Saturday, March 22, 2008

Three sentences for Holy Saturday

The first is the beginning of the well-known ancient, anonymous homily from today's Office of Readings:

"Quid istud rei est? Hódie siléntium magnum in terra; siléntium magnum, et solitúdo deínceps; siléntium magnum, quóniam Rex dormit; terra tímuit et quiévit, quóniam Deus in carne obdormívit, et a sæculo dormiéntes excitávit. Deus in carne mórtuus est, et inférnum concitávit."

The second is from Psalm 51, a line I've always found both distressing and comforting:

זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה
לֵב-נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה-- אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תִבְזֶה

The third is from the essays of Francis Bacon:

"THE joys of parents are secret; and so are their griefs and fears. They cannot utter the one; nor they will not utter the other. Children sweeten labors; but they make misfortunes more bitter. They increase the cares of life; but they mitigate the remembrance of death."

Friday, March 14, 2008

More Folly

The following from Utopia is of course to some extent a platitude--but would that we could even live out our platitudes.

More has suggested that his friend, with all his experience, should be counseling princes. Hythlodaeus thinks such attempts futile, and expands on the blindness of princes in desiring power abroad when they are incapable of caring for their own subjects at home.

(If it's not obvious, the Latin is followed by an English translation.)

Hic, inquam, in tanto rerum molimine, tot egregijs uiris ad bellum sua certatim consilia conferentibus, si ego homuncio surgam, ac uerti iubeam uela, omittendam Italiam censeam & domi dicam esse manendum, unum Galliae regnum fere maius esse, quam ut commode possit ab uno administrari, ne sibi putet rex de alijs adijciendis esse cogitandum.

Now when things are in so great a fermentation, and so many gallant men are joining counsels how to carry on the war, if so mean a man as I should stand up and wish them to change all their counsels—to let Italy alone and stay at home, since the kingdom of France was indeed greater than could be well governed by one man; that therefore he ought not to think of adding others to it;

Tum si illis proponerem decreta Achoriorum populi, Utopiensium insulae ad Euronoton oppositi, qui quum olim bellum gessissent, ut regi suo aliud obtinerent regnum, quod affinitatis antiquae causa sibi contendebat haereditate deberi, consequuti tandem id, ubi uiderunt nihilo sibi minus esse molestiae in retinendo, quam in quaerendo pertulerunt, uerum assidua pullulare semina, uel internae rebellionis, uel externae incursionis, in deditos ita semper aut pro illis, aut contra pugnandum, nunquam dari facultatem dimittendi exercitus,

and if, after this, I should propose to them the resolutions of the Achorians, a people that lie on the south-east of Utopia, who long ago engaged in war in order to add to the dominions of their prince another kingdom, to which he had some pretensions by an ancient alliance: this they conquered, but found that the trouble of keeping it was equal to that by which it was gained; that the conquered people were always either in rebellion or exposed to foreign invasions, while they were obliged to be incessantly at war, either for or against them, and consequently could never disband their army;

compilari interim se, efferri foras pecuniam, alienae gloriolae suum impendi sanguinem, pacem nihilo tutiorem, domi corruptos bello mores, imbibitam latrocinandi libidinem, confirmatam caedibus audaciam, leges esse contemptui, quod rex in duorum curam regnorum distractus, minus in utrumuis animum posset intendere.

that in the meantime they were oppressed with taxes, their money went out of the kingdom, their blood was spilt for the glory of their king without procuring the least advantage to the people, who received not the smallest benefit from it even in time of peace; and that, their manners being corrupted by a long war, robbery and murders everywhere abounded, and their laws fell into contempt; while their king, distracted with the care of two kingdoms, was the less able to apply his mind to the interest of either.

Cum uiderent alioqui tantis malis nullum finem fore, inito tandem consilio, regi suo humanissime fecerunt optionem retinendi utrius regni uellet. nam utriusque non fore potestatem, se plures esse, quam qui a dimidiato possint rege gubernari, quum nemo sit libenter admissurus mulionem sibi cum alio communem. Ita coactus est ille bonus princeps, nouo regno cuipiam ex amicis relicto (qui breui etiam post eiectus est) antiquo esse contentus.

