Gathering Honey From Flowers: The Fathers on Secular Learning

Fr. Kevin Kalish

Priest Kevin Kalish received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University in 2009. He is also a graduate of the Pastoral School of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Currently he serves as Acting Rector at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Endicott, NY and teaches at Colgate University. This talk was given at St. Herman’s Youth Conference in December, 2010 in Holy Trinity Monastery.

I.  Your grace, reverent fathers, brothers and sisters. . . Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you.  The topic I will discuss today is something that has intrigued me since I was in college.  Since then the topic has continually been on my radar and has in fact shaped much of my professional work as an academic.  Since I teach college students, and in within a secular university, it is a topic that I encounter on a regular basis.  The topic, to put in briefly, is this:  what is the value of secular learning?  Since I take it that secular learning still, to some extent, involves reading books, a related question follows:  should we avoid certain books?  Are there things that, as Orthodox Christians, we should be reading, or should be avoiding? ?  Whenever a craze for a new book comes about, this question arises.  While I won’t discuss any specific books (like Harry Potter or the Twilight? Series), I also want to consider this question as well.  Shouldn’t we just read the Bible and Church writings?  It’s a question I asked myself as an undergrad.  I remember thinking:  should I be pursuing secular learning?  I was studying English and Classics; for a while I thought maybe I would be better off studying religion.  As I’ve learned since then, religion departments are probably the one place to avoid if you want to keep you faith, as ironic as that sounds.

Before I continue, I should clarify some of these terms.  ‘Secular’ which literally means of the world, usually stands in opposition to ‘religious.’  So my concern today is with the learning that most students—that is, all of you sitting here–  what you encounter in your college career, whether it is history, mathematics, physics, English, economics, or a host of other fields. Another way to phrase this, and the way that many Church Fathers discuss it, is to call non-Christian learning “pagan” learning.  This term has different connotations depending on how it is used, so I will try to stick to the term ‘secular.’ In the parlance of the fathers of the Church, we could also talk about ‘our literature’— which would include the Bible, the fathers of the Church, the hymns, homilies, and saints’ lives.  Plenty of material to keep one busy.  The Fathers often contrast our literature with ‘outside’ literature or learning.

As I said, these questions arose for me when I was an undergraduate.  I was at a secular institution— in fact, my entire formal schooling has been in secular institutions, and I now teach at a university with no religious affiliation.  So allow me to retrace my path of discovery and relate some of the things I’ve gathered along the way. I was fortunate that during my time  in college there was an OCF group  on campus; the leader, a seminarian at a Greek seminary, introduced me to an amazing text.  This text, composed by St. Basil the Great, directly addresses this topic— it is titled “An Address to the Youth on Reading Pagan literature.”  St. Basil wrote the text for young people who were already engaged in their studies—an audience not unlike the one here today.  Have you ever had that experience, when the clouds seem to part and what was foggy and obscure now stands out, glimmering in clarity?  That’s what it was like to discover this work of St. Basil’s.  And it was written by one of the great bishops of the Church!  I want to tell you a bit about this text, but first let me explain why I found this text so enlightening.

Examples are plentiful of prohibitions against secular learning and books, especially from the first few centuries of the Church.  This is true of the Didascalia Apostolorum, a third century document which for a long time had considerable influence in the East.  The Didascalia Apostolorum unhesitatingly ordered Christians to “have nothing to do with pagan books.”  Furthermore, there is Tertullian’s famous question—what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?—or Jerome’s dream in which he is accused of being not a Christian but a Ciceronian.  So we have these various rhetorical pronouncements, many of them from the second or third century.  Keep in mind this was a time when Christians were persecuted and the state, the Roman Empire, was openly hostile towards them.  In the fourth century, when the empire became Christian, a modified attitude emerged.  Many of the great fathers of this period— saintly men like Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa— had the best education available.  Gregory and Basil were both students in Athens with Julian, who would later become emperor and attempt to return the empire to paganism.  They thought hard and deep over this question of secular learning.  Having experienced secular learning first-hand, they know what they were talking about.  Let’s listen to what they have to say.

