Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France

Like many of you I have spent some time wondering where we are as a civilization and how we got here.

It might seem like a book about French historians of the 16th century might have very little to do with this question.  But bear with me!–George Huppert’s book The Idea of Perfect History: Historical Erudition and Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France might indeed have something to do with where we find ourselves.

Though perhaps getting there via this informative but slightly dry tome may require more patience from readers than usual!

Huppert makes that point that the writing of history changed dramatically during the period he examines, but to understand this we need to briefly glimpse the history of “History,” for the study of history as we know it came into being comparatively recently.

In the ancient world various kings had their escapades recorded for posterity.  A text of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III, for example, has him slaying 1000 lions with a single arrow and other such things.  We can wonder, did Thutmose expect others to believe him?  Did he believe it himself?  More likely, he had no wish to record exactly what happened but inhabited another way of thinking and another form of writing.  Herodotus records a combination of personal observations, investigations, and poetic constructions.  He saw no need to differentiate.  Apparently, he didn’t think it mattered.  He saw no need to concern himself with his “history” exclusively with what “actually happened.”  Even Thucydides–who had a much more scientific bent and witnessed many of the events he records–surely invents certain speeches to craft an artful narrative.

The medieval period formed the immediate context for many of Huppert’s subjects.  Many wrote first-hand accounts of kings or crusades during this period.  What they knew and saw they described.  But when going beyond this, they no problem filling in gaps with some educated guesswork, and like the ancients, saw no need to be clear about the difference.  Others went further.  In his History of the Kings of Britain Geoffrey of Monmouth includes a lengthy section on King Arthur.  Here Geoffrey is on at least semi-historical footing–King Arthur, or someone like him, may have existed.  But Geoffrey includes a section detailing Arthur’s denunciation by senate of Rome, and his combat against a rag-tag army which included “Kings from the Orient,” which certainly never happened.  Moreover, Geoffrey and his readers must have known this never happened.

We also see in many medieval histories the desire to connect one’s own particular history with a grander narrative.  One can do this with myth directly, but others did this “mythically.”  Vergil has the origins of Rome come from Troy, and Geoffrey has the English, in turn, come from Rome/Troy.  French historians have the Franks come from Troy as well.*  Again, the desire to connect poetically/narratively with the grand story of civilization trumps that of what “actually happened.”  They did this quite self-consciously.

Nicole Gilles’ Annals of France (ca. 1525) give us a late example of this.  He begins with Creation itself and then recounts some aspects of Biblical history.  He moves quickly to the history of France’s kings, but here he includes many legends and miracles.  The giants he describes, as well as the kings, have an ancestry. It just so happens in the Annals that the Franks were founded by a man named Francio, . . . also from Troy. Even the giant Feragut, slain by Roland, descends from Goliath.  Perhaps Roland and Francio did not exist, but certainly Charlemagne did.  But he has Charlemagne do things that few would really think actually happened, such as undertake a crusade to Jerusalem.  His book was a wild success, which surely frustrated many of the France’s emerging humanist scholars.  Those scholars might have taken solace had they known that the Annals were the last of its kind.

We see the shift evidenced by the comments of two humanist scholars in the mid 16th century.  Claude Fauchet wrote that medieval historians had, “failed in the chief responsibility of the historian, that is, to tell the truth.” And Lancelot Popeliniere declared that “no man of honor ever practiced [history in France], since the profession had always been in the hands of clerics,” whose limitations and biases prevented them from giving an objective appraisal of events.

These statements contain within them a revolution of thought, but they both beg questions: What does it mean for a historian to tell the truth?  And who is objective?

Their passion for “what really happened” involved the following:

  • Making history a science that concerned itself with the affairs of men, not so much the intervention of God, which cannot be measured or predicted.
  • Broadening the scope of history beyond national or religious concerns, and focusing on the history of all, and
  • Getting the best texts, and staying faithful to the best texts, would get us to the truth.  Truth comes from texts, not so much from tradition.

The astute observer no doubt notices a strong correlation between this last goal and the emerging Protestant Reformation.  Indeed, some of this new breed of historians had much sympathy with the French Protestants, and we can say more on this later.  But regardless of religious affiliation, all three goals also added up to a rejection of the idea that history involved a kind of devolution, a falling away from grace.  Rather, for these French humanists, just as we could improve the study of history and cleanse from the muck of the errors of the past, so too could our whole society move forward and progress.**

Huppert details the writing of several French historians of the 16th century who followed these axioms.  The details here ran a bit dry for me, but the overall effect was the same.  When one combines the work of these scholars in the 16th century with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, the work of history changed dramatically, and we should evaluate the fallout for good or ill.

The passion for precision and the value of the text have done a great deal to improve history in a variety of ways that seem axiomatic to mention.  We have more access to more information, we have more texts in translation, and almost certainly, a better idea for “what really happened,” than previously.  The late Renaissance humanists foreshadowed the Enlightenment, which gave us a variety of other secondary blessings, especially related to advancements in science that comes with breaking things down into component parts.

But we have lost a great deal in the exchange and the exchange may not have worth it.

First, I stress that while we have a “better idea” for what really happened in the past, we still don’t really know.  We still have to guess and be comfortable with guessing.  Having more texts will not solve the problem of interpreting the texts.  But all this says is that the French humanists had a bit too much optimism, hardly a dreadful fault.  But this optimism has had certain consequences.

Their methods assert that we can get outside traditions and into a place of pure perspective and rationality.  We know that we cannot do this.  Their reliance on texts exacerbates this.  A text, divorced from tradition, can have an almost infinite amount of interpretations.  Note how the reliance on “sola Scriptura” has doomed Protestants into constant splintering and thousands of factions, each claiming to base their ideas on the “text” of the Bible.  In the end, different traditions of interpretation do in fact form, with Reformed Study Bibles, Scofield Reference Bibles, and so on.

We must also deal with Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nicole Gilles and ask if they write history. We may say that the discipline of History involves many things, but we must first ask what it involves primarily.  Is it primarily an art or science?  If we had to choose would we rather have eyewitness testimonies to tell us what happened in Guernica, or Picasso’s painting?

If we side with Picasso we will begin to understand medieval historians.

For History to have any real significance, it must have meaning.  Meaning requires interpretation, and interpretation requires poetry, something beyond mere facts.  We might surmise that in having Arthur deal with Rome, Geoffrey sought to display his view of Arthur as the inheritor of the mantle of Christendom after the fall of Rome–the literary equivalent to an interpretative painting of him, or perhaps an “icon” of Arthur (a great example of how truth can be communicated in image can be found here). The same could be said of Gilles’ “depiction” of Charlemagne.

We do not critique paintings by saying things such as, “He didn’t look exactly like that, so that’s not painting.”  But humanistic rationalism treated the text as having more truth than the image.  This is why they treated medieval historians unfairly.  They failed to see how truth claims could be communicated in the text artistically (and entertainingly as well, as anyone who has read Geoffrey of Monmouth can attest).^  I have no problem calling Geoffrey and Gilles historians, albeit historians of a different type.  They told the “truth,” (if their interpretations were accurate), but in a different way.  They had their biases, but so do you and I.

One can point to many reasons why we experience our current political situation.  Some of them do indeed have a connection to the historians of Renaissance France.  The founders (not the early colonists) drank deeply from the same Enlightenment-oriented spirit of our aforementioned historians.  They too focused heavily on texts, and indeed, we base our life together not on shared traditions, but the texts of the Declaration and Constitution.  “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”–but it has certain consequences.

The postmoderns rightly tell us that texts can have an almost uncountable number of interpretations.  The search for the “absolute” interpretation of the text will get us nowhere.  So both those who drive pickups with big American flags and those who drink latte’s and protest the national anthem both can claim to live out what it means to be an American (i.e., “protest is the most American thing one can do,” and so on).  On the one hand, Trump takes an ax to many traditions of how a president should act.  But on the other hand, he “connects with the common man,” and isn’t America all about the common man and freedom from tradition?

Hence, we see our dilemma.

But postmoderns fail us because not every interpretation has the same validity.  We have to have a way of distinguishing and separating the good from the bad.  With only texts and no traditions at our disposal, however, we will have a hard time reigning in the various interpretations.  Other ways of seeing and apprehending the “truths” of history can provide checks, balances, and possibly, a return to sanity.  In his introduction to Fr. Maximos Constas’ The Art of Seeing Bishop Maxim asks

For example, if you have a photograph of Christ and an icon painting of Christ, which is more truthful?  Certainly, if you have a naturalistic approach, you would say, “the photograph.”  But if you say [the icon] you point to unconventional and eschatological truth.  . . . .Therefore, there is truth in art that does not correspond to the mind of reality.


*I find it interesting that everyone wanted to come from Troy and not Greece.  Troy lost.  Many say that the Europeans wanted to come from Troy to connect themselves with Rome.  I can’t deny this might have something to do with it, but I think it goes beyond that.  Hector, for example, became a Christian name, while Odysseus and Achilles did not.  I’m sure there is more here to explore.

**The idea that history means speaking of such devolution is hardly the property of medievals alone.  Most every ancient society had myths of golden ages in the past we should attempt to emulate, whether these ages be mythical, quasi-mythical, or presented as historical (as perhaps Livy does in his work).  What looks benign to us in the French scholars really represented a radical shift from the past.

I consider the idea of devolution in history here.

^I think this attitude towards texts and the reduction of the idea of truth to “what actually happened” contributed greatly to the Galileo controversy and the subsequent tension between science and religion. In my limited reading of the situation, no such tension existed before this time.




Carnival Time

One of my favorite of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries is “The Guru of Go,” about Loyola Marymount University’s run-and-gun style of basketball.  Those who follow college basketball today know that scores routinely end up in the 60’s, but LMU routinely scored in the 90’s and had many games of over 100 points or more.  Their command over their own style of play “forced” other teams to try and keep up.  But . . . even when teams could stick with Loyola Marymount  in the short-term, the fact that they got caught up in the fast pace meant that they played on enemy territory.  Inevitably, the pace would wear down opponents and Loyola would shoot ahead, leaving their opponents wheezing on the bench.

Most every Christian in the west of an orthodox (small “o”) bent acknowledges that the so-called culture war is over and has been for some time.  We lost.  This might surprise someone transported from, say, the 1980’s when it appeared that “victory” was at hand, with the ascendancy of the moral majority and political conservatism firmly entrenched.  Now looking back we see that marshaling coalitions and votes for laws and Supreme Court justices only meant playing on enemy territory.  Rather, the “City of God” cannot arise using the tools of the “City of Man.”  Like Loyola’s opponents, we got enticed into playing a secular game on secular turf.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age will likely prove too deep and dense for me to glean much from.  He writes in a conversational style but with deep concepts and many variations of thought.  One needs a great deal of focus to follow him.  But I felt, perhaps rashly, that the whole of his thesis made sense when he discussed . . .

medieval carnivals.

