Troilus and Criseyde or Rinaldo and Flora…

Popular Culture…

To Laugh or Weep…


At the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer describes, in lines as justly famous as any in English poetry, the assumption of Troilus’ ghost “Up to the holughness of the eighthe spere”, whence, with the eternal musica mundana in his ears, he looks down upon “this litel spot of erthe”

           and fully gan despise
This wrecched world, and held al vanite
To respect of the pleyn felicite
That is in hevene above; and at the laste,
Ther he was slayn, his lokyng down he caste.
And in hymself he lough…

In the fourteenth century, Troilus’ attitude of bemused indifference toward the follies and iniquities of this world was a universal philosophical and religious desideratum. But it is no easy thing to achieve, especially today. How does one laugh at a world whose monstrous stupidity and vice make one want to rage and weep?


Consider the recent Diana-esque effusions of grief and adulation inspired by the death of Michael Jackson, an “artist” of ambiguous gender and sexual orientation (though with a clear preference for minors), and pathetically addicted to drugs and plastic surgery. That Jackson’s hermaphroditic disfigurement was self-willed and self-inflicted and thought by him to be surpassingly beautiful should have made him an object of revulsion and pity. Nonetheless, he commanded hundreds of millions of devoted fans and admirers across the globe. Testimonials to Jackson’s greatness (including one solemnly intoned by the President of the United States) make one wonder if there has ever been a period in history when general moral standards and popular culture were as debased and unhinged as they are today. Ancient Rome had her Neros and Caligulas, to be sure, but only grasping sycophants or terrified underlings sang their praises publicly. The Roman populace reviled them, and would have been dumbfounded by the beating of breasts and rending of garments over the demise of any such serially self-mutilating musical mediocrity and social misfit as The Gloved One.

While the obsession with Jackson was in full metastasis, the news vomited up something even more symptomatic of the sickness of our age. One Ryan Jenkins, 32, was found dead in a B.C. motel room, hanging from his own belt. Unlike Jackson, Jenkins was (thitherto) only a minor celebrity, an ascending “star” of “reality” TV. It was while taping an episode of one such television series, in which a number of wealthy bachelors competed for the hand of a trophy blonde, that he met his future “wife”, a swimsuit model supposedly named “Jasmine Fiore”. The two instantly fell in “love” and, within a few days of meeting, were “married” in a Vegas “chapel”. (I am obliged to use repetitive quotation marks because, in our age of “reality” TV, practically every “reality” is as fake and synthetic as Jackson’s face or Fiore’s…well, read on). Within a few months of the wedding, Ms. Fiore was apparently no longer in “love” with her husband, and was planning a rendezvous with an ex-boyfriend. Jenkins found out about the tryst and strangled her. He then dismembered her corpse, being careful to erase all evidence of her identity by amputating her fingertips and extracting her teeth. Nonetheless, forensic investigators discovered who she was from the serial numbers on her breast implants.

Go ahead and laugh, if you wish. Succumb to the urge to impersonate, in your best Mafioso wise-guy accent, some inept criminal getting caught because he forgot to file off the serial numbers of his purloined goods. Roll around in your mouth the irony of a woman whose character, achievements, and aspirations were so completely circumscribed within the narrow compass of her simulated carnal endowments that in death she could only be identified by her implants. I too have always thought that in the presence of such absurdities and abominations laughter was the only sane response. I’m beginning to think differently.


The story of Jenkins and Fiore is surely a tale of our times, as Chaucer’s was a tale of his. Rename it “Rinaldo and Flora”, or the “Romance of the Jasmine”, throw in a few more dubious characters (the game show host as Pandarus, say), and the similarities to Chaucer’s romantic tragedy commence to seem almost plausible. In Chaucer’s time, Troilus was certainly meant to be read as a damning moral commentary on the fourteenth century’s own culture of lust, jealousy, adultery, and ersatz celebrity. The popular craze that then held the effete upper classes in its grip was called “courtly love”, with all of its affectations of religiosity (enthusiasts counted themselves servants of the Great God Cupid) and romantic authenticity (extra-marital love was supposedly pure), including its own “reality” game show in which contestants entered the lists to win “fame” and the “love” of a Lady, through the mock and dangerless soldiering of the tournament. Chaucer thought the whole spectacle decadent and risible. But there the comparison ends.

With all of her vanity and calculating deceit, Criseyde is a model of Christian modesty next to Fiore. Compared to Jenkins, Troilus is a true husband and knight of mercy. In the Middle Ages, the lust, sexual opportunism, narcissism, and pseudo-celebrity on display in courtly romances such as Chaucer’s Troilus were considered moral aberrations, and evoked universal ridicule. Today, they are regarded as the minimal conditions of well-being, and are thus unremarkable if not normative.


Mainstream popular culture (I say nothing about Internet porn or even gangsta rap), whose reach is practically infinite, is their bawd. Whether desert islands or ballroom dance floors, the sets of the aforementioned “reality” shows are invariably pullulant with the perky bodies of fetching male and female youths, whose principle talent and raison d’etre is the ability to arouse the prurient instincts of the viewing audience. The same is true of most prime-time serials, which seem preponderantly to follow some variation on the “Sex in the City” archetype, whose characters take it for granted that the road to happiness and purpose of life involve having as many casual sexual encounters as possible–and are regarded as fluffily innocuous for all that. The most popular female singers are almost always pubescent (or in the case of Madonna, middle-aged) tarts, with legions of would-be pubescent tartlets for fans. I’d venture to guess that if any given female star of contemporary television, film, or song were to suffer the unfortunate fate of Jasmine Fiore, there’s a good chance that she too could be identified by the serial numbers on her breast implants.

None of this would matter, of course, were it not for the fact that an entire generation of oafish teens and young adults has not only drunk at this poisoned fountain for hours every day of their lives, but tuned in religiously to the early evening TV entertainment journals–every network and major cable station has one, believe it or not–for the “news” that matters most. Nor am I referring merely to the impoverished or disaffected single-parent offspring of the urban underclass. On the first day of a course called “The Western Tradition” which I used to teach (at a university open only to the brightest and the best), I sometimes asked my students to tell me anything they knew about Zeus or Apollo, Agamemnon or Aeneas, Plato or St. Paul. Never more than a few hands were raised. Then I asked them to identify the name, birthplace, and hair colour of the current “American Idol”. That, as they are wont to say, was “no problem”.

It’s just not funny anymore. In a period of ordinary wickedness and vacuity, the world can get along well enough with the corrective satire of a Lucian, a Chaucer, or a Tom Wolfe. Present times call for sterner sonorities than those of laughter.



Senses…Books of the Old Law…Historical Ages…

Pauline Antinomies…

The Wife of Bath…The Samaritan Woman at the Well…

Five is the number of the sensuality and the flesh, there being, of course, five senses.

You may remember the notoriously carnal and proudly polygamous Wife of Bath, who had already financially pauperized, sexually exhausted, or literally buried five husbands by the time she decided to embark, with ironic solemnity, upon the holy pilgrimage to Canterbury, in search of a sixth. The Wife’s sensuality is reflected in her penchant for interpreting Scripture literally – that is, “carnally” in Paul’s terminology –, and this makes of her an allegorical figure of the Old Law which, not coincidentally, consists of five books. During what Augustine called the aera sub lege, the “era under the Law”, the Jews not only convicted themselves of a blind literalism in their reading of Scripture, but, with the rest of mankind, they languished until the Incarnation in captivity to the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

These historical antinomies are published repeatedly by Paul in Romans and First and Second Corinthians, and, as always, in the language of poetry, myth, and Platonic ontology:

…when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members, to bring forth fruit unto death.

But now we are delivered from the law; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.

For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:

But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the old law of sin and death.

For they that walk after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.

For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you.

And if Christ be in you, the body is dead; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

The whole magnificent complex of imagery deserves further consideration later, but in its simplest terms, it reduces to the old binary code of the inanimate body and living spirit that make up the Divine Animal.

The age of the Old Law, the outer law of the carnal letter, is the era in which mankind walked after the flesh; with the advent of the New Law of grace – the Old Law spiritually interpreted and written inwardly on the heart –, men are no longer carnal creatures (sarkikos), but have been transformed into wholly spiritual beings (pneumatikos), reborn, in fact, as “heavenly creatures”: gods and the “sons of God”.

Paul thus provides us with a convenient summa of the literary and artistic Code of the West down to his day. Under the rubric of the body of the Divine Animal, then, fall the following cognate Pauline terms:

Death (as in the deadly letter, and the death to the soul to which obedience to the literal Law, the world, and the flesh condemn it;

Old (the Old Law; the Old Adam – that is, the First Adam of the Fall, and also the inherited Old Man, who is carnal and thus condemned to die; and the Old Song – the Chaucerian melodye of the flesh so often sung by his aging lechers, including the Wife and the likerous January);

Outward (the Outward Law of the letter: the Law of empty legalisms, ceremonies, sacrifices, and external show, without inner piety or virtue; the outward circumcision in the flesh; the Outward Man – that is, the Old Man, who is carnal, or, as the phrase also indicates, the body itself; and the Outward Israel, which is the merely visible, historico-temporal people of God).

Corresponding to the soul of Plato’s Divine Animal:

Life (the life of the spirit as fostered by the spiritual interpretation of Scripture; and as enjoyed by the reborn soul who, with Christ on the Cross, has crucified and mortified the Old Man of the flesh, and become dead to the body and the world – the Pauline counterpart to the philosophical life described by Socrates as a rehearsal for death; and indeed, the deified life of the eternal Logos, which the New Man has “put on”, and by which he is indwelled);

New (the spiritual New Law written on the heart; the New Man, who is made entirely of spirit and no longer earthly but heavenly; the New Adam, that is, the Second Adam, who is Christ himself, the immanent Logos, and also the Christian New Man; the New Song, which is the harmony of the spheres – the New Man’s birthsong – and therefore the song sung by the angels in praise of God, and by all spiritually-minded men in contemplation of the divine invisibilia);

Inner (the Inner Law written on the heart; the inner circumcision of heart or spirit; the Inner Man, who is the spiritual New Man indwelled by the Logos; and the Inner Israel–that is, the Church as conceived as an entirely incorporeal community of souls, often figured by Christ’s Mystical Body or Augustine’s City of God).

Finally, given the associations of the number Five with the senses and the flesh, the old aera sub lege consisted, according to the famous schema of Isidore of Seville, of five historical ages: from Creation to Flood; from the Flood to Abraham; from Abraham to David; from David to the Babylonian Captivity; and from the Captivity to the Birth of Christ, which ushered in the sixth age, the new aera sub gratia.


With her deliberate blindness to the spiritual meaning of the scriptural texts she adduces, the Wife of Bath is really a literary figure of Synagoga (the appropriately blind old hag who, in medieval tradition, personified the Old Law). Thus her five husbands were meant to call to mind the five ages of the aera sub lege, investing with appropriate irony her quasi-religious quest for a sixth, over whom to exercise feminist dominion through the power of her “belle chose”.

The Wife is hardly aspiring, of course, to become the Bride of Christ, which is to say that she is conveniently deaf and blind to the meaning of the symbolic marriage between Christ and the Church as the archetype of an earthly institution that demands fidelity to one husband.

Chaucer makes this all the more amusingly meaningful by constructing the Wife as a type of another well-known allegorical figure, that of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, whom Jesus meets in the Gospel of John shortly after he has performed his miracle at Cana, where, appropriately enough, he institutes the Christian sacrament of marriage.

The parallels and contrasts between the Wife and the Samaritan Woman are instructive: both are titularly linked to the archetypal symbolism of water, the Samaritan Woman with Jacob’s Well, that is, the well of the Old Israel, and the Wife with the city of Bath, an ancient and popular spa.

Both, of course, have had five husbands, the difference being that when Christ admonishes the Samaritan Woman that a wife can legitimately have only one, she is convinced and declares him a prophet, whereas Chaucer’s Wife devotes much of her Prologue to arguing against the Christian teaching.


It might be useful to remind ourselves briefly of the conventional allegorical interpretation of the Gospel episode of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, so we can see just how the symbolism of Old and New, and of the number Five, works in medieval literary practice.

The salient details of the episode are as follows: Jesus, weary from his journey from Cana, takes his rest beside the well, where he is said to have arrived at the “sixth hour” of the day. When the Woman arrives, Jesus asks for a drink of water. The Woman expresses surprise that he should seek her company, since the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. Jesus answers cryptically that if she knew who was making this request of her, she would have rather asked of him a draught of the living water. “Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us this well?”, she scoffs. Jesus answers: “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”.

The Woman is converted, and entreats for the water of life; and when Jesus tells her to call her husband, she agrees with him that she has none: “For thou hast had five husbands”, as Jesus says; “and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly”.

Let me now give you a brief summary of the interpretation of the dialogue from the Glossa Ordinaria, undoubtedly the most widely read biblical commentary in the fourteenth century. According to the Glossa, the unconverted Samaritan Woman is a symbol of the Synagogue; Jesus comes at the sixth hour, which signifies the sixth age of the world. The water of Jacob’s Well represents the “pleasures of the world” and is contrasted with the “living water” or grace which Christ offers. He who drinks of Jacob’s well “shall thirst again”, since sensual pleasures only enflame the appetite.

When Jesus says, “Go, call thy husband”, he means that the Woman should call upon her spiritual understanding, the husband to which her sensuality should be obedient, but whom she has neglected. (With this, we encounter another mystery, which I shall have to take up later on – the mystic marriage between the male Reason and the female Sensuality within every human soul.) The Samaritan’s five husbands, who are not true husbands, represent the literal understanding that prevailed amongst the Jews under the Old Law during the first five ages, before the coming of Christ and the New Law; so that when Jesus says that “he whom thou now hast is not thy husband”, he means that she should turn from the carnal and feminine letter to the masculine spirit. At the same time, the five husbands represent the five physical senses, and the Samaritan is reprehended because in giving herself to five husbands she gave herself to her five senses in youth.

The relevance of this to Chaucer’s Wife has already been explained; at this point, I’d like to emphasize only that Chaucer’s literary use of this conventional biblical symbol system is entirely typical of poetry and art before 1800.


