Evagrios of Pontus

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EVAGRIOS OF PONTUS (345399), also known as Evagrios Pontikos; Greek theologian and mystic. Evagrios was surnamed Pontikos because he was a native of Pontus, in Asia Minor. He was born to a prosperous, educated family. His father was a chorepiskopos, a bishop, of an area adjacent to the family estates of Basil of Caesarea. Evagrios studied under Basil, who ordained him a reader. When Basil died in 379, Evagrios became a disciple of Gregory of Nazianzus, who ordained him deacon and took him under his aegis. Under the Cappadocian fathers, Evagrios became a skilled theologian. Directly or indirectly influenced by the thought of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, he viewed Hellenism as an enrichment rather than as a corruption of Christianity.

When Gregory of Nazianzus moved to Constantinople as patriarch, Evagrios was invited along. There he participated in the deliberations of the Council of Constantinople (381), which brought the Arian controversy to an end and established the Nicene Creed in its final form. The young deacon impressed many in the council with his brilliant mind and skillful debating.

When Evagrios fell in love with a married woman, he decided to leave the capital and seek peace and salvation in the monastic life. He traveled to centers of monasticism in Egypt and Palestine, where he was the guest of Melania, the Roman aristocrat who ran a hospice on the Mount of Olives for Christian pilgrims. He also became acquainted with Rufinus, who had founded a monastery near the Mount of Olives. Later he moved to Egypt, where he spent two years in the mountains of Nitria and fourteen in the nearby Desert of the Cells (a settlement where six hundred anchorites lived). In Egypt, he came under the influence of the Macarii monks, known as the Makroi Adelphoi (Long Brothers), champions of Origenism. Early in his life among the Egyptian monks he encountered their hostility. They did not like "the cultured Greek living in their midst." Still the Desert Fathers exerted a significant influence on Evagrios's spirituality. He was to live among these monks until his death.

Evagrios was a prolific author of theological and ascetic essays, biblical commentaries, and letters. Some of his writings survive in the original Greek but most have survived only in Syriac, Armenian, or Latin translations. His writings reveal his indebtedness to Origen, the Desert and the Cappadocian fathers (Gregory of Nyssa in particular), and his concern with mystical and ascetic theology.

Among some fourteen authentic works by Evagrios is a trilogy: the Praktikos, the Gnostikos, and the Kefalaia gnostika. The first is a comprehensive exposition of his ascetic philosophy in short chapters intended for simple monks; the second is a continuation of the Praktikos for educated monks; and the third, the most important, known also as the Problemata gnostika, develops his cosmological, anthropological, and philosophical thought. It is here that Origen's influence on Evagrios is most apparent. This work was used for Evagrios's condemnation by the Second Council of Constantinople (553). Evagrios's most important essay, known as "Chapters on Prayer," is preserved in its original Greek under the name of Nilus of Ancyra.

Evagrios is acknowledged as an important spiritual influence on Christian spirituality and Islamic Sufism. He influenced Maximos the Confessor, Dionysius the Areopagite, and John of Klimakos (John Climacus) and became the forerunner of the hesychasts of later Byzantium. Through Rufinus and John Cassian, Evagrios's ascetic and mystical theology influenced John Scottus Eriugena as well as Bernard of Clairvaux and other Cistercian mystics.


Primary Sources

Evagrios's works (including fragments) in their original Greek can be found in Patrologia Graeca, edited by J.-P. Migne, vols. 40 and 79 (Paris, 18581860)in volume 79, s.v. Nilus Ancyranus and in Nonnenspiegel und Mönchsspiegel des Euagrios Pontikos, edited by Hugo Gressmann (Leipzig, 1913). Sources in other languages include The Praktikos: Chapters on Prayer, translated and edited by John Eudes Bamberger (Spencer, Mass., 1970); The Ecclesiastical History by Socrates Scholasticus (London, 1884), bk. 4, pt. 23; Evagriana Syriaca: Textes inédits du British Museum et de la Vatican, edited and translated by Joseph Muyldermans (Louvain, 1952); and The Lausiac History by Palladios, edited and translated by Robert T. Meyer (Westminster, Md., 1965).

Secondary Sources

Works about Evagrios and the milieu in which he flourished include Ioustinou I. Mouseskou's Euagrios ho Pontikos (Athens, 1937); Hrothrd Glotobdky's "Euagrios ho Pontikos," in Ethikē kai threskeutikē enkyklopaideia, vol. 5 (Athens, 1964); and Derwas J. Chitty's The Desert a City (Crestwood, N.Y., 1977).

Demetrios J. Constantelos (1987)