BMCR 2021.08.19

Saving one another: Philodemus and Paul on moral formation in community

, Saving one another: Philodemus and Paul on moral formation in community. Ancient philosophy and religion, volume 3. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. xii, 238. ISBN 9789004434004 €127,00.

The past decades have witnessed a fresh interest in comparative work seeking potential links between Epicureanism and early Christianity, in part prompted by advances in our reading of the tantalizingly lacunose Herculaneum papyri. Justin Reid Allison’s new book covers much the same territory as Clarence Glad’s previous investigation, Paul and Philodemus: Adaptability in Epicurean and Early Christian Psychagogy (1995), while Allison’s claim to novelty is that he proposes a more balanced treatment of the material, underscoring the differences between the Christian and Epicurean communities as much as their commonalities. His stated ambition, moreover, is to challenge the notion of ‘psychagogy’ as a concept applicable to the exegesis of Paul’s letters, promising to show how the ‘polythetic’ category of (communal) ‘moral formation’ better suits his comparison. To what extent he accomplishes this aim will hopefully become apparent in the course of this review.

After the Introduction’s opening remarks on comparatism, Chapter 2 takes up the theme of economic exchange among Epicureans, as evinced above all by the Philodemean corpus. Evidence is adduced from our historical knowledge of Philodemus’ socio-economic context and what are likely his own statements on economic activity in PHerc. 1424, On Household Management. Allison exercises commendable caution in his treatment of Philodemus’ biography, which is less well known than is sometimes supposed. He remains equivocal on Philodemus’ place of residence in Italy, but concludes in favour of a well-defined social milieu for the philosopher, who is known to have frequented members of the Roman aristocracy. This dovetails nicely with On Household Management’s emphasis on ‘natural wealth’ (physikos ploutos), the Epicurean notion of a naturally fixed threshold of resources permitting the durable attainment of freedom from disturbance (ataraxia). In the event, the threshold was high, often implying the possession of considerable capital and passive income (agricultural and rental property are favoured). There is no reason to think that such a situation would be incompatible with what Philodemus claims to be the ideal means of subsistence, namely the patronage of wealthy individuals wishing to retain a philosopher in their entourage. Adherence to the theory of ‘natural wealth’, with its stress on self-sufficiency, meant that the preferred form of interdependence among Epicureans was chiefly a strengthening of the pleasurable bond of friendship. Only in extreme cases was it an insurance against falling into hardship.

Chapter 3 explores the vexed topic of Epicurean theology. Allison efficiently sidesteps controversial issues like the idealist-realist debate by leaning on points of more solid academic consensus. At the same time, his reluctance to stake out an independent position in this field leads him into some inconsistency. The chapter’s principal concern is with human emulation of the gods and the beliefs that support it. Allison gives a sound presentation of the place of the gods in Epicurean ethics, where they act as a model for beatitude and an object of edifying contemplation. The main weakness in the chapter’s argument arises regarding the natural differences between gods and humans. Allison is rather vague about what he imagines the alleged ‘moral incorruptibility’ (aphtharsia) of the Epicurean sage to be, or how this incorruptibility diverges from that which Epicurus ascribes to the gods in his writings. It makes more sense perhaps to think of human assimilation to the gods as operating only with respect to ‘blessedness’ (makariotês) – the other of the two predicates that Epicurus assigns to divinity. Surely the fact that there are two predicates indicates that one is not reducible to the other as the expression ‘moral incorruptibility’ implies. Especially so, when one considers what Allison asserts are differences between gods and humans, namely the infirmities that result from our perishable nature. It is this vulnerability to environmental factors that, on the Epicurean view, gives rise to characteristically human social relationships. Two examples discussed by Allison, anger and ‘gratitude’ (orgê and charis, following De piet. col. 40, 18-20.), provide an appropriate illustration of this idea. Injustice and the anger that it provokes are only possible because of the biological dependency of humans on material things; they are naturally absent among the gods. Similarly, Philodemus distinguishes between charis grounded in weakness and charis without weakness (asthenousê), in order to differentiate the kind of relationship enjoyed by the gods from the human need to curry favour and form economically advantageous connections. Allison’s failure to appreciate this leads him to the conclusion that by material ‘weakness’ (astheneia) Philodemus means a natural deficiency of purely moral proportions. The result is an idiosyncratic view of Epicureans’ happiness as ‘radically different from the gods’ lives’ because its friendships ‘demand intense concern and labor for others’ (80-81). Yet this clashes with what has already been argued about economic self-sufficiency, not to mention Philodemus’ assertion that the sage ‘does not at all labour’ over his pupil (74).

The emphasis on moral deficiency sets up the discussion of the next chapter, which addresses ‘communal moral formation in Philodemus. Special attention is directed to Epicurean parrhesia, as expounded in Philodemus’ On Frank Criticism (PHerc. 1471). Allison’s analysis relies heavily on the translation published by the SBL in 2000 – the only modern English translation available, based on Olivieri’s 1914 Teubner edition. He is sensitive to the tenuousness of the current papyrological readings, but offers no attempt to assess them critically, instead exploiting previous studies (86-7). Of course, this limits the insights one can expect from him, and he ends up articulating a familiar picture of parrhesia as a means of ethical correction between Epicureans of different ranks and maturity levels. The chapter ends by reaffirming the importance of parrhesiastic relationships in conditioning the ‘formative interdependence’ at the heart of Epicurean communities, which co-exists paradoxically with the Epicurean pursuit of ‘moral self-sufficiency’. The reader may wonder how far ‘interdependence’ is not just a one-way dependence of less mature Epicureans on mature and self-sufficient friends. As before, this question could be better resolved by a more careful consideration of what it is in human nature that, for Epicureans, makes us dependent on others.

