06 September 2017

Pieper & Borges on Missing the Forest




Much like, I suppose, most avid readers, I can never read just one book at a time. For me, this problem may well be exacerbated by a deficient attention span, but I usually have at least 6 or 7 books going at once. Most of the time these cover something of the range of my interests, but as has been my habit here at Logismoi, I still come across intertextual connections with surprising frequency.

For the last week or so, I have been reading—among others—Josef Pieper’s illuminating introduction to Scholastic philosophy, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy, as well as Jorge Luis Borges’s delightful Norton Lectures, This Craft of Verse (for more on my love for Borges, see this post). One might think that these volumes constituted two fairly unrelated conversations, but one would be wrong.

Just this morning, I was reading Pieper’s chapter on Aquinas’s polemics with ‘conservative’ Augustinian-Platonists like John Peckham on the one hand, and ‘radical’ Averroists like Siger of Brabant on the other, when I came across the following perspicacious comments on the latter. Allow me to quote at some length:


A word remains to be said about one peculiarity of this new rationalism which at first sight appears strange and positively irrational. F. van Steenberghen speaks of the ‘curious fact’ [chose curieuse] that ‘these bold and revolutionary spirits who did not hesitate to shatter the ideas they had received from their Christian environment should simultaneously have subscribed to a veritable cult of philosophical tradition’, so that philosophizing meant to them above all ‘to investigate what the philosophers thought about any particular question.’ As may easily be seen, this is something which we might call highly contemporary, for this sort of purely historical examination of philosophical questions is much the fashion nowadays. However, to my mind there is nothing curious about it; it is what one would naturally expect to happen. For the very moment anyone engaged in philosophizing abandons the guidance of sacred tradition, two things happen to him. The first is that he loses sight of his true subject, the real world and its structure of meaning, and finds himself instead talking about something entirely different: philosophy and philosophers. The second is that he forfeits his legitimate hold on the solely binding tradition, and must therefore illegitimately and—it must be said—vainly seek support in the mere facts handed down to him, in whatever historical ‘material’ happens to be at his disposal, following the ‘great thinkers’ whom he has encountered more or less by chance, or occupying himself industriously with the opinions of other people.

Here we must recall to mind the dictum of St Thomas, concerning this very matter, addressed in 1271-72 to Siger of Brabant, and since cited many times: ‘The purpose of the study of philosophy is not to learn what others have thought, but to learn how the truth of things stands.’ [1]


So Pieper accuses the Averroists of missing the point of philosophy because of their too keen interest in the history of the subject. They have become more interested in going over Aristotle with a fine-toothed comb than in wisdom itself.

Surprisingly, Borges says something very similar about poetry and literature in the lecture that I read from his book almost immediately after putting down my copy of Pieper. He writes:


I think perhaps we may be led astray by one of the studies I value most: the study of the history of literature. I wonder (and I hope this is not blasphemy) if we are not too aware of history. Being aware of the history of literature—or of any other art, for that matter—is really a form of unbelieving, a form of skepticism. If I say to myself, for example, that Wordsworth and Verlaine were very good nineteenth-century poets, then I may fall into the danger of thinking that time has somehow destroyed them, that they are not as good now as they were. I think the ancient idea—that we might allow perfection to art without taking into account the dates—was a braver one.

I have read several histories of Indian philosophy. The authors (Englishmen, Germans, Frenchmen, Americans, and so on) always wonder at the fact that in India people have no historical sense—that they treat all thinkers as if they were contemporary. They translate the words of ancient philosophy into the modern jargon of today’s philosophy. But this stands for something brave. This stands for the idea that one believes in philosophy or that one believes in poetry—that things beautiful once can go on being beautiful still. [2]


Notice that Borges seems to suggest that the awareness of literary history has had an opposite effect to the medieval awareness of philosophical history. Whereas the Averroists valued ‘the Philosopher’ more highly than the wisdom he sought, the modern literary man—on Borges’s estimation—seems rather to dismiss his writers, to miss their importance, because of his exaggerated awareness of their historical situatedness, and in the process to lose both the mediaevals’ ‘cult of tradition’ as well as their appreciation of the true, the good, and the beautiful. They end up valuing neither Wordsworth nor beauty.


[1] Josef Pieper, Scholasticism: Personalities & Problems of Medieval Philosophy, tr. Richard & Clara Winston (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s, 2001), pp. 125-6.

[2] Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse, ed. Călin-Andrei Mihăilescu (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2000), pp. 114-5.

02 July 2016

Discoveries Among Benedictine Books



In the last few weeks I’ve made a happy series of discoveries about connections between some of my books. I’ll begin with the series of histories of English monasticism and religious orders by Dom David Knowles, which my dear friend, the old Ochlophobist, sent to me a few weeks ago. I began slowly reading the first of these upon receipt—The Monastic Order in England: A History of Its Development from the Times of St Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 943-1216 (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1950)—and there are still three more to go: The Religious Orders in England, Vols. 1-3.

