Philosophy is normally the English word that translates the Greek philosophia, which itself means “love of wisdom,” or, better in this context, “friendship with wisdom.” I have avoided using “philosophy” in this series of reflections, using instead the (transliterated) Greek equivalent, philosophia so as to also avoid the academic and professionalized connotations that latch on to “philosophy.” For present day understandings of philosophy are generally those exhibited by first year undergraduates on the completion of their intro course: a bunch of opposing arguments on a whole lot of topics resulting in no definitive answer to questions that are largely irrelevant to my daily life.
But philosophia in the ancient world was something else altogether. There were, of course, competing arguments between and among the various schools on various topics. But all the schools shared at least the choice of a way of life centered around the pursuit of wisdom for the purpose of the transformation of the soul. Platonists might posit reality as the realm of ideas, while Epicureans might hold a naturalistic monism, but both held that one’s beliefs and actions should be conformed to these realities. Aristotelians might posit a life of virtue in pursuit of the ultimate end of eudaimonia, while Stoics might adhere to a vision of life in which the pursuit of quietude of soul, ataraxia, was gained by a ruthless search for conformity of the self to reality without illusions, but both sought a transformation of the soul. Though the Stoic conception of the Logos differed from the Platonic idea of the Good, they shared the conviction that there was an ordered principle pervasive through the cosmos. To be sure, there were convictions and arguments that put one at odds with one’s own school. One could not hold to atomistic monism and claim to be a faithful Aristotelian, nor could one be convinced of and argue for Platonic ideas and be a Pyrrhonian skeptic. Some beliefs and practices put one at odds with one’s school and called into question one’s commitments. Even so, the various schools had their commitments attendant upon the choice to become a disciple of a particular school.
Broadly speaking, then, the ancient philosophiai shared these basic components: A pre-reflective choice for a particular way of life embodied in a particular school; a community engaged in that particular way of life which formed the fundamental institution of that philosophia; an orientation to a singular principle which ordered the cosmos (a Logos-orientation); the practice of dialogue, a body of shared doctrines, and, usually, a set of more or less standard texts that played a role supplementary to the practice of dialogue and the body of shared doctrine; and the search for the transformation of the soul through the practice of “soulish exercises” that furthered the communal structures and practices.
A potential Aristotelian disciple, for example, would happen by chance one day to go by the Lyceum and overhear a lecture or dialogue open to the public. There he would find a community of juniors and seniors (or disciples and masters) engaged in conversation over some matter of consideration–say the nature of pleasure. One might argue Speusippus’ viewpoint, another Empedocles’, but the community might settle on a position that rejects them both. These conversations would be based on, or perhaps captured in, a set of lecture notes written by Aristotle or another one of the community. But these texts, though later held in importance, were not the singular authority in the school, but shared in the authority of the community’s own gathered deliberations.
The would-be disciple might first find himself somewhat lost among all the arguments, questions and counter-arguments, but would be attracted by the way of life exhibited by the community and reflected in their gathered search for wisdom. He would quickly see that the community was oriented around one particular principle of reality, and together engaged in communal and personal practices that both reinforced and furthered the first principles upon which community life was based and which also resulted in the personal transformation of the soul. These considerations would not at first be systematically ordered in the potential disciple’s mind such that he objectively considered all these things and measured them against rival schools. Rather, he would find himself attracted to the way of life presented to him, choose to enter that way of life, and subsequent to that choice reflective order these considerations in his own mind. It was only from the place of conviction, not the nowhere of unaligned objectivity, that he would be able later to evaluate competing schools, but, even more importantly, would be able to engage reality in such a way so as to transform his soul. That is to say, the ancient philosopher knew that reality could not be engaged apart from pre-reflective convictions.
The way this maps on to Christianity ought be obvious.
In early Christianity, the potential disciple would be attracted to the community and its way of life first, and only later instructed in its doctrines. The commitment would be, for the most part, a pre-reflective existential choice predicated on the would-be disciple’s unique experience. After some time spent in living with the Church and taking on specific practices of her way of living, the disciple would enter the catechumenate (or would, as part of the catechumenate, take on specific practices) where he would be more formally instructed in the doctrines of the Faith. And only after initiation, full commitment to Christ in baptism, would the disciplina arcana of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist be further explained. As can be seen from the catechetical lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (delivered c. A.D. 347).
The Christian disciple would find in the community to which he’d attached himself, the communal practices of corporate worship in the Eucharist and the daily office, the having of all things in common, the devotion to the apostles’ teachings, and the sharing of common life and faith from house to house. He would also be inculcated in the “soulish exercises” that would begin bringing about his transformation of soul: fasting, prayer, almsgiving, the hearing and memorizing of Scripture and hymns, the battle against the passions. He would find the community reflecting together on the Scripture (both the Greek Old Testament and the Apostolic Books), led by the bishop, and would conform to the authority manifested in the Church and the Holy Writings. All these components of the Christian way of life would be personally transmitted in the lives of the community from each living generation to the next, in unbroken communion. One did not need to consult mouldering papyrus scrolls to know what sort of life Christians lived, one simply joined the community.
It should be clear, too, that becoming a member of one of the philosophiai, whether pagan or Christian, entailed first a commitment and only later an understanding. One chose the philosophia before one understood it. One lived the life of a particular philosophia before one was taught it’s doctrines. This is not to deny the very real work of the apologists or that Christians did not defend and explain their way of life to “seekers.” But neither did they consider it necessary to fully explain the faith. In fact, it was more necessary to strictly guard the most important doctrines (Baptism, the Eucharist, the Trinity) from all but the fully initiated. Their faith was a way of life that was not an intellectual exercise, but something that must be lived. Indeed, only once the transformation of one’s soul had begun in living the life of the community could one properly understand the doctrines of that community.
Christianity was about the faithful life as a transformation of the soul, not a course of conceptual objects to be mentally digested. Thus a child could live the way of Christian philosophia as well as the most gifted intellectual, and, indeed, perhaps could do so more effectively. And this is why heretics and schismatics were (and are) so inimical to the Faith; not that simply that they promoted a non-Christian gospel, but that they lived in such a way so as to undermine the particular way of life that is the Christian philosophia. The life that gives Life. Christian philosophia is absolutely exclusive: Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; there is no other name under heaven, given to men, by which we may be saved. To promote a life other than the Christian way of living is to promote death, for no other way of life can give Life.
Arius might well argue that his interpretation best exegeted Scripture, but he could not point to the larger way of life of the Church to substantiate his claims. To be sure he cited authorities, as did all the heretics, but there was not the continuity of the Church’s living to back it up. The Church could be swayed in opinions, and for some decades forms of Arianism were dominant in the majority of the Church, but such heresies were always ultimately judged by the way of life the Church kept. This, indeed, is the point of St. Athanasios’ On the Incarnation, St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit and other Christian documents explicating the true way of life and faith over impostor heresies.
It is also precisely why the historic Church was, and is, suspicious of innovations. Make no mistake, the Divine Liturgy as it is now celebrated in its rich fullness was not in every detail that celebrated by Paul and the Church at Troas. The Tradition is not an ossified and desiccated relic, but a living and dynamic way of life, a way of life that adapts without substantive change to the various exigencies of history, geography and culture. But true innovations which depart from the way of life the Church has always lived will always ultimately be rejected, no matter the eloquence or elegance of the argument or its claim to biblical fidelity (a claim which only the Church can judge anyway). For ultimately it must always be consonant with the way the Church lives. And this is also why such adaptions are so incremental in the Church: everything must conform to the whole of her way of life.
[The remainder of the posts in this series can be found here.]