the intellectual adventures of Benja-man

An Essay By Ben // 1/29/2003

Last week foams and falls back into the sea as this week – half done – crashes on the sand to replace it. Before all of that is lost in the blue swell of memory I hope to write it down. What did I learn last week? Where does that bring me today? Here is what I remember.

To love is to bring forth upon the beautiful, both in body and in soul. Socrates says this in The Symposium. He is speaking to a wise woman named Diotima. We love what is eternal, immortal. Nothing else lasts. This is the ultimate good, the ultimate beauty. Until we have it we desire what we lack (a Greek love: Eros) – and when we possess it we love it with a new kind of love, a giving love (Hebrew: Agape). How does our love lead us to what is immortal? In the body it happens through procreation. As parents our children pass us on. In the soul we ascend ever higher toward beauty, first by loving the beauty of the body, then the beauty of nature, then the beauty of ideas and art, and finally the beautiful itself, which shines through whatever is good. At first we may love a person for their face, but if – with time – we find them less attractive it may mean that they themselves are not good. On the other hand, a person we once found ugly can become beautiful. And, sometimes, the inner goodness of a person shines through so that it alone is what we see.

Ancient Greek is a hard language to learn. What’s that you say? You want the second aorist, middle voice, participle ending for accusative plural? You’ve got to be kidding.

Four juniors (one of them me) were asked to read in-class papers in the Humanities class in front of the whole school (well… all 60 of us). The topic for the paper was to compare the benefits of living in a Greek polis (small city), Roman city, Medieval town, and Benedictine Abby, and then to explain which you’d most readily live in yourself and why. After we had read our papers and answered questions – when everyone was packing up their books to leave – Dr. Sampo said to me, "Excellent, Benjamin... excellent." Ah, the glory! Here’s some of what I said (as far as I can remember):

Athenian Polis –
You’d get to talk to Socrates. You live in a close community. Get to meet people just by chance all over. Many opportunities in life – you could live a full life: be a student, an athlete, a warrior, a politician, a governor, a teacher, a stone-cutter, a playwright, an actor. Because life was simple you wouldn’t have to spend much time repairing toilets, mending clothing, cooking, paying bills. Leisure time. If you were a citizen (a free-born man), you were equal to all the rest. A life full of art, philosophy, worship. You had your place in the city. Worship of the gods made you feel your role. A numinous location, with the great hill and the acropolis giving a feeling of supernatural force. You lived in a city that gave great honor to the man, to virtue.

Roman City –
A feeling of safety, being protected by such a huge empire. Paved roads. Ability to travel safely to distant lands. The conveniences of the Romans: roads, toilets, running water, baths, a shopping center and place of worship all in one, foods from distant countries. Entertainment. Many vacations (in Rome itself, more than half the year!). Much time for talking to friends, studying, bathing. A beautiful city. A feeling of power. If you were Roman, you felt you were the chosen people. The gods are behind you. You could rise in rank based on your merit.

Medieval Town –
Most of all, that you are part of a close community. Your community is based upon Christianity which views humanity as members of one body, Christ’s body. The poor, the needy, the anguished were looked after. Mercy. Many institutions and guilds to bring men together and to help. Hospitals for the first time. First universities forming: University of Paris, Oxford, Cambridge.... Here you could study the classics with other people. The monastery and the convent – many religious monks, priests, and nuns. You could go to them for help or to get away from the noise and re-gather yourself to return. Everything decorated to be beautiful, even the walls. Curved road and an architecture that bases itself on the organic texture of the land (so that a tree is not cut down but rather built around in a pleasing way). Clean farm smells, clean air, clean sounds, clean water (that is, if you live in a small city and don’t bury your dead right next to the water supply). Access to the country. Participate and be spectator in religious events, all events. No slavery or slaves. Like Athenian polis: you meet your friends, teachers, governors by chance on the street.

Benedictine Monastery –
The Benedictine monastery is in a sense the heart of the medieval town. Monks honor manual labor and bring society to do the same. Your life is ordered for you. You know that if you follow The Rule you will be saved (this is not easy – it’s pretty much that if you are perfect, you will go to heaven). You live in a community close to each other, serving each other, under an Abbot who is your father. Your life is prayer, study, and work. You are not separated from children or the old, because they are some of the people you serve. Your life is hard. Silence and humility are your life. You can teach. You are safe from invaders and honored for your vocation.

Where would I live?
I would choose the Medieval town or the Benedictine monastery. Both have the strongest sense of community. Both satisfy the need for purpose in you better than Greek or Roman. Christian religion is not based in the world or in the city but outside in a spiritual realm of God. But this outside God is united with human things in the Incarnation. Even supposing the churches and religious practices were false, they still bring more security and joy than the less-convincing anthropological and cosmological religions. You would be united to your neighbor, surrounded by beauty that raised your tastes, and set in a sure role and work in life.

The other three juniors also chose the Medieval city. It was hard not to return simply to points of religion when we discussed why we chose that city. If we dropped the whole ""meaning of life" theme, I might chose the Greek polis, simply because of the intellectual fervor and freshness of that city during the short time it remained free of power-hungry men (this time lasted less than 60 years, I think). However, the Greeks were supposedly more competitive than the Medieval people. If you lost, you were a loser – you bit the dust. In the Medieval city you would be cared for. So that goes for the Medieval life. Those really were not the "Dark Ages" at all. It was a time that we tend to set aside too quickly and easily. It was a time of many developments, much aesthetic and ascetic taste, many intellectual minds.

Well, it's getting late here in my cell, so I think I will call it a day gone by. Hopkins will have to wait.


comment: the source of these thoughts on living in different times comes from Mumford’s The City in History and The Rule of St. Benedict.


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