Bulletin d'Hagiologia, Atelier belge d'études sur la sainteté
Aflevering van Hagiologia, Belgische Werkgroep voor Hagiologisch Onderzoek

5 (1999)

Publié et diffusé par les Éditions Brepols
Druk en verspreiding door de Uitgeverij Brepols
Steenweg op Tielen 68
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Danny PRAET (FWO-Belgium) : Hagiography and biography as prescriptive sources for late antique sexual morals

Séances d'Hagiologia : résumés des communications

1. Anne-Marie HELVÉTIUS (Université du Littoral, Boulogne-sur-Mer), Virgo et virago. Le pouvoir du voile consacré d'après les sources hagiographiques de la Gaule du Nord (VIe-XIe siècles).

2. Katrien HEENE (U. Gent), Lichaamsbeleving, zelfpijniging en gender in twaalfde- en dertiende-eeuwse heiligenlevens uit de Nederlanden.

3. Paul MOMMAERS (Ruusbroecgenootschap), Erotiek in de mystieke teksten uit de Nederlanden.


Conférences, congrès


Litterae Hagiologicae est édité par Hagiologia. Atelier belge d'études sur la sainteté. Belgische Werkgroep voor Hagiologisch Onderzoek

Président : Paul Bertrand (Quai Mativa, 24, Bte 14 B-4020 Liège Tél./Fax +32 (0)4 343 64 34).

Secrétariat : François De Vriendt et Michel Trigalet (Facultés universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix, Faculté de philosophie et lettres, Rue de Bruxelles, 61 B-5000 Namur - Tél. +32 (0)81 72 40 10 - Fax +32 (0)81 72 42 03 - email philo-ha@fundp.ac.be).

Comité de rédaction : Jeroen Deploige, Katrien Heene, Anne-Marie Helvétius, Xavier Hermand.

Litterae Hagiologicae est le bulletin annuel du groupe de contact Hagiologia. Hagiologia organise des conférences et des séances de travail aux fins de susciter le débat dans la recherche historique appliquée à l'hagiographie et au culte des saints. Les Litterae Hagiologicae rendent compte des activités d'Hagiologia et, plus généralement, des recherches menées par les scientifiques belges dans ces matières, mais aussi des travaux d'hagiographie étrangers relatifs à la Belgique ou qui présentent un intérêt particulier. Le comité de rédaction des Litterae Hagiologicae souhaite par ailleurs privilégier la publication d'articles qui exposent des points de vue originaux, ouvrent des voies inattendues et neuves. Il veut également offrir un espace pour les travaux de jeunes chercheurs. Les manuscrits doivent être rédigés en anglais ou en français et adressés au secrétariat ou à l'un des membres du comité de rédaction.


Danny PRAET (FWO-Belgium)

Hagiography and biography as prescriptive sources for late antique sexual morals[*]

   In an article simply entitled "What difference did Christianity make?" Ramsay MacMullen concluded that the broad patterns of secular life in the christianised Roman Empire differed only slightly from those of its pagan predecessor. In his view, Christianity almost never succeeded in bringing about (positive) changes in the common attitudes towards such things as slavery, gladiatorial shows, judicial penalties or corruption. To MacMullen, sexuality seemed to be the only field where Christianity had managed to get its message across. The only significant changes in the attitudinal patterns of the christianised inhabitants of the later Roman Empire had to do with marriage, procreation, virginity, homosexuality, sexually explicit literature, and the like.[1]

   Paul Veyne, later followed by his even more influential Collège de France colleague Michel Foucault, argued that the early Christian sexual morals were not a novum in the Roman Empire: the new religion simply adopted the morality it encountered when it first began to spread in the Greco-Roman world. Non-Christian medical writers, philosophers and even popular novelists from the first centuries of the common era already propagated highly restrictive sexual morals by only allowing a moderate amount of sexual intercourse between married partners for the purposes of procreation and excluding all other possibilities as either unethical, unhealthy or both.[2]

   Naturally, these two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive. By ascribing the changes in the late-antique attitude towards sexual issues to Christian influence, MacMullen by no means claimed that the Christian sexual morals were entirely original. One could still argue that they were strongly influenced by pagan theories but that Christianity simply had a more inclusive impact on ordinary people's thoughts and actions. The juxtaposition of MacMullen and Veyne is simply meant to illustrate some of the problems caused by a comparative approach in search for the origins of what has been called the sexual problem in the West. For what in fact should one compare when one is looking for the origins of such an evolution? And how far back in history should you go?

   The genesis of the highly influential History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault clearly illustrates these problems. Foucault started to write a history of the modern, western attitudes towards human sexuality from (roughly) the sixteenth to the twentieth century. But he soon felt forced to reconsider the entire project as announced in the introductory volume La volonté de savoir. Instead, he turned his attention away from the modern era, first to medieval Christianity, then to the patristic period, to early imperial Rome and eventually to classical Greek texts of the fourth and the fifth century BC[3]. Although the volumes were published in historically ascending order, he actually wrote them in reverse order because he gradually became aware of the fact that he could not understand the early modern situation without studying the legacy of the Middle Ages, of early Christianity, Imperial Rome and classical Athens.

   Of course, Foucault's main concern in his History of Sexuality was not with antisexuality as such. What he set out to describe was not simply when or how sexual activities had been repressed in the West. He did not deny that they had been or still were. But in his view, this repression was only a subordinate mechanism in a more fundamental historical development: the creation of that thing we call sexuality as the centre of the Western idea of the self, a multifaceted and polyinterpretable core of the individual identity that had to be known and therefore expressed to lead a healthy and morally acceptable life as an individual and a member of society. Superficial resemblances of what one could call repressive doctrine can conceal fundamental differences in the way sexuality is conceived as the centre of the individual being, and in the way society urges individuals to probe and express their sexuality, and at the same time tries to systematise and normalise their experience.

