Shamrocks, Snakes, Green Beer, & Clear Heads

Michael Metzger

“Atheism can’t be right, because I happen to know an atheist who abandoned his wife and children.” If that reverse syllogism doesn’t make a compelling argument, you owe a great debt to Aristotle (the first formal logician), and the fact that you benefited from education rooted in the Western tradition.

Aristotle codified the rules of logical reasoning and catalogued types of imperfect reasoning, namely, fallacies.  His book On Sophistical Refutationsis foundational to Western civilization and many college curriculums.  Because of Aristotle’s contribution, most of us recognize the (above) statement as a fallacy – an ad hominem argument – because the truth of an assertion doesn’t depend on the virtues of the person asserting it.  Immoral people can state truth, and moral people can be wrong.  Our ability to think with clear heads derives, in part, from Aristotle.

But it’s also connected to green beer.  Every year millions of Americans drink green beer and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day; unaware of how great an influence St. Patrick was in preserving the libraries of Aristotle and others who shaped Western civilization and education.  Here’s the story.

Patrick was raised in Britain in the early 400s.  Although born the son of a church deacon, he rejected his faith until – at the age of sixteen – he was forced into slavery by Irish raiders.  This period marks the sunset years of the Roman Empire.  In Europe and the Mediterranean, invading barbarians destroyed Roman civilization including the great libraries containing Latin learning.  Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, describes this loss: “The intellectual disciplines of distinction, definition, and dialectic that had once been the glory of men like Augustine were unobtainable by readers in the Dark Ages.”

During Patrick’s exile in Ireland, he once again embraced his family’s faith.  Upon escaping from his captors and returning to Britain, Patrick decided to go backto Ireland – but this time as a missionary.  Knowing the Irish had no written alphabet; Patrick imparted the gospel by introducing written language.  This opened a new world to them, and the Irish embraced it with zeal (in their playfulness with newfound words, they invented limericks).  Irish monks began to preserve Christian literature as well as all writing that came their way, including Augustine and Aristotle.  Cahill’s book opens by praising the Irish who, having just learned to read and write, “took up the just labor of copying all of western literature – everything they could get their hands on.”  The Irish, largely through the work of St. Patrick, literally saved civilization.

Patrick’s mission to the Irish spanned twenty-nine years.  He is rumored to have baptized over 120,000 Irishmen and established somewhere between 300 and 600 churches.  Within 100 years, Christianity in Ireland had been embraced by “powerful royal clans,” according to Peter Brown (The Rise of Western Christendom), and by the 700s Ireland was dubbed a “Christian country.”  Additionally, in bringing Christianity to Ireland, St. Patrick instilled a sense of literacy and learning that would create the conditions for Ireland to become known as “the isle of saints and scholars.”

Eventually, a new, illiterate Europe began to rise from Roman ruins.  “Ireland, at peace and copying, stood in the position to become Europe’s publisher,” according to Cahill.  Indeed, it was Irish missionaries – Western literature tucked in their boats and treasured in their hearts – who would reconnect Europe with its own past.  The Emerald Isle missionaries established monasteries that would become centers for learning, the predecessor of our modern universities.  Thus the Irish not only were conservators of civilization, but became shapers of the medieval mind, putting their unique stamp on Western culture.

If there had never been a St. Patrick, we would have never enjoyed green beer or clear heads.  No – that’s not true.  In fact, that’s another fallacy, called the “sweeping generalization.”  Thank God for Aristotle, Western civilization, St. Patrick – and green beer (or wearing green clothing).  The holiday might mean more to you if you pick up Thomas Cahill’s simple little book How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe.

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