Memory and History

Inspired by the passage from Plutarch quoted below.

Memory[i] and history are inextricably linked, the latter having its origin in the former.  With their typical perceptiveness the Greeks recognized this lineage, all the arts descend from memory and the God.  Hesiod:

[The muses] in Pieria[ii] did Mnemosyne (Memory), who reigns over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the son of Cronos, a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were accomplished, she bare nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. There are their bright dancing-places and beautiful homes, and beside them the Graces and Himerus (Desire) live in delight. And they, uttering through their lips a lovely voice, sing the laws of all and the goodly ways of the immortals, uttering their lovely voice. Then went they to Olympus, delighting in their sweet voice, with heavenly song, and the dark earth resounded about them as they chanted and a lovely sound rose up beneath their feet as they went to their father. And he was reigning in heaven, himself holding the lightning and glowing thunderbolt, when he had overcome by might his father Cronos; and he distributed fairly to the immortals their portions and declared their privileges.

Hesiod, Theogony

The eldest daughter of Memory and Zeus was Clio, the muse of history.  First among her sisters, she commemorates the great deeds of men. It is for this commemoration that the Achaeans and Trojans fought on the plains of Ilium. 

The fragility of this remembrance is the brilliant ambiguity at the heart of the epic, revealed by the one who questions the worth of this remembrance, the exception, the best of the Achaeans, Swift-Footed Achilles.

Unlike the rest, Achilles knows his fate, [iii] and thus has that most precious of things: a choice.  He can fight under the walls of Troy, achieve eternal glory, and die, or he can return home to bucolic Phthia and die unremembered after a long and happy life.[iv]

Knowledge of his choice leaves Achilles deeply conflicted; in particular because he is himself half-divine yet, despite his demigoddery, condemned to die.[v]  Given the opportunity by Agamemnon’s slight, he abdicates choice all together and goes off to sulk on the beach, leaving his companions to be slaughtered as his internal turmoil rages.[vi]

In the end, he does not choose to fight for the sake of eternal glory, but for love.[vii]  Over the course of the poem, the locus of his rage shifts, from Agamemnon to his fate and, therefore, himself.[viii]  Patroclus, his blood brother, is struck down, unfairly, by the gods and by Hector while standing in for Achilles–leading Achilles’s men, wearing Achilles’s armor, with the fighting prowess of his blood-brother.[ix]  Only then does Achilles storm into the fray, the murder of his friend and the murder of himself co-mingled, love of self and love of his brother twisted into god-like anger.[x]

Ultimately, the resolution of this anger comes only through divine intervention and sacrificial propitiation.[xi] This triggers the recognition of his father’s grief in Priam’s grief for Hector, allowing him to accept that he will, like his mortal father and unlike his sea-goddess mother, die, leaving only the fragile immortality of remembrance.[xii]

And this immortality is a small comfort indeed, no use to the dead, as we see in the Odyssey: when summoned from the land of shades, Achilles tells Odysseus that glory is worthless to the dead, better to be a living slave then a dead hero. 

In the Iliad itself, there is the haunting image of the long-dead tree, the turning point of the chariot race run in the funeral games of Patroclus:

Now, the turn itself-it’s clear, you cannot miss it.
There’s a dead tree-stump standing six feet high.
it’s oak or pine, not rotted through by the rains,
and it’s propped by two white stones on either side.
That’s your halfway mark where the homestretch starts
and there’s plenty of good smooth racing-room around it
it’s either the grave-mound of a man dead long ago
or men who lived before us set it up as a goal.

Iliad, Book XXIII

Either an honored grave or a marker of a game long forgotten.  Think of the sheer casualness with which the observation is made, the ease with which they’ve forgotten.  What the heroes lack in this moment, though it is present at many other points in the epic is the moral duty to remember, for it is only because of this duty that glory is possible at all.[xiii] 

Most obviously, this is manifest throughout the Iliad in the emphasis on lineage.  Homer spends just as much if not more time speaking about the “sons of Atreus” as Agamemnon and Menalaus.  All men live in the shadow of their fathers.[xiv] The living embodiment of the previous generation is Nestor, never failing to remind those around him of the deeds of the dead and their superiority to the living.[xv]

The spirit of Nestor lives on in the historians: 

I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus  am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another. 

Herodotus, Histories

The duty of the historian, therefore, first emerges from the moral duty to commemorate the dead, to prevent their images from being lost to time.[xvi]  We hold this duty not only to men of the past but to the other residents of memory, those in the future (see footnote 1) including our future selves.  Witness Herodotus’s adversary, and general stick-in-the-mud, Thucydides’s insistence that his history is useful:

Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. This belief was not without its grounds. The preparations of both the combatants were in every department in the last state of perfection; and he could see the rest of the Hellenic race taking sides in the quarrel; those who delayed doing so at once having it in contemplation. Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world- I had almost said of mankind. For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately preceded the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a great scale, either in war or in other matters….

