«RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES: SUBJECTIVITY AND ALTERITY IN THE CHANSON DE ROLAND by Normand Raymond Bachelor of Arts, Laurentian University, 2001 Master of ...»
For those who try to find joy in things outside themselves easily vanish away into emptiness. They waste themselves on the temporal pleasures of the visible world. Their minds are starved and they nibble at empty shadows. How I wish that they would tire of going hungry and cry out for a sight of better times! This is the answer they would hear from us: Already, Lord, the sunshine of your favour has been plainly shown to us. For we are not ourselves the Light which enlightens every soul. We are enlightened by you,
Not unlike Plato, Augustine believes that the physical world that surrounds man may be in a state of constant flux, and that all things might wax and wane in and out of existence, such that no sure knowledge may be gleaned from living in such a state of constant becoming, and contingence. Yet, something interesting, something dialectical occurs when a man looks to the earth in just such a fashion. For when a man questions the earth, he is struck by the manner (inherent to Augustinian Platonism) in which the questioning of the material dimension, by the spiritual/sentient being that is man, inevitably involves a flight from this materiality towards immateriality. To question the material world is to recognize its absence of immateriality, and to be brought, by one’s own immaterial agency (the thinking subject), to move away from the material world.
But what is my God? I put my question to the earth. It answered, “I am not God”, and all things on earth declared the same. I asked the sea and the chasms of the deep and all living things that creep in them, but they answered, “ We are not your God. Seek what is Augustine, Confessions, 1961, p. 188.
above us.39 I spoke to the winds that blow, and the whole air and all that lives in it replied, “Anaximenes is wrong. I am not God”. I asked the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars, but they told me, “Neither are we the God whom you seek”. I spoke to all things that are about me, all that can be admitted by the door of the senses, and I said, “Since you are not my God, tell me about him. Tell me something of my God”. Clear and loud they answered, “God is he who made us” I asked these questions simply by gazing at these things, and their beauty was all the answer they gave40.
In this passage that is replete with verbal prosopopeia, the newly converted Augustine can only significantly perceive the world by making it speak, by lending his voice to that of the sun, the rocks, or the earth. By lending his voice to things, and experiencing these things in their purported answer, it is in all actuality, always and already, the “spiritual” or sentient dimension that subsumes and signifies the material dimension. That the world answers only by way of its beauty is another way of saying that, when you question a cave, the cave does not answer back.
It is therefore no wonder that the “enlightened” man must leave the cave. That Saracens, on the other hand, would place their most relished artifacts (their religious idols) in darkened crypts and caves, suggests the extent of their material and spiritual depravity.
Philosophically, Augustine’s questioning of the elements of the earth is rooted in a particular philosophical insistence. I believe that it is important to note that Augustine does not disinterestedly observe nature; rather, he inaugurates/officializes the medieval tradition that interprets the literal text in a “spiritual manner”. It is precisely this intentional transcending of the material/literal dimension of the text that he insists upon when he commends the religious
instruction he received at the hands of Ambrose:
This “answer” is a telling manifestation of the flight from immanence to transcendence.
Augustine, Confessions, 1961, p. 212.
I was glad too that I at last had been shown how to interpret the ancient Scriptures of the law and the prophets in a different light from that which had previously made them seem absurd, when I used to criticize your saints for holding beliefs which they had never really held at all. I was pleased to hear that in his sermons to the people Ambrose often repeated the text: The written law inflicts death, whereas the spiritual law brings life, as though this were a rule upon which he wished to insist most carefully. And when he lifted the veil of mystery and disclosed the spiritual meaning of texts which, taken literally, appeared to contain the most unlikely doctrines, I was not aggrieved by what he said41.
Having already remarked that there is in Augustine’s work a mathesis universalis with respect to degrees of perfection42, Augustine proceeds to conclude that from these lower degrees, we are required to postulate the existence of the utmost degree of perfection. The material world
adoption, within medieval Christianity, of the Platonic move/shift away from the material
towards the spiritual/ideal as is evidenced in the following passage:
By reading these books of the Platonists I had been prompted to look for truth as something incorporeal, and I caught sight of your invisible nature, as it is known through
Hence we arrive at a situation in which the material, or literal, (whether it is textual, or earthly) can only be said to have a partial or impoverished meaning in and of itself. Its true Augustine, Confessions, 1961, p. 115-116.
See section 1.2. Also, in his De libero arbitrio, Augustine clearly states that when we consider the material world, we encounter many kinds/degrees of perfection, of which the three most important are being, life, and knowledge.
Ultimately, we find these degrees of perfection within ourselves, since they are intimately connected to our ability to be conscious of ourselves. Augustine supplements this triad with a hierarchy: it is more perfect to be alive than merely to be, and it is greater still to be aware than to merely live.
Augustine, Confessions, 1961, p. 154.
significance comes procedurally when it is questioned, and “its” answer comes “from on high” 44.
The material world is also, itself, subject to a Truth. This transcending of the literal/material is important in that it marked the beginning of Augustine’s disassociation with the Manicheans.
