To answer some of these questions and others, we turn to a fantastic new book by Augustine Casiday, whom I interviewed last year about his other recent work, The Orthodox Christian World.
AD: What led you to write Reconstructing the Theology of Evagrius Ponticus: Beyond Heresy?
Augustine Casiday: My first major project was about the theme tradition in John Cassian’s writing and his theology. The first thing anyone notices upon reading Cassian’s monastic works is how garrulous the monks are whose conversations and teachings he relates in his Institutes and Conferences– so much so that it is sometimes difficult to comment satisfactorily about a coherent underlying position that can be attributed to Cassian himself. Now in Conferences 9 and 10, Cassian relates Abba Isaac’s teachings on prayer and these teachings are strikingly similar to positions advanced by Origen and his followers. Taking those points of correspondence for a start, Salvatore Marsili worked up a full analysis of Cassian’s dependence upon Evagrius Ponticus’ teachings and published the results in 1936 as Giovanni Cassiano ed Evagrio Pontico: Dottrina sulla carità e contemplazione. Since then, Evagrius’ writings have been an essential reference for anyone working seriously on Cassian. So I started reading Evagrius’ works and I started reading secondary literature about him, the better to understand John Cassian.
There was a fairly narrow consensus about Evagrius’ significance, stretching back at least to the seventeenth century with the great Tillemont’s Mémoires. This consensus identifies Evagrius as the continuator and synthesiser of Origen’s thought, under whose influence that tradition became unquestionably heretical. Hans Urs von Balthasar accused Evagrius of reducing the fluid beauty of Origen’s theology to a severe, mathematical precision; a French philologist named Antoine Guillaumont argued that the condemnations of Origen at the Fifth Ecumenical Council were quoted from a version of a text by Evagrius that he discovered; Elizabeth Clark took these ideas and ran with them, sacrificing the finesse and precision of the continental scholarship. These accounts didn’t resonate with what I was reading from Evagrius himself. They rested on the presumption that Evagrius had rightly been condemned in the sixth century, with scholars like Guillaumont going so far as to assert that the condemnations disclosed the inner significance of Evagrius’ teaching. An assortment of works by Evagrius appeared in English translation from a distinguished scholar of later Byzantine monastic literature, which was that scholar’s first major contribution to the study of Evagrius and which was wholly dependent upon Guillaumont’s work for its theoretical orientation, thus further popularising that perspective.
On the other hand, someone – almost certainly my supervisor, Fr Andrew Louth – put me on to a series of booklets about various themes in Evagrius’ works that the German monk, Gabriel Bunge, had written. These publications opened up another perspective on Evagrius, one that attempted to evaluate Evagrius with reference to antecedent texts and ideas (rather than with reference to the subsequent condemnations) and that, as such, was fresher. It was also a more theological project. There was conspicuously little interest in the other publications to anything that could be remotely construed as theology. Exceptions to my statement come in the form of attention dedicated to controversies about theological topics. For all the difference it made to the publications, though, those controversies could have been about imperial succession or the price of grain. In 2004, I published a review essay in which I analysed these two trends at some length. That same year, a dossier of text by Evagrius in my own translation appeared in the Routledge Early Church Fathers series as Evagrius Ponticus.
I’ve lost track of how many pieces I have published in the decade since then about themes in the writing of Evagrius and about trends in the study of Evagrius’ writings. Despite the increased prominence of the research project I identified in that review essay as the “Benedictine Perspective,” it was disappointing to notice that publications in English continued to pop up that were splendidly oblivious to the principled alternative to research in the mode of Antoine Guillaumont. People persisted (and still persist) in interpreting Evagrius in terms of a mystical Neoplatonic synthesis with Christian monastic practices, and in these interpretations they betray scant familiarity with advances in scholarship about Neoplatonism, about late ancient philosophy and religion, about monasticism, about changes in Eastern Roman society from the fourth to the sixth centuries, about the transmission and reception of Christian texts, about the formation of orthodoxy, about the thematization of heresy…. I could go on, but I think you understand my point.
