Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.08

Luc Brisson, Séamus O'Neill, Andrei Timotin (ed.), Neoplatonic Demons and Angels. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic tradition, volume 20.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2018.  Pp. ix, 294.  ISBN 9789004374973.  €138,00.  


Reviewed by Cesar Sinatti (cesare.sinatti@durham.ac.uk)

Preview

Neoplatonic Demons and Angels originated from a panel on Demonology and Theurgy organized at the annual ASNS meeting in Lisbon in June 2014, and features eleven contributions by some of the most well-known scholars. The volume is edited by Luc Brisson, author of several publications on myth and of numerous translations of Plato and Neoplatonic philosophers; Séamus O’Neill, who has published several articles and chapters concerning demonology and angelology in late antique philosophy and Christian philosophy; and Andrei Timotin, whose book on Platonic demonology, La dèmonologie platonicienne, was also published by Brill, in 2012. As the editors write in the introduction, the topic was chosen not only because of the theological significance of demons, but also because demons and angels are “mutually dependent within the various Neoplatonic metaphysical systems” (p.1), indicating that there is a set of exegetical problems to be explored in the relation between different conceptions of demons and angels through Neoplatonic authors.

This mutual dependence is reflected in the structure of the book, which presents eleven studies in chronological order, starting with Plotinus (“The Daimon and the Choice of Life in Plotinus’ Thought”) and then proceeding with the Gnostics, the Chaldean Oracles, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus and Dionysius the Areopagite. Often, the articles seem to be in dialogue with each other, comparing the views of ancient authors and underlining weaknesses and flaws as well as innovative perspectives, and improvements on previous conceptions. In terms of structure, though, the book is not meant to be read as an overview of the general Neoplatonic theories around demons, as we find, for instance, only one study dedicated to the demonology of Plotinus and almost three concerned with Porphyry’s – four if we count O’Neill’s study of Iamblichus, which examines his demonology in comparison with Porphyry’s. Neoplatonic Demons and Angels is rather aimed at scholars who have previously engaged with the topics there examined, or who plan to deepen their knowledge of demonology and angelology beyond a superficial level.

One can spot several approaches used to inquire the nature of demons and angels in this volume. One focuses on disentangling the intricate hierarchical structures of Neoplatonic philosophical systems, which are famously crowded with beings possessing different names and roles in the structure of the whole, and on understanding what the precise role of demons and angels is in comparison to other beings. For instance, the two chapters by Luc Brisson, one on demons in Porphyry (pp. 86-101) and the other on angels in Proclus (pp. 209-30), describe the hierarchies built by both philosophers and the role of demons in them. Another approach considers instead different occurrences of demons and/or angels in a certain author or text – a recurring issue being the role of evil demons in Neoplatonic philosophies. Such is the piece by Helmut Seng on demons and angels in the Chaldean oracles (pp. 46-86), in which he examines several demon-like entities displayed in the texts in order to understand what the precise role of demons is; or Madeleine Scopello’s chapter providing an overview of Gnostic angelology (pp. 19-45). A third approach underlines differences and similarities between the conceptions of certain authors, sometimes highlighting the clashes manifesting in explicit debates, such as that between Porphyry’s and Iamblichus’ demonology discussed by Séamus O’Neill (pp. 160-89), or Proclus’ critique of Plotinus’ view that demons are parts of souls in Timotin’s chapter (pp. 190-208), or the influences of, and differences between, Proclus’ angelology that of Dionysius examined by Marilena Vlad (pp. 269-90).

These approaches show a preference for a theological and historical analysis of demons and angels in Neoplatonism, which may neglect pressing problems arising from the very fact that entities such as demons and angels are introduced at all. Nonetheless, Neoplatonic Demons and Angels features some chapters concerned more explicitly with ethical and metaphysical issues connected to demons. Thomas Vidart, for instance, examines how Plotinus’ conception of demons avoids determinism and identifies demons with the power that is above the active power of the soul (pp. 7-18). Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum discusses instead how astrological insights informed Porphyry’s philosophical perspective on demons and how they guide human life (pp. 102-39). Finally, one of the densest chapter is maybe Ghislain Casas’ study on ontology, henadology and angelology, focusing on the Neoplatonic roots of Dionysius’ conception of angels (pp. 231-68). In a comparison between Philo and Dionysius, he tries to show how Neoplatonic henadology laid the root for later hierarchical theories, so that one may notice a shift from Philonian angelology as rooted in ontology, cosmology and political theology, to an angelology which “takes the form of a practical theory of hierarchy”, (pp. 264-5) meaning that Dionysius’ hierarchy is built not on a reflection upon metaphysical differences between the agency of higher and lower beings, but rather on the idea that lower beings simply act on behalf of god.

The declared aim and hope of the book is to make significant progress towards understanding demonology and angelology in Neoplatonism (p. 5), and there is no doubt that some progress has been made through the studies here presented. The historically-oriented articles provide context for a rather complex subject, considering that the structure of Neoplatonic systems is not always easy to understand, and they shed light on the development of philosophical debates on the topic. To compare it with another previous, similar publication, one may say that, if Timotin’s La dèmonologie platonicienne can help scholars orientate themselves through the general issues concerning ancient demonology, Neoplatonic Demons and Angels will supply a more in-depth focus on specific topics and authors. Specifically, when it comes to Porphyry and Proclus, the volume adds a significant amount on information concerning their theories of demons and their relation and influence on other thinkers.

The only criticism that may be levelled against the volume is that some of the philosophical opportunities offered by the subjected could have been explored more deeply. If it is true, as several of these studies remind us, that demons and angels are introduced either as connected to (and sometimes even as parts of) human souls or as independent agents, then there are both epistemological and metaphysical problems to be examined in relation to demons. More specifically, their role as mediating entities introduced in Plato’s Symposium raises the question of the metaphysical status of such entities and how they make the mediation between sensible and intelligible possible in the first place. If translated in the dimension of the human soul, this question raises epistemological issues on whether demons play some role in our access to the intelligible reality. In this volume there is much to learn about what roles demons and angels play as theological entities in the hierarchical constructions of Neoplatonic thinkers, but their explanatory value as mediating entities is rarely touched upon from a metaphysical point of view, despite being seemingly fundamental for systems which are struggling with giving an account of how incorporeal, atemporala entities can interact with corporeal, temporal ones. Inquiring into this may have also helped underline whether there is there something innovative in how mediation between the sensible and the intelligible happens in the Neoplatonists through the introduction of demons and angels, and how their theories might have been relevant for the development Platonic metaphysics in general.

In conclusion, Neoplatonic Demons and Angels will be a useful resource for scholars working on ancient demonology and angelology, offering detailed information and insightful thoughts on specific authors and issues, together with awareness of the most recent scholarly debate. The book could have engaged more with the philosophical potential of the notion of a mediating entity, but it nonetheless marks a significant advance in reconstructing the discussions around demons and angels, and will provide useful insights for future scholars to work on.

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