Authority and Asceticism from Augustine to Gregory the Great

Authority and Asceticism from Augustine to Gregory the Great

Authority and Asceticism from Augustine to Gregory the Great

Authority and Asceticism from Augustine to Gregory the Great

Synopsis

'A final virtue of Leyser's book is its careful awareness of the modern scholarly tradition' -Journal of Theological Studies'The insights and intelligence of Leyser's discussions provide another testament both to Augustine's and Gregory's extensive influence in Late Antiquity and to their relevance for modern times' -Journal of Theological Studies'Leyser's book deserves the attention (and praise) of specialists. It also rewards anyone interested in the development of authority in the Western Christian tradition' -Theological StudiesWhen barbarians invaded the Roman Empire in the years around 400 AD, Christian monks hid in their cloisters - or so it is often assumed. Conrad Leyser shows is that monks in the early medieval West were, in fact, pioneers in the creation of a new language of moral authority. He describes the making of this tradition over two centuries from St Augustine to St Benedict and Gregory the Great.

Excerpt

My grandmother, who grew up a century ago in an austere reformed Jewish household in Cologne, told the following story from her childhood. One day, her mother entrusted her with the task of watching the soup. And watch she did, with fierce and increasingly anxious attention, until it had all boiled away. On returning to the kitchen, her mother naturally concluded that her trust had been betrayed. The story carries a universal message—about the powerlessness of good intentions and the vulnerability to error of those in authority—that the figures discussed in this book would have had no trouble in recognizing. But the story also speaks to me in particular, with all the terrifying force of an archetype. I started work on the doctoral thesis that forms the basis for this book in 1985: for fifteen years now I have been watching the soup, as it were, during which time almost everything else in my life has changed. Readers may well decide I have misinterpreted my task, and that the pot has long since cracked and charred.

The field is now, also, much changed. When I began research, the writings of ascetics in the late Roman West were comparatively understudied, at least in the English-speaking world. Although this is, happily, no longer the case, my focus has obstinately remained the language of moral authority used by western ascetics in the uncertain political context associated with the barbarian invasions. A traditional approach to these 'later Latin Fathers' might seek to define them through their perceived contribution to the development of the medieval monastery or episcopacy. By contrast, I have sought to interpret their work in terms of the prolongation and adaptation of a very ancient discussion about how a man should hold power, a discussion focused self-consciously on rhetorical performance. An analysis of the ethical relation between speaker and listener, rather than a concern with the institutional authority of bishops or abbots, seems to me to characterize ascetic thought and practice in this period.

My debts are legion. I thank for generous support of my research the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Board, the Arnold, Bryce and Read Funds at Oxford University, the British School at Rome, Dumbarton Oaks, the Andrew Mellon Foundation at . . .

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