Hello again! It’s been another week full of exciting challenges here at Christendom. The semester is really ramping up, and we’re diving into all kinds of deep issues before we turn to midterms and papers in October.
First off, in literature we’ve been working our way through highlights of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It’s a collection of tales told by various characters on their way to Canterbury for a pilgrimage, written in Middle English verse. This is particularly exciting because it’s the first work we’ve gotten to read in literature classes that hasn’t had to be translated. Our edition has a modernized paraphrase on the facing pages, but Dr Reinhard declared on the first day that we wouldn’t be reading any modern English aloud in class, and so we learned to pronounce Middle English and read it that way. The language has certainly changed since then, but it’s similar enough that the meaning is usually clear, and the poetry has a rhyme scheme and rhythm that can’t be adapted to modern English very easily, so I’m glad we’ve been “forced” to read the original! We started with the Knight’s Tale, a story about two men who fall in love with the same lady and have to go through various trials and then battle for her hand. The tale has an appeal to almost anyone on the surface because it’s a chivalric romance, but it also explores philosophical questions about fate, destiny, fortune, and free will. The characters in it even refer to the philosophy of Boethius on numerous occasions, showing that Chaucer was writing for those who were educated and intended to convey more than one level of meaning. After the Knight’s Tale, we quickly moved through the Pardoner’s Tale and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, both interesting stories with underlying morals, but also displaying a lot of subtler characteristics. The Pardoner’s Tale is a warning against greed, drunkenness, and oath-swearing, but also uses the Pardoner himself to symbolize all human vices. Chaucer, through him, shows us what all our faults would look like if they were outwardly visible, so to speak. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a humorous story about chickens who discuss philosophy and medicine, but it also has undertones which seem to be Chaucer’s way of warning people of his time period to be watchful and not to speak out unnecessarily, since the political situation in those years was unstable and dangerous for people with strong opinions. Overall, Chaucer’s writing is extremely nuanced and full of symbolism, wit, and humor. It’s a shame we have to move through it as quickly as we do, but already I have a deep enough appreciation of Chaucer’s writing to get a general sense of how his style functioned, and also what his time period was like.
Speaking of time periods, in history we’ve been studying the Renaissance, which was a cultural movement that began in Italy around the 13th and 14th centuries and spread to other parts of Europe over time. It was essentially a rediscovery of classical literature, art, and architecture, and a movement to imitate them in the current time. This meant a massive cultural shift, which affected history for several centuries, and shaped much of what our world is like today. Philosophers, who had turned to Aristotle throughout the Middle Ages, now turned to other ancient thinkers, including Plato and Cicero. Rhetoric and eloquence were emphasized more than in ages past, and realism was emphasized in art. Proportions and mathematical perfection were desired in architecture, just as they had been in the Greco-Roman era, and the Gothic churches of the preceding centuries started to be shunned as barbaric and ugly. Learned society as a whole shifted toward thinking of people as individuals first and foremost, rather than focusing more on people as parts of a whole. An idea called humanism pervaded the new culture, in which man was seen as being so powerful and glorified that, in some people’s eyes, he could do anything. This was a difficult time for Christianity in some ways, because we Christians know that men aren’t all-powerful and we are heavily dependent on each other; Christian community often calls for humility and stepping aside from positions of authority to let the Church’s teachings reign. At the same time, however, lots of beautiful religious art, from paintings to cathedrals, arose from the classical revival. Just today we started getting into the political situation of England and France at this time, and discussing the Hundred Years’ War and its effects on western culture, from religion to politics to language. The whole time period is an interesting and dynamic one, and I’m excited to study more about it!
Lastly, in Political Science, we’re nearing the end of our studies of Aristotle, and about to begin Thomas Aquinas. In the last few books of Aristotle’s Politics which we’ve read, the philosopher has discussed all the various forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy, polity, democracy, oligarchy, and kingship – and the merits and weaknesses of each. He concludes that the best ideal government is the monarchy, which he defines as the rule of one man whose excellence surpasses all the others in the community. However, Aristotle realizes that there often isn’t such a man, and that other circumstances may make a monarchy unattainable, and so he says that the next best thing is an aristocracy (the rule of a few excellent men), and if that is unattainable then the best practically possible government is a polity or constitutional government, which is rule by the many who are wise, and who submit to the rule of stable law. The other three forms of government are what he considers the bad counterparts of these good types, in which the one, few, or many rule not for the common good but for their own interest. After discussing all of this, he details the type of geographical location, population, size, and layout the ideal polis, or city-state, should have. Aristotle likes to discuss ideals, but he also is careful to take into account human nature and the tendencies that the world has experienced in the past, so his view of politics in general is a pretty good balance of desirability and practicality. Still, he didn’t have the light of divine revelation, so some of his policies are known to us to be unjust, such as the exposing of deformed infants in order to keep the population to the right number, or the owning of slaves. This is why studying the views of Thomas Aquinas will be especially important, since he’ll bring in the Christian element to further perfect the classical ideas. Elsewhere, in the Ethics, Aristotle says that virtue lies in the mean between two extremes, so we can probably conclude that the “mean” of uniting reason with faith is the virtuous and most excellent way!
This week has inspired me to think a lot about the synthesis of pagan ideas and Christian morality, especially as manifested in the Renaissance, but also in our own time. In a way, Christendom College has kept a piece of the Renaissance alive, but making sure it’s the pro-Christian side of the Renaissance. We study Plato and Aristotle and Cicero, but perfect and fulfill them with Aquinas and Augustine and other great Christian thinkers. We use both faith and reason, since God made both for man’s good. It really is a formation of the whole mind and soul, developing both natural and supernatural gifts of all kinds. It also made me feel a little sad for all those philosophers who came so close to understanding Christian beliefs, but never had revelation. I’m grateful to live in the time I do now, since we have training for both reason and faith, and have plenty of great thinkers in both fields to build on, giving us the tools we need to be virtuous and well-balanced, and “Restore all things in Christ.”
And on that inspiring note, I’ll see you next week!