The 20th century saw intense change in theories of knowledge. How can we integrate such developments with our approach to knowledge (as represented in texts) in Late Antiquity? What happens if we apply the notion of knowledge as a product of specific acts and institutions with specific purposes and functions to late ancient texts which concern themselves with the production, collection or display of different grades of knowledge? How would such an approach change the way we frame research on theological, philosophical, and pedagogical texts? In this essay I argue that we should abandon debates about whether to categorize specific texts as esoteric, theological/Christian or philosophical/pagan, and turn our attention to culturally and historically particular features of the terrain of the late ancient episteme. I describe six features of knowledge production through textual practices and articulate the imagined epistemic world in which reading practices took place and which defined the conditions of the value or legitimacy of those practices. This essay is offered as a framework for the interpretation of texts concerned with the production of knowledge, whether on the quotidian level of grammatical education or in its more rarefied forms. This framework allows texts to be read together according to function rather than formal genre or the the religious identity of their authors, so that new conversations around late ancient knowledge production can emerge and models of influence or borrowing can be left behind. The six features I have identified are patrimony, curatorship, mimesis, oikonomia, cosmos, and the product of all of these, the object-subject.
The 20th century saw intense change in theories of knowledge. How can we integrate such theoretical and methodological developments with our approach to knowledge (as represented in texts) in Late Antiquity? What happens if we apply the now generalizable notion of knowledge as a product of specific acts and institutions, with specific purposes and functions, to late ancient texts which concern themselves with the production, collection, or display of different grades of knowledge?1 How would such an approach change the way we frame research on theological, philosophical, and pedagogical texts? In this essay I argue that we should abandon debates about whether to categorize specific texts as dogmatic, apologetic, heresiological, esoteric, theological/Christian, or philosophical/pagan. Instead, we should turn our attention to culturally and historically particular features of the terrain of the late ancient episteme. This essay is a tour of those features as I have observed them in my research into the grammatical lessons by Didymus the Blind, preserved among the Tura papyri. This foundation, connected to my knowledge of ascetic literature, is apt because the lessons, like the ascetic writings of Evagrius or Origen, are at the very intersection of pedagogy, theology, and philosophy which, on traditional approaches, has proved problematic.
I order my tour around these features of the late ancient epistemic terrain into two broad categories: those that show how knowledge is made, and those that show what sort of subject is made by that particular type of knowledge. There are six items: patrimony, curation, mimesis, oikonomia, cosmos, and their ultimate product, the object-subject. I raise no claim to have discovered entirely native categories—these items should be understood as a survey of things that are obscured by traditional approaches and categories, as generative components of the late ancient episteme, as hinges in that particular knowledge-producing apparatus. Before examining each feature individually, I offer a brief discussion of the most recent findings on knowledge in Late Antiquity as a core from which this essay will expand.
In a recent volume on late ancient knowing, Chin and Vidas have collected essays on culturally specific modes of knowledge in the late Roman empire.2 Knowledge is intricately connected to subjectivity because it means having an accurate and acceptable sense of the world in which one lives and thus also of one's place in that world, of the conditions to which one is subject.3 Chin and Vidas describe an approach to “knowledge as a strategy for living in the known world,” treating knowledge as the process of “establishing a working order and integrating human activity into it.”4 This is precisely what Didymus is doing as he teaches grammar, not only in his moral evaluation of behavior and sentiment or his advice on proper comportment, but in the entire grammatical project. Didymus’ pedagogy is in essence a walking tour of taxonomic divisions, assigning things to categories, naming and evaluating parts of the world, and articulating the limits of each item's place in the whole.5 A similar mode of knowledge can be found in Epiphanius and other heresiologists, Evagrius, Origen, the authors of the Nag Hammadi texts, apologetic literature, ethical instruction like the Teachings of Silvanus or the Sentences of Sextus, in pilgrimage literature like the Historia Lausiaca, and even in martyr literature in its inversions of social and moral orders. All of these genres can be construed as exhibition spaces for maps which argue for a particular way to live well in the world, for a particular account of what the world is made of.
Late ancient knowing reflects a drive to produce coherent wholes out of any given set of elements, separate, conflicting or indifferent. This drive towards the whole is what makes late ancient knowledge characteristically total, such that changes in one realm (especially changes which involve theories of the whole like religion or philosophy) will affect changes and corrections and adjustments in all other realms.6 Everything has to be corrected to accommodate a change to any individual part, because there can only be one whole. It is also worthwhile to constantly revise and survey the whole because comprehensive knowledge enables comprehensive authority. While totalizing notions of knowledge are not unique to Late Antiquity, totality has a unique impact on knowledge production and on intellectual life more generally in that period. Since Late Antiquity is a time of intense change, especially in matters of theology and philosophy, it is also a period in which there is, and must be, a constant and very high-stakes scramble for re-adjustment. And since the main location of change is in precisely those branches of intellectual life concerned with describing the whole and the principles which underlie it, one place we can expect to see that scramble happening especially vigorously is around programs of ethical formation—that is, pedagogy, whether at the level of school education as we see in Didymus, or in the discourses around true philosophy seen in the ascetic, doctrinal, and speculative literature of the time. When theological discourse changes (as it does as early as the school of Plotinus and the writings of Porphyry), intellectual life in general, including pedagogy and textuality, has to be reconfigured.7 The debates and conflicts about the nature of the divine which we are accustomed to construing as doctrinal controversies necessary to the articulation of Christian orthodoxy can better be understood as part of this process of adapting the map of the cosmic order to accommodate change while sustaining a consistent and knowable whole.