   In Foucault's view, the study of the repression of sexual activities should be undertaken as a part of this grand evolution of the construction of the self. In the Greco-Roman world asceticism in general, to a certain extent including sexual asceticism regained its etymological meaning of "shaping, embellishing rough material". Neither the Greeks nor the Romans saw sexuality as central to their being, if indeed they had such a "substantial" view of their individual identity. Sexual morality was seen as one of the means to make an artwork out of one's life. Although we will probably never be sure how exactly and to what extent, Foucault certainly thought of early Christianity as a breach in the historical evolution towards the modern sexuality-concept. It is clear that the early Christian period saw a shift in the central importance of sexuality to the individual and communal life. The ancient Christians also developed new mechanisms of power, another "governmentality" in the Foucauldian jargon, incorporating older techniques of moral scrutiny and selfdevelopment in a pastoral power that gradually downplayed the individual ascetic creative contribution.

   The esthetical component of ancient morals did not however imply a modern, and certainly not a postmodern, sense of individuality. Peter Brown had already stressed this point in an article that appeared a year before the publication of the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality.[4] In response to a commonsensical modern remark that "persons are not works of art, not pieces of literature, not paradigmatic actions" and that the application of the notion of "classic" to persons "neglects certain aspects of their lives and removes them from history", he emphasised that this was exactly what Late Antique readers were looking for in classical literature. "For the Classics, a literary tradition, existed for the sole purpose of 'making persons into classics': exposure to the classics of Greek and Latin literature was intended to produce exemplary beings, their raw humanity moulded and filed away by a double discipline, at once ethical and aesthetic."[5] People studied classical literature to learn to speak and write properly but also to think and act properly both because of the close connection between language and thought (logos), and because classical literature offered (positive and negative) role models for the life pattern of future individuals.

   It was only logical then that the ancient biographical literature was thought to serve a moral purpose. In the introduction to his Life of Alexander, Plutarch explained that he did not write (exhaustive) Histories, but Lives. His aim was to portray the moral character (èthos) of his models and "just as painters get the likeness in their portraits from the face and the expression of the eyes, wherein the character shows itself, but make very little account of the other parts of the body, so I must be permitted to devote myself rather to the signs of the soul in men, and by means of these to portray the life of each, leaving to others the description of their great contests." From this point of view it might be more revealing to include historically trivial anecdotes because "in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles where thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities."[6] Thought right through to its logical conclusion, the moral purpose of ancient biographies might even convince the authors to insert non-historical anecdotes or speeches if they thought these corresponded to what the historical individual could have said or could have done and if they thought these fabrications could illustrate his èthos more poignantly than the actual facts. As Patricia Cox remarked, in this respect, the nature of ancient biographies could come close to an ancient definition of myth as "an untruthful story depicting the truth" [7] In any case, it is clear that one of the main functions of ancient biographies was, as Plutarch expressed it, the moral improvement of their readers, because "virtuous action straightway so disposes a man that he no sooner admires the works of virtue than he strives to emulate those who wrought them."[8]

   From a modern point of view, it seemed equally logical to use biographies as sources for the study of ancient sexual morals. Strangely enough, there has been no systematic study of this material, although the numerous biographies that survived from the late antique period have the additional advantage of providing us with examples from both the pagan and the Christian moral tradition. In this case we can really compare these two traditions without the risk of gross anachronisms. Due to the convergence of philosophy and religion in Late Antiquity, the most interesting biographies for the study of late antique sexual morals are those of religious leaders and only to a lesser extent those of political leaders. The common ground between the biographies of pagan holy men like Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana or Plotinus, and Christian hagiography has been discussed far too often already, and does not need to concern us here. In this context, it seems sufficient to refer the reader to the work of Marc Van Uytfanghe who has argued for the existence of a late antique genre or subgenre of spiritual biographies by identifying a common "discours hagiographique" in both pagan and Christian biographies of Late Antiquity.[9]

   Since it is almost impossible to present the findings of a large-scale survey of this material within the limits of this article,[10] we would like to limit our focus to two of the most famous late antique biographies, the Life of Plotinus by Porphyry and the Life of Anthony by Athanasius. In both cases we will first ask ourselves the question whether these biographies did indeed present a moral ideal thought relevant to the general public. Only then will we try to establish what the sexual message of these lives was.

   The prescriptive value of Christian hagiography needs not to retain us too long. The Life of Anthony, the first full-scale biography of a Christian saint[11] took the form of a letter, addressed by Athanasius to foreign monks.[12] From the very start, the reader is confronted with the prescriptive and mimetic purposes of Christian hagiography. In the very first words of the biographical letter Athanasius congratulates these foreign monks for "the good contest" they wanted to engage in "with the monks of Egypt, setting out to equal or even surpass them in their ascetical effort to obtain virtue." (Preface, 1) For that purpose, they had asked the bishop of Alexandria "to inform them about the way of life (politeia) of the blessed Anthony, desiring to learn how he started his asceticism, who he had been in his former life, how he had ended his life and if all the stories that were told about him were true." All this they wanted to know "to be able to bring themselves to the same zeal as Anthony." Athanasius accepted the task, for his own edification and because he was convinced that the foreigners would not only admire Anthony's actions but would "also want to imitate his resolve" (Pref. 3, p. 126).

   In accordance with these questions, the Life of Anthony contained no real information about his birth, only about his conversion to the ascetical life, his spiritual rebirth so to speak. After a very brief sketch of his former life as the son of well-to-do Egyptian landowners, Athanasius presented Anthony's resolve as a direct, personal response to the Gospel-text about the rich young man who asked Jesus how he could win the eternal life (Mt. 19, 16-22). After hearing Jesus' answer ("If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions, give them to the poor, and come back to follow me. Then you will acquire a treasure in heaven.") the young man went away in a sad mood, because he had a lot of possessions. Anthony on the other hand, who had recently lost his parents, had been contemplating the way of life of the apostles (Mt 4, 20) and the description of the early Christian communal life in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 4, 35-37) on his way to church was, during lecture, hit by this very verse as a personal oracle. He went out of the church and sold his possessions to give them to the poor. (§ 2, 2-5; p. 132-134) Actually, after this first calling, he did not sell everything just yet. He set some money aside for the dowry of his sister, perhaps arguing that his possessions did not coincide with the entire inheritance. But Anthony soon obtained a second "calling", urging him not to worry about the day of tomorrow (Mt. 6, 34), so he sold the rest and left his sister in the care of some well-known Christian virgins. (§ 2, 5 - 3, 1; p. 134).

