BMCR 2004.02.42

Marius Victorinus. Zur Philosophie in seinen theologischen Schriften. BzA 174

, Marius Victorinus : zur Philosophie in seinen theologischen Schriften. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 174. München-Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 2002. 151 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 359877723X. EUR 80.00.

This brief book — about 150 pages, including bibliography and indexes — was the last work of Matthias Baltes before he died some months ago and can thus be regarded as a sort of spiritual testament of the great German scholar: it is intended as a presentation and a further development of the results of a seminar that took place in 2000 in the Academia Platonica, a cultural institution devoted to the study of the Platonic tradition directed and co-ordinated by Baltes himself (a deeply-felt intellectual portrait of Baltes is now provided by Cristina D’Ancona in Elenchos. Rivista di studi sul pensiero antico, XXIV, 2003, pp. 5-7).

Baltes’ book aims to offer a comprehensive and precise profile of the Latin philosopher Marius Victorinus, who was professor of rhetoric in Rome in the middle of the fourth century and, after his astonishing conversion to Christianity (narrated by Augustine in a famous page of the Confessions), wrote theological treatises and a commentary, the first preserved in Latin, on some Pauline epistles. These works reveal a strong defender of Nicene orthodoxy against some Arian contenders; together with Hilary of Poitiers, Victorinus can be considered one of the major Latin writers during the so called second phase of the Arian controversy, which was disrupting Christian communities, particularly in the Greek regions of the Empire, and even involved the relationship between the imperial dynasty and the most influential representatives of the Church hierarchy.

At first Victorinus was forced into a marginal role due to the obscurity and complexity of his writings, especially in the Western part of the Empire, where philosophical or dogmatic subtleties might sound too refined,1 but in modern times his theological speculation has attracted scholarly interest, most of all because of his wide-ranging and deep knowledge of Greek sources. Such an osmotic relationship between theology and philosophy is, in fact, almost unique in the Latin middle fourth century, so that a synkrisis with his Latin contemporaries, and most of all with an equally sharp theologian like Hilary of Poitiers, will easily show how Victorinus’ speculative depth is unparalleled and how in his elaboration of the Trinitarian dogma he reaches peaks never achieved before him.2

Among the Greek authors Victorinus knew and could directly read there are Plotinus and Porphyry;3 moreover many of the doctrines he employs in the Opera Theologica depend on an anonymous Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides, whose chronology has been much questioned since its editio princeps at the end of the nineteenth century. Not only is that commentary extremely fragmentary, but also the doctrines here presented do not totally conform with any known Neoplatonic system, so that any attribution or at least any chronological framing cannot be expressed with certainty.

Hadot’s crucial inquiries, culminating in the monumental commented edition of Victorinus’ Opera Theologica (together with P. Henry, Paris 1960) and in the epoch-making book on Porphyre et Victorinus (Paris 1968), attributed the anonymous work to the Tyrian disciple of Plotinus, thus reasserting Porphyry’s autonomous role in the history of post-Plotinian philosophy; in recent times, however, this attribution has been questioned, and some scholars prefer dating the work to an earlier epoch, that is pre-Plotinian Platonism, with marked influences of Neo-Pythagorean trends (see the recent edition and commentary by G. Bechtle, Bern-Stuttgart-Wien 1999). This new critical perspective, also takes into consideration some Middle-Platonic figures like Alkinoos or Numenius, or even some Gnostic texts discovered in the fifties in the Egyptian locality of Nag Hammadi belonging to the so-called Sethian Gnosticism and strongly influenced by Greek philosophy: the metaphysic system which can be reconstructed by considering Zostrianos, Marsanes, The three Steles of Seth, and Allogenes belongs, in fact, by right, to the manifold faces of the development of Platonism during the first three centuries of the Empire, as the polemic of Plotinus against the Gnostics clearly shows (such writings are dated, in their original Greek redaction, prior to the author of the Enneads).

