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André Villey- Alexander of Lycopolis: ‘Against the doctrines of the Manicheans’

Manichaean priests, writing at their desks. Eighth or ninth century manuscript from Gaochang, Tarim Basin, China. Leaf from a Manichaean Book. Khocho (Khocho kingdom), Ruin K. 8th/9th century AD. Painting on paper. 17.2x 11.2 cm. “MIK III 6368” recto.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are paragraphs from Alexander of Lycopolis’ s neglected treatise, ‘Contre la doctrine de Mani (Against the doctrines of the Manicheans, original tittle: Pros tas Manikhaiou doxas)’, edited, translated and commented by André Villey, Les Editions du Cerf, 1985, Paris. Selected paragraphs and commentaries’ English translation by HYGEIA.

André Villey, a student of professor Michel Tardieu, successfully obtained his diploma from the prestigious Ecole Pratique Des Hautes Etudes in 1984 with the edition, translation from the Greek and commentaries of the third century C. E. Neoplatonist philosopher from Lycopolis, Egypt, publishing his work a year later to the prestigious publishing company, les Editions du Cerf. The other members of the Jury were Ilstraut Hadot and Alain Le Boulluec. Andre Villey received his PHD in 1989 (same members of the jury), with the edition, translation and commentaries of ‘Psaumes des errants. Écrits manichéens du Fayyum.’ Also published at Editions du Cerf in 1994.

Alexander of Lycopolis (modern name: Assiout) did not write his treatise against the Manicheans by hearsay or through books of others but after numerous contacts with the local heads of the religious group, Mani’s direct disciples, Papos (also written Pappos) and Thomas (also written Thilmas). This is the earliest refutation known to us, a unique glance into the Manichean dualistic religion, as seen by a Neoplatonist philosopher in Upper Egypt, during the third century C.E.

The work is a specimen of Greek analytical procedure’, “a calm but vigorous protest of the trained scientific intellect against the vague dogmatism of the Oriental theosophies” (from the Wikipedia for Alexander of Lycopolis).

Our paragraphs choice is motivated by the sections discussing mythology and astronomy consistent with our core interests at HYGEIA.


Paragraph 20 (16.9-17.2)

‘…Moreover, the Manicheans far surpassed the mythologists, those who emasculate Ouranos, imagine plots schemed against Chronos by his son, eager to overthrow him for his power, or who, to this same Chronos again, make him eat his children and then say how he was tricked by the appearance of the stone presented to him. Their sayings are they not of the same order, when they simply introduce a struggle of matter against God? And they even do not intend in a figurative manner, as would Homer do in the Iliad, when he shows Zeus enjoying the scene of the gods fighting against each other, so to mean by that that the world is composed of dissimilar elements adjusted to each other and sometimes rule, sometimes are dominated. If I have mentioned this, it is because I am familiar with these sorts of people: when the arguments come to miss, they gather from all sides certain quotations of poems to draw a justification of their own dogmas. Nevertheless, this would not have happened if they would have taken a bit more care in the company of an author, whomever he may be.’

Andre Villey’s commentary for Paragraph 20 (16.9-17.2)

In the eyes of Alexander, the Manichean myth of the invasion (of Paradise) is at the same time absurd and immoral: absurd, because it ascribes to matter-which Mani defines nevertheless as the absolute evil-a violent desire for good; immoral, because it gives of God an image unworthy of His might and goodness. But the Manicheans are not the only ones to have deserved such reproaches. Since the sixth century B.C.E. at least, a whole current of the Greek Thought-of which Plato is the most prominent representative- pleased itself in addressing the same criticisms to the ‘mythographers’ (μυθοποιος, muthopoios,16,9) that is essentially Homer and Hesiod, guilty of misspeaking about the gods. The two episodes that Alexander quotes to put them in parallel with the Manichean creation myth-Ouranos’ emasculation and Chronos’ voracity engulfing his own children on one side, and the struggle of the gods in the Iliad on the other- feature prominently in all the anthologies of scabrous passages drawn by the philosophers. But, very early also-the two movements as J. Pepin had demonstrated are contemporary, without us knowing which one influenced the other-the use of allegory imposed itself as a mean to ‘save’ myth, in seeing in it the figurative transposition of natural phenomenon (the ‘physical’ allegory dear to the Stoics), of mental or ethical processes (psychological or moral allegories), even of real historical events (realistic allegory, often tainted with Euhemerism). The best formula of this dilemma is given to us by the Stoic Heraclides of Pontus who wrote, “Homeric Allegories’ and said about Homer: ‘Everything with him is impious if nothing is allegorical” (penta gar esebesen, ei meden ellegoresen).

