The Problem with Identity in Late Antiquity – By Todd Berzon

Todd Berzon on Aaron P. Johnson’s Religion and Identity in Porphyry of Tyre: The Limits of Hellenism in Late Antiquity

Aaron P. Johnson, Religion and Identify in Porphyry of Tyre: The Limits of Hellenism in Late Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 2013, 382pp., $99
Aaron P. Johnson, Religion and Identity in Porphyry of Tyre: The Limits of Hellenism in Late Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 2013, 382pp., $99

We know Porphyry of Tyre (ca. 235–305 CE) principally as a Neoplatonist philosopher and critic of Christianity. To that end, scholars most often discuss him and his oeuvre within the larger context of Platonism’s intellectual genealogy in late antiquity. His wide-ranging interests, including ethics, cult, diet, psychology, logic, and cosmology, fit a desire, inherited from Plato through Plotinus, to develop a philosophy that transcended cultural and ethnic particularity. He studied the Egyptians, Indians, Jews, Persians, etc. in a quest to identify the contours and conditions of his universal philosophy. For scholars of early Christianity, Porphyry’s treatise Against the Christians — which, sadly, we possess only in fragments — has similarly defined him. He is the anti-Christian polemicist par excellence because he was exceedingly knowledgeable about the sacred texts of the Christians. He was keen to expose the tensions between the gospels, within and across the letters of Paul, and, more broadly, the Christians’ erroneous interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. His knowledge of Christianity is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Constantine ordered all copies of Against the Christians to be burned. But from Porphyry’s perspective, Christians posed a very simple ideological problem: They were dangerous precisely because they acted like Greek philosophers. They claimed — falsely, in Porphyry’s eyes — to be universalists.

Few if any books have sought to discuss Porphyry beyond his Neoplatonism and criticisms of Christianity. Aaron P. Johnson’s Religion and Identity in Porphyry of Tyre: The Limits of Hellenism in Late Antiquity offers to fill this void. It is much more than an updated version of Joseph Bidez’s classic biography, La Vie de Porphyre; indeed, it is not strictly speaking a biography at all. Rather it is an attempt to show the ways in which Porphyry’s intellectual concerns intersected with his conceptualization of both the world’s diversity and his own ethnic and philosophical identity. Johnson traces Porphyry’s own sense of self in his role as theologian, philosopher, Phoenician, Hellene, and ethnographer, with a particular interest in how these various identities relate to and illuminate each other.

Johnson undertakes two related projects within this single volume. First, Religion and Identity is a book about the Neoplatonic philosopher’s theory of religion (cult) and theology (god-speak). Johnson is determined to show that Porphyry’s theory of the universe — the nature of the divine and the human relation to it — coalesces into a coherent philosophical system.

Johnson’s second project uses Porphyry to explore anew the concept of Hellenism and the various other notions with which it intersects in the post-classical world. Porphyry becomes a lens through which to view the history of Hellenism as it emerged in conversation with its others. How did a manifestly philosophical writer produce a universal (albeit elitist) system of truth while also appropriating, praising, and condemning the philosophical and religious contributions of various ethnic groups? The question is not so much whether Porphyry used a notional “other” but how and to what ends he made use of it. Johnson’s biography of Porphyry makes him into a philosophical touchstone in the broader history of late antique identity formation.

Citing a letter from Petrarch written ca. 1350 to Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro, Johnson uses the metaphor of translation to describe the role of ethnic identity in Porphyry’s philosophical writings. Like Petrarch’s ascent up Mount Ventoux, Porphyry’s arduous attempt to reach God is an act of vertical and horizontal translation: “it was precisely in considering the paths of ascent that Porphyry would pause over the peoples of the world and their various relationships to the mountain of divinity and truth.” Vertical translation, or universalism, gets at Porphyry’s transcendent philosophical vision, while horizontal translation, or particularism, makes sense of ethnic differences through the vernacular of philosophy. Porphyry acts as translator through his “interpretive discernment, understood as the ability to translate multiplicity into unity.” Although his philosophical universalism is mediated through the Greek language and emerges out of the Platonic tradition, Porphyry eschews any sort of ethnic or cultural centralism. His project is to rise above all ethnic and cultural centers, including Hellenocentrism.

