question everything, he was by no stretch of the modern imagination radical in politics. ‘Aquinas accepted in toto the traditional hierarchy of aristocratic Europe, as it had existed from Homeric times up to his own day; slavery, warfare, capital punishment were all a natural part of it.  For this very reason, he was distrustful of what we can see as the origins of “capitalism — not merely usury, but the very notions of property were ones which he held up to question. Like most Christians of the Middle Ages, he was anti-Semitic. He believed that Jews should be forced to wear special clothing, that their money was tainted, and should not be used by Christians and that, by virtue of their having urged the Crucifixion of Christ, they were subject to a `perpetual servitude.

He denounced Jewish usurers because they were usurers, not because they were Jews. A modern defender of Aquinas, presumably seeing him as less rabidly anti-Semitic than some of his medieval contemporaries, pleaded that, `On the issue of Jewish worship as on forced conversion and baptism of Jewish children, Aquinas adopted a relatively tolerant position.

h1

Christopher Hitchens’ Dying Days With G. K. Chesterton 4 – Ralph C. Wood

January 28, 2013
Chesterton's understanding of human existence is as unsentimental as it is profound. He envisions the invisible and unknowable God as having assumed human form in Jesus Christ -- the Lord who drank the cup of suffering in order to heal our sinful desire to reject it our wish to avoid the paradoxical nearness of good and evil. Most sin results from our refusal, like Gregory's, to travel this troublous path, seeking easier and more obvious ways, whether as individuals or communities. Martyrdom, Chesterton suggests, is the glad and joyful willingness to die by participating in God's own affliction.

Chesterton’s understanding of human existence is as unsentimental as it is profound. He envisions the invisible and unknowable God as having assumed human form in Jesus Christ — the Lord who drank the cup of suffering in order to heal our sinful desire to reject it our wish to avoid the paradoxical nearness of good and evil. Most sin results from our refusal, like Chesterton’s character Gregory’s, to travel this troublous path, seeking easier and more obvious ways, whether as individuals or communities. Martyrdom, Chesterton suggests, is the glad and joyful willingness to die by participating in God’s own affliction.

Despite Chesterton’s slaughter of perhaps the most sacred of all Enlightenment bovines, Hitchens might have found a strange point of contact in Chesterton’s idea of divine presence in the world. In God Is Not Great and elsewhere, Hitchens heaps scorn on the “God” whom William Blake ridiculed as Old Nobodaddy — namely, the Big Guy in the Sky who jumps in and out of his creation like a heavenly factotum, answering the imperatives of those whose pleas are sufficiently abject, managing the universe like a divine designer, and thus appearing all too akin to Feuerbach’s divinity, the deity invented all too much in our own image.

Hitchens fails to discern that thoughtful Christians also abominate such a heavenly projection of human desire. For him, however, it is ludicrous to believe in either a Creator or Redeemer when the world is so evidently a botched job: “Evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenal glands are too big, and our reproductive organs apparently designed by committee; a recipe which, alone or in combination, is very certain to lead to some unhappiness and disorder.”

“Unhappiness and disorder,” especially as they derive from the natural world, are Chesterton’s own native ground. “Nightmare” is the single most frequently occurring trope in the whole of his work. It occurs most notably in his only novel that can be likened to a masterpiece. The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). It’s subtitle, “A struggle with Nightmare,” refers to Chesterton’s own struggle with nihilism during the Mauve Decade of the 1890s, when such decadents as Beerbohm, and Lytton Strachey dominated British literary culture. Chesterton was driven almost to suicide by their mockery of all morality. He also feared that the Impressionists may have been right — that everything is merely an affair of veils and shadows, mirages and chimeras. His lifelong spiritual horror is expressed most memorably by the novel’s protagonist:

Was there anything apart from what it seemed? …. Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sun-splashed wood … that final skepticism which can find no floor to the universe.

Syme’s fear that the cosmos constitutes a huge Void, an infinite Nada that comes from Nada and returns to it, is actually worsened by the novel’s resolution. Syme had thought himself to be a double agent in the employ of Sunday, the master of six so-called “philosophical policemen.” Sunday has recruited these six detectives so that they might pose as anarchists and thus subvert a cell of bomb-throwers by unmasking their nihilist notions no less than their terrorist plots. Each of the six thought-sleuths has been given a secret code name matching the days of the week; Syme is thus “the man who was Thursday.” Yet in the end Syme discovers that the other alleged anarchists are, like him, counterspies of ideas!

The macabre quality of the novel derives from our not knowing who is good and who is evil, or even how we might distinguish between them. At the same time, we are made to enjoy the many hilarious undeceptions of these would-be deceivers. Mime and slapstick are piled atop the farcical and the grotesque, in a veritable farrago of nonsensical incidents whose implausibility is their essence. Most outrageous of all is the revelation that the Prime Detective is also the Presiding Anarch — a single figure named Sunday. The one who seemed to be the embodiment of good is the same as one who seemed to be the quintessence of evil.

In a mock-epic chase, Sunday mocks his pursuers as if he were an unfeeling prankster, a cat playing with the mouse that it will soon devour. Chesterton makes clear that here Sunday is wearing the mask of Nature, the visor of the brutal Darwinian realm that, as Tennyson famously said. remains “red in tooth and clan, Far from being a distant Newtonian divinity, he is utterly near, too close to identify with anything created, yet invisibly present in the roughshod and quite impersonal actions of Nature.

Hence the novel’s real terror, a fright that might have attracted a more patient atheist than Christopher Hitchens. Like the ancient patristic theologians, Chesterton instinctively understood that our first knowledge of God must always remain apophatic (vocab: apophatic – of or relating to the belief that God can be known to humans only in terms of what He is not (such as `God is unknowable’): we know who God is by knowing who he is not. He transcends and negates every human category, even being itself:

“I? What am I?” roared the President, and he rose slowly to an incredible height, like some wave about to arch above them and break. “You want to know what I am, do you? …. I tell you this, that you will have found out the truth of the last tree and the topmost cloud before the truth about me. You will understand the sea, and I shall still be a riddle; you shall know what the stars are, and not know what I am. Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf — kings and sages, and poets and law-givers, all the churches, and all the philosophies. But I have never been caught yet, and the skies will fall in the time I turn to bay.”

Ker comes close to discerning the significance of this most controversial scene, and yet he finally fails to see that, when Sunday at last cataphatically reveals himself, he no longer appears as the mask of darkness but as the visage of light.