   In the first stage of his ascetical enterprise, Anthony studied the way of life of older solitaries, for instance those living near a neighbouring village, or he went to observe and learn from the way of life of other solitaries, imitating whatever virtue each ascetic excelled in.[13] Although Anthony was clearly not the first Christian solitary ascetic in Egypt, he did earn the title of father of the monks by moving to the deep desert. Athanasius told the foreign monks that Anthony had invited his old master to join him, but the latter "refused because of his age and because this was not yet customary at the time." (§ 11, 1-2; p. 164)

   The Life of Anthony thus offered a genuine cascade of imitations: Anthony imitated Christ and the first followers of Christ, the apostles and the first Christian community at Jerusalem. His way of life was the reverse of the refusal of the rich man, and his response to the Gospel calling led him to imitate ascetics already present in the neighbourhood of Egyptian villages. The Egyptian monks are said to have followed the example of their "father" Anthony and the foreign monks wanted to learn about Anthony to imitate and compete with these Egyptian ascetics. The biographical letter was explicitly presented as a means to propagate the ideal of Christian ascetical perfection, both in the introductory remarks, and in the conclusion (§ 94, p. 376) where Athanasius once again addressed the foreign monks and urged them to read the letter out to their fellow-monks and even to the pagans, to make them understand that they had been worshipping false gods and should convert to the true God.

   The Life of Anthony was soon translated into Latin, in at least two versions, and one of these translations played an important part in the diffusion of the ascetical ideal in the Christian West. From Augustine's Confessions we know that the Vita Antonii had reached Treves some time before 386, the year of Augustine's conversion to the perfect Christian life. Reconstructing this event, Augustine realised that a number of other conversion stories had sharpened his religious sensibility. The first was the conversion of the respected rhetorician and philosopher Marius Victorinus, told by Simplicianus. This story put him in flames, and made him want to imitate Victorinus' example, which was exactly the reason why Simplicianus had told the story in the first place.[14] The second episode (VIII, 6, 14-15; p. 121-123) served the same function. An ardent Christian and a fellow countryman of Augustine, called Ponticianus, saw to his surprise that the young rhetorician was reading the Pauline letters. He started telling Augustine and Alypius about Anthony the Egyptian monk, and to his big surprise neither one of them had ever heard of Anthony, nor were they aware of the fact that there was already a monastery in Milan, led by Ambrose. Ponticianus next told them an anecdote from his own personal experience, illustrating the direct impact the Life of Anthony had recently had on the life of two (other) men who had sought the favour of the emperor, two agentes in rebus stationed at Treves. During a visit to the imperial residence, Ponticianus had gone for a walk in a nearby park, with these two agents and some other people. For some reason they had lost sight of each other and the two officials happened upon a cabin where some servants of God kept a copy of the Life of Anthony. One of the agentes in rebus started reading and was so stricken by the Life that he decided to follow Anthony's example and convinced his friend and colleague to join him in the divine service. Both men were engaged to get married, and when the fiancées heard of the ascetical conversion of the men, they too decided to vow their virginity to God.

   So once again, we are confronted with a cascade of imitations, with the conversion of Augustine as the ultimate result, and the conversion of the reader of the Confessiones as the anticipated goal of the autobiography. For as the rhetorician Augustine reminded and reproached his readers, "the human race is curious to learn about someone else's life but slow in reforming their own lives".[15]

   The changes brought about in the sex lives of these Christian converts are also clear. Just as Augustine broke up with his concubines, so the agentes in rebus broke up with their women and they all chose for a life of virginity or at least chastity. This is hardly the place to comment on Augustine's struggle with and analysis of human sexuality, or to deal with the development of Christian sexual asceticism in the lives of the saints. It should be enough to remind the reader that the hallucinations in the Vita Antonii lack the predominantly sexual character they obtained in a later, mostly modern tradition.[16] Athanasius presented the struggle for chastity as a preliminary battle and as a relatively easy one. Although he mentioned that, after a while, Anthony was troubled by impure thoughts day and night, the famous scene of the nocturnal apparition of the devil as a woman, is hardly a scene at all. It is one short sentence, immediately followed by the spiritual exercises Anthony used to counter the voluptuous temptation, successfully. The following scene where the devil, "the friend of fornication", appears as a black child is not presented as a new demonic ruse, this time testing Anthony's inclination towards pederasty, but already as a sort of public admission of defeat.[17] This almost light-hearted approach to sexual temptations compared with the physical and social problems caused by "the need for food, earned by hard work" was rightly stressed by Peter Brown in his Body and society: "The titillating whispers of the 'demon of fornication', much though they appear to fascinate modern readers, seemed trivial compared with such dire obsessions."[18] We should however add that the Vita Antonii is, in this respect, not representative for the body of biographical works commemorating the ascetics of the Egyptian desert. Again, we cannot discuss this in any detail, but if we simply compare Anthony's attitude towards his sister with later examples of interactions of male ascetics with women, even with female relatives, we can only conclude that Anthony started an evolution that led to behaviour absent from his own biography. As we said earlier, Anthony effectively wrecked any marriage plans there might have been for his sister by giving away the last remains of their inheritance, and without a dowry she had to get herself "to a nunnery." But his sister seems to have adapted well to life as a virgin. During one of his rare visits to the inhabited world, Anthony was pleased to see that his sister "grown old in virginity, was now herself giving guidance to other virgins." (§ 54, 8; p. 280) Later ascetics refused all contacts with women, because even female family members could initiate a train of thought leading to other women and eventually to fornication. The anecdotes illustrating this principle are sometimes just funny (like the monk who came out of his monastery with his eyes closed because his sister had asked to see him, but he did not want to see her) and sometimes plainly neurotic (like the monk who covered his hands with his cloak before touching his mother to carry her over some water), but the principle is always the same, and was expressed by the latter ascetic: "I do this because the flesh of woman is as fire, and by touching you, I will think of another woman."[19]

   We can safely conclude that the biographies of Christian saints presented an ideal of virginity, of absolute sexual abstinence, and that they expected everyone to live according to this ideal because it was presented as the only way of life for a true follower of Christ.

