Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Before the Blog

It occurs to me that I should explain a lacuna in my reading lists. After posting information recently about my third ten-year reading plan, I realized that a person always talking about giving himself a liberal education through great books should explain why certain classics are missing. The basic answer is that I have read a lot of the books or authors you might have expected to see on a list like mine, and don't feel the urge to plan on reading them again.

I'll start with some Americans. Where are Cooper, Hawthorne, Irving, Poe, Dickinson, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, London, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, and Frank Norris? Well, partly they're in my head: I've read them before. I've read "Young Goodman Brown" and The House of the Seven Gables; I've read The Scarlet Letter, and since I didn't read it for school, I enjoyed it. (My favorite Hawthorne story: "The Artist of the Beautiful.") I am a man who likes to read, so I once was a boy who liked to read, and therefore I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; I've read them multiple times. My favorite other Twain book is Life on the Mississippi, and the best Twain essays are "The Awful German Language" (one of the funniest things ever written) and "The Literary Sins of Fennimore Cooper." Oh, and I've read Cooper; you have to show him a lot of grace and love the sinner while hating the sin. I read Call of the Wild when I was a kid and then grew up and realized it wasn't a kid's book. I've read Sound and the Fury and Farewell to Arms and Gatsby and Babbitt. I'll definitely get back to some of these authors; they just don't have to be on my list for further self-improvement. I am eagerly anticipating rereading one forgotten American classic, though: Frank Norris's The Octopus. For all Norris's fame as a "naturalist" author, this novel includes at least one possibly paranormal event and a very satisfying moment of cosmic justice. I can't explain why this entertaining and thought-provoking book has never been adapted for the screen; with its soap-like drama of families and capitalism, it's a wonder no network has made a miniseries out of it.

I was going to talk a little about Hobbes and say that reading Leviathan is like walking through a half-constructed building made of square, smooth stone blocks: everything is a too square and simple to represent reality, and a little shove could knock the whole thing over. Then I was going to compare my Hobbesian architecture to the gothic cathedral of Aquinas, with his overwhelming repetition of figures, alike in basic shape but endlessly varied in detail. I was going to say all this, but then I remembered that I actually put Hobbes on the current plan that this blog records and even enjoyed him more the second time than I thought I would. So I will leave it all for someone else to say.

Machiavelli: I thought the Prince would recommend underhanded plotting, but reading it showed me that the book is more about doing right for pragmatic reasons. That premise sounds immoral only if doing-what's-right and doing-what-works are distinct; since I don't think they necessarily oppose one another, I actually found the book a surprising new defense of the Good.

Smith: For various reasons, basic ideas usually have much more impact on me when I read them from the source, and the pattern was never more true than with Adam Smith. Before reading his book, I already knew that Smith likened the free market to an invisible hand nudging society toward good. I don't remember any details about The Wealth of Nations other than that invisible hand, but after reading Smith's account of it, the image quit being a dry chalk outline on a classroom blackboard and became vivid and powerful in my mind. In honor of the holiday today, I'll say that the hand in my original view was as stiff and laughable as The Crawling Hand, while the three-dimensional picture I got from reading Smith himself had the sophistication of The Beast with Five Fingers.

Marx: I know entire countries and English departments base their policies on Marx's system, but its fatal flaw seems to me to come on page 1 of Capital. Marx says a thing's value comes from the labor that goes into producing it, whereas I say the value of a thing lies in the eye of a person who wants it. You can try all day to sell me your peanut slicer by telling me how much work and time you invested in it, and I still won't want it. Marx is a moving, effective writer when he appeals to the reader's humanity; no profit can justify the way some owners and faceless corporations have treated workers, and no author can make a reader sense this moral lesson better than Karl Marx. But his economic mathematics is worthless, no matter how much time he put into it.

Freud: The founder of psychoanalysis writes endlessly interesting and challenging prose. (The best place to start with Freud: Civilization and its Discontents.) His discovery of the power of the talking cure deserves nothing but praise and thanks. His observation that seemingly disconnected actions, words, and thoughts hang on a unifying thread makes sense of a lot of human mysteries. But his insistence that the common thread is always sex tells us more about the doctor's mind than the patient's.

