Evagrius Ponticus

PONTICUS (345-399)

monk and writer with Origenist views. The life of is known from the chapter that PALLADIUS devoted to him in his Historia lausiaca (chap. 38). He was born about 345 at Ibora, in the province of Pontus. In his youth he was a of the two Cappadocian fathers, BASIL OF CAESAREA and especially GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS. Ordained deacon by the latter, he accompanied him to Constantinople in 381. Following an amorous adventure, he had to leave the imperial city and went to Jerusalem, where he was welcomed by Rufinus and Melania the Elder.

Melania advised him to go and lead the monastic life in Egypt, where he went around 383. After a sojourn of two years at Nitria, he established himself in the desert of the KELLIA, where he remained until his death in 399. With AMMONIUS, one of the “Tall Brothers,” he was the soul of the community of monks whom their adversaries called “Origenists,” because of their sympathy for the opinions of ORIGEN, judged heterodox. Because of his death he escaped the exile imposed on the Origenist monks after the intervention of the patriarch THEOPHILUS. But a century and a half after his death he was anathematized, at the same time as Origen and DIDYMUS, by the fifth ecumenical council assembled at Constantinople in 553.

At the Kellia he wrote numerous books, the transmission of which suffered from his condemnation in 553. Only some have been preserved in Greek, the original language, sometimes under the name of Saint Nilus; several have come down to us in Syriac versions. The books of which the Greek text has survived are especially those in which deals with the monastic ideal and with asceticism: The Foundations of the Monastic Life (PO 40); the Practical Treatise or The Monk; two collections of metrical aphorisms, one addressed To the Monks, the other To a Virgin; and the treatises To the Monk Eulogius, On Evil Thoughts, On the Eight Spirits of Malice, and On Prayer, all four edited under the name of Nilus (PG 79). A large work entitled Antirrheticos, containing a great number of scriptural quotations suitable for dispelling the evil thoughts inspired by the demons, has been preserved in Syriac.

In these books, professes to transmit the teaching he received from the Egyptian monks among whom he lived. He knew MACARIUS THE GREAT, called the Egyptian, whose he claims to be, and at the Kellia he lived near the other MACARIUS ALEXANDRINUS, who was then the priest of this desert, and in the company of monks who had been disciples of Saint PAMBO of Scetis. In his books he describes at length, with great psychological finesse, the temptations undergone by the monk at the hands of the and the remedies by which he will contrive to overcome them.

It is certain that these books owe much not only to his own personal monastic experience but also to the teaching that in the desert was transmitted orally from master to disciple, and that he was the first to put into writing. But he translated this teaching into the language and with the concepts that he owed to his great philosophical culture, and he incorporated it into a system of thought all his own.

Asceticism, which he calls praktike, has for its aim purification from the passions and what he calls by a Stoic term impassibility (apatheia). Through impassibility the monk enters into gnostike or the gnostic life: he becomes a “gnostic,” according to a term probably borrowed from CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA.

The gnostic, to whom devoted a small book entitled Gnostikos (in Syriac, Frankenberg, 1912, pp. 546-53), enjoys the spiritual contemplation of the created natures, visible and invisible, the way of approach to the knowledge of God or “theology,” to which man can only attain by passing in another world to the angelic state and thence return to his first condition before the fall, to the state of an intellect free from any corporality. Of this state the gnostic may sometimes catch a glimpse even in this life, in privileged moments of “pure prayer,” when he has the vision of his own intellect illuminated by the light of the Holy Trinity.

This metaphysical system, which owes much to Origen, is set out in esoteric language in a large work made up of six “centuries” and entitled the Kephalaia gnostika (two Syriac versions, PO 28). Several of the anti-Origenist anathematisms of 553 were extracted from this book, relating to the preexistence of souls, the plurality of the worlds, the salvation of all created beings including the demons, and above all the heterodox according to which Christ is a created intellect distinguished from the others solely by the fact that he remains united to God the Word.

In addition, an important corpus of about sixty-five letters has survived, several of them addressed to his friends in Jerusalem, Melania, Rufinus, or members of their circle (in Syriac, Frankenberg, 1912, pp. 564-635); there are also commentaries on some books (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.) in the form of scholia and resting on allegorical exegesis and some other writings of lesser importance.

Despite his heterodox doctrine and the condemnation that discouraged the memory of him, exercised a considerable influence in Christian tradition. It is through his work as much as through the APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM (which preserved several apothegms under his name) and through the books that were written under his direct influence, the Historia lausiaca of Palladius, the HISTORIA MONACHORUM IN AEGYPTO, and the Institutes and Conferences of John Cassian, that the monks of Lower Egypt, of the deserts of Nitria, Scetis, and the Kellia, and their ascetic teaching became known throughout the Christian world.

Translations of the majority of his books were made not only into Syriac but also into Armenian (Sarghisian, 1907) and Arabic. On the contrary, it seems that few were translated into Coptic. It is known, however, from the evidence of that one of them, probably the treatise On the Eight Spirits of Malice, circulated among the Coptic-speaking monks (see Muyldermans, 1932). A paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer under the name of is extant in Coptic in an catena published by P. de Lagarde (1886).


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