The Book of J by Harold Bloom

In this book, the great literary critic Harold Bloom attempts to tackle the J writer as an ancient poet. In some ways it is refreshing to read a literary critic who is not a professional theologian, religious philosopher, or even a trained secular scholar of Biblical studies. Bloom’s fame perhaps rests in his ability to continually extend himself beyond his original area of specialty, the English Romantic poets, and read and write about all areas of literature. To his credit, and out of necessity, he does quote some other biblical scholars, both theological and secular, to support his points and readings. Indeed, his entire reading requires him to accept the Documentary Hypothesis in order to comment on the great “epic” writer who makes up the core of the Bible: the J writer.

The weakest part of the book is when Bloom attempts to imagine the life of J.  He surmises that J is a woman of the royal line, descended from David and Solomon, who is now living under the ineffectual king Rehoboam after the United Monarchy splits into two separate kingdoms. He also imagines her to be in literary competition and have a healthy rivalry with the Court Historian who wrote 2 Samuel who might also her husband. All of this seems to be a figment of Bloom’s imagination, which he readily admits, but comes off as bad literary criticism and history. Since many scholars consider the J source to be the oldest of the four writers, Bloom argues that J’s work is the true core of the Bible in which every other writer extends, challenges, or tries to edit.

Bloom is at his strongest in the book when he deals with J as writer and not when he tries to historicize his or her identity or surmise a make-believe background for the possible author. For him, J is a dramatic ironist rather than a theologian or historian. She isn’t interested in developing a cohesive or correct theology, nor does she want to portray history as it actually occurred. In fact, the way she portrays God in her portions of the Torah is rather irreverent. Her Yahweh is neither good or bad. He is more like a living force, with a personality that both destroys and creates.

“For J . . . Yahweh is not to be conceived as holiness or righteousness but as vitality. If God’s leading attribute is vitality, then his creature the human is most godlike when most vital. A monistic vitalism that refuses to distinguish between flesh and spirit is at the center of J’s vision, which is thus at the opposite extreme from either the Gnostic or the Pauline Christian dualism (277).”

He is a Being that unleashes potential, while preventing illegitimate expressions of potential. In sense, this is how you can read Yahweh and his relationship with humans and patriarchs throughout the portions ascribed to J. Yahweh is constantly molding humans beyond the initial Creation story, teaching them how to exist properly in the world, showing them His vision and expecting them to obey, and then sometimes reacting ferociously when they don’t.

“[His] leading quality is . . . The sheer energy and force of becoming, of breaking into fresh being (294).”

He sets the limits on human activity and potential, the boundaries, while always pushing them to be more, to thrive, but then coming back with a vengeance when they go too far. The patriarchal stories are about this give and take, push and limit relationship. The patriarchal stories are not real histories, but psychological dramas.

“Probing psychological elements in the stories of how Yahweh deals with Abram or Jacob or Moses is the heart of J’s activity as a writer (287).”

Her literature, as Bloom insists, is a literature of incomensurates. Human beings challenge God or obey Him or follow his voice (in the case of Abraham), but ultimately it’s a one-sided act. The fight to resist or obey God is a fight humans can’t really win, but the beauty of J’s art work is in showing that despite these incommensurates between man and the divine, man and other men, the humans still try to thrive and survive anyway. Some instances include Abram challenging the justice of God and haggling to save the city prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jacob wrestling with the angel, Moses the stutterer inflicting plagues on mighty Pharaoh, and even Pharaoh foolishly attempting to challenge the might of God, etc.  God is a force beyond their ability, yet many characters still strive against this incommensurate force. At the same time, He is the force that makes everything happen, blessing who He will and Creating.  Bloom’s insight into Yahweh’s character and central issue in his relations with humans: be like me, but don’t be too much like me.

For Bloom, J’s greatest originality is the scope of her work. It is full of puns, jokes, ironies, a God who creates and destroys, who pushes forward and limits, all while employing a minimalistic style. J tells wonderfully creative stories and probes deeply into the human mind, along with the unknown, while giving us bare minimum details, making her a master of minimalistic writing.  Likewise, her great character as an author is Yahweh. However, her portraits of Yahweh are anything but reverential. Only Shakespeare and handful of other writers outperforms her in their insight into humanity and sheer writing ability according to Bloom.  For all these reasons, this is a work that will probably annoy both traditional theologians in the way it challenges traditional readings and reverent portraits of God, as well as secular scholars in the way it abandons traditional scholarly standards, relies heavily on surmise and generalizations, and sometimes ignores scholarly debates.

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Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais (trans. J. M. Cohen)

Francois Rabelais earned his living as a physician, and earned his fame as a writer of the satirical Gargantua and Pantagruel. His name in the form of an adjective, Rabelaisian, has come to denote literary works or ideas, “marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of character, or bold naturalism. “ Although not abandoning religious piety completely, the book brings an earthy materialism as part of its atmosphere, aesthetics, and themes. Rabelais brought his knowledge of anatomy directly into his fictional book, which often displays an obsession with the physical processes of the body. Pages upon pages are dedicated to farting and defecation. If Rabelais didn’t invent the fart joke, he made a strong attempt at perfectly it.

