This is an Altum essay by Max Leyf.
The Hellenic philosophical tradition and Jewish religion as laid out in the Old Testament present what may at first strike one as radically different outlooks as to the nature of wisdom and the proper end of human life. I would like to explore this question; and for such an exploration to be feasible in an essay requires narrowing the scope of inquiry to specific figureheads within each tradition. The reader will perhaps find it a defensible choice that have I opted to take Solomon as a representative of the Hebraic outlook and Plato as a representative of Greek philosophy.
As noted at the outset, Judaism seems to set itself off starkly against Greek philosophy. The fundamental distinction may appear almost elementary to us today: after all, the first thing is religion, which demands, in the common conception of today, doxastic assent and which prescribes customs, ethics, mores, and patterns of behavior; and the second philosophy, which attempts to arrive at clear conceptions through rational process and argument. Saint Paul suggestively alludes to the respectively different outlooks in his first letter to the Church of Corinth, “the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom” (1:22). The so-called “wisdom of Solomon” seems very different from the “wisdom” of the Greek philosophers. Solomonic wisdom appears vatic and somewhat desultory compared to the neat dialectic and dramatic arcs evinced in Plato’s works. The difference in outlooks can perhaps be further emphasised through an attempt to distil each to an essential maxim. The Hellenic maxim, whose derivation, again, assumes Plato as its source, can be synthetically discerned from crucial moments in the Apology, the Republic, the Euthyphro, and the Meno dialogues, among others. It might take something like the following formulation:
“knowledge of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.”
In the Apology, for instance, Socrates describes his encounter with the reputedly “wisest man in Athens”:
…I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: “Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.
But it is the Republic that presents what is perhaps the most memorable argument for Hellenic maxim in the form of the notorious “Allegory of the Cave.” (1) The “prisoners” are held hostage by their imaginary enlightenment; they are in a cave and bound there by their belief that they are not. Indeed, in both the Euthyphro and Meno dialogues, we discover the eponymous characters unable to conceive the logos of the respective virtue in question—piety and the ability to learn, more or less—because of their foregone conceits of it. Euthryphro believes he already knows that piety entails perpetrating the prosecution of his own father and though he appears to engage Socrates over the question, he doesn’t stay for the answer, eager as he is to discharge his perceived obligation. Meno, similarly, appears to inquire of Socrates over the nature of virtue in general and more specifically, whether it can be learned, but similarly appears unable to consider any alternatives to the beliefs that he already held. In other words, both of these title characters remain bound by chains of their own ignorant conceits of wisdom as all the while, the promise of deliverance from this condition continually presents itself to them in the form of Socrates’ suggestions that wisdom belongs to the gods alone. Indeed, this is perhaps the proper interpretation of the Greek word “philosophy,” as conceived in juxtaposition to the “sophistry” that Socrates is forever opposing. The latter term is employed ironically. Only the philosopher “knoweth himself,” in the sense that Plato lay out in the Apology, and as a result, perceives that mortals attain to wisdom through participation and not possession. I hope that the above discussion has conveyed something of the essential outlook of Plato as encapsulated in the statement I have termed “the Hellenic maxim.”
In an immediate sense, the teaching of Solomon seems to corroborate the Hellenic view. After all, they both seek wisdom and oppose themselves to worldly riches: “For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it” (Prov. 8:11), wisdom “crieth at the gates” (Prov. 8:3). But as noted, what appears as the same word, “wisdom,” seems to mean two different things. For Plato, it is a virtue of the intellect whereas for Solomon, it seems to be a virtue of the heart and of the will. The Hebraic maxim then, which can be drawn from the Book of Proverbs, ascribed to Solomon, may be stated thus:
“fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10).
Hence, for Solomon, the attainment of wisdom is not a question to be settled by argument or by reason or even by enlightenment, but by alignment of the heart to the will of God. “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (2) we may then wonder.
To begin an attempt at an answer, it may be helpful to consider the completion of Solomon’s statement above from Proverbs from which the so-called “Hebraic maxim” was seized. “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” declares the Wise King, “and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Taken by itself, the coordinate clause is somewhat enigmatic, but in the context of the previous verse, its significance can come to light. As Solomon observes:
He that reproveth a scorner getteth to himself shame: and he that rebuketh a wicked man getteth himself a blot.
Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee: rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee.
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning. (Prov. 9:7-8)
He is clearly counselling against entering an exchange that is futile even if the matter is significant. “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine,” it might be said, “lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you” (Matt. 7:6). Solomon’s words also hearken to the principle conveyed in the so-called “Parable of the Talents”:
Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 25:28-30)
A person bereft of wisdom would be liable to prefer to lay up treasure on earth—merchandise, fame, heroin, chocolate cake. Only the one who puts wisdom to work can get wisdom as the “Parable of the Talents” most memorably portrays.
