Questions on Augustine

August 3, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Each quarter, Harrison Middleton University hosts a Quarterly Discussion. This discussion is open to students and non-students alike. They focus on a short text which everyone reads prior to the discussion. I thoroughly enjoy these because they give me a chance to break away from my own studies, to focus on something in a small group which is a great listening opportunity. This month I was blessed to have Jim Keller, a current HMU master’s student, assist with the discussion topic, reading, and questions. He even led the discussion so that I could participate. What a treat! I think that anyone interested in Shared Inquiry style discussions should try their hand at leading. While it may seem intuitive, there really is a lot to learn about managing the flow of a conversation. Whatever your style, trying to put together a successful discussion requires a great knowledge of the text, but also an ability to listen to disparate voices in a conversation. I find this to be the greatest struggle, but also the greatest benefit, of Shared Inquiry. Many thanks to Jim for the assistance in setting up the conversation, and to the participants for some inspiring conversation.

This month, we read Book XIX from St. Augustine’s City of God. We began with a passage from Chapter 4 which reads, “And justice, whose office it is to render to every man his due, whereby there is in man himself a certain just order of nature, so that the soul is subjected to God, and the flesh to the soul, and consequently both soul and flesh to God – does not this virtue demonstrate that it is as yet rather labouring towards its end than resting in its finished work?” (580B). From this statement, I believe that Augustine’s version of justice can be defined as: “to render every man his due.” Upon first reading, I assumed the implication being that each man received an equal portion. However, Chapter 13 squarely denies that assumption. In Chapter 13, Augustine writes, “Order is the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place” (588A). In other words, we all receive a lot in life, and it may partake of greater or lesser as fits our being. I am still contemplating how this reflects a sense of justice. So, taking both of these statements together, I see that Augustine’s world relies upon order. In the city of man, order is granted as best as can be expected, but imperfectly to say the least. Order is a form of justice in that it is at least an organizing principle. Justice, also, stems from God (or from the City of God) which exists in perfect peace. This ultimate ideal of peace is the justice that Augustine seeks. So, man’s flawed implementation of justice is at least an attempt to model the city of God. I do see how the city of man is flawed and he consistently revisits that throughout the chapter. I still cannot quite come to terms with the idea of inequality as foundational to this sense of justice. I always assumed that God granted portions to each man, so why would he perpetuate inequalities?

I also struggle with the way in which Augustine proves his point. Throughout the book, he claims that human life is flawed and poor in comparison with the life of the soul. And yet, Augustine’s proof always stems from examples of human life. I see the obvious reason for that, being difficult to capture universally-accepted empirical data which proves of the soul’s existence, yet to claim that human life is worthless and then turn around to exclaim its worth seems complicated at best. Chapter 6, for example, describes the ways in which it is acceptable for judges to implement torture. While admitting the system is flawed, Augustine also allows that the wise judge may need to torture innocent persons in order to understand the truth. Though he acknowledges that often tortured persons are innocent and at times the innocent are killed, he finds it to be a necessary part of the process towards the greater good. Augustine writes, “These numerous and important evils he does not consider sins; for the wise judge does these things, not with any intention of doing harm, but because his ignorance compels him, and because human society claims him as a judge. But though we therefore acquit the judge of malice, we must none the less condemn human life as miserable. And if he is compelled to torture and punish the innocent because his office and his ignorance constrain him, is he a happy as well as guiltless man? Surely it were proof of more profound considerateness and finer feeling were he to recognize the misery of these necessities, and shrink from his own implication in that misery; and had he any piety about him, he would cry to God ‘From my necessities deliver Thou me’” (583). In other words, while the judge may feel some level of guilt, he is to be absolved of any sin because he is fulfilling the duty required of him. Rather than a reflection on the individual, this scenario is meant to demonstrate man’s absolute depravity. The city of man grants a judge power and it is better for him to pursue this grave responsibility in the manner of the times than to avoid unpleasantness by shirking the judge’s sole responsibility. Duty compels the judge to act.

