Philosophy as Obedience to the Divine

“Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength, I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you, who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this?” Plato, Apology [of Socrates] in The Trial and Death of Socrates: Four Dialogues (New York: Dover, 1992), pp. 30-31. [Emphasis added] 

In this work, Plato set forth his version of Socrates’ statement of defense in response to the charges against him by the Athenian government.  These charges included impiety against the gods of Athens and corruption of the Athenian youth.  In his defense Socrates argued that the god at Delphi had commissioned him to lead the people of Athens into self-examination and inquiry.  This drew many of the elite young men (like Plato) of Athens to him as their teacher.  Socrates explained that the purpose of his teaching was the pursuit of virtue.  And if this teaching violated the laws of Athens, then he was guilty.  However, a higher law, inspired by the divine, compelled him to continue teaching.  Socrates proclaimed:

“For this is the command to God, as I would have you know; and I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God.  For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul.  I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private.  This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, my influence is ruinous indeed.  But if any one says that this is not my teaching, he is speaking an untruth.” Ibid., p. 31. [Emphasis added]


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Fighting for the Luxury and Wealth of Others

 “‘Those savage beasts,’ said he, ‘in Italy, have their particular dens, they have their places of repose and refuge; but the men who bear arms, and expose their lives for the safety of their country, enjoy in the meantime nothing more in it but the air and light; and, having no houses or settlements of their own, are constrained to wander from  place to place with their wives and children.’  He told them that the commanders were guilty of a ridiculous error, when, at the head of their armies, they exhorted the common soldiers to fight for their sepulchres and altars; when not any amongst so many Romans is possessed of either altar or monument, neither have they any houses of their own, or hearths of their ancestors to defend.  They fought indeed and were slain, but it was to maintain the luxury and wealth of other men.” Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. John Dryden, revised by Arthur H. Clough. reprint of 1864 edition (New York: Modern Library), 999.  [Emphasis added]

Here we read Plutarch’s description of Tiberius Gracchus’ speech concerning the suffering of the common Roman soldier for the interests of the Roman nobles.  Tiberius Gracchus represented the populist politician (populares) of the late 2nd century BC.  He recognized how the wars of the Repubic had led to corruption and great oppression of the average Roman citizen.  It seems that it’s always been a Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight.

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The Foolishness of the Cross

“For the word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness; but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God.” I Corinthians 1:18

Based on St Paul’s text, Geoffrey Babion, a twelfth-century theologian, explained how God chose a seemingly foolish way to redeem sinful human beings.  Only the faithful could see something so outwardly shameful as a man dying in a horrific manner on a cross  as the power of God.  Geoffrey, then, gave a lengthy explanation of humanity’s fall and Christ’s redemption:

“When he was similar to God, the man had honor.  He did not understand, when he sinned.  Therefore, he was made similar to a beast of burden, when by sinning he became irrational.  Two creatures had sinned, namely, the devil and the man. But one [sinned] by himself, and the other [sinned] through another.  Therefore, since the devil [sinned] by himself, he did not deserve to be restored, particularly since he consists of such a subtle and spiritual essence.  The man, since he was made from dirt, since he was deceived by such a cunning tempter, did not lose the hope of forgiveness.  Therefore, although God and man were such opposites, neither the hope of forgiveness or redemption by such a just judge should be denied.  Divine providence looked for the most equitable manner of reconciliation.  For reason demanded that whoever wants to join two contrary things together, places such a thing between them that has a connection with both things.” Geoffrey Babion [Falsely attributed to Hildebert], In festo exaltationis sanctae crucis, PL 171: 683C-D [My translation]

Geoffrey demonstrates a great familiarity with the teachings regarding the fall of humanity and redemption in the twelfth-century schools here.  His explanation in this sermon reflects Anselm of Canterbury’s basic doctrine of reconciliation of sinful human beings with a just God in his famous dialogue, Why God Became Man.  Notice how Geoffrey continued in the next section:

“Moreover, when such from one part was God, the ignoble man was so much from the other part, so that they had to be reconciled, and through such a mediator, who was God and a human being.  If He had wanted to redeem angels, He would have taken on the angelic nature, but since He determined that only human beings were worthy for redemption, He took on human nature, a subservient person in a reasonable manner.” Ibid., 683C-684A.    


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The Price of Satisfaction: Bernard of Clairvaux’s View of Redemption

“You lived, O man, in darkness and the shadow of death through ignorance of the truth; you were a prisoner and your sins were your shackles.  He [Jesus] came down to you in your prison, not to torture you but to liberate you from the power of darkness.  And first of all, as the Teacher of Truth, he banished the murk of your ignorance by the light of his wisdom.  By ‘the righteousness that comes of faith’ (Rom. 9:30) he loosed the bonds of sin, justifying the sinners by his free gift.  Furthermore, by living holily in the midst of sinners he laid down a pattern of life that is pathway back to the fatherland.” Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 22, in Song of Songs II (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1983), p. 19. 

