I’m still reading George Sand’s Spiridion (see this post), and a while back it became clear to me that it was that rarity among novels, one centered on intellectual striving and drama (there’s no love interest, not even a female character so far). The focus is the struggle between blind faith (of the Catholic variety) and a confrontation with pagan philosophy, Reformed Christianity, and even atheism; it takes place in an Italian monastery, mainly in the 18th century, and Sand makes the agony of the struggle convincing even to someone as far removed from it as most of us are in the 21st century. The title character, the late-17th-century monk who founded the monastery, was baptized by Bossuet himself, but found himself assailed by doubts, and the main narrator, a century later, says “Quelle situation terrible était donc la mienne! Au dix-huitième siècle j’avais été élevé dans le catholicisme du moyen âge; à vingt-cinq ans j’étais presque aussi ignorant de l’antiquité qu’un moine mendiant du onzième siècle. C’est du sein de ces ténèbres que j’avais voulu tout à coup embrasser d’un coup d’œil et l’avenir et le passé.” [What a terrible situation I was in! In the eighteenth century I had been brought up in the Catholicism of the Middle Ages; at twenty-five I was almost as ignorant of antiquity as a mendicant monk of the eleventh century. It is from the midst of those shadows that I had wanted to take in at a single glance both the future and the past.]
This was on my mind when I glanced over to the sideboard to my left (piled high with books that don’t fit on the shelves and that I am seriously intending to read in the foreseeable future) and noticed a book some generous soul had sent me for my birthday last July (thank you, whoever you are!), one I had still not gotten around to: The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680-1715, by Paul Hazard. It occurred to me that it bore directly on the themes of the novel, and when I opened it and saw on the first page of the preface “One day, the French people, almost to a man, were thinking like Bossuet. The day after, they were thinking like Voltaire,” I knew I had to read it, which I am now doing. (I’m always reading at least three books at any given time.)
Early on in the book, Hazard mentions “the word Pyrrhonism, which had created such a commotion in Pascal’s bosom,” so of course I had to look up Pyrrhonism, and that Wikipedia article told me that “Pyrrhonian skeptics … inferred the need for total suspension of judgment (epoché) on things.” I clicked on the latter link and found that “Epoché (ἐποχή, epokhē “suspension”) is an ancient Greek term which, in its philosophical usage, describes the theoretical moment where all judgments about the existence of the external world, and consequently all action in the world, is suspended.” A nice word, I thought, but I wasn’t clear on how it came to mean that; a glance at my pocket Greek dictionary reminded me that ἐπέχω (epekhō), the verb it’s based on, is one of those confusingly multivalent words (reminiscent of Irish cur): the pocket dictionary says “to have or hold upon; to place upon; to hold out, present, offer; to have opposite oneself; to keep shut; to hold fast, retain, hinder; to delay, retard; to reach to, extend; to have in one’s power.” It’s that “delay, retard” sense that’s involved here–“hold up” would be a helpful way to render it. So much for epochē, but what about epoch, which was obviously another derivative of the same Greek word? The OED explains:
Etymology: < late Latin epocha, < Greek ἐποχή stoppage, station, position (of a planet), fixed point of time, < ἐπέχειν to arrest, stop, take up a position, < ἐπί + ἔχειν to hold. Compare French époque, Italian epoca.
I. A fixed point in the reckoning of time.
1. Chronol. The initial point assumed in a system of chronology; e.g. the date of the birth of Christ, of the Hegira, of the foundation of Rome, etc.; an era n. Also, in wider sense, any date from which succeeding years are numbered. Now rare.
2. a. The beginning of a ‘new era’ or distinctive period in the history of mankind, a country, an individual, a science, etc. Phr., to make an epoch.
b. The date of origin of a state of things, an institution, fashion, etc.; occasionally, an event marking such a date. Obs.
3. In wider sense: A fixed point of time.
a. The date, or assigned position in chronological sequence, of a historical event.
b. [= French époque.] A precise date; the exact time at which an event takes place or is appointed to take place. Formerly gen.; now only with reference to natural phenomena (cf. 4).
c. A point of time defined by the occurrence of particular events or the existence of a particular state of things; a ‘moment’ in the history of anything.
4. Astron. The point of time at which any phenomenon takes place; an arbitrarily fixed date (often the first day of a century or half-century) for which the elements necessary for computing the place of a heavenly body are tabulated. Also, the heliocentric longitude of a planet at such a date (more fully, the longitude of the epoch).
II. A period of time. (Cf. similar use of era, term).
5. a. In early use, a chronological period dated from an ‘epoch’ in sense 1. In later use, a period of history defined by the prevalence of some particular state of things, by a connected series of events, or by the influence of some eminent person or group of persons.
b. A period in an individual’s life, or in the history of any continuous process.
c. Geol. A period or division of the history of the formation of the earth’s crust.
A complicated word!