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The Asceticism of Isaac of Nineveh$

Patrik Hagman

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199593194

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199593194.001.0001

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Uses of the Term ‘The World’

Uses of the Term ‘The World’

(p.94) 4 Uses of the Term ‘The World’
The Asceticism of Isaac of Nineveh

Patrik Hagman

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores Isaac's use of the term “the world”. From the ascetic's point of view, the world is (1) distracting the ascetic from the spiritual life, especially in the form of (2) human relationships. The world is a term that designates society in its negative influence over the human being, tempting her to act based on (3) political ambition, (4) taste for luxuries, and in general by arousing her (5) passions. The world is thus seen to be a term used to designate the malign influence of society on a person, an influence the ascetic is striving to reduce and do battle against. However, Isaac also talks of the world as (6) God's good creation. In Isaac's view, the world is meant to be a place of hardships, were humans learn to overcome temptations and trust God's providence.

Keywords:   the world, society, politics, passions, creation

When you hear of ‘keeping distant from the world’ or ‘abandoning the world’ or ‘being pure of the world’, you will first of all need to learn what the term ‘world’ actually means.1

In this chapter, I will try to show how Isaac uses the term ‘world’. While the term ‘body’ discussed in the previous chapter is a problem relevant to more or less all texts concerning early Christian asceticism, this is not the case with the term ‘world’, and therefore the approach in this chapter differs somewhat from that of the previous one. Even though the world, like the body, is a concept that has both direct and symbolical meanings, the problem here is still less complicated. The purpose of this chapter is principally to study how Isaac uses the term in his texts and nothing more. This has a twofold purpose. First, it can be considered a somewhat disputed subject in the study of Isaac,2 and it is necessary to delve deeper into this problem in order to present a fair picture of Isaac's thinking. Secondly, it will prove to be a central concept in the grammar of Isaac's asceticism, both in the way it functions and the way it is existentially motivated and understood. In both cases it is of great importance to establish how this term relates to society. What kind of relationship does the hermit foster with society? What role does this relationship play in this kind of (p.95) ascetic life? As was pointed out in Chapter 1, this relationship is one possible point of contact between us and Isaac, something that further underlines the importance of a satisfying understanding of the usage of this important term.

The medieval Latin translation of Isaac's works carries the title De contemptu mundi,3 and this title is indeed quite a good summary of Isaac's doctrine about the ascetic life. Isaac uses the term ‘world’ Uses of the Term ‘The World’ in a wide semantic field.4 It ranges from a fairly everyday use, to the use of it as a technical term. It is almost exclusively used depreciatively, but this is balanced by the fact that in Isaac's thinking even evil is serving God's purpose for creation. This means that the world, although evil from the viewpoint of man, can be said to be good, as it is God's creation and serves his purpose.

There are several fairly distinct ways that Isaac uses the term ‘world’. On the one hand he uses it to describe the actual society, on the other, as a term for the evil in creation, for the forces that oppose God. Both are ‘bad’, but the latter is more religious in tone than the former. These two ways of using the term can be separated into a number of subfields. There are different contexts in which Isaac uses the term. An overview of the whole range of meanings could look like this:

  1. A. Social Domain

    1. 1. The World as Distraction

    2. 2. The World as Human Relationships

    3. 3. The World as Politics and Striving for Power

    4. 4. The World as Luxuries

  2. B. Religious Domain

    1. 5. The World as Passions and Temptations

    2. 6. The World as Training Ground

To be able to gain a proper understanding of Isaac's asceticism, I will now analyse each of these fields, so as to find out how Isaac's discourse on the world is related to society. In the following chapters, it will be essential to keep in mind the range in which Isaac uses this term.

4.1. The World as Distraction

This is the most basic and most practical meaning of the world. In the world, it is not possible to concentrate and live the life of the ascetic because of the distractions that come with ordinary life: ‘Man receives stillness of thought according to how far he removes himself from the dwelling‐places of the (p.96) world, and shuts himself away in deserted and lonely places, and according to how far away his heart feels itself to be from all human nature.’5 In fact, the whole point of living the life of the hermit is to avoid the distractions that human contact necessarily contains. Nothing troubles the peace of the solitary like contact with the world.6 Even almsgiving and other good deeds are to be avoided by the solitary, because they ‘disturb the peace for the sake of the peace of the neighbour’.7 Distraction feeds the passions. ‘As men are not born without a mother, so passions are not born without distraction of mind.’8

When Isaac is describing the humble person, he describes a solitary, who, ‘as long as he is hidden and shut off from the world, he is wholly with his Lord’.9 Such a person ‘chooses concentration and reclusion with himself alone, to be quiet and shut off and lonely and left to himself in a solitary place void of all beings and separated from the whole creation’.10

Most of the other categories could be understood as subdivisions of the world as distraction, but some uses only fit into this general category.

