Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dilemmas Under the Yoke

I'm enjoying book IX of Livy's History more than any part since book I. Unlike most of what I've read so far, book IX offers an extended story involving a single campaign, several difficult decisions, and a shameful defeat of a Roman army.

The story begins with consuls Titus Veturius and Spurius Postumius setting forth on what they assume will be a typical Roman campaign: locate, engage, and defeat the enemy. Instead, they lead the legions into a trap at the Caudine Forks and find themselves surrounded with no hope of victory or escape. The Samnites, like the surprised citizens of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick in The Mouse that Roared, have no idea what to do with the victorious situation and call upon old Herennius Pontius for advice. Pontius tells them they have two choices: kill every last soldier, or let them all go scot free. The Samnites, ignoring the advice of their elder statesman, look for a middle way and decide to humiliate the Roman soldiers by taking hostages, dictating terms, and forcing the leaders to walk under the yoke, an ancient practice that gives us our word subjugate. But Pontius warns them: this plan will neither secure friends nor eliminate enemies.

Pontius proves right, of course. The Romans come back another day, find better ground, and utterly defeat the Samnites. The Samnites thought they were prudently avoiding extremes, but Pontius' argument and the outcome show that they had found themselves in a situation in which the ethical golden mean (as formulated by Aristotle and adopted by my beloved Thomas Aquinas) doesn't apply. Our lives present these situations every day. Sinning just a little, for instance, is still sinning. Temptations must be rejected entirely or else indulged; they will not be half spurned. Sometimes the road of life simply forks. One cannot partly accept a job offer, and proposals of marriage rarely lead to casual friendships.

So the Samnites offer their terms to the surrounded legions. Now the Roman consuls face a dilemma: should they accept the terms or fight with courage, honor, and assurance of death? The problem with the second option is that the favorite Roman virtues lead to the annihilation of the force that protects the Eternal City's future. So the generals make what for Romans is an unusual decision and sacrifice what they value even more than life: their dignity. Accepting the terms, they pass under the yoke, leave the hostages, and return home with heads hung low.

The Senate now faces a dilemma. If only victory matters, they can just send the army back for a rematch. But the terms have been accepted on the field, as usual, under the witness of the gods. Postumius argues that they are under no obligation to honor the bad agreement he was forced to make because of his tactical blunder. But the fathers of the city don't want to offend their divine protectors.

In the end, Postumius tells them to send him back bound as a traitor with a herald who will announce acceptance of the terms. "Trust me," he says, "I have a plan." When they arrive at the Samnites' state house, the herald shows the fetters on the disgraced consul and announces the Romans' acceptance of defeat. But then Postumius shouts, "I am now a citizen of Samnium!" He kicks the herald and explains, "Now you can declare war on us with impunity for your official has been publicly insulted by a Samnite." The Samnites roll their eyes at the ploy. "You Romans always pass off faithless acts with a veneer of piety," they say, and then they list several dastardly tricks the Romans have pulled previously. But the Romans proceed with the attack, win, and run the Samnites under the humiliating yoke.

I learned two things about Livy this morning. First, the author's family were originally plebeians. I noticed it when Livy mentioned a Livius as tribune of the commons at this time. So I searched for the name elsewhere inn the History and found an earlier mention of a Livius as the first to stage a musical show with a plot (actors and musicians are not generally thought of as patrician material). An internet search revealed that Suetonius confirmed the plebeian origins of the Livii. Second, Livy sticks with his valorization of the heroes of the Republican age, even after telling this humiliating story and including the Samnites' damning list of Roman betrayals of honor. Livy explicitly validates all the Romans' actions in this story and says of these days that no time "was ever more productive of virtuous characters."

Just at the point I quit reading this morning, Livy takes the opportunity of the Roman victory and of the contemporaneous rise of Alexander the Great to argue the superiority of Rome over all other historical empires. Alexander, he says, may have won every battle over the course of his thirteen-year career, but the Romans have had many undefeated generals and have never lost a war in eight centuries. If Alexander had ever attacked Rome, he would have learned a lesson the Persians could not teach. Livy bases his entire argument on military strength and political power. Yesterday I adopted these values for the sake of argument and celebrated the Romans' quick annexation of the entire Mediterranean world. But the Great Sea at the Center of the World is after all but a drop of water in the grander universe. In all the time the Romans were expanding their horizons, they never discovered the true enemy. And only as the Empire began to break apart did they begin to know the true Hero.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Philus Donahuus

David Letterman once shared the Top Ten ways the world would be different if everyone were named Phil. Somewhere near the top came the revealing insight that when a caller on the Donahue show said, "Phil?" everyone in the audience would look up and say, "Yes."

Sometimes while reading Livy's History I get the feeling the situation wasn't much less confusing in ancient Rome. As Livy dutifully records the consuls for every year, I can't help thinking that I've heard the names before. And for good reason: I have. The patricians limited their membership and privileges to just a few clans, and, as a result, only the same few "gentile" names (something like our family names) become associated with the Republic's highest offices: Aemilius, Claudius, Furius, Valerius, and perhaps ten others cover probably 95% of the cases.

You might think that first names would provide the variety needed to clarify things. But the Romans bestowed only about fifteen given names on their sons. And to make matters worse, families usually passed down just a few of these generation after generation. The Wikipedia article (grad students: do as I say and not as I do) on the Aemilii lists dozens of historical figures named either Marcus Aemilius or Lucius Aemilius. A parallel article shows that the Claudius gens had a penchant for the names Gaius and Appius. As a result of this staggering disregard toward originality in naming children, Livy gives me the impression that the same few people stayed alive for centuries and just took turns running Rome.

It occurred to me yesterday that the ancient Romans might have had that very effect in mind. When an Appius Claudius and a Lucius Aemilius are elected consuls, it simply sounds right. Of course these guys are consuls; it has ever been thus. So when a plebeian named Lucius Sextius wants to be consul, the in crowd thinks, "Sextius?! What kind of name is that for a consul?!" Words wield power: brutalizing power, healing power, political power, and more. The Roman patricians must have used these names partly as a desperate (but ultimately futile) attempt to keep the ruling power within their tiny circle.

