While historians once dismissed the period of ca. 250-800 CE as a time of decline, scholars in recent decades have re-imagined this period as a dynamic and diverse “late antiquity.” The very term “late antiquity” offers both specificity, naming a zone of transition between one era and another, and elasticity, capturing an era’s genuine plurality. The equally vibrant scholarly study of late antiquity in all its intellectual, philosophical, and religious diversity, explores how individuals and communities forged complex identities often beyond the confines of one ideological persuasion or religious institution. Under the leadership of its founder, Dr. Elizabeth A. Clark, the Center for Late Ancient Studies (CLAS) at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has fostered conversation and intellectual exchange among scholars across disciplines to advance the study of late antiquity through monthly lectures, reading groups, and a yearly symposium since its founding in 1986. In honor of Dr. Clark’s career and leadership in the field, Duke University has renamed CLAS as the Elizabeth A. Clark Center for Late Ancient Studies. To celebrate this exciting development, AJR is featuring a report on the Center’s Spring 2018 Symposium, “De Malo: Evil and Theodicy in Late Antiquity.”
Two years ago, the CLAS Spring symposium invited Ellen Muehlberger and Heidi Marx-Wolf to consider late ancient reflections on death and the afterlife, part of an extended engagement with questions of historiography, scribal activity, and material culture between multiple traditions. Continuing this approach, the 2018 Spring Symposium discussed borrowings among early Christians, late Platonists, and Gnostics. As scholars have become increasingly aware, these neat categorial divisions too easily gloss over the material realities of late ancient social and intellectual exchange. Elite thinkers in the period frequently interacted with partisans of ‘competing’ schools and, in many cases, allowed such dialogue to shape their own thought and practice. This year’s conference took up discourse about evil in late antiquity as a test case. Might the ever-pressing issue of theodicy provide a topic on which authors of various late ancient pieties could both demonstrate their commonalities and distinguish their competing claims? We envisioned the symposium as an opportunity to trace genealogical lines of intellectual cross-pollination, to better understand particular religious/philosophical groups as well as the nature of intellectual exchange.
Dr. Charles M. Stang, Professor of Early Christian Thought at Harvard Divinity School, delivered the symposium’s first keynote presentation. His paper “The Other Divine Double: The Problem of Evil in Neoplatonism and Early Christian Thought” built on his last monograph Our Divine Double (Harvard, 2016). Whereas the book focused on the persistent notion of a doubled self in various philosophical and religious traditions, his paper observed that divinity itself appears doubled in several late ancient texts, Christian and Neoplatonic. Plotinus, Proclus, and Pseudo-Dionysius all seem to speak of their first principle—the One or God—in ways that strikingly resemble how they talk of evil. They each insist on placing the transcendent source of existence outside the world of existents to which it gives rise. But evil is neither, leaving us, Dr. Stang noted, with two kinds of non-existence: that which subsists “beyond” being and that which falls “below” being altogether. And there are at least two ways of taking this uncanny divine doubling. Either, says Dr. Stang, he’s unearthed a subterranean dualism in the late ancient heirs of Plato or, both unsettling and suggestive, perhaps evil represents a divine name. With that startling possibility in view, Stang posed a parting question: might theodicy in this tradition demand an approach just as apophatic as negative theology?
Erin Galgay Walsh, Duke doctoral candidate and Junior Fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, responded to Dr. Stang, interrogating the genre of theodicy from the perspective of her own work with Syriac literature. Were there ways of wrestling with evil that offer more concrete attention to the particularities of suffering than the speculative flights of technical philosophy? By considering Syriac poetry and homilies from Ephrem and Narsai to highlight the diversity of late ancient discourses on evil, Walsh drew comparative attention to the specific pedagogical and rhetorical strategies deployed by writers such as Plotinus, Proclus, and Dionysius when developing their ideas about evil.
