BMCR 2021.03.39

Eastern Christianity and late antique philosophy

, , Eastern Christianity and late antique philosophy. Texts and Studies in Eastern Christianity, 18. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. xvi, 342. ISBN 9789004411883 €159,00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This collection of papers, arising from a 2017 conference at Macquarie University, indicates the strength of current Australian scholarship in both late ancient philosophy and early Christian theology. Parry locates the volume within an ongoing stream of research that focuses on the nature of the relationship between Christian thinkers and the Greek philosophical tradition in late antiquity. Moreover, there is already a second volume in planning.

The methodological underpinnings of this volume and its successor raise a fundamental concern, however, that needs to be briefly addressed before the individual chapters can be reviewed. According to the editors, as they survey the whole field of philosophy and theology in lateaAntiquity, a recently published anthology, Medieval Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader (Bloomsbury, 2019), represents “a step in the right direction” (9), for two reasons: first for its inclusiveness, since it incorporates the whole breadth of religious traditions; and second for its theoretical approach to the question of the relationship between Christian theology and “pagan” philosophy. The editor of this anthology, Bruce Foltz, styles the book “a significant development in the understanding of the history of philosophy itself,” (xv) a bold claim that rests on the hypothesis that medieval philosophy was “more than just rational knowing; it also comprised higher forms of knowing beyond rational categories, the wisdom gained by the mind’s openness to supra-rational contact with God…allied with religion and…the mystical.” BMCR readers more accustomed to post-Kantian epistemologies may be surprised to discover that there are “higher” forms of knowing than those produced by mere reason, and ask whether the accretion of religion to philosophy has anything beneficial to offer the latter. It is true that Plotinus and Proclus can be usefully analysed using tools derived from the analysis of religion, but it does not follow that every Christian mystic thereby becomes part of the history of philosophy.

It has become now a cliché that ancient philosophies were “ways of life,” but I am not convinced that collapsing late ancient philosophical thinking into an amorphous religious mysticism would be a productive way forwards. While this is not the place for a full-scale enquiry along these lines, I do hope that Anagnostou-Laoutides/ Parry’s proposed second volume does not follow this path. In fact, Eastern Christianity and Late Antique Philosophy does not reflect any such methodology. Its contributions are worthwhile studies either of the intriguing interactions of religious and philosophical thinking, or else of philosophy as merely practised within the institutions of “church and mosque.” In short, although in his introduction Parry praises the goals of Medieval Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader, it does not seem that he is committed to its larger epistemological claims.

In an initial foundational chapter (13-51), Parry offers an overview of Greek and Syriac strategies for the adoption of Aristotelian models among theologians. He concludes that often this “did not result in a clearer and more precise understanding of doctrinal issues, but rather it appeared on occasions to muddy the waters.” Indeed. One would hope that the importing of philosophical rigor into doctrinal issues ought to muddy its waters–perhaps the more open a religious tradition is to examining its presuppositions with such analytic tools, the less univocal will its dogmas become. Parry discusses, for example, the correspondence between Severus of Antioch and Sergius the grammarian (22-3). The latter sought to interpret Christian dicta on the basis of Aristotelian definitions, while Severus insisted upon a reverse order of priorities. It would be a category error to think that they are both engaging in the same methodology. Sergius is consciously “muddying the waters” by insisting on the accurate use of an Aristotelian method; Severus is interested in using “pagan” methodologies only as far as it offers him extra ammunition in an already settled question, namely the miaphysite Christological formula. It is dialogue of this type that ought to be the object of analysis for those seeking to understand the role of Greek philosophical traditions in the history of Christian theology.

A second foundational chapter is splendidly supplied by Johannes Zachhuber (“Philosophy and Theology in Late Antiquity”). Whilst allowing some space for the sui generis nature of Christian thought and institutions, Zachhuber offers the late ancient school (hairesis) with its teaching traditions (diadoche) as a model within which to understand Christian thinking. He seeks adroitly to sidestep the Scylla of what he calls the “opposition” thesis (Christian thought being conceived over against “pagan” philosophy) and the Charybdis of a “dependency” thesis (Christian thought was “infiltrated” by philosophical systems and transformed into something no longer quite itself). By taking care to understand aright that philosophy in late antiquity was more about institutions than persons and more about exegesis of foundational texts than about speculation, he sees his way to categorising Patristic writing as a “kind of philosophy.”

There follow twelve case-studies: five under the generic heading of “Greek Christian Thought”; two on Proclus, three on notions of paganism in Byzantium, and one each on the Syriac and the Arabic traditions.

In “Drinking Wine from Plato to the Eucharist Tradition of Early Christian Thinkers,” Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides explores the strategies deployed by Christian thinkers in negotiating the Platonic sympotic and Christian Eucharistic traditions. She remarks upon ps-Dionysius’s rather surprising willingness to use the language of drunkenness in reference to God.