I’ll provide some more unfairly short summaries of classic authors in a future post. Right now, I’m expecting princesses and ghouls and Spider-man to come to my door, and I have to get ready.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Chesterton and the Prussians

On August 4, 1914, England declared war on Germany and entered World War I. In his Illustrated London News piece for September 12 that same year, Chesterton wrote about the Germans and, as far as I can tell from the table of contents in the pertinent ILN volumes, continued to write about the war every week for the next four years. In some ways, the decision is unfortunate from our perspective: the monotonous judgment on the arrogance and militarism of the Prussians and the abundance of topical references make for tedious reading. I decided last year that I needed to double my pace on Chesterton’s columns if I was ever to make it through to 1936, but then I hit the War to End All Journalistic Variety. So at the end of my Chesterton experience last year I made the wise decision to read nonconsecutive years for a while; this year covers 1915 and 1920.

Disciplining myself with delayed gratification, I’m trying to get as far as I can into 1915 before taking an advance on 1920's reward. And, sure enough, so far I haven’t quite encountered the Chesterton I so look forward to during the spring and summer. I think of him as part of the annual dessert after the brussels sprouts of a Calvin or a Hegel (or the bitter herbs of a Spengler). But the essays from 1915 only prolong the vegetable course.

In one way, though, the war serves Chesterton and his future readers well: its crucible tests Chesterton’s pet topics, and they come out shining and strong. For instance, although the Prince of Paradox never, to my knowledge, took a swing at another human being, he certainly enjoyed verbally defending his right to do so, and the pacifist protests of 1915 allowed him to argue the morality of fighting when there was some real fighting to do. As another example, he loved drawing national characters, and a Great War involving so many nations gave him the opportunity to employ those familiar characters in his analysis of events.

And there have been a few green knolls along the gray, muddy path. In the three months’ worth I’ve read as of now, Chesterton has made these points, among others:
    • The world state that the liberals want isn’t liberal at all, since it could grant no recognition to a people’s right to revolt against tyranny. 
    • National conscription may force men to fight, but they will be fighting for the wrong reason: to avoid legal consequences rather than to serve their country with a free heart. 
    • Victory doesn’t work as an ultimate goal (the passage reminded me of the Bonhoeffer I read last year), since it is neither permanent nor as noble as honor or goodness. 
    • The English throughout history have always praised the individuality of the warrior hero.
By far the best essay so far, “German Evil and English Weakness” from July 24, delivers the beautiful message that the only right way to respond to German hubris is with English humility. Does the Chancellor say the English are evil people? Then we must admit that he is right and confess our oppression of the Irish and that we have distributed property so poorly as to leave millions of English people without status or rights. The passage continues:
The savage says, “I am a good German.” And the civilized man answers, “I am a bad Englishman, and altogether unworthy of England.” In hoc signo vincet.
I find it difficult to know what to do with Chesterton’s comments about what some contemporary pacifist says that a German thinks about the Turks. But his observations on humility still have immediate effect. For my country engages in war from time to time, too, and she also has enemies – and former allies – who see her as evil, and she also has committed institutional sin. But I’m afraid that one of her sins is the loss of humility and of the understanding of the power of confession, so I don’t know that she can learn from Chesterton’s lesson and see the sign in which she could triumph.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Balanced View

I’ve enjoyed Will Durant’s account of the Italian Renaissance every bit as much as I thought I would. He concentrates on art in the first few chapters, which suits me fine since I just spent several months enjoying the beautiful outpouring of Italy’s great masters. Some sections in this first part are devoted to political history, especially that of the Medici and Savonarola in Florence. But even here Durant seems to put art in the forefront; while the typical Renaissance prince found artists to support his political aims, Durant inverts that structure by letting his political story serve his lessons on art. His treatment of Lorenzo de’ Medici, for instance, ends with a long account of the artists and scholars whose work was made possible by Lorenzo’s generosity.

As much fun as I’m having, though, I can’t help getting frustrated sometimes when I read about an artist I didn’t know about. Florence is bursting with great Renaissance art; you can’t just go there, visit the Uffizi gallery, and say you’ve seen what the city has to offer. Fra Angelico’s most important frescoes are in the Convento San Marco. Michelangelo’s monumental David is in the Accademia; his heartbreaking Pietà is in a stairwell in the Duomo museum. Going up those same stairs takes you to a room with some of Donatello’s best work; to see a sampling of his other masterpieces, you have to go to the Bargello, one of his most important sculptures stands on the side of a public building. I visited all these churches and museums and more, but I still never came across Andrea del Sarto (as far as I know). Durant tells me that Andrea’s most revered work graces the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata. I look at a map now and see that I was a block and a half away from that church many times but never knew to go there. To give one more example, he calls the Milan cathedral the noblest and most inspiring in all of Italy. Looking at pictures of it online now, I get an idea why. But several people steered us away from Milan, so we traveled right past it a couple of times, totally ignorant of the opportunity to place ourselves in the midst of that nobility and breathe it in. Ah, well. Expect to return, says our tour guide Rick Steves.

