Reaching for the real: St Augustine and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

I just gave a lecture about St Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (I assigned RPH Green’s translation, On Christian Teaching) on Monday, and, since that text has been cited as the place where Augustine invents semiotics, semiotics has been on my mind a bit. And a couple of weeks ago, when choosing my next piece of fiction to read, I decided to finally crack open my copy of Umberto Eco’s 2004 novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

First, semiotics is the study of signs and symbols (but not, I hasten to add, the domain of “symbologists”, whether from Harvard or elsewhere). So, in De Doctrina, Augustine talks about how there are signs (signa) and things (res). All signa happen to be res, but not all res are signa. A signum is something that represents to us a res. Some are natural, such as where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire, and others are human inventions, such as language. The signa of language are sound events representing res, and these disappear as soon as they come into existence (which makes one think of the later books of Confessions with their discussion of time and memory, written not long after these books of De Doctrina). Written words consist of physical, written signs that represent the res that are the spoken signs that represent the res of the rest of the world.

Ultimately, though, Augustine does see all the res we encounter as signa, and that to which they point is the res that is God (but is God a res? [wonders Augustine] Can we really say that? God is ultimately unspeakable, after all…). As we seek ourselves or the great transcendent God, we find that what we seek is almost uncatchable, ungraspable (consider the discussion of the interior self as a vast cavern in Confessions 10).

This, of course, is something that Basil of Caesarea had thought upon in the 360s and 370s, arguing that we think we can know the essence (ousia) of God, when we cannot even know the ousia of other creatures but only their activities (energeiai). In a dangerous move, I wonder if it’s not the case that our energeiai, like those of God, are not, as far as others are concerned, ultimately signa that represent the irreducible res that is each self.

Anyway, in Confessions in various ways, St Augustine engages in a great seeking for himself, found only when he finds the incarnate God and joins the community centred around Him. And along the way, we enter the great mind palace of the memory — itself, to transpose terms from De Doctrina, filled with signa representing various res in which we have been involved throughout our lives.

Can we ever have an unmediated encounter with a res? Or will we always have mediating signa that stand as filters between ourselves and reality? Even between ourselves and ourselves?

There is an argument in semiotics that such is the case.

And thinking these things, I sat down to read some more of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana last night. This novel is about a man called Yambo who has lost his personal memories, but he does remember most of the books he has read. The novel thus begins with a barrage of intertexts about fog — a recurring theme both in the book and in Yambo’s life. Throughout the rest of the book there will be allusions interwoven into the text as well as great quoted chunks of intertext and images interspersed as Yambo seeks to discover the self he has lost with his memories.

Yambo has only the filter left.

The self composed of memories and experiences on the other side of the filter is gone.

Elsewhere in Eco’s work, the idea of reality being mediated by the signa we have mapped into our minds and hearts surfaces. In Foucault’s Pendulum, for example, the characters’ entire existence is essentially mediated by literature, to such an extent that a simple drive in the Italian countryside is not a direct encounter with nature and beauty but, rather, with literature about the countryside as it is called forth from memory unbidden.

I recall the day I thought, “My sons lives are a web of intertextuality,” as the elder boy at two-and-a-half stood naked with a plastic tub on his head and said, “Do you like my hat?” Maybe I’m the one caught in the web, as I immediately thought of Go, Dog! Go! by P D Eastman. But their lives have certainly blossomed forth into a variety of allusions to and quotations from their books.

I can’t think of any of them right now — but my intertexts have certainly become theirs, as those nights with them running up and down the hall, the elder boy yelling, “I’m Batman! I’m not wearing hockey pants!” over and over again.

I certainly can’t hear, “Do you like my hat?” without either, “I do! I do like that party hat!” or, “No I do not.” I can’t hear, “Someone’s banging on a drum,” without saying, “Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum,” in response. How many times at the end of fun for the day have I said, “Today was fun but now it’s done, tomorrow is another one”?

I can’t even hear someone say a two-syllable word with emphasis on the first syllable and a lengthened second syllable without my mind flipping a White Christmas switch, “Pine Tree! Coming in to Pine Tree!”

