Sunday, February 28, 2010

P.L. III.437-39

But in his way lights on the barren Plaines
Of Sericana, where Chineses drive
With Sails and Wind thir canie Waggons light:

source: Science and Civilization in China, vol. 4

see also, JSTOR.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Greek Bible: Septuagint as more than simple translation

Jutta points us to a review of Tessa Rajak's
Translation and Survival: The Greek Bible and the Ancient Jewish Diaspora

Rajak's core contributions to this issue revolve around the claim that the Greek Bible represents a middle position between assimilation and rejection of Greek culture. The linguistic features of the Greek Bible simultaneously Hellenize Judaism and Judaize Hellenism.
 Rajak situates the Septuagint within both the diverse notions of Jewishness in recent scholarship and the complex history of its textual transmission. This involves complicating an apparently simple claim that the Septuagint renders the Hebrew "torah" as "nomos" (law/custom). For Rajak, the Greek Bible can also be conceived as rendering "nomos" as Torah (The Law).[1] Rajak lays the foundation for an essentially linguistically based argument. She convincingly demonstrates that the nomos/torah rendering simultaneously Hellenizes an essentially Jewish institution, while Judaizing a common Greek word by altering its semantic valence. 

And from another review:
Rajak insists on the need to interpret the Greek Bible in light of what is known of the historical group that created it. In doing so, she focuses on cultural adaption in Hellenistic Judaism and on how the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was a means of cultural survival for its creators. - Rajak's attempt to reunite the Greek Bible with its primary users and generators (cf. 5) is successful.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Multifaced style

One of the properties of Paradise Lost that we are already beginning to note is the poem's multiplicity of styles. From the grandiloquence of Satan in Books I and II, to the uninflated speech in Heaven (though, let's face it, God's sermo humilis -- "plain speech" -- is fraught with complications) to the scabrous allegories of Satan Sin and Death (speaking of whom: some interesting images here) and soon, in Book III,

o're the backside of the World farr off
Into a Limbo large and broad, since calld [ 495 ]
The Paradise of Fools

a satiric dustbin of misplaced human aspiration, which, thanks to Satan's enterprise, we're soon to visit.

The stylistic contrasts within the poem, not just in levels and qualities of tone and diction, but in genre, are sharper than in the Classical epic, which tends to move within a certain range of "high" rhetorical style. For his poem (which by virtue of its imaginative return to origins, anticipates and contains the seeds of all "later" poems, even those that precede it chronologically), the poet forges an elastic mode that encompasses high and low, transcendent, human, and repulsive, and moves from one to the other with virtuoso mastery. (We've touched on the classical levels of style before, e.g., here).

