By CHRISTOPHER LANDRUM.
I admire the mediæval cathedrals as much as anybody, and I am perfectly prepared to recognize the greatness and uniqueness of mediæval craftsmanship. But I believe that æstheticism must never be used as an argument against humanitarianism.
LAST AUTUMN, I threw myself into following advice found in John Milton’s 1644 pamphlet Of Education where he encourages those who are able to take the “opportunity of gaining experience to be won from pleasure it self abroad.” So in September 2022, I headed up to Cambridge intending to do four things: hit the pubs, complete a pilgrimage to the grave of Ludwig Wittgenstein, take a walk to the nearby village of Grantchester, and with time permitting, visit the Round Church.
Though Milton was only a Cantab lad (Christ’s College), and never a Cambridge don, it is not so outrageous to imagine that in his younger years, the poet more than once strolled past the town’s Round Church. (Whether or not he ever set foot across its threshold, I leave for his biographers to determine.) For Round Church is about 900 years old and has, over the centuries, undergone several additions, destructions, and renovations. When, in 1994, its congregation had outgrown the rotund structure that still stands in central Cambridge, members of the church decided to repurpose the building as a museum. Since 2001, the structure has been under the caretakership of The Foundations Trust.
Although built to partially resemble the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Cambridge’s Round Church remains, nonetheless, something of a replica. It is also an architectural and spiritual response to an early cycle of Norman Crusading. Being neither overwhelming nor ornate, Round Church could never (and has never) pretended to be a cathedral. Its present cupola exhibits something functional, economical, almost Puritanical in its plainness (but only almost). This crown is certainly something less than a stately pleasure dome but obviously much more than, to again quote Milton, a mere “straw-built citadel.”2 The Petrine cockerel on top of the cross is a fourteenth-century addition, and not French.
Although glass windows as well as a polygonal tower were added to the church in the later Middle Ages, by the 1600s, iconoclastic attitudes of the English Civil War led some, under Parliamentarian commander William Dowsing, to smash fourteen of Round Church’s medieval windows. When, several centuries later, the church’s tower collapsed in 1841, Queen Victoria then actively engaged in its repairs via royal donations. With only four of the remaining fifteenth-century windows still intact after the fall of the tower, Victoria then commissioned the services of stained-glass master artist Thomas Willement to aid in Round Church’s restoration. In the twentieth century, two memorial windows were added on its ground floor, giving the building its present look.
Having paid my fare to a woman pleasant in appearance and demeanor seated at a desk near the entrance to the church, I was next handed a brochure (where I learned some of the details contained in the previous paragraph). I then commenced my tour, intending to admire all of Round Church’s architectural inventiveness and creativity. Soon I was studying the stone faces, which had been added as part of the church’s renovations in the 1840s, when I heard the pleasant woman at the desk say something. Because of eight massive columns between eight modest arches that comprise a circle and inner sanctum of Round Church, I did not see her but heard her say several times in variation something like: “No, I’m sorry, sir. This is a museum, not an active church. I can’t give you any money or food from here. This money is for the museum, though there are many churches nearby that may be able to help, some just down the road.”
Being the only visitor in the church at that hour, I felt myself to be in no hurry, and so leisurely and inconspicuously stepped about, leaned over, and looked from an archway back at the entrance, until, eventually, I caught but a glimpse of the man she had been speaking to and whose voice I never heard.
At the time, the above epigram from Karl Popper regarding aesthetics, church architecture, and anti-humanitarianism had not crossed my mind. Still, I had seen certain specimens of homelessness on television, such as in Grantchester (Season 3, Episode 1, set in and around the Round Church grounds), and on Morse, (such as Season 1, Episode 3). I had also earlier that week seen some similar men sitting at a picnic table under the shade of St. Paul’s Church, just south of St. Andrew the Great Church. They were hunched at their table with hands clutching beer cans and fingers tweezing hand-rolled cigarettes, their backs bent in zigs and zags from multiple nights of rough sleep outdoors.
