Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.12.18

David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Pp. 356. $65.00. ISBN 0-19-826816-5.

Reviewed by Susanna Elm, University of California (Berkeley) (

Recent years have witnessed an accelerated break-down of the categorical distinctions that have traditionally determined much of the study of the Later Roman Empire and early Christianity. Instead, a picture of great complexity and fluidity emerges, where nothing is simply rising or falling, and pagans and Christians, heretics and orthodox are no longer either villains or heroes, but rather, like Shakespearean protagonists, a mixture of both.

One area where this acceleration has been particularly dramatic is late Antique Egypt. Here, scholars have significantly redrawn a map which used to oppose the city (Alexandria) and Egypt proper, unlearned Christian Copts and hellenized upper-class pagans, desert-monks and city bishops, and are revealing instead a complex web of interdependencies, interactions and cross-currents.

Such redrawing has, of course, also affected the mise-en-scène of one of those great dramas in which a (quasi-) demon has traditionally been pitted against a (near-) saint (whereby both could have been either, depending on the scholarly view-point): even Athanasius and Arius are becoming increasingly Shakespearean, will say a complex mixture of good and bad, representatives of a distinctive "way of being human" (L. MacCoull, Dioscouros of Aphrodito, 147-159) that needs to be grasped through categories other than heretic and orthodox, margin and center, academic and episcopal.

The latest addition to this continuously evolving picture is David Brakke's Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism. Brakke seeks to demonstrate how Athanasius' "ascetic programme of self-formation was also a political programme of Church formation." Through imitation of past and present saints, achieved through an appropriate ascetic discipline, Christian individuals, be they high-performance ascetics or moderate lay-persons, "not only formed themselves into saints but also formed the Church as the embodiment of the Christian politeia." (p. 266). Brakke derives Athanasius' dual strategy from a significantly enlarged body of his writings. In addition to the ten works on ascetic topics generally accepted as genuine (seven letters to monks, the Life of Antony, and two letters to female virgins), Brakke draws from another nine ascetic and pastoral works, the authenticity of which he defends in a separate article in Orientalia 64 (1994): 17-56. His broadening of the source-basis and the Appendix with the first English translation of the most important of these works are significant contributions by themselves.

On the basis of these broadened sources, Brakke develops his interpretation of Athanasius' ascetic (and hence political) program. He does so in four parts. Chapters one and two examine Athanasius' strategies vis-à-vis discreet ascetic groups, female virgins in Alexandria and semi-eremitical and cenobitic monks in the Nitrian desert and the Thebaid, and chart the overall concepts that unite his respective prescriptions and interpretative moves. The third part examines the relation of these primarily "political" strategies to Athanasius' theology and spirituality, to conclude with a re-interpretation of the Life of Antony, the pinnacle of both Athanasius' political and theological program, in the context of the previous findings.

Athanasius sought to modify the behavior of female ascetics by interpreting their title "bride of Christ" as signifying a higher form of marriage (p. 20). By leading de facto the life of an exemplary matron (as characterized for example by Plutarch, p.75f.), in complete submission to their husband, Christ, secluded, moderate in their eating-, sleeping-. and clothing- habits, and by speaking as little as possible, virgins embodied a three-fold agenda, crucial to Athanasius' formation of a Christian politeia. They validated marriage as well as human free will by having chosen a higher form of marriage, namely that to Christ, in which the offspring were not children but immortal thoughts. Secondly, as exemplary wives, secluded, shrouded in silence, and focused solely on their all-sufficient husband/bridegroom, virgins represent the correct relationship between humans and the Word as that between the only true teacher and his disciples, whom he instructs through his mouthpiece, Scripture, as interpreted by the bishop. Thirdly, the periodic appearance of the virgin in Church, the sole public function of the "temple of the Lord" set apart from the busy public life, symbolized the purest union between the divine and the human, made possible only within the strict hierarchy of his Church and enabled through Christ's incarnation.

This fashioning of female virginity as a higher from of marriage dovetails, so Brakke, precisely with Athanasius' refutation of the principal competitors and opponents in his struggle to "consolidate all Egyptian Christians around the hierarchical organization of priests and bishops that he headed," brilliantly delineated in Brakke's succinct introduction: "a group of priests and lay-people called Arians by their opponents because of their support of the deposed priest Arius;" a network of local churches and with its own clergy loyal to Melitius of Lycopolis, both organizations developed in specific opposition to Athanasius' episcopate; and various ascetic circles formed around particular teachers such as Hieracas, loosely affiliated with presbyters and bishops, and of unclear allegiance to either Arians or Melitians (p. 3-4).

Athanasius' portrayal of the Alexandrian virgin as a model wife countered not only (Hieracan) notions of married Christians as second-class citizens, but more importantly, Arian concepts of Christ as a "model of virtue" to be imitated like a charismatic teacher, and hence the self-understanding of ascetic women "as progressing towards discipline and philosophy in imitation of the Word's own advancement," (p. 74) through their participation in lively academic study-circles gathered around a brilliant teacher or presbyter.

