Albert Ascoli

title.none: Stone, Ethics of Nature in the Middle Ages (Ascoli)

identifier.other: baj9928.9906.011 99.06.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albert Ascoli, University of California,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Stone, Gregory. The Ethics of Nature in the Middle Ages: On Boccaccio's Poetaphysics. The New Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. x, 250. $45.00. ISBN: 0-312-21353-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.06.11

Stone, Gregory. The Ethics of Nature in the Middle Ages: On Boccaccio's Poetaphysics. The New Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. x, 250. $45.00. ISBN: 0-312-21353-0.

Reviewed by:

Albert Ascoli
University of California

It is common these days to bury the name of the principal subject of a critical work in the subtitle, leaving the impression of broad concerns (the "ethics of nature") when in fact something fairly restricted is at issue (another single author study). This is hardly the case with Gregory Stone's wide-ranging, vastly ambitious, and, to me, often quite frustrating new study of proto-Heideggerian thought in the later Middle Ages.

Beginning from the longstanding question of Boccaccio's "naturalism" and/or "realism" and its relevance for understanding the author's place either at the end of a pre-modern age or the beginning of modernity, Stone tackles an ever-widening series of issues. Against what he sees, without nuance, as the pervasive modern tendency to believe that medieval definitions of both human nature and the natural world were fixed and "essentializing," Stone argues that "Nature," as it was conceived in the Middle Ages, was instead open and fluid, susceptible to being "poetically" constructed and reconstructed in any number of ways (chapter 1). For Stone, following Heidegger, "poetry" in a broad sense is the privileged metaphor for an imaginative process by which Boccaccio, standing in for the Middle Ages more generally, could be said to be "homoficians," a constructor of the human and the natural. For this reason, he exempts both author and period from the Foucauldian critique of any fixed, perennial, "naturalized," concept of the human, while consistently failing to address how Foucault's basic questions concerning the implication of cultural artifacts in "technologies of domination" might apply to them. Stone makes his case with reference to an impressively wide range of ancient and medieval texts and authors, from Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero, to Abelard, Eckhart, Eriugena, Dante, Llull, and Pico della Mirandola, and deploys theoretical categories deriving from Derrida, Lacan, Foucault and, above all, Heidegger.

In other words, using Boccaccio as a stalking-horse, Stone seeks to show that "pre-modern" and "post-modern" thought are substantively identical, particularly in their shared understanding of nature and "the real" as humanly and linguistically constructed. This book is thus a notable example of the ongoing attempt by scholars of earlier periods to assert the relevance of their object of study at a time when it is increasingly being questioned, and when the warhorses of the European canon are being written off as the progenitors of hegemonic, phallogocentric, Western culture. At the same time, Stone also wants to heal what he sees as the essential split at the heart of modernity, a version of what T.S. Eliot -- oh so long ago -- called the "dissociation of sensibility." For Stone this split appears in the disciplinary division between the humanities, which define their business as the study of human subjectivity, i.e., of culture, and the sciences, which take the "objective" world of nature as their concern. He undertakes to remedy it by conflating the two modes of thought into a comprehensive "poetaphysics," common, again, to Boccaccio and to Heidegger.

Now, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for Stone's project in broadest outline. There is no doubt that the earlier periods are often overlooked, traduced, or scapegoated by scholars of modernity and post-modernity (not to mention the internecine battles between "medieval" scholars and their "Renaissance counterparts, in which, in fact, Stone himself has a part, on the former side). Nor is there any question that the complexities and subtleties of a Boccaccio -- or a Dante or a Llull -- deserve continued attention and investigation. And yet in reading this book it is hard to avoid the feeling that the very breadth and ambition of Stone's project has led him into forced interpretations of the medieval texts he reads, reductive homologies between medieval and (post)modern thought (which becomes, in the end, Heideggerian thought, period), and, in fact, into the enactment of precisely the type of critical behavior which he sets out to correct.

