BMCR 2022.11.09

Nemesius of Emesa on human nature: a cosmopolitan anthropology from Roman Syria

, Nemesius of Emesa on human nature: a cosmopolitan anthropology from Roman Syria. Oxford early Christian studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. xxiv, 205. ISBN 9780198856962 $85.00.

What a piece of work is hominid!  Hominid? Well, what, exactly? How noble in reason? Two more categories there could use a little deconstruction. The critters we call human beings are the only species, as far as we know, that has an ancient tradition of taking selfies, that has the ability or the need to reflect discursively on itself and that thinks it can come to a useful self-description. All who take part in this exercise (Greeks, Christians, moderns, postmoderns) have a disabling interest in the outcome, determined as they are to exalt the “human” over the “animal” and to find a self-serving formula for issues of autonomy and responsibility that flatters independent “rational” activity while mitigating guilt for the unpleasant results of such activity. We’re the only species that kills its own kind by the millions, but it’s not our fault.

Few readers of this review are likely to have come of age in a setting not heavily inflected by these debates. Modern cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology can put paid to many of the claims of the old philosophers and theologians and raise questions about others, but the common language of politics, journalism, religion, and the toxic blend of all three we call social media remains pervaded by the old debate and its vocabularies. The New York Times in a single issue this week tells me of a comedian who touches the heart and soul of his audience, a politician is accused of saying “cops have no souls”, while Shakespeare in a food column adverts to the soul of wit and an anti-domestic violence activist does not know how to X-ray the soul of a perpetrator. “Soul” is an ancient word created in these debates to denote something that has exactly the same claim to exist as phlogiston once did.

We reached this place of mass cognitive denial and dissonance as willing heirs to that ancient dialogue. Aristotle on the soul and Augustine on the soul’s free will generate waves of obsessive scholarship, while the Phaedrus with that cockamamie story about a charioteer charms even more than it obsesses. In that tradition, Nemesius of Emesa by comparison is a guy standing at the door of the debate chamber pressing copies of his c.v. on everyone who comes and goes and the recycling bins a few yards away fill up with them.

Nemesius in fact deserves greater attention and respect than has been customary, if not for his arguments then for his reception and influence. He wrote his De natura hominis in Emesa (Homs, Syria) in the late fourth century CE, probably while serving as a bishop among the Christians there. The work runs 130 pages in the recent Teubner by M. Morani and has appeared in the Liverpool Translated Texts of Historians. Latin, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian translations survive, the oldest of perhaps the 8th century, and there are three sixteenth century printed editions (Dusenbury 6). Dusenbury is good on the way Nemesian influence runs strongly through submerged channels in the middle ages following the use made of him by John Damascene in the eighth century. The 12th century Latin translation of Nemesius that influenced Grosseteste, Duns Scotus, and Roger Bacon was made by the jurist Burgundio of Pisa, who encountered Nemesius and Damascene in Constantinople and translated both of them. Dusenbury does not himself do the work on reception that needs doing, but he sets it up impeccably.

The main thrust of Dusenbury’s elegant study is to outline with care the arguments of Nemesius, tracing their indebtedness to the philosophical and, importantly, medical traditions of ancient discourse about “man”. He takes Nemesius seriously as a thinker and makes coherent sense of him as has not truly been done before.

One distinctive feature of Nemesius’s work, strongly underscored by Dusenbury, is his concentration on describing the human being as a creature of and in a classical social and political community——hence the book’s title’s “cosmopolitan” as a leitmotif adjective. Nemesius writes contemporary with the early work of Augustine in Hippo and the coincidence of concentrations on the social/political in Nemesius and in Augustine’s City of God makes it clear how an Augustine more deeply rooted in the Greek philosophers could have enriched and strengthened his own theology of human society and the individual’s place in it. Augustine has to make do with Cicero and the rumor of Plato for important philosophical underpinnings, while Nemesius has clearly read much more widely in the relevant literature—including importantly the medical literature — and thus, among other strengths, his interpretation of the fate of Adam and Eve is more nuanced than Augustine’s.

A striking theme in Nemesius shows off Dusenbury’s contribution well (Dusenbury 48–51). First, Nemesius writes of human beings as entities that can choose to lead a fully human life — a choice that leads to the creation of political communities. Human beings, according to Nemesius, make the choice to live a human life and thus rise (he even says, strikingly, that they thereby change their nature) to the level from which in other readings Adam and Eve are seen to have fallen. Second and less certain, Dusenbury captures the attention paid by other writers (notably Ephrem Syrus) in the Syria of Nemesius’s time to the case of Nebuchadnezzar, the biblical figure who “did eat grass as oxen”. Nemesius’s view is striking and the Syrian context is tantalizing. Dusenbury knows that he is pushing the envelope of the provable here, but it is good that he pushes.

That example is one of several I could choose (his treatment of dioikesis for something anticipating ‘governance’ [Dusenbury 156-64] is more complex and impressive) to show how Dusenbury inhabits Nemesius’s text and his world with a scholarly imagination that lets him flesh out a consistent and provocative representation of what Nemesius was getting at and how it made him distinctive. He was as Christian as any other philosophically informed bishop (Synesius of Cyrene is a better comparandum than Augustine here) and if he was idiosyncratic on some points, that only demonstrates—as if we needed the demonstration—that the places where orthodox and conventional views eventually came down on these issues were not intrinsically better grounded or argued than positions like Nemesius’s that were relatively marginalized and are now easily overlooked.

The book is learned and lucid, if at times a bit more didactic in the cause of lucidity than I felt absolutely necessary. It should certainly be read and digested by those tracking the interplay of philosophy and theology in the years after the Cappadocians wrote, but should also unsettle the making of teleological narratives about the outcome of that interplay. What survives for us to read of those debates going forward to Claudianus Mamertus and Boethius and Philoponos is overdetermined in favor of texts compatible with later conventionalities and orthodoxies. For example, Christology lies beyond the ken of Nemesius’s book and hence of Dusenbury, but the fierce battles of the fifth and sixth centuries about the “human nature” of Christ emerged from a world in which a wider range of possibilities of understanding human nature existed than we have always realized. Students of those debates would also do well to think hard about Nemesius. Dusenbury has made that much, much easier to do.