On Nemesius of Emesa
A Review of Nemesius of Emesa on Human Nature: A Cosmopolitan Anthropology from Roman Syria by David Lloyd Dusenbury
The relevance of an antique neoplatonist like Nemesius of Emesa (fl. c. AD 390) might seem doubtful in a period dominated by science and secularism.
Yet, by way of comparison, when we consider the reception of Rene Girard—whose works on mimetic desire paint pagan history as a failure to overcome the scapegoat mechanism that Christ revealed—such an avalanche of attention suggests that Christian anthropology is not the anachronism often supposed. Girard’s popularity may be attributed to his explicit call for a Christian counterattack against its modern rivals, from Nietzsche’s crypto-pagan morality to technological utilitarianism and the weaponizing of shame dynamics. Such an atmosphere, in which the Christian consensus seems to have evaporated, reeks of late antiquity as the cauldron in which that accord was first cooked.
It would be fruitful then to look at that consensus’ first systematic formulation. While it might seem trite to us, Nemesius’ contemporaries knew his synthesizing project—to assimilate multiple traditions, be they Biblical or Gentile, within one Christian rubric—was audacious. His claims, no longer taken for granted as in millenia past, have regained their controversy and likewisetheir ancient prescience. In constructing a scheme that assesses Man’s place and role in Creation, Nemesius’ works recall the idea of Simone Weil who, as Girard phrases it, “held that even before presenting a “theory of God,” a theology, the Gospels offer a “theory of Man,” an anthropology.”
Despite his position as a first mover in Christian anthropology, even within academic circles it is easy to be forgiven for being unfamiliar with Nemesius. Arguably belonging to a secondary tier of theological luminaries, he was a dark horse even in late antiquity. In fact, he was not even mentioned by name for three centuries after his death, until cited in those late codas of the period by Saints Maximos the Confessor (580–662) and Anastasios Sinaita (630–700). A fate perhaps attributable to the Antiochene School’s decline in fortunes after 431 when the Nestorians—more properly the Assyrian Church of the East—entered a period of oblivion. There was little room for a thinker to argue, using Neoplatonism, that union in Christ was not a divine favor but grounded in nature.
The real miracle is that Nemesius’ name was preserved at all given the ancient tendency to foist celebrity authorship on the works of minor figures in order to boost circulation. In Nemesius’ case his works were typically pinned to St. Gregory of Nyssa (335–395)—an Eastern malleus Arianorum—probably because St. John Damascene (675–749) possessed an anonymous manuscript that left him to speculate on its origins. It was a backhanded compliment that John guessed such a sterling text—Nemesius’ On Human Nature (De Natura Hominis)—must have been the work of one of his favorite authors, Gregory. Such was the consequent confusion that in the following centuries their hometowns were often confused: Gregory got paired with Emesa and Nemesius with Nyssa. Later, a twelfth-century Florentine manuscript even claimed Nemesius’ works belonged to “Adamantion,” the ancient equivalent of Mr. Steel. Another—albeit backhanded—compliment, one could suppose.
Likely adding to the author’s obscurity was Emesa’s reputation as a second-rate city, one that serviced trade routes running southwards through Damascus or across the desert to Palmyra. Its main claims to fame include Emesa constituting the center of a sun cult whose priest-princes were of Arab origin and unknown antiquity; second, it representing the spiritual home of the Severan dynasty which was mothered by Julia Domna of Emesa’s priestly house; and third, it lying moderately near the site of Aurelian’s victory over Zenobia in AD 272.
Emesa’s Christian record was more distinguished but even its stars were often outshone. Eusebius of Emesa (300–360), for example, was upstaged by his more famous and sometime sainted namesake in Caesarea, beside his flock having abhorred him for sorcery. It was perhaps after acknowledging its underwhelming reputation that Emesa took to scheming in the fifth century. According to the Chronicle of Marcellinus, during Constantine’s reign the dream of two Syrian monks led them to discover the head of St. John the Baptist in Jerusalem. After they were robbed of it en route home, a vision of John the Baptist disclosed the nature of his booty to the thief who subsequently hid the head in a nearby Emesan cave. The Paschal Chronicle claims this relic was found by monks at Emesa in the Holy Week of AD 452.
Another portion of Nemesius’ obscurity can be ascribed to his style. If it is fashionable today for texts to be truffled with personality, Nemesius adhered to that tradition which celebrated an impersonal tone and the recapitulation of older, venerable lines of thought. Despite the inherent conservative framing of his project, however, Nemesius’ effort—a project to blend the four Galenic, Stoic, Neoplatonic, and Christian outlooks into one seamless garment—was innovative. That the name of his title (“On Human Nature”) lifted from none other than Hippocrates betrays this ambition, as does his effort to reframe the entire fourth-century corpus of knowledge within a Christian apologetic that started from one fundamental axiom: Man consists of soul and body.
