Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.12.07


James A. Francis, Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. Pp. xviii + 222. $32.50. ISBN 0-271-01304-4.


Reviewed by Pamela Gordon, University of Kansas.

This study of second-century C.E. culture and society focuses upon the attitudes of the educated elite toward the prophets, miracle workers, religious innovators, and radical philosophers who seem to have stood on every street corner throughout the Greek and Roman world during this "balmy late afternoon of Rome's classical empire" (p. i). According to Francis's interpretation, the cultural and political authorities of the era (represented here mainly by Marcus Aurelius, Lucian, Celsus, and Philostratus), viewed such figures as dangerous deviants who posed a serious threat to society, to culture, and to the continued existence of the Roman Empire. What is original about F.'s approach is his notion that the wide range of behaviors viewed as deviant by the elite can be gathered under the rubric of rigorous physical asceticism. F. phrases his central claim thus in his introduction:

"In reality, the prophet, miracle worker, celibate, and charismatic leader are found together in one person: the ascetic described in the following pages. Through the study of the ascetic figure, all these other phenomena fall into their proper perspective as aspects of a much broader historical reality and faces, so to speak, of one type of historical individual. Asceticism thus provides the key for understanding the history of social, cultural, and religious deviance in this period, and the response of authority to it." (p. xv)
Thus in F.'s interpretation, the practice of radical asceticism somehow links together the members of the "diverse mob" (p. xiii) that included Peregrinus, Apollonius of Tyana, and Jesus.

In addition to offering a new approach to second-century social and cultural history, F.'s claim for the importance of asceticism in this era would redefine the early history of ancient asceticism itself: while many studies begin with the flowering of Neoplatonism and Christian monasticism in the late third and early fourth centuries, F. stresses the importance of this earlier period, when the dominant culture reacted to asceticism with suspicion and opposition. Not all readers will be persuaded that asceticism is indeed the "key" to the second century, and many will find that F. neither provides an adequate definition of ascetic practice nor succeeds in demonstrating the relevance of asceticism to all of the historical figures he discusses. Still, even where F.'s claim for the significance of second-century asceticism is not entirely convincing, the discussion throughout is well worth reading.

In the first chapter, "Stoicism: Setting the Norm," F. describes second-century Stoicism as "a sort of ethical koine" (p. 1) that set the standards for acceptable behavior and provided justification not only for traditional Roman mores, but for Roman rule. This represents a drastic change from the values of the Early Stoa: although Roman Stoicism preached "restraint and conformity," the original Stoa four centuries earlier was a center of "dissident asceticism and social radicalism" (p. 2). In F.'s outline of the Stoa's evolution, Panaetius (with help later on from Posidonius and then Epictetus) is largely responsible for this shift from radicalism to social respectability. (This fits well with the current majority view of Stoic history, but for the argument that Stoicism was fundamentally authoritarian even in the days of Zeno, see B. D. Shaw, "The Divine Economy: Stoicism as Ideology," Latomus 44 [1985]: 16-54.) Not all Stoics supported Roman authority in equal measure, but serious dissident behavior is to be found among the adherents of other schools, especially the Cynics. Roman imperial society was suspicious of both ascetics and philosophers, especially if their behavior involved "ostentatious asceticism and novelties of social and religious doctrine" (p. 10). Far more palatable to general taste was the more moderate askesis proposed by first- and second-century Stoics such as Musonius Rufus and Epictetus, who emphasized mental over physical asceticism. Stoic "asceticism," rather than setting the philosopher apart from society, required the practice of conventional "decorum and moderation" (p. 13). Thus Stoicism "set the norms and limits of acceptable ascetical practice in the second century," (p. 19) and elevated traditional Roman social obligations (whether to family or to state) to the status of ethical duty.

