Life lessons from a 12th Century French dude

When I went on the Wikipedia random page generator about 30 minutes ago — aside from a brief foray into the time sucker that is Twitter — I wasn’t quite expecting to be faced with a profile on 12th century French monk and philosopher, Godfrey of Saint Victor.

I don’t know quite what it was I expected. Perhaps (naively) some page on an inanimate object or theme I could dwell on for the next half an hour without too much trouble — rockets, or fireworks, maybe. I’m not naturally drawn to pyrotechnics, but this whole skedaddle of random page generators and space ships was included in a ‘creative rethinking’ talk at work the other day. So, my mind naturally wondered to grand explosions and flight launches, and I was ready to pin all of my pondering on human consciousness to bits of metal that — ridiculously — fly up into the sky.

This exercise is very much a juicily narcissistic act of observing myself at work. Unfortunately as a writer I’m realising that my best material is usually about myself. I’m also realising, and begrudgingly accepting, that I’m not very good at engaging with the ‘normal’ world, and well, topics, normally. Maybe that makes me not very good at my job — or any job. Or maybe it’s just the human condition to feel ill at ease with the plane on which we must exist.

That moment when you think you’ve eaten meat as a vegetarian

Looking at poor Godfrey I’m confronted with the contradictory nature of this exercise: an opportunity to dwell on a topic removed from the deeply personal within my life. And yet here we are. I’ve still managed to relate it back to my experience, which is to be expected, really. What else are we meant to write about? Don’t blame me, blame Sally Rooney’s latest novel for providing the perfect blueprint for self-conscious minutiae. Unlike Sally I haven’t got dropping-critical-theory-into-passages-about-seemingly-nothing perfected just yet, but there is always time. I wait patiently and fervently.

Godfrey, going by the slightly alarmed self-portrait featured on his page, isn’t the happiest of men. Piety does not exactly equal pleasure. That being said, he has a haircut to rival 2000s Justin Timberlake (#FreeBritney), and the relatively limited colour palette and negative space does anachronistically give the impression of frosted tips, a fashion trend I would greatly prefer stays in the past.

As I said, Godfrey was a philosopher. Clearly the fates are at work today, because the notion of the university and how we conceptualise organised learning without the pursuit and exchange of labour has been on my mind a lot recently. What a pleasure learning without the constraints of employability is, and what a pity we never fully realise it until we are in the world of work. I’m writing this aware that I have a job that is significantly more enjoyable and sustainable than the majority of people on this Earth.

But, my, learning is beautiful. Monk Godfrey didn’t know how lucky he was to be repping it up at the University of Paris and various priories his whole life. Late-stage capitalism makes that pursuit increasingly unfeasible for the majority of people. That being said, Godfrey clearly knew the importance of theorising because he uses his pained self-portrait as an opportunity to position himself as the author of what Wikipedia tells me is an important piece of philosophy: Microcosmus.

Microcosmus argues that man is a microcosm in which all the material and spiritual elements of reality are contained. Sensuality, imagination, reason and intelligence are compared to earth, water, air and fire. According to Godfrey, these core elements are all found in man, but weakened by our sins. And so the theory goes that man can find fulfilment in these areas through philosophy (and the discipline of our best behaviour), but to access ‘the graces’ of enlightenment, affectivity (how influenced we are by emotions), and perseverance, we need God’s divine intervention, or rather, love.

Godfrey’s focus on corporeality is very much of its time, before the identity of the ‘Renaissance man’ moved theory towards a more abstract individual relationship with God. On a side note, it leads me to wonder if our obsession with liberalism and neoliberalism in England is intensified by the dominance of Protestant values within our culture since the Reformation? I mean, because of Protestantism, even your relationship with God, the sanctity of your soul itself, becomes individualised. Less Catholic guilt, but more endless theological questioning and responsibility.

Anyway, isn’t it quite beautiful that Godfrey was able to spend his days reflecting on love — in this case, a deity’s — and our experience of the world in relation to something bigger. I think having the steadfastness and reassurance to believe in a god must be really special, especially when it is a force, power, spirit (call it what you want) that intercedes with compassion.

But I am not left with a resounding essay on religion from Microcosmus. Instead I find myself fascinated by the philosopher using God’s power as a vehicle to explore what makes us human. Like all of us, Godfrey is driven by a collective curiosity and desire to interrogate. Microcosmus is not a damnation of human sin far removed from our contemporary moment. It is a deep-rooted (12th century) questioning of how we come to experience and explore this world, and how with faith — whatever that may be — we can come to meet life on a deeper, more connected, and grounded level.

So it’s all about the big ideas, baby. We are rightfully so consumed by the intensity of our feelings that if we could, we would devote our lives to burrowing that bit deeper. Giving the rabbit holes in our minds the space and respect to breathe draws out enigmatic and truly brilliant opportunities for self-discovery. I’ll wholeheartedly subscribe to that as a kind of enlightenment and antidote to our present condition. More space to question what makes us tick, please. Liveable funding to make that possible. Less frosted tips, categorically.

Eden is a writer and cultural commentator. She runs MEDUSA, a feminist arts and culture project. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Writer and thinker exploring homecoming, culture and connection. Co-founder of feminist arts organisation, MEDUSA. Newsletter called 'Yearning' on Substack.

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Eden Szymura

Writer and thinker exploring homecoming, culture and connection. Co-founder of feminist arts organisation, MEDUSA. Newsletter called 'Yearning' on Substack.