Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Born into a wealthy Roman family in 480, though Boethius had lost his father at an early age, he was adopted by an even more prominent family; well educated, Boethius wrote philosophical and theological treatises. He knew Greek and translated as well as commented on Aristotle. On top of this, he was a renowned public servant with the title ‘Master of Offices’, a title akin to a Prime Minister.
To say that Boethius had a good life may have been an understatement. That is, until he was charged with treason, exiled, imprisoned, and awaited execution.
It is during this imprisonment as he waits for death in which he wrote his greatest work, The Consolation of Philosophy. He imagines philosophy personified as a woman who comforts him by telling him that human affairs are guided by divine providence. Both the imagery and concept of the work would become common stock for medieval ideas, to the point, where C.S Lewis said that “anyone who acquires a taste for the Consolation of Philosophy, becomes truly at home in the middle ages”. Yet, in interpreting this work, we difficulty in how the dialog between Reason and Faith is presented.
In his darkest hour, why would a Christian (Boethius) turn to philosophy instead of religion?
In the text, Lady Philosophy identifies the disease by which the male persona is suffering, specifically, false goods. Second, she will offer her diagnosis, the reason why these false goods cannot satisfy. Finally, she proposes the means of deliverance, the true good which will offer the perfect means of satisfaction which false goods cannot.
Textually, even though Boethius has read his St. Augustine, there is nothing in The Consolation of Philosophy that makes an argument based on Christian revelation or prophecy. There is a small handful of biblical echoes, but nothing like the scriptural vocabulary found in Augustine. It is as though that the Platonist inheritance in the Christian tradition, play no role at all; we seem to be working entirely in the domain of classical Greek philosophy. Why?
Some sources suggest that Boethius was never more than superficially Christian that his real loyalty was to Pagan philosophy. Others emphasis the Christian imagery of the Consolation as it is and present it as a thoroughly Christian work—one such critic of this approach even says that Lady Philosophy is an angel of God and directs Boethius back to God via philosophical argument. The third intermediate view, that which seems most plausible to Professor Williams, is that of Boethius set out to write a great philosophical work in order to emphasis what pagan and Christian philosophers had in common against the barbarian heretic (at the time, Boethius was imprisoned by the leader of the Ostrogoths). So Boethius’s tract would constitute a combination of the best of Catholicism and Pagan philosophy against the heretical movements.
Whether or not this is the correct approach, it remains in continuity with medieval philosophers who thought themselves in continual motion from the ancient traditions.
But to get back to the text: the prisoner’s complaint is that divine providence leaves human affairs ungoverned, so that the wicked have power and that the good suffer at their hands. It is not simply ‘why do bad things happen to good people’ but ‘why does God govern the rest of nature in an orderly way but allow human affairs to go on haphazardly and unjustly’? What prompts the question is Boethius’s own horrid situation.
Though the text considers a great many subjects, it starts simple enough, with Boethius considering the loss of his good fortune (he has lost his freedom, public office, and is the victim of unjust accusations). Philosophy replies that it is in the nature of fortune to be fickle; she says, “you think fortune has changed toward you, but you are wrong. Her character is always the same—she has merely shown you the fickleness which is her constant feature.” It is in this concept which Lady Philosophy introduces Fortune’s Wheel (Fortune, as portrayed in Roman and Hellenistic art, was almost always shown with spinning a wheel; though this depiction does not start with Boethius, it is by him that this image is transmitted to the Middle Ages). Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius that he has accepted the good things which come with fortune, and now must accept the bad things; for fortune to stop, all good and bad would cease. Boethius is, in effect, mourning the loss of things which cannot bring true happiness. This is the disease by which Boethius is suffering—the pursuit of false goods.
But why are false goods false and unable to bring happiness? In order to answer this we must compare them to True Goods.
In discussing True Goods, Lady Philosophy says that
“Mortal creatures only have one concern: they struggle in all sorts of ways to obtain it. They follow any number of paths to achieve it. But all this effort is aimed at one and only one goal—happiness. Happiness is a good that once obtained puts an end to any further desire. It is the highest of all goods and encompasses all goods within itself. If anything were outside, then it would be unworthy of desire. Everyone, as I have said, strives to obtain it, though by different paths; for a longing for the true good is implanted by nature in the human mind. But error diverts people towards false goods.”
