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On Sir Thomas Browne, Francis Bacon, & Michel de Montaigne

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The claims of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to seats among the moderns can hardly be denied– Montaigne is the heir of Sextus Empiricus, Bacon the father of Descartes and the modern experiment. Together, skepticism and the experimental method align as the twin pole stars of modern science. Sir Thomas Browne (1602-1682), a writer and thinker of unique power and extreme sensibility, occupies a more dubious position in relation to modernity. This is in spite of the fact that he outlived Bacon by sixty-four years, that he knew, at least partially, the writings of both Bacon and Montaigne, and was himself a contributor to several divisions of science and scholarly learning. He was also ever conversant with the latest advances in the sciences, as well as possessed of an intimate knowledge of the classics.

For Sir Thomas, Heaven was the abode of the mystic as well as the natural philosopher; but on earth, neither science nor the physician could change the destiny of any man, nor do anything to alter or destroy the truths of his mystic, apocalyptic faith. It is in this light that we must approach with caution the writings of Browne; particularly in those moments when he derides the Scholastics, seems to echo Montaigne, or speaks the language of Bacon and the Cartesians. The rejection of authority– be it the Divine Right of princes, the Ptolemaic system of the cosmos, or Aristotle’s concept of soul– was the common road traveled by those who made the so-called scientific revolution in the 17th century. Francis Bacon famously claimed that the Ancient natural philosophers had actually contributed little to the inquiry into the secrets of nature through their method, which Bacon styled “anticipations of nature.” If nature is not purpose-driven, if “soul” is not specific to anything, then nature is a machine made of parts that are separable and re-organizable. Like Galen’s medicine, or Pliny’s history, Aristotle’s theories of teleology and psychology, exhaustively elaborated through the period of the Middle Ages, faced its final opposition in the 17th century. Yet it was not on account of a rejection of religious faith and devotion that the change from Ancient to modern science came about, but through the division of the two spheres, faith and natural philosophy, into two vast categories of things relevance to the human condition.

In Montaigne, Bacon, and Browne, the arguments for the rejection of authority of the Ancients, and authority in general, come down to the notion that the hitherto unrealized worth of experience and experiment relieves contemporary intellectual life of its burden of gratitude and dogmatic adherence to the writings and opinions of the Ancients. Yet Browne’s rejection of Ancient authority, and authority in general, does not extend beyond what any sober-minded scholar might object to in the writings of an historian with a penchant for interjecting folklore into his narrative. On the other hand, derision of the authority of the Ancients is arguably a necessary component of the idiosyncratic style in Montaigne’s Essays — indeed, the belittling of authority, be it ancient or modern, religious or political, is the primary way to elevate the “self,” the “I,” to a new level of confessional authority, which is synonymous with autonomy. Bacon’s rejection of authority lends itself to his aphoristic style, which, in its “interpretive” lack of systematization, makes a mockery of Aristotle and the Scholastics for prematurely “anticipating nature” in their vast, artificially constructed systems. Thus, Montaigne, Bacon and Browne invoke the theme of the rejection of the authority of the Ancients to differing ends. In the final analysis, the rejection of authority is not so much a thematic parallel between the three writers, but rather a tendency in intellectual life distinguishing the 16th and 17th centuries from the Medieval era, when the writings of the Ancients were still being assimilated and commented upon.

The similarity of Browne’s writings to those of Montaigne and Bacon coincides in terms of a muscular skepticism.  The main differences lie in Browne’s deference to the authority of religion. The authority of religion is arguably the meta-element in the thought of Browne; it is according to the precepts of religion that the world of ideas and opinions are entirely subordinated in his writings. This fideistic dimension is not a main characteristic found in Montaigne or Bacon’s writings, even though both frankly and regularly confess their lifelong devotion to the Christian religion. Allegiance, however, does not dictate the subject of their respective inquiries, whether it is the self or nature. Thus, by applying the fideistic distinction, some characteristic differences can be isolated between the thought of Browne and the early-modern thought of Bacon. In so doing, a more general concluding distinction can be drawn, and that is to identify an intellectual characteristic that differentiates the intellectual attitude of fully fledged modernity, such as we find it in the writings of Montaigne, from an attitude that points back to an earlier time in pre-modern intellectual life, such as we find it in the writings of Browne.

I. Science and Faith: Browne and Bacon

Browne recognizes in the precepts and dogmas of Christianity an absolute and final authority on all matters pertaining to man’s existence. It is perhaps on this characteristic head that Browne’s position is the most easily distinguished from the respective positions of Montaigne and Bacon. Browne never wavers in his application of his religious position to whatever the subject of his writings may be. On the other hand, Montaigne and Bacon vary from one work to the next in regard to the presence or absence of religion in the treatment of their respective subjects; they are resolute only on the point of obedience to the will of the Christian church. On the other hand, fideism begins and ends Browne’s argument — the ever-present memento mori and the consuming totality of an eternal God serve as a backdrop and a foil to the mutable aspirations and vanities of mankind.

The impotence of philosophy to lend support to faith or serve as the handmaid to theology is a notion that follows thoroughly in the wake of the activities and writings of Luther and Calvin. Following a notion found in the thought of both Luther and Calvin, Browne proposes that the Christian faith should be subjected to all the tribunals of history, as well as the scrutiny of science and philosophy, so that there might not be a single doctrine left intact or standing before the hubris of man, who pretends to the measurement of all things:

“As for those wingy mysteries in divinity, and airy subtleties in religion, which have unhinged the brains of better heads, they never stretched the pia mater of mine. Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in religion for an active faith: the deepest mysteries ours contains have not only been illustrated, but maintained, by syllogism and the rule of reason. I love to lose myself in a mystery; to pursue my reason to an O altitudo! ‘Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity — incarnation and resurrection. I can answer all the objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with that odd resolution I learned of Tertullian, Certum est quia impossibile est.”

Certain contemporary critics of Religio Medici mistook Browne’s purpose of examining his religious opinions for a work of theology, yet in this fragment, Browne expressly abjures theologizing in his exclamation of “O altitudo!” The conditions of rationality set down by logic and syllogistic reasoning are not conducive to an active faith, which naturally repulses any rational explanation of faith’s irrational mysteries — rational thought is destructive and antithetical to the truths of faith. When, for example, the existence of God and the immortality of the soul can be proven through reason alone, faith ceases to act as knowledge without proof, and instead becomes certain knowledge. Religion, according to both the Reformers and to Browne, squanders its raison d’être, which is to say its veracity, when the truths of faith are changed to rationally acquired truths — the realm of faith is by definition irrational when opposed to the kingdom of reason, which is governed by empirical and logical norms. The authority of religion, based on the sovereignty of faith as opposed to the sovereignty of reason, must at least keep philosophy accountable, or enmity between the truths of faith and the truths of reason could give rise to the paradoxical possibility of the “double truth.”

In his Advancement of Learning, Bacon circumscribes the truths of faith without questioning the Scriptural authority from whence those truths issue. He does so in order to demonstrate that theology has nothing to add to natural philosophy, and certainly nothing to add to the investigation of empirical nature though methodic experiment. All observable phenomena stand outside the compass of divine knowledge for two reasons: there is no ascent from particular things and principles to universal things, or the first principles of science; second, knowledge of such things as the soul and its immortality cannot be acquired through knowledge of empirical particulars — the former species of knowledge is given through apocalypse, the latter through experience. Moreover, according to Bacon, the “light of nature” declares the existence of God to be self-evident because a creator is necessary to explain the existence of the material world; but the natural light is predictably silent on such things as the immortality of the soul and miracles. Through the light of nature, the knowledge of the existence of God is impressed on the understanding; hence, if nature can be explained by science without recourse to the miraculous or the divine, one has merely to accept the explanations of science, which do not require a miracle.

In the Religio Medici, Browne maintains a similar opinion on the self-evident nature of the existence of God; but rather than exclude God from participation in “the ordinary course of nature” (viz., laws of nature), “the effects of nature” are in every sense the “works of God, whose hand and instrument she only is; and therefore, to ascribe his actions unto her is to devolve the honor of the principle agent upon the instrument.” The difference between Bacon and Browne then, in respect to the authority of religion is, to take the case of Browne first, the function of religion as a totality beyond which nothing has meaning or reference. Science, history, and philosophy are all subsumed under the purposive ends of divinity, and employed as instrumental or artful servants. Divinity breaks in on Browne as he reviews his opinions touching hermeneutics, literally interrupting the flow of his discourse with, “thus I teach my haggard and unreclaimed reason to stoop unto the lure of faith,” and, “this, I think, is no vulgar part of faith, to believe a thing not only above, but contrary to, reason, and against the arguments of our proper senses.” Bacon, on the other hand, seeks to neither supplant religion with science nor make science accountable to religious principles — rather, he seeks to free scientific inquiry from any consideration of religion. Bacon’s programme of dividing disciplines in order that each may proceed in the most efficacious way requires that arts that were formerly joined, such as the “three knowledges; divine philosophy, natural philosophy, and human philosophy, or humanity,” pursue their respective ends individually, and draw their conclusions uninhibitedly.

The Baconian experimental method narrows the scope of what can be legitimately investigated by science, viz., the method begins and ends with the evidence of empirical phenomena.
While Browne’s approach to science in Pseudodoxia Epidemica includes experiment, induction is held to serve as nothing more than a corrective to man’s ignorance of phenomena — Browne is a castigator of false opinion sans the concern for generating a method or principles whereby science, or the inquiry into phenomena, will ultimately be freed from the bonds of superstition. In Religio Medici, Browne cavils about the same difficult doctrines that innumerable commentators have caviled on, but then invites the “gentle reader” to laugh with him at the folly of those who take such quibbles too seriously by holding the indubitability of the Scriptures too lightly. We find that Browne affects a similar pose in the empiricism of his scientific writings. The care for knowledge gained through the senses should be worn on the shoulders like a light mantle, to be cast off when the infallible truths of Scripture contradicts the fallible judgments men make of their experience. In his panoramic view of the charnel house of human history, Browne the Christian, and Browne the secular physician and scientist keep uncertain, even antagonistic company. Nature, as Browne writes in Religio Medici, is the work of God, and man cannot comprehend how the Creator works, save analogically, nor can he appropriate the tools of the Creator to achieve his own ends. Medicine is an artifice, and as such acts as a kind of mimesis of the infinite artificer; yet the application of medicine’s purgative and restorative powers, according to Browne, while beneficial to the cure of bodily infirmity, is adversative to the cure of souls. Medicine, according to this view, is antithetical to the plans of the Creator, as it necessarily works towards a greater human good, rather than as a means of serving a purpose in a transcendent teleological design that excludes individual human interests and desires. Browne has a different prescription for addressing the seeming irreconcilable differences of faith and reason, which is for each to keep to its respective place so as not to unnecessarily undermine the tenets of the one, while illegitimately raising the claims of the other.

II. Browne and Modernity

Browne is a paradoxical figure, but not in the same sense as Montaigne, who both refuses and accepts whichever category he is put into. The paradoxical nature of Browne is part and parcel of the age in which he lived, which is best understood in terms of irregularity rather than contradiction. The 17th century did not abide the kinds of impassible — which is to say, fashionable — cultural distinctions enjoyed in our current age between religion and science, the sacred and the secular, the state and the individual, &c. Certainly there were other sets of cultural distinctions particular to Browne’s time, but these are no longer operatives in our time.
Browne is ultimately an ambiguous figure, and is, to a certain (though not measurable) degree, representative of the paradoxical age in which he lived. Science lived in tolerable domesticity with religion; empiricism held rationalism at bay with its principle of bon sens; one could entertain Cartesian reductionist notions of thought and extension and still be a loyal Aristotelian. Browne may present himself in the guise of the scourge of vulgar and popular error, but he is never willing to sacrifice his religious faith, or even suggest such a desperate outrage to promote man’s self-important ends, or mix the tenants of faith with the necessarily imperfect principles of the natural sciences. Rather, Browne’s singular principle of the inevitability of the grave, and the eternal life to come, stands above rational judgment altogether, and does not waver or equivocate at any turn — hence, this may be justly set down as Browne’s “Archimedean point,” the negative principle with which all positive knowledge must be reckoned. But death does not admit of any “sic et non,” or any logical conveniences like the universal or particular affirmation or negation. The study of life and death, Brown writes in the Epistle Dedicatory to Thomas Le Gros in his Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial, makes up the daily operation of men such as themselves. The locus of their enquiry is the whole of the earth, for as such, it is but a vast tomb. The ax, spade and brush are but tools for exhuming the curious relics of man, the rational animal, whose dual essence gives him over to the ceremonialization of his own transience, yet whose fondest wish is but to continue in existence, and perpetually evade the extinction that mortal destiny carries with it. Funeral customs are geographically and chronologically particular things, but “the end of all, the poppied sleep” that gives occasion for so much variation in man’s funerary practices, is an ultimate and universal phenomenon. Browne’s Platonism is borne out by his persistent opposition of the fleeting to the eternal. The sensuous curtain of the phenomenal world, according to Browne, is a deception and a cheat when considered superficially, or as its own end. The immutable truths of the existence of a Creator that is both transcendent and participatory in the created order, and an immortal human soul, are necessary foundations for any kind of inquiry into the truth of things. In Browne’s writings, it is this particular combination of objective fact and religious devotion — les extrêmes qui se touchent — that renders the scope of his writings at once wider and narrower than the scope of Montaigne in the Essays, and Bacon in his scientific treatises. For instance, Browne’s objective inquiry on funerary urns rapidly gives way to a lengthy meditation on the gloomy spectacle of other men’s relics, ashes, or tombs, as the case may be. His most well known writings, the Urn Burial and Religio Medici, consist mainly of sustained digressions on his preferred themes of God, the mysteries of the faith, and mortality and immortality; but perhaps this is so only because his subjects inevitably relieve themselves of their particularities in the ubiquitous lap of the Creator.

On A. C. Swinburne’s Poems & Ballads & the Theory of the Monodrama


I. Why a Classification of the Love Poems is Needed

A passing examination of A. C. Swinburne’s scandal-inspiring Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866), reveals a volume of poetry consumed with describing the experience of love. To this end, Jerome McGann summarily observes that in the “…deliberately varied love lyrics… Swinburne represents many types of love relations, from the lightest and most inconsequent… through all sorts of more serious passions, tender, frenzied, and otherwise” 1 A corresponding point is made by David G. Riede, who punctuates the driving force of Poems and Ballads more directly, remarking, “The central theme of Poems and Ballads is love, and the moral position, constantly reiterated, is that love made life more beautiful in the days before a restrictive, oppressive morality set in.”2 While the consequent point is arguably untenable for understanding the diversity of the “love relations” described in Swinburne’s “deliberately varied love lyrics,” Riede’s assertion concerning the central theme of Poems and Ballads raises a question that goes to the heart of Swinburne’s love poetry— what is the nature of the experience of love that Swinburne elaborates; and is the nature of that experience static, or does it evolve?

John Rosenberg argues that Swinburne is “the poet of love’s impossibility,” and that in Swinburne’s love poetry “[t]here is much passion, but little conjunction,” adding that, “emotion is felt but not communicated and not returned.” 3 The experience of love, under the rubric of its “impossibility,” indicates that love, for Swinburne, a point fixed in the most Northerly of the heavens. Rosenberg’s formulation implies that Swinburne conceives of love as a predestined failure, and that the poet’s experience of the failure of love is transmitted uniformly throughout all the love poems. This formulation may be a suitable assessment for certain love poems in Poems and Ballads, but Rosenberg’s critical meta-theme fails to accurately characterize or categorize a considerable number of that work’s large stock of love poems. Swinburne’s first published collection of poems is arguably as committed to a versified exploration of love in its many guises as Ovid’s Elegies, or Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. For instance, in some of Swinburne’s love poems, love is intermittently cast in the mold of a concentrated focus of desire that ends in frustration, as in “The Triumph of Time,” or the pathological and unrequitable experience of love in “The Leper.” Yet such is not the case in other love poems, such as “A Ballad of Life,” “Rococo,” or “Dolores.” Swinburne is not consistently driving home a single moral or fatalistic point about the experience of love; rather, he is dealing with love as an evolving, yet recurring constellation of emotions and experiences. Thus, Swinburne’s treatment of love in poems such as “A Leper,” and “The Triumph of Time” can be disengaged from his treatment of love in other such poems as “A Ballad of Life,” “Rococo,” or “Dolores.” In comparison to poems where one version or another of ill-fated love is the principle theme, the three latter poems (to take a few chief examples) present the reader of Poems and Ballads with wholly distinct settings and situations in which Swinburne explores love in a dramatic fashion.

As the meta-theme of Poems and Ballads, the poems treating of love dominate both the political poetry and the poems in praise of Swinburne’s literary heroes by a considerable percentage. The volume is Swinburne’s oeuvre on love, par excellence; and as the overriding theme of Swinburne’s first volume of lyric poetry, the poems treating of love can arguably be sub-grouped according to thematic similarities. Grouping the love poems systematically highlights the four claims that Swinburne makes about love in Poems and Ballads. I propose a provisional fourfold division in which to approach the love poems individually: 1. “impossible love;”4 2. “violent love;”5 3. “light love,”6 and 4. “transforming love.”7 Each group consists of poems that, while containing a complex web of verbal and imagistic parallels to the other three groups, nevertheless constitute a thematic unit that invites the reader to consider them as an independent and cohesive sub-group, or movement, within the larger context of Poems and Ballads.

In the book, love is cast in various scenarios to dramatize key problems concerning the nature of love, and these scenarios can be categorized according to the type of problem addressed. Dividing the love poetry into four groups provides a provisional analytical map of the characteristics and themes I have chosen to treat under the four categories of love poems. These are by no means the only ones available to readers of Poems and Ballads. Nevertheless, highlighting certain characteristics and themes demonstrates how seemingly disparate poems can be easily integrated into respective categories, based on how the theme of love is handled, and a corresponding narrative drawn up in respect to Swinburne’s assertion that Poems and Ballads constitutes a single, cohesive dramatic narrative of love’s birth, death, and redemption.

II. The Love Poems and the Problem of Swinburne’s “Monodrame” Theory

What commentators have found justification to accept or deny regarding Swinburne’s “monodrame” theory comes primarily from the loose sketch that Swinburne provides in his Notes on Poems and Reviews. The “monodrame’ theory is arguably one of the least theoretically grounded points in the his reply to his earliest critics, driven, as it is, by rhetorical effusions and a spirit of righteous indignation. While considering how to respond to critics of Poems and Ballads, Swinburne, in a letter of the 28th September, 1866 to William Michael Rossetti, writes,

I should not like to bracket “Dolores” and the two following [“The Garden of Proserpine” and “Hesperia”] as you propose. I ought (if I did) to couple with them in front harness the “Triumph of Time” etc., as they express that state of feeling the reaction from which is expressed in “Dolores.” Were I to rechristen these three as trilogy, I should have to rename many earlier poems as acts in the same play.8

Rossetti changed Swinburne’s mind on the matter, as his discussion of “Dolores,” “The Garden of Proserpine,” and “Hesperia,” as a “lyrical monodrame” in Notes on Poems and Reviews bears out; Swinburne does not, however go so far as to rename any of the earlier or later poems in the book to flesh-out or fortify his conception of the three poems as constituting a “trilogy.” The phrase, “acts in the same play,” indicates that Swinburne considered more than just the latter three poems to be related, although he does not indicate which poems he has in mind, or precisely how these unnamed poems are to be grouped, phalanx-like, behind the troika.

