Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.51

Christoph Riedweg (ed.), Philosophia in der Konkurrenz von Schulen, Wissenschaften und Religionen: zur Pluralisierung des Philosophiebegriffs in Kaiserzeit und Spätantike. Akten der 17. Tagung der Karl und Gertrud Abel-Stiftung vom 16.-17. Oktober 2014 in Zürich. Philosophie der Antike, Band 34​.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. xi, 393.  ISBN 9781501514296.  €99,95.  

Reviewed by Albert Joosse, Utrecht University (

Table of Contents

The 16 contributions in this rich volume study the kinds of project later ancient philosophers pursued, the attitude of rival traditions to Greek philosophy, and the appropriation of philosophy and its tools in polemical exchange and in the articulation of religious truth. The result is a multi-faceted but coherent investigation of what it meant to be a philosopher in later antiquity.

The book’s subtitle highlights the ‘Pluralisierung’ of philosophy. Yet, as editor Christoph Riedweg notes, in many ways we find a ‘Homogenisierungssog’ (1) across intellectual movements of later antiquity. Through its different manifestations philosophy is seen as the pursuit of knowledge and exhibits recognisably Platonic features. We find a shared expectation, above all, that philosophy be unified. This holds even for self-professed opponents like Gnostics, who criticise philosophers’ lack of agreement (Thomassen, 62-4).

This expectation of unity extends from theory to lives lived, since philosophy is widely understood to be a way of life (thematised by Perkams, Thom, Leonhardt-Balzer, Reydams-Schils, Fuhrer and Ierodiakonou). Riedweg is surely right to mention ethics as a shared concern across traditions (356), but this is a minor theme in the volume. More than ethics it is religious ritual that goes hand-in-glove with the profession of a particular philosophy, in Christian (Vollenweider, Wyrwa), Gnostic (Thomassen) and Hellenic authors (Bremmer, Athanassiadi). Myth and revealed texts too are integrated with philosophy in all philosophers of this period. While Iamblichus may have presented his integration of Pythagorean-Platonic philosophy and oriental myth as a programme for universal salvation (Athanassiadi), and Perkams sees such integrations as typical for late antiquity (17-22), Ferrari shows that religious myth and philosophy were synthesised from the very beginning of Middle Platonism (57-8).

In terms of method, exegesis is shared across philosophical traditions: properly applied, it yields theoretical unity, whether across Plato’s texts, Chaldaean oracles, biblical writings or gnostic myths. It helps resolve prima facie contradictions in or between texts (Ferrari 39-51) and establish the proper occasions for adducing deeper truths in allegoresis (Männlein-Robert, 173). Exegesis may have formative dimensions (Thom), polemical uses (Boulnois), and innovative effects (Ierodiakonou).

Is it then better to speak of a unification of philosophy? The volume shows a clear pluralization: ever more cultural traditions opened up to philosophy, in an encounter that spawned yet other, newer traditions. A range of texts were appealed to as authoritative, a variety of rituals integrated within the philosophical life. But alongside this cultural pluralization the concept of philosophy itself remained remarkably continuous, perhaps even more so than nowadays.

The papers are ordered chronologically, with a rough reach from the first until the 13th century CE, and an emphasis on the second through fifth centuries. One could divide the contributions into five broad thematic groupings, dealing with: (i) various methods of philosophy; (ii) the use of other traditions by philosophers; (iii) philosophers’ own conceptualisation of philosophy; (iv) members of other traditions who engage, polemically or constructively, with philosophy; and (v) those who use philosophy to construct new routes of thinking. My brief accounts of the papers below, I note, fail to do justice to their richness.

In the opening paper Matthias Perkams proposes a threefold chronological division of the 1st century BCE to the 7th century CE. Alongside the relatively established categories of Kaiserzeit and Spätantike (1st century BCE until the 2nd CE and the 3rd through 5th centuries, respectively), Perkams proposes the label Ausgehende Antike for the philosophy of the 6th century and beyond. In this period, he argues, most philosophical interest concerned Aristotle’s organon, and Christians started to write purely philosophical work, independent from the commentary tradition. Perkams’ sketch of the 6th century understates engagement with Plato.1 Nevertheless, the increased focus on Aristotelian writings, also in the great translation projects (Boethius, Sergius of Res’ayna) is remarkable, and does look forward to later centuries (27-8). But perhaps this supports seeing 6th-century philosophy as a transition to medieval philosophy more than as a separate phase of ancient philosophy.

