Archives For Roman History

When the Angel is a Demon

October 26, 2017 — 9 Comments

devil tatoo

Not every supernatural being claiming to be an angel really is.

C.S. Lewis’ most familiar discussion of fallen angels (also refered to as demons) appears in The Screwtape Letters. In the preface, he describes the equally disastrous errors people can fall into when pondering the occult.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

In a separate discussion, Lewis acknowledges the different opinions Christians can have on the subject, and he notes that it is not a salvific concern.

No reference to the Devil or devils is included in any Christian Creeds, and it is quite possible to be a Christian without believing in them. I do believe such beings exist, but that is my own affair. Supposing there to be such beings, the degree to which humans were conscious of their presence would presumably vary very much.

I mean, the more a man was in the Devil’s power, the less he would be aware of it, on the principle that a man is still fairly sober as long as he knows he’s drunk. It is the people who are fully awake and trying hard to be good who would be most aware of the Devil . . .

Of course, they don’t want you to believe in the Devil. If devils exist, their first aim is to give you an anaesthetic—to put you off your guard. Only if that fails, do you become aware of them. (“Answers to Questions on Christianity”)

I have mentioned in the past one of my seminary professors who served in Madagascar as a medical missionary. He had since become a successful psychiatrist. When he left for Africa, he did not believe in the existence of demons.

A final observation about demons, or devils as he typically refers to them: they act in a manner opposite to God. In That Hideous Strength, he includes the observation that, “In fighting those who serve devils one always has this on one’s side; their Masters hate them as much as they hate us.”

This echoes a truthful dialectic.

God loves everyone, even those who hate him. While Lucifer hates everyone, even those who love him.

An Ancient Illustration

I’ve been reading recently wisdom from the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They left ancient Roman cities to pursue spiritual growth as hermits and monks beginning in the middle of the third century.

The history of Christian monasticism is fascinating. All the way up to our own day, male and female monastics of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions have pursued holiness by this particular path.

A common occurrence for desert monks involved waging spiritual warfare of a more intense nature than most of us ever experience. I particularly enjoyed the following encounter (which reminded me of Martin Luther’s advice about ridiculing Satan and his minions). The following episode comes from an ancient collection of Desert sayings.

“The devil appeared to a monk disguised as an angel of light, and said to him, ‘I am the angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to you.’ But the monk said, ‘Are you sure you weren’t sent to someone else? I am not worthy to have an angel sent to me.’ At that the devil vanished.”

Good riddance, C.S. Lewis and I would agree.


The image above is of a tattoo whose “wearer” will one day experience great remorse.

The Urgent Need for Chivalry

September 13, 2016 — 13 Comments

chivalryWith all the nations of the world engaged in power struggles—or cowering behind the protection of their more courageous allies—C.S. Lewis’ essay on “The Necessity of Chivalry” demands our attention.

Yes, the very word “chivalry” reeks of a bygone era that has been superseded and relegated to history books. But those who consider the concept outdated impoverish their lives and quite possibly contribute to the violent spirit of our age.

Warfare is not an abstract concept to the millions—yes, millions—of people who are surrounded by vicious threats every hour. Britain itself was in this position when Lewis penned these words during the Battle of Britain.

As he wrote, three days before Winston Churchill’s most famous speech, Lewis commended those same few to whom so many owed so much. It was 1940, and Germany’s advance had yet to be halted. Ultimate victory in the world conflagration would remain uncertain for years.

It is in this milieu, but not only for this context, that Lewis challenges us to combine the chivalrous values of meekness and ferocity.

Lewis argues that in the chivalrous “knight,” true humility and the capacity for great (but moral) violence are merged. The result is not a schizophrenic warrior, but a noble defender of what is good.

Indeed, even apart from wartime, it is vital that society has heroes to protect sheep from wolves. In a moment I will share with you a brief video featuring an amazing artistic rendering of this essay on chivalry.*

In the essay, Lewis’ examples span Western history. He uses Launcelot as the archetype of the chivalrous man. And he offers the hope and evidence that chivalry is not extinct. A veteran of the previous war, he wrote at the outset of the Second World War:

Launcelot is not yet irrecoverable. To some of us this war brought a glorious surprise in the discovery that after twenty years of cynicism and cocktails the heroic virtues were still unimpaired in the younger generation and ready for exercise the moment they were called upon. Yet with this “sternness” there is much “meekness;” from all I hear, the young pilots in the R.A.F. (to whom we owe our life from hour to hour) are not less, but more, urbane and modest than the 1915 model. (“The Necessity of Chivalry”)

And accordingly, in our own day there are many serving in uniform who exemplify the same virtues. Would, though, that all who bear arms could be described thusly.