Reviewing Swinburne’s remarks upon the dramatic character of his poems in Notes on Poems and Reviews, a number of commentators on Poems and Ballads have debated whether Swinburne’s classification of the poems “Dolores,” “Hesperia,” and “The Garden of Proserpine” can be understood as acts in a “lyrical monodrame,”9 or if Swinburne’s claim that Poems and Ballads comprises a monodrama is simply untenable. Nicholas Shrimpton claims that Swinburne’s defense of his book as a monodrama acts as “a mere subterfuge, or convenient mask, for the expression of inconveniently controversial impulses and opinions.”10 In his early estimate of Swinburne’s poems, Rossetti maintains that,

[a]n attentive perusal of the volume will, we think, disclose in it four main currents of influence and feeling … 1. the Passionately Sensuous; 2. the Classic, or Antique; 3. the Heterodox, or religiously mutinous; and 4. the Assimilative or Reproductive in point of Literary Form.11

It is notable that Rossetti places at the head of his list the category of “the Passionately Sensuous,” or in other words, that constellation of poems whose primary focus is love. With Rossetti’s review of Swinburne’s first volume possibly in mind, Samuel Chew remarks in his literary biography of Swinburne that, “No success has attended the efforts of the critics who have attempted a formal classification of the various poems: Classical, Medieval, Pre-Raphaelite, and so forth; for there is much overlapping between these categories.”12 This general feeling is echoed in Jerome J. McGann’s critical assessment of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads:

…the only real problem with accepting the ‘monodrame’ theory… is the heterogeneous character of the book. Swinburne seems not to have made up his mind about its main focus— whether it should concentrate itself in its indirect social attack, or in a virtuoso technical display, or in dramatic autobiography.13

Most critics who have accepted Swinburne’s “monodrame” theory have merely repeated and recycled the tripartite rhetoric-driven “plot” that Swinburne gave in Notes on Poems and Reviews. Such is the case in David G. Riede’s assessment that “The last three stanzas of “Sapphics” describe the death of passion and, as in ‘Hesperia,’ the love that revives as a ghost rearisen.” Riede goes on to note that this “same basic pattern recurs persistently…,” adding,

The essential ideas underlying that dramatic pattern can now be briefly summarized. The first stage, that of passion… shows man tormented by his divided nature, by the incompatibility of soul and sense. The second represents man exhausted by passion and willing to still the battle within himself by destroying both body and soul. At this point he comes to the crucial recognition that body and soul are equal, at least insofar as both are perishable. In the final stage, the first is seen muted by the second, and it is here that art, carrying passion through death, redeems the soul. This phase provides at least a meager consolation for existence, the consolation that something of a man lives on in the record of his passion commemorated in song.”14

Riede is correct to observe a recurring thematic pattern in Poems and Ballads, but Swinburne’s claim that the three poems, “Dolores,” “The Garden of Proserpine,” and “Hesperia” form a kind of “monodrame” rests, it should be observed, on the a posteriori invention of a general hermeneutical framework first suggested to Swinburne by William Rossetti. A further complication in the “monodrame” theory is due to the fact that Swinburne only applies his hermeneutical framework to a tripartite group of poems situated near the end of a volume of verse containing a total of sixty-two poems. With the exception of the tripartite “monodrame” of “Dolores,” “The Garden of Proserpine,” and “Hesperia,” Swinburne’s “heterogeneous” collection of verse does not impose on the reader any formal framework or map of how the poems, as a unified work, are associated, or how they should generally be understood. It would appear, then, that Swinburne’s poems are vexed to explain how they should be read as a “lyrical monodrame.”

In terms of formalized structure, Swinburne’s suggestion that his Poems and Ballads contains “a more extensive monodrama,”15 and that many poems can be read as “acts in the same play” has yet to be explored in depth in critical commentary. The way in which the poems in Poems and Ballads are organized warrants a structured reading of the predominate category of poems in the book; in this case, the love poetry. The majority of love poems are either grouped into repeated subsets according to genera, topic, or the strategic placement of poems (the beginning, middle, and end of the book),16 or grouped into pairs, triads, or mini-cycles. Given the bare theoretic outlines Swinburne provides in letters and Notes on Poems and Reviews, the reader of Poems and Ballads is at liberty to construct, or otherwise sort out which “earlier poems” Swinburne may have had in mind as constituting “acts in the same play,” and what that arrangement might look like.

In Poems and Ballads, Swinburne asserts four major claims about love, which correspond to the division of the love poems into four distinct categories. From this division, a dramatic structure is generated out of the poems themselves. When placed in relevant groupings, the four categories of love poems reveal characteristic features between themselves that may not be evident in Swinburne’s original ordering of the poems.

III. Poems of “Transforming Love”

The poems classed under “transforming love” are the only poems in the division that are either directly or indirectly organized around a single person: Lucretia Estensis Borgia.17 The poems in this category include: “A Ballad of Life,” “A Ballad of Death,” and “Love and Sleep.” In addition to the three Lucretia Borgia pieces from Poems and Ballads, First Series, we include two extant poems by Swinburne on Lucretia Borgia not contained in the 1866 collection, but known to date from the period that the rest of the poems in the volume were composed: “By the Sea-Side,” and the sonnet, “Ah face & hands & body beautiful.”18 Grouping these poems together is justified by the unusual, almost miraculous attributes Swinburne consistently attributes to the figure of Lucretia Borgia. It is evident that the speaker (granting the supposition that it is consistently the same speaker) in the Borgia poems perceives her as a Christ-figure; she is “righteous,” fashioned like no other woman, and “more than peace” are “the passage of her days.” To this end, in his “A Ballad of Death,” Swinburne reinvents the “historical” Lucretia Borgia in order to rewrite the scene surrounding the nativity of Christ, even adding veiled allusions to the crucifixion (“spikenard bruised for a burnt-offering”) to round out his portrayal of her as an effective surrogate for Christ:

Even she whose handmaiden was Love— to whom

At kissing times across her stateliest bed

Kings bowed themselves and shed

Pale wine, and honey with the honeycomb,

And spikenard bruised for a burnt-offering;

Even she between whose lips the kiss became

As fire and frankincense;

Whose hair was as gold raiment on a king,

Whose eyes were as the morning purged with flame,

Whose eyelids as sweet savour issuing thence.19

According to Swinburne’s conception of Lucretia Borgia, she is a mediator between the certainty of the death of the living, and the death of love, intervening on behalf of man’s fallen body rather than man’s fallen or corrupted soul.

In his poem, “A Ballad of Life,” the respective personifications of fear, shame and lust are made to say, “I am Pity that was dead,” “I am Sorrow comforted,” and “I am Love.” These indemnified transformations do not find any echo in Swinburne’s representative poem of hope from his trilogy, “Hesperia.” Like “The Garden Of Proserpine,” “Hesperia” is a-historical, even a-temporal, and completely the product of Swinburne’s own mythopoetic enterprise. On the other hand, the poems concerning or addressed to Lucretia Borgia are firmly anchored, by inclusion of an historical personage, in 16th century Italy. Even the form of verse Swinburne chose to employ in “A Ballad of Life” and “A Ballad of Death”— the Italian canzone— is significant of the historical backdrop of the poems. Yet Swinburne’s vision of Lucretia Borgia is based on the romanticism of Blake, and has very little to do with her as an historical person. Swinburne re-invents the historical Lucretia Borgia, thus synthesizing historical biography and Blakean mytho-romanticism. The miraculous redemption of fear, shame and lust at the hands of the mytho-historical Lucretia Borgia do not return pity, sorrow, and love to the realm of “the beyond,” to the inaccessible status of the “thing-in-itself.” The virtues Swinburne embodies in the person of Lucretia Borgia radiate from her, and they cannot properly exist for the poet outside of her type, symbol, or otherwise in her absence. Let the second to last stanza of “A Ballad of Life” provide a representative example of the first group:

Then I said: Now assuredly I see

My lady is perfect, and transfigureth

All sin and sorrow and death,

Making them fair as her own eyelids be,

Or lips wherein my whole soul’s life abides;

Or as her sweet white sides

And bosom carved to kiss.

Now therefore, if her pity further me,

Doubtless for her sake all my days shall be

As righteous as she is.20

In this fragment, love is neither illustrative of an unachievable union of the lover with his beloved, nor a conventionalized romantic love in which both participants delight in the transformation undergone by virtue of the power of their mutual affection. Rather, this stanza, and indeed the whole of the poem in question, describes a quasi-hierophany in which the sacred, manifested in the perfection and righteousness of Lucretia Borgia, miraculously alters shame to “Sorrow comforted,” lust to love, and converts “All sin and sorrow and death” to their opposite values. The power of her beauty and her song causes the personifications of shame, fear, and lust to become “as men raised up among the dead,” and their “fair cheeks made red/ With child’s blood come again.”21 The tone of “A Ballad of Life” has a gospel quality to it; but in the stead of the miracles of Christ, Swinburne places the miracles of Lucretia Borgia.

Contra the union of lover’s souls in the Platonic system, it is the union of bodies, or the possibility of some form of commerce with the physical embodiment of beauty, that Swinburne emphasizes in his Borgia poems. As Swinburne never tires of repeating, the heart wears out; expectations are frustrated, and it is not the love of souls that survives in the fluctuating world of appearances, but the mingling of the fleshly senses with the object of desire.22 In his sonnet, “Ah face & hands & body beautiful,” a number of parallels to “A Ballad of Life” and “A Ballad of Death” are evident, making this poem a fit companion piece to the latter two poems. Even though she is not named, given the significant parallels in terms of the perfections that Swinburne attributes to the woman in his sonnet, it is reasonably certain that he again had his half-mystical, half-bestial conception of Lucretia Borgia in mind. Swinburne inverts the Platonic ontology of “forms” in order to “naturalize,” or instantiate the divine in his portrait of a woman whose physical perfection and amorous virtues are a boon to her lovers, even unto the grave:

Ah face & hands & body beautiful,

Fair tender body, for my body’s sake

Are you made faultless without stain or break,

Locks close as weed in river-water cool,

A purer throat and softer than white wool,

Eyes where sleep always seems about to wake,

No dead man’s flesh feels the strong sweet ache

And that sharp amorous watch the years annul

If his grave’s grass have felt you anywhere.

Rain & the summer shadow of the rain

Are not so gentle to the feverous year

As your soft rapid kisses are to men

Felt here about my face, yea here & here,

Caught on my lips & thrown you back again.23

Once the “sharp amourous watch” of her love has been experienced, or “felt anywhere,” time cannot annul or efface the love she gives to her lovers. She is the embodiment of perfection, a quasi-hierophic figure, and thus there is no need for her lovers to look to heaven or await salvation in the hereafter, as that condition is realized in her marvelous being. Swinburne makes a skillful pun on the words flesh, grass, and grave, implying that all flesh is as grass, and that the body is itself a sort of grave that the “strong sweet ache” of love can no longer be harbored in after the body dies. According to Swinburne, the experience of the divine and its pleasures need go no further than the body. The quasi-divine experience of love both transforms one’s experience of the phenomenal world and, in so doing, fabricates a kind of permanence in a world of fleeting, mutable meanings and things.

In his sonnet, “Love and Sleep,” the image of the perfect lover is taken up even more directly:

Lying asleep between the strokes of night

I saw my love lean over my sad bed,

Pale as the duskiest lily’s leaf or head,

Smooth-skinned and dark, with bare throat made to bite,

Too wan for blushing and too warm for white,

But perfect-coloured without white or red.

And her lips opened amorously, and said—

I wist not what, saving one word— Delight.

And all her face was honey to my mouth,

And all her body pasture to mine eyes;

The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire,

The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,

The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs

And glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.

Coming to the speaker’s “sad bed,” the object of his desire completely satisfies him with the sight and enjoyment of her body. Love is not innocent in this poem, as words and phrases such as “bite,” “Too wan for blushing,” and “hotter hands than fire” make clear. Swinburne’s ironically idealized conception of love as being brought to perfection in strictly a corporeal sense is a complete antithesis to any conception of love that exalts the love souls over the love of bodies. Swinburne produces a fantasy world in the Borgia poems that, according to Baird, hearkens within certain limits back to “a lost golden age,” somewhat after the fashion of Blake’s Songs of Innocence.24 Swinburne’s visionary reverse-apotheosis of Lucretia Borgia as a corporealized, rather than a spiritualized saint is reducible to a particularity of his own mythopoetic enterprise.

IV. Poems of “Impossible Love”

As a negative corollary to the poems of “transforming love,” the poems representative of “love’s impossibility” explore the event of love failing between people. They also trace the moral and psychological consequences that come with love’s defeat at the hands of fate, time, and death. In this second group of poems, Swinburne displays less of a tendency toward mythologizing the object of his desire, which characteristic features prominently in some of his other poems, and instead deploys throughout the poems of “impossible love” certain devices and conceits originating in French Troubadour lyric poetry. As Antony H. Harrison observes regarding Swinburne’s creative relationship to the Medieval Troubadours, “Like the troubadours, Swinburne defines passion as a source of suffering…,” with only the prospect of total freedom allowing “a release from the material sufferings of life.” Harrison further observes a connection between suffering and total freedom, noting that, “Achieving freedom from a cruel or unattainable lady (the archetype in troubadour poetry) requires precisely what achieving freedom from cruel tyrants necessitates: self-immolation.” 25 While Harrison’s estimation tends to ascribe perhaps too much in Swinburne’s love poetry to the influence of Courtly Love and the French Troubadours,26 the connection is nevertheless invaluable for understanding Swinburne’s astonishing homage to courtly love taken to its horrifying, logical extreme in his poem, “The Leper”:

Six months, and now my sweet is dead

A trouble takes me; I know not

If all were done well, all well said,

No word or tender deed forgot…

Six months, and I sit still and hold

In two cold palms her cold two feet.

Her hair, half grey half ruined gold,

Thrills me and burns me in kissing it.

Love bites and stings me through, to see

Her keen face made of sunken bones.

Her worn-off eyelids madden me,

That were shot through with purple once.27

Swinburne’s use of phrases such as “half grey half ruined gold,” underscore the indeterminacy of even the body’s relationship to death, indicating a sort of lacuna between the “reality” of life and the “reality” of death.28 Colors, emotions, indeed any object of sense perception are all constantly in a state of metamorphosizing into some other color, emotion, or type of object other than the object-as-such that the senses present to the mind, until the whole perception of reality is renovated at the end:

I am grown blind with all these things:

It may be now she hath in sight

Some better knowledge; still there clings

The old question. Will not God do right?29

This might be taken to mean that the grounds of existence are illusory and deceptive, after the fashion of Heraclitus, but Swinburne’s conception is different. For Swinburne, the grounds of existence are not determined by absolutist dualities like life and death. He envisions life and death as being added to, subtracted from, multiplied, and divided according to an inscrutable calculus, with life ever shading into death, and death forever shading into life:

I vex my head with thinking this.

Yea, though God always hated me,

And hates me now that I can kiss

Her eyes, plait up her hair to see…

God, that makes time and ruins it

And alters not, abiding God,

Changed with disease her body sweet,

The body of love wherein she abode…

Yea, though God hateth us, he knows

That hardly in a little thing

Love faileth of the work it does

Till it grow ripe for gathering.

Swinburne’s piling of adjectives in “The Leper,” such as “Thrills me and burns me,” and “Love bites and stings me,” erect an insuperable barrier between the one desiring and the object of desire. One never experiences the thrill of love itself; the simulacrum of love burns, bites, and stings. Given that love as such can only be experienced through a simulacrum, the unattainable/attainable love that the scribe extends to the leprosy-stricken woman itself becomes another version of “half grey half ruined gold,” always sensibly grading into pity, hate, fear, or frustration. The love of the scribe for his patient is as pathological as her condition. The phrase, “To do the service God forbids,” indicates two acts on the part of the scribe— one, sacrilegious, and the other, a perversion of the proper relationship between man and wife. God forbids the clerk to nurse the leper because He has inflicted her for her illicit affair with a knight; but in spite of God, the scribe hides her out of sight from all who have rejected her, including God, in a “wattled house.” He incurably loves the thing that God hates, and his unfailing devotion to her is, in every sense, a satanic parody of the traditional marriage contract. He loves her in sickness and in health, and cleaves to her as a degraded and obscene version of husband and wife; and yet not even while she is alive, but after she is dead. This can be the only meaning of, “And she is dead now, and shame put by.”

In Poems and Ballads, the poem “Hemaphroditus” is the example par excellence of Swinburne’s conception of love as an experience of both psychic and physical confusion.30 In the opening stanza, Swinburne underscores the disparities inherent in the nature of love itself, be it in the vanity of desire, the smoldering fire of delight, or the lack of equality between the object of desire and the one desiring:

Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love,

Blind love that comes by night and casts out rest;

Of all things tired thy lips look weariest,

Save the long smile that they are wearied of.

Ah sweet, albeit no love be sweet enough,

Choose of two loves and cleave unto the best;

Two loves at either blossom of thy breast

Strive until one be under and one above.

Their breath is fire upon the amorous air,

Fire in thine eyes and where thy lips suspire:

And whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,

Two things turn all his life and blood to fire;

A strong desire begot on great despair,

A great despair cast out by strong desire.31

What has been thought of as Swinburne’s answer to the hardship love imposes upon existence— the joining of two humans into one being— is untenableon closer examination. 32 According to Swinburne, even the complete fusion of the lover with the beloved does not make an end in itself: “Yet from them something like as fire is shed/ That shall not be assuaged till death be dead,/ Though neither life nor sleep can find out this.”33 In this fragment, Swinburne’s conception of life as ever shading into death, and death forever shading into life is apparent— nothing comprises an end-in-itself because there is no basis or validity, empirical or otherwise, to the ontological principle of the “thing-in-itself”; hence, the fusion of two lovers into one body can not beget a unified being, only an indeterminate, divided, and irreproducible mode of being— somewhat akin to the life of a flame and a wick. As a specimen of psychic and physical confusion, “Hemaphroditus” is an “impossible love” precisely in the sense that, even though the unrequited Salmacis is granted her wish by being united bodily with Hemaphroditus, the creature that comes of this strange union retains the genitals of a man and the breasts of a woman. Being neither man nor woman, neither divine nor human, Hemaphroditus is “a thing of barren hours” after the metamorphosis. Swinburne’s phrase, “the fruitful feud of hers and his,” is deceptive in this context because he is not referring to romantic love between men and women as “fruitful” in the sense of biological reproduction,34 as some commentators have read it; rather, Swinburne is comparing requited love, or love with the possibility of requiting— “Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his”— against unrequitable love— “To the waste wedlock of a sterile kiss…”35

As was pointed out before, Swinburne does not so much tend to mythologize women in his poems of “impossible love,”36 as he tends to spin one version or another of the very indeterminacy of the foundations of love. Love, as such, is unattainable, unrequitable, and ultimately a form of solipsism— to experience the burn, bite, or sting of love for another is an incommunicable inward experience. “The Triumph of Time” is illustrative of this, particularly the famous lines,

Yea, hope at highest and all her fruit,

And time at fullest and all his dower,

I had given you surely, and life to boot,

Were we once made one for a single hour.

