Botticelli - Madonna del Magnificat

Bright Berries, One Winter

Winter, three days before that celebration that marks a certain birth.

Et hoc vobis signum: Inveniétis infántem pannis involútum, et pósitum in præsépio.

Et súbito facta est cum Angelo multitúdo milítiæ cæléstis, laudántium Deum, et dicéntium:

Glória in altíssimis Deo, et in terra pax homíinibus bonæ voluntátis.

Outside, snow, and a cold wind below a clouded sky – and, there, that partly snow-covered bush of bright berries which hungry Thrushes eat to perhaps keep themselves alive. So many Thrushes, in one place: nine, eleven, gathering on the bare if snowy branches of a nearby taller tree, to descend down to feed, three, five, four, at a time.

Inside, musick – reproduced by some modern means. Musick over five centuries old, bringing such a strange melding of feeling, dreams, memory, and thought. Musick, by Dunstable – Preco preheminencie, perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, bringing thus deep personal feelings.

Now, I cannot seem to help the tears that seep slowly forth (again) from closing eyes, as – far beyond such bounds as causal Time keeps us moving – I am replete, overflowed by memories from such lifeful strange lives as have lived me, here:

… there, as she my Sue lay so softly breathing in her bed, my hand to her hand, to watch her sleep to seep hour-long-slowly there past the ending of her life…

There, as another love from another life that lived me ran, freshly seeping forth from train, along that crowded platform to leap to welcoming arms while people stared, some smiling, and the warmth of bodies touching announced the ending of our exile, of that month of her travelling…

There, one monk – with such profusion of faith as so infused me then – who knelt, kneels, after Compline in that lovely Chapel before carved centuries-old statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, feeling such peace as led me back in such respectful reposeful silence to that my cell to sleep dreamless, content…

Before other lives came to so sadly betake that boyish man away, back to his addiction to such suffering-causing abstractions as would, decades, later, almost break him as she – my Frances of eighteen months together – so then suffused with such tragic fullsome sadness-regret-despair that her slim delicate fingers, no longer to tenderly warmly touch her lover’s face, became transformed: a means to betake her, alone lonely, past the ending of her life after I had so selfishly left her that one MayMorn…

So many tears, each some memory seeping sadly joyfully poignantly forth even as so many wait, waiting, ready to heave forth; dormant, seeds needing to bring hence new life as each new Spring becomes some youthful ageing deedful wordful presencing of this one life which is my life until such Time as this emanation also passes beyond that fated Ending who lies in wait to take us all.

Thus am I humbled, once more, by such knowing feeling of the burden made from my so heavy past; so many errors, mistakes. So many to humble me here, now, by such profusion as becomes prehension of centuries past and passing, bringing as such a passing does such gifts of they now long beyond life’s ending who crafted from faith, feeling, experience, living, love, those so rich presents replete with meaning; presenting thus to us if only for a moment – fleeting as Thrush there feeding – that knowing of ourselves as beings who by empathy, life, gifts, and love, can cease to be some cause of suffering.

For no longer is there such a need – never was there such a need – to cause such suffering as we, especially I, have caused. For are not we thinking thoughtful beings – possessed of the numinous will to love?

But my words, my words – so unlike such musick – fail: such finite insubstantial things; such a weak conduit for that flowing of wordless feeling that, as such musick, betakes us far out beyond our causal selves to where we are, can be, should be, must be, the non-interfering beauty of a moment; a sublime life seeking only to so gently express that so gentle love that so much faith has sometimes so vainly so tried to capture, express, and manifest; as when that boyish man as monk past Compline knelt in gentleness to feel to become such peace, such a human happiness, as so many others have felt centuries past and present, one moment flowing so numinously to another.

No need, no Time – before this one weakful emanation ends, in ending – to berate, condemn, such love, need and faith as may betake so many in just three days to celebrate such birth as touched, touches, them, and others still. So much good, gentleness, there, and from; and so much suffering, caused, while the centuries past, leeching, meshed one suffering to another.

Does the numinous, presencing, there, now outweigh such suffering, caused – as I, my past, might must outweigh what wordful presents Fate begifts me, now?

I do not know: only see the emanations, nexing, melding: a bush of berries to keep life alive through Winter. Our choice, our need – here, now; as the Thrushes there have no choice, now, as mid-Winter came to bleaken with snowy cold that world that is their world.

For it is for us, surely, to treasure such gifts, given – to feel then be the gift, given.

David Myatt
22 December 2010


Image credit: Botticelli – Madonna del Magnificat
Source:  http://www.davidmyatt.info/dwm-bright-berries.html

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Note: The following essay is taken from Part One of my book Understanding and Rejecting Extremism: A Very Strange Peregrination, and which book is available both in printed form [1] and as a free pdf download [2].

David Myatt

Towards Understanding Extremism

Some Notes From Personal Experience




Harshness, Hatred, and The Separation-of-Otherness

Some four years of reflexion concerning my four decades of extremism [3] have inclined me to consider that the genesis of extremism, and the making of extremists, may well be and may well involve three inter-related things: harshness, hatred, and what I term the-separation-of-otherness.

Thus, in my view, an extremist in active pursuit of some objective, usually of a political or a religious nature, manifests a certain personal harshness, a certain propensity toward impersonal hatred, and makes not only a clear distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’ but also between (i) some vision of or some belief in a particular past and (ii) the state of things now and how it is believed things will be, or should be, the immediate future. All of which predispose a person toward, or which can be used (by agitators, ideologues, fanatics, propagandists, leaders) to incite people toward, violence and – sometimes – toward terrorism.

The extremist therefore identifies with a particular category which is given certain characteristics or which is believed to be based on certain characteristics, and which category is invariably regarded – instinctively or otherwise – as either having a special (or even God-given) destiny or as being better than or superior to ‘the others’. In case of racism, for example, the category is what is believed to be one’s own particular ethnic group; in the case of radical nationalism, one’s own particular country, land, or nation; in the case of radical Islam, of having the authentic interpretation and belonging with those who do adhere to that interpretation.

There thus exists, or developes, or there is cultivated, a distinct and a prideful sense of identity, dependant upon the belief – instinctive, or formulated in some manifesto, tract, doctrine, ideology, or dogma – that what exists now (society, or ‘our way of life’, for example) is under threat, and either (i) has deviated from a posited or some believed in ideal or idealized community/society/way of life that is said to have existed in the past or (ii) can and should move toward that new community/society/way of life demanded by the ideology, manifesto, tract, doctrine, dogma, ideologue, or interpretation.

This identity produces or can produce resentment, anger; caused by both (i) a perceived or a felt disparity between the now and the assumed ideal, past or future, and (ii) by the belief that someone or some many are responsible for the ‘current state of affairs’ and/or are preventing a return to, or the creation of, the ideal. For the problems or the conditions of the present are assumed, by extremists, to have certain identifiable and simple supra-personal causes, just as the path to the goal is regarded as requiring that those causes be dealt with; with the causes of the problems often or mostly being the work of ‘others’; not our fault, but instead the result of ‘our enemies’, and/or of some opposing ideology. That is, our enemies ‘threaten’ our way of life and/or are to blame.

