Lives in competition: Biographical literature and the struggle for philosophy in Late Antiquity
The fourth and fifth centuries witnessed an explosion in the production of biographical literature in both Christian and Neoplatonist circles. Rooted in a tradition of Greek philosophical biography, these works often portray their subjects as embodiments and transmitters of “philosophy,” while authors represent themselves and their communities as philosophical heirs. Through an analytical study of select examples, I argue that the production and proliferation of biographical literature constituted an arena of cultural competition between Christian and Neoplatonist intellectuals where the definition, origins, representatives and historical transmission of philosophy were negotiated. Not a study of the bios as a genre, per se, my intention is to consider the constructed worlds of the texts in relation to the social contexts and practices surrounding their production.
Adapting the social and cultural theory of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to the contexts of the ancient world, I propose an analytical model that starts from commonalities and traces strategies of differentiation. I abandon a rigid “Christian” versus “pagan” model that conceives of the relationship of Christians to Greek culture as one of “borrowing” or “accommodation” (an emic model of cultural exchange inherited by modern scholarship), and suggest instead an analysis that highlights the common cultural heritage Christian and Greek intellectuals shared by virtue of their educational formation and membership in overlapping social networks. Thus, I view “Christians” and “Greeks” as the self-designating terms of two sub-groups of a class of “cultural producers,” competing to accumulate material and symbolic capital, the resources and legitimate authority necessary to define and propagate the dominant societal orthodoxy.
Ultimately, this was a competition over the location of pedagogical authority. Authors of bioi constructed genealogies, which, as accounts of philosophical history, demarcated particular communities (churches and schools) and their leaders (bishops and philosophers) as the rightful heirs and guardians of Truth. Through their choice of untraditional subjects, Christians undermined the Greeks' exclusive association of philosophy with paideia , ethnicity, and the elite male class, and preached a philosophy of “natural virtue” that could be nurtured through the Church. Political intervention and imperial patronage also contributed significantly to the eventual dominance of Christian philosophy.