But inside the Round Church I saw no face, just a ribbon of blur, something only slightly more substantial than a silhouette. For all I know he was Elijah. Yet he had no beard, no “sable silver’d.” His hair was rather short, black, and floppily combed over a very round and swarthy forehead. He wore untattered clothes, looking, perhaps, a little slovenly, but not filthy. And he did not hawk, busk, proselytize, or rattle a can of coins. He did not limp or shuffle in ways that would suggest recent intoxication or prolonged homelessness. Instead, upon his departure, he calmly pulled a small, wheeled silver suitcase. Under his other arm was tucked a heavy blue coat.
Though I did not clearly see this man in the doorway of Round Church, because of what I had heard from the woman, and of what I have seen others do around the various college campuses in Austin and Oxford, I soon determined he was asking for alms.
Both the pleasant woman and I seemed a bit “abashed” by the man. And we were not unlike those who listen to Malbecco, the “silly pilgrim driven to distress” from the Faerie Queene (1590) poem penned by former Cambridge student Edmund Spenser (Pembroke College):
The wretched man at his imperious speach,
Was all abasht, and low prostrating, said;
Good Sir, let not my rudenesse be no breach
Vnto your patience, ne be ill ypaid;
For I vnwares this way by fortune straid,
A silly Pilgrim driuen to distresse,
That seeke a Lady,–––There he suddein staid,
And did the rest with grieuous sighes suppresse,
While teares stood in his eies, few drops of bitternesse. (III, x, 25)
Malbecco is hunting for his wife who has run away with another knight. He has thus been “driuen to distresse, / That seeke a Lady.” Like Malbecco, the distressed stranger at Round Church was also seeking a lady: Lady Charity certainly, and perhaps, even Lady Fortune. That the indigent man was asking for her in the wrong place somewhat suggests that he, like me the tourist, was from out of town.
And if I’d heard that man’s voice in the Round Church, perhaps he would’ve said something like John Bunyan’s character of Christian, who in the first part of the Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) tells his readers how “I was driven out of my native country by a dreadful sound that was in mine ears: to wit, that unavoidable destruction did attend me, if I abode in that place where I was.” Or I might’ve heard him express sentiments similar to those made by that other Cambridge man, Laurence Sterne (Jesus College), as when the narrator to his Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–67) confides to readers:
I have been the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune; and though I will not wrong her by saying, She has ever made me feel the weight of any great or signal evil;–––yet with all the good temper in the world, I affirm it of her, That in every stage of my life, and at every turn and corner where she could get fairly at me, the ungracious Duchess has pelted me with a set of a pitiful misadventures and cross accidents as ever small HERO sustained. (I, v)
Whatever was not said, I felt it important for my memory to try to mark the events that had unfolded there that day. For though I knew I had just then witnessed nothing particularly historical, it seemed something significant had occurred, though I knew not what. Only after I returned home and began to review some authors, many from Cambridge, did it occur to me that I may have learned something in that moment of my brief visit to that fair university town.
In the first part to his Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human (1605), the ever-ambitious Francis Bacon (Trinity College) was nonetheless humble enough to realize how “learning endueth men’s minds with a true sense of the frailty of their persons, the casualty of their fortunes, and the dignity of their soul and vocation,” (I, iii, 6). Seeing the man with the silver suitcase that day at Round Church, I too felt a sense of frailty both for him as well as myself. Only after recollecting the moment do I now see how it related to a passage from the first part of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779):
We are like foreigners in a strange country, to whom every thing must seem suspicious, and who are in danger every moment of transgressing against the laws and customs of the people with whom they live and converse. We know not how far we ought to trust our vulgar methods of reasoning in such a subject; since, even in common life, and in that province which is peculiarly appropriated to them, we cannot account for them, and are entirely guided by a kind of instinct or necessity in employing them.
Yet what could a foreign tourist like myself have really learned in those few minutes in the Round Church? Though Hume is right about many things, it seems here neither “suspicious” nor “vulgar” to instead turn to Wordsworth for a clearer answer. While there is much in Wordsworth (“Tintern Abbey,” much of The Excursions) that remains too intensively introspective for me to ever fully comprehend, he remains the great Lake poet, he once attended St John’s College, Cambridge, and he was on to something when he observed in his poem on “The Old Cumberland Beggar” (1797):
—But of the poor man ask, the abject poor,
Go and demand of him, if there be here
In this cold abstinence from evil deeds,
And these inevitable charities,
Wherewith to satisfy the human soul?
