“I am giving teachers a choice,” wrote the young Emperor Julian the Apostate in the summer of A.D. 362, not yet a full year into his reign.
If they think the ancient writers were wise . . . then let them be the first to rival those authors’ piety toward the ancient gods. Or, if they suppose that such writers were wrong about our most venerable gods, then let them go down to the churches of the Galileans and teach about Matthew or Luke instead.
Julian blamed Christianity both for turmoil in his family and for any number of crises besetting the Empire, and when he finally had a rebellious army at his back he made his private apostasy public. When his cousin’s death left him the uncontested master of Rome, he tried to take the Empire with him. Christianity, he understood, was on the brink of permanently consolidating its hold not just on politics, but also on culture—paideia—which quite literally means education, too.
Julian made clear that being a Christian was a disqualifying factor in becoming a teacher. The Emperor’s reasoning runs roughly as follows: Education in grammar and rhetoric means spending time every day with works written by polytheists like Homer, Hesiod, Demosthenes, Herodotus, Thucydides, Isocrates, and Lysias. The gods of Olympus taught these men what they knew. Moreover, Julian says, such authors believed that they themselves were sacred to the gods. Without sharing such beliefs in and about the gods, Julian suggests, no one can hope to understand the meanings of the ancient writers’ works, let alone teach them. And those ancient texts are fundamental to instruction at every level. The only way for Christians to teach those texts correctly would be by speaking dishonestly, at odds with what they really believe. This would compromise their characters, making them greedy operators and “utterly depraved men.”
Julian could, in this case, count on many within the Church to agree with him. Early in the third century, the Christian apologist Tertullian had blamed various heresies on pagan influence, asking, “What common ground have Athens and Jerusalem? What common ground have the Academy and the Church? What common ground have heretics and Christians?” The implication: None at all. “Our way of learning,” Tertullian goes on, “comes from the cloister of Solomon, who himself had taught that the Lord was to be sought in the simplicity of the heart.”
The Christian tradition, while giving Tertullian‘s doubts their due, has rejected this stance. The reasons have been both practical and theoretical. In the year 362, of course, there was the chilling prospect that after long centuries of hiding, persecution, or at best second-class citizenship, a Church-wide withdrawal from the teaching profession would force Christians back into the catacombs. Without teachers who shared their convictions, Christian students might well be drawn away from the faith—as Julian himself expected. If so, then the tragedy of many such individual apostasies could reach an imperial scale. Meanwhile, the uneducated who clung to the faith would again find themselves in a world devoid not only of Christian teachers, but also of Christian doctors, lawyers, officers, policymakers, and the like.
To be sure, this prospect of a slow social suffocation would have been enough to elicit outrage and alarm in many quarters, but the Christian tradition both before and after Julian has found even deeper reasons for opposition to the law, and for encouraging Christians to undertake secular learning. Two of Julian’s contemporaries helped the Church reflect on these reasons: Saints Gregory Nazianzen and Basil of Caesarea, young gentlemen who became ascetics, activists, priests, and bishops. Raised in Cappadocia, the three all knew each other from their days as students in the rhetorical schools of Athens.
Some of Gregory’s reflections are found in his orations against Julian. One of his arguments is that any skills or arts which benefit humanity—we might think of farming, medicine, or sailing—belong to the common patrimony of all mankind. Is it only the inventors or discoverers of a beneficial practice, or their descendants, who may make legitimate use of it? By that kind of reasoning, Gregory argues, Julian and his Hellenophilic allies would have to return their letters to the Phoenicians, inventors of the first alphabet—and there goes their precious literature. In the same way, in Gregory’s view, Christians had a right to the disciplinary pillars of classical education, to the structural elements of language, thought, and communication—in other words, to the concrete arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These arts did not belong to the pagans just because pagans had been the first to develop them or because pagan texts, including literary texts, were universally used when teaching them.
Second, Gregory suggests, the arts of language are beneficial both because they can help us communicate and because they can nurture our knowledge of the cosmos and its Maker. They therefore give Christians a metaphysical, even theological, motivation. Language, thought, and reality are inextricably intertwined. For Gregory, the arts of language are the domain of λόγοι (logoi)—”words,” certainly, but also “rational principles,” elements of the meaningful, intelligible order of the cosmos created by God. They are reflections of, or even participations in, the one Λόγος (Logos), the Word. This idea is itself found in pagan philosophers, especially the Stoics; but, in the tradition of the Gospel of John, Gregory recognized the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, in this world-making Word. To the extent that Christians would be deprived of the ability to know, love, and teach the ways of these little grammatical and rhetorical logoi, they would be deprived not only of what belongs to the common patrimony of mankind, but also, and most importantly, of so many ways of encountering and loving God as Christians.
In a similar vein, Basil exhorts his own nephews, young Christians, to study pagan culture with a third set of reasons: There is great aesthetic, ethical, and metaphysical value in its content, and not just its forms. Greek literature is both useful and beautiful. A Christian education without the beauty of the older learning is like a tree with ripening fruit, but without leaves to protect or adorn it.
Yet aesthetics must be bound to ethics: Basil’s avuncular oration is far from a carte blanche for an embrace of all secular literature. Discernment is crucial, and some pagan stories, he feels, don’t bear repeating. Nonetheless, his concern for moral formation leads him to commend other pagan stories for their anticipation of Christian precepts. Antiquity gives us ethical models and stories that reinforce Christ’s teaching while also spurring us along our paths as His followers: If a pagan could curb his wrath, why can’t you?
Basil shows us that the philosophical anthropology and metaphysics found in pagan authors can help us to understand man, the world, and God. He sees much in Plato, for instance, to bolster the claims of Saint Paul. Later, Nazianzen points out that even when its exemplars are bad or its theses are wrong, pagan culture is still worth studying, precisely because when it isn’t showing us what is true and worthy of imitation it is showing us what is false and to be rejected. These leaders of the Church and countless others drew extensively on pagan works of geography, biology, cosmology, history, mythology, poetry, and metaphysics in their preaching and in their theological and Christological treatises.
The arts belong to all humanity; they are beneficial because they help us to communicate and to seek God in all things, and the pagan literature used in teaching these arts itself contains and transmits Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. These benefits make it worth the effort of navigating the parts that do oppose faith. In Nazianzen’s vivid terms: We shouldn’t scorn the skies, the air, or the earth just because some have wrongly worshipped them; iron, food, fire, and even the organs of vile reptiles can be turned to good or ill, but they can’t be any good for us atall without also being just what they are.
Julian’s laws did not survive his own early death. Had he lived, would these arguments have swayed him? No, of course not. If anything, they would have hardened his resolve—itself a backhanded acknowledgement that Gregory, Basil, and others were right. Far from being intrinsically bound to the paganism that had given birth to it, classical education could be—and for some 1,600 years after Julian’s death, would be—put to Christian ends.