For most of the fifth and fourth centuries, the period I'm reading about in Livy this year, the litany of petty wars with local city-states generally serves to mask the real fight going on: the class war known as the "Conflict of the Orders." Drip by drip, the plebeians wore down the patrician stone of power during this era, asking for and eventually getting tribunes, debt relief, a plebeian assembly with legislative power, distribution of conquered lands to the poor, and plebeian consuls (Lucius Sextius was the first). The patricians often went to war for the very purpose of distracting the plebeians from their domestic concerns. (Oh, that would never happen today!) But the plebeians had the strength of numbers and through periodic secessions (essentially labor strikes and military boycotts) gained most of the political recognition they desired.

The Eastern Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire. The Kaiser. The Czar. Western civilization has spent far too much time and energy idealizing the Romans and trying to "preserve" or restore the Empire and its Caesar. (I found out about a current attempt called Nova Roma just yesterday. According to the citizens of Nova Roma, Rome "laid the foundation for our modern Western civilization." Babylonians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks: all slackers, I guess, who didn't do much for civilization.) I don't see Rome's oppressive, bellicose ways as much to emulate. But if I can momentarily, just for the sake of argument, adopt the Romans' value system of land acquisition and peace maintained at the point of a gladius, it seems obvious now that the patricians played a consistently bad game in these early days. During all the generations in which they viewed their neighbors -- whether their "less noble" coresidents in the Eternal City or the inhabitants of nearby towns -- as enemies, Rome stayed small, and the city experienced perpetual peril. But after it promoted these quondam enemies to fellow citizens and, in the third century, started identifying more distant states such as Carthage and Greece as targets, the size of its territory exploded. It took about four hundred years for the Romans to subjugate -- er, incorporate -- a few neighboring hill towns and only about two hundred more to circle the shining Mediterranean.

So I'm asking myself: How do my words thoughtlessly exclude people? How do I keep my horizons small by thinking the same few thoughts? Who or what are my enemies, and should they be friends? And how would the world be different if everyone were named Appius?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Doomed to Repeat It

During the reign of Caesar Augustus, Livy wrote a history of the city of Rome in 142 books. Sadly, only thirty-five of the books have survived, and for some arbitrary reasons lost to me now, I decided to put the first ten books on my reading plan. Books 6-10, my allotment for this year, don't provide the easiest, most gripping reading; they don't constantly tempt me to turn "just one more page" as, for instance, Herodotus and Plutarch do.

This part of Rome's history (the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.) comprises a confusing, constant stream of wars with neighboring city-states. Knowing how many times the Romans fought the Veiians or Tusculans under which consuls just doesn't seem instructive to life today, and perhaps that irrelevance, coupled with Livy's long, complex sentences, has led to the work's being almost completely ignored. Maybe it led to the loss of 107 of its books. But scattered in its litany of consular campaigns, Livy's history also provides many fascinating characters and stories that should be read: we know what happens to those who ignore history.

Camillus was one of the great heroes of early Rome; the Senate turned to him over and over to face challengers to Roman peace. In one campaign, as Livy reports it, Camillus' army expressed some concern about facing a force outnumbering the Romans 100-to-1. After pointing out to the legions that their superior weapons did much to even the odds, Camillus reminded them of a much more important consideration: "What has the enemy ever been to you," he asked them, "but an opportunity for glory? The same thing will happen this time that has always happened: the enemy will run, and you will be victorious." We need models of courageous determinism like this today. Life is easier than war in a lot of ways: even circumstantial defeat can be glorious as long as we continue acting virtuously.

Later in his life, Camillus served as second in command to the consul Lucius Furius. Believing that war was the province of the young, Furius put Camillus in the back of the formation. But after he led the legions into a trap, he found that he needed the old guy to save the day once again. Later, the Senate put Camillus in charge again and asked him who his lieutenant would be, and Camillus named Marcus Furius. The great war hero could have sent the man who humiliated him earlier into political oblivion. But imagine what benefit he gained by recognizing Furius' experience, honoring the loyalties of the men who had served under him, and showing humility and mercy, even though these virtues come so much more easily in an old age that remembers many glorious victories.

The follow-up story is just as good. Camillus leads his army against the rebellious Tusculans, only to discover that the enemy had taken up "the one weapon that could stop the army of Rome": the Tusculans had decided not to fight. Finding their gates open and their market goods lining the streets, Camillus walked into the city, commended its leaders, and returned home.

Livy, writing for one of history's most powerful emperors, stroked his patron's patriotic pride by telling these glorious stories of past Roman virtue. But amazingly, he also found the opportunity to criticize the Rome of his own day; his overall purpose in writing the history may in fact have been to demonstrate the decadence of his society by comparison with the virtues of its fathers. At one point, he says that the extreme dangers the Republic experienced made it strong. A little earlier, he tells a story of a very large army the Romans raised and opines that the much larger Empire of his day could scarcely raise such a force because it pursues only riches and luxury.

OK, skip ahead if you don't like political heresy, but I sometimes wonder similarly if today's United States could have fought World War II. Did the tragedy of the Depression strengthen us and enable us to help keep western Europe (and quite possibly our own shores) free from Nazi rule? Could choices for mercy and peace actually bring political strength? Where logic or ethics don't provide a clear answer, there's only one laboratory for testing life decisions like these. We can't afford to ignore it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Persian Book of Kings

I begin this post by thanking Scott Nason, the brother of a former student and current friend, for recommending a wonderful book to me. Five years ago, I showed him my reading plan, and he recommended a Persian epic -- "greater than the Iliad," he said -- called the Shahnameh or The Persian Book of Kings. It sounded just right for me, so I added it to the plan -- the only book I added by recommendation.