No—Man is dear to Man; the poorest poor
Long for some moments in a weary life
When they can know and feel that they have been
Themselves the fathers and the dealers-out
Of some small blessings, have been kind to such
As needed kindness, for this single cause,
That we have all of us one human heart.
This last line, “That we have all of us one human heart,” has been echoed by later sages of quiet Cambridge, such as Wittgenstein (Trinity College), who taught that the “shared behavior” of humankind provides a “the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language.” In reflection, I see now, in that moment with the mysterious man at Round Church, how I should have not only turned to Wordsworth but applied Wittgenstein’s advice: “Don’t try to analyse the experience within yourself.” “Do not ask yourself: ‘How does it work with me?’— Ask: ‘What do I know about someone else?’”3
The man I saw at Cambridge thought its Round Church was an active religious building. He thought so because of the signs he saw, signs such as the literal signage outside the church’s door that reads “Round Church,” or the few old gravestones in the churchyard, or the structure’s steeple and cross atop its dome. These signs said to him: “church.”
Wittgenstein points out that we have nothing to work with except the signs themselves. Because “if you say: ‘How am I to know what he means, when I see nothing but the signs he gives?’ then I say: ‘How is he to know what he means, when he has nothing but the signs either?’” This is why in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) the angel Raphael must evoke “The meaning, not the name, I call.”4
Both the man and I, as outsiders, had initially assumed that because the building still stood as a structure (“church” as a building), the building probably still served an active body of members (“church” as a group). My needs as a tourist were to understand what the Round Church meant to people in the past, particularly its un-cathedral-like attributes. Meanwhile, the man’s needs as an indigent individual were to understand what that building currently means to people in the present, particularly the humanitarian services it might provide to those presently in need. While I was focused on the church’s aesthetics, the man was focused on its ethics; and, as Wittgenstein first taught: “It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one.)”5
The man mistaking the signs of “church” to mean one thing rather than another is partially what John Stuart Mill was driving at in the third chapter of his essay On Liberty (1859). Here, Mill seems very much to be describing the situation of the man I saw:
The traditions and customs of other people are, to a certain extent, evidence of what their experience has taught them; presumptive evidence, and as such, have a claim to his deference: but, in the first place, their experience may be too narrow; or they may not have interpreted it rightly. Secondly, their interpretation of experience may be correct, but unsuitable to him. Customs are made for customary circumstances, and customary characters: and his circumstances or his character may be uncustomary.
Therefore, says Mill:
It is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way. It is for him to find out what part of recorded experience is properly applicable to his own circumstances and character.
Along these lines, I return to Wittgenstein’s lesson that “one can mistrust one’s own senses, but not one’s own belief”—or, as Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman has more recently put it, “We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”6 Indeed, when I now see in my mind’s eye that man at Cambridge who had mistaken signs for a museum as signs for a church, no small part of me recalls the old cliché attributed to martyr John Bradford that “there but for the grace of God go I.”
The indigent man simply knocked on the wrong door, and the pleasant woman kindly directed him elsewhere. Perhaps the man saw the church building from afar and recalled when Jesus said unto his disciples, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” (Matthew 7:7). Perhaps the man was an adamant atheist, and had read Hume’s essay “Of Refinement in the Arts,” and believed that text when it says “riches are valuable at all times, and to all men; because they always purchase pleasures, such as men are accustomed to, and desire.”
Then again, perhaps he was neither a biblical literalist nor a self-conscious materialist. Most readers interpret the biblical quotation above to mean that the disciples of Jesus were to not merely want general, earthly riches but to seek after certain higher goods. Closer to our own time, G. E. M. Anscombe (Newnham College), in her 1957 essay “Intention” (§37), pointed out that the word “want” demands more specificity than is generally given to it. For, “to say ‘I merely want this’ without any characterisation,” writes Anscombe, “is to deprive the word of sense; if he insists on ‘having’ the thing, we want to know what ‘having’ amounts to.”
