The Romance of Wisdom

That wisdom could be “romantic” would strike many as odd. This is because, generally speaking, neither romance nor wisdom is properly considered. The former is mistaken for lust, while the latter is lost in a sea of empty esotericism, or consigned to simple disregard. Since the theme of our upcoming conference is “The Romance of Wisdom,” I feel bound to explain how these two nouns, seemingly so distant, can possibly be conjoined.

Wisdom will be considered in our next Ad Rem. For now, I will say that wisdom is at least four things for us: a virtue of the speculative intellect, a gift of the Holy Ghost, the study and discipline of sacred doctrine (theology), and, finally, wisdom is a Person. Again, I will come back to these next time; so now I proceed to the other half of our odd couple.

“Romance” is commonly associated with erotic love and its pursuit. As a literary genre, it has been reduced to the smutty novel mass-consumed in cheap pulp editions by idle housewives. But that is not what a romance is at all. Coming from the Latin word for “the Romans,” romance first of all is a group of languages whose common origin is a low Latin that was diversely Germanized, Celtified, Vandalized, Gothified, and otherwise Barbarized by the foreigners who divided the carcass of the Western Roman Empire among themselves. From low Latin emerged the antecedents of today’s “Romance Languages”: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, etc. These languages developed their own songs, epic ballads, and verse that related important events of history and passed on the culture of the emerging European nations. By the High Middle Ages, these forms had evolved into a rich and diverse literature that became more cultivated as European civilization moved from the chaotic feudalism of the “Dark Ages” to the more orderly era of organized kingdoms. An important part of the developed literature of the day was the verse or prose narrative called “the romance.” 1

Unlike their precursors, the early heroic songs called chansons de geste, romances were not just warrior songs, though, as in the case of The Song of Roland, warcraft often figures prominently in the genre. It is primarily to chivalry that we owe the romance, for these works extolled the virtues of the knight. They often mixed history with folklore and fantasy (magic swords, elves, etc.), giving us tales of struggle and quest where the successes and failures of the characters were meant to edify and instruct, as well as to entertain their readership. And who constituted that readership? The knightly class themselves, for this was an aristocratic literature. True, “courtly love,” was integral to many of these romances — especially the later French ones — but this element is only a part of the larger whole.

Courtly love was an important development in Western man’s conception of the relation between the sexes. It gave us the traditions of “courtesy” that men are still, to some extent, expected to show to ladies. Even the word “courtesy” comes from the “court” of love. Courtly love itself was a byproduct of chivalry, being an integral part of the social life of the aristocrat. No doubt, it is this element, found mainly in French works like The Romance of the Rose, that makes moderns associate the word “romance” with erotic love. But even though courtly love had its own ironic decadence, as a perusal of the lyrics of troubadour songs will prove, it did idealize discipline, manners, and self-control. Besides, if we understand nothing of courtly love, St. Francis of Assisi’s burning devotion to “Lady Poverty” will be lost on us, as will St. Ignatius of Loyola’s all-night vigil before the statue of Our Lady of Montserrat, to whom he gave his sword and armor as a votive offering. (To learn more about “courtly love,”consult Gary Potter’s article, Chivalry and Our Lady, and scroll down to the heading, “Eleanor’s ‘Courtly Love’.”)

Romances, then, were tales of combat, quest, adventure, virtue, manliness, bravery, and yes, of love, that exemplified the Code of Chivalry. As they thrilled readers, they also encouraged imitation and therefore upheld the high ideals of the times. It is this ennobling allure, this attraction combined with edification that allows us to speak of “The Romance of Wisdom.”

The idealizing of a life of virtue — the romanticizing of moral perfection — is of great value for the would-be saint. Boys, for instance, need to be challenged with lofty goals, rights of passage, standards applied to them by their masters into whose company they hope to graduate. If it may be said, they need to be passionate about something, as in directing to a high ideal all the energy of their spiritual faculties, the affections of their souls, and even the muscles, bones, and sinews of their bodies. Failing that, they will languish in spiritual mediocrity or moral torpor. Give a boy a cause, impress upon his mind its ideals, direct him to fight for the good, and a man will be formed.

What better cause to give a young man than that of God, of His Mother, and of His Church? No better liege-Lord can be found, no better “Lady” whose honor to uphold, and no better city to defend than these.

Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, the eternal and incarnate Wisdom, is the terminus of all the noble aspirations that constitute true romance.

  1. Though they began in the romance languages, romances eventually were written in German and English, too.