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And Half Full

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Sometimes, I think I’m saying something startling, and inside I seem not to be saying anything at all.

Let’s start with Lymaree’s comment that if your life on earth is a living hell, you’ll probably be open to the idea of despising it all in order to get a better life in Heaven.

I completely agree–but life in 15th century was NOT, for most people, a living hell.

This is the Quattrocento we’re talking about, the great run up to the High Renaissance.

Looked at from the 21st century, it seems very uncertain and unstable.

But 15th century Europeans were not looking at it from the 21st century.  They were looking at it from what had come before.  And in that context, the pleasures of the world and everything about them were definitely looking up.

States were consolidating and solidifying.  Public order was on the rise, and so was the standard of living for almost everybody. 

Between the time of Thomas’s birth and the day when Martin Luther brought the house down, there would be the greatest flowering of art (and progress in artistic technique) the world had ever, or would ever, see.

And, while we’re at it, that same period would see the beginnings of what we know acknowledge as “real” science. 

The Imitation of Christ is not a response to how bad things were.  It’s a response to the fact that things were getting better.

And, if you look at my copy, with its new introduction and new publication in 1952, that also seems to be a case of the popularity of the book being a response to things getting better.

What’s more, although there’s nothing heterodox about The Imitation of Christ, on the continuum of orthodox Catholic theology, it sits at one extreme.

Cheryl says that in one kind of theology you get no credit for doing good, because that’s just what you were supposed to do anyway.

But Thomas goes much farther than that.  Man is innately evil, and he can never do good at all.  All that can come of man’s will and acts is evil and corruption.  When man appears to do good, it isn’t he himself who is doing it.  It is God acting through him. 

Therefore, man can win no merit by doing good works or living a good and honest life, because none of that is his own doing.

Therefore, what human beings must do is this:  empty themselves of self in every possibly way.

Have no desires or loves.  Care nothing for material things or even other people, including close family.  Have no ambition, but be content to live in obscurity.  Never have an idea or opinion contrary to anybody else, and never defend any idea or opinion. 

Most especially, empty yourself of all curiosity.  Do not look into the ways of God, on any level.  Do not seek knowledge of nature.  Do not question revelation in any sense.  Do not ask if any doctrine makes sense or not–of course it doesn’t make sense to you, your mind is corrupted with sin.  Do not ask why some people are rich and some are poor.

Just don’t ask.

The more I look at this, the more this seems to me to be exactly a response to the Quattrocento, to the progress in the arts and sciences. 

It is a defense againt progress and prosperity, not despair and hopelessness. 

For some reason, a lot of people over the centuries have found a newly prosperous world more frightening than enjoyable.

You can actually see this in various places in this book.  Thomas will go along encouraging us to find comfort and joy in God alone, and then suddenly riff off on how it’s very important to understand that no matter how many comforts you may find in this life, your love for your family, nice clothes and a comfortable bed, whatever, all those are dangerous and bad for you.  They draw you away from God and ready your soul for Hell.

These exhortations would have made little or no sense in 600 or even 1100, when giving in to the wiles of prosperity was not something most people had to worry about.

And it doesn’t help that the message is, intellectually, incoherent.

You must empty yourself of all self so that God can work within you, and this requires enormous self-discipline.  We must work diligently to control our passions and desires.  

Of course, this is impossible without God working in us, because WE can’t actually do anything of the sort, but…

Sorry, that got me tied up in knots for a while.

At some points in reading this book, I felt as if I were reading a parody written by Ayn Rand.  It corresponds exactly to her fictional portrayal of Christianity in Atlas Shrugged, and it outdoes Nietzsche by a mile.

But it is, I think, worth asking the question.

Why are some people more frightened by the prospect of a comfortable life than a miserable one?

What is it that seems so terrifying about a world in which you can eat well, sleep well, and satisfy your curiosity about what makes plants green or why the sun goes into eclipse?

Written by janeh

May 28th, 2012 at 9:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'And Half Full'

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  1. Every change means loss as well as gain. I’ve known lots of people who have done well in life after beginning in poverty – and a certain subset of them will say that there were things of great value that were lost during the trip to prosperity – usually things like a close loving family, appreciation for ingenuity and endurance, and emnjoyment and appreciation for small gifts and rewards. Sometimes things that make one feel part of a community are included – shared values, close friends to help or be helped by, respect for elders. The ability to live in a particular place (that one has strong emotional ties to) instead of moving elsewhere for work.

