Pagan-Christian Philosophical Debates in Late Antiquity: The Nature of the Divine and the Nature of the World

Course Status: 
CEU credits: 
ECTS credits: 
Academic year: 
Start and end dates: 
22 Sep 2014 - 12 Dec 2014
Co-hosting Unit(s) [if applicable]: 
Department of Philosophy
Co-hosting Unit(s) [if applicable]: 
Center for Religious Studies
Co-hosting Unit(s) [if applicable]: 
Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies (CEMS)
Non-degree Specialization: 
EMS—Advanced Certificate in Eastern Mediterranean Studies
Non-degree Specialization: 
ACRS—Advanced Certificate in Religious Studies
István Perczel
Learning Outcomes: 
By following this course the students will learn about the history of the debates as well as the arguments used. They will be introduced to an international research conducted by a handful of enthusiastic scholars, which, far from being accomplished, is now in its formative period, new hitherto unknown or unconsidered, texts emerging every now and then. They will learn about intellectual history but also about philosophical argumentation and its application in diverse – pagan, Christian, Muslim, Jewish – religious context. An important outcome will be the casting away of a number of widely held and deeply rooted but unfounded preconceptions, such as the equation of philosophy with paganism and of monotheistic religions with scripturalism. Hopefully, the course will contribute to further development of critical thinking and of an independent treatment of primary and secondary sources.
Assessment : 
The main criterion of assessment will be the students' active participation in the classes, their serious preparation for the readings and their oral presentations at the seminars (60%). The students are required to write class journals after the classes, which they should send to the instructor, who would reply to these papers in writing. The problems raised by the class journals will be discussed in class (20%). Each student should write a seminar paper at the end on a freely chosen topic (20%).

A brief history of the debates

 The debate on the eternity versus temporal creation of the material universe is one of the most important, yet also one of the least known, processes in the history of European philosophy. Even less known is the impact of this debate on the development of Christian theology. In fact, well before the intra-Christian debates on the relationship of Christ to God the Father began, Christian theology and philosophy was busy refuting the idea of an eternal world whose time is measured by the ever recurring cycles of the movement of the celestial bodies; at the same time pagan philosophical theology was busy establishing the latter view -  against the Jewish and Christian Scriptures and against Christian philosophers who had influential predecessors for establishing their views among the – so-called Middle Platonist – pagan philosophers.

 In recent times much scholarly attention has been dedicated to a quite late stage of the debate, when, in 529 – the year when emperor Justinian closed the Athenian Neoplatonist Academy – the Christian philosopher John Philopon (c. 490- c. 570) wrote a treatise against the doctrine of Proclus (412-485) on the eternity of the world and, later, in c. 530-534, another one against Aristotle’s doctrine on the same issue. This triggered a response on the part of the pagan Neoplatonist philosopher Simplicius who, in his commentaries on the De coelo and of the Physics of Aristotle written in the 530’s, replied to Philoponus’ arguments.

 This debate, well documented in our sources, is usually considered isolated in its contemporary, sixth-century, context, and is explained on the basis of the contemporary socio-political situation. Yet, the sixth-century debate was only a very important stage in a process that started almost at the moment when a new religion, Christianity, started to recruit adepts in the philosophically trained elite of the Roman empire, in the third century AD the latest, and that was to continue for many centuries both in the world dominated by Christianity and in that dominated by Islam.

 As the creation in time of the material universe was a constant element of the Christian teaching from a very early stage, it needed philosophical articulation by the newly formed elite. An important formulation was proposed by the Christian Platonist theologian Origen (184/185 – 253/254). This philosophical articulation was refuted by the pagan Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry (c. 234 – c. 305), head of the imperially sponsored Neoplatonist school in Rome, in a treatise by now lost but summarised by Proclus in his Commentary on the Timaeus. As Porphyry was considered the ideological arch-enemy of Christianity, his works were condemned repeatedly to be burnt. We learn about this work only through Proclus’ summary and through the testimonies in Christian polemical literature aimed at refuting Porphyry’s arguments. Among the latter, the very little studied works of a certain Pseudo-Justin Martyr are paramount. However, the theological formulations of the great Cappadocian Fathers – Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa – were also motivated to a great extent by a desire to respond to Porphyry. In the Latin West the most notable theologians who tried to respond to Porphyry were Augustine (in his famous musings on time and eternity in Book XI of the Confessions) and Boethius.

 When the debate flared up once again in the sixth century between John Philopon and Simplicius, it had been going on for two and a half centuries and the main corpus of the arguments for and against the respective positions was already set.

