BMCR 2003.12.29

Agnôstos Theos. Horia tês anthrôpinês gnôsês stous Prosôkratikous kai ston Oidipoda Turanno

, Agnôstos Theos. Horia tês anthrôpinês gnôsês stous Prosôkratikous kai ston Oidipoda Turanno. Athens: Stigme, 2003. 128.

The title of Liapis’ book Agnostos Theos is taken from the famous passage of the New Testament where Paul describes an Athenian altar with the inscription ‘to an unknown God’ ( Acts 17:23). For the Athenians, the worship of the Unknown God denotes the awareness of a God who could not be known within the limitations of human reasoning, but, as L. himself points out (p.11), the subject matter of his book is not a study in Christian theology nor a Christian interpretation of Presocratic or Sophoclean thought. His monograph is fundamentally distinct from E. Norden’s influential study Agnostos Theos: Untersuchungen zur Formengesschichte religiöser Rede (Leipzig/Berlin, 1913), for it overrides the formalistic methodology of religious study and, through a philosophical perspective, investigates the limitations of human knowledge in the Presocratic philosophical tradition and Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus.

In particular, L. focuses on the antithesis between the imperfection of human knowledge and the perfection of the divine mind. His main position is that ignorance of divinity is based on the nature of human and divine cognition in that the problem of divine knowledge in the Presocratics and Sophocles does not rest on a quantitative difference between humans and God (while humans have limited knowledge, God knows everything), but qualitative (God transcends reality as a different entity with unlimited capabilities and intelligence). The divine mind is manifest in another world, where human thought is not only incomparable but also different in ontological terms. God and humans should not be conceived as the two extreme points of the same ontological and epistemological line, where human thought tends to zero and divine intelligence to infinite, but as two parallel lines, which can never meet (p. 18). On this basis, L. interprets the gnosiological supremacy of God in terms of an early apophatism found in Presocratic and Sophoclean thought (pp. 18-19) and later in the apophatism and ineffability of the One in Plotinus (i.e. language cannot tell us what the One is, only what is not). Following the natural theology of the Presocratics, the Plotinian One is what it is, free of internal limitations and independent of external relations and complexities. Plotinus’ demonstration of the One’s ineffability influenced later Neoplatonic thought but more importantly the ‘negative theology’ developed in such early Christian authors as Dionysius Aeropagita and Johannes Chrysostomus. L. concludes that the transcendental otherness of the divine nature has two important results: (1) only divine knowledge is true and complete knowledge; human knowledge is delusive and imperfect; (2) human knowledge of the divine cannot be fully achieved but is necessarily limited and fragmentary. To justify his position, L. divides his book into two sections. In the first (pp. 17-72), he investigates the difference between divine and human knowledge in Presocratic theories of knowledge and Sophoclean apophatism, while in the second (pp. 81-109) he applies the results and conclusions of the first section to Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus.

With regard to the Presocratics, L. emphasises the cognitive distinction between divine and human nature as given mainly in Xenophanes (frs. 23, 24, 25) and Heraclitus (frs. 79, 83, 79, 108) but also introduces other Presocratics, including Alcmaeon (fr. 1), Philolaus (fr. 6), Parmenides (frs. 1, 7) and Empedocles (frs. 132-134). On the basis of these fragments L. locates in Presocratic thought the fundamental distinction between divine knowledge and that of humans. The superiority of divine knowledge is discussed in terms of the philosophical distinction between truth and belief: truth belongs to God, beliefs and opinions only to humans, a distinction that is fully elaborated in Plato’s works. But, as L. explains, the Presocratics do not deny the possibility of true knowledge. On the contrary, even if true knowledge in its totality is impossible, humans are able to recognize and acquire some small part of it, and that is why human thought should be actively involved in philosophical research, in order to succeed in the acquisition of true knowledge as far as is possible. The Presocratics criticize but do not (on the whole) deny sense-perception and reasoning as ways of making progress towards understanding; these filter true knowledge and so lead to a partial and incomplete knowledge of the divine. In effect God cannot be described in a definite affirmative formula, but only negative predication can be applied to the divine nature. The Presocratics accordingly deny absolute agnosticism but introduce the idea of apophatism as a method of philosophical inquiry.

Within this framework, Sophocles, influenced by Presocratic thought, followed the Presocratic idea of apophatism, especially that introduced by Xenophanes and Heraclitus (cf. pp. 51-72). Sophocles, along with the Presocratics, took a different gnosiological position from Protagoras’ sceptical dictum on the gods (fr. 4) and by extension the idea of agnosticism, that knowledge of God is impossible for humans. For Sophocles, the human mind is somehow capable of recognizing divine perfection in its totality through an apophatic description of the supreme reality. Whereas the fundamental principle in Sophoclean tragedy is the inaccessibility of divine knowledge, Sophocles allows communication between humans and gods in the form of oracles, dreams and prophecies that, according to L., manifest the divine will by transcending human understanding and thought.

L. then applies these results to Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. He observes with insight that the irrationality of divine oracles, prophecies and dreams reveals the transcendence of the divine nature beyond human reasoning and understanding. Human intelligence constructs categorical forms of explanation in order to acquire the truth, but divine knowledge, which is fundamentally unknowable, remains outside this cognitive process — God is unreachable by any rational form of explanation. In Oedipus Tyrannus the knowledge of God is encapsulated in divine ‘signs’ (such as oracles, dreams and prophecies), which lead the human mind beyond the sensible realm to the divine apocalypses. Rational and empirical forms of evidence appear to mislead human understanding of the divine, and, for Oedipus, reality and rationality collapse in the face of divine transcendence. The divine signs lead Oedipus to the revelation of his real identity in an outcome which is mirrored in the last Chorus singing prophetically as a vehicle of divine knowledge (p. 95). Oedipus’ self-blindness in the closure of the tragedy is a symbolic act against human reasoning and perception, bringing Oedipus closer to God by denying what is essentially human. Hence, as L. concludes, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus demonstrates the limits of human knowledge not only of Oedipus but also of the audience.

Agnostos Theos is a careful and systematic work, well-structured and clear in the development of the author’s ideas and arguments as he explores the problem of divine knowledge in early Greek thought; the appendices and indexes provide relevant and helpful supplementary information on the topic. In general the main primary and secondary sources are covered, except that, L. inexplicably fails to include Anaximander in his list, despite the relevance of his originative principle (the a-peiron, unqualified and without spatial and temporal limit) to any discussion of apophatism in Presocratic thought. The book has some further minor weaknesses. With regard to the primary sources, L.’s translations of the Presocratic fragments mirror the interpretative aims of the author rather than the original meaning of Presocratic text; L. is aware of the problem, but the reasons given for this methodology (cf. Prologue, p. 12) are not convincing. In addition L.’s practice of using anachronistic terminology to explain and support his arguments is not always relevant to the context of the discussion — for example, his interpretation of Heraclitus’ logos in Saussurean terms of ‘langue’ (language) and ‘parole’ (speech) is unhelpful and a distortion of the Heraclitean original (cf. pp. 43-44 and Appendix Gamma). On the other hand, there is no doubt that Agnostos Theos makes a significant contribution to Presocratic and Sophoclean scholarship in the wider fields of classical studies, philosophy and the history of ideas; it is offered only in Modern Greek, which may limit its readership.