Category Archives: Literature

An allusion to Leo the Great in Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm; image from Wikipedia

Today I found a convergence between my current reading and my Ph.D. (plus my 2016 article in Studia Patristica). Anselm of Canterbury, in his philosophical discussion of the ‘supreme essence’, and shortly before attempting to use logic to prove the Trinity (a dubious task at best), writes:

Videtur ergo consequi ex praecedentibus quod iste spiritus, qui sic suo quodam mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili modo est, quadam ratione solus sit, alia vero quaecumque videntur esse, huic collata non sint. (Monologion 28)

Therefore, it seems to follow from the preceding that that spirit, who exists in a certain marvellously singular and singularly marvellous way, for some reason, exists alone; although everything else seems to exists, it does not exist compared to it [that is, the supreme essence].

The phrase that catches the eye is, ‘mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili‘, which I have translatedm ‘marvellously singular and singularly marvellous.‘ Although in the ablative, this is a direct quotation of Leo’s Tome (Ep. 28):

singulariter mirabilis et mirabiliter singularis

It’s a nice turn of phrase, a happy little chiasmus. The context of the phrase is different in Leo; he is talking about the Incarnation, that Christ’s birth was ‘singularly marvellous and marvellously singular’. Singularis could also be translated as unique.

Is the allusion conscious? I do not know. It is clear, however, that Leo’s most famous dogmatic letter is part of Anselm’s reading list. One of the points made by Jean Leclercq’s classic work, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God is the fact that monastic writers tend to make allusions to and quote classical and patristic authors almost unconsciously. Their formation as monks, their study of grammatica, was filled with those authors considered to be the best stylists by the medieval monks, both pagan and Christian: Vergil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great. Beauty is an attribute of God; therefore, even Ovid is worth reading because he is beautiful.

Anselm was the principal teacher at the monastery of Bec, 1063-1078. In 1078 he was made abbot. The Monologion whence comes the Leonine allusion under consideration was his first major work, published, he says, at the insistence of his students. His Proslogion would follow as well as De Grammatico. All of these works show the imprint of the school room and the necessity to teach grammar and literature to students and young monks.

As a result of his textual immersion in the ancient pagans and church fathers, Anselm’s mind was formed by more than just logic. It was shaped by Latin, by the art of teaching grammar. These texts would be imprinted on his mind and heart by constant reference to them, time and again. The Tome of Leo, I am given to understand, has often been monastic reading at Christmastide. I wonder if such was the case at Bec in the 1060s?

Anyway, Anselm is trying to demonstrate the logic of belief in God using pure reason. It is an almost impossible task, especially when you start to spot the Platonist assumptions that lie behind some of his premisses. Nonetheless, this naked approach to discussing God was not always well met by his contemporaries. His teacher Lanfranc, having moved on to the Archbishopric of Canterbury (a position Anselm would hold himself), criticised the Monologion for not making reference to Augustine of Hippo.

Yet I have no doubt it does, in the sense of allusion. It alludes to Leo the Great. Augustine is a much bigger source for medieval thought than Leo, although Leo is important for setting the boundaries of belief held by catholic churchmen.

What does the allusion to Leo mean? Obviously the Tome is Anselm’s intertext. That is easy. And no doubt throughout, his bare logic is interwoven with other intertexts I have not seen. For Leo, it is (to borrow a phrase from G.K. Chesterton, The Thing) the ‘stereoscopic vision of the two natures of Christ’ that holds his vision and guides his meditation. Leo does not necessarily work from logic; indeed, the chief complaint from Leo’s posthumous adversary, Severus of Antioch, is that Leo does not use logic well enough and falls into heresy. Leo’s argument is driven by rhetoric, by an innate sense of western catholic thought, by scriptural authority.

Anselm, on the other hand, is driven by logic. Moreover, this meditatio that he has produced is a sustained reflection on the nature of divinity and deducible by logic. Leo and Augustine intrude not as conscious sources but as unconscious guides. By transplanting the Leo quotation from the context of the Incarnation to the context of the divine essence, to the realm of logic and pure theology, Anselm has elevated the phrase to the highest heights of the seventh heaven, beyond even the primum mobile. His mind is not bound by the original use of the phrase, and he takes what is a lovely rhetorical device and deploys it in the midst of an exercise in logic that tires the modern mind.

