Thursday, December 24, 2009

Frats, Vitamin F, and the Fish - or, Revealing a Family Secret

(My special thanks to Nancy, our esteemed blogg-mistress, for the idea which germinated into this essay. It's very strange what you can find out here in the e-cosmos, isn't it? hee hee...)

Frat? What is a "frat"? A kind of fish, like "sprat" or "dace"? No; it's college-jargon, short for "fraternity", from the Latin frater which means "brother". You know - "the Greeks" - drunks, stunts, pranks and hazing and (drum roll) initiation? Swallowing goldfish? (There's that fish thing again, hmm.)

Not quite, my friend! I mean friendship, honor and dignity, depth of history, steadfast devotion to great principles, a campus home, a college family, and especially the true use of one's intellect... Yes, as you might have guessed, I was in a frat in college. (Oh, my yes: I went to my first ACS conference with a brother, and I met another brother there! He's someone you've read if you get the magazine, but I will not reveal more. No it's not Dale; he's another kind of brother to me.) I was very strongly involved in that frat - involved for quite a few years - rather extensively so, in fact. I won't tell you which one, since it is irrelevant (and in fact worse than irrelevant) now. But I will tell you a few things about these societies, since the idea of a fraternity touches us today in a very special way.

An aside: if you do happen to know which frat, and are wondering about why, you can just put it down to that old song:
They didn't like "Doc Thursday" playing ancient "frat boy" games...
After all, it's all a matter of going deep into history, and we all know how inconvenient that can be. Hee hee. See Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine for more on that sort of thing. Ahem. But let us proceed.

Anyhow, one of the more startling facts one learns about these Greek-letter organizations, once one is inside one (or once one actually bothers to inquire) is that they all work on more-or-less the same principle: the principle of the Family. The idea is that the typical college man of the 1800s was probably rather far from home, and he was very busy with his studies and with his aspirations to his future career - most often this was a Physician, a Lawyer, or a Clergyman, but there was the general sense of striving to become a well-rounded and honorable American Citizen. All very good. But he did get lonely, being far from home and without cell phone or e-mail or car, and also he most likely had a chivalrous sense of wanting to work together with friends at truly honorable activities...

Now, another thing we need to recognize is that these young men whose fathers or grandfathers had fought in the American Revolution were enthusiastic about trying out this new "self-government" trick. They knew they would be facing the real thing, either in their town or city, or state, or country (after all that was what the Founding Fathers wanted, you know) and these smart young men also knew that the typical college lecture was a time for learning - that is, acquiring knowledge from the professors. Their classes would not provide "labs" for things like public speaking, or learning how to deal with others - they were paying good money to attend those lectures, and they didn't expect to waste their class time on things they could do elsewhere, and under their own power. (So American of them - no, I should say so Subsidiarity of them!) Hence the young men started their own organizations, to practice things like public speaking (either debates or extemporaneous talks) and the running of meetings by parliamentary procedure, and the fair and just dealing with each other, especially with those who may not be in agreement with you. (Again we hear hints of GKC.) So, they founded clubs called "literary societies" - which were kind of like debate clubs (All Chestertonians now murmur "J.D.C.", of course) and they met after classes and they were really great things, and just about everyone joined, and had a good time, too. (Very fascinating, I wish I had time to tell you more, but just for an example you can read about them here.) Some of them survived for over a century, and in fact I met a member of one which had been founded in the 1830s, I was very impressed.

But these societies, as good as they are (or were) did not supply the "minimum daily requirement" of Vitamin F, the Family vitamin. They were a bit too large for such things, and of course they had a different motivation - that of literary endeavours and the practical experience of self-government, and so forth.

Now, back in 1776, a lot of things happened which I am sure you know very well. But there was something else that happened, in December, at a little college called "William and Mary" in Virginia. Some young men got together and started a frat. They called it "Phi Beta Kappa" - but it was at that time NOT a "honor society". No, it was like the typical "social fraternity" of today - it had secrets, it had a grip, it had a badge, and so forth. The handy thing about Phi Beta Kappa, however, is that many years ago it changed its purpose and became an honorary society, and at some point it did away with its secrets. Of course this abolished any possibility of having that Vitamin F, but as I said it is handy, since I can therefore tell you one of its former secrets, and thereby explain what it is I am trying to explain.

