Sunday, May 29, 2016

Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed


Opening Passage:

That branch of the lake of Como which extends southwards between two unbroken chains of mountains, and is all gulfs and bays as the mountains advance and recede, narrows down at one point, between a promontory on one side and a wide shore on the other, into the form of a river; and the bridge which lines the two banks seems to emphasize this transformation even more, and to mark the point at which the lake ends and the Adda begins, only to become a lake once more where the banks draw farther apart again, letting the water broaden out and expand into new creeks and bays. (p. 7)

Summary: The Betrothed takes place in the Duchy of Milan (and parts in the Republic of Venice) in 1628 and the following years. It is a time of war as the great powers of Europe use northern Italy as a chessboard in their power struggles. It is also a time of thuggery, as local nobles hired bravi to be guards, enforcers, and assassins. Amidst it all, Renzo and Lucia are two young people intending on marriage; but their parish priest, Don Abbondio, a timid man, has been threatened by Don Rodrigo's bravi if he marries them. Don Rodrigo has set his eye on Lucia. They eventually have to flee.

Lucia and her mother Agnese end up arranging to hide Lucia in the convent under the protection of Gertrude; since Gertrude is a princess from an important family, even if Don Rodrigo discovered Lucia's location, it would make him hesitate to move against her. Renzo ends up in Milan at exactly the wrong time; the city is undergoing bread riots due to price controls. (One of the interesting things about the book is how much it is about economics, and, in particular, the ills caused by centralized economic planning.) He ends up in the middle of one of the riots and by naivete manages to get blamed for the whole thing. He is forced to flee to his cousin in Bergamo, in Venetian territory.

Don Rodrigo in the meantime makes an appeal to a local warlord, referred to in the text only as l'Innominato, the Unnamed. Through the latter's intervention, Gertrude is blackmailed and Lucia is kidnapped. Despite the way it seems, this ends up being the beginning of the reversal of the misfortunes of Renzo and Lucia. There are still more troubles ahead, but the arrival of Federigo Borromeo, the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, in the village nearby will begin the chain of events that eventually leads to the triumph of Lucia and Renzo.

This is very much a character-focused book. The plot is deliberately episodic in the style of (say) Sir Walter Scott, in which events meander here and there but we learn a lot about our main characters. The book also has quite a few digressions in which we learn about minor characters. I don't think there's any named character for whom we do not get at least some background. Because of this, the characters are all very vivid and distinctive. As with any Scott-style narrative, events move quickly, and despite the digressions don't ever bog you down.

The sheer variety of means and devices that Manzoni uses to tell his story, and uses well, is extraordinary. The most famous passage of the book, for instance, is the Addio ai monti at the end of Chapter 8, which opens:

Farewell, mountains springing from waters and rising to the sky; rugged peaks, failiar to any man who has grown up in your midst, and impressed upon his mind as clearly as the features of his nearest and dearest; torrents whose varying tones he can pick out as easily as the voices of his family; villages scattered white over the slopes, like herds of grazing sheep; farewell! How sadly steps he who was reared among you, as he draws away!...

Or in the Italian:

Addio, monti sorgenti dall'acque, ed elevati al cielo cime inuguali, note a chi è cresciuto tra voi, e impresse nella sua mente, non meno che l'aspetto de' suoi più familiari; torrenti, de' quali distingue lo scroscio, come il suono delle voci domestiche; ville sparse e biancheggianti sul pendìo, come branchi di pecore pascenti; addio! Quanto è tristo il passo di chi, cresciuto tra voi, se ne allontana!...

Most of the book is not in this high-toned poetic prose, but its place here, at this moment in the story, takes an already excellent bit of writing and gives it great power. Manzoni uses many other devices to tell his story. The novel has a framing device -- the narrator claims to be modernizing an old chronicle -- and comments on it throughout the work. There are historical discursions and footnotes. There are ironic comments about human nature and earnest sermons. There are close, intense descriptions and descriptions that are purely suggestive. There are characters that are treated in idealized terms and characters that are comic relief. There are many interwoven themes. The prose swoops high and then low again. This is a virtuoso work, in terms of the techniques of writing.

