Sean Moberg, "The Apophthegmata Patrum and the Greek Philosophical Tradition" (Ph.D. Dissertation, Catholic University of America, 2016).
As monasticism grew into a major social movement in the late ancient world, it became a commonplace to refer to it as “the philosophical life.” For some writers, the two were essentially synonymous. And yet, from the modern perspective, not only is this identification far from obvious, it hardly seems to make any sense at all. In our contemporary world the monk, distinguished by his religious devotion, dress, ascetic practice, and contemplative life, bears little resemblance to a modern philosopher in the academy. The monastery no longer appears to us as the typical location for philosophy.
The link becomes more intuitive, however, upon closer examination of how philosophy functioned in the ancient world. Pierre Hadot’s work demonstrating how the ancient philosophical schools were characterized by a comprehensive way of life, forming the total human person, indicates a closer compatibility. My dissertation builds upon these insights, exploring the distinctively monastic plan of life laid out in the systematic collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum (the Sayings of the Desert Fathers). At each stage of this life, beginning with the initiation of new members into the community, progressing through their formation under the guidance of an experienced teacher, and culminating in a lived practice characterized by spiritual exercises such as contemplation of death and examination of conscience, the monks creatively reshaped philosophical practices to develop their approach. To understand the philosophical background, I draw on a wide array of texts from the various philosophical schools, taking a longue durée approach that allows central elements of the philosophical tradition, consistent across time periods and across schools, to emerge.
To understand the monastic use of this tradition, the Apophthegmata Patrum is a uniquely useful text. It explicitly eschews intricate theological argumentation, urging the reader to “Take care with all your ability to not contend about the faith nor to dogmatize, but follow the catholic church, for no one can comprehend anything of the Godhead.” Instead, the text concentrates upon practical questions about living the Christian, ascetic life. This creates an opportunity to advance beyond earlier studies of the relationship between ancient Christianity and classical philosophy, which have heavily prioritized the doctrinal components of the relationship over the practical elements. The dissertation begins by surveying this earlier work, much of which is of enduring value. In particular, scholars such as Anthony Meredith, who focus on the idea of early Christian “use” of classical philosophy, as opposed to those who see a subservient dependence upon it, provide a number of key insights.
Taking this work as a foundation, I have sought to better integrate the contemporary understanding of ancient philosophy, as it has been reshaped by scholars like Hadot, Michel Foucault, and Martha Nussbaum, into the picture. We have known for some time, especially since Samuel Rubenson’s landmark work on the Letters of Antony, that the Desert Fathers were not ignorant of the philosophical higher learning of their time, and more recent work from Per Rönnegård and Henrik Rydell Johnsén, among others, has indicated that they were familiar with the practices of philosophy as well. My work takes a more comprehensive view than others have followed, however. Instead of only studying one particular practice, I have taken the monastic path of life as a whole, as proposed by the Apophthegmata Patrum, from conversion to advanced practice, and analyzed it light of the philosophical schools. As some of my current work is confirming even more strongly, the systematic collection does not merely organize the sayings in a convenient manner by placing them in thematic chapters (“silence,” “discernment,” “humility,” and so on), but also structures those chapters along a plan of divine ascent. By showing that the monastic and philosophical paths begin with the same sorts of withdrawal from the world and entry into a new community, are shaped by shared methods of spiritual guidance, and culminate in closely-related spiritual exercises, my work demonstrates a much more systematic relationship than earlier scholarship has been able to prove.
In the three chapters that form the body of the dissertation, I concentrate upon these three aspects of the philosophical life: conversion to a new community, the teaching relationship whereby new members are initiated into that community, and the spiritual exercises that help the practitioner instantiate his commitments at every moment. On the subject of conversion, I note that, while recent scholarship has emphasized the process of conversion as a transformation over time rather than a sudden revelation resembling Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, there remains a fundamental shift in self-understanding, community, and practices involved. Both philosophical and monastic narratives draw clear lines of demarcation between those who have committed themselves to the community and those who have not, expressed by distinctions such as that between a monachos (monk) and a kosmikos (person living in the ordinary, usually simply indicates a non-monk). In both cases, crossing this line involved an element of withdrawal from the affairs and expectations of society at large. While it is important not to be excessively literal here (especially in regards to the Apophthegmata, which presents an idealized portrait of physical withdrawal that does not neatly map onto social realities), the texts present a vision of the philosophical life characterized by a real separation from the ties of family, property, and civic and religious community that bind most people. This withdrawal frees the individual practitioner to form a new relationship with a teacher who is already experienced in the philosophical life. The ancient world had no room for do-it-yourself Platonism or self-help Stoicism. The person who wished to follow a monastic or philosophical way of life was strictly required to begin by submitting to a teacher to learn its thought and the practices.
