January 1, 2018

Toland's Rhetorical Use of Cyril and Hypatia

No, no, they were no Christians that kill'd Hypatia; nor are any Christian Clergymen now to be attack'd through the Sides of her Murderers, but those that resemble them; by substituting precarious Traditions, scholastick Fictions, and an usurped Dominion, to the salutiferous Institution of the holy Jesus.

John Toland, HYPATIA: OR, THE HISTORY OF A Most beautiful, most vertuous, most learned, and every way accomplish'd LADY; WHO was torn to Pieces by the CLERGY of Alexandria, to gratify the Pride, Emulation, and Cruelty of their ARCHBISHOP, commonly but undeservedly stiled St. CYRIL (1720), ch. 21

There is some controversy regarding the details surrounding the death of Hypatia of Alexandra (c. 375-415), but the following facts are essentially undisputed. Hypatia was an accomplished philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer and was head of the Platonist philosophical school at Alexandria. She was the only woman ever to hold that role. Further, although we know that there was a significant number of women philosophers in the ancient Mediterranean world, Hypatia is perhaps the only one known to us by name.* During her lifetime, there was an ugly political rivalry between Christians and Platonists in Alexandria, who were vying for influence with the Roman governor. In AD 415, Hypatia was murdered by a rioting mob of Christians.

The disputed points are the proximate causes of the riot and the degree of involvement of Archbishop Cyril (d. 444).

In his 1720 work Hypatia, based on the ancient sources, John Toland unsurprisingly wields this story as an anti-clerical polemic. Toland is a master of rhetorical strategy and insinuation, and it is fitting that he originally published his work on Hypatia as part 3 of Tetradymus. Part 2 of that work, Clidophorus, deals explicitly with esoteric and exoteric writing, and the kind of insinuation found in Hypatia fits right in to his strategy.

Cyril is a particularly good target for Toland, because Cyril is venerated as a saint primarily for his role in the debates about the divine and human natures in Christ, which led ultimately to the Chalcedonian Definition of 451, a deeply metaphysical document, which teaches that Christ is "consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood," using of course the same confusing word "consubstantial" (homoousion) found in the Nicene Creed.

Toland's treatment is mainly historical, and sticks reasonably close to the ancient documents. The rhetorical punch comes at the end. Here, Toland takes "precarious Traditions, scholastick Fictions, and an usurped Dominion" as the characteristics of clergy of Cyril's sort—characteristics, it is implied, that lead to the sort of wrongful violence, attributable to pride and political ambition, (allegedly) committed by Cyril. As is confirmed by Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), Toland takes these three things to be essentially inseparable. The homoousion, Toland and most of his opponents agree, is a 'mystery' par excellence and in Toland's view the whole point of mysteries (which are really just meaningless phrases) is to assert the intellectual dominion of the clergy, by forcing the people to treat a lot of nonsense as a matter of deep importance. Toland in fact goes on in Hypatia to connect his discussion quite explicitly with the ancient dispute over the homoousion. For Toland, this word is a 'precarious tradition' insofar as it is not found in Scripture, it is a 'scholastick fiction' insofar as it makes questionable use of Aristotelian metaphysical jargon, and it enables the clergy's 'usurped dominion' by improperly demanding that the laity surrender their intellectual autonomy.

The brilliance of Toland's rhetorical strategy lies in the trap he is laying for the orthodox here. Toland is arguing (mainly by insinuation) that the murder of Hypatia was a necessary, or at least natural, consequence of the clergy arrogating to themselves the right to prescribe beliefs to the laity. Like many deists, Toland throughout his works presents his radical view as a natural consequence of basic Protestant commitments: the clergy cannot prescribe 'precarious traditions' or 'scholastick fictions', since only the Scripture is a binding religious authority, and any attempt by the clergy to make such prescriptions can only be a step down the road to tyranny. We also mustn't forget that this work was published in 1720, in the middle of the Jacobite Risings. Toland's insinuation, then, is that only a radical, hardline Protestant position that rules out even the homoousion—hence even the Nicene Creed—as an obligatory article of belief can serve as a bulwark against a tyrannical form of religious politics in which no one is safe from becoming another Hypatia. (Toland, of course, is exploiting one of the political bogeymen of his time, and shows little concern for the question of what kind of political and religious structures Jacobites might actually favor.) The trap, then, that Toland is laying is this: he is setting up the discussion in such a way as to make it appear that even the most minimal, Ecumenical standard of Christian orthodoxy can be defended only by defending Cyril's actions and, further, that any defense of Cyril's actions must simultaneously be a defense of the right of the clergy to prescribe arbitrary articles of belief and to exert control over secular government. Such a defense would, unavoidably, be a defense of (the bogeyman version of) the Jacobite Catholic view of church and state, hence ultimately a form of political disloyalty and perhaps even treason. Well-played, John Toland. Well-played.

Additional remark one: 'Salutiferous' (from the Latin for 'salvation-bearing') is my new favorite word.

Additional remark two: Happy New Year!


* I say 'perhaps' because there is some reason to believe that the character Diotima in Plato's Symposium may be based on a historical person (as all of Plato's other named characters are), and 'Diotima' may or may not have been that woman's real name.

(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad.)

Posted by Kenny at January 1, 2018 10:30 AM
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