I think the man at the door of Round Church wanted alms. I think he was probably looking for some specific inkling of happiness (or possibility of pleasure) to be found in what some alms could get him. What could they get him? Beer, cigarettes, food, medicine perhaps. He didn’t seem to be, to use Anscombe’s phrasing “merely wanting.” Perhaps he sought some sort of security, as when Hume suggests in his essay on “The Stoic” that security is essential to any sort of happiness:
The great end of all human industry, is the attainment of happiness. For this were arts invented, sciences cultivated, laws ordained, and societies modelled, by the most profound wisdom of patriots and legislators…. But surely the instability of fortune is a consideration not to be overlooked or neglected. Happiness cannot possibly exist, where there is no security; and security can have no place, where fortune has any dominion.
Whatever the ill fortunes and desperate motivations behind the strange man at Round Church that day, the woman operating the ticket desk seemed as charitable and as socially philanthropic as possible. Although at one point in Tristram Shandy (VIII, xxvii) the character of Uncle Toby announces that “the world is ashamed of being virtuous,” the woman at Round Church represented no part of such a world. Recalling Bacon’s essay “Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature,” one might say her intentions were charitable. For, as Bacon explains,
I take Goodness in this sense, the affecting of the weal of men, which is that the Grecians call Philanthropia; and the word ‘humanity’ (as it is used) is a little too light to express it…. Goodness answers to the theological virtue Charity … in charity there is no excess; neither can angel or man come in danger by it.
And, referring back the original epigram by Popper, I can say this about the pleasant woman: while in a mediaeval church building that serves as a modern museum—and serves so because, at least somewhat, it preserves medieval aesthetics so that moderns might in some way appreciate those aesthetics—the pleasant woman, given her duties and position, acted in as humane a way as anyone possibly could. To her credit, in such mediaeval aesthetic environment, she failed to act in an anti-humanitarian manner. Instead, she tried to tell the lost man where he ought to go.
While the pleasant woman seemed to me to be something of a good Samaritan, the great Austrian philosopher, social critic, and theologian, Ivan Illich might’ve interjected here that I’ve applied the wrong lesson to be learned from that biblical parable. For unlike the good Samaritan on the road to Jericho, the pleasant woman at Round Church only did what she ought to have done. That twentieth-century atheist, anthropologist, semiotician, and native of Grantchester, Gregory Bateson (St John’s College), once pointed out that a cry for help grammatically resembles a command. And because helping those who cry for help and are in dire need is generally considered to be in the public interest, the pleasant woman may have only doing what the public interest of modern civilization commanded her to do. To borrow a phrase from Hume’s essay “On Suicide,” one might say she only “engaged in a conspiracy for the public interest.”7
On the other hand, to say the pleasant woman only did what she ought to have done seems too reductive to be an honest judgment. For she could’ve threatened to notify the police. She could’ve shouted at him something like: “No!” or “Please leave,” or “Go away.” She might even have ignored him.
But she didn’t.
In my experience, neighbors, whether to their peers or to complete strangers, tend to give directions to those who ask. Who’s to say whether the pleasant woman wasn’t acting neighborly toward the mysterious rambler with the silver suitcase? Moreover, what should count concerning my own behavior at Round Church? Were me and my brain and its collections of quotations too stoic and apathetic toward the man who needed something? For in the essay on “The Stoic,” Hume asks:
Does the sage always preserve himself in this philosophical indifference, and rest contented with lamenting the miseries of mankind, without ever employing himself for their relief? Does he constantly indulge this severe wisdom, which, by pretending to elevate him above human accidents, does in reality harden his heart, and render him careless of the interests of mankind, and of society? No; he knows that in this sullen Apathy, neither true wisdom nor true happiness can be found.
Is it too much to say the church building evolved, in some nonbiological Darwinian sense, into a museum? Crass commercialism sometimes occurs during such socially evolutionary circumstances. I’m thinking of things like the Church Café Bar and Venue one finds in the center of Dublin. Inside the high grand hall of what was formerly St. Mary’s Church, the “Church,” as the locals call it, is now a colossal tavern marketed to thirsty tourists. (It closed in 1964, but I enjoyed my time there with some good whiskey during my first night in Dublin.)