“His face frightened me,” Gabriel Syme confesses, “as it did everyone; but not because it was brutal, not because it was evil. On the contrary, it frightened me because it was so beautiful, because it was so good.” The face of divine goodness is terrible in its beauty because it also frightening in its truth. Syme thus admits that evil often produces unintended good, just as good often becomes the occasion for inadvertent evil.

Such contradictions inhere in God’s good creation, Syme shouts, not in lament but praise. The world’s endemic suffering is not the mark of its godlessness; such affliction is indeed the will of God — paradoxical and exceedingly difficult though this claim must surely remain. Only “by tears and torture,” only in being “broken upon the wheel,” only in “descend[ing] into hell,” Syme affirms, can we both discern and embrace the deepest and truest things — bravery and goodness and glory. To reject this dark admixture of good and evil prompts us to pluck the tares from the wheat, to winnow evil from good according to our own measure, to seek perfection but wreak destruction.

A single character refuses to acknowledge the paradox that only in anguish do we encounter life in its otherwise unfathomable goodness. Julian Gregory, the true nihilist and sole terrorist who never took a code name, alleges that Sunday has permitted his speciously appointed detectives to suffer this contradiction while remaining immune from their misery and distress. “’Have you’ [this true anarch] cried in a dreadful voice, ‘have you ever suffered?’” Demanding a theodicy from Sunday, Gregory is given something at once far better and far worse – a verbal theophany amidst darkness such as occurred at Mt. Sinai and again at Mt. Golgotha:

As [Gregory] gaze, the great face [of Sunday] grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain [Julian] seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”

Chesterton prepares readers for this stunning climax when, early in the novel, the disguised Sunday recruits Syme as a double agent. Syme complains that he is both inexperienced and unfit for such a difficult calling. Sunday replies that Syme’s willingness to serve is quite sufficient. “I don’t know any profession,” Syme again objects, “of which merely willingness is the final test.” “I do,” Sunday replied — “martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good day.”

Such jaunty exchanges lie at the heart of Chesterton’s darkly comic novel. His understanding of human existence is as unsentimental as it is profound. He envisions the invisible and unknowable God as having assumed human form in Jesus Christ — the Lord who drank the cup of suffering in order to heal our sinful desire to reject it our wish to avoid the paradoxical nearness of good and evil. Most sin results from our refusal, like Gregory’s, to travel this troublous path, seeking easier and more obvious ways, whether as individuals or communities. Martyrdom, Chesterton suggests, is the glad and joyful willingness to die by participating in God’s own affliction.

This is no ventriloquizing of Newman at his most `dogmatic.” This is dogma plumbed to its ultimate depths. To rob Hitchens of his claim that “Jesus is Santa Claus for adults” is like stealing candy from babies. It is dangerous for Christians to have such unworthy opponents, lest a smug self-righteousness result. Even though he sometimes falters, as when he glorifies allegedly Christian warfare, Chesterton will endure because he engages not with atheistic midgets but with the equivalents of what Paul Ricoeur called the giant “masters of suspicion”: Nietzsche and Marx and Freud.

h1

Christopher Hitchens’ Dying Days With G. K. Chesterton 3 – Ralph C. Wood

January 25, 2013
The church's living tradition insures that its doctrines do not become fixed and static. For Chesterton as for Newman, Christian doctrine stays the same by changing. It remains true to itself precisely by way of its organic growth. The acorn of Christian revelation continues perpetually to ramify into the great oak tree of dogma.

The church’s living tradition insures that its doctrines do not become fixed and static. For Chesterton as for Newman, Christian doctrine stays the same by changing. It remains true to itself precisely by way of its organic growth. The acorn of Christian revelation continues perpetually to ramify into the great oak tree of dogma.

The most malignant of Hitchens’ charges is that Chesterton’s theology is at once unoriginal and triumphalist. It is true that Ker places Chesterton in a theological trajectory that begins with John Henry Newman. Yet Hitchens misses — as does Ker himself at times — the significance of this link to the great Victorian convert to Catholicism. For it makes Chesterton more of a Catholic modernist than a reactionary.

Newman revived modern Catholicism in a variety of ways, not least of all in his conviction that Christian doctrine is constantly and coherently developing. In the historical realities of Christ and his church, the utterly unknowable God definitively reveals himself. Far from being desiccated intellectual propositions, the church’s dogmas are the very source of its life.

So was Chesterton also convinced that the church’s living tradition insures that its doctrines do not become fixed and static. For Chesterton as for Newman, Christian doctrine stays the same by changing. It remains true to itself precisely by way of its organic growth. The acorn of Christian revelation continues perpetually to ramify into the great oak tree of dogma.

What is originally embryonic undergoes constant maturation, as the mind is freed, not fixed, by exploring the unfathomable depths of dogma. The church does at large, therefore, what every person does in small — it thinks dogmatically, as Chesterton declared in one of his earliest books, Heretics (1905)

Man may be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating them all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backward into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

Chesterton’s high estimate of dogma gives him a low regard for tolerance. Lest this seem to make him a troglodyte, it must be noted that he anticipates what Michael Walzer, Stephen Carter, and many others have identified as the hidden agenda underlying the chief Enlightenment ideal. Tolerance keeps an allegedly neutral peace when it is in fact an exercise of force: “The language of tolerance,” declared Carter in 1994, “is the language of power.” The tolerator grants liberty to the tolerated only when the latter behaves tolerantly, i.e., in accord with the tolerator’s notion of what is safe and appropriate and acceptable.

Virtually from the outset of his writing career in the first decade of the 20th century, Chesterton scorned this kind of tolerance, for it usually means that the tolerated is never taken seriously. Hence his tart aphorism against emptying the public square of both thought and belief. Ker curiously cites none of these, and Hitchens would surely have gagged on all of them: “Modem toleration is really a tyranny. It is a tyranny because it is a silence. To say that I must not deny my opponent’s faith is to say I must not discuss it.” Tolerance is thus “the virtue of a man without convictions.” It ignores the most basic truth of all ingestion, whether in thinking or masticating: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

“To `choose’ dogma and faith over doubt and experience,” Hitchens replied, “is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.”

As a lover of knight errantry, Chesterton sought entrance to what the late James Wm. McClendon called “the tournament of narratives” — i.e., an open arena where no traditions are automatically excluded but all are seriously engaged. Our story-borne convictions must persuasively confront each other, even to the point of conversion.

The Ball and the Cross, though Ker gives it short shrift, is far and away Chesterton’s finest fictional embodiment of such lively engagement, as well as a hugely amusing send-up of the tolerance that would become even more oppressive during the intervening century.

