02 March 2010

Spenser's Hymnes & Plato's Liturgical Ethos

I hope all of my readers will accept my apologies for the lack of posts the last few days. I have been busy, tired, and lacking in an overabundance of inspiration, and these three forces conspired to keep me away. I hope this post may atone for my brief absence. Though this sort of post doesn’t typically generate a lot of excitement or discussion, the subject is one that is dear to my heart, and also lies near the heart of my interest in literature. I hope the reason for that will become clear by the end, and that all will enjoy as best they can this little glimpse at what makes Aaron tick.

Before I had ever read a word of Edmund Spenser, I was made aware of his Platonism by Dame Frances Yates’s The Occult Philosophy of the Elizabethan Age. Although Yates’s primary purpose in the chapter on Spenser is to situate him in what she calls the ‘Hermetic-Cabalist’ tradition, she argues that the latter in fact forms the core of the ‘Platonism’ of the Renaissance. Thus she acknowledges of Spenser’s Fowre Hymnes—with which I am concerned here—that they ‘abound in references to Plato and to Platonic philosophy; their cult of heavenly love and beauty is Platonic in conception.’ [1]

I have referred previously (here) to the delightful little edition of the Hymnes by Lilian Winstansley, published by Cambridge in 1907. Winstanley, though she acknowledges the influence of Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno on Spenser, describes these figures merely as ‘Platonists’ and says nothing whatever about Hermes Trismegistus. Aside from a passing reference to the ‘strangely transformed’ Platonism of the Renaissance, which had been ‘intermixed and confused with the mysticism of Philo and Plotinus, and with ideas derived from the Jewish Cabala, and even from Indian and Egyptian sources’, [2], Winstanley’s introduction is wholly concerned with the Hymnes as Platonist artefacts.

But even with this limit in perspective taken account of and allowed for, Winstanley’s Enlightenment approach still leads her into some unhelpful judgements, and there is one in particular that I would like to mention here. She writes:

Again Spenser has no means, at least he does not contrive any means, for representing the rich variety of opinion in Plato; Plato frequently represents in the same dialogue the most widely different opinions but without arbitrating among them; his speakers advance views mutually inconsistent and the author declines to pronounce definitely on any one; hence the best dialogues, though strewn with suggestive ideas, are free from dogma and give the effect of extreme flexibility of mind. This effect Spenser does not attempt to render in his poetry and, even where he follows Plato most closely, it is always with a certain difference. This imitation is nowhere closer than in the Fowre Hymnes where his theories of the nature of love and beauty are, in all essentials, taken from the Phaedrus and Symposium; yet he can only make his explanations consistent by sacrificing a large part of the Platonic dialogues and by buttressing up what remains with conceptions taken from the Italian Platonists; in the process the dramatic life and variety of the originals are inevitably lost; the total result, though in a sense more consistent, is less subtle, less ingenious and less profound. [3]

I think this is, first and foremost, a mistake about genre. Winstanley has paid no attention to it. Confronted with this criticism, I think Spenser would say, as C.S. Lewis has Boethius do in response to those who ask why his Consolatio is not more religious, ‘But did you not read my title?’ [4] Like Milton, Spenser’s first question was not ‘What do I want to say?’ but ‘What kind of poem do I want to make?’ As Lewis goes on to say of this choice:

The things between which choice is to be made already exist in their own right, each with a character of its own well established in the public world and governed by its own laws. If you choose one, you lose the specific beauties and delights of the other: for your aim is not mere excellence, but the excellence proper to the thing chosen—the goodness of a rockery or a celibate being different from that of a tennis court or a husband. [5]

. . . [E]very poem has two parents—its mother being the mass of experience, thought, and the like, inside the poet, and its father the pre-existing Form (epic, tragedy, the novel, or what not) which he meets in the public world. By studying only the mother, criticism becomes one-sided. . . . It would, in my opinion, be the greatest error to suppose that this fertilization of the poet’s internal matter by the pre-existing Form impairs his originality, in any sense in which originality is a high literary excellence. . . . The matter inside the poet wants the Form: in submitting to the Form it becomes really original, really the origin of greatwork. [6]

So, Spenser chose the ‘hymn’, not the philosophical dialogue, and the raison d’être of a hymn is to praise the good, not to ‘represent a rich variety of opinion’, or to reproduce the ‘dramatic life and variety’ of a dialogue. But of even more interest is the fact that Plato himself recognised this, and seems to have preferred, philosophically speaking, the hymn to the dialogue.

