Thursday, 13 December 2012

P. D. Ouspensky

P. D. Ouspensky

Piotr D. Ouspensky (1878-1947) was a Russian philosopher in the citizen category. Born in Moscow, Ouspensky “refused to follow conventional academic training.” In 1907 he became a Theosophist, and afterwards travelled to India, seeking a deeper knowledge. He subsequently gave public lectures in St. Petersburg (Petrograd). An amateur mathematician, he wrote The Fourth Dimension (1909). This was followed by a more philosophical work entitled Tertium Organum (1912), which became well known in an English translation.

Ouspensky severed his link with the Theosophical Society when he became a pupil of the Caucasian “occultist” Giorgii Ivanovich Gurdjieff (c.1866-1949). This new affiliation occurred at Moscow in 1915, and has proved influential in alternative thought. Ouspensky is the most famous of Gurdjieff’s pupils, but soon assumed a rival role as an expositor of “the Work,” to employ a well known abbreviation for the Gurdjieff teaching. The complexities in this situation are of some interest.

The rift between Gurdjieff and Ouspensky commenced in 1918 at Essentuki; they both became part of the refugee exodus from Bolshevik Russia. Ouspensky was committed to Gurdjieff’s teaching, but resisted additional factors like the “sacred dance” movements that were now favoured by his mentor. Gurdjieff’s unpredictable personality appears to have been a major problem for the Russian thinker.

Ouspensky left a record of his encounters with Gurdjieff via the book In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (1950). This coverage was not published until after the death of both men. Ouspensky details the teaching at some length, and his editorial hand has been emphasised by commentators. The origins of this teaching have been much discussed, and with several different explanations. Some analysts say that Gurdjieff applied his own accents and flourishes to some older teachings, including Sufism and Greek Christianity. Gurdjieff was not a Theosophist and nor a professed member of any religion. The “pseudo-scientific” casting (admixed with astrological and other beliefs) clearly appealed to Ouspensky, who was in revolt from orthodox religion, desiring a rational form of explanation for a mystical approach.

The strong divergence between Ouspensky and Gurdjieff has been a subject of disagreement. Partisans of Ouspensky have depicted Gurdjieff as aberrant, while partisans of Gurdjieff say that the Russian pupil made a serious error in asserting his own role as a teacher of “the Work.” Critics of Gurdjieff have made the accusation that his ideas were distortions of concepts found in other traditions, and that he even plagiarised some concepts found in Ouspensky’s early writings.

In 1920, Ouspensky fled to Constantinople some months ahead of Gurdjieff. A reconcilement followed, although the divergence remained. Gurdjieff moved on to Germany, meeting obstructions, while Ouspensky became a successful lecturer in London, creating a “system” from the concepts acquired via Gurdjieff. However, Gurdjieff gained the ascendant when he secured the allegiance of prominent students of Ouspensky, notably Alfred R. Orage, who was editor of the influential New Age journal.

In 1922, Gurdjieff acquired a new base in France, namely the Chateau du Prieure (or the Priory) at Fontainebleau. Oupensky made visits to this place, but became estranged from events in process. “In spite of all my interest in Gurdjieff’s work I could find no place for myself in this work nor did I understand its direction” (In Search of the Miraculous, p. 389). Early in 1924 at London, the Russian lecturer announced that he would proceed independently of his former teacher. Ouspensky gave the strong warning that “it is very dangerous to be near him [Gurdjieff]” (J. G. Bennett, Witness, 1962, p. 126). From that time onwards, Ouspensky was averse to mention of Gurdjieff, although he did make a rather frustrated visit to the latter in 1931, which did not go smoothly and lacks detail.

Ouspensky’s wife Sophie Grigorievna (“Madame Ouspensky”) is more enigmatic. She remained loyal to Gurdjieff during the 1920s, and only moved to England when the latter urged her to leave France. From 1931 she assumed a role as an assistant to her husband, teaching the System (or “Work”) at Lyne Place in Surrey. The Ouspenskys are reported to have gained more than a thousand followers during that decade. The publication of Piotr’s early book A New Model of the Universe (1931) is said to have contributed to this development.

Despite his success in promoting the System, Piotr Ouspensky was subject to depression, and developed a drinking habit which amounted to alcoholism. In 1940 he moved to America with his wife, escaping wartime problems in England, and living a comfortable life in New York. His secretary Marie Seton left a report revealing deficiencies. His expenses were paid by followers, and Ouspensky would instruct Seton to buy expensive food for him. On some evenings, he would spend long hours drinking at a restaurant, into the early morning hours. Seton was his companion on these occasions, and records that he confessed a loss of control. “It is a long time since I could control my state of mind.” Yet the “Work” presupposes control.

Ouspensky even told Seton that his pupils were fools, and that they had gained nothing from the “System.” She suggested that he stop lecturing and reorient himself. He expressed an inability to do this, saying that “the System has become a profession with me.... I have become dependent on the comfort, the luxury.” In January 1947, Piotr Ouspensky returned to England, and thereafter presided at six meetings which have led to different interpretations. These question and answer sessions are extant. While detractors of Gurdjieff have urged that Ouspensky totally abandoned the Gurdjieff teaching as an aberration, it is possible to deduce that he had taken heed of Seton’s advice and was retreating from an authority role, admitting ignorance on various matters instead of presumptive knowledge. Nevertheless, Ouspensky became identified with the viewpoint that “there is no System.” 

Whatever the precise angle of his thinking, he was suffering kidney failure; his drinking precipitated his death in October 1947. Madame Ouspensky (1878-1961) survived this setback, and continued to direct the “System” community at Mendham in New Jersey. She also liaised with Gurdjieff in his last days, and as a consequence, Piotr’s book In Search of the Miraculous was subsequently published, providing a stimulus to the nascent Gurdjieff movement and becoming Ouspensky’s most well known work. That book can be misleading on some accounts, and requires due contextual analysis, which is frequently not forthcoming. 

See further Gary V. Lachman, In Search of P. D. Ouspensky (Theosophical Publishing House, 2004); P. D. Ouspensky, A New Model of the Universe (New York: Knopf, 1931); Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (London: Routledge, 1950); Ouspensky, The Fourth Way (New York, 1957); Ouspensky, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution (1950; second edn, 1954); Ouspensky, A Record of Meetings (London, 1993); Ouspensky, A Further Record: Extracts from Meetings 1928-1945 (London, 1988); William Patrick Patterson, Struggle of the Magicians: Why Uspenski left Gurdjieff (San Anselmo, CA: Arete, 1997). 

