28 January 2015

'In the beginning was the Act' - Goethe's Faust



I’m not sure when I first learned of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s dramatic masterpiece, Faust, although it was probably around 11 or 12. I’m fairly certain I already knew of it when I saw a copy depicted as part of a small bibliothèque infernale on a poster for the horror-punk band, The Misfits. I think I must have purchased my copy of Walter Kaufmann’s bilingual edition some time during my stint at Barnes & Noble, likely in 1998 or 1999. What finally made up my mind to read it some day, however, was Jaroslav Pelikan’s statement in his brief ‘Personal Memoir: Fragments of a Scholar’s Autobiography’ (here) that he had begun the habit in his teens of reading the whole thing through in German once a year without fail.

By the time I came across that fascinating fact, I already knew of Pelikan’s appreciation for the German Romantic, having heard him refer to Goethe at a lecture at the University of Oklahoma in 1999 (I think) as well as having read his quote from Faust at the beginning and end of his delightful Jefferson Lectures, The Vindication of Tradition:

An older contemporary of Emerson’s, whom Emerson rightly regarded as the wisest and most universal mind of the century (except, Emerson felt obliged to add, for ‘the velvet life he lived!’), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, saw it all more deeply and said it all more clearly:
What you have as heritage,
Take now as task;
For thus you will make it your own! [1]


Nevertheless, despite this long awareness of the book and the inducements of Pelikan’s esteem for it, I only very recently began to read it for myself. When I did, I was very quickly reminded of the treatment of Faust in David Lyle Jeffery’s People of the Book: Christian Identity & Literary Culture, which I finished earlier this summer, so I went back and reread much of that chapter before proceeding further in Goethe.

Jeffrey draws some fascinating connections between Goethe’s depiction of Faust in his study and what DLJ calls ‘the symbolism of the faithful reader’ in the Christian artistic tradition. In this connection, I was particularly fascinated by Jeffrey’s references to the famous engravings of St Jerome by Albrecht Dürer (on which I have blogged a bit here). [2] Indeed, I would love to do some thinking through, or read someone else thinking through, the implications of Yates’s analysis of Dürer for an analysis of Faust.

The passage that carried me a little further outside Faust itself, however, was Jeffrey’s section on ‘Logos and Lector’, where he focuses on Faust 1224-37. I will quote in full Kaufmann’s translation of this passage, including in brackets the German for a few key terms:

(He opens a tome [of the New Testament] and begins.)
It says: ‘In the beginning was the Word [Wort].’

Already I am stopped. It seems absurd.

The Word does not deserve the highest prize,
I must translate it otherwise
If I am well inspired and not blind.

It says: In the beginning was the Mind [Sinn].

Ponder that first line, wait and see,

Lest you should write too hastily.

Is mind the all-creating source?
It ought to say: In the beginning there was Force [Kraft].
Yet something warns me as I grasp the pen,

That my translation must be changed again.

The spirit helps me. Now it is exact.

I write: In the beginning was the Act [Tat]. [3]

Now I admit that the import of all of this is most unclear to me. Why can Faust not accept the first verse of St John’s Gospel? Because all of this follows on his reference to attempting to translate the NT into German, I’m a little tempted to wonder if it’s more the German word Wort he’s objecting to, and not the Λόγος of the Gospel. But I admit that the successive attempts give me the chills, carrying as I’m afraid they can no longer help but do the crushing weight of German fascist association. [4] For his part, Jeffrey finds, ‘Faust rejects in this formulation the source of all Christian symbol, “the Law of the Lord”, but most specifically the Logos, the doctrine of the incarnate Word.’ [5]

My readiness to accept this reading, as undeveloped as it was, predisposed me to be a little shocked when I turned to another reference to this passage from Faust: the epigraph to Chapter Two, ‘Answerability & Ethics: Toward a Philosophy of Action’, in Alexandar Mihailovic’s remarkable monograph, Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse. It had been some time since I’d looked at this book, and I only went back to it on a hunch (since Johannine logology was such an important part of Mihailovic’s analysis). Sure enough, at the heading of Chapter 2, we see:

Im Anfang war die Tat.
--Goethe, Faust.


Now, this was intriguing enough by itself, but it was followed immediately by a second epigraph:

The Formalists are imprinted with the seal of overripe clericalism. They are Johannites. For them ‘in the beginning was the Word.’ But for us in the beginning was the act: the word appeared only after [the act], like a shadow made of sound.
--Leo Trotsky, Literature & Revolution (1924) [6]

At this point, of course, I was fully engaged. Unfortunately, a quick skim through the chapter failed to turn up any further references to Goethe or Trotsky until the very end. There we read: ‘In a very real sense, Bakhtin inverts the Johannine conception of the conception of the word: for him, as for Trotsky--and this is the only area in which the critic and the revolutionary would agree--the act comes first, the word proceeding from it as its concretized efflorescence.’ [7]

Of course, I am hardly inclined to take this at face value. First, note that ‘word’ is not capitalised, either in Trotsky’s statement about its appearance after the act, or at all in Mihailovic’s statement about Bakhtin. Indeed, Mihailovic’s whole point seems to be that Bakhtin’s use of theological language almost invariably replaces the theological content of that language with discursive content. He takes what Christians say about ‘the Word’, and applies it to what we say about ‘the word’, i.e., discourse. [8] Second, Mihailovic himself states that for Bakhtin it is precisely ‘Incarnational theology [that] provides a framework for understanding the formal and material dimensions of the human community; according to Bakhtin, it unites that which has been separated by contemporary approaches to ethics.’ [9] If the rejection of Wort for Tat is a rejection of ‘the doctrine of the Incarnate Word’, as I’m inclined to believe it is for Faust, for Bakhtin it must mean that he cannot follow Faust as easily as Mihailovic seems to suggest.

