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THE MASTER IN THE FATHERS
AND IN ECCLESIAL TRADITION

(especially in "De Magistro"
by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas)

Acts of the International Seminar
on "Jesus, the Master"
(Ariccia, October 14-24, 1996)

by Franco Pierini ssp

 

2. THE PRE-CONSTANTINE ANTIQUITY (until year 313)

2.1. General view

The Roman Empire, since the time of its foundation, appeared to be a true and proper pedagogical institution, geared to obtaining with the most diverse means the consent or at least the submission by the subjects (Virgin, Aeneid, 6, 851-853: "Tu regere imperio populos, romane, memento – hae tibi erunt artes – pacique imponere morem, parcere subiectis et debellare superbos"). The archaisms of Augustus, Claudius, Hadrian, Decius, etc. were pedagogical; so were the paternalistic and philosophical attitudes of Vespasian and Titus, of Nerva, of Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius; the militarism of Trajan; the very authoritarianism of Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Commodus; the politics of the emperors Severus.

On the other hand, the cultural atmosphere of the time was pushing towards the direction of a generalized pedagogism: in philosophy, in literature, in the arts.(22)

It is not strange then if the expressions "paideia of God", "paideia of Christ" would be found not only in the writings of the New Testament (especially in the deutero-Pauline and pastoral letters) but also and already in the first, chronologically speaking, of the patristic writings, that is in the Letter to the Corinthians by Clement of Rome, dating back to about the year 96, especially in the last chapters.(23)

If in the sphere of Judeo-Christianity Christ master is presented above all as Christ-law ("nomos")(24), in the Hellenistic and Roman Christianity Christ-teacher as well as Christ-logos assumes an ever greater importance (after the example of Philo of Alexandria).

Christ teacher understood as law is useful in the polemics against the Hebrews; Christ teacher understood as logos is useful in the polemics against the pagans. The apologist-philosopher Justine, in fact, uses both: the first in the Dialogo di Trifone, and the second in the Apologie (above all in the form of "logos spermatik˛s"). In both cases, Christ appears as the protagonist of the "paideia of God" addressed respectively to the Hebrews and to the pagans.(25)

Granted that heresy appears most of all as gnosticism, Ireneaus of Lyons, in his work Against the heretics, is in the position put Christus-logos against the gnostic eons; against the typical dualism of gnosticism, the unity of the divine "paideia" in the only history of salvation for all, in the only Christ teacher and in the only Church teacher.(26)

Naturally, all the Fathers of the Church of this period underline the need to imitate Christ. In a period which is also characterized by continually impending persecution, the martyr turns out to be the most perfect imitator of the Divine Master.(27)

In the first three centuries of Christian history, the "paideia" of Christ and of the Church reaches the most significant expression, however, it was in the experience of the Alexandrian milieu. Here the pagan "Maouseion," or the house of the nine muses representing the various sectors of knowledge, already existed for some centuries; there already was the Jewish "House of studies" (or "Bet-midrash") where Philo had brought to perfection the allegorical interpretation of the "Torah". In this very important cultural center, it was inevitable that a Christian pedagogical institution should rise earlier than anywhere else, and this was the famous "Didaskaleion," founded at the start of the third century.(28)

From the Alexandrian area, two names emerge: Clement and Origen. They are the protagonists of the most involved and wide efforts directed to create a true and proper Christian "paideia," capable of being on the level of the Jewish and the pagan ones also from the cultural point of view. (return to summary)

2.2. The Christian pedagogue and paideia of Clement and Origen

Clement of Alexandria (150-about 215), although he did not officially teach in the "Didaskaleion", is considered one of the most characteristic exponents of the Christian cultural milieu of Alexandria of Egypt. It was he who planned a kind of Christian encyclopedia about the figure of the Divine Master, the incarnate Logos, God made man.

Following the didactic scheme fashionable among the religious philosophers of the time, he probably developed a first part, of the propaganda and persuasive kind (the currently entitled work Protrettico); a second part wherein Christ appears as the teacher addressed to all, essoteric (Il Pedagogo); a third part, wherein the topics of relations between culture and revelation, reason and faith, etc., are discussed (the actual Stromati, which he would have entitled Il Didascalo), in view of a kind of esoteric teaching.

The theology of Clement is one real Christological pedagogy. Inspired by a philosophical background of the eclectic type, it is not yet systematic, but, in its wide learning, it offers a quantity of precious views for the study of ancient Christian tradition also for comparisons with the classic Greek and Roman culture.(29) Nonetheless, it is the first attempt to build a propaganda strategy, an elementary culture and a superior knowledge ("gnosis") for the communication of Christianity to all levels and in all directions.(30)

Origen of Alexandria (185-254) undertakes in a wider and more systematic manner the Christian "paideia" set aside for the first time by Clement. While Clement limited himself to build the process of his own investigation around the focal point which was Christ Master as "protrettico", as "pedagogue" and as "didascalon", Origen adopts the totality of the methodology of the learned of his time, thus giving life to a broad and articulated "paideia" which he brought to work first in Alexandria (between 203 and 231), then in Cesarea in Palestine (between 232 and 253).

