BMCR 2020.07.45

Praying and contemplating in late antiquity: religious and philosophical interactions

Eleni Pachoumi, Mark J. Edwards, Praying and contemplating in late antiquity: religious and philosophical interactions. Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum, 113. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018. viii, 229 p.. ISBN 9783161561191 €79,00 (pb).


Under the auspices of late antique thought about prayer and contemplation, the present volume aims to explore interactions and tensions among selected religious and philosophical texts dating from the third to the seventh century CE. Proceeding from a 2016 conference organized by editors Eleni Pachoumi and Mark J. Edwards, Praying and Contemplating captures a range of intimate encounters with the divine sought by late antique intellectuals in papers by international (and long-armed) specialists in Neoplatonism, theurgy, early Christianity, and related late antique currents including Orphism, dreams, Chaldean Oracles, initiation, Greek Magical Papyri, divination, and Manichaeism. While the strongest expertise as a whole is in Classics and Neoplatonism, individual paper topics are evenly distributed between a concern with the Platonic tradition in late antiquity, early Christianity, and, broadly speaking, magico-religious ritual practices. In addition to a brief summarizing introduction, the editors provide the expected lists of abbreviations and contributor biographies along with useful indexes of ancient authors, references, and subjects. Footnotes and bibliographies accompany each paper. The following provides highlights from the twelve rich and rewarding papers contained within this important new collection. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

In “Prayer and Contemplation in the Neoplatonic and Sufi Traditions,” John Dillon summarizes the practice of prayer and contemplation among the later Platonists from Plotinus to Proclus, highlighting the various levels of awareness from which one could pray, in the context of a theory of language and divinity that made theurgy possible. The discussion is rounded off by enlisting Sufi sages (and Zoroastrian antecedents) in order to show a continuity between the Greek (including Gnostic, Hermetic, and Neoplatonic) tradition and the intellectual tradition of Islam. Envisioning the exercise of Platonic contemplation as a kind of Sufi dhikr, Dillon suggests that at the highest level of prayer, divine counterparts by any name (shakhs nûrânî, fravashi, or daemon), “may well turn out to be a god” (20).

Eleni Pachoumi’s “Magico-religious and Philosophical Interactions in Proclus’ Theurgic Unions” surveys late antique understandings of sympathy, symbol, and statues in the hieratic arts with a particular interest in the concepts of “mixing,” “unity and diversity,” and the “the one and the many” (23). Pachoumi’s careful comparison of texts by Proclus as well as Iamblichus and, a specialty, the Greek Magical Papyri[1] demonstrates significant interactions (mixing?) between genres along with a useful view into the technology of theurgy and its cosmology.

John Finamore’s “Reason and Irrationality: Iamblichus on Divination through Dreams” challenges the belief originating in Dodds that Iamblichus signaled Greek philosophy’s descent into “irrationality.” Surveying the literature of dream divination from Homer, Plato, and Aristotle to the Stoics and later Platonists, with attention to distinctions between kinds of dreams and theories of perception, Finamore shows how dream divination was “considered neither non-philosophical nor irrational” but rather was a “part of the connection between human beings and the gods” (56).

In “Iamblichus on the Language of Prayer,” Mark Wildish convincingly explains the efficacy of theurgic prayer in a study of how Iamblichus did things with words. Theurgic prayer is a theurgic deed or, perhaps, a performative utterance.[2] In contrast with Ammonius’ Neo-Aristotelian approach to prayer as a would-be (or optative) objective, Wildish suggests that “prayer is efficacious [to theurgists] because praying is divine, not because prayers are about divine objects, or because prayers have formally divine properties” (70). In a tour through multiple levels of intelligible divine hierarchies and descriptions of the worship appropriate to each, Wildish shows how the rhetorical power of prayer is the grammar of theurgy.

Featuring the work of his teacher and a number of students,[3] Wayne Hankey offers a fascinating discussion of interactions between content, form, and meter in “Ratio, Preces, Intuitus: Prayer’s Meditation in Boethius’ Consolation.” His expert close reading reveals a circular, self-circling nature of divine wisdom achieved only by reason’s freedom to transcend itself: “Theurgical prayer restores to the soul the proper life of the mind” (80). Hinting at a Horizontverschmelzung of divine proportions, Hankey entertains the question as to whether humans know God according to his mode or ours: “The answer which emerges is both. The divine and human meet in intuition beyond intellectus” (89).

