Foucault’s explications of cura sui, a concept based on the disciplining of the body—and by inference, the spirit—mark a crucial understanding of the pliability of the human body, and consequently of its own sexual and spiritual dimensions. In his History of Sexuality series, he takes his readers through a study of this development of attitudes toward human sexuality, especially towards the body’s function in taming and disciplining it. The series takes the eighteenth century as a starting point, and then looks back to Greek antiquity before moving on to the modern period and the medieval period.1 Considering the uniquely Western European focus of Foucault’s study, it is not surprising that this model has not been applied to late Christian antiquity in Eastern Mediterranean regions like Byzantine Constantinople and Coptic Egypt during the late fourth and early fifth centuries. By applying the paradigms offered in Foucault’s idea of cura sui to late antique Egyptian asceticism in the monastery of Deir Anba Shenouda (the White Monastery), Caroline T. Schroeder’s book fills in this lack of coverage in Foucault’s work.
Schroeder’s study focuses on the mode of askesis, the disciplining of one’s desire, both sexual and for food, within late antique monastic culture. In it, she offers an investigation into the rules advocated by Shenoute of Atripe, third abbot of the White Monastery between 395 and 465 C.E., and the ascetic ideology articulated in these rules. In using the word “ideology” to characterize Shenoute of Atripe’s emphasis on the necessity of disciplining the individual monastic body for the benefit of the monastic community at large, Schroeder underscores her study of Shenoute’s brand of asceticism as not only capable of bringing about salvation for the self and its monastic community. Rather, it is also productive in a literary and theological fashion, a means of producing knowledge with which to control the self. The emphasis on individual monastic purity is, as she argues of Shenoute’s beliefs, capable of bringing its virtue or corruption to bear upon the corporate monastic body, thereby constituting either spiritual amelioration of the monastic community or its pollution.
Schroeder traces a trajectory of Shenoute’s thought from his earlier stage as a young monk who challenged his spiritual father, the second abbot of the White Monastery, for his inability to rein in the sins committed by members within the monastery, to his latter stage as a defender of the orthodox Christian faith against both pagans and heretics. Considering the emphasis Schroeder places on the vulnerability of the monastic body to pollution by sin, Shenoute in these various stages of his ecclesiastical career is portrayed by her as a figure who was a a figure of authority and power within the institution of the monastery, using his texts as vital articulations of both “localized power struggles for leadership within his community and empire-wide power struggles to define the nature of orthodox Christianity and the leadership of the church”.
Chapter One, “Bodily Discipline and Monastic Authority: Shenoute’s Earliest Letters to the Community”, conducts a close study of Canon I composed by Shenoute in response to what he asserts as the moral laxity of his monastic predecessor. Schroeder’s study of the epistolary-homiletic mode of the letters within this particular Canon is fruitful not only in a literary but also historical sense for yielding insights into the literary-theological milieu that Shenoute engages in his appropriation of biblical metaphors of sexual prostitution and debauchery to describe the state of sin within the monastery. In line with biblical allegories of Israel’s fidelity to and betrayal of God, which is highly steeped in sexual language, the linguistic-textual ambiguity of Shenoute’s letters in their sexual language of pollution points to an underlying desire to regulate the behavior of the monastic body.
Chapter Two, “The Ritualization of the Monastic Body: Shenoute’s Rules”, focuses on Shenoute’s Canons, especially Five, Nine and Three, which are arguably formed upon his accession to the role of leadership within the White Monastery, and relates these to the formation of a ritualized process of enacting ascetic behavior. Taking her cues again from modern theoretical frameworks provided by the cultural theorists Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Pierre Bourdieu and Catherine Bell, Schroeder argues that ritual practices within Shenoute’s monastic body, reflected through his Canons, perform and even construct a subjective vision of how this monastic community should be distinguished from other monastic communities established by Pachomius in Egypt. Punishment, as she suggests, was one vital function advocated within the Canons not so much for the sake of repression of one’s sexuality; rather, punishment is predicated upon the production of knowledge concerning the monastic self, its body and the power relations it is steeped in. This study is interesting where it intertwines its focus on the regulation of the human body and its inherent sexuality with politics, namely, the enforced obedience of the monks to the one head of the monastery, Shenoute the third abbot. From a historical standpoint, however, I am averse to the suggestion that Shenoute’s Canons are ideologically invested in the same way that Schroeder suggests, since it is arguably a presentist mode of reading the past through Foucauldian ideas of discipline, control and knowledge production.
Chapter Three, “The Church Building as Symbol of Renunciation,” makes a different move in emphasizing the importance of the church building at Deir Anba Shenouda in embodying the material testimony to the (im-)purity of the monks’ souls and bodies. While peppered with archaeological observations concerning the church’s ruins and its historical and theological conditions of construction, it is however misleading to assume that the chapter gives us an accurate point of entry into the actual conditions under which the monks practised their asceticism in Deir Anba Shenouda. On the contrary, Schroeder herself focuses on Canon Seven, a fragmentary collection of sermons concerning the construction of the church at Deir Anba Shenouda. This is a sign of her continuance in the act of reading the text as an architectonic form, a means of affirming and producing ascetic ideology on how to control and discipline the body in Shenoute’s milieu. This approach of reading the church space as a metaphor for the integrity of the monastic body, where its unity or collapse mirrors the redemption or moral and ethical sins within the community of monks, is the least satisfactory section of the book. Schroeder uses these sermons, written arguably after the construction of the church at Deir Anba Shenouda around 450-455 C.E., somewhat anachronistically without recognizing that the church building itself could have been constructed for a more functional than ideological purpose. Against her argument, Shenoute’s Canon Seven could be countered as a means of interpreting church space rather than asserting how or why church space is constructed in this sense, and this chapter fails to make this explicit.
Chapter Four, “Defending the Sanctity of the Body: Shenoute on the Resurrection,” enlarges the scope of the book to deal with the larger historical context of theological controversies existing between the Shenoutean monastic communities and heretical Origenist, or proto-Origenist, groups and pagans who deny the body and its fundamental role in the resurrection during the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Drawing upon Shenoute’s Discourses and random sermons dealing with the state of the body after resurrection, Schroeder defines the orthodoxy of Shenoute’s Alexandrian Christology, one which emphasizes the nature of Christ as fully human and fully divine and Mary’s nature as the God-bearer or Theotokos, instead of Nestorian definitions of her as the bearer of the human side of Christ, the Christotokos. This emphasis on Shenoute’s orthodoxy, as opposed to the plurality of beliefs concerning the relation of body and soul amongst heretics and pagans alike, affirms the ideological slant of Shenoute’s theology, wherein the body’s discipline is required for the attainment of the final beatified state after the resurrection. While we might trace out the importance of this belief in the sanctity of the body, and its functional role within the resurrection, in reinforcing the discipline of the individual monastic body, the link that Schroeder makes between Shenoute’s overarching theological struggles within fifth-century Upper Egypt and late antique Christianity and that of his cloistered monastic community is a tenuous one, and needs to be spelt out more clearly. This question of the audience of Shenoute’s sermons and treatises about the post-resurrection body, whether it was the theological circles of post-Nicene Christianity in councils like Ephesus in AD 431, or the monastic hierarchy subject to him at the White Monastery, is a question which Schroeder does not answer in this chapter, and could have been aptly dealt with here.
Caroline Schroeder’s book is arguably more illuminating as a means of discovering how late antique monastic texts affirm the matrix of ideas contained in modern critical theorists such as Foucault than as a window into late antique Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. via Shenoute of Atripe’s writings. Interesting as the book is, its Achilles heel exists where it opens itself up to the potential charge of anachronism. Yet Schroeder’s book is immensely promising for scholars in the areas of late antiquity, gender studies and early Christian studies. Another merit of the book lies in the copious translations of passages from the original Coptic manuscripts containing Shenoute of Atripe’s sermons and treatises, which have not hitherto been translated into English.
1. Michel Foucault, The Care of the Self. History of Sexuality Volume Three. Trans. Robert Hurley. London: Penguin Books, 1990.