The name "Phi Beta Kappa" was what we now call an "acrostic" or an "acronym" like "NASA" (for National Aeronautics and Space Administration), or "ASCII", which stands for "American Standard Code for Information Interchange", which is the coding method by which you and I are presently communing! In the same way, those three Greek letters, Phi, Beta, Kappa, stand for three words. But the words, of course, were Greek words, and back in 1776 you had to be admitted in order to learn what those three words were! No longer. Here is what they are:
Phi - Philosophia = "Philosophy (Love of wisdom)"
Beta - Biou = "of life"
Kappa - Kubernetes = "guide"
That is,
Philosophia Biou Kubernetes,
which means roughly
"The Love of Wisdom is the Guide of Life."
(Need I remind you that in those days if you went to college you studied Latin and Greek? I should think you ought to, even today, but that's another topic for another time.)

These are great words, of course, and significant even as they stand one by one. The first is obvious to any philosopher, and the second gives us "biology" - but the third is literally "steersman" and from it we get both "government" and "cybernetics" - but we have no time for that today. It is Christmas Eve you know, even if you thought I had forgotten!

So yes, those odd Greek letter names of frats are nothing more than acronyms for Greek phrases which are kept secret for the sake of producing that elusive "Vitamin F". Why do I say that? Well, it will come as quite a bit of a surprise to outsiders, but not to Chestertonians, since we understand about the Three Great Reasons for Keeping Things Secret, as GKC told us in ILN August 10 1907 CW27:423 et seq. which I shall not quote here; you really must read it for yourself. The first, and best, is that one keeps things secret simply for the sake of revealing them at the proper time! For example, you see all those wrapped boxes under the Christmas Tree? They are being kept secret! And you may recall St. Paul writing this:
Now to him that is able to establish you, according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret from eternity; (Which now is made manifest by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the precept of the eternal God, for the obedience of faith) known among all nations...
[Romans 16:25-6, emphasis added]
Indeed! It would be hard for us to keep from wrapping our Christmas presents, since God Himself kept Christmas wrapped as a great secret, even from Moses and Abraham... But let us proceed.

Now, as I said, the frats keep their motto (the Greek phrase hidden within the letters of their name) secret, together with some other related matters, so that they can reveal all that at the proper time - that is, when they initiate their new members. This very simple, almost trivial trick, gives the members something they share in common: something no others - that is no OUTSIDERS - can share. And that sharing is one simple way of describing a Family! The nature of a frat is NOT to exclude - no, it is to INCLUDE, and include in a very special way... it's real hard to produce that Vitamin F without something very unique - something like marriage - which also connects to GKC's second Great Reason for Keeping Things Secret. (You'll have to check out the essay, and it will be obvious to you. I certainly cannot go revealing it here.)

Now (like Martha) you are probably busy with many things, trying to do your last-minute preparations, and you want me to get to the point. I have two points.

First, you will recall that last week I mentioned the seven ancient O antiphons:

O Sapientia = O Wisdom
O Adonai = O Lord of Israel
O Radix Iesse = O Root of Jesse
O Clavis David = O Key of David
O Oriens = O Rising Dawn
O Rex Gentium = O King of Nations
O Emmanuel = O God-With-Us

Now, if you have read my original series on these, you will know about the secret they contain... but if you haven't, you can apply the "frat" technique and learn something interesting!

Yes, the initial letters of the seven titles of our Lord spell out "ERO CRAS - which is Latin for "I will be here tomorrow"! (See here for more.)

