Category Archives: Religious Knowledge Lectures

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 19


Le Hire, Job Restored, 1648

Lecture 19. February 24, 1948


There are concentric spheres in the Book of Job. The inner sphere is a morality play with virtue and vice in argument with friends. From the deadlock of the argument to the end of Elihu’s speech is another sphere. The still-wider concentric sphere is that of a divine comedy—God watching Job and then restores him.  There are ironic overtones to the “tragic” story.

The same concentric pattern is in the life of Jesus.  The active Jesus, the teacher and healer, is the kernel of the story.  His tragedy is another sphere.  Then comes the divine comedy of redemption.  King Lear is a morality play at heart with the good people against the bad.  Outside that is tragedy which is not moral because Cordelia dies.  Around that is the adumbration of the comedy, of a man who attempted to find divinity in kingship but finds it only in suffering humanity.

In the last chapter, verse 8, Job becomes the redeemer of his friends.  “And my servant Job will pray for you.”  But Job has suffered too much for the restoration of his flocks and children to be the answer to his problem.   Job’s is a personal search for wisdom.

What the restoration of his children represent are the symbols of that new wisdom.

In the Old Testament, the histories focus on a king.  In the prophecies, they focus on the watcher as opposed to the doer of the New Testament.  Job is the third division of the Old Testament, the Wisdom books, like Solomon, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  What takes place is a personal form of wisdom.

Comedy will not come with restoration.  Too much has happened.  God is too responsible.  Job is not hankering after his goods and children but the reality of which they are symbols; this he identifies with wisdom.  He begins the search for wisdom with “why did God do this to me?”  This expands into “what is God?”  The search for God is the search for wisdom.  And God is inside Job.

In Chapter 10, God describes Behemoth and in Chapter 14, Leviathan.  The chief point is this description is the phrase “he is king over all the children of pride.”  Why is this so significant? Why does it enlighten Job so that he says “now my eye sees thee.”  We would expect God to lead him to Satan, but he leads him to Leviathan.  Satan and Leviathan are the same person.  Satan stands for the tyranny of nature and man.  Job sees the form of his tragedy as a monster, that is, now he can see it because he has been coughed out of the belly of Leviathan.

Job is detached from a world of the tyranny of man and nature.  He has found a new centre of balance in a spiritual world where God is, which is inside himself.  He no longer lives in the moral world of the conflict of good and evil.  The world he is in has only heaven and hell, a personal God who is human against a monster which is evil, that is, Satan.

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Religious Knowledge, Lecture 18


Dieric Bouts the Elder, Elijah in the Desert, ca. 1465

Lecture 18. February 17, 1948

In tragedy, something comes through directly, a vision beyond that of the social and the moral.  Iago is a figure in a tragedy but he is not heroic.  Macbeth is an experiment in a tragedy where the hero and the villain are the same person.  Emotions of pity for the hero through the reproach of the audience somewhere; for example, they blame Iago.  In a social tragedy, such as the lynching of a negro, the audience is morally condemned for tolerating such cruelty.  A tragedy in which man is innocent and blames God for the scheme of things is not a real tragedy.  Even Henley’s Invictus—“I am captain of my soul”—is still handing out a high moral line.

Job gets past this morality stage.  He will not condemn himself, and therefore his three friends have nothing more to say.  At this point, Job leaves the moral aspect and goes on to the tragic.  Elihu has an organic role because he brings the tragedy to a focus.

The arguments with the friends are based on law.  Wisdom means following the tried and tested ways––the fool is he who breaks away, etc.  Yet, the law has not brought Job the wisdom he wants.

Elihu is the Old Testament conception of the prophet.  He has no personal authority––I must speak; therefore it is God talking to you.  The three friends are the old men of Job’s generation.  Elihu is the young spirit of prophecy.  He condemns Job on grounds that are implicit rather than implicit.  He places the condemnation on a broader basis and comes closer to the doctrine of original sin: Job is condemned because he exists.  Elihu deals with the “otherness” of God from man.  This is the first step in religious feeling, the sense of the opposition of the divine and the human; the feeling that man cannot reach God through the human means of reason, etc.

