Founders of the Middle Ages by Edward Kennard Rand

Founders of the Middle AgesThis is a great book.

27        “Gregory’s literary style is formed on the simplest models. Here is a man educated in the old training, who deliberately threw it away.”

Rand’s droll procedure is first to establish that each of these founders in fact enjoyed a thoroughly classical education: they were trained by classical methods and steeped in classical culture. Having reaped the benefits, they then affected to turn against it, which pious hypocrisy vastly amuses Rand. It is obviously an approach with some drawbacks, but Rand’s sardonically cheerful wit mitigates the more sour conclusions that might be drawn. Obviously, once he had the advantage of the training, once he had inextricably absorbed the benefit, Gregory could afford to turn on it. Rand’s argument is that we should read his dismissals lightly, considering them little more than necessary affectations.

37        “Of all the ancient philosophies, Christianity is most nearly allied to Platonism, though it is not that.”

53        “Dr. More well remarks that not the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, Porphyry and Proclus, but the Christian philosophy of the great Alexandrians and Cappadocians is the real heir of the Academy.” Rand hastens to include Cicero, and in fact makes, throughout the book, Cicero the real mediator of the Platonic tradition to the Church. It is a Latin approach seeking a European goal (Founders of the Western Middle Ages). It is no wonder he sets Cicero over Plotinus when his founders are Gregory, Ambrose, Jerome, Boethius, and Augustine. He was, after all, a professor of Latin.

63        “For from the first to the last the principle written is clear that, while Christian faith finds much in Pagan belief and Pagan morals to avoid, it may, or rather it must, draw freely from it sustenance on the thought, the poetry, and the inspiration of the past.”

There is his thesis: we must not overplay Christian protestations and invective against Pagan culture. They had to draw on it because they were in the midst of it and had to draw on something. In fact, they were well-trained in it, and the protestations the Christian fathers made must be weighed and evaluated carefully, rather than simply taken at face value. Or:

64        “Thus were the foundations of Christian humanism laid.”

93        “An intellectual Christian like Ambrose rejected such science precisely as he rejected the history of the Olympians, not because it was Pagan and wrong, but because it was stale and untrue.”

144      “This carefulness on the part of Boethius led to the creation of a new vocabulary for philosophy, worked out step by step in the Middle Ages and appearing in something like the final form in St. Thomas Aquinas.”

145      “By helping to create a new philosophical idiom, Boethius performed a valuable service to the development of thought in the Middle Ages.”

149      “For with both Cicero and Boethius, it is Aristotle that is harmonized with Plato and not vice versa.” And, one might add, Plotinus. And therefore, the early Middle Ages.

155      “But, most important of all, he illustrated, in these brief tractates, the application of logical method, as well as the new vocabulary, to theological problems, on the understanding that fides, the ultimate truth, may be supported by the free effort of human reason.”

Exactly what Rand means by ‘supported’ is somewhat ambiguous, but that in some sense it is true is clear enough. This is his case for Boethius: carefulness with words that leads to a new philosophical idiom which can be used to support the Christian faith. Boethius, in other words, sets up Aquinas.

181      “No poetry, and no religion, that is not also art will long survive.”

Interestingly enough, Rand’s somewhat chatty but witty and curious lectures are still being cited and consulted nearly ninety years on.

213      “Yet his purpose is not to supersede Pagan culture, but to include it. The culture which Prudentius embodied in his hymns, and which he passed on to the coming generations, could not dispense with the ancient authors who had contributed to its making.”

It was not possible, and poetry is an obvious place to see it. And if you consider that Justin Martyr wrote dialogues and apologies, like Plato, that Origen wrote On First Principles, that besides the Homilies and Commentaries, the literary genres employed by the Church Fathers had long antecedent with which there was more than passing familiarity, it is hard to object.

250      “There will be different effects from different men and moments of the period of Foundation. There will be a powerful effect from the master-mind of Gregory. But the ultimate victory will be that of the party of Lactantius and Cassidorus, advocates of Christian humanism in which the old education is vitally embedded in the new.”

Gregory being an example of higher hypocrisy regarding his rejection of the Pagan learning he appropriated, and Lactantius and Cassidorus being less so, or not at all.

268      “Augustine’s feeling about the ancient culture, if I may run on with this topic for a moment, is at once like, and unlike, that of Jerome. . . . They both show an inevitable reaction against Paganism after their conversion, but in a different way. With Jerome, whose agile temperament plunged readily into extremes, the reaction both took a more violent form and more quickly cleared away. With Augustine, it was slower in coming and more lasting in effect. . . . The tendency to open himself to the immediate inspiration, to give himself to the needs of the present, and to put away the past, increased with his years.”

One of the great drolleries of this book is Rand’s play on the situation he lived, with progressive education seeking to throw out the classics—that which he himself taught. Rand is constantly poking fun, both at his objects and at his subjects.

280      “The views of any mediaeval authors about the Classics were formed, not only by what authoritative Churchmen of the time might say, but by what was transmitted from the past under the sanction of a Lactantius, an Ambrose, a Jerome, an Augustine, a Boethius. . . . the Pagan authors were immovably fixed in Christian education.”


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