A member of an ascetic group arising in the second century that abstained from marriage, wine, and meat. The name “Encratite” is derived from the Greek word enkrateo (to be in control of), but it is well to distinguish at the outset between encrateia, which is the virtue of temperance, and an excess of it, which characterized certain heretics.
It seems clear that the Encratite texts were not the work of Egyptian authors, and that those of which CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, for example, speaks (see Chadwick, cols. 358-60) were foreign; likewise, the clearly Encratite documents such as those from Nag Hammadi (in particular the EXEGESIS ON THE SOUL) existed on Egyptian soil only in translations. If the need was felt to make Coptic translations, this shows that the Egyptians had been won over to such ideas. But it remains clear that they were no more than imports.
Beyond doubt, the virtue of encrateia is extolled by a number of monastic writers, but they did not by any means aspire to impose upon all what appeared to them an evangelic “counsel,” offered to the most perfect but not imposed as a condition sine qua non for baptism and hence for admission to the ranks of the Christians.
There is no lack of texts that express a pessimistic conception of the body, but it would appear that their authors addressed themselves to ascetics and wished to underline the necessity for a monk to hold in check all desires of the body, including the sexual, if he wished to be truly a “monk.” But there are also a number of writings that display an optimistic conception of the flesh: the body must be considered an instrument willed by God. Thus EVAGRIUS PONTICUS rises up against those who disparage the body, such as the Manichaeans, and in so doing blaspheme against the Creator (Kephalaia gnostika IV.60). John CASSIAN, also a foreigner, but one who no doubt handed on the teaching of the desert fathers, says in reporting the precepts of Macarius that one must behave toward one’s body as if one had to live with it for many a year. Evagrius reports the same remark, placing it on the lips of Macarius the Egyptian.
What characterizes the Egyptian texts, in contrast with those deriving from Cappadocia or Mesopotamia, is that they are very pragmatic and do not seek to give their teaching an anthropological basis, a particular conception of man and of his relations with God; hence the absence of what one might call ideological motivations (in contrast with writings from Syria or from Palestine). It is perhaps for this reason that we do not find any Encratites in Egypt except for those who had been won over to conceptions from outside.
- Chadwick, H. “Enkrateia.” In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, Vol. 5, cols. 343-65. Stuttgart, 1962.
- Coquin, R.-G. “Les Vertus (‘aretai) de l’esprit en Egypte.” In Mélanges d’histoire des religions offerts à H.-Ch. Puech, pp. 447-57. Paris, 1974.