A good example of this use of anatomical descriptions and physical pleasures of the body can be found early on during the birth of Gargantua. These early chapters are dedicated to Grandgousier, the sire of Gargantua, and his wife, Gargamelle, enjoying a feast of tripe and booze out in the fields.  The consumption of too much tripe causes Gargamelle to go into a painful labor. It is so painful that she threatens to chop off her husband’s genitals so that she never has to experience anything so painful again, but then concedes that she is jesting as she quite enjoys his intimate parts. Then finally comes Gargantua’s miraculous birth from Gargamelle’s ear!

“By this misfortune the cotyledons of the matrix were loosened at the top, and the child leapt up through them to enter the hollow vein. Then, climbing through the diaphragm to a point above the shoulders where this vein divides in two, he took the left fork and came out by the left ear (52).”

Here the description allows Rabalais to show off his learning as a physician, while also describing her body as a veritable maze and serving a playful take on the miraculous birth narrative found in so many ancient sources. Meanwhile, these opening chapters that involve feasting on delicacies, drinking, arguments about body parts, and a fairly graphic birth sets the earthy tone for the rest of the work with its focus on the pleasures, pains, and physical realities of this life. All these fart jokes, bodily pleasures, and descriptions of anatomy serve a crucial purpose in the narrative. They are there to remind us that although God and the afterlife are important, we must also not forget to enjoy the physical pleasures of this life. Indeed, each book begins by addressing his audience as a bunch of wine-guzzling drunks. The ethos of the book might be described as: drink today and enjoy life with all its varied pleasures and colorful cast of characters, for tomorrow you may die!

Gargantua and Pantagruel consists of five books. The first two books explore the birth, childhood, education, and victory in battle by both Gargantua and Pantagruel respectively. Gargantua defeats his former friend and ally, Pirochole, who invades Gargantua’s lands after the latter overreacts to an incident between their peasants over a bunch of cakes. This leads to many funny incidents; in particular, the extremely bad advice Pirochole receives from his advisers that he should use this military invasions as the beginning of world conquest and that his victory over the rest of the world is assured. The final three books involves the cowardly and wily Panurge, a friend and companion of Pantagruel, who wants to get married, but fears becoming a cuckold. Pantagruel convinces him to consult different oracles and omens in an attempt to learn what will happen should Panurge choose to get married. All the omens point to the fact that he will be a cuckold, beaten, and robbed by his future wife, but Panurge keeps interpreting these same omens as being favorable to him. At last, Pantagruel, Panurge, and their other companions go to seek the advice of the Oracle of the Bottle, which leads them to brave dangers at sea and visit many strange islands.

 

The Renaissance saw the birth of the Humanistic spirit through the rediscovery of Ancient Greece sources and forgotten Latin ones, especially new works by Cicero. Like the essayist Montaigne who often developed his thoughts on a topic by turning to the Ancient writers as exemplars for a deeper perspective, the characters throughout Gargantua and Pantagruel quote ancient sources from the Greek, Latin, and sometimes the Bible as support for their arguments about life. Cicero is an especial favorite, and is not only treated as a talented rhetorician, but a topnotch philosopher, reflecting his important status for the Renaissance Humanists.

 

This new learning and its contrast with the old ways is a major theme within the book. Gargantua is originally being “educated” by Sophists and this causes him to lead a wasteful life gaming and boozing, and doing little of value. Similarly, the old-style of medieval education, even particular textbooks, are castigated in favor of learning to read Latin and Greek, and reading the original ancient sources. In the Humanist tradition, Rabelais hints that the point of education is to make virtuous human beings who enjoy life, but also balance it with wisdom, bravery, and other desirable attributes. After receiving a better education, Gargantua comes to embody many of these characteristics, but it is Pantagruel, his son, that represents the epitome of this educated virtuous human. It is Pantagruel who is celebrated for his learning, who shows prowess and bravery in battle, but also honors his friends, and maintains an appropriate balance between religious sentiments and enjoying the pleasures of this life. Pantagruel is the righteous and rational anchor that balances the narrative’s bawdiness and some of the characters’ less virtuous and irrational tendencies, especially Panurge, who shows a wily and cowardly nature, and whose pranks on those who irritate him sometimes lead to their death or extreme humiliation.

The final books where they visit many strange islands is a forerunner of Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and reflects the age of exploration. At one point, Canada is mentioned explicitly as is the Protestant reformation. The islands are full of strange wonders, giving us a sometimes over the top depiction of how Europeans must have viewed these new “worlds” full of “strange” peoples, while also allowing Rabelais to satirize his own culture, such as when they land on an island full of Papists who are obsessed with Papal decretals as if these official decrees by the Popes over the ages are even more important than the Bible itself.

