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Author Biography: Kathy Eden, Mark Van Doren Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, is also the author of Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition, published by Yale University Press.
In one of his longest and most widely circulated adages, the "Sileni Alcibiadis," Erasmus rehearses his cultural program for cooperation between the classical and Christian traditions by situating Jesus in along line of silenus-like figures: modest, even ridiculous on the outside; profoundly beautiful, even beatific on the inside. Beginning with Socrates, Erasmus traces this pedigree to include other ancient lovers of wisdom such as Antisthenes, Diogenes, Epictetus, the Hebrew prophets, and John the Baptist (III.iii.1; LB, II, 771B-772D; CWE, 34, 263-65). As he delineates this genealogy, he also briefly outlines its intellectual charter. And here, as in his most famous protreptic, the Paraclesis, this charter culminates in the controversial program of philosophia Christi.
Published the year after this adage and serving as introduction to his 1516 edition of the New Testament, the Paraclesis not only issues a call to the philosophy of Christ but does so with the help of some of the same pagan philosophers summoned in the adage. Echoing his essay on Alcibiades' figure of the silenus from Plato's Symposium, Erasmus asks in the biblical preface:
what else is the philosophy of Christ (Christi philosophia), which he himself calls a rebirth (renascentiam), than the restoration of human nature originally well formed? By the same token, although no one has taught (tradidit) this more perfectly and more effectively than Christ, nevertheless one may find in the books of the pagans very much which does agree with His teaching.... What shall we say of this, that many-notably Socrates, Diogenes and Epictetus-have presented a good portion of His teaching?"
Not only do the teachings of some pagan philosophers coincide with Christian doctrine, but also their ancient wisdom, like passages of Scripture, can inspire exegetical activity conducive to pious living. So Erasmus concludes his discussion of Alcibiades' sileni by drawing the reader's attention both to the homiletic quality of this adage as a kind of proverbi enarratio, an exposition on the proverb, and to the overlapping roles of the Paroemiographus and the ecclesiastes-the compiler of proverbs and the preacher (LB, II, 782B; CWE, 34, 281-82).
Closely associated with his philological efforts to improve both the Greek text of the New Testament and its Latin translation, Erasmus' program for cooperation between pagan and Christian antiquity encounters steady resistance within the Church. At the same time, his sermon-like essays based on worldly learning, linked as they often were with the master-teacher of other-worldly wisdom, enjoyed enormous popularity, both individually and as part of the collection of roughly 4,000 proverbs called the Adagiorum chiliades. Indeed, the Adages, as advertised repeatedly by Erasmus himself, constitutes the treasury or storehouse of the intellectual wealth of classical antiquity collected for common use and thus one of his principal contributions to a cultural program for cooperation. Alongside such works as the Antibarbarians and the Colloquies, the Adages boldly proclaims Erasmus' allegiance to a position on the old and nagging question about what Athens has to do with Jerusalem, the Academy with the Church.
As Erasmus knew all too well, however, the answer to this question as first posed in the second century C.E. differed markedly from his own. In the frequently cited De praescriptione haereticorum (ch. 7), where Erasmus would have found the question in its original formulation, Tertullian bluntly rejects a motley Christianity fashioned from the patchwork of Platonic, Stoic, and Peripatetic threads. Passionate in his dismissal of the Christian's need for even a passing acquaintance with-let alone a thorough grounding in-the classical tradition, Tertullian in this same work elucidates for these same Christians the very notion of tradition. And despite his wholesale rejection of things pagan, the jurisconsult-turned-Christian is keenly aware that tradition itself as a concept has deep roots in classical culture.
For traditio, a term from Roman law, designates the most regular means for transferring the ownership of property. Compiler of Roman law before Justinian and Tertullian's near contemporary, Gaius distinguishes between traditio and other forms of conveyance such as mancipatio, identifying traditio as the customary informal transfer appropriate to things not manciple-what the Romans called res nec mancipi. As examples of such res or property Gaius cites gold, silver and clothing: "Thus when possession of clothes or gold or silver is delivered on account of a sale or gift or any other cause, the property passes at once, if the person who conveys is owner of them" (Itaque si tibi vestem vel aurum vel argentum tradidero sive ex venditionis causa sive ex donationis sive quavis alia ex causa, statim tua fit ea res, si modo ego eius dominus sim).
Adapting throughout his treatise the specialized language of Roman law, beginning with the praescriptio of his title, Tertullian defends the teachings handed down by the apostles as the property of all true Christians. Sometimes he refers to this handing down as traditio apostolorum (21), and at other times as traditiones Christianae (19; cf. 28). And in keeping with his forensic terminology, he undertakes to preempt controversy with heretical opponents over doctrinal issues on the grounds that they can lay no claim to the scripture that would either substantiate or undermine their positions. In stark contrast to true Christians, Tertullian asserts with lawyerly logic, these heretics cannot use what they do not own (37):
Thus, not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures (Christianarum litterarum); and it may be very fairly said to them, "Who are you? When and whence did you come? As you are none of mine, what have you to do with that which is mine? ... This is my property (Mea est possessio). Why are you, the rest, sowing and feeding here at your own pleasure? This (I say) is my property. I have long possessed it; I possessed it before you. I hold sure title-deeds (origines firmas) from the original owners themselves (ab ipsis auctoribus), to whom the estate (res) belonged. I am the heir of the apostles (heres apostolorum). Just as they carefully prepared their will and testament (testamento), and committed it to a trust (fidei commiserunt), and adjured (the trustees to be faithful to their charge), even so do I hold it. As for you, they have, it is certain, always held you as disinherited (exheredaverunt), and rejected (abdicaverunt) you as strangers -as enemies."