The Four Elements…The Four Seasons…The Four Ages of the World…The Four Ages of Man…The Four Humours…Classical Virtues…Gospels…Senses of Scripture…

If Three is the number of metaphysical plenitude, Four is the number of totality in the physical world of space and time.

Individual material things are combined of and require four elements, as we have seen. Each of the elements is, moreover, constituted of two of the four contraries, hot and cold, wet and dry.

But Four is also the number of geometrical space: a point has no dimension; two points define a line with the dimension of length; three points a plane, with length and width. A fourth point makes a thing a “solid”. And since, in the world of space and time, there are neither points, nor lines, nor planes, but only solids, the others being merely concepts in the mind, the number Four is once again the minimum and necessary number of physical reality.

Plato images the quaternity of physical space in his cosmogonic myth in the Timaeus, where he relates that the Creator erected the World-Soul in the centre of the universe in the shape of the Greek letter Chi (our X), whose four arms extend to the extremities of the cosmos. Not to be deprived of this totality symbol, the Christian Fathers read Plato’s text and declared the secret meaning of his X-shaped World-Soul to be the Christian Logos, whose symbol is the Cross which, like the World-Soul, extends its branches out into space in the four cardinal directions, and thereby pervades and holds together everything in the cosmos in rational harmony and order. (According, moreover, to another medieval tradition recorded in Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum historiale, the Cross was made of four kinds of wood – cedar, cypress, palm, and olive – as the world was made of four elements.)


Both the upper, middle, and the lower worlds must also reflect this quaternary division of space. Because there are four cardinal directions, there are also four winds: Eurus from the east, Auster from the south, Zephyr from the west, and Boreas from the north. In the biblical Paradise, four rivers divide Eden into eastern, southern, western, and northern quadrants, and these have their namesakes in the Heavenly Paradise, as well. And of course there are four rivers in hell: our old friends Styx, Cocytus, Acheron, and Phlegethon.



Like space, time has four divisions – the seasons of the year and the divisions of the day – and each season and division has a cardinal direction associated with it. Spring, the beginning of the year and the time of universal rebirth, is the season of the east, where the Sun is reborn; it is also the morning of the year. Summer is the season of the south, and the year’s afternoon. Autumn belongs to the west, where the sun sets, in the evening, that is. And Winter is the season of night and the north. Accordingly, the entrance to the underworld is, in most ancient mythologies, in the west, and the north is the traditional habitation of the Devil.

In classical mythology the seasons correspond in turn to the four historical ages of the world. The Age of Gold was, as Ovid and Virgil relate, an era of unending bounty and ver perpetua (eternal spring). It was only with the beginning of the Silver Age that time and number came into being, when Zeus (in Ovid’s formulation) “divided up the year” into seasons.

In the Silver Age, men are for the first time afflicted by the seasonal extremes, and now, like Adam and Eve expelled from Eden, must erect dwellings and don clothes to protect themselves against the weather. They must till the soil in the scorching summer sun and get their daily bread – which no longer drops into their waiting mouths from the all-providing breast of Mother Earth – by the sweat of their brow.

The Silver Age is the age of “toil, unrelenting toil”, as Virgil describes it. As the second age of the world, the age of duality, it symbolizes the aeon when the present world of space and time materializes out of the pleromatic One – that Paradise of spiritual Unity before the material world split off from the Divine and produced the tragedy of multiplicity –, and when, psychologically speaking, the infant child achieves his painful second birth, that of a separate consciousness from the mother.

If we pass over the Age of Bronze to the fourth Age, the Iron Age, we can easily recognize what, for Ovid and Virgil at least, is the present. It is an age of murder and mayhem, of decadence, rapacity, and inhumanity, civilization’s wintry night.


The Microcosm

On the principle that man is in every respect the microcosm of the greater world, his life, like that of the year, is divided into four ages, and the human body, like the body of the world, is also composed of four elements, the four “temperaments” or “humours”.

Sophocles’ Sphinx knew the ancient topos of the three phases of human life, but the four ages of man (childhood, youth, maturity, and senescence) was a more widely circulated topos. It is recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in the famous passage in which Pythagoras dilates upon the Metamorphoses’ over-arching theme of ceaseless and universal transformation. Here we first encounter the conceit of the four “seasons” of man’s life. (I’m reading Ovid’s lines in George Sandys’ early seventeenth century translation:)

Doth not the image of our age appeare
In the successive quarters of the Yeare?
The Spring-tide, tender; sucking Infancie
Resembling: then the juycefull blade sprouts high;
Though tender, weake; yet hope to Plough-man yields.
All things then flourish; flowers the gaudie fields
With colours paint: no vertue yet in leaves.
Then following Summer greater strength receives:
A lusty Youth; no age more strength acquires,
More fruitfull, or more burning in desires.
Maturer Autumn, heat of Youth alaid,
The sober meane twixt youth and age, more staid
And temperate temples sprinkled with gray haires.
Then comes old Winter, void of all delight,
With trembling steps: his head or bald or white.
So change our bodies without rest or stay:
What wee were yester-day, nor what to day,
Shall be to morrow.

Inevitably, the four ages of man become aligned, not only with the seasons, but the elements and humours in turn. As we read in such influential Renaissance emblem books as Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, Childhood corresponds to Spring, the Air, and the sanguine temperament; Youth to Summer, Fire, and Choler; Manhood to Autumn, Earth, and Melancholy; Old Age to Winter, Water, and Phlegm.

Demonstrating the correspondence of the humours to the elements and contraries was already a reflex of the Pre-Socratics. As explained by Alcmaeon of Croton, one of the founders of Greek medical theory in the early fifth century B.C.,

the essence of health lies in the equality of the powers—moist dry, cold, hot, and the rest—whereas the cause of sickness is the supremacy of one among these. For the rule of any one of them is a cause of destruction…while health is the proportionate mixture of the qualities.

In the late fifth century, the arch-physician Hippocrates goes on to subsume the four seasons into the analogy:

All of them are present in the body, but as the seasons revolve they become now greater now less, in turn, according to the nature of each. The year has a share of all things—the hot, the cold, the dry, and the wet—for no one of the things [i.e., the contraries] which exist in the world-order would last for any length of time were it not for all the rest. On the contrary, if a single thing were to fail, all would disappear….So also with the body; if any of the things which have come into being together were to fail in it, a man could not live.

Like the elements in the pre-cosmogonic chaos, the bodily contraries are at war with one another: an excess of one, at the expense of its opposite, leads to disease; health, like the world-order, depends upon the establishment and preservation of a balance – a “proportion” or “harmony” – between them.


The Four Humours

The bodily humours are composed, of course, of the same contraries as the elements. Hot and wet combine to form Blood (as they do to make Air). Hot and dry make Choler (Fire); cold and wet, Phlegm (Water); cold and dry, Melancholy (Earth). The humours are thus the physiological “elements” of which the body is composed. When Shakespeare describes the “elements” as being perfectly mixed in Brutus (Julius Caesar V. v., 73), he means the humours.

Like the four elements, accordingly, the four humours must be in balance to preserve the health of the microcosm, both body and soul. As modern materialists, we might be inclined to compare the humour-theory to the latest fashion in modern psychology, according to which erratic psychological “moods” are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. But the humours are hardly merely physical substances, any more than are the elements. They may be poetically depicted as “liquids” – physical substances – but in essence they are really living and divine quasi-spiritual “soul-substances” like the Fire, Water, or Air of the Pre-Socratics. Given that the soul is always the regulating component of the human complex, both vice and physical sickness are rooted in the same psychological disorder of which a disproportion of the humours is merely the objective correlative. (Thus passio, which signifies a general moral or spiritual disharmony caused by too much sensuality and not enough reason, also means “suffering” or “disease” in the physical sense.)

In terms of the “bodily” humours, too much choler, at the expense of the other three, makes a man “choleric”, that is, wrathful, irritable, or quarrelsome (just as too much – or too little – of the “hot” or “dry” of which Choler is constituted impairs that humour’s function, and conduces to disease). To maintain the proper harmony amongst the four humours is to maintain one’s “temper”; to fail to do so, through an excess or defect of one or the other, is to “lose one’s temper” or become “ill-tempered”. (In modern popular parlance, a man who loses his temper is easily aroused to anger; originally, however, the expression merely indicated the undue predominance of any of the four humours.)



In the imperfect world of fallen man, the proportion in which the humours are blended differs from person to person. This gives rise to his temperamentum or complexio. A man in whom Choler predominates possesses a choleric temperament, which is often manifested in his facial features and colouring (in the modern sense of the word “complexion”). Thus, in the Miller’s Tale, the “rode” (colouring) of the amorous but vengeful Absolon is described as “reed, his eyen greye as goos” (3316). His substance consumed by the fire of his anger, the choleric man is tall and thin. Chaucer’s Reeve, who aches to “requite” the Miller for his tale, who is “adrad as of the deeth” (G.P., 605) by all who have dealings with him, and who carries a “rusty blade” (618) ever at his side, is thus “a sclendre colerik man” (587) whose legs “ful longe were …and ful lene” (591).

The man in whom Blood predominates possesses a sanguine temperament, the most benign of the four. As the choleric is always “on fire”, the sanguine man is “airy”: optimistic, cheerful, and fun-loving. Ripa shows Sanguis as a youth wearing a garland, playing amorous ditties on a lute, and gorging on grapes, with a lecherous goat beside him. Chaucer declares of the Franklin, “Of his complexioun he was sangwyn”; and indeed, he is practically a walking case-history of this temperament: “To lyven in delit was evere his wone,/For he was Epicurus owene sone”. (33) A gourmand and general hedonist, the sanguine man eats and sleeps robustly, parades in opulent attire, is ruddy of visage, and of Falstaffian figure.

The melancholic, whose cosmic element is Earth, is dragged down by the gravity of existence. In The Gouernour, Elyot describes him as lean, fearful, sullen, a fitful sleeper, and given to “anger long and fretting”. Hamlet correctly diagnoses his own condition as melancholia. But the symptoms of melancholy may fit anyone from a malcontent to a mystic. In Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholie, the sufferer is a social outcast. In Moliere, he is a bitter and disillusioned misanthrope. In Ripa, Melancholia is a woodland recluse with only “light-loathing” slugs and other beasts for company. But in Durer’s portrait of Melancolia, his solitude and studiousness are marks of the contemplative. In Chaucer and medieval romance, the melancholic might be anyone from a neurotic courtly lover to a world-denying “scolere”.

The phlegmatic is the most repellent of the four types. Elyot describes him as fat, of pale complexion, dull, slow to learn, timorous, and always sleepy. Ripa shows him with a tortoise next to him, nodding off in the chimney. In terms of the deadly sins, the phlegmatic is guilty of idleness. But it is worse than that. He is utterly disengaged from life, and, according, from moral action. The best contemporary impersonation of the phlegmatic type is that of the adipose eleven-year-old, sprawled out on the couch in front of his “videos”, inveterately bored and whining.

Besides this innate and more or less fixed psychological typology, the pre-modern man must contend as well with humours that tend to flare up at set times of the day. Since they correspond to the four seasons, one supposes, the four temperaments must correspond to the seasons of the day, as well. Blood is dominant from midnight till 6 a.m.; Choler, in the morning, from 6 till noon; Melancholy in the afternoon, from noon till 6 p.m.; Phlegm till midnight.


I’ll mention only three other important four’s.

One of the most recurrent topoi of classical literature and thought is the four cardinal virtues: Prudence (or Wisdom); Temperance (or Continence); Fortitude (or Courage); and Justice. With the coming of Christianity, the classical virtues were obliged to fall in line with some appropriate Christian quartet, and in the fourth century, using a typically fanciful etymology, St. Ambrose found a way to identify each with one of the four rivers of Paradise.

Finally, if the book is a world, then The Book must be quadripartite. When the canon was closed, the Church recognized precisely four authentic Gospels, and of course, in Christian art, one of the most common representations of the Godhead has the Son enthroned in a mandorla surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists: the lion of Mark, the ox of Luke, the man-angel of Matthew, and the eagle of John. Notably, too, the medieval biblical exegetes identified precisely four “senses” or levels of meaning of Scripture: the outer historical letter (in the familiar Pauline terms, Scripture’s body), and three inner allegorical or spiritual senses: the typological or allegorical sense proper, the tropological, or moral sense, and the anagogical, or mystical.

This brings me to the tendency – as noted by Jung – of many quaternities to break down into groups of three and one; but I’ll have to postpone that for another time.


That there are precisely four elements is hardly a coincidence, and this brings me to another important datum of cosmology, that is, number.

Number is surely the most inspired and momentous answer posited by the Pre-Socratics in their attempts to identify the single hidden essence or Nature of which the manifold world is constituted. In view of what has already been said about the religious and mythological afflatus of the “physical” elements, it is hardly surprising that Thales should have nominated the maternal and life-giving Water, Anaximenes the inspiriting Air, Heracleitus the celestial Fire, or Anaxagoras the Divine Mind, as the hidden, universal Physis of which everything is made.

But it was Pythagoras who answered number, which he held to be the key to the mystery of the cosmos. As Aristotle records in his Metaphysics, “The Pythagoreans…took numbers to be the whole of reality, the elements of numbers to be the elements of all existing things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number.”

One could hardly exaggerate the importance of Pythagoras’ postulate for the history of science. Within two centuries it was to give rise, in the hands of Archimedes, to the science of mechanics; and at the inception of empirical science’s modern age, Galileo took it as the starting point for his own work:

Philosophy is written in the great book which is ever before our eyes – I mean the universe – but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. This book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.

The belief that numbers are endowed with divine power was fully accepted by the Fathers of the Church, who inherited it from the Middle and Neoplatonic schools in which the spirit of Pythagoras and Plato lived on. With Plato, St. Augustine regarded numbers as the thoughts of God. “The Divine Wisdom”, he writes, “is reflected in the numbers impressed on all things”. Numbers are the divine archetypes of which the visible things of the universe are copies. The construction and arrangement of the world is based on these eternal numerical paradigms, and so the science of numbers is the key to the understanding of the physical world.

