A Philosophical History of Psychology, Cognition and Consciousness: Early Christian Fathers(Clement of Alexandria)

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Cosmopolitan cities seem to be able to diversify and intensify human life, culture, and society in unexpected ways. Adrian Stokes, writing about the general conception of the Renaissance as a rebirth of pagan and classical forms remarked that this exciting period, (embracing a large number of cosmopolitan centres), is better conceived as an intensification of all forms of life, culture, and society. The Arts, Science and Philosophy and all forms of explorative human activity re-emerged just two centuries after the reintroduction of Aristotelian Philosophy into the cultural arena(Latin had become the language of Academia and Aristotle after having been banished to the wilderness by the Church was suddenly in favour). The Renaissance is also the perfect Platonic image of an emergence from the darkness of the so-called “dark ages” in which the dialectical battle of the giants of Platonic dualism and materialism suddenly produced a kind of Aristotelian synthesis in all regions of human life. Synthesis was the order of the day where earlier unities, both theoretical and practical had fallen into fragments. Aristotle’s recipe for the construction of a large middle class(a synthesis of the rich and poor) was back on the agenda of cosmopolitan cities. The recipe focussed unfortunately on the material conditions of the middle class rather than the ethical and political formal conditions relating to virtue and education. Art used Science and questioned Religion politely and Science forged ahead with its program of investigation building the Empire of influence which was to come. The seeds were being sown to question the influence of Philosophy in general and Aristotle in particular. Aristotle had in his politics argued on both grounds of experience and academic grounds for the formation of an educated virtuous middle class that would synthesis the best ideas of democracy and oligarchy into a constitutional form of government that would serve only the common good and not the interests of any particular powerful group in the polis. His was a philosophical vision of a flourishing life for all the citizens of the polis. He, of course, meant something more than the Hobbesian materialistic/scientific conception of a middle class striving for economic prosperity and commodious living which at the beginning of the modern period was to override Aristotelian political and ethical wisdom. It is interesting to note in this context that the spirit of synthesis did not sufficiently combat the forces of materialism and dualism as was evidenced in the Philosophy of Hobbes in England and Cartesian dualism in France. Both movements, for obvious reasons, criticized Aristotle perfunctorily thus re-creating the fruitless dialectical debates between the materialists and the dualists that preceded the reemergence of Aristotelianism prior to the Renaissance. These philosophical discussions were to rage for over 150 years before materialist Empiricism and Cartesian dualistic rationalism was synthesized and transcended by the Philosophy of Kant. Kant’s Philosophy embraced a number of Aristotelian assumptions relating to philosophical psychology, epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics in order to produce what many commentators called “a brilliant synthesis of empiricism and rationalism”. Kant. we should also recall was a citizen of Königsberg, a bustling cosmopolitan centre, and it is not particularly surprising to find Kant arguing on both ethical and political grounds for a global cosmopolitanism regulated by an institution similar to the UN that was formed after the second world war. We cannot go into the arguments in detail here but suffice it to say that Kant embraced a number of concepts and principles from the Aristotelian theory of change and hylomorphic theory thus continuing a tradition of thinking about the world born in the bustling cosmopolitan centre of Athens.

Alexandria was also a bustling cosmopolitan centre of activity. The times that Clements of Alexandria lived through were also times of questioning in particular in relation to the issue of the relation of knowledge and faith. The second century AD must have been experienced by both intellectuals and the populace as “Renaissance-like”, ie. they must have witnessed, for example, an intensification of all forms of Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Judaism, Christianity and last but not least the various flourishing sects of Gnosticism. Clement responded to this cultural chaos as a synthesizer. Professor Brett characterizes the man and his work in the following way:

“Some regard him as Platonic: others emphasize the Stoicism of his attitude: to some he appears an amorphous collection of doctrines. The evidence seems to support none of these views: for while the language of Plato, the ideas of Stoic writers, and the vagaries of Philo, jostle each other in every passage: there is an independence which rules them all–he has the disregard of a true believer for the niceties of expression: his eagerness to state his belief seems to break out into each and all of the possible types of formula: salvation and resurrection are the theme which make the language of philosophy seem meagre and elementary.”