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1

And the dead, properly commemorated serve as guides to the future, see Patroclus’s ghost, Anchises in Elysium, Virgil and the innumerable counselors Dante meets in the underworld, examples multiply. 

But representations of the human face, like that face itself, are subject to decay and dissolution, whereas the essence of man’s mind is something everlasting, which you cannot preserve or express in material wrought by another’s skill, but only in your own character.  All that we loved and admired in Agricola abides and shall abide in the hearts of men through the endless procession of the ages; for his achievements are of great renown.  With many it will be as with men who had no name or fame: they will be buried in oblivion.  But Agricola’s story is set on record for posterity, and he will live.

Tacitus, Agricola, 99

In memory these shades can live, albeit as mere images, recalling the past, shaping the future and ameliorating the pains of the present.[xvii]

It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing  biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself  to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as  a sort of looking-glass, in which I may see how to adjust and  adorn my own life. Indeed, it can be compared to nothing but daily living and associating together; we receive, as it were,  in our inquiry, and entertain each successive guest, view —

  ” Their stature and their qualities,”  

and select from their actions all that is noblest and worthiest to know.  

” Ah, and what greater pleasure could one have? ”  

or what more effective means to one’s moral improvement?  Democritus tells us we ought to pray that of the phantasms  appearing in the circumambient air, such may present themselves to us as are propitious, and that we may rather meet  with those that are agreeable to our natures and are good  than the evil and unfortunate; which is simply introducing  into philosophy a doctrine untrue in itself, and leading to  endless superstitions. My method, on the contrary, is, by the  study of history, and by the familiarity acquired in writing, to  habituate my memory to receive and retain images of the best  and worthiest characters. I thus am enabled to free myself  from any ignoble, base, or vicious impressions, contracted from  the contagion of ill company that I may be unavoidably engaged  in ; by the remedy of turning my thoughts in a happy and calm  temper to view these noble examples. Of this kind are those  of Timoleon the Corinthian and Paulus Aemilius, to write  whose lives is my present business; men equally famous, not  only for their virtues, but success; insomuch that they have  left it doubtful whether they owe their greatest achievements  to good fortune, or their own prudence and conduct. In us, they can live again and that is, it seems, why we at least in part, write history. [xviii] 

Plutarch, Life of Timoleon

[i] Memory is a far more expansive and powerful capacity than we typically think.  It’s not merely the storehouse of past ideas and impressions but a vast landscape in which those fragments are assembled into wholes.  The present is a product of memory, the intersection of past remembrances and future expectations extrapolated from these remembrances (themselves, therefore, both extant only in memory).  We live suspended, therefore, between memories.

[ii] The birthplace and resting place of Orpheus as well, surely this is no accident.

[iii] Hector, too, has an intuition of his doom.  Though, befitting his inferior status in comparison, he cannot seem to fully grasp it, alternatively acknowledging and ignoring his destiny in the same moment.  One second bemoaning the inevitable destruction of his city, the enslavement of his wife; the next proclaiming that his son—who will die cruelly at the hands of his killer’s son—will be a greater man than he. 

[iv] It is easy to forget that it is in fact a true prophecy.  Achilles did fight, did die, and did attain eternal glory.  Even in our culturally benighted age we know the name of Achilles, while the images of innumerable others have faded to dust, even the best of them. Diomedes fought the gods themselves, yet who today remembers Diomedes?

[v] Any complaint that Homer lacks psychological realism shatters against the character of Achilles.

[vi] That Agamemnon’s offense is not truly what motivates Achilles to refuse to return to battle is seen clearly in his contradictory responses to the embassy in Book IX.  Notice also whose argument comes closest to swaying him, Ajax who appeals to friendship. 

And what is Achilles doing when the ambassadors arrive: Reaching the Myrmidon shelters and their ships,

they found him there. delighting his heart now,
plucking strong and clear on the fine lyre
beautifully carved, its silver bridge set firm
he won from the spoils when he razed Eetion’s city.
Achilles was lifting his spirits with it now,
singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes …

Iliad, Book IX

And who is the muse of the lyre?  Clio, of course. 

[vii] A deep bond of friendship, not erotic love, as certain later commentators whose stunted imaginations are incapable of recognizing that a deep friendship between men does not require fucking.

[viii] Rage over our fate is ultimately sourced in rage at our place within the cosmos, our own finite and limited nature.  This is, incidentally, the rage of the primordial revolt, the rage of Satan.

