Tatian the SWPL Assyrian

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Bob Dylan Roof

Tatian the Assyrian was a heretical "half Father, half heretic" Christian theologian from the second century who, according to St. Jerome, authored an "infinite number" of books, only one of which survives: the Address to the Greeks. Tatian was heretical because he was seduced by Gnosticism and, in the translator's words, "laid the egg which Tertullian hatched." Happily I am avoiding the byzantine intrigues of ancient Christian theological squabbles and the implications of Montanism, at least for the moment. My purpose here is instead to highlight an ancient example of political resentment that persists today in the form of books like Guns, Germs, and Steel . Tatian's piece also stands as a useful example of the tendency for people to impugn the legitimacy of philosophy and philosophers on the basis of ad hominem tu quoque fallacies and accusations of obscurantism.

I am aware that this was a Christian tendency, that it forms a considerable portion of The City of God , and that Herodotus echoes some of the observations in a far more scientific tone. The force of Tatian's address nevertheless stood out as a striking example, so I am reproducing the beginning here:

Address of Tatian to the Greeks

Chapter I: the Greeks Claim, Without Reason, the Invention of the


BE not, O Greeks, so very hostilely disposed towards the Barbarians, nor look with ill​
will on their opinions. For which of your institutions has not been derived from the​
Barbarians? The most eminent of the Telmessians invented the art of divining by​
dreams; the Carians, that of prognosticating by the stars; the Phrygians and the most​
ancient Isaurians, augury by the flight of birds; the Cyprians, the art of inspecting​
victims. To the Babylonians you owe astronomy; to the Persians, magic; to the​
Egyptians, geometry; to the Phoenicians, instruction by alphabetic writing. Cease, then,​
to miscall these imitations inventions of your own. Orpheus, again, taught you poetry​
and song; from him, too, you learned the mysteries. The Tuscans taught you the plastic​
art; from the annals of the Egyptians you learned to write history; you acquired the art​
of playing the flute from Marsyas and Olympus,--these two rustic Phrygians​
constructed the harmony of the shepherd's pipe. The Tyrrhenians invented the trumpet;​
the Cyclopes, the smith's art; and a woman who was formerly a queen of the Persians,​
as Hellanicus tells us, the method of joining together epistolary tablets:, her name was​
Atossa. Wherefore lay aside this conceit, and be not ever boasting of your elegance of​
diction; for, while you applaud yourselves, your own people will of course side with​
you. But it becomes a man of sense to wait for the testimony of others, and it becomes​
men to be of one accord also in the pronunciation of their language. But, as matters​
stand, to you alone it has happened not to speak alike even in common intercourse; for​
the way of speaking among the Dorians is not the same as that of the inhabitants of​
Attica, nor do the Aeolians speak like the Ionians. And, since such a discrepancy exists​
where it ought not to be, I am at a loss whom to call a Greek. And, what is strangest of​
all, you hold in honor expressions not of native growth, and by the intermixture of​
barbaric words have made your language a medley. On this account we have renounced​
your wisdom, though I was once a great proficient in it; for, as the comic poet [2] says,​
"These are gleaners' grapes and small talk," Twittering places of swallows, corrupters of art.​

Yet those who eagerly pursue it shout lustily, and croak like so many ravens. You have,​
too, contrived the art of rhetoric to serve injustice and slander, selling the free power of​
your speech for hire, and often representing the same thing at one time as right, at​
another time as not good. The poetic art, again, you employ to describe battles, and the​
amours of the gods, and the corruption of the soul.​

Chapter II: The Vices and Errors of the Philosophers

What noble thing have you produced by your pursuit of philosophy? Who of your most​
eminent men has been free from vain boasting? Diogenes, who made such a parade of​
his independence with his tub, was seized with a bowel complaint through eating a raw​
polypus, and so lost his life by gluttony. Aristippus, walking about in a purple robe, led​
a profligate life, in accordance with his professed opinions. Plato, a philosopher, was​
sold by Dionysius for his gormandizing propensities. And Aristotle, who absurdly​
placed a limit to Providence and made happiness to consist in the things which give​
pleasure, quite contrary to his duty as a preceptor flattered Alexander, forgetful that he​
was but a youth; and he, showing how well he had learned the lessons of his master,​
because his friend would not worship him shut him up and carried him about like a​
bear or a leopard He in fact obeyed strictly the precepts of his teacher in displaying​
manliness and courage by feasting, and transfixing with his spear his intimate and most​
beloved friend, and then, under a semblance of grief, weeping and starving himself,​
that he might not incur the hatred of his friends. I could laugh at those also who in the​
present day adhere to his tenets,--people who say that sublunary things are not under​
the care of Providence; and so, being nearer the earth than the moon, and below its​
orbit, they themselves look after what is thus left uncared for; and as for those who​
have neither beauty, nor wealth, nor bodily strength, nor high birth, they have no​
happiness, according to Aristotle. Let such men philosophize, for me!​

Chapter III: Ridicule of the Philosophers

I cannot approve of Heraclitus, who, being self-taught and arrogant, said, "I have​
explored myself." Nor can I praise him for hiding his poem [1] in the temple of​
Artemis, in order that it might be published afterwards as a mystery; and those who​
take an interest in such things say that Euripides the tragic poet came there and read it,​
and, gradually learning it by heart, carefully handed down to posterity this darkness [2]​
of Heraclitus. Death, however, demonstrated the stupidity of this man; for, being​
attacked by dropsy, as he had studied the art of medicine as well as philosophy, he​
plastered himself with cow-dung, which, as it hardened, contracted the flesh of his​
whole body, so that he was pulled in pieces, and thus died. Then, one cannot listen to​
Zeno, who declares that at the conflagration the same man will rise again to performthe same actions as before; for instance, Anytus and Miletus to accuse, Busiris to​
murder his guests, and Hercules to repeat his labours; and in this doctrine of the​
conflagration he introduces more wicked than just persons--one Socrates and a​
Hercules, and a few more of the same class, but not many, for the bad will be found far​
more numerous than the good. And according to him the Deity will manifestly be the​
author of evil, dwelling in sewers and worms, and in the perpetrators of impiety. The​
eruptions of fire in Sicily, moreover, confute the empty boasting of Empedocles, in​
that, though he was no god, he falsely almost gave himself out for one. I laugh, too, at​
the old wife's talk of Pherecydes, and the doctrine inherited from him by Pythagoras,​
and that of Plato, an imitation of his, though some think otherwise. And who would​
give his approval to the cynogamy of Crates, and not rather, repudiating the wild and​
tumid speech of those who resemble him, turn to the investigation of what truly​
deserves attention? Wherefore be not led away by the solemn assemblies of​
philosophers who are no philosophers, who dogmatize one against the other, though​
each one vents but the crude fancies of the moment. They have, moreover, many​
collisions among themselves; each one hates the other; they indulge in conflicting​
opinions, and their arrogance makes them eager for the highest places. It would better​
become them, moreover, not to pay court to kings unbidden, nor to flatter men at the​
head of affairs, but to wait till the great ones come to them.​

The rest here: http://www.aina.org/books/tatian.pdf