This entrapment in a web of intertextuality, this inescapable mediatedness of reality, has so many repercussions I don’t know where to go from here. I mean, at some point, we have learned all the things we know, even things we don’t think about having learnt — how to open a doorknob, what a doorknob is, in fact. And so we have this filter of language hovering between us and the door, without which we would possibly have trouble managing our existence.

But there must be a way to truly encounter the things, the res, of reality, to truly meet with the door and the doorknob.

Right?

The small consolations of ancient “consolatio”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A friend recently passed away from as-yet unknown (to me) medical causes. He was 37, going on 38. Lots of thoughts and responses have been going through my mind and heart, of course. At the same time, professionally, I am starting to work on a book chapter about ancient letters and the science of historical study, so various thoughts about ancient letters have been emerging.

These two facets of my reality meet in the ancient letter of consolation, unsurprisingly simply called consolatio in Latin. These letters and the philosophical themes they bring up dance on the periphery of my existence. I feel that they are a good reminder of two things:

  1. Ancient people are different from us.
  2. There’s very little anyone can say to console you in the midst of the loss of a loved one.

Typically, the author of one of these expresses his own grief at the death in question. Then, if the dead person was known to the writer, he expresses his admiration for a life well-lived. At some point, there is some consolation in the fact that we all die, and a reminder that the person in question has been removed from the toils of this mortal life — whether of illness or that person’s particular misfortune or political circumstances.

I cannot, for the moment, find the specific letter from Cicero, but in one of his Ad Familiares (given by D R Shackleton Bailey in English as “To his friends”), Cicero consoles someone on the loss of a son by saying that at least the poor boy didn’t have to live through the evident troubles awaiting the Roman Republic.

Seems cold comfort to me.

Pliny writes a letter (1.12) lamenting the death of a friend who had committed suicide at age 67, asking for some consolation better than the fact that Corellius had lived a good life, was old, and had been ill with gout in his feet since age 32.

In the 400s, Sidonius Apollinaris writes consolatio to the effect that one should not weep for someone whose great and good name lives on after him (Ep. 4.11.6). He also strikes a Christian tone that good deeds buy heavenly reward. This is the new addition, found in Gregory the Great (Ep. 1.11) and Ruricius of Limoges (Ep. 2.3).

One of the new tones besides the hope of heaven is finding comfort in Christ, expressed by Gregory in Ep. 1.11 and Ruricius in 2.3 and 2.39. Ruricius also points out that bodily death is not a true cause of grief but, rather, spiritual death (2.46).

When I first had news of my friend’s death, my position was far more Plinian than anything. What does it matter that he does not have to live through whatever fresh hell COVID-19, racial unrest, and a tanking economy have to offer? What does it matter that he lived a good life and will be fondly remembered by his family, friends, and colleagues? He is gone, never to return.

As time passes, though, and especially as I see some of the strength of his sister’s posts on Facebook, there is comfort in Sidonius, Gregory, and Ruricius, that Andrew lived a good life, that he had fled to Christ for his trust in the resurrection.

Knowing that Andrew will be with us at the resurrection day, St Ambrose’s funeral speech on his brother Satyrus now comes to me, infusing the themes of consolatio with abundant Christian theology and the great solace that comes of knowing what awaits him. Change a few details, and this can apply as well:

He had no need of being raised again for time, for whom the raising again for eternity is waiting. For why should he fall back into this wretched and miserable state of corruption, and return to this mournful life, for whose rescue from such imminent evils and threatening dangers we ought rather to rejoice? For if no one mourns for Enoch, who was translated when the world was at peace and wars were not raging, but the people rather congratulated him, as Scripture says concerning him: “He was taken away, lest that wickedness should alter his understanding,” with how much greater justice must this now be said, when to the dangers of the world is added the uncertainty of life. He was taken away that he might not fall into the hands of the barbarians; he was taken away that he might not see the ruin of the whole earth, the end of the world, the burial of his relatives, the death of fellow-citizens; lest, lastly, which is more bitter than any death, he should see the pollution of the holy virgins and widows. (On the Death of Satyrus, ch. 30)

