Lasting Things

(This post first appeared in my monthly newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.

My late friend and colleague Dr. Brendan McGuire was fond of quoting the following by St. Prosper of Aquitaine.

Even if the wounds of this shattered world enmesh you, and the sea in turmoil bears you along in one surviving ship, it would still befit you to maintain your enthusiasm for liberal studies unimpaired. Why should lasting things tremble if transient things fall?

I am grateful to my friend, and former student, Luke Maschue for hunting down the original Latin, which can be found at Patrologia Latina vol. 51 p. 617 ll.7–10, from Prosper’s Carmen de Providentia Divina:

Ac si te fracti perstringunt vulnera mundi,

 Turbatumque una si rate fert pelagus;

Invictum deceat studiis servare vigorem.

 Cur mansura pavent, si ruitura cadunt?

(Congratulations if you recognized the meter of the poem—elegiac couplets!)

The words mansura and ruitura are rendered “lasting things” and “transient things” in the translation quoted above. But the translation does not quite convey the exact nuance of the Latin words—both of them future active participles. A more precise, if somewhat awkwardly literal, translation would be: “things destined to last” and “things destined to fall.” The second word, ruitura, really means something more like “things destined to collapse,” i.e. destined to fall into ruin. For ruitura is formed from the verb ruere, which means “to fall with violence, rush down; to fall down, tumble down, go to ruin.” Prosper’s idea thus seems to be that in life there are some things which, by their nature, are destined to last and so withstand all the vicissitudes of time and chance; while other things are destined to exist for a time only before finally, and inevitably, collapsing. By means of this stark contrast, Prosper gives us a useful way of thinking about the liberal arts—as studies in lasting things or in those things destined to last.

But what makes a thing destined to last, and so not destined to fall or finally collapse? I think immediately of ancient literature, which now seems capable of lasting into the future even longer than it has yet survived—especially since the modern mechanism of its transmission (the printed book) seems so much sturdier than its ancient and medieval ancestors—the papyrus scroll and parchment codex. Yet the thread of cultural transmission that preserved the poems of Homer, plays of Sophocles, and golden prose of Plato was often thin, and sometimes all but broken. The things we now regard as securely destined to last—had circumstances differed by even a hair’s breadth—might have turned out to be things destined to fall. Take, for example, the entire corpus of Sophocles’s plays—some 120 in total, of which a mere seven have survived to us. What we now consider a permanent possession of human culture survived for millenia only by the thinnest thread of deliberate, laborious, meticulous transmission.

But St. Prosper—we should note—does not describe the objects or the particular texts of liberal study as themselves lasting things but rather liberal study itself. “It would befit you to maintain your enthusiasm for liberal studies unimpaired. Why should lasting things tremble if transient things fall?” Again, the Latin is more vivid than the translation: St. Prosper in fact bids us “preserve” (servare) our “liveliness” or “vigor” (vigor) for liberal study “unvanquished” (invictus). While particular texts eminently suited as objects of liberal study may fall, the pursuit of liberal study itself—our enthusiasm for the liberal arts—perdures or simply lasts, far beyond the narrow limits of a single life.

One of my most vivid memories of Brendan is from December of 2019, just after he received the news that the multiple rounds of chemotherapy he had received over the last eight years had induced myelodysplastic syndrome, which would require a bone marrow transplant if Brendan had any hope of surviving much longer. Many of you already know the story. Instead of receiving that transplant, Brendan suffered a recurrence of his Ewing’s sarcoma, which disqualified him from the transplant. He then suffered courageously, nay heroically, for the next several months before dying this past fall on October 9, the feast of St. John Henry Newman.

My memory is of Brendan’s last official act as President of Christendom College’s Faculty Senate. It was to reflect that perhaps then, on that final day of the fall semester, he had taught the last class he would ever teach. And then he quoted for us the passage from St. Prosper.

Even if the wounds of this shattered world enmesh you, and the sea in turmoil bears you along in one surviving ship, it would still befit you to maintain your enthusiasm for liberal studies unimpaired. Why should lasting things tremble if transient things fall?

Rest in peace, Dr. McGuire. Frater, ave atque vale . . . sed non in perpetuum!


Christendom Classical Languages Institute

Those keen to maintain their enthusiasm for liberal studies unimpaired can find ample opportunity for doing so this summer at Christendom College. The college will hold its annual Classical Languages Institute, offering courses in ancient Greek, Latin, and Arabic. You can find all the details here.

Triduum Virginiense

A late addition to this summer’s roster of classes and events is the Triduum Virginiense—a three-day immersive program in spoken Latin, including lectures, lessons on grammar and vocabulary, discussions of classical literature and artwork, and games. Follow the link above for more information and to apply, or contact the organizer, Ms. Patricia Craig, 30craig@cua.edu.


Vacca and Vaccines

The Covid-19 vaccines are much in the news these days, but did you know that the word vaccine derives from the Latin word for “cow,” vacca?

Dr. Aaron Rothstein tells the story in this thoughtful and detailed account of the history of vaccination, and of vaccine criticism. Rothstein credits English physician Eward Jenner with pioneering the transition from inoculation through smallpox exposure to vaccination against smallpox by means of controlled exposure to cowpox.

Jenner, who had been inoculated as an eight-year-old boy in 1757, was intrigued by the observation that milkmaids almost never contracted smallpox, and inferred that their immunity to the disease could be a consequence of their exposure to the pustules on the udders of animals infected with cowpox.

In 1796, Jenner took fluid from blisters on a milkmaid’s hands and smeared them into incisions he made on the hands of an eight-year-old boy. After a slight fever, the boy recovered. And when Jenner later inoculated the boy with smallpox, the boy did not suffer from the usual illness associated with variolation. Jenner continued to experiment on the child, exposing him to infectious smallpox material to verify that the cowpox had in fact provided protection against small pox. (It must be said that although Jenner’s research resulted in one of humanity’s greatest medical achievements, these early experiments were morally repulsive.)

This new technique — dubbed “vaccination” because it used cowpox, and vaccus is the Latin for cow — proved safer and more effective than previous inoculation strategies, a fact that was quickly recognized by the medical community, and by governments around the world. Within five years of its publication, Jenner’s 1798 book about the experiment was translated into German, Dutch, French, Italian, and Latin. In 1803, the Germans performed 17,000 vaccinations. That same year, the Spanish started vaccination programs in their colonies; the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and parts of the United States similarly took up the vaccine.


Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary

Alan Jacobs, in a recent newsletter, quotes from Dr. Johnson’s Preface to his dictionary, which is now fully online.

In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed; and though no book was ever spared out of tenderness to the authour, and the world is little solicitous to know whence proceeded the faults of that which it condemns; yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it, that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow: and it may repress the triumph of malignant criticism to observe, that if our language is not here fully displayed, I have only failed in an attempt which no human powers have hitherto completed. If the lexicons of ancient tongues, now immutably fixed, and comprised in a few volumes, be yet, after the toil of successive ages, inadequate and delusive; if the aggregated knowledge, and co-operating diligence of the Italian academicians, did not secure them from the censure of Beni; if the embodied criticks of France, when fifty years had been spent upon their work, were obliged to change its oeconomy, and give their second edition another form, I may surely be contented without the praise of perfection, which, if I could obtain, in this gloom of solitude, what would it avail me? I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.

Jacobs has written an essay about Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, which you can read here. He calls the essay “a tribute to paper dictionaries,” that is to “codex dictionaries,” which Jacobs says “[he] abidingly love[s]”—as does this author.

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