46. Why did the new Roman Church close the Schools?

The wretched Aristotle, who taught [the heretics] dialectic, that art of building up and demolishing, so protean in statement, so far-fetched in conjecture, so unyielding in controversy, so productive of disputes; self-stultifying, since it is ever handling questions but never settling anything.

Tertullian (155 – 230 AD)

From our distant perspective, many people assume that the new Church was founded immediately after the death of Christ and grew in a steady, uninterrupted fashion until the present day. Actually, during the first four centuries, it was a church divided on many fronts. There were many branches, or factions, so many that one writer in the year 187 AD counted twenty and a writer in 384 AD found eighty different Christian Churches.1 Certainly it was clear by the 4th century that the Roman Church would be the survivor and it established its authority in 367 AD when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, and various committees, selected the books which were to comprise the New Testament keeping sacred books which supported their argument and casting into oblivion those which did not.

It must have also been very difficult at first to maintain discipline among the early Christians, especially as the anticipated reappearance of Christ failed to occur. An anonymous poem of the early 2nd century, The Shepherd of Hermas, complains that one is beginning to see among Christians the re-emergence of pagan customs, including rouge, dyed hair, painted eyelids, drunkenness, avarice, and adultery.2

It was against this background, then, that the early Church leaders and philosophers struggled to create the Church as we know it. In order to facilitate the growth of the new religion, the early Church Fathers had two paramount challenges. First, they had to finally overcome a “pagan” intellectual environment which had roots 1,000 years old. Hence they immediately commenced their attack on education, philosophy, poetry, music destroying books and all forms of entertainment known to their contemporaries — in short, everything we think of as the glorious traditions of ancient Greek and Roman culture. And, in the end, the Church was successful; the Church won! Her victory we call today, “The Dark Ages.”

It was in this spirit of eliminating the pagan past that we find the quotation at the top of this essay by Tertullian. Basically, both his and the Roman Church’s view was: We, not the philosophers of the past, will provide your philosophy; we will tell you what to think. This is what Tertullian meant when he wrote,

What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem? What between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Away with all projects for a “Stoic,” a “Platonic” or a “dialectic” Christianity! After Christ Jesus we desire no subtle theories, no acute inquires after the gospel.3

On the other hand, there were some early Church fathers who were reluctant to give up the treasures of Greek philosophy. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – 216), for example, thought the Greek philosophers were also inspired by God and that their works were put in place to make people ready for Christianity. Philosophy, he said, was a “schoolmaster” to bring the Greek mind to Christ.

These two schools of thought about what to do with “pagan” philosophy [Plato, Aristotle, etc.] must have been the spring board for much debate. Taking sides against the ancient Greek philosophy, we see St. Jerome (347 – 420 AD) concerned about priests themselves reading “the philosophers, the orators, the poets,” for fear it would set an example for the “weak.”4

He admits he reads the philosophers and suggests that “if we find anything useful in them, we apply it to our own doctrine.” But the rest of literature, anything having to do with idols, love, or secular things, these he says must be cut off like finger nails. And certainly, he says, priests should not read poetry or comedies, which only children read, and then because they are forced to in school.

But as it is, we see even priests of God slighting the Gospels and the prophets, reading comedies, reciting love passages from bucolic verse, cherishing Virgil and voluntarily making themselves guilty of that which in the case of children is done under compulsion.

St. John Chrysostom (349 – 407 AD) argues for a similarly limited acceptance of philosophy. Philosophy is good, he says, as long as its our philosophy!

Philosophy is a very good thing — I mean, of course our philosophy. Pagan philosophy, to be sure, is merely talk and fables, and not even the fables themselves possess any trace of true wisdom. In fact, all their teachings are uttered with a view to worldly repute.5

Representing the more liberal views, the humble St. Basil (329 – 379 AD) gives subtle, indirect, advice to welcome past teaching,

One should receive instruction modestly and teach graciously. If he has learned anything from another, he should not conceal the fact after the manner of degraded wives who palm off as belonging to their husbands their baseborn children, but he should candidly declare the father of his idea.6

The ideas of Plato and Aristotle had not completely died out by the 4th century, being preserved in a few schools dedicated to traditional “pagan” philosophy. In particular, Athens had a university of sorts which was supported even by the Christian emperor, Constantine. The final important philosopher in the ancient tradition was Libanius, born in 314, whose students included such important future Church leaders as St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom. One who wanted to study with Libanius, but was not allowed to, was the young man who became the Emperor Julian (reigning 361 – 363 AD). Banished to Athens, he enjoyed an introduction to the teachings of the ancient philosophers. He, himself, defined philosophy as follows,

In philosophy the end and the beginning are one, namely, to know oneself and to become like the gods. That is to say, the first principle is self-knowledge, and the end of conduct is the resemblance to the higher powers.7

Even as emperor, his private passion remained books and philosophy and a wish to restore the ancient cults. If we can believe his self-portrait, even his appearance resembled the stereotype pagan philosopher which the Church so often ridiculed.

Though nature did not make my face any too handsome, nor give it the bloom of youth, I myself out of sheer perversity added to it this long beard … I put up with the lice that scamper about in it as though it were a thicket for wild beasts … My head is disheveled; I seldom cut my hair or my nails, and my fingers are nearly always black with ink.8

The great St Augustine (354 – 430 AD) followed the now official Roman Church view in dismissing “pagan” philosophy. In one place he mentions reading the Hortensius of Cicero,9 of whom he makes the interesting observation, “whose language almost all admire, not so his heart.” In condemning earlier philosophy, inspired by Colossians 2:8, he writes,

But the love of wisdom is in Greek called “philosophy,” with which that book inflamed me. Some there be that seduce through philosophy, under a great, and smooth, and honorable name coloring and disguising their own errors: and almost all who in that and former ages were such, are in that book censured and set forth: there also is made plain that wholesome advice of Thy Spirit, See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

Regarding his own education in the liberal arts, including music, Augustine diminishes the philosophies of the past by stating that in his youth he studied and understood them all without the benefit of a teacher.

Whatever was written, either on rhetoric, or logic, geometry, music, and arithmetic, by myself without much difficulty or any instructor, I understood.10

Understanding the liberal arts was, for the 4th century Church fathers, somewhat of an irrelevant concept. Faith was what mattered. Only later did some Church philosophers come to believe that the liberal arts might have a value in helping the Christian understand this message. For Augustine, study of the liberal arts had only a limited value,

You must return to those verses, for instruction in the liberal arts, if only it is moderate and concise, produces devotees more alert and steadfast and better equipped for embracing truth.11

As implied in this quotation by Augustine, the Church had now not only dismissed ancient philosophy, but also all the liberal arts. This is nowhere more clear than in a letter by Pope Gregory (540 – 604 AD), during whose lifetime the Greek schools were closed, to Desiderius, the Bishop of Vienne, criticizing him for teaching grammar.

A report has reached us which we cannot mention without a blush, that thou expoundest grammar to certain friends; whereat we are so offended and filled with scorn that our former opinion of thee is turned to mourning and sorrow.12

Most historians take the date of 475 AD as the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, a date by which time the old empire was divided, with emperors in both Rome and Constantinople. The history for the next seventy-five years is very complicated, but the leading figures were a Western general, Odoacer, who proclaimed himself king of Italy and Zeno who was the Eastern, or Byzantine, emperor in Constantinople. Odoacer is eventually replaced with a rare talent, Theodoric, for whom both Boethius and Cassiodorus, names well-known to musicians today, were employed.

In the East, Zeno was followed by Justin I and then by his nephew Justinian and his prostitute-actress-wife, Theodora. Justinian achieved what no other Byzantine Emperor had before or ever would again after him, the conquering of the city of Rome itself. But by this time little was left of the Western part of the Empire, as tribes of Goths, Franks, and even Saxons in the north were claiming the ancient Roman lands.

We have an eye-witness description of the city during the period of this first emperor of the 6th century, Justinian, who was certainly one of the strangest of all Roman emperors. He lived and dressed like a monk, fasting, praying, and discussing philosophy. As he wanted to become a musician and poet, we must assume his neglect of the educational institutions reported here was due more to his inclination to hoard money (he once increased his income by putting ashes in the peasant’s bread).

Justinian caused doctors and teachers of gentlemen’s sons to go short of the elementary necessities of life. For the free rations which earlier emperors ordered to be issued to members of these professions Justinian took away altogether. Moreover, the whole of the revenues which all the municipalities had raised locally for communal purposes and for entertainments he took over and shamelessly pooled with the revenues of the central government. From then on doctors and teachers counted for nothing: no one was now in a position to plan any public building projects; no lamps were lit in the streets of the cities; and there was nothing else to make life pleasant for the citizens. Theaters, hippodromes, and circuses were almost all shut…. Both in private and in public there was grief and dejection, as if yet another visitation from heaven had struck them, and all laughter had gone out of life.13

As Gibbon pointed out, it was this Christian emperor who also closed the schools of Athens and Alexandria.