(i) Among the papers that deal mainly with the methods of philosophy, Franco Ferrari underlines the significance of historiography and exegesis as tools by which the Middle Platonists position and construct their philosophical systems as unified. Their histories claim temporal unity from Plato to their views, excluding their sceptic predecessors (36-9). Exegetical strategies such as lusis ek prosôpou and the principle of Platonem e Platone allow them to affirm unity of thought across Plato’s dialogical œuvre (46-8).

Johan Thom studies the Pythagorean Golden Verses and akousmata as collections used for psychagogic purposes. The case is convincing for the Golden Verses, with their practices of predeliberation and daily review. The case for the akousmata is weaker. Thom argues that their enigmatic character stimulates development through reflection; the notion that each saying received a fixed meaning undercuts this somewhat (94-5).

Irmgard Männlein-Robert reconstructs Porphyry’s criticisms and portrayal of the Middle Platonist Longinus. She persuasively shows that these marginalised a more philological way of doing philosophy. Longinus’ acute attention to textual detail was nevertheless exploited by Platonic commentators down to Proclus. They were uncomfortable with Longinus’ sometimes critical tone, Männlein-Robert suggests, because they preferred a ‘salto mortale in die allegorische Auslegung’ (173).

(ii) Philosophers deal with other areas of thought for different reasons. Jan Bremmer’s erudite paper considers how philosophers tap into the perceived untainted truths behind various Mysteries. He insists, however, that we ask which Mysteries are involved, and distinguish between mere use of Mystery language and reference to actual rites. While philosophers frequently refer to the Eleusinian Mysteries, it is their language much more than their rituals which concern most of them (Julian and Eunapius are exceptions; Bremmer cautiously links their interest to the closing of the Eleusinian Mysteries in 392).

Iamblichus is the focus of Polymnia Athanassiadi’s work. In a very effective account of his familial and religious background and of the various crises of the third century, Athanassiadi argues that Iamblichus’ invention of theurgy as a discipline of universal salvation directly counters Christianity.

(iii) Gretchen Reydams-Schils’ is the only paper squarely to focus on a particular thinker’s conception of philosophy. She discusses Plotinus’ Ennead 5.9 as a polemical treatise against the Stoics. Against their conception of philosophy as an art of life, Plotinus conceptualises it as the art of to on. The volume’s premise would have been an opportunity to include more of this kind of work. The volume contains no discussion, for instance, of the various ancient definitions of philosophy.

In a more oblique way, Dominic O’Meara’s paper too asks the question of conceptualization: it considers the personifications of philosophy in Synesius and Boethius. For the purposes of the volume this is a promising approach, which O’Meara exploits to describe the tension between the self-sufficiency of philosophy and its ambition to contribute to political communities.

(iv) Roughly a third of the papers in the volume study how authors from different traditions engage with Greek philosophy. Einar Thomassen’s nuanced paper presents Gnostic circles as explicitly opposing philosophers but comparable to philosophical schools themselves. They too rallied around systematic texts, which some commented on, and taught their true significance orally. This true significance, Thomassen suggests, may have been the isomorphism of Neoplatonic ontology and Christian soteriology (68-70). Here again philosophy shows in the effort at cognitive unification. Nevertheless the difference remains: Gnostics sought to break with tradition, prioritised soteriology, emphasised ritual and neglected ethics (71-2). It is plausible, I think, that these factors mark a difference jointly, but hardly severally.

Jutta Leonhardt-Balzer’s paper concerns the Jewish tradition. As she notes, its attitude to Greek philosophy ranges from highly accommodating to explicit rejection. Most of her discussion concerns Philo, who combines accommodation with the insistence that Jewish thought surpasses Greek philosophy. For Philo, Leonhardt-Balzer argues, this is because the sabbath assemblies combine philosophical theory and practice to an eminent degree; they are ritual and school at once. Philo’s conception is not representative. As Leonhardt-Balzer notes, Jewish thinkers abandon Greek philosophy from the 2nd century onwards. For the question of conceptualising philosophy it would have been interesting to know why.

Working his chronological way backwards from the Christian Apologists to the New Testament, Samuel Vollenweider proposes to read early Christian engagement with Greek philosophy as manifestations of a ‘Partialkultur’ (151). Explicit opponents, such as Tatian, still use elements of the dominant culture (‘Leitkultur’). Vollenweider views philosophy as a marker of the dominant culture (157). Christian opposition to philosophy, including ethnic self-identifications as non-Greeks, becomes a mechanism to resist a successful global culture.

Two papers are chronologically separate but show thematic continuity. Katerina Ierodiakonou presents Byzantine philosophy as an independently recognisable type of doing philosophy. Compared to late ancient texts, commentaries demonstrate more independence: Byzantine thinkers write in the first person singular, add later arguments, explicitly indicate divergences from Christian dogma and are less loyal to one school. Philosophical vitae, on the other hand, are in fundamental continuity with texts like Porphyry’s Vita Plotini: focusing especially on Nikephoros Blemmydes’ Partial Account (13th century), Ierodiakonou argues that their emphasis on asceticism and miracles likewise serves to prove the truth of the doctrine based on the life of the man.

In Cleophea Ferrari’s paper we find a spectrum of Islamic attitudes to the Greek philosophical tradition that is very comparable to the Jewish and early Christian attitudes surveyed earlier in the volume. But there is a decisive new element in al-Farabi’s conception of the milla, which is both the religious confession and the political community. In al-Farabi’s view, religion is the communication of philosophical truth via images and analogies. It is, at the same time, the law that guides the political community. Thus, the two bordering pursuits whose relationship to philosophy has been discussed throughout this volume, politics and religion, appear to coincide. But the pluralization here seems to be of religion more than of philosophy.

(v) A final group concerns Christian writing that builds on Greek philosophical ground but does so to move in clearly new directions. Dietmar Wyrwa shows the pervasive use of Greek philosophy in the pedagogic and systematic views of Origen and Clement. Wyrwa notes with Vollenweider the substantive Christian resistance to this approach, but what stands out is the constructive use of Greek categories to formulate Christian doctrine. Wyrwa also plausibly argues for a continuity of the Alexandrian school, as a school comparable in type to the Hellenic philosophical schools.

In addition to institutional isomorphism there is also already ubiquitous conceptual continuity in Origen and Clement. Marie-Odile Boulnois’ paper shows very clearly that such conceptual common ground marks polemical works as well. Her analysis of Origen’s Contra Celsum and Cyrillus’ Contra Iulianum underlines that Christians’ very attempt to outdo Greek philosophers is a Greek philosophical move. But Boulnois, like other contributors, recommends a differentiated approach. Hellenic terms may receive decisive new meanings, especially in polemics. Other terms are rejected explicitly, not for their role in Greek philosophy but because ‘heretics’ have appropriated them.

A plurality of literary forms characterises ancient philosophical writing. Therese Fuhrer argues that the form of Augustine’s Confessions transforms the traditional philosophical vita on two counts. First, it introduces failure as a constitutive part of philosophical development. Second, it excludes philosophical achievement from the vita, as essentially non-temporal and unattainable here and now. Fuhrer sees the theoretical last few books and especially the treatment of time in Conf. 11 as cutting short the autobiography of the previous books. Time, as a distentio animi (Conf. 11.33), does not allow for the unity of happiness. This is suggestive, but does not rule out an alternative interpretation of the very non-temporality of the story in the final books. Compared to traditional vitae, doesn’t Augustine’s account effectively convey what happiness there is to be gained in this life?

The book has been carefully produced, with only occasional typos, and includes indices of passages, names and terms. ​


1.   On p. 22, Perkams understates the Platonising work of the 6th century: Damascius’ Peri archôn should also be mentioned, as should Olympiodorus’ Alcibiades and Phaedo commentaries and his lost commentary on the Sophist. ​

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010