God himself breaks in on Elihu’s speech and pushes him aside.  It sounds as if God was merely continuing his speech, but he turns it upside down.  The same thing is being said, but from a different quarter.  Elihu has found the scent somehow or other.  The voice which is outside Job is Elihu, but when the voice is inside Job, it is God.  The Lord answers Job out of a whirlwind, the symbol of confusion.  It is confusion in terms of what is going on around him.  That is, out of Elihu’s words without knowledge and the confusion they create in Job, comes God’s voice.

Elijah is the typical prophet, and Elihu’s name is close to his.  Kings 1:19:  Elijah repeats Jesus’ period in the wilderness and also Moses’ exile, so that he is the Law and the Prophet.  Verse 9:  the word of the Lord is represented by the pronoun “he.”  And he said unto him, “What doest thou here, Elijah?”  The action turns inside Elijah.  He goes through the wind, earthquake, fire and doesn’t find God in any of them.  But it is after the fire that there comes “a still small voice.”

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Religious Knowledge, Lecture 17


“…a blend of the tragic, comic and satiric”

Lecture 17. February 10, 1948

To understand Job, you must see that the book is a blend of tragic, comic and satiric.  All great drama is a blend of these three.  The satiric tone is a blend of the moral and the humorous.  Pure humor is not satire; pure denunciation is not satire.

Satire is a detachment from evil; it brings out its wrongness and ridiculousness.  You can’t find anything more detached from evil than God; therefore, there are some aspects of the sardonic in God, or the gods.  This is inescapable in any serious religion.  Wrath is the reaction of good when confronted with evil, and wrath is the opposite of irritation.  God is incapable of irritation, which is a personal egocentric thing which desires to triumph over and score off someone.  Wrath is impersonal, detached.

God speaks in the tones of the wrath of the sardonic.  Yet these tones are different from Job’s friends who approach him with elaborate friendliness and politeness.  They talk in vague, general terms about the goodness of good and the badness of evil.

Then their approach sharpens; the reproaches come clearer to a point of open antagonism.  They are trying to hint that Job had better “‘get right” with God.  They are trying to interpret their own sense of the wrath of God, of man in an evil state.  But Job insists that he’s done nothing wrong.  The friends become irritated; they want to score him off.  Job tries to score them off, too.  All agree there must be some justice somewhere.  Only Job’s wife suggests something else: curse God and die.  At the end, God curiously enough seems of the same opinion.  Man searches for a God equal to him.  God feels the same way; he wants a man equal to him.

The dialogue breaks down into a deadlock.  If Job has done nothing wrong, then nothing makes sense.  His friends are pious Jews thinking in terms of the Hebrew law, the best of the Pharisaic mind that Jesus condemns.  They try to interpret God’s design in terms of the law.  Job comes to the discovery that rain falls on the just and unjust alike; the sun shines upon evil and good alike.

Job, his three friends, and Elihu are all under the same cloud.  The breakdown point is that there is no revelation of God to Man.  All seems to be mystery. The collapse is tragedy and satire, not comedy.

Tragedy and satire are inseparable.  There is an ironic kernel in all Shakespeare tragedies.  Hamlet’s death is a tragedy, yet it takes place after a muddled attempt at revenge.  Horatio must tell that Hamlet has been a damn fool.  In Othello’s last speech he is trying to cheer himself up and rescue some fragment of dignity.  It is not that he realized what a fool he has been, but what a fool he is.  In Antony and Cleopatra, the Antony who held the stage in Julius Caesar, the demagogue, in this play is crowded right off the stage by Cleo.  She has him killed off in Act IV and has the fifth act to herself.  She puts on a good show, but the irony is that it is a good show.  Octavius comes in at the end of her show and says, “Oh yes, I heard she was doing some research on a painless way to die.”   The hanging of Cordelia, in Lear, blasts any theory that there is a moral order in tragedy.

The point of tragedy is not punishment, but that the hero fell, whether he deserved it or not. That is the irony.

