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.

Awake, My Soul

Awake, my soul

Awake, my soul, and with the sun
Thy daily stage of duty run;
Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise
To pay thy morning sacrifice.

Thy precious time mispent, redeem,
Each present day thy last esteem ;
Improve thy talent with due care,
For the great day thyself prepare.

In conversation be sincere,
Keep conscience as the noon-tide clear :
Think how all-seing God thy ways
And all thy secret thoughts surveys.

By influence of the light divine,
Let thy own light to others shine,
Reflect all heaven’s propitious rays,
In ardent love, and cheerful praise.

Wake, and lift up thyself, my heart,
And with the angels bear thy part,
Who all night long unwearied sing
High praise to the eternal King.

I wake, I wake; ye heavenly choir,
May your devotion me inspire,
That I like you my age may spend,
Like you may on my God attend.

May I like you in God delight,
Have all day long my God in sight,
Perform like you my Maker’s will,
O may I never more do ill.

Had I your Wings, to Heaven I’d fly,
But God shall that defect supply,
And my Soul wing’d with warm desire,
Shall all day long to Heav’n aspire.

All praise to Thee who safe hast kept,
And hast refresh’d me whilst I slept.
Grant Lord, when I from death shall wake,
I may of endless Light partake.

I would not wake, nor rise again,
And Heav’n itself I would disdain ;
Were’t not Thou there to be enjoy’d,
And I in Hymns to be employ’d.

Heav’n is, dear Lord, where e’er Thou art,
O never then from me depart ;
For to my Soul, ’tis Hell to be,
But for one moment void of Thee.

Lord, I my vows to Thee renew,
Disperse my sins as Morning dew,
Guard my first springs of Thought and Will,
And with Thy self my Spirit fill.

Direct, controul, suggest, this day,
All I design, or do, or say,
That all my Powers with all their might,
In Thy sole Glory may unite.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all Creatures here below,
Praise Him above ye Heavenly Host,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Thomas Ken

The Weltbild of Justin Martyr, pt. 1

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

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

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

First up, demons!

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

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

Justin Martyr, First Apology

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

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

First Apology

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

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

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

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

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

First Apology

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

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

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

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

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

First Apology

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

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

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

First Apology

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

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

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

Power and the Modern Age

I find myself reading a lot of diagnoses of the modern world-picture.1  There are perhaps too many of these, they all generally arrive at the same conclusions, of the sort we’ve recently explored in Schumacher, and you wish they said more about the cure than the disease.2  In any case, I tend to believe that the convergence of these diagnoses is a sign of their plausibility and when we step back we can see how each individual author is taking up a thread of a vast and multifaceted problem.  It’s therefore always interesting when an author offers a different perspective on things. Such is the case of Guardini’s The End of the Modern World. Like virtually everyone, he situates the roots of the modern weltbild in the late Medieval period—his “culprit” is Copernicus and the end of the medieval picture of the cosmos (a claim I only find mildly convincing)—and like many he also argues that the titular end has already come, sometime during or around the time of the two world wars.3

In the wake of this ending, Guardini understands the central question of the next phase of history to be man’s relation to power. What he means by power is not entirely obvious, something like “real energies capable of changing the reality of things, of determining their condition and interrelations” (End of the Modern World, 121). A definition that encompasses both what we might call material technology—atomic bombs, computers, bulldozers, and the like—and social technology—propaganda, mass education, mass media.

He’s weak on the latter sort of power. The specter of nuclear war very obviously lurks in the background here,4 yet it turns out that it is not in material technology that power has developed most insidiously in the decades since Guardini wrote.5  Nevertheless, his key worry remains legitimate, that modern man understands technology as an essentially natural force, detached from human choice

The use of power is accepted simply as another natural process; its only norms are taken from alleged necessity, from either utility or security. Power is never considered in terms of the responsibility for choice which is inherent in freedom.


End of the Modern World, 83

The worry is that control over power, which man has very deliberately seized, usurping God, to inaugurate the modern revolution in thought, has been abdicated in light of the horrors and exigencies of the World Wars and the attendant collapse of the modern world-picture that resulted (is resulting). Thus, power is now understood to progress as a consequence of some internal logic, rather than as something actualized by human agents.

Of even more significance, the development of power has created the impression that power objectifies itself; that is, power cannot really be possessed or even used by man; rather, it unfold independently from the continuous logic of scientific investigations, from technical problems, from political tensions. The conviction grows that power simply demands its own actualization.


End of the Modern World, 83

The very development of news sources of power, in other words, demands that this power be used. Atomic weapons are, as mentioned, the prototypical case. The fact that the hydrogen bomb can be built means it must be built. The fact that it has been built, means me must build bigger and bigger bombs and must build scores of them. The need to do so is not because the people, our leaders, have specifically chosen, but because political circumstances imagined as beyond the control of human agents, have necessitated it. Thus, they bear no moral agency for their choice to make ever more destructive weapons, not really.

