BMCR 2020.04.32

La prière dans la tradition platonicienne, de Platon à Proclus

, La prière dans la tradition platonicienne, de Platon à Proclus. Recherches sur les rhétoriques religieuses, 22. Turnhout: Brepols, 2017. 296 p.. ISBN 9782503574820 €90,00 (pb).

This engaging revision of a postdoctoral thesis explores ideas of prayer in Greek Platonism, from Plato to the Second Alcibiades, Maximus of Tyre, Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus. Timotin co-edited a 2016 volume on prayer in Platonism, Platonic Theories of Prayer, and in 2020 Théories et pratiques de la prière à la fin de l’Antiquité. In the book under review, Timotin does not include Jewish and Christian Platonists, such as Philo, Origen, and Evagrius, although there is a comparison between Porphyry’s and Origen’s treatment of prayer.

After a short Introduction (Chapter I), Chapter II is devoted to Plato’s distinction between the impious’ and the sages’ prayers and his theorisation of prayer according to the law. One alternative that Plato sets out seems to me to have been taken over by Epicurus: “the gods exist, but they are uninterested in human business” (the other alternative being that they are interested, but are not easily influenced by sacrifices and prayers, Laws 888BC). Plato describes piety as the result of δικαιοσύνη, σωφροσύνη, and φρόνησις (Laws 906AB: 26, 36): the relation between piety towards God, justice, and asceticism is remarkable and impacts later thought.[1] The link between justice and asceticism was reinforced by Aristotle, EN 5.1129B, on the ἄδικος as πλεονέκτης (52), as Aristotle absorbed Plato’s ideas. When Patristic Platonists read Plato’s connection between πλεονεξία and ἀδικία (Laws 906CD) and the prayer for science (Critias106AB), they could not help thinking of, respectively, the parallel in 1Tim 6:10 on πλεονεξία/φιλαργυρία as the root of all evils, and Solomon’s prayer for wisdom (1Kgs 3:8). Plato’s definition of prayer as προσομιλεῖν ἀεὶ τοῖς θεοῖς (Laws716D-717Α), underlined on 36, had a long Wirkungsgeschichtein Christian Platonism, from Clement to Nyssen and Evagrius.

Chapter III deals with the Second Alcibiades’ quest for the ideal prayer. The ἄφρων’s prayer asks for something evil (usually apparent goods) and attracts misfortune. This concept derives from Plato (Laws801AB) and, I note, appears in the Stoic Persius (Satire 2). Similarly, Maximus of Tyre’s discourse Whether One Should Pray (Chapter IV) criticises traditional prayer and defines philosophical prayer. Timotin remarks that the idea that foolish prayers are useless is not so much in line with Plato’s respect for traditional religion, as with Stoicism (87). Indeed, Maximus’ position reminds me of Persius’ Stoic attack on foolish prayers.[2] Origen’s On Prayer refutes the arguments of those who, albeit believing in Providence, claimed that prayers are useless (91). His response contains a principle I find typical of Origen: the harmony between God’s prescience and providence and our free choices.[3] Maximus may be connected with Eusebius’ Maximus, who belongs to the complex tradition of the Dialogue of Adamantius, arguably reflecting Origen’s authentic thought.[4] And Eusebius was famously wery well acquainted with Origen.

The prayer of the philosopher is nonpetitionary according to Maximus, but “ὁμιλία καὶ διάλεκτος with the gods concerning the present goods.” ‘Oμιλία καὶ διάλεκτος comes from Plato, Symp. 203A. The definition of prayer as ὁμιλία was typical of Clement Strom.; other Christians followed him, for instance Nyssen Or.Dom. 1 and Evagrius. In Plato ὁμιλία does not refer to prayer: thus, the link with prayer is first established by Maximus and Clement. Clement and Origen knew Maximus; moreover, in Clement the prayer is on the present goods, like in Maximus. Origen knew Maximus. Already Pépin suggested that the “care or providence” argument was known to both Maximus and Origen.[5] Indeed, Origen’s De oratione responds precisely to Maximus’ objections to prayer in Diss. 5, Whether One Should Pray. Origen summarises these objections (Or. 5.6): God’s foreknowledge and determinism make prayer useless; if everything happens according to God’s βούλησις, and God cannot change his βουλεύματα, there is no point in praying. Origen replies (Or. 6.4): the Godhead in its πρόγνωσις foresees but does not determine one’s choices, and in its πρόνοια arranges everything according to what is reasonable and worthy. One should pray for things “worthy of God,” as the Sentences of Sextus (familiar to Origen) 122 maintained. The same was recommended by Porphyry, Marc. 24.

