Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Philo’s Psychological Exegesis of Cain and Abel

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Cain's Fight, Fernand Cormon, 1880

Cain is egoism, Abel is holiness.

TN HE STORY of Cain and Abel in Chapter 4 of Genesis follows immediately after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and, like the latter, is a ethical myth of great and fundamental significance.

Here the Bible first presents in allegorical form one of it’s main themes: the primal conflict or psychomachia within the human soul between good and bad dispositions, vice and virtue, worldliness and piety. The same contrast and conflict symbolized by Cain and Abel is recapitulated and developed throughout the Bible in the stories of Jacob and Esau, Noah and the wicked men, Moses and Pharaoh, the Israelites and their various enemies, and, later, in St. Paul’s analysis of the ‘earthy-minded ‘ and ‘heavenly-minded’ person.

The Jewish philosophy, Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BC − c.50 AD), exerted considerable influence on Christian allegorical interpretation of the Bible. He dedicated several books to the story of Cain and Abel, which he interpreted, as he usually did, according to a mix of Platonic, Stoic and Pythagorean ethical philosophy and Judaism. Philo’s allegorical exegetical insights are unmatched in excellence (and supported by modern cognitive science) — but tend to be obscured by his discursive writing style. In order to present Philo’s interpretations in a more accessible way, the key points of his commentaries are here excerpted and re-arranged to correspond to the Genesis account verse-by-verse. …
Link for full article: www.john-uebersax.com/pdf/philo-cain-abel.pdf

Art: Cain Fleeing Before Jehovah’s Curse (1880), Fernand Cormon (1845–1924, French)

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Nothing Further Can Be Found in Man: St. Athanasius on Interpretation of the Psalms

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Introduction

ONE of the finest Patristic works on Psalms is the letter of St. Athanasius of Alexandria to his friend, Marcellinus, Ad Marcellinum.  Ostensibly relaying what he learned from an “old man” — perhaps a saintly desert ascetic — St. Athanasius exhorts us not only to read the Psalms, but to read them “intelligently.”  He also affirms the benefits of singing the Psalms, by which means a uniting and harmonization all one’s faculties and powers occurs.

The letter is not long, and all who are drawn to Psalms and wish to profit from them are encouraged to read it in its entirety (links in Bibliography).  Some passages of special interest are supplied below.

(Note: square brackets indicate sections as enumerated in the Migne edition; translation is by Anonymous 1953/1998).

To Marcellinus

All the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction (2 Tim 3:16), as it is written; but to those who really study it, the Psalter yields especial treasure. … Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest. [2]

And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own … [however with] Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts. [11]

[T]he Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul … [12]

Just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them and the words are indeed our very own, given us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives. [13]

The whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture [more particularly] of the spiritual life. [14]

It is possible for us …  to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life’s occasions …  [15]

unifying effect which chanting the Psalms has upon the singer. For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man’s whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved, just as the notes of several flutes are brought by harmony to one effect; and he is thus no longer to be found thinking good and doing evil. [27]

When, therefore, the Psalms are chanted, it is not from any mere desire for sweet music but as the outward expression of the inward harmony obtaining in the soul, because such harmonious recitation is in itself the index of a peaceful and well-ordered heart. To praise God tunefully upon an instrument, such as well-tuned cymbals, cithara, or ten-stringed psaltery, is, as we know, an outward token that the members of the body and the thoughts of the heart are, like the instruments themselves, in proper order and control, all of them together living and moving by the Spirit’s cry and breath. … he who sings well puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm so that at last, being truly natural and integrated, it has fear of nothing, but in peaceful freedom from all vain imaginings may apply itself with greater longing to the good things to come. For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred words forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone. [29]

For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in Man. [30]

Bibliography

English translations

Anonymous (tr.). Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms. In: Anonymous (tr.), Athanasius: On the Incarnation. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. (Appendix; pp. 97−119; ‘Letter’ orig. publ. 1953). [online version]

Elowsky, Joel C. (tr.), Athanasius: Letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms. New Haven, CT: ICCS Press, 2017.

Gregg, Robert C. (tr.). Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, Paulist Press, 1980. (pp. 101−129).

Greek and Latin text

Epistula ad Marcellinum de interpretatione Psalmorum. [Greek text, digital].

Migne, Jacques-Paul (ed.). Patrologia Graeca 27, 1857. (cols. 11−46). [Greek text with Latin translation.]