Contrary to all the questions I have raised above, I did learn quite a bit from these conversations. Reading Augustine begs conversation simply because of the complexity of terms and the text’s density. In this chapter alone, we discussed virtue and vice, good and evil, peace, eternity, eternal life, and justice, just to name a few. I would encourage anyone to pick up a chapter of Augustine and struggle with it as we have. Better yet, pick up the chapter with a few friends and struggle to define these terms in both his context and our contemporary world. My appreciation to the folks who struggled alongside me and listened patiently as we explored the text together.

As usual, I am already looking forward to October’s Quarterly Discussion on de Tocqueville. You can join! Simply email I look forward to hearing from you!

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Translations of Chaucer

May 4, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week’s Quarterly Discussion focused on Chaucer in translation. I opened the discussion with the question as to how one would determine what elements make a “best” translation. This seemingly generic question is actually really difficult to answer. Some authors excelled at rhyme schemes, while others performed better with word choice, for example. Truly, there is no single response and my intent in opening (and closing) the discussion with this question was to explore the benefits of having access to the primary source (and primary language).

Necessarily, translation contains many layers. First, there is the original language barrier. Most people who read a work in translation do so because they cannot access the language of origin. Secondly, translations must navigate not only word choice, but also context and cultural information carried within a language. Stylistic issues present a third difficulty. These are things such as alliteration, rhyme scheme, line length, etc. And finally (though this list is hardly exhaustive), the translator faces the issue of the target audience. By that I mean that the translator must weigh all of these decisions by postulating how successful the translation will be in the target language. In other words, there is a very delicate balance between risk-taking and minimizing risk, all driven by the target audience.

I selected Chaucer in translation for a couple of reasons. First, I was surprised that the Great Books version was Neville Coghill’s translation. My initial introduction to the Canterbury Tales was twenty years ago in an undergraduate class where we worked slowly and diligently (if impatiently) through the Middle English. I think this text is still fairly accessible with footnotes. Having said that, I do understand the amount of labor involved in combing through a footnoted text. (Personally, I believe that Gibbon’s texts include more footnotes - and more foreign languages - than the Middle English Chaucer, but that is perhaps just me.) Since I study the idea of poetry and occasionally attempt translations, I have become very interested in the differences (and similarities) between the original and translated versions of Chaucer.

For this discussion, we compared four different texts of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”: Nicholson (Librarius version, published 1934); Neville Coghill’s translation (published 1951; this is also the Penguin Classics text as well as the Great Books version); A. S. Kline’s version (dated 2007); and the original. Below is a short passage from all four texts which will hopefully illuminate many struggles both from a translator’s standpoint, as well as the audience’s.

First of all, Chaucer writes in rhymed iambic pentameter. Since this sounds archaic to the modern-day ear, the translator first has to decide if they will stick with that same rhyme scheme. Secondly, Chaucer includes jokes throughout, using words with double meanings that may have faded away over time. In some cases, the translators chose to create a new joke, one that would work with the contemporary audience. In other cases, the translator ignores the joke. What license does a translator have in making these decisions? How much introduced content is actually new content? For example, in order to replace the Old English forslewthen, which means slow to act, or to delay, Coghill adjusts the metaphor and loses the layered meaning of a man about to set sail who is incapable of stemming his own “tyde”. Coghill writes, “But as I see you mean to stay behind/ And miss the tide for willful sloth of mind” instead of the original line: “But sith I see that thou wolt heere abyde/ And thus forslewthen wilfully thy tyde”.

Analyzing translations can be a tedious process, but it is the most enriching language experience I can imagine. In studying these texts, we gained insight into: root words, etymology, cultural adaptations, similes and metaphors (both new and old), effects of acculturation, and more. Furthermore, when translations of Chaucer differ, then the moral, main idea, character or understanding of Chaucer and his times, might also change. The stakes may be even higher when thinking about something like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, in which the moral is educational. The following passage demonstrates just one (of many) deviations that we analyzed during this discussion.