In An Apology for Smectymnuus, one of Milton's more vitrolic pamphlets (where he's defending both himself and his cause from pro-high church enemy pampheteers during the controversies of the time), the poet traces his use of a spectrum of stylistic levels and genres to the figure of Jesus in the New Testament -- fitting for a poet who would see him as the embodiment of the Logos. Here's how Milton speaks of style there:
Our Saviour, who had all gifts in him, was Lord to express his indoctrinating power in what sort him best seemed; sometimes by a mild and familiar converse; sometimes with plain and impartial home-speaking, regardless of those whom the auditors might think he should have had in more respect; other while, with bitter and ireful rebukes, if not teaching, yet leaving excuseless those his wilful impugners. 
Others who followed expressed themselves in one or another mode of speech, each exemplifying part of that range exemplified by the savior:
What was all in him, was divided among many others the teachers of his church; some to be severe and ever of a sad gravity, that they may win such, and check sometimes those who be of nature over-confident and jocund; others were sent more cheerful, free, and still as it were at large, in the midst of an untrespassing honesty; that they who are so tempered, may have by whom they might be drawn to salvation, and they who are too scrupulous, and dejected of spirit, might be often strengthened with wise consolations and revivings: no man being forced wholly to dissolve that groundwork of nature which God created in him, the sanguine to empty out all his sociable liveliness, the choleric to expel quite the unsinning predominance of his anger; but that each radical humour and passion, wrought upon and corrected as it ought, might be made the proper mould and foundation of every man’s peculiar gifts and virtues. 
In the next passage, the engine of Milton's prose begins to emulate the change in styles that he's discussing, revving up as he asks permission to "soar awhile," then blasts off:
Some also were indued with a staid moderation and soundness of argument, to teach and convince the rational and soberminded; yet not therefore that to be thought the only expedient course of teaching, for in times of opposition, when either against new herersies arising, or old corruptions to be reformed, this cool unpassionate mildness of positive wisdom is not enough to damp and astonish the proud resistance of carnal and false doctors, then (that I may have leave to soar awhile as the poets use) Zeal, whose substance is ethereal, arming in complete diamond, ascends his fiery chariot drawn with two blazing meteors, figured like beasts, out of a higher breed than any the zodiac yields, resembling two of those four which Ezekiel* and St. John saw; the one visaged like a lion, to express power, high authority, and indignation; the other of countenance like a man, to cast derision and scorn upon perverse and fraudulent seducers: with these the invincible warrior, Zeal, shaking loosely the slack reins, drives over the heads of scarlet prelates, and such as are insolent to maintain traditions, bruising their stiff necks under his flaming wheels.
With such authorities, Milton concludes his defense of "sanctified bitterness" of speech:
 Thus did the true prophets of old combat with the false; thus Christ himself, the fountain of meekness, found acrimony enough to be still galling and vexing the prelatical pharisees. But ye will say, these had immediate warrant from God to be thus bitter; and I say so much the plainer is it proved, that there may be a sanctified bitterness against the enemies of truth.
It should be noted that Milton is here looking to the uses of style. For him, language has power. It can "teach and convince the rational and soberminded," but those who are enemies of truth, it can damp and astonish -- and pedestrian enemies will want to be careful before getting anywhere near the wheels of the Chariot of zeal. (Prof. Rogers talks about Milton's deep concern with power.)

*Note that Milton turns the four-faced figures of Ezekiel into symbols of genres, poetic forms:

Ezekiel 10.14:
14  And every one259 had four702 faces:6440 the first259 face6440 was the face6440 of a cherub,3742 and the second8145 face6440 was the face6440 of a man,120 and the third7992 the face6440 of a lion,738 and the fourth7243 the face6440 of an eagle.5404

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Seeing man before and from above

Here's God in Book III, talking with his Son, about his "youngest son," man. (We recall from Genesis the repeated pattern of the younger son getting preferential treatment). I've put in bold words that are referred to in the commentary below, or that will probably receive attention in a future post:

Authors to themselves in all
Both what they judge and what they choose; for so
formd them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change [ 125 ]
Thir nature, and revoke the high Decree
Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain'd
Thir freedom, 


Man shall not quite be lost, but sav'd who will,
Yet not of will in him, but grace in me
Freely voutsaft; once more I will renew [ 175 ]
His lapsed powers, though forfeit and enthrall'd
By sin to foul exorbitant desires;
Upheld by me, yet once more he shall stand
On even ground against his mortal foe,
By me upheld, that he may know how frail [ 180 ]
His fall'n condition is, and to me ow
All his deliv'rance, and to none but me.
Some I have chosen of peculiar grace
Elect above the rest; so is my will:
The rest shall hear me call, and oft be warnd [ 185 ]
Thir sinful state, and to appease betimes
Th' incensed Deitie while offerd grace
Invites; for I will cleer thir senses dark,
What may suffice, and soft'n stonie hearts
To pray, repent, and bring obedience due. [ 190 ]
To Prayer, repentance, and obedience due,
Though but endevord with sincere intent,
Mine ear shall not be slow, mine eye not shut.
And I will place within them as a guide
My Umpire Conscience, whom if they will hear, [ 195 ]
Light after light well us'd they shall attain,
And to the end persisting, safe arrive.

Much is coiled within these compact lines. For now, let's just note that compositionally, placing this scene -- in which God decides what he will do to, for, and about his creature man after man has been seduced by Satan -- placing that statement of intent before we meet Adam and Eve for the first time, is at the very least unorthodox.

God is talking about man's "nature," and how he would change it if he were to alter man's powers of judgment and choice. Here's a clue then, as to what human nature means to God and presumably Milton: the freedom and power of judging and choosing. Change that and we are no longer human.