Numbers, then, must be considered with reverent attention, for he who can read them enters into the Divine Mind. For Christian theologians, expositors, and artists, as we will see, mystic numbers are occulted beneath the visibilia of both the book of the world and the world of the book.


One and the Divine Monad

Plato’s Timaeus is full of arcane teaching about the creation and composition of the cosmos in accordance with certain mystical ratios and proportions, but his involutions are much too complicated to unwind here. Let me do, then, what I once did in the classroom, when I foolishly ventured to explain, extemporaneously, the symbolic meanings with which the numbers from one to twelve are freighted.

One is the number of the Godhead and the entire divine order, the unitary and plenary Source from which all multiplicity proceeds. As Pythagoras points out, it is not therefore a number at all, since number requires divisibility and multiplicity. One is the indivisible, the individual, the integer; if it could be divided, one would have more than one. Two is thus the first number.

One is indivisible in the way in which the incorporeal and eternal are indivisible. For multiplicity, you need countable bodies. The Neoplatonic name for the incorporeal and eternal God is thus The One, in whom all things originally spiritually inhered without division.

In Plato’s First World (the celestial World of Ideas), all potential things pre-exist in incorporeal unity, inmerged and as yet undifferentiated in the unitary Mind of God. The creation of the material universe – the world of multiplicity – involved its tragic breaking away from and fracturing of the Divine Monad, which brought into being the Other, the second thing, and all the numbers of space and time. The religious quest for salvation thus amounts to the return and re-absorption of the world and the soul back into the Divine Monad, propelled by that yearning for what is called the Unio mystica.

The number One is therefore also in the Platonic sense the number of absolute reality and truth. (The word, “absolute”, that is, literally, “undissolved” and “indissoluable” means, in essence, “undivided”.) The Platonic Idea is the One Essence that inheres undivided in the multiplicity of particular things. If you look around my house, for instance, you will see a three-legged object of Mahogany, a four-legged one of Cherry, and a five-legged one of Chestnut. But they are all tables, all informed by the one Idea – with apologies to Plato – of Tableness or Tableosity.

Similarly, there are many particular incarnations and examples of beauty, as you remember from the Symposium, but only one Archetype of Beauty Absolute, perfect, incorruptible, and eternal, of which all beautiful things are corrupt copies, and in which they commonly but only incompletely participate.

All sensible manifestations of the Ideas are merely derivative, false, and deceptive imitations, copies, or images. They are imperfect “duplications”, and their falsehood or “duplicity” resides in the danger of taking them for the archetype, the real thing.

Which brings me to the number Two.


Duality, Duplicity, Opposition, and Consciousness

The English words “duplication” and “duplicity” come, as you know, from the Latin duo, Two. Two is thus the number of appearance. In myth and literature, the arch-vice of hypocrisy, called Fraus or False-Seeming in the Middle Ages, is typically characterized by the number Two.

The goddess Fortuna, for example, is two-faced, to represent the goods and pleasures of this world, which deceptively promise happiness by falsely imitating the true and lasting goodness and beatitude that reside only in the invisible order of the soul and the Divine. As Andreas Capellanus points out, Cupid, the great god of cupiditas, is Fortuna’s cousin, and is also two-faced.

Spenser’s character Duessa pretends to be all holiness and virtue, and in that disguise, she is mistaken by the guileless Redcrosse Knight as Una (the One; Spenser’s allegory for Truth), and invited to replace her. In Gnostic Christianity, Satan, the Father of Lies, is Christ’s twin brother, the second son of the Father. He is the Anti-Christ, the Christ’s doppelganger, and this Christian myth expresses the danger of twoness: the theological truism, that is, that the moral peril of the soul comes not from vice, but from vice posing as – “duplicating” – virtue.

Two is thus the number of the opposites of which, as Heracleitus famously observed, the world is eternally engendered. In the pre-modern imagination, all existence thus moves between bipolar extremes: between reality and appearance, truth and falsehood, light and dark, life and death, immortal and mortal, god and man, the elemental “contraries” hot and cold, wet and dry, the temporal contraries past and present, the spatial contraries up and down, right and left, forward and backward, inner and outer, and so on. Mythology, especially biblical mythology, is naturally replete with characters, typically twin brothers or otherwise symmetrical pairs, who express these binary oppositions: Castor and Pollux, Adam and Christ (the second Adam), Eve and Mary (the second Eve), Cain and Abel, the Good and Bad Thief of the Passion, the Prodigal and his brother, Dives and Lazarus, and so on.


Everywhere underlying myth, as Jung demonstrates, is psychology, and in psychological terms, One is the number of our original unconsciousness. It is only when consciousness separates itself out of the unity of the unconscious pleroma that the ego recognizes the fundamental duality of being: the opposition between self and other, between subject and object, between knower and known, or, in terms of the biblical myth of the Fall, between good and evil.

And such oppositions are always experienced as tragic – no less tragic, that is, than the splitting off of the world from the One or the alienation of the soul are in the Platonic system.

When the ego-consciousness of the infant child has not yet differentiated itself from the consciousness of the mother, or in the infancy of the race, that of the tribesmen from the collective consciousness of the tribe – in such a state of unconscious identity, there are as yet no multiplicity, no choices, no conflicts, and no doubts.

It is a Paradise of unconscious unity. In such blessedness, man’s will is still subsumed within that of his Father in Heaven. Or rather, he obeys Him, not so much through any conscious exertion of will, but from unconscious identity.

When human consciousness differentiates itself out of the collective unconscious of the Divine, the tragedy known as the Fall occurs. The will of mankind now presents itself as another, a second will, in opposition to the first. Adam and Eve recognize that in goodness and evil there are two paths, not one, through the world. They become ashamed that they are naked, aware, that is, that the world is a duality, and that its body and soul are, as Paul writes, in a state of permanent mutual enmity.


The Triadic Circle, the Complexio Oppositorum, and the Triune God

Three is probably the most important number of all. It is the number in which the opposites are reconciled, and the original unity is restored.

The whole rhythm of existence is triadic, of course. Every process has a beginning, a middle, and an end; or speaking mythologically, which is to say, anthropomorphically, a youth, a maturity, and an old age; a birth, a growth, and a death.

But to the pre-modern imagination, every triadic process is also a circle, whose end is its beginning. All of creation traces this triangulated circle: the soul and the world begin in undifferentiated Unity in the spiritual Heaven of God; in the second phase, they proceed out and into the duality of body and soul; and when the body of man and the body of the world pass away, they return, in the third and final stage, to the Bosom of the One.

The triadic cycle is exultantly described by Lady Philosophy in that great Platonic hymn to the Father that is the ninth metre of Book III of the Consolation. (Before I read it, I cannot resist pointing out that Boethius’ placement of this hymn is a typical bit of medieval trinitarian number symbolism, given that as the square of three, the number nine, the “trinal triplicity” as Spenser called it, is the loftiest mystery of them all.) Lady Philosophy prays:

O God, Maker of heaven and earth, Who govern this world with eternal reason. You place all things in motion, though You yourself are without change. You who are most beautiful produce the beautiful world from your divine mind, and forming it in your image, You order the perfect parts in a perfect whole…

You release the world-soul throughout the harmonious parts of the universe as your surrogate, three-fold in its nature, to give motion to all things. That soul pursues its revolving course in two circles, one outbound, the other returning to its Source, embracing again the Divine Mind and transforming heaven and earth to its own image.

In like manner You create souls and lesser living forms. You scatter them through the earth and sky. And when they have turned again toward You, You call them back like leaping flames.

Grant, Oh Father, that my mind may rise to Thy sacred throne. Let it see the fountain of good; let it find light, so that the clear light of my soul may fix itself in Thee. Burn off the fogs and clouds of earth and shine through in thy splendor. The sight of Thee is beginning and end, end and beginning.

And so the whole triadic circle revolves again. The third is end and beginning, and by bringing everything back into the original One, the number three heals the divisions that fractured the primordial Unity.


Three is thus a divine and spiritual number, the number, in fact, in which the original but now hidden unity of the opposing two is revealed and reasserted, through the third that reconciles the opposites in a tertium comparationis, “the comparative third”, as Aristotle called it.

In practically all religious mythologies, therefore, the Godhead, and everything divine or mysterious, is expressed as a triad. Classical myth has the three Furies and their redemptresses, the Eumenides; the three Graces, the triple incarnation of beauty; the three Fates, through whose hands goes the single thread of life; and the three Griae, who share an eye.

As Homer relates, the government of the universe was primordially divided amongst the three eldest Olympian brothers, Hades, who presides over the Earth and Tartarus, Poseidon, over the sea, and Zeus, over Olympus and the starry heaven. In ancient Babylon, we find the analogous triad of Anu, the lord of heaven, Bel of earth, and Ea, of the underworld sea.

In literary geography, Heaven, Earth, and Hell are always the three most important divisions, with Earth being the tertium comparationis, the median and meeting point of all the world’s heavenly and hellish tendencies. This is the spatial triad, so to speak.

In Greek myth, the temporal triad is represented by the so-called Triple Goddess, Persephone-Ceres-Hecate, though she has many names, all of which express the stages of female life, from maiden, to mother, to crone. Not surprisingly, the Triple Goddess is usually associated with the moon, which is either waxing, full, or waning.

In ancient Zoroastrian myth, the temporal triad is represented by the solar God Mithras standing between Ahreiman, the daimon of night and darkness, on one side, and Ahuramazda, the principle of light, on the other. In related representations, Mithras is the central figure between two funereal torch bearers, the torch held by the figure on his right pointing upward, the one on his left, downward, its flame guttering out. As the sun-god who rises and sets and rises again, Mithras stands in the middle to show that as death follows life, and darkness light, so birth must come out of death and new light out of darkness.

As such, there is an inevitable cyclical evolution of one torch-bearer into the other, of Arhreiman into Ahuramazda and vice-versa. The flanking opposites are meant to be viewed as evolutional phases or hypostases of the solar deity Mithras himself, the left and right personae, so to speak, of the central godhead. The Trinity Ahreiman, Ahuramazda, and Mithras are three Persons in One God. And as the central figure who represents the cyclical life-process of all three, Mithras is the coincidentia oppositorum, in whom the duality becomes a unity again.

In the early second century A.D., the formative period of Christian trinitarian doctrine, the Persian triad of Ahuramazda-Mithras-Ahreiman was well-known from Plutarch’s analysis in his universally read classic De Iside et Osiride: “Oromazes”, writes Plutarch, “may best be compared to light, and Areimanius, conversely, to darkness and ignorance, and midway between the two is Mithras; for this reason the Persians give to Mithras the name of ‘Mediator’.” Plutarch identifies this pattern of mediated opposites as a universal “law of Nature”, since, as Heracleitus argued, “everything in this world is the result of two opposed principles and two antagonistic forces”. “The constitution of the world” results, he says, from “opposing influences”, mediated by third things that partake of both extremes.

The same dynamic governs the life-process of all ancient trinities. In Egypt, the triadic godhead consisted of the solar deity Re, the Pharaoh, his son, and the ka or soul that they shared. The ka was held to be the procreative agent in the conception of the Pharaoh as the son and heir of the divine Father—just as the Holy Spirit is in Christianity.

In the Christian Trinity, of course, the Holy Spirit is described as the bond of love between the Father and the Son. Orthodox Christianity will not abide the notion that there is any sort of opposition between Father and Son that needs to be reconciled. But that does not mean that we should close our eyes to this evident mythological and psychological fact.

Father and Son have been opposed in myth and literature down through the generations, from Uranos and Kronos, to Kronos and Zeus, to Sophocles’ Laius and Oedipus, to Freud’s Laius and Oedipus, and so on, all the way down the line. Grandfathers and fathers, especially when they are kings, sometimes try to have their offspring killed in their desire to forestall the succession. Or they send them as sacrifices on suicidal adventures requiring the rescuing of maidens or whole nations under siege to horrible sea-dragons, in the expectation that they won’t come back alive – Perseus and his fellow dragon-killer Jesus come to mind.

The central agon of the myth of the hero – the “monomyth”, as Joseph Campbell called it – invariably involves a conflict between the divine child and what Campbell has called “The Monster of the Status Quo”. In narrative as in the salvation story of the soul, the New Birth demands a death which the Old Man (in Paul’s formulation) is reluctant to provide.

In the Christian Trinity, the Father is the embodiment of the ancien regime – the Old Law of Justice and Vengeance, as opposed to the revolutionary New Law of Mercy and Love which threatens to supplant it. The birth of the Son presages an entirely new era, new ethos, new creation, in fact. With its advent, Paul’s outer Israel, an historical nation defined by the visible, physical stigmatum of circumcision and the outward piety of gesture, is replaced by the inner Israel, an invisible, incorporeal, universal community of souls – note the Platonic antinomies again –, whose circumcision, as Paul writes in Romans, “is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter”.

The old carnal man passes away and the new spiritual man is “put on” in its place. The Incarnation, that is, marks the transition from the world of the Father to the world of the Son. But the ancien regime does not give up its authority easily. The letter killeth indeed.

It is no wonder that as the voice of Old Testament political messianism and Pharisaical literalism, Caiaphas demands, “Crucify him”.


Though I’d like to, I don’t have time to go much further along these lines. The main point is in any case that both the Christian Trinity, like its pagan antecedents (the vestigia Trinitatis or prefigurations of the Trinity that Augustine admitted to detecting everywhere in pre-Christian myth and philosophy) are fundamentally conceived as a coincidence of opposites. In the fifteenth century, the Florentine Neoplatonist Pico della Mirandola certainly regarded the pagan axiom of the coincidentia oppositorum as basic to the understanding of the Christian Trinity. He envisioned the doctrine of the Trinity as having derived from an ancient Platonic law, which he declared to be the key to what he called the “Orphic theology” (of which Heracleitus and Pythagoras were early prophets): as the divine Unity universally unfolds into triads, Pico explained, so “the contraries coincide in the One” (contradictoria coincidunt in natura uniali). That is, as the Godhead overflows into triads, it reveals its unitary nature by manifesting its extremes and holding them together in a “common middle”.

