Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"The Christian appropriation of Platonic philosophy and the Hellenic intellectual resistance"

"The people are driven into disbelief in the existence of the Gods
due to their lack of knowledge."

[Proclus, in his Commentary on Plato's Alcibiades, 264.5-6, as paraphrased by Niketas Siniossoglou]

Some see Platonism as a kind of proto-Christianity that helped to pave the way for a smooth and painless, even "tidy", transition from ancient traditional polytheistic Paganism to the new ideology of monotheistic Christianity. According to this school of thought, Platonism in particular, and Greek philosophy generally, served as midwife at the birth of Christianity from the womb of Hellenism, thus making Christianity the legitimate heir of Greco-Roman culture.

Two simple historical facts should give pause to all those who are tempted to see things in this way. First of all, this "theory" is in fact taken bodily, in toto, from the religious writings of Eusebius and other early church fathers, which is a fine source so long as one is engaged in the work of propagating the Christian faith, but not otherwise. Second of all, those who are portrayed as the servile handmaidens of the Church turn out to have been its most stubborn, and arguably its most effective, opponents.

But please, don't take my word for it.
The view that Hellenic philosophy and paideia were maintained within the religious and cultural framework of Judeo-Christianity is widely held. Important terms and concepts of Platonic philosophy are often said to have been assimilated into the emerging Christian religion in order to meet the needs and aims of late antique apologists. Yet from the viewpoint of late antique intellectual history, this perspective has a fundamental problem: essentially relying on the argumentation of Christian apologists, it fails to perceive and recover the unresolved hermeneutical conflict between 'pagan' Platonists and Christian apologists with respect to the meaning of Plato's lexis. As a result, the philosophical, rhetorical and political dimensions of this conflict remain unexplored. Further, the significant consequences entailed by its outcome for the conceptual history of Platonic philosophy are obfuscated.
The above is taken from the opening paragraph of Niketas Siniossoglou's 2008 monograph Plato and Theodoret: The Christian Appropriation of Platonic Philosophy and the Hellenic Intellectual Resistance (Cambridge University Press). I have only just started reading the book myself, but fortunately Joshua G. Lollar (an obviously quite gifted graduate student at Notre Dame, working on his PhD in the History of Christianity) has written a detailed and insightful review of the book, published in the Journal of the International Plato Society and available online here.

Here is one excerpt from Lollar's review, giving an overview of the entire book:
1. In Plato and Theodoret: The Christian Appropriation of Platonic Philosophy and the Hellenic Intellectual Resistance, Niketas Siniossoglou sets out to establish the contours of the late-antique conflict between Christians and Hellenes over the proper interpretation of Plato’s philosophy. In particular, Siniossoglou seeks to define the distinction between what he calls the “philosophical mode of interpretation,” characteristic of the Neoplatonic schools, and the “rhetorical mode” of the Christian apologists who sought to appropriate Plato in support of Christian doctrine over-against pagan religion and philosophy. He focuses specifically on the Graecarum Affectionem Curatio of Theodoret of Cyrrhus, a work of Christian apologetic that has been positively evaluated by modern scholarship as an articulate response to pagan philosophy. In his reading of Theodoret, Siniossoglou seeks to uncover the dynamics of his appropriation and transformation of Platonic terminology and concepts to get at just how he, and by extension, other Christian apologists, went about rewriting Plato as a supporter of the Judaeo-Christian worldview. To do this, the author attempts to hear Theodoret from the perspective of the intended audience of the Curatio, the Hellenic intellectual elite, so as to be attentive to the philosophical and cultural significance of the moves Theodoret makes with respect to the texts of Plato. In brief, Theodoret, from this point of view, seeks to fragment the Platonic philosophical corpus so as to render it incoherent as a whole and open it to his own selective retrieval of elements that accord with established Christian dogma. It is these retrieved and appropriated elements that Theodoret (echoing earlier Christian apologists) claims to be the authentic Platonic tradition, which derive from the Hebraic tradition, whereas the Neoplatonic interpretation of Plato, Theodoret claims, is a corruption of this original intention of Plato.
And here is another excerpt discussing oracles, theurgy and ritual sacrifice (the paragraph numbers are given to aid the interested reader who wishes to refer to the original in its entirety, which I highly recommend) :
12. With respect to oracles, Neoplatonic theurgy, and ritual sacrifice, the author demonstrates Theodoret’s basic strategy of lifting positions out of the internal dialectic of Neoplatonic debates on the issue (particularly between Porphyry and Iamblichus) in support of his own interpretation of pagan ritual—that it seeks to manipulate daemonic powers for human benefit—in order, 1.) to supplant pagan oracles with Judaeo-Christian prophecy, and 2.) to separate Plato from the later tradition which, he argues, has departed from him. However, the author shows that Theodoret, either deliberately, or as a result of his sources, does not acknowledge the subtleties of Plato’s and Porphyry’s actual position on sacrifices (that they have their place in the state); neither does he acknowledge the thrust of Iamblichus’ teaching about theurgy in that he gives a superstitious view of theurgy that Iamblichus himself was at pains to criticize.

