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Perennial Wisdom: Zanchi Recommends a Book of Philosophy

If you have ever wondered what philosophical work(s) a 16th century Reformed theologian read or would recommend to his readers or students, you will no doubt be interested in the following. Girolamo Zanchi, an exiled Italian Christian and professor of Divinity at the University of Heidelberg in the late 16th century, notes in his influential work De Tribus Elohim (1572) that all of the most eminent ancient philosophers held to the same opinion concerning the unity of God. Whether Orpheus, Homer, Sophocles, Pythagorus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle vel alia, all were monotheists. For those wishing to read more concerning the unified voice of the philosophers, Zanchi says, “let them read Augostino Steuco’s On Perennial Philosophy.”1

For those who have never heard of Steuco or the concept of “perennial philosophy” the idea is fairly simple. Steuco argues, based on the philosophical work of Renaissance philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, that despite the variety of solutions posed by a veritable multitude of philosophers, all were inspired by the same spirit of wisdom. Though philosophers often disagree in fundamental ways, the truth that one finds in their writings points to one fairly consistent system of thought, which is contained in its purest form in the doctrines of Christianity. Steuco says:

[T]here must always have been one wisdom, whether handed down by succession or derived by conjecture and assessments, to recall each of them and compare them with the true; [and therefore this work] has the title Conformationes or On the Perennial Philosophy. For since there is one heavenly religion, consisting in excellent piety and doctrine, whoever will may understand that it has been the same ever since the human race began – either nature pointed it out, or revelation came to the rescue – formerly somewhat obscure and confined to a few, afterwards shining forth in all radiance, and blazing in the whole world. Seeing these traces, these remnants of wisdom, we believed they had been as it were the rays of a light greater in the early ages, and later most great; and thus that all things faced towards one truth.2

Steuco, who published De perenni philosophia in 1540, was an apologist for the Roman Catholic church, librarian at the Vatican, and a presiding member of the Council of Trent. So, his defense of perennial philosophy is not free from polemic, yet it was considered by Zanchi and many other Protestant theologians to be a valuable work, precisely because of its potent defense of Christian doctrine and its use of rare historical sources.3 This is why Zanchi recommends the book to his readers.

  1. De Tribus Elohim, (Heidelberg, 1572), 13.
  2. De perenni philosophia, I.1., translated in Wouter Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture, (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 70-71.
  3. Steuco had access to some of the rarest books in all of Europe, many of which were collected by Pico.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.

4 replies on “Perennial Wisdom: Zanchi Recommends a Book of Philosophy”

It is interesting (to me) that Niels Hemmingsen (who else?!) gathers together many of the same figures you mention in your first paragraph for the same purpose (to prove the unity of God).

He may well have read De perenni philosophia. Here’s Steuco from his preface: “Graecam Theologiam ex antiquis rexit ac celbravit, quorum nomen pervenerit ad posteros, praecipue Orpheus, deinceps Homerus et Hesiodus, quos Theologos dixerunt: e Philosophis Thales, Pythagoraus, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Parmenides, & Plato. Superiorum igitur pari & voce & consensu dictum, ac traditum posteris fuit, & literis mandatum, Unum esse rerum fontem, alterius Mentis, creatricis mundi genitorem. Ipsum quidem genitorem genuisse quandam Mentem ab aeterno, Mentem mundum aliquando creasse, seorsumque singula pro omni natione Sapientum aderunt testimonia.”

And here’s Zanchi again, arguing quite similarly to Steuco, that all wisdom flows from the same fountain. From his preface to Aristotle’s Physics: “Equidem divinam, atque optimam rem, ideoque libero & Christiano homine dignam esse, sapientiam illam, quae tanquam singulare beneficium, a Deo hominibus est collata, necesse est quid enim a Deo Opt. conferri in homines potest, quod optimum, ac praeclarum non sit? at certe philosophiam, sapientiam sciliceet ac scientiam quae est de rebus a Deo conditis, earumque causis, a Deo, tanquam a primo bonorum omnium fonte, primum per Adamum eiusque filios, deinde per Chaldaeos & Hebraeos, postremo per Graecos Thaletem Milesium, Anaximandrum, Xenophanem, Pythagoram, Pltonem, Aristotelem, aliosque philosophos, tam latinus quem Graecos, ceu per canales quosdam ad nos defluxisse, pio cuique viro manifestum est.”

I wonder–the chronology would work, though Steuco/Zanchi have a lot more from the pre-Socratics. May have to check it out. Thanks!

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