Christians: Grammarians or Philosophers?

In honor of St. Justin the Philosopher‘s feast day today, I wanted to ruminate on the difference between two types of Christianity. The difference, as I will put it, is that between grammarians and philosophers.

I draw the distinction this way. A grammarian is concerned with texts, propositions, logic, doctrinal formulas, systems, and canons. A grammarian’s faith is oriented around exegesis and history as text. A grammarian is concerned, to be sure, with application. His is not necessarily, though most often is, the rational quest as an end in itself. But such application always serves the text; or, at least, what the grammarians strives to do with the text. The grammarian is rarely, if ever, surprised by the logic of his application, because such logic derives from his interpretation. Because the grammarian is primarily oriented toward exegesis, he is fundamentally concerned with tradition as datum, as evidence for or against his argument. For him, tradition lives insofar as it bears on the text. If it does not have to do with the text–even if that text is history–or if he cannot see the relation, then it is negligible, irrelevant.

Akin to the grammarian is the theologian. The theologian is concerned with God in the abstract. His god is the god of concepts and theories. The distilled god, separable from revelation, contemplated outside the context of contrite worship and the broken heart. His is the Babel god, the god of the tower, whom human reason may reach and describe.

A philosopher, on the other hand, is concerned with the divine formation of the soul, with disciplines and spiritual exercises, with history as a lived and living tradition. A philosopher knows that texts and canons and creeds are necessary to his faith, and he does not reject them or denigrate them, but he also knows that their value and purpose is precisely in and for the salvation of his soul. A philosopher may be, indeed, must be, rationally precise and cogent, but such rationality is not an end in itself but serves an end, which is theosis. If reason stumbles, the philosopher is not surprised or very concerned, for he knows that the God who gave reason cannot be circumscribed by it. If exegesis seems inconsistent, the philosopher is not worried overmuch. He is content to live that which has been passed down to him from living witnesses, themselves passing on what was lived for them, on back down the ages to the very day of split-fire and the restoration of tongues. The philosopher seeks theoria, but only through praxis, through the mortification of the flesh. The philosopher has no interest in expounding the meaning of virtue, except to point to the act and say, “Look.”

Akin to the philosopher is the fool and the monk. The fool and the monk both live by way of revelation, the ongoing moment-by-moment personal experience that has been lived in uninterrupted transmission from creation. Both testify to the hidden God who has made himself known on this very day in the active word that generates life and makes things happen. The fool and the monk both know and witness to the inescapable reality that we know God only through brokenness and the death of self. They know the Cross is the midwife of the soul.

The temptation at this very point, of course, is to detail who are the grammarians and who the philosophers. But this is very grammatic. Instead, we ought seek out the fool, the monk, the philosopher, and live as they live. This is essentially philosophic and will be enough for us.

Conservative Syllabus

As a mirror to yesterday’s “Conservative Index” of the 19th and 20th centuries’ ten “most harmful” books, I present here an unscholarly list, in rough chronological order, of conservative must-reads of the 17th through 20th centuries taken from a survey of online conservative reading lists. (I’ve provided links to online texts. The rest can be checked out from your local library, or ordered online.)

  1. Alexander Hamilton, et. al., The Federalist Papers
  2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
  3. Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (you might be interested in The Road to Serfdom in cartoons)
  4. Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences
  5. William F. Buckley, Jr., God and Man at Yale
  6. Whittaker Chambers, Witness
  7. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind
  8. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom
  9. Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative
  10. George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America

Some honorable mentions:

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
James Burnham, Suicide of the West
Dinesh D’Souza, Letters to a Young Conservative
Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose
Henry Hazlitt, Ecnomics in One Lesson
Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order
John Locke, Second Treatise on Government
Roger Nisbet, The Quest for Community
Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservativism
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise On Economics

More items are listed here and here.