Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.26

Derek Krueger, Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius's Life and the Late Antique City. Series: Transformations of the Classical Heritage, XXV. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Pp. xvi + 196. $35. ISBN 0 -520-08911-1.

Reviewed by Paul Halsall, Fordham University,

It would be a real mistake to read Derek Krueger's Symeon the Holy Fool from cover to cover. Read the introduction first and then, if you are not familiar with St. Symeon, plunge directly into the translation of the Life of Symeon the Fool at the end of the book. It is only then that Krueger's enthusiasm and willingness to engage the text becomes apparent.

The Life is the earliest devoted to a "fool for Christ's sake".1 As Krueger points out, the Life has often been taken as part of a tradition of such "fools", a significant topos in, for instance, later Russian spirituality, but it did not become part of any such "tradition" until three centuries after its composition when another life of a fool -- The Life of Andrew the Fool -- was written. The Life itself is an oddly bifurcated composition. The first half concerns the asceticism of Symeon and his confrere John in the Syrian desert. Krueger largely, and intentionally, overlooks this part of the Life, but it is fascinating in its attack on "family values": Symeon leaves his aging mother and John deserts his new wife so that they can run away together, be made "brothers", become one soul and live together for twenty-nine years, aiding one another in the pursuit of virtue.2 After twenty-nine years of asceticism, Symeon decides that he needs to help others and goes to live in the city of Emesa, where he adopts the pose of a fool. This involves engaging in extreme anti-social behavior -- dancing with prostitutes, eating raw meat, eating beans and breaking wind, and defecating in public whenever he needs to. Such behavior is a way for Symeon to hide his own virtue while encouraging the local population to stop sinning.

Holy fools have come in for a good deal of analysis in recent years, but Krueger's approach is distinctive.3 In contrast to scholars such as Lennart Ryden, the editor of Leontios' text, who discuss Symeon and other fools as real examples of a distinctive type of Byzantine sanctity,4 Krueger adopts a determinedly anti-historicist position. Centrally, he argues that the Life of Symeon says more about seventh-century Cyprus than sixth-century Emesa. For Krueger the Life attests that, before the rise of Islam, seventh-century Cyprus preserved, perhaps longer than elsewhere, a strong and varied urban culture. Leontios' Life, the argument goes, functions as a critique of this urban culture. This is part and parcel of Krueger's anti-historicism. He is adamant that saint's lives, or at least the ones he is concerned with, cannot be used to access the historicity of their subjects: repeatedly he attacks earlier scholars who have used the Life on this assumption, for instance to glean information about the sixth-century Syria of its setting (p.21). He is much more interested in a literary analysis of the work, although he is prepared to accept that the Life might refract, in some way, the historical realities of the time and place of its composition. His focus on the literary context leads to a startling conclusion -- that the Life not only presents Symeon as an alter Christos, but as an alter Diogenes. In other words, Krueger tries to demonstrate that in the second half of the Life, Leontios is deliberately invoking a critique of urban life and its evils associated with Diogenes the Cynic.

As a much reworked doctoral dissertation, Symeon the Holy Fool, preserves some of the best aspects of that genre: in particular its organization resists comprehensiveness and is directed towards a coherent overall argument.

After laying out his basic assumptions and interpretative framework in Chapter 1, Krueger begins his argument by addressing the specific issue of the literary tradition of the Life. Here he battles an earlier argument by Cyril Mango that the Life, with its dramatic shift in registers halfway through, is a not very well done composite in which Leontios incorporated an earlier sixth-century account (p.20).5 Krueger defends the view that the Life is a single composition. He does this in a variety of ways: by undermining the assumptions of Mango with respect to the dating of material; and by providing an alternative schema for the origins of the Life. On textual grounds, Krueger argues that Leontios had written an earlier form of the Life, probably based on the account by Evagrios Scholastikos, and consisting of the second half of the text (the "fool in Emesa" part). The earlier and in some respects more typically hagiographical first half ("asceticism in the desert") was added later (p.31). (A secondary argument is that the "life and miracles" division of many saint's lives also often exhibit shifts in tone.) In this way Krueger is able to account for the shift in style and to preserve an essential presupposition of his book -- that Leontios of Neapolis is responsible for the entire Life, a text which can be evaluated as a single work of literature (p.35). I think Krueger succeeds: Mango's too ready willingness to tie events in the Life (for instance a plague) with events in the sixth century in order to back up his argument for a reused earlier text is effectively punctured. The second part of the argument is backed up to the extent that one accepts Krueger's later chapters.