The locus classicus of the ancient Platonic law to which Pico refers is Plato’s Timaeus, where the interlocutor of that name explains:

Now that which is created is of necessity corporeal, also visible and tangible. And nothing is visible where there is no fire, or tangible which has no solidity, and nothing is solid without earth. Wherefore also God in the beginning of creation made the body of the universe to consist of fire and earth. But two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union between them. And the fairest bond is that which makes the most complete fusion of itself and the things which it combines.

The mean is the complexio oppositorum, the “bond” that in itself combines the nature of both extremes. Timaeus expresses this in terms of proportion, which he calls the spirit of “love” that “harmonizes” the cosmos. In terms of the four elements, this means, as he says, that “as fire is to air, so is air to water, and as air is to water, so is water to earth”.

The Platonic principle of the mean results in a universe of infinite “plenitude”, to use the medieval term, a universe that abhors a vacuum. Between any two things in the chain of being, a third must be duly constellated to fill the gap.

Between God and man we must have angels, who are incorporeal like God but sharing man’s freedom of will, are mutable and liable to fall. Man stands, as Milton’s Raphael explains, halfway between the angels and the beasts, possessing, in common with the former, a rational soul; with the latter, a life-principle, sentience, and a body. The beasts in turn stand midway between man and the plant kingdom, sharing with man a sensory soul and with the vegetation the faculty of growth. And so it goes.

But the principal function of the middle third was not so much to serve as a stopgap to fill up the holes in creation, as it was to serve as a bridge across the chasm separating incommensurable opposites. For Platonism in particular and philosophy in general, the main problem had always been to explain how a multiple and corruptible material creation could derive from a purely incorporeal, immutable, eternal, and unitary Creator. To Middle Platonists such as the Pseudo-Aristotle and Apuleius, any direct contact between God and the world of matter was out of the question, since it would have utterly contaminated the purity of the One. And so in the Neoplatonic Trinity of the One, Nous (mind), and Psyche (the world-soul), the Nous or Psyche functions as the necessary intermediary between the Divine and the fallen world of space and time.

The Christian Redeemer is also such a “Mediator”. As completely God and completely man, the Incarnate Word heals the rift between the Father in Heaven and fallen man by possessing both a divine and human nature. We have already seen that as the express image and likeness of the Father, the Son makes the hidden Father visible and knowable to the sensual and finite human understanding. But that is only because the Reason in man is, as Clement of Alexandria points out, the express image and likeness of the Son as Logos. As Plato’s Timaeus might have put it, as the Son is to the Father, so man is to the Son. Father, Son, and Man are thus posited as the New Trinity.

Man is the Mediator par excellence, of course. He is himself a Trinity, his soul being the ligature that binds the divine and heavenly element within him, his Reason, to his mortal and earthly body. He is the microcosm in whom everything that exists in the macrocosm resides in miniature. The soul he shares with heaven and the body he shares with the world bridges the primordial divide.

In the beginning, as Hesiod relates, during that blissful state of original unity, Heaven and Earth were “one form”. But then, with the tragedy of creation, the elements were separated each into its respective province. Father Sky and Mother Earth went through the cosmogonic divorce that is familiar from the myths of many ancient cultures. But carrying down into his earthly frame seeds of divine Fire from Heaven, as Ovid puts it, Man restores the sacred marriage, and so reintegrates the Divine Animal.

Universal Architecture

Let’s commence, then, to unwind some involuted mysteries. We’ll begin with what I have called “Universal Architecture”, that is, the way the cosmos itself is constructed and arranged.

It is the so-called Ptolemaic Universe I will be talking about, which in any case continued to be the model of poets, thinkers, and theologians long after Copernicus and Galileo supposedly consigned it to the ash-heap of science. In Paradise Lost, Milton alludes repeatedly to Galileo’s “optic tube”; but the route Satan travels on his way to reconnoitre Eden is nonetheless that old, familiar Ptolemaic ladder, suspended from the floor of heaven by Homer’s “golden chain” and descending by steps down to Earth. Why? Because as C.S. Lewis has observed, it struck Milton, and Milton’s fellow poets, as incomparably beautiful and fecund with meaning.

The Ptolemaic universe is, at its practical, the universe you see when you look out at the night sky: a structure that rests on the floor of Earth and rises vertically through ten stories, or spheres, as they were called, each storey being curvilinear in shape and all rotating concentrically.

Above the Earth are the seven planetary spheres: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond these seven is the Stellatum, the sphere of the Fixed Stars, called so because seen from the remoteness of Earth, they appear not to move at all, though in fact their apparent slowness of rotation was usually interpreted to mean that they were revolving in the opposite direction from that of the planets. Beyond the Stellatum is the Primum Mobile (the First Mover), which carries no heavenly bodies, is itself immobile, but imparts motion to the rest (hence also called the “Unmoved Mover”) And beyond these nine spheres lies the Tenth Heaven, the Empyraean or Coelum Coelorum, the true abode of God and the saints, if you are Dante, or God and the Ideas, if you are a disciple of Plato, which has neither position nor velocity nor movement nor duration, which is eternal and infinite, and to which all space-time measurements are irrelevant.

Like the cosmos as a whole, each of the stars and planetary spheres (with the exception of the Earth, of course) is a divine animal, ensouled by the Olympian deity after which it is named, if you wish to be archaically literary, by an Idea or divine Intelligence, if you are a pagan Platonist, or by an angel, if you are a Christian one.



Physically, if you wish to be a scientific literalist, the universe is geocentric: the planetary spheres and stars revolve around the Earth. Spiritually, that is to say, in reality, it is theocentric, the planets and stars revolving around God. God is the stationary source and cause of their movement, and as Lady Philosophy explains to Boethius, all bodies in the cosmos trace a grand circle around Him, moving away from their Centre and Beginning in Him, but then returning under the impulse of the love and yearning for Him from whom all things are engendered and in whom they have their life and being.

The fact of the apparently opposite rotational direction of the planets and the fixed stars was moralized in a similar way, the direction of the planets representing all the outward, downward, and inferior worldly and material tendencies of the cosmos, the opposite direction of the fixed stars all of its nostalgic yearning for its divine Source. The “counter-rotation” of the fixed stars thus serves to restrain the downward-tending energies of the planets, and to keep them in obedient orbit around God. In this capacity, as Lady Philosophy also observes, the Stellatum corresponds to the human Reason in restraining the worldly appetites and passions of man’s lower soul.

In the spiritual sense, then, the Earth is located not at the universal centre but on the outer circumference, in the remote suburban fringes of the cosmos, a sort of cosmic Scarborough or Mississauga. Being farthest from God, the Earth is, morally and indeed literally, soulless and godless. By the time the Divine Fire has radiated from its centre in the Empyraean outward and downward to the Earth’s heavy atmosphere, it has grown weak and cold. In the upper reaches of the cosmos, the Divine Fire passes through the aether, which is pure and lucid, a virtually incorporeal quintessence. But below the Moon, where everything is “mortal and doomed to decay”, as Scipio describes the sublunary world in Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, the atmosphere becomes increasingly dense and impenetrable. And though, as Anchises assures us in Virgil’s sixth Aeneid,

…the heavens, the earth, the watery plains
Of the sea, the moon’s bright globe, the sun and stars are all
Sustained by a Spirit within; for immanent Mind, flowing
Through all its parts and leavening its mass, makes the universe work,

yet, on Earth,

…it is deadened and dimmed by the sinful bodies it lives in – 
The flesh that is laden with death, the anatomy of clay:
Whence those souls of ours feel fear, desire, grief, joy
But encased in their blind, dark prison discern not the heaven-light above.

In the lightless prison of the body, the soul of man is a deracinated fragment, spark, or ember of the Divine Fire, ever in danger of suffocation and extinction.


“And in hymself he lough…”

The great distance of the Earth from God is an index, as I have said, of Earth’s spiritual poverty, and it is only from the true perspective of Heaven that its paltry insignificance can be appreciated. Elevated in his vision to the eighth sphere at the side of his great ancestor, Scipio the Younger observes that “the earth below seemed to me so small that I was scornful of Rome’s empire, which covers only a single point, as it were, upon its surface”. From the celestial vantage point – the perspective of reality, because it is the abode of the intelligible Ideas, and also the birthplace and true home of the soul – the vanity of earthly fame, power, riches, and the other pomp and circumstance of the world are exposed.

Scipio’s ascent and dissertation on the theme of contemptus mundi was thus a recurrent topos in Western literature. Some of you might remember Troilus’ rendition of it, when his ghost leaves his body and wafts up to the same eighth sphere,

And down from thennes faste he gan avyse
This litel spot of erthe, that with the se
Embraced is, and fully gan despise
This wrecched world, and held al vanite
To respect of the pleyn felicite
That is in hevene above; and at the laste,
Ther he was slayn, his lokyng down he caste.
And in hymself he lough…

Troilus’ laughter is, throughout the history of Western literature down to the beginning of the nineteenth century, the only salutary and appropriate response to worldly glory, pride, brief good fortune, on the one hand, and to their opposites, injustice, misery, or despair, on the other.


What is the cosmos made out of, the material body of the Divine Animal, that is?


Elements and Contraries

As I’ve already mentioned, above the Moon the substance of the universe is a quasi-material Aether, called the Quintessence, that is the Fifth Essence or element. Below the Moon all individual things are the product of a providentially proportionate combination of the other four. It is not unlike modern molecular theory, really, only the combinations are ordained by the divine Wisdom rather than chance, and the elements can be charted on a very small and easily memorized Periodic Table.

If we think universally – that is, beyond the limits of individual particular things – then, as Ovid explains, the elements are arranged in layers, with the lightest, least corporeal, and most transparent, Fire, at the top, down through Air and Water to Earth, the heaviest and most materially dense and opaque. Each of the elements is the product of opposite qualities, or contraries. Fire is hot and dry; Air, hot and wet; Water, cold and wet; Earth, cold and dry.

Beyond these, the elements are also determined by other pairs of contraries. Fire and Air, being the least dense and closest to Heaven, are the two “divine” elements; Water and Earth, the mortal.

And then of course, there is another pair of contraries, or rather the archetype in fact of all contrariety (both symbolically and literally), the male and the female. As such, Earth, Water, Air and Fire are in themselves primordial and universal symbols.


The Sexual Image

That Earth and Water are feminine is obvious enough. As symbols, they are inflections of what Jung calls the Mother Archetype.

The maternal womb is a watery vessel; so that when an endangered Perseus, Moses, Osiris or Noah is placed in a life-saving ark and floated down a river or sea, he is figuratively re-entering his mother’s womb, and being re-born. More generally, the great Ocean that envelopes the world-disc was, in Ancient Near Eastern myth, considered the source and womb of all creation. The Egyptian cosmogony thus begins with Nun, the primeval Sea, who gives birth to the Ogdoad, the first generation of the gods from whom the rest proceeds.

No less obvious is the conception of Earth as a Universal Mother. She is the Mother of all the agricultural bounty upon which life depends. Every winter she is fertilized by the seed that dies and descends into her subterranean womb, from which the new birth arises in the spring. The seed is another organically masculine symbol. The Latin word for seed is, of course, semen.

To understand this, think, if you can – I know you can – of the members of generation (as the Wife of Bath so delicately calls them) in the act of coitus. The male convexity is the active agent; it invades and fills the female concavity, which is a passive receptacle. (The brilliant lesbian feminist critic Camille Paglia has explained the whole adventuresome and extraverted male personality in terms of this anatomical distinction.)

In the Timaeus, Plato calls the inchoate matter out of which the universe is created ananke, which he defines as “receptacle” and “nurse”. The Forms, the male agencies of creation, must inform, that is, inseminate and infuse their material and maternal receptacles in order to bring the universe into existence. The whole cosmic Divine Animal, with its immanent Divine Soul and its enveloping Body, is thus an image of Male and Female in fecund embrace.

In terms of the antinomies of archetypal symbolism, the divine, the incorporeal, and the “inner” are thus also masculine categories of being, while the merely mortal, corporeal, and external are feminine. Which owes profoundly more, I might point out, to the situation of the soul in the body and its mystic analogy to the sexes in conjunction than it does to any “plot” by the Patriarchy.


The upper two elements, fire and air, are masculine; the lower two, feminine. This is obvious enough, and therefore the subject of widespread depiction in myth. Father Sky reclines upon Mother Earth, and from their union spring the gods and the world.

In the form of wind and light, air and fire are obviously sky phenomena. One way that Father Sky fertilizes Earth’s womb is by penetrating her with the blazing rays of the Sun. As Donne writes in Progress of the Soul of the Sun’s inseminating potency, “By thy male force, is all wee have begot”. You might recall this mythologem from Ovid’s fable of the impregnation of Danae (the name by which the Olympian mythographers remember the pre-Olympian Theban Mother Goddess) by Zeus in the form of a “golden shower” (a phrase that can easily be misinterpreted, as I discovered from a recent class of students, who were, as usual, much more familiar with deviant modern fashions than ancient myths). Father Sky’s other modality is the spring rain that falls into Earth’s bosom (where, in the form of rainfall, water is still conceived by the mythic imagination as an atmospheric phenomenon).

Finally, let me remind you of Ovid’s account of the creation of man by Prometheus, who instills heavenly Fire into man’s body made from the clay of the Earth. This too is, at base, a sexual image.

Like Fire, Air is the primordial substance and symbol of the Divine, probably because of the primitive belief that the soul is constituted of breath or wind. As a close analogue to the way in which the divine child Perseus is conceived in the womb of his mortal mother Danae by Zeus’s celestial Fire, Jesus is conceived by his Father in Heaven of a mortal Virgin through the agency of the Holy Spirit.



Spiritus, which means both spirit and soul, comes from the Latin verb spiro, spirare, spiravi, spiratum, “to breathe”, “respire”. The word “expire”, which means literally to breathe out, conveys the primitive superstition that when a man dies his soul departs his body with the exhalation of his last breath. The word “inspire” carries the same connotation. A poet, artist, prophet, or sage is “inspired” when his Muse or God breathes her or his creative idea, indeed, her or his whole divine substance into him; and thus idea-fied and deified, he is privy to truths and mysteries unavailable to him in his normal mortal state.

