Intelligible Reality

How did Athanasius describe the fall of man? He did it in terms anybody who has read Origen would recognize.

“For when men’s mind has no intercourse with the body, and has nothing of the latter’s desires mingled with it from outside but is entirely superior to them, being self-sufficient as it was created in the beginning, then it transcends the senses and all human things and it rises high above the world, and beholding the Word sees in him also the Father of the Word. It rejoices in contemplating him and is renewed by its desire for him, just as the holy scriptures say that the first man to be created, who was called Adam in Hebrew, had his mind fixed on God in unembarrassed frankness, and lived with the saints in contemplation of intelligible reality, which he enjoyed in that place which the holy Moses figuratively called Paradise. . . .

“3. In this way then, as has been said, did the Creator fashion the human race, and such did he with it to remain. But men, contemptuous of the better things and shrinking from their apprehension, sought rather what was closer to themselves—and what was closer to them was the body and its sensations. So they turned their minds away from intelligible reality and began to consider themselves. And by considering themselves and cleaving to the body and the other senses, deceived as it were in their own interests, they fell into selfish desires and preferred their own good to the contemplation of the divine. Wasting their time thus and being unwilling to turn away from things close at hand, they imprisoned in the pleasures of the body their souls which had become disordered and defiled by all kinds of desires, and in the end they forgot the power they had received from God in the beginning.”

Contra Gentes 2-3. Translated by R. W. Thomson.

Contra Gentes is first of a two volume work in which De Incarnatione, today the most recognizable of Athanasius’ works, is the second.

A relevant portion in Origen would be Contra Celsus 4.40, for example, and Peri Archon book 2 would also illuminate what I’m saying. I’m saying that the sort of thinking about things a world devoid of Plato finds weird and that Origen routinely did is found also in Athanasius.

What is also intriguing to anybody who does know something about Plato or Plotinus is the term ‘intelligible reality’ which is the Greek word nous, its association with the divine, the physical as a source of confusion, and the idea of the body as a prison. There is an obvious similarity. There is an advance in thought (and a need for more, obviously): the way Athanasius puts things is not how Plotinus would exactly have put things and not what Plato would have said. But the difference, however great to Origen and Athanasius, is from our perspective minor, and the relationship I think is evident.

My point is not that Athanasius was not a Christian. My point is that committed and robust 4th century Christianity found the categories of Platonism extremely congenial, greatly so. It was how they made sense of things. I don’t think we can understand these Christians without appreciating Platonism better than (in my opinion) many do (e.g. Thomas Weinandy). I certainly think the only crowd that stands to gain form the outdated notion that Greek philosophy corrupted Christian simplicity is that served by a more ambiguous and doctrinally impoverished religion.

And I think Athanasius inherited two things from Origen. With these he approached his lifelong task of figuring how to rid the church of subordinationism. Proof of that is what I’m on the trail of.

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