Tuesday, April 29, 2014


In concocting my decade-long reading plan, I divided up a few books over the entire ten years. Among these, the easiest to divide – and the easiest to pick up on again every twelve months – is Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. The Renaissance master's tome tells the metastory of ten friends hiding from the Plague and regaling each other with stories. Each character tells a new tale every day, and the storytelling goes on for ten days. Thus one-hundred stories divided neatly into ten groups of ten, and I'm reading one "day's" offering every year. This is year 8 of The Plan, so this spring I read the stories from eighth day of the Decameron.

Each year before this one, I've marked one or two of the ten stories as favorites, thinking that I'll give the book an abridged reread sometime in the next decade. But this year, I didn't mark any as favorites. The eighth day's theme of tricks people play on each other leads either to silly pranks a present-day sixth-grader might enjoy (a judge who gets his pants pulled down while speaking, for instance) or to unentertaining cruelty. So I didn't mark any favorites. But I now have a least favorite story from the Decameron. The seventh story relates a tale of revenge. After a woman leaves her would-be lover waiting outside all night in the snow, he gets back at her by leaving her stranded naked for twenty-four hours on a tower without a ladder. In a vignette of a thousand words, this plot might have been amusing. But page after tedious page tells of a long conversation in which the woman pleads for the man to relieve her from her plight of embarrassment, sunburn, and gadfly bites, receiving in return only variations on the theme, "Nuh-uh. You were mean to me, so now I'm going to be mean to you." Nauseating.

This year, as the question went through my mind "Now, why is this a classic again?" I've had to remind myself that Boccaccio is known as the father of Italian prose, bringing to it an elegance in contrast (humorous contrast perhaps?) to the frequent inelegance of his bawdy subject matter. Take this sentence from the story I've been complaining about:
In these days it chanced that a young gentleman of our city, by name Rinieri, having long studied in Paris, not for the sake of after selling his knowledge by retail, as many do, but to know the nature of things and their causes, the which excellently becometh a gentleman, returned thence to Florence and there lived citizen-fashion, much honoured as well for his nobility as for his learning.
The length alone lifts this sentence above the language of street conversations or haggling over the price of beans at the market: seventy words in this English translation, one word for each Boccaccio story I've read over the last seven years. And then the author arranges the words in phrases and clauses that pile up on one another like additions to the buildings on one of Florence's narrow streets. Just consider "as many do," a clause modifying the verbal adjective "selling." That participle then forms part of a phrase explaining the purpose of the studies in Paris, those studies being reported in a clause ("having long studied in Paris") giving the context in time of the main verb, "returned," which waits not only for Rinieri's studies in Paris but even thirty more words before finally appearing. And to what purpose all these layers of complexity? To tell us that the noblest purpose of study is to the know the nature of things and their causes, not to have a commodity to sell. That's a sobering thought for a guy who makes a living teaching, but still more pleasant than thinking about a wearisome story of retaliation.

Friday, April 25, 2014


Through the pages of music history, the names of Notker the Stammerer and of Herman the Cripple continue to live. I talked about them both in class today – and shook my head as I said their names. I guess a Notker by any other name still smells as sweet, but I still feel bad about these traditional monikers (although I'm struggling right now to determine exactly who or what I feel bad for). Surely it's much better to be known to history as venerable. But then why does Bede get to be known as venerable? I thought for a moment that the introduction to my copy of his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation would tell, but I only got theories about who first applied the nickname.

But venerable indeed is the Venerable Bede. I only read Book I this month (the rest of the history comes up in the next two years of my plan), but I already see venerable qualities in his writing. For instance, I was tickled to see that this historian from the so-called Dark Ages approached his sources with caution and a dose of skepticism. A modernist might wish that he applied a more strict standard to the scrutiny of his sources – regarding claims of miracles, for instance – but then the modernists themselves deserve heavy doses of skepticism. Bede definitely piqued my interest when he mentioned the story of Vortigern opening the door to the Angles and Saxons by inviting the Horsa and Hengist over from the mainland to help keep the Picts at bay. Reading about Vortigern, I expect to hear next about Merlin, Uther Pendragon, and King Arthur. But Bede left all mention of the wielder of Excalibur out of his history, itself perhaps a tacit comment about sources.

Other omissions were a little frustrating to me, though. I wish Bede had told more about the origins of Christian faith (both orthodox and heretical) in the island in late Roman days. He has a lot to say about the mission of Augustine (the other Augustine) in the sixth century, which began the continuous history of English Christianity. But maybe the stories of the gospel's first appearances in Albion are lost, and Bede (again, venerably) declined to invent a tale or even speculate.

