Heidi Marx-Wolf, Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba, has presented us with a study of the work of several third-century philosophers in Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority. Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century C.E., published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2016. In it, she takes us in some unusual directions that sometimes lead to unexpected results.And still in 2018. I noted the book here (cf. here) when it was first published. And I noted earlier reviews here and here.
The Introduction lays out the agenda of the book. In the late second and early third centuries a number of philosophers, both Christians and polytheists, began producing hierarchical taxonomies of spiritual beings much influenced by Platonism. They also presented themselves as authoritative priests who could pronounce on ritual matters and they tried to influence their social order so as to make themselves “brokers of salvation.” They did all this in competition with the more traditional religious experts in their society. These are new developments in the broad philosophical world of late antiquity and, Heidi argues, they bear closer examination. She sets out to explore these spiritual taxonomies and their social implications by focusing on a number of specific philosophers: the Christian Origen, who was a controversial figure in his own time, and the polytheists Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus.
Chapter One, “How to Free a Daemon: Third-Century Philosophers on Blood Sacrifice,” argues that proponents in the third century advocating a particular ontological status of evil demons reached conclusions that fall into an unexpected pattern. Christian and polytheistic philosophers could agree while the polytheistic philosophers disagreed among themselves.
Porphyry argued that it was evil demons who required blood sacrifices. In this he agreed with Christian writers, notably the author of Pseudo-Clementine Homily 9. Porphyry may have drawn on a work by Origen called Concerning Demons, although there is debate on whether the author is the Christian figure Origen or an otherwise unknown polytheistic philosopher with the same name. And somewhat later, the Church historian Eusebius drew on (and perhaps somewhat misrepresented) Porphyry’s work to argue that the Greek and Roman gods were actually demons. Porphyry had considerable agreement with Christians on the issue of blood sacrifice. These agreements may to some degree be explained by shared influences about issues such as pneumatology and the nature of blood by the likes of Plato and Galen.
Iamblichus, however, disagreed with Porphyry on this matter. Iamblichus believed that blood sacrifices had their place in the divine order and that they were efficacious in purifying people who were at a certain spiritual level.
Indeed, Porphyry and Iamblichus disagreed more broadly on the whole issue of the validity and usefulness of ritual. Porphyry believed that ritual was superfluous for the philosopher and that the intellect alone sufficed to reach the divine. But Iamblichus believed that ritual, in the form of theurgy, was not just for the philosopher; it could bring about universal salvation.
Chapter Two, “Everything in its Right Place: Spiritual Taxonomy in Third Century Platonism,” focuses on these taxonomies and the intellectual agenda behind them. It also probes points of moral and ontological disorder in the taxonomies in which, as Heidi says, “the spirits refuse to stay put” (p. 39).
Origen set out to refute the notion that human souls could be divided into multiple spiritual species. Rather, he believed that all “minds” were created with the same nature and their spiritual rankings came about through their own primeval decisions. The ones whose choices led them to “fall” into the material realm were subjected to “cooling” that rendered them into “souls.” Origen’s attempt to described a process for reversing this transformation led to his less-than-clear ideas about “apocatastasis,” the means by which souls, perhaps even including the devil and his demons, could be restored to their original state and reconciled with God. In Origen’s pneumatology, there is no ontological difference between human souls and demons.
Porphyry has no consistent taxonomy of spirits. He refers to souls and to daemons, between which there seems to have been some slippage. But he also refers to various kinds of gods, as well as to angels, archangels, and archons.
Iamblichus works with Porphyry’s categories, but he does formulate them into a rigorously consistent pattern. Nevertheless, some “taxonomic amorphousness” (p. 55) remains in his system. Heidi guides us through the issues by focusing on Iamblichus’s treatment of “daemons.” He may have taken properties tied to matter in Platonic cosmology, notably an inductility that tends to thwart the advancement of human souls, and transferred it to demons. This was his way of rehabilitating matter. On this reading, his system was not “decadent,” as earlier scholars such as Dodds thought. He was simply not using a fully Platonic cosmology. Rather, his theology and teachings about proper ritual praxis engaged with popular theology and praxis.
As an illustration of this perspective, Heidi takes us through his treatment of the category of “archons.” Archons add nothing to his system. He includes them simply because they were already part of the popular consciousness. We find them at about the same time in magical handbooks and the work of “Gnostics,” about which more will be said below. Philosophers, Heidi argues, made deliberate connections with the concerns of popular piety in an attempt to place themselves as religious authorities on the popular front as well as the intellectual.