In his next chapter, "Symeon and Late Antique Hagiography", Krueger sets the Life in the context of the hagiographical genre that developed after the widespread distribution of Athanasios of Alexandria's Life of Anthony. Although the Life of Symeon may read oddly, Krueger shows that it presents all the standard tropes of late antique saint's lives: severing of family ties, control over sexuality and food (what goes in and out of the body), imitation of Christ in healing miracles and in feeding people. It is true that Leontios' Symeon sometimes performs these tropes oddly, but it is fairly easy for Krueger to show that Leontios was writing with direct reference to this tradition. Since Krueger's major theme is that Leontios is a skillful and self-conscious writer, he also seeks to show that the departures from hagiographic norms are part of Leontios' effort to comment on conceptions of holiness -- for instance on the "ambiguity of holiness" (p. 42). Leontios' overtly moralistic purpose is also laid open by Krueger when he shows that, although Symeon does obscene things, the author is always there to show his audience that this is a joke -- that in "reality" Symeon is leading a "real" ascetical life. At the conclusion of this chapter, for the only time in the book, Krueger addresses the impact of the Life in later tradition. Later on, it seems, the full force of Leontios' story was dulled: the Life of Symeon was omitted from the work of Symeon Metaphrastes (part of a tenth-century effort to clean up the stories of the saints and make them useful for liturgical use), and other later Byzantine texts -- synaxaria and menologia -- either cut out the more shameless of Symeon's deeds, or simply presented them as normal. Leontios' attempt to theologize foolishness was not maintained. Krueger is careful, as always, to point out the difficulties of his position here -- other later Byzantine sources, in particular the derivative Life of Andrew the Fool, continued to present the same set of foolish behaviors. Krueger argues that since Andrew was not a monk, Andrew's biographer (or creator) has retreated from the force of Leontios' mad monk. I think this is a little weak.

Chapter 4 examines the earlier tradition of "Holy Fools and Secret Saints". Although Leontios' Life was the first full-length treatment of a holy fool, Symeon was far from the first such figure. Krueger's aim here is, I think, to explicate the ways in which, as a literary compositor, Leontios participated in and went beyond a tradition. There were earlier "fools", but Symeon was something new. Some "fools" such as the nun mentioned in Palladios' Lausaic History seem to have been genuinely mad -- whereas Symeon as fool presented by Leontios only appears to be mad. Mark the Fool, a figure in the sixth-century Life of Daniel of Skete is perhaps the best example of a precursor. Still, Krueger argues that Leontios' Symeon is a new creation: Mark had adopted a pose of foolishness, and did operate in a city, but for Mark life in the city was a sort of penance after his failure to achieve virtue in the desert. Leontios' Symeon, by contrast does achieve virtue in the desert and unlike Mark, out to secure his own salvation, Symeon is out to save others, a theme later shown by Krueger to be central to Leontios other writings.6 The word translated as "fool" -- "salos" -- is explored by Krueger. He notes as other authors before him that is not the same term as the word for "fool" in the New Testament -- "moros" -- but comes to no firmer conclusion than others about the word's significance. Finally in this chapter, the tradition of "concealed" sanctity is examined, a theme central to a number of hagiographical and other Christian texts, including the Gospel of Mark.

