Thursday, September 13, 2007

Week 04, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Christine de Pizan

Page-by-Page Notes on Saint Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine and The Trinity

188-89. There are natural signs and conventional signs. An example of the natural sign would be sad faces, animal tracks, and so forth. Conventional signs involve intention and some desire to convey meaning.

190. Signs may be literal or figurative. As Quintilian had already pointed out, even common folks employ metaphor where it seems appropriate—if there isn’t a word for something, mainly. This amounts to a kind of creative literalism. See Augustine’s “ox” example. Conventional signs are literal or point to something, but they can also be figurative when we use a literal sign to mean something else, as is the case when Christians use the word “ox” to refer to an evangelist. Figuration is both necessary and a source of misunderstanding.

191. Augustine has no problem with the figurative language in the Bible, even when it is enigmatic, though sometimes its meaning may become clear with rhetorical analysis. Christian writers such as Augustine and Aquinas are always concerned to point out that God has his mysteries and that it is appropriate for him to speak in ways that may be understood on different levels, possibly even misunderstood by those who aren’t worthy to understand. “Cast not your pearls before swine,” as Jesus says. An additional thought: modern literary criticism makes the author-principle a useful construction that helps to establish and maintain interpretive control. The author-principle helps control meaning. Language must not become independent of orthodoxy—that is, of the accepted religious, social, and political frameworks. If you can interpret the author’s life as a coherent whole, you have a unifying principle for the work.

Augustine deals with language as conveying a person’s spiritual motions or intentions. For Augustine, figuration and metaphor are valid, but they must be kept under control: God has the same problem as poets in that (given the limitations of his audience) he must liken spiritual things to gross material ones. We cannot hear the celestial harmony of the planets’ movements because of “the muddy vesture of our decay,” as Lorenzo in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice says. Language mediates between human beings and God. That is the significance of Christ as God’s Word; however, human language is a fallen instrument. Faith fills in the gap between spiritual reality and the words that signify it. Some anxiety enters the equation here—as in Wordsworth’s concern in the middle of “Tintern Abbey” over the possibility that his faith in nature is “but a vain belief.” Ultimately, however, we refer truth to Christ, God’s Word made manifest.

192-94. Augustine refers to the language of the heart in his nineteenth paragraph. Something is in reserve here that guarantees meaning: an intimate, interior truth residing in consciousness. Furthermore, we refer this truth ultimately to Christ, God’s Word made manifest. Augustine recognizes the drift involved in ordinary speech and writing, but faith ensures its stability as a signifying system.

193-95. Faith ensures the stability of human language as a signifying system. Ultimately, Augustine anchors the Bible’s meaning and the truth of an individual’s words by insisting that there is an inner language, a “language of the heart,” that precedes external signification (writing and audible utterances). This inner language, Augustine says, gives us some glimpse of Christ’s miraculous power as God’s Word: Christ can make the Father’s meanings manifest without sacrificing their truth or power. As the Word, he does not degrade his Father’s Truth. The inner language Augustine keeps in reserve is connected to this mysterious power of God’s infallible language. Our own language is fallen and can lead us astray, but Augustine does not see cause for despair in this consequence of the Fall. He does not believe that fallen language need result in endless drift or entrapment in a verbal maze. What is closest to our inner consciousness is closest to God and Truth. Words represent or convey our thoughts, but underwriting this is the special language of the heart.

Augustine knows well the persuasive powers of language. After all, he was a professor of rhetoric who became a Christian. He felt the beauty of words, and the pull towards understanding. Nobody likes being confused—a point made by Aristotle in The Poetics long ago. And in The Confessions, he is moved to become a Christian not only by his mother Monica’s example but also by a bishop’s excellent speaking. Through our fallen senses we are drawn towards virtue. Language appeals to our senses. The ear is almost a sensual organ for the ancients, just as the eye may be struck by beauty as if by an outside force or a god.

Page-by-Page Notes on Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica


Aquinas emphasizes the literal element in metaphor—the element of the familiar that makes the unfamiliar less strange. He writes in accordance with the doctrine of accommodation, which says speech must be suited to the understanding of one’s listeners. Aquinas casts God as a speaker who can draw us onwards to salvation through metaphor. God’s obvious delight in figurative language is one of his mysteries, similar to Christ’s generous miracle of the Incarnation—the spirit fusing with a material body. Aquinas’ theology holds that Christ is the manifestation of God, a Sacred Word become visible. Christ is willing to be seen and heard. The doctrines of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit—God as three-in-one) and Transubstantiation (at the Eucharist, wine becomes blood, and bread becomes Christ’s flesh) will influence the romantics’ emphasis on symbol as a vehicle for spiritual significance and for what Coleridge calls “unity in multeity.” For Coleridge, a symbol is a living, complex, consequential entity, not just a literary device as the rhetoricians of old would have it. As he writes in The Statesman’s Manual (1816), a symbol “always partakes of the reality it renders intelligible.”

