Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Tradition & Historical Consciousness: A Few Random Observations: Part Two

The question now becomes: Is it possible to revive a tradition and build something of lasting value while avoiding anachronism? If so, how? These have become ever more pressing questions since the 19th century, when the rise of modern historiography threatened to turn all fields of study into relativism.

A brief examination of two thinkers’ struggle with this problem will help us grasp it better. The first thinker is Friedrich Nietzsche. By education and training, Nietzsche was a classicist who concentrated on Greek history and literature. However, as he embarked on his professional career, he began to grapple with the problem that would occupy the rest of his troubled life: The modern rationalistic and scientific mind (which he ultimately traced back to Socrates in The Birth of Tragedy) had destroyed any kind of absolute value in the world by eliminating God. But, now that God was out of the picture, what point was there in living? What value could man find in life? What value could Nietzsche find in life? Nietzsche did not think that modern reason could tell man why he should want to live. This is the point of his famous aphorism in The Gay Science, in which the madman runs onto the marketplace in broad daylight holding a lantern, asking the burghers where God is now that they have killed Him. The death of God was not an occasion for joy but a reason for despair—unless man could find another source of value in this life. Nietzsche’s early dilemma, then, was that he had rejected the transcendent God of Christianity, the prior source of all value, as simply a form of “slave morality,” but had not yet found anything with which to replace Him.

Nietzsche’s solution to his dilemma—to be found even in his earlier, less iconoclastic and less stridently atheistic texts—is to make man into a creator of value. This was the Umwertung aller Werte he sought to bring about. The Dionysian ideal of The Birth of Tragedy is an early version of this idea of man as creator of value. In On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, he examines different viewpoints from which to write history, and he finds that the proper viewpoint is from the view of the great man who is capable of creating value. “You can only explain the past by what is highest in the present” (§ 6). “Thus, history is to be written by the man of experience and character. He who has not lived through something greater and nobler than others, will riot be able to explain anything great and noble in the past. The language of the past is always oracular: you will only understand if as builders of the future who know the present” (§ 6). These quotations, of course, can be read as meaning merely that the historian must himself possess a certain greatness of soul in order to understand the past; he must be on the same level as the men he is trying to interpret for the present. However, Nietzsche emphasizes less the traditional moral and intellectual virtues than the nebulous quality of creativeness; virtue is excellence in accord with a recognized standard, whereas creativity consists of creating that standard for oneself. It is in great part a rejection of the study of history.

In Thus Spake Zarathustra, though, Nietzsche takes the concept of the great man who can create values even further. In that book’s prologue, Nietzsche portrays Zarathustra as a mythical figure who during his time of solitude on the mountain has become so full of wisdom that he must now descend to his fellow man and unburden himself of the values he has created. (The idea of a man spending time on a mountain to grow in wisdom is a common trope in myths.) Most tellingly, among the people he meets, he recognizes a kindred spirit in the dying tightrope-walker, in the man who could dance above the abyss—one of Nietzsche’s favorite images of how the great man should live, as opposed to the “last men” Zarathustra meets down below. The tightrope-walker knows that he has nothing solid under his feet (no Grund) but a flimsy wire and through his own virtuosity and daring he turns something pointless like walking between two buildings into a work of art. He mocks death and the ultimate meaninglessness of his own act: his own creativity is the source of value. The myths handed down by the gods have no place in Nietzsche’s thought.

Nietzsche saw the problems created by the death of God and traditional values and by the rise of relativism, but ultimately decided to bury those values even deeper by turning the Dionysian self into the creator of value. History would no longer be a real standard for Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s respect for the Greek tradition, paradoxically, led him to reject tradition as a standard for behavior—the individual would judge history through his own creativity.