Ch. 2, "Marcus Aurelius: Rational Asceticism and Social Conservatism," offers a new interpretation of the asceticism of Aurelius and attempts to undermine the "'Golden Age' Tendenz" (p. 22) that has dominated biographies of Aurelius since Gibbon. Unlike the asceticism of the Christians, Cynics, and Pythagoreans (which stressed physical privations), the Stoic asceticism of Aurelius is almost exclusively cerebral. It also differs from non-Stoic ascetic practice in that it "conveys no extraordinary authority, moral or otherwise, on its practitioner" (p. 37). In F.'s interpretation, Aurelius' professed philosophical beliefs do not bring any Stoic humanitas (or any positive social impact whatsoever) to his legal acta. Instead, Aurelius promoted conformity and intolerance: "Stoicism had become the philosophical justification for Romanitas" (p. 52).

Ch. 3, "Lucian: Ascetics as Enemies of Culture," focuses primarily on Lucian's portrait of Peregrinus, who exploited asceticism as a means to establish the "personal credentials" (p. 80) of a holy man. Readers persuaded by F.'s unflattering portrait of Marcus Aurelius may be dismayed to find Lucian treated here as the emperor's close ally. In his effort to deny that Lucian was a subversive social satirist, F. seems to me to give inadequate attention to Lucian's essential quality, which R. B. Branham has described recently as: "a wry and nimble sense of humor that seems to resist seeing anything in precisely the accepted fashion" (Unruly Eloquence: Lucian and the Comedy of Traditions, Harvard University Press, 1989, p. 7). F.'s writing also seems especially unclear in this chapter. On p. 80, for example, F. suggests that Demonax and Nigrinus were radicals, an idea he denies on p. 75. It is also difficult to see how Alexander of Abonuteichos (discussed on pp. 69-73) fits into F.'s paradigm, since the pseudomantis has no ascetic qualities. Many of F.'s comments (such as the following) seem right on target, however: "Lucian had no tolerance for fools, particularly if they are organized" (p. 58).

In Ch. 4, "Apollonius of Tyana: The Rehabilitated Ascetic," F. argues (persuasively, to my mind) that Philostratus' Vita Apollonii purges the biographical tradition of its less acceptable features and converts the radical Pythagorean ascetic into "a model of classical ideals and defender of the social order" (p. 83). Philostratus is especially zealous to disassociate Apollonius from magic or goeteia, and he removes from Apollonius' asceticism items such as the strident attitude toward wealth, and the refusal to bathe. The Vita Apollonii represents a departure from the outlook of Marcus Aurelius and Lucian, however, in that it expresses (qualified) admiration for rigorous physical askesis. In addition, the Vita also takes care to portray Apollonius not as a deviant, but as a "rare heroic individual" (p. 107). The result is a portrait of a "socially acceptable ascetic" that later helped pave the way for a more positive view of asceticism.

In Ch. 5, "Celsus: Christians, Ascetics, and Rebels," Celsus joins the ranks of Marcus Aurelius, Lucian, and Philostratus as a defender of the status quo. This time it is the Christians (or rather, an especially ascetical form of Christianity) who are judged as deviants and enemies of culture. Although a serious weakness is exposed when F. acknowledges that Celsus actually "says precious little about ascetical practices" (p. 162), this chapter has much to offer to students of both Hellenism and early Christianity. In a section called "Social Values and Social Order" (pp. 151-162), F. stresses the integration of religious and social thought: Celsus' polemic against Christianity in the True Doctrine centers on social issues because Celsus believed that the new religion taught a disregard for all traditional authorities, from the paterfamilias to the emperor. By offering unconventional ideas to the gullible masses (especially slaves, women, and children), the Christians would destroy the civilized world. F. also claims that recent social histories of the early Church have not adequately emphasized that the deviant social values (regarding property, gender roles, sex, etc.) of the radical Christians were "manifested and focused in the leading of an ascetical life" (p. 167). Conservative non-ascetic Christians, whose outlook was more in line with that of Aurelius, Lucian, and Celsus, "had a way of dealing with their social deviants that their pagan counterparts did not possess; they could label them heretics" (pp. 167-168). Also in the course of this chapter, F. reasserts the old claim that the author of True Doctrine (which survives only as excerpts quoted in Origin's Contra Celsum) is in fact the same Celsus addressed by Lucian in Alexander the False Prophet. F. suggests that the difficulty posed by the Platonism of the author of True Doctrine is removed if we treat Lucian's Celsus not as an Epicurean, but simply as a sometime admirer of Epicurus (like Lucian). As F. puts it:

"After all, it was Alexander who first labeled his enemies 'Epicureans.' So Lucian, turning the intended insult into a compliment, holds Epicurus up as a friend and exemplar to anyone with the sound reasoning to perceive the fraud of an Alexander or, it may be assumed, a Jesus." (p. 135)
Although the idea that Lucian's friend and the other Celsus are one and the same is not implausible, the suggestion here seems to be driven by the desire to stress the unanimity of Lucian and the author of True Doctrine.

The concluding chapter, "Ascetics and Holy Men: Conflict, Change, and Continuity," sums up the argument that the second century was "a watershed in the history of asceticism in antiquity" (p. 181). At the beginning of the era, we find the conservative elite hostile to physical ascetic practice, but approving of intellectual asceticism. By the end, Philostratus has refashioned a notorious ascetic into "the defender of traditional norms and values, a model whereby the appeal of the ascetic and the power of his charismatic authority could be allied to the status quo" (p. 185). Philostratus' treatment of Apollonius as an extraordinary being has important consequences for later asceticism: "Deviance is thus safely locked away as the prerogative earned by the accomplishments of the ascetic few, and emphatically not a prescription for the many" (p. 186). F. ends by pointing to a similar impulse in later Church history, where monasticism can be seen as "an institutional domestication and incorporation of radicalism" (p. 188). Ultimately, it would be the Christians who would pass on the values upheld by the second century defenders of the status quo.

Since this book bridges two fields and brings together texts that are usually treated as quite diverse, readers' reactions are bound to be varied. For me, the main disappointment is simply that the virtuous subversives alluded to in the suggestive title never come into focus. In fact, it is difficult to say who they are. Peregrinus and "the Jewish carpenter crucified as an insurrectionist" (xiii) are presented as radical deviants, but F. does not dwell upon their "virtues." Since the book concentrates not upon the dissenters themselves but upon the lifestyles and world views advocated by their critics (which as F. asserts on p. xvii is a sensible focus given the orientation of the sources), perhaps this book ought to have been titled Virtuous Conformity, or Reactionary Asceticism. This brings me to another point:

F. seems to assume that "subversive virtue" is an oxymoron (but in my vocabulary I suppose it is not). F. seems in general to be very well acquainted with the pertinent scholarship on the second century (especially on the "pagan" side), but since this study is so concerned with ancient attitudes toward the behavior of philosophical figures, it might have benefited from a consideration of the approach to "philosophical" comportment taken by Johannes Hahn in Der Philosoph und die Gesellschaft: Selbstverständnis, öffentliches Auftreten und populare Erwartungen in der höhen Kaiserzeit (Stuttgart: 1989). Also missing is a consideration of the importance of the claims of Hellenism (as opposed to Romanitas, with which it seems to be elided throughout the book). I think that F. is right to point out that Marcus Aurelius, Lucian, and Celsus have in common "an aggressive social conservatism" (p. 184), but by over-emphasizing their similarities F. writes as though their texts were completely univocal despite vast differences in genre, tone, and geographic and ethnic orientation.

The book is attractively produced with only occasional slips or printing errors: "the poet Lucian" makes an odd appearance on p. xiv and on the dust jacket; civiltas for civilitas appears twice on p. 27; the last line on p. 37 is repeated at the top of p. 38; and "revelaed" for "revealed" appears on p. 139.

But despite its flaws, I would urge anyone working on philosophy and religion in the Roman empire to consider reading this book.