Something I Wish I Had Made Explicit in My Dissertation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thoughts (Borrowed) While Overlooking a Mountain Valley in Peru

The Infinite

Always dear to me was this lonely hill,
And this hedgerow, which from many sides
Bars the gaze from the utmost horizon.
But sitting and looking out, endless
Spaces beyond that hedge, and superhuman
Silences, and profoundest quietude,
I in my mind forge for myself: where the heart
Is all but terrified.  And as I hear
the wind rustle beneath these plants,
That infinite silence to this voice I go on
To compare: and I recall the eternal,
And the dead seasons, and the present, living one,
And the sound of her. So in this
Immensity my thought drowns:
And shipwreck is sweet to me in this sea.

Giacomo Leopardi, Canti, 93
trans. Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests, 192


When I’m sitting in the back of class, feeling useless as a TA, I stare out the window to remind myself the world exists.  It’s an oddly solitary experience in a room filled with chatter, solitary and strange.  As we’re inevitably many floors up, all you can see are rooftops.  The only movement is steam, curling off into the oppressive and endless blue of the midwestern sky.  It’s a nameless experience, one of loneliness, yet belonging, silence and stasis.

And it’s one that W.G. Sebald also seems to have tried to capture in the opening pages of Rings of Saturn.  A year after the walking tour that occupies the bulk of the book, he found himself confined to a hospital, riven with pain.  His only access to the outside is through a window on the wall opposite his bed.  In the haunting photo that accompanies his description, the window is inscribed with wire to prevent suicide, befitting the melancholy tone of the moment and the book as a whole.  The view through the glass is, like mine, lonely and strange:

I too found the familiar city, extending from the hospital courtyards to the far horizon, an utterly alien place.  I could not believe that anything might still be alive in that maze of buildings down there; rather, it was as if I were looking down from a cliff upon a sea of stone or a field of rubble, from which the tenebrous masses of multi-storey carparks rose up like immense boulders. At that twilit hour there were no passers-by to be seen in the immediate vicinity, but for a nurse crossing the cheerless gardens outside the hospital entrance on the way to her night shift. An ambulance with its light flashing was negotiating a number of turns on its way from the city centre to Casualty. I could not hear its siren; at that height I was cocooned in an almost complete and, as it were, artificial silence.  All I could hear was the wind sweeping in from the country and buffeting the window; and in between, when the sound subsided, there was the never entirely ceasing murmur in my own ears.

W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn, 5

What to make of these moments, their ultimate import?

I must confess, I enjoy the solitude, though it also presents me with a sense of desolation.  It need not be horrible.  There’s something there, something numinous lurking in the silence.  It’s only when we try to grasp it that we slip into despondency, when the solitude breaks and noise slips back in.

(one of the reasons) why I love the Proslogion

Alongside the Divine Comedy, St. Anselm’s Proslogion is my favorite piece of medieval writing, and it’s my favorite because it’s beautiful.  That might surprise those who are only familiar with the text for the so-called “ontological argument,” the arguments of the second and third chapters that demonstrate not only that God exists but that He cannot be conceived not to exist.  The argument is 100% correct and thus deeply frustrating to those who would like not to believe in God, thus often mocked and parodied and rarely actually contemplated,* but that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to try to describe at least a sliver of the sublimity of Anselm’s writing and to hint at why it ends with the joys of heaven.

The Proslogion starts with a sort of spiritual emptiness. No matter where we look, God does not appear. What’s more, study only leads us to the realization that God cannot in principle appear, cannot be understood, cannot be grasped. Yet He unquestionably is.

What to do in the face of this emptiness, sitting in our empty cell, staring at the blank wall and trying to hold the un-holdable? Starting from this absence of God, Anselm shows that all we need is one piece, a single understanding, and from the simple operation of our reason God emerges from the silence. His attributes become clear and finally we realize that the darkness is not darkness at all, but light. Light so bright that it shines dark, light so bright that we, our sight weakened by sin and crippled by ignorance, are blind. The highest realization is not catching sight of God, but the realization that it is God by which we see. We haven’t missed the forest for the trees, we’ve missed the light that envelops and pervades the leaves. The light which allows the forest to appear at all.

