18 March 2013

Megalocosmos & Moral Philosophy in Donne, Herbert, & St Nicodemus

Over the last few weeks I had the delightful opportunity to see an acquaintance of mine, David K. Anderson, of the University of Oklahoma English department, lecture on John Foxe, John Donne, and George Herbert at our local Anglo-Catholic center—All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City. While I was not unacquainted with the writings of these men, I thought it would be fun to brush up a bit, at least on the latter two. I made sure at the very least to read all of Dame Helen Gardner’s selections from the poetry of each in her anthology for the Penguin Classics, The Metaphysical Poets. But I also read some bits and pieces of Donne’s prose from the anthology Seventeenth-Century Verse & Prose, and of Herbert’s from the Everyman’s Library edition of his Complete English Works.

Naturally, I was not unaware that these men, like all good Anglican clergymen of their day, were quite knowledgeable about the Church Fathers, and so it has never surprised me to discover echoes of patristic doctrine, or even explicit quotations from the Fathers, in their work. But I was surprised that during my recent foray into these English writers, I found something in each of them that reminded me, not first and foremost of the ancient Fathers themselves, but of a couple of passages in the works of an heir of the Fathers who actually postdated Donne and Herbert by about 150 years: St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. Furthermore, these passages from St Nicodemus, though they are found in different works of his, deal with ideas that are very closely related to one another.

First of all, Donne writes in the fourth Meditation from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

It is too little to call Man a little World; Except God, Man is a diminutive to nothing. Man consists of more pieces, more parts, then the world; then the world doeth, nay then the world is. And if those pieces were extended, and stretched out in Man, as they are in the world, Man would bee the Gyant, and the Worlde the Dwarfe, the World but the Map, and the Man the World....Inlarge this Meditation upon this great world, Man... [1] 

Upon reading the very first sentence of this Meditation, I immediately recalled reading among the ‘Selected Passages from the Writings of the Saint’ in Constantine Cavarnos’s volume on St Nicodemus the following excerpt from the latter’s Handbook of Spiritual Counsel

God first created the invisible world and then the visible world. After everything else He creates man, of an invisible soul and a visible body. Thus He renders him like a cosmos—not a small cosmos within a great one, as the philosopher of Nature Democritos has said, and as other philosophers opine, calling man very pettily only a microcosmos and limiting his dignity and perfection to this visible world; no, God renders man a great cosmos within the small one. Man is a megalocosmos through the multitude of powers he contains, especially intuitive [noeras] and discursive reason [logikes] and the will, [2] which the physical universe does not have. For this is what Gregory the Theologian says: ‘He places man on the earth like a second cosmos, a great cosmos within a small one’ (Discourse on the Nativity and Easter); a cosmos adorning both universes, the visible and the invisible, according to the divine Gregory of Thessaloniki (Discourse on the Presentation of the Theotokos, I); a cosmos which connects the two ends of the world above and the world below, and makes it clear that their Creator is one, according to Nemesios. [3] 

The quotation from St Gregory the Theologian is found in his Oration ‘On the Nativity of Christ’ (38.11)— 

The human being is a kind of second world, great in smallness, placed on the earth, another angel, a composite worshiper, a beholder of the visible creation, an initiate into the intelligible, king of things on earth, subject to what is above, earthly and heavenly, transitory and immortal, visible and intelligible, a mean between greatness and lowliness. [4] 

The allusion to St Gregory ‘of Thessaloniki’, i.e. ‘Palamas’, seems however to be miscited. Compare the line from St Nicodemus with the following, from St Gregory Palamas’s Homily 26, ‘Delivered at Harvest Time’: ‘That is why he [man] was last to be created, belonging to both the visible and invisible worlds and adorning them both.’ [5] At any rate, it is surely beyond obvious that in his fourth Meditation Donne is expressing precisely the same doctrine as these various Greek theologians. 

Turning to George Herbert, I did not detect much on the theme of man as megalocosmos, [6] but I did find some lines in a couple of his lyrics that reminded me of some other words of St Nicodemus. First, consider the first stanza of ‘The Agonie’: 

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love. [7]

Second, compare the whole argument of ‘Vanitie’: 

THE fleet Astronomer can bore
And thred the spheres with his quick-piercing minde:
He views their stations, walks from doore to doore,
Surveys, as if he had design’d
To make a purchase there: he sees their dances,
And knoweth long before,
Both their full-ey’d aspects, and secret glances.

The nimble Diver with his side
Cuts through the working waves, that he may fetch
His dearely-earned pearl, which God did hide
On purpose from the ventrous wretch;
That he might save his life, and also hers,
Who with excessive pride
Her own destruction and his danger wears.

The subtil Chymick can devest
And strip the creature naked, till he finde
The callow principles within their nest:
There he imparts to them his minde,
Admitted to their bed-chamber, before
They appeare trim and drest
To ordinarie suitours at the doore.