I finally started this great work this past week, and I'm so very glad Scott recommended it. Every page is filled with colorful characters, intriguing tales, and beautiful imagery and figures. I read in Durant last year that the medieval Persian courts retained the splendor of ancient times more than any other culture of the Middle Ages, and the tenth-century author, Ferdowsi, ascribes this splendor to every early king in his saga, beginning with Kayumars, the first king and the inventor of clothing and food preparation. All the animals, both wild and tame, come to his throne and bow to him in obeisance. Later kings must restrain the animals who grace the court, but they show their power and glory by having elephants tethered to the left of the throne and lions and leopards to the right.

The very names invoke a sense of exotic romance: Hushang the hunter; Tahmures, the Binder of Demons; Jamshid, who organized society and discovered mining; and Feraydun, wielder of the ox-headed mace. Not so glorious, the Demon King Zahhak has a snake growing out of each shoulder. To keep himself alive, he must feed the snakes human brains. Each night he sends two poor souls to the kitchen to donate their heads to the cause, but his brave cooks spare the life of one in each pair and send him into hiding. After the cooks have saved about two-hundred, they send these survivors to a distant land where, Ferdowsi tells us, they become the Kurds.

The figurative language all seems new to me, and yet it all makes perfect sense. Rather than lasting for years or "many moons," a long event might last "seven seasons." One fellow is beaten so badly, he can't tell the peaks from the valleys. Several castles have towers that reach the clouds. This sounds like impossibly exaggerated tall-tale telling at first, but I have seen Manhattan skyscrapers disappearing in the low clouds, and I wonder at Ferdowsi's quite reasonable imagination of what would happen once engineering improved a bit. Cypresses must be special trees in Iran; several kings are as tall as cypresses, or as straight and firm as cypresses. Celestial figures also appear frequently and must have come naturally to a culture with such great astronomical skills. The head of most good kings sits like the moon on a cypress. The beauty of princesses usually finds itself described in relation to stars; one girl is as beautiful as Canopus (the second brightest star, after Sirius). I think I'll start comparing my wife to heavenly lights.

I've only read about sixty pages so far, so I don't know enough yet to know whether the Shahnameh surpasses the Iliad (not likely!). But already I've read more than Scott. Soon after buying the book (it's been sitting patiently on my shelves for four years waiting for me to visit it), Scott told me he had never read it, only heard about it. So, Scott, if you're reading this, let me return the favor and recommend the book to you.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Disorganized Medley

A few days ago, I uploaded a post called An Organized Summary and started it with the explanation that the title referred not to my essay but to Aquinas. The title of today's follow-up, on the other hand, refers to my writing, not to his. A few days ago I finished the first half of this year's Aquinas assignment, and I just want to gather a few random observations on what I've read so far.

1) This section on habits clarified the organization of the Summa. Over the last five years, I've read several hundred long, dense pages (probably the equivalent of a couple thousand normal pages), and now I see that this part wouldn't make sense without them. To talk about habits, Thomas had to explain God's character, the creation, the definitions of "good" and "true," the nature of man, the powers of the soul, the ways in which humans have or acquire knowledge of things below themselves and of things above, God's continued government of the world, man's purpose, the will, the passions, and more.

2) I was struck even more forcefully this year with the inaccuracy of the view that medieval theologians believed everything on the basis of authority. Thomas starts every article with objections to the point he wants to make; he knows an idea is not worth investigating if someone might not see it differently. Many of these objections come from authorities, and Thomas takes them on. Sometimes he proves them wrong, and sometimes he shows that they have to be interpreted correctly. But in all cases, he shows that blind faith in authority is no way to build a theology.

After the objections, he always offers a short indication of his view: a brief argument, a definition, or again perhaps a statement from an authority. Even when this introduction to his side of the argument is from the Bible, Thomas doesn't sit still and accept it. The Bible is hard to understand, and we often misinterpret it, so Thomas goes on to explain why what the Bible says is correct.

3) We have powers, habits, and acts. Powers come to us in our nature, meaning both human nature and individual nature. All humans have the power to grow and to learn; these powers come from our "specific nature," in other words, from our belonging to the human species. Some humans have greater powers of strength, some greater powers of intelligence, and so on; these powers come through each one's individual nature.

Habits make us apt to do certain things. Some people have natural potential (i.e., power) for intelligence but have never applied themselves to it and so aren't in the habit of thinking complex thoughts or working on difficult mental problems. As we develop habits, though, we become more apt to use our intelligence. Sherlock Holmes has habituated his powers so thoroughly, that he must take on mental challenges.

Habit, though, only means likelihood. It is not an action itself. Our lives should be full of actions suitable to our purpose, actions like serving others and turning our thoughts to God. We all have the power to help others, but some work at developing the habit, and some make entire lives out of service.

4) Thomas calls habit "second nature," a phrase I knew but didn't understand before I started seeing it a few years ago in the Summa Theologica. My two-year-old grandson learns without having to work at it; it just happens because it is his nature to learn. But habits must be developed. After he develops the habit of using the potty, he will respond to certain needs by seeking a bathroom without even having to think about it. It's tempting to say that he'll "naturally" want to use a bathroom and keep his clothes clean and dry, but of course (as is obvious now), that response is not natural at all and will take work to develop. Once he gets the habit, though, it will be like nature and thus a "second nature."

5) Virtues (i.e., good habits), Thomas says, are human phenomena, yet they come from God, not from us. We work, we act, we develop these good habits, yet God works them "in us, without us." I read three ways virtues can come from God (although Thomas may explain more that I have missed, and God probably has ways that even Thomas missed). First, God created each of us with a purpose according to a plan that includes all the powers of human nature. So anything we do from nature, anything that accords with reason (limited as human understanding is) comes ultimately from God. Second, habits have to get started; the first wish to desire to want to do right has to come from somewhere; the first act in the training process has to be committed. These beginnings of virtue, Thomas says, must come from God, because man cannot turn himself toward true happiness. Third, God sometimes just miraculously endows a habit, as when he gives a gift of knowledge without his servant having had to work at studying or memorization.

6) Wisdom differs from prudence. Wisdom is the virtue of knowing the place and the value of things in their ultimate contexts. Prudence is the virtue of practical reason that determines good and suitable means for achieving good goals.

