A Portuguese Pope & C.S. Lewis

A few days ago marked the anniversary of the 1277 death of Pope John XXI. I knew nothing about this particular Pontiff, but the mention I read described his passing due to the collapse of the ceiling of his residence. That piqued my interest, but the following forced me to spend some time researching to learn more: “The name was a mistake – there was never a John XX.”

One of the very few email lists I’ve never regretted signing up for is “Today in Christian History” produced by Christianity Today.

Each day it provides brief notes about several historical events that happened on that particular day. Most of the notes describe historically watershed incidents. Others are simply curious, though they were naturally momentous to those involved.

The opening of this post offers an example from the latter category. Unlike the reign of Pope Francis, who ascended a decade ago and has indicated he has no intention of “retiring” before death (as did his humble predecessor Benedict XVI), the unfortunate John XXI sat on the papal throne for a mere nine months.

Despite this brief reign, there are several interesting things about Pedro Julião. (I’ll save the one I regard as most important for last.)

First of all, John XXI was Portuguese. Hailing from the Iberian Peninsula, he represents no less than 50% of the popes who came from Portugal. The first, Damasus I (305-84), came from the Roman province of Lusitania, which included a portion of Spain in addition to modern Portugal.

One paradox of the Papacy is that the Pope is the Bishop of the diocese of Rome, presiding over a physical geographic locale, while he is simultaneously the Bishop of the “Holy See,” meaning that he serves as the episcopal head of the entire international Roman Catholic communion.

Due to the physical location of the Roman Patriarchate, it is unsurprising that a majority of the individuals who have followed Saint Peter as Pontiff have been Italian. World Population Review says 217 of the 266 Popes have been from Italy. “A distant second is France, which has had a total of 16 popes.”

J.R.R. Tolkien was a truly devout Roman Catholic, but C.S. Lewis recognized that the church headquartered in Rome was merely one part of the Body of Christ whose unity he argued was founded in an understanding of the Mere Christianity Lewis propounded. Much to Tolkien’s chagrin, his good friend Lewis never converted to Roman Catholicism.

Roman Catholics still seek C.S. Lewis’ imprimatur. One prominent Roman Catholic apologist, Joe Heschmeyer, has a personal blog delightfully titled Shameless Popery. (I highly respect truth in advertising like his website exhibits.) In “C.S. Lewis’ Surprising Argument for the Papacy,” he argues that Lewis’ argument for a traditional view of marriage offers support to the rationale for papal authority.

Unlike some Protestants, C.S. Lewis was not tempted to construct a strawman out of the papacy. In an interesting passage from his monumental history of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, he emphasizes the shared legacy of Roman Catholicism and robust Protestantism. 

To be sure, there are standards by which the early Protestants could be called “puritanical;” they held adultery, fornication, and perversion for deadly sins. But then so did the Pope. If that is puritanism, all Christendom was then puritanical together.

In much the same way that C.S. might argue that “all Christendom” shared not only a common moral awareness, but also a mutual understanding of God’s self-revealed Triune nature.

In addition to being a rare specimen as a Portuguese Pope, John XXI studied medicine and is thought to have been a noteworthy pharmacologist. In fact, the apartment in the papal palace in Viterbo which collapsed on him was constructed so he would have a quiet place in which to pursue his medical studies.

Second, as already mentioned, another peculiar thing about John XXI, is the choice of his papal name. There never was a Pope John XX. One would imagine the church bureaucracy would keep accurate records of these sorts of things. Even more strangely, there is more than one explanation for why Pedro Julião became John XXI at his consecration.

According to Brittanica “Marianus Scotus and other 11th-century historians mistakenly believed that there had been a pope named John between antipope Boniface VII and the true John XV.” Consequently, “they mistakenly numbered the real popes John XV to XIX as John XVI to XX” requiring that they subsequently be “renumbered XV to XIX.” Yet, for some reason, “John XXI and John XXII continue to bear numbers that they themselves formally adopted on the assumption that there had indeed been 20 Johns before them.”

As a result, the title John XX presumably remains available for any future Bishop of Rome who might wish to further confuse the matter. We may have to wait until the Parousia to learn the full facts in this convoluted matter.

A third distinctive of John XXI is that he rescinded a very common sense decree established by his predecessor Gregory X, only two years prior to John’s ascension. (Actually, Adrian V was elected pope between the two, but Ottobuono de’ Fieschi died shortly after his election, before he could even be ordained to the priesthood. (There must be another interesting tale there.)

Returning to the story of the rescinded canon . . . Apparently there was a long papal vacancy (nearly three years) before Gregory X was elected. To avoid such predicaments in the future, at the Second Council of Lyon Gregory pushed for this sensible rule: if the new pope is not elected in a reasonable time frame, encouragement would be provided to the conclave by having their episcopal meals and other rewards gradually diminish!

The entire, fascinating “constitution” is available at Eternal World Television Network. Here is the essence:

We learn from the past how heavy are the losses sustained by the Roman church in a long vacancy, how perilous it is . . . We intend in no way to detract from [previous rules primarily instituted by Pope Alexander III], but to supply by the present constitution what experience has shown to be missing.

If, which God forbid, within three days after the cardinals have entered the said conclave, the church has not been provided with a shepherd, they are to be content for the next five days, every day both at dinner and supper, with one dish only. If these days also pass without the election of a pope, henceforth only bread, wine and water are to be served to the cardinals until they do provide a pope.

While the election is in process, the cardinals are to receive nothing from the papal treasury, nor any other revenue coming from whatever source to the church while the see is vacant.

For some unrevealed reason, John XXI revoked this rule, and it was back to business as usual. The decision to do so was one of John’s few official acts.

C.S. Lewis, Once Again

One reason Christians of all denominational traditions find much to appreciate in C.S. Lewis comes from the fact he was much more interested in edifying believers than tearing them down. He preferred to promote Christian unity over division.

One of his close friends, with whom he carried on a long term correspondence was a Benedictine monk named Bede Griffiths. Ironically, while Griffiths became renowned for his embrace of elements of Hindu spirituality, the priest appeared less tolerant of C.S. Lewis’ Protestant doctrines. In a letter from 1936, Lewis’ frustration on that score comes through loud and clear.

