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Fantasizing Philosophers: Thecla and the Symbolic Imagination in Methodius of Olympus’ Symposium

Dawn LaValle

This paper argues that Methodius of Olympus’ 3rd century CE dialogue, the Symposium; or On Chastity, revolutionizes the traditional setting and characterization of the literary Symposium by placing it in an allegorical space and time, and peopling it with historical figures who, against their allegorical backdrop, serve a purely symbolic role.  Jason König has recently reminded us that one of the delights of the Sympotic genre is its ability to create imagined communities, not only with contemporary intellectual circles, but also with the voices of the past (König 2012, 40-52).  The first Symposia of Xenophon and Plato, as part of the wider genre of Sokratikoi Logoi, memorialized the period of a generation earlier, especially the person of Socrates and his circle.  Plutarch, with his typical generic playfulness, sets his two Symposia on either side of his predecessors’ temporal choice: the Symposium of the Seven Sages set far back in the legendary past, and the Quaestiones Convivales set in Plutarch’s own lifetime, with himself as an active participant. 

The temporal setting of Methodius’ Symposium has left many commentators baffled.  The problem hinges on the fact that among the ten female participants at the party, only one of them is a known historical personage: Thecla, the (in)famous companion of St. Paul.  However, the temporal positioning is complicated by the impression that all of the women have already died.  Against Musurillo, who wishes to see the dramatic date of the Symposium as “the days of Thecla” (Musurillo 1958, 12), my paper argues that Methodius does not use Thecla as an anchoring historical persona, and that we are not to read his Symposium as a creative anachronism along the lines of Plato, Xenophon or Plutarch’s Symposium of the Seven Sages.  Rather Thecla acts as a symbol of Methodius’ new ideal of Christian education, seen most clearly in the hostess’ emphasis on Thecla’s proficiency in both secular philosophy and divine knowledge (Musurillo 1958, 105).  Methodius’ Symposium attempts to create a new definition of intellectual elite—female, ascetic, quick-witted and spiritually ambitious.

The reason that we can be sure that Thecla is acting out a symbolic role as the model of the new elite is because she is set against an allegorical chronotope.  One of the virgins, Tusiane, helpfully gives us the necessary interpretive tool to comprehend where we are by explaining the rationale behind correct allegorical interpretation.  The mountaintop garden owned by “Virtue the daughter of Philosophy” is a literary intensification of the situation where the readers themselves exist, poised in the world of images after the shadow world of the Jewish period, but before vaulting into the reality of the world to come (Musurillo 1958, 131-140).  Biblical interpretational methods can be turned onto Methodius’ own text, revealing that he is constructing a world of “images” in order to point to ultimate reality yet to come.  Counter-intuitively, the symbolism of the landscape and participants tightens the text’s closeness to the reader, who herself dwells in the period of images, and the dramatic date of the event is brought forward from the past to the present, with constant anticipation of the future.

 In the absence of historical markers for any of the other female participants besides Thecla, and the clearly symbolic landscape and hostess, I argue that we are not meant to think of Methodius’ Symposium as a record of a past conversation, but rather as a concurrent event in an allegorical space that emphasizes the fact that the entire world is abiding in images awaiting the final coming of Christ.  Methodius’ symbolic landscape and participants point not to the past but to the present and especially to the future, and in doing so begins a new trend in Sympotic literature that would later be further developed in Julian the Apostate’s Symposium; or Caesars.

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Representation and Self-Representation in Imperial Greek and Latin Dialogues

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