The description of the Christian "paideia" by Origen is found in Discorso a Origine composed in 238 by the student Gregory Taumaturgus. As one can draw from this document, we have here what has been rightly defined as "the first draft of the Christian university".

The study plan promoted by Origen is the same as the pagan higher studies, inspired above all by the middle Platonism of Albino, Maximus of Tyro, Numenius, and by the Stoics of Carnuto and Cheremone, by the neo-Phytagorism of Filostratus, etc. The subjects are logic, physics, ethics and metaphysics; the prevailing methodology is allegorism. The spirit and the scope, however, are naturally different: the spirit is Christian-ecclesial and the scope is an ever greater learning of the divine teaching incarnated in the person of Christ Teacher and present in the word of the Bible.(31)

With the work of Clement and Origen, a first comprehensive assimilation either of Christian revelation or of ancient culture is thus accomplished. And this, as "paideia," or as the first expression of Christian humanism. (return to summary)

3. POST-CONSTANTINE ANTIQUITY (313-about 450)

3.1. General view

With the persecutions over, with the freedom of Christianity recognized, an epochal transformation would take place: the Roman-pagan Empire becomes Christian-Roman. The pedagogical concerns of the State remain the same: to obtain consensus for itself. But the manners change. In spite of the Caesaro-papist attempts of different emperors, who had the illusion of using Christianity as they had done with the pagan religious, the pedagogical task, or the cultural and spiritual hegemony, passes ever more into the hands of the Church.

Not even neo-Platonism, the last great religious philosophy of paganism, succeeds in turning history back in spite of the brief anti-Christian reaction of Julianus the Apostate (361-363).

In the sphere of Christianity, on the other hand, the absence of testimony by blood (martyrdom properly called) was compensated by the birth and the fast and overwhelming speed of a new form of witnessing: that of the monastic asceticism, either in the hermetic form or the Cenobitic one. The imitation of Christ Master, which was at first looking up to the martyr, now looks at the ascetic Christ, already attempting to reproduce him under every aspect described by the Gospel. All this is already evident in the biography of Anthony the Egyptian written by Athanasius (about 356), but it becomes even more systematic in the theorization of monasticism done by the Cappadocean Fathers, especially by Gregory of Nissa (cf. the writings Il fine cristiano, La professione cristiana, La perfezione cristiana, of 390-about 394).

A few decades earlier, Ambrose of Milan had developed a similar work by propagating virginity as imitation of Mary, mother of Jesus.

The favorable conjunction elicits the second great period of Christian scholarization, after that which took place in the II and III centuries and culminated in the "Didaskaleion" of Alexandria. Now also the catechetical schools of Antioch are born (initiated at the start of the IV century but reached its peak in the second half of the century), that of Cesarea of Cappadocia, of Milan, etc., aside from those connected with the first great monasteries. And these scholastic institutions, following the counsels of Basil of Cesarea (Ammonimento ai giovani sull’uso dei classici pagani) and of Jerome (in different letters), do not push back but try to reanimate with Christian spirit the Greek and Roman cultural heritage which by now were becoming a part of the liberal arts of the trivio and the quadrivio.

Christian education is naturally geared to educate the new man according to the model of Christ Master from the crib to the tomb. The phenomenon is evident in the preaching, typically pedagogical, of John Chrysostom (344-407), who is also the author of the most ancient exposition of systematic Christian pedagogy (La vanitÓ e l’educazione dei figli, about the year 380), is in parallel with the only little pedagogical treatise that reached us from pagan antiquity, that of Pseudo Plutarch (Come educare i propri figli, dating back to the II century A. D.), although it is quite different either in form or in substance and in the spirit.

In this historical stage of Christian "paideia" the theological and Christological controversies had greater importance, with the related conciliar definitions (in Nicea against Arianism in 325, in Constantinople against the Macedonianism of 381, in Ephesus against Nestorianism of 431, in Chalcedon against the monophysists of 451), and the contemporary controversies on the Church (condemnation of Donatism in Arles in 314 and in Carthage in 411) and on grace (condemnation of Pelagianism in Carthage and in Milevi in 416).

Further doctrinal deepening which came out of it made it possible to better comprehend the weight and the most authentic physiognomy of Christ’s magisterium, first through the works of Athanasius, Hilarius, the Cappadocean, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo I and the principally through the works of Augustine.