Since writing that last paragraph, I have read very carefully through an interesting article by a Goethe specialist all about the passage I’ve been considering. I can’t say I have perfectly understood all of Erik Eisel’s ‘“In the Beginning Was the Word...”: The Question of the Origin of Language in Goethe’s Faust’ (here). The gist of Eisel’s argument is that Goethe is making his own contribution to the question of the origin of language, a question memorably essayed by Johann Herder, whose contribution to the subject directly influenced Goethe. I admit I struggled a bit with this aspect of the paper, but I fancy I’ve detected one or two things that dovetail with some of my reflections here.

First, Eisel strikes a note of what Harold Bloom might call ‘anxiety of influence’ in Faust. He asks, ‘Will the appropriation of this primal sentence [i.e., John 1:1] into his own primal writing scene establish a  pattern of continued undifferentiation? Or a hoped-for self-differentiation?’ Comparing Faust’s efforts to translate Scripture into ‘mein geliebtes Deutsch’ to those of his historical contemporary, Martin Luther, Eisel notes, ‘Unlike Luther, he cannot decide whether his translation of “word” into “act” establishes a pattern for the emergence of culture that differentiates him from tradition--or from the former self that he wants to escape.’ Later on, he makes two more comments along these lines. First, he observes, ‘Instead of employing a technique of free translation, Goethe depicts Faust using the literary technique of appropriation in order to transform the “original text”(Grundtext) of the Bible into a personal response to the question of language origin.’ Second, Eisel notes that ‘Goethe prefaces the scene...by emphasizing that translation results from a “personal desire” (mich draengt’s) to make something one’s own, “in mein geliebtes Deutsch ze uebertragen”...’

The last comment reminds me disturbingly of Pelikan’s favourite quotation, from earlier in the poem--‘What you have as heritage, / Take now as task; / For thus you will make it your own!’ Is Faust’s translation attempt a perversion of this charge, or a fulfillment of it? Hoping to get some feel for an answer to this question, I paid very close attention to precisely what it was Eisel was alleging as the object of Faust’s anxiety. In other words, what precisely is the ‘tradition’ that he associates with his ‘former self’ and which he hopes to escape?
I remain slightly unclear on this point. In one place, Eisel writes, ‘For Goethe, translation is the preferred method of creating a literary space where his literary creation, Faust, rebels against the Kantian universe with which he is familiar.’ Okay, so despite the obvious anachronism from an historical perspective, perhaps Kantianism is what Goethe is making his character escape from? But delving into Friedrich Kittler’s ‘wide-ranging work, Discourse Networks 1800/1900’, Eisel suggests an answer that may or may not be connected with Kantianism:

An ‘untimely meditation’ if there ever was one, the melancholic sigh in the opening monologue of Goethe’s play is an expression of Faust’s obvious disgust with the uncomfortable, high-vaulted Gothic den where he lives and works. It is, moreover, an indictment of the circulation of words and books being endlessly renewed with the Republic of Scholars and the Four Faculties. According to Kittler, the beginning of German literature is the dismantling of this obsolete discourse network and the self-generation of a narrative newly oriented towards the reader’s bodily experience of the text and of language.

To me this suggests something generally anti-intellectual, the equation of scholarship and the study of texts with dry, inactive, or ineffectual preoccupations, with a negation of vitality. It suggests that it is the whole tradition of Christian culture--represented first by the Gothic den of St Jerome and second by the traditional connotations of St John’s Prologue--that Faust wishes to distance himself from or escape. I certainly don’t think this tradition is in any way Kantian, though perhaps Goethe is suggesting Kant is a kind of logical conclusion of the tradition?

At any rate, it is in particular the way that Eisel describes Faust setting out to effect this distanciation that is in my opinion closest to some of my considerations above.

[At this point I had to leave off working on this post for a while, and returning to Eisel’s somewhat difficult essay, I found I had completely lost my train of thought! What follows is a much later and necessarily truncated attempt to reconstruct the direction I think I was taking with this post. I hope it makes sense in light of the above reflections.]

Eisel draws on a notion he finds in Kittler of ‘the theatricality of performance’ to delineate Faust’s self-distanciation from all the connotations of the Gothic den. At this point I will quote at some length:

It is not Faust’s proverbial thirst for knowledge that makes him an interesting case study for his diagnosis of a European ‘discourse network’, but his love of spectacle and of the physical effect of astonishment. Upon discovering the magic sign of the Macrocosm, Faust shouts out, ‘What play! Yet but a play, however vast!’ [10] Despite reservations about the superficial character of spectacle, he wants more of it, since it commands a sublimity not to be found in the drabness of his Gothic library. In Kittler’s opinion, this appetite for the sublime is something conditioned by the cultural media of the Enlightenment. Faust’s preference for theatrical gesture over linguistic expression grows out of a person ‘resentment’ against the word (Kittler 13). Accordingly, Kittler interprets the crisis of conventionality in the late Enlightenment as provoking the efforts of a new generation of Romantic writers to initiate a ‘paradigm shift’ within the traditional pedagogical scene that Faust describes in the opening lines of his monologue.