To make your day even more awesome, here is the Italian group Oblivion giving their comic performance of "I Promessi Sposi in Dieci Minuti" (The Betrothed in Ten Minutes):

Some of the events represented:

0:20 The opening of the book
0:57 Don Rodrigo's bravi intimidate Don Abbondio
2:32 Renzo arrives to finish up the arrangements for the marriage
3:36 Renzo and Lucia discuss what to do
6:16 Renzo gets involved in the Milanese riots
6:45 Gertrude's story
7:11 Lucia is kidnapped
7:32 Lucia vows to give up marriage if the Virgin will save her
7:34 Lucia meets the Unnamed
8:06 Federico Borromeo enters the story
8:29 The plague begins
9:20 Renzo and Lucia meet up again

Favorite Passage:

As soon as she was alone with her mother she told her all about it; but Agnese, with her greater experience, solved all her doubts, and cleared up the whole mystery in a few words.

'Don't be surprised,' said she. 'When you've known the world as long as I have, you'll realize these things aren't to be wondered at. All the gentry are a bit crazy. The best thing to do is to let 'em talk as they want, particularly if one needs them. Just look as if you're listening to them seriously, as if they were talking sense. You heard how she shouted at me, as if I'd said something silly? I didn't let it bother me. They're all like that....' (p. 170)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended; this is an excellent book.

Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed, Colquhoun, tr., Everyman's Library (New York: 2013).

Maronite Year L

In the Season of Pentecost under the current Maronite calendar, there are two alternating weeks A and B; every week A has the same liturgy and every week B has the same liturgy, with only the readings changing. (Of course, in the Maronite Qurbono, the anaphora also changes, since they have so many, but this is according to the preferences of the priest.) Week A is organized thematically:

Sunday: Resurrection
Monday: Angels
Tuesday: Righteous and Just, and Confessors
Wednesday: Virgin Mary
Thursday: Twelve Apostles
Friday: Martyrs
Saturday: Faithful Departed

These serve as the liturgies for commemorations throughout the year, so that, for instance, if a priest celebrates the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, he uses the Thursday of Week A of the Season of Pentecost. The Season of Pentecost, in other words, diffuses throughout the year.

The readings of the Season of Pentecost all emphasize the Holy Spirit and the mission of the Church. It used to be the case that they heavily emphasized the book of Revelation as a book about the Church, but the currently used cycle of readings draws heavily from Paul's letters to the Corinthians.

Third Sunday of Pentecost
1 Corinthians 2:1-10; John 14:21-27

Through the blessings of Your resurrection,
through this day, O Lord,
grant us times of peace,
grant us periods of tranquility.
May we praise Your name
with heavenly hosts,
giving You glory now and forever!

Not mere rhetoric but Christ crucified;
not philosophy,
but Christ crucified;
not brash confidence, but distrust of self,
not persuasive words
born of human minds,
but only God's power and God's wisdom.

Jesus is the Truth, the Way, and the Life;
none reach the Father
except through the Son;
who has seen the Son has seen the Father.
Who has faith in God
must have faith in Him,
and by sacraments they will do great things.

No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart thought
the things He has done;
praise the Lord of Lords,
for His lovingkindness endures always.
He has done wonders,
His love does not die,
and His great mercy endures forever.

To You, Christ, is glory due this Sunday,
and all of our lives,
for You descended,
and by Your descent You saved us from death.
By resurrection
You brought boundless joy,
enlightening all with Your salvation.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Love and Friendship

Novels and irony go together, in the sense that many of the literary techniques that work best with novels involve some kind of irony, namely, laying down a limit while also transcending it. This always creates some difficulty in adapting a novel to cinema, because cinema does not do irony very well. It's not that you can't have ironic cinema, but there are fewer ways to express it, because the irony of novels arises from suggesting; but in film, suggesting is easily lost in showing.

This problem is intensified when it comes to adapting an epistolary novel, because epistolary novels are even more suggestive in character than ordinary novels. In addition, an epistolary novel by its very structure is related to a dialogue, and dialogues do not easily translate into the spectacle required by cinema.

