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.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The End of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Natural Law

FOR THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURY Romantics, there was a world of difference between the beautiful and the sublime. These adjectives were descriptions of different, even mutually exclusive, aesthetic experiences a man or woman could have when confronting the marvels of natural landscape. Confrontation with an object of beauty elicited pleasing, agreeable feelings, and such feelings were the proper aesthetic reaction when confronted by an object with such characteristics as smoothness, neatness, symmetry, harmony, and orderliness. An object of sublimity, on the other hand, related to something obscure, dark, overwhelming, terrible, or majestic, usually large and overpowering, perhaps one that prescribed a sense of astonishment, awe, or horror, even danger in the observer. Something sublime elicited emotions of admiration, reverence, humility, and respect. In short, the beautiful was all form, whereas the sublime was largely formless. Beauty was within the comprehension of man; sublimity bespoke of something altogether beyond his intellectual or physical strength.[1] Beautiful landscapes were those characterized by quiet, gently-colored and harmonious scenes, whether of lakes, or fields, or forests, or rounded hills. It was the Arcadian, bucolic, pastoral scene that might be called beautiful. Sublime landscapes, on the other hand, would be those characterized by high cliffs, or dark craggy, erratic mountains and cliffs, the powerful waterfalls, and vast, boundless, limitless expanses.

The difference between the beautiful and the sublime appears to have been on everyone's mind in the 18th and 19th centuries, from the philosopher sitting on his desk, the budding politician, the explorer out in the wild, the tourist and the poet on an excursion.[2] Eventually, that distinction, altogether corrupted and confused, was to make it within the covers of the so-called Green Book,[3] a book on the English language that happened on the desk of C. S. Lewis, and that served as the foundation for a series of remarkable lectures on the natural moral law at King's College, Newcastle. These lectures, sponsored by the University of Durham as the Riddell Memorial Lectures, were held on February 24-26, 1943. Eventually, they were published in a book under the title The Abolition of Man. The book is considered a minor classic, and comes highly recommended by those who advance traditional morality and conservative cultural values.[4]

In the next few blog postings we will provide a series of reflections on C. S. Lewis's work The Abolition of Man.[5]

Lewis begins the Abolition of Man by noting how these authors of this popular text on language and literature (whom he calls Gaius and Titius) unwittingly destroy the sense of an objective world which should elicit particular emotional reactions from us, and from this it is a short order to subjectivism in morals. Rather, these contemporary Jacks and Joes, infected by modern subjectivism and relativism, completely fold together the objective world and the subjective world, both of which are realities, into one cloth of the subjective experience, thereby erasing in any real sense the notion of an objective world. The dangerous tendency is expressed in the context of the authors' handling the emotional reactions to things of beauty and things that are sublime in Coleridge's famed visit (with the Wordsworths) to the The Falls of Clyde, a series of waterfalls (or, in Scottish, "linn") on the River Clyde near New Lanark, South Lanarkshire, Scotland. The Falls of Clyde include the upper falls of Bonnington Linn, Corra Linn, Dundaff Linn, and the lower falls of Stonebyres Linn. The Corra Linn is the highest of the four linn, with a vertical fall of 90 feet.

The Falls of Clyde (Corra Linn) by Jacob More (1771)

As Lewis tells it:

In their second chapter Gaius and Titius quote the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall. You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it "sublime" and the other "pretty"; and that Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust.

Abolition, 2. It is unclear to me whether C. S. Lewis recollected this incorrectly or whether the authors of the Green Book got it wrong (and I have not been able to access the original Green Book to make that determination), for it appears that Coleridge's problem is not that one tourist felt one way and that another tourist felt another about the Corra Linn, but that the same tourist purported to feel that the Corra Linn was both beautiful and sublime, something which was incongruous, even stupid and risible, if one knew the meaning of the terms.[6]

But the precise recollection of the incident at the Corra Linn is not important, at least not as important as the spin that Gaius and Titius put on the incident. What was objectionable to Lewis was the severance by the authors of the distinction between the objective and the subjective world, and the suggestion that all reality is feeling, all is subjective, that the subjective has no real ordering to the objective, and the further implication of what this means: that we cannot know reality, that there is no objective world to which we ought to conform or respond appropriately. The upshot of all this is ultimately to hold that there is nothing that is important since all is feeling.
Gaius and Titius comment as follows: "When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall . . . Actually . . . he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word "Sublime", or shortly, I have sublime feelings. . . . This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings."
Abolition, 2-3. Extend that manner of thinking about literary expression into the language of morals--and the language of literature is not that different from the language of morals--and you have a recipe for the destruction of man. And it was this concern that spurred C. S. Lewis to criticize the diseased view of the world that was contained in the green covers of this elementary textbook. It was, in his view, an indoctrination that was calculated to destroy children, to have them grow up to be "men without chests." And it is for this reason that Lewis quotes as an epigraph to the chapter the words from the traditional Christmas Carol that refer to Herod's slaying of the innocents: "So he [Herod] sent the word to slay / and he slew the little childer."[7] Lewis explains his worry:

The schoolboy who reads this passage in The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant.

