Daniele Iozzia is Research Fellow of History of Ancient Philosophy, Department of Humanities, University of Catania, Italy, where he also teaches ancient philosophy and aesthetics at the MA level. He has published widely on Plotinus and his legacy, Christian Platonism, and art history.
Iozzia spoke with contributing editor Elsa Costa about his essay “A Beginner’s Success: The Impact of Plotinus’s First Treatise among Christians,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.1).
Elsa Costa: Your fascinating article alludes to two schools of historiography regarding “Patristic Platonism,” the literary and philosophical-theological allusions to Plato and Platonism in the Church Fathers. One faction focuses on the essentially instrumental use of Plato and Plotinus by the Fathers, emphasizing that despite the deployment of “Hellenic philosophical tools,” the early Christians stayed ideologically pure, as it were, avoiding Platonic beliefs which would be problematic for Christian cosmology, such as the eternity of matter or the preexistence of the soul. The other faction stresses the intellectual porousness and sociological interchange between early Christianity and Neoplatonism throughout late antiquity. You acknowledge the truth in both points of view: while the Fathers did not attempt to rationalize the Neoplatonic beliefs which were most incompatible with Christianity, Platonic thought introduced early Christians to entirely new areas of philosophical inquiry, most notably speculation on beauty and its relationship with goodness. The article demonstrates the presence of the Plotinian theory of beauty in Gregory of Nyssa, his brother Basil of Caesarea, their friend Gregory Nazianzen, and also in Augustine. Let me start by asking you how you came to settle on the question of beauty and, as an extension of this question, asking you what would have been different in the greater development of Christianity if the Cappadocian Fathers had not given such weight to Plotinus’s On Beauty (Enneads I.6).
Daniele Iozzia: Thank you Elsa, I think that you capture the essence of the issue quite accurately. In my opinion, the sort of distinction that we use between faith and philosophy does not apply to Late Antiquity, especially if we consider the strong influence of religious texts and notions in Neoplatonism after Plotinus. The general syncretism of the age does not apply only to pagan philosophers but also to Christian thinkers. In this sense, at least starting with Origen, my impression is that some Christian thinkers felt the need to step up their game, so to speak, in order to adopt a language and some concepts which were philosophically sound. The publication of Plotinus’ writings was in this sense instrumental, as a good part of what was in them could be adapted to a Christian vision of the world. The issue of beauty, in particular, must have had an appeal which was connected in the first instance with the effect that it has on the soul, that is with eros, the desire for the divine beauty which is one of the focuses of Gregory of Nyssa’s speculation and also of Augustine’s. I have been interested in these themes since I started studying Gregory of Nyssa and have been fascinated by how Plotinus’ language has been assimilated into Christian mystical reflection. It does make one wonder how much the development of certain Christian themes, in particular regarding ascetic life and the rejection of the material world, would have been different if it wasn’t for Plotinus and in general for a Platonism based on the dualistic approach of the Phaedo. I guess, for example, that the use of an erotic language to describe the mystical union of the soul with the divine might have been less acceptable if the Christians hadn’t read a similar approach in Plato and Plotinus. It is certainly true that this theme can be found in Paul’s letters but the tone in Gregory of Nyssa and, to a lesser extent, in Augustine is distinctly Platonic and Plotinian.
EC: One subplot in the article is the “asceticizing” of Platonic thought over time, which, while an important contribution to early monasticism, began as a pagan phenomenon and later took place across both pagan and Christian vectors. Plotinus, writing in the third century, sharpened the part of Plato’s thought that defines union with the divine as the culmination of eros, downplaying other, “lower” forms of love between human beings. This makes his work a practical manual on how to achieve philosophical henosis as well as a set of cosmological claims. Even in On Beauty, as you say, he’s recommending a particular ascetic lifestyle at the same time as he’s defining beauty. This is very attractive to the Cappadocian Fathers a century later as philosophical reinforcement for the Christian tradition of prayer and contemplation. Can you elaborate on the “ascetic turn” in late classical antiquity that influenced Plotinus and led to his work becoming so popular among both pagans and Christians?
