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.

2018 in Books

Prior entries: 2015, 2016, 2017

An annual tradition. This year, I continuously told myself that I wouldn’t buy new books until I’d dramatically reduced my to-read list. I half-listened, getting the list to under a hundred for the first time in living memory. It (coupled with me figuring out how to check out books digitally from the Chicago Public Library) also resulted in me reading a lot more Kindle books than normal, fully 37% of the 162 books I read this year were on the Kindle. In all, I read considerably more than I’d expected. Not having the weight of a dissertation looming over me at every instant turned out to have a salutary effect, who would have guessed?

Here’s the fancy chart

Genre

Science Fiction absolutely dominated the genre count, with more than double the entries of any other genre. Action-packed, easy Sci-Fi tends to be my go-to when I’m in need of a brain break, and this year I apparently required a couple (plus discovered a few enjoyable new series). In second was Academic books. I read 20. Fiction, with 18, then Crime (I don’t know why I differentiated this from fiction more broadly, probably because I read a lot of Elmore Leonard) and Poetry, both 10, round out the top 5.

Authors

E.C. Tubb, who led the list in both 2016 and 2017 thanks to his Dumarest series, falls to 5th this year, as I get closer to the end of said series. I probably should have just powered through and finished the last few books, but I’m drawing them out in lieu of having a replacement. Elmore Leonard was, somewhat inexplicably (given that I often find him oddly unsatisfying), the author I read the most last year, with 10 books. He’s followed by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach, authors of a military sci-fi series I enjoyed, with 9, then Gene Wolfe (8), and Jack Campbell (6).

I realize that, of these authors, the only one who I’d consider a true favorite is Wolfe and that I only sort of liked the Campbell and Leonard books. This seems to be a deficiency in my reading habits, or maybe just a comment on the quality of breezy books that I can consume in a weekend.

Notable Books

On to the real meat of the post, books that I found especially memorable and would recommend to others. As always, a blend of newly encountered works and re-reads, though less of the latter than in past years.

Looking over my list this year, I realize I need to make some changes to how I record these books. Typically, I mark a book as notable in the immediate aftermath of finishing it. This method leads to some obvious problems, namely books whose quality is only apparent after a certain amount of digestion, the ones that I find coming to mind over and over months after I’ve finished them, and books that touched me in the moment but which I can barely remember when I find them in this list. There is also the category of books that I found particularly useful but did not touch me in the manner of those marked as notable. Good academic books, useful guides, etc. typically fall into this category. Finally, there are clusters of books that affected me deeply during the year, but contain no single book that I thought particularly excellent (for example, Lewis-Stempel’s Running Hare and Logsdon’s Contrary Farmer [among others] shaped how I thought this year, but neither book makes the final list). Perhaps this is just a call to write more about these books as they come, rather than endlessly promising myself I will write and failing to do so.

Rereads

Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald – One of my all-time favorites, which also made the list in 2016. Here’s what I wrote then:

A wonderful, melancholy rumination on memory and loss.  Whenever I read it, I have a sense that there’s something momentous looming just behind the words, something that I just can’t grasp.  One day, I’ll be able to say more, but I’ll probably have to reread it another three times before that day comes.

Only two more reads to go. I’ll add that if I ever wrote seriously, I would like to write like Sebald. I’ve posted about him at least twice.

The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges – Another favorite, which made the list in 2016 and 2015. Again I’ll quote from past entries:

Years ago, I read a blog post about “Companion Books”, books that truly count, that nourish your inner being and shape you.  I’ve come to realize I have a number of these, perhaps too many, and Sertillanges’s masterpiece is one of them.  His portrait of the intellectual life is what I aspire to and yet fall short of far too often.

If I were to recommend a single book to anyone pursuing intellectual pursuits, it would be this one (given the course of my academic career, perhaps this is a mark against the book). Posts on Sertillanges.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor – I taught this book in a class on faith during the Fall and realized with joy as I re-read it just how excellent it was. A grotesque (one is contractually obligated to use this word to describe O’Connor’s writing), comic, terrifying, and wonderful exploration of religious faith and grace in a world that all too often seems denuded of the same. Two years ago I posted my favorite quote, here.