In our second talk, Dr. Zlatko Pleše, Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, asked whether groups commonly labelled “Gnostic” understood evil to originate in the divine. How might a deeper understanding of their philosophical hypotexts (à la Genette) clarify the way intellectual opponents criticized Gnostic mythologies? In his paper, “Is God Blameless (anaitios)? The Archaeology of Evil in Gnosticism,” Dr. Pleše used Plotinus’s charge in Enn. 2.9—that the Gnostics attribute human passions to the high God—as a frame to highlight passages from the Nag Hammadi Codices that use vocabulary of Stoic-infused middle-Platonic concept formation. Cicero, for example, describes how Antiochus of Ascalon (among others) thought humans moved from the impressions of sense data to a moment of (right or wrong) assent. The process of assent forms concepts with varying degrees of accuracy, and from this movements of the soul—the passions—arise. Dr. Pleše argued that the mythological names and actions in texts like the Apocryphon of John or the Gospel of Truth reflect this same process with surprising consistency. Sophia attempts to grasp the truth of the highest God, but cannot contain it. By forming a deficient concept of divinity to which she then assents, Sophia begets a monstrosity from which an already-compromised material world eventually issues. Through this comparative work, Dr. Pleše suggested the intertextual character of the period during which Gnostic groups developed their extensive mythologies. He also demonstrated that criticisms from other elite writers of the period of beliefs attributed to “Gnostic” writers might not arise out of total ignorance. On the contrary, it would seem Plotinus and Irenaeus understood central aspects of certain “Gnostic” discourse, despite their common exaggeration and misrepresentation.
Luke Drake, a doctoral candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill, considered Dr. Pleše’s talk in light of discussions ofthe scholarly category of “Gnosticism,” connecting Dr. Pleše’s paper with recent attempts to recover philosophical and/or theological unity within a differentiated corpus of literature often grouped to as “Gnostic.” Drake pointed out how Dr. Pleše’s talk brings together texts as diverse as the Secret Book of John, the Tripartite Tractate, and the writings of Valentinus, Irenaeus, and Plotinus, all of which describe (whether positively or negatively) narratives which explain evil in the world as the distant by-products of failed divine self-conceptualization. Drake concluded by suggesting that one might fruitfully connect so-called “Gnostic” appropriations of ancient psychological theory with ancient literary-theoretical discussions on the nature and effects of tragedy.
The two talks navigated deep metaphysical waters but with the constant aim of sailing towards a clearer understanding of how discourses about evil complicates the boundaries of identity in Late Antiquity. Our speakers gave us a firmer grasp of several intricate late ancient approaches to theodicy as well as a window into the complex process of intellectual exchange among these groups. Dr. Stang and Dr. Pleše’s papers shed light on darkened corners of late antiquity even as they rendered the period more complex than our scholarly categories often suggest.
Nathan Tilley and Taylor Ross are both Ph.D. students in Early Christianity at Duke University. You can follow the Elizabeth A. Clark Center for Late Ancient Studies at Duke and UNC on Facebook and Twitter.
 See, for instance, previous CLAS Spring Symposium speaker Heidi Marx-Wolf’s Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century C.E. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). Cf. Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, A Threat to Public Piety: Christians, Platonists, and the Great Persecution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).
To prepare for the symposium, we devoted a special session of the Late Ancient Studies Reading Group (LASRG) to a discussion primary texts our speakers recommended in advance of their papers. Prof. Stang enjoined us to consider the following: Plotinus, Ennead I.8 (“On What Are Evils”); John M. Rist, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil,” Phronesis 6.2 (1961): 154-166; Jan Opsomer and Carlos Steel, “Introduction,” in Proclus: On the Existence of Evils (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. Prof. Pleše selected: The Gospel of Truth, trans. Bentley Layton, in The Gnostic Scriptures (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 250-264; Zlatko Pleše, “Evil and its Sources in Gnostic Traditions,” in Die Wurzel allen Übels: Vorstellungen über die Herkunft des Bösen und Schlechten in der Philosophie und Religion des 1.–4. Jahrhunderts, eds. Fabienne Jourdan and Rainer Hirsch-Luipold (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 101-132.
For more on Gennette’s notion of hypotext, see Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, trans. Channa Newman & Claude Doubinsky (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997 [French original, 1982]).
Cicero, Lucullus 30.
 For instance, see Dylan Burns, "Providence, Creation, and Gnosticism According to the Gnostics,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 24 (2016): 55-79.