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Chapter Two "Manichaean" Charge and Countercharge in Priscillian's Tractates
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Cosmology and the Ascetic Body: Priscillian's Sermons

Hydatius' cry of "Manichaeism!" cannot be read as a straightforward description of Priscillian's beliefs or ecclesiastical loyalties; nor should Priscillian's elaborate protestations of his own anti-Manichaean orthodoxy be too lightly dismissed as mere defensive rhetoric. Nevertheless, the question may be raised: when all is said and done, was Priscillian not "really" a Manichaean, as evidenced above all by his cosmological speculations? The answer, I think, is no; yet still some further exploration of the relationship of Priscillian's thought to Manichaeism may prove fruitful, if properly contextualized. When we are able to see Manichaeism as only one solution to a set of cosmological and ascetical problems that pressed themselves more broadly upon the consciousness of late-fourth-century theologians, the spiritual and intellectual context shaped by these pressures becomes clearer. In other words, Manichaeism rightly draws our attention, not because it provided the direct source for Priscillian's thought, but rather because it is peculiarly revealing of the pressures to which Priscillian and other theologians of his time also responded.


The theological as well as political context of the late-fourth-century churches had been fundamentally shaped by the Arian controversy, which in turn had been influenced, not only by imperial patronage and the rise of the ascetic movement, but also by a profound religious "paradigm shift" involving both a perceived narrowing of human access to the divine and a polarization of divine and earthly power.[112] In a period in which an orthodox affirmation of absolute divine transcendence had finally been securely established, it became increasingly evident that the new trinitarian orthodoxy implied a radical disruption of pre-Nicene cosmological frameworks. What was the status of the created order, in the wake of the shift from a mediating Word to a fully transcendent Son? And where was the human being located in relation to the nearly unbridgeable chasm that now opened up between creation and the divine Creator? With the discarding of the fluid and connective Middle Platonic "ladder of being," the salvific communion of divinity and creation became imaginable only through the paradox of the Incarnation, not infrequently conceived of as an act of divine violence that threatened to shatter the integrity of the cosmos itself. Responding to the pressures of such cosmological questions, the late-third-century followers of Mani had already embraced the notion of a fractured cosmos, coherently enough also positing a parallel fracturing of transcendent power figured in the opposition of God and devil, or the principles of Light and Darkness. The Manichaeans had furthermore placed the human being precisely at the site of the cosmic fissure, insisting on the original and essential "divinity" of the human soul and the original and essential "earthliness" of the body in which that divine soul was imprisoned, and from which it must ultimately be liberated through the body's destruction. For most late-ancient thinkers, including Priscillian, this Manichaean solution represented a clear and precise boundary stone marking one point of departure from the realm of legitimate cosmological speculation: such a radical and essentialist dualism could not be tolerated. Indeed, from a Christian point of view, Manichaeism could be constructed as the negative mirror-image of an orthodoxy that affirmed creation. But the sharp dualism of the Manichaean thought-world also functioned more ambiguously, not merely repelling, but also tugging at the imaginations of fourth-century writers like Priscillian by resolving with chilling and compelling clarity the very cosmological questions that those Christian thinkers were likewise asking.[113]

The late fourth century appears, then, to have been a period of Christian intellectual history marked by a preoccupation with certain dualistically framed cosmological questions that emerged with renewed persistence as the trinitarian debates subsided. However, such a description is


not yet sufficiently precise. Elizabeth Clark has rightly pointed out that "the broad cosmic vision" characteristic of the earlier gnostic debates, and above all of the thought of Origen, had shrunk considerably by the time of the Origenist controversy with which her study is concerned.[114] Clark's account of the debates surrounding the figure of Origen highlights the late-fourth-century resurgence of theodicy and "questions concerning the worth of the material world, human freedom in relation to divine benevolence, sin and forgiveness"; her study also points to the widespread interest among late-fourth-century Christian authors in combating astrological determinism.[115] Clark's work thus underlines the significance for late antiquity of issues traditionally framed in cosmological terms, while also reflecting the hesitancy of theologians of the period to address cosmology head-on. Indeed, I would sharpen the point still further: both the Origenist and Priscillianist controversies provide evidence that cosmology itself had come to be construed as a risky topic of discussion by the late fourth century. However urgent the implicit cosmological concerns of the period, they remained, paradoxically, for the most part submerged or redirected.[116] Clark attributes the late-fourth-century shrinkage of cosmological vision, first, to an increasingly rigid definition of theological orthodoxy and, second, to the relocation of previous cosmological issues within the narrower framework of the human person.[117] This last point is important, for the study of the Origenist controversy suggests that constructions of the human body came to carry most of the weight of theological concerns precisely within a late-fourth-century ecclesiastical context defined above all by eucharistic and ascetic praxis.[118] It is intriguing that Clark's identification of the "practical" issues that pressed to the fore in the debates of the Origenist controversy aligns so closely with the conflicting emphases on eucharistic and ascetic practices already noted in the Acts of the Council of Saragossa . But equally resonant with this analysis of the Priscillianist controversy is the suggestion that issues traditionally framed in broad cosmological terms are most often refracted through the prism of the human body in the writings of late-fourth-century theologians. We shall see that the human body figures centrally in the sermons preserved among the tractates of Priscillian, in which the body constitutes both the site of the proposed ascetic practices and the ambiguous vehicle of cosmological assertions. The worldview that emerges from the sermons is consistent with that of the Apology , where Priscillian must respond to attacks on his most explicitly cosmological teachings. Yet the sermons' strongly anthropocentric tendency to ground cosmology in the human person locates these works even more comfortably within the late-fourth-century context.

