Memory and History

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.
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.

Iliad, Book XXIII


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,
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 …

Iliad, Book IX

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.

Justin’s Old Man

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

Justin’s Conversion

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.

(The pagans themselves seem likewise dissatisfied, see for instance Plutarch on the failures of the oracles or the skepticism (cynicism?) of Cicero.)

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.

The Weltbild of Justin Martyr, pt. 3

Alongside what we’ve already discussed, I wanted to hit a few fragmentary points from Justin before delving into his conversion story. 

In both the apologies and the Dialogue with Trypho, the argument from prophecy is the primary means by which Justin demonstrates the truth of Christianity.  With Trypho, a Jew and thus presumed to already take the prophets of the Old Testament seriously, the argument is essentially an exegetical one: Trypho, and by extension the Jews more generally, have misunderstood the messianic prophecies, which Justin can definitively show to refer to Christ. 

On the other hand, it might strike us as odd that Justin expects that a similar, albeit less fine-grained, argument will work with the Greeks and Romans.  This reaction is rooted in a two-fold modern prejudice, both aspects of which I suspect are largely unjustified.  The first is the pre-extant conviction that prophecy is impossible, with a vague suspicion that a dishonest interpreter can massage obscure prophetic utterances to match any event or person.  Thus, prophecy is impossible, and, even if it weren’t, we couldn’t know that it was actually fulfilled, given its non-specific character.1

The second, related, prejudice is that the Gospels (or any text claiming to document the fulfillment of prophecy) were written specifically in order to accord with the prophecies.  In other words, the Gospel authors, at the very least, embellished the story to bring it into line with what had been predicted.  It’s striking to me that early commentators never seem to adopt this hermeneutic of suspicion (for instance, most pagan commentators freely grant that Jesus was a wonderworker).  Does this indicate a sort of hopeless naivety on the part of the ancients? A hopeless cynicism on our part?2

In broad terms, there’s no reason why the argument from prophecy should not be convincing.  If a prophet, indeed multiple prophets, successfully predict a future event, surely this vouchsafes their prophetical status?  Having established that the prophets are in fact prophets, their status as authoritative sources of truth is confirmed.  And where could this truth have come but the extra-temporal, the divine?   Argument from Biblical prophecy, therefore, simultaneously vouchsafes the revelatory character of the prophets and establishes the truth of Christ’s nature proclaimed by them.  Importantly, this prophetic revelation reveals much about Christ that is not necessarily obvious from the Gospels (and remember, we don’t know what NT texts Justin had access to and remember also that there were great debates raging within and around the Church about what the Gospels entailed).  Finally, the truth of prophecies about Christ, also show the truth of future prophecies by and about Him that the Christians proclaim and anticipate.  It’s a fairly neat and logical argument.3

Justin is, of course, writing an apology, seeking to defend the Christians against charges of moral turpitude.  In response, Justin makes the case that Christians are in fact far more moral than the Romans.  We might compare this inversion to Justin’s rebuttal of the claim that Christians teach novel doctrines, summarized in the previous post, in which he argues that far from proclaiming novelties, Christians are in fact the teachers and heirs of the oldest and only true form of philosophy. 

Consequently, the truth of Christianity is demonstrated by the fact that it leads its practitioners to lead morally exemplary lives, such as by maintaining their virginity:

And many, both men and women, who have been Christ’s disciples from childhood, remain pure at the age of sixty or seventy years; and I boast that I could produce such from every race of men.

First Apology

It’s again an interesting contrast to modern apologetics, which tend to spend a lot of time apologizing for the moral failings of Christians.  Justin doesn’t bother to do this, though surely there were wicked Christians in his own time (we might imagine how the pressures of persecution could lead to grave betrayals, for example).  Instead, he points to their moral triumphs as more impressive than pagan ones.  We might imagine this in a modern context, to those pointing out the sexual abuses of the Church, we point out that while there may be wicked priests, the saints are incomparably greater than any secular hero. 

Christians also don’t expose their children, in fact a prohibition on doing so was often one of the first laws passed when an area was Christianized, and in passing Justin notes the rather disturbing fate of children that had been exposed:

because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution.

First Apology

These little fragments about the ancient world are always fascinating, though sadly the darkness of this practice (and the eventual fate of those condemned to it) is all too evident upon reflection. 