Faust, Part 1 by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Selling one’s soul to the Devil is a common trope in various forms of media these days. The psychological literary power of such a trope resides in the duality inherit in Christianity between spiritual gain in an unseen spiritual realm versus material gain in this world. In most cases where a character sells their soul, they are trading their spiritual reward for some material desire in the here and now. On a more fundamental psychological level, they are trading long-term satisfaction for instant gratification. The Faust tradition represents one of the most famous traditions of this literary trope. The most famous versions of the Faust story were created by the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe and the Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.

 

Christopher Marlowe’s version of the play presents Faust as a dissatisfied scholar who employs magic to contact the devil. He makes his deal with the devil in order to discover the ultimate answers hidden from humanity and experience forbidden pleasures.  Marlowe’s work serves as a meditation on the dangers of giving up one’s soul for forbidden pleasures and secret knowledge in this world.

 

Goethe’s Faust also is a scholar. He has mastered the fields of law, theology, philosophy, and medicine. He, too, has elements of the dissatisfied scholar, but Goethe goes further with the character and presents a Faust that is tired and weary of life in general. Faust makes a deal with Mephistopheles to experience the world and find the elusive sense of joy in life that books and immersing himself in scholarship have never brought him. Much like Marlowe’s Faust the work critiques the formal education systems of the time, and draws on the general human desire to know and explores the limitations of knowledge, but Goethe’s version shows us a Faust who wants more than just new knowledge, this Faust seems hungry to experience life to its fullest. This Faust feels that all this study has been a waste of time. He makes the deal not only from a desire to have new experiences, but also because at this point he has come to believe he will never experience true bliss so in a way the deal seems like a good bet. He will only lose his soul if Mephistopheles can get him to experience a moment which he doesn’t want to end. Since he believes he can’t experience such happiness, it seems unlikely to him that he will ever lose the deal.

Goethe also recasts the play into a failed love story, which aligns it with his other work, such as his novels, which also features relationships that falter. In this version, Faust pursues his lust for the pure-hearted innocent and religiously inclined Gretchen, which ends up ruining the life of Gretchen. Goethe reminds us that the pursuit of our own selfish desires can harm other people. It also adds another dimension to the deal with the devil trope as Faust not only promises his own soul, but almost costs Gretchen her soul. She even kills their child in a fit of madness after Faust disappears for a while, which perhaps is an allusion to Euripides’ Medea who also murders her own children when Jason abandons her. Faust functions as Gretchen’s devil, her temptation, the irresistible force that causes her to betray the moral standards in which she has lived the first half of her life. Why does she go along with this temptation? I think Goethe implies that for all her humble peasant upbringing in contrast to Faust’s elite education, she also feels a dissatisfaction with life.

The beginning prologue in which Mephistopheles asks permission from God to tempt and corrupt Faust is an allusion to the biblical Book of Job. Unlike Job who begins with everything a person could want and has that taken from him, the situation is flipped, Faust has nothing he wants in life and makes the deal with Mephistopheles to find the happiness that is missing from it. Job is brought to the height of unhappiness only to be confronted by God and have new rewards bestowed upon him for his faithfulness, whereas Faust sells his soul and betrays his loyalty to God to find elusive happiness in the world.

Short Stories by Jesus by Amy Jill-Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament and Jewish Studies Professor. However, she is not your typical New Testament Professor; she is an Orthodox feminist Jew who studies and writes scholarly articles on the New Testament. In this book, she attempts to place the parables of Jesus in their original 1st century Jewish context and offer new interpretations of some of the most important parables with this context in mind. She tries to explain what these stories would have meant to a 1st century Jewish audience hearing them for the first time.

In order to do this, she posits that Jesus was a real historical figure and that many of the parables in the Bible represent mostly accurate versions of the stories he told to the crowds. While the parables found in the New Testament may be the original stories of a teacher named Jesus, the authors of each Gospel frame the parables in terms of Christianity and its developing theology. The narrative frame added by the anonymous authors of the Gospels changes the meaning and purpose of the parable from what it may have originally meant. For example, the Parable of the Lost Sheep is framed by Luke as a response to a hostile group of Pharisees complaining about Jesus welcoming sinners among them.

“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)

Jesus answers the criticism with a series of parables in which the Parable of the Lost Sheep is one of them. Luke then ends this particular parable:

“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)

Luke transforms the parable into an allegory in which the sheep are Christians returning to the church and God’s grace. For him and many Christians, the parable is about God’s stewardship over his church and his desire to recover sinners and bring them back into the fold. Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that his main audience should be sinners because they are who need him the most. By framing the story in this way, the author of Luke is interpreting the story for us and doing so with a Christian lens.

Matthew also offers a version of this parable (Matthew 18), but with a different narrative frame. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, not Pharisees. His ending frame is also a little different.

“In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14).