4.2. The World as Human Relationships

Isaac's negative valuation of human relationships might be considered unappealing to the modern reader. We live in a time where close personal relationships are often understood as the most important part of life, a part that is often neglected due to other obligations. For Isaac this does not seem to be the case, although he does seem to value contact with some humans, mainly experienced ascetics and, to a degree, appreciative disciples.11 He still makes sweeping judgements on all contact with humans, and some of these statements might be quite difficult to appreciate.

(p.97) For Isaac, love directed towards a single person is a somehow corrupted version of love.12 As Alfeyev points out,13 Isaac here presents a doctrine that is the exact opposite of the one found in 1 John 4:20: ‘For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.’ For Isaac there has to be first the true love of God and only after that love for fellow human beings. However, Isaac does not really value the love of ‘his brother’ (see below); rather, he is interested in a more exalted love, what he refers to in one passage as ‘luminous love of humanity’,14 which does not seem to have as object a single, actual person but is able to encompass all humans, good and bad. This love is a result of a gift from God only; it cannot be reached by struggle.15 A person who has been held worthy of this ‘is never overcome by the weaknesses to be found in people’.16 As Alfeyev writes, this kind of love makes a person similar to God.17 In other words, the love Isaac strives for, which is directed towards humanity, is like the one he understands God to have. It is not human love, it is divine. Human love, love for individual people, is not regarded as valuable by Isaac. Such love binds the ascetic to the world.

This includes close family.18 The ascetics should, like Abraham, leave their friends, their country, their families and people, and live in a strange land.19 The ascetic is a stranger in this world.20 To have contact with other humans is for the solitary like when frost destroys the crop in spring.21 The world hinders a person from true love of mankind in this general sense. ‘It is impossible for those who love this world to acquire love for humans.’22

(p.98) The importance of this principle to Isaac is underlined by the fact that the only clearly personal text we have from him is a letter to his brother in which Isaac refuses to see him. This text gives a different picture of Isaac; here he is not the strong and calm mystic who speaks in the other texts, but a weak person:

We are not strong as you suppose, O blessed one, and in case you would persuade me in my weakness, you could easily bring about my destruction. You are constantly asking this of me, because your nature all the time picks up this thought that is burning in you. You are not showing consideration for the matter, and you do not feel that such consideration is needed, even if you see that we are struggling. Do not ask of me, my brother, that which gives comfort to the body and the mind, but help me instead to seek the salvation of my soul. In a short time we will have passed away from this world.

How many persons would I have to meet and how many different kinds of people and places would I have to see before I returned to my place? What kinds of thoughts would my soul have to receive and how would it be disturbed by the passions that would be awakened in it, after it has been left in peace by them a little. These things are not hidden from you. You know that the sight of laypeople injures the solitary—not only the sight of women, but men also.23

This text suggests that Isaac's strong disapproval of contact with other humans may have personal reasons, and here the biographic detail of Isaac's short term as a bishop might be relevant. However, the ascetics of Syria generally seem to have lived in fairly close contact with laypeople. They obviously depended on them for food, and the ascetics actually exercised considerable influence in these societies. Isaac's strong feelings on this subject might be read as an attempt to keep the ascetic lifestyle pure.24 It is also interesting that Isaac does not renounce the world because of the bad people that live there—murderers, prostitutes, and so forth—but merely because they are people. In fact, he stresses that even contact with people for good reasons are bad for the solitary.25 It seems that what Isaac is renouncing is contact with society as a whole, which leads into the next use of the word world that is found in his texts.

4.3. The World as Politics and Power Relationships

Isaac uses clearly political language to describe the world in a few different texts. Considering that he lived in a time and place of tremendous political activity—the (p.99) emergence of Islam—it is rather striking that he never comments on the actual society he grew up and lived in.26 However, even if he is far from specific in his texts, the tendency is clear enough. For instance, Isaac describes the past generations of people that have lived in the world: ‘Some of them kings, some governors, some wise, some honoured. Some of them scribes, some orators, some judges, some commanders of armies, some of them possessors of riches, some lords of goods.’27 All of those mentioned are persons in power. The point in this text is that after death none of this remains, but it is significant that Isaac singles out powerful positions as the main attribute of the transient world. Isaac is not the first in the ascetic tradition to find worldly power problematic, John of Apamea also contrasts worldly leaders with the genuine lordship of Jesus Christ.28 Isaac seems to be much more concerned with this, though, and this becomes clear both in his mysticism (Chapter 7) and his eschatology (Chapter 8).

