Why January 1 is not the beginning of the new year

Martin of Braga (A.D. 510/520-579, Spanish bishop and saint, on why January 1 is not the beginning of the new year:

Likewise this error holds ignorant and rustic men, that they think that January 1 is the beginning of the year. This is altogether most false. For, as Sacred Scripture says, the beginning of the year was established on March 25 at the time of the equinox. For thus is it written: and God divided the light from the darkness (Genesis 1:4). For all right division has equality, as on March 25 the day has the same length of hours as the night. And therefore it is false that the beginning of the year is on January 1. (De correctione rusticorum, trans. D. Herlihy, in Medieval Culture and Society)

March 25, of course, is also Annunciation Day, the day on which the angel Gabriel allegedly announced to Mary that she was pregnant with the Savior, exactly nine months before the traditional date of his birth on December 25. As readers of Tolkien are also aware, March 25 is (not coincidentally) the date on which the Ring was destroyed in Mount Doom, marking the end of the Third and beginning of the Fourth Age (the previous December 25, by comparison, is the date on which the Fellowship set out from Rivendell).

Gandalf on not voting for the “lesser of two evils”

“[I]t is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.”

                                       –Gandalf, “The Council of Elrond,” The Fellowship of the Ring

Lewis’s Baconian reading of Bacon

In his Novum OrganumFrancis Bacon sought to establish modern natural science on an altogether new, experimental foundation and method of discovery. In doing so, however, Bacon deemed it necessary that science be once and for all freed from any interferences, limits, or distractions coming from the direction of theology. To this end, Bacon found himself reinterpreting Scripture in a way that would marginalize theology’s authority and guidance where the study of the natural world was concerned, and argued that this allegedly modest and humble position was the authentic teaching of the Bible itself. For Bacon, in short, the Bible’s own teaching was (effectively) that the Bible was irrelevant to a proper understanding of the natural world.

It is one of those tasty ironies, accordingly, that C.S. Lewis, in his Miraclesshould be found reading Bacon by means of Bacon’s own, dubious hermeneutic. After arguing for Reason’s distinction from, and even transcendence over, the world of Nature, in his chapter on “Nature and Supernature” Lewis makes the case for Nature’s resulting openness to the transforming agency of Reason. Anticipating an objection, Lewis suggests that the repugnance many moderns (among whom–in another Baconian sleight of hand–Lewis says that he numbers himself) feel toward such a picture of Nature’s vulnerability stems less from reason than it does from a certain emotional or aesthetic preference. As Lewis continues, “I know that the hankering for a universe which is all of a piece, and in which everything is the same sort of thing as everything else–a continuity, a seamless web, a democratic universe–is very deep-seated in the modern heart: in mine, no less than in yours.” Now, this democratic, anti-hierarchical view of reality is precisely one of Bacon’s great legacies to modern thought, as Lewis was well aware. Yet who should Lewis invoke in his effort to topple this modern, Baconian naïveté concerning the uniformity and inalterability of nature?

But have we any real assurance that things are like that? Are we mistaking for an intrinsic probability what is really a human desire for tidiness and harmony? Bacon warned us long ago that “the human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds. And though there be many things which are singular and unmatched, yet it devises for them parallels and conjugates and relatives which do not exist. Hence the fiction that all celestial bodies move in perfect circles” (Novum Organum, I, 45). I think Bacon was right. 

Against the naturalist’s Baconian assumption of an unalterable uniformity of nature, Lewis wryly pits Bacon’s own caution against the human penchant for finding more “order and regularity” than we really have evidence for.

But Lewis’s citation of this particular passage by Bacon in this particular context seems to be more audacious still. More than a mere invocation of something Bacon says in one place in order to undermine what he says in another, Lewis quotes Bacon to support a claim that is almost diametrically opposed to the one Bacon himself is trying to make. The target of Bacon’s remarks, after all, was the premodern and specifically scholastic tendency to anthropomorphize (as he interpreted it) nature by taking purposes or ends–which have their proper home in human thinking and action only–and projecting them onto what Bacon interpreted as an otherwise intrinsically non-teleological or purposeless Nature composed ultimately of nothing more than matter in motion. For its author, therefore, the above quote was originally intended as a statement calculated to relativize human reason, to chasten its confidence in the legitimacy of its own, every-day, common-sense modes of operation, and so to subordinate it to and discipline it under a conception of nature understood to operate according to the very different, even alien principles of materialism and mechanism. In Lewis’s hands, however, Bacon’s quote gets deployed in defense of the absolute character of human reason and the corresponding porosity or permeability of nature in the face of Reason, a relationship, moreover, that will turn out later to be a mere creaturely analogy to Nature’s much more profound, feminine vulnerability to the divine Reason of “Supernature.”