The novel features James Turnbull, an atheist journalist (Hitchens avant la lettre!), who is set in quite deadly opposition to Evan McIan, a devout Christian. For Turnbull the physicalist, the causal laws of nature can refute all miracles. For McIan the believer, by contrast, miracles are built into the very fabric of the cosmos. To demonstrate that their disagreement has huge moral no less than religious consequence, they vow to fight until someone finally wins, if only in a fatal sword-duel.

Yet the police and the press and the judiciary of hyper-tolerant England are appalled by the prospect of such a barbaric contest, and are thus bent on stopping it. Hence the riotous irony of two intellectual pugilists having to befriend each other as they flee the thought-police while seeking to have their decent debate. In the course of their contretemps, they discover the truth of Chesterton’s crisp dictum: “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.” Having learned how dreadfully they might have gone wrong, MacIan and Trumbul at last abandon their rivalistic desire to win, whether by sword or by argument. To avoid plot spoiling, let it be said that in the end these dread enemies learn not to tolerate each other but to become the most hospitable of friends.

h1

Christopher Hitchens’ Dying Days With G. K. Chesterton 2 – Ralph C. Wood

January 24, 2013
Many leading literary figures of the day, from Henry James to T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, acknowledged that this so-called Great War constituted a tectonic cataclysm in Western moral and religious life. It inaugurated the Age of Ashes and the Culture of Death. Both Chesterton and Hitchens unabashedly supported wars in their time (Chesterton WWI, Hitchens The Iraq War)

Many leading literary figures of the day, from Henry James to T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, acknowledged that the so-called “Great War” constituted a tectonic cataclysm in Western moral and religious life. It inaugurated the Age of Ashes and the Culture of Death. Both Chesterton and Hitchens unabashedly supported wars in their time (Chesterton WWI, Hitchens The Iraq War)

Chesterton’s Politics
The allegation that Chesterton’s politics is sinister is far more worrisome. Hitchens labels Chesterton as a “reactionary” for proposing a political program called Distributism — a name he derived from Catholic teaching on distributive justice. This is ludicrous. Chesterton was in fact a radical in his economics.

Together with Hilaire Belloc and others, he worked during the 1920s to establish a drastic alternative to socialism and capitalism alike. They spurned privatistic and individualist capitalism as built on a profoundly anti-communal devotion to profit making at the neighbor’s expense. They also rejected wealth-sharing socialism as surrendering the most important personal and local endeavors — family, health, education — to the state. Hence their revolutionary idea of redistributing property — including joint ownership of factories and companies — rather than money.

Though in many respects unfeasible, Distributism is hardly a reactionary notion. On the contrary, it is being considered in contemporary China, where the government is seeking to aid illiterate and impoverished peasants, not by training them to do factory work in huge impersonal cities but urging them to remain on lands which they will now own, to use their agricultural earnings for developing better farming methods and for educating their children, and thus to lift the grinding burden of mindless work (the only virtue of which, as Marx famously declared, is to make one stoop-shouldered).

By far the most disturbing of Hitchens’ charges against Chesterton’s politics is that “his Catholicism made him morally frivolous about Hitlerism.” Hitchens rightly seizes on Chesterton’s failure to question the concordat that the future Pope Pius XII signed with Hitler in 1933. He is also correct to denounce Chesterton’s attempt to trace the rise of Hitlerism to the Protestant Reformation, specifically to Bismarckian Prussia — when of course Hitler was a lapsed Austrian Catholic who sought to suborn Protestantism and Catholicism alike to his own nefarious purposes.

It is true as well that Chesterton momentarily flirted with the Fascism of Benito Mussolini. But about Hitler himself, Chesterton never had any doubt. To make his polemical point, Hitchers ignores Ker’s clear evidence that Chesterton had nothing but scorn for the Nazis and all their pomps: the proud paganism of Aryan race-religion, the petty tribalism of modern Teutonic myth-making, and the vicious nationalism of Germany Ober alles.

Chesterton’s Fight Against Eugenics
In his selective and tendentious reading of Chesterton’s politics, Hitchens never even mentions the moral test that Chesterton most nobly met. Long before he became a Catholic, Chesterton dealt with the ghoulish peril that still threatens late-modern life: eugenics and the elimination of unwanted life.

Already in 1913, Winston Churchill and others had proposed a Mental Deficiency Bill. Churchill had been “inspired” by the example of Indiana in forcibly sterilizing its “mentally unfit.” Though he too sought such compulsory sterilizations, Churchill finally had to settle for the legal confinement of those under twenty-one.

Even so, such “unworthy sorts” would be deterred from propagating their retrograde kind. Without such measures, Churchill added, their rapid increase results in “a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, [and thus] constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate.”

Eugenics was embraced by many progressive church officials, writers, and thinkers of Chesterton’s day. Among the British advocates of the idea that the human species can be improved by selective breeding, like race horses, were G. B. Shaw, H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, not to mention William Inge, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. American enthusiasts included Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell, Margaret Sanger, and, most notoriously, Oliver Wendell Holmes with his infamous protest that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Though he died in 1936, Chesterton prophesied that Hitler would soon employ eugenics for his own race-cleansing regime. Once the state acquires the power to spay and geld those deemed as “inadequately” intelligent, then a holocaust can be generated for others regarded as equally “unproductive”: the congenitally defective, the incurably ill, the elderly infirm, as well as the innocent unborn, the socially recalcitrant, the gypsy vagabonds, the Jewish “parasites.”

Chesterton saw it all coming, and he named the canker at the core of our dread disease. It was not that civil rights were being violated. As Alasdair Maclntyre would make clear a half-century later, the notion of rights is an Enlightenment chimera built on a power-based contractual understanding of human relations — not on any transcendently ordered community grounded in mutual trust and obligation.

The real evil of eugenics springs, as Chesterton discerned, from our increasingly regnant belief that human life has no intrinsic worth, no inviolable divine dignity. When it is thus diminished to mere utility and function, it can also be made into the malleable clay of social experiment and human convenience. A purely physicalist pseudo-science thus becomes the religion of the omnicompetent state. Hence the immense currency of Chesterton’s prophecy from 1922, announced in Eugenics and Other Evils:

The creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not only by pilgrims but by policemen – that creed is the great and disputed system of thought which…has ended in Eugenics. Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics.

