Asceticism and the Other: Angels and Animals in the Egyptian Ascetic Tradition
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The study of Christian asceticism in late antiquity has traditionally been anthropocentric, meaning there is a pervasive focus on ascetic practice as experienced and undertaken by humans in pursuit of a more holy self. More recent scholarly efforts have begun to examine the role non-human agents in this process, a methodological turn consonant with larger “Post-Humanist” trends in scholarship which seek to redefine humanity’s place in the world as merely one life form among many. To date, however, the majority of these works have been limited in scope and have dealt primarily with the ways in which non-humans, such as angels and animals, were participants in the ascetic lives of humans in various capacities (e.g. as companions, guardians, exemplars, food, etc.), to the neglect of how they were also portrayed as beneficiaries of their involvement.
This dissertation more fully situates non-humans within scholarly narratives of Christian asceticism by investigating the ways in which late ancient Christian authors implicated non-humans—specifically angels and animals—as beneficiaries of their involvement in the lives of human ascetics. I limit my analysis to literary works associated with the Egyptian ascetic tradition, meaning those which espouse ascetic ideals, inculcate ascetic practices, or model the ascetic lives of Christians living in Egypt during approximately the third through sixth centuries C.E. I make a historical argument which 1) articulates the most prominent discourses relating to non-human benefaction, 2) places these discourses within their social and theological contexts, and 3) attends to the possible reasons for their similarities and particularities across time and space. I argue that ascetic life was understood by some ancient Christians to provide a context in which both humans and non-humans could advance toward a more ideal state of being. By tracing how authors depict positive changes in the nature and circumstances of non-humans in ascetic contexts, a portrait of early Christian ascetic life emerges in which humans are neither the sole practitioners nor beneficiaries.
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