10 books, no. 3: The Philokalia

My third of ten books (sorry I fell behind on this) was The Philokalia, vol. 1:

The Philokalia is a five-volume anthology of Greek-language (plus a Greek translation of bits of John Cassian) ascetic/mystical texts focussed on the art of prayer, the prayer of the heart, pure prayer — viz., the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

It was compiled in 1782 by Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain (that is, Athos) and Makarios of Corinth, drawn from a selection of Athonite manuscripts of Greek-language spiritual masters that were themselves what the compilers thought of as “paterika” — anthologies of the “fathers”. In the Orthodox world, the “fathers” do not end in 749 with the death of John of Damascus (as in western assessments of “patristics”) but potentially extend until today. The “fathers” selected here run from the fourth through fourteenth century.

I call these “Greek-language” texts because simply saying “Greek” will give the wrong idea to a modern reader — the monks herein are from Egypt, Mt Sinai, Judaea-Palestine, and Syria as well as from the “Greek” Mount Athos. They do not provide a vision of the entire Christian life or all of Orthodox spirituality, but simply an approach to pure prayer and the union of the mind with the heart, focussing largely on the Jesus Prayer, as noted above.

A shorter anthology emerged around the same time, and it may not be a shortened Philokalia, according to recent research, but actually an independent text based on the same or similar manuscripts. It is often called the shorter or little Russian Philokalia, and it is the book in the popular anonymous novel The Way of a Pilgrim. Along with the Russian translation of Isaac the Syrian, it was influential on the Optina Fathers and nineteenth-century Russian spiritual masters such as Theophan the Recluse.

Volume 1 is all that I’ve read of The Philokalia. It is entirely ancient, mostly fourth- and fifth-century authors, going possibly up to the later seventh. Not all of the authors are securely dated. It includes: Isaiah the Solitary; Evagrius Ponticus; John Cassian; Mark the Ascetic (or the Monk); Hesychios the Priest; Nilos of Ancyra; Diadochos of Photiki; John of Karpathos, and a pseudonymous text of Antony the Great.

In the first volume, the prayer of the heart and the conditions for it are charted to the emergence of the name of Jesus and the Jesus Prayer in the fifth century. It is a powerful, challenging book of a more than historical interest.

Finally, this translation is a version of The Philokalia in the spirit of Nikodimos and Makarios rather than a translation of The Philokalia as printed in Venice in 1782. The translators translate the same selections from the authors, but they reattribute them where we know better who wrote a text, and they translate them from modern critical editions. Moreover, they also produce their own general introduction to the volume besides introductions to each author and an invaluable glossary at the back.

If you are interested in Eastern Orthodox spirituality or a certain tradition of the ancient Desert, this book is a difficult but worthy place to begin.

Was Late Antiquity an age of spirituality?

Before I launch into this post, I’d like to make it clear that I greatly admire the work of Kurt Weitzmann and have enormously profited from the book Age of Spirituality, which the Metropolitan Museum Art has available as a free download. Now, onto the show.

Sometimes, when I read titles of articles and books about Late Antiquity, and sometimes even the content, I get the impression that there are people out there who imagine Late Antiquity to have been uniquely religious, or particularly “spiritual” — that there was a spiritual ferment in the years 284-641 (or earlier, if you take on the timeline of Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity).

I am not sure that this is true. (And I hope I’m not constructing a strawman. Hopefully my academic colleagues are aware of this. It’s mostly just an impression.)

When I say that, I am not saying that Late Antiquity is not an age of spirituality. I mean that the designation is misleading. When we talk about this as an age of spirituality, there is an unspoken assumption that “classical antiquity” was not. Allow me to articulate, first, why we might think this, and second, why I think “classical antiquity” was as “spiritual” as Late Antiquity.

Why might we think that Late Antiquity was more spiritual?

The nature of the evidence for religious activity in Late Antiquity leads us to think this way, I believe. One of main cultural events of Late Antiquity was the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, and hot on its heels came the rise of Islam. Cultural historians have to deal with these two facts, and, since Islam and Christianity are both still lived religions, the evidence for each in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages is still available.

