Jacques Maritain Center : Aristotle and the Christian Church



ANOTHER stream of Aristotelian thought is about commingling with this and adding to the intensity of discussion. It begins at the same Alexandrian source. To trace it thence, through all its windings till it merges with the Boëthian stream, is interesting and instructive. The early Greek Fathers, as a rule, deal more universally with Plato than with Aristotle. The numerous heresies that spring up in the fertile brain of the Greeks and the Syrians, find in the Aristotelian philosophy a basis on which to support their peculiar views; and the more they attach themselves to Aristotle, the more the Catholics become shy of him. Irenaeus (140-202), who is profoundly philosophical and versed in all systems, but who makes all subservient to religious truth, accuses Valentinus and his followers of corrupting the candour and simplicity of the Christian Faith by subtleties drawn from Aristotle.{1} In another place, the same Father accuses a certain sect of adoring Aristotle as well as the Saviour.{2} Gregory Nazianzen, speaking of various means by which heresy wounds the Church, mentions, among others, the low artifices of the Aristotelian art.{3} Still, when Julian had forbidden Christian masters to teach the Pagan classics, Gregory prepared a series of text-books, among which is an abridgment of the Organon.{4} The Dialectics of John of Damascus, which forms the first part of his work called Source of Science, epitomizes the Categories and Metaphysics of Aristotle and the Introduction of Porphyry. It rendered good service in its day,{5} and it is still popular.{6} The bishops of a Council of Pontus accentuated the attitude of the orthodox of their day, when in a letter to the Emperor they said: "We speak according to the Fisherman, and not according to Aristotle."{7} Eusebius cites reproaches made against Artemon and Paul of Samosata for holding Aristotle in too great esteem and seeking less the simple language of the Sacred Scriptures than the art of clothing their impiety with syllogisms.{8} The Nestorians cultivated Aristotle with a special fervour. Diodorus of Tarsus, who in his anxiety to escape the errors of Appollinarius, had laid the seed of Nestorianism, wrote a work on the errors that he found in the Physics of the Stagyrite.{9}

But the School of Edessa became a great centre of Aristotelian doctrine, whence it was carried far and wide throughout the East. The story of the fate and the varying fortunes of this School is very instructive. The one first to give it a world-wide reputation was a genius great as a poet, great as an orator, great above all as an educator. His name, for centuries after he had passed from the scene of his labours, possessed a magic spell for the Syrian mind.{10} Bardesanes (b. 154) was a staunch champion of the Church under persecution; but in the latter part of his life he fell away and became known as the last of the Gnostics. His teaching and influence overshadowed the School till about the middle of the third century, when we find its Christian character once more asserted. From its benches went forth St. Lucian, whose Greek version of the Scriptures became as authoritative in Asia Minor as the Latin version of St. Jerome in the West. He founded the celebrated School of Antioch, and modelled it after that of Edessa. Then Edessa enjoyed another brilliant era of about eighty years under the influence of St. Ephraim (d. 378) and his disciples. The writings of Ephraim are regarded as Syriac classics of the purest style. His fervent religious poems merited for him the title of Lyre of the Holy Ghost. The story of his life reads like romance. His early poverty, adventures, and mishaps; his education by his saintly bishop; his exquisite knowledge of his mother-tongue; his teaching. it in the school of Nisibus; his flying to Edessa and working in the public baths to make a living; his becoming a monk; the fame of his conferences and commentaries going out; his being called to the chair of Sacred Scriptures in the School of Edessa; his being made deacon in his old age and the wonderful sermons he preached: it is all a life-story that has hallowed Edessa in the heart of every lover of literature.{11} But other influences were soon to change the face of the School of Edessa. Under Ibas, the Nestorian bishop of the place, Cumas and Probus translated from Greek into Syriac the Nestorian writings of Theodore of Mopsuesta and the works of Aristotle.{12} Indeed, the School became such a hotbed of heresy that it was scattered, in 489, by the Emperor Zeno; the extensive buildings were demolished, and a Church was built upon the site.{13}

Narses, after having taught Sacred Scriptures for twenty years in Edessa with signal success, removes, in 490, to Nisibus.{14} He there establishes a School to which flock many of his old pupils. A Syriac record speaks of the event in no complimentary terms. "The leprous Narses," says Simeon Beth-Arsam, "established a school in Nisibus."{15} He is an enthusiastic admirer of Aristotle. He has brought the works of the Stagyrite with him. He teaches and expounds them, and his spirit enters into his disciples. His pupil, Abraham of Casca (flor. 502), comments upon the Dialectics.{16} The school of Nisibus enjoys a far-reaching reputation for science and letters. We may form some conception of its extent, when we remember that less than eighty years after its foundation, it was divided into three distinct schools under three eminent masters, and that one of them -- Hannan -- had eight hundred students.{17} Its fame extended even to Italy. Cassiodorus hears of it; and in his zeal for the revival of learning amongst the Romans, he writes to Pope Agapetus a letter bemoaning the deplorable state of education in Rome, even to the absence of a single good Christian school in the city, and begging of him to bring from Nisibus some of its learned teachers. These were troublous days in the West; the struggle for existence in the midst of war and invasion, from the Franks on one side and Belisarius on the other, absorbed all men's energies; in consequence naught came of the proposal of Cassiodorus. From the School of Nisibus, the works of Aristotle, after other professors had translated them and commented upon them, passed to the School of Bagdad.{18} There Honain (d. 876), and his son Isaac, and his very clever nephew, Hobaish, made them known to the Arabians.{19} The philosophic mind of Arabia was not slow to appreciate them; it found them most congenial to its thinking. It devoured and assimilated them with an avidity that became infectious.

{1} Et minutiloquium et subtilitatem circa quaestiones, cum sit Aristotelicam, inferre fidei conantur" (Contra Haereses, lib. ii. cap. xiv. col. 752).

{2} Adv. Haer., lib. i. cap. 25, in fin.

{3} Oratione, xxvi.; Launoy, De Varia Aristotelis Fortuna, p. 29.

{4} Ueberweg, Hist, of Phil., vol. i. p. 403.

{5} Alzog, Patrology, p. 659.

{6} Still he taunts the heretics with making Aristotle the thirteenth Apostle (Contra Jacobitas, tom. i. col. 1441. Migne edit.).

{7} Launoy, ibid., Piscatorie non Aristotelicè loquimur.

{8} Eccl. Hist., bk. v. cap. xxvii. p. 417. Edit. Laemmer.

{9} Cave, Script. Ecclesiast. Hist. Lit., vol. i. p. 226.

{10} Cardinal Alleniand-Lavigerie, Essai Hislorique sur l'École Chrétienne d'Edesse, p. 24. Paris, 1850.

{11} Assemanni gives this short fragment from the Syriac of Benattib: "James of Nisibus established St. Ephraim, teacher of the Syriac language; but after the invasion of the Persians, Ephraim fled to Edessa, where he spent the remainder of his days, and directed a school which continued after his death" (Assemanni, Bibl. Orient., tom. iii. p. ii., Dissertatio de Syris Nestorianis, p. 924). Alban Butler, in his Lives of the Saints, gives a very indefinite and very colourless account of St. Ephraim.

{12} In this work of translating Aristotle into Syriac Catholics as well as Nestorians took part. Assemanni mentions the fact in these words : "Hinc patet, apud Syros tum Orthodoxos, tum Nestorianos Philosophiam Aristotelicam prius coli coeptam fuisse, quam apud Monophysitas. Versionem Dialecticae Aristotelis Jacobus Edessenus fecit. Nicolai autem librum de Summa Aristotelicae Philosophiae è Graeco in Syriacum transtulit Honainus Isaaci filius (Bibl. Orient., tom. iii. p. 85).

{13} Assemanni, ibid., tom. iii. part ii. p. 926 ; also tom. iii. part i, p. 2.

{14} Assemanni, Bibl. Orient., tom. iii. p. ii. p. 927.

{15} Ibid., p. 927. We may add that the cognomen of Narses was Garbana or Seprosus. See Assemanni, tom. iii. p. 63.

{16} Ibid., p. 154.

{17} Assemanni, ibid., p. 927.

{18} Brother Athanasius translated the Isagoge of Porphyry into Syriac in 645; Bishop James, of Edessa (d. 768), made a version of the Categories (Munk, Melanges de Philosophie Juive et Arabe, p. 353).

{19} Honain translated from Greek into Syriac: (1) A Book of Philosopic Aphorisms; (2) Commentaries on the Categories and the Perîhermenias of Aristotle. He corrected the Arabic version of the Posterior Analytics, translated by Theodore. He, with his pupils, Isaac, Hobaish, and Surinus, put into Arabic or Syriac the Posterior Analytics, the Metaphysics, the book on Physics, that on Generation and Corruption, and that on the Soul (Assemanni, loc. cit., pp. 165-169).

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