Friday, November 30, 2012

My Poetry Anthology

Possessing the conflicting characteristics of reading slowly and wanting to read a lot, I constantly run the risk of becoming satisfied with having read a book once. Getting reread by me is a luxury few books enjoy. And books can by no means presume that I will absorb and remember them.

For some kinds of literature, one read is enough. Fiction, for instance, can present such vivid scenes that the characters, tone, main plot, and lesson often stick even in my Crisco-lined mind after just one time through, in many cases for decades. I could never forget Huck dressed as a girl or Aunt Betsey chasing donkeys off her grass. But a poem is not made just so readers can remember facts about it. As with songs, poetry should be experienced again and again. It doesn’t make sense to say, “Ah, yes, that’s the classic rock song with the unusual choral parts at the beginning and in the middle. I remember its structure and its theme of regret during incarceration.” No, Queen’s song demands hearing. If we remember it, we remember hearing it; memories of the actual sounds go through the mind. (And this from a guy whose business it is to analyze musical structure!)

In the same way, poetry should be read and heard over and over. So I’ve come up with a way to work against my poor memory and restless reading schedule: I’ve started making my own poetry anthology. My goal is to end up with a collection of poems that have excited or moved me in the past so I can occasionally open it up and just read at random, finding inspiration again, making the familiar even more familiar, and perhaps even (I’m not making myself any promises) memorizing some lines.

It will take me a while to compile my anthology, I’m sure. A couple of months ago, I started with a variety of poems I remember from many years past. Then I reviewed some works from my current plan and added some poems and excerpts from the first two years. As of today, it’s thirty-four pages long. It includes some standards found in almost any English-language collection of poetry: “To Lucasta, going to the Wars,” “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” “The Second Coming.” But I wouldn’t need my own anthology if it read just like any publisher’s One Hundred Favorite Poems. So it also includes Sidney Lanier’s “A Sunrise Song,” which begins:
Young palmer sun, that to these shining sands
Pourest thy pilgrim's tale, discoursing still
Thy silver passages of sacred lands,
With news of Sepulchre and Dolorous Hill
And Henry Vaughn’s “The World”:
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
       All calm, as it was bright;
And “Tegner's Drapa” by Longfellow, the poem that gave a young C. S. Lewis a life-altering rush of the longing he called “joy”:
I heard a voice, that cried,
"Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!"
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward sailing cranes.

I saw the pallid corpse
Of the dead sun
Borne through the Northern sky.
Blasts from Niffelheim
Lifted the sheeted mists
Around him as he passed.
And this by Jack Gilbert:
Poetry is a kind of lying,
necessarily. To profit the poet
or beauty. But also in
that truth may be told only so.

Those who, admirably, refuse
to falsify (as those who will not
risk pretensions) are excluded
from saying even so much.

Degas said he didn't paint
what he saw, but what
would enable them to see
the thing he had.
Poetry is a form of lying. The palmer sun pours a tale? It isn’t a palmer, it doesn’t pour, and it tells no tales. Three “lies” already. But truth may be told only so, and I need to read these lying truths, because I want to see what the poets have seen. I want to see the ring of Eternity.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Weight of The Weight of Glory

If a volume of essays weightier or more glorious than C. S. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory exists, I should like to know about it. One slender volume. Nine modest addresses. One-hundred thirty-two thin pages. Yet here are war, forgiveness, Heaven, education, theology, and poetry. And here are angles on Lewis’s great ideas regarding joy, myth, and the argument from desire.

The first essay lends its title to the whole volume. “The Weight of Glory” begins with the correction of a modern misconception that self-denial is the ultimate Christian virtue. Lewis blames Kant for starting the error. Long before I had even heard of Kant, I thought this way. “Deny yourself, and follow me,” said the Lord. Could it be any clearer? Seeking what God wants is good, and seeking my own good is bad.

Well, the problem with that interpretation is that it only makes sense if God doesn’t want my good. But when I began to read in Plato and Aristotle that the virtuous person has a natural duty to seek his own good, I hadn’t yet seen through the mistake. Then I read the very Christian Augustine and Aquinas agreeing with their Greek predecessors, and I had to rethink things. From them I learned (or realized what now seems obvious) that the selfish good Jesus bids us to deny is as nothing to the good that God wants for us. So perhaps the principle problem involves not having a correct definition of good in view. As Lewis puts it, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us.”

