The Bible and English Literature by Northrop Frye - Full Lecture 16
Director: Bill Somerville Technical Director: Ted GlickmanConceived and Produced by: Robert SandlerExecutive Producer: Bob RodgersAudio: Gerard Beckers, Chris RodgersCamera: Richard Cable, Don Elsliger, Keith SpringerGraphic Design: Ken FongProduction Assistants: Anne Riemer Hart, Frances HandlemanAssistant to Northrop Frye: Jane WiddicombeDigitized and edited by Robert Fysh (2008)
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Copyright: University of Toronto
Lecture given by Northrop Frye on Jan. 20, 1981 for the Bible and Literature course. Videotaped with one camera for the Bible and Literature series.
Transcript:Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria UniversityLECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 16LAW: ORDERING A SOCIETY
I've been dealing with two phases of the Biblical revelation: first of all, with the Creation, and the conceptions of fall and deluge that are part of that complex; then with the revolutionary spirit that crystallizes around Israel in Egypt, and during the Exodus from Egypt. What follows, the third stage, is the stage of law, which for Judaism became the crucial one. The first five books of the Bible in Judaism are called the Torah, a word which is often translated 'law', although it means something much broader than that.
The shape of the New Testament turns on its conception of itself as a reformulation of the notion of law in the Old Testament. What one finds in Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews particularly is a conception of the gospel as having set man free from the law. The legal material in the Old Testament is usually divided into three groups, the judicial, the ceremonial and the moral; and one of the first controversies in the Christian Church was over the question of whether the first generation of Christians, who were all Jews, would be subject to the ceremonial law or not. You can read about that in the Book of Acts, where Paul is the main spokesman for the view that the gospel breaks with all three aspects of the law. Of course, Christianity immediately set up a ceremonial law of its own; and although Paul says twice that circumcision is nothing, the Church in his day was saying something much more like, baptism is practically everything—and Paul himself supports that view. Similarly, the day of rest simply shifts from Saturday to Sunday. It isn't a question of getting rid of a ceremonial code, but of adopting a new one.
There was a good deal of controversy in Christian theology as to how much of this law one got set free from; and there were views that while the judicial part—the years of jubilee, that sort of thing—and the ceremonial code were not binding on Christianity, the moral law as set out in the Ten Commandments still was. Luther makes it a cardinal principle of his teaching that the Christian gospel makes a break with all three: but one has to understand what is meant by that. What he means by it is that the law becomes internalized, and consequently becomes something beyond the reach of a legal code. To say that the gospel set one free of the law doesn't mean breaking the law. It doesn't mean criminal action, because you don't get set free from the law by breaking the law: you get more fouled up with it than ever. You get free of the law by transforming it into an internal principle. As a result, the principles in the teaching of Jesus are concerned with the inner state of mind rather than with the social consequences of action. And so in his commentary on the Ten Commandments that forms a part of the Sermon on the Mount, the negative formulation 'don't kill' becomes a positive enthusiasm for human life; and 'don't commit adultery' becomes a habitual respect for the dignity of the woman; and 'don't steal' becomes an enthusiasm for sharing goods. In all this, of course, there was nothing that a legal code could be formulated to touch. If you think for example of the Seven Deadly Sins as they were set out in the Middle Ages—Pride, Wrath, Sloth, Envy, Avarice, Gluttony and Lechery—those were regarded as the mortal sins, the deadly sins that destroyed the soul; but not one of them necessarily ends in, or results in, criminal or anti-social acts.
That is, in the teaching of Jesus, the conception of sin is totally unintelligible except in a religious context. It is not antisocial behavior, nor is it anything that a law can regulate. So the transmutation of the law into an inner state of the soul leads to a much stricter and more intensive morality: if you tried to legalize the teachings of Jesus, for example, you would get the most frightful tyranny, because the things that offend your own self-respect are usually things that are of too fine a mesh for any kind of legal code to catch.
There are aspects of this question of law which are of some interest. For one thing, the conception of law is, in general, moral. The moral is the category which to some degree includes the judicial and ceremonial. It relates to the observances that God is represented as prescribing for Israel, laid down on top of a network of social obligations, customs and penalties, and so on. There is also the conception of natural law. Both principles are called 'law', but they really have nothing to do with each other. Yet the whole Biblical tradition, and western culture in general, has revolved around a strained and illegitimate pun on the word 'law' as meaning, first of all, the morality of human action, and secondly as meaning the observed phenomena of nature.