   We should now turn our attention to the lives of pagan philosophers, and ask ourselves the same questions. In the case of the Life of Plotinus the question of moral or mimetic relevance is hardly redundant. Porphyry (§ 10, 14-15) wrote that "Plotinus certainly possessed by birth something more than other men."[20] He illustrated this by an anecdote about an Egyptian priest who summoned Plotinus' companion spirit and discovered that he had a god rather than a being of the spirit order as his daimon (§ 10, 21-25). Plotinus also seemed to think himself superior to at least some of the gods or daimones, because when he was invited by his pupil Amelius to attend a feast of the gods, Plotinus answered: "They ought to come to me, not I to them." (§ 10, 37-38) Readers might have been fascinated by the character and deeds of such a man, but were they really expected to model their lives as mere mortals after the example of such a superior being, of a "theios anèr"[21]? Even if we adopt the dichotomy between "theioi andres" presented as a son of god and as godlike, forwarded by Patricia Cox, the problem is not solved. Cox has argued that Plotinus is not presented as the son of a god, as was the case in some of the biographies of Pythagoras or Plato. In others words, he did not belong to a different ontological category, but it is clear that he is presented as an extraordinary, godlike man and as one who was by birth predestined to achieve the highest possible level of existence for a human being. Revelation is still one of the main functions of this biography, and the question remains whether this kind of revelation includes or excludes moral edification as an intention of the author and/or imitation as a reaction by the readers.

   Moral edification was never the sole function of biographies. First and foremost, Porphyry's Life of Plotinus served as an introduction to his edition of Plotinus' philosophical writings. The complete title of the work actually read as "On the life of Plotinus and the order of his books" and it included both a chronological (§ 4-6) and a thematic (§ 24-26) survey of these writings. In this respect, and because, as we mentioned earlier, ancient philosophy was first of all a way of life, the biography was written to establish the authority of Plotinus as a philosopher and to legitimise the content of the Enneads it preceded. On a second level, the biography was written with the intention to establish Porphyry as his most important pupil and as the best-placed man to arrange and publish the treatises of his master. Even the details about the all too human aspects of the divine Plotinus' character (e.g. his faulty spelling, his chaotic way of teaching, the declining force of his thought towards the end of his life) can be interpreted as strategic elements for Porphyry's selfrepresentation as his pupil, assistant and editor.[22]

   The key to the mimetic character of this biography can probably be found in the introductory anecdote about Plotinus' portrait. In Antiquity editions of literary works were often preceded by a short biography and even a portrait of the author. As we said earlier, biographies were often compared with portraits, since they were written as selective sketches of moral characters. In the very first chapter of the Vita Plotini, Porphyry informed his readers that Plotinus refused to have his portrait made. In support of his refusal to pose for a portrait, he adduced the classic argument against the mimetic arts from Plato's Republic, book X: "Why really, is it not enough to have to carry the image in which nature has encased us, without your requesting me to agree to leave behind me a longer-lasting image of the image, as if it was something genuinely worth looking at?" (§ 1, 8-10)

   What is odd about this anecdote, is that Plotinus had exposed a more positive art theory in the Enneads, especially in treatise V, 8 "On the intelligible beauty." In the opening chapter of this essay, he quite openly criticised Plato and argued that art did not necessarily copy nature, but that both natural objects and works of art were (or in any case could be) derived from the intelligible world, because the arts could ascend to the reasons or principles that also rule nature. Therefore art could truly create something, could add something of value and beauty to the world in stead of simply imitating the phenomenal world, thus taking objects a step further away from the intelligible beauty they were originally derived from. Plotinus referred to the famous statue of Zeus by Pheidias as a paradigmatic work of creative art. Its beauty was clearly not based on a simple imitation of the phenomenal world: like Plotinus, the Olympian Zeus would probably have refused to sit for a portrait. "For Pheidias too did not make his Zeus from any model perceived by the senses, but understood what Zeus would look like if he wanted to make himself visible"[23] and he poured these ideas of beauty and strength into a statue. In this art theory, artistic creations are not relegated to an inferior level of existence, as mere images of images, but are put on the same level as nature itself, since both are equally derived from the intelligible principles.

   Most commentators have had problems reconciling these passages from the Life of Plotinus and the Enneads, all the more so because other passages in the Enneads attest to a genuinely platonic depreciation of the imitative arts in Plotinus' thought.[24] Jean Pépin has noted that these discrepancies can not be explained, as they usually are, by an evolution in Plotinus' thought, rejecting art at the time the portrait anecdote was set, and later adopting the more positive theory of Enneads V, 8, since the negative comments are found in treatises written both before and after V, 8. His solution was that Plotinus made a distinction between the purely mimetic arts (including bad artists who did not have the creative gift of being an artistic demiurge) and what one could call genuinely creative arts or artists.

