Before a man studies Zen

“Before a man studies Zen, to him mountains are mountains, and waters are water; after he gets an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, mountains to him are not mountains and waters are not waters; but after this when he really attains to the abode of rest, mountains are once more mountains and waters are waters.” – D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Buddhism

Review: Shakespeare and the Nature of Man by Theodore Spencer

This is one of the best books on either Shakespeare or the nature of man that I have ever read. Spencer first lays out the basic ideas of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque in an understandable and interesting way. He moves from there into a, so to speak, play-by-play examination of Shakespeare, moving from the Bard’s earliest works to his last.

Along the way, Spencer tracks a movement in the life and thought of Shakespeare which closely mirrors the familiar outline of his plays. Just as Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate a movement from good through evil to better, so, says Spencer, did Shakespeare’s mind more generally. Spencer sees in the early Shakespeare a naive optimist. With the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 and the resultant disorder in Shakespeare’s native England, Spencer believes Shakespeare moved into a definite pessimism, the finest expression of which is in Macbeth but the most definite example of which is in Timon. Finally, Shakespeare emerges from his melancholy with a newly optimistic but no longer naive view of man and the world in his final plays, perhaps best represented in The Tempest.

I have learned about Shakespeare more from this book than from any other. While I sometimes differ from Spencer in his conclusions, there is no doubt that he argues his case well and is overflowing with knowledge about Shakespeare derived from an immersion in his works. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Shakespeare, in the Elizabethan age, in historical anthropology, or in literature.

Between angel and animal

As long on earth
As our comparisons were stoutly upward
With gods and angels, we were men at least,
But little lower than the gods and angels.
But once comparisons were yielded downward,
Once we began to see our images
Reflected in the mud and even dust,
‘Twas disillusion upon disillusion.
We were lost piecemeal to the animals,
Like people thrown out to delay the wolves.

Robert Frost, from “The White-tailed Hornet”

Will and Power

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.


Ulysses, in Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Scene 3

Review: History of the Renaissance World by Susan Wise Bauer

In her series of books on the history of the world (of which series this is the third entry) Bauer has taken quite a large task upon herself. To trace out the entire history of the world from the very earliest civilizations through to the present day would be a great challenge for even the most erudite of historians. Unfortunately, the tremendous size of this task shows through too often in the product to make it either interesting or useful. I have read all three volumes thus far and have noticed the same problems in each of them, problems which seem have seemed to intensify as the series continues. Two of these issues are especially important as they do the most to inhibit this series from being as instructive as it might be otherwise.

First, no one, including Bauer, can possibly be an expert in all of the fields of history covered in all of these volumes. Bauer discusses the history of ancient Korea, medieval China, the civilization of the Maya, the beginning of Greek philosophy, etc. These are huge fields in which various experts have spent their entire lives and barely scratched the surface of what could potentially be known about each of them. While Bauer’s own lack of expertise in all of these fields cannot be held against her — again, this is a huge swathe of human knowledge we are talking about here — it often feels as if we are getting such a basic overview that we are being presented with little more than timeline, only with a little bit — a very little bit — more detail.

Even within a single volume, the attempt to include the entire history of the world creates a disjointed feel which pervades the entire book. While it is interesting to see what was happening in various parts of the world simultaneously, the jumping from place to place which occurs at the close of each chapter makes it almost impossible to follow a narrative of events.

This is perhaps the greatest problem with this series. The flow of history, especially the history of ideas, is altogether lost, which means the entire purpose of learning history is ignored altogether. History is not the mere assembly of events in order. It is the search for meaning in that order. As another historian has pointed out, if aliens had watched the entire Battle of Hastings from above and taken copious notes while doing so, they might be able to give a play-by-play of each event within the battle. But a schoolchild who can repeat “William the Conqueror, 1066” ultimately knows more about the battle; he has linked it to a culture, a tradition, a meaning. That is precisely what this book, and the others in this series, fails to do.

Review: Dynamics of World History by Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson is perhaps the greatest historian of the 20th century, but one of the most frequently overlooked. In contrast to the dominant historiographies of the period, which placed emphasis on factors such as economics and race in the development of cultural life, Dawson instead emphasized the importance of the thought, the human element. Rather than seeing man as the product of his location, his genetics, or his work, as did so many historians of his time and as do so many of ours, Dawson instead saw culture as the product of man in creative cooperation with those factors.

For Dawson, the first and foremost element of this creative cooperation is religion. Religion, according to Dawson, proceeds from the way in which man confronts the environment into which he is placed and chooses to either cooperate with it or fight against it. From this, there ensues a process in which religion at first recognizes and reveres the power of nature. These nature religions, however, are eventually shown to be deficient in that nature is itself a deficient guide. Man, then, looks to heaven as a more sufficient guide, exposing the deficiencies of nature and seeking to bring himself and the entirety of creation into relation with and submission to this higher order. From this point many religions slip into a kind of world-denying gnosticism (i.e. Hinduism, et al.) or nihilism (i.e. Buddhism, et al.).

The unique strength of Christianity in this regard, however, is the idea of the Incarnation, which has reconciled the material and spiritual orders, forbidding either the nature-worship of the primitive religions or the life-denying escapism of the spiritual religions. By bringing the two into harmony, Christianity has opened Europe especially to the universality of the human experience and the beauties of this world when in proper relation to the higher order.

Dawson’s theories are a necessary and timely corrective to the materialistic determinism of Marxism, genetics, nationalism, and other modern movements. What he presents is, properly speaking, a coherent Christian historiography which, while drawing on the historians of Christianity’s past (St. Augustine most especially), also acknowledges the contributions of and provides a rebuttal to later non-Christian or post-Christian developments.

This book in particular is a worthy introduction to Dawson’s ideas, as it presents a number of essays, articles, and selections taken from other of Dawson’s works. I recommend this book for anyone interested in history and the restoration of the proper perspective of and in Western Civilization.

Freedom of the Church

It is necessary that Christians should remember that it is not the business of the Church to do the same thing as the State — to build a Kingdom like the other kingdoms of men, only better; nor to create a reign of earthly peace and justice. The Church exists to be the light of the world, and if it fulfills its function, the world is transformed in spite of all the obstacles that human powers place in the way. A secularist culture can only exist, so to speak, in the dark. It is a prison in which the human spirit confines itself when it is shut out of the wider world of reality. But as soon as the light comes, all the elaborate mechanism that has been constructed for living in the dark becomes useless. The recovery of spiritual vision gives man back his spiritual freedom. And hence the freedom of the Church is in the faith of the Church and the freedom of man is in the knowledge of God.

Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History, p. 273