Thursday, June 28, 2018

Dante, Fortune, and the Universal Destination of Goods

In Canto 7 of Dante's Inferno, the narrator and his guide, Virgil, descend deeper into Hell, encountering the avaricious and profligate. Here Virgil tells Dante, "Bad giving and bad keeping has deprived them of the lovely world and set them to this scuffling.... Now you can see, my son, the brief mockery of the goods that are committed to Fortune, for which the human race so squabbles" (7:58-59, 61-62, Durling trans.). These sinners have erred by keeping too much, or too little, as if they were somehow able to avoid the allocations of Fortune.

Dante, seeking to better understand asks, "This Fortune that you touch on here, what is it, that has the good of the world so in its clutches?" (7:67-69) Virgil replies:
He whose wisdom transcends all things fashioned the heavens, and he gave them governors who see that every part shines to every other part, distributing the light equally. Similarly, for worldly splendors he ordained a general minister and leader who would transfer from time to time the empty good from one people to another, from one family to another, beyond any human wisdom's power to prevent.... This is she who is so crucified even by those who should give her praise, wrongly blaming and speaking ill of her; but she is blessed in herself and does not listen: with the other first creatures, she gladly turns her sphere and rejoices in her blessedness. (7:73-81, 91-96)
Just as the celestial bodies have "governors" - imagine here some kind of angels that enforce the laws of physics and keep the stars and planets on their courses - so too earthly goods have a governor, Fortune. Like the angels who oversee the heavenly bodies, she is "blessed" and does not care what praise or blame is given by men.

But why would God create Fortune at all? Why must the sphere of worldly goods turn in the way that the celestial bodies turn? There are probably many potential answers, though one that strikes me involves what we have come to know as the "universal destination of goods." As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains,
In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.

The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise. (CCC 2402-3)
In other worlds, while particular individuals hold particular goods (i.e., private property) in order to care for themselves, all goods ultimately belong to everyone. Although private property is the day to day norm, the "primordial" reality of the universal destination of goods remains. But what if someone should acquire too many goods, to his neighbor's detriment? Here Fortune turns her wheel: the wealthy are impoverished while the poor are enriched. Or, as Mary puts it, God (acting through Fortune)
has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty. (Luke 1:52-53)
There is certainly a coherence to Dante's notion of Fortune: she reflects the justice of God, her creator. The sins of avarice and profligacy are rebellion against her God-given authority and, for such rebellion, those who commit such sins are punished. And I think there is merit in the idea of Fortune as the guarantor of the universal destination of goods.

But for anyone who has observed the actions of Fortune, she often seems capricious, even vicious. It is one thing for the man of comfortable means, upon having lost some bit of wealth he did not really need, to curse Fortune as fickle. He is in the wrong, as Virgil contends. But what of children who starve because of natural disaster? Can we look upon them and glibly say, "Fortune gives and Fortune takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord"?

Aquinas argues that there is no discontinuity between chance and the divine order (Summa theologiae, 1a, q. 22, articles 2-3; Summa contra gentiles, 3.94) while Boethius likewise argues that seemingly random events in fact have a divine cause (Consolation of Philosophy, 4.6). I am not well-versed in the works of either Boethius or Aquinas, and I happily admit my intellectual poverty in their company.  (I only have the citations because Robert Durling provided them in his notes on Dante.)  But I can hardly think that the problem of destructive and capricious Fortune is so easily resolved.

Here we must recall that Adam and Eve's fall has ripples that are wide and enduring, not only for human beings but for the entire world around us. Where once rains simply watered the earth and made it bring forth food, now they also produce flooding and devastation. Although the natural world was created good, it too is fallen and can now bring forth evil as well as good. Fortune, like storms or fire, has been damaged by our sins. How exactly this came to be I do not know - perhaps no one does - but it accords with both Dante's understanding of her as akin to the forces of nature and with everyday experience of Fortune's power and vicissitudes.

Today's image is from the medieval Burana Codex.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Happy Feast of St. Boniface!