Thus an adaptation of Austen's epistolary Lady Susan, as Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship is, faces a very large number of problems at the outset. All in all, they are masterfully handled, though. One of the things Stillman certainly did right was to keep the pace fairly swift; the movie is only 91 minutes long. Stillman also makes excellent use of the snippet, that is, the brief scene letting us know something is happening without spending a lot of time dwelling on it, just allowing the snippets to interact by juxtaposition and contrast. Since much of the action of Lady Susan is either suggested or briefly described, this is almost certainly the best way to handle the problem.

Humor is more difficult. Austen's humor is very ironic and sometimes very dry and subtle, as well; there's no way to represent it adequately on the screen, which is why Austen adaptations always run the risk of being too serious. Stillman mostly cuts the Gordian knot with this problem; despite the fact that Stillman manages to be relatively faithful, a lot of the humor in the movie is Stillman's rather than Austen's, and it is inevitably less subtle, since we at times are simply told the punchline, which is then flagged by all the arts of cinema. (Cinema inevitably has more ways of directing our attention to something than any book could possibly have.) This is most obvious at the end of the movie. Austen can simply leave open a spectrum of possibilities; the movie has to show us something definite.

But the humor largely works as well. The Fourth/Fifth Commandment joke running throughout works surprisingly well, and does double duty as an example both of Lady Susan's manipulativeness and as a proof of her power to affect people. Sir James Martin's simpleness is almost absurdly exaggerated, but since everyone else mostly plays the humor straight, it's nice to have a contrast. A goof gets the laugh going, and that gives people a running start on chuckling at the witticisms. In essence, Austen's humor is being blended with British sketch comedy. And the result is, I think, the funniest Austen adaptation ever made.

The chief difficulty with adapting Lady Susan is that Lady Susan is actually quite malicious, and we can see it because we are getting her candid comments along with the reactions of other people. But this is easily lost, and inevitably much of it is lost here, because film, again, cannot so easily build a wall to hide something and then just give us clues about what's on the other side. We need Lady Susan's perspective here -- but we only get it on screen through pretty Kate Beckinsale sweetly saying things that we know would be shocking but which mostly come across as charming and funny -- as indeed they would have to, if Lady Susan actually said them.

But perhaps this works well in its own way; Lady Susan is a liar and manipulator, a villainess to the core, and yet in some fashion she shows up here as better -- certainly more competent and charming -- than many of the heroes and heroines Hollywood throws at us and somehow expects us to admire.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Tolstoy on Baumgarten's Trinity

So I saw Love and Friendship today, which was good; more on it at some point. But one of the minor scenes that Stillman adds is one of Frederica talking to the local curate. During the conversation, the curate mentions "the divine Baumgarten", which caught my ear. It's a curious twist in the conversation, which is about the commandment to honor one's parents. The curate summarizes Baumgarten's position as a trinity, and, he explains (more or less), "Beauty is the Perfect recognized through the senses; Truth is the Perfect perceived through reason; Goodness is the Perfect reached by moral will."

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten is in many ways the founder of modern aesthetics; it was he who first used the word 'aesthetica' to describe matters concerned with beauty (the word actually means 'matters concerned with the senses'). Baumgarten took aesthetics to be the art of thinking beautifully. The curate, however, is ahead of his time; he is actually closely paraphrasing Tolstoy writing some ninety years later in What is Art?. Tolstoy arguably doesn't get Baumgarten quite right; the idea that beauty is sensible apprehension of perfection is Wolffian, and Baumgarten, it can be argued, actually switches this up a bit, holding that beauty is the perfection of the apprehension itself (which may, of course, partly depend on perfection in the object). But Tolstoy also has an axe to grind; in great measure What is Art? is an attack on any high-flying metaphysics of beauty (he thinks that people talk a lot about beauty but give the terms they use no serious content). It is in this context that Tolstoy specifically talks about the "Trinity" of Baumgarten:

If a theory justifies the false position in which a certain part of a society is living, then, however unfounded or even obviously false the theory may be, it is accepted, and becomes an article of faith to that section of society....However unfounded such theories are, however contrary to all that is known and confessed by humanity, and however obviously immoral they may be, they are accepted with credulity, pass uncriticized, and are preached, perchance for centuries, until the conditions are destroyed which they served to justify, or until their absurdity has become too evident. To this class belongs this astonishing theory of the Baumgartenian Trinity, — Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, — according to which it appears that the very best that can be done by the art of nations after 1900 years of Christian teaching, is to choose as the ideal of their life the ideal that was held by a small, semi-savage, slave-holding people who lived 2000 years ago, who imitated the nude human body extremely well, and erected buildings pleasant to look at.

Tolstoy is not an admirer of the Classical and, unlike the curate, not an admirer of Baumgarten.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Rough Timeline of Northern Italy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

1494 First Italian War (1494-1498) begins as France under Charles VIII invades Italy at the urging of Ludovico Sforza of Milan

1495 Leonardo da Vinci's plans for the Gran Cavallo statue come to an end as the bronze instead is used to make Milanese weapons

1499 Second Italian War (1499-1504) begins as France under Louis XII seizes Milan

1503 Pope Julius II succeeds Pius III as Pope

1508 Pope Julius II forms the League of Cambrai (including the Papal States, France, Spain, and the Duchy of Ferrara) against the Republic of Venice, and the War of the League of Cambrai begins

1509 Battle of Agnadello: the Venetians receive a crushing defeat and only extricate themselves by intense diplomatic work

1510 Due to a quarrel with Louis XII, Pope Julius II changes sides in the War of the League of Cambrai and negotiates a deal with the Swiss cantons for military assistance

1511 Facing the prospect of defeat by France, Pope Julius II forms the Holy League

1512 Massimiliano Sforza becomes Duke of Milan; Fifth Lateran Council opens

1513 Due to a quarrel over division of loot, Venice switches sides in the War of the League of Cambrai and joins forces with France; Pope Julius II dies in February, leaving the Holy League without a clear leader, although it will later go on to win victories against France at Guinegate, Scotland at Flodden Field, and Venice at La Motta; Leo X becomes Pope; Macchiavelli publishes The Prince

1516 Leonardo da Vinci happens to meet Francis I of France after the Battle of Marignano and goes back with him to France, taking the Mona Lisa

1517 Fifth Lateran Council closes

1521 The Italian War of 1521 (1521-1526) begins, and Francesco Maria Sforza becomes Duke of Milan with the help of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor

1522 Adrian VI becomes Pope

1523 Clement VII becomes Pope

1525 Battle of Pavia: Charles V defeats the French and seizes control of northern Italy

1526 Pope Clement VII forms the League of Cognac (with England, Milan, Venice, Florence, and France) against the Holy Roman Empire, and the War of the League of Cognac begins

1527 Charles V sacks Rome

1529 The Treaty of Cambrai ends the War of the League of Cognac

1534 Paul III becomes Pope

1536 The death of Francesco Sforza without any clear inheritors sparks the Italian War of 1536 (1536-1538) between Spain (and the Holy Roman Empire) and France as each attempts to consolidate control over Milan

1537 An ecumenical council decreed by Pope Paul III to take place at Mantua has to be moved to Vicenza due to the Italian War; the Third Ottoman-Venetian War (1537-1540) begins

1538 St. Carlo Borromeo is born; the Truce of Nice, negotiated with difficulty by Pope Paul III, ends the Italian War

1539 Due to an inability to get sufficient participation, the ecumenical council at Vicenza is suspended indefinitely

1542 France and the Ottoman Empire begin the Italian War of 1542 (1542-1546) against the Holy Roman Empire in order to re-establish French influence over Milan

1545 Council of Trent opens at Trento

1547 The Council of Trent is transferred to Bologna; however, in fact, it is never opened there

1551 Henry II of France begins the Italian War of 1551 (1551-1559) against the Holy Roman Empire; Pope Julius III reopens the Council of Trent at Trento, but it will be suspended again the next year due to the political situation

