Books Do Furnish a Room...

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By:Thomas Fleming | February 23, 2012

 

A commenter on my Daily Mail Blog asked me a few questions about "modern" verse, specifically what I thought of Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot.  A political blog with a shelf-life of three days is no place to discuss "the permanent things" (to borrow a famous phrase from Eliot himself), and I have been feeling vaguely guilty about abandoning this website for the bright lights of a London newspaper whose readers seem less than thrilled by my observations.

What I do not have time for, I realize, are lengthy introductions and expositions of important books.  On the other hand, I think I can go back to my original concept, which was to share with friends, colleagues, and readers at least the titles of what I am reading and give perhaps a brief sketch of why a book may be or may not be worth reading.  In the course of this, I shall introduce very soon a discussion of some of my favorite 20th century poets.

I am  seeking guidance on how to arrange this.  My initial thought is to start a thread on a book or set of books, adding to it in the course of a week or so, before posting a new column  on a new topic.  If there is a better way, I am open to suggestions.  ust to kick this off, I am going to list some books I have been reading.

For entertainment, I have read the first two Andrea Camilleri novels about Comissario Montalbano, La Forma dell' Acqua and Il Cane di Terracotta.  I enjoyed both thoroughly, and they are teaching me some of Camilleri's rather fanciful version of the Sicilian dialect.  Montalbano is a great character.  He has a keen mind, informed by voracious reading and an athletic body formed by voracious eating of Sicilian delicacies and disciplined by swimming.  He is extremely duplicitious and mendacious with people he does not respect and yet hates telling even a white lie to his questore.

A good friend of mine observed, in recommending these books (and the television series) that Camilleri's plotting is somewhat muddled.  My own view is that the problem is that he wrote too much for TV, with the result that he thinks too much in terms of scenes and episodes.  In later novels, some of which I have seen on television--though I had to buy the DVDs, because I have no television service--or read in English, he has a tighter grip.  His blurry approach is very much on display in the Terracotta Dog, which has two current plot lines about crime and one going back to WW II.

As hard as the Italian originals are, because of the dialect, I enjoy them more than the translations, partly because the fading in and out of Sicilian offers infinite complexities of tone and register.  Nonetheless, I did read one in English and it was wonderful.  Start with the first.

In preparation for our Summer School and The Age of Constantine, I have been rereading A.H.M. Jones' monumental two volumes on The Later Roman Empire.  Like many monuments, TLRE is solid but dull, and his lack of sympathy with Christianity makes him a bit tone deaf from time to time.  Still, it is a great introduction not to the narrative history but to the administration--civil and military--economy,  institutions of the later empire.

More useful to me is H.A. Drake's Constantine and the Bishops.  Drake has a number of interrelated theses.  Historians have gone off base in analyzing Constantine because, for example, they are convinced that Christianity is essentially intolerant, thus where Constantine shows forbearance to pagans, it means he is either a hypocrite or under constraints.  What Drake attempts to show and does to some extent is that Constantine was always in search of consensus:  first a consensus with pagans on monotheism and second, a consensus within the Church.    In this scenario, moderates and acommodators win, zealots, fanatics, and intransigents lose.  The Arians lose when they refuse to back down at Nicaea, but Athanasius loses when he first persecutes the Meletians and then refuses to reinstate Arius.

Along these lines I have been looking at the pagan side--Philostratus' Life of the miracle-worker Apollonius of Tyana and Eunapius' Lives of the Sophists.  On a deeper level, I have returned to Plotinus and reread Pierre Hadot's fine book on Plotinus.  I am beginning to frame an hypothesis about Plotinus and Porphyry in relation to Christianity but will postpone discussion till later, except to say that I do not agree at all with historians who have tried to blame Porphyry for egging on Diocletian's persecution.  I think they--particularly Jeremy Schott--fundamentally do not understand the decency, honesty, and kindness of these saintly pagans.  I do however believe that a careful scrutiny of the legend of Apollonius, the fragments of Porphyry, the responses of  Eusebius and Lactantius to his anti-Christian arguments might lead us to an understanding of why so many intelligent pagans rejected Christianity, why their opposition--reformulated as the perennial wisdom--has always attracted idealistic men, whom it corrupted.

Enough

I'll be returning to Plato to finish off the discussion that was inspired by a study of the 7th Letter.

The Age of Constantine is a very controversial period, mostly because it is ground over which Christians and anti-Christians have fought but also more traditional catholic Christians (lower c intended) and the revolutionaries who sincerely believe that we can restore the Church of Peter and Paul. That this woulld be something like the Shakers does not appear to disturb adherents to this way of thinking.

In crude terms, the argument goes something like this. The Church corrupted by its embrace of the Roman Empire and/or the Empire was corrupted by the Church. Constantine set the pattern both for the East's Caesaro-Papism and for the Western Church's arrogation of political power via the fictitious Donation of Constantine by which the Pope received the power to govern Italy. Since Constantine was an ambitious political leader and perhaps usurping tyrant, this means he had to be cynical, feigning conversion in order to gain the adherence of Christians, who were increasingly important because paganism was failing, etc etc. Others see Constantine as a religious bigot whose kicked off the persecution of pagans.

Traditional catholic Christians--which includes Lutherans and Calvinists who do not rebel against the traditions of the early Church--sometimes see Constantine as a saint, a sincere Christian who has been misunderstood. As I understand it, this is the position taken by Peter Leithart, whose work I have not read but in extracts and summaries strikes me as too partisan, though I could be doing him a disservice. I'd be very interested in Robert Peters' view of Leithart and on his recommendation I would happily read the book. The very title, however, gives off a whiff of apologetics.

Speaking personally, my dislike of Constantine derives from, first, the monstrous statue in Rome, and second, from the tone of his letters and edicts. I am reminded of rich Americans who fund conservative think tanks and think because they have money they also have sense. In principled arguments, they are forever seeking compromises that wiser heads know are impossible. I have no such people on my board, but I have considerable experience with them. Imagine a debate in biology over inheritance of acquired characteristics. The Leader does not have to be Stalin, who favored Lysenko's absurdly wrong theory, but imagine a Brezhnev or Gorbachev calling for mutual respect and toleration.

On the other hand, Constantine was not entirely wrong to regard himself as a man chosen by God to save the Empire and promote the full truth taught by Christianity and the partial truths taught by pagan monotheists. If he was arrogant in his pretension to theological knowledge and ecclesiastical authority, how much more arrogant are modern theologians who reject his work out of hand and who would craft and alternate history for the Church. The mainstream of Christianity BEFORE Constantine had pronounced against the rigorists of every school. Those who fully understood the significance of the Incarnation did not demand a life of absolute self-denial or martyrdom from the poor frail mothers and fathers and children who make up the Church. Whereas, Montanists, Novatianists, Donatists, Pelagians in different ways demanded a perfection that we should be ever seeking but can hardly expect to attain. When a consensus of bishops opposed them, these authors of choices, that is, heresiarchs and heretics, rejected all authority but their own self-important judgment. Such people are with us today, and it is with some relief that I realize that St. Peter was no ultra-Calvinist.

 

 

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