"Sin City": Shenoute, Panopolis, and the Poor
One of the basic difficulties any study of Shenoute must face is the lack of context. Even for the fifth century, a particularly ill-documented period, his is an unusual case. He is not mentioned in any contemporary sources, from Egypt or anywhere else. Although he has a relatively important place in later Coptic tradition, Greek hagiographers and historians of the church pass him over in silence. With few exceptions, his works cannot be dated and do not name people known otherwise. The only datable "event" in his life would be his much-vaunted participation at the council(s) in Ephesus, yet council acts do not mention him either. To make things even more interesting, his writings come almost exclusively from medieval manuscripts found at his own monastery.
An "incomparable" character, indeed, living in an apparently self-contained world. Everything we know about Shenoute comes, inevitably, from his own writings and a biography that is heavily dependent on them, when not biased by an all-too-obvious hagiographic intention. It is not an accident, therefore, that his own self-presentation has shaped our modern perception of him. What we know about Shenoute is what he has decided to let us know about himself. And self-presentation was, for this very egocentric holy man, no light matter.
His literary corpus, as we have it today, is not simply a random group of works that have happened to survive by chance. Even in its present fragmentary state, we can discern, behind its structure, Shenoute's hand administering his literary legacy as carefully as he administered his own reputation. No text seems to be entirely out of place. His Letters and Discourses, in particular, should be read as a whole and not just individually. For seemingly disparate texts, discourses dealing with topics as varied as the devil, the martyr cult, or the plight of the poor, letters both hostile-quoted to be refuted-and friendly, add up to a consistent self-portrait of his persona in action. A hint that this was in fact Shenoute's original intention-and not simply the modern reader's illusion-is provided by his own introduction to the last volume of Canons. Looking back at the end of his life, he makes plain with what spirit he engaged in this last compilation of his writings:
These words and commands were in my heart, and I was concerned to establish them before I depart. I had written them on tablets (pinakis), so when I came to the monasteries [from my desert cave], we copied them onto papyrus sheets during those distressful days before Lent. Thus the great disturbances and all the tearful distress that this miserable man has suffered at the hands of pagans, the violent, and he who goads them against us, Satan, have not been able to keep us from doing everything we want.
This final declaration of victory reads, in a way, like a programmatic statement about Shenoute's life and work. Self-assertion in the face of the world and its powers had always been one of his central preoccupations. One of the most striking aspects of his works is, in fact, the extent to which so many of them can be described as "ego-documents." Everything revolves around his public status, his exploits, the reactions he provokes, and the admiration he evokes. His writings are "full of himself." He is the kind of public character who will often refer to himself in the third person. Against the evil rich who do not listen to him, he declares, with a threatening voice, that "this one has torn his garments and others have torn theirs with him [on behalf of the poor]. But not in vain: he knows what he is doing!" Vis-à-vis provincial governors, he claims that "the good fame of he who tramples upon the love of authority (i.e., my fame) has quickly spread" to Alexandria, Ephesus, and the imperial court. Teaching his own monks, he does not hesitate to exalt his own exemplary courage:
Don't you know all the evil that they (the evil tax collectors) have tried to do to your brother (i.e., to me, Shenoute) because he says [to them]: "You are evil because you oppress the poor"? Above all, they have tried to do evil to the poor because of your brother, but God has hindered them in their impious plan.
One gets the feeling that, for moments, his public self was too massive a burden for his ego to bear.
It certainly was too massive a burden for many of his contemporaries. That is, at least, the impression conveyed throughout his works. One of the most interesting aspects of his strategy of self-presentation is his insistence on the widespread negative reactions provoked, in local society, by his actions on behalf of the poor and against paganism. Shenoute's enemies seem to be everywhere, and he claims, with ill-concealed pride, to be the victim of their constant accusations. What other abbot or bishop has ever talked so much about his own alleged crimes? Who preserves so many hostile documents only to refute them? Harboring thieves, "gathering men to fight each other on account of the villages" and distributing bread to them, destroying temples, causing trouble and tumults, being violent, maltreating the poor, making demands of other landowners' tenants, beating up his own monks, helping murderers because they owe money to his monastery, slaughtering cows and pigs in the houses of pagans during Easter, "turning the heart of the poor away" from their pagan masters, breaking into his enemies' houses to destroy their pagan idols, stealing books from "the godless man," using an antipagan raid as a pretext to plunder a village-these are only some of the "crimes" Shenoute was, according to himself, accused of.
Being hated by the "right" people and for the "right" reasons seems to have been one of Shenoute's major claims to prominence. He is the sort of controversial figure who thrives on threats, whether real or perceived. This is particularly true of his relationship to Panopolis, the local town across the river, where he likes to claim for himself the status of persona non grata. Panopolis was one of the success stories of late antique Egypt. The city is well known to have been an important center of Hellenism in this period. Numerous poets and grammarians-many of them pagan-were educated there and went on to have successful careers in the imperial bureaucracy. During Shenoute's lifetime, for example, Cyrus of Panopolis, a poet and bureaucrat, managed to become both praetorian prefect and urban prefect in Constantinople. His power and popularity were such that the emperor himself felt threatened. Nonnus of Panopolis, on the other hand, also a contemporary of Shenoute, reformed Greek poetry and became one of the most influential poets of his age. His Dionysiaca is considered the last great epic poem from antiquity. Shenoute's mockery of Aristophanes-who had displaced Menander as one of the "four pillars" of literary education in late antiquity-and of philosophers who "grow their hair like women" also point to the importance of Hellenistic schools in the city.
Like Madaura in Africa, also a provincial center of education associated with paganism, Panopolis had a bad reputation among Christian ascetics. When Pachomius established a monastery outside the city in the mid-fourth century, a delegation of philosophers, "who prided themselves on being teachers," came out to challenge the Christian monks in a vain attempt to humiliate them. And the later "Apocalypse of Čarour," a text that attacks the moral decadence of the Pachomian monastic communities, complains that "the roads of Phbow (the main monastery of the Pachomian federation) have become like the roads of Panopolis; we yell like in the agora of Panopolis."
But Panopolis was also a Christian city with its own bishop. Its temples had been converted into churches, and it was surrounded by an impressive number of monasteries. Numerous Christian texts, in Greek and Coptic, have been found in the city's environs. They show a remarkable symbiosis between Christianity and Greek literature. Shenoute's own writings, in fact, leave no doubt that many of his supporters and admirers must have lived there, and that many wealthy and powerful Panopolitans attended his sermons, offered gifts to his monastery, and were moved to tears by his denunciations. The pious rich man from Panopolis who-according to Besa's account-came to the monastery every weekend to make an offering and attend Mass must have been a fairly typical character. Yet Shenoute sees only enemies in Panopolis. He addresses curses and rebukes to the city as a whole (a feminine "you"), while speaking of himself-again in the third person-as "he from whom the people of Panopolis hate to hear about the glory of God." He never mentions the Christian bishop of the city, not even when protesting against the invasion of the city's churches by dubious martyrs' relics-a sacrilege he has witnessed "only in Panopolis." "That worthless city," he argues in a revealing pun, deserves to be called not Panos polis (the city of Pan) but instead Panomos polis, "Sin City."B /BIt is there that his archenemy, Gesios, whom he never names but always references ("the fox," "the fruitless tree," "the liar," "that hostile man from Panopolis," "that pestilent child," "the man worthy of being cursed," "he who does not deserve to be named," etc.), lives and rules. This rich pagan-whose impiety was matched only by his avarice-is such an obsessive concern to Shenoute that he keeps preaching against him even after he and "his companions" had died, and when nobody "recalled his memory." And he was by no means Shenoute's only enemy in Panopolis. By not naming Gesios, he generalizes his rivalry with one powerful notable to the city as a whole. His enemies seem to be everywhere. They are both pagan and Christian, and they never tire of plotting against him. They are all certainly liars-he claims-but they have good reasons to resent his formidable presence:
As for those of you (people of Panopolis) who will hide behind what you accuse me of having done, you are hateful and hostile to me. And if you (pl.) know God and belong to Jesus (i.e., if you are Christians), truly you are worthy of the curse and you will not escape denying yourselves before the angels of God. For you have lied before Him when you set unlawful words against me in documents. For it is unlawful for you to have written them [but] it is even more unlawful against the crown of your head. For you have left me alive, whereas I deserve to die according to the works that you ascribe to me.
