Category Archives: Philosophy

The 12th century

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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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Ghostly logic

In The X-Files, Scully routinely states not simply her objections to paranormal or extraterrestrial explanations of otherwise unexplained phenomena in terms of ‘science’, ‘rationality’, ‘logic’, but also the fact that some of the things she has encountered cause her to doubt science, or something to that effect. She believes in reason, logic, science.

I was recently reminded of Scully’s attitude whilst staying in a reputedly haunted research institution. One night over a conversation where the local ghosts were raised, one of my friends expressed disbelief not simply in those particular ghosts, but all ghosts in general. When asked why, the response was quite Scullyan: Because I believe in logic and science.

This led me to attempt some sort of annoying Socratic questioning of the premisses that lie behind such statements. What, precisely, is illogical about ghosts? As such conversations do, my (perhaps) aggressive line of enquiry went nowhere, and a plea of, ‘It’s late,’ led to mercy on my part.

I think, however, that ghosts are a good test case for questioning the Scully approach to unexpected, extraordinary phenomena and what we think we mean when we claim belief in ‘logic and science’. Why? Because few people are especially emotionally invested in the question of ghosts, unlike the questions of God or specific miracles. I, myself, find most ghost stories suspect.

First of all, what are ‘ghosts’? Ghosts are the disembodied spirits of the physically dead. In the context of The X-Files and haunted research institutions, ghosts are specifically the disembodied spirits of the physically dead who are in some way present in physical locations and who can make their presence known through certain auditory and tactile phenomena.

Why might one reject ‘ghosts’ altogether? Reasons to reject the notion of such ghosts altogether are an unthoughtful rejection of all extraordinary phenomena unexperience by oneself. Thoughtful people will similarly reject ghosts on the premiss simply that the supernatural or numinous does not exist — or a belief that the human person has no spirit. Others will reject ghosts on the premiss that we live in a two-storey universe; even if the physically dead persist in a spiritual existence, they cannot interact with us, nor we with them, like the gods of Epicureanism. A fourth group will reject ghostly encounters as representing contact with the physically dead on the grounds that divine judgement does not leave a place for such spirits to roam free amongst the physically living.

All of these belief systems, as it turns out, require a set of assumptions well before one approaches the stories of ghostly phenomena and extraordinary encounters.

What is necessary for a belief in ‘ghosts’?

First, one must recognise some sort of supernatural/numinous/spiritual element to the composition of the universe. The true atheist or the committed agnostic, the materialist, will not believe in ghosts. However, there is room within theism, even deism, and animism, for the presence of the ghostly dead amongst us.

Belief in the numinous, contrary to what the New Atheists tell us, is not itself irrational or contra-rational; contrary to the Christian apologists, it is also not the most perfectly logical way of believing. No such perfectly logic worldview exists, for humans and reason and our ability to experience phenomena, are flawed. To date, the best argument for the supernatural I have met is C. S. Lewis, Miracles, although there is a chapter in N. T. Wright’s methodology section of The New Testament and the People of God that also presents a different approach that can be helpful to some.

Second, after believing in the supernatural, one must be willing to believe that the physically dead have a spiritual, or ‘ghostly’, existence beyond the death of the body.

Third, one must believe that said spirits can, and sometimes do, co-exist with the physically alive on this plain of being.

Fourth, one must believe that a being normally invisible and intangible can, under some circumstances, be able to make itself known to those of an ordinary physical existence through visual, auditory, and occasionally tactile phenomena.

All four of these are not scientifically verifiable. This is the problem with metaphysics and ghostly logic. Science, formerly ‘natural philosophy’, has as its purview the ordinary workings of the physical universe as verifiable through controlled and precise observation, measurement, and experimentation. Science, as a field of human knowledge, can tell us nothing about the possibility of ghosts.

These premisses do, however, have logical arguments both for and against them. Since science cannot help, all such arguments will remain inconclusive. That’s part of the fun of being human.