In this essay I look at both how knowledge is produced and what it produces—that is, what sort of subjects are generated by participation in the late ancient episteme. In late ancient knowing, there is a more ambivalent and diffuse relationship between subject and object than in modern knowing. As Chin and Vidas note, a counter-intuitive relationship between subject and object arises out of the late ancient propensity for totalizing, such that both subject and object are necessarily part of the same complex whole:
From our perspective, conditioned by a modern association of rationality with a human subjectivity that observes the world and is in some way detached from it, what is striking about this drive to totalize is how it places our subjectivity in relationship with what we usually see as its objects. The late ancient world was both intelligent and intelligible … it was not only spoken about, it also spoke … the cosmos was both the subject and the object of knowing.8
This articulation of how late ancient people imagined their place in the epistemic world has several significant implications for properly understanding Didymus’ pedagogical work. The first has to do with knowledge of the self. Within this system, knowledge of the world is synonymous with self-knowledge because both human and non-human components of the cosmos “participated in the same rational discourse and therefore also transformed each other.”9 So in the process of education, participation in the rational discourse taught by the grammarian makes a person more securely integrated and aligned as a part of the cosmos, able to navigate it and comprehend it.10
But there are also more surprising consequences to this point. It means that human beings cannot only act upon the world around them, but can also be acted upon by the material, spiritual, social, and otherwise non-human elements of their world. This amounts to an elision, if not a reversal, of the difference between subject and object as understood in the post-Enlightenment west. The cosmos, since it is a living, active, and reactive total being, is the real subject in all late ancient discourse. The human individual is an object within that subject. The object-subject, so profoundly a part of a larger whole, is subjectified more satisfactorily the more she is objectified—that is, made aware of her partiality within a system beyond her control. The object-subject is not educated in order to have mastery over the world, but rather to be properly mastered by it, living rightly when her mind and actions and perceptions are rightly adapted to the totality around her, cognizant of her place in it and the duties and roles entailed by that place.
The late ancient episteme also includes a type of knowledge which is specially attached to textuality. Jeremy Schott refers to what must be the reason for this as “the late ancient over-determination of the cosmos as linguistic.”11 The cosmos has its own legibility and as such is both structured like a text and structures all the texts which purport to represent it. The legibility of the late ancient cosmos gives textual study a particular potency as a tool for knowing the world. It also coheres with the focus of study on texts, the confidence of late ancient thinkers that careful reading of texts will enable careful reading of the cosmos. This link is behind the expansiveness of the grammatical enterprise; because this substructure textualizes the cosmos itself, textual work is about knowing the cosmos, not the text alone. From here it is easy to understand the readiness with which a textually-based religion could totalize itself, making the Bible refer not to the particular adventures of a certain Semitic people, but to the structure of reality as such, thereby giving its readers and the communities attached to it access to the very sort of knowledge of the order of reality which justified moral, social, and political authority.
I focus my description of patrimony on grammar, because grammatical education can reasonably be assumed to have been shared by all late ancient authors and readers, which is not the case for training in rhetoric or philosophy. Grammar is also a suitable focus for this first component of late ancient knowledge production, because grammar can be taken here as a synonym for “general knowledge of the order of things,” including language and textuality, but also familiarity with inherited texts, basic ethics, and the social and physical world. Patrimony can be defined as the attitude towards inherited texts which gave them legitimacy and value as a basis for knowledge production and which made them appropriate objects of attachment, devotion, and study. One could construe debates between Origen and Porphyry or Celsus around which texts are suitable objects of particular exegetical methods as a debate around which texts do or do not belong to the patrimony. I would suggest that a great driving force in Christian textuality in this period is a bid to make the Bible count as patrimony and to connect people to it through the same practices of attachment, devotion, and study which had previously been reserved for Homer, Hesiod, Menander, Vergil, or others.
As a grammarian, Didymus defines the position of his students between the past and the future and negotiates their relationship with both. The term patrimony, used most aptly by Raffaella Cribiore in her study on education in Egypt, is a fitting name for this aspect of grammar, because it evokes both its chronological and genealogical facets.12 To examine grammar as patrimony is to examine the role of reading in forming a relationship between generations, connecting reading to acts of inheritance and identity. Use of the term patrimony also signals the implicit volatility of the object of learning. To receive an inheritance is to connect to past generations, to see oneself in a relationship of benevolence and continuity, but it is also to come into possession of specific objects which change hands in the act of inheriting. Examining grammar as patrimony expresses the tension between imitation and innovation which we see in late ancient textuality and pedagogy in general and in Didymus’ pedagogical work in particular. A patrimony is handed down from one person to a different person, an other, an individual who is part of a new time. At the same time that it is explicitly aimed at producing continuity and identity, it opens up an unstable space which can be used creatively. Patrimony is attachment to the venerable past, but that attachment can serve diverse subjectivities, whether that of ascetic devotion or scholarly objectivity, the archivist's measured care or the practitioner's keen embrace.