And perhaps this is the reason that such a great curse has come upon that unlawful governor from God, who delivered him into the hands of the emperors that they might take revenge on him, even before he goes into the hands of Him who will judge him and you. Him because he did not take my head, you (pl.) because you have not completed your task, oh friends. For if I had not shaken you (sg.), oh Panopolis, against your works of violence and your servitude of Kronos, you would have accused me to the rulers for nothing. How can a foreign man (i.e., a foreign governor) know whether I am good or I am bad? How will this impure judge-who brought these afflictions onto himself because of bribes-how will he dare say these words, namely, sometimes "What I am going to do with the places of Christ (i.e., Shenoute's monasteries)?" Sometimes also "Shall I kill him?" Just as also that miserable military governor sent to me saying: "Get wisdom."
This confrontational style differs markedly from the self-confident poise of Isidore of Pelusium, Shenoute's contemporary in the northeastern corner of the Nile delta. Isidore was also a monk of the "desert" heavily involved in the affairs of the "world." Like Shenoute in Panopolis, he had plenty of enemies in the important harbor town of Pelusium. His blunt denunciations of corruption and injustice recall those so vehemently voiced by Shenoute. Yet Pelusium was his city in a way that Panopolis could never be Shenoute's. He considered it his particular right and duty to plead in front of governors on behalf of his hometown. On the arrival of a new friendly governor, his address to his fellow citizens opened with an exulting "God still cares for Pelusium!" His numerous letters to members of the civic elite emphasize the paideia shared by him and his interlocutors. Shenoute, in contrast, owes nothing-or so he claims-to Panopolis. His rivals and accusers seem to have a tight hold over urban life there. They compete with him and his city on the "hill"-that is, his monastery-for access to usually well-minded but ignorant foreign governors, whose ears they poison with lies about him. Shenoute does not represent Panopolis before Roman magistrates. He represents the "poor," and the oppressors of the "poor" happened to be landowners who lived and ruled in Panopolis.
His attitude toward the "violent"-as he usually calls these villains-wavers between self-righteous victimization and daring provocation. He is constantly answering their accusations and insisting that he is not afraid of them. He disclaims, time and again, the need to do what he is permanently doing, justifying himself. A good example-one of many-of this "doubletalk in which the provocateur is playing at one and the same time the role of assailant and victim" is the "discourse which he preached to the crowd attached to the man worthy of the curse (i.e., Gesios) wishing that they would tell him what he (Shenoute) often says about him":
What will I fear from senseless men? Will the lawlessness of the pagans surround me?
What will Christ's enemies say against me except for lying about me and [saying] all sorts of things that are not true?
Those wealthy and violent people? They have nothing to say against me except for saying: "You turn the heart of the poor away from us, so that they no longer labor beyond their power in the vineyards and everywhere else."
And they also say: "He came into our houses openly. He removed what we worship (i.e., our pagan idols) to our shame for we could not hinder him."
Therefore I am not worried about these things (i.e., these accusations): Didn't [even] a pagan military governor dare to say when he came here: "I am amazed that you are happy"? I told him: "Why wouldn't they be happy, those who have no God but Jesus?"
When his enemies are not lying, they are invariably accusing him of something he is actually proud of. In any case, all those accusations only show his powerful impact on local society. At the same time as he professes innocence, therefore, he preserves every hostile document and makes a point of mentioning those accusations in other contexts. For he may be innocent, but he is certainly not harmless. He likes to provoke and challenge his rivals and adopts a defiant tone when addressing them. For moments, he seems to be flirting with illegality. "There is no crime for those who have Christ," is one of his answers to accusations of theft. "I do not care [about your accusations]. I do not flee from the laws." "Only Christ's tribunal has anything to do with me and I have nothing to confess to its president, Jesus." He claims to be proud of many actions that his foes repudiate, and he never misses an opportunity to proclaim them: raiding the pagan houses of a village and vaunting the spoils removed from them, humiliating his great enemy in Panopolis (i.e., Gesios) by "openly" breaking into his house and destroying his pagan idols with the help of "only seven monks," burning down a temple at Atripe near his monastery, leading all sorts of audacious actions on behalf of the "poor" against the evil landowners of Panopolis... One is reminded of the Syrian monks despised by Libanius: fanatics who "flaunt their excesses, boast of them, advertise them to those who are unaware of them, and claim that they should be rewarded."
As he himself sees it, Shenoute's life has, altogether, an almost epic quality. For he is not simply an abbot, a spiritual guide, or even a holy man. He is an Old Testament prophet with a sacred mission. Overwhelmed by the consciousness of being chosen, enraptured by the possession of truth-a truth that he cannot contain-he has no option but to call the sinners of the world to repentance. This is an emotionally taxing duty ("I often weep until I can no longer") that he has not chosen. It has chosen him. As the important studies of Rebecca Krawiec, Caroline Schroeder, and David Brakke have shown, Shenoute takes on such a prophetic role not only in relation to the city of Panopolis but, to begin with, in relation to his own monastic community. From his desert cave, a voice cries out in the wilderness and denounces the lawlessness of the world. This lawlessness is often expressed-as in the Old Testament-in sexual terms: the prophet is a male; Panopolis (or the monastic community) is the woman guilty of infidelity and fornication. Indeed, Shenoute's language is so well blended with that of the prophets that they can hardly be distinguished. In his writings, Panopolis takes on the contours of Samaria or Jerusalem; his enemy Gesios those of a sinful Old Testament king. Like a good old prophet, he claims to be an outsider, both to his community and to the world at large; he acts as the (reluctant) intermediary between God and a world for whose sins he can but weep; he is a lawgiver-for his own communities-and an interpreter of the (biblical) law; he stands for social justice and the poor; and last but not least, he endures perpetual persecution.
It has recently been argued that Shenoute's biographies are but late compilations that were put together centuries after his death. This may well be right, but the fact remains that these biographies depict Shenoute precisely how he would have wished to be remembered. He is, here again, an Old Testament prophet whose "righteous anger" cannot be checked, who communicates through histrionic gestures, and whose feats defy belief. We see him confronting the patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, in the midst of the bishops at the Council of Ephesus; physically defeating an "impious pagan" in Panopolis-on behalf of the poor, of course; miraculously facing down a pagan military governor at Antinoe, the provincial capital, in defense of his fellow Christians . . .
One thing is clear here. If Shenoute has a bad reputation-and he has one: impulsive violence, intolerance, lack of self-control-it is he who has made it. Faced with such shocking evidence provided in his own writings and-a fortiori-in his Life, many modern scholars have simply accepted it as too ugly not to be true. As a result, the "great" abbot has become larger than life. His fanatical zeal seems, in many modern accounts, to have no limits. His long arm reaches all the way from his desert cave to Panopolis, where people have apparently nothing better to do than to talk and worry about Shenoute's latest exploits. Imperial magistrates are rendered powerless by his courage; local society is at his mercy.
It is essential to avoid this mistake. Given our sources, the question "Who is Shenoute?" can only be answered with another question: "Who did Shenoute say he was?" And his answer-"I am the enemy of Panopolis because the rulers of the city oppress the poor"-is clearly one-sided and by no means innocent. To start with, it should be made clear that Shenoute's exploits may have been less spectacular, his enemies less numerous and powerful, than he maintains. They may have been less worried about him than he was about them. It is true that the monks' irruption into the late fourth-century world of politics was deeply disturbing for many traditional civic notables. Many of Shenoute's enemies were certainly only too real. His attempt to become the moral and religious leader of his region threatened the status quo, that is, the monopoly over the economic, cultural, and religious life held by the elite of Panopolis. His provocations cannot have failed to arouse resistance there, though probably more often a passive resistance-simply ignoring him-rather than the active opposition of a Gesios. Yet Shenoute feeds on this opposition and exalts it to a degree out of proportion with reality.
