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Librarian lectures on monk

| Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dr. David Jenkins, Librarian for Classic, Hellenistic Studies and Linguistics at Princeton University, made the case for Byzantine Literature in his lecture in McKenna Hall Tuesday.

Jenkins’ lecture was given as part of a series on classical studies to honor the legacy of the late Sabine MacCormack, a Notre Dame historian and classicist. During his time as a librarian at Notre Dame, Jenkins said he collaborated with MacCormack to purchase books for the Byzantine collection.

Jenkins’ lecture was centered around the 11th century monk, philosopher and politician Michael Psellos.

“Of all the writers of his time, no one was more responsible for the judgment and appreciation of Byzantine literature than Michael Psellos,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said Psellos was born to a prominent family, likely around 1018, in Constantinople. He worked for a number of Byzantine emperors and was known for his oratory abilities.

“He excelled in orations and was reported to have recited the entire ‘Iliad’ while still in his youth,” he said.

Since much of the information about Psellos comes from his own autobiographies, Jenkins said Psellos likely exaggerated the influence he acquired through political patronage.

“As a philosopher, Psellos taught the emperors two things: Great deeds require great praises and great deeds require great philosophy,” Jenkins said. “In other words, Psellos would be the one to instruct the emperors on how to achieve great deeds through his philosophy.”

Jenkins concentrated on Psellos’ philosophical interests in saying Byzantine literature ought to be encountered on its own terms and as more than a list of facts. Jenkins said literature of the Byzantine Empire has often been cast aside for its perceived lack of originality and its dependence on more highly-esteemed classical sources.

“The literature these Byzantine writers produced has been regarded as unoriginal literature written in a dead language largely for sycophantic purposes,” he said. “But this assumes that the works they produced ought to be compared to their classical forefathers.”

Encountering Byzantine literature on its own terms involves a certain paradox, Jenkins said. Normally, researchers try not to project their biases onto the past and stay close to primary sources, but encountering history on its own terms makes it difficult for researchers to avoid bias.

Jenkins said Psellos operated in a similar frame of contradictions in the 11th century, focusing on the duality of Christ’s human and divine nature and devising a sophisticated treatment of the liar’s paradox.

“Literature that aspires to something deeper than a grocery list does not necessarily need philosophical arguments in its defense, but it cannot do without the experience of a contradictory spark that drives its creation,” he said.

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About Charlie Ducey

Charlie Ducey is a senior who studies English at Notre Dame. He is currently a big fan of alternative German rock music.

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