Transcript: 305. Andrew Louth on John of Damascus

Peter is joined by Andrew Louth for a discussion of John of Damascus and his theological use of philosophy.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about John of Damascus, who we've just been looking at in the podcast. Can you remind listeners who he was, when did he live, that sort of thing?

Andrew Louth: He's born, probably almost certainly, in the third quarter of the seventh century. So between 650, 675, we're not at all sure. And he lived the first part of his life in Damascus, which is why he's called John of Damascus. His family had been a family that had been in charge of the fiscal administration in Damascus under all the regimes of the seventh century. Byzantium, the Persians, then Byzantium again, then the Arabs. They managed to sort of stay there. And it's quite likely that John of Damascus went into the fiscal administration under his father towards the end of the seventh century. And then in the beginning of the eighth century, it looks as if the caliph decided that the administration was going to become much more Islamic. And it looks as if it was then that John of Damascus left Damascus and went into Jerusalem, where he became a monk, where he lived the rest of his life. Most of his writings, I think, come from this period when he was a monk probably in Jerusalem. The tradition is that he was at the monastery of Marsava, but it's a late tradition and I don't think anybody believes it any longer.

Peter Adamson: And as a monk, he would have been exposed obviously to a great deal of patristic literature, but also he knows something about pagan literature, philosophical literature. He refers to them.

Andrew Louth: Yes. He refers to pagan literature in very general terms, those outside it is. He hardly mentions them. He mentioned Aristotle once, I think. But his knowledge of classical literature or pagan literature would have been from his education. He's clearly very well educated because he can write very well. He writes much, much more clearly, say, than Maximus. And actually, there's an article by Mango which points out that the great writers of the end of the seventh, beginning of the eighth century, all come from Damascus, which had been for centuries a great center of Hellenistic culture and still continued, I think, as a place where a really good education was available, probably better than in Constantinople.

Peter Adamson: Oh, really? And so we could also put this in the context of more general Syrian culture, which also produced theological literature and philosophical literature in Syriac.

Andrew Louth: Whether John knew Syriac is not at all clear. He certainly knew Arabic, but he certainly came from a Greek speaking family in Damascus. And they may not necessarily have known Syriac.

Peter Adamson: And would you say that he, as it were, holds the pagan thinkers at arm's length, or is he deliberately trying to integrate them into Christian theology?

Andrew Louth: I don't think he's deliberately doing anything. I think he's so much part of a tradition that when we talk about the influence of pagan philosophy on him, the influence, say, of Aristotle, of Porphyry, whoever, I think almost invariably it's coming through somebody else. I don't think there's much evidence - possibly, possibly, parts of the Dialectic. He put this together from Porphyry or sixth century Aristotelian sources. But I'm not sure. I think he's dealing with a world where all this has already been assimilated into Christian education.

Peter Adamson: And that means that he doesn't seem to have much hesitation in using concepts and terminology that we might associate with pagan philosophy in the context of, say, talking about Christology or the Trinity. So a lot of this material is in John, but also before John, is shot through with what someone like me would consider to be technical terminology from Aristotelianism, like, say, ousia, which means substance, or hypostasis, which means something like existence.

Andrew Louth: Yeah. And that, I think, in a sense, that has all become part of the Christian tradition really in the sixth century and some extent in the seventh century. But I think Maximus is also largely drawing on a tradition that he doesn't regard as being particularly pagan. It's the way Christians have been thinking for at least 100 years.

Peter Adamson: And can you give us maybe an example of how this works in practice? So how would he use philosophical or what someone might consider to be philosophical terminology in a theological context?

Andrew Louth: There's a great deal of interest in defining individuality. The context of all of this is the theology of the Trinity and the theology of Christology, because by the sixth century, the standard language is that God consists of three hypostasis and one ousia, and Christ consists of two physis and one hypostasis or prosopon.

Peter Adamson: And so what do these words mean? So we have ousia, prosopon, and physis.