Our second thinker would agree with Nietzsche that there must be a standard by which to judge history and tradition, but his own position would be more humble. Rather than looking for the standard within himself, this thinker sought it in the teachings, in the tradition, of the Catholic Church. This second thinker is J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien shared with Nietzsche an intense passion for language and literature, though they worked in different fields. Instead of concentrating in Greek and Latin (which he had already mastered before university), Tolkien chose to dedicate his studies to Old and Middle English as well as several other medieval languages, such as Old Norse and Old Finnish. While he was a historical scholar of the first rank in his chosen field, he was also a tremendously imaginative author. Many of his works arose from his desire to fuse his literature and language studies with his studies of myth. As mentioned yesterday, it was Tolkien’s discussions of myth with C.S. Lewis that led the latter to convert to Christianity. In his incomplete poem The Fall of Arthur (which was only published in 2013), Tolkien tried give these legends a more English feel by adapting the alliterative system of Old English verse. The young Tolkien started on the myths that were published after his death as The Silmarillion as a way of practicing his invented languages. Even in his invented languages, he strove for historical verisimilitude. He developed different dialects of the same language and even extensive histories of each dialect, which he described in the appendices to The Return of the King. In his myths too he strove for historical verisimilitude. In The Lord of the Rings every story has a back story and every song has a legend behind it. In all his works Tolkien intertwines history and myth in every detail. He created a mythical world by means of historical consciousness in such a way that myth and historical consciousness were not in conflict inside that world.

It is this intertwining of myth and history in a common origin that is the essence of tradition for Tolkien. Tolkien depicts the very first act in the creation of Middle Earth, in The Silmarillion, as a series of harmonious melodies springing forth from the mind of the Creator. Soon, however, an evil spirit introduces dissonance into the melodies, which the Creator nevertheless finds a way to incorporate into his own music. The harmonious melodies are the basis of all our traditions; anything we can create is a reflection of this ideal, which, as Niggle finds out (in Leaf by Niggle), can only be realized with the help of God in the next life. However, in this life, in history, the artist must be fundamentally humble. His task is to reclaim the beauty of the original melodies, but his powers are limited: he can only engage in “sub-creation,” to use Tolkien’s term. God creates history; our task in history is to reclaim our principles: the Creator’s harmonies. At the beginning of history stands a myth, and in history we must reclaim this myth.

For Tolkien, then, any tradition—whether in art, literature, language—is a historical means by which we return to our origins. History by itself is not as important. Indeed, Tolkien called this life “a long defeat.” What matters is how we shape our tradition is to lead us to God, the foundation, the Grund, that Nietzsche tried to do without, but neither successfully nor happily.

Tolkien does not give us a blueprint for how to integrate tradition and historical consciousness. There just is no easy way to synthesize historical scholarship with a distinct literary sensibility. It takes a genius like Tolkien to achieve what he did. However, Tolkien did prove in his work that it was possible to use history to re-establish a connection to myth and tradition in the modern world and he showed us what such a synthesis could look like.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tradition & Historical Consciousness: A Few Random Observations: Part One

Dear reader: I apologize in advance for the disjointed, rambling nature of my next two posts, but my vanity tells me that they are interesting enough and just barely coherent enough to merit publication here.

 Here at the Guild Review one of our abiding interests is the place of tradition in the modern world and in what way we can shape that tradition. The very idea of shaping tradition, however, may seem problematic to some. Most of us reading this blog, I assume, are Catholics, for whom the most important tradition is the deposit of faith, which was complete upon the death of St. John, from which nothing can be subtracted and to which nothing can be added; it can only be more perfectly understood and expressed by the Church. One is rightfully hesitant to shape that tradition; much safer simply to assist in handing on that deposit of faith to future generations unchanged. As graduates or friends of the University of Dallas, we went to college to learn from the tradition, not necessarily to “shape” it. It is arrogant in the extreme for a youth to think that he will revolutionize any particular field of learning; much better to listen in respect to our elders before setting on a lifelong journey of learning. Finally, the phrase “shaping tradition” also smacks of poorly-disguised novelty, usually imposed upon an indifferent group of people to encourage more “enthusiasm.” How often have we heard school administrators trying to win support for an unpopular program by proclaiming that “the tradition begins now”?