Secondary sources

Kolbet, Paul R. Athanasius, the Psalms, and the Reformation of the Self. The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 99, no. 1, 2006, pp. 85–101.

Philo: The Lifelong Festival of Those Who Follow Nature

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Spring (detail); Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Dutch, 1836−1912); 1894

PHILO of Alexandria, a writer of great but largely unexplored relevance to our age, expounds on the perennial psychology: the mythical Golden Age symbolizes the exalted psychological condition attainable by a lover of wisdom and of virtue who lives in accord with nature; whereas strife, inner and outer, result from placing material things above higher, spiritual goods.

Special Laws 2.42−48

XII. (42) When the law records that every day is a festival [Num. 28, 29], it accommodates itself to the blameless life of righteous men who follow nature and her ordinances. And if only the vices had not conquered and dominated the thoughts in us which seek the truly profitable and dislodged them from each soul — if instead the forces of the virtues had remained in all respects unsubdued, the time from birth to death would be one continuous festival, and all houses and every city would pass their time in continual peace and absence of fear, being full of every imaginable blessing, enjoying perfect tranquility.

(43) But, as it is now, the overreaching and assaults which people contrive against each other and even against themselves and have cleft a breach in the continuous line of this cheerful gaiety. And here is clear proof:

(44) All who practice wisdom, whether in Greek or barbarian lands, and who live a blameless and irreproachable life, choosing neither to inflict nor retaliate injustice, avoid the gatherings of busy-bodies and abjure the scenes which such people haunt — like law-courts, council-chambers, markets, congregations and, in general, any gathering or assemblage of careless people.

(45) Rather, their own aspirations are for a life of peace, free from warring. They are the closest contemplators of nature and all it contains: earth, sea, air and heaven and the various forms of beings which inhabit them are food for their research, as in mind and thought they share the ranging of the moon and sun and the ordered march of the other stars, fixed and planetary. Having their bodies, indeed, firmly planted on the earth, but having their souls furnished with wings, in order that thus hovering in the air they may closely survey all the powers above, they consider the whole world as their native city, looking upon it as in reality the most excellent of cosmopolites, and all the devotees of wisdom as their fellow citizens, virtue herself having enrolled them as such, to whom it has been entrusted to frame a constitution for their common city.

XIII. (46) Being, therefore, full of all kinds of excellence, and accustomed to disregard ills of the body and external circumstances, inured to look upon things indifferent as indeed indifferent, being armed by study against the pleasures and appetites, ever eager to raise themselves above the passions and trained to use every effort to pull down the fortification which those appetites have built up, never swerving under the blows of fortune, because they have calculated beforehand the force of its assaults (since the heaviest adversities are lightened by anticipation, when the mind ceases to find anything strange in the event and apprehends it but merely as it might some stale and familiar story.) Such individuals, being very naturally rendered cheerful by their virtues, pass the whole of their lives as a festival.

(47) These are indeed but a small number, kindling in their different cities a sort of spark of wisdom, in order that virtue may not become utterly extinguished, and so entirely extirpated from our race [cf. Hesiod, WD 200 f.] .

(48)  But if only everywhere men thought and felt as these few, and became what nature intended them to be, all blameless and guiltless, lovers of wisdom, rejoicing in moral excellence just because it is what it is, and counting it the only true good and all the other goods but slaves and vassals subject to their authority — then cities would brim with happiness, utterly free from all that causes grief and fears, and packed with what produces joys and states of well-being, so that no time would ever cease to be the time of a happy life, but the whole circle of the year would be one festival.

~ Philo of Alexandria, Special Laws 2.42−48. Translation from F. H. Colson (1937) & C. D. Yonge (1855).

St. Macrina’s Exegesis of the Parable of the Sower

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Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

The following allegorical interpretation of the Parable of the Sower (Matt.13: 24 -30) comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise, On the Soul and the Resurrection, which describes a conversation St. Gregory had with his sister, St. Macrina, shortly before her death. Platonic philosophy is discussed throughtout the work. It has been called Phaedo Christianus due to its similarities in theme and setting to Plato’s Phaedo, which records discussions of Socrates on the soul before he drank the hemlock.

“To Macrina, the good seeds are the impulses of our soul which are capable, when directed towards the good (i. e., God), of producing virtue. The bad seed is sin, which is construed as a confusion of our judgment of what is, in fact, good.” (Matz, p. 278).

