Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.02.34

Philip Rousseau, Ascetics, Authority, and the Church in the Age of Jerome and Cassian. Second edition.   Notre Dame, Indiana:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.  Pp. xxxvi, 278.  ISBN 9780268040291.  $30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Mark DelCogliano, University of St. Thomas (

Table of Contents

Philip Rousseau’s Ascetics, Authority, and the Church in the Age of Jerome and Cassian is rightly considered one of the seminal studies of Christian asceticism. But in the more than thirty years since this book was originally published by Oxford University Press in 1978 there has been nothing less than a revolution in the way in which Christian asceticism is studied and a corresponding explosion of studies adopting traditional and new approaches. While the main text, the four appendices, and the Bibliography of second edition remain the same as the original, a new Additional Bibliography (xxvii-xxxvi) and a revised Index (273-278) are added. Also new in this edition is a fascinating eighteen-page Introduction to the Second Edition (ix-xxvi). Here Rousseau sketches the chronology of the original monograph. We learn that it was based upon a doctoral dissertation supervised by Peter Brown and defended in 1972, and was ready for publication the next year but took five more years to reach print. So Ascetics really represents the state of scholarship circa 1973! More significantly, in the new Introduction Rousseau also offers a retrospective view of its successes and deficiencies in the light of subsequent scholarship. It is a rare treat to see a scholar, who through the years has continued to grapple with his subject and produce important studies, revisit his earlier work, give an honest assessment of its contribution, and graciously acknowledge how much he has learned from his colleagues in the field since its publication. This new Introduction is a testament to Rousseau’s four decades of scholarly dedication.

I will first rehearse the argument of the original book and then summarize Rousseau’s thoughts on its strengths and weaknesses. The main argument of the book is to show how ascetic ideals first articulated in the deserts of Egypt were adopted by clerics in the Western church. More specifically, Rousseau is interested in the development of the concept of spiritual authority among desert ascetics, the appeal of this concept beyond the deserts, especially among bishops, and the actualization and articulation of this concept by Jerome, Martin of Tours, and John Cassian. The argument is divided into five parts of unequal length.

The first part, consisting of five chapters, explores Egyptian desert monasticism (9-76). Rousseau begins by sketching the history of the development of Egyptian monasticism and outlining the caution with which the major surviving literary sources should be used. He then launches into an investigation of the kind of charismatic spiritual authority that developed among the earliest desert ascetics of Egypt. He uses both anchoretic and cenobitic sources, since he maintains that hermits and cenobites are animated by the same principles, though these are actualized differently in their different contexts. Four qualities in particular confer authority: devotion to tradition, personal monastic experience, insight into scripture, and the ability to inspire others. But the notion of spiritual authority evolves as eremitical monasticism develops into the cenobitic form (Rousseau sees a more or less linear development here). In the cenobitic context spiritual authority becomes a question of personal example rather than the ability to speak an insightful word, and there is increasing emphasis on stability as opposed to charismatic freedom and mobility, and on the interior isolation of the cenobites now dwelling in close quarters with each other. These developments in turn lead to a certain spirit of formality in monasteries, where obedience to superiors now becomes the chief virtue. Two final themes are discussed in the final two chapters of the first part. Rousseau highlights how monks are resistant to assuming all forms of institutional (clerical) authority and witness to a separation of ecclesiastical office and religious power. Furthermore, the development of monasticism from anchoretic to cenobitic forms is concomitant with a shift from an oral tradition personified in certain charismatic and authoritative individuals to written traditions which replace the charismatic authority of the earliest desert fathers. Monasticism becomes a culture whose sources of authority are found in the preserved words of the fathers, not living masters.

Part Two briefly transitions to the western world (79-95). The main point here is that asceticism in the West was always far more connected with the public affairs of the church and the clergy than had been the case in Egyptian monasticism. At the same time, westerners looked to the East for models of asceticism and for literature about ascetic models. The linking of asceticism with clerics and the need to create a body of western ascetical literature (even if still based on eastern sources) would decisively shape the contours of asceticism in the West and alter the context in which ascetical spiritual authority was exercised. The next three parts, which examine Jerome (99-139), Martin of Tours (143-165), and John Cassian (169-234), provide the material for exploring these themes. In a sense, the first two parts are preludes to the part on Cassian, in whom one finds the fullest evidence for the transition. Jerome and Martin offer earlier, partial examples. Rousseau detects in Jerome a shift from a radical kind of externally-oriented, eremitical, desert asceticism that was incompatible with clerical life, to an urban, cenobitic, interiorized asceticism that was deeply involved with the affairs of the church as a cleric. And so, Jerome bears witness to the growing acceptance in the West of the idea that a life of asceticism was compatible, and even preferable, for members of the clergy. The life of Martin of Tours witnesses to a similar development, but in this case the foundation of Martin’s spiritual authority as a bishop is his asceticism.