The essay goes on to explain the difference between natural and “tacked on” rewards. We might say, for instance, “He’s only marrying her for her money,” but it makes no sense to say, “He’s only marrying her for a lifetime of love.” Money is a tacked-on reward of marriage, while the lifetime of loving unity is the natural reward. So we must see Heaven, he says, as the natural reward of our relationship with God, not as an arbitrary enticement to mercenaries who need tacked-on motivation for doing good. From that understanding, the rest of the ideas fall into place. (1) The desire for our natural end resides in us from our creation. A love for beauty in poetry, for example, is the desire for Heaven not turned directly to its natural end. (2) Where the biblical descriptions of Heaven seem the most strange or unenticing, we must pay all the more attention. Those passages don’t exist to bribe us but to teach us our purpose. (3) Hearing praise for serving our purpose can conceivably be pleasurable without stroking our vanity. (4) Everyone we meet is either on the path toward the glory of the proper, heavenly reward or not on that path.

If I were put into the highly hypothetical position of having to choose which seventeen pages of Lewis would survive a book purge, I should probably choose “The Weight of Glory.” “By ceasing for a moment to consider my own wants I have begun to learn better what I really wanted,” he says at one point in the essay. And to my mind, reading “The Weight of Glory” furthers the learning of that essential lesson.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Dr. Johnson’s Ready Arguments

It's not the best thing for someone who talks for a living to have to admit. But somewhere in the last twenty years or so, I lost my confidence in speaking. Not that I'm afraid of getting in front of a crowd. On the contrary, I do better the more people I have listening. When I say I've lost my confidence, I mean that I've developed a habit of overanalyzing and second-guessing everything I say, even while I say it. The most obvious . . . result of my . . . diffidence is an annoying . . . pause before every . . . noun. (That joke works better when it's spoken. You may just have to trust me on it.)

I've written several times in this blog about my admiration for Dr. Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century scholar who single-handedly wrote a dictionary of the English language. (See for instance "Re: My Hackles.") In spite of his many faults (he was human, after all), he had a strong Christian faith, was seen by his culture as a teacher of morality both in word and deed, read widely, and amazed people consistently with his intelligence and eloquence. More succinctly, James Boswell said his attraction to Johnson was based on "Genius, Learning, and Piety."

The issue of eloquence has come up several times in the passage of Boswell's Life of Johnson I've been reading this fall, and I can't help comparing the lexicographer’s verbal fluidity against my halting cadence. Boswell applies these lines from Douglas by John Home to his great friend's ready wit:
    On each glance of thought
Decision followed, as the thunderbolt
Pursues the flash!
Johnson's rapid flow of polished prose makes his biographer's accomplishment all the more mind-boggling. In fact, Boswell admits in this section to not having always done justice to Johnson in the quotations he provides. How could he possibly get all the details down during a conversation (a conversation he contributed to, in fact) or remember the words accurately after the fact? Superman can catch a speeding bullet, but could Boswell capture Johnson’s speeding thunderbolts? The task was so difficult, he even humbly includes the following observation from a fellow dinner guest, words that must have stung a bit when he heard them and again when he inserted them into the monumental biography: "O that his words were written in a book!"

Of course speech following thought as thunder does lightning can cause its share of problems. Boswell says that Johnson was "sometimes too desirous of triumph in colloquial contest." But part of Johnson's secret for quickness of speech was his taste for disputation in the interest of exercising his mind: he enjoyed arguing either side of any question, so long as it involved neither morals not core Christian tenets. His friends knew this and forgave him for his occasional combativeness. And why shouldn't they when, assured of his friendship, they could view these incidents simply as instructive displays of logic from an astonishing mind. Friend Edward Dilly wrote to Boswell, "Few men, nay I may say, scarcely any man, has got that fund of knowledge and entertainment as Dr. Johnson in conversation. When he opens freely, every one is attentive to what he says, and cannot fail of improvement as well as pleasure."