In Late Antiquity, texts which were the object of grammatical study bound their readers into a historical and cultural lineage: the reader was connected to the past, in that she was brought into a relationship with the moral and literary patrimony passed down through ancient texts. The reader was simultaneously fitted out for a future which had the same shape as that patrimony, a future which would be judged and structured according to the same ethic as discerned in the text, which required the same virtues and condemned the same vices. This was possible because the text was understood to be related to the world as a microcosm of all knowledge. As a microcosm of the total, the text necessarily included knowledge of the past. It could be taken as valid for the future, the appropriate thing to pass on to the next generation. The textual microcosm was made of language, that is, a medium subject to order and thus reflective of the larger order of the cosmos, and it was also made of history. History should be understood, in the context of the literary patrimony mediated by grammarians, not as simply synonymous with the past, but as reflective of a chronological order including both the present and the future. The texts do not only originate in the past, but, because of the orderliness of time, knowledge of past texts guarantees the orderliness of the present and future as well. We will return to this ordered unfolding, or oikonomia, in our discussion of subjectivity below. For the moment we can observe the connection between the text as a deposit of history in language, and the special work of knowledge production to be done with a grammarian, as described by Cribiore:
A passage, which was a thing closed in upon itself, was at the same time a dense cluster of interwoven linguistic and historical elements. It could swell up ad infinitum, becoming a microcosm of erudite, fragmented knowledge. When the grammarian pointed out to his class glosses, figures, tropes, relations of elements of language, similarities with other parts of an author's work or the work of other authors in a proliferation of exegesis, a text became a perfect model to which other texts had to conform.13
The capacity of the text to expand indefinitely, which Cribiore identifies here, is the reason Didymus and numerous other late ancient intellectuals can indulge in the intricate unfolding of a single phrase until it renders knowledge of the order of things, whether in the inner or outer world. Ancient texts have a different texture and manifest different physical properties than modern ones. They can expand and contract, they give way when pressed, and they open up endlessly. When unfurled, texts render up an image of reality which requires submission. That submission is to be found not just in the students’ act of attending to and collecting the fragments of that reality throughout the text, but also in the conscription of other texts, especially of new authors and current readers, in the epistemic campaign over which that flag, the unfurled text, flies. In other words, those texts which are esteemed as proper objects of study possess mimetic force and thus elicit devotion and accordance.
All of the above points flow together to explain what Kaster calls “an idea of sacredness attached to the instruction and to its texts.”14 This sense of sacredness arose from the conviction that the texts were “fundamental to the scheme of right order” which held intact not only the person but the empire and the entire cosmos.15 The notion of learning as a sacred act and of those exposed to it as the elect has its roots in the attachment of grammar as patrimony to elders and ancestors. Learning becomes a quasi-religious act when the text has the capacity to reveal a complex reality when sufficiently subtle modes of engagement are applied, and when learning is understood as induction into a tradition. These contours of grammar-as-patrimony all corroborate and substantiate the association of texts and learning with the sacred, while also displacing the notion of the Christian study of the Bible as something specific to Christianity and characteristically confessional. Christian notions of sacred texts or of holy learning must be seen in continuity with the larger pedagogical tradition. The normal and traditional imbrication of learning with religious devotion is reflected in the epitaph to a teacher of the hierē didaskaliē, a teacher who was certainly pagan but facilitated the study of sacred letters (Homer).16 Nearly the same phrase is used by Sozomen to describe Didymus’ work in Alexandria. The school he led is denoted as tou didaskaleiou tōn hierōn mathēmatōn, usually construed as indicating a theological or catechetical school.
Grammatical praxis is not only a way of relating the self to the ancients and thus identifying oneself as part of an esteemed lineage. It is also a means of taking possession of a prime deposit of cultural capital. As Chin has expressed it, “… reading practices as presented in grammatical literature produced larger ideological structures and implicit narratives, particularly the idea of a homogenous authoritative past, manifested in literary objects.”17 Didymus’ teaching praxis is part of the project of Christians practicing a new role as plausible, appropriate, and competent owners of the patrimony. Didymus is authoring a new way of imagining history according to which Christians own Aristotle. He is building up an ideological structure within which the young people he teaches are viable candidates for positions of modest civil authority in an empire whose order is required to reflect the larger principles of order which they are learning. The text as patrimony consolidates identity in its aspect as heritage and attachment to past generations. But the text as patrimony also generates subjectivity by providing knowledge of the world, the unfolding of time, and the place of the person within history.
Since the linguistic turn, especially after the theoretical interventions connected to post-structuralism, scholars of culture have come to view knowledge less as a matter of achieving an accurate representation of a stable reality and more as a cultural resource which is produced through language and structured by complex social practices. This means that in any society, knowledge has a man-made sub-structure which defines what can and cannot be known, what is left invisible or dismissed as incoherent, what constitutes worthwhile modes of knowledge, the proper location of knowledge production, and most of all the proper foundation of knowledge.18 Post-structuralist approaches to knowledge like those of Kuhn and Foucault have argued that knowledge is not about facts, but rather is something that arises from “a larger pattern of discourse embedded in systems of social and cultural power.”19 Knowing is not a condition resulting from the accumulation of bits of information, but the cultivation of a certain mental disposition and the ability to apply it.
In Late Antiquity, knowing means engaging the world in a manner recognizable to the larger society as the product of a process of refinement and ethical formation. That kind of knowing is (necessarily, and like all other pedagogical endeavors in Late Antiquity) the purpose of Didymus’ lessons, of homilies and commentaries, of ascetic programs of self-cultivation like that produced by Evagrius, of Neoplatonist or Manichaean ethical curricula. Knowing is manifest in competent engagement with inner, outer, imperial, ethical, and social order, the ability to act with an awareness of the principles underlying that order, of what is appropriate, and of one's own place as part of a larger matrix of complex orders. Similarly, in recent research, knowledge has increasingly been treated as a historical practice, which means that it is contingent on not just a particular time and place, but on where it positions itself relative to the past, the relationship it takes up in connection with the past, how it is presented as deriving from or belonging to the past.20 The connection of knowledge to inheritance and the past brings us straight to the teacher (or author or bishop or philosopher) as curator, as the curator is the one who presents and interprets the past to the next generation.
