Thursday, October 11, 2012


I couldn’t believe it when I saw it several years ago. In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Sunday Philosophy Club, one character (I think it’s Cat) goes alone and unexpected into the empty house of a friend or relative (I’m fairly certain it’s Isabel) and has to disable the alarm. Unable to remember the exact code, she only knows that it’s the date of the fall of Constantinople – because everyone remembers the date of the fall of Constantinople (except the character trying to disable the alarm).

My eyes popped like little men in a Whack-A-Gnome game. Here was confirmation of one of the geekiest bits of my personal geekhood. I, too, have used the magic number 1453 as a gateway to technology because of its memorability. When I started my personal email account, I tried simply using “professor.” But of course that was taken already: everybody wants to be the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. So I tried “professor1,” “professor2,” “professor3,” and so on up to about “professor10,” but still with no luck. After seeing “professor100" rejected, I figured I would have to use a much larger number, preferably a year that was easy to remember (dropping the nod to Professor Roy Hinkley was never an option). So naturally, the fall of the capital of Greek Christianity came to mind, and my email handle became “professor1453.”

You see, the professor of my class in the history of music theory at the University of Iowa gave us a synopsis of the event, and it immediately struck me as one of the milestones in all of western history. When the Turks took the city, all the eggheads who couldn’t hold a sword – um, I mean, scholars – fled to the West with their most precious treasures: ancient Greek manuscripts. As a result, the Latin West rediscovered the Greek language, Greek drama, Greek epic, and Greek philosophy. I identify with both the eastern and the western scholars in that story: I can see myself running from an invading force (I’m not proud of the image, but I can see it), and my discovery in the last twenty years or so of the classics denied to me by my public education helps me understand the joy that the Latin-speaking clerics and philosophers of western Europe must have shown when first presented with the words of Homer in his own language.

I’ve just been reading this week about that same story in Will Durant’s History of Civilization. In his more detailed rendition, the intelligentsia migration of 1453 was only one wave in a flood tide: the teachers in the eastern capital had seen the end coming for decades. In fact, Cosimo de’ Medici invited several Greek theologians to Florence in 1438 in order to discuss healing the wound that divided the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and many of them just stayed in the Tuscan sun, becoming teachers of Greek and philosophy and literature. The most attractive of the intellectual treasures these conferees brought with them from Byzantium were the dialogs of Plato. Cosimo was so interested, he started a Platonic Academy and appointed Marsilio Ficino to run it and to translate as much of Plato into Latin as possible.

The rediscovery of Greek got the Italian classicists interested in their more immediate roots as well, and Cosimo supported the travels of several men around south-central Europe to dig through monastic libraries and see what neglected Latin treatises they could find. These investigations uncovered Quintilian, several books of Tacitus, and many other valuable books readily available to us today but once forgotten for a thousand years, even in their homeland.

Now Durant is one of my favorite authors to read each year; as I’ve said in other posts, I love every page because Durant offers me something new on every page. Sometimes the gift is a new piece of knowledge or a new view of a sweeping pattern in western history; but I certainly don’t always buy his take on things, so sometimes what Durant gives me is a fresh challenge. In a summary statement of the Renaissance project to recover the classic glory, Durant says these humanist scholars freed Europe from the fear of hell and the control of the clergy. That statement raises many responses in my mind, chief of which might be that I don’t care so much about freedom from fear of hell as I do freedom from hell itself.

But after pondering it for a few days, the angle that ultimately interests me most is the question whether humanistic study of ancient Roman and Greek culture directly opposes Christianity, as Durant seems to imply. No doubt fifteenth-century Italy opened up new worlds that made it easier for doubters to deny the Christian faith openly and pursue other religions or philosophies. (One fifteenth-century Italian literally found a new world that we still call the New World.) And of course the new cultural stream saw in the next few centuries the break-up of the western Church and a continuing increase of secularism as the basis for public life in the West. But did these changes come about inevitably because of western Christendom’s encounter with ancient Greek and Roman ideas? I’m thinking that it doesn’t, and I’m basing my tentative conclusion partly on three facts Durant himself gives me: (1) While some of Cosimo’s scholars were scoffers, others were Christians, and Ficino, who ran the Academy, returned to Christianity (of course as an Italian, he was born and raised at least nominally as a Christian) after many years of studying Plato. These Christian humanists apparently didn’t see the two views as entirely incompatible. (2) The Greek scholars who brought Plato to Florence in 1438 were theologians explicitly invited to discuss ecclesiastical matters; with much likelihood most of these men were Christian believers who also loved Plato, perhaps intellectually capable of throwing out the pagan bathwater while holding on to its baby. (3) I can’t forget that all the pagan Latin manuscripts discovered by Cosimo’s scholars were put in those monasteries by earlier generations of Christian monks who lovingly copied each book, carefully reproducing every line about prayer to Jupiter and every bit of Ovid’s sexual advice and supposedly disagreeing with them on one level yet still seeing them as valuable.

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