How, finally, might we interpret Lewis’s rather un-Baconian use of Bacon? Ineptitude? Doubtful. Disingenuous? Perhaps, but such a pietistic response, as I’ve already hinted, doesn’t reckon with the arguable duplicity involved in Bacon’s own use of Christian and biblical rhetoric to undermine the influence of the Bible and Christian doctrine on modern natural science. A third option suggests itself: in Lewis’s Miracles we see the premodern, “discarded image” tradition’s revenge on Bacon as it turns against him the very (and otherwise questionable) methods of persuasion by which Bacon and the moderns in general sought to subvert and replace that tradition.

The “humane” vs. the “political”: Frodo, Elrond, and Denethor

In The Return of the King, Gandalf contrasts Denethor’s mode of stewardship, which thinks of the good of “Gondor only,” with Gandalf’s own, much wider stewardship concerned with the preservation of anything that may “still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come,” and with “other men and other lives, and time still to come.” In a response he wrote to W.H. Auden’s review of the book, Tolkien articulated this antithesis in terms of the supremacy of the “humane” over the merely “political.” Objecting to Auden’s use of the word “political” to describe the central conflict of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote:

I dislike the use of ‘political’ in such a context; it seems to me false. It seems clear to me that  Frodo’s duty was ‘humane’ not political. He naturally thought first of the Shire, since his roots were there, but the quest had as its object not the preserving of this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire, but the liberation from an evil tyranny of all the ‘human’–including those …. that were still servants of the tyranny.

     Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure, and his mistrust of Faramir. It had become for him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and opposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful. He had become a ‘political’ leader: sc. Gondor against the rest.

     But that was not the policy or duty set out by the Council of Elrond. Only after hearing the debate and realizing the nature of the quest did Frodo accept the burden of his mission. Indeed the Elves destroyed their own polity in pursuit of a ‘humane’ duty. This did not happen merely as an unfortunate damage of War; it was known by them to be an inevitable result of victory, which could in no way be advantageous to Elves. Elrond cannot be said to have a political duty or purpose. (Letters 240-1)

Related posts: Denethor’s Machiavellianism, Denethor’s Hegelianism, The Nihilism of Feänor and Denethor

No bodies, no art, no sacraments

Jacques Maritain makes the following comment as to the aesthetic and imaginative necessity of embodiment for the possibility of art or “sub-creation”:

Art being of man, how could it not depend on the pre-existing structures and inclinations of the subject in which it dwells? They remain extrinsic to art, but they influence it…. But art does not reside in an angelic mind; it resides in a soul which animates a living body, and which, by the natural necessity in which it finds itself of learning, and progressing little by little and with the assistance of others, makes the rational animal a naturally social animal. Art is therefore basically dependent upon everything which the human community, spiritual tradition and history transmit to the body and mind of man. By its human subject and its human roots, art belong to a time and a country.” (Art and Scholasticism, 74)

In this opinion Maritain was joined by Catholic artist and poet David Jones, who applied Maritain’s point about art to the sacraments:

No wonder then that Theology regards the body as a unique good.  Without body: without sacrament.  Angels only: no sacrament.  Beasts only: no sacrament.  Man: sacrament at every turn and all levels of the ‘profane’ and ‘sacred’, in the trivial and in the profound, no escape from sacrament.” (Epoch and Artist, 167, also cited in Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 11)

Aquinas’s philosophy of sports

What’s the purpose of sports, according to Aquinas? Why, to help us philosophize better, of course:

“[We do not] find any action in human affairs, except speculative thought, that is not directed to some other end. Even sports activities, which appear to be carried on without any purpose, have a proper end, namely, so that after our minds have been somewhat relaxed through them we may be then better able to do serious jobs. Otherwise, if sport were an end in itself, the proper thing to do would be to play all the time, but that is not appropriate.” (Summa Contra Gentiles 3.25.9)

Gandalf and sacrifice

The theme of sacrificial angelic power is particularly associated in Tolkien’s letters with the Istari or “wizards,” of which Gandalf and Saruman are the most notable members. Of the Istari Tolkien writes: “At this point in the fabulous history the purpose was precisely to limit and hinder their exhibition of ‘power’ on the physical plane, and so that they should do what they were primarily sent for: train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to a resistance with their own strengths; and not just to do the job for them” (L 202, emphasis added). Of Gandalf in particular Tolkien says that, even after his “death” and “resurrection” as “Gandalf the White,” he was “still under the obligation of concealing his power and of teaching rather than forcing or dominating wills, but where the physical powers of the Enemy are too great for the good will of the opposers to be effective he can act in emergency as an ‘angel’—no more violently than the release of St Peter from prison. He seldom does so, operating rather through others, but in one or two cases in the War … he does reveal a sudden power…” (L 202-3, emphasis added). Like the Valar in their sub-creative and governing capacity, as a counselor Gandalf is charged with limiting the use of the power that is his by nature. (For more on the theme of angelic sacrifice in Tolkien, see Hood, “Nature and Technology: Angelic and Sacrificial Strategies in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.”)