Sunday, June 6, 2010

Narn i Hin Scoti

Speaking of the constitution of the divine persons, the other day I read Scotus' Ordinatio I dist. 26. This is a classic Scotus monster-question of sixty pages, various competing positions summarized and argued for and against in dozens of arguments, with references to the Fathers, councils, popes, recent scholastics, and on and on, and at the end the reader is quite unsure what Scotus' own opinion is! The situation with this text is so complicated that the editors devote most of their large introduction to v. 6 explaining what happened, and reading it I was quite struck how similar the Ordinatio is to The Silmarillion.

What I mean is this: as is well known, when J.R.R. Tolkien died he left behind a vast quantity of manuscripts in various states of completion, many of which in theory were to eventually produce some final version of the masterpiece he'd been working on all his life. But he died without ever constituting the final work and the task of finding some way to present the disparate material to the public fell to his son Christopher and assistants. What Tolkien fils did at first was to combine, reduce, tinker, harmonize, and rewrite the various material until he could offer the "published" Silmarillion as a pretty complete and coherent work. The difficulty with this publication is that it left its readers with a rather unclear idea of what Tolkien pere had actually written. It was readable, and substantially great, but was it authentic?

Eventually Christopher ended up publishing a huge amount of the original materials anyway so that people could see for themselves where the original pastiche came from, complete with commentary and critical apparatus. Someone published a book not too long ago analyzing The Silmarillion passage-by-passage against the various volumes of The History of Middle-earth to show exactly what its relation is to the source materials.

The History of Middle-earth is both much greater and much less great than the published Silmarillion. There's a lot of stuff in the source-material that isn't great at all. There's a lot of repetition, or insignificant variation, false starts, questionable approaches, etc. It doesn't cohere, obviously. It's almost impossible to read all the way through. (I've read all but some of the middle volumes of drafts from The Lord of the Rings.) Chunks of it repay very long and careful study, especially many of the long-form drafts and narratives in the later volumes, such as the Finrod and Andreth dialogue; but many of the summaries and annals can be glanced at once and left alone.

Anyway for someone who really loves Tolkien's work Christopher's Silmarillion can't be the final word, even though it's so much more readable and approachable than the massive set. Nevertheless it was probably a necessary production, and without it no doubt the more definitive series would never have been published.

Now the funny thing is that Scotus' work has such a similar history. When he died he left behind all these drafts of works which never reached completion, and his disciples saw that they could not be copied and published just as they sat on the Doctor's desk. The drafts were in various states of chaos, with additions and cancellations from various periods of time, and big blank spaces left for more additions and sketches for continuation. Much of the materials were nigh unintelligible as they stood. They had to be finessed, supplemented, edited to produce a readable edition. This was done, with the result that a) Scotism became a great school, one of the main strains of scholastic thought, and b) confusion reigned about just what Scotus' writings and teachings were for centuries. People read the "editions" but didn't always know if they were getting Scotus or one of his disciples or some opinion that Scotus had considered but not endorsed, or whether they were reading something by another person entirely, like James of Viterbo.

This is finally getting better as critical editions have been (oh so slowly) coming out over the past decades. The aim of the Vatican edition's Ordinatio is explicitly to produce, as far as humanly possible, the contents of the "Liber Scoti", the actual book written in Scotus' own hand, as he left it when he died, extracted from the mess of later alterations and accretions. Now we know better than ever before what Scotus wrote. But, paradoxically, this makes him harder to read! The whole reason that the first "editions" were produced in such an inauthentic form is that the actual "Liber Scoti" was so hard to make sense of!

It's rough, because Scotus would be hard enough to understand without taking into account all the historical and textual issues. Sometimes I think we have to resign ourselves to not always being able to reach the "mind of Scotus", or even the true intention of the text at hand, because there just might not be one. There's only what Scotus was thinking about and what he was working on up to the end, and not always a definitive answer, just as in the end maybe there's no "true" family tree for the house of Finwë, only various versions and ideas.

For Tolkien enthusiasts, luckily, Christopher put out both the "edited" version and the "raw" version of his father's work in his own lifetime. One can think of the work of Scotus' first disciples as parallel to the work of the "early" C.T. and the work of the Vatican edition and its American counterpart as parallel to the work of the "late" C.T., only for Scotus it took 600-700 years instead of a couple of decades. No doubt a lot of this is just due to advances in publishing capabilities. If the fourteenth century had had the ability to produce facsimiles there might not have been nearly as big of a confusion.

To return to Ordinatio I dist. 26, Scotus argues for and against the "common" western view that the divine persons are constituted only by their relations of origin. He has some pretty compelling arguments against this and for the notion that there must be some additional absolute property to constitute a person, and that a person cannot be understood simply as a subsistent relation, but must be something absolute. As I said earlier, in this text it's not possible to tell his own opinion. The editors have a lot to say about it. In the end Scotus' position appears to be: it's more likely that the persons are constituted simply by their relations of origin; this is more consonant with the latin tradition. At the same time, the Church has never defined this matter, and it is possible, licit, and orthodox to hold that there must be an additional something absolute in their constitution.

1 comment:

Lee Faber said...

Hmm...I thought this distinction was more about absolute vs. relative constitution, rather than relation of origin vs. disparate relations...

So how is one supposed to read Scotus? You, for example, are not a fan of reading passages in parallel and examining the evolution of his views; but if one text is unintelligible, what is one to do?