A footnote at the bottom of the first page of The Monastic Order in England made an intriguing reference to a work I had been rather mildly interested in for some years: ‘For a general view of Benedictine history, polity and life Abbot [Cuthbert] Butler’s Benedictine Monachism (1919; 2 ed. 1927) stands in a class by itself.’ [1] Thus it was that during my solitary sojourn on the campus of the University of Oklahoma a few weeks ago, I was excited to discover a copy of the second edition of Abbot Butler’s work in the old stacks of the Bizzell Library. This copy was a later reprint featuring a foreword by Dom David Knowles, and it was this forward that determined me on acquiring the book for myself. Knowles writes of Benedictine Monachism: ‘It was accepted at once as being, what it still remains, the best historical and analytical survey of Benedictine life in the English language, or indeed in any language, even if we may go to others for a fuller historical account or for a more adequate definition of the monastic spiritual ideal.’ [2]

Having received a copy in the mail earlier this week, I have begun reading it for myself. It is in this way that I made two more fun discoveries.

First, I learned from the second footnote of chapter II that Abbot Butler is responsible for the article on monasticism (and, according to a footnote on p. 16, an article on ‘Basilian monks’ as well!) in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911), which rests on the shelf just a few feet away from me. I have not yet read these articles, but I now intend to.

But second, at the bottom of the very same page where Butler references his own EB 11 article, he also writes:

If it be desired to control what is here set forth by reference to historians of monasticism who stand outside the movement and criticize it from an independent standpoint, no better books in English can be recommended than those of Hannay and Workman, mentioned in the List of Works. [3]

Upon turning to the List of Works, which immediately precedes the beginning of chapter I, I found this:

It will be of interest to name also two writers who view monasticism from outside with a critical though not unfriendly eye; they both write with wide and accurate knowledge of the literature, old and new, and with sympathetic understanding: James O. Hannay (clergyman of the Church of Ireland), The Spirit and Origin of Christian Monasticism (1903); Herbert B. Workman, Principal of the Westminster Training College (Wesleyan), The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal (1913). Both books are frequently referred to in these pages. [4]

Although I had never heard of Hannay’s work, I immediately realised that although I had not recognised his surname, Workman’s Evolution of the Monastic Ideal was familiar to me as a book I had purchased in paperback reprint several years ago for just a few dollars (and which, embarrassingly, I have also not yet read!).

But the final discovery really brought a smile. The forward to my reprint of The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal was written by none other than Dom David Knowles, OSB! [5]


[1] Dom David Knowles, The Monastic Order in England: A History of Its Development from the Times of St Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 943-1216 (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1950), p. 3, n. 1.

[2] Dom David Knowles, Foreword, Benedictine Monachism: Studies in Benedictine Life & Rule, by Dom Cuthbert Butler (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1961), no page number.

[3] Dom Cuthbert Butler, Benedictine Monachism: Studies in Benedictine Life & Rule, by Dom Cuthbert Butler (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1961), p. 11.

[4] Ibid., no page number.

[5] Dom David Knowles, Foreword, The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal from the Earliest Times Down to the Coming of the Friars: A Second Chapter in the History of Christian Renunciation, by Herbert B. Workman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), 13 pages, unnumbered.

29 June 2016

Imago Dei--The Anthropomorphite Controversy & St Gregory the Great




In large part because of my great devotion to St John Cassian and his writings, I have long taken a keen interest in the 4th- to 5th-century ‘Anthropomorphite-Origenist’ controversy in Egypt, and for the same reason I have for the most part tended to identify heavily with the ‘Origenist’ side of the controversy. St Cassian’s points in Conference 10 in fact seem fairly uncontroversial, and the ‘anthropomorphite’ position seems fairly indefensible from an Orthodox perspective.

This view was beautifully complicated for me by Bishop Alexander’s contribution to the festschrift for Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)—‘The Vision of God & the Form of Glory: More Reflections on the Anthropomorphite Controversy of AD 399’ (see an earlier contribution by His Grace to the subject here). While I definitely appreciated His Grace’s ‘final word’ attempting to ‘make up a little for the injustices I may have done a Cassian, an Origen, or an Evagrius in the course of making my argument’ [1], I also appreciated in a different sense his main argument that the simplistic ‘Serapion’ of Conference 10 may not be entirely representative of the anthropomorphites themselves or of their position.

