Term has begun, and at the moment I have 65 students, though I think a few may drop out of my Byzantine empire class, which at the moment has 30. I had a colleague, a modern European historian who used to ask me “How do you get so many students to take a course on the Byzantine empire?” I told him they all enjoy the stories. So, something I have thought about doing for a long time was blogging my way through term. Some will find what I write of little interest, but many of the things I write, I do so for my own sake, a catalogue of memory, and I hope at least some will find this entertaining, if not enlightening.I also do it because so often there are great points made in class (by my students) that I’d like to tease out in other venues, namely Lux Christi. I have a few scholarly items on my plate now that Calvin’s Tormentors shall soon roll off the presses, namely writing reviews of Richard Rex’s and Peter Marshal’s excellent books on Martin Luther for the Sixteenth Century Journal, as well as review an edition of Calvin’s and Caroli’s writings that pertained to their pissing match that ran from the mid-1530s to the 1545 confrontation over the Reformation in Metz, and also a new Latin edition of Calvin’s commentary on Jeremiah. With such light and happy fair as all that is on my plate at the moment, I thought it would be the opportune time to get back to the blog, and thus write about what has been such a staple of my life, teaching.
My Tuesday began happily enough at 4:30 AM, which after life’s necessities got me to my sanctum at EU at just before 7 AM (beating the dean to school by about one minute). I met with two students and then trundled down to Latin. I have six students this second term, the remnant of last semester, all good students who had retained their first-semester of Latin better than what I had hoped, given the three-week Christmas break. I am using Moreland and Fleischer’s Latin an Intensive Course, which pushes students through the entire verbal system, including participles and periphrastics, in the first five units. This took us most of last semester. My students all seem to have mastered these chapters (along with the first three declensions), and so we spent the shortened period with some review. Two of my students had already met with me via Skype over break. We began demonstrative adjectives, and relative pronouns and adjectives on Thursday (putting the HOC into Hoc est corpus meum). I have been myself reading Reginaldus Thomas Foster’s and Daniel Patricius McCarthy’s wonderful Ossa Latinitatis Sola, which has proved itself worth it’s weight at least in silver if not gold. I highly recommend it to all Latinists, aspiring and otherwise. It gave me some great insights into “relative boxes” that should help my students no end. If all goes as I expect, by the end of the term I will have them reading Sallust, Caesar, and even some St. Bede.
The middle of my days (I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays) are back-to-back sections of Medieval and Renaissance Western Heritage in the Templeton Honors College. And so after a short break following Latin I found myself with these eager Telemachoi. I had them read Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia” and Lewis’s “On the reading of old books,” along with watching a wonderful video produced by Joseph Pierce on the conversation between Lewis and Tolkien that led to Lewis’s conversion and to Tolkien’s poem.
This then, after introductions, devolved into a conversation about what separates us, we moderns, from St. Paul and St. Augustine, and how we have more in common with Hitler than we do with St. Paul. This was a point that Lewis makes in “On the reading of Old Books,” that FDR and Hitler had more in common than either did with Athanasius or anyone in the ancient world, and that they together stood opposed to the past, just as H. G. Wells and Karl Barth shared more in common than either did with the past. How is that so? I then asked them, repeating, mutatis mutandi, a question from a quiz posted at the Imaginative Conservative a few months back, what would they do if their roommate suddenly took ill with a sharp pain in the side. Each in some form said call 911, or a doctor or ER, or one of their classmates who happens to be an EMT. Only one student, only one, responded “I would first pray (the class started giggling) and then see what I could do to help.” I told this class that one of the questions from I.C. (as I recalled it) had to do if your child thought the boogeyman was in the closet. I then put it to them: would they show their little one that there was nothing in the closet? Would they let them sleep with the light on? Let them sleep with you? Or would you pull down the icon of the Archangel Michael, say a prayer, and let them sleep with the icon (see this for my own answer). Of course most were quite taken aback that I would think such a thing as have my child sleep with an icon. The whole matter was a bit depressing in some ways, though the one student who said “I’d pray . . .” happens to be Orthodox, so perhaps not all is lost. I guess I should not be too amazed at how universalizing my students are in their parochialism when I see it in the whole culture.
Thursday we began Boethius, and this turned into a rather happy two sessions, especially once they get to Lady Philosophy’s quip (where she quotes Fortuna) that if you can loose something, it was never really yours. Some of them struggled with that, especially in thinking about the “loss” of a relative or loved one to death. Such things bring great teaching moments about “what can separate us from the Love of God?” and how the love of God exists within all goods. I found it interesting that none of them had any semblance of a definition of love, though one of them did approach it with regard to selflessness. Discussion also turned (which it will more fully do as we go through Boethius) on the question of Providence, and did Boethius think that Fortuna had vanquished the presence of God from life. Such a discussion, carried through as it should be, would challenge much of the morally therapeutic deism so often lurking in the back of moderns’ minds, that theodicy means subjecting God to human experience.
Tuesday night was the first Byzantine empire class, and the center of the evening focused on some aspects of Byzantine political theology. I covered the later years of the third century, and gave them an intro to Constantine, but also discussed briefly the thesis of Anthony Kaldellis’s The Byzantine Republic, a thesis I find wholly unconvincing, as it seems to be attacking something that’s not there. The Byzantines certainly were not adverse to surreptitiously removing their emperors (a central part of Kaldellis’s argument), but Kaldellis wants to reinterpret the whole of Roman imperium, and somehow thinks that since many of the emperors’ owed their throne to external powers and not that they were “born in the purple” (though he never really touches what this came to mean by Basil II), that we should mark Byzantium as a republic. Under this stricture then, there never was an empire or monarchy in the whole of European history from the time Rome threw off the Etruscans, and spanning between the Urals and Greenland. All polities are mixed, and at least in Europe, even though there were certainly autocratic rulers, and many that aspired to absolute authority, in reality, these never existed, or at least never existed except in the fevered mind of a few prior to being swiftly disabused of such notions. Even Machiavelli at his most Machiavellian didn’t think so. We get into the thick of it with Eusebius’s Encomium of Constantine, and who this played out (pace Kaldellis) throughout the Byzantine polity.
I am looking forward to the rest of this term no end.