In this he was probably indebted to the Stoic Panaetius’ pupil, Posidonius. This forerunner combined the Platonic dialectic of ideas and the pagan doctrine of daemones—that spiritual powers are at work in the universe—with the doctrines of natural law and destiny from Stoicism. In so doing, he constructed a picture of two distinct orders—best simplified as “seen” and “unseen”—sharing one totality of being. Accordingly, the universe constituted an ascending scale of being in which the lower and simpler entities served the higher and more complex ones—with man at its apex capable of both understanding the world and discerning divinity.
Using this framework, Nemesius’ scale is further anchored in moral psychology: for mankind, while pain belongs to the senses, it also changes its spiritual character as we morally improve. And while free will might be fairly constricted, it is still free enough to possess moral gravity. Such was Nemesius’ emphasis on the importance of this ethical dimension that the late sixteenth-century Jesuit, St. Robert Bellarmine—missing the apologetic nature of the text—accused him of Pelagianism.
In the past, classical scholars dismissed Nemesius as a marginal thinker whose merit lay in throwing light on how Hellenic thinkers reasoned in the post-classical era. Yet his achievements included not only synthesizing the four aforementioned traditions—each with their own respective schools—but propping up his arguments with reputable authorities from outside the Church, leaving pagans unable to claim his theories were castles in the sky. Moreover, he wedded Greek aretology to what ultimately amounted to a Christian overhaul (virtue was no longer self-sufficient) without attracting too much negative attention. He clearly did enough to impress St. John Damascene, who paraphrased the author repeatedly, when he closed the patristic age with his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (especially with Bk. II, Ch. 1–44).
Nemesius was revived intermittently: first by the Nestorian Catholicos (Patriarch) Timothy I (740–823), then by Byzantine monastics who relished Nemesius’ treatment of medicine as a branch of orthodox theology. So much for the East . . . in the West his notice came in the mid-eleventh century when Nicolaus Alfanus, archbishop of Salerno, wrote a translation under the title Premnon Physicon (Key to Nature). Less than a century passed before a professor of law at Pisa, Richard Burgundio—who probably brought a copy of Justinian’s Pandects to Pisa in 1137—translated Nemesius. Georgio Valla later made a translation for personal use, and a publisher at Leiden printed it in 1533. Finally, another translation was made by the friar John Cono at the behest of Beatus Rhenanus. After this haphazard trek it entered Europe's vernaculars.
Still, most philosophers ran roughshod over Nemesius after the Western turn from Galenic medicine. This swivel is often overplayed given the physician Galen (129–216) was ultimately a practitioner of rational medicine. What really separated the ancient Greek from his modern successors was the creed of the Stoics; an essential feature being the existence of a world-pneuma (spirit) that later scientists such as Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle balked at in favor of an empiricism that lay beneath little spiritual framework. Here Nemesius offers a point of continuity and departure, being like Galen in sympathy with the ancient account of a spirited cosmos but also, like Bacon, a scientific Christian thinker. In summing up the best of antiquity’s theoretical accounts of nature, his speculative innovation built the framework later modern Christians would use to dispense with it.
Fortunately, David Lloyd Dusenbury, a senior fellow at the Danube Institute whose other books include The Innocence of Pontius Pilate (2021) and A Political Life of Jesus (2022), refreshes scholarship on this neglected figure in his recent book, Nemesius of Emesa on Human Nature (2021). Beginning with the text’s Sitz im Leben (“setting in life”) and its later reception, Dusenbury shunts aside unsympathetic analysis that accuses Nemesius of derivative incoherence, as well as pushes elements of Nemesius’ message into the foreground that, while not particularly original in antiquity, have acquired a distinctive tincture in our post-Christian landscape.
Save for those rare symbolic occasions that cynically benefit from its historic glamor, Christianity has been largely banished from public life. Consequently, this age has drifted from that outlook into a number of perspectives, from an identity politics, which punishes transgressions against progressive sensibilities in a rejection of man’s fallen nature, to techno-messianism, with its faith that technology shall save us from life’s constant travails. And as the tapestry woven during late antiquity has frayed, its ideological threads have become clearer. One of the thickest was Nemesius’ wish to justify the intellectual elevation of Christianity above the world’s ethnic and sectarian mosaic into something that resembled a universal science, to articulate a physiological and spiritual fact that underpinned humanity.
Nemesius’ treatise, as Dusenbury argues, has a tripartite structure in which substance (ousia) facilitates power (dunamis) and power rises to act (praxis). To (overly) simplify the argument, the manner in which God orders mankind (substance–power–act) is revealed in how mankind tries to pattern the world, through our cities, families, and associations that mirror both divine providence and cosmic dimensions. In this account, cities, as man’s physical and political communities, form less an arbitrary excrescence of human genius—as if they were theoretically no more “natural” than vertical villages or other forms of organization—than an intermediate pattern of intelligence between the human and the divine. Key to this reasoning is the idea that Man is a microcosm of a universe that itself reflects the divine will.