Let me begin with Stone's foundational, though only fragmentarily supported, claim that the Middle Ages, as a whole, embraced the idea that the natural world, and human nature in particular, far from being fixed essences, were in fact an open and infinitely flexible domain which could be shaped by human creativity in different ways at different moments in history. This assertion then allows him to go on to find in Boccaccio a proto-Heideggerian affirmation of the multiple, historical paths of human "becoming."

It will, however, not escape the attention of most students of the Middle Ages that Stone consistently glosses over a, in fact the, defining feature of "Nature" in the medieval period, namely that it is the creation of an omniscient and omnipotent deity, and remains under divine supervision in the pursuit of divinely ordained ends. In other words, I would point out, medieval writers could afford to emphasize the "de-essentialized" essence of humanity and nature because both were products of Being itself, God, and thus were "grounded" in a way that Heideggerian existentialism would seem not to permit, and that might partially justify some of the accounts of an authoritarian and hierarchical Middle Ages that Stone seeks to refute.

Symptomatic of the distortions necessary to avoid confronting this point are Stone's insistence on the "anti-essentialism" and indeed "culturalism" of St. Augustine (pp. 24-33). While not denying this aspect of Augustine's thought, it is crucial to note that in the larger context of his theology, it serves to illustrate the ephemerality and inconsequentiality of human nature, except insofar as it fulfills its truest essence by acknowledging the supremacy of the Creator. Stone even cites Augustine's famous dictum concerning the "openness" of the Bible to interpretation according to the Rule of Charity in support of his notion of a pluralist, anti-essentialist Middle Ages (pp. 173-4). In so doing he ignores the fact that, for Augustine, the specifics of local interpretations can be plural, and "different," because in the end the meaning of the Bible, as of humanity and the natural world, is always exactly the same: God, and the Love which links Him to his creatures. It is equally significant that the concept of "sin" never once enters into Stone's account of "the natural" in medieval thought.

Stone might make a more convincing argument if he limited his focus to an unresolved conflict within medieval thought generally, or to one strain within late-medieval thought in particular, or to Boccaccio himself, for whom "theology" almost always seems to be of secondary importance, and, when it is explicitly invoked, to be subordinated to nature and to poetry (as Stone himself recognizes, if belatedly [see pp. 157-71]). But this would force him both to restrict his comprehensive scope, and to link Boccaccio more closely to the Renaissance and to an encroaching "modernity" whose evils Stone wants to show that he avoids and indeed counters.

It is, in any case, not only the evidence of medieval thought which tends to undercut Stone's over-broad claims for medieval concepts of "nature" and of "humanity" as indeterminate, open to historical evolution and variation, but also the governing logic of his own arguments. When he repeatedly asserts a homology and finally an identity between Boccaccio's "poetaphysics" and Heideggerian thought (pp. 17, 20, 30, 56, 65-66, 89, 142, 155, et passim), he silently predicates that assertion on the timeless and ubiquitous nature of human experience. Much like Augustine's, in fact, all of Stone's gestures in the direction of diversity and openness end up affirming a single, for him uncontestable, and for me "essentialist," point about what it means to be human, which he helpfully, if "romantically," summarizes at one point: "truth is poetry, poetry truth" (p.148), always and everywhere. He would, presumably, respond, that "poetry" is a sufficiently broad category to sustain such generalities. And I would reply that so is Augustine's deity. And I would note, further, a point which would seem to be basic to his discussion but which does not appear anywhere in the book, namely that Heidegger's notion of Being expressed in the "becoming" of "beings" is itself an historically determined evolution of Judeo-Christian concepts of the transcendent Being (God) which creates beings (nature and humanity), and that it is thus unsurprising that there are numerous points of contact between medieval and existentialist thought, if not, I would stress, identity.

Let me now turn to the other major ambition of Stone's project, the effacement of the apparently radical distinction between modern modes of knowledge, humanistic and scientific, which for him goes along with the culture/nature opposition. It is most striking that Stone characterizes the split from the outset in a way typical only of the "humanistic" perspective in its most generalized and even caricatured form, which he then treats as if it were the perspective of all "modern intellectuals," of modern thought in general. At times this line of argument reaches positively cartoonish depths, as when Stone claims that "we" assume that "members of a species all pursue a single way, the natural way" because our viewing of television "nature programs" convince "us" that "animal species . . . have a more or less unchanging essential nature" (p. 97).

