Teachers & Role Models in Ancient Times

My current doctoral research has me exploring the relational dynamics between ancient Greco-Roman moral philosophers and their students. I’m hoping the historical context will shine fresh light on the Apostle Paul’s interactions with those under his care and teaching. I’ve been digging into the likes of Plutarch, Seneca, Epictetus, Cicero, Lucian, Quintilian, Dio Chrysostom as well as early church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Gregory Thaumaturgus and others.

I’m finally cracking open many of the old “classics” I’ve been collecting on my shelf and looking for time (or a good excuse) to read. While I know many yawn at the very thought, I can’t quite shake the spine-tingling sensation I get at the thought of reading words written 2,000 years ago! As a humorous aside, I even felt slightly rebuked by the 2nd century satirist Lucian when I came across his piece The Ignorant Book Collector where he verbally skewers a man for trying to appear wise by accumulating books he’ll probably never read:

“You may get together the works of Demosthenes, and his eight beautiful copies of Thucydides, all in the orator’s own handwriting, and all the manuscripts that Sulla sent away from Athens to Italy,— and you will be no nearer to culture at the end of it, though you should sleep with them under your pillow, or paste them together and wear them as a garment; an ape is still an ape, says the proverb, though his trappings be of gold. So it is with you: you have always a book in your hand, you are always reading; but what it is all about, you have not an idea; you do but prick up asinine ears at the lyre’s sound” (Lucian, The Ignorant Book Collector).

Hmmm…I used to sleep with my basketball in middle school, but I’ve never tried books under my pillow!

A major thrust of my thesis is (again) on the powerful role of personal relationship, personal imitation and personal presence of the teacher for effecting moral formation and impact. We live in an unprecedented era where much of our education and information is coming to us in impersonal and disembodied forms like Google, social media, blogs, Facebook, etc. Even traditional educational institutions such as universities are relying on “distance education” rather than face-to-face classroom interaction.

Here’s an excerpt from my current essay sharing some beautiful excerpts from ancient writings that capture the spirit of a regrettably bygone era where students sat eagerly at the feet of philosophers, pursuing the treasure of wisdom and understanding. What aspects of “classical education” might we try to recover for moral formation and teaching today in both the church and academy?


 

Paul and the philosophers share much in common in regards to their shared goal of moral exhortation as well as similar pedagogical methods. Philosophy was the religion of the day, and “the various schools provided the worldview and practical guidance for life that religion does for many today.” Everett Ferguson summarizes:

The various schools of philosophy formed communities of “believers” around a revered master and his teachings. They had their “interdenominational” rivalries and conversion stories. Philosophy had its holy men (“saints”) and martyrs (notably Socrates)…A person did not normally go to the priest of the local cult for an interpretation of the nature of reality or for moral advice. One turned more often to a philosopher for an answer to these questions. Although the popular religion did not give much ethical guidance, poets and philosophers provided a conscience for the age.”

When Tertullian, a second century church father, famously asked “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” he was referring to their divergent foundations for religious knowledge—human philosophy (Athens) versus divine revelation (Jerusalem). But he was not separating the two in terms of pedagogical method or moral rigor. In fact, as history would show, many of the greatest early Christian minds representing ‘Jerusalem’ such Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Origen and even Tertullian himself—conducted their teaching and writing careers more in the methods and style of ‘Athens’ than the Jewish rabbinic ways indigenous to ‘Jerusalem.’ 

TEACHERS IN HIGH ESTEEM

One teacher-student dynamic of importance for our understanding of Paul and his congregations is the high esteem and personal affection students expressed for one’s teacher.  The most extreme example of such praise is found in a formal public speech or written tribute known as a Panegyric.  A sterling example is Gregory Thaumaturgus’s Panegyric to Origen (c. 239AD), one of the greatest intellectual lights of early Christianity. Here’s a taste:

We were pierced by his argumentation as with an arrow from the very first occasion of our hearing him (for he was possessed of a rare combination of a certain sweet grace and persuasiveness, along with a strange power of constraint) . . . . and thus were always drawn towards him by the power of his reasonings, as by the force of some superior necessity. For he asserted further that there could be no genuine piety towards the Lord of all in the man who despised this gift of philosophy . . . . And thus he continued to do with us, until, by pouring in upon us many such argumentations, one after the other, he at last carried us fairly off somehow or other by a kind of divine power, like people with his reasonings, and established us (in the practice of philosophy), and set us down without the power of movement, as it were, beside himself by his arts . . . . And thus, like some spark lighting upon our inmost soul, love was kindled and burst into flame within us,—a love at once to the Holy Word, the most lovely object of all, who attracts all irresistibly toward Himself by His unutterable beauty, and to this man [Origen], His friend and advocate. And being most mightily smitten by this love, I was persuaded to give up all those objects or pursuits which seem to us befitting, and among others even my boasted jurisprudence,—yea, my very fatherland and friends, both those who were present with me then, and those from whom I had parted. And in my estimation there arose but one object dear and worth desire,—to wit, philosophy, and that master of philosophy, this inspired man [that is, Origen].

The occasion for a panegyric called for exaggerating the positive and avoiding all criticism, and any professor today would certainly blush to receive such overblown flattery in their mandatory post-course evaluation. But Gregory is not the only one to be captivated by the persuasive teaching and divine wisdom of a dear teacher.

Consider how Lucian of Samosata(c. 125 AD – after 180 AD), a Syrian satirist and rhetorician, describes the conversion of someone, perhaps himself, by the Platonic philosopher named Nigrinus. The speaker in this dialogue had traveled to Rome for medical treatment of the eyes and had gone to Nigrinus’s house to pay his respects. He describes how Nigrinus’s speech—or should we call it a “barn-burner” of a sermon—affected him:

Beginning to talk on these topics and to explain his position, my dear fellow, he poured enough ambrosial speech over me to put out of date the famous Sirens (if there ever were any) and the nightingales and the lotus of Homer. A divine utterance!  For he went on to praise philosophy and the freedom it gives, and to ridicule the things that are popularly considered blessings—wealth and reputation, dominion and honour, yes and purple and gold—things accounted very desirable by most men, and till then by me also. I took it all in with eager, wide-open soul, and at the moment I couldn’t imagine what had come over me; I was all confused. At first I felt hurt because he had criticized what was dearest to me—wealth and money and reputation,—and I all but cried over their downfall; and then I thought them paltry and ridiculous, and was glad to be looking up, as it were, out of the murky atmosphere of my past life to a clear sky and great light. In consequence, I actually forgot about my eye and its ailment—would you believe it?—and by degrees grew sharper-sighted in my soul; which all unawares, I had been carrying about in a purblind condition till then.

Both of these celebrate the life-transforming power of a ‘philosophy’ when handled by a gifted teacher. The first account praises the greatness of a teacher and the second the power of a his or her message to precipitate conversion. Both presuppose an educational context where a teacher is highly revered by his students.  Before we attempt to place Paul and his ‘students’ into this mix, let’s examine another characteristic of this student-teacher dynamic: personal life and example. 

IMITATING THE TEACHER’S LIFE & EXAMPLE

Dio Chrysostom (c. 40 – c. 115 AD) describes the nature of disciple/sophist relationship saying, “Whoever really follows anyone surely knows what the person was like, and by imitating his acts and his words he tries as best he can to make himself like him. That is precisely, it seems, what the pupil (mathetes) does—by imitating his teacher and paying heed to him he tries to acquire his art.”  

It seems a universal fact that great teachers “practice what they preach” and students learn most from what’s “caught” from their life rather than merely “taught” from their lips. This is lauded among the Greco-Roman moral philosophers just as it is within the Jewish and Christian tradition. We begin with Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65), a contemporary of Paul:

“Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of the action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns (Seneca, Epistle 6.5-6).

Note the inferiority of his written word compared to his living presence and pattern of life. He then gives specific examples of teacher-student influence:

Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules. Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each is different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. It was not the classrooms of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof, that made great men out of Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Polyaenus (Seneca, Epistle 6.5-6).

“Not the classrooms…but living together” conjures up images of Jesus with his throng of disciples, as well as the early Christians gathered “under the same roof, that made great men [and women!] out of” Peter and James, Stephen and Chloe, Priscilla and Aquila, John Mark and Mary, Timothy and Junia, and others. 