We can start with the pedestrian notion of the curator: an ordinary museum curator is an invisible mediator between the visitors to an exhibit and their cultural heritage. It is her job to select individual works of art from a large corpus, to display them in a cogent manner, to decide which pieces belong with which, and to communicate the significance of the pieces to the public. Her invisibility leads us to underestimate the degree to which she shapes our perception of the art in question.21 We say we went to see the Cezanne exhibit, not that we went to see a fraction of the works of Cezanne which a specific person chose to display for us. This effacement of her own work places the curator in a key position as mediator of the cultural heritage: people do not see what she does not select. What is never seen or talked about slowly evaporates from our sense of what is part of the cultural canon, while those artefacts which are selected and put on display take on an increased validity. Frequent display-as-significant in numerous highly regarded museums, coveted catalogs, and standardized textbooks makes a given artefact part of the canon—that is, a valuable resource in the cultural patrimony. Such an object or text then becomes something an educated person must know about, a measure of adequate knowledge.
There is a strong link between curatorial work, textual work, and pedagogical work. Indeed both curator and teacher share the role of mediating the past for the future from a position of authority. Didymus stands between his students and their literary past, which is simultaneously the location of the universal and the patrimony. Augustine, Jerome, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, and Athanasius also stand between the patrimony within which they were educated, along with the biblical texts they are slowly merging with that patrimony, and their parishioners or readers. Late ancient textual curators devolve and efface their mediating position onto the text, obscuring their own function as a filter and proposing the text, rather than their own person or textual practices, as the direct conduit of all things needful. It is in this tenuous and effaced position that the very heavy-handed work of shoving Homer off the pedestal enabling his status as the basis of what can be known, and hoisting the Bible into that position takes place.22 Homer and Aristotle are in a back corner with a mishmash of also-rans, as useful context, but Christianity is in the center of the room with the lights on it and appears on the exhibition poster. Such curators are not “influenced” by pagan literature, nor do they select what they select so as to exclude the literary patrimony in favor of a separate sectarian biblical one. The patrimony is curated and selections are made in order to locate Homer and Aristotle and Plato and the Stoics as particular and auxiliary in relation to the Christian universal. Homer and Aristotle become a supplement to the exhibit on Christian knowledge.
Curation is one means of navigating changes to the larger system of knowledge, by adding in the factor of time, and using time as a filter to leave behind or re-value certain items of knowledge in favor of others. By curating the literary patrimony, the grammarian defines which parts of past knowledge are valuable and can serve to equip the present generation for the future, to provide them with functional knowledge given the newly adjusted system. The text studied with a grammarian is the conduit of the patrimony, a cherished object of study, a treasure which is both a model for and a model of reality.23 When that text is replaced, there is ample opportunity to revise, but not discard, the patrimony, filtering it through a new conduit.
The cultural role of the grammarian was that of one “who preserved the boundaries between order and chaos,” like the curator sorting an otherwise incomprehensible mass of objects into groups and categories, labeled according to their role in the exhibit.24 This is not normally the position from which one would expect radical innovations. In connection with this custodial role, there is scope for displacement even within the project of preservation proper to the grammarian. Displacement and innovation can be achieved through shifting judgments around whence chaos threatens and how chaos is to be overcome. The grammarian was part of a family of custodes along with the commander, who protected the borders of the empire, and the governor, who preserved the civil order and upheld the laws.25 Just as the particular military enemy or even the location of the border might change, just as a governor might encounter shifting disruptions to civil order, the grammarian must contend with shifting sources of impending chaos over time, while at the same time allowing that chaos to remain invisible and silent in favor of the vigor of the order she promotes.
One final element of the curatorial work of the grammarian requires examination: the displacement and fragmentation which underlies the very claim to totality and universality of knowledge provided by grammatical study. Curation obscures, but also assumes, displacement. Two examples of this in Western culture present themselves. First, the assumption that Western Europe traces its heritage back to Greece and Rome, erasing the difference between the Mediterranean basin and the actual physical and chronological past of England, France, or Germany. Thus no one takes issue with children descended from Germanic tribes being sent to study Latin as “the basis for every language,” or little Anglo-Saxons, Africans, Indians, Asians, and Celts going on an excursion to see the Elgin Marbles in London, where those objects are curated as the beginning of a continuous trajectory towards the culture those children find themselves in today, nor with the history curriculum for secondary schools in Germany tracing a trajectory from Egypt, to Greece and Rome, and to the European Middle Ages, treating each as a period of time but not a place and certainly not as different places.26 Second, the texts of the Christian canon are treated as the basis for the totality of Christian faith and practice. That assertion is explicit and plainly visible in the discourse on the textual root of Christianity. What is kept insistently invisible are the processes of displacement which brought those particular texts into Christian possession in the first place: that all of the contents of the Christian canon are Jewish texts, that specifically and recognizably Christian texts were excluded from the canon as apocrypha, that the texts which are canonical are diverse in origin, history, and genre.27 The term displacement here refers to the invisible and silent mechanism which allows for the accumulation of total knowledge (taking stray pieces of knowledge into the canon from other cultural or physical places) and which in retrospect is erased by the very totality it generates.