From Chapter 5 on, we move into the more controversial area of Krueger's thesis. This is his attempt to demonstrate the conscious use by Leontios of the figure of Diogenes of Sinope. In Chapter 5 Krueger keeps his focus on Diogenes and seeks to demonstrate two main points. First that the figure of Diogenes remained an important one into the late antique period. This he does with no problem at all -- long after there were significant numbers of Cynics, stories, sayings, and anecdotes ("chreia") about Diogenes were a central part of rhetorical education (p. 78), and Diogenes was also clearly held in high regard by a number of Church fathers. Although some Christian writers had problems with Diogenes' paganism and shamelessness, he continued to be held as proverbial for his virtuous poverty (p.86). The second point is more subtle and concerns the rhetorical usage of the Diogenes stories: Diogenes was presented, Krueger argues, not as a model to be emulated, but as part of a critique by the educated elite of its own values.

Krueger is now in a position to deliver his coup de grace. In Chapter 6 he argues that Leontios -- presented up to now as a highly skilled author, soaked in both the classical literary traditions of late antiquity and the traditions of hagiography -- consciously used the figure of Diogenes to frame his presentation of Symeon. Krueger is successful here, I think, in showing the Life does indeed contain more than passing references to Diogenes. And here his argument of Chapter 2 comes into full force: earlier scholars, such as Lennart Ryden, who had concentrated on the figure of Symeon as a historical Syrian holy man had been willing to admit a possible parallelism in the stories of Diogenes and Symeon, but could allow no formal connection since the distinctive, as they saw it, Syriac culture of Symeon would not have been open to the Hellenic figure of Diogenes. Krueger is supremely uninterested in the historical figure of Symeon, but is interested in the literary work of Leontios, a Greek bishop on a Greek island. Leontios' creation of Symeon does indeed show a direct use of the figure of Diogenes. Krueger's proof of this is an extended examination of certain tropes -- in particular defecation in public (an act to which Krueger returns repeatedly throughout his book), bean-eating, and pretended madness. The initial entrance of Symeon into Emesa, dragging a dead dog, a direct link with the common etymology of "Cynic", achieves its full perspective in this presentation. (An ambiguous one, Krueger admits, since the dog is, after all, dead.) Leontios, it emerges, was using the figure of Diogenes to comment upon and theologize the action of Symeon. The assumption behind this argument, asserted by Krueger in his conclusion (p. 126) is that Leontios' audience had the same sort of literary background as Leontios and were able to understand the commentary and the use of the Diogenes tropes furnished on the holiness of Symeon. Krueger assumes this, but does not prove it. And to be fair, a demonstration of audience characteristics for a seventh-century work of literature is more or less impossible. Later hagiography did have a wide audience since it was often designed to be read out in church, but such was not the case with the Life of Symeon.

Chapter 6 marks the high point and most original contribution of the book. Krueger is unable to leave the situation there, however, and rightly so. In Chapter 7 he shows that the literary figure of Symeon is not merely an alter Diogenes, but also an alter Christos. Symeon's story is directly linked to the Gospel account. After twenty-nine years in obscurity, the number of years of Jesus' obscurity in standard Byzantine accounts, Symeon enters Emesa, as Jesus enters Jerusalem, hailed by children. In a nice touch Krueger shows that although the gospels do not have Jesus welcomed by children, the Byzantine liturgy at Leontios' time did. In the city Symeon does what Jesus did -- he heals, feeds and instructs. Of course, Symeon gets it wrong: he attempts to heal a blind man by putting mustard in his eyes and makes the situation worse; he feeds people, not with the necessities as Jesus had, but with a lavish and overdone banquet. This is a joke, Krueger argues. It is funny, and meant to be funny. But that is not all. Leontios is making a serious point -- that Jesus too appeared ridiculous to the majority, and that just as being an ascetic in a city is an anomaly, so was being God on earth (pp.114-115). By using the figure of Diogenes then, and stories of social contravention, Leontios is restoring the shock of the idea of the Incarnation. In the final part of the chapter, Krueger ties this to Leontios agenda as an urban bishop -- and relates his stories to concerns about urban life, and how to deal with poverty.

In his conclusion, Krueger admits that Leontios' Symeon is not a Cynic, and Leontios is not presenting any argument for individual deviance. Indeed his Symeon is working, despite appearances, for conformity to ascetic and charitable Christian norms. The conservatism of Christianity is preserved after all.