13. The author notes a similar tendentiousness with respect to Theodoret’s criticism of pagan myths and “idolatry,” arguing that Theodoret “overgeneralize[s]” the notion of idolatry with respect to paganism and then bluntly applies it to all pagan religion, ignoring the philosophical and theological accounts by the best pagan philosophers of the time. The intention here was to reduce Neoplatonism to a vulgar polytheism, which, the author argues, the Neoplatonist philosophers themselves rejected with a sophisticated notion of the place and interpretation of myth and image in the philosophic life. In fact, all of the noted criticisms of pagan cultic practice and polytheism could be applied just as readily to Christian practice.
And here is one final excerpt, almost at the end of the review, giving a more overall assessment:
25. Because the question of the relationship between Hellenism and Christianity has been vexed throughout the history of its asking by generalizations and clever one-liners— “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” “Plato is Moses in Attic Greek,” etc.—it is often difficult to find one’s way into a clear and fruitful engagement with it. Nikitas Siniossoglou provides just such a fruitful engagement in Plato and Theodoret. The author’s project of giving a reading of Theodoret’s Curatio from the perspective of its intended audience, the Hellenic intellectual elite, is, in the opinion of this reviewer, a success and a very helpful contribution to our understanding of the specifics of the engagement between Christian apologists and Platonism. It is itself a work of resistance against what the author takes to be a modern scholarly reiteration of the ancient attempt to appropriate Hellenic culture and philosophy to Christianity. [1] The author shows a firm grasp of the late-Antique Platonic tradition and is able to demonstrate convincingly the ways in which this tradition responds to Christian attempts to appropriate its master. His hermeneutical orientation in the introduction to the book is not overbearing (as such chapters often are), and provides a precise statement as to the nature of the author’s own interpretive strategy.
Now I wish to return to Siniossoglou's book itself. Below is a fairly longish (7 pages!) excerpt. Even more can be found at the publishers website here. (The same author also has a forthcoming book in the works on George Gemistos Plethon: Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon.)
The Christian apologists took key words of Platonic vocabulary and infused them with new significations. Yet by what strategies did they rewrite Plato? In what ways does their application of Platonic conceptual vocabulary diverge from that of their contemporary Hellenes? I chose Theodoret’s Graecarum Affectionum Curatio, a work now considered to be ‘one of the best Christian replies to pagan philosophy’ and praised as the last and probably the most complete of the numerous apologies which Hellenic antiquity has produced, as the most appropriate axis of reference in order to contextualize and concretize these questions. The present inquiry is not interested in a descriptive reconstruction of Theodoret’s argumentation, but rather in critically examining the conceptual shifts introduced into Platonic texts, the mechanisms of semantic change employed, and the significations ascribed in Curatio. Moreover, there is a further interest in viewing the apologetical argumentation from the perspective of its intended recipient: the educated elite of the Hellenes who strongly resisted any attempt at philosophically legitimating the Christian negotiation of Plato. This method will enable us to unveil what Theodoret is actually doing with his appropriation and application of central concepts of Platonism, that is, to recover the illocutionary force of his treatise: his actual intentions in rewriting Plato after the apologetical hermeneutical pattern.