There is some overlap in the messages: God wants to redeem the lost. However, there are also differences between the two versions. Luke’s Jesus is responding to the criticisms of the Pharisees about consorting with sinners, while Matthew’s Jesus is answering his disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Although these parables do retain similar messages the general point still stands; by framing parables differently, the same parables potentially take on different meanings. The fact that we have so many of the same parables across different Gospel narratives suggests to Amy Jill-Levine that many of these parables originated with an historical Jesus, but were reinterpreted by later Christian writers in specific ways once Christianity’s belief systems began to develop in ways distinct from Judaism. This is why she believes we should try to understand the parables in the context of 1st century Judaism, separate from the narrative frames that later Christian writers added to them. How would the original non-Christian Jewish audience have understood these stories?

Although Levine cannot cover every single parable, she does cover the most important ones: The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, The Good Samaritan, The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Yeast, The Pearl of Great Price, The Mustard Seed, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Laborers in the Vineyard, The Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Parables are supposed to be provocative, they’re supposed to challenge our views of the world, and call us to action, but often traditional interpretations by the church, church fathers, and even modern scholarly commentators transforms these parables into allegories and domesticates them into palatable forms. It softens the message into some symbolic gesture that is easily digestible. Worse, many of the traditional readings are fundamentally anti-Jewish. For example, many traditional readings of the Parable of Prodigal Son see the elder son who complains to the father about the prodigal son returning as a symbol of Judaism complaining about the inclusion of gentiles in a New Covenant. In this reading, the father symbolizes God the father or Jesus, the elder son represents Judaism, and the younger son represents the originally wayward gentile who is being brought back into the fold by divine grace. Notice the allegorical nature of such a reading. Levine shows with evidence from Josephus, the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Old Testament that these interpretations are misguided and are misrepresentations of Jewish ideas and beliefs. Likewise, using these sources she shows they do not make much sense in the context of 1st century Judaism.

Levine views the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and Lost son as representing a pair of three parables with similar messages. She has this to say about the Parable of the Lost Son. “Without Luke’s allegory of a repentance and forgiveness and without the easy equating of the elder son with those grumbling Jews, the parable has no easy or comfortable interpretation (68).” She argues that the message of the three parables is not about the recovery of lost sinners, but rather the joy we feel at recovering a precious object lost to us and an exhortation that we shouldn’t stand on ceremony waiting for them to apologize or for them to come back to us. We should go out and find them! The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not a tale about how Jews are bad and gentiles good, but rather it is a parable that emphasizes the importance of taking action when someone is in need of our help. It’s not an argument for mercy, but an argument for compassion. It addresses the question: who is my neighbor? The answer to this question is that everyone is our neighbor, even our enemies, and the parable challenges us to help anyone in need. The Pearl of Great Price is not an allegorical tale about selling all one has (or devaluing one’s material possessions and the material world) in order to achieve the kingdom of heaven in the afterlife, but rather it is a tale about self-discovery and the importance of identifying what truly matters to us. Once we realize what truly matters to us, we should get rid of everything superfluous and meaningless in our lives. This parable is presented as an analogy to the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom like? Figure out what is truly important in your life, find your “pearl,” and you will discover what the kingdom of heaven is like. All her interpretations have this in common: the parables are a call to action, if we want the kingdom of heaven on earth, we have to work towards it here and now.

PENSÉES by Blaise Pascal

Like St. Augustine and Peter Abelard, Blaise Pascal is yet another example of the smartest kid on the block having a mystical experience that transformed him into a devout Christian. Prior to his conversion, Pascal was a prodigy in math and performed early experiments involving barometric pressure. The Pensees literally translated as “thoughts” represent his philosophical-religious statements on the human condition and an argument for the truth and necessity of Christianity.

 

Pascal sees the human condition as one governed by lusts and desires. We seek amusement to ignore how miserable and discontent we feel. We’re not really happy. Each time we achieve a desire, we only have new desires. We don’t cultivate virtues for its own sake, but we only care for them in so far as they make us appear superior in others’ eyes. We desire to be admired. All the things we value in the world are vanity. Man is foolish because he esteems things that are not important or essential. There is not true justice in the world. Justice is a matter of custom; since every country and province has its own sense of justice it cannot be objective. Only God can give us true justice.  We also can never have true knowledge of things. The history of philosophy has been dominated by the desire to either know the first principle or the ultimate truth, which can be restated as the reality underlying everything or knowledge of the purpose of all things. Many philosophers have claimed to have uncovered the first principle or ultimate truth, but they’re mistaken and are only fooling themselves. Most philosophical arguments fail because they ignore man’s epistemological limitations.  In comparison to beasts, man is privileged in that he has a rational capacity and the ability to ascertain some things about nature. Pascal is not denying that science and mathematics are able to give us some forms of concrete knowledge. However, in most cases they only lead to new questions, and when and if those questions are answered, they, too, lead to more questions, creating an infinite regress in which we never can arrive at the first principle underlying everything or discover the ultimate truth. In this way, man can never have true knowledge of the universe; he is only capable of possessing limited knowledge about it.

