Jacques Maritain Center : Great Inspirers / by J. A. Zahm, CSC


In his "Confessions" -- that most admirable soul-story of all time -- St. Augustine devotes his most beautiful pages to a eulogy of his saintly mother, St. Monica. He tells us how, by her example, she rescued him from the mazes of error and the allurements of sin; how, by her beneficent influence on him, she directed his mind from things transitory to things eternal. She was thus his mother in a twofold sense. For, in the exquisite phrase of her illustrious son, "me parturiit et carne, ut in hanc temporalem, et corde, ut in aeternam lucem nascerer" -- she who was twice my mother, brought me to birth in the flesh, that I might be born into this earthly light; in heart that I might be born into light eternal.

This double-natured motherhood of St. Monica, in which that of inspirer is no less exalted and fecund than that of maternity itself, has often been noted in other women, but rarely, if ever, has it been so resplendent and so blessed in their offspring as in the case of the devoted mother of St. Augustine.

Courtless books have been written about woman, but their authors seem usually to ignore one of her noblest functions -- that of inspirer. In reading of the women portrayed in these books one recalls an opposite statement in a little drama by the Italian playwright, Ferdinando Martini: "Ci sono della donne, ma la donna non c'è" -- Here are many women, but there is not a real woman among them all. The reason is not far to seek; for, in the majority of the books devoted to women, especially when written by men, most stress is laid on the part which women have played in the outward world, while little or nothing is said of the inward forces of which they are the center; of the silent influence which they are constantly exerting on father, husband, son or friend; of the power which they are secretly, but not the less effectively, wielding from the family hearth to the homes of science and the halls of legislation.

In a recent work of mine on "Woman in Science" there is a chapter entitled Women as Inspirers and Collaborators. This chapter shows how greatly some of the most eminent men of science have been beholden to their wives and sisters for a large measure of their success in their chosen life-work. As history is ordinarily written, however, all the great achievements in science are attributed solely to the sterner sex and no credit whatever is given to their fair companions who were frequently the inspirers of the noblest conceptions of men of science, and who, by their sympathy and encouragement and active cooperation, more frequently still enabled them to achieve their most brilliant successes, when they were on the verge of yielding to despair.

We have but to read of the assistance and encouragement given to Galileo by his loving daughter, Sister Celeste; to the great mathematician Viète by the accomplished Princess de Rohan; to Pasteur by his devoted wife; to Sir William Herschel by his self-sacrificing sister, Caroline, in order to realize the truth of Buckle's statement that women, in collaborating with men of science, "exercize the most momentous and salutary influence the method by which scientific discoveries are made." We are then quite ready to agree with John Stuart Mill when, speaking from experience, he asserts: "Hardly anything can be of greater value to a man of theory and speculation who employs himself, not in collecting materials of knowledge by observation, but in working them up by processes of thought into comprehensive truths of science and laws of conduct, than to carry on his speculations in the companionship and under the criticism of a really superior woman."

What is true of women as inspirers in science is truer still of them in the arts and in literature. The greatest flights of genius of such composers as Liszt, Wagner, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven -- not to mention others scarcely less renowned -- were inspired by woman's love and sympathy. In sculpture and painting we need recall only the instance of Michelangelo, who speaks of "the influence of Vittoria Colonna" as the tool by which his own genius had been formed and which, when removed to heaven, left him no earthly substitute.

It would require volumes to tell what women as inspirers have achieved in the domain of literature. The brilliant French writer, M. Clavière, avers that "there is hardly a philosopher or a poet of the sixteenth century whose pages are not illumined or gladdened by the smile of some high-born lady." He might, with equal truth, have made the same statement regarding woman's influence not only on philosophers and poets, but also on men of letters in general, in every century since Christianity converted her from the slave to the equal of man.

Wordsworth in "The Prelude" expresses the indebtedness which, in hours of trial and depression, countless poets and men of letters have felt, when he writes of his beloved sister, Dorothy, that she

Maintained for me a saving intercourse
  With my true self; for though bedimmed and changed
Much, as it seemed, I was no further changed
  Than as a clouded and a waning moon;
She whispered still that brightness would return.
  She in the midst of all preserved me still
A Poet, made me seek beneath that name,
  And that alone, my office upon earth.

Similar tributes to the benign influence of Leonora d'Este, Catherina de Athayde, and Meta Klopstock occur in the pages of Tasso, Camöes and Klopstock, each of whom could assert of his fair inspirer what Petrarch says of Laura:

Thus, if in me is nurst
  Any good fruit, from you the seed came first;
To you, if such appear, the praise is due.
  Barren myself till fertilized by you.

