Posthuman Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean Thought

Becoming Angels and Demons

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M. David Litwa
  • Cambridge: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     2020.
     248 pages.
     $99.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781108921572.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this pioneering and wide-ranging work, Posthuman Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean Thought, M. David Litwa connects contemporary conversations in transhumanist thought with ancient philosophical traditions of angelification (alternatively, “daimonification”). Chief among this book’s virtues is its impressive range: Litwa provides comparative analyses of authors from Greco-Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Hermetic traditions, ranging from the 8th century BCE to the 3rd century CE. Litwa’s work is inclusive even of traditions too often treated as marginal (e.g., “Gnostic” texts), providing a basis for fresh comparative insights.

Across this broad array of traditions and time periods, Litwa expertly traces both shared strands and distinctive emphases in ancient understandings of angelification. Platonic traditions provide a connective thread for the work: key case studies include chapters on Plato, Philo, Origen, and Plotinus, among others. Angelification and daimonification in these authors, Litwa argues, “form part of a single, if constantly renegotiated, tradition of posthuman transformation” (17).

Individual chapters provide an introduction to the respective authors, and an overview of angelification or daimonification in the author’s (or range of authors’) works. Litwa’s analysis remains primarily at the introductory level, without delving too deeply into the historical or literary contexts that shaped each author’s portrayals. This book will serve doubly well, then, as both an informative entrée for specialists and a welcoming introduction for the general reader.

The introduction and conclusion, in turn, provide the rationales for why a general reader might want to consult Litwa’s surveys: contemporary “transhumanist” thought. By this Litwa refers to the “surplus of collective fantasy about human transformation, enhancement, and evolution into higher states,” as found in contemporary film and literature (1). According to Litwa, there are important parallels between ancient desires for (semi-)divine existence and the contemporary “thirst” for transcendence of the human condition: “If today we envision ourselves as becoming superheroes, cyborgs, and virtual-reality avatars,” Litwa proposes, “the ancients dreamed of becoming gods, heroes, and angels” (1). In such a way, we might view contemporary desire for transcendence as an idea that “refracts ancient cultural memory that has serendipitously resurfaced above the fog of forgetting” (5).

Litwa puts forth, however, that ancient posthumanist traditions share a key distinction from their modern parallels. According to the author, ancient modes of angelification and daimonification “are a form of moral transformation in which cognitive and physical changes are the results of moral decisions and practices” (20). Contemporary transhumanist thought inverts this relationship: moral improvements are the result of transformation, rather than its precondition (162). This devaluation of morality, Litwa argues, is to transhumanism’s detriment. Thus, the “link between moral and physical transformation allows [ancient] angelification to serve as a corrective for current Transhumanist visions of posthuman enhancement” (20).

Here Litwa’s work could benefit from more thoroughgoing comparison and historical contextualization of both ancient and modern posthumanisms. Litwa argues, for example, that contemporary transhumanisms are morally stunted because they are “governed by the overall value of personal autonomy,” which stems at least in part from the influence of Enlightenment-era values (161). Yet Litwa does not grapple with how Platonism itself, the tradition which he positions as an ancient corrective, may have contributed to such modes of selfhood that prioritized personal autonomy over interconnected collectivity (on this see Timothy Morton, Being Ecological, MIT Press, 2018, xxv). What is more, Litwa provides only a brief overview of transhumanist (or posthumanist) ethics, which does not provide an adequate foundation for judging whether such traditions are insufficient in comparison to their ancient counterparts.

Nevertheless, while more work needs to be done to substantiate Litwa’s case that ancient traditions can become “springs for moral reflection” (164), this book demonstrates how even the most futuristic strands of contemporary thought have deep roots in the ancient past. Future work will do well to follow Litwa’s lead in tracing how ancient thought can help us better understand, and perhaps even “transform,” contemporary modes of understanding the (post)human self.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Travis W. Proctor is assistant professor of religion at Wittenberg University.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

M. David Litwa is research fellow at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. His publications include Iesus Deus (2014), Desiring Divinity (2016), Hermetica II: The Excerpts of Stobaeus, Papyrus Fragments, and Ancient Testimonies in an English Translation with Notes and Introduction (Cambridge, 2018), and How the Gospels Became History (2019).

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