Also, since we’re speaking of books I taught and which you ought to read, Augustine’s Confessions and the Iliad are two of the most wonderful things ever written. Read them.

Shadow and Claw, Sword and Citadel, and the Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe – I’ve long cited these books, and Gene Wolfe more generally, as the best that science fiction has to offer, and this summer I re-read the whole of his 10 book Solar Cycle. If anything, this read has convinced me that I’ve underplayed just how excellent these books actually are. The story of a torturer who becomes a king and, more importantly, the savior and destroyer of the world, it is endlessly profound and contains some of the greatest world-building in literature. The whole (loosely-connected) cycle is worth reading. I’ve come to like the Long Sun portion less and gained much greater appreciation for the three Short Sun books this time around. Though none of these were my favorite book of the year (see below), I do think that Gene Wolfe takes home the coveted Author of the Year award (title previously held by Patrick Fermor, Solzhenitsyn, and Jane Austen).

New Books

John Muir: Spirtual Writings – I had no idea that John Muir was such a deeply religious thinker, and I found this selection of his writings that directly touched on the subject invigorating, a spur to future reading (as yet, sadly, not completed). I’m guessing that, upon doing that reading, I will recommend reading those actual books, rather than this collection, but in the interim, it will do. I’ve also posted some selections here.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway – A few years ago, I got it into my head that I really enjoyed short stories, and this conviction led me to purchase the complete short stories of 4 authors that I particularly enjoyed at the time: Flanney O’Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Hemingway. These purchases were quickly followed by the realization that I’m not that into short stories, particularly in collections of 80 or so. Thus, to date, I’ve only finished the O’Connor and Hemingway.

That said, Hemingway is one of the greatest short story writers in history, and this collection contains any number of truly excellent pieces, well worth your time and better, I think, than any of his novels.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi – A book that I didn’t find especially excellent at the time, but which has stuck with me. It chronicles Teffi’s escape from the ever rising Bolshevik tide alongside a cast of creative types, all struggling, often comically, their mode of living amidst the chaos. I think what I most appreciated was her tone. She’s a very good writer and conveys a indelible impression of her experiences.

Religio Medici & Urne Buriall by Thomas Browne – Two curious little books, that I wrote about at greater length in February. Originally recommended to me by Sebald, Browne writes on memory and history, nature and God, all subjects close to my heart. As I mention in the linked post, I hope to read his entire corpus and perhaps undertake a project on the man sometime in the vague future.

The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas – A classic of rip-roaring revenge and adventure, I’m not sure what I can say beyond the fact that there’s a reason why it’s been designated as such.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold – A landmark work of environmental literature describing Leopold’s life and work on a farm in Wisconsin. I wrote about it’s strengths and weaknesses in an earlier post. If you’re interested in the environment at all, it really behooves you to read this, Muir, and so on, the founders. Modern writings in the field are often mere shadows of these originals.

The Art of Living Well by Dietrich von Hildebrand – One of the best treatises on virtue I’ve ever read and a concise introduction to a legitimate claimant to the title of greatest theologian of the 20th century. A good companion book to Josef Pieper’s writings, which I have written about quite a bit and recommended a number of times. Like many on this list, I’ve written on/quoted the book already .

Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by François-René de Chateaubriand – My favorite book of 2018, the memoirs of the French writer, politician, diplomat, and historian who is probably most famous today for having a cut of steak named after him (also, for being one of the founders of Romanticism). This volume covers the years up to 1800, thus we see
Chateaubriand’s childhood, the turmoils of revolution, and his trip to America. It’s really excellent. He’s a beautiful writer and a fascinating individual, completely engrossing. A shame that the remaining thirty books of his memoirs are far more difficult to find. If my praise doesn’t convince you, perhaps some selections from his writings will?

Emma and Mansfield Park by Jane Austen –  Rounding out the catalog of my favorite author of last year (who is now firmly established among my all time favorites), I read these two early in the year. Emma is, after Pride and Prejudice, my favorite of Austen’s books, a true delight. I’ll quote my praise from last year:

Austen is wonderful, hilarious, and brilliant.  Her books fly by, the characters are marvelous, and I cannot stress enough how fantastically humorous, while at the same time profound (Austen is a terrific moral philosopher) they are…. I cannot rave enough about how much I loved these books.