Andrew Louth: Ousia means being, often translated as substance. But I think it's more helpful to use "being" because it's vaguer, and I don't think it is particularly clearly defined. Hypostatis is a term which I don't think has got any real background in pagan thought in the way that Christians use it. It's more or less the equivalent of ousia, but it's a different word. And I think the term - that Basil, particularly, and other Cappadocians, his brother basically, not Gregory of Nazianzus... In the fourth century, you wanted to be able to talk about the way in which God is in two different ways. The way he is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the way he is as God. And Basil more or less suggests, we'll use ousia for the oneness of God, and we will use hypostasis for the threeness of God. So there are three persons or hypostasis, one divine being. And then that language is used in Chalcedon in relation to Christology. There are two kinds of being in Christ, or two physis, two natures. There's a divine one and a human one, but they are united in a single hypostasis. And the next century, the sixth century, putting it rather simply but not oversimplifying it, but the sixth century spends a great deal of time trying to work out what this really means. I mean, the terminology, the councils introduced terminology, but they didn't define it. And the definition of what you mean by ousia, what you mean by physis, so what you mean by being, what you mean by nature, what you mean by hypostasis or person. This really belongs to the sixth century. And in the context of real division in the church as to whether this language is satisfactory or not.

Peter Adamson: And would you say that John is an innovative figure in this tradition? And he's not trying to be innovative, of course.

Andrew Louth: No, he's not trying to be, and he isn't, I don't think. He's a great clarifier. I think that if you read his sermon, dialectica, you would come away with a very clear sense of what kind of thing he means by hypothesis, oesia, physis and so on. But he's not - it's not new. It's all taken from other people and that's what he reckoned. And he doesn't want it to be new. Where he does have ideas that are perhaps well, they're new in a way, is one of the other topics that came up in the seventh century was the heresies of what are called monothelitism, monenergism, which is a kind of compromise between those who accepted Chalcedon and those who rejected Chalcedon, the so-called Monophysites. And the compromise: we agree with Chalcedon, there's one person, there are two natures, but there's only one activity or one will.

Peter Adamson: Right, so monothelitism means one will. And monenergism means one energy. One activity.

Andrew Louth: And Maximus spends a great deal of time trying to sort this out. And I think Maximus' thought is largely tentative. He's created a problem for himself by insisting on two wills because he wants a Christ with two wills which doesn't destroy his unity. But also with the two wills that are actually genuine. He's not happy with the idea that the human will is simply quiescent, which I think what most of the monotheists thought. I don't think they thought he didn't have a human will, but the human will was simply quiescent.

Peter Adamson: It just doesn't do anything.

Andrew Louth: It doesn't do anything.

Peter Adamson: It just follows the divine will. Whereas Maximus wants to say Christ has two wills, divine and human, and they just agree about everything.

Andrew Louth: And they do agree, but they come into agreement. The will actually, the human will, in the Agony in the Garden, where Christ says, "not my will, but your will be done." There is an engagement between Christ's human will and Christ's divine will because the Father's will is his divine will.

Peter Adamson: And what's John's position on this particular issue?

Andrew Louth: John goes a step further. He says that there are two different wills, two distinct wills, divine and human, but that the product of the will, what you will, the theliton, what you will is one in the case of Christ. And that sort of clarification - it's no more than that, I think - is found in John in a way that you don't find in Maximus.

Peter Adamson: I see. So Christ wills to walk on water, and that is an example of the divine will and the human will agreeing to walk on water. But the walking on water is one thing.

Andrew Louth: Yes, exactly. In fact, that's one of the standard examples. And it really goes back to Severus of Antioch, the great opponent of Chalcedon in the fifth, sixth century, who objected to this idea that Christ does human things and he does divine things. And Severus' is the example. What about the walking on the water? It can't be divine because it's walking. It can't be human because it's walking on the water. So what is it? It must be a divine human activity. Now that's picked up by the Orthodox eventually, and they interpret it as showing how the divine and the human are genuinely authentic because it is walking and it is on water, but it's a single activity. And I think with John of Damascus, that is, it's only a tiny clarification, but there's notion that there are two Thelemata, two wills in Christ, but only one Theleton and one object.