Alexander obviously knows this way of treating myth, as he uses the technical terms of the allegory (di’hupomoias, 16,16; ainittomenos, 16,18-19) and the ‘physical’ interpretation of the struggle of the gods he may have read it in Heraclides’ work. But, far from applying to the Manichean creation myth the rule that makes of an absurd and immoral appearance the sign of a deep speculative content, accessible only through the allegorical method. Alexander obstinately refuses to do so. For two reasons, it seems. First, if he does not deny the existence in the poets’ works-and we will see it also later in the Bible-of a teaching hidden behind the veil of symbols, Alexander manifests a certain temper towards those who always use quotes from poets in philosophical discussions. His mention of ‘this kind of people’ he his familiar with (gignosko tous toioutous, 16,21) and who, ’when their arguments come to lack, gather from all sides poems quotations to draw justification of their own dogmas’ (16,21-24) certainly aims in particular ‘the most educated of the Manicheans’ (8,5) and the parallels with Greek mythology they endeavored to establish to win over people’s minds to their cause. However, it strangely reminds us also some sentences from Sextus Empiricus of a broader scope: “To invoke the testimony of poets is not the mark of a well born philosopher, whose reason suffices to itself to win acceptance, but the mark of those who abuse the faith of great crowd of the Agora.” (I, 280, Adv. Mathematicos). That’s totally in line with Alexander’s attacks agains the ‘psukhagogia’ (8,12). In Addition, if the abuse of the allegory to serve a given philosophical system is a method which arouses-because being too ‘popular’- Sextus’ and Alexander’s contempt, let’s not forget that is was also the favorite weapons of the Stoics. But Alexander is unfavorable to their system, which he frequently associates with Manicheism. And this leads us to the second announced reason, which is rather paradoxical in nature. At the same time, he expresses the concerns we just saw about the traditional use of allegory-the one that takes as a basis the works of the poets- Alexander practices himself a sort of permanent allegory when in his treatise, he connects the sayings of Mani with the main philosophical Greek doctrines. From this point of view, it is not surprising that he does not linger here to demonstrate why we cannot see in the Manichean creation myth the figurative expression of an abstract truth, alike those the Stoics were eager to find within Homer and Hesiod’s works: It is the whole ‘Against the doctrines of the Manicheans’ that consists in a decisive demonstration of the inanity of the Manichean mythology. So, for Alexander, behind the veil, there is nothing but void.


Paragraph 35 (29, 26-30,13)
Myth and astronomy

They say that the sun and the moon separate little by little the divine might from matter and send it back to God: the moon collects it in itself from the period of the new to the full moon and then hands it over to the sun, who in turn hands it to God. If they would have attended the classes of the schools of astronomy, they wouldn’t not have fallen into such mistakes, and would not have ignored that the moon (according to some astronomers is deprived of its proper light) receives its light from the sun, and that its phases depend from the distances it stands to the sun; hence, it is full moon each time it is away from the sun by hundred ninety degrees, and it is in conjunction with the sun every time it moves on the same degree.


Andre Villey’s commentary for paragraph 35 (29, 26-30,13)
Myth and astronomy

It is first with the astronomers that Alexander seeks his allies against the Manicheans. Less than a century later, it is also the confrontation of the teachings of Mani with those of the Hellenic astronomy that will inspire Augustine his first doubts and will end up detaching him from the Manichean doctrines: “I was confronting these astronomical data to the teachings of Manes, who wrote on the subject endless folies. I could not find with this author the rational explanation of neither the solstices nor the equinoxes, neither the eclipses, nor nothing more that I could find in lay man’s wisdom books. I was summoned to believe; but this belief did not fit with the mathematical demonstrations, nor with the eye-sight testimony: it was even quite estranged from it.” Augustine affirmation, that: “Manes multiplied so much these kinds of affirmations that he grew a reputation of being ignorant by the real knowledgeable”, especially upon the questions regarding “the sky, the stars, the movements of the sun and moon”, shows moreover that this kind of scientific astronomical refutation of which we find with Alexander the very first example, endured over and over in time and was duly exploited.

The Manichean theory is wholly underlined by the idea that the moon brings its light to the sun. Therefore, it is the proof for Alexander of ignorance: ‘If they would have at least taken lessons at the astronomical schools, they would not have fallen into such mistakes’ (30,5-7). In fact, the question whether the moon has its own light, besides the light it takes from the sun, is a question still debated during Alexander’s time, as it was at the time of the pseudo-Plutarch and his ‘De placitis philosophorum’ (who himself makes this debate originating with Thales and the theory of the reverberation of the solar light upon the moon), so there is no point for Alexander to discuss it. The light of the moon and its phases have nothing to do with the posthumous journey of the souls, but solely depend upon the position of this planet in regard of the sun. Hence, here, mythology finds itself dethroned by science.


More about Alexander of Lycopolis: 🌿 More about Mani and the Manicheans: 🌿
André Villey- Alexander of Lycopolis: ‘Against the doctrines of the Manicheans’

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