Having explained the main features of Epicurean communal life, Allison jumps to analogous features discernible in Pauline Christianity. First comes the question of economic interdependence. By contrast with Philodemus’ insistence on self-sufficiency and the threshold of ‘natural wealth’, Paul prescribes economic reciprocity as ‘the default relationship among poor believers’ (119). Making use of the work of Bruce Longenecker, Allison shows how poverty was overwhelmingly the lot of the people that Paul addressed, who lived for the most part at subsistence level. In additon to its moral aspect, the giving practised among early Christians aimed to sustain an economic self-sufficiency that was ‘constituted communally, not individually’ (122). This orientation was due to both the difficult living situation of early Christians and the belief that material resources were a gift from God for the enjoyment of all.

Chapters 5 and 6 narrow in on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, citing it as a notably revealing case of Pauline moral formation. In Chapter 5, Allison discusses 1 Cor. 8:11-11:1, where Paul arbitrates the Corinthians’ disagreements about idol food. From what Paul relates, we can infer that some members of the Corinthian church felt a crisis of conscience (syneidêsis) over eating sacrificial meat, equating it with idolatry. Their insistence on abstention, however, was opposed by another group, who protested that such food should be consumed freely, since sacrifice in no way changed its objective character. Allison designates these two groups the ‘weak’ and the ‘knowers’. He claims Paul advised the ‘knowers’ to adapt to the ‘weak’ by abstaining from altar food completely. In this way the ‘weak’ would be ‘morally formed’ – not in the sense that they would individually grow into the knowledge they lacked, but in the sense that they would be morally reinforced through their dependence on the ‘knowers’. Conversely, the ‘knowers’ were morally formed by the ‘weak’ because they were dependent on them in learning how to love others properly. There are difficulties with the account presented here that might have been dealt with at greater length. To start, it would be helpful to have a more detailed report of the context of 1 Corinthians, from which it is clear that the question of idol food is one of the schismata that trouble Paul at 1 Cor. 1:11. It must have been a contentious issue, with ardent support for each side – probably not a one-sided aloofness of the ‘knowers’. Paul acknowledged the ‘right’ (exousia) to consume idol food, but encouraged his followers to realize their higher duty to love one another by weighing the particular situation of their fellow believers, especially converts who were striving to shake their former idolatry (1 Cor. 8:7). On the other hand, he had to keep abstention from idol food from becoming a matter of principle (1 Cor 10:19–30). Allison skates over this last part of Paul’s counsel, mentioning only that the relevant passage is ‘fraught with interpretive difficulty’, before asserting that when Paul says to eat meat from the market ‘without raising any question… of conscience’ (1 Cor. 10:25), it somehow entails ‘abstention for the weak’ (p. 135). If Paul felt the need to give this command, he may well have been instructing the ‘weak’ not to be so scrupulous. And this casts doubt on the thesis that Paul did not intend for the ‘weak’ to grow stronger in knowledge and conscience.

The next chapter shifts focus to 12:1-14:40 and Paul’s commands relating to ‘constructive’ speech (from oikodomein). Various kinds of constructive speech are named by Paul throughout the passage: ‘prophecy’, ‘teaching’, ‘revelation’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘tongues’ (with interpretation). As in the epistle, the two that receive most scrutiny are prophecy and tongues, but what is said about them applies to the others too. This is because, while forms of constructive speech may be distinguished with respect to their content, what is most important about them is their ‘character’, i.e. that they are given and received in the spirit of love. It is ultimately this qualification which ensures that they represent God’s revelation, albeit mediated by the limited powers of the speaker. God is thus immanent in the delivery of constructive speech, while also transcending its message. These concerns determine the protocol Paul lays out for the exercise of ‘construction’, which calls for speech among believers to be both intelligible and of spiritual benefit. Paul’s morally formative speech has an effect ‘analogous to the critical function of frank speech in Philodemus’ (167), but it differs in that its use can never presuppose perfect moral knowledge in the speaker. That knowledge is God’s alone, and in the Christian community every member’s contribution is valued as providing a separate part of God’s divine revelation.

A conclusion juxtaposes the volume’s various arguments along three conceptual axes: (a) economic interdependence, (b) the role of theology in moral formation, and (c) morally formative speech. Central contrasts from earlier in the book are successively highlighted: the aristocratic, individualistic character of Epicurean reciprocity, against the communal exchange of early Christians; the active presence of God in the moral life of Christian believers, contrasted with the disinvolvement and remoteness of the Epicurean gods; the hierarchy of moral development in Epicureanism versus the staunchly communal quality of moral formation in Paul. For reasons already mentioned, some of the details inherent in these distinctions fail to ring true, particularly where economic reciprocity and adaptive relationships are concerned. Doubt also arises at Allison’s claim, on p. 189, that Paul envisages no possibility for empirical moral knowledge apart from Christian revelation (cf. Rom. 2:14-5).

One final word about ‘psychagogy’: insofar as this term, in its modern meaning, refers straightforwardly to ‘guidance’ of individual souls, such a concept can apply, pace Allison, to both what Philodemus advocates and what Paul practises in his epistles. It seems to me that this observation is only occluded by muddling the space alloted to ‘interdependence’ in the two thinkers’ respective belief systems. But while Allison’s arguments may not always hit the mark, the categories he proposes for comparison give much food for thought, and one comes away enriched from reading him.