BMCR 2024.02.28

Platonism and Christianity in late ancient cosmology: God, soul, matter

, , Platonism and Christianity in late ancient cosmology: God, soul, matter. Ancient philosophy and religion, 9. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. xii, 264. ISBN 9789004518308.



Among recent volumes of miscellaneous essays on Platonism and Christianity, this one is distinguished by the choice of cosmology as a common theme, and by the admission of papers written in French as well as in English. Not all contributions satisfy both halves of the title, as some are restricted to Platonism alone and some to Christianity alone. Most of the papers which encompass both traditions dwell in the salutary modern fashion, on the theological tenor of early Christian philosophy, rather than on the philosophical content of early Christian theology, as was more usual in the past.

The opening contribution. “Lineage Trouble” by Marwan Rashed, bears away the palm for ingenuity and multifarious learning. He begins by pointing out that in the Timaeus Plato’s uncle Critias confuses two of his namesakes, his grandfather and his great-great grandfather, to make the former rather than the latter a contemporary of Solon (pp. 20-23). Rashed sees here a calculated subversion of the Greek fondness for genealogy, the motive for which becomes clear when Critias alludes to the Apatouria, a festival thought by some to have been named after a feat of deception (apatē) performed by Melanthus, a descendant of Poseidon and a paternal ancestor of Plato himself (pp. 30-33). Plato’s silence regarding Poseidon is a corollary of his devotion to Athene, who worsted the sea-god in a struggle for Attica; but Athena is identified with the Egyptian Neith, who, as we learn from the mathematicians, combined in herself the monad and the dyad, the masculine and the feminine, and thereby doing away with the need for any second principle. Proclus, whom Rashed often quotes, would surely have found this theory impressive, even if his own search for the clue to Plato’s prosopography led him into a different labyrinth.

Johannes Zachhuber’s essay on “The World Soul in Early Christian Thought” does not go so far as to posit allusions to a deity who remains for ever unnamed. He does surmise, however, that when Origen says that the world is held together as if by a soul, he is hinting at a work performed by Christ, as second person of the Trinity, which divorces him even further from his primordial unity with and in the Father than his roles as Wisdom and Logos (pp. 50-52). He argues further that, once the chiastic figure of the world soul in Plato’s Timaeus had been identified by Justin with the Cross (pp. 59-60), the symbolism of its ‘breadth and length and depth and height’ (Ephesians 3.18) could be transferred to the architecture of the visible cosmos even by authors who made no explicit reference to Plato. One might demur that in the absence of any explicit mention of the world-soul even in Justin – who strangely substitutes the “Son of God” in his paraphrase of the Timaeus – we cannot be certain that Irenaeus, the Acts of John or Gregory of Nyssa entertained any thought of a world soul; on the other hand, there is food for thought in Zachhuber’s conjecture that the Timaeus lurks behind Athanasius’ efforts to explain the synergy of the intelligible and the sensible in the soul of Christ (pp. 67-68).

Ilaria Ramelli’s discussion of matter in the dialogue Adamantius is embedded in a much longer disquisition in the role of matter in Origen as the condition of individual identity in all creatures. The differentiation of all creatures from God by embodiment  made possible by God’s free creation of matter itself from nothing. The influence of Origen in the anonymous Adamantius is demonstrated by their common use of the argument that matter cannot be a coeternal principle with the Creator if matter itself possesses no form or quality until it receives the shape of a physical body (pp. 90-105). On the other hand, bodily individuation is the prerequisite of our freedom to make our own choices for good or evil; consequently, the spiritual body which succeeds the gross physical body after death is not a substitute but the same body transfigured by God in accordance with our deserts (pp. 80-87). The notion that God’s omniscience embraces the forms of particulars, knowing but not determining their futures, sets this Christian thinker apart from the Greeks and initiates a line of thought which was also exemplified by Gregory of Nyssa and Evagrius, neither of whom can be fairly accused of slighting either the durability or the plasticity of the corporeal form (p. 110-116).

Laurent  Lavaud’s “Microcosme et l’image de dieu” takes up the argument that the diversity of creatures and their distance from the Creator are the two conditions of freedom, which is both the glory and the curse of those beings whom God has endowed with rational souls. For Gregory, as for most Christians of antiquity, the image of God resides only in this incorporeal element of humanity; for all that, since resemblance is not identity, the property that raises us above all other things in creation still falls infinitely short  of the infinite majesty of God. While Gregory can join the Stoics and the Platonists in proclaiming the subordination of all other beings to humankind, for whose sake alone they exist, he cannot endorse the Stoic notion that humans are a microcosm of the physical cosmos, since that would be to belie the superiority of the spiritual nature; and he cannot maintain the essential divinity of the human soul, whose power to choose evil as well as good is the source of its imperfection. Only by the grace of God will it wax from glory to glory in that city which lies beyond and not (as Cicero thought) within the present world (p. 132). The important differences between Stoics and Platonists can be played down in this paper because it assumes a confluence of the two traditions in Posidonius (p.133), an author whose influence and originality are not perhaps rated so highly in modern Anglophone scholarship.