The reasons for this go beyond his self-understanding as a biblical prophet, or his remarkable personality. They have to do with his problematic position in society. In the first place, we cannot take Shenoute's influence outside his monastery for granted. This was a position that had to be established and earned. What an abbot like Shenoute needed, therefore, was above all to have an impact, to provoke a response. He could take, in fact he needed, the opposition and the "persecution." What he could not afford was indifference and to be ignored. "The only thing worse than being talked about," Oscar Wilde has said, "is not being talked about." In the second place, Shenoute's pose as the courageous and persecuted prophet who defends the "poor" allowed him to be deeply involved in the life of Panopolis-as he undoubtedly was-while remaining the "supreme stranger" to its corrupt way of life. But his critical statements about the city do not need to be taken literally any more than do similar disapproving statements about his own community. The irony, in fact, is that the success of Shenoute's "counterculture" may have owed much to Panopolis's own success during late antiquity. That is, his criticisms, however shocking, may have been unwittingly functional to a society that was successful but felt uncomfortable with its sudden prosperity.
Even if answering accusations was a pressing need for his political survival, Shenoute clearly made a virtue out of this necessity. His insistent claim to be a controversial character, both hated and feared by the "violent" of Panopolis, was not simply an inevitable reaction to the inevitable hostility of the powerful. It was, rather, an essential aspect of the role that he had to act out to define and legitimize his problematic involvement in politics, that of the fearless spokesman of the "poor." To understand this role's rationale and implications, we need to set Shenoute's discourse of self-presentation in the context in which it belongs: the political structures, traditions, and ideologies of the later Roman Empire. Faced with such an idiosyncratic character, we need to focus, more than ever, on the fundamental needs and values of the society that admired but also scorned or ignored him. In the apposite words of Clifford Geertz,
No matter how peripheral, ephemeral or free-floating the charismatic figure we might be concerned with-the wildest prophet, the most deviant revolutionary-we must begin with the center and with the symbols and conceptions that prevail there if we are to understand him and what he means.
"Vertical Solidarity": The Roman State and the Poor
Let us look now, therefore, at the "center" of Late Roman society: the Roman state. Too much emphasis on Shenoute's violent rhetoric or on his self-understanding as a prophet has made us overlook something so obvious that it is seldom observed: that he lived in the Roman Empire. Shenoute's relationship to the representatives of the Roman state and, in particular, to the provincial governors seems to have been for the most part the exact reverse of his hostility toward the local powerful at Panopolis. Far from displaying any separatist tendencies or any Egyptian nationalism, he identifies completely with the Roman order and relies on it to fight off his local enemies. He never criticizes a Roman emperor or the Roman state as such. Quite the opposite. As Shenoute sees it, the duty to care for the "poor" and to ensure social justice belongs, above all, to the state. The ideal of social justice that so many of his sermons and writings advocate can be described in two words: "vertical solidarity." A vertical chain links God, the emperor, his magistrates, provincial governors, and the local "poor," as represented in the person of Shenoute himself. The members of this chain are, ideally, linked with each other by ties of hierarchical reciprocity. Loyalty and obedience are owed to one's superior-and above all to the emperor-in exchange for protection. Justice and mercy are owed to one's inferior-always pictured as the "poor"-in exchange for loyalty. This vertical chain of protection and loyalty should bypass and neutralize the corporate interests of the local elites. But an effective advocate of the "poor" will occasionally have to travel "up" all the way to the imperial capital and skip missing links. For it is the "righteous emperors" who are, in Shenoute's opinion, the last resort of the "poor." They have been established by God to bring justice to the land and to punish all those unjust landowners who oppress the weak. "In their love for God," they have also put an end to the public practice of paganism and have offered financial support to his monastery. Shenoute only has words of praise for them.
If not for the modern belief that Shenoute somehow represented a "national" Egyptian Christianity, this should have been expected. The identification of the imperial court as a model of heaven on earth and as the "exemplary center" of society is one of the dominant themes of late antique Christianity in the Eastern Empire. The faithful, it has been said, came to "see the realization of God's kingdom in the miracle of the sumptuous imperial court, which had converted to the new faith." Christopher Kelly has documented the grip of the imperial court on the Christian imagination of the time. When Pachomius's successor Theodore saw an angel in a vision, what he saw looked like an imperial bureaucrat. When Porphyry of Gaza witnessed the procession for the baptism of the child-emperor in Constantinople, the splendor of the imperial ceremonial and its hierarchical perfection suggested to him the splendors of heaven. When theologians argued about the true nature of Christ, their arguments replicated debates on the nature of imperial power as expressed in the courtly ceremonial at Constantinople.
Shenoute always made sure that both friends and enemies knew about his positive relationship to this numinous center. He once declared to a visiting governor that he was "amazed" that someone who despised ambition and worldly honors as much as he himself did had still managed to become famous among the powerful, "not only in Alexandria or Ephesus, but also at the imperial comitatus and at the court of the emperors, just like light carrying off the darkness and scattering the gloom." He also claimed to have been offered money by the pious emperor Theodosius II himself, only to refuse it of course. And his biography illustrates the same aspiration in its usual, over-the-top way. According to a story contained therein, the emperor once "thirsted" for Shenoute's presence in Constantinople. The military governor of the Thebaid was therefore commanded to bring him over to the imperial capital where the "entire senate" was looking forward to his visit. Shenoute was unfortunately too busy praying for his own sins. The solution: he mounted a shining cloud, flew over to the royal palace in Constantinople, blessed the emperor, and came back the same night!
Stories like this, also reported about other holy men famed for their familiarity with the powerful (John of Lycopolis; Victor of Tabennesi, said to be the "secret son" of Theodosius II), show the value placed by such holy men and their admirers on an "immediate," almost miraculous contact with the emperor. A privileged access to the emperor was considered crucial for any success in local politics. Visiting the imperial capital and approaching the imperial court was expensive and dangerous, but no miraculous clouds were needed. In the fifth and sixth centuries, Constantinople was invaded every year by thousands of petitions and petitioners from the provinces in the hope of finding a favorable, quick, and definitive resolution to their conflicts. This was a situation fostered by the Roman government itself. By rewarding petitioners, the emperor encouraged criticism of local powers and even of his own provincial representatives as a way to strengthen his precarious hold over provincial life and the state apparatus. Just when they refused to leave their capital, the emperors' role in local life became more important than ever. As a result, all politics, in the late antique Near East, was imperial politics. Two well-known examples of this situation-which has been described as an "advocacy revolution"-come from Egypt. The famous petition of Apion, bishop of the border town of Syene (Assuan), demanding military protection for his churches, shows that the emperor was available even in the most remote confines of the empire. Dioscorus of Aphrodito, on the other hand, the "pompous, vain and opinionated" villager who repeatedly resisted the demands of the city of Antaeopolis on his village, traveled twice to Constantinople in the mid-sixth century to argue on behalf of his "poor" village and against the violence it suffered at the hands of the powerful of Antaeopolis.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Shenoute frequently threatened his enemies at Panopolis with a trip to the emperor, or that he boasted of a privileged relationship to the imperial court. His writings show that he did eventually travel to Constantinople. And like Dioscorus of Aphrodito, he did it to denounce "the violence which the powerful (archōn) were inflicting upon the poor." To make clear what he stood for, he showed up at the imperial palace dressed like a beggar, and then proceeded to humiliate a powerful senator before an amazed emperor. We do not know what-if any-the results of this mission were. We only know that he would often recall it with pride:
I have said this about those who came up to me on the hill (i.e., the monastery) in the night with their document saying, "Your brothers do violence to us": If I have crossed the sea to the comitatus on account of those who do violence and we are the ones doing it, how great will God's judgment against us be?
On a day-to-day basis, however, the emperor was a distant presence and only a last-resort solution. The imperial authorities typically approached by Shenoute were the military and civilian governors of the Thebaid (usually called the dux/comes and the hēgemōn, respectively). They play a central role in his writings, and, in marked contrast to the anonymous "violent men" from Panopolis, they have specific names. Shenoute names at least nine military commanders, nine civilian governors, and one Augustal prefect of Alexandria. It was in the person of these provincial governors that Shenoute focused, first and foremost, his hopes for "vertical solidarity." For it was they who made the emperor's will a reality in Upper Egypt, and it was from them, above all, that Shenoute could expect protection from his enemies in Panopolis, justice for the "poor," and, potentially, financial aid.