Justin also holds up the Christian attitude towards death as proof of their virtue, and here were see clearly the context of Stoic, Epicurean, and Socratic attitudes, particularly his affection for the last.  This is all the more poignant because he himself will die a martyr’s death:

But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid.

First Apology

The Romans were somewhat baffled by this attitude towards death, looking at Christians as sorts of stubborn madmen.  See, for instance, Marcus Aurelius during whose reign, remember, Justin was executed:

How admirable is the soul which is ready and resolved, if it must this moment be released from the body, to be either extinguished or scattered or to persist. This resolve, too, must arise from a specific decision, not out of sheer opposition like the Christians, but after reflection and with dignity, and so as to convince others, without histrionic display.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, XI.3

Finally, an argument that may seem exceedingly odd to a modern reader, though it was utterly dominant in the pre-modern world, about the fittingness of the cross:

For consider all the things in the world, whether without this form they could be administered or have any community. For the sea is not traversed except that trophy which is called a sail abide safe in the ship; and the earth is not ploughed without it: diggers and mechanics do not their work, except with tools which have this shape. And the human form differs from that of the irrational animals in nothing else than in its being erect and having the hands extended, and having on the face extending from the forehead what is called the nose, through which there is respiration for the living creature; and this shows no other form than that of the cross. And so it was said by the prophet, “The breath before our face is the Lord Christ.” And the power of this form is shown by your own symbols on what are called “vexilla” [banners] and trophies, with which all your state possessions are made, using these as the insignia of your power and government, even though you do so unwittingly. And with this form you consecrate the images of your emperors when they die, and you name them gods by inscriptions.

First Apology

The truth of the Cross, which is after all the fundamental truth about the world, cannot help but creep into our perceptions, shaping our tools, our religion, our very forms.  The influence of the logos, just as it gave a dim apprehension of the truth to the philosophers, cannot but foster a dim awareness that it is by this form that all will be saved. The character of the cosmos indelibly stamped by future event to come/has come.  Think of what this entails about the nature of the creation. 

1. Note, this suspicion does lurk in Trypho’s responses to Justin, though it is overcome by the end of the dialogue

You see this doubled-edged denial quite often in modern discourse: God doesn’t exist and even if He did, we can’t prove it; moral truths don’t exist, and, anyway, people disagree about them, so they don’t exist. I leave it to the reader to ponder the soundness of these denials.

2. It might have something to do with the authority of the witness. I recall, albeit dimly, a response given by an eastern monk to someone challenging the perpetual virginity of Mary, “why would the Mother of God lie about something like that?” The point being that the moral status of the author matters. The presumption that the Apostles lied presumes that they were not holy men, and, more, that those who reported their holiness were similarly compromised (or deluded) and so on.

3. It is also an argument many others have utilized, perhaps most notably Pascal in the Pensees.  The sheer amount of space he dedicates to prophecy in that book puts lie to the popular understanding that his famous wager is an argument for God’s existence.  Indeed, on any serious examination it makes no sense as such.  The argument from prophecy, along with his other (very worthwhile) arguments, resolves the insipid “why this God and religion, though?” response to the wager, which tends to be the surest proof that the one raising it has not read the book.

The Weltbild of Justin Martyr, pt. 2

As previously discussed, Justin developed intellectually in a rather free-wheeling philosophical milieu, a ferment just prior to the emergence of the schools that would come to dominate the next few centuries, indeed the next millennium, of thought.  Consequently and particularly because of his own rather eclectic journey through various philosophical schools on his way to Christianity (more on which anon), Justin’s understanding of Pagan philosophy’s relationship to Christian revelation is striking, though we should not oversell its uniqueness.1 

At the root of his conception of prior philosophy is the prologue to the fourth gospel:2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

John 1:1-5

What is translated here as “word” is, in the original Greek, Logos, an essentially untranslatable term.  Just to sample from the entry in Liddell-Scott, it can mean: that by which the inward thought is expressed, the inward thought itself, word, language, a statement, assertion, resolution, condition, or command, speech, discourse, conversation, the faculty of speech, a saying, tale, or story, history, narrative, reason, opinion, account, etc. etc.

In a sense, it means all those things, and then, complicating the matter, the Logos (the logos of all logoi) was a human being, Christ, who existed at a particular historical time and place, walked among us, taught, was crucified and rose from the dead.  If this strikes you as an incomprehensible mystery, good, that’s the point.

