Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!
Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.
There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,Edgar Albert Guest
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.
Inspired by the passage from Plutarch quoted below.
Memory[i] and history are inextricably linked, the latter having its origin in the former. With their typical perceptiveness the Greeks recognized this lineage, all the arts descend from memory and the God. Hesiod:
[The muses] in Pieria[ii] did Mnemosyne (Memory), who reigns over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the son of Cronos, a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were accomplished, she bare nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. There are their bright dancing-places and beautiful homes, and beside them the Graces and Himerus (Desire) live in delight. And they, uttering through their lips a lovely voice, sing the laws of all and the goodly ways of the immortals, uttering their lovely voice. Then went they to Olympus, delighting in their sweet voice, with heavenly song, and the dark earth resounded about them as they chanted and a lovely sound rose up beneath their feet as they went to their father. And he was reigning in heaven, himself holding the lightning and glowing thunderbolt, when he had overcome by might his father Cronos; and he distributed fairly to the immortals their portions and declared their privileges.Hesiod, Theogony
The eldest daughter of Memory and Zeus was Clio, the muse of history. First among her sisters, she commemorates the great deeds of men. It is for this commemoration that the Achaeans and Trojans fought on the plains of Ilium.
The fragility of this remembrance is the brilliant ambiguity at the heart of the epic, revealed by the one who questions the worth of this remembrance, the exception, the best of the Achaeans, Swift-Footed Achilles.
Unlike the rest, Achilles knows his fate, [iii] and thus has that most precious of things: a choice. He can fight under the walls of Troy, achieve eternal glory, and die, or he can return home to bucolic Phthia and die unremembered after a long and happy life.[iv]
Knowledge of his choice leaves Achilles deeply conflicted; in particular because he is himself half-divine yet, despite his demigoddery, condemned to die.[v] Given the opportunity by Agamemnon’s slight, he abdicates choice all together and goes off to sulk on the beach, leaving his companions to be slaughtered as his internal turmoil rages.[vi]
In the end, he does not choose to fight for the sake of eternal glory, but for love.[vii] Over the course of the poem, the locus of his rage shifts, from Agamemnon to his fate and, therefore, himself.[viii] Patroclus, his blood brother, is struck down, unfairly, by the gods and by Hector while standing in for Achilles–leading Achilles’s men, wearing Achilles’s armor, with the fighting prowess of his blood-brother.[ix] Only then does Achilles storm into the fray, the murder of his friend and the murder of himself co-mingled, love of self and love of his brother twisted into god-like anger.[x]
Ultimately, the resolution of this anger comes only through divine intervention and sacrificial propitiation.[xi] This triggers the recognition of his father’s grief in Priam’s grief for Hector, allowing him to accept that he will, like his mortal father and unlike his sea-goddess mother, die, leaving only the fragile immortality of remembrance.[xii]
And this immortality is a small comfort indeed, no use to the dead, as we see in the Odyssey: when summoned from the land of shades, Achilles tells Odysseus that glory is worthless to the dead, better to be a living slave then a dead hero.
In the Iliad itself, there is the haunting image of the long-dead tree, the turning point of the chariot race run in the funeral games of Patroclus:
Now, the turn itself-it’s clear, you cannot miss it.Iliad, Book XXIII
There’s a dead tree-stump standing six feet high.
it’s oak or pine, not rotted through by the rains,
and it’s propped by two white stones on either side.
That’s your halfway mark where the homestretch starts
and there’s plenty of good smooth racing-room around it
it’s either the grave-mound of a man dead long ago
or men who lived before us set it up as a goal.
Either an honored grave or a marker of a game long forgotten. Think of the sheer casualness with which the observation is made, the ease with which they’ve forgotten. What the heroes lack in this moment, though it is present at many other points in the epic is the moral duty to remember, for it is only because of this duty that glory is possible at all.[xiii]
Most obviously, this is manifest throughout the Iliad in the emphasis on lineage. Homer spends just as much if not more time speaking about the “sons of Atreus” as Agamemnon and Menalaus. All men live in the shadow of their fathers.[xiv] The living embodiment of the previous generation is Nestor, never failing to remind those around him of the deeds of the dead and their superiority to the living.[xv]
The spirit of Nestor lives on in the historians:
I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another.Herodotus, Histories
The duty of the historian, therefore, first emerges from the moral duty to commemorate the dead, to prevent their images from being lost to time.[xvi] We hold this duty not only to men of the past but to the other residents of memory, those in the future (see footnote 1) including our future selves. Witness Herodotus’s adversary, and general stick-in-the-mud, Thucydides’s insistence that his history is useful:
Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. This belief was not without its grounds. The preparations of both the combatants were in every department in the last state of perfection; and he could see the rest of the Hellenic race taking sides in the quarrel; those who delayed doing so at once having it in contemplation. Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world- I had almost said of mankind. For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately preceded the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a great scale, either in war or in other matters….