Abolition, 4.

This view of value, a moral theory of emotivism, of course, is execrable whether meant by the authors or whether the result of unintentional neglect or carelessness. What we have here is a sort of murder of the modern innocents' souls, a stifling of their natural want to know the objective truth, the truth about our world, about the natural moral law, and ultimately about God who created both.

Unwittingly, perhaps, but still every bit successfully, these elementary school educators destroy the heart in the developing child. The heart of the child is that instrument by which his emotion is ordered toward the objective world. Emotion, sentiment is not something against which man ought to be fortified as if it has, and cannot have, any relation to objective reality. Rather, what needs to be encouraged by the educator is the proper ordering of emotion and sentiment to the object. That is, emotion ought to have its roots in the objective, and the proper ordering of emotion and sentiment with the objective world is what education, especially in the young, should regard important.

The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles [of emotion] but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiment is to inculcate just sentiments. . . . For famished nature will be avenged and a hard hard is no infallible protection against a soft head.

Abolition, 14. The fundamental problem of the modern view which is espoused by Gaius and Titius is the severance of the linkage between reality and the internal or emotional life of man. Traditionally, there was understood to be a correspondence, a congruity, a measured and rational connection between the objective world and the internal human reaction to it. This correspondence appears to have been lost.
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it--believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. . . . [R]esponses could be more 'just' or 'ordinate' or 'appropriate' to it than others.
Abolition, 14-15. It was this belief that stood behind the reaction of Coleridge to the man who would have the Corra Linn to be both beautiful and sublime. The cataract before the tourist was sublime, and the proper emotional response to the sublime object in front of them were sentiments of awe, of humility, of reverence. To claim that an object before you was sublime was more than mere description of sentiment. It was, at the same time, "also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions." Abolition, 15. It was this connection between the objective and subjective worlds that allowed Coleridge to be critical about the tourist's confused response to the Corra Linn. If only subjective states were involved, one could not criticize a man whose emotions failed to correspond adequately to the object before him. If the world is all subjective, there is no room for communicating about it. It would be like the tourist saying, "I feel sick," and Coleridge responding, "No, I feel quite well." There would no longer be the common link with the objective world that would allow common ground between men. The cosmos would no longer be our home, the room where we sup in common and toast to the sublimity and the beauty of God's creation. We would all be entrapped within the world of subjectivity, of relativity, of individuality, of narcissism. This is a world where we drink--toasting only to ourselves--the insipid drink of solipsism. We fall into a world where there is no such thing as beauty, as the sublime, there is only self, and in self only loneliness.

