Friday, 9 November 2007

'A man of culture, an ascetic and a spiritual guide'

St Jerome in his study, by Vincenzo Catena (National Gallery, London)

St Jerome was the subject of the pope's General Audience this Wednesday.

He is interesting from an educational point of view. One pressing question for the early Church Fathers was the relationship between classical civilisation and the Gospel. Of course the pagans had all the best schools; pagan education was very refined by then. Would the Church reject the classical models as a dangerous rival to the Christian revelation, or would it seek a synthesis?

We now naturally talk of Catholicism as the religion of 'both/and' rather than 'either/or': we know that the monasteries preserved classical learning throughout the middle ages, Aquinas 'baptized' Aristotle, and the Vatican museums is stuffed with the riches of paganism. But the Fathers of the Church were not initially 'onside'.

Tertullian asked: Quid Athenae Hierosolymis, 'what is there is common between Athens and Jerusalem, the Academy and the Church?'

St Augustine uttered similar sentiments, and St Jerome experienced a dream in which he was scourged by God, who told him, "Thou art a Ciceronian, not a Christian", ciceronianus est non christianus. See this letter for the full story (para 30) from the horse's mouth.

Origen thought that being a professional grammarian was an obstacle to being a catechist. Funny, you don't even need to be an orthodox Catholic anymore!

St Jerome breaks through this hostility to some extent, and the pope in his address mentions that Jerome was a teacher of Christian and classical learning. Jerome, and others, accepted that in order to access the Gospels one must have some literary culture, and this could only be acquired in the pagan schools.

But this didn't amount to an acceptance of the pagan culture: what Christian children had to learn of necessity, Christian adults who have acquired those skills should not continue to indulge for pleasure.

Of course there is the delightful paradox that St Paul seems to quote Euripides (via Menander) in 1 Cor 15.33: 'Evil communications corrupt good manners'. So the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to quote a pagan dramatist? And we know St John Chrystostom attended lectures by the the pagan scholar Libanius.

Tertullian took a rigorist position: he too accepted that Christian children needed to go to the pagan schools, but he forbade adult Christians from having teaching posts in them. (Again a paradoxical inversion of our belief that our children should be taught by Catholics. There really is a huge development in the Church's teaching about education over the centuries.)

As for the children, despite the 'poison' that the child drank at school, they gained immunity through the teaching that they received in Church and at home from their parents. Parents are, after all, the 'first educators'.

These concessions to necessity were in part due to the position of the Christian community prior to Constantine's conversion; after that, I suppose the schools became Catholic schools.

An excellent book on all this is H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity (London: Sheed & Ward, 1956), if you can find a copy on abebooks or a university library.

[Clarification: it's in print in later editions. Quite an interesting figure, the French wikipedia article says 'Il approuve vivement Vatican II, combattant à la fois les intégristes et les progressistes influencés par le marxisme.']

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