The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1
And the dead, properly commemorated serve as guides to the future, see Patroclus’s ghost, Anchises in Elysium, Virgil and the innumerable counselors Dante meets in the underworld, examples multiply.
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.Tacitus, Agricola, 99
In memory these shades can live, albeit as mere images, recalling the past, shaping the future and ameliorating the pains of the present.[xvii]
It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking-glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life. Indeed, it can be compared to nothing but daily living and associating together; we receive, as it were, in our inquiry, and entertain each successive guest, view —
” Their stature and their qualities,”
and select from their actions all that is noblest and worthiest to know.
” Ah, and what greater pleasure could one have? ”
or what more effective means to one’s moral improvement? Democritus tells us we ought to pray that of the phantasms appearing in the circumambient air, such may present themselves to us as are propitious, and that we may rather meet with those that are agreeable to our natures and are good than the evil and unfortunate; which is simply introducing into philosophy a doctrine untrue in itself, and leading to endless superstitions. My method, on the contrary, is, by the study of history, and by the familiarity acquired in writing, to habituate my memory to receive and retain images of the best and worthiest characters. I thus am enabled to free myself from any ignoble, base, or vicious impressions, contracted from the contagion of ill company that I may be unavoidably engaged in ; by the remedy of turning my thoughts in a happy and calm temper to view these noble examples. Of this kind are those of Timoleon the Corinthian and Paulus Aemilius, to write whose lives is my present business; men equally famous, not only for their virtues, but success; insomuch that they have left it doubtful whether they owe their greatest achievements to good fortune, or their own prudence and conduct. In us, they can live again and that is, it seems, why we at least in part, write history. [xviii]Plutarch, Life of Timoleon
[i] Memory is a far more expansive and powerful capacity than we typically think. It’s not merely the storehouse of past ideas and impressions but a vast landscape in which those fragments are assembled into wholes. The present is a product of memory, the intersection of past remembrances and future expectations extrapolated from these remembrances (themselves, therefore, both extant only in memory). We live suspended, therefore, between memories.
[ii] The birthplace and resting place of Orpheus as well, surely this is no accident.
[iii] Hector, too, has an intuition of his doom. Though, befitting his inferior status in comparison, he cannot seem to fully grasp it, alternatively acknowledging and ignoring his destiny in the same moment. One second bemoaning the inevitable destruction of his city, the enslavement of his wife; the next proclaiming that his son—who will die cruelly at the hands of his killer’s son—will be a greater man than he.
[iv] It is easy to forget that it is in fact a true prophecy. Achilles did fight, did die, and did attain eternal glory. Even in our culturally benighted age we know the name of Achilles, while the images of innumerable others have faded to dust, even the best of them. Diomedes fought the gods themselves, yet who today remembers Diomedes?
[v] Any complaint that Homer lacks psychological realism shatters against the character of Achilles.
[vi] That Agamemnon’s offense is not truly what motivates Achilles to refuse to return to battle is seen clearly in his contradictory responses to the embassy in Book IX. Notice also whose argument comes closest to swaying him, Ajax who appeals to friendship.
And what is Achilles doing when the ambassadors arrive: Reaching the Myrmidon shelters and their ships,
they found him there. delighting his heart now,Iliad, Book IX
plucking strong and clear on the fine lyre
beautifully carved, its silver bridge set firm
he won from the spoils when he razed Eetion’s city.
Achilles was lifting his spirits with it now,
singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes …
And who is the muse of the lyre? Clio, of course.
[vii] A deep bond of friendship, not erotic love, as certain later commentators whose stunted imaginations are incapable of recognizing that a deep friendship between men does not require fucking.
[viii] Rage over our fate is ultimately sourced in rage at our place within the cosmos, our own finite and limited nature. This is, incidentally, the rage of the primordial revolt, the rage of Satan.
[ix] Patroclus in his aresteia is capable of storming Troy himself, though it is Achilles who is destined to conquer Troy by killing its embodiment, Hector. He will, of course, die before the city is finally destroyed, that task being largely accomplished by the near psychotic rage of Neoptolemus, motivated by the memory of his lost father.
[x] Divine wrath is, of course, founded in love, cf. the inscription Dante finds over the gates of Hell: “MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY,/AND THE PRIMAL LOVE” (Inferno, Canto 3)
[xi] cf. David Malouf’s Ransom for a poignant treatment.
[xii] It’s fucking beautiful.
[xiii] Remember though before you judge them too harshly for this lack that the order of society has been terribly disrupted by the eruption of Achilles’s rage and not yet restored by these games and the sacrificial self-offering of Priam, itself deeply bound up in the relation between father and son.