We should remember that the above words were published in the 1920s during a period when both Gnostic and Aristotelian academic scholarship was in its infancy. Indeed Gnostic Scholarship at the time of Brett’s writings appeared to focus upon principally the Christian critial view of Gnosticism that was, in fact, emerging during the time of Clement. Gnosticism regarded the God of the Old Testament(OT) as the equivalent of the Platonic demiurge. The demiurge was supposedly the designer of the forms matter would take in a process of creation begun by a higher God. Matter had no form or principle of organization and was therefore chaotic in its nature. The Demiurge was provided with the principles or forms to be used in this design process by the higher divine unknowable thinking God and did the best that could be done with chaotic matter and the divine spirit, given the essentially instrumental nature of the task. The Demiurge is therefore not wholly good and we see this in the OT when Adam is lied to in relation to the consequences of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam ate the apple and was not destroyed as was promised. Adam and Eve multiply and out of their kin is formed all the peoples of the world but the Demiurge selects the Jews as a “chosen people” and punishes and rewards them in what to many Gnostics has seemed arbitrary and whimsical given their view of the utilitarian demiurge. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, for example, must have seemed to many Gnostics to be divine Justice and proof that the Demiurge had failed to create a world in which the forms could liberate the divine spirit in man. Many Gnostics at this point began to see man as superior to the utilitarian demiurge. The myth of the Garden of Eden now receives an almost philosophical interpretation and Eve’s actions receive a more central and sympathetic interpretation, celebrating the free, exploring, adventurous spirit of man shaking off the chains of an arbitrary authority(Perhaps this was connected to the discovery of the Gospel of MaryMagdelene testifying to Mary being the first witness of the resurrection). After Adam and Eve eat the apple they become aware of a new principle of knowledge and are punished by the Demiurge for disobeying his commandment. Man emerges from this (in the eyes of the Gnostics), as a questioning, knowing and thinking being superior in nature to the instrumental utilitarian demiurge: The eyes of man are now seeking for the divine agency the Demiurge is serving. The resurrection of Jesus celebrated by the Eucharist of the communion relies on the mysterious Christian belief in transsubstantiation, a belief not accepted by the Gnostics because of their belief that the resurrection was not an actual reincarnation but merely a symbolic event intending to point to the continuing existence of the spirit of Jesus. For the Gnostics, the resurrection does not necessarily point to another world beyond this but can symbolize instead a human rebirth within the course of human life: a rebirth that occurs in the form of an awakening from a materialistically inspired life as if from a dream.

Clement, disagreed with elements of this gnostic position and adopted the Stoic view of the appetites of the body, not viewing them as evil as the Gnostics but rather viewing them as indifferent and dependent upon the nature of the will responding to the call of the appetites. Clement agreed, however with the Gnostics that the Will, is not a “fallen” will: it is good because its source is in not the Demiurge but rather the divine agency the Demiurge serves.

Clement is, in many ways a Renaissance-like figure synthesizing many positions into his own and we agree with Brett’s judgment that his importance has been underestimated in the area of Psychology. We are arguing here, however, that Brett in his turn has underestimated the work of Clement because he has not understood the Philosophical importance of many of his ideas.

