Tag Archives: Philosophy

Tertullian II: Against Philosophy

I’m going to open this post with a brief discussion of Tertullian’s method of argument before moving on to where he represents a major change in the direction of religious discussion which is his opinion of philosophy itself. I wanted to talk about this before addressing areas where he has influenced the development of doctrine and dogma.

As I mentioned in the first post, Tertullian does not use methods of argument common to Platonism. Platonic discussions do not seek to arrive at “the truth” but to, through rational, reasoned argument and discourse, draw ever closer to an understanding of the truth. A Platonist will not want to shut off an argument. He will want to “win” it, but still this will not mean that all discussion has ended. The search for truth will go on and through good argument, Platonists will continually approach it.

Stoicism, which much more closely resembles Tertullian’s method, believes in a world in conflict where it has achieved a balance between opposites. There is good and evil, passion and dispassion, heat and cold, dry and wet. These opposites are at war with one another. In addition, truth is identifiable. It can be found and distinguished from fallacy. Tertullian approaches many (most?) of his topics as if he has the absolute truth. This does not mean that his arguments are less labyrinthine, complex and lengthy than, say, Clement of Alexandria’s. However Tertullian offers his opinions as truths, not something which may be interpreted to be the truth. While this approach is different from prior Christian writers, mostly, this still represents a Classical inheritance as Stoicism was an active philosophical school with many adherents.

Where Tertullian marks a substantial break from earlier Christian writers is his opinion of, and use of, ancient philosophers. He obviously has received a Classical Education. He refers to philosophers often enough (usually negatively) to reveal his knowledge. However for Tertullian, there is one source of truth. He relies almost exclusively (there are a few exceptions) on scripture when making his arguments. While some others use the Old Testament on a par with him, he easily outdistances all prior Christian authors in utilizing the New Testament. He uses the Gospels and Acts extensively and refers to the Pauline Letters even more. Unlike Clement or Origen, Christianity is not one of the schools of philosophy but The One Truth. Philosophers are in error and have been misled by Demons. For Tertullian the source of and inspiration for heresy is not any of the usual subjects; Simon Magus, Valentinus, Marcion, or even Lucifer. It is the philosophers:

“We should then be never required to try our strength in contests about the soul with philosophers, those patriarchs of heretics, as they may be fairly called. … Whatever noxious vapours, accordingly, exhaled from philosophy, obscure the clear and wholesome atmosphere of truth, it will be for Christians to clear away, both by shattering to pieces the arguments which are drawn from the principles of things — I mean those of the philosophers — and by opposing to them the maxims of heavenly wisdom — that is, such as are revealed by the Lord; in order that both the pitfalls wherewith philosophy captivates the heathen may be removed, and the means employed by heresy to shake the faith of Christians may be repressed.” Treatise on the Soul (de anima), III


“These are ‘the doctrines’ of men and ‘of demons’ produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom: this the Lord called ‘foolishness,’ and ‘chose the foolish things of the world’ to confound even philosophy itself. For (philosophy) it is which is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy.Prescription Against Heretics (de praescriptione haereticorum), VII

OK, we’ve seen earlier Christian authors such as Irenaeus and Justin Martyr point out errors of philosophers, though I don’t recall anyone tossing out all of them at one time (Tertullian does name specific philosophical schools and even which heresies were inspired by which school). However where Tertullian foreshadows what would later become a common theme among Church authorities is with statements like this:

“From all these, when the apostle[Paul] would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, ‘See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.’ He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from ‘the porch of Solomon,’ who had himself taught that ‘the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.’ Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.” Prescription Against Heretics, VII

and, expounding on the meaning of Matthew, VIII, “Seek and Ye shall find:”

“You must ‘seek’ until you ‘find,’ and believe when you have found; nor have you anything further to do but to keep what you have believed provided you believe this besides, that nothing else is to be believed, and therefore nothing else is to be sought, after you have found and believed what has been taught by Him who charges you to seek no other thing than that which He has taught. When, indeed, any man doubts about this, proof will be forthcoming, that we have in our possession that which was taught by Christ. Meanwhile, such is my confidence in our proof, that I anticipate it, in the shape of an admonition to certain persons, not ‘to seek’ anything beyond what they have believed — that this is what they ought to have sought, how to avoid interpreting, ‘Seek, and ye shall find,’ without regard to the rule of reason.” Prescription Against Heretics, IX


“What you have ‘to seek,’ then, is that which Christ has taught, (and you must go on seeking) of course for such time as you fail to find, — until indeed you find it. But you have succeeded in finding when you have believed. For you would not have believed if you had not found; as neither would you have sought except with a view to find. Your object, therefore, in seeking was to find; and your object in finding was to believe. All further delay for seeking and finding you have prevented by believing. The very fruit of your seeking has determined for you this limit. This boundary has He set for you Himself, who is unwilling that you should believe anything else than what He has taught, or, therefore, even seek for it. If, however, because so many other things have been taught by one and another, we are on that account bound to go on seeking, so long as we are able to find anything, we must (at that rate) be ever seeking, and never believe anything at all.Prescription Against Heretics, X

and not to wear this point out but let me add:

“But yet, if I have believed what I was bound to believe, and then afterwards think that there is something new to be sought after, I of course expect that there is something else to be found, although I should by no means entertain such expectation, unless it were because I either had not believed, although I apparently had become a believer, or else have ceased to believe. If I thus desert my faith, I am found to be a denier thereof.Prescription Against Heretics, XI

I’ve bolded a few points for emphasis and probably overdid it with the number of quotes but we see this quite often as we move into the medieval period; where your run-of-the-mill Christian is instructed not to seek for further knowledge without the guidance of a learned cleric. Seeking after knowledge can be dangerous if someone isn’t there to help explain things. This type of prohibition/admonition really takes off in the later Middle Ages. Jan Hus, despite not seeming particularly heretical, is condemned and executed, largely for preaching the gospel though not a recognized cleric. Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular was condemned by the Church (though his anti-clericalism probably didn’t win him a lot of fans among the hierarchy).

There is an interesting twist though. The Church never, as far as I’m aware, officially forbade people to read philosophical texts. What they did forbid was for laypeople to preach or instruct, at least without religious supervision. And in the earlier Medieval Period they didn’t get that excited about people having copies of the Bible and a great many people had portions of a Bible; a prayer book or other devotional aid.

Still, when I read this admonition, it reminded me of Jerome; how he felt drawn to but despised philosophical writings. 1 And of course it also reminded me of the objections of religious authorities to someone going out and seeking after religious truth on his or her own, though this was never as extensively done as is sometimes portrayed. It was when I read this portion of Tertullian where I seriously started thinking of him as an anti-Clement. 2

This break with philosophy is important. During the first couple of centuries, Christian authors seemed to view their new belief system as one among many philosophical schools. After Nicaea, in particular when we get to the late 4th century, this had changed. Christianity was now the Truth. Christian authors still received Classical educations but now they used what they learned to utilize scripture to make their arguments. It was a merging of Classical and Christian which involved the use of Classical methods and Christian evidence. Their arguments were structured using scripture, not Plato. Tertullian is the first example of this that I’ve come across.

1 Jerome, Letters, XXII.30

2 I don’t mean that Tertullian writes in direct opposition, just that his ideas run in the opposite direction. Tertullian never mentions Clement, or Origen who is also much more Platonic, by name and, as far as I can tell, may not even be aware of their existence.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 2, 2014 in Religion


Tags: , , , , ,

Let’s Philosophize: Time to Get Platonic

Since reading Clement it’s become clear that in order to figure out him and the other third century authors I’m going to have to get much more up to speed on philosophy, in particular Middle Platonism. I knew this was going to happen and until reading Clement I figured it would be after reading Origen. I’m moving this up a bit.

Another development I want to read on is the transition from Middle Platonism to Neoplatonism and figuring out an answer to a question I have for myself; Did the transition from Middle Platonism to the mystical Neoplatonism of Iamblichus have something to do with the increasing popularity of/conversion to Christianity in the 3rd century? I’m not sure if I’ll do this all at the same time or take a break from it, read some Christian sources, then return.

As I’ve been aware I’d need to do this for some time, really ever since I started this Early Christianity Reading effort, I’ve been picking up books on it for some time. I already have the following (I’m not typing full references here, I’m sure I’ll get to that when I actually refer to them):

  • Plotinus, The Enneads, ISBN: 978-0-140-44520-6 – This is the Penguin Edition.
  • Mark Edwards, Culture and Philosophy in the Age of Plotinus, ISBN: 978-0-7156-3563-6.
  • Iamblichus, Iamblichus on the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians, ISBN: 978-1-108-07304-2.
  • Mark Edwards, trans., Neoplatonic Saints: The Lives of Plotinus and Proclus by their Students, ISBN: 978-0-85323-615-3.
  • Paulina Remes, Neoplatonism, ISBN: 978-0-520-25860-0.

Anyone who’s read this blog for ANY period of time will be unsurprised to learn that I spent a few hours this morning looking for resources and – I know this will come as a shock – bought some books:

  • John Dillon, The Middle Platonists: 80 B.C. to A.D. 220, ISBN: 978-0-801-48316-5.
  • Plutarch, Essays, ISBN: 978-0-140-44564-0. Another Penguin, I really don’t want to buy all the Loeb volumes of either this or the Enneads at $24 per book. (More correctly, I want to buy them, I just don’t want to pay for them.)
  • Alcinous, The Handbook of Platonism, ISBN: 978-0-198-23607-8.

dillonJohn Dillon, Professor Emeritus of Trinity College, Dublin. I have a feeling I’ll be reading a lot of his books.

I’m not sure what this will do to my posting frequency. I’ll have one or two more on Irenaeus and I have a couple of other aspects of 1st and 2nd century Christianity that I think will make interesting posts. I have a volume of The Journal of Late Antiquity sitting on my coffee table and it seems like forever since I’ve looked at Early Medieval Europe so I may make occasional forays back (chronologically forward) to my main area of interest. But for the short term I’m back to diving into something I’m not terribly familiar with and I’ve always been hesitant to write about things I don’t know about; even my Early Christianity posts over the past 9 months since I went “back to the beginning” have been a stretch.

Those of you who are professional independent scholars
or work at a SLAC may want to stop reading NOW!!

Yeah, I know that always works.(ducks)

OK, so I’m in the middle of looking for sources and come across one by Eugene Afonasin, John Dillon and John Finamore, Iamblichus and the Foundations of Late Platonism. It’s published by Brill and the price is out of my range so I decide to see if Purdue has a copy which I can check out sometime. Gotta love those libraries, right?

So I log on and about three clicks later I find myself in the middle of something titled Brill Online Which apparently I have access to through Purdue. Which apparently allows me to download Brill volumes, including the Iamblichus volume. For free.

To the previously referred to SLAC professors/independent scholars, I give you permission. It’s OK to hate me though I ask that you not do so permanently.

I have things to do today so I won’t get to this but tomorrow happens to be a holiday, Labor Day in the US. I have a feeling my internet connection will literally be smoking. Is there a diagnosed Compulsive Internet Book Addiction Disorder (C-I-BAD)? If there is, I expect that by Tuesday I’ll be receiving e-mails offering me assistance for my problem.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Clement of Alexandria, Theologian for the Wealthy

As I mentioned in my first post on Clement I think his thoughts on wealth are very interesting and possibly indicative of a contemporary social movement which I’ll discuss at the end of the post. Clement comes across as something of an anti-ascetic. To this point none of the other Early Christian writers I’ve read have promoted extreme asceticism as would later become monasticism, either cenobitic or eremitic. 1 Their opinions on things seem to have been pretty close to those of Clement; eat but do not be a glutton, have sex within marriage but do not be lustful, drink wine but don’t be a drunk, etc. However Clement takes this to a new level, not by simply arguing for moderation, but spending considerable time arguing against asceticism, particularly voluntary poverty.

It’s important to remember that throughout Clement’s writings his dominant theme is instruction on what it takes to be a good Christian. In Instructor he talks about behavior. Christians are not to dress extravagantly, women should be veiled with head covering in public and beyond the wearing of a finger-ring to carry a seal, or women doing so to please their husbands (see note 13 in my prior post), the wearing of jewelry is to be avoided. He discusses items such as whether men should wear beards, if their hair should be short or if women can wear extensions made of another’s hair. Much of this involves restraining oneself but the Christian is also allowed to eat at sumptuous meals to please one’s host, his bed may be comfortable, the gymnasium is acceptable while the baths are not, he may drink wine or eat meat in moderation, etc. 2 Significant for its absence from Clement’s writings (so far as I can recall) is any admonition that the Christian should distance himself from non-believers. The overall impression I received from this is that Clement is saying that in order to be part of Roman society, Christians are permitted to participate in some aspects of Roman life which might be viewed as luxurious. Even here he goes into details not found in Justin Martyr or the other apologists but I don’t think they would have found anything in it to disagree with.

Clement takes his discussion of wealth to a whole new level. He returns to this issue regularly throughout the Stromata and devotes an entire treatise, Who is the Rich Man That Can be Saved to this question. He again has a dominant message; wealth is not in and of itself evil but loving wealth or becoming obsessed with it is. The wealthy man is able to pursue Clement’s path of Gnostic contemplation of God and the mysteries of the faith. The poor man, consumed by the need to secure what he needs to live, will be distracted from this contemplative life and will find it nearly impossible to become Clement’s Gnostic perfect man.

StPakhomSaint Pachomius, reputed to be the founder of the first Christian Monastery. I don’t think
Clement would have joined his fan club. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Clement sets out his theme rather neatly in Stromata IV.5:

The same holds good also in the case of poverty. For it compels the soul to desist from necessary things, I mean contemplation and from pure sinlessness, forcing him who has not wholly dedicated himself to God in love, to occupy himself about provisions; as, again, health and abundance of necessaries keep the soul free and unimpeded, and capable of making a good use of what is at hand.

In IV.6 he uses the Beatitudes to support his point. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means that the wealthy are able to be saved, so long as they desire to be poor, and he combines this with, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” to craft the following statement:

“And blessed are the poor,” whether “in spirit” or in circumstances – that is, for righteousness’ sake. It is not the poor simply, but those that have wished to become poor for righteousness’ sake, that He pronounces blessed – those who have despised the honours of this world in order to attain “the good” …

He continues by discussing the wealthy man from Matthew 19.16-22. This man was not rejected by Christ because of his wealth but because he did not choose to cast aside the burdens of his soul and live his life according to Christ:

For God dispenses to all according to desert, His distribution being righteous. Despising, therefore, the possessions which God apportions to thee in thy magnificence, comply with what is spoken by me; haste to the ascent of the Spirit, being not only justified by abstinence from what is evil, but in addition also perfected by Christlike beneficence.

All of Who is the Rich Man that shall be Saved is full of these types of arguments, quotes from scripture where Clement explains how the hidden meaning of statements such as “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” in Mark 10.25 actually returns to the theme of someone using wealth to live good works and for the benefit of others rather than casting aside all possessions. From Rich Man Chapter 16, contrasting the rich who lust after wealth and those who do not:

For he who holds possessions, and gold, and silver, and houses, as the gifts of God; and ministers from them to the God who gives them for the salvation of men; and knows that he possesses them more for the sake of the brethren than his own; and is superior to the possession of them, not the slave of the things he possesses; and does not carry them about in his soul, nor bind and circumscribe his life within them, but is ever laboring at some good and divine work, even should he be necessarily some time or other deprived of them, is able with cheerful mind to bear their removal equally with their abundance. This is he who is blessed by the Lord and called poor in spirit, a meet heir of the kingdom of heaven, not one who could not live rich.

I suppose I could keep quoting as I have several thousand words to choose from (I really like Chapter 26 of Rich Man as a summary) but I think this is enough to give Clement’s general direction. His tendency is to interpret Christ’s discussion to not mean material wealth but a poverty of spirit. Since for Clement the surest way to be a good Christian was to grow in the understanding of God and the mysteries of the faith, anything which distracted from the pursuit of that understanding was to be avoided. 3 This might mean to be wealthy and obsessed with and in love with wealth. Or it might mean to be poor and for your life to be consumed with pursuing the needs required to maintain your existence. It never occurs to Clement that you might give away all your possessions and remove yourself from all worldly cares to pursue a life of contemplation. If it had, I have a feeling we’d have an argument against it as he sure wasn’t one to back down from a challenge.

As with so many of his other concepts, Clement’s opposition to living a life of poverty never caught on, not officially anyway. His vision of a poor Christian was not of someone divesting him- or herself of all worldly cares and possessions to live a contemplative life but of someone who had to spend so much time just living as to not be able to pursue this contemplative life. Yet this became the mainstream view of the person who gave all to the poor to enter monastic life, whether solitary or communal. On the other hand, the idea that a wealthy person could still enter the kingdom of heaven by using his or her wealth for the benefit of others certainly gained favor. If it hadn’t the Church would never have gained so many possessions. Clement’s belief that it was OK to be wealthy and that you could be a good Christian with money or property was not out of the mainstream either during that time or at any point in time including today. His criticism of those giving away all they own to live in poverty is another story, at least once we reach the 4th century.

To date none of the authors I’ve read can be considered proponents of asceticism. They certainly don’t resemble later figures such as Athanasius or Jerome. Their guidelines were for a Christian to be modest in behavior and appearance. However none of the others have taken a stance which I’d consider to be anti-ascetic, to the point of interpreting the Scriptures, including the words of Christ, to mean pretty much the opposite of what they say. The question which makes this particular aspect of Clement so interesting to me is, why?

Why is Clement so vehemently opposed to “sell all you have and give to the poor” as to devote an entire treatise and substantial portions of another to this topic? The only reason I can come up with is that asceticism was beginning to pick up in Egypt about this time. There had probably always been a few Christians around who practiced extreme asceticism but perhaps they began to become more active, were forming into groups and gaining new adherents about this time. Perhaps one of the ascetic heretical sects was active. I have to think there was someone, some popular voice, group or movement, that was accusing the wealthy of not being true Christians and stating that their wealth was a hindrance to their salvation and doing so effectively enough to gain some converts/adherents/support.

How would Clement have viewed this? He seems to have been a very Roman Christian. He understood classical society and it’s very possible that he viewed this development as one in which members of his faith were willingly removing themselves from the upper levels of society and, consequently, from positions of influence. I think it’s very possible, even probable, that he viewed this potential loss of influence as disastrous. I’m making a fair amount of conjecture here (and have read nothing in any secondary books which raise this issue though I haven’t yet explored the development of monasticism) but something inspired Clement to go to these lengths to argue against this practice. We’re over a century before the first known founding of a Christian monastery but to me, Clement’s concern over this activity; that wealthy Christians might give away all they own, shows that something was probably going on, he didn’t like it, and he was going to do what he could to put a stop to it.

1 Eremitic monasticism equals solitary, cenobitic equals communal.

2 These concepts are discussed throughout Instructor.

3 As part of being a philosopher included having time to oneself to think rationally about things, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is so important to Clement. Similarly his concern that a true Gnostic Christian not be overly consumed worrying about mundane issues of the world.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.


Tags: , , , , , ,

Clement of Alexandria: Merging Greek and Christian

Before I get to specific ideas Clement proposes, I think it’s important to discuss my overall impression of him and some of his dominant themes. First, he is the most long-winded Early Christian author I’ve run across to date. A lot of words, quite a bit of repetitiveness and he comes across as disorganized in the Stromata. He is much more coherent in The Instructor, Exhortation to the Heathen and Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved. 1 Now Stromata translates to Miscellanies and he openly states these are just his thoughts written down so I could forgive him for this except for one thing; I had to read it (well, I guess nobody made me). 2

Clement is the most philosophical of all of the writers I’ve gone through to date, and that’s saying something. Justin Martyr uses philosophical methods extensively, Irenaeus less so but it’s still present and most of the other apologists do as well. Clement takes this to a new level. His writings are a true merging of Greek and Christian thought. He admires Plato and uses him extensively and also borrows quite a bit from Philo. He quotes philosophers a lot and some of their writings are only known of through him.

There is a lot of information in Clement, even though he could have said the same in a third of the space. What is interesting is how little of it became part of post-Nicene Orthodoxy. I originally thought this would be a fairly short post but have decided that talking about these various items which were not adopted by The Church is as important as discussing what was.

ClemensVonAlexandrienClement of Alexandria, image from Wikimedia Commons. Notice the lack of a halo
indicating he is not a saint however keep in mind that in some Christian churches he is.

Clement’s overall theology isn’t heterodox though there are a few items that must have disturbed early theologians which I’ll touch on. However, while generally mainstream, he engages in a general rewrite of scriptures so they mean what he thinks they say, to an extent I’ve not seen outside of Barnabas. Irenaeus would have hated parts of it, particularly where Clement places great importance on the hidden, mystical symbolism of words and numbers. 3

Clement’s overriding theme is one of how to be a good Christian. Except for in Exhortation, his discussion of this is dominant throughout his surviving writings. This merging of Greek and Christian thought has a great deal of impact on how he approaches this topic. For Clement, there are multiple levels of the faithful. Simple faith and good works is a means by which Christians may be saved however those who advance in their understanding of God and Christ will also advance in their reward. Clement’s ideal Christian is one who seeks to understand and know God as fully as possible, who tries to unlock what are repeatedly referred to as the “mysteries of the faith”. This is achieved through knowledge, contemplation and study. Clement uses the term Gnostic in a positive manner, to represent the enlightened Christian. To believe is good, to know is better. In essence men are children but by using philosophy, Christians can advance in knowledge to become the type of Christian which God had in mind when he formed Adam. This Gnostic, “perfect” man will come to know God and the mysteries of the religion in a way one who simply believes will not, and will be given higher status in heaven. 4

One of Clement’s most profound ideas is that the Greeks and the Jews are not wrong, it is just that the Christians are more right. The Greeks and Jews know God, the Greeks through philosophy, the Jews through the Old Testament. Philosophy is a gift to men from God, a means whereby they may come to know him more fully. Greek philosophers, particularly Plato, have been studying God for centuries although Christians are better at it. 5 This is a huge shift from prior authors and apologists who argued not just for their faith but that Jews and Greeks were in error. For Clement philosophy has a great deal of value and even heretics have some usefulness. Keep in mind this is not the same as Clement believing that the worship of the Roman Gods is correct. He is quite explicit that the Roman Gods do not exist, that stories of them are either invented or of evil men. 6 However Clement’s Christianity is more inclusive than that of other early writers and Greek philosophers. Jews, and even heretics are not wholly excluded. Personally, of all of Clement’s ideas I find this one the most interesting. Christianity may have evolved very differently if this had gained acceptance.

Following the lead of Irenaeus and others, Clement states that the Greeks received their philosophy from other sources. For the most part this is from Moses and the Old Testament. He also believes much of their thought originated with barbarians including Egyptians and Indians. By the time Clement gets done comparing the ideas of the Greek philosophers with concepts from the Old Testament and barbarians, the Greeks are pretty much left without an original thought they can call their own. 7

While Clement’s theology is not heretical, hints of heresy pop up from time to time. The most serious are some statements that I think are pretty close to Adoptionism. Clement provides several instances where he indicates that Christ did not truly suffer, was not harmed and did not truly die. This is significant enough that I’ll provide a couple of quotes, using bold text for emphasis:

And where, then, was the door by which the Lord showed himself? The flesh by which he was manifested. He is Isaac (for the narrative may be interpreted otherwise), who is a type of the Lord, a child as a son; for he was the son of Abraham. as Christ the Son of God, and a sacrifice as the Lord, but he was not immolated as the Lord. Isaac only bore the wood of the sacrifice, as the Lord the wood of the cross. And he laughed mystically, prophesying that the Lord should fill us with joy, who have been redeemed from corruption by the blood of our Lord. Isaac did everything but suffer, as was right, yielding precedence in suffering to the Word. Furthermore there is an intimation of the divinity of the Lord in His not having been slain. For Jesus rose again after his burial, having suffered no harm, like Isaac released from sacrifice. 8


Well, I assert, simultaneously with His [Christ’s] baptism by John, He becomes perfect? Manifestly. He did not then learn anything more from him? Certainly not. But He is perfected by the washing – of baptism – alone, and is sanctified by the descending of the Holy Spirit? Such is the case. 9

Another interesting concept he provides is that Christ descended to Hades and preached the Gospel there, so that those who might believe would be saved. In Hades Christ did as he instructed the Apostles; to go and preach the Word of God. Clement clearly believes that the souls in Hades would not be left without an opportunity for salvation. 10

He also has some interesting things to say about Martyrdom. Martyrdom is a good thing and the man or woman who gives up his or her life for the faith is blessed. The Martyr “has exhibited the perfect work of love.” However this is not the case for those who rush to martyrdom, eager for death. Clement considers them cowards, engaged in a form of suicide and self-death, and these are not truly Christians though they may share the name. How have those who desire death suffered? Those who fear death but hold fast to their faith despite this fear are to be admired and considered perfect. These others, the suicides, are guilty of their own deaths and accomplices in the crimes of the persecutors. 11

In order to not make this post too long, I’m going to list some other themes from Clement. I’ll discuss them a bit more in the notes.

  • 1. Places are not holy, people are. 12
  • 2. Men and women are spiritually equal though men are to be obeyed, particularly in marriage. 13
  • 3. However much man might study and learn; even to the Gnostic Christian, God is not fully comprehensible and cannot be described by words or ideas. 14
  • 4. He is not extensively anti-heretical though he identifies some heretics, particularly Valentinus and Basilides. He believes that even heretics have a purpose and can help Christians discover the truth. 15
  • 5. He does not seem to be strictly vegetarian however at times he appears to be opposed to eating meat. 16
  • 6. Christians should not give oaths. As a Christian, their statements should be accepted as true without them. 17
  • 7. Marriage is a blessed institution and a virtuous married man is superior to a virtuous unmarried man. 18
  • 8. Bodily pleasures are not in and of themselves evil or sinful but overindulgence and becoming obsessed with them is. 19
  • 9. He believes Barnabas is an apostle and quotes extensively from the Shepherd of Hermas, to me as if he believes it is part of scripture. 20
  • 10. He provides the earliest statement I’ve come across in favor of free range chickens. 21

Clement of Alexandria is a tedious read. While the other three works aren’t bad, his Stromata came across to me as confused and disorganized and he repeats the same ideas a LOT. It really wasn’t until Book 5 where he seemed to get his thoughts organized. Other than his discussion of Martyrdom, I think you could start Stromata with Book 5 and get most of his main ideas.

Much of what he says ended up being outside of eventual mainstream Christian thought. I’m unaware that different levels in heaven ever gained widespread acceptance (though Purgatory did appear and he may have had something to do with that) and his granting to the Greeks extensive knowledge of God goes beyond anything else I’ve seen, though during the Middle Ages Plato was pointed to as an example of someone who at least had some knowledge of God before the coming of Christ. I’m also not aware that the idea of Christ preaching in Hades was ever accepted by mainstream Christianity and his concept of a man becoming perfect and thereby abstaining from eating meat sure sounds like a Cathar/Albigensian precursor. 22 As for his thoughts on the willing martyr, while this theme does surface occasionally, stories of the willing or even eager martyr became its own literary form. As I stated above, the idea that Jesus was anything other than fully God and Man from the moment of conception has always been considered heretical. And the idea of marriage being as beneficial as abstinence, while not exactly what Clement said (his single person was not identified as a virgin though as for Clement sex was only for the purposes of procreation and marriage was the only way to legitimately produce children I think it’s implied) became a knock-down, drag-out fight between Jovinian and Augustine in the early 5th century, something I’m looking forward to reading about.

I keep coming back to how he tried to merge Greek and Christian thought. If this had caught on, how different would Christianity’s development have been, or its final form? It evidently did not though until I read Tertullian and Origen I won’t be able to say whether it gained traction for a little while. As a minority religion, or a superstition as the Romans believed it, there was little chance of Clement convincing the Greeks of that time and once Christianity received official recognition in the early 4th century the need for compromise was over. Clement becomes notable, not for his legacy to what would become Orthodox Christianity, but in considering how so much of what he wrote did not become part of it.

NOTE: I was originally going to spend some time talking about Clement’s ideas on wealth and poverty but I’ve decided to make a separate post about this. Very interesting stuff though, at least I think so. In any case, my followup post is here.

1 I’m using the titles as given in the Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume II even though I have a feeling these aren’t the preferred ones. For example, Exhortation to the Heathen is usually given as Exhortation to the Greeks.

2 I’ve decided to skip the bio because, other than that he lived in Alexandria in the late 2nd/early 3rd century, almost all we know about Titus Flavius Clemens is through his writings. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI.13.2, mentions that Clement studied under Pantaenus which indicates he was associated with the Christian School at Alexandria.

3 This pops up several times, most extensively in Stromata V.4-10 and VI.16, the latter related to numbers, particularly 10. He also discusses divine symbolism contained in music in Stromata VI.10.

4 This general theme pervades all of Stromata but is most clearly described, including Clement’s celestial hierarchy, in VI.10-18. For Clement’s concept of men as Children see Instructor I.5-6 where he discusses this in detail.

5 This is another idea Clement frequently returns to. He is most explicit in Stromata VI.5 and VI.17 in discussing how philosophers had some knowledge of God and he talks all the time about how Greek philosophy came from the Old Testament. In VI.5 he writes, “For clearly, as I think that he [Christ] showed that the one and only God was known by the Greeks in a Gentile way, by the Jews Judaically, and in a new and spiritual way by us.”

6 This is a main theme of Exhortation, particularly Chapters 2-4.

7 There’s a lot of discussion of the origin of Greek thought in Clement. He approaches the topic early in Stromata I.15-16 regarding the barbarians and in V.14 he goes into great detail about it, including with the Jews. The Egyptians and Indians are mentioned in VI.4. In I.21, he writes, “And Numenius, the Pythagorean philosopher, expressly writes: ‘For what is Plato, but Moses speaking in Attic Greek.'”

8 The quoted passage is from Instructor I.5, towards the end (the ANF II does not provide passage numbers). Stromata VII.3 describes Christ as “wholly immutable” and the ANF II p. 586 quotes JA Cramer’s Catenae Graecorum patrum in Novum Testamentum, Oxford (1840), Volume VI, p 385 as saying that Clement’s fourth book of Hypotyposes states that Christ was not subject to the influences of the flesh, including being hungry, thirsty, weary or needing sleep.

9 Instructor I.6. Adoptionism was the idea that Jesus did not always contain Christ, that God’s Son entered him at some point after his birth, and that up to that time Jesus was a man though one who was being prepared to be the vessel of Christ. A variation on this includes the belief that Christ was immune to suffering and pain as is evidenced by Jesus crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross indicating that Christ’s spirit left him and the man was left to endure the crucifixion alone. Clement doesn’t quite go this far but this statement indicates that something was added at Jesus’ baptism.

10 Stromata VI.6.

11 For his thoughts on martyrdom, Stromata IV.7-9. For his criticism of the willing martyr, IV.4 and IV.10.

12 He first brings this up in Stromata V.11 and expands on it in VII.5. This theme that Christians as people were holy but things, including places, were not was a prominent theme in Early Christianity.

13 Both concepts are discussed in Stromata IV.8. He also implies male dominance in Instructor at various points where he advises women that one of their main roles is to please their husbands and do things for them which might otherwise be considered sinful, in particular in III.11 where he tells women that they may adorn themselves to please their husbands and keep him from seeking his pleasures elsewhere.

14 This concept is also discussed several times, most fully in Stromata V.12

15 Clement is quite mild when discussing heretics, particularly when you read him, as I did, right after Irenaeus. This specific idea is covered in Stromata VI.15.

16 Clement is pretty contradictory with this. To provide a couple of examples, in Instructor Chapter 2 he says that meat can be eaten in moderation and this is not a sin. However in Stromata VII.6 he comes out and says, “But I believe sacrifices were invented by men to be a pretext for eating meat.” In VII.12 he states that the true Gnostic will not eat meat as to do so would involve succumbing to pleasure, “How, then, can what relates to meat, and drink, and amorous pleasure, be agreeable to such an one?”

17 Stromata VII.7. This was a fairly widespread opinion among early Christians though if you really want to get your fill of it, read John Chrysostom’s homilies.

18 I will be very curious when I read up on it to see whether Jovinian’s ideas can be traced back to Clement. Clement speaks highly of marriage in Stromata II.23. In VII.12 he states that the married man, having to deal with all of the distractions that come with having a wife, family, household, etc., is superior to the single man whose study of God is unencumbered with all of this.

19 This is related to Clement’s discussion of wealth where various things are permitted but should not be indulged in. He discusses this related to eating in Instructor II.1, in II.2 on drinking and in II.10 on enjoying sex within marriage so long as its primary purpose is procreation.

20 Barnabas is quoted many times but Clement calls him an apostle in Stromata II.6, II.7, II.20 (here named as one of the 70 sent out by the 12), V.10, and I may have missed one or two. The important issue here is not that Barnabas is an Apostle as he is named in Acts but that Clement believes the Epistle of Barnabas should be attributed to him, something which even then was not universally accepted. Irenaeus’ disavowal of mystical imagery and numerology to explain scripture is a pretty strong indicator that Barnabas was falling out of favor at the time, at least among some Christian circles. Hermas is most extensively quoted in Stromata II.9, II.12, IV.9 and in VI.15 Clement comes awful close to calling it Scripture.

21 I thought about saving this for a separate brief humorous post sometime when I hit a lull. The agriculturalist in me caught this quote in Stromata II.1, “And they say that fowls have flesh of the most agreeable quality, when, through not being supplied with abundance of food, they pick their sustenance with difficulty, scraping with their feet.” Meaningless theologically but it entertained me and I’m including it in case I ever get into a conversation about the topic. I probably need to read On Agriculture by Varro but for the time being this is the earliest mention I’m aware of extolling the benefits of free range poultry.

22 Then again, I’m not very up on eastern religions and maybe one or more of these influenced his thoughts in this direction.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C.F. Cruze, trans. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.


Posted by on August 24, 2013 in Religion


Tags: , , , , ,

The Second Century Apologists

My Early Christianity Reading has finally brought me out of the first century and into the second. I’ve found a secondary source which looks like it may be quite useful as I go along; The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature, edited by Frances Young, Lewis Ayres and Andrew Louth (2004). Chapters in this book cover various categories of Christian literature including sources which the respective authors consider important. I’ve begun going through a chapter or two in this, jotting down the sources I want to look at, reading these, then going on to the next category. I usually don’t worry that much about my use of time with history. It’s my hobby and if I’m inefficient, does it really matter so long as I get to an acceptable place at the end? But I started reading on this a year and a half ago and I sort of want to get back to the 4th and 5th centuries someday. It looks like this book may help me do this.

The first barrier to understanding these second century authors are the terms Apologist and Apology. If you know little or nothing about the period and what was going on, which describes myself not so long ago, you’d likely see these as someone writing about something he or his social group had done wrong. It doesn’t take too much thought to figure out that this couldn’t have been exactly what was happening but these terms really are misnomers. These authors aren’t apologizing for anything. They’re engaged in earnest arguments in favor of their belief system as being the correct way of viewing the world. Centuries of usage have left us stuck with the term but calling these “Justifications” or something would have been more accurate. 1

Justin Martyr is generally considered the first Christian Apologist. There are a couple of problems with this categorization. First, as I mention above, Justin wasn’t apologizing for anything. His Apology was a petition to Antoninus Caesar requesting that Christians be treated more fairly, in particular that they not be punished simply for being named Christian, but because of crimes they had committed. His ultimate hope was that the Emperor would answer and post his answer to this request so that it would become the law of the Empire. It is almost certain that Justin would have titled this something along the lines of, “Address and Petition to Antoninus.” 2

The second problem is that when we view this as ancient literature intended to justify the existence of Christianity and the exemplary lifestyle of Christians, Justin is not the first. There aren’t a lot of survivals but at the very least The Epistle of Barnabus predates him and possibly The Epistle to Diognetus. Justin is notable as his lengthy, detailed argument became a model which later authors patterned their writings on.

Justin Martyr, photo from Wikimedia Commons, originally; Saint Justin dans André Thevet,
Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584.

Rather than go into details about what Justin and the other Apologists wrote, because there just isn’t space in a blog post for this, I’m going to briefly mention general themes which were common to this form of literature. I’m listing the authors and sources I’m discussing, along with the volume of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) series I read them from.

  • Justin Martyr, First and Second Apologies and Dialogue with Trypho, ANF 1.
  • Tatian the Assyrian, Address to the Greeks, ANF 2.
  • Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus, ANF 2.
  • Athenagoras of Athens, A Plea for the Christians and The Resurrection of the Dead, ANF 2.
  • Aristides, Apology or To Emperor Hadrian Caesar from the Athenian Philosopher Aristides, ANF 9.
  • Melito of Sardis, Apology, ANF 8. 3

There are some common themes used by the Apologists which I’ll briefly mention. All of these are not mentioned by every author and there are some differences in details, a couple of which I’ll talk about. One of the most interesting items is that many of these involve detailed interpretations of Christian texts, particularly the Old Testament. You can see here the beginnings of the discussions which by the Fourth Century would result in the development of relatively well-defined Christian doctrines. Another commonality is that most of these authors appear to have been highly educated philosophers who converted to Christianity later in life. The way I’ve listed these are not in the order the Apologists bring them up as this changes with different authors.

Christians should not be punished merely for being called Christian.
The basic argument here is that Christians should not be persecuted, lose property or even their lives simply due to the fact that they bear the name of Christian. If they have committed a crime, let them be tried and condemned, but not merely based on a name. All of the writers fail to mention that not reverencing Roman Gods could be considered a crime. Even Hadrian’s rescript which has often been appended to Justin’s First Apology, when strictly interpreted, allows Christians to be prosecuted for this. There really isn’t a lot of difference between this rescript and the exchange between Trajan and Pliny the Younger where the Emperor instructs Pliny that Christians are not to be sought out but should be prosecuted when brought before him. 4

Exemplary lifestyle of Christians.
The Apologists discuss in considerable detail how Christians live their lives. They are non-violent, to the point of not defending themselves when attacked. They do not engage in the licentious behavior they are accused of but in fact take only one husband or wife in a lifetime and only have sex for the purposes of procreation. They are so opposed to death that not only do they not engage in cannibalism, of which they are accused, but are forbidden even from viewing games where men may die. They live such serious, contemplative lives that they may not attend the circus or the theater. They obey the Emperor strictly as an honored ruler but will not worship him. They do not believe in abortion or the exposure of children. Some of the authors state that if people are found who call themselves Christians but commit crimes, they cannot be Christians and must be punished.

Roman Gods are not Gods at all.
There are three main themes here, used by different authors. One is that the Roman Gods are demons, as is proven by their demonic behavior – rape, incest, murder, etc. Another is that the Roman Gods were famous men who after their deaths were reverenced by people to such an extent that they came to be worshiped; Athenagoras refines this further by arguing that the Roman Gods were men and it is due to the urging of fallen angels – demons – that men came to worship them. The final argument is that the Roman Gods simply aren’t. They are inanimate pieces of wood, stone or metal and have no power.

Christian writings predate those of the Greeks and Romans.
This is one of the most interesting arguments, and among the most convoluted. Basically, according to the Apologists, Moses and other Old Testament authors and prophets predate the ancient Greek authors and they set out to “prove” that the ideas developed by Greek philosophers came from them. Among other things, the level of detail used in these arguments shows how familiar these authors were with classical literature as well as scripture. I don’t know how to begin to discuss these arguments without taking a thousand words on it alone. Justin Martyr, for example, goes into detail to prove that Plato’s concepts regarding a single deity came directly from Moses. 5

The World was created by a single Deity.
There are a bunch of arguments offered here. Much comes from Old Testament interpretation, particularly Genesis. A couple of authors go beyond this. Theophilus quotes extensively from the Sibylline Books in support of a single deity. And he uses what I think is my favorite philosophical argument; that the only reasonable explanation for the well-ordered universe they live in is that it was created by one God and that there is a single guiding hand on the tiller. 6 There are some interesting sub-topics here which later became points of contention, in particular that Justin Martyr believes that God created the world out of unformed matter while most of the others such as Tatian, Theophilus and Athenagoras believe that God first created matter, then formed the world from it. 7

The Resurrection.
It’s not surprising that this is a major theme for all of the authors. At this point all of them argue for a resurrection of the body, not just of the soul and they go to some lengths to argue for its validity. Justin Martyr specifically states that those who argue for a resurrection of the soul alone, not the body, are not Christians. 8 The arguments used are more varied than for the other themes. All of them use interpretation of scriptures. In addition, Theophilus discusses how you can see a form of resurrection on Earth in the change of the seasons and if God could do this, why couldn’t men be bodily resurrected? Athenagoras spends a great deal of time debunking an argument he must have found threatening. When others ask how could God raise people up using the same matter when in some cases people had to resort to cannibalism to survive and so their matter now consists of matter from another body, Athenagoras goes into great detail describing how men’s bodies can only consist of matter nutritionally appropriate for it and the flesh of other men cannot be appropriate for this purpose and must have just passed through. I was surprised he didn’t argue, “Anyone who would eat the flesh of another is not Christian and won’t have to worry about being resurrected” but he chose not to go there. 9

I’m over 2,000 words so I think that’s enough for one post even though I could add a lot more. There are later Apologists who were not covered by Norris (2004) and were not given a separate, later chapter in Young, Ayres and Louth (2004) so I’ll be interested in how they discuss the third-century authors and why they are not included with this group (I could offer a few thoughts I have on this but I’ll leave the topic alone until I read further). I’m not typically very interested in the development of Christian doctrine but it’s pretty hard to completely separate doctrinal disputes with later socio-political conflicts and developments. What’s probably most notable about the second-century apologists is that because they had to write so extensively in support of their new faith, these authors set the table for Christianity to develop a relatively rigid, uniform belief system. One of the interesting characteristics of Christianity is this rigidity, to the best of my knowledge something not previously found in a major religion. Even Judaism had room for the Pharisees, Sadducees and, if you believe Josephus, the Essenes having substantial differences in their belief systems while remaining part of the Jewish religion. The detailed arguments early Christians used to support their new religion seems likely to have contributed to this rigidity.

1 The term apologist appears to have originated when Tertullian wrote a treatise titled, Apologeticus pro Christianis in the very late 2nd century and was then used to describe similar, earlier material. I haven’t gotten to Tertullian yet and I’m curious about why he decided on that term.

2 Parvis, Paul (2007), p 31. Parvis discusses whether Justin’s First and Second Apologies were originally a single apology, a single apology with an appendix, or two apologies. Interesting but not something I’m going to discuss here. I should also note I’m in the middle of reading this book and this post would likely be better if I’d finished it before posting but the way things have gone lately, I need to post when I have time to post even if I haven’t read everything I’d like on a topic.

3 I found it interesting that Norris (2004) grouped Melitus with these others as in reading it, to me he comes across as using much more of a theological than a philosophical argument. Possibly this is as his surviving writings were preserved by Eusebius they were somewhat altered in tone. Norris describes his On Pascha as, “This remarkable document – written in Greek in the elaborate, rhythmical ‘Asiatic’ style of the Second Sophistic – attests the writer’s studied ingenuity as a rhetor.” pp 41-2. Then again, I’m not reading the original Greek either.

4 Pliny the Younger, Letters, X.96-97.

5 See Justin Martyr’s First Apology, 59-60. I’m using the ANF numbering system for these as this is where I’ve read them.

6 Respectively, Theophilus, To Autolycus, II.36 and I.5-6.

7 Respectively; Justin Martyr, First Apology, 10; Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 5 and 12; Theophilus, To Autolycus, II.4 and II.10 and; Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 4.

8 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 80. In this chapter, alone of all of these authors, he argues for a thousand-year Kingdom of God on Earth based in Jerusalem.

9 Respectively, Theophilus, To Autolycus, I.13 and Athenagoras, The Resurrection of the Dead, 4-8.

Kleist, James A., trans., Ancient Christian Writers 6: The Didache, the Epistle of Barnabus, the Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, the Fragments of Papias, the Epistle to Diognetus. Mahwah, New Jersey: The Paulist Press (1948). ISBN: 978-0-8091-0247-1.

Norris, Richard A., “The Apologists.” In The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature, eds., Young, Ayres and Louth, 36-44. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2004). ISBN: 978-0-521-69750-7.

Parvis and Foster, eds., Justin Martyr and His Worlds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-8006-6212-7.

Parvis, Paul, “Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: The Posthumous Creation of the Second Apology.” In, Justin Martyr and His Worlds, eds. Parvis and Foster, 22-37. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-8006-6212-7.

Pliny the Younger, P.G. Walsh, trans., Complete Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-19-953894-2.

Roberts and Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (10 Volume Set). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers (1994). Series ISBN: 978-1-5656-3082-6

Young, Ayres, and Louth, eds., The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2004). ISBN: 978-0-521-69750-7.


Posted by on May 24, 2013 in Religion


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Stuff I’m discovering I Don’t Want to Learn

This will be something of a fluff post, possibly of interest to nobody but myself. Dear diary, right?

I’ve been reading some 4th century stuff which I’m discovering covers an area I’m really not all that interested in. This is not the first time this has happened. More than 10 years ago, when I started to really get into Medieval History, I realized I wasn’t that interested in warfare. This was a surprise. If you’d asked me right when I was getting started I’d have probably told you that learning about folks sticking each other with sharp, pointy objects and how they went about it would be high on my list. It hasn’t been, even though I realize that this is a very important aspect of history (and continues to be today, though the methods have changed – we are one violent species).

Up to the last month I’d have told you that the evolution of thought is something I’m very interested in. I still think so, but there’s a level of detail at which this does not seem to be true. 1

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading, Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma I: Conversion and Apostasy, 373-388 C.E., by Jason David BeDuhn. This book discusses Augustine’s early life, his time as a Manichean, and his conversion to Christianity. In large part, it analyzes Augustine’s story, based on his The Confessions and other early writings to examine what was going on inside Augustine’s head during this period. How did he think about himself? Realizing that The Confessions was written about ten years after his conversion, how does Augustine’s view of himself compare with what was likely happening internally? What do these writings tell us about Augustine’s development of “self?”

Guess what – I’m not buying Volume II when it comes out. There appears to be a whole branch devoted to discovering what Augustine thought of himself and really picking apart his conversion. This is fine. He’s one of the most important figures in the development of Western thought so figuring out how this thought came about and how his personal development impacted it is useful. But I also found out that it’s not something I’m interested in, not to the point of wanting to read 300-plus page books devoted to a subset of the topic. I suppose there could be a discussion of whether this is really history rather than one of the “ologies” (psychology, sociology, etc.) but I’ll leave that to others – those are intermingled with history anyway, as is anthropology.

I have always been interested in how our current Western European society developed its thinking and how this can be traced back to ancient Greece. I’ve read a lot of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato (in translation of course). I’ve read a fair amount of books discussing this in relatively (I now realize) general terms. However right now I’m reading Kevin Corrigan’s Evagrius and Gregory: Mind, Soul and Body in the 4th Century. This is an extremely detailed examination of Evagorius Ponticus and Gregory of Nyssa and how their writings reflect a Greek classical origin. I’m fighting through this and recognizing that at this level of detail, picking through Evagrius’ Praktikos concept by concept and looking for its origin in Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, goes deeper than I want to go.

The funny thing is, I find the source material very interesting. But the analysis of this material (which is detailed and seems quite well done), at least to this level, has been boring me. I’m reading this in 5 page or so blocks, not a good way to get through something.

Let me provide an example from the introduction (you know – where general concepts are, uh, introduced) of Chapter 6, “Gregory and the Fall of Intellect”:

“The formulaic phomen, “we say,” indicates agreement among members of a school and what is agreed upon is a problem of interpretation in Plato’s Republic and Symposium. The Republic posits the good as the supreme mathêma, beyond both intellect and being. The Symposium, by contrast, in Diotima’s ladder of ascent, posits the beautiful as the goal of desire and vision. Are the two equivalent? The question remains open in Plato. But in Plotinus, the “beautiful” is ambiguous, indicating the beauty of intellect secondarily and that of the Good beyond it primarily (cf. EnneadI 6, 6-7; V 5, 12; and VI 7, 31-3), though this has been debated.” (103)

There are other aspects of medieval history where I love attention to detail but reading page after page of this makes my head want to explode. I believe (though I’m really not qualified to assess it) that Corrigan knows his stuff. But what I want to read would be something more along the lines of, “Gregory’s concept of beauty could be summarized as the mind as a mirror designed to reflect beauty and the body as a further reflective element, capable of receiving and sustaining the beauty of the mind. This concept can be traced to Plotinus, however its origin can be found in the writings of Plato.” Then give me footnotes (Corrigan footnotes the above anyway).

This is not to say that books such as this are not useful or even important. It’s just at a level of detail beyond what I want to explore (for now anyway – who knows where I’ll be a couple of years, or even months, down the road). This is the benefit of my doing this as a hobby. I can choose not to dive so deeply as Corrigan would take me. I love my real job but there are pieces of it which are quite tedious. Just yesterday I viewed a 2 hour webinar designed to introduce a FEMA technical guide (755 pages) on earthquake safety which I’ll need to mine for information on a publication I’m working on. These federal technical folks know their stuff but are not noted for giving the most thrilling presentation. But I’m being paid to do this and I will.

I’ll finish Corrigan. I have this stubborn thing which happens whenever I open a book and the only two times I’ve closed a book without finishing was over disgust at the crappy level of information provided, certainly not because it’s overly informative. I’m sure I’m going continue to gobble up source material, in particular Neoplatonist sources. But it reminds me that I do this as a hobby and my level of knowledge will never reach that of professionals (overall anyway). I can set aside critical areas because I choose not to investigate them thoroughly. It’s a flawed approach to true knowledge but for certain areas of history, it’s an approach I’m choosing to take.

1 Understanding that Medieval (and Ancient) folks thought differently from us (moderns) is a fundamental concept which I think should be one of the first things anyone interested in either period should explore. The best general survey on this which I’ve read is; Lindberg, David C., The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1992). ISBN: 0-226-48231-6. For those familiar with this book, the level of detail I want to explore is somewhere between it and Corrigan.

BeDuhn, Jason David, Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma I: Conversion and Apostasy, 373-388 C.E.. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-8122-4210-2.

Corrigan, Kevin, Evagirus and Gregory: Mind, Soul and Body in the 4th Century. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing (2009). ISBN: 978-0-7546-1685-6.


Posted by on January 18, 2012 in Blogology, Books, Historiography


Tags: , , , , , , ,