Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pope's Slander

Something inspired me today to reread Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism," and I recalled that there are some pretty interesting bits in it besides the famous quotes that everyone knows. For instance:

Some praise at Morning what they blame at Night;
But always think the last Opinion right.
A Muse by these is like a Mistress us'd,
This hour she's idoliz'd, the next abus'd,
While their weak Heads, like Towns unfortify'd,
'Twixt Sense and Nonsense daily change their Side.
Ask them the Cause; They're wiser still, they say;
And still to Morrow's wiser than to Day.
We think our Fathers Fools, so wise we grow;
Our wiser Sons, no doubt, will think us so.

I definitely know people like this, and it's always a bit stupefying to see someone who changes his opinions constantly and yet never doubts the truth of his current one. In fact this seems like a pretty devastating critique of modernism in general. And the observation in the final couplet seems rigorously Chestertonian.

Right after this segment Pope continues:

Once School-Divines this zealous Isle o'erspread;
Who knew most Sentences was deepest read;
Faith, Gospel, All, seem'd made to be disputed,
And none had Sense enough to be Confuted.
Scotists and Thomists, now, in Peace remain,
Amidst their kindred Cobwebs in Duck-Lane.

Ha ha, Scotists and Thomists once fought in England, but now nobody cares in our glorious age of Protestant Enlightenment! Sadly enough this attitude was common enough even among the good Catholic humanists, e.g. St Thomas More.

But this, later on, is much worse:

Learning and Rome alike in Empire grew,
And Arts still follow'd where her Eagles flew;
From the same Foes, at last, both felt their Doom,
And the same Age saw Learning fall, and Rome.
With Tyranny, then Superstition join'd,
As that the Body, this enslav'd the Mind;
Much was Believ'd, but little understood,
And to be dull was constru'd to be good;
A second Deluge Learning thus o'er-run,
And the Monks finish'd what the Goths begun.

Here Pope repeats the old Renaissance slander which was reproduced ad infinitum by the so-called Enlightenment. The ironic thing is that the historical forgetfulness of their (Roman) past which the moderns falsely accused the mediaevals of was mirrored by their actual historical forgetfulness of their own (mediaeval) past. If the Monks had really finished what the Goths begun, the "Renaissance" (itself an almost totally false label) would never have been possible. Where did Pope and all those other Humanists think all the books of the glorious classical past came from? From copies made by monks, of course. And if the moderns had ever bothered learning how to actually read mediaeval books they might have seen how much mediaeval literature was indebted to classical form and content. The least "classical" books from the middle ages - Icelandic saga literature, for instance - also tend to be the most "modern".

If you're talking about sculpture, painting, and architecture, though, the moderns certainly had a point. Much was lost and renaissance artists did rediscover and improve on classical techniques. On the other hand, they also foolishly overlooked and despised mediaeval innovations. What kind of a philistine, no matter how professedly "classical", do you have to be to call the gothic cathedrals barbarous?

At length, Erasmus, that great, injur'd Name,
(The Glory of the Priesthood, and the Shame!)
Stemm'd the wild Torrent of a barb'rous Age.
And drove those Holy Vandals off the Stage.

Credit to Erasmus where credit is due, but this is just nonsense, the same sort of nonsense that we at the Smithy decry when St Thomas is exalted to the heavens high above every other Catholic thinker, only much, much worse. There's no passing this off as hyperbole. It's just lies, plain and simple. I wonder what Pope would make of the fact that the ideas of their precious Enlightenment came to full fruition in the 20th century, that most "barb'rous" of all ages.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Plato takes a swim

From a mss. of thirteenth-century exempla, edited in Antonianum 2 (1927), p.233:

"Dicit fr. Pe[trus] de Taren[tasia] quod legitur in quodam sermone cuiusdam doctoris greci super illud verbum: 'Perdam sapientiam sapi[entium]' etc. quod Plato semel incedens iuxta mare invenit piscatores et interrogavit si aliquos pisces vel aliquid cepissent vel haberent. Qui responderunt: Quos cepimus non habemus et quos habemus nundum cepimus, intelligentes hoc de pediculis. Quod problema ruminans Plato et intelligere non valens, proiecit se in mare pre dolore."