The deeper motivation of Christian apologists extends beyond the professed aim of converting the Hellenes. This book argues that the hermeneutical conflict over Plato is the surface manifestation of a fierce intellectual battle for the conceptualization of Hellenic identity by the means of assigning specific connotations and associations to Platonic conceptual vocabulary. In the late antique political and ideological power game the interpretation of Plato becomes a two-sided weapon. In the case of Theodoret and the apologists on whom he relies, it is an instrument of attack aimed at corroborating the triumph of Christian claims of universality and exclusivity, while undermining the Hellenic identity of pagan intellectuals and eroding its philosophical substratum. By contrast, in the case of the Hellenes whom Theodoret was addressing, the interpretation of Plato is an instrument of resistance and survival: it provides them with the means to systematize and rigidify their cultural and philosophical heritage in an age of expanding intellectual imperialism, thus immunizing their world-view against the apologetical communication strategies. I shall argue that the apologetical utilization of Plato complied with the tactics and strategies set out by a rhetorical agenda and is at odds with the Neoplatonic model of interpretation as well as with the hermeneutics developed by the apologists themselves when reading the sacred Judaeo-Christian texts. Hence, the Hellenic–Christian conflict of interpretations stems from a clash between a rhetorical and a philosophical or doctrinal reading of Plato that had definite consequences for the conceptualization and reaffirmation of Hellenic identity in late antiquity.

Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ Curatio epitomizes this Hellenic–Christian trial of strength regarding the compatibility of Platonism with Christianity. Theodoret argues in favour of an assimilation of Plato’s philosophy inside Christianity by revisiting crucial notions, passages and myths in Plato’s corpus. The terms paideia, philosophia, logos, nomos, askesis, phugē, politeia, the ‘study of death’ (μελέτη θανάτου) of the Phaedo, the ‘assimilation to god’ (ὁμοίωσις θεῷ) of the Theaetetus, the ‘likely tale’ of the Timaeus and the myth of Er in the Republic are central to his argument. Theodoret’s lengthy work offers a clear example of how the rhetorical and exegetical tactics of the Antiochean School were employed against Neoplatonic hermeneutics in order to negate the possibility of a coherent Platonist philosophical theology by breaking its unity and claiming its most vital elements. Further, it illustrates the way in which the apologists opposed the Julianic vision of a Neoplatonic universal religion by postulating a discontinuity or rather chasm between Plato and his successors.

Theodoret refined and elaborated on Eusebius’ strategy of breaking the ‘golden chain’ and the ‘sacred genealogy’ of Plato’s disciples. This consisted in presenting the philosophical theology of Hellenes in late antiquity as alienated from Plato’s philosophy. Eusebius argued at length that with few exceptions Plato’s disciples distorted the philosophy of their master and introduced sophisms and innovations. In the same vein, Theodoret describes his contemporary (οἱ νῦν) pagan exegetes as attempting to misinterpret (παϱεϱμηνεύειν) rather than interpret Plato. Like Aeneas of Gaza, the most remarkable fifth-century exponent of this anti-Hellenic strategy, Theodoret divides the Platonic tradition into two parts: the first includes Plotinus, Amelius and Numenius, namely Platonists who are supposedly following Plato’s initial adaptation of Hebrew lore; the second phase begins with Porphyry and its hallmark is the ‘pagan’ sophisticated and allegorical interpretation of Plato. At the rhetorical level this move had two complementary aims: to deprive the Hellenic intellectual resistance of its primary philosophical resources, while conveniently appropriating, transforming and subsuming them to Judaeo-Christianity. The apologetical approach to Plato is presented as the return to Plato’s original source, Judaism. Like Clement, Eusebius and Theodoret proudly pose as the true heirs and interpreters of the arcane wisdom that inspired Plato.

How did the Hellenes respond to the apologetical claims over Plato? Already Celsus had argued that Plato’s philosophy was fundamentally alien to and incompatible with the Judaeo-Christian religion and talked of the imminent need to expose the philosophical principles that the Christians systematically misunderstood owing to ignorance. In particular, they were misunderstanding Plato’s lexis and twisting his doctrines. For his part, Julian declared that the aim of the Christian apologists was to avoid the intellectual confrontation with Hellenism by selectively usurping and misappropriating the intellectual weapons and philosophical tradition of their opponents.

Celsus and Julian made extensive use of both philosophical and rhetorical tools when openly confronting and challenging the apologists. Yet in the fifth and sixth centuries direct and explicit criticism of Judaeo-Christianity gave its place to a covert and subterranean form of opposition that used the exegesis of Plato’s philosophy as its means of articulation. Faced with the expansion of a Christian hegemony of discourse that enjoyed the support of the new political status quo, in late antiquity Hellenes such as Proclus, Damascius, Simplicius and Olympiodorus abandoned the battle at the rhetorical front. Instead of openly debating with the Christians, they fell back on the philosophical systematization and substantiation of the Hellenic world-view by means of philosophical exegesis. The Hellenic–Christian conflict of interpretations over Plato reflects this shift. While apologists such as Eusebius and Theodoret intensified their appropriation of Platonic terms and concepts, the Neoplatonists recognized in Plato ‘the leader of salvation’ and viewed the mission of the commentator-philosopher as holy at an age of ‘depraved polities’ – to use Simplicius’ and Olympiodorus’ expression – when temples were destroyed and religious institutions attacked.

