267. After Virtue: Marguerite Porete

Posted on 17 December 2016

Marguerite Porete is put to death for her exploration of the love of God, The Mirror of Simple Souls.

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Further Reading

• E. Babinsky (trans.), Marguerite Porete: The Mirror of Simple Souls (New York: 1993).

• E. Colledge, J.C. Marler and J. Grant (trans.), Marguerite Porette: The Mirror of Simple Souls (Notre Dame: 1999).

 

• A. Hollywood, The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete and Meister Eckhart (Notre Dame: 1995).

• D. Kangas, “Dangerous Joy: Marguerite Porete’s Good-bye to the Virtues,” The Journal of Religion 91 (2011), 299-319.

• S. Kocher, Allegories of Love in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls (Turnhout: 2008).

• R. Lerner, The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Berkeley: 1972).

• J. Maguire Robinson, Nobility and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls (Albany: 2002).

• K. Ruh, “Le Miroir des simples ames der Marguerite Porete,” in H. Fromm et al. (eds), Verbum et Signum: Festschrift für Friedrich Ohly (Munich: 1975), 365-87.

• M.G. Sargent, “The Annihilation of Marguerite Porete,” Viator 28 (1997), 253–79.

Comments

John 19 December 2016

I haven't read her book, but from the description of her writing in this episode, I honestly can't blame the religious orthodoxy for declaring her work heretical.  I mean, to me what she's getting at seems counter to the orthodoxy of Christianity.  Now obviously, I don't think that justifies one in executing a person, but what I've heard of her work strikes me as deeply problematic as far as developing ideas that would actually profit, rather than hurt, society.

Peter Adamson 20 December 2016

In reply to by John

That's interesting, I didn't expect anyone to have that reaction! I certainly agree that it's not surprising her contemporaries found her ideas disturbing - but why do you think her ideas would be harmful to society?

Thomas Mirus 20 December 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

She sounds like the Ayn Rand of mysticism - everything good in her writings you can get from other people without the accompanying bad stuff. The idea of transcending the natural human virtues and the "law" (but while fulfilling them) is built into the core of Christianity.

One big thing I have realized from your podcasts on Islam and Hinduism, Peter, is how unique Catholicism is in that mysticism is fully integrated within it. It seems that in Islamic mysticism, you have the idea that the "rules," the Scripture and the religious authorities are for the masses, while the mystics are a sort of elite who no longer need those things. In Hinduism, as some have remarked, you have One-mysticism for the elites and polytheism for the masses. (Not that Hinduism is really a unified religious system, of course, so it might not be the best comparison to either Islam or Christianity.) In Catholicism, on the other hand, it is the same religion for intellectuals and for the illiterate, for contemplatives and actives, for mystics and everyone else. (I think of Peter Brown's work debunking the "two-tier" theory of Christianity that held that the sophisticated elites had a different religion than the "popular religion" of the masses - on the contrary, for example, devotion to saints has always existed among elites and common people alike.) The great Catholic mystics have not considered themselves exempt from the "rules" or from obedience to the Church authorities - even when they challenged them on occasion.

In contrast with Porete, who wrote about humility yet thought herself above the rest of the Church and exempt from the virtue of obedience, I can think of so many authentic Christian mystics and visionaries who were ordered by the "human element" of the Church - their religious superiors, spiritual director or local ecclesiastical authority - to keep silent, either because their case had not been judged yet or they were deemed suspect because of the seeming radicality of their message (which has really always just been a renewal of the radical essence of Christianity). Yet they were always vindicated in the end, without defiantly tooting their own horn. In fact their humility and obedience ultimately testified to the authenticity of their spirituality.

Wow, comparing someone to Ayn Rand - doesn't get much harsher than that.

But seriously. I don't think I quite buy your general observation about Catholicism as opposed to the other religions. I would see mysticism as a strand within the intellectual culture of Chirstianity in much the same way as the other faiths - in all cases it goes way back (think of the late antique sources of Kabbalah, or al-Hallaj who is contemporary with the earliest generations of Islamic philosophers), and by no means were all Christian intellectuals in late antiquity or the medieval period mystically inclined. Rather I would say that mysticism is sort of built into monotheism: it's kind of an obvious move to say that this highest divine principle is so high that it escapes reason and language. And, of course, I need hardly say that in all these traditions (except Hinduism) a lot of the mystical ideas stem from Neoplatonism which was not just non-Christian but actively anti-Christian.