What hath not man sought out and found,
But his deare God? who yet his glorious law
Embosomes in us, mellowing the ground
With showres and frosts, with love & aw;
So that we need not say, Where’s this command?
Poore man! thou searchest round
To finde out death, but missest life at hand. [8] 

Okay, now the connection may not be immediately obvious to anyone else, but before I go on, note that both of these poems argue that sciences and physical researches are paltry and unimportant compared to divine science—the knowledge of God and of the spirit. Now, consider St Nicodemus’s prologue to the Evergetinos

There are those who concern themselves in this or that way with certain other types of philosophy; and of these persons, some spend all of their days studying, say, mathematics or physics, while others concentrate on metaphysics and more general subjects. Yet they entirely neglect moral philosophy, even though it is both the paramount and most necesssary of all types of philosophy. These men study the harmony and order of the heavens, and earth, and all other matters. But because they do not know, as they ought, that the investigation of ourselves is distinctly superior to that of alien matters and, moreover, because they do not know that knowledge on its own—that is, being bereft of practical application—has no substance and does not differ from fantasy, as the holy Maximos notes, precious few of these men address the question of how to bring themselves into harmony with the beauty of moral life, or how to learn true virtues through experience....Surely we must apply ourselves to moral philosophy, or risk being found wanting in relation to our higher aspect. [9] 

The connection of St Nicodemus’s ‘moral philosophy’ with the ‘two vast, spacious things...Sinne and Love’ of Herbert’s ‘Agonie’ is perhaps more clear, vice and virtue being indisputably subjects of moral philosophy. But what of ‘his deare God’? Notice that the explication of the initial question in the rest of that final stanza refers to ‘his glorious law’, ‘love & aw’, God’s ‘command’, and ‘life’. The knowledge of God in this stanza too appears to be once again that knowledge proper to moral philosophy. 

Now what is the connection between this idea of the importance of moral philosophy and the view of man as a megalocosmos? It strikes me that the favourable comparison of man to the cosmos, the recognition that he is greater than it despite being physically smaller, implicit in the quotes from Herbert and the Evergetinos and explicit in the quotes from Donne and the Handbook, is part of the appeal to focus on the knowledge of moral philosophy rather than natural. The object of study is a superior one. The furthest reaches of the galaxy are fascinating and beautiful, but how much more the inner space of the human soul? As Fr Artemy Vladimirov writes in his lovely children’s book, The Path to Confession, ‘Perhaps some of you have already gazed into the depths of your heart? A whole world is hidden there, you know—a world no less interesting and mysterious than the visible world.’ [10] 

I admit I am somewhat embarrassed that these passages from St Nicodemus are the only examples of such ideas that occur to me. I feel certain that I have run across them in other Fathers (and likely enough, other non-patristic works as well). Any suggestions are of course welcome.

[1] Helen C. White, Ruth C. Wallerstein, & Ricardo Quintana, eds., Seventeenth-Century Verse & Prose, Vol. 1: 1600-1660 (NY: Macmillan, 1965), p. 105. 

[2] While the Greek text here actually reads kai malista tes logikes, kai noeras, kai thelematikes (Symbouleutikon Encheiridion [Athens: Panagopoulos, 2001], p. 39), I am inclined to think that Cavarnos has switched the first two terms of the series in his translation. It strikes me as more likely that the ‘intuitive reason’ is to be identified with the ‘noetic’ faculty and the ‘discursive reason’ with the ‘logical’.

[3] Constantine Cavarnos, tr., St Nicodemos the Hagiorite, Vol. 3 of Modern Orthodox Saints (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1994), pp. 115-6. 

[4] St Gregory the Theologian, Festal Orations, tr. Sr Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2008), p. 68. 

[5] St Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, ed. & tr. Christopher Veniamin with the Monastery of St John the Baptist (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor, 2009), p. 206. 

[6] Though Herbert does allude to man ‘very pettily’ as microcosm in a few lines in ‘Man’: 

He is in little all the sphere. [l. 22]  
...Man is one world, and hath Another to attend him. [ll. 47-8] 

[7] Dame Helen Gardner, The Metaphysical Poets (London: Penguin, 1985), p. 120. 

[8] Ibid., p. 127. 

[9] St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, ‘Prologue’, The Evergetinos: A Complete Text, Vol. 1, ed. & tr. Archbishop Chrysostomos & Hieromonk Patapios, et al. (Etna, CA: CTOS, 2008), pp. xxxii-xxxiii. 

[10] Fr Artemy Vladimirov, The Path to Confession: A Book for Family Reading Presented to Orthodox Children, illustr. G.A. Skotina, tr. Ivan Gerasimov & Nun Nectaria (McLees) (Ash Grove, MO: Unexpected Joy, 2000), p. v.

1 comment:

Aaron Taylor said...

'O, what an untold world there is in one human heart!' - Uncle Tom's Cabin, ch. 37