All of these advances directly bear on any responsible reconstruction of Evagrius’ thought, and several specialist pieces about Evagrius have been published that simply fail to recognise that the terms for scholarly assessment have changed. Of the three books published in English since 2009 that mention Evagrius in their title or subtitle, two of them are hopelessly isolated from the scholarly conversations where the action is happening. (In fact, one of those books made some pretty snotty comments about a fine book that appeared in 2005, Luke Dysinger’s Psalmody and Prayer in the Writings of Evagrius Ponticus, and in doing so betrays that its author seriously misjudged the state of the research.) Those monographs, along with many articles and shorter pieces, have kept indefatigably to the path worn smooth by three centuries of study, contributing to the discussion not much more than a dash of modern terminology. My assessment is that, in doing so, they have attempted to explain the obscure by means of the ambiguous. What was needed was an English-language book that would introduce Evagrius’ life and his writings and attempt a theological interpretation of those writings that was fully engaged with the research. I wanted to present Evagrius as a theologian – whether an orthodox theologian or a heretical theologian matters less to me than simply as a theologian – in the round and to familiarize a broad audience with the advances that have been made over the past decades and that inform how scholars interpret Evagrius’ works. I tried to write so as to be comprehensible to a general readership. The book in hand is the result. It was written from 2005-2007, and revised episodically during the intervening years as my work shifted from being driven primarily by research to being driven primarily by teaching.
AD: For those not overly familiar with him, give us a brief sketch of who Evagrius was and why he was and is a significant figure.
Evagius’ likely dates were 345 to 399. He was from a town near the Black Sea. His family were Christian, were well-to-do, and were on friendly terms with the family of Basil the Great. Basil himself seems to have had a hand in Evagrius’ early moral and intellectual formation, as did Gregory the Theologian. When Gregory became archbishop of Constantinople, Evagrius was with him as his deacon. Although there is still work to be done on this subject, readers familiar with Gregory’s celebrated Theological Orations and the writings by Evagrius have sometimes commented on the likelihood that Evagrius helped to draft the former. In any case, Evagrius left Constantinople shortly after Gregory did. He made his way to Palestine, where he was received by Melania the Elder and Rufinus at their monastery on Mt Olivet. Eventually he continued on to the deserts of Lower Egypt, where he was inducted further into monastic life by Macarius the Egyptian and Macarius the Alexandrian. He lived the rest of his life in the company of monks who were in the second generation (roughly speaking) after Anthony the Great “made the desert a city.”
Evagrius was highly educated and articulate. In due course, people sought him out for guidance. He wrote dozens of letters as well as brief notes on books from the Bible, treatises on specific topics, and kephalaia – pithy sayings often arranged into complex structures. These works were circulating in Greek, but also in translation: we know that, within the first half of the fifth century, at least some of his writings were available in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and Armenian. By that time, they were being read in Constantinople and in Marseilles. Scraps dating to a later period have been found along the Silk Road translated into Sogdian, and in Ethiopia translated into Ge‘ez. There are countless reasons to read Evagrius’ works, but I’m sure I am not alone in finding his integration of morality, understanding and prayer to be compelling. Even after his name became controversial in the sixth century (it is unanimously agreed by scholars that there is no evidence his reputation was contested before then, but not all of us agree about why that matters), writings like his Praktikos, Gnostikos, and Kephalaia Gnostika – a trilogy of kephalaia about asceticism, exegesis and theology – and his On prayer continued to be read and copied. That latter text was re-attributed to preserve it and eventually it came to be included in the Philokalia. Evagrius was the leading theoretician of early Christian monasticism, and also a theologian of remarkable insight and subtlety.
AD: To the extent that people may be familiar with Evagrius, it is often because he is tarred by association with Origen (who is himself held in suspicion by some). Is the skepticism surrounding Evagrius justified--or is that a question likely to be debated endlessly in view of the fact (as you note—p. 59) that we “lack the primary material…to evaluate…the claims made by the anti-Origenists”?
