Christians, Gnostics and Platonists : an overview of the ethos of late antiquity
Sabo, Theodore Edward
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Christians, Gnostics, and Platonists attempts to characterize the ethos of late antiquity (100–500 CE) as one that despised matter and the body. It operates within the assumption that there are four criteria which establish this characterization, namely an emphasis on the evil of life, a distrust of the sociopolitical world, asceticism, and an interest in the supernatural. These four criteria are evident in the Platonists, Christians, and Gnostics of the period. As Chapter Two reveals the dissertation understands the concept of ethos in the context of R. C. Trench's discussion of aion: "all the thoughts, opinions, maxims, speculations, impulses, and aspirations present in the world at any given time." In Chapter Three Plato and the Middle Platonists are viewed as bequeathing to late antiquity its world–denying philosophy which the Gnostics preached more incessantly than the Platonists and the Christians practiced more conscientiously than the Gnostics. The Neoplatonists were the Platonists of late antiquity. In the writings of such figures as Plotinus and Porphyry the hatred of matter and the body is boldly expressed, and it is only slightly less apparent in later philosophers like Iamblichus and Proclus. In Plotinus we discern a profound distrust of the sociopolitical world and in Proclus a thoroughgoing asceticism paired with an interest in the supernatural. In Chapter Four it is shown that Gnosticism was more unyielding than either Platonism or Christianity in its insistence that matter and the body were evil, and it followed the late antique distrust of the social world both in its elitism and in its view of martyrdom as an act of casting pearls before swine. Gnosticism tended to accept the asceticism of late antiquity though some of its adherents practiced an extreme licentiousness that was the counterpart of asceticism in that it approached the body as worthless. The late antique emphasis on the supernatural is evidenced by such Gnostic figures as Simon Magus, Carpocrates, and Valentinus. Chapter Five demonstrates that the hatred of matter and the body is also expressed by the Christians albeit with less consistency to their worldview. It can be glimpsed in the ante– Nicene, post–Nicene, and desert fathers as well as in the Arians. It is most notable in the attempts of Justin Martyr, Origen, and Arius to place the Son at a lower ontological level than the Father in order to protect God from the evil entity of matter. The late antique distrust of the sociopolitical world is manifested in the Christian view of martyrdom as a way of scorning a corrupt world, a view unlike that of the Gnostics. No one possessed this distrust more strongly than the Donatists with whom the later Augustine had some kinship. Many of the Christians tended to practice asceticism and the miraculous, the form in which the supernatural took in their case. The desert fathers can be said to be the most sincere representatives of late antiquity with their intense practice of both of these expressions of the ethos.
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