Jerome is a fascinating character. He is the one who gave the Church the Vulgate, and his own classical learning and love of Latin poets & philosophers gave him the skill to do so.
Amid a near-death experience, Jerome vowed never again to read a secular author. So, at first it seems that Jerome must be in the anti-classical camp. Yet, although this is his vow, it is not his advice to others. Just as the Nazarites vow not to cut hair or drink wine in dedication to the Lord does not mean there is anything ungodly with cutting one’s hair or drinking wine, so Jerome’s vow was a personal affection-driven vow, not a statement.
Indeed, he vowed it because previously he admits to preferring Cicero to Scripture. He loved the philosophers and found the prophets unappealing when he turned to them afterwards. He made a vow because he recognized his own disordered affections, and through his vow and his subsequent immersion in Scripture (because he was a scholar at heart), he was able to produce the Vulgate.
Just in case others try – because they did try even in his lifetime – to use his personal vow as a reason all should disavow secular learning, Jerome specifically wrote contrarily.
Classical learning is valuable for the Christian.
Apparently, even after his vow to not read secular authors, his education and lifetime love of them allowed him to still be able to quote Cicero and others in his letters and works. Challenged in this practice, he responds with a biblical defense of quoting Gentile or secular wise men.
He starts with the Old Testament.
Both in Moses and in the prophets there are passaged cited from Gentile books
Moses, Solomon, and the prophets all quote Gentile philosophers, poets, and concepts. Jerome’s learning is such that he even knows a few of them. Our learning is such today that we’re oblivious to passing references or even direct but uncited quotes. Just because a quote is not made obvious for us today does not mean it’s not there. Jerome gives examples, and also cites the general advice given by Solomon in Proverbs:
In the commencement of the book of Proverbs he charges us to understand prudent maxims and shrewed adages, parables and obscure discourse, the words of the wise and their dark sayings; all of which belong by right to the sphere of the dialectician and the philosopher.
Then Jerome moves on to the New Testament. Multiple times in many books Paul also quotes or references pagan philosophers and poets. Again, Jerome supplies specific examples, because he knows the philosophers and poets that Paul knew – not personally, but through study.
For he [Paul] had learned from the true David to wrench the sword of the enemy out of his hand and with his own blade to cut off the head of the arrogant Goliath.
Next, Jerome builds a metaphoric biblical case. Instead of using the “plundering the Egyptians” line of reasoning, he has two others.
First, that as David used Goliath’s sword to cut off his head, so we should use (as Paul did) the Gentile philosopher’s reasoning against them as an evangelistic and apologetic strategy.
Second, that as the Israelite men were allowed to marry Gentile captive women after a time and ritual of purification, so the church now is able to purify the learning of the wise and so bear fruit not unto secular learning, but unto the church itself. Wisdom and knowledge, wherever we find it, used in submission to Christ, is not only an evangelistic tool, but also a help to pure doctrine and protection against heresy. When we have knowledge as a sanctified bride, her still-defiled sister is obviously unattractive.
Is it surprising that I too, admiring the fairness of her form and the grace of her eloquence,
desire to make that secular wisdom which is my captive and my handmaid, a matron of the true Israel?
Next, Jerome moves on to the history of the Jews and early church, citing church fathers before him who all approved of and themselves knew the studies of the philosophers: Cyprian, Josephus, Philo, Quadratus (a disciple of the apostles and early bishop in Athens), Aristides (who proved to the emperor through the writings of the philosophers that Jesus was the Christ), Justin, Clement, Origen, and others.
You yourself know quite well what has always been the practice of the learned in this matter
He ends dismissively. He says this defense is obvious, and the questioner was most likely put up to the question by one of his (Jerome’s) adversaries in order to discredit him. To which he admonishes:
Please beg of him not to envy eaters their teeth because he is toothless himself, and ot to make light of the eys of gazelles because he is himself a mole.
Indeed, is he right? Among detractors of classical learning are there any who themselves possess it? Or is it an argument out of ignorance and perhaps even, as Jerome clearly believes of his opponents, envy?