Matt.13
[24] Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
[25] But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
[26] But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
[27] So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
[28] He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
[29] But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
[30] Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.

AND who, she replied, could deny that truth is to be found only in that upon which the seal of Scriptural testimony is set? So, if it is necessary that something from the Gospels should be adduced in support of our view, a study of the Parable of the Wheat and Tares will not be here out of place. The Householder there sowed good seed. …  But the “enemy,” having watched for the time when men slept, sowed that which was useless in that which was good for food, setting the tares in the very middle of the wheat. The two kinds of seed grew up together; for it was not possible that seed put into the very middle of the wheat should fail to grow up with it. But the Superintendent of the field forbids the servants to gather up the useless crop, on account of their growing at the very root of the contrary sort; so as not to root up the nutritious along with that foreign growth.

Now we think that Scripture means by the good seed the corresponding impulses of the soul, each one of which, if only they are cultured for good, necessarily puts forth the fruit of virtue within us. But since there has been scattered amongst these the bad seed of the error of judgment as to the true Beauty which is alone in its intrinsic nature such, and since this last has been thrown into the shade by the growth of delusion which springs up along with it (for the active principle of desire does not germinate and increase in the direction of that natural Beauty which was the object of its being sown in us, but it has changed its growth so as to move towards a bestial and unthinking state, this very error as to Beauty carrying its impulse towards this result;

and in the same way the seed of anger does not steel us to be brave, but only arms us to fight with our own people; and the power of loving deserts its intellectual objects and becomes completely mad for the immoderate enjoyment of pleasures of sense; and so in like manner our other affections put forth the worse instead of the better growths),— on account of this the wise Husbandman leaves this growth that has been introduced amongst his seed to remain there, so as to secure our not being altogether stripped of better hopes by desire having been rooted out along with that good-for-nothing growth.

If our nature suffered such a mutilation, what will there be to lift us up to grasp the heavenly delights? If love is taken from us, how shall we be united to God? If anger is to be extinguished, what arms shall we possess against the adversary?

Therefore the Husbandman leaves those bastard seeds within us, not for them always to overwhelm the more precious crop, but in order that the land itself (for so, in his allegory, he calls the heart) by its native inherent power, which is that of reasoning, may wither up the one growth and may render the other fruitful and abundant: but if that is not done, then he commissions the fire to mark the distinction in the crops. If, then, a man indulges these affections in a due proportion and holds them in his own power instead of being held in theirs, employing them for an instrument as a king does his subjects’ many hands, then efforts towards excellence more easily succeed for him. But should he become theirs, and, as when any slaves mutiny against their master, get enslaved by those slavish thoughts and ignominiously bow before them; a prey to his natural inferiors, he will be forced to turn to those employments which his imperious masters command. This being so, we shall not pronounce these emotions of the soul, which lie in the power of their possessors for good or ill, to be either virtue or vice. But, whenever their impulse is towards what is noble, then they become matter for praise, as his desire did to Daniel, and his anger to Phineas, and their grief to those who nobly mourn. But if they incline to baseness, then these are, and they are called, bad passions.

Bibliography

Callahan, Virginia Woods (Trans.). On the Soul and the Resurrection. In: Virginia Woods Callahan, Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works. (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 58). Washington DC: CUA Press, 1967.

Matz, Brian J.  Ascetic Readings of the Agricultural Parables in Matt 13:1-48 in the Cappadocians. In: Ed. Hans-Ulrich Weidemann, Asceticism and Exegesis in Early Christianity, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013. pp. 268−283.

St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection (De anima et resurrectione).  Migne Patrologia Graeca vol. 46, cols. 11−160. Paris: 1863. [Greek text]

St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection. Trans. William Moore, Henry Austin Wilson. In: Eds. Philip Schaff & Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series 2, Vol. 5: Gregory of Nyssa (NPNF2-5‎). New York: Scribner, 1917 (orig. ed. 1893).

Gregory of Nyssa’s Allegorical Interpretation of the Parable of the Lost Coin

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Luke 15:8−10
[8] Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?
[9] And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.
[10] Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.

Source: Gregory of Nyssa.  On Virginity 12.3−4. In: Virginia Woods Callahan  (Trans.), Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 58, Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1967. (pp. 44−45).