 

Only the Creator who initiated the first cause and who is immortal and not bound by human limitations can have knowledge of the true nature of things. Man must know both sides of his nature to be whole and happy. We are both great and wretched. The wretchedness we have serves as proof of the veracity of the Fall of Man, whereas the Greatness we possess demonstrates that we’re made in God’s image. The Fall of Man is why we have an idea of happiness (since once upon a time we were happy in the Garden of Eden), but it is also the reason why we yearn for happiness and can never achieve it. This event left an imprint on us. The only way for us to be happy, the only way for us to achieve true justice, and the only way for us to know the truth is through God. The proper thoughts of man should be on God alone. We can only practice the true religion if we love God and hate ourselves.

 

Although many have tried, religion and God cannot be proved by reason. Now a reader might be wondering: isn’t Pascal trying to prove that people ought to believe in God and that the Christian religion is true? Yes. However, what he seems to mean is that he won’t be engaging in formal proofs based in logic like some of his medieval predecessors, but rather religion is something you support with faith. God is felt in the heart and He grants belief to whom He chooses. God purposely gave enough evidence of his existence (mostly through scripture) to be justified in accusing those who fail to believe in Him, but He also obscured Himself enough so the truly wicked and unworthy will not believe and suffer eternal damnation. Pascal acknowledges many times that God is a hidden God.  You feel God through intuition (i. e. the Holy Spirit), but you don’t experience Him in the material world; at least not directly. This brings us to the most famous part of his argument: Pascal’s wager. Some interpret it to be as an argument to believe; others as an argument about why it is important to investigate the issue of God’s existence in the first place. The wager goes like this: If the Christian religion is wrong you will be dead for eternity and it doesn’t matter, yet if it is right you will suffer in hell for eternity should you fail to believe correctly. You have more to gain in believing than not believing. We need to enlighten ourselves whether an afterlife exists since it’s the most important question of our lives. People who are indifferent to these questions are ignoring a matter important to their eternal happiness and salvation and given the chance that they could be wrong and it could cost them so much it is only reasonable that we attempt to try and figure out the truth. I think the opening of the wager section imploring us to investigate is fine. However, there are many objections to the Wager proper.

 

After sharing his views on the human condition, Pascal spends the second half of his book trying to prove why Christianity is the true religion and the other Abrahamic religions are false. Heathens love the world and hate God, Jews love the world and love God, while Christians hate the world and love God. Pascal suggests that the Old Testament Tales were designed as typologies to foreshadow Jesus, and thus Jews who fail to recognize this have been blinded to their true meaning. In this view, the Binding of Isaac not only happened historically, but God instigated this event and had it recorded in scripture in order to foreshadow the eventuality of Jesus’ sacrifice. Pascal argues that these typologies serve as another piece of evidence of Jesus’ divinity in addition to more explicit prophecies. Pascal believes that Jews focus on the surface features of the text, missing these important typologies and the true spirit of the text. These typologies that foreshadow Jesus also serve as evidence of God’s hiddenness. The Holy Spirit allows Christians to see them. This textual “blindness” is further supported by various prophecies in the Old Testament that Pascal understands to predict that Jews will be blind to the true spirit of the law. The Old Laws were valid at the time in so far as they were designed to bring people to the Holy Spirit and functioned as another typology, but the literal commandments don’t matter anymore.

All of this leads us to the biggest problem of the book. Most of Pascal’s arguments are examples of circular reasoning. It is hard to imagine anyone buying into his arguments unless they already agreed with them prior to reading the book. To support his argument about Christians interpreting the bible correctly in comparison to Jews, he’s saying, “Those blessed by God with the Holy Spirt will interpret the Bible correctly. Those who interpret the Bible correctly demonstrate that they are blessed with the Holy Spirit. Therefore those with the Holy Spirit (Christians) interpret the Bible correctly.” He also quotes an enormous amount of scripture to support these arguments, but when you actually look at the passages of these Old Testament quotes they are almost always taken out of context and come off as dubious interpretations. He calls the Bible the oldest and most accurate history in the world. While modern archaeology has supported some parts of the Bible, it has also called into question a good amount of Biblical historicity. Similarly, archaeology in Mesopotamia has found many texts older than the Bible. In all fairness to Pascal, he lived in a time before all these discoveries and the rise of modern archaeology; the study of history in his day was mostly a textual affair. So many of the arguments he makes depend precisely on him uncritically forwarding the religious assumptions of his times.  Christians who already buy into Pascal’s arguments will probably love this book, whereas those who don’t buy into his arguments will not suddenly be convinced.

Piers Plowman by William Langland (edited by Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H. A. Shepherd).

Piers Plowman is a Christian allegorical poem written in Middle English alliterative verse. It is one of the most important English vernacular works to be written along with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Three different variants of the work exist known as the A-Text, the B-Text, and the C-text. The biggest differences between the versions:

  • the B-text adds additional visions (chapters) to the ones found in the A-Text
  • the allegorical character giving speeches in certain sections change between the different versions (such as Conscience preaching in the A-Text to the Seven Deadly Sins, while Reason is the preacher during this same part in the B-text)
  • sometimes certain allegorical figures are not included at all (Wrath is absent from the A-Text during the above-mentioned scene, but is present in the B-text)
  • the C-Text adds an autobiographical section tacked onto one of the visions.

