April 12, 2009


What is the 'West?' (Jeffrey Hart, Dartmouth Review)
The Master Narrative that seems to me to “cover the facts” has been called “Athens and Jerusalem.” Those proper nouns stand for Greek philosophy and Jerusalem’s spiritual aspiration.

So far as I know, the first major figure to use that expression as I do here was Tertullian (160?-230?), a Church father, who demanded to know “What is Athens to Jerusalem?” He wanted to exclude Greek philosophy from the Christian perspective. He was opposed by Clement of Alexandria (150-220) and Origen (185?-234), who argued that Greek philosophy was neutral or damaging, depending upon how it was used. It could be a valuable tool. After all nature was part of the Creation. Within the Church Clement and Origen won, Tertullian lost. One consequence was that philosophy and science were institutionalized in Western universities. Thus Aquinas taught that grace completes but does not cntradict nature. Athens and Jerusalem became recognized components of the Western mind from the earliest days.

And implicitly so before the arguments of these Church fathers. But, of course, Athens and Jerusalem had long been vital and polar components.The first chapter of John combines the scriptural narrative of Jesus with Greek Logos (ultimate pattern of the universe) philosophy. Paul, a contemporary of Jesus, was a Roman citizen, a rabbi, a Greek writer and speaker, and a Christian. In the climactic scene of Acts, he journeys to Athens to speak in the Aeropagus, the scene deliberately written to remind us of the trial of Socrates. In I Corinthians 15, Paul presents excellent reasons for crediting reports of the Resurrection. Speaking in Athens, he tells the audience that Jesus spoke Greek. His contemporary Paul certainly did. It was the international language of the learned.

An enormous amount is at stake here. “Athens” stands for the view that truth is discovered through intellect. “Jerusalem” stands for the view that truth is delivered through the insights of recognized genius. “Athens” stands for cognition, philosophy, and science. “Jerusalem” stands for the spiritual aspiration to holiness, or purity of soul.

Of course, I was reminded of the “Athens” and “Jerusalem” dialectic in important works by Matthew Arnold, Nietzsche, and Leo Strauss; but most recently by a pregnant observation Paul Cantor of the University of Virginia made in his excellent book Hamlet: “The conflict between the classical and the Christian has been central to Western civilization, and has produced that basis for both its proudest and most deeply problematical moments.”Athens and Jerusalem are at the core of Western Being—not Confucius, not Buddha, certainly not Mohammed, nor the Aztecs and Incas. And it is the tension between Athens and Jerusalem that generates the peculiar and powerful envergy of the West. There is tension between the goal of knowing through intellect, and the goal of spiritual aspiration to holiness. They are not incompatible, but they are not altogether compatible either. Off at the edge, do we place our final be on intellect or on inspired insight that has been confirmed by experience? Both have claims. There are immensely powerful intensities behind who we actually are. And they are unique in human history.

Mr. Hart has long been one of the great writers on political philosophy and he's lost nothing off his fastball. [Originally posted: October 17, 2002] Posted by Orrin Judd at April 12, 2009 6:59 AM
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