The present book deals with the main tenets of Victorinus’ speculation and, according to a sort of Platonising hierarchy of beings, is divided into six sections (pp. 19-97: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the consubstantiality of the divine hypostases, the created realms); the last two sections (pp. 98-125) sum up and outline such doctrines, offering the Author’s conclusion.4 In the opening pages (7-18) Baltes offers a perspective a contrario, explaining the Arian views about the Father and the relationship between the first two Persons of the Trinity, as expounded by an obscure Candidus in the ‘lettre ouvert’ he wrote to Victorinus,5 as well as the Neoplatonic ones about the One as pre-principle and as dynamis (power) from which all beings proceed.

Concision, exactitude and sobriety constitute the merits of this book. A rich harvest of texts is here collected and discussed (in German translation together with the original Latin of Victorinus, not at all easy to understand at first sight), arranged by topic — for example the qualities of the Father — rather than following the textual order. This allows for an easier approach to the many key-tenets, which Victorinus variously displays in his four books of the treatise Against Arius, as well as in the minor works To Candidus, Why the Homoousios has to be accepted, and the Hymns. Among the loci paralleli given in the footnotes, the Anonymous Commentary is of course privileged, but sometimes other important Neo-Platonic texts are quoted, most of all Plotinus, Porphyry and Proclus (see also some interesting hints about a complex figure like Philo Alexandrinus, p. 10).

This contributes to elucidating the principal arguments of Victorinus’ theology: in particular he develops a rich metaphysical system, attributing to the Father the majority of the qualifications characterizing the Neoplatonic One, which are, of course, negative ones, according to apophatic trends widely developed by Greek philosophy and also by Christian culture (oneness, pureness, simpleness, invisibility, unutterability, lack of body, motion, passions and corruption, etc.). Moreover, Victorinus’ deep philosophical background comes out in the majority of his doctrines: for example his Trinitarian speculation is an attempt to join the triadic schemes already attested in Platonising texts and in particular in the Enneads. The relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity is in fact explained by means of Neoplatonic schemes, thus equating Father, Son and Holy Spirit to the hypostatical moments of being-life-intellect (or being-intellect-life, in a reversed order), or introducing the more complex concept of predominance, according to which every Person is better characterized by the prevalence of one of these aspects, in order to preserve and reassert their mutual consubstantiality — Baltes notes that the first case (that is, the Father sums up and possesses the three hypostases) suits the Arian doctrine, while the second case (the hypostatisation of a single quality according to predominance, and thus a sort of ‘enneadic’ system) is Victorinus’ own (p. 107); also important is the explanation of the Son’s generative process in philosophical terms, such as stillness and movement, form and act, dynamis and activity, to which must be added the turning or conversion-moment, exampled by the Spirit.

We have briefly summarized the contents of the book, which provides an extensive and systematic illustration of Victorinus’ Theological treatises. In particular I appreciated the clearness of the exposition and the methodological rigour (see for example pp. 98 ff., where Victorinus’ doctrines are summarized, and particular attention is offered in explaining the subtle theory of the so-called ‘double dyad’, which governs the relationship between Father and Son and at the same time explains how the Son and the Holy Spirit interact). Also innovative, in comparison with previous monographs, is the chapter devoted to the origin of material realms and the hierarchy of beings, among which the soul plays a central role. One of the crucial questions of Platonism, in fact, regards the rising of multiplicity from the One.

However, let me express some disagreement and some critical remarks, which do not in any way impugn the value of the work. Baltes rightly observes in the introductory section that the selection made by Hadot in his important research on Porphyry and Victorinus (the French scholar isolated a series of passages where Platonic reminiscences were palpable, which he called ‘Porphyrian texts’ and on which he focussed most of his attention) may have been too sharp and the unity of Victorinus’ work impoverished. Such a statement is true, even if it must be noted that Hadot had already provided some years before an extensive and detailed commentary on the entire Opera Theologica and in 1971 wrote also a broad biography and a general portrait of the philosopher ( Marius Victorinus. Recherches sur sa vie et ses oeuvres, Paris) and recently published a brief essay ( ‘Porphyre et Victorinus’: questions et hypothèses, Res Orientales IX, Groupe pour l’Étude de la Civilisation du Moyen Orient, Bures sur Yvette 1996, pp. 117-125) where he underlines the necessity of a wider investigation of some Victorinus’ tenets, including the theological milieu in which he operated.

Baltes thus aims to offer a unitary and, so to say, global reconstruction of Victorinus’ speculative system, considering his works as a whole, including both philosophy and theology. But, as a philosopher himself, Baltes leaves out the theological side, which shows, for example, Victorinus’ unusual knowledge of the Greek sources (testified to by his translation into Latin of Creed-formulas or dogmatic epistles) and of terminological questions — in dealing with terms like ousia or hypostasis. Our growing knowledge of Greek Arianism, throughout its evolution, has allowed scholars to focus on the different contenders or leaders (both followers of Arianism and of Nicene dogma) and to throw light on their writings, mostly fragmentary, and their often shadowy personalities, leaving aside great figures like Athanasius. It would be worthwhile to study how Victorinus (and Hilary too, whose exile in the East put him in contact with first-hand sources) was influenced by the theological debate, which often reached subtle dogmatic peaks alien to Latin culture. Nevertheless, such a remark does not dismiss Baltes’ research, which didn’t aim at a theologically oriented investigation and wasn’t interested in such a topic. He, in fact, explains both the Arian doctrines and the Nicene ones in philosophical terms, even if it should be noted that for a long time scholars of the Arian controversy (see the works by G.C. Stead, M. Simonetti and the recent ones by M.J. Edwards) have recognized and investigated the philosophical sources there implied.

I limit myself to noting that the question of unity and alterity, applied to the generation of the Son and to the creation (see p. 41 and 96 f.), is of course a central tenet in Christianity too and was particularly debated during the Arian crisis, where it was disputed whether there could have been generation — either in time or not — or only creation. Furthermore, some expressions (like the source and the river, or the angular stone) find their background in Christian imagery as well as in philosophical writings, and thus Victorinus effected a sort of contamination between the two planes.6

In any case, Baltes recognizes a clear Platonic model which could have inspired Victorinus and which he voluntarily changed and modified and singles it out in a doctrine posterior to Porphyry and Iamblichus because of the presence of some Iamblichean tenets,7 despite some differences, motivated, I think, by Victorinus’ adhesion to Christianity. His philosophy thus allows at least a partial filling of the gap in the history of Neoplatonism between Iamblichus and Syrianus or Proclus.

I am persuaded that Baltes’ book represents an important inquiry into Victorinus’ philosophy and offers a successful attempt at synthesising the complexity and the obscurity that permeate the Opera Theologica and, at the same time, contributes to the reconstruction of a deep and rigorous philosophical system.


1.This can receive a confirmation by considering, vice versa, the increasing renown of his contemporary Hilary of Poitiers; it should be noted, however, that Victorinus’ philosophical education would have influenced authors like Augustine and Boethius.

2. “Victorinus shows how lively, how original, how pulsating, how stimulating and, yea, how attractive was Platonism in the fourth century. Together with Augustinus, Victorinus represents the best example that, for an intellectual, the reception of Christian doctrines was possible only through Neoplatonism, the dominating spiritual trend at the time” (p.125).

3.Victorinus translated and rearranged in his work some sections of Plotinus’ Enneads and seems to have known Porphyry’s exegesis of the Chaldean Oracles and in his early years wrote a commentary, now almost entirely lost, on the Isagoge.

4.Baltes has already offered another contribution on the same in the miscellaneous volume Metaphysik und Religion. Zur Signatur des spätantiken Denkens, edited by Th. Kobusch-M. Erler-I. Männlein Robert (München 2002, pp. 99-120).

5.Candidus must be a fictitious interlocutor, invented by Victorinus to reassert the rightness of the Nicene position.

6. It should have been observed that in defining Christ as angulus Trinitatis, Victorinus linked Pythagorean and Scriptural terminology — cfr. p. 74; the source metaphor, p. 41, is already in Tertullian, not to mention an eclectic writing like the Gnostic Tractatus Tripartitus.

7.These include the distinction between intelligibles and intellectuals, and between participates and imparticipates) and strongly influenced by the Anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides, which Baltes is inclined to date after Porphyry.