Monday, November 8, 2010

Pericope for the Week: Melanchthon

My former teacher at the University of Chicago, the now-sainted philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), regularly picked a major scholar to study in-depth each year. He would examine all of the major writings and secondary analyses of that figure, in the language in which they first appeared, and take careful notes for later use. Often a major essay or book chapter would result from these intensive investigations.

After I completed my master's thesis on Ricoeur, Hans Georg Gadamer, and Mircea Eliade (comparing and contrasting their respective understandings of the relation of critical rationality to myth), I decided to follow my teacher's example and "go deep" with a thinker each year. I have done this now for each of the past twenty years. I have tried to balance my interests in theology and philosophy with those in literature and the arts. For example, last year, when I knew that I would be spending several days with a colleague in St. Petersburg, Russia, I read everything I could by and about Dostoevsky. The year before that, when my family and I spent considerable time in Greece, at my wife's uncle's vacation home in Nafplion, I undertook a detailed study of Homer. Since I had studied and taught Greek for ten years at Concordia University, Portland (both as an undergraduate student of one of the great classics instructors, Dr. Richard Reinisch, about whom I also thought on November 1, and then later as the partial successor to him when I joined that faculty in 1994 to teach New Testament, Greek, and church history), I worked my way through the Loeb editions of the Illiad and the Odyssey. I shall always treasure those warm afternoons when I sat on the second-floor balcony, Homeric and Greek books laid out on the round table, and sipped from my goblet of retsina as I occasionally looked out on the cyclopean ruins of Tiryns less than a kilometer away. It is hard for me to imagine a more idyllic setting to study Homer.

This year I'm working my way through the corpus of Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), Martin Luther's colleague, friend, and fellow-reformer. Of late, one of our Lilly Fellows, Piotr Malysz, and I have been examining Master Philip's Loci Communes of 1521, the first text of systematic theology to come out of the "Lutheran" reformation. We've had some good discussions about how Melanchthon obviously benefited from a classical, humanistic education (he himself is remembered as the "Educator of Germany") and how he sought to understand non-Christian knowledge in relation to his expositions of Christian teaching.

This week's pericope comes from Melanchthon's "Preface to Homer," perhaps written in 1538. It has been translated and included in the fine volume edited by one of the most important Melanchthon scholars of our time, Sachiko Kusukawa:

...We can see that it happens generally that the best things are held in utmost contempt and, on the other hand, that the worst things are made great. Therefore, if the same happens to literature and the teaching of classics, this must not appear to us as something new or excessively astonishing, nor is it fitting for us to be alienated from loving and cherishing these studies by the exceedingly bad judgment and error of the crowds. The matter itself and indignation move me to say this beforehand, as I am about to speak of Homer and of these our studies. For who would not be moved, seeing such extraordinary contempt for the best things?... I have, as I said, decided to expound--with the help of the gods--Homer's poem; I chose to speak briefly about it first on this occasion. I do so also in order to be able to commend it to the young by this oration, and to honour it with worthy praise, although it can never be honoured as it deserves, and Homer's splendour surpasses any oration. But just as great deities are sometimes worshipped with sacrifices of coarse grain and salt, so we bestow upon the praise of such a great writer what little we can in our insignificance... We shall discuss, briefly and as well as the short time will allow, the poem itself and the usefulness that scholars can derive from it. For those who read Homer in such a way that they derive nothing but pleasure from it, and aphorisms collected like little flowers, act like someone who tends a very fertile field only for the sake of their mind, so that he may occasionally crown himself with flowers growing there, neglecting care for the produce that he could reap in great abundance. Someone said, correctly, I believe, that such a man is not a sufficiently judicious steward. Even though one can obtain such pleasure from reading Homer as from hardly any other author--and it is entirely so arranged by nature that the highest true pleasure is matched with the highest usefulness--this must nevertheless not be the foremost object of attention. There is another one that is greater and preferable, beyond question; just as the heads of families are usually circumspect in what concerns their family, so immediately in the beginning we should devise a method in our minds if we are to attach any value to the task of reading this or that author. If we do this in studying Homer, then immediately the endless multitude of benefits becomes clear to us, as a throng of good things, which we can demand from that text abundantly and to our fill, as they say. If anyone were to include and enumerate them all in a single oration, it would be as Virgil said: "We who would have knowledge of this world would likewise fain to learn how many grains of sand on the Lybian plain are stirred by the Westwind, or when the East falls in unwonted fury on the ships, would know how many billows of Ionian Sea roll shoreward..."

--Philip Melanchthon, "Preface to Homer," in Orations on Philosophy and Education, ed. Sachiko Kusukawa, trans. Christine F. Salazar (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 40-41.

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