Hence in order for extremists to return to this past perfection – or in order for them to create a new form of this past perfection, this past ideal, or in order for them to create a new perfection inspired by some past or newly posited ideal – the enemies, and/or opposing ideologies and those adhering to them, must be dealt with. There must therefore be struggle; the notion of future victory; and at the very least political/social/religious activity, and propaganda, directed toward political/social/religious goals; a moving toward regaining the authority, the power, the influence which supporters of, for example, an ideology believe or assume they and their kind have lost and which they almost invariably believe are now ‘in the hands of their enemies’ and/or of traitors or ‘heretics’.

All this combines to provide the extremist with a simplicity of purpose, for their life now has a meaning which – instinctive or otherwise – vivifies, removes doubt, with the result that the goal, the ideal, the ideology, is given or assumes a high priority in the life of the individual, often to the extent that they are prepared – even willing – to use violence, and actively hate their perceived enemies, ‘the others’, whom thus they, in their harshness and intolerance, have dehumanized.

Extremism, Ideation, and Abstractions

Such violence, such hatred, such a dehumanizing of those deemed enemies with the consequent immoral denial of innocence [4], are inevitable consequences of all ideologies founded on notions of a prideful identity which glorify a past (real or idealized), which posit some future ideal or goal, and which involve a struggle against stated enemies to achieve such a goal or such an ideal.

For all extremists accept – and all extremisms are founded on – the instinctive belief or the axiom that their cherished ideation(s) or abstraction(s) is or are more important, more valuable, than the individual and the feelings, desires, hopes, and happiness, of the individual. The extremist thus views and understands the world in terms of abstractions; in terms of

“…a manufactured generalization, a hypothesis, a posited thing, an assumption or assumptions about, an extrapolation of or from some-thing, or some assumed or extrapolated ideal ‘form’ of some-thing. Sometimes, abstractions are generalization based on some sample(s), or on some median (average) value or sets of values, observed, sampled, or assumed.

Abstractions can be of some-thing past, in the present, or described as a goal or an ideal which it is assumed could be attained or achieved in the future.” [5]

The abstractions of extremism are manifest in the ideology, which posits or which attempts to explain (however irrationally and intolerantly) some ideated form, some assumed or believed in perfect (ideal) form or category of some-thing, and which ideated form is or can be or should be (according to the ideology) contrasted with what is considered or assumed to be its ‘opposite’. For example, in nazism and neo-nazism, the basal ideation is the White (or the Aryan) race, so that for those who accept such a racial ideology a White or Aryan ideal (man and woman) exists, has existed, or should exist, with individuals judged or expected to judge themselves according to this standard and expected to strive to emulate or attain it; and with enemies (such as Jews – Zionists [6] – and Muslims) pejoratively contrasted with it, and thus viewed in a bigoted and a dehumanizing way. The individual, extremist or otherwise, is therefore required to accept – be subservient to – the judgement that the ideology asserts, or which some ideologue proclaims, is correct; for all ideologies denigrate or require (overtly or otherwise) the suspension of individual judgement either in favour of the collective, ‘correct’, ideological one, or in favour of the judgement of some leader, ideologue, or some ‘higher authority’.

For there is the belief or the assumption, implicit in ideation, that what is observed by the senses, or revealed by observation, is either an ‘imperfect copy’ or an approximation of that posited ideal thing or form, with the additional assumption or belief that such an ideated form contains or in some way expresses (or can express) ‘the essence’ or ‘the ethos’ of that thing and of similar things, and ideologies of whatever kind assert or claim that (i) it is this essence or ethos that the ideology – or some leader or ideologue – has revealed or does reveal, and (ii) this essence or ethos can and should inspire and motivate individuals to strive and struggle to implement, to make real, their posited ideal or ideals even if, or especially if, such striving and struggle involves conflict and violence.

The Masculous Extremist

Given the foregoing, the extremist is a certain type of person; or at least, in my experience, the majority of extremists are: by nature, or become so through association with or because of the influence of others, or because of ideological indoctrination. This type of person has or developes not only a certainty-of-knowing about their cause, faith, or ideology, but also a need or an enthusiasm for territorial pride and personal aggression. In brief, they have or they develope an inflexible masculous [7] character, often excessively so; and a character which expresses the masculous nature, the masculous ethos, of extremism. A character, a nature, unbalanced by muliebral virtues.

For it is in the nature of extremists that they disdain, and often despise, the muliebral virtues of empathy, sensitivity, humility, gentleness, forgiveness, compassion, and the desire to love and be loved over and above the desire for conflict, territorial identity, and for war. Thus we find in extremism a glorification of the masculous at the expense of the muliebral [8]; a definite personal certitude of knowing; a glorification of toughness and aggression and war; an aggressive territorial pride; a tendency to believe, or the forthright assertion, that ‘might is right’ and kampf is necessary; the desire to organize/control; a prominent desire for adventure and/or for conflict/war/violence/competition; and – especially in ideologues, fanatics, propagandists, agitators, and leaders – the love of manipulation through the charisma of words.

For extremism certainly manifests – and is an example, par excellence – of the love some people have or seem to need for the manipulation of others through words both spoken and written. As I have noted elsewhere:

It is as if we terrans, en masse, have forgotten, keep forgetting, or have never discovered the wisdom that what involves too many words – and especially what involves or requires speeches, rhetoric, propaganda, dogma – is what obscures empathy and thus the numinosity that empathy reveals; the numinosity presented to us by the pathei-mathos of our human past; manifest to us – and living now – in the way of living of those whose personal pathei-mathos – whose personal experience of suffering, death, destruction, hate, violence, of too many killings – has forever changed them. The numinous revelation of kindness, of humility, of gentleness, of love, of compassion; of being able to restrain, control, ourselves; of being able to comprehend our small, insignificant, place in the indefinity of the Cosmos, bringing as this comprehension does an understanding of the importance, the numinosity, that is a shared and loyal love between two people: and revealing as this does the Cosmic unimportance of such wars and conflicts and such brutality as have blighted our terran history. [9]

A Cure For Extremism?

Understood thus, extremism could be considered to be akin to bad (or rotten) individual physis [10]; as a manifestation of an unbalanced, an intemperate, psyche [11]; and as something which is or which has the potential to be contagious. Or, expressed less dramatically, extremism is a modern manifestation of hubris; of a lack of respect for, and a lack of appreciation of, the numinous. And, as hubris, is a manifestation of the error that is the genesis of the tyrant [12] as well as the genesis (in my view) of what has been termed the patriarchal ethos and in particular of how that ethos continues to not only survive but also still dominates the world.

It really does appear to be the case, as I perhaps somewhat controversially noted in a recent missive, that we men en masse have learnt nothing from the past four or five thousand years,

For the uncomfortable truth is that we, we men, are and have been the ones causing, needing, participating in, wars and conflicts. We – not women – are the cause of most of the suffering, death, destruction, hate, violence, brutality, and killing, that has occurred and which is still occurring, thousand year upon thousand year; just as we are the ones who seek to be – or who often need to be – prideful and ‘in control’; and the ones who through greed or alleged need or because of some ideation have saught to exploit not only other human beings but the Earth itself. We are also masters of deception; of the lie. Cunning with our excuses, cunning in persuasion, and skilled at inciting hatred and violence. And yet we men have also shown ourselves to be, over thousands of years, valourous; capable of noble, selfless, deeds. Capable of doing what is fair and restraining ourselves from doing what is unethical. Capable of a great and a gentle love.

