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The Monk Among the Critics

A Meditation on Medieval Exegesis

In his dissertation, The Classical Trivium, Marshal MacLuhan notes, “From the time of neo-platonists and Augustine to Bonaventura and to Francis Bacon, the world was viewed as a book, the lost language of which was analogous to that of human speech” (7). In De Doctrina Christiana, for instance, St. Augustine notes, “There are things and signs,” and that the most obvious expression of such a phenomenon is language and letters. Augustine, with his emphasis on grammar and rhetoric, figures prominently in this tradition, for he is the bridge from the ancient to the medieval moral and analogical imaginative landscapes. Like a text, the world and the cosmos, together with all their patterns and variations, were to be “read” with discernment and wisdom. And like the world, a single text could contain a world of mysteries. This kind of tradition was anti-materialist insofar as its way of seeing things. The basic “what” of a parable or the literal subject of a poem, for instance, was only the husk of its meaning; for the same parable or poem was layered and oblique and could readily hold beauties that were not necessarily transparent on the surface. Just as gold exceeds bronze (pro aere adferam aurum) in value, so it is that some treasures in a text were more valuable that those truths readily available upon a surface reading. In a commentary on Adam’s naming of creation (Genesis 2:19), MacLuhan sees the “doctrine of essence,” not merely “a naïve notion of oral terminology.” There is more to this passage than a sterile literalism.

The scriptural exegeticists will hold, as Francis Bacon held, that Adam possessed metaphysical knowledge in a very high degree. To him the whole of nature was a book which he could read with ease. He lost his ability to read this language of nature as a result of his fall…The business of art is, however, to recover the knowledge of that language which once man held by nature. (CT 16)

Thus, the antique doctrine of the unifying “Logos” takes its place in the center of man’s distinctive nature. Until Descartes, explains MacLuhan, “language was viewed as the simultaneously linking and harmonizing all the intellectual and physical functions of the physical world as well” (14). The last century, J. R. R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield have articulated similar views; in their works we find echoes of man as the logo-centric, God-like sub-creator. But without a grammar of reading, the labor of interpretation can be a fruitless activity, foraging only for what one can find on the bleak and barren surface.

The ancient and medieval imagination, on the other hand, contains what C.S. Lewis calls “the principle of plentitude.” This plentitude was present in the way they saw both the macro and the microcosmic. It was present in the way they viewed nature but no less present in the process of “seeing” a text. Though born at the turn of the twentieth century, Lewis possessed a “medieval” imagination. His in belief stories and his ability to see the “Kappa element” at work in them reflect this same interpretive tradition. We know Lewis had a mind trained in the art of dialectic, but we sometimes overlook his skill in the art of grammar, in the grammar of reading. And this reality permeates not only his literary criticism but also his imaginative works. That there is a hermeneutical key to “unlock” a text is a way of reading not at all consistent with the egalitarian pantheon of what is now called “critical theory.” Lewis was most certainly not a man of his time, but in this sense neither was he a man of the future.

There are always deeper, concealed meanings in any great work, and Lewis knew this, which ultimately implies that some interpretive tools are necessarily better than others. This brings us to the Fourfold method of medieval exegesis. The Fourfold method illuminates a text by the light of its analogical eye, so to speak; much like the medieval illuminators of Kells or Iona filled the empty marginalia of their parchments with microcosmic worlds, so the Fourfold reading fills the marginalia of the mind with the fullness of meaning. But it is not mere neo-Patonism that drives authors to allegorize or readers to see symbols. It is a glory to do so. “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter” (Proverbs 25:2). This is ultimately the governing principle in the creation and interpretation of things and signs. Though at first we might not hear the music of spheres nor see the quintessence of meaning behind things, it does not mean that heaven and earth aren’t full of God’s glory, as the psalmist assures us. Similarly, Christ admits that he tells parables not to make it easier to understand but so that the secrets of the kingdom of God may be hidden. In terms of authorial creation, the psalmist says, “I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old” (Psalm 78:2); but in terms of interpretive skill he also says, “I will incline mine ear to a parable: I will open my dark saying upon the harp” (Psalm 49:4, emphasis mine). Thus, there is something godlike in uttering one’s dark saying upon the harp and something kinglike in turning one’s ear to a riddle.

In light of this, I submit the Fourfold method as the superlative critical apparatus for both literary creation and judgment. Dante alone should be enough to defend that statement. Instead of looking only for evidence to justify the prejudices and predilections of the reader, medieval exegesis possesses the unique ability to comprise both the concerns of the reader while preserving the intent of the author; it allows difference within its unity. The Fourfold reading is not merely one way among many ways of reading; rather, it holds together the one and the many in harmony. By contrast, modern methods of interpretation offer at best sterile insight, at worst only a private fetish of weirdness. And do not misunderstand. This is not necessarily a dismissal of Marxist concerns, for instance, but rather a reordering of its priorities. Ultimately, Marxism (or Feminism) is a moral reading; archetypal criticism is an allegorical reading; formalism is a literal reading. Furthermore, we might say that such a hermeneutic preserves all the Transcendentals of meaning, not merely the True (the literal, grammatical-historical) but also the Good (moralia, or the tropological) and the Beautiful (the allegorical and the anagogical). The Fourfold reading is itself a typological cross on which are stretched out the varied and disparate concerns of what it means to be human, for only a hermeneutic of charity can simultaneously hold in balance the literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical concerns in literature. Students of literature should at least be familiar with medieval exegesis, if not learn to become monkish exegetes themselves, especially before the soothsayers of the English departments of higher education force them to learn the babylonish jargon and Nietzschean language of critical theory. We talk of reading literature from a “Christian perspective” and about interpreting things by the light of Christian “worldview.” In the end, however, we cannot do better than simply teach students to imitate the Church Fathers and to form a medieval mind of their own. But before we can teach them this, we need to learn ourselves.

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