Justin is the first great theorizer of the Logos and is particularly attentive to the revelation of the Logos throughout history in the exercise of the rational faculty of those who strove to live in the light of truth.  These brilliant and blessed men were not simply wise, but, Justin tells us Christians of a sort:

He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious. So that even they who lived before Christ, and lived without reason, were wicked and hostile to Christ, and slew those who lived reasonably.3

Justin Martyr, First Apology

The logic behind Justin’s claim is fairly straightforward: Christ is reason and wisdom incarnate, those who serve Christ are Christians, philosophers who lived in service of reason and wisdom are Christians.  Yet, its boldness is striking.  In one move, Justin has appropriated the heritage of the ancient world for the Christians, declaring them—remember this is in an apology defending the Christians against the calumnies and persecution of Rome—the true heirs to the great philosophical traditions, the truly rational ones, the true philosophers.  Simply put:

Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians.

Justin Martyr, First Apology

What’s more we find, many of the famous claims of various philosophers were not original, but were copied directly from Moses, who Plato apparently read while in studying in Egypt:4

Plato borrowed his statement that God, having altered matter which was shapeless, made the world, hear the very words spoken through Moses, who, as above shown, was the first prophet, and of greater antiquity than the Greek writers;

Justin Martyr, First Apology

And later:

And the physiological discussion concerning the Son of God in the Timæus of Plato, where he says, “He placed him crosswise in the universe,” he borrowed in like manner from Moses; for in the writings of Moses it is related how at that time, when the Israelites went out of Egypt and were in the wilderness, they fell in with poisonous beasts, both vipers and asps, and every kind of serpent, which slew the people; and that Moses, by the inspiration and influence of God, took brass, and made it into the figure of a cross, and set it in the holy tabernacle, and said to the people, “If ye look to this figure, and believe, ye shall be saved thereby.” And when this was done, it is recorded that the serpents died, and it is handed down that the people thus escaped death. Which things Plato reading, and not accurately understanding, and not apprehending that it was the figure of the cross, but taking it to be a placing crosswise, he said that the power next to the first God was placed crosswise in the universe. And as to his speaking of a third, he did this because he read, as we said above, that which was spoken by Moses, “that the Spirit of God moved over the waters.” For he gives the second place to the Logos which is with God, who he said was placed crosswise in the universe; and the third place to the Spirit who was said to be borne upon the water, saying, “And the third around the third.” And hear how the Spirit of prophecy signified through Moses that there should be a conflagration. He spoke thus: “Everlasting fire shall descend, and shall devour to the pit beneath.” It is not, then, that we hold the same opinions as others, but that all speak in imitation of ours.5

Justin Martyr, First Apology

Here again Justin situates Christians as the true founders and thus true inheritors of the Greek intellectual tradition.  Moreover, in Plato’s misunderstanding of Moses, we see a pattern of students not understanding their teachers that would lead to philosophy’s fracturing into a multitude of competing schools that increasingly diverged from the truth: 

I wish to tell you why [philosophy] has become many-headed. It has happened that those who first handled it, and who were therefore esteemed illustrious men, were succeeded by those who made no investigations concerning truth, but only admired the perseverance and self-discipline of the former, as well as the novelty of the doctrines; and each thought that to be true which he learned from his teacher: then, moreover, those latter persons handed down to their successors such things, and others similar to them; and this system was called by the name of him who was styled the father of the doctrine.

Justin Martyr, First Apology

Philosophy thus degenerates from seekers who cared about truth but were unable to fully grasp it, to students who only admired the externally manifest virtue of their teachers, to the present day where so-called philosophers care about neither truth nor virtue and instead persecute the earnest seekers of truth, i.e. the Christians.6

The mistakes of Socrates, Heraclitus, and Plato were, unlike their descendants, forgivable, due to the limitations of their natural capacities:

For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them. For the seed and imitation impacted according to capacity is one thing, and quite another is the thing itself, of which there is the participation and imitation according to the grace which is from Him.

Justin Martyr, First Apology

It is, therefore, Christ alone who is capable of bringing philosophy to its conclusion.  Socrates, Plato, and the rest merely pursued wisdom, a wisdom that they themselves admitted lay beyond their capabilities to grasp.  The Christian, however, by virtue of Christ’s incarnation, can see and participate in the fullness of the Logos. They don’t pursue wisdom but are united with it.  Through this union all can be converted away from ignorance and demonic influence, restored to their rightful place as rulers of the cosmos along with Christ, and, as a consequence, freed from corruption and death.  This is the ultimate goal of philosophy, attained only by the Christians. 