Peter Adamson: Something I personally find really exciting and fascinating about John of Damascus is something you've already mentioned, which is that he lives in Damascus and then he's in Jerusalem. And these are places in the Islamic Empire during his life. And so in a way he's not, I mean, in some sense - he's not a Byzantine thinker, right? Because he doesn't live in the Byzantine Empire. In another sense, he obviously is. He's a Christian theologian who writes in Greek. What was his attitude towards Islam? And in fact, how much did he really understand and know about Islam? Was he interested in it? Was he curious? Or does he just kind of fob them off with superficial criticisms?

Andrew Louth: I think there's a lot of disagreement over this and the disagreement is connected with, partly, questions of what we can really ascribe to John. I am pretty certain that the tenth, sorry, the hundredth heresy, on heresies, which deals with Islam, I'm pretty sure that is by John of Damascus, but there's another work called the 'Dialogue Between a Saracen and a Christian' and this is said to be "Apophones to Ioannas Damascene." Which means 'from the voice of [John of Damascus]'. And actually "Apophones" is quite regularly used in this period to mean 'from the teaching of,' though not necessarily printed by the teacher.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, you see it a lot with late antique commentaries on Aristotle. It will say from the mouth of or from the voice of Ammonius to mean that it's his commentary, but it was written down by his students.

Andrew Louth: Yeah, and I suspect that's quite like... the other question is what was Islam like in the end of the seventh beginning of the eighth century? Was there a thing called Quran? Is it the body of doctrine that exists now? Was it fully fashioned by then? I mean according to the tradition of Islam, the whole of the revelation that's contained in the Quran was delivered to Muhammad and by the time Muhammad died it was finished and it's all there, complete. But my impression is that - quite a lot of more recent scholarship on Islam suggests that there was a time when the various Surah of the Quran existed independently and were brought together over a period of time, not all the beginning of seventh century.

Peter Adamson: But either way, John definitely knows this text or body of text because he cites specific passages.

Andrew Louth: But the interesting thing about John is that John knows a little bit of it and it could be... But he knows three surah and he knows another surah which we don't know about, though the contents of it you can find in other parts of the Quran. It's called the Surah of the Camel. And I think that would fit with the idea that Islam took time to consolidate and so John Damascus knows Islam in an inchoate state. I mean that's one possible... and it seems to be very plausible. If that's the case then what... well he's quite clear that Islam is wrong. He regards it as the last and most dire heresy and after that there's only Antichrist to come. I mean I think one should take very, very seriously, the very apocalyptic opening of On Heresies 100. I don't think it's just literary.

Peter Adamson: He says they're "harbingers of the antichrist," Literally.

Andrew Louth: That's what he say and that's what he means. But on the other hand, I think he's very clear about what Muslims would say about Christians and how Christians can respond to Muslims. The first and the main criticism that he wants to respond to is that Christians are associators: That they associate someone with God who isn't God, and that is genuinely Islamic, isn't it?

Peter Adamson: Yeah, I mean that's one of the standard accusations that they even make against each other in theological disputes, the "Shirk," which is polytheism basically.

Andrew Louth: And he's quite clear that's what they... he responds robustly by saying 'no, we are not associators but you are mutilators because you mutilate the Godhead.' And his way into this is by saying that God has a word and a spirit and I think the Quran says this too. And his question is what about this word and spirit? Are they created or are they uncreated? And certainly in the dialogue with the Saracen and the Christian, the Christian says to the Saracen, 'you have to be very careful because if you say that the word and the spirit are created, you will be in deep trouble with your own Muslims.' And I think all this fits into the early sort of Muttas-e-Zelim discussions.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, there's this big debate that happens after John's period in the 9th century really about whether the Quran is created and since the Quran is the word of God, that effectively is a question about whether God's word is eternal with God, which is the side of the debate that eventually wins out, or whether the word is created. And there actually has been some discussion in secondary literature about the extent to which that debate has a debate about the Trinity as a kind of preparatory stage or an influence.

Andrew Louth: I mean, in that respect, John knows what he's talking about and it looks as if he knows enough about Islam to know where it differs from Christianity and where they criticize Christians. For the rest of it, a lot of the things he says about Islam and about Muhammad are, how can I put it, they're...