Now in the moral sphere you have a commanding personality—God—and you have those who have the choice of obeying or disobeying. If that is law, then what we call natural law has nothing to do with law, because laws of the phenomena of nature cannot be broken. You don't break a law of nature, you only manifest it. If you're standing on the edge of a precipice and jump over, you don't break the law of gravitation. You merely manifest the law of gravitation, and the law of gravitation breaks you. There could be no question whatever of feeling that you have a choice of obeying or disobeying a natural law; and in the course of time, we've come more and more to feel that nature is an impersonal order.
Now, we derived this illegitimate association of law both with human moral behavior and with the phenomena of nature through a kind of conspiracy between the Biblical and the Greek aspects of our cultural tradition. In Greek polytheistic religion, the gods had separate personalities, and consequently could fall out and disagree. The most obvious example is the Trojan War, where, to give them their Roman names, Juno, Minerva and Venus turned up in the altogether in front of Paris with a golden apple and said, 'We want you to give this to the most beautiful of the three of us'. So he had to choose one out of the three; and the other two said, 'Well, to hell with you', and went off and took the Greek side in the Trojan War whereas poor old Venus or Aphrodite, who, being what she was, had no talent for fighting at all, was the only one left on the Trojan side.
She did, according to the Iliad, try to get into the melee on one occasion, and one of the Greek warriors, Diomedes, gave her a whack over the wrist, which bruised it; and she went squalling back to Olympus and said to her father Zeus, 'Now look at what that awful man did to me: you've got to do something to him'. And Zeus said, 'Well you got just what you deserved: you have no business on a battlefield. You have to leave that to Athene, who knows how to wear armor'.
So in a polytheistic religion you obviously have to have something overruling these dashes of divine wills; and there are suggestions that the will of Zeus is being manifested no matter how the gods and goddesses disagree. But that's hardly consistent, because at one time, when it looks as though the Trojans are about to win over the Greeks, Hera, or Juno, who is on the Greek side, seduces Zeus by getting him into bed, and so put out of action. Zeus manages to scramble out of bed in time to help the Trojans, whom on the whole he prefers. But it is clear that while Homer does say from time to time that the will of Zeus is being accomplished, he is also saying that there is another force which has already determined what is going to happen, a force that is superior to the will of Zeus in power and that Zeus must obey. This force is the conception that we often translate very badly as 'fate'. It is really a conception derived from the sense of the regularity and invariability of natural law. Thus, we get most of our scientific tradition from the Greeks because they had a polytheistic religion. The power to overrule the clashes of divine wills in fact became the germ of the conception of natural law. And, as men are put there to serve the gods, and to behave more or less as the gods want them to, moral and natural law become associated even in the Greek tradition.
One place where they are so associated with particular eloquence and power is in the last of Aeschylus' three plays about the murder of Agamemnon, and about the revenge taken on his mother by Agamemnon's son, Orestes. In the third of those plays of Aeschylus, The Eumenides, there are two levels of balance or order. There is first the purely mechanical level, represented by the Furies, who are pursuing Orestes to avenge his murder of his mother. Actually, it was a good thing that Orestes did murder his mother: she had it coming to her. But that couldn't matter less to the Furies, who had been given orders that when this kind of thing happens, they automatically take vengeance.
The whole thing comes into a court of the gods; and eventually the goddess of wisdom, Athene, explains that one has to consider certain aspects of equity in the situation. That introduces a superior moral principle. But it is also part of a conception of an order in which men and the gods and nature are all involved. The gods ultimately have to ratify the order of nature: otherwise they'll lose their divinity and become something else. Therefore, in the Greek tradition, moral and natural law here become united.
In the Biblical tradition, the same thing happens, but for quite different reasons. There is also a contract involved: but in the Biblical version, nature is not a party to it. Therefore, there is no order of nature that is thought of as representing or manifesting an aspect of law. In the Biblical tradition, the same God controls both the moral and the natural orders. That means in effect that there is no natural law as we understand it, except as the functioning of nature under God's permission. The law of gravitation works because God wants it to, but strictly speaking, in the Biblical tradition there is no way of distinguishing a natural event from a miraculous one except by the rarity of the miracle.
