In an otherwise ordinary course at a well-known American Protestant seminary the professor, discussing the influence of Greek thought on the work of Origen, Irenaeus, Clement, Augustine, and other early church thinkers, advised the class to remember whose these Greeks were. Both Aristotle and Plato were white, slave-holding members of the aristocracy, and their intellectual contributions to the origins of Christianity must be discounted, for they deprive Jesus Christ of his Mosaic roots, his Judaism, his poverty, and his ethnic identity.
There is no doubt that culture influences thought, and the products of one age necessarily differ from those of another. Copernicus changed an entire worldview. Once the earth was no longer the center of the universe, neither were the men who lived on it. Philosophers, theologians, and dramatists all wrote differently after Copernicus. Darwin influenced far more than evolutionary biology; and after his discoveries it was much harder to dismiss the concept of an innate, ineluctable human nature, programmed to survive at all costs. Before Darwin, nature was capricious. If anything it was influenced by the will of God and certainly not as random and mechanistic as he later claimed.
Shakespeare was clearly influenced by Machiavelli. There are some direct references to ‘Machiavel’ in The Merry Wives of Windsor (“Am I politic? am I subtle? am I a Machiavel?”. Many characters in his plays – Iago, Richard III, and Edmund are very Machiavellian in their amoral, willful pursuit of power. Characters like Macbeth, not innately Machiavellian, becomes one after his fortunes turn; and his political ambitions are unbounded by any moral considerations.
Shakespeare certainly knew of Thomas Digges and Giordano Bruno, scientists and philosophers who were early advocates of Copernicus and heliocentrism but who took his theories even farther to suggest an infinitely expanding universe.
Thomas Digges escaped persecution from the time of the publication of his revolutionary ideas to the end of his life in 1595. This was an extraordinary feat in an age of political and religious intolerance, when the House of Tudor was in constant dread of Catholicism and war with Spain, when Sir Walter Raleigh and his cohorts in the so-called "School of Night" fell under suspicion of atheism, and when one of England's leading mathematicians, Thomas Harriot, was imprisoned simply because his work was sponsored by Raleigh.
It would not have gone unnoticed in England in the final years of the writing of Hamlet that the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who had lectured extensively there and on the Continent and had been captured by the Inquisition, was consigned to the flames for assorted impieties, including his advocacy in 1584 of an Infinite Universe (Peter Usher, The Oxfordian, 2002)Usher goes on to suggest that Shakespeare’s reference to astronomy in Hamlet could only have come from the kind of observations made by Copernicus, Digges, and Bruno.
Shakespeare, who may have adopted an allegorical pen name to protect his own identity, may have acted in a similar fashion to protect the Digges family by using the allegory to disguise the empirical evidence for the New Astronomy. Indeed when Hamlet is viewed in the light of this cosmic cosmic allegory, we may see him withholding information on the New Astronomy even from his best friend: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
At the same time culture defines scientific discovery. Newton’s discovery were brilliant but they came necessarily out of the early Enlightenment of the 18th century and the rational discipline it embodied.
Given the fact that culture does indeed influence thought – even the most brilliant – does this in any way alter the critical assessment of the individual insights of a work of literature, philosophy, or art? Aristotle was influenced by Plato who in turn was influenced by Socrates, but each of these philosophers created unique insights – as did Shakespeare, Nietzsche, or the Existentialists. They were products of their environment, but intelligent, versatile, and creative enough to either translate it in unique ways, illustrate its significance and impact, perceive its future implications, or see far beyond its limitations.
To the point of the theology professor’s argument – what difference does it make to Aristotle’s philosophy that he was a member of the educated aristocracy, that he was a white male, and that he was a slave owner? None whatsoever. While it is obvious that neither he nor any other thinker has ever created independent of cultural context, this context is characterized by major intellectual influences – Machiavelli, Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein, Nietzsche, Christianity, Imperialism – not by ordinary, routine, unremarkable aspects of historical life.
Of course Aristotle was privileged, otherwise he would have been a slave, not an educated aristocrat. Of course he was male and white because for centuries before and after Greece, this sexual and racial pre-eminence was the norm. In other words, his social position, status, and relationship to the rest of society is irrelevant to the evolution of his philosophical thought.
Aristotle’s cultural milieu affected non-academic aspects of his life as it would any man. Aristotle encouraged Alexander toward eastern conquest and his attitude towards Persia. At one point he counsels Alexander to be "a leader to the Greeks and a despot to the barbarians, to look after the former as after friends and relatives, and to deal with the latter as with beasts or plants".
Aristotle not surprisingly is ‘ethnocentric’, a product both of his age and his social class; but one would be hard put to find traces of this ethnocentricity in Metaphysics. While personality, character, family, and experience can never be discounted in Aristotle’s thinking, his genius was in his ability to look at the world in terms of abstract, universal principles.
Nietzsche and his mentor Schopenhauer were both from privileged backgrounds and immersed in a rich social and academic milieu; but there was nothing surprisingly different about their views of social class or status. Such configurations were given in the 19th century, and their thinking of the nature of will and human determination was necessarily based on their observations of life, but more an exercise in abstraction.
While Nietzsche may have harbored class sentiments which led him to classify most people as simple members of The Herd, his insights about the indomitability of Will as the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world were unique abstract creations. He was influenced by both Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner as well as by his own life, but his unique take on the world – as dramatically contrary as was that of Machiavelli three hundred years earlier – was his own.
In other words it makes no point to parse the personal history and social milieu of either Nietzsche or Aristotle. It is enough to understand and appreciate their philosophies and their any applications.
The approach of the theology professor is classically post-modern and deconstructionist. Since all ideas emerge from within a social, economic, and cultural milieu, these are the elements which define them. One cannot look at the products of philosophers and judge them only for what they are but how they were derived. The milieu becomes more important that the ideas themselves.
This narrow lens necessarily and deliberately devalues the individuality of ideas and their genius. Suggesting that because early Christianity was influenced by the works of slave-owning (racist), white (elitist), males (gender-dominant) and that one should turn instead to the pre-eminent importance of the Mosaic tradition, Judaism, the the realities of daily life Palestine to understand the true significance of Jesus Christ, is intellectual revisionism and political myopia at its worst.
The seminary professor is not alone in his revisionism. In the first class on the Old Testament, the instructor made it clear that students were to ignore critic writing before the Twentieth Century, for their criticism would necessarily ignore race, gender, and ethnicity as determining factors in Biblical interpretation. Only with a modern and more enlightened perspective could one possibly understand the Bible and its continuing relevance to today. In one fiat the instructor swept away any notion of historical relevance.
Post-modern scholars apply the same criteria to Shakespeare. There is no reason, they say, to read the literary criticism of Samuel Johnson who was shaped by 18th century intellectualism and far removed from the social and cultural imperatives of today.
There is a place for studying the cultural milieu in which a writer or philosopher produced his works; but less for evaluating the importance or relevance of his ideas – the essence of criticism – that providing an interesting but peripheral commentary on his working life.
By raising biography and cultural and social history to a status equal to the essential ideas of a work diminishes and denies their universality. Although deconstructionists do not admit any such thing, only the most doctrinaire can dismiss Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Kant, Descartes, Nietzsche, and Bach as derivative and their works no different from any other ‘texts’.
It is disturbing to see how such post-modernist thought has infected both theology and Biblical exegesis, for it denies the philosophical importance of early church theologians, and puts an asterisk beside the names of the greatest.
Once the theology professor and the instructor of the Old Testament went on record in their first classes, endorsing facile deconstructionism, an asterisk automatically was put next to their courses. Meaning? Stay away.