This teaching relationship is the subject of the second chapter, which explores two key characteristics of the relationship and three primary techniques employed by the teachers. Most importantly, teaching was expected to be therapeutic. Epicurus sums up the philosophical tradition: “Empty is the discourse of that philosopher by which no human suffering is treated. For just as there is no benefit from medicine if it does not treat the diseases of bodies, neither is there from philosophy if it does not cast out suffering from the soul.” Epicurus’ school, with its commitments to materialism and philosophical hedonism, might seem somewhat distant from the ascetic context of the Desert Fathers. It should be borne in mind, however, that this passage was cited with approval by the third-century Neoplatonist Porphyry, indicating that in this case, Epicurus is representative of the philosophical tradition more broadly. Additionally, the relationship was personal rather than purely professional. The Apophthegmata is particularly radical in this regard, often depicting disciples sharing living quarters with their teachers. In order to carry out their teaching, philosophical and monastic masters employed similar methods. One important tool was the practice of frank speech, or parrhesia, well studied as a philosophical phenomenon, but under-appreciated until recently as an element of Christian psychagogy (that is, guidance of the soul towards the true way of life). While the teacher was not supposed to be abusive, it was essential that he address whatever issues the disciple might be facing, no matter how personal or embarrassing, and correct them unsparingly, not withholding needed medicine out of concern for hurt feelings. For this speech to function properly, the teacher had to be apprised of every detail of the student’s spiritual state. Radical openness was therefore required of the disciple, who had to confess all his deeds and even his thoughts. Armed with this knowledge, the teacher was able to instruct in a case-sensitive manner, the final element of pedagogical methodology examined in this chapter. Known in the Apophthegmata as “discernment,” this sensitivity refers to the way in which the teacher must understand the personality of each disciple and tailor his teachings, admonitions, and requirements accordingly. Failure to do so would lead to failure of the therapeutic mission.
One of the hallmarks of Hadot’s scholarship was his concept of “spiritual exercises,” or practices whereby abstract commitments were incarnated in the lived experience of philosophers. In the third chapter, I examine three such exercises adopted by the monks from the philosophers, each of which served as the foundation of a fourth practice, vigilance, which Hadot rightly identifies as “the philosopher’s fundamental attitude, [which also] became the fundamental attitude of the monk.” First, I examine the practice of “meditation,” which involves memorizing and reflecting upon short, striking sayings that encapsulate the doctrines of a school. Epicurus and Epictetus both recommended making a daily review of these sorts of sayings in order to fix them in the mind. Marcus Aurelius represents another approach to the same task, as he regularly reformulated Stoic teachings in writing in order to interiorize them. Keeping these sayings (and, in monastic practice, Scripture passages) ready at hand, makes it easier to follow through on one’s commitments, even in moments of crisis, during which it may be impractical to recall elaborate proofs. Second, there is the remembrance of death. This practice was inflected differently depending on the beliefs of the group in question on such questions as the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, and so on. Nevertheless, the philosophers and the monks unanimously recommended reflection upon one’s death as a way of focusing attention on the present. Finally, regular self-examination was also expected. Not only was this needed to achieve the openness mentioned above, but also, by requiring practitioners to reflect on their actions in light of their moral commitments, the philosophers and monks taught their disciples to attend to those commitments constantly. What these three exercises have in common is that they foster an attitude of vigilance (nēpsis or prosochē), attention to the present moment. This attention allows the monk or the philosopher to react to each and every situation in light of his spiritual commitments. Through this virtue, philosophy and monasticism come fully to life.
This research demonstrates that there are not merely a few passing resonances between the Apophthegmata Patrum and the philosophy of the ancient world, but rather a systematic use of philosophy by the early Christian ascetics. The text is extensively marked by borrowings and re-appropriations from the philosophical heritage. Entry into the monastic life, the teaching relationship that defines that life’s early stages, and the spiritual exercises that are practiced throughout it are all constructed in part by drawing upon precedents from the ancient schools.
There are also broader implications for those working in the field of late antiquity. This project explores the boundaries of early Christian monastic communities, the formation these communities provided for new members, and the spiritual exercises practiced within them. The questions it poses could well be posed of other ascetic texts (at present, I am expanding my research to include Palestinian sources). Additionally, it makes an important contribution to the study of the relationship between Christianity and the various forms of higher learning current in late antiquity. This study contributes especially to the realm of Christianity and philosophy, buttressing the foundational work of Hadot and Nussbaum, and in conversation with recent work such as the ground-breaking scholarship that has come out of the Early Monasticism and Classic Paideia project at Lund University. Philosophy was not the only form of higher learning in the ancient world, however. Lillian Larsen’s work on classical rhetoric in monastic literature, in particular the role of the chreia form in the Apophthegmata informs my own work and illustrates the broader relationship between monasticism and education. Finally, the most cutting-edge scholarship has been paying an ever-greater amount of attention to the role of medical thought in ancient Christianity. Kristi-Upson-Saia, Wendy Mayer, Andrew Crislip, and others have demonstrated both that medicine and philosophy cannot be sharply separated in antiquity and that early Christianity had a lively relationship with both. These insights have pushed me to continue to develop my understanding of the monastic reception of Greco-Roman higher learning to incorporate a broader view, and it is my hope that both my dissertation and my subsequent work will aid others in drawing these connections as well.
 Systematic Collection, XV.27.
 Per Rönnegård, “Melétē in Early Christian Ascetic Texts,” in Meditation in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Cultural Histories, ed. Halvor Eifring (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013).
 Henrik Rydell Johnsén, “The Early Jesus Prayer and Meditation in Greco-Roman Philosophy,” in Meditation in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Cultural Histories, ed. Halvor Eifring, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013).
 Epicurus, Usener fr. 221.
 Porphyry, Letter to Marcella, 31.
 Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, 131.
 A good example would be the famous “four-fold remedy” or tetrapharmakos, which summarizes Epicurus’ teachings: “God is not frightening, death is not dangerous; good things are easily acquired, evils are easy to endure.” Philodemus, PHerc. 1005, col. IV. Text in Marcello Gigante, Ricerche Filodomee (Naples: Gaetano Macchiaroli Editore, 1983), 260, n. 35.
Sean Moberg currently lives in Washington, DC and teaches Theology at Marymount University. He is working on a number of research projects on early Christian asceticism, including further work on the relationship between philosophy and monasticism as well as an examination of the Apophthegmata Patrum’s approach to illness.