"The body that is corrupted makes the soul heavy, and the earthly


habitation drags down the mind that thinks many things" (Wisd. of Sol. 9.15).[119] This passage, cited at three crucial points in Priscillian's sermons, attracts to itself many of the complexities and ambiguities of Priscillian's thought on the body and the cosmos. It therefore provides a convenient point of entry into the exegetical homilies of a theologian whose fluid and elaborately intertextual method of exposition does not easily lend itself to a systematic summary. First appearing in the so-called Tractate on Genesis , the passage is there cited in the context of an attack on false readings of the creation story, an attack intriguingly juxtaposed with Priscillian's response in the Apology to the charge that he himself taught falsely about creation under the influence of heretical apocrypha. Here it is Priscillian who complains that certain heretics judge the nature of the world to be evil, in direct contradiction to the canonical account. "Ascribing the making of their own body to the devil," they deny their corporality in such a way as to elude responsibility for their evil acts; they indulge their bodily desires, ignorantly "supposing that their corporeal sin is no concern to the divine disposition."[120] It is at this point that Priscillian invokes the authority of the Wisdom passage, suggesting that the heretics' error lies in a failure to understand the divinely established unity of the human person or to take seriously the implications of the embodiment of the soul. On this reading, the seemingly dualistic Wisdom passage actually resists a radically dualistic anthropology: it is precisely the capacity of the body to make the soul heavy, or the ability of the "earthly habitation" to drag the mind down, which indicates to Priscillian the close linkage of body and soul or mind.

Having thus rebuked those who denigrate the body and the earthly creation, Priscillian goes on to criticize "others" who fall into the seemingly opposed error of divinizing certain aspects of the cosmos: "Thinking that the sun and moon, lights established for the service of human beings, are gods, they assign the power of the elements to the principles of the world."[121] In fact, the "others" whom Priscillian here has in mind are probably the same Manichaeans he has just attacked. Utilizing a common rhetorical ploy, he has split his opposition into polarized extremes and thereby created an impression of multiple errors in relation to which his own position appears as a single moderate and mediating solution: his is not a mind that "thinks many things" but one that perceives the unity of truth. Yet beyond the rhetorical purposes of bifurcation, Priscillian also here introduces a second point of real dissonance between his teaching and Manichaean thought: for while the Manichaeans, who maintain that divine and earthly material mingle in the conflicted cosmos, can claim literally to see not only the devil but also God in every blade of grass, Pris-


cillian insists on the relative inferiority of all materiality to an incorporeal and invisible God. He agrees with the Manichaeans that humanity is linked to and resonant with the order of the cosmos, but rejects the particulars of this Manichaean teaching when he insists on both the hierarchical superiority of the human being and the finitude of the cosmos. Scornful of those who give too much honor to the sun, Priscillian points out that they thereby reveal that they "do not know that all that is visible will perish in the end established by God." It is furthermore absurd to claim that human beings might serve some part of the cosmos, he observes, since the entire cosmos itself was divinely ordered for the salvation of human beings: "the darkness was illumined and the nature of creation was contrived so that the numerical divisions into seasons and days would offer a habitation for the human being laboring in the work of Christ." With his reference to the earthly "habitation" of the human being, Priscillian returns us again to the Wisdom passage, here offering a still more positive reading of the body-cosmos created by God as an appropriate workplace for humanity.[122]

A slightly different interpretation of the Wisdom passage emerges in the Tractate on Exodus . Here, the rhetorical context is no longer shaped primarily by the need to combat Manichaean teachings, and Priscillian emphasizes, not the close link between soul and body, but rather the problematic status of the body itself. Acknowledging that the "nature of the body" was made by the hand of God, he returns again to the Genesis account of creation, where he notes that however divine the "hand" that creates, it nevertheless grasps "mud," a detail suggesting the body's association with a problematic "earthly birth" and a fall into temporality that dulls the "divine birth" of human beings "with the traps of earthly habitation." Again, it is the mention of the "earthly habitation" that leads directly to Wisd. of Sol. 9.15: "The body that is corrupted weighs down the soul, and the earthly habitation presses down on the mind that thinks many things."[123] Contrasting metaphors of birth—divine versus earthly, virginal versus corrupt, baptismal versus physical—here and elsewhere underline the dualism of soul and body invoked in the Wisdom passage. Yet at the same time Priscillian's very preoccupation with birth—a highly corporeal metaphor—also resists any unambiguous devaluation of corporality, and indeed he immediately goes on to contrast the image of the "body that is corrupted" not with the soul—as we might expect, and as the Wisdom passage invites—but with the body whose nature is "purified [castigata ] through the law of the Old Testament and offered to the tabernacle of God" in the New Testament.[124] This "purified" or "clarified" (clarificatus ) body,[125] represented by both the unblemished sheep of the paschal offering—ostensibly the main topic of this sermon—and the flesh of


