Pagan Education and the Ascent of the Soul: A Brief Defense of Christian Classical Learning

The question of how Christians should relate and appropriate pagan writing and learning has persisted across millennia. Tertullian’s famous question “What indeed hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” has, in different forms and ways, continued to challenge the Christian attempt at retrieval of classical learning and ancient wisdom. The question at its heart is earnest and well-spoken. If, as Augustine says in On Christian Doctrine, “whatever man may have learnt from [pagan] sources, if it is hurtful, it is there [in Scripture] condemned; if it is useful, it is therein contained [in Scripture]”, one wonders whether Christians should make use of pagan writings and learnings, if Scriptures contains all things necessary for faith and practice. In this short post, I will primarily use the writings of Clement of Alexandria to show that pagan writing and learning can be useful to Christians as a preliminary and equipping education, one that will enable the Christian to grow in knowledge of God, faith, and virtue. 

Clement of Alexandria was one of the first Christian writers and leaders to formally and unequivocally advocate for the use of pagan philosophy and the liberal arts for the formation and education of the Christian. In his Stromateis, he asserts that philosophy is a kind of “preparatory science” for Christianity: “For philosophy was to the Greek world what the Law was to the Hebrews, a tutor escorting them to Christ.” Here, Clement asserts that the reason why the Gospel was understood and received in the Greco-Roman world was that Greco-Roman philosophy and education had prepared them to receive the answers to the questions they had been wrestling with. For example, the Scriptural assertions about the nature of Christ as the logos (John 1), the telos of creation (Col. 1:15-17), and the persisting source of being and the created order (Col. 1:15-17) speaks to the philosophical background of Greco-Roman learning, such that he is the one for whom they have longed to know (Acts 17). The Greco-Roman emphasis on the persistence of vice in the human heart, the need for virtue, and the dismal attempts to find meaning in light of death also created the context by which Christ was understood and embraced. 

If Clement is correct that pagan philosophy was preparatory for Christ, one could assert that it is no longer necessary, for we do not live in the Greco-Roman world. In response to this, Clement claims that philosophy still functions the same way, for it “opens the road for the person whom Christ brings to his final goal.” The reason for this, is that none of us are born with a complete “readiness” to understand and embrace Christ. In order to see Christ and understand him for who he is, we must be trained, and our “readiness to see what we ought to see is largely due to this preliminary training” of philosophy. Referring to the trivium and quadrivium, he mentions “number [arithmetic and music], size [geometry and astronomy], and definition [grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric]” as the things that “implants in the soul” the ability to understand Scripture and to be “purified from its sense perceptions and rekindled with the power of discerning the truth,” for it is by the truth that we discern what is true. 

Clement’s argument is, at its core, rooted not in an ungodly love for pagan letters, but rather in the kind of common sense that the book of Proverbs points to in training its readers toward virtue and love of God. We all learn through a process of observation, imitation, and contemplation. None are born with a “divine dispensation” of virtue or knowledge. Rather, we are told to “go to the ant” to become wise. While some may insist that simple faith or simple knowledge of the Scriptures is enough, Clement pushes back on this idea: 

“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.” 

Here, Clement grants that it is possible to have saving faith without education, but that education in the liberal arts and philosophy enables the mind and soul to understand what it is we believe and to choose the true and good and reject the false and evil. We are not born with the natural ability to do this, and without proper learning, we will simply be shaped and formed by our closest personal and cultural influences–influences that are most likely not shaped by understanding and virtue. 

We must hold Clement’s assertions in tension with the reality–expressed by Jerome and Augustine–that the study of pagan literature and philosophy can also lead the soul astray into error, vanity, and vice. Thus, faith, worship, Scripture, and love must be the beginning and end of a liberal arts education rooted in the tradition of the Greek and Romans. With these as our foundation, even if they are in mustard-seed form, we would do well to be shaped, guided, and equipped by a liberal arts education to better know, love, and worship God with our minds, bodies, and souls. 

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