To arrive at this two-fold reading, Johnson considers Porphyry in two roles, as theologian and ethnographer. Porphyry the theologian was not an inclusionary universalist who familiarized difference through the “category of the Same,” but rather an exclusive universalist who subscribed to the idea that cult “was categorized as inappropriate to the transcendent philosophical life.” Nonetheless, he could often be accommodating; he continued, for instance, to call the Greek gods “gods,” even though they were low-level daemons. Johnson stresses Porphyry’s flexibility and coherence as a thinker. Porphyry was not a doctrinaire philosopher, but rather an obliging thinker: He knew his work could not entirely do away with the theological and religious lingua franca of his day. He was a critical cosmopolitan who did not wholly reject the terminology of his era, even as he aspired to transcend it.

Porphyry the ethnographer had a protracted interest in ethnic and racial difference among ancient peoples. Religion and Identity traces the seeming disjunction between Porphyry’s philosophical system as a way to obviate difference and as a way to understand human unity and wisdom, and he seeks to demonstrate how these two parts fit together. Porphyry uses the specific terms of ethnic argumentation — ethnos and genos in particular — both to bolster specific points about his philosophical worldview and to articulate “a vision of the different nations … as the various purveyors of that truth.” For Porphyry, all expressions of ethnocentrism, including Hellenocentrism, are false and misleading insofar as they embrace an earthly affiliation. But the wisdom of the nations nonetheless provided him with an invaluable source of knowledge as a way to confirm and enhance, via contrast, his own theory of universal truth. As much as he would like to escape it, his writings are bound by the world he inhabits. He lives in “a world full of nations.”

Religion and Identity is a monumental feat of both aggregation and interpretation. The staggering amount of intricate detail in this volume raises a variety of methodological, theoretical, and historical concerns for those who study late antiquity as well as those interested in the ancient concepts of religion. To compound matters, the evidence Johnson foregrounds is immensely difficult to work with because the sources he prioritizes are fragmentary. These bits from Porphyry’s lost Philosophy from Oracles, On the Return of the Soul, On Images, On the Styx, On Free Will, Against Nemertius, Philosophic History, Letter to Anebo, Commentary on the Timaeus, and Against the Christians have been understudied, so it is nice to see them dealt with here, and dealt with in such a methodologically sensitive fashion. Johnson concedes that his readings are often speculative and, in certain cases, simply impossible to prove; it is refreshing to read a scholar who explicitly acknowledges the limitations of his sources. His use of the fragmentary evidence as his primary data nuances our knowledge of Porphyry’s intricate and sweeping philosophical opinions and complicates a facile portrait of Porphyry as an “apologist for Hellenism.” In Religion and Identity, Porphyry emerges not only as both a critic and defender of Hellenism, but also as an inventive interpreter of human unity and difference.

Johnson certainly does not neglect Porphyry’s (mostly) complete works, including but not limited to On Abstinence, Letter to Marcella, Homeric Questions, On the Cave of the Nymphs, and the Life of Plotinus. While he makes no claim to be writing a comprehensive intellectual biography, Johnson contextualizes a huge amount of Porphyrian material in order to show that Porphyry’s writings evince a cosmopolitanism, complexity, and meticulousness that is, in his opinion, striking for an ancient author. We are left with the insight that many of Porphyry’s supposed contradictions, especially on the subject of sacrificial and cultic ritual, are not necessarily in tension at all. The express aim of Johnson’s book is to find a “broad and rather elastic coherence” across the diverse Porphyrian corpus.

To make sense of the tensions and diversity of Porphyry’s writings, Johnson presents his book as an attempt to “translate” a microscopic analysis of Porphyry into macroscopic history of identity formation. He is quite clear that he is using the notion of translation as a model to bring “into a single framework of understanding both his metaphysics and theology, on the one hand, and his cultural and ethnographic representations, on the other.” Translation enables us to see the compatibility between Porphyry’s articulation of a theology of universalism and his description of ethnographic particularism. But in repeatedly labeling Porphyry a translator, Johnson has offered a forced and unnecessary overlay rather than a critical framework. The idea of vertical and horizontal translation is simply too vague and too inchoate to make the two intricate halves of Johnson’s book into a coherent whole. If translation really is the language through which Porphyry’s seemingly contradictory activities as theologian and ethnographer can be reconciled, it requires a more sustained engagement with techniques, types, and modes of translation as well as the voluminous world of translation theory.