This world is often contrasted with the coming world, and the descriptions of the next world are very revealing as to how Isaac sees this world:

Up to this mystery [the contemplation of God] there are teachers and disciples, there are greater and smaller, there are the great and the mediocre. However, in the perception of grace this knowledge is equal, there is no ascent and descent in it. Then it will not be so that some will know and feel less while others will learn more or be more illuminated! Rather, all will have the complete fullness, without lacking, the complete perfection without increase or decrease. And there will be no great and no small, as it is with other revelations, but all will be raised up to the same level of perfection without variance or change. There will be no rich and no poor, no givers and no receivers.29

In the coming world there are no differences based on power (and this can be experienced already in this world by grace). This feature of Isaac's thought is all the more striking since it seems to depart from the mainstream of the early church.30 The thinkers of the early church tended to see the hierarchy of the church as an image of the hierarchy in the coming world where everyone would have their set place. The most famous example of this is Dionysios the Areopagite,31 but it is found in many other writers (p.100) as well.32 Both Theodore and Isaac believe that this world is a preparation for the coming world, and that the coming world can be present already here to the believer. For Theodore, this is the role of the church. This means that for him the hierarchy of the church is a type of the hierarchy of the angels in heaven.33 This means that, for Theodore, the existence of different levels and hierarchies is not a feature of this world that will cease to exist in the coming world.

John of Apamea, too, is very interested in hierarchies, but he does not connect the hierarchy of the angels with the church in any way. He sees the existence of a hierarchy in creation, in which angels, humans, and animals have their given place, as a witness to the glory of the Creator. John, like many other writers, identifies the future world with the present world of the angels. The future already exists on a different plane. This means that his descriptions of the future world are very much concerned with the angels.34 He is especially interested in describing the different ranks of angels, placing the three classes of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Angels on different levels. He does not, however, go as far as Dionysios the Areopagite with his nine classes of celestial beings.

One could expect this cosmic hierarchy to be understood as a reflection of the way the world of human beings works, with some people having power over others. In fact the opposite is true, according to John. The revelation of this cosmic hierarchy through Christ exposed the ‘false authority and when the Leader of leaders appeared, he put all false leaders to shame’.35 John laments the people that have ‘destroyed the order of freedom and elevated themselves against each other’,36 and connects this tendency to strive for power over other people with the power sin has over us. There is a strong democratic, or rather, anarchistic ethos in this teaching. By his cross, Christ has cancelled all antagonism, all lies and animosity that mark human authority, and established a sign of his peace.37 However, it seems that this democratic tendency does not carry over into the eschatology. Though John often likens spiritual life to the life of the angels, there is no vision of equality between all beings in the future world. Rather, John's ideal is that every being is found in its proper place in the cosmic hierarchy. For humans, that means to orientate themselves towards the spiritual, (p.101) and not, so to speak, sink down into the animal realm, by living in a bodily manner.38

Isaac speaks in one text in particular of the different classes of angels, of how the lower angels receive knowledge from the higher ones.39 However, unlike John of Apamea, for Isaac this is something that is true only of this world. In the coming world angels and humans alike will have direct contact with God: ‘For then one will not receive the revelation of God's glory…from his friend, but it will be given everyone directly in accordance to the measure of his virtue, as the Lord of the Universe deems worthy. One will not receive the gift through one's friend, as is the case here.’40

Hence, for Isaac, in the coming world the rational minds will, so to speak, be placed at various distances to God, but there will be no hierarchies, and no one will be placed above any other. Unlike Theodore and John, Isaac does see relationships based on difference in power as an aspect of this world that will change in the future world, and consequently, he sees the existence of such relationships in this world as problematical.

Still, what has the politics of the world to do with the solitary? A considerable amount, it seems. Peter Brown has described the role of the ascetic in Syrian society in his important essay ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’.41 Unlike the Egyptian ascetics, who lived (more or less)42 literally in the desert, far away from ordinary society, the Syrian ascetics (p.102) usually lived rather close to towns and villages.43 They separated themselves from society not so much by distance as by lifestyle: this is why Syrian asceticism tends to be much more radical and spectacular than the Egyptian equivalent.44 Since the Syrian ascetics did not disappear into the wilderness, but stayed within reach of ordinary people in the towns and villages, they came to play an important role in society, precisely by living outside it. During the period when the ‘holy men’ became an important part of society, the traditional aristocratic landowner tended less and less to live in the countryside. This caused a deficit of patrons, powerful persons who could play the role of objective judges in local conflicts, and who had contacts with the state administration in cities. This deficit, Brown argues, was filled by the holy men.45 While ordinary patrons based their power on riches and good connections, the holy man proved his power through miracles.46 However, the real foundation of the power of the holy man is his position as an outsider, a stranger, and as such completely objective. Standing outside the ties of society and family, the holy man was thought to have no economic interests of his own. This meant he could be trusted. Here the holy men took over the role of oracles in pagan society.47 To be able to act as such an outsider the ascetic had to signal his ‘strangerness’ by otherworldly feats of asceticism.