Kevin R. D. Shepherd 

ENTRY no. 50

Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

G. I. Gurdjieff

Georgii Ivanovich Gurdjieff

Georgii Ivanovich Gurdjieff (circa 1866-1949) is a controversial figure variously described as an occultist, mystic, and charlatan. His early life is obscure. He was born at Alexandropol (Gumri), a Russian garrison town in Armenia. Gurdjieff has been described as an Armenian Greek; his mother was Armenian, and in this respect he was reared to beliefs of Armenian Christianity. His father Giorgios Giorgiades was a Greek, a cattle herdsman who also functioned as an ashokh or bardic poet. The paternal legacy was complex, in that the bardic repertory of Giorgiades extended to the Turkic oral tradition of Caucasia, in which strong Islamic elements figured. The bardic recitals have been viewed as a strong influence upon the young Gurdjieff.

This entity does not gain secure factual profile until his move to the big cities of Western Russia in 1912. Gurdjieff’s legendary early career was described by himself in terms which have been considered by some as a mixture of fact and storytelling, and by others as sheer parable (see Inventors of Gurdjieff). He is associated with Sufi dervish and Tibetan Buddhist environments. Gurdjieff claimed to have visited Tibet, and made much of his encounter with the Sarmoung monastery, an obscure venue in Central Asia to which he attributed his deepest inspiration. He became mistakenly identified with “secret agents” working in the Tibetan political sector; for instance, Lama Aghwan Dordjieff (d. 1938) was a completely separate entity, despite the confusing account relayed by Rom Landau.

Gurdjieff moved from Central Asia to Moscow and St. Petersburg (Petrograd). That same year of 1912, he married (or partnered) Julia Ostrowska (d. 1926), a Polish woman. He conducted group meetings in both cities, expressing a teaching that has become well known via the reporting of his Russian disciple Piotr D. Ouspensky (d. 1947), who was a writer and lecturer associated with the Theosophical Society. Ouspensky at first assumed that Gurdjieff was just another occultist, of whom there were many at that time. He afterwards altered his assessment, and viewed Gurdjieff’s tuition in terms of an “unknown teaching.” Ouspensky’s book on this subject (In Search of the Miraculous) has been very influential.

A basic teaching of Gurdjieff was that man is mechanical and effectively asleep in relation to real life. He asserted that most men cannot develop or progress; the process involved is so difficult that progress is ordinarily impossible. He claimed to provide a means of achieving this development via the Fourth Way, an approach that departs from established religious routes of expression. Ouspensky was much impressed by this concept (and later used the phrase “fourth way” more intensively than his teacher); he left the Theosophical Society and aligned himself with Gurdjieff. After a few years however, a rift commenced  to show, and Ouspensky eventually opted to become a teacher of what he had learned from Gurdjieff.

Meanwhile, the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution caused chaos in Russia. Gurdjieff then retreated south, staying at Essentuki, a town adjoining the Caucasus. In August 1918, he made a carefully planned departure, in the face of the civil war that had arisen. On the pretext of an archaeological field study, he led a party of his followers (but not including Ouspensky) across the Caucasus in very dangerous conditions. They reached the port of Sochi, where a number of them defected, but Gurdjieff and five companions moved on to reach the safety of Tbilisi (Tiflis) in Georgia. 

Gurdjieff now created his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. He had commenced to choreograph the “sacred dances,” an activity said to be "based on movements and gestures which had been handed down by tradition and paintings in Thibetan (sic) monasteries where he had been” (quote from Carl Bechofer-Roberts, Journey Through Georgia).

Further political unrest caused Gurdjieff to move to Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1920. That city was flooded with Russian refugees at this period. A temporary reconcilement occurred between Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, who had gained his own group of Russian students. Together, they made several visits to the Mevlevi dervishes. Yet they departed in different directions. Gurdjieff went to Germany, where his plans met with obstruction. Ouspensky moved to England, where he commenced a successful role as a lecturer on the “Work,” as the Gurdjieff themes became known.

Ouspensky found that many of his new English students developed a strong interest in Gurdjieff, a trend which gained impetus when the latter gave a talk in London in February 1922. Gurdjieff spoke in Russian, via an interpreter, to sixty British intellectuals, including Alfred R. Orage, who proved very enthusiastic. Orage accepted Gurdjieff as his teacher from then on; he was the editor of the London weekly review New Age, an influential organ of literary and political interest. Both Orage and his teacher have been described as  black sheep philosophers.

Later that same year, Gurdjieff moved to France, where he acquired (via a benefactor) the Chateau du Prieure, a mansion at Fontainebleau, some forty miles from Paris. This property became the new site for his Institute, and the setting for two contingents of pupils, meaning the Russian and British. The new British recruits notably included Orage and Dr. Maurice Nicoll, a psychiatrist of Harley Street and an acquaintance of Jung. Dr. Nicoll  subsequently gravitated back to Ouspensky, but Orage became a strong supporter of Gurdjieff’s activity, and later acted as his emissary in America.

Gurdjieff's dancers, 1920s
The Prieure (Priory) became a scene of manual work, including construction of the Study House, a building whose interior resembled a dervish tekke or meeting place, being decorated with Eastern rugs. The Study House was the focus for the “sacred dances” supervised by Gurdjieff. The gymnastic programme far outweighed any formal teaching; Gurdjieff's approach contrasted with the lecturing role associated with Ouspensky. The latter made visits to the Priory until 1924, but thereafter strongly diverged, even advising Nicoll and others to dissociate from Gurdjieff. The Russian ex-pupil is believed to have reacted to the dance programme and the unpredictability inherent in Gurdjieff’s temperament.

The Caucasian gained many French critics, but much of the disparagement was based on rumour. Gurdjieff was said to be a Freemason and a hypnotist. His reputation as a hypnotist  has some basis in his own admissions. The gossip and slander moved to an extreme, and was markedly erroneous in relation to Katherine Mansfield, an authoress from New Zealand who died at the Priory in January 1923. She was a terminally ill victim of tuberculosis. Gurdjieff was not the cause of her death, and was actually benevolent.

One of the most revealing sources is Professor Denis Saurat, who gained a lengthy private interview (involving an interpreter) with Gurdjieff in February 1923. His account discloses that Gurdjieff was capable of marked courtesy, “and gave not the smallest impression of being a charlatan.” However, the same report attests that the English pupils were disconcerted by the routine at the Priory, which entailed protracted manual labour and no adequate explanation. Saurat never saw Gurdjieff again, although he became influenced by the views of his friend Orage, and in later years credited Gurdjieff with the spiritual status of lohan, a term deriving from Chinese Buddhism. This theory is not everywhere accepted.

