Podcast episode

Episode 165: Joel Kalvesmaki on Evagrius of Pontus, the ‘Gnostic Trilogy’, and the Origenist Controversy

We are delighted to discuss Evagrius of Pontus, a crucial esoteric thinker of the eastern Christian tradition, with Joel Kalvesmaki. Evagrius lived in interesting times and interesting places, and was at the heart of the same fourth-century scene in the eastern Roman Empire as the Cappadocian fathers, which brought extreme ascetic practices, high-octane metaphysical speculation, and literary erudition together in an explosive social and intellectual cocktail.

We start with a potted biography and some background on the nascent proto-monastic movements in Egypt and the near East, providing important background for studying Evagrius and his colleagues. We then turn to and survey Evagrius’ many writings, foremost among which are the ‘Gnostic Trilogy’, the Praktikos, Gnōstikos, and Kephalaia Gnōstika.

The Praktikos is a kind of manual for ascetics on the kinds of demons which assail humans, the psychosomatic effects caused by these demons, and how the Christian practitioner is to deal with each; this work lies at the watershed of the ‘canonical sins’ theme, most famous nowadays as the ‘seven deadly sins’.

The Gnōstikos contains 50 chapters dealing especially with paædagogy, outlining how a monk is to teach those under his care, and how he should distinguish those who are ready for the second level from those who are not.

The Kephalaia Gnōstika or ‘Gnostic Chapters’ is an esoteric collection of cryptic Christian apophthegmata designed as a tool for thinking. It consists of six sections made up of ninety ‘chapters’ each – statements, sometimes sentences, sometimes short groups of sentences, sometimes even classic Aristotelean syllogisms – of philosophic metaphysics, scriptural exegesis, and apophatic, labyrinthine paradox. Certain doctrines found in this work – notably the Origenist ideas of the origin of embodied human beings lying in a fall from an original noetic state,the pre-existence of souls, and universal salvation – were at the centre of the sixth-century ‘Second Origenist Controversy’, wherein Evagrius was condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council (a.k.a. the Second Council of Constantinople), 5 May to 2 June 553. This explains why little of the KG survives in Greek, and we need to turn to the Syriac recensions to reconstruct the book as a whole. A welcome digression into the sixth century lays out some of the essential points of the second Origenist Controversy, and in Part II, with the ground thus prepared, we return to the Kephalaia in all their splendour.

Interview Bio:

Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks for more than a decade, Joel is currently an independent scholar. He holds a research fellowship at Catholic University of America, where he was a graduate student (PhD, 2006), and he maintains several editorial and advisory positions, notably with the Journal of the Text Encoding Initiative and the monograph series Christianity in Late Antiquity (University of California Press in conjunction with the North American Patristics Society). A specialist in the works and thought of Evagrius Ponticus, Joel is editor of the authoritative reference work Guide to Evagrius Ponticus, https://evagriusponticus.net and co-author with Robin Darling Young et al. of Evagrius of Pontus, The Gnostic Trilogy (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

Works Cited in this Episode:


Historia monachorum: Edition by the great Festugière: A.-J. Festugière, editor. Historia monachorum in Ægypto. Bruxelles, 1961. English translation: The Lives of the Desert Fathers: The Historia monachorum in Aegypto. Translated by Norman Russell ; introduction by Benedicta Ward. Mowbray, London, 1981.

Palladius: Greek edition: Palladius of Helenopolis. The Lausiac History of Palladius, Vol. 2: The Greek Text Edited with Introduction and Notes. Edited by Dom Cuthbert Butler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1904. English translation by Wortley: Palladius: The Lausiac History. Cistercian Publications, Athens, OH, 2015.

Palladius Coptic (there are disputes among scholars as to what priority the Coptic version, which has expansions, should be given): Amélineau, Emile, ed. De Historia Lausiaca quaenam sit hujus ad monachorum Aegyptiorum historiam scribendam utilitas: Adjecta sunt quaedam hujus historiae Coptica fragmenta inedita. Paris: E. Leroux, 1887.See Vivian, Tim. Four Desert Fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius of Egypt, and Macarius of Alexandria: Coptic Texts Relating to the Lausiac History of Palladius. Popular Patristics. Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004.

Jerome’s mentions of Evagrius: see https://evagriusponticus.net/life.htm (scroll down).


Daniël Hombergen on the Second Origenist Controversy: see below.

Ramelli’s translation of the second Syriac recension of the Kephalaia: Ilaria L. E. Ramelli. Evagrius’ Kaphalaia Gnostika: A New Translation of the Unreformed Text from the Syriac. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA, 2015.

Recommended Reading:

Dr Kalvesmaki’s own Evagrius page is the one-stop-shop for all things Evagrian, including a rich bibliography.

Evagrius, Editions and Translations

Evagrius Ponticus. Briefe aus der Wüste. Translated by Gabriel Bunge. Sophia 24. Trier: Paulinus-Verlag, 1986.

 Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus. Translated by Robert E. Sinkewicz. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Evagrius Ponticus. Translated by Augustine Casiday. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

David Brakke, ed. Talking Back: A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons. Cistercian Studies Series 229. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2009.

Relevant Scholarship on Evagrius

Bunge, Gabriel. «Évagre le sage»: L’image d’Evagre le Pontique dans l’histoire de l’eglise. 1. Auflage. Theologie der Spiritualität 11. Sankt Ottilien: Eos, 2022.

Dysinger, Luke. Psalmody and Prayer in the Writings of Evagrius Ponticus. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Guillaumont, Antoine. Les “Képhalaia gnostica” d’Évagre le Pontique et l’histoire de l’origénisme chez les Grecs et chez les Syriens. Publications de la Sorbonne série patristica Sorbonensia 5. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1962.

Idem. Un philosophe au désert: Évagre le pontique. Textes et Traditions 8. Paris: Vrin, 2004.

Hombergen, Daniël. The Second Origenist Controversy: A New Perspective on Cyril of Scythopolis’ Monastic Biographies as Historical Sources for Sixth-Century Origenism. Studia Anselmiana 132. Rome: Centro studi S. Anselmo, 2001.

Kalvesmaki, Joel, and Robin Darling Young, eds. Evagrius and His Legacy. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016.

Konstantinovsky, Julia. Evagrius Ponticus: The Making of a Gnostic. Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology, and Biblical Studies. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2009.

Tobon, Monica. Apatheia and Anthropology in Evagrius of Pontus: Restoring the Image of God. Routledge, 2020.


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