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Polyvalent Poikilia: The Slippery Concept of Variety in Methodius of Olympus’ Symposium

Dawn LaValle

Magdalen College, University of Oxford

When the genre of the miscellany experienced a growth in popularity during the Imperial period, its influence bled into a number of texts in neighboring genres. This paper will investigate one of these miscellanistic-influenced Imperial texts, the Symposium of Methodius of Olympus. I will argue in this paper that although Methodius takes on board much of the positive valuation surrounding poikilia as an aesthetic term popularized by miscellanistic writers, he also displays an unease with some types of variety, using poikilia also to refer to the negative wiliness associated with the devil. This two-fold interpretation gives pause to the miscellanistic tendencies, and reorients them towards a new hierarchy of values in the later Imperial age.

Methodius’ Symposium, a 3rd century AD Christian philosophical dialogue, contains a series of ten speeches by the all-female participants on the subject of chastity. The speeches are a glamorous mélange of creative interpretations of often marginal scriptural texts, many of which at first sight seem to have little to do with chastity. Methodius encourages his readers to view his offering of speeches as a miscellany by opening the dialogue with a description of the setting in a meadow full of a variety of odiferous flowers at a dinner set with a variety of foods, both metaphors used frequently in miscellanistic texts (and both using poikilia-terms). The virgins and their speeches are themselves varied, but even more importantly, Methodius’ speakers talk of their own rhetoric as varied (three of the speakers using poikilia-terms to describe their speech-making activity).

However, there is a conflicting use of these terms in the dialogue. Twice poikilia-terms are used to describe the scheming deceptions of the devil, once at the very opening of the dialogue and once in its concluding poem. By bookending his varied treatment in this way, Methodius warns his readers that variety is not always a good. The negative valuation of variety here complicates an effort to claim that Methodius’ aesthetics are continuous with his miscellany-writing peers. While the virgins claim that their ability to approach the same topic from a variety of positions is a gift from God, they also claim that it is necessary to subordinate this rush of creativity to an order and a hierarchy. They make explicit the need for order that is often submerged in miscellanistic texts, and the image Methodius consistently uses for this order in diversity is the woven garland. Variety must be subordinated to the correct goal in order to remain desirable.

The modern editor of Methodius, Herbert Musurillo, suggests that Methodius might have had an encyclopedic intent in his Symposium, not only writing about the purported topic, chastity, but including such a rich array of other topics that the Symposium could be used as a “manual of Christian doctrine, of philosophy and theology, unified under the concept of chastity” (Musurillo 1958, 11). This seems to overstate the sufficiency in the virgins’ speeches and to posit a totalizing intent that I do not find in the work. Far from being a summula theologiae (Jeanneret 1991, 161), the virgins’ speeches seem noteworthy in their partiality: extremely minor passages in the Old Testament are chosen upon which to comment, thereby pointing up the fact that any bit of Scripture could be used for this purpose, if read with enough ingenuity. Like the miscellanies of Plutarch and Athenaeus, the variety and seeming randomness of the approaches taken to the topic reveal the method that should be used by an appropriately educated (and in this case Christian) speaker. Yet it is a method that cannot be safely divorced from content. Methodius is keen to remind his readers that when that happens, divine rhetoric becomes diabolical.

Session/Panel Title

Characterizing the Ancient Miscellany

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