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Secrets of the Oracle

Secrets of the Oracle: A History of Wisdom from Zeno to Yeats

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 352
  • Book Info
    Secrets of the Oracle
    Book Description:

    What is wisdom? Where does it come from? Where can we find it? And what does it mean in our lives?Shaw explores these questions by turning to the works of wisdom writers, whose words retain their meaning and transformative power even centuries after they were written.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8530-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-12)

    Ostensibly a history,Secrets of the Oracleis also an elegy, a lament for lost wisdom, and a book on mystery attuned to words we overhear and to meanings that wisdom writers hold in reserve. Most votaries of wisdom are spies and secretaries, keepers of secrets. Their wisdom is to knowledge what the poetry of Hamlet and King Lear is to the prudential counsel of Polonius. When we eavesdrop on wisdom, its meaning is captured en passant, as a lucky event, or overheard in a reflection or aside, often when we least expect to discover it. The wisest answers are...


    • 1 Descent of the Owl: Philosophy among the Poets
      (pp. 15-38)

      According to Wallace Stevens, ‘man is the intelligence of his soil, / The sovereign ghost. As such, the Socrates / Of snails, musician of pears, principium / And lex.’ (‘The Comedian as the Letter C,’ ll. 1–4). But what is the point of being a legislator or a lawgiver, the roof and crown of things, if it forces one to be a ghost? Poets as dissimilar as the oracular Browning, the prophetic Hopkins, and the visionary T.S. Eliot try to avoid the pitfalls of solipsism by affirming the priority of God’s existence. They seek in this ground of being...

    • 2 Tennyson and Zeno: Three Infinities
      (pp. 39-61)

      The English poet most honoured and mocked in his lifetime for his vatic musings is Alfred Tennyson. In the tradition of wisdom writers from Virgil to the Zen Buddhists, Tennyson tries to master a plenitude of emptiness. Confronting the illimitable inane of Lucretius’s universe and the huge whispering gallery of silence created by a knowledge of astronomy and a study of the earth’s vanished species, Tennyson discovers that the way of wisdom requires large reserves of scepticism. But it also requires the imaginative play of a poet whose work is to expend energy for its own sake and find a...

    • 3 How Poets Die to Time: The Sublime Oracle
      (pp. 62-83)

      A culture and its oracles may die to time in three ways: by being destroyed by time; by being refined and enhanced by it; or by eluding and so escaping its ravages. If a culture is material and worships means instead of ends, its expense of spirit in a waste of shame is grotesque at best, since its quest for material well-being overshadows and obliterates any other goal. The shaping ends of a second phase of culture may be perfectly embodied in its science, politics, and art. Time may enhance or refine rather than waste such a culture, since its...

    • 4 Making Peace with Time: The Beautiful Oracle
      (pp. 84-96)

      ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ Keats says, in one of literature’s most famous aphorisms. Keats means, I think, that beauty is incarnated truth, which is beautiful only in a world where spirit is substantial. Despite his distaste for Hegel, the ghost of Hegel survives in George Santayana, who believes that everything in nature is lyrical and beautiful in its ideal essence, tragic and sublime in its fate, and comic or grotesque in its existence (Santayana, 1967, 142).

      The Shakespearean soliloquist–Hamlet in ‘To be or not to be’ or ‘How all occasions do inform against me’ – begins as an explorer....

    • 5 The Ruins of Time: The Grotesque Oracle
      (pp. 97-118)

      A grotesque oracle substitutes for a sublime intimation or a beautiful incarnation of the Word a distorting and distending echo of it. Like the dull ‘boum’ heard in Forster’s Marabar Cave, a grotesque oracle sets loose an alarming reverberation whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere. At the edge of Mrs Moore’s mind ‘religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from “Let there be Light” to “It is finished” only amounted to “boum”’ (Forster, 1924, 150). The echo in the cave undermines Mrs Moore’s hold on life because as the ultimate form...


    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 119-120)

      Like a line from Shakespeare or the Bible that stirs us deeply – ‘What a piece of work is man’ or ‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love’ – great wisdom writing launches an assault on our emotions that is immediate and commanding. However subtly a later analysis of the lines may modify the grand obviousness of the ideas, we can say of them what R.P. Blackmur says of ‘language as gesture.’ They create ‘meaning as conscience creates judgment, by feeling the pang, the inner bite, of things forced together’ (1954, 19). We respond...

