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By Ammonius Saccas, Christian Neoplatonism, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, Gnosticism
A major source for  Origen (c.184-c.253 or later) is Bishop Eusebius (c.260-c.340). However, the Ecclesiastical History is subject to criticism for a clerical agenda. Eusebius was a defender of Origen; his account is questioned in relation to accuracy. More generally, different assessments of Origen in modern scholar literature have caused puzzlement. 
Born at Alexandria, Origen is ascribed a Christian father by Eusebius, one who was executed during a persecution by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus in 202 CE. Origen allegedly had himself castrated by a doctor, in accordance with literal interpretation of a verse (19:12) in the Gospel of Matthew, which refers to “those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” The verse was often interpreted metaphorically. Eusebius is much in question on this matter. “The story is hardly credible” (McGuckin 2004:6). Eusebius proffered this story as an explanation for the eventual prosecution of Origen by Bishop Demetrius. Origen “himself derides the literalist interpretation of the eunuch, saying it was something only an idiot would consider” (ibid).
According to Eusebius, Origen attended the circle of Ammonius Saccas, a Neoplatonist teacher in Alexandria. Little is known about Ammonius, who appears to have been a self-taught philosopher differing from the more conventional Platonist pedagogues. The circle of Ammonius eventually gained an important addition in the figure of Plotinus, who was some twenty years younger than Origen.
According to Porphyry (who is cited by Eusebius), “Origen lived as a Christian and thought as a Greek; he was always reading Plato and a whole lot of philosophers whom Porphyry lists” (Crouzel 1989:11). Modern scholarship resorted to a  theme of two Origens, some commentators favouring the view that a pagan Origen was involved in the circle of Ammonius, as distinct from the Christian Origen. Other scholars have considered this theory erroneous. “There is every reason to believe that Origen acquired his superb education in philosophy from him [Ammonius]” (Trigg 1998:12). Cf. Edwards 1993.
Origen was a Christian “Neoplatonist” according to some versions, while awarding an ultimate deference to the Bible. “To the more advanced students he taught philosophy together with the subjects preparatory to it like geometry and arithmetic: he expounded the teaching of the different schools of philosophers, explained their writings, to the point where he himself acquired the reputation of being a great philosopher” (Crouzel 1989: 10).
By training Origen was a philologist, a scholar of the Greek language and its literature…. Within the span of three decades of concentrated literary activity, most of which was spent in Caesarea Maritima, he became one of the most prolific authors of his generation, and indeed of all antiquity. His surviving writings, though notoriously lacunose, attest to his wide-ranging examination of his church’s Scriptures. (Martens 2012:1-2)
According to Eusebius, Origen learned Hebrew; the assertion has frequently been rejected. Origen certainly possessed an extensive knowledge of Jewish traditions and rabbinical exegesis, apparently derived from his communications with Jewish rabbis. His Hexapla (Six Columns), extant in fragments, was a synopsis of differing versions of the Old Testament, including the Hebrew and the four main Greek versions. The author was concerned to establish an accurate text.
Origen defended Christian doctrines against pagan and Jewish objections. He attacked Jewish literalism with a strong invective. However, he “was not by nature a persecutor” and “actually defended the Jews against the abuse of pagans” (De Lange 1976:133ff).
He was pitted against the Graeco-Roman colonial mindset, a severe agent of persecution, executing his father and killing several of his own students. In his early years, Origen  was frequently threatened by pagan mobs. In his last years, he composed the Contra Celsum, a refutation of the obscure second century Platonist Celsus. In his True Doctrine, Celsus had attacked Christianity from a conservative viewpoint, regarding that religion as a barbarian manifestation deriving from the Jews, who were allegedly inferior to Greeks.
Origen “differs from Clement [of Alexandria] in that he has not the least desire to claim the protection of a great philosophical name [meaning Plato] for some principle that is important to Christians. Yet, quite unconsciously, Origen is inwardly less critical of Platonism than Clement, and proposes a system that incorporates a larger proportion of Platonic assumptions than is apparent in Clement’s writings” (Chadwick 1967:101).
According to Eusebius, Origen was a pupil of Clement. Some scholars have strongly doubted this detail. Origen never quotes Clement by name; however, he does refer to teachings associated with the latter. “Origen never applies to the spiritual man the adjective gnostikos which Clement constantly uses” (Crouzel 1989:7). The conclusion is that Origen was more resistant to Gnostic teachings, which were proliferating in his time.
The relation of Origen to Gnosticism has been differently presented. His output is generally viewed as providing a foil to the trend of joining Gnostic sects. Origen was “the supreme theologian of free will, and the constant opponent of the Valentinian determinism” (Crouzel 1989:21). However, this was not a straightforward process of denial. “Of the Gnostics, Valentinus and his followers had the most profound influence on Origenism.” Moreover, “by a process involving both acceptance and rejection, he [Origen], in effect, appropriated and transformed Valentinianism” (Trigg 1998:8-9).
A wealthy Valentinian, namely Ambrose, became converted to Origen’s viewpoint, which is often described in terms of orthodoxy, despite some contradictions. Ambrose provided his new mentor with a team of stenographers and calligraphers, who acted as a publishing agency for Origen’s prolific Bible commentaries. Only fragments of those works have survived. Origen’s “allegorical” exegesis of the Bible has been the subject of dispute and criticism.