The central role of provincial governors is a well-documented aspect of the political life of the later Roman Empire. It is related to the new political structure of the empire, in which the unit of government was no longer the autonomous city, but the small province. The provincial capital now assumed an unprecedented weight in political life and eclipsed every other city in the province. In the case of Upper Egypt, this was the city of Antinoe, or rather the "twin cities" of Hermopolis and Antinoe. The aristocracy itself-now made up not only of civic notables but also of the members of the governor's staff and above all of former magistrates (the so-called honorati)-was now organized on a provincial and no longer on a civic level, and its life was focused on the provincial capital. There they would meet and welcome the military and civilian governors, both of them foreign individuals (at least in the sense of being foreign to the province) who would keep their position for only brief periods of time-so much so that they were advised not to bring their wives. Shenoute points out, as a remarkable feat, that a particularly righteous governor had obtained his position for three consecutive years, and this without paying any bribes.
In modern accounts of Shenoute's public role, the hostile letters from governors Dorotheos and Theodosius-which he duly refuted and preserved in his literary corpus-loom large (in part simply because they are the first texts in Leipoldt's edition) and seem to confirm his quintessential hostility to the powerful. As we have seen above, a "corrupt" governor supposedly went even so far as to consider killing him. And Shenoute attributed the defeats suffered by some military governors to their paganism, which cannot have endeared them to him. Overall, however, these are rather exceptional cases. As a rule, Shenoute's writings and his biography emphasize that good provincial governors were his "friends." They respected him more than anyone else in the province, they liked to listen to his preaching, they needed and heeded his advice and correction, and they protected him when necessary. Even a pagan military governor, we have seen, could not help but be amazed at Shenoute's "happiness." In contrast, the villains of Panopolis had a much harder time getting heard by the governor and tried in vain to give Shenoute a bad name. Thus when the military governor Chryssipos was visiting Panopolis, "that godless one"-almost certainly Gesios-accused Shenoute of theft to the governor. Shenoute had broken into his house and removed his heathen books. But Chryssipos's answer to these accusations was deeply gratifying. "A dear friend," Shenoute writes, "informed me that Chryssipos told that miserable man: 'Look, your judgment applies to me too; for I am also a Christian.'" In the same way, when a governor was "furious" at some of Shenoute's people (Christians accused of antipagan violence?), and the latter was forced to travel to the governor's palace in Antinoe to justify himself, Gesios was there hoping to witness Shenoute's public humiliation. Once again, his hopes were dashed: "He in whose holy name we came trusting Him did according to those He loves and they were saved instead of dying and He let the chains be removed from them and they were released."
Shenoute seems to have visited the provincial capital relatively often. In fact, it seems to be the only city in Upper Egypt besides Panopolis that he honored with his presence. We know that he preached there against paganism, at the so-called Church of the Water; that he traveled there to defend both his own monasteries and other Christians accused by the pagans; and that he shared his wisdom with both bishops and imperial authorities in the city. He claimed to have an almost infinite capacity to inspire deference among the Roman magistrates of Antinoe, and he resorted liberally to name-dropping in order to prove it:
Many also asked me in Hermopolis and Antinoe about many issues and things, and they did not dare to [say] this senselessness (i.e., like a certain hostile philosopher). If they looked for a word from me, they did so with prudence. The governor Alexander and also the governor Peter, I talked to them many times, and they did not say follies of this sort. And I also talked to you, to Aidesios the military governor, and to Peter the civilian governor inside the governor's palace, and they did not say such senselessness. If they hide their darkness in their hearts, you should know it, for they are your friends.
Many started to reveal their error in that city, and when I talked to them about what is right, they stopped in their loquacity, knowing that I say the truth from the scriptures. The son of the general who was in the city those days dared to [say] these confusing things ... [and when he heard me] he repented. The tribune of the Cusites asked me about many things when he came to us.
More important, though, than Shenoute's visits to Antinoe were the visits of the governors themselves to Shenoute's monastery. Other Egyptian holy men had been visited by provincial governors before. John of Lycopolis, the famous late fourth-century recluse who had predicted the victories of the emperor Theodosius, angered his visitor Palladius by giving priority to a governor who had arrived later than he. He also blessed military governors on their way to the war-torn southern frontier. But the visits received by Shenoute seem to have been far grander occasions. One or both governors-for they usually traveled together-would arrive at the monastery in the company of their staffs, lawyers and assessors (the omnipresent scholastikoi), "friends," "brothers," former magistrates residing in the area (the so-called honorati), troops, and other members of the provincial elite to pay him their respects, attend Mass at the monastery, and listen to his words. The presence of the provincial elite on Shenoute's doorstep was a tribute to his status among the powerful. It validated his claim to be the true spokesman of his region among the Roman authorities. Hence the jealousy of his enemies in Panopolis, who could not stand the sight of a governor visiting and praising Shenoute's own "city in the desert":
What did the God-loving military governor Chossoroas, whom you could not dissuade from visiting us, say? He said, glorifying God: "You have made the desert a city." In Panopolis it has been reported otherwise, twisting the words into a lie.
Why did all these governors like Shenoute so much? For the same reason-he claimed-that Panopolis hated him: he cared for the "poor," and he would not shut up. The "panegyrics" on the governors Heraklammon and Flavianus, which Shenoute delivered on the occasion of their visits in lieu of a regular sermon, make this point very clear. These magistrates and Shenoute admired each other because they had a similar passion: they were all "lovers of the poor." This kinship of interests created an immediate if fleeting friendship:
I have said these words and other things to Dioskorides the governor and Heraklamon, his scholastikos, who became governor after him. I also spoke to Theodotos, the military governor, as was fitting. And I did not hide what was in my heart to Spudasios, the comes of the empress, and also to his brother. For they were my friends, and they are men who love God very much, being merciful, pitiful, philanthropic, and, in particular, lovers of the poor.
I also said further things to Ailianos, who was governor of the Thebaid and then became Augustal prefect in Alexandria. But he became suspicious when he heard this, thinking that I was talking about that hostile man who lives in Panopolis (i.e., his enemy Gesios). I answered him as it was fitting and removed his suspicion. Furthermore, I spoke with many notables and magistrates, and I also spoke to Andreas, the military governor. Therefore it is not a wonder that I have spoken before you (the governor Flavianus) and that I have not hidden what has been revealed to me. For I am a miserable man, and I only want you to profit from your effort of coming here.
By listing the authorities who, in striking contrast to his rivals, had respectfully asked for his spiritual guidance, Shenoute declared himself to be an "authorized" interlocutor with the powerful. This passage, from his speech to Flavianus, hints at one remarkable trait of these "panegyrics": they are as much about Shenoute as about the magistrates themselves. Shenoute makes every virtue that he praises in a good governor-love of the poor, justice, disinterestedness, courage-a synonym for himself and becomes thereby the measure of everyone and everything. Shamelessly extolling himself as the universal exemplar was the best way to teach and commend the holders of power.
Governor Heraklammon is thus presented with an inspiring paradox: a monk (i.e., Shenoute) who flees power and fame only to become world famous and be offered a bishopric by the powerful archbishops of Alexandria:
How many bishops have spent how many days and nights here (i.e., at Shenoute's monastery) with a multitude of clerics, the elite, soldiers, and other laypersons by the command of the archbishop and his letters so that I might go to him to be ordained bishop? But I did not go, because I wanted the name of God to be glorified ...
... when we went to the great meeting of the holy ecumenical council [in Ephesus], the glorious archbishop testified [about me] to other archbishops, bishops, and the whole council, praising me and boasting of me, saying things like: "When I sent for him because of that issue (i.e., to ordain him as bishop) he did not come, but when I wrote to him to come to the council with us, he did not place any concern for himself and joined us quickly in this city before other bishops, before we had decided anything."