Some people, however, have tried to prove ghosts scientifically. I’ve watched some of their ghost-hunter documentaries, and none of them is convincing. Perhaps I remain unconvinced because I do not share their premiss — the presence of spiritually active psychological entity will leave behind some sort of physically verifiable trace such as energy or hot and cold or suchlike other scientifically verifiable phenomena.

Returning to the haunted research institute, one of my other friends responded that he also had not formerly believed in ghosts. However, his encounter in the library at 4:00 AM with a non-visible person who had the auditory phenomenon of coughing directly behind him has changed his mind.

If one accepts enough paranormal/supernatural premisses to believe that spirits of the physically dead may sometimes roam the earth with the physically alive, the question remains of how to deal with the ghost stories. Logic and rational enquiry can help us here. For example, alleged photographs of ‘ghosts’ have often turned out to be distortions in the cameras field of vision that have a non-supernatural explanation within the physical world as verifiable by science. I believe they are sound-waves.

What of the many anecdotes? First, ask whether the person is reliable. Some people fib. Other people exaggerate, whether purposefully or accidentally. Second, if the storyteller is a known, reliable person who seems, by and large, rational in their approach to the world, ask whether or not there is another, and preferably better, explanation for the phenomenon described. A house creaking at night as it settles. A physical person in the shadows but unseen to the storyteller. A small earth tremor that caused something to move.

Of course, even if a story meets such criteria, the encounter may not be supernatural; it may simply be currently inexplicable by science’s measure, or it may have been a misdiagnosis of the facts by the one reporting it. Furthermore, a paranormal or supernatural encounter need not include a ‘ghost’ as narrowly restricted to the spirit of a physically dead human person. Traditional Christianity believes at least in angels and demons. Many Irish believe in a variety of paranormal beings conveniently labelled ‘fairies’ in English. Most ancients and animists also believed in a variety of non-visible, supernatural beings, including the invisible dead.

I, myself, have yet to hear a story about ghosts that leaves me entirely convinced that the spirit of a physically dead human being manifested itself to someone. But I also remain unconvinced by the premiss that the spirits of the physically dead roam the earth. This has nothing to do with ‘science’, however, but to do with a variety of other premisses and pieces of logic from elsewhere in my worldview.

Nonetheless, I am open to being convinced.

The Ages of Men (and Elves)

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

One element I wanted to highlight in my last post, but couldn’t find a good place to do it, is Tolkien’s use of the term ‘Age’ to refer to the great epochs or periods of the mythology outlined in Letter 131 and given in full in The Silmarillion. When I think of ‘ages’ in mythology, I cannot but help of Hesiod. First, Tolkien’s ages:

  1. The First Age is the Age of creation and of the Silmarils, of the Valar and the creation of Elves and Men, of war against Morgoth. It ends in cataclysm and destruction.
  2. The next, the Second Age, is ‘on Earth a dark age, and not very much of its history is (or need be) told.’ (The Letters of J R R Tolkien, p. 150) The land is still ravaged by the enemy and war against him; this is the Age when the Rings of Power are forged and when Men are still living great and mighty, close to the Elves and the Valar in Númenor. It, too, ends in cataclysm, and the destruction of Númenor and the sealing off of Valinor from Men — the movement of all Men to Middle Earth.
  3. The Third Age is the Age of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when Sauron’s power grows again and the War of the Ring is waged, the Ring finally being destroyed.

The Fourth Age is whatever comes next, I guess? Does it commence with the reign of Aragorn? There are no more Elves, the last having sailed West to Paradise. I believe the Fourth Age is our own.

In one of the earliest poems of the great western tradition, Works and Days, by Hesiod (a near contemporary of Homer), we read of the ages of man, lines 106-201. The five ages in Hesiod are:

  1. Gold — the age of Kronos/Saturn.
  2. Silver ‘less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit.’ (Hesiod, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White)
  3. Bronze, ‘sprung from ash-trees; and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence’ (Hesiod)
  4. The Heroes of mythology, ‘the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth.’ (Hesiod)
  5. Iron. Us. ‘Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils.’ (Hesiod)

Plato also discusses the Ages of Man in Cratylus, with explicit reference to Hesiod. When Ovid went through the Ages of Man in Metamorphoses 1, he took out the age of the heroes (logically enough), reducing them to four. Tolkien’s mythology is not, of course, primarily interested with Men but with Elves. Most natural-born mythology, on the other hand, has a primary concern with human beings as well as with gods (Elves are not gods; the Valar are).