This paradoxy continues to perplex me. And I have no answers as to how we might change, reform, this paradoxical φύσις of ours, and so – perhaps – balance the suffering-causing masculous with the empathic muliebral and yet somehow in some way retain that which is the genesis of the valourous. And if we cannot do this, if we cannot somehow reform ourselves, can we terrans as a species survive, and do we deserve to? [9]

My only fallible suggestions are the empathy, the primacy of love and of pathei-mathos, and the appreciation of the numinous and of humility, that form the basis of my philosophy of pathei-mathos, and which philosophy is only my attempt to expresses what I believe I have understood because of and from my own personal pathei-mathos.

David Myatt
2013

°°°

Notes:

[1] ISBN 978-1484854266

[2] Understanding and Rejecting Extremism (pdf)

[3] By extreme I mean to be harsh, so that my understanding of an extremist is a person who tends toward harshness, or who is harsh, or who supports/incites harshness, in pursuit of some objective, usually of a political or a religious nature. Here, harsh is: rough, severe, a tendency to be unfeeling, unempathic.

Hence extremism is considered to be: (1) the result of such harshness, and (2) the principles, the causes, the characteristics, that promote, incite, or describe the harsh action of extremists. In addition, a fanatic is considered to be someone with a surfeit of zeal or whose enthusiasm for some objective, or for some cause, is intemperate.

In the philosophical terms of my weltanschauung, an extremist is someone who commits the error of hubris.

See either The Vocabulary of the Philosophy of Pathei-Mathos (pdf) or the glossary in my book The Numinous Way of Pathei-Mathos (2013. ISBN 978-1484096642) for how I use and/or define particular terms, such as society, the State, masculous, indefinity, and so on.

[4]  My understanding of innocence is that it is an attribute of those who, being personally unknown to us, are therefore unjudged us by and who thus are given the benefit of the doubt. For this presumption of innocence of others – until direct personal experience, and individual and empathic knowing of them, prove otherwise – is the fair, the reasoned, the numinous, the human, thing to do.

Empathy and πάθει μάθος incline us toward treating other human beings as we ourselves would wish to be treated; that is they incline us toward fairness, toward self-restraint, toward being well-mannered, and toward an appreciation and understanding of innocence.

[5] The definition is taken from the glossary in The Numinous Way of Pathei-Mathos.

[6] The term Zionist is often employed by contemporary neo-nazis as a euphemism for Jews, partly in order to try and circumvent racial hatred legislation in countries where such legislation is in force, and partly to try and avoid accusations of being a ‘conspiracy theorist’.

[7] Masculous is from the Latin masculus and is a term used to refer to certain traits, abilities, and qualities that are conventionally and historically associated with men, such as competitiveness, aggression, a certain tendency toward harshness.

[8] The term muliebral derives from the classical Latin word muliebris, and in the context my philosophy of Pathei-Mathos refers to those positive traits, abilities, and qualities – such as empathy, sensitivity, gentleness, compassion – that are conventionally and historically associated with women.

[9] Blue Reflected Starlight. 2012

[10] I use the term φύσις (physis) here in reference to the nature or the character of a person. As Heraclitus noted:

σωφρονεῖν ἀρετὴ μεγίστη, καὶ σοφίη ἀληθέα λέγειν καὶ ποιεῖν κατὰ φύσιν ἐπαίοντας

Most excellent is balanced reasoning, for that skill can tell inner character from outer.

Fragment 112

[11]  Psyche is here used in reference to its classical origins and my philosophy of pathei-mathos; as an emanation, embodied in a fallible mortal, of Life qua being.

[12]

ὕβρις φυτεύει τύραννον:
ὕβρις, εἰ πολλῶν ὑπερπλησθῇ μάταν,
ἃ μὴ ‘πίκαιρα μηδὲ συμφέροντα,
ἀκρότατον εἰσαναβᾶσ᾽
αἶπος ἀπότομον ὤρουσεν εἰς ἀνάγκαν,
ἔνθ᾽ οὐ ποδὶ χρησίμῳ
χρῆται

Insolence [hubris] plants the tyrant. There is insolence if by a great foolishness there is a useless over-filling which goes beyond the proper limits. It is an ascending to the steepest and utmost heights and then that hurtling toward that Destiny where the useful foot has no use…

Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus. vv.872ff



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Glasgow University library: MS Hunter 374 fol.4r
A pdf version of parts one and two is available here – exegesis-and-translation-partsone-two.pdf


Exegesis and Translation

Some Personal Reflexions
(Part Two)

Translation and Al-Quran

The problem of sometimes projecting modern interpretations onto ancient texts by the injudicious use, in a translation, of a particular English word is especially relevant in the matter of the Quran, for it seems to be increasingly common for someone reliant on translations – on the interpretations of meaning given by others – to misunderstand the text of the Quran and then, from that misunderstanding, not only form a misconceived (and sometimes prejudiced) opinion about the Quran in particular and Islam in general but also to give voice to such an opinion.

For example, an ayah [verse] often (mis)quoted is Ayah 151 of Surah Al ‘Imran, which is usually interpreted as “Soon shall we cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers.”

However, the word ‘terror’ is an inappropriate interpretation for several reasons. The Arabic of Ayah 151 of Surah Al ‘Imran is:

سَنُلْقِي فِي قُلُوبِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا الرُّعْبَ بِمَا أَشْرَكُوا بِاللَّهِ مَا لَمْ يُنَزِّلْ بِهِ سُلْطَانًا وَمَأْوَاهُمُ النَّارُ وَبِئْسَ مَثْوَى الظَّالِمِينَ

Does الرُّعْبَ imply ‘terror’ as the aforementioned interpretation suggests, along with all that the modern English word terror now implies, as in the difficult to define term terrorism? No, it does not; rather, the Arabic implies the fear/the dread and ‘the astonishment/awe’ – that is, that human feeling inspired by apprehending or experiencing some-thing supernaturally or extraordinarily powerful and numinous; for example, an Ayah (Sign) of Allah, Al-Khaliq, Al-Azim, Al-Jalil. The kind of fear/trembling/awe/astonishment felt, for instance and importantly, by the Apostles when, as recounted in Luke 24.37, they witnessed Jesus alive after the crucifixion.

That is, I suggest that what is referred to in Ayah 151 of Surah Al ‘Imran – as in the other four Ayat where الرُّعْبَ / رُعْبًا occur – is similar to the ‘suffusion with fear’ and the ‘being scared’ that occurs and has occurred, as recounted in both Christian scripture and the Quran, when a mortal is (a) confronted by God/Allah or some-thing divine/numinous/awe-inspiring, and/or (b) has such fear, and such a being scared, thrust into their hearts by God/Allah, as a Sign, a warning, or as mention of their fate.

In respect of Luke 24.37, for instance, the Greek text is:

πτοηθέντες δὲ καὶ ἔμφοβοι γενόμενοι ἐδόκουν πνεῦμα θεωρεῖν

The term ἔμφοβος means ‘suffused with/by phobos’ – held/gripped by fear; timorous – and occurs in Sirach 19.24 and Luke 24.5, the latter of which is very interesting: ἐμφόβων δὲ γενομένων αὐτῶν καὶ κλινουσῶν τὰ πρόσωπα εἰς τὴν γῆν εἶπαν πρὸς αὐτάς Τί ζητεῖτε τὸν ζῶντα μετὰ τῶν νεκρῶν. That is, suffused with phobos, they assumed a posture of submission/reverence/respect by bowing their heads; in effect prostrating themselves in the presence of some-thing divine/numinous/awe-inspiring. Since πνεῦμα – pneuma – implies apparition or ghost, and πτοηθεντες suggests they were ‘scared’ (cf. Odyssey 22.298 – τῶν δὲ φρένες ἐπτοίηθεν) then Luke 24.37 could be translated as “But they, suffused with fear and scared, felt that they saw an apparition.” [1]

My, admittedly fallible, view now – after some years of reflexion and study – is that, in an English interpretation of the meaning of a work as revered, and misunderstood, as the Quran, English words in common usage must be carefully chosen, with many common words avoided, and that it would sometimes be better to choose an unusual or even archaic word in order to try and convey something of the sense of the Arabic. Thus, with a careful interpretation common misunderstandings of the text – by non-Muslims unversed in Arabic – can possibly be avoided, especially if – as might be the case with unusual words – the reader has to pause to consider the meaning or make the effort to find the meaning, if only in a glossary appended to the interpretation. A pause and/or an effort that is suited to reading a work revered by millions of people around the world.

