Collect for the Ascension

Grant, we beseech thee, Almight God: that like as we do believe thy Only Begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part IV: Introduction to Hierarchy

Wars were at end; the king’s friend stood
at the king’s side; Lancelot’s lion
had roared in the pattern the king’s mind cherished,
in charges completing the strategy of Arthur;
the king’s brain working in Lancelot’s blood.

Presaging intelligence of time climbed,
Merlin climbed, through the dome of Stephen,
over chimneys and churches …

Merlin beheld
the beasts of Broceliande, the fish of Nimue,
hierarchic, republican, the glory of Logres,
patterns of the Logos in the depth of the sun.

Taliessin in the crowd beheld the compelled brutes,
wildness formalized, images of mathematics,
star and moon, dolphin and pelican,
lion and leopard, changing their measure.

—Charles Williams, Taliessin Through Logres, ‘The Crowning of Arthur’

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In my first post of this series, I identified both hierarchy and republic as qualities that define courtesy: a simultaneous acceptance of equal worth and diverse purpose. The Western mind, since the eighteenth century or so, has found it extremely difficult to hold both of these values at once—not without reason, given the tyrannies perpetrated by many hierarchs and the rarer, but equally if not more horrifying, tyrannies perpetrated by many republics. Nevertheless, the average postmodern American is generally willing to treat it as self-evident that all people have equal worth,1 so I want to begin by explaining hierarchy a little.

Image of Arthur from the 'Christian Heroes Tapestry' (ca. 1385)

More exactly, I want to let C. S. Lewis explain it. His Introduction to ‘Paradise Lost’ is such a fine work of literary criticism that I’ve read it at least a dozen times, despite never having finished Milton’s actual epic. Lewis (who had) spends a chapter in his Introduction going over what hierarchy meant to our ancestors, and its importance not only in the civil sphere, but cosmically.

According to this conception degrees of value are objectively present in the universe. Everything except God has some natural superior; everything except unformed matter has some natural inferior. The goodness, happiness, and dignity of every being consists in obeying its natural superior and ruling its natural inferiors. When it fails in either part of this twofold task we have disease or monstrosity in the scheme of things until the peccant being is either destroyed or corrected. One or the other it will certainly be; for by stepping out of its place in the system (whether it step up like a rebellious angel or down like an uxorious husband) it has made the very nature of things its enemy. … Aristotle tells us that to rule and to be ruled are things according to Nature. … We must not, however, suppose that the rule of master over slave or soul over body is the only kind of rule: there are as many kinds of rule as there are kinds of superiority and inferiority. Thus a man should rule his slaves despotically, his children monarchically, and his wife politically; soul should be the despot of body, but reason the constitutional king of passion (Politics 1, 5, 12). The justice or injustice of any source of rule depends entirely on the nature of the parties, not in the least on any social contract. … The difference between a king and a tyrant does not turn exclusively on the fact that one rules mildly and the other harshly. A king is one who rules over his real, natural inferiors. He who rules permanently … over his natural equals is a tyrant, even (presumably) if he rules well. … Order can be destroyed in two ways: (1) By ruling or obeying natural equals, that is by Tyranny or Servility. (2) By failing to obey a natural superior or to rule a natural inferior—that is, by Rebellion or Remissness.2 And these, whether they are monstrosities of equal guilt or no, are equally monstrosities. … Even a modern man might obey the law and refuse to obey a gangster for one and the same reason.

The references here to Aristotle’s views are primarily political in nature; but the grand synthesis of the West, the model of the universe pertaining to all fields of knowledge that was perfected and used throughout the Mediæval era and the Renaissance, considered all of reality, visible and invisible, essentially hierarchical. This isn’t to say that they considered the political hierarchy an aspect of the cosmic—some did, such as those who professed the Divine Right of Kings; but this was far less common than most people suppose, and (especially in the Middle Ages) the educated were likelier to consider the social order an image of cosmic hierarchy than a part of it.

What surprised me when I first read Lewis’ treatment of the subject was the ‘negative’ reason our ancestors set forth for embracing hierarchy.

Line drawing by Gustave Doré, illustration for Paradise Lost

The greatest statement of the Hierarchical conception in its double reference to civil and cosmic life is, perhaps, the speech of Ulysses in Shakespeare’s Troilus. … If you take ‘Degree’ away ‘each thing meets in mere oppugnancy,’ ‘strength’ will be lord, everything will ‘include itself in power.’ In other words, the modern idea that we can choose between Hierarchy and equality is, for Shakespeare’s Ulysses, mere moonshine. The real alternative is tyranny; if you will not have authority you will find yourself obeying brute force.

The reasonableness of this view is probably obvious. When James Madison famously wrote that faction-prone democracies have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths, he was touching on the same principle. But the negative reason takes second place to the positive, which will strike many readers as strange—though lovers of Baroque music for its mathematical perfection will probably grasp it more easily. That positive reason is that hierarchy is beautiful, or at the least, it can be.

[Milton] pictures the life of beatitude as one of order—an intricate dance, so intricate that it seems irregular precisely when its regularity is most elaborate.3 He pictures his whole universe as a universe of degrees … He delights in the ceremonious interchange of unequal courtesies, with condescension (a beautiful word which we have spoiled) on the one side and reverence on the other. He shows us the Father ‘with rayes direct’ shining full on the Son, and the Son ‘o’er his scepter bowing’ as He rose … Almost everything one knows about Milton … makes it certain that Hierarchy will appeal to his imagination as well as to his conscience, will perhaps reach his conscience chiefly through his imagination. He is a neat, dainty man, ‘the lady of Christ’s’4; a fastidious man, pacing in trim gardens. He is a grammarian, a swordsman, a musician with a predilection for the fugue. Everything that he greatly cares about demands order, proportion, measure, and control. … The heavenly frolic arises from an orchestra which is in tune; the rules of courtesy make perfect ease and freedom possible between those who obey them. Without sin, the universe is a Solemn Game: and there is no good game without rules.5 … Unless we bear this in mind we shall not understand either the Comus or Paradise Lost, either the Faerie Queene or the Arcadia, or the Divine Comedy itself. We shall be in constant danger of supposing that the poet was inculcating a rule when in fact he was enamored of a perfection.

This is not to say that there was no place for the untamed, wild, Gothic varieties of beauty in that hierarchical age. The elusive, deliciously eerie quality of some Mediæval tales (Sir Gawayn and the Grene Knyght being a prime example) had no rival until the dawn of the Romantics, who specifically professed to take their cues from the Middle Ages.6 Frankly, I think the hierarchical and rational worldview supports enclaves of Gothicism more easily than the reverse: for, even in an essentially ordered universe, it’s very easy to imagine unexplored and mysterious realms within it that human beings can’t control, whereas a universe that is fundamentally chaotic and dark tends to hollow out any temporary order that is erected within it.

The Last Redoubt (from the novel The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson) by Jeremiah Humphries, ca. 2010

But I digress. The point here is that hierarchy, as an aspect of courtesy, is—well really it almost is courtesy. Gracious, sincere, unpatronizing generosity from someone in a position to extend it is beautiful; cheerful, unselfconscious, dignified acceptance of someone else’s generosity is beautiful; mutual delight in one another’s excellences is supremely beautiful. A person may dislike being treated with unique honor out of humility, but if so, they are probably to that extent still paying attention to themselves; a humility profounder still accepts honor from others because it is insulting to refuse a gift. That’s part of why false modesty is so annoying.

This also hints at how hierarchy and republic, inequality and equality, are combined in the spirit of courtesy: namely, that the work of others, whether as inferiors or as superiors, is worth accepting because their functions are just as dignified as ours, and we ought to allow them their place. Downton Abbey struck this chord magnificently in the Earl’s gentle rebuke to Cousin Matthew for refusing the services of a valet, when he says, ‘We all have different parts to play, and we must all be allowed to play them.’ But to do justice to the double character of courtesy, the commingling of hierarchy and republic, I’ll need another post.

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1Which is not to say that they apply this principle very consistently.
2Remissness here should be understood more or less as ‘abdication.’
3Anybody who’s studied fractals will probably get this part. If you haven’t, just google fractals and spend a few minutes looking at pictures of them. It’s trippy.
4I.e., Christ’s College in the University of Cambridge.
5Not even Calvinball, which forbids its players from either questioning the masks or doing things the same way twice.
6Unless one counts the witchcraft hysteria of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as being, unintentionally and among other things, an expression of this same æsthetic impulse.

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