23 June 2009

St Cyril Versus Carl Sagan

There is much that I would like to criticise about Carl Sagan’s account of the Library of Alexandria in Cosmos (NY: Ballantine, 1983), pp. 276-9. Fortunately, some of it has already been done for me—I have already mentioned James Hannam’s great article on the Library, where he basically concludes that the stories of the destruction of the Library by Christians or Muslims are a few hundred years late. But, prompted by the commemoration of St Cyril of Alexandria yesterday, I’d like to focus on one small statement in particular. On pp. 278-9, Sagan writes:

The growing Christian Church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture. Hypatia stood at the epicenter of these mighty social forces. Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger, she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril’s parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.

Although I thought the context important to include in order to see clearly Sagan’s tone and purpose here, I really wanted to focus on responding to his specific statement that St Cyril ‘despised’ Hypatia ‘because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism’. The last part of this statement is quite obviously completely false. ‘Learning’ and ‘science’ per se identified with paganism? I think it’s fair to say that would have been news to almost any of the Greek Fathers. Let us recall what the Rev. Blomfield Jackson has written in connection with St Basil’s Hexæmeron (and to which Esteban Vázquez alerted us back in March):

But in truth the fact that Basil is not ahead of the science of his time is not to his discredit. It is to his credit that he is abreast with it; and this, with the exception of his geography, he appears to be. Of him we may say, as Bp. Lightfoot writes of St Clement, in connexion with the crucial instance of the Phœnix, ‘it appears that he is not more credulous than the most learned and intelligent heathen writers of the preceding and following generations.’ He reads the Book of Genesis in the light of the scientific knowledge of his age, and in the amplification and illustration of Holy Scripture by the supposed aid of this supposed knowledge, neither he nor his age stands alone.

And in addition let us recall the words of St Gregory the Theologian in his Funeral Oration for St Basil (Oration XLIII, 11):

I take it as admitted by men of sense, that the first of our advantages is education; and not only this our more noble form of it, which disregards rhetorical ornaments and glory, and holds to salvation, and beauty in the objects of our contemplation: but even that external culture which many Christians ill-judgingly abhor, as treacherous and dangerous, and keeping us afar from God.

Lest we grant, however, the general acceptance of ‘learning and science’ by the Greek Fathers but continue to believe St Cyril is some kind of exception, there is a wonderful account of St Cyril’s own education in Norman Russell’s volume on St Cyril for the Routledge ‘Early Church Fathers’ series (Norman Russell, Cyril of Alexandria [London: Routledge, 2000], pp. 4-5):

Theophilus succeeded to the throne of St Mark on 20 July 385. Cyril was then about seven years old, the age at which a child was first sent to school. As the only son of the family, it is possible that his uncle supervised his education. His studies up to the age of sixteen or so would have been typical of those followed by any boy, whether pagan or Christian, from a reasonably well-off background. After receiving a thorough grounding in reading, writing and arithmetic at primary school, he would have gone to a grammarian, a grammatikos, for his secondary education. This would have consisted of a detailed study of classical literature, the principal pillars of which were Homer, Euripides, Menander and Demosthenes, together with a much more superficial treatment of mathematics, music and astronomy. After secondary school Cyril no doubt went to study with a rhetor, for the evidence of his writings shows that he pursued linguistic studies at a high level. He writes an elaborate Attic Greek, remarkable for its revival of obsolete words and its many neologisms, yet precise and well suited to his purposes. He is also a master of the rhetorician’s techniques of controversy.

Whether Cyril pursued formal philosophical studies is more difficult to determine. It is generally accepted that Cyril was not a philosopher. He works with images and metaphorical language rather than with the systematic development of ideas. On the other hand it has been established that Cyril had a good knowledge of Aristotelian and Porphyrian logic. Aristotle’s Organon, Topics and Categories and Porphyry’s Isagoge have all left their mark on his early writings. He handles technical Aristotelian terms in a confident manner, exploiting the relationship between substance and accidents and making extensive use of syllogistic reasoning. All this suggests a close acquaintance with the lecture rooms, especially as at this period the Alexandrian philosophical school was particularly noted for its work on Aristotle. Marie-Odile Boulnois believes that besides acquiring an expertise in Aristotelian logic, Cyril also became acquainted with the exegetical methods of Platonism, but that he then distanced himself from a philosophical culture that had set itself the task of defending paganism. Certainly in later life Cyril presented himself as an anti-Hellenist: ‘Hellenic learning is vain and pointless’, he said, ‘and requires much effort for no reward.’ When he was preparing his materials for Against Julian he read widely in such works as Porphyry’s History of Philosophy, the Hermetic Corpus, and a treatise of Alexander of Aphrodisias on providence.

The only statement here even close to supportive of Sagan’s claim—‘he then distanced himself from a philosophical culture that had set itself the task of defending paganism’—is embedded in a mini-bildungsroman so imbued with learning and science that Sagan’s claim cannot but appear entirely ridiculous next to it. Indeed, we see that St Cyril even evinced a familiarity with the writings of Hypatia’s fellow ‘Neoplatonist’ (on the ill-advisability of this term, see this article), Porphyry, whose writings against Christianity actually paved the way intellectually for the vicious persecution of Christians under Diocletian. Furthermore, to pile on the irony, a few quotations of Porphyry’s lost Life of Plato (from the above-referenced ‘History of Philosophy’) have been preserved by St Cyril (unfortunately, James Notopoulos says they are not too helpful; see ‘Porphyry’s Life of Plato’, Classical Philology 35.3 [Jul. 1940], p. 284)! So not only did St Cyril not contribute to the destruction of this particular piece of pagan learning, he personally helped to preserve it. It is hard indeed to imagine this man despising a ‘Neoplatonist’ for their ‘learning and science’!

