Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 213)

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(c. 150c. 213)

Clement of Alexandria (full Latin name, Titus Flavius Clemens), the Christian theologian of the Alexandrian school, was born of pagan parents, probably in Athens. Clement learned from several teachers in the Mediterranean world before he came to Alexandria, where he studied under the Christian philosopher Pantaenus, a converted Stoic who was the head of the catechetical school. Clement remained in Alexandria from 175 to 202, writing and teaching, until he fled during the persecution of the emperor Septimius Severus. He died in Palestine.

Alexandria's heritage of learning, culture, syncretism, and religious mystery may be seen in his writing. His three major works form a trilogy that leads from paganism to mature Christianity. In the Protrepticus (Exhortation) he attacks the absurdities of pagan deities and exhorts his readers to turn to Christianity. In the Paedagogus (Tutor) he instructs Christians in the good life. In his chief work, the unfinished Stromateis (Patchwork), he sets down his philosophical opinions in unsystematic notes"Gnostic notes concerning the true philosophy." This work, which represents the final stage of instruction, includes much material that he had learned from his teachers but hesitated to write about because of its difficult and sacred nature. He regards obscurity, compression of style, and haphazard arrangement as safeguards against the abuse of sophistry. Clement used the word gnostic because he wanted to show that there was a true Christian gnosis, or knowledge, which developed out of faith and which was better than the boasted knowledge of the heretical Gnostics. Gnosticism was especially strong in Alexandria. Clement put forward an attractive alternative to it and attacked what he considered to be its peculiar tenets of esoteric knowledge, dualism, and ethical determinism. Knowledge, he said, grows out of faith and is not distinct from it. There is one God who made all things. Men are free to choose the way they will go.

Clement wrote against the background of Middle Platonism, of Antiochus of Ascalon, Maximus of Tyre, Albinus, and Numenius, whose thought was governed by the problem of defining the relation between the one and the one-many, and of deriving the latter from the former. The difference between a one and a one-many, or between simple and complex unity, is like the difference between the unity of a pinpoint and the unity of a spider's web. In Middle Platonism these two unities were developed into divine entities. Simple unity is divine and transcendent, while complex unity is divine and immanent. Clement was influenced by the Alexandrian Jewish Platonist Philo, for whom God is a simple, bare unity and the Logos an all-embracing cosmic whole. Clement's thought is governed by the pattern of simple and complex unity; and his accounts of God, goodness, and truth are expressed in these terms.

God is the transcendent one, a simple unity, the ultimate first principle and cause of all things. The categories of logic cannot be applied to him. "Nor are any parts to be ascribed to him, for the one is indivisible." God cannot properly be named. The good names we give him are supports to our minds to stop us from erring. Taken separately, these names do not say what God is like, but together they show his power. While God cannot be known, the Son, or the Logos, is wisdom, knowledge, and truth. He unites in himself the world of Platonic forms, or "powers," as they are also called in later Platonism. "The Son is not simply one thing as one thing nor many things as parts, but one thing as all things. All things come from him. For he is the circle of all the powers rolled into one and united." Within this unity of the Son the individual believer is saved. Faith is union in him, while disbelief is separation, estrangement, and division. Paganism is wrong because it multiplies the nature of divinity, and Marcion, the Christian heretic, is wrong because he divides the supreme God from the Creator of the world, making two Gods instead of one.

God's goodness is perfect and unique. God does not prevent evil and suffering from taking place, but when they do, he turns them to good account. He may use suffering as a form of correction for sinners. After death, imperfect souls may be sanctified by an intelligent nonmaterial fire. The complex goodness of men is always assimilation to Godgrowing like him by participation in his goodness. Clement constantly refers to Plato's statement in the Theaetetus concerning assimilation to God. All men, says Clement, receive the image of God at their birth and all may then, as they choose, become assimilated to him and receive his likeness. In the Paedagogus, Clement gives detailed instruction for Christian behavior. From Plato came the emphasis on self-knowledge, and the conception of evil as ignorance and virtue as knowledge. Virtue comes through discipline and the pursuit of goodness, without thought of ulterior gain. The harmony of the soul is aided by the harmony of the body. From Aristotle, Clement draws the notion of virtue as the fulfillment of man's function and the achievement of his end. This fulfillment is found in pursuing the mean between extremes and in possessing right reason. Clement draws heavily on Stoic ethics, commending what is in accord with nature and in harmony with reason. There is a class of things intermediate between good and evil. One should recognize the things that are in one's power and the things which are not, and avoid being dominated by one's irrational passions.

Clement speaks of truth in two ways. The simple elements of Christianity are true, and heresy is to be rejected as false. Truth is one and unique, powerful and strong in delivering men from error. It comes from God and is preserved within the tradition of the church. Second, Clement speaks of truth as including all that is consistent with basic Christian truth. This truth is a whole composed of many parts. It is one body from which each of the philosophical sects has torn a limb, or part, falsely imagining it to be the whole of truth. The many parts must be brought together, so that the perfect Logos, the truth, may be known. The truth of philosophy was partial, but real. It was for the Greeks, as the Law was for the Jews, a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ. Clement shared with others the quaint notion that the Greeks stole their ideas from the Hebrews.

Faith is an act not a process. Faith is the acceptance from God of an indemonstrable first principle from which all other truth may be deduced. It is a judgment of the soul, an Epicurean preconception, and a Stoic assent. Knowledge (gnosis ) is both logical and spiritual, joining things together either by logical reasoning or by spiritual vision. The eighth book of the Stromateis is a notebook of logic composed of materials from various sources. It deals with demonstration and definition in an Aristotelian way, gives a Stoic refutation of the skeptical suspension of judgment (that is, if one must suspend judgment, then one should suspend judgment concerning suspense of judgment), and treats of cause, using both Stoic and Aristotelian terms. Causes may be original, sufficient, cooperating, and necessary. Spiritual knowledge is growth in Christ, awareness of God's universal presence, and union with him in love. Symbolism reveals hidden connections and points to unity. Knowledge is always a complex unity, while faith is a simple unity.

Clement achieved the first real synthesis of classical philosophy and Christianity. The Apologists had used particular ideas to bridge the gap between philosophy and Christianity. In Justin's writings, for example, God is described in terms of the Platonic ineffable being, and the divine reason implanted in men is expounded along Stoic lines; but there is no comprehensive conceptual framework that enables these and other ideas to modify one another. Clement's synthesis was developed by Origen, and the result was the theology of the fourth-century Greek Fathers and of Augustine.

See also Patristic Philosophy; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition.


texts and translations

Stählin, Otto, ed. Clemens Alexandrinus. Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte. Vol. 39.2. Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1936. Vols. 12, 15, 17, 39.1, revised by Ludwig Früchtel and Ursula Treu. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 19701985.

By various hands, with parallel French translation: Sources Chrétiennes, Vols. 2b (Protrepticus ), 23 (extracts from Theodotus), 30, 38 (Stromata 12), 70, 108, 158 (Pedagogue ), 278279, 428, 446, 463 (Stromata 47). Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 19652004.

Wilson, William. In The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Vol. 2, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, revised by A. Cleveland Coxe. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1951.

further reading

Behr, John. Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Clark, Elizabeth A. Clement's Use of Aristotle. The Aristotelian Contribution to Clement of Alexandria's Refutation of Gnosticism = Texts and Studies in Religion 1. New York and Toronto: Edwin Mellen, 1977.

Lilla, Salvatore R. C. Clement of Alexandria: A Study in Christian Platonism and Gnosticism. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Osborn, Eric F. The Philosophy of Clement of Alexandria. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1957.

E. F. Osborn (1967)

Bibliography updated by G. R. Boys-Stones (2005)