These holy men did not only take on the role of mediators between the villages and the cities48 (the traditional position of the patron), but they became advisers in all areas of life, able to give counsel in questions of physical and spiritual health. They often took on the duties reserved for the hierarchy, such as hearing confessions.49 The holy men, then, were not only mediators (p.103) between the powerless and the powerful in this world, but also between this world and the celestial one.50

Brown is primarily describing life in the Roman part of Syria, while Isaac lived on the eastern side of the border, but is seems the same pattern was found in that area as well. While Brown is relying on sources written by non‐ascetics, and thus gives a picture of how the ascetics were viewed in society by those who did not themselves live an ascetic life, in Isaac's texts we acquire the other side of the picture. And interestingly enough, we see a very similar image emerging, although it is Isaac's attitude that is striking:

There are in fact many who have started with work and the poverty and the mortification in the forms that are allowed, with the constant prayer and tears, many prostrations and a humble life devoid of passions, staying by themselves for long times and making themselves into strangers among men, and all the things I have mentioned, but they have ended up in comfort, in fame, in trading with the rich and with judges, [being] councillors and mediators of great affairs, some on account of the brotherhood, some on account of the worldly. They have allowed themselves to see and become advisers of women, their cells have become places of business and gathering‐places of villagers…and they have ended their life of observance.51

Isaac represents an ethos that views the ordinary role of the ascetics, as Brown describes it, as a distortion of the ascetic ideal, as a great temptation for the hermit. For him, to uphold contact with the people of the world and act as a patron or adviser would be to betray his calling. Therefore, we see here a very different ascetic ideal than the one held by churchmen such as Athanasios of Alexandria,52 Theodoret of Cyrrhus,53 John of Ephesos,54 and all who, in one way or another, envision a place for the ascetic in quite close contact with laypeople. Evagrios, too, while being much more ‘social’ than Isaac, nowhere recommends contact with laypeople. So it seems that Isaac belongs to or wants to belong to a kind of ascetic elite that is trying to uphold some ascetic (p.104) ideal that most people in the wider ascetic movement were not able to live by.55 This perspective is important to the interpretation of what Isaac writes about the world: he is speaking to fellow ascetics whom he wants to urge not to fulfil even the role society expects them to fulfil as ascetics. In other words, when encouraging his readers to beware of the world, he is not only urging them to take up a life as an ascetic and renounce ordinary life in society, he wants them to renounce even the common opinion of how an ascetic should live.

Isaac advocates a complete separation from society, especially all forms of relationships based on power (he often says that one gets ‘entangled’ in the world),56 and for the ascetic to assume a positions of power, even within the monastic community, is obviously regarded as suspicious.

4.4. The World as Luxuries

The world, although not as often as the above aspects, sometimes signifies the luxury and vainglory of the rich in society, and more significantly, the longing to obtain these. These things include ‘delicious and fat food’,57 possessions and luxury,58 finery.59 These are considered to be the opposite of everything that leads to spiritual life: ‘It is not possible for one who loves elegance to acquire a humble mind. The heart within and the habits without necessarily must be parallel to each other. Who could be able to acquire chastity of mind when he is addicted to luxury? And who could acquire humble inward thoughts, when he is pursuing outward glory?’60

This teaching is traditional, and in a sense presupposed in all ascetic theory. It is not something Isaac would have reason to dwell on at length.

(p.105) 4.5. The World as Passions and Temptations

As already mentioned above, there are two main categories of uses of the term ‘world’ in Isaac's writings. So far it is the social aspects that have been dealt with, but when I now continue with the more religious uses of the word it is important to remember that these two aspects are not separated from each other completely. There is a transfer of meaning from the one domain to the other, so that the religious use of the term acquires relevance from the social domain and the social use acquires significance from the religious.

Religiously speaking, the world is everything that opposes or is irrelevant to the pursuit of spiritual life. The religious use of the term can be subdivided into two categories: the world as temptations, and the world as a training ground for souls. These categories are not complementary, but they are two different ways of looking at the world.

Isaac occasionally uses, the world as a sort of technical term. He gives a definition:

The world is, according to contemplative inquiry, to be a common name for some special passions. When we want to speak of these passions together we call them world, but when we want to speak of them separately we call them passions. These passions are part of the normal running of the world, and where they cease the world stops in its normal path. They are: love of riches, gathering of possessions, fatness of body giving rise to the tendency towards carnal desire, love of honour which is the source of envy, exercising authority, pride and pomp in power, elegance, human glory which is the cause of animosity, bodily fear.61

The fact that Isaac here seems to give a clear definition of what he means by the term ‘world’ has led some scholars to overlook the problem that this definition simply is not appropriate for most cases when Isaac uses the word, and thus to propose that the world for Isaac is not to be equated with society.62 What Isaac is doing with this definition is actually pointing out the connection between the passions and society. This connection is already found in Evagrios, especially in the descriptions of the passions in the Praktikos,63 but it is much more explicit in Isaac's writings, especially in the above definition. Isaac says: ‘Where they cease the world stops in its normal path.’ These passions are identified by Isaac as central to the working of society. By separating themselves from the world, the ascetics create (p.106) ‘lacunas’ in the world, isolated areas where the world has stopped.64 Thisdefinition is very interesting because it places the world inside the person. The passions he enumerates are also called bodily by Isaac, which shows that here the two concepts, body and world, overlap.