The complexity of the Bible helps Aquinas. Its variety and scope allow him to defend metaphor both as an anchor for simple readers and as an intellectual exercise for the erudite. There is mystery in the Bible, but there are also passages where the rough places are made plain. Aquinas’ God exploits the multiplicity of language and even, at times, its ambiguity, for the purpose of salvation. It’s also true in both Augustine and Aquinas, I believe, that another function of literary language is guarding access to spiritual truth—as always, the injunction straight from the master is “cast not your pearls before swine.” The Bible can speak in the tones of Milton ’s genial angel Raphael the mediator, or it can come across as Michael with a flaming sword, escorting fallen mankind out of Eden .

244. Notice that Dionysius’ replies have to do with preserving God’s mysteriousness and majesty. We are not to forget that a gap lies between us and the divine. Compare the romantic poets to the medieval philosophers in this regard—Shelley refers to the effect of inspiration as being like prints in the sand, later effaced by wind and wave. In general, the British romantics describe inspiration and language with a sense of profound loss—”we are as clouds that veil the midnight moon,” to borrow a line from Shelley. The material signifier is not Truth, but it leads us to cast our eyes in that direction. God does not need language, but he chooses to reveal himself by means of it. Fallen humanity needs language as an instrument for its own correction.

244. The first argument is that we start with our senses, and can best receive spiritual truth that way. Metaphor uses a material or literal vehicle to convey an underlying spiritual truth. We are fallen, limited, material and earthly beings. As Milton says, “immediate are the acts of God, / More swift than time or motion,” but our limitations demand “process of speech” and figurative language. Notice that Aquinas is a good Aristotelian—we like representations and stories; they are how we learn our first lessons. Figurative language preserves us from error because we know it is figural, and do not take it as merely material. Both the letter and the spirit must be true, and they both require our attention. The second argument is that God is best appreciated by what he is not, so calling him “a burning bush” at certain points helps to remind us that such references cannot in fact capture God. The third argument in favor of figurative language is that vulgar and faithless people will not be able to do harm with their knowledge—the swine will get no pearls. Sometimes, God likes to hide, especially from the unworthy. The Bible’s mission requires figuration—how else could we receive spiritual truth? So on the whole, figuration is both part of God’s mysteriousness and its use is an exigency for the accommodation of the fallen.

245. Aquinas says God writes on various levels, which is appropriate because our limited understandings require this spreading out, separating, and comparing of things. For God everything happens on one track, but not for us. Aquinas says that the Church knows how to interpret the various levels, so it mediates between us and God. One function of metaphor is to use the literal as a means of understanding the spiritual. The interesting thing about Aquinas’ application, I believe, is that in God’s case the spiritual level turns out to be, well, literal since he is pure spirit.

245-46. For Aquinas, the author of the Bible is God, who gives us literally true history but also employs spiritual significations at the same time. By way of allegory, the Old Testament points towards the New Testament, with Moses being a type of Christ, and so forth. There is also the moral sense or level of interpretation—Christ’s life serves as a conduct book for ordinary human beings. Then there is the anagogical level, where the literal events refer to the soul in bliss. So there are four levels of significance. But there need be no confusion since all of these levels are singular in God’s mind; faith that this is so is the ground of intelligibility, and the discursive separation of levels is for our benefit. Neither Aquinas nor Augustine would have much patience with modern notions that language leads to undecidability or aporia, to borrow one of Paul de Man’s key terms.

Page-by-Page Notes on Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies

266-69. De Pizan points out that if the misogynists are correct, God has a great deal to answer for—why indeed did he bother to make that female for Adam at all? Pizan is illustrating for us in a movingly personal way the devastating effects of centuries of men’s irrational invectives against women. This argumentative move—that is, pointing out the irrationalism of men who accuse women of being irrational—will become standard in much subsequent writing about women by women. See, for example, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, or Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Her enlistment of Lady Reason is also very wise—this Lady is much like Boethius’ Lady Philosophy in The Consolation of Philosophy. It’s delightful to hear her say that men’s diatribes against women “never originated with me” (269). At the bottom of 267, we notice that the City of Ladies is to be founded upon the “field of letters.” That’s de Pizan’s way of recognizing that the patristic tradition of writing has become a source of authority completely divorced from actual experience. Men go to such patristic texts to “learn about” the supposed true nature of women, saving themselves the burdensome task of paying attention to what is right in front of them. The City of Ladies will be constructed with the aid of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, and it is to serve as a defense against the assaults of men's bodies and interpretive batteries (i.e. texts from the patristic tradition), as well as a dwelling place for women. De Pizan's architectural metaphor has to do with identity as well, in the same way that the physical setting of a church “houses” the individual members of the congregation.

