The transmission of a philosophia from one generation to the next was, of necessity, fundamentally personal. One did not need to study texts to gather the requisite knowledge on how to live one’s philosophia, one just simply imitated one’s teacher or master. The genuine transmission of the tradition of a philosophia was not accomplished by exegesis, but by dialogue and common life. Very few of the originators of various schools left any substantive writings. Socrates did not. We have nothing Zeno wrote initiating Stoicism. So, too, for Pyrrho of Ellis. If the tradition of a philosophia was the whole of a way of living, including beliefs and the understanding of sacred texts, then the transmission of that tradition could have only taken place personally in an unbroken, and thus living, chain of relation.
The ancient Hellenic philosophiai understood this, and this is why Plato’s Academy, as a primary example, was in existence for more than a millennium (from 387 B.C. until A.D. 529 when Justinian closed down the schools). The leadership of the Academy–aside from practical matters such as organization and funding–was passed down personally (though voted on, it seems, by the members of the Academy): from Plato to his nephew Speusipus (which some speculate was the reason for Aristotle opening his own school in the Lyceum) to Xenocrates and so forth. Indeed, even though the beliefs and doctrines of the Academy changed over that millennium (thus reflected into the various “eras” of the Academy: Old, Middle and New), the continuity from Plato to A.D. 529 was maintained via the personal way of life passed down from one generation of Socrates’ disciples to the next. In fact, Plato’s followers, such as Aristotle, and others, have made references to Plato’s teachings such that there seems to have been not only Plato’s published works but certain so-called “unwritten doctrines” that one would know only from personal contact with Plato and his school. This is bolstered by the reference in the Seventh Letter (341c), which is generally thought to have been penned by Plato himself, though not all scholars agree on this, where he states,
There is no writing of mine about these matters [which Plato taught Dion], nor will there ever be one. For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself. [tr. by Glenn R. Morrow, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. by John M. Cooper, (Hackett: 1997)]
Admittedly, the notion of Plato’s unwritten doctrines is viewed askance by modern scholarship, in part because it seems “unwritten doctrines” is a phrase pregnant enough to generate dozens of theories. But that this was a fairly broad belief in the ancient world is likewise true. Still, even if various theories regarding Plato’s unwritten doctrines founder, the notion of personal transmission of a philosophia remains. In other words, the philosophia Plato had received from his teacher, Socrates, could not be passed on merely in texts. It could only be done so personally, in the teacher-student relationship. Not that there weren’t texts. There most definitely were. But even Plato’s texts are dialogues, not treatises, in which the various characters personally spur one another toward wisdom and embody this as a way of life.
This means of personal transmission of the ways of life of the various philosophiai was also true of Christianity. Take for example the several exhortations of the Apostle Paul. We have his farewell to the Ephesian elders:
From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:17-21 NKJV)
He exhorts the Corinthians in two places to imitate him.
I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me. For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:14-17)
Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
To St. Timothy, he writes:
But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra–what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:10-15)
In addition to St. Paul, there is also the author of the letter to the Hebrews:
But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:9-12)
Clearly the transmission of the Christian philosophia, the way of life, took place personally, from life to life, as the Christian way of living was lived and imitated.
This personal transmission of the philosophia also emphasizes another important point: one does not claim a philosophia apart from the living transmission of it. One does not reconstruct a tradition, rather, one receives it, guards it, and passes it on. A philosophia is not something for which we can mine ancient texts. It is not something the would-be disciple can somehow remanufacture in the privacy of his study late at night. He cannot go back to ancient texts and “start over.” The way a philosophic disciple is to live has to be received from those who are already living it. Philosophia cannot be gained by reading and interpreting texts and canons and creeds. One acquires a philosophia only from those who already have it.
In this way, ancient Christianity was a philosophia. The Church had her God-called apologists and her guardians of the faith. She had her doctors of the Church. But Christianity was not preserved on the basis of a fidelity to certain texts, even canonical ones, nor on requisite interpretations. After all, all texts must be interpreted, and heretics utilized the inspired texts as did the orthodox. But a way of life is received prior to any sort of coherent intellectual grasp of it. Indeed, an attempt to grasp a way of life by means of one’s intellect alone instead of by simply “putting into practice” what one sees done by one’s fellow disciples can positively alter and morph beyond recognition the way of life one is to live. That is to say, the transmission of tradition is first and fundamentally a pre-reflective embodiment of a way of living. And it was this that set off most heretics from the orthodox: not different beliefs per se, but rather that they lived differently. (That of course, included opposing beliefs, but the evidence for heterodoxy and heresy was empirical: heretics don’t live like orthodox.)
Fidelity to a philosophia’s tradition, then, is not simply the mouthing of the same liturgical and credal words. It’s not parroting the same interpretations of Scriptures and canons. Fidelity to the tradition of Christian philosophia is primarily a lifestyle. If one wants to claim to be Christian, to be the Church, one must live in the way Christians have always lived and do things the way the Church has always done.
The question is obvious: How does one know one is living the Christian philosophia? So, too, is the answer.
[The remainder of the posts in this series can be found here.]