22 July 2012

Habent sua fata libelli: Preliminary Post-CiRCE Post

In my last post, I promised a full report on the CiRCE Institute conference in Louisville last week. I fully intend to keep that promise, but as it’s going to take some work, and as I’m still recovering from the experience (including a physical injury!), I intend to fulfill a simpler task with this post and postpone the report for a couple of days.

The title of the post is a Latin phrase meaning—for those barbarians unlearned in the mother tongue of the West—‘Books have their fates’. It is taken from the 2nd-c. grammarian, Terentianus Maurus (see a brief account on this great but short-lived blog of Latin quotes). I use it to indicate the theme of this post—the fate of three books borne all the way to Louisville from Wichita, KS, by intrepid Eighth Day Books employee, Joshua Sturgill. After the gruelling trip from the gentle Midwest to the geographically vanguard state of the Confederacy, these three books were fated to return to the rolling plains, only this time a bit farther South, to the Red Earth of Oklahoma and the Taylor home, with its sprawling library. 

One book set out from Wichita already in full knowledge of its fate. I texted Joshua at least a week before the conference to request that he bring along a copy of the recently published English translation of St Nicodemos the Hagiorite’s Χρηστήθεια των Χριστιανών. I have dabbled in the original Greek of it, having brought home from Thessaloniki a fine copy of Rigopoulos’s edition, but I was eager to acquire the first English version, translated by Hieromonk Patapios with Monk Chrysostomos and Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, and featuring an introduction by the Archbishop, and published by the late Constantine Cavarnos’s Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. [1] 

Part of my interest in the English edition was due precisely to its inclusion of an introduction by this hierarch, an Old Calendarist and loyal son of the Fathers but nevertheless a perspicacious scholar whose writing is consistently marked by a balanced and moderate application of the traditions of the Church to modern life. This was much needed in the present case. The Greek moral theologian and philosopher, Chrestos Yannaras, has written, ‘Nikodemos’s legalistic pastoral theology tends inevitably to moralism, transforming the Church’s Gospel into a codified deontology governing conduct. His Chrestoetheia of Christians (Venice, 1803), in particular, is typical of European eighteenth-century pietism.’ [2] 

As I have argued previously (here for instance), such judgements are grossly overstated, and indeed, sad caricatures of a golden volume that Cavarnos has more justly and reverently called ‘one of Nicodemos’ most original and most edifying books’. [3] My interest in Archbishop Chrysostomos’s introduction was due in part to a desire to see St Nicodemus defended once again, but in part to a desire to see what are admittedly some pretty strict moral guidelines made a bit more palatable to modern Anglophone readers. These things I believe His Eminence accomplishes rather laudably if far too briefly. The subject deserves a full post in its own right some day, but for now, a brief quote must suffice: 

Once more, the focus of St Nicodemos’ teaching on personal morality and comportment must be seen within the the Hesychastic tradition. If many of the constraints on human behavior undertaken by the Hesychasts are similar to those that one may find in pietistic morality, our attention should not be drawn to these similarities in a superficial or simplistic sense. The goals and context of pietism are not those of the Hesychast....And finally, we must understand that the Saint’s emphasis on setting a high standard of behavior towards which every Christian must ideally strive is not just a matter of pietistic posturing. It is an important element in the Hesychastic life, wherein a mark set very high serves, from a motivational perspective, to direct an aspirant’s efforts and actions to the apogee and summum bonum of spiritual development, the achievement of which is not always as important as the intention and assiduity put forth in pursuing it. [4] 

I have begun with this discussion of the eruthrochomaic fate of this new translation of St Nicodemus largely to establish my Eastern street cred, for the other two volumes whose destiny yesterday led them to casa Taylor are decidedly more occidental. The first was a tiny but expensive little hardcover edition of John Henry Newman’s Rise & Progress of Universities and Benedictine Essays. As interested as I certainly am in Newman’s pedagogical theories, I actually bought this volume more for the two short ‘Benedictine essays’ than for the study of universities. Despite their being available online, having seen multiple references to them in James Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge I felt that I ultimately needed my own hard copy of these fascinating pieces (from which I have already quoted here). Here is a sample: 

