Posts Tagged 'History'

Defining the Canon

A list of the works to be considered authoritative began to take form in the Christian community earlier than I had supposed. We always hear that the “definitive” list was not compiled in the 4th century, but less attention is paid to the fact that many of these works were considered authoritative well before then.

In about 180 CE (at almost the same time Irenaeus was defending the four Gospels against Marcion, who wanted to acknowledge Luke alone) there appeared the first listing of the books of the New Testament that bears a similarity with the present Christian canon. The Muratorian canon (as the list came to be known) listed the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline letters, and the rest of the present New Testament with the omission of Hebrews, James, and the two letters attributed to Peter. The list included, however, the Shepard of Hermas, a popular work of the late first century. No definitive canon was established until the fourth century, and even then there would be disagreement over the Epistle to the Hebrews, but the attempt to form a distinctive Christian canon had begun.

— Robert Bruce Mullin, A Short World History of Christianity (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)

Aristotelian Influences – Part 3

Or The Triumph of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

However, in 1231 Pope Gregory IX, while maintaing the prohibition, appointed a commission of theologians, William of Auxerre, Stephen of Provins and Simon of Authie, to correct the prohibited books of Aristotle, and as this measure obviously implied that the books were not fundamentally unsound, the prohibition tended to be neglected. It was extended to Toulouse in 1245 by Innocent IV, but by that date it was no longer possible to check the spread of Aristotelianism and from 1255 all the known works of Aristotle were officially lectured on in the University of Paris. The Holy See made no move against the university though in 1263 Pope Urban IV renewed the prohibition of 1210, probably out of fear of Averroism, the renewed prohibition remaining a dead letter. The Pope must have known perfectly well that William of Moerbeke was translating the prohibited works of Aristotle at his own court, and the prohibition of 1263 must have been a check to Averroism, not as a seriously meant attempt to put an end to all study of the Aristotelian philosophy. In any case the prohibition was of no effect, and finally in 1366 the Legates of Pope Urban V required from all candidates for the Licentiate of Arts at Paris a knowledge of all the known works of Aristotle. It had by then long been clear to the mediaevals that a work like the Liber de Causis was not Aristotelian and that the philosophy of Aristotle was not, except of course, in the eyes of the Latin Averroists, bound up with the interpretation given it by Averroes but could be harmonised with the Christian faith. Indeed the dogmas of faith themselves had by then been expressed by theologians in terms taken from the Aristotelian system.

This brief summary of the official attitude to Aristotle on the part of ecclesiastical and academic authority shows that Aristotelianism triumphed in the end. This does not mean, however, that all mediaeval philosophers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries extended an equal welcome to Aristotle or that they all understood him in the same way: the vigour and variety of mediaeval thought will be made clear in succeeding chapters. There is truth in the statement that that shadow of Aristotle hung over and dominated the philosophic thought of the Middle Ages, but it is not the whole truth, and we would have a very inadequate idea of mediaeval philosophy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries if we imagined that it was inspired and characterized by a slavish acceptance of every word of the great Greek philosopher.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)

Aristotelian Influences – Part 2

Or The Prohibition of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

However, the system of Aristotle did not meet with universal welcome and approbation, though it could not be ignored. Largely because the Liber de Causis (until St. Thomas discovered the truth), the so-called Theologia Aristotelis (extracts from the Enneads of Plotinus) and the De secretis secretorum (composed by an Arab philosopher in the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century) were wrongly attributed to Aristotle, the latter’s philosophy tended to appear in a false light. Moreover, the attribution of these books to Aristotle naturally made it appear that the Arab comentators were justified in their neo-Platonic interpretation. Hence it came about that in 1210 the Provincial Council of Paris, meeting under the presidency of Peter of Corbeil, Archbishop of Sens, forbad the public or private teaching of Aristotle’s ‘natural philosophy’ or of the commentaries on them. This prohibition was imposed under pain of excommunication and applied to the University of Paris. In all probability ‘natural philosophy’ included the metaphysics of Aristotle, since when the statutes of the university were sanctioned by Robert de Courcon, Papal Legate, in 1215 Aristotle’s works on metaphysics and natural philosophy, as well as compendia of these works and the doctrines of David of Dinant, Amalric of Bene and Maurice of Spain (probably Averroes, the Moor or Maurus) were prohibited, though the study of Aristotle’s logic was ordered. The study of the Ethics was not forbidden.