Some who are reading these words may regard chivalry as a “sexist” concept. It is not. Certainly no more than courage, strength and virtue could be deemed such. The fact that Lewis’ historical examples of society’s defenders are men simply reflects history.

In the seventy-five years since he wrote, it has become evident that women too can easily embody both meekness and unyielding courage. One need look no further than the ranks of the military and law enforcement to see this borne out.

Chivalry for the Civilian

It would be a tragic mistake to think that chivalry is only required during war. It is a vital, daily necessity of all social life. And the increasing incivility of the world suggests its erosion. (Many attribute this in part to the anonymity of the internet, which allows bullies to savage others anonymously and without mercy.)

This is what Lewis was saying when he described Launcelot as being “not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.”

After all, it is not the bland or “lukewarm” person who makes this world a better place. It is upon chivalrous men and women that the majority of the vulnerable must ever rely.

Each of us needs to be willing to examine our own lives for the union of these two traits: courage that does not surrender to what is wrong, and meekness that is gentle, calm and patient with others.

These are the values that we need to promote in our communities, media and schools. Because what we instill in receptive minds is precisely that which will take root. To use more contemporary terms, the “programming” these young minds are subject to will directly influence the behaviors that they “output.”

Let us do all we are capable of, to be, and to raise up, what is chivalrous. After all, despite all of the utopian promises of those who believe humanity is capable of purifying itself, the evidence shows otherwise. As Lewis said,

There was, to be sure, a rumour in the last century that wolves would gradually become extinct by some natural process; but this seems to have been an exaggeration.

Enjoy this fine presentation of  “The Necessity of Chivalry.”

_____

* This video is a creation of CSLewisDoodle, about which I have written before. (Their name may sound quaint, but the expertise with which they visualize Lewis’ words is astounding.)

A Mastery of Words

December 22, 2015 — 8 Comments

ben franklinOh the curse of so many fascinating things to read . . . and so little time. The following pieces of wisdom come from a free volume, The World’s Famous Orations, by William Jennings Bryan.*

Bryan (1860-1925) was one of the most prominent American orators and politicians. In his study of rhetoric he collected a wide range of speeches given throughout Western history.

The collection is fascinating. It includes moments from well known historical events and from obscure yet intriguing occasions. For example, you can hear the words of Hannibal spoken to his army after its successful crossing of the Alps, or the republican speech offered by the falsely condemned Algernon Sidney from the scaffold.**

Public speaking used to be a cornerstone of education. In colleges today, “speech” is often merely an elective.

C.S. Lewis relates a funny story about one of his first experiences speaking in a formal setting. The occasion was the annual Encaenia at Oxford University, which commemorated founders and benefactors. Honorary degrees were given and excerpts from prize compositions were recited.

Lewis wrote to his father about the event. “I had almost forgotten, if I had ever known, that ‘prizemen’ have to read portions of their compositions at our ceremony of the Encaenia.”

After the honorary degrees [one of which was received by Georges Clemenceau], the Professor of Poetry made an ‘oration’ in Latin, chiefly about colleagues who had died during the last year: this was my first experience of spoken Latin and I was pleased to find that I could follow and enjoy it. The performance of us prizemen was of course very small beer after all this. We had been instructed to read for about two minutes each: I had some difficulty in finding a short passage which would be intelligible by itself. I was, of course, nervous: I am also told that I was the first of our little band whom Clemenceau looked at: but as I do not know with what expression he looked, nor whether he speaks English, we must remain in doubt whether this was a compliment or not.

I have had a good lesson in modesty from thus seeing my fellow prize men. I was hardly prepared for such a collection of scrubby, beetle-like, bespectacled oddities: only one of them appeared to be a gentleman. Any I spoke to sounded very like fools, perhaps like Goldsmith, they ‘writ like an angel and talked like poor Poll’. 76 It brings home to one how very little I know of Oxford: I am apt to regard my own set, which consists mainly of literary gents, with a smattering of political, musical and philosophical–as being central, normal, and representative. But step out of it, into the athletes on one side or the pale pot hunters**** on the other, and it is a strange planet.

The World’s Famous Orations combines a number of separate volumes that run from classical Greece and Rome, on through most of the European nations, including their “colonies” in the Western Hemisphere. President Teddy Roosevelt is the final orator whose words are included.

