Christian Wildberg: Why study late antiquity?

While catching up on long-forgotten bookmarked 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.

Knowledge like sense impression

While preparing for a presentation I recently gave in Cologne, I have been reminded of an intriguing yet strange passage in Damascius. In his De Principiis, Damascius asks what ‘knowledge’ (γνῶσις) is, in the context of Intellect’s relation to its object, Being. The response, however, is by no means a straightforward identity:

What then is knowledge (ἡ γνῶσις) really? Is it like a halo, the forerunner in the procession of light that comes to be in the knower from the object known? Certainly perception takes place in accordance with the sense impression (ἡ αἴσθησις κατὰ τὸ αἴσθημα), and imagination exists according to the impression (ἡ φαντασία κατὰ τὸν τύπον), and opinion (ἡ δόξασις) and discursive thought (ἡ διανόησις) according to the content of thought and opinion respectively (ἡ μὲν κατὰ τὸ διανόημα, ἡ δὲ κατὰ τὸ δόξασμα). In general, then, knowledge (ἡ γνῶσις) exists according to the content of knowledge (κατὰ τὸ γνῶσμα), so to speak (De Princ. II.149.12–17 Combès-Westerink; trans. Gertz).

Sebastian Gertz discusses this at length, and quite well, in his 2016 paper on knowledge, being, and intellect in Damascius. I also discuss this passage (and his interpretation) in another dissertation chapter on causality in Damascius, slowly being developed. Gertz’s paper does a fine job elucidating this and other passages—I would recommend readers towards that.

But to return to the text, I want to focus on how Damascius makes his argument, especially in light of Aristotle. What makes Damascius’ argument interesting is that he does not (explicitly, at least at this point) use premises from the general Neoplatonic hierarchy to make his claim—for instance, that Being is a priori separate from Intellect. Instead he uses analogies from other faculties to make the initial claim: sensation (αἴσθησις) is according to, or identical with, its sense impression (αἴσθημα), and the same for opinion/discursive thought. In the same way, so Damascius appears to argue, knowledge is identical with the ‘content of thought’, coining the word, γνῶσμα, to explain this phenomenon. But what about the object of knowledge—the γνῶστον? Immediately after, Damascius seems to say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’:

In general, then, knowledge is according to the content of knowledge … while the content of knowledge is the object of knowledge itself (αὐτὸ τὸ γνωστόν), although becoming substantialized in the knower (τῷ γιγνώσκοντι). We say that knowledge is entirely according to the latter [or ‘this’], but knowledge is not [simply] this. (De Princ. II.149,16-20; trans. my own)

καθόλου τοίνυν ἡ γνῶσις κατὰ τὸ γνῶσμα, εἰ οἷόν τε φάναι, τὸ δὲ γνῶσμα ἐστιν αὐτὸ τὸ γνωστόν, ἀλλ᾽ ἤδη τῷ γιγνώσκοντι ἐνουσιωμένον. ἢ κατὰ μὲν τοῦτο πάντως ἡ γνῶσις, οὐ τοῦτο δὲ ἡ γνῶσις.

At the outset the identification of the γνωστόν with γνῶσις is denied: knowledge is ‘according to’ the former, but not identical to it. Before this, however, Damascius does appear to identify the γνῶσμα and the γνωστόν, only in the case when the latter becomes ‘substantialized’ in the subject of knowledge (the γιγνώσκον). (One minor point not addressed in Gertz’s paper, but agreeing with his general point.) The idea then seems to be that the knower becomes identical to the γνῶσμα, which itself was the γνωστόν before becoming imprinted in the knower.

Here the analogy to sense impression becomes a little clearer: the faculty of sense accords with the ‘content of sense’, the αἴσθημα, which itself correlates to the object of sense αἰσθητόν, although the latter remains distinct from the senses insofar as (1) it is the intentional object of the faculty of sense, and (2) it is enmattered. Aristotle’s De Anima III.8 brings out the distinction, in terms of the form/matter distinction:

Within the soul the faculties of knowledge and sensation are potentially these objects, the one what is knowable, the other what is sensible (αἰσθητόν). They must be either the things themselves or their forms. The former alternative is of course impossible: it is not the stone which is present in the soul but its form. (De Anima III.8, 431b26–29; trans. Smith)

Given this, Aristotle soon after does give an identification, or a kind of identification, between images/φαντάσματα and αἰσθήματά:

… when the mind is actively aware of anything it is necessarily aware of it along with an image; for images (φαντάσματα) are like (ὥσπερ) contents of sense (αἰσθήματά) except in that they contain no matter. (De Anima III.8, 432a8–10; trans. Smith, modified)

The αἴσθημα then serves as a bridge between the object of sense and the senses themselves, insofar as the sensible form which correlates to the αἴσθημα applies to both the senses and the object of sense.

In this respect Damascius seems to have something like this in mind for the γνωστόν and γνῶσμα, where the γνωστόν maintains distinction in relation to the γιγνώσκον. However if he is carrying through the analogy, there should be no essential difference between the γνωστόν and γνῶσμα which knowledge is identical with. Damascius’ ‘denial’ of the straightforward identity of γνωστόν and knowledge, however, seems to be similar to Aristotle denying that the faculty of senses become literally the stone in matter and form. Instead, the faculty of sense takes on the ‘content of sense’, i.e. the form, without the matter; in the same way, the knower takes on the ‘content of knowledge’ without the correlating ‘matter’ or substrate—whatever that may be. Thus, knowledge’s identity with the γνῶσμα implies a qualification of the kind of identity between the knower and the object of knowledge.

One remaining question: would constitute the ‘substrate’ which distinguishes the object of knowledge from its subject? In a word, unity: for Damascius, as for all Neoplatonists, Intellect implies duality since it thinks itself—there is then a necessary distinction of Intellect-qua-subject thinking itself, Intellect-qua-object. For late Neoplatonists (Iamblichus onward), Being, on the other hand, implies unity: its activity is not self-revertive, and as the first product after the One it mirrors the One’s characteristic unity. However, Being is also the proper object of thought for Intellect, so it must be immediately related to Intellect to be thinkable. Thus we see Damascius’ concern in the initial passages to qualify what constitutes ‘knowledge’, if we already have a distinction between the subject and object of knowledge in terms of unity and duality.

I would agree with Gertz and others that this is certainly a break in the ‘identity thesis’ from Plotinus and Aristotle—one can see this in our previous passages from De Anima III.8, where intellect (νοῦς) does become identical to its object. But I would maintain that we still have a qualified identity thesis, and that instead of a Skeptical response (ala Sara Rappe, perhaps?) or even possibly a ‘perspectivist’ position (mentioned in Gertz’s paper), it would be more fruitful to make the comparison in light of Aristotle’s qualified ‘identity’ for the senses and their objects. Damascius’ analogy drawn here, in this respect, is brilliant.