Krueger specifically disclaims any intention that his book constitute an in-depth study of the whole Life. Rather he explores and develops a number of themes -- centrally the nature of life in seventh-century Cyprus and the literary composition of the Life. This is both wise and problematic. Wise in that Krueger's focus and approach -- a carefully constructed position in itself -- does enable him to explore his two core questions convincingly. But there is a less happy consequence of Krueger's stress on the second half of the Life. He avoids issues that a modern academic audience might consider inescapable. Since this is a review of the -- very interesting -- book he did write, I merely want to signal here that the text raises themes of gender certainly and race possibly. It is quite true that these two issues have become shibboleths to certain scholars, who see gender and race as universal issues in the same way that Marxist scholars were sometimes accused of seeing class everywhere. The Life of Symeon, however, cries out for this sort of analysis. Race first: the Life presents a "multicultural society", which Krueger argues does represent seventh-century Cypriot society, a society on an island that was a refuge for groups from all over the eastern Mediterranean. Thus in Leontios' Emesa, there are local Christians, Jews and Ethiopians. The repeated notion that the devil or other demons are connected with Ethiopians is worth investigating. It is sometimes asserted that ancient cultures did not categorize on the basis of skin color, but color is an issue in the Life. The issue of gender and sexuality is even more prominent in the Life. First, and bluntly, the Life has homoerotic overtones. Second, there is a specific, repeated and interesting discussion of the notion of manhood. Symeon is a "holy man" in a fairly conventional way for the first half of the Life, and later in the novel way of being a fool. Both ways of being holy impact on our impression of Symeon's gender. As an ascete he rejects the male role within the family, he cries (a specifically female trait: oddly enough female saints are sometimes shown to be holy, and to have "male souls", by not crying). Most dramatically he becomes the "bridegroom" of Christ (p.141). The gender transformations of male saints in love with a male God are often overlooked, but are here made explicit. Symeon is a holy "man", but his masculinity is of a type that directly contrasts with the classical tropes of masculinity (something that could be said about Diogenes the Cynic also of course).

In Symeon the Holy Fool, Derek Krueger has contributed the insights of literary criticism and the sociology of religion to what had been a problem of philology or a novelty for students of exotic mysticism.7 Where previous scholarship had become bogged down in attempts to access the historical figure of Symeon, Krueger by concentrating on Leontios of Neapolis as much as on Symeon begins a discussion about which we have real historical data -- the hagiographic and literary conventions of the seventh century -- rather than a subject about which we have much less data -- holy fools in sixth-century Syria. By recasting the topic in this way, he has changed the parameters of future discussion.


  • [1] There had been earlier partial accounts of foolishness, in Palladios' Lausaic History for instance, and even a chapter on Symeon in Evagrios Scholastikos' Ecclesiastical History.
  • [2] See p. 29ff. Their relationship was apparently formalized in one of the earliest indications we have of the adelphopoiia rite.
  • [3] Related bibliography includes: Gorainoff, Irina, Les fols in Christ dans la tradition orthodoxe, (Paris: Desclee De Brouwer, 1983). Grosdidier des Matons, Jose, "Les themes d'edification dans la Vie d'Andre Salos," Travaux et memoires 4 (1970), 277-328. Ryden, Lennart, "The Holy Fool," in The Byzantine Saint, ed. Sergei Hackel, (London: 1981), 106-116. Saward, John, Perfect Fools, (Oxford: 1980). Thompson, Ewa, Understanding Russia: The Holy Fool in Russian Culture, (Lanham, NY: 1987).
  • [4] Ryden, 108-110
  • [5] Cf. Cyril Mango, "A Byzantine Hagiographer at Work: Leontios of Neapolis," in Byzanz und der Westen: Studien zur Kunst des europäischen Mittelalters, ed. Irmgard Hutter, (Vienna: 1984), 25-41.
  • [6] The importance of this theme was also noted by Ryden, 109.
  • [7] Cf. George Feuerstein, Holy Madness, (New York: Paragon House, 1991), 8-14.