When the God of Genesis 2:7 “breathes life into Adam’s nostrils”, it amounts to the same thing: Man is created by being deified, his female body, made of the dust of the Earth, is impregnated and animated by the male spirit of God. The word for breath in Hebrew is ruach, whose primary meaning is “wind”. (So too, by the way, is the other Latin word for soul, anima, from which we get the English “animal” and “animate”).

What the J redactor of the Old Testament is remembering in his story of the creation of Man is the Babylonian myth in which Marduk creates the world by inflating the innards of the maritime chaos-dragon, Tiamat, with the winds of a great cosmic hurricane. Tiamat, like her biblical counterpart, the sea-serpent Leviathan, is the maternal sea: the watery womb from which (as evolutionary biology still believes), all life first arose. Marduk impregnates Tiamat with the wind of his divine soul and from it the lesser gods and the world are born.

The same Babylonian myth stands in the background of Genesis chapter one, where the creation of the world begins with the Spirit of God brooding (pregnantly, we might say) upon the face of the watery deep.

Reading the Book of the World

The great Pre-Socratic philosopher Heracleitus hinted darkly at this all-encompassing mystery in such gnomic utterances as earned him the cognomen “the Obscure”:

Nature loves to hide…The one and common Wisdom is both concealed and revealed under the name of Zeus…To those who are awake, the world-order is common to all…Though the Logos is common, the many fail to recognize Him.

Heraclitus’ intuition that ultimate reality is “hidden”, that there lurks an invisible, spiritual, and unitary Logos or Sophia beneath both the Protean faces of sensible nature and the multiple poetic or mythic descriptions of the gods, mobilized a powerful ontological argument against interpreting worldly phenomena literally, including, as we’ll see, the literal sense of poetry.

That the literal sense of poetry and the sensible things of the world are equivalent, and equivalently veiled, expressions of a secret reality, is another essential credendum of the pre-modern imagination.

There is, of course, an ancient and enduring topos according to which the world is a book and the book is a world. God’s creation is a book whose sensible, physical phenomena, whose hills and valleys, whose seas and rivers, flowers and trees, are its words and letters; and if we interpret them aright, we see everywhere hidden beneath their visible surface the invisible and unitary hand of the divine Author.

The things of the world are thus merely provisional images, copies and reflections of Reality, to use Plato’s metaphor, in themselves unreal, and untrue, but useful as vehicles, signs, and symbols to lead the mind of the interpreter beyond themselves, beyond all visibilia, to the understanding and contemplation of the invisible Archetypes or Ideas in which they participate.


“The things that are made”

The locus classicus of this method of reading and discovering meaning in the world is the speech of the prophetess Diotima of Mantinea, Socrates’ instructress in arcane wisdom, near the end of the Symposium.

Diotima’s ostensible subject is the nature and definition of love. Love is, of course, the quintessential subject for the pre-modern mind, because how and what we love, whether the ephemeral goods and pleasures of this world or the enduring and transcendent verities of the Other (virtue, wisdom, the soul, God Himself) – how and what we love is the essential determinant of how we live, virtuously or viciously.

To the relevant point in her speech, Diotima has been talking only about the common and mundane paths of human love, the “lesser mysteries of love”, as she calls them; now she proposes to join the steeper path to be trodden by the few aspirants to the highest life of all, the life of philosophy.

The initiate (the mystes, as he was called in antiquity) in these higher mysteries must begin in youth in the love of corporeal beauty; having learned to love one beautiful body, he must then learn that the beauty of one body is like that of another, and become the lover of all beautiful bodies and of bodily beauty in general.

In the next stage, he will come to recognize that the beauty of the soul is far more precious than the beauty of the outward form, and be content to love virtuous souls even if they have no physical appeal to him, in the hope of bringing to birth within them virtuous thoughts.

Next he will come to contemplate the beauty in civic institutions and laws, compared to which personal beauty is insignificant; and after this, to appreciate and understand the intellectual beauty in the various sciences and fields of knowledge.

In the final stage of this ascent, a man, as Diotima instructs, “must cease to be a lover of one beauty only, that of a particular youth or man or institution, but drawing towards and contemplating the vast sea of beauty, he will rise at last to the vision of a single science, the science of beauty absolute and universal.” He will rise, that is, to the vision of the Idea of Beauty itself. What this means Diotima goes on to describe in a passage that defies paraphrase or analysis, and which I can do no better than to urge you to read on your own.

There is little I need say about this remarkable speech; its description of the ascent of the soul from mere earthly images and shadows to the contemplation of the highest Idea and Source and Cause of Beauty has, clearly, about it the ambience of the mystic’s visio Dei. In the Republic, Plato describes the same ascent to the vision of the Form of the Good, where there is no doubt that what he means, again, is the vision of God. Whether he calls it absolute Beauty or Good or Being, these are clearly designations for the Godhead, and lest there be any doubt, Plato’s followers, the Middle Platonists, expressly identified his Forms or Ideas with God’s thoughts, and located them in the Divine Mind.

In both passages, in any case, after a long and arduous preliminary process of thought, the apprehension of the Godhead comes as a sudden revelation, a direct, unmediated intellectual grasping of the reality itself. Having risen by steps through the earthly shadows and images of the Divine, the ladder is finally, so to speak, pushed away, and the soul makes the leap across the chasm that divides the two worlds into the Divine Itself, which it sees or grasps no longer by reliance upon imperfect worldly analogies and reflections, no longer through a glass darkly, as Paul would later put it, but directly, face to face.

Here again, one must understand that Plato’s theory of knowledge is at its core not an epistemology but a full-fledged religious or spiritual method, an itinerarium mentis ad deum, whose telos or ultimate goal is nothing less than the salvation of the soul.

I’ve already mentioned Paul, and it is not too much to say, I think, that the whole pre-occupation of his mind is the mystical reading of the world. In Paul, the loci classici are II Cor. 4:18, “…we look not at the things where are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”, and Romans 1:20, “…the invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made”. It’s not hard to see in Paul’s language Plato’s two categories of being: the visible and mutable, and the invisible and immutable. We “understand”, as Paul says, the latter from the former, the invisible and eternal things of God from the temporal things that are made.


Divine Inexpressibility

It is, of course, for good reasons that we must rely upon the visible things of the world as the signs and symbols that lead us to the invisible things of God. As Plato writes in the Timaeus, “The Father and Maker of the Universe is impossible to know or express.”

God is by definition that which is beyond every finite human faculty of knowledge and mode of expression, and his unknowability and inexpressibility was another topos that united paganism and Christianity and whose continuous history is too long to trace here.

The basic point of the topos, nonetheless, is simple enough. It amounts to a prudent disclaimer: When men attempt to conceive of or represent the Divine, they can only do so by analogy to their own corporeal and finite earthly experience. They say God is Light; God is a King; they say he rules in Heaven; they say he is Wise and Just; the J redactor of the Bible even says that he once planted a garden in Eden.

But God’s Light is either so bright as to blind the onlooker or of a nature that is utterly invisible to human eyes; his kingship is unfathomably more majestic than that of any human king; and he is transcendently more wise and just. And when we say the he rules in heaven, this is mere metaphor, for God, being incorporeal, can hardly “be in” any place at all.

For such reasons, it is ultimately ludicrous, as the great third century Alexandrian Platonist Christian Apologist and scriptural exegete Origen wrote, to imagine God as a common gardener who “walked” and “talked” in some physical garden at some moment in historical time. All such representations of God, whether by Christians in the Bible, or by pagans before them in the Homeric myths, are only so much sacred nonsense. They are gross approximations, mere human projections, whose only defense is that they “accommodate” (to use the terminology of ancient and medieval literary theory) the weakness and limitation of human language and understanding which, without them, would be utterly incapable of contemplating or representing the Ineffable.


Incarnation as Accommodation

At the beginning of this discourse on the meaning of mystery, I mentioned the mystery of the Incarnation, and it is worth noting that for Origen, God’s becoming man was the ultimate divine gesture of accommodation. As Origen argues, the Son condescends lovingly into the world and the flesh for the express purpose of manifesting the invisible and unknowable Father in a form accessible to and comprehensible within human experience. The New Testament, as you know, calls the Son the “express likeness and image” of the Father, in metaphoric language that again recalls Plato’s doctrine of individual particular things as the “copies” and “reflections” of their “archetypes” or Ideas. Both Paul and the Evangelists likewise insist that it is only through the Son that the Father can be known.

And now Origen finds in the Incarnation the logical development of this doctrine. Jesus’s earthly body is the “mutable and visible particular” par excellence that incarnates and thus leads the mind to the universal Idea of the Divine; or if you prefer the language of St. Paul, it is the “temporal thing that is made” through which we may ascend to the vision of “the invisible things of God”.

In either case, the Incarnate Christian God is the whole duplex world in miniature: it is the Christian expression of Plato’s image of the world as a Divine Animal, whose soul is the Mind of God, and whose visible phenomena are God’s body.


The Word’s Body and Soul

The Christian Incarnation is also the ultimate symbol of the hidden duplex nature of literature, and this brings us to the other half of the topos I introduced earlier, that the book is a world.

Literature, as we’ll see in a moment, has, like the world, both a sensible surface (the words, written or spoken) and an invisible, inner, and otherwise hidden and unknowable component which we’ll call its meaning (i.e., either what the poet intends to convey when he puts pen to paper, or what he conveys in spite of his conscious intentions).

Before it is spoken or written, before it takes on an audible or written – that is a sensible – form in which it can be communicated and understood, every word is an incorporeal and invisible Idea. It is like the Platonic Idea still resident in the Divine Mind, before it is embodied in the individual particular, and indeed it is like the Christian Logos before, as the Evangelist John puts it, “the Word took flesh”.

When the Christian Word incarnates, when it takes on the visible body of the world, the otherwise hidden and unknowable meaning of the incorporeal Godhead is revealed. And this too is a very old notion. The whole complex of Christian imagery goes back ultimately to the so-called Memphite theology of ancient Egypt, whose creator god Ptah brings the world into being by conceiving it as an idea in his heart and then expressing it as a word on his lips.

The incarnate Christian Logos similarly expresses the whole hidden order of the Divine into the visible world of matter. It is the “express”, that is, the “expressed” “likeness and image of the Father”.

Like Plato’s term the “Idea”, the Christian Word, as a title of God, is a magnificent pun, a bit of inspired word-play, in fact; and the theologians did their best to exploit its double and triple meanings. Augustine, in obedience to the old topos, called the Creation the book of God’s Word (where Word has a splendid double meaning), and noted that so too is the Bible.

The Bible, the Book, is a world indeed, for as Augustine explained, it is the only book that is big enough to contain the full plenitude of creation. In it, every species of animal, every variety of plant, every rock and mineral, worthless or precious, every kind of building, majestic and humble, every food, every sort of cloth, and every human artifact is mentioned, and indeed, just as these particulars are when they are considered as objects of the world, every one of them in Scripture is a above all a sign and a symbol that should lead the mind of the reader to the contemplation of the invisibilia Dei.

Those of you who have taken my Chaucer or Western Tradition course will remember, I hope, Augustine’s distinction between caritas and cupiditas. Cupiditas is the sinful love and enjoyment of the things of this world for their own sake; caritas is the virtuous love of the invisible things of God for their own sakes, or the “use” of the things of this world as means for the contemplation and love of the invisibilia Dei.

Just as one can use the world charitably or abuse it cupidinously, so one can read literature charitably or cupidinously. To enjoy the literal sense of Scripture – a repository of the sensible and temporal things of the world – is to abuse it; to use the literal sense as merely a sign or symbol of the invisibilia dei, its hidden meaning, is to read charitably.


Reading Carnally and Spiritually

Augustine’s distinction is based ultimately upon the ancient ontological dichotomies of Plato, but more proximately upon the teachings of St. Paul. For students of literature, it is puzzling that St. Paul is rarely if ever mentioned in the histories of literary criticism, since for the West, he is manifestly the most important literary theorist of all time.

The key to understanding Paul’s literary theory is, once again, recognizing its relation to a redemptive epistemology: his doctrine that it is through the temporal things that are seen and made that we understand the invisible things of God. This, as we’ve noted, is how one reads the book of the world. But the world, as we’ve also seen, is a Divine Animal: its outer visible surface is God’s body, its inner reality is God’s Soul.

Like the world then, the text must also have a visible body and an invisible soul. And indeed it does. Paul explicitly calls the literal historical sense of Scripture its “body”; its hidden allegorical significance is its “spirit”. (For all his incomparable genius, Plato nowhere approaches this realization.)

If one reads Scripture literally, then, never delving beneath the mere history, the sensual surface, never recognizing that the story is but a set of visible signs and markers pointing to the invisible and intelligible things of God, one reads, in Paul’s terms, “carnally”, according to the flesh. To penetrate beyond the dead outer cortex of the text to its living inner meaning is to read “spiritually”. How one interprets literature is thus a matter of profound moral and religious seriousness. As Paul solemnly admonishes, “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.” And this is obviously much less the cold technical language of literary theory than the urgent preaching of a way of salvation. One may choose to read, as one may choose to live, according to the flesh or the spirit. In either context, what is at stake is nothing less than the life or death of the soul.


Allegorical Involutions

This awareness imposed upon the pre-modern reader the solemn obligation to seek out and disinter the hidden intellectual meanings, the moral and theological doctrines and other invisible realities, that were occulted beneath the sensible surface and corporeal images of poetry – to disinter, that is, beneath the external “body” of the text, no less than the physical body of the world, its hidden, inner “soul”. It was the universal view, from pagan antiquity down to the beginning of the modern age, that all literature, mythological, scriptural, and secular, was symbolic and allegorical; that hidden beneath its literal surface, however fictitious, impossible, absurd, or even seemingly immoral, the assiduous and intelligent reader would discover valuable intellectual truths.