Chapter V treats Plotinus’ critique of “magic” prayer and his “prayer of the Nous”. In Enn. 3.2-3, Plotinus argues that divine providence exists, it is not limited to the sublunar world, and the world is beautiful and perfect; freewill is responsible for evil. I note that Origen, his fellow-disciple at Ammonius Saccas’, also supported all these tenets. Both cited Plato, Resp. 617E, on God as non-responsible for evil, the principle of theodicy. Timotin suggests that Plotinus’ criticism of those who thought that divine providence extends to the most minute details of our existence ( was aimed at the Stoics and astrologers (109). I personally suspect that Plotinus’ criticism might also target Origen’s view that divine providence is minutissima et subtilissima (Hom.Lev. 9.8). There are, I find, other hints that Origen and Plotinus responded to each other, especially Plotinus to Origen, including in anthropology.[6]

Plotinus criticised astral determinism qua annihilating individual freewill and responsibility (110). This is another aspect that seems to me common to both Plotinus and Origen, as Origen’s writings prove. Rufinus also grasped that Origen’s aim was to defend theodicy, countering those who claimed that vel fato vel casu cuncta moveri (Ap.c.Hier. 2.12). Plotinus, as Timotin notes, criticised horoscopes (Porphyry, V.Plot. 15) and argued that stars do not produce (ποιεῖν) events, but only signify (σημαίνειν) them.[7] This reminds me of Origen’s stance (which in turn is interesting to compare with that of Bardaisan) that stars signify, but do not determine.[8] Probably, either Plotinus knew Origen’s position or both depend on a common source, possibly Ammonius Saccas.  Timotin suggests that Plotinus’ theory of the non-descended soul allows him to argue that the influence of the stars touches only the vegetative soul, not the rational one (; likewise, music influences the irrational soul alone, not the rational one and its freewill: IV 4.40.20-28). Now, this is what I argued was the position of Bardaisan, who excluded the rational soul and its free will from Fate and the influence of the stars, unlike the vegetative soul.[9] Bardaisan was likely known to Origen, and certainly in the school of Plotinus: Porphyry reported fragments from him in De Styge.

Timotin’s suggestion that the targets of Plotinus in are “Gnostics” (115) is sound: these magically constrained the soul (γοητεύειν): they are also criticized by Plotinus in for their use of magical incantations towards the gods. Plotinus’ invocation to the One without words (123-125), inspired, I suspect, Evagrius and his imageless prayer.[10] The invocation to the Nous is highlighted on 126-128; this is “one god and all” in conformity with Nous’ nature as “one and many—one as all” that Plotinus shares with Origen and other Christian Platonists such as Bardaisan and Clement, as I argued elsewhere. Porphyry V.Plot. 10 reports Plotinus’ claim that the gods should go to Plotinus rather than vice-versa; Timotin comments that Porphyry was anti-liturgical (131): he shared this attitude, I note, with Origen. Timotin rightly underscores that Plotinus distinguished between οἱ πολλοί, who practiced traditional religion, and the philosophers, whose prayers consisted in the contemplation of the One (133). Origen, I observe, although wanting all Christians to be philosophers, realised that only few can be philosophers, having the intelligence and time to do so, and can therefore account for their faith, and study its tenets philosophically; the majority will be saved by faith alone, without philosophical foundations (Cels. 1.9; 6.1; 8.22).