Justinian suppressed the schools of Athens and the consulship of Rome, which had given so many sages and heroes to mankind…. The Gothic arms were less fatal to the schools of Athens than the establishment of a new religion, whose ministers superseded the exercise of reason, resolved every question by an article of faith, and condemned the infidel or skeptic to eternal flames.14

But this was only the last chapter of a broader story. One aspect of the Church’s effort to create a new kind of Roman citizen was the elimination of those who did not fit the model. Thus, “a wave of violent attacks against heretics, Jews, and pagans swept the region, with many assaults incited or winked at by bishops and perpetrated by zealous monks determined to ‘purify’ their society.”15

One story will perhaps represent hundreds of thousands which belonged to this moment of history. There was a daughter of a well-known Alexandrian mathematician named, Hypatia, who by c. 415 AD had established her own school of philosophy. She was a beloved person, famous for her virtue and wisdom, and her school was attended by distinguished persons. Following an attack by the Christians on a large and ancient Jewish population in Alexandria during which many residents were murdered, the rumor was spread that Hypatia had conspired to undermine the archbishop’s authority. Consequently, while taking an evening walk, a group of Christians seized her and carried her to a nearby church where they stripped off her clothes, tortured her to death, dismembered her body and burned the remains.

The tragic story of Hypatia serves as a symbol of just how powerless the ancient philosophies were in the face of the Church. In fact, it was during the life of Hypatia, that Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria (d. 412 AD) set out to destroy all the ancient manuscripts he could find.

The “Dark Ages,” might be dated from the year 529 AD when Justinian closed the Platonic Academy in Athens. However, due to the fear of the Christian church, so well justified in the example of Hypatia, many teachers had already left the West seeking safer residences in the East. Their taking copies of the ancient Greek works with them was the first step by which these works survived in Arab translations, which would then centuries later be retranslated into the Western tongues. Their later reintroduction to the West gave the Church a tremendous headache, for their edifice built on Faith had now to defend itself against the world of Reason they had tried to destroy.

In the meantime, by the beginning of the 6th century, Cassiodorus had already found,

Arithmetic, Theoretical Geometry, Astronomy, and Music are discoursed upon to listless audiences, sometimes to empty benches.16

This was the “Dark Ages,” a period for which today there are entire centuries in France for which we have not a single contemporary history. And as Gibbon summarized,

The 7th and 8th centuries were a period of discord and darkness: the library was burnt, the college was abolished … and a savage ignorance and contempt of letters has disgraced … the dynasties.17

The Church has much to answer for, for the closing of the schools and the general mayhem it sponsored. But it would be unfair for us to fail to mention that there were a few isolated individuals who privately collected and saved some of the manuscripts of ancient Greece. Boethius (475 – 524 AD), whom we discuss in the following essay, was a notable example. And there were also a few Church officials who saved ancient manuscripts and their Church buildings offered the manuscripts some chance of survival during centuries of turmoil.

Finally, we must not forget those lowly monks, the scribes, who expended a good part of their lives making copies, thereby increasing the odds for survival of individual works of literature. Their tired backs and cramped hands were driven by superiors who told them God would forgive one of their sins for each line they copied. One monk, his superior reported, escaped Hell by the margin of a single letter! It is no wonder that we find a scribe has written at the end of one of his volumes,

This completes the whole;
For Christ’s sake give me a drink!

  1. Durant, Caeser and Christ, 616 ↩︎
  2. Ibid., 599 ↩︎
  3. Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum, vii ↩︎
  4. St. Jerome, Letter to Damasus, trans. Charles C. Mierow in The Letters of St. Jerome (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1963), I, 118 ↩︎
  5. St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Saint John, trans. Sister Thomas Aquinas Goggin (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1960), 179 ↩︎
  6. St. Basil, “Letter to Gregory of Nazianzus,” in Letters of Saint Basil, trans. Sister Agnes Way (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1951), I, 9 ↩︎
  7. Julian, “To the Cynic Heracleios,” in The Works of the Emperor Julian, trans. Wilmer Wright (London: Heinemann, 1913), II, 127 ↩︎
  8. Misopogon, 338B ↩︎
  9. The Confessions, Book III ↩︎
  10. Ibid., Book IV ↩︎
  11. Divine Providence and the Problem of Evil, trans. Ludwig Schopp (New York: CIMA Publishing Co.), 261 ↩︎
  12. Quoted in Nan Cooke Carpenter, Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Universities (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958), 15 ↩︎
  13. Ibid., 169 ↩︎
  14. Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Philadelphia: Coates), III, 466ff ↩︎
  15. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children (New York: Harcourt Books, 2003),70 ↩︎
  16. Letter to “the Illustrious Consularis,” III, lii, in Variae, trans. Thomas Hodgkin (London: Frowde, 1886) ↩︎
  17. Gibbon, Op. cit., IV, 587 ↩︎