In this passage, Lady Philosophy offers three things: (a) A theory of happiness; (b) a theory of motivation; and (c) and an explanation of wrongdoing. The theory of happiness is an abstract description of happiness; she doesn’t tell us concretely what happiness is like, she just tells us that whatever it is, it is a good which leaves nothing further to be desired. The theory of motivation is that all human beings, in everything that they do, are aiming at happiness; they take many different roads and work for it in many different ways, but their ultimate motivation has to be the search for happiness. It has to be the search for happiness because that motivation is implanted in us by nature. But if everyone naturally seeks happiness, and happiness is naturally a perfect and all-encompassing good, why is it that so many people miss the mark? This is where wrongdoing emerges; people do always aim for happiness, but because they fall into mistakes what happiness constitutes, they veer off course and fail to achieve their goal. The problem, Lady Philosophy remarks
“Misguided people seek to obtain happiness through wealth, public office, kingship, celebrity, and pleasure. Why do they do this? Because people believe that through wealth, they will obtain self-sufficiency, that through public office they will obtain respect, that through kingship they will obtain power, that through celebrity they will obtain renown, and that through pleasure they will obtain joy.”
The interesting point that Lady Philosophy makes here, one that sets him apart from many philosophers, is that these false goods do not even provide part of an aspect of happiness for the sake of which they are pursued. Though many philosophers note that wealth does not bring happiness, what Boethius does is that these goods do not even bring the partial happiness that they are though to bring. So, to demonstrate, when wealth does not bring you self-sufficiency, according to Boethius, wealth actually makes you dependent on other people to guard your money; in fact, no amount of money will free you from worry. Self-Sufficiency, then, is illusory. When people seek public office for respect we cannot regards these people are worthy of respect simply because they hold office if we consider them unworthy of the office. If a person is wise that person is worthy of respect in office or out of office. Furthermore, honors bestowed upon the common folk, cannot impart such dignity (a claim which is in accordance with the aristocratic dismissal). People seeks kingship for the sake of power, but even a king does not have the power to dismiss cares or worries, rebellions or overthrow; Kings do not even have the power to win friends who will protect them from such dangers since their so-called friends will desert them when things get tough. Whatever happiness does come from kingship is limited, since kingship itself is limited. Since true happiness must be complete—that which leaves nothing else to be desired—then kingship is not a proper road to happiness. When people seeks celebrity, they seek glory for the sake of renown. But glory is often deceptive. Even deserved glory cannot add to the self-assessment of the wise man (‘if I know I am deserving of glory, then I do not need you to tell me that’). People seeks pleasure for the sake of joy, but bodily pleasures bring pain, illness, and melancholy in their train. Besides, one has bodily pleasures in common with the beasts of the fields and we clearly cannot call the beasts of the fields blessed or happy—how can our happiness consist of something which we share with the lower animals? Even honorable pleasures, such as those of the family, can go sour: your children might disappoint you, and you may disappoint your children.
These are the false goods which misguided people seek. But Lady Philosophy true thrust here is not to simply deconstruct why these false goods cannot bring happiness, but the diagnosis.
The problem is that people seek these goods as though they were separate things, but when in fact, they are one. They can only be obtained in one, all-encompassing good. She says,
“This good is, by its very nature, one and simple; but human perversity breaks it up. As long as it strives to seize a part of the thing that has no parts, it obtains neither a portion nor a whole. It does not obtain a portion because there are no portions. It does not obtain the whole because it does not desire or aim at the whole. So true and perfect happiness is a single thing, a one thing, that makes a person self-sufficient and venerable and powerful and renowned and joyful all at once. But where can such happiness be found? Well, certainly not in mortal and transient things.”
Here the Platonist influence is strong. Only a good which comes into being and does not pass away—only an eternal and permanent good, can offer the real thing, happiness. In Platonism, we think of perfect things as their imperfect paradigms, not the other way around—we do not need sensible things to make sense of intelligible things, we need intelligible things to make sense of the sensible things that merely imitate them in a fragmented way. So, there must be a perfect good which is the source of all goods. That good has to be in God since nothing better than God can be imagined. God is, of course, goodness itself. Goodness is not a feature that god has but Goodness is what God is.
This claim is associated with the doctrine of Divine Simplicity, that which argues that God has no parts of any kind. He has no metaphysical parts (in God, there is no distinction between him and his various parts or attributes; nothing is distinct from God). So God is not a composite of various distinct attributes. He is a simple, part less being.