Then God, foreseeing the Fall, talks about what he will do for man after it: There are a lot of verbs: He will "uphold" man -- He'll put him back on "even ground" with Satan, giving man another shot at being "saved," at "deliv'rance." He'll place his umpire, conscience, in man, clear his senses, and soften his heart.

This seems like radical surgery. Clearly much has happened to man -- he's fallen, he's lost his way, his senses, and become a brute -- a Hobbesian brute? -- but, instead of consigning him to a war of all against all, God holds him up, returns the playing field to even, clears our senses, and softens our hearts.

What's amazing is that the intention of God in his first creation of man here is stated, then revised -- the human being that emerges after the Fall, with conscience, on even ground, upheld with cleared senses and a sensible heart is not the same creature that had been planted in the Garden of Eden.

That is to say, before we meet Adam and Eve for the first time, we are already getting wind of the tragic changes resulting from the Fall, and of how God will intervene to help them out -- not changing their nature, but equipping them for a new form of battle.

As storytelling, this is very unusual, and bold. Before we have met Adam and Eve, we are told of three temporal moments in their history: their original state (very briefly), then their condition after falling, and then a prospective account of the situation after their rehabilitation (which some have referred to as the "human condition"). From that we can read backwards, so to speak, to get some notion of what they - we - were before the Fall. That being was free, but it was another creature -- far from the vulnerable, darkened, conscience-burdened one we see in the mirror.

In a sense, we sharing a glimpse of the atemporal, eternal vision that the narrator ascribes to God:

Him God beholding from his prospect high,
Wherein past, present, future he beholds,

whose scope of vision offers the reader a knowledge of himself as a complex, conditional being with a history richer than anything he could come to know experientially through his own fallen selfhood.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Blind poets and prophets

In addition to Thamyris, Milton mentions Homer, Phineas, and Tiresias in his invocation to Book III:

Blind Thamyris and blind Mæonides, [ 35 ]

And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old.

The common thread is that all were blind. At least three were blinded by the gods as a form of punishment, or limitation. Thamyris, as we've seen, lost his sight for his hubris in challenging the muses.

Phineas features in the story of Jason and the Argonauts: [He] was said to be a son of Poseidon, or of Phoenix, and had the gift of prophecy. Zeus, angry that Phineas revealed too much of the plans of the gods, punished him by blinding him and setting him on an island with a buffet of food. However, he could eat none of it because the harpies, vicious, winged women, stole the food out of his hands right before he could eat.[1] This continued until the arrival of Jason and the Argonauts. They sent the winged heroes, the Boreads, after the harpies. They succeeded in driving the monsters away but did not kill them, as a request from the goddess of the rainbow, Iris, who promised that Phineas would not be bothered by the harpies again. It is said that the Boreads were turned back by Iris at the Strophades.[2]As thanks, Phineas told the Argonauts how to pass the Symplegades.

Tiresias was a prophet of Apollo. According to the mythographic compendium Bibliotheke,[3] different stories were told of the cause of his blindness, the most direct being that he was simply blinded by the gods for revealing their secrets. An alternate story told by the poet Pherecydes was followed in Callimachus' poem "The Bathing of Pallas"; in it, Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he stumbled onto her bathing naked.[4] His mother, Chariclo, a nymph of Athena, begged Athena to undo her curse, but the goddess could not; instead, she cleaned his ears,[3] giving him the ability to understand birdsong, thus the gift of augury.

The poet's name is homophonous with ὅμερος (hómēros), meaning, generally, "hostage" (or "surety"), long understood as "he who accompanies; he who is forced to follow", or, in some dialects, "blind".[19] The assonance itself generated many tales relating the person to the functions of a hostage or of a blind man. In regard to the latter, traditions holding that he was blind may have arisen from the meaning of the word both in Ionic, where the verbal form ὁμηρεύω (homēreúō) has the specialized meaning of "guide the blind",[20] and in the Aeolian dialect of Cyme, where ὅμηρος (hómēros) was synonymous with standard Greek τυφλός (tuphlós), meaning 'blind'.[21]

It should be noted that the names of these famous Greek poets and prophets come after the description of the poet's chief haunt:

Thee Sion and the flowrie Brooks beneath
That wash thy hallowd feet, and warbling flow,

and before the evocation of the nightingale, whose bloody tale has been evoked by Ovid, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Eliot and many others:

Then feed on thoughts, that voluntarie move

Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful Bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal Note.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mouth of hell and change in comments policy

Here's an image from The Hours of Catherine of Cleves which is a mid 15th century Dutch rendering of a triple-decker gate of hell. Much more at the Morgan's site.

