BMCR 2008.04.38

Reading John Climacus. Rhetorical Argumentation, Literary Convention and the Tradition of Monastic Formation

, Reading John Climacus : rhetorical argumentation, literary convention and the tradition of monastic formation. Lund: Lund University, Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, 2007. xiv, 303 pages : some charts ; 24 cm. ISBN 9789197721219

In this published version of his doctoral dissertation, Henrik Rydell Johnsén addresses thorny questions about the compositional and textual character of John Climacus’ ascetic opus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Authored by John of Sinai, the text moves in a series of steps from vices to virtues that facilitate a heightened engagement with the divine through ascetic progress. Indeed, John was later deemed Climacus or Climax as an homage to his treatise because the work figures this ascetic development as an ascent up the rungs of a heavenly ladder. Though Climacus penned The Ladder in the 6th or perhaps 7th centuries at the behest of John of Raithu, a local abbot with ties to various eremitic monks, soon the work was translated and exported to monastic communities throughout the Christian world.

Johnsén notes that while scholars have approached The Ladder with attention to matters of church doctrine and theology, they have not adequately addressed issues of literary style and textuality. In short, he maintains that scholars have not considered the manner of text with which they are dealing and what stylistic patterns govern its internal structure. Most often scholars refer to The Ladder as an ascetic collection or summary of ascetical teachings, properly entitled a gnomic collection, which they often also categorize as lacking in structure and form. Johnsén’s critique as well as his contribution to scholarship is to reconsider some of the fundamental questions about the literary shape of this text. For Johnsén to determine The Ladder’s stylistic properties and modes of argumentation is essential if we are to discern the text’s meaning, more especially to articulate its pedagogical purpose. In pursuit of this goal, his study asks: what did Climacus want a monk to get out of reading this text? How was the text constructed to produce particular kinds of reading experiences? How does the literary style and method of argumentation lead to these goals? Moreover, once these questions are answered, what can be said of the ways in which The Ladder fits into the larger textual tradition that was so integral a part of spiritual formation and religious life for ancient monastic communities? While these questions might have broad purchase for scholars interested in the study of monastic life and late antique Christianity, this textually-focused study will only sustain the full attention of a small audience of scholars invested in debates about the The Ladder as a literary composition. Yet the conclusions drawn by this meticulous project, particularly the discussion of the textual nature of the monastic tradition found in the fourth chapter, could well find readers beyond this dedicated group who are broadly interested in monastic pedagogy and textual practice.

Johnsén divides his study into four chapters. The first three chapters aim to illustrate the particular stylistic techniques and literary form of The Ladder. The final chapter places this discussion in terms of monastic textual production by considering the ways in which Climacus uses existing monastic materials in a new way in order to inscribe himself into this monastic textual heritage. Each chapter is constructed around a careful and methodical treatment of particular aspects of the text, often in comparison with contemporaneous or near contemporaneous literature, such as progymnasmata, Hermogenes’ De ideis, or Evagrian catalogues of the vices. A reader might get lost in the spate of detailed analysis, but Johnsén is to be commended for repeatedly summing up his conclusions in each part and orienting his reader to the ways the parts fit into the project as a whole.

Chapter one outlines the intricate stylistic patterns employed by Climacus. By analyzing select syntactical units and individual steps, this chapter both illuminates the fact that The Ladder was designed to make an argument as well as to facilitate deeper understanding of the text’s contents through reading and rereading. The first pattern that can be found throughout the text is the four-fold pattern of speech, comprised of the following four parts: prooimion, prothesis, pistis, and epilogos. Johnsén aptly shows how the second pattern, elaboration, draws on the progymnasmatic rhetorical tradition and contains various literary forms that work together to build an argument: praise, proposition, rationale, antithesis, analogy, paradeigma, krisis, and exhortation. Climacus, however, is not constrained by a strict application of these patterns but demonstrates his deep knowledge of technical rhetorical tradition by framing his arguments with great variation. Thus Johnsén shows that Climacus often accumulates, plaits, or, in a moment of true rhetorical sophistication, places these patterns of argumentation in a spiral. The reader leaves this chapter convinced that, far from being an unsystematic collection of sayings, The Ladder is a richly structured text that invites and can sustain repeated reading. Why? Because each step contains part of larger trails, which move variously throughout the text and invite the readers to trace and uncover them in the course of their reading. This act of reading in itself is also in Johnsén’s view the very therapy for the readers in order to come to terms with the vice or to attain the virtue.