This is hardly to say that Chesterton’s politics were beyond reproach. Both Hitchens and Ker fail to remark what is exceedingly troubling about his unrelenting defense of World War I as Britain’s finest hour. In recounting the details of Chesterton’s life during the years 1914-18, Ker attends mostly to minor concerns, without mentioning that many leading literary figures of the day, from Henry James to T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, acknowledged that this so-called Great War constituted a tectonic cataclysm in Western moral and religious life. It inaugurated the Age of Ashes and the Culture of Death. Chesterton, by contrast, remained an unrepentant English nationalist, virtually purblind to the horrors of that most sanguinary of European-American wars: 10 million killed outright, 20 million seriously wounded, 5 million widowed, 9 million orphaned, 20 million left as refugees.

Having fought at Verdun and having nearly died of trench fever, J. R. R. Tolkien came to discern that der totale Krieg is the scourge of modem life. The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s epic repudiation of total war, whereas Chesterton remained content with his rather callous jest when asked why this 38-year old patriot wasn’t “out at the Front.” “If you’ll view me from the side,” he smartly replied, “you’ll see that I am indeed `out at the front.” Three years earlier he had published his rollicking celebration of the Catholic victory over the Ottoman Turks in The Battle of Lepanto. It was for him a holy war, a modern crusade that saved European Christendom from the Muslim menace.

The power of Chesterton’s poem cannot be denied. Only the most ardent pacifist can fail to be stirred by the four-beat palpitations of Chesterton’s couplets, with their alliterative anapests and thumping dactyls. Here the Holy League of the Catholic maritime states led by the Spanish knight of Austria sink the Turkish galleys and set free their enslaved Christian oarsmen:

Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labor under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free.

Yet while Chesterton jubilantly celebrates the Catholic victory as resulting in large part from the intercession of the Virgin Mary, he at least does not have the Blessed Lady wield a weapon.

Eleven years later, in The Ballad of St. Barbara, Chesterton would celebrate the Allied victory at the Battle of the Marne by praising the patron saint of artillerymen as she blasts holes in the German palisades: “St. Barbara of the Gunners, with her hand upon the gun.” One can only wonder why Hitchens doesn’t attack Chesterton’s war-mongering. Perhaps it was that Chesterton had been an early opponent of the British incursion into South Africa during the Boer War. Perhaps Hitchens was also embarrassed to call out Chesterton on war when he himself had so vehemently supported the U.S. incursion into Iraq.

h1

Christopher Hitchens’ Dying Days With G. K. Chesterton 1 – Ralph C. Wood

January 23, 2013
To Hitchens' complaint that Chesterton's Christian humor is shallow, one can only wonder whether he may have had a native incapacity for plumbing the depths, an invincible ignorance about ultimate things. Or perhaps Hitchens was properly scandalized, for the most joyful paradox is also the greatest offense: the crucified and risen God-Man lightens the heaviest load of sin, and his yoke eases the worst of atheist burdens.

To Hitchens’ complaint that Chesterton’s Christian humor is shallow, one can only wonder whether he may have had a native incapacity for plumbing the depths, an invincible ignorance about ultimate things. Or perhaps Hitchens was properly scandalized, for the most joyful paradox is also the greatest offense: the crucified and risen God-Man lightens the heaviest load of sin, and his yoke eases the worst of atheist burdens.

Hitchens’ Challenge
The enfant terrible of the New Atheism, Christopher Hitchens, spent his dying days in a Houston hospital reading G. K. Chesterton — not only the 750 pages of Ian Ker’s massive recent biography, but also an equivalent amount of GKC’s own poetry and prose. The novelist Ian McEwan, who was at Hitchens’ bedside before his death in December 2011, reports that they spoke of various writers: Theodore Dreiser, Robert Browning, Thomas Mann, George Orwell, Philip Larkin.

McEwan also reports that Hitchens died nobly and without complaint at age 62, though ravaged by esophageal cancer that deprived him of his most important gift: the spoken word. Yet there was no last-minute conversion. On the contrary, Hitchins seems never to have felt the sting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s aphorism that Chesterton often cited: “The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.” Gratitude to his wife and many friends seem to have sufficed for Hitchens.

Even so, he was reading huge chunks of Chesterton at the end. I suspect that “Hitch,” as his friends called him, was not only fulfilling his promise to write a 3000 word review of Ker’s book for the Atlantic. (Titled “The Reactionary,” the review was posthumously published in the March 2012 issue.) He was also settling scores with his bete noire. Far from granting him the generous farewell of a dying man to a worthy opponent long dead, Hitchens bid Chesterton a bitter parting word.

His review is so acerbic and dismissive that one cannot but suspect that our most celebrated public atheist may have been overcompensating — as if he had a secret wish that Chesterton might have been right. “There are days,” he wrote in God Is Not Great, “when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb.”

Any serious assessment of Ker’s huge book must come to terms with Hitchens’ damning conclusion that “when [Chesterton] was charming, he was also deeply unserious and frivolous… ; when he was serious, he was really quite sinister… ; and when he was posing as a theologian, he was doing little more than ventriloquizing John Henry Newman at his most `dogmatic.

“The whole phenomenon of “Chestertonianism,” as Hitchens calls it, “came to represent a minor but still important failure to meet a distinct moral challenge.” Each of these challenges must be met if Chesterton is to be embraced as an authentic Christian apologist, and Ker’s book offers an opportunityfor doing so. More is at risk here than Chesterton’s reputation; it is his Christian faith – and, by extension, the faith of the church itself – that remains at stake

Chesterton’s Humor
Against Hitchens’ charge that Chesterton’s celebrated humor is silly and superficial, Ker offers a solid rebuttal. He constantly stresses the link between the comic and the serious in Chesterton. It was a virtual article in Chesterton’s creed that Christianity deals with the darkest and deepest matters byway of a certain gaiety and buoyancy, overcoming the heaviness of sin with the joyfulness of the Gospel.

Satan fell by the force of his gravity, Chesterton famously observed, while the unfallen angels still fly because they take themselves so lightly. Joking is a vital form of thinking, he added. It often bursts the bounds of pedestrian thought. A transcendent leap is required to “catch” the jest. “Smiles from reason flow,” Milton observed, echoing Aristotle. “A joke can be so big,” GKC more rumbustiously remarked, “that it can break the roof of the stars.”

Far from being self-centered, a proper kind of laughter puts a stop to all serpentine seriousness about ourselves. “Hilarity,” Chesterton wrote, “involves humility.” It allows us to comport ourselves in an undignified manner, whether in laughter or play. These, he said, are “the essence of real happiness.”

Like C. S. Lewis, Chesterton despised all political utopias, chiefly because of their unhappiness: their stern propriety and grim solemnity, no matter whether their cheerlessness issues from the left or the right. Religious faith, he countered, “is much nearer to riotous happiness than it is to the detached and temperate types of happiness in which gentlemen and philosophers find their peace.” Ker supplies us with endless strings of such fine apercus: “the more serious is the discussion the more grotesque should be its terms,” for if “a thing is universal it is full of comic things…. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.” The deepest truths are the most outrageous, he insisted, and they require an artistic form befitting them – something akin to farce and mime and slapstick.

