A Divine and Barbarous Philosophy

by David Bradshaw

Philosophy today is an academic discipline, one among many.  In the ancient world it was something far more sweeping: the love of wisdom (sophia).  The precise nature of such wisdom was, then as now, a question on which philosophers disagreed sharply.  Even so, there was broad agreement that wisdom is not simply a matter of what one knows, but of how one lives.

In understanding the ancient view of philosophy, one cannot overestimate the importance of Socrates.  Socrates provided a model for later philosophers in numerous ways: his relentless curiosity; his independence of social convention; his ironic humor; his disregard of bodily pleasure and pain; and his willingness to accept poverty, and ultimately death, in order to fulfill his mission.  Regardless of the disagreements among the various philosophical schools, Socrates established the expectation that a philosopher is one who subordinates pleasure and worldly success to the pursuit of wisdom.

One can see, then, why the early Christians often regarded pagan philosophy as a forerunner of their faith.  The classic expression of this view is that of St. Justin Martyr (c.100- c.165).  Justin describes in his Dialogue with Trypho how the aspirations he had as a student of philosophy were fulfilled in Christianity.

As Justin tells the story, he had first enrolled with a Stoic teacher, but after some time realized that this teacher could tell him nothing about God.  He next sought out a Peripatetic, but was repelled by his demand of a fee.  He then turned to a Pythagorean, who insisted that he must learn music, astronomy, and geometry before he could even begin to study philosophy.

Leaving these teachers behind, Justin enrolled with a Platonist, a teacher who finally promised to teach him about God.  Such was Justin’s enthusiasm that, as he writes, “the perception of immaterial things quite overpowered me, and the contemplation of Ideas furnished my mind with wings, so that in a little while I supposed that I had become wise; and such was my stupidity, I expected forthwith to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.”

Justin’s life then took a sharp turn.  While walking alone one day he encountered an old man who began to question him about his studies.  Through gentle questioning the stranger soon exposed the weaknesses of Platonic teaching about reincarnation and the transmigration of souls, as well as the error of thinking that the soul is immortal apart from the divine will.

The young Justin, in exasperation, asked what is the use of following a teacher when all are so fallible.  The stranger then unfolded to him the teaching of the prophets about “God the Father and his Son, the Christ”—a teaching derived not from human wisdom, but from the divine Spirit.  Justin was converted and embraced Christianity.

In his apologetic works, Justin emphasizes that the divine Logos is present in all men.  He sees at least the wisest of the Greek philosophers, such as Socrates and Heraclitus, as having been true worshippers of the Logos.  Christianity is for him simply “this philosophy”—that is, the true philosophy, as opposed to the many that are mixed with falsehood.

Justin’s student Tatian, although placing more emphasis than did Justin on the errors of the pagan philosophers, likewise refers to Christianity proudly as “our barbarian philosophy.”  It is “barbarian,” of course, because it originated among the Jews, a non-Hellenic people. 

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) took a similar view.  Clement argues that, just as the Law of Moses had been given to the Jews to lead them to Christ, so philosophy had been given to the Greeks.  Christianity itself he calls a “divine and barbarous” philosophy, one that is imparted not by study but by the living divine Wisdom, Christ.

Within later Christian writings, to “philosophize” often meant simply to live the Christian life to the fullest extent, particularly as a martyr or an ascetic.  Eusebius of Caesarea describes how Origen “philosophized” through self-denial and strict adherence to the commands of the Gospel:

He persevered, as far as possible, in the most philosophic manner of life, at one time disciplining himself by fasting, at another measuring out the time for sleep, which he was careful to take, never on a couch, but on the floor.  And above all he considered that those sayings in the Gospel ought to be kept which exhort us not to provide two coats nor to use shoes, nor, indeed, to be worn out with thoughts about the future.  (Ecclesiastical History VI.3)

A definition offered by St. Nilus the Ascetic, writing in the early fifth century, summarized this distinctively Christian understanding of what it means to be a philosopher:

Philosophy is a state of moral integrity combined with a doctrine of true knowledge concerning reality.  Both Jews and Greeks fell short of this, for they rejected the Wisdom that is from heaven and tried to philosophize without Christ, who alone has revealed the true philosophy in both his life and his teaching . . . [By his example] he taught us that the true philosopher must renounce all life’s pleasures, mastering pains and passions, and paying scant attention to the body; he must not overvalue even his own life, but must readily lay it down when holiness demands.  (Ascetic Discourse; trans. Philokalia, vol. 1, 201)

Despite its distinctively Christian content, there is an obvious similarity between Nilus’s definition and the model of the philosophical life presented by Socrates.  Christian monasticism in effect gave institutionalized form to the impulse to give up all else in order to pursue wisdom—that is, divine Wisdom—that Socrates had embodied.

The Byzantines never lost this sense that philosophy finds its fullest expression in the monastic life.  At the same time, they recognized that earlier, non-Christian understandings of philosophy also have value.

Perhaps the most authoritative treatment of the subject was that of St. John of Damascus in the eighth century.  He lists a half dozen definitions of philosophy which he regards as equally legitimate.  They range from the relatively neutral “philosophy is knowledge of things that are insofar as they are,” to the more explicitly theistic: “Again, philosophy is the making of oneself like God.  Now, we become like God in wisdom, which is to say, in the true knowledge of good; and in justice, which is fairness in judgment without respect to persons; and in holiness, that is, in the goodness superior to justice by which we do good to them that wrong us.” (Dialectica 67)

The reference to “doing good to them that wrong us” clearly indicates the Christian provenance of this definition.  On the other hand, the definition just as plainly has one foot in the classical world, and specifically in the passage of Plato’s Theaetetus (176b) where Socrates states that the aim of human life is to achieve likeness to God so far as possible.

What relevance does this history have for us today?  I would say that both philosophers (that is, secular philosophers) and Christians have something to learn from it.

Within secular philosophy, scholars such as Pierre Hadot, Martha Nussbaum, and Richard Sorabji have done much in recent years to recover the awareness that philosophy was originally understood as a way of life.  They recognize that Christianity was in many ways the inheritor of this view.  However, for the most part they regard its Christian adaptation as a kind of appendage or epilogue to its real flourishing in antiquity.

I would suggest that we view things the other way around.  After all, it was Christian monasticism that essentially shaped medieval culture, and thereby also (less directly) the modern world.  Moreover, unlike the philosophical schools of antiquity, monasticism has never died.  In the Christian East, in particular, the teaching of authors such as St. Nilus of Ancyra shaped a tradition that remains vigorous today.

To many this suggestion will no doubt seem incredible.  After all, we are accustomed to thinking of authors such as Plato and Aristotle as “like us” (that is, we modern philosophers) in their aims and methods, whereas monastics are a wholly different breed.  But it has been precisely the point of the work of Hadot and the others to call this view into question.  If we really wish to understand the ancients on their own terms, we must recognize—as did Justin Martyr—that Christianity has a plausible claim to be the true fulfillment of ancient philosophy, far more so than does the secular academic philosophy of the modern world.

On the Christian side, of course, Christians have long since ceased thinking of Christianity as a philosophy, in the sense of a way of life devoted to seeking divine Wisdom.  I believe that this has been a mistake.  It has enabled the loss of the ascetic dimension that is so essential to the ancient Faith.

For modern Christians, if they think about asceticism at all, the question is, ‘why should I add such a burden to my existing practice?’  That very question betrays how far we have lost touch with our roots.  For the ancients it would have been unthinkable that Christianity could be anything other than an ascetic way of life.  That is simply because it is a way of seeking divine Wisdom, and there is no way to do that apart from self-denial.

So I have two bold suggestions, one for philosophers and one for Christians.  Allow me to hazard the prediction that, for the reasons I have mentioned, neither one of them will win many adherents.

Then again, I may be wrong.  Barbarians have been known to change the world in ways that no one could have predicted.  For my own part, I am happy to cast my lot with the barbarian philosophers whose philosophy was also divine.

David Bradshaw is Professor in the Department of Philosophy, the College of Arts and Sciences, Kentucky University.

3 December 2017 © AIOCS