Sometimes I look at my own blog in amazement. The stream of words runs so much more smoothly than it does when I’m speaking – or, more to the point, thinking and hesitating in between trying to speak. It appears that I do have strongly held ideas and can express them boldly. I'm sure I'm wrong about many of the things I write here and that I'm simply ignorant of the fact or argument that would quickly change my mind on some issues you can find on exlibrismagnis. But my friends, like Dr. Johnson’s, will forgive me, as I'm sure they would forgive me if I spat out my thoughts more quickly in conversation, even if less than fully formed. Who knows? They may prefer hasty conclusions to all those . . . pauses.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Writing and Spontaneity

Thirty years ago, I tried not to repeat myself in prayers. But at some point since, I have learned the value of repetition. One discouragement in my youth was the idea that I shouldn’t have to pray something a second time if I believed it the first time. I shudder to think how long it took me to realize that that argument works only if prayer is just a mechanism aimed at getting stuff.

Matthew 6:7 also kept me wary of repetition for a long time. Bible translators differ in their view of the meaning of the original. Perhaps Jesus only warns against trust in prolixity. One translation says He instructed us not to “heap up empty phrases.” Another says, “don’t babble on and on.” But the King James translation says, “Use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do,” and many other translations use similar wording. As obvious as the phrase may be to some people I’ve known, the practical syllogism of the command isn’t entirely clear to me. I know the major premise: that I should not be like the heathen. But I don’t know the minor premise or premises. All repetition is heathen? All repetition is vain? All heathen prayers are vain? If I don’t know the minor premise, I don’t know the conclusion. Does Jesus tell me not to repeat, not to pray vainly, or not to repeat vainly? I don’t precisely, but I have decided that He doesn’t mean the first option.

One argument for saying that all repetition is vain (which would lead to the conclusion that we must not repeat prayers) begins with the idea that repeated phrases have no meaning or aren’t heartfelt. But my experience tells me just the opposite. We repeat ourselves most when our hearts are full: “Why? Why? Why?” “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” Who would ever say to someone, “You must not be sorry. If you meant it the first time, you wouldn’t have repeated yourself”? If at least some repetition is meaningful, then perhaps Jesus proscribes not all repetition in prayer but only meaningless repetition.

A view just as wrongheaded as the prohibition of all repetition says that it does no good to write down prayers, to read your own prayers, or to read someone else’s prayers. If you’re in the middle of proposing marriage, I suppose it wouldn’t go over so well to stop and say, “Let me write this down instead,” or “My friend Jack said this better than I could. Let me read you his proposal to Debra.” But written letters can come from and can convey deeply held feelings and thoughts. And I feel certain that everyone reading this blog post has on more than one occasion read someone else’s words and thought along these lines: “She said it so much better than I could, I didn’t even realize I thought this way until I read it in her words.”

Yesterday, as on many days when reading Boswell, I read a prayer Dr. Johnson wrote out. You can’t read the Life of Johnson without coming away convinced that Samuel Johnson had the most spontaneous eloquence of any English speaker in history. Yet even a man of this great verbal command felt the need over the years to write a long notebook of prayers and meditations. Far from seeing these written prayers as dry and empty, I find in their power a helpful reminder of the forgotten common sense that writing helps organize the thoughts and can make knowledge firmer, feelings warmer, and belief stronger.

This morning during my walk, I read the first of Dickens’s Reprinted Pieces. In that essay, he says that he is sitting by a fire on New Year’s Eve and that as he watches the flames flicker, ghostly voices and images from tales of travel that he has read parade before him. Did it actually happen this way? Since he writes it all in the present tense, one thing is certain: if these stories really came to him spontaneously that winter’s night and he used the present tense literally, he left out one important detail in his description of himself: the pen and paper he used to record the event. I have to wonder whether the fire or the pen actually did more in conjuring up the memories. I know that even with all the starting and stopping and editing that takes place as I write this blog, the act of writing, by reining in my thoughts, ironically gives them the freedom to be spontaneous and heartfelt. Perhaps I should begin writing out prayers.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Looking Forward to 2013

The weather is getting cold, and the sun is now setting before 6:00 pm. It must be time to read Boswell. My reading pattern has an annual, cyclical rhythm to it, so it feels right to join my friends for a pint and brilliant conversation in the Crown and Anchor as this year’s cycle draws to a close. I’m actually three days into Boswell’s Life of Dr. Johnson now, and other than finishing that pleasant task, I only have William James, C. S. Lewis, and Dickens left to read in 2012 – three of my very favorite authors to go with my favorite time of the year.

