Lifting his mouth from his horrendous meal,
this sinner first wiped off his messy lips
In the hair remaining on the chewed-up skull

Then spoke: “You want me to renew a grief
So desperate that just the thought of it,
Much less the telling, grips my heart with pain;

But if my words can be the seed to bear
The fruit of infamy for this betrayer,
Who feeds my hunger, then I shall speak– in tears.

I do not know your name, nor do I know
How you have come down here, but Florentine
You surely seem to be, to hear you speak.

First you should know I was Count Ugolino
And my neighbor here, Ruggieri the Archbishop;
Now I’ll tell you why I’m so unneighborly.

That I, trusting in him, was put in prison
Through his evil machinations, where I died,
This much I surely do not have to tell you.

What you could have not know, however, is
The inhuman circumstance of my death.
Now listen, then decide if he has wronged me!

Through a narrow slit of window high in that mew
(Which is called the tower of hunger, after me,
And I’ll not be the last to know that place)

I had watched moon after moon after moon go by,
When finally I dreamed the evil dream
Which ripped away the veil that hid my future.

I dreamed of this one here as lord and huntsman,
Pursuing the wolf and the wolf cubs up the mountain
(Which blocks the sight of Luca from the Pisans)

With skinny bitches, well trained and obedient;
He had out front as leaders of the pack
Gualandi with Sismondi and Lanfanchi.

A short run, and the father with his sons
Seemed to grow tired, and then I thought I saw
Long fangs sunk deep into their sides, ripped open.

When I awoke before the light of dawn,
I heard my children sobbing in their sleep
(You see they, too, were there), asking for bread.

If there thought of what my heart was telling me
Does not fill you with grief, how cruel you are!
If you are not weeping now- do you ever weep?

And then they awoke. It was around the time
They usually brought our food to us. But now
Each one of us was full of dread from dreaming;

Then from below I heard them driving nails
Into the dreadful tower’s door; with that,
I stared in silence at my flesh and blood.

I did not weep, I turned to stone inside;
They wept, and my little Anseluccio spoke:
‘What is it, father? Why do you look that way?’

For them I held my tears back, saying nothing,
All of that day, and then all of that night,
Until another sun shone on the world.

A meager ray of sunlight found its way
To the misery of our cell, and I could see
Myself reflected four times in their faces;

I bit my hands in anguish. And my children,
Who thought that hunger made me bite my hands,
Were quick to draw up closer to me, saying:

‘O, father, you would make us suffer less,
If you would feed on us: you were the one
Who gave us this sad flesh; you take it from us!’

I calmed myself to make them less unhappy.
That day we sat in silence, and the next day.
O pitiless earth! You should have swallowed us!

The fourth day came, and it was on that day
My Gaddo fell prostrate before my feet,
Crying: ‘Why don’t you help me? Why, my father?’

There he died. Just as you see me here,
I saw the other three fall one by one,
As the fifth day and sixth day passed. And I,

By then gone blind, groped over their dead bodies.
Though they were dead, two days I called their names.
Then hunger proved more powerful than grief.”

One of the benefits of literature is it’s ability to create images and forms in the hearts and minds of people. I wanted to share this excerpt simply because the first time I heard it read to me I was stunned.

This exert is from Dante’s Divine Comedy, a three part work depicting a tour through hell, purgatory, and heaven. This is from Inferno Canto XXXIII when Dante is near the end of his downward journey towards the bottom of hell where everything is frozen (yes, frozen) over. There he meets Count Ugolino. Quite graphically, the character finds Count Ugolino with most of his body frozen in ice except his head, which was free to move so that he can eternally chew the head of another person. The above is the accounting of his story.

The image cast in my imagination was more powerful than anything Dante could have written. “Then hunger proved more powerful than grief.” His choice to simply leave the account there showed me how words can be used not only to describe, but can instead leave implications that are more powerful than words.

It’s a good reminder that the various use and non-use of words are very powerful. I’ll explore more of Dante’s work as time moves on, however I wanted to share a personal, favorite, memorable moment. I hope more people come to literature with the expectation of enjoyment, satisfaction, and surprise.

 
The Divine Comedy: Volume 1: Inferno (AMZN Affiliate Link)

Here’s something to consider when coming to the classics: words have meaning to them. That may seem simple enough to understand that it should bear no repeating, but it is something that needs to be discussed. The idea that words communicate meaning is an assumption (as this writing would be meaningless otherwise), what should not be assumed is that everyone is using the same definitions.