THE human effort extends only to this: the removal of the filth which has accumulated through evil and the bringing to light again the beauty in the soul which we had covered over. It is such a dogma that I think the Lord is teaching in the Gospel to those who are able to hear wisdom when it is mysteriously spoken: ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ [Luke 17:21] This saying shows, I believe, that the goodness of God is not separated from our nature, or far away from those who choose to seek it, but it is ever present in each individual, unknown and forgotten when one is choked by the cares and pleasures of life, but discovered again when we tum our attention back to it.

If there is need for further support of the argument, I think this is what the Lord was suggesting in the search for the lost drachma [Luke 15:8−10]. The rest of the virtues [areton; ἀρετῶν] which the Lord refers to as drachmas are of no use, even if they all be present in the soul, if the soul is bereft of the one that is lost. Consequently, He bids us, first of all, to light a lamp, and by this He means perhaps the word which brings to light that which is hidden. Then, He tells us to look for the lost drachma in our own house, i.e., in ourselves.

Through this parable, He suggests that the image of the King is not entirely lost, but that it is hidden under the dirt. We must, I think, interpret the word ‘dirt’ as the filth of the flesh. Once this is swept away and cleaned off by our caring for our life [JU: that is, our spiritual life], that which is being looked for becomes visible, and then the soul can rejoice and bring together the neighbors to share her joy. For in reality, all the faculties of the soul [psuches dunameis; ψυχῆς δυνάμεις], which is what the Lord means by neighbors, do live together, and when the great image of the King which the Creator implanted in our hearts from the beginning is uncovered and brought to light, then, these faculties turn towards that divine joy and merriment, gazing upon the unspeakable beauty of what has been recovered. For it says: ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma that I had lost.‘ [Luke 15:9]

The neighbors, i.e., the faculties of the soul which dwell together, rejoice at the finding of the divine drachma. Reason and desire [logistike te kai epithumetike; λογιστική τε καὶ ἐπιθυμητικὴ]and the faculty aroused by grief and anger, and whatever other faculties there are, are looked upon as being connected with the soul, and they are logically considered as friends who rightly rejoice in the Lord when they all look to the beautiful and the good and do everything for the glory of God, for now they are no longer the instruments of sin.

This concern, then, for the finding of what is lost is the restoration to the original state of the divine image which is now covered by the filth of the flesh. Let us become what the first being was during the first period of his existence.

Thomas Taylor’s Panegyric to Floyer Sydenham

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BEFORE Thomas Taylor there was Floyer Sydenham.

Sydenham (1710−1787) was the preeminent British translator of Plato in the 18th century, but suffered from obscurity and poverty — even more so than Thomas Taylor, whose own tragic and difficult life was at least compensated for by posthumous fame and influence.

Sydenham was an excellent Greek scholar and devoted himself to the task of translating the works of Plato.  Between 1759 and 1780, he translated and published 9 of Plato’s dialogues, including the Banquet (Symposium), Philebus, Meno, and the First and Second Alcibiades; these translations were included in Thomas Taylor’s famous 1804 edition of the Works of Plato — the first English version of Plato’s complete works (properly called the Taylor & Sydenham edition, with contributions by Harry Spens).

Sydenham’s essay, A Synopsis or General View of the Works of Plato (1759), remains valuable and merits modern study.

Despite his skill as a translator (he was better educated and, by most estimates, a more able translator than Taylor), so many of his subscribers, victims of a chaotic British economy, defaulted payment that he was sentenced to debtors prison in 1787 and subsequently died.   In consequence of his unfortunate treatment and tragic death, the Royal Literary Fund (1790) was founded for the relief of authors in distress.

Taylor paid posthumous tribute to Sydenham with the following memorial, which he published in 1790, and again, in revised form, in 1805.

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A Panegyric on Floyer Sydenham