As Chin has stated, grammar generates regularity through suspension from original context and re-examination in a new dislocated space.28 Classrooms, study circles, churches, and monasteries where biblical texts can be examined as samples of an orderly cosmos, regular and homogenous, are such dislocated spaces. Reading biblical texts as illustrations of the order of things is allowed by the persistent fragmentation which structures late ancient textuality, the intense focus on individual words or phrases. The grammarian suspends and re-distributes whole pieces of knowledge from other disciplines, sharing them out across the biblical text.
Mimēsis is a structural principal of the underlying order of things assumed by late ancient thinkers. Commonly translated as “imitation,” an accurate rendering of the term is better served by words like matching, fitting in, adaptation, congruence, and adherence to models. Within the late ancient episteme, it is a characteristic of human beings, political structures, texts, rituals, or rightly ordered individual dispositions. One rightly ordered thing will necessarily resemble another, given that there is only one order. Mimēsis as an ethical driver is a program of exquisite conformity, fitting the self, or the community, or one's behavior, into a larger order.29
Late ancient readers and writers functioned within diverse mimetic frames inherited from Plato and Aristotle and elaborated within the flourishing of Christian paideia in the late Roman empire. It is no coincidence that the ancient literature on mimēsis stretches over such a long and varied period, for throughout antiquity, discussion of proper objects and modes of mimēsis was a means of problematizing established social mores and motivating new ethical and religious programs, whether for all citizens or for the specially committed ethical athletes of the day.30 Since mimēsis occupied a key role in justifying any given pedagogical or ethical program, change had, quite ironically, to be routed through a debate about mimēsis, renegotiating proper objects for imitation rather than entirely sacrificing the principle in favor of total novelty. It is this sort of process, a bid for a stronger position in the debate about who should be teaching from which texts and which texts deserve to be the objects of adaptation, which produce adequate formation, to which Christian textuality concerned with knowledge production should be oriented.
Mimēsis had a civic aspect from the start: Socrates’ program for the more intellectually disciplined citizen was to re-direct emotional and mental engagement to less and less derivative forms of mimēsis. The fourth-century bishop Athanasius’ or Chrysostom's exhortation to the Christian laity to fix their attention on only the best saintly exemplars was likewise meant to enable an ethically sound Christian politeia.31 Ethical education occurring within this frame is likewise concerned with civic formation, the production of solid citizens who understand the order of the social world around them and their place in it.
From Plato to Chrysostom, ethical thinkers had to negotiate significant shifts in the relationship of empire to religion. Later Roman Christians wrote profusely, engaging their cultural and intellectual patrimony with a certain spiritual and political athleticism and, especially after the reign of Julian, setting their sights on full ideological hegemony.32 Christian leaders and teachers like Didymus bred mimēsis with textuality, and thereby with the body, the imagination, narrative, epistemology and emotion, so that it took root and flourished, making manifest how the Christian subject might live in the agonistic and physicalized religious order of the late Roman empire. The potency of mimēsis as an ethical standard lies in the volatile mix of its apparent banality and intuitive appeal, and its real and fecund complexity when it is embedded in the created order and used as an argument for sustaining both civic order in the world of governance and mental order in the inner world of the individual.33
Early Christian authors who, unlike Didymus, address this concept explicitly, anchor mimēsis in the order of things.34,Mimēsis as a moral imperative means that ethics is a matter of living within the bounds of right reason, a matter of compliance with reality. Christians like Didymus who argue their ethical program in this way are working from ontology toward ideology, and in so doing obscuring any novel aspect of their teachings.35 Such a method can only render universal knowledge.
In Origen, the mimetic point of reference is intelligible reality, and the primary medium of imitation is not behavior, but mental acts like contemplation and apprehension, because in his Neoplatonist world, virtue follows automatically from knowledge of the divine order.36 Origen operates within the same model/copy structure as Plato, and with the same blurring of ontology and epistemology; the subject is supposed to know the highest reality, and in developing and engaging this knowledge, will necessarily become more similar to that highest reality, namely God. Contemplation of God leads to becoming an imitator of God, which is what causes the person to be shaped into an image of God. Ethical behavior starts with an epistemological act which causes the person to take up a stance of ontological referentiality, orienting herself to the object of imitation and seeking to live as an image of it.
This same structure, mimetic formation of the human mind according to the capacity to apprehend intelligible realities on the platonic principle that like can only be known by like, is also prevalent in the work of Evagrius. Here we see the program of self-formation required by Origen elaborated in great detail, for Evagrius sets out a three-part ascetic curriculum, drawing on Aristotelian anthropology to overhaul the human person from the appetites up through the passions to the mind. The ethical correction of the self through asceticism means that the person must refer to a standard of right order of the inner life and adapt himself to it. The test of the aptness of these efforts is whether they enable the mind to comprehend intelligible realities, as both Origen and Evagrius believe that all beings did before the beginning of time. The ethical imperative derives from the order of the universe, a cosmology which explains where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going.37 It also allows for full knowledge of the cosmos.
Another locus of mimetic proliferation in Late Antiquity is the relation of the ethical subject to text. Textuality includes all manner of relating and means not only reading, but also exegetical study, exposition or the hearing of exposition in the form of homilies or exegetical lessons, memorization, recitation, preservation and authorship. Textual practices like the reading and hearing of edifying stories have received much attention in the scholarly literature, and it is sufficiently established that, by such practices, the Christian subject is attached to mimetic points of reference in the form of literary persons represented in biblical narratives or in hagiography: the Christian is encouraged to measure her own ethical practice and dispositions according to those figures.38 More recently, practices like exegetical study, curation and archiving of texts, and authorship, have received more scholarly attention as textual acts with real significance for religious life.39 In the case of such meta-literate textual practices, the mimetic point of reference is more complex: the person is not supposed to imitate another person represented in the text, but rather to discipline and adapt her mind to the structure and order manifest in the text or collection of texts.40 The ethical value of engagement with a text arises out of the conviction that certain texts carried revelatory significance such that not only their content, but even their syntax and punctuation and the etymologies of place names could reveal principles of right inner order. This notion of the text as medium of all that is valuable to human flourishing was not invented by Christians. It is the driving force behind the practice of grammatical study and textual criticism throughout the ancient world.