1555 Paul IV becomes Pope

1558 Construction of the Lazzaretto of Milan begins

1559 Giovanni Angelo Medici, uncle of St. Carlo Borromeo, becomes Pope Pius IV; the Peace of Cateau Cambresis ends the Italian War

1561 St. Carlo Borromeo founds the Almo Collegio Borromeo in Pavia

1562 Pope Pius IV reopens the Council of Trent

1563 The Council of Trent closes

1564 St. Carlo Borromeo is appointed Archbishop of Milan by Pope Pius IV; Federico Borromeo, his cousin, is born

1566 Pope Pius IV dies; St. Pius V becomes Pope

1570 After years of raids and small conquests, the Ottoman Empire invades the Republic of Venice and the Fourth Ottoman-Venetian War (1570-1573) begins

1571 Pope St. Pius V organizes the Holy League, which defeats the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto

1575 Venice is struck by the plague

1576 Crop failures lead to famine in Milan; St. Carlo Borromeo goes into debt feeding thousands of starving Milanese

1577 Andrea Palladio begins building the church of Santissimo Redentore in Venice as a votive offering for deliverance from the plague

1584 St. Carlo Borromeo dies

1585 Sixtus V becomes Pope

1590 Urban VII becomes Pope and dies twelve days later; Gregory XIV becomes Pope

1591 Innocent IX becomes Pope and dies two months later

1592 Clement VIII becomes Pope

1595 Pope Clement VIII appoints Federico Borromeo Archbishop of Milan

1605 Leo XI becomes Pope and dies three weeks later; Paul V becomes Pope

1609 Federico Borromeo founds the Ambrosian Library in Milan

1610 Pope Paul V canonizes Carlo Borromeo; Galileo Galilei publishes the Sidereus Nuncius

1618 The Thirty Years' War begins

1621 Gregory XV becomes Pope

1623 Urban VIII becomes Pope

1627 A Milanese edict is passed that makes it illegal for priests to refuse to perform marriages where no legal impediment exists -- it is discovering this edict that will inspire the story of The Betrothed

1628 The events of The Betrothed begin; the War of the Mantuan Succession begins as rival claimants receive support from the opposing sides in the Thirty Years' War

1629 The Great Plague begins first in Mantua (due to foreign armies) but spreading to Milan by October; it is initially kept in check, but not eliminated, by careful procedures

1630 The Great Plague flares up in March, and spreads to Venice, where it will kill nearly a third of the population

1631 The Great Plague flares up yet again in Milan; the Venetians begin building the church of Santa Maria della Salute as a votive offering for deliverance from the plague; the Treaty of Cherasco ends the War of the Mantuan Succession; Federico Borromeo dies

1642 Galileo Galilei dies

1644 Innocent X becomes Pope

1645 The Fifth Ottoman-Venetian War (1645-1669) begins

1655 Alexander VII becomes Pope

1656 The Great Plague reaches Genoa and Naples

1667 Clement IX becomes Pope

1669 Clement X becomes Pope

1676 Bl. Innocent XI becomes Pope and begins an intensive reform of the Papal Curia

1684 Siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire; Pope Bl. Innocent XI organizes the Holy League against the Ottoman Empire, thus beginning the Great Turkish War, also known as the Sixth Ottoman-Venetian War (1684-1699), which will free Hungary from Ottoman rule

1685 Milan erects a statue of Federico Borromeo by the Ambrosian Library

1687 Il Sancarlone, a giant statue commemorating St. Carlo Borromeo, is erected in Arona, Italy

1689 Alexander VIII becomes Pope

1691 Innocent XII becomes Pope

1699 The Great Turkish War ends


A General, after gaining a great victory, was encamping with his army for the night. He ordered sentinels to be stationed all round the camp as usual. One of the sentinels, as he went to his station, grumbled to himself, and said, "Why could not the General let us have a quiet night's rest for once, after beating the enemy? I'm sure there's nothing to be afraid of."

The man then went to his station, and stood for some time looking about him. It was a bright summer's night, with a harvest moon, but he could see nothing anywhere: so he said, "I am terribly tired. I shall sleep for just five minutes, out of the moonlight, under the shadow of this tree." So he lay down.

