Unfiltered: Persuasion

*Unfiltered (and unedited!) thoughts on the idea and practicality of persuasion*

Fr. Stephen Freeman writes:

Throw a blanket over a chair. In all likelihood, you would recognize immediately that there is a chair beneath the contours of the fabric. The blanket is not the chair, but the chair gives shape to the blanket. This is a possible image for thinking about a certain aspect of creation – the shape it is given by the Logos. For the Christian, the shape of the universe, and everything in it, points towards something beneath, within, and throughout it. The universe is not just a lot of things; the things make “sense.” And, not surprisingly, “sense” would be one of many possible translations for the Greek word, Logos.

In our world of secular materialism, we would not tend to think that “sense” is anything other than something our thoughts do. But this begs the question: why do our thoughts make “sense” of things. Where did their “sense” come from?

The Logos does not belong to the categories of “things.” It is not a mathematical principle, nor a law of physics. But both the principles of mathematics and the laws of physics point towards something else. In Christian theology, both are just blankets covering a chair.

The chair and blanket is a helpful metaphor for an aspect of the human experience that perplexes me often. It’s easy for me to despair of any possibility for true communication or persuasion among people who have a fundamentally different conception of what’s under the blanket.

Take, for example, the debate over abortion. How do people who believe the unborn is a fetus and people who believe the unborn is a child talk with each other in any meaningful way? To put it in the terms of the metaphor: the collection of cells and tissue is the blanket and the reality of the being underneath is the chair. For any progress to be made in such a debate would seem to require a complete overhaul of a person’s philosophical and theological presuppositions. Such a transformation would cut to the core of of an individual–a sense of identity and understanding of personal experience would have to be completely reinterpreted.

It would be easy to say, “Well, if that’s what it takes, so be it.” But it’s easier said than done. Who honestly wants to pull the rug out from under themselves like that? No one.

Buried in the issue of a debate like abortion, the whole world is at stake. “So,” in the words of Eliot, “How should I presume?” If you’re religious, can you hope to persuade anyone without divine intervention? And if you’re irreligious, can you hope to persuade without an existential crisis?

Maybe I’m making too much of it. But some days I wonder if it’s worth arguing with anyone unless you are willing to put your whole life on the line. I know that’s dramatic, but I don’t see a way around it if the goal is true persuasion.

For one perspective on the issue, I recommend listening to Ezra Klein’s interview with Liz Bruenig. Liz argues that respect for human dignity and general hopefulness should motivate us to argue with one another. I think she’s right. To despair completely would enact a self-fulfilling prophecy:

Worried about being able to persuade someone? Don’t bother and you’ll know for sure that they aren’t persuaded!

I’d also add that it seems to me that true persuasion happens incrementally. To be persuaded is of cosmic significance, and no one person could survive a complete transformation of view/thought/experience. I just finished reading Dante’s Purgatory which impressed me with this reality. Not even sinners after death can expect to have their sin removed from them in its entirety. Such a surgical removal would annihilate a person. Cleansing, purification, transformation is slow and methodical. The sinners in Purgatory do not wish to rise too soon. When Dante meets Statius, a poet who had recently been released from his punishment, claims to have been surprised by his sudden desire to ascend. For the past five hundred years, he’s desired that his punishment last as long as necessary. And he did so without any idea of how long that might take.

So too with persuasion. No one will be persuaded of anything significant overnight. Someone who has believed that the chair shaped blanket covers a series of discrete cubes to give the illusion of a chair will not likely be convinced otherwise–that is, until argument and personal experience begin to converge and present a different picture altogether.

Thinking Through Hell: Hate to Die

I’m finally doing something I’ve wanted to do for a while: catalogue scenes in the Inferno where Dante exhibits a physical and/or emotional reaction to the damned. I’m sure someone has already done this somewhere, but I wanted to comb through the text myself. In every instance, either Virgil explicitly comments on the appropriateness of Dante’s reaction, or the narrative description invites reflection on Dante’s view of sin in that particular moment.

Below, I’ve listed the scenes with a brief summary of what happens. At the bottom of the post, I’ll remark briefly on my own conclusions about what I think is going when these scenes are taken together.

Note on the Translation: I used the online text available through the World of Dante website.

I. Canto 5: Paolo and Francesca, circle 2, Lustful

  • Dante: swoons and faints when he hears Francesca tell her story, “so that-because of pity- / I fainted, as if I had met my death. / And then I fell as a dead body falls” (5.140-42).
  • Virgil: No reaction.