In the late ancient imagination, the civil order was a continuation of the cosmic order, and both the governance of the cosmos and of the empire depended on a copy-model structure according to which those in authority could and should provide for the moral betterment of their subjects. One of these paternal responsibilities was to assimilate as far as possible with the divine order, to govern in a manner which was compatible with that order, being enabled to do this by the cultivation of virtue.41 Subjects in turn should learn from the example of their rulers and submit to the exercises in moderation, justice, temperance, and self-control which were encouraged as means of sustaining the welfare and stability of the empire.
The mental betterment of the human person, in particular the development of a capacity for the comprehension of divine revelation, hinges on realization of the mimetic nature of the created order.42 Study is akin to attaining a license in mimetic engagement. It trains the reader in alignment with the mimetic structures to which she is subject, and thereby in becoming a smoothly rolling object within the larger machine, ticking over in line with all the other parts. Christian authors replace the identity of the highest God and use different terms for the beings closest to him, but they do not at all change the overall mimetic structure of the imagined world, nor could they.43
This term, in its most literal sense, indicates the orderly administration of household, community, or empire.44 These levels of society are analogous in Late Antiquity because the household was the basic organizing model for all of them, as well as for the inner world of the individual. Oikonomia also means the orderly unfolding of time, in a sense sometimes misleadingly translated as providence.45 Common translations of this term as it appears in the English Bible are stewardship or dispensation.46 To merge all of these meanings, one might define oikonomia as the ordered arrangement of human life according to a benevolent structure driven by discretion, prudence, and wisdom. Reading from the perspective of Christian theology, revelation and history as oikonomia are readily understandable; there is a well-established tradition of the notion that God acts in history with the deliberate aim of benefitting and cultivating human beings. The connection to education, empire, and narrative is less readily visible. What we will examine here is how oikonomia applies to late ancient pedagogy in general and to Didymus’ teaching of grammar in particular, how it attaches grammar (where, again, grammar means general knowledge of the order of things) to history.
Richard Layton, the author of the first monograph study of the Tura Papyri in English, hit upon the role of the notion of oikonomia in both Didymus’ pedagogy and that of an earlier Alexandrian teacher, Clement. Layton examines oikonomia on a large scale, beyond the life of the individual or the household, where it is understood as an ordered plan unfolding over time.47 Examples of such large-scale oikonomia include education (the beneficently provided structure of the curriculum by the teacher in the face of the pedagogical needs of the student), revelation (beneficently provided knowledge supplied by God in the face of the spiritual and ontological needs of humankind), history (the unfolding of time as governed by divine principles to the benefit of humanity), empire (the ordered articulation of natural hierarchies operating to benefit and protect its dependents as enabled by the care of its governors), as well as narratives (narrative as an analogy to history, the unfolding of action over time according to a plan provided by the author).
The construal of narrative as oikonomia means that texts and their study are part of the family of practices of provision and benefit and order which are all akin to well-governed households, nourishing to those attached to them, but also ensuring correct structure and conformity to the larger order of the cosmos. Late ancient intellectuals, by facilitating textual study, were agents of oikonomia, as if the classroom were a rehearsal room in which people learned their lines and roles and steps before going on stage. Grammar ensures the stability of the empire because it facilitates oikonomia and the adherence of individuals to the larger structures and processes which make up the imperial order. As Kaster puts it, “the profession contributed to an idea of permanence that sought to control the instabilities of idiosyncratic achievement and historical change.”48 Grammar effectively resists idiosyncrasy or erratic disruptions by filtering all the middling to privileged people (those who will influence the social order) through the same filter, and by building that filter (the study of grammar) out of ways to recognize order and the principles which govern it on multiple levels. Because of this function, when we watch Didymus teaching grammar as Christian knowledge, we are also watching the Christianization of the empire.
The empire itself is the location of oikonomia, because it prospers when it is rightly ordered under the benevolent hand of the emperor and civic elites, all operating with wisdom, prudence and discretion to uphold the peaceful and harmonious relations of each part to the whole. The empire prospering is the same as the ascetic body as described by Peter Brown, quietly ticking over, humming away under the firm hand of discipline.49 As such, the empire is understood as an ordered whole which must be cared for, an organism which requires custodians and masters, while in turn its custodians and masters must fully understand its structure and nature and purpose so as to tend it rightly. Exactly there is the link to education, in as much as education was a means of moving higher up in the structures of empire, and becoming master and custodian of one's own body, at the least (as a free person), of one's household, perhaps of a business or even a town, or ultimately of whole regions or the empire itself.
Layton's notion of narrative as oikonomia, especially when connected to the notion of mimēsis (which like oikonomia has both social and textual aspects) is vital to understanding why late ancient people have to study texts in order to be competent members of the empire. Both lead in nicely to the role of the cosmos we are about to examine, namely the cosmos as an entity with its own agency, an organism operating according to its own inherent nature rather than submitting passively to human actions. These two elements also show the junction between history and education in a specifically late ancient way, affirming in turn the work of curating the patrimony, that is, mediating the past for the future. Finally, both mimēsis and oikonomia show the ethical project behind late ancient pedagogies which, while they certainly were concerned with teaching virtue, do not do so out of particularist confessional motives, but because they, like other teachers, are part of a culture in which the inner world of the person is whole and right when it is in accord with the outer order of household, empire, and cosmos.