Perhaps it’s simply a conversation that I’m coming to far too late, but to me this passage is very obscure. That said, it strikes me that there are a couple of ways to read it. One is that Eisel and Kittler are discerning at work merely the desire for movement and action typical of youth, a desire writ large in the aspirations and fervency of the Romantic movement. But the other is perhaps more interesting. To my mind it may be that these two scholars are talking about an idea with which I have become increasingly preoccupied lately--the idea of poetic knowledge, and its cousin, that of ‘suffering’ or ‘experiencing’ rather than ‘learning about’ divine things (see this post). Although Eisel notes ‘the superficial character of spectacle’, in the enactment of drama (I’m thinking particularly of classical tragedy), we have a discourse that is in some ways akin to liturgy, where the mystery of knowledge is no longer confined to the ‘scientific’ learning of the text, but is entered into by experience with the senses and acted out. Is it possible that it is something not so far from liturgy that Faust is drawn to in his ‘preference for theatrical gesture’?
Either way, I hesitate to make too much of the Bakhtinian inversion of supposedly Johannine ‘word’ that Mihailovic believes he has discovered. If ‘word’ is to be equated with verbal discourse only, then it is natural that it lose its ontological priority, and we could perhaps do much worse than replace it with ‘act’ in the sense of enacting the mystery in which we participate. ‘Word’ can only be restored to primacy of place if it becomes again that Λόγος that dwelt in silence with God in the beginning, already full of the love that would act by creating everything.





[1] Qtd. in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1984), p. 82; see also the epigraph on the dedication page, p. v. The lines are 682-3, and are found on pp. 114 & 115 of Kaufmann’s edition, where they are rendered, ‘What from your fathers you received as heir, / Acquire if you would possess it’ (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, tr. Walter Kaufmann [NY: Anchor, 1990], pp. 114-5).

[2] David Lyle Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity & Literary Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 214-5.

[3] Goethe, p. 153.

[4] My Webster’s New World German Dictionary supports Kaufmann’s renderings of the German terms, though it also gives other possible meanings. The first definition given for Sinn is ‘sense’, followed by ‘mind’, ‘feeling’, ‘spirit’, and ‘point’ (Webster’s New World German Dictionary, Concise edition, ed. Peter Terrell & Horst Kopleck [Indianapolis: Wiley, 1987], p. 389) Under definition (a), Kraft is translated ‘strength’, ‘power, force’, or ‘energy’, and under (b) as ‘power’ or ‘force’ (it is compared to Macht) (ibid., p. 258).

At any rate, as Erik Eisel points out, Hitler himself praised Goethe ‘for giving such prominence to “deeds” over “words”’.

[5] Jeffrey, p. 258.

[6] Alexandar Mihailovic, Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U, 1997), p. 51. I have posted at some length on Bakhtin and the Formalists here, in a post which somehow earned me the accusation that I ‘hate literature’.

[7] Ibid., p. 85.

[8] In their useful, if flawed, intellectual biography of Bakhtin, Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist quote Kenneth Burke in order to explain their assumptions about Bakhtin’s project: ‘As Kenneth Burke remarked, “statements that great theologians made about the nature of ‘God’ might be adapted mutatis mutandis for use as purely secular observations on the nature of words…”’ (Katerina Clark & Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin [Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1984], p. 83).

[9] Mihailovic, p. 78. [10] Goethe, p. 99.

06 June 2014

'All Things That Are Done on Earth' -- Cicero's Somnium Scipionis

Although I still can’t recall what sparked the conversation in the first place, or what precisely got said on the subject in the second, a few weeks ago during #porchtime at my house some reference was made to Cicero’s now little-known ‘Dream of Scipio’, for centuries nearly the sole-surviving portion of a larger work, De Republica. [1] A very brief description was given for the benefit of those who had not read or heard of it, and a friend of mine who works as a curator of mediaeval manuscripts mentioned that her only familiarity with Cicero’s text was through the famed Late Antique commentator, Macrobius, whose commentary on Scipio helped to preserve the latter text throughout the Middle Ages as well as to insure its influence on the mediaeval worldview.