With so few items remaining on my plan this year, I’m naturally starting to look forward through Janus’s door into the schedule for 2013. I’ve purchased all the extra books I need, and they’ve all arrived, either in my mailbox or in my Kindle. I’ve made out the schedule and posted a copy of it on this site (under “2013 Calendar” near the top of this web page). I’m ready to go.

Some aspects of this plan have me a little worried. I’m not fond of what little I know about Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and nineteenth-century Germans have caused me trouble in the past, so I expect The World as Will and Idea will tax my fortitude. What little I know about the system of American philosopher Charles Peirce, on the other hand, I like a lot. But his ideas and prose can be dense, so I expect his work will tax my intellect. To make it through the assignments, I split both of those authors up in the schedule and placed Dickens, a Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War history, and the delightful Ariosto against them in the second column. When my brain gets overheated from one book, I’ll pick up the other to blow away the smoke.

The other factor that has me a little worried is the density of that second column. I’m not sure why I ended up with so many more titles for 2013, when I have the same number of basic categories every year. But the titles stacked up, and setting aside longer periods for the long novels, that leaves me with a round estimate of only ten days each for The Song of Roland, a giant chunk of Orlando Furioso, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, and twelve other items. But the pace always looks daunting at the beginning of the year, and still it always ends up much easier than I thought – easy enough in fact to allow me to fit in some mysteries and other popular books.

As intimidating as the pace and a couple of the selections may be, I know that the year will, as Horace said good literature should do, both delight and instruct me. I just read in Durant about the Roland tales in medieval and Renaissance literature, and I’ve been reading Ariosto’s Italianate rendering over the last couple of years; to start off the coming year I finally get to read the classic French version of that story (in translation!), which has waited patiently on my shelf for over two decades. Then at the other end of the year, I’ll read Geoffrey of Monmouth, one of the classic sources of the other great medieval hero cycle: the Arthurian legend. In the spring, I’ll visit two early medieval Christian theologians, Anselm and Basil the Great; trying to tease out the culture from the religion in such works teaches me more about each, often including details whose absence today seems regrettable. Two of my favorite Shakespeare plays, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, come up in 2013; O that I were a glove upon that hand! Shelley, Cicero, O’Brian, Faulkner. Dickens, Trollope, Austen, Sayers. And my favorite Charles Williams book. My mouth is watering.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Peace in the City

Every time I see the “COEXIST” bumper sticker, I get mixed feelings. Like a face illuminated by flashing lights coming from different angles, it presents me with a rapidly shifting series of wildly different aspects. As sure as it looks beautiful at one moment, it looks menacing the next; then the clever ingenuity of the use of the various symbols as letters shines out briefly, followed by an inane and ridiculous fake smile. The idea that people of different faiths could live in peace sounds wonderful: we could learn from each other and accept the various faiths’ leadership in keeping the world moral. But then sadly we know from history and from the newspaper that the world’s religions don’t in fact get along peacefully. So does the sticker, apparently calling for drastic change, suggest that all the religions are fundamentally flawed? Is it for or against religion? I can't tell. Someone (a quick Google search says it could be anyone from Dostoevsky to Charles Schulz) said, “I love humanity; it’s people that I can’t stand.” And this sticker seems to say something equally contradictory: I love the idea of religion, but I can’t stand any of the particular instances. These thoughts quickly pass from my mind, though; in the end I see the sticker as simply pointless since it doesn’t actually say any of these things but only asks for simultaneous existence, which will continue with or without the driver’s approval.

Augustine was the most respected Christian teacher of his time, and his words still inspire and inform both Protestant and Catholic theology. (They may well still inspire Orthodox and Nestorian theology as well, but I don’t know enough to say.) In reading book XIX of The City of God over the last several days, I kept thinking that if the lay members of today’s Church still read and followed the saint from Hippo, the Church would look quite different. The most striking difference might be that the Church would acknowledge the leadership of an African. But close behind would come a reasoned understanding of the value of other religions and their philosophies and a desire for peace between the earthly city and the city of God.

