Monday, December 21, 2009

Music of the Universe

“Of the music of the universe, some is characteristic of the elements, some of the planets, some of the season: of the elements in their mass, number, and volume; of the planets in their situation, motion, and nature; of the season in days (in the alternation of day and night), in months (in the waxing and waning of the moons), and in years (in the succession of spring, summer, autumn, and winter).”
Hugh of St. Victor

Music and Harmonia

“For all that we might smile benignly at in the mathematical clumsiness and rhetorical hyperbole of the classical philosopher of music or in the intellectual abstractions and tetchy fussiness of the medieval theorist, is there not something in the notion of being ‘cradles’ in God’s created harmonia that is worth recovering?”

Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Facts and Truth

Because we come from a common origin, there’s a desire for that which is true. Myth is more powerful as a weapon for cultural renewal than math and science. When you want facts, look in an encyclopedia. When you want truth, look in songs, art, literature, and sculpture. In our rationalistic way, we think facts are truth, but facts and truth are not the same. Our desire to make them the same is why we sometimes never move on from knowledge into wisdom.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Chesterton on Myth

“Mythology is a search. It combines a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt. It’s not the prophet saying, ‘These things are.’ It’s the voice of a dreamer saying, ‘Why cannot these things be?’”
—G. K Chesterton

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Longing for Beauty

The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them: it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of the worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news form a country we have never yet visited.
—C.S. Lewis

Monday, November 2, 2009


“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”
When beauty is lost, “the whole of worldly being falls under the dominion of ‘knowledge.’ And the springs and forces of love immanent in the world are overpowered and finally suffocated by science, technology and cybernetics. The result is a world without women, without children, without reverence for love…a world in which power and the profit-margin are the sole criteria, where the disinterested, the useless, the purposeless is despised, persecuted and in the end exterminated—a world in which art itself is forced to wear the mask and features of technique.”
—Hans Urs van Balthasar

Legends, Fairy Tales and Truth

“All too often the legends old men tell are closer to the truth than the facts young professors tell. The wildest fairy tales of the ancients are far more realistic than the scientific phantasms imagined by moderns.” —Hilaire Belloc

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Symbolism Book List

Following is the books list I'll be using this year to teach the inaugural course on Symbolism at our new college.

Dictionary of Biblical Imagery General Editors: Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit & Tremper Longman III
On Christian Teaching by Augustine (selections)
Cratylus by Plato
Signs and Mysteries Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols by Mike Aquilina
Through New Eyes by James Jordan
The Elizabethan World Picture by E. M. W. Tillyard
The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C. S. Lewis
Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees by Ernst and Johanna Lehner
Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Beidermann
The Book of Beasts by T.H. White
The Theology of Arithmetic translated by Robin Waterfield
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling
War in Heaven by Charles Williams
Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves by Edmund Spenser, ed Roy Maynard
Pieter Bruegel: 1525/30-1569 (masters of Netherlandish Art) by HF Ullman
Alchemy: The Great Secret by Andrea Aromatico
Heraldry: An Introduction to a Noble Tradition by Michel Pastoureau
Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert Poems

Monday, May 4, 2009

Song of Creation

This following is from Spurgeon's Cheque Book of the Bank of Faith from May 1:

The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:12)

When sin is pardoned, our greatest sorrow is ended, and our truest pleasure begins. Such is the joy which the Lord bestows upon His reconciled ones, that it overflows and fills all nature with delight. The material world has latent music in it, and a renewed heart knows how to bring it out and make it vocal. Creation is the organ, and a gracious man finds out its keys, lays his hand thereon, and wakes the whole system of the universe to the harmony of praise. Mountains and hills, and other great objects, are, as it were, the bass of the chorus; while the trees of the wood, and all things that have life, take up the air of the melodious song.

When God's Word is made to prosper among us and souls are saved, then everything seems full of song. When we hear the confessions of young believers and the testimonies of well-instructed saints, we are made so happy that we must praise the Lord, and then it seems as if rocks and hills and woods and fields echo our joy-notes and turn the world into an orchestra. Lord, on this happy May Day, lead me out into thy tuneful world as rich in praise as a lark in full song.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Chesterton and Labyrinths

"What we all dread most is a maze with no centre. That is why atheism is only a nightmare."

--G.K. Chesterton, Father Brown Mystery, The Head of Caesar

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cosmological Harmony

Cosmological harmony was actually one of the few ideas on which philosopher, scientists, and theologians of Bach’s time were agreed. Newton, for example, could not imagine that a world so orderly as this one could have occurred by “natural Cause alone.” A “powerful, ever-living Agent…governs all things,” he concluded, “not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all.”

—James R. Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Children and Fairy Stories

It is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did. All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.

Almost the same answer serves for the popular charge of escapism, though here the question is not so simple.