One wonders what the bishop of Panopolis would have made of all these grandiose claims. Shenoute's writings-we have seen-never mention him, not even when discussing issues related to the church of Panopolis. The bishops that truly count for Shenoute are the archbishops of Alexandria. And for good reason. The power of the Alexandrian archbishop over his church-he had absolute power over every single episcopal ordination-was unparalleled anywhere else in the empire. Egypt never had a counterpart to Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Porphyry of Gaza, or Rabbula of Edessa in late antiquity. As far as we can tell, no Egyptian bishop outside of Alexandria ever had more than a local impact in this period. A powerful abbot like Shenoute could act therefore as if these low-profile bishops did not exist, and he could afford to refuse any offers for episcopal ordination. Even though late antique sources from Egypt talk about the care of the "poor" as a defining duty of the local bishop and his church, Shenoute willfully ignores them and focuses all his expectations for help on the imperial governors.
How, then, should these governors show their love for the "poor"? Above all, according to these peculiar "panegyrics," through their exercise of justice. As Peter Brown has noted, the qualities admired by Shenoute in "his" governors were the standard values of an ancient and Mediterranean-wide language of power that emphasized control of anger, humanity, wisdom, and justice. This language had become suffused, since the late fourth century, with the Christian ideals of the care of the poor, and, as a result, it had come to represent the ideal of "vertical solidarity." The governor's two cardinal virtues should be mercy and justice, which has itself "become a form of almsgiving":
The first good thing (Shenoute tells Flavianus) is to protect justice, and its ornament is mercy. For these are the two principal and necessary things. They crown each other, justice and mercy. Whoever protects justice but is not merciful although he has [wealth to give] or whoever is merciful but does not protect justice although he has the power [to do it] is like a maimed person whose hand is not straight and has become weak, that is, he has gold, silver, money, power but no mercy, for his power to have mercy and to do justice has become weak.
The governor, as described by Shenoute, towers high above local society and is expected to condescend to the "poor" in the same way that God lowered himself to become human. Old Testament prophets, "who speak about us, and not about themselves," provide the language to describe his virtues and potential vices. A good governor will avoid the typical sins of a late Roman bureaucrat: buying his post and selling justice for bribes. "If the magistrates desire it," he tells Flavianus, "they can become rich in good works in a single year and a single tour to the province." Such a good governor had a bright future both in heaven and on earth:
Truly, just as he (i.e., Flavianus) is famous for his way of life, he is even more famous because he protects righteousness, mercy, and justice. He gives what belongs to God to God and what belongs to the emperors to the emperors with the wisdom and zeal of his intelligence. He is loved by the poor, he is also loved by the emperors [so much so] that they gave him the magistracy three times for nothing. He will be honored by the emperors and praised by Christ.
Shenoute's endeavor to become the privileged friend of imperial magistrates was, without any doubt, a reasonable political strategy. There is no question that he needed a direct link to the imperial authorities if he was going to bypass the local town and become the preeminent interpreter and spokesman of local interests (the "poor"). Having the ear of the governor could turn a monk into an influential personality. The letters of John of Lycopolis, preserved in papyri, show this clearly. "The knowledge of our intimacy," John wrote to a magistrate, "causes many who know your feelings toward me to flee to me and (in this case) to make me ask from your nobility [the following favor . . . ]." In the case of Shenoute, it cannot be denied that his "friendship" with imperial magistrates produced spectacular results: his impressive church building, which-as we shall see in the next chapter-was founded and financed by the military governor Caesarius. Indeed, even Cyril of Alexandria needed the help of Shenoute when traveling to the emperor, and Cyril's enemy Nestorius, the disgraced patriarch of Constantinople exiled to a fortress near Shenoute's monastery, had no other choice but to turn to him when dealing with the authorities. After several unsuccessful letters to Andreas, a military governor and one of Shenoute's "friends," Nestorius "sent to Antinoe and appealed to Caesarius, the military governor, because he was a friend of our father Shenoute."
That having been said, it is essential not to confuse Shenoute's hopes with an accurate description of reality. His very insistence on his friendship with Roman magistrates and on their admiration for him should make us somewhat skeptical about his claims. For they seem to be as exaggerated as his enmity toward Panopolis. If the imperial authorities were this close to Shenoute, if they listened to him with such unfailing respect and invariably protected him from his enemies, why did he feel such a pressing need to reassure his audience of it? Behind the plethora of names and titles listed by Shenoute among his powerful "friends," there lies a deep sense of insecurity and uncertainty. It could not have been any other way. With a new foreign governor showing up at Antinoe every one or two years, the struggle for the governor's favor was a never-ending affair. We know from Dioscorus's archive, for example, that petitions had to be repeated every time a new governor took office. For every "God-loving" governor praised by Shenoute, there may have been several others-both pagan and Christian-who were either indifferent or hostile. The use of the language of "friendship" to describe a relationship to imperial magistrates was a rhetorical device regularly used in the later Roman Empire to co-opt a powerful stranger of uncertain intentions. Libanius knew only too many such "self-styled friends" of the powerful, who induced the emperor-he complained-with their "hurtful counsel" to behave unlike his "true self."
We cannot therefore take Shenoute's success for granted. In any case, the power of a short-term foreign governor would have been limited in a strange province. He would have been highly dependent on the local aristocracy, that is, on people like Shenoute's own bête noire, Gesios. Gesios himself was a former governor-although probably not of the Thebaid-and therefore a honoratus. As such, he must have claimed the right to "fill the governor's headquarters with turmoil" and to feel offended when the governors did not visit him. Honorati "felt entitled to treat the incoming governor as a junior colleague." Such a situation must have been as intolerable to Shenoute as it was to Libanius, and it helps to explain the former's exasperating self-promotion in front of provincial governors.
Altogether, Shenoute's penchant for branding the "rulers" of the world as either his friends or his enemies should not be interpreted simply as the result of a prophet's black-and-white perception of the world. For this is a distinction with a profound political meaning. Shenoute may have been an abbot, a holy man, and even a prophet. But his ostentatious display of powerful "friends" and "enemies" in front of powerful visitors conveyed a clear message: I am one of you, and I cannot be ignored. The goal of this discourse was therefore public power and influence, the kind of power and influence a monk can have without losing his status as an outsider.
"Violence" and Parrhēsia
Any analysis of Shenoute's role as spokesman of the "poor" needs to define two notions that are fundamental to his self-understanding: "violence" and parrhēsia. As Shenoute puts it, his enemies are the "violent" (nrefči-nqons), who do "violence" (či-nqons) to the "poor." Gesios, above all, is "the prince of the violent." But the accusation of "violence" was also leveled against Shenoute himself by disgruntled monks, and against his own monasteries by malicious outsiders. The Coptic word that we usually translate as "violence" has a wider range of meaning than its English counterpart. As used by the Coptic Bible-particularly in the Prophets, the Psalms, Job, and Proverbs-and by Shenoute himself, it means essentially "social injustice." A "violent" man is an unrighteous man who takes advantage of his power or wealth to abuse those weaker than him, that is, the "poor." "Violence" is therefore an active transgression against the ideal of vertical solidarity that may but does not need to include a physical assault. As Shenoute sees it, much of the wealth of the rich has been wrung from the "poor" through "violence," that is, largely economic abuses.
The use of this language to describe the world and petition the authorities is by no means particular to Shenoute. One only needs to read late antique petitions from Egypt to notice how widespread this so-called violence had become. By the sixth century, it seems, every crime had become a crime of the rich and powerful against the weak and poor-"violence" in Shenoute's language. Social contrasts and inequality come to be portrayed in dramatic terms and form the background to every petition. The poor, miserable petitioner represents himself in the bleakest possible terms while complaining about the abuses endured at the hands of his all-powerful rivals.
Shenoute himself contributed actively to the spread of this language. And not only with his preaching. It has been argued that the very existence of a monastic sector tends "to raise the pitch of the ideological discourse and articulation of other groups and sectors-themselves influencing, at least in part, monastic discourse and organization." In Peter Brown's apposite words, "The monks functioned much as a chemical solution functions in a photographers' darkroom: their presence brought out with greater sharpness of contrast the new features of a Christian image of society." Like Shenoute-whose Discourses and Letters can be considered a long, single-minded, and ultimately successful petition-the writers of these petitions never run the risk of understatement when begging for justice and attention from the provincial governor.