II. Canto 6: Ciacco, circle 3, Gluttonous

  • Dante: “Ciacco, your suffering so weights on me that I am forced to weep” (6.58)
  • Virgil: No reaction. Tells Dante that the damned will receive their body again on the day of doom which will perfect their punishment.

III. Canto 7: N/A, circle 4, Avarice

  • Dante: Desires to meet some of the souls in this circle.
  • Virgil: Does not allow Dante to talk with anyone because… “That thought of yours is empty: / the undiscerning life that made them filthy / now renders them unrecognizable” (6.52-54).

IV. Canto 8: Filippo Argenti, circle 5, Wrathful

  • Dante: Insults Filippo (8.37) and then tells Virgil “I am very eager / to see that spirit soused within this broth / before we’ve made our way across the lake” (8.52-54).
  • Virgil: “you shall be satisfied; / to gratify so fine a wish is right” (8.56-57).

V. Canto 10: Farinata, circle 6, Heretics

  • Dante: initially afraid to speak to Farinata; lost in thought after his conversation with Farinata who has told him about the political future of Florence and the nature of a damned soul’s knowledge.
  • Virgil: reprimands Dante for cowering at the sound of Farinata’s voice and forces him to speak with him; encourages Dante to remember the words spoken against him by Farinata.

VI. Canto 13: Piero della Vigna, circle 7, Suicides

  • Dante: breaks a twig of a tree that happesn to be Piero; cannot find the words to ask questions of Piero because “so much pity takes my heart” (13.84);
  • Virgil: tells Dante to break one of the branches though it “grieves me deeply” (13.51); encourages Piero to tell Dante his story so that he can refresh his fame (13.53); also takes Dante to the tree ravaged by the souls and hounds racing through the forest.

VII. Canto 14: Capaneus, circle 7, Blasphemers

  • Dante: —
  • Virgil: Rebukes Capaneus and tells Dante that in hell, Capaneus’ true nature is revealed (14.70).

VIII. Canto 15: Brunetto Latini, circle 7, Sodomites

  • Dante: Strongly desires to sit with Brunetto (15.34); remains fond of and grateful for Brunetto (15.82); narration end on a positive description of Brunetto.
  • Virgil: allows Dante to speak at length with Brunetto.

IX. Canto 16: Three Noble Florentines, circle 7, Violent Against God

  • Dante: speaks with them at length and then says, “Your present state had fixed / not scorn but sorrow in me-and so deeply / that it will only disappear slowly…” (16.52-54).
  • Virgil: Tells Dante that these three souls deserve his respect.

X. Canto 19: Pope Nicholas III, circle 8, Simonists

  • Dante: delivers a long invective against Pope Nicholas III
  • Virgil: appears happy with Dante’s rant.

XI. Canto 23: Two Friars, circle 8, Hypocrites

  • Dante: speaks with two friars; begins to respond to their story, “O friars, your misdeeds–” (23.109), but then he cuts it short when he sees Caiaphas crucified to the ground.
  • Virgil: Recommends the friars as sinners for Dante to speak to; he stares at Caiaphas in amazement (23.124).

XII. Canto 26: Ulysses & Diomede, circle 8, Evil Counselors

  • Dante: desires to speak to the “twin flame” that contains Ulysses and Diomede
  • Virgil: says that Dante’s desire is a worthy request, but forbids him from speaking to them directly–Virgil claims that they would shy away if Dante attempted to speak to them in Italian, so he speaks on Dante’s behalf.

XIII. Canto 27: Guido de Montefeltro, circle 8, Evil Counselors

  • Montefeltro’s story is detailed, but as soon as he’s finished speaking, the narrator simply says that Dante and Virgil walked away. Strange that there’s no description of Dante’s reaction to such a detailed–and sad!–story.

XIV. Canto 30: Master Adam & Sinon, circle 8, Falsifiers

  • Dante: “intent on listening” to two sinners insult each other (30.130)
  • Virgil: reprimands Dante for being so captivated by the scene.