[xiv] I almost wrote, “save Achilles,” but Achilles lives more in the shadow of his father, a father he is doomed to surpass and pre-decease, than anyone. That’s the whole problem.
[xv] Surely in the background here we should also keep Fustel de Coulanges’s contentions about the centrality of ancestor-worship to the Greeks in mind.
[xvi] Compare Jewish history, not of men but God, whose image only emerges in negative space, between and behind the lines, as famously described by Auerbach in “Odysseus’s Scar.” It’s not an accident that the memory’s place in the trinity of our mind most closely corresponds to God the Father, and that history is one of the dominant genres of the Old Testament.
[xvii] “The living do not have a constitutive need to speak as much as to hear themselves spoken to, above all by the ancestor. We lend voice to the dead so that they may speak to us from their underworld–address us, instruct us, reprove us, bless us, enlighten us, and in general alleviate the historical terror and loneliness of being in the world.” (Robert Pogue Harrison, Dominion of the Dead, 151)
[xviii] What happens next is, of course, the collision with and assimilation of Jewish history into this model, a topic for another day.
Compared to other years, 2019 was a bit odd. My reading was dominated by two long series, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books, about which more below, and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books (which were good, but not truly excellent detective novels). Together, these accounted for more than 20% of all the books I read. As a consequence, there are less entries in the “Notable Books” section than normal.
At the same time, there were quite a few books that I found worthwhile, interesting, and would certainly recommend, but that didn’t quite meet the criteria that normally merits mention in this post. This is not an uncommon problem, I mentioned it last year and thought (mildly) hard about how to overcome it, but it seems especially notable this year. I don’t have a solution, so I’ll simply mention a few books that you might also want to check out:
- Traditional Japanese Poetry ed. Carter – Very good, just barely missed the list. Too many poems that didn’t captivate me to make it.
- Plutarch’s Lives, Livy’s History of Rome, Aeschylus’s Oresteia – All classics, all excellent, all likely worthy of inclusion on this list, but somehow did not lodge in my heart the way others did (the Oresteia came closest)
- Gardens and The Dominion of the Dead by Robert Pogue Harrison – Excellent wide- ranging studies moving effortlessly through literature, philosophy, and history. When I think about how and what I want to write two authors always come to mind: Pogue Harrison and WG Sebald. I don’t know why I didn’t mark this as notable at the time, but I’ve come to trust my in-the-moment apprehension on these things.
- The Office of Assertion by Scott Crider – Great book on the rhetoric of academic writing, accessible, loaded with detail and practical. Too much of a textbook for me to mark as notable, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject.
- Shop Class as Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford – I agreed with essentially everything that Crawford wrote in these two philosophical/psychological examinations of the value of craftwork. A vital and timely imperative, presented in a compelling, accessible fashion. If you’re a craftsman of any sort or, even more so, if you’re not, you should read these.
Now, on to some stats. I read a total of 168 books in 2019. 29% of which were read on my Kindle (I believe this is a record high) and the rest of which I read in physical form.
Thanks to the Aubrey-Maturin books, historical fiction dominated the list with 25 entries (20 of which came from O’Brian’s series). Next, in what was a surprise to me, came philosophy, with 21 books. I truly don’t know when I read all that, but the fact that it dominated the list in a year when I had few true favorites might mean something. Next was detective novels (19), thanks to the Lew Archer books that accounted for 18 of them, followed by Sci-Fi (18) and academic books (17).
As you’ve probably been able to guess O’Brian easily takes the crown this year with 20 books, followed by Macdonald with 18. No one else is even close. EC Tubb, who will finally get his due in the notable section, reappears for what is certainly the last time with 4 books, and Alan Akers, who I thought might be a worth successor to Tubb but whose books were below my lax standards for pulp sci-fi (I found them an overwraught imitation of Edgar Rice Burroughs) had 5 entries. No one else had more than 2 books, another demonstration of how this was an unconventional year (compare last year, where no author had more than 10 books on the list and where Tubb and Akers would not have made the cut for mention in this section).
These are books that I found especially memorable and would recommend without (much) reservation. In another departure from previous years, there are, depending on how you count, only two (or 21) reread entries. Let’s do those first:
Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton – I’ve always found Chesterton, despite what his detractors might think, to be a titanic intellect. The apparent glibness of his style is perhaps the greatest indication of that intellect, as there is terrific insight buried behind apparently simple word play and humorous contradiction. He puts it well himself, first on his use of humor:
My critics think that I am not serious but only funny, because they think that “funny” is the opposite of “serious.” But “funny” is the opposite of “not funny” and of nothing else. Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or in short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he choose to tell the truth in French or in German. The two qualities of funny and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other…If you say that two sheep added to two sheep make four sheep, your audience will accept it patiently–like sheep. But if you say if of two monkeys, or two kangaroos, or two sea-green griffins, people will refuse to believe that two and two make four. They seem to believer that you must have made up the arithmetic, just as you have made up the illustration of the arithmetic. They cannot believe that anything decorated with an incidental joke can be sensible. Perhaps it explains why so many successful men are so dull-or why so many dull men are successful.
