Can you imagine anything, I ask you, that is so useful or even so necessary as the first notion of letters? They are the foundation on which all our studies rest.
Epistolê is a blog dedicated to theological resourcement or renewal from a Reformed and catholic perspective. It’s also about history, art, and philosophy, because theology (i.e., Regina scientiarum) incorporates all forms of wisdom. I chose the title for the blog back in 2008 because of the similarities between blogging and the lost art of letter writing (epistolê = “letter”), which gave us such wonderfully diverse works as Cicero’s letters to Atticus, the epistles of St. Paul, and the correspondence of Abelard and Heloise. The title is also a veiled reference to the “man of letters” whose knowledge of the best topics (loci) from ancient literature and his experience in debate and oratory furnish him with rhetorical skill (ars) for quick, simple, and pleasant writing. These elements were present in the writings of Renaissance humanists, a topic to which I am repeatedly drawn. For, it encapsulates that curious human drive to make new things out of very old things. A blog is an interesting place to talk about that and, in a way, continue the ancient practice.
Back to the Future: Ad Fontes!
We are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants; thanks to them, we see farther than they. Busying ourselves with the treatises written by the ancients, we take their choice thoughts, buried by age and human neglect, and we raise them as it were from death to renewed life.
~Peter of Blois (†1204)
Neither are we dwarfs, nor are they giants, but we are all of one stature … provided that there be found in us the same studiousness, watchfulness and love of truth, as was in them. If these conditions be lacking, then we are not dwarfs, nor set on the shoulders of giants, but men of a competent stature, grovelling on the earth.
~Juan Luis Vives (†1540)
These quotes from Peter of Blois and Juan Louis Vives represent the views of two different eras and types of humanism. Both of these individuals were tutors of English royalty living in a foreign land concerned with the liberal arts, that is, the “humanities.” As R.W. Southern has argued, the enterprise of the medieval humanists centered on the recovery of Adam’s (the first human) lost knowledge primarily by means of Aristotle’s corpus wherein are contained the first principles of all of the sciences (scientia = knowledge). Thus, a return to Aristotle and the humanities was, in a sense, a return to the heavenly garden of human perfection. Though this common pursuit unites Blois and Vives, they remain separated by the methods and ideals of their respective eras. The former was a poet and latinist at the dawn of scholasticism and the latter a man of similar occupation at a time when the sun of the Italian Renaissance was beginning to set. No matter the difference of ages, the dissimilarity of logical method, or the perception of the celestial spheres, these two humanists did not separate the art of writing from the pursuit of wisdom, which begins, they believed, by immersing oneself in the learned discourses of one’s predecessors.
Peter of Blois bequeaths to posterity an attitude of respect for where one has been and how one has arrived at one’s current location. As a certain celebrated medievalist points out in the preface to Athanasius’s De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, every historical age finds itself amid controversy, the core of which concerns the proper interpretation and application of a set of first principles (Lewis, 5). Those involved in the controversy believe that a resolution of the controverted issues will in one way or another determine the fate of future generations. The polarization of opinions that is an inevitable outcome of such polemical discourse is often exaggerated by either misapplied appeals to authority and tradition or impatience with an older language of discourse engendered by (and perpetuating) a desire for novelty and progression. If one were only to view the issues from above, as later generations will, one would perhaps see the faults of both sides and the commonalities which essentially unite them. Since one cannot peer into the future, however, one must turn elsewhere for grounding. As Lewis says, “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”
On the other hand, Juan Luis Vives bequeaths to posterity an equally important principle. Those giants on whose shoulders we stand do not automatically give one a desire to see the truth, nor do they infuse a habit of discernment into one’s mind. It is often times the case that one will cease to look forward and farther once one is immersed within the texts of the ancients and, in a twisting of reason, begins to view oneself as the protector of sacred wisdom. Having established the necessity of constantly returning ad fontes (to the sources), Vives affirms that this desire for ancient wisdom is not to be admired if it is wedded to an attempt at reifying the ossified concepts of a bygone “golden age.” Rather, one returns to the sources in order to use them, that is, for the sake of reestablishing first principles which will aid one in viewing the too often logically muddy ideals of our own era through the fresh lens of the past. During the Reformation, for instance, Protestant theologians and jurists returned to the Aristotelian distinction between natural goods and adiaphora (indifferent things) in order to defend their particular concept of intellectual freedom. The ancients had their own problems of perception, which is partly why their solutions remain their own and not easily applicable in contemporary discourses. For Vives and other humanists, the redirecting of one’s gaze to the wisdom of the past is part and parcel of the intellectual pursuit of studiousness, watchfulness, and a love for the truth, by which we become giants ourselves.
I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montréal, and this is my blog (you may find a list of my academic publications and presentations here). I also wear a non-academic hat as the pastoral intern at my church, where I teach and occasionally preach. Together with my brilliant wife and two wonderful kids I currently reside in the deep South, where the ancient voice of the prophets is mediated through blues guitar, biscuits and gravy, and loblolly pine.
Email me: eric.m.parker[at]gmail[dot]com