Let’s listen first to Gregory the Theologian.  In addition to his leading role at the Second Ecumenical Council, Gregory was a prolific writer.  His homilies are some of the finest ever composed, and many of his festival homilies were formerly appointed for the great feasts (similar to how we read the homily of St. John Chrysostom at Pascha).  We also have some 17,000 lines of verse written by Gregory, and virtually all of it is composed according to the style of ancient Greek poetry— in other words, he takes pagan/secular forms of poetry and adapts them to Christian use.  On many occasions Gregory addresses the question of secular learning, but perhaps no place as eloquently and as forcefully as in his funeral oration for Basil.  Here you can hear him challenging those who disparage learning, and you get the sense that many in his day thought secular learning was not appropriate for Christians. He says:

“I take it all intelligent men agree that among human advantages education holds first place.  I refer not only to our nobler form of it which disdains all the ambitious ornaments of rhetoric and attaches itself only to salvation and the beauty of spiritual contemplation, but also to that external culture which many Christians by an error of judgment scorn as treacherous and dangerous and as turning us away from God.”

Gregory considers education the highest of all human endeavors.   He gives such high praise not only to ‘our education’, that is, Christian education, which concerns itself with salvation and spiritual contemplation; but he also praises what he calls ‘external culture’— in other words, secular learning.  Some Christians had thought this external culture was dangerous and led away from God.  Gregory goes on to show why those who think secular learning dangerous are in error.  “We select from [secular learning] what is useful both for life and enjoyment and we avoid what is dangerous.”  Gregory’s response to them (in addition to ridiculing them as rude and un-learned) is to claim that secular learning is a tool.  It in itself is neither good nor evil; it depends upon how one uses it.  He explains that “we know that neither fire nor food nor iron nor any other element is in itself either very useful or very harmful, but that all depends on the will of the user.”  The examples he gives— fire, food, iron— are all things that can be used for good, and he places secular learning in this same category.  St. Gregory’s words should be engraved and given to every student beginning his or her studies, especially these final words:  “So also from the pagans we have received principles of inquiry and speculation, while we have rejected whatever leads to demons, and error, and the abyss of perdition.  And from such material we have drawn profit for piety, by learning to distinguish the better from the worse, and from its weakness we have made our own doctrine strong.  Therefore we must not dishonor education because certain men are pleased to do so.”

Gregory gives a forceful and eloquent argument for why secular learning is appropriate.  Basil, in his Address to the Youth, gives a more widespread explanation of how secular learning works to train the youth for their more advanced studies of the true philosophy.  Now we should keep in mind that Basil is most likely addressing young people who are already in the midst of their schooling, and this schooling would have been, at this point in history, already very formalized.  It was primarily a literary education and relied heavily on the reading of ancient literature.  So Basil is not discussing whether one should read or study just anything, but whether the youth can derive benefit from the education system already in place.

What is most surprising about Basil’s advice is that he suggests the youth cut their teeth on secular texts before turning to the higher truths of the Bible.  Basil says:  “Indeed, so long as you are unable, on account of your age, to comprehend the depth of their [the Holy Scriptures] meaning, in the meantime we might, as it were, train the eyes of the soul in shadows and reflections, imitating those who practice drills in military exercises; who, after acquiring experience by weight-lifting and dancing, when the contest comes, reap the benefit from their training.” The youth ought to be like soldiers or athletes, who are apt models because their training, which is a matter of habituation, prepares them for a contest.   An athlete’s training molds the muscles so that when the contest comes, the muscles are formed to perform the task they have practiced.  Moreover, they adhere to the instructions of a trainer.   Literature is like athletic training because it forms impressions on the soul which will later manifest themselves in one’s actions:  “[we must follow these men (who praise virtue) and attempt to manifest their words in our lives.” This language of training the eyes of the soul in shadows and reflections emphasizes how secular learning in preparatory; it is preliminary to further study, the study of God’s word.  Furthermore, this language shows how much Basil himself gained from secular learning, since the imagery Basil uses comes from Plato, the great pagan Greek philosopher.  Basil continues, saying that the youth are “like those becoming used to seeing in water the sun, so too we shall direct their eyes to the light itself.”  One cannot start off looking directly at the sun because its radiance would be too bright; instead, one needs to strengthen the eyes by looking at reflections of the light.

