BMCR 2009.05.05

Plato and Theodoret: The Christian Appropriation of Platonic Philosophy and the Hellenic Intellectual Resistance. Cambridge Classical Studies

, Plato and Theodoret: The Christian Appropriation of Platonic Philosophy and the Hellenic Intellectual Resistance. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xi, 267. ISBN 9780521880732. $95.00.

In spite of a good critical edition and French translation by P. Canivet in the Sources Chretiennes series (volumes 57.I and II, Paris, 1958), Theodoret’s On the Cure of Greek Diseases (in this review named simply the Curatio), written in the early fifth century by the bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria, has received a near total neglect in Anglophone scholarship. A remedy to this ancient remedy-book’s poor modern reception had been partly provided by D. Ridings’ useful The Attic Moses (Göteborg, 1995) and more recently by I. Pásztori-Kupán’s translated selections (London/New York, 2006). Otherwise, the lack of a full-scale monograph on the apologetic treatise has remained until the book under review here.1 At the very outset, therefore, Siniossoglou is to be commended for making the first book-length analysis of Theodoret’s apologetic treatise in English and (hopefully) sparking greater interest in a work that is so central for understanding the cultural and intellectual battleground between “pagans,” or rather Hellenes, and Christians in late antiquity. Though Theodoret may not have fallen so readily into the citational temptations that are often seen as entanglements of Eusebius of Caesarea’s apologetic method, the fifth century therapist of Greek intellectual and spiritual diseases seems almost wholly reliant on his predecessors (both Clement of Alexandria and even more, Eusebius himself) for his quotations from Greek authors, especially Plato. While treating the issue of Theodoret’s originality or dependency on earlier apologists at key points in his analysis, Siniossoglou primarily seeks a critical engagement with his hermeneutic method as applied to Plato vis-à-vis his non-Christian Neoplatonic contemporaries.

One trend in modern scholarship is to see Christian apologetic texts as aimed at a largely Christian audience in further solidifying their faith and as invoking outsiders as more of a rhetorical flourish.2 But Theodoret’s audience, according to Siniossoglou, consisted of contemporary Hellenes—those who had refused to succumb to the pressures of Christianization and who had varying levels of philosophical training, from the Neoplatonist teachers themselves to those imperial officials who may have had only limited familiarity with the philosophical bases and frameworks of pagan theological reflection (Chapter One).3 If this assumption about Theodoret’s audience is correct (and it certainly seems so, based on internal evidence alone), then it is a fair concern to investigate the extent to which the apologist’s argument and reading strategies would have been acceptable to such an audience. In each of four major areas in which Theodoret engaged with the Platonic corpus Siniossoglou offers a resounding and emphatic answer: the Christian apologist failed completely, in spite of knowing better, to adopt the interpretive framework of his non-Christian contemporaries. Instead, he sought to “rewrite” Plato in a persistently Christianizing manner that casually ignored the more felicitous reading strategies of the Neoplatonists.

Even more unsettling, Theodoret not only misread Plato, Siniossoglou argues, but also misrepresented his pagan contemporaries themselves. Regarding the first issue, pagan monotheism, Theodoret sought to mark out an unbridgeable gap between Plato and his philosophical heirs in late antiquity (Chapter Two). For the apologist, Plato had been a proponent of monotheism and had only allowed some references to a plurality of gods in his dialogues because he feared a backlash similar to that of Socrates (69-70). Platonists of later centuries, however, stubbornly failed, in Theodoret’s portrayal, to follow the monotheistic impulse of Plato and instead perpetuated the polytheism of the masses. Siniossoglou counters Theodoret on both contentions: Plato accepted polytheism in some places (especially the Laws), not out of fear of the masses, but because polytheistic practices carried the civic function of “enhancing mass conformity with the laws of the state” (71), and philosophical Hellenes of late antiquity subsumed their polytheism within deeper monotheistic tendencies, which might better be named “cultic henotheism” (74). This is not all: Theodoret is guilty of a further misrepresentation. Not only does he misrepresent Plato and his late antique disciples, he also obfuscates the contemporary Christian perpetuation of polytheistic tendencies. Following other scholars of “pagan monotheism” (especially M. Frede), Siniossoglou contends that the Christian veneration of saints, the Virgin Mary, and angels, as well as their Trinitarian formulations, obviate the validity of any apologetic claims that Christians were strictly monotheist (75-81). While this reviewer would prefer to see further analysis of late antique monotheism as a distinctively Jewish and Christian rhetorical construct, which is rare if not entirely lacking from pagan religious and theological formulations,4 Siniossoglou has here brought a number of helpful passages to our consideration, from Plato and Aristotle (in the classical period) to Simplicius (nearly a century after Theodoret wrote his Curatio).

The second area of engagement with Plato’s thought involves asceticism and the conception of the body in the philosopher’s pursuit of truth (Chapter Three). Here Siniossoglou argues that Theodoret misrepresented Plato’s notion of philosophia so as to correspond with the extreme asceticism of the Syrian hermits. The Christian ascetics thus become “the true heirs of Plato’s ethical theory” (109). Theodoret, according to Siniossoglou, adopts the language of Plato but infuses the language with Christian meanings alien to the philosopher. Whereas the flight or “escape from earth to heaven” of Plato’s Tht. 176a5-b3 had originally been asserted within a context of political despotism, Theodoret inserted the terminology of flight within the context of the mortification of the flesh practiced by Christian (but not Neoplatonic) ascetics (110-111). Platonic philosophers rightly, Siniossoglou supposes, understood the “escape” of Plato to be a way of life within, rather than apart from, the context of social and civic life (115).5 Along with “escape,” Theodoret’s misappropriation of the Platonic language of “philosophy” and the “pursuit of death” was part of his generally deliberate misreading, or “rewriting,” of Plato’s texts. Against the prevailing view (of P. Canivet, Ph. Rousseau and Th. Urbainczyk) Siniossoglou contends that the bishop was the advocate of the bizarre and strikingly unplatonic behavior performed by the ascetic exhibitionists of the Syrian wilderness, such as Symeon and Maron. In this, Siniossoglou leaves the Curatio behind and focuses almost exclusively on Theodoret’s later Historia Religiosa (115-122, 131-144). At this point, some readers may remain unconvinced by Siniossoglou’s rejection of previous claims to Theodoret as a proponent of only a moderate asceticism. More significantly, however, one wonders whether it is appropriate to blame Theodoret for not behaving with the thoroughgoing consistency valued by a modern philosopher in two works that are so different with respect to rhetorical aims, authorial self-positioning, and the social and intellectual contexts of their presumed audiences.

The next area that Theodoret drops the philosophical and interpretive ball, according to Siniossoglou, is in his misappropriation of the cosmological and eschatological myths of Plato’s dialogues (Chapter Four). Theodoret takes them out of context, interprets them literally (according to lexis rather than nous), and then only appropriates those elements that are compatible with the Bible (or rather, late antique Christian readings of the Bible). Significantly, in this deceptive misreading of Plato, Theodoret is guilty of the very interpretive blunders that he elsewhere faults heretics for performing. While Theodoret may have followed earlier Platonists and Christian apologists in equating the Demiurge with the Idea of the Good (in the Republic) and hence with the Paradigm (in the Timaeus), he goes further than his sources and attempts to clinch his argument that the creation account of Plato resonates with that of the Bible by tampering with the text of the Republic 509b6-10 (a text that even Eusebius had left unaltered; see Praep. ev. 11.21). Furthermore, unlike his Neoplatonist contemporaries, Siniossoglou avers, Theodoret’s literalist readings highlighted certain consistencies between Plato and the biblical text alongside other inconsistencies within Plato himself, a thing which would have led a Neoplatonist to adopt an allegorical approach. Though he frequently allowed for figurative and mystical interpretations of his own Scriptures (albeit avoiding the word allegoria, 168), he remained undeterred in his strict literalism toward Plato’s corpus (162-169). As with Theodoret’s discovery in Plato of an omnipotent individual creator God who created time and the universe externally from it, so with his discovery of an eschatological end in Plato—the apologist maintained a disregard for the contexts and aims (the skopos) of Plato’s myths within their dialogues and within his thought generally.

Finally, in the area of political theology Theodoret seems at first to be adopting Platonic ideas but is again found ultimately to be putting Platonic language to his own very Christian, very imperializing, purposes (Chapter Five). Plato’s conception of nomos in the Laws as divine and manifestations of Intellect, as well as his notion of the philosopher-king governing by appeal to the higher Forms in the Republic, appears, according to Siniossoglou, in late antique Hellenic thought (especially Julian) as embedded within the properly run polis (203). And hence it may be named the “divinization of the Hellenic polis” (207) since the “assimilation to God” of the Theaetetus involved justice and piety. (It should be noted that most of the Platonic passages invoked by Siniossoglou at this point are not cited in Theodoret, e.g., none of the passages listed on 203 can be found in the Curatio —hardly a fair move in an analysis of how the apologist interpreted Plato since he seems to have known Plato almost exclusively through Clement and Eusebius.) Theodoret misappropriates these concepts, Siniossoglou claims, using the language of assimilation to the divine to refer to Christian piety within the context of the oikoumene, not the polis or ethnos. The actual laws of Plato’s Republic and Laws were rejected by Theodoret, while the philosopher’s notion of a transcendent divine law was left; this required “a rewriting of Plato in order to diminish the obvious discrepancy between the ideal Platonic city-state and Constantine’s Christianized Empire” (208-209; Siniossoglou conveniently avoids passages in the Neoplatonists that are markedly similar to the Curatio, e.g., Proclus, Comm.Tim. 1.203-204). Oddly, in a world that was also less kind to Jews, Siniossoglou names Theodoret’s strategy the “Judaizing of Plato” (202).6 The social order that Theodoret legitimizes is not a pretty picture: tyrants and slavery appear as part of God’s divine plan for human society, or rather, they are God’s response to human sinfulness (disappointingly, nearly all of the material Siniossoglou invokes here comes from works later than the Curatio).7

