Maximus the Confessor as a European Philosopher
Sotiris Mitralexis, Georgios Steiris, Marcin Podbielski, Sebastian Lalla, Eds.
Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017
Ever-Moving Repose: A Contemporary Reading of Maximus the Confessor’s Theory of Time
Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017
In the English speaking world, three fields of study have grown tremendously in the last few decades: the study of “Byzantine philosophy,” scholarship on Maximus the Confessor, and research in “Continental Philosophy of Religion.” Maximus the Confessor as a European Philosopher is a critical and timely book for bridging these three areas of emerging scholarship. Byzantine philosophy in particular is a new area of research (often thought of as a supplement to the much better researched medieval Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic traditions), with no introductory text or handbook on the subject as of yet. Maximus is sometimes excluded from Byzantine philosophy (which is sometimes viewed as beginning either with Photios or John Damascene). This text takes up precisely this question of how Maximus should be placed within the history of philosophy. As Dionysios Skliris puts it, the questions of this volume are as follows (p. 3): “Is Maximus ‘European’?” “Is Maximus a ‘philosopher’?” “What is Maximus’ contribution to Europe?” “What is his contribution to philosophy?” Likewise, is Maximus more than just a Byzantine or just a theologian? Similarly, Sotiris Mitralexis asks in the introduction (p. xxi), “Should towering figures of Byzantine philosophy like Maximus the Confessor be included in an overview of European philosophy?” These questions connect Maximus scholarship both to the larger attempt to include Byzantine philosophers in the narrative of the history of philosophy, and to the dialogue between contemporary European philosophy and patristic texts, construing Maximus as a predecessor to continental philosophy.
In its attempt to make these connections, this volume is an important one. Maximus is among the most philosophically rich of patristic or Byzantine authors, and this text is an important first step in a much needed area of scholarship. In taking up this topic, the volume brings together several of the most important scholars on Maximus and Byzantine philosophy. Nonetheless, this volume is only a first step. Perhaps the most important question is, How is Maximus a European philosopher? The various contributors all answer the question in their own way, sometimes with divergent results, by either 1). examining how Maximus takes up philosophical themes and questions, 2). treating Maximus as a source for European philosophy, or 3). arguing that Maximus stands as an equal/dialogue partner/alternative to contemporary philosophers.
This volume is based on a 2014 conference on “Maximus as a European Philosopher,” with the papers presented here (with some additions and expansions) resulting from that conference. At times this feature shows, reading more as a collection of short conference papers than as a more detailed academic treatment of the subject. Several of the papers are as short as nine pages, with most chapters averaging 10-20 pages. In some places this brevity means that the arguments of the text are merely gestured to rather than actually given, though the arguments gestured to are often spelled out elsewhere in the other work of the given author. The longest entry in this volume (at 36 pages) is the excellent essay by Marcin Podbielski examining Maximus’ use of the term πρόσωπον; however, this article is the exception proving the rule, since it is a reprint of an article previously published elsewhere. It is ironic that Podbielski’s article would be the most detailed of those printed in the volume, given that Podbielski presents his article as a propadeutic to philosophical engagement with Maximus, since his article is mostly a terminological analysis rather than pure philosophy. This book in general is best understood as a propadeutic to treating Maximus as a European philosopher, rather than a full treatment that completes the project. This is not entirely the fault of the text itself, given that Byzantine philosophy and Maximus scholarship themselves are in many ways still in their infancy.
The texts are organized into four sections: 1). Ontology, 2). Epistemology, 3). Anthropology, and 4). Maximus in Dialogue with Ancient and Contemporary Thought. Part one makes a convincing case for the distinctiveness of Maximus’ metaphysics, centering on history, eschatology, and motion; however, never does it ask what is meant by metaphysics, which is a significant problem given the contested status of metaphysics in contemporary European philosophy. Part two is mislabeled, with most papers dealing not so much with questions of contemporary or historical epistemology, but rather addressing Maximus on language and particularly on negative theology and apophaticism, an interesting topic in its own right. Part three is the strongest of the entire text. In addition to containing Podbielski’s aforementioned article, this section also contains an article by Andrew Louth in which he slightly modifies his exposition of Maximus’ understanding of the human person. Also in this section is a thorough treatment by Georgi Kapriev of Maximus as he relates to the contemporary debate over personalism in Eastern Orthodox thought, and a treatment of Maximus on sexual differentiation by Karolina Kochańczyk-Bonińska. The latter is among the best of the volume, for not only does it explain Maximus’ views, but it actually challenges them and points out the philosophical problems and gaps in reasoning in Maximus’ argument. In particular, Kochańczyk-Bonińska notes that Maximus argues both that our resurrection bodies will share an identity with our current bodies and that sexuation will be abandoned in the future life, and that Maximus does not attempt at all to explain how both of these are compatible. The final section fruitfully compares Maximus to other thinkers including Plotinus, Heidegger, Lacan, Bonaventure, and Al-Farabi, but this section particularly suffers from the brevity of the entries, given how difficult it is to do justice to several figures within such a small space. As it is, this section reads as a bit too superficial.
On the whole the text is a useful guide to this particular research area, and is important for what it attempts, despite its many flaws. One of the most substantial deficiencies of the text is the lack of engagement with Maximus’ writings on the will. The will is one of the most important topics in Maximus, a subject that exhibits some of his most philosophical and original insights. That this topic scarcely appears in this volume is a significant oversight. Hopefully this important research project will continue, and if so then his treatment of the will inevitably will be central to understanding Maximus’ contribution to philosophy. Another avenue for research would be to examine Maximus’ reception of earlier philosophical thinkers, as well as his reception in later philosophical thought.
