Tag Archives: john cassian

Bodies beyond sex

I am just beginning to (finally) read Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. In my final trip to the library of St Paul University yesterday, I read Andrew Louth’s 1990 review of the book in question. The review was overall positive, but one note he struck is one that I sometimes feel as well.

Louth observes that “today” (that is, 1990), when you see a book with “body” in the title, you immediately know that it is going to be about sex. And so with this book. His concern with this modern preoccupation with sex is that it was not, in fact, always the main preoccupation of the ancient authors, which therefore produces something of an unintended distortion of their teachings. Yes, Brown may get their teaching on sex right, but without being fully situated, contextualised, and relativised to each author’s wider ideas about the body, we may believe that they were all very, even overly, concerned with sex.

I am at present working on an article about John Cassian’s Conferences, one of the early, foundational texts of Latin monasticism. Cassian’s fourteenth Conference — about chastity — is part of Brown’s concern, largely as a quiet response to Augustine. (In many ways, Cassian is a balancing force against medieval Augustinianism, both being read and copied innumerable times by the monks of the western Middle Ages.) As Brown notes, for Cassian, sexuality is not the heart of the person, but rather a symptom, and the deepest recesses of the person are where the true, most baleful sins lie — “anger, greed, avarice, and vainglory.” (p. 420, 2008 ed.)

Indeed, as Boniface Ramsey notes in the commentary of his translation of the Conferences, food was a much more pervasive concern of the Desert Fathers than sex — something that Brown, in fact, notes. (But Ramsey is not at hand, so I cannot give you a reference to either him or Brown.)

At the same time as all of this, we are reading Clement of Alexandria‘s Paedagogus over at Read the Fathers. In Book 2 of this work, Clement says that since we are rational and have submitted ourselves to God the Word as our paedagogus, we must keep our bodies in check. The chapters of Book 2 are as follows:

  1. On eating
  2. On drinking
  3. On costly vessels (against luxurious tableware)
  4. How to conduct ourselves at feasts (mostly about music)
  5. On Laughter
  6. On Filthy Speaking
  7. Directions for Those Who Live Together
  8. On the Use of Ointments and Crowns (garlands?)
  9. On Sleep
  10. On the procreation of children
  11. On clothes
  12. On shoes
  13. Against Excessive Fondness for Jewels and Gold Ornaments

These are all, in one way or another, matters to do with how we live as embodied human persons, are they not? Food, drink, the treatment of food and drink, the use of our mouths, sleep, etc. Sex does not emerge until chapter 10.

The embodied human existence is more than sex, and all of us know it. I believe a new generation of scholars is pointing us in this direction, not only John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, who is definitely of a generation prior to mine, but my colleagues as well.

If we wish to grasp the ancients as they saw themselves, we need to understand their treatment of the body in matters of sex as well as eating, drinking, sleeping, excreting, dressing, laughing, and so forth.

Bibliography

Behr, John. Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement. Oxford, 2000.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society. New York, 2008 (20th anniversary ed., originally 1988).

Louth, Andrew. Review of The Body and SocietyJournal of Theological Studies ns 4 (1990), 231-235.

Ramsey, Boniface. John Cassian: The Conferences. New York.

How do you want to live (truly live) your life?

'Mort de Seneque'

Not actually Seneca, but usually called so. In the Louvre, my pic.

My friend and fellow ancient historian Katie posted a link to an article on brain pickings called ‘The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather than Living Long.’ Seneca was a very clever guy, and — as often happens when I read Stoics — his words are convicting. A lot of daily life is devoted to toiling at work rather than living in it, and then procrastinating, and then mindless relaxation.

But what is the point of life? And what are you going to do with yours? Are you going to escape your Facebook feed and Netflix to go and live your life, seeking deep and wide living instead of shallow and narrow living?

I fully intend to. So here are my top three goals in living:

  1. Attaining ‘purity of heart’ as discussed by fifth-century spiritual writer John Cassian in his Conferences. This is a goal that requires the study not only of spiritual guides and philosophers but also certain practices in daily life.
  2. Excelling as an academic. This is my ‘day job’.
  3. Becoming a writer.

Each of these requires its own disciplines and attentiveness, but they can all work together. Number 3, interestingly enough, can be worked through 1 & 2 to a degree, and number 1 manifests itself in the totality of one’s life, thus drawing 2 & 3 into its orbit. Because of the subject matter of my interest, 2 feeds into 1, and, when practised well, into 3 as well.

If I wish to write fiction, however, number 3 will require time other than what is spent on 1 & 2. Part becoming a fiction writer is reading fiction, so that part of my training as a writer is well under way. I just need to, well, write fiction!

But what about true leisure? Seneca would say that leisure time should be devoted exclusively to philosophy — that is, in my scheme, number 1. However, I think he is wrong on this point, and his own corpus of writings bears out his inability to live up to such a high, intense Stoic paradigm, given that he wrote tragedies as well as philosophy.

Instead, I follow Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines wherein he argues that we need real time to just relax if we are going to make it in the rest of our lives. Time to play a sport or make music or watch TV or read a novel or whatever — just because you want to. No ulterior motive.

If, in our leisure time, we were to make a balance between striving for high philosophical ideals and simply relaxing without slipping into entertaining ourselves to death or working ourselves to death, we would probably find a happy place in the middle between these two extremes.

So, now, go read the recommended article. Then go and truly live.