True Philosophia: Christian Way of Life in Opposition to the Schools of Antiquity

I have been drawing strong identifications and similarities between the understandings of the philosophiai of the six ancient schools and that of the Christian philosophia. However, a caution is in order. Christianity is a philosophia in many of the same ways as the ancient schools. But it is also radically different. In this reflection I will highlight some of those differences and what that means to Christianity as a philosophia.

One of the clearest differences can be seen in St. Clement of Alexandria’s Stromateis (or, Miscellanies):

He then, who of himself believes the Scripture and the voice of the Lord, which by the Lord acts to the benefiting of men, is rightly [regarded] faithful. Certainly we use it as a criterion in the discovery of things. What is subject to criticism cannot be a first principle. Therefore, as is reasonable, grasping by faith the indemonstrable first principle, and receiving in abundance, from the first principle itself, demonstration in reference to the first principle, we are by the voice of the Lord trained up to the knowledge of the truth. (Stromateis Bk 7 Ch 16)

St. Clement’s “indemonstrable first principle” is a clear echo of Aristotle in the Posterior Analytics:

It follows that there can be no scientific knowledge of the first principles. (Posterior Analytics II.19 100b11)

That is to say, first principles are those things which we cannot demonstrate by argument, but are, indeed, those things that make argument possible. For example, how would one prove by demonstration the contention that knowledge is even possible? To prove the principle logically begs the question, for one already assumes that knowledge is possible in the very act of demonstration.

As the saint notes, one of the first principles of Christianity is that God has specifically revealed himself, first in the covenant with the Jews, which was fulfilled and completed in the Person and work of Christ. Part of this revelation involves the written Scriptures which also testify to the work that God has done among the Jews and the Church. So while one might argue that Scripture and the witness and life of the Church are, in fact, the revelation of God to all mankind, that God reveals himself to mankind cannot be proven: it is a first principle that is assumed, or taken on faith, and from which other demonstrations follow (i. e., that Scripture is part of God’s revelation, for example).

It is precisely on the terms of first principles that Christianity differs from the other philosophical schools. For example, Christianity affirms that the cosmos is the special creation ex nihilo of the Holy Trinity. Epicureanism, by way of contrast, affirms that the cosmos is not created, it merely is, and that all reality is a natural monism (i. e., everything is composed of indivisible physical entities called atoms).

Furthermore, the tenor of the way of life consonant with these first principles will also fundamentally differ. I assert this in contention with Pierre Hadot in his Philosophy as a Way of Life where he affirms that the similarity of practices between the ancient philosophiai affirm a common end, namely an attentiveness to the present and the transformation of the soul. But while some might see enough similarity between Epicurean and Stoic ataraxia (or quietude of soul) but such similarity is superficial at best. For Epicurean ataraxia is one of a relaxation of tension, where as Stoic ataraxia is one of an active conformity to reality in the present moment, which is not relaxation but tensive praxis. Similarly, between the Platonic contemplation of the ideas and the Christian theosis is a great gulf of difference, even if both resort to memorization of sacred texts in the practice of conform mind, heart and act.

In other words, first principles give a radically different content to their end toward which a person’s soul is oriented for transfiguration. St. Clement ties knowledge based on first principles to the forming of good men.

[F]irst, speculation; second the performance of the precepts; third, the forming of good men;–which, concurring, form the Gnostic. Whichever of these is wanting, the elements of knowledge limp. (Stromateis Bk 2 Ch 10)

Again, St. Clement links the comprehension of the “really real” with what he calls “good habits of conduct.”

[P]hilosophy is an effort to grasp that which truly is, and the studies that conduce thereto. And it is not the rendering of one accomplishd in good habits of conduct, but the knowing how we are to use and act and labour, according as one is assimilated to God. (Stromateis Bk 2 Ch 9)

That is to say, those fundamental beliefs that organize the knowledge our mind gains through both sensory impressions as well as the noetic impressions communicated by Christ the Paedegogue through the master (the Gnostic, i. e., the mature Christian) to the student. Those beliefs, then, structure knowledge, which in turn is embodied in act. Thus despite the surface similarities of soulish exercises that Christians might share with others (Stoic self-analysis–a la Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations–or observance of the hours of prayer with Jews and Muslims), the content of those exercise radically conform to the first principles and thus are fundamentally different from one another.

Christianity claimed to be true in a way that other philosophiai did not: on the basis of the direct revelation of God. This is not a principle that can be argued. It is either accept or not. But similarly neither could Epicureans argue for the truth of their first principle of naturalistic monism. Such a principle must also be accepted on faith.

The demonstration of the truth or falsity of these various ways of life, then, was predicated on something other than an objective demonstration of first principles. Rather the truth or falsity of a philosophia was argued existentially; that is to say, it is not only rationally coherent, but more to the point, it results in a tangible transformation of soul that fulfills the promise of the way of life it announces. Or, it was both rationally and pragmatically coherent, embodying a wholeness of thought and life that resulted in an active condition of soul (a hexis) empirically testifying to the transformation the particular way of life enacted on the soul.

In light of these things, then, according to ancient Christianity, what was important about the philosophia that is the Faith of the Church, was not primarily its capacity for rational explication and defense. Rather the fundamental quality of Christian philosophia was its fulfillment of the promise of generation the new man. The proof of the veracity of the faith was not its apologetic in rational terms, but its existential witness to the transforming grace which energizes its adherents.

This is radically important and something we ought not miss in our own day. Ours is not to prove Christianity true by way of rational argument. Ours is to witness to the truth of Christianity via the theosis Christ accomplishes in us by the Holy Spirit. Rational defenses of the faith, the commending of the faith as intellectual coherent and noetic generative, are not unimportant. But theirs is an importance that is secondary. We do not read, in the historical martyrologies of the Church, of conversions from the reading of St. Justin the Philosophers Apologies. We do, however, read time and time again, of accounts of non-Christians converted on the spot of the martyrdoms of the saints, more often than not being baptized in blood before they could be baptized in water. We know that the Stoic way of life accepted suicide by one’s own hand if the conformity to the fundamental reality of the cosmos was too much for a Stoic adherent to bear. Not believing in the after life or in the care of the gods for the cosmos or their efficacy or justice in aiding mankind, a Stoic could without guilt commit suicide in the face of irresoluble despair. Not so, Christianity. Christianity presumed a cosmic struggle in which the Christian was engaged, and the imperative to wrestle against the spiritual forces at work in darkness was pervasive. Thus Christians endured in the face of torture and unutterable suffering, with joy and hymns in radical difference to Stoic resignation and suicide.

A philosophia proves its truth in its way of life. This is as true of Christianity as it is of any other philosophia. And Christianity further commends itself as only true, and all others false, precisely on its matyric form of witness.

[The remainder of the posts in this series can be found here.]