Terminology also proves to be a hurdle. He has a tendency to treat as self-evident concepts such as religion, identity, ethnography, and translation, which are in fact very complex and difficult to define. Do these terms remain productive analytical categories if they are deployed so incontrovertibly and capaciously? Johnson treats ethnography and ethnicity as though they are interchangeable, but ethnography is neither the study of ethnicities nor an effort to identify their fundamental criteria. If ethnography, in its most basic etymological sense, is “writing people” — most especially their customs, habits, and opinions — ancient authors could and did produce ethnographies (or, more often, ethnographic digressions) about groups that were never identified with the term ethnos. In that sense, a Roman author describing an Egyptian ritual would be producing a form of ethnographic knowledge just as he would be if he sought to describe members of Roman army, a collegia, or a priesthood.

Porphyry in (Imagined) Debate with Averroes, 14th Century. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Identity may be the most problematic category in Religion and Identity, and it is worth exploring its limitations and drawbacks as a frame of reference through which to study the writings of Porphyry. Does the capacious, expansive, and often contradictory notion of identity substantively add to an already complex, multifaceted portrait of Porphyry? For those of us who study the ancient world, identity is a ubiquitous topic of conversation. Libraries are filled with titles about Israelite, Roman, Greek, Jewish, Christian, and barbarian identity, among myriad other examples. There are books about cultural and social identity, the struggle for identity, the dynamics of identity, assimilation and identity, local identity, and still more. In searching after Porphyry’s identity, Johnson is participating in pervasive and altogether common scholastic discourse.

Building upon his earlier work about Eusebius of Caesarea’s ethnic argumentation in his Preparation for the Gospel, Johnson focuses his attention upon Porphyry’s use of racial and ethnic argumentation in forging his own identity. Porphyry was not only interested in the various nations around him — their philosophical, cultic, and theological wisdom and cult traditions — but also in his ability to define and transcend his own ethnic affiliations. Johnson wonders in what sense Porphyry’s identity was defined by philosophy rather than ethnicity.

But throughout the book we are left to deduce what Johnson means when he invokes the idea of Porphyry’s ethnic identity. While he tells us that the Greek nouns ethnos and genos invoked ideas of kinship, language, religion, diet, territory, history, and legislative ordering, his point is that ethnic identity comprises numerous facets of living. In order to arrive at this multifaceted notion of ethnicity, Johnson rightly explains that ethnicity is a construct rather than an essence. And further that ethnic identity and ethnicity — another set of terms that appear more or less synonymous in the book — are more than their constituent parts. Johnson’s overarching methodological point is that scholars must attend to the “varied formulations of identity” in the late antique world. To write about identity is to trace the processes by which individuals and groups articulated a worldview. Thus to study Porphyry’s usage of ethnic reasoning is to study how he articulates human diversity as ethnic diversity and theological unity. But how does the category of identity advance that agenda?

Identities, in Johnson’s formulation, emerge as fluid constructions rather than singular essences. They are adaptable, evolving expressions of a mixture of rhetoric and reality. They map negotiations of self within and against social location, political power, and dominant discourses. They express tensions and commonalities, narrowness and expansiveness, universalism and particularism. Johnson’s emphasis on the malleability and adaptability of identity follows what the sociologists Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper call “weak identity.” In “Beyond Identity,” they argue that identity has become a mostly unproductive and obfuscatory trope. Identity is, in their telling, a flat, undifferentiated, and contradictory analytical toolbox into which nearly every facet of individual and collective existence in the world seems to fit. To make such flat ideas work, however, scholars insist upon fluid, multiple, hybrid, negotiated, and constructed identities. But if identity is a weak concept, we have to question whether it is a coherent concept, “something that remains identical, the same, while other things are changing.” If identity is always a protean formulation, is it really identity? Is it not, instead, a sort of anti-identity or a denial of identity? Are we not better served by using terminology that avoids generalizing and aggregating Porphyry’s specific interests into a lone sluggish category?

Indeed, if there really are so many ways to express identity, what value is there in aggregating them all with a term that requires yet rarely receives precise qualification? Why not discuss Porphyry’s interest in language, diet, and kinship primarily in those words, rather than in terms of the capacious notion of identity? Porphyry is interested in concepts such as human particularity, philosophical universalism, theology, and cult — concepts that are sufficiently expansive to merit language independent of and, indeed, more specific than the overly broad category of identity. Ethnicity, for example, is itself a sufficiently knotty idea that to add “identity” occludes more than it illuminates, precisely because it fails to denote a distinction between the identifier and the identified. In its place, we should use terms that attend not only to issues of agency, but also to the dialectical, institutional (in the Foucauldian sense), subjective, individualistic, and collective processes of identification.