There is a modified version of this definition: ‘World I call the passions that are born from distraction.’65 Here again the contact between that which is outside the person and that which is inside is emphasized. World is the passions inside humans that are awakened by that which is outside them. Without outside influence that which is inside the soul will not amount to evil things. It is when the natural passions of the soul are fed from without (which does not necessarily mean actual contact with other people; it can also be memories and fantasies) that the soul is defeated by the passions.66 So here the world is like the dreaded ‘bad influence’ of teenage parents, the negative input that destroys that which is innocent and good in itself. The most common example given by Isaac for such temptations from without is the sight of a woman.67

Isaac's definition of the world as passions can be read as a kind of theory about the ‘limits’ of the person and about how that which is outside a person interacts with that which is inside.

4.6. The World as School and Training Ground

As should be clear from the examination conducted above, the world to Isaac is a very negative concept. The only way to live a spiritual life is to flee from it as completely as is possible. The world is evil, corrupt, distracting, and tempting. Even the advanced ascetic can fall prey to its claws.

Isaac does, however, use the term ‘world’ in a different way as well. In all the above uses, world is essentially a symbol for society. Isaac also uses the term in a wider meaning, as God's creation as a whole. However, this is not a completely separate way to talk about the world. All the connotations mentioned above still hold true, but the outlook is different. The world is there for a purpose. It is, after all, God's creation, and nothing that God creates is in truth evil:

If God is truly father, he who has created everything out of grace; if the rational beings are sons, and this world is a sort of school, in which he instructs them in knowledge in (p.107) their youths, and if the future world is their heritage, and there is a time when the young become adults, then the Father will certainly change also the instruction into joy in the world of the adults, even if the young are in need of being corrected.68

The purpose of the hardships of this world is to make the humans ready for the coming world. Isaac also uses the image of the arena, where humans are to learn perseverance.69 We are to learn to live as ‘a ship that is ready for sea’.70 By staying away from the world, the ascetic already here gains an understanding of the future world.71 This idea is based on Theodore of Mopsuestia and his doctrine of the Two Ages, the two καταστάσεις, which is the foundation of Theodore's theological thinking.72 This doctrine forms the basis on which Theodore's view of man's destiny and of creation is built. This age, the present one, is marked by mortality, mutability, and sin, while in the coming age such things will be no more. This ‘historical dualism’ is, according to Norris, ‘Theodore's alternative for the metaphysical dualism of the platonic tradition’.73 Instead of a ‘vertical’ division of existence into two levels, the material world and the world of forms, Theodore's ‘horizontal’ kind of dualism guarantees man's involvement in creation, and makes a complete rejection of the material world impossible. The doctrine of the Two Ages is the historical equivalent of Theodore's Christological dyophysitism. The same tendency is present—the desire to, at all times, keep a sharp distinction between Creator and creation, between God and man.74

This division of history into two parts is part of God's eternal plan for creation. In Theodore's understanding of the world, the present order of things is not an accident, an unforeseen consequence of man's disobedience towards the Creator. It was God's will and plan that we should first experience life in this world, before we would be transported into the next one.75

The present age is characterized by mortality and corruptibility. In this age sin is something more or less unavoidable for human beings, adjoined as they (p.108) are to mortal bodies.76 However, this does not mean that the existence of humans in this age is tragic. Human beings are placed into this world for their own good. Temporal life is part of a process of upbringing and of learning that man has to go through in order to be able to enter eternal life.77 The foundation of God's saving work is his Providence, and this Providence is not present only in his help, in blessings, and in support, but equally in temptations and in punishments. All these acts of Providence are part of the παιδεα, the process of man's moral upbringing.78 Theodore does not understand salvation so much in terms of deification; the development that takes place is not an ontological one, but a moral one.79 The goal of human existence is to choose to do what is good. Man is not to develop into the likeness of God; it is the likeness of the ‘assumed man’ that is the goal. Here Theodore's Christological dyophysitism enters into the picture. The ‘assumed man’ is the human nature of Christ, the human ‘part’ that acts in complete unity with the divine Logos, but remains a separate nature. In the same way, humans are to reach such a unity with God's will, which for humans essentially is a moral one.80 The pedagogical acts of God have the aim of making this possible.81 However, even if this understanding sees life as a steady evolutionary process towards the good, there is a pessimistic strain in it. The goal is not attainable in this age, only in the coming one will man reach complete freedom of choice.82