XV. Canto 32: Bocca Degli Abati, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: accidentally stubs his toe on Bocca; asks Bocca to identify himself, and when he refuses, Dante first tries to convince him by offering him fame, but eventually must yank his head back and pull out his hair to force him to respond.
  • Virgil: no response

XVI. Canto 33: Count Ugolino, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: listens to Ugolino’s story; instead of a direct response, the narrative complains that the people Ugolino betrayed should not have punished his sons along with him.
  • Virgil: no response

XVII. Canto 33: Brother Alberigo, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: Alberigo cries out to Dante to hear his complaint; promises to wipe the ice from Alberigo’s eyes if he tells the truth; when Alberigo has finished talking, Dante refuses to fulfill his promise to him because “it was courtesy to show him rudeness” (33.150).
  • Virgil: No response

XVIII. Canto 34: Satan, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: when he sees Satan, he says, “I did not die, and I was not alive…I became deprived of life and death” (34.25-27).
  • Virgil: No response

(Brief) Concluding Thoughts

The pattern of Virgil’s responses seem relatively straightforward: Virgil only reproves Dante when he fears or is entertained by the sinners. Anger and pity, however, are allowed and often praised.

One question that often comes up in discussions about the Inferno is why Dante must travel through hell before ascending Purgatory into Heaven. The answer, I think, lies in the pattern of Dante’s behavior that Virgil praises and censures. Dante must learn to hate sin. Hate encompasses a spectrum of responses to sin that range from anger to pity.

Dante must also be bold in facing sin. Cowardice cannot hate. Boldness counter-balances the opening scene where Dante “awoke” in a dark wood. He’d become lazy and fell asleep, no longer vigilant in his fight against sin. The way was lost to him because he didn’t keep up his courage.

The goal of Dante’s journey through hell is to hate sin so much he’d willingly die to it. Dante’s transformation ends in a form of death–i.e., a state of being deprived of “life and death.” This death is different than the kind of death the sinners in hell experience. Sin does not kill Dante. Rather, Dante’s perseverance throughout his journey suggests that he’s resolved to die before he allows sin to chain him in hell. Such a death ultimately liberates Dante and allows him to escape.

A Tale of Twos

The opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities (TTC) is a glorious one hundred nineteen words long. Even if you haven’t read the novel–and unless you’ve been living under a giant rock–you’re familiar with it:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Before teaching it over the past three weeks, I hadn’t read TTC, which I realize is an embarrassing admission from someone who has a graduate degree in English literature. But better late than never! While reading and discussing it with my students, I was struck by Dickens’ artistry, specifically his ability to blend both the formal and thematic structure of the story without detracting from the momentum of the plot.Image result for tale of two cities

Like the title of the book and the opening sentence, the story revolves around opposing extremes. At the heart of the story are the social and political extremes of the unchecked authorial abuses of the French aristocracy and the blood lust of the French revolutionaries.* But the pairings form the macro as well as the micro components of the story. Here are a couple that stood out to me:

Wine & Blood

The color red shows up everywhere in the story, from the revolutionaries red hats, to the spilled wine cask in the street, to the blood spilled by the French revolutionaries and aristocracy. The Eucharistic imagery is unmistakable–in fact it might be an unspoken rule in western literature that if an author pairs wine with blood in any way, shape, or form, then you should expect a theological theme running just below the surface. Dickens uses the imagery to great effect by turning the Eucharistic image on its head. At the beginning of the novel, a large cask of wine breaks and spills all over the streets of St. Antoine where the French lower-classes and poor live. A frenzy ensues: the people ladle it with their hands, bend their faces into the gutter where the wine has pooled and lap it up. The red wine stains everything and everyone. Dickens parallels this scene with another scene toward the end of the book. The people of St. Antoine have been transformed into revolutionaries. Dr. Manette and Jarvis Lorry, standing on a balcony above a courtyard, look out to see these same people stained with blood as they sharpen their weapons and prepare for more killings and executions.

There are varying Christian beliefs about what happens to the wine during a Eucharistic service, but historically the Church has taught that a change occurs to/within the elements–whether that’s the Roman Catholic teaching of Transubstantiation or the more common teaching of Real Presence. Dickens avails himself of this theological point: in the same way that the people have been transformed into revolutionaries, the wine at the beginning of the story has been transformed into blood. Unlike the Eucharist, however, the transformation is not salvific. If anything, TTC presents us with an inverted image of Christian soteriology. Dickens’ description of the revolutionaries, like his description of the French aristocracy, is not overly sympathetic. The pendulum of injustice has swung to the opposite extreme.

Sydney Carton & Dr. Manette

Another important pairing, and one that ultimately extends the wine and blood imagery, is that of Sydney Carton and Dr. Manette. Comparing these characters may seem odd since the narrative explicitly connects Carton with Darnay. Physically Darnay and Carton share such a close resemblance, that Carton uses it in the opening courtroom scene to clear Darnay’s name of false charges. Later, Carton expresses disappointment in himself, recognizing that Darnay has shown him what he has fallen away from, “and what [he] might have been!” (II.iv).

