Learning a Proverb from a Pagan

Angelico Silence
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Earlier this semester in Exploring Religion, we discussed Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, and one paragraph particularly struck me as an apt illustration of Qoheleth’s advice that עת לחשות ועת לדבר (Eccl 3:7b; there is a time to be silent, and there is a time to speak):

When Cotta had spoken, Velleius said, ‘It was indeed rash of me to attempt to argue with someone who is both an academician and an orator. I would have no fear of an academician who had no gift of words or of an orator however eloquent who was not a good academic philosopher. I am not put out by a stream of empty words, or by subtle propositions quite devoid of eloquence. But you, Cotta, are  a champion on both counts. You only lacked an audience and a jury. But more of this another time. Let us now hear Lucilius, if he will favor us with his views. (123; underlining added)

Roughly the first half of bk. 1 is Velleius’s argument for the Epicurean position, and the second half is Cotta’s Academic rebuttal. At the beginning of bk. 2, therefore, Velleius could well have stood to attempt to refute Cotta’s initial rebuttal. Yet, he defers this attempt to “another time” and passes the discussion to Lucilius Balbus, the Stoic, who will also do the Epicurean position no particular favors in the body of bk. 2.

This action serves Cicero’s larger purpose of transitioning into a discussion of the Stoic position. Yet, how he does so—namely, Velleius’s reservedness toward Cotta and his yielding the floor to Balbus—suggests, perhaps, an interesting perspective for applying Eccl 3:7b not simply to situations where speaking in general might be out of place but also to situations in which one’s own speech might be out of place (e.g., because of its preceding quantity; cf. Prov 10:19) but another’s speech might not be so.

Cicero on the Earth as Sphere

The Flammarion woodcut is an enigmatic wood en...
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Jim Davila has picked up a discussion about ancient testimony to the earth’s spherical shape. Cicero also, by way of his Stoic character Balbus, comments to this effect, saying,

[T]he sea, which is above the earth, tends still toward the earth’s centre, and so is itself shaped in conformity to the globe of the earth and nowhere spills or overflows. (171; italics added)

So, the Stoics, and perhaps Cicero, also would have acknowledged a spherical earth “before their time” (75, 238).

Et tu, Brute . . . Facts

Christian Apologetics
Cornelius Van Til

In the introduction to the second edition of Cornelius Van Til’s Christian Apologetics, Bill Edgar helpfully summarizes Van Til’s perspective on “brute facts”:

For Van Til . . . there could never be isolated self-evident arguments or brute facts, because everything comes in a framework. That is why he calls his approach the “indirect method.” One cannot go directly to the facts, as though they were self-evident. First, one must recognize the foundation and go on from there. . . . This is resolutely not a denial of the use of evidences. Everything proclaims God’s truth. Only there are no brute facts, or data in a vacuum. (5, 8; emphasis original)

From this perspective, Van Til comments:

It is these notions [of brute fact in metaphysics and the autonomy of the human mind in epistemology] that determine the construction that the natural man puts upon everything that is presented to him. They are the colored glasses through which he sees all the facts. . . . (193)

The method of reasoning by presupposition may be said to be direct rather than indirect. The issue between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to “facts” or “laws” whose nature and significance is already agreed upon by both parties to [the] debate. The question is rather as to what is the final reference point required to make the “facts” and “laws” intelligible. The question s as to what the “facts” and “laws” really are. (129)

Of course, for Van Til,

There is one system of reality of which all that exists forms a part. And any individual fact of this system is what it is primarily because of its relation to this system. It is therefore a contradiction to speak in terms of presenting certain facts to men unless one presents them as parts of this system. The very factness of any individual fact of history is precisely what it is because God is what he is. It is God’s counsel that is the principle of individuation for the Christian man. God makes the facts to be what they are. (193–94)

In some ways, Van Til’s perspective much resembles Thomas Kuhn’s arguments about the natural sciences. Yet, one major difference is that, where Kuhn has ever-mutable paradigms, Van Til has, on the Christian’s side of things, a perception of ever-knowing, reality-constituting mind of God.