“Ful sooty was hir bour, and eek hir halle

In which she eet ful many a sclendre meel.

Of poynaunt sauce her neded never a deel.

No deyntee morsel passed thurgh hir throte;

Hir dyete was accordant to hir cote.” – Original


“Right neatly was her bedroom and her hall,

Wherein she'd eaten many a slender meal.

Of sharp sauce, why she needed no great deal,

For dainty morsel never passed her throat;

Her diet well accorded with her coat.” – Librarius (Nicholson)


“Sooty her hall, her kitchen melancholy,

And there she ate full many a slender meal;

there was no sauce piquante to spice her veal,

No dainty morsel ever passed her throat.

According to her cloth she cut her coat.” – Coghill


“Full sooty was her bower, all melancholy,

In which she ate full many a scanty meal.

No pungent sauce was needed for her veal;

No dainty morsel ever passed her throat.

Her diet, her cottage struck a single note.” - Kline

After reading through these passages, we wondered: Do we have the same impression of the widow after reading these four lines? Why do Coghill and Kline introduce the term melancholy? Did Chaucer intend for the widow to be surrounded in dirt, or simply soot from the ever-burning fireplace? Did the widow feel impoverished? How does “veal” change the passage, if at all? If we assume that Chaucer is intentionally including words from Latin, French and Old English, does the word “piquante” fit here, or does it distract (since we no longer navigate language tri-lingually or are, at least, not aware of it)? “Cote” is the Middle English term for cottage, so is the introduction of “coat” appropriate?

Basically, if this is the character that Chaucer uses as the introductory frame for his morality play, how much change still maintains the same message? And, is it important to aim for the same? At the end of our discussion, we still struggled to state precisely what is “best”. The translator must make value judgments and so must the audience, thus complicating the very business of translation!

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Chaucer Translations

March 30, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In April, we will be discussing two of my favorite things in the Quarterly Discussion: translation and Chaucer. I love Middle English texts because they show such difference between Old English and contemporary English. Old English was originally spoken by Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. As the Anglo-Saxons formed larger communities, Old English began to overpower Latin as the dominant language in Britain.

There are some stark differences between Latin and Old English. For example, English is structured around the subject-verb sentence structure. If we rearrange the word order, meaning may very likely change. In Latin, however, word order matters much less than the form of the words. Nouns are inflected for case, number, gender, and verbs are inflected for person, number, tense, aspect, voice and mood. Since Latin depends on these constant word endings, the language can attain a rhyme scheme that sounds awkward in English.

In fact, the first English poems depended upon alliteration and repetition instead of rhyme scheme and syllable count. As British arts began to commingle with the highly stylized French poetry, the style began to change. As so often happens when languages collide, the arts begin to absorb and reflect the other culture's style. Middle English began to assume some of the words and styles from French poetry. Beginning roughly in the 11th century, it continued into the 1500s. Since Chaucer constructed The Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, it is important to understand a bit about Chaucer's main dialect: Middle English.

In April, the group of participants in our Quarterly Discussion will review a variety of Chaucer translations. This practice is so interesting because it simultaneously reveals a wide variety of things. First, the Middle English is recognizable in structure (much moreso than Old English). Therefore, reading the original is not impossible. Most originals are now printed with excellent footnotes and background information for those words that have slipped out of the English language since Chaucer's day. Second, we learn about Chaucer himself. What sort of biases, prejudices and experiences he had can be reflected in a work of this magnitude. Finally, we discover cultural clues, such as clothing styles and stereotypes. Since Chaucer was an incredibly playful artist, the reader is required to ascertain tone as well. Is the cultural stereotype, for example, serious, playful or insulting? How will we know through language alone? There will be questions that are impossible to answer, but I find that discussions about Chaucer's works are always entertaining and rewarding.