One of the more interesting questions to me with regard to Macrobius’s commentary on Cicero is the former’s interpretation of a single, at first quite plain passage in the original text. Having appeared in a dream to his adopted grandson, Scipio Africanus the younger, Scipio Africanus the elder tells him:

Every man who has preserved or helped his country, or has made its greatness even greater, is reserved a special place in heaven, where he may enjoy an eternal life of happiness. For all things that are done on earth nothing is more acceptable to the Supreme God, who rules the whole universe, than those gatherings and assemblages of men who are bound together by law, the communities which are known as states. [2]

...omnibus qui patriam conservaverint, adiuverint, auxerint, certum esse in caelo definitum locum, ubi beati aevo sempiterno fruantur; nihil est enim illi principi deo qui omnem mundum regit, quod quidem in terris fiat, acceptius quam concilia coetusque hominum iure sociati, quae civitates appellantur;... [3]

To the casual reader, it appears of course that Cicero is glorifying the political life of civil service, that of all human activities it is that which is highest and most pleasing to God. This is not of course the Christian view, but we do not expect Cicero to exhibit Christian views. Neither, however, is it the view of Late Antique pagans like Macrobius or the so-called ‘Neoplatonists’ (I shall leave aside for the moment the question of whether it is the view of earlier pagan philosophers before Cicero). For both Christians and Late Antique pagans, however they may differ on the details of what it might mean, the highest human activity is the contemplative, and the most divine life is the ‘philosophical’ one. [4] But Macrobius reveres Cicero [5] and holds him to be in essential agreement with himself and the later Platonic tradition, so he has to figure out what Cicero means here. Here is Macrobius’s conclusion:

Now if the function and office of the virtues is to bless, and, moreover, if it is agreed that political virtues do exist, then political virtues do make men blessed. And so Cicero is right in claiming for the rulers of commonwealths a place where they may enjoy a blessed existence forever. In order to show that some men become blessed by the exercise of virtues at leisure and others by virtues exercised in active careers, he did not say with finality that nothing is more gratifying to that supreme God than commonwealths, but added a qualification, nothing that occurs on earth is more gratifying. His purpose was to distinguish those who are primarily concerned with divine matters from the rulers of commonwealths, whose earthly achievements prepare their way to the sky. [6] 

In other words, of ‘the things that are done on earth’, nothing of course is more pleasing to God than politics, but the contemplative, philosophical life is not really something ‘done on earth’. Since it lifts the mind and soul to God, it is a heavenly activity, not an earthly one. Macrobius refers to philosophers as ‘those who are primarily concerned with divine matters’, reminding us of the definition of philosophy of St Cyril the Apostle-to-the-Slavs: ‘Knowledge of things divine and human, as much as man is able to approach God, for it teaches man by deeds to be in the image and after the likeness of the One who created him.’ [7] Here is William Harris Stahl’s take on Macrobius’s interpretation: 

Cicero implies in Scipio’s Dream that the efforts of statesmen and military leaders are most gratifying to the Ruler of the universe. Macrobius cites Plotinus’ treatise On the Virtues--although he is probably more dependent upon Porphyry--and points out that Plotinus admitted political virtues into his scheme. Political virtues have their rightful place, although they are not on as high a plane as the contemplative virtues. Hereupon it is revealed that this truth was apparent to the profoundly wise Cicero, for in his statement that ‘nothing that occurs on earth is more gratifying to that supreme God than the establishment of commonwealths’ the words on earth allude to the practical virtues and at the same time intimate that there are other types of virtues. [8] 

C.S. Lewis says something very similar in his treatment of Macrobius in The Discarded Image

What Cicero meant by his parenthetical reservation [quod quidem in terris fiat] I am not sure; probably he was distinguishing earthly affairs from the motions of the heavenly bodies, which God would undoubtedly prize more highly. But Macrobius (I, viii) regards this saving clause as Cicero’s way of leaving room for a whole system of ethics which Cicero might have strongly repudiated: a system which is religious, not secular; individual, not social; occupied not with the outer but with the inner life. [9] 

Indeed, earlier in this section, Lewis had written, ‘Cicero, as we have seen, devised a heaven for statesmen. He looks no higher than public life and the virtues which that life demands.’ [10] But is this really quite fair? I’m no expert on Cicero, but recall that previously I left open the question of whether earlier philosophy had prized the active, political life quite as much as the Roman statesman appears to do here. I think I can confidently answer that in the negative. Plato certainly insists that the philosopher imitate the divine (Theaetetus 176 AB), and Aristotle finds that the ‘intellect’ is the highest and most divine faculty, and therefore that ‘contemplation’ is ‘the highest form of activity’ (Nicomachean Ethics 1177a). [11] We know that Cicero looked to the Greeks for his philosophical learning, and although the Roman mind is always noted for its practicality in comparison to the Greeks, it seems unlikely that Cicero would have directly reversed the judgement of the two greatest of the Hellenes. Is it possible Macrobius’s reading of Cicero is not so very far-fetched? 

[1] Michael Grant points out that about a third of the original work was discovered by Cardinal Mai at the Vatican in 1820 (Michael Grant, tr., On the Good Life, by Cicero [Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1971], p. 337). 

[2] Ibid., p. 344. 

[3] Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, I and Scipio’s Dream, ed. by Frank Ernest Rockwood (Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma, 1970), p. 6. 

[4] In a passage I like to quote often from C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), he writes: A world-renouncing, ascetic, and mystical character then marked the most eminent Pagans no less than their Christian opponents. It was the spirit of the age. Everywhere, on both sides, men were turning away from the civic virtues and the sensual pleasures to seek an inner purgation and a supernatural goal. (47) 

[5] Indeed, William Harris Stahl notes, ‘To Macrobius, Cicero is incapable of error; his wisdom, often concealed in subtle language, will be discovered upon careful examination of his words (or through the assistance of the commentator)’ (Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, tr. William Harris Stahl [NY: Columbia U, 1966], p. 14). 