Also, I’ll plug Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues by Sarah Emsley, which very nicely distills the fantastic moral reasoning of Austen’s novels. A great companion to a serious read-through.

The Oxford Book of English Verse – In my never-ending quest to appreciate poetry at greater length, I picked up this collection (on the indirect recommendation of Patrick Fermor) and waded through it in scraps of time for much of 2017 and 2018. The majority of the poems that I’ve been posting on Mondays for the past few months have come from this book, and it strikes my fairly uncultured eye as an excellent compilation and introduction to the world of poetry.

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr – I struggle to write about this book. What makes it special is not the plot, which is slight, or the characters I barely remember, but an impression it creates, an evocation of times and love lost, of fragile happiness fading into memory, that marked me deeply in a way I didn’t expect at all in the immediate wake of finishing the novel. It’s a beautiful little book. I need to read it again very soon.

In Parenthesis by David Jones – I’ve written before of my distaste for modern poetry, yet T.S. Eliot made my list in 2017 and this shattering work chronicling Jones’s experiences in World War I makes this list this year. Bizarre and jarring, his words convey the visceral feel the violence and fragmentation of war.

Roman Lives by Plutarch – I always feel a little silly recommending books that have been widely considered classics for centuries, but this was my first exposure to Plutarch and it immediately inspired me to pick up the complete set of parallel lives. If you’re interested at all in biography, history, literature, or just being barely educated by the standards of previous generations, you should read some Plutarch.

The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz – A chilling and perceptive exploration of the effects of totalitarianism on the artistic and intellectual mind. I found it deeply insightful (not to mention relevant) and wrote a number of posts drawing out Milosz’s ideas. In these, I barely scratched the surface, so it’s worth picking up the book if they piqued your interest at all.

The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovannino Guareschi – I think I expressed why I enjoyed this collection so much well in a previous post:

Giovannino Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories are delightful little tales set in the “little world” of an Italian town in the Po valley in the years immediately after World War II.  What makes them wonderful is their pure humanity, the sheer warmth of the oft-contentious between Don Camillo, his eternal rival, the communist mayor Peppone, and the surprisingly loquacious crucifix which hangs in Don Camillo’s church.  I very much recommend the stories.

Reading brings us many things, one of the most important of these is joy. Each of these books, in their own way, brought me joy and I hope that they can bring you the same. Read more!

Progress in the Little World

Giovannino Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories are delightful little tales set in the “little world” of an Italian town in the Po valley in the years immediately after World War II.  What makes them wonderful is their pure humanity, the sheer warmth of the oft-contentious between Don Camillo, his eternal rival, the communist mayor Peppone, and the surprisingly loquacious crucifix which hangs in Don Camillo’s church.  I very much recommend the stories.

The following quotes don’t truly give a picture of this sense I’m describing, but they were my favorites, spoken by Jesus to Don Camillo (taken from the Kindle edition, so I have no page numbers to offer you).  First on the perils of progress:

They search desperately for justice on earth because they no longer have faith in divine justice, and just as desperately go after worldly goods because they have no faith in the recompense to come. They only believe in what they can touch and see….It is a body of ideas – a culture – that leads to ignorance, because when a culture is not supported by faith, there comes a point where man sees only the mathematics of things. And the harmony of this mathematics becomes his God, and he forgets that it is God who created this mathematics and this harmony.

Rustic Philosophy, The Little World of Don Camillo

Reading them again, I realize the ideas they express are rather Chestertonian.  Indeed, the whole little world of Don Camillo is the sort of place you’d feel Chesterton would enjoy, maybe that’s why I liked it so much.

Christ’s ultimately optimistic take on the effects of this progress:

Progress makes man’s world ever smaller: one day, when cars run at 100 miles a minute, the world will seem microscopic to men, and then mankind will find itself like a sparrow on the pommel of a flagpole and will present itself to the infinite, and in the infinite it will rediscover God and faith in the true life. And mankind will hate the machines which have reduced the world to a handful of numbers and it will destroy them with its own hands. But all this will take time, Don Camillo. So do not worry, your bicycle and your scooter are in no danger for now.’