Medieval carnivals took some different forms in different times and places.  Some days merely involved eating and drinking too much, such as “Fat Tuesday.”  Some had more complexity/absurdity, such as the “Lord of Misrule,” which happened around Christmastide.  In this space of time a sub-deacon or even a peasant might get appointed as chief of festivities, which involved eating and drinking to be sure . . . among other things.   Other such similar days had dukes serve as peasants and peasants occupy manorial houses, and so on.  So in the carnival emblem to the side, all of creation seems reversed, as the hare triumphantly rides the hunting hound.

Most commentators point out that such festivals allowed people to let off steam, especially necessary in a structured and hierarchical society such as medieval Europe.  Even some contemporary clerics acknowledge this role for the carnival.  But this forms only the baseline for understanding the role of the carnival.  The emblem of the hare and hounds attest to something grander at work.

Those committed to Christianity know that it provides a means to understand all of experience, not just life after death.  Much of our Christian life involves holding things in tension.  So we believe that God is one God in three persons, neither favoring the unity or the plurality, but going “straight ahead.”  Jesus is fully God and fully man, “without confusion,” as stated by the Council of Chalcedon.  The Church hymns the Virgin Mary as the “unwedded bride.”  For the Mother of God both terms truly apply, without confusion.  Scripture is the Word of God, written by particular men at particular times, and so on it goes.  Christians rightly recognized the Incarnation as the focal point of human experience, for in the coming of Christ creation gets remade and reborn, as John attests in his Gospel by obviously referencing Genesis 1.  After the Incarnation we live in a new world, but in many ways outwardly it exactly resembles the old world.

In the world B.C.*, people saw childlessness as a curse.  Of course children are a blessing in a physical, natural sense, but at a deeper level we were meant to perpetuate the continuing natural order as a means of bringing about the coming of Messiah.  No children meant no participation in redemption.

In the kingdom to come, however, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage.  Thus, we honor monastics.  At the baseline, we honor them for their sacrifice.  But their vows of poverty and chastity mean that they do not live in ordinary time. Their lives transcend the ordinary needs of the world, and reflect the reality of the new creation wrought by Christ. They live partially in eternal time, which contains all time.  They “neither marry, or are given in marriage,” and of course in the heavenly kingdom no one needs money.**  Monastics may or may not live exemplary lives, but their station puts them closer to eternal time than laity and even priests, who must concern themselves with affairs in the world.

In his essay Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper makes that case that the only way to escape the cycle of work is to receive breaks in time from without.  Even vacations, he points out, cannot be “leisure” if we view them strictly as breaks from work.  Modern views of labor probably originated with Marx and his followers, and certainly we should sympathize with the “proletariat,” if we wish to use the term.  But as Pieper wryly remarks, “Proletarianism cannot obviously be overcome by making everyone proletarian.”

Ordinary time may be strictly linear, but not “eternal time.”  Eternal time contains all moments.  We the laity, despite our ordinary and natural station, can still at times participate in eternal time.  Taking the crucifixion as an example, Taylor writes,

Meanwhile the Church, in its liturgical year, remembers and re-enacts what happened . . . [at Christ’s crucifixion].  Which is why this year’s Good Friday can be closer to the Crucifixion than last year’s mid-summer’s day.  And the Crucifixion itself, since Christ’s passion here participates in God’s eternity, is closer to all times than they in secular terms are to each other.

Put in other terms, on this view tracts of secular time were not homogenous and interchangeable.  They were [differentiated] by there placing in relation to higher time.

Medieval carnivals did not participate in sacred time, but they did recognize the duality.  By breaking down the natural order of ordinary time, they testified to the reality of sacred eternity, where a completely new order will forever take hold of the cosmos.  Thus, the breaking down of the order gives it new life, the secular/ordinary order gets reborn freshly after each carnival.  It makes perfect sense that the “Lord of Misrule” would “reign” during Christmastide, for this time on calendar celebrated the breaking in of the eternal into temporal via the Incarnation.  “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while He is with them (Mk. 2:19)?”

Carnivals did not protest against the prevailing order so much as re-affirm it.  Recognizing its temporary and inferior status was the only way it could be reaffirmed, the only way order could perpetuate.

We remember Henry VIII for his many marriages, but it makes perfect sense that an absolutist like Henry would also abolish the days of misrule at Christmastide.  This too accompanies his seizure of monastic lands.  The monastic vocation and the carnival testify to this tension in time, and to the transitory nature of the state.  No statist like Henry likes such things.  Other worlds frighten and confuse them.

We see too that whatever its intentions, by abolishing liturgies and the church calendar, the Reformation paved the way for secularization.  Bit by bit Protestant denominations moved away from the “sacred time” of the church calendar year. Taylor cites Walter Benjamin’s description of “homogenous and empty time” as the mark of modern consciousness.  “On this view,” Taylor writes, “time [has no meaning in itself] but is like a container, indifferent to what fills it.  Without “eternal liturgics,” and without a sense of time as a gift to mold and shape us, all that is left is for us to fill time with meaning.  And so we have, and created the secular state thereby.

This secular victory is quite empty, however. The homogenization of time makes everything sterile.  Nothing can have real meaning.  Without fasting, we cannot even feast.  With the homogenization of time comes the homogenization of space–including space for worship.  With no delineation of either time and space, it’s no wonder that, “we’re all secular now.”