I invite you to sample some of the rich banquet included in this volume. The speeches themselves are fairly short, and these excerpts the more so. Mere teasers. If you perchance become bored, skip to the final passage—Benjamin Franklin provides his fellow Americans a warning that we sadly failed to heed.

Socrates (470-399 BC) upon being condemned wittily insults his judges.

For the sake of no long space of time, O Athenians, you will incur the character and reproach at the hands of those who wish to defame the city, of having put that wise man, Socrates, to death. For those who wish to defame you will assert that I am wise, though I am not. If, then, you had waited for a short time, this would have happened of its own accord; for observe my age, that it is far advanced in life, and near death. . . .

But if, on the other hand, death is a removal from hence to another place, and what is said be true, that all the dead are there, what greater blessing can there be than this, my judges? For if, on arriving at Hades, released from these who pretend to be judges, one shall find those who are true judges, and who are said to judge there. . . . At what price would you not estimate a conference with Orpheus and Musæus, Hesiod and Homer? I indeed should be willing to die often, if this be true. For to me the sojourn there would be admirable, when I should meet with Palamedes, and Ajax son of Telamon, and any other of the ancients who has died by an unjust sentence.

The comparing my sufferings with theirs would, I think, be no unpleasing occupation. But the greatest pleasure would be to spend my time in questioning and examining the people there as I have done those here, and discovering who among them is wise, and who fancies himself to be so but is not.

“Enough with the insults, philosopher; drink the hemlock.”

Seneca (the Younger, 4 BC-AD 65) before being ordered to commit suicide by Nero, whom he had tutored.

This is the fourteenth year, Cæsar, since I was summoned to train you for your high destiny; and the eighth since your advancement to the empire. During the intervening period, you have showered such honors and riches upon me, that nothing is wanting to complete my felicity but the capacity to use them with moderation. . . .

But both of us have now filled up our measure— you, of all that the bounty of a prince could confer upon his friend; I, of all that a friend could accept from the bounty of his prince. Every addition can only furnish fresh materials for envy; which, indeed, like all other earthly things, lies prostrate beneath your towering greatness, but weighs heavily on me. I require assistance. Thus, in the same manner as, were I weary and faint with the toils of a warfare or a journey, I should implore indulgence; so in this journey of life, old as I am, and unequal even to the lightest cares, since I am unable longer to sustain the weight of my own riches, I seek protection.

Order your own stewards to undertake the direction of my fortune, and to annex it to your own; nor shall I by this plunge myself into poverty, but having surrendered those things by whose splendor I am exposed to the assaults of envy, all the time which is set apart for the care of gardens and villas, I shall apply once more to the cultivation of my mind.

“Did you forget, noble tutor, that I Nero am insane enough to demand both your wealth and your life?”

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) at his execution, following his renunciation of a forced recantation. (Yes, that sounds confusing, but under duress he had bent to the will of bloody Queen Mary.)

And now I come to the great thing which so much troubleth my conscience, more than anything that ever I did or said in my whole life, and that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to the truth—which now I here renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life if it might be—and that is, all such bills and papers which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation, wherein I have written many things untrue.

And forasmuch as my hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for when I come to the fire, it shall be first burned.

“Darn that troublesome archbishop! That wasn’t the speech we approved in advance for him to give.”

Maximilien François Marie Isidore Robespierre (1758-94) denying King Louis was entitled to a trial.

Louis was king and the Republic is founded; the great question which occupies you is decided by these words alone. Louis has been dethroned for his crimes; Louis denounced the French people as rebels; to chastise them he has invoked the arms of his brother tyrants. Victory and the people have decided that he was the rebel: hence Louis can not be judged; he is judged already. He is condemned, or the Republic is not absolved.

To propose a trial for Louis XVI. in any way whatever is to retrograde toward royal and constitutional despotism; it is a counter-revolutionary idea, for it is putting the revolution itself on trial.

“We’ll see how you feel about allowing trials for tyrants two years into your reign of terror, when we take you to the guillotine.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) warns about the dangers of providing salaries to bureaucrats.

I think I see inconveniences in the appointment of salaries [for those in the Executive Branch]; I see none in refusing them, but, on the contrary, great advantages.

Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice—the love of power and the love of money. Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but, when united in view of the same object, they have, in many minds, the most violent effects.

Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor, that shall, at the same time, be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.