Then on the depth of his thought revealed in its apparent frivolousness:
A man who deals in harmonies, who only matches stars with angels, or lambs with spring flowers, he indeed may be frivolous, for he is taking one mood at a time, and perhaps forgetting each mood as it passes. But a man who ventures to combine an angel and an octopus must have some serious view of the universe. The more widely different the topics talked of, the more serious and universal must be the philosophy which talks of them. The mark of the light and thoughtless writer is the harmony of his subject matter. The mark of the thoughtful writer is his apparent diversity.
And he is a very thoughtful writer indeed.
Both of these quotes come from Simon Leys’s wonderful essay on Chesterton: “The Poet Who Dances with a Hundred Legs” (Leys has such marvelous titles). Leys explains that title:
Chesterton once said that he suspected Bernard Shaw of being the only man who had never written any poetry. We may well suspect that Chesterton never wrote anything else.Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness, 100
But what is poetry? I t is not merely a literary form made of rhythmic and rhyming lines–thought Chesterton also wrote (and wrote memorably) a lot of these. Poetry is something much more essential. Poetry is grasping reality, making an inventory of the visible world, giving names to all creatures, naming what is…Poetry is our vital link with the outside world–the lifeline on which our very survival depends–and therefore also, in some circumstances, it can become the safeguard of our mental sanity
He later suggests that the essay might have been called, ” The Man Who Was in Love With Daylight.” And its this title that, I think, gets to the core of Orthodoxy and what makes Chesterton such a delight to read. His concern is with joy and wonder, this is what led him (and through him, in a large part, led me) to recognize the truth of Christianity. In his own words:
This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden. Theosophists for instance will preach an obviously attractive idea like re-incarnation; but if we wait for its logical results, they are spiritual superciliousness and the cruelty of caste. For if a man is a beggar by his own pre-natal sins, people will tend to despise the beggar. But Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king. Men of science offer us health, an obvious benefit; it is only afterwards that we discover that by health, they mean bodily slavery and spiritual tedium. Orthodoxy makes us jump by the sudden brink of hell; it is only afterwards that we realise that jumping was an athletic exercise highly beneficial to our health. It is only afterwards that we realise that this danger is the root of all drama and romance. The strongest argument for the divine grace is simply its ungraciousness. The unpopular parts of Christianity turn out when examined to be the very props of the people. The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom.Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 155
Joy, wonder, and the deep gratitude we owe reality for its very existence, as in a short poem, from before Chesterton’s conversion (also quoted in Leys):
Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
Anyway, you should read this book, it’s joyous on the most profound level.
The Aubrey-Maturin Books by Patrick O’Brian – While O’Brian’s chronicles of the adventures of the heroic, albeit sometimes bumbling, sea captain Jack Aubrey and his closest companion, the doctor and spy Stephen Maturin, cover 20 books (and a 21st unfinished novel that I refuse to read), they are, in a very real sense, one grand historical novel, perhaps the greatest historical novel ever written (I certainly haven’t encountered a better one). Marvelously detailed, at turns–and often all at once–poignant, gripping, hilarious, and profound, it’s almost impossible to turn away once you’ve entered into O’Brian’s world. The characters, locales, ships, battles all are beautifully drawn and enthralling. Truly, I would reread this series every year if I had the time. I found on this, my second read through, depths that I hadn’t even imagined were there previously and this, to me, is always the mark of a truly great book. O’Brian easily takes the coveted award for author of the year. I could not recommend the series more strongly.
Plus, he gets points for inspiring my favorite movie of all time.
On Power by Bertrand de Jouvenel – A deeply perceptive, and more than a little depressing, study of the character of power written at the height of World War II. Very different, though not necessarily opposed to, Romano Guardini’s similarly excellent study of the subject. Far too deep to cover even the basics here, but you’ll never look at politics the same again after reading it.
The Dumarest Series by EC Tubb – For years, Tubb’s Dumarest series has been a standby on my list of read books and, having finally finished the series and seen Dumarest arrive (though not necessarily safely) at his long-sought home, I’m sad to see it go. This is pulp sci-fi–of the planetary romance variety–of the highest order (not quite as excellent as Leigh Brackett or Burroughs, but very enjoyable nonetheless). The basic plot of virtually all of the 33 books in the series are the same: Earl Dumarest, wayward child of Earth, possessed with a desperate longing for home, preternatural speed, indomitable will, and a secret that the malevolent Cyclan (think evil Vulcans) will stop at nothing to attain arrives at a planet run by a degenerate aristocracy where he finds himself lusted after by beautiful women, combating deadly beasts, fighting at least one combat to the death in the arena, and embroiled in byzantine plots of revenge and domination. Always seeking for clues to the lost location of Earth, he triumphs over a multitude of dangers, thwarts the Cyclan agents who are ever on his tail and escapes, often seeing his hopes of finding home dashed cruelly at the last moment. Despite this repetitiveness, Tubb gives you enough variety to keep going and the stories certainly don’t drag. You can easily power through any of them in a few hours and they’re a welcome respite from academic works and denser literature.