In an essay arising out of his translation of Cyril of Alexandria’s Contra Iulianum, Matthew Crawford concedes that Cyril did not interact with other strands of philosophy in the same way as the great Christological thinkers of the next generation. Yet at least one feature of Contra Iulianum stands out in the context of the present volume, viz. that Cyril’s conception of his own status vis à vis philosophy appears to be that of a student of the “right” teachers – the “wrong” teachers being perhaps the heads of the various schools of Alexandria. Zachhuber’s conception of Christian philosophy as a diadoche, an institution of ongoing engagement, finds a neat example in the Alexandrian bishop.

In his chapter on Dorotheus of Gaza, “Philosophy as Transformation in Early Christian Thought,” Michael Champion unpacks Dorotheus’s attempt to make metaphysics and ethics interdependent, such that “theoretical claims in the areas of virtue and metaphysics are meant to transform readers to become godlike.” Dorotheus turned the very act of writing and reading his texts into a transformative one, a notion that seems to be one of the shared frameworks within which philosophy was carried out across a range of traditions. I do wonder how this procedure for making the Gazan monks humble intellectuals squares with their well-known reputation for religious violence.

Dirk Krausmüller’s “Theology and Philosophy in the Late Patristic Discourse” brings us into more traditional terrain in “patristic philosophy.” Krausmüller demonstrates how pro-Chalcedonian theologians adapted the Cappadocian ontological model upon which post-Nicene orthodoxy had been founded and re-thought how the Porphyrian tree of being might be applicable to a Christian ontology. In a characteristically dense examination, Krausmüller shows first that Leontius of Byzantium, in his efforts to define enhypostaton, expanded the Cappadocian model to include a third “tier,” existence itself, to be distinguished from both the accidental and the substantial qualities that inhere in a substrate. In this way Leontius made phusis out to be something other than ousia, a new departure, which gave him conceptual space to defend the Chalcedonian single hypostasis in two natures. It is Krausmüller’s contention that the Porphyrian tree was a significant source of this new thought. This last shift also bore fruit among subsequent thinkers such as Anastasius of Antioch and Theodore of Raithou. The latter’s efforts are dismissed by Krausmüller as examples of “the low intellectual level of much of the debate…[which provided] the necessary context for more successful contributions” (171). Perhaps the futility of these attempts demonstrate only that the Chalcedonian formula never could have been grounded on a solid ontological framework.

Vassilis Adrahtas’s chapter, “Translating Crisis into Logic,” offers a history-of-ideas study which is also “a comparative phenomenology of the experience of (transcending) crisis” (175). The author juxtaposes Proclus and John of Damascus, not with any suggestion of genealogy or mutual awareness, but rather as a phenomenological exercise centred around how each dealt with an era of “crisis” by reaffirming in the one case (Proclus) a theory of symbolicity (by which he means the physical mediation of ontological realities), and in the other case (John) a theory of iconicity (meaning the physical mediation of the historical facts of the gospel).

An essay by Dirk Baltzy, “Civic Virtues and the Goal of Likeness to God in Proclus’ Republic Commentary”, offers a fascinating trip into the ethical goals of Neoplatonist commentary writing. Baltzy shows through examples from Proclus On the Republic that the processes of writing, exegeting, and reading were in themselves considered part of assimilation to the divine.

There are four further chapters, for which there is no space for review, but all are worthwhile contributions to their subjects:

Graeme Miles, “Summarising Platonic Education in Proclus’ Reading of Plato’s Cave and Divided Line” explains how Proclus’ essays presented students with an alternative transformative lifestyle to one on offer in the Christian churches.

Han Baltussen, “Eunapius’ Lives of Philosophers and Sophists: Was He Constructing “Pagan Saints” in the Age of Christianity?” shows how Eunapius made good use of the “blurred lines” separating biography from truth in offering to the pagan world a counter-Christian version of hagiographical writing.

In “A Pagan Philosopher at the Imperial Court: The Case of Pamprepius,” Meaghan McEvoy uses the case of a certain Pamprepius to demonstrate how non-Christians were still in the late fifth century able to negotiate a career path through the army and civil service, making use of the same patronage networks as Christians.

Bronwen Neil, “Pagan and Christian Dream Theory in Maximus the Confessor” explores some of the Aristotelian distinctions used by Maximus in his trial to defend the nature of his own dreams.

 In a chapter entitled “The Greek Jargon of Logic,” Nestor Kavvadas explores how East Syrian elites deployed their knowledge of the terminology of Aristotelian logic, a means of dressing-up political power games as if they were debates about philosophy. Kavvadas leads us through three examples from the seventh-to-ninth centuries in which logical terminology was used largely in a false and inappropriate manner rather as a stick-of-higher-learning with which to beat down political opposition. He wonders whether it was not a matter of asserting a “firm connection…[with] Byzantine imperial culture” (308). Certainly the examples he offers are truly poor offerings of logic.