by Thomas Taylor

dropcap-w

HILE vulgar souls the public notice claim,
And dare to stand as candidates for fame;
While Sydenham’s worth in shameful silence lies,
Who liv’d unnotic’d and neglected dies;
My Muse indignant wakes her dormant fire,
And, rous’d by Friendship, boldly strikes the lyre.
Ye liberal few, who in his footsteps tread,
Rise, and assert the honours of the dead;
Genius sublime; who from barbaric night,
Led Wisdom forth, far beaming heav’nly light;
Whose skill great Plato’s elegance commands,
His graces copies and his fire expands.
For this shall future Bards his worth prolong,
Example bright and theme of lib’ral song!
O! hadst thou liv’d in those exalted days,
When Monarchs crown’d Philosophers with bays;
When Alexandria’s god-like sons appear’d,
And Truth restor’d, her head majestic rear’d;
Who rose unveil’d perspicuous to the wise,
Though by the vulgar seen in dark disguise:
Then had thy mind with native worth elate,
Shone through the ruins of a falling state;
And far extended Wisdom’s endless reign,
O’er Rome’s wide-spreading, tottering domain;
Then had thy genius met its just reward,
Awe from the vulgar, and from kings regard;
Then had thy days with plenteous ease been crown’d,
Thy pupils noble, and thy name renown’d;
Thy death lamented through immortal Rome,
And the fair column planted o’er thy tomb.
But doom’d to live where Truth’s refulgent light
Yet scarcely glimmers through Oblivion’s night;
Where genuine Science scarcely lifts her head,
For ages buried with the mighty dead;
Where Wealth, not Virtue, is the road to Fame;
And ancient Wisdom is an empty name;
Where Plato’s sacred page neglected lies,
And words, not things, are studied to be wise.
Here shone thy Wisdom o’er this sea of life,
Rous’d with perpetual storms of grief and strife;
Like some fair lamp whose solitary light,
Streams from a watch-tower through the gloom of night,
And shines secure, though raging waves surround,
Its splendours beaming o’er the dark profound.
Here, while alive, thy genius was alone;
Thy worth neglected, and almost unknown:
Here thy disciples, and thy friends were few;
Nor these all just, magnanimous, and true:
For some whom Heav’n had blest with wealth and pow’r,
Turn’d mean deserters in the needful hour;
While others prais’d thy genius and admir’d,
But ne’er to ease thy wretched state desir’d,
Basely contended Wisdom to receive;
Without a wish its author to relieve.
Such was thy fate, while matters drowsy ties
Held thee an exile from thy native skies.
But now emerg’d from sense, and error’s night,
Thy soul has gain’d its ancient orb of light;
Refulgent shines in Truth’s immortal plain,
And scorns dull body, and her dark domain.
No gloomy clouds those happy realms assail;
And the calm aether knows no stormy gale;
No vain pretenders there, no faithless friends;
No selfish motives, no ignoble ends.
O! may some spark of Truth’s celestial fire,
My breast, like thine, with sacred warmth inspire.
Teach me like thee, with vigour unconfin’d,
To soar from body to the realms of mind;
To scorn like thee, wealth’s despicable race,
The vain—the sordid—impudent, and base.

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Source: Thomas Taylor, Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse, London: C. Whittingham, 1805 (pp. 37−40).

These verses first appeared in the General Advertiser in 1787, and were thence copied into “most of the evening papers.” Taylor made some minor alterations when he republished them in 1805.

References

Demetriou, Kyriakos N. Asking for Plato’s Forgiveness. Floyer Sydenham: A Platonic Visionary of 18th-century Britain. Quaderni di Storia, vol. 78, 2013, pp. 55-86.

Sydenham, Floyer.  A Synopsis or General View of the Works of Plato. London, 1759.

Taylor, Thomas; Sydenham, Floyer. The Works of Plato, 5 vols.  With Harry Spens (trans.). London: T. Taylor, 1804.

Uebersax, John.  Harry Spens and the First English Translation of Plato’s Republic.  Online article.  https://satyagraha.wordpress.com/2015/01/13/harry-spens/ .  Last updated: January 13, 2016.

Written by John Uebersax

January 31, 2017 at 3:50 am

The Oxford Movement’s Critique of Modern Rationalism

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oxford-movement-newman-keble

The Oxford Movement was a 19th century movement within the Church of England that eventually developed into Anglo-Catholicism. The movement’s manifesto was set forth in explicit terms in the Tracts for the Times, published from 1833 to 1841.  However a parallel expression of principles took poetic form — in the Lyra Apostolica (1836), an anthology whose principal author was John Henry Newman, and with contributions by several others, including John Keble.

Newman, Keble and the others sought a return to a more authentic and full-blooded Christianity as found in the writings of Church Fathers.  Their critique of rationalism is relevant for our times.

The Introduction to the 1901 edition of the Lyra, written by Henry C. Beeching, excerpted below, explains with admirable clarity and eloquence the Oxford Movement’s critique of modern rationalism and Lockean Liberalism.