In terms of character arc, however, Manette and Carton exhibit a closer parallel. Aside from their general supporting roles, neither character is very useful at the beginning. Manette’s mental instability and Carton’s alcoholism and unchecked self-deprecation render them mostly unreliable. Nevertheless, they both share a deep love for Lucie Manette (Dr. Manette’s daughter) which proves redemptive. Lucie manages to restore her father’s mental health when his memories of his Bastille imprisonment haunt him. And Carton briefly becomes reacquainted with a side of himself that has been all but forgotten. In the scene where he responds to Lucie’s kind rejection to his marriage proposal, Carton attempts to reassure Lucie who is concerned that he will relapse into his old ways:

I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul. In my degradation I have not been so degraded but that the sight of you with your father, and of this home made such a home by you,has stirred old shadows that I thought had died out of me. Since I knew you, I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent for ever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned fight (II.xiii).

Manette and Carton’s love for Lucie sets the stage for the final scenes of the story. When Darnay is imprisoned in France, Manette steps into the role of savior. As someone who suffered at the hands of the French aristocracy and who has a friendly history with the leader of the revolution, Manette recognizes his influence with the revolutionaries and uses it without hesitation to save Darnay from “Sainte Guillotine.” No longer an old and feeble former prisoner haunted by the demons of his past, Manette trades roles with his daughter by becoming a source of security and consolation.

Unfortunately, Manette’s efforts fail. The night after Darnay is released from prison, he’s rearrested. Manette dangerously relapses into his old pattern of mental instability. It’s at this point that Carton returns and trades places with Manette. Only this time, Carton’s attempt to save Darnay is successful.

I like to imagine Dickens graphing the character arcs of both Manette and Carton prior to writing the story itself. Manette’s line of ascent begins at the end of book II and reaches its zenith half way through book III. His down turn then crosses paths with Carton’s ascent. Both characters rise above their troubled pasts and personal flaws, and both do it for the love of Lucie at great personal cost.

Carton’s sacrifice reasserts the wine and blood imagery. If Dickens has turned the Eucharistic image on its head with his description of the revolution’s trajectory, then he’s attempted to restore it in the character of Carton. Carton’s character is closely associated with wine (and alcohol in general) throughout the story. He’s a drunk, unable to exercise any self-control. In book III, however, he’s reappears sober. His vow to serve Lucie and anyone she loves calls him out of himself. He trades his alcoholism for a sober self-sacrifice that will “recall to life” Lucie’s husband. His wine becomes blood and saves those he loves most.

There’s more to be said about the various pairings throughout TTC. Right now, I’m tempted to think that the Eucharistic imagery is at the heart of the story, and every other pairing a variation on that theme. The pairings, however, are not inflexible. Miss Pross, for example, could be compared with Madame Defarge and Jerry Cruncher; Cruncher with Jarvis Lorry and Monsieur Defarge; Dr. Manette with Lorry; and on and on it goes. In every instance, Dickens will have illustrated new aspects of his theme. The result, like all good literature, is a work of art that will always reward close attention to detail.

 

 

*I realize Dickens’ understanding of the historical circumstances of the French Revolution is mostly wrong. But for the purpose of his story, his description of the context serves him well.

Thinking Through Hell: Repentance

I just read Canto 27 of Dante’s Inferno with my students. Dante is in the eighth ditch of the eighth circle where the Fraudulent Counselors are punished. Here he meets Guido da Montefeltro, a man who experienced a spiritual transformation in his life only to relapse into sin in response to pressure from Pope Boniface VIII.

I’m not going to give a full summary of Montefeltro’s particular sin. If you want a good overview, Wikipedia has a decent summary. I also recommend you check out the passage itself on the World of Dante website.

The fascinating part of the scene with Montefeltro occurs at the end. Although 08 | June | 2010 | Wickersham's ConscienceMontefeltro was hesitant at first, he decides to commit the sin of evil counsel because Boniface VIII guarantees him absolution ahead of time. On the day of his death, St. Francis attempts to take Montefeltro’s soul to heaven, but he’s stopped by a demon who says Montefeltro is bound for hell.

Why? Because, as the demon points out, the law of non-contradiction holds true for repentance. One cannot repent of a sin and at the same time commit that sin. Absolution, likewise, can’t be granted ahead of time because it does not function like an advance on a paycheck. Contrition and the resolve to avoid sin are the two conditions required for absolution to take effect.