[ix] Patroclus in his aresteia is capable of storming Troy himself, though it is Achilles who is destined to conquer Troy by killing its embodiment, Hector.  He will, of course, die before the city is finally destroyed, that task being largely accomplished by the near psychotic rage of Neoptolemus, motivated by the memory of his lost father. 

[x] Divine wrath is, of course, founded in love, cf. the inscription Dante finds over the gates of Hell: “MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY,/AND THE PRIMAL LOVE” (Inferno, Canto 3)

[xi] cf. David Malouf’s Ransom for a poignant treatment.

[xii] It’s fucking beautiful.

[xiii] Remember though before you judge them too harshly for this lack that the order of society has been terribly disrupted by the eruption of Achilles’s rage and not yet restored by these games and the sacrificial self-offering of Priam, itself deeply bound up in the relation between father and son. 

[xiv] I almost wrote, “save Achilles,” but Achilles lives more in the shadow of his father, a father he is doomed to surpass and pre-decease, than anyone.  That’s the whole problem.   

[xv] Surely in the background here we should also keep Fustel de Coulanges’s contentions about the centrality of ancestor-worship to the Greeks in mind.

[xvi] Compare Jewish history, not of men but God, whose image only emerges in negative space, between and behind the lines, as famously described by Auerbach in “Odysseus’s Scar.”  It’s not an accident that the memory’s place in the trinity of our mind most closely corresponds to God the Father, and that history is one of the dominant genres of the Old Testament. 

[xvii] “The living do not have a constitutive need to speak as much as to hear themselves spoken to, above all by the ancestor.  We lend voice to the dead so that they may speak to us from their underworld–address us, instruct us, reprove us, bless us, enlighten us, and in general alleviate the historical terror and loneliness of being in the world.” (Robert Pogue Harrison, Dominion of the Dead, 151)

[xviii] What happens next is, of course, the collision with and assimilation of Jewish history into this model, a topic for another day.

2019 in Books

Prior years

Compared to other years, 2019 was a bit odd. My reading was dominated by two long series, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books, about which more below, and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books (which were good, but not truly excellent detective novels). Together, these accounted for more than 20% of all the books I read. As a consequence, there are less entries in the “Notable Books” section than normal.

At the same time, there were quite a few books that I found worthwhile, interesting, and would certainly recommend, but that didn’t quite meet the criteria that normally merits mention in this post. This is not an uncommon problem, I mentioned it last year and thought (mildly) hard about how to overcome it, but it seems especially notable this year. I don’t have a solution, so I’ll simply mention a few books that you might also want to check out:

  • Traditional Japanese Poetry ed. Carter – Very good, just barely missed the list. Too many poems that didn’t captivate me to make it.
  • Plutarch’s Lives, Livy’s History of Rome, Aeschylus’s Oresteia – All classics, all excellent, all likely worthy of inclusion on this list, but somehow did not lodge in my heart the way others did (the Oresteia came closest)
  • Gardens and The Dominion of the Dead by Robert Pogue Harrison – Excellent wide- ranging studies moving effortlessly through literature, philosophy, and history. When I think about how and what I want to write two authors always come to mind: Pogue Harrison and WG Sebald. I don’t know why I didn’t mark this as notable at the time, but I’ve come to trust my in-the-moment apprehension on these things.
  • The Office of Assertion by Scott Crider – Great book on the rhetoric of academic writing, accessible, loaded with detail and practical. Too much of a textbook for me to mark as notable, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject.
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford – I agreed with essentially everything that Crawford wrote in these two philosophical/psychological examinations of the value of craftwork. A vital and timely imperative, presented in a compelling, accessible fashion. If you’re a craftsman of any sort or, even more so, if you’re not, you should read these.

Now, on to some stats. I read a total of 168 books in 2019. 29% of which were read on my Kindle (I believe this is a record high) and the rest of which I read in physical form.

Thanks to the Aubrey-Maturin books, historical fiction dominated the list with 25 entries (20 of which came from O’Brian’s series). Next, in what was a surprise to me, came philosophy, with 21 books. I truly don’t know when I read all that, but the fact that it dominated the list in a year when I had few true favorites might mean something. Next was detective novels (19), thanks to the Lew Archer books that accounted for 18 of them, followed by Sci-Fi (18) and academic books (17).

As you’ve probably been able to guess O’Brian easily takes the crown this year with 20 books, followed by Macdonald with 18. No one else is even close. EC Tubb, who will finally get his due in the notable section, reappears for what is certainly the last time with 4 books, and Alan Akers, who I thought might be a worth successor to Tubb but whose books were below my lax standards for pulp sci-fi (I found them an overwraught imitation of Edgar Rice Burroughs) had 5 entries. No one else had more than 2 books, another demonstration of how this was an unconventional year (compare last year, where no author had more than 10 books on the list and where Tubb and Akers would not have made the cut for mention in this section).