As I have already mentioned, Theodore strives to keep the separation between the divine and the created clear. However, in the same way that Christ is, though two distinct natures, still one πρόσωπον, there exists a certain form of relationship between this age and the coming one. This is the raison d'être of the Christian church. The Christians live their lives, so to speak, between the Two Ages, they live in this age for practical and pedagogical reasons but in reality they belong to the coming world.83 The church as a whole is a type of the future world. Through baptism the believer becomes part of the community of the church, the Body of Christ, and in this way a part of the future world.84

This theology forms the foundations of Isaac's asceticism. For Isaac too, what separates this world from the coming world is that this world is mutable, (p.109) transient. While this is usually—as for Theodore of Mopsuestia—an example of its weakness compared to the coming perfection, Isaac points out that it is precisely this feature of this world that makes it possible to learn and change, and thus makes asceticism meaningful:

Dealings in this world resemble a copy of a book that is still in rough draft. Whenever someone wants to, something can be added or removed, and so it is possible to alter the writing.…As long as we are in a place where altering is possible, let us observe ourselves; and while we still have authority over our book of life, and it is still in our hands, let us zealously add beautiful behaviour to it, and strike out from it the old behaviour which was without freedom. We are allowed to strike out our faults as long as we are here, and God will take into account every alteration we make.85

This understanding of the world is the foundation of Isaac's asceticism, and without it everything else loses its meaning. The understanding of the world as a school or a training ground is important in the East Syrian tradition,86 and Isaac is here probably influenced by both Theodore of Mopsuestia and Evagrios, in spite of the latter's cosmology being completely different from Isaac's (and Theodore's). Isaac does put the emphasis a little differently, though. For Theodore, the goal of the process of training is freedom to do what is morally right. The process that a person is to undergo is one of acquiring greater freedom of choice.87 For Evagrios, the goal is to free the nous from the influences of soul and body. Isaac, too, talks of freedom, as in the quote above, but for Isaac the separation from society is much more important. This is his ascetic programme; only in this way can a person achieve freedom. This means that the actual content of the pedagogical process is different. For Theodore, the most important aids would be connected to the church and the sacraments. For Evagrios, the different introspective techniques for battling the passions inside are the most central. For Isaac, it is the ascetic techniques, such as fasting and vigils, that are important, and the purpose is to overcome the world.

4.7. Conclusions: World as the World‐view of Society

The discussion in this chapter has shown the many facets of Isaac's use of the term ‘world’. The world, for Isaac, is a symbol that can point towards all things (p.110) that distract ascetics from their true calling, especially by making them focus on single persons rather than humanity as a whole, by engaging in the political workings of society, and by making them long for material goods and thus forfeit their humility. So understood, the world is a common name for temptations that trigger the aspects of the ascetic's personality that are called the passions, and especially the passions that are central to the workings of society.

We can thus conclude that the world is a symbol for society, but it is a symbol for a particular understanding of society. The New Testament teaching on the world as something that is ruled by evil (1 John 5:19) and which Christians are to avoid (James 1:27) in Isaac's thinking becomes a critique of the very way society is constructed, as a system that exploits the passions in humans, the very aspects of human nature that the ascetic tries to overcome. This criticism of society is the core of the ascetic world‐view that the hermit tries to grasp. The explicit critique of the world‐view of society, where one is living ‘in the world’ or ‘in a bodily way’ contained in the way Isaac uses the concept of the world, is implicitly present throughout his discussion on ascetic life. Isaac envisions the world as a place (or rather, a social context) where it is impossible to be genuine, and this is the reason why separation from the world is a central theme throughout his writings.

Nonetheless, the world is God's creation, and ultimately it is not useful for the ascetic to view the world as an enemy of man, but as a trial. When Isaac calls the world a school, he is using the word in a somewhat wider sense, but not in a completely different one. God has created the world for the purpose of man's upbringing, but this is in the sense of a child growing up who will have to be corrected in ways, the purpose of which the child cannot understand. When Isaac calls the world a school, it is still in the sense that it is something the individual has to fight, but he addresses the purpose of this fight.

The view of society that becomes visible in the way Isaac uses the term ‘world’ will be of importance when trying to understand the rationale behind his asceticism, and we will see these themes reoccurring in the coming chapters. When exploring different aspects of Isaac's asceticism I will focus on the two terms considered in this and the preceding chapter, body and world. As this discussion has already shown, the two terms are closely linked, especially in the concept of the passions, but there are also important differences. The discussion in the following four chapters will, from various angles, explore the relationship between these two terms.

