Thursday, February 15, 2007

Back on the saddle

For those of you wondering where I've been, fear no more. I've been working simultaneously on my dissertation proposal, and the actual text of my dissertation, as well as keeping up a full-time schedule of teaching in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.

The working title of my dissertation is "St. Francis the Ascetic: Thomas of Celano's First Life of St. Francis in Hagiographic Context." What I propose to do is situate Thomas of Celano's work within a broader context of ascetic models of sanctity, stretching back to St. Athanasius' Life of St. Anthony, and noting some peculiar overlaps. This is partly a critique of some of the most recent scholarship on medieval Mendicant spirituality (taking its cue from Lester Little's Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe) that seeks to tie it closely to socio-economic shifts. I will attemot to show that at least insofar as the original sources are concerned, no reflection of a "merchant spirituality" exists, and where a merchant metaphor might occur, it is associated with a gospel imagery (the "pearl of great price"), which would have been familiar to the more monastically-oriented early middle ages. What Thomas of Celano is most eager to show is that St. Francis is one who follows a traditional path of sanctity-the ascetic path-but undertakes it in a new way: within the city walls of Assisi, which in away becomes his "desert." With Francis (at least as Thomas portrays him) we have a association of the new urban culture as the new "desert," where the passion of avarice is confronted directly. I'm hoping that this will have the value of reading the life of St. Francis "forward," seeing how it overlaps in some significant ways with past models of sanctity, especially that of the ascetic struggler, as opposed to the tendency to read later Jesuit spirituality back into what Francis is doing.

On another note, it has been a rich and rewarding time of reading and teaching from the canon of the Great Books. This past week I taught Virgil's Aenead and Ovid's Metamorphoses, and teaching these two books back to back is always quite revealing. On the one hand, we get a noble epic rendering about what the new imperial Roman order, inaugurated by Caesar Augustus (Octavian), is all about. On the other, there is some evidence of what might be called a "hermeneutics of suspicion" concerning what, in the end, the Roman Empire is really about. In the first, Aeneas, the hero, is given a vision of Rome's future greatness by his dead father, Anchises, in the underworld, and ends it with this charge: Tu regere imperio popule, Romane, memento (hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem, parcere subiectis et debellare superbos (Remember, Roman, these are your arts: to rule the peoples of the earth with order, to impose a settled way of peace, and to subdue the proud). The experience of the underworld proves crucial in Aeneas shedding his Trojan identity, and taking on a more Roman outlook.

And yet what is this "new Roman outlook?" Ovid seems to have a very "cheeky" take on it all, and he presents it with a great deal of humor. This is why C.S. Lewis often calls him "that jolly fellow." There is a humor that comes out, a "tongue and cheek" quality that almost jars you after you've ascended the heights of epic nobility with Virgil. Ovid, in a sense, is the Monty Python of the Roman world. What looks noble in Virgil, will be shown in a more hunorous light under his pen. Take, for example, the tale of the Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs, with their unconventional weapons and battle scenes that almost verge on something one would see on Looney Tunes.

But there is a sobriety to Ovid's "cheekiness." His subversion of the heroic tradition comes in the very first book, where, recounting the ages of mankind, he makes a direct parallel between Caesar Augustus and Jove:

Confremuere omnes studiisque ardentibus ausum
talia deposcunt: sic, cum manus inpia saevit
sanguine Caesareo Romanum exstinguere nomen,
attonitum tantae subito terrore ruinae
humanum genus est totusque perhorruit orbis;
nec tibi grata minus pietas, Auguste, tuorum
quam fuit illa Iovi.

(All the gods murmured with a loud voice, and ardently
demanded fit punishment for those who committed such crimes.
Thus when with impious hands they burned to drown Romes name
In the blood of Caesar, the human race shuddered in the face
Of such a terror, and the whole earth was horrified.
Nor do you, Augustus, rejoice any less in the piety (loyalty)
Of you subjects than does Jove.)

But reading the rest of the Metamorphoses, it is clear that Jove is a scoundrel. This is brought out to full relief in the tale of Arachne, where Pallas and Arachne engage in a weaving contest, Pallas weaving a tapestry where the gods are prtrayed in majesty and power, with Jove sitting on his throne. Arachne, however, portrays the folly of the gods. Here Jove is anything but "regal": the rape of Europa, where he takes on the form of a bull and carries her off to Crete; the rape of Antiopre, where jove takes on the guise of a satyr, and makes her beget twins.

All of these instances of divine folly, portrayed by Arachne in full form, gets her the grand prize: to be turned into a spider by Pallas!

Towards the end of the work, he recounts the apotheosis of Aeneas, Virgil's hero. But a nagging doubt remains: is it really that good to be a god? in the end, Ovid ends with a triumphant proclamation of his own immortality, assuring his readers that whatever change comes, one thing will always remain constant: his own fame, which will live on through this book. So there we have it. The epic tradition ends with Ovid's immortality! No wonder C.S. Lewis calls him a "jolly fellow."

This is the world wher Our Lord will become incarnate, the "fullness of time," the time appointed by God. And the world was ready for it! With Virgil, we get a sense of messianic urgency (albeit pagan), with a desire for a unifying world empire that would unite "all peoples of the earth with order." And yet, Ovid shows its fulitily, taking note, in his own humorous way, of the fact that, inherent in the very title "Metamorhoses", all things do indeed change, and so will this universal imperial order. It is precisely at this point that christ came, bringing a kingdom not of this world. "Ant the Word became flesh..."

Well, this is what I've been up to.

Coming up next: further reflections from St. Cassian's "On the Eight Vices".

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