DI: Indeed it is an issue which we need to address from a fresher perspective, trying to be impartial and not to support one or the other of the factions that you mentioned before. There are many elements at stake here, some historical, some anthropological, and some subtly psychological. It would be interesting, for example, to address the issue of asceticism and mysticism from a gender perspective, not in the sense of the different attitudes to ascetic life according to gender (which is fascinating in itself) but from the point of view of the identification of the individual soul with a feminine principle. Origen, Plotinus, Gregory of Nyssa, they all approach the reflection on divine union from the perspective of the eros of the soul—and the soul is described in feminine terms. For the Christians, this is also a consequence of the allegorical exegesis of the Song of Songs, while in Plotinus it could be the result of what we would now call a heteronormative re-reading of Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus. It is all open to discussion, of course, but I think that it’s worthy of a deeper investigation. In general, that unease with the material world that is such a feature of Late Antique civilization is quite clearly found in Plotinus’ thought. We cannot ascertain where and why it initially started, but we can see that it spread to every aspect of life and culture, from philosophy and religion to visual art, where the preference for effects of light and color as opposed to volume and perspective is startling and in line with Plotinus’ view on beauty.
EC: Since Late Antiquity, there have been moments at which the beauty of creation and the wonder aroused by it have become disproportionately important in Christian writing, for example during the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century and then again, perhaps more culturally than philosophically, during the Renaissance proper and into the Baroque. Today, however, when scholars and public figures talk about beauty, it often seems to be a shibboleth for a certain strain of reactionary thought, mostly secular, which only seems to see beauty in the cultural output of the recent European past. At times we also see a vulgarized version of this discourse on the far right. But we almost never see progressives talk about beauty, and it is also uncommon to see it given much attention in mainstream Christianity. Amidst this polarization, do you think that it could be beneficial for Christians and others to reclaim beauty as something political neutral and culturally universal?
DI: Thank you so much for this question, as the issue strikes me personally. The contemporary kalliphobia, to borrow a term from Arthur Danto, is the (almost pathological) result of the complex attitudes of the avant-garde artists in response to the failures of society at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is sad that, as a consequence of this, appreciation of beauty has become tainted with an ideological association. This has happened also to the notion of classicism, nowadays interpreted as a conservative aesthetic preference, while in fact in the past (I think of the mid-eighteenth century, for example) it was connected to progressive policies and visions of the world. Beauty is part of human experience and still remains, for example, one of the most powerful tools in marketing and advertising. In Platonic terms, it provokes a desire which is not simply of the senses but of the entire being. We would live in a very sad world indeed if we were to be deprived of the right to enjoy beauty. Beauty, of course, comes in a huge variety of guises, which is something that maybe a Platonic view fails to understand, as the experience of what is beautiful, in Plato, seems to be objective and always the same, while we know that this is not the case. Plotinus, in fact, meant to widen our perception of beauty. Nowadays, the striving for diversity and inclusion in the canons of beauty, even in entertainment and marketing, I think, goes in the right direction. In art and architecture, the problem is much more complex, and it’s hard to find common ground for an evaluation of beauty. However, if we consider the original sense of the Greek term kalon, we can see that it expresses a combination of function and appropriateness which, for example, can still be applied to architecture. It is interesting, after all, that in Plato’s Hippias Major we can see a discussion, although somewhat ironic, of the beauty of what we would now call the design of a functional object (Hipp. Major 288d-e). Despite the fact that nowadays the connection between beauty and art is lost and deemed meaningless, we still use the attribute of beauty for an object of design, a film or a song, because beauty is intrinsic to human existence and experience. In this, Plato and the Platonists, pagan and Christian, still have something relevant to say.
Elsa Costa is a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where she also received her Ph.D in 2021. Her research focuses on the evolution of theories of sovereignty in the early modern Ibero-American world, and she has published on a range of topics in the history of European and Latin American philosophy.
Featured Image: Portrait of Plotinus, courtesy of Wikimedia.