Notable Books
These are books that I found especially memorable and would recommend without (much) reservation. In another departure from previous years, there are, depending on how you count, only two (or 21) reread entries. Let’s do those first:

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton – I’ve always found Chesterton, despite what his detractors might think, to be a titanic intellect. The apparent glibness of his style is perhaps the greatest indication of that intellect, as there is terrific insight buried behind apparently simple word play and humorous contradiction. He puts it well himself, first on his use of humor:

My critics think that I am not serious but only funny, because they think that “funny” is the opposite of “serious.”  But “funny” is the opposite of “not funny” and of nothing else.  Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or in short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he choose to tell the truth in French or in German.  The two qualities of funny and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other…If you say that two sheep added to two sheep make four sheep, your audience will accept it patiently–like sheep.  But if you say if  of two monkeys, or two kangaroos, or two sea-green griffins, people will refuse to believe that two and two make four.  They seem to believer that you must have made up the arithmetic, just as you have made up the illustration of the arithmetic.  They cannot believe that anything decorated with an incidental joke can be sensible.  Perhaps it explains why so many successful men are so dull-or why so many dull men are successful.

Then on the depth of his thought revealed in its apparent frivolousness:

A man who deals in harmonies, who only matches stars with angels, or lambs with spring flowers, he indeed may be frivolous, for he is taking one mood at a time, and perhaps forgetting each mood as it passes.  But a man who ventures to combine an angel and an octopus must have some serious view of the universe.  The more widely different the topics talked of, the more serious and universal must be the philosophy which talks of them.  The mark of the light and thoughtless writer is the harmony of his subject matter.  The mark of the thoughtful writer is his apparent diversity.

And he is a very thoughtful writer indeed.

Both of these quotes come from Simon Leys’s wonderful essay on Chesterton: “The Poet Who Dances with a Hundred Legs” (Leys has such marvelous titles). Leys explains that title:

Chesterton once said that he suspected Bernard Shaw of being the only man who had never written any poetry. We may well suspect that Chesterton never wrote anything else.
But what is poetry? I t is not merely a literary form made of rhythmic and rhyming lines–thought Chesterton also wrote (and wrote memorably) a lot of these.  Poetry is something much more essential.  Poetry is grasping reality, making an inventory of the visible world, giving names to all creatures, naming what is…Poetry is our vital link with the outside world–the lifeline on which our very survival depends–and therefore also, in some circumstances, it can become the safeguard of our mental sanity

Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness, 100

He later suggests that the essay might have been called, ” The Man Who Was in Love With Daylight.” And its this title that, I think, gets to the core of Orthodoxy and what makes Chesterton such a delight to read. His concern is with joy and wonder, this is what led him (and through him, in a large part, led me) to recognize the truth of Christianity. In his own words:

This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden. Theosophists for instance will preach an obviously attractive idea like re-incarnation; but if we wait for its logical results, they are spiritual superciliousness and the cruelty of caste. For if a man is a beggar by his own pre-natal sins, people will tend to despise the beggar. But Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king. Men of science offer us health, an obvious benefit; it is only afterwards that we discover that by health, they mean bodily slavery and spiritual tedium. Orthodoxy makes us jump by the sudden brink of hell; it is only afterwards that we realise that jumping was an athletic exercise highly beneficial to our health. It is only afterwards that we realise that this danger is the root of all drama and romance. The strongest argument for the divine grace is simply its ungraciousness. The unpopular parts of Christianity turn out when examined to be the very props of the people. The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom.

Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 155

Joy, wonder, and the deep gratitude we owe reality for its very existence, as in a short poem, from before Chesterton’s conversion (also quoted in Leys):

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?

Anyway, you should read this book, it’s joyous on the most profound level.

The Aubrey-Maturin Books by Patrick O’Brian – While O’Brian’s chronicles of the adventures of the heroic, albeit sometimes bumbling, sea captain Jack Aubrey and his closest companion, the doctor and spy Stephen Maturin, cover 20 books (and a 21st unfinished novel that I refuse to read), they are, in a very real sense, one grand historical novel, perhaps the greatest historical novel ever written (I certainly haven’t encountered a better one). Marvelously detailed, at turns–and often all at once–poignant, gripping, hilarious, and profound, it’s almost impossible to turn away once you’ve entered into O’Brian’s world. The characters, locales, ships, battles all are beautifully drawn and enthralling. Truly, I would reread this series every year if I had the time. I found on this, my second read through, depths that I hadn’t even imagined were there previously and this, to me, is always the mark of a truly great book. O’Brian easily takes the coveted award for author of the year. I could not recommend the series more strongly.

Plus, he gets points for inspiring my favorite movie of all time.