[6] Ibid., pp. 123-4. 

[7] Ihor Ševčenko, ‘The Definition of Philosophy in the Life of Saint Constantine’, For Roman Jakobson: Essays on the Occasion of His Sixtieth Birthday, 11 October 1956 (The Hague: 1966), p. 450. 

[8] Macrobius, p. 14. 

[9] Lewis, p. 68. 

[10] Ibid., p. 65. 

[11] Aristotle, Ethics, tr. J.A.K. Thomson, rev. Hugh Tredennick (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1977), p. 328.

22 December 2013

'the lady in mind had?' - Tolkien's Sir Gawain Translation

So I was recently rereading Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight with my students, and I noticed an odd passage that I didn’t remember noticing when I’ve read it before (keep in mind that I’ve never read the poem all the way through in Middle English, and I’ve never read any translations but Tolkien’s). In the long third part, concerned with the alternating scenes of Bertilak’s hunting and his wife’s attempts to seduce Gawain, in stanza 51, at the conclusion of the first of these seduction attempts we read (lines 1283-1289): ‘Though I were lady most lovely,’ thought the lady to herself, ‘the less love would he bring here,’ since he looked for his bane, that blow, that him so soon should grieve, and needs it must be so. Then the lady asked for leave and at once he let her go. [1]

Now, this was odd, partly because it’s the only instance of a report of the lady’s point of view in the entire poem, but partly because even though it is not included within the quotations of the lady’s thoughts, that ‘since’ seems to suggest that she knows the nature of his appointment. Of course, she does know it, but we readers are not to know that until Part IV. It would seem like an uncharacteristic slip on the poet’s part.

Having noticed this, I immediately determined to check out the Middle English text as well as the other translation I possess--that by Marie Borroff (if I remember correctly, this was strongly recommended somewhere or other by David Lyle Jeffrey). I was of course fascinated to no end to discover that Borroff’s rendering of this passage was quite different indeed to Tolkien’s. Here are the same lines in her translation: For were she never so winsome, the warrior had The less will to woo, for the wound that his bane must be, He must bear the blinding blow, For such is fate’s decree; The lady asks leave to go;
He grants it full and free. [2]

Clearly, this was a more satisfying way of writing it. It avoids the switch in perspective of Tolkien’s, and it avoids the possible implication that the lady knows what Sir Gawain has come to do. But why are the two so different? And which one is correct?

Fortunately, I possess two editions of the Middle English text: Sir Israel Gollancz’s edition for the Early English Text Society, and the much newer one in Malcolm Andrew’s and Ronald Waldron’s invaluable The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. Since there were no notes--apart from one indicating that in l. 1283, the manuscript has burde instead of the editor’s bur[n]e]--Gollancz’s alone did not tell me much that was helpful, lacking as I do a sound knowledge of the Middle English lexicon. [3]

Andrew and Waldron were quite helpful indeed, however. They follow the same reading that Gollancz does, with the ‘d’ of the MS replaced by an ‘n’. But they also have a longish note on the line. First, the lines in question: Þaʒ ho were burde bryʒtest þe burne in mynde hade, Þe lasse luf in his lode for lur þat he soʒt Boute hone-- [4]

And now, here is the editors’ note for ll. 1283-6::

‘though she may have been the loveliest lady the warrior had ever known (lit. remembered--cf. 943ff), he had brought with him so much the less love because of the penalty he was going to meet forthwith’. Morris’s emendations to 1283, which are adopted here (though with different punctuation), avoid the difficulty of the repeated burde as well as the momentary inconsistency of narrative point of view. The error could have arisen through misunderstanding of in mynde hade. G. Sanderlin (ChR, 8 [1973], 60-4) argues for retention of the MS reading despite the change of point of view. [5]

So, now I could see that the difference between Tolkien’s and Borroff’s translations definitely hinged on this question about the reading burne versus burde. According to Andrew’s and Waldron’s ‘Select Bibliography’, (Richard) Morris edited Sir Gawayne & the Green Knight for the Early English Text Society in 1864, and Sir Israel Gollancz revised this edition in 1897 and 1912 before producing his own edition in 1940. [6]

But I needed the editors’ handy glossary to be clear on precisely why such a small emendation made such a big difference. It turns out that while burde means ‘maiden, lady, woman’, burne on the other hand--listed under bu(u)rne, bourne, buyrne--means ‘man, warrior, knight’. [7] So the discrepancy stems from whether the MS is correct in reading ‘the lady in mind had’ or whether it should be ‘the knight in mind had’. Tolkien’s translation--made well after Richard Morris proposed the emendation followed by Gollancz, Andrew and Waldron, and Borroff--suggests that for some reason not mentioned in any of his comments on the poem that I have seen, the Professor sided with Sanderlin’s arguments for retaining the MS reading. [8] I for one don’t care for it much, but what do I know?


[1] Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, tr. J.R.R. Tolkien (NY: Ballantine, 1980), p. 58.

[2] Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Patience, and Pearl: Verse Translations, tr. Marie Borroff (NY: Norton, 2001), p. 45.