The view of society that Isaac gives voice to forms part of the context in which these texts have been written, read, and appreciated. Can we say something more that makes this view more graspable? Perhaps a small and (p.111) controlled amount of speculation may be illuminating, and serve to help us see Isaac's point of view. It seems that Isaac is someone who has become thoroughly disillusioned with the way society functions, and has found in the ascetic life a way to handle this experience. There seems to be a substantial element of revolt in his decision to take up his chosen way of life. This would connect Isaac with other people throughout history who have shared his counter‐cultural sentiments, right down to today's critics of the global market and the lack of democracy in political institutions, local, national, and global. The actual problems in society may have changed, but the experience is shared.


(1) PR II, 17–18.

(2) aSeppälä (2005: 56–7terre(Bettiolo 1990: 329–30)

(3) PG 86. 811–86.

(4) Besides Uses of the Term ‘The World’ which occurs very frequently, especially in the form Uses of the Term ‘The World’ ‘this world’, Isaac sometimes uses Uses of the Term ‘The World’ and derivatives (e.g. Uses of the Term ‘The World’ ‘earthly’, PR LI, 373) in much the same meaning.

(5) DS IV, 51.

(6) DS I, 28.

(7) PR XVIII, 147.

(8) PR XLVI, 332.

(9) PR LXXIV, 515.

(10) Ibid. 515.

(11) It is clear already from the existence of these texts that Isaac did have contact with some disciples, at least in his old age. It is, however, interesting to compare this attitude of Isaac with that of Evagrios. While Evagrios too was cautious when it came to contact with lay people (see his Foundations 5), he encouraged contact between ascetics to a degree that Isaac does not. There is no counterpart to Evagrios, manual for spiritual guidance, Gnostikos, in Isaac's writings. The causes for this difference might be found in the style of Syrian monasticism, but it could as well be attributable to the personalities of the two writers.

(12) Isaac is here in essential agreement with John of Apamea. John distinguishes between the love that bodily, psychic, and spiritual people have. The love bodily people have is not stable, John explains, because it is directed at objects that are subject to change. When the person one loves changes, so does the love. Love of bodily people is motivated by beauty, riches, and power, things that perish. Psychic people are motivated to love because of what is right, but they still love particular things or persons. They may believe they love humans because of God, but they have not yet reached such love, John says. True love, the love of the spiritual person, is not motivated by any object, but by knowledge. Only love motivated by knowledge can be perfect, and such a person loves both God and all men completely. Dedering 1936: 19–20.

(13) Alfeyev : 74.

(14) Uses of the Term ‘The World’, SP X, 34, 35.

(15) ibid. 35.

(16) ibid. 36.

(17) Alfeyev 2000: 75.

(18) The negative attitude towards contact with family members is well attested in the Syriac ascetic tradition. AbouZayd (1993: 192–4) quotes several witnesses to this tradition of leaving home and family.

(19) DS I, 85.

(20) TP VI, 52.

(21) PR XVI, 132.

(22) PR LXXIV, 511.

(23) PR XLII, 313–14.

(24) See below, sec. 4.3.

(25) PR XVI, 132.

(26) Of course, it is possible that such passages were pruned by later copyists.

(27) PR XXXV, 228.

(28) Strotmann 1972: 180.

(29) DS III, 57. See also Ch. 8.2.

(30) This idea was not unheard of in the East Syrian Church. Babai the Great, in his commentary on Evagrios' Kephalaia Gnostica (III, 51), comments that: ‘All superiority and rule will end and only the one Divinity will rule, and all will bow down under the Knowledge of Christ and God will be all in all.’

(31) Dionysios the Areopagite, On the Celestial Hierarchies.

(32) The first Christian writer to express this idea is probably Clement of Alexandria in Stromateis, 6. 13–14. According to him, humans will be placed at different levels based on the level of knowledge of God they have achieved in this world. Daley 1986 : 121.

(33) Bruns 1995 : 368.

(34) Strotmann 1972: 75.

(35) ibid. 180.

(36) ibid. 183.

(37) ibid. 188.

(38) ibid.

(39) PR XXVII, 197–200.

(40) ibid. 201.

(41) Brown 1982: 103–52. Brown has since revisited the theme of the ‘holy man’ several times: Brown 1987 b; 1995), See also Journal of Early Christian Studies, 3 (1998), an issue devoted to Brown's ‘Holy Man’.

(42) Brown's view of Egyptian asceticism has been criticized by Goehring, who convincingly argues that there was in fact a continuum of ascetic ways of life in Egypt that ranged from ascetics living in the city to those living in the actual desert, and that the emphasis lay on the former category. The notion of the desert as the primary location of ascetics would be mostly a literary creation. Goehring 1999: esp. 40–52, 73–88; 2005. Archaeological evidence also suggests that ascetics were often fairly closely connected to the society (E. Clark 1999: 36). According to Caner, the Egyptian desert ‘served more as an inspirational backdrop than as an actual residence for the monks who produced the desert tradition’. To be able to sustain life, ascetics had to stay within a relatively close distance to the Nile (Caner 2002: 27). This, of course, does not really affect Brown's assessment of the way Syrian asceticism functioned.

