Chin, Catherine M. and Moulie Vidas, eds. Late Ancient Knowing: Explorations in Intellectual History. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015.
In her afterword, Maud W. Gleason poses a question emblematic for the set of essays collected in Late Ancient Knowing: Explorations in Intellectual History (2015): “do people of another time and place, engaging in their quotidian activities, using their culturally conditioned bodies, thinking in their particular sets of metaphors—do they simply have different worldviews than we do, or do they in some sense inhabit different worlds?” (Chin/Vidas 2015: 286). What precisely is at stake in this distinction—between having a different worldview and inhabiting different worlds—is not immediately apparent. One implies a more or less constant world variously interpreted, thus placing the production of difference squarely in the epistemological realm. In the worldview, it falls to the mind alone to order and catalog the dizzying array of things that make up the cosmos. To begin speaking of different worlds, on the other hand, is to suggest a much more porous connection between mind and world, between epistemology and ontology. It is to entertain the possibility that mind and world are caught up with one another in a kind of continual feedback loop, as if the production of a cosmos is as much dependent on the minds which perceive it as the formation of these particular minds is contingent upon the world they perceive. And if this latter possibility is true—if, that is, the world of Late Antiquity was indeed different than our own—then we ought to be able, at least in some measure, to track the differences between their universe and ours in the various discursive attempts to ‘think’ the world in late ancient texts, like so many traces of lost worlds.
This is, at any rate, the wager at the center of the impressive set of essays Catherine Chin and Moulie Vidas have collected in Late Ancient Knowing: Explorations in Intellectual History (2015). Each of the offerings in this volume is an exercise in “sympathetic imagination,” an experiment in imagining how the world of Late Antiquity differs from the one in which we, as scholars of the period, labor to understand it (Chin/Vidas 2015: 4). The cumulative effect is to render the late ancient world less familiar than even those most intimate with its history and texts might have otherwise supposed. For this reason alone, the book deserves to be read widely. Chapters are thematically organized around a concept, ranging from specific and familiar topoi like “Cleric” (Kristina Sessa), “Angel” (Ellen Muehlberger), and “Demon” (Dayna S. Kalleres) to more encompassing but perhaps less intuitive categories such as “Artifact” (Mira Balberg), “Language” (Jeremy Schott), even “God” (Lewis Ayres).
These individual contributions fall into two distinct parts, though the “division is one of emphasis—not a sharp division of labor” (Chin/Vidas 2016: 4). In Part One, labeled “Finding Order,” the emphasis is on the various ways in which late ancient persons made sense of their own world at the local, epistemological level. For instance, in her chapter on “Medicine,” Heidi Marx-Wolf uses two texts of Galen and Porphyry on embryology as particular late ancient windows through which to notice broader patterns of “medical knowing” in the period. On her account, these seemingly outmoded medical treatises are witnesses of a historical moment when the practice of medicine was, far from an isolable area of knowledge, an intrinsic component of an epistemological framework that feigned a totalizing perspective on the universe. With a topic like medicine—which unlike, say, angelology and demonology still retains an esteemed place in modern taxonomies of knowledge—we are asked to consider the extent to which the world of authors like Galen and Porphyry did indeed differ from our own. Likewise, the other chapters in Part One offer probing readings of representative texts and themes in an effort to reconstruct the epistemic contours of the late ancient mind. In each, the aim is to track how writers in the period came to shape their world through the very act of ordering and classifying its many parts into a coherent and unified whole. In step with critical scholarship attuned to the social histories of Late Antiquity, however, several of the essays in this volume also deftly identify the anomalous remainders late ancient authors often refused to factor back into their comprehensive equations of the world, thus generating outliers at once metaphysical and political. In such cases, we see once again that the practice of knowing, in Late Antiquity and beyond, is “not only an intellectual response to what exists in the world” but also “an opportunity to act in and modify the world,” in ways both peaceful and oppressive (Chin/Vidas 2015: 6). Cosmic order, despite its givenness, often requires practical implementation.
Thus, if Part One focuses on attempts to map the epistemological terrain of the late ancient world through heuristic concepts—to circumscribe the limits of what could be known and catalog the various means by which an individual could recognize these boundaries—the essays in Part Two, “Putting Things in Order,” shift the emphasis to the concrete habits of such world making projects. Here the spotlight is on material performance, not to say enforcement, of the metaphysical order divined in more rarefied, discursive representations of cosmic harmony. But rather than take a top-down approach to this process of translation from textual to tactile reality at the macro-level, examples of which are plentiful in scholarship, the essays in the second part of this book try to imagine how “knowing” individuals in Late Antiquity experienced the tangible realities of their part in the larger whole. We are asked to consider, as Chin and Vidas put it, why “invisible realities and archnarratives empowered informed agency” (Chin/Vidas 2015: 8). In his chapter on the (concept of) “Emperor,” for instance, Matthew Canepa considers how the reproduction of the emperor’s image on coins, wall paintings, in statuary, and other media mediated knowledge of the sovereign to his subjects. Similarly, in her “Cleric” chapter, Kristina Sessa asks how individuals “recognized” a representative of the clerical class by considering the concrete, often bodily signifiers of priestly office deployed by such men in the late ancient context. These terrestrial matters of everyday commerce with the world and its inhabitants mark points of contact, and just as often points of divergence, between the cosmos as it was known in complex treatises of political philosophy and ecclesiology and the lived universe of a more practical habit of knowing.
It is the productive tension at this juncture between the ideal and the sensible—the habits of knowing they each entail, and even the blurring of stable boundaries between them—that makes the essays in Late Ancient Knowing: Explorations in Intellectual History (2015) unique and worthy contributions to the field. Rather than privileging either a top-down or bottom-up approach to cognition in Late Antiquity, this volume situates its inquiry in that often neglected space where the cosmic and quotidian meet. Throughout their introduction, Chin and Vidas characterize this synthetic form of knowing as one of “negotiating,” of “recognizing and following,” of “navigation,” of constructing “strategies for living,” even as “a certain art” (Chin/Vidas 2015: 1, 3, 11, 12). These habits of perception are modest, necessarily contextual, and resistant to homogenous representation. Likewise, the individual chapters in this volume mirror the same “inquiry after a singular, universal rationality that is nonetheless experienced from multiple, incomplete perspectives” that late ancient knowing itself attempts (Chin/Vidas 2015: 11). The aim here is neither a comprehensive nor exhaustive perspective on the epistemological habits of Late Antiquity. What these essays offer instead are provocative and stimulating inroads into the task of recognizing just how different the late ancient world may have actually been.
Taylor Ross is a PhD Student in Early Christianity at Duke University.