Late ancient knowledge is embedded in and arises from a cosmos. Chin describes how unlike the cosmos is to the modern idea of the proper object of knowledge. Late ancient people live in a cosmos which is a rational agent, a living organism. Knowing is thus “participation in the ongoing universal activity of mind.”50 The idea of knowing as participation can be connected to the focus of knowledge production on articulating the underlying order of the world, the person, and the mind, such that the person is fully oriented and equipped to participate. It also suggests knowing as an adaptive act, a matter of fitting in, shaping the self to the order in which one is embedded. This model of knowing stands in sharp contrast to the modern western model of knowledge as the penetrative operation of a human knower upon the passive known, that is, the work of a subject upon an object. True knowledge arises, on the Enlightenment western model, when the mental apparatus of the knower is fully functional (endowed with reason and able to supply itself with sense experience and accurate observation).51 Knowledge on the late ancient model is not a transitive act, and the conditions for true knowledge do not all abide with the knowing subject. Rather, as Chin puts it, the conditions for true knowledge can best be described as a state of congruence. “Congruence between the object (that is, the cosmos) and the subject (that is, the human mind) is the condition under which knowledge can arise. Worship is thus a sympathetic practice, like magic or astrology.”52 While Chin focuses on the explicitly religious practice of worship, I might add that pedagogy, whether textual or ethical, is also a process of shaping young people towards the necessary state of congruence with the cosmos. The work of acquiring knowledge by reading texts which are endowed with the capacity to reflect the cosmos is also a sympathetic practice. Cultivated reading and textual study belong in the same category in Late Antiquity as worship, magic, and astrology.
This construal of the relationship between the mind and the world results in a weak sense of human agency compared to that championed in the modern western model of the knowing subject. As Chin states, “Events… are necessarily the products of multiple interacting agents, only some of whom are human.”53 The intricacy of this model means that in Late Antiquity, one cannot have a mechanical cause-and-effect explanation for why things are how they are. One cannot know the cause of something by identifying its immediate trigger. An idea of “what is the case” as coming to be through the agency of the cosmos, including but not limited to the activity of humans, shapes the type of explanations available to teachers and other thinkers in Late Antiquity. If the object of knowledge includes the self as one of many intricately interweaving strings, then several features of knowledge production are entailed.
First, nothing is irrelevant. The emotional state of the Psalmist might be related to snakes and deer, the properties of numbers need to be understood in order to read the subtitle of the Psalm accurately, and syllogisms are important to reading Ecclesiastes. Second, states of affairs must be explained through detailed description, description which can never be too meticulous. Third, if, rather than a subject acting on an object, knowledge is produced through congruence, then education will have a strong focus on formation, that is, on ethics.54 Fourth, if everything is connected, then competent didactics will focus on connecting and linking, making visible all the filigree tensions between that one thing under examination and everything else, at the same time casting connective webs around the mind of the student and the object of inquiry.55
In 2008, Virginia Burrus published Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints and Other Abject Subjects, a study on the role of shame in early Christian martyrology and ascetic literature.56 Its full title introduces the novel term “abject subject.”57 In object relations theory, the abject is that which a subject casts out from itself as intolerable, unthinkable, a thing too threatening to the fabric of the self to be identified as part of the self. It is not strictly the opposite of the subject, but a rejected part of the subject whose status as a part is urgently denied. Typical examples of the abject are excrement, vomit, corpses, or tortured bodies. The subject on the other hand is the self as construed by the self to be acceptable, capable of viable interactions with others, that is, capable of choice and agency, able to recognize and act upon the world, able to engage with and act upon its surroundings, both human and non-human. The process of coming to be a subject has been analyzed in the scholarly literature in terms of early childhood psychological development (gradual separation from the mother, ability of a small child to correlate her view onto the world with her physical self, i.e. by recognizing her own reflection in a mirror as hers, knowing where her physical self stops and starts, developing a primitive theory of mind).58 Subjectification in a broader sense has also been studied in terms of social practices like education, and all forms of socialization into religious and cultural norms, with scholars since the linguistic turn articulating the historical and cultural contingency of notions of the subject.59 Within this school of thought, a person cannot simultaneously be both abject (that which is negated by the self) and subject (that which is affirmed by the self), but what Burrus found, for example in the martyr acts, is a blurring of these categories to produce a highly volatile and contradictory form of subjectivity within early Christianity. The term “abject subject” is thus highly paradoxical, not a type of subjectivity admitted by the psychological structures posited in object relations theory, but an apt description for a particular historical and religious notion of the self.