I know Christianity a lot better than Islam, and its history in the period is better documented, anyway. Two things about evidence for late antique Christianity give it an edge over other ancient religious traditions. First, it neither went underground nor ceased existing. The traditional Roman priesthoods all died out in Late Antiquity. No more sacrifices were made. No new hymns were written. The monuments were no longer maintained. Christianity, on the other hand, kept going.

Second, in the Early Middle Ages, the gatekeepers of knowledge were monks. Now, as anyone who has read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, knows, monks loved them some Virgil and Ovid. They read and copied the “pagan classics.” But, by and large, given the expense involved in making a book, they read and copied Bibles, liturgical books, ascetic/mystical treatises, and the Church Fathers. As a result, we simply have more knowledge about the religious experience of Late Antiquity because people were copying it down.

Related to this is the fact that, although many things about Late Antiquity are foreign to us (very few people have any desire to live on a pillar in the Syrian desert, for example), because of Christianisation, the spiritual texts of Late Antiquity seem familiar to us. Their religious experience looks like what we expect religious experience to look like because, even if fewer and fewer of us in western academia are professing Christians, we frame our religious language and experience in these same terms — or in an explicit rejection of them.

Ancient pagans, on the other hand, don’t fare nearly as well. Most surviving ancient Latin texts are Late Antique in the first place. More Augustine survives than any other ancient Latin author. I believe St Jerome comes in second place. Late Antique Latin texts dwarf their classical predecessors for quantity. As a result, even if pagan religious experience were not foreign, we simply have less of it to deal with.

Another reason, however, has to do with our own prejudices, Christian on one hand and Enlightenment on the other. Neither position does justice to non-Christian religious experience in antiquity. The Christian prejudice, for example, explains the relatively rapid Christianisation in Late Antiquity because paganism was empty and dead, just a bunch of formal rituals and such. Now, not only is this untrue of late antique paganism (consider the Neo-Platonist experience), it is untrue of classical religion as well.

The Enlightenment, on the other hand, discounts the religious element of classical antiquity. My first-year philosophy professor completely disregarded the religious elements of Plato, downplaying them as having any real bearing upon his philosophy. We like talking about people who challenged traditional religion without acknowledging that perhaps they have their own distinct religious experience from which their challenge arises. Instead, we imagine the Greeks and Romans as a bunch of Enlightenment rationalists (E R Dodds has put this to rest in The Greeks and the Irrational).

It is my contention — and it certainly needs more research to be proven and publishable in an academic forum — that classical antiquity, and archaic antiquity, had its own meaningful, distinct religious experience. It was every bit as spiritual as Late Antiquity.

Post-Script

Another angle is: What about unspirituality in Late Antiquity? What do we say of authors who seem largely secular such as Ammianus? Or Christians like Sidonius who write verse populated by pagan deities?

10 books, no. 2: Ubi Fera Sunt

I was twice challenged on Facebook to post a book cover per day for a period of days. I forget if it was 7 books in 7 days or 10 in 10. I chose 10. I think they were supposed to be influential and not just favourites, so I sought books that have influenced me. Allow me to write some musings on them, one by one…

Book No. 2: Ubi Fera Sunt by Maurice Sendak, translated by Richard A. Lafleur

When I posted the image of The Tale of Peter Rabbit on Facebook, someone commented, “Not the Latin version?” I only own three children’s books translated into Latin — Ubi Fera SuntWinnie-ille-Pu, and Hobbitus Ille. I had been planning on posting Where the Wild Things Are at some point, anyway, so I took the opportunity and posted its Latin translation as book no. 2.

First, Ubi Fera Sunt: This is a fun, enjoyable read. The Latin has a nice rhythm to it. I commend Lafleur for his work here, although I don’t know why “wild rumpus” was not translated as “rumpus ferox” or “ferox rumpus” or somesuch. My eldest son has enjoyed listening to it in the past, although last time he got frustrated when he asked me to take it down from the bookcase, and it turned out not to be in English!

So then he got the English version.