Rustic Philosophy, The Little World of Don Camillo

War

A deaf and dumb German girl, named Libbe or Libba, had grown fond of my cousin Armand and had followed him. I found her sitting on the grass, which had bloodied her dress: her elbows were propped on her folded and upraised knees; her hand, tangled in her thin blond hair, supported her head. She was crying, staring at three or four dead men, new conscripts in the ranks of the deaf and the dumb, around her. She had never heard the thunderclaps whose effect she beheld or the sighs that escaped her lips whenever she looked at Armand. Sh had never heard the voice of the man she loved, nor would she hear the first cry of the baby she was carrying in her womb. If the grave held only silence, she would have gone down to it without knowing.
But the fields of carnage are everywhere; at Pere Lachaise, in Paris, twenty-seven thousand tombs and two hundred and thirty thousand bodies tell you of the battle that death wages day and night at your door.

Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1768-1800, 401

Observations of America

In sum, the United States give the impression of being a colony, not a mother country: they have no past, and their mores are not a result of their laws. The citizens of the New World took their place among the nations at a moment when political ideas were in the ascendant, and this explains how they transformed themselves with such unusual rapidity. Anything resembling a permanent society appears to be impracticable among them. On one hand, this is due to the extreme ennui of its individual citizens; on the other, to the impossibility of remaining in place and the need for motion that dominates their lives: for man is never truly settled when the household gods are wanderers. Placed upon the ocean roads, at the forefront of progressive opinions as new as his country, the American seems to have inherited from Columbus the mission to discover new worlds rather than create them.

Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1768-1800, 339

What happens (happened) when we reach the sea and weep, for there are no more lands to discover?

The Church of Reason and Liberty

The pictures, the sculpted and painted images, the veils, and the curtains of the monastery had been pulled down. The basilica, gutted, was now nothing but bones and shredded sinew. In the apse of the church, where the wind and the rain poured in through the broken panes of the rose-windows, a carpenter’s workbench served as the President’s station whenever the tribunal was in session. The red caps were left on this bench, to be donned by each orator in turn before he mounted the rostrum: this rostrum consisted of four small beams nailed crosswise, with a plank laid across this X as on a scaffold. Behind the President, beside a statue of Liberty, one saw the old, so-called instruments of justice–those instruments that would be supplanted by a single, bloody machine, as complicated mechanisms have been replaced by the hydraulic ram. The Club des Jacobins, once it had been “purified,” borrowed a few of these arrangements from the Club des Cordeliers.
The orators, assembled for the sake of destruction, agreed neither on the leaders to be chosen nor the means to be employed. They accosted each other like beggars, crooks, pickpockets, thieves, and murderers, to the cacophony of whistles and shouts that came from their various diabolical groups. Their metaphors were taken from the material of murder, borrowed from the filthiest objects to be found on the garbage heap and the dunghill, or drawn from places dedicated to the prostitution of men and women alike. Gestures accentuated these figures of speech, and everything was called by its name, with the cynicism of dogs, in an impious and obscene series of oaths and blasphemies. Nothing could be gleaned from this savage argot but the stuff of destruction and production, death and generation. All the speechifyiers, no matter how reedy or thunderous their voices, were disrupted by creatures other than their opponents: small black owls, who inhabited the belfry without bells in this monkless monastery, swooped through the broken windows in search of quarry. At first the birds were called to order by the tintinnabulation of a useless bell; but when they did not cease their screeching, they were silenced by rifle fire, and fell, quivering, wounded and fatidic, in the midst of this Pandemonium. The fallen ceiling beams, the broken benches, the dismantled stalls, and the shards of saints that had been rolled and pushed against the walls, formed terraces on which spectators squatted, caked in mud and dust, sweaty and drunk, wearing threadworn carmagnoles, with pikes on their shoulders, or with their bare arms crossed.
The most misshapen of this gang were the preferred speakers. All the infirmities of soul and body have played their part in our troubles: disappointed self-love has made some great revolutionaries. (360-1)

Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1768-1800, 360-1

Hanover Tigers, Memory, and Place

Eternally trying to post more and to allow myself to post more scattered thoughts and fragments.  Thus, a small note from Ritter’s fanastic The Glory of Their Times.  For those who’ve forgotten, the book is an oral history of baseball at the turn of the century and, in my opinion, the best thing written on the sport.