Everyone wants peace, Augustine says. Animals want peace between body and soul: in other words, freedom from pain and want. But in addition, rational animals, i.e. humans, desire civil peace and peace of the soul itself: a "well-ordered harmony of knowledge and action." Where the Christian differs from other humans, he explains, is in living toward a goal of eternal peace and directing all earthly good toward that transcendent goal. But we all want earthly peace, and the Church should logically desire civil harmony with its culture. Augustine spends a lot of words in the first several books of CoG outlining exactly what was wrong with Roman culture, so it’s not like he’s asking his readers to pretend the evils of the world away. Unlike the empty cant of today, Augustine’s position sees tolerance and judgment as entirely compatible. Disagreement we will have with us always, but conflict, he says, should arise only when the religious law directs a Christian to worship a false deity. Otherwise, Christians should not scruple about any custom, law, institution, dress, or manner of life directed toward earthly peace and may even conform to them so long as they are not indecent.

Coincidentally, I also read in just the last few days a passage in Chesterton saying something very similar. When someone says all religions should be equally free, Chesterton points out, he can’t logically and consistently mean all religions. He actually means "that given a society with a common morality about most important things, anyone must be allowed to promulgate, by the ordinary activities of that society, his own version of the origin or sanction of that morality." In other words, just as Augustine says, people of different faiths can live together in harmony so long as they agree on moral customs that lead to civil peace. But what Augustine only briefly alludes to in book XIX and what the bumper sticker – perhaps simply for lack of space – doesn’t say at all, Chesterton spells out with a pointed example: when someone espouses a religion that demands the sacrifice of babies, the cooperation and equal freedom of the faiths must come to an end.

Chesterton then warns that certain factions of modern western civilization are in fact arguing for the return of baby killing, thus upsetting the moral harmony. With that note, in the interest of civil peace, I will leave the reader to decide whether Chersterton’s warning had any foundation in his time or any pertinence to our own.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

More Missing Classics

Several days ago, I wrote an explanation for the absence of some classic books from my plan. Now and then over the last six years, someone has looked at my reading list and, mistakenly thinking of it as a complete liberal curriculum, suggested a book I should read. Almost always, my answer has been that I’ve already read the book (this is the second decade of a formal plan, after all) and don’t recognize a need or desire to reread it. Anyone looking for a Great Books list to begin working on would do much better to start with either the Britannica plan or the St. John’s curriculum.

Many of the classics absent from my current list deal in science and simply go into too much technical detail – detail either too difficult for me to completely follow or too far outside my normal realm of thought to rate a second visit. The theories of light put forward by Huygens and Newton provide good examples. I remember that Newton held light to be made of particles, while Huygens viewed light as a wave. The mathematical and geometrical arguments they employed to support their respective theories, though, were taxing enough the first time through to keep me from reviewing them, especially in light of (pun very definitely intended) the current understanding that light sometimes acts both ways, especially (I think) when you’re not looking.

I feel much the same way about Gilbert and Faraday. The creative ingenuity with which they pursued the first systematizations of the knowledge of magnetism and electromagnetic fields amazed me. But now I’m duly inspired. I have a better knowledge of the history of the scientific endeavor and greater appreciation for the scientific spirit. And I’m satisfied having that reading behind me rather than before me. Harvey’s work on the circulation of the blood is similar except that, where I could see myself trying to build an electric motor like Faraday’s, I can’t imagine using scalpels and tourniquets to recreate Harvey’s brilliant experiments. Galileo, on the other hand, inspired actual experimentation in the Stephenson kitchen. The kids and I built a ramp, for instance, and measured the increasing speed of a ball as it rolled down. Now that I’ve been to the Galileo museum in Florence and seen some of the interactive models there, I’m even tempted to try it again.

These scientific treatises, as daunting as they were, made for easy going compared to some of the philosophy and mathematics in the first ten years of my reading plan. The Conic Sections of Apollonius of Perga lay entirely beyond my comprehension. Sharing space in the land beyond my comprehension is Mortimer Adler’s thinking in placing Apollonius in his original ten-year schedule. I note with relief that the updated Britannica plan (linked to above) skips him. While I could have done without Appolonius, I’m extremely glad that I read Plotinus (although one “Ennead” would probably have been enough); his neo-Platonism plays a big part in European history, and his religious theory of emanations helps in understanding some of the history of Christian theology. But hacking through his trackless jungle of intertwined ideals exhausted my mind. I eventually found a good commentary, by a fellow named Pistorius, that not only guided me through the convoluted knot but reassured me with the statement that Plotinus was the hardest of all philosophers to read and understand.