Tubb has provided me with years of entertainment. I truly am sad to see the series end.
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti – My affection for Rossetti should be obvious from the sheer number of her poems that I’ve posted here. I’m hard pressed to think of another poet who so deeply stirs the waters of my soul. Many of these entries have used the word “profound” or “deep”, and perhaps that’s a theme of this year, but, despite the repetition, it is nonetheless apt. Rossetti is a beautiful poet, to be read and savored.
It’s difficult for me to speak about the virtues of poetry. Their own words are their best argument. Ignore what I have to say and just read the poems I’ve linked above. They’ll tell you much more than I can about why she is great.
The Centurions by Jean Larteguy – A gripping novel about the nature of war and the men who fight it, which follows a group of French paratroopers from the disaster at Dien Bien Phu to the disaster of Algeria with a brief stop in a France to which they can no longer return. Most reviews speak about how relevant the novel is, it’s depiction of guerrilla warfare and the horrors required to fight it especially pertinent to the modern experience, but I’ve long thought that what makes a book great is not its relevance, but its timelessness. This is a book worth reading not because America finds herself embroiled in an endless succession of Algerias, but because there’s something at the heart of the novel that speaks to the timeless reality of empire and of men, the violence we beg them to commit and what that violence makes them become. Larteguy himself certainly saw this eternal resonance. We can see that from the title, evoking lonely centurions on the periphery of Rome as the walls begin to crumble.
The enjoyed the sequel The Praetorians far less, perhaps because it seemed to require a more in depth understanding of mid-20th century French history about which I know essentially nothing (save for reading a single book about the Algerian conflict in the aftermath of reading Larteguy).
With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz – A epic of the purest and most wonderful sort, following noble (and less-than-noble) Polish knights as they battle against a massive Cossack uprising. It’s exciting and bloody, filled with virtue and vice, terrifying but never one-dimensional villains and excellently drawn characters throughout. Most notable is the Falstaffian knight, Zagloba (he’s the less-than-noble one, though he still has a heart of gold), who has stuck with me more than any other character in a book I’ve read this year. I think that might by Sienkiewicz’s greatest strength, he makes you care about the characters. You want to be around them. You want to see what happens to them. Even the villains are captivating, you await their fates with bated breath. The book is massive, the sequels (which I promise I’ll get to someday) even more so, but for sheer adventure and fun, I’m hard pressed to think of a book since Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships that I’ve enjoyed more. A real delight.
Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac – Balzac is a strange author. On the surface there’s nothing I can point to in his works that I find especially amazing. Indeed, there are a number of times when his prose seems outright bad, where the plots feel rushed, where I lose my grip on his characters (I worried that this was an artifact of translation, but see that others have complained about it too). Nevertheless, his books are utterly captivating. Below the prose, somehow not contained within the words themselves but lying behind them, is a raw, vital energy. His books, and the people within them, are alive. Balzac poured his own life into his works, you might plausibly claim that doing so killed him–the exhaustion of marathon writing sessions fueled only by gallons of coffee, the spiritual depletion of leaving your life on the page. If so, what a sacrifice! What a titanic amount of life he had to give! That’s his achievement, this vitality, this energy. Pere Goriot is one of the most famous of his novels, a key part of his massive La Comédie humaine series of inter-woven works, and thus one of the greatest examples of Balzac’s excellence. You ought to experience it, if only once. It’s different than any other author I’ve ever encountered.
Gilgamesh – How do you praise a four thousand year-old incomplete Sumerian epic? I’ve already mentioned my feeling of inadequacy whenever I try to express why poetry is valuable. So, I’ll simply say that I found Gilgamesh far more accessible than I expected, but what truly drew me in was that this accessibility lightly masked an ever-present air of mystery, of the numinous lurking just behind the scenes. In this way, Gilgamesh reminded me of the Book of Genesis, quite possibly the single most mysterious (in a number of senses of the word) thing ever written. It felt like a poem that I could read over and over again, perpetually feeling like I was on the brink of a great revelation but never quite attaining it. That’s a special and wonderful feeling.
To evoke Chesterton and to paraphrase what I wrote last year, reading brings us many things, the most important of these is wonder and joy. Each of these books, in their own way, brought me wonder and joy, and I hope that they can bring you the same. Read more!
