304. Behind Enemy Lines: John of Damascus

Posted on 1 July 2018

John of Damascus helps to shape the Byzantine understanding of humankind and the veneration of images, despite living in Islamic territory.

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Further Reading

• F.H. Chase (trans.), Saint John of Damascus: Writings (Washington DC: 1958). 

• R. Glei and A.T. Khoury, Johannes Damaskenos und Theodor Abū Qurra: Schriften zum Islam (Würzburg: 1995).

 

• S.H. Griffith, The Beginning of Christian Theology in Arabic (Burlington: 2002).

• E. Grypeau et al. (eds.), The Encounter of Eastern Christianity with Early Islam (Leiden: 2006).

• S.L. Husseini, Early Christian-Muslim Debate on the Unity of God: Three Christian Scholars and Their Engagement with Islamic Thought (9th century C.E.) (Leiden: 2014).

• A. Louth, St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology (Oxford: 2009).

• S. Markov, Die metaphysische Synthese des Johannes von Damaskus : historische Zusammenhänge und Strukturtransformationen (Leiden: 2015).

• P. Khoury, “Jean Damascène et l'Islam,” Proche-Orient Chrétien 7 (1957),  44-63; 8 (1958), 313-39.

• V. Kontouma, John of Damascus: New Studies on his Life and Works (Farnham: 2015).

• P. Schadler, John of Damascus and Islam: Christian Heresiology and the Intellectual Background to Earliest Christian-Muslim Relations (Leiden: 2018).

Comments

Thomas L Hutcheson 13 July 2018

Professor Adamson:

Perhaps it is too late (but maybe it can still be shoehorned into Byzantine philosophy), but would it be possible to do an episode around the philosophy of the Nicean-Chalcedonian concepts of the two natures of Christ.  I have in mind the  homoousion and the homoiousion and how in one person and why ousia got to be substantia when you said that Cicero had “invented” esia to translate ousia.

Peter Adamson 14 July 2018

In reply to by Thomas L Hutcheson

Actually a lot of the episode about Maximus (number 106) is about this issue. It comes up a bit in Byzantium too like in the most recent one on John of Damascus but I think that will remain the most in-depth discussion, since I don't really need to cover it twice.

Robert Mayhew 2 August 2018

Do you know Michael Frede's "John of Damascus on Human Action, the Will, and Human Freedom," in Katerina Ierodiakonou ed., Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources (OUP 2002)? I found it very useful. (I've left my comfort zone, and am teaching for the first time this Fall a course [for non-majors] on Ancient Greek Christian Philosophy. I'll begin with Justin Martyr and might even go as far as Maximus the Confessor or John of Damascus, depending on time. I was prompted to create this course in part by listening to your Episodes 101-106. Whether in the end I’ll be thankful for being so prompted, or cursing you under my breath, remains to be seen. :  ) ) 

Yes, I've read that and was actually thinking of drawing on it for this episode but it got too full. Great piece of course - Frede was a giant.

Good luck with the course, that is awesome! I wish more people would teach this material.

On Byzantine P… 8 October 2018

 

hello there! I’m a long time listener of the podcast. I would like to preface this by stating that I really enjoyed your episodes on Medieval Latin and Islamic philosophy, however one of my major criticisms of them, especially your episodes on post Avicenna philosophy, is that you seem to overstate your case. It is a major problem that is surfacing here as well. What I mean is simply that your thesis for many of these episodes can be summed up as ‘most people think these eras are pointless, but let me show you why that is not so.’ That’s fine and all, and you did a good job of convincing me that this is the case in most of your episodes on post Avicenna philosophy, but you emphasize your argument way, way too much. I’m not a professional rhetorician or anything, but when i’m Listening to a presentation or giving one myself, I find that they are far more persuasive when the argument is not stated but implied. Now, of course you need to give a thesis statement or a summary, but if you constantly repeat that you are arguing something and trying to respond to critics, it starts to feel like you’re trying to pull one over me. I think a good metaphor would be a used car salesman. If a salesman simply says, ‘the car can do X, Y, and Z, in comparison to rival car B, and I’ll give it to you for 3,000’- I find that to be more persuasive than ‘You’ll never find a better deal! This car can do X Y and Z far better than B, and it’s only 3000! I repeat only 3000!’

Do you see what I mean? To borrow a Wittgenstein metaphor, show it, don’t say it. Let the facts speak for themselves. That’s my main criticism. It’s really annoying and unpersuasive when you do that and I really don’t want to feel like i’m Listening to a tirade like I felt listening to the post Avicenna episodes. 

One more criticism: you say that this is philosophical, and I know you have a broad definition, but I feel like you’re really pushing it here. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good theological episode every now and again- the church father episodes were some of the best I found- but if all the Byzantines did is theology or philosophy in the aid of theology, the facts speak more powerfully than rhetoric and it really does start to sound like you’re trying to sell your listeners a lemon. I tried listening to the Africa episodes and I found that they had this problem except far, far worse, but I still have hope for the Byzantines. Again, you convinced me that the church fathers and some post- Avicenna philosophers were good as most other eras, but the facts speak for themselves in the case of Africa and your series in Andalusia. I really hope that this series will be more like the former than the later.