According to St. Basil, reading the pagan authors should present no difficulties, and indeed reading things like Homer and Hesiod one can learn elemantary lessons in virtue.    This is rather interesting, since there is much in Homer and Hesiod that seems to us immoral; there are stories of gods behaving badly, which in itself would seem problem enough.  When, however, pagan literature praises virtue, these authors are imitating Christian teachings.  As a result, the Christian student does not traverse foreign lands while reading pagan literature but visits familiar ground.  Basil explains as he says:  “I maintain that, because these examples lead to nearly the same end as our principles, it is right for those of your age to imitate them.” Since the pagans had access to the same principles as those depicted in Scripture, and even imitated them, then they are of exceptional benefit.  The pagans did not happen by chance to alight upon the same notion of virtue: “It is difficult to believe that they correspond with our principles by chance, and not by imitating them in earnest.”  Thus the youth, when they imitate virtuous men in pagan literature, are in essence imitating Christian virtue.  This is rather profound.  It suggests that truth can be found in secular literature, because ultimately all truth comes from God; when secular literature happens upon the truth— i.e. in the portrayal of virtuous action— this ‘outside’ literature is actually drawing upon divine truth.

Notice here that the emphasis is on how literature can train the youth in understanding virtuous actions.  Basil realizes the emotive force of literature and tries to show how this can be beneficial rather than perilous.  If the youth store up the impressions of virtuous words and deeds in their soul, at a later point these habits will manifest themselves.   For this reason Basil urges that the youth be careful about what they read so that they do not store up wicked impressions.  He says: “whenever they recount for you the deeds or words of good men, you should have fond affection for these and emulate them, and most of all try to be like them.”  The flip-side of this is that the youth should flee whenever the poets represent wicked men.  Literature, and secular learning in general, is something that can be useful, if handled in the right way. Basil explains this as follows: “for this eternity I would urge you to obtain provisions, turning over every stone—as the proverb has it—in any place where there may be something beneficial to you.”  Turning over every stone— if there are things beneficial, if there are things useful and instructive in secular learning, then we should take advantage of those things.  Toward this end, Basil is selective in what literature he deems useful.  Readers should be like the bees, who go only to certain flowers to gather honey; they do not nor could they gather indiscriminately.

If we take from St. Basil this image of the bees as our guiding principle, then we will understand that secular learning has honey to offer, if we know where to find it and how to take that pollen and transform it into something that is both sweet and useful.  St. Basil assumes that the youth are guided in their instruction.  He is not saying go out and read or study just anything.  He also assumes that the youth are studying a standard curriculum of texts.  Our circumstances may be different, as our educational models have changed much since then— our schooling is not based primarily on the reading of old poets (though I think that would be nice;  imagine an education that was grounded primarily in the study of Shakespeare!).  What St. Basil offers in this remarkable text are principles to guide us.  We should approach learning and reading with discrimination and find what is good and useful.  But does S. Basil suggest that secular learning is to be avoided, or that non-Christian literature is a distraction?  By no means!— as long as we imitate the bees.

