The Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique is a massive and invaluable theological reference work, which was begun in 1898 under the editorial direction of Jean Michel Alfred Vacant and continued to appear under successive editors (E. Mangenot, E. Amann) and with various revisions until work on it ended in 1950. Much of it is now in the public domain; the complete text of at least an early version of it is available online, on Internet Archive. Below I provide links to these volumes, and to a few articles from them.

Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 1, part 1 (Aaron – Apollinaire)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 1, part 2 (Apollinaire de Saint-Thomas – Azzoni)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 2, part 1 (Baader – Cisterciens)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 2, part 2 (Cajetan – Cisterciens)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 3 (Clarke – Czepanski)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 3, part 2
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 4, part 1 (Dabillon – Emser) (Note: this copy is missing cols. 941-948)
(another copy of this)
[fascicle: Dieu – Dogme]
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 5 (Enchantement – Fiume)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 5, part 2 (Eucharistie – Fiume)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 6, part 1 (Flacius Illyricus – Hizler)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 6, part 2 (Géorgie – Hizler)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 7, part 1 (Hobbes – Immunités)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 7, part 2 (Impanation – Irvingiens)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 8, part 1 (Isaac -Jeûne)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 8, part 2 (Joachim de Flore – Latrie)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 9, part 1 (Laubrussel – Lyre)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 9, part 2 (Mabillon – Marletta)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 10, part 1 (Maronite – Messe)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 10, part 2 (Messe – Mystique)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 11, part 1 (Naaséniens – Ordinales)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 11, part 2 (Ordéric Vital – Paul [Saint])
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 12, part 1 (Paul Ie – Philopald)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 12, part 2 (Philosophie – Prédestination)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 13, part 1 (Préexistence – Puy [Archange de])
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 13, part 2 (Quadratus – Rosmini)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 14, part 1 (Rosny – Schneider)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 14, part 2 (Scholarios – Szczaniecki)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 15, part 1 (Tabaraud – Trincarella)
Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 15, part 2 (Trinité – Zwinglianisme)

 

Some links to articles in this collection:

Dieu. Sa nature d’après les Pères,” by X. Le Bachelet, in vol. 4. (A partial translation of this article was given on this blog eight years ago in the post “On the Cappadocians and Eunomius.”)
Esprit-Saint,” by A. Palmieri, in vol. 5.
Hypostase,” “Hypostatique (Union),” and “Idiomes (Communication des),” by A. Michel, in vol. 7, part 1.
Le IIᵉ Concile de Lyon,” by V. Grumel, in vol. 9, part 1.
Palamas, Grégoire” and “Palamite (Controverse),” by M. Jugie, in vol. 11, part 2. (A partial translation of the latter article may be found on this blog, beginning here.)
Platonisme des Pères,” by R. Arnou, in vol. 12, part 2.

 

Don’t curse Plato

September 18, 2013

From time to time I had heard about this story from the desert fathers, but it is only today that I came across the actual passage. It is found in a work by St. Anastasius of Sinai, a seventh-century abbot of the Monastery of St. Catherine, titled Interrogationes et responsiones de diversis capitibus a diversis propositae, that is, Questions and answers on various topics, asked by various people (PG 89, 311A-824C); the passage cited is found at col. 764 B-D.

Note that St. Anastasius, at the end of the passage, explicitly rejects the view, still popular among many, that hell is only temporary, or that there is a possibility for repentance there; he says that the story about Plato shouldn’t be taken to imply this, as Christ went down to Hades only once.

Why the scholar cursed Plato exceedingly, the author doesn’t inform us.

ΕΡΩΤΗΣΙΣ ΡΙΑ´.

QUESTION 111.

Τί οὖν; καὶ τοῖς Ἕλλησι τοῖς τελευτήσασι πρὸ τῆς Χριστοῦ παρουσίας, δεῖ εὔχεσθαι, καὶ μὴ ἀναθεματίζειν;

What then? Must one pray also for the pagans who died before Christ’s coming, and not anathematize them?

ΑΠΟΚΡΙΣΙΣ.

ANSWER.

Μηδαμῶς ἀναθεματίσῃς ἄνθρωπον πρὸ τῆς ἐπιδημίας Χριστοῦ τελευτήσαντα· καὶ ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ προσάπαξ καὶ μόνον ἐγένετο τὸ Χριστοῦ κήρυγμα. Προλαβὼν γὰρ Ἰωάννης ὁ πρόδρομος ἐκήρυξε κἀκεῖσε τὸν Χριστόν· καὶ ἄκουσον τοῦ ἁγίου Πέτρου λέγοντος περὶ Χριστοῦ, ὅτι «Πορευθεὶς, φησὶν, ἐκήρυξε καὶ τοῖς ἐν ᾅδῃ πνεύμασι τοῖς ποτε ἀπειθήσασι.» Καὶ νῦν φέρεται εἰς ἀρχαίας παραδόσεις, ὅτι τις σχολαστικὸς πολλὰ κατηράσατο τὸν Πλάτωνα τὸν φιλόσοφον. Φαίνεται οὖν αὐτῷ καθ’ ὕπνους ὁ Πλάτων λέγων· Ἄνθρωπε, παῦσαι τοῦ καταρᾶσθαί με, σεαυτὸν γὰρ βλάπτεις, ὅτι μὲν ἄνθρωπος ἁμαρτωλὸς γέγονα· οὐκ ἀρνοῦμαι. Πλὴν κατελθόντος τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ, ὄντως οὐδεὶς ἐπίστευσε πρὸ ἐμοῦ εἰς αὐτόν. Ταῦτα δὲ ἀκούων, μὴ νομίσῃς εἶναι πάντοτε ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ μετάνοιαν· ἅπαξ γὰρ καὶ μόνον τοῦτο γέγονεν, ὅτι Χριστὸς ἐν τοῖς καταχθονίοις κατελήλυθε, τοὺς ἀπ’ αἰῶνος κεκοιμημένους ἐπισκέψασθαι. By no means should you anathematize someone who died before the coming of Christ. Even in Hades the preaching of Christ came, one single time. For John the Forerunner, going there beforehand, preached Christ. And hear what St. Peter has to say about Christ: “Going forth,” he says, “he preached even to those in Hades, who were sometime disobedient” (cf. 1 Peter 3:19-20). Now then, it is found in old tradition that there was a scholar who cursed the philosopher Plato exceedingly. So, during his sleep, Plato appeared to him and said, “Man, stop cursing me, you are only harming yourself. That I was a sinful man, I do not deny. But when Christ came down to Hades, there was in fact no one who believed in him before I did.” But when you hear these things, do not assume that there always exists [a possibility for] repentance in Hades; for this happened only once, because Christ had descended to those beneath the earth, so that he might visit those who had fallen asleep from all ages.

Yesterday evening I gave a lecture here in Cleveland at the Lyceum School before an audience of ten people. It is, I confess, a somewhat haphazard discussion, having been thrown together in the past few days in the midst of my work teaching six separate subjects; I could wish that it were better. The Q&A that followed the lecture was, however, excellent; some very important topics were raised. The following is the text of the address, with slight revisions.


My name is Peter Gilbert; I have been, for the past three months, a teacher here at the Lyceum School. Because the manner in which I came to be at this school is, in some ways, pertinent to the subject matter of this lecture, I shall very briefly provide you with some historical background. In 2005, at the time that I was still teaching at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but was preparing to leave, I made the acquaintance of Luke Macik, now the headmaster of this school; at that time, Mr. Macik served as a lawyer in Gallup, New Mexico. I had heard of him through a mutual acquaintance, Mr. Joe Cieszinski, manager and proprietor of Cornerstone Books, who one day told me about a project that was underway to found an Eastern Catholic great books college near Chicago; he mentioned Mr. Macik, a parishioner at his church in Albuquerque, as one of the men spearheading this endeavor. Through him I obtained Mr. Macik’s telephone number; I called him, then drove down to Gallup to visit him, and the rest, as they say, is history. Eventually I became closely involved in the project to found what was to be called Transfiguration College; unfortunately, for various reasons, including the downturn in the economy, the college never managed to become a reality. At the time, I found it striking how often people who heard about this college would say what a great idea it was, and how it filled a real need. I still think that such a college is a good idea, that there is a real, felt need for it, and that a marriage of the traditional, theological content of Eastern Christianity with the methodology of great books, liberal arts education makes inherent sense. It is doubtless because he knows that I think this that Mr. Macik asked me, some months ago, to deliver this lecture, to talk about why such an education makes sense.

But I have to preface this talk by stating that to attempt to talk about both liberal education and Eastern Christianity, and to accomplish this in the space of a half hour or 45 minutes, is to undertake a fairly impossible task. There are too many things that must be left undefined and unexamined. What do we mean by “Eastern Christianity”? What do we mean by “liberal education”? One could spend well over 45 minutes trying to define just one of these two entities; to attempt to speak of both is perhaps foolish.

So let me start by saying that it is not my intention this afternoon to spend the time allotted to me making an apologia for this or that brand of Eastern Christianity. I am, myself, an Orthodox Christian, and am grateful for my baptism in the Orthodox Church; but I am also an Orthodox Christian who is convinced that many Orthodox arguments commonly used to justify the continued separation of the Churches do not measure up to scrutiny. I am quite a newcomer to Cleveland, but I have lived here long enough to notice that there are various neighborhoods in town where one finds, at one end of the block, a large church with an onion dome on top of it and a sign on the front gate saying “Orthodox,” while, at the other end of the block or the street, one finds another large church, perhaps equally splendid and ornate, with perhaps even more onion domes on top and a sign on the front saying “Catholic.” I could wish that reasons of frugality, if not the better motives of Christian love and peace, might dictate an end to such unnecessary duplication. It is, indeed, distressing to see Eastern Christianity as a kind of permanent illustration of Jesus’ words about a house divided.

Much of my research over the past half decade or so has been devoted to reading and translating people who also were distressed by this division and who sought to do something to end it. In particular, I have translated some of the works of John Bekkos, who was Patriarch of Constantinople during the short-lived Union of Lyons (1275-1282); he supported that union, and argued at length that it was theologically sound. Most Orthodox do not like John Bekkos; in contemporary Greece, he is commonly portrayed as an arch-villain, a sort of Judas or Benedict Arnold who sold his priceless birthright of Orthodox truth for a mess of Frankish porridge; mythological stories are invented about him having descended upon Mount Athos with Latin mercenaries, wreaking destruction and slaughter upon the courageous monks who resisted his impious doctrines; one particularly strident commentator on my blog maintained last year that he had seen, with his own eyes, John Bekkos’s bones, preserved somewhere upon Mount Athos in some sort of liquid medium, perpetually boiling as a sure sign of his eternal damnation; how John Bekkos’s bones ended up on Mount Athos when he was buried hundreds of miles away in an unmarked grave in Asia Minor, inside a government fortress, the ardent commentator never saw fit to explain, nor how he recognized the bones as actually belonging to John Bekkos and not to some other individual.

For myself, I have no special revelation regarding the eternal destiny of John Bekkos’s soul, but I am persuaded that Bekkos was a sincere Christian and a man who loved peace and truth. Bekkos was, I think, not only a good man, but a good liberal artist; indeed, I suspect that these two things, being a good man and being a good liberal artist, have something to do with each other. What these two things have to do with each other is perhaps the most important thing we need to clarify today. But, to say a bit more about Bekkos: he accepted the Union of Lyons because he sought to inherit Christ’s blessing upon the peacemakers, because he believed it was right, and in accordance with God’s will, to seek the unity of God’s people, and because his studies of the fathers had led him to conclude that the Greek-speaking fathers of the ancient Church were not as dogmatically opposed to Latin Christian formulations of doctrine as were later Greek Christians like Photius and Michael Cerularius; he thought that the later theologians, under the pressure of nationalistic rivalry and dogmatic controversy, had emphasized those things in which the churches seemed to differ and had minimized those things that might allow those differences to be seen in a better light. Bekkos even thought that he could see, in Greek patristic literature, a teaching on the Holy Spirit akin to the Latin doctrine of the Filioque; he found evidence for this in writers like St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Epiphanius, but also in the Cappadocian fathers themselves, in St. Athanasius, in St. Maximus, and in many others. When St. Cyril says that the Holy Spirit is “poured forth substantially from both, that is to say, from the Father through the Son” (De adoratione et cultu in spiritu et veritate, lib. I; PG 68, 148 A), and that the Spirit is “both proper to [the Son of God] and in him and from him, just as, to be sure, the same thing is understood to hold true in the case of God the Father himself” (Commentarius in Joelem prophetam 35; PG 71, 377 D), and when St. Gregory of Nyssa says that the Son “is conceived of as before the Spirit’s hypostasis only in concept, with respect to causality” (Contra Eunomium I; PG 45, 464 B-C), or when he compares the Trinity to three candles, in which the flame of the first is communicated to the third through the second one (Adv. Macedonianos 6; PG 45, 1308 B), John Bekkos infers from these statements, and others like them, that the fathers in question knew of a certain mediation of being within the Holy Trinity, that the order of the persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not merely based upon the order of the persons’ manifestation in time, but it has a basis in an eternal order of relationships within the divine Trinity itself. Undoubtedly, there are those who disagree with this interpretation of the Greek fathers; each side has its own set of proof-texts, to which it invariably appeals. But, for the purposes of this lecture, my point is basically this: John Bekkos is one example of an Eastern Christian who is also a liberal artist, a man who makes use of his intellect in the pursuit and defense of truth. He is certainly not the only example, and probably is not even the best one, but he is one whom I happen to know pretty well. He knew that texts have more than one level of meaning, that you cannot always rely upon the currently fashionable interpretation of them, that it is important to go back to the original sources and see for yourself what they are actually saying, and that this activity is not only intellectually but also morally good; it is one of the ways in which Christ the Truth is served. In reading the texts in this way, I think he has some insight into the mind of the fathers; they also were liberal artists, who served the Truth with their intellects; they knew that, while reason cannot get us to faith and knowledge of the triune God, reason does have its proper place in defending faith and in differentiating truth from falsehood. It is not for nothing that St. Peter tells his readers to yearn after “sincere, logical milk” (1 Peter 2:2, τὸ λογικὸν ἄδολον γάλα).

Of course, someone may say that the fathers were much more than liberal artists; they were saints, and their speech about God proceeded, not merely from a mastery of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, but from prayer and spiritual experience. There is a saying commonly cited in works on Orthodox Christianity, a saying which, I think, goes back to the fourth century writer Evagrius of Pontus, to the effect that the theologian is not, primarily, the one who sets forth a propositional system, but the one who prays. The type of the theologian is Moses, the man who ascends Mount Sinai, enters the darkness there, and speaks with God face to face. It is perhaps dangerous to say this in a school called the Lyceum, but it must be acknowledged that Aristotle is not universally held in high esteem in the Christian East; there were various attempts to baptize him (much of St. John of Damascus’s work The Fount of Knowledge, for instance, consists of a summary presentation of Aristotelian philosophy), and the fathers often rely on Aristotelian categories more than they care to admit, but, by and large, the one whom St. Thomas refers to as “the Philosopher” is not, in the Christian East, presented as a model for emulation; St. Gregory the Theologian says that we need to speak of God ἁλιευτικῶς, μὴ ἀριστοτελικῶς, that is to say, like a fisherman, not like an Aristotelian. Greek Christian hymnology is full of lines like those found in the Akathist Hymn, where the Mother of God’s miraculous childbearing is said render eloquent orators as mute as fish, and to shred to pieces the “word-webs of the Athenians.” One may also recall the response of a certain Georgian delegate to the Council of Florence to the Aristotelian argumentation of the Dominican John of Montenero; he said: “What’s this about Aristotle, Aristotle? A fig for your fine Aristotle…. What is fine? St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Basil, Gregory the Theologian; a fig for your Aristotle, Aristotle.” (Cited by Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence [1959], p. 227.) More particularly, the idea that theology should be thought of as a “science of revealed truth,” a rationally adumbrated propositional system, is almost universally looked upon within the Christian East with suspicion and misgivings; this, I think, probably holds true for many Eastern Catholics as well as for most Eastern Orthodox.

All of this makes one wonder whether the subject of Liberal Education and Eastern Christianity is genuinely a fruitful topic, whether these two phenomena can be related otherwise than by mere negation. I think that they can be, although we have to be careful not to misrepresent one or the other. I remember that, when we were having our discussions about a curriculum for Transfiguration College, a proposal was made that we should structure our whole theology curriculum around the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Probably the thought behind this was that some figure was needed comparable to the role St. Thomas plays in Western Catholic thought, that is, someone who gives the East a “Neo-Platonic” synthesis, parallel to the Aristotelian synthesis Thomas supplies the West; the fact that Thomas quotes Pseudo-Dionysius so frequently was probably an added benefit. I fervently sought to shoot down this trial balloon before it got too far off the ground. First, because I am not persuaded that the Dionysian corpus is all that representative of Eastern Christian theology; it probably arose in Monophysite circles, and only became fully accepted in the Byzantine world through the interpretations of St. Maximus. But, secondly, I don’t know how many of you have actually attempted to read the works of the Pseudo-Areopagite, but I have; they make Kant’s and Hegel’s writings appear as models of expository clarity by comparison. This does not mean that one should ignore them; they are in fact important. But, as in mountain-climbing, one should start on smaller hills, and only attempt the Matterhorn or Mount Everest after one has worked one’s way up and gained a certain facility, so likewise it seemed to me folly to be sentencing undergraduates to four years of prolonged exposure to the Pseudo-Dionysius, with his super-this and his hyper-that, and his paradoxical affirmations of God as not-Being and not-Love; I could think of no surer way to guarantee high attrition.

One way to approach this subject of Liberal Education and Eastern Christianity might be to give a brief historical survey of the kinds of education Eastern Christians have actually received over the years, in their various home countries. Such a survey would not be without interest, and perhaps it would help to balance exalted philosophical claims about what constitutes an ideal education; one would like to see such speculations grounded in facts and history. For instance, I find it somewhat curious that even the very expression “Liberal Education” [rather, the expression: “Liberal Arts Education”] seems to be confined mostly to American educational discourse: people in Europe do not seem to know what a “liberal arts college” is, or at least, they have very few institutions that would answer to that description. Earlier in my life, I spent two years studying in England; one of the things I observed there is that the British educational system directs young people into an academic specialization much earlier than the American system does; in America, most students do not choose a college major until about their Junior year; in Britain, students are already taking specialized tests, their “O-Levels” and “A-Levels,” in their mid-teens, at a time when most American students are muddling through high school. It seemed to me at that time that this British system, with its earlier specialization, reflects the fact that Britain is a smaller country, there are fewer openings within the economy and more competition to fill them; thus, the competition perforce starts earlier, and children are allowed a shorter time in which to grow up. They are forced earlier to decide who they are, and are given less opportunity to explore different possible futures. Perhaps that makes for a certain maturity, or perhaps it creates, in some cases, a certain grim acceptance of inevitability, an inability to imagine new possibilities. On this point, I prefer the American system, with all its faults; I like the fact that we allow ourselves a little more time to grow up, in spite of the danger this entails that some of us will never grow up at all.

Some of the early Christians of the second century went about in the habit of philosophers, like St. Justin Martyr; these men were generally recognized as teachers and accepted students. But it is not till nearly the beginning of the third century that we find the first Christian school, and we find this in Alexandria; the catechetical school there, founded by a man named Pantaenus, featured in time famous teachers like Clement and Origen, and, later, Didymus the Blind. Of Origen’s teaching methods we have a detailed description from his student St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, who gave a panegyric on Origen in the year 238; by this time, Origen had relocated to Caesarea in Palestine, but his teaching there probably followed the same pattern as at Alexandria. St. Gregory describes Origen as an inspired teacher who brought people to Christ, not by keeping secular knowledge from them, but precisely by engaging with it, accepting in it whatever was good and rejecting what was bad, but all the while subordinating all worldly knowledge to the inestimable prize of knowing Christ. At times, St. Gregory compares Origen to Socrates, probing the students’ ideas and cutting down anything of feeble growth, so that the ground could be cleared for genuinely worthy fruits. He says that, along with giving instruction in dialectic and in the mathematical and physical sciences, Origen also introduced his students to every school of Greek philosophy, “selecting and setting before us all that was useful and true in all the various philosophers, and putting aside all that was false.” “He deemed it right for us to study philosophy in such wise, that we should read with utmost diligence all that has been written, both by the philosophers and by the poets of old, rejecting nothing, and repudiating nothing (for, indeed, we did not yet possess the power of critical discernment), except only the productions of the atheists, who, in their conceits, lapse from the general intelligence of man, and deny that there is either a God or a providence.” (In Originem oratio panegyrica, 13; PG 10, 1088 A-B; tr., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 6, p. 34.)

Origen’s Christian school, nevertheless, was not widely emulated in later times. It cannot be stressed enough that, in the Christian East, the idea that Christians should avoid secular schools never obtained much currency; quite the opposite. In the fourth century, it was quite normal for Christian teachers to teach secular subjects, and numerous saints of the Church attended secular schools and had pagans among their teachers; this was the case, for instance, with St. John Chrysostom, who studied under the pagan rhetorician Libanius, as well as with St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian, who studied at Athens during the decade of the 340’s; one of their teachers of rhetoric was the Christian Prohaeresius; the other was a pagan named Himerius. Among their fellow students was a member of the imperial family, named Julian; while at Athens he became a secret pagan, and he openly espoused paganism at the time that he became emperor (360/361). One of Julian’s acts was to issue an edict commanding that all public teachers be approved by the emperor; the intention of this was to exclude Christians from the teaching profession. Julian’s reasoning was that the ancient classics are pagan literature, and do not belong to the Christians; Christians have no right to teach such things. St. Gregory of Nazianzus retorted that classical literature belongs to us in respect of our being human; letters are a gift from God, just as language is, and the proper cultivation of the mind cannot be rightfully withheld from any person. One result of Julian’s edict was that Christians increasingly sought to provide Christian substitutes for the classical literature that was the traditional basis for instruction; two men named Apollinarius, father and son, set to work translating the Bible into classical meters, St. Gregory the Theologian, likewise, composed great quantities of classical verse, and, in the Latin-speaking world, men like Pope Damasus and Prudentius and St. Ambrose wrote hymns and poems and epigrams; even St. Augustine tried his hand at this, producing some verses against the Donatists.

Nevertheless, in spite of all this literary work, the basic classical curriculum did not change much. Nearly a thousand years after the Cappadocians and St. John Chrysostom, John Bekkos, in the thirteenth century, still received basically the same kind of liberal education as these fathers did when he studied under his tutor George Babouskomites; he read Homer and the other Greek poets, studied grammar, logic, rhetoric, perhaps a bit of mathematics and the sciences; a similar kind of education was received by Bekkos’s chief adversary, George of Cyprus. Neither of them saw such an education as conflicting in any way with traditional Orthodox belief. One has to remember that, until the final capture of Constantinople by the forces of Mehmet the Conqueror in the year 1453, the Eastern Christian world had never known the same sort of extinction of classical learning that the West had undergone in the succession of barbarian invasions from the fifth century onward, until learning finally began to revive under Charlemagne. The East did not experience such a hiatus, and consequently the Church was not looked upon in the same way as the sole repository of knowledge — although later, during the Ottoman period, it was indeed the parish priest who was mainly responsible for keeping the Greek language alive.

* * *

Is there, then, a specifically Eastern Christian form of education? Should there be? Or should an Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholic believer simply receive the best education that is available, from whatever source, and leave the specific details of Christian doctrine to what can be picked up at home or in church?

As mentioned earlier, I still think that the idea of an Eastern Christian great books college, or some application of great books methodology to the study of Eastern Christianity, is a good idea. There have been at least two attempts that I know of to make that idea a reality; one of them, Transfiguration College, I have already spoken of; an earlier, Orthodox attempt, Rose Hill College, actually opened its doors in Aiken, South Carolina in the late 1990’s for about the space of a year; it finally had to close down because the president of the college, a man named Owen Jones, who had bankrolled the whole operation, had essentially spent all his fortune on it and was going broke. Currently, an Orthodox professor of philosophy named Bruce Foltz, who teaches in St. Petersburg, Florida, is one of the main people pushing the idea; he makes the claim that an Orthodox Christian, by virtue of being an Orthodox Christian, will be a better reader of the great books than other people, a claim which seems to me theoretically bold but not easily verifiable; it is not, in any case, a claim that I would be prepared to defend. Another man who still publicly argues in favor of Eastern Christian great books education is the sometime dean of Rose Hill College, Dr. James Cutzinger; my worry is that he seems a bit too enamored of the religious theosophy of Frithjof Schuon, whose works are sometimes to be seen in New Age bookstores and which teach the doctrine that all religions are one.

My own claims about the liberal arts and liberal education, claims that were embodied in the Transfiguration College Statement on Educational Policy and which I would still be prepared to defend, are the following:

Education is necessary for our humanity. Unlike frogs, which cannot be more or less frogs, or oak trees, which cannot be more or less oak trees, human beings can become more or less human; being human is a task to which we are called. We can fail to live up to our nature. One way of speaking about this difference is to say that, unlike frogs and oak trees, human beings are created in the image of God; we possess that image as our birthright, but we can also fail to live up to it, in which case we are judged by our Creator.

Part of our being made in the image of God consists in our ability to speak; the first thing we find Adam doing is that he gives names to the animals. We have what the Greeks call λόγος; we have reason. This reason pertains to our being in the image of God; just as God speaks, so do we, and we are, perhaps, most rational when we recognize God’s speech, echoing in manifold ways in the world around us, when we hear God’s word and do it.

In hearing and doing God’s word, all of us, children of Adam, have fallen short, all of us have in various ways disfigured the image of God that dwells within us. To restore that image, God sent his Image, his Word, his Son, into our midst, so that we, by believing in him, might again be rendered reasonable and be reckoned children of God.

Being restored to the image of God is not a thing which any liberal education, as such, is able to deliver. The only truly liberal education, that is able to free us and restore us to our proper humanity, is that education which is afforded in Christ’s Church, that school in which Christ is not only the Teacher, but the daily bread on which the students feed.

But this does not mean that liberal education, in the common sense of the term, is useless. Our nature as thinking, deliberating, moral beings has to be educated; we cannot make right choices if we deprive ourselves of the means of knowing what choices there are to make. We need to learn how to read, to weigh evidence, to test possibilities; this also is part of learning to recognize God’s word in the creation. And we need to learn how to speak, so as to persuade others of the truth and dissuade others from fallacy and wrong; this also is part of doing God’s word. We cannot do these things, or at least, cannot do them well, if we are illiterate and ignorant.

St. Paul is very clear: the world, by its wisdom, did not know God (1 Cor 1:21); and, he says, he does not come to the Corinthians with excellency of speech, or enticing words of man’s wisdom; he knows that the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:25). Those of us who are in the business of education need to remember this, that there is no inherent guarantee that a person who studies the liberal arts, who has read all the Great Books backwards and forwards, who perhaps speaks with the tongue of men and of angels, may not turn out to be an utter scoundrel. It is a sad fact about the fallenness of our nature, that intellectual excellence is able to coexist with moral depravity. But St. Paul also says that “that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them: for the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom 1:19-20). Even if the world, in its wisdom, did not know God, it had no excuse for not knowing God; God had, in fact, left sufficient evidence of himself in the world, for anyone who had eyes to see. It pertains to a Christian education to have the eyes to see, to point out the hand of God in his works, to remind those who might not see or hear that there is in fact a Creator who will judge us. If that is what a Christian education is supposed to do, then that is also what an Eastern Christian education is supposed to do.

I need to end this talk; there is much more that could be said about this subject; we have hardly touched at all upon large questions, like the meaning of “freedom” that is implied in the word “liberal” (what is it that liberal education purports to free us from?). And much could also be said about the ambiguous stance that various thinkers, both within Byzantium and in later Russia, took towards the value of the liberal arts; if Dostoevsky famously said that, “Two and two makes four; yes, but, ‘Two and two makes five’ is sometimes also very charming,” what does this tell us about his estimation of the claims of rationality? But these are eternal questions, and a lecture, fortunately, is not eternal, but has a time limit, so I shall herewith bring this talk to a close. Thank you.

A sobering read

June 22, 2010

I read this afternoon the manifesto of a group called “the Dark Mountain Project.” The authors of the manifesto are the writers Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth. The document (it may be be downloaded here) speaks very bluntly about a failure of our current, global civilization, while suggesting that there are problems inherent in human civilization as such. It is a depressing, sobering essay. Given that I prefer being depressed and sober to being giddy and intoxicated, I recommend it. Here is a brief sample:

There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us. After a quarter century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall, the end of history, the crude repackaging of the triumphalism of Conrad’s Victorian twilight — Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis. Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.

This time, the crumbling empire is the unassailable global economy, and the brave new world of consumer democracy being forged worldwide in its name. Upon the indestructibility of this edifice we have pinned the hopes of this latest phase of our civilisation. Now, its failure and fallibility exposed, the world’s elites are scrabbling frantically to buoy up an economic machine which, for decades, they told us needed little restraint, for restraint would be its undoing. Uncountable sums of money are being funnelled upwards in order to prevent an uncontrolled explosion. The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.

All this is true, and it is good to hear it stated in such stark terms. As to the idea that civilization itself is the problem, or part of the problem (an idea suggested, in part, by the essay’s title, “Uncivilisation”), I don’t buy that; the essay is, in fact, a fine example of civilized writing, which is why I recommend it. Nor can I accept the authors’ description of the Christian gospel as a “myth of eternal salvation,” a phrase they let drop at one point. It is curious that, although Mr. Hine and Mr. Kingsnorth seem to have a notion of an ecological fall, and highly developed consciences, their metaphysical naturalism probably precludes any belief in the reality of sin.

Anyway, the essay is worth reading, and brings to expression a feeling which many of us carry with us much of the time these days — a sense of something having gone deeply wrong with the civilization we have inherited, of living in a world tottering dangerously on the brink. None of us, apparently, are very sure what to expect when the world tips over; these authors, nevertheless, think that we would do well to start looking into the pit that lies below. And I must ask myself: how, as a Christian, do I respond to this?

On Physiognomy

March 17, 2010

Aristotle says that thinking does not occur without images (De Anima III.7, 431a17). In support of this observation, I would note my own curious habit, when reading, to form mental pictures of persons whom I have never seen and of whose appearance I actually have no notion. Often these mental pictures are later found to bear little resemblance to reality. Orthodox iconography appeals to this natural human tendency by presenting standard ways of representing people: St. Paul is always represented as balding and dark-haired, with a dark beard, a somewhat thin man, as befits a scholar; St. Peter is usually shown with a full head of greying, curly hair and a short, curly beard, a stocky, muscular man, as befits a fisherman. The Three Great Hierarchs have their own recognizable physiognomies; no one familiar with Orthodox iconography would confuse an image of St. Basil the Great with an image of St. Gregory the Theologian, or, again, an image of either of them with one of St. John Chrysostom. It is possible that these iconographic traditions go back to portraits drawn from life; it is also possible that, in some cases, they are imaginary representations. Whether the iconographic tradition of representing female saints is as well developed as this, I would not venture to say; I can recognize an image of St. Xenia of St. Petersburg from afar and can differentiate it from, say, an image of St. Mary of Egypt or from an icon of St. Macrina, more however because of their respective manners of dress than from their physiognomies as such.

So what do I imagine people like John Bekkos, Gregory of Cyprus, George Metochites, Constantine Meliteniotes, George Moschabar, the Emperor Michael Palaiologos, and all the rest of the characters I am engaged in studying looked like?

I used to think that Gregory of Cyprus looked like Vice President Dick Cheney with a beard. That is to say, someone with an ingrained scowl, someone whose long experience in secret dealings behind other’s backs to overthrow political and personal enemies had left recognizable traces upon the face that God gave him, leaving a kind of public testimony to a life shaped by arrogance and resentment. I have no way of demonstrating the truth of this intuition, and probably if I were better versed in the Cypriot’s own writings I would have to revise this picture in various ways, but I am simply stating for the record how I have imagined his appearance.

Is it not a remarkable thing how the mind shapes the body? If one looks at a picture of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy and compares it to a picture of Rush Limbaugh, does one not detect a certain spiritual resemblance: the pudginess of the face, the beadiness of the eyes? One would think that holding certain political views for long periods of time effected changes in one’s bodily structure: the eyes and brain shrink from lack of use, the jowls expand….

What about Bekkos? I am not sure. There is a representation of him made by an anonymous artist in the seventeenth century to accompany Jacques Goar’s Euchologion; some months ago I scanned this image and added it to the Wikipedia article on Bekkos. The image shows a medieval Greek bishop, holding the wide-brimmed hat then in use, leaning slightly backward on his episcopal staff, as if poised either to declaim against some injustice or perhaps to hurl the said episcopal staff down on the ground in a fit, as Bekkos once did in the presence of the Emperor Michael when the latter refused to pardon a man. The expression on his face is somewhat ambiguous, and might even be read as a smile, but more likely it is an expression of defiance in response to some affront or to some egregious statement of untruth. The dramatic poise suggests that the artist was acquainted with the acting conventions of seventeenth-century Italian opera.

I have no idea if this image looks anything like Bekkos’s actual appearance. It conveys a certain type: an image of a Greek bishop, forthrightly glaring at his foes, passionately rejecting the perpetuation of Christian division. In some ways, that is all that an image of a person one has never seen can be expected to do: to give a visual representation of the fundamental idea that shaped the person’s life. The image serves as a kind of play actor. One does not have to see a production of the play King Lear to know that the leading role has to be performed by a man who can convey both authority and instability at the same time. An image of King Lear is already present in our minds before we see Richard Burton or whoever else performs the role on stage take it upon himself for a certain season. And few people can actually perform this role convincingly because, quite simply, few of us have the internal resources of character to represent greatness. There are few things more pathetic than to see a convention of Lincoln impersonators, men who think that, by merely donning a beard and a stovepipe hat, they can cover the mediocrity of their own lives and represent this man to other people. One cannot put on a love of justice and truth quite so easily as a hat and a beard; without that, the external representation rings hollow.

Whatever the external lineaments of John Bekkos’s face, it is clear to me that a love of justice and truth formed part of the internal lineaments of his mind and heart; given the nature of things, these internal lineaments probably manifested themselves upon his countenance in some way eventually. It is also fairly clear that the man had his limitations: at the show trial of early 1283, he consented to sign a document condemning his own teaching, and much of the final years of his life are marked by an unmistakable sense of bitterness towards the man who succeeded him as Patriarch of Constantinople. For myself, I do not make Bekkos my “idol,” as one reader of this blog charged earlier this year. I see Bekkos as someone, first of all, whose thought I would like to understand, since the fundamental problem which he confronted, the problem of Christian division, has not gone away; I presume to think that, as he analyzed the causes of this problem carefully and at great length, I might learn something from him. I altogether doubt that the solution for all the problems faced by Christianity in the present world, or even for the specific problem of Christian disunion, is to be found in a reenactment of the Union of Lyons. And I similarly doubt that, for many of the spiritual issues that confront me personally, John Bekkos has all that much to say; anyone who thinks that one can receive adequate spiritual nourishment by reading a steady diet of polemics over the Filioque issue surely has some self-examination to do. But I believe that Bekkos was an honest man, and an intelligent reader of the fathers, who rightly, I think, pointed out that the position of most of the early Greek fathers of the Church on the subject of the Holy Spirit’s procession was not as absolutely inimical to the Latin Church’s position on this subject as Photius and his followers represented it, and continue to represent it. And I also think that the debate between Bekkos and his opponents had important implications for the direction Byzantine theology would take in the next generation; questions of how the divine presence and activity in us are to be understood were already being argued over by Bekkos, Melitentiotes, and Metochites, on the one hand, and men like George Moschabar and Gregory of Cyprus, on the other. Both as an historian and as a Christian, I would like to understand the terms of that debate, and see how it unfolded.

So, in brief, while I do not have in my mind a clear picture of what Bekkos looked like, a photographic image is not the point of my reading him. One reads authors in order to perceive the truth that they perceived, and to be shaped internally by it. It would of course help me in my studies if I had a clearer mental picture of the streets of Constantinople in the late thirteenth century, of daily life, of the ritual of the imperial court, of what it was like to attend a liturgy in Hagia Sophia in the days before it became a mosque. My understanding of these things is necessarily limited, in part by the fact that I live seven hundred years later. But perhaps it is just as well that we don’t see the past with perfect vision; perhaps it would cause us to forget that life is actually lived in the present, and one emulates the life of the righteous, not by wearing the same clothes, but by serving the same God, who is the ever-living source of life to all.

Some of us have been celebrating our fiftieth birthdays this year, and that fact has occasioned reflections on this blog upon the passage of time; so perhaps it is fitting for me to mark also the commemoration today of the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English lexicographer and man of letters. Not long ago, I had picked up again James Boswell’s monumental biography of him, without realizing that this anniversary was coming up; and I was struck by certain passages of that book which relate Johnson’s dislike of Americans and his contempt for democracy (“Whiggism”), passages which I reproduce below. In spite of his anti-Americanism, Johnson is a favorite author of mine, and has been since I was in high school. When I was in England in the 1980’s, I attended the college at Oxford where Johnson had been enrolled, Pembroke; among the various Johnsoniana on display in the college’s library is his teapot. I give below also a sampling of Dr. Johnson’s prayers.

From Boswell’s Life of Johnson, R. W. Chapman, ed. (Oxford 1953), p. 590.

The doubts which, in my correspondence with him, I had ventured to state as to the justice and wisdom of the conduct of Great-Britain towards the American colonies, while I at the same time requested that he would enable me to inform myself upon that momentous subject, he had altogether disregarded; and had recently published a pamphlet, entitled, Taxation no Tyranny; an answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress.

He had long before indulged most unfavourable sentiments of our fellow-subjects in America. For, as early as 1769, I was told by Dr. John Campbell, that he had said of them, ‘Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.’

Boswell goes on to cite an unpublished paragraph from Taxation no Tyranny (op. cit., p. 592):

‘Their numbers are, at present, not quite sufficient for the greatness which, in some form of government or other, is to rival the ancient monarchies; but by Dr. Franklin’s rule of progression, they will, in a century and a quarter, be more than equal to the inhabitants of Europe. When the Whigs of America are thus multiplied, let the Princes of the earth tremble in their palaces. If they should continue to double and to double, their own hemisphere would not contain them. But let not our boldest oppugners of authority look forward with delight to this futurity of Whiggism.’

Op. cit., p. 946:

From this pleasing subject he, I know not how or why, made a sudden transition to one upon which he was a violent aggressor; for he said, ‘I am willing to love all mankind, except an American:’ and his inflammable corruption bursting into horrid fire, he ‘breathed out threatenings and slaughter;’ calling them, ‘Rascals—Robbers—Pirates;’ and exclaiming, he’d ‘burn and destroy them.’ Miss Seward, looking to him with mild but steady astonishment, said, ‘Sir, this is an instance that we are always most violent against those whom we have injured.’ —He was irritated still more by this delicate and keen reproach; and roared out another tremendous volley, which one might fancy could be heard across the Atlantick. During this tempest I sat in great uneasiness, lamenting his heat of temper; till, by degrees, I diverted his attention to other topicks.

Op. cit., pp. 947-950:

He as usual defended luxury; ‘You cannot spend money in luxury without doing good to the poor. Nay, you do more good to them by spending it in luxury, than by giving it: for by spending it in luxury, you make them exert industry, whereas by giving it, you keep them idle. I own, indeed, there may be more virtue in giving it immediately in charity, than in spending it in luxury; though there may be a pride in that too.’ Miss Seward asked, if this was not Mandeville’s doctrine of ‘private vices publick benefits.’ Johnson. ‘The fallacy of that book is, that Mandeville defines neither vices nor benefits. He reckons among vices everything that gives pleasure. He takes the narrowest system of morality, monastick morality, which holds pleasure itself to be a vice, such as eating salt with our fish, because it makes it taste better; and he reckons wealth as a publick benefit, which is by no means always true. Pleasure of itself is not a vice. Having a garden, which we all know to be perfectly innocent, is a great pleasure. At the same time, in this state of being there are many pleasures vices, which however are so immediately agreeable that we can hardly abstain from them. The happiness of Heaven will be, that pleasure and virtue will be perfectly consistent. Mandeville puts the case of a man who gets drunk in an ale-house; and says it is a publick benefit, because so much money is got by it to the publick. But it must be considered, that all the good gained by this, through the gradation of alehouse-keeper, brewer, maltster, and farmer, is overbalanced by the evil caused to the man and his family by his getting drunk. This is the way to try what is vicious, by ascertaining whether more evil than good is produced by it upon the whole, which is the case in all vice. It may happen that good is produced by vice; but not as vice; for instance, a robber may take money from its owner, and give it to one who will make a better use of it. Here is good produced; but not by the robbery as robbery, but as translation of property. I read Mandeville forty, or, I believe, fifty years ago. He did not puzzle me; he opened my views into real life very much. No, it is clear that the happiness of society depends on virtue. In Sparta, theft was allowed by general consent: theft, therefore, was there not a crime, but then there was no security; and what a life must they have had, when there was no security. Without truth there must be a dissolution of society. As it is, there is so little truth, that we are almost afraid to trust our ears; but how should we be, if falsehood were multiplied ten times? Society is held together by communication and information; and I remember this remark of Sir Thomas Brown’s, “Do the devils lie? No; for then Hell could not subsist.”’…

Somebody mentioned the Reverend Mr. Mason’s prosecution of Mr. Murray, the bookseller, for having inserted in a collection of Gray’s Poems, only fifty lines, of which Mr. Mason had still the exclusive property, under the statute of Queen Anne; and that Mr. Mason had persevered, notwithstanding his being requested to name his own terms of compensation. Johnson signified his displeasure at Mr. Mason’s conduct very strongly; but added, by way of shewing that he was not surprized at it, ‘Mason’s a Whig.’ Mrs. Knowles. (not hearing distinctly,) ‘What! a Prig, Sir?’ Johnson. ‘Worse, Madam; a Whig! But he is both.’

I expressed a horrour at the thought of death. Mrs. Knowles. ‘Nay, thou should’st not have a horrour for what is the gate of life.’ Johnson. (standing upon the hearth rolling about, with a serious, solemn, and somewhat gloomy air,) ‘No rational man can die without uneasy apprehension.’ Mrs. Knowles. ‘The Scriptures tell us, “The righteous shall have hope in his death.”’ Johnson. ‘Yes, Madam; that is, he shall not have despair. But, consider, his hope of salvation must be founded on the terms on which it is promised that the mediation of our Saviour shall be applied to us,—namely, obedience; and where obedience has failed, then, as suppletory to it, repentance. But what man can say that his obedience has been such, as he would approve of in another, or even in himself upon close examination, or that his repentance has not been such as to require being repented of? No man can be sure that his obedience and repentance will obtain salvation.’ Mrs. Knowles. ‘But divine intimation of acceptance may be made to the soul.’ Johnson. ‘Madam, it may; but I should not think the better of a man who should tell me on his death-bed he was sure of salvation. A man cannot be sure himself that he has divine intimation of acceptance; much less can he make others sure that he has it.’ Boswell. ‘Then, Sir, we must be contented to acknowledge that death is a terrible thing.’ Johnson. ‘Yes, Sir. I have made no approaches to a state which can look on it as not terrible.’ Mrs. Knowles. (seeming to enjoy a pleasing serenity in the possession of benignant divine light,) ‘Does not St. Paul say, “I have fought the good fight of faith, I have finished my course; henceforth is laid up for me a crown of life?”’ Johnson. ‘Yes, Madam; but here was a man inspired, a man who had been converted by supernatural interposition.’ Boswell. ‘In prospect death is dreadful; but in fact we find that people die easy.’ Johnson. ‘Why, Sir, most people have not thought much of the matter, so cannot say much, and it is supposed they die easy. Few believe it certain that they are then to die; and those who do, set themselves to behave with resolution, as a man does who is going to be hanged.’ Miss Seward. ‘There is one mode of the fear of death, which is certainly absurd; and that is the dread of annihilation, which is only a pleasing sleep without a dream.’ Johnson. ‘It is neither pleasing, nor sleep; it is nothing. Now mere existence is so much better than nothing, that one would rather exist even in pain, than not exist.’ Boswell. ‘If annihilation be nothing, then existing in pain is not a comparative state, but a positive evil, which I cannot think we should choose. I must be allowed to differ here; and it would lessen the hope of a future state founded on the argument, that the Supreme Being, who is good as he is great, will hereafter compensate for our present sufferings in this life. For if existence, such as we have it here, be comparatively a good, we have no reason to complain, though no more of it should be given to us. But if our only state of existence were in this world, then we might with some reason complain that we are so dissatisfied with our enjoyments compared with our desires.’ Johnson. ‘The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful. It is in the apprehension of it that the horrour of annihilation consists.’


From E. L. McAdam, Jr., ed., Samuel Johnson: Diaries, Prayers, and Annals (New Haven and London, 1958), pp. 138-140.

O Lord God, in whose hand are the wills and affections of men, kindle in my mind holy desires, and repress sinful and corrupt imaginations. Enable me to love thy commandments, and to desire thy promises; let me by thy protection and influence so pass through things temporal, as finally not to lose the things eternal, and among the hopes and fears, the pleasures and sorrows, the dangers and deliverances, and all the changes of this life, let my heart be surely fixed by the help of thy Holy Spirit on the everlasting fruition of thy presence, where true joys are to be found, grant O Lord, these petitions.

Forgive, O merciful Lord, whatever I have done contrary to thy laws. Give me such a sense of my Wickedness as may produce true contrition and effectual repentance, so that when I shall be called into another state, I may be received among the sinners, to whom sorrow and reformation have obtained pardon, for Jesus Christs Sake. Amen.

O merciful God, full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity, who sparest when we deserve punishment, and in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy, make me earnestly to repent, and heartily to be sorry for all my misdoings, make the remembrance so burdensome and painful, that I may flee to Thee with a troubled spirit, and a contrite heart; and O merciful Lord visit, comfort, and relieve me, cast me not out from thy presence and take not thy Holy Spirit from me, but excite in me true repentance, give me in this world knowledge of thy truth, and confidence in thy mercy, and in the world to come life everlasting, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour, thy Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

On time passing

September 1, 2009

Today is the first day of the Byzantine year 7518 (see the post Happy New Year). It is the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, a day that the current Patriarch of Constantinople has seen fit to consecrate as the Day for the Protection of the Environment. It also marks the seventieth anniversary of the start of World War II, and the second anniversary of the founding of this blog. I’d like to reflect briefly on some of these things, on the passing of time, and on the state of this blog and my other work.

When I was a child, I viewed the events of the 1930’s and 40’s as ancient history. They had occurred a quarter of a century before I was born. That seemed to me the distant past, a bygone era when cars had running boards and events unfolded in flickering, black-and-white newsreels. Now that I am fifty years old, a quarter of a century seems like a short blip in time, a nothing. The Great Depression, the rise of Nazism in Germany and of Stalinism in Russia, the Second World War, the beginnings of the Cold War, all occurred in a brief period comparable to the time from Reagan’s presidency to the present. Human memory is short, and plays tricks with perspective.

Hardly a day goes by when I do not read one or more of the Psalms. I do this so habitually that I tend to think of them simply as contemporary prayers, applicable to my own current situation. Yet, if one accepts the ascription of most of the Psalms to the historical person, King David, these writings are older than Homer, older than the oldest surviving literature in a Western, Indo-European language. All of Greek literature is, relatively speaking, new, as the Greeks themselves were aware (see Plato’s Timaeus 22b Ὦ Σόλων, Σόλων, Ἕλληνες ἀεὶ παῖδές ἐστε, γέρων δὲ Ἕλλην οὐκ ἔστιν). The Greeks learned their alphabet from a man named Cadmus, the founder of the city of Thebes; the name is a Semitic one; kedem in Hebrew means both “East” and “old.” Cadmus was the old man from the East.

I once came across a very strange book with the title Hebrew is Greek (see reviews of it on amazon.com). The author, Joseph Yahuda, presents the thesis that Hebrew is a variant of the Greek language (not, curiously, the other way around). My knowledge of Hebrew is not good, but I know enough to feel certain that the thesis is basically preposterous. Nevertheless, the author finds enough linguistic parallels to convince me that there were cultural contacts at a very early, pre-literary stage. A couple of the parallels that seem most persuasive: ἀγάπη and ahava, according to Yahuda, are cognate (both terms for “love”), and so are tsedekah, and δίκη/δικαιοσύνη (the DIK root, meaning “justice,” is common). When I was teaching in Albania, I was surprised to learn that the Albanian word for ship, anije, is the same as the Hebrew word אניה (öneey-yah, Jonah 1: 3, 4, 5, etc.) — probably a relic from the early days when the only ships the Illyrians came in contact with belonged to Phoenician traders.

A possibility suggests itself. The Philistines could have been Pelasgians, a people who were widely spread in the Eastern Mediterranean before the arrival of the Greeks; the names are sufficiently similar to warrant considering this possibility. If there are deeply rooted linguistic parallels between the Greek and Hebrew languages, the Pelasgians/Philistines could have been a mediating agent of this.

None of this is perhaps very important. Yet it helps give me a sense of perspective on current events. Two years, or twenty five years, or seventy years, is not a long time in historical terms, much less so in geological ones. Human life is very brief. But, by the same token, much can change in a very short time.

I confess that some days I find it hard to concentrate on John Bekkos and events of the thirteenth century; some days, I would rather concentrate upon things that are unfolding before my own eyes. I would like to say that I have a great confidence in the future of humanity, but, if I were to say that, I would be misrepresenting my own sentiments. I would like very much to think that the future is bright; but I do not actually or habitually think this. The visible prospects for the continuance of the human race on earth are, at best, obscure. It is no longer something one can simply take for granted, as a natural fact.

Why do I say that? Some reasons:

  1. I take global warming, and the substantial contribution to it by human activity, to be sufficiently well-established to deserve to be called facts. What is not yet clear is how far it will be allowed to progress; but anything beyond a rise of 4º C in global temperature, it is said, would be utterly catastrophic and perhaps irreversible, and such a scenario is well within the bounds of possibility.
  2. The possibility that we are at or near a peak in global oil production also appears very real. While this does not spell an end to human civilization as such, it does portend possibly catastrophic economic consequences, as a global economy predicated upon perpetual growth in production comes up against the natural limitations of the earth’s resources. As was seen two years ago before the recession hit, the price of oil affects the price and availability of everything else — in particular, food, but also all oil-based products, which nowadays means pretty much everything since plastics are so ubiquitous. The idea that there will be a single energy source that will replace oil is the sort of assumption made by people who are unacquainted with the constraints of physical reality; after not much more than a century, a resource that took hundreds of millions of years to come into being, and that is the life-blood of the modern global economy, has been largely used up. Just as American oil production peaked in the early 1970’s, so, inevitably, the production of oil in countries like Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, will also peak, probably in the not-too-distant future. And after that, who knows what kind of competition will take place over the remaining supplies?
  3. There is still the possibility of a nuclear war; in some ways, this possibility seems more imminent now given the nuclear ambitions of countries like Iran and North Korea. There is also the possibility that a nuclear weapon, or some similarly heinous weapon, could be made use of by a non-state organization like Al-Qaida.

There are other worries I have, but these are probably sufficient for showing that apprehensions about the long-term prospects of, at least, the current political order of things, if not of humanity itself, are rational.

What about the rationality of hope?

Hope is a Christian virtue, and, as it is founded in the ultimate reality, God himself, it cannot be false. But one must not confuse hope with rash confidence. As a Christian, I have hope that God will save me, in spite of my many sins, because of the blood of Christ; but if I conclude from this that I have no changes to make in my life to conform it to the will of God, then I delude myself, and my hope is found to be, not hope in God, but a rash, unfounded confidence in my own innate invincibility. So, similarly, when Christians claim to have a firm hope that God will see humanity through the hard times ahead, but then do nothing to address the present challenges they face, but instead pretend that things are fine and are going to remain just fine and that nothing in their lives needs to change, such Christians act irresponsibly; they show, not true Christian hope, but a rash confidence, what St. Paul calls a “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3-4).

Of course, it is no part of Christian doctrine that the world should last eternally. But, as we are stewards of it, we have a duty to preserve it; we have no right to think that, in hastening its demise, we are doing God’s will.

I suppose that what I am advocating here is an end to the divisions between liberals and conservatives on some fundamental issues. Both sides should be able to acknowledge that abortion is a moral evil, and that irresponsible sexual practice corrupts both personal life and families and whole societies. So also, both sides should be able to acknowledge that the proper stewardship of the earth’s resources is a moral imperative, given the current human situation. It is a life issue. It is wrong to think that the one is a conservative issue and the other a liberal one: both are basic to the common good and to any long-term continuance of civil society. Indeed, any social platform or political agenda that does not look to the common good is inherently immoral and, for that reason, unchristian. If Christians cannot agree on such things, if we bicker and accuse each other, we are simply wasting our time, and might as well eat, drink, and be merry with the pagans, for we are no better than them.

The possession of a blog is a great temptation to being foolish, a kind of permanent soap-box onto which to climb and give speeches before an invisible public. It is all the more foolish when the speech-giver is unemployed and has nothing to show for himself. After two years of writing this blog, all I can say is that the work on John Bekkos continues. Perhaps I shall find useful things to say about him in the months ahead.