Professor Dragoș Calma, Explorer of Medieval Philosophy and Pioneer in Text Editing

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Dragoș Calma is a prominent figure in the field of medieval philosophy, with a remarkable academic career at University College Dublin, Ireland. Graduating in philosophy from Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and obtaining a doctorate in medieval philosophy from the prestigious Sorbonne (Paris IV), Professor Calma represents a leading force in the study and preservation of medieval thought. Dragoș Calma stands out for the depth of his research in soul theory, particularly focusing on the period between the 13th and 16th centuries. His quest to understand the evolution of philosophical concepts related to the soul places him at the forefront of researchers specialized in medieval philosophy.

As an editor and prolific author, Professor Calma has made significant contributions to understanding Latin Averroism and Neoplatonism, with special attention to the reception of texts such as the „Book of Causes” (Liber de causis) and the „Elements of Theology” (Elementatio Theologica). His publications have captivated the academic community, highlighting him as a top-tier specialist in his field. Recently published volumes, such as „Reading Proclus and the Book of Causes” (Brill, three volumes published between 2019 and 2021) and „Neoplatonism in the Middle Ages” (Brepols, two volumes published in 2016), represent a monument of understanding the history of Neoplatonism (over 2,600 pages of studies), offering a fresh perspective on the evolution of this philosophical current between the 9th and 16th centuries.

In his role as coordinator of a significant project funded by the ERC Consolidator Grant (2018-2023), Dragoș Calma explores connections between Neoplatonism and Abrahamic traditions. This comprehensive project reflects his commitment to systematic and extensive research, integrating the legacy of Neoplatonism into a global context and addressing a history of knowledge that transcends cultural boundaries.

Professor Calma was honoured with the prestigious international Friederich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 2018, recognizing his exceptional contributions to scientific research. He has been a fellow at various international institutions: Newton Fellow at the British Academy, University of Cambridge (2016-2018), Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the University of Bonn (2010-2012), A.W. Mellon Fellow at the Warburg Institute in London (2009), Fritz Thyssen Fellow at Sorbonne University (2003-2005 and 2007-2008), fellow of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa (2002), and a student at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris (École Normale Supérieure, rue d’Ulm), selected through a national competition (2001-2003).

As a key figure in medieval philosophical research, Professor Calma not only contributes to understanding the cultural heritage of the medieval period but also encourages exploration of lesser-known aspects of medieval thought. His lectures, such as those dedicated to editing medieval texts, not only provide an opportunity to deepen knowledge of this discipline but also present a challenge to discover unexplored parts of the history of philosophy. Professor Dragoș Calma stands out as a distinguished researcher, a prolific editor, and an advocate for a profound understanding of medieval thought. His remarkable contributions continue to enrich the academic landscape and illustrate the importance of a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach to the study of medieval philosophy.

Dragoș Calma was nominated in the campaign for Romanian excellence beyond Romania’s borders, „We Support Excellence!”, 4th edition, 2023-2024, launched by OCCIDENTUL ROMANESC on January 15, 2015.

Your projects aim to integrate medieval thoughts into a broader context, and the research system includes an investigation of the connections between diverse cultural traditions. How do you see the contribution of medieval thought on a global level, and its interconnection with various contemporary themes?

Medieval thought spans a vast period, often starting with Boethius in the 5th century, and the most generous manuals tend to stop at Marsilio Ficino. I start without hesitation with Proclus, a contemporary of Boethius, and end with Descartes in the 17th century, for reasons I won’t elaborate on here. The medieval period is the broadest and most complex era in the history of human thought, characterized by its expansion, linguistic diversity (studying authors who read each other and wrote in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and various vernacular languages), and its multitude of disciplines (from logic and metaphysics to speculative grammar and the philosophy of mathematics).

But I mention these chronological milestones to emphasize that a researcher in medieval thought cannot ignore, even at a superficial level, all the historical events that form the backdrop to doctrinal debates. From the acceptance of Christianity as the official religion in Constantinople—a significant event for understanding Proclus’s project—to the closure of ancient philosophical schools in Athens in 529 under Emperor Justinian, leading to the exile of Neoplatonists in Persia. From the impact of education and the study of ancient philosophy on the Church Fathers, not only before the First Council of Nicaea but also afterward, especially on the Cappadocian Fathers and Maximus the Confessor, to the preservation, recovery, and selection of the same ancient philosophical texts in the Christian milieu of the Byzantines.