   The point we would like to make is however that Plotinus' pupil Amelius proceeded with his plan and that he had a portrait made without the masters' knowledge. He secretly introduced Carterius, a friend of his and, according to Porphyry, the best painter of his time, into Plotinus' lectures who were open to all. Since Carterius could not even make preliminary sketches he was forced, "by progressive study, to derive increasingly striking mental pictures from what he saw. Then Carterius drew a likeness of the impression that remained in his memory. Amelius helped him to improve his sketch to a closer resemblance, and so the talent of Carterius gave us an excellent portrait of Plotinus without his knowledge." (§ 1, 14-20) We could ask ourselves if this process of abstraction, of ascent towards the characteristic features of Plotinus' appearance, followed by a creative synthesis resulting in "an excellent portrait", would still have met with the original refusal of the master.

   It could be argued that the life of Plotinus was intended to function in the same way as the mental image Carterius had made in his mind. Amelius, the pupil, had helped the artist "to improve his sketch to a closer resemblance." We could summarise this as: Plotinus is observed by Carterius, whose impressionistic abstractions are adjusted by an expert-pupil, so he can create a striking image of Plotinus. In accordance with the art theory of Enneads V, 8, we could even say that in a sense he created a second Plotinus. Porphyry, another (and in his own mind better) pupil, could be said to help the general reader to improve their general impression of Plotinus (e.g. derived from attending his lectures or reading his treatises) by adding a biographical portrait. In accordance with the ancient theories on biography as quoted from Plutarch, such a Life of Plotinus used a selection of deeds and sayings to portray the moral character of the subject. Biography leaves the realm of the phenomenal diversity, the mass of facts an exhaustive history might want to include, and ascends to the basic features, the principles that governed a man's life and character. Still according to these theories, the object of such an abstractive biographical sketch was imitation by the reader. Therefore it could be argued that Porphyry is putting the reader in the position of Carterius, with Porphyry (in a characteristic mixture of modesty and arrogance) playing the role of the adviser Amelius. The logical conclusion would then seem to be that the reader-artist is invited by this helpful biography to emulate the Life of Plotinus in his own life, to create in a sense a second Plotinus.

   The next question is what the Vita Plotini really teaches us about the life of this famous philosopher? Porphyry could only acknowledge the logical structure of a biography as a narrative from birth to death by admitting that he knew nothing of the birth and background of his teacher. Plotinus refused "to talk about his race or his parents or his native country", because, as the famous opening line read, he "seemed ashamed of being in the body." (§ 1, 1-5) From a rhetorical point of view, this reads as the proem of an anti-encomium, since "race (genos), parents (goneis) and native country (patris)" were commonplaces of the preliminary praise of an individual. Thus Porphyry reaffirmed the age-old antirhetorical values of philosophy.[25] From the start, he reminded his readers that the value of a philosopher and his philosophical life lies in the intrinsic value of his life and teaching, and not in the external valorisation of his ultimately fortuitous social origins.

   If Porphyry made it clear from the start that this was a selective, "philosophical" biography of a philosopher, we should repeat to ourselves the question: what does Porphyry tell us about the life of Plotinus and why? If we have established that the biography was at least partially intended to serve as a reminder of the positive qualities of this great philosopher and thus as a permanent injunction to follow his example as closely as possible, there are certain paragraphs that receive a new significance. For Porphyry both tells us which way of life Plotinus inspired (or at least agreed to inspire) in other people and for which kind of life he explicitly refused any moral responsibility. The best illustration of the former reaction is the philosophical conversion of the senator Rogatianus (§ 7, 31-46). This Roman nobleman resigned his job, his rank, his possessions and his former way of life to become an itinerant philosopher of sorts, sleeping at one house of his upper-class friends but dining at another, although he only ate every other day. His renunciation and the indifference towards the luxuries of his former life actually increased his bodily health, and Plotinus often presented him as a fine example of the material and spiritual benefits of the philosophical way of life.

   Perhaps to make his criticism more poignant, the rejected interpretation of Plotinus life and teachings, the negative example, was set by Porphyry himself (§ 11, 11-17). When he was still living in Rome and attending Plotinus' courses, Porphyry became depressed and for some time, he entertained the idea of taking his own life. This state of mind had not escaped Plotinus' godlike attention, so he paid Porphyry an unexpected visit and convinced him that what was really wrong with him was an imbalance in his humours caused by black bile. He sent Porphyry to Sicily to get some rest and to benefit from the better climate. The late fourth-century writer of philosophical lives, Eunapius, gives a slightly different version of the events. In his account, Porphyry had fled to Sicily on his own initiative to avoid other human beings and eventually kill himself. According to Eunapius, Plotinus followed his pupil to the island to talk him out of his depression. What is important here, is that Eunapius tells us that Porphyry wanted to kill himself because of Plotinus' teachings.[26] One could say that Plotinus is here presented as if he were defending his teachings against a gnostic interpretation: his theories should not be interpreted as incitements to hate towards the material world, life in this world or life in the material body. Moderate asceticism is a legitimate inference, dualistic self-mutilation or suicide are not.

   This also seems to be the perspective we should adopt to interpret the trivia, more in particular the ascetical trivia revealed about the life of Plotinus himself. The opening sentence of the Life, "Plotinus, the philosopher of our times, seemed ashamed of being in the body", is a clear and undeniable statement of the low esteem these late antique Platonists had for the body and the material world in general, but even statements like this one should be put into the right perspective. Plotinus was a strict vegetarian. He refused drugs based on animal products, because he refused to kill even domestic animals. (§ 2, 2-5) Even as a vegetarian, he ate very little, sometimes not even a piece of bread, because this reduced the need for sleep to a strict minimum, which in turn allowed him to maximise his intellectual activities (§ 8, 21-23). His personal hygiene has often been questioned and Plotinus was even compared to some of the more mucky Christian ascetics because Porphyry mentioned that Plotinus kept away from the bath. (§ 2, 5-8) This is often interpreted as if Plotinus never took a bath, although it is more likely that Porphyry meant that he never went to a (public) bath.[27] The latter interpretation seems the most probable since the second part of the same sentence mentions that Plotinus did send for a masseur on a daily basis and had a massage in his own house, until the man was killed by the plague.

