[Note: I have begun collecting these various posts on the theme of philosophia under a topical link: True Philosophia, the Way of Life. You can click on the link to see all the posts, present and future, gathered in reverse chronological order under this theme.]
When looking at the six historical schools of philosophy in antiquity–Platonism, Aristotelianism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism–one is quite impressed with the absence of a particular mental condition that one takes for granted today. Becoming a disciple of one or another of these ancient schools was not a matter of first calmly, rationally and unbiasedly weighing the merits of all of them and then settling on that one which had the most objectively rational claim to truth. Rather, becoming a disciple of one or another of these schools entailed first an existential choice, following which one’s mind viewed reality through the philosophic lenses of one’s respective school. Certainly each school argued, on the basis of reason and truth, for its superiority over the others. Certainly a disciple might become an adherent of one school, only to leave it later for another, or even several others, as did St. Justin the Philosopher. And just as certainly, one became a disciple, in part, on the basis of good reasons. But this quest for the view from nowhere, absent all presuppositions and preconceptions, was not part of the ancient disciple’s mental framework. Rather, knowing that he came with presuppositions and preconceptions, the disciple sought to be transformed in his thinking and living by the way of life of a particular school so that he might more surely and more completely unite himself with wisdom. In other words, the ancient disciple came to a school not to judge it as true or not, but to first learn from it. If that school’s way of life “lived well” for the disciple, he was apt to continue with it. If, for whatever reason, a particular way of life did not live well, or another beckoned more winsomely, a disciple would leave it for another, for that more beautiful way of life.
Modern religious seekers have, to a certain extent, lost this ancient view in two ways. In the first place, modern seekers seem more intent on staying the same than on the transformation of their own souls. If there is a sense of transformation that they seek it is more along the lines of being confirmed as the persons they already are; to become even more like what they are now, only without the stuff that currently displeases them about themselves. Secondly, modern religious seekers seem more intent on finding comfort than on the transformation of their souls. They seek escape more than askesis. If they seek a form of transformation it is not one that goes very deep toward the soul, but focuses on appearance and externals: losing weight, having a better job, becoming financially secure, having children that are respectful, obedient and successful, having a spouse that is affirming, supportive and loving. Religious seekers make demands on the institutions they encounter; they do not very often come to religious institutions seeking a demanding way of life.
Not so for the ancient disciple. For the “friend of wisdom,” becoming a disciple of a particular philosophia naturally and logically entailed transformation of the soul and the rigorous asketical demands a particular philosophia made on one’s own choices and behaviors. It was not a matter of seeking comfort or confirmation of one’s present way of living. The disciple intuitively, if not consciously, grasped that if he had the truth, if wisdom was his, then he wouldn’t be seeking out this particular philosophia. Rather, conscious of his own lack of wisdom, conscious of his need of inner transformation, the philosophic disciple came to the Academy, or the Lyceum, or the Garden, or the Stoa, ready not to judge but to listen, ready not to demand but to submit to demand, ready to find not the fulfillment of personal desires but the remaking from the inside-out that wisdom, Sophia, brought to those ready to learn and live.
The ancient disciple knew, too, that even if the greatest happiness, as in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics X.7, was in the act of intellectual contemplation, of union with the divine intellect, such happiness was gained by way of rigorous and life-long askeses, soulish disciplines that made one ever more capable of both receiving wisdom and maintaining the transformation that wisdom brought. What were these askeses, these disciplines of the soul, differed from school to school. But each was a daily and lifelong practice that brought home the principle dogmas of the particular school in such a way that one’s behavior and thinking were united in the transforming center of wisdom. For Aristotle, this was the habitual practice of the virtues and of close attention to reality. For the Stoics this was the daily practice of divesting oneself of illusion so as to conform oneself with that which is (as can been seen in the journaling left to us in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations). For the Platonists and Pythagoreans it was a paedegogy, inculcated from youth, that trained body for death and the soul for union with the One, or the Good, in the contemplation of the One, or number. And so forth.
The analogies with historic Christianity are, to my mind, obvious. The ancient Christian disciple came seeking Him Who is Wisdom, Him Who is the Way, the Truth, the Life, not a set of spiritual laws or a body of coherent doctrine. The ancient disciple came to be changed, not confirmed in their present way of life. This process of becoming a disciple was not an intellectual one, or not primarily an intellectual one. Nor were seekers shielded from the more rigorous demands of Christianity first, only later to have explained to them the demanding nature of the Christian walk. Indeed, we know that in the earliest centuries of the Church, catechumens were first inculcated to this most rigorous and demanding way of living before they were sacramentally united to the Church and trained in the dogmas and doctrines of the Faith. One was first baptized, then, after baptism, one was given the explanation of what all that baptism, fasting, and prayer was meant for and whence it came.
This can only make sense. For if the Christian disciple in antiquity came seeking new life, it would not do to give him “mere” doctrine. If the Christian disciple in antiquity came seeking wisdom, it would not do to have him put off doing the very things one must do to gain that wisdom. If the Christian disciple came seeking life, it would not do to fail to show him how that life was lived and engage him in its practices. Life, after all, is not a concept but an act. If Christianity is a way of living, then to give a seeker everything but the very life that Christians live, would be to bear false witness. It would be giving serpents for fish, and stones for bread.
Make no mistake, no Christian disciple ever saved his own soul by his own deeds and merits. Nor did the historic Church ever teach such a thing. Salvation is by grace through faith. In this, the Christian philosophia was in diametrical opposition to the ancient philosophical schools. But salvation is not given apart from actions. The Church knew that a disciple worked out his salvation with fear and trembling, that every Christian was created for good works that the Holy Trinity had prepared in advance that he walk in them, that without works his faith was dead.
This is not to say that the ancient Church–or the other ancient philosophiai–did not engage in apologetics, of the answering of objections and intellectual challenges. Apologetical work was present in the Church from its beginning. But the ancient Church did not mistake apologetic for conversion. Conversatio is a way of living, and one coverts by changing the way one lives. Understanding the why’s and wherefore’s of this transformation was not unimportant. There is, after all, a singular, exclusive and unchanging content to the Christian Faith. And what one is convinced of will result in behavior in conformity with those convictions. But for the ancient schools, and for the Christian philosophia especially, one’s convictions changed on the basis of one’s changed behavior.
That is to say, our modern notion that one must objectively weigh all intellectual claims unbiasedly prior to making a decision about what one will or will not do is exactly backwards from the philosophiai of antiquity, and most especially of Christianity. Given the present sectarian schisms in Christianity and our manifest failure to commend the faith once for all delivered to the saints to our societies and their cultures, it seems to me that we would do well to abandon our own modernist mythology, or, rather, pathology, and adopt the more certain path of the historic Faith.