Thus, the state of the world in which Justin writes and why they are innocent of the charges of innovation and teaching foolishness with which their (demonic) enemies slander them.  In summary:

And that this may now become evident to you—(firstly) that whatever we assert in conformity with what has been taught us by Christ, and by the prophets who preceded Him, are alone true, and are older than all the writers who have existed; that we claim to be acknowledged, not because we say the same things as these writers said, but because we say true things: and (secondly) that Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to His will, He taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race: and (thirdly) that before He became a man among men, some, influenced by the demons before mentioned, related beforehand, through the instrumentality of the poets, those circumstances as having really happened, which, having fictitiously devised, they narrated, in the same manner as they have caused to be fabricated the scandalous reports against us of infamous and impious actions, of which there is neither witness nor proof

Justin Martyr, First Apology

1. An obvious comparison to Justin on this front is Clement of Alexandria, whose works I’m also hoping to re-read soon.  His catalog is more expansive than Justin’s and he seems to be more deeply rooted in the intellectual landscape of Alexandria.  There’re a ton of interesting tidbits in Clement. 

2. which is, incidentally, the most profound philosophical formulation ever written

3. Here again we see the implacable demonic opposition to the logos that so characterizes Justin’s world picture.

4. Thomas Aquinas picks up on this tradition as well: “Moreover Plato is said to have known many divine things, having read the books of the Old Law, which he found in Egypt.” (Scriptum super libros sententiarum Magistri Petri Lombardi, bk 1, dist. III, q. 1, a. 4, ad. 1)

5. We’ll speak more about Justin on the Cross in a later post

6. Remember, Justin was eventually put on trial and executed (by a Stoic philosopher no less) due to his disputes with Crescens, a cynic.

The Weltbild of Justin Martyr, pt. 1

One of the earliest (surviving) apologetic writers of the early church, Justin Martyr was born to a pagan family in Samaria during the early second century. Seeking wisdom, he studied a variety of philosophical schools before becoming a variety of Middle Platonist–though he still retained principles from his training in Stoicism, Pythagoreanism, and the Peripatetic school–just as that philosophy was beginning to wane (to be supplanted largely by Neoplatonism, which retained much of Middle Platonism in a more systematic form and in more explicit dialogue with Christianity).

Not content with Platonism (we might see shades of Augustine here), he abandoned pagan philosophy for Christianity which he took to be the true, divine philosophy (more on his conversion to come). His spirited defenses of the faith and philosophical rabble-rousing appears to have made him a number of enemies, particularly among the Cynics. He mentions one of these, Crescens, as a particular adversary, and, likely at the instigation of Crescens, he was tried by the prefect of Rome and Stoic philosopher Rusticus sometime around 165 AD and was beheaded for his faith shortly thereafter.

I’ve always found Justin interesting, a window into a time period and a certain sort of philosophical Christianity that would shortly after be eclipsed as the Christian community grew and the aforementioned more synthesized philosophical schools gained ascendancy. Having recently completed a reread of his three extant works, the First and Second Apologies and the Dialogue with Trypho, I hope to spend a few posts exploring his worldview and theological outlook.

First up, demons!

The world, for Justin, is awash in spirits implacably opposed to Christ, and it is these demons who are responsible for the majority of the world’s ills and the most common pagan objections to Christianity. Indeed, paganism itself is a creation of demons:

For the truth shall be spoken; since of old these evil demons, effecting apparitions of themselves, both defiled women and corrupted boys, and showed such fearful sights to men, that those who did not use their reason in judging of the actions that were done, were struck with terror; and being carried away by fear, and not knowing that these were demons, they called them gods, and gave to each the name which each of the demons chose for himself.