Also, a note on comments: Comments that are relevant to our topics are entirely welcome and desired. Due to a recent spate of comments from spammers, I've turned on the "moderation" function. Now when commenting you'll be asked to type in a code. This is to deter non-human Internet denizens from leaving their traces, speaking of mouths of hell.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Situating God rhetorically

One comment with regard to both Prof. Rogers' and William Empson's discussions of God's council scene in Book III: They address the overt "semantic content" of God's dialog with the son without spending much time either on the rhetorical character of that dialog, or how the scene, situated after the quite similar council scene in hell (Book II), plays off its demonic counterpart by significant contrast.

A few things to consider: how does the dialog in Heaven proceed, as compared with that in Satan's council? Are there meaningful similiarities between them? Differences? How does the way God and the Son speak compare with the manner of Satan and his cronies?

Milton's problematical God

The burden of Milton's theodicy is to justify the ways of God to man, and this has led some readers to fault the poet, and others to condemn the theology the poet says he's trying to justify. Impossible to address the whole argument, but a few highlights, first from John Rogers:

I think it has to be seen as authentic and sincere, Milton's desire to justify God. He needs to imagine a God who can't be held responsible for the Fall because only a blameless God could be worthy of Milton's praise or even worthy of Milton's interest. Frankly, I think that Milton does a pretty decent job of representing a God who cannot be seen as some kind of guilty coconspirator in the Fall of man. He does a pretty decent job vindicating God, but then when we think about it, there are few poets more adept at the art of vindication than John Milton. Milton had been practicing the art of vindication and the art of defense, something like the art of criminal defense, all of his life.

Milton first of all has to reject the orthodox understanding of the Christian redemption. I'll remind you what that looks like. In the New Testament, and for a lot of Christian theologians, the redemption seems to work along the lines of something like a revenge sacrifice and, as cultural anthropologists have taught us, there is something like a primitive logic, an intensely primitive logic, at work behind the notion of the Christian notion of the crucifixion. One of the Father's sons, Adam, has died and so the Father will avenge that death by murdering someone else. Of course, that means murdering another son. This model of redemption is based on the repetition, or a repetition, of the initial crime, and this logic of repetition, I think, is largely responsible for that rhetoric of repetitiveness that we hear so often in the Father's speech. According to this -- we can think of it as a sacrifice theory of redemption or of the atonement, God chooses to sacrifice his son since someone is going to have to be punished for Adam's sin. The logic demands that.
But Milton, I think, can imagine no aspect of his religion, no aspect of Christianity, more barbaric than the image of the Father's willing sacrifice of his son. This would be a God truly unworthy of Milton's justification. Milton's struggling here, and there are a few of his contemporaries who are doing the same thing in the seventeenth century. He's struggling to bring Christianity in line with certain standards of rationality and, as Dr. Johnson had said, in the rest of the sentence that I wrote on the board, Milton wants to show the reasonableness of religion; and so Milton replaces the sacrifice model of the redemption with something like a satisfaction model of redemption. According to this way of thinking, in Adam's sin, a debt has been incurred, and this debt can be satisfied by someone else's payment so revenge is no longer the motive. There is something impersonal about this new way of imagining the atonement, and it's here that Milton gives the notion of the Christian redemption its particular Miltonic twist. Milton's Father does not willingly sacrifice the Son. It's magnificent: he simply asks for a volunteer, and the Son out of his goodness volunteers. It's something like an economic desire simply to balance the books.
The Son chooses to humiliate himself and subsequently God chooses to compensate that humiliation with the Son's supreme exaltation. You see the extent of this compensation at line 311 in Book Three, page 265 near the bottom of the page. God says to the Son:
Here shalt thou sit incarnate, here shalt Reign
Both God and Man, Son both of God and Man,
Anointed universal King; all Power
I give thee, reign for ever, and assume
Thy Merits; under thee as Head Supreme
Thrones, Princedoms, Powers, Dominions I reduce…