So, Where the Wild Things Are. I have fond memories of liking this book as a child, although I have no memory of having read it until I was an undergrad. My childhood memories, in fact, are largely associated with my eldest brother, for some reason. Perhaps he was the owner of the book.

As I have written on this blog before, I like this book because it is absolute story, much as a Bach toccata is absolute music. There is no moral to the story. This is not a story about issues. It is, pure and simple, a story about a boy imagining things, except that they are presented as the prime events as the story and not really as imaginings.

Max’s imagination is not an escape from anything other than any child’s life. We do not need divorce or sadness of any kind for this story to work. We need little boys and girls and what they do when left alone in their rooms without supper. That is all.

Whether in English or Latin, I love this book. It is splendid, and it is a joy to share it with my sons.

10 Books, no. 1: The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

I was twice challenged on Facebook to post a book cover per day for a period of days. I forget if it was 7 books in 7 days or 10 in 10. I chose 10. I think they were supposed to be influential and not just favourites, so I sought books that have influenced me. Allow me to write some musings on them, one by one…

Book No. 1: The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Peter Rabbit has been a long-time, near-constant companion of mine in one way or another. First, it was one of the earliest books in my experience (of course), although I suspect I encountered Good Night, Moon before it. Second, I used Peter Rabbit dishes as a child, and I have a very small stuffed Peter Rabbit who has now be acquired by my eldest son.

Third, The Tale of Peter Rabbit is a near-perfect kids’ book. It is a story with a plot and realistic drawings. Although there may be a moral (Do as your mother says so as not to be eaten by the neighbours), it is mostly an adventure story about a rabbit seeking to escape Mr McGregor’s garden and not be caught by the gardener and put in a pie as his father had been.

I would like to pause here and think about the character of Mr McGregor. Even before the release of the Peter Rabbit film (which I refused to see), it had come home to me that Mr McGregor is not a villain. Unlike the character in the film, who seems to be a psychopathic animal-hater based on the trailers, he is a man with a garden. Like all men with gardens, he does not want herbivorous animals eating his vegetables. Therefore, he seeks to drive them away. If caught and edible, he will eat them.

Mr McGregor is not a villain. He is a human.

Nonetheless, from the rabbit perspective, Mr McGregor is, at least, the antagonist of the story. He is not malicious; he is simply a force of nature to be avoided by wise rabbits, the same way one might avoid a grizzly bear.

This approach to Mr McGregor is consonant with the rest of Beatrix Potter’s books. Consider Jemima Puddle Duck, who succeeds in laying eggs safe from a fox only to have them gobbled up by puppies at the end of the story. Or Squirrel Nutkin who taunts a deadly predator and loses only  his tail. We would not say that dogs or owls or foxes are villains; neither is Mr McGregor.

Anyway: Fourth, the board book pictured above is one of the first books we bought for our eldest son, now almost three years old. My journey with The Tale of Peter Rabbit has become more intensified over the last three years. I read this tale to both of my sons often. It is comfortable and comforting, up there with the nightly ritual of Good Night, Moon and singing lullabies I first heard from my own mother.

Bodies beyond sex

I am just beginning to (finally) read Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. In my final trip to the library of St Paul University yesterday, I read Andrew Louth’s 1990 review of the book in question. The review was overall positive, but one note he struck is one that I sometimes feel as well.

Louth observes that “today” (that is, 1990), when you see a book with “body” in the title, you immediately know that it is going to be about sex. And so with this book. His concern with this modern preoccupation with sex is that it was not, in fact, always the main preoccupation of the ancient authors, which therefore produces something of an unintended distortion of their teachings. Yes, Brown may get their teaching on sex right, but without being fully situated, contextualised, and relativised to each author’s wider ideas about the body, we may believe that they were all very, even overly, concerned with sex.

I am at present working on an article about John Cassian’s Conferences, one of the early, foundational texts of Latin monasticism. Cassian’s fourteenth Conference — about chastity — is part of Brown’s concern, largely as a quiet response to Augustine. (In many ways, Cassian is a balancing force against medieval Augustinianism, both being read and copied innumerable times by the monks of the western Middle Ages.) As Brown notes, for Cassian, sexuality is not the heart of the person, but rather a symptom, and the deepest recesses of the person are where the true, most baleful sins lie — “anger, greed, avarice, and vainglory.” (p. 420, 2008 ed.)

