St. Jerome. Giovanni Bellini, 1505

BEGINNING in the early twentieth century, long-lost texts by Saint Evagrius Ponticus began to resurface, sometimes in fragments, sometimes as complete works preserved in translation by churches that revered him as a saint and mystic. This modern expansion of Evagrius’ corpus has sparked vigorous debate concerning his influence in the Christian East and West.

ALTHOUGH Evagrius was condemned as an Origenist in the seventh century, his influence on later spiritual writers was always known to be considerable. In the West this influence was primarily indirect through the Institutes and Conferences of John Cassian,[1] although Evagrius’ own verses for monks and nuns were known in Latin translation, and were widely read during the middle ages.[2] In the East a few of his writings survived under his own name in Greek:[3] a larger number were attributed to orthodox authors and enjoyed continuous popularity;[4] others survive only in Syriac, Coptic or Armenian translation; and still others have perished.[5] His vocabulary and insights are found in the writings of his disciple Palladius as well as later authors such as (Pseudo-) Dionysius the Aereopagite and Maximus Confessor.

CONTROVERSY concerning Evagrius’ influence is broad ranging and often heated.  Was he a speculative and orthodox ascetic, faithful to the teachings of his own spiritual masters, Basil and Gregory Nazianzen? Or did Evagrius push some of Origen’s more speculative doctrines to absurd extremes? The answers proposed by different theologians and scholars depend largely on their respective vantage points.  As Michael O’Laughlin has pointed out,[6] throughout history those who consider Evagrius’ ascetical treatises such as the Praktikos, Peri Logismon, and Antirrhetikos to represent the core of his theology have often regard Evagrius as an orthodox spiritual master who assimilated and expressed the best traditions of the Desert Fathers.  Others who consider Evagrius’ Kephalaia Gnostica and the Letter to Melania to represent the clearest expression of his mature thought have portrayed him as a speculative, esoteric theologian who cloaked controversial doctrines in an enigmatic style, aware that stating them plainly would be dangerous.

[1] The details of Cassian’s relationship with Evagrius remain obscure: Cassian never mentions Evagrius by name, although it is likely that Evagrius is the subject of Conference 5.32 (C. Stewart, Cassian the Monk, Ox.U.Pr., 1988), p. 11 and p. 149, n. 101). Whether or not he was formally Evagrius’ disciple in the Egyptian desert, it is clear that Cassian was very familiar with Evagrius’ teachings: ‘Evagrius was the single most important influence on Cassian’s monastic theology’ (Cassian the Monk, p. 11). The most complete study to date of Cassian’s dependence on Evagrius is S. Marsili, Giovanni Cassiano ed Evagrio Pontico, Dottrina sulla Carità e Contemplazione (Scriptorium 5, 1951, pp. 195-213.). However, only fragments of Evagrius’ exegetical texts were available when Marsili wrote: a comparison of Evagrius with Cassian with regard to the use and interpretation of biblical wisdom literature would undoubtedly demonstrate even greater dependence.

[2] The Ad monachos was especially well-known and has a rich manuscript tradition: J. Leclerq, ‘L’ancienne version latine des Sentences d’Évagre pour les moines’, pp. 195-213.

[3] e.g. The Praktikos, the Rerum monachalium rationes, and brief collections of gnomic sentences, including the Ad monachos and Ad virgines.

[4] Evagrius’ De oratione was attributed to Nilus; his Epistula fidei or Letter on the Trinity survives as Basil’s Letter 8; the Scholia on Psalms and on Proverbs are mixed with Origen’s commentaries; and other scholia including those on Genesis, Numbers, Kings, and Job are scattered throughout the exegetical chains, variously attributed, often to Origen.

[5] Only scattered fragments remain of Evagrius’ commentary on the Song of Songs.

[6] Michael O’Laughlin, ‘New Questions Concerning the Origenism of Evagrius’, pp. 528-534.


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