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.


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