    • 6 Wisdom and the Logos: John’s Gospel to Four Quartets
      (pp. 121-126)

      When the author of John’s Gospel places himself at the beginning of time, he writes as an oracle of the Word who creates the world. This Word not only dwells with God but is also said to be God. It is as if a theoretical physicist were to describe the universe just before the Big Bang.

      In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; and all things were made through him. (John 1:1–3)

      At the moment of creation, at the cliff-face of mystery,...

    • 7 Gnostic Wisdom: Parable and Koan
      (pp. 127-139)

      Despite the riddling, gnomic quality of John’s pronouncements on the Word, which sound more like an oracle by Plato than the judgment of a Hebrew prophet, ‘it has not pleased God,’ St Ambrose says, ‘to save his people through philosophy.’ This is lucky for the writers of the Gospels, who were not philosophers. The difference between the Christian and the classical virtues is the difference between the canticles of St Francis, which represent a ‘religion of the heart,’ and Euripides’ ‘religion of the head’: ‘O Zeus, whether thou be intelligence of mankind or compulsion of nature, to thee I prayed.’...

    • 8 Paradox and Oracle: Crucible versus Mirror
      (pp. 140-154)

      What distinguishes, not merely the oracle, but wisdom itself from truism is the paradoxical force of the expression. ‘The first shall be last’ is a more arresting claim than ‘the meek shall inherit the earth.’ And ‘he who would save his soul must lose it’ is a more memorable (because more paradoxical) assertion than the truism that loss is a condition of spiritual growth. Central to any discussion of oracles and paradox is the contrast between mirrors and crucibles, between paradoxes that merely reflect or invert the world, as in a glass, and paradoxes that break it down and transform...

    • 9 Copy-Speech and Counter-Love: Wordsworth and Frost
      (pp. 155-166)

      What poets seek in nature is neither copy-speech nor a tyrannical power that dominates them from outside but a form of ‘counter-love, original response’ (Frost, ‘The Most of It,’ 1. 8). William Wordsworth may want to prove that he is ‘lord and master over outward sense.’ But by turning nature and the language of the sense into a form of copy-speech, he finds in the Boy of Winander passage from book 5 ofThe Preludethat he is merely creating his own counter-tyranny. ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ is Wallace Stevens’s attempt to glimpse the ocean as ‘water...

    • 10 ‘A River Runs through It’ and Joyce’s ‘The Dead’
      (pp. 167-184)

      An oracle is the acoustical equivalent of an inscape. Just as Hopkins causes the veined variety of things to rhyme and chime in Christ, so an oracle uses the charms of consonance and the binding spell of assonance, alliteration, and other ‘under-ear activities’ to echo and reecho a voice first heard at Delphi, Sinai, or the Sermon Mount. When end words in a story or a poem become oracles of our end, they usually resonate with other prophetic cadences and tones. As an oracle of our last end, Joyce’s closing words in ‘The Dead’ have power to revive and expand...


    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 185-186)

      This third section of the monograph examines both the wisdom of Pytho, the serpent slain by Apollo and later used by the god as his oracle, and the wit of exuberant Irish bulls. Whether we hear the prophet-poet’s voice in the Gospel oracles or the Gettysburg address, in the oracles of ‘Abt Vogler’ and ‘Saul’ or in Blake’sJerusalem, how are we to distinguish a wise owl from a foolish one? And how can we tell the difference between the sophistries and jests of an Irish bull and the guile of a prophet who speaks with the forked tongue of...

    • 11 The Wise Owl: George Eliot’s Arrested Wit
      (pp. 187-205)

      Whereas an oracle of simple assertion or decree is a broadcasting megaphone that amplifies the voice of an ascendant sage and his adherents, an oracle that invites a listener’s participation and response looks several directions at once. It should be sharply pointed enough to skewer the attention of a wayward mind. But if such an oracle is to command wide assent, it must also appear to be judicious and wise. As Johnson both affirms and illustrates inThe Preface to Shakespeare, once ‘the pleasures of sudden wonder are ... exhausted,’ a wise oracle must appear to ‘repose’ with authority ‘on...

    • 12 The Serpent of Irony: Wisdom or Guile?
      (pp. 206-227)

      This chapter explores the wisdom and guile of Pytho, the slain serpent who also serves Apollo as his priestess. When the Pythia replies to a question without answering it, her words looks two ways at once. She may speak with a serpent’s forked tongue in order to deceive a suppliant. Or she may not know the answer to the question she is asked. In either case, out of Pythia’s incoherent moans Apollo’s priest polishes the oracles whose two-way meanings answer our desire. A classic example is the oracle’s reply to Croesus, king of Lydia, who wants to know if he...