When they saw this, and that there would be no end to these evils, they by joint counsels made an humble address to their king, desiring him to choose which of the two kingdoms he had the greatest mind to keep, since he could not hold both; for they were too great a people to be governed by a divided king, since no man would willingly have a groom that should be in common between him and another. Upon which the good prince was forced to quit his new kingdom to one of his friends (who was not long after dethroned), and to be contented with his old one.

Praeterea si ostenderem omnes hos conatus bellorum, quibus tot nationes eius causa tumultuarentur, quum thesauros eius exhausissent, ac destruxissent populum, aliqua tandem fortuna frustra cessuros tamen, proinde auitum regnum coleret, ornaret quantum posset, & faceret quam florentissimum. Amet suos & ametur a suis, cum his una uiuat, imperetque suauiter, atque alia regna ualere sinat, quando id quod nunc ei contigisset, satis amplum superque esset. hanc orationem quibus auribus mi More, putas excipiendam!

To this I would add that after all those warlike attempts, the vast confusions, and the consumption both of treasure and of people that must follow them, perhaps upon some misfortune they might be forced to throw up all at last; therefore it seemed much more eligible that the king should improve his ancient kingdom all he could, and make it flourish as much as possible; that he should love his people, and be beloved of them; that he should live among them, govern them gently and let other kingdoms alone, since that which had fallen to his share was big enough, if not too big, for him:—pray, how do you think would such a speech as this be heard?”

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Small things

One of the satisfactions of trying to read familiar passages in their original language is the occasional discovery of small intimations that didn't make it through into English.

Here is a sentence from the story of Hagar and Ishmael being driven out from the household of Abraham in the twenty-first chapter of Genesis:
וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת-בֶּן-הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית, אֲשֶׁר-יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם מְצַחֵק.

"Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she bore to Abraham, playing." That last word, "m'tzacheq", the participle, is sometimes also translated "mocking" or "laughing." And it's from the same three letter root from which the name of the son of Abraham by Sara is taken, יִצְחַק, "yitzchaq," our "Isaac." And since the mem at the beginning of the word "m'tzacheq", marking it as a participle, also can function as a prepositional prefix, the suggestion of the word "m'tzacheq" is not only that Ishmael was playing, or even mocking, but that, whatever he was doing, it was "from Isaac," taking something from Isaac.

Understand, it doesn't say that grammatically, but it suggests it with a sort of rough pun on the two uses of the prefix. It's not a large point, or one not made apparent by the whole context in any case. And, as one purely self-taught in this language, I recognize that I may be reading things in that aren't there. No way to really know. A small thing, really.


I have had a lot of time lately with Les Miserables, and have had occasion to think about it in conjunction with Utopia--very different books, very different spiritual and emotional atmospheres, but both concerned very directly with the issue of poverty.

St. Thomas' readers know of the poverty of their countrymen; he doesn't bother to paint a world as Hugo does. More's approach is prescriptive, but very different in Utopia's two parts. In part one he is the reformer, highlighting the inability of savagely disproportionate punishments to deter the theft that seems ubiquitous. He points to a contemporary source of poverty, the enclosure of commons for sheep-herding and wool production, and the consequent impoverishment of those ejected from their livelihoods. And he laments the bad counsel given to princes who waste needed resources for foreign adventures, noting that few can govern well the kingdoms they already possess. In the second part, of course, More more famously portrays the more radical solution, in the Utopian scheme for equality of material possessions.

I'm about half way through Les Miserables. Hugo has taken off into one of his famous digressions at the beginning of Part Four, noting the problem that the creation of great wealth doesn't solve anything if it results only in great disparties of wealth and poverty. He gives contemporary England and the older Venetian Republic as examples of regimes able to prosper, but at the expense of the misery of their poorest citizens. And he reflects on the world's reaction to their inevitable fall, in the sentence that struck me here:

"Et le monde vous laissera mourir et tomber, parce que le monde laisse tomber et mourir tout ce qui n'est que l'egoisme, tout ce que ne represente pas pour le genre humain une vertu ou une idee."

These past three weeks I have mostly been resident in a children's hospital, a terrible place because of the problems being addressed, but a wonderful place because those problems are being addressed, and, because done under the auspices of a large charity, this healing is done gratis for all of us with children in need. I cannot help but think that this is a glimpse of how things can be and ought to be, but I am also brought short by the reality that this place is exceptional, and it ought not to be.