   We can only guess why he refused to go to the baths. It was certainly not because of some hatred for the human race, for Plotinus seemed to be surrounded by all sorts of people all of the time. First of all, there were his students, his assistants, and the people who attended his lectures, open to the general public. He also had frequent contacts with senators and even with emperors. He followed Gordianus on his unsuccessful Persian campaign to learn more about the ancient wisdom of Persia and India. (§ 3, 17-22) And he tried to convince Gallienus to rebuild a philosophers town in Campania supposedly called Platonopolis. (§12) He lived in the house of Gemina (perhaps the widow of the emperor Tribonianus) with several women, young and old alike, mostly of the highest rank and "all of whom had a great devotion to philosophy." He even took care of the education and the inheritance of a number of orphans, both boys and girls. He checked their accounts and even gave thought to their education by listening to them revising their lessons. He never once forced them into the life of a philosopher (e.g. by giving away their fortune) and left it up to them to choose the kind of life they wanted. (§ 9)

   Plotinus more than probably never got married nor did he have any children of his own, but Porphyry thought it irrelevant to either confirm or deny this. The only[28] "positive" piece of information concerning sexuality in this Life illustrates Plotinus' attitude towards the philosophical erastès-eromenos relationship. (§ 15, 1-17) One of his pupils, the rhetorician Diophanes, had written an apology for the Alcibiades character in Plato's Symposium, arguing that for the sake of acquiring virtue a pupil should agree to a sexual relationship with his master if the latter so desired. Porphyry tells us that Plotinus was visibly annoyed by this argument and repeatedly wanted to leave the assembly during the lecture. He later instructed Porphyry to prepare a refutation of Diophanes' viewpoint. When Porphyry delivered his speech, Plotinus frequently quoted a verse from the Iliad (VIII, 282), identifying on an ironic level the position of Porphyry with that of Teucer who shot his arrows at the Trojan enemy from behind the safe protection of Ajax's giant shield.[29]

   On the whole, the attitude towards sexuality in the Life of Plotinus is lack of interest rather than rejection. We should not forget that the biography is based on the framework of the four virtue levels, the political, purificatory, contemplative and paradigmatic virtues.[30] The social interactions we already mentioned, should be seen as examples of Plotinus' excellence on this level, but to reach the truly relevant levels, the contemplative philosopher should purify himself from the passions of life in the material body and in the body politic. However, E.R. Dodds already warned us against "equating other-worldliness with indifference" and he gave the very example of Plotinus who "took time off from contemplating the One to make his house into an orphanage." He immediately added though that "for Plotinus the life of action is a poor second-best, in principle unworthy of a contemplative."[31]

   But the rejection of the material and the social world should be in itself dispassionate. The best illustration of Plotinus' attitude towards the material and the social or the political life is probably the passage (§ 8, 7-22) where Porphyry describes how his master could participate in a conversation without once taking his mind off his contemplative activities. "He was wholly concerned with thought. (...) Even if he was talking to someone, engaged in continuous conversation, he kept his train of thought. He could take his necessary part in the conversation to the full, and at the same time keep his mind fixed without a break on what he was considering. When the person he had been talking to was gone (...) he went straight on with what came next, keeping the connection, just as if there had been no interval of conversation between. In this way he was present at once to himself and to others, and he never relaxed his self-turned attention except in sleep." As a human being, the philosopher was confronted with the reality of his bodily needs like sleep, food and even sexuality, and his position in society as a political animal.

   As a human being he was forced to sustain his body on a basic level. As a philosopher he thought nothing or almost nothing of these aspects of his sublunary existence, at least not compared with the truly relevant activities of the mind. But the most important aspect of their attitude towards bodily and social existence was their concern to avoid any hindrance caused by life in the body and in the social world. If sexual urges tended to drown out the activities of the mind, it was thought better to quiet them down by getting married than to lose time in controlling them. From this perspective, their basic attitude towards human sexual pleasures was still "l'usage des plaisirs."

Séances d'Hagiologia. Résumés des communications

Conférences données lors de la journée d'étude organisée par Hagiologia le 15 avril 1999 à l'Université de Gand qui avait pour thème : Seksualiteit in de christelijke traditie / la sexualité dans la tradition chrétienne.

1. Anne-Marie HELVÉTIUS (Université du Littoral, Boulogne-sur-Mer), Virgo et virago. Le pouvoir du voile consacré d'après les sources hagiographiques de la Gaule du Nord (VIe-XIe siècles).

   Cette communication a fait l'objet d'une publication : Anne-Marie HELVÉTIUS, Virgo et virago: réflexions sur le pouvoir du voile consacré d'après les sources hagiographiques de la Gaule du Nord, dans Femmes et pouvoirs des femmes à Byzance et en Occident (VIe-XIe s.), éd. Stéphane LEBECQ, Alain DIERKENS, Régine LE JAN et Jean-Marie SANSTERRE, Lille, 1999, p. 189-203 (Centre de recherche sur l'histoire de l'Europe du Nord-Ouest, 19).

2. Katrien HEENE (UGent), Lichaamsbeleving, zelfpijniging en gender in twaalfde- en dertiende-eeuwse heiligenlevens uit de Nederlanden.

   This paper aimed at analysing a corpus of 12th and 13th century saints' lives from the Low Countries. It argued that "self mutilation" has been viewed as typically feminine in a context of avoiding marriage and marital sexuality and serving as a mouthpiece for the divine. Yet "self mutilation" was used for many other reasons by men as well as women and for both it seemed to imply a similar morally dualistic attitude towards the sinful, human body. The fact that "self mutilation" also played a role in the life of men viz. illiterate semi-religious and lay-converts, demonstrates that it was an important element in the road to sanctity not only for women but also for men who did not belong to the intellectual and religious elite

   The full text of this lecture was published in Queeste. Tijdschrift over Middeleeuwse Letterkunde in de Nederlanden, t. 6 (1999), p. 1-22 (Ad effusionem sanguinis: zelfpijniging en gender in middeleeuwse heiligenlevens), a shorter English version appeared in Hagiographica, t. 6 (1999), p. 1-21 (Deliberate Self-Harm and Gender in Medieval Saints' Lives).

