BMCR 1997.03.22

1997.3.22, Smith, Julian’s Gods

, Julian's gods : religion and philosophy in the thought and action of Julian the Apostate. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. xvii, 300 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780415034876

Rowland Smith’s Julian’s Gods is something of a paradox. On one hand, by eschewing the biographic approach that has long dominated Julianic studies in general and recent Julianic scholarship in English-speaking countries in particular and opting instead for a thematic treatment of Julian’s thought and action with respect to Hellenic culture and religion, Smith has produced perhaps the most original book on Julian ever written in English. 1 On the other hand, Smith’s repeated reliance on the arguments and conclusions of others—particularly those of specialists in fields tangential to the study of Julian himself—will doubtless lead some to dismiss Julian’s Gods as excessively derivative. Whatever justice there is in either verdict will depend on a careful consideration of Smith’s method and its results, a precis of which follows.

In a preface, Smith describes his interest as “the texture of Julian’s cultural mentality in its extended sense,” explaining that “… the reader could take ‘Julian’s gods’ to refer not only to a set of deities, but to a cultural pantheon in which the guiding lights and heroes of Julian’s Hellenism also found a place: ideals of human achievement, conduct and knowledge that he commends in his writings; the myths and texts that enshrine or explain them in his eyes; the humans he calls ‘godlike’ for what they had written or done” (p. xvi). He also anticipates what will be his recurring disagreement with fundamental features of the portraits of Julian painted by Glen Bowersock and Polymnia Athanassiadi.

Chapter 1, an introduction entitled “The Emperor and the writer,” sketches Julian’s life and considers Julian the writer, whose works reveal, in Smith’s words, “a man of refined taste for whom philosophy and literature were obvious modes of discourse between educated persons” (p. 10). Here and in what follows, Julian’s Gods takes issue with Bowersock’s portrayal of Julian’s personality as “a pathological figure, uneasy in his personal relationships and essentially humorless, and prone to use the written word as a substitute for genuine social contact” (p. 10). On the contrary, Smith discerns in the breadth of Julian’s literary interests and in his attention to the demands of various literary genre—to “modes of discourse”—justification for the verdict that “If Julian was not a great writer, he was certainly not an indifferent one, and he can often be read with fondness: there is a peculiar blend of vivacity and eloquent learning to be found in much of what he wrote, and a good deal that is charming and touching” (p. 15).

Smith’s focus falls next on what Julian’s writing suggests about his views on religion and philosophy and their relationship to one another. Here three central issues emerge: the degree to which Julian was a philosopher; Julian’s notion of what religion involved and how this “theology” correlates with Julian’s “devotional interests and practices” (p. 17); and the connection between Julian’s “philosophic affiliations” and his pagan restoration—all three, Smith contends, best addressed through the careful reading of what Julian wrote after his accession. The resultant dependence on so much evidence produced in so short a span—about eighteen months—precludes for Smith the sort of “intellectual biography” produced by Athanassiadi and necessitates the thematic approach which he adopts in Julian’s Gods.

This said, Smith’s next chapter, entitled “Julian’s Education and Philosophical Ideal,” deals primarily with the intellectual development of Julian prior to his elevation in Paris. During that period, Smith holds, Julian received in intermittent doses a conventional upper-class education with no particular philosophical emphasis or any unusual degree of depth. He studied through doxographies the works of Plato, Aristotle, and various representatives of the major philosophical schools (developing along the way an abhorrence of Skeptic and Epicurean teaching). The result was “a learned man with an abiding interest in philosophy and a high regard for philosophers,” but bereft of “a specialist’s philosophic knowledge or expertise” (p.35)—a man for whom philosophy and public virtue in action were inextricably entwined and evidenced in such important concepts as parrhesia and philanthropia, yet, at the same time, a man convinced of the fundamentally hieratic nature of philosophy and philosophers, a notion which grew from his philosophical studies in general and which was reinforced by his exposure to the Chaldaean Oracles, to Iamblichus’ commentary on the same, together with that philosopher’s Protrepticus, Pythagorean Life, and On the Gods, and to Porphyry’s Against the Christians. This Julian was neither a devotee of theurgy to the degree alleged by Athanassiadi, nor, as Bowersock asserts, isolated by his intellectual training from the sensibilities of his subjects.

Chapter 3, on Julian’s two orations against the Cynics, critiques the view of Athanassiadi that Against the Uneducated Cynics (Or. 6) is an exposition of Neoplatonic doctrine with respect to paideia and argues against her position that, when paired with Or. 7, Against the Cynic Heraclius, it was Julian’s response to a philosophic school whose tenets he viewed as offensive in their own right, one which he thought had the potential to undermine his planned pagan renaissance. Instead, Smith finds Orations 6 and 7 little more than a series of commonplaces, precisely what one would expect of works produced within the space of a few days—the latter, in fact, Julian’s rejoinder in very controlled circumstances to Heraclius’ recent portrayal of himself as Zeus and of Julian as Pan. Both pieces, pace Athanassiadi, are nothing more than “an oratorical display of learning and skill in the manipulation of a familiar repertoire of literary invective” (p. 90), the product of Julian “practicing philosophy none too rigorously in a well-established style of cultural discourse” (p. 91).

Chapter 4 investigates the Chaldaean Oracles and its influence on Julian’s thought and action. Therein Smith reviews theories about the origin and genesis of this text, and, although noting that certainty is impossible, inclines toward the view that the form in which ancient Neoplatonists knew it was the result of an incremental process to which their own exegesis contributed. An important reflection of this imposition of Neoplatonic concerns onto the Chaldaean Oracles was the intricate soteriological theory its revelations inspired, an integral part of which Smith holds to have been the elevation of the soul through theurgy, particularly as espoused by Iamblichus in reaction to Porphyry’s telescoping psychic theory. It was not just the Chaldaean Oracles but equally Iamblichus’ exegesis to which Julian accorded canonical status.