This allusion to Leo’s Tome sets out for us precisely what sets Anselm apart. He is so thoroughly steeped in the classical-Christian Latin tradition of Bec’s school room that when he engages in the philosophy of religion and seeks to use logic alone to prove the core dogmas of catholic thought, he cannot help bringing with him these monastic and classical and, indeed, dogmatic intertexts. He is a man of two worlds; not yet a scholastic but strongly contrasted with the poetic monastic discourses of Bernard of Clairvaux in a few decades.

The 12th century


The Ambulatory at St-Denis, the birth of Gothic architecture

Every once in a while you are confronted with ‘important’ periods in history — 135 BC to AD 14, for example, takes us through the collapse of the Roman Republic to the death of Augustus, the first Emperor. Or the fourth century, with the continuation of Diocletian’s reforms, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the various church councils and associated theologians, all culminating in what Peter Brown calls the ‘second’ Golden Age of Latin literature. Or the 16th century, an age of Reformation and print and philosophy and war.

The 12th century is similarly important, especially its middle decades.

The final year of the 11th century is the year the Crusaders took Jerusalem. The final decades of 1000s also saw the Investiture Controversy and the Gregorian Reform, which continued beyond 1100 and adjusted the balance of secular and ecclesiastical power in Europe. In the midst of this is St Anselm (1033-1109), whose Cur Deus Homo was completed in the year 1100; this brilliant logician and theologian was to die in 1109.

Not that Latin theology was left with no new lights in the upcoming decades — St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) helped drive forward the new Cistercian Order and is a high point in western mysticism, particularly his sermons on the Song of Songs, begun in 1135; he is often called the Last of the Fathers and is a ‘Doctor’ of the church. Bernard sharpened his wit in intellectual combat against Peter Abelard (1079-1142), who is an early ‘scholastic’ theologian (whereas Bernard was a monk) who was more given over to Aristotle than to Plato, to logic than to mysticism, and who was involved in the methodological revolution in the universities that we call ‘Scholasticism’.

Abelard was important and is known even to non-medievalists today, often because of his relationship with Heloise and their illegitimate son, Astrolabe (we have even a Penguin Classics translation of their letters!). However, some of his controversial conclusions were rejected by the succeeding tradition; one of his successors, Peter Lombard (1100-1160), on the other hand, wrote what would become the standard textbook of theology for the Middle Ages, the Sentences (1147-50), on which the luminaries of the next century, such as St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), would write commentaries. Although his orthodoxy, like Abelard’s, was challenged, his memory was acquitted at the Lateran Council of 1215.

Around the same time as Peter Lombard’s greatest work and the mystical masterpieces of St Bernard, but in the final years of Abelard, Gratian wrote his Decretum — or, rather, ‘Concord of Discordant Canons’. This is one of the most influential works of canon law from the Middle Ages, drawing together the various sources of the law under systematised headings and providing Gratian’s own dicta to sort out the discrepancies between. It is at once a source for canon law, a juristic text for legal principles, as well as a study in Christian sacraments. The Decretum is a wondrous piece of 12th-century learning, born in the university at Bologna in 1139 with final edits in the 1140s. Like Lombard’s Sentences it would become a standard textbook for the rest of the Middle Ages.

These are what initially inspired me to write this post. Nonetheless, this is also the century of the birth of Gothic art under the vision of Abbot Suger of St-Denis; the great architecture of Norman Sicily comes this century as well. Towards the end of the century the Nibelungenlied — Germany’s great vernacular epic — was written (I’ve blogged on it here often in the past). The latter half of the century also sees Chrétien de Troyes (1130-1191), Marie de France (fl. 1160-1215), and Hartmann von Aue (1160-1210s). This the century of that medieval stereotype, the troubadour.

No piece about the twelfth century should go without mentioning the dubiously historical work of Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095-1155), that famous History of the Kings of Britain was written, including many famous tales of King Arthur. More reliable was William of Malmesbury (1095-1143), who wrote several important works of English history in Latin prose.

One could go on. It’s interesting to see these convergences, especially the significant pieces written 1140-60.

Review: ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’, a small anthology of Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire (Penguin Little Black Classics #2)As kingfishers catch fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to confess that I find a certain amount of Hopkins’ poetry incomprehensible. Nonetheless, there is a certain beauty to it, even though it is not my cup of tea. This is why I give the book only 3 stars: I acknowledge its artistic merit, simultaneously admitting my own lack of deep appreciation for Hopkins’ work.

That said, some of the imagery is lovely and striking. And his use of language for oral effects — that is, assonance and alliteration — works well. Some of his techniques are things I toy with in my secret pastime writing poetry — disjunction, piling up of adjectives, what-have-you. These sentence fragments. He also has a tendency to write run-on sentences and he makes liberal use of

I am especially fond of ‘Spring’. The descriptions of the created order from his journals were also pleasant and striking. My wife likes to say that creation is God’s first temple, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., has captured the essence of that statement.

What resounded in me here was the poetry of despair. Not that I am, myself, a person in much despair or who has plumbed the depths of human misery. But consider the life of a Jesuit who felt such darkness yet remained faithful to the end.

This brings me to the fact that some of the 1-star reviews cite how ‘religious’ the poetry is as a reason they didn’t like it. All I have to say is if you find this particular selection of Gerard Manley Hopkins too religious, you have had little contact with religious poetry, and will probably shrink in revulsion from Donne, Herbert, Milton, and even a certain amount of Blake and Christina Rossetti, not to mention a huge quantity of medieval English verse (setting aside continental vernaculars, Latin, and Greek). There is, perhaps, a spiritual/religious sense or feeling to the poetry of Hopkins, but beyond references to Christ, Saviour, God, the Virgin, nothing of dogma or doctrine.

View all my reviews

The thin grasp of reality (Ray Bradbury’s poetic SF)

In my first year of undergrad, I was deeply offended by a dismissive sentence in my English lit textbook, setting aside all ‘genre fiction’ — mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, horror — as not being for the literati or being great, interpretive, artistic literature. It’s been 15 years, so I honestly don’t recall the wording. But something to that effect.

I was offended, of course, because I was 18 and a science fiction and fantasy fan, and all 18-year-olds are easily offended by people who challenge the stuff they like. Nonetheless, even if a lot of SF is pure escape (which may still be art, after all), a lot of it is also great literature. If only more people read it!

I am slowly, one story every once in a while, working my way through Ray Bradbury, Stories, Vol. 1. Whenever anyone disregards the entire genre of science fiction, dismisses it with a sniff, looks down his’er nose at it in scorn, I think fondly on Ray Bradbury and his poetic science fiction. This morning, I read his story ‘No Particular Night or Morning’. This is a snapshot of life aboard a rocket ship in the vast emptiness between the stars. One character, Hitchcock, has started to lose his grip on reality. If he can’t see it, can he know it’s real? Does earth exist — has it ever existed? The sun? Yesterday?

Soon, he begins to doubt the very fabric of the present moment. Are the people in the next room real? Is his friend Clemens, standing in front of him, real? How can Clemens prove his reality to Hitchcock?

One of the things that makes good science fiction very good is when it is a story that needs its imagined context. That’s a tall order at times. One could imagine a similar story to this aboard a sea vessel. Yet in the sea there is still day and night. In space, there is nothing but an endless night. The psychological effects of long-term, interplanetary space travel would probably be grievous. But they are rarely explored in the staples of our SF diet, not in Star Trek, barely in Battlestar Galactica.

You can read this story as just a psychological thrill, the horror of deep space.

But it penetrates to one of the big questions of human existence, interstellar or earthbound.

How do we know what is real? Why do we trust our memories? Why do we trust our senses? Why trust our reason? Indeed, can we trust our memories, senses, reason? Pontius Pilate comes to haunt us, ‘What is truth?’

Ray Bradbury thus brings us from simple entertainment to the horrors of our own inner life, into the realm of psychology, philosophy, theology. This is the sub-branch of philosophy called epistemiology.

How do you know you are real? How do you know that I am real? Least real of all, this digital life. Go feel the sun, kiss your children, eat some pie. Hope that it’s real before it’s all gone…

The Mighty Thor as told by Walter Simonson

I almost entitled this post ‘The Mighty Thor as told and drawn by Walter Simonson’, but the drawing is part of the essence of the medium of the comic book; it is part of how the story is ‘told’ in a broad understanding of the verb ‘to tell’. And Simonson both wrote and drew The Mighty Thor, issues 337-382 (Nov. 1983 – Aug. 1987).

I recently finished the fifth volume of the collected work of Simonson’s Thor saga by Marvel Comics. It was a great ride. I like comic books from the 1980s. There was a strong emphasis upon telling a story, as well as about making each issue count; you don’t have to buy four issues to get a story. However, if you do read four issues of Simonson’s run on The Mighty Thor, you’ll find yourself reading many stages of one big story. Any issue can be your first, but if you stick with it, the story continually expands from the point where you began.

It is, of course, this interconnectedness that makes Simonson’s telling of Thor strong. From the first issue, we see the sword of Surtur being forged, but have no idea what this means, who this is, where this is going — or even what is being forged, at first. Only over the span of multiple issues does this become clear. Meanwhile, we have Thor and Beta Ray Bill; we have Loki scheming; we have monster battles in New York; we have Malekith the Accursed. Yet there is a trajectory for each individual story, tying it into the wider story.

Thus, Malekith leads to Surtur which leads, on the one hand, to Loki almost succeeding at his conquest of Asgard, and on the other hand, Thor and co. riding to Hel. This latter leads to Thor’s curse, which leads ultimately to new armour, Jormungand, and the end of Simonson’s run. Loki seeking Odin’s throne connects us with Balder the Brave (whose miniseries is included in the collected volumes). As I say, it’ s a good ride.

And it should be! J.R.R. Tolkien presents the argument in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ that English literature, because it’s greatest writer was a poet and playwright (Shakespeare), has missed the importance of good stories, with real plots (good plots, complex plots, entertaining plots), overvaluing the internal psychology of characters, which is the sort of thing plays lend themselves to. It’s an interesting hypothesis. Simonson has given us plot, story, a wild ride.

And this makes sense. Super hero comics were originally born as light reading for young boys. That mature women now also read them is good. But the increased sophistication of comic books should not mean a concurrent abandonment of story. Simonson shows us how you can tell a somewhat narratologically complex story through the visual medium of comics.

Such emphasis on a quality plot also makes sense because this is Thor. Walter Simonson knows his Norse myths. He draws his Asgard with an eye on Viking-age Scandinavian material culture. And he interweaves various aspects of Ragnarok into his run in The Mighty Thor, as well as other, broader characters, settings, themes, and stories from Old Norse mythology. There is a narrative realism to the mediaeval sagas — they and the Eddic poetry still tell good stories, whether we think of Njal’s Saga or the Volsunga Saga or the Voluspa.

Simonson also knows his superhero books. So we have traditional superhero tales alongside Viking-style tales alongside some sci-fi. It’s great.

In a very mediaeval sense, it’s romantic. And that’s, alongside the epic, is just what I love.

Review: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts

The Consolation of PhilosophyThe Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read Boethius’ Consolation, I read the Loeb translation by S.J. Tester (this is the update of 1973, rather than the original by E.K. Rand from 1918). This time, it was the Penguin by V.E. Watts, and I found the read much more rewarding. I am not certain if this is because I was 21 or 22 the first time through and I’m 34 now, or if it’s because Watts has a much more fluid style. Either way, I appreciated Boethius’ philosophy and inquiry and arguments as well as connections to other thinkers a lot more now in 2017 than I did in 2004/5. And I believe that a readable translation certainly helps one grasp and enjoy a piece of literature, especially when the literature at hand is philosophy.

The Consolation is one of those ‘great books’ everyone knows about — and many have even read. It had a wide and powerful impact throughout the Middle Ages, including a translation commissioned by King Alfred and influence upon tellings of Orpheus in both Sir Orfeo and Chaucer. The philosophy of Boethius is also evident in Dante’s cosmology.

The historical circumstances of the book are that Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, having held the consulship and served in the administration of Theoderic the Great (King of Italy, 492-526) was accused of treason against the Ostrogth, imprisoned in Pavia, and executed in 525. He was not the only aristocrat to suffer in Theoderic’s final years (the great king seems to have become increasingly paranoid after the accession of Emperor Justin I in 518 — see the Anonymus Valesianus II in Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, Volume III, Books 27-31. Excerpta Valesiana).