The vast number of such places it is that renders the British government so tempestuous. The struggles for them are the true source of all those factions which are perpetually dividing the nation, distracting its councils, hurrying it sometimes into fruitless and mischievous wars, and often compelling a submission to dishonorable terms of peace.

And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable preeminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust.

It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will thrust themselves into your government and be your rulers.

“Oh that we had listened to your sage counsel. Now we are reaping what we have sown in our political machinations.”

_____

* You can download a personal copy of the book in a variety of versions here.

** Algernon Sidney (1622-83) fought honorably for the republican cause in the English Civil War. The fact that he opposed the execution of Charles I did not deliver him from the vengeance of the hedonist Charles II.

*** Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) was the French prime minister who helped set the stage for World War II by demanding excessive concessions with Germany during the Versailles peace talks.

**** A “pothunter” is someone who hunts game without a concern for rules of sport. Lewis is likely applying it here in the sense of a person who participates in competitions primarily with the goal of accumulating prizes.

Who is Your Muse?

August 8, 2015 — 18 Comments

reposeWhich Muse provides your inspiration? Poetry, history, music, dance, epic?

I’ve always been fascinated by the Greek & Roman concept of the Muse. While I don’t regard these personifications as true “beings,” they provide wonderful insight into the multifaceted nature of inspiration.

The Muses were personifications (representations of abstract concepts in human form). It’s not the same thing as believing in a “god,” although devotional exercises could be offered in “their” honor. (The simple people, in fact, may have regarded them as minor deities.)

The number of Muses—who represented the arts and fields of knowledge—varied in the ancient world. However, nine constituted the final Roman tabulation.

Possessing a historical nature, my “matron” Muse would necessarily be Clio (History).

Sadly, I’ve learned Muses don’t always fulfill their promises. At my suggestion, my wife agreed to name our puppy Calli, abbreviated from Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. Unfortunately, at ten months her raucous barking sounds anything but poetic.

In his biography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, C.S. Lewis includes an interesting reference to Muses. It relates to one of their secondary qualities, civility. In the following passage, Lewis had been sent to the Headmaster of his school for review due to “bad work” (i.e. inadequate academic performance).

The Headmaster misunderstood Smewgy’s report and thought there had been some complaint about my manners. Afterward Smewgy got wind of the Head’s actual words and at once corrected the mistake, drawing me aside and saying, “There has been some curious misunderstanding. I said nothing of the sort about you. You will have to be whipped if you don’t do better at your Greek Grammar next week, but naturally that has nothing to do with your manners or mine.”

The idea that the tone of conversation between one gentleman and another should be altered by a flogging (any more than by a duel) was ridiculous. His manner was perfect: no familiarity, no hostility, no threadbare humor; mutual respect; decorum. “Never let us live with amousia” was one of his favorite maxims: amousia, the absence of the Muses. And he knew, as Spenser knew, that courtesy was of the Muses.

For Lewis’ instructor, the concept of the Muse meant more than simply inspiring some form of art or literature. The influence of the Muses flowed into the broader culture. In a sense, it reflected the distinction the Greeks held between themselves and the barbarians. Surely the uncivilized savages had no Muses of their own!

Sources of Inspiration

It isn’t uncommon today for people to use muse (lower case) as a shorthand for a person who inspires them. Pablo Picasso, for example, considered his favorite model (and mistress) to be his muse. The portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter above, entitled “Repose,” surely conveys the profound vision she provided him.

In cinema, there was the 1999 movie aptly named The Muse, which posits a deflated screenwriter seeking the aid of the supposed “daughter of Zeus.”

Speaking of Christians . . . they too identify a source for their inspiration. In addition to other human beings, who may offer wisdom, insight or encouragement, the preeminent source of inspiration is the Holy Spirit.

There is a danger in considering God himself to be the source of one’s inspiration. When taken to an extreme, it results in God being blamed for a lot of maudlin prose and gross violations of grammar.

Fortunately, few Christians believe their own writing is infallible. That divine quality is reserved for the Scriptures themselves.

Editors at Christian publishing houses would probably argue with my statement that few Christian authors are so presumptuous as to claim God “breathed” into them every word found in their manuscripts.

So, who is your Muse? When I said Clio is mine, it is because History—the story of humanity and especially God’s hand in it—fascinates me more intensely than any other subject. For you, it could be music or poetry.

Even astronomy has its own Muse, Urania. And, gazing at the boundless heavens God spoke into existence, it is no wonder that many would find their inspiration there.