I think some justification can be had for scepticism because, as you rightly say, typically Evagrius’ name is initially presented in a negative light. Disavowing him has for centuries been some kind of badge of orthodoxy. However, the case of Evagrius’ reputation is a goad to further thinking because, no matter how negative that initial presentation, it remains the case that Evagrius wrote one of the golden verses of Eastern Christianity: ‘If you are a theologian, you will pray truly; and if you pray truly, you will be a theologian.’ I accept that the text in which that kephalaion was found was attributed to Nilus, not to Evagrius, for hundreds of years. But equally I accept that scholarship has decisively overturned the traditional attribution. Anyone who insists (for whatever reason) that Evagrius didn’t write that line is plain wrong. Anyone who mounts an argument against the attribution to Evagrius is probably also intellectually perverse. Evagrius’ reputation prompts us to consider how pristine we think the Christian heritage must have been. Vladimir Lossky warned against a “monophysite ecclesiology” which “manifests itself in a desire to see the Church as essentially a divine being whose every detail is sacred” – a vivid extension of Christological terminology; I’m sure a similar attitude is at work in some church histories, so with a nod to Lossky maybe we should be on guard against “monophysite ecclesiastical histories.”
I think I’m straying from your question. The point I’d like to make is that an initial suspicion is justified, but there is mounting evidence that Evagrius has been systematically misinterpreted. In the early sixth century, Cyril of Scythopolis related suspicions that have no real foundation in Evagrius’ texts but linked those suspicions to Evagrius’ name. A perspective attributed to some saintly and authoritative figure doesn’t have to be repeated too frequently before people begin to think they know what Evagrius taught despite never having read a word by him. There is also mounting evidence from around the same period that people were translating, and in some cases tampering with, earlier texts. I’ve argued that the Syriac version of Evagrius’ Kephalaia Gnostika discovered by Guillaumont attests to a version that was reworked in the sixth century, and subsequent to the publication of my book I’ve further argued that a Greek translation of writings by John Cassian also belongs to the same milieu. We also have some evidence of teachings by a nearly contemporary mystic, Stephen bar Sudaili, who resided in Palestine and whose teachings correspond at some points to the condemnations of Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius. There is not adequate evidence for my interpretation to be compelling, but there are certainly good reasons to think that what has generally been called “Origenism” (and that Guillaumont identified as “Evagrian Origenism”) is in fact a product of the sixth century and, pace Guillaumont, is not the true teaching of Evagrius.
AD: You note that while some Greeks may have been ambivalent about Evagrius, “Syriac Christians were undisguised in their enthusiasm” (p. 62). Why is that—why the enthusiasm?
I’ll be honest: my limited grasp of Syriac is in service to my study of Evagrius. So what I know about the Syriac tradition washes on the shores of the Evagrius’ writings. Probably that isn’t so unusual. My sense is that lots of people learn Syriac to study a particular author. I never moved very far beyond that practical use. All this is to say I can only speculate in answer to your question. Here goes: Even though we have evidence of some Syriac Christian debates about Evagrius (most notably, in Babai the Great’s commentary to the Kephalaia Gnostika), I am aware of no evidence that there were Syriac developments parallel to the Second Origenist Controversy; that is to say, so far as I know, Evagrius was never at the heart of a far-reaching Syriac controversy. Evagrius was never the polarizing figure for them that he became for the Greeks, to the best of my knowledge. So what I speculate is that no sense of propriety ever acted as a barrier to the widespread appropriation of his writings. Evagrius’ writings that are available in Syriac, some of which are unavailable in Greek, are lively and appealing. I have to resort to contrasts here because I am by no specialist in Syriac Christianity, but it seems to me that the Greek tradition is uniquely paranoid when it comes to Evagrius – unlike the Latins, who never really internalised Evagrius and primarily got his influence as mediated by Cassian; and unlike the Syrians, who didn’t have debates about Hellenism and Christianity that sheared over Evagrius. Let me try to answer with an analogy. The Greeks fought amongst themselves fiercely about iconography. The Romans didn’t, the Carolingians didn’t, the Syrians didn’t. I can’t think of any reason to suppose all other Christians should be obliged to defer to debates that were internal to Greek Christendom and to structure their positions with reference to the Greek debates and the resolutions to those debates.
AD: You note that pace von Balthasar and others, Evagrius did not have a rigid system of concepts. Is such a lack of systematic conceptualization part of the reason that Evagrius has been subject to misunderstanding?