Writing about the age when scholars explored a philosophy “that would enable them to retain a Christianity that they had ceased to believe in, but never ceased to love” leads Durant to some interesting conclusions about our species. I don’t expect him to convert to a Christian view of humankind through a contemplation of all that sacred art, especially since the position of some of the most prominent Renaissance artists – even those painting steady streams of Madonnas and Crucifixions – could run anywhere between wavering doubt to outright scoffing, with plenty of hypocrisy in between. But while it may not be pure orthodoxy, Durant’s position is in hailing distance, and quite compatible in certain aspects. Of Savonarola’s attempt to make fifteenth-century Florence “honest, good, and just,” for instance, he says that “we cannot wonder that Savonarola failed where Christ succeeded . . . . But we know, too, that such a revolution is the only one that would mark a real advance in human affairs.” Later, in speaking of Leonardo’s attempts to build a flying machine, he says that when we contemplate the crimes and selfishness of humanity, “we feel our race in some part redeemed when we see that it can hold a soaring dream in its mind and heart for three thousand years.” We are a broken race, and while art and ingenuity bring a feeling of partial redemption, only goodness and justice mark true human elevation. Not far off at all.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Challenges in the Third Decade

Several days ago, I posted an introduction to my third ten-year plan. In that post, I concentrated on the fun side of my tentative list; a lot of mystery, science fiction, and adventure yarns. A big part of that fun side of the plan involves returning to books and authors I enjoyed when I was much younger. Of course I assume that these books will look different to me now than they did when I was sixteen, and hope they’ll be different in a good way; I’m not going Back to the Future, I guess, but Forward to the Past. But I haven’t decided only to recapture an enhanced version of my adolescence; I also put some hard reading on my list, with mystery and adventure not in the books themselves but in my approach to them.

The idea of a third decade started with just three categories: finishing the Summa Theologica, rereading Plato and Aristotle, and reading more drama, which I had mostly neglected in the second plan. In some ways, Thomas Aquinas is very hard reading indeed; I couldn’t make any sense of it at all the first time I tried. (I have to laugh at myself now: I was sick, and when Nancy offered to go to the library to get me something to read, I said, “Look for the Summa Theologica. I’ve heard it’s good.”) But sometime during the third or fourth Thomas assignment from the first ten-year plan, I suddenly saw the interlocking pattern, and the scholastic arguments actually started getting easy for me. Plato, by contrast, seems easy on the surface, but gets harder the more you think about him. With Aristotle, as far as I can discern, whether a book will reveal its treasures gladly all depends on what kind of student took notes at the Lyceum that day.

Well, as they say, both work and geeky reading plans expand to fill the time allotted, and my plan for a third decade grew quickly as I started working on it in earnest this summer. First, I found out that the missing run of numbers in the Aquinas volumes of the Britannica set don’t mark a gap in the structure that Aquinas never finished, as I had supposed; there’s way more Summa than I suspected, although at least it’s all readily available on the internet. I’ll plan to read most of it, but now after reading Durant’s account of medieval philosophy, I’m even more eager to read some of Thomas’s teacher, Albertus Magnus, and some of the Sic et Non of Peter Abelard. Abelard is generally known, if known at all, for his secret love for Heloise. But the story of his method of disputation interested me much, much more. Students in Paris actually pooled their money to pay Abelard to teach them; I love the idea but must realistically acknowledge that I would never have a job if higher education still worked this way. Teacher and students would meet together in an unoccupied niche of Notre Dame, and Peter would propose a theological position, say, that a human can comprehend God. “All right,” he would say, “using the scriptures, the Church Fathers, and your own reason, argue sic: that this proposition is true.” After the response had gone on for a while, he would stop the students and say, “Now, argue non: that this proposition is false,” and the students would once more jump in with their knowledge and their ideas. The Church put sanctions on Abelard for a while because he refused to end his classes by saying, “Very fine analysis, students, but we all know that the correct answer is [insert the orthodox position on subject X here].” But I’m not sure at all he wasn’t serving God by his open-ended investigations; after all, maybe the answer to the position I offered as an example is non.

