The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Christianity and Ancient Philosophy



Here is the philospher and historian Pierre Hadot hiding in some bushes. I have just finished his book, What is Ancient Philosophy? Reading it as a Christian, especially having had some exposure to ancient monasticism, was a bit disconcerting. All the monastic ascetical practices such as fasting, vigil, vigilance of thoughts, etc. are shown to not be exclusively Christian at all in this book. Indeed, for "monk" in the Christian Church, you could easily read "philosopher" when talking about the pagan Greek schools of philosophy. I know, this should not be suprising to me, even the Zen monks and Hindu sadhus do all of these things. But when entire cherished passages from monasctic literature were lifted from pagan sources, you can't help but ask yourself where nature ends and Grace begins.

There is one important difference in all of this though. Etienne Gilson wrote somewhere that the Christian Faith could do more easily without the doctrine of the immortality of the soul than it could without the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. In the Stoic, Epicurean, Cynic, and Neo-Platonic schools, the goal was always the acceptance of Fate and the transcendence of the spiritual over the material. As the Epicurean saying went:

"Death is not to be dreaded.

The gods are not to be feared.

Everything pleasant is easy to acquire.

Everything painful is easy to bear."

Not so with Christianity. Death still sucks. (Excuse the slang.) Pain is still absurd. Tragedies are still tragic, etc. This is obviously due to the Semitic roots of our Faith: it can seem in the Old Testament that people were more concerned with the material benefits of keeping the Covenant than with the "spiritual benefits". We can look at all of this, however, more in the light of an incarnational anthropology: man is body and soul, not one or the other by itself. The message of Christ redeems suffering and transfigures it, it does not ignore it or anihilate it. "And He shall wipe away every tear from every face..."

So, unlike Plotinus, the goal of the Christian is not to transcend his humanity, it is to become more fully human. We must admit (without getting into too much detail here) that Christian asceticism may have eclipsed this truth to some extent at certain points in history. It has always been present, nonetheless, at the heart of what we Christians have always believed.

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