7) The theological virtues -- faith, hope, and charity -- reside in the will and intellect alongside justice and prudence and so forth, but don't merely duplicate those virtues. Human understanding can only grasp things at human level or below; these three virtues point us to divine things beyond our comprehension. Faith, like reason, tells us what to believe, but with reason, knowing all the premises tells us everything pertinent about the conclusion, while we can never know everything about the God that faith leads us to.

8) My thoughts about Aquinas run in circles this year. I keep thinking about the habit I've developed of reading Aquinas, of my will to read his explanations of the human will, of my love for this expositor of love. I get another helping in a couple of months. Until then, I can practice the virtue of patience.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Patience Is a Virtue

I have to try to be honest about several things tonight. First confession: I don't always read all these books for the right motive. Making myself read a certain number of pages every day, I gloss over the words some days and get nothing at all out of them. On other days, I read in order to fulfill some personal goal that will make me feel better about myself. This approach easily leads to pride, for, as the Authorized Version says, "Knowledge puffeth up." But at my best moments, I read because I believe that I'm supposed to and that it will do me good. Sometimes I'm forced to believe this.

Take this week, for instance. I needed something light to carry around for three days while I finished my first Aquinas assignment, so I jumped ahead and started Thomas à Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. This Christian classic's theme can be summed up in three words: Suffer Hardship Patiently. I had just wrestled with this topic in relation to the Archbishop of Fardles in War in Heaven, and it came up again as I started this next book the very next day, another of the coincidences that constantly grace my reading experience. So I think I'm supposed to deal with it. And I know I need to: I don't suffer well, and I don't have much patience. Sadly, you can ask my wife for examples of that one. But -- and here's confession no. 2 -- I don't know what it means.

Now I'm afraid that my prose from here on will be as scattered as my thoughts on the subject, but if I'm to record my journey through great books faithfully, I have to forge ahead. I wish I could approach the kind of life à Kempis describes. If we set our hearts only on Jesus, we'll have peace, he says. If we truly love the Lord, troubles will come and go, and we will remain steady. I would love to stay steady. But what does he mean? Steady in what? Does he mean that we should be so in love with Jesus that we don't even feel troubles? That the Christian should just stay "happy all the day"? As much as I would like to have that experience, I don't think I ever will, and I'm not at all sure I'm supposed to have it. If the goal is the imitation of Christ, then I have to remember that Jesus wept, that he was sometimes vexed with his disciples, that he was moved with compassion, that He begged the Father for a pass on the crucifixion. Pain hurts. If it doesn't hurt, it doesn't require patience, and I'm supposed to have patience. So I think I'm OK feeling discomfort under adversity.

I spent many years thinking that suffering for Christ and sharing in his sufferings meant suffering persecution in return for proclaiming his name. But I changed my mind a few years ago. I based my first theory on the notion that Christ suffered only on the cross. But He suffered all of his life. Again, he wept, unfaithful people bothered him, illness and death made Him sad. I believe now that any time I suffer in these ways, I share his sufferings. (It's actually better to say that He took on human suffering with the incarnation and shared our sufferings. As a result, any time we suffer, we share his sufferings because He already did the sharing.) But how do I do it patiently? Does it mean I stay quiet while I hurt? À Kempis often says we should "turn inward" and seek God. It sounds spiritual, but if he means that we should close our eyes and quit responding to the world, I can't buy it. I have responsibilities and duties. God tells me to work for a living and to be kind to other people. If I close my eyes every time I hurt, I'll constantly neglect these other godly acts.

À Kempis says that suffering builds up rewards for us in Heaven and that we should be glad for the opportunities to suffer that come our way. James, of course, agrees. But À Kempis goes on to say that we should not even run from adversity. Any time we try to get away from it, he says, it shows that we love comfort more than we love God. But can James really mean that we should sit and take whatever pain we experience? Should I quit taking medicine? Why does Paul tell Timothy to take some wine for his stomach? Why not just let Timothy suffer and gain more jewels for his crown? I seriously don't mean to be flippant, but if I find that I'm standing under a cold drip, is it ungodly to take a step to the side?

À Kempis has many good things to say about trouble that comes from other people. Christ bore with these jerks; why can't you? They cause trouble because they're flawed; so are you. Getting angry only indicates an un-Christian sense of superiority. And so on. À Kempis recommends asking an abusive person once or twice to change his ways and then, if he doesn't, to suffer patiently. This advice seems wise, and patience seems clearly in this case to include staying quiet. But again, am I not allowed to break off a painful acquaintance that involves no commitment? Or am I supposed to keep going back and just stand quietly while the abuse comes?

Many relationships do involve commitment, though. I know, for instance, that I can't simply avoid everyone at work that hurts me. But the context of work raises another haunting problem that truly puzzles me. In some relationships, I have a duty to correct others; as a teacher, for instance, I have an obligation to keep working with a student who comes for help. This office of mentoring has nothing to do with my moral superiority and everything to do with my position in a hierarchy. It's easy to know what to do when the student needs correction on study habits or counterpoint writing. But what if the student is annoying or disrespectful? Do I correct her on this behavior as well? Is it possible to separate the personal affront from the academic discourtesy and explain to the student that she won't learn as much with her bad attitude?

Or what if the trouble comes from my boss? At first it seems obvious that I should just quietly defer to my superior. But what if the rules of the workplace define the faculty as a democratic body that holds the Director responsible? Is it then my Christian duty to hold him responsible, or is it my Christian duty to suffer abuse quietly? (Oh, I know that many times there's a third option: get some perspective and see that what your boss is doing isn't "abuse" after all.) The Bible talks about masters and slaves. Ah! It would be so easy (it seems) to know what to do if I were a slave. No Slave Handbook would tell me about channels of recourse and democratic duties and obligations to hold other members of the community accountable. A slave has no recourse, no rights. Do the work, get hit, shut up. The path is clear.

I have wrestled with these issues for a long time, and now my reading (as well as various messes I've gotten myself into lately) has me on the mat again. But I've had some victories over the years. As I said, I've learned that God rewards much more of my suffering than I once thought, so I have that encouragement to spur me on any time I want to meditate on it. And I have definitely become less anxious in the last few years and more in control of my emotions. But here are a couple more ideas that seem to be coming clear recently.