Presently he started up, dreaming that some one had pushed a lantern before his eyes, and he found that the moon was shining brightly down on him through a hole in the branches of the tree above him. The next minute an arrow whizzed past his ear, and the whole field before him seemed alive with soldiers in darkgreen coats, who sprang up from the ground where they had been silently creeping onward, and rushed towards him.

Fortunately the arrow had missed him; so he shouted aloud to give the alarm, and ran back to some other sentinels. The army was thus saved; and the soldier said, "I shall never forget, as long as I live, that when one is at war one must watch."

Edwin Abbott Abbott, Parables for Children.

Maronite Year XLIX

Thursday of the Body of Christ
1 Corinthians 10:14-21; John 6:47-53

May your Body and blood, O Lord, sanctify,
making holy both the body and the soul,
cleansing all our thoughts, purifying our hearts,
preparing us for new life in Your kingdom.

Before Your life-giving passion, You took bread,
blessed it, sanctified it, broke it, and gave it,
as You were blessed, sanctified, broken, given,
for forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

You truly are the living bread from heaven
that those who believe may have eternal life,
Your flesh a manna that gives life forever,
for those who eat are made part of Your Body.

You blessed the cup of wine mixed with the water,
sanctified and gave it to your disciples,
as the blood shed and handed over for us,
for forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

You are our pleasing oblation, offered up,
the forgiving sacrifice to the Father;
unless we eat of Your flesh and drink Your blood,
no life do we have, for life comes from Your grace.

Our humanity with Your divinity,
Your divinity with our humanity,
are united, for You assumed our nature;
thus through You we have salvation for our souls.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


The Express Moral Principles of which I have spoken, as the basis of Duties, are those which express, in an imperative form, the five Cardinal Virtues: namely, the Principle of Humanity, that Man is to be loved as Man : the Principle of Justice, that Each Man is to have his own: the Principle of Truth, that We must conform to the universal Understanding which the use of Language among men implies: the Principle of Purity, that the Lower Parts of our nature are to be governed by the Higher: and the Principle of Order, that We must obey positive Laws as the necessary conditions of Morality. I have, in a former Lecture, spoken of the degree and kind of the evidence of the first of these Express Principles; and the like remarks might be made upon the others. They commend themselves to our assent, in proportion as our moral nature is cultivated and educed: they become evident to us when we think and feel as really moral creatures. The perception of them may be obscured by the influence of the ferine part of our nature ;—by savage rudeness, passion, partiality: but in proportion as the ferine element is subdued, and the human element brought out in its proper force, these Principles are accepted. When man judges as man and for man, he is enabled to see their full meaning; and with their meaning, their truth.

William Whewell, Lectures on Systematic Morality, Lecture V.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Music on My Mind

The Nicole Ensing Band, "The Mystery".

It is, of course, an adaptation of a poem by Chesterton. The original:

The Mystery
by G. K. Chesterton

If sunset clouds could grow on trees
It would but match the May in flower;
And skies be underneath the seas
No topsyturvier than a shower.

If mountains rose on wings to wander
They were no wilder than a cloud;
Yet all my praise is mean as slander,
Mean as these mean words spoken aloud.

And never more than now I know
That man's first heaven is far behind;
Unless the blazing seraph's blow
Has left him in the garden blind.

Witness, O Sun that blinds our eyes,
Unthinkable and unthankable King,
That though all other wonder dies
I wonder at not wondering.

Tender & Liberal Spirit

If I am vain of anything, it is of my eloquence. Consideration & Esteem as surely follow command of Language, as Admiration waits on Beauty. And here I have opportunity enough for the exercise of my Talent, as the cheif of my time is spent in Conversation. Reginald is never easy unless we are by ourselves, & when the weather is tolerable, we pace the shrubbery for hours together. I like him on the whole very well; he is clever & has a good deal to say, but he is sometimes impertinent & troublesome. There is a sort of ridiculous delicacy about him which requires the fullest explanation of whatever he may have heard to my disadvantage, & is never satisfied till he thinks he has ascertained the beginning & end of everything.

