Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Friedemann Drews, Menschliche Willensfreiheit und göttliche Vorsehung bei Augustinus, Proklos, Apuleius und John Milton (2 vols.). Topics in ancient philosophy / Themen der antiken Philosophie, Bd 3. Frankfurt ; New Brunswick, N.J.: Ontos Verlag, 2009. Pp. xiv, 804. ISBN 9783868380378. €249.00.

Reviewed by Carl O'Brien, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg (obriencs@tcd.ie)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This monograph is a revised version of the author's doctoral dissertation at the University of Rostock. The relationship between human free choice and divine providence is an important philosophical topic and Drews makes a bold attempt to tackle it in an extensive work (spanning over 800 pages). While there is much that is good in this book, and while Drews exhibits extensive knowledge of the subject-matter of the monograph, the work, in this reviewer's opinion, suffers from several problems. The combination of the four thinkers seems at first glance a little strange, a point which Drews acknowledges in the introduction, but his aim is to examine two authors who deal with human free will and divine providence from an argumentative point of view (Augustine and Proclus), and two who treat it in a literary manner (Apuleius, Milton) (p. x). Drews claims that the text has been designed so that the sections treating of the individual authors can be read separately (p. x), but the lack of an overarching narrative is problematic in a monograph of this size, and the reader is not really well guided through the discussion. Drews points out that the selection of the authors was expressly not based on historical period, but rather in terms of the internal theological-philosophical arguments made. Given that Milton composed Paradise Lost in a completely different cultural context, it is difficult to see what his inclusion actually adds to the work, and this question does not seem to be adequately addressed or defended. Little is made of the broader intellectual milieu in which Milton operated – Drews points out that he was a contemporary of Descartes (761), but this, as well as the Puritan and Calvinist influences of Milton's epoch, are only cursorily noted in footnotes and not developed further (although strangely earlier on in the work, Descartes' and Augustine's theory of knowledge are compared: 37-9).

This problem is also apparent in the structure of the work: Section 4 provides a summary and conclusion of the research presented on the three authors from antiquity, and seems like a natural point to draw the volume to a close, but it is followed by the section on Milton (although in fairness to Drews, this is presented as a glimpse into modern times: "Ausblick in die Neuzeit"). The monograph ends, then, not with a conclusion presenting the findings of the research, but rather with a discussion of predestination in Milton. The result is that the similarities between Paradise Lost, De Doctrina Christiana, and the texts from antiquity come across as somewhat superficial. For example, we learn that Milton conceived the same relationship between will and power as Augustine did between voluntas et potestas (727), based upon Satan's remarks at PL IV.66-7; but a clearer explanation of why this should be the case would have been desirable. Another example is Milton's identification of the essence of divine Providence with the effects of the Good – as Drews notes this agrees with the Christian Augustine as well as pagan Platonism, represented in the volume by Apuleius and Proclus (755). Rather than such a broad, generalized comparison, a deeper analysis of the manner in which Milton was influenced by Platonism would have been more useful.

In general, clarity is not really helped by the numerous digressions and extraneous material (such as the summary of the contents of Paradise Lost at 697-708, or the seven digressions about Augustine and the excursus about Proclus at the end of Volume 1, 376-410, – although these have at least been gathered together as a separate appendix). These digressions obscure the main argument and detract from the unity of the work. A similar problem is evident in the brief comparison of The Golden Ass to Thomas Mann's Felix Krull and to Bieri's use of Crime and Punishment in Das Handwerk der Freiheit (450-2). While there is some justification in that Drews is treating of the relationship between the picaresque novel and philosophy, and he does place Mann in context (e.g. Prof. Kuckuck's reference to the theory of evolution), it is not clear to me how illuminating random comparisons with other cultural contexts and historical periods really are when applied to the ancient world. I also find it difficult to understand the logic behind the ordering of the sections. The Neoplatonist, Proclus (c. 411-485), is treated before the Middle Platonist, Apuleius (c. 125-c. 180), although presumably this was to keep the theological- philosophical sections separate from the more literary studies of the second volume. However, it seems to create an unnecessary distortion in terms of the history of philosophy. Drews' main argument is that Augustine, Proclus and Apuleius display a similar attitude in claiming that mankind essentially strives after the Good (680). Proclus and Augustine identify God as the highest being and the principle of all good, while at the end of The Golden Ass Isis personifies the Good for Lucius (681). The will is capable of deciding freely, and this capacity to strive after the Good and for knowledge stems from the Soul, rather than the body (682). Drews compares these views to similar discussions in modern philosophy or biology about whether humans have free will (684), and argues that modern experiments on neuronal processes do not conflict with the views of Augustine and Proclus so much as transfer the question to a different philosophical frame of reference (683). Drews also disagrees with Opsomer/Steel's interpretation of Proclean theodicy as aligning with Stoicism rather than with Aristotelianism (352-7).1 He argues that the idea that evil events may be 'good for the whole' does not rely on the thought that they are necessary (and therefore attributable to divine Providence), but on the thought that Providence is able to turn evil to good use by integrating it into the divine order (355).

