A while ago I blogged about Albrecht Durer’s engraving of St Jerome in his study. I linked to and quoted an article on St Jerome by James R Edwards which was illuminating, but had passages I took issue with:
What did the Renaissance find so appealing in Jerome? It was the conflict itself of a man who loved both the Christian faith and the pagan classics. Jerome had a terrifying dream of standing before Jesus Christ on judgment day and being rejected from salvation because of his love for the classics, and especially Cicero. Jerome’s intermittent and not entirely successful pursuit of the ascetic lifestyle was an attempt to purge the influence of paganism from his life. In its attempt to synthesize humanism and Christianity, the Renaissance found a mirror image in Jerome. The conflict of Christian versus classical, Trinitarian monotheism versus pagan polytheism that contended for the soul of Jerome also contended for the soul of Europe in the Renaissance.
There have been times when the Western church seemingly came close to resolving the conflict between the pagan and Christian. Dante’s synthesis of the classical and Christian worlds in The Divine Comedy was one instance, and the post-Reformation world of Protestant “state” churches was another.
The fitful romance between classical and Christian has never led to formal marriage, however, at least in the Latin West. The soul of the West continues to be nourished by the pagan and Christian, the Renaissance and (Counter) Reformation, but they stand in tension with one another. Go to Paris: in the Louvre you’ll feel the sensual attraction of paganism; in Notre Dame you’ll sense the spiritual attraction of Christianity.
As I wrote in that post:
I don’t fully buy the idea that the gospel and culture (as opposed to, let’s say, worldliness, are in inherent tension – and one can feel a sensuality to the art of Notre Dame and a spirituality to the art of the Louvre)
Edwards piece also presupposes a conflict between Christianity and appreciation of the Classical World’s thought and belief. I thought of this again when I came across some passages from Victor Watt’s Preface to his Penguin Classics translation of Boethius‘s The Consolation of Philosophy:
Our understanding of the relationship between Christianity and the pagan cultural background of the sixth century has become clearer since Henry Chadwick drew attention to the long tradition of Christian humanism which lies behind the Consolation. The link between the great senatorial families and the higher clergy in Rome was close, and so far from conversion entailing the rejection of pagan antiquity and custom it seems to have brought with it a positive attitude to the literature and thought of antiquity. Indeed, apart from the study of pagan philosophy, the editorial attention paid to classical authors such as Virgil and Horace and the care and restoration of ancient buildings, even originally pagan festivals such as the Lupercalia and the July games at Rome in honour of Apollo continued to be fully celebrated in Boethius’s time. As Chadwick makes clear, this ‘Christian love of the past, even when associated with some of the external forms of pagan ceremony, is of some importance as background for estimating the position of Boethius and his circle between classical culture and Christian belief’. This absence of tension between pagan and Christian tradition was able to foster a milieu in which the concept of the twofold approach to truth, one via the exercise of the reason, one via revelation, was natural and easy to maintain.
A later passage in Watts’ introduction is also illuminating of this point
It may be, however, that the question of Boethius’ Christianity has not been correctly formulated. It may be that is more were known of the intellectual climate of Roman society at the time the problem would appear in a different light. The explanation may well lie, David Knowles suggests, in the changed attitude towards philosophy since the later middle ages. Between the days of Augustine and those of Siger of Brabant it was the universal conviction among those who thought seriously that there was a single true rational account of man and the universe and of an omnipotent and provident God, as valid in its degree as the revealed truths of Christianity. The great men of old, pagan though they might have been, had attained and expressed this truth in their philosophy could one but reproduce their teaching faithfully, and with their aid a true and sufficient answer could be given to the problems of human life and destiny. It was with this answers that the philosophical mind could meet the world and all the disasters of life. Behind the rational arguments, no doubt, in the unseen realm of the soul, an individual could meet the personal love and grace of Christ.
It strikes me that the supposed tension between the Christian and the classical is one of those false dichotomies such as the supposed conflict between religious and scientific worldviews, or one of those things that bothered later thinkers but didn’t quite bother the actual early Christians (like the the precise canon of scripture) so much.