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BMCR 2004.02.42, Matthias Baltes, Marius Victorinus

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  • Cosmin I. Andron
    Matthias Baltes, Marius Victorinus. Zur Philosophie in seinen theologischen Schriften. BzA 174. Mu+nchen-Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 2002. Pp. 151. ISBN
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 24, 2004
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      Matthias Baltes, Marius Victorinus. Zur Philosophie in seinen
      theologischen Schriften. BzA 174. Mu+nchen-Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 2002.
      Pp. 151. ISBN 3-598-77723-X. EUR 80.00.

      Reviewed by Chiara O. Tommasi Moreschini, University of Pisa
      Word count: 1954 words

      This brief book -- about 150 pages, including bibliography and indexes
      -- was the last work of Matthias Baltes before he died some months ago
      and can thus be regarded as a sort of spiritual testament of the great
      German scholar: it is intended as a presentation and a further
      development of the results of a seminar that took place in 2000 in the
      Academia Platonica, a cultural institution devoted to the study of the
      Platonic tradition directed and co-ordinated by Baltes himself (a
      deeply-felt intellectual portrait of Baltes is now provided by Cristina
      D'Ancona in Elenchos. Rivista di studi sul pensiero antico, XXIV, 2003,
      pp. 5-7).

      Baltes' book aims to offer a comprehensive and precise profile of the
      Latin philosopher Marius Victorinus, who was professor of rhetoric in
      Rome in the middle of the fourth century and, after his astonishing
      conversion to Christianity (narrated by Augustine in a famous page of
      the Confessions), wrote theological treatises and a commentary, the
      first preserved in Latin, on some Pauline epistles. These works reveal
      a strong defender of Nicene orthodoxy against some Arian contenders;
      together with Hilary of Poitiers, Victorinus can be considered one of
      the major Latin writers during the so called second phase of the Arian
      controversy, which was disrupting Christian communities, particularly
      in the Greek regions of the Empire, and even involved the relationship
      between the imperial dynasty and the most influential representatives
      of the Church hierarchy.

      At first Victorinus was forced into a marginal role due to the
      obscurity and complexity of his writings, especially in the Western
      part of the Empire, where philosophical or dogmatic subtleties might
      sound too refined,[[1]] but in modern times his theological speculation
      has attracted scholarly interest, most of all because of his
      wide-ranging and deep knowledge of Greek sources. Such an osmotic
      relationship between theology and philosophy is, in fact, almost unique
      in the Latin middle fourth century, so that a synkrisis with his Latin
      contemporaries, and most of all with an equally sharp theologian like
      Hilary of Poitiers, will easily show how Victorinus' speculative depth
      is unparalleled and how in his elaboration of the Trinitarian dogma he
      reaches peaks never achieved before him.[[2]]

      Among the Greek authors Victorinus knew and could directly read there
      are Plotinus and Porphyry;[[3]] moreover many of the doctrines he
      employs in the Opera Theologica depend on an anonymous Commentary on
      Plato's Parmenides, whose chronology has been much questioned since its
      editio princeps at the end of the nineteenth century. Not only is that
      commentary extremely fragmentary, but also the doctrines here presented
      do not totally conform with any known Neoplatonic system, so that any
      attribution or at least any chronological framing cannot be expressed
      with certainty.

      Hadot's crucial inquiries, culminating in the monumental commented
      edition of Victorinus' Opera Theologica (together with P. Henry, Paris
      1960) and in the epoch-making book on Porphyre et Victorinus (Paris
      1968), attributed the anonymous work to the Tyrian disciple of
      Plotinus, thus reasserting Porphyry's autonomous role in the history of
      post-Plotinian philosophy; in recent times, however, this attribution
      has been questioned, and some scholars prefer dating the work to an
      earlier epoch, that is pre-Plotinian Platonism, with marked influences
      of Neo-Pythagorean trends (see the recent edition and commentary by G.
      Bechtle, Bern-Stuttgart-Wien 1999). This new critical perspective, also
      takes into consideration some Middle-Platonic figures like Alkinoos or
      Numenius, or even some Gnostic texts discovered in the fifties in the
      Egyptian locality of Nag Hammadi belonging to the so-called Sethian
      Gnosticism and strongly influenced by Greek philosophy: the metaphysic
      system which can be reconstructed by considering Zostrianos, Marsanes,
      The three Steles of Seth, and Allogenes belongs, in fact, by right, to
      the manifold faces of the development of Platonism during the first
      three centuries of the Empire, as the polemic of Plotinus against the
      Gnostics clearly shows (such writings are dated, in their original
      Greek redaction, prior to the author of the Enneads).

