On Understanding

By Mary Elliot

Orazio Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1621-24, PD-1923

Judith takes her place among women who are remembered not just for their beauty, but for their ability to lead others in the way of understanding. This is important because beauty, as the “rising stairs” towards wisdom, may be our last hope out of the ever-pervasive technological and economical corner that we have trapped ourselves in—one that has put our communal, political, and environmental existence at risk.

The continuing of a world amidst the threat of a certain conquering attitude is of no news to Judith and her people, and it is central to what the story as a whole means in our time. But in order to understand what exactly she means to us, perhaps we ought to intertwine Judith’s story with that of another who holds similar qualities, albeit in a very different time and place.

Let us begin, then, with Diotima, the woman whom Socrates claims as his teacher in Plato’s Symposium. Socrates’ re-telling of Diotima’s story begins by noting that it was not just in the art of love and beauty that Diotima was well-versed; she was “a woman who was wise about many things besides this: once she even put off the plague for ten years by telling the Athenians what sacrifices to make.”1 Diotima’s piety, we soon find out, is rooted in the recognition that a true love of wisdom places itself in the “in-between,” in knowing that we do not yet know. It is in this in-between that Diotima teaches Socrates that judgment about the purposes of the gods only comes by such admission of uncertainty. “It is not the part of anyone to do this,” Socrates tells us in another dialogue, “but of one who is far advanced in wisdom.”2

For Diotima, the art of love, including such a love of the gods, “belongs to anyone who has given birth to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he.”3 In Diotima’s story, physical beauty is the beginning of the long road of virtue—a road that is named the love (eros) of wisdom for its primary recognition that we do not yet know. And so we find here the eternal things hidden in Judith’s story: a recognition of not knowing as the road to understanding, a desire for piety that is fulfilled by following that recognition in the footsteps of beauty, and the intertwining of such a life with how the story is remembered and retold.

We turn now to Judith. Her tale begins with a king who, having achieved success without the support he desired, seeks revenge. He sends his general, Holofernes, to travel the earth demolishing all that is sacred to other peoples, destroying the “local gods” and subsuming those of other languages and nationalities.

When the Israelites hear this, they prepare themselves in the hills, closing off the mountain passages, and call out to God. They drape the altar itself in sackcloth.

But, soon after, they move and plan too quickly, not giving understanding its due. Enter Judith, who begins by reprimanding the “teachers” of the town for their willingness to agree with the crowd in surrender to Holofernes if God remains silent within the days they have numbered.

“You do not understand anything,” Judith reminds the leaders and the people. “If you cannot sound the depths of the human heart or unravel the arguments of the human mind, how can you fathom the God who made all things, or sound his mind or unravel his purposes?”4

With this, Judith finds her life, once devoted to solitude and piety, pushed into the world where she must adorn herself in beauty. Unlike Diotima, who sees physical beauty as the beginning of the road of virtue, Judith’s story begins with virtue and descends to physical beauty. And while Judith is praised for her wisdom and eloquence,5 it is her beauty that conquers in the enemy’s camp as she sits with Holofernes, whom she praises for his cunning knowledge in battle. It is her beauty that ultimately disarms and takes his soul as captive.6 And, as Diotima might have foretold, in the face of such beauty even Holofernes, in all his methodical knowledge, is seized, if just for a moment, by the spirit of understanding.

But in Judith’s story, such understanding does not take place as an idealized love story; Holofernes’ admission of Judith’s beauty comes to him through Judith’s particularity, in her identity as part of a community. “Sublime beauty is of the granite hard,”7 and Judith exhibits this most clearly as she remains faithful to her tradition.8 She carries with her into Holofernes’ tent her own food and drink, that which serve as symbols of her loyalty to God, community and past. It is, terrifyingly, in that same symbol that she brings down Holofernes, as she kills him and carries his head back in her food sack to her people.9 In such a moment Judith stands as a frightening beauty—a horror religiosus—reminding us “that the world to which we belong,” in the words of philosopher J. Glenn Gray, “is not there for us, but we for it.” Judith’s beauty, quite unlike Diotima’s which leads to birth and immortality, leads to death and mortality. “If anything can,” Gray continues, “sublime beauty gives to man his measure.”10

And as Holofernes’ pride is broken in the hands of a woman, so certainty falls short to beauty and understanding.11 The contrived measures of man, put forth in Holofernes’ desire for universal conquest, cannot stand up to the measure given to him by the limits of time, place, and tradition. Unlike such certainty, understanding is reached in the face of the incomprehensible, the One who breathes into being “the past, and what is happening now, and what will follow.”12

What might Judith’s story mean, then, for us and our time? How might it help us understand the weight—and subsequent risks—we have placed upon humanity in our attempt to conquer it? Perhaps the best answer resides not here, but in a whole retelling of what has happened, one that embodies itself in the beauty of dramatic music that so well preserves the tradition of Judith’s own beauty. For before we can ever understand, our cultures and traditions stand-under us, serving as reminders—and invitations—that we do not yet know.13 And when such a story of the past comes to its end? May we, like Judith and those who listened to her, find a way to praise until the town echoes.14

Mary Elliot is a Lonergan Graduate Fellow at Boston College and a research assistant at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good.

1  Plato, Symposium, trans. Nehamas and Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), 201D.
2  Plato, “Euthyphro,” in Five Dialogues, 2nd ed., trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), 4B.
3  Plato, Symposium, 212A–B.
4  Judith 8:13–14 (New Jerusalem Bible).
5  Among her own people, Uzziah and others praised her understanding: “Not that today is the first time your wisdom has been displayed” (8:29). And across the battle lines, Holofernes and all his adjudicates, too, praised her: “There is no woman like her from one end of the earth to the other, so lovely of face and so wise of speech!” (11:21).
6  “The heart of Holofernes was ravished at the sight; his very soul was stirred” (12:16). See also 16:2, 9.
7  Gray, J. G. “The Claims of Beauty,” The Virginia Quarterly Review 49, no. 3 (1973): 357–70, at 365.
8  Later Judith praises God as the one “who breaks battle-lines” through the concrete, camping in the middle of his people (16:2).
9  12:2–3, 13:9–10.
10  Gray, J. Glenn. “The Claims of Beauty,” 363, 365.
11  9:10.
12  9:5.
13  It is, after all, “not really we ourselves who understand: it is always a past that allows us to say, ‘I have understood.’” Gadamer, Hans-Georg. “On the Problem of Self-Understanding,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 58.
14  14:9.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 1 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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