Darwin gets his own paragraph today. But I don’t want to say too much about him. My thoughts on evolution posted elsewhere have occasionally elicited smug comments from Darwinian believers trying to show me how closed-minded or stupid I am. But here are some facts that really can’t be argued with. (1) Darwin is my least favorite of all the authors of so-called Great Books. (2) His phrase “the descent of man from some lower form” is geometrically confused. (3) His comparison of Africans and idiots to “lower animals” is extremely difficult to read. (4) It would be unseemly and unfair to enumerate the fallacies in his argument that many “periodic processes” in vertebrates such as “the gestation of mammals, the duration of fevers, &c.” last a given number of “whole weeks” and that this mathematical coincidence “betray[s] to us the primordial birthplace of these animals” in the tidal pools of the distant past.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Best Chesterton Year Ever?

I hate the phrase “of all time.” It would work as a hyperbole if the users had any sense of the order of magnitude of their exaggeration. But they generally don’t. If the phrase were used as a rhetorical bloating of the concept “all of history,” I’d gladly buy into it. But almost all of the people I ever hear using the cliché seem to have only a few years in mind, decades at the most. Randy Jackson loves to say that so-and-so is one the greatest singers of all time. But since every singer he ever mentions is someone with whom he has worked and whose name he feels the urge to drop, “all time” clearly only refers to singers active in the last twenty years or so. I witnessed the most egregious use – OK, I’ll say it – the most egregious use of all time on MTV once in the 80s. (Stop looking at me that way. Cable was new, and I was young. I’ve since outgrown the habit.) The VJ introduced Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as the greatest video in the totality of that extremely lengthy era known as “all time” when MTV was just two years old.

So I won’t say that 1920 saw the publication of the best Chesterton essays of all time. I even hesitate to say that they are the best in all of his output, since I haven’t read all of them. But although I’ve read many volumes of them, I have never read such a concentrated streak of wisdom and eloquence; he could hardly have a higher batting average. And since he takes on Freud, Darwin, Marx, Einstein, education, political liberty, determinism and free will, the decline of journalism, the rise of mass entertainment, and religion in a pluralistic society, he could scarcely address topics either more important or more pertinent to readers ninety years later.

I won’t attempt any more grand synthesis of Chesterton’s output for the year. Instead, I’ll just hope that this disconnected list from my reading notes begins to explain my enthusiasm for the 1920 ILN collection.
• No doubt an unconscious exists, but to found a fatalistic view on it or to use it as a scapegoat for our bad actions would be a mistake.
• Modern democracies like to legislate the use of certain things (alcohol, guns, etc.) in order to save its people from themselves. But every prohibition of a thing rather than of its abuse denies literal self-government and replaces liberty with slavery. (Anyone else thinking of the current move to ban large cups of soda at restaurants?)
• All education is based on dogma; it has to teach something, even if that thing is simply what everyone agrees is true. But today we teach doubt. We don't teach history, we teach doubt about history. Eventually, without teaching any unified view of history to doubt, students will have nothing to direct their doubt toward.
• Science also has turned to doubt, no longer confident in a unified picture of everything. (Chesterton doesn’t mention Heisenberg, but that scientist’s discovery that the parameters of a particle can never all be known at the same time indeed changes the literal meaning of the word “science.”)
• The problem with the cinema is its indication that modern people can no longer amuse themselves and instead must be amused by someone else and someone else’s machines.
• Both pessimists and optimists agree that mankind is subject to fate, and both are wrong. The truth is that we are free to make our world.
• Marxism is bourgeois in that it only makes sense in cities.
• Industrial capitalism is one of the worst ills in the history of mankind. But the remedy for one country may be different from that of another.
• Progressives are often glad about remedies as improvements without admitting regret for the maladies that necessitate them. Neither pessimism nor optimism is the right view. Neither Puritanism nor Paganism will answer our ills. Only repentance will start true reform.
• New England is not the extension of England. The most English state is actually Virginia, with its noble history including Washington and Lee.
• Doubts about Genesis are nothing new and don't undermine faith. People don't base belief in Original Sin on belief in Genesis; it's the other way around.
And one last example. A couple of weeks ago I apologized (not entirely sincerely) for looking forward to rereading Burroughs’s Tarzan adventures. But in “Popular Literature and Popular Science,” from October 9, 1920, I found not only the defense of my love for that particular pulp but the purpose statement of my whole reading plan:
Every man ought to have read enough good literature to know when he is reading bad literature, and to go on reading it. He ought to have had what is rightly called a liberal education, that he may know the largest purposes to which human language has been put. But the object of a liberal education is to make him liberal, not merely to make him fastidious. He should be able to recognise the ideas that have been clarified and codified by the utterances of great men, when they appear in a more fragmentary fashion in the utterances of ordinary men. But if he has lost all interest in the utterances of ordinary men, he had far better not have been educated at all.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Augustine and Varro

