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.

The Hollow Earth

The wonder of history lies in the fact that it is only available to us in fragments, tantalizing scraps that glimmer amidst the obscurity of the past.  Take, for example, this brief mention found in the letter of Pope Zachary to Boniface, the indomitable English missionary and destroyer of pagan oaks. For Boniface, the greatest threat to his mission were not the defenders of said oaks but wicked priests.  He is eternally complaining, prosecuting, and excommunicating these imperillers of his flock, typically for the mundane sins of adultery, murder, and failing to recognize that being a Christian priest requires one to stop being a pagan.  Yet, there are also unique cases, such as that of Virgilius, who (apparently) attempted to usurp one of the dioceses under Boniface’s care and, moreover, taught a “false and sinful doctrine” that “there is below this earth another world and other men, and also a sun and a moon.”1

Was Virgilius merely guilty of teaching that there were men living in the antipodes?2  The mention of another sun and moon seems to belie this.  Perhaps then he was a preacher of the Hollow Earth?  He was Irish after all, and the Irish had a rich tradition of a subterranean otherworld, the dwelling-place of the sídhe–fairies.  The Germans also had a tradition of underworld spirits, and we can easily imagine an Irish preacher appealing to this tradition as a piece of common ground, “now we all know about the fairies underground, don’t we?”  Or maybe it was both, the antipodes made accessible through the subterranean paths of the sídhe, a syncretic blend of cutting-edge medieval geography and Hiberno-German mythology?  (This last is obviously the best and most likely scenario).  In any case, Virgilius was apparently acquitted of teaching this pernicious doctrine–guilt would have necessitated his expulsion from the Church, Zachary tells us–and later became bishop of Salzburg and a saint in his own right.  I like to think this acquittal was not the result of him renouncing his belief or of Boniface misrepresenting his teaching, but rather canniness on the part of the Irish bishop, who remained dedicated to his belief in another world lying below our own, to subterranean paths that led to the far side of the earth, with other men and another sun, lurking in the caves of Thuringia.


1. Letter LXIV in the Emerton translation.
2. An issue because it was widely believed that the antipodes were inaccessible, thus making the Gospel command to preach to the whole world impossible.

A Mysterious Fellow

Herodotus is full of wonderful things.

Aristeas, they say, was in lineage the equal or superior of any citizen in his town.  One day he entered a fuller’s shop in Proconnesus and died there, so the fuller locked up his workshop and went to announce to Aristeas’ relatives that he had died.  The news of his death spread quickly throughout the city, but a man of Cyzicus objected.  he had just come from the city of Artace  and he claimed to have just met and talked with Aristeas, who was on his way to Cyzicus.  So he vehemently denied that Aristeas was dead.  Meanwhile, the relatives of Aristeas went for his body at the fuller’s shop bringing along what they needed to take up the corpse for burial.  But when the place was opened, Aristeas was nowhere to be seen, dead or alive.  Seven years later, he appeared in Proconnesus, composed the verses that the Hellenes now call the Arimaspea, and, after he had finished them, disappeared a second time.
(Herodotus, Histories 4.14)

The Arimaspea  detailed Aristeas’s travels in the far north among the cannibal Issedones, who tell him of the the one-eyed titular Arimaspi, locked in perpetual battle with the gold-guarding griffins, and the Hyberboreans, living with Apollo beyond the beyond.  (As an aside, Herodotus also teaches us about Abaris the Hyberborean, who traveled with an arrow and ate no food.)  Only two fragments of the poem remain, the more notable of which is quoted by Longinus:

A marvel exceeding great is this withal to my soul—
Men dwell on the water afar from the land, where deep seas roll.
Wretches are they, for they reap but a harvest of travail and pain,
Their eyes on the stars ever dwell, while their hearts abide in the main.
Often, I ween, to the Gods are their hands upraised on high,
And with hearts in misery heavenward-lifted in prayer do they cry.
(On the Sublime, 10) 

What a fascinating character.

Mission to Asia

One of my great frustrations is that the very thing which draws me to a subject is the degree to which it outstrips the ability of my words, and even conceptions, to describe it.  It’s the space beyond the edges of the text that fascinates me.  Those things of which we only catch glimpses, brief tantalizing hints of an impossible to reach whole, and like Augustine with time, I’m fine as long as no one asks me to explain.  Hence my attraction to the dim forgotten corners of history, the dark ages, to the aporia of Plato, and, relevant to the topic of this post, to travel narratives.

