Early Christian Sources of Platonic Geometry: Clement of Alexandria (1)

It was the cultural crucible of Alexandria that initiated early Christianity to Platonic thought. In the first century of the new era, the writings of Philo Judaeus, a Greek-speaking Jew, attempted the conciliation of the Hellenic and Judaic traditions of learning, a process continued by Clement (c.150-c.215) in the next century. As a Greek philosopher and convert to Christianity, Clement compared both traditions with each other and with the emergent teachings of Christianity. As a result, he was the first to appreciate how much the writings of Plato and the evangelists John and Paul had in common. Recognized as the leading Christian scholar of his day and the foremost exponent of natural philosophy from the Christian point of view prior to Augustine, Clement was able to produce the synthesis of classical and Christian thought which gave birth to Christian Platonism. This was developed by his most famous pupil, Origen, and provided the theological foundations for the writings in the East of the Cappadocian Fathers as well as for Augustine in the West. Although it has to be admitted that Clement’s own work might not have been read much in the middle ages, his teaching was nevertheless to reach the West through Cassian’s adaptations in the fifth century which were soon to be consulted by Benedict himself. Through Origen’s writing, it was also to reach Ambrose in Greek and thence Augustine, along with translations by Rufinus, some of which were also known to Augustine. The result of this was to be the permanent acceptance of Christian Platonism by the Latin Church. In these early centuries, it not only answered the pagan reaction of Porphyry and Julian, it also gave Christian faith its intellectual content and, such was its enduring appeal, it was to reach its culmination in the cathedral school of Chartres nine hundred years after Clement died.

Clement’s forum was the Didascaleon, or Catechetical School, in Alexandria of which he became head. It had only recently been opened by Pantaenus, also a Christian convert and a Pythagorean, with the purpose of promoting Christian studies for educated converts in opposition to the paganism of Alexandria’s Museum and the esoteric cabalism of the Gnostics. Accordingly, the methods of classical philosophy were applied to a curriculum
which included philosophy, mathematics and scripture. Education was the path to knowledge, or gnosis,
which led to freedom. The union of knowledge with ‘right reason’ led to virtue just as the union between the human and divine spirit resulted in love. Thus Plato’s three-part division of rational, moral and natural philosophy found its place in Clement’s school.

For the uneducated, a state of grace was still possible through the acceptance of faith but from them, however, gnosis should be concealed:

For Plato also thought it not lawful for ‘the impure to touch the pure.’ Thence the prophecies and oracles are spoken in enigmas, and the mysteries are not exhibited incontinently to all and sundry, but only after certain purifications and previous instructions.

Clement, Stromateis V.4

… even those myths in Plato . . . are to be expounded allegorically, not absolutely in all their expressions, but in those which express the general sense. And these we shall find indicated by symbols under the veil of allegory.

Stromateis V.9

Clement found as much authority for obfuscation in the scriptures:

But since this tradition is not published alone for him who perceives the magnificence of the word; it is requisite, therefore, to hide in a mystery the wisdom spoken, which the Son of God taught. . . . because, ‘even now I fear,’ as it is said, ‘to cast the pearls before swine, lest they tread them underfoot, and turn and rend us’ (Matthew VII.6). For it is difficult to exhibit the really pure and transparent words respecting the true light, to swinish and untrained hearers. For scarcely could anything which they could hear be more ludicrous than these to the multitude; nor any subjects on the other hand more admirable or more inspiring to those of noble nature.

Stromateis 1.12

In retrospect, such determined concealment of gnosis from the uninitiated might arguably be confused with the secret societies of the Gnostics themselves, particularly since Clement often refers to the followers of ‘the true philosophy’ as Gnostics. However, this would be a modern misperception, since Clement had simply decided to combat Gnosticism with his own invention of Christian Gnosticism. When he writes:

Then [the Preaching of Peter, an apocryphal book] adds: ‘Worship this God not as the Greeks’ – signifying plainly, that the excellent among the Greeks worshipped the same God as we, but that they had not learned by perfect knowledge that which was delivered by the Son.’

Stromateis VI.5 [my italics]

Clement makes clear his regard for gnosis as ‘perfect knowledge’, as opposed to the arcane superstitions of the Gnostics.

