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§ 136. Learning in the Eastern Church.

The Eastern church had the advantage over the Western in the knowledge of the Greek language, which gave her direct access to the Greek Testament, the Greek classics, and the Greek fathers; but, on the other hand, she had to suffer from the Mohammedan invasions, and from the intrigues and intermeddling of a despotic court.

The most flourishing seats of patristic learning, Alexandria and Antioch, were lost by the conquests of Islam. The immense library at Alexandria was burned by order of Omar (638), who reasoned: “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God (the Koran), they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.”765765    Gibbon (ch. 50) doubts this fact, related by Abulpharagius and other Mohammedan authorities; but Von Hammer, Silv. de Sacy, and other Oriental scholars accept it as well authenticated. See the note of Smith in his edition of Gibbon (vol. V. 358 sq.). The library was variously estimated as containing from four to seven hundred thousand volumes. In the eighth century, however, the Saracens themselves began to cultivate learning, to translate Greek authors, to collect large libraries in Bagdad, Cairo, and Cordova. The age of Arabic learning continued about five hundred years, till the irruption of the Moguls. It had a stimulating effect upon the scholarship of the church, especially upon the development of scholastic philosophy, through the writings of Averroës of Cordova (d. 1198), the translator and commentator of Aristotle.

Constantinople was the centre of the literary, activity of the Greek church during the middle ages. Here or in the immediate vicinity (Chalcedon, Nicaea) the oecumenical councils were held; here were the scholars, the libraries, the imperial patronage, and all the facilities for the prosecution of studies. Many a library was destroyed, but always replaced again.766766    A library of 120,000 volumes, begun by Constantius and Julian the Apostate, was burned by accident under Basiliscus (478). Another Constantinopolitan library of 33,000 volumes perished in the reign of the iconoclastic Leo the Isaurian, who is made responsible for the calamity by Cedrenus and other orthodox historians. Thessalonica and Mount Athos were also important seats of learning, especially in the twelfth century.

The Latin was the official language of the Byzantine court, and Justinian, who regained, after a divorce of sixty years, the dominion of ancient Rome through the valor of Belisarius (536), asserted the proud title of Emperor of the Romans, and published his code of laws in Latin. But the Greek always was and remained the language of the people, of literature, philosophy, and theology.

Classical learning revived in the ninth century under the patronage of the court. The reigns of Caesar Bardas (860–866), Basilius I. the Macedonian (867–886), Leo VI. the Philosopher (886–911), who was himself an author, Constantine VII. Porphyrogenitus (911–959), likewise an author, mark the most prosperous period of Byzantine literature. The family of the Comneni, who upheld the power of the sinking empire from 1057 to 1185, continued the literary patronage, and the Empress Eudocia and the Princess Anna Comnena cultivated the art of rhetoric and the study of philosophy.

Even during the confusion of the crusades and the disasters which overtook the empire, the love for learning continued; and when Constantinople at last fell into the hands of the Turks, Greek scholarship took refuge in the West, kindled the renaissance, and became an important factor in the preparation for the Reformation.

The Byzantine literature presents a vast mass of learning without an animating, controlling and organizing genius. “The Greeks of Constantinople,” says Gibbon,767767    Decline and Fall, Ch. LIII. (V. 529). with some rhetorical exaggeration, “held in their lifeless hands the riches of the fathers, without inheriting the spirit which had created and improved that sacred patrimony: they read, they praised, they compiled; but their languid souls seemed alike incapable of thought and action. In the revolution of ten centuries, not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind. Not a single idea has been added to the speculative systems of antiquity; and a succession of patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation. Not a single composition of history, philosophy or literature has been saved from oblivion by the intrinsic beauties of style or sentiment, of original fancy, and even of successful imitation .... The leaders of the Greek church were humbly content to admire and copy the oracles of antiquity, nor did the schools or pulpit produce any rivals of the fame of Athanasius and Chrysostom.”

The theological controversies developed dialectical skill, a love for metaphysical subtleties, and an over-estimate of theoretical orthodoxy at the expense of practical piety. The Monotheletic controversy resulted in an addition to the christological creed; the iconoclastic controversy determined the character of public worship and the relation of religion to art.

The most gifted Eastern divines were Maximus Confessor in the seventh, John of Damascus in the eighth, and Photius in the ninth century. Maximus, the hero of Monotheletism, was an acute and profound thinker, and the first to utilize the pseudo-Dyonysian philosophy in support of a mystic orthodoxy. John of Damascus, the champion of image-worship, systematized the doctrines of the orthodox fathers, especially the three great Cappadocians, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzum, and Gregory of Nyssa, and produced a monumental work on theology which enjoys to this day the same authority in the Greek church as the “Summa” of Thomas Aquinas in the Latin. Photius, the antagonist of Pope Nicolas, was the greatest scholar of his age, who read and digested with independent judgment all ancient heathen and Christian books on philology, philosophy, theology, canon law, history, medicine, and general literature. In extent of information and fertility of pen he had a successor in Michael Psellus (d. 1106).

Exegesis was cultivated by Oecumenius in the tenth, Theophylact in the eleventh, and Euthymius Zygabenus in the twelfth century. They compiled the valuable exegetical collections called “Catenae.”768768    So called from being connected like chains, σειραί, catenae. Other terms are: ἐπιτομαίor συλλογαὶ ἑρμηνειῶν, glossae, postillae. Among Latin collections of that kind, the Catena Aurea of Thomas Aquinas on the Gospels is the most famous. See Fabricius, Biblioth. Graeca, vol. VII., and Noesselt, De Catenis patrum Graecorum in N. T. Hal., 1762. What these Catenae did for patristic exegesis, the Critici Sacri (London, 1660 sqq.; Frankfort, 1695 sqq.; Amsterdam, 1698-1732, with supplements, 13 vols.), and Matthew Poole’s Synopsis (London, 1669 sqq., an abridgment of the former) did for the exegesis of the reformers and other commentators of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Simeon Metaphrastes (about 900) wrote legendary biographies and eulogies of one hundred and twenty-two saints. Suidas, in the eleventh century, prepared a Lexicon, which contains much valuable philological and historical information769769    Still indispensable to Greek scholars, and important to theologians and historians for the biblical glosses, the explanations of theological terms, and the biographical and literary notices of ecclesiastical writers. Best editions by Gaisford (Oxford, 1834), and Bernhardy (Halle, 1853, 4 vols.). The Byzantine historians, Theophanes, Syncellus, Cedrenus, Leo Grammaticus, and others, describe the political and ecclesiastical events of the slowly declining empire. The most eminent scholar of the twelfth century, was Eustathius, Archbishop of Thessalonica, best known as the commentator of Homer, but deserving a high place also as a theologian, ecclesiastical ruler, and reformer of monasticism.

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