BMCR 2021.12.45

Posthuman transformation in ancient Mediterranean thought: becoming angels and demons

, Posthuman transformation in ancient Mediterranean thought: becoming angels and demons. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 248. ISBN 9781108843997. $99.99.


What do cyborgs, Platonic daimons, Philo’s Moses and Origen’s angels have in common? The answer, as David Litwa shows in this fascinating and concise book, is that they all provide models of ‘posthuman transformation’, that is, where humans are transformed into something else, more powerful than their previous existence – readers expecting a discussion of cultural ‘posthumanism’, in its currently trendy sense of an attempt to move away from an anthropocentric perspective on the world, will have to look elsewhere (p.154).[1] Litwa takes us on a swift journey (165 pages of main text) through ancient theories of daimonification (where humans are transformed into daimons) and angelification (where humans are transformed into angels). His eight chapters are arranged chronologically, starting with Hesiod and ending with the mysterious Zostrianos, a ‘crypto-Christian text’ (p.135) first attested in the 260s AD (p.133) that survives in a Coptic translation from the Nag Hammadi library of a lost Greek original and presents an account of the angelification of its titular character. In between are chapters on such diverse figures as Empedocles, Plato, Philo, Origen, and Plotinus, as a well as a single chapter on ‘Daimonification in Xenocrates, Plutarch, Apuleius, and Maximus of Tyre’. Additionally, an Introduction and substantial Conclusion provide the overarching rationale for this project and give shape to its argument. In these sections, Litwa locates the ancient sources alongside modern images of posthumans, imagined by popular culture in the form of superheroes or predicted by futurologists as individuals who, through the assistance of technology, will be able to prolong their lives, eradicate their vulnerability to diseases, chemically control their emotions, and even upload their brains to a supercomputer. The problem, Litwa contends, is that modern ideas of the posthuman take insufficient account of morality; in this respect, we can learn a thing or two from the ancient theories discussed, for they all present moral virtue as a precondition for, or essential aspect of, the physical enhancements they portray (pp.159-161).

This is an enjoyable, erudite, and informative book, even if the argument could at times be presented with greater precision. Rare indeed is the scholar who can claim expertise on all the authors Litwa discusses, and I can only envy his admirable command of texts in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Coptic. A central virtue of his project is that it serves to bridge the long-standing, yet arbitrary, gap between texts studied by classicists and those analysed by theologians. I, for one, whilst comfortable with the pagan authors covered, had only ever approached Philo and Origen as a source for fragments of the Presocratics and had never heard of the Zostrianos. Litwa’s work serves as an excellent and accessible introduction to the authors he discusses and their theories of posthuman transformation. The method of covering such a wide range of texts in such a short span has the benefit of readability and brings to light some very interesting overarching connections. He provides a wealth of material to support his central historical claim, that Jewish and Christian discourses of angelification were part of the same intellectual tradition as Platonic daimonification. I single out here two cases I found particularly intriguing. The Jewish Philo presented Moses as achieving angelification (p.89) after intellectual and spiritual achievements that appear in distinctly Platonist terms; his ascent to Mt Sinai resembles a departure from the Platonic cave (p.87; cf. Philo, Life of Moses 1.158). The Christian Origen appropriated the chariot allegory from Plato’s Phaedrus to describe the fall of Lucifer and his fellow rebel-angels (p.100), who lose their angelic status and become daimones (in the Christian rather than Platonic sense), but may one day return regain it through good behaviour (pp.104-105). Through such instances, a clear intellectual lineage emerges whereby Platonist ideas of virtuous humans being transformed into daimones (e.g. Republic 468e-469b; Cratylus 397e-398b) influenced certain Judaeo-Christian accounts virtuous individuals becoming angels.

Notwithstanding these benefits, Litwa’s broad-brush approach has some drawbacks. The chapters are more descriptive than argumentative, providing handy overviews, but ones that are sometimes more contentious than he implies. Specialists on the authors covered will find many nits to pick. For instance, in the chapter on Empedocles, Litwa claims without argument that ‘Empedocles believed that the enduring spiritual selves of humanity (later called souls) were fallen daimones’ (p.34) and that ‘the essence of the daimon is Love’ (p.37). Although I personally find it plausible that Empedocles held both these views, they are nowhere made explicit in the surviving fragments. Interpretation on the two points is more controversial than Litwa lets on, and the Cornford/O’Brien interpretation in particular – that Empedocles’ daimon is a fallen ‘shard of Love’ – has had more detractors than adherents.[2] Here, I felt that the author’s attempt to find precedents for later daimonification/angelification led him to proceed less critically than I would have liked. This was also the case with the Hesiod chapter. In discussing Hesiod’s ‘golden race’ who, after the earth covers them up, become the daimones who watch over humans (Works and Days 109-126), Litwa states that ‘[t]he golden generation was pure of negative affections (anger, hate, jealousy, and fear) that afflict the iron generation’ (p.24) and cites as support a scholiast on the passage, but Hesiod himself says very little about their emotions – only that they had a ‘spirit free from care’ (line 112). The scholiast cited seems to me influenced by later philosophical views on the opposition between reason and the passions. Here, as elsewhere, a closer analysis of the original text might have made Litwa’s interpretation more cogent – but this would have been to the detriment of the book’s concision and readability.