3. Paul MOMMAERS (Ruusbroecgenootschap - U.F.S.I.A.), Erotiek in de mystieke teksten uit de Nederlanden.

   M. Mommaers a exposé très clairement les lignes de partage, et sur certains points l'opposition, entre l'ascèse et la mystique. Selon lui, le mystique a le sentiment d'être le sujet passif d'un contact avec une réalité transcendante, tandis que l'ascète est l'acteur de sa mortification, conçue parfois comme une forme de martyre. Les auteurs mystiques ont une vision particulière de la psuchè et de sa relation avec le corps. Ainsi Ruusbroec appréhende-t-il l'homme de façon globale. Le désir et l'érotisme sont présents chez certains mystiques comme en témoigne la 7e vision d'Hadewijch. La conférence était illustrée par de nombreux extraits des œuvres de Ruusbroec et d'Hadewijch.


Conférences, congrès

   L'Associazione italiana per lo studio dei santi, dei culti e dell'agiografia (A.I.S.S.C.A.) organisera son quatrième colloque international à Florence du 26 au 28 octobre 2000 sur le thème : Il tempo dei santi fra Oriente e Occidente. Liturgia e culto dei santi dal tardo antico al concilio di Trento.
   Informations : Anna Benvenuti. Università degli Studi di Firenze. Dipartimento di studi storici e geografici. Via San Gallo 10. I 50129 Firenze. T. +39.055.2757905. Fax + 39.055.219173. e-mail : Benvenuti@unifi.it.

   Un colloque se tiendra à Viterbo, du 5 au 7 septembre et à Rome, du 8 au 10 septembre 2000 sur La figura di San Pietro nelle fonti del Medioevo - The figure of St. Peter in the sources (historical, literary, iconographic) of the Middle Ages.
   Informations : Anna Maria Valente Bacci. Università degli Studi della Tuscia. Via S. Camillo de Lellis. I 01100 Viterbo. e-mail : am.valente@flashnet.it. Loredana Lazzari. Libera Università Maria SS. Assunta, Roma. V. della Traspontina, 21. I 00193 Roma, e-mail : loredana.lazzari@lumsa.it, http://digilander.iol.it/spietro/Index.htm.

   À Malmedy (Maison Cavens), le 2 septembre 2000, se tiendra une table ronde sur le pèlerinage de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle.

   Du 7 mai au 11 juillet 2000, les musées communaux de Courtrai organisent une exposition sur le culte de Thomas Becket en Flandre.
   Informations : Service du tourisme de Courtrai. T. +32 (0)56 23 93 71.



[*] Par rapport à la version imprimée, les passages en alphabet grec ont été translittérés ou supprimés (N.D.L.R.)

[1] Ramsay MACMULLEN, "What difference did Christianity make?" Historia: Revue d'Histoire Ancienne 35, 1986, p. 322-343, reprinted in ID., Changes in the Roman Empire. Essays in the ordinary. Princeton, NJ, 1990, p. 142-155.

[2] Paul VEYNE, "La famille et l'amour sous le Haut Empire romain." Annales ESC 33, 1978 , p. 35-63. See also Aline ROUSSELLE, Porneia: de la maîtrise du corps à la privation sensorielle. Paris, 1983. For Foucault: see infra (nr. 3).

[3] Michel FOUCAULT, La volonté de savoir. Paris, 1976; non committally translated as The history of sexuality, vol. 1: an introduction by R. HURLEY: New York, 1978. The second and the third volume were published in 1984 as L'usage des plaisirs and Le souci de soi, and appeared in English as The use of pleasure and The care of the self in 1985 and 1986 (id. et ibid.). The fourth volume, on early Christianity, Les aveux de la chair, although already in the stage of proofreading suffered from the ban on posthumous publications.

[4] Peter BROWN, "The Saint as Exemplar in Late Antiquity." Representations 1:2, spring 1983, p. 1-25.

[5] Peter BROWN, o.c. (nr.4 ), p. 1 where he quoted J.B. COBB Jr., Religious Studies Review 7, 1981, p. 287.

[6] Plutarchus, Alexander 1; quoted from the Bernadette PERRIN translation in Loeb Classical Library, Plutarch, Lives, vol. 7, London & Cambridge (Mass.), 1958, p. 225. See also Patricia COX, Biography in Late Antiquity. A Quest for the holy man. Berkeley & LA, 1983, p. XI-XII and more recently Albrecht DIHLE, "Zur antiken Biographie." In: W.W. EHLERS (ed.), La biographie antique. Coll. Fondation Hardt 44. Genève, 1998, p. 119-146; p. 122-125.

[7] Patricia COX, o.c. (nr. 6), p. 7-8 in reference to Xenophon, Memorabilia and Aelius Theon, Progymnasmata 3.

[8] Plutarchus, Pericles 2, 3, o.c. (nr. 6), vol. 3, repr. 1996, p. 7.

[9] See especially Marc VAN UYTFANGHE, "L'hagiographie: un 'genre' chrétien ou antique tardif?" AB 111, 1993, p. 135-188 and his "Heiligenverehrung II (Hagiographie)" in RAC, T. 14, Stuttgart 1987, col. 150-183, also for a history of the study of the possible relations between pagan and Christian spiritual biographies.

[10] I would like to refer to my doctoral dissertation supervised by Marc Van Uytfanghe and presented at Ghent University as "De problematisering van de seksualiteit in de heidense, joodse en christelijke spirituele biografieën van de Late Oudheid (ca. 200 - ca.500 n.C.)", forthcoming as the second volume of the Brepols series "Hagiologia", under the (provisional) title of "Foucault, antisexuality and late antique biographies."