In the matter of Ayah 151 of Surah Al ‘Imran, a possible interpretation of meaning therefore is:

Into the hearts of they who disbelieve We shall hurl redurre because they, without any authority revealed about such things, associate others with Allah; and for their home: The Fire, that harrowing resting place of the unjust.

Here, I have used the unusual English word redurre, with a meaning of ‘awe combined with a trembling fear’. A word suggested by its occurrence in religious works by Richard Rolle and John Gower, and also by texts such as Morte Arthure [2] and which word therefore places this Ayah from the Quran into the correct context, which is that of a religious revelation, a spiritual message, comparable to that of Christianity, and of the particular ontology that Islam offers as answers to questions concerning the meaning and the purpose of our mortal lives; of how that purpose may be attained; and thus of what wisdom is. Answers which have nothing whatsoever to do with ‘terrorism’, or even with ‘terror’ as that word in now commonly understood.


The Art of Translation, and A Question About Time

One question of possibly projecting modern interpretations onto ancient texts by the injudicious use of a particular English word, occurred to me some twenty years ago during my translation of the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles, and concerned the Greek word χρόνος. This is almost always translated as ‘time’, a word we now associate with a regular linearity – of past-present-future – measured in terms of the minutes, hours, and fixed days, of a reliable timepiece such as a watch or clock.

In the classical world of Homer and Sophocles, this type of reliable, linear, regularity was almost unknown, with χρόνος thus sometimes denoting some ill-defined period – long or short – and with the passing of a year, for example, often determined by the changes of the seasons, and which seasons themselves were marked in their arrival by the appearance of certain constellations in the night sky, something beautifully expressed by Aeschylus at the beginning of the Agamemnon:

θεοὺς μὲν αἰτῶ τῶνδ᾽ ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων
φρουρᾶς ἐτείας μῆκος, ἣν κοιμώμενος
στέγαις Ἀτρειδῶν ἄγκαθεν, κυνὸς δίκην,
ἄστρων κάτοιδα νυκτέρων ὁμήγυριν,
καὶ τοὺς φέροντας χεῖμα καὶ θέρος βροτοῖς
λαμπροὺς δυνάστας, ἐμπρέποντας αἰθέρι
ἀστέρας, ὅταν φθίνωσιν, ἀντολάς τε τῶν.
καὶ νῦν φυλάσσω λαμπάδος τό σύμβολον,
αὐγὴν πυρὸς φέρουσαν ἐκ Τροίας φάτιν
ἁλώσιμόν τε βάξιν: ὧδε γὰρ κρατεῖ
γυναικὸς ἀνδρόβουλον ἐλπίζον κέαρ.

Again I have asked the gods to deliver me from this toil,
This vigil a year in length, where I repose
On Atreidae’s roof on my arms, as is the custom with dogs
Looking toward the nightly assembly of constellations
And they who bring to mortals the storm-season and the summer:
Those radiant sovereigns, distinguished in the heavens
As stars when they come forth or pass away.
And still I keep watch for the sign of the beacon,
The light of the fire which will bring report of Troy,
Announcing it is captured.
For such is the command
And expectation of that woman with a man’s resolve.

However, in Oedipus Tyrannus, Sophocles has the memorable phrase καί μ᾽ ἦμαρ ἤδη ξυμμετρούμενον χρόνῳ, indicating something not only about χρόνος but also about the classical world and (importantly) about the character of Oedipus. The phrase is therefore worth quoting in context:

παῖδες οἰκτροί, γνωτὰ κοὐκ ἄγνωτά μοι
προσήλθεθ᾽ ἱμείροντες: εὖ γὰρ οἶδ᾽ ὅτι
νοσεῖτε πάντες, καὶ νοσοῦντες, ὡς ἐγὼ
οὐκ ἔστιν ὑμῶν ὅστις ἐξ ἴσου νοσεῖ.
τὸ μὲν γὰρ ὑμῶν ἄλγος εἰς ἕν᾽ ἔρχεται
μόνον καθ᾽ αὑτὸν κοὐδέν᾽ ἄλλον, δ᾽ ἐμὴ
ψυχὴ πόλιν τε κἀμὲ καὶ σ᾽ ὁμοῦ στένει.
ὥστ᾽ οὐχ ὕπνῳ γ᾽ εὕδοντά μ᾽ ἐξεγείρετε,
ἀλλ᾽ ἴστε πολλὰ μέν με δακρύσαντα δή,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ὁδοὺς ἐλθόντα φροντίδος πλάνοις:
ἣν δ᾽ εὖ σκοπῶν ηὕρισκον ἴασιν μόνην,
ταύτην ἔπραξα: παῖδα γὰρ Μενοικέως
Κρέοντ᾽, ἐμαυτοῦ γαμβρόν, ἐς τὰ Πυθικὰ
ἔπεμψα Φοίβου δώμαθ᾽, ὡς πύθοιθ᾽ τι
δρῶν τί φωνῶν τήνδε ῥυσαίμην πόλιν.
καί μ᾽ ἦμαρ ἤδη ξυμμετρούμενον χρόνῳ    73
λυπεῖ τί πράσσει: τοῦ γὰρ εἰκότος πέρα
ἄπεστι πλείω τοῦ καθήκοντος χρόνου.
ὅταν δ᾽ ἵκηται, τηνικαῦτ᾽ ἐγὼ κακὸς
μὴ δρῶν ἂν εἴην πάνθ᾽ ὅσ᾽ ἂν δηλοῖ θεός.

You, my children, who lament – I know, for I am not without knowledge,
Of the desire which brings you here. For well do I see
All your sufferings – and though you suffer, it is I
And not one of you that suffers the most.
For your pain comes to each of you
By itself, with nothing else, while my psyche
Mourns for myself, for you and the clan.
You have not awakened me from a resting sleep
For indeed you should know of my many tears
And the many paths of reflection I have wandered upon and tried.
And, as I pondered, I found one cure
Which I therefore took. The son of Menoeceus,
Creon – he who is my kin by marriage – I have sent to that Pythian dwelling
Of Phoebus to learn how I
By word or deed can give deliverance to the clan.
But I have already measured the duration
And am concerned: for where is he? He is longer than expected
For his absence is, in duration, greater than is necessary.
Yet when he does arrive, it would dishonourable
For me not to act upon all that the gods makes clear.

vv.58-77


To translate χρόνος in v.73 abstractly as ‘time’ is therefore to overlook not only the context – of a world where the seasons were often determined by observation of the night sky – but also the significance of what Oedipus says. For he has, out of his urgent concern for both his people and himself – out of fear of the wrake of the gods – gone to the trouble to determine how long Creon’s journey should take and to measure/calculate/record, or to have someone do this for him, precisely how long Creon has been away.