The story does not end with Sts. Gregory and Basil.  St. Jerome, another extremely learned man, wrote an important letter in response to someone who asked him why he litters his writings with so many quotations from pagan writers, why he pollutes divine subjects with the words of the unclean.  Jerome responds by setting out all the precedents.  Starting with the Old Testament, he shows all the occasions where the pagan literature is used.  He cites, among his many examples, Moses, who was wise in the learning of the Egyptians.  Furthermore, Jerome cites St. Paul.  When St. Paul spoke in Athens (as recording in the Book of Acts), he shows how he is all things to all people— to such a learned audience, he peppers his speech with lines from pagan poets. Jerome also gives a theoretical foundation for the use of pagan literature by referring to the injunction God gave the Israelites to take with them the spoils of Egypt on their departure.  This gold of the Egyptians was rightfully the possession of the Israelites; they were thus reclaiming their rightful possession.  This notion of reclaiming, of taking possession of what is rightly theirs, permeates Jerome’s understanding of how to use pagan literature.  Augustine follows Jerome in this understanding.  In De Doctrina Christiana, he interprets the same passage and states that the Israelites were told to take the gold and silver vessels of the Egyptians and put them to better use.  In such an interpretation, the pagan element is taken over, repossessed, and no longer remains the property of the pagans.  In like manner, those things to be taken from pagan literature, like the Egyptian riches, no longer belong to the pagans; they are no longer secular and non-Christian.  The premise behind such an understanding is that wisdom, wherever it may be found, belongs to the Lord—and that it is the duty of Christians to repossesses it.

It is evident that this question of secular learning continued to be an issue since others return to the topics.  In the East, at least, St. Basil’s text had an immense impact and it shaped much of the thinking in Byzantium on the place of secular learning.  Even in the last days of the byzantine empire, students continued to read pagan/ secular authors.  They continued to read Homer and the Greek playwrights (Euripides, Sophocles, and Aristophanes); the only thing that distinguished their reading lists from the school-rooms of pagan antiquity was that they read the poetry of Gregory the Theologian as well.

In the west, however, there seemed to be a more stark divide between Christian and secular education.  Even as proponents such as Augustine and Jerome defend secular learning, their language suggests hostile take-overs.  in the West there is an antithesis, while in the East there is a hierarchy.  Their different metaphors for Egypt explain the different approaches.  For Basil and the Greek Fathers, Moses was a paradigm because he was wise in the ways of the Egyptians, and this training in pagan learning served as the training ground for his more profound teachings later.  There is a marked contrast between being wise in pagan learning as a first step toward higher truths and the appropriation of pagan learning, the seizing of the gold of the Egyptians.

You’ve probably had your fill now of quotations from various fathers; let me wrap up this part of the talk with one additional anecdote.  This story comes from the life of St. Cyril, the Apostle to the Slavs.  In the ninth century, Cyril wanted to read Gregory of Nazianzus, but he found Gregory’s language too difficult.  So he left Thessaloniki for Constantinople to receive a proper literary education.  There, in the imperial capital, he studied the classical curriculum, reading first grammar and then proceeding to Homer and the classical curriculum.[1]  For Cyril, the way to understand St. Gregory, the great theologian of the Greek church, was to read first Homer—not the Bible or patristic texts, but the pagan Homer.

[1] The anecdote comes from Browning, “Homer in Byzantium” 15-16.  Browning quotes from A. Vaillant, Textes vieux-slaves I (Paris 1968) 5.

What conclusions can we draw from these patristic texts?  First, they undoubtedly view secular learning as good and useful, if undertaken in the right way.  The higher things— things like salvation and spiritual contemplation— come about from ‘our’ learning; but secular learning provides the groundwork.  The Fathers, while advocating secular learning, at the same time caution against going about it blindly.  Finally, they see secular learning as preparatory, as preliminary training.

