97 - A Tale of Two Cities: The Last Pagan Philosophers

Posted on 7 October 2012

Neoplatonism had a long-standing association with traditional Greek religion. How did philosophers respond when Christians gained ascendancy?

Further Reading

• P. Athanassiadi, Julian: An Intellectual Biography (London: 1981).

• H. Baltussen, Philosophy and Exegesis in Simplicius (London: 2008).

• A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford: 2010).

• M. Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria (Cambridge, MA: 1995).

• S.R.P. Gertz, Death and Immortality in Late Neoplatonism. Studies on the Ancient Commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

• A. Momigliano (ed.), The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford: 1963).

• E.J. Watts, City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria (Berkeley: 2006).

• E.J. Watts, Hypatia: the Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher (Oxford: 2017).


Drilou 9 April 2019

Is there any primary source mentioning that the Christians accused Hypatia of witchcraft?

From what I've read, Hypatia was instead accused of being responsible for the political conflict between Orestes, the prefect of Alexandria, and Cyril, the bishop, or of preventing their reconciliation. The first mention of witchcraft I could find was from the 1843 Geschichte der Hexenprocesse by Wilhelm Gottlieb Soldan, a Protestant historian and anti-Catholic polemist in the vein of Jules Michelet, who reinterpreted Hypatia's murder as "the very first witch hunt". 

No, not that I've seen - I mean, obviously she was a pagan and could in theory have been engage in theurgy and so on, like other pagans. But I have never seen the notion of witchcraft brought into the discussion of her, even by Christian accusers.

Drilou 10 April 2019

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Alright thanks. In case you were confused by the question, and since I realised you made this quite a while ago, I was asking because you mentioned witchcraft around 8:52.

MithrandirOlorin 16 September 2019

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Actually Neo-Platonic Philosophy at that time would not have bene considered Pagan, in fact msot Christians beleived a form of it.  Some have even theorised Hypatia was a Christian, fact is we know little about her.

Hm. Well I have read quite a lot on Hypatia and never seen anyone suggest she might have been a Christian - which scholars do you have in mind?

As for "Neoplatonism" of course that is not an ancient term at all, so it is not meaningful to discuss what ancient people thought about it. But insofar as we are talking about Iamblichean and Proclean philosophy fused with religion, as promoted by Julian the Apostate, we can definitely define a cultural movement that was violently opposed both to, and by, Christianity. When you say that Christians "believed a form of Neoplatonism" you are sort of right in that they borrowed a lot from Platonism, as well as Stoicism, etc - indeed that was a lot of what we discussed in the episodes on late ancient Christianity. But there were certainly battle lines drawn between pagan Platonists and Christians in late antiquity.

Dylan 6 March 2022

Hey now, some of my best friends are pagan philosophers. OK, I may not be a representative sample. Being a life long lover of Greek mythology and surrounded by philosophically minded pagans I have to admit that I get annoyed almost every time a philosopher you cover mentions the gods. It seems like trying to cram the Greek pantheon into a worldview that the world is necessarily good is a futile and ill concieved idea. You end up doing stupid things like trying to explain how everything is one by rigidly stratifying the entirety of existence, or completely missing the point of the Iliad because you don't think it's being polite enough to the gods. I will spare you my full on literary criticism rant, but dammit the way the gods act in the Iliad is incredibly important to Achilles's central conflict between his human and divine natures, and also in creating a very specific feel to the way fate plays into the story.

Maybe I am too far removed from the context, but Greek mythology never gave me the impression that the world was necessarily good. It is necessarily what it is, fate is rather prominent, but what it is seems to be largely indifferent. The gods may join us in wars, but they do so as if it was a game. They do not know death, so can not know courage and can only play at war. They are alien, and their human characteristics only make them more so. They are forces of nature, who may come to our advantage, or come to our disadvantage as they will. All we can really do is carry on and try not to take the whims of fate too personally. It seems to me that Homer understood something about the human condition that Plato missed. It feels somewhat ridiculous for me to claim to have a better take on ancient Greek religion than the ancient Greeks, but there seems to be a tension here that makes me wonder how philosophers differed from priests and common people in their conception of the goodness of the world, and how these ideas shifted between the time of Homer and the time of the philosophers. Or maybe I'm just a grumpy materialist who's projecting on Homer. But hey, according to this podcast, I'm in good company when it comes to projecting my worldview onto earlier thinkers I admire. 

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