The first volume (the treatment of Augustine and Proclus) is the most successful. Drews investigates whether, for Augustine, mankind has free will, and analyzes his response to Evodius' question in De libero arbitrio whether God is responsible for evil (10-14), a response which he compares to Proclus' position in De malorum subsistentia (12) as well as a range of other texts from the Platonic and Biblical tradition (13). Augustine clarifies that disciplina is good and doing evil is the result of deviating from disciplina, which one is led to by libido or cupiditas. Therefore one can only learn to do good and not evil. An interesting aspect of Drews' treatment is the examination of whether free will is an evil in itself or an instrument of divine punishment (24-31). Augustine's view is that, just as Man would lack something useful for movement if he was missing a leg, similarly he would lack something decisive if he did not have free will. Drews also examines Augustine's understanding of sense perception, the role which it plays in attaining knowledge, and whether it is possible for us to perceive that we perceive (57). Augustine himself asks his interlocutor, Evodius, why they have embarked on this conversation concerning sense perception: it was required to provide the basis for evidence of God (61). It relates to Augustine's theory of providence in that he wants to demonstrate that the universal cause of Being and the recognition of individual goods is the highest Good, that we form a collective in that we strive for the Good, and the fact that we all strive for the Good and therefore wish to be able to know the Good is something that we can collectively recognize (77). No one can be blessed unless he can perceive and attain the highest Good. Drews also connects his discussion of Augustus with a major metaphysical question: from where does evil originate (117)? This leads to an examination of the introduction of evil into creation and the question of whether the devil can be considered the first evil.

Drews traces the metaphysical background of Proclus' theory of providence to the Platonic primacy of the One over the Many, since the Intelligible does not possess its unifying definition from itself, but rather from a higher principle, the One itself (Autohen) (296). This helps to explain Proclus' distinction between a transcendent pronoia and a secondary, coordinating pronoia (297). Against this background, Drews sets out to investigate how Proclus can explain the effects of providence, when it is not supposed to be identified with all- determining destiny, and human responsibility must be admitted (305). Since all existence is one, to some extent, there must be a mechanism by which the universal source of unity, the One, can participate (371). The influence of providence, through the activity of the henads, located above being, but below the One, performs this intermediary function. This allows Proclus' theology to account not only for multiple gods, but also lower-ranking spiritual beings (daimones, heroes) as intermediaries of providence.

There is also much merit in Drews' treatment of Apuleius which, in addition to clarifying philosophical problems, such as the distinction between fortuna, providentia, fatum andpraedestinatio in his work, considers related aspects of literary theory, such as the relationship of the prologue to the rest of the novel, and the novel's unity. A particular strength is the manner in which the various internal stories are analyzed and their contribution to the philosophical theme of the The Golden Ass examined. The best example is the central story of Cupid and Psyche, which represents the successful unity of man and god. Psyche has to accept responsibility for her own behavior (632), even though she is influenced by her sisters, who in this respect are compared to Satan inParadise Lost (633). Cupid's warning to Psyche can further be read as an example of the extent to which human free will is not restricted by divine foreknowledge. Other examples include the three adulterous stories of Met. IX; this raises the question of whether caelestis providentia can be held responsible for the miller's discovery of his wife's lover through the actions of the donkey-Lucius and suggests the blindness of Fortune, in that he ultimately pays a greater penalty than his adulterous wife. Similarly, Apuleius' use of the Diana-Acteon myth in the ekphrasis at Met. II, with its greater focus on the curiosity of Acteon (thereby forming a suitable parallel for the situation of Lucius) is profitably compared to Ovid's treatment of the same myth.

The use of titles for all the subsections means that it is easy to locate particular topics in the text. As the work supplies detailed information on numerous interesting subjects (a good example of this is Drews' examination of Isis and the donkey as a theological symbol, which provides a thought-provoking comparison of the treatment of Isis at Met. XI.6-11 and Plutarch, De Iside), the monograph is perhaps more suited to dipping into for information on specific items than to reading in its entirely, or relying on to trace the development of the concept of human freedom and divine providence. The extensive bibliography is another useful feature but, surprisingly, there is no index. Overall, this is a detailed and extensive treatment of a major topic, and numerous individual sections repay close reading, but the diverse elements never really cohere into an organic whole.


1.   J. Opsomer and C. Steel, "Evil without a Cause: Proclus' Doctrine on the Origin of Evil, and its Antecedents in Hellenistic Philosophy" in T. Fuhrer and M. Erler (eds.), Zur Rezeption der hellenistischen Philosophie in der Spätantike (Stuttgart 1999), 229-60.

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