Three Fragments of Tacitus

I remembered Tacitus as a grumpy stick-in-the-mud, and, while that’s not necessarily an incorrect characterization, I actually enjoyed re-reading him more than I expected.  Three passages which stood out to me, all from the Agricola:

There is no great difference in language [between the Gauls and the Britons], and there is the same hardihood in challenging danger, the same cowardice in shirking it when it comes close. (62)

Interesting that we encounter Romans with this same stereotype of the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth, albeit from the other side. I doubt Monmouth read Tacitus, though I have no idea of the Agricola’s reception in the Middle Ages, but I wonder if some diligent detective work might uncover a line of transmission.

Here’s some of that old Tacitus crabbiness:

And so the population was gradually led into the demoralizing temptations of arcades, baths, and sumptuous banquets.  The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilization’, when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.  (73)
We might consider in what ways today that we’ve become enslaved under the guise of ‘civilization.’  Quite a few, I think.
Memory has been on my mind a lot lately, in reaction to loss, in Honorius’ writings, and in the classical texts in which I’ve been whiling away my time.  It’s an enduring concern of the ancients, so much of what they write, particularly histories, is to prevent us from forgetting those who’ve come before.
But representations of the human face, like that face itself, are subject to decay and dissolution, whereas the essence of man’s mind is something everlasting, which you cannot preserve or express in material wrought by another’s skill, but only in your own character.  All that we loved and admired in Agricola abides and shall abide in the hearts of men through the endless procession of the ages; for his achievements are of great renown.  With many it will be as with men who had no name or fame: they will be buried in oblivion.  But Agricola’s story is set on record for posterity, and he will live. (99)
 History, memory, art, poetry, immanence and distance, all bouncing around in the back of my brain, like an itch that I can’t scratch.  Frustrating, but perhaps if I stare into the mist long enough something real might emerge.  We’ll see.

whither can I flee from thy presence?

Reading in the Psalms yesterday, I was struck by the resonances between Psalm 138 and Anselm’s project in the Proslogion and Cur Deus Homo.  My read of Anselm here is shaped heavily by Burcht Pranger’s interpretation of the saint’s thought.  Not coincidentally, I recently attended a lecture by Prof. Pranger on Anselm, thus these ideas were percolating around my mind as I read the Psalms.  During the Q&A, he was asked about the potential connections between Anselm’s poetics and the Divine Office, but unfortunately I had to leave before I could hear his answer.

Anyway, the psalm reads:

Whither can I go from thy spirit
whither can I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend into heaven, thou are there;
if I am prostrate in the abyss, thou art there.
(Ps. 138:7-8)
It’s that final line, “in the abyss, thou art there” that strikes me.  In seeking for the unum argumentum of the Proslogion, Anselm is reduced to despair in the absence of God, but it is precisely from this absence that God’s presence becomes manifest.  It is the denial of the possibility of the unum argumentum which reveals it, from the preface:

Although I often and earnestly directed my thought to this end, and at some times that which I sought seemed to be just within my reach, while again it wholly evaded my mental vision, at last in despair I was about to cease, as if from the search for a thing which could not be found. But when I wished to exclude this thought altogether, lest, by busying my mind to no purpose, it should keep me from other thoughts, in which I might be successful; then more and more, though I was unwilling and shunned it, it began to force itself upon me, with a kind of importunity. So, one day, when I was exceedingly wearied with resisting its importunity, in the very conflict of my thoughts, the proof of which I had despaired offered itself, so that I eagerly embraced the thoughts which I was strenuously repelling.

Similarly, in Cur Deus Homo:

The first contains the objections of infidels, who despise the Christian faith because they deem it contrary to reason; and also the reply of believers; and, in fine, leaving Christ out of view (as if nothing had ever been known of him), it proves, by absolute reasons, the impossibility that any man should be saved without him. Again, in the second book, likewise, as if nothing were known of Christ, it is moreover shown by plain reasoning and fact that human nature was ordained for this purpose, viz., that every man should enjoy a happy immortality, both in body and in soul; and that it was necessary that this design for which man was made should be fulfilled; but that it could not be fulfilled unless God became man, and unless all things were to take place which we hold with regard to Christ.

The necessity of the Incarnation becomes clear when our knowledge of it is denied, just as God’s attributes emerge from the unum argumentum precisely when we both deny Biblical revelation, proceeding sola ratione, and even the search for reason altogether.  God is still there, in the abyss.

Unfortunately, I was unable in my admittedly cursory research to find the precise schedule of the hours which Anselm would have been reading, but in my breviary the Psalm is sung during Vespers on Friday.  Vespers is traditionally associated with the removal of Christ from the Cross and it’s hard to imagine a moment of greater dejection, a deeper abyss, than that.  Perhaps it’s at this very moment, a moment of utter despair and absence, that God’s presence shines through most clearly, if we have eyes to see.

This line of thought has also led me to become convinced that Boethius is engaged in a fundamentally similar project in the Consolation, and I hope to post more thoughts on that sometime in the near future.

