Thursday, February 16, 2012

Could a Muslim ever write such a thing, now or ever...?

“...whatever is devout and contributes to good morals should not be considered profane. Sacred Scripture is of course the basic authority in everything; yet I sometimes run across ancient sayings or pagan writings -- even of the poets -- so purely and reverently and admirably expressed that I can't help feeling their authors' hearts were moved by some divine power. And perhaps the spirit of Christ is more widespread than we understand, and the company of saints includes many not in our calendar. Speaking frankly among friends, I can't read Cicero's
De senectute, De amicitia, De officiis, De Tusculanis quaestionibus without sometimes kissing the book and blessing that pure heart, divinely inspired as it was.

“But when, on the other hand, I read these modern [i.e., current Christian] writers on government, economics, or ethics -- good Lord, how dull they are by comparison! And what lack of feeling they seem to have for what they write! So that I would much rather let all of Scotus [a Christian writer] and others of his sort perish than the books of a single Cicero or Plutarch.”

-- Erasmus, Convivium religiosum, in his work Familiar Colloquies printed in 1522.


Were we living in 1912, I probably wouldn't have to school my readers on the identities and significance of Erasmus, Cicero and Plutarch, and Scotus in order to illuminate the full purport of the quote above; but, then again, at the click of a mouse a century later, my readers can school themselves in order to correct that deficiency in their society's pedagogy.

Erasmus (1466-1536) was one of the great Catholic thinkers of Western history, and a worthy opponent in the realm of rational debate of Martin Luther, who convulsed history with his aggressively obsessive hobbyhorse at the time when the intellectual faculties of Erasmus were at their prime.

Erasmus is often called a "Renaissance humanist", which may lead the less educated reader to think he was some kind of proto-Modern Man (i.e., a Secular Atheist or somehow anti-Church). He was first and foremost a Christian. And, as a Catholic, he had been enculturated in classical reason sufficiently to, among many other things, defend human free will against the pathologically obsessive denial of human free will Luther espoused. And it was his Catholic intellectual culture, solidly appreciative of the pre-Christian culture of Graeco-Roman philosophy, that enabled him to demonstrate such magnanimity, and to trust that his Christianity comported with such broadness of mind and spirit.

Indeed, not only would it be practically impossible for a Muslim to so freely and intelligently endow pre-Muslim (let alone non-Muslim) philosophers with divine inspiration; it could be said that for similar reasons it probably would have been an extraordinary effort for Luther and other Reformation luminaries to begrudgingly and petulantly follow Erasmus in his catholic predilection which his Catholic culture encouraged.

Further Reading:

For the reader interested in expanding his horizons, take a look at Cicero's Tusculan Disputations (that link also includes two other works by him in the same volume). Of course, ideally one would want to read Cicero in the original Latin; but, first things first.

This has been the latest installment of Why the West is Great. We return you to your regularly scheduled programming...


Olave d'Estienne said...

Okay, so now I'll read Cicero. I'm very interested and not very well-read in the links between Christian and pre-Christian European thinkers.

Hesperado said...

Hi Olave,

A good place to start would be Cicero's Tusculan Disputations (also, that link includes two other works by him in the same volume).

By the way, read that brief introduction about Cicero; that should be enough to dispel the notion that all the pagan Romans were dissolute godless libertines.