We see this view of the homogeneity and plasticity of time permeate our society. Take Fridays for example.  Back in ye olden days Fridays for everyone involved fasting of some kind, for each Friday participated in some way in the Crucifixion–not just in memory, but in reality.  After abandoning the dual sense of time described above we instead oriented time around our work/school week.  Now Friday has taken on the opposite role in our secular liturgy as a day of release, fun, and celebration.  Imagine a family trying to establish something of the older sense of Fridays, and the enormous accompanying societal/liturgical pressure to go out and have fun with friends from work or school facing them square in the face.

“Resistance is futile.”

Of course, this same story has been played out in so many other areas.  Without Advent we get Black Friday.  Without Paschaltide we get “Spring Breakers.”

In a recent conversation with Hank Hannegraaf Rod Drehrer recounted his meeting with a group of evangelical pastors near the election.  While Drehrer understood why one might vote for Trump “in sorrow,” as an alternative to Clinton, he admitted an utter incredulity in seeing some pastors positively enthused about Trump.  The response from another evangelical who shared his lament was, “You have to understand, they have no Plan B.  Politics is the only way they can conceive of changing the world.”^

The statism of Henry VIII–and others– has born disastrous fruit.

Many on the more secular left might lament Trump’s election and see it as proof that the “war has yet to be won,” or something like that.  They can relax and break out the cigars.  The war was won long ago, the rest has been mopping-up operations here and there.

I find it hard to tell if Taylor laments or merely describes the shift towards secularism.  He does state that at most all those who hope for a return can do is indulge in nostalgia.  I agree that the tide ran out long ago, but I have more hope.  A proper and effective response will first recognize that turning the battleship will take generations of small faithfulness in our lives and homes.  We should begin with a developing a new sense of time.


Written on the Feast of the Chains of St. Peter, and the Commemoration of St. Paul the Apostle


*The attempt to replace B.C./A.D. with BCE/CE may only be meant as a sop to political correctness or inclusivity.  No doubt people mean well.  But still, the switch is at root an attempt to remake our understanding of time.  Though I lament this shift, it is in many ways long overdue, as we no longer order our lives around the impact of the Incarnation.  It took the French just four years of Revolution to switch their calendar.  It will take us much longer, because we have nothing to replace it with.  We lack the bold audacity of the French, which is a good thing, considering that tens of thousands died in the French Revolution and millions died in the Napoleonic wars.

**Visitors to the monasteries on Mount Athos notice that two different clocks are used in many of the monasteries.  One, the familiar ordinary/secular time, the other clocks measure the now nearly extinct “Byzantine” time (Byzantine clock seen bel0w) to reflect this dual reality.

^So too the French Revolutionaries, which explains the failure of their festivals.  They sought to ape medieval carnivals, but key differences persisted:

  • They were attempting to construct a new order, not deconstruct an existing order.
  • Thus, their festivals had a much more didactic emphasis than medieval carnivals, which
  • Made them much more boring.

The Marriage of Handwriting and Architecture

It did not take me long to get miffed by Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve.  Almost right away  he commits two cardinal sins in my book when discussing the Medieval period.
  • He brings up all the worst aspects of the Medieval period without any of its virtues, and
  • He asserts that the discovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is one of the main causes for the “swerve” from the Medieval to the Modern world.  He does not assert this absolutely, but hedging all on one manuscript still seemed too reductionistic to me.

But Greenblat’s charm and narrative style kept me going.  In the end, I didn’t read the whole thing and skimmed some sections, but one thing in particular struck me forcefully — how handwriting can be a reflection of the personality of a society.

‘Gothic’ script dominated the ‘Gothic’ era, and it can be contrasted with the Carolingian script revived by many Renaissance scribes:

Petrarch complained that Gothic script, “had been designed for something other than reading,” and he was not whining, but speaking the truth.

Gothic Script

The height and cramped fashion of letters makes it difficult to read, and may subconsciously have been designed to be “seen and not heard.”  When we remember that very few could read, and that books were meant to educate visually just as much as textually, the Gothic “font” makes more sense.

Gothic Manuscript

Here are examples of the Carolingian script fashionable during the Renaissance:

Perhaps pro-Renaissance scholars do not exaggerate the real shift that took place as far as education is concerned.  Perhaps this shift in handwriting style helped pave the way for the printing press itself.

If the “font’s” a society uses reflect something of its larger worldview, we would expect to see this expressed in other aspects of their culture.  Gothic architecture mirrors gothic script in uncanny script in uncanny ways, with the “bunched up” nature of its space.

Flying Buttresses

True, the high ceilings of these cathedrals did give a sense of space, but it was space that meant to overpower you, a weight and bulk of a different kind.  The stained glass windows again reveal the same thing as the buttresses — the “cramming” full of space with color.

In the Renaissance we see something else entirely, a more “human” scale in architecture, and a greater sense of space.

The Pazzi Chapel

Michelangelo, the Medici Chapel

So apparently, handwriting can be an expression of a culture’s personality just as architecture can, which should not have surprised me.

When I realized that the Renaissance basically just revived Carolingian script, this gave new significance to the Carolingian Renaissance itself under Charlemagne six centuries earlier.  Those that invented the style and not merely copied it should get greater credit.  Some scholars dismiss the “Carolingian Renaissance,” as small potatoes, but the script they used showed an interest in reading, which sheds new light on the work of Nottker and Einhard.  So, what about architecture under Charlemagne — will it show that same sense of space?  Naturally we must consider Aachen Cathedral, the central building of Charlemagne’s realm:

Aachen Cathedral, Exterior


Well, it appears that we have a mixed verdict.  It is part Gothic, part Byzantine, and part something all its own.  Will I allow this to overthrow my theory of seeing links between handwriting and architecture? Perish the thought!  I can always say that Charlemagne’s time had so much going on that they had no time to be particularly self-aware of these choices, in contrast to both the Gothic and Renaissance periods.