But it is no secret to discover a continuity between the Jewish scriptures and the Christian ones. After all, Jesus Christ was born and died a Jew. And it is perhaps also no audacious claim to argue that Christianity forms a bridge, or constitutes the “middle term” between the Hebraic and Hellenic traditions as I have represented them thus far. In other words, the answer to the question of how Plato and Solomon can be reconciled is “Christ.” But it is one thing to pronounce and answer and quite another to understand why it is true.
Let us return to Solomon’s suggestion in respect to wisdom. A person who did not love wisdom would not seek it. But to love wisdom already entails a participation of it. As Schiller observed, “They must already be wise to love wisdom; a truth felt already by the one who gave Philosophy her name.” (3) Of course, it was not Solomon per se who christened Philosophy. But it was also not Solomon per se who wrote the Book of Proverbs. What do I mean to say by this? Certainly not that I intended to throw my hat in the ring of contested authorship. I will allow Saint Augustine to state my case with greater eloquence than I am capable of marshalling to the point:
Thus, in the gospel He [Christ] speaks through the flesh; and this sounded outwardly in the ears of men, that it might be believed and sought inwardly, and that it might be found in the eternal Truth, where the good and only Master teaches all His disciples.(4)
Insofar as what is written in the Book of Proverbs is true and insofar as what was written in the Book of Proverbs was wise, its author was Christ. “I am the truth,” the Master sayeth (Jn 14:6). The last verse of the Gospel of John conveys a similar sentiment: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen” (Jn. 21:25). In other words, just as insofar as Solomon’s words are true, they represent a collaboration with Christ to produce them and not a unilateral effort on behalf of his Cartesian ego, so the same thing must be said of the Greek philosophers. Fr. Andrew Louth relays a particularly evocative statement of this case:
There is handed down an ancient tradition that a certain learned man used often to curse Plato the philosopher. Plato appeared to him in his sleep and said to him, “Man stop cursing me, for you only harm yourself. For that I’ve been a sinful man, I do not deny. When Christ came down into Hades, truely, no one believed in him before I did.” (5)
But he is not the only one. Indeed, the sentiment is extremely common throughout the history of Christian thinkers. Justin Martyr, for instance, writing to the Roman Emperor in the 2nd century, maintained that:
We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word (in Greek Logos) of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably (according to Logos) are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them… (6)
Saint Augustine offers one of the best-known formulations of the argument:
When I said [in De Vera Religione] “That is in our times the Christian religion, to know which, is the most secure and certain salvation,” it was said in relation to the name, not in relation to the thing itself, of which it is the name. For the thing itself, which is now called the Christian religion, was there among the people of antiquity, and was not wanting from the beginning of the human race, down to the time when Christ came in the flesh; whereafter the true religion, which was always there, began to be called Christian. For when the Apostles began to preach Him after the resurrection and ascension into heaven, and very many believed, first of all at Antioch, as it is written, they were called Christian disciples (Acts X1, 26). Therefore I said: ‘This is in our times the Christian religion,’ not because it was not there in earlier times, but because in later times it received this name. (7)
In other words, to the degree that Greek philosophy is true, to the same degree should it be regarded as a “third testament.” Saint Paul sums up the convergence in the line following that from which the title for the present essay was taken: “But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:24) Everyone who seeketh wisdom, will he, nill he, and whether he knows it or not, is seeking Christ.
It is to be hoped that the convergence of Solomonic and Platonic wisdom has been established. It remains, however, to address the problem of how to reconcile their apparent divergence. The Hebraic and Hellenic maxims, respectively, seem to set forth substantially differing conceptions of wisdom despite both advising us to seek it. The issue comes to a crux in the apparent disjunction between religion and philosophy. As observed at the outset of the present essay, religion and philosophy seem to represent markedly different paths to wisdom. The injunction to “fear the LORD” to get wisdom strikes one as something very different from “become conscious of your own lack of it.” But is the divergence really as stark as it may first appear? The Hellenic maxim seems at once to hearken to Jesus’ beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). The question remains as to whether fear of the Lord can be guided back to a common center in Christ as well. To begin with, the consistency should be almost axiomatic. After all, the Book of Proverbs is found within the Old Testament of the Christian Bible and hence it should stand to reason that a continuity from the teachings of Solomon to the teachings of Christ could be traced. But the real question is not whether the teachings are found together within the same binding but what they mean and in what manner they are true.
