What Has Athens To Do With Jerusalem?

The North African Catholic Church throughout the last remaining centuries before the fall of Rome was the most fertile intellectual region before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.  I don’t say that in a cavalier way, for the Church Fathers sought to do what Islam must do now, assimilate the realist and idealist thought that came from both Greece and Rome.  To synthesize this synoptic process into a useful coherent whole really didn’t occur until the Medieval period and even then most scholars believe that the very late modern, post-modern period is where we find the most useful applications of what both Medievalists synthesized and the Church Fathers defended:  namely the philosophical defense for the autonomy of reason; thought independent of revelation.

The North African theologian Tertullian once remarked ‘What has Athens to do with Rome?’  He was asking what is the usefulness, the status, the application of what the Athenians and Romans intellectually applied themselves.

To put the matter more concretely, Aristotle noted long after Plato had gone, that there really are two very distinct, different and many times incompatible ways of life:  the political and the philosophical.

Mary Ann Glendon who teaches at Harvard Law, has compiled profiles of twelve great men so as to study the impact such prolific figures cut as they struggled with the conflict between an active life and a contemplative one.  A life divided in its loyalties between affections for the public forum or those in the ivory tower.

Traditionally, ethics was the study of managing the relations between such divisions.  The forum or the tower was a historical contrast that was only very recently surmounted with the arrival of decentralized domesticated media and the hybrid relations constructed from its impact and usage.

Dr. Glendon begins with Plato whose efforts to bring philosophy to the city (polis) fell on the less successful side of the ledger.  Plato’s personal time spent advising Syracusian tyrants ended in personal disaster.  His counsel was ignored and he almost lost his life in consequence of it.

Instead, Plato interpreted his experience as the foundation for his ‘Laws’, outlining his philosophical ground of a just legal order.

There are two superstars who manage to synthesize the intrinsic division in a manner worthy of imitation:  Marcus Tullius Cicero and Edmund Burke.

Both men viewed life in the forum (public service) as the highest calling.  Both Burke and Cicero discovered the philosophical means to counter the greatest political challenges of their time; Burke with the French Revolution and its reign of terror, Cicero from a sophisticated means of oration, from which he sought to check political machinations of the internal enemies of Rome.  A fight that cost him his life!  Burke was a very eloquent parliamentarian and an opponent of the abuse of power both abroad and domestic.  Even when both men were engaged in titanic power struggles, both were disciplined enough to make extraordinary intellectual contributions.  Cicero would renew the teaching function of the Greeks, while Burke sought to anticipate how abstract ideals unhinged from morality could presage the French Terror and the collapse of the French Republic.   His ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ (1790) continuously warned against ruining complex, tacit understandings that support, promote a decent functioning social order.  He was in a way defending the social and political consequences of applied theology, for he emphatically knew that if you supplant natural law with a ratio, an abstract idea, you unleash Hell; witness Cambodia, China under Mao, Castro’s Cuba, Lenin’s Russia and many others of the late 20th Century.

I am especially pleased at Dr. Glendon’s take on Machiavelli, the amoral aide whispering stark political realities informed only from the task of managing power, she distrusts the ‘balance of power politics’ that consumed so many Statesman and Empires.  The ‘enigma’ that has become of Machiavelli’s satanic political realism as diplomat and advisor  acknowledges the cultural and political richness that was Florentine statecraft, but Dr. Glendon does not believe that Machiavelli’s grasp of the principles that guide statesmen, aimed at power alone, should be the last word on statecraft or political success.


Because ideals and reversals of fortune that inspire are part of political life itself, indeed indissolubly linked as partial goods united to both the end and means we choose.  That is why prudence is the first teacher of statesmen.

Burke’s nemesis was Jean Jacques Rousseau who was actually proud of his lack of political experience, believing it preserved his independence, the result was dangerous sophistry that drove the excesses leading to the Terror and the collapse of France.

Mentioned is Justinian, the Byzantium Emperor who hired Tribonian to rescue Roman law from the mess of collapsing western fringe.   Such efforts birthed the Code of Justinian, a body of work that became the primacy source for the Renaissance’s revival of Roman law and ultimately the West’s philosophical basis for defending liberty in light of Papal absolutism.  Were it not for Justinian and Tribonian, the West would never has forged a way out from the totalitarian grasp that became Islam and Catholic absolutism prior to the Reformation and throughout the Enlightenment.

“The Forum & The Tower” takes issue with the frustrated and failed political ambitions of Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber and many others to numerable to mention.  Many of those mentioned clearly had achievements to be almost entirely intellectual.

Dr. Mary Ann Glendon finally answers the ancient question that perplexed the entire ancient world, whether asked by pagans or Islamist’s:  What is the relation between reason and faith?

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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