In 1924, Gurdjieff was active in America, as an impresario of “sacred dance.” Some of the audience were impressed by the unusual performances of his pupils, which required considerable control and coordination. As a consequence, he gained many American followers. Yet after his return to France that same year, he met with a motor accident, suffering severe head injuries. Although he recovered quickly, this event clearly affected him strongly. He thereafter relegated the dance movements, and instead adopted the vocation of a writer. He also took more recourse to alcohol than previously, favouring vodka and armagnac.

For the next decade or so, he did much writing, and authored his “Three Series,” including the “autobiographical” Meetings with Remarkable Men, and the more lengthy Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.  The lastmentioned creation has been viewed as a bizarre mythology reflecting to some extent the bardic milieu of his father, and  delivered in a rather distinctive style. A strong critique of Western society is incorporated. These works were not published during his lifetime. The only writing of Gurdjieff which did get into print was a disconcerting pamphlet entitled The Herald of Coming Good (1933), and this he himself afterwards withdrew.

Gurdjieff’s debts became a primary factor in losing the Priory, which he was obliged to vacate in 1932, thereafter living solo in Paris. He made several visits to New York during the 1930s, and became notorious amongst some of his admirers for requesting money. His general reputation as an occultist achieved reference in a bestselling work by journalist Rom Landau, who believed that Gurdjieff was a hypnotist.

Critics have since targeted the subject’s sexual activity, of uncertain extent, but known to have involved a number of illegitimate children. This matter has been considered reprehensible in that the known women involved were his pupils. It is apparent  that Gurdjieff’s contested encounters derived some inspiration from his eccentric belief that women needed sexual contact with men to acquire a soul.

Gurdjieff in old age
During the Second World War, Gurdjieff lived in Paris, and at this period gained French followers for the first time. He also revived his interest in the sacred dance “movements,” and taught in group meetings at his apartment. Gurdjieff now charitably assisted poor people outside his following. After the war, he gained further interest from American and English admirers, and acquired the support of John G. Bennett, an English neo-Ouspenskyan who had numerous followers.

In 1948, Gurdjieff suffered another motor accident, although not as severe as the first one. He recovered with surprising speed, but the following year, his health deteriorated, leading to his death. After his decease, his pupil Jeanne de Salzmann organised his following into a movement, a number of Gurdjieff centres resulting in different countries.

See further Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950); G. I. Gurdjieff, Meetings With Remarkable Men (1963); Rom Landau, God is My Adventure (1935); James Moore, Gurdjieff: A Biography (1991); C. S. Nott, Teachings of Gurdjieff: A Pupil’s Journal (1961); Nott, Journey Through This World (1969); P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous (London, 1950); Paul Beekman Taylor, Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff and Toomer (1998); Taylor, Gurdjieff and Orage: Brothers in Elysium (2001); Taylor, Gurdjieff’s America (2004); Taylor, G. I. Gurdjieff: A New Life (2008); James Webb, The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers (1980). For a more extensive bibliography, go to my web article Gurdjieff: Life and Controversy.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 49

Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Desert Fathers

Antony and Paul of Thebes, Isenheim Altarpiece c. 1500

The early Christian phenomenon known as the “Desert Fathers” is of interest outside the theological domain. Commonly misunderstood, and also still widely neglected, this subject will not be unlocked by the contemporary indifference to “monks,” a category fitting very different psychologies and lifestyles.

The earliest Christian monks did not resemble the medieval varieties, especially those in European countries. The Desert Fathers, basically meaning Coptic (and Greek) ascetics of Graeco-Roman Egypt, were frequently anchorites in the early phase, and in retreat from the persecutions inflicted by the Roman regime. A major ideological influence was Origen (entry no. 45), active at Alexandria in the early third century CE. Some (or perhaps many) ascetics similarly came from an urban background, and likewise possessing a strong degree of literacy.

The Greek word monachos later became the standardised description for all types of monk, including many destitute peasants during the fourth century, when the monasteries proliferated in Egypt. By that time, earlier figures were becoming legendised, especially Antony, who was the subject of a hagiography composed by the bishop Athanasius. “The legacy at hand for anyone who like Antony, at the turn [end] of the third century, retreated from the duties of social life for the life of a philosopher, was not what, half a century later, a bishop like Athanasius wanted his flock to be fed with” (Rubenson, The Letters, p. 125).

The distinction is vital between what came before and what followed after. The subsequent phase was increasingly manipulated by the Christian clerics, who sought to outlaw Origenism and other teachings which became maligned as heresies. Athanasius (c. 298-373) was a major factor in the trend to orthodoxy; this bishop of Alexandria sought to create a unified Egyptian church within the Roman Empire, and made the monks subservient to his scheme of organisation and doctrine. The simplified concepts attending “monasticism” became a vehicle of episcopal mandate.

Paul of Thebes, by Mattia Preti c. 1660 

The earliest anchorite on record was Paul of Thebes, an obscure figure who fled to the desert from the Decian persecution (249-51 CE). A legendary meeting between Paul and Antony occurred in the Eastern desert of Egypt, as related by Jerome (d. 419), a Latin-speaking scholar who favoured the monastic lifestyle.  Standard conceptions and beliefs about the early hermits derived from the pious milieu of a later era, in the hagiological literature which developed from the mid-fourth century. This corpus was extensively edited during the fifth and sixth centuries, and has to be regarded with caution. The lives (vitae) and sayings (apophthegmata) of revered “desert fathers” reflect preoccupations of later writers.

In the latter half of the fourth century, numerous places in Egypt were the scene of ascetic activity. Many hermits favoured the desert cells of Nitria and Scetis in the Delta region, and not far south of Alexandria. Their lifestyle is often classified as semi-anchoritic, as they were not completely cut off in solitude. The early ideal was that of cells at a sufficient distance apart to enable total privacy; the hermits assembled on Saturday and Sunday to share a meal, some travelling three or four miles to the rendezvous church. Over the generations, a standard form of mud-brick hermitage developed, accommodating up to three monks. Bread and salt was the staple diet, alleviated by pilgrim visitors who supplied gifts of more exotic food, including honey, fruits, and wine. There was no fixed monastic rule amongst the hermits; wine was discouraged by the elders. A widespread recourse was that of weaving mats, ropes, and baskets from halfa grass or palm fibre, these items being sold in the towns.

The Greek word monasterion originally designated the hermit cell; only at a later period did this term apply to a collective monastery. The cell varied in appearance, but with the passing of time, frequently comprised two rooms: an ante-room for manual activity such as rope-weaving, and a rear room for prayer and sleep. It is evident that quite a large number of the early Egyptian solitary monks lived a surprisingly practical existence, not at all resembling the medieval European models of cloistered existence. Ideas about ascetic extremism are wide of the mark, and certainly on an aggregate basis, it would seem.