Reading Tommy Leach’s1 story, I was very surprised to run into a mention of my hometown and its short-lived professional baseball team:

I still remember in 1896 when I was playing semipro ball with Hanover, Pennsylvania, in the Cumberland Valley League.  I couldn’t hit a lick on earth.  One day I struck out four straight times.  Some fellow got a piece of wood about half a foot wide and four or five feet long from someplace–that’s when they used to have those rail fences–and when I came up for the fifth time he presented it to me at home plate.  I didn’t even have enough sense to laugh.

The Glory of Their Times, 24

Before reading, I had no idea Hanover once had a minor league team, much less, as I was to find out, that it had two of them: the short-lived Tigers of 18962 and the Hanover Raiders, a D-Level Minor League team that lasted from 1915-1930.

It’s sad that the memory of these teams has faded from the consciousness of the town.3  A place without memory is no place at all, for it is only memory that separates place from wilderness.  I fear too many places today have become barren and empty, bereft of history, without stories.

Medieval writers understood the importance of memory to place very well. We can see this fact in, to name one of many examples, Gerald of Wales’s Journey Through Wales.  Gerald is practically bursting at the seams to tell us every local legend, every odd geological, zoological, and botanical tidbit he comes across on his travels.  As he writes,

This little work is like a highly polished mirror.  In it I have portrayed the pathless places which we trod, named each mountain torrent and each purling spring, recorded the witty things we said, set down the hazards of our journey and our various travails, included an account of such noteworthy events as occurred in those parts, some in our times, others long ago, with much natural description and remarkable excursions into natural history, adding at the end a word-picture of the country itself.

Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales, 70

Wales comes to life not in his descriptions of the land–or rather not only in them, a number of these are rather evocative and beautiful–but in the memory passed down to him and on to us in his writing.  A mirror, the book reflects reality, a reality that includes witty remarks and noteworthy events, just as much a part of the landscape as the woods and waters.  The work’s fundamental purpose is to commemorate Wales in all its thickness, and it’s in this commemoration that the place, any place, truly exists.

 

1. Fun fact, Leach led the NL in home runs in 1902, hitting a staggering 6 home runs, all of them inside-the-park.
2. According to baseball reference, Leach was actually fourth on the team in total hits, though I suspect his average was not particularly high considering he garnered only 26 in 37 games. The Tigers do not appear to have been an offensive juggernaut.
3. Thought I must mention that a local author has written a history of the Raiders and maintains a modest, charming website with some photos and information on the team.

Against Flatness in Baseball

Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times is the greatest book on baseball ever written.  It’s an oral history of the game at the turn of the century, and it’s utterly charming.  The love of the game, the sheer fun of playing shines through on almost every page.

The game was more colorful then, chaotic and raw, and it feels right.  The modern world has a tendency to flatten everything, to make us into cardboard cutouts and in this book you can see what was lost, the fun and adventure of it all.

The players themselves noticed the change, and even properly diagnosed (at least in part) the cause.  Here’s Davy Jones, who played in the outfield alongside Ty Cobb and Wahoo Crawford:

I was playing in the Big Leagues in 1901, when Mr. William McKinley was President, and baseball attracted all sorts of people in those days.  We had stupid guys, smart guys, tough guys, mild guys, crazy guys, college men, slickers form the city, and hicks from the country.  And back then a country kid was likely to really be a country kid.  We’d call them hayseeds or rubes.  Nowadays I don’t think there’s much difference between city kids and country kids.  Anyway, nothing like there used to be.

Back at the turn of the century, you know, we didn’t have the mass communication and mass transportation that exists nowadays.  We didn’t have as much schooling, either.  As a result, people were more unique then, more unusual, more different from each other.  Now people are all more or less alike, company men, security minded, conformity–that sort of stuff.  In everything, not just baseball.