A Defense of Reading

Now that I’ve recounted what I have discovered in the works of the Fathers, let me go in a slightly different direction.  I want to dwell on what the fathers mean by ‘preliminary training.’  What does reading do for us?  Certainly, we gain knowledge.  Certainly, what we read matters.  There are certain books—obscene and lewd books, for example—that we should obviously avoid.  But let’s focus on what the very act of reading does.  I draw attention to the act of reading because we are in the midst of major transformations in how we consume information.  Anyone else have the feeling that they cannot read like they used to?  That their powers of concentration have diminished?  That when you sit down to a long article or book, there is the constant urge to check your email, see what you friends are up to on facebook, or skim the news?  [excursus about how I’m not much older, but I’ve seen a significant shift. ] The internet has made so much information available with such ease, and, as our devices get more portable and access more universal, a steady stream of information is available to keep us continually and ever- distracted.  Before you think, ‘here we go again, another tirade against technology’, let me assure you that my purpose is otherwise.  Books, too, are a technology, though we no longer think of them that way.  And, as the passages from GN illustrate, tools are not good or evil in themselves; rather it depends upon how we use them.  So let’s consider how we use this particular tool  (the internet) and what benefits it holds, compared to how we use this other tool, books.  What I want to suggest is that reading— and studying in general— is beneficial for the spiritual life.  I want to suggest that we can apply the fathers’ defense of secular learning to our contemporary situation.  They may not have anticipated the internet.  But to return to my question, what do books do?  And how does this contrast to retrieving information from the net?  There was a study of how the internet affects the learning of the young.  The researchers found that “digital immersion has even affected the way they absorb information.  They [the young] don’t necessarily read a page from left to right and from top to bottom.  They might instead skip around, scanning for pertinent information of interest” (quoted in Carr, The Shallows— an excellent book).  Another study, that tracked eye movements as people viewed webpages, discovered that the eye did not go from left to right all the way to the end of the line; instead, the eye moved the pattern similar to the letter F.  All the way across for the first line, then decreasing from there. So it appears that how we consume information on-line carries over into how we interact with other media.  A satirical newspaper played with this idea in a mock headline that read:  stunned nation not sure what to do with block of uninterrupted text.

We by our very nature like distraction.  As Nicholas Carr observes, “Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible.” (P. 63)  In a more primitive state, when hunting was our way of live, this was a means of survival.  Thus we see the appeal of the internet, with the constant stream of new distractions.  Books, however, introduce an unnatural state.  The tools we use shape of brains; our brains have a plasticity that adapt to our behavior.  Reading, and especially deep reading— when our attention is focused, when we get lost in a book— develops mental discipline.  In the same manner, the study of a subject in school, whether it is history, math, or physics, requires that we shut out distractions and train our mind to concentrate.  When we take in too much information, such as when we skim the web, we actually retain very little.  Reading and study is slower; in slowing down and focusing on one thing, we retain more of what we read.  So here’s where I am attempting to apply the thought of the fathers on secular learning to our contemporary situation.  Secular learning is beneficial by the very act of it requiring us to hone our mental skills of concentration.  The very act of reading takes us from a world of distractions and focuses the attention.  Let’s take an example— Harry Potter.  When this series of books was all the rage, some were asking if this was proper reading for Christians since it contains elements of magic.  As my matushka remarked— and she has experience teaching reading development class— a book that will get kids to read, and read for hours on end, certainly has some benefit.  Kids that get hooked on these books will likely go on to read more books.  Time spent reading is time that otherwise might be spent in other pursuits that do not sharpen the mind.  The anecdotal evidence is supported by new research we have on what happens when one reads a book compared to when one consumes information on the web.

In the Epistle of St. James, we are warned about being ‘double-minded.’   When we are on-line, we are certainly double-minded.  I can recall sitting in the back of a lecture hall and noticing how many students, in addition to taking notes, also had one window open to facebook, another checking the latest sales at JCrew, and another to a word document so that they could take notes.  But how much are we retaining when we are so double, or triple, or quadruple-minded?  I am not suggesting that you close your facebook account and never go on-line again.  What I am suggesting is that these forms of media, influence the way we operate and we need to think about how we use them They feed our desire for curiosity and the need— as well as the pleasure— in a constant barrage of new stimuli, so that we are forever flitting from one thing to another, and never dwelling or meditating upon one thing.