    One of my sisters has said several times that she thinks fear, especially fear of change, is at the base of this sort of thing. Maybe Lymaree and Jane would agree. I think it’s just that loss comes with change, and sometimes it’s the loss of things that I might consider relatively trivial (I was always one who wanted to see what was around the next corner) but which are of immense value to many people. Loss causes grief and sometimes a rearguard battle to preserve the society that’s slipping away into the past. There may be some fear of the future or the unknown there as well, but I’m not sure it predominates, and I’m certain it’s not universal. Most people know the changes that come through their lifetimes. They just don’t see them as unalloyed improvements.


    28 May 12 at 10:17 am

  2. Two entirely distinct issues. The minor and more complicated first.

    Were things getting better? No.
    Yes, the 15th Century was a great time to be a painter or sculptor, and it was a pretty good time to be a citizen of one of the larger city-states between Rome and the Alps. That area missed a lot of bad times anyway–no Vikings or Magyars to speak of, and while the Muslims talked of taking “the Red Apple” they never made a sustained push on Rome. But Brother Thomas was not painting in Florence. He was working and studying in northwestern Germany.

    Yes, things gradually got better in western Europe after a low point in 1000 AD, but it’s not a smooth curve. Anywhere north of the Alps, if I were little people, I’d go to bed in 1350, and set the alarm for 1500. Apart from the Black Death, that was a particularly nasty series of wars I outlined. After 1500, things are more stable and trouble more localized. But one of the reasons things are better for peasants is that there weren’t so many of them. Wages go up–remember that recent piece on sumptuary laws?–and marginal farmland can be taken out of production. But the good news of 1500 comes from about a century and a half of people dying suddenly–and young. The IMITATION OF CHRIST is written in the middle of that period.

    Also note that bad news travels further and has more impact. How many heard of the recent massacre in Syria? How many that the Egyptian elections were free, peaceable and fair? How many heard that California has half again the budget deficit projected? How many that Indiana has a larger reserve fund than they thought? I bet Thomas was much more likely to hear that the Golden Horde had sacked and burned Moscow, and that manor houses were aflame all over France than that Milanese bankers had record profits.

    As for whether being taxed, conscripted and generally kept in line by a consolidated solidified state is inherently an improvement–let’s just say there is room for debate.

    But on the broader and more important issue, yes, of course, if you want people to do one thing, and another seems to be paying off better, it can drive you nuts. All those paintings of the temptations of St Anthony are filled with desirable things. That’s why they’re temptations. If you want a more recent analog, take a look at politicians–or economists, if you can tell them apart–when people are ignoring their favorite policies and thriving: Democrats under Reagan, Republicans under Clinton–or Nazis and Communists when Weimar was having good years. The prosperity is illusory, the wrong people are prosperous and in any event the good times can’t possibly endure.

    That last point, at least, is true.


    28 May 12 at 1:55 pm

  3. “What is it that seems so terrifying about a world in which you can eat well, sleep well, and satisfy your curiosity about what makes plants green or why the sun goes into eclipse?”

    Because people have time to actually ask questions. To have to find something to fill time.

    The people who do most poorly in solitary confinement are those with lower intellectual ability (however you choose to measure it). Which, even if it seems counter intuitive, is documented. One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen was on a prison reality show where a poor black woman (surprise, eh?) was in solitary confinement and drugged for being disruptive. She could be heard through the door wailing”Would somebody talk to me? Would somebody please talk to me?” Under prison rules of course, this is disruptive and merits the confinement and the drugs. I had to stop watching.

    People simply don’t handle “leisure time” all that well.

    But of the ones that do, some of them start thinking and asking questions about the status quo. About what the priest has said. The entire social order comes into question for some.

    When everyone is busy just working to try and stay alive no one has time to question the purpose of their lives, the rights of their rulers to rule over them, whether or not what their priest says makes sense.

    That can make some people, including the ones struggling with the self doubt, more than a little uncomfortable.


    28 May 12 at 2:09 pm

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