Do fairy tales teach children to retreat into a world of wish-fulfillment— 'fantasy' in the technical psychological sense of the word— instead of facing the problems of the real world? Now it is here that the problem becomes subtle…The other longing, that for fairy land, is very different. In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first eleven. Does anyone suppose that he really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale?—really wants dragons in contemporary England? It is not so. It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing. The boy reading the school story of the type I have in mind desires success and is unhappy (once the book is over) because he can't get it: the boy reading the fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring. For his mind has not been concentrated on himself, as it often is in the more realistic story.

…For, as I say, there are two kinds of longing. The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.

A far more serious attack on the fairy tale as children's literature comes from those who do not wish children to be frightened…Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can't bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.

The other fears—the phobias—are a different matter. I do not believe one can control them by literary means…And I think it possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St George, or any bright champion in armor, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.
—C.S. Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Musical Counterpoint and the Cosmos

The constant motion of the heavens is thus analogous to the perpetual revolution of the parts in a well-constructed piece of double counterpoint, whose inversions mirror the perfection of heaven and provide earthly beings with a glimpse of God’s unending order, a prelude to the heavenly concert.

But the relationship between these phenomena was more than simply one of likeness: the mechanics of the heavens were not simply allegorized by double counterpoint, they were manifested in its workings.

—David Yearsley, Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint

Music and the Four Elements

Let me note first that musicians most often write for four parts, which, they find, contain the full perfection of harmony. Therefore they call these parts elemental after the four elements. As every physical body is composed of the elements, so every perfect composition is composed of the elemental parts. The lowest voice part is called the bass; it is analogous to the element of earth, which I slowest of the elements. The next part in ascending order is the tenor, which is analogous to water. It is just above the earth and united to it; similarly the tenor immediately follows the bass, and its low tones are indistinguishable from the high tones of the bass. The next voice part above the tenor is called by some the contratenor, by others the contralto or alto. Its position, third and central among the voices, is analogous to that of air; as air blends in a certain way with water and fire, so the low alto tones blend with the high tenor tones, while the high alto tones blend with the low tones of the fourth and highest voice, the canto. This voice, called by some the soprano because of its supreme position, is analogous to fire, which follows air and holds the highest place.
—Gioseffo Zarlino, The Art of Counterpoint: Part Three of Le Istitutioni harmoniche, 1558

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Architecture and Belief

Church architecture affects the way man worships; the way he worships affects what he believes; and what he believes affects not only his personal relationship with God but how he conducts himself in his daily life…

One basic tenet that architects have accepted for millennia is that the built environment has the capacity to affect the human person deeply—the way he acts, the way he feels, and the way he is. Church architects of past and present understood that the atmosphere created by the church building affects not only how we worship, but also what we believe. Ultimately, what we believe affects how we live our lives. It’s difficult to separate theology and ecclesiology from the environment for worship, whether it's a traditional church or a modern church.

—Michael S. Rose, Ugly as Sin

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Church as the Ark of Salvation

[T]he nave, a term derived from the Latin word for “ship” (from which we get the English word naval) .... is the place where the worshipping congregation dwells and is called nave because it represents the “ark of salvation.” .... But the church itself is this ark, too, sometimes referred to as the Barque of Peter, the place where Christians are given sanctuary and are guided on their pilgrimage to the Father’s house.
—Michael S. Rose, Ugly as Sin

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Peacock Symbolism

The peacock is a symbol of immortality because the ancients believed that the peacock had flesh that did not decay after death. As such, early Christian paintings and mosaics use peacock imagery, and peacock feathers can be used during the Easter season as church decorations. This symbol of immortality is also directly linked to Christ.

The peacock naturally replaces his feathers annually; as such, the peacock is also a symbol of renewal.

Early belief held that the Gates of Paradise are guarded by a pair of peacocks.

The peacock has the ability to eat poisonous snakes without harm.

Both Origen and Augustine refer to peacocks as a symbol of the resurrection.

Pythagoras wrote that the soul of Homer moved into a peacock—a hyperbole to establish the respect and longevity of the Greek poet’s words.

The Greeks dedicated the peacock to Juno, the goddess of sky and stars, in recognition of the golden circles and blue background of the peacock’s tail.

Other images and beliefs:
“By the Peacock” was a sacred oath, because the peacock was thought to have the power of resurrection, like the Phoenix.

A necklace of Amethyst, peacock feathers, and swallow feathers were a talisman to protect its wearer from witches and sorcerers.

Christians thought, in early times, that the peacock's blood could dispel evil spirits.

The peacock often appears among the animals in the stable in Christ's nativity.

Two peacocks drinking from a chalice symbolizes rebirth and angels are often depicted with four wings of peacock feathers.

In Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology, the peacock feathers were considered much like the evil eye. They were all seeing.

