Introductory Essay concerning Accidie – Francis Paget.

Introductory Essay Concerning Accidie.

Yea, they thought scorn of that pleasant land, and gave no credence unto His word; but murmured in their tents, and hearkened not unto the voice of the Lord

Most men may know that strange effect of vividness and reality with which at times a discoloured of character and experience in some old book seems to traverse the intervening centuries, and to touch the reader with a sense of sudden nearness to the man who so was tried, so felt and thought, so failed or conquered, very long ago. We are prepared, of course, for likeness and even for monotony, in the broad aspect of that ceaseless conflict through which men come to be and to show what they are; for the main conditions of a man’s probation stand like birth and death, like childhood, and youth, and age awaiting every human soul, behind the immense diversity of outward circumstance. We expect that the inner history of man will go on repeating itself in these general traits; but when out of an age whose ways imagination hardly represents to us with any clearness, there comes the exact likeness of some feature or deformity which we had thought peculiar to ourselves or our contemporaries, we may be almost startled by the claim thus made to moral kinship and recognition. We knew that it never had been easy to refuse the evil and choose the good; we guessed that at all times, if a man’s will faltered, there were forces ready to help him quietly and quickly on the downward road; but that centuries ago men felt, in minute detail, the very same temptations, subtle, complex, and resourceful, which we today find hiding and busy in the darker passages of our hearts, is often somewhat unreasonably surprising to us. For we are apt, perhaps, to overrrate the intensive force of those changes which have extended over all the surface of civilized life. We forget how little difference they may have brought to that which is deepest in us all. it is, indeed, true that the vast increase of the means of self-expression and self-distraction increases for many men the temptation to impoverish life at its centre for the sake of its ever widening circumference; it may be harder to be simple and thoughtful, easier to be multifariously worldly now than once it was; but the inmost quality, the secret history, of a selfish choice or a sullen mood, and the ingredients of a bad temper, are, probably, nearly what they were in quieter days; and there seems sometimes a curious sameness in the tricks that men play with conscience, and in the main elements of a soul’s tragedy.

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Dante and the Eagle

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“At the hour near morning when the swallow begins her plaintive songs, in remembrance, perhaps, of her ancient woes, and when our mind, more a pilgrim from the flesh and less held by thoughts, is in its visions almost prophetic, I seemed to see in a dream an eagle poised in the sky, with feathers of gold, with open wings, and prepared to swoop. And I seemed to be in the place where his own people were left behind by Ganymede when he was caught up to the supreme conclave; and I thought within myself,–perhaps it is used to strike here and disdains, perhaps, to carry off any in its claws from elsewhere. Then it seemed to me that, after wheeling a while, it descended, terrible as lightning, and caught me up as far as the fire; there it seemed that it and I burned together, and the imagined fire so scorched that perforce my sleep was broken.

Even as Achilles started up, turning his awakened eyes about him and not knowing where he was, when his mother carried him off sleeping in her arms from Chiron to Scyros, whence later the Greeks took him away, so I started, as soon as sleep left my eyes and turned pale, like one that is chilled with fear. Beside me was my comfort alone, and the sun was already more than two hours high, and my face was turned to the sea.

‘Have no fear,’ said my Lord ‘take confidence, for it is well with us, do not relax but put out all they strength. Now thou art come to Purgatory'” (Dante, Purgatory, Canto IX, trans. J D Sinclair).

“When the Eagle snatches him up to the fire, he is so scorched that the agony awakes him, and instead of the highest heaven, he finds himself outside the Gate of Purgatory, with the whole long journey and purifying discipline before him. Continue reading

Lessing on Laocoön: the expression of pain at the battle of Troy

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“A cry is the natural expression of physical pain. Homer’s wounded warriors not infrequently fall to the ground with a cry. Venus shrieks aloud at a mere scratch [Iliad V. 343], not because she must be made to represent the tender goddess of sensuality, but because suffering nature must have her due. Even iron Mars screams so horribly on feeling the lance of Diomedes that it sounds like the shouting of ten thousand raging warriors and fills both armies with terror [Iliad V. 859].

High as Homer raises his heroes above human nature in other respects, he still has them remain faithful to it in their sensitiveness to pain and injury and in the expression of this feeling by cries, tears, or invectives. In their deeds they are beings of a higher order, in their feelings true men.

I know that we more refined Europeans of a wiser, later age know better how to govern our mouths and our eyes. Courtesy and propriety force us to restrain our cries and tears. The aggressive bravery of the rough, early ages has become in our time a passive courage of endurance. Yet even our ancestors were greater in the latter than the former. But our ancestors were barbarians. To master all pain, to face death’s stroke with unflinching eye, to die laughing under the adder’s bite, to weep neither at the loss of one’s dearest friend nor at one’s own sins: these are the traits of old Nordic heroism. Palnatoko decreed that his Jomsburghers were not to fear anything nor even so much as mention the word “fear.”

Not so the Greek! He felt and feared, and he expressed his pain and grief. He was not ashamed of any human weakness, but it must not prevent him from attaining honor nor from fulfilling his duty. The Greek acted from principles whereas the barbarian acted out of his natural ferocity and callousness. In the Greek, heroism was like the spark hidden in the flint, which sleeps quietly as long as no external force awakens it, and robs it of its clarity or its coldness. In the barbarian, heroism was a bright, consuming, and ever-raging flame which devoured, or at least blackened, every other fine quality in him. When Homer makes the Trojans march to battle with wild cries, while the Greeks go in resolute silence, the commentators rightly observe that the poet thereby intends to depict the former as barbarians and the latter as civilized peoples. I am surprised that they did not notice a similar contrast of character in another passage [Iliad VII. 421]. Here the opposing armies have agreed to a truce and are busy burning their dead, which does not take place without the shedding of hot tears on both sides. But Priam forbids his Trojans to weep. He does this, Madame Dacier says, because he is afraid they may grow too softhearted and take up the battle on the following day with less courage. True! But why, may I ask, should only Priam fear this? Why does Agamemnon not issue the same command to the Greeks? The poet’s meaning goes deeper: he wants to tell us that only the civilized Greek can weep and yet be brave at the same time, while the uncivilized Trojan, to be brave, must first stifle all human feeling. “Weeping does not make me indignant” is the remark that Homer has the sensible son of wise Nestor make on another occasion” [Odyssey IV. 195] (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoön, p 8-10).

The “civilized” Greeks were not afraid of showing their pain because their identity was rooted firmly within. The “barbarian” Trojans’ identity was dependant upon the esteem and impressions of others (i.e., their identity was not internal to the same degree, but externally dependant) hence the ferociousness going into battle and the stoicism in burying their dead. Of course the Greeks conquered Troy. Lessing is studying the Laocoön group with a view to exploring the limits of art in expressing pain.

Eulogy to Nietzche

‘Come let us reason together’
you said,
sitting in the chair seeming vacant.

We returned to the table.
As you spoke you gave us a feast,
prepared from the flesh of a once lively faith.

As we ate we felt the absence of God rise up before us
with such power that the stones which litter the in roads of our hearts
cried out in anger.

(2001/1)