P. s. I find the Thomist distinction between the sciences to be really helpful here. If it falls too hardly on the side of literature, theology, magic, or science, rather than philosophy, it’s probably best to summarize rather than to go into depth. (Unless you want to make a theological or scientific side series) 

 

Yes, I see what you mean and I take the point - maybe it would indeed be good if I didn't jump to the meta-level so often and say "so this is interesting, right?" That's good advice. On the other hand I think that for instance in the first episode on Byzantine thought I did need to come to grips explicitly with the claim that Byzantium basically has no philosophy, since that has been argued prominently and if it were true then the whole series would be pointless or misconceived.

I don't really agree with the end of your comment, though: when you start saying "this is literature/magic/theology therefore it isn't philosophy" I just reject that dichotomy. As I always like to say, philosophy is where you find it. I am obviously not saying that John of Damascus was primarily a philosopher rather than a theologian; he was primarily a theologian, yet also an author who merits our attention as historians of philosophy.

It's certainly true that I have what you might think of as a maximally broad approach: as I also always say, my policy is "if in doubt, include it" (with the only constraint really being what I can practically manage to get on top of in a reasonable amount of time, and keeping the series from getting preposterously long). Of course I am kind of just following my own taste and subjective sense of what is philosophically interesting and I am fallible, to say the least. But I would be much happier if I included 20% too much than 20% too little. The way I see it, the worst that happens is that we learn something about, say, African or Byzantine culture, or magic, or science, or the history of religion, without necessarily being convinced that what we learned was indisputably about "philosophy." This will hardly do us any harm and in fact the extra stuff learned is inevitably going to provide context or interesting contrasts for material that everyone agrees is philosophy.

In any case the goal here is not to draw a bold line around "philosophy" and keep arguably extraneous stuff from getting in, it is to be curious and open-minded. And if you already bought into the late Islamic stuff, which is really not on the usual itinerary at all, then you are convinced that it works at least some of the time! So for the same reasons I'd urge you to stick with the Africana series, which is going to be covering quite a lot of different kinds of material, a lot of which is traditionally considered philosophy anyway, and all of which has at least been the subject of serious scholarship written from a philosophical point of view, the scholarship we are drawing on in writing the scripts.

I was planning on saving this for when i caught up, but since this comment already touched upon the same themes, I'll share my opinion now.

I think this podcast is at its best when it is teaching philosophy.  I'll elaborate:  as you have said before, doing history of philosophy is doing philosophy as much as it is doing history.  Likewise, teaching (podcasting) history of philosophy needs to teach both history and philosophy.  You do a great job all the time with covering the people and events and context that goes with the history part, and for the most part do a great job teaching philosophy.  However, in some sections (Eastern Traditions most notably), I felt like I wasn't learning philosophy as much as I was being told that I should take these people seriously as philosophers. 

But the thing was, by listening to the episode, I was already giving them a chance to be treated seriously, and if I left knowing more about philosophy than I went in with (at least in the bounds of this podcast) then i would have judged them worthwhile automatically.  Where as when i hear that philosophy did not die in the east with al-Ghazali, and we should take it seriously, and the philosopher wrote commentaries on Avicenna, and we should take commentaries seriously, but then I walk away with very little beyond that, my impulse is to take the people less seriously.  (The same often happens when more than one episode is devoted to a whirlwind tour where I just hear a bunch of names and a vague outline of why i should care about them, though for different reasons).

Now, I do think that line can be used a little in the episodes without detracting, and could even be the entire focus of the introduction episode (or an entire interview).  But overall, when it comes to dominate an episode that could be on the philosophy those thinkers were doing, it detracts from both the episode and from the message you are trying to convey.

-Alexander W. Johnson

PS:  I did not have a problem with this episode (or Iconoclasm), I thought the use of philosophy to handle a theological problem, and the clear establishment of this as context for future episodes made this doubly clear as a worthwhile episode. 

PPS:  For your broad approach.  I've been mentally categorizing it along the lines of "If it was consider philosophy at the time, or if philosophers would consider it philosophy now, then it counts"

PPPS:  As I don't want to go away with a negative message for one of my favourite podcasts, I'll say that my favourite moments are when you do an unspoken "i know what you're thinking".  When you come in and give a response to a likely 1st objection, it makes the ideas feel more robust, and gives the philosopher a stronger character.  A strong second goes to when you take a narrow issue, and show how it is tied up in wider philosophical considerations, or is dependent on other seemingly unrelated aspects.