(1) All these questions have to do with me. What should I do? What can't I figure this out? Why am I so troubled by thoughts about trouble? Should I quit trying to figure it out and instead just patiently suffer troubling thoughts about patiently suffering trouble? I. Me. Mine. If I were to focus instead on the needs of others, my thoughts would be clearer. If the annoying student only makes me think about what to do about myself, I fall into the familiar quagmire. If I think about what she needs, I know better what to do. If I think about the other professors she's tormenting, I get even more new ideas about what to do. (But I still know to thank God for Graduation.)

(2) "Patience" sounds like it should mean smiling quietude. But the English word actually only literally means "suffering," so my native tongue obfuscates the problem: of course I can't figure out how to "suffer patiently" if all that phrase means is to suffer while suffering. On the other hand, the Greek word used most often for "patience," a word that early English translations rendered as "longsuffering," comes from roots that mean "breathing hard for a long time." The "breathing hard" part can even mean "passion" or "anger." That network of meanings doesn't suggest to me quietude or smiling at all! It suggests to me much less about attitude and more about action. It reminds me of perseverance in running a long-distance race. I think suffering patiently means that I should continue to exert myself under duress, doing right even when I'm troubled or burdened or distracted. Aquinas doesn't talk about patience; he talks instead about the classically named fortitude: keep moving toward the noble goal even when it's painful to do so. ("Stay on target. Stay on target.") Be strong. Take heart. Fight the good fight. This is starting to sound quite Biblical (the part that wasn't from Star Wars anyway), so I think I'm on the right track.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Aquinas's Map of the Human Soul

Aquinas spends a lot of time in the Summa Theologica with what we might call psychology. In order to explain what the Christian life is like and how God works in people, he has to explain how people work. I've been fascinated by it for years, but also confused about all the various parts of the soul and how they interact. This year, though, something finally clicked, and it makes sense now.

Aquinas says that we have intellect, appetite (general desire, not just for food), and senses. This tripartite scheme seems to make sense and seems to cover all the actions of the soul (reasoning, imagining, seeing, wanting, disliking, etc.), but over the years, I've often been mixed up on exactly what he assigned to each of the three parts. It all came together last week when I noticed three things on one day: (1) that the appetite has a an intellectual part and a sensory part, (2) that both intellect and senses have "apprehensive powers," and (3) that he sometimes uses "Intellect" for a broader part of the soul and sometimes for a more specific part.  Suddenly a nice, neat, balanced, medieval, four-part model became clear:

             Appetitive Powers    Apprehensive Powers

Intellect:          Will           Intellect (proper)

   Senses:   Sensitive Appetite        Sensation

Think of the rows as two "parts" of the soul and the columns as two sets of powers. Each part intersects with each set of powers for four basic spheres of operation. (1) Sensation involves the five senses as well as other inner operations such as imagination. Through its operations, we experience pictures, sounds, etc.: basic "phantasms" that (2) the Intellect works with. Intellect, for instance, can compare mental pictures of cherries, a fire truck, and a stop sign that the eyes (and perhaps memory) provide and abstract the idea of red. Intellect also works with fundamental ideas and comes to conclusions, makes decisions, commands the body and other parts of the soul, and so on. (3) The Will (or "intellectual appetite") desires or rejects abstract ideas provided to it by the Intellect, and (4) the Sensitive Appetite desires or rejects concrete objects given to it by the senses.

This year's reading became much easier once I wrote out this Map of the Human Soul for myself. For instance, Aquinas points out that virtues only have to do with operations that have something to do with choice. I understand clearly now which parts those are: we can decide what to think and what to want, but we can't decide what to see, so virtues apply to the Intellect, the Will, and the Sensitive Appetite. But they have nothing to do with Sensation. We can decide which way to turn our heads and whether to close our eyes, but given the direction of the eyes, they just do their thing. Some people have better eyesight than others, but we don't credit a person with 20/20 vision as being a morally better person. Some people, on the other hand, make good decisions, aim for worthy goals, and control their appetites, and we see these good things as results of virtue.

As Aquinas explains it, the measure of all human things is reason. (God's ultimate, supernatural goals for us lie beyond human measure.) Right reason can and should control any operation about which we have a choice: the Intellect, the Will, and the Sensitive Appetite. (Psychology has learned since the thirteenth century about ways in which the intellect affects the senses, as well, but we'll leave that new knowledge aside for now.) It's easy to see how we can think about what to think about (although it's not always easy to do it--I have trouble setting aside thoughts of trouble at work). And it's easy to see how we can decide what to want: we do it every time we shop, pick a movie to see, or study possible vacation destinations, for instance. But it's harder to grasp the idea of reason ruling our sensitive appetite. The apple pie smells good, and I want it; exercise hurts, and I avoid it. Sadly, for many of us in our culture, the appetite has become exactly that mechanical. But the disciplined person with the virtue of temperance works hard at the thoughts that keep him from wanting to eat the extra dessert, from buying every song that sounds good, from kissing the pretty girl that happens to be married to someone else. And the disciplined person with the virtue of fortitude works hard at the thought patterns that keep him exercising when it hurts, that keep him working when it's lonely or boring, and that keep him searching for the splinter in the tiny finger even when his child is crying.

A high-school friend named Jim once took apart his car's engine in his garage. He laid out every part -- every strut, spring, and screw -- in nice, neat rows. When I asked him why he did it, he said he just wanted to know what was going on when he drove his car. Reading this part of Aquinas, I feel like Jim, except that instead of taking apart an engine, I'm letting Aquinas take apart my soul and lay it out in order. It's pleasant to know what's going on under my hood, and it certainly seems that this knowledge makes it a bit easier for me to think and act virtuously.

But maybe I'm just deciding to think that.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Five People You Meet in War in Heaven

Charles Williams certainly tests the boundaries of what I think I know and believe. I don't know all the answers to the questions he asks, but I know I like the questions. Here are five characters from War in Heaven that present particular challenges.