In “Public and private prayer in the works of the Emperor Julian,” John Hilton compares Julian’s writing about prayer as a state act and as personal contemplation in order to show that “the divide between Christian and pagan appears to have been very narrow at times in the fourth century” (108). Julian is explicit (Ep. 22 429c) about his admiration of theurgy and his desire to become perfect in (or through) it, but his emulation of Christians becomes quite explicit when he urges priests to ignite their humanitarian zeal, honor dead martyrs (presumably philosophers), and lead holy lives (102).[4] Hilton shows that while Julian’s public use of prayer emphasized the importance of cultivating a harmonious relationship between the gods (particularly Helios) and humans, privately, the emperor’s prayer seems more a response to personal crisis and dilemmas, seeking guidance, and ultimately salvation in terms and styles similar to the Christianity of his youth.

In “Primitive Christianity and Magic,” Mark Edwards argues the familiar thesis that “one person’s magic in antiquity was another person’s religion” has proven to be truer of Christianity than of the cults that it supplanted (120). Indeed, Edwards shows that the miracles of Jesus were regarded by Christians as “comparable to the feats of the magician, except that they were more various, more beneficent and wrought with greater power” (111). His article includes a brief look at magia and religio, rightly and with good humor contrasting Latin usage and contexts (112). Comparing a wide range of sources Christian and otherwise (Papyri Graecae Magicae, Supplementum Magicum), his close examination of the features of Christian magic suggests that religion and magic can coexist within a tradition of practices and belief. Or, more provocatively, the Christian spell is an act of prayer.

Just as dreams and visions played a role in the pre-Christian Greco-Roman world, so they did for Hellenistic Jews and Christians in third and fourth century Alexandria. Bronwen Neil’s “Dream-visions, Prophecy and Contemplation in Origen’s Contra Celsum” examines the ambivalence toward dream-visions in late antiquity by looking at the vocabulary of “seeing” or contemplation (theôria) in discussions of dream-vision reception and interpretation among Alexandrian Jews and Christians (123). Comparing Origin’s understanding of “seeing” with Plotinus’ discussion of intelligible realities in the Enneads, Neil identifies mind (nous) and imagination (fantasia) as modes for apprehending Christian divine realties beyond Neoplatonic intelligibles: theôria could lead to theôsis and Jewish and Christian prophecy should be understood in terms of Neoplatonic mystical ecstasy (134).

In “Augustine Addressing God and Man in the Confessions,” Annemaré Kotzé focuses on how “the narrator communicates with his human audience by pretending not to speak to them” (139). Informed by post-structural narratology, Kotzé attempts to reconstruct, even in part, the implied reader in their context in order to meaningfullyinterpret Confessions beyond its common assignation as “one long prayer.” Focusing on three key passages where Augustine’s awareness of a human audience seems most visible, Kotzé argues that the most urgent and intended audience is Manichaean rather than fellow-Catholic. Addressing the followers of Mani, Augustine’s narrative stance (i.e. that he is talking to God who already knows what he will say) serves “an essential function in providing the human audience [i.e. Manichaeans] with a guarantee of the truth of the speaker’s statements” (148).

Matthew W. Dickie’s “The Meaning of Initiation in Late Antiquity” shows the changing valence of “initiation” from the fifth and fourth centuries BCE to the fourth century CE, particularly the shift from that of ensuring happiness in this life and the next to a means of coming together with the divine (160). Dickie argues that the Eleusinian mysteries in third and fourth centuries CE were imbued with a Platonic spirit by virtue of the philosophical allegiances of the officials in charge and the mysteries themselves (174 – 177). While it would be natural for Gregory of Nazianzus to represent the enthousiasmós of initiation as a demonic possession fraught with chaotic ecstasy and irrational excitations, Eunapius offers Sosipatra of Alexandria’s Neoplatonic dynasty as the model of enthusiasm sought by the Platonic audience, a sober but no less divine clarity of vision and power of perception (178).