Indeed, as Boniface Ramsey notes in the commentary of his translation of the Conferences, food was a much more pervasive concern of the Desert Fathers than sex — something that Brown, in fact, notes. (But Ramsey is not at hand, so I cannot give you a reference to either him or Brown.)

At the same time as all of this, we are reading Clement of Alexandria‘s Paedagogus over at Read the Fathers. In Book 2 of this work, Clement says that since we are rational and have submitted ourselves to God the Word as our paedagogus, we must keep our bodies in check. The chapters of Book 2 are as follows:

  1. On eating
  2. On drinking
  3. On costly vessels (against luxurious tableware)
  4. How to conduct ourselves at feasts (mostly about music)
  5. On Laughter
  6. On Filthy Speaking
  7. Directions for Those Who Live Together
  8. On the Use of Ointments and Crowns (garlands?)
  9. On Sleep
  10. On the procreation of children
  11. On clothes
  12. On shoes
  13. Against Excessive Fondness for Jewels and Gold Ornaments

These are all, in one way or another, matters to do with how we live as embodied human persons, are they not? Food, drink, the treatment of food and drink, the use of our mouths, sleep, etc. Sex does not emerge until chapter 10.

The embodied human existence is more than sex, and all of us know it. I believe a new generation of scholars is pointing us in this direction, not only John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, who is definitely of a generation prior to mine, but my colleagues as well.

If we wish to grasp the ancients as they saw themselves, we need to understand their treatment of the body in matters of sex as well as eating, drinking, sleeping, excreting, dressing, laughing, and so forth.

Bibliography

Behr, John. Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement. Oxford, 2000.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society. New York, 2008 (20th anniversary ed., originally 1988).

Louth, Andrew. Review of The Body and SocietyJournal of Theological Studies ns 4 (1990), 231-235.

Ramsey, Boniface. John Cassian: The Conferences. New York.

Why I am lead admin at Read the Fathers

7th-c fresco from when Curia became a church, now in the museum at Cripta Balbi, Rome

There is a website called Read the Fathers, and it sets out a reading plan that renews every seven years to read big chunks of most of the significant ancient Christian writers, ordered according to the old Victorian Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series. The original seven-year cycle ran from December 2012 to the end of November 2019. In December 2019, there was interest (from my brother) to start the cycle again, but the original administrators did not want to carry on the job (understandably).

So I took it on.

I have chosen to be the lead admin at Read the Fathers for a few reasons: my research and teaching, the usefulness of the project, and a desire to adapt the website to promote greater engagement with ancient Christianity.

My research and teaching

I research ancient Christianity for a living. The medieval manuscripts I read are not chosen willy-nilly. While I often focus on papal letters or canon law, the main thrust of the texts I research is that they are in some way related to the lived religion of late ancient Christianity. My Ph.D. dissertation was a study of over 300 manuscripts, all of which transmit letters of Pope Leo the Great (pope, 440-461), one of the chief agitators for the Council of Chalcedon in 451. My first post-doc was an analysis of manuscripts containing select letters of a few of Leo’s predecessors. Besides Leo, I have an article about the sixth-century Syriac historian John of Ephesus, and I am working on an article about the reception of Evagrius of Pontus’ demonology by John Cassian in the 400s.

I am a Classicist: a Latinist and Roman historian. The focus of my research is late antique Christianity.

It just makes sense, then, that I should read as many late antique Christian texts as I can. By reading more and more ancient Christian writings, I become better able to integrate the texts I focus on directly in my research — usually canon law or monastic — into their own context and the history of ideas. By reading more of these writings, I see what distinguishes one writer from another more clearly. I become a better reader of Leo, Cassian, John of Ephesus, by becoming a reader of Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian.