As Boccaccio explains in the fourteenth book of his Genealogia Deorum, “Fiction is a form of discourse, which, under guise of invention, illustrates or proves an idea; and, as its false superficial aspect is removed, the ideational meaning of the author becomes clear”. Beneath the false letter of pagan mythology, as the fifth century Christian commentator Fulgentius explains, lies an “inexhaustible vein of intellectual truth“.

I need hardly point out, I hope, that terms such as “idea” and “intellect” as used to describe the allegorical meaning of literature hidden beneath its superficial literal sense bring us back again into the orbit of Platonic ontology, and the opposition between Socrates’ two categories of existence, the false world of Becoming and the true world of Being, the sensible and mutable on the one hand, and the invisible, intelligible, and immutable on the other.

In what, more specifically, did these allegorical meanings consist? As Fulgentius explains, the pagan poets, “under the alluring cover of a poetic fiction, have inserted a set of moral precepts…for the building of habits of life, through the hidden revealing of their allegories.” Moral allegory is, however, only the first stratum that one encounters in the deep “vein of intellect”. As the reader delves further, he discovers riches laid down, as Fulgentius puts it, for the “mystical understanding”.

These include the deepest secrets of cosmology, metaphysics, and theology, or, in Boccaccio’s phrase, “the high mysteries of things divine”. All such mysteries must be prudently “enclosed”, says Boccaccio, “within a covering of words with the intention that the majesty of such things should not become an object of too common knowledge and thus fall into contempt”. The “obscurity” of literature, as Boccaccio calls it, is thus deliberate. It is a reflection, in fact, of the obscurity of Nature, which as Heracleitus pointed out, loves to hide.

But only those who are worthy, by virtue of their characters, training, and diligence, are permitted to have its sacred mysteries revealed to them. Like the initiates of the ancient pagan mystery cults, readers, therefore, must also undergo preliminary rites of purification and instruction before they can be entrusted with the divine secrets of poetry. If you aspire to reveal them, Boccaccio advises, you must “unwind their difficult involutions”. You must read, persevere, sit up at night, and exert “the utmost power of your mind”.

Myth and Science

…I know nothing, of course, about physics, but my ignorance at least allows me to observe that the modern scientific theories of magnetism and gravity are, whether actually true or not, re-assertions of the ancient mythic representation of God as (in Aristotle’s famous designation) an “Unmoved Mover”. God, according to this ancient mythic image, is the stationary lodestone, the unmoving Centre, that draws everything in the cosmos back to Himself, maintains all things in their obedient orbit, and prevents them from flying off under their own eccentric energies, into space. As for String Theory, I recall that it was Pythagoras who first noted that the universe pulsates with a certain mystical music, caused by the silent vibration of invisible strings, whose division according to certain ratios holds the key to the secret mathematical structure of the cosmos.

Of course, I recognize the superior utility of science to myth. Newton’s law of gravity enables us to predict and therefore to control nature. If we know the weight of a circus acrobat and the height from which he jumps onto a teeter-totter, and we know the weight of the person standing on the other end, we can calculate how fast and how high the latter will be propelled into the air. This is useful – indeed, life-saving – information, at least for the acrobat who needs to be assured that his landing platform is at the right height.

But utility aside, the law of gravitation is ultimately unsatisfying. For starters, it is hardly as beautiful as the profoundly paradoxical idea of God as an Unmoved and Unmoving Mover, nor does it really explain any better what this thing called gravity is, or why it is a necessary condition of our universe. In that regard, the mythic mystery is infinitely more provocative and meaningful.

When I draw such connections – when I discover a higher meaning in the mythic fictions that underlie empirical scientific truths or facts –, I am merely evincing a typically pre-modern cast of mind.


Gravity and the Myth of the Soul

Before we quite leave the earth’s gravitational orbit (figuratively, but also literally, as we’ll momentarily see), let me draw your attention to two other ancient mythic expressions of the same physical reality, and one modern one, all fecund, however, with the kind of meaning that is entirely beyond the scope and capacity of empirical science.

My first ancient example is comparatively speaking, not very old. It comes from Ovid, one of the most suave and sophisticated writers who ever held a pen.

Ovid’s creation myth at the beginning of the Metamorphoses remains a seminal text, without the reading of which no one escapes my classroom. As some of you will recall, Ovid’s cosmogony is utterly traditional in describing the creation of the world as the ordering by God of a pre-existent material chaos in which the elemental opposites have invaded each other’s proper territory and are in a more or less permanent state of war. God, or Nature, he writes, composes this strife, separating the aggressors, assigning each of them to its own province, and binding them fast “in harmony”.

This is how the Roman poet describes this ordering process:

The fiery weightless element that forms heaven’s vault leaped up and made place for itself upon the topmost height. Next came the air in lightness and in place. The earth was heavier than all, and, drawing with it the grosser elements, sank to the very bottom of the universe by its own weight. The streaming water took its place last, and held the solid land confined in its embrace.

I’ll come back to this in moment, but clearly Ovid knows a thing or two about the modern theory of gravitation.

The second example comes, somewhat paradoxically, from Plato. Paradoxically, because in the Republic, as you know, Plato affects to be a strict constructionist of philosophical truth, and therefore banishes the “lying” poets from his ideal city.

What rather mitigates Plato’s criticism of poetry, allegory, and myth, however, is his stubborn penchant for quoting Homer, and his own invention of a number of allegorical myths, as his means of explaining the invisible, incorporeal realities – God, the Ideas, the Soul – which apparently could not otherwise be explained than in those ostensibly dangerous, and so forbidden, sensual images in which poetry traffics.

Plato’s ubiquitous reliance upon poetic figure, allegory, and myth – the allegory of the cave and the myth of Er in the very Republic from which he banishes the poets, the figure of the charioteer in the Phaedrus, to name only a few – suggest that his antipathy to the supposed falsity and sensuality of poetry is hardly to be taken literally. But then the opposition between philosophical truth and poetic fiction, science and myth, is a conventional and continuous topos in Western literature to which we’ll have to return later.

In the Phaedrus, Plato compares the human soul to a pair of winged horses driven by a charioteer. This is another seminal topos to which we’ll have return, but here we are only concerned with Plato’s explanation of why the soul loses its wings.

In its perfect, pre-lapsarian state, he says, the soul soars freely amongst the heavens, the habitation of the Ideas and the gods, borne upward upon wings that are the element within man most akin to the immortal divine. In the supernal regions, the wings of the soul are nourished upon the eternal and incorporeal Ideas, but when the soul conceives a foul affection for the material and transitory goods and pleasures of this world, and when she gives in to these lower passions, her wings begin to waste away, and she droops in flight. After her wings have thus completely atrophied, she at last settles on the solid earth, and finding a home there, she contentedly receives an earthly body.

The first thing one notices about Ovid’s and Plato’s mythic narratives is that the empirical fact of gravity can only be described by them in expressly moral and religious language. Ovid characterizes the earth, the heaviest of the four elements, as “foul” (sordidus) and “gross” (densus). It is, in Hamlet’s later description of the earthly element in man, “O…too, too solid/sullied”. Under its own weight, the Earth sinks to the very bottom of the universe, the farthest that is, from the lucid and weightless heavens, and functions there as a sort of cosmic dust bin, catching all the flotsam and jetsam that falls into it.

This is not an auspicious habitat for man. Ovidian man, in fact, is an exile, a “stranger and pilgrim” on the earth, to use the language of Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, always “mindful of” and seeking the “better, that is, the heavenly country” whence he came. For Ovid, rather, that which is essential and original in man’s nature, the “true man”, as Plato called it, is the incorporeal soul.

In his later account of man’s creation, Ovid conceives of the human soul as a displaced fragment or spark of the Divine Fire, first stolen by Prometheus from heaven, and then breathed into the inanimate lump of clay that had been shaped by the arch-sculptor into the human body. That body is thus the human correlative of the cosmic prima materia: it is a formless chaos until it is animated by the Soul of God, just as the cosmos is a formless chaos until Nature or God informs it with order.

Man walks erect, as Ovid goes on to explain – and we note that homo erectus is another important datum of modern evolutionary science, pre-empted by the mythic imagination – man walks erect, writes Ovid, because, his re-ascent to his heavenly home depends upon his morally and intellectually fixing his gaze, throughout his earthly sojourn, upon the divine region of his birth.


Which leads me to my modern example of a myth about gravity and how to defy it. It comes from an inspired piece of cinematic art, the 1970s movie starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd entitled The Blues Brothers. At the beginning of the scene in question, Jake (the Belushi character) is standing reluctantly in the narthex of a church, having just been collected from the prison gate in the Bluesmobile by brother Ellwood, who brings him there for his reformation. Suddenly, Jake’s body is bathed in, transfigured by, the celestial Light of revelation. “I have seen the light; I have seen the light”, he proclaims, somewhat redundantly.

The light he has seen is the idea to get the band back together, and with it to earn the money necessary to pay the back-taxes on the orphanage where the brothers were raised. Meanwhile, in the church itself, a prayer service is being led in the style of an old Negro revival meeting, by James Brown. Preacher Brown and the choir are singin’ and gyratin’ the exuberant praises of the Lord, and the infection is caught by the congregation. They begin dancing in the aisles, and soon in the rafters, to which they have been propelled by the energy of the indwelling Spirit. In mid-air, they perform long and lazy somersaults and other acrobatic maneuvers as if they had broken completely free of the earth’s gravitational orbit.

And indeed they have. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they are enjoying the state of enthousiasmos (to use the language of the ancient pagan mystery cults); they are entheoi, possessed by God. In the more appropriate Christian language of St. Paul, they have “put off mortality” and “put on immortality”; they have become no longer earthly and carnal creatures, but new spiritual and heavenly beings, for whom gravity and the other laws of nature no longer apply.

Though Belushi and Ackroyd are sending up (forgive the gravitational pun) – though they are spoofing a certain kind of modern American religion, be assured that its roots go back to the mists of human pre-history.

Plato’s, Ovid’s, and the Blues’ Brothers’ conceptions of gravity are thus informed by a grand religious myth with an inherent structure of meaning, at the centre of which is not physical nature but the incorporeal human soul. The circular journey of the soul, its birth in a pre-existent spiritual heaven and inmergence in the Divine, its fall into the body and exile in the world, and its celestial repatriation and re-absorption in God, is in fact the regnant salvation myth of Western Civilization. The continuous history of this myth is too long to trace here, but in due course it made every major philosopher and poet, pagan and Christian, its adherent and evangelist, down to the beginning of the modern era and beyond.


World as Divine Animal

The myth of the soul, however, is only the anthropological phase, as it were, of a larger ontological myth that expresses the overarching mystery of the whole: the duplex nature of all existence.

Beneath the deceptive surface of all multiple sensible phenomena is occulted a single, invisible Reality, which is alive and intelligent, and yet immutable and eternal, that is to say, Divine. It is not too much to say that in the sixth century B.C., the ontological mystery gave birth to Greek philosophy, when, gazing out upon a material world of apparent multiplicity, mutability, and transience, the Pre-Socratics posited – through a leap of faith, indeed – the existence of a single, unchanging, indestructible universal Essence or Nature (Physis) invisibly suffused throughout all things.

In the next century, Plato inherited this datum and expressed it as the fundamental opposition between Being and Becoming. For Plato, as you know, that category of things that is subject to change and decay (Becoming) cannot truly be said to “be” at all; true Being belongs only to what is unchanging and indestructible. In the Phaedo, Socrates notes that while the changing and transient phenomena of the world of Becoming are discernible to the physical senses, the unchanging and enduring entities of the order of Being are knowable only by the intellect; thus he identifies two fundamental classes of existence, each having a pair of characteristics: the visible and mutable, and the invisible and immutable.

To the former category belong the corruptible body and all ordinary physical things; to the latter belong God, the immortal soul, as well as the universal, intelligible Ideas. These three species of Being are, to use the Platonic metaphor, innately “akin”. The Ideas are, as Plato explains elsewhere, the indwelling souls of the particular things they inform. And the very same relation of invisible indwelling soul to visible body applies to the world at large.

The cosmos, as Plato explains in the Timaeus, is a Divine Animal. The Mind of God is its soul, which invisibly indwells and animates it, and the sensible material world that envelops it is God’s body.

This image is nothing less than the mystic basis of all religious, mythological, and philosophical imagery: man consists of an outer visible body and an inner invisible soul; so too, correspondingly, do all individual things in the world; so too does the world itself. So too, by necessity, as we’ll soon see, does the literary text.

…Let me begin the formal segment of our Conference by admitting that there are a number of assumptions planted in its description. First, there is the problem of defining, and locating, the modern.

Modern and Pre-Modern

As a chronological boundary marker, “modern” is a notoriously elastic term. The historians of jazz, as I understand it, trace the birth of the modern to the 1950’s. Modern art is usually said to have begun in the period between the world wars. Historians of architecture find the germs of the modern in roughly the same period, incubating in the cubical wombs of steel and glass conceived by the Bauhaus brotherhood. In literature, the modern age is usually said to begin in the late eighteenth century, with that most contemporary of literary genres, the novel. Philosophers detect the first stirrings of modernity through as wide a range of periods and personalities as those of Descartes, Macchiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. History itself takes the longest view, placing the dawn of the modern in the late fourteenth century, in the Renaissance, the age of the rebirth of the ancient.

There is thus enormous variation from discipline to discipline in locating the modern; what’s more, there are always recalcitrant individuals who refuse to respect the frontiers of official chronology. In music, Bach’s discords and suspensions are disturbingly modern, while twentieth century composers such as Vaughan Williams seem eternally stuck in Tudor England. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Macchiavelli and Castiglione were almost exact contemporaries: one very forwardly looking and modern, the other determined to preserve a code of gentlemanly conduct that goes back to Homer. Nietzsche is assuredly a most modern literary critic, but a half century on, T.S. Eliot (though identified by literary critics as one of the founders of the modern movement in poetry) was himself, as a literary critic, a defender of what he called “tradition”.

Such anomalies could be multiplied, and I mention them only by way of admitting that almost any definition of the modern is bound to be idiosyncratic, made all the more so by the fact that the word “modern” itself has about it an almost triumphalist aura. Modernity is an attitude as much as an historical designation, as illustrated by the view of most of my first-year undergraduates for whom the modern era began the day they were born, and whose thinking thereby tends to relegate the whole groaning process of history that led up to that blessed event to the dark mists of antiquity.

