Friday, September 30, 2016

A Congeries, an Olio, a Farrago, and a Gallimaufry

I’ve been working lately on increasing my active vocabulary. Just because I recognize words doesn’t mean that I use them, and I’m the kind of guy who enjoys using a variety of vocabulary, especially unusual locutions. So I’m working on a list of terms I’ve culled from my reading; I consult it from time to time and look for opportunities to use one or two of the entries. I’ve presented some recent acquisitions in the title today: a hodgepodge of words that all mean potpourri. And today I have a grab bag of observations from recent reading.

1) I recently reread Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization aloud to my wife in the car on the way to my 40-year high-school reunion (one of the reasons I’m behind in posting this month and reduced to presenting a crazy quilt of brief, disconnected comments). I can’t recommend the book enough for people who love history, books, ancient languages, or education, of for people who have Irish heritage or who have visited Ireland. Since I fall into all these categories, I naturally love the book. We had a wonderful time with it, breezing through some passages with a smile and stopping at others to gaze in awe at the wondrous sweep of western history.

But Cahill gave us each an abrupt start by saying that Will Durant was an unoriginal thinker with a flair for writing. I love Will Durant, and Nancy knows it. I’m in the process right now of finishing his volume on the Reformation, and I thrill at what I learn on every page. His observations are, to my inexperienced eye anyway, often quite original. But Cahill’s comment came in a passage on philosophy, so maybe he meant to critique Durant only on his work in the Science of Wisdom. And at least he acknowledged Durant’s way with the pen.

2) Will Durant sure does have a flair for writing! In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read that Timur “dreamed of empire with his mother’s milk,” that Persian rugs employ “a contrapuntal harmony of lines more intricate than Palestrina’s madrigals, more graceful than Godiva’s hair,” that “the names of even the ‘immortals’ are writ in water,” and that Orlando di Lasso died “triumphant and insane.” The cool weather has arrived, and I’m going out on my deck in just a few minutes to read some more.

3) Way ahead of schedule in 2016, I’ve been off-roading recently with George Eliot’s Adam Bede. Eliot, authorities have assured me, rejected the beliefs of the Christianity of her youth and retained only the love of its forms. Critics sometimes characterize her as a humanist or an atheist, and I’ve read that a common theme of her books is the belief that we should look to our human nature for moral guidance, not to God. Since a Methodist preacher plays prominently in the story, the reader of Adam Bede finds out quite a bit about Eliot’s religious outlook. Given her lack of faith in the redemptive power of the death and resurrection of Christ, she finds the best she can find in her preacher. A not-too-careful reader might even see orthodox Christian devotion in the multiplicity of words given to sermons, Bible quotations, and theological talk in the novel.

Still, Eliot boils down the Christian message to one of developing the proper emotions (not a surprise in a nineteenth-century book) and does indeed say that we must find the promptings for these emotions in our natures. But she does not say that God has nothing to do with the path to this good life of cultured feeling. Instead, she makes a point that I wish more believing Christians understood: that God created us and our nature and can use that nature as his instrument. A mother’s love for her baby may be a natural phenomenon, but God is the Master of natural phenomena, so the mother’s love is no less a spiritual grace for arising “naturally,” even in mothers who reject certain elements of Christian dogma.

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