There must be a system that underlies Evagrius’ teachings. Jeremy Driscoll showed beyond any possible doubt in his work Evagrius Ponticus: Ad Monachos that structures can be identified linking and interlinking the kephalaia that make up that text. And Fr Jeremy was motivated to seek out those connections by noting that Evagrius suggests his readers should diligently seek out patterns in his writings. The most conspicuous example is the trilogy that I mentioned earlier, which recapitulates the three themes of Christianity that Evagrius identifies in the first kephalaion of the first work of that trilogy: “Christianity is the teaching of our Saviour Christ, composed of [1.] ascetical practice, and [2.] natural contemplation, and [3.] theological encounter.” Those three terms, I expanded for the sake of English grammar, are πρακτικῆς και φυσικῆς καὶ θεολογικῆς; they correspond to the central themes of the Praktikos, the Gnostikos, and the Kephalaia Gnostika respectively. In consideration of these indicators of structure, I’m not prepared to write off the possibility that Evagrius’ teachings are informed by a systematic conceptualization.
Even so, I’m convinced that many earlier students of Evagrius were looking in the wrong places for his system. Balthasar said some pretty silly things, the silliest of which was to claim that Evagrius’ spirituality was more Buddhist than Trinitarian; Hausherr flatly contradicted the obvious meaning of a kephalaion in Evagrius’ On prayer in his own commentary to it, expressly preferring to maintain his own system instead of acknowledging Evagrius’ plain teaching that the Holy Spirit is not bound to act in accordance with our formulation of the spiritual life; numerous lesser scholars have also been too enthralled to the claim (stated by no one more clearly than by Guillaumont) that the anathemas from the sixth century and Evagrius’ Great Letter, sometimes wrongly called the letter “to Melania,” provide a key that unlocks the mysteries of Evagrius’ thought. That grand old tradition seems to me no longer plausible, since it privileges debates that occurred roughly 150 years after Evagrius’ death – debates, lest we pass over this point too quickly, that specialists unanimously agree were importantly different to the debates current around the time of Evagrius’ death – as disclosing the inner meaning of Evagrius’ theology. I don’t know a single person who has studied the evidence and who seriously thinks that the Second Origenist Controversy is a direct continuation of the First Origenist Controversy. So it baffles me that some people, including a few self-professed experts, work on the assumption that Second Origenist Controversy was the moment when Evagrius’ system was revealed at long last. At very long last indeed, actually.
To make better sense of Evagrius’ system, my inclination is to follow the example set by Bunge, by Driscoll, and by Dysinger amongst others. An interrogation of Evagrius’ writings conducted with knowledge of the Bible (especially the Psalter), with knowledge of theological trends contemporary to Evagrius, and with knowledge of the ascetical and ethical practices that he observed is, I suspect, more likely to disclose substantial patterns – even a conceptual system – than is reference to condemnations that were meaningful within circumstances that evolved in the decades after Evagrius had died, but not meaningful before then.
AD: You reflect at length on the role of the emotions in prayer, and note that for Evagrius prayer should be understood as “joy surpassing every other.” Am I wrong in thinking that too often we do not think of strict ascetics like Evagrius as being terribly joyful?
No, you are quite right that too often we don’t think of Evagrius and others in those terms. The reason, I think, is that Greek monastic literature (including Evagrius’) stresses ἀπάθεια, freedom from the passions or, as I translated that term for the collection of Evagriana, imperturbability. But in advocating freedom from the passions, they weren’t calling for emotionlessness. There are scattered traces through Evagrius’ works of evidence that he recognised how useful emotions could be if they are disciplined to serve the Christian life. There is a nice little passage in the Causes for monastic observances in which Evagrius makes clear that monks should aim to be happy and that happiness is not incompatible with seeking freedom from perturbations or seeking stillness (ἡσυχία):
Do you wish, then, beloved, to take up the monastic life as it is, and hurry toward the trophies of stillness? Then abandon the cares of this world and the principalities and powers set over them! That is, be free from material things and from perturbations, set apart from every desire. If you thus become a stranger to all that concerns them, you will be able to be still in happiness; yet if one does not withdraw from them, he will never be able to follow this way of life rightly.I seem to recall that there are also some nice examples in Evagrius’ Antirrhetikos – a fascinating book, translated by David Brakke fairly recently as Evagrius Of Pontus: Talking Back: A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons, in which Evagrius identifies verses from the Bible that are particularly suitable for recitation under specific circumstances and arranges them according to the eight generic thoughts – but no precise quotations occur to me. What I think I remember is that, nestled along the common suggestions about passages to say in response to demonic temptation, there are a few joyful psalms that he encourages people to recite when things go well.