If the same God controls both, and if his will is manifest in both moral and natural orders, then in both moral and natural orders you have a commanding personality and an agent who can either obey or disobey. In the nineteenth century, Nietzsche made his famous statement that God is dead. That statement, in spite of all the attention it has aroused even in theology, is still subordinate to Nietzsche's main purpose, which was to demonstrate that there is no personality in charge of nature, that nature consequently has no option of obeying or disobeying, and that all such notions are pure superstition.
The Eumenides ends almost as though it were a comedy. That is, the Furies acquire the name of Eumenides, which means 'the kindly spirits', because they are absorbed into a higher and more just conception of law that considers the factors of equity; Orestes is acquitted, and the whole play ends in an atmosphere of serenity. But in the whole context of Greek thought and of Aeschylus' dramatic form, I don't think that that calm and serene conclusion really turns the trilogy of Agamemnon into a comedy. What it does is to render a vision of an interlocking order in which man, the gods and nature are all involved; and it is that sense of interlocking order which lies behind Greek tragedy. It doesn't lie behind the Bible, and that is one reason Christian tragedy is a difficult form—something of a tour de force when it does appear—and often its success, in Shakespeare for example, is the result of such devices as making the setting pre-Christian in King Lear.
The conception of tragedy in Greek literature rests on the notion of hubris, or hybris. You usually see it spelled with a 'u', but that's just illiteracy. This act of hybris is an act of aggression that upsets the balance in the order of nature that the gods are there to ratify. Consequently, because it upsets the balance, a counterbalance must be set up, which is what is called nemesis. The action of aggression and counterbalance is symbolized by the scales, the emblem of justice, and is what makes the tragic conclusion not merely morally intelligible but almost physically intelligible. In fact, one of the earliest and profoundest of all Greek philosophers, Anaximander, said that getting born was an act of hybris, and death was its nemesis, the re-establishing of the balance in the scheme of things.
One of the words in Greek drama that we translate as 'fate' is moira. As I say, it's a very crude and approximate translation: it means more than that. At the opening of the Odyssey, Zeus is represented as saying, 'It's too bad that men are so ready to blame the gods for their own disasters, because for the most part they bring their disasters on themselves'. The example that he gives is that of the man who murdered Agamemnon, Aegisthus: he, Zeus says, went hyper moron, beyond fate. And because he went beyond fate, fate had to catch up: it had to make the counterbalancing movement that destroyed Aegisthus.
I think that tragedy arose in Greek literature at a certain period, largely in connection with the notion of justice or dike, as it's called, where the poets were concerned with this Greek interaction of gods and men and the order of nature. And so tragedy, which dramatized that interaction, really fitted the fifth-century period in Athenian culture. But as it manifests a very fundamental fact about the human situation, it is consequently a structure that can work in any culture, although it is more difficult if the assumptions are Christian ones. As I say, Shakespeare sometimes adopts special devices: because King Lear is pre-Christian, the characters keep swearing by Apollo and Jupiter and other gods that the audience knew didn't exist. Even as attentive a student of Shakespeare as Samuel Johnson says that Shakespeare's tragedies are almost miraculously clever stunts, almost a tour de force, and that his instinctive and temperamental bent was for comedy. Whether that is true or not, it is true that most religions tend towards some kind of goal for which the literary model is comedy. Greek religion was one of the very few exceptions that I know of.
There's another by-product of this that is perhaps worth looking at. If you look at the shape of the Biblical story, you can see what we have been pointing out all along, that man is thought of as living on two levels, as a man and as a creature of God. There is the level reached by Adam in the garden of Eden before the fall of man; and there is the lower level, represented by the Fall and by all human history since. The higher level manifests Itself in things like resurrection and apocalypse.
