This morning, I read T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.” It has been quite a while since I last read it, and it was back in my college days when I took some time to study it in detail. Unfortunately, that study was not directed by my American literature teacher. As she noted, teachers of American literature skip Eliot because he emigrated to England and stayed there. British literature teachers skip him because he is American born. I think that when he is skipped over, it is because of the obscurity and difficulty of his poetry.
Reading Eliot, one sees how seemingly easy it is to splash words on a page in random order with little meaning and obscure references. We can then call our word jumbles “poetry.” The older poetic discipline that called for meter and rhyme is much harder to follow and master.
But interpreting modern poetry as random word placement and specifically assuming that Eliot was just writing in a chaotic, meaningless way is wrong. There is much more method than madness. The edition of “The Waste Land” that I was reading was laden with footnotes explaining the literary references. I ignored the footnotes and just read the poem. But I plan on going back through it once or twice with careful attention to the allusions and literary references.
One thing is very clear: Eliot was deeply grounded in the poetic, literary, historical, and philosophical traditions of the West. He was classically schooled and his poetry were applications of classical learning. To read Eliot profitably, one must follow the footnote trail, but also go to the sources and ferret out the meanings.
For more on Eliot, one should consult the Norton Critical Edition of his poem. It is hard to imagine that a single poem would merit a whole book, until the serious study begins. Along with the background and interpretive aspects of the poem, one has to account for the way Eliot influenced so many other 20th century writers. Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald were all influenced by Eliot, as were many others.
All of the discussion above is prelude to this introduction to two books. I recently read Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism by Albert Camus. It is published by St. Augustine’s Press, which has a host of incredible books. I was attracted to the book for several reasons, other than the mere fact that it was a book. First, Albert Camus was a Nobel Prize winning author who is usually listed alongside Jean Paul Sarte as being an existentialist. Second, he is among the authors (like Dostoevsky and Faulkner) who cause us to look into the “dismal abyss.” (I learned that phrase from Gertrude Himmelfarb.) Third, Camus, although relegated as an unbeliever, had some powerful things to say about Christianity. Consider the statement below:
“The World expects of Christians that they will raise their voices so loudly and clearly and so formulate their protests that not even the simplist man can have the slightest doubt what they are saying.
Further, the world expects of Christians that they will eschew all fuzzy abstractions and plant themselves squarely in front of the bloody face of history.
We stand in need of folk who have determined to speak directly and unmistakably and come what may, to stand by what they have said.”
Fourth, I recently read Camus’ novel The Plague. Dr. Roslyn Knudson, one of my teachers from college, told me that she considered it to be one of the best novels of the 20th century. It is a knock-out punch, and I don’t expect to give it a check mark for being “read” after one reading.
All this and more drew me into Camus’ Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism. Whereas The Plague was understandable on a couple of levels but still open for deeper reading, Christian Metaphysics was a fall into the deep end of the pool. The text itself is relatively short, and thankfully, the book has both an introduction and a epilogue to give some aids to its importance.
Several things are obvious: The world is a world of ideas as much or more so than matter. Understanding the world apart from concepts like philosophy and worldviews is impossible. Grappling with ideas, philosophy, and worldviews is really difficult. Add this to the mix: We don’t really understand all of the intellectual recipe that was used in the forming of our own minds and culture.
It it easy for an American Christian to pick up a Bible and think that he is being molded by “Scripture Alone.” But we are products of the Early Church, the Medieval Era, the Renaissance and Reformation, the Puritan Revolution, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the American colonial experience, the First and Second Great Awakenings, the Enlightenment, the American War for Independence, everything else in American history, the public school movment (meaning everyone from Horace Mann to John Dewer), Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, the New Deal, the Cold War, and everything that is classified as Modernism, Post-Modernism, and Post-Post-Modernism. Add to that the fact that we are influenced by modern technology. Then before everything mentioned above, we are influenced by Greek and Roman civilizations. (Disagree? Do you favor the democratic election of Senators? Answer either way and you have borrow from Greeks and Romans.)
Neoplatonism, and its roots in Platonism, which of course leads directly to Plato, his teacher Socrates, and his student Aristotle, was, is, and continues to be a major force in thinking. All actions, by the way, are the result of putting thought into movement.