One of the most important differences between us is our estimate of the importance of the differences. You, in your charity, are anxious to convert me: but I am not in the least anxious to convert you.

You think my specifically Protestant beliefs a tissue of damnable errors: I think your specifically Catholic beliefs a mass of comparatively harmless human tradition which may be fatal to certain souls under special conditions, but which I think suitable for you. . . .

As well – who wants to debate with a man who begins by saying that no argument can possibly move him? Talk sense, man! With other Catholics I find no difficulty in deriving much edification from religious talk on the common ground: but you refuse to show any interest except in differences.

These words were written (1) privately, to a friend, (2) in the form of an extemporaneous letter, and (3) tinged with the frustration of returning to a familiar “debate” with a recalcitrant disputant.

Fortunately, however, we possess an essay written by Lewis on the same subject which was composed in the opposite context. It was intentionally composed for a general audience, written in C.S. Lewis’ natural painstakingly logical and clear literary voice, and composed in his conciliatory spirit with a focus on affirming what is shared and illuminating – but not dwelling upon – differences.

In 1944 C.S. Lewis penned an essay entitled “Christian Reunion.” Sadly, it was never completed for publication during his lifetime. This brief work reveals his deeper thoughts on interdenominational distinctives, and the overriding unity Christians possess through our relationship in Jesus Christ. It is written primarily to a Roman Catholic audience, in a respectful and genuinely compassionate tone.

A Pilgrim in Narnia has provided the universal (“catholic” with a small “c”) Church a great service in reproducing the full text of the essay here.

Dr. Dickieson also provides a concise and helpful introduction. I offer only a selection from Lewis’ essay here, as befits the nature of our current discussion.

I know no way of bridging this gulf [between the major Christian traditions]. Nor do I think it the business of the private layman to offer much advice on bridge-building to his betters. My only function as a Christian writer is to preach “mere Christianity” not ad clerum [to the clergy] but ad populum [to the people].

Any success that has been given me has, I believe, been due to my strict observance of those limits. By attempting to do otherwise I should only add one more recruit (and a very ill qualified recruit) to the ranks of the controversialists. After that I should be no more use to anyone.

When therefore we find a certain heavenly unity existing between really devout persons of differing creeds – a mutual understanding and even a power of mutual edification which each may lack towards a lukewarm member of his own denomination – we must ascribe this to the work of Christ . . . 

Ultimately, C.S. Lewis’ reservations about Roman Catholicism rested where they do for most thinking Christians who belong to other denominations. Its focus can be distilled down to a “disagreement about the seat and nature of doctrinal Authority.” Although he does not expressly state the conviction here that Scripture supersedes the ultimate weight of a single opinion, say of someone such as Pope John XXI, that is the concern.

We will end with C.S. Lewis’ astute analysis of the two parts of the Christian family as they view one another across the proverbial Tiber. In doing so, I offer the fruits of my own recent theological quest. Precipitated by a contemporarily trivial event during the thirteenth century, it culminated in another deep draught from the wisdom of C.S. Lewis.

The difficulty that remains . . . is our disagreement about the seat and nature of doctrinal Authority. The real reason, I take it, why you cannot be in communion with us is not your disagreement with this or that particular Protestant doctrine, so much as the absence of any real “Doctrine,” in your sense of the word, at all.

It is, you feel, like asking a man to say he agrees not with a speaker but with a debating society.

And the real reason why I cannot be in communion with you is not my disagreement with this or that Roman doctrine, but that to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces. It is like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but to what he’s going to say.

Postscript

As an illustration of the C.S. Lewis’ point about authority resting in the current “successor of Peter,” consider the decisions rendered by Gregory X and John XXI about papal enclaves. It seems to me that the first admonition about not indulging those in attendance was wiser than the subsequent decision to restore the earlier policies. But then, that may simply be due to the fact that I’m a Protestant. Unless the rules have been revised since John’s passing, I assume most Roman Catholics would agree that he was led by the Holy Spirit in reversing the decree of the Second Council of Lyon.

Narnian Numismatics

I’m a numismatist, and you may be one as well.

Although I haven’t actively accumulated coins for some years, I do have as a prize piece of my collection a Narnia coin used in the production of Prince Caspian (2008). Technically, since it isn’t a true, earthly coin, it is considered exonumia, but we coin collectors still recognize just how truly special these treasures are.

Speaking of treasures, that is precisely where my Narnian medallion comes from. The treasure chamber scene had a surfeit of the pieces, and some were sold in collectible frames. The obverse and reverse of the coin can be seen above. I’ve actually written about “my precious” piece of Narnia in the past but just this morning I woke up with the word “numismatist” on my mind, crying out for a Mere Inkling post. (More on this in a moment.)

First, those interested in the history of money may wish to skim a few of my other related columns. These include: inflationary currency such as German notgeld and Zimbabwe’s more recent $1,000,000 bills, a comparison of the women in the life of Constantine the Great and the prominent women in the life of C.S. Lewis, and the misspelling of the name of Jesus on a papal medallion.

Coins Have Given Way in My Life, to Words

As I said above, I awoke today with the word “numismatic” fluttering across my thoughts. And it was not alone. It was linked to the wordplay I recently discussed in “Creative Definitions.”

Before pondering where my mental gyrations on the word in question carried me, allow me to share two additional examples I scribbled out on my bedside tablet before rising to brush my teeth and begin the day.

Provocatours: excursions to politically explosive environs where travelers can accurately anticipate their guides will provide an explosively entertaining adventure.

Methics: the ethical perversion which allows people to justify creating pharmaceuticals with the primary function of destroying lives. [See chemistry teacher Walter White on “Breaking Bad.”]

From there my mind jumped to the pecuniary avarice of drug dealers as associated with the word numismatics – and it coined the related word,

Numethmatics: wherein the potential temporal gains associated with drug dealing outweighs the cost to society, oneself and an individual’s soul.

And in relatively rapid sequence came the following.

Flumismatics: when viral contagions disrupt the entire global economy.

Cluemismatics: either the determination of the financial motivations for murder mysteries or the funding required for law enforcement agencies who determine the criminals’ identities.

