This is the second edition of Philip Rousseau’s insightful book, which was published in 1978. Ascetics, Authority, and the Church uses patristic scholarship and close textual readings to trace the development of Christian asceticism, from its roots among the hermits of the East in the fourth century to its presence throughout the Western church in the fifth century, by means of careful studies of Jerome, Martin of Tours, and John Cassian.
Ascetics shows how desert asceticism changed over time, exemplified by the lives of isolated hermits and then by cenobites in communities. Authority in ascetic communities became more formal, as the spiritual gifts of an ascetic master often proved inadequate to the practical governance of a large group of disciples. Focusing on Cassian’s writings, Rousseau observes that western ascetics in the fifth century were less reliant on individual holy men for guidance and more dependent on the authority of the community’s traditions. By the fifth century, spiritual texts had taken on part of the role originally occupied by the holy hermetic master.
Over time, distinctions between the ascetic life and the life of Christians in the world began to blur. As the ascetic life demanded more formal governance and textual interpretation, Christians in secular society began to find ways to live “in exile” in the world. The spiritual journeys of bishops, many of whom came to the episcopate from a cenobitic life, illustrated a blending of the traditional ascetic life and the more secular “cursus honorum” of the priest in the world.
Rousseau’s second edition contains a new introduction and an updated bibliography. Rousseau provides a useful overview of the work of other scholars since the original publication of his Ascetics, noting contextualized studies of episcopacy, Egyptian studies, and the Origenist controversy, as well as important studies of Pachomius, Jerome, and Cassian. Studies of the fourth century today provide a fuller context for his Ascetics, says Rousseau, and scholarly approaches emphasize “a textual view” of that world—a view to which his original Ascetics already pointed more than thirty years ago. This second edition will be of interest to church historians and ecclesiologists. For those concerned with the development of the roles of the priesthood, episcopacy, and laity in Christian life, Rousseau’s work provides a careful, contextualized look at a crucial moment in history.