A further issue is the book’s use of certain key terms. Litwa quotes the primary sources in translation. From the original languages, he only occasionally discusses certain words or includes short quotations in the footnotes. Whilst this practice unquestionably enhances the book’s accessibility, it would at times have been helpful to provide a clearer indication of how the English terms Litwa deploys map on to the ancient evidence. This is especially the case with the Introduction where he promises to focus on ‘how educated members of the elite imagined the transformation of humans into daimones and angels’ (p.14). It is clear enough that he is referring primarily to Greek texts in which mortal anthropoi are turned into daimones or aggeloi, but when he writes that ‘[i]n ancient Semitic cultures (prior to about 400BC), it seems, angels were subordinate gods, part of the extended family of a father deity’ (p.15), I was left wondering whether he was not imposing a Judaeo-Christian concept onto pagan texts. Certainly, I was surprised to read that ‘In Homer’s Odyssey 5.29, Zeus addresses his son as an angel’ (p.15 n.75) – even if Hermes is an aggelos, it seems misleading to refer to him as an ‘angel’. Thankfully, the use of these terms is clearer in the central chapters, but I would have welcomed more detailed discussion of the evidence for the summaries provided, especially with the chapter on the Zostrianos where some explanation of the terminology of the Coptic text and how it corresponds to the English translations would have been helpful.

These minor criticisms should be taken as a function of the fact that I found the material of Litwa’s main chapters so interesting that I wanted to learn more. More serious complaints can be levelled against his overarching argument that ancient conceptions of posthuman transformation have a moral dimension lacking in their modern counterparts. This argument is briefly signalled in the Introduction and most fully developed in the Conclusion, but I rather lost sight of it in the intervening chapters where the relationship between the ancient and modern ideas could have been made clearer. Litwa states at the end of the Introduction that ‘[t]he core idea of this discourse is that angelification and daimonification are a form of moral transformation in which cognitive and physical changes are the results of moral decisions and practices’ (p.20), but he does not define or expand upon what he means by morality until the Conclusion, where he writes that ‘Positive morality is determined by values, and the content of the values is culture- and tradition-dependent’ (p.155), then proceeds to argue that ‘posthuman enhancement must never be defined apart from morality, but always in terms of it’ (p.159). He makes this latter claim against the idea that super-powered post-humans should be thought of as subject to their own ‘master-morality’ according to which they may treat us (the non-post-humans) no better than we treat non-human animals, the so-called “lower” lifeforms (pp.155-158). But since Litwa adopts a culturally-contingent view of morality and rejects moral or ethical absolutes, he leaves unanswered an important question: in terms of whose morality should we define posthuman enhancement? Indeed, the ancient authors Litwa discusses present a morality that is starkly opposed to that shared by many modern readers. Hesiod’s golden race, who enjoy a world of spontaneous bounty simply by virtue of the genos into which they are born, hardly appear as a paragon of moral virtue to my own liberal sensibilities, nor does Origen’s reported self-castration (p.95) seem particularly commendable behaviour, even if it was the ‘outward sign of an inner spiritual commitment’ (p.96).

The Conclusion as a whole reads more as a self-contained manifesto for a moral conception of the posthuman than as a comment on the preceding chapters. A particular target is Humanity+, formerly the World Transhumanist Association, ‘a non-profit… educational organization dedicated to elevating the human condition’.[3] Litwa complains that these Transhumanists adopt a definition of ‘improvement to the human condition’ exclusively in terms of autonomy, which ‘glides over the fact that even immoral persons can have increased opportunity for shaping their lives’ (p.162). In devoting considerable space to a relatively obscure organisation, Litwa may be accused of setting up a straw man, especially as many of the ‘posthumans’ he identifies in the modern imagination – ‘superheroes and benevolent aliens’ (p.152) – do in fact have a moral dimension. After all, the proverb that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ is now more closely associated with Spiderman than any of its earlier usages.[4] But the particular organisation he targets is less important to his argument than the principles it espouses. Again, though, one might want further explication and justification of the morality Litwa advocates. Libertarians, for instance, might argue that it is immoral to impinge upon personal autonomy by recourse to some other arbitrarily chosen set of moral values.

However, despite my criticisms, I found Litwa’s overarching argument thought-provoking and original. This book should be read with interest and pleasure by scholars from a range of disciplines but is also accessible to undergraduates and general readers.


[1] See G. M. Chesi and F. Spiegel (eds.) Classical Literature and Posthumanism (London, 2020).

[2] The view is first found in F. M. Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation(London, 1912), pp. 237-40 and further developed by D. O’Brien (who mentions unpublished lecture notes in which Cornford elaborated the theory) Empedocles’ Cosmic Cycle (Cambridge, 1969), pp. 325-336. For detractors, note e.g. J. Barnes The Presocratic Philosophers (London, 1982) pp.495-501, followed by D. Sedley Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity (Berkeley, 2007) p.51 n.62; P. Curd ‘On the Question of Religion and Natural Philosophy in Empedocles’ in A. L. Pierris (ed.) The Empedoclean Κόσμος: Structure, Process and the Question of Cyclicity Part 1: Papers (Patras, 2005), at pp.142-243; S. Trépanier, ‘From Wandering Limbs to Limbless Gods: δαίμων as Substance in Empedocles’, Apeiron 47 (2014) pp. 172–210.

[3], accessed 20th December 2021.

[4] Apparently, it dates to the French revolution: Wikipedia, “With great power comes great responsibility”.