June 10, 2013

Emperor Julian On The Social Value of Reading The Classics

Source: Murdoch, A. "The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World." Sutton Publishing. 2003. Pg. 141-42.
"Preoccupied with matters of state, Julian's next legal move against the Christians did not occur until after he had left the capital. He had, however, already begun to politicise the issue by holding audiences in sanctuaries, naturally favouring those who took part, refusing to receive embassies from complaining Christians, and he had already suggested that for all administrative positions 'the god-fearing must be preferred' to Christians. But on 17 June he passed the first of his educational laws. The wording of the law is simplicity itself. It asserted merely that all teachers held their positions at the pleasure of the emperor, not just the town council. That in itself alarmed few. An educationalist on the throne was a novelty, not something to fear. Then followed the law for which the emperor has had opprobrium heaped upon him: the edict that banned Christians from teaching the classics. It was the single event for which he became notorious.

The exact wording of the law has not survived. Fortunately a letter, probably a memo to teachers in the East, does survive in which Julian explains his thinking on the law. Julian was at heart in many ways an academic. Not only did he see education and religion as inseparable but, unlike virtually every leader since, the emperor thought about it, encouraged it (Libanius comments that on his march from Constantinople to Antioch the emperor 'was easy of access to teachers') and wrote about it. But Julian went as far as to state explicitly that the brighter and better educated are more useful members of society. It was a view he held consistently throughout his life. Elsewhere he wrote: 'Every man would become better than before by studying the classics, even if he were altogether not the brightest. But when a man is naturally well-endowed with brains and receives a true classical education, he becomes a gift of the gods to mankind, by kindling the light of knowledge, by founding some kind of political constitution, by routing numbers of his country's enemies or even by travelling far over the earth and sea.' Julian may have sugar-coated the pill by reiterating that no one would be forced to recant, but he was adamant that Christians, who did not convert, were banned from teaching the three pillars of Roman education: grammar, rhetoric and philosophy.

In one fell swoop, Julian had cut Christians off from potential converts and from the classical tradition, from Homer and from Hesiod. Let them keep their St Paul if they wanted. It is an explicit statement that Hellenism equals paganism. Commentator after commentator ever since has spluttered his disapproval. 'How did it come into your head, to deprive Christians of words, you silliest and greediest of mortals? . . . Where did the idea come from and for what reason? What oracular Hermes put this idea into your head? What Telchines did it, those mischievous and envious demons?' screams Gregory of Nazianzus. Even Ammianus called it a 'harsh act' that should be buried in 'lasting oblivion'.

And this is precisely why the law was a master stroke. Julian had marginalised Christianity to the point where it could potentially have vanished within a generation or two, and without the need for physical coercion. The choice for a parent was stark - either conform, or commit your son to being an outsider. The abuse Julian received is an indication that Christians realised what he had done. 'We are shot with shafts feathered from our own wing,' writes one. The irony, of course, is that the monk Theodoret is citing Aeschylus, one of the greatest of classical authors."