For Nemesius, politics parallels spirit and body. Just as the soul has a unique power to rationally govern the subrational elements of the body—which, like wild horses to the charioteer, are capable of rebellion—in a similarly natural vein polities must repress their irrational elements to structure themselves towards the good. Likewise, God ensures his providence balances human freedom with constraints on evil (as human law enforces responsibility for sin) and boons for repentance (that it is possible to pursue the truly good life in a fallen world). In short, God and not Man commands history, but He has control over whether he rises or falls morally within its schemata. This account is not too far afield within late antiquity, but Nemesius was the first to turn it into a science, so to speak.
Dusenbury’s lucidity is laudable. Especially pithy is his description of Nemesius as the “secret master-thinker of Byzantium and Europe.” Though easily dismissed as hyperbole, if Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite is celebrated, and the likes of Sts. Maximos and John Damascene vaunted as Church Fathers, why shouldn’t the first synthesizer who lived several centuries ahead of them be considered their master? Moreover, Dusenbury’s discernment of the aforementioned tripartite structure—in a work that even the Encyclopedia Britannica dismisses as it “lacks logical unity”—is a remarkable feat.
It is regrettable, however, that Dusenbury does not delve deeper into Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, and the monumental shift in philosophy he caused. Once the Stoics had flagged the uniqueness of individuals and attributed it to differences in form, the problem of that form’s nature snowballed in importance. Plotinus took up the question of individuality—albeit incoherently and often without awareness of the significance of the issues involved. His concern was to defend Plato’s two-substance account of the soul-body relationship, fending off Aristotelian and Stoic attacks. His attempts, however, while they convinced the young Augustine, required further advancement and reinforcement, which is probably why Nemesius felt obliged to write De Natura Hominis. But Dusenbury leaves this fascinating backstory unsketched.
Plotinus’ turn towards ontology and anthropology, which Christianity codified, pivoted Western thought to the study of the soul. In other words, what it meant to be human. This question was what made Plato and Aristotle relatable and assimilable to St. Paul, the authors of the New Testament, and the Church Fathers. Furthermore, while Dunesbury’s book is geared to an academic audience, it should be explained to lay readers that Nemesius’ account of the human soul takes after those of Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine—a rational, critical, reflective life-force; an inward divinity which installs an awareness that calls us to intellectualization—and not something like Gilbert Ryle’s parody of the Cartesian “ghost in the machine.” The absence of comment on this intellectual evolution has the potential to render swathes of the book confusing for the uninitiated who remain indebted to later romanticized notions of the soul.
This gets to the crux of why Neoplatonic systems are not taken seriously today: modern philosophy is largely defined by its dissolution of the Neoplatonic truism that the rational and the good are identical. And if their disbandment was so exciting to moderns, perhaps readers would be entertained to see Dusenbury focus on the alchemy that brought them together in the first place. This is why we should care to rehabilitate our antique Christian thinker, Nemesius. The Christian condition, as Girard understood, eroded the play of ancient history in which mankind cloaked its misdeeds in the swagger of mythology. But now we live out that odd postmodern interplay of Nietzschean pagan morality, techno-amorality, and a shame dynamic inherited from Christianity but inverted and weaponized—what is the obsession with constructing “narratives” but a plea to control our own mythology?
Nemesius is original solely as the first synthesizer and systematizer of all the intellectual trends that end up constituting the Christian apparatus. A victim of his success—and the fact that later figures such as John and Maximos did it better and more comprehensively—Nemesius became a little irrelevant. Of course he was revived in the Renaissance but then many Hellenes were copied simply to keep texts alive rather than acknowledge their brilliance. Nemesius is less important for being cited or having influenced anybody in particular than the sheer fact that his work became so axiomatic to later thought he essentially became obsolete.
To turn the Gospel into theory, fusing the good with being, was to build a tool that could be later misused and abused. What was assumed to constitute a Christian consensus did not require much thought in later times. Like electric wiring, while its rubber tubes rarely invite dissection once the insulation has dissolved to show the cable inside, all is suddenly open to debate. Socrates once questioned the pater familias consensus, effectively asking 'why are we treating the family as a no-go for societal molding?' We have done the same with what Nemesius invented, with chaotic attempts to reforge the soul, being and good be damned.
Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 44. ↩︎
Though, thankfully, another manuscript at the Bodleian Library in Oxford corrected matters by noting that Adamantion must be a moniker for Nemesius. ↩︎
David Lloyd Dusenbury, Nemesius of Emesa on Human Nature: A Cosmopolitan Anthropology from Roman Syria (Oxford, UK: OUP, 2021). ↩︎
Plato, Republic, 5.461c. ↩︎
Featured image: The Philosophers' Wood painting (1846–1850) by Salvator Rosa courtesy of The National Gallery.