Justin Martyr, First Apology

These demons are the product of angelic rebellion. Following the world’s creation, angels were given a supervisory role over the earth and humanity:

But the angels transgressed this appointment, and were captivated by love of women, and begat children who are those that are called demons; and besides, they afterwards subdued the human race to themselves, partly by magical writings, and partly by fears and the punishments they occasioned, and partly by teaching them to offer sacrifices, and incense, and libations, of which things they stood in need after they were enslaved by lustful passions; and among men they sowed murders, wars, adulteries, intemperate deeds, and all wickedness. Whence also the poets and mythologists, not knowing that it was the angels and those demons who had been begotten by them that did these things to men, and women, and cities, and nations, which they related, ascribed them to god himself, and to those who were accounted to be his very offspring, and to the offspring of those who were called his brothers, Neptune and Pluto, and to the children again of these their offspring. For whatever name each of the angels had given to himself and his children, by that name they called them.

First Apology

Note, by the way, the identification of God with Jupiter. Justin doesn’t dwell on it, and in that not-dwelling reveals what must be a more pervasive understanding of Jupiter’s nature that he is so easily identified with the God of Christianity. Worth keeping in mind when thinking about the conversion of the ancient world to Christianity.

Another interesting facet of the passage is Justin’s differentiation between rebel angels and demons, the latter being the offspring of derelict angels and human women. He’s obviously drawing on Genesis 6:1-4 here, the mysterious “nephilim” passage, and it signals a sort of hierarchical demonology that Justin does not fully articulate, but would be fascinating to explore further. Does the distinction neatly map on to the god/demi-god distinction or is there more complexity, matching the similarly bewildering complexity of Greco-Roman divine genealogies? What does he make of deified ancestors (and deified emperors for that matter)? Were they the offspring of demons or rebel angels? Or elevated to divine status due to demonic subversion? It’s not clear.

Also interesting is his claim that, having been enslaved by the passions, the angels and their offspring required libations and sacrifice. The idea appears to be, and this is reinforced elsewhere, that subjugation by the passions drags us down, towards the material, while subjugating the passions elevates us to the spiritual. This pull is so strong that it degrades even angelic nature to the degree that they require earthly sustenance (here we see the seeds of the ascetic ideal that the holy man does not require, or only requires the barest bit, of material goods to sustain himself).

While the birth of some demons was a mere consequence of lust, demons also mated with human women in order to anticipate and thus thwart Christ by making stories about him seem like fairy-tales.

For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were mere marvellous tales, like the things which were said by the poets.

First Apology

Justin doesn’t make this point, but I can imagine an argument that this imitation also signals the demons’ inability to truly create and the ultimate futility of their efforts to frustrate God’s purpose. For, he argues elsewhere, the stories about the sons of Jupiter, far from making Christian teachings about Christ ridiculous, accomplish precisely the opposite, demonstrating that Christians do not preach absurdity. More, demonic attempts to set up false Christs inevitably prefigure him and point to the superiority of Christ as one who embodies all the positive characteristics of these “sons of Jupiter” without their foibles.

Note also how the demons find out about Christ, from the prophets. In this hearing, they prove more perceptive than the Jews or any others not enlightened by faith, as Justin argues in the Dialogue with Trypho (the titular interlocutor is a Jew fleeing the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt). This ability to recognize Christ is also an echo of His recognition by demonic powers in the Gospels, cf. Matthew 8:28-34.

Against the demonic host are arrayed the forces of Reason. Notice that in the first passage quoted above, the fear engendered by demons, and consequently their worship, is due to a failure to rationally evaluate their claims. Elsewhere, he notes that reason allows us to overcome the moral confusion sown by evil forces. Appropriately for a philosopher who came to Christianity via rational investigation, for Justin it is the abdication of reason that grants the demonic a foothold in our minds and societies.

However, there is something deeper going on here. Reason is not a mere human faculty, but the continuous operation of the logos in creation. And the logos is, of course, Christ. This principle is central to Justin’s understanding of Christ, of history, of philosophy, and, indeed, all his thought as we shall explore. In the context of his demon-haunted world, it means that Christ has been perpetually opposed to and working against demons, through those committed to reason and the truth. Justin’s favorite example is Socrates, who he takes to be a sort of proto-Christian and proto-martyr:

And when Socrates endeavoured, by true reason and examination, to bring these things to light, and deliver men from the demons, then the demons themselves, by means of men who rejoiced in iniquity, compassed his death, as an atheist and a profane person, on the charge that “he was introducing new divinities;” and in our case they display a similar activity. For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemned by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ; and in obedience to Him, we not only deny that they who did such things as these are gods, but assert that they are wicked and impious demons, whose actions will not bear comparison with those even of men desirous of virtue.