My students raised a natural concern: what is the role of repentance in salvation? If we die without having repented of our sins, will God bar us from heaven?

These questions are worth struggling with because they force us to confront two oversimplified narratives of salvation. The first narrative concerns the relationship between faith and works and whether our works have any effect on our salvation. Protestants–especially those rooted in the reformed tradition–will quickly say “Faith alone!” Works are a product of faith in Christ. Works have no bearing on our salvation except as evidence of our salvation. God saves people. Period. Full stop. Insistence on faith alone guards against the first narrative of a works-based salvation.

A second narrative pushes the first to an opposing, though logical, extreme: if works have no bearing on the efficacy of faith and salvation, then God will bring sinners into heaven regardless of repentance or any other good work. In Montefeltro’s case, his initial conversion to Christianity should have been enough to carry him into heaven. Yes, he may have committed a sin at the behest of the pope, but such a sin–even without specifically repenting of it–would not inhibit the salvation that comes through faith. But the idea that God will save people regardless of repentance contradicts scripture and what many of the church fathers since the second century have taught about the nature of salvation. God does not infringe human will. In Dante’s scheme, the gates of hell are open. No one stands guard ushering sinners in or keeping sinners from escaping. Hell is the place for people who, because of their unrepentant life, would find heaven unbearable.

So what is the role of repentance in the Christian life? I’m still working the answer out myself, but here are some initial thoughts inspired by Dante:

Repentance is an act of faith. “Of” indicates that the efficacy of repentance is rooted in something outside itself. That is, repentance qua repentance is meaningless and useless unless it is oriented to some external end. Describing the relationship between faith and repentance in this way, however, dangerously over-emphasizes the subordination of the act of repentance to faith. A Christian cannot confuse faith with repentance, but he cannot pretend that repentance as a discipline of the faith is optional. St. James famously drives this point home in his discussion about the relationship between faith and works:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:24-26)

James’ formulation “faith apart from works is dead” works in reverse order as well: “works without faith are dead.” The two share a symbiotic relationship with each other. Too often in conversation with my protestant/reformed friends, discussion about faith and works inevitably ends in weird abstractions, as if a person’s faith exists as a non-material substance within the heart and mind. But as James points out, an abstract faith is no faith at all. Faith will prove itself through the discipline of good works.

“Discipline” is key to understanding how works and faith relate to each other. Insofar as repentance is a work of faith, it should be a defining feature of a Christian’s daily life. The works of faith will not come naturally to the Christian because converting to Christianity does not entail immediate sinless habits of thought or behavior. Instead, it prompts the process of sanctification. The work of sanctification progresses slowly and requires the purposeful participation of the sinner. Believing in Christ as the Son of God and in the salvation he brought through his death and resurrection is an important start. The rest, however, is prayer and repentance. St. Paul famously exhorts the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing,” and I don’t think he was being hyperbolic. The life of the Christian is a constant striving to live in communion with God every second of every day.

Through repentance, we recognize the variety and patterns of sins committed, and then we resolve to avoid them by calling upon God’s mercy and grace, trusting fully that God has and will answer our request: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Historically, the church has provided devotional disciplines to help facilitate and encourage repentance. Some of these practices include the sacrament of confession and seasons of fasting. There’s also a monastic tradition where monks and nuns frequently repeat the Jesus Prayer throughout the day, a discipline that conditions a person to pray for repentance without ceasing:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

 

Tidiness is (not) Next to Godliness

Marie Kondo finally has her own Netflix show. She puts her tidying strategies into practice with “real life” people who could use a house-size purge of material possessions. My wife has been watching it recently, and any time I walk pass the living room I’m inevitably drawn to the latest depiction of American consumption gone awry. Some of the participants have floor-to-ceiling boxes of baseball cards, shoes, or nutcracker dolls. Clothes spill out of closet doors. Kitchen appliances litter counters, cupboards, and tables.

For each of the show’s participants, Kondo employs a simple technique to help them tidy their home: pick up each possession individually and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” If the answer is “Yes,” then keep it. If “No,” then donate it or throw it away (and don’t forget to tell it “Thank you” for having served its purpose). Easy enough.

Like everything in the ever trendy anti-consumerism movement, Kondo argues that the Image result for marie kondopurpose of tidying up is to help you “establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.” But what could this magical self-fulfillment be? It’s hard to say because it’s different for everyone.