What such a "violent" world needed was a courageous truth-teller who would speak truth to power and denounce all this "violence" to the emperor and his representatives. What it needed, in other words, was parrhēsia, fearless speech, a concept Shenoute uses when describing his words and deeds against the "violent." The ideal of parrhēsia was of course very old. For centuries it had been incarnated by the philosopher who was expected to act as an honest and courageous adviser and critic of the powerful. In late antiquity, the concept was infused with new life with the emergence of bishops first and then monks as its new embodiment. The Christian takeover of the old role of the philosopher as the public conscience of society introduced important Old Testament echoes into the classical ideal. Someone like Shenoute was as much a parrhēsiastēs as an Old Testament prophet. His truth-having was guaranteed not only by his objectivity and moral rectitude, but also by a privileged relationship to the divine. His parrhēsia before the powerful of this world derived to a large degree from his parrhēsia before God himself. His criticisms, therefore, attacked not only the abuse of power and wealth but also impiety and sinfulness.
What are the specific implications of parrhēsia as a discursive style? Michel Foucault's brief lectures on this topic are particularly helpful to understand Shenoute's self-presentation. In the first place, the relation between parrhēsia and rhetoric deserves some consideration:
The word parrhesia, then, refers to a type of relationship between the speaker and what he says. For in parrhesia, the speaker makes it manifestly clear and obvious that what he says is his own opinion. And he does this by avoiding any kind of rhetorical form which would veil what he thinks. Instead, the parrhesiastes uses the most direct words and expressions he can find. Whereas rhetoric provides the speaker with technical devices to help him prevail upon the minds of his audience (regardless of the rhetorician's own opinion concerning what he says), in parrhesia, the parrhesiastes acts on other people's minds by showing them as directly as possible what he actually believes.
The idea that Shenoute's style of preaching derives somehow from the Greek rhetoric of the Second Sophistic is misleading not because as a "Coptic," uneducated peasant he bitterly resented Greek culture and language, but rather because for a parrhēsiastēs the only legitimate mode of communication was straight talk. The desired effect of parrhēsia was in fact to silence rhetoric, the "loquacity" and impertinent questioning of a self-indulgent audience-whether in Greek or Coptic. This is particularly important because Shenoute's rivals lived at Panopolis, a "college town" overflowing in poetry-and poetry had taken over many of the traditional functions of rhetoric in late antiquity. While Shenoute attempted to impress imperial magistrates with his plain speaking, his opponents composed epics comparing the same magistrates to Homeric heroes who fought the barbarians to save the Thebaid. As a traditional rhetorician Shenoute stood no chance against Panopolis: "Because the old power-holders work within a code of formalization, they cannot be challenged gradually but only altogether, by an almost deliberate, sacrilegious disregard for a traditional culture which the holders of old power are busily creating and evermore formalizing to exclude the usurpers."
One of the many interesting points raised in Foucault's illuminating lectures is that the use of parrhēsia implies necessarily a specific self-presentation. The truth of what the parrhēsiastēs says-and he never has the slightest doubt that what he says is true-is guaranteed not by a logical demonstration but rather by the possession of certain moral qualities by the speaker. We have seen that Shenoute never tires of enumerating his own virtues when speaking to the authorities. It was these virtues that gave him the right to criticize and advise the powerful and his enemies. His personal life was presented as a blazon of essential truths that served as a guideline for his audience. Above all, it was crucial to give proofs of personal courage. A parrhēsiastēs is courageous because his criticism of the powerful is dangerous to himself. This courage proves his sincerity. Shenoute liked to emphasize that his tireless denunciations often provoked outrage among his audience. His "panegyric" on Flavianus, for example, has a curious excursus in which he tells the governor about the reaction of another magistrate to this straight talk. Apparently, Shenoute had spoken on behalf of the poor preaching justice and charity only too blatantly. The result:
A friend from your province (i.e., Flavianus's country of origin) who came to us, not only did he not like my speech, but he [even] accused me to the governor. But I did not say anything that is not in the scriptures, in particular in the Psalms. That nothing may be hidden from you, I will tell you how he lied against us and what we wrote to him.
Then Shenoute quotes, in the middle of his speech, his extensive "letter to Bakanos and those who are with him, against his accusations," of which the following extracts give a good idea:
I have to tell you the truth: I grieve for you exceedingly. For what cause, I will not say-God will judge us both. About the accusation that you have made against me in the law-court, lying: I don't care. I don't flee from the laws. Only God's court has anything to do with me and I have nothing to confess. When you go up to the final judgment, we will see whether we came up to this hill (i.e., Shenoute's monastery) to "gather men to fight each other on account of the villages" and whether "I gave them bread" (these are the real accusations of Bakanos against Shenoute). You lie; you slander the places of God (i.e., the monasteries). Who will trust you? If we had wanted to practice (gumnaze) the laws against the things you said, you would have not avoided their refutation. You have come to Egypt to lose your soul for nothing. This is not the moment to add numerous biblical quotations.
The victims of Shenoute's courage are therefore not only to be found in Panopolis; they are even among the "friends" who visit him. Only Flavianus's extraordinary friendship had prevented him from becoming furious at such supposedly incendiary criticisms:
For unless you were wise and unless love supported every thing and every word which a friend will tell his true friends in Christ, you would hate me when I tell you these things. ... Don't blame me because I tell you the truth. ... Oh magistrates, do not listen to my manner of speaking and become furious!
The typical setting for the display of parrhēsia in the classical world was a dialogue between ruler and parrhēsiastēs, what Foucault has called the "parrhesiastic game." In this, too, Shenoute's interaction with the authorities recalls classical traditions. He is always taking the questions of his audience and answering them in such a forceful way that he hurts the questioners' pride. His discourses to the military governors who visited the monastery, for example, portray them as coming with the intention of holding an innocent, polite conversation with the holy man, a "stereotyped linking of stereotypes." They ask safely irrelevant questions about the size of the sky in comparison to the earth; they question the prevalence of certain practices among the Christians of Egypt (why do Egyptians take communion with a full stomach?); they complain about the situation of the church or the power of the devil. Like a true spiritual guide, Shenoute responds by placing the questioners themselves in question. "The real question is less what is being talked about than who is doing the talking." Governors-he claims-should not use the devil as an excuse for their own faults nor should they waste his time with inappropriate questions:
For a military governor asked me when he came to us: "Is the sky the same size as the world?" I answered him: "Your horse seems by all means stronger than many. Mount it, spur it on, go up [to the sky!], check it, and come back! ... Go up and you will find out the measure of sky and earth and come back, so that not only you know but so that you also tell us!" ...
You see, he was asking for things that are not fitting that I might not talk to him about what is fitting.
Such harsh dismissals were in store for magistrates who inquired after things that were none of their business. The proper questions for a military governor to ask-Shenoute insisted-were those about his own duties as a magistrate:
If I talk with the soldier about the duties of a monk and with the monk about those of a soldier, what will the soldier do with the things of a monk and the monk with those of the soldier?
This is a point that Shenoute needed to make time and again. It is well known that Eastern Christianity tended, like Theravada Buddhism, to develop a two-tiered morality. While upholding the supremacy of renunciatory, otherworldly orientations and values, it tended to isolate them and segregate them from day-to-day life. Enshrined at the very apex of the hierarchy of cultural orientations, the values embodied by a holy man like Shenoute could be revered, but their scope kept at bay. Such a double standard threatened to render Shenoute's parrhēsia on behalf of the "poor" harmless and ineffective. Military commanders, for example, thought that they could come to the monastery to talk about otherworldly things only to go back to their mundane concerns feeling reassured that sinlessness was demanded only from the "perfect."
Hence Shenoute's firm refusal to be thus "domesticated." This refusal went so far as to deny altogether the validity of a double ethic. Despite their obvious differences, he insisted, the life of a monk and the life of worldly authorities have similar ethical imperatives. Not everyone needs to be "perfect" like a monk-faithful marriage, for example, is a valid alternative-but everyone needs to try. No one should let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Above all, everyone needs to avoid the false hope that salvation will be somehow guaranteed by the prayers of the perfect:
I have not forgotten what a friend said while you listened: "It is [only] monks who are supposed to fast. Truly they are the ones [who should fast] because of their hope in heaven." But as he has spoken idly, amusing himself, I will also tell him, without shame: he needs to fast more [than we do]. ... Who should fast [more]: the righteous monk, who lives with little and inadequate food, or you, who eat calves and drink wine and other goods of every different kind? ... When the monk fasts, does he fast on your behalf? When you act as a judge, you do not judge on his behalf, do you? Let each do his best to find God's mercy.