Clement’s three main works constitute a progression in which the acquiring of gnosis leads to an understanding of Logos, the Word. Protreptikos exhorts the reader to renounce paganism; Paedagogus instructs him in Christian ethics; whilst the major part is Stromateis, a miscellany of essays devoted to a higher knowledge of God and his creation. In these works he repeatedly refers to and quotes from Timaeus and other Dialogues as well as scripture. Of the Protreptikos and Paedagogus,
a tenth-century manuscript has been noted in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris together with an eleventh-century manuscript of Stromateis in the Laurentian Library in Florence.

The origins of philosophy are succinctly stated by Clement:

From Pythagoras Plato derived the immortality of the soul; and he from the Egyptians.

Stromateis VI.2

However, the composition of the universe and the nature of the 4 elements had, even since Aetius, become somewhat muddled. Although he writes:

And indeed the most elementary instruction of children embraces the interpretation of the four elements ….

Stromateis V.8

And Athamas the Pythagorean having said, ‘Thus was produced the beginning of the universe; and there are four roots – fire, water, air, earth: for from these is the origination of what is produced’. . . .

Stromateis VI.2

he continues,

Empedocles of Agrigentum wrote:

‘The four roots of all things first do thou hear – Fire, water, earth, and ether’s boundless height: For of these all that was, is, shall be, comes.’

Stromateis VI.2

Nevertheless, despite an apparent confusion between ether and air here, Clement himself seemed clear enough in his previous chapter when he repeated the colours associated with the 4 elements – blue for air, purple for water, scarlet for fire and linen for earth.
Interestingly, this reveals that the atmospheric elements are chromatically – as well as physically and geometrically – related to each other and distinct from the element earth. For just as fire can cause water to evaporate into air and cooling can cause water to condense in air, so the purple of water is a synthesis of the red and blue of fire and air and their geometric solids are also relations of each other in that they are each enclosed by the regular triangle, quite distinct therefore from the colour and cube of earth. Plato’s relation of the macrocosm of the universe to the microcosm of the human also seems preserved by Clement, particularly when it is remembered that the number 10 was equated with perfection.

And the perfect inheritance belongs to those who attain to ‘a perfect man,’ according to the image of the Lord.

And there is a ten in man himself.

Stromateis VI.14, 16; see also V.6

In this passage, Clement then refers to the 5 senses and adds to them another 5, namely power of speech, power of reproduction, spirit received through creation, rule of the soul, rule of the Holy Spirit through faith.

Thus the Platonic Christian appears complete, the conjunction of the two traditions seeming to be effortless.

If then we consider, virtue is, in power, one. But it is the case, that when exhibited in some things, it is called prudence, in others temperance, and in others manliness or righteousness. By the same analogy, while truth is one, in geometry there is truth of geometry; in music, that of music; and in the right philosophy, there will be Hellenic truth. But that is the only authentic truth, unassailable, in which we are instructed by the Son of God.

Stromateis 1.20

The synthesis of the two traditions was evidently derived at least partly from the belief that Plato himself had had sight of certain scriptures. Several of Clement’s essays are devoted to the theme of Greeks borrowing from Hebrews, or of the two traditions at least coinciding. Nevertheless they were still distinguishable:

Rightly, then, to the Jews belonged the Law, and to the Greeks Philosophy, until the Advent ….

Stromateis VI. 17

That scripture associated the Law with 10 is evident above all in the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. More than being a mere list of rules, however, the Commandments were regarded as an image of heaven and, in this aspect, they are to be identified with the same Pythagorean number of perfection. As Clement writes:

But law is the opinion which is good, and what is good is that which is true, and that which is true is that which finds ‘true being,’ and attains to it. … In accordance with which, namely good opinion, some have called law, right reason, which enjoins what is to be done and forbids what is not to be done. . . . That ten is a sacred number, it is superfluous to say now.

Stromateis 1.25, VI. 16

Therefore just as the equation of the law with perfection appears safe so, it seems, can references to law and perfection be equated with 10.

Autore: Nigel Hiscock
Pubblicazione:
The Wise Master Builder. Platonic Geometry in Plans of Medieval Abbeys and Cathedralsl
Editore
: Ashgate
Luogo: Aldershot
Anno: 2000
Pagine: 50-54

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