Prester John All through the High Middle Ages and Europe's Age of Discovery, Christian Europe shared and pondered rumors of a hidden Christian kingdom somewhere in Asia or Africa. Its priest and king, the reputedly ageless Prester John, shows up in War in Heaven as the protector of the Holy Grail. Everyone he meets recognizes him but can't remember where they have met him. At one point he identifies himself as the "Precursor" -- as the Baptist, Galahad, and Mary all rolled into one. One of the themes of the novel is that a person with the right mind can see God in any created thing, even in another human. At that moment, the thing is both God (because someone sees God in it) and yet not God (because it is created). The phenomenon invokes one of Williams's favorite phrases: "This also is Thou. Neither is this Thou." I understand and have this experience often, but are John the Baptist and Mary, Galahad and Prester John, a handclasp and the Holy Grail really on par with each other in this regard?

Archbishop of Fardles The Archbishop represents part of what is most attractive about Buddhism to me. He is said to live with a serenity for which "contentment" is too mild a word. At one point, Williams even talks about his "detachments," a word that seems to allude directly to Buddhist doctrine. The good clergyman likes to quote Ps. 136, with its persistent refrain, "For his mercy endureth forever." The refrain in that Psalm responds to both celebrations of creation and remembrances of death. Both are mercies, indeed. But are we to be content with both? The Archbishop rests in faith even when he feels that God has abandoned him, because this feeling also, he says, comes from God. Can we truly be content at these moments? Are we supposed to be content at these moments? Or does God intend them to drive us toward harder questions and deeper faith?

Gregory Persimmons The former publisher serves Satan because he is angry. But the Archbishop says that anger will not lead people to Hell, since it is a sign of intense desire. Instead, he helps direct Gregory to the End of Desire, Jesus Christ Himself. For the Buddhist, the "end of desire" means its annihilation. For the Christian, "end" means rather "goal." When we finally see God face to face, our desires will not go away; we will instead rest in the enjoyment of their perpetual fulfillment. So our desires ultimately should lead us to God, and, yes, I can see that anger might point to intense desire and frustration at the world's inability to fulfill it. But does anger always lead people up to God?

Lionel Before Gregory knows anything about the End of Desire, he makes a hobby out of manipulating people with temptations to power. But near the end of the book, he expresses his frustration with several people on whom his enticements don't work. The detached Archbishop falls in this category of course. But so does Lionel Rackstraw, a man so convinced that the universe is cruel, he walks through his day vividly envisioning disaster to himself and his family just to prepare himself for the inevitable. Worldly power has no charm over a man who only wants out of the world. The Archbishop just sees Lionel's problem as an exaggerated form of blessed detachment -- a longing for death, which will only bring him into God's presence. I understand that despair can lead a person to God; I think for instance of the man who came to Jesus saying, "I believe. Help Thou my unbelief." But does God's mercy over everything mean that everything is good, even despair? I know He called all of his creation good, but despair is more a product of creatures than of the Creator, isn't it? (And isn't it actually an absence -- as darkness is the absence of light -- rather than a product of either God or man?)

Bastesby Gregory says that children should be taught to do no wrong. Then he grabs Adrian and tries to offer him to Satan. Poor Vicar Batesby, who constantly quotes fractured scripture, defines goodness the same way. He likes the good people, whom he recognizes as those who don't steal or murder. Kant also bases morality on a negative principle that says, essentially, don't do anything you wouldn't want everybody else to do. It sounds almost like the Golden Rule, except that it doesn't tell us what to do, only what to avoid. I enjoy seeing this tepid but popular view of morality exposed, but I find it puzzling and sobering to be reminded that both men of the cloth and diabolists can espouse it.

Friday, April 8, 2011


My reading this year in the Summa Theologica comes from Thomas's "Treatise on Habits." Aquinas needs to talk about the virtues of a good Christian life, and he defines virtue as a good habit; so his plan requires spending a lot of time on habits. A habit, he says, resides in the soul and "disposes" some part of the soul for good or for ill. Another way to put it is that a habit makes some part of the soul apt to do, to think, or to want something. A virtue "perfects" a power of the soul by disposing the intellect or desire (the two principles of human action) to good; a vice disposes to evil.

As Aquinas explains it, a good action is an action suitable to reason and to the nature of the agent. That is, a good action makes sense and is ultimately good for the person doing it. In order to get this good action going, though, a lot of parts have to come into play. At the very least, three things have to happen. First, my intellect has to determine a goal. If I have the virtue of wisdom, I'm apt to choose a suitable goal. My intellect then moves my will so that I desire the goal. If I have the virtue of temperance, my will is more apt to desire these suitable goals. Then, in turn, the will moves the intellect, but this time a different part of the intellect: practical reason, the part that figures out means for reaching a goal. If I desire a goal, my intellect will find the means to reach it. If I have the virtue of prudence, my practical intellect will be more apt to choose reasonable means. And of course, at some point this process will determine a bodily action, the body, if healthy, will obey the commands of the intellect, and I'll be doing something good.

As I read all this detailed information, six pages each day, I've naturally been thinking a lot about Aquinas's theory and these terms and a lot about the collaboration of so many parts and so many virtues required in order to do the right thing. Then yesterday I read something in Charles Williams that made me suspect a second kind of collaboration.

Charles Williams's prose is typically dense. When I read his books I sometimes feel as though my face is lifted up under a stream of rich stew. What goes into my mouth, I enjoy immensely, and I know I am nourished by it. But I miss a lot of it and feel it running down my cheeks with regret. Of course, when I turn a page of War in Heaven and see long paragraphs without dialog, I know that I'm in for some work and will need to slow down. But even Williams's dialog is sometimes full of multiple meanings. The defiant Gregory Persimmons tells the Archdeacon of Fardles that he must ask a favor for a friend. To indicate that he can compensate the Archdeacon, he says, "My friend comes to you as a beggar, but I will pay for myself." But then Williams tells me that the last statement irks the Archdeacon, so I have to slow down to think why. The statement has theological significance: Persimmons believes he can be the captain of his fate, his own absolute, the god of his world, and thus he rejects the notion that any God would take on flesh to pay a debt of divine justice for him. The Archdeacon knows human nature enough to see immediately that Persimmons's statement has to do with larger issues than a checkbook.