As for Marguerite, I obviously have a much more favorable take on her. Though she certainly shows that she's aware she may get in trouble, she also is trying very hard to convince the reader and also church authorities (remember she corresponded with bishops and sent her book to one) of her ideas. And those ideas could hardly be further removed from tooting her own horn, given that one central motif of her thought is annihilation. I think a lot of what you are latching onto is a matter of rhetorical strategies in the text, designed to bring the audience around to her way of thinking - and in any case a lot like other mystics with literary flair in and outside of Christianity (think of Rumi or Eckhart).

Thomas Mirus 21 December 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

I agree that it's built into monotheism. What I mean is not so much that Christianity has more potential for mysticism, and certainly not that the majority of Christians have been mystics, as that Christianity (or at least Catholicism) has been able to accomodate mysticism within the structure and authority of organized religion. Or perhaps it is more that conversely, great Catholic mystics have been willing to submit themselves to the authority of people who were not themselves mystics. They didn't feel that they were above the structure, "rules," Scriptures etc as though those things were just for the limited minds of non-mystics. If I had to guess I would think this has to do with the very concrete, sacramental/incarnational nature of Catholic Christianity as opposed to Islam or Neoplatonism.

Oh, I see. Yes, that does sound pretty convincing. It's certainly striking that a figure like Bonaventure has no obvious parallels in Islam and Judaism, though we could perhaps think of mystics in Shii Islam - and by the way Sunni Islam lacks a corresponding authoritative structure anyway, which would be a more obvious way of explaining the disanalogy. Still, I think you must be on to something there.

Thomas Mirus 21 December 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Just to touch on one of my earlier sub-points, in reference to your association of mystics with intellectuals - another interesting thing is that in Catholicism, a mystic is not necessarily an intellectual (though this may be true in other religions too as far as I know). Mysticism is not necessarily the last rung in the philosophical ladder, so to speak - or maybe a better way to put it is that while it is the highest step, many mystics have gotten to skip most of the rungs. A great example of a modern mystic who was definitely not an intellectual is St. Faustina Kowalska (the "Divine Mercy Saint"), whose impact on the Church in the past century has been massive - or for an older one, there is the 17th-century St. Joseph of Cupertino, not famed for his intelligence. But of course, since we are talking about writers here, we are often dealing mainly with people who could be called intellectuals.

I don't quite get the impression that it is only in Catholicism that mystics need not be intelectuals. For instance, I believe a number of Ibn Arabi's teachers in Andalusia were uneducated folk. Also the kind of mysticism that Ghazali promoted lent itself excellently a kind of practical mysticism for daily life. (His more mainstream brand of mysticism also certainly did not envision itself as above the law or somehow transcending scripture.)  I do believe you have an interesting point regarding the accomodation of mysticism in Catholicism. Still though if I compare it to (sunni) Islam, mysticism was engrained in their thinking up until at least the nineteenth century. And one rather gets the feeling that when later rationalist and fundamentalist brands of Islam try and sideline this tradition they are simply rewriting history (which, given the lack of any official hierarchy, also mentioned by Peter, is easier for them to do than it would be in Catholicism). 

Thanks, that's helpful information.

It's also true that in the past couple centuries, Christians in the West tend to be less aware of their own mystical/contemplative tradition (especially in Protestant-dominated countries like the US). I can't help but think this is part of why many turn to Eastern religions or pseudo-Eastern "spirituality" because they have a sense that there is something missing in their own religious life. On the other hand, many of these spiritualities - at least in the watered-down, glorified self-help forms practiced in the US - do not make large moral demands on their practitioners, which is a plus for many.

This is also one place where Catholics in the West, who tend to fall prey to an over-intellectualized version of the faith, can benefit from exposure to Eastern forms of Catholicism, Christianity and Orthodoxy, wherein the mystical tradition has been far more at the forefront. For example someone just sent me a book about the Christian theology of deification, a concept present in Scripture and in the Fathers, which has nonetheless gone missing in the West - but in the East they haven't forgotten about it.

Bear 22 December 2016

I found it interesting that Porete is considered not be a Béguin, but she certainly had a very similar approach. There are three points that can be made about Porete.

Firstly, she is contemporaneous with the supression of the Templars, which was essentially Philip the Thief - I mean Philip IV of France - stealing all he could from the wealthiest organisation in Europe. It would be as if the President of the USA were to nationalise without compensation all the US assets of the 10 richest corporations. Philip loved money, and his ministers did everything to ensure that he got his share. One of the benefits of being the king was that heretics forfeited their property to the crown, so there was certainly lots of incentive to execute wealthy heretics. And the doctors of the University of Paris were easily bought.

