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Plato and Theodoret


  • Page extent: 280 pages
  • Size: 216 x 138 mm
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 (ISBN-13: 9780521880732)


   καὶ τίς ἐστιν ὁ γεγϱαφὼς ὅτι «ἀϱχὴ παιδεύσεως ἡ τῶν ὀνομάτων ἐπίσκεψις»;
Σωκϱάτης δ οὐ λέγει; καὶ πεϱὶ τίνος γϱάφει Ξενοφῶν, ὅτι ἤϱχετο ἀπὸ τῆς τῶν
ὀνομάτων ἐπισκέψεως, τί σημαίνει ἕκαστον;

   And who is it that wrote, ‘The beginning of education is the examination of terms’? Does not Socrates say it? And of whom does Xenophon write that he began by the examination of terms, asking about each: ‘What does it signify?’

   Epict. Diss.–5

The Hellenic–Christian conflict of interpretations over Plato

The subject matter of this inquiry is the late antique Hellenic–Christian conflict of interpretations over Plato. The aim is to reconstruct the major hermeneutical clash between a philosophical and a rhetorical mode of interpretation that transformed Plato’s text into a battleground for competing discourses and rival intellectual paradigms. By contrast, it is the interrelation between Hellenism and Judaeo-Christianity, namely what the two world-views appear to share in common, that appeals to contemporary scholarship as the proper object of research. The view that Hellenic philo- sophy and paideia were maintained within the religious and cultural framework of Judaeo-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 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’1 and praised as the last and probably the most complete of the numerous apologies which Hellenic antiquity has produced,2 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.3

   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.4 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.5 In the same vein, Theodoret describes his contemporary (οἱ νῦν) pagan exegetes as attempting to misinterpret (παϱεϱμηνεύειν) rather than interpret Plato.6 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.7 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.8 In particular, they were misunderstanding Plato’s lexis and twisting his doctrines.9 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.10

   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.11

   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.12 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’.13 Proclus employs this exegetical principle when arguing that his contemporary hoi polloi fail to become philosophers (φιλόσοφοι). They are lovers of mere opinions (φιλόδοξοι)14 who are unable to advance beyond the verbal expression (φωνή) of philosophical vocabulary.15 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.16 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).17 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.18 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.

Rewriting Plato: the apologetical strategies of appropriation

The philosophy of Plato and its reception by his successors is central to Theodoret’s argument. Most of Theodoret’s quotations come from Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica and Clement’s Stromateis;19 this is obvious from common sequences of citations appearing either in Theodoret and Eusebius or in Theodoret and Clement. Further, Theodoret occasionally repeats the errors of his predecessors: attributing to Plato a passage that is not included in the Platonic corpus, paraphrasing Plato in the same way his sources do and, with few exceptions, failing to provide any information regarding passages about which Eusebius and Clement keep silent.20 In order to explain Theodoret’s reference and allusions to specific passages that he could not have taken from Eusebius and Clement, as well as to account for the occasional discrepancy between his and their versions of Platonic quotes, Canivet assumed that Theodoret drew on an independent florilegium or compendium.21 Moreover, it has also been maintained that he possibly had access to Porphyry’s Historia Philosophiae and Vita Pythagorae and that he used at least the third book of Plotinus’ Enneads.22

   The question of whether and how far Theodoret might also have consulted any manuscripts of Plato’s works directly remains open and is likely to stay this way.23 As Canivet notes, modern scholarship was quick to exclude the possibility that Theodoret used primary sources, despite the fact that his version of certain passages diverges from those of Eusebius and Clement and is closer to the Platonic manuscripts. In such cases, it was assumed that Theodoret had access to a better manuscript of Eusebius or Clement than we have, that his copy had additional notes, or that a copyist intervened and corrected his quotations by harmonizing them with the original.24 Commenting on the presence of quotations from the Gorgias in Curatio from the viewpoint of the history of philosophy, E. R. Dodds noted that their sole value consists in helping us to identify subsequent corruptions of the Eusebian text:

It should be added that Eusebius, not Plato, is the immediate source of the quotations from the Gorgias in Theodoret; and that from Theodoret some of them were in turn copied out by Georgios Monachos (saec. Ⅸ) and eventually found their way into Suidas s.v. Πλτων. Community of error and progressive corruption make this virtually certain. Theodoret and his derivatives are thus not independent witnesses to the text of Plato; their only value is as a check on corruptions introduced by medieval copyists into the text of Eusebius.25

The fact that Theodoret cites Plato through intermediaries does not necessarily mean that he had not read Plato independently of his sources. Theodoret sometimes adds specific details (though not always correct) with regard to the place of the quotations he presents inside Plato’s works. These do not appear to derive from his main sources, even when his quotations do.26 This implies a more solid philosophical education than is usually assumed. Given that Theodoret seems to quote par coeur Homer, Hesiod and the tragic poets, nothing precludes the possibility that he had read Plato at an early age in Antioch, even if he chose to use Eusebius and Clement, for reasons of convenience, when compiling Curatio. If this is the case, it is possible that he occasionally relied on his memory while editing, supplementing and rearranging the material he expropriates from Clement and Eusebius. Indeed, Mansfeld and Runia correctly note that Theodoret’s approach to Plato and Plotinus suggests a considerable philosophical education, apart from his primarily rhetorical background. This impression is accentuated by his direct use of a philosophical textbook such as Aëtius’ Placita.27 The latter work is known to us through Eusebius’ quotations from Ps.Plutarch’s Epitome, Stobaeus and Theodoret. Modern scholarship is grateful to Theodoret for identifying Aëtius as the author of the Πεϱὶ ἀϱεσκόντων ξυναγωγή as well as for presenting material that is not included in Ps.Plutarch’s and Stobaeus’ accounts. On all three occasions when Theodoret refers to Aëtius, he also mentions Ps.Plutarch, on whose work he may well be drawing either directly or through Eusebius.28 Consequently, it is a remarkable fact that Theodoret turned to the original source, namely Aëtius, rather than restricting himself to Ps.Plutarch’s compendium.29

   Sophonias, the Byzantine monk and commentator of Aristotle, has provided us with a description of what he knew to be the genuine form of philosophical exegesis. The aim of philosophical exegesis is limited to clarifying (σαφηνίσαι) and disclosing the nous of the text (τὸν νοῦν ἐκφάναι). In contrast to paraphrasis, exegesis does not allow interventions in the philosopher’s formulation. Rather, the task of the exegete is to divide the original text into parts and attach to each one the corresponding interpretation (ἑϱμηνεία). According to Sophonias, the exegetes who work in this manner uphold a long tradition that began with Alexander of Aphrodisias and includes Ammonius and Simplicius.30 Damascius, Proclus and Olympiodorus too belong to this tradition described by Sophonias, constructing almost line-by-line commentaries of the original texts.

   The apologetical method of handling Hellenic texts exemplified in Theodoret’s Curatio follows very different guidelines. The aim is neither an exegesis nor a paraphrasis of Plato, although Curatio takes occasionally the form of either the one or the other. Theodoret changed the associations of the original passages he quotes by substituting or omitting words that could potentially cause problems to his reading; by eliminating any reference to their original context, even when this is provided by his sources; by allowing interpolations, amalgamations and forgeries; by altering the syntax and punctuation; by refraining from referring to passages that contradict or relativize his interpretation; and by projecting a distinctively Christian vocabulary on Plato.31 Indeed, Theodoret’s apologetical project is characteristic of a form of literary construction which, at the other end of late antique philosophical exegesis, relies on manipulating and intervening in the original texts. This is achieved by the combined use of two tactics which I will now proceed to describe.<

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