Those of you who have been in my classroom before have already heard me animadvert on our fetishistic advocacy for the modern as an entirely, well, modern development. If what we call “Civilization” dawned some time around 3000 B.C., then for the first 48 of the 50 centuries thereof, it was more or less universally assumed, by poets, priests, and philosophers, at any rate, that things were always and inevitably getting worse.

The biblical myth of the Fall, and the classical myth of the four “metallic ages”, are both succinct expressions of this dour view of the future. Rather than looking breathlessly forward to some hitherto unrealized utopia, the pre-modern imagination looked back to a lost paradise or golden age, which it was the purpose of literature, art, philosophy, and religion to cooperatively restore.

I have argued that these pre-modern assumptions are infinitely more salutary – morally, politically, and psychologically – than our own utopian optimism, which has spawned, amongst other horrors, the Nazi and Communist holocausts of the last century. More to the point here, a belief in a lost golden age and in the progressive degeneration of mankind would have made us a little less inclined today to assent to the Narcissistic illusion that every present generation is better educated, more politically equitable, morally enlightened, and artistically fecund than the previous one: that our social arrangements are more compassionate and just, our art is more creative because it is untrammeled by convention, our consciousness has been raised higher, and our deepest selves are more fulfilled than ever before in our patriarchal, sexist, racist, Eurocentric, xenophobic, homophobic, and generally benighted past.

This is merely jingoism of the chronological sort. That I don’t happen to share these modernist prejudices is, of course, wholly beside the point, but that the ancients certainly didn’t is entirely germane to our project here. For that reason I must leave this theme only to take it up some time later in the context of the pre-modern writer’s “bookishness”, as C.S. Lewis has called it, that is, his reverence for authority and tradition, together with his apparent failure to strive for, let alone care about, originality.

For now, however, I merely want to stress that the pre-modern and the modern attitudes towards modernity are fundamentally antithetical.

When, then, does the pre-modern era end and the modern begin? Since it is a difference of attitudes that concerns us here, the precise date doesn’t really matter.

I’ve assigned it to the year 1800 – with mock precision, as I’m sure you realize. (I think I made this arbitrary decision while remembering an early music program that I used to listen to on the radio called “Music Before 1800”.) Even still, there are good reasons for my choice, which I hope will become clearer throughout the course of the lectures.


“Involuted Mysteries”

I’ve called this Conference “Involuted Mysteries”, which sounds like one of those high-sounding made-up phrases one might hear at a convention of New Age priestesses, or crop circle enthusiasts, or (I regret to say) academics. Let me assure you therefore that the phrase has an ancient and legitimate pedigree.

It comes, as I recall, from the Mystagogus Poeticus of Alexander Ross, an English mythographer of the late Renaissance. When Ross used it, it was indeed a phrase of his own concoction, but one yoked together nonetheless from real words freighted for centuries with real meaning.

Let me take a few minutes to explain, at least superficially, what these words meant, and in the course of doing so to anticipate some of the themes and topics that will occupy us in due course.

The adjective “involuted” derives from the word involucrum, a term used by medieval literary theorists to describe the way in which the inner symbolic or allegorical meaning of poetry is hidden deep within the outer wrapping of the literal sense. Involucrum is a synonym of sorts of two other popular medieval literary terms, velamentum, which means covering in the sense of a “veil”, something that hides, and integumentum, which means “covering” in a protective sense. (Integumentum comes from the Latin verb tego, tegere, tegi, tectum, from whose past participle we get the English words “protect” and “protection”.)

Both ideas, that the literal sense of poetry “hides” the allegorical meaning, and that it “protects” it from the eyes of the unworthy, are central to the ancient and medieval conception of literature and art as “mysteries”. But for reasons that will become clear, I hope, involucrum is my term of preference. Its allusive imagery is richer.

You all know what the English cognates “involve”, “revolve”, “evolve”, “volute”, “evolution”, “revolution”, and so on, mean. They come from another Latin verb, volvo, volvere, volui, volutum – so, I presume, does the overpriced Swedish automobile – which means to “roll” or “wind”. The allegorical meaning of poetry, according to the medieval commentators, was thus “involved”, a mystery “wound up” and so hidden in the deep centre of the literal words – like the living seed, in fact, protected within the dead and disposable shell or chaff (to use another popular medieval analogy), or Plato’s spherical World Animal, whose soul, the Mind of God, is rolled up invisibly within its material envelope.


“Mystery” and the Sacred

Now to the noun in our title. You are all familiar with the popular meaning of the word “mystery”: something difficult or impossible to understand or explain, because it is unusual, paradoxical, or even miraculous.

We have just passed the festival of Christmas, or what the demystifying fanatics of political correctness insist on calling the Holiday Season. Christmas, as you know, celebrates the first of the two central “mysteries” upon which the Christian religion is founded: the Incarnation – the coming of the eternal, incorporeal, and invisible God into the flesh and the world of space and time. As the text of the Christmas motet begins, O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum: “O great mystery, O wondrous sacrament”. The text is instructive: its more or less synonymous conjunction of the words “mystery” and “sacrament” tells us something rather important for our present purposes.

In popular modern usage, we might call any phenomenon that is difficult to comprehend or explain a mystery: for instance, the mystery of flight (as folks at the beginning of the last century used quaintly to refer to the new technology), or of calculus, or (to continue to list things I’ll never understand), the mystery of the golf swing.

But in the pre-modern imagination, the word “mystery” was reserved for an entity or event that was not merely incomprehensible but also experienced as sacred, as a sacramentum; and indeed the mystery – the incomprehensibility and wonder – of it was inseparable from its sacredness. Everything that is mysterious is sacred: ordained by God, a manifestation of God, or a concealment of God; and everything that is sacred is by necessity mysterious.

That mystery is rooted in the Divine was, of course, the universal attitude of the pre-modern. As anthropologists have long recognized, the special mark of the primitive – they used to call it the savage imagination before the dawning of the age of political correctness – is to invest with – to project upon – that which is otherwise inexplicable to it in nature, a consciousness and a will, very much like its own, in fact, only more powerful and therefore more dangerous. Every important event or anomaly in the natural order – earthquake, flood, a birth, an unexpectedly bountiful harvest – was conceived as the effect of God’s inscrutable and capricious beneficence or displeasure.

When science finally comes along to explain these events by ascribing them to purely physical causes, it can only do so, of course, by de-mystifying them. It must, in fact, expunge from the universe every trace of Soul or Mind or God. The inscrutable living Spirit that was formerly and from time immemorial thought to reside at the centre of, to animate and govern everything that exists and occurs in the world, is pronounced dead, and the de-spirited carcass of the cosmos is now moved by the cold hand of mechanical law.

Here, again, is one of the most obvious differences between the modern and pre-modern outlooks. If the ancient reflex was to multiply and aggrandize mystery, the modern project is to diminish and ultimately abolish it.

But from the eighteenth century to the present, science, and scientific criticism, have tended to pronounce the death of mystery and God with a dogmatic excess of certitude and materialistic zeal. It has told us with overweening confidence, for instance, that the parting of the waters of the Red Sea during the Exodus was the result of no miraculous intervention by God, but is merely the dim folk memory of a freak draught or unusually low tide, abetted perhaps by a sudden windstorm.

This is a nice bit of modern scientific rationalization, but as such it is of course wholly beside the point. To reduce a religious mystery to a meteorological event, and explain that event in accordance with the principles of natural causation, is to completely misapprehend it.

As any student of mythology knows, the parting of the Red Sea didn’t happen, at least not in the sensible world of space and time; it is poetry, not history, symbol not fact. The very point of the story is mythic and symbolic: to demonstrate the majestic power of the God of Israel, who with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (in the words the writer of Exodus) shepherded his people out of bondage in Egypt and into the Promised Land – as He would liberate them from captivity in Babylon and greater Persia, as he would be beseeched to liberate them from the Empires of Greece and Rome, and as eventually He would release all mankind from bondage to Satan, sin, and death.

The Israelites’ passing over dryshod of the Red Sea is, beyond that, an only subtly veiled historical transcription of the ancient Near Eastern mythologem of the nocturnal death and matutinal resurrection of the Sun-god, who every night set in the Western sky and descended into the waters of the underworld sea, there to encounter the chaos-dragon Tiamat or Apophis or Rahab or Leviathan (alternatively historicized by the Hebrew authors as the evil Pharaoh), to conquer him and deliver from his belly the captive dead into the light of salvation. This, as we will see, is one of the foundational and recurrent myths that govern the whole course of the so-called “history” of the Judaeo-Christian Bible.


Mystery and Myth

For the ancients, then, mystery and myth always lay just beneath the surface of the visible order. This is to say, really, that it was in the subterranean stratum of mystery and myth that the hidden intelligible meaning of natural phenomena and historical events – actualities that were, in themselves, meaningless – was found.

This is one reason why Aristotle wrote in the ninth book of his Poetics that myth is a somewhat more “philosophical” genre than history. History records, as Aristotle explains, what actually happened to this or that person, in this or that place and time, once and for all. Myth is the record of what happens in all times and places, recurrently, everywhere, and always.

In Platonic terms, history belongs, we might say, to the mutable and particular dimension of existence (what Plato called “Becoming” or “Not-Being”), whereas myth refers to an eternal and unchanging Reality. The historian Herodotus might thus chronicle the rise and fall of Croesus’ Lydia, or of the Persian Empire; a Thucydides, the rise and fall of Sparta; a Livy, Carthage; a Gibbons, Rome. But as soon as one speaks of a king or nation’s “rise and fall”, one is using the language of myth, not history. One is observing one of history’s universally and eternally recurrent patterns, on the model of the mythic journey of the Sun, or the pitiless rotation of Fortune’s Wheel.

Historical events can be observed and natural phenomena measured, but Meaning, of course, is an entirely incorporeal and invisible entity. To search for it beneath the superficial currents of history or sensible things involves a great leap of faith, whether in the name of religion or science.

Like the religious postulate of the Divine, the quest for meaning at any level involves the projection of the interpreter’s own Intelligence into an inanimate and therefore unintelligent world. The only difference is that, where the pre-modern imagination used to call that Intelligence God, the scientific imagination now de-personalizes it as the Laws of Motion, or of Thermodynamics, or Gravitation, or Relativity, or String Theory.

But it is, all the same, a projection and a leap of faith.


     It is generally assumed that traditionalists are hostile to free inquiry and experimentation. On the contrary, they revere them. But traditionalists also recognize the difference between open-mindedness and empty-mindedness.

I am a respecter of traditions because I know that they are rational, and that they work. Though possessed of a gargantuan ego–what else would impel me to write a blog?—I have just enough humility to acknowledge that it is unlikely that I, Harleius Pretius, sitting alone in the solitude of my study, and owning no more than the meager quotient of intelligence and life-experience with which any single individual can ever hope to be endowed, could come up with a better solution to the problems besetting humanity than those hammered out at some point during the half-million-year history of human reflection and trial by the cumulative genius of mankind that preceded my glorious birth. I’m no paragon of Socratic humility, but I hesitate to pit my lonely intellect against a collective braintrust that includes the likes of Johnson, Pope, Milton, More, Erasmus, Pico, Aquinas, Boethius, Augustine, Aristotle, and, well, Socrates.

Even the most “knee-jerk” adherents of tradition have a well-grounded intuition that the customs and practices they follow have been rationally and empirically demonstrated over time. If today’s cabinet makers “mindlessly” continue to build carcasses and drawers with the same old dovetail joints as have been sawn and chopped since the William and Mary period, it’s because they know that after having experimented with butt joints, rabbets, tongues-and-grooves, round dowels, square pegs, iron pins, steel screws, hide glue, glue from fish bones, and probably human spittle, their predecessors long ago agreed that the dovetail was a superior mechanism. In putting two pieces of wood together at right angles along end grain, the dovetail joint works splendidly within the limitations fixed by the nature of the material and the laws of geometry. Traditionalists accept the immutable conditions of the world into which they have been born, and woodworkers are no different. (They’d certainly regard any cabinet maker who built drawers using an inferior joint for the sake of novelty as a lunatic.)

Most traditional social or moral arrangements—heterosexual monogamy; the nuclear family, with its division of labour; the prohibition against adultery and pre-marital sex; the abhorrence of infanticide and abortion–were established in the mists of antiquity, but then only at the end of an earlier, protracted period of human experimentation and adjustment. A traditionalist is one who has the sense to recognize when the experiment has succeeded, and to stop, on the principle that there is nothing more mindless—because it is insane—than to go on experimenting for experiment’s sake. But we are a culture confused: in some cases we treat a hyperactive compulsion for change with Ritalin; in others, we elect its sufferer President.

Of course, “knee-jerk” and “mindless” are insults to which the enemies of tradition have staked a proud and exclusive claim. Progressives have always regarded traditionalists as craven and uncritical conformists (whereas they, by contrast, are fearless free-thinkers, whose every opinion has been won in a protracted agon of self-examination and untrammeled rational inquiry). It is, moreover, in brave defiance of their relentless persecutors (here cue the music of the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Hunt, or the McCarthy Hearings) that they display their hard-won laurels of victory.

The truth, however, is that those who reject tradition tend to do so as reflexively and out of as servile a submission to authority as any medieval divine. It is just that the authorities they venerate are more recent and modish. Chesterton said that tradition is the democracy of the dead; progressives believe in a tradition that is the oligarchy of the fashionable. (Whether it is rational to conclude that the world-view of today’s sages is more just and wise than that of the perennial consensus of historical humanity, merely because its advocates are currently breathing and capable of filling a lecture hall, remains an open question.)