The Alexandreis, Book X

At the close of Book IX, Alexander has conquered the world, and sets his sites on more distant pastures:
The boundary of the world lies near at hand.
Not to provoke the ill will of the gods,
the world’s too narrow, and the breadth of the earth
is insufficient for its only lord.
Bu when I’ve passed beyond this conquered universe,
I’ll undertake to open to my followers
another world.  The strong man finds no goal
insuperable.  I hasten now to penetrate
the shores of the Antipodes, and view
the other Nature. Though you begrudge your arms,
I cannot fail in duty to myself.
I’ll think the entire world my theater,
and move my troops throughout its length, ennobling
ignoble lands and peoples by my wars.
While I stand as your duke, your feel will trample
lands hidden from all races by great Nature.
This troubles Nature, who decides she must put a stop to the Macedonian before he shatters the rightful order of things even more:
That same while, Nature with a mindful grief
recalled how both the world and she herself
had suffered insult from the prince, who’d called
the earth too narrow and prepared armed throngs
to lay open her secret parts.  Distressed,
her noble white hair tangled, she left off
her latest works, the figures she’d begun
to form of Matter, and in rage she ceased
instilling souls into diverse limbs.  Veiled
in cloudy mantle, toward the Styx she turned,
and to the hidden kingdoms of the second world.
The elements gave quarter where she trod
and rose to meet their Shaper. Newly calmed,
the air worshiped the advent of the goddess.
In vernal pleasure Earth’s flowers burst forth,
the sea reined in the waves more than its wont,
and now the tumid billows held their silence.
All things bestowed on Nature worth honor,
praying that what she’d sown she’d multiply,
and grant increase unto the seeds of things,
infusing warmth and moisture.  Paying thanks
to her creatures, she bade them keep her laws
and in nothing exceed the bounds she’d set.
So, Nature goes to Hell (!) and enlists Leviathan, “the father of all crimes and their avenger”, by threatening him with the possibility of Alexander laying siege to Paradise itself, “What praise is yours, serpent, what glory, that you cast the first man out, if such a garden should yield its honors up to Alexander?” (X.116-8) Can Hell be far behind?
Everything about this is fascinating.  The way Nature is portrayed – veiled, shaping matter, all created things growing calm at her advent – especially so (there’s an interesting parallel between creation’s reaction to Nature and the nations of the world’s reactions to Alexander later in the book).
Plus, I love the descriptions of Hell:
Without delay, he roused the shadowy town
and called a council, bellowing across
the ancient plain of evils, which there lay
hardened by ice, and ravaged by the snows,
unconquered by the sun or gentle breeze.
Anyway, as you might expect, the Devil is all about killing Alexander and sets Treachery to the task.  Stirred by treachery, Antipater does the actual killing and the rest is, literally, history.
There’s one more passage I found especially poignant.  Alexander knows that when he conquers the whole world he will die, yet he refuses to stop, unquenchable is his desire for glory and conquest:
No otherwise, the tiger sees far off
a herd of horses, and a bitter thirst
burns in he flashing jaws; then is she lashed
by hunger’s goad to drink in living blood,
and savagely devours the shredded limbs;
but if, perchance, upon a hidden path
the tracking hunter’s spear pierces her flank,
she wails, he blood poured out, and dies upon
the grass, still thirsting, still unslaked with gore.
What better way to describe the end of Alexander?


Letters to a Diminished Church, Dorothy Sayers

I enjoy Dorothy Sayers and think she’s underrated as a thinker, though I haven’t read all that much.  Her suggestions in her article on the Trivium have always struck me as eminently reasonable.
Anyway, this is a collection of her essays.  Within she offers a number of wonderful insights and images, this is my favorite:
But, if theologians had not lost touch with the nature of language; if the had not insensibly fallen into the eighteenth-century conception of the universe as a mechanism and God as the great engineer; if, instead, they had chosen to think of God as a great, imaginative artist-then they might have offered a quite different kind of interpretation of the facts, with rather entertaining consequences.  They might, in fact, have seriously put forward the explanation I mentioned just now: that God had at some moment or other created the universe complete with all the vestiges of an imaginary past.
I have said that this seemed an extravagant assumption; so it does, if one thinks of God as a mechanician.  But if one thinks of him as working in the same sort of way as a creative artist, then it not longer seems extravagant, but the most natural thing in the world.  It is the way every novel in the world is written.
But let us suppose a novelist with a perfectly consistent imagination, who had conceived characters with an absolutely complete and flawless past history; and let us suppose, further, that the fossil remains were being examined by one of the characters, who (since his existence is contained wholly within the covers of the book just as ours is contained wholly within the universe) could not get outside the written book to communicate with the author.  (This, I know, is difficult rather like imaging the inhabitant of two-dimensional space, but it can be done.) Now, such a character would be in precisely the same position as a scientist examining the evidence that the universe affords of its own past.  The evidence would all be there, it would all point in the same direction, and its effects would be apparent in the whole action of the story itself (that is what, for him, would be “real” history). There is no conceivable set of data, no imaginable line of reasoning, by which he could possible prove whether or not the past had ever gone through the formality of taking place…Indeed, he could not by any means behave otherwise because he had been created by his maker as  a person with those influences in the past.
Conceiving of the comos as a story, rather than a machine has always appealed to me.
To the most obvious objection:
Probably, theologians would have been deterred by a vague sense that a God who made his universe like this was not being quite truthful.  But that would be because of a too limited notion of truth.  IN what sense is the unwritten past of the characters in a book less true than their behavior in it?  Or if a prehistory that never happened exercise on history an effect indistinguishable from the effect it would have made by happening, what real difference is there between happening and not happening?  If it is deducible from the evidence, self-consistent, and recognizable in its effects, it is quite real, whether or not it ever was actual.
Indirectly, I think that conceiving of things like this also eliminates many of the issues revolving around free will.
Sayers is also greatly interested in work, and takes a similar tact to Josef Pieper in his excellent writings on leisure.  Two selections to mull over:
“work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do.” (126)
“The Church’s approach to  an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays.  What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”(131)
Another of her repeated emphases is the affinity of the human mind as creator with God as creator, an idea explored a lot during the Tolkien course I TA’d for.   Through some meandering meditation on this insight, I’ve become convinced that this entails that the liturgy is the highest mode of human expression.  It seems plausible enough.