Man’s life is laid in the loom of time
To a pattern he does not see
While the weavers and the shuttles fly
Till the dawn of eternity
Some shuttles are filled with silver threads
And some with threads of gold
While often but the darker threads
Are all that they may hold.
But the weaver watches with
Each shuttle fly to and fro
And sees the pattern so deftly wrought
As the loom moves sure and slow
God surely planned the pattern
Each thread, the dark and fair
Is chosen by his masters skill
And placed in the web with care.
God only knows it’s beauty
And guides the shuttles which hold
The threads so unattractive
As well as the threads of gold
Not till each loom is silentAnonymous
And the shuttle cease to fly
Shall God reveal the pattern
And explain the reason why
The dark threads were as needful
In the weavers skilful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
For the pattern which he planned.
The final part of a series of posts on Justin Martyr.
As the months since I read Justin pass, it’s the enigma of the Old Man that remains most strongly impressed on my memory. I’ve come to think that he is the key point around which both Justin’s biography and bibliography crystallizes. The central pillar in his intellectual and autobiographical landscape. In a sense, as we shall hopefully see, to understand, to know, the Old Man is to attain the endpoint of Justin’s thought.
This all hinges on the identity of this figure, about whom Justin tells us relatively little, or so it seems. We meet the Old Man following Justin as he walks through a secluded field (I insist on imaging it as a beach. I’m not sure why, something about the sea) The man is described as simply old and, “by no means contemptible in appearance, exhibiting meek and venerable manners.” Following their conversation, which we don’t even get to hear all of, Justin never sees him again. A chance encounter cues an epiphany.
Yet, I cannot believe this is an ordinary man, some wandering theologian who just happened to stumble on Justin as he contemplated by the sea.
Let’s consider Justin’s disposition at the time of this meeting. He had, recall, been studying Platonic philosophy and been making rapid progress, such that:”I expected forthwith to look upon God…while I was thus disposed, when I wished at one period to be filled with great quietness, and to shun the path of men, I used to go into a certain field not far from the sea”
Anticipating the vision of God, therefore, and filled with a great quietness.
In this state, Justin spies a figure following him and turns to look, whereupon the Old Man calls out to him, “Do you know me?” It’s difficult to imagine a more suggestive question given the context here. Think who Justin is most desperately trying to know, to recognize, at this moment (recognition is, of course, a central theme of the Gospels, most concretely at Mark 8:29 and the in interview with Pilate).
More, it’s surely significant that Justin does not speak first. He turns to look a the Old Man, who, feeling Justin’s gaze, calls out to him. I’ll quote what I wrote about Augustine in my previous post:
I’m reminded of Augustine’s Platonic ascent to God in Book VII of the Confessions, note that the final transcendence here is only brought about by God’s condescension to Augustine. He ascends, yes, but it is God’s voice reaching downward that bridges the immeasurable distance between them.
The dynamic is strikingly similar.
In response to the allusive question of the Old Man, Justin replies that he does not know him, and inquires as to what he is doing there, to which the Man responds:
I am concerned about some of my household. These are gone away from me; and therefore have I come to make personal search for them, if, perhaps, they shall make their appearance somewhere.
The allusion is so strong here, that I’m not sure I have anything to add.
A final hint, at the conclusion of their dialogue, Justin writes that the conversation included, “many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present.” Indeed, perhaps were he to detail them the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written.
During their conversation, reinforcing again the point I made in the previous post about true wisdom, i.e. knowledge of God, coming only from an encounter with God as a person, not as an abstract mental principle:
“‘Is not knowledge a term common to different matters? For in arts of all kinds, he who knows any one of them is called a skilful man in the art of generalship, or of ruling, or of healing equally. But in divine and human affairs it is not so. Is there a knowledge which affords understanding of human and divine things, and then a thorough acquaintance with the divinity and the righteousness of them?’ “‘Assuredly,’ I replied. “‘What, then? Is it in the same way we know man and God, as we know music, and arithmetic, and astronomy, or any other similar branch?’ “‘By no means,’ I replied. “‘You have not answered me correctly, then,’ he said; ‘for some [branches of knowledge] come to us by learning, or by some employment, while of others we have knowledge by sight.
If my contention about the identity of the Old Man is correct than this discourse, which remember utterly transforms Justin kindling within him a fire of love for Christ and anointing him a true philosopher, takes on profound significance. It is, in this moment, the act of seeing and hearing God through His condescension to us that we are moved and come to know and love Him.
I’ll end, therefore, with the final words of the Old Man. They seem appropriate.
But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom
The much delayed conclusion to my look at Justin Martyr, other posts on Justin can be found here. A planned excursus on the identity of the Old Man has turned out to be more complex than I first thought, so I’m going to make that it’s own and truly final post.