      The present book deals with the main tenets of Victorinus' speculation
      and, according to a sort of Platonising hierarchy of beings, is divided
      into six sections (pp. 19-97: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the
      Trinity, the consubstantiality of the divine hypostases, the created
      realms); the last two sections (pp. 98-125) sum up and outline such
      doctrines, offering the Author's conclusion.[[4]] In the opening pages
      (7-18) Baltes offers a perspective a contrario, explaining the Arian
      views about the Father and the relationship between the first two
      Persons of the Trinity, as expounded by an obscure Candidus in the
      'lettre ouvert' he wrote to Victorinus,[[5]] as well as the Neoplatonic
      ones about the One as pre-principle and as dynamis (power) from which
      all beings proceed.

      Concision, exactitude and sobriety constitute the merits of this book.
      A rich harvest of texts is here collected and discussed (in German
      translation together with the original Latin of Victorinus, not at all
      easy to understand at first sight), arranged by topic -- for example
      the qualities of the Father -- rather than following the textual order.
      This allows for an easier approach to the many key-tenets, which
      Victorinus variously displays in his four books of the treatise Against
      Arius, as well as in the minor works To Candidus, Why the Homoousios
      has to be accepted, and the Hymns. Among the loci paralleli given in
      the footnotes, the Anonymous Commentary is of course privileged, but
      sometimes other important Neo-Platonic texts are quoted, most of all
      Plotinus, Porphyry and Proclus (see also some interesting hints about a
      complex figure like Philo Alexandrinus, p. 10).

      This contributes to elucidating the principal arguments of Victorinus'
      theology: in particular he develops a rich metaphysical system,
      attributing to the Father the majority of the qualifications
      characterizing the Neoplatonic One, which are, of course, negative
      ones, according to apophatic trends widely developed by Greek
      philosophy and also by Christian culture (oneness, pureness,
      simpleness, invisibility, unutterability, lack of body, motion,
      passions and corruption, etc.). Moreover, Victorinus' deep
      philosophical background comes out in the majority of his doctrines:
      for example his Trinitarian speculation is an attempt to join the
      triadic schemes already attested in Platonising texts and in particular
      in the Enneads. The relationship between the three Persons of the
      Trinity is in fact explained by means of Neoplatonic schemes, thus
      equating Father, Son and Holy Spirit to the hypostatical moments of
      being-life-intellect (or being-intellect-life, in a reversed order), or
      introducing the more complex concept of predominance, according to
      which every Person is better characterized by the prevalence of one of
      these aspects, in order to preserve and reassert their mutual
      consubstantiality -- Baltes notes that the first case (that is, the
      Father sums up and possesses the three hypostases) suits the Arian
      doctrine, while the second case (the hypostatisation of a single
      quality according to predominance, and thus a sort of 'enneadic'
      system) is Victorinus' own (p. 107); also important is the explanation
      of the Son's generative process in philosophical terms, such as
      stillness and movement, form and act, dynamis and activity, to which
      must be added the turning or conversion-moment, exampled by the Spirit.

      We have briefly summarized the contents of the book, which provides an
      extensive and systematic illustration of Victorinus' Theological
      treatises. In particular I appreciated the clearness of the exposition
      and the methodological rigour (see for example pp. 98 ff., where
      Victorinus' doctrines are summarized, and particular attention is
      offered in explaining the subtle theory of the so-called 'double dyad',
      which governs the relationship between Father and Son and at the same
      time explains how the Son and the Holy Spirit interact). Also
      innovative, in comparison with previous monographs, is the chapter
      devoted to the origin of material realms and the hierarchy of beings,
      among which the soul plays a central role. One of the crucial questions
      of Platonism, in fact, regards the rising of multiplicity from the One.

      However, let me express some disagreement and some critical remarks,
      which do not in any way impugn the value of the work. Baltes rightly
      observes in the introductory section that the selection made by Hadot
      in his important research on Porphyry and Victorinus (the French
      scholar isolated a series of passages where Platonic reminiscences were
      palpable, which he called 'Porphyrian texts' and on which he focussed
      most of his attention) may have been too sharp and the unity of
      Victorinus' work impoverished. Such a statement is true, even if it
      must be noted that Hadot had already provided some years before an
      extensive and detailed commentary on the entire Opera Theologica and in
      1971 wrote also a broad biography and a general portrait of the
      philosopher (Marius Victorinus. Recherches sur sa vie et ses oeuvres,
      Paris) and recently published a brief essay ('Porphyre et Victorinus':
      questions et hypothe\ses, Res Orientales IX, Groupe pour l'E/tude de la
      Civilisation du Moyen Orient, Bures sur Yvette 1996, pp. 117-125) where
      he underlines the necessity of a wider investigation of some
      Victorinus' tenets, including the theological milieu in which he

