Thesis Defense: Neoplantonism and Monotheism in Late Antique Rome

Amidst the parade of job candidates for the Classics position here at the University of North Dakota, I was able to squeeze in a thesis defense. Tom Bakerud successfully defended his thesis on Neoplatonism and Monotheism in Late Antique Rome yesterday.  He was my second-to-last active graduate student (and then there was one…) so it was a great pleasure and relief to have him defend successfully.

The defense was collegial, but rigorous, and Tom comported himself well.

Here’s the abstract for his thesis:

This thesis is a response to the idea that the fourth century pagan aristocracy in Rome was polytheistic and experienced a transition from polytheistic paganism to monotheistic Christianity.  Moreover, it argues against the idea that Christianity had primary agency in the spread of monotheism throughout the Roman world at the elite level.  I suggest instead that the development of monotheism was influenced primarily by Neoplatonism in the second century C.E., which fostered a general monotheistic discourse shared by Christians and non-Christians alike.

Previous scholarship on Roman religion and philosophy in the fourth century interpreted the relationship between pagans and Christians as a binary opposition or conflict in which Christianity eventually usurped the primacy of polytheistic pagans and established a unified, monotheistic religion.  Edward Gibbon initiated the idea of binary opposition with his work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the late 18th century.  Subsequently, 20th century scholars of Late Antiquity such as Ramsay MacMullen, Charles Freeman, and Robin Lane Fox continued to view fourth century religion in terms of a binary opposition between polytheistic pagans and monotheistic Christians.  Their interpretations however fell prey to fourth century Christian rhetoricians and polemicists.

Nuanced studies and historiographical works on the subject of Late Antique religion have dismissed the idea of binary opposition in favor of the new concept of ‘pagan monotheism’.  21st century scholars of Late Antiquity such as Michael Frede, Peter Van Nuffelen, Polymnia Athanassiadi, and Stephen Mitchell argued in favor of a monotheistic pagan religion in the fourth century, founded primarily on Neoplatonic concepts.

This thesis provides a nuanced study of pagan monotheism in the Western Roman Empire, focusing closely on the writings of pagan and Christian aristocrats and intellectuals.  My method relies primarily on a paradigm of Kantian Idealism, Foucauldian discourse analysis, and case-studies of specific primary sources. Chapter three of my thesis will consist of case-studies which highlight specific fourth century pagan and Christian writers, and the Neoplatonic and monotheistic elements within their writings.  The primary sources that I focus on are mostly letters and treatises of a political, literary, and philosophical nature.  The overall purpose of this thesis is to supplement previous research on the concept of pagan monotheism by focusing on the neglected Western Roman Empire, and also to encourage further research by other scholars of Late Antiquity.

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