Peter Adamson 13 January 2020

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Yes that's a good point and I have thought about that a lot myself, that if I really want to convince people that a given text/figure is worth paying attention I have to produce some interesting ideas. The best way to do that is to go really deep into one topic, but then one often loses the big picture of what is going on plus if you want to convey the sheer fact that in a given century there were, like, 100 interesting or at least potentially philosophers then it is obviously impossible to show that with detailed discussion of one idea in one thinker. The sheer number and continuity, in other words, is often important - that would be my defense of the Eastern Tradition episodes and also for instance the episode on post-Byzantine Greek thought which is a real whirlwind tour. On the other hand I try to get in thematic episodes or focus on one idea in a given thinker - e.g. the episode on the existence debate in the Eastern Tradition - and mix these with the "hey look at all these figures" episodes. So I am trying for a balance but you are fundamentally right that you don't make something interesting just by saying it is interesting, or that it exists.

Bear in mind too by the way that in some of these cases the terrain being described is incredibly badly researched, so it is not so easy to dive in and find a suitable topic for discussing in depth - hence my goal is to point out that there is a big tradition in need of further research. It may be that you aren't quite in the target audience for that message, since to some extent I am trying to get that across to people who already have a view of the relevant field and need to be talked out of it, whereas it sounds like you are just kind of open-minded and want to hear interesting stuff, wherever it comes from.

I don't think this problem is unique to these ignored cultures by the way; like, what will I do about the hundreds of French 17th philosophers who weren't Descartes? Same problem, basically.

Incidentally I really like your PPS, that captures my approach very nicely.

Alexander Johnson 14 January 2020

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Hmm, yeah, i understand the problem.  One thing i had thought is that you might need to eventually make a clear differentiation between "without any gaps" and "without any borders".  I had always understood "without any gaps" to mean you would get us from A to D without skipping B & C (to be a gap there has to be something on both side).  That goal is fairly realistic.

Meanwhile, i'm sure your natural impulse will be to do as few borders as possible, but accepting that setting a border is not leaving a gap may make it easier to leave something out of the project as it becomes more and more clear that you are going to have to anyways (it could even be freeing, as then you can give time to the minor figures that you found particularly interesting, or that talked about a topic that was being under covered, or formed an interesting contrast with a major figure, without worrying that any were obliged to be included)

Actually my original intent was no gaps... in Western (including Islamic) philosophy and then there was mission creep to no borders as I became convinced, partially by listeners, that the project would be more meaningful and worthwhile if it looked at more global traditions. For now I am pretty happy shooting for the ideal and then admitting that I fell short, whenever I have to stop.

Andrew Maclaren 18 June 2022

In reply to by Peter Adamson

A work of art is never finished, only abandoned. - I think that is from Da Vinci but I am not certain.
 

Either way, the final goal doesn't matter too much in and of itself than just what you cover. If you do somehow achieve the ideal, great, but that is just the cherry on top compared to just covering it itself, if you get my distinction. Say if you get 90% (whatever that means) done, that is only really a 10% difference from 100%, so there isn't much difference between getting really far and actually completing it. It is more about the content you (have) produce(d) than the arbitrary milestone that drives you making said content, if that makes sense.

Peter Adamson 18 June 2022

In reply to by Andrew Maclaren

Yes, that does make sense and it's a comforting thought! Actually the feedback I get tends to be more that my approach is too comprehensive and slow not that it is too incomplete. But maybe the omissions are more annoying when you are also being made to go through everything step by step.

Andrew Maclaren 18 June 2022

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Hey man, if people want to know Descartes or Kant, there are tons of resources online.

I say that, but that might be too unfair. Your format is very accessable for people and has helped introduce people to many topics and people they may not have known otherwise. I can imagine some of the impatience comes from wanting to know people that they have heard from with the former sentence in mind (I know I can't wait for Kant, Hegel, Marx and Husserl myself with some context added). But they are well trodden ground resources wise, and while you will add something to them that most people won't get with most resources (mainly, context from renaissance and medieval philosophy), you are giving a fantastic resource for people and topics who certainly don't have nearly as much.

On a side note, I got two questions. First, are you going to cover The Diggers/True Levellers? As you may guess with me listing Marx, I am interested in the history of socialist thought, and would love to learn about these pre-marxist socialists. Second, are you going to cover John Wesley? My mom is religious and has a background of Methodism, so she would love an episode on him.

Thanks!

Oh yes I would definitely do the Diggers and Levellers. And Wesley too, I'm sure, but these are all topics for future series so I haven't mapped them out in my head yet. Of course we're seeing the background to a lot of this in the current series, like the episodes on the Peasants War and of course earlier movements within Protestantism.

And thanks for the encouragement in the first paragraph!

Prof. Dr. Naji… 4 March 2022

I would like to allow myself to invite you all to read: 

Najib George Awad, Umayyad Christianity: John of Damascus as a Contextual Example of Identity Formation in Early Islam, Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2018. 

John of Damascus is not a Byzantine who lived behind enemy lines. This is categorically, historically and contextually WRONG!

Thanks for the reference Prof Awad. I wouldn't get too hung up on the title, as you'll see if you look through the series more generally they are usually pretty light-hearted. And he certainly regarded Islam as an "enemy" faith in some sense. Anyway I am pretty sure the episode doesn't call him a "Byzantine," to the contrary I say early on in it that he lived "outside the Byzantine empire."

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