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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Anestis Keselopoulos on St Gregory Palamas

The second chapter of Anestis Keselopoulos’ book on St Gregory Palamas is devoted to what he calls the phenomenology of passions. He quotes from Gregory: ‘We have received the nous [mind] as a leader and self-governing king, but have made it instead the slave of irrational passions. We were honored with reason, but having made it the servant of passions, we have become now more dishonorable than the irrational beasts.’ Discussing Augustine’s view that all mankind sinned in the person of Adam, he quotes against it St Cyril of Alexandria on the Fall: ‘Therefore, nature became diseased with sin through the disobedience of one man, namely Adam: thus many were made sinners. It is not that they jointly transgressed through Adam at any time, but that they receive their nature from him, a nature that had fallen under the law of sin. ..Human nature in Adam became sick with corruption, and this the passions wormed their way into it.’ Keselopoulos comments: ‘The man who is enslaved to the passions and disobedient to God’s will, loses the divine adoption, becomes a slave to sin and ranks himself with the devil, the father of perdition…[W]hen St Gregory Palamas compares the demon-possessed with those who have willingly enslaved themselves to Satan, he finds the second group much more wretched than the first…This is why, according to Palamas, everybody feels sorry for and has mercy on those whose bodies are openly tempted and bothered by demons, whereas the murderer, the miser, the proud, the insolent, the disobedient, and generally whoever is enslaved to such passions, not only do not receive mercy, but are even hated by others.’

I expect to be travelling for a few weeks, and so postings may not be regular.

Notes on Genesis (xxxi) Noah gets drunk

‘So he drank of the wine and was drunk and naked in his house.’ (Gen 9:21)

The story of Noah getting drunk, being observed in his nakedness by his son Ham but having his modesty protected by his other sons Shem and Japeth, and on his return to sobriety cursing Ham’s son Canaan, is hard to fathom.  That such a righteous man could get drunk was a problem for the Fathers; Theodoret suggests that he was the first person to make wine and hence unaware of its effects, while Ephrem argues that he would not have been able to have drunk wine for the preceding six years, and so was easily tipped over the edge. It is not clear why it is the son of Ham rather than Ham himself  who was cursed; moreover, Ham is described as being Noah’s youngest son (9:24), thereby overthrowing the the pattern in Genesis of the youngest sibling being favoured, although elsewhere it is implied that he was not the youngest (9:18, 10:1). In such respects the story seems a little incoherent.

Yet in other ways it fits very neatly into the ongoing narrative of the Bible. Adam and Eve are given the job of tending and keeping a garden (Gen 2:15), and after leaving the garden Adam cultivates the ground (3:23); Cain is a tiller of the ground (4:2), and Noah a cultivator of the earth who plants a vineyard (9:20, Septuagint); the activities become steadily more complex. Ham’s conduct involved both seeing his father’s nakedness and doing something to him, presumably involving some sexual transgression (9:22, 24), and his descendants will be the Canaanites, enemies of the Chosen People as they occupy the Promised Land. Later in Genesis we hear of Lot’s daughters getting their father drunk and lying with him, the sons they conceived being named Moab and Ammon (19:30-38), who will also turn out to be enemies. In such ways the awkward story sits neatly within the deep structures of the narrative.

Rowan Williams for Cambridge

News that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, will leave this office at the end of the year to become Master of Magdalene College in Cambridge prompts some reflections.

Williams is an intellectual of amazing range and depth. His doctoral thesis on Vladimir Lossky, undertaken at a time when interest in Orthodox thought was in its very early stages in the UK, has never seen the light of day, although a translation has been published in Kiev. Arius: Heresy and tradition is remarkable not only for its placing of its subject against the background of his time, but its ponderings on the possibility of the Church changing the way it sees things as it becomes more aware of its own deepest convictions; the notion that God was love all the way down excluded an Arian understanding of the Word as having been created, and necessitated parts of the Bible being interpreted in a way contrary to that in which they had almost universally been understood until then. He quotes Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Traditions, when vital, embody continuities in conflict’, suggesting he felt that his ponderings suggested a way of approaching difficulties in the Church of England. The papers collected in Anglican Identities discuss figures ranging from the Reformer William Tyndale to the 60s radical John A. T. Robinson, neither of whom one would have thought likely to be congenial to Williams, but he finds very positive things to say about them both. In Lost Icons he deals with a range of issues in society, most memorably the way in which children are treated, here as elsewhere acutely sensitive to the vulnerability of the weak and managing to give the impression that he has already read the books discussed by the people who write for his favourite newspaper, the one that comes in a Berliner format. He has a knack of saying things that never would have occurred to you but immediately seem self-evidently true, which must be a kind of prophetic charism. There is a fine study of Dostoevsky, and a deep interest in Hegel. So much writing of the highest quality, underpinned by an inner life one can only guess at from its fruits.

Yet his tenure as Archbishop has succeeded in bringing peace to neither the Church of England nor the Anglican Communion. Rowan Williams has often seemed like an Oxbridge don in a senior common room, keen to keep alive a conversation between people who’ve given up listening to each other.  Rather than attitudes to questions of gender or sexuality, the root problem is surely that there is no agreement on the criteria that ought to be used to settle such issues. Until there is, it’s hard to see progress being made.

So I believe the future for Rowan Williams is very bright. He will return to the town where he was an undergraduate as Master of a lovely college (seen illuminated at night across the Cam, Magdalene College is one of the most beautiful sites in Cambridge) and member of a distinguished Faculty of Divinity in one of the world’s great universities. It’s his successor in Lambeth Palace I worry about. Every one of the potential appointees that has been named has given hostages to fortune of one kind or another, and the inability of someone of the stature of Williams to bring about peace would daunt anyone.

Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road (2009) (ii)

The decline of Central Eurasia has been going on for some centuries, but the explanation Christopher Beckwith offers for what he sees as its cultural destruction in the twentieth century is the influence of modernism and its political consequences. ‘The core idea of Modernism is simple, and seems harmless enough by itself: what is modern – new and fashionable – is better than what it replaces.’ He finds this attitude to have been widespread: ‘it was necessary for [Picasso and Stravinsky] to change, to be different from the others, even from their earlier selves, in order to remain modern and thus sell their output.’  This may be a little harsh, but it is true that we have recently come to live in a world in which constant change for the better is expected. When I replaced a mobile phone after four years of service it seemed that there had been several intervening generations of technology; my computer cannot perform operations that more recent models can; people have come to expect that medical research will find cures for diseases currently untreatable. I’m not sure that people who take such things for granted understand just how new the expectation of continual progress is (were there intimations of it in the scientific revolution?), and it is easy to see how people who adhere to such a view, and perhaps more particularly members of traditional cultures who come to adhere to it, may have little sympathy with such cultures.

But quite apart from its impact on Central Eurasia, Beckwith holds that modernism is not a good idea. Just occasionally I wonder whether the enemy has been fully understood (the work of T. S. Eliot, surely an elitist, is seen as representing ‘the triumph of populism’) or fairly described (‘some Asian writers, led by the journalist Edward Said…’; Said’s work has come in for serious criticism recently, and I suspect that that of Robert Irwin may be more cogent than that of Bernard Lewis that mentioned here.) Such views are certainly worth thinking about, but the stridency with which they are expressed can be off-putting, and ultimately whatever judgment one may come to about modernism is irrelevant to the weight it carries in Beckwith’s historical argument.

Beckwith’s study can be placed against recent re-evaluations of the place of China in world history. But it is easy to see that the current rise of China simply re-establishes the standing vis-a-vis the rest of the world it formerly enjoyed. Making the case for Central Eurasia is far more difficult, and Beckwith’s success in turning a what has long seemed a marginal zone into a centre is a great achievement. He offers a new paradigm that that makes us see the world in a different way.

An aircraft carrier for Wyoming?

The problem of how to prepare for a potential economic or political collapse of the United States has been exercising members of the legislature of the state of Wyoming, who have been debating the setting up of a task force to deal with the matter. It was initially proposed that it could examine such possible strategies as the state issuing its own currency, raising a standing army, and acquiring an aircraft carrier, but on the second reading of the bill the second and third areas were struck out.

It’s always a good idea to be prepared, and if some of the novels of William Gibson are anything to go by life in a post-US environment could have its nasty side. But I’m not sure that the proposal to acquire an aircraft carrier was realistic. Wyoming is an inland state, two other states being between it and the Pacific Ocean. Where could the state’s expensive asset have been berthed? How could it have been secured from falling into hostile hands? And, ahem, just what service could it have provided for the people of Wyoming? I wouldn’t be surprised if behind the original proposal there lurked a kind of boys-own survivalism familiar in some areas of American life. Such fantasies have no part in serious political debate.

Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road (2009) (i)

The long expanse of land that runs more or less from the lower Danube in the west to the Yalu River region in the east, known as Central Eurasia, has long been thought of as a backwater in world affairs, but in this arresting study Christopher Beckwith argues for its having been central. Its inhabitants, who often struck the peoples around them as uncivilized barbarians, a piece of demonization that recalls the grossly unfair construction of ‘barbarians’ by classical Greek and Roman authors, sustained their wealthy lifestyles not by plundering their settled neighbours but by exchanging their horses for goods such as silk. In this understanding, the peoples around the Central Eurasia emerge as peripherals. This is a work of great intellectual ambition that develops a compelling line of argument and is buttressed by very juicy endnotes. It is made stronger by the demonstration that things we have always seen as central to the western tradition (the legend of the founding of Rome by twins, the ethos of the Germanic comitatus) were in fact extreme outliers of stories and social practices known throughout Eurasia.  I now realise that Einhard’s account of the last Merovingian kings of the Franks trundling about in carts drawn by oxen describes a practice widely known in Eurasia.

The study is full of unexpectedly fascinating material. Discussing the development of the Indo-European languages, Beckwith proposes that the differences between them did not develop slowly as speakers of the original language lost contact with each other when they became dispersed, but very quickly, as creoles that developed when Indo-European migrants married local women in the lands they entered. There are all kinds of mysteries here; I’m intrigued at the presence in Greek of so many words with an ‘nth’ component (anthropos, plinthos, Corinth) that surely point to a pre-Indo-European substratum. The brief suggestions made on a possible relationship between Early Old Chinese and Indo-European are dazzling. Beckwith’s book is not only packed with Chinese characters, but obliged the typesetters of Princeton University Press to use the Arabic, Cyrillic and Greek alphabets as well! One is disposed to trust such an account.

This said, I’m uneasy about a tendency to line up developments across Eurasia (and beyond) that occurred at about the same time and see them as having the same cause. Hence a discussion of revolutions and rebellions in the mid-eighth century associates a short-lived rebellion in Byzantium that was surely a piece of internal politicing, the overthrow of the Umayyads by the Abbasids, and the overthrow of the Frankish Merovingians by the Carolingians. Discussing the last of these, Beckwith observes: ‘ The background of their overthrow of the Merovingians is fairly well understood and appears to be wholly political and internal. Other factors, however, may have been involved as well. Jewish merchants were extremely influential among the Carolingians…’ I can’t see that the second sentence follows from the first.

Yet nowadays this region that has been so central has become marginal and gripped by poverty. What has gone wrong? Beckwith sees the hand of modernism at work. But this turns out to be an important concept in his thought, to which it will be worth returning…