Egyptian (or Coptic and Greek) asceticism was mild by comparison with the Syrian Christian version of the anchoritic life. The desert fathers tended to disapprove of severe austerities. “Although evidence of excessive mortification can be found in Egypt, it nonetheless was an exception rather than the rule, and was usually practised most often in terms of food deprivation” (quote from Jeffrey Conrad, Egyptian and Syrian Asceticism, online PDF).

The sayings of the fathers are preserved in numerous collections, and in different languages varying from Latin and Greek to Arabic. These utterances have often been regarded as authentic fourth century records, but strong doubt applies on this point. “There is every reason to suspect theological and ecclesiastical tendencies at work in the sifting and transmission of the material over more than a hundred years. Thus the overall picture given in the sayings, even if only the earliest stratum is used, reflects the way the leading monastic circles wanted their forerunners to be remembered” (Rubenson, The Letters, p. 39).

The complexity of these trends as a whole is reflected in the fact that urban, village, and desert environments were all represented in early Egyptian monasticism. In this respect, the phrase “desert fathers” can be misleading. The Athanasian hagiography of Antony stressed the desert milieu, which the clerical version preferred. “The city and village ascetics continued in their role, but their place in history was lost” (Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert, p. 88).

Athanasius resorted to the phrase “a city in the desert,” supposedly created by Antony. In reality, most of the ascetics seem to have resided near inhabited sites. The desert myth has been interpreted as the contraction of a multi-faceted trend which the clerics wished to monopolise and control. A relative minority of the Egyptian ascetics really did move into the desert, and at a substantial distance from towns and villages, walking as much as three days or more before stopping at a cave or other location.

In an atmosphere of dogmatic manipulation, Athanasius wrote his Life of Antony at circa 360. The subject had recently died, and was now presented as a model of orthodoxy. The bishop’s alleged contact with Antony is strongly in question. His involvement in the Arian controversy was a doctrinal incitement to enlist the monks in his (anti-Arian) clerical cause. “Athanasius tried to involve the monks more fully in the public life of the Church by appointing many of them as bishops; he also asserted the right of bishops to intervene in monastic affairs” (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, p. 12). This was the death-knell of vintage monasticism. Origenist and other teachings were crucified in the ritualist cause of sacraments enforced by the clergy.

The conventional life of Antony (d. 356) exhibits clerical strictures and superficial lore, including the extravagant Athanasian demonology. Factual occurrences are slender. Seven formerly relegated letters of Antony are now considered to be a more reliable guide, serving to cast light upon what he really taught. “The obvious dependence on popular Platonic philosophy and Alexandrian theological tradition reveals that the author was no ‘ignorant monk’ who had simply exchanged the garb of the peasant for the monastic habit, but a teacher who wore a monk’s garment as if it was the robe of a philosopher” (Rubenson, The Letters, p. 11).

In his allegorical exegesis, Antony has been revealed as a follower of Origen. Antony’s sense of inward reflection exhorted his associates to “know thyself,” a spiritual essence being the subject of contemplation. This was far removed from the extroverted activities of the ritualist clerics, who were fixated on sacraments, pomp, and revenue. By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, there were already 72 bishoprics in Egypt. “The Church, through donations of money, grain, valuable articles, animals, slaves, and above all of land, rapidly accumulated considerable wealth.... Apparently, the office of the bishop was soon regarded as so attractive that people tried to become bishops in order to enrich themselves” (ibid., p. 107).

Coptic monastery of St. Antony, Egypt

Antony was born in Middle (or Lower) Egypt, and is also associated with Mount Kolzim, near the Red Sea, where he reputedly lived in a cave, and later the site of a monastery. To the south, in the Thebaid, a strongly contrasting form of monasticism emerged, being communal (coenobitic) rather than anchoritic. The coenobitic model eventually became the standard for Christian monasticism, a situation in which the earlier hermit life was eclipsed.

The reputed founder of the coenobitic lifestyle was Pakhom (292-346), whose career also became legendary. He was born a pagan Copt, but became baptised as a Christian. Pakhom initially lived as an anchorite on the banks of the Nile, being the disciple of the obscure hermit Palamon. At the deserted village of Tabennesis, Pakhom established a community of monks, which eventually harboured a hundred inmates. His community flourished, and by the time of his death, there were nine monasteries under his direction. Manual labour was a strong feature of the coenobitic lifestyle.

“Most Pachomian monks were Coptic speaking peasants, but several brothers clearly belonged to the Graeco-Roman elite” (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 289). There were also two Pachomian monasteries for nuns, many inmates being the sisters, wives, mothers, and daughters of the monks. The discipline became codified into a formal Rule, committed to writing at an uncertain date.

There are strong indications that Pakhom resisted clerical interference, and avoided ordination. In his monasteries, ordination was regarded as a source of pride and jealousy. The ego inflation caused by clerical status was despised. In 345, a disapproving episcopal synod placed Pakhom on trial at Latopolis; he escaped during a riot. After his death, the practice of appointing monks to bishoprics became widespread by the fifth century.

The Pachomian communities adapted to clerical orthodoxy, but a rival grouping was eclipsed by episcopal strategies. The Melitian schism  produced a separate church in Egypt, primarily Coptic, which found supporters amongst Coptic ascetics. The Melitian monasticism was “mainly located in or very close to villages and towns” (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 345), and like the Pachomian model, was engaged in agricultural work and trade. The Melitian church had also evolved a clerical hierarchy by 334 CE, and they were effectively rivals to Athanasius, who regarded them as heretics.

The complexities in events included the participation of women, meaning the Christian virgins who appeared in the third century, particularly at Alexandria. They were noted for religious study; this trend attracted literate young women from a wealthy background, and was part of “academic Christianity,” to use a modern scholarly label. Bishop Athanasius campaigned against this tradition, wishing to impose clerical authority against the rivals like Origen. “Athanasius’ effort to separate virgins from the discourse of academic Christianity thus involved intensive censorship of the virgin’s speech and hearing” (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, p. 72).

The clerical ogres maintained their cordon in subsequent generations. Bishop Augustine enlisted the support of Jerome against the dissident Pelagius (entry no. 47), who was ousted from the scene as a heretic. Pelagius had strong connections with the monastic movement, and was not encumbered by the clerical appetite for ritual and predestination dogma.