Difficult in a different way perhaps are the novels of Thomas Hardy. Having read some of his poetry this year, I’m more familiar with his bleakly melancholy outlook, regretting the loss of a religion he thought untrue and longing for a spiritual realm he thought nonexistent. The two Hardy books I’ve read seem at first blush like typical Victorian pageants with happy endings, but my friend Jane Vogel convinced me that the real message of Hardy lies hidden in a complex allegory of names. I also have to admit that I’ve read what I think are considered two of his happier books, so perhaps when I get to Tess and Jude, I won’t have to look very far beneath the surface to see the darkness.

I’ve also included a reader of selections from the works of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. I don’t know that I’ll recognize the literature he analyzes or understand what he has to say about it; but I’ve heard that he devised the term “polyphonic voices” to describe the fiction of Dostoevsky – characters speaking whatever they have to say about ethics and religion with no apparent commentary or judgment from the narrator – and it intrigues me.

Rounding out this more difficult portion of the Third Decade is a book I’ve heard described as the most obscure novel ever written. The first page of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake “begins,” with no initial capitalization, “ riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay,” and includes the “words” passencore, tauftauf, venissoon and the Rabelaisian  bababadal-gharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovar-rhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk. It “ends” with the deliciously enigmatic “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” (I don’t know how to clarify by punctuation alone that that last “sentence” has no final period.) Whether that lilting formula fades inconclusively into the magical green glow of an Irish dusk or cycles back to the “riverrun, past Eve and Adam's,” those final eleven words possess an enchanting music all their own. Say them out loud. Savor the liquid L’s. Ponder the enigma of whether some or all of the A’s could be heard as prefixes instead of as articles. I don’t know what I’m getting myself into, bur I’ve promised myself for decades that I would someday read Finnegans Wake, and now I know when: sometime around March of 2021, I’ll follow Joyce a way a lone a last a loved a long the

Friday, October 19, 2012

Beggars and Wags

I was walking alone along a sidewalk in Manhattan one evening a few years ago when a young man suddenly came up to me and barked, “Hey! Give me a hundred dollars!” Now I don’t usually go courting death, and I didn’t have a Crocodile Dundee knife in my pocket. But maybe I saw half a twinkle in this guy’s eye, or maybe I just couldn’t get around the fact that I had no way to comply with his demand. One way or another, I only had a split second of fear before suddenly deciding he looked as ridiculous as a freshman showing up twenty minutes after class ends with some lame story about a roommate who messes with his alarm clock. I felt complete control over the situation and said, “Oh, come on! I don’t have a hundred dollars on me.”

And then the fellow burst the thin balloon of my smug superiority with one quick stroke of piercing wit. “All right then,” he said, “give me one dollar and owe me ninety-nine.” Brilliant. He let me set my own terms and then made a new demand that fell within them: there’s no way I could have said, “I don’t have a dollar on me.” And I can’t have been the only one who answered this guy on the basis of cash on hand. The ploy was so clever, I congratulated him and gave him two dollars.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron presents one-hundred stories as told by a group of ten Florentine refugees from the Plague, one story a day from each member of the group for ten days. The friends devote the Sixth Day to stories about people who, like my Manhattan friend, gain something for themselves by a witty remark. For the most part, these ten stories lag behind the other fifty I’ve read; the plots, dedicated to setting up the joke, don’t have enough length or depth to explore characters or ideas as well as some of the others. But that’s not to say they don’t have their charms. The funniest in this set tells the story of Chichibio, a gentleman’s cook who can’t resist eating one leg of a roast crane one evening before serving it. When the gentleman scolds him for his impertinence, Chichibio takes his master to a lake to see that cranes indeed have only one leg. The gentleman laughs when he sees the cranes standing in the water on one leg; he yells, “Hey!” and the startled cranes reveal their hidden limbs. “What do you think of that? Do they or do they not have two legs now?” he asks. “Yes, sir,” replies Chichibio, “but if you had shouted at the bird on the table last night, it would have pushed out its other leg, too.”