First Apology

Socrates emerges as a type of Christ, murdered for his opposition to demonic powers, just as Christians in Justin’s time (and, of course, Justin himself) were being murdered, and leaving behind a legacy (albeit a corrupted one) oriented toward the coming of the incarnate logos and against the demonic.

Reason also allows us to overcome the moral confusion that demons engender:

And if one object that the laws of men are diverse, and say that with some, one thing is considered good, another evil, while with others what seemed bad to the former is esteemed good, and what seemed good is esteemed bad, let him listen to what we say to this. We know that the wicked angels appointed laws conformable to their own wickedness, in which the men who are like them delight; and the right Reason, when He came, proved that not all opinions nor all doctrines are good, but that some are evil, while others are good.

First Apology

Thus, the shape of the world is made clear: it is a battleground between good and evil, freedom and slavery, reason and the demons, who wage perpetual war against the partisans of the Incarnate Word. Against these forces we must remain vigilant, attached to Christ, and always wary of their deceptions:

For we forewarn you to be on your guard, lest those demons whom we have been accusing should deceive you, and quite divert you from reading and understanding what we say. For they strive to hold you their slaves and servants; and sometimes by appearances in dreams, and sometimes by magical impositions, they subdue all who make no strong opposing effort for their own salvation.

In the next post, we’ll look more closely at the operations of the logos in history and the purpose behind its incarnation.

A Theory on Mandeville

Preparations for my course on travel (still time to sign up!), led me to reread one of my favorite medieval works recently, Mandeville’s Travels.  The merits of the book are many. It’s wondrously imaginative, with all the sciapods, fountains of youth, and mighty Christian kings of the East that you could ask for, made all the more charming because it’s likely that Mandeville1 hadn’t traveled any further than his local monastery’s library.

Reading this time, I was struck by the question of why then did he write the book?  Why invent these travels?  Luckily, medieval authors are prone to explaining (even over-explaining) themselves, and Mandeville is no exception:2

And for as much as it is a long time past since there was any general passage over the sea into the Holy Land, and since men covet to hear that land spoken of, and divers countries thereabout, and have of that great pleasure and enjoyment…of these lands and isles I shall speak more plainly, and shall describe a part of those things that are there, when the time comes, according as they come to my mind, and specially for those who desire and intend to visit the holy city of Jerusalem and the holy places that are thereabout; and shall tell of the way that they shall go thither, for I have many times traveled and ridden over it in goodly company of lords.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, 44-5

What do we take from this?  I think it’s unlikely that Mandeville intended for his book to be a serious guide to the routes toward the Holy Land.  Any number of these already existed in his time period and, while he does give fairly concrete directions in the first part of the book (that part dealing with the Eastern Mediterranean world), that leaves the entire second part, his fantastical travels through Asia, unaccounted for.

Instead, I’d like to suggest that his purposes speak to the purposes of medieval travel writing more generally (and perhaps modern travel writing as well).  Medieval travel literature, particularly the literature of pilgrimage, can often dull us with its pedantic concern with how many paces wide a church is, how tall the altar of this shrine is to that shrine, and endless catalogs of relics.  But these passages serve a very specific purpose.  They’re their so that the reader can construct an imaginative landscape in their memory, so that they can continue to contemplate the place visited well after they have returned home, and even if they hadn’t traveled at all.  In a passage that I was pointed to by Shayne Legassie’s book on medieval travel, Elizabeth Bennet neatly describes the end goal of this sort of writing:

Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.”

Pride and Prejudice, Chap. 27

The point (or a point, at least) of travel writing, therefore, is to engender a recollection of the distant landscape as an object of contemplation.

Connecting back to Mandeville, what if we take his comments about the difficulty of travelling to the Holy Land (notably, they are preceded by a call for Crusade to re-open these routes) as not simply a statement of fact but also a lament.  Mandeville’s own ambitions to travel there thwarted, he turns to books, reading widely and constructing imaginative journeys therefrom.  As he notes, learning about the wonders of the world affords great pleasure (and he repeatedly invokes delight when describing these later in the book), and so he writes his book in order to impart the joy of these imaginative journeys to others.  He turns out to not be such a liar after all, for he had traveled to the east many times in the company of great lords, the great lords who wrote the accounts that delighted him so.  He traveled the landscape of memory, where he now sets out to take his readers on a journey of their own.

Very cool.