See further David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (Oxford University Press, 1995); Brakke, Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity (Harvard University Press, 2006); Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert (Oxford University Press, 1993); Susanna Elm, Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 1994); James E. Goehring, The Letter of Ammon and Pachomian Monasticism (Berlin: Gruyter, 1986); Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism (Trinity Press, 1999); William Harmless, Desert Christians (Oxford University Press, 2004); Philip Rousseau, Pachomius: The Making of a Community in Fourth Century Egypt (University of California Press, 1985); Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 48

Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, 1 October 2012


The moral right of Pelagius to a fair hearing should be asserted, despite the shadow cast by Augustine of Hippo (entry no. 46). The former was pushed off the ideological map by the latter. Indeed, Augustine composed fifteen anti-Pelagian treatises. An antique  Calvinist print (to left) supplies an imaginary depiction of Pelagius, along with  hostile  emphases influenced by orthodox stigmas. 

Pelagius was born in Britain at circa 350/360 CE. “He seems to have been one of the earliest, if not the very earliest, of that remarkable series of men who issued from the monasteries of Scotland and Ireland, and carried back to the Continent in a purified form the religion they had received from it” (quote from Pelagius).  Augustine and Jerome referred to Pelagius as a monk, a description which has been questioned. 

His early life is very obscure. Different assessments have ascribed his move to Rome as dating to the 380s or circa 405. In Rome, Pelagius gained profile as an ascetic and moral reformer; he was well read and composed a commentary on the Pauline Epistle to the Romans. Pelagius denied any hereditary transmission of sin devolving from the fall of Adam; instead, he maintained that sin was caused solely by wrong choices and voluntary will. 

Shortly before the invasion of Rome by the Goths in 410, Pelagius moved to Sicily and Carthage, finally settling at Palestine. He lived in relative peace until 415, when Augustine sent two letters (via a Spanish priest named Orosius) warning Jerome against him. By 417, Pelagianism had become an obsession for Jerome. “All the eloquence and violence of his invective were now aimed at these pestilential Pelagians and especially at the man whom he believed to be their leader” (Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic, p. 17). 

Jerome  (d. 419) was a Latin ascetic and savant well known for his polemical attacks on dissenters. This period saw the inception of a dogmatic Latin theology, in which Augustine figured as a seminal influence, even more so than his ally Jerome. In his status role as Bishop of Hippo, Augustine supplied an inflexible cordon against heretics and pagans, meaning the doctrine of predestination. This disconcerting persuasion has been described in terms of: 

“In pressing his case on the need for salvation even if it meant applying coercion, on the eternal damnation of infants dying unbaptised, on the absolute necessity for regeneration through baptism within the church, on the exclusive power of divine grace to save or destroy, on a form of predestination which limited the number of the saved right from the moment of creation... he [Augustine] was impelled to adopt extreme positions in order to buttress his own arguments” (ibid., p. 17). 

Described by some scholars as a reformer of Christian morals, Pelagius became “the leader of a large and influential circle of loyal adherents comprising not only educated aristocrats, many of them women, but also clerics who were later to form the nucleus of the opposition to his final condemnation in 418” (ibid., p. 19).

Pelagius advocated that the church should be formed of “perfect Christians,” as distinct from nominal Christians who retained pagan habits. Yet it was not merely the aggregate Christians who were under criticism here; the official church hierarchy were also implied as compromising with self-indulgence and the values of mammon. Pelagius has been described as the last exponent of the ancient Christianity, in contrast to the conveniences implemented by the clerics. In more recent times, the original or “primitive” Christianity has been discerned as something overlaid by what the status exponents chose to substitute. 

Pelagius was a baptised layman, and did not seek ordination as a cleric. Although sometimes described as a monk, he was “neither a monk nor a priest” (ibid., p. xiv). In Rome and elsewhere, laymen and women gained prominence in the multi-faceted ascetic movement,  a phenomenon which Augustine and Jerome tried to influence. However, the predestination dogma was not accepted by many monks. Pilgrims from all over the Christian world passed through the homes and meeting places of the radical Christian laypeople in Rome.

Similar to Augustine, Pelagius  resisted the Manichaean doctrine. Yet he was very different in other ways. Jerome composed Against the Pelagians, censuring those who taught apatheia (freedom from passions), which entailed a belief in the attainment of spiritual perfection; this concept was deemed heretical, and is now associated with Stoics, Manichaeans, and Origen. The heresy was deemed a threat to the mediation of sacraments by the clergy, who maintained a stifling  ritualism. 

Pelagius wrote formal letters of exhortation to the perfect Christian life. He attracted patrons and inspired young disciples from educated families. A fair number of the latter seem to have renounced the world in a monastic spirit, including Celestius, possibly an Italian, who opted to join the clerical status programme by receiving ordination. The latter was censured in 412 by a synod in Carthage for holding Pelagian views.

Freedom of choice was an important aspect of Pelagian teaching. Nothing could make sense without this component. The individual had to create better values in the decadent Roman society, and not rest content with the conventional habits. Numerous pagans in Rome had recently become Christians, but the general tendency of these converts was to maintain former customs. Many of them were members of a ruling class desiring to protect their extensive properties at any cost to society. This was the underlying rationale for the imperial laws which exacted brutal punishments. These upper class “good Christians” of Rome “were capable of discussing at the dinner-table both the latest theological opinion, on which they prided themselves as experts, and the kind of judicial torture they had just inflicted on some poor wretch” (Brown, Augustine of Hippo, p. 347). 

Unlike the layman Pelagius, the prestigious Bishop Augustine was insensitive to the fact that crude dogmas of salvation could endorse injustices. The elect Christians could so easily abuse dissident Christians and pagans who were sentenced to damnation by predestination. Meanwhile, the Pelagian cause agitated at the public executions maintained by Roman ruling class barbarity at the expense of the poor and discontented. 

The last decade of the fourth century CE saw many imperial edicts against paganism and heresy. Hereditary occupations were enforced in a milieu “where the secret police (agentes in rebus) seemed ubiquitous, and where the screams of those under judicial torture and the gibbets of arbitrary executions were common sounds and sights” (Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 222).

“Pelagius wanted every Christian to be a monk” (Brown, Augustine of Hippo, p. 348). His precise relation to monasticism is uncertain, but his ascetic outlook is evident. “To sell all one’s possessions, as he himself had done; to refrain even from what was permitted; to be content, like pilgrims, with bare necessities; and to live in celibacy – these were his ideals” (quote from Pelagius). In contrast, Augustine favoured the affluent and married Christian layman disposed to vendettas and keen to fight for his property (Brown, op. cit., p. 348). In many ways, the African bishops represented underlying Roman Empire social attitudes. 

