Robert M. Simkins Defense
Final Examination of
Robert M. Simkins
for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
2:00 p.m., Caldwell Room 125
Palladius and Ascetic Social Engagement
Robert M. Simkins
Director: Philip Rousseau, D. Phil.
Around 420 CE, Palladius wrote the Lausiac History, a collective biography recounting his travels amongst the desert communities of Egypt and Palestine. The text was written in response to a specific request from Lausus, who was the praepositus sacri cubiculi in the court of Emperor Theodosius II. Lausus desired to hear of the lives of the ascetic men and women Palladius had encountered in the desert. The text Palladius produced provides a vivid and personal narrative of the monastic successes and failures that he had witnessed, meshing narratives of miraculous deeds alongside tales cautioning against overzealousness and boasting.
While scholarly interest in Palladius has increased in recent years, most scholars have been content to use individual anecdotes from the work in the service of their larger arguments on the ascetic life, rather than undertake a comprehensive analysis of the Lausiac History as a whole. This thesis provides such an analysis, examining Palladius’ critique of the ascetic life through attention to the text’s narrative construction and comparison between Palladius’ ascetic ideals and those of the tradition that preceded him. I conclude that Palladius’ narrative offers a reassessment of the ascetic ideal through an emphasis on ascetic struggle while de-emphasizing the location in which the ascetic life took place. As such, he strives to relocate the ascetic life from the desert to the city. His text was to serve as a guide towards the development of a Christian life of charitable ministry that was built upon self-knowledge and communal teaching.
Using eye-witness accounts of ascetic failure, Palladius presents a critique that challenges previously held views on the necessity of living a life of severe austerity while isolated from larger society. His critique centers upon the damaging and delusional effects of pride, which tempts the ascetic to posit his own effort as the cause of his success. Palladius helps us to understand better the shifting landscape of asceticism in the early-fifth century as Christians increasingly resided in urban centers and sought a means to live spiritual lives that followed in Christ’s footsteps.