Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Two Posts in One, Plus a Random Thought

Post One, Entitled, "Can Anyone Write Anymore?"

Every writer can inform; very few can delight.

The authors that always delight me include, but probably not exhaustively, St. Augustine, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Maximus Confessor, Bl. John Henry Newman, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Friedrich Nietzsche and Adolf Harnack.

Yes, what a peculiar, mixed bag, you are likely saying.

What brings all this up, you ask? I am reading the one person from that list that is least known to you: Adolf Harnack. He is one of Pope Benedict's archnemeses (with Bultmann), whom he mentions all the time in his writings, only to condemn. He mentions them, of course, because they are important. Harnack was the 19th Century's greatest dogmatic historian. I am reading volume 5 of his History of Dogma (vol. 3 of the original German), which is devoted to Augustine. That is what brings this whole thing up.

For as much as Harnack can dismay by the positions he adopts he says is in such a way that fills you with admiration and delight. He is so black and white, which is refreshing in the context of today's soft-peddling style. Here is the opening sentence of this volume:

The history of piety and of dogmas in the West was so thoroughly dominated by Augustine from the beginning of the fifth century to the era of the Reformation, that we must take this whole time as forming one period.

Ka-boom! Tell me how you really feel, Adolf!

He's clear and decisive. If there is one thing he lacks that modern scholars think the preeminent intellectual virtue it is nuance. But it is tedious to read a writer who is constantly qualifying everything he is saying. Readers want more than this. Sure, the great 19th Century writers often suffered from lack of precision, and the earlier writers too - like Rousseau, Gibbon, etc., but they were powerful nevertheless. It is impossible to combine scholarly precision with great writing?

Sometimes Harnack gets a little silly, and so does the earlier historian, Gibbon, but they are masterly prose-artists nevertheless. Why do we not value this today? Sure the weight of words is much lighter in a culture that finds them multiplied exponentially, but is there no value to be placed on the sonorous quality of words - why would they since no one reads aloud?

Post Two, Entitled, "The Most Important Books to Account for in Accounting for  Catholicism in the Modern Era"

I am doing some thinking about my 'Modern Church History' course that I am presenting next semester. I came across a book entitled, Ten Books that Screwed Up the World, by Wiker. See it on Amazon here. Now, I don't exactly like the totally dismissive tone of the title. I like to think that some of the books on that list have contributed something - like Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, which is the subject of Wiker's Chapter 8. Nevertheless, many of them are just plainly destructive, and he is right to 'expose' them. I imagine Wiker's work would constitute a good introduction to the modern context in which we Catholics have to live.

The question is, if you had to pick a few works to represent Modernity, what would you choose? Certainly, I would say that the most influential 'makers' of the modern mind would include Marx, Freud, Kant, Nietzsche, perhaps Voltaire and Rousseau. But is this a complete list? If it is, which work of theirs would you choose to represent them? If I had to sum up Ancient Christianity, it would make sense to choose Athanasius' Life of St. Anthony, Origen's Peri Archon, Augustine's Confessions, or one of a few others. For Medieval Christianity, St. Benedict's Rule, Gregory the Great's Morals on Job, the Summa, etc.

But what about Modernity? Is there a Catholic work that can epitomize Modernity? The closest would be something by Newman, but I am not as convinced that any single Catholic work can evoke Modernity as, for instance, Athanasius' Anthony can evoke Ancient Christianity.

I know that Pope Benedict could write this, but he has not yet, at least so I say from a perspective that cannot avail to itself hindsight.

What would such a work look like? Perhaps the magnum opus of his career will prove to be - surprisingly - his Jesus of Nazareth. But it does not have the character of a universal classic so as to evoke that character of an entire epoch and inspire that epoch to a truly remarkable degree. I say this while being that work's biggest fan. I love it. Pope Benedict is a religious genius, even more so than JP II ever was. I think that the most epochal writing of B XVI's was the 'Regensberg Address.' Strange that I don't say that about so many other works of his akin to it thematically, yet even more elaborate than it.

A Random Thought

St. Augustine loved Cicero's remark that his son was the only man he wanted to surpass him in every way. Augustine in turn applied it to his own son. I can relate. The thought arose in me, is this the true sign of friendship - that one would want to extend this privilege to his friend too? One of my dear friends doubtlessly greatly exceeds me in one certain way that I value in myself, and yet I cannot help but notice that I am happy that he does.

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