But, hopefully, all of us here would recognize that there is a legitimate place for all of us to “shape” our tradition, to one degree or another. Unfortunately, however, we tend to think of tradition as a culture’s or religion’s roots in history and not as the flower and fruit of the plant which spread the seed and preserve that plant for the future. To understand tradition and how we should shape we need to understand its relation to historical consciousness.

More precisely, we need to develop a historical consciousness that is in harmony, not in conflict, with tradition. Christianity can supply us with that proper understanding of historical consciousness and tradition. In more primitive cultures, tradition is opposed to historical consciousness in the form of myth. According to Mircea Eliade, in a pre-historical culture everything relates back to illud tempus, “that time” when the gods walked the earth. (Eliade uses the phrase “in illo tempore,” which he takes from the customary beginning of the Gospel in the Latin Mass: “At that time [Jesus]…”) Myths are concerned with origins. Any deviation from the example of the gods set forth in the myth is a sin.

Christianity clearly shares some of these qualities of myth. However, there are two crucial distinctions between Christianity and other ancient myths. The first is the distinction that Tolkien explained to C.S. Lewis in 1931: Christianity is a myth, but it is a true myth. And by “true” we of course mean “historically true.” Our God actually did create the world and then entered into that world and performed the actions that form the basis of our Christian myth. For Christians the origin with which we are concerned is not just the creation of the world, but also the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in history. But, as Catholics, each time we attend Mass, we also enter into what Eliade calls “mythical time”: we are present at the un-bloody renewal of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. What happens at Mass is essentially the same event as happened on the cross nearly 2,000 years ago.

The second crucial distinction is that Jesus preached that he would come again at the end of time. He ends the history of this world by judging the living and the dead. Our actions on earth matter—we are not condemned to endless cycles of reincarnation. The time between our origin, redemption, and eschaton has a direction in which we are free to move closer to or further from God. Through the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Second Coming Christianity gives history a movement from beginning to end; eschatology transformed myth into history. Christianity gives history a shape; it is up to us—with God’s grace—to shape our Christian tradition within history.

But, how should a Christian shape a tradition? One way Christians have always shaped their tradition is by reclaiming their principles—their origins—in the creation, redemption, and continuing sanctification of the world. Every time a Christian meditates on the life of Jesus and ponders how to apply that true myth to his life he is shaping the tradition in his own life and those around him. But, Christianity also allows its followers to subject the principles of other cultures and religions to itself; everything that is good can be referred back to Jesus Christ in some way.

An example should make this second way of shaping tradition a bit clearer. In Scholasticism: Problems and Personalities of Medieval Philosophy, Josef Pieper depicts scholasticism as a twofold endeavor: to recover the learning of the ancient world and to synthesize it with Christianity. The barbarian invasions had devastated scholarship in the late Roman Empire and many authors have been lost in part, if not in whole. All this is well known. But, then, in a somewhat surprising move, Pieper compares the project of medieval theologians with the Great Books programs of mid-20th-century America. In both instances, there was sufficient source material, but this source material needed to be catalogued, understood, and finally synthesized. The cultures undertaking these projects were arguably intellectually underdeveloped and in need of spiritual roots to prepare them for them for the role they were to play on the world stage. Both projects sought to rescue the ancient wisdom from the barbarism of the present age.

However, there is one important difference between the intellectual atmospheres of these two periods that needs to be emphasized: in modern America, historical consciousness is far more developed than it was in medieval Europe. Until relatively recently in history, it was possible to be considered learned while having only a very general idea of the past; that is impossible now.