 

1. Who, incidentally, probably didn’t exist.
2. Of course, we can’t always trust these, for a myriad of reasons, but that doesn’t mean we ought to discount them, as too many scholars are willing to do, out of hand.

Something I Wish I Had Made Explicit in My Dissertation

I’m never particularly satisfied with anything I’ve written.  The end result never tallies with the original vision in my mind.  When I go back and read again, I find so many lapses, so much unexplained and implicit.  What was entirely clear to me as I wrote is now muddled and slow on the page.  Does the reader get any of it?  Have I failed?1

In particular, my dissertation suffered from a lack of an adequate conclusion.  Frankly, I was tired and scattered and up against a deadline, and I didn’t take the time to properly sum up the whole of my research.  Thus, there are a number of points that I wish had been made more emphatically throughout, and I want to emphasize one here.

First, a bit of background because apparently not everyone has read my dissertation (ridiculous, you should be ashamed).  The subject of that noble work was Honorius Augustodunensis, an extremely popular author of the early twelfth century.  Honorius is notable for all sorts of reasons–you often find him cited as an exemplar of this or that aspect of medieval thought or one of the first to utilize some soon-to-be-widespread literary technique–but there is little comprehensive study of his works.  In a large part this is because Honorius has been classified as a “popularizer,” someone writing for wide audiences whose work is essentially unsophisticated summaries of more important intellectual figures.  Except in one aspect, this is not necessarily an unfair categorization.  Indeed, it’s one he himself readily admits to.  He tells us he is writing for the unlearned, that his style is crude, and that nothing in his works is original, save the effort he expended putting everything together.2

But it’s that bit about being unsophisticated that rings false upon even a cursory examination of his work. It turns out that the effort spent assembling everything was actually quite considerable, and the more we look, the more sophisticated Honorius’s thought appears. His background theology is quite advanced, based on a complex synthesis of John Scottus Eriugena, a maddeningly difficult thinker of whom Honorius is perhaps the most devoted medieval student, Augustine, and Anselm. It’s hard to summarize huge swathes of Christian thought in concise, clear, and easily memorized package. Moreover, there’s a profound unity to both what Honorius writes and how he writes it. The very style of the work, all his unique literary techniques, are in line with his theological outlook. Therefore, the writing itself works to convey the same ideas as the words and to practically enact the ideal of salvific contemplative pedagogy that animates his whole authorial mission. Pretty neat stuff.

Now, the big take-away of all this that I wish I had emphasized more is that this exploring all this demonstrates something very important about medieval thought and about a mistake we often make when studying it. Namely, the dismissal of Honorius by modern scholars rests on a false dichotomy between popular and learned works, between simplicity of style and sophistication of thought. “Simple” is not opposed to “theological” (much less, as it’s sometimes cast to “orthodox”). In fact, if Honorius is any indication, medieval authors expend tremendous effort and marshal considerable literary sophistication to impart correct theology in a simple package, often in the style itself. The simplicity of popular works3 is itself an expression of the theology–the Bible, after all, is written in a simple style–as important as the content which it contains.

Also, since these works are the means by which the vast majority of people seem to have gotten their basic instruction and are read by essentially everyone who is able, it’s foolish to oppose them to the teachings of the Church, some abstract orthodoxy. These popular works were orthodoxy, they were how the Church taught, and we must not allow our biases against “the popular”4 to cause us to forget that.

1. I’ve thought about this issue a lot recently, both because of frustrations with my work and because in Augustine’s On the Catechism of the Unlearned I found that he had the same struggle.  Indeed, that short work was written precisely in response to this problem.  He notes that he struggles with it in every sermon he gives, in all that he writes, yet his conclusion is that we should not be so hard on ourselves.  Yes, our words, bound by time and our own deficiencies, can never truly match the understanding we hold of a subject.  Nevertheless, we also must recognize that the effect of these words, limited as they might be, on others still has the potential to cue in them something more, for understanding ultimately doesn’t derive from the words of other men but from above.   Good advice that should be taken to heart.  

2. The fact that these are all common rhetorical tropes that virtually every author of the Middle Ages makes use of should probably give us some pause here.

3. Which are very often written and read enthusiastically by the most well-educated and theologically astute men of their age, something we ignore all too often.

4. Or, as sometimes seem to be the case, against medieval beliefs/practices that have become unfashionable, gauche, to our modern “sophisticated” eyes.