But now, you are twain, you are cloven apart,

Flesh of his flesh, but heart of my heart…

And deep in one is the bitter root,

And sweet for one is the lifelong flower.37

The object of the speaker’s love, having been an object of his love, is no longer possessed even of herself, but is “cloven in twain” as a result of loving and having been loved. This speaks to something particularly Swinburnian about the character of love. As an experience of the ineffable involving the whole person, love, like poetry, according to Swinburne, has the power to alter material as well as spiritual circumstances. One’s very being, through the act of loving, is no longer fully one’s own, but is partly become, for better or worse, the possession of another, as in the lines, “But now, you are twain, you are cloven apart,/ Flesh of his flesh, but heart of my heart.” This conception of love as self-alienation implicitly extends to Swinburne’s republican poetry as well, where tyranny of any kind is viewed as a cleaving in two of the physical and spiritual body of man. Thus, even on a psychic level, love is ultimately a form of tyranny in the sense that the willing/unwilling act of cleaving in order to give some measure of oneself over to another ambiguates and confuses two otherwise distinct beings.

In “The Triumph of Time,” Swinburne compares love as an experience of self-alienation and indeterminacy with love as an experience of the divine and the ideal. Take for instance the following stanza:

I had grown pure as the dawn and the dew,

You had grown strong as the sun or the sea.

But none shall triumph a whole life through:

For death is one, and the fates are three.

At the door of life, by the gate of breath,

There are worse things waiting for men than death;

Death could not sever my soul and you,

As these have severed your soul from me.

The speaker allies himself with his beloved in the most elemental terms: dawn, dew, sun, and sea. She is the sun of his dawn, and she is the sea of which he is as drops of dew in. Yet in spite of their connection on the most fundamental of levels, the fates have intervened and severed their love irreparably:

Yea, hope at highest and all her fruit,

And time at fullest and all his dower,

I had given you surely, and life to boot,

Were we once made one for a single hour.

But now, you are twain, you are cloven apart,

Flesh of his flesh, but heart of my heart;

And deep in one is the bitter root,

And sweet for one is the lifelong flower.

In the above stanza, Swinburne depicts love as an experience of self-alienation and indeterminacy, and draws a contrast with love as an experience of the divine and the ideal through a brief recounting of the story of the Medieval troubadour poet, Jaufre Rudel. Rudel, having heard marvelous accounts of the Countess of Tripoli, fell in love with her sight unseen, and voyaged to meet her, but suddenly died before he arrived at her city. Upon being brought ashore, the singer miraculously revived long enough to kiss the woman with whom he had fallen in love, and then expired forever. Swinburne responds to this story of the ideal in love by comparing his troublesome experience of love to that of his fellow poet who he admonishes to “Give thanks for life, and the loves and lures,” and to

Rest, and be glad of the gods; but I,

How shall I praise them, or how take rest?

There is not room under all the sky

For me that know not of worst or best,

Dream or desire of the days before,

Sweet things or bitterness, any more.

Love will not come to me now though I die,

As love came close to you, breast to breast.

The speaker has ceased to believe in the ideal of love, or that love will ever be a substantive part of life, on account of his love disappointment. As a result of this breaking of trust, all moral categories have also been effaced in the mind of the speaker— if love does not exist, than neither does hatred, nor good or evil. As Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov, “if there is no God, than everything is permitted,” and according to Swinburne, if love does not exist, or only its simulacrum exists, then God is either evil, or impotent, or both, and this effectively does away with the existence of God and morality.

V. Poems of “Vicious Love”

As an instinctive corollary to the poems of “impossible love,” this third category of poems maps the trajectory of love turned vicious on account of its failure. Both Swinburne’s foes and accomplices in these poems are women of titanic stature, sometimes referred to by critics as Swinburne’s “fatal women.” In a number of these poems, the respective speakers openly declare themselves in rebellion against the hypocritical institutions of God, religion, and morality. The implicit connection to love is that God, religion, and morality make up the bedrock for the family, the home, and civilization in general. Further, according to the Christian worldview, God, religion, and morality are all founded on the principle that God is loving, and that the invisible code of morality and the visible church are the repositories of God’s love on earth. Yet God, religion, and morality have all failed because love qua love is either unrealizable in the phenomenal world, or is simply doomed by fate to fail. Under these circumstances, love, or its simulacrum, becomes an instrument of torture, after the fashion of the insatiable agony of Tantalus. Swinburne’s conception of love as an instrument of torture in a world not governed by a providential god is especially evident in his poem, “Anactoria,” where the speaker, Sappho, reviles God and attributes to Him the cause of every misery and evil in the world:

Is not his incense bitterness, his meat

Murder? his hidden face and iron feet

Hath not man known, and felt them on their way

Threaten and trample all things and every day?

Hath he not sent us hunger? who hath cursed

Spirit and flesh with longing? filled with thirst

Their lips who cried unto him? who bade exceed

The fervid will, fall short the feeble deed,

Bade sink the spirit and the flesh aspire,

Pain animate the dust of dead desire,

And life yield up her flower to violent fate?38

Swinburne’s Sappho is the fatalism of Lucretius personified, and in Swinburne’s hands she becomes a figure of almost an omnipresent magnitude, herself a fate of sorts. The rebuking words of God to Job from the whirlwind are recast by Swinburne as a blasphemous parody of the Christian conception of theodicy, and put into the mouth of Sappho. Swinburne accomplishes, in effect, a reverse-theodicy, as it is God who must justify His ways to His accuser, Sappho. As God tortures Sappho, so does Sappho in return, in a perverse mimesis of God, hurt and envisage vexing Anactoria “with amourous agonies,” and shaking life at her lips, and leaving it “there to ache.”39 Because Sappho is tortured by her insatiable love of Anactoria, she longs to “find grievous ways” to torture and slay her in revenge. In the world of Swinburne’s “Anactoria,” cruelty is love, and love is cruelty. Sappho’s lover, Anactoria, tells her she is cruel, and Sappho replies,

Cruel? but love makes all that love him well

As wise as heaven and crueller than hell.

Me hath love made more bitter toward thee

Than death toward man; but were I made as he

Who hath made all things to break them one by one,

If my feet trod upon the stars and sun

And souls of men as his have alway trod,

God knows I might be crueller than God.40

Even the death of Anactoria would not satisfy Sappho’s lust for cruelty; she would extend her lover’s suffering unto the point of “Intolerable interludes, and infinite ill.”41 Sappho’s lust for cruelty indicates that she knows that the answer to “The mystery of the cruelty of things”42 in the kosmos is that the underlying first principle of creation is unbounded cruelty and evil, which are the cosmological accomplices of time and fate. In Swinburne’s “Anactoria,” the frustration of desire is the primary cause of human suffering, because it blindly seeks to be satisfied, regardless of the expense. This conception of desire shows remarkably well in Swinburne’s sonnet entitled “A Cameo”:

There was a graven image of Desire

Painted with red blood on a ground of gold

Passing between the young men and the old,

And by him Pain, whose body shone like fire,

And Pleasure with gaunt hands that grasped their hire.

Of his left wrist, with fingers clenched and cold,

The insatiable Satiety kept hold,

Walking with feet unshod that pashed the mire.

The senses and the sorrows and the sins,

And the strange loves that suck the breasts of Hate

Till lips and teeth bite in their sharp indenture,

Followed like beasts with flap of wings and fins.

Death stood aloof behind a gaping grate,

Upon whose lock was written Peradventure.

In the scheme of this nightmarish world, the first twelve lines provide the key to the lock upon which is written “Peradventure.” Stripped of its imagery, the question the poem poses is, what is the nature of desire, and desire’s will? The answer to the fable of “A Cameo” is that “insatiable Satiety,” or desire, ever holds out the ironic promise of “Peradventure,” or intimating that there is always somehow a chance of coming upon an immutable source of satisfaction. The subsequent irony to this is that even the hope of satiating desire with love is an impossibility in a world where God, who is the sole guarantor of love, does not exist.

VI. Poems of “Light Love”

In his poem modeled after the illustrious ballads of Villon, Swinburne’s “A Ballad of Burdens” begins in each stanza with an itemization of the pleasures characteristic of “every man’s desire,” namely, fair women, bought kisses, sweet speeches, long living, and bright colours, respectively. These things are “burdened” in that their respective endings in the ashes of death are as interchangeable as the refrain at the end of each stanza:

The burden of much gladness. Life and lust

Forsake thee, and the face of thy delight;

And underfoot the heavy hour strews dust,

And overhead strange weathers burn and bite;

And where the red was, lo the bloodless white,

And where truth was, the likeness of a liar,

And where day was, the likeness of the night;

This is the end of every man’s desire.43

This poem has a function akin to that of a charnel-house anatomy lesson, with Swinburne surgically dividing the skin from the skeleton underneath to reveal the antithesis of every example of desire that he raises: fair cheeks made grey, kisses put up for hire, sweet speeches that resound in no one’s memory, and the bright face of youth grown hoary and old. The poem has a moral as acerbic to the pleasures of life as that of the “Ecclesiastes” of Scripture, repeating the same point in variation— hence the title of “burden”— throughout the poem: “For life is sweet, but after life is death./ This is the end of every man’s desire.”44 The last two lines are punctuated as though complete in themselves, with a full stop coming between them, as if Swinburne means to punctuate the insuperable barrier of unquenchable desire and death that comes between every man and the object of his passion. The manner in which Swinburne addresses the frustration of not only love, but every form of desire in “A Ballad of Burdens” makes as good of an introduction to the poems treating of “light love” as it does for a conclusion; and indeed “A Ballad of Burdens” can be situated parenthetically in relation to any of the poems treating of “light love,” since in each case, the inference-styled maxim Swinburne offers is the same: “For life is sweet, but after life is death./ This is the end of every man’s desire.” Because the object of desire is partly indiscriminate to the character of the life of pleasure, the heart desires what is desirable, which, in reductionist terms, can be cashed out as the desiring of the experience and sensations of desire as such.

In contrast to the emphasis of the blindness of human desire in the poems treating of “light love” stand the poems of “impossible love,” in which all of the discrete characteristics of desire are gathered together and focally concentrated through a lens at a single object; this, in the final analysis is, for Swinburne, the fulcrum of “impossible love.” The fulcrum upon which “impossible love” operates makes, on the other hand, a stark contrast to love as “a jest,” a drama of seduction, or an erotic mimetic activity that indifferently exploits the ever-present stereotypes of gender roles, as is the case in Swinburne’s poem “Stage Love”:

Time was chorus, gave them cues to laugh or cry;

They would kill, befool, amuse him, let him die;

Set him webs to weave to-day and break to-morrow,

Till he died for good in play, and rose in sorrow.45

By juxtaposing two relevant fragments from poems that fall outside of the scope of the present essay, namely “Hesperia,” and “A Forsaken Garden,” with the poem “Stage Love,” the contrast between the theme of “impossible love” in poems such as “The Leper” and “The Triumph of Time,” and the theme of “light love” may be further developed.

First the lines from the latter two poems: “For desire is a respite from love, and the flesh not the heart is her fuel…”;46 and, “…men that love lightly may die— but we?”47 These lines stand in stark contrast to the relevant fragment from “Stage Love”:

Pleasure with dry lips, and pain that walks by night;

All the sting and all the stain of long delight;

These were things she knew not of, that knew not of her,

When she played at half a love with half a lover.48

In the former fragment from the poem “Hesperia,” Swinburne explicitly asserts a distinction between love and desire, and makes a corresponding second distinction between the passions of the soul and the passions of the body. In the latter fragment from “A Forsaken Garden,” Swinburne contrasts the loves that live for an hour and die, against the loves that would be as “deep as a grave,”49 if such a thing were possible. Again, there is an implicit contrast made against the passions of the soul and the passions of the body in the fragment from “A Forsaken Garden.” One half of Swinburne’s two-part distinction applies well to his poem “Stage Love,” where an unnamed woman is disabused of the notion that the transitory commerce between bodies will not only never outlast the grave, but is, by definition, incomplete to the degree to which naked desire is easily distinguished from love, as labor from respite. Hence the relevant contrast between the lines, “…men that love lightly may die— but we?”, and, “When she played at half a love with half a lover.”

By way of a final specimen from Swinburne’s poems of “light love,” his masterly exercise in romantic negligibility, “Rococo,” gives a picture of the dealings between lovers whose relationship is shallow and transitory as the gaudy, gilded ornaments of Rococo art:

Time found our tired love sleeping,

And kissed away his breath;

But what should we do weeping,

Though light love sleep to death?

We have drained his lips at leisure,

Till there’s not left to drain

A single sob of pleasure,

A single pulse of pain.50

One might maintain that “leisure” is the keynote of this poem. As both the source of licentious love’s opportunity and the cause of its boredom, the leisure-based duration of the “light love” shared between the speaker and a woman named Juliette does not extend beyond a mere three days time.51 In this poem, licentious love is treated as momentary and forgettable, even to the extent that the name of Juliette’s “first lover” must be recovered by “remembrance,” which word implies a certain strain upon her faculty of recollection. Insofar as love inhabits a world of pleasure and swiftly passing fancy, lovers as such are forgettable and forgotten. In “Rococo,” love in any permanent sense is impossible, but only because “light love” is not worth the trouble of investment to begin with. Indeed, one commits one’s body (but never one’s heart) to an experience that depends for its continuation on the presence of lovers and mistresses as unreliable and untrustworthy as the selective reality the memory assiduously presents to itself:

Light love’s extinguished ember,

Let one tear leave it wet

For one that you remember

And ten that you forget.52

Swinburne’s poems of “light love” reflect the moral and psychological aporia of Poems and Ballads. The edifice of memory is broken down, which is in effect the shattering of personal identity; and in the place of the self stands desire, naked, blind, and insatiable. The status of love has been dramatically reduced from the positive enjoyment of pleasure and love, to love as cruelty, bound to the fatalistic inevitability of love’s failure. The lovers in “Stage Love” are memorable only insofar as they were cruel. Swinburne effaces the dualities of joy/sorrow and pain/pleasure by confusing joy with sorrow, and pleasure with pain in the ubiquitous realm of unappeasable desire, which is the only abiding principle in the “heaven we twain have known”:

The snake that hides and hisses

In heaven we twain have known;

The grief of cruel kisses,

The joy whose mouth makes moan;

The pulse’s pause and measure,

Where in one furtive vein

Throbs through the heart of pleasure

The purpler blood of pain.53

VII. Conclusion: Swinburne’s Monodrama of Love

Reading the love poems in Poems and Ballads as associated orchestrated movements gives a fresh perspective on the book because the successive stages through which love evolves are not readily apparent in Swinburne’s arrangement of the poems. Thus, poems such as “Anactoria” silently comment on and critique such seemingly unrelated poems, such as “A Ballad of Life,” or “Rococo.” Even though Rossetti rightly points out that there is generally much overlapping between the poems, the dialogue between Swinburne’s love poems, and their allusions to one another, become muted and convoluted in a critical apparatus of categories such as the “classic,” “heterodox,” or “reproductive.” Love may arguably be the central concern of Poems and Ballads, but the dramatic movement of the love poems would simply not register very strongly, or would become a sidetrack in the context of a broader critical spectrum. The common critical focal points of Swinburne’s anti-theism, or his republicanism, or his views of sexuality, are all topics that bear on what Swinburne has to say regarding love, and vice-versa. Yet, in the world of Poems and Ballads, it is love and desire that, like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, propels the evolution of human belief and activity. As Swinburne writes of the ubiquitous conjunction of love and life in his poem, “Before Dawn,” “…all who find him lose him,/ But all have found him fair.”54

The advantage of categorizing the love poems and reading them as a monodrama over Swinburne’s monodrama of “Dolores,” “The Garden of Proserpine,” and “Hesperia,” is that reading the love poems as a monodrama throws Swinburne’s conception of love in sharper relief. In his love poems, Swinburne makes distinct ontological statements about the nature of love, such as that love is cruelly ideal, disillusioning, and ideally cruel. In his Notes on Poems and Reviews, Swinburne tells us that his tripartite monodrama traces the transient conditions of one spirit; but in Poems and Ballads taken as a whole, a wider net of ideas is cast. The poems may or may not theoretically be the words and internal dialogue of a single voice, but in any case, that voice is making important claims about ontology and cosmology through the magnifying lens of love.

Though not as bewilderingly varied in dramatic situations as, for instance, the love poetry of John Donne, Swinburne’s love poetry is full of aporias built out of a small number of different climactic situations wherein love operates, respectively, as an occult power that can transform the very character of existence itself, or love is tragically taken away, or indulged in to the point of excess, or found to be fleeting and hollow. The experience of love is never static, but subject to the ravages of time and fate. Love qua love always remains out of reach of the respective poem’s persona, because Swinburne holds that, in man’s experience, any attempt to formulize or otherwise arrest the evolution of love only uncovers the limitations of desire, and reveals an experiential horizon still further off. This is the essence of Swinburne’s anti-historical doctrine of continual change without progress, from which experience of the diverse conditions of love are not exempted. According to Swinburne, man’s experience of love is not an experience of love as such; if it were, such an experience would amount, in philosophical terms, to actively experiencing a potentiality, which conflates the subject with the object, thereby universalizing all experience. Rather, man’s experience of the potentiality of love is the experience of the act of loving snatched, like fire, from out of the “multitudinous monotony of things.” Swinburne’s love poems constitute a four-part series of evolving stages and scenes that ultimately constitute a unified meta-drama within the book as a whole

Now Swinburne’s tripartite monodrama can be reformulated according to the four-part theme of love. Swinburne’s Borgia poems constitute a beginning within the symbolic crosscurrents of the monodrama of love, and stand as a harbinger or intimation of the unattainable ideal and the impossible in love. Swinburne’s Borgia poems are the perfect and positive reflection of all of the other negative, indeterminate and imperfect states love passes through in the drama of the poems. The poems of “impossible love” confuse the amorous ideal world of the Borgia poems with the themes of loss, grieving, and disappointment. The psychological transition from the Borgia poems to the poems of “impossible love” involves a shift in the worldview of the speaker from idyllic hedonism to an opaque nihilism. If love exists at all, it only exists as a form of humiliation, or as a perversion in the order of nature. Poems such as “Anactoria” and “A Cameo” give further support to Swinburne’s nihilistic conception of love. In addition to lending support, the poems of “vicious love” introduce the themes of anti-theism and anti-morality. Under this equation, love does not fail by chance, but is in reality doomed by fate to fail, and becomes an instrument of torture. The only way to be rid of love as an instrument of torture is to give desire sovereignty over love. The poems of “light love” treat of the conditions of the heart that has worn out, and the beliefs and ideals that have been consumed by long experience. This set of poems constitutes the terminal point in the monodrama of love in Poems and Ballads. The stages of idealism, nihilism, and violent hedonism have been passed through, and the speaker in the poems of “light love” is now accomplished in the sport of love, playing out his part as lover/tormenter in a cosmos that neither abides nor can contain any moral principle or providential god. In the final analysis, Swinburne’s conception of love contains no answers, and no doctrine; it is founded on the paradox of pleasure and pain, fueled by insatiate desire. Plying the deadened senses with the extremes of sensation is the only confirmation that life is still occurring, and that time has not yet triumphed.

