Thursday, September 22, 2005

Week 05, Augustine and Aquinas

Saint Augustine Notes

For Augustine, figuration and metaphor are valid, but they must be kept under control -- God has the same problem as poets in that (given the limitations of his audience) he must liken spiritual things to gross material ones. We cannot hear the celestial harmony of the planets’ movements because of “the muddy vesture of our decay,” as Lorenzo in Shakespeare’s ‘‘The Merchant of Venice’’ says. Language mediates between human beings and God – that is the significance of Christ as God’s Word; however, human language is a fallen instrument. Faith fills in the gap between spiritual reality and the words that signify it. Some anxiety enters the equation here – as in Wordsworth’s concern in the middle of ‘‘Tintern Abbey’’ over the possibility that his faith in nature is “ but a vain belief.”

Ultimately, however, we refer truth to Christ, God’s Word made manifest. Augustine recognizes the drift involved in ordinary human speech and writing, but faith ensures its stability as a signifying system. Augustine’s notion of language goes further: he anchors the stability of the bible’s meaning, and the truth of an individual’s words, by insisting that there is a kind of “inner language,” a “language of the heart” that precedes external signification (writing and audible utterances). This inner language, Augustine says, gives us some glimpse of Christ’s miraculous power as God’s Word: Christ can make the Father’s meanings manifest without sacrificing their truth or power -- as the Word, he does not degrade his Father’s Truth. The inner language Augustine keeps in reserve is connected to this mysterious power of God’s infallible language. Our own language is fallen and can lead us astray, but Augustine does not see cause for despair in this consequence of the fall. He does not believe that fallen language need result in endless drift or entrapment in a verbal maze. What is closest to our inner consciousness is closest to God and Truth. Words represent or convey our thoughts, but underwriting this is the special language of the heart.

Augustine knows well the persuasive powers of language - after all, he was a professor of rhetoric became a Christian. He felt the beauty of words, and the pull towards understanding. Nobody likes being confused -- we know that in our own right, and “Aristotle said it,” too. And in ‘‘The Confessions,’’ he is moved to become a
Christian not only by his mother’s example but also by a bishop’s excellent speaking.
Through our fallen senses are we drawn towards virtue -- and language appeals to our
senses. The ear is almost a sensual organ for the ancients, just as the eye may be struck by beauty as if by an outside force or a god.

Thomas Aquinas Notes

Aquinas emphasizes the literal element in metaphor – the element of the familiar that makes the unfamiliar less strange. He writes in accordance with the doctrine of accommodation, which says speech must be suited to the understanding of one’s listeners. Aquinas casts God as a speaker who can draw us onwards to salvation through metaphor. God’s obvious delight in figurative language is one of his mysteries, similar to Christ’s generous miracle of the Incarnation -- the spirit fusing with a material body. Aquinas’ theology holds that Christ is the manifestation of God, a Sacred Word become visible. He is willing to be seen and heard. The doctrines of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit – God as three-in-one) and Transubstantiation (at the Eucharist, wine becomes blood, and bread becomes Christ’s flesh), influence the romantics’ emphasis on symbol as a vehicle for spiritual significance and what Coleridge calls “unity in multeity.” For Coleridge, a symbol is a living, complex, consequential entity, not just a literary device as the rhetoricians of old would have it.

The complexity of the Bible helps Aquinas. Its variety and scope allow him to defend metaphor both as an anchor for simple readers and as an intellectual exercise for the erudite. There is mystery in the Bible, but there are also places where the rough places are made plain. Aquinas’ God exploits the multiplicity of language and even, at times, its ambiguity, for the purpose of salvation. It’s also true in both Augustine and Aquinas, I believe, that another function of literary language is ‘‘guarding’’ access to spiritual truth – as always, the injunction straight from the master is “cast not your pearls before swine. The Bible can speak in the tones of Milton’s genial angel Raphael the mediator, or it can come across as Michael with a flaming sword, escorting fallen mankind out of Eden.

244. Notice that Dionysius’ replies have to do with preserving God’s mysteriousness and majesty. We are not to forget that a gap lies between us and the divine. Compare the romantic poets to the medieval philosophers in this regard – Shelley refers to the effect of inspiration as being like prints in the sand, later effaced by wind and wave. In general, the British romantics describe inspiration and language with a sense of profound loss – “we are as clouds that veil the midnight moon,” to borrow a line from Shelley. The material signifier is not Truth, but it leads us to cast our eyes in that direction. God does not need language, but he chooses to reveal himself by means of it. Fallen humanity needs language as an instrument for its own correction.

244. The first argument is that we start with our senses, and can best receive spiritual truth that way. Metaphor uses a material or literal vehicle to convey an underlying spiritual truth. We are fallen, limited, material and earthly beings. As Milton says, “immediate are the acts of God, / More swift than time or motion,” but our limitations demand “process of speech” and figurative language. Notice that Aquinas is a good Aristotelian – we like representations and stories; they are how we learn our first lessons. Figurative language preserves us from error because we know it is figural, and do not take it as merely material. Both the letter and the spirit must be true, and they both require our attention.

The second argument is that God is best appreciated by what he is not, so calling him “a burning bush” at certain points helps to remind us that such references cannot in fact capture God. The third argument in favor of figurative language is that vulgar and faithless people will not be able to do harm with their knowledge – the swine will get no pearls. Sometimes, God likes to hide, especially from the unworthy. The Bible’s mission requires figuration -- how else could we receive spiritual truth? So on the whole, I would say that figuration is both part of God’s mysteriousness and that its use is an exigency for the accommodation of the fallen.

245. God writes on various levels, which is appropriate because our limited understandings require this spreading out, separating, and comparing of things. For God everything happens on one track, but not for us. Aquinas says that the church knows how to interpret the various levels, so it mediates between us and God. One function of metaphor is to use the literal as a means of understanding the spiritual. The interesting thing about Aquinas’ application, I believe, is that in God’s case the spiritual level turns out to be, well, literal since he is pure spirit.

245-46. For Aquinas, the author of the Bible is God, who gives us literally true history but also employs spiritual significations at the same time. By way of allegory, the “Old Testament” points towards the New Testament, with Moses being a type of Christ and so forth. There is also the moral sense or level of interpretation -- Christ’s life serves as a conduct book for ordinary human beings. There is also the anagogical level, where the literal events refer to the soul in bliss. So there are four levels of significance. But there need be no confusion since all of these levels are singular in God’s mind; faith that this is so is the ground of intelligibility, and the discursive separation of levels is for our benefit. Neither Aquinas nor Augustine would have much patience with modern notions that language leads to undecidability or “aporia,” to borrow one of Paul de Man’s favorite terms.

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.

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