[3] Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, ed. Sir Israel Gollancz, intro. Mabel Day & Mary S. Serjeantson (London: Oxford U, 1940, repr. 1957), p. 47.

[4] The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, 4th ed., ed. Malcolm Andrew & Ronald Waldron (Exeter, UK: U of Exeter, 2006), p. 255.

[5] Ibid., p. 255, n. on ll. 1283-6.

[6] Ibid., p. 5.

[7] Ibid., p. 308.

[8] Methinks I need to consult the edition of the poem Tolkien himself did in the 1920s with E.V. Gordon: Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, tr. J.R.R. Tolkien & E.V. Gordon (Oxford, 1925).

16 June 2013

'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?': A Cliché Examined

In a lovely apologia for the importance of culture entitled ‘Christianity & Culture’, C.S. Lewis includes among a list of authors that he consulted on the question only two Church Fathers: St Augustine and St Jerome. I shall quote the passage in full:

St Augustine regarded the liberal education which he had undergone in his boyhood as a dementia, and wondered why it should be considered honestior et uberior [higher and richer] than the really useful ‘primary’ education which preceded it (Conf. I, xiii). He is extremely distrustful of his own delight in church music (ibid., X, xxxiii). Tragedy (which for Dr Richards is a great exercise of the spirit’) is for St Augustine a kind of sore. The spectator suffers, yet loves his suffering, and this is a miserabilis insania...quid autem mirum cum infelix pecus aberrans a grege tuo et inpatiens custodiae tuae turpi scabie foedarer (ibid., III, ii). [1]
St Jerome, allegorizing the parable of the Prodigal Son, suggests that the husks with which he was fain to fill his belly may signify cibus daemonum...carmina poetarum, saecularis sapientia, rhetoricorum pompa verborum (Ep. xxi, 4). [2]
Let none reply that the Fathers were speaking of polytheistic literature at a time when polytheism was still a danger. The scheme of values presupposed in most imaginative literature has not become very much more Christian since the time of St Jerome.... [3]

While it is certainly somewhat surprising that Lewis only quotes two Fathers, and neither of them Greek, he at least gives an explanation for this that really amounts to an apology: ‘If my selection of authorities seems arbitrary, that is due not to a bias but to my ignorance. I used such authors as I happened to know.’ [4] In their treatment of essentially the same general question Lewis had faced, however, three later Protestant literary critics—Leland Ryken, Donald Williams, and David Lyle Jeffrey—offer no explanation so far as I can tell for dwelling almost exclusively on one or both of the same two Latin Fathers. The first two, to make matters somewhat more irksome, choose to begin their discussions with one of the most overplayed quotations on culture from the early centuries of the Church—Tertullian’s famous ‘What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ [5]

I daresay that reference to this quotation, and the tendency to treat it as something of a fountainhead for a discernible and unbroken tradition throughout Christian thought, is due at least in part to its rhetorical cuteness. Tertullian himself is of course consciously echoing the high rhetoric of II Corinthians 6:14-15—‘For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial?’ Tertullian in turn is later echoed by St Jerome, who actually quotes the II Corinthians passage in his letter to the Roman matron Eustochium before improvising upon the theme: ‘What has Horace to do with the Psalter? or Virgil with the Gospel? or Cicero with the Apostle?’ [6] Then, finally, and more well-known to the Anglophone world than St Jerome’s letter, is the comment of Alcuin of York to Hygebald, Bishop of Lindisfarne in 797: ‘What has Ingeld to do with Christ? [7]’ [8]

I suggested already that the use of these quotations seemed likely to be due to their rhetorical cuteness. Certainly, it strikes me that short of the ignorance to which Lewis confesses, this can be one of the few possible reasons for focusing so exclusively on the Tertullian-Jerome-Alcuin chain and then at best looking to St Augustine [9] for a more balanced approach to the problem, while simultaneously leaving the entire tradition of the Greek Fathers’ engagement with secular culture completely untouched. Otherwise, why, just to take two outstanding examples, do none of these scholars make any reference to St Basil the Great’s wonderful Address to Young Men on How to Profit from Greek Literature, or to St Gregory the Theologian’s Eulogy on St Basil?

The complete oversight of the Greek stream of Christian thought notwithstanding, there remain unfortunate shortcomings in these various scholars’ attempts to grapple with the Latin Fathers on this subject of secular culture (and primarily literature). Lewis and Leland Ryken seem content to tell us that St Jerome and St Augustine are ‘against us’ on this question. Lewis hopes ‘to answer the Fathers’ attack on pagan literature’, [10] and Ryken is convinced that ‘The specifically Christian tradition of opposition to literature begins with the Church Fathers.’ [11]

With Donald Williams, however, we begin to see that perhaps things are not so black and white. Williams at least, after trotting out some of the usual anti-lit passages from St Augustine, then observes:

Yet even as we read these passages, we cannot believe that for Augustine they tell the whole story. Where, we ask, would the felicitous style of the Confessions have come from if he had never studied the classics from the standpoint of rhetorical analysis? And where would he have found such a perfect concrete example had he remained ignorant of the dolors of Dido? Indeed, if we just keep reading, we find that there is more to Augustine’s view of literature than at first meets the eye. [12]