Chapter two and three continue the discussion of literary style and form of The Ladder by tackling the traditional view that this text is best categorized as an example of a gnomic collection. Johnsén shows that the character of argumentation has little in common with gnomic collections and shows deeper similarities with moral treatises, like those produced by Plutarch and Seneca. Johnsén suggests that Climacus’ literary approach might be classed as a gnomic mode of writing in the sense that its style is reminiscent of a collection, but the shape and logic of its argumentation do not reflect gnomic stylistic features. He surmises that such a collection might indicate the need for deeper consideration of the literary style and form of monastic kephalaia texts in general.

In Chapter three, Johnsén highlights how Climacus’ treatise displays stylistic features articulated by Hermogenes in his De ideis, such as: dignity, complexity, ability, and particularly sincerity. In that case, the seemingly disorganized list of vices with helpful metadiscursive comments to guide the reader are intended to denote the spontaneous and unaffected nature of Climacus’ treatise. Johnsén then considers whether the compressed and fragmentary character of the textual units of The Ladder might also reflect similar stylistic devices employed in Late Antique Latin poetry, specifically the jeweled style identified by Michael Roberts. Indeed, through an analysis of select textual units, similar stylistic predilections with this poetic style emerge, including antithesis, isocolon, anaphora, paronomasia, homoeoteleuton, assonance, alliteration, and enumerations. This analysis leads Johnsén to postulate that The Ladder was not informed by a gnomic mode of writing. He offers that The Ladder, rather than being a treatise that testifies to the decline in moral treatises, indicates a generic modulation (a term borrowed from Allistair Fowler) of the literary form of the moral treatise toward the poetic mode of writing. In other words, Climacus retains much of the argumentative and structural features of the moral treatise, but now packaged in a form more familiar to Late Antique poetry.

The final chapter is perhaps the most interesting for scholars of monasticism more generally, precisely because it illustrates the textual nature of monastic teaching and practice as revealed in Climacus’ appropriation of earlier monastic writings. Johnsén illustrates how monastic textual practices were designed to accommodate different kinds of ascetic training, from life in coenobitic community to living in isolation. Here Johnsén argues that for Climacus the monastic tradition was deeply textual in nature. The Ladder represents Climacus’ attempt to write himself into that very tradition through a reworking of certain monastic discussions of the vices and virtues. Two collections are especially central for Climacus, the Greek Systematic Collection of Apophthegmata Patrum and the Evagrian system of eight vices. Key to Johnsén’s argument is that Climacus carefully puts these sources to work to make his own points—in other words, Climacus does not borrow these writings whole cloth, but draws on them in ways that are distinctive to his ascetic program. Indeed, he aims to facilitate a kind of monastic formation that suits his intended audience, comprised, Johnsén argues, of monks living in solitude. In regard to the former collection then, Climacus rearranges the order of virtues to move in a progression from life in community (perhaps his monastery) toward life in solitude (perhaps for the monks known to Raithu, who commissioned the work, following a hesychastic life on the mountain). Similarly Climacus freely reworks the order of Evagrius’ vices. The most noticeable instance is his decision to shift anger earlier in the list and to foreground the vice of lust. In Johnsén’s view, Climacus sees the former vice best addressed and abrogated while a monk remains a part of communal life—indeed as necessary before the monk can take up the solitary life. Lust, on the other hand, is an especial burden that plagues the eremitic monk and therefore demands greater concentration and discipline once a monk is living outside a coenobitic setting.

On the whole, this study is essential reading for scholars of The Ladder and might well attract scholars invested in debates about the literary character and form of monastic literature more broadly. The technical nature of the study will no doubt discourage readers who are less familiar with these debates. Yet Johnsén’s discussions of monastic pedagogy, as indicated by the intricate compositional character of this text, offer an interesting opportunity for further analysis of the textual nature of monastic discipline. Indeed, Climacus’ text, he illustrates, offers more than an indication of monastic theology, but a deeper opportunity to reflect on the pedagogical approaches undertaken in ancient monastic practice.