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.

Some Stoic wisdom from Seneca: We are but patients in the hospital discussing remedies

So-called 'Seneque mouriant' (it's not Seneca), 2nd-c Roman statue
So-called ‘Seneque mouriant’ (it’s not Seneca), 2nd-c Roman statue in the Louvre, Paris

As you know, I study Latin epistolography when I’m not blogging about everything else under the sun. This primarily comes in the form of the letters of Leo the Great and their manuscript tradition, but also involves placing Pope Leo within his literary tradition — papal as well as secular. And so I’ve been dabbling in a bit of Seneca today.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC – AD 65) is a very interesting character — tutor of the Emperor Nero, wealthy landowner, tragedian, satirist, philosopher. If you’re in the mood for some interesting reading and are not easily provoked to vomition, I recommend his play Thyestes. Seneca was a Stoic. Some people call Stoicism the unofficial religion of the Romans; I’m not entirely convinced, given the Epicureanism of Lucretius and eclecticism of the Academic Cicero. Nevertheless, it was a popular philosophy amongst the educated classes of Rome, and includes the emperor Marcus Aurelius amongst its adherents.

Stoicism has high moral ethics and is, therefore, a somewhat appealing philosophy for Christian writers. Indeed, they even tried to baptise the late Seneca by forging correspondence between him and St Paul!

In Letter 27,* Seneca responds to the query from Lucilius, ‘Are you giving me advice? Have you already advised and corrected yourself? Is that why you are at leisure to set others straight?’ To this, the philosopher responds:

I am not so persistent that I will seek out cures while I am sick, but I will talk to you about our common suffering and share remedies as if I am lying in the same hospital. So listen to me as though I am talking to myself: I will let you into my intimate thoughts and reckon up with myself in your company. (trans. Fantham 2010)

Seneca is not the master. Indeed, later (Letter 33) Seneca will argue that there are no masters (domini) but only guides (duces) — and if one finds a quicker route, he should take it. Seneca and Lucilius are fellow-patients in the hospital, and Seneca is discussing with Lucilius the different remedies that he has tried to cure his ailment.

This is not unlike the classic saying, ‘Evangelism is one beggar telling another where to get bread.’ However, it brings in the image of the hospital. We are not merely hungry — we are diseased. And all of us are seeking the cure — this is what the ancients were looking for in Stoicism or Epicureanism or (Middle, Neo-)Platonism or Mithraism; it is what people are seeking in the philosophical appropriation of science or in Hinduism or Buddhism or Taoism or Confucianism or New Age or Kumaré or Islam or Christianity or Hegel or Nietzsche or Hare Krishna or Wicca or Judaism.

The human race has a sickness. We all want the cure. And those who believe they have found it want to help their fellow humans get well. It ties into the classic Eastern Christian image of the Church as a hospital and Christ as the chief Physician very well. Let’s gently bring our friends to this Physician — and let’s continue to drink His medicine every day.

*I am working from the assumption that Seneca and Lucilius actually exchanged letters. If not, then the fiction is that Lucilius has said certain things to his philosopher friend.