To reward the Son for having sacrificed himself, the Father is going to give the Son all power. (Emphasis added)
This rewarding of the son was viewed by William Empson as a form of abdication. More on Empson, and on "Milton's God," here. Empson's views were admired and pilloried by various readers. He defended his interpretation in a 1978 letter to the NYRB, which in part reads:
The chief new defense invented for God is that he intends to resign, and will do so as soon as he conscientiously can, as soon as a workable alternative to his rule has been prepared. God is at his worst when we first hear from him, early in Book III, but he is soon won over by the Son and speaks with magnificent generosity, then as on all later occasions, when he foresees his eventual abdication. But somehow, and Milton can hardly be expected to explain why (p. 145), the necessary political lay-out could only be attained through a long and painful training for both men and angels, with many casualties. Naturally God is bad when he acts as a dictator, because dictatorship is inherently bad, but he knows, as Cromwell had known, that he must labor to build a situation that makes democracy possible. No wonder the recitation of history is so dismal in the last two books. ... 
Christopher Hill gives me welcome support for the idea that God is going to abdicate, saying that it is found in a number of Ranters and suchlike bold men. But they seem to have expected a kind of palace revolution, whereas Milton presents it as a plan which the Creator has been evolving since the start of time.

The assay

Immediately after the invocation to Book III, God is presented as seeing Adam, then Satan, then the result of Satan's "assay:"

Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way
Not farr off Heav'n, in the Precincts of light,
Directly towards the new created World,
And Man there plac't, with purpose to assay [ 90 ]
If him by force he can destroy, or worse,
By some false guile pervert; and shall pervert
For man will heark'n to his glozing lyes,
And easily transgress the sole Command,
Sole pledge of his obedience:

"Assay" is cognate with "essay," both carrying the idea of to try, to test:

Pronunciation: \ˈa-ˌsā, a-ˈsā\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French assai, essai — more at essay
Date: 14th century
1 archaic : trial, attempt
2 : examination and determination as to characteristics (as weight, measure, or quality)
3 : analysis (as of an ore or drug) to determine the presence, absence, or quantity of one or more components; also : a test used in this analysis
4 : a substance to be assayed; also : the tabulated result of assaying.

Assay is a technical term in Alchemy as well:

"Fire Assaying is an ancient and time-honored Art/Science which determines the precious metal content in ores, metallics, solutions and all other materials bearing Gold and Silver. It is a branch of analytical, inorganic chemistry which has as its object the quantitative determination of values in small amounts of material which represent much larger amounts of the same material.

. . . the non-precious, or base metals are Oxidized away, leaving the precious metals behind.

The Fire Assay method, which is still most widely viewed as the most accurate means of determining Gold and Silver content, has been altered very little over the centuries. Its origins can be traced as far back as the Bible:"

I have made you an assayer and tester among my people
That you may know and assay their ways
They are bronze and iron, and they act corruptly
The bellows blow fiercely, and the lead is consumed by the fire
In vain the refining goes on; refuse silver they are called
For the Lord has rejected them*

(*This interesting alchemical translation of Jeremiah 6.27 ff courtesy of a contemporary metals assayer.)

Is it fanciful to see a continuation of the alchemical process a little further on, when God the Father foretells the Last Judgment, the consignment of human dross to death, and the purgation of creation in fire?

Then all thy Saints assembl'd, thou shalt judge [ 330 ]
Bad men and Angels, they arraignd shall sink
Beneath thy Sentence; Hell her numbers full,
Thenceforth shall be for ever shut. Mean while
The World shall burn, and from her ashes spring
New Heav'n and Earth, wherein the just shall dwell [ 335 ]
And after all thir tribulations long
See golden days, fruitful of golden deeds,
With Joy and Love triumphing, and fair Truth.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Recent interactions with Homer

From the Wall Street Journal (Hat tip to Jutta and Shaw)

Homer Revisited

The Iliad and the Odyssey newly told and reimagined.

The tradition of reworking Homer is older than Homer himself. His Iliad and Odyssey were the culmination of an oral-poetry form whose practitioners, using a toolkit of narrative patterns and metrically convenient phrases, tweaked and shuffled the stories in the course of retelling them. Many translators since Homer have also adjusted the tales. Now, taking the practice another step, two novels boldly rewrite stories from the Iliad and the Odyssey and reflect on the nature of storytelling along the way.