In Burrus’ study, the term abject subject denotes shamed identities which exploit the lubricious ambiguity of their social position to transform and create by means of the very shame that marks them. That is, the abject subject is abject in as much as she is shamed and cast out from society, but still a subject in as much as she acts creatively even from that position, embracing shame with the efficacy and desire of a functional subject. Burrus focuses her study especially on martyr literature, but finds this type of subjectivity in early Christianity well into the fourth and fifth centuries, especially in ascetic literature. Thus it is not a concept to be applied only to a certain earlier period nor solely to an especially eccentric branch of Christianity; there is no assertion that abject subjectivity is part of the age of martyrdom and fades away with the rise of Constantine. Likewise, although Burrus locates this type of subjectivity particularly in martyr literature, creative volatility around shame is found even in doctrinal controversies on the incarnation; abject subjectivity is not to be tied exclusively to martyrology and hagiography. That means that the abject subject is not to be mapped only onto the social margins of Christianity. It is a distinct strain of religious life colored by preoccupation with difference, shame, suffering, fleshliness and pain. It problematizes the body and is driven by a sense of otherness striving for connection and attachment. It entails, in direct contradiction to the late ancient norm, a sense of abjection as a condition for connection to God. As such, it is a subversive Christian subjectivity. Neither Didymus nor his students are abject subjects. They are doing a different kind of religious work. In this section, I aim to articulate the subjectivity that is produced through study with a grammarian in general, and with Didymus in particular, in order to describe what sort of subject Didymus is trying to produce. This is intended as an antidote to imagining these students primarily as “Christian” and in so doing conflating their mode of subjectivity with the modern or the western.
I introduce the term object-subject with deliberate allusion to what Burrus has already found. It is intended to be, in its matching syntactic structure, a contrasting addition to our map of early Christian subjectivities and part of an argument for significant synchronic diversity in early Christian modes of imagining the self. Most of all, making such a map is an effort to articulate how very diverse notions of the self and the world could be, even within one religion in a limited period of time.60 The state of being an object-subject is typical of Late Antiquity in general, not (like the abject subject) of Christianity in particular. While Didymus’ students are being formed by the study of texts unlike those read by their non-Christian peers, Didymus’ purpose in doing this is not to produce a different, separate, or unique type of citizen. His program is to make them particularly Roman, not in spite of, but by virtue of, the Christian basis of their study, where both Christianity and Romanness are construed as being properly aligned with reality and able to engage the order of which the subject is a part.61
Rather than deriving a picture of early Christian subjectivity from doctrinal positions or confessional particulars, we need to examine the cultural practices and structures which shaped any late ancient subjectivity. Christians cannot be studied according to a separate set of categories that only apply to them and to no one else in Late Antiquity, nor in terms of categories of identity which they themselves generated and which are read as identical with their western inherited form. Rather than categorizing Christian identities as Arian, orthodox, Donatist, and so on, religious agents across the landscape of Late Antiquity must be construed according to how they orient themselves to the common themes of religious life in that era. Common themes, for pagans, Jews, Manichaeans, orthodox Christians, Nestorians, Arians, Donatists, or anyone else, can be recognized around the tension between sexuality and spiritual excellence, the proper role of the intellect in religious life, embodiment as problematic or matter of fact, masculinity, right relationships of dominance and subordination, the role of textuality and learning in religious advancement, the position of the physical world relative to the spiritual, the differentiation of classes of religious agents according to their greater or lesser commitments, and the function of religion in upholding the welfare of the empire, along with debate about which parties are contributing to or detracting from that project. To study Christians according to specially Christian categories, asking only whether Didymus is an Origenist or an Arian, Nicene or not, is to re-inscribe and reify early Christian ideologies of novelty and singularity.
An object-subject is constituted by enmeshment in a multitude of analogous orders and the knowledge-producing practices which articulate those orders. She is beholden to the ethical imperative of adaptation to and participation in those pre-existing independent orders and therefore to obtaining knowledge of those order or submitting herself to such experts as already possess that knowledge. She is a subject inasmuch as she is called upon to act, know, choose, and navigate within this order. She is an object inasmuch as she is required to navigate an established order larger than and only partially knowable to herself, which acts upon, contains, and knows her. The object-subject of Late Antiquity lives rightly when she lives according to this order (practicing mimēsis), observing and cooperating with the unfolding of oikonomia in history, respecting and contributing to the order of the empire, and attaching herself to proper household, communal, and municipal orders in her specific place. The object-subject is also simultaneously object and subject in that she is required to act upon herself in order to shape herself such that a smooth and harmonious position of enmeshment can be inhabited. This means cultivating the inner order through control and discipline of the passions, ordering the household so that women, children, and slaves cannot disrupt proper oikonomia, and resisting deviance, disorder, or disruption of the oikonomia in civic life.
This survey of some prominent features of the late ancient epistemic landscape indicates some paths for new approaches to texts which concern themselves with articulating and producing knowledge from texts. It orients the work of knowledge production within a historiographic framework, linking the past and the future. As such, it opens the door to studying historiographical texts like those of Eusebius along with, for example, speculative texts like those from the Nag Hammadi find, because they do similar epistemic projects, offering a narrative of origins and purpose according to meticulous taxonomies. Integrating notions of patrimony and curation also makes possible a new way to study commentary as part of a historiographic argument, and to extract ourselves from belabored and unproductive debates about influence or borrowing to explain relationships between older and newer texts. While genres like hagiography or martyr and pilgrim literature have readily been studied in terms of mimēsis, linking mimēsis to knowledge production means re-reading that literature as pedagogy, as part of a larger epistemic scramble to define the order of the whole social and ethical cosmos. A link between oikonomia and historiography is not hard to see, but how does it apply to ascetic literature like the Life of Antony or the ethical and ascetic works of Evagrius? Does looking at knowledge as part of a totalized cosmos change the way we construe what has previously been described as pagan-Christian competition? Does it make the object and terms of any such competition more clear and more plausible? Above all, using these features to study late ancient knowledge has the advantage that none of them are confessionally marked. That means it is possible to see similarities without asserting influence and to see significant differences, whether in forms of subjectivity or in construals of what rightly belongs to the patrimony, within religious groups.