In the present volume I have confined myself to the consideration of the influence of "The Eternal Womanly" on only two men. The one is St. Jerome, the illustrious Father and Doctor of the Church; the other is Dante Alighieri, the pride of Italy and the glory of Christendom. I have selected these two men because they are the most illustrious representatives of two of the greatest turning points of history. Jerome is the chief representative of that period of the world which was intermediary between antiquity and the Middle Ages; between paganism and Christianity. More than any of his contemporaries, he gives us in his writings a faithful mirror of the profoundly perturbed fourth century. This is because he was truly pars magna -- the central and dominating figure -- of his time. For whether we consider him as "the Christian Cicero," the learned translator of the Hebrew Scriptures, the ardent theological polemic, the indefatigable defender of the faith, or the passionate propagator of monasticism in the West, he is one of the most remarkable men in the history of the Church, and one who has never ceased to exercise a peculiar fascination on the minds of all students of history, literature and dogma. In view of his vast erudition, the learned Benedictine, Jean Martianay, did not hesitate to apply to Jerome the words, "Uno ore plurimae consentiunt gentes, populi primarium fuisse virum" --He was unanimously acclaimed the first man of his age.

As St. Jerome was the connecting link between paganism and Christianity so was Dante the chief nexus between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For Dante was not only, in the words of Ruskin, "the great prophetic exponent of the heart of the Middle Ages," but he was also the one from whom modern European literature dates, as truly as Hellenic literature dates from Homer. And, although Jerome and Dante were separated from each other by nine centuries, their aims, ideals, and lives exhibited a striking similarity. They were both dowered by talents of the highest order. They were both lifelong students and did not hesitate, in their quest of knowledge, to undertake frequent and arduous journeys to strange and distant lands. Both of them were terrible and relentless adversaries when pitched against evildoers or disseminators of error. No two men ever wielded more caustic pens, or possessed greater powers of invective when assailing the vices and the vicious of their respective centuries. With the telling ridicule of Plautus and the mordant satire of Lucilius and Juvenal, they mercilessly attacked their opponents and condemned to eternal infamy -- often by a single stroke of the pen -- those whose hypocrisy and injustice had aroused their indignation. Many of these miscreants live in history solely because they have received unenviable immortality in the pages of Jerome and Dante Alighieri.

Inseparably associated with St. Jerome and Dante are their incomparable inspirers, Paula, Eustochium, and Beatrice Portmari. Belonging to the most illustrious families of Rome and Florence, their souls were, from their childhood, inflamed by the healthful glow of the Italian sun and by a love of purity and virtue that communicated itself to all with whom they came in contact. It was their communion with these pure and devoted women that unlocked the brains and hearts of Jerome and Dante and made them both immortal.

For Dante, Beatrice was

        The solitary star
Which rose and set not to the last,

and which, during all the trying vicissitudes of his eventful life, enabled him to ride "sublime upon the seraph wings of ecstasy."

For Jerome, Paula and Eustochium were not only inspirers but also collaborators. Among the women who, in the words of Petrarch, united purest heart with highest intellect --

In alto intelleto un puro corde,

and who in the history of literature have "shed the dew of inspiration" on men of transcendent genius and sublime achievement, they stand absolutely unique -- the glory of their sex and the admiration of the world. They prove the truth of the statement of the French writer who declared that "virtue alone is capable of making impressions that death does not efface." Through their holy affection for the saintly hermit of Bethlehem, through their zealous and enthusiastic cooperation with him in his monumental life-work, but above all, through the admirable sanctity of their lives, they, with Beatrice, will ever remain the highest types of those noble women, who, while helping others to achieve undying fame, will in story be forever associated with those to whom they were both lodestars and guardian angels. They were, indeed, to use the words of Plato, "gracious. to good men, the admiration of wise men.... They were the treasure of the fortunate, the guardians of the good, the transmuters of the bad. In fears and difficulties they were the best of guides, encouragers, friends, saviors.

In writing the following pages I have cherished the hope that they might prove an incentive to someone to undertake a comprehensive work on a number of the most noted of the fair inspirers of men of letters. The material for such a volume -- one which has long been wanting -- is as abundant as it is interesting and valuable.

If this little book shall, even remotely, be instrumental in supplying such a desideratum and shall beget in the reader some of my own admiration for the heroes and heroines of whom I have given but the briefest sketch, I shall have every reason to be both gratified and grateful.


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