At this period, the Roman emperor Caracalla (rgd 212-17) assassinated his royal brother, an act meeting with opposition at Alexandria. The tyrant sacked that city in retaliation, and closed the schools. Origen retreated to Caesarea in Palestine, where he was invited by bishops to teach the scriptures. His status was that of a layman, not a cleric. This event caused the Alexandrian bishop Demetrius to protest, on the grounds that tradition prohibited  laymen from preaching in the presence of bishops. Origen was recalled to Alexandria.
The situation of Origen illustrates a major problem: the episcopal status complex. His role as catechist was subordinate to Demetrius, whom he is said to have regarded as “a worldly, power-hungry prelate consumed with pride in his own self-importance” (Chadwick 1967:109). On a later visit to Palestine, Origen was ordained to the priesthood by two bishops. “With a good grace, or unwillingly giving way to their pressure? We cannot tell” (Crouzel 1989:20).
We do know that Demetrius reacted strongly, because the ordination had occurred outside his local jurisdiction. When Origen returned to Alexandria, a synod exiled him from the city. Demetrius went further,  declaring that Origen was ejected from the priesthood. A synod at Rome is reported to have ratified this decision. Origen moved to Caesarea in Palestine, where he engaged in preaching, regarded as a priestly function. According to Eusebius, Demetrius condemned and made public the act of castration which Origen allegedly performed; this action on his part has been queried, being regarded by some analysts as malicious gossip. Demetrius accused Origen of unorthodox doctrine; this was probably the factor underlying episcopal aversion to Origen.
In Palestine, Origen attracted pupils like Gregory Thaumaturgus, initially a pagan, who refers to his mentor as a master of philosophy. The context does not here mean Greek philosophy, but “the moral and ascetic life, of Christian and pagan alike” (Crouzel 1989:26), a usage found among Christians of that period. The study of “philosophers of every school except the atheists” (ibid) was a preparation for the study of Biblical scripture. However, the school of Origen at Caesarea was not a centre of theology, because “the teaching leaves out almost everything peculiar to Christianity and only reproduces the doctrines that can be enunciated in philosophical terms” (Crouzel 1989:27). Origen’s curriculum has been described as a Christian version of Middle Platonism, intended for young pagans.
According to Bertrand Russell, the teachings of Origen, “as set forth in his work De Principiis [Treatise on First Principles], have much affinity to those of Plotinus – more, in fact, than is compatible with [Christian] orthodoxy” (History of Western Philosophy, 1946, p. 327).
The same treatise De Principiis has been described in terms of Christian Neoplatonism. More specifically, as the most systematic of the author’s writings, a work in which Origen “establishes his main doctrines, including that of the Holy Trinity (based upon standard Middle Platonic triadic emanation schemas); the pre-existence and fall of souls; multiple ages and transmigration of souls; and the eventual restoration of all souls to a state of dynamic perfection” (Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).
Another interpretation ventures an anti-Platonist perspective. See also Who was Origen? The claim of Platonism in Origen “thrives on half-truths confronting his own statements and cardinal ideas, with ‘Platonism’ being mostly a flight of fancy in heads of unlearned authors (mainly bishops) of old times, whose views were upheld by modern theologians no less uninformed about what Plato really wrote” (Tzamalikos 2007:17). A related verdict reads:
Origen espoused a notion held in derision by many Platonists, which nevertheless was originated in the Hebraic tradition: survival as resurrection of the body…. he made resurrection the central theme of his thought. (Tzamalikos 2007:18)
At the end of his life, Origen was a victim of the persecution of Christians effectively launched by the Emperor Decius (rgd 249-251 CE), who enjoined that every subject of the Roman empire must sacrifice to the official gods. The defiant Origen survived horrific tortures.
He was posthumously condemned as a heretic by Christian polemicists and bishops in later centuries, and also by the repressive Christian emperor Justinian in 543. A decade later, in 553, the Fifth Ecumenical Council condemned doctrines found in De Principiis, including the pre-existence and transmigration of souls. That text does not survive intact in the original Greek, but in a Latin translation of Rufinus. 
The ascetic characteristics of Origen were emphasised by Eusebius. Origen was favoured amongst fourth century Coptic Christian renunciates. The Desert Fathers have recently emerged from the shadow cast by orthodox interpretation. Figures like Antony the hermit are revealed by scholarship to have fostered ideas and beliefs that were rejected by clericalism. Dogmatic Christian bishops were eventually victorious in controlling and modifying the monastic movement.
Behr, John, trans., Origen: On First Principles – A Reader’s Edition (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Butterworth, G. W., ed., Koetschau trans., Origen: On First Principles (London: SPCK, 1936).
Chadwick, Henry, trans., Contra Celsum (Cambridge University Press, 1953).
——–The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967).
Clark, Elizabeth A., The Origenist Controversy (Princeton University Press, 1992).
Crouzel, Henri, Origen (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1989).
De Lange, Nicholas, Origen and the Jews (Cambridge University Press, 1976).
Edwards, Mark J., “Ammonius: Teacher of Origen,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History (1993) 44:169-181.
Eusebius,  Ecclesiastical History, trans. Kirsopp Lake and J. Oulton, (2 vols, London: Heinemann, 1926-32).
Martens, Peter W., Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford University Press, 2012).
McGuckin, John Anthony, ed., The Westminster Handbook to Origen (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).
Trigg, Joseph Wilson, Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third Century Church (Atlanta: John Knox  Press, 1983).
——–Origen (London: Routledge, 1998).
Tzamalikos, Panayiotis, Origen: Philosophy of History and Eschatology (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 26th 2012, modified October 2021
ENTRY no. 45
Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Eric Voegelin