No era in history has, in any case, ever achieved a more perfect and universal conformity of thought, taste, dress, and demeanor than our own “revolutionary” age, or exhibited a more slavish subjection to authority. In university I remember the free-thinking and free-loving opponents of mindless tradition carrying around copies of Chomsky and Mao’s Little Red Book, and quoting verses from Lennon and Dylan in the same transports of ecstasy as any Bible-thumping Southern Baptist quoting from the Book of Revelation. Today’s undergraduates carry copies of Derrida and Foucault and cite apocalyptic dooms from An Inconvenient Truth. Modern anti-traditionalists even willingly don the habits of their religious order: in the Sixties, jeans and Mao jackets; today, Nikes and backwards baseball caps. It’s getting harder and harder to take their lectures about mindless conformity and reverence for authority seriously.

If traditionalists are supposedly enslaved to a static past, progressives are surely enslaved to a fleeting present. And their serial submission to the dogma du jour makes for an amusing spectacle in which they are constantly changing masters: from Freud to Marx to Mao to Greer to Gore, to who-knows-whom. Their appetite for authority is apparently so insatiable that, whenever the obsolescence of intellectual fashion or the vicissitudes of history conspire to liberate them from one form of it, they rush headlong into the shackles of another.


IV. The Universal City

If the modern state of Israel were indeed established to provide a refuge for Jews stumbling among the God-forsaken ruins of the Holocaust, it has been a colossal and unmitigated failure. Today, Jews throughout the Diaspora – from Montgomery, Alabama to Berlin – are appreciably safer and less exposed to anti-Semitism than the residents of Haifa or Tel Aviv. European Christian anti-Semitism has either completely deliquesced or become so wholly discredited that those who continue to profess it subject themselves to universal opprobrium if not criminal prosecution or deportation by the state. In the post-War democratic West, an anti-Semite is the equivalent of the perpetrator of murder or sacrilege who, in Greek antiquity, was ritually ostracized lest his miasmal presence pollute the land and destroy the polis. And anyone who questions the precise historical details of the Holocaust is called a “denier”, a term to whose irony the mighty hunters of anti-Semitism are blithely oblivious, inasmuch as it was originally used by the Inquisitors against heretics, especially Jews, who “denied” the divinity of Christ.

But the creation of the state of Israel has managed to incubate a wholly new and more lethal strain of soi-disant “anti-Semitism” – one that straps itself into suicide vests. It has done so, moreover, within a Semitic Arab population that at the turn of the century lived peacefully and often amicably with its Jewish neighbours, and a larger Islamic culture that has historically offered sanctuary to Jews flying from Christians accusing them of having murdered their Lord. Surely the fact that Islam has, in such a short time, exploded into a psychotic frenzy of Jew-hatred demands to be recognized as historically remarkable. Not even the most fanatical Nazis were willing to martyr themselves for the cause of Aryan purity.

In reality, of course, Arab hatred of the Jews has little to do with “anti-Semitism” per se, and certainly nothing to do with the traditional European Christian kind. Arab hostility is perfectly comprehensible in the context of the unique historical circumstances of the founding, expansion, and ongoing policies of the modern state of Israel. It makes about as much sense to call the anger of Palestinian Arabs over their dispossession and colonial subjection – whether real or merely perceived, it matters not – “anti-Semitism” as it is to call the Soviet-era anger of occupied and Russified Hungarians “anti-Slavism”. Naturally, it serves the interests of the apologists for Israel and her policies to conscript her Arab opponents into the ancient and continuous ranks of anti-Semites, whereby their historical grievances seem as vicious and irrational as the racist calumnies of the Nazis, and, more generally, the looming threat of an outbreak of another episode of the Holocaust becomes more real and imminent than ever. Above all, it serves to portray Jews as hapless and passive victims of a cosmic malevolence for which they have had no responsibility and with which they have had nothing to do. Having been dropped by God like manna from heaven into a moral desert, Israeli Jews are, yet again, history’s innocent bystanders, God’s eternally suffering servant and sacrificial lamb.

The Prison of History

It is time, perhaps, for Jews to recognize that the history they simultaneously abhor and revere is, in the formulation of Jean Daniel, a prison, and that to seek redress in history for injuries suffered in history is only to forge new bars. Every genuine religion has regarded history as a prison, insofar as the vanities and resentments, the triumphs and humiliations, deposed in a people’s historical memory are the links in the chain that bind the soul to the ephemera of the temporal world. All the major religions and philosophical sects of antiquity with which I am familiar—the mysteries of Osiris in Egypt, of Marduk and Adonis in Babylon and Syria, of Attis in Asia Minor, of Mithras in Persia, the Orphic, Eleusinian, Pythagorean, Platonist, Stoic, and Gnostic cults in Greece, and, above all, Christianity—have preached a soteriological doctrine that enjoins upon its adherents at least a partial withdrawal from the historico-temporal world, a relativization of its overwhelming reality and value, a liberation from its brute necessity, a transcendence of the meaningless flux of time: an escape from or “abolition” of history, as Eliade has described it.

But Judaism is a religion of and for history, not in spite of it; indeed, when Jews affirm that Yahweh is the “God of history”, they confer upon the historical order the highest possible value. Their yearning is to be redeemed by and through history, rather than from it. And with neither a hope nor a desire for a hope of deliverance from this prison, historical injuries and resentments burrow deeply into the Jewish soul.

It is, of course, manifestly impossible that history, as the fallen arena of human action, could be redemptive, except in the sense that time, when of sufficient duration, can heal old wounds and confer upon the observer the wisdom of perspective. But with their counsel to “Never Forget”, Jews strenuously reject such wisdom. In any case, equanimity and perspective come from one’s transcendence of history, hardly one’s absorption into it.

Most of the other empirical human disciplines have at least a rational or metaphysical afflatus that informs the insensate materiality of the objects they study, and may well beckon their initiates along a highway that eventually leads to the Mind of God. But history is the most intractably opaque and unintelligible of all branches of human knowledge. Historical events are governed by no objective, constant, and universal laws that we yet know of. (The closest approach to the discovery of such a law was made by the ancients, who taught that history unfolds in response to the spastic lurches of Fortune’s Wheel, a “constant” defined by capricious and inscrutable inconstancy.) Modern historians don’t even pretend to inquire into the existence of such laws. And when we speak of history’s purposes or final ends, or history’s patterns or archetypes, we are speaking the language of poetry and myth—the language, that is, of the Gentiles.

I have already referred to Aristotle’s judgment that myth is “more philosophical” than history. For Aristotle, the novelty, uniqueness, and unrepeatability of historical events condemned them to that inferior ontological order of “appearance” or “non-being” which consisted in everything mutable, visible, transient, and particular. But Aristotle was also surely alluding to the ethnic and socio-political particularism to which historical events (and the separatist history of the Jews especially) so monotonously give witness.

By contrast to all of the theologies that germinated in the spiritually fecund soil of Greek and Near Eastern antiquity (Christianity amongst them), Judaism alone has dignified the historical sphere as man’s true and rightful home. Having looked there for justice and happiness, as they do now to the modern state of Israel, it is surely no wonder that the Jews have found, in the words of Augustine, only a “perverse and bitter sweetness”.

Augustine’s seminal distinction between the vice of cupiditas – the illicit love of the historical world for its own sake –, and the virtue of caritas – the use of the world for the sake of the apprehension and love of the invisibilia Dei –, seems to apply to, and was probably rendered in mind of, the Jews. As he explains in the De Doctrina Christiana:

To enjoy something is to cling to it with love for its own sake. To use something, however, is to employ it in obtaining that which you love, provided that it is worthy of love. For an illicit use should be called rather a waste or an abuse. Suppose we were wanderers who could not live in blessedness except at home, miserable in our wandering and desiring to end it and to return to our native country. We would need vehicles for land and sea which could be used to help us to reach our homeland, which is to be enjoyed. But if the amenities of the journey and the motion of the vehicles itself delight us, and we were led to enjoy those things which we should use, we should not wish to end our journey quickly, and, entangled in a perverse and bitter sweetness, we should be alienated from our country, whose sweetness would make us blessed. Thus in this mortal life, wandering from God, if we wish to return to our native country where we can be blessed we should use this world and not enjoy it, so that the “invisible things” of God “being understood by the things that are made” [Rom. 1:20; 11:36] may be seen, that is, so that by means of corporal and temporal things we may comprehend the eternal and spiritual. (I. iv)

I am aware that these are outmoded philosophical sentiments, wholly alien not only to Jews but to most modern Christians and atheists alike, for whom reality and truth mean empirical-historical reality and truth above all. But no intelligent discussion of Jewish historical suffering can proceed as if it has come out of an intellectual vacuum. That even well-educated Jews can refer reverently to that narrow strip of land that constitutes the territorial state of Israel as their “homeland”–without a twinge of irony or the faintest awareness of the ancient philosophical attitude that Augustine here re-presents–, demonstrates how contentedly ensconced they are in their historical prison.

I have no intention of attempting to reprise the long history of that philosophical attitude here, except in the briefest of terms and only insofar as it maneuvers into perspective ancient and modern Jewish velleities to sanctify the meager particularities of history, nation, and land. Clearly, the unbroken tradition of Greek philosophical and religious universalism (from Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Heraclitus, through Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, to Apuleius, Plutarch, Maximus of Tyre, Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus, and Macrobius) was paganism’s most precious bequest to Christianity, as it functioned, on the level of the collective psyche, to compensate the narrow historicism and sectarianism of the ancient Hebrews. On this theme, I have already mentioned Jesus’ repudiation of the ethnic particularism of the Jews—their parochial law; their messianic expectation of a national and political kingdom of Israel–, and his proclamation, on the contrary, of a non-sectarian Law written on the heart of man; an unlocalized Kingdom Within; and a Universal Church inclusive of the faithful of all the nations.

The Cosmopolis

For Paul and the early Fathers, the universality of the Christian message was so radical and fundamental a datum that to speak of the Church, as we now speak of it, as a locus of worship or even an earthly institution, would have seemed a malicious insult to them. On the contrary, the Church (the New Israel) could be bounded by no finite limits of either historical time or geographical space. It consisted only in an everlasting, diffuse, and incorporeal community of souls, a more or less eternal spiritual Diaspora, whose relation to this or that particular people or earthly-historical city was regarded as merely contingent (having resulted from nothing more than an accident of birth), and whose principal allegiance was to the Celestial Jerusalem, the Universal City of God in which all human souls originally dwelled, and to which they by nature belong. Under the New Law, as Paul proclaimed it, every new Israelite was a fellow-citizen of the heavenly City, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free.” (Col. 3: 11)

As I have argued elsewhere, the Christian vision of the Civitas Dei derived more or less directly from the ancient Stoic vision of the Cosmopolis, which the god-like sage of antiquity recognized as his spiritual fatherland and true home. Seneca’s eloquent summary of the doctrine should serve to place Augustine’s dependence upon it beyond doubt:

…there are two commonwealths–the one, a vast and truly common state, which embraces alike gods and men, in which we look neither to this corner of earth nor to that, but measure the bounds of our citizenship by the path of the sun; the other, the one to which we have been assigned by the accident of birth. This will be the commonwealth of the Athenians or of the Carthaginians or of any other city that belongs, not to all, but to some particular race of men. Some yield service to both commonwealths at the same time–to the greater and to the lesser–some only to the lesser, some only to the greater…

…The laws [that Zeno and Chrysippus] framed were not for one state only, but for the whole human race…

…Our school [i.e., the Stoics] refuses to allow the wise man to attach himself to any sort of state…(Moral Essays: On Leisure)

Within this universal Cosmopolis, all men are free and equal citizens by natural right and by virtue of their common filiation from the eternal Logos, regardless of those accidental differences of social or economic stratum, or national or ethnic ancestry, that divide them from their brothers, and pit man against man, here below. As a son of the universal Logos and King, every man of reason and virtue is by rank a prince. In Boethius’ Christian-Stoic formulation, “The whole race of men on this earth springs from one stock. There is one Father of all things….Thus, all men come from noble origin. Why, then, boast of your ancestors? If you consider your beginning, no one is base unless he deserts his birthright…” (Consolatio III, meter 6)

This is so gloriously humanistic and egalitarian an ideal that one suspects that only the mention of God has prevented modern Marxists, pacifists, and Beatles’-era “imaginers” from appropriating it. Which they did, of course, except that they obtusely “imagined” that it could be translated to, and realized in, the fallen City of Man. But even in this bowdlerized and diminished form, the vision of the Universal City has now been utterly rejected by the primitive multicultural ethos and identity politics of post-modernism. If it has survived anywhere, albeit barely, it is only in Christian tradition, where it has served for two millennia as the world’s single credible moral and intellectual check on those tribalistic and jingoistic instincts that are equally native to the human animal, at least in its accidental habitat within the historical world.

Whether or not “Zionism is racism” (in the crude and unhelpful sloganeering of Israel’s Arab enemies), it should at least be obvious that Semitism and anti-Semitism—racial solidarity and racial hatred—are two sides of the same debased coin. Pride illustrates the point just as convincingly as prejudice. When Jews (or members of any other group) take “pride” in the history of accomplishments of their countrymen, they are proud of accomplishments of which they have no right to be, having had absolutely nothing to do with them. The collective has merely appropriated the achievements of one of its “members” and redistributed them to the membership at large. Such “pride” comes from the theft of an individual’s personality. Whether one identifies oneself with the group out of solidarity and pride, or one is so identified by others out of racial prejudice and contempt, the effect is the same: one’s human individuality is obliterated.

As Simone Weil has remarked, God is capable of incarnating in a man, a stone, or a loaf of bread, but not a people. Defining oneself as a member of the group drives out God just as surely as it drives under the individual personality. For Weil, even the social milieu in which the adherents of institutional religions ordinarily commune is inhospitable to the Divine. The group exerts such a powerful gravitational force that not even God’s love for the soul can wrest it free of its comforting embrace.

How is it, then, that the Jews have failed to see that ethnic nationalism and ancestral pride have confined them to the narrowest cell in the historical prison? How has the fundamental truth so escaped the attention of Jewish philosophers and theologians, that man in his essence is neither an Athenian nor a Roman nor an Israelite, but a subject of God and a citizen of the world; and that it is upon his detachment from those petty provincial allegiances that his peace, happiness, and salvation depend? Everything that binds a man to his particular nation or tribe fosters what is primitive, inessential, and unnatural within him, and diminishes the innate divinity that makes him most completely and individually a human person.