Numismantics: when economic theory is dominated by traditionally masculine concepts and values (e.g. profit and greed).

Numissmatics: economic theory which is strongly influenced by traditionally feminine values (e.g. charity and compassion).

If the last two culturally antiquated examples haven’t lost you, read on.

Gloomismatics: the prospect for economic survival in light of crushed hopes for the future due to unbridled inflation (e.g. the insanity of some economists and politicians who advocate simply “printing more money” to solve the problem).

Newmismatics: novel currencies and specie that seek to deceive citizens through the pretense that they actually possess some value.

Bluemismatics: the depressive condition elicited when one’s financial holdings inadequately counterbalance one’s debts; historically, applied to cabin boys in sailing days who only realized they would not be fiscally compensated for their services after the ship had left port.

Pneumismatics: pecuniary considerations based on spiritual rather an material considerations.

Numismetrics: the partly scientific, partly fanciful art of exchanging international currencies.

Nufistmatics: the shocking rise of unprovoked blindsided blows to strangers in urban jungles, frequently without any apparent desire to steal property.

Truemismatics: the actual value of monies before economists get involved in the matter.

Gluemismatics: the tight-fisted relationship misers have with their monetary hordes (see Ebenezer Scrooge, or dragons such as described by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien).

Nuclearmismatics: the grim cost calculation involved by world powers when weighing the “benefits” of a possible nuclear conflagration.

There were a couple of other scribblings I was unable to decipher once I was fully awake, but near the end of my meanderings, I came upon,

Zoomismatics: the financial resources required to provide a healthy environment, as close as possible to their natural habitat, for animals residing in zoological parks.

Unsurprisingly, this neologism gave rapid birth to Gnumismatics and Moomismatics . . . well, you get the idea. For the sake of my on sanity, I had to forcibly end the spontaneous exercise.

Returning to Narnia

It is fitting to end this numismatic revelry with a return to the scene for which my coin was minted. As noted earlier, it appeared in Prince Caspian. The Pevensie children have returned to Narnia, and are reawakened to their former life which had become but a dream.

Rediscovering their treasure chamber, in the now-ruins of the castle Cair Paravel (time runs differently in Narnia) is pivotal in their reawakening.

“There’s one thing,” said Lucy. “If this is Cair Paravel there ought to be a door at this end of the dais. In fact we ought to be sitting with our backs against it at this moment. You know – the door that led down to the treasure chamber.”

“I suppose there isn’t a door,” said Peter, getting up. The wall behind them was a mass of ivy.

“We can soon find out,” said Edmund . . .

They worked at the ivy with their hands and with Peter’s pocket-knife till the knife broke. After that they used Edmund’s. Soon the whole place where they had been sitting was covered with ivy; and at last they had the door cleared. “Locked, of course,” said Peter. “But the wood’s all rotten,” said Edmund. “We can pull it to bits in no time . . .

[Descending into the chamber, Peter who is bringing up the rear tells Edmund to count the steps.] “One—two—three,” said Edmund, as he went cautiously down, and so up to sixteen. “And this is the bottom,” he shouted back.

“Then it really must be Cair Paravel,” said Lucy. “There were sixteen.” Nothing more was said till all four were standing in a knot together at the foot of the stairway.

Then Edmund flashed his torch slowly round. “O—o—o—oh!!” said all the children at once. For now all knew that it was indeed the ancient treasure chamber of Cair Paravel where they had once reigned as Kings and Queens of Narnia. There was a kind of path up the middle (as it might be in a greenhouse), and along each side at intervals stood rich suits of armor, like knights guarding the treasures.

In between the suits of armor, and on each side of the path, were shelves covered with precious things – necklaces and arm rings and finger rings and golden bowls and dishes and long tusks of ivory, brooches and coronets and chains of gold, and heaps of unset stones lying piled anyhow as if they were marbles or potatoes – diamonds, rubies, carbuncles, emeralds, topazes, and amethysts. Under the shelves stood great chests of oak strengthened with iron bars and heavily padlocked.

The tale continues, as with each returning memory, the children resumed their stature and confidence as the Kings and Queens of Narnia. Their character, you see, was restored, but they remained only a year older (in Earth age) than they had been when they had previously left the wonderland.

Much to the disappointment of the dwarf Trumpkin. “Well, then – no offense,” said Trumpkin. “But, you know, the King and Trufflehunter and Doctor Cornelius were expecting – well, if you see what I mean, help. To put it in another way, I think they’d been imagining you as great warriors. As it is – we’re awfully fond of children and all that, but just at the moment, in the middle of a war – but I’m sure you understand.”

Lesser children may have filled their pockets with gold coins and diamonds and sought a return to their native land and a life of leisure. Not so these four young heroes. And, due in part to their immunity to avarice, the glory of Narnia is eventually reestablished.

The Value of Money

America exerts a major influence on global financial health. And our current unrestrained printing of new dollars will doubtless have repercussions around the world.

I’m no economist myself, but there seems to be growing concern among professionals of that persuasion that we’re headed for über-inflation. And, if our dollar drops in value the way some people predict . . . well, it seems many nations may be in for the proverbial “rough time of it.”

Shortly after WWII, C.S. Lewis commiserated with an American friend about the effects of inflation on the price of commodities.

I take it that your [comment] indicates not a saturation of the home market, but a shortage of purchasing power due to inflation? That is the situation with which we are faced at the moment; I see that the clothing concessions for instance have not resulted in an increased sale of home market goods.

The stuff is in the shops, but people can’t buy. Though with us the problem is complicated by the inferior quality of so much of the stuff on the home market.

Years later, in 1951, Lewis could still write “war and inflation are still the background of all ordinary conversation over here.”

. . . to which has just been added the railway jam; our new railway organization has succeeded, so far as I can understand, in blocking every goods depot in the country. The trades people are grumbling, and the effect is just becoming apparent to the consumer.

When I was in high school, collecting coins from around the world, I purchased samples of German currency when hyperinflation was destroying their already-shattered economy. These bills were called notgeld, which means “emergency money.”

So much of the worthless paper was printed that you can still purchase genuine pieces for reasonable prices. Many of them are quite interesting, and you can see a variety of examples online.