Last semester in Italy, some of us in the group held a couple of book club meetings. We talked briefly about discussing some stories in The Decameron, and one of the native Italians said she would send us a list of what were considered the important stories. Her list and my list of favorites intersected on only two stories out of the fifty I had read. Clearly my idea of what makes for an “important” story doesn’t align with the conventional wisdom. So it should come as no surprise to me when I look back at that list now and see that two of the stories from what seemed to me a slightly disappointing sixth day are among those held in high esteem. At least the story of Chichibio and the crane is one of them.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Third Decade

I’ve been at this classic reading program now for about twenty years. Sometime in the early nineties, I was reading something by C. S. Lewis in which he mentioned Orlando Furioso, and I suddenly went under the wave of all my frustration about my high school and college and the poor education in letters that they offered me. Then just a moment later, I realized that I could either stay frustrated or start reading, and decided to educate myself. Soon after, I read the Iliad and Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, and some other classics. Sometime in 1994, I purchased my used set of Britannica Great Books, and in January of 1996, I started the ten-year plan outlined in volume I of that set. It took me eleven years to get through that plan (I got stuck on City of God one year, and I don’t know why), and in 2007, I started the Second Decade, the plan that drives this blog. Now I’m in the sixth year of that plan and looking forward to year 7.

I look back on the last twenty years, and I have to say that it’s worked. I’ve certainly read all the things I thought in the early nineties that I should have read, and a lot of it has stuck. I don’t usually get lost when I read or hear about classic literature, I can compare historical philosophies, I pray and read the Bible with more depth knowing some traditional theology, and I have a much better understanding of ethics – even if I very humanly fail on a regular basis to put my understanding to good use.

But I started thinking this summer: what do I do when I finish this plan? I love The Plan; can I go back to reading without a schedule? I have a sense of accomplishment now; do I keep reading thorny philosophy and continue to try to learn new things or rest satisfied that the hard reading is past? I’ll be retiring from my current job in a couple of years; what will my next job be like, and will I have more time to read or less? I’ll be fifty-seven years old when I finish this current plan; will I live longer than my dad and his dad and have enough time to get through another ten years?

I don’t know all the answers to those questions. But they kept rolling through my mind, and I had to come up with something. So this summer I drew up a plan for a Third Decade. I have four years and three months to change my mind, but for now I’ve made some decisions. (1): I think a plan for retirement should probably have an air of reward about it; no more Nietzsche or Hegel or Peirce. Almost everything on the new list is something I think I’ll have fun reading. Not that my idea of fun is like most people’s; Aquinas will still be there, for instance. And that leads me to (2): I need to keep reading some of my favorite prolific authors and try to get a sense of completion on some of their works. So I’ve included a plan for continuing with William James, Aquinas, and Augustine. Also I decided to try to finish Durant’s eleven-volume History of Civilization; I counted up the pages just a couple of weeks ago and found that I needed to read 380 pages a year instead of 250 in order to get to the end (yikes!), so I revised that part of the current plan. And that leaves (3): After fifty years, I finally learned the joys of rereading, and I want to return to some of my favorite books and authors from an earlier time. That means lots of Asimov, Dumas, Verne, Stevenson, Kenneth Roberts, Dickens of course, and – a guilty pleasure nowhere near “great literature” – Edgar Rice Burroughs.

There’s a lot more to this third reading plan, some serious and some silly. But I very recently finished up the new schedule for the next fifteen years of Durant, so it’s been on my mind, and I wanted to leave a brief preview here on the blog. Is it wrong to bring back the past?  “There is no frigate like a book,” and I’m ready for adventure.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


I couldn’t believe it when I saw it several years ago. In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Sunday Philosophy Club, one character (I think it’s Cat) goes alone and unexpected into the empty house of a friend or relative (I’m fairly certain it’s Isabel) and has to disable the alarm. Unable to remember the exact code, she only knows that it’s the date of the fall of Constantinople – because everyone remembers the date of the fall of Constantinople (except the character trying to disable the alarm).

My eyes popped like little men in a Whack-A-Gnome game. Here was confirmation of one of the geekiest bits of my personal geekhood. I, too, have used the magic number 1453 as a gateway to technology because of its memorability. When I started my personal email account, I tried simply using “professor.” But of course that was taken already: everybody wants to be the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. So I tried “professor1,” “professor2,” “professor3,” and so on up to about “professor10,” but still with no luck. After seeing “professor100" rejected, I figured I would have to use a much larger number, preferably a year that was easy to remember (dropping the nod to Professor Roy Hinkley was never an option). So naturally, the fall of the capital of Greek Christianity came to mind, and my email handle became “professor1453.”