Some time I’d really like to respond to the implications and presuppositions—not uncommon—of Sagan’s statement, ‘Cyril was made a saint.’ Another time perhaps.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Also, Sagan implies that the burning of Hypatia's body was something bad. Cremation was the typical Greek and Roman funeral.

If Hypatia's writings had been anything fantastic, they would certainly have been preserved. As it is, they were simply not considered worth copying, and so perished. Hypatia was no Plato, in any case, or we'd know much more about her. But the fact that she was a woman, a pagan, and killed by a fanatical monastic mob (not "parishioners" -- conjuring the begloved and behatted Ladies Altar Guild rending a beastly pagan witch limb from limb), fits perfectly with the concerns of contemporary revisionism: women are better, pagans are better, Christians are evil. It's all irredeemably stupid (primarily because such people scoff at redemption!).

Aaron Taylor said...

Yes, Sagan acts like the murder of Hypatia was the main reason the double helix and quantum physics weren't discovered in 5th-century Alexandria. If only Western Civilisation had had her books!

Excellent point too about the cremation. I hadn't even thought of that!

+Metropolitan SAVAS of Pittsburgh said...

The Hypatia controversy is about to take on new life, if the Spanish film "Agora" turns out to be as commercially successful as it is beautiful to look at. She may become in the months ahead what Mary Magdalene was a few years back: a poster-girl for the Church's abuse of women. release date: December 19, 2009.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

And this, from the Ross article on Neoplatonism: ...in the Dark Ages: the pseudo-Dionysius....


Aaron Taylor said...

Bishop Savas> Wow! I had no idea such a movie was in production. You're right that it looks beautiful. Unfortunately, the Christians portrayed appear to be stereotypically evil in just about every way. I'm afraid this will only exacerbate the problems created by the lamentable Da Vinci Code.

Kevin> A double whammy! I apologise for exposing you to such things...

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I am quite certain that my delicate sensibilities will recover. Thank you for your concern!

I'm wondering now about St Cyril's polystavros cap. Was this an Alexandrian Pope thing? I wonder. Headgear on Church Fathers' icons is so rare. Aside from the turbans on St John Damascene and St Isaac the Syrian, I can't think of any others. Monastic hoods are different. This one is coordinated with his clothing.

Aaron Taylor said...

Good question! I do remember one other example of headgear--St Spyridon's (apparently) straw cap, which is peaked and shaped generally rather like St Cyril's. Of course, beginning no later than St Mark of Ephesus (maybe earlier in Russian icons), they pretty much all have headgear.

I hope they have the polystavros cap in Agora, but from what I can tell in the trailer, St Cyril seems to be wearing an ordinary Coptic monk's hood (which is still cool, if you ask me!).

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Yes, but they'll likely have the young lady playing Hypatia, instead of her grand-daughter!

I'll also just bet that there's a love interest tossed in (we're talking Hollywood, after all). The bitter, rejected Cyril gets his unrequiting paramour Hypatia hacked to bits!

The fallout from this movie is going to be as ludicrous as the Dan Brown mess. Pseudo-history too easily implants itself in the modern, poorly educated mind.

Aaron Taylor said...

Oh, I've already confirmed that there is a love story--a handsome young slave and Hypatia are in love, but he's lured to Xianity by the promise of freedom.

As for St Cyril, if he had been in love with her, surely her famous 'menstrual-rag-display' trick ought to have cured him.

As for the fallout, I'm sure you're right. Maybe we should start writing debunking articles now!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Ugh. No woman of the upper classes would fall in love with a slave. At most she might try to buy him from his owner and use him. Sheesh.

Back to the headgear! St Spyridon't beehive hat had slipped my mind! And yes, later icons do have the familiar episcopal headgear, but it's the earlier ones I'm wondering about. Those are so unusual, St Cyril's and St Spyridon's.

Have you seen the puffy hats that the Copts wear? They look kind of like soft mitres. Perhaps those are a development of St Cyril's cap.

Not that any of it matters a fig's seed, much less a fig.

Aaron Taylor said...

I have seen the Coptic hats. I think they're kind of odd, though I love the monastic hoods with the little crosses.

frphoti said...

I am the simple idiot here,...

Being an Iconographer, where did you get that great pic of St. Cyril? Those frescoes are terribly difficult to get good pic (especially in color) of.

Fr. Photi

Aaron Taylor said...

Welcome, Father! I got the pic here: http://days.pravoslavie.ru/Images/ii1221&878.htm

Days.pravoslavie.ru is my favourite place to get icon jpg's, after the obligatory Google image search (a search I sometimes repeat in Greek and Russian). Now you know all of my secrets!

Anonymous said...

Fine article, mostly old news but- was it really a Christian 'mob' that murdered Hypatia, monastic or otherwise? If so, how can the act be justified or glorified? It sounds like the one's who defend the Inquisition as not really that bad a thing.
Just curious.

Aaron Taylor said...

The primary sources do seem to agree that it was a Christian mob (though obviously one not behaving in a very Christian manner!) that murdered Hypatia. Of these sources, at least one--the Monophysite bishop, John of Nikiû--attempts to justify it on the grounds that Hypatia was a sorceress. As far as I know, no one else--including myself!--has 'justified or glorified' it. Perhaps the Inquisition itself, or some of the witch-hunters? I'm not really sure what you're referring to.