Released at the same time as Maximus as a European Philosopher, Sotiris Mitralexis’ Ever-Moving Repose provides a useful supplement to the collected volume, providing a detailed investigation of one single philosophical theme with an eye to its relevance today. This text is a polished form of Mitralexis’ dissertation, which aims to provide a reading of Maximus’ theory of time through the lens of contemporary philosophy. In addition to its treatment of Maximus, one of the most striking features of this text is its reliance on Christos Yannaras. Yannaras is the foil for Maximus, and is treated as a contemporary philosopher who provides the philosophical background against which Maximus is read. This move is innovative not only for treating a contemporary figure as the ground against which an ancient one is judged (a common enough, if questionable, move in many circles), but also for treating Yannaras as a philosopher first and foremost rather than a theologian. Part one of the text is devoted both to defending Yannaras as a philosopher and to giving a brief summary of Maximus’ thought. On their own, these first four chapters stand as useful summaries of and introductions to Yannaras and Maximus.
The second half of the text is devoted to Maximus on time, which is ostensibly the main subject of the dissertation-turned-book. Chapters five and six again provide ground for Maximus’ theory of time, examining Aristotle’s Physics and Maximus’ theory of motion. The heart of the text is chapters 6-10, which lay out Mitralexis’ thesis for how we should understand Maximus on time. Mitralexis argues that there are three “levels” of temporality in Maximus: time as χρόνος (the temporality of motion), αἰών (time without motion), and στάσις ἀεικίνητος (the beyond-temporality of ever-moving repose). Mitralexis further argues that these three “levels” to time roughly correspond to the well known triad in Maximus of being (εἶναι), ever being (ἀεί εἶναι), and ever well-being (ἀεί εὖ εἶναι). Mitralexis argues for these conclusions in a thorough and well argued reading of several Maximian texts in chapters 8-10: these chapters represent the best and most original scholarship of the text. Maximus’ statements on time are scattered, and Mitralexis masterfully collects them all and organizes them into a coherent framework.
As a dissertation, Ever-Moving Repose is extremely polished and well done. As a book, however, it is weak. The first section examining Yannaras and Maximus is almost entirely irrelevant to the second half of the text. For example, Yannaras is not footnoted even once in chapters 8-10, which form the main scholarship of the book. The disconnect between part one and part two of the text is evident even within part two, given that the first two chapters of this section are devoted to providing the background to Maximus on time through examining Aristotle and Maximus on motion. It is strange to have to devote another two chapters to background, given that the entire first section was supposed to provide that grounding. As such the book consists of three very good and original chapters on Maximus and time, plus several other chapters which talk about Maximus in a general and summary way, plus an interesting but disconnected treatment of Yannaras. Reading between the lines, one is able to see how Mitralexis’ exposition of Maximus’ theory of time can be used to bolster a Yannarasian view, but that connection is not spelled out in the text itself. As such it would have been better to begin the text with the exposition of Maximus on time, and discuss Yannaras and the contemporary reading after this exposition, spelling out how Maximus might be taken up in a contemporary way.
There are several more specific problems with the text beyond its organization. Mitralexis does seem to overstate Maximus’ originality compared to Aristotle. Secondly, Mitralexis, inspired by Yannaras, assumes that there is a Weltanschauung (philosophy or worldview) of Byzantium. This notion is highly contested in literature on Byzantine philosophy. Even if there were a particular worldview of the Byzantines compared to today, then it would not necessarily have consisted in things relevant to contemporary appropriations of Maximus. For example, Galen’s work was widely accepted throughout the Byzantine period and would have been a staple of the Byzantine worldview, but Mitralexis does not seem to have in mind these sorts of scientific claims. Whatever Byzantine Weltanschauung there is would in broad strokes be similar to the Hellenic Weltanschauung, which is related to Mitralexis’ facile treatment of Aristotle. Furthermore, both this text and Maximus as a European Philosopher begin to undermine themselves insofar as they orientalize Maximus, or treat him as representing a certain “otherness” particular to Byzantium. Both volumes contain instances of rhetoric that are reminiscent of Yannaras’ critique and modified appropriation of Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis. If Byzantium is truly other to Europe and the West, then Maximus should not be taken up as a European philosopher. Reorganizing the text would have helped to fix some of these problems. Maximus should first be treated in his own context and his views exposited in detail. Then whatever problems or themes arise from this discussion should be extrapolated into the present based on this exposition.
At its best, Mitralexis’ text is a masterful work of historical Maximian scholarship. This is a double-edged sword, for it leaves the reader wondering if this is truly a work of philosophy, or simply a work about philosophy. This problem is common to both volumes here reviewed. It is a difficult problem to solve, for what is required is scholars versed in ancient philosophy, Maximus, and contemporary thought, and there are very few who fit that bill. Along similar lines, both volumes suffer from an audience problem: who are the ideal readers of these texts? The texts are too scholarly for a popular audience, but are at times a bit too cursory for scholars. Given the importance of the topic and the need to include Maximus within the history of philosophy and to take up Maximus philosophically, I hope these texts will find some audience who will be inspired to further this critically necessary research project.
Taken together, these two volumes form something of a symphony or dialogue on this subject. It is an important conversation, and one that is still just in its infancy.
Nicholas Sooy is a doctoral student in the philosophy department at Fordham University. He works for the Orthodox Peace Fellowship & In Communion.