The author of the Book of Job is not trying to clear God’s name, as Milton was.  There is no self-defensive, aggressive tone as in Milton’s God.  At the end, God speaks with what seems colossal impudence. He feels he has a right to condemn Job, in a sense, for feeling that he is righteous in his own eyes.  The reader has the curious feeling that God has done something wrong, in view of the prologue.

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Relgious Knowledge, Lecture 16


Macbeth, First Folio, 1623

Lecture 16. February 3, 1948


Aristotle’s catharsis means that the audience is not to have pity or fear.  The correct response is: the hero is a man suffering from the tragic flaw; how very like things are. The Greek idea of fate was not external; it is the way things always happen.  The law of human life is not moral, but a law nevertheless.

Tragedy is a kind of implicit comedy.  It is the full statement of which comedy gives only a part.  The complete story of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is a comedy.  The implicit resurrection gives balance and serenity.  Tragedy completes itself as comedy. The story of Christ has no ultimate tragedy.  Death is a tragedy, but there is resurrection here.

In other tragedies the hero dies on stage and he revives in the mind of the audience.  Tragedy is the development of the ritual of sacrifice.  The typical act is the death of the central figure, the king or prince in whose death the people find life.  Aristotle’s catharsis is not a moral quality.  It casts out pity and fear, which are moral good and moral evil.

To say that Macbeth is a bad man is the reaction of terror, of moral evil.  Sympathy with him on the grounds of fate, his wife’s influence, etc., is pity: moral sympathy with the hero.  The real function of tragedy gets beyond moral reaction.  The point is not whether Macbeth was good or bad.  Tragedy goes beyond that.  The catharsis in the audience is that the dead man on the stage is alive in them.  The audience is united in the death of the hero.  Modern tragedies are moral in that they stimulate sympathy or condemnation.  Shaw’s St. Joan is moral.  In King Lear, though,  his death is a release. He attempted to find divinity in his kingship and failed. He found it in suffering humanity.

From the spectator’s point of view, Job is funny.  The watcher is released from the action and his perspective, therefore, is one of comedy.  Tragedy has the reversal of perspective.  Tragedy is a work of art seen from the spectator’s point of view as entertainment.  Hamlet asks to be written up: Othello, the same. Tragedy has a point when limited in art form and seen by an audience.

The audience’s perspective is comic because they are the watchers.  The tragic hero is unaware of the humiliation of being watched.  Lear is mercifully unaware of this when scampering around the stage mad.  Hamlet feels that all eyes are upon him.  He feels this to such a point that he takes it out on Ophelia.  He kills Polonius because he is being watched.  In Aeschylus’ Prometheus, he is stretched out on a rock.  He speaks first so that people won’t stare at him.  He says, “Behold the spectacle.”

Job sees God as an inscrutable watcher.  In Chapter 7. he describes his fallen state––no sense in what happens––if there is a God who doesn’t interfere, then he is merely the watcher, and this is unbearable to Job.  Verse 11: “Am I a sea or a whale that thou settest a watch over me?”  Verse 8: “The eye of him that hath seen me shall see me no more; thine eyes are upon me and I am not.”  A sense of loneliness, but of being watched.

Othello’s black skin means that all eyes are drawn to him.  Here, it is subtler.  The comforters are not making fun of Job.  But sympathy is harder to put up with then ridicule.  Job knows God acts — but why this way?  It worries Job.

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Religious Knowledge, Lecture 15


Blake's Job and His Daughters, 1800

Lecture 15. January 27, 1948


The whole meaning of this book is complicated.  It is completely a work of literary art, and affords the guarantee that, for the Bible, the use of the poetic imagination is legitimate and essential.  It is akin to literary forms we meet elsewhere.  The original of epics and sagas are all there in the Bible, but they have been incorporated into something else.  Only the forms that are on the more remote side, such as letters, memoirs, have continued as definite forms.

Job seems unconnected with anything else in the Bible, except in tone.  It was probably subject to an editing process.  But the editing, as well as the writing, is inspired.  It is a fairly late book.

Shakespeare’s comedies start out as light, urbane, sophisticated romance, like Twelfth Night, which has a lilt to it, and we enter into a carnival world where frustrations have disappeared.  The later comedies have elements which disrupt the feeling of pleasantness.  The Merchant of Venice is practically a tragedy.  Shylock disturbs us, and the metallic quality of the imagery effects the whole tone.  Then his comedy digs more deeply into the tragedy of life.  The sense of escape, of the fairy world, fades out.  All’s Well That Ends Well has an ironic title.  Falstaff is an ambiguous character; he is not a figure of fun; the tragic and the comic are rooted in him.  The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest have serenity and repose.

Job is a tough piece of work.  The last chapter has the feeling of comic resolution—he has got everything back.  Yet it isn’t resolution.  If you lose something, you don’t get it back.  The notion that Job could be restored doesn’t work.


The heart of the book is a discussion as why the innocent suffer. The three comforters are not fools; they are trying to help, to bring balance and reason into his mind through Jewish law.  They are people of human sympathy, conventional people as in Greek tragic chorus, the voice of common sense.  Job doesn’t make a much better show than they do.  The sense that Job is a tragedy is because of the dialogue concerning the suffering of the innocent, which is the theme of all tragedy.

It is tormenting to anyone but the reader who has read the prologue. We cannot forget that “way up in the gods” are God and Satan betting on Job.  The one argument that newer occurs to the comforters is that God wants to settle a bet.  They assume that Job is suffering because he has done wrong.  We know it is because he has done right.  Job is happy and prosperous because he is attached to God.  Man fell because he detached himself from God.  Here, God withdraws from Man, a paradox.

Job and his friends take part in a dialogue.  The author is trying to fish something out of tragedy, to establish the point of tragedy.  The point of Job is “why do the innocent suffer?”  This is the same question as in Lear in Cordelia’s death.  The tragic flaw as a moral judgment is not a tragic flaw at all.  In Milton, the flaw in Adam is that he is a creature of free will.  But Adam’s flaw does not infer a moral judgment on God.

Job says, I have done nothing to deserve this.  The flaw is that he exists.  The flaw, therefore, seems to be in the God that made him.  Yet, a moral judgment on God is irrelevant.

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 14


Lecture 14. January 20, 1948

The word ritual begins to expand its meaning.  It begins to focus on certain symbols, for example, the killing of the dragon by the hero.  This is the essential theme of the epic.  It is given symbolic expression in the life of Jesus who embodies the character of hero and king.  The theme of the epic takes place in the individual soul.  The antagonists must be interpreted in a certain ways as chaos, sterility, wasteland, sea; that is, the unorganized aspect of nature.  Leviathan in the Bible takes the form of cosmological and political enemy.

The so-called “laws of nature” are sub-human; they are indifferent to the human and the conscious.  God is not in nature.  The order and precision of the stars is still sub-human; there is no conscious purpose of human qualities.  Man’s religious impulse is that he cannot worship a god who is no better than he is.  God in nature is subconscious and sub-human.  In human society, as man lives in nature, human civilization is in the grip of nature.

Psalm 87 contrasts the heavenly city with the earthly one.  Revelation 11 has the symbolism of two cities, and of the city or the temple, as well as the emphasis upon accurate measurements.  The city of God has shape; it is bounded and finite.  There is emphasis upon the indefiniteness of the “outer court” which is our world.  The two witnesses are Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophet.  Verse 7: “the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit.”  Verse 8: the great city is the fallen city of Jerusalem, also called Sodom and Egypt.  (“And their bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.”)

Leviathan is that which binds man in the fallen state.  The earthly city is part of the body of Leviathan.  The doctrine of the two cities is the subject of St. Augustine’s book, and it also shows in the opposition of light and the power of darkness.  There is also the following contrast, in which the right‑hand side is the physical reflection of the spiritual side, as a type of parody.

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Religious Knowledge, Lecture 13

Blake's Behemoth and Leviathan

Blake's Behemoth and Leviathan

The complete Religious Knowledge class notes can be found in the Robert D. Denham library at the link above right.