On Power by Bertrand de Jouvenel – A deeply perceptive, and more than a little depressing, study of the character of power written at the height of World War II. Very different, though not necessarily opposed to, Romano Guardini’s similarly excellent study of the subject. Far too deep to cover even the basics here, but you’ll never look at politics the same again after reading it.

The Dumarest Series by EC Tubb – For years, Tubb’s Dumarest series has been a standby on my list of read books and, having finally finished the series and seen Dumarest arrive (though not necessarily safely) at his long-sought home, I’m sad to see it go. This is pulp sci-fi–of the planetary romance variety–of the highest order (not quite as excellent as Leigh Brackett or Burroughs, but very enjoyable nonetheless). The basic plot of virtually all of the 33 books in the series are the same: Earl Dumarest, wayward child of Earth, possessed with a desperate longing for home, preternatural speed, indomitable will, and a secret that the malevolent Cyclan (think evil Vulcans) will stop at nothing to attain arrives at a planet run by a degenerate aristocracy where he finds himself lusted after by beautiful women, combating deadly beasts, fighting at least one combat to the death in the arena, and embroiled in byzantine plots of revenge and domination. Always seeking for clues to the lost location of Earth, he triumphs over a multitude of dangers, thwarts the Cyclan agents who are ever on his tail and escapes, often seeing his hopes of finding home dashed cruelly at the last moment. Despite this repetitiveness, Tubb gives you enough variety to keep going and the stories certainly don’t drag. You can easily power through any of them in a few hours and they’re a welcome respite from academic works and denser literature.

Tubb has provided me with years of entertainment. I truly am sad to see the series end.

Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti – My affection for Rossetti should be obvious from the sheer number of her poems that I’ve posted here. I’m hard pressed to think of another poet who so deeply stirs the waters of my soul. Many of these entries have used the word “profound” or “deep”, and perhaps that’s a theme of this year, but, despite the repetition, it is nonetheless apt. Rossetti is a beautiful poet, to be read and savored.

It’s difficult for me to speak about the virtues of poetry. Their own words are their best argument. Ignore what I have to say and just read the poems I’ve linked above. They’ll tell you much more than I can about why she is great.

The Centurions by Jean Larteguy – A gripping novel about the nature of war and the men who fight it, which follows a group of French paratroopers from the disaster at Dien Bien Phu to the disaster of Algeria with a brief stop in a France to which they can no longer return. Most reviews speak about how relevant the novel is, it’s depiction of guerrilla warfare and the horrors required to fight it especially pertinent to the modern experience, but I’ve long thought that what makes a book great is not its relevance, but its timelessness. This is a book worth reading not because America finds herself embroiled in an endless succession of Algerias, but because there’s something at the heart of the novel that speaks to the timeless reality of empire and of men, the violence we beg them to commit and what that violence makes them become. Larteguy himself certainly saw this eternal resonance. We can see that from the title, evoking lonely centurions on the periphery of Rome as the walls begin to crumble.

The enjoyed the sequel The Praetorians far less, perhaps because it seemed to require a more in depth understanding of mid-20th century French history about which I know essentially nothing (save for reading a single book about the Algerian conflict in the aftermath of reading Larteguy).

With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz – A epic of the purest and most wonderful sort, following noble (and less-than-noble) Polish knights as they battle against a massive Cossack uprising. It’s exciting and bloody, filled with virtue and vice, terrifying but never one-dimensional villains and excellently drawn characters throughout. Most notable is the Falstaffian knight, Zagloba (he’s the less-than-noble one, though he still has a heart of gold), who has stuck with me more than any other character in a book I’ve read this year. I think that might by Sienkiewicz’s greatest strength, he makes you care about the characters. You want to be around them. You want to see what happens to them. Even the villains are captivating, you await their fates with bated breath. The book is massive, the sequels (which I promise I’ll get to someday) even more so, but for sheer adventure and fun, I’m hard pressed to think of a book since Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships that I’ve enjoyed more. A real delight.

Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac – Balzac is a strange author. On the surface there’s nothing I can point to in his works that I find especially amazing. Indeed, there are a number of times when his prose seems outright bad, where the plots feel rushed, where I lose my grip on his characters (I worried that this was an artifact of translation, but see that others have complained about it too). Nevertheless, his books are utterly captivating. Below the prose, somehow not contained within the words themselves but lying behind them, is a raw, vital energy. His books, and the people within them, are alive. Balzac poured his own life into his works, you might plausibly claim that doing so killed him–the exhaustion of marathon writing sessions fueled only by gallons of coffee, the spiritual depletion of leaving your life on the page. If so, what a sacrifice! What a titanic amount of life he had to give! That’s his achievement, this vitality, this energy. Pere Goriot is one of the most famous of his novels, a key part of his massive La Comédie humaine series of inter-woven works, and thus one of the greatest examples of Balzac’s excellence. You ought to experience it, if only once. It’s different than any other author I’ve ever encountered.

