11 June 2012

A Defense of St Gregory the Great Against a Detractor

All the way back in 2009 I mentioned (here) my acquisition of a book by Frederick Artz called The Mind of the Middle Ages. It is an extraordinarily learned and useful book, and I have made reference to it a number of times on this blog. That said, I was disappointed recently when I happened to come across Artz’s remarks on the Latin Church Father, St Gregory the Dialogist (aka, St Gregory ‘the Great’). I shall simply quote the offending passage at some length:

Gregory’s writings, with their clumsy Latin and their poor organization and their general dimness, show the intellectual decline since Augustine. He says of his bad Latinity that he will despise the laws of case and declension because he deems it unfit ‘to submit the words of the divine oracle to the rules of Donatus.’ In the seventh century, Latin style had separated into debased provincial dialects, all of which had in common the neglect of declensions of nouns and conjugations of verbs, wretched spelling, and a messy word order. It is often difficult to make out just what the author is trying to say, and the best authors cannot put order into their ideas or clarity into their expression of them. Even the handwriting is uniform in its disorderliness. While Gregory’s learning was based on that of the greatest of the Latin Fathers, he was not able to understand much of Augustine, for he lacked the knowledge of ancient literature, of Greek philosophy, and of the Greek Fathers that Augustine possessed. His enthusiasm for far-fetched and sometimes unintelligible allegory, his tendency to moralize everything, and his superstition, as when—at least according to legend—he was convinced he had prayed the Emperor Trajan out of hell, and his uncertainty as to whether the moon received its light from the sun—all show the depths to which learning had sunk by the end of the sixth century. The Christian faith, he declared in the Moralia, is ‘a kind of river, which is both shallow and deep, wherein the lamb may find a footing and the elephant float at large’; and in the name of allegory and interpretation he sometimes introduces the most fantastic explanations of things earthly and divine. There is no originality, and sometimes very little reason, in his work. His faith is mystical, though deeply rooted in the fear of hell. Gregory had the mind neither of an ancient Roman, nor of a converted pagan, but of a mediaeval monk, and so he represents almost a complete break with ancient culture. He contributed to current ideas about angels, demons, purgatory, miracles, the use of relics, the cult of the saints, and the belief in the magical value of the sacraments. The converging currents of barbarism and classical decadence meet in him. [1]

One hardly knows where to begin responding to these remarks, but I think I would start with the observation that Artz has betrayed his unquestioned assumptions first, of the Renaissance preference for ‘classical’ Latin as opposed to that used by most subsequent Latin authors, and second, of the Enlightenment preference for a certain understanding of pagan thought as opposed to Christianity.

As for the first of these assumptions, whatever might be said for solid, classical Latin grammar and style, we can hardly expect St Gregory to have upheld them when his masters, ‘the greatest of the Latin Fathers’, upon whose learning St Gregory’s was based, repeatedly deprecated such things themselves. Even St Augustine, of course, wrote: ‘What do we care what the grammarians prefer? Better you understand through our barbarism, than get left behind [deserti] through our elevated finesse [disertitudine].’ [2] Ironically, St Gregory’s refusal ‘to submit the words of the divine oracle to the rules of Donatus’ is itself less a demonstration of his ignorance than it is of his learning (in the Fathers). Like the subject of one of his books, St Gregory is scienter nescius et sapienter indoctus. Furthermore, there is something appealingly democratic about this attitude in Christian letters. Nicholas Ostler’s ‘biography’ of Latin notes the ‘aggressively vulgar, plebeian, tone’ of Christian Latin, referring to it as ‘the Latin of the street, and perhaps especially the Latin of recent-generation speakers’, and pointing out its readiness ‘to identify itself with common speech patterns—what indeed is commonly called Vulgar Latin—and to set them down in writing’. [3] It is hard to fault the Pope of Rome if his writing happens to resemble more closely the speech of ordinary people than the stiff and affected prose of a snooty academic.

Concerning the second of Artz’s assumptions, it seems that ‘a complete break with ancient culture’, even if it is only almost complete, is a grossly absurd notion. It is hard to imagine someone with so great an acquaintance with Late Antique culture as Artz obviously has even writing such words. And what are the evidences of this break? Allegory, moralising, and ‘superstition’? Could not the pagan philosophers themselves of the first to fourth centuries AD be as justly accused of these? Surely they could if the content of the last category is to be identified with the ideas to which St Gregory supposedly contributed ‘about angels, demons, purgatory, miracles, the use of relics, the cult of the saints, and the belief in the magical value of the sacraments’, a list designed it seems for the express purpose of horrifying Protestants. [4] C.S. Lewis is worth quoting on this point:

I have read a novel which represents all the Pagans of that day as carefree sensualists, and all the Christians as savage ascetics. It is a grave error. They were in some ways far more like each other than either was like a modern man. The leaders on both sides were monotheists, and both admitted almost an infinity of supernatural beings between God and man. Both were highly intellectual, but also (by our standards) highly superstitious....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. The modern who dislikes the Christian Fathers would have disliked the Pagan philosophers equally, and for similar reasons. Both alike would have embarrassed him with stories of visions, ecstasies, and apparitions. Between the lower and more violent manifestations of both religions he would have found it hard to choose. To a modern eye (and nostril) Julian with his long nails and densely populated beard might have seemed very like an unwashed monk out of the Egyptian desert. [5]