Some are quite lovely, like this 1 Mark note printed in Prien am Chiemsee in 1920. Lovely indeed, but virtually worthless in terms of its initial value.

Postwar Germany offers a cautionary example. Similarly, Robert Mugabe’s destruction of Zimbabwe after he gained dictatorial powers shows the danger. You can read about the unbelievable crisis in a variety of places, including this thorough article published in a European economics journal.

You might have thought that the picture at the top of this column was a joke. After all, what country prints a one million dollar bill? Well, Zimbabwe did!

In fact, with an inflation rate of 231,000,000% they ended up printing off one hundred billion dollar bills. That’s not a typo. $100,000,000,000 – you can see one in this Guardian article.

And we won’t even consider the one hundred trillion dollar bill.

Inflation Aside, Is Money Moral?

That’s a false question of course. Morality cannot be attributed to objects. After all, it is not money itself that is “the root of all evil.” It is a fallen human being’s love of possessing wealth that may lead “into ruin and destruction.”

C.S. Lewis expands on this truth, and wisely points out that the danger of idolatry and false security extends beyond money itself.

Christ said ‘Blessed are the poor’ and ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom,’ and no doubt He primarily meant the economically rich and economically poor. But do not His words also apply to another kind of riches and poverty?

One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realise your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing cheques, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God.

Now quite plainly, natural gifts carry with them a similar danger. If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. ‘Why drag God into it?’ you may ask (Mere Christianity).

C.S. Lewis powerfully portrays this peril in his fiction. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a boy named Eustace has surrendered to his lust for treasure and the corruption of his soul becomes quite visible.

He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.

You can include me among those who like money. First, for its function – allowing free commerce, in contrast to crippled systems of barter. And, for its intrinsic curiosities – I am, after all, a numismatist.

Still, appreciating the existence of money is a far cry from echoing John D. Rockefeller who said “I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money you can.” (To be fair to the robber baron, his full quote was “I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money you can, fairly and honestly; to keep all you can, and to give away all you can.”)

To gain riches honestly is, of course, not objectionable. But as to reconciling the keeping and the giving away . . . Rockefeller’s logic eludes me.

Bonus Insight

As I noted above, I’m no economist. C.S. Lewis declared the very same statement in Mere Christianity as he explored the concept of usury (loaning money with significant interest charges). His thoughts on the matter speak to the entire subject we have been discussing.

As for the entire section you can find Lewis’ position at an interesting site called Generosity Monk, which “is committed to serving the Church by providing spiritual and strategic guidance to help people understand and practice biblical generosity.”

Humorous Examinations

Could you pass this examination?

Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

In contrast to the serious tone of the last two posts, today I am offering some edifying entertainment. As a gift to you, I have edited a perennial favorite of internet humorists. I recently came across my copy of this comprehensive knowledge examination, which motivated me to tweak it for Mere Inkling’s erudite audience.

You have probably seen versions of this exam in the past. The basic questions have remained surprisingly stable despite its age. I encountered it in the University of Washington campus paper in 1973. One writer claims “the Graduation Exam—Authentic Assessment has been in circulation since at least the 1950’s.”

The exam certainly makes the rounds, as this Navy veteran described.

The pressures of comprehensive exams were apparent to many, which resulted in one of the few officially sanctioned jokes in Naval Nuclear Power. In one of the official publications of Naval Reactors, someone inserted a sample “final exam” from Nuclear Power School.

In 2012 elements of the examination created confusion in the People’s Republic of China. It was included in an article about how Chinese nationals could prepare for an American State Department exam required for positions at the United States embassy in Beijing. According to China’s Global Times, “US embassy spokesman Richard Buangan made clear on his Sina microblog Sunday that an alleged ‘recruitment test for expatriate employees at the US embassy’ is fake.”

A June 2008 issue of Foreign Service Journal carried a story, which includes an English version of the [exam stating] the questions are from the US State Department’s entrance exam, in a bid to “measure the stability of perspective Foreign Service officers and to weed out the dummies.”

The Function of Examinations

Testing and documenting competence is obviously important. This is especially true for people in critical roles, such as prescribing drugs, designing aircraft engines, and manufacturing ice cream.

Of course, not everyone is able to pass every test. Which is precisely how things should be.

C.S. Lewis noted how educators truly familiar with their students readily recognize when it is a waste of time for them to continue repeating an exam they obviously cannot pass. He said an academic “master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again” (The Problem of Pain).

I have met very few people who enjoy being tested. Yet, for many faculty members (C.S. Lewis included), being on the “other side” of exams is not particularly enjoyable either. This delightful passage comes from a 1927 letter to his brother, Warnie.

My period of examining passed over with its usual accompaniment of neuralgia and oaths, relieved by the one excellent boy who defined ‘a genie’ correctly, yet more than correctly, as ‘an eastern spirit inhabiting bottles and buttons and rings.’ Pretty good for a boy.

I was also pleased with a youth who, being asked to write a letter to a friend recommending Guy Mannering,* wrote to his brother recommending it and saying ‘I think you would be interested in the character of Colonel Mannering, he is so like our father’: and then later in a paper on Guy Mannering in which I had set the question ‘Would you have liked Colonel Mannering as a father?’—illustrate your answer etc.—began decisively ‘I would not have liked Colonel Mannering as a father in the least.’

Well, it’s time now to offer you the opportunity to prove your worthiness. If you wish to evidence the breadth and depth of your knowledge, proceed now to the exam. (Astute readers will note I’ve added a personal twist to a couple of the exam questions.)

Comprehensive Knowledge Exam

HISTORY: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific. Now do the same for the Zoroastrian priesthood. [Bonus credit for including Antarctica in your response.]

MEDICINE: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes. [Option: if you feel the scotch would impair your responses to the remaining questions, you may defer this portion of the exam to the end of the exam.]

PUBLIC SPEAKING: Two thousand riot-crazed anarchists are storming the campus. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin, Greek or Sanskrit. [Pig Latin is allowed.]

BIOLOGY: Postulate the 500 million year progression of a life form based on silicon, ranking its likely preference for form of government Enumerate the pros and cons it would associate with democracy, monarchy, socialism, theocracy, and totalitarianism. [Caution: any references to the Horta of Janus VI will result in disqualification of your answer, since Star Trek is a fictional resource.]

MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and digeridoo. You will find a piano under your seat. The wind instruments, of course, were among the items you were directed to bring with you to the examination.

PSYCHOLOGY: Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment, and repressed frustrations of each of the following: Alexander of Aphrodisias, Hildegard of Bingen, Rābi’a bint Ka’b al-Quzdārī and Simeon the Stylite. Support your evaluation with quotations from each individual’s work, citing original sources. It is not necessary to translate.

SOCIOLOGY: Using the pretext of Planet of the Apes, where homo sapiens have been subordinated to various primate species, assess the prospects for achieving mutual toleration and equilibrium before one group is driven to extinction. [Caution: confusion of apes (which lack tails) and monkeys (which lack an appendix) will result in disqualification of your response.]

CHEMISTRY: Transform lead into gold. You will find a beaker, a three hundred count box of matches and five lead sinkers under your seat. Show all work including Feynman diagrams and quantum functions for all steps. [Transformation into silver will provide half credit.]

ENGINEERING: The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In 10 minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. [Special Consideration: Satisfactorily explain the differences between Fahrenheit and Celsius to the tiger, and it will be replaced by a rabid ferret.]

ECONOMICS: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing global debt, without hypothesizing a benevolent intergalactic alliance with unlimited resources coming to the planet’s aid. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: Cubism, the Donatist controversy, and the 1913 foundation of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Gabon.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: Devise an infallible, seven-step plan to transform the United Nations into an organization that will successfully foster peace and goodwill in all international relationships. [Bonus credit for providing a major role for two of the following nations: Dominica, Liechtenstein, Tuvalu.]

AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE: Outline the steps involved in breeding your own super high yield, all weather hybrid strain of wheat. Describe its chemical and physical properties and estimate its impact on world food supplies. Construct a model for dealing with world-wide surpluses. Draft your Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

PHYSICS: Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on astronomy, botany and numismatics. [Bonus Credit: write today’s date in metric.]

PHILOSOPHY: Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought. Be sure to include an analysis of the influence exerted on philosophy by Diogenes the Cynic.

CREATIVE WRITING: Compose an epic poem based on the events of your own life in which you see and footnote allusions from T.S. Eliot, Titus Lucretius Carus, Miguel de Cervantes, Dante Alighieri, Þorbjörn Hornklofi, Gilgamesh and Stephen King. Critique your poem with a full discussion of its syntax and metrics. [Bonus Credit for writing alternating stanzas between free and rhyming verse.]

EDUCATION: Formulate an examination which accurately measures an individual’s comprehensive knowledge base without cultural or linguistic prejudice. Limit the question parameters to what can reasonably be covered during a four hour testing block.

LITERATURE: Discuss in detail at least three major literary figures from each of the following civilizations: the Xia Dynasty, the Akkadian Empire, the Mayan Empire, the Aksumite Empire, the Polynesian Tuʻi Tonga Empire, and nineteenth century United Kingdom. [Caution: failure to include J.R.R. Tolkien and/or C.S. Lewis will result in disqualification of your answer to this question.]

Congratulations on finishing the exam. You are encouraged to use any remaining time to review your answers in light of the fact that grammatical errors and misspellings will significantly impact your final grade.


* You can download a personal copy of Guy Mannering, one of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, at Internet Archive.

If you should question the distinctions I noted between apes and monkeys, please know that the facts are genuine. However, for future examinations, you should be aware that not all monkeys have tails.

The Patina of the Inklings

Some antiques boast lovely patinas. Some old words do, as well. In fact, I would argue the legacy of, and the deep respect for, the Oxford fellowship known as the Inklings, has created a rich patina of its own.*

The community gifted scholars, especially in the persons of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, accrued a reputation that continues to gain a deeper luster with each new generation.

When I was a young man, I collected American coins. I also studied what Americans call “World coins.” The latter reinforced my love for geography as well as history.

To me, the most fascinating period of history has long been that of the Roman empire.

 So you can imagine my awe when I learned how simple it was to collect genuine Roman coins.

 This remains true today for common coins, such as bronzes of the fourth century (when the first Christian emperors reigned). This article describes “Collecting Roman Coins on a Budget.”

A surprising number of ancient coins, all readily identifiable and of historical interest, can be acquired for less than $100—and often in the $5-to-$25 range. This is especially true with Roman coins . . .

When I began collecting ancient coins, I learned the multifaceted meaning of a word unfamiliar to me at the time. That word was “patina” (pə’tēnə). As you probably know, it literally refers to the green or brown film (not rust) that appears on bronze and other metals under suitable conditions over a period of time. A handful of coins in my collection possess stunning patinas.

Metaphorical Patina

Many people are also acquainted with the figurative use of the word, as I employed it in my introduction It refers to an appearance or impression of distinction or luster associated with a person, idea or object. It is often linked to esteem held for the past. The following provocative quote comes from a contemporary Swiss artist.

“Life is one long decay, no? There’s a lot of beauty in it. Like the patina in an old city” (Urs Fischer).

Chad Walsh applied it to one of C.S. Lewis’ early books in The Literary Legacy of C.S. Lewis. Writing more than forty years ago, in a discussion of Pilgrim’s Regress, he said:

Regress has permanent value. It is, first of all, a spiritual autobiography, no matter how much Lewis may wish to minimize the personal quality of the quest and make his John into a potential Everyman. . . .

The Regress is already taking on a patina of age, a pleasant chronological quaintness, but time does not render it obsolete.

Four decades after he offered this comment, I believe I am correct in ascribing a warm patina to the Inklings as a fellowship.

Patinas can be added to items, to affect a more aged appearance. While “acquired” patina is always considered desirable, “applied” patina is often quite acceptable. It does not become problematic until the application is used to intentionally misrepresent the age of an item. An example of the proper use of applied patina is seen in these modern busts of C.S. Lewis.

In reviewing Lewis’ writings, I only uncovered one occasion where he used the concept of patina. It occurred in a 1946 letter to his friend, Ruth Pitter. Lewis is contributing to one of their ongoing conversations.