A Classical Lewisian Poem

C.S. Lewis wrote a number of poems that are satires of Greek and Roman poetry. Some of them are quite witty.

For those interested in reading one such poem, I am pleased to offer “A Cliche Came Out of Its Cage.” In C.S. Lewis: Fantasist, Mythmaker, and Poet, Bruce Edwards describes it as “a sharp attack upon moderns who believe they are heralds of a return to the ‘golden age’ of paganism.” Included in his critique are F.R. Leavis and Bertrand Russell whose philosophy he rejected.

A Cliche Came Out of Its Cage

You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism.’
Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And [F.R.] Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers,
heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it. By the hearth the white-armed venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. At the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.

Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last Defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

_____

You can read about my true Muse here.

 

Avoiding Gadzookeries

August 25, 2014 — 8 Comments

gadzookeryWriting quality historical fiction is challenging. This is especially true if one wishes to avoid the common crutch that a talented writer of the last century first labeled “gadzookery.”

And just what is this faux pas we should avoid when writing about the past? Well, it relates most directly to the dialog placed on the lips of historical figures. The offensive technique involves the overuse of archaic expressions or phrases. (Some would argue it includes any use of any archaisms.)

If the word gadzookery sounds a tad, how shall I put it, “goofy” to you, you may prefer using another word that means the same thing: “tushery.” Tushery was coined by Robert Louis Stevenson. Way back in the nineteenth century.

Gadzookery is a newer version, insulting the same lazy writing technique. I believe it may have been coined by Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992). Sutcliff’s historical influence has exerted a literary influence on my life second only to C.S. Lewis.*

The article about Sutcliff in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature praises her work, saying, “She carefully creates dialogue in her novels that recollects the speech of a bygone era without falling into what she termed ‘gadzookery.’”

Having tested the waters of historical fiction myself, I know this to be far more difficult that it may sound.

Sutcliff had several things in common with C.S. Lewis. Both wrote for adults and for children. (It was her young adult series about the decline of Roman influence in Britain that sparked my own lifelong interest in Rome.)

Both authors also received the Carnegie Medal for their work. When Lewis was awarded his, he received a congratulatory letter from Pauline Baynes, who had illustrated several of his books. He responded quite graciously.

Dear Miss Baynes, Very nice to hear from you again, and thanks for sending on the book, which I have returned to Lane. Thanks for your congratulations on the Carnegie, but is it not rather ‘our’ Medal? I’m sure the illustrations were taken into consideration as well as the text. I am well, and as happy as a man can be whose wife is desperately ill.

Although C.S. Lewis had married, quite late in life, the two authors were alike in spending most of their life single. Sutcliff, in fact, lived with her parents during most of her life, having suffered crippling arthritis as a child. She did not resent remaining unmarried. In a 1992 interview she said,

Beatrix Potter wrote all her gorgeous stories when she was very lonely and not very happy—after she married, she never wrote another thing. Nothing worth reading, anyway.

Another similarity between the two was that they both fell under the powerful sway of myth during their childhoods. They used their familiarity with its rich echoes to imbue their own work with themes that flowed far beyond the familiar channels travelled by other writers.

Each of them took their readers seriously, and refused to speak down to them. That is why they share one more quality I wish to mention in closing—their high standards. Neither Lewis nor Sutcliff could tolerate poor writing. And their finely tuned skills meant neither ever needed to resort to gadzookery.

______

* Excepting, of course, the Bible itself, which is literature of an entirely different sort. I don’t consider it fair to compare mortal writers, no matter how inspired, to a volume I regard as God’s written word.

csl bilingualHow many extremely intelligent and well educated people do you know . . . who can actually communicate with those of us possessing normal human intelligence?

That talent is a rarity.

And it is precisely what makes C.S. Lewis such an unusual man. He was brilliant. Yet he could communicate with the common person—even the child—just as easily as he conversed with his fellow university dons.

Lewis, of course, could comprehend a number of languages, so he was more than merely “bilingual.” But that is not exactly the sense in which I am using the word today. I mean it in the sense of my opening paragraphs. It is the ability to communicate (even with the same “language”) to distinctly different groups who would normally not be able to readily understand one another.

In an interview that appeared in Christianity Today, Detroit pastor Christopher Brooks was asked about the challenges of urban ministry.

How have you included both righteousness and justice in your setting?