These narratives by their very nature are only fragments, scattered impressions of a world necessarily alien to both author and reader.  Somewhere beyond the words of a travel narrative is the memory of place and time which is irrevocably lost, faded.  W.G. Sebald’s use of scattered, haunting photographs in his writings is the greatest expression of this that I’ve encountered thus far.

The world, central Asia in the wake of the Mongol conquests, of Christopher Dawson’s collection Mission to Asia is fascinating in its incomprehensibility.  The most famous and detailed account within is William of  Rubruck’s, whose words imbue me with a strange sense of tragedy.  William was sent by the king of France, the future St. Louis, to meet with Sartach, the future ruler of the Golden Horde and rumored to be a Christian.  The expedition is a failure from the outset.  Sartach is no Christian. William’s missionary efforts are in vain.  The Great Khan wants no alliance. This failure infuses William’s writing with sadness and wasted opportunity, a sense that the cliffs of despair are not far distant, warded off only by a sliver of desperate hope.

There’s disappointment not only for William, but me as well, as William offers a rather prosaic explanation for the wondrous stories of Prester John:

In a certain plain among these pasture lands was a Nestorian, a mighty shepher and lord of all the people called Naimans, who were Nestorian Christians.  On the death of Coir Chan, this Nestorian set himself up as a king and the Nestorians called him King John, and they used to tell of him ten times more than the truth.  For the Nesotorians coming from these parts do this kind of thing-out of nothing they make a great rumor.  This accounts for their spreading the story that Sartach was a Christian, also Mangu Chan and Keu Chan, just because they pay a greater respect to Christians than to other people.  And yet the truth is they are not Christians. So in the same way the great tale of this King John went abroad.  Now I passed through his pasture lands and nobody knew anything about him with the exception of a few Nestorians.  (122)

Years ago it was Prester John, first encountered in Hanover Public Library’s copy of Baudolino which I checked out between re-readings of books about sea monsters and ravishings of the science fiction section,  that kindled my interest in the Middle Ages. William’s account seems all too plausible, all too tawdry and dull (but how could it be otherwise?).  A far cry from:

XIII.—In our palace we eat once a day; each day thirty thousand men eat at our board, besides the guests that come and go. And these all receive their charges from our palace, both in horses and other things also. That table is made of precious stone called smaragdns, and it is supported by two pillars of amethyst. The virtue of this stone is that it suffers no one to get drunk so long as he sits thereon. Before the doorposts of our hall, near where the combatants are, there is a watch-tower of great height, and thereto one climbs by one hundred and twenty-five steps; and these steps, some of them are made of porphyry, blended with the blood of serpents, and alabaster ointment. The third part at the bottom of these is made of crystal, and jasper, and sardooyx, and another part, at the top, is of amethyst, and amber, and jasper, and sardonyx, and panthera. This watch-tower is supported by one pillar, and on this there is a base, that is, some stone-work so called, and on this base two columns, that is to say, arms; and on these there is a base, and on this four columns, and again a base, and on this sixteen arms; and so the work proceeds, until the number thirty-four is reached, and then the number of the bases lessens, and the columns, until they come to one, and that by ascending upwards, as they increased before, ascending to thirty-four.

XIV.—Now the columns and bases are of the same kind of precious stone as the steps through which men ascend. On the summit of the highest there is a watch-tower placed by some graceful skill, so that no one in the various kinds of laud subject to us can work any fraud, or treachery, or dissensions against us whatever, nor those among us, without it being clearly seen from that watch-tower, and without its being recognised who they are, or what they do. There are three thousand men of arms ever guarding this watch-tower night and day, lest by chance it be broken or overthrown to the ground.

XV.—Each month in the year seven kings serve me, each one of them in his order, and forty-two princes, and three hundred and fifty-six earls. That number is always at our board, without those placed in the various duties in our palace. At our board there eat each day, on the right twelve archbishops, and on my left hand twenty bishops, and the patriarch from the place where is the grave of the Apostle Thomas and he that is in place of a pope. (The Letter of Prester John)

William’s own sadness can, I think, be witnessed most acutely in one of the few moments when his traveling companions express interest in his faith.  He has neither the time nor the resources to truly instruct them, and in lieu of books:

I will teach you a word which you will bear in your hearts, by means of which both your souls and your bodies will be saved for eternity.”  But whenever I wanted to instruct them my interpreter let me down.  However, I wrote out the “Credo in Deum” and the “Pater noster”, saying, “Here is written down what a man ought to believe about God and a prayer in which petition is made to God for everything which is necessary for man; therefore firmly believe what is written here although you cannot understand it and ask of God that He will do to you what is contained in the prayer written here, which He Himself taught His friends with His own lips; and I trust that He will save you.  I could do no other, for to speak words of doctrine through such an interpreter was dangerous; nay, it was impossible, for he did not know the words. (146-7)

That line “I trust that He will save you” expresses a desperate hope that even in this desolate, alien country, even with the faith reduced to incomprehensible, quasi-magical formulae, William’s mission might not be in vain.*

William’s efforts are plagued not merely by the difficulties of travel, hostile Nestorians, and inept translators.  These he might have dealt with.  It’s the overwhelming apathy that plagues him the most, that seems to slowly wear him down towards despair.  Not a rejection of what he teaches but far worse, indifference.  We see this in his famous account of a debate between Buddhists, Muslims, Nestorians, and himself, arranged by the Great Khan.

I then gave a place to them [the Nestorians] and when they wanted to dispute with the Saracens the latter replied: “We grant that your faith is true and that whatever is in the Gospel is true, therefore we do not wish to argue on any point with you.”  They admitted that in all their prayers they beseech God that they may die a Christian death.

There was an old man there, a priest of the sect of the Uigurs, who say there is one God and yet make idols, and the Nestorians spoke a great deal with him, giving him an account of everything from the coming of Christ to the Judgment, and also by means of comparisons explaining the Trinity to him and the Saracens.  They all listened without a word of contradiction, yet not one of them said, “I believe, I wish to become a Christian.”

When this was finished the Nestorians and Saracens alike sang loudly while the tuins [Buddhists] kept silence, and afterwards they all drank their fill. (193-4)

Christianity is tolerated in this world, even favored.  It’s a nice thing, maybe the nicest thing, but it is ultimately just one thing among many, not worthy of serious commitment.

There’s something else lurking in William’s final moments at the court though, perhaps another fragment of hope mixed with desperation shining through in his final audience with the Great Khan who, William tells us, is quite drunk at the time.

When he had said this I asked his leave to say a few words.  “You may speak,” he answered.  Then I said: “My Lord, we are not warlike men, we would like to see those holding dominion over the world who would govern it most justly according to the will of God.  Our duty is to teach mean to live according to the will of God; for this reason did we come to these parts and we would gladly have remained here if you had allowed it.  Since it is your good pleasure that we return, it must needs be I will go back and carry your letter to the best of my ability in accordance with your commands.  I would like to ask of your Eminence that, when I have taken your letter, I may be granted your permission to return to you, especially as you have some poor serfs at Bolac who speak our language and need a priest to teach them and their children their faith, and I would gladly abide with them.”  He replied, “Provided your masters send you back to me.”  I then said: “My Lord, I do not know what my masters have in mind, but I have permission from them to go wherever I will, where there is need to preach the word of God; and it seems to me that it is most necessary in these parts, therefore whether he send back an envoy to you or not, given your permission I would return.”

He kept silent and sat for a long time as if turning things over in his mind, and the interpreter told me not to speak any more.  However, I anxiously awaited his reply.  At last he spoke: “You have a long journey ahead of you, fortify yourself with food so that you may be strong enough to reach your own country.”  And he had given me something to drink.  I then left his presence, and never afterwards returned.  If I had had the power of working miracles like Moses, he might have humbled himself.  (196-7)

Though maybe I read too much into this, I can picture it all, better than any other scene in William’s narrative.  Somehow it’s the Khan’s drunkenness that makes it so real, that gives it the sense of a moment on the precipice, a chance not quite seized.  And that last line, if only.

Finally, and on a somewhat different note, there’s an off-handed comment by William that I found intriguing.  He advocates for the reconquest of the formerly Byzantine lands (Turkey) which he passes through on the way home.  He’s convinced it could be accomplished easily, for

I can inform you that not one man in ten there is a Saracen; rather are they all Armenians and Greeks and the power is in the hands of boys. (219)

A different picture than I expected, indeed the whole of the lands through which William, and the others in the collection whom I have unjustly neglected, journeyed is unexpected and strange, leaving only the barest sketches in my memory.  That’s what makes it a joy to read, to explore.



*Compare John of Monte Corvino, perhaps the most remarkable character in Mission to Asia, doggedly baptizing thousands in China with no support, no companions save a few Italian merchants.  I am thoroughly impressed by John.  He seems to have been an amazing man.