Precisely because she was so deeply Christian — indeed, Chesterton was led to the church by her devout practice of the faith — did he describe his wife Frances as having “the asceticism of cheerfulness, not the easier asceticism of melancholy.” When she accepted his proposal for marriage, he saw (as did Luther) the deep link between conjugal love and divine delight, as he wrote to tell her:

Happiness is not at all smug; it is not peaceful and contented…Happiness brings not peace but a sword: it shakes you like rattling dice: it breaks your speech and darkens your sight. Happiness is stronger than oneself and sets it palpable foot upon one’s neck.

What he meant, I suspect, is that the deepest happiness also puts one under the fiercest obligation — namely, to throw away one’s life into the bottomless abyss of gratitude, as Chesterton said of St. Francis. It also thrusts a stiletto into any bloated conviction that one deserves so great a joy. And surely it weights one with an inescapable care for those whose lives seem irreversibly unhappy.

The test case for Chesterton’s claims about joyfulness lies in the life of monastics, those who sacrifice everything for the sake of the Kingdom. Chesterton knew well that monks are not so foolhardy as to surrender felicity for misery. Their vows of celibacy and poverty and obedience bring, instead, a “terrible consolation and a lonely joy.” Chesterton cheekily suggests that monastics could be likened to a man who may go “ragged and homeless to drink brandy.”

In either case, the point about monks and nuns still holds: “They [give] up all pleasures for one pleasure of spiritual ecstasy.” To Hitchens’ complaint that Chesterton’s Christian humor is shallow, one can only wonder whether he may have had a native incapacity for plumbing the depths, an invincible ignorance about ultimate things. Or perhaps Hitchens was properly scandalized, for the most joyful paradox is also the greatest offense: the crucified and risen God-Man lightens the heaviest load of sin, and his yoke eases the worst of atheist burdens.

h1

Has Fiction Lost Its Faith? Part 2 By Paul Elie

January 22, 2013
Paul Elie (born 1965) is an American writer and editor. His book The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage was awarded the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction in 2004, and received National Book Critics Circle Award nomination. He was an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the 90s. He is also a long-time contributor to the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal.

Paul Elie (born 1965) is an American writer and editor. His book The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage was awarded the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction in 2004, and received National Book Critics Circle Award nomination. He was an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the 90s. He is also a long-time contributor to the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal.

From an article recently carried in the NY Times Book Review, Paul Elie continues his survey of recent American fiction and Christian themes

******************************************************

In some fiction belief is part of the matrix, a rumor writ large. So it is in the work of Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy’s early novel “Suttree” (1979) has an effortlessly biblical flavor, but by “No Country for Old Men (2005), religion is reduced to a reminder of last things. At one point, the “redneck” Sheriff Bell surmises that Satan created the narcotics trade to “bring the human race to its knees:’ “I told that to somebody at breakfast the other mornin and they asked me if I believed in Satan. I said Well that aint the point. And they said I know but do you?”

DeLillo’s novels of plots and terror are shot. through with a mystical sense that “everything is connected in the end.” DeLillo devised the grandest religious scene in recent American fiction: the Unification Church mass wedding at Yankee Stadium that opens “Mao II.” He framed the frankest justification for religion, from a nun in “White Noise”: “Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. .. They are sure that they are right not to … believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes:’ He wrapped up “Underworld” with two nuns seeing a vision of a murdered girl on a billboard in the Bronx. But religious belief, in DeLillo, is finally unreal. The true . believer in his work is Lee Harvey Oswald in “Libra”: a man in a.small room, nurturing a scheme.

DeLillo and McCarthy are seen as prophets, but Christianity in their work is a country for old men, and in the work of their successors it is further diminished. Jonathan Franzen in “Strong Motion” depicted an anti-abortion preacher more convincing than the real ones (his ride is “a Town Car with a PROLIFE 7 vanity plate”) and then stepped aside; Colum McCann depicted a hard-drinking radical friar with brotherly affection in “Let the Great World Spin,” but positioned him as just one colorful figure in the novel’s Krylon mural of 1970s New York. In “The Marriage Plot,” Jeffrey Eugenides (whose virgin suicides were Catholic girls) used his hero’s sojourn in India with Mother Teresa’s nuns as mock-heroic counterpoint to the serious business of a depressed genius akin to David Foster Wallace.

The novelist Thomas Kelly once told me that he thinks of Alice McDermott’s characters as cousins of his own. Obviously, plenty of people feel the pleasure of recognition when they read these writers’ novels. I know I do. I have been to church with these characters, have stood at font and graveside with them. But when I close the books their beliefs remain a mystery. Not in the theological sense — a line going off the grid of cause and effect, a portal to the puzzle of existence. I just don’t know what they believe or how they came to believe it.

Better are the stories in which religion catches the characters, the author and the reader by surprise. In Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” a man getting drunk with a blind stranger puts the man’s hand on his own and traces a cathedral for him on a grocery bag after they overhear a TV program about the Middle Ages. In Denis Johnson’s “Beverly Home,” a recovering drug addict spies on a woman through a window as she showers and dresses. He sees a truly spicy scene: a ceremony in which her husband — they are Mennonites, she with head scarf and he with beard — seeks her forgiveness for some unspoken violation by falling to his knees and washing her feet.

These stories are not “about” belief. But they suggest the ways that instances of belief can seize individual lives. “Cathedral” has the efficiency of a parable: with the drunk leading the blind, the old Christian edifice comes skeletally into view. In “Beverly Home,” the addict in recovery is a proxy for the reader: a peeping Tom, a voyeur of other people’s beliefs, he discovers that those beliefs, strange as he finds them, join him to the believers in a way that changes him, for they suggest “that there might be a place for people like us.” “Cathedral” was published 30 years ago, and Carver’s successors, make him seem a Solzhenitsyn of explication.

Take David Means. In his story collection “The Spot” (2010), Means handles religion like the sludge in the Kalamazoo River, powerful enough to be toxic in anything more than trace amounts. The seminarian who becomes involved with the insurance adjuster in “Reading Chekhov” doesn’t have a belief in his head; the ex-preacher in the title story who once undertook to baptize a young woman in the Kalamazoo waxes eloquent about how he went about it, but the naked waif he baptized is as blank and passive as a porn character. “Go on, do it to me, make me clean or whatever,” she says, and he proceeds to drown her uneventfully.