I like parallel historical charts. I still get out the old Timetables of History sometimes, even now in the internet age, and pore over its pages. Historical narrative should make connections and draw conclusions, but the Timetables make no point other than that certain events took place in the same year. Beyond that, it leaves me the freedom to look for my own patterns and causes.

In book XVIII of The City of God, Augustine offers his own parallel history by aligning the timelines of the two societies, or “cities,” that form his subject: the people of God and the kingdom of earthly power. I was interested and a little surprised to see that he centered earthly power before Rome in the Assyrians, skipping the Greeks entirely. But his argument has some sense: the Assyrian empire was larger than that of the Greeks and lasted much longer. We just know more about Greek civilization, he says, because they had good writers. With this view in mind, Augustine records which Assyrian kings ruled during the time of Abraham, the time of Moses, and so on. Unlike The Timetables of History, however, Augustine notes at least one significant pattern in the parallel tracks: God gave Abraham promises and a covenant at the time of the founding of Assyria, and then through the great prophets whose canonized words fill the last portion of the Hebrew scriptures, He spoke of the new covenant, just at the time of the founding of Rome. I’m more reluctant than Augustine to declare the divine purpose in history with any certitude, but the great African saint sees the coincidences as a sign that God knows where earthly power will reside and anticipates its rise with fresh presentations of his offer to reject the world.

Augustine performed his synchronic alignment without a visually helpful chart, and in fact without numbered years. He cites as the source of all his information the Roman writer Varro, who recorded the dates of his history according to the names of the consuls in power for any given year. After reading about Varro’s method, I wondered how he thought he could know the dates of Assyrian kings living before the days of Roman consular elections. I also read with great interest and curiosity about Varro’s accounts of the historical humans behind the legends of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman gods: the real Isis, the real Mercury, and so on. Augustine sometimes a proper skepticism of the reliability of source texts, but he takes Varro’s word as fact. And so naturally I got interested in reading Varro’s original account and learning more details about what he believed about pre-Roman history and the origins of the gods.

In looking him up, though, I quickly learned to my great disappointment that most of Varro’s works, including the history that Augustine depended on, have been lost. Aaak! How could the course of events do this to me? Just last month I read in Durant of the Renaissance scholars who, excited by the ancient Greek texts recently made available to them, got interested in ancient Latin works as well and started digging through local monasteries. Their searches recovered (what a strange word – shouldn’t that be “reuncovered”?) Quintilian, Cicero’s letters, six books of Tacitus, and many other classics. The Benedictines may have become uninterested in ancient Roman literature by the fifteenth century, but their brothers from an earlier era were the ones who carefully copied all these works and deposited them in their libraries to begin with. Knowing of that history makes me think that if Augustine had access to Varro’s history in the fifth century, it probably still exists on some forgotten shelf in some monastery. But, alas, for now at least, the book remains a gossamer wisp in the imagination, as shadowy as the true identities of Perseus and Andromeda.