Zachary Mason's marvelous "The Lost Books of the Odyssey" purports to be a translation of a "pre-Ptolemaic papyrus" discovered in the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus, the real-life site of an ancient trash dump that has yielded many valuable papyri. Mr. Mason says in his preface that the papyrus contains "concise variations on Odysseus's story that omit stock epic formulae in favor of honing a single trope or image down to an extreme of clarity."


Where Mr. Mason's approach is kaleidoscopic, David Malouf's in "Ransom" is microscopic. Zooming in on a few dozen lines from the Iliad, he expands on a climactic scene during the siege of Troy: the meeting between Priam, King of Troy, and Achilles, the killer of Priam's favorite son, Hector.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Herbert of Cherbury

Another fascinating 17th century British (Welsh) intellectual was Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury (and brother of the poet George Herbert), a fighter, courtier, diplomat, historian and philosopher.

In addition to an adventurous life, Herbert, who was educated at Oxford, published a treatise entitled De Veritate, or, On Truth, as It Is Distinguished from Revelation, the Probable, the Possible, and the False.

According to The defence of truth, Herbert of Cherbury and the senveteenth century, Herbert's first proposition is "Truth exists."

"The sole purpose of this proposition," Herbert goes on to say, "is to assert the existence of truth against imbeciles and sceptics (contra insanos & Scepticos)." Herbert was not so much interested in asserting some absolute truth as investigating the method and conditions by which we can possess certain knowledge. This would lead to his developing a notion of "natural instinct," which is likely akin to the "light of nature" that was a commonplace of humanists, including the Cambridge Platonists.

Herbert was a kind of British Descartes, throwing out all previous philosophic efforts to pin down truth in order to begin anew. It led to some interesting and suggestive notions, as this article notes:
Herbert's doctrine of the nature of truth rests on this conception of harmony. "Truth," he says, "is a certain harmony between objects and their analogous faculties."
Herbert's notion of how the mind relates to the world has been linked to later "Common Sense" schools of thinking, and he's been called "the father of English Deism," a theology which would emerge more fully during the Enlightenment.

Interestingly De Veritate was first published in Paris, in 1624, and Mersenne, one of Descartes' closest confidants and defenders, translated it into French and sent it to the French philosopher, who eventually responded by saying, "he examines what truth is; for myself, I have never doubted about it, as it seems to me to be a notion so transcendentally clear that it is impossible to ignore it" (letter of Oct. 16, 1639). But the Frenchman goes on to say that he esteemed Herbert above "des esprits ordinaires." More here.

More light: the Cambridge Platonists

Another element in the intellectual ferment of 17th Century England may be found among the Cambridge Platonists. Milton left Cambridge with his degree in 1632, and the era of the Platonists is said to extend from 1633-1688.

The Platonists attempted to steer a middle course between the dogmatic dictates of Puritan divines who emphasized revelation to the belittlement of reason, on the one hand, and the hardcore materialist rationality of Thomas Hobbes on the other. Professor Rogers will have very interesting things to say about Hobbes in relation to Book IV (lecture 14).

As divines and in matters of polity, the Cambridge Platonists argued for moderation. They believed that reason is the proper judge of all disagreements, and so they advocated dialogue between the Puritans and the High Churchmen. They had a mystical understanding of reason, believing that reason is not merely the sense-making facility of the mind, but, instead, "the candle of the Lord" - an echo of the divine within the human soul and an imprint of God within man. Thus, they believed that reason could lead beyond the sensory, because it is semi-divine. Reason was, for them, of God, and thus capable of nearing God. Therefore, they believed that reason could allow for judging the private revelations of Puritan theology and the proper investigation of the rituals and liturgy of the Established Church. For this reason, they were called latitudinarians.
Interesting to follow that link to latitudinarianism and to find:
For the 18th-century English church in theUnited States (which would become the Episcopal Church after the American Revolution), latitudinarianism was the only practical course since it was a nation with official pluralism and diversity of opinion and diffusion of clerical power.
The Platonists include a fascinating group of thinkers:

At a time when religious energies were breaking the nation into warring political factions, the Platonists  brought immense erudition to questions of the relation of revelation and reason, church and state, spirit and matter. We noted a certain Platonic emphasis in Milton's Penseroso and Comus, yet it's probably a mistake to think he was an apologist for any particular philosophic position. Nevertheless, as England embroiled itself in violent civil war, the attempt to preserve a harmony between extreme positions might well have seemed to the poet a suggestive image of a lost paradisal condition.