You see, the professor of my class in the history of music theory at the University of Iowa gave us a synopsis of the event, and it immediately struck me as one of the milestones in all of western history. When the Turks took the city, all the eggheads who couldn’t hold a sword – um, I mean, scholars – fled to the West with their most precious treasures: ancient Greek manuscripts. As a result, the Latin West rediscovered the Greek language, Greek drama, Greek epic, and Greek philosophy. I identify with both the eastern and the western scholars in that story: I can see myself running from an invading force (I’m not proud of the image, but I can see it), and my discovery in the last twenty years or so of the classics denied to me by my public education helps me understand the joy that the Latin-speaking clerics and philosophers of western Europe must have shown when first presented with the words of Homer in his own language.

I’ve just been reading this week about that same story in Will Durant’s History of Civilization. In his more detailed rendition, the intelligentsia migration of 1453 was only one wave in a flood tide: the teachers in the eastern capital had seen the end coming for decades. In fact, Cosimo de’ Medici invited several Greek theologians to Florence in 1438 in order to discuss healing the wound that divided the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and many of them just stayed in the Tuscan sun, becoming teachers of Greek and philosophy and literature. The most attractive of the intellectual treasures these conferees brought with them from Byzantium were the dialogs of Plato. Cosimo was so interested, he started a Platonic Academy and appointed Marsilio Ficino to run it and to translate as much of Plato into Latin as possible.

The rediscovery of Greek got the Italian classicists interested in their more immediate roots as well, and Cosimo supported the travels of several men around south-central Europe to dig through monastic libraries and see what neglected Latin treatises they could find. These investigations uncovered Quintilian, several books of Tacitus, and many other valuable books readily available to us today but once forgotten for a thousand years, even in their homeland.

Now Durant is one of my favorite authors to read each year; as I’ve said in other posts, I love every page because Durant offers me something new on every page. Sometimes the gift is a new piece of knowledge or a new view of a sweeping pattern in western history; but I certainly don’t always buy his take on things, so sometimes what Durant gives me is a fresh challenge. In a summary statement of the Renaissance project to recover the classic glory, Durant says these humanist scholars freed Europe from the fear of hell and the control of the clergy. That statement raises many responses in my mind, chief of which might be that I don’t care so much about freedom from fear of hell as I do freedom from hell itself.

But after pondering it for a few days, the angle that ultimately interests me most is the question whether humanistic study of ancient Roman and Greek culture directly opposes Christianity, as Durant seems to imply. No doubt fifteenth-century Italy opened up new worlds that made it easier for doubters to deny the Christian faith openly and pursue other religions or philosophies. (One fifteenth-century Italian literally found a new world that we still call the New World.) And of course the new cultural stream saw in the next few centuries the break-up of the western Church and a continuing increase of secularism as the basis for public life in the West. But did these changes come about inevitably because of western Christendom’s encounter with ancient Greek and Roman ideas? I’m thinking that it doesn’t, and I’m basing my tentative conclusion partly on three facts Durant himself gives me: (1) While some of Cosimo’s scholars were scoffers, others were Christians, and Ficino, who ran the Academy, returned to Christianity (of course as an Italian, he was born and raised at least nominally as a Christian) after many years of studying Plato. These Christian humanists apparently didn’t see the two views as entirely incompatible. (2) The Greek scholars who brought Plato to Florence in 1438 were theologians explicitly invited to discuss ecclesiastical matters; with much likelihood most of these men were Christian believers who also loved Plato, perhaps intellectually capable of throwing out the pagan bathwater while holding on to its baby. (3) I can’t forget that all the pagan Latin manuscripts discovered by Cosimo’s scholars were put in those monasteries by earlier generations of Christian monks who lovingly copied each book, carefully reproducing every line about prayer to Jupiter and every bit of Ovid’s sexual advice and supposedly disagreeing with them on one level yet still seeing them as valuable.

Monday, October 8, 2012

History's Spirits Linger

In a band concert last year at my university, I recited a portion of a speech by Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain during a piece inspired by his words. “In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger,” Chamberlain said, speaking of the Gettysburg battlefield. As I stood on stage reciting the passage, I experienced the visceral power of his sentiment: I’ve been to that battlefield and felt those lingering spirits. Standing in a historical hotspot with knowledge of the deeds that occurred there makes all the difference when thinking about that place and reading about it later.

Earlier this year, my wife and I lived for four-and-a-half months in Arezzo, Italy, and made frequent trips to Florence. I left awestruck at the world-changing creativity that took place in those two cities over the course of six centuries, from 1025 to 1625. Was it the water? The air? The Tuscan sun? Simply the local gene pool? During those six-hundred years, people from these two cities brought the world musical notation, the idea of a history with a discernible pattern, the idea of a Renaissance, literary poetry in modern languages, the return of earthly realism and human emotion to painting, double-entry bookkeeping, the idea of a history and progression in art, the astonishing creativity of Leonardo and Michelangelo, the invention of opera, and the invaluable contributions to science and the scientific method of Galileo. Living there is not the same as visiting there. Walking the streets not to sight-see but to go to work, eating at a restaurant not to try out the place you’ve read about in a guide book but because it’s lunchtime, seeing Etruscan art and medieval walls as part of a daily routine – living in Tuscany is not the same as visiting.