In “Hieroi Logoi in 24 Rhapsodies. The Orphic Codex?,” Lech Trzcionkowski investigates the material shape of the Orphic poems entitled Hieroi Logi in 24 Rhapsodies attested in the Suda and Damascius’ First Principles. Using a “history of the book” approach, Trzcionkowski argues that Hieroi Logoi refers to the title of a codex containing “a canonical collection of hexametric poems read and commented on during seminars given by Syrianus, Proclus and Damascius” (182). In the process of Trzcionkowski’s demonstration, we learn about the life and thought of the Neoplatonic philosophers who engaged with this text. His lively exploration reads like Greenblatt’s The Swerve for scholars of Neoplatonism and every bit as exciting.

Literary evidence suggests a slow, gradual demise of traditional oracles in Delphi, Dodona, Olympia and Didyma since their zenith in the archaic and classical eras (196). Philip Bosman’s “The End of the Ancient Oracles: from Deception to Dangerous Demons” traces the intellectual history of oracle criticism beginning with Greek intellectuals and later taken up by Christian apologists. Bosman asks how rhetoric about the “dangerous effects of these demon-infested sites” evolved despite the fact that they posed no real threat to Christian power (198). On the one hand Christian writers like Clement of Alexandria dismissed oracles as ineffective or obsolete; one the other hand, others like Origin, Eusebius, and Augustine argued they were a dangerous invitation to demonic possession (207). But the shift (and the confusion) runs deep (and continues today): Paul’s “so-called gods” (legómenoi theoi) in 1 Corinthians 8:5 – 6 become demons (daimoníôn) in 1 Corinthians 10:20 (201).

Praying and Contemplating is uneven only in the sense that few readers will be so well-versed as not to find more than one of the papers challenging. Specialists, however, will be rewarded by the depth and focus of the papers which overall make important contributions to the field, especially so for researchers who seek highly technical and close readings of specific source materials in their areas. Providing a narrative overview and contextualizing background, an extended introductory chapter would have better prepared academic audiences unfamiliar with the powerful influence of theurgic discourse on prayer and contemplation in late antiquity. This reviewer noticed only a handful of minor errors that escaped the publisher in this handsome grey Mohr Siebeck paperback.[5]

Authors and Titles

Introduction / Eleni Pachoumi and Mark Edwards

Prayer and contemplation in the Neoplatonic and Sufi traditions / John Dillon
Magico-religious and philosophical interactions in Proclus’ Theurgic unions / Eleni Pachoumi
Reason and irrationality: Iamblichus on divination through dreams / John F. Finamore
Iamblichus on the language of prayer / Mark Wildish
Ratio, preces, intuitus: prayer’s mediation in Boethius’ consolation / Wayne J. Hankey
Public and private prayer in the works of the Emperor Julian / John Hilton
Primitive Christianity and magic / Mark Edwards
Dream-visions, prophecy and contemplation in Origen’s Contra Celsum / Bronwen Neil
Augustine addressing God and man in the Confessions / Annemaré Kotzé
The meaning of initiation in late antiquity / Matthew W. Dickie
Hieroi Logoi in 24 rhapsodies. The Orphic codex? / Lech Trzcionkowski
The end of the ancient oracles: from deception to dangerous demons / Philip Bosman.


[1] See Eleni Pachoumi, The Concepts of the Divine in the Greek Magical Papyri. Studien Und Texte Zu Antike Und Christentum: 102 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017).

[2] Cf. J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words. The William James Lectures: 1955 (Harvard University Press, 1962).

[3] Hankey acknowledges his teacher, Robert D. Crouse, and former students, Michael Fournier, Stephen Blackwood, and Martin Curran.

[4] Also noted by later Christian writers Gregory of Nazianzus in Oration 3 Against Julian and Sozomen in HE 5.16.

[5] p. 97, “His solution was urge”; p.102, “need to for him to”; p. 112, “when it when it”; p. 141, “remind of”; p. 199, “the turn to the 2nd century”; p. 178, “ἐνθουσίασμος.”