In his work entitled “Paedogogus” Clement claims in Socratic and Aristotelian fashion that sin is involuntary(because the will is good) and can be removed or redeemed only by the wisdom of Logos or the true word(see the Gospel of St John, the gospel the Gnostics most identify with). Sin is, insofar as Clement is concerned, very much concerned with knowledge and not so much concerned with evil intention, thereby confirming the Gnostic/philosophical interpretation of the myth of Adam and Eve in “Paradise”. This entails that philosophy is at the very least a necessary condition of leading the religiously inspired life but philosophy is clearly insufficient for Clement because the love of God (the master of the Demiurge) and faith in his existence is also required if one is to be truly “saved”. Clement claims in his work the “Paedogogus” that Christ is the incarnation of “logos”(the true word or explanation) and the task of man initially is to imitate the life of Christ until the “awakening” occurs and man is free to rationally choose the true way him/herself. The awakening is also construed Platonically in terms of a transposition from a world of shadows in which we are imprisoned in an enlightened world. Yet reading Clement one cannot also be reminded of Kant’s ethical claim of the importance of a good-will as well as the Kantian psychological distinction between the active will(embodied in the things we do, the actions we perform) and passion(the things that happen to us).

There are other clear signs of the influence of the Gnostics in Clement’s work. He claimed that women can also be mediums of the transmission of the true word of the Gospels and their narratives of the life of Christ. Although he would have been less than sympathetic with the Gnostic divine trinity of father, mother, and son.

Another important influence upon the work of Clement was not just Platonism but Greek Philosophy in general which had been cast into the wilderness by religious authorities. Brett elaborates upon this influence in the following quote:

“Knowledge and action are so closely united in the doctrine of Clement that the solution of these questions must begin from a statement of the rational activities. The higher reason has a power of choice on which depend the search for empirical facts, instruction, and complete knowledge. Thus the progress of the soul is made dependent on the will to know. At first, there is complete ignorance and the individual is placed in a world of desires and imaginations with no guiding light of reason. Hence the commission of sins. For want is natural to man: and from want arises desire which leads to sin: vain imaginations also lead astray. In both cases the moral guilt arises from the fact that the will gives assent: only by this act of will is sin constituted, and therefore it is just in the fact of sin that freedom is demonstrated. On the other hand, the will is not essentially sinful: it is from God and must be good: so that the cause of sin must be looked for outside the will. Clement finds the cause in false images, snares, and delusions that mislead the soul…Sin is the triumph of darkness over light, of ignorance over knowledge. The way of salvation, then, can only be the way of knowledge.”

Some Gnostics, of course, would argue that if the will is good and sin comes from the outside then there is nothing to feel guilty about, i.e. the culture of sin as guilt would have been a mystery for the pure Gnostic for whom the end was enlightenment. Yet Clement does interestingly claim that the foundation of all mental life is assent to truth which can only take place via an act of the will. This clearly synthesizes knowing and acting in the mind in a way that had not occurred since the Philosophy of Aristotle where approximately the same account was presented in the framework of a biological account of the mind that we will not encounter again until the work of Freud and O Shaughnessy in the modern period.

O´Shaughnessy’s “The Will: a dual aspect theory” is a fundamentally naturalist account of the biological life of the mind that sees one half of the mind(the willing half) to be composed of desire, intention, and act and the other half(the knowing half) to be composed of sensation, perception, and knowing where knowing involves not just assent to the truth but also the capacity to justify the power or capacity of knowing that is exercised. The two halves are integrated with each other and consciousness is involved with both halves. Cognition aims necessarily at an external manifestation of its knowing in a demonstration of its knowledge and action is conducted with the intention or preparedness to learn from the consequences that flow from the action. It is quite fascinating to see that the Philosophical Psychology of Clement was very similar to this(without the scientific component of “naturalism”) and it is equally fascinating to see the resemblance of Clement’s ideas to those of Immanuel Kant, in particular to Kant’s account of the will which also ended in an appeal to faith as the final tribunal of justification for acts of will in domains of action where the consequences are uncertain. Clement’s appeal to freedom also preempts the Kantian concept which founds an ethical system that appeals to the good will and good intention as defining for the essence of ethical action. Kant, as we know was religious but he demanded that his ethical system be autonomous and he placed his faith more in the concept of freedom than in the concept of God, which he also appreciated had a place in the life of mankind.