Boethius puts this doctrine to work in a clever way. He has already argued that happiness is a single, part less good, which this one all-encompassing good must be in God. This means that divinity and happiness are the same thing. If that one all-encompassing good is the divine nature, it follows that for us to become happy, means for us to become divine. (As a sentiment, this is associated more with modern Eastern, rather than Western, Christianity.) Recall that we can identify the imperfect goods can be recognized as imperfect because they are partial, the perfect good must be a unity; so ‘the one’ and ‘the good’ are the same, unity and goodness are the same. We can see this, according to Lady Philosophy, by looking out into the natural world and noticing that things strive to maintain their unity and integrity—things resist violence which eliminates its unity and so strive toward the perfect good. This good, the one God, governs the universe; how do we know this? Because we see the way in which all the disparate natures that inhabit the universe form a single, coherent, system. They form a cosmos, not a heap of stuff, but an organized universe; we have already seen that creatures has an inherent strive toward preserving their unity, so it follows that they submit to God’s will on their own accord. God rules by pulling, a kind of seduction to his willing subjects. Since God can do anything, anything except evil, then it follows that evil is nothing.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
If you are a frequent reader of my literary rants, then you will know that I read and review a decent number of Oxford’s Very Short Introduction (VSI) titles. Short and accessible works, they are ideal for the unversed Undergraduate. This time, my curiosity—or more accurately my research—has taken me to Tudor Britain and the tumultuous post-medieval world struggling to exist between the early modern and religious wars. John Guy’s text, a substantially revised version of the 1984 The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, provides the novice with the “most authoritative [and] concise introduction to the Tudor period”, at least according to the cover blurb.
In all, I would say that it does its job as an introduction well. While it may not be the most perfect concise guide there is—I would hardly know since I do not exactly read many such guides to Tudor Britain—it is superb nonetheless. Starting from the post-medieval period all the way through Elizabeth the First’s reign and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, though like many Very Short Introduction titles, this installment does not linger very long on details, it does provide the reader with a reliable academic guide to the subject matter. If you want the easy reading of a Wikipedia article but with formal research and solid expertise, then you cannot do better than this handy series of titles. So, this is to say that this title is like all of the others that I have read.
This is not to say that I did not find anything noteworthy about this title, however.
As the jacket blurb remarks, this title has been substantially revised. I can say this without having read the original text which this text is adapted from; how can I know this, you say? Good question. I would say that it is because The Tudors has a voice markedly different from the previous installments which I have read in this cycle of books concerning British history; whereas such titles like Anglo-Saxon England and Medieval Britain had stiff tones and a stuffy sort of minimalist atmosphere, The Tudors has a more relaxed authorial method. It conveys excitement, danger, and political thrills; it sets the scene, in other words, and indulges in a thematic style which previous installments would outright ignore. I found this a refreshing change of pace and made me feel less like I was listening to a ninety-year-old professor droning on about historical minutia. Perhaps some would find the shift disconcerting after spending time with the previous installments, but I found it pleasant.
Other than that I really have nothing more to say. At the end of the book, there is still the customary further reading section in addition to a chronology and index, but nothing more has been added. Each chapter still features a selection of images from the source text and there is a handy family graph or two demystifying the bloodlines; so the text remains invaluable as a handbook for newcomers to check and double-check facts. But, aside from those expected inclusions, nothing much has changed from this title from the previous. It is still everything you would expect from an Oxford VSI title and for better or worse, that is what you get—a dense but accessible introduction to a topic whose only weakness is the brevity of the title and possible bias of the author.
149 pages. Published by Oxford U.P. $11.95 (Paperback). 2013.
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Just two decades after the end of hostilities between the Persians and Byzantines, the Persian Empire would be destroyed by the Arabs, while the Byzantines would be substantially over-run. This lecture is the story of how Islam exploded onto the scene following Mohammad’s death.
Seventh-century Arabia was a difficult place to live. The mountainous and sandy terrain made travel and living difficult; cattle raising was, as professor Daileader ruefully remarks, “was almost a national pass-time.” The dominant spiritual view was Pagan Polytheists; Allah, though viewed as more powerful than the other gods, was hardly what we would consider today as ‘the one true God’ as typically imagined in the Abrahamic way. The Muslim prophet Mohammad was born sometime in 570 or 580 A.D. and hailed from Mecca, one of the sizable trading posts situated near an oasis. Orphaned at a young age, Mohammed nonetheless was successful professionally. He is a merchant. During his thirties or forties, however, during one of his customary walks, he started having visions which troubled him greatly; eventually, he decided that these visions were religious in nature and his obligation to share these visions with the inhabitants of Mecca. Though the poorer families embraced the sort of message which Mohammed preached, the richer families did not appreciate such activities.