Chapter Three, “The Missing Link: Third-Century Platonists and “Gnostics” on Daemons and Other Spirits,” considers the focus on spiritual taxonomies by third-century philosophers, a focus unique to them. Why did they do it? Heidi finds the missing link in the cosmologies and spiritual taxonomies in the Nag Hammadi texts and related “Gnostic” literature. The Gnostic writers, like the philosophers, set out to harmonize all human wisdom and struggled to make their systems consistent and unambiguous. The Gnostic texts are now regarded as important for the study of early Christian theology. Heidi suggests that they are also important for late-antique philosophy.
Origen’s interactions with Ophite theology may indicate that he was familiar with Sethian texts. Porphyry and Plotinus knew versions of some of the Nag Hammadi texts. Porphyry mentions them by title in his Life of Plotinus. Plotinus interacted with the Gnostics throughout his career, and this interaction seems to have deteriorated into rivalry. He criticized their theology, but his own view of matter as deficient and the basis of evil undermined his critique. And in some cases he and his school may well have been influenced by such texts.
Having acknowledged and briefly discussed the problems with the term “Gnostic,” Heidi presents us with two case studies on Sethian texts.
The case study on the Secret Revelation of John (or Apocryphon of John) focuses on an interpolation in the Codex II manuscript which describes the 365 demons of the psychic body of Adam, one for each body part. External parallels to this list indicate that in its original context it may have had a ritual or apotropaic function. Considerable moral ambiguity is involved, but these beings may have been seen to have something of a positive function.
The case study on Zostrianos focuses on its treatment of daemons and human souls. In antiquity there was some association of the figure Zostrianos with the Platonic figure of Er (in the guise of Zoroaster). This Platonic connection may have drawn Porphyry’s attention to this text, which he mentions, and may have led him to address questions of cosmic geography and spiritual taxonomy, as it does. Its ritual elements may also have induced him to write about ritual in relation to philosophical salvation. More specifically, Heidi argues that he borrowed from Zostrianos regarding the question of the fates of different sorts of souls. Mainly, there is a somewhat similar threefold division of souls for Porphyry and Zostrianos. Roughly this amounts to one group that is earthly, a second group that is making progress, and a third group that has attained full blessedness.
Chapter Four, “High Priests of the Highest God: Third Century Platonists as Ritual Experts,” looks at the ideology of priesthood advocated by our philosophers and how it fed into their competition with more traditional priests.
In his homilies on Leviticus, Origen connected the Levitical high priests with Christian priests, a status that he himself could claim. That said, his status was contested both in his native Egypt and elsewhere. For him, the high priesthood included knowledge involving systematic spiritual taxonomy. A priest also knows the hidden meaning of ritual. In addition, Origen was careful to “perform” his identity as high priest in his homilies by rehearsing the details of the rituals in Leviticus and expounding on their inner meaning. As already noted, for Origen, the priests of his day who literally undertook blood sacrifices were implicitly worshipping evil spirits.
Porphyry similarly condemned blood sacrifice and otherwise disparaged ritual actions used by contemporary ritual experts. Porphyry and Origen agreed that only the philosophical lifestyle could make one a high priest of the highest god.
Iamblichus and Porphyry disagreed about the validity of blood sacrifice, but they agreed that philosopher priests like themselves were the higher ritual practitioners. Iamblichus, considered the theurgist to hold the highest status of ritual practitioners, higher than Egyptian priests. He too was setting himself up as a high priest to replace other, more traditional priests and practitioners.
Heidi places this situation into a larger context by bringing in the (so-called) Greek Magical Papyri and the Hermetic literature. Recent research on the magical papyri sees them as mainstream ritual instructions rather than subversive and illicit as they have been traditionally regarded by scholars. They are actually innovative adaptations by traditional Egyptian priests, whose role and power had been derailed by Roman rule. Increasingly these priests had to rely on their own charismatic authority to make a living. To do this they mixed traditional Egyptian religion with Greek, Jewish, etc. material and took advantage of “stereotype appropriation” of the “magos” identity found in the traditions of the ruling power.
The Hermetica seem likewise to have been produced by disenfranchised Egyptian priests. Hermeticism combined Egyptian priestly ritual material with trendy Platonism. This connection with Platonism may have made Hermeticism of interest to our philosophers.
Based on the content of the Hermetic books according Plutarch, it seems likely that Iamblichus’s knowledge of Egyptian religion came from Hermetic sources and thus consisted of some priestly Egyptian traditions but in a highly syncretistic mixture.
Why did our philosophers take on the role of priest and assign regular priests a lower status over inferior gods and even malign spirits? Heidi argues that it was because they had competitors: the Gnostics and the newly unemployed Egyptian priests. The social situation for this competition would have been schools in major cities, especially Alexandria and Rome. Our philosophers probably sincerely believed that their all-encompassing philosophical lifestyle gave them superior spiritual knowledge and that they could protect people from the dangerous, botched teachings of the inferior ritual experts.