I think about C.S. Lewis, who had the challenge of building the bridge between the culture of Oxford and Cambridge and the culture of the church. These cultures were worlds apart by his time, but he was bilingual, in a sense: able to speak the language of Oxford to the church and the language of the church to the intellectuals and naturalists.

One of the titles for ancient Roman priests that was adopted by their Christian successors is “pontifex.” It means “bridge-maker.” The Pontifex Maximus was, of course, referred to the greatest of these offices.

In light of Brooks’ words about Lewis as building bridges between elite academia and Christianity, I have added that dimension to my view of him. C.S. Lewis, Pontifex Maximus. (I doubt it would make him happy, so I’ll keep it under wraps . . . and probably never mention it again.) But I am genuinely happy about his skill in building these bridges of understanding.

Before signing off, a special treat. If you call someone who speaks two languages “bilingual,” and someone who speaks three “trilingual,” what do you call someone who only speaks one language? Why, an American, of course.

That joke would not be as funny if it were not so sadly true. While the rest of the world almost assumes that people know at least two languages, most Americans stumble their way through the study of a second language for two or three years and never develop a comfort level with it. But that’s a story for another day.

Beware the Tablet

May 22, 2014 — 9 Comments

tabletDid the ancient wax writing tablet of the Romans possess the power to terrorize enemies? Two ancient texts suggest that under some circumstances, carrying these humble wax tablets could cost someone their life.

I love history. I love writing. When you combine the two, I’m in a literary paradise. I just read a journal article that took me there. I recently joined a fascinating online organization called Academia.edu, where international scholars freely share their research.

It’s like stumbling into a free four-star buffet for the mind.

I do not only love words themselves. I’ve long been interested in the physical or mechanical aspects of writing, as well. Along this line, I’ve written here in the past about typewriters and the printing press.

I do not recall, however, writing about one of the most fascinating literary devices used by both common and gifted writers for century upon century. I am referring to the wax tablets of Rome, and the often elaborate styluses used to write on them.

I read a captivating article today that related a pair of historical incidents—one ancient, the other medieval—in which modest tablets such as these were mistaken for weapons. Deadly consequences followed.

In a Welsh journal entitled Studia Celtica, there appears “Tírechán on St. Patrick’s Writing Tablets,” by David Woods of University College, Cork. Cork is, of course, in Ireland, that enchanted isle from which the sainted C.S. Lewis also sprang. In fact, in a letter written to a child, Lewis once wrote: “I was born in Holy Ireland where there are no snakes because, as you know, St. Patrick sent them all away.

The purpose of the article was to explain how writing tablets being carried by Saint Patrick and his party could be mistaken (from a distance) as swords. The author is persuasive in revealing the historic scene and the potential for misunderstanding. In doing so, he appeals to an ancient incident in which Octavius (who would become Caesar Augustus) unjustly executed a political enemy he suspected had posed a threat.

When Quintus Gallius, a praetor, held some folded tablets under his robe as he was paying his respects, Augustus, suspecting that he had a sword concealed there, did not dare to make a search on the spot for fear it should turn out to be something else; but a little later he had Gallius hustled from the tribunal by some centurions and soldiers, tortured him as if he were a slave, and though he made no confession, ordered his execution, first tearing out the man’s eyes with his own hand.

The incident with Saint Patrick was not quite so gruesome, although it may have easily turned bloody, if the pagan’s hoping to instigate a bloodbath had succeeded.

Patrick came from Mag Arthicc to Drummut Cérrigi . . . and people saw him with eight or nine men, holding written tablets in their hands like Moses. The pagans shouted as they saw them, demanding that one should kill the holy men, and said: “They have swords in their hands for killing people. In their hands they look wooden by day, but we believe they are swords of iron for shedding blood.”

The big crowd was on the point of doing harm to the holy men; but there was a man among them who felt pity, Hercaith by name, of the race of Nothe, the father of Feradach. He believed in Patrick’s God, and Patrick baptized him and his son Feradach.

Fortunately, reason prevailed, and Patrick continued to spread the gospel in the land to which he had originally been carried as a slave.

The article also references occasions where the stylus, rather than the innocuous tablet, was used as a weapon. “For example, when his assassins confronted Julius Caesar in the senate in 44 BC, he sought to defend himself with his stylus, and stabbed one of them, Casca, in the arm with it.”

The pen, (the original) Caesar’s weapon of last resort.

This delightful article offered a wealth of knowledge. It alerted me to the fact that it is not only wax tablets that are threatening. Those who are wise will exercise extreme caution, whenever they are confronted by any and all writing tools.