Truly all Christians have the same one God, and everyone has the same one piety according to his capacity.
If the authorities wished to harbor any hope for salvation, therefore, they had better take Shenoute's parrhēsia seriously. For his criticisms were no joke. His "friends" the military commanders, for example, were told in no uncertain terms that they were not living up to their obligations. The military authorities often rob soldiers and workers of their salary; all they want is money. The common soldier only asks for his annona (i.e., his wage and provisions), and they try to kill him. The soldiers, on the other hand, plunder "villages, cities, houses, roads, boats, vineyards, fields, threshing floors, epoikia, monasteries, and even the offerings that are brought to the places of God." They threaten and beat up anyone who complains. "They despoil those on whose behalf they claim to fight. Theirlawlessness is just like that of the barbarians." "They do not think whether it is right to take-let us not say plunder-and inhabit the houses of people who are not their enemies." This was the proper kind of conversation between a holy man and the military authorities, not empty talk about the size of the sky. The reason-Shenoute argued-that the emperor and good governors listened to him and not to his "violent" enemies was that, as a bearer of parrhēsia, he invariably said the truth, and the truth was not nice. They might get furious at his words, but they would get the truth from no one else.
Yet Shenoute's criticisms, I would like to stress, are seldom original. His complaints are highly reminiscent of those of many late antique bishops, rhetors, historians, and the legalistic pessimism of the Theodosian Code itself. This was the kind of commonsense criticism everyone could be expected to agree with. I do not think, therefore, that the "parrhesiastic game" was "a rare moment in which the 'hidden transcript' of subordinated groups penetrates into public discourse." Rather than an idiosyncratic "Coptic" or "popular" perspective, what the military governors heard from Shenoute was what Edward Shils has called a "hyper-affirmation of the central value system." It was the very predictability and universality of these criticisms that made them such an effective rhetorical tool of self-presentation. For it was such conventional, well-tried parrhēsia that evoked "the respect vice pays to virtue." The more Shenoute "criticized" his friends the governors, the more they liked him:
Listening to this (i.e., Shenoute's criticisms) together with those who were with him, he (i.e., the governor) said: "Nobody says this as clearly as you show us and teach us."
(To which Shenoute replied:) "What I am telling you is clear to you because I speak with you about your dutiesand those of the people who are here with us."
Shenoute's "opposition" to these governors, therefore, was a very "loyal opposition," that is, precisely the kind of opposition that the emperors were interested in fostering in the provinces. We have seen that the central authorities of the Roman state, structurally weak and therefore jealous of local powers and even of their own provincial representatives, promoted centralization through a policy of divide and rule that encouraged both local criticism of the powerful and a constant appeal to the imperial court itself as the ultimate judge. Shenoute's words and deeds fit nicely into this role of the emperor's man in the province. He never questions imperial law directly nor does he ever claim-as it has been argued-that godly zeal overrides secular law. When accused by governors, he is easily offended at any hint that he might have broken the laws. "Will you make me a companion of thieves?!" "Will you judge me in absence?" "We thank God and the laws and do not flee from them nor are we provoking disturbances." Anomia, that is, lawlessness, is what defines his enemies in Panopolis. He is very much concerned, for example, to show that his actions against paganism did not involve any disturbances in accordance with imperial laws, which forbid any unrest or turbulence on account of religious intolerance.
The reason Shenoute loved to dwell on the accusations made against his person by both enemies and "friends" was not to show that his holy courage was beyond earthly laws. All those accusations and, of course, his replies were simply the best possible evidence for his parrhēsia, which his hypocritical enemies deliberately misrepresented as a blatant disregard for the law. His controversial actions and criticism on behalf of the poor and against paganism may have been holy, but-this is always stressed by him-they were also legal. Far from representing a challenge to Roman power, they were carried out in the name of the emperor and his laws:
For the Christian emperors are worthy of all honor. But among those who are entrusted with offices or magistracies, there are many, not to say everyone, who pervert justice for money. The majority of those who obtain magistracies are Christian, and still they do not care for the affairs of God, that is, justice, mercy, and all his commands.
To care for the poor, to extirpate paganism, to criticize the unjust, to scold the ignorant or corrupt governor: this is not wrongdoing-Shenoute argued-but the true spirit of the law, what the emperor really wants but incompetent governors, too cowardly or involved in local interests, will not dare do themselves. An overzealous application of the laws was Shenoute's only "crime," and he was very proud of it.
A Language of Claims: Poverty and Politics
Shenoute's single-minded, relentless, and, for moments, crude campaign of self-definition-his "ego of epic proportions," in other words-cannot be explained by appealing solely to psychological factors or biblical role models. Its raison d'être lies rather in the structurally unclear position he occupied in contemporary society. The reason so many of his works answer the questions "Who am I?" "Who are my enemies?" "What gives me the right to do and say what I do?" is that his ill-defined position did not grant him any clear-cut legitimacy to intervene in society at large as he aspired to do. "Friends," enemies, and his own monks-whose interaction with the world was strictly controlled-had to be constantly reassured. Above all, he embodied a new kind of leadership whose success-in the late fourth and fifth centuries-we cannot take for granted. This was a man who, as far as we know, had inherited neither the wealth nor the education traditionally necessary to be a member of the provincial elite. Here as elsewhere, the power of a self-made man who had acquired and not inherited his status was inherently suspect.
This was particularly true in this case, since Shenoute was a monk, and monks, it could be and was often argued, belonged to the "desert," not to the "world." An impious governor was imagined to have said, after reading Shenoutes's demands in a letter: "Let Shenoute talk in his church and among the monks. He has no jurisdiction over me as far as administrative affairs goes." "He has nothing to do with me." Indeed, who was Shenoute to tell anyone else what to do? No other Egyptian abbot, before or after him, is known to have been so active outside his monastery. His involvement in politics was beset with dilemmas and ambiguities. His very involvement in the world, which contributed to his public status, could also undermine it by compromising the withdrawal and segregation from society on which his spiritual prestige depended. This is why when accused by provincial governors, Shenoute's answer to them is to stress that he is a monk, that he stays inside his monastery, that only God's tribunal has anything to do with him, that the "things of this world" are not his concern. His answer, in other words, is to stress the otherworldliness that underlay his spiritual prestige but was threatened by his passion to be actively involved in the world at large.
It is interesting to compare Shenoute from this point of view with his better-known contemporary Theodoret. Theodoret was a wealthy Antiochene who had been sent as bishop to the small nearby town of Cyrrhus. His enemies, however, repeatedly accused him of spending more time in Antioch than in Cyrrhus: he supposedly preached, gathered synods, and even kept an apartment there. His answer was a flood of letters to every important authority in the empire. Although it is hard to imagine somebody more different from Shenoute than Theodoret, these letters show that he had to deal with comparable dilemmas. While Shenoute replied to his critics that he was indeed a monk and always stayed at his monastery, Theodoret felt the need to state, time and again, that he liked "a peaceful life free from cares" and that he was completely dedicated to the small town of Cyrrhus. He claimed to have built public bridges, baths, porticoes, and even an aqueduct for this "little ugly town ... whose ugliness I have dissimulated with multiple and magnificent buildings." He had even distributed his inheritance there. Yet the paradox, here again, is that the very letters that he wrote to make this point show how involved he was in imperial politics. He clearly felt that he was too big a man for such a small town.