The gods, of course, have their generations as well. Hesiod tells us of them in his Theogony. Ouranos begets the Titans who overthrow him. Kronos, a Titan, begets the Olympians who overthrow him.

We are all seeking the Golden Age, though, aren’t we? Here is the Garth and Dryden translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 1, on the subject:

The golden age was first; when Man yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear,
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast:
No suppliant crowds before the judge appear’d,
No court erected yet, nor cause was heard:
But all was safe, for conscience was their guard.
The mountain-trees in distant prospect please,
E’re yet the pine descended to the seas:
E’re sails were spread, new oceans to explore:
And happy mortals, unconcern’d for more,
Confin’d their wishes to their native shore.
No walls were yet; nor fence, nor mote, nor mound,
Nor drum was heard, nor trumpet’s angry sound:
Nor swords were forg’d; but void of care and crime,
The soft creation slept away their time.
The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
The flow’rs unsown, in fields and meadows reign’d:
And Western winds immortal spring maintain’d.
In following years, the bearded corn ensu’d
From Earth unask’d, nor was that Earth renew’d.
From veins of vallies, milk and nectar broke;
And honey sweating through the pores of oak.

I cannot leave unmentioned Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, where the poet imagines a world where a recently-born child will usher in a new Golden Age for the world. It is not, of course, a longing deep in the heart of the Greco-Roman soul, as Isaiah 11:1-9 remind us:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;
And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

Throughout the New Testament as well, there is a hope of undoing the curse from Genesis 3 and returning to the state of Paradise, the Golden Age of Adam and Eve.

This rests in all our hearts, and it is a driving force for us to see it realised to some small degree here, now, in this world. We all want Eden, the Saturnian lands — we all want Valinor in the West, where we can sail with the Elves and walk with the servants of Ilúvatar (God).

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
-William Blake

The Disenchantment of the World – ‘Inside the Medieval Mind’, Episode 1

I have just now finally had a moment to finish watching Robert Bartlett’s Inside the Medieval Mind, Episode 1, ‘Knowledge.’ It is only iPlayer until Saturday, so watch while you can. In this episode, we are taken from the fabulous tales of the Early Middle Ages — of Dogheads (people with dog heads), sailors from the sky, men from the sea — to the discovery of the Americas in 1492.

In the first half, Bartlett stresses the rational aspects of medieval belief in things we find unbelievable. The framework was of classifying and analysing the stories about such beings as Dogheads according to known knowledge. It was determined, for example, that Dogheads qualified as human since they did all the things humans did but with dogs’ heads instead of human ones. Therefore, if a Christian were to encounter the country of the Dogheads, they would be fit to receive the Gospel, unlike animal that have no rational soul and spirit.

From out perspective, even when early mediaeval people aren’t being credulous, their world was one of enchantment. Everything was potentially suffused with the Divine. There was mystery lurking behind every corner. Magical and wondrous things were reported to have occurred. Another example of this enchanted world meeting with its rational analysis was the fact that scientific minds of the Early Middle Ages knew very well why eclipses happened. Nevertheless, this didn’t preclude them from looking to eclipses as signs from God.

That is a point I’ll return to.

The second half of the episode tracks the disenchantment of the western European mind from the founding of universities onwards. We meet Abelard in the early years of the coming Aristotelian flood, and then the problems that Aristotle’s natural philosophy presented to western mediaeval theology and worldviews — for here we meet a rational world composed with no reference to the Christian God or the Christian Scripture. How could rational explanations be reconciled with Christian belief?

The answer, of course, is Thomas Aquinas. What Bartlett fails to mention is that by Aquinas’ day, there were accurate Latin translations of Aristotle directly from the Greek, rather than from Arabic which often came from Syriac first (something I like to point out). Thomas presented a worldview that said that if reason is given by God, and revelation is given by God, whatever is done accurately by reason will not run counter to revelation. He then gave us an almost comprehensive worldview that united the Christian and the Aristotelian as well as can be.