I read the Norton Critical Edition of the B-text translated into modern English by E. Talbot Donaldson. The work follows a Christian dreamer named Will, identified sometimes with William Langland himself, who searches for answers to his existential questions concerning theological, spiritual, and ethical issues. He has different dreams or visions that occur across twenty chapters called “Passus,” which in Latin means “Step,” implying that the work involves a journey as he discovers the answers to these questions. It is a very different sort of journey than the one found in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is another Christian allegory from a later literary time period. Bunyan’s work externalizes the allegorical elements as part of an adventurous quest plot that isn’t much different from the basic plot structure one might find in a modern epic fantasy, while Piers Plowman consists mostly of dialogues in which Will, the dreamer, puts troublesome spiritual questions to various allegorical figures who offer loquacious answers. The “journey” in this work is an internal one with an inconclusive finale. It reads a lot like Plato’s dialogues and nothing like an adventure story. Another somewhat unique characteristic of the work is its positive portrayal of the lower classes often missing from other medieval works. The poem melds religious allegory about salvation and ethical living with social satire of medieval society.

The poem opens with Will falling asleep beneath a tree and having his first vision in which he views a tower on a hill where Truth resides (God), a terrible dungeon below (hell), and “a faire felde ful of folke (2)” between them consisting of all sorts of people in society from the highest to the lowest. This middle ground represents the world and how people navigate its mazes to end up either in the Tower (heaven) or in the dungeon (hell). A woman arrives who introduces herself as the Church and desires that Will should enter the Tower where Truth resides. She goes on to elaborate on the nature of Truth and God, focusing on divine love and the importance of giving charity to the poor. Will desires to learn not only Truth, but also how he can determine what is false. Lady Church tells him to look to his left side where he sees her many enemies: False, Favel, and the beautifully dressed Lady Meed. Favel represents lying or deceit. Lady Meed symbolizes reward and profit. False and Favel with the help of Simony and Civil try to bribe various officials in order to marry Meed to Falseness. Eventually the King learns about all this bribery happening in his realm through the assistance of his adviser, Conscience (who not only represents moral conscience in the modern sense, but also consciousness in general) and orders the arrest of all these villains.

In custody, King wants Meed to marry Conscience, but he refuses to marry her due to her past sins. Meanwhile in custody, she is busy corrupting the king’s officials left and right with all her bribery. Conscience says he’ll only consider the marriage if Reason agrees. Reason arrives and convinces the king to reject the idea of such a marriage. This turns the King against Meed. Reason offers the advice that the best and most just kingdoms are those ruled by Reason. By having the king turn against Meed on the advice of Reason and hearing a sermon on how a just kingdom is ruled by reason, this scene serves as a social commentary on the rightful role of kings. Kings who rule by Reason and put the interests of the realm first tend to be good rulers, while those who put their own greed and self-interests first, as represented by Meed, end up corrupting the whole realm through their bad rule. These bad kings have married their conscience, their primary guide to ethical concerns, to Meed (their desire for reward and profit) and have failed to consult their reason.

Reason follows this success with the king by going out and giving a sermon to the entire populace. The Allegorical Seven Sins appear and each repent before Reason their various offenses, often involving colorful stories related to their specific natures. It is in this vision that we first meet Piers Plowman who offers his own sermon about the way to Truth and how a humble workman like himself tries to live by the principles of simplicity, faith in God, and helping others. Piers convinces the pilgrims to help him plow the fields and promises them as much food as they need as a reward for their assistance. At first many agree, but over time many of the people grow lazy and stop helping. Piers complains about Waster, an allegorical figure that represents those who waste and do nothing productive for their fellow man. Piers asks Hunger to punish Waster with hunger. He then asks Hunger what should be done about beggars. Hunger tells Piers that it is the way of the righteous to help beggars and the poor who genuinely cannot work or help themselves. The text suggests through this juxtaposition between Wasters and the needy that the difference between them lies in that Wasters can work, but choose laziness, and therefore steal vital resources from true beggars who genuinely need the charity of others because they’re incapable of working.
After this vision, Will returns to the world in desperate search of Do Well as the key to his salvation. Unable to find him in the world, Will has another dream where he encounters a larger version of himself named Thought. Thought explains to him that Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best are three virtues found in anyone who is meek, mild, truthful, and willing to do his or her fair share of work and keep only what he or she has earned. In other words, he is the opposite of the proud, greedy, and intemperate person.

“Do-Wel, my [dere], is to don as lawe techeth,
To love [and to lowe thee and no lyf to greve;
Ac to love and to lene], leve me, that is Do-Bet;
To yiven and to yemen bothe Yonge and olde,
To helen and to helpen, is Do-Best of alle (138).”