In another letter to Lucilius, Seneca paints a beautiful portrait of the powerful potential of imitatio in moral formation, jumping off a quote from Epicurus (341–270 BC):

“Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.” Such, my dear Lucilius, is the counsel of Epicurus; he has quite properly given us a guardian and attendant. We can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong. The soul should have someone to respect—one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed  (Seneca, Epistle 11:8-10). 

We see here in a Stoic philosopher an ancient foundation for a form of “accountability ministry” that we often emphasize in spiritual formation in the church. Yet, the “man of high character” in mind here has an ever-present and abiding influence, even when physically absent from his disciple:

“Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts! One who can so revere another, will soon be himself worthy of reverence. Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector and your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to who we may regulate our characters” (Seneca, Epistle 11:8-10).

Many today, especially Christians, might bristle at the notion of elevating any flawed human person to such a level and making them “someone according to who we may regulate our characters.” Role models then, just as now, often failed to live up to their ideals. Yet, this ever-present risk of hypocrisy and the moral failure in role models doesn’t justify eliminating the central role of imitatio in education and moral formation. “Because,” recalling the Seneca’s words, “men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears.”

Thus, the great Apostle Paul himself did not merely point to Christ himself as the pattern to emulate, but rather Christ as embodied in Paul’s own life and witness: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Plutarch (c. CE 46 – CE 120) puts it this way:

“Indeed a peculiar symptom of true progress is found in this feeling of love and affection for the disposition shown by those whose deeds we try to emulate, and in the fact that our efforts to make ourselves like them are always attended by a goodwill which accords to them a fair meed of honour. But, on the other hand, if any man is imbued with a spirit of contentiousness and envy toward his betters, let him understand that he is merely chafing with jealousy at another’s repute or power, but not honouring or even admiring virtue” (Plutarch Progress in Virtue 84E).

Returning to Gregory’s effusive love fest in honor of his teacher, Origen, he doesn’t stop with his matchless intellect, or his teaching style and impact in the classroom. He pays tribute to his deeds as much as his doctrine:

“Not thus, however, in mere words only did this teacher go over the truths concerning the virtues with us; but he incited us much more to the practice of virtue, and stimulated us by the deeds he did more than by the doctrines he taught” (Gregory Thaumaturgus, Panegyric to Origen IX).

“He endeavoured all the while to show himself in character like the man whom he describes in his discourses as the person who shall lead a noble life, and he ever exhibited (in himself), I would say, the pattern of the wise man…For he pressed us on both to deed and to doctrine” (Gregory Thaumaturgus, Panegyric to Origen XI).

Still, the greatest of teachers often win over their students when they offer not only their mind but their heart through the gift of friendship. The deepest friendships are built upon the foundation of deeply shared affections and experiences. Thus, Gregory can say:

Moreover, the stimulus of friendship was also brought to bear upon us,—a stimulus, indeed, not easily withstood, but keen and most effective,—the argument of a kind and affectionate disposition, which showed itself benignantly in his words when he spoke to us and associated with us. For he did not aim merely at getting round us by any kind of reasoning; but his desire was, with a benignant, and affectionate, and most benevolent mind, to save us, and make us partakers in the blessings that flow from philosophy, and most especially also in those other gifts which the Deity has bestowed on him above most men, or, as we may perhaps say, above all men of our own time. (Gregory Thaumaturgus, Panegyric to Origen, VI)

End of excerpt.


As a modern-day aspiring Christian philosopher, or “lover of wisdom”, I’m suffering a bit from feelings of dis-location. Some days I long to escape into the past in search of a bygone epoch of history, to don a philosopher’s robe and engage in lofty dialogue and diatribes. I’m certainly guilty of romanticizing a time that, if I could go back there, would reveal its own challenges and ideal-shattering realties.

I’m blessed to be a pastor of a small congregation, where I get to teach and preach and expound on the riches of wisdom revealed in Christ. But I’m unashamedly drawing inspiration from the ancient past, and can still aspire to teach and preach in a way that, echoing Gregory, goes beyond mere reasoning but aims to make others “partakers in the blessings that flow from philosophy”, especially the manifold wisdom that flows from Truth Incarnate, the One toward which all true philosophy has always pointed. In this endeavor I follow after the pattern of my teacher Paul:

 “My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is” (Colossians 2:2-5).

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