Does America’s utter lack of defining architectural identity have anything to do with our confusion about teaching handwriting?



Renaissances and Ghosts: “Contacts Between Civilizations in Time”

This is not a book unto itself, but merely one-third of Volume 9 of his multi-volume A Study of History series, subtitled, “Contacts Between Civilizations in Time.” However, it can stand apart from the other sections, and it is so dense and at times so insightful it deserves its own treatment.

Naturally when one mentions “The Renaissance,” in the West, we think of the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century, but this, Toynbee states, serves us poorly for three main reasons:

1. There have been many “renaissances” throughout history and to call the one we know “The Renaissance” narrows our vision and prevents us from seeing patterns throughout time and place.

2. When we think of The Renaissance we think mostly about its art, but the classical style came from a broader classical culture.  One thing inevitably spills over into another.

3. Finally, what a “renaissance” really involves  is not so much a resurrection of an idea in the sense of new life, but an act of necromancy designed to bring back to life a dead past.  Think Frankenstein instead of a “new heavens and new earth.”  After all, we cannot bring back the dead, but we can contact a dead past’s “ghost.”  It is this concept of a Renaissance as an act of necromancy that gives this part of the book its unifying theme and key spiritual insight. With that in mind. . .

Toynbee begins with the Italian Renaissance, with which most of us are familiar.  Imagine yourself in Florence, ca. 1400 A.D.  Let’s suppose that you discover the artistic classical style and you begin to replace the prevailing gothic way of seeing the world.  Soon you find yourself, however, noticing the classical political ideology can lend credence to your fight for more independence for  parochial communities (i.e. Venice, Florence, etc.) in one fell swoop.  The city-state system experiences a revival in Italy, which leads to a different role for the Church.  In time, the nation-state is born.  So, “one thing leads to another.”  We cannot expect that we can revive just the artistic style without the accompanying framework.

But if you want the blessings, you get the curses.  The parochial nation-state idea nearly destroyed Europe from 1914-1945, just as it destroyed Greece from 431-338 B.C.  As Toynbee indicates, there is a reason for the death of a previous civilization, and “if you latch onto a decayed society’s social ethos, you will likely suffer their fate.”

This leads naturally into his “necromancy” template.  He makes a few points,

1. Necromancy is by definition an act of desperation (i.e., Saul and the witch at Endor, the rise of spiritualism and seances in England during World War I).  The desperate act may be warranted/worth the cost, or it may be a reaction in the wrong direction.

2. Necromancy reveals not only desperation but a lack of confidence.  Necromancy signals an abdication in our ability to create something new and the passive acceptance to what others already did for you.  Regine Pernoud made similar points in Those Terrible Middle Ages.  But there may be more to it; a renaissance may reflect something deeply lacking in the era in which it happens.

3. When civilizations connect with each other in living “space,” the interaction between the two has potential for equality and mutual exchange, but not with ghosts.  While in Hades, the ghost has no power.  You live; it does not.  But call up the ghost and you discover, like Hamlet, that the ghost has all the power.  You have no influence over the dead, who cannot hear you.  All you can do is listen to them.  Again — you have abdicated something of yourself by reviving the ghost.  “Renaissances are bound to be insulated experiences,” Toynbee commented.  You are now in his power.  The US helped support the revival of the ghost of 19th century Sudanese Wahabi’ism in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, and that did not work out so well for us.

But maybe drastic times call for drastic measures.  Take Charlemagne, for example, who along with Pope Leo III revived the ghost of the Roman Empire.   Was it worth it?  Many historians credit Charlemagne with reviving civilization itself in Europe for the first time in three centuries.  Perhaps inventing a new model would have been preferred, but how much do we blame them given the chaotic times?

Still, even if we agree with Pope Leo and Charlemagne, we must count the cost.  Empires mean conquest; conquest means death, centralization, and other attendant evils.  You can’t have Charlemagne be the “Holy Roman Emperor” without bringing back the filth attendant to the glory.

4. The effect of the ghostly presence will depend in part on geography.  Reviving a direct family member works differently than a distant cousin.  So in Italy the effect of the reviving the classical ghost would be like bringing back the stern father, while in the north the response would have more latitude, and probably, more creativity.

Of course the closer the relation, the greater power the ghost has.

We will also have a difficult time getting the ghost to leave.  In Europe the classical artistic style faded within a century, but in architecture it remained centuries longer, and politically longer still, into the 20th century.

However necessary they may be, renaissances remain unpredictable and dangerous.   Approach at your peril.

Just as renaissances are messy and unpredictable, so too evaluating them remains difficult.  Toynbee cuts through the grey in his typically incisive way, saying,

“Renaissances must be judged by their hindrance or help to the soul with the sin of idolatry.”

Here Toynbee shows his great insight that all human affairs have a theological dimension.  A renaissance may help pry us from a lifeless and destructive present, or it may make us greater slaves to an even more lifeless past and put us, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire.”


I enjoyed this analysis on the dangers of calling up ghosts in the music industry.