If we keep these observations solidly in mind, it is hard to see how the minds of ancient Romans, converted pagans, and mediaeval monks are so decidedly different. As Lewis so sagaciously remarks, ‘They were in some ways far more like each other than either was like a modern man.’ To Artz’s claim that ‘The converging currents of barbarism and classical decadence meet in him’, I oppose Christopher Dawson: ‘St Gregory the Great represents the highest surviving traditions of Roman society and stands head and shoulders above the average level of Lombard or Merovingian culture.’ [6]

But a number of the things Artz mentions bear closer examination. When he condemns ‘far-fetched and sometimes unintelligible allegory’ one would like to ask whether there is any allegory he would not consider far-fetched and more or less unintelligible. At any rate, whether it always goes under that name or not, allegory in one form or another is the exegetical method of the Fathers, and of Christ and the Apostles before them. By most standards, the single patristic work commonly included on the list of ‘Great Books’—St Augustine’s Confessions—could be considered as taken up largely with a ‘far-fetched and sometimes unintelligible allegory’ of Genesis. Does this show us to what depths ‘learning had sunk’ by the end of the fourth century? What of the allegorical readings associated with the pagan scholars of Alexandria ever since the Hellenistic age?

Regarding the claim that he lacks ‘originality’, I suspect that St Gregory, like most writers and thinkers before the Romantic age, would appreciate this as a compliment. It is certainly true of the Church Fathers as a whole, who hoped never to say anything ‘original’ whatsoever but to speak wholly in accordance with Tradition. [7] The lack of ‘reason’, I suppose, depends on one’s definition of this. St Gregory, as Jean Leclercq notes, writes from experience. [8] In other words, he does not speculate using rationally inferred conclusions drawn from established premises because he is describing something he has done and seen. True, this experience lies beyond that of the mundanities of the rationalist mind, but this has little to do with it lacking ‘reason’.

A similar point could be made about St Gregory’s ‘belief in the magical value of the sacraments’. This is either Protestantism or materialism (or both) coming through. I think of St Gregory’s wholly Orthodox statement that ‘In the very hour of the sacrifice...things lowest are brought into communion with the highest, things earthly are united with the heavenly, and the things that are seen and those which are unseen become one.’ [9] It is true that any pagan philosopher of the Late Antique period could have written something similar about the theurgical acts in which they engaged (and for which one wonders whether Artz would have called them ‘superstitious’). But as Fr Andrew Louth has observed, even when pagan and Christian use ‘similar language’ about such things, they do not mean the same things by it:

For a neo-Platonist, theurgy—magic—worked because of some occult sympathy between the material elements used and the constitution of the divine. Theurgy, to a neo-Platonist, is natural—even if rather odd. The use of material elements in the sacraments, however, is a matter of institution, not of occult finesse: they are vehicles of grace not because of what they are materially, but because of their use in a certain symbolic context. [10]

But apart from all of these particular problems, I think we are confronted with the general one that Artz has simply failed to read St Gregory with attention and sympathy. Jean Leclercq writes that ‘to be truly appreciated, his works must be realized and savored, a state perhaps rarely achieved in our times. They demand a certain leisure, the otium of which he so often spoke.’ [11]

Obviously, unlike Artz, Leclercq has realised and savoured St Gregory’s works, and thus he has truly appreciated. Ironically, he states what he has found there precisely in terms of the ‘originality’ Artz so sorely misses:

What is original about his contribution? Above all, his personal experience, that experience in the spiritual life and in sanctity which itself reflects his character and the circumstances of his life: a monk’s experience, as has been seen, and the experience of a cultivated man. And though Gregory is not an intellectual, he is, however, a man of learning as cultivated as any Latin who lived in sixth-century Rome could be; Rome at the time may have been decadent, but it was still Rome. Because of his extreme sensitivity, he experiences spiritual states which others had, in fact, known although they did not analyze them with the same degree of precision that he did. Thanks to the flexibility of his Latin style, he describes them with great subtlety....For him, man’s suffering is by no means a theoretical notion; he knew it from the inside at the cost of a sensitivity that was sharpened and increased by the difficulties of each day. Finally, his experience is that of a contemplative condemned to action. [12]

Leclercq’s reading of St Gregory is, I am pleased to say, a near perfect counterbalance to that of Artz. Certainly, it makes much more sense of Christopher Wickham’s recent observation near the end of an extensive survey of the years 400-1000, East and West, that St Gregory is one of the ‘remarkably few’ late antique or early mediaeval writers that he ‘could imagine meeting with any real pleasure’. [13]

[1] Frederick Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey, AD 200-1500, 3rd ed., rev. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980), pp. 192-3.

[2] Qtd. in Nicholas Ostler, Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (NY: Walker, 2007), p. 118.

[3] Ibid., pp. 117, 118, 119.

[4] If his ‘superstition’ is to be illustrated solely by the story about Trajan, surely it is unfair to use as one’s example a story one considers a ‘legend’? Besides, it seems more natural to consider the anecdote—as is usually done—as an example of St Gregory’s humane qualities and his appreciation for the ancient past than as evidence of ‘superstition’.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2002), pp. 46-7.

[6] Christopher Dawson, Religion & the Rise of Western Culture (Garden City, NY: Image, 1958), p. 37.

[7] One recalls Jaroslav Pelikan’s comments in The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), Vol. 2 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1977), pp. 8-10.

[8] On which more below.

[9] Qtd. in Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), p. 114.

[10] Fr Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Oxford, 1981), p. 164.

[11] Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning & the Desire for God: A Study in Monastic Culture, trans. Catherine Misrahi (NY: Fordham, 1961), p. 34.

[12] Ibid., pp. 35-6.

[13] Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 (NY: Penguin, 2009), p. 553.

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