Ongoing intellectual life in the late 4th and 5th centuries

Taking a brief break from reading about Roman law in under the Theodosians to write this. During an earlier break, I lurked a bit at Amazon, peering at reviews of AD 381. In the comments to one of the reviews, the author writes:

The main problem I have with this era of late Antiquity is that it is so difficult to find evidence for the continuance of creative intellectual activity and lots of evidence that it was ‘closed down’.

Assuming Freeman means life after 381, I am surprised!

Immediately upon reading that statement, I turned to my left and beheld City of God by St Augustine, famously written after the year 410. If ever Late Antiquity produced a creative intellectual endeavour, it is City of God. Not, mind you, that Augustine is the only creative, clever thinker out there in the period.

Down the shelf from Augustine I have volumes by St Gregory of Nazianzus, or ‘the Theologian’, who wrote subtle works of theology and profound works of poetry. Next to him I have his friend, St Basil of Caesarea, an equally creative thinker. The third of the Cappadocian triad, Basil’s brother St Gregory of Nyssa, should not go without mention — a man whose creative force and dynamic intellect are quite popular at present. Indeed, I would argue that one of the things that makes the Cappadocians special is their status as disciples of Origen who produce a vibrant — rather than rote, sterile, dead — interpretation of Nicene orthodoxy.

Perhaps the practicioners and champions of orthodoxy are not creative enough. Well, then, we need look no further than Evagrius of Pontus, another Origenist with Cappadocian connections who settled amongst the Egyptian monks and wrote daring, dangerous treatises on asceticism, prayer, and mystical theology that would get him into posthumous trouble.

In a book I read about Carolingians, the argument was put forward that an increase in heresy trials is evidence of greater intellectual activity — the more people experiment with philosophy and theology, the more likely they are to get into trouble with the church. The fifth century, therefore, supplies us with an ample supply of creative thinking as various people attempt to work through the philosophical and theological issues surrounding the accepted Nicene orthodoxy of the person of Christ — Theodore of Mopsuestia, who was in some ways a successor to Diodore of Tarsus (d. 390) and Theodoret of Cyrrhus stand out among those who got into trouble with official orthodoxy, while Cyril of Alexandria, for all his forceful personality and rigorous orthodoxy, was not uncreative himself. It has been argued, as well, that Leo the Great was a creative personality in his synthesis of the western tradition into what became Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

Avitus of Vienne was still writing respectable poetry, as was Sedulius. I’m even going to go out on a limb and say that Sidonius was not entirely lacking in his own creative impulse as a poet. I think the composition of panegyric poetry is a bold, daring thing that requires a certain amount of creative genius to remain true to one’s own voice as a poet while praising the imperial recipient of the text.

The lay writer Prosper of Aquitaine produces a lot of creative output, not only in his theological support of Augustine, but also in his epitome and continuation of Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’s chronicle and his verse composition.

Indeed, it strikes me that the fourth and fifth centuries are an epoch of ongoing literary and philosophical/theological production in the Roman Empire, and while pagan thought may decline after 381 due to increasing restrictions on polytheist practice, to argue that orthodox Christians are unoriginal is quite silly, to say the least — for would not many a polytheist philosopher, regardless of how creative he really was, maintain that he was simply reiterating or building upon the ancient traditions of Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Zeno?

Perhaps what makes later fourth- and fifth-century Christian writing seem uncreative to us is that much of what survives was revered as centrally orthodox in years to come and has been oft-repeated by the intellectually uncreative. Sitting at this end of Christendom, Christianity seems traditional and hidebound. But what if, at the other end, it was ancient polytheism that did?

And, no doubt, I’ve misunderstood Freeman entirely. In which case, this was simply an engaging little mental exercise for me. Back to Roman law.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s