What, in this apparently religious society, was the fate of education, learning, literature, science, and philosophy?
Primary instruction continued in the hands of private teachers paid by the parents per pupil and term. Higher education, till Theodosius II, was provided both by lecturers operating under their own power, and through professois paid by city or state. Libanius complained that these were too poorly paid—that they longed through hunger to go to the baker, but refrained through fear of being asked to pay their debts.12 However, we read of teachers like Eumenius, who received 600,000 sesterces ($30,000?) a year;13 in this, as in other fields, the best and the worst received too much, the rest too little. Julian, to propagate paganism, introduced state examinations and appointments for all university teachers.14 Theodosius II, for opposite reasons, made it a penal offense to give public instruction without a state license; and such licenses were soon confined to conformists with the orthodox creed.
The great universities of the East were at Alexandria, Athens, Constantinople, and Antioch, specializing respectively in medicine, philosophy, literature, and rhetoric. Oribasius of Pergamum (c. 325–403), physician to Julian, compiled a medical encyclopedia of seventy “books.” Aëtius of Amida, court physician under Justinian, wrote a similar survey, distinguished by the best ancient analysis of ailments of the eye, ear, nose, mouth, and teeth; with interesting chapters on goiter and hydrophobia, and surgical procedures ranging from tonsillectomy to hemorrhoids. Alexander of Tralles (c. 525–605) was the most original of these medical authors: he named various intestinal parasites, accurately described disorders of the digestive tract, and discussed with unprecedented thoroughness the diagnosis and treatment of pulmonary diseases. His textbook of internal pathology and therapy was translated into Syriac, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, and exercised in Christendom an influence only next to that of Hippocrates, Galen, and Soranus.15 According to Augustine the vivisection of human beings was practiced in the fifth century.16 Superstition encroached daily on medicine. Most physicians accepted astrology, and some advised different treatments according to the position of the planets.17 Aëtius recommended, for contraception, that the woman should suspend near her anus the tooth of a child;18 and Marcellus, in his De medicamentis (395), anticipated modern technique by urging the wearing of a rabbit’s foot.19 Mules fared better than men; the most scientific work of the period was the Digestorum artis mulomedicinae libri IV of Flavius Vegetius (383–450); this book almost founded veterinary science, and remained an authority till the Renaissance.
Chemistry and alchemy went hand in hand, with Alexandria as their center. The alchemists were generally sincere investigators; they employed experimental methods more faithfully than any other scientists of antiquity; they substantially advanced the chemistry of metals and alloys; and we cannot be sure that the future will not justify their aims. Astrology too had an honest base; nearly everybody took it for granted that the stars, as well as the sun and moon, affected terrestrial events. But upon these foundations quackery raised a weird ziggurat of magic, divination, and planetary abracadabra. Horoscopes were even more fashionable in medieval cities than in New York or Paris today. St. Augustine tells of two friends who noted carefully the position of the constellations at the birth of their domestic animals.20 Much of the nonsense of Arabic astrology and alchemy was part of Islam’s Greek heritage.
The most interesting figure in the science of this age is that of the pagan mathematician and philosopher Hypatia. Her father Theon is the last man whose name is recorded as a professor at the Alexandrian Museum; he wrote a commentary on Ptolemy’s Syntaxis, and acknowledged the share of his daughter in its composition. Hypatia, says Suidas, wrote commentaries on Diophantus, on the Astronomical Canon of Ptolemy, and on the Conics of Apollonius of Perga.21 None of her works survives. From mathematics she passed to philosophy, built her system on the lines of Plato and Plotinus, and (according to the Christian historian Socrates) “far surpassed all the philosophers of her time.”22 Appointed to the chair of philosophy in the Museum, she drew to her lectures a large audience of varied and distant provenance. Some students fell in love with her, but she seems never to have married; Suidas would have us believe that she married, but remained a virgin nevertheless.23 Suidas transmits another tale, perhaps invented by her enemies, that when one youth importuned her she impatiently raised her dress, and said to him: “This symbol of unclean generation is what you are in love with, and not anything beautiful.”24 She was so fond of philosophy that she would stop in the streets and explain, to any who asked, difficult points in Plato or Aristotle. “Such was her self-possession and ease of manner,” says Socrates, “arising from the refinement and cultivation of her mind, that she not infrequently appeared before the city magistrates without ever losing in an assembly of men that dignified modesty of deportment for which she was conspicuous, and which gained for her universal respect and admiration.”