“Through the Eye of the Needle”

Peter Brown is one of a few scholars for which one must simply stand back and let them pass.  Decades ago he published a seminal biography of St. Augustine that made his name in the field of late antiquity.  Since then he has done nothing flashy, contenting himself with “staying in his lane” and doing what he loves.  He keeps churning out new and interesting things about the transition from Rome to the medieval period, and his latest book, Through the Eye of the Needle is no exception. I did not read anywhere close to all of the book’s 600 pages, but found what I managed to take in eye-opening.

The title references the famous verse in Matthew 19:24, and the subtitle of the book indicates Brown’s purpose of showing how the Church dealt with the idea of wealth. His chosen dates of focus (350 – 550 AD) foreshadow a surprising assertion.  Most understandings of the early church take one of two paths:

  • The growth of the church within Roman society happened primarily in 2nd and 3rd centuries AD as a result of persecution.  Constantine’s “Edict of Milan” granting toleration and preference to Christianity did not create something new so much as confirm an already existing reality.

Or . . .

  • The “Edict of Milan” represents a key and decisive turning point in the history of the Church.  The growth of the Church as a “power” and distinct social force begins because of Constantine.

With this standard dilemma,  Brown both “splits the horns” and creates a new way of understanding the growth of the Church.

Obviously the church grew significantly from its roots in Palestine in the century following Pentacost. But at the time of Constantine Christianity still occupied fringe status in Rome, perhaps akin to Moslems in America today.  This means that, among other things, we cannot chalk Constantine’s adoption of Christianity to political reasons.   Something dramatic really happened in Constantine’s life that led him to shock his contemporaries and side with a distinctly minority faith. Just imagine the reaction the country might have if a newly elected president suddenly declared he was Buddhist.  But the church remained a side-note within the empire.  However the church prospered between the years of 312 – ca. 370, they had little impact on the wider Roman culture.  This may have been because the era of Constantine and his successors was the “era of gold.”  The stability Constantine brought returned economic prosperity to Rome in general and might have reinvigorated faith in Roman civilization.  As time marched on, however, the wealth remained even as Rome began to lose its grip.  When the wealthy began to enter the Church.  The Church needed to decide what to do with “real money” for perhaps the first time in its history.

If we think about money we need to consider it with a wide lens.

Genesis 1 shows us God creating all things good as a gift of His love.  God meant for Adam and Eve to enjoy the world he made.  As Alexander Schememann commented,

Man must eat in order to live.  He must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood.  He is indeed that which he eats. and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life.

Just as God created man soul and body, so too there need be no conflict between the physical and the spiritual.  We shouldn’t even have the categories in the first place.

An ancillary question might be, “Does money aid in our enjoyment of creation?”

In early Biblical history we might see a link between physical wealth and spiritual well-being.  We see this with Job, with Abraham, and with Jacob.  As the nation of Israel forms and grows roots, we certainly see it in the life of Solomon.  But after the division of the kingdom between the northern and southern kingdoms we have the age of the prophets, when God sought to “afflict the comfortable.” Now physical blessings come particularly to those outside Israel’s physical and ethnic boundaries, like the widow of Zarephath (Luke 4).

Jesus talks a great deal about money in the gospels, but never with one absolute message.  At Cana He blessed marriage, wine, and a general sense of “a good time had by all.”  He urges the rich young ruler to sell everything.  Zaccheus shows his repentance by giving away half of his fortune.  The rich will have difficulty entering the kingdom (the “through the eye of the needle” passage), but His “render unto Caesar” may indicate a laissez-faire approach to money in general.  Clearly Jesus Himself had little money, but Matthew may have been wealthy.  We are told in no uncertain terms that, “the love of money is the root of all evil,” and this might make us think of Ananias and Saphira.  But in the epistles we have the encouragement/command to generosity of giving, but not the abandonment of wealth.

Many writers accuse the Church of abandoning gospel simplicity in favor of “worldliness” in the late 4th century, but Brown rightly critiques these voices.  The Biblical evidence presents a complex picture, and ignores the Roman cultural environment in which the Church worked.

The Romans built their civilization around the idea of civic love.  One could say that they worshipped the idea of Rome, or the actual city/cities of Rome, as their true gods.  The patrons of Rome were in fact the “patricians,” the aristocracy.  The patronized Rome with their service to the state, and with their money.  Spending large sums came with the territory, and it could take the form of buildings, religious festivals, and the like.  St. Cyprian in the 3rd century takes this idea and transmutes it.  All Christians, but especially wealthy Christians, should patronize the City of God.  This took the form of providing for the poor (especially or sometimes exclusively to the Christian poor), building churches, and providing for religious feasts.  These were Christian “civic” projects.  In contrast to the “earthly” giving of those in the City of Man, money given to eternal purposes got redeemed, in a sense.

This approach helped give direction to the giving of the wealthy and helped build a distinct physical identity for Christians apart from the Roman monolith.  Christians have a home “not of this world.”  The approach of the early Church, however, gave Christians a physical manifestation of the heavenly city.*  Augustine would use this line of thought to develop his monumental City of God, and he proved pivotal in changing the Church’s attitude toward wealth.

The presence of wealth in the Church for the first time in large numbers brought up the question of the place of wealth.  Wealth may present temptations and problems, but is it evil?  Some believed that no one could claim both wealth and the gospel.  Pelagius, who heretically affirmed the near absolute autonomy of the will, thought that only a grand gesture of giving away everything at once could give proof of true faith.  Augustine disagreed.  He believed foremost in the need for the unity of God’s people.  The rich should receive the same welcome as the poor.  Pride, not wealth, posed the real problem for the Christian.  Naturally Augustine pushed the need for generosity.  Unlike Pelagius, he thought with a longer lens.  Wealth need not be given dramatically all at once, but steadily over time and with a distinct purpose. Their giving should seek to help build another kingdom, the “alternate reality” of the City of God.