Working surreptitiously on the Platonic corpus, Theodoret’s contemporary Neoplatonists produced a multicentred and multivalent hermeneutical model that was directly opposed to the Christian rewritings of Plato. By setting as their aim to systematize, save from oblivion and pass on to future generations their philosophy, they made sufficiently clear that they were anything but persuaded by the apologetical utilization of Plato and postulated a less outspoken, yet persistent intellectual resistance to the apologetical methods of handling and appropriating philosophical texts. Treated intertextually, their philosophical commentaries function as the response and counterpart to the apologetical rhetoric and are the main expression of what I call the Hellenic intellectual resistance of late antiquity.

A methodological note by F. Schleiermacher is particularly relevant here: authors belonging to the same period or school of thought and sharing common characteristics and intentions may be considered as a single agent. For example, in Curatio Theodoret addresses ‘the Hellenes’ as a single opponent. Hence, although we do not have a Hellenic treatise directly intended as a reply to Theodoret’s approach to Plato, we are, nonetheless, able to reconstruct his controversy with the Hellenes and recover the conflict between the Hellenic and the apologetical hermeneutical patterns; to do so requires a comparative discourse analysis that exemplifies how specific Platonic texts are read and ‘applied’ by opposed collective agents within the same historical situation. This allows us to treat the apologetical expropriation and recontextualization of key terms and passages from the Republic, the Phaedo or the Laws from a different angle.

From a late antique Hellenic viewpoint the apologetical synthesis of Christian and Platonic elements then emerges per contrapositionem to the Neoplatonic project as a contradiction in terms, sustainable only as long as one concentrates on the level of vocabulary alone and does not advance towards the meaning of the philosophical terms and concepts appropriated by Christian authors. Yet as Porphyry put it, one should proceed beyond the linguistic level of signifiers and ‘look for their significations (σημαινόμενα), so that it is sufficient that the conception remains the same, whatever the names (ὀνόματα) may be that are used’. Proclus employs this exegetical principle when arguing that his contemporary hoi polloi fail to become philosophers (φιλόσοφοι). They are lovers of mere opinions (φιλόδοξοι) who are unable to advance beyond the verbal expression (φωνή) of philosophical vocabulary. Their understanding of the Hellenic language (ἑλλη- νίζειν) is restricted to the level of the common use of names and prevents them from an adequate comprehension of philosophical concepts. This inability to penetrate the deeper layers of Hellenic philosophy affects not only the way that hoi polloi read philosophy, but their actual choices of belief: ‘these days’, Proclus says elsewhere, hoi polloi are driven into disbelief in the existence of gods due to their lack of knowledge (ἀνεπιστημοσύνη). Clement of Alexandria – one of Theodoret’s main sources – had made the same point, but turned things around: it is the Hellenes who stay at the superficial level of names (ὀνόματα), as opposed to the Christians, who advance beyond the eloquence of words into the things themselves (πϱάγματα), namely, the truth. Pagan Platonists and Christian apologists use the interweaving of hermeneutics and ontology according to their aims in a visceral, yet fierce conflict of interpretations that reached its culmination during the fifth century.

The thesis I am arguing is that the antagonistic Neoplatonic and Christian claims of possessing the key to the gates of Platonic lore, together with the mutual accusations of distorting Plato’s lexis, are only surface manifestations of a much wider conflict between the Christian rhetorical mode of negotiating Plato and Neoplatonic philosophical hermeneutics. This conflict reflects the polarization between the Judaeo-Christian and the Hellenic world-views. Before proceeding to a discourse analysis of Theodoret’s Curatio, thus providing evidence for this claim, it is necessary to make explicit what I mean by the Christian rhetorical mode of appropriating Plato. This calls for an introduction to the strategies used by Theodoret in his rewriting of Plato, and further, for a set of necessary hermeneutical and methodological criteria for an intertextual and contextual approach to the late antique Hellenic–Christian conflict of interpretations.
[pp. 1-7]