Now, as you may also know I am quite enough of a biologist (I can spell DNA after all, and I even know a little of what is going on when the computer "boots up". It has to do with ribosomes, hee hee) and so I quite well understand that Jesus was already "here" - though for the past nine months He was hidden, kind of like those gifts under the tree, you know. The point is that, like the shepherds, on Christmas we are able to SEE Him! Gosh, you just need to remember what GKC wrote ... oh yeah. Well, I think that once you read it, you will understand that this Christmas thing really is a kind of frat effect of Vitamin F:
We all know that the popular presentation of this popular story, in so many miracle plays and carols, has given to the shepherds the costume, the language, and the landscape of the separate English and European countrysides. We all know that one shepherd will talk in a Somerset dialect or another talk of driving his sheep from Conway towards the Clyde. Most of us know by this time how true is that error, how wise, how artistic, how intensely Christian and Catholic is that anachronism. But some who have seen it in these scenes of medieval rusticity have perhaps not seen it in another sort of poetry, which it is sometimes the fashion to call artificial rather than artistic. I fear that many modern critics will see only a faded classicism in the fact that men like Crashaw and Herrick conceived the shepherds of Bethlehem under the form of the shepherds of Virgil. Yet they were profoundly right; and in turning their Bethlehem play into a Latin Eclogue they took up one of the most important links in human history. Virgil, as we have already seen, does stand for all that saner heathenism that had overthrown the insane heathenism of human sacrifice; but the very fact that even the Virgilian virtues and the sane heathenism were in incurable decay is the whole problem to which the revelation to the shepherds is the solution. If the world had ever had the chance to grow weary of demonic, it might have been healed merely by becoming sane. But if it had grown weary even of being sane, what was to happen, except what did happen? Nor is it false to conceive the Arcadian shepherd of the Eclogues as rejoicing in what did happen. One of the Eclogues [The Fourth] has even been claimed as a prophecy of what did happen. But it is quite as much in the tone and incidental diction of the great poet that we feel the potential sympathy with the great event; and even in their own human phrases the voices of the Virgilian shepherds might more than once have broken upon more than the tenderness of Italy... Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem... They might have found in that strange place all that was best in the last traditions of the Latins; and something better than a wooden idol standing up forever for the pillar of the human family; a household god. But they and all the other mythologists would be justified in rejoicing that the event had fulfilled not merely the mysticism but the materialism of mythology Mythology had many sins; but it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation. With something of the ancient voice that was supposed to have rung through the groves, it could cry again, "We have seen, he hath seen us, a visible god." So the ancient shepherd might have danced, and their feet have been beautiful upon the mountains, [cf. Isaiah 52:7] rejoicing over the philosophers.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:307-8, emphasis added]
Did you catch that about the human family? I have no time to go into that bit about the "Household God" but I will try to do it next time. But I will tell you that the Latin quote is from Virgil's "Fourth Eclogue" and means "Begin, little boy, to know your mother by her smile."

Now, I have one more thing to mention, one more secret to unwrap for you.

You see, as a Christian, you are already in a frat - in a Family. This is one of the most obvious things to understand when you recall how often St. Paul uses the word "brother" - heck, after all Ananias called him brother! (see Acts 9:17) But there is something else, far closer to the Phi-Beta-Kappa effect, which you may not have ever heard about. One of the earliest Christian symbols is the Fish. which according to The Encyclopedia of the Early Church 803 "seems to have been used from the start" [of Christianity] and indeed "seems to disappear with the coming of the Constantinian era". Very curious. But of course they did not use the word "fish". They used ICQUS or "ICHTHYS", from which we get the word "ichthyologist" (student of fish). But the secret the Christians knew was what those five letters stand for:

I - IhsouV = Jesus
C - CristoV = Christ,
Q - Qeou = God's
U - UioV = Son,
S - Swter = Savior

but then you already knew that. After all, as St. Paul wrote, Jesus was born "of a woman, born under the Law" [Gal 4:4] And that is what Christmas is all about.

In the next week, please try to read the chapter called "The God in the Cave" in GKC's The Everlasting Man - and even if you have already read it, read it again. Read it to your family, to your friends, and they will be enriched.

My very best wishes for a happy and holy Christmas to all my dear brothers and sisters in ICQUS.

God bless us, every one!

--Dr. Thursday

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