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The Origins of Conversion in Pagan Texts of the Second Sophistic

It is somewhat of a popular motif in scholarship on Second Sophistic literature to speak of philosophical “conversion,” using vocabulary embedded with Christian undertones to describe a related but fundamentally different phenomenon. In this way, as early as 1933, Nock spoke of the “idea of conversion” in pagan texts, and in the same vein, MacMullen (1984) attempted to recover the individual experience of conversion in pagan ritual. Perhaps most strikingly, as late as 2014, Richard Fletcher is still discussing a “conversion to philosophy” as the dominating metaphor that explains Apuleius’ entire oeuvre.

In this paper, I aim to re-theorize the “idea of conversion” in pagan antiquity and its Christian counterpart by demonstrating how it has its origins in the “Heracles at the Crossroads” narrative structure. Popularized by Proclus’ famous anecdote about Heracles choosing between Lady Virtue and Lady Vice, this narrative has a particularly rich Nachleben in later antiquity, especially in the Second Sophistic philosophical tradition. Indeed, we find allusions to “Heracles at the Crossroads” in Plutarch, Dio Chrysostom, Lucian, Apuleius, and even St. Augustine. Two texts of particular interest are Dio Chysostom’s Oration 13 and Lucian’s Nigrinus, in part because they are considered to be the only two “pagan conversion tales” (Shumate (1996)). In fact, though it is yet to be noticed, even Augustine’s Christian “conversion” in the Confessions is modeled not on the Pauline, but rather on the Heraclean archetype.

To reimagine the very structure of conversion, I will scan a number of relevant texts from the Second Sophistic philosophical tradition with the ultimate goal of illuminating the two “conversion” tales of North African Latin authors, Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and Augustine’s Confessions. By doing so, I hope to uncover that, rather than a fundamental change in essence, “conversion” is framed in antiquity as a perpetual, ongoing Heraclean choice.

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