* * *

WE must remember what the Liberalism of the Thirties was, if we would understand the indignation with which these men set themselves to repudiate it. It was the Liberalism of rational enlightenment. It believed that the evils and sorrows of humanity would fade away before the instructed intelligence. It was hard, confident, aggressive. It had the easy air of superiority which belongs to those who have never faced the deep underlying issues of life.

It omitted these from its calculation. Everything, for it, was on the surface; was plain; was uncomplicated. The cool reason, the average commonsense, the ordinary experience of the man in the street, were its sufficing standards. It abhorred mystery. It had no touch of reverence, awe, mysticism. It was frankly utilitarian. It was at the mercy of a bland and shallow {xxvii} optimism. Not that it was not doing an immense deal of practical good. It was opening doors of freedom. It was breaking down barriers. It was spreading knowledge. It was extending the range of social happiness. It was widening the old horizons of philanthropic effort. It was relieving men from the burdens and terrors of ignorant bigotry. It was insisting that institutions should do the work for which they were intended. It was bent on applying the test of real use for the public welfare to all the resources of Civilisation, which were locked up, too often, by the selfishness of prejudice, and the idleness of indifference.

But, in spite of all this beneficial activity, Liberalism was felt, by those ardent young men at Oxford, to be their enemy. And it was this, because it left out that which to them was the one fact of supreme importance—the soul.

Liberalism, as it was understood in the days of Lord Brougham, and of Benthamism, knew nothing of the soul’s enthralling drama—its tragic heights and depths, its absorbing wonder, its momentous agonies, its infinite pathos, its tempestuous struggle, its mysterious sin, its passion, its penitence, and its tears. All this Liberalism passed over, as of no account. It was for it a veiled world, into which it possessed no way of entry. It came not into its secret, and moreover, it was content to be excluded. It was inclined to sweep it all aside, as the rubbish of superstition. It was unaware of its own blind-{xxviii} ness. It was confident in its own adequacy to set human life straight, without regard to this disturbing matter.

It was this shallow self-sufficiency which stung the strong soul of Carlyle into fierce revolt. In him, the elements which rational enlightenment fancied it had disposed of, re-asserted their volcanic intensity. Through his voice, humanity defied the comfortable bribes of utilitarianism, and revealed itself once again as the passionate Pilgrim of Time, for ever seeking an unknown and eternal Goal. And this recoil of Carlyle, prophetic in its force, yet empty of any Gospel message, had its parallel at Oxford. . . .  Every fibre of Keble’s soul revolted against any temper that would smoothe over the dark realities of sin, or would cheapen the tremendous issues of human character and human choice, or would rob earth of its imaginative mystery, or would {xxix}trifle with the awful significance of word or deed in the light of Doom. Truth was, for him, no thin logical consistency, but a Vision of Eternal Reality, which smote in upon the conscience of man with the solemnity of a moral challenge.

Liberalism embodied, according to Newman’s analysis, the spirit of rationalism, and the claim of the human reason to sit in judgment upon dogmatic revelation. And, against this, Keble recalled to men the teaching of Bishop Butler on the moral nature of the evidence by which spiritual convictions were reached. To the mere reason, this evidence could not get beyond suggestive probabilities; but these probabilities were used, by the living spirit of man, as an indication of the personal Will of God, which could be read by the soul that was in tune with that Will. So probabilities became certitudes. “ I will guide thee with mine Eye,” was Keble’s favourite example of the mode in which Divine truth touched the soul. By deep glimpses, by rare flashes, by a momentary glance, the Eye of God could make us aware of Truths far beyond the understanding of reason. Such Truths possessed authority, which we could not dissect or critically examine. They were revelations of the mind of Him with Whom we had to deal. So Authority was the key-note of Keble’s thinking, in antithesis to the Reason of Liberal enlightenment. And Authority was shown, as Mr. Balfour has again shown us in our own day, to rest on profound instincts of human nature, which had their roots far down out of sight, and defied rational analysis. Emotion, Imagination, {xxx} Association, Tradition, Conscience, all played their part in the creation of that temper which found its joyful freedom in surrendering to Authority.

{xxxvi} . . . .Newman, who has denounced the attack of Liberalism so vigorously, finds the weak and worldly defence of the traditional Conservatism as repulsive and as dangerous.

Italics added. Source: John Henry Newman, John Keble, et al. Lyra Apostolica. (Introduction by Henry C. Beeching.) London, 1901.

Written by John Uebersax

December 12, 2016 at 10:57 pm