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.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Debunking of Traditional Values: C. S. Lewis and the Natural Law

IT IS NOT ONLY THE SUBJECTIVIZATION of reality that is insulted by the authors of The Green Book and which offends C. S. Lewis's traditional values. Gaius and Titius, the epithets given by C. S. Lewis to the authors of The Green Book, engaged in a two prong attack. First, they conflated the objective and the subjective, making the subjective the only thing that is real, and therefore making everything unreal. But they also go about "debunking" or deprecating traditional habits or sentiments under the guise of rationalism. If they succeed, then, in removing the habit by debunking the sentiment associated with it, they will have left a man flailing in the winds of subjectivism all under the guise of being rational.

The authors of The Green Book take issue at a "silly" advertisement for a cruise to the "Western Ocean where Drake of Devon sailed." That the "venal and bathetic exploitation of those emotions of awe and pleasure which men feel in visiting places that have striking associations with history or legend" which this advertisement makes trite is certainly something C. S. Lewis understands. The right course would have been to show how these emotions might be properly expressed. But instead of attacking the advertisement, The Green Book attacks the emotion that the advertisement seeks to exploit and which necessarily it cheapens by such exploitation.

There is something fundamentally human in the desire to visit places that have great significance in history or in legend or in faith. It is what drives us to pilgrimage, to Santiago de Compostela, to Bethlehem, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is what drives the Muslim to Mecca, the Hindu to the Ganges, the Buddhist to Bodh Gaya. The desire is not only religious, as we see it expressed by the desire to travel to Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Giza, the Parthenon in Athens, the Gettysburg National Cemetery, or the facade of the Library of Celsus, the remarkable Theater, or the humble abode of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Ephesus. The places accorded special status are as various as the desires of the men that visit them. This fundamental and deep desire in man is seen, and honored even in its triteness, in its most cheap manifestations, say, the visits to Graceland by the fans of Elvis Presley. How many texts were available to Gaius and Titius to which they could point to as examples of proper expression of such emotion? Between the 4th century account of Etheria's pilgrimage to Jerusalem to John Muir's account of his night at the Bonaventure Cemetery in Georgia, hundreds of texts abound! C. S. Lewis points to Samuel Johnson's passage from his A Journey to the Western Islands:

We were no treading that illustrious island, which was one the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessing of religion. To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plan of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.

(Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides(London: Penguin 1984), 140-41.

Yet it is just this "foolish" and "frigid philosophy" mentioned by Johnson that the authors of The Green Book are peddling! Instead of ennobling the emotion, instead of criticizing its exploitation by the advertisers and the draping of it in verbal kitsch, the authors "debunk" the emotion itself as irrational:
What [the authors] actually do is to point out that the luxurious motor-vessel won't really sail where Drake did, that the tourists will not have any adventures, that the treasures they bring home will be of a purely metaphorical nature, and that a trip to Margate* might provide 'all the pleasure and rest' they required. . . . What [the schoolboy] will learn quickly enough, and perhaps indelibly, is the belief that all emotions aroused by local association are in themselves contrary to reason and contemptible--that it falls equally flat on those who are above it and those who are below it, on the man of real sensibility and on the mere trousered ape . . . .
Abolition, 8-9.

Automedon and the Horses of Achilles,
by Henri Alexandre Georges Regnault (1868)

The same sort of "debunking," though perhaps in a less severe form, occurs in another text to which C. S. Lewis refers his auditor or reader. This text, by a certain "Orbilius"** who attacks a "silly bit of writing on horses, where these animals are praised as the 'willing servants' of the early colonists in Australia.'" The Orbilian criticism is that horses, being brute animals, are not interested in colonial expansion, and so it is not literally accurate, not according to the letter (secundum litteram) to suggest it. But what is this? This is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The evil is poor writing, not the deep regard that man ought to have for animals, and which has traditionally been expressed by the "semi-anthropomorphic treatment of beasts . . . . and of the literature where it finds noble or piquant expression." Abolition, 10. Why shut this tradition down? Why deprecate the Brer Rabbit of the Uncle Remus stories by J. C. Harris, or Peter Cottontail of Beatrix Potter and remove this genre from children? And who and why would someone debunk the noble tradition of referring to horses, or dogs for that matter, as man's companion? Who would squelch from grown men the lines of Matthew Arnold's poem "Sohrab and Rustum," and their telling of Rustum's faithful horse, Ruksh, who grieved with his master?
So arm'd, he issued forth; and Ruksh, his horse,
Follow'd him like a faithful hound at heel--
Ruksh, whose renown was noised through all the earth . . .
When they saw Rustum's grief; and Ruksh, the horse,
With his head bowing to the ground and mane
Sweeping the dust, came near, and in mute woe
First to the one then to the other moved
His head, as if enquiring what their grief
Might mean; and from his dark, compassionate eyes,
The big warm tears roll'd down, and caked the sand.

Or even poignant, weeping horses of Achilles, Xanthus and Balius, who, in their sorrow for Patroclus, would not enter battle?
But the horses of Aikides standing apart from the battle
wept, as they had done since they heard how their charioteer
had fallen in the dust at the hands of murderous Hektor.

ἵπποι δ᾽ Αἰακίδαο μάχης ἀπάνευθεν ἐόντες
κλαῖον, ἐπεὶ δὴ πρῶτα πυθέσθην ἡνιόχοιο
ἐν κονίῃσι πεσόντος ὑφ᾽ Ἕκτορος ἀνδροφόνοιο.
Iliad, XVII.426-28 (Lattimore, trans.) Are such anthropomorphisms irrational, or are they rather non-rational? What is it Orbilius wants? For us to become Black Beauty's Mr Nicholas Skinner?

Some pleasure in their own ponies and dogs they will have lost; some incentive to cruelty or neglect they will have received; some pleasure in their own knowingness will have entered their minds. That is their day's lesson in English, though of English they have learned nothing.

Abolition, 11.

It may be, though Lewis doubts it, that of Gaius and Titius and Orbilius it may be said:
They may really hold that the ordinary human feelings about the past or animals or large waterfalls are contrary to reason and contemptible and ought to be eradicated. They may be intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set.
Abolition, 12. If this is the case, it obviously has no place in books of English and Literature. More likely, what's involved is a sort of intellectual torpor. More likely it is not "theory they put in [the schoolboy's mind], but an assumption." Abolition, 5 (emphasis added). It is an assumption, moreover, based on lazy thought. "To explain why a bad treatment of some basic human emotion is bad literature is, if we exclude all question-begging attacks on the emotion itself, a very hard thing to do." Abolition, 13. Much easier is to "'debunk' the emotion, on the basis of a commonplace rationalism," as that is within the simpleton's ability. It is, in fact replacing triteness with banality, replacing "weak excess of sensibility" with "the slumber of cold vulgarity." Abolition, 13. So not only is the cure contraindicated, the disease is misdiagnosed. "The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts." Abolition, 13-14.

The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

Abolition, 14. And the modern educators have given their students both a starved sensibility and a soft head. It is this simultaneous combination of subjectivism (all is emotion, and emotion has no tie to the real) and deprecation of emotion that is particularly vicious. It is as foolish as having a society with neither custom nor law. It is a moral anarchy that is being taught under the ruse that it is of reason. It is like a man without a heart, whose head looks big only because his chest has imploded. Inside it is is all gangrenous.

The job of the educator is not to grow "men without chests," or "trousered apes" with mindless hearts, or "urban blockheads" with heartless minds. The task of the educator is to grow a "men of real sensibility," men of tradition, men with both heart and mind. Real men. Men, incidentally, though one within the tradition would already know this, means both men and women.

The problem is that the modern educator has jettisoned the philosophical and pedagogical tools to be able to do this. To order emotions, there must be a standard against which the emotions are to be ordered. Our emotions must be congruous or incongruous to some external norm, and the tradition found this normative measure in the cosmos, in nature. Traditionally, the datum against which emotions were weighed was objective. This is the inheritance of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Traherne, Coleridge, even Shelley. Looking East, it was the inheritance of Hinduism's Ṛta, the Confucian shù,and the Oriental Tao. The tradition has been lost, particularly in the West. Where is it taught in the public schools or the colleges and universities, taught by a whole army of willing or unwilling Gaiuses and Titiuses and Orbliuses, priests of relative liberalism, priests of such idiocies, such pseudo-histories as Black Athena?

If such a standard is to be found anywhere in any way hale and whole, it is in the Catholic Church which has preserved it much like the Benedictines of old preserved the pagan classics in their scriptoria. She shouts it from the the seven hills of Rome, but also from the Collis Vaticanus, in the person of Benedict XVI all dressed in white, who warns about the tyranny of relativism. Most of his words are devoured, put into soundbites or misinterpreted, before they reach the people. Some of his words fall rocky ground, where they yield no fruit for want of soil. Some of his words fall among thorns of materialism and of lust, and are choked out of life. Thus, for various reasons, the rich in modern culture, and poor in the tradition, walk empty away, though their pockets are laden with their paper money and their latex condoms. They walk away looking like Lewis's urban blockheads and trousered apes: men without chests. Thus far none but the powerless, the anawim, seem to listen. And they wait, this faithful remnant, for the time that the seed the Pope is trying to plant should grab root, grow, and bear fruit and should yield thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.
*Margate was a popular local resort for Londoners and other English vacationers.
**Again using an pseudonym so as to charitably (or maybe not so charitably given the connotation attached to the name) to protect the author, C. S. Lewis is referring to E. G. Biaggini's The Reading and Writing of English (1936). Orbilius refers to the Roman grammarian and language teacher (114 BC – c. 14 BC), Lucius Orbilius Pupillus. The Roman poet Horace (Epistulae II.1, 70) called him Orbilius Plagosus or "Orbilius the Flogger" because of his abuse of pupils who translated Homer's Greek poorly.

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