It would, perhaps needless to say, be very hard to find a contemporary biologist who would characterize the type of study she or he does as the objective description of essential and unchanging natures. And, frankly, it is hard to imagine that even most the most literary-minded of modern, or post-modern, intellectuals has not heard of evolution, ecology, and genetics, all of which present "nature" in dynamic, fluid, constantly changing terms, as against the creationist thesis articulated in the Bible and sustained throughout the Middle Ages. Precisely on topic for Stone's stated interests, these fields of study, especially "ecology," tend to complicate, if not abolish, any rigorous distinction between "natural" and "cultural" phenomena. The point, in the end, is that if Stone's analogy between Boccaccio and Heidegger holds, it is more likely to prove that so-called post-modern thought has not advanced over the Middle Ages, and has certainly not taken advantage of the genuinely new conceptual possibilities that, say, astrophysics or physical anthropology or ecology offer for understanding the intersections between human thought and language, and "the real world." In other words, far from a radically syncretic proposal to bring poetry back into the center of contemporary culture, Stone's finally appears as a rear-guard action for the most retrograde, vainly hegemonizing, version of humanistic study, one which fails to bring Boccaccio and his fellows into productive contact with the late twentieth century thought they did so much to bring into being, preferring instead to reduce all other modes of understanding under their own master trope, poetry.

Curiously, given my overall reaction to the book, there are a number of ways in which I find myself in sympathy with it. If Stone offers too many obviously tendentious interpretations of Boccaccio, he also provides a number of suggestive and sometimes persuasive readings of passages from the Boccaccian oeuvre (for instance, the beautifully crafted interpretation of Decameron III.iii [pp.136-140]), and from other early texts as well (I think in particular of some parts of the section on Cicero's Pro Archia [123-134]). As suggested earlier, I also applaud the attempt to give Boccaccio a prominent and pivotal role in the history of literary and intellectual culture, as well as to insist on reading the Middle Ages, against the reductivist grain, as a period of multiple and crucial perspectives.

Stone most strongly solicits my solidarity in his final chapter, "Two Ways Not to Read (And Going Both Ways)," where he delineates an opposition between "philology," defined as the attempt to reproduce the original historically determined significance of a text, and "theory," said to be the imposition of the modern reader's interests and desires upon the text. He criticizes both modes of reading and argues, not for discarding them, but rather for an open dialectic between the two. Here, I must say, we are in perfect agreement, theoretically, though we do not agree about whether this model describes Stone's book as a whole. There, it seems to me, "theory" wins out virtually every time. Witness, for example, the attempt to make the "arche" (tombs) of Decameron VI.9 bring with them the etymological resonance of greek "Arche" (origin), which makes the unwarranted and undefended assumption that Boccaccio's well-known desire to know Greek was matched by an actual command of it. Or the tantalizing discovery of "Sinai" buried in "Asinaio" in the reading of Decameron IV. prologue. In both cases, in fact, I would not exclude the possibility of making the linguistic/thematic link that Stone asserts -- but simply observe that he does not do the philological work to show that it can or should be made.

In the end, what makes this book unsatisfying, for all of its energy and even brilliance, is not that it eschews "responsible" philological reading for "irresponsible" theory, but rather that it is too ready to impose one mode of thought (Heidegger's) upon another (Boccaccio's). A truer "Marriage of Mercury and Philology" would have given far more scope to readings in and of Boccaccio's texts, and would have made more effort to deliver his thought, his "theory," in all its complexity and contradiction, showing how it belongs to both the Middle Ages and to modernity (if we can speak of either of these eras as distinct entities any more), how it both anticipates and resists our own modes of thought (including Heidegger's, but also Foucault's political project, and perhaps even some that fall outside of the traditional humanistic pale). Still, while Stone's answers seem to me consistently objectionable, his questions and concerns are often cogent and stimulating. In the end, and despite all possible objections, his passionate, zealot's, intelligence makes this a book to grapple with, if not to embrace.