As a result, Mohammed leaves Mecca and travels to Medina where he was an arbitrator of feuds between various tribes. Mohammed was successful in his efforts to such an extent that he began unifying the tribes, consolidating their unity under the basis of his new religion. In 630 A.D. he began raiding Mecca’s supply and cattle lines, eventually capturing the city. He did two years later.
Mohammed’s legacy was to leave behind a united Arab territory settled under a monotheistic theology. Though Islam has similarities with Judaism and Christianity, Mohammed did not teach Islam was a new religion per se; rather, he saw it as a continuation and a conclusion to the Jewish-Christian tradition. Mohammed accepted Jesus as a human figure but not a divine one, as he considered himself human as well; Islam was, to him, the complete revelation which begun with the Old and New Testaments.
Months after Mohammed’s death, Arabs began pouring out of Arabia. Damascus, St. Jerusalem, Egypt, the Persian Empire, and North Africa. All of this within a century.
How did all this success come about? There are a number of factors to consider.
Timing was important as well as luck. After the Byzantine and Persian Empires fought one another to a stand-still, they were exhausted. The Byzantine Empire, still reeling under the bubonic plague, was not in shape for another major war. Additionally, the Arabs had the element of surprise; no one expected the Arabs to unite and challenge the already established empires. Previously, the various Arab tribes were divided into hundreds of groups which raided one another. The Arabs were able to survive in environments which were difficult for the Persians and Byzantines, so they were able to fight in desert climates were the Byzantines had not erected any fortifications. During a military defeat, for instance, the Arabs could dimply melt back into the desert and lure the enemy into where they were able to fight best. In fact, Arab expansionism seems to stop once Arab forces encounter landscapes which were inhospitable to their own birth, such as Northern France, were camels were of little use. But perhaps the most important factor was religious zeal—specifically, the confidence and energy which their faith brought them. Prior to Mohammed, the Arabs had internalized a great deal of the animosity which the Persians and Byzantines had directed towards them for not being able to unite into a cohesive entity; once they had been united by Mohammed, however, their confidence skyrocketed.
During the early middle ages, the term “Jihad”, a term coined by religious scholars to denote the successes of the Arabs, meant ‘striving’ or ‘effort’ to refer to both military and personal betterment. The idea of Jihad is worked out after Mohammed’s death and when it looks like that Islam will conquer the whole of the known world. According to the theory of Jihad worked out in the seventh century, there should only be a single Islamic state in the world, in order to better mirror the state of the one god.
The issue with this, however, is that Islam is divided into two parts: one, where Islamic rulers are in control and Islamic law is observed (the so-called ‘House of Islam’), and two, those parts of the world where non-Muslims are ruling following various types of law (the so-called ‘House of War’). Theologically, the idea is for the former to absorb the latter; hence, why Islamic rulers are forbidden from having peace with their non-Muslim neighbors for more than a decade. It is, however, important to note that the unity concerned with this absorption is political unity, not a religious unity. While victory over non-Muslims is seen as a victory and proof of Allah’s will, the only people who are not tolerated to exist are pagans, who are given a choice of either conversion or death. Jews and Christians, meanwhile, since they were recipients of the first two parts of the divine revelation, are accorded a certain degree of respect. Meaning, they should not be forced to convert to Islam—they should be allowed to practice their religion (allowed to exist). In recompense, non-Muslims were to pay a special tax (in fact, this tax would later cut into the conversation rate since Muslim rulers would often forbid non-Muslims converting to Islam in order to preserve the tax rate).
By the early eighth century, however, Islam burned itself out. The boundaries of this new empire had been flung so far and wide, it was impossible to maintain the kind of dynamism which had existed after Mohammed’s death. By this time, Muslim rulers had maintained regular diplomatic contact with their neighbors and had abandoned the idea of perpetual war with the House of War. Though Islamic codes are no longer strictly followed, they are kept alive for times of dire troubles when leaders need to rally the masses in times of crisis (such as during the crusades).
It is often asked why military conquest was essential to early Islam when it was not essential to early Christianity. It should be remembered that Islam, unlike Christianity, acquired a territorial base almost immediately; Christianity, meanwhile, was an illegal religion for almost three centuries. With Mohammed waging war against Mecca on a religious basis, it is not surprising that warfare factors greatly; Christianity, meanwhile, does not emerge with a military edge until post-Constantine.