This refusal to grant belief any explanatory power shows purity and toughness on the writer’s part but it also calls to mind what my Catholic ancestors called scrupulosity, an avoidance that comes at the cost of fullness of life. That — or it may show that the writer realizes just how hard it is to make belief believable.

So it is in “The Gospel of Anarchy,” a 2011 novel by Justin Taylor. The book is set at a commune in Gainesville where some young Christian anarchists pursue religion and sex without borders, inspired by one Parker, a lost boy and prophet. Parker’s gospel suggests a slacker’s Kierkegaard, and his friends’ professions of faith are clunky, too: “Was it possible then that it was our yearning itself that delayed him? Was the force of our longing acting as a barrier instead of a draw?” The novel uses multiple points of view, but the one that matters most — that of its narrator and part-time protagonist, David — is the least credible. Where his conversion away from online sex is a perfect piece of realism, it is hard to imagine that he (or anybody) would go in for this Anarchristian stuff.

Randall Jarrell ruefully remarked that when it comes to poetry, you can get a conversation started around just about anything: the lives of the poets, the state of poetry, the craft of poetry — anything but a poem. In American fiction, belief is like that. Belief as upbringing, belief as social fact, belief as a species of American weirdness: our literary fiction has all of these things. All that is missing is the believer.

It’s really something,” the Carver narrator tells his blind friend, as he ponders the cathedral he’s drawn. Maybe that “something” is enough. But if you think, as I do, that we look to literature to understand ourselves and our place on earth, then belief hasn’t been understood until the serious writers have had their say.

So you keep looking for the literature of belief. You find it where you can. In journalism like Eliza Griswold’s “Tenth Parallel;’ where Christians and Muslims encounter each other in acts of geopolitical soul-to-soul; in “House of Prayer No. 2,” a memoir in which Mark Richard, going over the trail of a bizarre life, sees signs from God here, there and everywhere. In “The Children’s Hospital,” Chris Adrian’s fable about an offshore world as religiose as our own; in James Wood’s essays about unbelief as belief’s shadow and echo. In “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” where Dave Eggers’s account of his father’s Catholic funeral suggests why he cares about The Believer.

All the while, you hope to find the writer who can dramatize belief the way it feels in your experience, at once a fact on the ground and a sponsor of the uncanny, an account of our predicament that still and all has the old power to persuade. You look for a, story or a novel where the writer puts it all together. That would be enough. That would be something. That would be unbelievable.

h1

Has Fiction Lost Its Faith? Part 1 By Paul Elie

January 21, 2013
Paul Elie, for many years a senior editor with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is now a senior fellow with Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. His first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, received the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle award finalist in 2003. He lives in New York City.

Paul Elie, for many years a senior editor with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is now a senior fellow with Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. His first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, received the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle award finalist in 2003. He lives in New York City.

A seminary student has an affair with an insurance adjuster he met in an office building near Riverside Church; then they go their separate ways — and that’s the whole story.

A collective of Dumpster-diving dropouts follows an “Anarchristian” creed on the edge of a student ghetto, and in the novel about them the faith is as sloppy as the sex.

In The New Yorker, a novelist describes his best seller as a work about free will written from a Catholic perspective – but the novelist is Anthony Burgess, dead almost 20 years, and his essay (about “A Clockwork Orange”) is a lecture exhumed from 1973.

This, in short, is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time: as something between a dead language and a hangover. Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. Half a century after Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as novelists with what O’Connor called “Christian convictions,” their would-be successors are thin on the ground.

So are works of fiction about the quandaries of Christian belief. Writers who do draw on sacred texts and themes see the references go unrecognized. A faith with something like 170 million adherents in the United States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “This Blessed House” as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new occupants.

It’s a strange development. Strange because the current upheavals in American Christianity — involving sex, politics, money and diversity — cry out for dramatic treatment. Strange because upheavals in Christianity across the Atlantic gave rise to great fiction from “The Brothers Karamazov” to “Brideshead Revisited” Strange because novelists are depicting the changing lives of American Jews and Muslims with great success.

I am the author of a book about four 20th-century American Catholic writers, and I am often asked who their successors are. Usually I demur. I observe that we look in the wrong places. I point out that Graham Greene and J. R. R. Tolkien were considered baffling in their time. I cite Matthew Arnold to the effect that ours is a critical age, not a creative one. I reflect that literature is created by individuals, not compelled by social forces.

Now I am writing a novel with matters of belief at its core. Now I have skin in the game. Now I am trying to answer the question: Where has the novel of belief gone?

The obvious answer is that it has gone where-belief-itself has gone. In America to- day Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether. This development places the believer on a frontier again, at the beginning of a new adventure; it means that the Christian who was born here is a stranger in a strange land no less than the-Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Soviet Jews and Spanish-speaking Catholics who have arrived from elsewhere. But few people see it that way. People of faith see decline and fall. Their detractors see a people threatening rear-guard political action, or a people left behind.

Half a century ago O’Connor framed the struggle to “make belief believable” as a struggle for the attention of the indifferent reader. The religious aspect in a work of fiction, she insisted, is “a dimension added,” not one taken away, and she explained how she added it: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

It worked: who can forget the nihilist evangelist Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood” or O. E. Parker in “Parker’s Back,” who gets the face of Christ tattooed across his shoulders? But we forget they are believers from the middle of the last century, created by a writer who died in 1964.

Since then, novelist and believer have traded places. These days it is real live religious people who seem always to beshouting — large and startling figures in the pulpit, at the rally, on the courthouse steps and outside the White House. In response, writers with Christian preoccupations have taken the opposite tack, writing fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively.

O’Connor called for fiction that dramatized “the central religious experience’ which she characterized as a person’s encounter with “a supreme being recognized through faith.” She wrote that kind of fiction herself, shaped by her understanding that in the modern age such an encounter often takes place outside of organized religion – that in matters of belief we find ourselves on our own, practicing “do-it-yourself religion.”

Today the United States is a vast Home Depot of “do-it-yourself religion.” But you wouldn’t know it from the stories we tell. The religious encounter of the kind O’Connor described forces a person to ask how belief figures into his or her own life and how to decide just what is true in it, what is worth acting on. Tens of millions of Americans have asked those questions.

Some of us find ourselves asking them every day. But even in fiction, which prizes the individual point of view, and in our society, which stresses the individual to excess, belief is considered as a social matter rather than an individual one. When we talk about belief we talk about what is permissible – about the sex abuse scandal or school prayer or whether the church should open its basement to 12-step everything. What about the whole’ story? Is it our story? Is belief believable? There the story end’s — right where it ought to begin.