The second thing to note concerns Orthodox Christological teaching.  Part of Porete's claims is about the sublimation of her will with God's. There was a 7th century Christological dispute about the nature of the Will of Jesus Christ, in which a position known as Monothelitism emerged. This essentially posited that Jesus Christ in His divine and human natures shared one will. This was condemned later as heresy, the Orthodox position being that the human nature of Jesus Christ has a will, which is in complete correspondence with the will of the Divine nature of God the Son.

When the Crusaders liberated the Levant (which includes modern Lebanon), there was a group of Syrian Christians called Maronites who held the doctrine of Monothelitism. As part of their union with the Western Church, they had to abandon this doctrine in favour of the Orthodox position. So this was not unknown to the doctors of the University of Paris.

Since Jesus Christ had two wills, and He is the hypostatic union of God and man, it is therefore a bit much for someone to claim that his or her independent human will had been sublimated to God's will, when this had not happened the human will of Jesus Christ.

The third concerns the logical consequences of the claim that one's will has been subsumed into God's will. Our Scholastic forebears indulged in what is politely called "Maximal Theory Extension", or to put it another way, they worked all the possible implications of a particular proposition. Considering the correspondence of subsuming of one's will to God's will, there are a number of implications. The positive one is that one can only want what God wants. The other way of putting it is that, if I will it, then God wills it. So whatever I want is the command of God.

Thus, Porete was setting herself up as being God's authoritative messanger in the world, and an authority to rival all others, include the King of France (who may or may not have been bald).

Peter Adamson 22 December 2016

In reply to by Bear

Wow, thanks for this amazing set of comments! Have you considered starting up a History of Theology Podcast? (With or without gaps.) I find especially interesting your perspective on the reasons she may have been put to death - both financial and theological.

Bear 4 January 2017

In reply to by Peter Adamson

A History of Theology would be interesting, and it would need to be one without gaps to be very valuable. Unfortunately, I think that it would provoke strong reactions from everyone, since there is no tradition or school which has not failed to live up to its ideals. There are also external events which often colour the perceptions of the debate.

For example, consider the dispute between Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux. These days, it is easy to demonise Clairvaux, and portray him as an anti-intellectual thug. However, the dispute was much more complex, and Abelard's position (whether intended or not) had significant implications for Christian Theology - which Clairvaux was not entirely comfortable with. What is also forgotten is that through the efforts of the Abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable, the two men were reconciled, and Abelard found peace in the great monastery of Cluny.

Both men were complex characters, and like onions and ogres, they had many layers. However, these days, depending on one's Theological views, one either considers Abelard as a middle-aged sexual predator, or Bernard as a semi-literate, jackbooted, book burning thug. Whereas my view is that both were great men, with their strengths and weaknesses, and their clash was unfortunate. Such as view would get many hackles raised.

Fortunately, Philosophy is much calmer.

Yes, you'd definitely be wading into hackle-raising waters. I have noticed that my fellow podcasters who do plain old history series often provoke polemical responses - e.g. the History of Crusades, which is eminently balanced and neutral, has been accused of being anti-Christian or whatever. But I think it would still be a great project: one could just explain things from the protagonists' points of view and make clear that one is not taking sides, and that might help.

Come on, you know you want to do it.

Bear 16 January 2017

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Yes, you are right. At the moment I am very time limited for a number of reasons, which would make the podcast infeasble. Also, my accent is the most friendly for people who don't speak English natively.

I would disagree that the history of the Crusades is non-hackle raising territory. This is one series of events which is very layered. Most English speaking scholarship generally follows the Steven Runciman line of viewing all the crusades and crusaders as nasty adventurism. This is not a view shared by everyone.

Bear 22 December 2016

Peter, I certainly hope you devote at least one episode to Cristina of Pizan and her Le Livre de la Cité des Dames. Here is a 14th century woman overtly engaging in Philosophy and argumentation. She is very witty and brilliant, and accomplished in her own right.

Believe it or not that episode is already written! Though actually I am going to present her as an early Renaissance figure - or rather she appears both at the end of the medieval series (because I will discuss the Querelle de la Rose in the Jean Gerson episode) and then again in her own episode to kick off the Renaissance. Anyway, couldn't agree more, she is one of my favorite medieval(-ish) authors.

Robin 3 May 2018

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Hi Peter,

I enjoyed this episode. What she said rings true.  I don't know if anyone can truly understand what she (and many of the mystics) is saying about the experiences of mystical conversion - stages toward union - without having had the experiences oneself and even then, individuals' experiences and the ways in which they are understood may be different, with some similarities.  "Love's teaching is found in no book", that it is "the greater church of the souls..." Yet, their spiritual genius, writings, teachings, help illuminate the way, give companionship to the mapless path, and help name our own ineffable experiences. Thank you for sharing this wisdom tradition.

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