Category Archives: Philosophy

Notre Dame and ‘Western Civilization’

My first view of Notre Dame, 2012

In the days following the fire that consumed Notre-Dame de Paris’s roof and a certain amount of the cathedral’s west end, people have been making commentary, some of which, I understand, is to the effect that Notre Dame is a symbol of ‘western civilization’. Some of these people, I am given to understand by the outraged on Twitter, are right-wing, racist fanatics. I seem to miss the fanatics themselves but only see the outrage, so I sometimes wonder if the outrage is worth it?

Anyway, some of this outrage is fuelled not simply against racist leveraging of ‘western civilization’ but of the idea itself. Before I get rolling, I’d like to say up front that, although I believe that ‘western civilization’ is a Thing, I do not think it superior other civilizations or cultures. All civilizations and cultures are flawed and fallen, mixing good and bad.

One argument against Notre Dame as a symbol for ‘western civilization’ that I observed was that Gothic architecture owes much to Islamic architecture. Whether or not pointy arches were a moment of independent genius on the part of Suger’s architects and of the Islamic world I cannot say. Nonetheless, for the purposes of my ensuing argument, I will take it as given that pointy arches were first noted by Europeans in Spain when folk were going on pilgrimages and then adopted by architects in northern France.

This, and any other piece of detail, engineering, mathematics, etc., that was borrowed from the Islamic world does not suddenly nullify the fact that Gothic architecture is a thing from western Europe, and pretty much everywhere else it has gone, western Europeans or their descendants brought it with them, such as Gothic Cyprus.

In fact, if we accept the argument that the pointed arch is a direct borrowing into Gothic architecture from Islamic architecture, this in no way impinges on the idea of western civilization. I suspect that many people who object to ‘western civilization’ these days are more worried about Gibbon and the Enlightenment than what came before. If we acknowledge what came before, we see that Latin Christendom is a Thing.

When I say that Latin Christendom is a Thing, I mean that loosely connected group of polities that includes bishoprics that acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as their supreme head, use the Latin language in liturgy, law, theology, philosophy, sometimes poetry, and who think of themselves as somehow being part of the Same Thing, a Thing that is not the Greek-speaking Roman Thing to the East or the Arabic-speaking Islamic Thing to the South.

An example of the fact that Latin Christendom, internally, is a Thing can be found in the careers of two Archbishops of Canterbury. Lanfranc was born in Pavia. He went on to be schoolmaster at Bec, in Normandy, then prior, then abbot at Caen. In 1070, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. The next Archbishop was Anselm, from Aosta before becoming a monk of Bec, then prior, then abbot of Bec, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who spent a considerable portion of his episcopate in exile in Italy. These men crossed boundaries in an age before passports because there was a common cultural framework that united Pavia, Aosta, Bec, and Canterbury.

Through evangelization and conquest, Latin Christendom expanded itself in various directions.

But whatever Latin Christendom was — and the western European world that was to succeed it in the age of the nation-state — it was not hermetically sealed. Part of what makes Latin Christendom itself is its interaction with the non-Latin civilizations that surround it. Scholastic Aristotelianism needs Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes); the study of Aristotle needs, chronologically first, the translations out of Arabic and then out of Greek; Palermo’s glorious art and architecture are clearly indebted to east Roman (‘Byzantine’) and Islamic influences; an early medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was from Syria; the Latin liturgy in Rome was forever changed by Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the seventh century; I suspect Maximus the Confessor, himself a Palestinian, had a greater impact on Latin thought than often suspected; ‘western’ medicine relies heavily on Arabic learning; various strands of math come to the West out of the House of Islam.

It could go on.

This, of course, focusses Latin Christendom, but only because Latin Christendom provides us with the boundaries usually imagined by those who discuss it. Nonetheless, the world of the Byzantine commonwealth would also be an interesting starting place as well.

Whatever is meant by western civilization, when I talk about it, I do not imagine it to be either superior or hermetically sealed. In my field, many people are wary of suggesting you should study the Classics because they are the foundation of western civilization. Nevertheless, in saying that, I don’t think anyone imagines that Homer imagined himself part of a culture that included Britain. And it certainly not true that the inheritance of Rome is found only in ‘western civilization’ — a colleague who studies Islamic law says that there is new research arguing for the importance of Roman law in Islamic law. And the Great Mosque of Damascus is essentially a Roman basilica. We could go on — the interchanges and inheritances between cultures are numerous.

All of this to say — if Notre Dame is somehow a symbol, or even a triumph, of western civilization (the house is on fire!), this doesn’t mean that there is no cultural exchange that brings into play the greatness of others, nor does it mean that other cultures have no triumphs of their own (consider the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and are inferior. This is certainly never how I have viewed the world, and I believe that western civilization is a Thing.

Cultural references and making class relevant

Q, a highly evolved being who does not, strictly speaking, have a body

I recently shared on Facebook about how I — without planning to — worked Star Trek into a lecture on Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. The context was a discussion of the ‘divine spark’ in human persons, and how this idea is part of many ancient philosophies and religions, and in some cases ties into the idea that we need to release this divine spark through ascetic discipline, setting it free from the confines of the material world. This led to the statement that many philosophies accordingly believed that the material, physical world was bad, and the metaphysical was good.

‘This belief,’ I said, ‘can even be seen in Star Trek.’

Student: Which Star Trek?

Me: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Student: Good.

Me: [Something about how every time we meet a highly evolved race in Star Trek: The Next Generation, they have shed or are about to shed their physical bodies.]

Student: Like the Q.

Me: Yes, like Q, who is there at the beginning and there at the end.