The most emphatically Christian character in contemporary American fiction is the Rev. John Ames, who in Marilynne.Robinson’s-novel “Gilead” writes, in old age, to his young son as he prepares for death in 1957. More epistle than epic, the novel is historical fiction in mufti, with a strand of the-story going back to the Civil War. And yet it arrived in 2004 as a tract for the times. It presented liberal Protestantism as America’s classical heritage; it set Ames’s wise, tender reverence against the bellicosecymbal clanging of George W Bush’s White House.

With “Gilead” Robinson took O’Connor’s insight about “do-it-yourself religion” back to church, creating a minister whose belief is believable because it is so plainly the fruit of a personal search. But the novel’s originality conceals the fact that, as a novel of belief, it is highly representative: set in the past, concerned with a clergyman, presenting belief as a family matter, animated by a social crisis.

Those are the ways that belief figures in contemporary American fiction. Even today, there-are as many novels of religious childhood as there are parochial schools and Bible camps. There are the complex domestic novels of Alice McDermott and Louise Erdrich, in which belief is a language of the tribe. There is the perduring local religion in the post-Faulkner worlds of William Kennedy and Toni Morrison: like the convent in Morrison’s “Paradise,”‘ which is transformed from mansion to Catholic nunnery to redoubt for wayward women, belief is a fixture on the landscape even as its significance changes. “Religion was merely there,” the narrator of Jim Harrison’s novel “The Great Leader” says, “like cod liver oil, taxes, the beginning of school.”

h1

Receptivity– W. Norris Clarke

January 18, 2013
The Annunciation by Leonardo DaVinci: Mary's classic receptivity.

The Annunciation by Leonardo DaVinci: Mary’s classic receptivity.

There remains one last piece to be developed in the metaphysics of being and the person as self-communicative. This is the other complementary side of the metaphysics of being, and especially the person, as active, expansive, self-communicating a side that has not found explicit development at all, as a positive perfection of being, in the metaphysics of St. Thomas and Thomism in general, so far as I know, although it is certainly implicit in his phenomenology of friendship. I am speaking of receptivity as a positive perfection of being.

Already in the first part of this lecture we took up the point briefly, as a necessary complement to the self-communicative aspect of all being. If there is to be effective self-communication of any being, there must be a corresponding receptivity for it somewhere in being, otherwise the process would be aborted from the start. In a word, there can be no giving without receiving. Ordinarily metaphysicians, including St. Thomas, following the lead of Aristotle, have identified receptivity with the deficiency side of being, i.e., with poverty, potentiality, a prior lack that is later filled up. Pure actuality seems to exclude receptivity, as indeed it does for Aristotle.

There is no great harm perhaps, in looking at the subhuman world this way, since there is so much truth in it due to the ubiquitous element of change, passage from potentiality to act, that is always involved in that dimension of being – though even there one suspects that that is not the whole story in the world of the new physics. But once one crosses the threshold into personal being, the picture begins to change significantly. Once one begins to analyze love, in particular the highest mode of love, the love of pure friendship, it is clear that mutuality is of the essence of this love. Friendship means essentially that one’s love is accepted, joyfully welcomed by another, and returned in kind, and the same is true reciprocally for the other person with respect to me. Receptivity, therefore, is part of the essence of the highest love.

Here the ontological value of receptivity, as not a defect or inferiority but a positive perfection of being, emerges more and more clearly into the light. There is indeed a side of imperfection included, insofar as change is involved, that is, a passage from prior non-possession of my friend’s love to later receiving it, or from potentiality to act. But if we carefully analyze this, it becomes clear that this imperfection is solely due to the change or temporal aspect, not to the very nature of receptivity as such, which at the level of personal love is not passivity at all but an active, welcoming receptivity, that is purely positive in nature, a relation of act to act rather than of act to potency. Receptivity and passivity are not identical. As Gerard O’Hanlon puts it admirably:

This is shown most clearly at the top of an ascending scale of subject/object relationships in the created sphere when one arrives at the interpersonal relationship between two subjects, at the heart of which is a welcoming, active receptivity…. the higher up the scale of created reality one goes the more this passivity (in the sense of an active receptivity) increases, and the more it may be seen, in the case of human inter-personal encounter, as a perfections.

To make this clear, all we have to do is to remove in thought the aspect of motion and change. Thus if person A timelessly gives perfection X to person B, then B does not first lack perfection and then later receive it, but always possesses it in act. And if we add that B receives X in equal fullness to A’s possession of it, then no potency is involved at all. There is only the possession of perfection X plus the purely positive relationship of active, grateful welcoming of it as a gift from A.

In a word, the love relationship, if properly understood, opens up the capital metaphysical and psychological insight that to be gifted and to be grateful are in themselves not a sign of inferiority or deficiency at all, but part of the splendor and wonder of being itself at its highest actualization, that is, being as communion. In a word, self-communication and receptivity are two complementary and inseparable sides of the dynamic process of being itself, implicit in St. Thomas’s own notion of esse as primal expansive act and perfection.

I would be the first to admit, however, that one cannot find the above development at all explicitly in St. Thomas’s metaphysics, and a fortiori not in Aristotle’s. That is why I spoke of this lecture as a “creative completion” of St. Thomas. Where does this new insight come from? I admit that I have never developed it before in my own writings on St. Thomas, nor have I seen it in other Thomists, though I am open to correction here.

Process thinkers like Hartshorne, Cobb, and Ford have been nudging me towards it for years, and I have been nibbling sympathetically, but cautiously, because I could not get the metaphysical roots clear. But the principal catalytic agent, to which I am happy to admit my full indebtedness, is the profound and daring speculation of the Swiss Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, on the Christian notion of God as personally Triune and as the supreme model of what it means to be.

For here we do have a case, transcending our own human experience, but revealed to us by the Source itself, of where being as receptivity is present in the Son and the Spirit at its most intense, as a pure perfection of existence at its highest, and hence of absolutely equal ontological worth and value with being as self-communicative.

For it is part of the revealed doctrine of God as Trinity that the Second and Third Persons are of absolutely equal ontological perfection as the Father. Thus within the unity of the Supreme Being the Father is subsistent Self-Communication, while the Son is subsistent Receptivity (the Holy Spirit as well in its own unique mode), but both aspects are equally valuable and integral to what it means to be at its most intense. The highest instance of being is a unity that is not solitary, like Plotinus’s One, but Communion.