1 Jerome J. McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism, (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London, 1972), p.225.

2 David G. Riede, Swinburne: A Study in Romantic Mythmaking (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1978),

3 “This Stoicism of the heart, which falls short of bitterness on the one hand, and the sentimentality of unregistered regret on the other, is the defining note of Swinburne’s love poetry… Swinburne has mistakenly acquired the reputation as an erotic poet; he is rather the poet of love’s impossibility. Perhaps this is why, even in his most sensual verses, one feels a particular innocence, just as in his most moving love poetry one feels a profound barrenness…” (Swinburne: Selected Poetry and Prose, edited and introduced by John D. Rosenberg.

4 The poems, in no particular order, considered as relevant to this category run as follows:“The Triumph of Time,” “A leave-Taking,” “Hemaphroditus,” “Satia Te Sanguine,” “In the Orchard (Provencal Burden),” “The Leper,” “Rondel” (“These many years…”), “Song Before Death (from the French),” “Rondel” (“Kissing her hair…”), “Before the Mirror,” “Erotion,” “April (from the French),” “The Year of Love.”

5 The poems, in no particular order, considered as relevant to this category run as follows:“Dolores,” “Anactoria,” “Faustine,” “Phaedra,” “Laus Veneris,” “A Cameo,” “Les Noyades.”

6 The poems, in no particular order, considered as relevant to this category run as follows:“Rococo,” “A Match,” “Stage Love,” “A Ballad of Burdens,” “Before Parting,” “Fragoletta,” “Felise,” “An Interlude,” “Before Dawn.”

7 For the five poems considered as relevant to this category, as well as discussion of the basis for their inclusion in the present consideration of Swinburne’s monodrama, see section IV below.

8 A.C. Swinburne, The Swinburne Letters, edited by Cecil Y. Lang, 6 volumes (Yale University Press and Oxford University Press, New Haven and London, 1959-62), vol. 1, p. 197. Brackets mine.

9 Cf., A. C. Swinburne, “Notes on Poems and Reviews,” in Swinburne Replies, edited by Clyde Kenneth Hyder (Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York, 1966), p. 23.

10 Nicholas Shrimpton, “Swinburne and the Dramatic Monologue,” in The Whole Music of Passion: New Essays on Swinburne, edited by Rickky Rooksby and Nicholas Shrimpton (Scolar Press, England, 1993), p. 53. Shrimpton’s article supplies a useful summation of previous opinions both for and against Swinburne’s claim for the dramatic character of his poems.

11 William Michael Rossetti, Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, in Clyde K. Hyder, Swinburne: The Critical Heritage (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1970; reprinted 1995), p. 62. Brackets mine.

12 Samuel C. Chew, Swinburne (Archon Books, Hamden Connecticut, 1966), p. 80.

13 Jerome J. McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism, p. 208. Cf. A. C. Swinburne, “Notes on Poems and Reviews,” in Swinburne Replies, where Swinburne himself refers to the collection of poems in Poems and Ballads, First Series, as “heterogeneous” (p. 91). It should be noted that McGann, while discussing the theme of unattainable women in Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, First Series, seems to accept the “monodrame” theory: “For the fact is that Swinburne’s work is dominated from the start by a cast of characters which make up the monodrama of Poems and Ballads, First Series” (p. 216).

14 David G. Riede, Swinburne: A Study in Romantic Mythmaking, pp. 70-71.

15 Nicholas Shrimpton, “Swinburne and the Dramatic Monologue,” in The Whole Music of Passion: New Essays on Swinburne, p. 57.

16 Julian Baird rightly observes that, “Since Swinburne placed the paired “A Ballad of Life” and “A Ballad of Death” at the beginning of Poems and Ballads, there is a strong possibility that he intended them as thematically prefatory to his major poetic concerns in the volume as a whole” (“Swinburne, Sade, and Blake: The Pleasure-Pain Paradox,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 9, numbers 1-2, pp. 49-76, Spring-Summer, 1971, West Virginia University ), p. 56.

17 “Lucretia Estensis Borgia (1480-1519) was the daughter of Rodrigo de Borgia, Pope Alexander IV (1431-1503), and was born before her father became pope in 1492. She was used as a political pawn by her father and by her brother, Cesare (1476-1507), and was married three times, the last time to Alfonso de Este, the ruler of Ferrara. In her later years she was know for her piety and her patronage of arts and letters; but in her earlier life she is reputed to have been guilty of sexual license and even incest with her father and two brothers” (quoted from A.C. Swinburne, Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, edited with an introduction and annotation by Morse Peckham((The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., Indianapolis and New York, 1970), p. 5).

18 These two poems date, respectively, from 1859-60, and from the early 1860’s.

19 Lines 61-70.

20 Lines 61-70.

21 Lines 58, 59-60.

22 Cf. Julian Baird, “Swinburne, Sade, and Blake: The Pleasure-Pain Paradox,” in Victorian Poetry: “There is… no doubt that Swinburne was fascinated by Lucretia Borgia and her court, and that she became for him a Blakean symbol of the holiness of the things of the flesh,” p. 57.

23 Algernon Charles Swinburne, Major Poems and Selected Prose, edited by Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2004), p. 411.

24 Julian Baird, “Swinburne, Sade, and Blake: The Pleasure-Pain Paradox,” in Victorian Poetry, p. 56.

25 Antony H. Harrison, Swinburne’s Medievalism: A Study in Victorian Love Poetry (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge and London, 1988), p. 30. For Harrison’s erudite discussion of the influence of French Troubadour lyric poetry in the poems of Swinburne, see pp. 26-36.

26 Ibid., “Nearly all Swinburne’s major poems reveal the courtly influence through their radical emphasis on the interrelatedness not only of passion and politics but also of all actions, all ideals, all life,” p. 31.

27 Lines 69-72; 93-96; 101-108.

28 Cf. “Hemaphroditus”: “Where between sleep and life some brief space is…” (line 15).

29 Lines 137-140.

30 The Latin root of “confuse” derives from “confound,” which means to pour or mix together.

31 Lines 1-14.

32 “Fully understood, Swinburne’s description of hedonistic lust is, in fact, a death wish, for if the desire is fulfilled, the strife of desire ended, it is accomplished only because the soul has been destroyed. The only way in which sexual desire can be quelled in life is by complete mergence of the lovers, and this is achieved only in “Hemaphroditus.” But the resulting satiety, though beautiful, is beautiful as objects are beautiful. Hemaphroditus is a “thing of barren hours”… it is a sterile object… in which all productive striving has been stilled…” (David G. Riede, Swinburne: A Study in Romantic Mythmaking, p. 57). Italics in original.

33 Lines 20-22.

34 Cf. “Dolores,” lines 153-160:

For the crown of our life as it closes

Is darkness, the fruit thereof dust;

No thorns go as deep as a rose’s,

And love is more cruel than lust.

Time turns the old days to derision,

Our loves into corpses or wives;

And marriage and death and division

Make barren our lives.

35 “Hemaphroditus,” lines 17-19.

36 Swinburne’s poems of “vicious love” are the primary poems in which women are aggrandized and mythologized.

37 Lines 97-104.

38 Lines 171-181.

39 Lines 29, 30.

40 Lines 145-152.

41 Line 32.

42 Line 154.

43 Lines 69-71.

44 Lines 75-76.

45 “Stage Love,” lines 9-12.

46 “Hesperia,” line 57.

47 “A Forsaken Garden,” line 44. Cf. the following relevant stanza from “The Triumph of Time”:

And I play not for pity of these; but you,

If you saw with your soul what man am I,

You would praise me at least that my soul all through

Clove to you, loathing the lives that lie;

The souls and lips that are bought and sold,

The smiles of silver and kisses of gold,

The lapdog loves that whine as they chew,

The little lovers that curse and cry ( lines 241-248).

48 Lines 5-8. My emphasis.

49 “A Forsaken Garden,” line 54.

50 “Rococo,” lines 17-24.

51 Juliette is, of course, the name of de Sade’s heroine in the novel Juliette. Although it is a well-known fact that Swinburne was a reader of de Sade’s writings, there is not enough internal evidence in “Rococo” to ascribe to the Juliette of Swinburne’s poem the identity of de Sade’s iconic heroine.

52 “Stage Love,” lines 77-81.

53 Lines 49-56.

54 Lines 79-80.

Book Review of The Waning of the Middle Ages by J. Huizinga, The Civilization of the Renaissance In Italy by Jacob Burckhardt & The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy by Ernst Cassirer

7-Farren_Duria Antiquior

In The Waning of the Middle Ages, Huizinga several times contrasts the democratic ideal of work– which he views as the ideal of modernity– to the aristocratic “true culture” of the Middle Ages. The reason for this contrast lies in the modern era’s conforming “of life to an ideal standard,” and not vice versa, which condition Huizinga views as a privation of culture. Man in the Middle Ages, by contrast, constructed his culture in accord with his conduct, customs, manners, costume, &c., and did not force himself to conform to an ideal, like the Modern ideal of the worker, but adapted and tailored the ideal to his singular and many-sided nature, or fancy. The comparison Huizinga makes between modern and Medieval times, usually to the disparagement of the former, underscores his thesis that it is the “overripeness” of Medieval culture that reveals it as an “epoch of fading and decay” — the adjective “overripe” indicating, in Huizinga’s analysis, the Medieval world’s highly mannered and overwrought use of symbol which, as he establishes through a wealth of examples, is effectively deployed throughout all religious and poetical forms of expression of the time. Thus, the features Huizinga assigns to the Middle Ages of self-containment and a perfection of attitude and expression in regard to all things, marks Medieval culture at the beginning of the 15th century as a culture at its limits, and one to be inevitably overtaken by Burckhardt’s “universal men” of the Renaissance, who are to melancholy Medieval man “as is the aspray to the fish, who takes it by sovereignty of nature.”1

The contrast made between the modern era and the Middle Ages is important to how Huizinga interprets aristocratic and feudal culture in Medieval France:

From the Thirteenth Century onward inveterate party quarrels arise in nearly all countries: first in Italy, then in France… Though economic interest may sometimes have been at the bottom of these quarrels, the attempts which have been made to disengage them often smack somewhat of arbitrary construction. The desire to discover economic causes is to some degree a craze with us, and sometimes leads us to forget a much simpler psychological explanation of the facts.2

With this claim, Huizinga disengages himself from the Marxist reorientation of history along economic and materialist lines. Ever since Marx reduced the driving force of social and political alterations to material and economic causes, and resolved the contemplative aim of traditional philosophy into the service of history, the tendency to interpret history on Marx’s terms is ever-present, since the materialist project is not comprised of mere fact-finding, but the criticism of history itself, which, as Marx, echoing Feuerbach, writes, “disillusions man so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality as a man who has lost his illusions… so that he will revolve about himself as his own true sun.”3

Huizinga situates the complex symbolism, aesthetic, and formalized chivalric conventions saturating the age at the center of the Medieval experience and does not seek out economic explanations regarding how Medieval culture came to be consumed by its own heavy opulence. If the development of such complex forms is not reducible to active economic causes, interpretive psychological explanations have more to offer in the face of the overwhelmingly foreign landscape of the Middle Ages, and this is the territory where Huizinga makes his case.

In spite of any economic conditions that may have prevailed at the time, the Medieval conception of chivalry is understood by Huizinga to be the manner by which Medieval nobles related to the servant class. This relationship was comprised of “the innate and immediate sentiments of fidelity and fellowship,” which is “a feudal sentiment at bottom.”4 Such a form of attachment is unthinkable six centuries later. Beyond any outward bond of sentiment between men from otherwise discrete social orders, the unequal relationship of men was put on momentarily equal footing, as Huizinga notes, by the omnipresent memento mori, which served as a potent reminder of human mutability, everywhere visible in a culture that freely amalgamated pessimism, subliminity, and despair. Many years later, in 1538, Hans Holbein the Younger, in woodcuts done for a German edition of the Dance of Death, was still making use of thoroughly Medieval motifs to demonstrate the same point about the transient nature of human life, regardless of social standing. In the Middle Ages, not only posthumous odds and ends, but poets as well, admonished the constituents of the nobility to attain to that curiously Medieval conception of equality, whose formulation is expressed in the Medieval conception of chivalry:

[T]he reason of these poetical admonitions on the subject of true nobility and human equality generally lies in the stimulus they impart to the nobles to adapt themselves to the true ideal of knighthood, and thereby to support and purify the world.5

Clearly the impetus for action is not found in the counting house, but, as Huizinga phrases it, in the “value of chivalrous ideas.” He notes that the nobility, the men who made the history of the Middle Ages, “were no romantic dreamers, but dealt in solid facts.” Chivalrous ideas represented far more than a mere “ornament of society,” having little practical efficacy or permanent value; chivalry in fact represented the highest and most complete formulation of social values to be found in the age.

Men in the Middle Ages also looked to Antiquity for models of virtuous conduct and political theory. Huizinga rejects Burckhardt’s claim (in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy) that the Renaissance alone was the period when the rediscovery of Antiquity occurred. Huizinga situates his conception of history against Burckhardt’s by pointing out that Burckhardt insists on too sharp of a distinction between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and furthermore, that

The Middle Ages had always lived in the shadow of Antiquity, always handled its treasures, or what they had of them, interpreting it according to truly Medieval principles: Scholastic Theology, chivalry, asceticism, and courtesy. Now, by an inward ripening, the mind, after having been so long conversant with the forms of Antiquity, began to grasp its spirit… Europe, after having lived in the shadow of Antiquity, lived in its sunshine once more.6

The psychological interpretation of how the shift from what we call the Middle Ages to what we call the Renaissance occurred is worth noting, since this is the sort of explanation Huizinga favors. Rather than a sudden revival of cultural and literary forms long forgotten, which is part and parcel of the account one finds in Burckhardt, Huizinga points out that the differences between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are not driven by the “classic expression and imagery” of Antiquity, as though it existed in one age and not the other, but that “the soul of Western Christendom itself was outgrowing Medieval forms and modes of thought that had become shackles.”

Burckhardt distills his understanding of the many figures and events that shaped the Renaissance from a distinction between theoretical activity and practical activity, i.e., a material understanding of the Renaissance as opposed to a psychological or philosophical one. Huizinga interprets the Middle Ages with an eye towards the soul, or spirit of the times, but he does not give a place to a discussion of speculative philosophy or theoretical activity in his account; yet one has the impression that the philosophical activity of the age underlies the psychological current of Huizinga’s account. Burckhardt is more explicit in the omission of philosophy from his account of the Renaissance, and places the narrative accent squarely on the practical, ethical, and religious life of men in the Renaissance as the mitigating factors of social construction and principles of individuation. This focus allows him to regard the speculative philosophy of the Renaissance as counting for very little — a move that Cassirer, in The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, takes him directly to task on. The many developments in the twin spheres of political and religious life in the Renaissance Burckhardt calls “the chief reason for the early development of the Italian,” which species of human for Burckhardt is synonymous with “the individual.” Through the transitions and evolution of the Italian State, the modern individual, as we now have him, was being shaped. Prior to the Renaissance, and especially in the feudal Middle Ages, man’s orientation towards himself was, as Burckhardt informs us, almost non-existent: “Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation — only through some general category.”7 How the individual was born and nurtured in Italy is Burckhardt’s main concern throughout The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. He traces this process, first, through the early forms of the Italian State in the latter 15th century, which in its despotic form, foisted upon both the tyrant and his protectors “the highest degree of individuality” — some men became true individuals out of necessity. Only later, under the ideal conditions of the Italian Republic, was this new sense of the self channeled into the “rediscovery” of Antiquity, and ultimately, it was the monuments and intellectual luminosity of the Ancients that led to the redefinition in the period of the Renaissance of what it means to be human.

The advent of the Italian Republic is what Burckhardt credits with the rediscovery of Antiquity in the form of the arts, the Classics, the Greek and Latin languages, Classical philology, &c. The Church, ostensibly sovereign over all of men’s activities in the Middle Ages, is suddenly subordinated to the new influence of the Ancients on men’s activities and minds, thereby allowing the Italian Humanists to become influential “because they knew what the Ancients knew, because they tried to write as the Ancients wrote, because they began to think, and soon to feel, as the Ancients thought and felt.”8 Such an image gives the impression that the Italians of the 16th century were only distinguished from the Ancients by their mode of dress, and perhaps a few other contingencies of culture. Such an account is doubtful, as it was a palpable habit of historians and critics of the 19th century to associate and align their sentiments perhaps too vehemently with the objects and figures of the past, and effectively reinvent what chance and fortune had handed down as the remains of eclipsed civilizations. It is paradoxical that the men of the Middle Ages, who are closer in time to the Ancients then the men of the Renaissance, are often supposed to have possessed less of their forbearer’s spirit and learning than those men who took up the task of understanding and assimilating the wisdom of the Ancients at an even later point in time. It may be that the spin put on the interpretation of Antiquity, first by the Humanists in the Renaissance, and then by historical revisionists of the 19th century, is simply more compelling for us because of temporal proximity, and nothing more — men of the Renaissance are more like us than the men of the Middle Ages; and surely the Ancients must be to us the most shadowy and foreign of all. In any event, Huizinga’s suggestion that psychological explanations might provide us with a simpler account of the facts than materialist doctrines or historical sentiment might prove to be true. The Italians Burckhardt assigns the most elevated passions to, i.e., a more genuine experience of Antiquity than was accessible or necessary for the men of the Middle Ages, is due to the Italian’s “measureless devotion to Antiquity” — which statement can be re-read as the continued reinterpretation and assimilation of the treasures of Antiquity into the 16th century Italian’s own collective life and culture.