A friend on Facebook says that tying material into their own lives in this way is a good method for helping ideas stick in students’ minds. And I agree.

The problem for me is figuring out which cultural references actually work.

Later in that same lecture, I was talking about the sea, and how ancients did not like travelling by sea, because it was very dangerous, etc., etc. This concern about the sea is played out in A Merchant of Venice, for the play begins with Antonio losing his wealth because he had sunk it into merchant vessels. And I got blank looks.

So, Star Trek before Shakespeare, I suppose. But the lecture I gave where I brought in the debate about whether Battlestar Galactica is based on The Aeneid also go blank looks.

Thankfully, though, the Three Amigos works, sometimes even for those who’ve not seen it.

Student: Professor, how should we translate famosus?

Me: What do others think? (In Latin class, I like to ask the rest of the room first.)

Other student: Notorious.

Me: That’s right, fama in Latin often has a negative association, unlike the English word fame. So famosus can be more like infamous than famous, like the infamous El Guapo. ‘In-famous? What does in-famous mean?’ ‘It means this guy’s not just famous, he’s in-famous! He must be the biggest star in Mexico!’

Another student: *laughs*

Me: That’s The Three Amigos.

Student who laughed: Best movie ever.

Me: You should all go home and watch it. It’s on Netflix.

They will all now, hopefully, remember that famosus does not mean famous.

It is hard to know where to go with cultural references. Some of them creep out of me, and sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. I’ve never been hip, but it seems that enough Classics students watch Star Trek that I can get away with a few references as part of my pedagogical practice.

What successes or failures have you ever had?

Personhood and Relationship (and Odo from Star Trek)

I’ve blogged on this topic once before, in relation to the character of Hu in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Hu, you will recall, was a Borg who became dislocated from the rest of the Borg Collective, and during his time on the USS Enterprise, became friends with Geordie Laforge. This friendship was the evidence necessary not simply of Hu’s emergence as an individual separate from the drone-state of the Borg, but of being a real person.

You see, we manifest our personhood not simply in our individuality (rocks are individual, my mobile phone is individual, the Wedgewood vase on my windowsill is individual) but in our relationships with others. True personhood, whether human, alien, or divine, is manifested most fully in relationship with others.

And in relationships of love — such as friendship — that personhood is actualised in a particular way that can bring out the best in us.

It turns out that this theme is not restricted to Hu. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 3, Episode 14, ‘Heart of Stone’, Odo and Major Kira are trapped in some caverns in a seismically unstable moon. In true Trek fashion, Kira is trapped in a crystal, and looks about to die, so she asks Odo to tell a story to keep her occupied.

Odo tells the story of how he got his name.

Odo, in case you don’t know it, is a changeling, a shapeshifter. He was discovered by a Bajoran scientist and raised in a lab. At first, they did not know what Odo was. All the specimens in the lab were labelled, and this one was given the label, ‘Odoital’, which was meant to represent that the specimen was unknown, but is actually the Cardassian word for ‘Nothing.’

Once it became clear that Odo was actually sentient, they still called him Odo, but broke it in two like a Bajoran name — Odo Ital. Whenever anyone called him by this name, Odo, he heard this nothing behind it. That that was all he was — nothing.

But not anymore. Not since meeting Kira. And the rest of the crew of the space station Deep Space 9. Now, when people call him ‘Odo’, it simply means himself.

Through friendship, through companionship, this lost, lonely alien, who until recently knew no other of his kind, became comfortable with his own person. Odo became a name to him; it meant himself.

This is what our relationships do to us. We are not discrete, atomised individuals, but persons interacting all the time, moving through one another in relationship. These relationships are what make us persons. We should probably cultivate good ones, I think.

John Magee ‘In Search of the First Medieval Aristotle’

Boethius, De musica, from Cambridge University Library MS Ii.3.12, fol. 73v (12th c.)

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural lecture of the Durham Centre for Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (DCAMP), delivered by Prof. John Magee of the University of Toronto. I have long had respect for Magee since he taught me Greek prose composition and supervised my MA research on John Cassian back in Toronto, and it was a pleasure to see him in action, showing us what philology can do as well as the intimate links between ancient and medieval philosophy.

His lecture was about the text of Boethius’ elementary commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione. Being fond of Boethius, as readers of this blog will know, I was happy to encounter an aspect of this Late Antique philosopher I was unacquainted with. What Magee did was use philology and manuscript studies to narrow our gap between the death of Boethius in 524 and the first manuscript of this commentary. This was done by considering references and quotations from Boethius in sources related to Cassiodorus’ monastic centre at Vivarium in Italy and by looking at traces of editorial intervention before the appearance of the manuscripts.

In short, what we see is Aristotle being read in Latin in western Europe, alongside Boethius’ commentary, between 580 and 800, and particular uses of Boethius’ translations being made in western Frankland. This is the sort of thing I like, and it inevitably made me think of Leo the Great and the period between his death in 461 and 600 or 700 when the first manuscripts with his letters appear. The methodology is the same.

It is also important because the way this Aristotle and this Boethian commentary were being used anticipates some of the developments in the study of philosophy in the High Middle Ages, such as the Logica Vetus. Moreover, we are reminded that parts of Aristotle were current in western Europe before 1123, and, in fact, were being read before we even have manuscripts that survive.

And, for those who are less interested in the history of philosophy, perhaps, this Aristotelian world also helps us see Charlemagne and his court and that Renaissance more clearly.

It was a pleasure to engage with a talk that brought into play philosophy, philology, palaeography, manuscript studies, and history — and even a moment of art history for good measure!

I look forward to DCAMP’s upcoming events.

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.

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…

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)

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