17. Mattering Bodies: Beauty, Animacy, and Visibility in Origen's On First Principles
Critical Theory and Early Christianity - Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, and Judith Butler - Matthew G. Whitlock
Peter Anthony Mena [+]
Phillips Theological Seminary
In his On First Principles, the popular third-century Christian philosopher-ascetic Origen of Alexandria writes, “[...] a substance never exists without quality, and that it is by the intellect alone that this substance which underlies bodies and is capable of receiving quality, is discerned to be matter” (4.7). Origen goes on to develop a complex cosmology— rooted in neo-platonic philosophy and buttressed by Christian theology—in which all matter in the universe is imbued with intellect and reason. Because of this, all matter also has the ability to unify itself with a creator God that it shares a part of its intellect with. That all matter posses intellect and reason, and also free will, complicates ideals of animacy both ancient and contemporary alike. More recently theorist and philosopher Judith Butler has been criticized for her abjection of matter—more specifically bodily matter—into the realm of language and discourse thereby rendering the materiality of existence as discursive. In this chapter, I will consider Butler’s theories as well as the relationship between bodily matter and human identity as theorized by philosophers like Linda Martín Alcoff in her monograph Visible Identities. Alcoff’s work demonstrates how critiques of Butler’s theories hinge upon a perceived lack of attention to the lived experiences of racialized and other minoritized bodies. I will utilize Butler’s theories, as well as Alcoff’s, and other feminist critiques of Butler, in tandem with more recent approaches in gender and feminist scholarship under the umbrella of “new materialism,” in order to develop an understanding of Origen’s cosmology that sheds light on contemporary indifferences toward particular bodies. Furthermore, I consider the function and implications of assigning particular degrees of animacy and beauty to different bodies. In the end, I demonstrate that in Origen’s On First Principles, one can glean a complex cosmology that accounts for bodily differences that is both discursive and attuned to the materiality of human existence.