Constructed in this way, moments of the greatest spiritual dryness, of the utter absence of God, are transformed into the moments where God is closest. Our ignorance is transformed into knowledge, blindness into sight. That is the beauty of the Proslogion.


*see also: Pascal’s Wager

Stars and Dust

This is a continuation of the line of thought found in an earlier post.

In On the Human Condition, St. Basil writes:

If you like, after your contemplation of the soul be attentive also to the structure of the body and marvel at how appropriate a dwelling for the rational soul the sovereign Fashioner has created.  He has made the human being alone of the animals upright, that from your very form you may see that your life is akin to that on high; for all the quadrupeds are bent down toward their stomachs, while the human being is prepared to look up toward heaven, so as not to be devoted to the stomach or to the passions below the stomach but to direct his whole desire toward the journey on high.  (104)

Our physical form makes manifest our natural end, to contemplate the heavens and thus come to seek their Creator.  Ideally, all of creation could serve this end, but the stars are particularly useful for at least two reasons.  The first is that the regular passage of the stars, their permanence, indicates that they approximate the eternal better than other aspects of creation we encounter in the day to day.  In other words, because trees and rabbits are ever-changing, but the stars are a constant.  The second and more important reason is because the stars are impossibly beautiful.  Basil speaks about this earlier in the same book, emphasizing the glory of creation against which any material, human riches pale:

Therefore, why do you call happy one who has a fat purse but needs the feet of others to move around?  You do not lie on a bed of ivory, but you have the earth which is more valuable than great amounts of ivory, and your rest upon it is sweet, sleep comes quickly and is free from anxiety.  You do not lie beneath a gilded roof, but you have the sky glittering all around with the inexpressible beauty of the stars.  (101-2)

And, of course, you have Dante ending every book of The Divine Comedy with the stars.

(An aside, what do you think is the effect of this on your soul? Is it worth it? have you ever truly seen the stars?)

Basil’s ideas were common in Antiquity and beyond, and knowing this gives addition resonance to Lady Philosophy’s description of Boethius’s condition in The Consolation of Philosophy:

This was the man who once was free
To climb the sky with zeal devout
To contemplate the crimson sun,
The frozen fairness of the moon-
Astronomer once used in joy
To comprehend and to commune
With planets on their wandering ways.
This man, this man sought out the source
Of storms that roar and rouse the seas;
The spirit that rotates the world,
The cause that translocates the sun
From shining East to watery West;
He sought the reason why spring hours
Are mild with flowers manifest,
And who enriched with swelling grapes
Ripe autumn at the full of year.
Now see that mind that searched and made
All Nature’s hidden secrets clear
Lie prostrate prisoner of night.
His neck bends low in shackles thrust,
And he is forced beneath the weight
To contemplate – the lowly dust. (5-6)

Imprisoned on charges of treason, awaiting execution, Boethius can no longer contemplate the stars and has thus lost sight of the source of storms, the Spirit That Rotates the World.  Instead, he stares at the lowest element, the earth, last of the elements and lying at the greatest remove from the divine.  But it’s from here, the lowest point, that Lady Philosophy emerges to lead Boethius back to who he really is.

Prelude to a Future Post

His second night in Talkingham, Hazel Motes walked along down town close to the store fronts but not looking in them.  The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that all seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take all of time to complete.  No one was paying attention to the sky.

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

whither can I flee from thy presence?

Reading in the Psalms yesterday, I was struck by the resonances between Psalm 138 and Anselm’s project in the Proslogion and Cur Deus Homo.  My read of Anselm here is shaped heavily by Burcht Pranger’s interpretation of the saint’s thought.  Not coincidentally, I recently attended a lecture by Prof. Pranger on Anselm, thus these ideas were percolating around my mind as I read the Psalms.  During the Q&A, he was asked about the potential connections between Anselm’s poetics and the Divine Office, but unfortunately I had to leave before I could hear his answer.