The story of Justin’s conversion is the longest sustained portion of his Dialogue with Trypho. It’s easy to sketch out the details; Justin struggles to find a philosophical teacher that will lead him to God, believes he has found one among the Platonists, but after a chance meeting and dialogue with an old man (more on him later) on a beach, comes to see the inadequacies of Platonic thought and the comparative superiority of Christianity, leading to his conversion and, subsequently, his assumption of the robes and title of philosopher. There’s quite a bit of sophistication running beneath the surface, however, and it’s this sophistication that is a major reason–and certainly the only honorable reason, the others being laziness and distraction–why this post has been so long delayed. There are a lot of different threads to tug on, let’s start tugging.
As mentioned above, Justin’s philosophical journey begins with a desire to know God. It’s not a wholly conventional starting point for philosophical inquiry, though not wholly unprecedented either, but today we certainly don’t think of knowledge of God as the endpoint of philosophy, and it’s clear that not all of the philosophers Justin encounters do either, so it’s worth considering just what nurtured this motivation, which presumably involved a recognition that it was necessary to go beyond cultic practices of traditional Roman religion, which he doesn’t mention in the context of his conversion and only condemns in other parts of his corpus.
Is this indicative of a more widespread dissatisfaction with traditional piety, a sense that it was not a legitimate avenue to the divine? My intuition is, almost certainly. We see in other Christian sources, Athanasius comes especially to mind, a refrain of the failures of pagan oracles and rituals to bring about their promised effects, surely they were referring to some observable phenomenon.
Returning to Justin, his journey is also shaped by the conviction that undertaking the search for God requires a teacher. After his dialogue with the Old Man convinces him of the inadequacies of even Platonic thought he exclaims with what seems to be a sort of despair, “whence may any one be helped, if not even in teachers there is truth?’” You cannot, on Justin’s account, go it alone. Coupled with his use of dialogue, and indeed of dialogue within dialogue (as with the encounter with the Old Man) to the narrative of his life as a whole, this gestures towards the philosophical conviction that the habitat of truth is ultimately within interpersonal communication. Whether the truth lies within us slumbering and waiting to be recalled or outside us waiting to be seen, our apprehension of it must be awakened by another. Moreover, it also calls to mind the prohibition so steadfastly enjoined among the earliest monastic communities that progress within the spiritual life required careful submission to a mentor, and the most despicable sort of monk was the one who presumed to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Even Antony learned at the feet of another hermit.
I’ll suggest also that we should read Justin’s progress through the varieties of ancient philosophies as a sort of philosophical ascent, mapping on (at least vaguely) to Plato’s cave.
He begins with a Stoic:
I surrendered myself to a certain Stoic; and having spent a considerable time with him, when I had not acquired any further knowledge of God, for he did not know himself, and said such instruction was unnecessary.
Dissatisfied, Justin abandons Stoicism, but the next philosopher he goes to, a peripatetic:
And this man, after having entertained me for the first few days, requested me to settle the fee, in order that our intercourse might not be unprofitable. Him, too, for this reason I abandoned, believing him to be no philosopher at all.
Is the apathy of the Stoic worse than the venality of the Peripatetic? Apparently so. If we take the Stoic to be the furthest from divine truth, he seems guilty of merely trading in appearances, not concerned with the real at all but with form alone (and for what reason? simply for forms sake). The Peripatetics’s greed is at least greed for something, the Stoic only cares about making sure the shadows on the cave wall are the proper shape.
This characterization calls to mind Chesterton on the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius in particular, from Orthodoxy,
Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of passion…Marcus Aurelius and his friends had really given up the idea of any god in the universe and looked only to the god within. They had no hope of any virtue in nature, and hardly any hope of any virtue in society. They had not enough interest in the outer world really to wreck or revolutionise it. They did not love the city enough to set fire to it.Chesterton, Orthodoxy, “The Flag of the World”
Surely the expert on Stoicism will disagree, and we should also point out that it was a Stoic judge under a Stoic emperor (himself baffled by the obstinacy of the Christians in the face of death, the very obstinacy Justin praises as the surest sign of their virtue) that sentenced Justin to die. Nevertheless, there is a sort of decayed bloodlessness to stoicism, when and where it gains currency is no accident.
After the venal Peripatetic, Justin turns to the Pythagoreans, who he claims seem to possess wisdom, but require him to engage in a lengthy program of learning before they will teach him. Daunted and discouraged, Justin is turned away because he hasn’t studied music, astronomy, or geometry. The Pythagoreans error, therefore, is an all-to-common conflation of erudition with wisdom, believing the latter to be a product only of the former. This, of course, mistakes the very nature of wisdom and the means of obtaining which is not, as the Pythagorean believes, the possession of an ever-growing profusion of facts, but love, the intoxicating love of truth of that so bewitched Socrates in the Symposium (quote?)(and remember that, for Justin, Socrates is our Socrates, a Christian before Christ). Mistaking knowledge for wisdom, the Pythagorean thus attempts philosophy without philos.