Refreshingly opposed to the one-sided worship of Classical Antiquity is the figure of Pico Della Mirandola, to whom Burckhardt only devotes no more than a few paragraphs. He deftly sketches a portrait of “the only man who loudly and vigorously defended the truth and science of all ages’9against the measureless devotion to Antiquity common at the time. This is one of the few instances where Burckhardt appears to give an assessment of Renaissance philosophy. He maintains that the grand possibilities of Pico’s reconciliatory attitude to philosophic, scientific, and religious differences was thwarted by the advent of the Counter-Reformation: “Looking at Pico, we can only guess at the lofty flight Italian philosophy would have taken had not the Counter-Reformation annihilated the higher spiritual life of the people.”10 Cassirer could not disagree more with the claim that philosophy foundered in the 16th century, and focuses his investigation squarely on the theoretic and philosophical works of the Renaissance to prove the opposite point. Cassirer’s move is a radical departure from the thesis of Burckhardt, which punctuates the practical activity of man in the Renaissance, or the material forces that shaped events and encompassed “the spirit of the age,” as opposed to theoretical activity, which Burckhardt does not view as having played a significant role, and thus considers an outdated continuation of Scholasticism.11

Cassirer understands the general shift in worldview that took place in the Renaissance in a fashion similar to Burckhardt. For both writers, the Renaissance was a time in which the gradual process of individuation became the project of all the forces of production, and this problematization of the individual is traceable within the applied practices of the artists, humanist thinkers, and the early despotic regimes, culminating in the Italian republics of Florence and Venice. Yet Cassirer goes much further than Burckhardt in the scope of his analysis of Renaissance thought — intellectual activity being the first distinctive feature of individuation amongst men — and appropriately reconfigures the break established by Burckhardt between theory and practice by reviving Hegel’s teleological demand that the diverse philosophic activity of an age must of necessity be gathered within a single “simple focal point.”12 The leading representitive of this philosophical convergence, for Cassirer, is the Italian Nicholas Cusanus, whose philosophy contains “the full consciousness and spiritual essence”13 of his age, according to Cassirer. Cusanus fulfills, as well, another theoretical premise of Cassirer’s, viz., the

history of philosophy… can only make responsible generalizations by immersing itself in the most concrete particulars and in the most subtle nuances of historical detail. What is needed is the universality of a systematic point of view and… orientation.14

Cassirer expends a great deal of energy in setting out in detail the neglected philosophic system of Cusanus, whose thought, at more than one point, seems to anticipate the Copernican Revolution of Kant. A probable parallel between the two thinkers is not lost on Cassirer, although he himself only alludes to no more than a contiguous, possibly accidental connection between the thought of the two men. Cassirer’s precondition that the scholar’s universal, systematic point of view “in no way coincides with the universality of merely empirical concepts”15 has something of a Kantian transcendental ring to it, and it is probably no accident that Cassirer discusses at length the subject/object problem in the Renaissance and how both ultimate and scientific/artistic objectivity is explored in the Neo-Platonic mysticism of Ficino, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s “necessity of nature,” where, “[r]eflection on human freedom, on man’s original, creative force, requires as it compliment and its confirmation the concept of the immanent ‘necessity’ of the natural object.”16

The explication Cassirer undertakes of the thought of Leonardo is one of the most rewarding portions of the book; whereas much obscure drivel has been published and pandered on the life and work of Leonardo, Cassirer succeeds in setting at a diaphanous distance the most significant aspects of Leonardo’s contribution to Renaissance philosophy:

Leonardo’s vision of nature proved to be a methodologically necessary transition point, for it was artistic ‘vision’ which first championed the right of scientific abstraction and paved the way for it. The ‘exact fantasy’ of Leonardo the artist has nothing to do with that chaotic surging and billowing of subjective feeling which threatens to coalesce all forms into an undifferentiated whole.17

In examining “the complete parallel” between the theory of art and the theory of science in the Renaissance, Cassirer manages to put into words the thought that must have crossed the mind of anyone who has explored the comprehensive attitude of the men of that time, to the effect that the parallel between the theory of art and the theory of science

reveals to us one of the most profound motifs in the entire intellectual movement of the Renaissance. One might say that nearly all the great achievements of the Renaissance are gathered here as in a focal point. One might say, furthermore, that these achievements are nearly all rooted in a new attitude towards the problem ofform, and in a new sensitivity to form.18

Interestingly, Cassirer links this “problem of form” to another way in which it is possible to distinguish (but not divide) the Middle Ages from the Renaissance. Like Huizinga, Cassirer acknowledges that the men of the Middle Ages both handled and were conversant with the intellectual and material treasures of Antiquity. But there exists a dichotomy of spontaneity in the way in which objects and ideas of Antiquity were understood between the two ages. Quoting Karl Borinski, Cassirer writes,

Certainly the Middle Ages… had enough ties to Antiquity. A complete rupture with Antiquity had never come about, thanks to the Church, the cultural power that replaced it…. On the whole, the influence of Antiquity on the Middle Ages was, as has been… pointed out, an influence of content… A change in the attitude of the personality towards Antiquity expressed itself in form —starting with the form of the individual with his feeling, thinking, and living, and going on to the renewal of Ancient and Classical forms in poetry and art, state and society.19

The matter of “artistic sensibility” is understood by Cassirer to have given “concrete determination to the concept of nature formulated by Renaissance science.” This notion is nowhere more apparent than in the antediluvian geology found in several paintings, and scores of drawings, by Leonardo’s hand. He does not set his Madonna’s and tacitly pagan figures of Saints in cloisters, nor does he depict them in settings dominated by forgettable landscape architecture. Rather, his Saints and Virgins inhabit a primordial wasteland where one is more likely to stumble over the corpses of giant saurians than encounter a flourishing grove. This conception of nature could only have come about through an intensification of Leonardo’s own theoretical perspective — “for [Leonardo]… the creative power of the artist is as certain as that of theoretical or scientific thought. Science is a second creation made with the understanding; painting is a second creation made with the imagination.”20 One could not ask for a better formulation of Leonardo’s scientific and artistic programme than that.

1 Shakespeare, Coriolanus, IV. Vii. 34-5.

2 J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (Edward Arnold Publishers, Ltd., London, 1963), p 13.

3 Karl Marx, in The Marx-Engles Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1978), p 54.

4 Huizinga, p 23.

5 Ibid., p 102.

6 Ibid., pp 307-8.

7 Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Barnes and Noble Books, 1999), p 81.

8 Ibid., p 120.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 In the synthesizing philosophic activities of Pico Della Mirandolla (namely, the marrying together Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy), there is the distinct aroma of Scholastic philosophy — particularly in the effort he devotes to defending and elaborating the Scholastic trinity — God, freedom, and the immortality of the soul.

12 Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, translated by Mario Domandi (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972) p 7.

13 Ibid., p 1.

14 Ibid., p 5.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., p 153.

17 Ibid., p 158.

18 Ibid., p 159. Italics in original.

19 Ibid., pp 159-60.

20 Ibid., 161.

Review of “Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy” by Josef Pieper

ImageIn formulating his theory of the development of the modern man during the Italian Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt presents the distinction between the men in the Middle Ages, who conceived of themselves “only as a member of a race, people, party,” and the “many-sided men,” the Humanists, who arose in the 14th century to take their place. Josef Pieper’s discussion of Scholasticism does not endeavor to disprove Burckhardt’s theory, but in presenting the great figures of Scholastic philosophy, Pieper takes care at the outset to establish that Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, and their contemporaries, are better than specimens of a dogmatic and intellectually exhausted age.

The view of the Scholastics presented in the book is that “they are… partly ‘contemporary’ and partly ‘outmoded,’”1 yet unimpeachably relevant to the modern understanding of the writings of Antiquity, which the Scholastics labored so long to assimilate and codify in their theology and philosophy. Pieper’s reference points of “personalities and problems” bear out that no single figure or event can be said to properly represent the (many-sided) Scholastic or Medieval Christian spirit, and this is evidenced in times containing such radically dissimilar men as Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux — one man was seduced, first by Heloise, then by Greek logic; and the other, continually taxed by a kind of arduous mysticism. Thus, to reduce the main tenant of Scholasticism to the conjoining of faith and reason will not do, being in the end more a dualism of parlance than a definition.

Pieper propounds and elaborates the following thesis throughout the book:

We must realize how impossible it is to understand any Medieval author if we do not consider one of the fundamentals of his thinking about the universe and man: his utter conviction that the event of the Incarnation made accessible a truth which possesses a power to reveal reality transcending any human insight…2 

Indeed, this formulation can be applied to the entire range of issues, historical, biographical, and scholarly, that Pieper handles. Examining the condemnation of 1277 at Paris and Oxford, it is the resolute standard of truth set by divine Revelation that consequently made the Truths of Faith and the Truths of Reason ever more uneasy bedfellows. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most significant workers in the codification of Scholastic theology and philosophy, had but recently died when the controversy in 1277 arose, and Pieper notes that the opposition between fides and ratio was to grow only larger after that turning point — “the golden age of Scholasticism,” as Aquinas had known it, “the honeymoon of theology and philosophy,” as Pieper dubs it, was at an end.

Pieper’s discussion of the condemnation of 1277 acts as a fulcrum between the first phase of Scholasticism and the second, which was to bear witness to the radical thought of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Prior to these two thinkers, the philosophical “necessitarianism” implicit in the creative activity of God, articulated by Siger of Brabant and others, lurked just beneath the window of Scholastic Theology. What Pieper refers to as a form of extreme Aristotelianism was challenged first by Scotus, then by Ockham, each of who joined in rejecting the “Greek necessitarianism” condemned in 1277, to propounded a theory of God’s “unlimited freedom in the exercise of power.” Ockham, as Pieper suggests, was equally extreme, but in the opposite direction, as the necessitarianism that he disparages. Quoting Ockham, Pieper observes a hint of brutality in the way

Ockham envisages the various alternatives to the story of man’s redemption. He [Ockham] argues that God’s becoming man… was so little meaningful and necessary ‘in itself’ that God, if he had wished, might just as well have assumed the nature of a stone, a tree, or an ass.3

The story is somewhat different with Scotus, though, and the younger Ockham was already critical of his predecessor for “trying to prove too much” in areas of speculation where too little could be proved. Scotus’ standard of proof, nevertheless, was inscrutably high. Both Aquinas and Scotus “agreed on the point that human reason may never touch upon the secret of divine freedom,”4 yet for Scotus, and unlike Aquinas, this become a negative element in the possibility of conjoining faith and reason — absolute certainty was diminishing in strength before an existential resignation, due to the non-necessity of creation, man, and his destiny. Thus, faith and reason, rather than being conjoined, are split, and the troubling possibility of “double truths” — on one hand, God’s truth, on the other, a separate truth for the creation — arises.

One of the more startling points made in Pieper’s review of the Scholastics is the extreme youthfulness, not in the sphere of ideas only, but in the literal sense of the age of those philosophers and theologians that dominated the Middle Ages. Boethius, we are told, was a mere 20 years when he began to distinguish himself in scholarship; Anselm, only 30 when he became Prior of Le Bec; Scotus wrote his most renowned work, the opus Oxoniense, at 35; and William of Ockham, a seeming Rimbaud of Scholasticism, retired from the world of letters at 25.5  Observing this, Pieper points out that the vast project, over several centuries, of assimilating the objects of Antiquity, was largely undertaken by men possessing both youth and enormous energy.

From the outset of the book to the end, Pieper reinforces the notion that the men of modern times are the (often ungrateful) sons of the Medievals. To this end, he remarks that “the greatest Summa of the Middle Ages,” Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, did not remain just by chance uncompleted, “but because its author wished it so.”6  This is mentioned in light of the impossibility that now faces modern man — that of “attaining… a closed and rounded view of the world in any legitimate way.”7  The Scholastic conception of “natural reason” permitted, even encouraged, Christian theological and philosophical debate to range outside of itself, taking and considering things as they were presented, and not merely vanquishing the alleged opposition from the outset. This, as Pieper notes, was the objective method of that most comprehensive of the Scholastics, Aquinas; and Pieper finally recommends that such rational honesty and liberality be adapted and directed against the modern quarrel between faith and reason, i.e., faith and science.

1 Josef Pieper, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy (St. Augustine’s Press: South Bend Indiana, 2001), p 158.

2 Ibid., p 18-19.

3 Ibid., p 148.

4 Ibid., p 144.

5 C.f., p 78-79.

6 Ibid., p 159.

7 Ibid., p 158.

Nihilism, Evil, & God: Dostoevsky Versus Nietzsche

img052Friedrich Nietzsche is generally regarded as having given the par excellence account of the origin and consequences of nihilism, deriving from his conception of the death of God. Yet Fyodor Dostoevsky offers an alternative account of the cause of nihilism in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1879), that locates the cause of nihilism not in the death of God, but in man’s understanding of God in relation to the problem of evil. Far from Nietzsche’s representation of God as an exploded fiction, God Himself is implicated as the primary source of the conflict between the evil and suffering that mankind experiences, and the deficit in reasons for why, if God is just and benevolent, man was ever allowed to suffer at all.

Nietzsche’s theory of the “will to power” stands as a challenge to Dostoevsky’s cautionary axiom, “if there is no God, everything is permissible.” The “will to power” is simultaneously Nietzsche’s all-inclusive answer to the mysteries of human psychology, and his answer to the question of how one should live. By inverting the consequence of Dostoevsky’s claim that the absence of God entails the absence of any restriction on human behavior, Nietzsche spins his predictions and hopes for the future of mankind out of the unlimited “permission” granted by nihilism. The absence of God does not precipitate the absolute social and moral ruin of man; on the contrary, within the shapeless matter of nihilism lies the means for crafting man’s redemption without God, his liberation from all empty dichotomies (good and evil, true and false, subject and object, cause and effect), and the possibility for his re-acquaintance with the total potential of the will that has lain dormant since the end of Imperial Rome.

Nietzsche holds that “the character of existence” is inherently brutal, and men possess no special quality to distinguish them from brute beasts, except a talent for self-deception — men dream of themselves as created just a little lower than the angels on the scale of created things, when in reality they are brutes that possess the same unlimited desire for power common to any beast — even the most cursory examination of the habits of man confirms the fact.1 Dostoevsky enters a similar description of human nature in The Brothers Karamazov, but with the additional implicit premise that man’s barbaric actions are a result of the great distance that lies between man and God— God being perfect and lacking nothing, and man being imperfect and sorely deficient in his capacities and his “Euclidean” faculties:2

By the way [says Ivan], a Bulgarian I met lately in Moscow… told me about the crimes committed by Turks and Circassians in all parts of Bulgaria through fear of a general rising of the Slavs. They burn villages, murder, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by their ears to fences, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them — all sorts of things you can’t imagine. People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel… I think if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness. 3

Because weakness and corruption is common to the nature of mankind, it is only a matter of time before men become cannibals and butchers of other men without the authority and Providence of God to restrain them from giving free reign to the worst side of their nature. This is the reason why no flowering of culture and art is foreseen in the conclusion to Dostoevsky’s tales of the madmen that nihilism produces. In his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the fictional society built on the totalitarian principles of the Grand Inquisitor is awash with men’s blood, with torture as its chief art.

Within this work, Dostoevsky provides two conclusions concerning why nihilism, which renders mankind’s experience of evil and suffering meaningless and absurd, can never supply a starting or stopping point in mankind’s search for the meaning of why he experiences evil. The first is that man is foremost a moral being — he possesses a conscience that acts as a guide for moral behavior. Yet the conscience, if God does not exist, has no other function than as a hindrance that can be gotten rid of by habituation since the categories of good and evil, true and false do not have any objective existence; as the “active” nihilist might maintain, whenever the bite of conscience is silenced, the resulting sensation of increased power “presupposes a resistance overcome.” If the conscience that prevents man from doing anything and everything that comes into his head is silenced, and his actions, no matter how extreme, contain no further consequences than those imposed by positive law, then he has nothing greater to fear (should he be caught) than punishment by a civil authority. If God is not watching, mankind, in this case, has no moral incentive that prevents him from lapsing into brutality and cannibalism.

Alyosha Karamazov, one of the three fraternal protagonists in The Brothers Karamazov, provides the second reason why nihilism as an answer does not suffice (and this must be taken in light of the first reason): he maintains that only if God Himself suffers along with mankind can God be exonerated for having ever allowed even one man to suffer. God, Alyosha maintains, has come in the Person of Christ and has given “His innocent blood for all and everything.” This formulation, which comes, in The Brothers Karamazov, at the end of the chapter titled “Rebellion,” is illuminated by contrast with the statement, “if there is not God, everything is permissible.” The latter is a core statement in The Brothers Karamazov, and serves to crystallize the meaning and purpose of Ivan’s stories of human barbarism, and his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.”

Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism constitutes a broad base from which are derived the dichotomies of master/slave moralities, “active” and “passive” nihilism, and his conception of the “overman.” The fact that Nietzsche appears not to place an overwhelming emphasis on nihilism as the center of his thinking in his published works does not disprove the implicit fact that if nihilism as a foundation is taken away, the project of the revaluation of values, as Nietzsche conceives of it, makes no sense. One must postulate nihilism as the antecedent of all events (namely the death of God), and all modes of acting, in order to attempt to move beyond nihilism. The so-called death of God is another way of proclaiming the end of the possibility of metaphysics as an objective construct. Metaphysics, by definition, is the search for transcendent principles that exist independently of the material world, and dictate the rules concerning how all things material things (subject to generation and corruption) are essentially ordered. It can be said, then, that the existence of metaphysical principles is tantamount to an ordered kosmos. As a result of the death of God, the possibility of attaining objective knowledge about the world (particularly, for our purposes, in the area of ethics) is rendered an impossibility, as all truth claims are without any ultimate significance or meaning beyond what the individual attaches to them. The universe, human life, and morality have the value of nil after God ceases to stand as the absolute guarantor of meaning in the universe, as the purposeful creator of human life, &c. Without the death of God, there is no validity to the genealogical critique of values, nor is there any such thing as the self-deception of “passive” nihilism for the individual to extricate with his “will to power.” Where else in Nietzsche’s vision of the world but with the death of God could nihilism originate, or the genealogical critique of values for that matter? The conclusion is that nihilism, precipitated by the death of God, is the necessary basis on which all of Nietzsche’s thought rests.

If, for Nietzsche, the death, or non-existence, of God is the catalyst for nihilism, in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brother’s Karamazov, the catalyst for nihilism is, ironically, God Himself; or rather, the inscrutable nature and will of God. In the chapter entitled “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” Christ returns to earth “in the most terrible time of the Inquisition” (i.e., the 16th century). He performs miracles, and has a magnetic and transforming effect on the mass of people that gather in awe around Him; but the Grand Inquisitor does not receive Christ’s unexpected visit in quite the same way, and promptly has Christ arrested and thrown in prison. Upbraiding and haranguing Christ for undoing the Church’s work of rescuing humanity from its misery, the Grand Inquisitor maintains that humanity is wretched due to the fact that the moral example Christ set for man is impossible for man to live up to, or even to approximate. The Grand Inquisitor avows that Christ gave men their freedom from the Mosaic Law when all they wanted was bread; that is, Christ’s gift of freedom was bestowed on a recipient ill suited to accept such a gift, being “weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious.” 4 Man was previously guided in his every action according to the dictates of the Mosaic Law — which commandments are characterized by necessity and orderliness — but Christ’s work abolished the Law and replaced it with man’s freedom to choose between good and evil, having only His superhuman ideal as a model for his actions.

According to the Grand Inquisitor, the desire of all men’s hearts is not the exercising of their freedom to choose between good and evil out of the resources of their respective conscience, but to be ruled and ordered under a lawgiver, who’s sole purpose is to take such decision making out of their hands. The Grand Inquisitor strikes upon a very simple remedy for the absurd meaninglessness of human suffering, but only after he himself spent nearly a lifetime subduing his flesh and subsisting on roots in the desert in order to make himself “free and perfect” before God:

[A]ll his life he loved humanity, and suddenly his eyes were opened, and he saw that it was no great moral blessedness to attain perfection and freedom, if at the same time one gains the conviction that millions of God’s creatures have been created as a mockery, that thy will never be capable of using their freedom… In his old age he reached the clear conviction that nothing but the advice of the great dread spirit [the devil] could build up any tolerable sort of life for the feeble, unruly “incomplete, empirical creatures created in jest.” And so, convinced of this, he sees that he must follow the council of the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction, and therefore accept lying and deception, and lead men consciously to death and destruction, and yet deceive them all the way so that they may not notice where they are being led, that the poor blind creatures may at least on the way think themselves happy. And note, the deception is [carried out] in the name of Him in Whose ideal the old man had so fervently believed all his life long.5

Christ came to give men their freedom from the Mosaic Law. After Christ’s work, the written law is no longer binding over the hearts of men; the conscience is now the seat of judgment between good and evil, and “man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as a guide”6 Men though, according to the Inquisitor’s estimation, are incontinent — they have an inability to do what is good and moral, while having perfect knowledge of what goodness and morality demand. Freedom is the most terrible burden God could have placed on humanity, since so few are capable of being consistent with so perfect an exemplar as Christ. The presence of God’s moral standard in the world is an burden that men can neither throw off nor endure, and so men alienate the freedom given them by Christ as a gift — an ill conceived gift indeed, according to the Inquisitor, and he gladly takes the freedom from men and exchanges it for happiness.

