Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.04.22


Some of the papers published in the proceedings of the 1990 Maynooth Patristic Conference on the relationship between Neoplatonism and Christianity raise issues of the relationship between religious traditions and the context in which they are formulated. In addition to a brief foreword by John J. O'Meara (pp. vii-viii) and a short introduction by the editors describing the genesis of the conference in question (pp. 1-5), there are eight substantive contributions. Three contributions (one hyper-narrow, two simply narrow) restrict themselves to the stated parameters of the conference, namely "Neoplatonism" and "Christianity." Three further contributions explore the topic of the conference but expand the framework to include a whole range of non-Christian traditions besides Neoplatonism, including Hellenized Judaism, and could easily be of interest to any student of late antiquity. But two contributions in effect surpass by far the framework of the conference. These final contributions raise broad issues of current concern, such as how to define what constitutes Christianity, how to define membership in it, how to define conversion to it, how to draw boundaries between what pertains properly to Christianity and what does not, and most of all, whether any of the above definitions can, practically, be established at all.

Fran O'Rourke, "Being and Non-Being in the Pseudo-Dionysius," (pp. 55 - 78) would be confusing to non-specialists and useless to specialists, who can read the corpus themselves. The piece is a summary with commentary, principally of chapters four and five of the Divine Names, but also of selected other pseudo-dionysian passages. Thomas Finan, "Modes of Vision in St. Augustine: De Genesi ad litteram XII" (pp. 141 - 154) explains that Neoplatonic epistemology, particularly the theory of illumination, was used by Augustine. Dermot Moran, "Origen and Eriugena: Aspects of Christian Gnosis" (pp. 27 - 53), is a standard intellectual genealogy. Anyone interested in the sources of Eriugena's thought will have to see this article, for Moran sifts the Scot's corpus for every possible allusion to Origen.

The studies by Dillon, Carabine and Cassidy, of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine respectively, all share the following theme: how certain articulate and educated inhabitants of that vast cosmopolis that was the Later Roman Empire created for themselves new values and even new systems by drawing from the bewilding plethora of (often discordant) traditions then available. Eoin Cassidy, "The Recovery of the Classical Ideal of Friendship in Augustine's Portrayal of Caritas," (pp. 127 - 140) is the most straightforward of the three papers. The author takes issue with the contention that Christianity caused the demise of the classical ideal of friendship, a particular form of love which (as philia or amicitia) had permeated both Greek and Roman culture , by replacing it with a new ideal of Christian love (agape or caritas). Cassidy shows that the classical concept of friendship was not only compatible with Christian caritas but rather, like so much of "non-Christian" culture, was in the end incorporated by Augustine into his new vision of Christian love. Deirdre Carabine, "Gregory of Nyssa on the Incomprehensibility of God" (pp. 79 - 99), argues convincingly that so-called kataphatic and apophatic theologies should not be seen as starkly separate, but as two points along a continuum of ways of thinking about God. There are, for instance, definite limits to how far even the most negative Christian theologian in the Neoplatonic tradition can affirm the unknowability of God in the face of the inescapable assertion in Genesis that humans are made in the image of God. The complexity of the continuum in question thus arises precisely because of the collision and interaction of divergent traditions: we see Hellenistic epistemological assumptions about the unknowability of the Good struggle with more ancient, pre-Exilic, Hebraic modes of expression and a tradition of Revelation. Carabine, however, also shows how during late antiquity the basic problem of what humans can know and how was common to Christian, Jewish and "pagan" thought. Equally rich and stimulating is John Dillon, "Origen and Plotinus: The Platonic Influence on Early Christianity," (pp. 7 - 26). Origen is surely the greatest example (probably surpassing Augustine) of how much more flexible definitions of religious categories need to be. Like Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, Origen amalgamated elements of various Christian and non-Christian traditions into his own original system. The problematic nature of Dillon's very enterprise of labelling the different sources upon which Origen drew, in the face of the philosopher's own ease with the entire intellectual climate of his age, bubbles always just beneath the surface. For instance, Dillon argues convincingly that Origen's answer to the question of the relationship of the Father to the Son effectively mimicked a Neoplatonic tradition of understanding the relationship between the transcendant Good of Republic VI - VII and the Demiurge of the Timaeus, with the latter also shading into the Logos of the Stoics.