(Also, Justin is impatient, “I deemed the man had some knowledge; but reflecting again on the space of time during which I would have to linger over those branches of learning, I was not able to endure longer procrastination.”)
Appropriately, then, Justin finally approaches the Platonists, and here he seems to make real progress:
and I progressed, and made the greatest improvements daily. And the perception of immaterial things quite overpowered me, and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings,* so that in a little while I supposed that I had become wise; and such was my stupidity, I expected forthwith to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.
In eager anticipation of finally encountering God, he travels to, “a certain field not far from the sea,” where he encounters a strange old man. With the Old Man, Justin engages in a philosophical dialogue, beginning in simple wonder that another had come to this field, but quickly turning to how the Platonists are able to know and speak of God.
Justin replies that it must be through a certain faculty of the soul, and the Old Man takes this assertion as a jumping off point to examine the Platonic idea of the soul and through that examination demonstrating its inadequacy. But if the Platonists are wrong about the nature of the soul, then how can they claim to know its faculties? How can they claim that this soul, which they do not understand, allows them knowledge of God?
(I’m reminded of Augustine’s Platonic ascent to God in Book VII of the Confessions, note that the final transcendence here is only brought about by God’s condescension to Augustine. He ascends, yes, but it is God’s voice reaching downward that bridges the immeasurable distance between them.)
Justin is reduced to near despair by the latest, and notably first obviously intellectual, failing of his chosen philosophy, raising the lament I quoted above, “whence may any one be helped, if not even in teachers there is truth?’”
As a solution the Old Man offers up the prophets:
There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them(my emphasis)
Unlike the Platonists (though, recall from earlier that Justin did believe Socrates and Plato to have been inspired by God), these men were the beneficiaries of God’s revelation, specially chosen by Him, rather than rising on their own intellectual merits, men of true authority.
The Old Man’s description reminded me of another piece I read recently, Kierkegaard’s On the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle. Two quotes to give you the sense, the same, I believe, that we find in Justin:
Genius is appreciated purely aesthetically, according to the measure of its content, and its specific weight ; an Apostle is what he is through having divine authority. Divine authority is, qualitatively, the decisive factor. It is not by evaluating the content of the doctrine aesthetically or intellectually that I should or could reach the result : ergo , the man who proclaimed the doctrine was called by a revelation : ergo, he is an Apostle. The very reverse is the case: the man who is called by a revelation and to whom a doctrine is entrusted, argues from the fact that it is a revelation, from his authority. (70)Kierkegaard, On the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle, 70
When Christ says, ‘ There is an eternal life ’ ; and when a theological student says, ‘There is an eternal life:’ both say the same thing, and there is no more deduction, development, profundity, or thoughtfulness in the first expression than in the second; both statements are, judged aesthetically, equally good. And yet there is an eternal qualitative difference between them! Christ, as God-Man, is in possession of the specific quality of authority which eternity can never mediate, just as in all eternity Christ can never be put on the same level as essential human equality. Christ taught, therefore, with authority.Kierkegaard, On the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle, 78-9
Thus the roots of Justin’s near constant appeal to the prophets is grounded in his conversion and his conversion grounded in the prophets as authorities. Thus, also, why the martyrs are so important, for they too have authority, the freedom with which they give their lives a lived and divine sign.
Back to Justin, upon the conclusion of the Old Man’s speech:
straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher.
Note the fire was kindled not for abstract knowledge or metaphysical truth but a love of other men, and, behind them, the God-man, Christ. It is this love that rightfully bestows upon Justin the title of philosopher, lover of wisdom as lover of logos incarnate, and thus enable him to achieve the happy life he had been seeking all along.
When a feller hasn’t got a cent
And is feelin’ kind of blue,
And the clouds hang thick and dark
And won’t let the sunshine thro’,
It’s a great thing, oh my brethren,
For a feller just to lay
His hand upon your shoulder in a friendly sort o’ way.
It makes a man feel queerish,
It makes the tear-drops start.
And you kind o’ feel a flutter
In the region of your heart.
You can’t look up and meet his eye,
You don’t know what to say
When a hand is on your shoulder in a friendly sort o’ way.
Oh this world’s a curious compoundAnonymous
With its honey and its gall;
Its cares and bitter crosses,
But a good world after all.
And a good God must have made it,
Leastwise that is what I say,
When a hand is on your shoulder in a friendly sort o’ way.
I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
My life is like a broken bowl,Christina Rossetti
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish’d thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.