Round Church, Cambridge, however, has been spared all of that. It remains an old church building still enduring old age. Its past is a road so long and winding that it may, on occasion, induce its travelers with dizziness. It’s the same dizzy, confounding feeling Anscombe alludes to when she confesses to readers how “my thought of past things seems like a pointer that points to nothing: and yet to say that the whole conception is a mistake seems to be like denying the reality of the past.”8
The late-Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once challenged himself to realize how all changes within himself were but reflections of the essential insight that Nature, including human nature, is nothing but change. Age, then, is one form of change, and the church has been constantly changing, developing, growing for over 900 years—and, during that time, the building’s purpose has been changing as well.
Modest reflection on this point in Aurelius’ Meditations (VII, xviii) has, for me at least, nearly ended the spell of dizziness caused by the overwhelming re-realization that I and that man in that moment were just passing through cosmos and country, and each of us simply happened to visit the same sacred circle of stacked stone set just beyond the banks of the River Cam. For Round Church should outlast each of us, just as strong trees tend to outlive the strongest men.
Thus, I came away from Cambridge’s Round Church with a new understanding of what Karl Popper meant at the beginning of this discussion: an appreciation of medieval aesthetics that avoids morphing into anything anti-humanitarian. Although that new understanding seems to be merely an emotional impression about that old church rather than any objective knowledge concerning it, I also don’t expect my impression to hinder the possibility of further development of such knowledge. My impression may even serve such knowledge as a very small piece of supportive scaffolding, especially when “all work in science,” said Popper, “is work directed towards the growth of objective knowledge. We are workers who are adding to the growth of objective knowledge as masons work on a cathedral.”9
CHRISTOPHER LANDRUM lives in Austin, Texas. His work has previously appeared in The Berlin Review of Books, and Real Clear News of Chicago. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly Review is here. He writes about what he reads at Bookbread.com.
- Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2013, 2020), (ch. 11, n. 61), pp. 663–64.
- John Milton, Paradise Lost, (I, 773).
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001); Revised Fourth Edition by Hacker and Schulte, (2009) (I, 206 for first quotation); Wittgenstein, Philosophie der Psychologie – Ein Fragment (Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment) [formerly Philosophical Investigations Part II], (II, xi, 204 for third quotation), (II, xi, 188 for second quotation).
- Milton, Paradise Lost, (VII, 5); Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, (I, 504). See also Wittgenstein, Bermerkungen Über Die Farben (Remarks on Colour), ed. G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. Linda L. McAlister and Margarete Schättle, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), (III, 112, 115, 303).
- Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.421. This observation was not just some offhand remark made near the end of the Tractatus. The point was elaborated in the later Wittgenstein’s thoughts on ethics:
I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it. (“Ethics, Life and Faith,” Lecture on Ethics, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, trans. P. Winch, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966) quoted from The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994, 2004), p. 291)
- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011), p. 24; Wittgenstein, Philosophie der Psychologie – Ein Fragment (Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment), (II, x, 91).
- The parable of the Good Samaritan is found in Luke 10:25–37. As Illich interprets it:
The Samaritan understood that this guy was in a peculiar state of misery. I am carefully avoiding saying that he was in need of something. If I attribute needs to myself and to others, all I can give is need-satisfaction, and that really doesn’t have to be personal, that doesn’t have to come from me. That would probably come with more effectiveness, efficiency, and competence if we were to call in the right professional, or let the right agency do it.
All our obligations to do good to society seem to imply something reciprocal. I receive the benefits of society, and therefore ought to promote its interests; but when I withdraw myself altogether from society, can I be bound any longer? …. A man is engaged in a conspiracy for the public interest; is seized upon suspicion; is threatened with the rack; and knows from his own weakness that the secret will be extorted from him: could such a one consult the public interest better than by putting a quick period to a miserable life?
Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, (1972; University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 300; David Cayley, The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley, (Anansi: Toronto, 2005), p. 222. See also Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007), pp. 738–39.
- G. E. M. Anscombe, “The Reality of the Past,” Philosophical Analysis, ed. Max Black, (Ithaca, New York, 1950) in The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. II: Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), pp. 112–13.
- Popper, “Knowledge: Subjective versus Objective” (1967), Popper Selections, ed. David Miller, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1985), p. 73.