Tertullian's case against his adversaries, in other words, depends on the extension of some of the most basic principles of Roman property law to this "intellectual property" of all true Christians. For it is fully in keeping with this law, he insists, that only those to whom property has been rightfully handed over or traditioned-in Latin, tradita-can exercise the privileges of ownership. They alone are heirs of the apostles.
In its exploitation of the broad and deep influence of ancient legal theory and practice on late antique culture, Tertullian's treatment of tradition, and more precisely of apostolic tradition, shares many of its assumptions with other early fathers of the Church, Greek as well as Latin. Concerning his position on the so-called classical tradition, on the other hand, Tertullian parts company with some from well within ecclesiastical ranks.
Origen, for instance, in his influential "Letter to Gregory," affirms the usefulness of Greek philosophy as a propaedeutic, a preparation, for the study of Scripture (1) and adduces in this regard scriptural evidence from Exodus (i.e., 3:22, 12:35-36). "Perhaps something of this kind," Origen writes (2), "is shadowed forth in what is written in Exodus from the mouth of God, that the children of Israel were commanded to ask from their neighbors, and those who dwelt with them, vessels of silver and gold, and raiment, in order that, by spoiling the Egyptians, they might have material for the preparation of the things which pertained to the service of God." For while the faint-hearted may admittedly use foreign wealth in the service of idolatry to craft a golden calf, the steadfast can use the same riches for vessels of holiness: the ark, the seat of mercy, and the sacred coffer for the bread of angels (2).
Origen's exegesis of the so-called spoliatio Aegyptiorum serves as a powerful defense for the proper use of classical culture, in spite of routine attacks on his alleged heterodoxy. And it is worth noting that here too, in the figure from Exodus (where the articles taken correspond exactly to those traditioned in the Institutes of Gaius), Origen understands the intellectual tradition under consideration in terms of property: not in this case property handed over to a rightful heir according to legal procedure, like the apostolic tradition in the possession of faithful Christians, but property seized from an enemy as an act of aggression. Basil of Caesarea and his friend Gregory Nazianzus help to assure the widespread transmission of Origen's exegesis in their once well-known Philocalia. So does Augustine, in his still enormously popular treatise on what the Christian should know: the De doctrina christiana.
Echoing Origen's defense of classical learning as an aid to understanding scripture, the second book of the De doctrina ends with the same figure of the Israelites' despoiling the Egyptians (2.40.60; cf. 2.41.62-2.42.63):
If those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather what they have said should be taken from them (vindicanda) as from unjust possessors (injustis possessoribus) and converted to our use. Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them (vindicavit) secretly when they fled, as if to put them to better use. They did not do this on their own authority (auctoritate propria) but as God's commandment, while the Egyptians unwittingly supplied them with things which they themselves did not use well.
As argued by the teacher of rhetoric steeped in classical culture including the law, the Christians' legal claim or vindicatio to pagan property-here intellectual property-rests on God's legal authority or auctoritas as original owner to take away from unjust possessors what He has given them and to bestow it elsewhere. For proof Augustine offers precedent: God's authorizing the Israelites' claim to Egyptian property.
While borrowing the specialized terminology of the law courts-terms such as auctoritas, vindicatio, and possessio-Augustine builds an admittedly rhetorical rather than a legal case for the Christian's right to the classical, especially the Platonic, tradition. In doing so, he creates in turn his own invaluable precedent for subsequent rhetoricians caught in later debates over the propriety or impropriety of using the intellectual wealth of so-called classical antiquity in the service of Christianity. As I have already noted, one such rhetorician so caught is Erasmus. Proclaiming himself the rightful heir of both early Christian and classical traditions, Erasmus reinvests his Augustinian legacy in order to advance his claim, as did Augustine before him, to the ancient philosophical, especially Platonic, tradition.
It is particularly appropriate, therefore, that one of Erasmus' most significant early works in this effort, the Antibarbarians, mounts its attack on the enemies of classical learning in the form of a Platonic dialogue on the model of the Republic and Phaedrus. Its principal speaker, Jacob Batt, argues his case with the help of two unimpeachable witnesses: one is Jerome, and more precisely, Jerome's exegesis in his seventieth letter of the mulier captiva, the "captive woman" of Deuteronomy 21; the other is Augustine-in particular, his exegesis from the end of the second book of the De doctrina on spoiling the Egyptians. Both proof-texts, not coincidentally, figure the classical tradition as property appropriated from an enemy.
Defending himself in a letter to the orator Magnus (Ep. 70) against the charge of muddying his Christian polemics with evidence from classical literature, Jerome adduces the testimony not only of Moses and the prophets, who made good use of gentile learning, but also Paul. In his own battle against the Greek intellectuals of his day (i.e., Acts 17:22-31, Jerome argues, Paul followed both the example of David and the injunction of Deuteronomy (70.2):
the leader of the Christian army, the matchless orator pleading the cause of Christ, turns round a chance inscription to make it into an argument of faith. He had learnt from the true David to seize the sword out of the hands of the enemy, and cut off the arrogant head of Goliath with his own blade. He had read in Deuteronomy the command delivered by the voice of the Lord, that the captive woman should have her head and eyebrows shaved, all the hair and nails of her body cut off, and thus she should be taken to wife.
Whether seizing an enemy's weapons or his women, in other words, the reader of scriptura is encouraged to turn that enemy's property to good use. And what Paul has learned from reading Hebrew Scripture, Jerome has learned by his own admission from reading Paul.
On the other hand, Jerome does not here admit to reading Origen, who had much more explicitly than Paul turned the figure of the captive woman-as he had that of spoiling the Egyptians-to good use in justifying the Christian's claim to the intellectual, especially literary, property of classical antiquity.
Excerpted from Friends Hold All Things in Common by Kathy Eden Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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