As a teaser, I have been comparing some of the Chaucer translations, and I find the following bit particularly interesting. Chaucer modeled "The Franklin's Tale" after the French story-telling style of a breton lay. We know, then, that the narrative will be rhymed and involve chivalry. The language is highly stylized and assumes that the speaker is an educated man. Therefore, when the Franklin says “But, sirs, I'm not a cultivated man/ And so from the beginning I beseech/ You to excuse me my untutored speech”, the reader already knows that this is untrue. Chaucer chose the style to fit the speaker, tale and theme. But Chaucer also chose how to deliver the lines. From the very first lines, then, his tale incorporates irony and ambiguity as much as it uses elevated rhetoric.

"The Franklin's Tale" revolves around Dorigen, a fair maiden, who is won over by the knight Arvéragus. They swear their love to each other, but must part soon after their wedding. When Arvéragus is sent away for two years as part of his knightly duties, Dorigen pines away for him. During this time, another suitor approaches Dorigen. Though she rejects him, she does mention that if he can move mountains, she would love him. She says this because it is the mountainous, rocky shore that blocks her husband's safe return. Unfortunately for Dorigen, the suitor finds a magician who eventually moves the mountains. When he proves that he has fulfilled the pledge, Arvéragus consents to the coupling as the only way to save Dorigen's honor. Crestfallen and ashamed, she approaches the suitor and he forgives her debt. After hearing this whole tale, the magician (also called the philosopher), then, forgives the suitor's debt. So, in the end, no one errs other than in words. No crime has been committed, though the magician remains unpaid for his trick.

By looking at the final lines of this tale, we can gain an understanding of some of the tricks with translation.

First, the original reads:

This philosophre answerde, 'Leeve brother,/ Everich of yow dide gentilly til oother./ Thou art a squier, and he is a knyght;/ But God forbede, for his blisful myght,/ But if a clerk koude doon a gentil dede/ As wel as any of yow, it is no drede!

'Sire, I releesse thee thy thousand pound,/ As thou right now were cropen out of the ground,/ Ne nevere er now ne haddest knowen me./ For, sire, I wol nat taken a peny of thee./ For al my craft, ne noght for my travaille./ Thou hast ypayed wel for my vitaille./ It is ynogh, and farewel, have good day!'

And took his hors, and forth he goth his way./ Lordynges, this question, thanne wol I aske now,/ Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?/ Now telleth me, er that ye ferther wende./ I kan namoore; my tale is at an ende.


Next, the same section of text from the Great Books series version (translated by Nevil Coghill) reads:

Then the magician answered, “My dear brother,/ Each of you did as nobly as the other./ You are a squire, sir, and he a knight,/ But God forbid in all His blissful might/ That men of learning should not come as near/ To nobleness as any, never fear.

“Sir, I release you of your thousand pound/ No less than if you'd crept out of the ground/ Just now, and never had had to do with me./ I will not take a penny, sir, in fee/ For all my knowledge and my work to rid/ The coast of rocks; I'm paid enough for what I did,/ Well paid, and that's enough. Farewell, good-day!”/ He mounted on his horse and rode away.

My lords, I'll put a question: tell me true,/ Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?/ Ere we ride onwards tell me, anyone!/ I have no more to say, my tale is done.


While this translation has a lot to offer, I want to look at just one line for the sake of brevity. Coghill translates: “Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?” as “Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?” According to a variety of Middle English sources, “fre” can be translated as noble, free, of noble status, gracious, and generous. Which word best fits the syntax, meter, meaning and author intention? These are difficult questions, made particularly difficult in a translation of something that may also be tongue-in-cheek. I think it is important to note that Chaucer's original leaves open the possibility that Dorigen may have been the most “fre”. The translation, however, does not because instead of the ambigious “mooste fre”, it asks who was the finest “gentleman”. In my mind, that single word changes the passage quite radically.

Translations are never perfect, but they are fun to explore. I think we will gain much insight from our comparisons. Feel free to join us! Email for more information and to join the conversation!