P. S. Thanks to those monks who copied Latin, the Renaissance scholars who found a lot of the works, and Merriam-Webster online, I’ve uncovered the source of “recovered” and discovered a distinction that makes sense of the word. It seems that while most English appearances of the combination c-o-v-e-r come from cooperire, to close or overspread or hide, the last five letters in “recover” come from capere, to take. So recovering an ancient manuscript (not to be confused with recovering a worn chair) is not to hide it again but to take it again.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Seedbed of War

I finally made it through Chesterton’s ILN columns from 1915 and started 1920. What a relief! As I explained a couple of posts ago, when I found out that he wrote about nothing but the Great War while it was raging, I decided that as a prize for making it through one year of war essays, I should treat myself to a post-War year. The path through the rest of 1915 continued to be almost as bleak as a road through No Man’s Land, so my decision still makes sense. But why did he write so narrowly during this time? Chesterton himself suggests an explanation for the problem in a 1920 piece I read just yesterday: politics is topical but religion is eternal. Of course religion shows its nose here and there in his 1915 pieces, but he emphasizes politics, and as long as he emphasizes politics, his writing remains mortal; he writes to readers familiar with the latest events and editorials and German edicts, but that readership disappears soon after the era in question. As a case in point, GKC wrote several times in 1915 about pessimism and optimism, but it was only in September that he mentioned the existence of a pessimist press. If I had known earlier who had a habit of speaking pessimistically, I would have understood the earlier essays; his contemporaries, on the other hand, would have known the background situation and didn’t need any explanation.

Another cause is Chesterton’s faith in rhetoric. In his column from October 16, 1915, he says, “I decided, when private accident put me among those who cannot fight directly for the flag, that there was work to be done for it in the way of intellectual fighting.” In other words, he persistently wrote about the War because he thought it his patriotic duty to fight and found the pen the only weapon feasible for him. But did he truly change minds? Logical arguments rarely convert souls to a faith, and presidential debates sway few voters’ preferences. If in the previous paragraph I maintained that a bullet fired a hundred years ago can have no impact today, having long since fallen and been trampled into the earth, here I’m suggesting that a bullet made from a goose quill usually kills very few enemies even in its own day. I can’t say that words never change minds; if I believed that, I wouldn’t be working through year 16 of a reading plan of great books. But I do believe that words are most effective in the service of two tasks: (1) moving the hearer from no position to some position (rather than shifting the hearer’s already established position), and (2) nourishment of a nascent love for truth, beauty, and goodness. When I read Chesterton, I learn a little bit about his times, but the greatest effect I sense is the renewal and reinforcement of my belief that Christians can be rational and eloquent. I could lament the situation that leaves me in need of that renewal, but that discussion were better left for another day.

Of course, it could be that I just wasn’t in the mood to read about World War I; maybe I should read the war essays in a month when my job isn’t so demanding. Whatever the reason for the dark road, though, the pall of 1915 lifted immediately when I began the first number from January, 1920. Here I found the classic Chesterton again, in an essay replete with, if not his famous paradoxes, his much more common inverses and surprising contraries. In this first column, for instance, he explains that self-described optimists have it all wrong when they see gloom in a religion that offers negative injunctions in its top Ten Commandments. The truth, he says, is that its insistence on only ten prohibitions invites a raucous celebration of the implied liberty; the Old Testament Law permitted too many actions to enumerate. Even further, negative imperatives always have some positive outcome; every action disallowed makes room and time for something else. Sometimes proscribed actions even participate in creation: the man who is not murdered, for instance, goes on to live a life that otherwise would not exist.

This kind of observation works because of the connections that exist between all things. Reminded now about the whirlwind tours across these connections through reality that Chesterton normally leads me on, I regret even more that he kept himself within such strict boundaries during the war years; he gave himself many more than ten negative prohibitions in determining not to write about any topic but war between 1914 and 1918. Just think: if he had for just one week told himself not to write about the war, that negative command would, by his own argument, have given him the freedom to indulge in topics too numerous to list.

Among the many great tragic losses of the Great War, I have to consider now the tragedy that Chesterton couldn’t depart from his chosen theme for even one week in 1915 to write about Christmas. But all things are connected, and aspects of Chesterton’s love of truth must have needed nourishment. So I have to believe that the strict discipline was good for him, as disappointed as I may be, and that he discovered new foundations of joy in the tragedy and nursed a small flame of light during the dark time. After all, Christmas reappeared in his column after the War. We tend to think of disappearance as a sign of weakness. But strength has no greater sign than reappearance, and Christmas is very strong.