Page 128 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 20

Basic HTML Version

e w i s h
n n u a l
occasional lectures delivered at various academic institutions and
papers published in learned journals. The classic stylist comes to
the fore in this book. More than ever Wolfson is the master, not
the slave of style. He molds the English language so flexibly that
the subtle and elusive ideas he examines are fully illuminated.
Whether he is dealing with interpretations of Platonic ideas, or
the debate between Augustine and Pelagius, or Ibn Khaldun on
the attributes of God, or Halevi and Maimonides on the veracity
of Scripture, he writes with unobtrusive grace. And his style is
enriched by a mastery of the literature of philosophy and a
knowledge of humane letters.
And, as always, his prose is brightened and supported by wit.
In his classrooms and at academic gatherings I have seen his
witticisms sometimes convulse the listeners with laughter. There
are ample offerings of this sort throughout
Religious Philosophy
In the first essay he defines a recognizable species of philosopher:
“For nowadays, as we all know, to be called a philosopher one
must be ordained and one must be hired to teach philosophy
and one must also learn to discuss hoary problems as if they were
plucked but yesterday out of the air.” Speaking of certain Spinoza
interpreters, he says: “With their bare wit they try to extract
some rootless meaning out of his mnemonic phrases and, if
sometimes they happen to summon aid from without, they make
him split hairs with Descartes or share honors with Berkeley.”
Of Cyril of Jerusalem, who is not counted among the philoso-
phers, he remarks: “But still, like the famous unwitting prose-
speaking gentleman of Moliere’s play, Cyril speaks philosophy
without being aware of it.” He prefaces a passage in which he
puts into the mouths of the Church Fathers the imagined reply
to a young student of divinity who cannot share their views on
the resurrection of the body, with this delicacy: “I am the drago-
man of the Fathers; I am not their neo-izer. As one who for the
past hour has acted the part of pure historian, I should not like
to perform before your eyes a feat of quick-change artistry and of
a sudden turn myself into a theologian and preacher, too, who
would make the Fathers talk the latter-day beliefs and latter-day
disbeliefs in the pious language of their own beliefs.” And at
the end of a brilliant analysis of the problem of causality and
freedom, from Greek philosophy to the present, he gives this
clinching statement: “If we cut through the jungle of words
which so often obscures the discussion of this problem, we shall
always find the two old roads, the Philonic and the Epicurean,
modernized, perhaps, broadened, lengthened, straightened out,
smoothed out, macadamized, and heavily academized—but still
the same old roads. Not all who traveled these roads, however,
were equipped with good road maps, and so occasionally some of
them lost their way and got to the wrong place.”