Here we see in the most striking way how a specifically Christian philosophy can fruitfully shed light on a philosophical problem itself, by drawing on Revelation. The light from Revelation does not operate strictly as the premise for a philosophical argument, properly speaking, but operates as opening up for reflection a new possibility in the nature and meaning of being that we might never have thought of ourselves from our limited human experience, but which, once opened up, is so illuminating that it now shines on its own as an insight into the nature of being and persons that makes many things suddenly fall into place whose depths we could not fathom before.

More and more in recent years I have come to realize that the doctrine of the Trinity is a uniquely powerful source of illumination in both the philosophy of being and the philosophy of the person. We do not have time here to develop the numerous fruitful implications of the doctrine of the Trinity as a paradigm for human relations in community, as a number of contemporary Christian thinkers are now doing. Appreciating more fully the complementary values of both masculine and feminine is only one of these implications.

We are now in a position to step back and view this whole analysis of the expansive, self-communicative aspect of the person (and of being) in a new light. We have tried to show so far how the dynamism of self-communication is part of the very nature of being and so of the person. But the metaphysician would like to probe further, if he can, into why all this should be the case.

I think we now have the answer: the reason why all being, and all persons preeminently, are such is precisely because that is the way the Supreme Being, the Source of all being, actually is, and, since all creatures — and in a special way persons — are participations and hence images of their divine Source, then it follows that all created beings, and more intensely persons, will mirror in some characteristic way the divine mode of being.

As the doctrine of the Trinity reveals, God’s very nature is to be self-communicative love. “God is love,” St. John tells us. And the wonderful consequence is that we can now see that it is of the very nature of being as such, at its highest, i.e., as personal, to be such. This is what it really means to be at its fullest: to be caught up in the great dynamic process of self-communication, receptivity, and return that we have called communion.

For that is the way the Source of beings is and we, his creatures, cannot but tend to be like our Source as far as we can. It is fighting our own deepest drive to try to live otherwise and still become authentic, fulfilled persons. “Let us make man to our image and likeness,” as Genesis told us long ago. Our whole destiny is to fulfill the image latent within us and draw it out, as the Greek Fathers put it beautifully, into manifest likeness.

It is worth noting how far this conception of the human person is from the excessively autonomous, individualistic one of John Locke and so many modern Western political thinkers since Descartes, where the primary value is not put on relationship and communion but on self-sufficiency as far as possible, protection of one’s person and property from the intrusions of others, etc.

These things are indeed important, up to a point in a realistic view of human society as it is, with all its imperfections. But there is a radical change of perspective when these become paramount and overshadow the interpersonal sharing dimension. In a word, it is impossible to make justice alone the foundation for a viable social order. Only friendship, altruistic love of some kind, can supply the positive cohesive energy required, as St. Thomas himself maintains.

Before passing on to the next section, I would like to highlight briefly one aspect of the expansive, self-communicative aspect of the person we have outlined above. It is part of the overall expansive movement, but deserves special attention for its importance in the coming to self-knowledge and self-actualization of the person.

This is the aspect of the person as self-manifesting, self-expressive. All throughout being, the drive towards action includes a drive toward self-revelation, self-manifestation, self-expression through action. Every action in some way is self-revelatory of the active center from which it proceeds. As St. Thomas tells us over and over, the operation of a being manifests its existence and points out (indicat) its nature or essence. The substantial forms of things in themselves are hidden from us, but they shine forth through the doors (ostia) of their accidents and operations.

One might well say that action and its implications is the primary key to the whole epistemology of Aquinas. All knowledge of the real for him is an interpretation of action. I know my own self because and insofar as I act. I know other things because, and insofar as, they act on me, with all the implications thereof. The cutting of the bridge of action as the self-revelation of being is, to my mind, the single greatest flaw in modern classical epistemology from Descartes on, culminating disastrously in the epistemology of Immanuel Kant.

So too even more so for the person. It is connatural for us, giving full expression to the dynamism of existence flowing through us at its most intense as personalized, to reveal, manifest, express ourselves to other persons, to make manifest who we are, what we believe in, stand for etc., in a word, “our story.” Only when we express ourselves to others — including God, of course, who is infinitely self-expressive in his Word, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — can we come to know our own selves fully.

As we mentioned earlier in speaking of self-possession, we do not start off in luminous self-understanding but must go out to the world and other persons first, then return to know ourselves by reflecting on our actions, whether and how they express who and what we really are or would like to be.

Since it is the nature, then, of all being to reveal and express itself, it seems that if we do not do this, if we keep our interior selves locked up within us unexpressed to anyone, our very being will be diminished. “Every real substance exists for the sake of its operations,” St. Thomas tells us, which are “the goal and perfection of the substance itself.” What we do not express in any way from our inner being will tend to get sedimented over, sink further and further into obscurity, so that finally it becomes no longer available to us even within, and becomes as though it is not. Or indeed, if something negative, it can grow into a monster, corroding us from within.

It is of great importance, then, for a healthy personal development to find some appropriate way of expressing to somebody all the significant levels of being and personality within us, including the deepest and most intimate. In fact, this is one of the things that is most appreciated and treasured when we share it with others — when we share “our story” with others, and receive theirs in return. Paradoxically, it seems that what we don’t share, we tend to lose hold of.

In the realm of the person, what we don’t give away we can’t hold on to. Someone may object, “I share my deepest secrets with God, and that is enough.” That is certainly an excellent start. And in the realm of negative secrets it may well be enough. But in the realm of our positive riches, it still seems to me better, more in accord with the drive of being itself coursing through us, to give also some expression to this interior world in a manner appropriate to our status as embodied spirits, i.e., by some sensible or externally expressed symbol, word or otherwise. Thus human beings have always tended to come together to express the deepest level within them, their religious beliefs, by shared liturgical worship, symbolic by essence.

Authentic self-expression, however, does not mean just that we do a lot of talking. Psychologists tell us that Americans tend to be roughly 75% extroverts, 25% introverts. So it seems a little harder for us to talk about deep private things within us than some others. But it is important to make a real effort to do so, so that nothing of major significance within us, especially all our positive aspirations, remains totally unexpressed.

Why it should be that way, that self-possession must keep pace with self-expression, is one of the deep mysteries of being. Again the most illuminating explanation comes from the Christian revelation of the Trinity. It is the case that the Supreme Source of all being is precisely that way. The Father expresses himself with total infinite fullness in his Son, the Word, and both again in the Holy Spirit. It is the very nature of God, the supreme exemplar of what it means to be, to be self-expressive. And that is why we, his images must be also, if we too are to be and be persons fully. The image in us cries out to be made manifest.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 261 other followers