“For the Pelagians, man had no excuse for his own sins, nor for the evils around him” (ibid., p. 349). Augustine invented a new excuse, that of heavenly predestination for the baptised elect. He asserted the transmission of hereditary sin, and urged that pagan virtues were annulled by sin. Only divine grace for the elect counted. 

Many Pelagians wished to part with their enormous wealth in the pursuit of renunciation, a factor basically foreign to the pedagogical and episcopal outlook. Pelagians asserted that the (Christian) rich were damned, in contrast to the clerical insistence that non-Christians are eternally blighted. Augustine and other churchmen counteracted excess wealth being given to the poor by the pious injunction to endow Catholic monasteries (ibid., p. 350). The clergy and establishment monks depended on wealthy landowners, who were thus screened from criticism. 

The letters of Augustine to the Roman noblewoman Proba have been viewed with caution; he did not exhort Proba to change her situation, but merely to dwell on pious themes like corruptibility. Yet she was “the heiress of a vast agricultural empire, acquired by rapine and maintained with a selfishness that had aggravated the miseries and resentments of the Gothic disaster” (ibid., p. 351). 

The Bishop of Hippo missed out basic causality in his deceptive attitude to Roman life, whereas the Pelagians began to perceive the realistic deficit of huge problems underlying social and political existence. 

In 418, the Emperor Honorius ordered the banishment of Pelagius and Celestius from Rome (wrongly assuming they were still in that city), and condemned all those who denied the Fall (meaning original sin). In unison, the Council of Carthage issued a series of nine canons against Pelagianism. Pope Zosimos, under pressure from the conservative African bishops and Roman opponents, condemned and excommunicated the heretics. Augustine, the chief instigator, made further hostile gestures, with the result that Pelagius was expelled from Palestine, seeking refuge in Egypt, an event leading to his oblivion. 

Meanwhile, eighteen Italian bishops appealed against the condemnation, only to find themselves condemned, excommunicated, and banished from their homeland (Rees, 1988, p. 141). The repressive clerical programme lasted in variants for over a thousand years. 

See further Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber, 1967); Theodore de Bruyn, trans., Pelagius’ Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Oxford University Press, 1998): Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967; revised edn, 1993); R. F. Evans, Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals (New York, 1968); Evans, Four Letters of Pelagius (London, 1968); J. Ferguson, Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study (Cambridge, 1956); B. R. Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1988); Rees, Pelagius: Life and Letters (Boydell, 2004). 

Kevin R. D. Shepherd 

ENTRY no. 47 

Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a contemporary of Hypatia (entry no. 41) and the Patriarch Cyril. Originally a Manichaean, his conversion to Christianity was for many centuries regarded by clerics as a triumph over the supposed evil of dualism. The followers of Mani reaped violent opposition and infamy.

Augustine has sometimes been described as a Christian philosopher, and Bertrand Russell admitted him into a famous canon of Western philosophy, and alongside Ambrose, Jerome, Aquinas, and others. Yet Augustine clearly viewed philosophy as having a secondary status to revelation. His outlook is complicated by the doctrine of predestination.

He was born in the Numidian town of Thagaste, in what later became Algeria. His middle class father was a pagan and his mother a Christian. At the age of seventeen he moved to Carthage, for further education in Latin literature; he acquired a long-term concubine and became a pedagogue in the classical mode. When he read Cicero’s Hortensius in 373, he was inspired by an exhortation to philosophy. Yet he did not become a Stoic or Platonist, but instead joined the Manichaean religion, becoming a “Hearer” for about nine years.

Still a pagan, he moved to Italy in 383, becoming a professor of rhetoric at Milan. The preaching of Bishop Ambrose now caught his attention; Ambrose made borrowings from Plotinus in his sermons, but these were used for the episcopal cause. Circa 386, Augustine obtained some books on Neoplatonism which are known to have exercised a strong influence upon him; he understated this matter in his influential Confessions.

According to Peter Brown,  Augustine “seems to have deliberately dwarfed the number of the [Neoplatonist] books he had received and the time which he took to absorb them” (Peter Brown,  Augustine of Hippo, p. 94). Those books apparently included many treatises of Plotinus in a Latin translation by Victorinus. Augustine did not read Greek, and himself wrote in Latin. Certain deductions are relevant. The Confessions “were patently the work of a Neo-Platonic philosopher” (ibid., p. 165). Yet “Plotinus never gossiped with the One as Augustine gossips in the Confessions” (ibid., p. 167, citing E. R. Dodds in the Hibbert Jnl).

“The emotional tone of the Confessions strikes any modern reader” (ibid., p. 170). In contrast, the Enneads of Plotinus present discursive themes, including very brief personal recollections of a unio mystica, and in a language lacking emotional contours. There is no such event in Augustine’s autobiography. “Where Plotinus is full of quiet confidence, Augustine felt precarious” (ibid., p. 178).

The Confessions is a document emphasising the triumph of Christianity, and was composed after the author became a bishop. Some readers are critical of submerged factors and rhetorical flourishes. Augustine did not become a convert to Christianity until 386, and was baptised by Ambrose the following year. In 391 Augustine was ordained a priest at Hippo (near Thagaste), thereafter becoming a preacher and worsting the local Manichaeans. Four years later he became the bishop of Hippo. In this action he bypassed the routine of the monastery at Hippo associated with him, and which itself became increasingly ecclesiastical.

Augustine did not want a simple contemplative life but an officious role in church affairs. He daily arbitrated in lawsuits and vehemently campaigned against the rival Christian Donatists. The professor of rhetoric had become a Catholic missionary. Significantly, Bishop Augustine “decided that he would never reach the fulfilment that he first thought was promised to him by a Christian Platonism: he would never impose a victory of mind over body in himself, he would never achieve the rapt contemplation of the ideal philosopher” (ibid., p. 147).

The government increasingly imposed restrictions on the African Donatists, and Augustine eventually agreed with other bishops that the imperial policy of coercion was justified. In 412 the Emperor Honorius proscribed Donatism, exiled Donatist clergy, and confiscated Donatist property. The Catholic cause was triumphant.

In his additional campaign against paganism, it is deducible that Augustine was in conflict, not so much with Neoplatonist philosophers, but with Roman aristocrats who assumed an intellectual superiority via their familiarity with classical heritages. In The City of God (De Civitate Dei), composed in his last years, he opposed Roman paganism, then such a strong rival of Christianity.

Augustine was responding to the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410, and more specifically, to a pagan argument that the disaster was due to abandoning the gods in favour of Christianity. Augustine retorts that the gods did not save Rome. The pagan gods gain the maligned stature of devils in Augustine’s version, failing to communicate any moral teaching. Obscenities in pagan rites are appropriately criticised. However, “the influence of Roman rhetoric... can be seen in almost every paragraph that he wrote, and in many an argument that he used” (J. O’Meara, intro. to The City of God, Bettenson trans., p. xxii).

The City of God gives deference to Plato, and secondarily to Aristotle, but criticises them for endorsing the gods. The Platonists were the pagans nearest to Christianity, Augustine approvingly asserted, and Plotinus here benefited from the association with Plato. However, the Platonists are rebuked for refusing to acknowledge Christ, who here denotes the universal route to salvation. Porphyry shares in this denunciation, although praised for his opposition to theurgy as relayed in the Letter to Anebo – “in which, while appearing to ask for advice and information, he exposes this blasphemous art of magic and overthrows it” (The City of God, Bettenson trans, p. 386).

Porphyry might be considered less dogmatic than Augustine, who cited the Neoplatonist contention that “no doctrine has yet been established to form the teaching of a philosophical sect, which offers a universal way for the liberation of the soul” (ibid., p. 421). In contrast, Augustine’s doctrine was declaredly universal, and did not tolerate objections, e.g., Porphyry’s belief in reincarnation was opposed.

The dogmatism of Augustine was demonstrated in his unrelenting attack on Pelagius and the latter’s supporters. He employed his rhetorical skills and episcopal position to achieve condemnation of the victims as heretics. Pelagius was a Christian from Britain, appearing in Rome during the late fourth century and gaining repute as an ascetic and moral reformer. Pelagius dismissed the doctrine of original sin and taught freewill, believing that individual moral effort produced virtue. This outlook conflicted with Augustine’s version of the doctrine of grace. Pelagius believed that Augustine had distorted this theme by creating a dogma of predestination.

“Augustine’s determination to destroy his opponent and all that he stood for hardened into an obsession.... it was he [Augustine] who continued the witch-hunt into the far corners of the Empire by ensuring that there would be no area of the Church in which Pelagius and his friends might be able to find asylum” (Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic, p. 130).

Augustine has also been considered a harbinger of the medieval Inquisition via his insistence upon predestination, related to the concept of Adam’s original sin. Baptised Christians were the elect, and all other humans were damned by God’s choice. “We are left with the harsh but seemingly inescapable conclusion that they [the non-elect] are not recipients of God’s mercy and so are condemned to eternal damnation for a sin which they did not themselves commit but of which, nevertheless, they are held to be guilty, a conclusion which Augustine’s remorseless logic does not permit him to mitigate even for children dying unbaptised” (ibid., p. 41).

This theological contrivance facilitated the concept of everlasting torment in hell. The dogma of the damned was employed as justification for the torture and burning of innumerable heretics from the twelfth century onwards, and culminating in the Spanish Inquisition, which targeted Muslims and Jews. Barbarian Europe lasted for a very long time. The Christian dogmas about heretics were arguably the worst in religious history.

See further Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, trans. H. Bettenson (London: Penguin, 1984); Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford University Press, 1991); Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber, 1967; second edn, 2000); Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (second edn, Oxford, 2003); Henry Chadwick, Augustine of Hippo: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2009); R.W. Dyson, ed., The City of God Against the Pagans (Cambridge University Press, 1998); B. R. Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1988); Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (London, 1946), pp. 344ff.

Kevin R.D. Shepherd
September 20th 2012

ENTRY no. 46

Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, 26 January 2012


Origen (c.186-255) of Alexandria is often classified as a Christian theologian, though also as a Christian philosopher. His father was apparently a Roman citizen, and one of the Christian martyrs during the persecution launched by Septimius Severus (rgd 193-211). He has been described as the child of a mixed marriage; Epiphanius says that he was a native Egyptian. Yet according to Jerome, the mother was either a Jewess or a Christian (McGuckin, Westminster Handbook, p. 3 n.15). The native Egyptians were at the bottom end of the social scale in the Graeco-Roman colonisation; a community of Jews had survived in Alexandria, though regarded as inferior by the Romans. Origen was reared by his father to a Greek education, in addition to study of the Bible. The young Origen apparently continued his father’s role as a teacher of Greek literature, maintaining a private school, though he was also enlisted by Bishop Demetrius as a paid catechist of the church. His father’s wealth was confiscated by the Roman bureaucracy, and his family were in need. He later sold his father’s library for a small pension, and studied philosophy in his leisure hours.

Bishop Eusebius (263-339) is a major source, though his Ecclesiastical History has been criticised for a clerical agenda. Eusebius was a defender of Origen; his account has been considered to incorporate some hagiology.

Origen allegedly had himself castrated by a doctor, in accordance with literal interpretation of a verse (19: 12) in the Gospel of Matthew, which refers to “those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” The verse was often interpreted metaphorically. Eusebius is much in question on this matter. “The story is hardly credible” (McGuckin, p. 6). Eusebius proffered this story as an explanation for the eventual prosecution of Origen by the bishop Demetrius. Origen “himself derides the literalist interpretation of the eunuch, saying it was something only an idiot would consider” (ibid.).

According to Eusebius, Origen attended the circle of Ammonius Saccas, a Neoplatonist teacher in Alexandria. Little is known about the latter, who appears to have been a self-taught philosopher differing from the more conventional Platonist pedagogues. The circle of Ammonius eventually gained an important addition in the shape of Plotinus (entry no. 42), who was some twenty years younger than Origen.

According to Porphyry (who is cited by Eusebius), “Origen lived as a Christian and thought as a Greek; he was always reading Plato and a whole lot of philosophers whom Porphyry lists” (Crouzel, Origen, p. 11). Yet modern scholarship invented the theme of two Origens, some commentators favouring the view that a pagan Origen was involved in the circle of Ammonius, and not the Christian Origen. Other scholars have considered this distinction erroneous. “There is every reason to believe that Origen acquired his superb education in philosophy from him [Ammonius]” (Trigg, Origen,1998, p. 12).

Origen nevertheless moved at a tangent, being a Christian Neoplatonist, giving an ultimate deference to the Bible. “To the more advanced students he taught philosophy together with the subjects preparatory to it like geometry and arithmetic: he expounded the teaching of the different schools of philosophers, explained their writings, to the point where he himself acquired the reputation of being a great philosopher” (Crouzel, p. 10).

According to Eusebius, Origen learned Hebrew, though the assertion has frequently been rejected. He certainly possessed an extensive knowledge of Jewish traditions and rabbinical exegesis, apparently derived from his communications with Jewish rabbis. His Hexapla (Six Columns) is only extant in fragments, and was a synopsis of differing versions of the Old Testament, including the Hebrew and the four main Greek versions. He was concerned to establish an accurate text.

