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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Logos Software offers great resource for studying the Catechism in the Year of Faith (and beyond!)

The Year of Faith that officially began last week calls Catholics to reacquaint themselves with (or perhaps enter more deeply into) the Faith they profess, in order to live it more effectively and to present a more compelling witness to the love of Christ for the world. Reflecting on this, I realized that there will probably be lots of people using the Catechism to systematically review the Catholic faith. Sure, lots of Catholics own a copy of the Catechism and perhaps even pull it out from time to time as a reference to clarify the Church’s teaching on one point or another, but probably few have tried to read it cover-to-cover. Many parishes around the country have, in the last few years, used the Why Catholic? Program to re-catechize the adult faithful, a program which is based on the Catechism and follows its organization (i.e., fleshing out the tenets of the Nicene Creed). My experience with Why Catholic, however, was not very encouraging – there was too little of the Catechism and too much of the usual touchy-feely rubbish that has contributed to the current “crisis of faith” throughout the Church: “This week reflect on how the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is meaningful in your everyday life, then list three reasons why you feel more sparkly-special just knowing that God is Three in One.” Blech.

Back when the “new” Catechism was actually new, Ignatius Press brought out The Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: A Compendium of Texts Referred to in the Catechism of the Catholic Church Including an Addendum
— a collection of the texts of all the passages from various Scriptures and patristic works referred to in the footnotes of the Catechism. I loved this, because most readers of the Catechism, like myself, are not going to have at hand the huge library of Catholic reference works you would need to understand all the footnotes, so most people would just skip over the notes as not being that important. However, the whole reason the footnotes are included in the Catechism is to show that the Church is “not just making this stuff up” when it comes to official doctrine, but rather the Catechism is simply a new enunciation of truths that Christians have held all along for, now, two thousand years. The notes show the sources of particular statements and explanations in the Catechism, and root the Catechism in Christian tradition all the way back to the first written expression of the Faith in the Bible and early Church Fathers. (By the way, this Companion to the Catechism is now available for Kindle.)

Unfortunately, even though I have the Companion, I have seldom used it. For one thing, it is physically unwieldy, even bulkier than the Catechism itself and, then again, I find it somewhat disorienting to read passages (even lengthy passages) lifted out of the context of the documents from which they were taken. (I am a big proponent of reading things in context, to avoid misunderstanding.) In those days, the terms “hypertext” or “hyperlink” were still unknown to all but the geekiest of computer nerds, but if I had known what hyperlinks were, I would have known that that’s what I was wishing the Companion provided – a link to the specific passage a note referred to, in the place where it actually occurs in the original source.

Well, now, just in time for the Year of Faith, the Logos Bible Software company has produced an inexpensive version of exactly what people like me have been wanting (perhaps without knowing it) since the new Catechism first came out back in 1994. You may be familiar with Logos as the company that, for nearly twenty years now, has offered Bible study software that allows Scripture scholars, students, and enthusiasts to study the Bible with hyperlinks to different translations and commentaries. They’ve expanded their offerings enormously over the years, with lots of add-on libraries, and have perfected a system for connecting related texts and allowing readers to switch between them with ease. I’ve known about Logos for about fifteen years and admired their product but, frankly, it’s always been too expensive for me (the entry-level base package costs around $250) – it’s been one of those things on my “if I ever have money to spare” list. So I was delighted when, a couple of months back during the Catholic New Media conference, I saw a demo of a new, inexpensive ($49.95) stand-alone package designed just for Catholics – in fact, the Logos rep I spoke to said that this package was created specifically in response to the Holy Father’s call for Catholic entrepreneurs to find ways to use the new media and new technologies in the service of the Church, and brought into production in time for the Year of Faith.

All these works are included in Logos’ Catechism software package.

Here are all the works included in this package:

Watch the video here to get an idea how this software works. I like the fact that you can add your own notes. This software is available for Windows, Mac, and smart devices such as iPhone or Android tablets (although how you’d use it on a tiny iPhone screen beats me). If you buy this Catechism package and fall in love with the Logos system, you can later purchase one of the regular Logos base packages and use this Catechism bundle with the larger system. (I believe this is not true of other Logos bundles, which are essentially just plug-ins or add-ons to the base packages and won’t work without the base.)

As an aside — I was

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MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

drooling looking over the software specs just now and thinking, “Hey! Logos software does for the Bible and the Catechism what the Perseus Project does for classical literature – but the Perseus Project does it online, for free.” I’ve been in love with the Perseus Project for years, ever since, as a graduate student, I took a course in Latin Historians as an independent study. The Perseus Project has huge libraries of classical-era Greek and Latin works, as well as English translations of most of them, and allows you easily to flip back and forth between the original text and English translation, or to click on a particular word to check its meaning and morphology. In other words, the Perseus Project has much of the same kind of functionality as the Logos Bible system. And, as I find out by perusing the Logos Software channel on YouTube, the Logos folk also recognized the similarity, so they now offer a free Perseus collection add-on, which allows users of the Bible software to include the classics collection in word searches. Here’s a video that shows how this works:

Okay, enough of the scholar-geekery. My point is that Logos Software has made available to ordinary Catholics a fantastic tool for studying the Catechism, in the context of the Catholic teaching tradition, for a very reasonable price. For fifty bucks, you get a wonderful library of Catholic reference works AND a superb software system for discovering the connections amongst these works. If you haven’t yet settled on a personal plan for improving your grasp of Catholic teaching in this Year of Faith, here is a great place to start.