Under the dictatorship of the conscience, a corollary to the gift of freedom, man is unhappy and ever mindful of his continual failings when compared to the life lived by the theanthropus, Christ. Conversely, under the dictatorship of divine law, or even the rule of a civil authority, man’s life is content because his conscience is clear — the decision to do this-or-that, or not, is never his to make, and thus ultimate responsibility for the consequence of his actions is taken from him as well. In the Grand Inquisitor’s indictment of Christ, it is Christ’s eradication of the Mosaic Law that has placed God beyond the reach of man’s ken, and beyond the goal of man’s “merely mortal” activities:

And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest forever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and emblematic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all… for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems.7

When God bestowed the gift of free moral agency in the matter of salvation to a weak and rebellious animal such as man, the nature of God’s decision demonstrated that God’s will is radically free to alter, modify, or abolish what He has previously decreed, and furthermore, the divine decision does not have to accord with man’s abilities or faculties. Christ is, as He declares Himself to be, not the destroyer, but the fulfillment of the Law,8 thus the end of the Law is freedom through Christ. Man, whether under the old Law or the new, is entirely reliant on his own abilities and faculties, and can neither destroy the Law himself, nor can he fulfill it — thus, even what God decrees specifically for man is in every sense “exceptional, vague and emblematic.” The same God who led the Ancient Hebrews out of slavery and through the wilderness has deliberately become an obsolescent God with the advent of the Incarnation, and His sinless example. How is man to be saved under such a situation, and what guarantee does man have that God will not again alter the rules, leaving man’s mind, actions, and hopes clouded even further? Indeed, such a possibility always exists if God is bound by nothing, and acts according to His omnipotent will.

The eternal standards of truth, good and evil, and the way to salvation, are all overturned by the advent of Christ’s example, which example is set by God’s free choice. Being unable to grasp the full capacity of this change, man is forced to turn to other resources, and rely on other faculties that were not necessary in order to adhere to the Mosaic Law, such as reason, in order to discern between good and evil, and to determine by what means he might be saved — by God, or by human industry. Nihilism, according to Dostoevsky, is a result of man’s bewilderment before and omnipotent and willful God (and not because God simply does not exist); man’s subsequent reliance on himself and his own powers is due to the fact that he is forced to compensate in light of the fact that what God has determined as good cannot be relied upon to be good for man.

The Grand Inquisitor embodies Dostoevsky’s particular conception of nihilism, viz., and nihilism’s revolutionary and bleakly individualistic spirit. When Christ returns unexpectedly, performing miracles and disrupting the proceedings of the Church’s authorities, the Grand Inquisitor demands to know why Christ has come, and assumes that His visit is for no reason other than to spite man’s obviously epistemically precarious position, and spur on his desire to move beyond such a position. Christ never says a word during the whole of the Inquisitor’s interrogation, and even to the Inquisitor’s most tremendous disclosures there is no discernible response from Christ:

Just eight centuries ago, we [the Catholic Church] took from him [the Devil] what Thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth. We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth, though hitherto we have not been able to complete our work… It has long to await completion and the earth has yet much to suffer, but we shall triumph and shall be Caesars, and then we shall plan the universal happiness of man.9

Man, taking up the sword of Caesar, does not overcome God, nor can he ever — the Grand Inquisitor has no illusions that his vision of a utopian Rome is for any other world than the one inhabited by man, and can never extend into the sphere of the divine. Only by seizing upon and cultivating the Promethean spirit can man do for himself what Christ rejected with scorn to do, that is, to found a universal state and attain universal happiness. Because only a few men, out of the whole host of mankind, have the potential to come close to living up to Christ’s moral example, the Inquisitor asks Christ what need mankind-at-large has for a God that has overestimated man’s capacity to manage the intellectual and bodily exertions that necessarily come with the exercise of freedom? In the nihilistic spirit of the Promethean, the Grand Inquisitor finally commands Christ, “Go, and come no more… Come not at all, never, never!”10 The Promethean efforts of a few men (i.e., the Grand Inquisitor and a few others like him) to rescue humanity from self-destruction and to bring about universal happiness provides the foundation for totalitarianism; the incomprehensible God is replaced by the institution of a state religion, which is actually no religion at all, only an absolute civil authority armed at all points in the tinsel and trappings of religion.

Nietzsche holds that to believe in the existence of objective values is to believe in an illusion that is devoid of any constructive meaning, and therefore nihilistic: “In religion the constraint is lacking to consider ourselves as value positing.”11 Nietzsche maintains that the capacity to actively create values necessarily takes into account the many nuances and shades of distinctions involved man’s experience of the world, and reflects man’s actual subjective experience in ways that all closed (and therefore passive) forms of value judgments fail to. The origin of nihilism, for Nietzsche, lies in two opposing directions: the first is moral passivity (which he conceives of as a negation of existence, and therefore lacking any actual meaning), and the second is the power to actively create values that have meaning insofar as they are powerful. Regarding the former, when the will of the self is subordinated to the will of God, or alienated to what Nietzsche often refers to as a “beyond,” the content of experience (that is, willing, hating, loving, &c.) is negated, and man’s “will to power,” which is an affirmation of life, is replaced by the “will to nothingness,” or the denial of life:

metaphysics, religion, morality, science — all of them only products of his [man’s] will to art, to lie, to flight from “truth”… This ability itself, thanks to which he violates reality by means of lies… He himself is after all a piece of reality, truth, nature: how should he not also be a piece of genius in lying… That the character of existence is to be misunderstood — profoundest and supreme secret motive behind all that is virtue, science, piety, artistry… Man has once again become master of “material” — master of truth! — And whenever man rejoices… he rejoices as an artist, he enjoys himself as power, he enjoys the lie as his form of power.12

When man’s moral character is shaped according to the dictates of a universal moral norm, the question of “what kind of man should I be” is simply a given — the answer lies not with the will of the individual, but with the will of God. Man’s nature is shaped not by his intellect, but by the dictates of his will; the justification behind all moral and intellectual hierarchies is the power that one interpretation of the world has over all other interpretations — power equals precedence. In his study of Nietzsche’s philosophy, Gilles Deleuze points out that, “We know what transmutation or transvaluation means for Nietzsche: not a change of values, but a change in the element from which the value of value derives.”13 This shift he describes represents not the reversal of evil transmuting into good, or vice-versa, but that all interpretations of what is good or evil, or beneficial or harmful, are materializations of the “element” that Nietzsche calls the “will to power.” As a source or criterion for all valuations, the “will to power” transcends all valuations of good and evil, and true and false, by transferring the source of all moral standards from the objective and eternal perspective, to the subjective individual perspective. Rather than delimiting thought or action by assigning to them certain levels of truth or falsity in relation to an abstract objective standard of true and false, thought and action are more effectively measured according to the quantity of power behind, or inhering in a given thought or action. This is why it is better to say that the individual will naturally seeks power — all individuals have discrete perspectives on the world, and power is the element of differentiation between individuals; and since there is nothing that inherently binds one perspective to another, power determines the precedence of thought and action between individuals. By this rationale, the question of “what kind of man should I be” is always open-ended, because there is no given direction, save that the will’s sole desire is for the increase of power.

Nietzsche divides nihilism, as was mentioned above, into two rather flexible, basic categories — “active” nihilism and “passive” nihilism. “Active” nihilism is nihilism divested of its religious trappings, and with a bent not necessarily toward self-destruction, but decidedly toward the destruction of what passes for true, right, or authoritative. This is not the nihilism of the herd (of which Christianity is representitive), but the nihilism of Nietzsche himself. The individualist, according to Nietzsche, is the man who has the will to believe in himself, in the truth of his own powers, and in the efficacy of his own volition. The “active” nihilist, as opposed to egalitarian man, is radically individual. Yet Nietzsche does not concede that the “active” nihilist is capable of discovering the means to direct his destructive despair toward creating a new world of “higher” values (values that exalt what is noble, exceptional, and powerful) in place of the world of popular pseudo-religious values that he takes the same pleasure in destroying that the condemned man takes in a last act of vengeance against his punisher:

Nihilism does not only contemplate the “in vain!” nor is it merely the belief that everything deserves to perish: one helps to destroy. — This is, if you will, illogical; but the nihilist does not believe that one needs to be logical. — It is the condition of strong spirits and wills, and these do not find it possible to stop with the No of “judgment”: their nature demands the No of the deed. The reduction to nothing by judgment is seconded by the reduction to nothing by hand.14

Aside from Nietzsche’s conception of the nihilist as those possessing a “strong spirit and will,” i.e., the “active” nihilist, he formulates the antithetical condition that he calls “passive” nihilism to accord with his conception of Christianity, which he believes epitomizes the steamroller effect that mediocrity has on everything it rolls over:

The lower species (“herd,” “mass,” “society”) unlearns modesty and blows up its needs into cosmic and metaphysical values. In this way the whole of existence is vulgarized: insofar as the mass is dominant, it bullies the exceptions, so that they lose their faith in themselves [i.e., the exceptional individuals lose faith] and become nihilists.15

Christianity seeks to replace the world as it is with the soul’s wish fulfillment of immortality in a “beyond.” The postulating of a “beyond,” to Nietzsche, is nothing but a subterfuge; the rejection of the world in the Christian worldview as corrupt and passing away devalues experience in the world in favor of a heaven that transcends all material existence. Nietzsche’s line of reasoning assumes that the ens realissiuum is the fiction of fictions, and the experience of life as an “end-in-itself,” or as a perpetual “becoming,” is wasted at the expense of the sacred wish of the soul’s immortality:

The Christian conception of God — God as God of the sick, God as a spider, God as spirit — is one of the most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained on earth. It may even represent the low-water mark in the descending development of divine types. God denigrated into the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live! God — the formula for every slander against “this world,” for every lie about the “beyond”! God — the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy!16

Nietzsche’s rationale for attacking the values of Christianity lies in his assertion that “slave morality” paralyzes and cheapens the value of what is truly noble and powerful by equating nobility and power with dominant egalitarian “virtues;” for example, the toleration and encouragement of mediocrity is understood in the framework of slave morality to be evidence of greatness of soul and the strength of virtue. Whether the conception of Christianity that Nietzsche demolishes with his genealogical method is an historically accurate conception is certainly debatable, yet Nietzsche’s point that any culture’s avid promotion of egalitarian pieties is a sign of an impending cultural eclipse is well taken.

Art, that is, creation as such, is for Nietzsche the most potent means of stimulating life, of making life something man can endure; but art has a greater function beyond providing a comfortable assurance to the bien pensant pieties of the self-deceiver. Art contains the means to reveal “the terrifying and questionable character of existence,” and thus it presents, by analogy, another side of the “will to power.” Because truth cannot be known objectively (since nothing exists “in itself” or “through itself”), truth is necessarily the domain of the artist, who fashions what passes as “the truth” according to this seemingly simple dichotomy: truth as the “will to power,” or truth as the “will to nothingness.” The exceptional man, the “strong spirit,” as Nietzsche calls him, desires to “live dangerously,” to say Yes to life, and this mode of affirming the will and the self contrasts to all forms of the “will to the denial of life.”Nietzsche’s conception of the artistic life relates dialectically to his conception of the self-overcomer, i.e., destroying to create, creating to destroy, with all dialectical oppositions being ultimately obliterated in the eternal return. The values created in the course of the will’s drive toward the expansion of its power are always provisional at best, because values are created out of, and according to, the individual’s will, which is to say, the individual’s perspective. Even though Nietzsche dispenses with any localized standard for the establishment of values by placing the creation of values in the hands of the self-overcoming, his explanation for the phenomena of pain and suffering in the world provides a clue about what sort of standard the values of the “strong spirit” comply with, and that standard is reducible to one word — power — which is the objective of the unceasing drive of the will. The quantifiable increase or reduction of power in the individual man is the only kind of economy Nietzsche recognizes. Whereas the “passive” nihilist, or the “good” man, seeks to mollify his desires and neutralize his pains and pleasures within the safety of the group, the will of the “strong spirit,” or the “evil” man, is driven both by a staunch individualism, and the creative benefits that come from unmitigated hardship, suffering, and destruction:

Even the most harmful man may really be the most useful when it comes to the preservation of the species; for he nurtures either in himself or in others, through his effects, instincts without which humanity would long have become feeble or rotten. Hatred, the mischievous delight in the misfortune of others, the lust to rob and dominate, and whatever else is called evil, belongs to the most amazing economy of the preservation of the species. To be sure, this economy is not afraid of high prices, of squandering, and it is on the whole extremely foolish. Still it is proven that it has preserved our species so far.17

Nietzsche’s conception of theodicy (if I may be permitted to stretch the meaning of the term) is bound up with the principle of the “will to power,” and ultimately derives, again, from his considerations concerning nihilism. Nietzsche, declaring God to be dead, aims at eradicating the entire edifice of value judgments altogether — no longer can good be discerned from evil, or truth from falsity — every means of judgment and determination has been abrogated when no such thing as truth exists, only interpretations of, only perspectives on, “truth.” As Nietzsche has it, God is not the arbiter of moral standards, nor, ultimately, is man; the principle of the will is the determining factor of all that is, and directs the unceasing and limitless accumulation of quantifiable power. By this standard, the source of human pain and suffering, of human hardship and brutality, is part and parcel of the essence of “the character of existence”:

Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation…18

The innumerable discrete wills that strive to assert and increase their respective quantity of power do so without any final goal, except a further increase of power. If the active principle of the will is interpreted as Nietzsche’s singular metaphysical principle, then the goal-less, unceasing march of wills willing power, and willing in opposition to every other will, is his theodicy— the operation of will in his eternally recurring cosmology vindicates, or justifies, the phenomena of pain and suffering. Being neither “good” nor “evil,” pain and suffering play a necessary role as a component facet of the driving principle of all things, the will:

Man does not seek pleasure and does not avoid displeasure… Pleasure and displeasure are mere consequences, mere epiphenomenona — what man wants, what every smallest part of a living organism wants, is an increase of power. Pleasure or displeasure follow from the striving after that; driven by that will it seeks resistance, it needs something that opposes it… man does not avoid it [displeasure], rather he is in continual need of it; every victory, every feeling of pleasure, every event, presupposes a resistance overcome.19

An “economy of high prices”20 is the preserver of the species in a world where the categories of good and evil do not apply: only the distinction between strong wills and weak wills is relevant to an understanding of the order of things. The story is of a similar nature with Nietzsche’s interpretation of all the other commonplace dualisms found in value judgments: pain and pleasure, happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow, &c. These sensations signify, respectively, either an increase or decrease of power, according to the strength of the action of the will.

For Dostoevsky, the question of why man, as God created him, suffers and experiences evil, strikes at the heart of the question concerning what the nature of God is, and how man comes to terms with, or rejects, a God that transcends his primitive “Euclidean mind.” The question of why is there evil in the world is, to Ivan’s “Euclidean earthly mind,” impossible to settle:

Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart… and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her?… Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to “dear, kind God”!21

The question of why God could just as easily have created a world where evil does not exist, as a world where it does, is the axis on which Ivan’s argument for atheism turns: why the world is overrun with evil is far from self-evident, and no sufficient reason can be uncovered for why the world is thus and not otherwise. Evil exists in a plenary of forms, and for this reason Ivan finds the world as it is, and consequently the God who permits evil, for any reason whatever, unacceptable. The world, in Ivan’s mind, is devalued to the point of absurdity and meaninglessness as a consequence of the problem of evil: man is forced to beg the question of why there is evil at all if God is good and benevolent, and all of His works are good. In short, Ivan says that he is an atheist by default because he cannot supply a satisfactory answer to why men (and especially children) must become causalities of God’s unknowable reason for allowing the world to be overwhelmed by evil before He finally redeems His creation through His goodness. Ivan’s rejection of God is not tantamount to his disbelieving in the existence of a creator, &c.; it is his rejection of allowing any recourse to God in order to explain the existence of evil. If mankind suffers, there must be a reason — but no viable reason can be given for the fact that mankind does suffer; thus, mankind suffers for nothing. For Ivan, God exists, but He may just as well not, since the existence of an infinite, incomprehensible God explains nothing to finite men of simple mind about the problem of evil, or anything else. Ivan’s argument against God is not an argument spun out of the subtleties of logic; rather, it is argument made on instinct. The fact of evil is an inescapable reality, and his reaction to the immediacy of the misery that inexplicable evil entails leads him first to question the goodness of God, then to reject God, and the evil nature of the world altogether. That “there is a strength to endure everything” is Ivan’s answer to the inexorable conclusion that existence is futile; but that strength to endure everything is a tenuous strength, as Ivan’s end in madness reveals.

Dostoevsky’s account of theodicy in The Brother’s Karamazov acts as a foil to the moral and social disorder that he envisages as an inevitable consequence of nihilism. Ivan’s rejection of God stems from his inability to cognize, or otherwise grasp with his “Euclidean mind,” the meta-narrative of God’s plan for redeeming the fallen world from evil and suffering — God is rejected on the grounds that the “higher harmony” of good and evil that He intends to bring about at an indeterminate future time is incommensurate with the severity of suffering endured by human beings — is it not possible for the same “higher harmony” to exist without being fashioned from human misery? The answer is yes, but if God does not exist, or if He is rejected on the grounds that He torments human beings by allowing them to suffer unnecessarily, then what is there to restrict or prevent man from rejecting compassion and charity and giving full reign to the lawless and brutal side of his nature? What motivation would there be for men to be civil, if not for the presence of a divine authority regulating and instructing man in his actions? Why would men endure evil and suffering and be compassionate if there were no ultimate purpose, or no higher good for doing so? Ivan’s rejection of God’s Providential authority for the bringing about of a divine harmony between the murderer and his victim allows for the possibility that man has no legitimate reason not to murder his fellow man — Providential authority or not, evil is part of the nature of men.

Since God, understood as either a concept or a reality, according to Nietzsche, possesses no more efficacy than the strength of the weakest kind of men (who are the representatives of the Christian God on earth), the will of the individual, by virtue of his superior strength, must naturally reign supreme. All that is required for this seemingly obvious fact to become a reality is that the resources of the will be exploited to their fullest potential. Even though terms such as “master morality,” “individualism,” and “subjective” play a large role in describing how reality is parsed up in the theory of the “will to power,” the world ordered according to the demands of the principle of the will is actually rigidly hierarchical, and distributed on a scalar magnitude. The efficacy of the will manifests in the degree of independence seized upon by the individual, and accordingly, when there is an individual possessing a powerful will, there is likely to be far greater numbers of subordinate wills beneath him; and beneath these subordinate wills… &c. The hierarchy that arranges itself according to degrees of power springs from the internal source of the will of the individual person, rather than from without, as is the case in a hierarchy that begins with God at the top, and continues in a descending order with all less perfect, or less divine beings, occupying their respective, untransgressable positions in relation to God.