The only way for Shenoute to validate his anomalous involvement in politics while preserving his externality was to stress the oppositional aspects of this involvement. We have seen how he cultivated the status of persona non grata in Panopolis and claimed to be the sworn enemy of its elite, the "violent." We have also seen that when he does admit to having "friends" among the powerful, all these "friends" happen to be imperial magistrates. They are foreign, and their appointments are brief. They are not a threat to his outsider status. They are Shenoute's friends, in any case, only if and when they are willing to accept his courageous criticism. We have seen, above all, that he always presented himself as the spokesman of "the poor," who suffered unremitting "violence" at the hands of the powerful of this world. His legitimacy to challenge Panopolis and the "violent" stemmed neither from divine inspiration-to which he was reluctant to appeal-nor from extraordinary asceticism, whose intrinsic value he questioned because he took it for granted. It stemmed, rather, from his representativeness, that is, his claim to stand for "the silent majority." In contrast to his enemies, who spoke only for themselves and their own individual interests, all of Shenoute's interventions in the "world" were presented as actions on behalf of the helpless and needy "poor."
Hence his frequent reference to the "crowds" (mēēše) that apparently followed him around and congregated at his monastery. Although he had to answer more than once the accusation that he had gathered dangerous "crowds," which caused disturbances in city and countryside, both Shenoute's works and biography consistently portray him surrounded by "crowds" of the harmless "poor," who flocked spontaneously to him. They gathered at his church every weekend, at his monastery's gate to receive alms; they listened to his preaching; they defended him at a trial in the provincial capital; and they marched behind him when attacking rural paganism. It seems as if Shenoute positively needed a "critical mass" around him to send the clear message that what he did was actually done by the "poor," and what he said was not the expression of a particular interest but the voice of the silent majority.
Shenoute's answer to the question "Who are you to tell me what to do?" was, therefore, "I am the poor." We should not take such an answer for granted. It is true that, by the fifth century, the Christian "care of the poor" was already an imperially sanctioned practice, a public service provided by the church that the government could be expected to recognize and reward in very concrete terms. "Since it is part of our duty to provide for the needy," the emperors Marcian and Valentinian declared in 451, "and to take care that nourishment is not lacking for the poor, we order that the payments of diverse kinds that have been assigned so far to the holy churches from the public treasury shall remain as heretofore and shall be furnished undiminished by anyone, and we assign to this most ready bounty perpetual endurance." The care of the poor defined and delimited the public role of the Christian church in late Roman society. Yet it had been bishops, not monks, who had been at the forefront of this development. It was only in the fifth century that large monasteries-such as Shenoute's-began to take over this public service and to develop it on a large scale in the countryside, where it was "unevenly distributed and erratically maintained." The wholehearted appropriation of this institution and discourse by certain monks had important consequences for the relationship between monasticism and society. It encouraged and legitimized a stronger and more active involvement in public life. Together with the defense of orthodoxy, the care of the "poor" became the primary argument for a Christian monk to justify his actions in the "world."
But for a social historian such rhetoric is not self-explanatory. It raises a basic question: Who were the "poor"? What kind of people made up the "crowds" that followed Shenoute? These are questions that will come up again in every other chapter of this book, but it is important to understand why our answers can never be completely clear. In the first place, Shenoute's notion of the "poor" could refer to the voluntary poor, that is, the poor who lived in the desert as monks. When Shenoute complains about the violence the "poor" are suffering at the hands of the "violent," he may be simply referring to the taxes or rents that his monastery has to pay. Or he may be defending the "poverty"-that is, the wealth-of his monasteries from criticism by his rich and wicked enemies, as in the following example:
Who again are those whose houses have been laid waste, so that they [have to] beg and sell themselves to their creditors or give themselves as pledges to the moneylenders-[men] just like this lawless governor who forgot the oppression of a crowd of the poor? Is it your (pl.) people or is it the communities of God (i.e., my monasteries)? Would that you (pl.) had to endure poverty, oh you who are quick to blaspheme because of the shortage! As for us (i.e., the monks), we are tried in everything, [but] even if we are naked, even if we are in need of bread, we thank Jesus.
However rich Shenoute's monasteries may have been-and we shall see that they had a formidable economic power-their "poor" monks could be spoken of as naked beggars who had sold themselves to their creditors and lacked bread. This ambiguity of the notion of the "poor" was particularly useful for a holy man who was attempting to legitimize his notorious involvement in the world. The defense of the (involuntary) "poor" in the world at large came naturally to an abbot who presided over a large monastery full of (voluntary) poor monks. The care of the "poor" set Shenoute free from the narrow bounds of his monastery.
When referring explicitly to the involuntary "poor" of the "world," on the other hand, Shenoute's descriptions seem to indicate that we are dealing above all with rural workers, small landowners, and the tenants of large landowners. Yet here again his biblically inspired language is very vague and drastically simplifies a very complex economic reality. As is so common in the Christian discourse on poverty in late antiquity, it blurs the traditional Greek distinction penēs-ptōchos, that is, between the man who has to work to earn his daily bread and the beggar. This basic distinction is, in any case, ignored in Coptic, which usually subsumes both kinds of "poverty" under the all-embracing category of hēke, originally meaning the "hungry." As a whole, the "poor"-whether voluntary or not-are defined by Shenoute only in a negative way: they are those who suffer "violence" at the hands of his enemies, and on whose behalf he fights and speaks.
The reason for this is quite simple. The language of poverty was above all a language of claims. Rather than a category with intrinsic meanings, the "poor" was a relational category often used with a polemical intent. Most of the time, it simply meant the "oppressed." One can see this clearly in the petitions of Dioscorus of Aphrodito against the authorities of Antaeopolis. Although Aphrodito is known to have been a prosperous village, Dioscorus's descriptions of its misery could well have been written by Shenoute:
[We are] all miserable orphans leading the existence of young children-as evident from our naked aspect-who cannot find our necessary nourishment without danger. We call upon the Lord God as witness to this, namely, that we eat raw vegetables and emmer in winter; in the summer, we eat in our hearths (?) the refuse left over after sifting our grain and grains dropped during the transport of our grain-taxes, since after this nothing at all remains to us.
When in need of an imperial favor, everybody at Aphrodito was an orphan, naked and hungry. In the same way, Shenoute's attempt to define his ambivalent position in the "world" by referring to a vague and ill-defined notion made perfect political sense. Like "middle class" or "proletariat," the "poor" was a "social concept with variable geometry." Much of its political usefulness lay precisely in the fact that it defined and legitimized one's position in reference to an ill-defined group that could-if necessary-be identified with society as a whole. Claiming to stand for the "poor" thus allowed Shenoute to universalize his own interests and to identify his own foes as public enemies of society. Any attempt to use his writings as a source for social history must take this political context into account.
On the other hand, for a self-made politician such as Shenoute, who needed to mobilize "crowds" in city and countryside, the language of poverty could be a political discourse with a very real symbolic power and concrete social consequences. Language, in particular authorized language produced by an authority such as a preacher, has structuring power. It can prescribe while seeming to describe. By producing and imposing representations of the social world that rendered a group-the "poor"-visible to itself and to others, Shenoute was in fact promoting the existence of this group as a group. For there may have been many poor people in late antique Egypt, but the "poor" did not exist as an actual group waiting for Shenoute to act as its spokesman. They had to be created as such, given a common identity and mobilized in defense of their own interests. "Le representant"-Pierre Bourdieu has said-"fait le group qui le fait."Shenoute, we could say, promoted the existence of a group that promoted his existence as a public man.
It is important not to confuse this circular relationship-characteristic of much political representation-with cynical manipulation. Shenoute was not a hypocrite politician who used the "poor" to further his own interests. He believed in his own mission more than anyone else. But much of his success surely stems from the fact that his own interests and those of the "poor" he defended tended to coincide. Helping the "poor" was the best way for him to help himself. Moreover, although the "poor" had to be created as a group and mobilized-both in action and language-they were far more than passive spectators or a rhetorical concoction. As innumerable late antique petitions show, they actively took over the Christian language of the care of the poor and used it to further their own interests. They constantly appealed for help to holy men such as Shenoute, who claimed to defend the "poor," and took them at their word:
I often go to bed with my children without having eaten, since I work for this place. Do a great deed, for they have put me in chains and locked me up. They have freed me [only] upon surety. Do a great deed. Look with God for whatever [money] you can find. You do it not for a man but for God. You are our man.
The "poor," therefore, were not always voiceless creatures. In the making of Shenoute's public career, their active contribution should not be forgotten.
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