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

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Moral lessons from historical figures: Plutarch’s Lives

Plutarch's Live, Modern Library Edition

While I’ve got Rome on my mind, I’ve begun dipping into some of the biographies of ancient Romans (and Greeks) written by Plutarch, who is credited with being the author of the literary genre we know as “biography.” The most famous of these are Plutarch’s “parallel lives,” in which he pairs off a Greek and a Roman figure who share some significant biographical features (e.g., Demosthenes and Cicero were each renowned orators), describes the life of each, and then compares the points on which each should or should not be admired (Demosthenes was more mercenary than Cicero, but Cicero engaged in unseemly boasting about his own abilities and accomplishments).
The Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives (Penguin Classics)I’ve got two different editions of Plutarch on hand to choose from: one is the Penguin Classics’ Fall of the Roman Republic, a selection of Plutarch’s Roman biographies that highlights figures who played a key role in the collapse of the Roman Republic (Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cicero). This edition presents a modern translation by Rex Warner, with an introduction by Robin Seager. The other book is Volume II of the Modern Library edition of Plutarch’s Lives, some of which are paired and compared, while others are “solo.” This volume contains the (17th century) Dryden translation of the Lives, along with a 19th century Preface by Arthur Hugh Clough and an editorial introduction by American biographer, James Atlas.
Plutarch Fall of the Roman Republic, Penguin

Character matters …

Before I began reading any of the biographies themselves, I read the editorial introductions and the preface by Clough, and I noticed something that struck me as rather curious, namely the fact that modern scholars, although they acknowledge the importance of Plutarch’s work, seem to regard his method and purpose as quaint and even illegitimate. Plutarch himself made it plain that, in writing these biographies, his intention was to examine the character of the men whose lives he was writing rather than analyzing their historical importance (“My design is not to write Histories but Lives”):

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their character and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in any other parts of the body, so I must be  allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men …

This purpose is characterized by James Atlas, with a note of indulgent condescension, as “moralizing,” as if it were rather peculiar, in considering the lives of historically important figures, to be interested chiefly in the moral quality of their character. Perhaps he is willing to allow Plutarch his moralizing because Atlas himself acknowledged in an interview shortly after the publication of his biography of Saul Bellow:

We want to know how people lived, we want instruction in what critics used to call “manners and morals.” Biography is our school, our church, our family, our community. It does the work the novel used to do: it educates us.

Robin Seager goes beyond questioning Plutarch’s “moralizing tendencies” — he blames Plutarch for failing to credit historical figures for their cleverness in political scheming. Take, for instance, his editorial note on Plutarch’s life of Gaius Marius; the historical record clearly shows Marius to have been a ruthless self-promoter with little regard for the rule of law and a nasty taste for bloody vengeance against his political rivals, but Seager seems to think that Plutarch takes too dim a view of these facts and fails to show “appreciation of the political skill with which Marius fostered and exploited equestrian and popular discontent in order to oust Metellus from the Numidian command.”

… unless you’re Macchiavellian

Livy and Sallust
Livy and Sallust, two unabashedly
“moralizing” Roman historians.

This view, to me, smacks of a modern, Machiavellian expectation that political figures should be judged for the crude efficacy, rather than the morality, of their actions, which is completely at odds with the view of classical writers. The historian Livy would have had few quibbles with Plutarch’s “moralizing,” as he himself said, in the preface to his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, that his purpose in writing was to provide examples of men and actions to imitate or to avoid — that is, he intended his history to provide moral instruction, and he thought his presentation would make it plain enough which actions had been destructive and which admirable. He says:

The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these – the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

In other words, in Livy’s view, a high moral standard produced social benefits, and declining morals brought about social ruin. He wrote, for the generation following the collapse of the Republic, to help people of his own day avoid repeating the disasters of the past and, in fact, his History reads like a series of moral vignettes. It has always struck me as quite inexplicable that Machiavelli, who was well-read in classical history and even wrote a famous commentary on Livy (his Discourses on Livy), seems not to have been influenced at all by the classical tendency to equate personal morality with the public good; in fact, in The Prince, he quite explicitly denies this equation, urging the prince to do what is expedient rather than what is ethical.

Perhaps, though, Robin Seager, in complaining that Plutarch fails to appreciate Marius’s political savvy, is not so much reflecting a Machiavellian preference for expediency over ethics as he is revealing his own preoccupation as a biographer — Seager has published two well-received political biographies of Roman figures whose lives were also treated by Plutarch: Pompey and Tiberius Caesar. At any rate, it certainly seems that modern biographers do not share Plutarch’s interest in “moralizing.” I, however, am looking forward to seeing what moral lessons Plutarch draws out in his Lives.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas

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