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Ammonius' Writing

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  • vaeringjar
    I have been researching Ammonius and Origen et al, those contemporaries and predecessors of Plotinus and their relationships, and I have hit upon something
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 15, 2011
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      I have been researching Ammonius and Origen et al, those contemporaries and predecessors of Plotinus and their relationships, and I have hit upon something this weekend I wanted to share with all here for reaction/criticism, see what we think about this.

      We are generally told that Ammonius wrote nothing, or didn't publish. Now usually with such statements, I like to see the exact ancient source, to make sure exactly what the ancient evidence is. On this one, I rather accepted it at first, some time ago, but then something I read in Eusebius' Church History that I read directly for the first time this weekend made me wonder.

      Eusebius quotes Porphyry on Ammonius at some length, and it's most interesting in itself, to have all that Porphyry directly quoted - ah, would we had the TOTALITY of his writings...

      Now, I realize there is not scholarly agreement here on the background, and specifically the Christianity or paganism of some of these figures, Ammonius included, and all the problems with the "two Origens" or not.

      Eusebius quotes Porphyry from the "triton syggramma" of a work of his "on the Christians" - "Against the Christians", he means? - concerning Ammonius's background, and that he was originally a Christian and then became a pagan, or as Porphyry puts it, lived later according to the laws, in other words, imperial edicts on religion. Then Eusebius claims Porphyry is mistaken here, that Ammonius remained a Christian all his life, and I do believe most would say Eusebius is just wrong here, and that Ammonius was pagan later in life, whatever his earlier beliefs were. Correct me please there, if I am wrong about that last.

      Well, ok, so far. By the way, as an aside, I am not exactly sure what is meant by "syggramma" here - "treatise" is not quite correct? I should know this, but does he mean a part or section or "chapter" in Porphyry's longer work against the Christians, or a separate treatise altogether? Not germane to my main point, but just curious.

      So as for the extant evidence that Ammonius left no published works: some comes from Porphyry's Life of Plotinus, and we know, for one thing, of the interesting pact of Ammmonius' students, including Plotinus, who swore among themeselves never to divulge his teachings. Also how at first Plotinus wrote down nothing, til later in life, apparently (?) following his master's view of such things, to say nothing of Plato himself, from the 7th Letter and what he says in the Phaedrus about written works of philosophy. OK fine.

      But I think the main source for Ammonius' having written nothing, per e.g., Armstrong in "Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy", p.197, is Porphyry's report of Longinus in the Life of Plotinus. And indeed Longinus is specific enough there, saying there are two types of philosophers of the early 3rd century, ones who did publish, and others who thought it enough to teach and not publish, and he explicitly includes Ammonius in the second group, quite clearly. I presume then that no one would dispute really the validity of this claim, on the face of it, certainly in the sense of taking Longinus in general as a good source for such things.

      But back to Eusebius. As part of his claim that Ammonius was a Christian til the end, for what that is worth, he points out that Ammonius left a work "On the Harmony [symphonia] of Moses and Jesus" (by the way, has anyone noted this little bit in thinking of - the Christian - Origen's pioneering work to validate the Old Testament for Christians, in his allegorizing way? Could that be something he was set to originally by Ammonius, presuming this Eusebius is even right here, and this Ammonius is realy Origen's teacher, etc.?) Not sure what the scholarly consensus is, if there even is one, though I rather think it would be not to believe Eusebius here, but I do also wonder something else at this juncture, and it is the point I wanted to raise concerning all of this. (It would really have been interested, wouldn't it, if the work in question had been titled rather "On the Harmony of Moses and Plato" - ! - shades of Numenius - but I rather think if Ammonius did write something like that, Eusebius would never bring it up - ?!?)

      What if the picture is a bit murkier than Porphyry or Longinus leads us to believe? One thing that is quite clear, I think from even my limited reading on this subject, is that the boundaries between Christianity and paganism in late 2nd century and early 3rd century Alexandria were blurry and crossed by some, and back and forth, and I have to wonder if perhaps a man could not also just "straddle" that perhaps imaginary line as well. Such as Ammonius. (And I know some would posit ANOTHER, Christian Ammonius as well here, just to make things even more complicated.)

      So what if Ammonius did indeed write some treatises after all, but only Christian writings, maybe early writings, and then after he became a pagan, and presumably took Plato to heart about not writing things down, wrote nothing more at all. But Porphyry and Longinus are just ignoring those writings - since they were Christian writings - and claim he left nothing behind. And that on the other side, Eusebius may be playing fast and loose a bit as well, or was just misinformed, or misunderstood, knowing that there were Christian writings of Ammonius, but that they were early and not late, but fails to point that out, either knowingly or not. That is my suggestion here.

      This would, if true, argue perhaps a sort of partisanship on their part, a sort of denial for their intellectual, partisan purposes, I suppose, but at least with Porphyry (I don't know enough about Longinus to say if I am out of line here at all with whatever else we know of him on this score, or do we know enough in general about him even to say much at all on anything?) is this so unlikely? I am not really sure, and I just had this idea come to me yesterday.

      I realize the primary evidence on all of this is slim, so it makes it tricky, to say the least, but that slimness of course also allows some "wiggle room". But I just wonder if the situation was not so clear at that time - and of course there were the Gnostics so much in the mix as well, and Christianity very much philosophically still defining itself.

      But if Ammonius was as great as he was said to be, one can also imagine both sides trying to claim him, even posthumously, but also in that same vein I can imagine if he really did rather "straddle the fence", one side trying to downplay or even suppress one side of his work or the other, even if that work was not synchronous but one side done - or written - all earlier or all later in his life, whether he published or not.

      Curious to hear opinions on this, thanks in advance, as always.

      Dennis Clark
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