In the western world, the peacock was referred to as a slayer of serpents. The shimmering colors of his tail feathers were explained by his supposed ability to transform snake venom into solar iridescence.

Alchemist thought the fan of the peacock (cauda pavonis) is associated with certain texts and images that are useful in turning base metals into gold.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tokien and Myths

“Myths are not lies but are the best means we have of communicating truth. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor.”
—J.R.R. Tolkien

More Chesterton and Myth

“The man who has no sympathy with myth has no sympathy with men.”
—G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton and Myth

Mythology is a search. It combines a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt. It’s not the prophet saying, “These things are.” It's the voice of a dreamer saying, “Why cannot these things be?”
—G. K Chesterton

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Musical Universe and Knowledge

There was a time when the universe was believed to cohere, when human life had a meaning and purpose. A person who devoted himself to a lifetime of study, instead of coming out at the end of it the author of a definitive treatise on the pismire, or a catalogue of the references to Norse sagas in Finnigans Wake, would actually have a shot at discovering the key to the universe.

The concepts of the musical universe and the Great Chain of Being originate in the classical bedrock of our culture, flow through the Christian tradition, and remain firmly centered in the Renaissance and the Age of Reason. They are at the core of the culture. It was not until the nineteenth century that the perspective shifted decisively to the earthly, the tangible. Materialism and sensuality, qualities that had been deeply mistrusted throughout most of the Western tradition, emerged ascendant.

—Jamie James, The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe

Friday, February 13, 2009


Why is orange the color associated with jealousy in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and in Dante's Inferno?

"The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor
well; but civil count, civil as an orange, and
something of that jealous complexion."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Framing Shots in Film

The framing of shots in a film plays on audience's expectations and subconscious understanding. As Westerners, we read from left to right, and we do the same things when we “read” film. As such, we identify narrative situations from left to right. Consider the framing of the scene from The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader tempts Luke to join the dark side of the force. His tall, dark presence fills the left side of the screen while the cowering and injured Luke remains on the right with an abyss behind him. It is inevitable that Luke will fall off into the abyss because the dominant presence of Vader on the left essentially visually pushes him in that direction. Imagine what the scene would look like if the positions were reversed. Reading from the abyss to Luke to Vader would give a visual clue that Luke is moving towards Vader—the perceived threat would be the abyss with Vader as a place of safety.

The original framing:

Reversed framing:

Monday, February 9, 2009

From "The Sins of Prince Saradine" by Chesterton

They had moored their boat one night under a bank veiled in high grasses and short pollarded trees. Sleep, after heavy sculling, had come to them early, and by a corresponding accident they awoke before it was light. To speak more strictly, they awoke before it was daylight; for a large lemon moon was only just setting in the forest of high grass above their heads, and the sky was of a vivid violet-blue, nocturnal but bright. Both men had simultaneously a reminiscence of childhood, of the elfin and adventurous time when tall weeds close over us like woods. Standing up thus against the large low moon, the daisies really seemed to be giant daisies, the dandelions to be giant dandelions. Somehow it reminded them of the dado of a nursery wall-paper. The drop of the river-bed sufficed to sink them under the roots of all shrubs and flowers and make them gaze upwards at the grass. "By Jove!" said Flambeau, "it's like being in fairyland."

Father Brown sat bolt upright in the boat and crossed himself. His movement was so abrupt that his friend asked him, with a mild stare, what was the matter.

"The people who wrote the mediaeval ballads," answered the priest, "knew more about fairies than you do. It isn't only nice things that happen in fairyland."

"Oh, bosh!" said Flambeau. "Only nice things could happen under such an innocent moon. I am for pushing on now and seeing what does really come. We may die and rot before we ever see again such a moon or such a mood."

"All right," said Father Brown. "I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous."

From “The Invisible Man” by Chesterton

“Have you ever noticed this—that people never answer what you say? They answer what you mean—or what they think you mean. Suppose on lady says to another in a country house, ‘Is anybody staying with you?’ the lady doesn’t answer ‘Yes, the butler, the three footmen, the parlourmaid, and so on,’ though the parlourmaid may be in the room, or the butler behind her chair. She says ‘There is nobody staying with us,’ meaning nobody of the sort you mean. But suppose a doctor inquiring into an epidemic asks, ‘Who is staying in the house?’ then the lady will remember the butler, the parlourmaid, and the rest.

All language is used like that; you never get a question answered literally, even when you get it answered truly.”