I hate to raise the spectre of ‘Radical Orthodoxy’, but I think Catherine Pickstock has called attention to this issue very well, and I shall refer to her views at length. In After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, she argues that Plato intends the dialogue as a sort of stepping stone from the fragmentation of the self, the irony, the superficiality, and the lack of fixed principles characteristic of the sophistic polis and the mimetic arts (such as Homeric poetry) as practiced and/or interpreted in such a context, to the ‘supremely centred and non-ironic . . . genuine avowal’ of ‘doxological expression’. [7] This is why Socrates insists, in Republic 607a, ‘But you should also know that hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people are the only poetry we can admit into our city.’ [8] Concerning the sophistic polis, Pickstock cites the view of Hans-Georg Gadamer that—

Such a factured ethos cannot securely accommodate those works of art which do not unambiguously depict the true paideia, based upon a positive, substantive construal of principle, since any inculcation of virtue they may contain can readily be perverted. For Gadamer, ‘the contemporary morality and moral education which had established itself upon the basis of the poetic forumlations of the older morality . . . in adhering to aging moral forms, found itself defenceless against arbitrary perversions of those forms brought on by the spirit of sophism’ (‘Plato & the Poets’). [9]

Hymns, that is, liturgical poems, lack this ambiguity. Pickstock writes:

Although these forms engage in a certain amount of mimetic representation, such as the depiction of gods as interlocutors, a key characteristic of a song of praise or hymn is that it does not involve self-division. In an act of doxological expression, the one who gives praise, the object of praise, and all those who share in its expression, are supremely centred and non-ironic, for genuine avowal involves commitment to such a degree that nothing can be held back or veiled. [10]

Pickstock argues that liturgical poetry is the literary expression of a way of life in that it is ‘ontologically constitutive of the person who gives praise’ and in that it is ‘the highest form of language’. [11] But the dialogue is merely a means of leading those affected by the sophistic ethos back to the liturgical ethic. Pickstock writes:

The dialogues represent the dissemination of ‘theology’ in a fragmented society, as intended to lead therapeutically towards the doxological life, not only through their content, but also their structure . . . . [The Platonic dialogue’s] resistance to any foundation reveals it to possess the flexibility of orality, together with its form as a ‘literary’, or theological, rather than straightforwardly doxological, prayer. [12]

It should now be clear how Winstanley has so decidedly missed the point. All of the features she values in the dialogic form—the ‘rich variety of opinion’, the freedom from ‘dogma’ and ‘extreme flexibility of mind’, the ‘dramatic life and variety’—which she terms ‘subtle’, ‘ingenious’, and ‘profound’, are precisely those features which are there merely as therapy for those corrupted by the sophistic ethos. The Christian poet, Spenser, is free of such restrictions and has found his way back to the liturgical ethos. I fear the majority of his scholars have not.

I shall end with the 25th Stanza of ‘An Hymne of Heavenly Love’, preceded by a rhetorical question: could this really be improved in subtlety or profundity by being freed from ‘dogma’ or by introducing a ‘mutually inconsistent’ opinion?

O blessed Well of Love! O Floure of Grace!
O glorious Morning-Starre! O Lampe of Light!
Most lively image of thy Fathers face,
Eternall King of Glorie, Lord of Might,
Meeke Lambe of God, before all worlds behight,
How can we thee requite for all this good?
Or what can prize that thy most precious blood? [13]

[1] Dame Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 113.

[2] Lilian Winstanley, ‘Introduction’, The Fowre Hymnes, by Edmund Spenser, ed. Lilian Winstanley (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1930), pp. x, xi.

[3] Ibid., pp. xi-xii.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), pp. 77-8.

[5] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (NY: Oxford U, 1965), p. 2.

[6] Ibid., p. 3.

[7] Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), p. 39.

[8] Plato, ‘Republic’, tr. G.M.A. Grube, rev. C.D.C. Reeve, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, with D.S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), p. 1211.

[9] Pickstock, p. 38. I take Gadamer’s views with greater seriousness than most German philosophers precisely because of his emphasis on and defense of tradition in the humanities, a view described at length and applauded in Fr Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery.

[10] Ibid., p. 39.

[11] Ibid., p. 40.

[12] Ibid., p. 43.

[13] Spenser, p. 27.