Besides setting up conversational phrases with several layers of meaning, Williams fills other parts of his narration with quirky phrases, philosophical ideas, and uncredited quotations, and I know that, as much as I enjoy any given passage, I miss most of the allusions through not being as well read as this friend of Lewis and Tolkien. I'm sure that the first time I read this book, I missed the reference I caught yesterday. Here's the passage:
But now he was conscious of some slight movement on his own part . . . . The cause of all action there disposed itself according to that Will which was its own nature, and, so disposing itself, moved him easily . . . so that at any time and at all times its own perfection was maintained.
The phrases are too similar to ignore. Surely Williams had studied the words of Aquinas from seven hundred years earlier. But what a coincidence that I came across them in the same week yet another hundred years later! I'm not sure the coincidence is as random as it seems, though. I've heard resonances of Aquinas in Tolkien before, and I'm starting to think that these two just knew their Summa Theologica well enough that I could read any long section of Aquinas and any book by one of those two Inklings and find some parallels.

While I'm at it, I should mention a third collaboration I noticed in the passage. After the Archdeacon goes through this complex inner motion toward action, he performs a desperate act (no spoilers this time) and runs. Two other characters spontaneously assist him and join him in flight. These three people have three different understandings of the stakes and three different motives for banding together. But they all see the action as a commitment to the Triune God and a stand against evil. It seems that Williams is saying that following Jesus does not depend on total agreement regarding either theology or the reason for commitment. It takes variety in more than just gifts and service to make a Church, and it is good to be reminded that a disparate group can collaborate effectively for good as long as they agree on Who they're laboring for.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Spirit Behind the Curtain

Near the beginning of Charles Williams's War in Heaven, I've just read a scene emblematic of the theme of all his novels. It begins, "Adrian Rackstraw opened the oven, put the chicken carefully inside, and shut the door." Adrian then realizes he has forgotten to buy potatoes and goes to the vegetable shop frequented by Mrs. Rackstraw. But after buying the potatoes, he becomes distracted by the sight of a railway station, and rides away to Brighton on a train. Then comes the key sentence: "But, before it [the train] reached its destination, his mother, entering the room with her usual swiftness, caught the station with her foot and sent it flying across the kitchen floor."

Now, the scene was already weird before that sentence. I knew Williams was up to his tricks. Why would Adrian leave a chicken in the oven? Why would he buy potatoes and then board the Brighton train? So I was ready for a uncanny surprise. But I had to read that last sentence three times before I realized that the surprise was not supernatural but mundane. Adrian is a child, and the whole scene -- oven, potato monger, railway station and all -- played out in his child's mind, assisted of course by various toys strewn around his mother's kitchen.

Charles Williams wants to tell us that our worlds are like Adrian's. Each of us constructs a habit of interpreting the earthly toys around us, a routine that continually presses things and their meanings out of consciousness as the routine becomes ever more automatic. And yet the curtain that we draw around our private fantasy is a thin veil, ready in an instant to be torn in two from top to bottom. Every commonplace object we interact with exudes the aroma of its Maker, and He will intrude upon our playworld like a blinding flash of lightning if we do not stop and smell the humdrum.

In Many Dimensions, two ordinary people who haven't thought about God enough to decide what they think about Him find his power in a small amber stone. In The Greater Trumps, characters watch as chess pieces rise into the air and begin to dance. And in another Williams novel (I won't spoil anything), a character spends quite a while trying to understand the dullness of the world she walks in before she realizes she has died and must find a spiritual grounding for her new form of life. Of course she must find it in this dull world, but it's ready to be seen in every stone and lamppost and shop window everywhere she turns, and if she only gains the right understanding, its holy colors will become brilliantly apparent to her. For Williams and his protagonists, every object is both a lump of matter destined for dust and a beacon ready to shine the light of a more fundamental spiritual reality for those with eyes to see.

What could be more material, more secular than the steel and glass doors of a London business office in the 1930s? Yet in a Charles Williams novel, even doors such as these can serve as mystical portals to a spiritual world. Williams first describes such doors in War in Heaven as being so arranged as to reflect each other in infinite regression, and tells the reader that the kaleidoscopic effect regularly disoriented visitors so that they didn't know which door led where. And perhaps it's just as well; those who find the offices of Persimmons Publishing enter a realm of robbery, murder, and devil worship.

Devil worship? Yes, conflicts of many types occur in these novels. Each book finds some character viewing one particular lump of matter as especially endowed with spiritual power -- some character who sees the spirituality of the thing only as a means to personal power or knowledge, and missing its significance as a bearer of the Craftsman's hallmark. The talisman he uses in his quest for self-realization could be a rock, a painting, a ladder, some skin cream, the Holy Grail, or another human being, but some character always tries to overcome the world through his own strength, to pull back the veil himself and find the barely hiding spirit. The problem is, Williams points out, people who love only themselves and use things and other people as mere tools always end up looking for the wrong spirit behind the curtain.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Best of Enemies

Someone -- I think it was Napoleon -- once said that the fiercest enemies have much in common and must agree about the most important matters. Two generals at war with each other, for instance, might agree that some piece of land is valuable and worth spending human lives on. The Democrat and the Republican in Congress, denouncing each other in the most vitriolic terms, agree that talking and voting make for the best way to settle an issue and come to a decision.

Amid its talking trees and flying horses and magic fountains, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso also presents a lot of fighting. Rinaldo and Sacripante fight to see who wins Angelica; both men agree Angelica is a worthy prize. (Angelica, unwilling to take either of them, simply runs away before they finish their fight.) Bradamante fights the sorcerer Atlante in order to free the knights held captive in his magic castle; both parties agree that knights are valuable. And Lurcanio and Ariodante fight to determine Ginevra's guilt or innocence; both sides agree on the vital importance of a woman's chastity and on the necessity of fighting for truth.

