Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Law Like Love"--The Law Is

If we, dear,[i] know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
If I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserably
That the Law is
And that all know this,

Awareness that there is a distinction between human and natural or eternal law, that moral law that speaks to each individual in his heart or conscience, is what leads Auden to avoid the false definitional equations of Law (“Law is . . .”). The concept of Law cannot be grasped by a direct copula, but can only be gleaned analogically, by simile or metaphor (“Like love . . .”). Though Auden knows that “Law is,” that it exists, he dare not comprehend Law, like he dare not comprehend Love, or what is the same thing, God. He can only speak timidly, using timid similarities. Si comprehenderis no est Deus, stated St. Augustine. Auden’s message is analogous: Si comprehenderis non est Lex. That means the Law is, like God, a mystery.

These stanzas serve as the copula or intermezzo between that part of the poem that related the false theories--what we have denominated "myths" of the law--to that part of the poem in which Auden expresses what is the best answer to the question of what Law may be. And he comes to the conclusion that Law can be understood only by way of analogy. In this regard he is solidly in the camp of the Catholic St. Thomas Aquinas and the pagan Cicero.

There is no doubt that Auden believes that the understanding that an overriding Law exists is universal: “Except that all agree . . . / That the Law is, / And that all know this.” This notion is all is very Pauline, and echoes St. Paul’s letter to the Romans who teaches that those who do not recognize either Moses or Christ know nevertheless “that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” (Rom. 2:15). The knowledge may be suppressed. The knowledge may be affirmatively denied. And yet, the knowledge is there, deep within, as if in germ. In his poem “September 1, 1939,” Auden had written the following lines, though they were removed from the typescript when the poem was published in The New Republic. They leave no doubt about Auden’s nascent Christianity.

What can I do but recall
What everyone knows in his heart,
One Law applies to us all . . .

Though Auden is certain that the Law is universal, and is also universally known to exist, consistent with his early, subjective and existential Christianity, Auden appears to plead a sort of agnosticism when it comes to the specifics or determinations of that Law. This agnosticism, however, must not be equated with a pure moral relativism. Though Auden’s conversion to Christianity was still in process when he wrote this poem, by this time Auden appears to have accepted the need for absolutes, or Kierkegaardian “unconditionals.[iii]

One of those unconditionals was the acceptance of the Fall. One had to believe that man was, as Auden put it in his “New Year Letter,” “Man faulted.”[iv] However, at this stage in his life, Auden seems inconsistent and confused. Departing from the teachings of St. Paul, who lists a number of sins that are contrary to the natural moral Law, Auden appears to plead an agnosticism of detailed knowledge of the Law’s content, as distinguished from knowledge of the Law’s existence. With respect to knowledge of the Law’s specific content—its precepts, its commands, its prohibitions—Auden claims no man can claim superiority, no man knows more than another as to what we should do and not do. It is unclear how consistently Auden believed in any moral absolutes when he penned these words.

Ironic Kierkegaard stared long
And muttered “All are in the wrong,”

as he wrote, in a deprecating tone, in his “New Year Letter.”

Because of man’s moral shortcomings and because there is no one who can judge among men, Auden appears to suggest that a certain mutual tolerance is required.[vi]

Indeed, the act of owning up to this state of moral agnosticism is the basis of moral equality political democracy. No man is morally superior to the other, and no man has a right to rule over another. In the New Year Letter, Auden links theses:

And all that we can always say
Is: true democracy beings
With free confession of our sins.
In this alone are all the same,
All are so weak that none dare claim
“I have the right to govern.” Or
“Behold in me the Moral Law,”
And all real unity commences
In consciousness of differences,
That all have wants to satisfy
And each a power to supply.

The struggle to find the “base” for Democracy, in other words the fundamental Law, which recognizes moral unconditionals was the work of our time.[viii] In this regard, Auden seems to fail us, to disappoint us. He seems to have despaired on the ability to find a universal law, a Natural Law in the fullest sense of the term. It is perhaps here that his besetting sin, his homosexuality, prevented him from approaching the light and the truth that God had in mind for him.

[i] Auden seems to use the term “dear,” in his poetry to express the turning from the universal to the particular. He is now turning his eyes upon us to talk, tête-à-tête, as it were.
[ii] Mendelson, Later Auden, 76. According to Mendelson, the reference to the Law that applies to all in “September 1, 1939” “operates at a level of generality that ignores individual persons,” whereas that in “Law Like Love” considers “the acts and velleities of individual persons, not of large historical movements.” Id. 78-79.
[iii] Auden had encountered the notion of the “unconditional” in Kierkegaard from a book entitled The Descent of the Dove by the Anglican Charles Williams. Auden wrote a poem, “The Maze,” which speaks of “wingless man” (anthropos apteros) who wallows in this world in absurdity without a sense of the “unconditional” or absolute. Auden, Collected Poems, 303-04. See Mendelson, Later Auden, 124-26; 129-30.
[iv] Auden, “The New Year Letter,” in Collected Poems, 227.
[v] Auden, Collected Poems, 231.
[vi] Mendelson, Later Auden, 130. The thought was taken from Kierkegaard through Williams. As Mendelson observes, it is quite consonant with the Scriptural concept that we are all sinners, a concept found in the Gospels, St. Paul’s letters, and in the Psalms.
[vii] Auden, “New Year Letter” in Collected Poems, 241.
[viii] Auden wrote to his friend and fellow poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995) in April/May 1940: “The basis weakness of democracies is the failure to realize that if you give up Catholicism—and I think we must—one has to discover one’s base again and that is a very long and exhausting job.” Quoted in Mendelson, Later Auden, 142.

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