Kempis, Thomas à Entries

The Inner Life (extracts from The Imitation of Christ)


The Inner Life (a name the people at Penguin invented for their excerpts from Thomas à Kempis's famous The Imitation of Christ) rounds out my first set of four Great Ideas volumes. I have to admit that, outside of the context of the series, this fourteenth-century Catholic devotional tract is not something I would normally pick up, find interesting, or recommend to anyone except those with a strong interest in the history of Christian theology. As an agnostic person in particular, trying to find anything in its pages to which I could personally relate was...well, let's just say that wasn't the approach that worked best for me. Within the curated Great Ideas experience, though, it takes part in a number of dialogues I find fascinating. And when I stop to situate Kempis in the context of the other three philosophers I've read in the series thus far, there are even a few points on which I would align myself more with him than with anyone else. More importantly, and beyond my personal reactions, Kempis represents an important phase of Western Christian thought, which I'm sure will prove a key touchstone as I move into the Renaissance writings of Machiavelli and Montaigne.

First, the basics: Thomas à Kempis espouses a characteristically hardcore medieval attitude toward God and faith. He's an absolutist, arguing that one should give up all emotional connection to the people and physical world around one, and put one's entire trust in God. You shouldn't trust other people, your own sensations, or yourself, Kempis writes: humans are changeable and easily tricked by the Devil, and are therefore much too weak and unworthy to make their own life decisions or attain any meaningful knowledge except through complete and utter submission to the will of God. Even the kind of ecstatic devotion espoused by Augustine should, says Kempis, be mistrusted:

CHRIST: ... Do not hold an exaggerated opinion of yourself, or believe that you are a favorite of God when you enjoy the grace of great devotion and sweetness; for it is not by these things that the true lover of holiness is known, or is a man's spiritual progress dependent on such things.
THE DISCIPLE: Lord, on what then does it depend?
CHRIST: On complete surrender of your heart to the will of God, not seeking to have your own way either in great matters or small, in time or in eternity. If you will make this surrender, you will thank God with equal gladness both in good times and in bad, and will accept everything, as from His hand, with an untroubled mind. Be courageous and of such unshakable faith that, when spiritual comfort is withdrawn, you may prepare your heart for even greater trials. Do not think it unjust that you should suffer so much, but confess that I am just in all My dealings, and praise My holy Name.

In other words, says Kempis, a truly devoted follower of Christ will completely subjugate his own desire, and be equally happy with whatever fate God decides is best for him, however uncomfortable or seemingly tragic it may be, because Christ is all-knowing, and is orchestrating the events of each person's life to best suit that person's spiritual growth.

Like Seneca, Kempis counsels his readers to find "a place apart," to spend time alone for the greater health of their souls. But whereas Seneca recommends spending that time reading philosophy, honing our logical minds and reducing mental busy-ness, Kempis's main object for alone time is coming to a deeper appreciation of just how base and unworthy we are to receive the grace of God. He urges us to "enter deeply into inner things," yet also tells us never to trust ourselves or our own impressions. To Kempis this isn't a contradiction: to him, "entering deeply into inner things" means finding lower and ever lower levels of degradation within, which will in turn motivate us to submit more readily to God's will:

It is a great obstacle if we rely on external signs and the experience of the senses, and pay small regard to the perfecting of self-discipline. I hardly know what motives can inspire us, or what our purpose may be, when we who wish to be considered spiritual take so much trouble and are so concerned with trivial, daily affairs, and so seldom give our full and earnest attention to our interior life.
Alas, after a short meditation we break off and do not make a strict examination of our lives. We do not consider where our affections really lie, nor are we grieved at the sinfulness of our whole lives.

