Anterus and Proclus, Part II
This line of thinking was so tediously familiar to me that I had given up following the news through any medium, and, as I fell into walking down these mental pathways, my own musings began to bore me so much I could not control my yawning. I had obviously awakened too early. I closed my eyes, and, as I drifted off, I saw myself or someone who looked an awful lot like Anterus Smith, dressed in the simple white tunic philosophers in the schools affected. He was speaking in Greek with an older and more distinguished man, who was having a little difficulty with Smith’s schoolboy accent, which he or (I?)
was attempting to spice up with some modern Greek consonants. The older man, as I learned from the conversation, was none other than Proclus, the last of the great pagan thinkers.
Proclus, as every schoolboy knows, spent much of his career teaching and writing in Athens in the Fifth Century A.D. He was born to a wealthy and influential family during the unfortunate reign of Emperor Theodosius II, and he grew up in privileged circles in the imperial capital Constantinople. He had planned to be a lawyer, which would have been a ticket to a good imperial career, but he was drawn into the study of philosophy. He spent his life as a pagan in a Christian world, but even after Theodosius I had made Christianity the only licit religion, pagans were still everywhere. Did they dream of another Emperor Julian, who would restore paganism? Perhaps some did, but most serious pagans studied their Plato and Plotinus and some turned for consolation to the promise offered by magical cults. By the time of Proclus’ death in 485, his religion was virtually extinct, his high civilization supplanted by an increasingly crude Christian culture, and the serious study of philosophy was guttering out like a spent candle, though there were still, in a few places like Athens, Alexandria, and Rome, where some pagans and considerably more Christians were keeping the old flame alive.
As I concentrated on trying to understand the conversation, I heard Smith, bewildered and exasperated, asking:
What happened? It was only three generations ago, when Julian was promising a new dawn of serious study. Here in Athens, the Academy had been rebounded and you studied under Plutarch and Syrianus. I’m not talking so much about the change in religion. After all Gregory only died sixty years ago—there are old men who knew him. You might have met Chrysostom in Constantinople, and the Latin Augustinus died only a decade or so ago. But these days the Christians are getting increasingly hysterical. You’ve had Christian students, but your life here in Athens is not safe from their fanaticism. You heard what happened in Alexandria—how the Christian rabble tore the learned Hypatia to pieces? I know you have achieved a certain philosophic detachment, but surely you’ll agree that Hellenism and all that it represents is over?
Proclus smiled and took his time answering.
“Where have you been all your life, Andreas?What use to you has been all those years of study, if you have not been able to read the signs of the times?"
"What happened was a cultural revolution that started in Roman Galilee under Tiberius, was persecuted until the time of Constantine when it turned the tables on us. For a long time in reactionary spots like Rome, the elite maintained their allegiance to the ancient traditions, but with the Gothic conquest, failing economy, and a system that offered opportunities only to Christians, many of our people drifted into the enemy camp."
With the advantages of historical hindsight Andreas might have explained to the philosopher that, in the century after Proclus' death, the Christian Boethius’ father-in-law was descended from the leader of the pagan reactionaries under Theodosius I and his despicable sons. But Boethius, though a Christian, knew as well as Proclus before him that there was no place in the new world for philosophy. Still, philosophers and their students bided their time, did their work, hoped for the best. Both Proclus and Boethius produced works that were essential to the revival of learning that began many centuries after their deaths. I knew all this, but I was still curious about how it felt to be an anachronism.
"How do you manage to survive, master? I don't mean in a material sense, but as you know from Aristotle, who initially formed your thinking, man is a zoon politikon, a creature framed to live within a commonwealth. As a philosopher, you may refuse to fear the fate of Hypatia, but surely you know that you live among a people who are becoming less human with every passing day. Some of them no doubt hate you enough to attack you and burn down your school."
"Perhaps, but I might more easily die of a fever or a falling rooftree--no one seems to be repairing anything these days. Aristotle, it is true, taught us to value the things of this life as secondary goods, but what would Plato or Plotinus--or even the great god Jesus, for that matter--tell you but that this life of sorrow is only a preparation for purer realms that await us once we have parted with our bodies? "
"What about people of the old religion who are not disciples of Plato and Plotinus? Their children and grandchildren, if they are unwise enough to have them, will be aliens, worshipping the god of the Jews and despising the religion and philosophy of their ancestors."
"I have not passed my days in building up an estate or family dynasty--such things are a distraction to a philosopher, but had I had a career in law and, even though not a Gallilean, risen to high imperial offices, I should have done my best to prepare my children for their lives. Christianity is like Judaism a crude superstition, but many Christians lead virtuous lives, at least according to their lights, and some, as you point out, have acquired more than the rudiments of philosophy. It would be up to my children and grandchildren to face the world in their own way. I could only provide them with the teaching and the experiences that might help them to lead honorable lives. The way you speak of these matters, Andreas, it is as if you were an exile from your proper world, and like all exiles you long for a life to which you will never return. Suppose I am right--and you certainly speak Greek like a barbarian--would you not have children because they will grow up different from you?
To be continued