Christian Wildberg: Why study late antiquity?

While catching up on long-forgotten bookmarked academia.edu papers, I stumbled on Wildberg’s essay arguing—forcefully, if ferociously—for the study of late antiquity as part and parcel of intellectual history. Late antiquity has been coming more in vogue—as my recent work on Neoplatonism stands to show (I hope!)—however it still does not have a pervasive presence in the common academic (or popular) imagination that, e.g., classic antiquity (e.g. Plato, Homer, etc.) or modern (Descartes, Kant, etc.) studies do.

Describing an example scene of a tourist couple visiting Rome—where they see inscriptions like ‘pont max’ on different buildings and say, ‘huh, I wonder who or what that was’—Wildberg writes:

Remnants of that past have become part of our own world; we see them, even look at them, but we have lost the firm grasp of what they mean. Such things have become mere ciphers for most of us, empty and meaningless; however, the meaning that these remnants signify continues to remain an important part of our world: “Pont Max” seemed just like another name, perhaps like the movie “Mad Max”, and as such was indecipherable for our tourist; thus, he could not possibly make the inference that at that very moment a latter-day pontifex maximus was perhaps sitting not so very far from him, behind one of the windows of the adjacent wing right there in St. Peter’s, building one of his formidable bridges and affecting human lives around the world in no mean measure.

Wildberg thus comes to propose two theses:

The first thesis is that of all the historical periods into which antiquity is traditionally divided (Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Imperial periods, and then Late Antiquity), it is this last period — Late Antiquity — that was in fact the most formative and influential in the subsequent course of the history of western culture, not only for the middle ages but in certain respects also for modernity, indeed for us now. The thesis is certainly prima facie plausible, if one thinks in the first instance about religion, Christianity, but good support for it could also be garnered if one were to look at legal history, or at the historical causes that shaped the geopolitical structure of Europe, both east and west.

And for his second thesis:

I would also like to argue that Late Antiquity is actually of prime importance in terms of understanding the fundamental tenets and beliefs of our intellectual history. And I do mean quite literally “philosophical” intellectual history. Now, this may strike some of you as counterintuitive, given that, as you may reasonably object, the really great thinkers of antiquity lived well before the Roman Empire. But I am not talking about Plato and Aristotle. I am talking about that welter of intellectual currents that converged in Late Antiquity to form a common culture of philosophical discourse, broadly conceived, that includes not only pagan philosophy as it was at the time, but also and especially Christian philosophy as well as the various manifestations of Gnosticism and Hermetism.

Here I would also add one particular example: understanding where Aquinas, for instance, comes from is incomplete if one only looks at Aristotle and Augustine without reference to, for instance, Plotinus, Proclus, and Avicenna—just to begin with. Another example can be made with later Byzantine theology: one simply cannot understand where later Fathers from Maximus up to Palamas come from without having looked at Pseudo-Dionysius—and really Ps.-Dionysius’ conceptual source, Proclus, and the prior Neoplatonists.

Late antiquity has a strong pull in all directions. It’s with this in mind that Wildberg concludes (among other things):

So what we need, it seems to me, is an intellectual history of Late Antiquity, a history that is so broadly conceived that it does not, in view of the obvious communalities, simply just connect Proclus and Dionysius the Areopagite, or Plotinus and Origen, but actually juxtaposes Jesus and Lucretius, or Paul and Cicero. A survey of this kind might begin to wrench answers from the extant material — answers to very, very important questions which not only puzzle me a great deal, but which one cannot, it seems to me, ignore much longer with impunity.

The kind of project Wildberg proposes goes in the general direction those like Peter Adamson (my supervisor) have advocated—e.g., expanding the canon for what qualifies as ‘history of philosophy’, or more proximate for late antiquity, a review of the last 10 years of Neoplatonism studies. Aside from my own selfish desires in the area I work in, there is an argument to be made for more strongly integrating late antiquity in the general canon of history of philosophy (or intellectual history in general). Having come from a ‘Great Books’ program in the US, like Thomas Aquinas College, Wildberg’s proposal is only a logical conclusion to the general approach of studying the history of ‘ideas’ (or for Great Books types, the ‘Great Ideas’)—and perhaps, simply speaking, what constitutes valid, true arguments in philosophy.

Anyway, lengthy speaking aside, read the paper. Well worth it.


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