While manual labour, applied to these artistic purposes, ministered to devotion, on the other hand, when applied to the transcription and multiplication of books, it was a method of instruction, and that peculiarly Benedictine, as being of a literary, not a scientific nature. Systematic theology had but a limited place in ecclesiastical study prior to the eleventh and twelfth centuries; Scripture and the Fathers were the received means of education, and these constituted the very text on which the pens of the monks were employed. And thus they would be becoming familiar with that kind of knowledge which was proper to their vocation, at the same time that they were engaged in what was unequivocally a manual labour; and, in providing for the religious necessities of posterity, they were directly serving their own edification. And this again had been the prace of the monks from the first, and is included in the unity of their profession. [5] 

Finally, trying quickly to choose a small and inexpensive book that wouldn’t be too ‘historical’, I settled on Josef Pieper’s Tradition: Concept & Claim. [6] Pieper’s much lauded Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which I discovered much too late in life, was one of the highlights of last summer, and I could not resist a book by the same author on the subject of tradition. The purchase seemed especially fitting, since the translator is CiRCE conference fixture and eccentric geocentrist E. Christian Kopff, author of The Devil Knows Latin. I have already read Kopff’s ‘Translator’s Preface’, which promises to give, in ‘most cases’, ‘idiomatic and clear English explanations of Pieper’s meaning’. [7] I have just begun Kopff’s alluring ‘Translator’s Introduction: Reflections on Tradition & the Philosophical Act in Josef Pieper’, where he discusses, among others, Hans-Georg Gadamer and the latter’s vindication of tradition in Truth & Method. [8] I will surely finish reading the translation itself sometime before school starts. But for now, here is the epigraph: ‘“The only reason we are still alive is our inconsistency in not having actually silenced all tradition”—Gerhard Krüger, Geschichte und Tradition.’ [9] 

[1] It is interesting to note, however, that despite the IBMGS publishing credit and unmistakeable title page, the jacket seems much more reminiscent of the English translation of the Evergetinos—completed by some of the same cast of characters, but published by the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies—than anything else in the IBMGS catalogue. One wonders if perhaps the CTOS has somewhat coopted the IBMGS in the wake of Cavarnos’s repose! 

[2] Chrestos Yannaras, Orthodoxy & the West: Hellenic Self-identity in the Modern Age, tr. Peter Chamberas & Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 2006), p. 136. 

[3] Constantine Cavarnos, St Nicodemos the Hagiorite, Vol. 3 of Modern Orthodox Saints (Belmont, MA: IBMGS, 1994), p. 45. 

[4] Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, ‘Introduction: The Person & Writings of St Nicodemos the Hagiorite & a Critical Assessment of His Essay on Christian Morality’, Christian Morality, by St Nicodemos the Hagiorite, tr. & ed. Hieromonk Patapios with Monk Chrysostomos & Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna (Belmont, MA: IBMGS, 2012), pp. l-li. 

[5] John Henry Newman, Rise & Progress of Universities and Benedictine Essays, ed. Mary Katherine Tillman, Vol. 3 of The Works of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Birmingham Oratory Millennium Edition, ed. James Tolhurst, DD (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 2001), pp. 416-7. 

[6] Josef Pieper, Tradition: Concept & Claim, tr. E. Christian Kopff (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s, 2010). 

[7] E. Christian Kopff, ‘Translator’s Preface’, Pieper, p. xiv. 

[8] Kopff also discusses John Rawls, ‘who suggested a way to escape from the traditions and historical forms of actual societies’ (‘Translator’s Introduction’, Pieper, p. xxi). Ironically, I met Rawls’s niece, a confirmed traditionalist who is aghast at her uncle’s ideas, at the CiRCE conference! 

[9] Pieper, p. ix.

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