This last match-up stands as an example of the medieval practice of Trial by Combat, a curious custom I've been thinking about off and on for the last few years, ever since the last time I read Richard II and noticed its importance in that play. Two combatants fight for opposing viewpoints, but both trust God to grant victory to the one in the right. I suppose it's basically a pious duel.

As it happens, the topic came up in my reading earlier this year, as well. Bonhoeffer, praising medieval Christendom, speaks with admiration in his Ethics about what he sees as its attitude to war: fight fairly and accept the result as God's judgment. By contrast, says Bonhoeffer, the nation engaging in modern warfare takes survival of the homeland for the absolute, admits no possibility of the enemy's being right, and stops at nothing in order to achieve victory. Perhaps he would have difficulty finding anything that modern enemies agree on. But in his ideal view of European war in the Middle Ages, both parties agree in their Christian faith and in their reliance on God's ability to reveal his will. Medieval warriors come to battle as enemies and walk away as brothers. If war between Christians can be justified at all, after all, it must be founded on Jesus' instruction to love our enemies.

Ariosto got my attention by adding a new element to this picture of mutually respectful enemies. Writing around 1500, while Muslim nations attacked Europe, Ariosto's epic tells about a similar situation seven hundred years earlier, when the Mohammedans of Spain poured across the Pyrenees to attack Charlemagne's Christian empire. These two forces don't share a religion, and each intends to force the other off the land of "France" by killing as many enemy soldiers as possible. They agree that the land is worth fighting for. But do they know they agree, and can they honor each other for fighting over that land in the name of God (in their respective understandings of Him)?

Ariosto thought so. In Book I, he recounts the story of two knights, one from each army, wounded and exhausted from battle, separated from their comrades, and lost in the woods. Rinaldo and Ferraù (for such are their names) find each other and one horse. From what we know of recent war and from war movies, we in the twenty-first century would not be surprised to find them fighting ruthlessly for the horse. We might even expect one of them to ambush the other for the sake of that horse. But Rinaldo and Ferraù live in, as ObiWan would say, a more civilized age. They shake hands and share the horse. Ariosto writes this:
O noble chivalry of knights of yore!
Here were two rivals, of opposed belief,
Who from the blows exchanged were bruised and sore,
Aching from head to foot without relief,
Yet to each other no resentment bore.
Through the dark wood and winding paths, as if
Two friends, they go. Against the charger's sides
Four spurs are thrust until the road divides.
Living in an era of Muslim assaults on the West, Ariosto wrote of an earlier age of Muslim assaults on the West. Coincidentally, I'm reading the book at yet another time of Muslim assaults and threats of assault on the West, and of the twenty-first century's version of the counterattacking Crusades. The parallels are striking; yet the West is now decidedly less Christian than it was in the day of either Charlemagne or Ariosto. The West's current postmodern culture has difficulty agreeing to disagree. Doing so requires saying that someone is wrong, and that action depends on a belief in Truth, the denial of which forms one of the fundamental truths of the postmodern creed. If we can't openly celebrate another person's culture and character and preferences today, we tend to acknowledge only two other options: (1) maintaining a polite silence about differences or (2) denouncing the other party as something less than human. I would have to search a long time among non-Muslims in this country today to find anything other than one of these three attitudes toward the adherents of Islam.

But Ariosto reminds us that the West once recognized a fourth way. Openly acknowledging one's differences with another person, far from being a sign of intolerance, actually shows respect. It implies that the topics of disagreement are important, that truth matters, and that the other person's beliefs represent honest, human attempts at finding that truth, attempts worth examining and addressing. If I am tempted to think that no Christian and Muslim can be hospitable to each other, debate their differences respectfully, and dine together in the enjoyment of all they agree on, I only have to reread the story of Patriarch Timothy and Caliph Mahdi. And if I forget that this could be true even of warriors who would gladly kill each other another day in the context of a battle, I need only review the encounter of Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Full Circle

Ariosto's Orlando Furioso holds a very important place in the history of this reading project. I was reading something or other by C. S. Lewis about twenty years ago, and he mentioned OF -- tossed it off casually as an example of some point, as if he expected everyone to have read it. I felt my chest turn soft and implode. I wasn't sure I had even heard of this work that Lewis considered a must-read classic. I spent a few moments frustrated with my high-school and university education, and a couple more moments regretful that I hadn't read more real classics when I was younger.

I had had similar thoughts many times before, but this time the foolishness of my complaints struck me. I was finished with school, had a job and some time, and I told myself, "If you want to be able to say you've read these classics, just start reading." (When you have conversations with yourself, do you say "you" or do you say "I"? Or am I only embarrassing myself by revealing that I have conversations with myself?) So I started looking for books, bought the Britannica set, followed their ten-year plan, and had so much fun that I put together my own, second ten-year reading plan, the plan I'm working on now. But I got the second schedule almost finished before I realized: I hadn't included Orlando Furioso! So I found a place for it beginning in year 5, and just two days ago, after twenty years, I began the work that started me reading the classics.

From the editor's notes in The Faerie Queene, I knew that Orlando would be very similar. And, sure enough, I've been reading complex, intertwined stories of knights and ladies who spend a lot of time wandering through the woods, looking for adventure, splitting from their companions, meeting characters from other threads of the tapestry, and telling each other stories of other knights and ladies who wander through the woods looking for adventure.

Unlike Spenser, though, Ariosto gives his epic a much more realistic tone. The tale takes place in a time from our history: the reign of Charlemagne. He mentions familiar places like India and France, and he includes names of many historical figures among those of the characters of his story. And the characters he created mostly seem like humans, with human strengths and foibles, not the types and allegories that populate The Faerie Queene.

On the other hand, after only about fifty pages, I've encountered a flying horse, a castle made of steel, a pool filled with natural love potion, a book that spirits jump out of, a ring that negates other magic, and a shield emitting an intense red light that stuns everyone it strikes. It's an interesting world, and the verse of Barbara Reynolds's translation is lovely. So now I can say it: Orlando Furioso is worth the wait, and the last twenty years of reading make sense.