Monday, April 17, 2017
Much like in the previous Node, Marxist criticism is a Node which was too easy to write thanks to my prior familiarity with the theory; so, needless to say, my concerns with the Node fall under ‘is it original enough?’ And, again, the answer seems to be that since these Nodes need to be understood by high schoolers, I think the answer must be a ‘yes’ compromised with a ‘no’ since it is by the familiar which the original is injected.
Regardless, this is the first Node to take place within the confines of the castle from the poem. The previous Nodes took place within the vast wilderness; this Node is one of the many which will take place within one of the few ‘civilized’ areas left in my articulation of the poem.
Since we are dealing with Marxist criticism, I thought that it would be prudent to use the classic scenario—workers organizing.
Essentially, this Node is jam-packed. The basic set up is this: since the castle is one of the few productive areas left in the world, the factory is large and produces many commodities. The downside: since there is so few such areas producing these goods, then the demand always exceeds supply and workers are shunted in both workplace quality as well as payment. The solution? Organize!
The player encounters a group of workers called the ‘Floor Coordinators’ who are set-up as a representation of Organic Intellectuals. These people are opposed to the ‘Floor Agents’ who, of course, represent the dominant pre-bourgeois ideology of exploitation. Obviously, each group advocates something different—raising the political unconscious of the workers and False consciousness respectively.
In regards to how I represent the idea of capitalism’s economic ‘Base’ and social ‘Superstructure’, I encoded the workshop floor and break room respectively; whereas it is in the workshop itself which produces economic activity—through labor-exploitation—it is in the break room where capitalist phantasy is created. I am actually quite proud of this encoding as it seems too obvious yet unfulfilled in a lot of media.
Rounding out the Node, is a group of female coordinators who are oppressed by their male counterparts as well as a pseudo-corporal representation of Ideology.
The female workers are there to represent Proletarian Feminism. This is important since even within the ranks of the revolutionary Left, there exist great bastions of reaction in the form of male chauvinism and sexism (not to mention sexual abuse). To ignore this cancer in the heart of those who advocate for great change is to ignore the dynamics of revolution. Since I have similar groupings of female outcasts in other Nodes, those shunted aside because of their Sex/Gender, I hope that the player will pick up on the myriad of ways in which female-identified persons are given the short end of the stick time and time again.
Friday, April 14, 2017
The term ‘Byzantine’ is coined in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by scholars; the name, being derived from a fishing site called Byzantium, has some intrigue to it: Byzantines would not have called themselves as such, since they would, up to the fifteenth century, call themselves Roman. Indeed, previous lectures have only examined the half of the Roman Empire which collapsed, now we move to the half which did not collapse and outlasted the Western half by about a thousand years.
In many ways, the Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Roman Empire: education, the idea of the imperial office were both holdovers from the classical period and they survived well within the Byzantine Empire. There is one important difference, however, and that concerns language; specifically, in the Roman Empire, Latin is the language of law and how the most important societal aspects are taught—citizens, moreover, are expected to be bilingual in both Latin and Greek. In Byzantine, however, the citizens stopped using Latin and almost exclusively used Greek (the opposite of what had happened in the Western half). This extended to offices and titles and is how we know there was a real level of differentiation between the Western and Eastern half.
Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-555), though not as well known as Charlemagne, would have just a large an impact. Justinian reconquers Italy from the Ostrogoths and even entertains the idea of reconquering the whole of the former Roman Empire. But, were it not for a political disaster involving Chariot hooligans, Justinian may not have attempted the re-conquest at all: in short, what happened was that opposing Chariot team fans joined forces to try and overthrow Justinian (the Nica Revolt), but Justinian is convinced by his wife, Theodora, to stay and massacre the protesters. Evidence suggests that Justinian may have launched his re-conquest efforts in an effort to bolster his popularity among his subjects.
Justinian, being a methodical individual, signs a peace treaty with the Persian Empire, thus securing his eastern flank. Now free to try and reconquer parts of the former Roman world, Justinian eyes what he would like to gain. But Justinian initially sets his sights not on Italy but Vandal North Africa. He entrusts this task to a trusted general—Belisarius. Justinian bribes the Vandal leader of Sicily to rebel so as to lure the Vandal forces away from North Africa. He succeeds. By 534, Vandal North Africa has, for the most part, been re-absorbed into the Byzantine Empire.