Jeffrey, for his part, not only deepens and extends the consideration of St Augustine’s view of literature, but also discovers that even St Jerome is not so one-sided as he may appear from the Epistle to Eustochium alone (which besides the II Corinthians echo, also features the famous dream where the irascible translator is accused in heaven of being a ‘Ciceronian’ rather than a Christian). In Jeffrey’s words, after the ‘What has Horace’ passage, ‘Jerome then makes clear that his concern is [not with literature per se, but] with priorities, with the ordering of Christian life in such a way that extrinsic interests remain secondary.’ [13] Jeffrey then notes:

But it is this same prioritizing of means and end which allows Jerome in a letter to another correspondent, the Roman orator and convert Magnus (Epist. 70), to defend the considerable use of non-Christian classical authors in his own writing....Jerome’s reply, a kind of ‘apology for poetry’, accordingly makes several arguments in defense of a Christian use of secular literature—which use is presented as not at all the same thing as an idolatrous passion for literature per se. [14]

But even Jeffrey leaves poor Alcuin to fend for himself. For a vindication of the great Carolingian scholar, we have to turn to a bona fide Anglo-Saxonist. In his charming but relatively obscure book, Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England, Paul Cavill not only provides some more context for Quid Hineldus...?, but considers the passage at some length. First, here is as much of Alcuin’s text as Cavill includes:

Let us prepare ourselves for meeting the great king, so that we may find him kindly, for no one can escape him. Let us think daily what gift we will bring, as scripture says, ‘Thou shalt not appear before the Lord God empty-handed’. No precious metal, no bright jewels, no vain clothing, no worldly luxury will be acceptable there to that fairest of Judges: only generosity of almsgiving, and multiplied good deeds will avail...
The words of God should be read at the monks’ feasts. There the reader should be heard not a harpist, the discourses of the Fathers not the songs of the heathens. What has Ingeld to do with Christ? The house is narrow, it cannot contain both. The kind of the heavens will have nothing to do with heathen and damned so-called kings. For the eternal king rules in the heavens, the lost heathen repines in hell. The voices of readers should be heard in your houses, not the cackling of the crowd in the street. [15]

So, the reference to the ‘monks’ feasts’ should suffice to remind us that Lindisfarne, home of Bishop Hygebald, was a monastery, not simply a local church of laymen. In other words, Alcuin’s advice to listen to Scripture or the Fathers at mealtime rather than heroic tales is not offered as general advice for Christians—much less a dogmatic statement on the relationship of Christ and culture, as he seems often to be taken—but specifically for monks. As Cavill notes, ‘Alcuin is using all the accumulated associations of Bible and Fathers to persuade the monastery at Lindisfarne that secular song at a monastic meal is a contradiction in terms.’ [16]

Finally, even Tertullian needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and should certainly not be seen as representative of any patristic ‘tradition’ concerning secular culture. Contra this idea of a ‘tradition’ stemming from Tertullian, Josef Pieper has noted:

In opposition to the sectarian narrowness of Tertullian, the fathers of the early Church, from Justin Martyr to Origen and Augustine, have unanimously championed their conviction of the power of the divine word to germinate and spread, and of the presence of seeds of truth active in human history from the beginning in the folk wisdom of the different peoples and in the teaching of the philosophers. [17]

John Mark Reynolds has gotten downright deconstructive in his response to the ‘What has Athens...?’ question. In his own suggestively titled, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical & Christian Thought, he writes:

How did the church deal with the massive intellectual and cultural heritage of this classical civilization?
One response was to reject ‘secular learning’ to keep the church pure. Theology had nothing to learn from philosophy. ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ thundered Tertullian, a champion of keeping the two far apart. A great deal as it turned out, since Tertullian’s own writings echoed Greek philosophy on nearly every page.
Judaism itself had been influenced by Greek learning. There was no ‘pure’ stream of knowledge that did not run through Athens. The very Greek language that the early Christians used to communicate their message was soaked in centuries of classical thought. Trying to pry Athens and Jerusalem apart usually led to inconsistency and heresy.
Tertullian ended up trapped in the heresy of Montanism, which taught that Jesus was going to land the New Jerusalem in a remote backwater of the Roman Empire. Private revelations to wild prophets stood on par with Scripture. Jerusalem without Athens becomes a weird place. [18]

Reynolds’s observation about the Greek philosophy in Tertullian’s own writings is perhaps more reason than the usual, basic one to examine the context of the famous statement in De praescriptione haereticorum. [19] While even I haven’t read the complete work, I first encountered the quote in at least some of its context—that of the complete seventh chapter, included in William Placher’s valuable little reader for undergraduates, Readings in the History of Christian Theology. Here is that chapter in full:

These are ‘the doctrines’ of men and ‘of demons’ produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom: this the Lord called ‘foolishness’, and ‘chose the foolish things of the world’ to confound even philosophy itself. For (philosophy) it is which is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy. From this source came the Æons, and I known not what infinite forms, and the trinity of man in the system of Valentinus, who was of Plato’s school. From the same source came Marcion’s better god, with all his tranquillity; he came of the Stoics. Then, again, the opinion that the soul dies is held by the Epicureans; while the denial of the restoration of the body is taken from the aggregate school of all the philosophers; also, when matter is made equal to God, then you have the teaching of Zeno; and when any doctrine is alleged touching a god of fire, then Heraclitus comes in. The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? and in what way does he come?...Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions—embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing! Whence spring those ‘fables and endless genealogies’, and ‘unprofitable questions’, and ‘words which spread like a cancer?’ From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, ‘See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.’ He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from ‘the porch of Solomon’, who had himself taught that ‘the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart’. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.[20]