Well, today I was finally getting round to reading Tim Vivian’s introduction to his little volume for the SVS Popular Patristic Series—Four Desert Fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius of Egypt & Macarius of Alexandria. Vivian—in his discussion of Evagrius’s emphasis on imageless prayer and its possible role in the controversy—seems to hold a nuanced understanding of the controversy very similar to that of Bishop Alexander and informed by some of the same sources. Among others, he also refers to an essay by Fr Georges Florovsky that I don’t believe I have yet read myself entitled ‘Theophilus of Alexandria and Apa Aphou of Pemdje’. Vivian quotes Fr Georges’s explanation of the position of one of the ‘anthropomorphites’:


The sting of his argument was directed against the denial of God’s image in man, and there was no word whatever about any ‘human form’ in God. Aphou only contended that man, even in his present condition and in spite of all his misery and destitution, had to be regarded still as being created in the image of God, and must be, for that reason, respected. Aphou was primarily concerned with man’s dignity and honor. Theophilus, on the other hand, was embarrassed by man’s misery and depravity. [2]


I found this connection between the anthropomorphites’ emphasis on the imago Dei in man and the Origenists’ rejection of an imago hominis in God particularly interesting in light of something I had just read this morning in an author rather far removed in time and place from the controversy: St Gregory the Great. In his Homilies on Ezekiel, St Gregory links the human soul and God Himself in the process of mystical ascent, describing a kind of likeness between the two, but specifically rejecting the conception of not only the latter but of the former in terms of images. I shall quote this passage at length:


For we often wish to ponder the invisible nature of Almighty God but by no means avail, and the soul, wearied by the very difficulties, withdraws into herself and makes for herself and from herself the steps of her ascent, so that she first considers herself, if she can, and then examines insofar as she can that nature which is above her. But our mind, if spread out in carnal images, by no means suffices to consider itself or the nature of the soul because it is led by as many thoughts as it is, so to speak, blinded by obstacles. [3]


It is then that St Gregory begins to discuss precisely how God and the soul are connected and why they must both be approached without images. In the next passage the ellipses indicate where I have attempted to shorten the quote without, I hope, obscuring the argument.


9. Then the first step is to compose oneself, the second to see the like of this composure, the third to rise above oneself and by intention submit to the contemplation of the invisible Creator. But one by no means composes himself unless he has first learned to curb the apparitions of earthly and heavenly images from his mind’s eye and cast out and tread down whatever of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste occurs to his bodily thought, in order that he may inwardly seek such as is free thereof….Then all things are to be driven away by the hand of discernment from the mind’s eye so that the soul may regard herself as she was created, above the body but below God, so that being quickened by her superior she may quicken the inferior which she administers….And when she performs such different actions through the senses she arranges them not by a diversity, but by that one reason in which she was created. When therefore the soul thinks of herself without bodily images she has already entered the first door. But this door leads on to the other in order that something from the nature of Almighty God may be contemplated. So the soul in the body is the life of the flesh, but God Who quickens all is the life of souls. Then if the quickened life is of such magnitude that it cannot be comprehended, who avails to comprehend with his understanding how great is the majesty of the Life which quickens? But the very consideration and discernment thereof is already to enter to some extent, because from her appraisement the soul gathers what she perceives of the uncircumscribed Spirit which incomprehensibly rules those things which He incomprehensibly created. [4]


Now, this is a very difficult passage, in part because St Gregory seems to be speaking of a lofty mystical experience which most of us have not shared. But I note that even in speaking of what one might call the contemplation of one’s own soul, he teaches that images must be driven out. The necessity of imageless contemplation of God, then, is even greater, for if the creature is incomprehensible, how much more the Creator?

What’s interesting to me about this is that it clearly appears to belong to the Origenists’ tradition (I’d be interested to see research on what St Gregory knew of Origen and Evagrius), and yet it does not—as one might expect from the quoted passage from Fr Georges’s essay—deny the imago Dei in man. Indeed, St Gregory seems to make much indeed of the divine image in the human soul—ascribing to it the very incomprehensibility that for the Origenists required the cultivation of total imagelessness in prayer to its divine Prototype.


[1] Bishop Alexander (Golitzin), ‘The Vision of God & the Form of Glory: More Reflections on the Anthropomorphite Controversy of AD 399’, Abba—The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West: Festschrift for Bishop Kallistos Ware, ed. Fr John Behr, Fr Andrew Louth, & Dimitri Conomos (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2003), p. 295.

[2] Fr Georges Florovsky, ‘Theophilus of Alexandria and Apa Aphou of Pemdje’, Aspects of Church History, Vol. 4 of Collected Works (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1975), p. 119; qtd. in Tim Vivian, Introduction, Four Desert Fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius of Egypt & Macarius of Alexandria (Crestwood, NY: 2004), p. 45.

[3] St Gregory the Great, The Homilies of St Gregory the Great On the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, tr. Theodosia Gray, ed. Presbytera Juliana Cownie (Etna, CA: CTOS, 1990), p. 209.
[4] Ibid., pp. 209-10.