With this line of reasoning, the Church could possess wealth, but not individual clergy.  Clergy could use wealth for the Church, but never own it directly.  The line would inevitably be gray and abuses came and went over time, but the principle remained the same.

We think of Augustine as a Platonist, and certainly he had more Platonism in his thought than St. Thomas Aquinas centuries later.  But his ideas gave the Church an idea of a concrete, visible community on Earth.  The idea of making the Kingdom of God manifest in the here and now, comes from Augustine — who may not have been quite the Platonist that we might imagine.**

The concept of using wealth to redeem our experience of creation and to create a “City of God” has many possible consequences and gray areas up for debate.  I thought of Brown’s thesis when thinking about the late Renaissance and the monk Savanarola, who railed against what he saw as the frivolous use and abuse of art, jewelry, makeup, and so on.  That conflict did not end well for anyone or for the city of Florence.  We can begin by stating the obvious — too much attention to adornment risks skewing our priorities, while no attention to at all to appearance honors neither the image of God (in the sense of honoring maleness or femininity) or one another.   The question arises, then — is some degree of focus on our appearance our Christian duty, or perhaps our Christian privilege?  It can be fun to look nice, after all.  And if we should adorn ourselves to some degree, should we not adorn our churches, our “cities of God?”

From this line of thought we can see why priests, bishops, and so on would also want adorned.  If king’s and their counsellors wear finery to show forth the glory of England or France, should not God’s representatives and ambassadors also have a chance to show the glory of their city?  Some would argue that doing this  would mean merely mimicking the world.  But one could flip this — maybe the world has in fact mimicked what the Church should be.

Sometimes I think modern Christians are uncomfortable with such baubles for the right reasons, such as avoiding waste and maintaining proper priorities.  But I wonder if we might also fear creating truly separate identities for ourselves within the Church.  Sometimes I if we fear creation itself.


**Brown points out that St. Augustine did not invent the idea of a “City of God” entirely on his own.  It had roots in African Christianity going back to at least St. Cyprian in the 3rd century.  But St. Augustine does give the concept its fullest expression.

9th Grade: Art, Myth, and Truth


This week we continued our look at Renaissance art through two main lenses and questions.

As Umberto Eco once argued that the Renaissance was a society made by merchants, made by money.  The influx of money into Italy would surely change society in many ways.  Fashion changed, art certainly changed, customs and mores changed, and morality changed.  You cannot have one without the other.

How should Christians react to this, and how did they?

Of course many Christians went along happily with the changes, some of them quietly resisted them in their own ways.  Few had stronger criticisms that the famous/infamous monk Savanarola.  Some see him as a saint, a man of the people, a forerunner of the Reformation.  Others saw him as a man filled with anger and bitterness, a man far from God, who, if not a heretic, certainly was a model for no one. Artists of his time had the very same differing opinions.


For him, we can say the following:

  • He was a strong opponent of the D’Medici family, who had transformed Florence from a republic to an unofficial dictatorship by the eminent Lorenzo D’ Medici.
  • He took an uncompromising stand against the incessant corruption within the Church, and fearlessly took on all comers, even the Pope himself.

Against him, we note that

  • His sermons seemed to consist of diatribes and anger.  He judged, condemned, and warned from the pulpit.  But rarely did he show compassion or sympathy, rarely did he speak of grace.
  • He believed that God spoke to him directly, which may or may not have been true.  But this sense of divine guidance led him to drift into occasional self-righteousness.

Savanarola, Florentine Portrait

He is perhaps best known for the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” when he encouraged many of society’s elite to burn their dresses, jewlery, and yes, much art deemed “unholy.”  Renaissance art not only involved nudes, but also used subject matter from mythology, which many felt betrayed art’s true purpose of glorifying God.  This led to a discussion on the question, “What makes art Christian?”

Let us take a famous Renaissance work by Botticell, The Birth of Venus, as an example:

One can argue that this is not a Christian work because it portrays a scene from pagan mythology.  We know that Venus does not and did not exist, so how can the art declare truth?  At best, it’s a meaningless diversion, at worst, a seductive lie.

The other side could argue that the painting does proclaim a Christian message through myth.  Botticelli does not make Venus an object of lust.  Rather, Venus, sees her inadequacy — she covers herself and is about to be covered more fully.  The myth’s meaning gets transformed into the message that for lust to be love it must be conquered with virtue and modesty.

Another aspect of this discussion is the role of myth itself.  Are pagan myths lies in the sense that declaring the sky to be green is a lie?  While Christians disagree on this, I would not agree with this.  I think J.R.R. Tolkien’s view of myth deserves consideration.  As C.S. Lewis neared conversion to Christianity, he had a crucial conversation with his friend Tolkien about the nature of myth. . .

Myths, Lewis told Tolkien, were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” Far from being lies they were the best way — sometimes the only way — of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic “progress” leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.

“In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology,” wrote Tolkien’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, “Tolkien had laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion.” It is also the creed at the heart of all his other work. His short novel, Tree and Leaf, is essentially an allegory on the concept of true myth, and his poem, “Mythopoeia,” is an exposition in verse of the same concept.

Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien explained to Lewis that the story of Christ was the true myth at the very heart of history and at the very root of reality. Whereas the pagan myths were manifestations of God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their “mythopoeia” to reveal fragments of His eternal truth, the true myth of Christ was a manifestation of God expressing Himself through Himself, with Himself, and in Himself. God, in the Incarnation, had revealed Himself as the ultimate poet who was creating reality, the true poem or true myth, in His own image. Thus, in a divinely inspired paradox, myth was revealed as the ultimate realism.


So — does the painting convey a Christian message or not?  Is art “Christian” if it conveys truth about ourselves, the world, or God?  Then certainly non-Christians could create Christian art, just as non-Christians can know true things.  Some students felt that this mean that any art could qualify as “Christian.”  Surely, they felt, we must have another standard, but if we do, what should it be?

Or — let’s say that we agree with Tolkien.  We may say that this gives Christians great inspiration to continue to create great stories, like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and so on.  Does that mean, however, that we should use pre-Christian myths as a reference point now that “the truth has come?”  Or now do we have all the more reason to use those myths as they can be truly understood even more in the light of Christ.  Renaissance art gives us much to consider.

The issues go beyond art to the idea of Truth itself.  What makes something true?  If we say that 1 + 1 = 2 for reasons that do not involve God, then we assume that a realm of Truth exists that exists apart from God’s existence.  If Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life then all thing cohere in Him, even 1 + 1 = 2, or the meaning inherent in a photograph of a tree.

But back to the Renaissance. . .

I have always believed that one of the best ways to know a culture is through its artistic expression, whether that be in painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and so on.  How we look interpret Renaissance art will determine a lot of what we  think of the Renaissance itself.

One school of thought sees the Renaissance as glorifying mankind, of making man the center of all things.  Scholars like Francis Schaeffer see mankind portrayed in outsized, godlike fashion, with no sense of sin or humility left.  He pointed to the outsized hands on Michelangelo’s “David” as exhibit “A” for his argument:

Others see it differently.  Some see the Renaissance making man aware and responsible for his time in creation.  Art now places humanity in a real context, with real consequences, as opposed to what some might call the “over-spiritualization” of man in the Middle Ages.  They point to the Brannacci Chapel, and the painting of Adam and Eve.  Here we have feet planted firmly on the ground, and real people in a real world.  Having a portrayed them in reality, they have to do deal with the consequences of their sin. The skeletal nature of Eve’s face foreshadows her death and ours as well. One commentator suggested that the angel does not drive out Adam and Eve so much as their sense of sin and shame motivates them to drive themselves out of the garden.

These two competing views of the Renaissance might each have their place — the Renaissance was multifaceted.  But in the end the students will need to choose what they see as the dominant spirit of the time, and what primary influence the Renaissance will pass onto the era that follows.

Finally, we looked at this magnificent 3-D image of the Sistine Chapel, surely one of the greatest artistic creations of the last 500 years.  Use the cursor and fly around it, and try and not make yourself dizzy, as I did to the students!

Here is the link:


Have a good weekend,


Pope John Paul II and the Body in Art

We live in a deeply confused age regarding sexuality and the body.  We can understand Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it,” concept regarding pornography in terms of necessary legalese, but especially in this day and age, Christians (and the world) need more specific guidance.  How are we to understand how the body can be used in art?

I wish I had the time and theological understanding to devote to John Paul II monumental Man and Woman man-and-woman-he-created-them_3He Created Them, where he developed a full-fledged “theology of the body.”  Though I read only very small portions of the text, those few parts have made a huge impression on me.

First, he makes the observation that nakedness is mentioned in a spousal connection, which means that nakedness is a kind of gift of one to the other — a revelation, in fact.  For this can rightly be called a gift because it involves a kind of mutual possession of one another — “I am yours and you are mine.”

These ideas of possession and gift lead to another truth, that the body itself is a form of revelation.  I had never realized this before, but of course it makes perfect sense.  We talk often of how the beauty of flowers, or the variety of the birds, or the majesty of mountains, reveal something about God Himself.  But we (or perhaps just I) forget that the body of course is part of that same creation that will reveal something of the Creator.  And perhaps the body may reveal more than mountains or flowers, as He made humanity of all creation in His image.

These truths deserve more contemplation than I can give them.  But I do think that John Paul’s wisdom can give us profound guidance on the nature of the body and how the body can or should be used in a “public” way.  He writes,

Artistic objectification of the human body in its male and female nakedness for the sake of making of it first a model and then a subject of a work of art is always a certain transfer outside this configuration of interpersonal gift that belongs originally and specifically to the body.  It constitutes in some way an uprooting of the human body from the configuration and a transfer of it to the dimensions of artistic objectification specific to the work of art or the reproduction typical of the works of film and photographic technologies of our time.

In each of these dimensions, and in each of them in a different way, the human body loses that deeply subjective meaning of the gift and becomes an object destined for the knowledge of many, by which those who look will assimilate or even take possession of something that evidently exists (or should exist) by its very essence on the level of gift–or gift by the person to the person, no longer of course in the image, but in the living man.  To tell the truth, this act of “taking possession” happens already on another level, that is, on the level of artistic transfiguration or reproduction.  It is, however, impossible not to realize that from the point of view of the ethos of the body, understood deeply, a problem arises here.  It is a very delicate problem that has various levels of intensity depending on various motives and circumstances, both on the side of artistic activity and on the side of knowledge of the work of art or its reproduction.  From the fact that this issue arises, it does not at all follow that that human body in its nakedness cannot be the subject of works of art, only that this issue is neither merely aesthetic, nor morally indifferent.

This, I think, trumps “I know it when I see it.”