After Aquinas, Bartlett discusses Roger Bacon and the origins of empiricism, then the development of clocks. We are given a taste of the exotic world encountered by Marco Polo, then sent off to America.

As more and more of the Greek learning was appropriated by Latin Christendom, more and more of the mystery about the world was stripped away. The Later Middle Ages saw the rise of Scholasticism, an attempt to answer any and all questions by rational discourse and disputation. This application of reason to all things and unrelenting logic even to mysteries of Christian revelation led inevitably to a stripping away of mystery and the disenchantment of the world.

I don’t think it need be that way, though.

Aristotle always existed in Greek. The Greek theologians of the Patristic period and Byzantine world encountered many of the same concerns that Latin theologians had to wrestle with all over again, but they never disenchanted the world. Greek theology certainly has its eminent, logical discourses — see Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria. But it is most famous for its mystics — Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory Palamas. Many of these men were both.

Questions, therefore, such as, ‘Did the world always exist?’ need not worry the mediaeval mind. Aquinas wisely stated that this is something reason cannot answer (it still cannot, FYI; if physics has determined that what we thought was nothing is really something, it still cannot explain if that something [formerly nothing] was created or eternal; that is a question of philosophy) — we must turn to revelation. According to revelation, God spoke and things were created. And according to the Christian analysis of these things when confronted with the arguments of pagan philosophy, this was creatio ex nihilo — creation out of nothing.

Furthermore, why need things have but a single origin? Is it not possible that an eclipse could be both the result of natural law and the action of the divine? Could a person by cured by medicine and the divine will at the same time? I’m not sure what the technical term is, but I call it double determination — things that are willed specifically by the divine (or other supernatural agent) but could be ascribed to natural law as well.

Finally, Aristotle’s natural philosophy can teach us only about, well, the natural. One of the great errors of scholasticism was when one of the theologians (his name escapes me) decided that God was a being the way the created order is a being, rather than so entirely transcendent that when we speak of His being, it is only by way of analogy. Thus, God’s mystery is reduced. The supernatural begins to be smaller and smaller. God looks like us, just bigger (and with a white beard).

However, these rationalisms are not the only necessary conclusions about the world. They cannot, ultimately, account for the vast numbers of anecdotes from Christians, animists, agnostics, Buddhists, people into Native spirituality, and so forth, that they have met any number of creatures beyond the pale of science. Science cannot account for fairies or angels — and what if both are true?

Perhaps the truly open mind should begin to re-enchant the world. What if the angelic and demonic are here and now? What if there is another world, invisible to our eyes, everywhere we go? What then? What if the world is not reducible to mere laws of physics and chemistry? What if mystery lurks behind every corner?

If the coming of the modern at the turn of the sixteenth century meant the disenchantment of the western mind, I hope the coming of the post-modern at the turn of the twenty-first signals its re-enchantment.

“It’s not a person, damn it, it’s a Borg!” (Hypostasising Hugh)

Hugh

The quotation in the title of this post is a line from Capt Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) to Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 23, ‘I, Borg.’ The Enterprise has on board a Borg drone rescued from a crash site on a planet. Dr Crusher is determined to treat the Borg well and not use him for (allegedly) ‘genocidal’ purposes.* Geordie La Forge is helping install some new hardware in the Borg, and possibly some new software as well — a virus to potentially disable the entire Borg Collective.

In one scene, Picard and Guinan are fencing and have a fraught conversation about why the Borg is even on the ship in the first place. Both Picard and Guinan have very personal, very bad histories with the Borg Collective. Guinan’s home planet and civilisation were assimilated/destroyed by the Borg. Her people now roam the galaxy as people without a home. The Borg showed no mercy. Why, Guinan asks, should Picard?

