Thursday, November 01, 2007

Dr. Thursday's Post

Upwards, all hearts!

It is a real case against conventional hagiography that it sometimes tends to make all saints seem to be the same. Whereas in fact no men are more different than saints; not even murderers.
[GKC, St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:478]
Today, November 1, is the feast of All Saints - that is, all those who have died and gotten to heaven, and who don't have their own special feast day. Of course it's really the feast of everyone in heaven, even those who do have special days, or maybe two (like St. John the Baptist) or a bunch, like the Blessed Virgin Mary. For now, until the paperwork gets done, this is when we really may celebrate Frances and Gilbert Chesterton - and Pierre Duhem, Galvani and Agnesi (see here for more about the witchcraft of this brilliant Catholic!) and Biringuccio and Buridan and Pasteur and Galileo... Oh, have I been emphasizing scientists? (Gee I wonder how that happened.) How about Francis Thompson and J. R. R. Tolkien and Belloc and Baring? How about Dante and Guido of Arezzo (who gave us ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la) and Olivier Messien (a great organ-composer of the 20th century)? How about Alcuin and Charlemagne?

I have mentioned Alcuin - dragged in his name, in fact - because I think it worth concentrating on some of the things he did - or may have done. It is secret work such as his, alas, now hidden in the secret records of the Recording Angel, which we may fruitfully contemplate today. In a funny way, the Feast of All Saints is most Chestertonian - because it is so deeply Catholic - but also because it is so deeply human.

It may be surprising to learn that even philosophers far distant from the Catholic way of life and thought have come up with such things. The short-lived French Republican calendar, in hate of European - that is, of both pagan and Catholic tradition, named their months from Nature, like "Heat", "Snow", "Vintage" and "Harvest" - OK, they had "Fog" and "Rain" but the animals and the weather do not harvest, do not make wine. (Leave it to the French to not forget the wine!) Then there are those negative people called "positivists":
A Positivist, as he figures in the life and correspondence of the Huxley and Arnold period, meant something much more definite than a rationalist who rested all his views on positive knowledge. A Positivist meant a Comtist, and a Comtist meant a good deal. Comte had a complete new religion, or rather, a new Church; for it was modelled throughout on the Catholic Church. It had a liturgy. It had a calendar. I believe it had vestments. I am sure it had saints' days dedicated to Darwin or Newton. I do not know in what the ceremonial consisted, or what were the vestments worn. Perhaps they all wore tails on Darwin Day. Perhaps they celebrated Sir Isaac Newton by dancing round an apple-tree and pelting each other with apples.
[GKC ILN Jan 27 1923 CW33:30-31]
So does this mean I think (or Chesterton thought) we ought to celebrate Darwin Day too? Well, you'll find out. You see, like Aquinas, GKC could see the brilliance even in the error of another, sift it, and take advantage of it. And he then revealed it, even if the heretic had hidden it.
To reveal more, press here.

If I might attempt a shorthand explanation, GKC seems to say that erroneous philosophers like Comte find truth because they still work as humans, in a human manner - and insofar as they maintain this true humanity, they succeed, despite their error or silliness. But here is what he says about Comte:
In an age of dusty modernity, when beauty was thought of as something barbaric and ugliness as something sensible, he alone saw that men must always have the sacredness of mummery. He saw that while the brutes have all the useful things, the things that are truly human are the useless ones. He saw the falsehood of that almost universal notion of to-day, the notion that rites and forms are something artificial, additional, and corrupt. Ritual is really much older than thought; it is much simpler and much wilder than thought. A feeling touching the nature of things does not only make men feel that there are certain proper things to say; it makes them feel that there are certain proper things to do. The more agreeable of these consist of dancing, building temples, and shouting very loud; the less agreeable, of wearing green carnations and burning other philosophers alive. But everywhere the religious dance came before the religious hymn, and man was a ritualist before he could speak. If Comtism had spread the world would have been converted, not by the Comtist philosophy, but by the Comtist calendar. ... A man who has faith must be prepared not only to be a martyr, but to be a fool. It is absurd to say that a man is ready to toil and die for his convictions when he is not even ready to wear a wreath round his head for them. I myself, to take a corpus vile, am very certain that I would not read the works of Comte through for any consideration whatever. But I can easily imagine myself with the greatest enthusiasm lighting a bonfire on Darwin Day.
[GKC, Heretics CW1:87]
Why? And why do I mention a bunch of names from the past, both important and barely remembered?

