BMCR 2014.04.38

Reconstructing the Theology of Evagrius Ponticus: Beyond Heresy

, Reconstructing the Theology of Evagrius Ponticus: Beyond Heresy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. ix, 265. ISBN 9780521896801. $99.00.


Condemned in the mid-sixth century, the late fourth-century Christian writer Evagrius of Pontus presents a puzzle to historians of late antiquity. Working without the benefit of the robust apparatus of scholarship that develops around ancient authors deemed orthodox, scholars often engage in the most fundamental of historiographical tasks: what texts are his? what are the facts of his biography? what were his aims? Answering these questions requires advanced skills, for Evagrius’s corpus, composed in Greek, does not fully survive in that language; some of the most important works survive only in Syriac; until the twentieth century, editions of Evagrian texts were mostly lacking; and some of those still in use are less than optimal.1 In this environment, radical reconsideration of Evagrius’s life is possible in a way it is not for other, more well-attended figures from the past. Casiday’s book, the outgrowth of articles written over the past twelve years, suggests a significant revision to current scholarship on Evagrius.

The book’s subtitle, “Beyond Heresy,” indicates the context for Casiday’s revision. In previous articles, Casiday divided Evagrian scholarship into two opposing camps: those in the “Heresiological School,” whom Casiday reckons find Evagrius “interesting chiefly because his name is connected to some excesses within the Origenist tradition,” are compared to those in the “Benedictine School,” like Gabriel Bunge.2 Casting scholars in this way produced a “good guys and bad guys” scenario that has continued to influence Casiday’s assessment of scholarship. Lest that seem an unfair imposition, let me note that in the book under review, Casiday’s discussion of the figure he places at the head of the “Heresiological School,” Elizabeth Clark, culminates in a bizzare comparison of Clark’s logic in The Origenist Controversy (1992) to the false justifications offered by Donald Rumsfeld, the United States Secretary of Defense, in the run-up to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. Such a dichotomous parsing of the field obscures the reality: those who might fit in the so-called “Heresiological School” do not seek out heresy for heresy’s sake, but instead see in Evagrius’s work a measure of the diversity of fourth-century Christianity, while those who are classed in the “Benedictine School” often can be found to insist on the detailed and qualified view of the coherence of the past that Casiday in this scenario disdains.

Casiday’s own approach to Evagrius, laid out in Chapters 1 to 3, in fact fits neither school. It is idiosyncratic, combining a maximalism regarding the historical value of some sources with a surprising minimalism with respect to others. On the maximalist side, Casiday accepts biographical texts written after Evagrius’s lifetime as uninflected representations of his practices. Among the sources important for Casiday’s reconstruction, most salient are the Coptic extensions of Palladius’s Lausiac History. The early-fifth-century Lausiac History is already a difficult source, as it was an edificatory biography, oft translated and expanded in antiquity. What arguments have been made about the uncertainty of using its Coptic extensions to recreate Evagrius’s practice are noted by Casiday.3 Despite his assurance, however, that the text will be used sparingly (20), the book relies on the Coptic extensions to depict Evagrius.

The minimalism I mentioned applies to the most attention-getting text in Evagrius’s corpus, the Kephalaia Gnostica (KG). Originally written in Greek, already at the start of the seventh century the KG was circulating in two different Syriac versions (known to scholars as S1 and S2). In this book Casiday rejects the influential thesis of Antoine Guillaumont, whose 1962 work argued that S2 was an unexpurgated version of the text, while S1 had been edited to bring Evagrius into line with orthodox, especially non-Origenist, theology. (46-71) As support, Casiday notes the lack of Evagrius’s name among those under scrutiny for Origenism at the end of the fourth century, reasoning that there would thus be no need to produce an expurgated version of KG. Casiday instead posits that S2 was a later expansion of S1.4 So, when Evagrius was condemned in the sixth century, it was on the basis of the mistaken attribution of S2 to him.

Seeing Casiday’s efforts to establish the priority of S1, a reader might think that it would become central to his reconstruction of Evagrius, but that is not the case. A second, more rigid minimalism is applied to Evagrius’s work: Casiday also argues that the genre of some Evagrian texts disallows the historian their use in understanding Evagrius’s theology. Specifically, he claims that Evagrius’s kephalaic literature—that is, literature comprising lists of short, gnomic statements—is inappropriate material by which to find Evagrius’s ideas about the divine. (37-42) In this, Casiday bucks the system: Evagrian scholars of all perspectives tend to see the KG and its two kephalaic siblings, the treatises known as Praktikos and Gnostikos, as central to the Evagrian project. Witness, for example, the diverse team of scholars currently producing an edition of this trilogy for Oxford University Press.5

Casiday’s choices about sources enable a presentation of Evagrius divergent from the main stream of Evagrian studies. So, in Chapter 4, Casiday draws heavily from the Coptic expansions of the Lausiac History to depict Evagrius as a monk within a traditional monastery, who accepts numerous visitors, keeps in his cell the money such visitors bring him, and leaves that cell at times to travel to Alexandria to refute heretics with great zeal. In summary, Evagrius is described as “a sophisticated thinker who made judicious use of his intellectual and personal resources in serving the Church.” (98) Alignment with an institutional Church is not among the aims that animate Evagrius’s own writings, but the use of the Coptic expansions of the Lausiac History supports that view. Chapter 5 delineates Evagrius’s use of texts, which Casiday sees in line with orthodox scriptural interpretation. His primary aim in this chapter is to negate the idea that Evagrius was engaged in “Alexandrian”-style allegory, something he assumes would strike readers as “startling” and “repugnant.” (127) The existence in antiquity of other uses of texts, especially as represented in philosophical schools, is not within the scope of Casiday’s portrait of Evagrius, so recent illuminating work about Evagrius goes unmentioned and unengaged here.6 In Chapter 6, Casiday aims to show that “there is no basis for the anxiety about Evagrian prayer being excessively intellectualised.” (165) Instead, he claims that prayer as prescribed by Evagrius takes place in an “emotionally rich” atmosphere, in which the monk was “heavily emotionally invested in his prayers.” (162) It is difficult to overstate this claim’s incongruity with the common understanding of Evagrian prayer, namely, that it is indebted to Stoic theories of the passions and that communion with God occurs only when the passions are tempered, allowing the nous to shine unshaded by such immoderate movements of the soul.

This book also offers a new account of Evagrius’s theology. In Chapter 7, a single passage is key, On Thoughts 25. There, Evagrius imagined how a person conjures mental representations of objects in the sensible world and explained: “So just as the mind receives the mental representations of all sensible objects, in this way it receives also that of its own organism—for this too is sensible—but of course with the exception of one’s face, for it is incapable of creating a form of this within itself since it has never seen itself.”7 For Evagrius, this mental form explains how it is possible for practitioners to be tempted with bodily acts like fornication even when sitting alone away from other people. Most scholars have understood On Thoughts 25 as a demonstration of Evagrius’s diligent attention to human psychology; to overcome the temptations, which are also passions and demons, one must understand how these things work, and that includes understanding their preferred field of battle, human cognition. For Casiday, however, this short explanation offers an opening into which a speculative theology can enter. If a person’s mental representation of himself lacks a face, it is not simply a blind spot in cognition; it is instead the location held for the proper “face” of each human being, namely Christ. This reading introduces Christ more centrally to Evagrius’s account and defends against scholars who have seen Evagrius’s theology as “isochristic,” meaning that Christ was model of practice for human beings who could then become like him, rather than as a mediator who bridged the distance between human beings and the divine. If Casiday is correct in seeing Christ as the missing face of one’s mental representation of oneself, then Evagrian practice is truly dependent on the mediation of Christ—a real innovation in interpretation of Evagrius.

The final chapter pivots from Christ’s facilitation of Evagrian practice to its goal, knowledge of the Trinity. Here, it becomes clear how the exclusion of the KG has affected Casiday’s reconstruction: if one is to report an eschatology for Evagrius anywhere within the pale of received Christian orthodoxy, a text like the KG, even the version known as S1, is problematic. Casiday’s reconstruction of Evagrius’s eschatology depends instead on the Great Letter, which treats both Christology and eschatology explicitly. Ultimately, these more speculative chapters aim to present an Evagrius who “ primarily worked to promote monastic practice and theory that would be consistent with the principles of Nicene orthodoxy,” a claim Casiday advances early in the book. (99) While it is clear that Evagrius was influenced by his time serving in church offices before 380 C.E., the texts that survive from his period in Egypt do not place questions of orthodoxy to the fore. This reconstruction does, and to the extent that readers agree with Casiday’s selection of texts to represent Evagrius, it is a convincing portrait.

It is also a truly novel one. As should be clear, the central goal of this book is the establishment of a path by which to reincorporate Evagrius into mainstream orthodox tradition, in part to allow for his writings to be useful in contemporary Christian theological ventures. This does not mean that scholars unconcerned with such rehabilitation of Evagrius will find the book to be without use. It has the benefit of reminding us of the constructed nature of our knowledge about this brilliant fourth-century author. It also reminds all scholars, perhaps inadvertently, of the constructed nature of our portrait of the Christian past, bringing back into our attention the contingency of the choices we make when we seek to draw a simple narrative from the complexity of antiquity.


1. The complexity of the situation and the promise of careful, philologically-informed scholarship is legible in The Guide to Evagrius Ponticus, an online resource created and painstakingly curated by Joel Kalvesmaki.

2. Augustine Casiday, “Gabriel Bunge and the Study of Evagrius Ponticus,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 48 (2004): 249-297. See also “On Heresy in Modern Patristic Scholarship: The Case of Evagrius Ponticus,” Heythrop Journal 53 (2012): 241-252, quotation at 250.

3. For the problems in adopting the Coptic extensions as representative of the fourth century, see Mark Sheridan, O.S.B., “Review of: Quartre ermites égyptiens,” in From the Nile to the Rhone and Beyond: Studies in Early Monastic Literature (Rome: Studia Anselmiana, 2012), 149-153, who notes that the Coptic dialect in which the expanded portion survives, Bohairic, does not appear in literary texts before the tenth century. In this book Casiday appears to be working from Tim Vivian’s 2004 translation of the Coptic expansions, as no edition is cited.

4. This argument rests on the dating of the Armenian translation of S1 printed by Barsegh Sargisean in Venice in 1907. Casiday cites Sargisean’s opinion, but not the location of the argument for it; I was unable to evaluate Sargisean’s dating because I do not read modern Armenian.

5. That team represents a rather wide range of positions and approaches: Luke Dysinger, O.S.B, Sidney H. Griffith, Joel Kalvesmaki, Charles M. Stang, Columba Stewart, O.S.B., and Robin Darling Young.

6. See, for example, BMCR 2011.05.56.

7. On Thoughts 25, trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (Oxford, 2003), 170. See also Evagrius’s discussion of cognition in Letter 39. ​