Athanasius & Difference

One area of thought in which I am perpetually trying to make progress is what you might call the philosophy of the body. Not only is this theme related to the gender politics of our contemporary cultural moment, but it also sheds light on the difference between the basic assumptions held by analytic philosophers (rooted historically in British Empiricism) and continental philosophers (owing a strong debt to Hegel & German idealism through Nietzsche and Heidegger).

Various texts which have shaped my thinking over the years include Judith Butler, _Bodies that Matter_ and Peter Brown, _The Body in Society_ (especially his chapter on Origen). It is much to my chagrin, therefore, that, only very recently have I followed CS Lewis’ advice to focus especially on “old books” and finally turned by attention to St. Athanasius’ _On the Incarnation_.

I am surprised to find that Athanasius’ emphasis is actually not on the body as such, at least not in the way I had hoped. Some quick lessons I’ve learned:

  • Athanasius, time and time again, quotes Holy Scripture to ground his positions.
  • He sees the Incarnation almost totally within the context of the sacrificial death of Christ. (He is very “Reformed” in that way.)
  • By “body of Christ” he means not just the soma typicon which walked the dusty streets of Palestine, ran the lathe over the wood, and was nailed to a cross, but also the corpus verum, or the body of Christ, post-Pentecost, the body of believers who trust in Christ. (He also speaks of the cosmos as a body in section 41.)

What interests me for the purposes of this little piece, however, is something he says in the first section after the Prologue. Speaking in the context of creation, Athanasius contrasts his own Christian view with that of pagan philosophers. Before dealing with the thought of Plato, he mentions in particular “the Epicureans:”

Some say that all things have come into being spontaneously and as by chance, such as the Epicureans who, according to themselves, fantasize that there is no providence over the universe, speaking in the face of the clear and apparent facts. For if all things came into being spontaneously and without providence, as they claim, all things would necessarily have simply come into being and be identical without difference. Everything would have been as a single body, sun or moon….

So in opposition to the view of the atomists (Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus, who taught that the only things that really exists are atoms and void, and that the emergence of “the appearances” in the world is due to the random, chance-driven activity of the swerve), Athanasius argues that if this were the case, then all that exists would be: one thing. Channeling the spirit of Parmenides Athanasius, I take it, is arguing that if the principle of the world as we experience it is random and “spontaneously generated,” then all that would exist is something like what William James called a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” and of course there would be no rational mind to be confused by it. “Everything,” he writes, “would have been a single body.”

What is interesting here is that Athanasius thinks that it is the divine logos, pre-existent in a disembodied way, that accounts for the differences in the world. Only the divine logos, for him, accounts for intelligible order in the world.

I wish I could interview Athanasius and ask him why he thinks this. In my imaginary interview with him, he connects language to concepts (by way of definition), and he argues that without concepts human beings would discern no intelligible difference in the world. So the issue becomes “whence concepts?” and Athanasius’ answer is the divine logos.

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