Though Justinian had hoped that he could conquer a barbarian kingdom at the rate of one per year, subsequent attacks would not go so well. As a result, there is some debate as to whether Justinian had a grand re-conquest plan or if he was just a devious opportunist who knew how to respond well to situations; for example, in Italy, there some talk on a possible peaceful re-absorption into the Byzantine Empire since relations were very good. But when the co-ruler who is friendly with Byzantine is murdered, Justinian invades Ostrogothic Italy in order to avenge the death of the co-ruler. Initially, the Ostrogoths suffer defeat after defeat and it looks like they are going to fold as quickly as the Vandals had done. In the 540s, though, Justinian suffer some set-backs—such as the betrayal of the Persians and the demanded withdrawal of skilled generals to a massive outbreak of disease in the Byzantine Empire—which caused him great consternation; however, he did not relent on his attack on Italy and by the 550s, the Ostrogoths are finally overwhelmed, defeated, and vanish from history. This would, of course, came at tremendous cost, however, and affected Byzantine ability for further military undertakings. Byzantine efforts at re-conquering Visigothic Spain, for instance, only produce minor territorial gains (the Southern tip).
When not engaged in military matters, however, Justinian was being tough on heretics and pagans, making strident efforts at eliminating paganism from the empire. To do this, Justinian forbade the teaching of philosophy at Athens, one of the last strongholds of pagan influence and one of the most influential teaching places in the world (the Platonic Academy at Athens founded by Plato and which survived for nearly a thousand years). Such actions were not popular with Justinian’s subjects, however, and as a public figure, Justinian was a deeply despised and controversial figure by many sectors of society. The text par excellence for this hatred is exemplified by the book A Secret History, which is one of history’s great hatchet jobs on any political figure.
In his lifetime, though, Justinian did much. He sponsored the reconstruction of the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, one of the architectural achievements of history which is still being studied today by scholars; Justinian also sponsored a major recodification of Roman Law—he ordered scholars to sift through all the law books, remove the contradictions, and make a single accessible book which precedents and laws could be studied as a whole. Eventually, this re-codification would become the foundation for medieval law in the west; Justinian was also involved in smuggling, specifically of silk worms so that the Byzantines could make silk.
Despite these accomplishments, however, Justinian likely did more harm than good to the Byzantine Empire in the long run. After all, the Byzantines were not able to hold on to their conquests and, following the death of Justinian, came close to being overwhelmed themselves by their enemies—first Northern Italy was lost, then the Slaves establish themselves permanently in Byzantine territory (the Balkans). Then the Persians, seeing the dire straits of the Byzantine Empire, decide to attack in the 610s, seizing Damascus, Jerusalem, as well as Egypt and most of Turkey. Though a decent amount of territory would be regained, it would be only under a desperate assault on Persia which was a perilous decision which paid off, though at high costs.
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
After spending far longer reading Boguet’s text on witchcraft than I had originally intended, I finally finished it, rather pleased with the contents, though let down with myself for taking so long to complete it. In a nutshell, Boguet is concerned with the practice of witchcraft; he spends the duration of the book arguing for and against the legitimacy of various practices of witchcraft—as a witch-hunter, he is, of course, concerned with witchcraft’s theological underpinnings insofar as it relates to Christianity.
Focused primarily on France, specifically the county of Burgundy, Boguet text is a case study on the trials of several witches who were accused of various crimes. In detailing each offense, Boguet pays attention to detail (at least as he saw it) and provides both literary and biblical citations as to why he views certain aspects of witchcraft as he does; it is a call-back to an old form of argument in its theological-philosophical rigidness and lip-service to the opposing viewpoint.
Over the course of several dozen chapters, Boguet tackles subjects as diverse as by what means witches harm people, to why they harm people, and in what way Satan gains followers and by what measure one if guilty of conspiring with the Evil One. If you read it like I, as a piece of abstract literature, then it is a fascinating read in how it deals with witchcraft accusations as set against the social and religious backdrop of late medieval France. If you were to read it literally, however, then the text becomes far more unpleasant with the author’s fundamentalist viewpoint and liberal application of capital punishment.
Since the book is divided into two sections, one where Boguet deals with witchcraft proper, and another where he addresses how a judge should conduct their selves when handling a witch’s trial, each section feeds off one another. Reading the second section after the first will give the reader a deeper awareness of how the secular and ecclesiastical collide. So though Boguet was a bit of a historical eccentric, his text nonetheless provides an intriguing insight into how the morally righteous viewed their actions and place in a world supposedly drowned in Sin.