The Glory of Their Times, 35

Losing our distinctiveness, becoming flat, is a great tragedy.  We need to turn away from the mass-produced, the all-encompassing, and back to the local, the slow, the weird.  Leisure, true leisure, and play are key to that turning.  We should start right now.

Of Angels and Motes

Every once in awhile you read something that makes everything click into place, a puzzle long scattered in your mind comes together all at once.1 A passage from Tolkien recently set this clicking together in motion, on the subject of the angels:

I had not long ago when spending half an hour in St Gregory’s before the Blessed Sacrament when the Quarant’ Ore was being held there. I perceived or thought of the Light of God and in it suspended one small mote (or millions of motes to only one of which was my small mind directed), glittering white because of the individual ray from the Light which both held and lit it. (Not that there were individual rays issuing from the Light, but the mere existence of the mote and its position in relation to the Light was in itself a line, and the line was Light). And the ray was the Guardian Angel of the mote: not a thing interposed between God and the creature, but God’s very attention itself, personalized. And I do not mean “personified,” by a mere figure of speech according to the tendencies of human language, but a real (finite) person.

Letter 89, To Christopher Tolkien

The love of God is a person.  It’s a stunning insight, one flowing naturally from the reality of God as three-in-one.2  Love, the highest name of God, must have an object, and the love of God, as the most perfect instance of love (indeed, to call it an instance is essentially a confusion, for all love simply is participation in the Love that is the inner life of the Trinity) must have an object appropriate to the lover.  Thus the lover, the Father, is a divine person.  The beloved, the Son, a divine person infinite and equal to the Father as befits the perfect object of the Father’s love, and the love of the Father and the Son is itself a person, the Spirit.3

But what about the love of God for lesser, finite things?  This too, Tolkien notes, is a person:

As the love of the Father and Son (who are infinite and equal) is a Person, so the love and attention of the Light to the Mote is a person (that is both with us and in Heaven): finite but divine: i.e. angelic.

Letter 89

In other words, angels are the love of God for the distinct aspects of creation.  Staggering in itself, there are a few implications that are worth noting:

    1. Your guardian angel is God’s love for you, so perfect as to be a divine, albeit finite, person.
    2. Every single bit of creation from the smallest mote to the biggest stars has an attendant angel.  There are as many angels as there are things, and all are fundamentally creatures of God’s love.
    3. With this understanding, we can begin to grasp the import of the concluding line of Dante’s Comedy, “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”  The celestial bodies are truly moved through the heavens by angels, by the personal attention and love of God, and so too are all other things.4
    4. Moreover, when the Psalmist writes that “the heavens declare the glory of God,”  our minds ought to turn towards the singing of the angelic choir.  The angels, the personal manifestations of God’s love, do not merely move the cosmos, they sing it in praise of its Creator.  This is the celestial music, the music of the spheres, which we bring our inner being into alignment with through our participation in the love of God.  The whole of creation is, therefore, a vast and beautiful love song.

 

Truly wonderful.

1. This phenomenon is, I believe, inspiration in the truest sense of the word. Some fragment of the world acts as a key in the mind, directing it toward the contemplation of higher things from whence it can be illuminated. In the light from above, what was previously obscure becomes apparent in a sort of interior vision.
2. It was, perhaps, no accident that I encountered this passage shortly before Trinity Sunday.
3. And this is why, in loving, we are conformed to God. The more we participate in the intercommunicative love of the Trinity, the more we come to resemble the divine persons, as the love of God transforms us to become more receptive/worthy of being beloved by the divine. More, it entails that in loving we attain to greater degrees of personhood. Love of neighbor and love of God makes us more of a person, more real.
Also, since God loves every fragment of creation (the individual motes, as Tolkien observes), we see that it is this love that acts as the motive force behind the movement of the cosmos back to its ultimate culmination in union with the Creator.
4. The objection that this truth is superstitious, simplistic, or somehow superseded by scientific accounts of planetary motion reveals only the intellectual carelessness and, frankly, the stupidity of the objector.