The most tantalizing gap for me involves the story of Pope Gregory the Great establishing the episcopal hierarchy in England. To Augustine he gave the authority to ordain twelve bishops in southern England and an archbishop of York, who in turn had the authority to ordain twelve additional bishops, for northern lands. But the appointment of the Bishop of London, Gregory kept all to himself. Why did London get special treatment? Did Augustine have no influence over the Church in London? Maybe I'll learn more next year.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Bonaventure by Numbers

Several years ago, in studying theories of signs (a field known as semiotics), I came across a reference to St. Bonaventure as a precursor to the modern theories, with his views of the world as sign of God. So I checked out the book, read a bit, and turned it back in, almost completely befuddled. But over the last week, I had a completely different experience. Maybe I'm more familiar now with medieval philosophy, or maybe this spring was just the right time for a connection between me and Bonaventure. On way or another, his Journey of the Mind into God made a lot of sense this time.

At multiple levels, numbers frame the content and organization of the Journey – especially threes and sometimes sevens. The goal of the book, the goal of life in fact, is the contemplation of God. To achieve this in the fullest human capacity, Bonaventure says, we rise through the contemplation of three major categories of things: things outside ourselves, things inside ourselves, and things above ourselves. Each of these three steps has two divisions, and the whole rising staircase leads to a landing of restful bliss, making seven levels in all.

All along the journey, threes nest inside each other like Ezekiel's wheels. In step 1, for instance, where Bonaventure has us observing the world as a vestige, or footprint, of God, we become aware of three divine attributes: power, wisdom, and benevolence. These attributes display themselves through three modes of observation: we contemplate the world's existence, we believe certain things about the world, and we reason concerning the excellence of existing things. While the correspondence between divine attribute and mode of observation seems clear enough – the world exists because of God's creative power, the world has its own attributes because of God's wisdom, and the world is excellent because of God's benevolence – each exercise of observation has its own threefold division, each in turn again revealing divine power, wisdom, and benevolence. (1) All things exist in weight, number, and measure, and these parameters we can simply discern. (2) All things have their origin, continuing descent, and end in God, and these facts we believe by faith. (3) The objects of creation are arranged in three basic layers: things that simply are, things that both are and live, and things that exist, live, and reason.

Bonaventure next moves into what we might call the psychology of perception. In step 2, we contemplate God’s presence in the human process of obtaining knowledge about the world through apprehension, enjoyment, and abstraction of qualities. This psychological step naturally leads us now, in step 3, to examine things inside us – in other words, ourselves. But here we enter a new way of contemplating God since the human being isn't just a trace of God's creative power, wisdom, and goodness: it is also made in the image of God. (In the terms of Charles Peirce's semiotics, we've moved from indices of God to icons of God.) And in this step, threes again abound. Here Bonaventure covers will, intellect, and memory; past, present, and future; apprehension, knowledge, and reason; counsel, judgment, and desire. And he nests threes as often as possible again. Philosophy, for instance, is divided into physical, rational, and moral; and rational philosophy (to take one example) again divides into grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar gives us the power to speak, logic the wisdom to say right things, and rhetoric the appeal to the will of our audience. And of course the threes all eventually lead back to the three Persons of God: Bonaventure (following Augustine) ascribes power especially to the Father, wisdom to the Word, and benevolence and love to the Holy Spirit.

After step 4, in which we use Scripture rather than philosophy to study ourselves, Bonaventure moves on to study things above us: angels and God Himself. In step 5, we contemplate the unified existence of God and in step 6 the diverse Trinity of God. Near the end of his outline of step 6, Bonaventure explains that we reach the limits of human understanding when we begin to consider the eternal Being joining with temporal Man. So, after comparing the appearance of the God-Man in step 6 with the creation of the first man on day 6 of creation, the wise saint leads the reader on to a day of rest: step 7, in which we abandon all words and effort, all sense and intellect, and desire the ineffable God directly.

I spent most of today’s post simply outlining Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind into God, mostly because the exercise was good for me, and partly because I couldn’t find any handy outline of the work online and hoped that I might fill that gap. I think I engage in all seven steps on occasion, but now I want to try a systematic journey. I’m not sure how I’ll do it, but maybe I’ll pick seven weeks and devote a few minutes each day to the week’s proper step. I could take nature walks on weeks 1 and 2, read some C. S. Lewis (maybe The Abolition of Man?) on week 3, do a topical Bible study during week 4, and have some quiet times of meditation for each of the last three weeks. But that’s certainly not the only way. Today is Easter, and it seemed especially fitting to write this post and think through the whole journey in a few minutes this morning.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Life Imitates Foote

It seems fitting that I would make a comment about layers of meaningless organization on tax day. But the timing of today’s post is just as much a matter of happenstance as the coincidence that occurred last week.