Because we are heirs to great things - and this feast day gives us an opportunity to be grateful to those who have given them to us. (Yes, you can do this on your Darwin Day, if you insist. I ought to note that most American universities, even secular ones, even CATHOLIC ones, already cancel classes on Newton Day, which is December 25 - though perhaps they give another reason.)

Oh. Am I being too technical again? I will try, without so many allusions. Let's see...

Who built the first boat? Who invented cheese? Who invented paper? And ink? And writing?

Who decided to start putting spaces between words, insteadofrunningthemtogetherastheRomansandGreeksdid? (It might have been Alcuin - The 26 Letters by Oscar Ogg says he invented the separation into sentences and paragraphs.)

Or how about this: Who fed _____ (fill in any great name) when he was little? Who gave him his first real job, or took him under his tutelage? Who taught him to read and write?

Ah... but why go so far back into the unknowns?

Who taught YOU (or your parents, or their parents) to read and write? Who fed YOU when you were little? Gave you employment? rendered you service? helped you in your needs?

It seems most fitting that this month is the month in which America celebrates her national day of thanks - and if we had fallen into the sane silliness of the French Republic, we might very appropriately call this month "THANKS". (Of course if it's in French, we must use the correct ending, whatever it may be!)

As you may have expected, Chesterton has anticipated all this:
But the world has to thank [the ancient world] for many things which it considers common and necessary; and the creators of those common things ought really to have a place among the heroes of humanity. If we were at rest in a real paganism, instead of being restless in a rather irrational reaction from Christianity, we might pay some sort of pagan honour to these nameless makers of mankind. We might have veiled statues of the man who first found fire or the man who first made a boat or the man who first tamed a horse. And if we brought them garlands or sacrifices, there would be more sense in it than in disfiguring our cities with cockney statues of stale politicians and philanthropists.
[GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:200]
Indeed. Today, perhaps more than on any other day, we need to recall the real words that begin the Prayer of Thanks:

Priest: Sursum Corda! Upwards, [all] hearts!
People: Habemus ad Dominum! We have [moved them upwards], toward the Lord!
Priest: Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro. Let us give thanks to the Lord, to our God.
People: Dignum et justum est. It is worthy/suitable, and just/regular/proper/fitting/perfect/right.

(my own translation, done not for precision of liturgy but for emphasis and implication.)

Recall, too, that in that prayer we join the entire heavenly choir of triumphant humans - a song which hitherto was sung only by the angels. [See Isaias 6:3]

Do something human today. Offer thanks - you will never know, can never count, all those to whom you owe it, but they will know.

It is time for a picnic on the roof, or lunch on the floor.

"...thanks are the highest form of thought... gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder."

[GKC, A Short History of England CW20:463]

Upwards, all hearts!

--Dr. Thursday

PS: Since I have risked much by mentioning the formal words of the liturgy and writing about them, I must add just a bit to show this is not simple speculation on my part. According to Jungman's The Mass of the Roman Rite, the formula "Let us give thanks..." actually dates back to Jewish prayer-formulas. Moreover, the response is definitively a Roman and a public acclamation, equivalent to "Amen": "...the response to the invitation to prayer by a Dignum et iustum est was current there [in Jewish order of prayer]. And in ancient culture too, accalamtion of this kind played a grand role. It was considered the proper thing for the lawfully assembled people to endorse an important decision, an election, or the taking of office or leitourgia, by means of an acclamation." Jungman's is a thoroughly annotated work; notes state that Aequum est, iustum est was used at the election of the Emperor Gordian; Dignum et iustum est was used at the election of the bishop in Hippo. [see I:15 note 40, II:111 and notes 10&11 on that page] This work has a lot to say about the inner details which I have only hinted at here.

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