Friday, August 25, 2017


Helmut Seng, Luciana Gabriela Soares Santoprete, Chiara O. Tommasi Moreschini (ed.), Formen und Nebenformen des Platonismus in der Spätantike. Bibliotheca Chaldaica, 6. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2016. Pp. 424. ISBN 9783825366964. €55.00.

Reviewed by Diego De Brasi, Philipps-Universität Marburg (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The relationship between (Late Antique) Platonism and (more or less) "subphilosophical phenomena"1 like ancient Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and the Chaldean Oracles has been increasingly explored in the last decades.2 The volume under review is a welcome addition to this research trend, as it aims to examine how discussions among advocates of Platonism and of religiously influenced cultural phenomena contributed to shape their respective cultural/philosophical identities. 3

It is impossible to assess critically every contribution within the limits of a review; hence, after a very brief overview of the book's structure, I will focus on those papers which I consider most stimulating.

The volume opens with an introduction by Chiara Tommasi, in which she outlines the volume's place within research on esotericism and explains the project's leading question, i.e. to what extent categories like orthodoxy and heterodoxy can apply to ancient esotericism. In the only contribution dealing explicitly with the Corpus Hermeticum, Anna Van den Kerchove investigates the occurrences and meaning of μυστικός. A section dedicated to Gnosticism and Plotinus' responses (Dubois, Longo, Soares Santoprete) and a series of papers focusing on Porphyry and Iamblichus constitute the bulk of the volume. These are followed by two papers examining other two 'marginal' cultural phenomena—the Chaldean Oracles and the Orphic tradition (Seng, Schelske). Before a final section dealing with 6th century Neoplatonism, Mariangela Monaca convincingly shows how the Christian bishop Theodoret of Cyrrhus reuses Porphyrian arguments from a Christian point of view while also criticizing Porphyry's theological positions. The volume closes with an index of names. While this short overview attests to the variety of topics as well as the lack of connection among them, it is possible to detect some links, as the following notes will suggest.

Perhaps the most interesting essay is Oliver Schelske's analysis of how pagan and Christian authors (re)appropriate the mythical figure of Orpheus. Schelske chooses as an interpretive frame Jan Assmann's theory of cultural memory and Aleida Assmann and Heidrun Friese's theory of cultural and historical identity.4 He persuasively argues that the mythic figure of Orpheus plays a central role in defining pagan cultural identity in Late Antiquity. In particular, Schelske claims that the Argonautica Orphica represent a reaction to Christian accusations against pagan culture made, for instance, by Clement of Alexandria in his Protrepticus. He shows clearly that Orpheus' representation in the Argonautica Orphika overturns Clement's description of pagan poetry as manic and trustless (cf. Protrepticus1.2.2 with Argonautica Orphica 1–49). Notable are Schelske's compelling, holistic description of the relationship between Christian and pagan in Late Antiquity and his powerful suggestion that pagan authors may respond to Christian views even when they do not expressly attack them.

Likewise, Angela Longo postulates a reciprocal influence between Christian and pagan philosophers in her paper on Plotinus' critical handling of Gnosticism.5 Longo emphasizes especially that discrediting philosophical/cultural opponents by comparing them to Epicurus was a technique common to many 'Schools' in Late Antiquity. By some eloquent pagan examples (Atticus on Aristotle, Alexander of Aphrodisias on the Stoics, Plotinus on Gnosticism) and a brief examination of the treatment of Epicurus in the Refutation of All Heresies attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, she demonstrates that the comparison to the founder of the Garden was used in order to criticize the opponent's views on providence.

Jean-Daniel Dubois offers a fairly 'revisionist' approach to Valentinian Gnosticism. First, Dubois presents a brief but thorough analysis of those 'orthodox' Christian sources which inform us about the theological positions held by Valentinus and his followers. Following Einar Thomassen, he questions the traditional and still quite widespread view that Valentinians can be subdivided into 'oriental' and 'occidental' schools opposed by their respective views on the body of Christ. Dubois argues, further, that current reconstructions of Valentinian soteriology are too influenced by a misunderstanding of the depiction of Valentinian Gnosticism presented in 'orthodox' sources. For instance, Dubois shows how a passage in Irenaeus' treatise Against Heresies (1.6.1) could be easily misunderstood in terms of the opposition between 'oriental' and 'occidental' schools if read without any context. On the contrary, a comparison of the passage with some Coptic sources, like the Tripartite Tractate, and with some excerpts from the writings of Theodotus of Byzantium preserved by Clement of Alexandria points to a more neutral interpretation.