A key figure, or trope, of the Platonists was that of the "light of nature," which they associated with human powers of reason. One exemplary text might be Nathaniel Culverwell's "An Elegand and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature (1652).

According to an edition in The Online Library of Liberty,
Nathaniel Culverwell attempted a moderate defense of reason and natural law, arguing, in the words of Robert Greene, that “reason and faith are distinct lights, yet they are not opposed; they are complementary and harmonious. Reason is the image of God in man, and to deny right reason is to deny our relation to God.”
Here is Culverwell, clearly mindful of the "barking" of Galileo, introducing his theme in Book I:
Tis a work that requires our choycest thoughts, the exactest discussion that can be; a thing very material and desirable, to give unto Reason the things that are Reasons, and unto Faith the things that are Faiths;2 to give Faith her full scope and latitude, and to give Reason also her just bounds and limits; this is the first-born, but the other has the blessing.3 And yet there is not such a vast hiatus neither, such a μέγαχάσμα4 [great gulf] between them as some would imagine: there is no such implacable antipathy, no such irreconcileable jarring between them, as some do fancy to themselves; they may very well salute one another, ἀγίῳφιλήματι,5osculo Pacis[with a holy kiss, the kiss of peace]; Reason and Faith may kisse each other.6 There is a twin-light springing from both, and they both spring from the same fountain of light, and they both sweetly conspire in the same end, the glory of that being from which they shine, & the welfare & happines of that being upon which they shine. So that to blaspheme Reason,’tis to reproach heaven it self, and to dishonour the God of Reason, to question the beauty of his Image, and by a strange ingratitude to slight this great and Royal gift of our Creator. For ’tis he that set up these two great Luminaries in every heavenly soul, the Sun to rule the day, and the Moon to rule the night;7 and though there be some kinde of creatures that will bark at this lesser light, and others so severely critical, as that they make mountains of those spots and freckles which they see in her face; yet others know how to be thankful for her weaker beams, and will follow the least light of Gods setting up, though it be but the Candle of the Lord.
If nothing else, Culverworth (who died at the age of 32) offers yet another example of the robust, erudite 17th century prose we find in Milton and many contemporaries. His elaborate imagery of light will remind us of similes from Paradise Lost:

But some are so strangely prejudic’d against Reason, and that upon sufficient reason too (as they think) which yet involves a flat contradiction, as that they look upon it not as the Candle of the Lord, but as on some blazing Comet that portends present ruine to the Church, and to the soul, and carries a fatal and venemous influence along with it
The Platonists fed from many sources, including continental thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, who was the tutor of Lorenzo de'Medici and an early translator of Plato (very little of Plato was available in Latin until then). The Cambridge group in turn influenced a broad spectrum of later thinkers, poets, and scientists. 

Monday, February 08, 2010

Updike on Alter

Shaw points us to this 2004 review of Alter's translation of the Pentateuch by John Updike. A snip:

In Exodus 3:14, when Moses asks God his name, the answer in Hebrew, ’Ehyeh-’Asher-’Ehyeh, has been commonly rendered I AM THAT I AM but could be, Alter reports, simply I AM, I AM. An impression grew upon me, as I made my way through these obdurate old texts, that to the ancient Hebrews God was simply a word for what was: a universe often beautiful and gracious but also implacable and unfathomable.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Cleer Spring, or shadie Grove, or Sunnie Hill,
Smit with the love of sacred Song; but chief
Thee Sion and the flowrie Brooks beneath [ 30 ]
That wash thy hallowd feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit: nor somtimes forget
Those other two equal'd with me in Fate,
So were I equal'd with them in renown,
Blind Thamyris and blind Mæonides, [ 35 ]