It follows then that in the Christian periods, there were two levels of the order of nature. The lower level was the level which man fell into, the level of physical nature, a level to which the animals and plants seem to be fairly well adjusted. But man before the Fall, in the garden of Eden, was in the state in which God intended him to live. That is an upper level of nature, the true level of human nature. In teaching Milton's Paradise Lost, I've often had occasion to notice how the description of the life of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden makes them seem like a couple of suburbanites in the nude, preoccupied with their own sexual relations and with domestic details of housekeeping and gardening. Adam looks in the sky and says, 'There's an angel up in the sky'; and Eve says, 'How nice, maybe he'll stay to lunch', which he in fact does. He can't eat anything in Paradise except a fruit salad, but then he likes fruit salads. He explains how, being an angel, he can eat without the bother of excretion, which his skin pores take care of.
All of that has, naturally, aroused ridicule among some of Milton's readers. But the point is that Milton thought of Adam's life in the garden of Eden as the state in which God intended man to live; so that, therefore, man's original state was civilized. There are no noble savages for Milton until Adam has fallen. Adam turns into a noble savage after he's fallen; but before that, he was on the level of human nature.
Thus, there are two levels of nature, one appropriate to man, the other to beings without consciousness. It follows that many things are natural to man that are not natural to animals; and many things are natural to animals that are not natural to man. It is natural for man to wear clothes, to be in a state of social organization, to have degrees of rank, and so on. And so, as Edmund Burke was still insisting in the early nineteenth century, on the human level, nature and art are really the same thing. It is natural to man to be in a state of art.
In Milton's Comus, Comus is an evil spirit who captures a virtuous lady and holds her immobile in a chair, then tries to seduce her. His argument for seduction rests on the analogy with physical nature. The animals, he says, don't show the least self-consciousness or sense of sin about sexual intercourse: what's holding you up? And the lady tells him, in effect, that on her level of nature, chastity is what is natural to her.
On this basis, the question, what is natural to man? has a completely circular answer. What is natural to man is natural on the level of human nature, and the level of human nature is what custom and authority have decided to be the level of human nature. Homosexuality, for example, was often said to be condemned because it is unnatural: the animals don't do it. That is, it was asserted that the animals didn't do it, and they didn't examine animals very closely to see whether it was true or not. But the argument doesn't work on this upper level. There, what is unnatural is what the voice of custom and authority has decreed to be unnatural. There is nothing that you can define as inherently unnatural. In the Reformation, many Protestants took the position that nothing was wrong unless the Bible forbade it. And the Bible obligingly comes through with condemnations of most vices, but it forgets polygamy. It never once condemns polygamy, or suggests that there's anything wrong with that state of social organization. As the voice of custom and authority was determined to have a monogamous society to keep the sexual instinct properly regulated, it had to fall back on a conception of natural law for that one thing. But as I say, the argument is totally circular. We don't know what is natural to man as long as we are working on these two levels of nature. What we have inherited since the eighteenth century, coming very largely from issues raised by Rousseau, is the question: does this upper level of custom and authority represent the reality of human nature, or is it merely the facade which a structure of power has thrown up? We're still trying to figure out the answer to that one; but what I'm trying to get at is its origin: it is the shape of the Biblical myth that seems to imply that there are two levels of the natural.
Since the fall of Adam, man has been born into this middle world, the world of physical nature, the world to which animals and plants are adjusted but to which he is not. So he's confronted from birth with a moral dialectic. Either he moves up as close as he can to what was intended to be his state, or he goes down to the level of sin, which is a level that the animals cannot reach. Everything that is good for man—law and morality and education and virtue—all those things are agents that tend to raise man from the physical level he was born in to the human level he belongs in. Milton explicitly defines education as the attempt to repair the fall of our first parents; and he is referring to secular as well as to religious education.
Another inference from the Biblical story that western culture has adopted is the conception of what is called 'original sin'. Original sin arises from the fact that man is born into a world which is alien to him: it really arises out of the fact that man is going to die. His consciousness is, before it is anything else, a consciousness of death. And so, in man, as he is born in this alien world, there is a force of inertia pulling him down. It was out of that general view, not out of the specific doctrine, which came much later, that Jeremiah said that the heart is desperately wicked.