Fruits of Enlightenment

Alternatively, A Response to Steven Pinker.

There has never been as society that was more civilized in the humanist sense than the French society of the Enlightenment, nor one more completely convinced of the powers of reason and science to solve all the problems of life and to create a completely rational culture, based on a firm foundation of science and philosophy. Yet when this society, as represented by Condorcet and his friends, had the opportunity to put their ideas into practice in the first years of the French Revolution, they failed disastrously and were themselves destroyed, almost to a man, by the eruption of the irrational forces that they had released. One of the writers of the emigration has described in a remarkable passage how he came to realize the fallacies of the rationalist ideology in a sudden flash of intuition one night as he was making the terrible march across the frozen Zuyder Zee with the defeated English army in 1796, and how all the illusions of the Enlightenment dropped away from him under the cold light of the winter stars

Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, 192

Thomas Browne

I was first introduced to Thomas Browne in one of my favorite books, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.  How could I not be intrigued by Sebald’s distillation of Browne’s thought?

What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. And because it is so, it befits our philosophy to be writ small, using the shorthand and contracted forms of transient Nature, which alone are a reflection of eternity.

W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, 19

And, indeed, Browne is an intriguing thinker, an eclectic sort of man, with an appreciation of nature near and dear to my own:

Thus there are two bookes from whence I collect my Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of his servant Nature, that universall and publik Manuscript, that lies expans’d unto the eyes of all; those that never saw him in the one, have discovered him in the other: This was the Scripture and Theology of the Heathens the naturall motion of the Sun made them more admire him, than its supernaturall station did the Children of Israel the ordinary effects of nature wrought more admiration in them, than in the other all his miracles; surely the Heathens knew better how to joyne and reade these mysticall letters, than wee Christians, who cast a more carelesse eye on these common Hieroglyphicks and disdain to suck Divinity from the flowers of nature.

Thomas Browne, Religio Medici19

Idiosyncratic spelling original.  Incidentally, Browne apparently invented the words electricity, medical, pathology, hallucination, and literary.  The list itself is an apt description of his works. More of Browne on nature:

I hold there is a general beauty in all the works of God, and therefore no deformity in any kind of species of creature whatsoever: I Cannot tell by what Logick we call a Toad, a Beare or an Elephant, ugly; they being crated in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes and having past with approbation that generall visitation of God, who saw that all that he had made was good, that is, conformable to his will, which abhors deformity, and is the rule of order and beauty. There is therefore no deformity but in monstrosity, wherein notwithstanding there is a kind of beauty, Nature so ingeniously contriving those irregular parts, as they become sometimes more remarkable than the principall Fabrick. To speake yet more narrowly, there was never anything ugly, or mis-shapen, but the Chaos; wherein not withstanding to speake strictly, there was no deformity, because no forme nor was it yet impregnate by the voyce of God: Now nature is not at variance with art, nor art with nature; they being both the servants of his providence; Art is the perfection of Nature; Were the world now as it was the sixt day, there were yet a Chaos: Nature hath made one world, and Art another. In briefe all things are artificall for Nature is the Art of God.

Religio Medici, 20

In Urne Buriall, perhaps a better showcase of his eclectic sensibilities than Religio Medici, he offers insight into the eternal struggle of the historian, enthralled by the fragments of the past, fighting a desperate and losing battle against the mists of forgetfulness:

Large are the treasures of oblivion, and heapes of things in a state next to nothing almost numberlesse  much more is buried in silence than is recorded, and the largest volumes are butt epitomes of what hath been.  The account of time beganne with night, and darnesse still attendeth it.  Some things never come to light; many have been delivered; butt more hath been swallowed in obscurity & the caverns of oblivion.

Browne, Urne Buriall, 141

The urns of the title were Roman funerary urns found in a field in England.  Browne marveled at how such fragile artifacts could be preserved yet undiscovered only a few feet below the surface, trod upon by who knows how many in the long centuries between their burial and discovery.  This discovery leads him to some truly wonderful prose and a near-bewildering survey of ancient funerary customs.  It culminates:

But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equall lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature.
Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us.

Browne, Urne Buriall, 137

I like Browne, I like the way his mind works, and I’m keen to explore further, particularly in The Garden of Cyrus, his companion piece to Urne Buriall, which (I’m told) is a discourse on the interaction of art and nature hinted at in the above quoted passage from Religio Medici.  Fun stuff.