Long-time readers of the blog will know that St. Boniface is very dear to me.  (He even gets a mention in the acknowledgement's of my book.)  I find this prayer, which he wrote, both elegant and humble:

Eternal God,
the refuge and help of all Your children,
we praise You for all You have given us,
for all You have done for us,
for all that You are to us.
In our weakness, You are strength,
in our darkness, You are light,
in our sorrow, You are comfort and peace.
We cannot number Your blessings,
we cannot declare Your love:
For all Your blessings we bless you.
May we live as in Your presence,
and love the things that You love,
and serve You in our daily lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Today's image of St. Boniface, chopping down a tree sacred to Thor in order to build a church dedicated to St. Peter and prove the powerlessness of the pagan gods, comes from Catholic Insight.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Roy Campbell's "Toledo, July 1936"

There is a scene in the film Shadowlands in which Joy Gresham recites to C. S. Lewis a poem she wrote which is narrated from Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.  She asks, rhetorically, the question she assumes Lewis is thinking: when were you in Madrid?  The answer: she wasn't.  The joke, so to speak, is that fighting in Spain was so vogue among the literati of the day that someone like Gresham might affect such an experience just to blend in.

The South African poet Roy Campbell really did fight in Spain, though as Thomas P. McDonnell puts it, "Liberal poets and academicians of the thirties and forties have never forgiven Roy Campbell for his robust participation on what they presumed was the 'wrong side' of the Spanish Civil War."

That having been said, Campbell not only participated, but in the course of events rescued the Carmelite archives of Toledo from destruction, a detail he omits from his poem about the siege there.

Toledo, July 1936 
Toledo, when I saw you die
And heard the roof of Carmel crash,
A spread-winged phoenix from its ash
The Cross remained against the sky!
With horns of flame and haggard eye
The mountain vomited with blood,
A thousand corpses down the flood
Were rolled gesticulating by,
And high above the roaring shells
I heard the silence of your bells
Who've left these broken stones behind
Above the years to make your home,
And burn, with Athens and with Rome,
A sacred city of the mind.

Hat tip to A Literary Blog of Twentieth-Century and Beyond Poetry in English for the transcription of this poem.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Happy Feast of St. Bernadette Soubirous!

Grant us, O merciful God,
that with St. Bernadette, meek and humble,
we may walk in the path of conversion,
serve the poor and the sick,
contemplate the beauty
of the Immaculate Mother of God,
and go in procession
to drink at the Spring of Living Water,
Who lives and reigns forever and ever.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

"Spring and Fall," by G. M. Hopkins

Today we continue a series of poems begun earlier this year, in an effort to bring more poetry into our lives.  My first real introduction to Gerard Manley Hopkins came at my wife's suggestion, by way of Ron Hansen's historical novel, Exiles.  A Catholic convert - received into the Church by none other than John Henry Newman - and a Jesuit priest, Hopkins was also one of the great poets of his day, though his fame was mostly posthumous.  One of the reasons I value this poem, and think it worth sharing here, is that it comes more alive - in sound and in meaning - with repeated readings.  (Out loud is really best; for a while it sat above our kitchen sink, where I would quietly recite it while doing dishes.)

Spring and Fall

to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Happy Solemnity of Joseph, Husband of Mary!

God, our Father,
You willed that St. Joseph,
Spouse of the Virgin Mother of God,
should adore his Redeemer
in a humble stable and
rescue the Child Jesus from deadly peril.
Following his example
and by his intercession,
may Your Church cling
to the Virgin Mary in love
and constantly watch over the unfolding
of the mysteries of human salvation,
whose beginnings You entrusted
to his faithful care.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Today's image is Gerrit van Honthorst's Childhood of Christ.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

St. Patrick's Day

On St. Patrick's Day this year we mourn the death, and pray for the soul, of Liam O'Flynn, a great piper who died on March 14. O'Flynn came from a musical family--his father played the fiddle, and his mother piano--and from an early age he learned to play the uillean pipes under the tutelage of Leo Rowsome and Seamus Ennis, two pipers who had kept the Irish piping tradition alive in the early 1900's.

O'Flynn became well known through his work with the band Planxty. O'Flynn gave Planxty credibility as a traditional music group--his fellow band members came more from the ballad and folk singing traditions--but at the same time he learned to adopt the pipes to accompany some of the non-Irish songs Planxty performed. O'Flynn also stood out in Planxty for being far more soft-spoken and far less emotional than his bandmates; he was always seated in the middle of the stage and only occasionally swayed a little to his music or cracked a smile. In the following video, though, O'Flynn demonstrates his skill on two slip jigs and ending with a classic piping jig (starting at 3:50), "The Yellow Wattle":

Later in his career, O'Flynn continued to show how flexible a musician was, becoming the first piper to record with an orchestra while working on several pieces with Shaun Davey. He also collaborated with poet Seamus Heaney in setting poetry to music; he later played a lament at Heaney's funeral.

But, in the end, O'Flynn will be remembered as a great piper and, by all accounts, a kind and gentle man.