All this is to reinforce the importance of Camus’ Christian Metaphysics as a part of what Mortimer Adler called the Great Conversation.
Now, enter Augustine. Camus devoted his final chapter to Augustine. From that let me jump over to a new book about the great North African theologian/philosopher himself: The Conversion and Therapy of Desire: Augustine’s Theology of Desire in the Cassiciacum Dialogues by Mark J. Boone. This book is published by Wipf and Stock, an inexhaustible source of scholarly books.
There are three stages at which a Christian comes to understand Augustine. (I favor the pronunciation that ends his name with “teen” rather than putting the stress on “gus” and ending his name with “tin.” Why? Because it rhymes with Constantine.)
Stage One: Augustine’s biography. Whether it is told in a short chapter or complete book, Augustine’s life and conversion are interesting, uplifting, and instructive reading. Not all theologians, preachers, and philosophers live interesting lives. From an earthly perspective, not all conversions are fascinating. Augustine’s life and conversion parallels and even exceeds that of C. S. Lewis. Both were born into Christian environments, became unbelievers, traveled the world of books and ideas, fell victim to various sins, and then were converted–both mind and soul–in their mature adulthood. Both then went on to write and teach extensively.
Augustine was both a brainy, nerdy, bookish guy. Living in a time of no computer geeks, he was a philosophy geek. But he was also a party animal. He had an illegitimate son to prove the he lived a life that included more than just weighty tomes rolled up in scrolls. He had a mother, named Monica, who was, to be honest, a religious fanatic. (His dad was either not a believer or very nominal and somewhat passive.) Augustine was a momma’s boy and Monica was a helicopter mom. But Monica prayed–and nagged–and prayed some more. Augustine was converted, became a bishop, pastor, church leader, and turned his rhetorical skills (he had been a rhetoric teacher prior to conversion) to the pulpit and pen.
The second stage of understanding Augustine is reading his works. The sheer volume of works is itself daunting, and many them are quite lengthy by themselves. I recommend reading The Confessions. This work is relatively short, and it is the founding work in the area of religious autobiographies. The details of Augustine’s pre-conversion life (warning: it contains a graphic description of stealing pears!) and conversion form much of the book. It is also an interior dialogue, almost a stream-of-consciousness style of work. Augustine talks to God, remembers his sins, struggles with all manner of issues, and seeks to escape God. It is weighty, fruitful, inspiring, confusing, meandering, and very profitable to the soul. Even if one only makes it about half-way into this book, it will be worth the time and effort.
I also really like Augustine’s On Christian Teaching, which is sometimes titled On Christian Doctrine. This book is an essential book for teachers, teachers in Christian education, teachers of rhetoric, and teachers in Classical Christian schools. Everyone not described there could benefit as well.
The City of God could be called Mount Augustine. It is a massive climb. I use the edition that was edited and abridged by Vernon J. Bourke, which also contains a great forward by Etienne Gilson. In my classes, I call this edition a pamphlett because it is a mere 600 pages. Even if the reader can only wade through a hundred pages or so, it is worthwhile to at least taste this book.
Level 3 of Augustine: Re-enter Dr. Mark Boone and his study of Augustine. At this point, I am still in the beginning portion of this book. The third level of Augustine studies involves scholars and students discussing the ideas and impact of Augustine. Mark Boone, Albert Camus, and a host of others have been discussing Augustine ever since City of God made the Rome Times best-seller list.
One of the blurbs on Boone’s book says “All theologians must read Dr. Boone’s book.” Lest you and I think that gets us out of a reading assignment, he also says, “He (meaning Mark Boone) makes crystal clear how much we could gain by being taught anew by Augustine, how much each of us–and our communities–need him today.” (The comments are from Matthew Levering, who is a professor of theology and the author of a study on Augustine.)
Dr. Boone states one of his main ideas early on: “He (Augustine) is a Christian, but he appreciates the insights of the neo-Platonists. He finds them insightful and helpful, yet he subordinates them to the revealed truths of the Christian faith, which they are helpful for understanding.”
For me, that sentence is a hook. Not only do we all need to know how Augustine borrowed from, culled from, gleaned from neo-Platonism, but we need to learn to do the same with every other deformed, warped, humanistic thought system that has marched onto the human stage.
Hopefully, there will be more to come on this fine book.