While rotting prison, Boethius turned his mind to philosophy to cope with the onset of despair. Parallel with his career in the Late Antique bureaucracy, Boethius had been a great promoter, translator, and interpreter of philosophy, making use of his resources and otium (leisure) as any aristocrat would. He knew Greek and translated a lot of Aristotle into Latin. The result of his philosophical inquiry in prison is this text — a conversation with the goddess Philosophy in the literary form of Menippean Satire (a genre manipulated with scathing effect by Seneca in the Apolocyntosis), which alternates between prose and verse sections of the text. What distinguishes Boethius from many philosophers of the classical period, and which he holds to a degree in common with St Augustine, is his willingness to insert explicit allusions to Homer, Euripides, Virgil, and Lucan as philosophical exempla, besides the implicit allusions to the likes of Juvenal.

Philosophy appears to him in his prison cell in Book 1 and inquires as to why he is so downcast. What follows is a discussion of fortune, providence, fate, freewill, eternity, and more. In many ways, it could be described as ‘Aristotle baptised’, but Boethius brings in Plato and Neoplatonism much along the way, following the ideal of Late Antique philosophers that there is no contradiction between Plato and Aristotle. Here we get the famous description of the fickle Wheel of Fortune (sans Pat Sajak), but while that may be Boethius’ most famous portion of the text today, it may not be the most important.

We are reminded that what all mean seek above all else is happiness (see Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics). But the only being who can be said to truly possess absolute happiness, free from fickle fortune, is God. So anyone who possesses God, must possess true happiness. God is ultimately good, as well. Ergo, evil men may appear to prosper, but ultimately they do not; their wickedness will catch up with them. The goal, then, is to seek the summum bonum, to seek God, and find an eternal sort happiness that can endure to storms of fortune.

There is a lot more that this slim volume goes into, and I won’t chase it all now. It would be too much. I commend Boethius to you; the Consolation will not take long to read. Thus, I will draw the reader’s attention to but one final piece of discussion from this piece of philosophical discourse.

Book 5 is where Boethius deals with freewill and divine foreknowledge. Philosophy’s argument produces a classic, Christian definition of eternity. Here we see Boethius actually turning away from the Greek philosophers who dominate this discourse and picking up St Augustine and other Christian theologians. Rather than being the Hellenic view of eternity as perpetual time, Boethius defines eternity as God’s existence beyond time and his simultaneous of all time. In his own words, the eternal God is:

‘that which embraces and possesses simultaneously the whole fullness of everlasting life, which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the past, that is what may properly be said to be eternal. Of necessity it will always be present to itself, controlling itself, and have present the infinity of fleeting time.’ (Book 5.6, p. 164)

View all my reviews

My review of The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe

The Citadel of the Autarch (The Book of the New Sun, #4)The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the fourth and final volume of Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun — I’ve already reviewed The Shadow of the Torturer which comes first. The first volume helped give us the lay of the land and introduced us to Severian and his far future Urth (that is, Earth) in the last days of the Sun. At the end of that volume, Severian enters exile.

The next two volumes follow the journey motif common to much fantasy — of course, as my review of the first says, this is not quite fantasy as we know it, but a sort of ‘science fantasy’ in the far future. This volume ends the journey motif, not that Severian stops moving around.

Honestly, I was not that interested in the chapters about the fighting in the war, which is why it took me so long to get through it. But immediately following those chapters, the knots start to unravel. Or maybe the loose ends start to be woven together? Whatever the metaphor, stuff happens, and things are revealed that make sense of episodes in the earlier books and various allusions Severian has made throughout.

For example, we learn about the New Sun and what it would take for it to come. We learn more about the ‘cacogens’. We learn about the Autarch and why that is his name. Big cosmic ideas come into play about time, dimensional travel, the universe. As well, my main suspicion about Dorcas was confirmed, but there was a further revelation I never suspected (ooo … the suspense!).

Tying together all these strands of narrative, of description, of enigmatic references from earlier volumes was done deftly. It could easily have descended into too much, too fast. Or large amounts of exposition. But it was done very well. However, I do recommend reading all four volumes in a short span of time. Because Wolfe ties all the strands together, and unloosens all the knots, by the end of volume 4, we have a complete but by no means exhaustive view of Severian’s society, its past, and its future. For those who like world-crafting, I believe Wolfe has done an extraordinary job in creating a rich tapestry without bogging us down all the time with explanations. Indeed, despite my reference to a ‘complete’ view, much is left unexplained — but that’s kind of the point.

All in all, a triumph.

View all my reviews