In this sermon from Bernard’s series on the Song of Songs, we may observe his preaching on the redemption of sinful humanity by the incarnate Christ.  Here he explained to his fellow monks (and later readers) that Jesus came to free human beings from the chains of sin through the gift of righteousness received by faith.  However, notice Bernard explained that Christ had demonstrated the sanctified way of living based on love.  He continued:

“As a gesture of love he surrendered himself to death and from his own side produced the price of satisfaction that would placate his Father, thus clearly making his own the verse: ‘It is with the Lord that mercy is to be found, and a generous redemption.’* Utterly generous, for not a mere drop but a wave of blood flowed unchecked from the five wounds of his body.” Ibid.  [Emphasis added]

Bernard uses the image of satisfaction of the Father’s honor here derived from Anselm of Canterbury’s teaching on redemption.  In the twelfth century, preachers, such as Bernard, used this image of satisfaction and also the idea the ransom theory.  This is the idea that Christ redeemed sinful humanity from the power of the devil, sin, and death through His crucifixion, death, and resurrection.  Notice also Bernard’s graphic description of Christ’s Passion and bloody wounds.   He often connected his theology of redemption with meditation on this Passion that so greatly shaped late medieval religious devotion.            

*Psalm 129:7 (Vulgate)

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The Spiritual Castle

“The blessed Virgin Mary herself, whose glorious assumption we are celebrating today, was beyond doubt blest because she welcomed the Son of God in body but she was more blest because she had welcomed him in spirit…let us make ready a spiritual castle and our Lord shall come to us.  I dare say that if the Blessed Mary had not prepared this castle within herself, the Lord Jesus would not have entered her womb or her spirit.” Aelred of Rievaulx, ‘Sermon 19: For the Assumption of Saint Mary’ in Aelred of Rievaulx: The Liturgical Sermons, trans. Theodore Berkeley and M. Basil Pennington (Kalamazoo 2001), p. 264. [Emphasis  added]

In the twelfth century, preachers increasingly focused on devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the locus of the incarnation of Christ and the divine virtues associated with her.  These theologians also exhorted their hearers (or readers) to imitate Mary and her virtues.  Preachers, like Aelred, used an allegorical interpretation of the Latin word, castellum.  While the word, castle, derives from this Latin word, it could also mean simply, village or town.  The Gospel reading for this sermon contained Luke 10:38: “Now it came to pass as they went, that he entered into a certain town (castellum): and a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house.” 

Aelred imagines the Blessed Virgin to be a spiritual castle associated with certain virtues and calls upon his fellow monks to emulate those virtues by building a castle within themselves. He explained how a castle has three main parts: a moat, a wall, and a tower. The moat corresponds to humility because this virtue must be established in the heart. The spiritual wall is chastity that arises out of a humble heart. Finally, the tower is charity because charity rises above all the other virtues. The Virgin Mary possessed humility, chastity, and charity more than any others. Especially, charity, as Aelred explained:

“Who can say how perfectly the most blessed Mary this tower? If Peter loved his Lord, how much did the Blessed Mary love her Lord and her Son! How much she loves her neighbors–that is, [all] men and women–is demonstrated by the many miracles and the many visions by which the Lord has deigned to show that she prays in a special way to her Son for the whole human race.” Ibid., 267.


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The Languor of Love

“Love is an affliction, and the suffering of a soul that is sick.  The authority of the poet [Ovid]–even though it seems unworthy and unsuitable–affirms the truth of this, when he says, ‘Woe is me, for no herb can cure love.’ But for the religious minds, it should be enough that this is the voice of the bride.  She states what she feels and says: ‘I am afflicted with love.’  Let us then consider, therefore, whether all love is an affliction.” Baldwin of Ford (Canterbury), ‘Tractate XIV: On the Order of the Charity,’ in Spiritual Tractates, vol. 2 trans. David N. Bell (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1986), p. 141.

Baldwin, a Cistercian abbot, later became Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1180s.  In his recorded sermons he wrote extensively on the nature of love.  As a Cistercian, he was continuing his Order’s traditional focus on love that began with Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on the Song of Songs.  Here Baldwin explains Song of Songs 2:4-5: 

“He brought me into the cellar of wine, he set in order charity in me.  Stay me up with flowers, compass me about with apples: because I languish with love.”  The Latin text for the last part reads:  “…quia amore langueo,” which we could translate as “…since I am weakened by love,” or as translated above: “I am afflicted with love.”  