Teacher's Guide: Northrop Frye and Michael DolzaniCopyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria UniversityTEACHERS GUIDE: Lecture 16LAW: ORDERING A SOCIETY
(Note: AV=Authorized Version, OT=Old Testament, NT=New Testament)Synopsis
Law, the third phase of revelation, became the crucial one for Judaism. But Christianity, and Paul in particular, formulated the view that the gospel set men free of the law, not by breaking it, but by internalizing it into an inner state of mind beyond the reach of a legal code. The confusion of natural law and moral law comes to us from the Greek tradition, where gradually the idea of an impersonal law or fate grew up in order to resolve the conflict of various divine wills in a polytheistic religion. In the Biblical tradition, on the other hand, natural law only subsisted by God's will; but nature was conceived as having two levels. The upper level was paradisal and yet civilized, the world God intended man to live in. The lower level of physical nature was what man fell into. Hence, things were said to be natural to man that are not natural to the animals, because man was 'by nature' a civilized being.
Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts
Biblical Passages Cited
Acts 15.—Controversy about the Jewish law among early Christians.
Galatians 6:15, Romans 2:4.—Circumcision is not necessary.
The Teacher's Perspective
It is the conception of law out of which the entire Old Testament developed. We saw in our last program that the idea of a sacred canon of writings seems to have developed around the discovery of the 'book of the law' in the reign of King Josiah of the Southern Kingdom in 621 B.C. It is generally accepted that this book was the so-called Deuteronomic Code embedded in the present Book of Deuteronomy, approximately chapters 12-26. The Deuteronomic Reform that King Josiah undertook eventually gave us that large portion of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy through II Kings, written from the single viewpoint that scholars have designated as 'D', or the 'Deuteronomic historian', whether it was in fact written by a single person or not.
The teacher may want to trace for the class the development of the Old Testament out of this central core of the law. First of all, the D historical narrative was fused with the older epic narrative, whose southern and northern strands had themselves already been combined into a single narrative, JE. Of the Deuteronomic history, the Book of Deuteronomy itself was eventually inserted into what became the Pentateuch, or Torah. The formation of the latter took place during the Babylonian Exile under the direction of the Priestly tradition, which supplied to it material of its own, designated P. Thus, JEDP makes up the Pentateuch, though D extends beyond it.
It is a good though not undisputed guess that the Pentateuch was the second 'book of the law' brought back from the Exile by Ezra in the fifth century B.C. (Nehemiah 8:1). The formal reading of this law before the people and the ceremony of the renewal of the covenant of God with Israel strongly and perhaps deliberately resembles the earlier events presided over by Josiah; and this second, postexilic renewal of the law is recounted by the writer known as the Chronicler, whose original long work is now divided into I and I Chronicles and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The narrative of I and II Chronicles overlaps the Deuteronomist's books of Samuel and Kings—indeed, some of it is lifted bodily from them—but the perspective is now Temple-dominated, as the religion of Israel, called Judaism from the time of Ezra onward, was to remain, until the final destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D.
It was not so much the Deuteronomic Reform but the later reform by Ezra and Nehemiah that produced what became the Judaic 'legalism' so despised by the Christians some centuries later. It is often said that it was the trauma of the Babylonian Captivity that provoked among the returned exiles the intense anxiety to preserve an identity which had been so much in danger of being scattered and wiped out forever; and that this anxiety resulted in the emphasis on obedience to a ceremonial code and on a nationalistic exclusivism, the two phenomena becoming associated with the names of Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor respectively. Whether this is true or not, the formation of Jewish law around the Torah from this time forward can also be seen as another example of what happens to law in a revolutionary tradition: it becomes intensified, sometimes to a degree we would now call totalitarian. We have included with this program the transcripts for the lecture from which program 20 was drawn, because in its first half, Prof. Frye establishes the distinction between cultures where law emerges out of the myth of creation, as in the Babylonian enuma elish, and cultures where it emerges out of a revolutionary phase, as with Israel or with modern America and Russia. There was no room to use any of this lecture in our present video program 19, but the teacher may choose to discuss with the class what Prof. Frye calls the terrorism of an incorruptible society, using such examples as the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16), the killing of Achan and his entire family (Joshua 7), the 'purge' of the entire first generation of Israelites and the smiting of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5).