Peter Adamson: Impolite?

Andrew Louth: Very impolite. I mean, he attacks and he attacks very vigorously. But of course, this was standard form for rhetoric in classical times and in late antique times. If you criticize, you don't just sort of say they're wrong, but you say that they are liars, they are fools, and so on. I mean, that's standard form. And I think one shouldn't be surprised that John takes this line and get very upset about it as if he has nothing to say other than to vilify them. That's not true. He knows very clearly what the issues are. The other interesting thing about this is - the diagram I give in my book - that if you look at the presentation of the Trinity in his On the Love of God's Faith, he goes back to Gregory of Nyssa to his catechist exploration and uses that as the template. Now, in Gregory of Nyssa, the template is there is God, the Father, who has a word and has a spirit and develops the Orthodox Trinity out of this. And I think that it cannot... I think it must be the case that he chooses to go back three centuries to use a rather primitive form of truly Orthodox Christianity written by a genuine Father, because again, it presents Christians with a way of presenting the Trinity, which is going to be less easy for the Muslims to reject because it uses the sort of terminology they're familiar with.

Peter Adamson: It's less technical and complicated. Actually, that brings us to another question that I wanted to ask you, which is precisely this concept of Orthodoxy. I mean, obviously, the Muslims are not Orthodox Christians, but there's also a lot of debate going on within Christianity. We've already talked about Christology. We've talked about the Trinity. There's also iconoclasm. And something we've discussed already on the podcast is that he vigorously attacks iconoclasm and defends the icons. So when he does these things, he obviously, historically, he was helping to form what becomes Orthodox belief in the Byzantine Eastern Church. What would he have thought of himself as doing? And is he saying, 'here is exactly the list of beliefs that you should adopt,' or maybe even 'here are exactly the forms of words you should utter and you shouldn't say anything else.' So is it like a catechism, in other words, or is it more like he's trying to police the boundaries of acceptable belief while leaving a lot of room inside those boundaries for freedom of thought and debate?

Andrew Louth: It's a bit between those. With the trial of Islam in the Middle East and the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, it meant that all Christians were on a level playing field. There was no favored imperial party, as had been the case since Constantine. And that meant that Christians had to be both very clear about what it was that they thought and be clear why the others were wrong, which they needed to argue. And that's why I think, for instance, one of John's works is called Dialectic. It's a textbook of logic, helping you to define the terms you use and also, I think, helping you to argue properly and convincingly. And it seems to me that there's a lot of evidence that in the seventh century, there was a great deal of argument between different groups because Islam had taken away a dominant group that could just simply rely on persecution - as well, they argued as well. Behind the argument, there's an iron fist - with Justinian - but in the seventh century, no longer. And I think this means that people have then to be very defined and be clear about what it is that they believe, and clear about what is wrong with those who believe otherwise. And this would include other Christians like the Monophysites, to use the term that the Orthodox use of them, the Monophysites, those who don't accept Chalcedon, the Nestorians, those who don't accept Ephesus. And then - but it would also include, you begin to get arguments again for the first time for a long time against Manichaeans because with the, I mean, the seventh century changes the geography. And so whereas the Byzantine Empire ended with the Tigris and the Euphrates, this Islamic empire stretches to India and includes a whole range of things that are a bit sort of pushed out of the empire, like the Nestorians, like the Manichees and so on. Also, the Jews become more important again, because again, they are a people of the book, they are just as protected as Christians - whereas in the Christian Empire, they were very much not equal to Christians. And so there's a great deal of debate in the seventh century. We only know the Orthodox side of it, but I'm pretty sure that this was just one side, just because of history that we have this. So what's going on, I think, is that John of Damascus, sitting in the shadow of the mosque that had been built on the Temple Mount, knowing perfectly well who's politically in charge, it's clear, and wants to define who the Orthodox are. It's about this time that people start to use Orthodox as a kind of self-defining term.

Peter Adamson: As a word, you mean?

Andrew Louth: Yeah. Yeah. It's always existed. So it's expressing one's identity, because one is Orthodox, I think, belongs to around this time.