What in substance follows: Christ known in his preexistent divinity, the incarnation (Nicea); known in the distinction and completeness of his two natures, divine and human, after the incarnation (Ephesus and Chalchedon); known as working in the Church through his Spirit, the third person of the Trinity (Constantinople); this Christ is always guaranteed, under due conditions, to all his faithful (against Donatism), and he is not a purely exterior Master, but true grace of radical transformation and of divinization (against Pelagianism). In short, Christ Master is not only the historical "rabbi" who lived in Palestine with his teaching, his example, his miracles, his death and resurrection, but he is also and above all, in the actual stage of the history of salvation, the Master existing and working in everyone with his grace, or with the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit.(32)

Augustine, when he set himself to write his De Magistro in 389, is already in the position of perceiving this orientation of the Christian "paideia". Thus, in the post-Constantine period, could undertake in a much higher level, the task undertaken during the preceding period by Clement and Origen together. (return to summary)

3.2. The "De Magistro" by Augustine of Hippo (389)

We can affirm with certainty that Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote what he first personally experienced because he himself bothered to remember, describe it in his autobiographical works and to explain and deepen it on every occasion.

Also the De Magistro, which can seem, at first glance, a strongly speculative and abstract discourse, is the echo of a lived experience. This appears clearly if the work is placed in context as it should be in Augustine’s life and in the composite of the works that precede and follow it.

Augustine, born in Tagaste in 354, suffers a strong intellectual and moral disorientation at the age of sixteen. He gets out of it for the first time, with a conversion to the "passion for truth" in 373 through the reading of the Hortensius by Cicero. Then came new moral and ideological misdirection. A second conversion, the "conversion of the mind," takes place at the age of 32, in 386, when he approached the neo-Platonic philosophy and manages to discover that the much sought-after truth is found in spiritual interior life. The third conversion, the "conversion of the heart and will," follows soon after, when, with different spirit, he returns to read the Bible and above all the letters of St. Paul and comes to know some ascetic and monastic experiences.

The decisive maturation, however, takes place during the years from 386 to 387, before and after his baptism, received on Easter night of 24/25 April, 387. In his written works during this period, above all in De ordine (November-December, 386) it is evident that the Augustinian project of establishing not only his own life but that of his own relatives and friends but also the whole "paideia," the entire ancient "Weltanschauung" on Christian foundations, on Christ Master.

The De Magistro, dialogue between Augustine and his son Adeodatus (who dies the next year, in 390), also in its Platonic literary style, is the manifesto of the new "Christian Socratism". It, in fact, deals in a Socratic manner with the conditions for the search and achievement of truth and with the conditions for the communication of truth. The reflection therefore falls along the essential element for the search and communication of truth, or the language, and more broadly the sign.

Stoicism had already taught to distinguish in the sign ("sÚmeion"), the signifying element ("semÓinon") and the meaning ("semain˛menon"). Augustine and Adeodato ask, in what is the relationship between the signifying element and the meaning with things (today we say, the referred point), in order to reach the knowledge of truth and to communicate it?

The De Magistro does not deal therefore with problems of pedagogical details (like the little treatise of John Chrisostom) but with themes of fundamental pedagogy, of the theory of knowledge and of method. Pedagogy is understood not much as didactics but so much as general theory of signs (semiotics: nos. 1-18) and of meanings (semantics: nos. 19-35) and only after as didactic theory, or theory of communication (didactics and pragmatics: nos. 36-46).

The basic thesis is that the signs (above all the language) but also the non-signs (like actions and the things themselves) are inevitable in the search for truth and in communicating it but at the same time they are not enough granted that real truth is perceived by everyone in his inner self by virtue of the presence, not of Platonic ideas already contemplated and are now resurfacing through memory, but by virtue of the presence of the "interior Master," the light of the Word, the grace of the Spirit.

The Augustinian principle of truth, of knowledge, of communication, is substantially that of intuition. It is enunciated thus in the work De vera religione, written few months after, always in the year 389: "Do not go out, go back to yourself; it is in the inner man that truth resides. And if you shall have found your nature as changeable, transcend also yourself. But remember, when you transcend yourself, transcend a soul that reasons out. Lead yourself, therefore, to where the light of reason itself is put on" (no. 39).

The new Augustinian "paideia" is therefore a didactics based on semiotics, but even more so, it is based on the inner Master, or on pneumatic Christology, on the Holy Spirit. In fact, in Augustine, the natural and the supernatural are never separated.

In terms of communication, for Augustine, there can be no relationship between the I and the you, the communicator and the recipient, if God is not there in some manner. Hence: I - (God) - You.

In terms of signification, or the acquisition of truth to communicate, the signifying element and the meaning demand a constant relationship with the things, or with the internal and external references. But such a relationship cannot be guaranteed except by the connecting element of divine grace, or of the presence of the Spirit of Christ, of the "Interior Master". Hence, for Augustine, the signifying triangle among the signifying element, the meaning and the reference must necessarily be a quadrant where grace must also be present, or better a hermeneutic circuit where these four elements coexist in perfect functionality and harmony.

The Augustinian "paideia" would be perfected later with the works on true and proper didactics, like De doctrina christiana (396-397, 427) and De catechizandis rudibus (405). It also would be expressed through the description of the lived "paideia", either on the personal level (Confessionum libri, 397-401), or on the social-historical level (De Civitate Dei, 413-426).(33) (return to summary)

Continued: The early Middle Ages (450-950)

return to summary

 

           Jesus Master yesterday, today and for ever

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