(43) Brown 1982: 111–15; Harvey 1990: 14–15. This is in part due to geography: while the desert in Egypt was a real desert where life was extremely difficult to sustain, in Syria the wilderness was not that different from the inhabited land. Since the Syrian lands lay in the disputed area around the border between the Roman and Persian empires, it was necessary to stay in the vicinity of fortified towns and villages.

(44) Brown 1982: 131.

(45) ibid. 120.

(46) ibid. 121.

ibid. 121–2

(47) ibid. 134.

(48) ibid. 120–1;Kawerau 1983: 150

(49) Brown 1982: 141.

(50) ibid. 136.

(51) DS II, 97.

(52) Although the accuracy of Athansios, description of the life of Antony the Great is still being discussed among scholars, it is clear that Athansios had a clear political agenda of bringing the ascetic movement closer to the church he represented that probably is reflected in his Vita, and that Vita Antonii became the model of how the church described the lives of the ascetics. See Brakke 1995: esp. 201–65; Rubenson 1995; Kannengiesser 1998.

(53) For a overview of Theodoret's life and thinking, see Pásztori‐Kupán 2006: 1–80.

(54) We find in John the (among church leaders) popular notion that life as an anchorite was a preparation for later public life as a holy man with a clear role in the community (Harvey 1990: 47). According to Harvey, ‘John's Lives [of the Eastern Saints] is charged with politics: the affairs of the empire as inescapable; responses to them are mandatory’ (ibid. 55).

(55) Of course, in the wider history of asceticism the ideals of the church soon fed back into the monasteries, since the histories and vitas of the early ascetics became such a popular reading among ascetics, thus reducing the tension between desert and city. Already Evagrios read the Vita Antonii and was influenced by it (Brakke 2006: 65). According to Goehring (1999: 5), ‘the success of the Vita created a dialectical relationship between literary production and ascetic practice’. At the same time, the ideal of the ‘monk‐bishop’ gained wider acceptance, as monks were, sometimes even against their will, consecrated to the episcopate (Brakke 1995: 99–110; Sterk 2004). For more on the relationships between monks and bishops, see Hevelone‐Harper 2006.

(56) E.g. PR XXXV, 227.

(57) PR LXII, 432.

(58) PR V, 78.

(59) PR LXXIV, 515.

(60) PR IV, 44.

(61) PR II, 18–19.

(62) E.g. Seppälä 2005: 56–7.

(63) Evagrios, Praktikos, 7–14.

(64) PR II, 19.

(65) PR XLVI, 332.

(66) PR XXXVIII, 294.

(67) E.g. PR XXXVI, 277; XXXVII, 286–7; TP XII, 9,

(68) DS III, 71.

(69) PR LXXIII, 506. On ascetics as athletes, see Brown 1982: 138; Flood 2004: 216–18.

(70) PR LXII, 437.

(71) TP I, 14.

(72) Devreesse 1948: 89; Gross 1953: 4; de Vries 1958: 309; Vööbus 1964: 119.

(73) Norris 1963: 160. The doctrine of the Two Ages is prefigured in the Jewish apocalyptic writings (e.g. 4 Esra). According to Bruns, Theodore's thinking is not simply a new version of the Jewish apocalyptic dualism, but rather a doctrine with very complex roots (Bruns 1995: 385). The influence of contemporary philosophy is still significant (Norris 1963: 164). On Jewish apocalyptic literature, see Schreiner 1986: 32–43.

(74) Daley 1986: 175; Bruns 1995: 384.

(75) Norris 1963: 161. Original sin, therefore, has little importance in Theodore's system. See Gross 1953. Norris 1963: 173–89; Vööbus 1964; McLeod 2005: 62–5.

(76) Norris 1963: 164.

(77) McLeod 2005: 65.

(78) Sprenger 1977: 140–1.

(79) Norris 1963: 169; Daley 1986: 176.

(80) Norris 1963: 146. The Christology of Theodore has obviously attracted a lot of interest. Some recent studies are McLeod 1999; 2000. See these for more references to the debate on Theodore's Christology.

(81) Norris 1963: 166.

(82) ibid. 168Bruns 1995: 386

(83) de Vries 1958: 315–16.

(84) Bruns 1995: 296.

(85) PR LXII, 436.

(86) For an overview of the role of school‐based imagery in the Syriac tradition, see Becker 2006: 23–31.

(87) Norris 1963: 165.