This is one sort of Love, but I confess it does not particularly recommend itself to me. I infinitely prefer the tender & liberal spirit of Manwaring, which, impressed with the deepest conviction of my merit, is satisfied that whatever I do must be right; & look with a degree of contempt on the inquisitive & doubtful Fancies of that Heart which seems always debating on the reasonableness of its Emotions.

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, Letter 16. It's not surprising, of course, that Lady Susan prefers it to be assumed that whatever she does is right; nor that reasonable restraint of the passions is the chief impediment to being manipulated by someone who tells a good story. I have mentioned before that Lady Susan reminds me of Milton's Satan or Tolkien's Saruman, with their treatment of language as a means of power rather than a service of truth; this is one of the letters in which the parallels become very clear on this point.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Saadia Gaon on Christology

An interesting passage from Saadia Gaon's Book of Beliefs and Opinions:

Now these advocates of the doctrine of the trinity, may God have mercy on thee, are divided into four sects, three of which are the older while the fourth appeared only recently. The first of these is of the opinion that the body, as well as the spirit of their Messiah, is derived from the Creator, exalted be He. The second holds the view that his body was created, his spirit alone having emanated from the Creator. The third, again, believes that both his body and his spirit were created, but that he also possessed another spirit that was derived from the Creator. As for the fourth group, it assigns to him the position of the prophets only, interpreting the sonship of which they make mention when they speak of him just as we interpret the Biblical expression: Israel is My first-born son (Exod. 4:22), which is merely an expression of esteem and high regard, or, as others interpret the meaning of the phrase: "Abraham, the friend of God."
[Saadia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Rosenblatt, tr. Yale University Press (New Haven: 1976) p. 109]

It's unclear whether and to what extent this is supposed to be a somewhat idealized classification -- the chronological remark in the first sentence suggests that it is intended to identify real groups, but the cleanness of the classification suggests that he might be partly just considering the logical possibilities. The second position seems to be Apollinarianism. I'm fairly sure that the third group is the Christology of the Church of the East -- it admits of both orthodox and Nestorian interpretation.

I don't know who would fall into the first and fourth groups, although the first position could be the kind of statement of Monophysitism that one might find in its critics. What is interesting about the fourth position is the comment that it is recent. Rosenblatt claims that Saadia means Muslims by the fourth group, which would account for the position. But Saadia clearly says he is talking about advocates of the doctrine of the Trinity (and reaffirms it at the end of the chapter), and it is impossible to imagine that Saadia, of all people, born in Egypt and writing in Baghdad in the tenth century, could possibly be ignorant of the Muslim rejection of the Trinity. Since Saadia is Jewish (albeit the greatest Jewish mind of the tenth century), one can allow for a bit of an outsider's perspective, so perhaps he is just approximating Christian positions he has only heard about. On the other hand, a look at the whole section in which Saadia criticizes Christian theology shows a clear familiarity with actual Christian arguments.

Saadia rejects the fourth position on the basis of arguments that Torah admits of no abrogation and that Christians have a false account of Messianic prophecy. (The latter is another reason to take him not to be discussing Muslims here.) Both of these arguments would apply to all the groups of Christians, of course. The first he argues against on the basis of the fact that a creature cannot be a portion or natural emanation of the Creator. With regard to the third, he argues that creatures cannot become God merely by association with the divine. And all of these arguments would apply against the second group.

One of the interesting things is the analogy he attributes later in the chapter to the third group (the fact that he is so much more precise about the third group is another reason to think that he explicitly has in mind the Church of the East): "They cite as an analogy the descent of the glory of God on Mount Sinai and its appearance in the Burning Bush and the Tent of Meeting." It's unlikely that the Assyrian Christians were actually arguing for the Incarnation on the basis of such an analogy (although Saadia does seem to take them to be doing so), but it's possible that it was brought up in arguments for clarification purposes, or may be the kind of imagery associated with the Incarnation in the liturgy and devotional life of Assyrian Christians in Saadia's day.