Siniossoglou’s monograph is a sobering reflection on the ways in which Christian apologists could be unfair to the Hellenic heritage that they sought, awkwardly, to engage with and pass on to the Byzantine world. What Numenius had claimed the early Academy accomplished—namely, to rend Plato’s thought limb from limb worse than any Pentheus (Num. ap. Eus. Praep. ev. 14.5.8)—had occurred even more forcefully and methodically at the hands of the Christian apologists, of whom Theodoret stands as the foremost fifth-century exponent. Yet, while Theodoret certainly deserves to be roundly criticized from the point of view of modern interpretations of Plato as well as from late antique Neoplatonist interpretations, one wonders how fair Siniossoglou has been. Persistently favoring one side of late antiquity’s culture wars over the other (even if the one side had become the underdog) is only partly helpful in doing the work of the history of cultural, religious and intellectual conflict in late antiquity (though it should be noted that Siniossoglou’s work is ostensibly meant to be philosophical in nature, not historical). In spite of the fact that Theodoret and his fellow Christians were adopting poor reading habits, legitimizing social and political injustice, and undermining “true” philosophy with their privileging of illiterate exhibitionist ascetics as the embodiment of the philosophic life, their writings in the fourth and fifth centuries evince a creative genius in compiling and organizing all knowledge (including Plato’s thought), and reformulating it within a new master narrative that bore the dual tendencies of both constraining all knowledge and all knowers and“democratizing” and decentering the centers of knowledge and the paths that knowers might take.

As part of this late antique intellectual and cultural project, Theodoret’s interpretive framework for Plato within the Curatio must be located within the development of the “dependency theme” much more emphatically than Siniossoglou allows. Claims that Greeks were dependent upon more ancient traditions propounded by various eastern nations were especially prominent in Christian apologetic texts, though it is a trend that runs back through Jewish apologetics and Hellenistic historiography to Herodotus himself. While Theodoret disjoins Eusebius’ earlier narrative presentation in order to offer his own topical arrangement in the Curatio, the same narrative of dependency informs the entirety of the latter work. Seen from this perspective, Theodoret is not so much “rewriting” Plato, as attempting to identify those places where a more ancient Hebrew wisdom may be found in Plato’s corpus, like gems encrusted in rock and earth. For Theodoret, the only legitimate interpretive approach to any Greek philosophical work cannot, therefore, be allegorical—it must be source-critical (see e.g., 2.114-115; 6.29, 31, 33).

Some of his pagan contemporaries would have found his approach unsatisfactory since they were not willing to adopt the master historical narrative that undergirded such an approach. Yet, at least some Platonist philosophers who preceded Theodoret were not only open to barbarian wisdom but were even willing to allow that Plato himself derived some of his ideas from non-Greek sources (see Porphyry, On Free Will, fr. 271.100-104 Smith; In Remp., fr. 187 Smith). Porphyry would have been quite displeased were he to read the Curatio‘s polemical handling of Plato’s texts—as well as his own (see Curatio 3.65; 7.36-37). Theodoret’s dismissal of allegorical interpretation of Plato could never have sat well with any late antique Platonist (their disagreements were over how and when to see an allegorical referent in the master’s corpus, not whether to look for such referents at all; see e.g., Iamblichus on Porphyry, ap. Proclus, Comm.Tim. 116.21-117.27, though this is only one among many disagreements between the two recorded by Proclus).

However, we (and probably even Porphyry) should not be too surprised at a polemicist reading the texts of the opponent polemically. At the root of the allegory issue, for both Platonists and Christians, was the assumption that allegorical interpretation was appropriate only in regard to texts that were deemed by the interpreter to be authentic (and hence, authoritative) screens concealing a deeper truth. Most Christians, therefore, would only rarely allow an allegorical interpretation of non-Scriptural texts. And likewise Platonists would only rarely grant allegorical interpretations of the Christian Scriptures. One only clouds the issues if one faults Porphyry for not allowing the Christians to allegorize their Scriptures—just as if one faults Theodoret for not allowing the Platonists to allegorize their authoritative texts. At least for Theodoret, source criticism allowed the interpreter to uncover the sources for the truths found in Plato, while allegory would be most appropriate to those (Hebrew) source texts, not the later and only partially accurate (Greek) text which had copied from them. A revealing study would be one which reads the commentaries of Plato’s (and Aristotle’s) works by the Neoplatonists alongside Theodoret’s commentaries on the Scriptures (in other words, to ask how a late antique thinker read texts treated authoritatively by himself, rather than how he read the texts treated authoritatively by those he sought to attack).8 It is hoped that Siniossoglou’s treatment—insightful and provocative in so many ways and which now stands as essential reading for anyone interested in late antique Christian engagements with the Hellenic heritage—will be a catalyst for such studies.


1. It is hoped that Yannis Papadoyannakis’ fine study will soon appear in print (“Christian Therapeia and Politeia : The Apologetics of Theodoret of Cyrrhus Against the Greeks,” Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 2004).

2. While I am somewhat hesitant to dismiss references to a pagan audience as a “mere rhetorical flourish” (as I phrase it here), I would otherwise count myself within this approach to (most) early apologetic literature; see, e.g., “Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica as Literary Experiment,” in S. Johnson, ed., Greek Literature in Late Antiquity: Dynamism, Didacticism, Classicism (Aldershot, 2006), 67-89.

3. Lacking, however, is an analysis of the extent to which Neoplatonists (or other pagans) were interested in ascribing the label “Hellene” to themselves. This reviewer would observe that Porphyry and Iamblichus had rather different ways of identifying themselves in ethnic or cultural terms than did, say, Julian or Proclus; see my “Hellenism and its Discontents” in Oxford Handbook on Late Antiquity, ed., Scott F. Johnson (Oxford, forthcoming), which also contains limited discussion of Theodoret’s use of the label “Hellene” and its cognates.

4. That is, Jews and Christians adopt a heightened rhetoric of monotheism vs. polytheism and maintain a vocabulary appropriate to that distinction (and thus are at special pains to explicate biblical passages that refer to gods in the plural, such as Ps. 82:6 and Jn. 10:34); whereas pagans may adopt the title of One God and see it as consonant with Plato’s One or Good they do not reject the language of many gods, i.e., the lesser beings below the One may still legitimately be given the appellation of “god” (this is precisely Theodoret’s point at Curatio 3.87-88). Christians systematically sought to name the many “so-called gods” of antiquity as either angels or daemons; but for pagans, angels and daemons are additional levels of the divine hierarchy and do not necessarily replace the gods. Of course, Julian himself criticized Christians for failing in a strict monotheism by their perpetuation of the cult of the martyrs ( c.Galil. 201e), which he labels the worship of daemons (ibid., 224e). Elsewhere, he attacked Christian belief and worship of Christ as a second god as preempting their claims to monotheism (ibid., 253c-277a; 290e-291a) while even the Hebrew Scriptures fall short in their monotheism by containing references to angels as gods (ibid., 290b-d). But even Julian asserted that the main difference between Jews and gentiles (“the nations”) is that only the former consider God to be one (ibid. 306b). An anti-Christian treatise that (playfully) manipulates so many of the topoi of earlier Christian apologetics may not be quite representative of pagan, or Greek, thought in late antiquity. This reviewer admits that the issue is an especially complicated one and this note can only gesture at what might be a fruitful approach. We must await the forthcoming volumes edited by S. Mitchell and P. Van Nuffelen, which promise to provide helpful ways in which to pursue the issue of ancient monotheisms (and in which Siniossoglou, it appears, has a contribution).

5. One wonders how Siniossoglou might explain the thinking of Porphyry, who lauds the asceticism of the Essenes even in their resistance to Roman rule (Abst. 4.11-14), and seems to interpret Platonic “escape” as flight from this world and the cycles of embodiment of the soul (Regr. anim. frr. 297, 301, 301a Smith).

6. In fact, Theodoret makes seriously de-Judaizing moves in the Curatio, e.g., at 2.58; 7.16-21; even if the Expositio rect. confess. is not referring to the Curatio, when it mentions a book “against both Jews and Greeks” (= Ps.-Justin, PG 6, 1208A, adopting the emendation ad loc). Theodoret does, of course, believe that Plato was indebted to the Hebrew writings for those elements deemed good or true in his philosophical thought. The label “Judaizing,” however, obscures the identity Theodoret is at pains to construct for the Jews in this apologetic work.

7. Were one to attempt a defense of Theodoret against Siniossoglou’s criticisms (which this reviewer will not do), one could easily locate a number of passages that would resonate with modern sensibilities; e.g., social and ethnic egalitarianism ( Curatio 1.10-11, 19-25, passim; 5.55, 58-60, 68; 9.15) and even a move towards gender equality (see esp. 5.57, 68; though see 3.89-91 and 9.39-40).

8. One would also want to confine oneself as much as possible to those Neoplatonists who predate Theodoret (and not so much the later philosophers like Proclus or Simplicius) so as to determine the extent and nature of the Christian bishop’s dependency on, or reaction to, that commentary tradition.