The reason for the prohibition was, as already indicated, largely due to the ascription to Aristotle of works which were not by him. Amalric of Bene, whose writings were included in the prohibition of 1215, maintained doctrines which were at variance with Christian teaching and which would naturally appear to find some support in the philosophy of Aristotle, if the latter were interpreted in the light of all the books attributed to him, while David of Dinant, the other heretical philosopher whose writings were prohibited, had actually appealed to the Metaphysics, which had been translated into Latin from the Greek version brought from Byzantium before 1210. To these considerations must be added the undoubted fact that Aristotle maintained the eternity of the world. It was, therefore, not unnatural that the Aristotelian system, especially when coupled with the philosophies of Daivd of Dinant, Amalric of Bene and Averroes, should appear as a danger to orthodoxy in the eyes of the traditionalists. The logic of Aristotle had long been in use, even if the full Organon had come into circulation only comparatively recently, but the complete metaphysical and cosmological teaching of Aristotle was a novelty, a novelty rendered all the more dangerous through association with heretical philosophies.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)

Aristotelian Influences – Part 1

Or The Rise of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

The translation of work of Aristotle and his commentators, as well as of the Arabian thinkers, provided the Latin Scholastics with a great wealth of intellectual material.  In particular they were provided with the knowledge of philosophical systems which were methodologically independent of theology and which were presented as the human mind’s reflection on the universe. The systems of Aristotle, of Avicenna, of Averroes, opened up a wide vista of the scope of human reason and it was clear to the mediaevals that the truth attained in them must have been independent of Christian revelation, since it had been attained by a Greek philosopher and his Greek and Islamic commentators… It is, of course, true that Aristotle’s system not unaturally took the limelight in preference to those of his commentators, and his philosophy tended to appear in the eyes of those Latins who were favourably impressed as the ne plus ultra of human intellectual endevour, since it constituted the most sustained and extensive effort of the human mind with which they were aquainted; but they were quite well aware that it was the work of reason, not a set of revealed dogmas. To us, looking back from a long way off, it may seem that some of the mediaevals exaggerated the genius of Aristotle (we also know that that they did not realise the existence of different strate or periods in Aristotle’s thought), but we should not put ourselves for a moment in their place and try to imagine the impression which would be made on a mediaeval philosopher by the sight of what in any case is one of the supreme achievements of the human mind, a system which, in regard to both completeness and close reasoning, was unparalleled in the thought of the early Middle Ages.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)

More Ratzinger

In the last post I provided a brief passage from Joseph Ratzinger’s 1977 work, Eschatology, regarding his approach to exegesis (which I collapsed into historical method). As I noted Ratzinger views history as something alive, not something discrete to be studied like scientific datum. The present cannot be viewed without reference to the past, just as the past cannot be interpreted without taking into account the present, including all subsequent history. Here is more of the same from Ratzinger, but this time with a little more gusto.

The word of Jesus only persists as something heard and received by the Church. After all, it can scarcely enter the historical arena save by being heard and, once heard, assimilated. But all hearing, and so all tradition, is also interpretation…

Accordingly, the Gospel does not confront the Church as a self-enclosed Ding-an-sich [thing in itself]. Herein lies the fundamental methodological error of trying to reconstruct the ipsissima vox Jesu [the very voice of Jesus] as a yardstick for Church and New Testament alike. Realizing this should not turn us into sceptics, even though we are touching here on the limits of historical knowledge. Jesus’ message becomes intellegible for us through the echo effect it has created in history. In this echo, the intrinsic potential of that message, with its various strata and configurations, still resounds. Through its resonance we learn more about the real than we shall ever do from free-floating critical reconstructions…

Only as the actual course of history unfolds does reality fill the [literary] schema [of the gospels] with content and shed light on the meaning and interrelatedness of its various aspects. The fundamental and all-important hermeneutical insight here is that subsequent history belongs intrinsically to the inner momentum of the text itself. That is: it does not simply provide retrospective commentary on the text. Rather, through the appearing of the reality which was still to come, the full dimensions of the word carried by the text come to light. For this reason, the interpretation of these texts must, by its very nature, incomplete. For this reason also, a generation later, John could penetrate in authoritative fashion the depth of the word, and understand what was meant by it with greater purity than could his predecessors. For this reason, once again, his [John’s] own message is not simply a subsequent adaptation of the word to a changed situation, but reproduces the inner movement of the word itself. For this reason, finally, that kind of reconstruction which confines itself to the text in its earliest form and permits interpretation only on that basis is fundamentally out of order… Only through the harvest of historical experience does the word gradually gain its full meaning, and the schema fill itself with reality. In contrast, by insisting on definitive conclusions drawn from the most primitive wording the exegete can reconstruct, one condemns oneself to idling with an empty schematism. And so the reader himself is taken up into the adventure of the word. He can understand it only as a participator, not as a spectator.

As a point of clarification, in the preceding text Ratzinger is bringing up John – as in the Evangelist, John – because of the way John’s gospel is more theologically “robust” than that of the synoptic gospels. Instead of seeing John as re-interpreting the message of Jesus because of a new (and unexpected) situation in the Church (i.e. the end of time had not come), Ratzinger prefers to see John as a continuation of his predecessors and the message of Jesus itself. It was only in time that the full import of the words of Christ began to take hold in the Church. Ratzinger would argue that this is why the other Evangelists do not have the theological understanding of John. It took time for the word to grow in the Church – we could even say that it is growing still. As Ratzinger writes elsewhere, all four gospels must be read “as a choir of four,” no one pited against the others.

Ratzinger on Historical Method

For some reason, I know not why, I am fascinated by the question of historical knowledge. So what exactly can we “know” from the study of history? I often think that many of us have too bold an epistemology when it comes to history. I was happy to read that Joseph Ratzinger, once Cardinal and now Pope, in the opening pages of his 1977 work Eschatology, lays out his thoughts on the historical method as it relates to exegesis. In typical Catholic fashion he takes a view of history that is more incarnational in nature. Rather than seeing the past as a set of datum to be studied and analyzed, Ratzinger sees the past as part of the present. History is never just history; it is a living history. In Eschatology (Catholic University of America Press, 2007), Ratzinger writes:

It is according to this nonhistorical model of the natural sciences that exegetical results are very largely assessed today. They are thought of as a sum of fixed results, a body of knowledge with immaculate credentials, acquired in such a fashion that it has left behind its own history as a mere prehistory, and is now at our disposal like a set of mathematical measurements. The measuring of the human spirit, however, differs from the quantification of the physical world. To follow the history of exegesis over the last hundred years is to become aware that it reflects the whole spiritual history of that period. Here the observer speaks of the observed only through speaking of himself: the object becomes eloquent only in this indirect refraction. Now this does not mean that at the end of the day all we know is ourselves. Rather are we faced at this point with a kind of knowledge familiar to us from philosophy. (Not that the two are identical, nevertheless, they have a family resemblance.) The “results” of the history of philosophy do not consist in a catalogue of formulae which can be totted up into a final sum. Instead, they are series of raids on the deep places of being, carried out according to the possibilities of their own time. The history in which these explorations were made remains a living history, not a dead prehistory. As philosophizing continues, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas do not become prehistory: they remain the originating figures of an enduring approach to the Ground of what is. In their way of thought, and its access to the Origin, a certain aspect of reality, a dimension of being, is caught as in a mirror. None of them is philsophy or the philosopher.It is the multivalent message of the entire history, and its overall critical evaluation, that truth is disclosed and with it the possibility of fresh knowledge. Something analogous is true of such a foundational text as the Bible. Here, too, and especially where the heart of the scriptural message is concerned, there is no such thing as a definitive acquisition of scholarship: no interpretation from the past is ever completely old hat if in its time it turned to the text in true openess. Unfortunately, historical reason’s criticism of itself is still in its infancy. But one thing is certain: to employ in this domain the pardigm of knowledge characteristic of the natural sciences is fallacious. Only by listening to the whole history of interpretation can the present be purified by criticism and so brought into a position of genuine encounter with the text concerned.

The Music of Sparta

Or The Scandal of the Strings

Here is your completely random and amusing historical tidbit for today. The topic is that warrior haven of Sparta and its take on music during the 7th century before Christ. From Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, Vol. 2: The Life of Greece (Simon & Schuster 1966):

In that dim past before Lycurgus came, Sparta was a Greek city like the rest, and blossomed out in song and art as it would never do after him. Music above all was popular there, and rivaled man’s antiquity; for as far back as we can delve we find the Greeks singing. In Sparta, so frequently at war, music took a martial turn – the strong and simple “Doric mode”; and not only were other styles discouraged, but any deviation from this Doric style was punishable by law. Even Terpander, though he had quelled a sedition by his songs, was fined by the ephors, and his lyre nailed mute to the wall, because to suit his voice, he had dared to add another string to the instrument; and in a later generation Timotheus, who had expanded Terpander’s seven strings to eleven, was not allowed to compete at Sparta until the ephors had removed from his lyre the scandalously extra strings.

As humorous as the scandal of the strings is to us 21st century types, it seems that Sparta was a very musical city, even if that music served national (i.e. milataristic) purpose. I don’t know about you, but I find this highly fascinating! Durant continues:

Sparta, like England, had great composers when she imported them. Towards 670 [B.C.], supposedly at the behest of the Delphi oracle, Terpander was brought in from Lesbos to prepare a contest in choral sining at the festival of the Carneia. Likewise, Thaletas was summoned from Crete about 620; and soon after came Tyrtaeus, Alcman, and Polymnestus. Their labors went mostly to composing patriotic music and training choruses to sing it. Music was seldom taught to individual Spartans; as in revolutionary Russia, the communal spirit was so strong that music took a corporate form, and group competed with group in magnificent festivals of song and dance. Such choral singing gave the Spartans another opportunity for discipline and mass formations, for every voice was subject to the leader. At the feast of the Hyacinthia King Agesilaus sang obediently in the place and time assigned to him by the choral master; and at the festival of the Gymnopedia the whole body of Spartans, of every age and sex, joined in massive exercises of harmonious dance and antistrophal song. Such occasions must have provided a powerful stimulus and outlet to the patriotic sentiment.


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