Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.03.04: Review of Jerome

C. Moreschini, S. Hieronymi Opera. Pars III, opera polemica. Dialogus adversus Pelagianos. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, vol. 80. Turnhout (Belgium): Brepols, 1990. Pp. xxxii, 138. ISBN 2-503-00801-1 (hb). ISBN 2-503-00801-x (pb).

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

When we meet him in the Euthydemus, Crito's son Critobolus was a source of some concern to his father: the boy was looking a bit thinnish, and the father was anxious to secure for him a good teacher. We might take some comfort from the fact that he was one of those willing to stand as surety for Socrates in the Apology, but by late antiquity he had clearly gone off the rails. He appears in this work of Jerome's revealed once and for all as a card-carrying apologist for the Pelagian party, evoked in dialogue in order to have his clock quite thoroughly cleaned and adjusted by Jerome's own stalking-horse, passing under the handle of Atticus (an avatar of Herodes Atticus? this is the sort of question that never gets properly answered for a text like this).

Though this choice of names has an inevitably distracting effect -- one thinks of the dialogue aux enfers between father and son (am I alone in seeing a certain resemblance between Crito and Bill Moyers?) attempting to clarify just how one gets from the circle of Socrates to the circle of a British monk whose optimism was matched only by his authoritarianism -- and then the imaginary scene begins to resemble something Bob and Chris Elliott would do on Fox television's Get a Life.

But in Jerome's version, the dialogue is closer to Cicero than either to our fantasy or to Plato. We know from the beginning who the preferred speaker is, and he gets extended speeches in which to outline his position towards the end of each of the three books, especially the second. Two features of the dialogue, however, merit remark: first, that the extended speeches contain not argument, but evidence, that is, the textual authority of the scripture Jerome and his adversary agree in recognizing; and second, that the dialogue is not forced to a conclusion with a convenient conversion and palinode. Critobulus goes away with his Pelagianism intact, just as did many of his real-life counterparts in the early fifth century.

The issues raised by a text of this sort are substantial and current. The emergence of an authorized canon of texts is one obvious example, though scarcely less obvious is the way such a canon does not make life simpler for anyone -- disagreements over interpretation of the common text spring up immediately and few if any issues are closer to a monovalent resolution for having the canon lashed securely to the deck. Furthermore, we owe attention to the ambiguous position of the new text -- here the dialogue itself -- that will present itself as having something to say in the presence of the authoritative text without replacing it. Is the new text in fact engaged in rereading and so almost rewriting the canonical text? If so, the new text seems to efface itself in deference to the authoritative text when in fact the situation is quite the reverse. Finally, the substance of the controversy itself lies in the vexing problematic of the whole western notion of 'will', which took the form that still plagues us in the period leading up to this dialogue -- Albrecht Dihle's The Theory of the Will in Classical Antiquity is the exemplary introduction on this topic. Every argument of free will vs. determinism implicitly invokes this particular polemical moment of our past.

It would be a pity if ... -- I was about to say if a work of this sort were ghettoized and left to church historians or theologians to study. But of course the ghettoization took place long ago. The state of the text is ample evidence of that. This text was already in print in 1468 and was carefully edited by Erasmus in 1524; but the three editions Moreschini cites from later dates are all derivatives of Erasmus with no meaningful attention to the manuscripts, and the most recent of those dates from 1735. No classicist working outside the patristic ghetto would be happy to have texts like this lying about without a serious edition for almost 500 years, but it is an everyday experience inside the ghetto. Happily, in a series (Corpus Christianorum) where some editions are diamonds and some editions are dust, this is a palmary work, based on a thorough examination of the manuscript tradition. The text appears not quite as freshly colored and revived as the Sistine Chapel ceiling (also recently receiving its first 'critical edition' since the early 16th century), but it is certainly handsomer, more securely grounded, and offers much greater comfort to those will read it and learn from it.