Gilgamesh – How do you praise a four thousand year-old incomplete Sumerian epic? I’ve already mentioned my feeling of inadequacy whenever I try to express why poetry is valuable. So, I’ll simply say that I found Gilgamesh far more accessible than I expected, but what truly drew me in was that this accessibility lightly masked an ever-present air of mystery, of the numinous lurking just behind the scenes. In this way, Gilgamesh reminded me of the Book of Genesis, quite possibly the single most mysterious (in a number of senses of the word) thing ever written. It felt like a poem that I could read over and over again, perpetually feeling like I was on the brink of a great revelation but never quite attaining it. That’s a special and wonderful feeling.

To evoke Chesterton and to paraphrase what I wrote last year, reading brings us many things, the most important of these is wonder and joy. Each of these books, in their own way, brought me wonder and joy, and I hope that they can bring you the same. Read more!

Justin’s Old Man

The final part of a series of posts on Justin Martyr.

As the months since I read Justin pass, it’s the enigma of the Old Man that remains most strongly impressed on my memory. I’ve come to think that he is the key point around which both Justin’s biography and bibliography crystallizes. The central pillar in his intellectual and autobiographical landscape. In a sense, as we shall hopefully see, to understand, to know, the Old Man is to attain the endpoint of Justin’s thought.

This all hinges on the identity of this figure, about whom Justin tells us relatively little, or so it seems. We meet the Old Man following Justin as he walks through a secluded field (I insist on imaging it as a beach. I’m not sure why, something about the sea) The man is described as simply old and, “by no means contemptible in appearance, exhibiting meek and venerable manners.” Following their conversation, which we don’t even get to hear all of, Justin never sees him again. A chance encounter cues an epiphany.

Yet, I cannot believe this is an ordinary man, some wandering theologian who just happened to stumble on Justin as he contemplated by the sea.

Let’s consider Justin’s disposition at the time of this meeting. He had, recall, been studying Platonic philosophy and been making rapid progress, such that:”I expected forthwith to look upon God…while I was thus disposed, when I wished at one period to be filled with great quietness, and to shun the path of men, I used to go into a certain field not far from the sea”

Anticipating the vision of God, therefore, and filled with a great quietness.

In this state, Justin spies a figure following him and turns to look, whereupon the Old Man calls out to him, “Do you know me?” It’s difficult to imagine a more suggestive question given the context here. Think who Justin is most desperately trying to know, to recognize, at this moment (recognition is, of course, a central theme of the Gospels, most concretely at Mark 8:29 and the in interview with Pilate).

More, it’s surely significant that Justin does not speak first. He turns to look a the Old Man, who, feeling Justin’s gaze, calls out to him. I’ll quote what I wrote about Augustine in my previous post:

I’m reminded of Augustine’s Platonic ascent to God in Book VII of the Confessions, note that the final transcendence here is only brought about by God’s condescension to Augustine. He ascends, yes, but it is God’s voice reaching downward that bridges the immeasurable distance between them.

The dynamic is strikingly similar.

In response to the allusive question of the Old Man, Justin replies that he does not know him, and inquires as to what he is doing there, to which the Man responds:

I am concerned about some of my household. These are gone away from me; and therefore have I come to make personal search for them, if, perhaps, they shall make their appearance somewhere.

The allusion is so strong here, that I’m not sure I have anything to add.

A final hint, at the conclusion of their dialogue, Justin writes that the conversation included, “many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present.” Indeed, perhaps were he to detail them the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written.

During their conversation, reinforcing again the point I made in the previous post about true wisdom, i.e. knowledge of God, coming only from an encounter with God as a person, not as an abstract mental principle:

“‘Is not knowledge a term common to different matters? For in arts of all kinds, he who knows any one of them is called a skilful man in the art of generalship, or of ruling, or of healing equally. But in divine and human affairs it is not so. Is there a knowledge which affords understanding of human and divine things, and then a thorough acquaintance with the divinity and the righteousness of them?’ “‘Assuredly,’ I replied. “‘What, then? Is it in the same way we know man and God, as we know music, and arithmetic, and astronomy, or any other similar branch?’ “‘By no means,’ I replied. “‘You have not answered me correctly, then,’ he said; ‘for some [branches of knowledge] come to us by learning, or by some employment, while of others we have knowledge by sight.

If my contention about the identity of the Old Man is correct than this discourse, which remember utterly transforms Justin kindling within him a fire of love for Christ and anointing him a true philosopher, takes on profound significance. It is, in this moment, the act of seeing and hearing God through His condescension to us that we are moved and come to know and love Him.

I’ll end, therefore, with the final words of the Old Man. They seem appropriate.

