2.2. Cyril of Alexandria and Ancient Philosophy
2.2.1. Varying Assessments
«The assessment of Cyril of Alexandria’s knowledge and use of philosophy varies. By some he is depicted as lacking philosophical depth. For example, G.M. de Durand, who has edited several of Cyril of Alexandria’s texts, is not too positive on the archbishop’s use of philosophical terminology. He calls the variation in meaning of the word ιδιότης in these texts “one sign among others of the fact that, although he is not fully ignorant of the technical vocabulary, Cyril hardly cares to strictly delimit the area of use of these terms”. And in a note on the second dialogue on the Trinity he states:
So, we might as well say that a development of a strongly arid technicalness, borrowed from an elementary textbook on logic, interrupts, between 424d and 431a, an investigation which takes place more on the level of religious realities, brought to bear by the alleged supremacy of the γεννητός.De Durand apparently regards the philosophical passages in Cyril’s works as alien to the archbishop’s own thinking; he has not fully incorporated them into his theology. A similar assessment is given by Lionel R. Wickham:
Cyril’s Christology, at the level of philosophical explanation, will always seem thin. It lacks the barrage of technical jargon to be developed over the next century . . . Cyril’s innocence of jargon, his simplicity overagainst the sophistications of his opponents and even of his interpreters, is his strength.Jacques Liébaert is more nuanced in his judgement. In an article on Cyril of Alexandria and ancient culture he concludes that the archbishop’s “erudition is biblical, not profane”. He is an exegete and a theologian, but his knowledge of profane culture is limited. The only work which engages more thoroughly with pagan culture is Contra Julianum, the refutation of Adversus Christianos, which the emperor Julian had written in the year 363. But even about this work Liébaert writes: “Not being a philosopher, at least much less so than Eusebius and especially Origen, it was more difficult for Cyril to tackle Julian’s philosophy and Greek philosophy in general”. Even so, although Cyril has borrowed from earlier Christian works like Clement of Alexandria’s Stromateis and Eusebius of Caesarea’s Praeparatio Evangelica, he has used a more recent version of Plotinus’s Enneads, and he cites works from Porphyry, to which there are no references in his predecessors’ works. Therefore, Cyril must have consulted the original writings himself. Besides, the Alexandrian bishop quotes Hermetic books, while Eusebius does not mention Hermes Trismegistus. Cyril probably borrowed several Hermetic quotations from [pseudo-]Didymus’s De Trinitate, but here again, some of his citations are not to be found in any other work. Liébaert concludes that, if Cyril had these texts at first hand, he must have had a considerable knowledge of Hermetic literature, but he regards it more likely that the archbishop used a florilegium.
Cyril does not always attack philosophy, he also looks for philosophical views that are in line with Scripture in order to support his argument against Julian—tactics not uncommon in apologetic works. According to Liébaert, Cyril can be positive about Platonism, neo-Platonism, Pythagoreanism, and even Hermetism, while he is more critical of Aristotelianism and Stoicism. On the other hand, he can cite the Aristotelian philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias, who is not
found in Eusebius’s Praeparatio Evangelica. And
the polemics against Arianism have led Cyril to employ sometimes principles of logic and definitions borrowed from Aristotelian dialectic, but in a rather casual way, and undoubtedly under the influence of earlier polemicists (Didymus and the Cappadocians).Voices that attribute to Cyril a more thorough knowledge of contemporary philosophy, however, are increasing. Robert M. Grant examined the archbishop’s use of non-Christian sources in his treatise Contra Julianum. His findings are in line with those of Liébaert, but his assessment is more positive. It is his conviction that “following leads is characteristic of Cyril’s work as a whole”. He means to say that when Cyril finds references to certain non-Christian authors in writings by Eusebius of Caesarea and pseudo-Didymus, he not only makes use of the quotations by these Christian writers, but he goes back to the original sources and through them finds other writings of the same non-Christian authors, which he also quotes. This holds particularly true for books by Porphyry.
Even more positive about Cyril’s philosophical knowledge is Jean-Marie Labelle. He has browsed the entire extant oeuvre of the Alexandrian archbishop for references to philosophers and comes to the conclusion that especially in the Thesaurus Cyril shows dexterity in handling Aristotelian logic. He discusses a few passages from this work in more detail, and comments that “the subtlety and the accuracy of Cyril’s argumentation should be underlined”, and that the author of such passages “possesses a real philosophical skill and a perfect mastery of Aristotelian analytics”.
Building on the findings of these people, in 1984 Ruth M. Siddals wrote her dissertation, Logic and Christology in Cyril of Alexandria. She investigated how Cyril starts to apply “the tools of logic” in his anti-Arian writings; how he “learns to use” them; how, in his christological writings, he analyses John 1:14 “with great precision in accordance with the rules of logic”; and how, in the course of the Nestorian controversy, “Cyril goes on to specify, with technical skill, the precise ways in which humanity and divinity are seen to be both one and different within the person of Jesus Christ”. According to Siddals, Cyril is well aware that the theologian is dealing with mystery, and that there is a tension between logic and mystery, so that for him, “logic is a tool to be used with flexibility and creativity”. So, here we find a much more positive assessment of Cyril’s knowledge and application of at least the logical tradition in philosophy.
More recently (1994), Marie-Odile Boulnois, in her thorough study of Cyril of Alexandria’s trinitarian doctrine, also discusses the archbishop’s use of philosophical methods and concepts. She traces Cyril’s application of Aristotelian argumentation, especially the syllogism, and investigates in some detail Cyril’s utilization of Aristotle’s categories. In this context she speaks of “the technical mastery which Cyril shows” in several passages that have parallels in pseudo-Basil’s Adversus Eunomium, a mastery which goes beyond that of pseudo-Basil. And she writes that Cyril “not only knows the general rules of Aristotelian logic, but also its subtleties”. With respect to Cyril’s sources, Boulnois thinks that he may have been inspired by Porphyry’s lost commentary on the Categories or by a post-Porphyrian commentary, but she regards it equally probable that Cyril has read Aristotle’s Categories himself.
From these findings it may be concluded that there is a distinct possibility that Cyril of Alexandria was familiar with Aristotelian logic, more than has often been admitted. Therefore, an investigation of the archbishop’s terminology in christology should reckon with possible influences of the logical tradition on the meaning he attached to the terms. For this reason, we will now turn to a discussion of that tradition and to the use Cyril made of it in his trinitarian writings».
The Dyophysite Christology of Cyril of Alexandria
[Η Δυοφυσιτική Χριστολογία του Κυρίλλου Αλεξανδρείας],
Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae Texts and Studies of Early Christian Life and Language, Vol. 96,
2009 Brill NV, Leiden, pp./σσ. 62-65.