A mediaeval jest

Gluttony, to start with. We might consider this the hors d’oeuvre. But then drunkenness, meanness, hypocrisy, and the love of money are added, in an environment cloyed with ugly social pretensions. For there is also corruption in human language, and the perversion of our creaturely sexuality, in ways that have not gone out-of-style through the last eight centuries. It is a lament by Nature, presented as a grand allegorical figure. At first this seems grim prospect for an evening’s entertainment.

I was reading the De planctu Naturae of Alain de Lille, the XIIth-century Latin satirist and philosophe, who fell into my withered XXIst-century hands. I have the “Dumbarton Oaks” edition of Alain’s literary works, which provides a text with modern translation on facing pages. However, one is compelled to wrestle with the Latin, because the English does not supply the wit, the humour, or the provocations that Alain was happily known for. By his contemporaries he was celebrated as the greatest genius since Adam.

He was not a scholastic, but nevertheless in the mystical-rational centre of Western thought; getting a whole chapter in Gilson’s History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, where he is placed in the context of the thrilling XIIth-century Renaissance. For, thanks only partly to the Crusades, Christendom had come into living contact with Islam, with a flourishing Judaism, and with the Albigensians who appeared from southern France less as a heresy than as a wildly successful third new religion.

Alain’s Art of Catholic Faith pioneers a Christian apologetics “to the Gentiles,” in this world that seems about to disintegrate in contradicting doctrines. It is the situation we are enjoying still today. God alone could deal with our multiple confusions.

Who is He? … In description, He is the perfect sphere, perfectly motionless, and perfectly simple, at the focus and simultaneously at the limitless circumference of our dancing life of forms. That an external Nature would make Complaint to this silent Authority — a complaint touching chiefly on us — is less spectacular than the Neoplatonic imagery descending from the De Trinitate of Boethius.

It is the “star wars” of metaphysics, that we have replaced with our humourless rocket-ships.