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.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pedro Calderón de la Barca and the Natural Law, Part 1

DURING THE LAST SEVERAL WEEKS we have discussed the some of the Protestant reformers' attack or modifications of the received doctrine of the natural moral law. In some cases, in particular Luther and especially Calvin, the Protestant reformers essentially denied the theoretical reason's ability to know God and the practical reason's ability to know the good. At the extreme end, we have characters such as the Calvinist theologian Karl Barth, who vehemently rejected any role of the natural law. In other cases (e.g., Melanchthon, Vermigli, and Zanchi), the Protestant reformers advanced, if somewhat modified, the received natural law doctrine. These latter allow us a foothold to enter into dialogue with Protestant on moral issues based upon an overlap of traditions.

During the 16th and 17th centuries in Spain, however, the natural law enjoyed a rugged revival. As part of its Counter-Reformation efforts, the Church insisted natural reason's ability, even if limited in practice for a variety of reasons, to apprehend God's existence and to apprehend the good. Thus, the Church insisted, without thereby reducing the need for Revelation and Grace, that there was such a thing as natural theology. The Church's efforts to maintain this teaching bore fruit in Spain, and the Church's doctrine regarding the natural law found expression not only among its theologians, but also among its playrights and poets. So the natural law frequently became a subject in the auto sacramentales, or one-act plays that addressed moral and theological issues and dogmas, and which were popular during Spain's so-called Golden Age of literature.

During the next several blog postings, we will discuss one of those auto sacramentales. Specifically, we will discuss the role of natural theology and the natural law in Pedro Calderón de la Barca's auto sacramental entitled A Dios por razón de estado, To God by Reason of the State.

Since Calderón is not well-known outside Spain, it is useful to preface these next entries with a short introduction of his life and place in literature.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-81) was one of Spain's great writers, poets, and dramatists in one of Spain's greatest literary age. Not only was he one of Spain's great writers, but he has reached international status, and is generally regarded as one of the world's great playwrights. He rubs shoulders with Shakespeare, Molière, and Racine his near-contemporaries. He is perhaps best known for his play, La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream):

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ficción,
una sombra, una ilusión,
y el mayor bien es pequeño.
¡Que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son!

What is life? A frenzy.
What is life? A fiction,
A shadow, an illusion,
And the greatest profit is small;
For all of life is a dream,
And dreams, are nothing but dreams.

Calderón was born in Madrid from a mother of Flemish descent, and a father who was an hidalgo, a minor nobleman, from the area of Cantabria. His parents died when Calderón was young--his mother dying in 1610 and his father in 1615. Calderón studied at the Imperial College (Colegio Imperial), the Jesuit College in Madrid, intending to become a priest. His plans changed, however, and instead studied law at Salamanca. But he was not to be a lawyer.

Instead, Calderón began his literary career in the 1620s, writing poems and plays that received recognition from the outset. By the mid-1630s, Calderón's talents had reached the ears of the royal court, as he was made a knight of the Order of Santiago by Phillip IV in 1636 or 1637, and he was commissioned to write a series of plays for the royal theater that had recently been built in the Buen Retiro palace. He appears to have married and fathered a son, but his wife died young. Calderón became a third-order member of the Franciscans in 1650, and eventually was ordained into the priesthood in 1651.

It was then that he wrote the majority of his autos sacamentales, some of which proved controversial and were subject of inquiry by the Inquisition or its censorship. Ultimately, he wrote about 80 of these auto sacramentales. The autos sacramentales were influenced by his Jesuit education, and his reading of the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas and the Jesuit theologian Francisco Suárez. Though written within a Thomistic or Suarezian template, his plays also have a deep psychological sensitivity, and faithfully address the tensions that exist in man. They tend thus to focus on the tension between faith and reason, reason and impulse or passion, intellect and instinct, knowledge and will. They are, like much of the Spaniard and that culture's tragic sense of life, colored with a realistic or vital pessimism, but this is counterbalanced, indeed redeemed and compensated, by an optimistic view of reason and of Faith. Life is a dream, relative only to the reality of the Eternity to which we are summoned.

Calderón enjoyed favor with the court for all his life, and in 1663, he became honorary chaplain to Philip IV, an office he continued to fulfill for Philip IV's successor, John IV. Calderón wrote his last play, Hado y Divisa de Leonido y Marfisa, at the age of eighty-one.