Anyway, the psalm reads:

Whither can I go from thy spirit
whither can I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend into heaven, thou are there;
if I am prostrate in the abyss, thou art there.
(Ps. 138:7-8)
It’s that final line, “in the abyss, thou art there” that strikes me.  In seeking for the unum argumentum of the Proslogion, Anselm is reduced to despair in the absence of God, but it is precisely from this absence that God’s presence becomes manifest.  It is the denial of the possibility of the unum argumentum which reveals it, from the preface:

Although I often and earnestly directed my thought to this end, and at some times that which I sought seemed to be just within my reach, while again it wholly evaded my mental vision, at last in despair I was about to cease, as if from the search for a thing which could not be found. But when I wished to exclude this thought altogether, lest, by busying my mind to no purpose, it should keep me from other thoughts, in which I might be successful; then more and more, though I was unwilling and shunned it, it began to force itself upon me, with a kind of importunity. So, one day, when I was exceedingly wearied with resisting its importunity, in the very conflict of my thoughts, the proof of which I had despaired offered itself, so that I eagerly embraced the thoughts which I was strenuously repelling.

Similarly, in Cur Deus Homo:

The first contains the objections of infidels, who despise the Christian faith because they deem it contrary to reason; and also the reply of believers; and, in fine, leaving Christ out of view (as if nothing had ever been known of him), it proves, by absolute reasons, the impossibility that any man should be saved without him. Again, in the second book, likewise, as if nothing were known of Christ, it is moreover shown by plain reasoning and fact that human nature was ordained for this purpose, viz., that every man should enjoy a happy immortality, both in body and in soul; and that it was necessary that this design for which man was made should be fulfilled; but that it could not be fulfilled unless God became man, and unless all things were to take place which we hold with regard to Christ.

The necessity of the Incarnation becomes clear when our knowledge of it is denied, just as God’s attributes emerge from the unum argumentum precisely when we both deny Biblical revelation, proceeding sola ratione, and even the search for reason altogether.  God is still there, in the abyss.

Unfortunately, I was unable in my admittedly cursory research to find the precise schedule of the hours which Anselm would have been reading, but in my breviary the Psalm is sung during Vespers on Friday.  Vespers is traditionally associated with the removal of Christ from the Cross and it’s hard to imagine a moment of greater dejection, a deeper abyss, than that.  Perhaps it’s at this very moment, a moment of utter despair and absence, that God’s presence shines through most clearly, if we have eyes to see.

This line of thought has also led me to become convinced that Boethius is engaged in a fundamentally similar project in the Consolation, and I hope to post more thoughts on that sometime in the near future.

Virtually all errors in thought are the result of a misunderstanding or failure to appreciate the significance of the Incarnation.

Alternatively:  Reality is fundamentally Incarnational, and a failure to recognize this will always lead to error.

Modern thought denies the Incarnation (generally by refusing to admit the union of material and spiritual, giving undue precedence to one or the other) and the reason for the Incarnation (i.e. original sin).


An informal, dashed off, certainly wrong history

First, God is removed from the world.  Ironically, this stems from a pious impulse.  The transcendence of God is stressed to the detriment of His immanence, and the ontological link between creation and creator is severed.*  The universe is made a distinct sphere in which, in the absence of God, man becomes the measure of all things.  What makes man unique, thought, is deemed primary, and the connection of thought and being is broken.  Matter and mind are deemed radically distinct, and what is perceived is located in the perceiver.  Doubt becomes catastrophic and is made the beginning of philosophy, displacing wonder.  The possibility of inferring from sensible things to higher things is denied.  Philosophy, classically conceived, becomes impossible.  In it’s place, the quest for utopia.  God, disconnected from creation and disconnected from our mind,** slips away. Je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothèse.  With God disappears Truth.

Matter and mind now appear fundamentally irreconcilable.  Thus, one or the other must be denied, or at least given absolute priority over the other.  As man is an inextricable union of mind and matter, this means denying ourselves.  Reason collapses in on itself.  Sophistry and relativism, which Socrates realized ultimately boils down to might makes right, reigns.  The dominant structures are increasingly shown to be founded upon principles which are no longer tenable, i.e they were reliant on assumptions which are no longer epistemologically/metaphysically acceptable.  The principles are thus gradually abandoned, causing the breakdown of the structures themselves. The result, anomie.

* Thus, like all heresies, it ultimately proves to be a denial of the Incarnation.

** In medieval thought, it was within the operations of the human mind that God’s image was believed to be most manifest.