So what a wonderful coincidence it was to open up Will Durant’s Story of Civilization last week to discover that this year’s reading covers the Florentine Renaissance! What’s more, Durant begins the story with Boccaccio, and last Thursday I started – according to the plan I drew up unwittingly a year ago – Day Six of Boccacio’s Decameron. In one of Boccacio’s stories, a character walks past Orto San Michele. Well six months ago I visited Or San Michele (as it is usually known today). So it’s not just that I can picture that character’s motions; I can actually remember what his path is like, because I’ve walked in his footsteps. Durant mentions that Cosimo de’ Medici left half of his books to San Marco and had a cell at that monastery where he sometimes went to pray. Last winter I went to Convento San Marco twice, and I stood where Cosimo prayed. Later, in a passage about Fra Angelico, Durant mentions the frescoes that that Dominican brother added to San Marco’s cells. I’ve visited those cells, and I’ve seen with my own eyes the devout brother’s paintings, each depicting a scene from the life of Christ. One of the paintings Angelico put in Cosimo’s two-room cell shows the Magi offering gifts to the infant Jesus. Now when I read about Cosimo, I imagine him contemplating that picture and remembering that he should lay his own treasures – which were extensive – at the feet of Christ. I read today about Donatello’s statues of David and St. George; in April, I visited the Bargello and saw these trend-setting sculptures. And I read about Masaccio’s use of perspective (among history’s first) in his fresco of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella; and again, I stood in that church in March and marveled at the symmetrical effect. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop giving examples and just say that Durant’s history has never seemed more alive to me, because I was there for several months: my own lungs breathed the inspiring air of the birthplace of the Renaissance.

My assignment in Durant this year actually began with the last few pages at the end of the medieval volume, where I read about Giotto and his magnificent series of frescoes in Assisi depicting the life of St. Francis. I visited that church, too, and took a long time marveling at, “reading,” and being inspired by those paintings. The last coincidence: last Thursday, the day I started Boccaccio, was the feast day of St. Francis, and the gentle preacher never seemed more real to me: I’ve been to his church, I’ve seen his life as envisioned by the father of Renaissance painting, and I’ve prayed at his tomb.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Charles Williams Sees Reality, Part III

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

My guide, Plato, has shown me the reality above the shadows and the reality above the reality. But he has just told me that if I am to progress farther, I will need new guides. He surprises me the next day by bringing, not the friends that I expected, but books. I have seen the shadows of books on the cave wall, and I have heard people speaking after opening books. But I never understood before that the books have speech inside them. Plato teaches me that certain shapes make certain sounds, and after a few days of practice, I can sound out the words myself. My joy at my accomplishment is soon replaced by a moment of sorrow as Plato announces that he can now leave me. He has grown very old in the few weeks we have spent together, but of course I now see in his face not wrinkles or blemishes but Time and the passage of succeeding generations. He is gone now, but I receive comfort when I find that one of the books he has given me bears his name.

I begin to explore the other books in my new library. The first is a collection of Holy Scriptures that in several places compare the Word of God with the penetrating light of the sun and identify the Word with the Glory of God. The next one I turn to is a very large set of books by a man called the Angelic Doctor. That teacher explains that God is the light by which we understand all things. We do not understand God directly, though, just as I cannot look directly at the sun; we know God only through his material effects. Then I devour a triplet of books by an exile from Florence, who also begins his journey of discovery with an ancient guide that must give over his duty to others. The last volume depicts the blessed soul rising through the lights of the celestial spheres, coming ever closer to the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. After these books, I read the words of a great professor from England who one day in a toolshed found the difference between looking at a beam of sunshine and along a beam of sunshine. I smile when I read in one of his stories of an old teacher who says repeatedly, “It’s all right there in Plato. What are they teaching in these schools?”