A pedantic point, possibly; but one which perhaps illustrates the engaging art of translation and the possibilities of interpretation, and of misinterpretation, that exist.

David Myatt
2013


Notes

[1] On a pedantic note, I understandδοκέω as meaning here not the conventional unemotional ‘suppose/thought’ nor (worse) ‘opinion’ but rather as ‘felt’ in the sense of experiencing (as they do) an intense and personal feeling. Hence my rendering that they “felt that they saw…”

[2]  John Gower, Confessio Amantis [written 1390 ce]

That thogh thi love more drawe
And peise in the balance more,
Thou miht noght axe ayein therfore
Of duete, bot al of grace.
For love is lord in every place,
Ther mai no lawe him justefie
Be reddour ne be compaignie,
That he ne wole after his wille
Whom that him liketh spede or spille

(Book 5, v. 4558) The Complete Works of John Gower. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899-1902


Morte Arthure
[written c. 1400 ce]

That thow ne schall rowte ne ryste vndyr the heuene ryche,
Þofe thow for reddour of Rome ryne to þe erthe  [108-109]


cc David Myatt 2013
  This text is issued under the Creative Commons
(Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0) License
and can be freely copied and distributed, according to the terms of that license.
All translations/interpretation of meaning: DW Myatt

Image credit:

Illumination from the MS Anicii Manlii Torqvati Severini Boetii,
De Consolatione Philosophiae cvm Commento,
dated c. 1385 ce, in Glasgow University library: MS Hunter 374 fol.4r


A pdf version of parts one and two is available here – exegesis-translation.pdf

Glasgow University library: MS Hunter 374 fol.4r

Exegesis and Translation
Some Personal Reflexions
(Part One)

Since I first studied the Greek text of the Septuagint as a Christian monk, more than thirty five years ago, I have often reflected on matters pertaining to exegesis and translation. Four issues in particular have interested me during those decades.

1. How revealed religions, such as Christianity and Islam, and how certain spiritual ways [1], such as Buddhism and even Hinduism [2], are reliant on or have developed to become reliant upon certain texts, and how such dependant texts either by their nature require interpretation [3] or (more often) how interpretation is considered as necessary in order for the religion or spiritual way to gain support, influence, and adherents.

2. How many of those of faith – especially in revealed religions and almost certainly the majority of the faithful – have to rely on, and often quote, the translations of others; even if such people of faith are engaged in proselytizing.

3. How certain English words, used to interpret a particular Hebrew or Greek or Arabic word, suggest, represent, or have acquired, a particular meaning to English readers/listeners but which particular meaning may not necessary accurately reflect the meaning of the non-English word as that non-English word was possibly understood at the time it was included in a particular text.

4. How there seems to be, in revealed religions and most conventional spiritual ways, a rejection of pathei-mathos in favour of the wisdom said to be contained in the texts and thus in the teachings of the founder(s) of the religion/spiritual way, and – in the case of revealed religions – in the writings/edicts of those who have been vested with or who have acquired a certain religious authority, and – also in the case of revealed religions – how such pathei-mathos, to be accepted at all, has to be judged by criteria developed from such texts and/or developed from interpretations of such texts.


Interpretation and The Question of Sin

It is my view that in translations into English it is often be best to avoid words that impose or seem to impose a meaning on an ancient text especially if the sense that an English word now imputes is the result of centuries of assumptions or opinions or influences and thus has acquired a modern meaning somewhat at variance with the culture, the milieu, of the time when the text that is being translated was written. Especially so in the matter of religious or spiritual texts where so many people rely or seem to rely on the translations, the interpretations, of others and where certain interpretations seem to have become fixed. [4]

Thus, it may be helpful if one can suggest, however controversial they may seem in their time, reasoned alternatives for certain words important for a specific and a general understanding of a particular text, and helpful because such alternatives might enable a new appreciation of such a text, as if for instance one is reading it for the first time with the joy of discovery.

One of the prevalent English words used in translations of the New Testament, and one of the words now commonly associated with revealed religions such as Christianity and Islam, is sin. A word which now imputes and for centuries has imputed a particular and at times somewhat strident if not harsh moral attitude, with sinners starkly contrasted with the righteous, the saved, and with sin, what is evil, what is perverse, to be shunned and shudderingly avoided.

One of the oldest usages of the word sin – so far discovered – is in the c. 880 CE translation of the c. 525 CE text Consolatio Philosophiae, a translation attributed to King Ælfred. Here, the Old English spelling of syn is used:

 Þæt is swiðe dyslic & swiðe micel syn þæt mon þæs wenan scyle be Gode

The context of the original Latin of Boethius [5] is cogitare, in relation to a dialogue about goodness and God, so that the sense of the Latin is that it is incorrect – an error, wrong – to postulate/claim/believe certain things about God. There is thus here, in Boethius, as in early English texts such as Beowulf [6], the sense of doing what was wrong, of committing an error, of making a mistake, of being at fault; at most of overstepping the bounds, of transgressing limits imposed by others, and thus being ‘guilty’ of such an infraction, a sense which the suggested etymology of the word syn implies: from the Latin sons, sontis.

Thus, this early usage of the English word syn seems to impart a sense somewhat different from what we now associate with the word sin, which is why in my translation of John, 8.7 [7] I eschewed that much overused and pejorative word in order to try and convey something of the numinous original:

So, as they continued to ask [for an answer] he straightened himself, saying to them: Let he who has never made a mistake [ Αναμαρτητος ] throw the first stone at her.

ὡς  δὲ  ἐπέμενον  ἐρωτῶντες  αὐτόν,  ἀνέκυψεν  καὶ  εἶπεν  αὐτοῖς·  ὁ  ἀναμάρτητος  ὑμῶν  πρῶτος  ἐπ’  αὐτὴν  βαλέτω  λίθον.

Jesus here is not, in my view, sermonizing about sin, as a puritan preacher might, and as if he is morally superior to and has judged the sinners. Instead, he is rather gently and as a human pointing out an obvious truth about our human nature; explaining, in v.11, that he has not judged her conduct:

ἡ δὲ εἶπεν· οὐδείς, κύριε. εἶπεν δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· οὐδὲ ἐγώ σε κατακρίνω· πορεύου, ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε

[And] she answered, No one, my Lord. Whereupon Jesus replied Neither do I judge [κατακρίνω] you, therefore go, and avoid errors such as those. [8]

Such a translation avoids the rather contradictory nature of most other translations which have Jesus clearly stating that he also does not judge her but then have him go on to say that she should ‘sin no more’ with the obvious implication that he has indeed judged her in that in his judgement she had indeed sinned before.

Understood and appreciated thus, sans the now culturally-biased word sin, these passages from the gospel according to John – together with passages such as Luke 19.10 and Romans 13.10 [9] –  perhaps usefully summarize the evangel of Jesus of Nazareth; the (in my view) rather human message of avoiding judging others because we ourselves are prone to error, the message of love, and the message of redemption (forgiveness) for those who in the past have made mistakes but who have thereafter tried to avoid making such mistakes again, those hitherto perhaps damaged or lost.