By Ancient Israel, Gnosticism, Greek Philosophy, Philosophy of History
Eric Voegelin

A political philosopher, Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) has the reputation of being a philosopher of history. His magnum opus Order and History is regarded as comprising an early phase (the first three volumes) and a later phase (the last two volumes).

Eric Hermann Wilhelm Voegelin was born in Cologne and subsequently educated at Vienna, where he gained a doctorate in political science. His professorial role at the University of Vienna was terminated in 1938, because he resisted association with the Nazi cause of Adolf Hitler. He had written two books criticising the Nazi “master race” theory. Voegelin narrowly escaped the Gestapo, who were very disapproving of dissidents.

Fleeing with his wife to America, he continued an academic role, becoming an American citizen in 1944. He became a professor of political science at Louisiana State University, which continues to honour his memory (see also  The Voegelin Enigma).

During the 1940s, his outlook moved at a tangent to the history of political ideas, in which he had written extensively. His new orientation involved a form of existentialism, in reaction to Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Voegelin’s existentialism was very unusual, exhibiting a Platonist complexion, further associated with a Christian background. Hence my description in terms of an existential Christian Platonism. However, he did mute certain Christianising tendencies in his later years.

Voegelin is also unusual for his linguistic affinities. He learned both Greek and Hebrew, acquisitions by no means common amongst philosophers. He was thus able to read Plato in the original, while studying the Old Testament in depth.

By the 1950s, he had developed a theme of rediscovering the philosophical quest via an experiential mode, meaning that philosophy was not just a format of ideas but an existential process of experience. He also railed against the influence of positivism and scientism. Voegelin became noted as a critic of modernity. These tendencies became controversial. His enduring opposition to Fascism was accompanied by a strong reaction to both G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx, not to mention various other modern exponents. Voegelin classified all these figures under the generalising term of Gnosticism. His idiom is considered by some analysts to comprise an extreme usage of that word, perhaps reflecting to some extent his Christian upbringing.

The first volume of Order and History afforded a coverage of ancient Israel. This version of Biblical events drew upon scholarly sources available by the 1950s. Many of those are now outdated. Since that time, archaeology has uncovered numerous details formerly unknown. This development led to a basic rift between differing approaches to the Old Testament. What emerges today is that the Hebrew Bible is basically a late post-exilic composition, including some earlier components much debated.

