It seems to me that Clement’s positive attitude toward philosophy, cautious but not hostile or suspicious, in other words, the attitude of one who has understood, appreciated and then evaluated his subject, is crucial for understanding the role of Alexandria in the later theological disputes. He lived in the right place, he lived at the right time, and he appears to have had the right attitude: measured and deliberate. It is common to dismiss him as an intellectual lightweight, and compared with Origen he was. Compared to Origen, however, who was not? Clement had insight enough, and he was attempting to set up a new approach, he was leading the way. What is more, Clement did it with calm and got the direction right. Anybody who has been in the situation of leading a discussion and fumbling with the unanticipated, and has in other circumstances been a participant who observes a confused discussion and has without pressure some time to reflect and then offer better insight, will understand what Clement represented, and what Origen.
For this reason I think it really is important not to study Gnosticism as a recurring phenomenon in the Church. Not because it has no parallels: no doubt it does. I do not deny Santayana’s statement that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it; can it be right, however, to assume that the study of history is merely about avoiding present errors? To do that is to get Santayana backwards. If we read the present moment into the past, we will use the past as a way to address what it never originally did. The study of history does not help us unless we first understand the nature of the errors committed in the past. The important thing, in other words, is to get what the error actually was. Men made decisions in a set of circumstances nobody any longer faces; the circumstances are never the same, though the constant of human nature and the human condition remain. Were the circumstances never to change, we would not study history. And so, though we cannot relive the Gnostic moment, we can understand it, and we can understand Clement by understanding how he responded and why he chose that way: the way of the true gnostic.
The true gnostic sought deeper understanding: he combined the church’s moral seriousness with the intellectual seriousness of the Hellenic philosopher. Moral seriousness will be accompanied by intellectual seriousness, but may not have a tradition, a set of tools and procedures, a pedagogical approach to the acquisition of these in which there is a decided advantage. This advantage obtained in Alexandria. And Clement, in Alexandria, made good arguments resulting in a positive—a critical but nevertheless appreciative—appropriation of Greek philosophy. It was a transitory moment, to risk redundancy, and it was decidedly Clement of Alexandria’s moment.