I keep reading in the treasures my mentor has left me, I know not how long. It may be hours and it may be years. My heart races when I come to a small book called The Place of the Lion by a man named Williams, a friend of the great professor I mentioned earlier. In the book, I read of a man named Anthony Durrant who has visions like those I have had in the forest. He sees a great butterfly that attracts and encompasses all butterflies as if they merely participate in its delicate beauty. He sees the world peeled back to reveal Strength, Subtlety, Beauty, and Speed working in balance and friendship. He sees a Lion that is at once the archetypal Lion and the personification of Strength. He sees the Lion in the great trees around him, and he sees the trees in the Lion. Anthony’s friend Damaris then sees Anthony subsumed in the archetypal Man, naming the beasts in love.

Taking a mental step backwards, I see the book, and suddenly the book becomes the shadow of a world. I see that world, and it suddenly becomes a shadow of the Strength and Beauty it speaks of. I see the author and his friends and predecessors, and suddenly they turn transparent, and through them I see Love and Friendship. Before my eyes, Love becomes both Lion and Lamb. All the words in all the books reveal the archetypal Word. Each book shines a light, and the lights mingle and become the Light by which I see the world.

But these ethereal visions do not take me out of the world. In the book of the lion, I discover that some people who see Ideals lose contact with the material world while others do not. Damaris’s father is enraptured by the Butterfly and has no further need for the world and, sadly, no notice to spare his daughter. But Anthony, who sees farther and higher than anyone else in the story and encounters the Absolute by seeing what the Light illuminates, ends the story by offering Damaris a coat. Through lions we see the Lion, and through the Lion we see Strength. Through butterflies we see the Butterfly, and through the Butterfly we see Beauty. Through Strength and Beauty we see Love. Sphere by heavenly sphere, the vision mounts toward the Absolute. But we do not see Strength, Beauty, Love, Friendship, Balance, Time, and Light correctly unless by their radiance we can still see a woman who is cold and in need of a coat.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Charles Williams Sees Reality, Part II

Read Part I here.

Plato, my guide and liberator, has taken me out of the cave in which I have lived all of my life. He has promised to show me a new world, but so far I have been able to see nothing because I cannot stand to open my eyes.

“Your eyes,” he says, “are not permanently blind but only require a few moments to adjust to the brightness of the light. Put your hand over your face, and open your eyes slowly.”

I do as he instructs, and as I do, I soon find myself in the most beautiful surroundings imaginable. “What do you think of the forest now?” he asks. I lift my hands in awe and turn my body slowly in one direction, while my mind seems to spin in the other, overwhelmed by the sights around me. It is as though the trees I have known from the cave wall have exploded into a million pieces and yet remain intact. Each one has depth and dimension and color, features that my senses are capable of taking in although they have never experienced them before. I feel a breeze on my face for the first time and hear the sound it makes as it strokes the leaves. I reach out to touch various trees with my hand. The leaves of the oak tree feel smooth, while its trunk feels rough. The trunk of the pine makes my fingers sticky, and its needles cause a delicious pain in my fingers. My nose fills with an ecstatic, warm sensation that Plato tells me emanates from the trees, the ground, the flowers, the animals, and the moisture in the air.

“So this is reality?” I ask.

“Actually,” he begins and then clears his throat. “Although what you see now is more real than what you saw in the cave, it is not the ultimate reality. The objects as you sense them now are still only as shadows compared to a yet higher world, the world of ideals.”

“But how,” I ask, “can anything be more real than these trees? I understand now that the shadows are only outlines of real things, for the objects I see now fill in the outlines with detail. But no more room for detail remains.”

He explained, “You find that you are equipped with the faculties to experience the material world that projects the shadows even though you could never before have imagined what the experience would be. So you will find that you are equipped to experience the higher world, as well, even though you cannot imagine it possible now. And just as your eyes had to become used to the light that first overpowered them, you will have to wait on your higher faculties and train them.”

Over the next few days, Plato instructs me on methods of meditation that allow me to see the ideals he so passionately pursues. Soon I see neither individual trees alone nor a forest. I see Life surging through the ground and bursting up into the air. I see Strength in each trunk and delicate Order in each leaf. I see Beauty and Balance in the complementary colors of sky and earth and, seeing yet farther than I ever have before, in the community of Strength and Order.

My hunger for these experiences grows over the weeks and is soon insatiable. “Is there more?” I ask Plato. “Or does ultimate reality consist of Life, Strength, Order, Beauty, and Balance?”

“No,” he says, “these noble ideas are but resting places on the ascent to the Absolute. But in order for you to climb higher in your vision, I must now hand you over to other guides.”

Concluded in the next post, which finally has something to say about Charles Williams.