This emphasis on discounting the experience of the senses, of eschewing rationality, is one of Kempis's most interesting positions in terms of the Great Ideas dialogue. Let me briefly and perhaps cheekily paraphrase the conversation thus far as it relates to logic and the rational person:

  • Seneca writes to a friend: hey, look at your situation logically. Today you're alive, and tomorrow you may be dead. Why not make the most of your remaining time by withdrawing from the hustle and bustle, and spending some time engaging with philosophy? You will hone your mind and prepare your soul for your inevitable death. After all, people complain about having to die, but we really have sufficient time if only we would use it to good advantage.
  • Marcus Aurelius, more pessimistically, opines that the world is going to hell because people everywhere are acting against their true natures. The true nature of a man, says Aurelius, is that of a rational citizen, and the only rational way for a citizen to live is to devote himself to the service of his state, rather than becoming a prey to his irrational (carnal, selfish) desires. Rationality, says Aurelius, will save the day, or at least make life more bearable and death less alarming.
  • Augustine of Hippo presents a failure of rationality: a moment (his conversion to Catholocism) when, in order to attain enlightenment, he must put aside his desire to know and learn things logically, and follow his emotions to God.

A thousand years later, Thomas à Kempis (and, I think, medieval Christianity in general) have taken Augustine's break with rationality to the proverbial next level, and then several levels beyond that. The temptation to acquire knowledge through the senses or reasoned logic, he argues, is a crafty ploy of the Devil, who is trying to distract us from the fact that praying and submitting our wills to God are the only ways to attain true enlightenment. The entire physical world, therefore, becomes a minefield of temptations for anyone who has incompletely quashed his curiosity or his impulse towards reason. The best plan for anyone wishing to get close to God, in Kempis's view, is to live the life of a hermit:

You should be so mortified in your affection towards loved ones that, for your part, you would forego all human companionship. Man draws the nearer to God as he withdraws further from the consolations of this world. And the deeper he descends into himself and the lower he regards himself, the higher he ascends towards God.

Kempis's attitude is that a holy person should withdraw from nearly every aspect of life on earth, and focus his entire energy on anticipating the next life - the one in which he will be released from this prison of a body and be united with God in peace. "Be assured of this," he writes famously, "that you must live a dying life." If you are gaining pleasure or satisfaction from anything in life other than submitting yourself to God, Kempis argues, you're on the wrong track. And if you're attempting to reason something out logically, you're falling prey to the Devil. Aside from a few token comments about "helping one another," there's even surprisingly few mentions of charity, which I tend to consider a staple of Christian theology. Basically, Kempis's holy man withdraws farther and farther from all other people and objects, and spends his time meditating on what a despicable sinner he is. It's hard for me to imagine a God who would encourage such conduct, but there you go. (And Kristin Lavransdatter people: does this behavior pattern sound familiar?) I mean, this is certainly not how Jesus lived, which makes the title Imitation of Christ an interesting one.

I think what stood out most to me about Thomas à Kempis is the feeling that something had to give. His theology is just so extreme and so bleak. If it's at all representative of the life of the educated "establishment" in late medieval Europe, it impresses the reader with the inevitability of some kind of pressure release, some swing of the pendulum in the other direction - which did in fact take place with the advent of Renaissance Humanism and the return to a desire for proto-scientific inquiry.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I do appreciate Kempis's acknowledgment of the failures of rationality. Reading Marcus Aurelius, I often wanted to shake the man for his blind insistence that Human Beings Are Naturally Rational, even as he was cataloging all the myriad irrational behaviors around him. Falling, myself, somewhere in the middle of the two extremes (I think most people tend to act irrationally and construct rational explanations for our behavior after the fact), it's fascinating to watch the two philosophical strands develop over the centuries. And having already spent some quality time with Machiavelli and Montaigne, the next two stops on the Great Ideas train, I'm pretty confident that they will add some interesting perspectives to the rationality debate. On to Florence, and the demise of the Republic!

PS - Between Augustine, Kempis, and Undset, it's been VERY RELIGIOUS around here lately! I need to read some Emma Goldman or something, just to shake things up a bit. Seriously.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography