BMCR 2007.08.51

Evagrius Ponticus. The Early Christian Fathers

, , Evagrius Ponticus. Early church fathers. New York: Routledge, 2006. 1 online resource (xi, 250 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 0203356977. $31.95.

Of the desert fathers who inhabited Egyptian cells in the late fourth century, Evagrius presents perhaps the most colorful figure. In his early twenties he cut a dashing figure in Constantinople in the entourage of Gregory Nazianzen. Uncommonly precocious, good looking and elegant, he became a favorite in elevated circles, captivating the minds of intellectual aspirants and the hearts of noble ladies. An object of one particularly irate husband, Evagrius had to bid a hasty retreat to Jerusalem, thence proceeding to the Egyptian desert where he spent the last years of his life. His death brought scant lasting peace. Evagrius’ post mortem career gained him notoriety as a centerpiece of major theological controversies.

A worthy addition to the Early Church Fathers series, Casiday’s Evagrius Ponticus constitutes an eloquent attempt to enroll a much maligned figure in the gallery of fourth century theologians who had a major hand in shaping crucial dogmas. The introduction begins and ends with an apologia “Why Evagrius matters.” Besides the obvious, namely the sheer volume of the work produced in the course of the self-imposed silence and isolation of the Egyptian desert, the opportunity to reevaluate subsequent condemnation vis-à-vis authentic writings is, in itself, sufficient reason to introduce readers to Evagrius’ own words.

Evagrius’ biography, entitled “lifeand afterlife” is, in some ways, astonishing. A Cappadocian by birth, Evagrius followed Gregory Nazianzen to Constantinople in 379 as member of the group enlisted to facilitate the transition of the capital from a city controlled by an ‘Arian’ emperor (Valens) to one presided by a Nicene one (Theodosius I). At that point, it seems, Evagrius’ orthodox credentials were impeccable. His personal inclinations embroiled him in an ill-advised romantic liaison, and he subsequently left for Jerusalem. The holy city, a sleepy garrison town until the turn of the fourth century, had become a magnet for pilgrims whose quest for spirituality involved temporary stay as well as permanent residence. The city also provided asylum far enough from the court to warrant oblivion, yet close enough to powerful and pious circles to obtain crucial patronage and re-orientation.

Evagrius’ intellectual qualities and court connections led to Melania and Rufinus and thence, on their advice, to the Egyptian desert and the monastery of Kellia (385-399/400). It seems that the sand had brought out in full force his remarkable intellect, for the Egyptian years produced an impressive volume of correspondence and composition. Evagrius’ numerous works displays an impressive but not altogether unfamiliar spectrum of biblical commentaries (or rather glossae), reflections on asceticism and prayer, and exhortations on the correct way of life. He died on the eve of what became known as the first Origenist controversy to which he inadvertently contributed, ultimately to reemerge, over a century after his death, as a center of contending dogmas during the so-called second Origenist controversy (mid-sixth century). Already chided by Jerome’s biting tongue for shunning emotions, Evagrius’ name, closely associated with those of Origen and Didymus, acquired a distinct non-orthodox hue. Under the influence of Palestinian monastic circles, from Jerome in the late fourth to the Gazan monastic leaders of the sixth, Evagrius and his theology were subjected to ‘orthodox’ reevaluation which found his at fault, condemning him as an heretic.

One result of such afterlife was the patchy transmission of Evagrius’ work and the loss of the Greek originals. A few have been by now partially recovered. The third part of Casiday’s introduction discusses Evagrius’ writings and thinking. The fourth, entitled “Evagrius the guide” deals with his epigrammatic ‘chapters’. The translations include six major letters, three treatises, four selections of biblical exegesis, and five of his ‘chapters’. Each is prefaced with a useful introduction which briefly reviews scholarly opinions regarding the nature or recipient of the translated excerpt. Several pieces are translated into English for the first time.

It is difficult to judge the breadth and originality of Evagrius’ thought on the basis of his surviving work. One of his most popular and enduring compositions, the kephalaion (chapters) addressed “To the Virgin” has engendered considerable scholarly controversy. At first glance it reads like an amplified paraphrase of Proverbs 31 on the ideal wife, with an ideal virgin replacing the ideal spouse. Was it an essay in biblical exegesis or an attempt to draw guidelines for women who wished to devote their lives to a specific mode of existence? Like its counterpart, “To the Monks”, Evagrius’ “To the Virgin” enjoyed a wide circulation and was promptly translated into Latin by Rufinus. A copy was deposited at the library of Melania’s monastery on the Mount of Olives. Perhaps it constituted an edifying reading at the dining table of Melania’s establishment. Perhaps, as some think, it had been composed to prevent a noble lady from coming to Egypt to consult Evagrius in person. The engagement with major issues of the day, such as the practice of virginal asceticism, shows an Evagrius keeping abreast of major trends even in his remote Egyptian cell, not unlike Jerome in his Bethlehem cell. That he cast his aphorisms along the lines of the famed biblical vision of idealized womanhood suggests originality, if hardly practicality and applicability.

There is hardly a doubt that Evagrius deserves to be better known, both for his own sake and for the influence he exerted over Rufinus, Cassian, Palladius, John Climacus and Maximus the Confessor. Nor is there doubt that Casiday’s readable and well annotated compilation contributes to a better understanding of Evagrius’ vicissitudes, work and subsequent condemnation. Whether this pious undertaking is likely to range Evagrius side by side with Jerome and Augustine, his towering contemporaries, not only on the list of publications in the series of the Early Church Fathers, remains an open question.

A couple of minor comments. The table of contents does not disclose the Latin or Greek title of the works translated. There is, however, an appendix with a select glossary of terms. Among the excerpts a selection from Evagrius’ “Kephalia gnostica” (ed. A. Guillaumont, PO 28), and “The Gnostic” (ed. A. and C. Guillaumont, SC 356), two of Evagrius’ most important works, are conspicuously absent. Notwithstanding, Casiday’s Evagrius remains an excellent introduction to an elusive yet important father of the desert.