One key effect of this increased historical consciousness is to turn anachronisms into glaring errors. While increased historical consciousness is generally good, it can also overshadow the main point in a novel, a piece of art, or in philosophy. For instance, when he employs examples from etymology, St. Thomas Aquinas loves to explain the origin of the Latin word lapis (“stone”) as a compound of laedere (“injure”) and pes (“foot”). This etymology is, of course, incorrect. But, how many readers will lose trust in Aquinas once they find out inadequate his knowledge of historical linguistics was, even though it really has no bearing on his philosophy? Likewise, it can be more difficult to appreciate past works of art when we recognize their anachronisms. For instance, any visitor to Charlemagne’s cathedral in Aachen with even a minimal knowledge of the history of architecture will notice the incongruity between the original octagonal Romanesque chapel (and its distinct Byzantine influence), the high Gothic apse, and the Baroque side chapel (the Ungarnkapelle). Finally, certain ideas about art become laughable when viewed in their historical context. Opera, for example, began as a pet project of wealthy and learned Florentine noblemen who thought they were reviving ancient Greek music and drama, especially in the form of a singing chorus. This anachronism does nothing to affect the aesthetic value of any particular opera, but it may color moderns’ views of their forebears.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

C. S. Lewis on the Longing for Heaven

If you have not already caught the drift, I think Mere Christianity is an excellent work.  This is not to say that it is perfect or that I or the Catholic Church agrees with every one of Lewis' statements.  But I think non-Christians will find a compelling introduction to the faith which is grown up and thoughtful.  In spite of Lewis' own claim that the book is not for those trying to choose a denomination, I think it would be quite useful for considering the theme upon which the Christian denominations are variations and considering the degree of their fidelity.  And for those who already hold to the Christian faith, it is a cogent reminder of some of the faith's most basic truths.  So if you have not read it, buy a copy, visit your local library (virtually all have it), or read it online.  (Or, if you live in the Charlottesville area, I'll lend you a copy.)

Today's passages come from the chapter titled "Hope."

Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is.  If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.  The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.  It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.  Aim at Heaven and you will get earth "thrown in": aim at earth and you will get neither.  It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters.  Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you.  You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more - food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.

Most of us find it very difficult to want "Heaven" at all - except in so far as "Heaven" means meeting again our friends who have died.  One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world.  Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognise it.  Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.  There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.  The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy.  I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers.  I am speaking of the best possible ones.  There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.  I think everyone knows what I mean.   The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us. Now there are two wrong ways of dealing with this fact, and one right one.

(1) The Fool's Way. - He puts the blame on the things themselves.  He goes on all his life thinking that if only he tried another woman, or went for a more expensive holiday, or whatever it is, then, this time, he really would catch the mysterious something we are all after.  Most of the bored, discontented, rich people in the world are of this type.  They spend their whole lives trotting from woman to woman (through the divorce courts), from continent to continent, from hobby to hobby, always thinking that the latest is "the Real Thing" at last, and always disappointed.

(2) The Way of the Disillusioned "Sensible Man." - He soon decides that the whole thing was moonshine.  "Of course," he says, "one feels like that when one's young.  But by the time you get to my age you've given up chasing the rainbow's end."  And so he settles down and learns not to expect too much and represses the part of himself which used, as he would say, "to cry for the moon."  This is, of course, a much better way than the first, and makes a man much happier, and less of a nuisance to society.  It tends to make him a prig (he is apt to be rather superior towards what he calls "adolescents"), but, on the whole, he rubs along fairly comfortably.  It would be the best line we could take if man did not live for ever.   But supposing infinite happiness really is there, waiting for us?  Supposing one really can reach the rainbow's end?  In that case it would be a pity to find out too late (a moment after death) that by our supposed "common sense" we had stifled in ourselves the faculty of enjoying it.

(3) The Christian Way. - The Christian says, "Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.  A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food.  A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water.  Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex.  If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.  If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.   Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.  If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.  I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same."

Today's image, which reminded me of Lewis' notion of "Northernness," came from this website.