One needs to stress that Manichaeism is a doctrine which (at least in the eyes of Augustine) insists on a “material” or substantial interpretation of the world 45. This manner of proceeding and interpreting the world is not without its philosophical consequences. By striving to root out a meaning from the impermanent and shifting world, the hermeneutic effort leads to a situation wherein the questioner’s intention for meaning becomes synonymous with the meaning derived from the questioned. As the philosopher of language Jacques Poulain has remarked in his studies
on the communicative experience of the real:
L’action verbale est une réaction au contexte qui se rend suffisante, en sélectionnant une réalité et en abstrayant de cette réalité ce qui l’intéresse en elle, ce qui en fait une réalité pour l’organisme qui la perçoit, elle inverse ici la direction des pulsions en produisant la perception visuelle qu’elle désigne et sa propre perception comme une seule et unique phase consommatoire. … Elle le fait en transformant la perception de ce stimulus en but de l’énonciation, en but simultanément atteint par elle et en but de la perception elle
It is therefore not entirely surprising that from within this contingent and immanent world, a world in which man speaks and directs his speech towards God, potentially answering
for them in kind, the uncertainty/impermanence allows for the appearance of a “necessity”:
“I had heard one passage after another in the Old Testament figuratively explained. These passages had been death to me when I took them literally, but once I had heard them explained in their spiritual meaning I began to blame myself for my despair”. Augustine, Confessions, 1961, p. 108.
Of his understanding of the Truth or the divine as taught to him by the Manichees, Augustine states : “For, ignorant as I was, I thought of evil not simply as some vague substance but as an actual bodily substance, and this was because I could not conceive of mind except as a rarefied body somehow diffused in space”. Augustine, Confessions, 1961, p. 104.
Jacques Poulain, L’âge pragmatique ou l’expérimentation totale, Éditions L’Harmattan, Paris, 1991, p. 32.
regardless of the contingency of things, regardless of the impermanence of states and beings, it is nonetheless true that at this very instant, any man reflecting on his particular situation can be sure that he is cognizant of two truths: the necessary existence of God, and the existence of his own subjectivity in relation to the truth of God’s existence 47. It is this certainty that represents the “necessity” of man’s existence.
Consequently, the discovery of the certain existence of this subject, and of its intellectual content (recognition of God’s existence, and of the subject’s relation to Him), furnishes some of the pillars for medieval belief and thought. To the certainties that are, specifically the fact that I know that I exist, and that I know that God exists, there is a third pillar, namely, the fact that I
demonstrates that, regardless of my contingent state of being, and regardless of the impermanence and flux that surrounds me, man can be certain of his own existence. This he understands and recognizes. On the other hand, the discovery of this existence is closely connected to man’s knowledge of God. It informs him of God’s existence, and of His essence as a self-existing being.
I ask you: “Do you exist?” Are you perhaps afraid to be deceived by that question? But if you did not exist it would be impossible for you to be deceived. … Since it is manifest “And we indeed recognize in ourselves the image of God, that is, of the supreme Trinity, an image which, though it be not equal to God, or rather, though it be far removed from Him- being neither coeternal, nor, to say all in a word, consubstantial with Him- is yet nearer to Him in nature than any other of His works, and is destined to be yet restored, that it may bear a still closer resemblance. For we both are, and know that we are, and delight in our being, and our knowledge of it. Moreover, in these three things no true-seeming illusion disturbs us; for we do not come into contact with these by some bodily sense, as we perceive the things outside us- colours, e.g., by seeing, sounds by hearing, smells by smelling, tastes by tasting, hard and soft objects by touching- of all which sensible objects it is the images resembling them, but not themselves which we perceive in the mind and hold in the memory, and which excite us to desire the objects. But, without any delusive representation of images or phantasms, I am most certain that I am, and that I know and delight in this”. Augustine, The City of God, translated by Marcus Dods, D.D., introduction by Thomas Merton, The Modern Library, New York, 1999, p. 370. The emphasis is mine.
that you exist and that you could not know unless you were living, it is also manifest that
Lastly, it is the idea that man has been created in the image of God that will be so important in future arguments dichotomizing the world between those who are faithful, and those who are wayward. For this similarity will furnish the basis for a principle of differentiation that will find its way into and inform the fractured and antagonistic world of the “Chanson de Roland”. Because beings are created by God, such beings, in their "created" resemblance or likeness, are also “driven” to approach49 or resemble God morally, ethically, and theologically.
Put simply, human beings should try to resemble and praise the source, origin, and cause of their being. To resemble God, to praise His majesty are fundamental attributes of human existence, since human beings are teleologically oriented to such activities50. One cannot underestimate the importance of this idea. It is fundamental not only the early Church’s worldview, but also, given the particular circumstances of its articulation, it is also fundamentally linked to Christianity’s appropriation of Greek philosophy and argumentation. Both in philosophical terms, as well as in theological terms, the view as to what can be considered the good life conceives of a humandivine association. The “Chanson de Roland”, in its radical emphasis that paien unt tort e Augustine, ‘On Free Will’ in Philosophy in the Middle Ages, second edition, edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1973, p. 34.
“That therefore, is made to the image of God which is perceived, not by the power of the body, but by that of the mind. It is that power which beholds the absent and embraces in its vision countries beyond the horizon. Its vision crosses boundaries and gazes intently on what is hidden. In one moment the utmost bounds of the world and its remote secret places are under its ken. God is attained and Christ is approached”. Saint Ambrose, Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain and Abel, p. 258.
The very first paragraph of the Confessions makes this clear: “Man is one of your creatures Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you”. Augustine, Confessions, 1961, p. 21.