The play A Dios por razón de estado, To God by Reason of the State, opens with its two main protagonists, Thought (El Pensamiento) who is dressed as a madman as if fleeing from the galant Intellect (Ingenio), who is seeking to detain him. The Chorus chants:

Gran Dios, que ignoramos,
abrevia el tiempo
y haz que te conozcamos,
pues te creemos.

Great God, of whom we are ignorant
Shorten the time
And grant that we may know you
In that we believe in you.

As Robert Fiore understands it,* "[t]he personified abstractions of el Ingenio and his companion el Pensamiento represent specific facets of Aquinas's [doctrine of] natural reason." (27) El Pensamiento "corresponds to the imagination and the cogitative sense which estimates what is beneficial or harmful to man." On the other hand, El Ingenio "exhibits properties of the central sense, which is the link between the external world and man's consciousness, and the memory, which operates in conjunction with reason to employ a type of syllogistic process." Thus, natural human reason is a composite of these two, though they exist in tension. (27-28) Thought and Intellect are sufficiently separate and independent that they must voluntarily cooperate and dialogue; neither has power over the other, and neither makes progress without the harmonious corroboration. After Intellect and Thought decide to travel together, the action in the play begins with Thought seeking the source and meaning of the song of the Chorus that is coming from a rustic Greek Temple on the top of a mountain:

Los dulces acentos
de una métrica armonía
(que es en repetidos ecos
sonoro enigma del aire,
cuyo sentido no entiendo),
me arrebatan a saber
qué quieren decir . . . .

The sweet accents
Of metric harmony
(which is the repeated echoing
and enigmatic sounds of the air
whose meaning I do not understand),
They take hold of me to want to know
What it is they are saying

Here is Thought, spurred by wonder, by curiosity, to seek understanding. Intellect admits that he is plagued by the same doubt, the same confusion regarding the songs of the Chorus. How it is that non-believers, Barbarians and cultures blind to Revelation, are able nevertheless to apprehend and even, in a manner, worship God. So Intellect and Though partner together in searching the answer to this question, with Thought to think it, and Intellect to know it.

As they approach the rustic temple, it has on its frontispiece the Latin inscription: "Ignoto Deo," meaning "To the Unknown God." Open to the four winds, and without altar or image, the rustic temple bears no clue as to what God is worshiped there.

Roman Altar to the Unknown God

This is a clear reference to the encounter between St. Paul and the pagan Athenians at the Areopagus, regarding the worship of the Agnostos Theos, the Unknown God, as related in the Book of Acts 17:22-17:31:

22 But Paul standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious. 23 For passing by, and seeing your idols, I found an altar also, on which was written: To the unknown God. What therefore you worship, without knowing it, that I preach to you: 24 God, who made the world, and all things therein; he, being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; 25 Neither is he served with men's hands, as though he needed any thing; seeing it is he who giveth to all life, and breath, and all things: 24 "Dwelleth not in temples"... God is not contained in temples; so as to need them for his dwelling, or any other uses, as the heathens imagined. Yet by his omnipresence, he is both there and everywhere. 26 And hath made of one, all mankind, to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, determining appointed times, and the limits of their habitation. 27 That they should seek God, if happily they may feel after him or find him, although he be not far from every one of us: 28 For in him we live, and move, and are; as some also of your own poets said: For we are also his offspring. 29 Being therefore the offspring of God, we must not suppose the divinity to be like unto gold, or silver, or stone, the graving of art, and device of man. 30 And God indeed having winked at the times of this ignorance, now declareth unto men, that all should everywhere do penance. 31 Because he hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in equity, by the man whom he hath appointed; giving faith to all, by raising him up from the dead. 32 And when they had heard of the resurrection of the dead, some indeed mocked, but others said: We will hear thee again concerning this matter. 33 So Paul went out from among them. 34 But certain men adhering to him, did believe; among whom was also Dionysius, the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Indeed, St. Paul is to make his appearance later in the play.

St. Paul Preaching at the Areopagus About the Unknown God

*Citations in this posting and future ones are to Fiore are to Robert L. Fiore, "An Example of the Resurgence of Natural Law in Golden Age Spain," The Medieval Tradition of Natural Law (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1987), 27-35.

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