BMCR 2020.03.31

Penser Dieu: noétique et métaphysique dans l’Antiquité tardive

Anca Vasiliu, Penser Dieu: noétique et métaphysique dans l'Antiquité tardive. Bibliothèque d'histoire de la philosophie: nouvelle série . Paris: Librarie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2018. 410 p.. ISBN 9782711628285 €34.00 (pb).

This book is a complex attempt at following closely different late antique approaches for describing how “thinking God” is possible. The different conceptions developed by late ancient authors are described according to their common traits and strategies as well as according to their differences, which the author describes in a subtle and competent way. This is particularly useful, because the book treats pagan Neoplatonics like Plotinus and Porphyry , the Jew Philo, and Christian authors (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa) alike. Whereas most authors treated here have written in Greek, some Latin voices are also taken into account, especially Marius Victorinus and the Liber XXIV philosophorum which is usually (but not without dispute) reckoned to be a medieval text. However, the texts in themselves are not the topic of the study, but, more generally, the strategies by which their authors approach the problem of thinking God. Consequently, Vasiliu presents a systematic argumentation in three main steps, which is illustrated by selected texts from the specific authors.

The book starts with a “provocation,” which gives a sketch of the problems. They are characterized by a combination of noetic and metaphysics, because especially the relationship between act and potentiality plays a crucial role for describing the noetic activity of thinking God. After the provocation, an “introduction” reminds the reader of some important statements by Plato and Aristotle, which pave the way for the late ancient discussion. The main part contains three large chapters:

The first of them focuses on the notion of an image. It starts by analyzing a text by Philo of Alexandria in De opificio mundi, according to which the human nous is an image implanted by God in man’s creation such that the physical human being “carries a statue” (agalmatophorein) in itself which explains its capacity to think God by its ability to think about the divine image in itself. This observation is explained by some historical remarks on the theories of image between Plato and Porphyry, before it is further developed by a close reading of some texts of Marius Victorinus.

The second chapter treats directly the notions of act and potency in the noetic realm as they are developed especially by Plotinus, whose elaborations form the core of the chapter. Again, Marius Victorinus is also quoted at length because he transposed the Plotinian conception into a Christian, Latin framework, where he stresses mainly the unity of the divine substance in spite of the distinction between act and potency.

The third part treats the relationship between the individual and the universal: The first of its sub-chapters focuses on the theories of the trinity by Basil, who sees a “common honour” of the three divine persons, and of Victorinus, who develops the concepts of relationships further. Very interesting is the second sub-chapter, because it discusses the concept of hypostasis and its inherent possibility of describing an individual entity before the horizon of the common nature of a species, which is present in a concrete form in the individual hypostasis. Vasiliu underlines this point as well as the interest of various late antique philosophers in treating individuality, which she observes already in Plotinus and Porphyry, but which gets much more conspicuous in Basil and Victorinus. The result of this process is Boethius’s famous formularationalis naturae individua substantia. The last sub-chapter discusses the relationship between “one” and “total” on the one and “oneness” and “totality” on the other hand. Here, Vasiliu uses a text of the Liber XXIV philosophorum as starting point for displaying the presence of similar, but slightly different, conceptions in Plotinus and Porphyry.

The main ideas are repeated briefly in the resumé which may be recommended for anybody who wants to comprehend its argument without reading each chapter.

All in all, it should have become clear that this is a remarkable book, which presents many ideas not very well known among those many students of late ancient philosophy who deal mainly or exclusively with Neoplatonic authors, while ignoring their Christian contemporaries. Furthermore, it is a systematic analysis, which develops its arguments by a very personal selection of texts. On the one hand, Marius Victorinus (intensively treated by French scholars from Pierre Hadot onward) is treated at length, on the other hand, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Proclus, and Damascius are nearly totally absent, in spite of their crucial contributions to the problems discussed here. This is, however, no general failure of this book, it is simply the result of the choice of certain texts for illustrating the problems discussed. Of course, one may wonder, that certain texts are lacking, for example the very neat presentation of the notion of hypostasis in Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Graecos de notionibus communibus. However, the importance of Penser Dieu lays in the systematic path it follows throughout, while highlighting the philosophical implications and justifications also of such texts and authors who discuss specifically Christian problems of the trinity. Vasiliu shows that they use amply and competently philosophical concepts, such that their thoughts deserve to be evaluated philosophically also by today’s scholarship.

Thus, there are plenty of good reasons for anybody interested in late ancient philosophy of studying this book, even if it is no easy reading, given its partly very complicated and somewhat repetitive French style. Anybody who really wants to understand the late ancient discourse on the thought about God should not hesitate to consult Penser Dieu, which is well suited to open new perspectives even for experienced researchers in this field.