AD: In this book, in some of your earlier work (I think, e.g., of your very insightful and helpful 2012 article on Evagrius and heresy in the Heythrop Journal), and in your newest book from SVS Press Remember the Days of Old: Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage, there are clear and overlapping themes about Christian historiography and its methods. Can you distill out for the Christian of the twenty-first century any general guidelines on how to look at Christian history, the Church Fathers, and texts from vastly different contexts and eras than our own? (I ask this because I too often see Christians doing hermeneutic violence to texts, and using, say, an ancient canon, or obscure passage from a Cappadocian or an Alexandrian to condemn or promote this idea or that.)
One theme dear to Evagrius that applies here is the need for humility, which is a great place to start. And not that noxious vice of corporate pride that presents itself as humility, either – but the real thing: humility before God. I reckon one of the quickest ways to distinguish theological engagement with historical sources, on the one hand, from faddish studies of themes from late ancient Christianity, on the other, is by putting publications that have anything whatever to do with God in one pile and the rest in another. If the reader’s attention is directed to a community and its practices and members, and if its beliefs are referenced to the group’s identity, then whatever else that writing might be it is probably Christian only in a superficial or nominal sense. After orientating the project toward God, get whatever technical skills are needed for the task at hand. Then set to work.
AD: To those who would condemn Evagrius as a heretic, what would you say?
Probably not much. I might ask them to explain what they are condemning and to relate that back to Evagrius’ writings.
But since you put the question to me that way, I want to state my position in a matter that has generated some misunderstanding. The historical events that resulted in Evagrius’ condemnation can be disentangled and evaluated on their merits. Since my research is historical in its methodology, sorting out the evidence and assessing it is my major preoccupation. That work has reached a stage such that I am confident in saying that several of the claims about Evagrius are bogus and should be understood in terms of factors that are isolable from his theology (even if they can be seen to derive from it). The assertion that Christ’s resurrection body was a sphere is a clear example. There are other claims whose merits I have not evaluated to my satisfaction: it’s entirely possible that Evagrius believed in universal salvation, for instance. Anyway, the point of my work isn’t to vindicate Evagrius. It’s to study his theology using the best resources and methods available to me. I’m following the evidence and the methods where they lead. If the conclusion is that Evagrius’s theology was heretical, so be it.
AD: Sum up what you hope for this book and who should read it.
I’d really like for the scholarly conversations about Evagrius to move beyond terms inherited from the Second Origenist Controversy. It’d be most welcome for Anglophone scholarship to come out from the shadow of Francophone scholarship. Further study of Evagrius’ theology is urgently needed, and here I’d make a contrast to some of the recent publications that have focused on themes in Evagrius’ work that are only tangentially related to theology, such as hermeneutics or anthropology or gnosis. You mentioned my article in the Heythrop Journal. One of the reasons I wrote it was to argue that imprecise or inaccurate theology has far-reaching consequences for research into those other themes. Getting Evagrius’ theology right is basic to further applications of his writings. Those observations are chiefly relevant to patristics. I’d like to think, though, that the book will be read by people who are interested in other historical eras (one of the great missed opportunities is when specialists in Byzantine theology appeal to dilapidated old ideas about Evagrius for their research), or who simply want to know more about the theology of a fascinating and influential monk.
AD: What projects are you next at work on?
So far, my big books have been biographical. The next one I’m planning is a comprehensive study of Boethius. In the slightly longer range, I’m reading books by Leszek Kołakowski, Karl Mannheim, R. G. Collingwood, Michael Polanyi and Maurice Halbwachs. At present, it isn’t clear where these readings will take me. But they are proving helpful in a preliminary way as I think about the contemporary reception of ancient Christian sources and about trends in modern theology.