[1]The subject has been addressed by many literary critics and literary historians. One may point to the essay by Nicola Trott entitled "The Picturesque, the Beautiful, and the Sublime," in Duncan Wu, ed., A Companion to Romanticism (Oxford: Blackwell 2003), 72 ff.
[2]The efforts of philosopher's to distinguish between the two emotional states can be seen, for example, in Edmund Burke's youthful work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful or in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment, or even more directly in his 1764 work Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen). According to Kant's Critique of Judgment:
The beautiful in nature is a question of the form of the object, and this consists in limitation, whereas the sublime is to be found in an object even devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its presence provokes, a representation of limitlessness, yet with a super-added thought of its totality. Accordingly the beautiful seems to be regarded as a presentation of an indeterminate concept of understanding, the sublime as a presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason.
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1952), 90-91 (J. C. Meredith, trans.) The distinction was brought to the wilds in the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806). Merriwether Lewis, in his Journals, reflects on the difference between two waterfalls on the Missouri River, the Great Falls, which he had seen the day before, and the Beautiful Cascade (later renamed Rainbow Falls) ruing his lack of artistic or poetic ability to describe the two:
“I wished for the pencil of Salvator Rosa [i.e., Titian] or the pen of [James] Thomson [author of The Seasons], that I might be enabled to give to the enlightened world some just idea of this truly magnificent and sublimely grand object, which has from the commencement of time been concealed from the view of civilized man.”
The next day the expedition went upstream and there Lewis saw a second set of falls:
I now thought that if a skillful painter had been asked to make a beautiful cascade that he would most probably have presented the precise image of this one; nor could I for some time determine on which of those two great cataracts to bestow the palm, . . . at length I determined between these two rivals for glory that this was pleasingly beautiful, while the other was sublimely grand.
The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, (University of Nebraska Press, 1987), Vol. 4, 285-290. (Gary E. Moulton, ed.). More closely-related to C. S. Lewis reference is Coleridge, who himself reflected on these differences in his work Coleridge, "On the Principles of Genial Criticism" published in Felix Farley's Bristol Journal in August and September 1814: "There are few mental exertions more instructive, or which are capable of being rendered more entertaining, than the attempt to establish and exemplify the distinct meaning of terms, often confounded in common use, and considered as mere synonyms. Such are the words Agreeable, Beautiful, Picturesque, Grand, Sublime."
[3]The Green book referred to by C.S. Lewis is the book by Alec King and Martin Ketley,
The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing originally published by Longmans, Green, in 1939. He refers to the authors as "Gaius" and "Titius" which are used as monikers to refer to the typical "Joe" and "Jack" by Roman authors.
[4]For example, The Abolition of Man was placed 7th in National Review's 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century. It was placed 2nd in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's list of the 50 Greatest Books of the 20th Century. It was selected as one of the ten most important books a conservative ought to read in 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read by Benjamin Wiker (Washington, D.C.: Regnery 2010).
[5]C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), hereinafter referred to as "Abolition."
[6]The incident occurred on August 21, 1803, and is related by Dorothy Wordsworth (William Wordsworth's wife) in her Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, A.D. 1803:
The waterfall Cora Linn is composed of two falls, with a sloping space, which appears to be about twenty yards between, but is much more. The basin which receives the fall is enclosed by noble rocks, with trees, chiefly hazels, birch, and ash growing out of their sides whenever there is any hold for them; and a magnificent resting-place it is for such a river; I think more grand than the Falls themselves.

After having stayed some time, we returned by the same footpath into the main carriage-road, and soon came upon what William calls an ell-wide gravel walk, from which we had different views of the Linn. We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country, and saw a ruined tower, called Wallace's Tower, which stands at a very little distance from the fall, and is an interesting object.

A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. C[oleridge], who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with [a] gentleman, who observed that it was a "majestic waterfall." Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grant, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with Wm. [William Wordsworth] at some length the day before. "Yes, sir," says Coleridge, "it is a majestic waterfall." "Sublime and beautiful," replied his friend. Poor C. could make no answer, and not very desirous to continue the conversation, came to us and related the story, laughing heartily.
It was of these falls that William Wordsworth wrote his poem, "Composed at Cora Linn, in Sight of Wallace's Tower," where the sublimity of the falls and the sight of Wallace's Tower nearby blend into sublime sentiment of those who fight for freedom against tyranny: In part:
LORD of the vale! astounding Flood;
The dullest leaf in this thick wood
Quakes--conscious of thy power;
The caves reply with hollow moan;
And vibrates, to its central stone,
Yon time-cemented Tower!

And yet how fair the rural scene!
For thou, O Clyde, hast ever been
Beneficent as strong;
Pleased in refreshing dews to steep
The little trembling flowers that peep
Thy shelving rocks among.

Hence all who love their country, love
To look on thee--delight to rove
Where they thy voice can hear;
And, to the patriot-warrior's Shade,
Lord of the vale! to Heroes laid
In dust, that voice is dear!

Along thy banks, at dead of night
Sweeps visibly the Wallace Wight;
Or stands, in warlike vest,
Aloft, beneath the moon's pale beam,
A Champion worthy of the stream,
Yon grey tower's living crest!

But clouds and envious darkness hide
A Form not doubtfully descried:--
Their transient mission o'er,
O say to what blind region flee
These Shapes of awful phantasy?
To what untrodden shore?

Less than divine command they spurn;
But this we from the mountains learn,
And this the valleys show;
That never will they deign to hold
Communion where the heart is cold
To human weal and woe.

. . . .

[7]The carol referred to by Lewis as the epigraph to his first chapter is "Unto Us is Born a Son," a translation of the Latin hymn Puer Nobis Nascitur. See the web page The Hymns and Carols of Christmas.
Unto us is born a Son,
King of Quires supernal:
See on earth His life begun,
Of lords the Lord eternal,
Of lords the Lord eternal.

Christ, from heav'n descending low
Comes on earth a stranger;
Ox and ass their owner know,
Be cradled in the manger,
Be cradled in the manger.

This did Herod sore affray,
And grievously bewilder
So he gave the word to slay,
And slew the little childer,
And slew the little childer.

Of His love and mercy mild
This the Christmas story;
And O that Mary's gentle child
Might lead us up to glory!
Might lead us up to glory!

O and A, and A and O,
Cum cantibus in choro,
Let our merry organ go,
Benedicamus Domino.

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