The truth is that there are a great many different kinds of poetry and extreme roughness (or smoothness) evocative epithet (or plain statement), the metaphorical (or literal) the colloquial (or rhetorical) may all, in their place, rise to perfection. . . .

 Once more, read Barfield on Poetic Diction.⁑ That is why Spender’s objection to the ‘willed quality’ in Milton seems to me so bats’-eyed. It is the glory of one kind of poetry to sound un-willed, as if it had dropped out of the sky like Blake or else arisen spontaneously in conversation like Donne.

But then it is equally the glory of another kind to sound willed: to sound as if one were watching, or even sharing, the building of a huge tower.

To demand that Milton should have the spontaneity of Catullus or Blake is like demanding that a King at his coronation or a celebrant approaching the altar should have the same charm as a child dancing in the waves. Don’t we want both: both frolics and rituals? At any rate I do. . . .

Of course you are very right about Patina–again see Barfield. No old French poetry got that peculiar Old-Frenchness which is to us part of the charm. Half the beauties of the Old Testament did not exist for the writers. I wouldn’t be too sure, though, that it is wholly a question of our ‘projecting’ qualities into the old lines.

Ending on a Numismatic Note

Although I have not actively collected coins for many years, I commend it as a rewarding pastime. Seven years ago⁂ I wrote a column about religious likenesses on coins, which included a moving poem written by C.S. Lewis. You can read it here.

While writing this column I came across some genuine Narnian coins that were minted in New Zealand. They are genuine in the sense that they possess actual face values for legal tender in the island nation, which minted similar coins in honor of Middle Earth.

In terms of Narnian coins which circulated in Narnia itself, I learned that you can purchase “coins” which were used as actual props “appearing” in the recent Chronicles of Narnia films.

For an Inkling cinema buff such as myself, deciding to grab one for my personal collection was a no-brainer.


* The writings of the Inklings have even enhanced the patina of Oxford itself. This is especially true for those who live “across the pond,” and will never journey to the city itself. In a succinct review of The Inklings of Oxford: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their Friends, one Aussie architect refers to the stately oxidation of the city’s copper, brass and bronze: Picturesque book of picturesque Oxford focusing on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and the elegant, much patina-ed Oxford environment that they lived in.” I imagine he would concur with my suggestion that the Inklings themselves also bear a splendid patina.

⁑ Owen Barfield dedicated this book to his good friend with the inscription: “To C.S. Lewis ‘Opposition is true friendship’”

⁂ Seven years of blogging does sound like a lengthy time, but it’s not long enough for even the best of posts to accrue a patina of their own.

Constantine’s Augustae & C.S. Lewis’ Joy

C.S. Lewis considered war a hated necessity in a fallen world. Emperor Constantine I, in contrast, did not shirk from waging violent conflict to reunite the Roman Empire in the early fourth century. What could these two men, humble and proud, have in common?

In a New York Times essay, “C.S. Lewis’s Legacy Lives on, and Not Just Through the Wardrobe,” Mark Oppenheimer compares their influence on the expansion of the Christian Church.

Who, since the time of Jesus and his apostles, has brought more people to Christianity than anybody else?

A short list would include the Roman emperor Constantine, who legalized Christian worship in 313, and Pope Urban II, who began the First Crusade in 1095. But it would also include C.S. Lewis, who moved more hearts with a pen than others have with armies.

Oppenheimer’s Jewish perspective is likely the reason Urban II (c. 1035-1099) finds himself on this short list. After all, the Crusades were intended to liberate the Holy Land from its Muslim conquerors. Other than a handful of the genuinely religious individuals who participated, no historian (much less any educated practicing Christian) would consider the Crusades an evangelistic enterprise.

As for the similarities between C.S. Lewis and Constantine, I am hard-pressed to find many. One, however, is common to many men throughout history. The influence of women in their lives was significant. This is true in terms of both their revered mothers, and their tenacious wives.

Women in Constantine’s Life

Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert. Because he delivered the Church from persecution and favored the religion within the empire, he is regarded by the Orthodox Church to be a saint. His transitional reign, and the foundation of Constantinople, were monumentally important. But the violence experienced within the imperial family leaves disturbing questions that cannot be answered.

Constantine’s mother, Helena, was a true saint. She lived a devout life and did many good works. Doubtless, she also tempered the volatility of her son.

Constantine had four sons. The first was born to Minervina, a wife or official concubine about whom very little is known.* However, in 307 Constantine followed the common practice of marrying the daughter of a powerful ally, in this case the Augustus (Emperor) Maximian. This wife, Fausta, gave birth to three emperors who succeeded their father and proceeded to battle one another.

The first son, Crispus, was likely the most virtuous of them all. Unfortunately, however, Constantine heeded the lies of his step-mother, Fausta, and had Crispus put to death.⁑

The image of the Roman coins at the top of this column reveals official images of Helena and Fausta. Both of the women had, by the time these were minted, been honored with the title Augusta. The photograph comes from a detailed study of the coinage minted during Constantine’s Vicennalia, which marked the twentieth year of his reign. It features two coins of each, from different mints.

“For Helena,” that author notes, “the reverse always figures Securitas, and for Fausta, either Salus or Spes.” Roman personifications were not actually regarded as “gods,” except by the most superstitious. They were images intended to represent abstract qualities or values. Securitas represented Security with Salus and Spes representing Health and Hope, respectively. The inference here is that Helena represented the stability and authenticity of the dynasty, while Fausta represented its vitality and hope for the future, particularly as she nestles in her arms two future emperors.

Women in C.S. Lewis’ Life

For symmetry, we won’t discuss Minto here. Lewis’ mother and wife did, however, exert a great influence on the man he became. Whereas, with Constantine, one a saint, and the other a murderer, Lewis’ ladies both lived their Christian faith.

Flora Augusta Hamilton Lewis (1862-1908) was the daughter of an Anglican priest in Belfast. (By odd coincidence, her name included Helena’s regal title, Augusta.) Flora was quite gifted, and taught young Jack French and Latin. Her untimely death, during her boys’ childhood, left a last mark on both of them.

My father never fully recovered from this loss. Children suffer not (I think) less than their elders, but differently. For us boys the real bereavement had happened before our mother died.