To Do Well is to follow God’s laws, to act humbly, behave towards others with love, and harm no other person. In an excerpt taken from the Dictionary of the Middle Ages that is included in the Norton Critical Edition, Donaldson describes the poem’s presentation of Do-Well as a secular person who lives his life according to Christian precepts, Do-Better as the contemplative man who spends his time helping others and engaging in charity, and Do-Best is like a Bishop or Priest who challenges the wicked and ministers to the good (499). Donaldson goes on to suggest that Piers Plowman serves as one of the central figures of the poem precisely because he “transition[s] from Do-Well to Do-Better (499)” and eventually to Do-Best in the final sections of the poem.

Here they turn to Wit to find out where Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best live. Wit tells them that Do Better is Do Well’s daughter and serves as a lady-in-waiting to Anima (soul). They all let Do Best guide them as their Bishop. In this castle is a constable named Inwit (understanding and rational capacity) whose sons Sir See-Well, Sir Say-Well, Sir Hear-Well, Sir Work-Well-With-Your-Hands, and Sir Godfrey Go-Well protect the safety of Anima. Kind has made a castle where Do Well and Anima reside. Kind is one of the allegorical identities of God in the poem. Wit describes what sort of being Kind is and how He tries to take care of all souls and give them what they need. This discourse ends on a discussion of the correct nature of marriage, which is not one based in the desire to gain money or land or one that involves partners of drastically different ages, but equal partners who marry out of love.
After this discourse, Wit’s wife, Dame Study, arrives and castigates him for wasting his wisdom on fools and mockers who will not be able to appreciate them. She attacks the wealthy as mockers of religion who often talk blasphemous and superficially about God. She views Will’s desire to know the difference between Do Well and Do Better as the equivalent of questioning God and His purposes, apprehensive of his motives. At the direction of Wit, the dreamer humbles himself before Dame Study. She softens before his humility and decides to help him after all by acquainting him with her cousin, Clergy, and his wife, Scripture.

 

Will comes to fear that he will never save his soul without more theological knowledge. Scripture teaches him that great learning and wisdom doesn’t save men. Many well-educated clerks and officials of the church will end up in hell for their abuses of their office, while many lowly uneducated men will be saved. Pure faith is superior to a deep knowledge of theology. Often the lowest and most ignorant are the first in heaven as the Bible teaches. True faith doesn’t require learning and quoting scripture from heart, but love of God, fellow Christians, and even one’s enemies.

“For every Cristene creature shulde be kynde til other,
And sithen hethen to helpe in hope of amendement.
God hoteth bothe heigh and lowe that no man hurte other (158).”

 

At this point, Will enters a dream within a dream in which the Flesh and all its seeming pleasures tries to seduce him. As he listens to their seductive speeches, Old Age arrives and warns him that fortune and pleasure who speak such lovely words now will abandon him in time. Recklessness then appears to try and convince dreamer to ignore the warnings of Old Age.

Will has a vision of nature and animals where he comes to realize all animals are guided by Reason, except humanity. He tries to rebuke Reason for not guiding them, but Reason criticizes Will for interfering in the order of things of which he cannot judge properly (repeating Adam’s sin of wanting the wisdom of God), so Reason refuses to instruct him further.

In the next vision, Will witnesses a dinner being partaken by Conscience, Clergy, and Patience. He sits at a side table with Patience eating mediocre food, while at the head of the main table is a hypocritical friar eating all kinds of delicacies. They put some questions to the friar who offers memorized and academic answers to their theological questions, while the poem hints at the friar’s hypocrisy by knowing the answers, but not living by them. During the dinner, Conscience decides to join Patience on a pilgrimage into the world to develop his spiritual self through direct experience as opposed to the theoretical book learning that Clergy offers.

On this journey, Conscience and Patience meet Hawkins the Active Man. This man is all about appearance, wanting to appear the smartest, greatest, holiest, and best of men. He is all talk, pretends to be holy, but is really a sinner and prideful. His sins appear as dirt and specks on his outer coat. Such a man eventually ends up in a state of despair, unable to live by the church’s creed and falling so far into sin that a deep sense of hopelessness pervades him from the fear that his sins have grown too great for salvation. In response to being criticized for his dirty clothes, Hawkin’s claims that he cannot ever seem to get his clothes spotless; every time he cleans it via confession and contrition it gets dirty soon after.  At one point, he even blames his wife for the dirty state of his clothes (echoing Adam blaming Eve for convincing him to eat the forbidden fruit). In response to Hawkins, Patience preaches moderation (the opposite of the “active life.”). The poem reiterates that the world is corrupt and participating in it only leads to sin. In order to achieve heaven, Christians must hate this world. Patience goes on to explain how the poor have an advantage with the Seven Deadly sins compared to the rich. It cannot affect the poor as strongly because their desires and means to engage in these sins are restricted.

