Isaac the Syrian's ascetic interpretation of apatheia and agon

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Last week I presented a paper on Isaac the Syrian at the ANZAMEMS conference- Australia and New Zealand Medieval and Early Modern Society, held in Melbourne.

Isaac the Syrian has often been compared to Evagrius who he quoted extensively, but while Evagrius was condemned, Isaac was lauded. One key difference is that Isaac is far more Stoic than Evagrius, and his asceticism is less speculative. Isaac’s ascetic homilies were originally written for an audience of monastics in the 690s. He wrote in Syriac and his work was early translated into Greek and Arabic, becoming a central text for monks across the Orthodox and Oriental churches. His work evidences many Syriac thought-forms intermingled with Greek philosophy, especially Stoicism. Other authors have focussed on his Neoplatonic thought, but as Marcia Colish has noted, there is a Western academic  bias against Stoicism, and this has meant that almost nothing has been written about Isaac’s Stoicism. Alfeyev’s much-cited and excellent work only treats Isaac’s NeoPlatonism and does not even mention his Stoic approach.

This paper thus analyses key themes in Isaac’s writing, especially the concepts of agon, apatheia and ataraxia, and discusses how he appropriated Greek ascetic thought, Stoicism in particular, to shape Christian spiritual practice.

Combatting the soul in al-Muhasibi and Isaac of Nineveh

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On Monday I presented at the Australian Early Medieval Association's annual conference. The abstract:
When al-Ghazali wrote his works on purification of the soul he drew especially on the 3rd/9th century works of al-Muhasibi. Al-Muhasibi developed a rich terminology of inner spiritual battle and soul purification which he considered was 90% of jihad. Smith, Schoonover, Renard and Picken have described his works but not analysed the metaphors and concepts involved. This paper analyses key aspects of al-Muhasibi’s approach to combatting the soul, and briefly compares this with Isaac of Nineveh’s roughly contemporary writings, demonstrating significant similarities and differences between them. This analysis informs the current debate over the meaning and methods of jihad.