      Baltes thus aims to offer a unitary and, so to say, global
      reconstruction of Victorinus' speculative system, considering his works
      as a whole, including both philosophy and theology. But, as a
      philosopher himself, Baltes leaves out the theological side, which
      shows, for example, Victorinus' unusual knowledge of the Greek sources
      (testified to by his translation into Latin of Creed-formulas or
      dogmatic epistles) and of terminological questions -- in dealing with
      terms like ousia or hypostasis. Our growing knowledge of Greek
      Arianism, throughout its evolution, has allowed scholars to focus on
      the different contenders or leaders (both followers of Arianism and of
      Nicene dogma) and to throw light on their writings, mostly fragmentary,
      and their often shadowy personalities, leaving aside great figures like
      Athanasius. It would be worthwhile to study how Victorinus (and Hilary
      too, whose exile in the East put him in contact with first-hand
      sources) was influenced by the theological debate, which often reached
      subtle dogmatic peaks alien to Latin culture. Nevertheless, such a
      remark does not dismiss Baltes' research, which didn't aim at a
      theologically oriented investigation and wasn't interested in such a
      topic. He, in fact, explains both the Arian doctrines and the Nicene
      ones in philosophical terms, even if it should be noted that for a long
      time scholars of the Arian controversy (see the works by G.C. Stead, M.
      Simonetti and the recent ones by M.J. Edwards) have recognized and
      investigated the philosophical sources there implied.

      I limit myself to noting that the question of unity and alterity,
      applied to the generation of the Son and to the creation (see p. 41 and
      96 f.), is of course a central tenet in Christianity too and was
      particularly debated during the Arian crisis, where it was disputed
      whether there could have been generation -- either in time or not -- or
      only creation. Furthermore, some expressions (like the source and the
      river, or the angular stone) find their background in Christian imagery
      as well as in philosophical writings, and thus Victorinus effected a
      sort of contamination between the two planes.[[6]]

      In any case, Baltes recognizes a clear Platonic model which could have
      inspired Victorinus and which he voluntarily changed and modified and
      singles it out in a doctrine posterior to Porphyry and Iamblichus
      because of the presence of some Iamblichean tenets,[[7]] despite some
      differences, motivated, I think, by Victorinus' adhesion to
      Christianity. His philosophy thus allows at least a partial filling of
      the gap in the history of Neoplatonism between Iamblichus and Syrianus
      or Proclus.

      I am persuaded that Baltes' book represents an important inquiry into
      Victorinus' philosophy and offers a successful attempt at synthesising
      the complexity and the obscurity that permeate the Opera Theologica
      and, at the same time, contributes to the reconstruction of a deep and
      rigorous philosophical system.


      1. This can receive a confirmation by considering, vice versa, the
      increasing renown of his contemporary Hilary of Poitiers; it should be
      noted, however, that Victorinus' philosophical education would have
      influenced authors like Augustine and Boethius.

      2. "Victorinus shows how lively, how original, how pulsating, how
      stimulating and, yea, how attractive was Platonism in the fourth
      century. Together with Augustinus, Victorinus represents the best
      example that, for an intellectual, the reception of Christian doctrines
      was possible only through Neoplatonism, the dominating spiritual trend
      at the time" (p.125).

      3. Victorinus translated and rearranged in his work some sections of
      Plotinus' Enneads and seems to have known Porphyry's exegesis of the
      Chaldean Oracles and in his early years wrote a commentary, now almost
      entirely lost, on the Isagoge.

      4. Baltes has already offered another contribution on the same in the
      miscellaneous volume Metaphysik und Religion. Zur Signatur des
      spa+tantiken Denkens, edited by Th. Kobusch-M. Erler-I. Ma+nnlein
      Robert (Mu+nchen 2002, pp. 99-120).

      5. Candidus must be a fictitious interlocutor, invented by Victorinus
      to reassert the rightness of the Nicene position.

      6. It should have been observed that in defining Christ as angulus
      Trinitatis, Victorinus linked Pythagorean and Scriptural terminology --
      cfr. p. 74; the source metaphor, p. 41, is already in Tertullian, not
      to mention an eclectic writing like the Gnostic Tractatus Tripartitus.

      7. These include the distinction between intelligibles and
      intellectuals, and between participates and imparticipates) and
      strongly influenced by the Anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides,
      which Baltes is inclined to date after Porphyry.

      The BMCR website (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/) contains a complete
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