In dealing with desert-monks Athanasius used the opposite means to achieve the same end, the construction of a comprehensive Christian politeia. Instead of removing ascetics from involvement in public life as represented by schools and academic study-circles, Athanasius must here find ways of incorporating desert-monks, already "outside the world" by the simple fact of being in the desert. He did so by "acting like a politician: writing letters of advice, admonition, or consolation; making strategic appointments; articulating his vision of a Church made up of bishops, monks, and ordinary Christians" (p. 81). In a fascinating chapter, Brakke details Athanasius' pronouncements on traditional ascetic practices such as sleeping and nocturnal emissions on the basis of "correct" Scriptural reading; his modification of hospitality to request prior assurances of a visiting monk's theological credentials to marginalize wavering Arian sympathizers; and his carefully orchestrated interventions in the evolving Pachomian federation's internal and external affairs, aimed at negotiating more formal connections to the episcopal see. All these various moves were intended, so Brakke "to depict a Church that remained centered on the bishop and his priests, but which granted a role to the emerging authority of the monk. The monk could share the authority of the bishop by becoming a bishop himself; the bishop could share in the power of the monk by functioning as an ascetic teacher." (p. 84).

The correlation between Athanasius' "politics," i.e. his ascetic program to create a hierarchically structured "episcopal" politeia against "academic Christianity," and his "theology of the Christian life" (p.143) is Brakke's central theme for the remaining two parts. Here, though focused solely on Athanasius, Brakke addresses one of the profound challenges of the fourth century initiating what Robert Markus has recently called "the end of ancient Christianity:" to integrate a fierce ascetic momentum and the capabilities of ordinary Christians. Athanasius responded by removing "intellectual contemplation of God from the center of his spirituality, and instead defined the Christian life ... as control of the body's passions... The model Christian was no longer the insightful intellectual, but the self-controlled ascetic" p. 144) -- a self-control, however, that corresponded precisely to the particular capabilities of each, which in the case of "ordinary" Christians meant temporary abstinence, a regular discipline of fasting, partial renunciation of wealth through charity, and study of the Scripture "as a means to embodied virtue" (p. 194). All Christians were united through imitation of various Old- and New Testament saints and more recent virtuous exemplars (e.g. Antony), who in their turn represented the diverse inhabitant's of God's "heavenly politeia." In Athanasian theology, such imitation was the measure of human ethical life; having been created out of nothing, humans "determined their ultimate status by imitating the conduct of either God or animals" (p. 168) -- non-Christians and heretics had clearly chosen the latter. In this context, Athanasius' portrays Antony as the perfect human. Neither an academic, Origenist teacher of gnosis and askesis, nor an intercessor and patron, Athanasius' Antony is the pattern for moral imitation, "navigated by the Word" through the problems of human life: demons and bodily passions, but also the impact of the divestment necessary to turn a financially comfortable Egyptian into a monk.

The short-comings of Brakke's study are quickly addressed. Concerns of circular argumentation whereby sources are used to construct a coherent system which is then used to prove the authenticity of these sources, should be allayed by a consultation of the Orientalia paper. More problematic are the categorical distinctions Brakke uses to structure his interpretations. The appropriate division between theology and politics is, of course, a perennial topic. It is not easy to see where Brakke draws the line. Thus, he considers for example Athanasius' rhetoric of the imitation of saints "political" (e.g. 267), and his notion of moral reformation theological and spiritual; and does not consider theological treatises part of political tactics -- but on closer investigation he himself does not quite concur with these distinction either. Far from being "reductionist", the book leaves little doubt that the author has devoted a great deal of thought to this issue -- this reviewer wishes only that Brakke had laid more of his theoretical cards regarding politics and theology on the table (p. 15f.). The second key-distinction is that between "academic" and "episcopal" or "Catholic" Christianity, especially in Alexandria. Following R. Williams, Brakke considers the opposition between the (Arian) school, based on Origen's theology, and the "Catholic" church based on Athanasius' central. This poses a historical problem: what kind of school are we to imagine? How great is the distinction between the presbyter Arius as teacher and Athanasius (or one of "his" presbyters) in the same role? Does such a division not continue to overly marginalize "the school" precisely in accordance with Athanasius anti-heretical rhetoric? However, Brakke's divisions diminish his stimulating results only slightly. What emerges in the end is an Athanasius, who through his ascetic principles sought to (and perhaps did) unite the philosophical Christianity of Alexandria with the "more action-oriented Christianity of Coptic Egypt;" the rigorists and the married; an "elite stratum of society present both in Alexandria and the cities and village of Upper Egypt" (p. 270f.), in short a great diversity of Christians into one shared politeia.