While Baldwin does discuss various types of love in the following sermon, he focuses on divine charity.  However, consider the fact that he began this sermon with a reference to Ovid (the lascivious Roman poet).  The transposition of Eros to Caritas for rhetorical effect in order to explain divine love characterized much of the monastic exposition of holy Scripture in the twelfth century.  Consider how another writer described romantic love in this famous work: 

“Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love’s precepts in the other’s embrace.” Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, trans. John J. Parry (New York: Columbia, 1960), p. 28.  

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The Ladder to Heaven

“Truly, the cross of Christ is a ladder reaching into heaven from earth, because through the faith of the cross, through imitation of the Passion, man returns from exile to the homeland, from death to life, from earth to heaven, from the desert of this world to paradise. By this ladder the angels ascend and descend, that is, the preachers of Christ, descend, when they preach the weakness of the cross; they ascend, when they preach the wisdom and power of God; for the foolishness of Christ is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (I Cor. 1:25) Christ was nailed to this ladder when he was nailed to the cross.” Alan of Lille, De sancta cruce (On the Holy Cross), Patrologia Latina, vol. 210, col. 224. [My translation]

Alan of Lille, a Parisian theologian in the twelfth century, wrote these words in a sermon for Good Friday.  His work reflects the interest among teachers at that time in the Christ’s redemption of sinners on the cross.  This sermon describes the Passion of Christ as steps on the ladder of the cross.  These steps include Christ’s mercy, humility, obedience, penalty, suffering, and death.  Alan explains how Christ climbed these steps in place of sinners.  He concluded:

“The final step in the Passion was death. A marvelous death, a death which kills off death itself, gives life, weakens the sting of death, conquers the devil, and eradicates sin.  Through these steps of the ladder, Christ ascended into heaven. However, there was a triple ascent of Christ. The first, he ascended as he suffered [on the cross].  The second, he ascended when he was brought back to life.  The third, he ascended as he was glorified at the right hand of the Father.  In the first ascent, he ascended to death.  In the second, he ascended to immortality. In the third, he ascended to majesty.” PL 210:225 [My translation]

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The Shame of Peter Abelard

“You know the depths of shame to which my unbridled lust had consigned our bodies, until no reverence for decency or for God even during the days of Our Lord’s Passion, or of the greater sacraments could keep me from wallowing in this mire.  Even when you were unwilling, resisted to the utmost of your power and tried to dissuade me, as yours was the weaker nature I often forced you to consent with threats and blows.*  So intense were the fires of lust which bound me to you that I set those wretched, obscene pleasures, which we must blush even to name, above God as above myself; nor would it seem that divine mercy could have taken action except by forbidding me these pleasures altogether, without future hope.” Heloise to Abelard, Letter 5 in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Trans. Betty Radice, Revised edition by M.T. Clanchy (Penguin: London, 2003), p. 81. [Emphasis added]

As if he wanted to surpass Heloise’s shocking statement about loving him more than God, Abelard describes his lustful actions and mistreatment of her in graphic terms.  He clearly understood that he took advantage of the situation.  When they met, he was around 35 and she was in her late teens.  By all accounts, she possessed a great intellect and her letters indicate this fact.  Abelard deflects Heloise’s admission of continued love for him by heaping blame on his own emotional instability and deeds of shame.

Pleading his own unworthiness, Abelard exhorts Heloise to turn her heart toward divine love.  He instructs her to remember Christ’s Passion for the salvation of the world, not theirs for the sake of lusts.   Like the women along the road to Calvary, he wants Heloise to weep for the Son of God:

“Have compassion on him who suffered willingly for your redemption, and look with remorse on him who was crucified for you.  In your mind always be present at his tomb, weep and wail with the faithful women.” Ibid., p. 85.

Abelard wants Heloise to replace the images of their passionate embraces stamped on her heart with the image of Christ’s Passion in her memory.  In so doing, his prescribed meditation reflects that of many twelfth-century theologians.  For example, Bernard of Clairvaux instructed his monks to “preserve without fail the memory of  all those biter things he [Jesus] endured for you.”

To summarize Abelard’s exhortation: Meditate on the crucified Christ.  Turn your sorrow to Him because Jesus “set up the Cross, from which he summons us, as a ladder for us to use.  On this, for you, the only begotten Son of God was killed; he was made an offering because he wished it. Grieve with compassion over him alone and share his suffering in grief.” Ibid., p. 85.          