In respect of ἁμαρτάνω [10] consider, for example, Matthew 18.21:

Τότε προσελθὼν ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν [αὐτῷ] Κύριε, ποσάκις ἁμαρτήσει εἰς ἐμὲ ὁ ἀδελφός μου καὶ ἀφήσω αὐτῷ; ἕως ἑπτάκις

Peter then approached [προσέρχομαι] him saying My Lord, how often [ποσάκις] may my brother fail [ἁμαρτάνω] me and be ignored [ἀφίημι]? Up to seven times?

Which is somewhat different from the usual “how many times shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him.”

Ontology, Exegesis, and Pathei-Mathos

All religions and spiritual ways, because they are spiritual/metaphysical, either posit, or are interpreted as positing, an ontology. That is, they all offer an explanation, or an analysis, of the nature of our being as humans and of the nature of, and our relation to, Being, whether Being is understood as God/Allah/gods/Nature/Fate or in terms of axioms such as karma and nirvana. There thus exists, or there developes, an explanation or explanations concerning the meaning and the purpose of our mortal lives; of how that purpose may be attained; and thus of what wisdom is and why there is and continues to be suffering.

However, as I mentioned in Questions of Good, Evil, Honour, and God, citing several examples, the original message of a revelation or of a spiritual way often seems to become obscured or somehow gets lost over centuries. A loss or obscuration party due to the reliance on revealed or given texts; partly due to divergent interpretations of such texts, with some interpretations accepted or rejected by those assuming or vested with a religious authority; and partly due to a reliance, by many of the faithful, on translations of such texts.

Furthermore, the interpretation of such religious texts – and/or the emergence or the writing of new texts concerning a particular spiritual way – has often led to schism or schisms, and to harsh interpretations of religions; schisms and a harshness that have sometimes led to sects, to violence between believers and sects, to accusations of heresy, and to the persecution of those said to be heretics. All of which have thus caused or been the genesis of suffering.

Thus, in respect of Christianity,

“…it is tempting therefore to suggest that it was later, and theological, interpretations and interpolations which led to a harsh dichotomy, an apocalyptic eschatology, a ‘war’ between an abstract ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and that with such interpretations and interpolations – much in evidence in the persecution of alleged heretics – the simple gospel message of the health of love was somehow lost for a while, to be, later on, re-expressed by people such as William Penn, who wrote, in his Some Fruits of Solitude, “Let us then try what love can do.” [11]

In effect, the humility that I have found by experience that all or most religions and spiritual ways manifest – and an essential part of their revelation, their message, their presencing of the numinous – is obscured or ignored in favour of arrogant human presumptions and assumptions and a personal pride: that ‘we’ know better, or believe we know better; that ‘we’ have somehow found or been given the ‘right’ answer(s) or the ‘right’ interpretation(s), and that therefore ‘the others’ are wrong, and ‘we’ are better or more ‘pure’/devout than them. And so on.

Yet there is, it seems to me, after many years of reflexion, something else which accounts for why this loss of a necessary humility occurs, other than the aforementioned reliance on revealed or given texts, the divergent interpretations of such texts, and the reliance, by many of the faithful, on translations of such texts. This is the reality of religions and many spiritual ways either rejecting pathei-mathos as a source of wisdom or favouring specific texts and their interpretation(s) over and above the pathei-mathos of individuals.

For pathei-mathos – the personal learning from grief, suffering, pain, adversity, and experience – directly connects us to and thus enables us to personally experience and appreciate the numinous, sans words, ideations, ideology, theology, and dogma. An experience and an appreciation outwardly and inwardly manifest in a personal humility; in the knowledge of ourselves as but one fallible, mortal, fragile, human emanation of and connexion to Being; and in an empathic understanding of how all religions and spiritual ways, in their genesis and in their original emanations, express – or try to express – the same wisdom: manifest in an appreciation of the numinous, and in our human necessity for the natural balance that is humility and a very personal honour. And, because of this spiritual and religious equivalence, it does not matter if the individual of pathei-mathos, having so touched and felt the numinous, developes their own weltanschauung or none, or leaves or finds an existing spiritual or religious one, although it is and often has been such pathei-mathos which reveals to individuals, or which enables them to rediscover, the essence of a particular religion or a particular spiritual way: that simple and similar numinous essence which schisms, harsh interpretations, dogma, and ideology, have so often and for so long obscured.

For what pathei-mathos reveals does matter, beyond such outward and such supra-personal manifestations, are the personal, the individual, virtues of love, empathy, gentleness, and compassion.

 

David Myatt
2013

Notes

[1] As outlined in Appendix II (Glossary of Terms and Greek Words) of The Numinous Way of Pathei-Mathos (2013) I make a distinction between a religion and a spiritual Way of Life.

One of the differences being that a religion requires and manifests a codified ritual and doctrine and a certain expectation of conformity in terms of doctrine and ritual, as well as a certain organization beyond the local community level resulting in particular individuals assuming or being appointed to positions of authority in matters relating to that religion. In contrast, Ways are more diverse and more an expression of a spiritual ethos, of a customary, and often localized, way of doing certain spiritual things, with there generally being little or no organization beyond the community level and no individuals assuming – or being appointed by some organization – to positions of authority in matters relating to that ethos.

Religions thus tend to develope an organized regulatory and supra-local hierarchy which oversees and appoints those, such as priests or religious teachers, regarded as proficient in spiritual matters and in matters of doctrine and ritual, whereas adherents of Ways tend to locally and informally and communally, and out of respect and a personal knowing, accept certain individuals as having a detailed knowledge and an understanding of the ethos and the practices of that Way.Many spiritual Ways have evolved into religions.

[2] In Buddhism, the primary texts are regarded as: (i) for Theravada Buddhism, the collections referred to as Tipitaka/Tripitaka; (ii) for Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Tipitaka (in some cases, depending on interpretation) and the various Sutras, including the collection often referred to as The Perfection of Wisdom; (iii) for Tibetan Buddhism, the various Tantric texts, plus some of the Tipitaka (in some cases, depending on interpretation) and some the Mahāyāna sutras (in some cases, depending on interpretation).

In Hinduism, there is the Bhagavad Gītā and the literature of the Vedas.

[3] By interpretation here is meant (i) commentaries (academic, theological, and otherwise); (ii) explanations (critical, and otherwise); (iii) translations; and – most importantly – (iv) a seeking of the meaning of (a) both the text (in whole and in parts) and (b) of the words and terms used.

[4]  One misused English word is ‘terror’, often used to translate الرُّعْبَ in Ayah 151 of Surah Al ‘Imran. See Part Two, Translation and Al-Quran.

As I noted there:

My, admittedly fallible, view now – after some years of reflexion and study – is that, in an English interpretation of the meaning of a work as revered, and misunderstood, as the Quran, English words in common usage must be carefully chosen, with many common words avoided, and that it would sometimes be better to choose an unusual or even archaic word in order to try and convey something of the sense of the Arabic. Thus, with a careful interpretation common misunderstandings of the text – by non-Muslims unversed in Arabic – can possibly be avoided, especially if – as might be the case with unusual words – the reader has to pause to consider the meaning or make the effort to find the meaning, if only in a glossary appended to the interpretation. A pause and/or an effort that is suited to reading a work revered by millions of people around the world.