In the preface to his work Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis uses the example of the word ‘gentleman’ to show how a word with a specific meaning can be ‘‪spiritualized‬’ and made to mean entirely something else.

“The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.”

Think of any hot topic, buzz word, or volatile term being used by your surrounding community. How often is the same word used by opposing sides in an attempt to prove their own point? In my personal experience I have found that simply asking someone to define what they mean allows me to not only better understand what they are communicating, but more often than not I find everyone means something different when using the same word. Overcoming the barriers of ideological presuppositions given to words can prove to be very difficult.

With the classics there is an added barrier of time and language between the writer, the original audience, the translator (unless you are reading in the original language), and you, the reader. Our words change meaning, our words have different definitions. Once this is understood we can approach the classics with questions such as what does virtue and justice mean to the Socrates and Aristotle. We then won’t be surprised if it may not be what we thought it would mean. Once that hurdle is overcome then we can begin to dialogue with the authors and enter into their world.

The Information Age is unlike any other time in history. The sharing of ideas can be achieved instantaneously across the globe in a rapidly ever-changing marketplace of opinion. Is there still a reason we should look at those who came before us to examine their wisdom and knowledge? After all, does not modern technological achievements prove the present is the pinnacle of progress in all areas? Yes, there is still reason to look to the past. We must guard against our ‘chronological snobbery’, a term coined by C.S. Lewis for giving priority to newer ideas simply on the merit they are new all the while dismissing older ideas simply because they are old. Chronological snobbery carries an assumption that mankind is always progressing, always moving ‘forward’ in all areas of life; therefore those who came before have nothing new to say that we have not already used and processed for today’s benefit, they are ‘out of date’. Referring to older ideas in his autobiography ‘Surprised by Joy’, Lewis states:

“You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.” (Lewis, pg 207,208).

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

Along with choronological snobbery, intellectual elitism is another danger to raise awareness on. In her essay ‘The Necessity of the Classics’, Louise Cowan touches on the need to bring the classics back from an elite group of ‘experts’ into the hands and understanding of everyone. In addressing this ivory tower approach to classics she states:

“In this way, all the genuine classics, all poetry, is being “killed.” By detaching themselves from the texts and yet mastering their every detail, by avoiding assertions, generalizations, and affirmations, by scorning anyone who dares to speak of one of these works without himself being an expert—and, more recently, by purporting to find in these works exclusions, stereotypes, and subterranean messages of dominance— scholars have turned the classics into philological and semiotic quarry. The classics are thus hunted down by specialists who can kill from a great distance by a single shot—kill, that is, by negating their intrinsic meaning, quibbling about esoteric details, rendering it impossible for anyone but fellow specialists to read the texts in question. These masterpieces are thus off-limits for the general reader. And certainly the ordinary college student cannot even obtain the license to hunt”. (Cowan, pg 10)

Cowan and Lewis recognize the importance of weighing and evaluating ideas themselves; removing the prejudices of the age of the ideas and the perception that critiquing and enjoying is only reserved for a select few.

As we journey into the restoration of our love for literature by making the classics accessible, let us not fall into being reverse-chronological snobs, and let us be confident that this is accessible for all.

When choosing a blog name I decided to relate it to an idea I wanted to convey. During the time I spent in a Christian and Classical Studies program I gained a higher appreciation for what I call ‘wisdom of man’. A wisdom which in fact helped me better understand portions of the Bible. I know when it comes to obtaining wisdom there is a True Source that is found in a Person. However, until now I never felt the weight of the Apostle Paul’s statement when he says the wisdom of man is foolishness to God.

I unintentionally equated man’s wisdom with what I see in today’s culture; namely a relativistic post modern worldview where truth is subjective. Discerning between objective truth and subjective ideas, I had an unformulated notion that the wisdom of man (in specific regard to Paul’s statement) was not that wise to begin with. Paul had something else in mind. When he addressed Greek wisdom he meant the Hellenistic mindset. Hellenism is a worldview shaped by Greek philosopher heavyweights; Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, amongst others. When I consider what Paul knew to be the Hellenistic mind, his statements about the wisdom of God become more pronounced. The “foolishness” of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, yet the Wisdom Paul knew is considered foolishness by the world. “Foolish Wisdom” is what we all have; thus ‘Simple Sages’ was suggested by a friend.

I intend by showing my appreciation in (and acknowledging the importance of) classical literature- it will be shown foolish, or simple, in light of True Wisdom. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have given us soul-shaping insight and understanding through their classics, even shaping Paul’s mind; but in light of Him in whom is hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, they are simple sages.

“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’
Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’“
– 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

New American Standard Bible