Following this section, Abelard weds spiritual marriage to the teaching of Christ’s redemption.  This fits with Heloise’s new vocation as a nun, but it also applied to every Christian soul.   He explained to Heloise that Christ had redeemed her with his own blood.  In this way, Christ has demonstrated an inestimable love for Heloise, unlike Abelard’s unbridled lust:

“To him, I beseech you, not to me, should be directed to all your devotion, all your compassion, all your remorse.  Weep for the injustice of the great cruelty inflicted on him, not for the just and righteous payment demanded of me, or rather, as I said, the supreme grace granted us both….Mourn for your Saviour and Redeemer, not for your corrupter and fornicator; wail for the Lord who died for you, not for the servant who lives and, indeed, for the first time is truly freed from death.” Ibid., p. 86.

*The issue of physical abuse here is truly disturbing*

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The Affection of Heloise

“In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too sweet–they cannot displease me, and can scarcely shift from my memory.  Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even sleep.  Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers.  I should be groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost.  Everything we did and also the times and places where we did it are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through them all again with you.” Heloise to Abelard, Letter 4 in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Trans. Betty Radice, Revised edition by M.T. Clanchy (Penguin: London, 2003), p. 68 [Emphasis Added]

Can you believe the abbess of a convent wrote this? Wow.  Memory and Love leave a lasting impression. Emotions often shape who we are and what we believe.  While twelfth-century monks and nuns did write in very emotion-laded ways, these words had more specific meanings.  Affectus can be translated as emotion, but it meant something else to a medieval nun or monk.  In this case the affectus of love is powerful.  It is a disposition or pull of the will toward someone or something.*

Notice that she knows the truth: “I should be groaning over the sins I have committed…” but she can only lament the loss of the love of her life.

In this quote we read Heloise, the abbess of a convent, describe the memory of her love for her husband  and its effects on her in sexual terms.  He was a famous theologian and philosopher: Peter Abelard.  They had a torrid love affair when he was her teacher.  She eventually became pregnant. To please her family, they were secretly married.  Peter taught at the early twelfth-century cathedral school in Paris and this was a problem for them. 

As master at a cathedral school, Peter held status as a cleric and celibacy was becoming quite important at that time.  Heloise’s family decided that a secret marriage was not good enough, so a few of the family members castrated Peter Abelard.  She became a nun at his insistence and he became a monk, but remained a significant (and controversial) theologian.  Later she became an abbess of a monastery, the Paraclete, which Peter helped establish and supported.

In the same letter she acknowledges her hypocrisy and lack of virtue in her soul.  While her outward behavior comported to the monastic ideal, she confesses the memory of sensual affections with her husband.  Without the intention of loving God, Heloise, explains that her religious behavior is vanity.  In fact, she explained that Peter, her husband and former teacher, was her real love and inspiration:

“At every stage of my life up to now, as God knows, I have feared to offend you rather than God, and tried to please you more than him.  It was your command, not love of God, which made me take the veil.  Look at the unhappy life I lead, pitiable beyond any other, if in this world I must endure so much in vain, with no hope of future reward.” Ibid., 69.

*William of St Thierry, The Nature and Dignity of Love, trans. Thomas X. Davis (Cistercian: Kalamazoo, 1981), 47.

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The Honorable Cross

“Every action of Christ and all His working of miracles were truly great and divine and wonderful, but of all things the most wonderful is His honorable cross.  For by nothing else except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ has death been destroyed, hell plundered, resurrection bestowed, and power given us to despise the things of this world and even death itself, the road back to the former blessedness made smooth, the gates of paradise opened, our nature seated at the right hand of God, and we made children and heirs of God.  By the cross all things have been set right.” John of Damascus, The Orthodox Faith, Bk 4, Chap. 11., trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr., The Fathers of the Church vol. 37 (New York 1958), p. 349-350.  [Emphasis added] 

John of Damascus (d. 749) wrote this work on the Christian faith and against heresies (false teachings) in the eighth century.  This particular chapter on the Lord’s cross demonstrates how early medieval Eastern theologians praised Christ’s redemption and venerated the images and relics of the Cross. However, John lived under Muslim rulers who rejected and attacked the Christian teaching on the Cross and Resurrection.

John defended this teaching against Muslim critics in another work, On Heresies, in which he identified Muslims as Ishmaelites or Saracens.  He, then, seeks to refute the main teachings of Mohammed, whom he identified as a heretic (false teacher).  Especially, John defends the practice of venerating the cross against Islamic accusations of idolatry:  “They…accuse us of being idolaters, because we venerate the cross, which they abominate.” John of Damascus, On Heresies, trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr., The Fathers of the Church vol. 37 (New York 1958), pp. 156.

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