But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom

Justin’s Conversion

The much delayed conclusion to my look at Justin Martyr, other posts on Justin can be found here. A planned excursus on the identity of the Old Man has turned out to be more complex than I first thought, so I’m going to make that it’s own and truly final post.

The story of Justin’s conversion is the longest sustained portion of his Dialogue with Trypho. It’s easy to sketch out the details; Justin struggles to find a philosophical teacher that will lead him to God, believes he has found one among the Platonists, but after a chance meeting and dialogue with an old man (more on him later) on a beach, comes to see the inadequacies of Platonic thought and the comparative superiority of Christianity, leading to his conversion and, subsequently, his assumption of the robes and title of philosopher. There’s quite a bit of sophistication running beneath the surface, however, and it’s this sophistication that is a major reason–and certainly the only honorable reason, the others being laziness and distraction–why this post has been so long delayed. There are a lot of different threads to tug on, let’s start tugging.

As mentioned above, Justin’s philosophical journey begins with a desire to know God. It’s not a wholly conventional starting point for philosophical inquiry, though not wholly unprecedented either, but today we certainly don’t think of knowledge of God as the endpoint of philosophy, and it’s clear that not all of the philosophers Justin encounters do either, so it’s worth considering just what nurtured this motivation, which presumably involved a recognition that it was necessary to go beyond cultic practices of traditional Roman religion, which he doesn’t mention in the context of his conversion and only condemns in other parts of his corpus.

Is this indicative of a more widespread dissatisfaction with traditional piety, a sense that it was not a legitimate avenue to the divine? My intuition is, almost certainly. We see in other Christian sources, Athanasius comes especially to mind, a refrain of the failures of pagan oracles and rituals to bring about their promised effects, surely they were referring to some observable phenomenon.

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

Returning to Justin, his journey is also shaped by the conviction that undertaking the search for God requires a teacher. After his dialogue with the Old Man convinces him of the inadequacies of even Platonic thought he exclaims with what seems to be a sort of despair, “whence may any one be helped, if not even in teachers there is truth?’” You cannot, on Justin’s account, go it alone. Coupled with his use of dialogue, and indeed of dialogue within dialogue (as with the encounter with the Old Man) to the narrative of his life as a whole, this gestures towards the philosophical conviction that the habitat of truth is ultimately within interpersonal communication. Whether the truth lies within us slumbering and waiting to be recalled or outside us waiting to be seen, our apprehension of it must be awakened by another. Moreover, it also calls to mind the prohibition so steadfastly enjoined among the earliest monastic communities that progress within the spiritual life required careful submission to a mentor, and the most despicable sort of monk was the one who presumed to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Even Antony learned at the feet of another hermit.

I’ll suggest also that we should read Justin’s progress through the varieties of ancient philosophies as a sort of philosophical ascent, mapping on (at least vaguely) to Plato’s cave.

He begins with a Stoic:

I surrendered myself to a certain Stoic; and having spent a considerable time with him, when I had not acquired any further knowledge of God, for he did not know himself, and said such instruction was unnecessary.

Dissatisfied, Justin abandons Stoicism, but the next philosopher he goes to, a peripatetic:

And this man, after having entertained me for the first few days, requested me to settle the fee, in order that our intercourse might not be unprofitable. Him, too, for this reason I abandoned, believing him to be no philosopher at all.

Is the apathy of the Stoic worse than the venality of the Peripatetic? Apparently so. If we take the Stoic to be the furthest from divine truth, he seems guilty of merely trading in appearances, not concerned with the real at all but with form alone (and for what reason? simply for forms sake). The Peripatetics’s greed is at least greed for something, the Stoic only cares about making sure the shadows on the cave wall are the proper shape.

This characterization calls to mind Chesterton on the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius in particular, from Orthodoxy,

Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of passion…Marcus Aurelius and his friends had really given up the idea of any god in the universe and looked only to the god within. They had no hope of any virtue in nature, and hardly any hope of any virtue in society. They had not enough interest in the outer world really to wreck or revolutionise it. They did not love the city enough to set fire to it.

Chesterton, Orthodoxy, “The Flag of the World”

Surely the expert on Stoicism will disagree, and we should also point out that it was a Stoic judge under a Stoic emperor (himself baffled by the obstinacy of the Christians in the face of death, the very obstinacy Justin praises as the surest sign of their virtue) that sentenced Justin to die. Nevertheless, there is a sort of decayed bloodlessness to stoicism, when and where it gains currency is no accident.

