BMCR 2010.10.11

Le livre des vingt-quatre philosophes: résurgence d’un texte du IVe siècle. Histoire des doctrines de l’antiquité classique 39

, , Le livre des vingt-quatre philosophes: résurgence d'un texte du IVe siècle. Histoire des doctrines de l'antiquité classique 39. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2009. 225. ISBN 9782711619566. €32.00 (pb).

Françoise Hudry’s study, text, and translation of the Liber XXIV philosophorum offers the first monograph-length study of this curious medieval text. As a work that has heretofore been classed as “medieval” and hence has received slight attention from classicists and ancient philosophers, it deserves something by way of introduction. The anonymous work purports to be a discussion of the definition of God, preparatory to a philosophical debate among twenty-four philosophers. Twenty-four definitions follow, each accompanied by a short commentary or explanation. The Liber XXIV philosophorum ( Liber hereafter) is known from a number of medieval manuscripts, and Hudry was herself the editor of the standard critical edition (Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis 143A [Turnhout: Brepols, 1997]). The earliest manuscript differs from the rest of the tradition in ways that suggested to Hudry that it may represent a much earlier text. The volume under review represents the results of Hudry’s detailed study of this earliest manuscript. Hudry demonstrates convincingly that this text, which first appeared in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, is in fact the work of the fourth century Christian philosopher Marius Victorinus. Consequently, this provocative study, coupled with Latin text, French translation, and detailed notes, reveals an important new source for the study of late-ancient Christianity and later ancient philosophy.

The monographic portion of the book offers both a brief introduction to the text (in the “Introduction” and “Chapitre Premier”) and Hudry’s detailed arguments for Victorinus’ authorship ( Chapitres II-VII).

The second chapter, “Les Sources,” is the most dense and complex—yet this is also the most rewarding chapter, and shows the author’s philological and analytical skills. Here, Hudry traces the sources behind each of the twenty-four definitions. Narrative analyses are supplemented with helpful tables illustrating the different sources the Liber’s author used in composing each definition and commentary. Hudry concludes that the Liber is based on a distinct set of source-texts: Aristotle (particularly texts relating to the prime-mover and intellect), Plotinus’ Enneads, the biblical book of Wisdom, and Philo of Alexandria. Two sources, moreover, emerge as especially central: the anonymous Turin Commentary on Parmenides, and a number of works of Porphyry of Tyre. This ensemble of sources, Hudry explains, suggests a date of composition somewhere in the fourth century—a period when the philosophy of Plotinus and Porphyry, and the works of Philo, enjoyed currency among a relatively small cadre of Latin Christian intellectuals that included Marius Victorinus.

Hudry’s analysis of the treatise’s Definition II (“God is a sphere without limit, the center of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere”) is characteristic of her detailed and compelling treatment of the Liber’s sources (35-42). The definition, she contends, draws from Porphyry’s explanation of Pythagorean interpretation of the sphere as the figure of the “perfect” number, three—having as it does a “beginning, middle, and end” in itself—and the anonymous Commentary on Parmenides, which describes the One’s circular, self-thinking mode of being in terms of existence, intellect, and life (36-37). Alongside this latter passage, Hudry adduces two parallel treatments of the spherical procession/self-reflexivity of Intellect in Porphyry’s Sententiae and History of Philosophy. The author of the Liber also seems to know Philo’s description of τὸ ὄν in terms of a sphere “having neither length nor breadth” (Philo, Quis rerum 229). In addition, the definition and commentary appear to draw upon biblical texts, especially Ecclesiastes 24:5 (“I alone have traversed the circle of the heavens”) and 24:4 (“I inhabit the highest regions”). Finally, Hudry points out a parallel in Victorinus’ Adversus Arium I 60, 12-15, which describes the relationship between God the Father and Logos using the image of a sphere and in terms of the Porphyrian triad of existence, intellect, and life. The author of the Liber (Victorinus) thus develops an original Latin idiom for articulating Nicene theology through intertextual relationships between Porphyrian discourse concerning the threefold modality of the One in existence, intellect, and life, on the one hand, and Philo and the biblical books of Wisdom and Ecclesiastes, on the other.

In her third chapter, Hudry shows that the Liber is Porphyrian in its structure and mode of composition as well. Like Porphyry’s Sententiae, the Liber presents a series of short arguments that lead the reader towards comprehension of intelligible being—in the case of the Sententiae all intelligible being, while in the Liber the absolute intelligible being, the Christian God. Hudry also points out the similarities in the way these two texts are composed: both consist of quotations from source texts that have been adapted and developed to fit the needs of a primer. Where Porphyry’s Sententiae has Plotinus’ Enneads as its main source, the Liber draws heavily from Porphyry’s own works, including the Sententiae.

Hudry is keen throughout to show that the Liber does not merely quote source texts, but interacts with them to construct an original Latin Christian theological idiom. Hence, the second half of her third chapter is devoted to elaborating how we must understand “translation” and the “use of sources” in the case of this text. She identifies several different modes of translation. These range from the simple and straightforward transposition of a Greek phrase or sentence to complex translations in which the Liber’s translation seeks to interpret differing vocabulary in its sources. Most engaging here is Hudry’s discussion of the Liber’s ontological vocabulary. She shows that the author uses the term essentia as a technical term for defining the deep nature of God’s being, in contrast to existential, the mere fact of existence. This terminological distinction is rare, but elaborated by Marius Victorinus in his anti-Arian treatises.

The fourth chapter reads the Liber as an anti-Arian work. Hudry shows the ways in which the Liber responds to key Arian theses. One might take issue with the fact that “Arianism” appears as somewhat monolithic in this chapter; indeed, the Arian theses she considers are those ascribed to Arius himself in texts of the 320’s. Hudry’s already strong argument for Victorinus’ authorship might have been further strengthened by indicating more precisely how the Liber responds to the Arianism current in the Latin west during Victorinus’ floruit. This is but a minor criticism; Nicene theologians tended, of course, to write as much in response to Arian “straw men” as to “real” subordinationist contemporaries. The Neoplatonic doctrine of hierarchical procession, though, could also be deployed to buttress subordinationist theologies. Indeed, blaming Arianism on Porphyry may have begun in the early fourth century. The historian Socrates Scholasticus preserves a letter of Constantine that labels the Arians “Porphyrians” (HE 1.9.20). The Byzantine scholar Michael Psellus, in a passage quoted by Hudry (101-102), claimed that Arian subordinationism was prompted by Porphyry’s Sententiae 13: “Everything that generates in virtue of its essence engenders something less than itself.” Hudry’s adroitly navigates readers through the ways in which the Liber not only draws on the Porphyrian corpus, but interprets it so as to counter subordinationist readings of texts like Sententiae 13.

Chapters V and VI examine, respectively, the works of Marius Victorinus and references to the work of Victorinus in later authors for evidence that might locate the Liber within Victorinus’ oeuvre. In the case of Victorinus’ anti-Arian works, Hudry notes several references in to an earlier work or works that examined the nature of divine ontology. The strongest of these testimonia come from Victorinus’ Commentary on Phillipians, where he notes that he has elsewhere explained that “God is…himself primary being, and is himself what has life and intellect” (124) and Against Arius, where he writes that he has previously published the speculations of “philosophers and men learned in the Law” concering ” ὄν and λόγος.” These references would appear to describe the Liber, which adopts and adapts the Porphyrian triad being, intellect, life, figured by the infinite sphere, to negotiate a Christian theology of God as primary being and creative Logos. They would also provide a terminus ante quem for the Liber; Hudry suggests a date between 355-358 C.E., slightly before Victorinus’ extant anti-Arian works. Hudry finds additional evidence for linking the Liber with Victorinus in Augustine’s well-known account in the Confessions of his reading of Victorinus’ translations of Platonic texts. She points out that Simplicanus congratulated Augustine for reading Victorinus’ translation of quidam libri platonicorum because the translation “insinuates” God and the Word everywhere. This would certainly describe the tenor of the Liber.

