In my previous post I cited a “Distinguished Scholar”‘s textbook summary of Middle Platonic ideas that formed part of the background to early Christianity. I continue this post with a discussion of the philosopher who introduced ‘demonology’ into Platonic philosophical views during the century preceding that of Paul and the earliest Christians.
In an earlier post I quoted translated passages from two Middle Platonist authors given prominence by Everett Ferguson, Philo and Plutarch, that depicted their particular views of cosmology and the place of demons in the universe. That post upset some readers who appeared to take exception to the posting of evidence from primary sources that lent support to the discussion of Earl Doherty in his publications arguing that the Jesus originated as a mythical construct. A significant part of Doherty’s discussion focuses on the way certain Middle Platonic views informed the intellectual background to the New Testament epistles.
Dillon begins his survey of the Middle Platonist philosophers with Antiochus of Ascalon, and what he informs readers about Antiochus is worth noting alongside the citations in my earlier post.
Antiochus was born in Palestine approximately 130 B.C.. Dillon writes:
This part of the world had been contributing intellectuals to the Hellenistic literary scene for some time, though not from Ascalon in particular. The great Stoic philosopher, Posidonius, Antiochus’ contemporary, came from Apamea in northern Syria, and Gadara, nearer by, had produced Meleager, the writer of epigrams and collector of the Garland, Menippus the satirist, and Antiochus’ younger contemporary, the Epicurean philosopher and epigrammatist Philodemus. The only literary known from Ascalon before Antiochus’ time is a Stoic philosopher named Sosus, who may have exercised some influence on Antiochus’ choice of career. (p. 52)
Dillon discusses the views of Antiochus at length even though he admits he was “not really a first-rate philosopher”, nor can he be said to have been “the immediate founder of Middle Platonism.”
Nevertheless, Antiochus is a significant figure, inasmuch as he turned the Platonic Academy away — for ever, as it turned out — from the Scepticism that had taken its inspiration from Socrates, and which had produced so much excellent philosophizing (by modern standards) under Arcesilaus and Carneades in the New Academy. (p. 105)
Of the significance of his view of demons in particular, Dillon comments:
Antiochus may be credited with great probability with reintroducing the doctrine of demons into Platonism. (p. 91)
Dillon doubts that the New Academy took much notice of Antiochus’ views on demons, but they did over time assume a much more important place among Middle Platonic thinkers, such as Philo and Plutarch whom I quoted in my earlier post.
The source for Antiochus’ teachings about demons is his pupil, Varro, who is quoted by Augustine in The City of God, book 7 ch. 6. Varro, Dillon informs us, while being the most learned Roman of his day, did not claim to be an original philosopher, but rather a faithful pupil of Antiochus. (p. 90)
The link is direct to the online section in question, but I quote from the translation in Dillon’s book what Varro tells us about the beliefs of his teacher, Antiochus:
God is the soul of the universe, and this universe is God. But just as a wise man, though consisting of body and mind, is called wise because of his mind, so the universe is called God because of its mind, though it likewise consists of mind and body. (p. 90)
Varro continues (I reformat the paragraph for easier reading):
The universe is divided into two parts, heaven and earth; the heaven is twofold, divided into aether and air, and the earth in turn is divided into water and land.
Of these the highest is the aether, the second air, and third water, and fourth earth. All these four parts are full of souls, immortal souls in the aether and the air, mortal souls in the water and on the land.
From the highest circle of heaven to the circle of the Moon are aethereal souls, the stars and the planets, and these are not only known by our intelligence to exist, but are also visible to out eyes as heavenly gods.
Then between the circle of the Moon and the highest region of the clouds are aerial souls, perceived as such by the mind, not by the eyes. They are called heroes and lares and genii.
Dillon comments that “the terms lares and genii are plainly attempts to find native Roman equivalents for the Greek term daimones.”
Of this passage — which describes what can surely be called a “sublunar realm” to delineate the place where Middle Platonists placed the habitation of demons, a term Doherty uses and that sends some critics into apoplectic attacks — Dillon writes:
This passage as a whole is of great importance, as presenting Antiochus’ version of the basic Middle Platonic doctrine on daemons, such as found later in Philo, Plutarch and Apuleius, for instance. The argument that each of the elements must have its proper inhabitants, and that the true inhabitants of the air are not birds, as might be thought, but rather invisible pure souls or daemons, is later the standard argument. (p. 91)
Varro makes a distinction between heroes and demons, but we do not know the details. Posidonius in his On Heroes and Daemons also discusses this, but here, too, the details are lost to us.
We can only assume that there was a distinction made between good and evil daemons (as was already made in the Old Academy by Xenocrates).
I have posted the teachings of Philo and Plutarch on demons, and now here those of Antiochus of Ascalon. I hope to add those of Apuleius, also named above and in my previous post as another significant Middle Platonist, in another post.
(It should surely go without saying that I am not suggesting that Middle Platonism was the only thought-world feeding early Christianity. As I have indicated in other recent posts or comments, I am also in the process of preparing another from the Enoch tradition within Judaism.)
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