We would find ourselves making a very high estimate of the originality of Proclus if we  read the usual sense of heliocentrism in the title of Frédéric Berland’s  “L’héliocentrisme dans la cosmologie de Proclus”. In fact the term denotes here not the theory that the sun is the centre about which the planets revolve but the adoption of the Chaldean model according to which the sun occupies the middle place among the planets as they revolve round the earth ( (p. 152). This enables Proclus to reject, not only Ptolemy’s ordering of his planets, but the system of epicycles which he used to explain their apparent deviations from circular motion round the earth: his alternative theory, however, is that the sun combines rectilinear and circular motion in a manner for which the best visible illustration would be the spiral, although the philosopher perceives that it is grounded in the interaction between the transcendent and the immanent operations of the Demiurge.

The elucidation of a misunderstood tenet in Proclus is also the purpose of Pascal Mueller-Jourdan’s piece, “L’immutabilitè et l’engendrement de la manière première du monde in question”, which exposes the invalidity of an argument used by Philoponus against the eternity of the physical world. Philoponus had assumed that to say that matter has no arkhê or beginning in time is to say that it is independent of any arkhê or principle, and hence that it is a principle in its own right.  His interlocutor Proclus, however, had already distinguished between the two senses of arkhê, and had maintained that the eternity of matter is made possible by its eternal dependence on the first principle. The opponents of Proclus are Atticus and Plutarch, whose belief that the creation was preceded by the disorderly motion of matter, and perhaps of an evil soul, was at least as abhorrent to orthodox Christians as to Platonists of late antiquity. As Jourdan observes, the bugbear of Philoponus is Manichaeism rather than Platonism (p. 181)  I would add that if Philoponus has indeed failed, in this criticism of Proclus, to distinguish existence without a beginning in time from existence without any ground in a higher principle, this cannot be an innocent misreading, since he was certainly acquainted with this distinction, not only in commentary on Plato,  but in the Christian tradition of differentiating the temporal creation of the world from the eternal generation of the Son.

While Proclus combines metaphysics with astrology, Cosmas Indicopleustes has been held up by detractors of the early church as a typical representative of its incompetence in both disciplines. Conversely, defenders of ancient Christendom, frequently dismiss him as an uncommonly literal reader of biblical texts which describe the earth as a rectangular tabernacle. Benjamin Gleede, in “The Christian Rejection of Ptolemaic Cosmography in Late Antiquity”, observes that Cosmas has at least two precursors, the Antiochene exegetes Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, neither of whom was motivated simply by an attachment to the literal sense of scripture. Diodore, on the evidence of Proclus, thought that the classical model of the rotating heavens lent support to astrological fatalism (pp. 187-8), while Theodore believed that it favoured Origen’s eschatology, in which the ascent to the heaven above the firmament is conceived as a continuous journey rather than a translation by divine grace into a wholly new state of being (pp. 193-4). Here I enter the caveat that Philoponus, whose tendentious assault on Theodore is quoted in note 36, does not say that his structures were aimed expressly at Plato or even at Origen.

Dionysius the Areopagite was no enemy of the Platonists, and an old interesting comparison might be drawn between the image of the spiral in his Divine Names and the attribution of spiral motion to heavenly bodies in classical thought from Aristotle to Proclus. In fact the essay devoted to him in this volume, “Le Seigneur des Puissances” by Radu Marasescu, commences with Luther’s infamous complaint that there is more of Plato than of Christ in the works of the Areopagite. Marasescu finds a partial refutation of the charge in the Areopagite’s application of Psalm 24 to the ascent of the embodied Christ to heaven amid a chorus of wandering angels. This conceit has a history which can be traced back to Justin Martyr (p. 209), and at the same time, her conclusion is that the incarnation is such a desultory theme in Dionysius that Luther may after all have been right to doubt that Christ is the centre of his theology.

Anastasius Sinaita is more often quoted as a witness to earlier texts than as a thinker in his own right, but in “The Creation of Man and his Constitution According to Anastasius Sinaita”, Carlo Dell’ Osso finds that he has an original conception of the human soul as a mirror to the Trinity, the concupiscible element answering to the love of the Father, the irascible to the power of the Holy Spirit, and the rational to the wisdom of the Son (p.235). Again, the soul resembles the Father in being ungenerated, while the rational intellect corresponds to the Son in being mysteriously begotten, and the mind, like the Holy Spirit, is not begotten but proceeds. Clearly the Byzantine abbot deserves more attention, if only because he contrives in a single paragraph to be at once a Christian heretic regarding the creation, and a philosophical maverick regarding the constitution of the soul.

The last contribution, Peter Van Dun’s’“Un kaleidoscope byzantine sur les six jours de la creation” is a critical edition of an etymological study of the terms employed in the biblical narrative of creation. Its interest appears to lie chiefly in the absence of any previous edition. But recondite learning has been a characteristic of most contributions to this volume, and scholarship is advanced not only by new ideas but by increments, however small, to the body of primary texts. There is, I suspect, no scholar who will fail to learn something from every article in this collection.