Kondo is not the only anti-consumerist lifestyle coach teaching a doctrine of self-fulfillment. She’s in line with most writers of the minimalist movement. Joshua Becker, in The More of Less, argues that by embracing minimalism, “we are immediately freed to pursue our greatest passions.” In New Minimalism, Cary Fortin and Kyle Quilici encourage their readers to find “your own wonderful, decidedly unique middle path” in the journey toward living a meaningful life with fewer possessions. Joshua Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus also define minimalism as “a lifestyle that helps people add value to their lives” by focusing on “the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.”

On a practical and visceral level, minimalist practices and Kondo’s tidying up method directly counter-balance general mindless consumption–a phenomenon related to the enormous amount of capital produced within the past century. At best, most people are low-key hoarders. The slow accretion of possessions, however, has contributed to a growing awareness of a psychological burden. People feel they’ve lost control over their lives. They’ve buried themselves in debt and storage units, and find it increasingly difficult to resist the temptation to keep everything.

I get it. Extreme consumerism erodes most people’s emotional and mental well-being. Who wouldn’t want a tangible solution like getting rid of stuff to ease the inner turmoil?

But “self-fulfillment” as the primary motivator for reducing possessions and tidying up just doesn’t cut it.

First, introspection rarely produces the clarity and long-lasting results it claims. I can only speak for myself here (though I know others who would agree with me): most attempts of turning inward usually result in high levels of anxiety. Nothing will set me on edge faster than when I ask myself questions like, “Are you happy?” “Are you living your dreams?” “Have you achieved, or are you achieving everything you want?” The honest answer to all these types of questions is “I don’t know!” and “Oh no, I’m going to die some day!”

I’m not wholly against introspection. I think it can be good for identifying bad habits and patterns of thought. The trouble arises when we confuse means with ends. Introspection is a means, not a solution. Truth, goodness, and beauty–the ultimate objects of all our desires–lie outside the self, not buried under our insecurities and boxes of scratched CDs stashed away in a closet.

Second, minimalism plays into a cultural obsession with individualism and autonomy. Here’s an underlying assumption in the doctrine of self-fulfillment: if we clear away the non-essentials in our life, we’ll inevitably find a glorious, coherent self underneath it all. And this self is free from all forms of social and cultural limitations.

Nothing in my experience suggests that such a self exists. There is only the me born into a particular family, in a particular place, at a particular time, and in a particular culture. The particulars necessarily limit the person I am and become. They give me my identity. I cannot transcend these circumstances, nor should I want to–any attempt would be pure hubris. One of the redemptive aspects of stuff is that it reminds me of who I am, of where I’ve come from and where I’m going. Kondo always wants you to ask, “Does it spark joy?” But what if an old t-shirt reminds me of a family camping trip in the sierra mountains, which then signals a whole network of other memories that makes me aware of the relationships and experiences that led me to the present moment? Nothing can substitute that kind of tangible interaction with my own history. Not to mention the memories that would have disappeared if not for the physical presence of a particular object.

No man is an island. We all come from somewhere, and all our achievements stem from the help and love we’ve received along the way. As a new father, I’m constantly amazed that the human race has survived. It’s a bloody miracle. My three month old child is completely helpless. Without his mom and me, he’d never make it past infancy. Yet, this is the starting point for every human being. Somebody fed us, clothed us, and ensured our physical well-being so that we could become relatively successful and responsible individuals. To throw away every tangible reminder of our dependency creates a fictional ego-centered reality that only leads to self-deception.

So by all means, let’s reduce our consumption and recycle our stuff. But let’s not kid ourselves.

Thomas Becket and T.S. Eliot

The BBC Podcast In Our Time has a great episode on the life of Thomas Becket. I listened to it the other day in preparation for teaching T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral.

(Side note: In Our Time ranks as one of my top five favorite podcasts; I hope to be like Melvyn Bragg when I grow up.)

Having not read much of the history about Thomas Becket himself, I was unaware of how what we know about Becket’s personality and reputation does not recommend him as a saint. His story reminds me of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal who eventually becomesThe Death of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral Henry V. As a young man, Becket was energetic, rash, and stubborn. Henry II made him Lord Chancellor, and Becket proved himself an effective and efficient member of the state. As Melvyn Bragg and his guests point out, Becket was the kind of person who had very few friends: everyone loved him or hated him.

Becket took the job of Archbishop of Canterbury reluctantly. Henry ushered him into the position hoping Becket would ensure that the church would remain subordinate to the power of the state. But like Prince Hal who forsook his closest friends when he ascended the throne, Becket swore his allegiance to the church and made a habit of frustrating Henry’s attempts to exercise authority over the church.