For Nietzsche, nihilism is a negatively idealistic, decadent dead-end, and he has no illusions about the destiny of cultures and moralities that grow out of views of the world where the belief in a “beyond” persistently diminishes the value of the world, and where egalitarian envy of the strong crushes the exceptional man to elevate the mediocrity. According to Nietzsche, the mores, laws, and truths of man in the post-Classical era are nothing more than expressions of servile weakness stemming from an institution-based sublimation of the “will to power.” The state of civilization post the imperium Romanum represents a reversal of the power structure that built and preserved Antiquity for millennia due to the fact that the slave has enviously usurped, and thus corrupted, the virtues of the master; as a result, the weak now dominate the strong:

the imperium Romanum… [was] not buried overnight by a natural catastrophe, not trampled down by Teutons and other buffaloes, but ruined by cunning, stealthy, invisible, anemic vampires [i.e., the early Christians]. Not vanquished — merely drained.”22

The means by which Nietzsche seeks to overcome the nihilism inherent in the religious values is by reinventing (what he takes to be) the bedrock of the secular values of Antiquity — nobility, bravery, and power — for the modern world. The creation of values in accord with the demands of the “will to power” is Nietzsche’s answer to how nihilism is ultimately overcome, and this conception provides at least a provisional structure for the framework of secularized morality that he envisages. The advent of Nietzsche’s Romanesque “overman” signifies the time when the last shadow of an illusory God on the cave wall has been blighted out, and when what made the men of Antiquity great is successfully reinstated. This is achieved by redefining how the standard for the legitimacy of any given thing is defined — God is replaced by the “will to power, ” and the individual is the sole arbiter of what is harmful or beneficial to him; and what is harmful or beneficial is always decided in relation to his will’s limitless desire for the acquisition of power. The relation of the individual man to God, insofar as morality is concerned, is not a reciprocal relation; man can adhere, or not adhere to the dictates of the moral law because the moral law is not his own construct, and lies outside of his power to change; Nietzsche’s conception of the “will to power,” by comparison, is circular — the antecedent, will, always implies the consequent, power. As Nietzsche has it, God, as the foundation of the moral law, ought to be rejected because the demands of the moral law are always in opposition to the demands of the will; thus, the demands of the moral law can never actually be instantiated or fulfilled, whereas the demands of the will (for the self) is most easily known thing in the world. For Nietzsche, there is no precedent for holding the Christian values of charity, pity, and humility over and above the will’s insatiable desire for power, when charity, pity, and humility ostensibly contradict what precisely constitutes the “character of existence.” Any other basis, besides power, upon which values are created (or have been hitherto created), is simply a corruption of the will’s active principle. The “will to power” is not a rational process of thought that aims toward the discovery of truth; rather, the “will to power” is a pure act of creation, or affirmation — it is the willing of truth: “truth is… something that must be created, and that gives a name to a process, or rather a will to overcome… as a process ad infinitum, an active determining — not a becoming conscious of something that is in itself firm and determined…”23

To be in accord with the nature of the will, man must become the rule giver to himself, for the will cannot abide outside rules imposed on its archaic desire for power. The will of the self-legislating, self-overcoming individualist (i.e., Nietzsche’s “overman,” Ubermensch) is always a subjective center unto itself. The ideals generated out of this radical individualism are at all times, and all ways, a fluctuating, organic creation guided solely by the will’s desire for power. Aristotle refers the type of men who are their own masters as megalopsychia, or the man who possesses greatness of soul. Such ones as these are Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, and Nietzsche’s “overman,” viz., they who give to themselves their own rules, their own morals, and their own ideals. This is not to say that megalopsychia lives in open defiance of all laws that exist outside of, or in spite of their nature, or simply cannot abide any law; rather, the rules such severe individualists give themselves are part and parcel of their own nature, and accord with the order of nature to the same degree as the rules guiding the slave, the incontinent man, or the self-deceiver are in violation of the order of nature:

Therefore if, as they say, men become gods by excess of virtue, of this kind must evidently be the state opposed to the brutish state; for a brute has no vice or virtue, so neither has a god; his state is higher than virtue, and that of a brute is a different kind of state from vice.24

Given the nature of the will as Nietzsche conceives of it, the expectation of the advent of a Promethean figure (his obscurely drawn “overman”) is consistent with the demands made by the theory of the “will to power,” but the flesh-and-blood manifestation of the Promethean “overman” follows neither of necessity, nor teleologically from Nietzsche’s conception of the “will to power.” In Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brother’s Karamazov, the dawn of the Promethean spirit in man is caricatured, ironically, by the Devil himself; and the pastiche is even carried using terminology that anticipates Nietzsche’s theory of the “will to power,” and his vision of the advent of the “overman”:

I maintain that nothing need be destroyed, that we only need to destroy the idea of God in man, that’s how we have to set to work… As soon as all men have denied God — and I believe that period, analogous with geological periods, will come to pass — the old conception of the universe will fall of itself without cannibalism, and what’s more, the old morality, and everything will begin anew. Men will unite to take from life all it can give, but only for joy and happiness in the present world. Man will be lifted up with a spirit of divine Titanic pride and the man-god will appear. From hour to hour extending his conquest of nature infinitely by his will and his science, man will feel such lofty joy from hour to hour in doing it that it will make up for all his old dreams of the joys of heaven. Everyone will know that he is mortal and will accept death proudly and serenely like a god. His pride will teach him that its useless for him to repine at life’s being a moment, and he will love his brother without need of reward… What’s more, even if this period never comes to pass, since there is anyway no God and no immorality, the new man may well become the man-god, even if he is the only one in the world, and promoted to his new position, he may lightheartedly overstep the barriers of the old morality of the slave-man, if necessary. There is no law for God. Where God stands, the place is holy. Where I stand will at once be the foremost place… “all things are lawful” and that’s the end of it!25

It must be borne in mind that neither the Promethean efforts of the Grand Inquisitor, nor Ivan’s rejection of God on the grounds that God explains nothing about why man must suffer and experience evil, represent Dostoevsky’s final answer to the question of whether God is necessary for man’s moral life and thought. In fact, his portrait of nihilism serves to implicitly show precisely why God is necessary — that man without God is but one step away from cannibalism and brutality. For Dostoevsky, the possibility of man successfully propping up traditional or conventional morality with “humanistic” atheism, purified of the anthropomorphisms of religion, is an absurdity. That man is “weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious” is a given to Dostoevsky. Man is no Prometheus; rather, he is in constant need of aid coming from outside of him. If divine law, or the ever-present eye of god, is done away with, man lives in rebellion from all that has hitherto preserved him. Dostoevsky admits that human nature is guided largely by its own inherent baseness, but the added observation that man is naturally rebellious provides the key to understanding Ivan’s atheism: the instinct towards baseness is the instinct to rebel (this instinct is best observed in the self-interestedness of children). Incontinence, or self-indulgence, is the foundation for Dostoevsky’s conception of nihilism, which is the license to do anything, so long as the consequences (i.e., under positive law, &c.) can be circumvented. The totalitarian authority of the Catholic Church, as it is portrayed in the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” is not in place to prevent people from “sinning” — rather, the state’s only purpose is to subdue men by subduing their conscience, and this is accomplished by taking away their freedom and accountability (freedom and accountability mutually imply one another), which the people (because they are as nothing more than children) willingly alienate to an authority.

Ivan’s rejection of the eschatological conception that God will bring about an harmony between good and evil at some distant point in time does not necessitate that man must undertake the Herculean project of founding a universal state for the institutionalization of happiness. Rejecting God on the grounds that He is capricious in His decrees and inscrutable in His designs does not necessitate that man take steps in any particular direction, or adopt any particular ideology to compensate for his palpable dilemma. Indeed, once God is done away with, an unlimited number of radical possibilities emerge. One point is certain: once the divine order has been rejected (whatever the grounds for rejecting it may be), the notions of how good is discerned from evil, and how true is discerned from false, can be redefined according to an arbitrary standard, or thrown out altogether.

Dostoevsky’s portrayal of man’s attempt to create moral norms without God in The Brother’s Karamazov represents an ironic parable against man’s egotism, vanity, and brutality, while Nietzsche’s presentation of the “will to power” as an endless “becoming” represents man’s vanity, egotism, and brutality apotheosized to the status of the highest values. Nietzsche holds that a wholly secularized culture will be born out of the ashes of nihilistic, or traditional religious values, with his visionary “overman” as its image and embodiment. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, holds that it is not within man’s power to overcome nihilism — without God, man will inevitably destroy himself. The figure of the Grand Inquisitor represents the failure of man’s attempt to enforce moral standards without God. Under the rule of the Grand Inquisitor, the penal institution replaces man’s conscience as the only deterrent against immoral or criminal behavior. Nietzsche predicts that universal madness (lying just under the surface) will break out when the fact that God is dead is finally understood in its totality. The sooner the gravity of this fact is understood and dealt with, the sooner man can realize the truth of his potential as a “will to power.” The curious fact behind the Nietzschean view of things is that it can only provide the most superficial account of the “character of existence” — there is nothing novel in asserting that every civilization is built out of human tears and misery (e.g., Hegel famously refers to history as a slaughter bench) — but that does not account for the “why,” which nihilism cannot answer. Ivan asks to what end is mankind served by God’s plan for bringing about a harmony between god and evil in some distant future while meanwhile mankind suffers inexplicably? Ivan’s question is far more compelling in terms of the practical function of morality because it addresses the problem of evil and suffering in terms of how mankind experiences it, and does so without any valorization of evil and suffering that ends with such a phrase as, “whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.” Because the exploitation and “overpowering of what is alien and weaker”26 is a natural consequence of strength passes unquestioned as a self-evident rule, Nietzsche’s thought on the reality of suffering fails to account for why anyone or anything suffers at all, or why the problem of evil was ever a valid moral question in the first place. He gives us an account of the benefits of suffering which no man feels, and confounds common experience by promoting a conception of wanton power that appeals wholly to the instinct while it neglects the mind, and provides no new insight into the inexplicable adaptation of man to the world that man lives in and communally experiences.

1 Cf., Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann (Random House, Vintage Books Edition, New York, 1974): “… in nature it is not conditions of distress that are dominant but overflow and squandering, even to the point of absurdity. The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the will to life. The great and small struggle always revolves around superiority, around growth and expansion, around power — in accordance with the will to power which is the will to life” p. 293, aphorism 349. After the first reference, all references hereafter to the following works of Nietzsche are (deriving the abbreviation from the title of the English edition) abbreviated as: The Will to Power is WTP; The Gay Science is abbreviated as GS; The Antichrist is abbreviated as A; Beyond Good and Evil is abbreviated as BGE.

2 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett (Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, 1995): “… I tell you [says Ivan] that I accept God simply. But you must note this: if God exists and He really did create the world… He created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind with the conception of only three dimensions in space” p. 217. All references hereafter to Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov, are abbreviated as BK.

3 Ibid., p. 220.

4 For a parallel illustration of man’s responsibility after the work of Christ for being his own moral guide, sans the guidance of the Mosaic Law, witness Adam’s (in Milton’s Paradise Lost) indictment of God just after the Fall:

O fleeting joys

Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes!

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me, or here place

In this delicious garden? As my will

Concurred not to my being, it were but right

And equal to reduce me to my dust,

Desirous to resign, and render back

All I received, unable to perform

Thy terms too hard, by which I was to hold

The good I sought not. To the loss of that,

Sufficient penalty, why hast thou added

The sense of endless woes? Inexplicable

Thy justice seems; yet to say truth, too late

I thus contest; then should have been refused

Those terms whatever, when they were proposed… (bk. X, ln. 741-757)

5 BK, pp. 240-241.

6 BK, p. 234.

7 BK, pp. 234-235. The following quotation, compared with the formulation made by the Grand Inquisitor above, makes clear the contrast between Dostoevsky and Nietzsche’s conceptions of Christian values: “I do not like at all about that Jesus of Nazareth or His apostle Paul that they put so many ideas into the heads of little people, as if their [Christ or Paul’s] modest virtues were of any consequence. We have had to pay too dearly for it: for they have brought the more noble qualities of virtue and man into ill repute; they have set the bad conscience of the noble soul against its self-sufficiency; they have led astray, to the point of self-destruction, the brave, magnanimous, daring, excessive inclinations of the strong soul —“ WTP, p. 122, aphorism 205.

8 Matthew 5:17.

9 BK, p. 237.

10 BK, p. 241.

11 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (Random House, Vintage Books Edition, New York, 1968), p. 16.

12 WTP, p. 151-52, aphorism 853, I.

13 Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, translated by Hugh Tomlinson (Colombia University Press, New York, 1983), p. 171.

14 WTP, p. 18.

15 WTP, p. 19.

16 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist,in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. by Walter Kaufmann (Penguin Books, New York, 1982), aphorism # 18, pp. 585-586. Italics in the original.

17 GS, p. 73, aphorism # 1

18 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Walter Kaufmann (Vintage Books, New York, 1989), p. 203

19 WTP, p. 373, aphorism 702.

20 GS, p. 73, aphorism 1.

21 BK, p 223.

22 A, p 651, aphorism # 59.

23 WTP, p. 298.

24 Richard Mckeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (Random House, New York, 1941), 1145a23-27: p. 1037

25 BK, p. 609.

26 BGE: “’Exploitation” does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society: it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequent of the will to power, which is after all the will to life” p. 203. Italics in original.   

The Demise of the Modern Intellectual

Picture 429In his work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim asserts that “educational institutions are capable of communicating the truly rational foundation for morality in the wake of the decline of religion.” Whether in the famed schools of Plato and Aristotle, or the indispensable monastic universities of the Middle Ages, the West’s vast reservoir of intellectual traditions and discoveries have been safeguarded and transmitted down through time by one form or another of the Ancient academy.

While the respective cultures of the Ancient Greeks and the Medieval Europeans are obviously distinguishable through different critical lenses, the Western intellectual shibboleth, carried for centuries, ushered in a rigorous and catholic approach to learning that our modern academies   have either failed to uphold or to match. What can account for the increasingly inhibited attitude towards knowledge and education in modern American universities?  When we examine the recent introduction into classrooms of Marxist and socialist rhetoric, the cult of tolerance, and cultural and gender studies, it is plain to see that our modern standards of knowledge and information exist in supremely awkward relation to the conception of liberal studies realized in the first European universities in the Middle Ages.

To better understand the intellectually segregated environment of the modern American university, we can apply Durkheim’s general analysis of why breakdowns in social institutions occur in what he refers to as “common culture.”.  American readers of Durkheim cannot fail to get a sense that a deep understanding of social structures emerges from his conception of a collective social consciousness, even if we seem to be dispossessed of the means of achieving such a rounded view of the world for ourselves. Durkheim’s conception of what it means for a group of people to possess a “common culture” presupposes the long-standing distinctions between human and animal societies, between high and low culture, and recognizes the necessity of communal social mores, conventions, and institutions. The cultural treasures of the West have been denounced and purposely undermined by academic propagandists as being the products of ideological class coercion, racial and gender exclusion, and “Eurocentricity.” However, it is plain that “multicultural” curriculums do not wish to simply purify the inherited cultural traditions of the West, but wish instead to eradicate particular social and political attitudes that do not conform to their prejudices. The body of texts that communicate the values, ideals, and history of a culture are not disposable resources; and yet it is precisely the opposite notion that now masquerades as education at every level. At the risk of oversimplifying the point, what American literature professor can supply a coherent argument for their continuing to assign readings from Shakespeare, George Eliot, or Plato to students, rather than newspapers, magazines, or blogs on the internet? How many students can supply a coherent argument for why they should read at all?

A common culture, as Durkheim understands it, cannot be imparted as a free choice among alternatives, because common culture cannot be divorced or isolated from the political life of a society.  A recent article on internet communities as a third species of Durkheimian society misses the point of what human culture signifies for Durkheim, namely “universal” “human values and an historical community of sentiment.  The ineffable dynamics of a commonly held system of values does not translate into binary code– what passes for “internet communities” is mechanical anonymity paradoxically functioning as a simulacrum of organic public forums. That all human societies are historically embedded organisms is what makes simulacrums of communities temporarily arresting as “signs,” but ultimately vacuous in the absence of a tangible “signified.”

Durkheim tells us that the members of a common culture define themselves in relation to what is venerated and preserved in a given culture, such as a culture’s religious and legal institutions. Once these institutions are razed by external or internal exigencies, organizational deficiencies and failures are inevitable: “…commonly held beliefs and practices are only active when partaken by many. A man cannot retain them any length of time by a purely personal effort.” In other words, a common culture is not maintained by a “hands-off” approach. The preservation of culture requires ingrained assumptions that are arguably arbitrary, fictitious, and unreal. Common culture operates like great dramatic theater, in the respect that an audience’s suspension of disbelief toward the action on the stage never veers off entirely into insular fantasy, but traces a path from representation back to reality (e.g., Aristotle’s theory of katharsis) through the medium of a shared spectacle. The pluralistic conception of society as a department store, where one shops for the most appealing and desirable identity, dates back to Plato’s Republic, and homogenized pluralism has largely replaced habituation into the social order in America, as well as replaced the rites of passage that mark the stages of individual social responsibility. The Ancients— our cultural and intellectual forbearers— were able to be prodigious in their assimilative energies, and vast in their interpretive powers because they possessed what Americans have forfeited, namely a common culture. In the latter 1960’s, many American academics began to surrender their allegiance to the notion of common culture in the wake of the first wave of French New Left Theorists, and have, at the beginning of the 21st century, all but severed the last tie to the idea of American culture functioning as a melting pot. In place of the melting pot, some groups of liberal academics have substituted a sort of pseudo-cultural “newspeak” that either fosters indifference to social outcomes, or wages a war of subversion for its own sake.

Ideologically minded American academies have, for the most part, no abiding interest in asserting or defending the Durkheimian, or any culturally conservative vision of social life, and their students reflect the laissez-faire attitude of their professors. Theory is elevated above praxis; “tolerance” above a robust ethical sense; and unconditional (as well as unconditioned) personal freedom above duty to a common good. The public intellectual in America has been entirely replaced by the growing influence of iconoclastic academic theorists and ideologues that speak a language that mocks ordinary human meaning, and imparts to students a sense of homelessness and isolation, rather than belonging. Durkheim’s conception of “anomic suicide” asserts that when “society’s influence is lacking in the basically individual passions,” desires and drives lack an identifiable object, “thus leaving them [the individual passions] without a check-rein.” The converse of the conditions for anomic suicide might be stated in the following terms: individual persons desire membership; but membership exists only among those who do not desire it; and those who have no positive conception of membership— in other words, those who belong— presuppose that having membership in a common culture is a way of existence that is simply inscribed into the fabric of nature. It is common culture— the cult of the tribe— that allows for unmediated access to the ethical vision of man, and helps to avoid conditions that lead to outbreaks of anomic and cultural suicide.