It is important to stress, however, that the Christian tradition, so often caught up in its own legalistic vicissitudes, has found it hard to understand what the law has meant to Judaism, or even what Judaism means by the law. The idea that the study of the law is the source of life's deepest meaning and joy sounds to it almost like a contradiction in terms. A wonderful modern corrective to this is Chaim Potok's novel The Chosen; the greatest Old Testament corrective to it is the Book of Psalms. For the Psalms are, in their present form at least, the hymn book of the Jerusalem Temple worship in the postexilic period; and they give the lie, as no other document can, to the notion that the law as it came to be known from this time forward was necessarily a sterile code of regulations. The law, which is really a recreation of the idea of the covenant, is rather the creative source of life in this tradition. The Psalms, so often taken to be the most private and poetic part of the Bible, are in fact often expressions of public worship focused upon a praise of the law: as the introductory first Psalm says of the godly man, 'But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night'. The Book of Psalms is divided into five sections analogous to the Torah; and, as Prof. Frye points out, Psalm 119, the longest psalm of all, is a praise of the law in terms that a Christian might use in praise of the Word. The class may indeed compare this law internalized in the heart of the godly man to the Christian idea of the gospel, even to the eastern idea of a Tao, or balance, to depart from which brings both external disorder and internal despair. Martin Buber's influential I and Thou is a contemporary Jewish version of the idea that the essence of the law is an intense and direct personal relationship with God.
The Psalms are an example of how the other two sections of the Old Testament, the wisdom and prophetic books, tended to be looked at in the Judaic tradition as extensions of the crucial phase of law. Jewish writers sometimes complain that Christianity misunderstands the prophets, who did not attack the law, but attacked the sterile misconception of the law as a superstitious set of rules and ritual practices. A good example is Jeremiah's prophecy of a 'new covenant' in Jeremiah 31:31. To Jewish scholars, when the prophet says, 'I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts', he is not foretelling Christianity's 'new testament', but returning to a genuine conception of the law, perhaps, as some scholars suggest, out of disillusionment with the failure of Josiah's Deuteronomic Reform, of which he was an eyewitness. It is true, nevertheless, that other attitudes have arisen within Judaism historically: in Jesus' time, the Temple-associated Sadducees represented a conservative tendency to return to the absolute letter of the law by rejecting everything but the Torah, including not only the prophets, but the oral teaching that became the Mishnah and the Talmud. It is from the more flexible Pharisees that Judaism got the idea of the Scriptures as 'the law and the prophets' in the way that Jesus and Paul both conceived of them, Paul in fact being himself a Pharisee.
A word remains perhaps to be said about what happened to the concept of law in the later Christian era: namely that, after being internalized by Jesus and Paul, it was externalized again under the guise of the doctrine of 'original sin'. The disobedience of Adam occupies the same position in Christianity that the apostasy of Israel does in Judaism. But the artificial creation myth's necessity for a fall of nature as well as of man (discussed in program 17), combined with the inheritance of the Classical sense of an impersonal 'order of nature', produced in the later medieval and Renaissance periods what Prof. Frye speaks of as the scheme of an upper and a lower (or fallen) order of nature. Pervasive throughout Renaissance poetry, its influence is evident in Milton's Comus and 'Of Education', as well as in the confining of Mutability to the lower sphere in Spenser's Mutabilitie Cantos. Students might in fact contrast Spenser's poem to The Eumenides: the supremacy of Nature over both Jove, who represents the upper level of nature, and Mutability, who represents the lower, is very similar to the new contract in Aeschylus that includes both the Classical deities and nature within a larger order, the difference being that the end of theMutabilitie Cantos looks forward to the end of time and the manifestation of the real God in eternity.
1. Biblical Passages
Nehemiah 8:1.—The second 'book of the law of Moses'.
Numbers 16.—The rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.
Joshua 7.—The killing of Achan and his family.
Acts 5.—Ananias and Sapphira.
Numbers 14:29 ff.—The first generation of Israelites forbidden to enter Canaan.
Psalm 95:11. —'they should not enter into my rest'.
Hebrews 3:11.—Quotes Psalm 95:11.
Jeremiah 31:31.—The 'new covenant'.
2. Corresponding Passages in The Great Code
Chapter Five. Typology II.
pp. 118-21. Law.
Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions