- The Philosophical Life: Biography and Crafting of Intellectual Identity in Late Antiquity by Arthur P. Urbano
In this monograph Arthur P. Urbano delivers a fascinating study of the “philosophical field” in the third through fifth centuries c.e. (1). He focuses on two competing philosophical movements of late antiquity, Christianity and “Neoplatonism,” as individuals from both groups struggled against each other to claim true “philosophy.” Urbano analyzes this debate through the genre of ancient biography, which appears mostly as individual lives in the form of the bios, but also in philosophical history, hagiography, and funeral orations. Through the lens of Bourdieu’s work on cultural competition, Urbano examines how the proliferation of biographical literature created an “arena” of competition for philosophical and pedagogical authority (paideia) in late antiquity (16). The idealized portrayals of “philosophers” presented the ancient reader not only with ethical paradigms, but also philosophical lineages, schools, and sources of authority.
In Chapter One Urbano describes the state of the philosophical field in late antiquity as Christian intellectuals began to present a “legitimate and viable competitor” to the established philosophical schools of thought (42). Urbano asserts that the educated, Greek-speaking Christians of the third century were not outsiders in the philosophical world of late antiquity. On the contrary, intellectuals like Justin Martyr, Clement, and Origen were “studying in the same classrooms” with their Greek counterparts, “often with the same teachers, and engaging each other in philosophical discussion” (48). At the end of the chapter, Urbano emphasizes that the “stakes were high” for pedagogical authority at the turn of the fourth century (76).
In Chapters Two through Seven, Urbano generally presents a similar pattern of examining two competing biographies together, one Greek and one Christian. Chapter Two focuses on “two mythic figures,” Pythagoras and Moses, and how [End Page 320] the composition of their lives was a demonstration of philosophical history as well as a debate over philosophical origins (81). In Chapter Three, Urbano turns to the biographies of Plotinus and Origen. While Porphyry’s Plotinus exemplified a certain philosophical orthodoxy of its time, Eusebius’ Origen provided a Christian alternative. Although not hostile to classical paideia, Origen still embodied a power to “challenge and modify the field of philosophical orthodoxy” (155). Both Eusebius and Porphyry also capitalized on their personal connections to their subjects, situating themselves as philosophical heirs to the tradition before them. Urbano provides helpful diagrams anywhere philosophical lineages are created throughout his book.
Chapter Four focuses on the political biographies of Constantine and Julian. The legacy of Plato’s “philosopher-ruler” loomed large in the portrayal of these two figures (167). In Chapters Five and Six, Urbano examines the shift in what “philosophy” stood for as Christians entered a dominant role in the empire and began redefining the terms of the debate. Chapter Five primarily examines the impact of Athanasius’ Life of Antony on the competition for philosophical authority. The figure of Antony proposed an alternative “Christian paideia” to the Greek norm, one founded on “Christian texts, doctrines and authorities” (208). Urbano then moves in Chapter Six to examine the biographies of two Christian women, Macrina and Sosipatra. He focuses on how their figures embodied the new intellectual and moral formation, fostered by a natural wisdom and asceticism, as opposed to classical Greek standards.
The final chapter examines fifth-century bioi that reflect the dramatic shifts that had occurred in the philosophical field. Urbano focuses on Theodoret’s Religious History and its unique rereading of Plato in favor of Christian wisdom. Now a powerless minority, the pagan Greek biographical voices are reduced to common themes of decline and renewal, as seen in Marinus of Neapolis’ Life of Proclus.
Arthur Urbano’s work is an important one. His analysis and use of ancient biography brings to light how impactful this genre was in the world of late antiquity. He successfully reveals the power inherent in the “cultural capital” of that period. He also demonstrates how much...