This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
The Inner Life
by Thomas Ã Kempis (1380-1471)
“Avoid public gatherings as much as possible, for the discussion of worldly affairs becomes a great hindrance, even though it be with the best of intentions, for we are easily corrupted and ensnared by vanity.”
Three essays that provide guidance on how to live a God-friendly life, including call and response between a hypothetical Christ and a hypothetical Disciple. It’s also something of a how-to guide, as in “how to avoid temptation,” or perhaps more accurately, a methodical “reminder guide” of what’s important to a Christian.
At the beginning of The Inner Life, Kempis writes, “A humble countryman who serves God is more pleasing to Him than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars, but neglects his own soul.” Assuming that “countryman” doesn’t mean “country gentleman” but instead “goatherd” or “feudal farmer,” I found this interesting from a class perspective. The audience for Kempis’ thoughts had to be the educated upper classes, or perhaps a merchant class (or just priests?), unless these three essays were read aloud to the uneducated. The conceited intellectual would thus be the one reading, the one being asked to envision a somewhat idealized “countryman” who put his own book learnin’ to shame through simple piety.
But in my mind’s eye, I see that “countryman” happily farting, spitting, and cursing while smacking the butts of goats ahead with a stick. Dirty in the same clothes from the day before. About to go home and just as happily have a quick one with the wife or the neighbor’s wife. All the while no doubt oppressed by a landed baron or even, perhaps, the church itself. Now, I might have just as much of a caricature of a “countryman” at this time as the humble man of God, but it is a good deal less abstract. Just probably not what Kempis had in mind.
Still, it’s easy to see such a “countryman” attending church, worshipping Christ, and even taking comfort from Kempis’ pronouncements, wherever or however encountered. Kempis preaches humility, peacefulness, patience, and many other admirable character traits–always wedded to and given sense by a belief in God. This insistent rhetorical device of linking morality and religion creates the kind of repetition that, in the mind of the believer, provides continual reaffirmation of faith. From an outside reader’s perspective, however, it gums up the works, pads the actual content, sometimes as annoying as talking to a man who is wearing three or four collared shirts at the same time. “Please take at least one of them off so you don’t look so puffy. It offends my eye.”
Indeed, as an argument for the God-filled life, Kempis repeats the saying “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” Yet very few of us consistently see or hear what is around us, Seneca might argue. So how can we know that there is not more to each, intrinsically, perhaps even spiritual in the detail?
The most interesting section, “On the Contrary Workings of Nature and Grace,” describes the opposition between the two–in essence sets up black-and-white characteristics for the one and the other. For example, “Nature loves to enjoy rare and beautiful things, and hates the cheap and clumsy.” Such pronouncements are comforting and horrifying at the same time. They make things simple, easy to understand. But they also promise no reconciliation, only constant war–literal and figurative.
Marcus Aurelius and Seneca appear to have believed in deities from my prior reading, but in their teachings the sense of dogma is relieved by a clear-eyed view of the practical–and an understanding that the world itself is not something from which we should turn away. There is none of that here.
Ritual and commonsense advice, no doubt of great comfort to many Christians.
Question for Readers
Kempis offers reflections on humility and spirituality. What book on this subject has been most comforting or useful to you?
Next up, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince…