Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.50

Jean-Marie Salamito, Les virtuoses et la multitude. Aspects sociaux de la controverse entre Augustin et les pélagiens.   Grenoble:  Millon, 2005.  Pp. 350.  ISBN 2-84137-168-9.  €29.00.  

Reviewed by Josef Lössl, Cardiff University (
Word count: 2261 words

This book, as its subtitle announces, is about the 'social aspects of the controversy between Augustine and the Pelagians'. Its author, Jean-Marie Salamito, is Professor for the History of Ancient Christianity at the Sorbonne. The main characteristic of his study is the reading of the sources in the light of concepts drawn from Max Weber's social theory. Already the title of the book points to this. 'Virtuosos' and 'crowd' are understood in a Weberian sense. And the well-structured bibliography has sections not only on Augustine, Pelagius and the Pelagians, and Patristics and Late Antiquity, but also on works by Max Weber, about Max Weber and from the time of Max Weber. Ancient history is given its due by a chronology of the Pelagian controversy stretching over seven pages and there is a list of sources (nine pages). Indices are sorely missed, however. The structure of the book is transparent and its style lucid. It is pleasant to read. References are sparingly applied. As the cover text aptly states, the author is intent not to divorce erudition from conceptualisation.

The book has two parts. Part I has six chapters, Part II four. Part I analyses the link between the definition of Christianity and social milieux. How do the latter influence the former? In this context Salamito introduces the Weberian term 'elective affinities', according to which someone's religious outlook is shaped by his or her belonging to a specific professional or social group. Part II looks at the same question from the opposite direction. To what extent do certain attitudes predominant within the early Church, attitudes derived from the values of the social groups to which influential members belong, determine who is a member or who has access to salvation?

The chapters in detail: Chapter I contrasts the secular and religious spheres in late Roman society. Its main argument is that late Roman society attached to each sphere a value and associated it with certain social groups. The secular was negative. It was the worldly sphere and home to the lowly and corrupt parts of society. The religious was holy, exalted, divine, elevated, ascetic and pure, in short, aristocratic. This view, as is well known, is reflected in ascetic writings, but, and this is Salamito's point, it was undergoing a fundamental change. While, for example, Pelagius in his letter to Demetrias emphasizes the continuity between the historic glory and honour of the Anicii family tradition and young Demetrias' choice of an ascetic life, Jerome points out areas of conflict, and Augustine exhorts Demetrias not to think too highly of her aristocratic status and remember instead that for God mere virginity counts for more than the nobility of consuls.

Along similar lines Chapter II compares aristocratic ostentation with bourgeois obscurity. Pelagius advises his noble clients to display their asceticism, including their humility, with the pride of the holy. Augustine, reflecting the 'chosen affinity', the 'Standesethos', of the social group in which he now lives and works as a bishop in small town Hippo, is less outgoing. For him the pain and suffering that comes with asceticism and martyrdom, even the absence of it in a perfectly ordinary, lowly (though for all that no less troubled) life, are to be borne in silent patience. Chapter III similarly contrasts the courage and optimism of the Pelagian aristocrat (with his or her experience of Roman law and justice working smoothly and reliably) with Augustine's underdog virtue of fear and trembling before God's arbitrary justice. Chapter IV returns to the motif of aristocratic excellence as a universal virtue - not in the sense that the mass actually lives by it, but in the sense that it subsists in an elite small in number as a model for the masses. Chapter V discusses the problems which this ideal encounters in the face of Gospel Christianity: How are aristocratic values reconciled with the person of Jesus, with the cross, with the lowly beginnings of Christianity, with its eschatological outlook? Chapter VI concludes Part I with a reflection on how Pelagianism with its promotion of aristocratic values for all people may have helped laying foundations for a democratisation of western culture, a belief in humanity and the nobility of the whole human race, in short, in equality.

Chapter VII opens Part II. It asks: 'Who is the Church?' Where lie its boundaries and what are its dimensions? The identity crisis caused by the 'sham Christians' (Curran) during the fourth century is well known. 'Pelagianism' was a sort of response to that crisis. Augustine too offered answers, which were in many respects conflicting with the Pelagian views. But Salamito, with the help of the Weberian concepts of the virtuosos and the masses, develops a synthesis. Even though Pelagians had a narrow, rigorous and elitist concept of the church, Pelagians did not necessarily deny 'lesser' Christians their Christianity, church membership or salvation. On the contrary, in practice the Pelagian concept of the church as a model may have been more inclusive than Augustine's predestinarian 'mixed body', apart from which there was no salvation. At any rate, however, Salamito argues, though Augustine's concept was in many ways successful, the Pelagian concept did not completely vanish either. On the contrary, the idea of an elitist 'corps' or 'Stand', an ascetic and clerical elite church within the wider church, did survive and grew even stronger as the church more and more assumed the role which had previously been held by the empire.

Chapter VIII continues with a discussion about theology and education. Who controls what theology is taught? Is it also something that depends on status, or can simple people make a contribution as well? Julian of Aeclanum complained that many unsuitable and uneducated people got involved in the controversy, even manual workers. On the other hand, Augustine made much of the popularity of his cause. But whether this indicates that access to education widened in the late empire, as Salamito seems to suggest, remains to be asked. Modern societies too have seen that popularising and politicising education does not necessarily result in improving it for the majority. Chapter IX treats in a similar way the question of religious perfection. Did Augustine, as an advocate of the people, promote mediocrity? Not in Salamito's view. The idea of hidden martyrdom, he argues, opened the way for a much broader implementation of higher standards among church members, even if these standards were not visibly met. After all, they were hidden. Emphasizing the Weberian paradox, Salamito concludes that 'we can see in the bishop of Hippo the theoretician and pastoral practician of a sanctity of the mass.' Finally, Chapter X: How much value has Augustine's championship of the mass in the light of his teaching on predestination? Does this not create a hidden elite of the elect which is numerically not bigger than and just as elusive as Pelagius' senatorial virtuosos? Not in Salamito's view. The invisibility of election and the pastoral setting of the teaching does not, or at least not immediately, lead to such a form of Pelagianism through the back door. Of course, in the long term, Salamito has to concede, that is precisely what did happen with Augustinian eschatological ecclesiology.

In his conclusion Salamito reduces the two positions, Pelagian and Augustinian, once more to the following points: self-satisfaction vs. a spirituality of dependence, visible perfection vs. hidden sanctity, immediacy vs. eschatology. Ultimately, in a certain (Weberian) sense, he argues, Augustine's preaching was much more radically 'rejecting the world' than the ostensible radicalism of Pelagian asceticism. The Augustinian Christian does not rely on social status, visibility of achievement, or any other immanent criteria for spiritual success. There are no such criteria for Augustine. Instead he offers 'an intimate relationship with an invisible Other', 'a justice as cannot be seen under the sun' (ciu. 20,27).

The conclusion reinforces an impression given by the whole book, namely that this is less a social historical account of the Pelagian controversy informed by Weberian categories than an attempt at formulating a systematic social theology from the dispute between Augustine, Jerome, Orosius and others on one side, and what Salamito persistently calls 'the Pelagian movement', 'Pelagianism', or 'the Pelagians', on the other. In historiographic terms the use of the latter phraseology is problematic. It does not do justice to the roles which individuals played in the controversy. This becomes clear even in Salamito's own account, for example when he deals with authors besides Augustine, like Jerome, Orosius, Pelagius and Julian of Aeclanum. The result is inconsistency. On the one hand contributions of individual authors are presented and discussed in detail. A differentiated picture emerges. On the other hand a far cruder model of Augustinian vs. Pelagian thought is developed. The complex picture is destroyed again. One may well accept on conventional grounds that Julian of Aeclanum is labelled a Pelagian. But where do Demetrias or Paulinus of Nola stand, on the Pelagian or on the Augustinian side? In short, Salamito's use of the term 'Pelagian' and its association with 'the aristocracy' leads to inconsistencies and contradictions.

One could elaborate on this latter point and add others, like questions regarding the role of non-Christian aristocrats, bishops and emperors, the difference between east and west, the role of women, whether the lives of aristocrats were as safe and secure as Salamito seems to suggest, whether Augustine preached to mass audiences of a Carthaginian proletariate, what role 'tribal' belonging may have played (famously, for example, in the conflict between Augustine and Julian of Aeclanum), how Manichaeism may have influenced Augustine, for example in his attitude to secrecy, and many other topics, which are relevant but completely absent from Salamito's considerations. Nevertheless, this book, despite its weaknesses, raises a lot of questions, which makes it well worth reading. Of course, one very important reason for its narrow viewpoint is its application of the Weberian paradigm. Here too one could ask, why Weber, why not Marx, or Darwin, or Freud, or Karl Barth for that matter? Of course, here is not the place to raise this question at length, but one more, concluding, remark, may give an idea how such a response might look like, or how, positively, Salamito's approach could be developed in the context of a more comprehensive study of late-antique religion and culture.

'Pelagianism' as a movement or group ideology has been found to be largely an invention of early modern theology and church history. In his account of the controversy dating from 1974 (Rom und Pelagius) Otto Wermelinger stated that there was a need to acquire a better understanding of the momumental works of 17th and 18th centuries scholars. What Wermelinger here basically asked for is what Jan Assmann recently did for monotheism (in his Moses the Egyptian, 1997). Assmann studied Spencer and Cudworth. Historians of Pelagianism are asked to study Garnier and Noris (and Grotius, Arminius, Petau, Arnold and others). Their works contain what one might call a pre- or proto-enlightenment agenda, arguments for what eventually developed into models and theories for a modern democratic society (including the promotion of liberty, equality and the rule of law). They are dressed up as sympathetic or by and large fair historical accounts of what is presented as a Pelagian movement. It is this movement which historians today doubt existed at the time. Its original place in the western cultural mind is not the Roman empire of the 5th century, but 17th and 18th century western Europe. By the time Tocqueville, Weber and Troeltsch, names whom Salamito frequently cites, appeared on the stage, it had become commonplace. Its memory needed to be recovered in different ways, as was achieved by scholars like Harnack, Loofs and others. In the later 19th century, in the course of an increasing secularisation of modern society and the rise of Marxism and Darwinism, Harnack, for example, famously branded Julian of Aeclanum a rationalist and atheist. Salamito fails to make these links transparent. A reader who is not already preconditioned to accept Max Weber's thought as a paradigm is left wondering, why Weber and not Marx or Freud or someone else? Weber moreover is himself part of the intellectual tradition that produced 'Pelagianism'. Therefore applying his social theory to the sources may simply result in creating a short circuit between traditional western historical scholarship of Pelagianism and the sources, which are largely themselves a product of that scholarship. In short, whoever applies Weberian thought to a study of the Pelagian controversy creates a circle. The nature of this circle as hermeneutic and Weber's place within it should be accounted for, lest it turn vicious. Discussing, if only briefly, how the concept of 'Pelagianism' emerged and developed in western, including Weberian, thought and referring to the concept not so much as an undisputable historical reality but as an icon of western cultural memory, deconstructing it in the process, would go a long way towards a better understanding not only of the events that happened in the 5th century, but also of Weber's thought and of religion and society today.

Despite these concerns and several more, Les virtuoses et la multitude is an exciting and inspiring piece of scholarly literature. The treatment of individual sources is frequently clear and informative, and the use of the Weberian conceptual apparatus creates interesting links and associations between different types of theological thought, social groups, forms of church, society and government, values and value systems and religious attitudes. There remain problems from a historiographical perspective, but from a theological and religious studies perspective this book represents a refreshing and challenging new approach. It must not be overlooked.

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