[5] Quare quod a summo bono diversum est sui natura, id summum bonum non est; quod nefas est de eo cogitare, quo nihil constat esse praestantius.  Consolatio Philosophiae, Liber Tertius, pr. x

[6] Beowulf, 2470f, where the spelling synn is used:

eaferum læfde, swa deð eadig mon,
lond ond leodbyrig, þa he of life gewat.
þa wæs synn ond sacu Sweona ond Geata
ofer wid wæter, wroht gemæne,
herenið hearda, syððan Hreðel swealt

[7] qv. Myatt, Fifty Years of Diverse Peregrinations. 2013

[8] The conventional interpretation of ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε is “from now on sin no more”.

[9] Luke 19.10:

ἦλθεν γὰρ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ζητῆσαι καὶ σῶσαι τὸ ἀπολωλός

The arrivance [ἔρχομαι] of the Son of Man was to seek and to save what was lost

However, a more interesting interpretation is:

The arrivance of the Son of Man was to seek and to repair [σῴζω] what had been damaged [ἀπόλλυμι]

and which interpretation is suggested by (i) the sense of σῴζω: keep safe, preserve, maintain – whence repair, and (ii) the sense of ἀπόλλυμι: destroy, ruin, kill, demolish, and – metaphorically – damaged, lost, and die.

Romans 13.10:

 ἡ  ἀγάπη τῷ πλησίον κακὸν οὐκ ἐργάζεται· πλήρωμα οὖν νόμου ἡ ἀγάπη

love brings no harm to the neighbour; love is the completion of the law

[11] ἁμαρτάνω implies a failure, mistake, an error, deprivation, loss, to miss/fail.  qv (i) Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus:

ὅταν ταχύς τις οὑπιβουλεύων λάθρᾳ
χωρῇ, ταχὺν δεῖ κἀμὲ βουλεύειν πάλιν:
εἰ δ᾽ ἡσυχάζων προσμενῶ, τὰ τοῦδε μὲν
πεπραγμέν᾽ ἔσται, τἀμὰ δ᾽ ἡμαρτημένα    621

But when there is a plot against me which is swiftly and furtively
Moving forward, then I must be swift in opposing that plot
Since if I remain at rest, then indeed
What is about to be done, will be – because of my mistake.

and (ii) Aeschylus, Agamemnon:

ὀφλὼν γὰρ ἁρπαγῆς τε καὶ κλοπῆς δίκην
τοῦ ῥυσίου θ᾽ ἥμαρτε καὶ πανώλεθρον  535
αὐτόχθονον πατρῷον ἔθρισεν δόμον.

The penalty for the pillage and theft was fair –
He lost his booty and completely ruined
His own land with his father’s family cut down

[11] Myatt. Questions of Good, Evil, Honour, and God. 2013


cc David Myatt 2013
  This work is issued under the Creative Commons
(Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0) License
and can be freely copied and distributed, according to the terms of that license.
All translations: DW Myatt

Image credit:
Illumination from the MS Anicii Manlii Torqvati Severini Boetii,
De Consolatione Philosophiae cvm Commento,
dated c. 1385 ce, in Glasgow University library: MS Hunter 374 fol.4r

attic-vase3-boston

Following numerous requests over the past fifteen years or so, printed copies of three of my Greek translations are now available. I have slightly revised the introductions to the translations.

The Agamemnon of Aeschylus

94 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1484128220
BISAC: Drama / Ancient, Classical & Medieval

Sophocles – Oedipus Tyrannus

112 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1484132104
BISAC: Drama / Ancient, Classical & Medieval

Sophocles – Antigone

88 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1484132067
BISAC: Drama / Ancient, Classical & Medieval

°°°

Here are two extracts from the translations.

1) From the Agamemnon

Her warning of ‘Father!’, her supplications,
Her virgin state – were counted as nothing
By those commanders lusting for battle.
After invokations, her father ordered the servants
To lift up and place upon the altar – like a yearling goat –
She who with all her passion had bent down
To grasp his robe,
And to place a guard upon her beautiful lips –
To prevent a sound from bringing misfortune to the family –
By the power of a strong bridle making her without a voice.
Then, as she poured to earth that which stained her garment,
So at each sacrificer she cast from her eyes
Arrows of lamentation
As if she were pre-eminent within a painting
With a desire to speak,
As often at her father’s good feasts
In the male dining-room she had, in song:
When – undeflowered, with her pure voice,
Honouring her beloved father –
She had with the third libation pleasingly sang
A paeon for good fortune.
I did not see, and do not speak of, what followed these things.

2) From Antigone.

By Cyanaei of the two-fold sea
Are the Bosphorus shores
And Thracian Salmydessus
Where Ares, dwelling close by the citadel,
Beheld the two sons of Phineas
Blinded by ruinous wounds
Dealt by that savage second wife –
A blinding of orbs the seeing of which brought vengeance –
By sticking at them with the points
Of her weaver’s spindle, blood staining her hands.

A Note on the Translations
The translations were undertaken during the four happy years I spent with Sue, with the Agamemnon completed some months after her untimely death in 1993. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, there is much that I would probably change/alter in all three translations. But they shall be left alone; creative emanations of their time, of those now long ago and fondly remembered years.

°°°

Image credit: Attic red-figure vase c. 460 BCE (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

A pdf version (c.327 kB) of this text is available here – dwm-fifty-years-peregrinations.pdf

Botticelli - Madonna del Magnificat
Fifty Years Of Diverse Peregrinations

In fifty years of diverse peregrinations – which included forty years of practical involvement with various religions and spiritual ways, practical involvement with extremisms both political and religious, and some seven years of intense interior reflexion occasioned by a personal tragedy – I have come to appreciate and to admire what the various religions and the diverse spiritual ways have given to us over some three thousand years.

Thus have I sensed that our world is, and has been, a better place because of them and that we, as a sentient species, are en masse better because of them. Thus it is that I personally – even though I have developed my own non-religious weltanschauung – have a great respect for religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism; for spiritual ways such as Buddhism, Taoism; for older paganisms such as (i) θεοί and Μοῖραι τρίμορφοι μνήμονές τ᾽ Ἐρινύες, and (ii) άγνωστος θεός [1], and for the slowly evolving more recent paganisms evident for instance in a spiritual concern for the welfare of our planet and for the suffering we have for so long inflicted on other humans and on the other life with which we share this planet.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, I disagree with those who, often intemperate in words or deeds – or both – disrespectfully fail to appreciate such religions and spiritual ways and the treasure, the culture, the pathei-mathos, that they offer, concentrating as such intemperate people so often do on what they perceive to be or feel to be are the flaws, the mistakes, of such religions and such spiritual ways while so often ignoring (as such people tend to do) their own personal flaws, their own mistakes, as well as the reality that it is we humans beings – with our ὕβρις, with our lack of humility, our lack of appreciation for the numinous, and with our intolerance and our often arrogant and harsh interpretations of such religions – who have been the cause and who continue to be the cause of such suffering as has blighted and as still blights this world.

As Heraclitus mentioned over two thousand years ago:

ὕβριν χρὴ σβεννύναι μᾶλλον ἢ πυρκαϊὴν[2]

Better to deal with your hubris before you confront that fire

As recounted of Jesus of Nazareth over two thousand years ago:

ὡς  δὲ  ἐπέμενον  ἐρωτῶντες  αὐτόν,  ἀνέκυψεν  καὶ  εἶπεν  αὐτοῖς·  ὁ  ἀναμάρτητος  ὑμῶν  πρῶτος  ἐπ’  αὐτὴν  βαλέτω  λίθον. [3]

So, as they continued to ask [for an answer] he straightened himself, saying to them: Let he who has never made a mistake [ Αναμαρτητος ] throw the first stone at her.