Voegelin argued that the ancient Israelites did not progress to the “noetic differentiation” in process amongst the Greeks. The presumedly “compact” nature of the Israelite experience of spiritual life was here viewed as preventing the development of philosophy, which for Voegelin, involved “the explicit experience of divine presence as an ordering force within the individual psyche of the philosopher” (quote from Christian neoexistentialist). However, intrinsic existence would always remain a mystery, he believed. In this context he stressed resort to the language of myth.

Some attention was given by Voegelin to the Israelite prophets. The books attributed to prophetic entities like Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are the focus of detailed scholarship. How far such texts represent the entities named is an elusive matter. They were cast in the form of a post-exilic Jewish understanding, in the early centuries BCE, though earlier themes and content may intervene.

In volume two of Order and History, the author surveys trends in early Greek literature and philosophy; he analyses features of the polis or city-state. Voegelin continues this treatment in volume three, devoted to Plato and Aristotle. A fairly detailed version of Greek events does emerge, quite distinctive in certain respects, with room for disagreement on some points. See Voegelin and Plato.

From Homer to Aristotle, Voegelin pursued his favoured themes attendant upon the key feature of order in the soul or psyche. This leitmotif was purportedly evolved by philosophers in opposition to the political activities of the polis. The philosophical process could not be institutionalised like the rival, being dependent upon individual contributions and achievements. In this way, Voegelin counters conventional conceptions of philosophy as an “intellectual” activity concerned with mere ideas and arguments.

He clearly preferred Plato to Aristotle, while attempting to give the Stagirite a due credit. Voegelin celebrated Plato’s Dialogues and the attention given to philosophical mythic formulation. He analyses the Timaeus, the Republic, and the Laws, all of these works demanding a more than casual attention from the modern reader. The contrasting, or complementary, bios theoretikos of Aristotle also gains profile.

So far Voegelin had inserted a number of Christianising comments, leading some readers to expect a culminating coverage of Christianity in terms of the desired order. Yet in volume four, published in 1974, the author frustrated those assumptions. He admitted to encountering a problem in his conception of history. Voegelin now viewed a linear time scheme as an error. Proliferating researches were revealing the complexity of world history. Even New Testament scholarship was adopting new criteria. Voegelin learned with dismay that the Gospel of John was now considered to exhibit Gnostic tendencies.

The rigidity attaching to orthodox Christian ideas of Gnosticism was substantial until the late twentieth century. Discovered in 1945, the Nag Hammadi texts challenged some entrenched notions, giving scholars a far more accurate idea of early Gnostic beliefs, which circulated amongst different groupings. Translations did not become readily accessible until the 1970s, when Voegelin had already formulated his basic outlook. The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Leiden, 1977) made available the “Coptic Gnostic library.”

The tendency of Voegelin, to use Gnosticism as a blanket term for modern ideological trends, is discrepant to some contemporary readers. Both Hegel and Marx were designated as Gnostics by the existential Christian Platonist. Hegel was a Protestant Christian; the iconoclastic atheist Karl Marx does not equate with Gnostics of the Roman era. Hegel’s “science of logic” affords a contrast to the “neo-Thomist” deliberations of Voegelin. However, both of these exponents can be considered philosophers of history. See Voegelin and Gnosticism.

Voegelin’s “non-linear” tangent touched upon Pauline Christianity, while ranging into differing eras of world religion. He found some Eastern religions defective in comparison to (Greek) philosophy. He tended to favour some religious phraseology of Thomas Aquinas, the neo-Aristotelian with a strong Dominican profile. In contrast, Joachim of Fiore and Siger of Brabant were two of the many stigmatised “Gnostics” in the neo-existential panorama.

The relatively brief volume five (curtailed in size by the author’s death) was subtitled In Search of Order. Hegel is again one of the ingredients, apparently regarded by Voegelin as the major modern predecessor and rival.


Trepanier, Lee,  and Steven F. McGuire, eds., Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition (University of Missouri Press, 2011).

Voegelin, Eric, Order and History (5 vols, Louisiana State University, 1956-87).

———The New Science of Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1952; repr. 1987).

———Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Vol. 6), ed. David Walsh (University of Missouri Press, 2002).

Webb, Eugene,  Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History (University of Washington Press, 1981).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd (2011, slightly modified 2020)

ENTRY no. 40

Copyright © 2020 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.