Johnson views Hellenism as “a toolbox from which authors in late antiquity drew” in order to craft various literary and intellectual projects. As he explains, “for Porphyry and his late antique contemporaries, Hellenicity was a manipulable and contested identity. What it meant to be Greek and what element(s) of Greekness mattered most at any given time and within any given social or rhetorical situation shifted” depending on the author’s social location, rhetorical needs, education, relation to social power, discursive channels, etc. Hellenicity is an identity fundamentally defined by its variability, fluidity, and instability. As such, it can seemingly be all things to all authors. The very attempt to adjudicate the degree of Porphyry’s Hellenicity misses the point; imposing the framework of Greek identity situates Porphyry’s within a binary that Johnson insists is false. Because Porphyry oscillates between his Hellenic educational and linguistic knowledge (his Hellenophilic identity) and his Phoenician identity — that is, he remains neither firmly Phoenician nor Greek but seems to be both (or neither, perhaps) — he can have multiple identities at once. But the move toward multiplicity enervates the very core of identity and introduces a new conceptual problem: the impossibility of denying identity everywhere. Hence the very instability of Porphyry’s Hellenic identity problematizes its utility as a profitable category to understand his attachment and detachment to the heritage of Hellenism.

To fixate on Porphyry’s identity and his interest in others’ identities is, I think, not simply to over-read the evidence but also to produce an analytical framework that reinscribes identity as having an immutable essence (essentialism) despite the consistent refrain that it is constructed (constructivism). There is a sense that if Porphyry’s identity can be described as being fluid, then an essentialist understanding of identity has been avoided. But to say that Porphyry’s identity was fluid does not rehabilitate an essentialist notion of Hellenism. It merely circumvents the problem by conceding Hellenism’s variety even as it wishes to suggest there is something that holds the idea of Hellenic identity together. Tellingly, Johnson’s conclusion to Part II of his book strikes a much different note. He explains that Porphyry, in fact, did not characterize himself as a hybrid product of Phoenician racial identity, on the one hand, and Greek cultural hegemony and Roman imperialism, on the other. Rather, he imagined a world that was divided “in terms of a topography of wisdom and piety,” where certain peoples demonstrated a profound commitment to their god or gods alongside a tradition of philosophical inquiry. Porphyry’s writings are not, in this light, about identity but about the philosophical journey to the divine. His writings reveal the process by which the philosopher can rationalize the reality of the world he inhabits. Identity becomes a blunt catchall rather than an agile indicator of Porphyry’s philosophical interests in the diversity of the material world.

And while Johnson’s characterization of Porphyry oscillates uncomfortably between heurism and emic interpretation (an indigenous perspective) — Johnson claims that modern interpreters have gotten Porphyry wrong and then tells us what Porphyry really thought — a more fundamental question lingers. If Porphyry really is unconcerned with his identity in terms of its Hellenic and/or Phoenician qualities or, if he is unconcerned with the very idea of identity, why does Johnson expend so much space parsing the contours of a second-order category that lacks precision, one that he fails to define? I find myself wondering if the scholarly interest in parsing ancient writers’ identities is not an interpretive puzzle of its own creation. It necessarily presumes that identities were a persistent consideration among these writers or, at the very least, that there is critical value in creating an analytical category called identity through which we can study them. Scholars give the impression that our ancient authors obsessed about their identities. And they do so fruitfully because the term can never be pinned down with any degree of exactitude.

Johnson’s book clearly holds enormous value in its level of detail for those interested in Porphyry and the traditions of late antique Neoplatonism. As a book about Porphyry, it is an immensely learned, intricate analysis of the complex and seemingly contradictory oeuvre of Porphyry. It is impossible to read this book and not come away with a much more sophisticated understanding of this curious, creative, and savvy Neoplatonist thinker. At the level of macroscopic theory, however, the book is less compelling. I would suggest that the scholarly discourse about ancient identity has reached a stage where it now requires serious reevaluation. Because the minutiae of Porphyry’s writings—and, indeed, many writings by other late antique authors—are defined by their heterogeneity and variation they do not benefit from being subsumed under the category of identity. The catchall of identity, despite the emphasis on fluidity, ultimately prizes intellectual coherence over contradiction. We might do better to treat the writings of Porphyry as the discrete and wide-ranging interests of a thinker attempting to devise his understanding of the world he inhabits and the world he aspires to reach, which were bound, in other words, to generate inconsistency. Let us embrace the tensions within Porphyry’s writings rather than treat them as “problems” in need of harmonization. Perhaps it is time to move beyond the trappings of malleable identity.