The fifth part, on Cassian, is really the meat of the book. There are six chapters in this part. The first reconstructs as best as one can the biography of Cassian. In a sense, Cassian recapitulates in his own life the transformation of asceticism as it moved from Egypt to the West. After spending many years living among the desert fathers of Egypt, he left and then became increasingly involved in the current affairs of the church, such as the controversies over John Chrysostom and Nestorius. The second and third chapters spell out how, even while always insisting on the superiority of the eremitical life, Cassian in the course of his writings came to see the cenobitic form as the most practical, the best suited for Western monks, and in fact necessary. The fourth chapter explores Cassian’s concept of authority: it shifts from emphasis on the charismatic authority of experienced and insightful fathers to “a sense a corporate tradition, custom, and experience” (198). The community rather than the individual abba emerges as the source of spiritual authority. The next chapter unpacks Cassian’s ideas about the relation of the monk and the world. While he saw the monastery and the world as separate and distinct, the world was not merely a distraction that had to be avoided, but a sphere that had a right to make demands that the monks help it become better. Thus monks could play a pastoral and clerical role in the world. As in Jerome and Martin, so in Cassian: asceticism confers a new kind of spiritual authority upon clerics, especially bishops. In the last chapter, Rousseau looks at Cassian as a writer. He detects in Cassian’s writings “a transition from spoken exhortation to written rule” (227) in the monastic life – thus presaging the golden age of monastic rule writing in the fifth and sixth centuries. But in his writings Cassian also allows himself to become involved in church affairs outside the monastery – a trait that particularly characterizes western asceticism. In the Epilogue, Rousseau calls Cassian a point of departure: “he marks the beginning … of a tradition that reaches at least to Gregory the Great, and, in Ireland and Germany, far beyond: a tradition that linked more and more firmly the practice of ascetic virtue and the preaching of the Gospel” (238). And so, Cassian represents the best witness to the translation of Egyptian desert monasticism and its concept of spiritual authority into the West, and is harbinger of what would follow in early medieval Europe.

Let us return now to new Introduction. In its first paragraphs Rousseau runs through the book, noting where his original treatment now seems lacking to him and listing subsequent scholarship that has altered his views. A perusal of these pages will offer the reader a more detailed review of the original book in the light of more recent scholarship than any I could offer here. Here I note a few of his self-criticisms which seem particularly apt. One of the first shortcomings Rousseau mentions is his “having essentialized monks and bishops as distinct social categories” (xi), each having its own proper sphere of activity and influence. While he maintains that his tracing of the shift from desert-anchoretic-lay asceticism to urban-cenobitic-episcopal asceticism remains a useful contribution, he now admits that argument could have been better made if he had highlighted that there was a single arena of religious authority contested by both monks and bishops. Rousseau admits that when writing Ascetics he did not fully appreciate bishops and their settings as such, and notes that subsequent work by him and many others has vastly improved our knowledge. Rousseau also notes the advances in our understanding of Egyptian monasticism, specifically with respect to Shenoute, Egyptian Manichaeism, and monastic archaeology. All these would alter his presentation of Egyptian monasticism in Part One. For instance, he would modify his belief in the original book that cenobitic monasticism grew out of eremiticism, but notes that it has still not been adequately explained why cenobiticism became appealing to ascetics formerly living in a more eremitical style. Finally Rousseau concedes that his attempt to make Jerome and Martin parts of the bridge from the Egyptian desert to western ascetic clericalism could have been more rigorous. As for Cassian, Rousseau admits that he now thinks that Cassian is far more eastern than he realized in the original book, less able to be seen as purely western. I would add that Rousseau’s discussion of Cassian marked a turning point in scholarship on Cassian. His interpretation of Cassian as espousing cenobitic, not eremitical, monasticism was an important correction and has become widely accepted and even commonplace today. The section on Cassian remains the best part of the book, even if it may now need nuance and revision here and there.

Despite all these admissions on the part of Rousseau, in the end he thinks that the main argument of the original book – “that ideals appropriately labeled ‘ascetic’ were injected into the pastoral mainstream of the church” (xxiv) – stands. I endorse his judgment here. But Rousseau believes that the argument has been affected in two ways. First, subsequent scholarship has provided a fuller context for understanding the development traced in the original book. Second, the study of asceticism has shifted from what he calls a social approach to a textual approach in which the “displacement” itself between author and text, between reader and text, must be recognized. In other words, to make the same argument now he implies that the book would have to be completely rewritten, not only having to take in account a vast amount of more recent scholarship that contextualizes his subjects but also having to incorporate new methodologies. It is perhaps for this reason that Rousseau chose to re-issue the book as originally published, as an early monument to a brilliant career still on the cutting edge of research, but packaged with a kind of Augustinian retractatio that all but insures its continued relevance for future generations.

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