Streams of Folly and Misfortune

Hello faithful follows (and those foolish enough to read this blog by accident).  Today finds me in a rather jolly mood, having discovered an entire chapter (namely chapter 16) in Book three of John of Salisbury’s Polycraticus, in which the intellectual folly of Epicureanism is compared to an inverse Garden with four bad rivers flowing from it. As far as allegorical complexity goes, this one is great, and worth sharing. It compares well to some other references i’ve gathered over the last few months. So without further ado, incipit discussion:

The inverse fountainhead allegory begins in a chapter entitled The Four Rivers Which Spring for Epicureans from the Source of Lust and Form a Flood by Which the World Is Nearly Submerged:

“…it has been stated before that wisdom is the luxuriant garden of pleasure from which the four rivers of virtue spring. In opposition, the garden of the Epicureans has as its source lust, which also produces rivers which irrigate the whole of this vale of tears, and misery, into which the exile who chose what he pleased rather than what was lawful has been cast.”

For those not in the know, Epicureanism is a moral philosophy that advocates pleasure (defined as an absence of pain, tranquility and freedom from fear) as the highest principle of life. Naturally this wouldn’t sit well with John, because it does not require appreciation of a God. John wrote that the purpose of the chapter was “showing that a tranquil state in public or private life can derive only from the source of wisdom, whatever Epicurus’ views may be”. Essentially, one must appreciate God, the source of wisdom, to attain the highest principle of life (and harmony in life). He goes on the explain the four-fold evils of the Epicurean ‘fountain of folly’, located in the garden of (presumably worldly) lust. This is an interesting use of symbolism, because the classical school of Epicurius was known as ‘the garden’, situated within the property of the philosopher’s home.

“One stream is, as it were, the love of possession, by which wealth is sought for sufficiency and in which avarice labors to possess or to know more than is lawful; a second spreads the enticements of self-indulgence and flows down into a variety of delights as it strives to attain the joys of tranquillity and pleasure; the third gathers strength with which to protect natural liberty and to ward off the injury of any discomfort whatsoever, and after it has acquired abounding strength it bursts forth into the odious stream of tyranny; the fourth, as a result of its striving for celebrity and respect, in the struggle for eminence becomes swollen with trickery. These are the four rivers which pour out upon and surround the whole world and gush forth from the spring of ill will which has its abode down below and derives its origin from the slime of vanity.”

Ooooh, feel the vitriol flow! That’s some nice rhetoric right there (I always appreciate a good invective). I will now compare this with a passage from the Romance of the Rose that echoes the same principle. When describing the abode of Fortune to the Lover, the allegorical figure of Reason (in the form of a beautiful but very mouthy woman) speaks of an island with two streams, one pure and intoxicating, and one foul and polluted. This makes sense when you read the whole description, because Fortune lives on an island that is half good (representing good luck) and half bad (representing bad luck). Think of two-face from Batman, but a whole island and a house (one side all shiny and new, the other half decrepit and falling apart).  Unfortunately Fortune herself isn’t a 50/50 split (that doesn’t make sense, how can you have both good fortune and bad fortune at the same time?), but she goes between being richly dressed and beautiful to wretched, filthy and dressed in rags depending what side of her island she is on.

“Its waters are sulphurous, dark and evil-tasting like a smoky fireplace, covered with stinking scum. It does not flow sweetly along but falls so hideously that as it passes it shakes the air more than any fearful thunder. I tell you truly that Zephyrus never blows over this river nor ruffles its waters, which are very ugly and deep, but the sorrowful North Wind has engaged it in battle and so torments the river that it is compelled to stir up its waves, and its depths and plains must ride up like mountains and do battle with each other.” (lines 5984-5993)

The river represents bad fortune and all of its curses, an inevitability once the fickle wheel of fortune (rota fortunae) unceremoniously dumps the lucky into the depths of hardship. Blown by the North Wind (symbol of the cold and the bleak), the filthy waves of despair and bad fortune seek to drown those who stand at the river bank, “sighing and weeping and with no end or limit to their lamentations”. Life is no longer propelled forward by the fickle Zephyrus (the West Wind, symbol of worldiness), and is instead a terrifying battle with the elements.The river of bad fortune then dumps its filthy load into the waters of good fortune, poisoning the good with the bad:

“This river swirls about, winding its way through many narrow gorges until it empties itself, with all its agonizing poison, into the pleasant river (good fortune), changing its nature with its stench and filth, infecting it with its evil and unlucky pestilence, and so clouding and poisoning it as to make it bitter and murky”. (lines 6035-6047)

The message in both passages is similar: bad ideas and polluted waters are symbolically linked, due (in my opinion) to the wider link between water in general and knowledge in general. Thus, the positive and ‘correct’ epistemic principles become pure and nutritious water, and the ‘wrong’ or ‘sinful’ epistemic principles become polluted. In the future, I hope to further elucidate the deeper symbolism of purity and impurity with regards to water, but for now this is just a brainstorm. This material is eventually going to go, together with the material of this post, into a planned chapter on purity and contamination in water symbolism (with reference to thought, morality,  emotion etc).

I hope that you enjoyed the post, and that you are having fun doing whatever it is that you do.



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