Nuclear weapons are passe these days, but we can see this reasoning to other areas. The surveillance state is necessary because it is useful, how else will we prevent the terrorist attacks that are only possible because of the (apparently inevitable) choices made by policy makers in other areas? Globalization and corporate consolidation are necessary due to market forces, entirely distinct from the people we’ve appointed (or who have appointed themselves) to manage the markets. That these have disastrous effects, morally and materially, is simply an unfortunate natural by-product, no different than a natural disaster and certainly no one’s fault.

Guardini contends that this ostensible lack of agency is a colossal lie, the unfolding of the energies that control the world are not directionless. They cannot be.

There is no being without a master. As far as being is nature–or the non-personal creation–being belongs to God, Whose will is expressed in the laws by which this being, this nature, exists. As far as being is taken out of nature and into the sphere of human freedom, it belongs to man and man is responsible for it. If man fails in his responsibility and does not care for being as he should, it does not return to nature. To think that it does is a negligent assumption, one with which the contemporary world has consoled itself with more or less awareness. But being is not something which one can dispose of by putting it away in storage. When man fails in his responsibility toward the being which he has taken from nature, that being becomes the possession of something anonymous. 

End of the Modern World, 83-4

That (more properly, these) anonymous possessor(s) are demons. Guardini is not being metaphorical here, he means actual demons. Man in the slowly crumbling ruins of the modern age is given a choice. He can give himself over to unconsciousness, and the inhuman, demonic consciousness that will the vacuum,6 or he can master himself, something only possible (as the failure of the modern world-picture to do makes clear) through a proper awareness of our true relation to power and power’s real source, God:

If human power and the lordship which stems from it are rooted in man’s likeness to God, then power is not man’s in his own right, autonomously, but only as a loan, in fief. Man is lord by the grace of God, and he must exercise his dominion responsibly, for he is answerable for it to him who is Lord by essence. Thus sovereignty becomes obedience, service (134).

Guardini believes the choice between these two options, demonic and divine, will only become obvious as things progress. The crumbling of the modern world-picture reveals the stark reality of the struggle lying behind it. No longer will we be deceived by the mush of false sentimentalism masquerading as Christianity or the insistence, much derided by Nietzsche, that Christian values can be retained after their bedrock has been denied. He ultimately sees this as a good thing, though it will certainly not be a quiet and peaceful time. At least the lies of the modern age will hold less currency and, in collapse, awaken the possibility of something true taking their place. Meanwhile, each individual still faces the choice, as they always have, must make it and make it well.

  1. I think I’ve settled on this term, we might substitute condition, worldview, mindset, etc.
  2. The reason for this disparity is because the cure is rather simple, “cultivate virtue.” Simply stated, yet exceedingly difficult. Still, there ought to be more practical advice on attaining this life, particularly amidst the corrupting miasma of the modern world. To his credit, Schumacher outlines some high-level curatives that we’ll discuss in the next few posts.
  3. when dealing in meta-history, it’s all right to be vague about these things
  4. making me realize we never really talk about nuclear weapons anymore, when I was a child, living in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, they were still very much on peoples’ minds. Odd how these things slip away.
  5. As an aside, there is a fairly strong argument that technological development has essentially stalled as of late, a troublesome development for a world-picture so dependent on continual technological advancement for its own self-justification.
  6. When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-6). We might also thing of the terrifying consumption of Prof. Frost in That Hideous Strength as a metaphor for the modern described by Guardini (this should horrify you).

Of Angels and Motes

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

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

Letter 89, To Christopher Tolkien

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

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

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

Letter 89

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

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

 

Truly wonderful.

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

A Narrative Summary of Alphonsus Liguori’s Uniformity with God’s Will

The devout Father John Tauler relates this personal experience: For years he had prayed God to send him someone who would teach him the real spiritual life.  One day, at prayer, he heard a voice saying: “Go to such and such a church and you will have the answer to your prayers.” He went and at the door of the church he found a beggar, barefooted and in rags.  He greeted the mendicant saying: “Good day, my friend.”
“Thank you, sire, for your kind wishes, but I do not recall ever having had a ‘bad’ day.”
“Then God has certainly given you a very happy life.”
“That is very true, sir.  I have never been unhappy.  In saying this I am  not making any rash statement either.  This is the reason: When I have nothing to eat, I give thanks to God: when it rains or snows, I bless God’s providence; when someone insults me, drives me away, or otherwise mistreats me, I give glory to God.  I said I’ve never had an unhappy day, and it’s the truth, because I am accustomed to will unreservedly what God wills.  Whatever happens to me, sweet or bitter, I gladly receive from his hands as what is best for me.  Hence my unvarying happiness.
“Where did you find God?”
“I found him where I left creatures.”
“Who are you anyway?”
“I am a king”
“And where is your kingdom?
“In my soul, where everything is in good order; where the passions obey reason, and reason obeys God.”
“How have you come to such a state of perfection?”
“By silence.  I practice silence towards men, while I cultivate the habit of speaking with God.  Conversing with God is the way I found and maintain my peace of soul.”
Uniformity with God’s Will, 13-14

(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.

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.