If I had to comment on any single facet, however, I think it would be this: as a piece of abstract literature, Boguet’s book is a finger on the vein of witchcraft paranoid France.
By this I mean that Boguet’s text unintentionally records a lot of activity which was encoded as witchcraft but clearly meant something else. When a son accuses his father of witchcraft and the father adamantly denies while pleading his son to stop, is this not Freudian family drama? When the naked bodies of young boys are found and their clothes neatly piled nearby, is this not evidence of a serial rapist? Why is it when a person hears voices in their head, it is Satan and not a mental illness? And so on. Often, Boguet talks of certain witchcraft aspects when a much more obvious reality exists; just one which is perhaps more difficult to swallow.
Boguet’s text is merely one viewpoint among many medieval witch hunters, but it is an interesting one nevertheless, whatever its merits. When studying the history of witchcraft, one needs more than academic summaries on the subject, one needs to read the actual texts themselves in order to gain an understanding of where our ancestors were coming from when they decided to wage war on Satan. It may not be glorious or believable to our modern, refined mind, but for better or worse, our forefathers lives were filled with witchcraft and magic and a great deal of present-day situations can be located within different accusations. To ignore this is to ignore history, so let’s keep an open mind if for no other reason than it being an attempt to understand ‘why’ and ‘how’ the ‘what’ happened.
An Examen of Witches
328 pages. Published by Dover. $14.95 (Paperback). 2009.
Monday, April 10, 2017
In this poem, purity—Chasity—is the name of the game, and that figurative game has no name; the unnamed women, The Lady, enters the scene as a lost damsel, but she is hardly in distress. In fact, this is what makes her such an interesting lead. “These [impure] thoughts may startle well, but not astound / The virtuous mind, that ever walks unintended / By a strong siding champion Conscience” (Lines 210-213). And so we see that though physical disoriented in her surroundings—she is separated from her brothers—she is not in distress; one can argue, accordingly, that neither is she alone—for her champion is Conscience and walks by her side always, due to his presence being metaphysical (Christian morality) instead of carnal physicality; if we wanted to follow Augustinian Platonism, then we understand that this is a given; otherwise, The Lady would be seen as having been ‘felled’, or, being separated from God. Accordingly, she must remain pure. As the Elder Brother remarks “My sister is not so defenceless left / As you imagine; she has a hidden strength” (Lines 415-16).
As a character, The Lady seems at once both exciting as well as boring.
She is exciting because is almost a proto-feminist figure (“Fool, do not boast, / Thou cannot touch the freedom of my mind” (Lines 663-64)): she is daring and brave, the opposite of the fragile stereotype. And yet, she is boring precisely because of her Chasity, that which “clad(s her) in complete steel” (Line 421). If you have a protagonist which cannot be touched by any mortal power precisely because of her devotion to Christ, then there is hardly any tension to be had—the reader is merely a bystander as the narrative unfolds. If we wanted to become counterfactual and talk about the poem as a martyr narrative, then, unfortunately, the danger would remain lacking, since such danger would be divinely ordained as God’s will. As it stands, though, “Comus” is a parable, not a tract on the suffering associated with God’s will. To return to Augustinian Platonism, The Lady represents a particularly erudite manifestation of an Intelligible idea in the mind of God (or, those perfect ideas which have no equal in the mortal realm)—The Lady, imperfect, nonetheless disciplines her body—lives as close to God as she is able to while being mortal and an imperfect copy of something perfect— whereas Comus refuses to discipline his body, instead, falling prey to that bodily monopolization of our attention which perverts our imagination.
This is not to say that the text is not interesting, though; gender-wise, we do see at least one odd thing transpire. For instance, about three-quarters of the way through the poem, when The Lady is conversing with Comus, The Lady holds her own against the antagonist who desires to acquaint her with the pleasures of the flesh; i.e., what he wants is to educate her on matters not merely spiritual, but physical. In other words, The Lady is cast as a Jesus stand-in with the devil cast as Comus. This would be a fairly radical inversion of typical Christian dogma and so to see it in a seventeenth-century poem makes one wonder what Milton was trying to convey past the clichéd resistance to sin. In terms of ax-grinding, forcing a female Jesus parallel is poignant material; so the question becomes, why?
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