There are at least two ways to view Becket’s transformation: either it’s a genuine spiritual conversion which resulted in his conviction that the church should remain on equal footing with the state, or it’s an instance of Becket being consistent with his brash personality. In the podcast, Laura Ashe argues that Becket’s change is similar to a professional footballer changing teams: the player takes his skill-set and uses it in a new setting, even if it’s to the disadvantage of his previous team. How you interpret Becket’s personality inevitably colors your interpretation of his death. Was it a courageous, selfless act in service to the church? Or was it unnecessarily undiplomatic and foolhardy?

Eliot’s dramatization of Becket’s martyrdom engages with this exact historical problem. Upon returning to England after seven years of exile, Becket recognizes that his decision to return will bring his conflict with Henry to a tipping point. He is then met with four Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot — Reviews ...different temptations, all of which point to different ways of handling the situation. The fourth tempter is the most insidious because he tempts Becket with martyrdom—a sacred and revered title within Christian history. The church remembers martyrs for their uncompromising bravery, and reveres them as spiritual exemplars of Christian conviction.

Martyrdom, however, cannot be sought for its own sake. Otherwise it becomes a vehicle for self-glorification and egotism. The tempter makes the case clearly in his appeal to Becket:

But think, Thomas, think of glory after death.
When king is dead, there’s another king,
And one more king is another reign.
King is forgotten, when another shall come:
Said and Martyr rule from the tomb. (37-38)

And…

Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest
On earth, to be high in heaven.
And see far off below you, where the gulf is fixed,
Your persecutors, in timeless torment,
Parched passion, beyond expiation. (39)

Martyrdom for the sake of fame and power is no martyrdom at all. Exasperated, Becket responds,

Is there no way, in my soul’s sickness,
Does not lead to damnation in pride?
I well know these temptations
Mean present vanity and future torment.
Can sinful pride be driven out
Only by more sinful? Can I neither act nor suffer
Without perdition? (40)

The play does not provide easy or clear answers to Becket’s questions. All human action is bound up with good and bad intentions, with sin and grace, virtue and vice. “Sin grows with the good” (45), Becket points out. No action can be viewed discretely or as devoid of value; yet every action can be construed in opposite extremes. How then should Thomas act in his situation when even holy martyrdom seems infected with pride?

Becket’s final speech before his death gives some clue. After the four knights have arrived and are returning to the cathedral to kill Becket, some of the priests attempt to persuade him to lock himself in the cathedral. Implicitly, the priests argue that Becket’s decision to leave the doors open is reckless. But Becket responds:

You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent. (73-74)

Temporality is the problem. Actions committed and perceived in time become mixed: “For every life and every act / Consequence of good and evil can be shown.” The passage of time also tends to fragment experience and perception. The moment of experience is only understood as a memory, which is malleable. There is no isolated, objective, unadulterated “fact” of experience. In time, everything “become[s] confounded.” The Thomas Becket | 10 Facts About The Murdered Saint ...only hope of a virtuous selfless action is eternity: some mode of perception in which experiences occur without the distorting effects of time. To act rightly requires either 1) a supernatural gift of insight prior to the decision to act, or 2) a grave humility that acts in faith and hope that right action does not require perfect knowledge, only the grace to act well.

Eliot ends the play with the four knights’ defense and the priests’ memorial speeches. Like the passage of time, the effect of Eliot’s ending distorts the audience’s ability to judge Becket’s actions. Is he a martyr? We’re never given the chance to consider his death on its own terms. Instead we’re met with a series of arguments for the practicality of his death as a means to retain peace within the kingdom, and then the laments and praises of Becket’s followers. Neither group—the priests or the knights—fairly represent Becket’s decision. They are equal and opposite extremes, demonstrating that “good and evil in the end become confounded.”

I think Eliot believed Becket to be a saint, but I appreciate that he doesn’t present him uncritically. There’s room within the play to think Becket made the wrong decision. Given the inescapable distortion of temporality, the play ends appropriately with a call to prayer, and specifically for God’s mercy:

Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Blessed Thomas, pray for us. (88)

 

Preparing to Teach Dante

This weekend I’m preparing to teach Dante’s Divine Comedy for the next five weeks to a group of tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade students. The task feels overwhelming, especially when I consider the complexity and influence of his poem. Never mind The Divine Comedy, Without The Divine? – The Dishintroducing the Divine Comedy to a group of college/adult students, how do I distill the significance of Dante’s work for high school students without either misrepresenting the poem, making it impossibly tedious, or devoting the rest of the year to reading it?