Particularly inspiring is Giulia Sfameni-Gasparro's contribution on Porphyry's view about theurgy and its affinity with his polemic against Christianity. Porphyry's Philosophia ex oraculis haurienda and Epistula ad Anebonem, are usually interpreted as proposing inconsistent, if not opposite, attitudes towards theosophy and theurgy, but Sfameni-Gasparro recognizes a homogeneous substrate in them. According to her, Porphyry advocates a wisdom-centered project,6 in which philosophical exercise and loyalty to a traditional religious heritage are complementary and opposed to the religious faith and practice advanced by Christianity. Once the centrality of Porphyry's anti-Christian polemic is acknowledged, Sfameni-Gasparro argues, it is possible to identify a precise scope within Philosophia ex oraculis haurienda: Porphyry aims to offer a Platonically inspired systematization of different Mediterranean religious and theological traditions. This treatise represents a counterpart to Christian theology, and especially Trinitarian theology and Christology, insofar as it depicts a gradually transcending host of divinities whose apex is the Platonic One identifiable as the highest God, father of everything.

Likewise acknowledging the Neoplatonic attempt to create a philosophical religion, Andrei Timotin investigates the differences in Porphyry's and Iamblichus' attitudes towards prayer. An assumption common to both philosophers is the premise that gods are pure intellects, do not have passions, and thus cannot be affected by prayers. The consequences Porphyry and Iamblichus draw from this premise, however, differ. On the one hand, Porphyry postulates an ascending 'tripartition' of divine beings, in which every class of divinities is the object of a specific form of prayer and cult: while the supreme god can be contemplated only in silence and in an intellective way, the intelligible gods may be praised through logos, and the daimones are subject to imploration (cf. De abstinentia 2.34.1–2,4). Thus, Timotin claims, Porphyry's critique of prayer in his Letter to Anebon is not a critique of prayer tout court, but simply a critique of imploration, while adoration may be accepted. On the other hand, Iamblichus reinterprets both the ontological status of prayer and the hierarchy of divine beings, accepting prayer in every form. Iamblichus, as Timotin argues, considers prayer, i.e. ritual prayer, as an expression of divine language and the hierarchy of divine beings as a system joined together by φιλία, universal sympathy. Thus, prayer is generally a way of addressing the divine by its own language and every form of prayer is good, since it concerns the whole system of divine beings, although it addresses only a specific class of the divine hierarchy.

Daniela Patrizia Taormina examines Iamblichus' theory of matter and traces its origins back to Hermeticism and the Chaldean Oracles. Using four pieces of evidence (Iambl. In Tim. frr. 37-38; De mysteriis 8.3; ap. Ioan. Lyd. (?) 4.159), Taormina convincingly argues that Iamblichus sees Hermes Trismegistus as the source of Plato's description of matter and that Iamblichus productively merges Chaldean theology and Platonic cosmology in his concept of matter. Taormina points out that Iamblichus not only postulates intelligible matter, but that he also considers it the highest of the intelligible realm precisely because of the Hermetic and Chaldean influences. As compelling as Taormina's arguments are, her analysis faces a problem inherent to every interpretation of fragmentary texts: every time an author quotes a passage from other works, he presumably manipulates the quotation according to his own rhetorical and argumentative intentions.7

The volume, unfortunately, shows inattentive proofreading. Unnecessary hyphens appear regularly (e.g. p. 73 "épi-sode", p. 221 "rela- zio-"). There is a tendency to use full stops in place of commas or without any apparent reason within a sentence (e.g. pp. 43: "remarquable, comme le souligne Christian Bull. que ces…"; 91 "argomenti (ripresi da Plotino). per elaborare…"). Missing letters (e.g. p. 50 "il y le Phèdre…") and unnecessary or missing blanks (p. 225: "visione di Giamblico…"; p. 345: "τελεταίe θυσίαι") also occur. Particularly noticeable is the final note on p. 58 with this closing sentence: "Nos remerciements … qui a relu la version finale des pages qui suivent".