Lecture 13. January 13, 1948

Ritual embodies the ceremonial aspects of the law.  The teaching of Jesus is a commentary on the law. He transforms the action to the understanding of the action; that is, myth explains the ritual.  In the conception of ritual you act according to the law.  In this aspect, sin is a positive act of breaking the law.  But for the Gospel, law is the foundation of the human act, not the super–structure.  Sin is the failure to transmute the law into human life.  All theories of law, justice and judgment are expressed by Jesus in spiritual terms.  The Gospel is not a new law.

The law supposes a judge and a person as prisoner.  The Last Judgment is usually seen as God “up there” with the people below as sheep and goats.  But the sheep and goats are not human, and Jesus does not judge; he casts out devils, and the swine go over the cliff into the “deep,” which is the Hebrew word “tome,” meaning nothingness.  The arena of the Last Judgment is the human soul.  God enters into the human soul and with His help we cast out the goats, the devils within us,

The apocalypse of personality is God’s descent into the human soul.  The Gospel does not bring peace, but a sword.  It discriminates and divides.  It brings the principle of absolute separation of good and bad in the world.  The sheep are the pure, those who have used their talents.  The bad are those who have not used their talents, but have buried them.

The myth of the Gospel is the explanation of ceremonial cleanliness.  The white sheep are separated from the black goats, the light from the dark, the human from the monstrous.  The image to sum up Jesus is the act of casting out devils, the forgiveness of sin.  The power of God descending into the human soul to cast out evil even as Jesus descended into the human and fallen world to cast out devils.  It happens in man.  It is the descent of divine power into man.  You cannot make a sheep out of a goat.  The sheep is a sheep no matter if it has strayed and been lost. Jesus will find the lost sheep.

Sin is the negative act which fundamentally does not exist since all action is positive and good.  The driving out of goats is driving “nothing” out to achieve the complete reality of unfallen man.  I know this sounds like a riddle, but play with it for a while . . . .

If casting out devils is the symbol of Jesus’ activity, then we see the relation between prophet and hero more clearly.  The prophet is the observer, the watcher, the interpreter of the hero’s action.  For the hero or king, what is the heroic act?

Fundamentally, it is the destruction of the powers of darkness.  The Gospel tells you the spiritual aspect of the physical act.  The religious experience is crystallized in the dragon-killing myth.

The Saviour withdraws man from the dragon so that he can see it is not alive after all.  The fairy tale of St. George and the dragon, or the Perseus and Andromache legend, are not just “stories.”  St. George is the symbol of the sun, of life, hence his colour is red.  The dragon and the old man are the same; winter, waste, sterility.  In medieval drama the old king is dressed up inside the dragon.  In most variations of this story there is a sinister old woman to balance off the young daughter.  In the same way, Perseus has to kill Medusa before he can get cracking on the dragon.

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Religious Knowledge, Lecture 12

St George Killing the Dragon, Bernat Martorell, 15th century

St George Killing the Dragon, Bernat Martorell, 15th century

Lecture 12. January 6, 1948


A distinction exists between two types of human beings: the hero and the prophet, and the relationship between them is of primacy importance.  In the hero, humanity has projected a symbol of physical man fighting the forces of the power of darkness.

The Bible contains all literary forms.  It is the super-epic and it deals with the act of the hero.  One of the key ideas is the struggle, with nature or with other men who symbolize the forces of nature.  The development is the great archetype of the hero’s struggle with darkness, such as the dragon, and the victory of light over darkness at every sunrise.  The solar symbolism here is exhaustive.

The Bible centres on a single heroic act: the struggle with darkness and the resultant victory.  In medieval sculpture Jesus is pictured as dragon killer.

The hero, or king, is not fully conscious of what he is doing.  The hero is illusive, inscrutable, and therefore commands loyalty.  Christ as the suffering hero has that illusive quality.  There is a feeling of the distant hero who proceeds to inevitable fate and triumph in the “heroic” Christ who says “touch me not.”  The hero is too preoccupied with his action to know what he is doing, like Achilles brooding in his tent.  The heroes are figures moving in a ritual, not in the myth, and they move with a silent and unconscious quality.

The other type is the prophet who, in a sense, is the opposite.  He has the disinterested view of humanity, and yet is articulate.  He is not known for physical perfectibility and is likely to be stunted or deformed.  He is the observer, the watcher, which the king is not.  The man who is both hero and prophet is such a schizophrenic that he can’t do anything.

The hero and the prophet are different.  The hero is the actor, the prophet is the articulate person who explains the myth.  The poet, then, is the prophet.

The hero is the centre of activity; the prophet is the circumference of activity—the whole range of experience is in his mind.  The hero is always “somebody else,” while the prophet is identical with ourselves because we have to go into his mind and make contact.  All through humanity, in practise the hero and the prophet are separate.  But ideally they are the same.  The hero’s inscrutability is because he knows what is going on.  The prophet must be able to practice what he preaches.

The priest is the intermediary, neither prophet nor hero.  He stands at the point at which the ritual and myth converge. The hero still triumphs but he will be killed.  The prophet will become articulate but never causes.  The poet who enters the social causal sequence contaminates himself.  It is the priest who understands the myth and who performs the ritual.  The thing done and the reason for it are understood by the priest. Continue reading

Denham Library: Class Notes


We have added to the Denham Library transcriptions of class notes provided to Bob over the years by former students of Frye. (See the Robert D. Denham Library link in the top right of our Menu column.)  While transcribing Frye’s diaries Bob corresponded with more than a hundred students who are mentioned in them. His immediate purpose was to gather information for annotating passages in the diaries. But he also asked correspondents to comment on Frye as a person and a teacher, as well as the scene at Victoria College during the 1940s and 50s. The correspondents responded generously, and eighty-nine of their reminiscences have been brought together in a manuscript Bob is working on, Remembering Northrop Frye: Recollections by His Students and Others in the 1940s and 1950s. Several of the correspondents also offered to send their class notes, which Bob continues to transcribe and which we will post in the library as they become available. These are treasures, including class notes from Frye’s famous Religious Knowledge course, 1947-48, which we will also continue to post on the blog one lecture at a time.

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 11


The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

[Ed’s Note: Sorry that we’ve lagged behind in continuing to post the Religious Knowledge lectures.  Having my computer crash a couple of weeks ago without being sure what I’d lost and what I hadn’t double footed me for a bit.  We are now back on track.  M.H.]

Lecture 11. December 16, 1947

After the Babylonian Captivity, prophecy is modulated to the themes of the invisible king, since the Jews could no longer have a visible symbol for a spiritual reality.  The ideal king may be eternal or an ideal to be re-established in the future. Two directions appear here.  The distinction is already present in the exilic prophets and is finally expressed in the conflict of Judaism, which stopped at the exilic age, and Christianity.

With the destruction of Jerusalem, Judaism had to become a permanent exile, completing the idea of the coming Messiah as established in the Captivity.  They rebuilt Jerusalem and staggered on, accepting the future Messiah bound up in time.  The second exile under the Romans completed the pattern of the coming Messiah.

The breakaway started as early as Jeremiah, the first of the exilic prophets, and is carried on in the prophets.  There is ambiguity in Isaiah II and in Ezekiel: they are read by both Christian and Jew.  The prophets speak of a deliverer who is to vanish and return, which could be interpreted as an eternally present fact or one in time.  The Jew and Christian both see it in the future, but it is the difference between resurrection and revival.  The Jews speak of a rebuilt Jerusalem, which the prophets did speak about, and perhaps that is all they thought they were talking about.  However, the conception of hope and confidence is connected with something that is symbolized in the future.

The pattern of exilic prophecy emphasizes that the city and the king have disappeared and must come again, symbolized by the future.  It is important to remember that the Hebrew language has no future tense.  It can differentiate between a complete and a progressive action, but not between the past, present and future. It is an admirable language for expressing a God in an eternally present existence; everything is complete in God’s mind at once,

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