Furthermore, I even get to teach ancient Christianity sometimes. As a Ph.D. student I taught “Christianity Before Constantine” and “The History of Christianity As a World Religion Before 1453”. As Teaching Fellow in Late Roman History, I taught one explicitly religious course — “The Bishop and City of Rome in Late Antiquity” — but ancient Christianity was part of “The Emperor in the Late Roman World” and “Crisis, Continuity, and Culture in the Fifth Century,” besides the lecture I gave on early Christianity in the survey course about the Roman Empire.

Reading “the Fathers” will do nothing but profit such teaching. Indeed, it even gives valuable context and discussion for teaching Greek and Roman mythology!

Choosing to be the lead admin will give me impetus not to put reading and re-reading these texts off to another day.

The Usefulness of the Project

I have always been something of a “Classics evangelist.” I love ancient (and medieval) literature. I love Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Euripides, Sophocles, Seneca, Plato, et al. I think they are worth reading in and of themselves. I also think that understanding the classics helps us understand our own culture, since we are in some way heirs of the ancient Greeks and Romans (neither are we the only heirs, nor are the ancient Greeks and Romans the only ancestors of “western” culture — but the point stands).

So also for the Church Fathers. If you are interested in intellectual history and how “we got here”, you can’t just jump from Aristotle to Descartes, or (if you’re a Protestant of a certain variety) from the Apostles to Martin Luther, or, indeed, from Augustine to Aquinas. Knowing the movers, shakers, and shapers of the ancient Christian tradition puts the medieval and modern traditions into clearer focus, I believe.

For Christians, reading ancient Christianity is a way of coming to grips with one’s own heritage, with the thoughts and lives of the people involved in forming a New Testament canon, in articulating the foundational doctrines of Christian theology, in bodying forth liturgy, monasticism, canon law. Whether one accepts the forms of ritual, living, and believing of the ancient Christians is, in a certain way, beside the point. I know a Catholic who says that one must first know “orthodoxy” before rejecting it if one is to be a proper heretic.

Since I believe in the project — read seven pages of Patristics a day for seven years and good things will happen to you — I am willing to keep it running.

The Future of the Project

I have taken on this project, finally, because I want to give it a future. Right now, we are trying to come up with solutions for setting the calendar free so that new readers can join with the Apostolic Fathers whenever they want, and start the seven-year cycle as they please.

My other desire for the project is to slowly transform it into an open access encyclopedia of ancient Christianity. To that end, I have attempted recruiting my Patristics network to write introductory posts that will serve as the heart of the encyclopedia (only one person has said yes). It strikes me that it would be great to have an up-to-date, high-quality, scholarly website that not only gives readers a reading plan for the Fathers and a blog to discuss the Fathers but also solid information on the Fathers.

Hopefully in the next seven years I’ll get that sorted out.

Some reasons to read Beowulf

Here are just a few reasons why you might want to read Beowulf. First, it is a famous example of literature from the Early Middle Ages. Second, it represents English-language literature in its infancy. Third, it has had impacted modern literature since its rediscovery.

The Early Middle Ages, although politically fractured and certainly with a lower standard of living than the Later Roman Empire or the High Middle Ages, are a period of great creativity and transformation within western Europe, as the post-Roman world resettles itself into something new. Beowulf is, in many ways, indicative of the Early Middle Ages. Culturally, the Early Middle Ages see the introduction of literacy and Christianity to more and more ‘barbarians’—the English, Irish, Scots, Dutch, various continental Germanic peoples, Danes, and more. As a poem about the pagan past being told from a Christian perspective, Beowulf encapsulates the early medieval world, not simply by showing us aspects of Anglo-Saxon society (the beerhall with the lord bestowing gifts upon his thegns—the world of Sutton Hoo), but of European society more broadly (the transformation of barbarian pagans into literate Christians).