St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

I think your decision to "plunder" the "Egyptian" resources of Radical Orthodoxy - particularly Pickstock's notion of the liturgical consummation of philosophy - is spot on. For all the bizarre foolishness that crops up under that banner, there is much to be gained from her insightful explorations. At times, I wonder whether there will ever be a post-critical Orthodox reading of the Divine Liturgy anything like her immersion in the Latin Rite. Then again, we already have St Germanos and St Nicholas Cabasilas...

Regarding the questions of genre, I would imagine that so many scholars miss the profound importance of the move from dialogue to hymn because they can't fathom giving themselves away to the Divine Other in such a way that their personhood is (re)constituted (or better, transfigured). They're "stuck in therapy," unable or unwilling to move on.

I also wonder if it might be possible to write an Orthodox post-script to After Writing, with the working title, "The Apophatic Completion of the Liturgical Consummation."

Or maybe I should just be quiet.

Daniel said...

As one who understands a malaise in productive ideas and/or a lack of inspiration you have not done any harm, instead you have submitted a rather splendid post!

This need for a polyphony of various voices as opposed to a dominant "dogmatic" voice of certitude, in my mind, does not hold ground for a poetic aesthetic. Is this Winstanley's englightenment perspective or just her overtly platonic adoration? I tend to side with her placing the dissidence found in Platonic dialogues as more "dramtic" and "living". Therefore Spenser's form is mistaken since it does not imitate the dialogues in a suitable manner.You are right to point out that the issue is not mimesis but the completion of intent on the part of Spenser.

Having not read Winstanley might I ask what is her goal in tracing the platonist/kabalistic teachings through the Elizabethan age? Does she believe that Plato was the tops and all imitation of him that does not succeed based on her avowal for dissonance, variety, and dialogue over harmony, unity, and obedience? What does she think of the Faerie Queen?

Looks like I need to read Spenser.

Hope all of this made since, this comment box is so small.

Daniel said...



Aaron Taylor said...

Fr Mark> Thank you for the affirmation. I agree with you about the ‘Egyptian’ resources of what little I know of ‘Radical Orthodoxy’. I mainly included that little disclaimer because I was aware that it might produce some eye-rolling on the part of some readers. I just happen to really like Pickstock’s treatment of Plato on this issue. Of course, I really need to track down and read the paper she cites from Gadamer. I enjoyed my forays into Truth & Method, and was reminded of its insights some months ago when I finally read Fr Louth’s Discerning the Mystery.

It would be nice to see some gifted Orthodox theologian write ‘The Apophatic Completion of the Liturgical Consummation’, but the trick would be finding someone both able and willing. Maybe Fr Behr?

Maximus> I referred to Winstanley’s approach as an Enlightenment one because I associate the Enlightenment with the tendency to emphasise Plato’s dialectic as more of a process without conclusions than a method that leads to an objective, already-completed result. By contrast, the Platonic tradition itself, beginning with the Middle Platonists and ending with the Renaissance Platonists and figures like Leibniz, seems to treat Plato’s philosophy almost as a systematic body of religious doctrine, with dialectic constituting a sort of mystical activity. This is borne out too by Winstanley’s snide reference to the mixing of Plato with ‘the mysticism of Philo & Plotinus’.

As for your question about Winstanley’s purpose, I’m afraid you may be mixing her up with Yates. Winstanley barely hints at the role of Kabbalah (the closest she comes is the comment I quoted about the ‘impurity’ of Renaissance Platonism) & is not concerned with the Elizabethan milieu generally. Yates is the one who traces the Platonist/Kabbalistic teachings, and though she seems to share the sharp distinction between Plato & his later followers, her work is far more judgement-free about such things.

Daniel said...

My mistake! Sometimes reading online has me all mixed up.

I definitely agree with your reading of the Enlightenment's use of Platonic dialectic.

Yates is a rather interesting lady. I have her Art of Memory.

Aaron Taylor said...

Yes, I have enjoyed everything I've read by Yates--Art of Memory, Astraea, Giordano Bruno & the Hermetic Tradition, & The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age. I have a copy of The Rosicrucian Enlightenment too, but haven't got round to reading it.

Aaron Taylor said...

You should look up my post on Giordano Bruno!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

That Winstanley says nothing of the Hermetica shows she really mustn't understand anything at all about the intellectual history of Renaissance Platonism.

I don't know how you can find the patience for such stuff. It's truly admirable!

