In classical Christian education circles, it is often asked why Christian students should bother with pagan authors. Who needs Virgil and Aristotle, so the question goes, when you’ve got the Church Fathers and Doctors? Like so many of the questions which come up in modern Catholic life it is hardly a new one – and has already been answered by the Church Fathers and Doctors themselves. Basil the Great, for instance, considered just this issue with his “Address To Young Men On The Right Use of Greek Literature”.
Throughout his address the saint argues firmly and at length for the importance of young men being steeped in the better sort of pagan literature, and conjures up a powerful image of Christendom as a tree:
Just as it is the chief mission of the tree to bear its fruit in its season, though at the same time it puts forth for ornament the leaves which quiver on its boughs, even so the real fruit of the soul is truth, yet it is not without advantage for it to embrace the pagan wisdom, as also leaves offer shelter to the fruit, and an appearance not untimely. That Moses, whose name is a synonym for wisdom, severely trained his mind in the learning of the Egyptians, and thus became able to appreciate their deity. Similarly, in later days, the wise Daniel is said to have studied the lore of the Chaldeans while in Babylon, and after that to have taken up the sacred teachings.
In other words, while it is the fruit – corresponding in Basil’s analogy to Christian truth – that we ultimately seek from a fruit tree, a purpose is also served by the tree’s leaves, which in the analogy represent pagan wisdom. Indeed, it might not be carrying the analogy too far to point out that a fruit tree’s leaves are necessary for the tree to flourish; many have argued that the collapse of Christian culture stems in no small part from the abandonment of Greco-Roman heritage, an abandonment which commenced with Luther’s purging from the Protestant version of the Old Testament Greek texts like the Book of Wisdom. In any event, Saint Basil, doctor of the Church, says what he says: “It is incumbent upon us, for the present,” he tells his students, “to trace, as it were, the silhouette of virtue in the pagan authors.”
Needless to say, a liberal arts education rooted in the pagan classics does not celebrate pagan literature uncritically. Yet even when we rebuke the pagans for their occasional promotion of vice, or their idolatory, we may do so via the more salutary aspects of the Greco-Roman heritage, as Basil demonstrates: Whenever pagan poets praise that which is unwholesome, he advises his students to stop up their ears, much “as Odysseus is said to have fled past the song of the Sirens.” Nor is this reference to the Odyssey atypical; throughout his argument Basil colorfully and brilliantly cites, borrows from, and draws upon various pre-Christian philosophers, poets, and heroes, from Hesiod and Solon to Pythagoras and Alexander the Great.
When he spoke of the pagans and virtue, Basil may have had in mind especially the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, who began his illustrious career by successfully prosecuting the corrupt governor of Sicily, cemented his fame by exposing a conspiracy against the Roman republic, and opposed to the death revolutionary efforts to transform Rome into an empire. Although he himself attained the rank of senator, Cicero never forgot the more modest class from which he had come, and was wont to rebuke his senatorial colleagues for their haughtiness and reluctance to share power. Defendi rem publicam adulescens, non deseram senex, wrote Cicero in a typical passage toward the end of his life. “I defended the Republic as a youth, I will not abandon her now that I am an old man.”
As Plutarch and Shakespeare relate, not long after writing these words Cicero was murdered by agents of Mark Antony, and after that the republican statesman’s head and hands were nailed to the rostrum of the Roman senate by his assassins. Along with his zeal for duty and interest in truth, Cicero’s dramatic death for the sake of the public good has, over the ages, commended him to many of the faithful – with the most notable of his Christian admirers being Saint Augustine, who credited Cicero with having put him on the path toward eventual conversion.
That story is well worth relating. As a reckless, restless, ambitious youth of nineteen, Augustine had gotten his hands on one of Cicero’s philosophical dialogues, named the Hortensius, wherein Cicero had compared the art of oratory with the art of philosophy. At the end of this study, Cicero had concluded that philosophy – devotion to wisdom – is a higher, nobler endeavor than learning how to win friends and influence people. This is a very interesting conclusion, coming as it does from a man whose power and status had been due precisely to his talents as an orator.
Or at least the young and impressionable Augustine thought so. In his famous Confessions, Augustine describes the effect Cicero had had upon him:
The title of the book is Hortensius and it recommends the reader to study philosophy. It altered my outlook on life. It changed my prayers to you, O Lord, and provided me with new hopes and aspirations. All my empty dreams suddenly lost their charm and my heart began to throb with a bewildering passion for the wisdom of eternal truth. I began to climb out of the depths to which I had sunk, in order to return to you […] My God, how I burned with longing to have wings to carry me back to you, away from all earthly things, although I had no idea what you would do with me! For yours is the wisdom. In Greek the word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom,” and it was with this love that the Hortensius inflamed me.
According to Augustine, Cicero even helped him to be on his guard against false philosophers:
There are people for whom philosophy is a means of misleading others, for they misuse its great name, its attractions, and its integrity to give colour and gloss to their own errors. Most of these so-called philosophers who lived in Cicero’s time and before are noted in the book. He shows them up in their true colors and makes quite clear how wholesome is the admonition which the Holy Spirit gives in the words of your good and true servant, Paul: Take care not to let anyone cheat you with his philosophizings, with empty fantasies drawn from human tradition, from worldly principles; they were never Christ’s teaching. In Christ the whole plenitude of Deity is embodied and dwells in him.
Here readers should notice that even as he offers a tribute to a pagan statesman, Augustine finds nothing ironic about quoting both the Book of Job and the Apostle Paul. Thus Augustine demonstrates that familiarity with pagan works does not exclude devotion to the Faith. To the contrary, to ask why Christian students should bother reading Cicero when they have Saint Augustine is a little like asking why babies should bother learning to talk when they could be learning to sing. In reality, the two activities are complementary.
So if we are to preserve anything of Christian civilization, it is imperative that we safeguard and pass on the classical tradition which nourished not only the minds of Saint Augustine and Saint Basil, but those of virtually every other Christian poet, teacher, and leader.
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