In fact, Kavvadas is too lenient even to Catholicos Timothy, whose syllogism Kavvadas describes as at least “acceptable.” In fact, it is not an Aristotelian syllogism at all. There are a number of errors in Kavvadas’s translations of the logical terminology–apophansis is a declaratory assertion, not a negation (298); for “holistic” read “universal” (298); read “assertoric” not “assertive” for apophantikos (301); read “homonymy” for “synonymy” (p.301); read “demonstrative” not “conclusive” for apodeiktikos (301). Three very brief remarks on this chapter: 1) the cited authors use antiphasis to mean an objection, whereas in logic it refers to a mutual contradiction between two assertions; this indicates how far off the mark the usage of the logical jargon is in these non-technical contexts. 2) I don’t agree that Ishojahb was upholding a “traditionalist reserve” (299) against his opponent’s use of logic; in fact what he does is to unhorse his opponent specifically by demonstrating the fallacies of his arguments. This is not an “anti-philosophy” position. 3) Kavvadas places too much confidence in his belief that pre-modern Syriac literature shows no signs of the ironic use of language (302, n11); let us not read off the surface only.

In the final chapter, Elvira Wakelnig extends her exploration (found in other essays) of the Arabic tradition of the Definitions genre. She investigates an Arabic tradition wherein Pyrrho and Sextus argued for the non-existence of philosophy through the denial of the reality of definition and division. Since the Arabic tradition seems to preserve certain of the sceptical arguments more accurately than the extant Alexandrian Greek prolegomena, we are justified in positing a source which carried material of this kind into the Arabic compilations. A final comment worthy of remark is that this type of study of a philosophical tradition stands by itself without any special “interaction” with religious thinking–the fact that Ibn Bahriz was a metropolitan bishop (316) hardly seems to affect the issue.

All the chapters constitute useful case studies to the many and various ways in which philosophical traditions interacted with new religious institutions. These ways are doubtless complex and not reducible to simple models or explanations, nor does this volume attempt to offer any such overarching model. The fact, however, that such a crucially central figure as John Philoponus is barely mentioned, testifies to how far we remain from offering a comprehensive treatment of the subject; the almost simultaneously published Aristotle and Early Christian Thought by Mark Edwards (Routledge, 2019) provides a telling comparandum by trying to offer a complete narrative. But each approach, the atomistic and the unifying, carries its own advantages, and the current volume has made a significant contribution to what is a field still not very satisfactorily understood.

Authors and titles

Part 1 Identity and Terminology
Chapter 1 Eastern Christianity and Late Ancient Philosophy: A Conspectus. Ken Parry
Chapter 2 Philosophy and Theology in Late Antiquity: Some Reflections on Concepts and Terminologies. Johannes Zachhuber

Part 2 Greek Christian Thought
Chapter 3 Drunk on New Wine (Acts 2:13): Drinking Wine from Plato to the Eucharist Tradition of Early Christian Thinkers Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides
Chapter 4 Cyril of Alexandria’s Contra Iulianum: Imperial Politics, and Alexandrian Philosophy (c. 416–428). Matthew R. Crawford
Chapter 5 Philosophy as Transformation in Early Christian Thought. Michael Champion
Chapter 6 Theology and Philosophy in the Late Patristic Discourse: Pure Existence, Qualified Existence, and the Arbor Porphyriana. Dirk Krausmüller
Chapter 7 Translating Crisis into Logic: John Damascene’s Iconic Conceptualization of History vis-à-vis Late Neoplatonic Symbolism. Vassilis Adrahtas

Part 3 Proclus the Neoplatonist
Chapter 8 Civic Virtues and the Goal of Likeness to God in Proclus’ Republic Commentary. Dirk Baltzly
Chapter 9 Summarising Platonic Education in Proclus’ Reading of Plato’s Cave and Divided Line. Graeme Miles

Part 4 Pagans and Christians in Byzantium
Chapter 10 Eunapius’ Lives of Philosophers and Sophists: Was He Constructing “Pagan Saints” in the Age of Christianity? Han Baltussen
Chapter 11 A Pagan Philosopher at the Imperial Court: The Case of Pamprepius. Meaghan McEvoy
Chapter 12 Pagan and Christian Dream Theory in Maximus the Confessor. Bronwen Neil

Part 5 Syriac and Arabic Christian Thought
Chapter 13 The Greek Jargon of Logic and East Syrian Intra-elite Conflicts in the Early Islamic Empire. Nestor Kavvadas
Chapter 14 Pyrrho and Sextus Refuting Philosophy and the Value of Definition: On the Arabic Reception of the Late Antique Prolegomena to Philosophy. Elvira Wakelnig