 After the sixth century, the debate, being of crucial importance for the self-understanding not only of Christianity but also of Islam and Judaism, continued. In the Christian world it flared up in the eleventh century in Byzantium and in the thirteenth century in the West. In the Muslim world it animated new debates in the ninth-tenth centuries. The Christian and Muslim debates influenced a new positioning of the subject in the works of such Jewish thinkers as Maimonides (1135-1204) and Gersonides (1288-1344)  The present course, while introducing these later debates, will only treat the Byzantine philosophical polemics in greater detail.

 The arguments

The peculiarity of the debate is that it was not one between an argumentation on the basis of the Christian Scriptures and another one based on philosophy. It was a purely philosophical argument between alternative interpretations of the philosophical classics, Plato and Aristotle. As such, it is characterised – the difference between the respective positions notwithstanding – by philosophical optimism. Both positions, that of the eternity of the world and that of its temporal beginnings had good grounding in and could be attacked from the point of view of previous philosophical tradition. Especially, Plato’s texts in the Timaeus and the Politicus could be interpreted both ways. Aristotle, while he was the paramount authority for the eternalist view, still yielded arguments for a non-eternalist position. The main aim of the course is, besides presenting the history of the debate, to reconstruct and examine the arguments used by the two parties, as well as the development of these arguments.

 It is important to realise that this debate concerned the metaphysical quality of the divine per se as much as its relation to the material universe. Through assigning a different place to our world in the metaphysical universe the two positions have also formulated two divergent philosophical views on the transcendent cause of the universe.  


 As there is no comprehensive study – as far as the knowledge of the instructor extends – on this subject, specific pieces of the secondary literature will be used. The emphasis will be laid on the primary sources, which will be read in translation.


 The course will be divided into four thematic groups, consisting of unevenly distributed lectures as well as reading and discussion seminars. As not everything can be discussed at the classes, the students are expected to write response papers after the lectures, summarising what they will have heard and creatively reflecting on the subjects treated. The instructor will carefully read the response papers and will comment upon them. This procedure will provide a feedback not only for the instructor but also for the students on the comprehension of the subject and will encourage an active appropriation of the material. The reading seminars will start with presentations/interpretation of texts by the students and followed by group debate. The texts for the reading seminars will be distributed in English but those who are capable to do this will be encouraged to read them in Greek or Latin.

 Taking notes at the classes is permitted but not obligatory. The most important thing is lively attention and interaction. Laptops are not allowed during the classes.

Tentative schedule (the actual schedule will depend on the intensity of the discussions, the questions raised etc.)

 I. Introduction and historical overview

 Week 1. Lecture: General historical introduction to the problem

 Week 2. Seminar: Discussion of Michael Case’s study: “Discussions on the eternity of the world in late antiquity” in: ΣΧΟΛΗ: Ancient Philosophy and the Classical Tradition vol. 5/2 (2011): 111-173. Some more secondary literature to be discussed may be added later.

 II. The basic philosophical texts of the debate

 Week 3. Seminar and discussion: Plato, Timaeus 27D-39E and its late antique commentaries

 Week 4. Seminar and discussion: Plato, The Statesman 268D-274D, together with Philopon’s commentaries in On the Eternity of the World Against Proclus

 Week 5, Seminar and discussion: Aristotle, Physics 8,1 250b-252b, together with the commentaries of Philopon and Simplicius

 III. Porphyry’s argument and the Christian response to it

 Week 6. Lecture: A new view on Porphyry’s argument, its sources: Proclus’ summary, fragments in Philoponus and Pseudo-Justin. Some newly discovered fragments. Fragments in the Muslim tradition

 Week 7. Lecture: The Christian response to Porphyry: Cappadocian theology; the birth of the Cappadocian doctrine on the distinction between the divine substance (ousia) and operations (energeiai) – a response to Porphyry as well as to radical Arianism (Eunomius)? Augustine on time and eternity in Confessions Book XI; Pseudo-Justinian treatises from the fifth century (?)

 Week 8. Reading seminar: Proclus’ summary of Porphyry’s argument in his Commentary on the Timaeus and the Pseudo-Justinian fragments. Pseudo-Justin, Christian Questions to the Pagans, Augustine, Book XI.

 IV. The Philopon-Simplicius debate and its reception history

 Week 9. Lecture: John Philopon and Simplicius. Historical context and a summary of the arguments

 Week 10. Reading seminar: texts from John Philopon’s On the Eternity of the World against Proclus and from Simplicius, Commentary on the Physics of Aristotle

 Week 11. Lecture: Reception history of the Philopon-Simplicius debate. John Italus (condemned in 1082); his condemnation for upholding the doctrine of the eternity of the world and his treatise written against the eternity of the world

 Week 12. Final discussion.

 The editions to be used and the secondary literature to be read for the seminars will be communicated later.