“Fear of the LORD,” says Solomon, “is the beginning of wisdom.” “Fear” might seem at first to be a vice, in our minds at once calling up a contrast to a virtue like “courage” or “bravery.” But of course, as Aristotle famously demonstrated in the Nicomachean Ethics, the proper conception of virtue is not in opposition to a vice but in suspension between two vices, as Christ crucified between two thieves. Hence, “fear” cannot merely be juxtaposed against “courage.” Instead, courage has to be sustained, almost as a tone on a string stretched between two points of tension, like Heraclitus’ “backward-turning harmony.” (8) The true oppositional axis, then, is between “cowardice,” as one extreme, and “recklessness” or “brashness” to the other. “Fear” as such does not really belong on the axis of vice, though it is swiftly arrogated to that axis when it arises in the wrong measure—in a measure incommensurate with the situation at hand. The same goes for anger, pity, and any common emotion. In Aristotle’s discussion of the issue:
And so it is hard to be good: for surely hard it is in each instance to find the mean, just as to find the mean point or centre of a circle is not what any man can do, but only he who knows how: just so to be angry, to give money, and be expensive, is what any man can do, and easy: but to do these to the right person, in due proportion, at the right time, with a right object, and in the right manner, this is not as before what any man can do, nor is it easy; and for this cause goodness is rare, and praiseworthy, and noble. (9)
Hence, the question for us regards the proper object and measure of fear. Fear towards the right thing would be the proper response and anything else would be a vice. What, then, ought to be the ultimate object of our fear? The soul of a coward, of course, will have a disordered response to a given threat, whether it is of physical, emotional, reputational, or intellectual nature. That is to say, fear is present in undue proportion to the objective nature of the threat. Generally speaking, to be a coward is a vice. But is there some object or being towards which no amount of fear would be incommensurate; some object or being towards which, irrespective of the magnitude of fear that we expressed, we could never be considered “cowardly” in the vicious sense? There is One, of course. Jesus says so much, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” In the final measure, the only thing “able to destroy both soul and body in hell” is the LORD because He was the only thing able to create those things. Hence, just as we should be beggars in spirit before God, we should also be cowards before him. The man who fears God aright will not fear anything else in a measure beyond what is due. Hence, “fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”
I don’t want to seem to have danced around the fundamental issue by merely citing this or that verse from the Gospels and syllogizing that “because the Gospels are all in agreement, then anything that agrees with one part of one Gospel therefore agrees with the whole of them.” After all, “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” as Antonio reminds us (10), and moreover the Gospels do not even agree amongst themselves in all their parts, as everyone who has read them is most certainly aware and as the writers probably were too. The real difficulty in weaving together the Hellenic and the Hebraic traditions in this instance stems from an inherited prejudice that the emotional, moral, and active lives are separate from the intellectual one. But that is more a foregone theory of essential anthropology than a fact of it. The truth of the matter is that an emotion does not just prey upon my soul like a hungry lion. Instead, I have conditioned the emotion by the thoughts, conceptualizations, and organizing ideas that I have entertained in respect to my surroundings and the nature of existence. “The soul is dyed the colour of its thoughts,” to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius. (11) Hence, I am the lion. Emotion is the daughter of thought, and motion is its son. We do not act for no reason, but rather our action is an embodiment of the intentions that we form through thought. Of course, it can be objected that habitual action conditions the soul no less, and perhaps more, than habitual thoughts. Indeed, the liturgy of the Church is largely predicated on this relation for its ineluctable edificational power. Thus, the proposition that actions form and sculpt the soul is correct, but it is not a real objection to the line of argument above. After all, by the time an action is performed, the decision to perform it was already accomplished in thought. Naturally, if my eyes blink before the face of a gunshot, I did not first form the intention in thought and then carry it out. But by the same token, I cannot properly be said to have done it. Instead, I arrived on the scene, so to speak, after the fact and had to learn about it through perception and proprioception and in short, by the same manner through which I learn about every other phenomenon. Hence, what is really necessary is not to arrive at a verdict over whether to grant priority to the active life or the contemplative one, or to the emotional life or the intellectual one, or to religion or to philosophy. Instead, the one thing needful is to recognise the common spiritual agency and power of which they are both outward-turning faces. When we grasp that unity in our souls, we will simultaneously have grasped it in Christ, who is the final resolution to the contest between the Hellenic and Hebraic maxims. Cower before the LORD and make thyself a beggar in spirit, and thou shall be judged blessed in Christ, whose judgement is the only one we should fear.
- Plato, Republic, VII.
- In Tertullian’s memorable formulation from De Praescriptione Haereticorum (On the Prescription of Heretics)
- Friedrich Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, No. 26. “Sie müßten schon weise sein, um die Weisheit zu lieben: eine Wahrheit, die Derjenige schon fühlte, der der Philosophie ihren Namen gab.”
- Augustine, Confessions; XI.8.
- Andrew Louth, “The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology.” Delivered remotely to the King’s College Chapel, January 17, 2021. Link to full video of this 2021 Robert Crouse Memorial Lecture.
- Justin Martyr, “The First Apology,” ch. 63.
- St. Augustine: Retractationes. I.xiii.3.
- Heraclitus, fragment 51. “παλίντροπος ἁρμονίη”
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, IX.
- Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, I.3.
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, V.16.