Extra Notes: A Guide to Typology, by Alfred J. Drake

The Old Testament containes [Christ] in the Hieroglyphics of Sacrifices, and Types, and Ceremonies; the New, in legible and ordinary characters. (from John Stoughton’s Choice Sermons, 1640, quoted by C. Patrides.)

Typology is an interpretive method developed early in Christian history; its purpose is to relate the events of the Old Testament to the events of the four gospels, i.e. the New Testament. (The basic problem that the Church fathers faced was this: how does one relate a series of texts that speak of god within a militaristic, nationalist setting to the gospels, which describe a god and a Christ who do not seem to fit easily within the older context?) Typology is based upon an idea that one can trace all the way back to Genesis—the idea that the whole world is the work of god and that he spoke the world into existence. If the world came into being as god’s act of language, then, would not the world, and all that happens in it, stand in need of interpretation as a symbol?
Together, Thomas Aquinas and Dante Alighieri give us a concise, if incomplete, account of the typological method. Aquinas says that there are four levels of meaning to be drawn from certain statements in the bible: These levels are:

1) the literal or historical level, which is simply the event itself.

2) the allegorical level, which relates the literal event to events in the New Testament.

3) the moral level, which explains the abstract moral lesson to be drawn from the literal event.

4) the anagogical level, which relates the literal event to heavenly things.

It should be noted that the literal meaning is crucial to the interpreter. Aquinas insists that the bible is a true record of real events. As he says in the Summa Theologica, “it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible things, because all our knowledge originates from sense” (Adams 117; Critical Theory Since Plato). The spiritual significance of an event presupposes that event’s literal validity. Only through interpreting the true, literal event does one arrive at its spiritual significance.

Dante applies this method not only to the bible but to literary works as well. He, too, says that a work is polysemous; that is, he says that it signifies on more than one level. In his system, a work may be read on at least four different levels of meaning. Here is Dante’s “fleshing out” of the basic method of typology:

“When Israel came out of Egypt , and the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, Judea became his sanctification, Israel his power” ( Psalms 114:1-2). For if we inspect the letter alone the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses is presented to us; if the allegory, our redemption wrought by Christ; if the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to the state of grace is presented to us; if the anagogical, the departure of the holy soul from the slavery of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory is presented to us. ( Adams CTSP 121, Revised Edition)

To sum up, I shall refer to C. Patrides’ note on typology in his edition of George Herbert’s The Temple: According to Patrides, the first purpose of typology is to confirm that historical events are non-recurring and irrevers- ible—i.e. that Christ changed history; its second purpose is to confirm that historical events imply providential design—i.e. to show that the created order progresses in accordance with god’s will; and its third purpose is to confirm that historical events are meaningful “only in so far as they are seen to relate to the advent of Christ.” (from The English Poems of George Herbert. ed. C.A. Patrides. London , J.M. Dent, 1974. 26.)

On Typology, by Prof. Vicki Silver

From The Cambridge History of the Bible (eds. Ackroyd and Evans):

[P]rophecy is for Origen a very important link between the two testaments. Its confirma- tory value works both ways. The fulfillment of prophecy in the life of Jesus is not only important evidence for the reliability of the New Testament in the assumption which it makes about his messiahship and his divinity; it is not only the truth of the New Testament which receives support from the fact of prophecies fulfilled. The fact of their fulfillment is valuable confirmation also of the Old Testament in which the original prophecies are contained. Before the coming of Christ men might well have had reservations about the divine inspiration of the Old Testament. But Christ’s coming has served to “confirm for us the message of the prophets” (2 Peter 1.19, NEB ). The concept of the fulfillment of prophecy is therefore both valid and important. But fulfillment in a direct and literal sense is only a very small part of it. Origen makes his point clearly in general terms in the Contra Celsum: “Many prophets foretold in all kinds of ways the things concerning Christ, some in riddle and others by allegories or some other way while some even use literal expressions.” Literal fulfillments of prophecy do exist, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

If the prophetic link between the two testaments was to be developed with the degree of thoroughness which the Church required, it could only be done with a large-scale use of figurative or allegorical interpretations. But the Old Testament does not consist only of prophecy, even in the more extended meaning which that term bore in Origen’s day. Legal enactments, historical narrative and wisdom literature had also to be shown to be wholly consistent with the teaching of the New Testament. As we have already seen in relation to the Law, this could only be done very incompletely at the level of the literal meaning. Here figurative or allegorical interpretations were even more necessary if the apparent conflicts between the ideas of the two dispensations were to be overcome.

