Charles M. Stang. Our Divine Double. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 309. ISBN 9780674287198. $49.95.
In Our Divine Double, Charles Stang offers an alternate history of deification in late antiquity. Rather than focus on deification as participation in the death and resurrection of Christ often associated with the Trinitarian controversies, Stang suggests looking for a doctrine of deification left behind – salvation as the recognition of the self precisely as other. To recover this earlier understanding, Stang traces the “figure” of the divine double in its various manifestations in a set of 2nd and 3rd c. CE texts from early Christianity, Manichaeism, and late Platonism.
Stang’s first chapter briefly departs from late antiquity to examine the origins of the divine double in the Platonic dialogues. In the dialogue Phaedrus, the “horizontal” encounter with the beauty of another person inspires a memory of beauty that initiates the “vertical” ascent of the soul. A lover sees the beloved as he or she should be, and that aspirational, “double” image generates desire which motivates an ascent to see beauty itself (21). Stang terms this dynamic “mutual deification” (46). Further, like the Socratic daimōn in Alcibiades I, the better part of us – the divine part – can also offer a mirror vision of ourselves as we ought to be and spurs us on towards becoming that self. Stang’s first section of the chapter brings together recent scholarship on Plato’s anthropology from the past couple of decades, but he contributes to the conversation by relating this anthropology to Plato’s most-challenging metaphysical dialogue, the Parmenides. The Parmenides sets out a number of puzzles regarding the “one and the many,” which Stang reads as allegory for the tragic dynamics of lost unity with our divine selves. Humans reside in the temporally-extended realm of the many (or the “infinite dyad”) and yet attempt unsuccessfully to relate to the one. The attempts to formulate adequate understandings of unified being, Stang says, reveal the structural constraints on human return to the intelligible realm.
In the second chapter, Stang returns to late antiquity to consider the “theology of twinning” in the Gospel of Thomas. Using the first four sayings as interpretive keys, Stang explains the text’s understanding of what it is to be solitary (monarchos) and a “single one” (oua ouōt) as a “coded theology of the twin” (64). He argues that the problem of single and double reveals a dual selfhood, a “tense unity-in-duality, humming with possibility” (93). Further, the gospel’s enigmatic form also shows how reading itself facilitates the recognition and embrace of duality in the self (96). The chapter also includes Stang’s argument against “encratic” readings of the gospel which connect it to certain renunciatory practices, as well as a discussion of Origen’s possible relation to the Gospel of Thomas.
The third chapter takes up a set of Christian texts originating from Rome in the 2nd c. CE – one from Tatian the Assyrian and a few associated with Valentinus – and Thomas traditions which depict the divine double in terms of syzygies or “pairs.” For Tatian, as well as for the Valentinian texts, vertical unity with a spiritual counterpart (whether the logos or one’s angelic counterpart) accomplishes salvation. In the Valentinian witnesses, the sacraments allow participants to reunify their original, androgynous wholes and bring salvation not only to themselves, but also to their angelic counterparts (117-118). Similarly, the soteriology of the bridal chamber in certain Thomas traditions manifests a family resemblance to the Valentinian salvation pairs. The Acts of Thomas present both vertical dimorphy accomplished by the nuptial unity of Thomas (and others) with Jesus, the divine double, and even horizontal polymorphy in the manifold appearances of Jesus-Thomas (133). Lastly, Stang reads the “Hymn of the Pearl” connected with the Acts as an allegory for humanity’s divine homecoming. As part of Stang’s interest in texts as sites of self-knowledge, he understands the letter to the prince in the “Hymn” as a meta-level account of how a text such as the Acts facilitates self-understanding and a memory of one’s true spiritual home.
The fourth chapter turns to Manichean material which figures Mani’s selfhood as doubled with a divine counterpart. Stang examines two Arabic sources that preserve Manichean depictions of Mani’s messenger as a “twin” and “companion” (157). From Mani’s encounter with his twin and his self-description as “Paraclete,” these texts suggest that he understood his self as doubled. In “On the Origin of His Body” from the Cologne Mani Codex, Stang points out Mani’s “inverted Narcissus episode” in which Mani’s vision of himself in water is both an autoscopy and a projection that sees his divine self that he ought to become (172). Although Stang notes fascinating textual support for Mani’s divine double, he adds that doubleness obtains only for Mani himself and does not constitute a generalized, Manichean anthropology (179).
Stang’s fifth and most demanding chapter presents Plotinus’s philosophy as a metaphysics and soteriology of doubleness. His analysis locates the dynamic of the double as centrally the original descent of Intellect from the One, which he provocatively suggests reveals a unity-in-multiplicity within the One itself. At the next level down, Stang shows how Intellect projects the One’s dense simplicity into a sphere of multiplicity “teeming with living faces” (192). This intelligible world is filled with perceiving intellects which are also intellectual forms locked face-to-face with one another in contemplation (190-195). Plotinus further understands each human intellect as doubled into a descended intellect and a higher, undescended intellect that remains connected to the sphere of forms. For Plotinus, salvation involves the reunification of this distended selfhood by the struggle of lower intellect to return to its higher principle in Intellect. There is, however, no rescue by the higher companion as in Manichaeism or Thomas traditions, although the inactive, higher principle remains the ontological foundation for the return. (202). Lastly, Stang offers a reading of Plotinus’s version of the Narcissus myth as an instance of failed self-perception (Enneads 1.6). Because Plotinus’s anthropology of the double serves a central function in Plotinus’s metaphysics, Stang’s chapter would also serve as an excellent introduction to Plotinus’s thought in general (186).
The last chapter of the book briefly traces the afterlife of the divine double in late antiquity. Stang argues that deification along the lines of the divine double disappears with the codification of Nicene orthodoxy throughout the fourth century. He points out, however, that beyond the persistence of the motif in Manichaeism, the “structure” of the double reappears in the way late antique sources depict evil and also the two natures in Christ. The depiction of evil as God’s own divine double seems to be Stang’s next major project.
Stang’s argument successfully and elegantly traces the motif of the divine double throughout these 2nd and 3rd century texts. He offers mostly close readings of these texts in ways that echo ancient Aristarchean criticism and “New Criticism,” and, as one can see in the introduction and the philosophical conclusion, he sees these texts in light of perennial questions of selfhood (77-78). The book, however, goes well beyond close reading, as Stang takes up numerous historical, cultural, and literary questions along the way, lightly wielding his masterful command of a formidable range of literature from Plato to contemporary continental philosophy. Specialists in late antiquity will benefit from his judicious reading of the texts from the period, but many will also enjoy his handsome interweaving of writers such as Emerson and Stanley Cavell. Further work remains to trace the figure of the double through the salvific relationships among monks in ascetic communities and also to relate the book’s argument to further writers from the period such as Clement of Alexandria or Irenaeus of Lyons. Nevertheless, Stang has put us on the trail of the divine double, and his work will surely inspire further study of ancient selfhood and the texts that offer salvation of the self.
Nathan Tilley is a Ph.D. student in Early Christianity at Duke University.