After the venal Peripatetic, Justin turns to the Pythagoreans, who he claims seem to possess wisdom, but require him to engage in a lengthy program of learning before they will teach him. Daunted and discouraged, Justin is turned away because he hasn’t studied music, astronomy, or geometry. The Pythagoreans error, therefore, is an all-to-common conflation of erudition with wisdom, believing the latter to be a product only of the former. This, of course, mistakes the very nature of wisdom and the means of obtaining which is not, as the Pythagorean believes, the possession of an ever-growing profusion of facts, but love, the intoxicating love of truth of that so bewitched Socrates in the Symposium (quote?)(and remember that, for Justin, Socrates is our Socrates, a Christian before Christ). Mistaking knowledge for wisdom, the Pythagorean thus attempts philosophy without philos.

(Also, Justin is impatient, “I deemed the man had some knowledge; but reflecting again on the space of time during which I would have to linger over those branches of learning, I was not able to endure longer procrastination.”)

Appropriately, then, Justin finally approaches the Platonists, and here he seems to make real progress:

and I progressed, and made the greatest improvements daily. And the perception of immaterial things quite overpowered me, and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings,* so that in a little while I supposed that I had become wise; and such was my stupidity, I expected forthwith to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.

In eager anticipation of finally encountering God, he travels to, “a certain field not far from the sea,” where he encounters a strange old man. With the Old Man, Justin engages in a philosophical dialogue, beginning in simple wonder that another had come to this field, but quickly turning to how the Platonists are able to know and speak of God.

Justin replies that it must be through a certain faculty of the soul, and the Old Man takes this assertion as a jumping off point to examine the Platonic idea of the soul and through that examination demonstrating its inadequacy. But if the Platonists are wrong about the nature of the soul, then how can they claim to know its faculties? How can they claim that this soul, which they do not understand, allows them knowledge of God?

(I’m reminded of Augustine’s Platonic ascent to God in Book VII of the Confessions, note that the final transcendence here is only brought about by God’s condescension to Augustine. He ascends, yes, but it is God’s voice reaching downward that bridges the immeasurable distance between them.)

Justin is reduced to near despair by the latest, and notably first obviously intellectual, failing of his chosen philosophy, raising the lament I quoted above, “whence may any one be helped, if not even in teachers there is truth?’”

As a solution the Old Man offers up the prophets:

There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them

(my emphasis)

Unlike the Platonists (though, recall from earlier that Justin did believe Socrates and Plato to have been inspired by God), these men were the beneficiaries of God’s revelation, specially chosen by Him, rather than rising on their own intellectual merits, men of true authority.

The Old Man’s description reminded me of another piece I read recently, Kierkegaard’s On the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle. Two quotes to give you the sense, the same, I believe, that we find in Justin:

Genius is appreciated purely aesthetically, according to the measure of its content, and its specific weight ; an Apostle is what he is through having divine authority. Divine authority is, qualitatively, the decisive factor. It is not by evaluating the content of the doctrine aesthetically or intellectually that I should or could reach the result : ergo , the man who proclaimed the doctrine was called by a revelation : ergo, he is an Apostle. The very reverse is the case: the man who is called by a revelation and to whom a doctrine is entrusted, argues from the fact that it is a revelation, from his authority. (70)

Kierkegaard, On the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle, 70

When Christ says, ‘ There is an eternal life ’ ; and when a theological student says, ‘There is an eternal life:’ both say the same thing, and there is no more deduction, development, profundity, or thoughtfulness in the first expression than in the second; both statements are, judged aesthetically, equally good. And yet there is an eternal qualitative difference between them! Christ, as God-Man, is in possession of the specific quality of authority which eternity can never mediate, just as in all eternity Christ can never be put on the same level as essential human equality. Christ taught, therefore, with authority.

Kierkegaard, On the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle, 78-9

Thus the roots of Justin’s near constant appeal to the prophets is grounded in his conversion and his conversion grounded in the prophets as authorities. Thus, also, why the martyrs are so important, for they too have authority, the freedom with which they give their lives a lived and divine sign.

Back to Justin, upon the conclusion of the Old Man’s speech:

straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher.

Note the fire was kindled not for abstract knowledge or metaphysical truth but a love of other men, and, behind them, the God-man, Christ. It is this love that rightfully bestows upon Justin the title of philosopher, lover of wisdom as lover of logos incarnate, and thus enable him to achieve the happy life he had been seeking all along.

The Weltbild of Justin Martyr, pt. 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Apology

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

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

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

First Apology

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

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

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

First Apology

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

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

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, XI.3

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

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

First Apology

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

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

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

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

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

The Weltbild of Justin Martyr, pt. 2

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

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

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

John 1:1-5

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

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

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

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

Justin Martyr, First Apology

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

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

Justin Martyr, First Apology

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

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

Justin Martyr, First Apology

And later:

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

Justin Martyr, First Apology

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

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

Justin Martyr, First Apology

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

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

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

Justin Martyr, First Apology

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

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

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

Justin Martyr, First Apology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.


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


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?