The Conclusion carries the inquiry of the book into the next century, arguing that charismatic authority continued to be important even in the context of institutional church authority. Heidi gives two examples, both from the late fourth century. Ambrose of Milan showed charismatic authority over good and evil spiritual forces as part of a political and institutional conflict during which he located the hidden bodies of two martyred saints. John Chrysostom wrote an infamous series of letters condemning Christians for involvement in Jewish festivals, rituals, and synagogue worship. In them he asserted charismatic authority over the ritual practices of other Christians and in the discernment of dangerous spirits.
In sum, our third century philosophers were marginal figures, but they still had political ambitions and cultivated political connections. They attempted to place themselves as advisors to the politically powerful or even just imagined themselves in such roles. Often their efforts had little impact in the real world. But their approach of combining and adopting the roles of philosopher and high priest eventually, after their time, proved to be viable and productive.
What then, are the contributions of this book? On a very focused level, by looking closely at the work of several third-century philosophers in their broader intellectual context, it demonstrates a strategic shift toward consolidating the role of philosopher with the role of priest in this century. The elucidation of this basic point brings out a number of subsidiary conclusions. The philosophical dialogue was complex and nonlinear: Christians and polytheists could agree while polytheists disagreed among themselves. Areas of agreement could be established by the common influence of earlier figures rather than current affiliations. Far from being decadent, the work of these philosophers was an innovative attempt to engage with popular philosophical and theological trends. Thus the Gnostic literature is important for understanding late-antique philosophy as well as theology. And the trendy Platonism of the Hermetic writers arguably presented a challenge that our philosophers felt obligated to address.
Out of this examination of such philosophical interactions arises the key conclusion that our third-century philosophers were not writing in a vacuum. They had competition. The Gnostic Christians and the disenfranchised traditional Egyptian priests were promulgating their own popular Platonist theologies for their own purposes. The Gnostics were certainly in dialogue with both Christians and traditional polytheist philosophers and the same may well have been true of the priests who produced the Hermetica and the Greek Magical Papyri. Jewish traditions were at work in the mix as well, although placing them remains for another discussion. At least to some degree, our philosophers felt that they had to respond to their competitors. In interacting with their ideas they were inevitably also influenced by them.
Some broader points and areas for further research also arise from the tightly-focused research in this book. First, the point that disenfranchised priests and religious experts in late antiquity were a force to be reckoned with for contemporary philosophers has the potential for broader application. Our most abundant sources come from Egypt, due to their preservation in its dry climate. But there is reason to infer that similar social processes were at work elsewhere. A closer look at the less abundant, but still suggestive, evidence from places such as Syria and Iraq would likely be rewarding.
Second, in the Conclusion, Heidi makes a case that our philosophers established a productive cultural template in their fusion of the roles of intellectual philosopher and charismatic high priest. This fusion was perhaps ahead of its time: for the most part it failed to fulfill the ambitions of those who conceived it. But in the fourth century some Christian leaders used it considerably more successfully. A closer look at this cultural transition would, again, likely be rewarding.
I can find very little to criticize in the book. Given the paucity of our information, even in the relatively abundant sources from Egypt, Heidi necessarily had to connect a lot of dots to establish patterns. Some of her suggestions are imaginative reconstructions, but she is careful to label them as such and they are generally expressed cautiously and judiciously. They are useful at the very least as stimulating thought experiments. That said, I am not quite convinced that Porphyry’s taxonomy in the surviving fragments of On the River Styx is necessarily a response in particular to Zostrianos. Although he does tell us that he did write a response to that work and On the River Styx does have some parallels to Zostrianos, Heidi offers us no direct connections. The parallels are quite general and could be a matter of both works drawing on ideas that were being discussed in the schools and implemented by different philosophers each in their own way.
I will mention two small matters. First, it is surprising to encounter a monograph published in 2016 which still uses inconvenient end notes rather than footnotes. I can think of no reason that could justify it. This was clearly outside of Heidi’s control, but I hope she will let the publisher know that readers are not pleased by it.
Second, a more comprehensive conclusion would have strengthened the volume and topped it off nicely. The Conclusion of the book has a few summary comments, but most of it consists of new material making a new point. A larger summing up what Heidi wants us to take away from Chapters One through Four would have been helpful. I have given my best understand of that here and I hope I have gotten it right.
It remains only for me to thank Heidi for a thought-provoking piece of work that shines new light on a fascinating corner of the late-antique intellectual world by placing it in the context of popular philosophy and competition for influence in an age when traditional authority was breaking down. An age rather like ours in 2017.
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