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William James and the Stream

February 2, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

"Let us call the resting-places the 'substantive parts,' and the places of flight the 'transitive parts,' of the stream of thought. It then appears that the main end of our thinking is at all times the attainment of some other substantive part than the one from which we have just been dislodged. And we may say that the main use of the transitive parts is to lead us from one substantive conclusion to another." - William James, Principles of Psychology

William James's famous depiction of human thought as a continuous stream is now a mainstream idea. HMU's January Quarterly Discussion focused on this metaphor. We investigated its "resting places" and "places of flight". Why, or how, does one come to recognize any thought? James says that we have many thoughts of which we are both aware and unaware. These thoughts compose our stream of consciousness. Humans encounter a staggering amount of data everyday and parse it into the noisy stream, combined with reminders, memories, song lyrics, and interests (just to name a few other things that we carry).

One thing that strikes me as important is that James does not clearly define any terms in this chapter. Rather, he invokes the power of metaphor to universally describe thought. The accessibility of a stream is clear in ways that a scientific definition may not be. At the same time, though, James also notes the inherent flaws of language. He is quick to claim that language cannot accurately depict all reality. Rather, he says, "language works against our perception of the truth." In other words, perception is subjective. The subject defines experience in language that is also defined by the subject. An object, something external to the subject, can be defined only through the subject's access to it. And repeated experiences lead us to a level of "sameness".

"Sameness" allows humans the ability to recognize forms. An orange, for example, is round, orange and citrusy. Language allows sameness, but also limits us from having absolutely equivalent experiences with that orange. We know that an orange has a recognizable form, but it may carry different connotations for each of us. This additional baggage is personal, and not necessarily transmitted in the thought of orange itself. However, James claims that we can continually expand our understanding of an object. He writes, "Experience is remoulding us every moment, and our mental reaction on every given thing is really a resultant of our experience of the whole world up to that date.... Every brain-state is partly determined by the nature of this entire past succession." (152) In other words, our thoughts exist in a continual stream. As we interact with each thought, the thought develops its own unique parts.

So, while "sameness" allows us to converse with others about an object, personal influence is in part always lost. For example, imagine an orange sitting on the table. Investigate your preconceived notions of orange. Does the color please you? Do you like the flavor and taste? Does it make you think of summer or winter, a particular vacation, dessert or juice? We have almost instantaneous associations that may be what we are thinking when we speak. For example, I grew up with an orange tree. So, after this conversation and after thinking about what defines an object itself, I realized that when I say the word orange, I mentally recall the experience and smell of picking oranges. Therefore, while the communicable thought remains only that the orange is on the table, I am sensing much more than my words contain. Orange is the object of thought, but not the full thought itself. James continues that "[t]he next point to make clear is that, however complex the object may be, the thought of it is one undivided state of consciousness." So, for me, an orange is also experiential in a way that language does not immediately transmit. Imagining that everyone functions in a similar manner, makes it difficult to grasp how humans arrive at any verifiable "sameness".

I wonder what causes us to say anything? What focuses our attention on a single thought? It was suggested that the stream of thought is substantive and also transitive. The substantive section represents objects of interest. These objects exist in time and places for us, as we must associate them with some experience or definition. However, the transitive subset of the stream is composed of things that have yet to enter our consciousness. For whatever reason, these objects avoid our consciousness, and, as a result, they cannot be expressed in any sort of time-part. They literally do not yet exist in any functional or communicable way, though they may exist within the stream.

I am astounded at how difficult a discussion of simple thought is. Representing our personal definition of an orange, even, can be problematic. Extend this into philosophical ideas and intangible notions, and it is a wonder we can communicate at all. This is reinforced by the fact that thought can be traced through hundreds of years of philosophy. James is, in part, responding to those previous thinkers when he rebuts the idea that thought is composed of single, static conclusions. Rather, he reinforces complexity by allowing that each idea is connected to a massive flow of data.

I am ever-so-grateful to those who discussed James's work with me. His stream of consciousness idea has profound implications for communication and is well worth reading. I truly appreciate others' time and efforts in clarifying difficult points.

Our next Quarterly Discussion will focus on two translation. Join us! Email for more information.

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