Christ affixed to the cross, "owes nothing now to the days and seasons," having died to sin and been resurrected in new life, as Paul teaches.[126] Salvation lies, then, not so much in the loosing of mind or soul from an imprisoning body as in the transformation of a dim earthly body to a dazzling heavenly body.[127] In spite of his rejection of the Manichaeans' material dualism, Priscillian may not, after all, be so far from a position that envisions the resolution of the cosmic conflict taking place in the obliteration of a material body of Darkness by a material body of Light. But here again, he shares still more with orthodox ascetics of the period than with the Manichaeans.

The third and perhaps most strongly dualistic reading of the Wisdom passage occurs in Priscillian's treatment of the first psalm, in a homily that sounds the psalm's warning to avoid "the counsel of the impious," "the way of the sinners," and the "seat of pestilence." Priscillian reminds his readers again why such "discipline of life" is necessary: the human being is the "dwelling place of Christ" and must "prepare a home worthy of such a dweller." Secular ambition, desire, and greed are particularly to be shunned. Discipline can be achieved, he insists, but only because we have been "reborn into salvation. . . of mercy not of nature," through baptismal rebirth escaping the natural "birth of the flesh" that confines humanity with the "vices of the evil world." In this context, the Wisdom passage recalls the dangers of the fleshly or earthly birth: "the body that is corrupted makes the soul heavy, and the earthly habitation drags down the mind that thinks many things." Priscillian goes on to identify the "earthly habitation" explicitly with greed, anger, and other sinful—but not necessarily physical—impulses; it represents "our subjugation, and its own corruption," serving as the site of diabolical attack and therefore as the source of its own undoing. The "earthly habitation" is the Pauline "flesh." But as both Isaiah and First Peter remind us, "all flesh is as grass": it withers.[128]

As this last reading of the Wisdom passage most dramatically illustrates, on one level Priscillian shares with the Manichaeans—and indeed, one could easily argue, with most theologians of his time—a profoundly dualistic framework of anthropological and cosmological thought. He implies that the body tends toward corruption and can therefore be saved only against its nature; and at several points he seems to envision the eschaton as involving not so much the salvation of bodies as the final liberation of minds from bodies, arguing in much the same vein as his Origenist contemporary Evagrius. If dualistic, Priscillian's cosmology is not, however, distinctly Manichaean; he works rather within a late-Platonic framework that rejects both essentialist dualisms and materialist conceptions of


divinity. Whereas the Manichaeans radically oppose a material divinity with a material devil and thereby place the divine stuff of souls in conflict with the earthly stuff of flesh, Priscillian relegates all materiality to an earthly realm that, however fallen, is still the creation of God; materiality itself is thereby made more problematic, in comparison with the Manichaean view, while the category of earthliness becomes redeemable, if not yet redeemed.

But on another level, Priscillian's works raise the question of the value of even the categories of "dualism" and "Platonism" for locating Priscillian's thought, or indeed the thought of many of his contemporaries. For Priscillian, like both the Manichaeans and more orthodox ascetic Christians, seems to be distancing himself significantly from the traditional Platonic mind-body dualism, as he slides from language that opposes a mind to a body into language that compares a body to a body, language in which not only the terms of the dualism but even the dualism itself begins to dissolve.[129] In Priscillian's writings, "mind" and "body" are not so much divisions of the human being as alternative ciphers for the unified ascetic "self," which is pulled by conflicting impulses, and it is finally not the destruction of the body but its transformation that fascinates Priscillian. That a battle was being waged both within and outside the human person was not to be denied: for Priscillian, as for other ascetics of the period, the cosmic struggle provides the context for the microcosmic ascetic endeavor in which metaphors not only of strife but also of violence have their place. But Priscillian seems to suggest that in the final victory of the God Christ, the visible, earthly realm will not so much cease to exist as cease to resist, ultimately becoming fully transparent to the invisible divine truths: words will then unlock their hidden meaning, while purified bodies will fully reveal the nakedness of souls. That this salvific transformation is already beginning to take place in the moment of the text is one source of Priscillian's audacious confidence. Invoking the image of the dazzling heavenly body, he boldly urges his readers to prepare in themselves "the heaven and earth of the Lord" (emphasis added), "so that when the evening of ignorance dissolves . . . and when the darkness of the corruptible body has been purified and the light of the divine spirit has been placed in you, you may be called the day of the Lord! . . . Made the Sabbath of the Lord and keeping holiday from all acts of the world, you may owe nothing to the world but may rest in Christ."[130]

Just as Priscillian's anti-public rhetoric finally functions to dissolve distinctions between public and private, so too his anti-worldly dualism finally functions to dissolve distinctions between body and mind, earth


and heaven. If he is not at home in this body or world, Priscillian—like many of his ascetic counterparts—is very much at home in the body and world that are already beginning to be.

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Chapter Two "Manichaean" Charge and Countercharge in Priscillian's Tractates
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