From the rise of Islam, the conquest of North Africa and parts of the Iberian Peninsula, bringing a transfer of Greek texts from the Byzantine world through translations into Syriac and Arabic, from Arabic to Latin, and from Arabic to Hebrew, to translations into Georgian and Armenian, sometimes older than the Greek manuscripts we have. From the Fourth Crusade and the birth of universities to the formation of political and military powers in Bohemia preceding the Reformation, not to mention the fall of Constantinople. In short, it is impossible to study honestly the texts produced between the decline of the Western Roman Empire and the birth of modernity without being constantly attentive to the major exchanges taking place between cultures and peoples.

What does this attention teach us? Not only that the Middle Ages are much more complex and fascinating than we suspected, but especially that by studying them more closely, we can understand, often beneficially for our time, how issues related to immigration, contact with other cultures and religions were addressed. Above all, it teaches us that the interest in knowledge transcends centuries despite all difficulties. Time forgets local leaders, various struggles and revenges, intrigues, envies, small glories, but it preserves texts, whether they are annotations in the margins of manuscripts, extensively exposed in the courses of various professors, or noted in treatises or letters. Of course, some of these texts are mediocre or uninteresting, and it makes no sense to claim to others that everything we study in manuscripts is absolutely fundamental. Still, because we don’t know what hides in the thousands of unstudied manuscripts, we have the lively hope of finding exceptional things, and it is not rare to come across such texts. But with the same judgment of depth that deserves attention from other centuries, we are all called, those who write and publish.

You have experience in teaching at multiple universities and supervising doctoral theses in medieval philosophy. How do you encourage aspiring researchers to explore and contribute to this field of study?

I never wanted to be a teacher; my dream in college was to conduct research in various libraries. But I started teaching quite early, already in 2003 at the École normale in Paris, and since then, with various interruptions, I have taught at Sorbonne, Cambridge, Dublin, Cluj, Vercelli (in Italy), and soon in Rome and Brussels. Now, I couldn’t imagine myself without courses and students, although it is very difficult for me to juggle between family, courses, planes, and libraries. I have understood many things by preparing courses, read a series of texts that I wouldn’t have read otherwise due to the specialization of library studies, but especially I have been forced to adapt to the level of everyone.

My students in Dublin do not have the same historical and philological background (I mean a minimum of Latin) as students at Sorbonne or Cambridge, but that doesn’t mean they are not willing to learn. I have the biggest surprises at the University of Dublin where all philosophy courses are optional, and depending on the number of places, any student from any faculty can choose any philosophy course for examination. Almost always, all the places made available for medieval philosophy are taken, and sometimes I have to ask for an increase. The hardest part is to speak understandably, without compromising on the quality level, and yet trying to stimulate philosophical vocations in young people who either study philosophy, sociology, or English.

Students at Sorbonne or Cambridge already come with a good philosophical background but are often hesitant about studying texts from Christian authors (although they have no problem with authors from the Islamic tradition). Those from Vercelli come with Latin and Greek studies and a desire for theoretical knowledge gained through attending Catholic catechesis programs. Each teaching experience, with each year and each course, is different.

I remember that Professor Ruedi Imbach, a leading figure in our field, who was my doctoral supervisor and is a role model in my teaching activity, told me after a course at Sorbonne: „You see, if just one student asks questions about the topics I discuss in my course, then I’ve done my job.” That’s what I aim for too, and I feel satisfied when the Irish student, a rowing champion, comes to class in shorts directly from training to talk about beauty in Plotinus and Marsilio Ficino, or the Italian student who works as a waiter at a restaurant in Milan in the evening but takes the train every morning to Vercelli so that we can discuss the impossibility of knowing God through concepts during the classes.

An interview by Occidentul Românesc, conducted by Kasandra Kalmann Năsăudean. Photos: Professor Dr. Dragoș Calma – University College Dublin, Ireland (Personal Archive).

Excerpt published in monthly edition number 154, Year XIV, February 2024.