The Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies supports more than a dozen postdoctoral research, visiting, and library fellows each year who conduct intensive research at Princeton. Former Seeger fellows have published hundreds of books with leading publishers and thousands of articles. Their scholarship reflects the broad, interdisciplinary nature of Hellenic Studies, spanning fields from history to religion to literature and periods from antiquity to the present.

In the latest installment of our Director’s Bookshelf series, Seeger Center Director Dimitri Gondicas speaks with Byron MacDougall about his new book Philosophy at the Festival: the Festal Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus and the Classical Tradition, published by Brill in 2022. MacDougall is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southern Denmark and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Seeger Center in the 2017-18 academic year.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did this book project begin?  

With brilliant, supportive teachers. While a student at Brown, I had the good fortune to be working with my supervisor, Stratis Papaioannou, on Gregory of Nazianzus, the fourth-century Cappadocian Father, when I enrolled in a seminar on Ancient Greek literary criticism with Johanna Hanink. That conjunction of luminaries led to a conference paper on the role of what ancient literary theorists called “enargeia”—the linguistic quality of quickening vividness in discourse—in Gregory’s oration for Pentecost. That grew into an idea for a dissertation on the festal orations he delivered in Constantinople more generally, and then ultimately into a book on Gregory’s performance of philosophy in these texts. The book traces where those ideas are coming from, how they are put to use, and how they shape the subsequent development of Byzantine literary traditions.            

What would you like your readers to learn from this book?

The book arose out of a sense of wonder I felt at the idea that this figure, who is familiar to history as a Church Father and a decisively influential theologian, began his career with a long Athenian apprenticeship training to become what today we would call a professor of Greek literature. I would be delighted if readers of the book can experience some of that wonder for themselves.

Please tell us about your time at the Seeger Center and the research you conducted then.

From the fellows’ office in Scheide Caldwell House to Firestone Library in just a few steps—more congenial working conditions cannot be imagined. That year was crucial, not only in enabling me to take a deep dive into Late Antique Greek intellectual culture and develop the focus of the book—Gregory’s performance of philosophy at Christian festivals—but also for completing other projects where I thought Gregory’s orations could be used to help stage interventions in related but separate scholarly conversations. These projects include a 2020 Journal of Early Christian Studies article on the mysterious Neoplatonist known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Getting to do all this while surrounded by such a great cohort of fellows (congratulations, by the way, to Anthi Andronikou, whose book I saw on the Seeger Center website recently!) as well as old friends like Emmanuel Bourbouhakis (who first introduced me to the world of post-classical Greek literature) was an experience I’ll always cherish.