Will has a new dream in which he converses with Anima (the soul) who describes her many forms. Sometimes Anima takes the form of Mens (capacity for knowing), Memoria (remembrance), Reason, Sensus (empathy/feeling for others), Conscience, Amor (when the soul loves God and others), Spiritus (when freed from the flesh). Will’s desire to know everything is a sin and similar to the pride of Lucifer – only God knows everything. This is emphasized by the way many of the allegorical figures rebuke him throughout the various parts of the poem for his questions and how he’s often not content with the answers he does receive from them.

Will has a vision of Piers Plowman who has erected three polls to protect this tree from “the worlde [which] is a wyked wynde to hem the wolden treuthe” (274). Satan wishes to take all its fruits for himself. We are told that this tree was planted in a garden by God. The tree metaphor for the Truth and Charity draws on the Garden of Eden story from the Bible and highlights the theme found in other parts of the poem that knowledge is often bad, whereas it’s charity, simplicity, and faith that lead one to God.

Pier’s tree equals Truth and grows in a soil of goodness. The three polls symbolize: the Power of God, Wisdom of God, and Grace and the Holy Spirt respectively. In another metaphor, Piers Plowman, in the roll of a priestly figure and thus representing his ascension to the symbolic role of Do-Best tills the soil of Truth with his oxen: Luke, Mark, Matthew, and John. Following them are four horses to harrow: Austin, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome that use the harrows, Old Testament and New Testament, to help plant seeds in men’s souls. These seeds they wish to plant are the Spirit of Prudence, the Spirit of Temperance, the Spirit of Fortitude, and the Spirit of Justice.

 

In another vision, Will watches as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to joust with Satan in order to overcome Death and win the fruits back from Piers Plowman’s tree. The poem retells the story of the Crucifixion. After Jesus’s death, Truth, Mercy, Peace, and Righteousness debate the meaning of the light that hangs over hell. Then the harrowing of Hell occurs when Jesus arrives to save the Old Testament figures from eternal damnation and their demonic tormentors.

The final dream is an apocalyptic and pessimistic vision of Conscience besieged by the Antichrist and his army of the Seven Deadly Sins. As the sins injure the men inside Conscience’s fortress, the wounded grow weary with the slow, harsh, and difficult cures that the parish priests offer, turning to a friar who promises to offer a quicker and easier salvation for a hefty fee. Conscience believes the friar is a liar betraying the Christians who want an easier path towards salvation. The text’s earlier criticisms of the greedy and parasitic monastic orders culminate in this final vision in which it is implied that Christian society and salvation itself is threatened by the presence of these corrupt Friars.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) by Anonymous

Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.” – Ben Zoma in Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot.

“Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words.” Yossei the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah in Chapter 1 of Pirkei Avot.

Pirkei Avot (translated as Chapter of the Fathers, and sometimes called Ethics of the Fathers or Sayings of the Fathers) is a book of wisdom quotes from different rabbis over the centuries. It is a part of the Mishna, the “Oral Torah,” the teachings of Moses and other figures, which originally was shared verbally and not written down. The Mishna is part of the larger work known as the Talmud, which most Jews hold to be almost as authoritative as the Tanakh (the Jewish name for what Christians call the Old Testament). The Ethics of the Fathers presents the sayings of different rabbis as they ponder what makes a man wise, the importance of Torah, and one’s relationship with others, government, God, and self.

The text consists of six chapters. The first chapter attempts to establish the authority of the rabbis by presenting a wisdom tradition passed down from master to apprentice extending all the way back to Moses and the Prophets.

“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. . . . Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the assembly . . . Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous . . . etc.”

In between the ellipsis are the aphorisms of each thinker. Only the first two parts are structured genealogically in which we learn the sayings of one thinker, then we hear the sayings of their apprentice or son, followed by that person’s follower or son, etc.

Most of the sayings are about the behavior and attitudes a wise person should adopt, always linked back to the Torah. There is a strong emphasis on learning, but also on performing deeds. Here are some quotes from the text to give you a sense:

Shimon the Righteous says, “The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness.”

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin.

Rabbi Akiva would say, “Tradition is a safety fence to Torah, tithing a safety fence to wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom is silence.”

Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi says, “Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horeb (Sinai) proclaiming and saying: “Woe is to the creatures who insult the Torah.” For one who does not occupy himself in Torah is considered an outcast”

He would also say, “One who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single law, or a single verse, or a single word, or even a single letter, he must treat him with respect. “’’ Said Rabbi Yossei the son of Kisma: Once, I was traveling and I encountered a man. He greeted me and I returned his greetings. Said he to me: “Rabbi, where are you from?” Said I to him: “From a great city of sages and scholars, am I.” Said he to me: “Rabbi, would you like to dwell with us in our place? I will give you a million dinars of gold, precious stones and pearls.” Said I to him: “If you were to give me all the silver, gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere but in a place of Torah.”

While the work is often focused on religious aspects, it also deals with other topics, such as wisdom and relations with others. The text reminds us consistently not to be arrogant and approach life with humility. Wisdom is found when one understands that there is something to learn from every man.

Works Cited

– Quoted sections come from chabad.org