Peter Adamson: So actually, so I guess what you're saying is that it's really more about defining a group around a set of beliefs, rather than a kind of thought police project where he's telling you, 'do say this, don't say this.' He's more saying, 'here's what we think, and here's why we think it.' And he's giving you arguments against the other communities in this very multicultural context that he finds himself in.

Andrew Louth: That's right. I think it's right to say that Orthodoxy is a matter of working out what the boundaries are. But I'm not sure how much freedom there is within this.

Peter Adamson: And as far as John's role in the later Orthodox tradition goes, something that you point out in your book, which I actually found somewhat surprising, is that John doesn't seem to have been very influential in the generations after his death.

Andrew Louth: Certainly his works against iconoclasm would have been works that, even to possess, would put you in a very great danger of your life until iconoclasm was well over. Iconoclasm isn't well over until a century after John's death. The fact that he wrote these would mean that any of his other writings would all be dubious things until iconoclasm was well over.

Peter Adamson: One thing that might disturb some readers of John is that his works are not original in a different sense than the one we mentioned earlier. We said he's not trying to be innovative. He's adhering to a theological tradition. But he does more than that. He actually writes works that are just kind of cut and paste texts where he brings together lots of different sources, lists them with or without commentary. And this is actually an interesting feature of Byzantine thought that I'm going to go on to discuss. So I was just wondering what you thought about this. How do you think one should go about reading a text which is cobbled together from other texts?

Andrew Louth: There's a remark by Lionel Wickham, a great patristic scholar, who says that patristic scholarship aspired after the genre of the florilegium, and in John of Damascus found its goal, or something like that. A florilegium is a collection. Now, John of Damascus does prepare proper florilegia. All of the works against the iconoclasts either morph into a florilegium, as was the first, or contain an actual list of quotations at the end in support of the case. And the florilegia on the, John's florilegia on iconoclasm, are enormously influential. They get to the West very quickly, there's a manuscript that can be dated in the 780s, I think it is, which has got a florilegium, which is clearly very, very indebted to John within 20 years of his death. His polemical works, which are the least well known of his works, mostly on Christology, but it is also one against Manichaeism. His polemical works use quotations from the fathers because that was the way you argued. They're not really florilegia. There's a real argument going on and John is in command of this argument. On the Orthodox Faith is intended to be an epitome of Orthodox doctrine and on the whole, he does this by taking some Orthodox source. There is, for the Trinity, he takes Gregor of Nyssa. He uses a lot of... he loves Gregor of Nazianzus, lots of quotations from him. Maximus for Christology and the eill. Nemesius of Emesa, he uses a very great deal for general information about everything. Nemesius of Emesa wrote a book called On Human Nature, which is an elaborate description of human nature, again drawn from other sources - about which he is very clear, he cites them - which was used by later Greeks as a kind of a summary of modern science. What we know about the human being, how it works, how the humans operate and what sort of stuff.

Peter Adamson: So is John just thinking that he needs to put this information together in a useful way to make it available to people? So it's really, it's almost like a pedagogical project.

Andrew Louth: The other thing that I should mention, because it's never, it isn't mentioned, and I think it's probably in some ways the most important thing about John of Damascus: he's also a poet. And he wrote an enormous amount of liturgical poetry. He's attributed, he became so famous as a poet within the Byzantine tradition, that enormous amount of stuff is attributed to him, that really isn't by him. But he's one of the great writers of canons. This is a form of monastic literature. It's a song which accompanies the ode that is sung at Matins. And I mean, any Orthodox Christian, most Orthodox Christians, will know by heart the Easter canon. And this is also composed from patristic sources. But what he does is he will take phrases from - particularly Gregory of Nazianzus and sometimes other people - and put them all together. And you get... you don't know it's a patchwork because it fits together so nicely. But what he's done is take these prose sermons and turn them into songs. So that the Orthodox faith can be sung and therefore remembered. And I think in some ways that is as important as his On The Orthodox Faith. But only within the Byzantine world. This doesn't translate into Latin. Well, it's not entirely true. Some of his verses do get through into Latin, but only a very small number.


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