There is a large consensus in American academia that prohibitions and punishes “academic dishonesty”— dishonesty meaning such things as plagiarism and “cheating” in any detectable form. This ironic prohibition is leveled at students by administrators and professors who nevertheless advance students who can neither read nor write, nor think critically or respond effectively to arguments.  But the same students can preach to any passerby a full set of sermons that somehow mirror the liberal political consensus dollar for dollar.  The student market capital for memorization is enormous, yet impoverished and shivering when it comes to the most elementary analysis of, for instance, why we must loathe and denounce Columbus Day every year.

How such an approach to education can be squared with any semblance of a vision of common culture defies the terms upon which a common culture is built on, or sustained in the world. The absent-minded professor has been transmogrified into honest Iago, the instigator of anxiety and paranoia in those who are most ill-equipped (i.e., the young) to judge between the empty verbiage of leftist propagandists, and works of profound human interest.

While mental laziness may have its reward in a high grade point average, there is no argument that can support the fruits born of ignorance and prejudice. I would maintain there is nothing more dishonest to the office of administrator or professor than to draw a comfortable salary, churn out commentaries on commentaries, and attend conferences, while consistently lowering or violating educational standards to “meet the needs of students.” Educational institutions are an arguably vital component to the well-being of a society; when resources dry up or go to waste, famine sets in. While the responsibility for the corruption and exclusion of the Western intellectual tradition in American universities falls squarely on the shoulders of postmodern theorists, queer theorists, and multiculturalists, the ultimate fate of the magnanimous Western intellectual tradition awaits the judgment of those future generations not yet indoctrinated into the cult of the modern American academy.

By Our Own Quickening Power: The Devil, Descartes & Milton On The Question of Theodicy

In the long tradition of Western philosophy, the question of by what means, if at all, do humans comprehend the ways and designs of God, dates back to the earliest efforts of the pre-Socratic philosophers. The later tradition of Christian philosophical inquiry, which commenced with the writings of Origen in the 2nd century A.D., carried with it from its inception the burden of the question of theodicy, and expanded the nature of the investigation to account for the agonistic struggle for the souls of men between an infinite, providential God and His adversary, the fallen angel called Satan.

One subcategory within the general issues investigated by the question of theodicy examines one of the oldest questions facing man’s experience of the world: whence evil? As the antithesis of good, evil is necessarily the privation, negation, or deception of the good. To rephrase the question, because I am afflicted in some way, or deceived, God cannot be good; were God good, I would not be afflicted or deceived; hence, my being subject to affliction and deception contradicts God’s goodness, and implies that if it was an omnipotent and benevolent God who created me, I would not be afflicted or deceived in any way. A multitude of responses have been advanced to elucidate the question and to absolve or convict God of responsibility for the evils that dominate human life, and in reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, we come upon a late contribution to the argument, and in a poeticized rather than a systematic or analytic form.1 The particular concern in Milton’s poem is with accounting for the origins of things, be it the creation, evil, rationality, man— in short, he is concerned with accounting for not only the origin of all things, but with their respective destinies as well. As a Christian poet, Milton holds that only the proper understanding of the eternally existing foundation of things facilitates true human knowledge, and only with this proper understanding can life be rightly lived; all else is a sinful perversion and corruption of the designs and intentions of God. Hence, the light of God’s revelation gives assistance to the fallen human understanding only to a certain and limited extent; knowledge of divine truth must be actively sought, insofar as it remains unrevealed in particular practical matters and cases in human experience. With the limited battery of tools that revealed knowledge provides as a guide for conduct, the cognitive faculties of the will and reason can either act as aides for the understanding and for proper conduct, which ultimately leads souls to God, or as misguided vehicles for justifying sinful and irrational behavior, which lands unrepentant souls in the immortal fry of perdition. The faculty of reason, or what Milton calls “right reason” (ratio recta) is the vehicle for coming to a proper and general— which is not to say a full— understanding of why God created the kosmos, why God allowed the fall of man to occur, and the means by which God will redeem humankind from the consequences of original sin. While man only through the light of revelation knows all of the latter truths, according to Milton, the right exercise of the faculty of reason exclusively coincides with a sincere belief in the truths of faith. According to Milton, the truths of reason and the truths of faith are not mutually exclusive epistemic categories; they are, in fact, two sides of the same epistemological coin.

While Milton’s conception of theodicy in Paradise Lost has no doubt been explored from many angles by many commentators, one side note of interest lies in the similarity between how the question of the origin of conscious beings is explored in Milton’s characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost, and also in Descartes hypothetical “evil genius” (deus deceptor) from the Second and Third Meditations. Satan’s argument for self-creation in book five of Paradise Lost bears a strong, though likely inadvertent correspondence to the fallacious logic of the argument for self-creation employed by Descartes in his Meditations. Descartes was the “father” of modern philosophy in the sense that mind, or the content of mind takes precedence over the fallible operations of the senses. Cartesian philosophical idealism does not have a direct parallel to Milton’s conception of rationality and the freedom of the will, yet Milton is arguably a philosophical idealist in the same sense as Descartes, in terms of the priority of reason over the data or content of sensory experience.

Milton’s idealism, as well as Descartes’, is evident in the comparison of the two respective arguments for self-creation. The philosophical thrust of these arguments is contained in the philosophical question of theodicy, which is that God, whatever His purposes or designs might represent to human consciousness, is ultimately incomprehensible in His purpose for allowing evil (Milton) and error (Descartes) to actively impair man’s ability to reason, and thus come to knowledge of the truth. Under these conditions, theodicy is either impossible, or there is no such thing as a consistent theodicy. The faculty of reason, or what Milton calls “right reason” (ratio recta) is the vehicle for coming to a proper and general— which is not to say a full— understanding of why God created the kosmos, why God allowed the fall of man to occur, and the means by which God will redeem humankind from the consequences of original sin.

In the First Meditation, Descartes introduces the hypothesis of the deus deceptor in order to push the limits of skepticism further than have Sextus Empiricus and all previous philosophical skeptics, including Montaigne and Pierre Bayle:

And yet firmly rooted in my mind is the longstanding opinion that there is an omnipotent God who made me the kind of creature that I am. How do I know that He has not brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the same time ensuring that all these things appear to me to exist just as they do now? What is more, because I sometimes believe that others go astray where they think they have the most perfect knowledge, may I similarly go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square… But perhaps God would not have allowed me to be deceived in this way because He is said to be supremely good. But if it were inconsistent with His goodness to have created me such that I am deceived all the time, it would seem equally foreign to His goodness to allow me to be deceived even occasionally; yet this last assertion cannot be made.2

Note that the structure of the second part of the hypothesis of the deus deceptor resembles the famous Epicurean argument: because there is evil, then God is either evil or impotent or both. Descartes’ argument is analogous: because I have a nature which sometimes deceives me, God is either evil or impotent or both. In other words, the fact that I have a nature subject to deception is proof that God did not create me.3 One notable fact is that in Paradise Lost, neither Adam nor Eve question how they originated,4 whereas Satan, in book five, argues that since none of the fallen angels, including himself, recalls being created, if follows that, “We know no time when we were not as now;/Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised/By our own quickening power…”5 The argument for self-creation questions the existence of God, and from this it follows that Satan’s adversary is not an omnipotent and benevolent God at all, but a demiurge imposter who has set himself up as a tyrant. Accordingly, Satan and the fallen angels have just as much right to heaven as the imposter posing as God. In similar fashion, in the Third Meditation, Descartes inquires as to whether or not the idea of a being more perfect than himself must necessarily proceed from some being which is in reality more perfect, and examines the possibility of whether he himself, who has such an idea of a more perfect being, could exist if no such being existed:

For whom, in that case, would I derive my existence? From myself, presumably, or from my parents, or from some beings less perfect than God… Yet if I derived my existence from myself, then I should neither doubt nor want, nor lack anything at all; for I should have given myself all the perfections of which I have any idea, and thus I should myself be God… And if I had derived my existence from myself, which is a greater achievement [than to emerge out of nothing], I should certainly not have denied myself the knowledge in question [i.e., the knowledge of the many things of which he is ignorant, such as his origin]…

The logic of the argument for self-creation mirrors not only the terrifying logic of the deus deceptor, in which all knowledge is made absurd and impossible, but also the perverted logic of Milton’s Satan, where all manifestations of God’s goodness are inverted so as to seem absurd and unjust. If we consider Milton’s invocation to Book III in light of the question of the source of things— be it creation, revelation, Christian epic poetry, then the fear that the poem may well be nothing more than a self-created fantasy becomes apparent:

Thee I revisit now with bolder wing,

Escap’t the Stygian Pool, though long detain’d

In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight

Through utter and through middle darkness borne

With other notes than the Orphean Lyre

I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,

Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down

The dark descent, and up to reascend,

Though hard and rare…6

Milton distinguishes his source from that other than Satan, who had proclaimed himself in Book II as “Alone, and without guide,”7 though by the ninth book, Milton seems less certain that an appeal to the muse will procure the inspiration that he relies on: “If answerable style I can obtain/ Of my Celestial Patroness,” he will succeed, but not “if all be mine,/ Not Hers who brings it nightly to my ear.”8 This echoes, albeit in a different mood, Satan’s fatuous speculation that he and the other angels were “self-begot, self-raised/By our own quickening power.”

In book seven of Paradise Lost, God speaks illuminatingly of his own character:

Though I uncircumscribed myself retire,

And put not forth my goodness, which is free

To act or not, necessity and chance

Approach not me, and what I will is fate.9

The philosophical distinction between necessity, fate, and foreknowledge is complex, and need not detain us. Milton’s project of justifying the ways of God to men becomes less relevant and less meaningful when the answer to the question of why is such-and-such state of affairs so receives the answer “because men and angels have chosen,” which is tantamount to something to the effect that “it is so because it is so.” In Milton’s cosmology, evil and good are ultimately of a piece because God, from which these two principles are derived, is Himself a unity; in the end, evil is good because the source of all things is good, and what seems like needless suffering (good as evil) is, in the end, necessary for immutable goodness to remain self-identical and infinitely free.

In his book Christian Doctrine, Milton writes that, “From the concept of freedom… all idea of necessity must be removed… The matter or object of the divine plan was that angels and men alike should be endowed with free will, so that they could either fall or not fall.”10 In terms of Milton’s conception of theodicy, such an a posteriori case for the freedom of the will is weak when the breakdown of the rational faculty seems to be part and parcel of the human condition. All men inevitably go wrong in thought, word and deed, and no matter how efficaciously the intellect is exercised, men and angel’s willful choice to fall or not fall cannot be considered a genuine choice extended by a benevolent and omnipotent God. Yet, according to Milton, “divine foreknowledge can no more affect the action of free agents than can human foreknowledge… because in both cases the foreknowledge is within the mind of the foreknower and has no external effect.”11 How can Milton reconcile the “free agent” who exists under the crippling curse imposed under Adam and Eve’s first disobedience, with the passive foreknowledge of God that redeems men according to merit rather than predestination?

As the presence of a rational faculty, which is tied directly to the freedom of the will in men, questions the justness of paralyzed divine foreknowledge, so too does the respective Miltonic and Cartesian arguments for self-creation question the existence of God, as well as the justness of God’s actions. Yet what both arguments fail to account for, as both Milton and Descartes were aware, is the palpable limitation in the exercise of cognitive faculties that finite entities such as Satan, the res cogitans of the Meditations, and normal human beings necessarily experience: thinking is not tantamount to creating, nor is the flawed assumption that to be unable to recall a time before one existed mean that either one is the creator of oneself, or that one has always existed. The claim of self-creation made by the deus deceptor and Satan, respectively, and the difficulty with which man apprehends goodness and truth in a world that has come under the dominion of sin and death,points to the origin of error or evil, insofar as it is a byproduct of a perversion of Milton’s principle of right reason, and the Cartesian principle of the light of nature. Under these conditions, the faculty of reason, like the freedom of the will, mirrors the self-identical nature of the divine mind in some respects, rather than the indeterminacy of the way in which the material world is ordered.

In his Meditations, Descartes argues that the data apprehended by the senses are an obstacle to knowing the truth, and that only the rational mind, which inspects the a priori contents of mind, can apprehend the indubitable truth of the existence of God the creator and the immortality of the soul. While there is an apocalyptic element to Descartes’ thinking, Milton’s ontologically ambiguous portrayal of Eden in Paradise Lost presents the reader, on the one hand, with a picture of the most perfect habitation for man; and on the other, Eden as a wilderness that ever exists in a perilous balance between self-generating over-ripeness and rapid decomposition. In the brief period after man was created by God, and before his fall, the question of the reliability of the rational faculty (intellect plus will) as an effective means for coming to an understanding of truth comes under an ironic scrutiny in Milton’s portrayal of Adam and Eve as inexpert stewards and tenders of paradise:

forth came the human pair…

Then commune how that day they best may ply

Their growing work; for much their work outgrew

The hands dispatch of two gardening so wide…12

Because Eden in “One night or two with wanton growth derides,/ Tending to wild,”13 Eve argues that “till more hands/ Aid us, the work under our labor grows,”14 and thus she enjoins Adam to divide their labors in order that their efforts may be better rewarded. As any good capitalist would argue, the division of labor makes perfect rational sense; yet in the antediluvian world of Eden, rational argument must either contend with or align itself to the content of revelation, as in the case of the angel’s warning to Adam that he and Eve must not separate, unless she unduly expose herself to the wiles and seductions of the serpent. Eve’s argument that she and Adam divide their labors is in accord with reason, but out of sync with the content of revelation; the question then arises, precisely where does free and rational human choice intersect with the infinite will and foregone decrees of God?

While the rationally underprovided author of this paper can offer no settlement, it is clear that in terms of human action, for a decision to be made, one has to be attracted or repulsed by the good or evil that presents itself. Objects attract the will, but not when objects are identical, as in the case of “Burdian’s ass.”15 In his dialogue Crito, Plato argues that men are incapable of doing evil because they cannot do good, thus everything men do is by chance rather than method or intentionally; hence the necessity for the iron hand of the Philosopher King to rule men who cannot rule themselves. Yet men do ostensibly know what is right and wrong, whether it is according to societal norms or natural law, and Christians are refreshingly commonsensical in their explanation of the moral distinction of good and evil as the result of original sin— knowing good and evil comes through the everyday experience of being either wronged or benefited, and then acting in accordance with the circumstance. The Greeks gave a very rational answer to why men pursue what they pursue, but it is morally vacuous, commands a totalitarian solution, and runs counter to everyday experience. So why, according to philosophical idealists Milton and Descartes, do we pursue evil when we know the good? The answer, in both cases, is that the contents of our perceptions deceive us, and only reason is a sure and able guide between one choice and another, between sin and redemption. So, to reiterate the question posed above, i.e., how fit are the recipients of reason to employ the faculty of reason, it should be pointed out that the question presupposes the human faculty16 of reason as a perfection in the human genus; but it is clear that the rational faculty, in a fallen world, is far from perfect or reliable for performing the critical judgments necessary to be constantly in accord with right reason, or otherwise avoid error. If we add sense perception into the will/intellect equation, the faculty of reason must either stand on its own (per se), operating without any influence from the senses, and neither the will or intellect goes wrong; or, reason, operating with the senses, is constantly assailed with misleading and erroneous sense data, thus impeding the will and intellect with an admixture of falsehood, which may even be mistaken betimes for truth. Reason does not supply foresight, and thus Eve’s decision to divide the share of labor with Adam was indeed rational; and yet without the apocalyptic knowledge possessed only of Adam to avoid the consequences of dividing their labor, it was impossible for Eve, though she be rational, to be cogitatively in accord with Milton’s conception of right reason.

Where is the question of theodicy in all of this? With the popularization of Newtonian, and later, Cartesian mechanistic physics, the gloriously romantic universe of Milton, that set no bounds to the imagination of man as it played over space and time, was swept away. In its stead reigned a conception of space that was identified with the realm of geometry, and time with the continuity of number. Instead of the miraculous creative and conserving powers of God, the ultimate elements of the kosmos, in a geometric sense, were reduced to portions of space. As Descartes famously announces in his Fourth Meditation, the Aristotelian search for final causes in the natural sciences and physics is useless to any understanding of immediate, or efficient cause. Asking the question of why, in the ultimate sense, is such-and-such state of affairs the way it is, is devoid of content in the face of the practical question of how is such-and-such a state of affairs the way it is. While Milton and Descartes were in relative intellectual agreement regarding the necessity for asserting the freedom of the will over any theological or philosophical formulation that asserted the bondage of the will, they were out of agreement in terms of whether or not the kosmos operated according to mechanistic laws. Milton was a theo-philosophical contemplative in terms of his investment in the question of theodicy and right reason, yet he was also a hard-line consequentialist ethically. Safeguarded, then, somewhere between action and contemplation lies Milton’s conception of man and God, and his conception of man’s relation to God. In both Milton and Descartes’ respective writings, preserved is a version of man’s moral nature that is structured by a formal conception of God that, at least superficially, is built on the evidences of Scripture. Such a conception of God retains (much according to the philosophical tradition) the monotheistic attributes of omnipotence, omni-benevolence, and infinity, among others. As opposed tothe philosophes naturelles of the latter 17th and 18th centuries, neither Milton nor Descartes ever abandoned the question of theodicy for the life-raft of materialism and fictionalized historicism, maintaining until the end, in their several ways, that morality cannot be cashed out in mechanical terms any more than beauty or truth.

1 Cf. Paradise Lost, V: 99: Best image of myself and dearer half,

The trouble of thy thoughts this night in sleep

Affects me equally; nor can I like

This uncouth dream, of evil sprung I fear;

Yet evil whence? In thee can harbor none,

Created pure. But know that in the soul

Are many lesser faculties that serve

Reason as chief…

All references to Milton hereafter are cited as PL, and otherwise as the respective work quoted in the text body.

2 Descartes, Meditations,AT VII, 21; CSM II, p. 14.

3 To expand the argument, if God were evil, he could not create, since evil is a privation of good; and because the act of creation is a perfection, if God were evil, he would necessarily be impotent to create the kosmos; thus, neither the kosmos nor mankind could be the work of God.

4 Cf. PL, VIII: 250 ff: For man to tell how human life began

Is hard; for who himself beginning knew?…

But who I was, or where, or from what cause,

Knew not…

To which God replies : “Whom thou sought’st I am…”

“Author of all this thou seest

Above, or round about thee or beneath…

5 Ibid., V: 859-61.

6 Ibid., III: 13-21.

7 Ibid., II: 975.

8 Ibid., IX: 20-21.

9 Ibid., VII: 170-74.

10 Milton, Christian Doctrine, 1:iii.

11 Ibid.

12 PL, IX: 197, 201-203.

13 PL, IX: 211-12.

14 PL, IX: 207-8.

15 An ass find himself in a pasture with two identical bails of hay on either side of him; because there is no difference in quality or quantity between the two bails, the will of the ass is paralyzed, and he starves to death because he cannot choose betwixt them.

16 Human reason as opposed to God and angels, which are ontologically distinct, immutable, and, by degrees of perfection, more rational beings.