Much of this blog presupposes, but it also occasionally explicitly proposes (see in particular this post), a particular answer to Tertullian’s ringing rhetorical questions. I hope too that the comments quoted above from Donald Williams, David Lyle Jeffrey, Paul Cavill, Josef Pieper, and perhaps even John Mark Reynolds suggest some part of an answer. But leaving aside the whole question of St Paul’s relationship to philosophy and his mission to Athens, it suffices here to note that Tertullian has merely assembled a list of heretical beliefs which either originate with or are held in common with philosophers. It would be just as simple, of course, to produce a list of orthodox Christian beliefs which are held in common with philosophers. Thus, we are back to carefully evaluating Athens, the Academy, Horace, Virgil, Cicero, and Ingeld instead of merely dismissing them. In the process, I suspect it will be difficult not to fall in love with much that they have to say and offer. If we do not find it difficult, I believe that ought to be classified among our defects rather than among our virtues.



[1] ‘wretched insanity....What marvel was it that an unhappy sheep, straying from Thy flock, and impatient of Thy care, I became infected with a foul disease?’

[2] ‘the food of demons...the songs of poets, secular wisdom, the pomp of the rhetoricians’ words’

[3] C.S. Lewis, ‘Christianity & Culture’, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (NY: Inspirational, 1996), p. 183.

[4] Ibid., p. 183.

[5] William C. Placher, Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Vol. 1: From Its Beginnings to the Eve of the Reformation (Philadelphia: The Westminster, 1988), p. 44.

[6] Qtd. in David Lyle Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity & Literary Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 76.

[7] For some reason the Latin text of this one is given more often than that of Tertullian or St Jerome: Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?

[8] Qtd. in Paul Cavill, Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England (London: HarperCollins, 1999), p. 57.

[9] Or, in Jeffrey’s case, St Jerome and St Augustine. Though to be fair, Jeffrey may also be consciously focusing on the Western Christian tradition, and may see the Greek Fathers as not contributing to that tradition in a sufficiently direct way to warrant attention.

[10] Lewis, p. 184.

[11] Leland Ryken, Triumphs of the Imagination: Literature in Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979), p. 14.

[12] Donald T. Williams, ‘Christian Poetics, Past & Present’, The Discerning Reader: Christian Perspectives on Literature & Theory, ed. David Barratt, Roger Pooley, & Leland Ryken (Leicester, UK: APOLLOS, 1995), p. 54. Incidentally, Jeffrey refers to this book, though it’s not clear to me whether he intends to suggest that it is an example of the modern Christian tendency ‘to uphold a pristine formalist approach to the text in ethical or even theological terms’ (p. 94), or an example of the argument that ‘this strategem is intrinsically vulnerable to the poststructuralist’s denigration to the degree that it remains historically unselfconscious’ (p. 94, n. 19). I’m thinking the latter based on what I know of the book, but I could be mistaken.

[13] Jeffrey, p. 76.

[14] Ibid., p. 77.

[15] Cavill, pp. 167-8.

[16] Ibid., p. 58. Of course, lest we get the idea that Christian monasticism specifically, if not Christianity generally, is therefore ‘against us’ on the question of literature, Cavill goes on to point out:

If Alcuin’s orthodoxy has a certain narrowness, we learn something from his letter to Lindisfarne about the breadth of Anglo-Saxon monasticism. Monks listened to heroic, presumably secular tales, and no doubt enjoyed them. The larger part of the Anglo-Saxon contribution to world civilization was in preserving both Christian and secular classics. Books were produced in monasteries, except for a few, mainly functional and rather dull works, which were written for kings. But the vernacular works—poems particularly, which are both Christian and composed in the Germanic language and style of the ordinary Anglo-Saxons—are worthy of attention, not least because they are less bound by the need for orthodoxy. Not only is there Beowulf, which offers a challenge to the prevailing theological understanding, as exemplified by Alcuin, of the fate of the unconverted heathen. There are also vernacular poems which confound all modern expectations of monastic production. (ibid., p. 60)

[17] Josef Pieper, Tradition: Concept & Claim, tr. E. Christian Kopf (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s, 2008), p. 54. Besides the now familiar passage from De praescriptione haereticorum 7, Pieper also cites Apologeticum 46 as an example of Tertullian’s ‘sectarian narrowness’ (p. 82, n. 18).

[18] John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical & Christian Thought (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), p. 17.

[19] Unfortunately, Jeffrey, whose book is an outstanding work of original scholarship, mistakenly cites Tertullian’s famous quip as De Spectaculis, 18 (Jeffrey, p. 107, n. 21).


[20] Placher, pp. 43-4. Placher’s reader, along with his survey of the history of Christian thought, was the assigned text for my undergraduate Church History course at OCU with Amy Oden, niece of Thomas Oden.