Tuesday, April 17, 2012

D. S. Wallace-Hadrill:

On the use of Greek philosophy
by the Eastern Church /

Περί της χρήσης της ελληνικής φιλοσοφίας
από την Ανατολική εκκλησία

Although Antiochene Christianity was biblical and historical rather than philosophical, it did not exist in a philosophical vacuum. Syria and Palestine, though inferior to Athens and Alexandria as centres of philosophy, had made a contribution that was far from negligible and whose continuity over several centuries suggests vitality in its philosophical tradition. We may pass in brief review the names of Antiochus of Ascalon, who died in the first century B.C.; Nicolaus of Damascus, historian as well as philosopher, whose adaptations of Aristotle excited the Syrians four hundred years later to make a Syriac translation of his work; Nichomachus of Gerasa in the second century A.D., concerned in his Theological Arithmetic with Pythagorean number mysticism; Numenius of Apamea, an important and influential second-century figure in the development of Platonism; the formidable figure of Porphyry, born about 232 at Tyre, through whose eyes later centuries read his master Plotinus, and whose Isagoge to Aristotle's Categories was to become the almost obligatory approach for Syrian study of Aristotelian logic; Iamblichus, from Chalcis in Syria, who died about 336, an important systematizer of the work of his predecessors; and four of the seven philosophers who went from Athens to Persia when Justinian closed the school of Athens in 529, namely one Syrian, two Phoenicians and one from Gaza. This succession of notable philosophers over several centuries does not suggest that the study of philosophy was uncongenial to thinking minds east of the Mediterranean, nor that the study of theology in Antioch during that period could have been pursued in isolation from the currents of philosophical thought. From the first century Christian thinking had been under the greatest debt to Philo Judaeus for his integration of Platonic concepts into the structure of Judaeo-Christian thought. It may be doubted how far he was an original thinker, but the influence of his Platonized Judaism was of seminal importance. The Platonism of the Middle and Neo-Platonists was derived not only from Plato himself, but from an eclectic blend of the more mystical elements of Plato's thought with Aristotelian logic and theology and to some extent with Stoicism, but the Aristotelian and Stoic elements were introductions into what was in essence a metaphysical structure derived from Plato.

In a cultural milieu that was predominantly Platonist, a Christian could of course be open to Platonist influence without being aware of it, and it could find a place in his unexpressed assumptions particularly in respect of elements in Platonist thought which were not altogether inconsistent with a Christian standpoint. The doctrine of transcendent Ideas, fundamental to any kind of Platonism, may be taken as an example. The concept of Ideas is developed through the Platonic dialogues to demonstrate the class of transcendent entities or universals distinct from sensible things, 'patterns, as it were, fixed in the nature of things. The other things are made in their image.' The Ideas are alone completely objective, separate from particular existing things, changeless, eternal. The craftsman mending a broken shuttle is making a copy of 'the Idea according to which he made the other shuttle', and the Idea of a shuttle is 'precisely what a shuttle is'. So too every beautiful thing shares in the absolute beauty of the Idea of the beautiful; a bed and table share in the Ideas of bed and of table. These universals are 'given' elements in our knowledge, their influence spreading downwards into the fragmented, dissolving world of physical things. In the attempt to apprehend the Ideas, the human mind has to ascend: thus in the Republic Socrates plots geometrical points along a straight line to illustrate the ascent of reason from the lowest realm of unrelated images to the higher realm of physical perception of related objects, thence to mathematical entities of which the physical objects are images, thence to the realm of Ideas, of which the mathematical entities are themselves a kind of mythical presentation. This is the process of dialectic. In the Phaedrus the dialectical method is defined as the uniting under one Idea of separated particulars by means of synthesis. Dialecticians thus rise from the particular to the universal by practice of the logic which is 'the keystone of the whole structure of knowledge'. Man is born into this world with a soul reincarnated from a previous life in which there has already been some degree of apprehension of the Ideas. The soul is reborn with recollection of the Ideas. The dialectical process is a ladder of ascent only for those who have undergone the rigorous intellectual training that fits the few to be philosophers, but every man is born with innate knowledge upon which he acts constantly and blindly in everyday acts of recognition of objects. Dialectic is a method of achieving fuller apprehension of what is already known to be there. The Ideas are the end term of a journey of rediscovery. The difficulties inherent in Plato's doctrine of Ideas are recognized with remarkable objectivity in the Parmenides, anticipating many of the objections to be raised by Aristotle. Prominent among these difficulties is the precise definition of the relation of particular to universal, which is not sufficiently covered by terms such as 'shadow' or 'imitation'. It was to fill this gap that Plato's philosophical descendents filled the cosmos with hierarchies of semi-divine beings, developing the original conception away from strict dialectic in the direction of the mystical and spiritual realm. The mystical element had been increasingly present in Plato's own thought, but by the Christian era had gone far beyond anything envisaged by Plato. This was the cultural atmosphere breathed by educated Christians, and it did not demand too great a side-step for them to express scriptural data in terms of late Platonism. Christian adoption of Platonism could take the form of conscious use of Platonist categories to enable Christian doctrine to be presented to the pagan world, or it could be an unconscious assumption of common factors. In the work of eastern Christian theologians we may look for such unstated assumptions at points of stress, where we are made aware of the presence of an extraneous or distorting element present in an argument.

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