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Dragon Quotes

“A poet can write about a man slaying a dragon, but not about a man pushing a button that releases a bomb.” —W. H. Auden

“It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.” —Bertrand Russell

“And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.” —Revelation 12:7-8

Friday, February 6, 2009

Occurrences of Lilith, Part II

The Lilith Relief (Sumerian Terra-Cotta Relief, circa 2000 BC)
The Talmud (as a female night demon, circa 400)
The Nippur Bowls (Babylonian Incantation Bowls; 26 of the 40 excavated bowls mention Lilith)
The Alphabet of Ben Sira (circa 800)
Book of Raziel (circa 1100)
The Zohar (circa 1200)
Hebrew Amuletic Tradition (circa 900-1800)

Musical Counterpoint and Alchemy

"Like alchemy, the roots of counterpoint were centuries old. Ever since the early Middle Ages, when the single chanted line of Gregorian plainsong gave way grudgingly to the presence of another voice, the rich acoustic medium of the medieval stone church had encouraged composers’ experiments writing note against note (punctus contra punctum) and eventually of raiding related vocal lines through one another to form increasingly rich weaves of melody. The most rigorous such part writing, such as canon and fugue, came to be known collectively as learned counterpoint, and its elaborated codes and principles were handed down as carefully and discreetly as the secrets of alchemy, from artifex to artifex (the Latin term for alchemist…

"Just as the alchemist’s ambition was to discover God’s laws for “perfecting” iron into gold, the learned composer’s job was to attempt to replicate in earthly music the celestial harmony with which God had joined and imbued the universe, and in a way to take part in the act of Creation itself…the practice of threading musical voices into the fabric of counterpoint could have been endowed with such metaphysical power."

Evening in the Palace of Reason by James R. Gaines

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Occurrences of Lilith, Part I

White Witch in Chronicles of Narnia C.S. Lewis
Lilith by George MacDonald
The Snow Queen by H.C. Andersen
Lily in Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams
Lamia in The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers
Obizuth in the Testament of Solomon (c. 200 BC)
Lilith in Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-Tree (c. 2000 BC)
“Lady Lilith” painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
“Lamia” by John Keats
Snake Witch in Paradise Lost by John Milton
Faust by Goethe
Back to Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw
From Lilith to Lilith Fair where “Lilith is defined in modern culture: the first strong, independent woman, a true feminist heroine”

Elfin Coincidence

"In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss."
—G.K. Chesterton, “The Blue Cross”

Sunday, February 1, 2009

On the Triad

From The Theology of Arithmetic by Iamblichus (4th century A.D.)

The triad has a special beauty and fairness beyond all numbers, primarily because it is the very first to make actual the potentiality of the monad—oddness, perfection, proportionality, unification, limit.

The triad is called ‘prudence’ and ‘wisdom’—that is, when people act correctly as regards the present, look ahead to the future, and gain experience from what has already happened in the past: so wisdom surveys the three parts of time, and consequently knowledge falls under the triad.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Colors in Heraldry

Gold or Yellow (Or): Generosity, wealth and elevation of the mind
Silver or White (Argent): Peace, sincerity and faith
Black (Sable): Constancy or grief; mystery
Red (Gules): Warrior or martyr; Military fortitude and generosity of spirit
Blue (Azure): Truth and loyalty; honesty
Green (Vert): Hope, joy, and sometimes loyalty in love; prosperity
Purple (Purpure): Royal majesty, sovereignty, and justice
Orange (Tawny or Tenne): Worthy ambition, desire
Maroon (Sanguine or Murray): Patient, or not hasty, in battle and yet victorious

One in Biblical Theology

Oneness is a quality of God and is a symbol of unity.

The Shema says: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deut 6:4)

“First, God is the only God. Other gods have no right whatsoever. They must not be worshipped (Ex 20:1-6). God has created heaven and earth (Gen 1)…God’s reign is unrestricted by time and place.
“Second, there is only one God for all people…
“Third, there are no gradations in deity.”

Quote from Dictionary of Biblical Imagery edited by Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III

Friday, January 30, 2009

Seeking and Finding

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
--J.R.R. Tolkien

On the Dyad

From The Theology of Arithmetic by Iamblichus (4th century A.D.)

Among the virtues, they liken [the dyad] to courage: for it has already advanced into action. Hence too they call it ‘daring’ and ‘impulse.’

The dyad is all but contrasted to the nature of God in the sense that it is considered to be the cause of things changing and altering, while God is the cause of sameness and unchanging stability.

Children and Dragons

Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.
--G.K. Chesterton

On the Monad

From The Theology of Arithmetic by Iamblichus (4th century A.D.)

Everything has been organized by the monad, because it contains everything potentially: for even if they are not yet actual, nevertheless the monad holds seminally the principals which are within all numbers, including those which are within the dyad…it is demonstrably…beginning, middle and end of all things…

Just as without the monad there is in general no composition of anything, so also without it there is no knowledge of anything whatsoever, since it is a pure light, most authoritative over everything in general, and it is sun-like and ruling, so that in each of these respects it resembles God, and especially because it has the power of making things cohere and combine, even when they are composed of many ingredients and are very different from on another, just as he made this universe harmonious and unified out of things which are likewise opposed.