On Wednesday morning, I read a passage in Shelby Foote’s history of the American Civil War in which General George McClellan became frustrated with his generals and with President Lincoln. Actually, I’ve read passages about that topic on several recent mornings, because McClellan was always frustrated with people who disagreed with him or thought him too dilatory. And since he liked unusual plans that elicited disagreement and was always dilatory, he spent all of his days of action on the stage of history in a state of frustration.

On the particular occasion I have in mind, the source of his frustration involved his twelve division commanders. In a straw vote, eight of the twelve agreed with McClellan’s tedious plan of moving the Army of the Potomac by water for an amphibious assault east of Richmond. That afternoon, after hearing about the vote, Lincoln made an executive order to organize the twelve divisions into four corps, and appointed the commanding generals himself, including three of the men who had voted against McClellan’s plan that morning. The furious McClellan could never understand that Lincoln actually intended the reorganization as a means to protect McClellan’s tenure. Some Senators, tired of waiting for the army to advance, had started calling for McClellan’s removal, and this mostly meaningless gesture of promoting a handful of generals who disagreed with a plan (but who, of course, dutifully followed it later) calmed the barking dogs for a while.

Then, at lunch on that same Wednesday, I heard that a certain director of a certain school of music in a certain university with which I have a certain relationship had created a new level of organization within the school. This unnamed school already has five levels of internal organizational structure, as well as a monthly meeting of the entire faculty. (Honestly. You can’t make this stuff up.) But some of the professors recently went together to the director’s office to complain that one of the structures (the one that mattered to them, I guess) was not sufficiently representative in that it did not proportionately reflect the constituency of the faculty. So the director concocted a new divisional scheme and declared the existence of a new committee, the members of which will be elected in a representative fashion by the faculty according to discipline or instrument type. Maybe this new (entirely powerless) body will quell hot tempers for a while. I won’t say that this director is as wise as Abraham Lincoln, but it sure seems that he took a page from Lincoln’s book – or from Foote’s.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Ariosto Reveals Himself

I love Orlando Furioso. Each of the last four years now, I've come to Ariosto's classic and started smiling. I love the intermingling of war and love, the celebration of honor in each arena, and yet the humble acceptance of human weakness. I love reading about Christians and Muslims who can fight and yet respect each other and honor each other’s prowess and virtue. And I love the plethora of characters wandering in and out of the spotlight, separating suddenly to chase a stolen horse or to free a lover from an enchanted castle, and then gathering together in new combinations. I've been thinking about how I might diagram the epic poem, and I keep coming up with a picture of macrame (although not as symmetrical as the one here). Progress through the book would flow from top to bottom in this stitchery-outline, each strand representing a character and each knot representing an episode. Maybe I was inspired by this diagrammatic representation of the American Civil War that I purchased last month.

In the passage I read this spring, Ariosto pulls back the curtain and reveals himself as an experienced authority on the woes of love. He first has a character deliver a diatribe on the unfaithfulness of women, and then in the narration he himself comments:
Although of all the women I have loved
Not one was faithful, yet I do not say
On this account that all are faithless proved.
The blame upon my cruel fate I lay.
Many there are who cannot be reproved
And no rebuke deserve in any way.
But if, among a hundred, one there be
Who is unkind, her prey I'm sure to be.
Ariosto then begins the next canto with a plea to all ladies and defenders of ladies to stop reading immediately. The next part of the tale includes a story told by an innkeeper who wishes to illustrate the fact that all women are unfaithful. Ariosto hates to include the story, he says, but he must if he wants to stay true to his (supposed) source. Of course he holds his tongue in his cheek somewhere here, but which cheek? Is the main joke in the exaggerated story of unfaithfulness, or is it in Ariosto’s warning to the readers? Does he really think he's just unlucky enough to keep finding the one in a hundred?

Ariosto continues to play both sides for a while. Just two cantos later, the poet says that he wishes all women would fall into the hands of the dangerously crazed Orlando for punishment, but then says he must stop the canto because his grief has caused him to sing "discordant melodies." At the beginning of the next, which we can imagine him beginning after a night's rest, he apologizes to the "sweet ladies" and blames his excess on the suffering he's experienced at the hand of one particular female "enemy." I wonder at this point if the title of today's post is accurate. Has Ariosto really revealed himself and his own romantic history? The hilarious passages (yeah, his pain is hilarious: as Steve Martin says, comedy is not pretty!) remind me so much of the narrator in A Series of Unfortunate Events, I can't help thinking Ariosto is just inserting one more fictional character who happens to be named "I."