But the admiration was not quite universal. The Christians of Alexandria must have looked upon her askance, for she was not only a seductive unbeliever, but an intimate friend of Orestes, the pagan prefect of the city. When Archbishop Cyril instigated his monastic followers to expel the Jews from Alexandria, Orestes sent to Theodosius II an offensively impartial account of the incident. Some monks stoned the prefect; he had the leader of the mob arrested and tortured to death (415). Cyril’s supporters charged Hypatia with being the chief influence upon Orestes; she alone, they argued, prevented a reconciliation between the prefect and the Patriarch. One day a band of fanatics, led by a “reader” or minor clerk on Cyril’s staff, pulled her from her carriage, dragged her into a church, stripped her of her garments, battered her to death with tiles, tore her corpse to pieces, and burned the remains in a savage orgy (415).25 “An act so inhuman,” says Socrates, “could not fail to bring the greatest opprobrium not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church.”26 However, no personal punishment was exacted; the Emperor Theodosius II merely restricted the freedom of the monks to appear in public (Sept., 416), and excluded pagans from all public office (Dec., 416). Cyril’s victory was complete.
Pagan professors of philosophy, after the death of Hypatia, sought security in Athens, where non-Christian teaching was still relatively and innocuously free. Student life was still lively there, and enjoyed most of the consolations of higher education—fraternities, distinctive garbs, hazing, and a general hilarity.27 The Stoic as well as the Epicurean School had now disappeared, but the Platonic Academy enjoyed a splendid decline under Themistius, Priscus, and Proclus. Themistius (fl. 380) was destined to influence Averroës and other medieval thinkers by his commentaries on Aristotle. Priscus was for a time the friend and adviser of Julian; he was arrested by Valens and Valentinian I on a charge of using magic to give them a fever; he returned to Athens, and taught there till his death at ninety in 395. Proclus (410–85), like a true Platonist, approached philosophy through mathematics. A man of scholastic patience, he collated the ideas of Greek philosophy into one system, and gave it a superficially scientific form. But he felt the mystic mood of Neoplatonism too; by fasting and purification, he thought, one might enter into communion with supernatural beings.28 The schools of Athens had lost all vitality when Justinian closed them in 529. Their work lay in rehearsing again and again the theories of the ancient masters; they were oppressed and stifled by the magnitude of their heritage; their only deviations were into a mysticism that borrowed from the less orthodox moods of Christianity. Justinian closed the schools of the rhetoricians as well as of the philosophers, confiscated their property, and forbade any pagan to teach. Greek philosophy, after eleven centuries of history, had come to an end.
The passage from philosophy to religion, from Plato to Christ, stands out in certain strange Greek writings confidently ascribed by medieval thinkers to Dionysius “the Areopagite”—one of the Athenians who accepted the teaching of Paul. These works are chiefly four: On the Celestial Hierarchy, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, On the Divine Names, and On Mystical Theology. We do not know by whom they were written, or when, or where; their contents indicate an origin between the fourth and sixth centuries; we only know that few books have more deeply influenced Christian theology. John Scotus Erigena translated and built on one of them, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas reverenced them, a hundred mystics—Jewish and Moslem as well as Christianfed on them, and medieval art and popular theology accepted them as an infallible guide to celestial beings and ranks. Their general purpose was to combine Neoplatonism with Christian cosmology. God, though incomprehensibly transcendent, is nevertheless immanent in all things as their source and life. Between God and man intervene three triads of supernatural beings: Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones; Dominations, Virtues, and Powers; Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. (The reader will recall how Dante ranged these nine groups around the throne of God, and how Milton wove some of their names into a sonorous line.) Creation, in these works, is by emanation: all things flow from God through these mediating angelic ranks; and then, by a reverse process, these nine orders of the celestial hierarchy lead men and all creation back to God.