We lost her gradually as she was gradually withdrawn from our life into the hands of nurses and delirium and morphia, and as our whole existence changed into something alien and menacing, as the house became full of strange smells and midnight noises and sinister whispered conversations. (Surprised by Joy)

Despite the great loss, life continued. Everyone eventually came to view Professor Lewis as a confirmed bachelor. Himself included. That is, until Joy Davidman entered his life. She turned his life upside down. Much has been written about their deep love for one another, and how well suited they were for each other.

Some have criticized Lewis for insensitivity to women. I consider this allegation utterly fallacious. Like all interpersonal relationships in this fallen world, bonds between (and within) genders are complex.

For those who consider Lewis’ personal outlook on male/female roles to be unenlightened, might I suggest you compare them to the example of any other man. Constantine perhaps?


* Minervina may have been Constantine’s wife, or official concubine. Since Crispus was regarded as a fully legal heir, the former is most likely. She may have already died before Constantine strengthened his political position with his second marriage.

⁑ The most probable account is that Fausta falsely accused Crispus of molesting her. After mercilessly condemning his own son, Constantine learned of the deceit and had Fausta executed as well. Crispus already held the rank of Caesar, and was heir apparent to his father. The story is extremely complicated, and heartbreakingly tragic.

Misplaced Values

lewis penAn elderly church usher just left his home as a bequest to his church. That isn’t uncommon, but the fact that his home was filled with a vast collection of toy cars accumulated during a lifetime, was rather unusual.

The church will doubtless reap unexpected treasure from the collection’s sale, along with that of a couple of well restored classic autos. That’s nice news for them, and for the other collectors who will find some rare treasures “recycled” into the hobby during the months ahead.

What disturbed me, was the first comment offered on the website in response to the story.

“I throw everything away, even photos people hand me. Keeps me living in the present.”

That comment is disturbing on several levels. First of all, it reveals an utter disregard for the people who give gifts, “even photos,” to the writer. I hope the person has the integrity to tell their acquaintances not to waste their time and money on offering him (or her) tokens of their concern.

Second, if taken literally, the statement that he (I’ll assume it’s a guy, since I have a difficult time picturing a woman this crass) “throw[s] everything away,” is criminal. While things like photographs rarely have value to anyone but those who know the people in them, virtually any other sort of item possesses some tangible value. To toss them in the garbage—presumably for one’s selfish convenience—is terrible, when every community has charities that could use unwanted possessions to generate support for worthy enterprises.

The third thing that offends me about this comment is the inference that people who do not dispose of things in a similar manner become incapable of “living in the present.” What an impoverished view of the power of images and objects to evoke powerful and valuable memories and sentiments!

We are not talking here about someone who is afflicted with “compulsive hoarding,” that has been recognized as a psychiatric disorder. We are talking about a collector with an innocent interest. Or, removing the comment from this specific context, we would be referring to anyone who bothered to retain a photograph of their nephew or niece they received from a sibling.

I love history. But I don’t expect others to share my interest in the same sorts of artifacts that I have gathered through the years. Still, holding a coin with the image of Constantine the Great, or a civil war token with the USS Monitor adorning the obverse, don’t confine me to the distant past.

Studying history does just the opposite. It enables me to live with greater wisdom and insight in the present. C.S. Lewis summarized this truth quite eloquently.

To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. (Selected Literary Essays, “De Descriptione Temporum”).

Another observation about history’s importance from the pen of Lewis is found in The Weight of Glory. He reveals how only through the study of history can we be delivered from the danger of believing that “living in the present” is being held prisoner to current cultural conventions.

We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

Thank God that you are not one of those whose vision is restricted to the current age, with its cacophony of reality television and unbridled hedonism. (I can confidently make that observation based on your reading this column to its end.)

Obviously, it’s not necessary to handle or possess actual artifacts to appreciate history . . . although I occasionally take my civil war sabre down from the wall and think about how my great-grandfather wielded one just like it.

That said, who among us would not love to have in their personal library the very copy of a book that had come from C.S. Lewis’ own?

For an excellent exploration of the current disposition of C.S. Lewis manuscripts and legacy, check out the current post at the always excellent A Pilgrim in Narnia.

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The image above of pipe and pen is from a display at The Wade Center, at Wheaton College.

Misspelling Jesus

LesusTalk about embarrassing. In a nation that considers God to be its sovereign ruler, it seems rather inexcusable to misspell the name of Jesus.

And yet, that’s precisely what the Vatican has done.

Even more humbling, the error occurred on a very public medium—the principality’s coinage. And, if that was not enough to generate finger-pointing within the Curia, the coins bearing the defective spelling were minted to celebrate the first anniversary of Francis’ assumption of the papal throne.

Having collected coins since I was a young boy, I’m quite familiar with the frequency of minting errors. Typically they are caused by mistakes at the mint itself, where there is a mis-strike or a flaw in one of the dies. (I own a couple of ancient Roman “mules” where the mint workers accidentally used the mismatched obverses and reverses when they struck a particular piece.)

The legend (text) on the aforementioned medallions incorrectly reads “Lesus.” It seems to me that Western sources have mistakenly perceived this as the incorrect substitution of an “L” for the “J.”

The truth is . . . the inscription is in Latin, in which case it is actually an “I” that should appear in place of the “L.” If this is correct, Jesus’ name would be rendered IESUS.*

In actuality, the magnitude of this error was less significant than initially reported. It affected an anniversary medallion, rather than common, everyday coinage that would find its way into the hands of the masses. Also, the mistake was discovered early enough that only a handful of the medals were released; the “lucky” recipients are sure to see the worth of these treasures increase many times over, as their rarity causes the value of the medals to escalate.

Unlike Islam, which forbids images of Allah and Muhammad, Christianity has found iconography related to Jesus to be inspirational, throughout its two millennia history.

The Lord’s face has appeared on numerous coins throughout the years, and there is an entire series of Byzantine issues that cannot be specifically attributed to individual rulers because they did not include their own likeness or name, preferring to yield their place of honor to Christ.

In a 1942 letter to a nun with whom he corresponded, C.S. Lewis shared a poem he had written. I relate it here because of the exquisite reference to religious portraiture on coinage.

