A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Thesis Defenses

Last week I was preparing for a thesis defense on pedagogy in the works of the Christian Neoplatonist Pseudo-Dionysius. An important part of the argument had to do with the role of φιλανθρωπία [philanthrōpia, “love for man”], so I decided to look into the word a little further. The results were fascinating.

According to a search in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae database, which includes Greek from antiquity through the Byzantines, the noun φιλανθρωπία occurs 11,678 times. But its distribution is uneven. For example, it occurs in Aristotle and the Corpus Aristotelicum seven times–but only once in a work that can be securely ascribed to Aristotle (Rhetoric 1390a). Similarly, in the works of Plato, there are two results–but only one in the authentic works (Euthyphro 3d).

What about when we turn to works by other authors? (Please note that in everything that follows for the rest of this post, I have not done any analysis as to authentic vs. spurious works; everything here is attributed to the authors mentioned, but there may be some false positives, as it were.)

Isocrates shows four uses; Plutarch, 53; Polybius, 29; Diogenes Laertius, four. Sophocles? Aeschylus? Herodotus? Thucydides? Zero.

What about when we turn to Christian authors? Some are similar to what we’ve just see: for example, it occurs 37 times in Clement of Alexandria and three times in Justin Martyr (though his corpus is much smaller than a Plutarch or a Plato). In the works of Pseudo-Dionysius himself, it occurs 18 times.

On the other hand, consider the following:

  • Athanasius: 101
  • Basil of Caesarea: 110
  • Gregory of Nazianzus: 107
  • Gregory of Nyssa: 127

But that’s not the most staggering statistic. The most staggering statistic is the number of occurrences in John Chrysostom: 2,306, or nearly 20% of all known occurrences.

I haven’t run all the numbers to get an exact reading on the proportion of uses of the term in Christian as opposed to non-Christian Greek. But the preliminary sketch above indicates that its preponderance will be found in the former.

This should not be surprising. God’s condescension toward man in the Incarnation and life of Christ is one of the most remarkable of the divine virtues and is peculiar to the Christian faith. Additionally, the word φιλανθρωπία already appears as a characteristic of God in the Greek New Testament (Titus 3:4).

As it turns out, this association continues in the early modern West as well. In preparing for another thesis defense, this time on beauty and hagiography in the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, I had occasion to look at Martin Luther’s commentary on Psalm 45, which includes an engrossing and wonderful discussion of the beauty of Christ. In his remarks on Psalm 45:2, Luther has this to say (WA 40.2, 485-6):

Noster autem rex, qui hic canitur, est plenus misericordia, gracia et veritate, in quo est φιλανθρωπία et summa suavitas.

However, our king, who is sung of here, is full of mercy, grace, and truth; in him is love toward man and the utmost gentleness.

The translation is my own.

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