Origen defended Christian doctrines against pagan and Jewish objections. He attacked Jewish literalism with a strong invective, though he “was not by nature a persecutor” and “actually defended the Jews against the abuse of pagans” (De Lange, Origen and the Jews, pp. 133ff.).

He was pitted against the Graeco-Roman colonial mindset that was the agent of persecution, executing his father and killing several of his own students. In his early years, he was frequently threatened by pagan mobs. In his last years, he composed the Contra Celsum, a refutation of the obscure second century Platonist Celsus. In his True Doctrine, Celsus had attacked Christianity from a conservative viewpoint, regarding that religion as a barbarian manifestation deriving from the Jews, who were allegedly inferior to Greeks.

Origen “differs from Clement [of Alexandria] in that he has not the least desire to claim the protection of a great philosophical name [meaning Plato] for some principle that is important to Christians. Yet, quite unconsciously, Origen is inwardly less critical of Platonism than Clement, and proposes a system that incorporates a larger proportion of Platonic assumptions than is apparent in Clement’s writings” (Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 101).

According to Eusebius, Origen was a pupil of Clement, which some scholars have strongly doubted. Origen never quotes Clement by name, though he does refer to teachings associated with the latter. “Origen never applies to the spiritual man the adjective gnostikos which Clement constantly uses” (Crouzel, p. 7). The conclusion is that Origen was more resistant to Gnostic teachings, which were proliferating in his time.

The relation of Origen to Gnosticism has been differently presented. His output is generally viewed as providing a foil to the trend of joining Gnostic sects. Origen was “the supreme theologian of free will, and the constant opponent of the Valentinian determinism” (Crouzel, p. 21). However, this was not a straightforward process of denial. “Of the Gnostics, Valentinus and his followers had the most profound influence on Origenism,” and moreover, “by a process involving both acceptance and rejection, he [Origen], in effect, appropriated and transformed Valentinianism” (Trigg, Origen, pp. 8-9).

A wealthy Valentinian, namely Ambrose, became converted to Origen’s viewpoint, which is often described in terms of orthodoxy, despite some contradictions. Ambrose provided his new mentor with a team of stenographers and calligraphers who acted as a publishing agency for his prolific biblical commentaries. Only fragments of those works have survived. Origen’s “allegorical” exegesis of the Bible has been the subject of dispute and criticism.

At this period, the Roman emperor Caracalla (rgd 212-17) assassinated his royal brother, an act meeting with opposition at Alexandria. The tyrant sacked that city in retaliation, and closed the schools. Origen retreated to Caesarea in Palestine, where he was invited by bishops to teach the scriptures. His status was that of a layman, not a cleric. This event caused the Alexandrian bishop Demetrius to protest, on the grounds that it was contrary to tradition for laymen to preach in the presence of bishops. Origen was recalled to Alexandria.

The situation of Origen illustrates a major problem: the episcopal status complex. His role as catechist was subordinate to Demetrius, whom he is said to have regarded as “a worldly, power-hungry prelate consumed with pride in his own self-importance” (Chadwick, p. 109). On a later visit to Palestine, Origen was ordained to the priesthood by two bishops. “With a good grace, or unwillingly giving way to their pressure? We cannot tell” (Crouzel, p. 20).

We do know that Demetrius reacted strongly, because the ordination had occurred outside his local jurisdiction. When Origen returned to Alexandria, a synod exiled him from the city. Demetrius went further, and declared that Origen was ejected from the priesthood. A synod at Rome is reported to have ratified this decision. Origen moved to Caesarea in Palestine, where he engaged in preaching, regarded as a priestly function. According to Eusebius, Demetrius condemned and made public the act of castration which Origen allegedly performed; this detail has been queried, and is regarded by some as malicious gossip. Demetrius accused Origen of unorthodox doctrine, and this was probably the underlying factor of aversion.

In Palestine, Origen attracted pupils like Gregory Thaumaturgus, initially a pagan, who refers to his mentor as a master of philosophy. The context does not here mean Greek philosophy, but “the moral and ascetic life, of Christian and pagan alike” (Crouzel, p. 26), a usage found among Christians of that period. The study of “philosophers of every school except the atheists” (ibid.) was a preparation for the study of Biblical scripture. However, the school of Origen at Caesarea was not a centre of theology, because “the teaching leaves out almost everything peculiar to Christianity and only reproduces the doctrines that can be enunciated in philosophical terms” (ibid., p. 27). Origen’s curriculum has been described as a Christian version of Middle Platonism, and intended for young pagans.

According to Bertrand Russell, the teachings of Origen, “as set forth in his work De Principiis [Treatise on First Principles], have much affinity to those of Plotinus – more, in fact, than is compatible with [Christian] orthodoxy” (History of Western Philosophy, 1946, p. 327).

The same treatise has been described in terms of Christian Neoplatonism, and as the most systematic of his writings, a work in which Origen “establishes his main doctrines, including that of the Holy Trinity (based upon standard Middle Platonic triadic emanation schemas); the pre-existence and fall of souls; multiple ages and transmigration of souls; and the eventual restoration of all souls to a state of dynamic perfection” (Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

At the end of his life, Origen was a victim of the persecution of Christians launched by Decius, who enjoined that every subject of the Roman empire must sacrifice to the official gods. Origen survived horrific tortures, but was posthumously condemned as a heretic by Christian polemicists and bishops in later centuries, and also by the repressive Christian emperor Justinian in 543.

The ascetic characteristics of Origen were emphasised by Eusebius. Origen was favoured amongst fourth century Coptic Christian renunciates. The Desert Fathers have recently emerged from the shadow cast by orthodox interpretation; figures like Antony the hermit are revealed by scholarship to have fostered ideas and beliefs that were rejected by clericalism. The Christian bishops were eventually victorious in controlling and modifying the monastic movement.

See further G. W. Butterworth, trans., On First Principles (1936, repr. 1973); Henry Chadwick, trans., Contra Celsum (Cambridge, 1953); Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967); Elizabeth A. Clark, The Origenist Controversy (Princeton, 1992); Henri Crouzel, Origen (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1989); Nicholas De Lange, Origen and the Jews (Cambridge University Press, 1976); John Anthony McGuckin, ed., The Westminster Handbook to Origen (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004); Joseph Wilson Trigg, Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third Century Church (Atlanta, 1983); Trigg, Origen (London: Routledge, 1998).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 26th 2012

ENTRY no. 45

Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.