I ask a similar question of almost every text I teach–this year alone, we’ve read The Consolation of Philosophy, Pilgrim’s Progress, Saga of the Volsungs, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Murder in the Cathedral, etc. As far as I can tell, there is no easy or best answer. I can only hope to give students a sufficient introduction which will hopefully inspire them to return to the text later. This, after all, is only a first pass.

For the Divine Comedy, my introductory lecture will draw on Anthony Esolen’s introduction to the Inferno, where he lays out three underlying philosophical principles of Dante’s view of the world:

1. Things have an End

This is the Aristotelian conception of telos. All things have an end, by which Aristotle meant that all things have an ideal function/purpose. The fulfillment of that purpose will inevitably bring happiness (Greek: eudaimonia). To have accurate knowledge of a thing, you must know its telos, which is unique to every individual person/thing. The punishments in the Inferno correspond to each soul’s direct violation of his telos. The skin diseases of the alchemist, for example, “express, in brute corporeal form, the reality of the falsehoods the alchemists committed” (Esolen xv). Hell, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Great Divorce, is locked from the inside. God does not stand over hell imposing punishments on the sinners. They punish themselves by refusing to turn toward the true end and fulfillment of all their desires.

2. Things have Meaning

One of the most wonderful (or most tedious, depending on how you view it) is Dante’s belief that every minute detail plays into the overall importance of God’s created cosmos. Nothing is too small. Esolen illustrates the idea with Jesus’ reference to Jonah in the Gospel of Matthew. Of all the prophets Christ could have referenced–Isaiah, Ezekiel, Elijah, etc.–he chose one of the minor prophets as “a type, or forerunner” of Christ’s own death and resurrection. Jonah wasn’t merely a convenient symbol. He is a testament to the truth of salvation. It is possible to treat every aspect of Dante’s poem in the same way. Detailed descriptions of every punishment in Hell speak to the nature of the sin itself and of it’s corollary telos. This is true not only of the content of the poem but of its structure as well.

Here is Esolen’s description of Dante’s use of numerology:

Dante invented his rhyme scheme (terza rima) precisely to give glory to the Trinity; so, too, the threefold division of the poem, reflecting the threefold division of the hereafter into Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Since tradition held that Christ died at age thirty-three, each of the sections of the poem contains thirty-three cantos, except for the unworthy Inferno, which contains either thirty-four or thirty-two, an excess or a deficiency, depending on whether we consider that Hell begins in the first canto or at the gates in Canto Three. Just as the fall of Adam is the happy fault that brought the Redeemer into the world, so the numerical blemish for the Inferno brings the whole Comedy to an even one hundred cantos, the square of ten, itself the square of the Trinity plus Unity. (Inferno xvi)

3. Things are Connected

If everything has a telos and if everything has meaning, then naturally everything is connected in some way. For Dante, “each thing reflects the mind and plan of its Architect” (xx). Simultaneously, “it is not possible to separate, in this universe, those things which have to do with divinity from those things which do not” (xx). The endless interconnections of Dante’s universe speaks directly to the truth, power, and beauty of Christ’s incarnation. When God took on flesh, He did not merely save human souls, He set in motion the sanctification of the created physical world. This includes everything from mountain ranges to (it pains me to say) mosquitoes. Some of the best descriptions of the comprehensive nature of Christ’s redemptive work occurred during the debates surrounding the Christian veneration of icons in the eighth century. In support of the use of icons, St. John of Damascus writes, “I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation…”

Since Christ saw fit to take on flesh, so Dante sees fit to spend much of his poetic energy in describing the physical appearance & condition of the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In the Inferno, gruesome descriptions of bodily punishments (e.g., those who sow discord in the body) are balanced with physical beauty. It’s Beatrice’s physical beauty, for example, that makes Virgil himself eager to obey her request to guide Dante back to the “straight and true” path:

When she had finished speaking to me so,

she turned her glistening eyes all bright with tears–

which made me all the readier to go,

And so I came to you as she desired,

raising you from the beast that faced you down

and stole for you the short way up the hill.

Will a discussion about these three principles be sufficient to excite my students about reading the Divine Comedy? Will it be enough to help them grasp some of the basic and essential thematic components of the narrative? Maybe. I probably won’t know until we’ve moved on to a new book, and I’m again busy asking the same questions.