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more

From all the victories I have seemed to score;

From cleverness shot forth in Thy behalf,

At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;

From all my proofs of Thy divinity,

Thou, who would’st give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead

Of Thee, the thumb-worn image of Thy head;

From every thought, even from my thoughts of Thee,

Oh thou fair Silence! fall and set me free.

Lord of the straight way and the needle’s eye,

Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

A Thought for Writers

Everyone who has ever written something read by others understands the importance of proofreading. This is true for digital media such as emails. It’s even more true for print publications that cannot be easily amended.

That said, we can consider ourselves fortunate that our typographical mistakes are not inscribed for all time on precious metals.

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* Iesus in the nominative case. It’s more commonly seen as Iesu, and my Latin is too rusty to know how it should correctly be rendered in this inscription.

Unflattering Likenesses

Nero 1We tend to caricature those we dislike. We usually do it with words, either dismissive or insulting. Sometimes we do it with images.

I wrote an essay once entitled “Demonizing Our Enemies,” and in this world of constant turmoil it includes a message we cannot afford to forget. If you’re interested in reading it, it’s on page fifty-four of the first issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, and you can read (or download) it for free here.

Sometimes, however, what appears on the surface to be an insult . . . may simply be a reflection of accuracy. That, I think, is the case in the coin pictured above. It displays a portrait of the Emperor Nero, in all of his porcine grandeur. It is, in a single word, grotesque.

Nero 2Consider this image, of the emperor in his youth. It’s rather disgusting to see what he had become. But the fruits of unrelenting debauchery and murder do take a toll.

Still, one wonders how an image like this ever came to be. What emperor, in his right mind, would allow us a graphic reproduction of his ugliness? Especially when it would have been a simple thing to circulate at the mints an idealized portrait for official use. (That, of course, has been a common practice throughout history.)

As a bit of a numismatist, I was curious as to how it came to be. My first impression upon seeing the bizarre likeness of the imperator was that it must be a “barbarous” imitation of a Roman coin. Such counterfeits became fairly common in the fourth century, and they are usually identified by terribly garbled legends (inscriptions).

After doing enough research to determine this was a genuine imperial issue, I wondered if the celator (die-carver) might have been put to death for his presumption. No evidence of that, though it may have happened.

I have to assume that Nero was so self-consumed that he was oblivious to the way the corpulent image must have invited silent ridicule. He was, after all, despised by virtually everyone for his countless excesses.

So, ultimately, the doomed emperor unintentionally played the proverbial joke upon himself. By allowing an accurate portrayal of the imperial profile, he preserved for all time a true testimony to himself. He may have falsely blamed the Christians for Rome’s terrible fire, but he had no one other than himself to indict for his metallic legacy.

For those curious as to how I might work a Lewisian theme into this unusual post, allow me to include the following passing reference to the self-acclaimed master of the lyre. It appears in the essay “Learning in War-Time”

A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. . . . At first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing. . . Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

Now it seems to me that we shall not be able to answer these questions until we have put them by the side of certain other questions which every Christian ought to have asked himself in peace-time. I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell.

And—lest any of us smugly nod in agreement that such an evil man most assuredly deserved his searing fate—here is another passage from Lewis that offers a sobering truth.

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven [editor: they will not accept God’s forgiveness]. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

One caution, and I have done. In order to rouse modern minds to an understanding of the issues, I ventured to introduce in this chapter a picture of the sort of bad man whom we most easily perceive to be truly bad. But when the picture has done that work, the sooner it is forgotten the better.

In all discussions of Hell we should keep steadily before our eyes the possible damnation, not of our enemies nor our friends (since both these disturb the reason) but of ourselves. This chapter is not about your wife or son, nor about Nero or Judas Iscariot; it is about you and me. (The Problem of Pain).

Mastering the Contranym

English is a fascinating language. Certainly not the simplest to learn, but extremely versatile. You might say that among the circus of languages, English is the contortionist. (That analogy might make German the strong man and Romani the fortune teller.  As for the bearded lady . . . I’ll leave that to your personal conjecture.)

I’ve formally studied several other languages, yet I consider myself a master of none. Nevertheless, when it comes to English, I do take some pride in my skills, and would be willing to claim for myself the status of journeyman. Among other credentials I have my “verbal” score on the Graduate Record Exam, which placed me in the 97th percentile.

It goes without saying that C.S. Lewis (along with most of his fellow Inklings) was a Master of English. One of his many insights warned of language’s occasional tendency to confuse rather than illuminate.

Language exists to communicate whatever it can communicate. Some things it communicates so badly that we never attempt to communicate them by words if any other medium is available. (C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words).

As much as I discover about English, I find there is still more to learn. This week I enjoyed thinking about contranyms. It’s uncommon enough a word that you know your spell checker won’t recognize it. One of those words only an English major is expected to know.

We all know, of course, what synonyms and antonyms are. Useful little tools for playful manipulation of language. A contranym is a word that possesses two “contradictory” meanings. For example a “citation” which can be awarded for either good or issued for bad behavior. Or, consider “literally,” which has its literal meaning as well as its recently developed and contradictory definition of “figuratively.” For lovers of words that’s a particularly discomforting contranym, and it literally makes my head explode. (No, seriously, please don’t ever write or say something like that unless it is in the form of dialog you’re composing for a semi-literate character.)

There are many more examples.

“They left for London, without a thought as to the luggage they left at the station.”

“He was certainly bound for jail if they discovered the Internal Revenue agent he had left bound in his basement.”

“He buckled his belt a mere moment before his legs buckled beneath him as he was struck by the errant meteorite.”

“Apparently there are many thoughtless oversights when programs are left to governmental oversight.”

Homophonic contranyms are not spelled alike, but they are pronounced similarly. “My aural test is scheduled tomorrow, immediately before the oral defense of my dissertation.”

There are actually a couple of alternative names for contranyms. They can be called antagonyms or autoantonyms, which only serves to make the hazy water that much murkier.

Our next lesson will feature that amazing category of words that are “polysemy.” (Not really, I think this has been enough linguistic thinking to cover us for at least a week.)

Oh, one final note, for those who were curious about the choice of the image above for this column. Contranyms are also referred to as “Janus words,” in honor of the Roman deity who constantly gazes in two directions. Very fitting.