[11] The Vita Cypriani is older but should be considered as an intermediary form, an important document for the development from passio to vita, but not really a full-scale biography. For the "literary hybrid" character of the Vita Constantini, see now Averil CAMERON & Stuart G. HALL, Eusebius, Life of Constantine. Introduction, translation, and commentary. Oxford, 1999, p. 27-34 : "the literary character of the VC."

[12] References will be to the Sources Chrétiennes edition (nr. 400) by G.J.M. BARTELINK, Athanase d'Alexandrie, Vie d'Antoine. Paris, 1994. In his translation the full title reads as "Lettre d'Athanase, archevêque d'Alexandrie, aux moines à l'étranger sur la vie du bienheureux Antoine le Grand."

[13] VA 3, 3-5 and 4, 1-3; p. 136 and p. 138-140; see esp. p. 139, nr. 3 for Pythagorean and Christian parallels.

[14] Augustinus, Confessiones VIII, 5, 10, r. 1-2; (L. VERHEIJEN (ed.), CCSL 27, Turnhout, 1981, p. 119): "Sed ubi mihi homo tuus Simplicianus de Victorino ista narravit, exarsi ad imitandum: ad hoc enim et ille narraverat."

[15] Augustinus, Confessiones X, 3, 3; o.c. (nr. 14), p. 156: "Curiosum genus ad cognoscendam vitam alienam, desidiosum ad corrigendam suam."

[16] BARTELINK, o.c. (nr. 12), p. 70.

[17] David BRAKKE, Athanasius and the politics of asceticism. Oxford, 1995, p. 228 (and also 230) has no problem writing that "the devil employs sexuality in two ways, one involving marriage, the other pederasty." Although the devil clearly presents pederasty as a successful ruse against ascetics in his introduction, the frame story makes it clear that the time of temptations is already over.

[18] Peter BROWN, The body and society. Men, women and sexual renunciation in early Christianity. New York, 1988, p. 219.

[19] Jean-Claude GUY, Les Apophtegmes des Pères. Collection systématique. Paris, Sources Chrétiennes 387, 1993, p. 226-229; IV, 82 . The man who kept his eyes closed, was Pior: G.J.M. BARTELINK (ed.), Palladius, Historia Lausiaca. Vite dei santi II, Milano, 1974, § 39, 1-2; p. 202-204.

[20] Due to the language of this article, quotes and references in the text will be to the translation by A.H. ARMSTRONG in the Loeb Classical Library: "Porphyry, On the life of Plotinus and the order of his books." in Plotinus, vol. I, p. 1-85, London & Cambridge (Mass.), 1966; but it is clear that the French edition and commentary published by Jean PÉPIN e.a. has become indispensable: Luc BRISSON, Marie-Odile GOULET-CAZÉ, e.a. (ed.), Porphyre, La vie de Plotin. I. Travaux préliminaires et index grec complet. II. Etudes d'introduction, texte grec et traduction française, commentaire, notes complémentaires, bibliographie. Histoire des doctrines de l'Antiquité classique vol. 6 & 16, Paris, 1982 & 1992.

[21] Other features of the "theios anèr" were his extraordinary foreknowledge of events, an extraordinary insight in characters allowing him to seek out a thief amongst a group of slaves by merely looking at them (11, 1-8); magical spells had no effect on him and were even turned against the assailant by "the great power of his soul" (10, 1-13). For a general survey see of course Ludwig BIELER, THEIOS ANER. Das Bild des "göttlichen Menschen" in Spätantike und Frühchristentum. I-II, Wien, 1935-1936 = Darmstadt, 1965 or more recently the article by Hans Dieter BETZ, "Gottmensch II" in RAC 12, Stuttgart, 1983, c. 241-248.

[22] As was argued by Jean PÉPIN, Préface, in vol. I, o.c. (nr. 20), p. 8-9.

[23] Plotinus, Enneads V, 8, 38-40; tr. A.H. ARMSTRONG, vol. V, p. 239-241; London & Cambridge (Mass.), 1984.

[24] For references to these passages, for older theories and a new synthesis, see Jean PÉPIN, "L'épisode du portrait de Plotin (VP 1.4-9)" in o.c. (nr. 20), p. 301-334.

[25] I would like to thank my colleague Dr. Kristoffel Demoen for pointing this out to me. Compare also with (2, 37-42) Plotinus' refusal to reveal the day or month of his birth "because he did not want any sacrifice or feast on his birthday, though he sacrificed and entertained his friends on the traditional birthdays of Plato and Socrates."

[26] Eunapius, Vitae philosophorum et sophistarum. W.C. WRIGHT (ed.), Cambridge (Mass.) & London, 1922, p. 354.

[27] The team of Jean Pépin clearly chose the latter interpretation, translating "il s'abstenait d'aller au bain public et, chaque jour, il se faisait faire des massages à la maison": o.c. (nr. 20), p. 133.

[28] It would probably be a Freudian anachronism to include one of the rare pieces of information about Plotinus' childhood in the vita, i.e. the story (§ 3, 1-6) that he used to suck the breasts of his nurse up to the age of eight, until someone told him that he was a depraved child (atèron paidion). Porphyry probably included this intriguing story to illustrate Plotinus' awakening to the common notions of right and wrong, fixed by the Stoics at the age of seven. It should be noted that the entire Life is chronologically structured using multiples of seven, e.g. his conversion to philosophy at the age of 28. See BRISSON, o.c. (nr. 20), II, p. 3-4.

[29] This might also be an allusion to the "heroic" stature of the philosopher in neoplatonist times, making a passive sexual role unacceptable, even for a philosophy-student.

[30] BRISSON in o.c. (nr. 20), II, p. 14-25 for the sources and further details.

[31] E.R. DODDS, Pagan and Christian in an age of anxiety. Cambridge, 1965, p. 27.

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