One of the greatest gifts such religions and spiritual ways offer seems to me to be the gift of humility: the insight that we human beings are fallible and transient, and that there is some-thing ‘out there’ which is numinous, sacred, more vast and more powerful than us whether we call this some-thing God, or Allah, or θεοί or Nature, or δίκη or Wyrd, or Karma or ψυχή or simply the acausal. The insight that to disregard this some-thing, to disrespect what-is numinous, is unwise – ὕβρις – and perpetuates suffering or is the genesis of new suffering and which new suffering may well continue long after we, who brought it into being and who gave it life, are dead.

This insight of humility is evident, for instance and for me, in the sacred music of the Christian church; from the simplicity – the numinous purity – of plainchant to the polyphony of Byrd, Palestrina, and Vittoria to the counterpoint of JS Bach. For I find in this music an expression both of κάλος and of the numinous mysterium that is at the heart of Christianity, manifest as this mysterium is, for Christianity, in the allegory of the life, the betrayal, the crucifixion, of Jesus of Nazareth and by a belief in redemption through both love and suffering. And this is essentially the same, albeit unallegorical and often wordless, numinous mysterium which we personally feel or we know or our touched by through that sadness born of our own pathei-mathos; by our acknowledgement of our mistakes, by our personal experience of suffering and grief, and by our heartfelt longing for, our hope for, the beautiful, for the redemption of innocence, for peace and love, manifest for example not only in the Christian allegory of Heaven, in the Muslim Jannah, in the Jewish Shamayim, but also in a very personal often private longing and hope for a better world and which longing and hope we so tearfully know is so often broken or forgotten or thrust aside by both our egoistical self and by other human beings: because of their, because of our, weakness, our failure to be the person we feel or we know we might be or perhaps could have been, born as such knowing and such feelings so often are in the inner intimacy that follows a personal grief or being a witness to or an accomplice in some act or acts of harshness and suffering.

This inner intimacy with the stark reality of our own being and with the world of suffering is what has caused so many people over thousands of years to try and not only reform themselves but also to try, in whatever way, to alleviate or try to alleviate some of the suffering of others, an effort and a reform so often aided by religion [4] and thus a tribute to those positive qualities, those personal virtues, which religions have so often revealed or reminded us of. Which is why – as I mentioned recently to another correspondent [5] – I incline toward the view that on balance the good that religions such as Christianity have done over millennia outweighs the suffering that has been caused by those who adhered to or who believed in some harsh interpretation of that religion.

There has thus developed within me these past seven years an understanding of my past hubris, my past multitudinous mistakes, and of how a lack of humility on my part – my extremism, my certainty of knowing about myself, my certainty of knowing about some cause or ideology or harsh interpretation of some religion I accepted and adhered to – was probably one of the most significant factors in that hubris and those suffering-causing mistakes. Which personal understanding, together with a decades-long experience of others such as I, led me to hypothesize that one of the fundamental causes of extremism is a masculous certainty of knowing and that, therefore, religions and spiritual ways are and can be – when not interpreted in a harsh, hubriatic, way but rather via that personal humility and that appreciation of the numinous I believe are intrinsic to them – affective and effective answers to such extremism and to the harm that extremists cause.

In essence, therefore, my philosophy of pathei-mathos – my much revised ‘numinous way’ – is my own spiritual answer, born of fifty years of diverse peregrinations; my personal answer and response to the certitude of knowing, the harshness, that all extremisms (political, religious, and social) manifest, as well as also – perhaps, hopefully – being (as a spiritual way) in some small manner, and now sans a personal belief in judicium divinum, some expiation for all the suffering that I over decades caused or contributed to.

The numinous, the beautiful – the divine – remain, to remind us. As someone so beautifully expressed it:

Wer, wenn ich schrie, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich. [6]

 

David Myatt
2012

 

Notes

[1] qv. Pausanius. Ἑλλάδος περιήγησις 1.1.4 –

ἐνταῦθα καὶ Σκιράδος Ἀθηνᾶς ναός ἐστι καὶ Διὸς ἀπωτέρω, βωμοὶ δὲ θεῶν τε ὀνομαζομένων Ἀγνώστων καὶ ἡρώων καὶ παίδων τῶν Θησέως καὶ Φαληροῦ

Also here is a shrine [ ναός ] to Athena Skirados and, further afield, one to Zeus, and others to [the] un-named unknown gods, to the heroes, as well as to those children of Theseus and Phalerus

[2] Fragment 43

[3] John, 8.7

[4] For example, I well remember, decades ago, in the first month or so of my training to be a nurse doing some research into the history of nursing as preparation for my turn in giving a talk and presentation to our class as part of our nursing course; and finding just how entwined religion and the origins of organized nursing were, from the fourth century (CE) Roman lady Fabiola to the monastic infirmaries of medieval Europe to the al-Nuri al-Kabir bimaristan in Damascus [qv. Ahmad Isa: Tarikh al-Bimaristanat fi al-Islam [History of Hospitals in Islam]. Damascus, 1939] to the Hospitallers of St John to Florence Nightingale and beyond.

I also remember the hundreds of people met over some forty years whose faith inspired or aided them to endeavour, in social or political or legal or personal ways, to alleviate some of the suffering of others, and who each, in their own way – and whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or Buddhist – helped make a positive difference.

[5] qv. Just My Fallible Views, Again – Replies to Some Enquiries. 2012

[6] Rilke, Die erste Duineser Elegie

Who, were I to sigh aloud, of those angelic beings might hear me?
And even if one of them deigned to take me to his heart I would dissolve
Into his very existence.
For beauty is nothing if not the genesis of that numen
Which we can only just survive
And which we so admire because it can so calmly disdain to betake us.
Every angel is numinous

A note on my interpretation

wenn ich schrie. ‘Were I to sigh aloud’ is far more poetically expressive, and more in tune with the metaphysical tone of the poem and the stress on schrie, than the simple, bland, ‘if I cried out’. A sighing aloud – not a shout or a scream – of the sometimes involuntary kind sometimes experienced by those engaged in contemplative prayer or in deep, personal, metaphysical musings.

der Engel Ordnungen. The poetic emphasis is on Engel, and the usual translation here of ‘orders’ – or something equally abstract and harsh (such as hierarchies) – does not in my view express the poetic beauty (and the almost supernatural sense of strangeness) of the original; hence my suggestion ‘angelic beings’ – of such a species of beings, so different from we mortals, who by virtue of their numinosity have the ability to both awe us and overpower us.

°°°

The above text is an extract from a letter, sent in 2012, to a personal correspondent (the translations, and the poetic interpretation of a poetic text, are mine)


Image credit: Botticelli – Madonna del Magnificat


STS107-columbia-2003-atlantic-earth-moon

A pdf version (647 kB) of the final draft of the first edition of my Questions of Good, Evil, Honour, and God is available here:

Questions of Good, Evil, Honour, and God

Contents

Part One
°Good and Evil – An Early Christian Perspective
Part Two
°Good and Evil – A Muslim Perspective
°Jurisprudence and Society
°The Modern State
°Good and Evil – The Perspective of Pathei-Mathos
Part Three
°Religion, Law, and The Reformation of Individuals
°Good, Evil, and The Criteria of Progress
Part Four
°Ontology and Denotatum
°The Simple Way of Harmony
Part Five
°A Very Personal Conclusion

°°°

Image credit: NASA-STS107 (Columbia) – Moon over the Atlantic Ocean