    • 13 Groucho Marx to Bernard Shaw: The Irish Bull
      (pp. 228-245)

      When Groucho Marx quips that he would never join a club that would accept him as a member, his self–deprecating humour relaxes the strictures of an Irish bull. TheOEDdefines a bull as ‘a self-contradictory proposition; in modern use, an expression involving a ludicrous inconsistency unperceived by the speaker. The epithetIrishis a late addition.’ If Groucho’s desire to join a club depends on the club’s refusal to admit him, then his wish is self-defeating. But the charming absurdity of his quip is instructive. For it deftly deflates the self-conceit of snobs who join a club to...

    • 14 Oracles of Wit: Oscar Wilde and Northrop Frye
      (pp. 246-272)

      Stephen Greenblatt’s analysis of the decay of rituals during Shakespeare’s lifetime applies with equal force to the damage sustained by oracles, myths, and what Tennyson calls ‘the great vine of Fable’ (‘Timbuctoo,’ l. 218) in nineteenth-century Britain. When the traditional consolations of theology are no longer intact, Victorian culture must experiment with new Sermons on the Mount and new forms of prophecy. Unprecedented new energies are released when oracles decay and poets must find new ways of focusing their powers. The genius of seers like Carlyle, Nietzsche, Wilde, and F.H. Bradley is inseparable from the wit that allows them to...


    • [PART FOUR Introduction]
      (pp. 273-276)

      The fourth section of the book explores the difficult idea of an open oracle, a covenant or contract that unites the authority of a decree with the risk and freedom of a genuine experiment in living. Such an oracle is usually found in a culture that is the opposite of authoritarian. An ideology or creed is crustacean, not built to stand the strain of innovation or experiment. By contrast, an open culture is organic; like liberal education or science, it carries its skeleton inside a body that is flexible and growing.

      Oracles are created out of a tension between what...

    • 15 From Delphi to Gettysburg: Changing the Covenant
      (pp. 277-297)

      Thomas Jefferson is the rationalist of the Enlightenment, who seals his Republican covenant with the smile of reason. Abraham Lincoln comes from a darker time. He believes like Jefferson in meaningful history. But unlike earlier champions of America’s manifest destiny, who insist that only fools or traitors forget what it is, Lincoln maintains that, though there is a providence at work in history that makes it purposeful, only blind patriots or fools will presume to say what that purpose is. Lincoln never allows us to forget that ‘the Almighty has his own purposes.’

      The ambiguity and sublimity of most oracles...

    • 16 Coleridge and Huxley: Experiment or Decree?
      (pp. 298-314)

      As Bacon foresees when he distinguishes between magisterial and probative aphorisms, the new gods of Delphi are experiment and decree. Whatever its syntax, the deep grammar of a magisterial oracle is descriptive. It is either a decree that has the force of law (‘Let there be light, and there was light’) or an authoritative summary of what is declared to be the case, as with an axiom in logic or a law in physics. By contrast, the grammar of a probative oracle, which catches an explorer in the act of discovery, is what J.L. Austin calls ‘performative.’ Like Jesus’ prophecy,...

    • 17 Evolving Oracles: Newman, Browning, and Shakespeare
      (pp. 315-335)

      In a colloquial, discursive passage of ‘The Dry Salvages,’ T.S. Eliot tries to replace mere sequences from the past with patterns of a different order. Without diminishing the past, he wants to evolve some meaning from experiences that seemed devoid of meaning at the time they occurred. But Eliot fears his quest for meaning will be mistaken for a quest for mere development or progress. Such development, he cautions, is ‘a partial fallacy, / Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution, / Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past’ (II.39-41). The oracles he seeks never supersede...

    • 18 An Underground Oracle: ‘Look in Your Heart and Write’
      (pp. 336-360)

      Though Christianity demonizes oracles from the underworld, they are kept alive by the prestige of Virgil, who associates prophecy with Aeneas’s descent to hell in book 6 of theAeneid, where he meets the archetypal prophet-poet, the Cumaean Sibyl. The moment in which Apollo possesses the Sibyl, making her his own, is Virgil’s equivalent of Leda’s possession by the swan. Like Tithonus, the Sibyl is granted immortality but not perpetual youth. As Lawrence Lipking says, ‘she is filled by a genius both hysterical and fruitless’ (1981, 90). Any seer who, as the mere mouthpiece of a god, is the puppet...

  9. Works Cited
    (pp. 361-374)
  10. Index
    (pp. 375-388)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 389-389)