I considered attempting a diagram of the poem in actual macrame for about thirty-one nanoseconds. But after reading about Madame Defarge and her knitting earlier this year, I think I won't.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Grant the Difference

Lincoln dealt with a lot of confident generals during the Civil War – at least vocally confident. To cut straight to the clearest example, George McClellan spent nine months amassing troops for an amphibious assault in eastern Virginia, sure that his plan offered the best way to win the war in one quick campaign. He defended his plan vehemently against every concern Lincoln raised over the course of those nine months, all the while taking the opportunity to parade his army through the streets of Washington and receive the adulation of the capital’s residents. But in the end, he accomplished little with his plan, except to bring Robert E. Lee onto the big stage.

In the meantime, Grant showed up in Missouri and Kentucky and Tennessee and started accomplishing things without much fanfare and with no parades. As Shelby Foote tells the story, Grant exhibited his unusual character right from the start. That character included a cool, phlegmatic acceptance of the unexpected. Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, West Point made a clerical mistake and enrolled him as Ulysses Simpson Grant. But Grant just went with it. Why fight the Army Academy? Or maybe he just enjoyed having the combination U. S. for his initials. His first expedition of the Civil War, at Belmont, Missouri, in November of 1861, resulted in defeat. But, true to his character, he kept his head during the fight and learned from his mistakes. (He made very few in the next four years.)

Three months later, having taken Ft. Henry, Grant delivered his famous ultimatum to the commander of nearby Ft. Donelson: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” And no other terms were offered. But quietly confident Grant let his commander, Henry Halleck, wire Washington and take credit for the good news. Still, the soldiers knew who had orchestrated the victory, and they found a new meaning for those mistaken initials: Unconditional Surrender Grant.

Later in the war, Grant developed a reputation for grim indifference to death. But the man just seemed able to accept the conditions of his job and showed no signs of turning duty into personal animosity for his opponents. During the Mexican War, he wrote to his fiancée, “If we have to fight, I would like to do it all at once and then make friends.” Twenty years later, when accepting Lee’s surrender, Grant displayed the same sentiment, letting the defeated officers keep their ceremonial swords and allowing all the defeated soldiers to head home with their horses so as to have means to start up their farms again. At his second inaugural address, Lincoln urged, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us strive to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Grant embodied those words.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Latin in the Spring

I have a little Latin quiz for you today. I read most of these phrases in Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man. The last one comes from the pen of Ludovico Ariosto and was quoted by translator Barbara Reynolds in the introduction to vol. 2 of Orlando Furioso.  Here are the phrases:

A. Optat aprum autfulvum descendere monte leonem.
B. Verbaque provisam rem non invito sequentur.
C. Quicquid agunt homines, votum, timor, ira voluptas, gaudia, discursus
D. rudis indigestaque moles
E. parva sed apta mihi

Which one of these phrases would you use in the following situations?
  1. You are nervous about presenting a plan to a committee.
  2. You are a Renaissance poet and want to describe the subject of your satirical epic.
  3. You see a friend choosing a dangerous course of action in order to avoid a much less dangerous problem.
  4. You come back home from a dinner party at your rich friend’s fancy mansion.
  5. You get a glimpse of your teenager’s room for the first time in weeks.
OK, I asked the question incorrectly. You probably wouldn’t use any of those phrases any time at all. But which could you use in each of those situations – if you wanted to make some classical allusions and befuddle or annoy everyone within earshot?

Quotation A comes from Virgil: “He chooses [or hopes for or prefers] a boar or tawny lion to descend from the mountain.” We might say, “He’s cutting off his nose to spite his face.” If you really want to say this phrase to your reckless friend, and not just about your friend, you need to change the ending of the first word: optas.

Quotation B comes from Horace: “Words will not unwillingly follow a matter foreseen [or provided for or well considered].” I have to overlook the Romans’ weird taste for double negatives, but I really like it that Horace says that, once you have carefully considered a matter, the words will come as if by their own will.

Quotation C comes from Juvenal: “Everything humanity does, its hope, fear, rage, joy, wanderings.” Reid doesn’t quote the last four words of the sentence: nostri farrago libelli est (“are the hodgepodge of my little book”).

Quotation D comes from Ovid: “a rude and disordered mass.” I don’t know what ugly object Ovid used the phrase to describe; I just found the translation on the, oh, so helpful eudict.com. But, of today’s five phrases, I see this one as the most promising for everyday use.

Quotation E, as I said, comes from Ariosto. He was describing his house: “small, but suitable for me.”

The answers, then (for those of you keeping score at home), are 1-B, 2-C, 3-A, 4-E. and 5-D.

Other posts on Latin can be found here, here, here, and here.