And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old Milton's allusion to Thamyris in the Book III invocation is usually traced back to Homer's passing mention of the bard amid the catalog in Iliad II:

and Dorium, [595] where the Muses met Thamyris the Thracian and made an end of his singing, even as he was journeying from Oechalia, from the house of Eurytus the Oechalian: for he vaunted with boasting that he would conquer, were the Muses themselves to sing against him, the daughters of Zeus that beareth the aegis; but they in their wrath maimed him, [600] and took from him his wondrous song, and made him forget his minstrelsy; 
There's a somewhat richer locus classicus in Apollodorus (actually Pseudo-Apollodorus)'s Library 1.3, which offers not just a genealogy of the great singers beginning from Zeus, but also the incidental fact that he was the lover of Hyacinth (remember him from The Wasteland?}:

Now Zeus wedded Hera and begat Hebe, Ilithyia, and Ares,1 but he had intercourse with many women, both mortals and immortals. By Themis, daughter of Sky, he had daughters, the Seasons, to wit, Peace, Order, and Justice; also the Fates, to wit, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropus;2 by Dione he had Aphrodite;3 by Eurynome, daughter of Ocean, he had the Graces, to wit, Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalia;4 by Styx he had Persephone;5 and by Memory(Mnemosyne)he had the Muses, first Calliope, then Clio, Melpomene, Euterpe, Erato, Terpsichore, Urania, Thalia, and Polymnia.6 [2]
Now Calliope bore to Oeagrus or, nominally, to Apollo, a son Linus,7 whom Hercules slew; and another son, Orpheus,8 who practised minstrelsy and by his songs moved stones and trees. And when his wife Eurydice died, bitten by a snake, he went down to Hades, being fain to bring her up,9 and he persuaded Pluto to send her up. The god promised to do so, if on the way Orpheus would not turn round until he should be come to his own house. But he disobeyed and turning round beheld his wife; so she turned back. Orpheus also invented the mysteries of Dionysus,10 and having been torn in pieces by the Maenads11 he is buried in Pieria. [3] Clio fell in love with Pierus, son of Magnes, in consequence of the wrath of Aphrodite, whom she had twitted with her love of Adonis; and having met him she bore him a son Hyacinth, for whom Thamyris the son of Philammon and a nymph Argiope, conceived a passion, he being the first to become enamored of males. But afterwards Apollo loved Hyacinth and killed him involuntarily by the cast of a quoit.12 And Thamyris who excelled in beauty and in minstrelsy, engaged in a musical contest with the Muses, the agreement being that, if he won, he should enjoy them all, but that if he should be vanquished he should be bereft of what they would. So the Muses got the better of him and bereft him both of his eyes and of his minstrelsy.13 [4] Euterpe had by the river Strymon a son Rhesus, whom Diomedes slew at Troy;14 but some say his mother was Calliope. Thalia had by Apollo the Corybantes;15 and Melpomene had by Achelous the Sirens, of whom we shall speak in treating of Ulysses.16 [5]
Pausanias describes a painting of the defeated Thamyris:

 In this part of the painting is Schedius, who led the Phocians to Troy, and after him is Pelias, sitting on a chair, with grey hair and grey beard, and looking at Orpheus. Schedius holds a dagger and is crowned with grass. Thamyris is sitting near Pelias. He has lost the sight of his eyes; his attitude is one of utter dejection; his hair and beard are long; at his feet lies thrown a lyre with its horns and strings broken.

 Interestingly, in his invocation to Apollo in Paradiso I, Dante alludes to another challenger of divine poetic power - Marsyas the satyr, who was skinned for his hubris.

O buono Appollo, a l'ultimo lavoro
fammi del tuo valor sì fatto vaso,
come dimandi a dar l'amato alloro.

O good Apollo, for this final task
make me the vessel of your excellence,
what you, to merit your loved laurel, ask.

Infino a qui l'un giogo di Parnaso
assai mi fu; ma or con amendue
m'è uopo intrar ne l'aringo rimaso.

Until this point, one of Parnassus' peaks
sufficed for me; but now I face the test
the agon that is left; I need both crests.

Entra nel petto mio, e spira tue
sì come quando Marsia traesti
de la vagina de le membra sue.

Enter into my breast; within me breathe
the very power you made manifest
when you drew Marsyas out from his limbs' sheath.