Beowulf is one of the earliest long-form English poems. It shows, in a certain way, the foundations of English literature. This is a lofty claim; Beowulf certainly exerted no direct influence on Chaucer, who certainly had closer English poets as well as French and Latin literature to hand. Nonetheless, Beowulf was written in the English vernacular, composed from the stuff of the oral legends that existed as part of the cultural inheritance the English brought with them from the Continent. Its intrinsic interest, then, is that it is a so-called ‘primary’ epic, such as Gilgamesh, the Homeric epics, and The Song of Roland, as opposed to Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, Dante, or Ariosto. It depicts a pre-literate, warrior society, yet is itself cast in a beautiful, lyric form. Beowulf carries with it not just daring adventure and heroism, but also the hope of heaven and high ideals of loyalty and honour. These are ideals that are known to capture the hearts and minds of most people. Reading Beowulf shows us English poetry when England was barely English.

Finally, Beowulf has a strong influence on modern literature and art. Like most, if not all, early medieval vernacular literature, it lay dormant for many years. But nationalism, romanticism, and the rise of vernacular philology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant that this Old English epic has found new life, being ushered back into the canon of English-language classics. Immediately, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien, Oxford’s first Professor of Anglo-Saxon and critic of Beowulf comes to mind—especially since the publication of his translation with notes in 2014. It is widely known that Tolkien was influenced by Beowulf in crafting his fantasies, and The Hobbit in particular. From my own experience, many young people have been ushered into classic literature through the twofold gateway of Tolkien and Lewis. Beowulf also inspired the later portions of Eaters of the Dead (filmed as 1999’s The 13th Warrior) when Michael Crichton takes the story beyond Ibn Fadlan’s surviving narrative.

Furthermore, modern adaptations have made Beowulf a known entity, but—like the famous Victorian trio of horror stories, Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—very little read. It has been unfaithfully adapted multiple times for the cinema, as well as a more faithful animated version with the voice talents of Derek Jacobi and Joseph Fiennes. In print, John Gardner has given us Grendel, telling the tale from the perspective of the monster, and Gareth Hinds produced a vivid and captivating graphic novel. One of my favourite adaptations of Beowulf is the stilt play! There has also been an anthology of short fiction about the character inspired by the epic.

So, if you take C S Lewis’s advice and read an old book after every new book, why not pick up Beowulf next time? I’ve read and recommend the translations of Liuzza, Crossley-Holland, and Tolkien, but I expect Heaney’s is more than worth your time.

Virgilian opera!

Today, to drown out the noise around me, I decided to play Berlioz’s opera Les Troyens on iTunes, and I realised that here was one aspect of the Virgilian tradition I had completely neglected in my recent post! Opera! I am astonished at myself, quite frankly.

Les Troyens is my preferred Virgilian opera. It was composed by Hector Berlioz between 1856 and 1858, and Berlioz wrote his own libretto for it. Berlioz is probably most famous for Symphonie fantastique (and rightly so). He is a master of the Romantic ability to capture emotion in music — when he attended a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with his music teacher, he was thrilled to bits. His teacher felt that music should not be that exciting!

Well, Berlioz writes exciting music. He was the sort of person who is struck by inspiration, hears the music in his mind, and then meticulously orders it into something beautiful that fulfills the inspiration that came. Les Troyens captures the rich emotions of the first half of the Aeneid, binding them up in music and drawing you along.

My copy is the recording of the London Symphony Orchestra from 2000, with Ben Heppner, Michelle DeYoung, and Petra Lang, and Sir Colin Davis conducting. Many thanks to Uncle Ted who gave me it! Here it is:

The only other Virgilian opera I’ve listened to is Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. From the 1680s, this Baroque opera is from an entirely different era of music from Berlioz. What Purcell does here is create less an atmosphere, if you will (as Berlioz), but more of … a musical staging, if that makes sense. This epic retelling is, as the title suggests, only the part of the Aeneid where the Trojans are in Africa.

My copy of Dido and Aeneas is the 2004 recording by Musica ad Rhenum, from the Netherlands, Jed Wentz conducting, featuring Matthew Baker, Francine van der Heijden, and Nicola Wemyss. Rather than that recording, however, I thought you might enjoy the BBC film adaptation of Purcell instead:

Other Virgilian operas include Francesco Cavalli’s Didone (1640), Domenico Sarro’s Didone abbandonata (1724), and Niccolo Piccini’s Didon (1783) . There may be more — I am not sure. Gavin and Uncle Ted probably know. 😉