Modern scholarship has tended to draw a firm line of distinction between typological and allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament. The line has not always been drawn in the same way by different scholars, even where they are fully agreed about its crucial importance. The features would generally be regarded as necessary components of a properly typological interpretation. In the first place, it takes seriously the Old Testament law or the historical event in question as a word or act of God directly intended for and appropriate to its original historical setting. Secondly, the further meaning to which it points, that of which it is a type, must have a real connection with the initial but lesser meaning or purpose which it had in its original historical context. A typological interpretation of the Exodus, for example, is one which sees it as a real act of divine rescue of Israel out of Egypt and which also sees it as a type of Christian baptism because that too is an act of divine rescue, though a rescue of a fuller and more perfect kind. To ask whether Origen’s interpretation of the Old Testament is primarily typological or allegorical, commonly though it is done, is to ask the wrong question. . . .However variable his judgments about the lesser, preliminary meaning of some parts of the Old Testament, the deeper meaning is always the full Christian meaning. Whether it involves the reversal of the apparent literal meaning or the fulfillment of it as an incomplete image, the true meaning will always be the meaning of the Christian gospel. . . .we do not have to think of reconciling two Testaments or of showing them to be complementary to one another. At that level they are not two at all but one. There is only the one truth of God, which is eternal and therefore ever new. The expressions of that truth in the Old Testament are hidden and obscure. But we must say more than that those expressions hint at the full truth or look forward to it. The eternal truth of God is the true meaning of every passage of the Old Testament. When Moses gave to the Jews their laws of circumcision and Passover, of new moon and Sabbath, he knew that the real meaning of what he was saying and doing had nothing to do with human bodies and the death of lambs but rather with the human heart and the sacrifice of Christ. John says that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” ( John 1.17). For Paul, Christ’s relation to the law is primarily that of grace, that of redeeming man from an alien power; for Origen, Christ’s relation to the law is primarily that of truth, of making intelligible what was always the law’s true meaning and purpose. For a thoroughgoing Platonist like Origen, this had to be so. The phenomenal world of historical occurrence might have a certain measure of significance; but the ultimate reality must belong to the changeless truth of the transcendental realm.

Typology as a method is expounded in Paradise Lost: 11.315-54; 12.147-51; 12.238-44, 285-314.

Types of Christ/Messiah Types of Anti-Christ/Satan
Abel (11.429-60) Cain
Sons of Seth (11.556-97) Sons of Cain
Enoch (11.638-710) Giants
Noah (11.712-902)
Patriarchs (12.13-78) Nimrod
Abraham (12.105-51)
Jacob (12.151-63)
Moses/Aaron (12.169-244) Pharaoh
Joshua (12.260-67)
David (12.319-30)
Disciples (12.485-507) Prelatical Church (12.507-50)

All the types of Messiah are fulfilled, as both Michael and the narrator take care to point out, in Jesus (12.285-314, 356-71, 386-466), their antitype. More particularly, Adam himself is the type of Christ, that “one greater man” of PL 1.4. This mode of “figural,” or prefigurative, reading applies to women (Eve/Mary), and to events (for example, the covenant with Noah anticipates the covenant with Abraham, with Moses, and finally with the New Covenant embodied in Christ’s passion and resurrection) or actions (Moses’ bringing the Israelites out of Egypt foreshadows Christ’s universal redemption of man). Still more pertinent to seventeenth-century history and literature, prefigurative reading applies to seventeenth-century persons and events. So Nimrod, in all likelihood, is a type of Charles the First, if not of Charles the Second as well. The Civil War enjoyed numerous expressions in both Testaments, but none are mentioned in Paradise Lost itself.) Perhaps the best example of supra-gospel typology appears in early American literature. America , as conceived by the Protestants who made it their home (I refer to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in particular), was at once New Eden and New Jerusalem; the migration itself became an analogue to exodus, to baptism, and to purification of the church. In the hands of Cotton Mather, the governor of the colony, John Winthrop, became the new Nehemiah, or “Nehemias Americanus.” For seventeenth-century ideologues, reformers, and sectaries, typology becomes a method of reading not only scripture, but secular history and current events. By comparison with Mather, Milton articulates only the most accepted and orthodox correspondences in Paradise Lost. (Note: Samson is a type both of Adam and Christ; cf. Milton ’s Samson Agonistes.)

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