The Fathers were on to something when they described learning as preliminary training.  Learning and reading train our minds, as these pursuits turn our attention to one thing.  When we study a subject, or when we are engaged in a book, the material certainly matters.  But something else is going on.  Our mind is being encouraged to focus and shut out all the distractions surrounding us.   This, I believe, is what the fathers meant by calling secular learning a preliminary training for the higher truths of the Faith—for how can you read the Gospels, or study the Psalms, or listen to the canon during matins, if your mind is used to snippets of information streaming from a screen?

Secular learning does not need to be in opposition to our faith; in fact it can, with discernment and guidance, benefit our faith.  I am not suggesting that you should read just anything and that you should pursue the study of just anything.  What matters is how secular learning is used.  The Fathers tend to view secular learning as a stage in a journey.  Many pursue secular learning only for the sake of obtaining a high-paying job.  The Fathers show us another path.  They show how we can use our secular learning as a preparation. In the Philokalia, we read the following advice:  one should “guard his thoughts from distraction and his intellect from curiosity” (St. Isaiah, vol 1 p. 27).  Books and secular learning may be a distraction; but if used properly, they can train our minds, like an athlete training his or her body, so that we can, with God’s grace, learn to guard our thoughts from distraction.  The basic elements of the spiritual life—prayer and the study of God’s Word—require focus, concentration, and an undistracted mind.  We are beset with ever more distractions; we also know that we can train our minds, like an athlete building up his or her muscles.  And one way to train our minds so that we can engage in the spiritual life is by turning off our devices and turning our minds toward study and reading.

I think it is safe to say that everyone here is a student, or very recently was a student.  Let’s put St. Basil’s words in practice and imitate the bees, gathering only the best pollen.  Let’s think of our education as a preliminary training for the spiritual life and use our studies to benefit our spiritual growth.  Let’s go off-line, at least occasionally, to engage in deep reading.

Pursue your studies with this thought in mind:  what are my studies preparing me for?  Certainly a career.  But consider as well how you can put your education to work in serving the Lord and his Church.  Perhaps you will take your secular learning and go into business; great, but also use those skills to assist the parish council with its accounting.  Perhaps you are studying music; great, and use those skills to help the choir.  Perhaps you are studying history or philosophy; great; now use those skills to teach Church skill, or perhaps go on to seminary and use that training to benefit the Church as a shepherd of souls and teacher of a flock.

I’ve quoted extensively already from St. Gregory, and these quotations exhibit his deep respect for learning.  Yet he also saw its limits.  In a letter to a friend who was the equivalent of a modern-day professor, St. Gregory says the following:

How long will we be puffed up by insignificant, earth-bound things, and play games among boys with imaginary characters, and be elated by applause?  Let us leave this behind, let us become men, let us throw dreams away, let us ran past the shadows. . . Far from us be thrones, power, wealth, distinctions, promotions and falls, or that cheap and detestable thing, reputation. . . let us instead embrace the life of the mind, and choose to have God beofre all things. . .[let us] be lit up by the brilliance of that purest light, which we contemplate in the Triple Unity. . . Go towards this goal, make progress, give wings to your reason, lay hold of eternal life, never stand still in your hopes, until you reach the summit of desire and blessedness (Letter 178)

Secular learning and reading have their place; but we need to keep these things in perspective.  St. Basil talked of pagan learning as being a training of the mind, a seeing things in shadows; but we must move beyond the shadows, beyond the reflection of the light to the light itself.

Ok, now I’ve walked you through my path of discovering what the Fathers say, and my thoughts on how this applies in our present condition.  Now I’d like to hear your thoughts.  What do you consider when you decide what to study in school?  Do you find that contrary to what I’ve said your studies are a distraction from your spiritual life?  Do you still read books?