Origen Against Plato, by Mark J. Edwards

Origen Against Plato (Ashgate Studies in Philosophy & Theology in Late Antiquity) (Ashgate Studies in Philosophy & Theology in Late Antiquity) (Ashgate ... in Philosophy & Theology in Late Antiquity)Origen Against Plato (Ashgate Studies in Philosophy & Theology in Late Antiquity) by Mark J. Edwards
The title expresses Edwards’ purpose: to demonstrate that rather than being a Platonist, Origen was quite the contrary. What he actually achieves is a good and thorough demonstration that Origen’s condemnation was unjust because it was inaccurate.

Edwards’ target is the view that by leavening Christian teaching with Platonic philosophy, Origen first and fatally traduced Orthodoxy. Liberal scholarship of yore has been partial to it. The view is outdated, which makes one wonder why Edwards feels he has to go to the trouble. As Maurice Wiles points out in his review of the book, names are never named. Wiles also deplores the rhetorical aggression Edwards exhibits and the unhelpful sesquipedalian diction, thus raising questions about chips on shoulders. He is right to do so.

If the book were simply setting out to establish that Origen was unjustly condemned, then it would be appreciated. But the book has as its object to establish that Origen was in no sense a Platonist, and that claims of Neoplatonic influence are exaggerated; and I think the strain may account for the tone.

If the question is: did Origen slavishly follow the teaching of Plato uncritically, then the answer is a clear no. Edwards can make much of this; in a world where philosophy was not just a matter of intellectual assent, but a way of life about which philosophers could be doctrinaire, Origen wanted to be known as a man of the Church, a committed follower of Christianity and not a philosopher. He is unambiguous about this, was tortured for his Christian faith. Let us also keep in mind that most of his books were destroyed because he was deemed too much a philosopher, and among the surviving ones, Contra Celsus is not exactly calculated to capitalize on Origen’s philosophical pedigree.

Edwards admits that intellectual influences are detectable. The way Edwards dismisses their significance is by noting that in Alexandria all kinds of intellectual influences abounded, not just Platonical. Besides this, the totality of Plato’s doctrines involved far more than anybody can demonstrate Origen to believe. It is the kind of argument that succeeds more by explaining away than by explaining. Everything is minimized, the scope of conclusions is reduced, all data is interpreted with the lowest possible significance in order to whittle down the overlap between Origen and Platonic thought. Is it scholarship, or an odd use of scholarly tools and methods?

For Edwards the clincher appears to be a statement found in On First Principles 2.3.6 where Origen abjures the incorporeal world of ‘ideas’ of which the Greeks speak. The selective quotation certainly seems to imply that Origen rejects Platonic metaphysics. But what does Origen go on to say? “There is no doubt, however, that something more illustrious and excellent than this present world is pointed out by the Savior, at which He incites and encourages believers to aim.” He believes it exists, but does not believe it is up to human beings to conjecture about it. He is critical of Plato’s conclusions, but for all that still inhabits the same cosmos.

Origen was not a philosopher because his concern was for the church. After Justin, none of the father’s would have called themselves philosophers: philosophers became increasingly hostile to Christianity, especially as philosophy became more and more useful to it, and it seems to me especially because it did. But the church fathers were influenced by philosophy: Stoic ethics, Platonic metaphysics and epistemology, and sound logic and rhetoric straight from the glib master of verbal smoothies: Aristotle. It may be stretching it to assign Origen a place as a neoplatonic philosopher just on the verbal and conceptual parallels; but it is wrong to imply that they amount to nothing substantial. Clearly his thinking is most in harmony with Platonism, and given that he and the most illustrious follower of Plato, Plotinus, both studied in Alexandria under one Ammonius, is it that difficult to believe they have some fundamental similarities? Edwards, by the way, posits not only the usual two Origens, one our churchman, the other a fellow student of Plotinus, but two Ammoniuses (he drolly calls them Amonii, one Saccas and one not) for like Origen, Ammonius was a common name. There seems to me too much random commonness in the late antique world of Mark Julian Edwards. Bring back Henry Chadwick, I say.


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