Aaron Taylor said...

Kevin> Yes, but notice that according to my argument here, it is Plato per se that she's misunderstood! I was willing to read her just for insights into
Spenser's indebtedness to Plato, but this criticism of the Hymnes for not exhibiting 'the specific beauties & delights' of dialogues just floored me, particularly as I had parts of Pickstock's treatment of the Republic etched into my mind.

Say, have any of you guys read or do you know anything about Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato?

Ochlophobist said...


Next time we plan to meet, remind me to loan you my copy of Robert Ellrodt's Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser. You will like it (lovely continental monograph published by Librairie E. Droz, Genève, rebound in a good, sturdy, hand-sewn black cloth).

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Aaron, oh, yes, I noticed that it was her "understanding" of Plato that you took aim at. But since I have nothing nice to say about that, I preferred to keep silence.

Havelock's Preface to Plato is one of those odd books towards which the intended primary audience is antagonistic, while outside disciplines latch onto it and value it greatly. That's all just hearsay, on my part, as I haven't read it, but I've heard enough that I also have no interest in it. Have you heard good things about it from classicists?

Aaron Taylor said...

Owen> I shall remember to make that request. Sounds neat!

Kevin> Do you mean you didn't appreciate my critique of Winstanley on that account? I'm unclear about your meaning because you didn't have anything nice to say about her exclusion of Hermes either!

I haven't heard much of anything about Havelock's book, except from a philosophy professor who says he loves it. My friend is not a classicist, but he's usually so critical, I was surprised at how positive he was about Havelock.

I am interested in Havelock because of the connection with Walter Ong, whose work I have meant to look into since seeing the use made of him in Burton-Christie's Word in the Desert. Also, there is a copy of Havelock that has been staring back at me from the philosophy section of my local Half Price Books. The library-builder in me keeps telling me to add it to my Plato collection.

So he's sort of the Thomas Kuhn of classicists, huh?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

OMG! You are joking. Of course I appreciate your critique. I just have nothing polite to add to it. I have plenty of otherwise to add.

Yes, that seems to be the thing with Havelock. A Kuhn by any other name....

Aaron Taylor said...

I asked my friend why he thought classicists didn't have much use for Havelock, and this is what he said:

He favors a version of the orality over writing thesis that takes away from classicists the authority of the thing they care most about --the text.
Traditionally in classics departments, the authority of the text was unquestioned. In the 1870s and 80s, classicists began to appear who had different ideas. Their godfather was the Swiss classicist Johann Jakob Bachofen.
Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy is in this vein. Then came the so-called Cambridge
Ritualists (Jane Ellen Harrison, Francis Cornford, Gilbert Murray, A.B. Cook), and the minor strain of this sort, which holds out for the authority of the act, not the text, and which sees the text as the result of a long development rather than as a valuable end. Havelock is in this tradition, which is the tradition I prefer.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

From what I've picked up over the years, the deal among classicists that don't like Havelock is that he was too uncontrolled, and in any case based all his work on the texts themselves, of course, because he had nothing else. The work on orality has progressed much since then, along with work on memory and tradition, much of which overturns details of Havelock, however interesting a pioneer he was. No one (of any standing) now questions that Homer's works were originally oral. But to what degree do our written texts of Homer represent that original orality? The question is flatly unanswerable, though this doesn't put any breaks on theorizing (the lifeblood of academics!) in this field any more than it does in Biblical Studies.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

breaks > brakes

(I shoulda put the brakes on my typing!)

Aaron Taylor said...

So is it Ong who 'overturns details of Havelock', or subsequent writers?

I just discovered that Havelock criticised Leo Strauss. Now I'm afraid I'm gonna get it from Gabriel Sanchez!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I can't even remember. I just categorized Havelock as one of those "sidetrack" guys, and that was that.

I've a sneaking suspicion that Peter Green may've said something about him (as I've read him most recently of classicisists), but don't quote me on that. If he did, however, it'd likely be a deliciously quotable blurb, particularly if a barbed blurb.

James said...

Very erudite, as usual, Aaron. I love English poetry and the philosophical milieu of Elizabethan England. I told you once that I bought a book of Rosemund Tuve's at a Half-Price Books in Ft. Worth once. I didn't know who she was until later.

Thanks for working in Dame Frances Yates, a big name for me. Not just a name, though. She was one of the main inspirers for my new book (which is in the publisher's hands as we speak).