Chapter VI deals with Porphyry’s hierarchy of divine beings and of prayers, defence of prayer (after Plato’s in Laws 10), definition of prayer in the Letter to Anebo, and situation of prayers in the theory of sacrifice. Timotin compares Porphyry’s and Origen’s views on prayer: I see this as a part of a wider influence of Origen’s soteriology and eschatology on Porphyry, to be still examined. The three kinds of adversaries that Porphyry lists derive, as rightly noted by Timotin, from Origen’s classification in On Prayer: those who deny the divinity, or posit the divinity but reject providence, or posit both the divinity and providence, but reject prayer. Timotin’s identification of those who postulated providence but attributed to it a necessary character with the Stoics is sound; that of those who postulated deities but not providence with the Epicureans, too; one could add Aristotle followers, who denied providence at least in the sublunar sphere. This was a concern for Origen as well.[11]

In the Letter to Anebo, Porphyry reiterates Plotinus’ point against the Gnostics: prayer is not forcing deities through magic, taking advantage of the deities’ πάθος. Porphyry opposes the sage’s prayer to that of the theurgists: bad δαίμονες incite us to address to the gods sacrifices “as though the latter were enraged” (Abst. 2.37.5; 2.40.2: 154, 159). An interesting debate, helpful to Timotin’s argument, might be added here concerning the possibility of Porphyry’s dependence on Origen in his conception of the daemons, besides their common view that God is ἀπαθής. In Abst. 2.34 Porphyry observes that the only sacrifice suitable to the supreme God is a νοερὰ θυσία, a silent contemplation by an intellect free from passions, as opposed to the ὑλικὴ θυσία to evil daemons and traditional city gods, and the rational hymns to intelligible gods. Nοερὰ θυσία reminds me of Paul’s λογικὴ λατρεία (Rom 12:1).[12] The silence that honours the One transcends the ἐνδιάθετος and προφορικὸς λόγος (Abst. 3.75-75). Porphyry, I note, used this distinction to refute Origen’s Christian Logos: “If [the Son] is a logos, it is either προφορικός or ἐνδιάθετος. But if it is προφορικός, it is not substantial [οὐσιώδης], because immediately as it is uttered, it has already gone. If, on the other hand, it is ἐνδιάθετος, it will be inseparable from the Father’s nature [φύσεως]; in which case, how is it that it has separated and from there has descended to life?” (Psell. Op.Theol. 75.107–10). Porphyry was reading John 1:1 with Origen’s interpretation in mind, about the Son having the same οὐσία as the Father but a different ὑπόστασις. Therefore, Porphyry argued, if the Logos is προφορικός, it cannot have a (let alone divine) οὐσία, and if it is ἐνδιάθετος, it cannot have a ὑπόστασις of its own. Porphyry’s parallel Fr.86 argues that Christ, being neither προφορικός nor ἐνδιάθετος cannot be Logos: this conclusion, I suspect, refuted primarily Origen.[13]

Only the sage is priest, Porphyry maintains (Marc. 16), appropriating—I note—a Stoic paradox, which Origen also used (C.Io. 2.16.112-113). Another Stoic element seems evident to me: when Porphyry states that neither sacrifices nor supplications or tears are so dear to God as ‘a way of thinking full of God and solidly established’ (Marc. 19, highlighted by Timotin), this recalls again, I think, Persius’ Satire 2: the best offer is “a heart imbibed with noble honesty.” Note this concentration of Stoic ideas in a work aimed at non-advanced philosophers, such as Marcella.

Porphyry contrasts his prayer with the prayer of the theurgist, theorised by Iamblichus in his Response to Porphyry or De mysteriis (Chapter VII). Iamblichus’ insistence that προσομιλία must be uninterrupted (from Laws 4.716D184) parallels Clement (Strom. and Origen, who relied on 1Thess 5:17. Iamblichus probably knew Origen, as other hints suggest.[14] Prayer for Iamblichus elicits love, hope, and faith (Myst. 5.26), which parallel the Christian theological virtues, only, I note, with ἔρως instead of ἀγάπη: but from Origen to Nyssen to Dionysius, Platonic ἔρως was also used for divine love along with ἀγάπη.

Chapter VIII is devoted to Proclus’ small treatise on prayer in the preface to his Commentary on the Timaeus. Proclus defines the essence (οὐσία) and perfection (τελειότης) of prayer. For Iamblichus and Proclus, prayer induces reversion (ἐπιστροφή) towards the divine. This idea, I observe, is found already in Origen, who also connected ἐπιστροφή with apokatastasis, something that Ps.Dionysius (inspired by Origen and Proclus) did, as later Eriugena. The oikeiosis towards the divinity (223), I note, is the same postulated in Christian Platonism by Origen and Nyssen.[15] But the highest degree is that of ἕνωσις with the deities (225), attained through faith. This, I would remark, was also postulated by Origen.[16]

Chapter IX is a short conclusion. Typos are rare.[17] This monograph interestingly enlightens the relationship between philosophy and theology/religion in Antiquity and Late Antiquity, an area that still requires a great deal of investigation by competent experts and will surely yield important results.


[1] I argued thoroughly for this connection, from Plato to the Christianised Pythagorean Sentences of Sextus and Christian Platonism, in Social Justice and the Legitimacy of Slavery: The Role of Philosophical Asceticism from Ancient Platonism to Late Antiquity, Oxford University Press, 2016.

[2] Satire 2 again, analysed in my Stoici Romani Minori, Bompiani, 2008, 1361-1515.

[3] Argument in my “Origen, Bardaisan, and the Origin of Universal Salvation,” HTR 102 (2009) 135-168.

[4] See my “The Dialogue of Adamantius,” RhM 62 (2019) 1-25.

[5] Jean Pépin, “Prière et providence au 2ème siècle,” in Images of Man, Louvain 1976, 111–25: 123.

[6] Examples in a work on Origen in preparation; further in a comparison between Origen and Plotinus; short example in my “Sôma,” forthcoming in Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum.

[7] Treatise 3 (3.1) On Fate.

[8] In a fragment from the Commentary on Genesis, preserved in Greek in the Philocalia. See my “Origen, Bardaisan.”

[9] As I argued in Bardaisan of Edessa, Gorgias 2009, De Gruyter 2019, 70-106.

[10] See my “Mysticism and Mystic Apophaticism in Middle and Neoplatonism,” in Constructions of Mysticism as a Universal, ed. Annette Wilke, Harrassowitz, 2018.

[11] See my “Origen’s Critical Reception of Aristotle,” in Aristotle in Byzantium, ed. Mikonja Knezevic, Sebastian Press, 2019, 1-43.

[12] See Eckhard Schnabel, “ἡ λογικὴ λατρεία in Romans 12:1”, in The Earliest Perceptions of Jesus in Context, eds Aaron White et al., Bloomsbury, 2018, 280-296, who interprets λογικὴ λατρεία as “rational cult”/“cult made of words” (not of sacrificial offerings); Ian Scott, “Your ‘Reasoning Worship,’” JTS 69.2 (2018) 500–532.

[13] Argument in my “Origen, Greek Philosophy, and the Birth of the Trinitarian Meaning of Hypostasis,” HTR 105,3 (2012) 302-350: 334-336, 347.

[14] Some examples in “Iamblichus, De anima 38 (66,12‒15 Finamore‐Dillon): A Resolving Conjecture,” RhM 157 (2014) 106-111.

[15] See my “The Stoic Doctrine of Oikeiosis and its Transformation in Christian Platonism,” Apeiron 47 (2014) 116–140.

[16] Instances of Origen’s probable impact on Proclus: e.g. my “Proclus of Constantinople and Apokatastasis,” in Proclus and His Legacy, eds David Butorac and Danielle Layne, de Gruyter, 2017, 95-122; “Origen to Evagrius, in Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Plato in Antiquity, eds. Harold Tarrant et al., Brill, 2018, 271-291.

[17] E.g. ἐνεργεία for ἐνέργεια (180).