The Alexandreis, Walter of Châtillon

Lately, I feel like I’ve lost some of my connection to the Medieval world.  I’m rooted in Honorius, but not in the Middle Ages more broadly.  In an attempt to rectify this, and to get through some books that I’ve long had on my to read/to reread list, I’m going to try to read a number of “medieval” books during my free time for the next few months.
For accountability, I’m going to try to post my thoughts on each here.

First up, the Alexandreis, a 12th century epic poem on the life of Alexander the Great by Walter of Chatillon.  It’s pretty fun and was rather popular in its day, well worth a read.
Like any good epic poem, the Alexandreis also serves as a primer on geography, and I found Walter’s description of Jerusalem especially beautiful.  It was perhaps my favorite passage in the book:
Then over all the fields of Palestine
towers the one Judaea of one God,
and at the center of the earth, Jerusalem
is set, where, sprung from virgin womb, Life died,
nor was a reborn world content to stand,
but shuddered, stricken, at the death of God.
Tarsus also:
He therefore sent a force under Parmenion
to save a half-dead Tarsus from their flames —
Tarsus that was adorned, as Scripture tells,
by his illustrious birth through whom faith’s lamp
shone on nations long blinded by their error.
Pure and unsullied, through the city’s midst
there flows the Cignus, drawing its cold streams
from bubbling springs.  Content with its own waters,
receiving none from other falling torrents,
it tosses pebbles in its swirl, and sand
rolls playfully beneath its swift descent.
Interesting the use of the past tense in both passages, the cities are somehow already adorned by events of centuries later.  That the Incarnation’s effects echo backward and forward in time (I picture ripples in a pond after a stone’s been dropped in) is, I think, an underappreciated facet of medieval thought.  I’m certain it has interesting implications for their understanding of history, which I’d love to explore one day.
Early on we also run into Zoroas of Memphis, whose story deserves to be recounted at length.  Zoroas is quite the impressive figure,
…whom none surpassed
in starry lore, or in foreknowledge of
mundane affairs.  He knew beneath what star
the fields suffer a dearth, what year bears fruit,
the source from which come winter’s snows, what mildness
impregnates the warm soil in early spring,
why summer burns, what grants autumn a robe
hung round with grapes.  He knew whether the circle
can be squared, whether music forms
celestial harmonies, and what proportion holds
among the four elements; what force compels
the planets on a course against the world,
what grades divide them, and which star impedes
the rage of the adverse Old Man, which tempers Mars;
how each seeks out its house, which holds its sway
within this hemisphere.  He sought their paths,
noted their hours, and all human events
perceived among the stars.  I say too little-
all heaven’s vault he held within his breast.
And since he presaged fate and coming death
by heaven’s portents, nor could turn aside
the fatal sequence, boldly he pushed through
to meet the Macedonian’s commander.
Alexander is reluctant to kill such a distinguished man,
“Portent that you are, live on,
whoever you may be.  Do not destroy
in death, I pray, the lodging of such arts.
O never may my right hand an my sword
endeavor to make gory such a brain
The world has use of you.  What error, then,
drives you in longing towards the Stygian banks,
where knowledge never flowers?”
Yet, Zoroas refuses to relent in his attack and is brutally killed, having his legs sliced off at the knee before,
A varied rabble then hacked him to pieces,
and set the man again among the stars.
I just find so much fascinating here, the interaction of fate and free will, Zoroas containing within himself “all heaven’s vault”, discerning all human affairs in celestial motion (a sort of semi-sanctioned “white magic” during the Middle Ages), and his death placing him back amidst the stars, a happy cap to a gruesome end.
The tenth book is extremely interesting, and I think I’ll try to dedicate a separate post to it.