Picard, on the other hand, was assimilated in the Season 3 finale and then led the Borg in an assault against the Federation with Earth as the target in the Season 4 premiere (‘The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1 & 2’). He was designated Locutus of Borg and was used by the Borg as a liaison between the Collective and the United Federation of Planets. Because of Picard’s knowledge of Starfleet, when the Borg engaged the fleet at the Battle of Wolf 359. 39 out of 40 Federation starships were destroyed by the Borg with 11,000 casualties.

Locutus of Borg

And Picard could do nothing. His individuality was swallowed up in the Borg Collective. The hive mind ruled his actions. He guided the Borg Cube against Starfleet and had no way of stopping the carnage that ensued. The person Jean-Luc Picard was gone. Or at least took a back seat. In the second episode of Season 4, ‘Family’, he weeps over this fact after a really awkward mud-wrestling scene with his brother Robert at the family vineyard in France.**

‘I, Borg’ is Picard’s first encounter with the Borg after his assimilation, after his unwilful destruction of 39 Federation starships at Wolf 359, after the loss of his personhood and absorption into the monolithic entity of the Borg.

Naturally, he is testy. Here we see Picard raw (not quite as raw as when he opens fire on assimilated Starfleet officers in First Contact — but raw). When Geordie expresses misgivings concerning their course of action to use the Borg drone as a destructive force in the Borg Collective, Picard compares Hugh to a lab animal and tells Geordie to cut any emotional tie he may have developed with the Borg. Continually he refers to this drone as ‘it’.

But Geordie has witnessed something that Picard, who avoids this Borg — designated 3rd of 9 — has not. Geordie has seen the drone move from ‘it’ to ‘him’. He begins as standoffish to the drone as anyone could expect. But through conversation with 3rd of 9, an individual personality begins to creep through — indeed, the Borg drone takes on a name. No longer 3rd of 9, he is Hugh.

Guinan forces herself to meet Hugh after a confrontation with Geordie, and she realises that Hugh is no longer simply a Borg drone. He is an actual person. He has come to see Geordie as a friend. And he is capable of learning — of learning that resistance, despite the Borg mantra, is not futile. Guinan is living proof.

Hugh proves himself a hypostatic (or personal; hypostasis is Greek for person) entity distinct from the Collective when Picard tricks him into thinking that Locutus is under cover, and commands Hugh to help assimilate the human race.

Hugh: I will not help. … Geordie must not be assimilated.

Picard: But you are Borg.

Hugh: No. I am Hugh.

In this scene, Hugh uses the first-person singular pronoun I for the first time, hitherto having referred even to himself alone and lonely as we. Hugh is a person. He ultimately chooses to return to the Borg Collective because his continued presence would mean danger to the Enterprise, including Geordie in particular. And Hugh, like Spock, believes that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.

The Enterprise crew like to use the term individual for Hugh’s hypostatic flowering. And it is certainly the most common one in our current culture. Geordie describes his life in purely individual terms, in terms of his own individual freedom and such. The willingness and ability to be alone. This is certainly the most potent aspect of personhood that differentiates humanoids from Borg.

But the Borg are not persons, and persons are not merely individuals. The Borg cannot choose for themselves because, while they are wired into the Collective, they have no selves. The Borg is just a gigantic cybernetic-organic collective hive mind operating in monotone and monochrome. Hugh demonstrates that the isolated individual alone is not what truly makes a person. If individualism were truly the supreme mark of personhood, then Hugh’s hypostasisation (that is, becoming a person) would have ended with him seeking asylum on board the USS Enterprise with his friend Geordie.

But persons, for all our hypostatic uniqueness, are also inescapably linked to one another. We are in many ways independent. But in many others, we are interdependent. And we demonstrate ourselves as persons most fully when we sacrifice ourselves for each other, surrendering our own selves and selfish desires for the good of other persons. We thrive on each other, and we therefore choose others above ourselves.

This is the lesson of true personhood that Hugh teaches us. Not individualism, but sacrifice and its power for good. This is the high cost of becoming a true person.

*Do the Borg count as a race or a species or a genos? They are the assimilation of the biological and technological advances of various civilisations. I would wager that they are not, but are instead a blight on the ‘biodiversity’ of the galaxy, instead.

**Robert, although his name is pronounced in the French manner, also speaks with an English accent.