Hudry’s arguments for Victorinus’ authorship are well-reasoned and, for this reviewer, convincing. Yet, one element of the argument is, perhaps, a bit overstated. In assessing possible testimonia in Victorinus, Augustine, and Jerome, Hudry argues for interpreting plural phrases such as alii libri, quidam libri platonicorum, and libri obscuri as references to a single work. She is of course correct to note that the plural libri can refer to a single work comprised of a number of subdivisions each referred to as a “book,” or liber. The plural can also refer collectively, however, to a number of distinct works—hence the customary translation of Augustine’s phrase quidam libri platonicorum as “some books of the Platonists.” Indeed, two of the testimomia Hudry adduces would seem to militate against reading these plurals as references to a single work. First, while Victorinus refers in several texts to alii libri he has written, in the Commentary on Ephesians he mentions unus liber addressing the soteriological mystery of the passion, resurrection, and ascension. Hudry takes this as a possible testimonium to the Liber. Whether or not this is correct, it is clear that Victorinus does differentiate between a collectivity of “other books” and specific works. Likewise in Augustine’s Confessions, the famous “books of the Platonists” seems better explained as a collection of works. The Confessions betrays knowledge of—even offers near quotations of—Plotinian and Porphyrian turns of phrase that we do not find in the Liber. Victorinus is known to have translated other Platonic books—Porphyry’s Isagoge for instance, and Augustine appears to know more of the Platonists than offered in the Liber. Finally, Jerome’s entry on Victorinus in On Illustrious Men references libri obscuri written in “dialectical style ( more dialectico)” against Arius. Hudry again contends that this might describe the Liber better than Victorinus extant anti-Arian works. Jerome’s reference to commentarios in Apostolum in the same sentence, though, suggests that we should read the “obscure books” as a collective reference to anti-Arian treatises (of which the Liber is one) just as the latter phrase refers collectively to Victorinus’ commentaries. This, again, is a minor critique; these testimonia do, in the end, support Hudry’s arguments for Victorinus authorship of the Liber, if the Liber is taken as included in these collective plurals. Nor should this critique diminish the import of Hudry’s arguments for the study of Augustine. Whether the Liber is itself the “books of the Platonists” translated by Victorinus or one of them, Hudry’s research has opened new doors to understanding not only what Platonic books Augustine read, but the way in which his reading was mediated through Victorinus’ interpretive translations.

The edition and facing French translation is a success in its own right. As noted above, Hudry was responsible for the standard common edition of the Liber. Here she offers an edition of the earliest manuscript (Laon, Bibliotèque municipale 412), which had originally prompted her to investigate the possible late-ancient origins of the Liber. The mise en page of the edition and translation is clear and functional. Hudry’s notes are especially useful; all parallels and sources are quoted in the original language and French translation. This aids the reader greatly in following Hudry’s source-critical arguments in the monographic portion of the volume. The translation is consistent and precise. Hudry has taken great care to convey the Neoplatonic valences of the philosophical vocabulary, yet does so without obscuring the difficulties involved in translating a Latin text that itself translates a Greek philosophical vocabulary. Hudry’s notes frequently discuss key translation choices and supplement her analysis of the texts philosophical vocabulary.

Hudry’s study will reinvigorate the debates and controversy prompted by Pierre Hadot’s classic Porphyre et Victorinus (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1968). Hudry has made available a “new” fourth-century text that offers new insight into rapports between Neoplatonic philosophy and Christian theology in the fourth century. Perhaps the greatest strength of Hudry’s analysis lies in her skill in showing not only that the author of the Liber drew upon Porphyry, Aristotle, and so forth, but in demonstrating exactly how he deployed these texts to craft a Christian theological primer attuned both to the philosophical currents and Christian doctrinal disputes of his day.