St Clement of Alexandria: Has Your Soul Learned to Choose the Highest?

Feast of St Gregory the Illuminator, Bishop of Armenia

Clement_of_Alexandria_Square_3.jpegPHILOSOPHY includes questions concerning truth and the nature of the universe (the truth of which the Lord Himself says, “I am the truth”); I also assert that the stage of education preliminary to resting in Christ exercises the mind, awakens the understanding, and produces a sharpness of intellect which uses true philosophy for its investigations. Those who discover this, or rather who have received it from Truth herself and hold on to it, are the true initiates.

Our readiness to see what we ought to see is largely due to this preliminary training. This training must be in perceiving intelligible objects with the mind. Their nature is of three kinds, considered in number, size, and definition. Definition on the basis of demonstrations implants in the soul of one who follows the argument a faith which is precise and incapable of coming to any other conclusion about the subject of the demonstration; such a definition does not allow us to succumb to those who seek to deceive and undermine us. In the course of these studies, the soul is purified from its sense perceptions and rekindled with the power of discerning the truth. “For the preservation of a good diet of education forms virtuous natures, and those naturally excellent latch on to education of this sort and grow even better than they were before, particularly in the production of offspring, as with the rest of the animal creation” (Plato, Republic 4.424A). That is why Scripture says, “Go to the ant, you sluggard, and become wiser than he” (Prov. 6.6). The ant at the time of harvest lays up an ample and varied store of food against the threat of winter. “Or go to the bee and learn her diligence” (Prov. 6.8). For she feeds over the whole meadow to produce a single honeycomb.

If you pray in your inner room, as the Lord taught, in a spirit of adoration, then your domestic economy would no longer be confined to your domicile, but would extend to your soul. What should it feed on? How? In what quantity? What should we store in its treasury? For whom? Those who live by virtue emerge, not naturally but by education, like doctors or pilots. We all alike can see a vine or a horse. Only the cultivator will know whether the vine is good for bearing grapes or not; only the groom will readily distinguish a sluggish from a speedy horse. Admittedly some people are naturally more inclined to virtue than others; this is shown by the practices of those so endowed compared with the rest. But this by no means proves perfection in virtue on the part of those better endowed, since those less inclined to virtue by nature have been known through the enjoyment of appropriate education to achieve personal excellence in every regard, and again by contrast, those favorably endowed become wicked through neglect. God has created us sociable and righteous by nature.

It follows that we may not say that righteousness appears simply by a divine dispensation. We are to understand that the good of creation is rekindled by the commandment, when the soul learns by instruction to be willing to choose the highest. But just as we say that it is possible to have faith without being literate, so we assert that it is not possible to understand the statements contained in the faith without study. To assimilate the right affirmations and reject the rest is not the product of simple faith, but of faith engaged in learning. Ignorance involves a lack of education and learning. It is teaching which implants in us the scientific knowledge of things divine and human. It is possible to live uprightly in poverty. It is also possible in wealth. We admit that it is easier and quicker to track down virtue if we have a preliminary education. It can be hunted down without these aids, although even then those with learning, “with their faculties trained by practice” (Heb. 5.14), have an advantage. “Hatred,” says Solomon, “stirs up strife, but education guards the paths of life” (Prov. 10.12). There is no possibility of being deceived or kidnapped by those who engage in evil artifices to injure their listeners. “Education without refutation goes astray,” he says (Prov. 10.17). We must claim our share in the pattern of refutation in order to repress the false views of the sophists.

Anaxarchus the Eudaemonist wrote well in his book On Sovereignty: “Wide learning is both of great advantage and great disadvantage to its possessor. It benefits the person of skill, it damages the person who lightly says anything in any company. You must know the limits of the appropriate moment. That is the definition of wisdom. Those who make speeches at the wrong moment, even if they are full of sense, are not counted wise and have a reputation for folly.”

—St Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis

Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.