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Storytime: Exploring Book V of the Stromateis, Part II

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[Corrigendum: around minute 30 we say συμβολικὸς εἶδος; this should be συμβολικὸν εἶδος. The reference to the ‘esoteric’ in Galen referred to is actually applied to the Stoics, not to Aristotle.]

We complete our read-through of the most concentrated tracts of written esotericism to be found in any ancient document, Book V of Clement’s Stromateis. Well, we don’t complete our read-through, because we leave out the final chapter, which is very long and characterised by a notable fall-off in esoteric activity.

The second half of Book V centres on a number of themes – god’s ineffability, the limits of human knowledge vis à vis god, and the sometimes-paradoxical ways in which these disjuncts can be overcome through the mediating power of the logos and the spirit. In expounding these topics Clement bobs and weaves through an incredible hermeneutical terrain, wherein Greek philosophy is esoteric, Christianity is esoteric, and the ineffability of god is esoteric. Clement also engages in appreciation and theoretical discussions of esotericism – why it is a good thing, and why we should all practice epikrypsis, ainigma, the symbolikon eidos, and similar styles of hiding-and-revealing, in a series of disjointed discussions which amount to the single best surviving ‘manual’ of esoteric reading and writing from antiquity.

Along the way he interprets the famous Ephesia grammata, one of the most widespread ‘magical’ formulæ from antiquity, read as an esoteric cosmological symbolon in the Pythagorean mode; outlines the method of mental abstraction (ἀνάλυσις) whereby the Christian gnostic can strip away all attributes from things, resolve them to a dimensionless point which can then be noetised, and then proceed to ‘launch himself toward Christ’; and, last but not least, uses the word ἐσωτερικός for the first time on our podcast.

Works Cited in this Episode:

  • Alcinoös on analysis (which he calls ἐπαγωγή), resulting in an ineffable first principle: Did. 10.
  • The Hermetic Asclepius against external cultic activity: Asclepius 41, Copenhaver: ‘in a hushed voice Asclepius asked: “Tat, do you think we should suggest that your father tell them to add frankincense and spices as we pray to god?” When Trismegistus heard him, he was disturbed and said: “A bad omen, Asclepius, very bad. To burn incense and such stuff when you entreat god smacks of sacrilege. For he wants nothing who is himself all things or in whom all things are. Rather let us worship him by giving thanks, for god finds mortal gratitude to be the best incense.”’ Cf. 20: god has all names and no name.
  • Galen on the esoteric Stoic corpus: Gal 5.313.
  • Pierre Hadot. Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 2nd edition, 1981.
  • Andrew Itter. Esoteric Teaching in the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria. Number 97 in Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae. Texts and Studies of Early Christian Life and Learning. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2009.
  • Origen On First Principles on the indivisibility of the pneuma: I.3.3.

Recommended Reading:

  • Kurt von Fritz. The Discovery of Incommensurability by Hippasus of Metapontum. The Annals of Mathematics, Second Series, 46(2):242–64, Apr. 1945.
  • Judith L. Kovacs. Concealment and Gnostic Exegesis: Clement of Alexandria’s Inter- pretation of the Tabernacle. Studia Patristica, 31:414–437, 1996.
  • Alain Le Boulluec. L’interprétation de la Bible et le ‘genre symbolique’ selon Clément d’Alexandrie. In Veronika Černušková, Judith L. Kovacs, Jana Plátová, and V. Hušek, editors, Clement’s Biblical Exegesis: Proceedings of the Second Colloquium on Clement of Alexandria (Olomouc, May 29-31, 2014), volume 139 of Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, pages 55–79. Brill, Leiden, 2017.
  • Raoul Mortley. Mirror and 1 Cor 13:12 in the Epistemology of Clement of Alexandria. Vigiliae Christianae, 30:109–120, 1976.
  • Jana Plátová. Comprehensive Bibliography on Clement’s Scriptural Interpretation. In Veronika Černušková, Judith L. Kovacs, Jana Plátová, and V. Hušek, editors, Clement’s Biblical Exegesis: Proceedings of the Second Colloquium on Clement of Alexandria (Olomouc, May 29–31, 2014), volume 139, pages 38–52. Brill, Leiden, 2017.
  • Ilaria L. E. Ramelli. Mystérion negli Stromateis di Clemente Alessandrino: Aspetti di continuità con la tradizione allegorica greca. In Angela Maria Mazzanti, editor, In volto del misterio: Misterio e rivelazione nella cultura religiosa tardoantica, pages 83–120. Itaca Libri, Castel Bolognese, Italy, 2006.
  • A.J. Steenbuch. Negative Theology and Dialectics in Clement of Alexandria’s Understanding of the Status and Function of the Scriptures. In Veronika Černušková, Judith L. Kovacs, Jana Plátová, and V. Hušek, editors, Clement’s Biblical Exegesis: Proceedings of the Second Colloquium on Clement of Alexandria (Olomouc, May 29–31, 2014), volume 139 of Supplements to Vigiliæ Christianæ, pages 129–46, Leiden, 2017. Brill.
  • Annewies van den Hoek. Etymologizing in a Christian Context: The Techniques of Clement and Origen. Studia Philonica, 16:122–168, 2004.