In sum, despite some weak proofreading, Helmut Seng, Luciana Gabriela Soares Santoprete and Chiara Tommasi have edited an admirable and insightful book, which I would recommend to everyone interested in the broader context of Late Antique philosophy.

Authors and titles

Chiara Ombretta Tommasi, Some Reflections on Antique and Late Antique Esotericism: between Mainstream and Counterculture
Anna Van den Kerchove, La mystique dans les écrits hermétiques
Jean-Daniel Dubois, Controverses sur la sotériologie des gnostiques valentiniens
Angela Longo, La maschera di Epicuro sul volto dell'avversario in tema di provvidenza e piacere nello scritto di Plotino, Contro gli gnostici: alcuni paralleli con Celso, Attico, Alessandro di Afrodisia e 'Ippolito di Roma'
Luciana Gabriela Soares Santoprete, New Perspectives on the Structure of Plotinus' Treatise 32 (V 5) and his Anti-Gnostic Polemic
Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, Tra costruzione teosofica e polemica anticristiana nel De Philosophia ex oraculis haurienda: sulle tracce del progetto porfiriano
Andrei Timotin, La polémique entre Porphyre et Jamblique sur la prière
Matteo Agnosini, Giamblico e la divinazione κατὰ τὸ φανταστικόν. Verso l'integrazione di un genere divinatorio: il caso dell'idromanzia
José Molina Ayala, La doctrina del alma, de Jámblico, como trasfondo en Dam. DP III 66,1-68,9 W.-C.
Daniela Patrizia Taormina, I Greci a scuola degli Egizi e dei Caldei. Giamblico e la materia primordiale
Helmut Seng, Ἴυγγες, συνοχεῖς, τελετάρχαι in den Chaldaeischen Orakeln
Oliver Schelske, Neuplatonische Identität in literarischer Form: Die Orpheus-Figur zwischen christlichem und paganem Anspruch
Mariangela Monaca, Conversando con Porfirio: note alla Θεραπευτική di Teodoreto di Cirro
Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler, Damaskios gegen Proklos zum ersten Prinzip
Rainer Thiel, Die Transformation der Theurgie im christlichen Alexandria des 6. Jahrhunderts nach Christus


1.   Dillon, J. The Middle Platonism. A Study of Platonism 80B.C. to A.D. 220, London 1977, 384.
2.   Cf. e.g. Fowler, R. C. (ed.) Plato in the Third Sophistic, Berlin/Boston 2014, esp. Section 1; Seng, H. Un livre sacré de l'Antiquité tardive: Les Oracles Chaldaïques, Turnhout 2016; Tanaseanu-Döbler, I. Konversion zur Philosophie in der Spätantike: Kaiser Julian und Synesios von Kyrene, Stuttgart 2008; Tanaseanu- Döbler, I. Theurgy in Late Antiquity. The Invention of a Ritual Tradition, Göttingen 2013.
3.   Thus, the title of the volume is slightly misleading, since readers would perhaps expect an introduction to (or a rather systematic examination of) 'genuine' Platonic philosophers and of authors inspired by Platonism like Origenes and Gregory of Nyssa. A German translation of the workshop series from which the volume originates would have mirrored better its content (Il lato oscuro della Tarda Antichità. Marginalità e integrazione delle correnti esoteriche nella spiritualità filosofica dei secoli II-VI).
4.   Assmann, J. Das kulturelle Gedächtnis: Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München 1992; Assmann, A. and Friese, H. (ed.), Identitäten, Frankfurt am Main 1999.
5.   P. 84: "tali autori [scil. pagani e cristiani] coesistevano negli stessi luoghi e tempi, e si conoscevano (probabilmente si influenzavano) a vicenda"; p. 98: "non è necessario pensare che Plotino abbia letto l'Elenchos, tuttavia – a rigore – non lo si può nemmeno escludere".
6.   P. 182: "Porfirio quindi enuncia una 'professione di fede' che contribuisce a definire il profilo profondamente 'sapienziale' del suo progetto…"
7.   Taormina is, of course, aware of this problem, as the several philological notes in her contribution show, and this criticism may apply to many contributions in this volume.

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