Clement of Alexandria Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Clement of Alexandria c. 150-c. 215

(Full name Titus Flavius Clemens.) Greek author and Christian apologist.

The author of numerous theological works, Clement is credited with synthesizing Greek thought, particularly Platonism and Stoicism, with Christian beliefs. His openness to using outside sources familiar to non-Christians helped make Christianity more acceptable to many. Writing and teaching in a time when most Christians were uneducated and even openly hostile to intellectuals, Clement nevertheless was able to make logical and convincing arguments—based on scripture and philosophy—in favor of his adopted religion and against the thriving, learned, Valentinian Gnostics. Clement appropriated the word “gnostic” to describe his notion of the perfect Christian. After Clement's arguments, Gnosticism's appeal to the well-educated diminished. Clement's most famous pupil was the brilliant Origen, who in his own career improved upon many of Clement's initial ideas. Extremely well read, Clement made use of the work of many other writers, including lengthy excerpts of their work in his own; he is thus responsible for the preservation of great portions of ancient literature that would otherwise no longer exist. He was revered as a saint until the seventeenth century, when questions concerning his orthodoxy led to his removal from the church calendar. The great historian Eusebius of Caesarea called Clement an incomparable master of Christian philosophy, and St. Jerome stated that Clement was the most learned of all the Fathers.

Biographical Information

Most of what little is known of Clement's life comes from his own writings and from those of Eusebius, who wrote in the fourth century. Clement was born in Athens to parents who were probably pagans. He traveled extensively and was educated in Greece, Southern Italy, Syria, and Egypt. His teacher in Alexandria, then a center of intellectual activity and a base for Gnostics, was Pantaenus, who headed the city's catechetical school. In about 175 he began teaching Clement, who succeeded him as leader of the school around 189. Clement held the position until about 202. It was during this time in Alexandria that he began writing. Sometime after 202, when religious persecution had reached new heights, Clement fled to Caesarea in Cappadocia where he worked with a former pupil, Bishop Alexander. While Alexander was in prison, Clement became head of his church.

Major Works

Although the total number of pages of Clement's surviving works rivals that of perhaps any other Christian writer of the second century, scholars point out that his texts are are plagued with corruption. Damaged, mutilated manuscripts, the result of both time and incompetent copyists, would be difficult enough to work with if the author wrote systematically, and Clement's writing has never been described as systematic. He began his career fully devoted to oral instruction and was distrustful of writing—an unease he shared with many Christians of his time. Polished and persuasive writing was even more to be feared, for a winning style is not necessarily a true one, and a reader could be swayed by a clever style, falling prey to a false message. Thus Clement's writings are deliberately digressive and disorderly so that a patient, devoted, and intelligent reader can gain insight here and there while an insincere one will become frustrated and give up. Although many attempts have been made to date his writings, no one has been persuasively successful in narrowing the time frame beyond crediting the majority of it to the latter half of his many years spent in Alexandria. Three of his works are considered his most important, and many scholars view them as constituting a trilogy of sorts. Protreptikos pros Hellenas [Exhortation to the Greeks] is possibly his first work. It attempts to render the beauty and truth of Christianity in contrast to the errors of paganism. The second main work is Paidagogus [Tutor], a social history intended to provide students of Christianity with instruction in morality and ethics. Rounding out the three major works is the Stromateis [Miscellanies], an unsystematic carpetbag of notes on a wide variety of themes. The first book ofStromateis was written between 193 and 211 and probably much of the other volumes were written after Clement left Egypt. Hypotyposes [Sketches] exists only in fragments preserved by other Greek writers but originally encompassed eight volumes devoted to scripture commentary. Excerpta ex Theodota [Excerpts of Theodotus] is a notebook of quotations and comments believed to have been written by a student of Valentinus and edited and annotated by Clement. One sermon is extant, Quis Dives Salvetur? [Who Is the Rich Man that is being Saved?], which is based on Mark 10:17-31. It concerns the use of wealth and contends that money is not intrinsically evil. Another notebook, known as the Prophetic Eclogues is also extant, as is the discourse Exhortation to Endurance, also known as To the Recently Baptized. Eusebius mentions several other treatises and discourses of Clement's which are now lost: Peri Tou Pascha [On the Pascha]; Peri Nesteias [On Fasting]; Peri Katalalias [On Slander]; Peri Anastaseos [On Resurrection]; Peri Enkrateias [On Continence]; and Ecclesiastical Canon, also known as Against the Judaizers.

Critical Reception

There has been considerable controversy for at least a century over the nature of the relationship between Clement's three major works, particularly as to whether the Stromateis should be considered the third part of a loose trilogy. Basing their arguments on Clement's own statements, many scholars believe the third part would have been a work entitled the Didaskalos [Master], but there is much disagreement whether the Stromateis is actually the Didaskalos under a different name, or even whether the Didaskalos was indeed ever written. Although Clement makes references to such a work, the critical consensus is that it was never realized. A great deal of scholarly effort has also been devoted to interpreting the message of his work. Most critics agree that it should be viewed in its entirety, for misunderstanding is inevitable if only small portions of it are studied. Many critics suspect that the fact that Clement wrote such discursive works was not so deliberate as he maintained. It is likely that he simply was not up to the task of creating order from his multiplicity of ideas. Fortunately Origen was able to develop a systematic theology and, in interpreting the difficult ideas of Clement, honored the man who taught and influenced him.