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A Human Journey Towards the Knowledge of God


Anticlaudianus, Book VI, nn. 1-203.

The Anticlaudianus is an epic tale and a great allegory. The emphasis is on knowledge: the mission of Phronesis (Prudence) is to “investigate the secrets of the Nos [Divine Wisdom]” (Book II, n. 371). The Liberal Arts and the five senses are treated. Phronesis investigates the phenomena of Air, Ether and the Firmament. Aided by Faith and her mirror, Phronesis finally reaches the reality that lies behind the mutable things of earth; she sees the permanent and unchanging, the celestial ideas, the cause of causes.

Allegorically Phronesis’ trip to heaven and back is a Christian version, lengthened and more detailed, of Plato’s account of the cave-dweller’s emergence into the light of day and into the world that lies behind the shadows. The five senses, the Liberal Arts, Reason, Philosophy, Theology and Faith, they all unite to lead the human being toward a knowledge of God. This knowledge makes the universe more intelligible and places perfection within man’s reach.


When the maiden, entering God's realm and the abodes of the magnificent, wished to enjoy a view and foretaste of the strange new things, the brightness dazzled her eyes and the impact of the strange objects benumbed her mind. Faced with them her vision failed and her mind within was darkened. Thus drowsiness overcame the alert mind of Phronesis [Prudence] and false sleep weighed it down: the trance bathing the mind in drowsiness forced it along the path to sleep. Now she would have fallen headlong and met disaster, had not her companion [Theology] come to her aid, grasped her with her hands, steadied her as she was tottering, with kindly arms around her strengthened the maiden's limbs, forestalled a fall so disastrous, addressed her in kindly tones and soothed away her numbness of mind. Yet full power of mind was not restored to her. When the queen could not by any means eradicate the harmful stupor and restore full powers of mind , she besought with prayers her own sister to come to Phronesis' aid, drive out the numbness completely, bring back her power of mind and force it to return. This sister [Faith], dwelling in the realms of the powers above, examines the depths of heaven and, to the exclusion of all else, clings to the innermost recesses of God. Reason establishes nothing for her; with Reason's role postponed, her own belief and faith suffice. For Reason does not come before Faith; rather Faith anticipates it and Reason finally obeys the dogmas of Faith and follows her as she teaches the Articles of Faith. Reason transfers these divine symbols to paper, imprinting on the mind what she etches with her pen.


[Faith] presents Phronesis with a mirror that is outstanding, symmetrical, of a reddish hue, reflective, polished, very broad of surface, equipped with images. In this mirror is reflected everything which the fiery region encompasses: in it shines clear everything which  the heavenly  universe holds, but the appearance of these things differs from the real objects. Here one sees reality, here a shadow; here being, here appearance; here light, there an image of light. This mirror holds Phronesis' attention and steadies her eyes lest a light too strong for them strike them, injure them and tire both mind and eyes. The mirror acts as an intermediary to prevent a flood of fiery light from beaming on her eyes and robbing them of sight. By use of this mirror her eyes recover, find a kindly brightness and enjoy the clear, gleaming light. As her eyes explore the mirror, Sophia sees there all that the divine world embraces. While she sees somethings new to her, looks in wonder at everything, finds joy in the complete whole, the strangeness of the objects produces new joys. Her mind as well as her eyes is delighted and rids itself of the mists of delusion as joy suffuses it. Every symptom of her affliction disappears. If her understanding of any aspects is less than complete, the lady standing at her side gives her fuller instruction, makes good the defects in her understanding, lays bare what is hidden and lays open what is closed. Here she saw the soldiery of the angelic multitude and of the council of heaven, the palm of victory as well as the sweet triumphs of the saints, the varying merits and the fruits of their labours. She stands in awe before the merits of the Virgin, adores the child she bore without having the flower of her virginity fade or wither from the burning heat of lust. She stands transfixed with admiration at the manner of conception and birth and the untouched flower of virginity: she cannot discover whence motherhood comes to one who has had no dealing with a man. She has recourse to the law of logic. [...] That line of reasoning falters: she finds herself face to face with a virgin-mother and sees that logic arguments are refuted. In deeper wonder she is further perplexed and, in greater difficulty, asks by what ordinance of heaven, by what blessed law the father is begotten by the daughter. God by earthly power, the permanent by the transitory, the cedar by the bloom, the sun by a star, the star by a spark and how the rock exudes liquid honey. She is astonished that God clothes himself in our shape and that the lord of flaming Olympus dwells in our huts, that the flower of the rose lies hidden beneath the sea-weed, that clay covers the gem, that the violet is hidden in the hemlock, that life dies and the sun darkens. She asks what are the adhesives, the bonds, the fastening here and what is the origin of their power to unite the human to God, to join the divine to the mortal. God to man and what arrangement leagues God with man.

While Phronesis is wondering at each of these things in turn and trying to investigate them as a whole by the laws of her reason, the lady standing at her side warns her against vainly  imagining that there were here human  laws, earthly covenants,  processes of nature, successions known to us - here where nature has no power but all decrees are silenced, laws feel fear, ordinances are benumbed,  the will of the supreme creator holds solitary sway and exempts  its decrees from our canons, ordinances  are in dread, rule yields to the creator, canons have no say and the master issues orders. Not Reason but Faith alone is taken into account  there; there the heavenly cause transcends other causes, the supreme law prevails over lesser laws and legal compacts. Let Faith, then, suffice; let Reason drop her investigation here; let  Faith  guide the reins  of Reason.

Prudence accepts this advice, submits  to the instruction follows Faith and hands over to the heavenly agent everything that she perceives to be beyond our law and to operate on a plan of exemption from our ordinances.  Under these instructions Prudence takes to the road with greater haste. The queen guides her steps and indicates the speed by her own pace.  Lest the hidden regions, the forking footpaths, the twisting cross-paths, the jarring road stay the maiden's steps. Faith appoints herself her companion - Faith who brought back to Phronesis her banished mind, who restored her sight, to whom the numbing disease yielded, from whom no road lies hidden, no place is concealed, to whom the crazy path offers no difficulty, whom the byway does not lead astray. Accompanied by these Phronesis presses on her way with more security, goes past the forking roads, the confusing places, the unknown footpaths. She would not be able to deal with the tortuous places but both sisters supply her with strength when she falters, steady her step, lighten the burden of travel, alleviate the pain, dispel the distaste.

Anticlaudianus, translated by James J. Sheridan (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1973), Book VI, pp. 156-157; 160-162.