Taken together, the three papers raise the question of precisely how various points are being so confidently assigned to "Christian," "Jewish," "Neoplatonic," "Stoic," and other categories on the Smorgasbord table in the first place, given the tremendous amount of fluidity and overlap that all three authors so clearly document. It is clear that, among all these philosophical interactions, something very complex was going on. It is the great merit of Thomas O'Loughlin, "The Libri Philosophorum and Augustine's Conversions" (pp. 101 - 125) to show how very much we have been oversimplifying by looking only through neat little spectacles, spectacles with one lens called "Hellenistic Philosophies" and another called "Christianity."

O'Loughlin's contribution, like those of Dillon, Carabine and Cassidy, shows an intellectual surrounded by a bewildering array of choices, which may not have been nearly as mutually exclusive as they are sometimes made out to be, and establishing an innovative personal way. However O'Loughlin adds to the smorgasbord an entirely new choice, to supplement the regular fare of "Christianity" or "Neoplatonism": Astrology. The author shows that the "philosophers" who converted Augustine away from Manichaeism to their spiritual practices were Astrologers (Confessions V 14, 25). O'Laughlin discusses the relationships among the many schools of thought to which Augustine adhered at least seriatim, and more likely with a good deal of chronological overlap, namely Manichaeism, Astrology, Neoplatonism and Christianity, all of which explained the universe, provided a morality and satisfied human religious desires. In the end of course, the most famous revolving convert of all time came down in the "Christian" camp, a camp which he did more than most people to try to define. The bishop of Hippo soon became, in keeping with his tendency to define Christianity in opposition to whatever camp he had just fled, the author of the most thorough-going demolition of astrology available before the sixteenth century, proving once again that there is nothing quite so dangerous as a convert."

Yet right there in my own assertions that Augustine "of course" came down in the "Christian" camp, I have said much more about my definition of "Christianity" than I have about Augustine. What bubbles below the surface of all the more sophisticated contributions, what approaches the boiling point in O'Laughlin's paper, explodes through the crust of academic pretense in James J. McEvoy, "Neoplatonism and Christianity: Influence, Syncretism or Discernment?" (pp. 155 - 170), the concluding essay. McEvoy insists on contextualizing the historiography of the debate over "Neoplatonism" and "Christianity." McEvoy's own preferred solution to what was really going on, in the case of Augustine at least, matters far less than his making explicit the fact that the very analytical categories in use are ideologically charged and slippery things, developed in the course of nineteenth-century academic, political and theological debates. Ah, the ink that has been spilled over the sincerity, the depth, the reality of famous conversions: Constantine, Clovis, Augustine. Even this Father of the Church, who clearly perceived himself to be spending the final decades of his life in the service of "Christianity," has not deserved the label "Christian" in the eyes of many critics, Liberal Protestant theologians most prominent among them: Augustine the Hellenizer was not a Christian, he was a Neoplatonist.

In the end it may be that to ask the question of "relationship" in the first place, to use the categories at all, is to determine in advance that we are going to exclude part of the evidence of what was going on. Measured against an ideal definition of "Christianity" as a pure essence, not lived or practiced in reality, every version can be accused of having been "contaminated" from somewhere; it only remains then to identify the source, and to decide whether or not we consider it "admissible" or "compatible," whether or not it can stay, or must be politely shown the door marked: "Exit - Pagan Survival." Is not the very project authoritarian, and, as I admitted in reference to myself in the previous paragraph, more about displaying our own definitions of "Christianity" than about understanding our supposed subjects of study?

"Pagan" survivals are not the only things nineteenth- and twentieth-century academic scholars have, often unceremoniously, shown the door; "superstitions" have been booted out without so much as a once-over. Augustine the enemy of Astrology has been much better known than Augustine the devotee of Astrology. But even Augustine the anti-Astrologist did not succeed in destroying the tradition, though he was aided in his efforts by many other late antique thinkers who were by no means all "Christian," for Astrology-bashing seems to have been part of the temper of the times, not a function of "Christian" theology. Augustine and his colleagues failed because, after they had done their best to stamp it out, many of the thinkers and administrators who would be key in defining "Christianity" in the early and central middle ages, explicitly defined "Christianity" as including many features of Astrology (according to the recent magisterial study by Valerie I. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe).

It was not that astrology was compatible with Christianity, it was that astrology was part of Christianity; the same might easily be said for the Neoplatonism which, as McEvoy points out, had an influence on Christianity that was "deep, widespread and lasting." Can we conceive of Christianity without Neoplatonism? How would we understand the Gospel According to John? What of the fact that the Judaism from which Christianity developed was itself thoroughly Hellenized, indeed, far too much so for the taste of many conservatives in Jerusalem, well before the lifetime of Jesus? If we can understand Judaism as part of Christianity, perhaps we have to understand Neoplatonism and Astrology in the same way.