John Anthony McGuckin on Susanna Elm’s Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church
Susanna Elm has produced a work that shakes the classical pillars. Not just a paltry one or two pillars, like Samson, but several on different fronts. Chief among these is that a divorce has existed, perhaps from early modern times, between classical scholarship and the (then) dominant theology — a divorce that has resulted in a long-running and damaging continuance of divisions and empires within the scholarly world.
This divorce was not the fault of classicism, so much as the concept of the ‘Triumph of Christianity’ that defined itself as radically separate from the pagan milieu from which it had emerged. As a result, patristic theology was founded within a presupposition of radical discontinuity from Late Antique contexts of religion, politics, and philosophy. Matters such as a theory of culture, political aspiration, and metaphysics were thus considered by later generations of Christian intellectuals using the forms of the Late Antique Christian bishops, but without understanding the original contexts of arguments.
Only recently, for example, has patristic doctrine of the trinity been (once more) put in serious dialogue with the ongoing Platonic debates of the Hellenistic and Late Antique ages; or the great Christological disputes placed side by side with the immense political and ethnic turmoil of the same period. Too few theologians were deeply versed in the larger contexts of sources they knew to have been formed within classical rhetoric. Patristic study of former times often approached the church as if it were a zone walled off from all other concerns, and theology as if it were a self-contained metaphysic.
For their part, classicists routinely and minutely interpreted the texts of the ancient rhetors, usually without any reference to the important Christian writers among them, who were either seen as irrelevant or, as one diehard classicist told me a few years ago, as “enemies of classical culture” who do not deserve to be mentioned in the classroom – shades of Julian there! Often, the religious contexts were excised from their works as mere trivia, even though the ancient rhetoricians were so evidently religious minds whose metaphysic, no less than that of the Christians, formed the substrate of all their social and political views. Both schools have thus acted like the fabled one-winged birds of China that were never able to fly on their own, because they were meant to be together.
Susanna Helm’s Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church is doubly welcome, for it places one of the greatest Christian rhetoricians ever — Gregory of Cappadocian Nazianzus, the fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople — in intimate dialogue with his one-time fellow student at the Athens Academy, Emperor Julian. It was Gregory who deliberately coined the title Julian the Apostate, blackening the memory of the man so thoroughly that it has been difficult for later commentators to excavate him.
In one of the most damning Philippics written since the time of Demosthenes (the Contra Julianum), Gregory delivers to his audience vivid images that are so memorably funny and caustically critical that they conspired to make Julian out to be psychologically unbalanced and intellectually weak (which was the point). For example, there’s the one about the time that Julian took such fright in the subterranean initiations of the Eleusinian mysteries that he forgot himself and made the sign of the cross, thus driving away the demons that were coming to anoint him.
Such stories, of course, have all too often been taken as simple fact instead of high political propaganda, a beast whose nature stands in ever-dubious relation to the truth. Gregory himself, along with his teacher Prohaeresius of Athens, his closest colleagues Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Amphilokius of Ikonium, and his less-than-liked colleague Apollinaris, were all well known to Julian as learned Christian commentators on the Homeric and philosophical canon.
So the Edict on the Professors of 362, wherein Julian forbade those who did not venerate the gods themselves from commenting professionally on the texts that derived from their sacral culture, was something with a personal edge to it, not simply a generic attempt to prevent Christians assuming thrones of rhetoric in the aftermath of Constantine’s pro-Christian legislation.
Gregory’s references to Julian have a similar edge, but the battle is being fought on the same field of ideas. Nothing has been more damaging to our conception of what life was like in Late Antiquity than this ditch which later scholarship allowed itself to fall into (by adopting the rhetorical strategies of these great persuaders). “A chasm separates us from you” (Lk. 16.26); namely, there is a deep divide between how Christian leaders of the fourth century thought, and how their pagan counterparts did.
This is not to suggest there is no distinctive difference between the philosophies and practices of the Hellenistic world and the ascendant post-Constantinian church. While the similarities are incomparably greater than have been thought in earlier times, Elm shows that the bitterness of the chasm is all too often the rhetoric of those who are too close for comfort, wishing to invent large separations.
Bringing the worlds into dialogue opens up rich vistas of interpretation. This is the key to the present book’s brightness. Elm is a skilled and practised scholar, as can be seen from her earlier groundbreaking study Virgins of God, who lives at ease in both classical worlds, Christian and Hellenist, as well as in the interlocked domains of religious and political. She is deeply read in all the primary sources. The footnotes are a study in themselves, charting her path up numerous mountains of literature. She possesses the hermeneutical methods appropriate to a sophisticated reader of antiquity: no simple Procrustean bed of Marxism or post-colonialism or any other theoretical ‘ism’ stands ready to truncate the reader’s corpus here. Instead, matters of class , gender, rank, are all merged into a clear-eyed re-reading of the history of this turbulent period and approached in close detail from a clear re-envisioning of two its most extraordinary protagonists, Gregory and Julian. Elm does not approach the one as St. Gregory the Theologian and the other as Julian the Apostate, but starts out to show how both men begin from highly privileged backgrounds — it would be difficult to excel in rhetoric at this time without having started off from a massively wealthy family — and use their training to come to different positions about the desired future of society, but from parallel worldviews.
Both men occupied important vantage points in this era. One was an Emperor simultaneously trying to change the trajectory of Constantinian polity and engage Rome’s greatest enemy in the Persian war that was his downfall. The other was the chosen agent of the Nicene party at Antioch, and the choice of Theodosius to occupy the throne of the capital at Constantinople, a title which referred to the supreme politician-rhetor of the city before it was co-opted to signify an episcopal see. As Elm points out so well, the similarities are such as to demand a new perspective on the approach to them both: that “sons of Hellenism” such as Julian saw himself to be, were not all that far apart from “fathers of the Church” such as Gregory saw himself to be, even as he lamented the ignorant and short-sighted nature of the episcopal colleagues around him to whom he would definitely not have afforded that title. For both rhetoricians, culture was the key factor in establishing, developing, and defending civilization.
As Elm points out, Julian and Gregory both claimed to have been divinely chosen philosophers. But the bricks they throw at one another are motivated not by the fact that one is pagan and the other Christian, but rather by the fact that the other does not read the classical sources correctly and thus cannot understand the same fundaments of grammar and logic in which they had been commonly trained. This is why the Christian rhetors after Gregory claimed to be the true continuators of the classical heritage just as earlier they had claimed the Hebrew Bible. Continuity consisted in significant canonic adaptation.
But just so was Julian’s Hellenism situated: an adapted form of the philosophical, theurgic, and cultic system of the past. The work of both men (and numerous others in the casting list of the turbulent fourth century) is used to great effect in this study to highlight the larger context in which both of them labored, as well as to bring out how it was the Roman empire itself, its tradition of paideia, its institutions, its sense of élite leadership roles, that eventually made for Christianity’s great international spread.
Christianity’s triumph thus did not consist in the buckling of Rome to its obedience, but rather in the successful translation, by bishop-rhetors such as Gregory and his élite friends, of Christian forms into Hellenistic media. Even so, it was a new Rome that went on in the ‘New Rome’ of Christian Constantinople. Julian’s Rome no longer struck people as venerably old, simply archaic. And that battle was not ultimately won or lost on the field, but on the podium.
Susanna Elm’s admirable book is a finely detailed analysis of Late Antique politics and philosophy in the late fourth century. Classical and patristic and Byzantine scholars will profit from it. It is also approachable enough to serve as a richly instructive study for a wider range of historical students, interested in this highly formative, yet transitional, period in Christian and Hellenistic culture. It is a book that will demonstrate to them the best of current thinking (in both content and critical methodology) for any analyst of the history of ideas. Very highly recommended.