Preferred Citation: Burrus, Virginia. The Making of a Heretic: Gender, Authority, and the Priscillianist Controversy. Berkeley:  University of California,  c1995 1995.


The Christian Community and the "World": Strategies of Accommodation and Alienation

If many fourth-century western aristocrats perceived their lives to be centered in the private sphere, some of these same aristocrats were not merely ambivalent about but even outright hostile to political life. That is, the rhetoric of reluctance might take the form of a rhetoric of stark refusal to take up public office, a refusal often literally enough intended. This expressed rejection of political life has been read as an embittered response to the involuntary political marginalization of the traditional aristocracy.[43] But in many cases such language may be interpreted more neutrally as an indication of a shift in the relations of local elites to the imperial adminis-


tration: by presenting themselves as having chosen a privatized role in relation to the imperial administration, provincial notables created flexibility on one front while simultaneously protecting a constancy of power and influence on another, more local front.[44]

More important for our purposes, however, is still another, overlapping function of these late-ancient expressions of political alienation. For the rejection of officium in favor of otium did not merely support a more localized political involvement; it also bespoke the possibility of what might be designated a more "transcendent" political involvement. Carried to its extreme, the expressed preference for private life might lead to a severing of even those ties of patronage and friendship that linked a person indirectly to the political sphere. And such a drastic paring of relationships and social advantages could in turn result in a paradoxical enhancement of social status and the creation of new social networks, constituting the attainment of a public authority appropriately "ascetic," insofar as it represented the fruits of a disciplined renunciation of the social ties and physical anxieties that were understood to inhibit free speech and the resistance of tyranny. The truly ascetic leader, whose qualities were distilled in the ancient image of the philosopher, "could address the great directly, in terms of a code of decorum and self-restraint that he himself exemplified to the highest degree, because he was uncompromised by political attachments."[45] If this image was for the most part just that—"mainly an image"[46] —by late antiquity, it nevertheless stood as an ideal of a role that might on occasion be seen reflected, with varying degrees of clarity, in the stance of a philosopher, a rhetorician, a bishop, or a monk.[47]

The identification of such productive undercurrents of alienation contributes to our understanding of how late-antique Gallic nobles such as Paulinus of Nola and Sulpicius Severus could have abandoned promising political careers in order to embrace lives of Christian asceticism, or how the Spaniard Prudentius could dismiss as "folly" his own two provincial governorships and court appointment.[48] A culturally sustained capacity for political disillusionment left such men not depleted but rather energized for the pursuit of alternative careers within the Christian community, and they were particularly drawn to ascetic movements like that of Priscillian. The routine, even ritual, acts of negation and separation that were fundamental to the ascetic life resonated with their experience of self-chosen political alienation and provided the means to express a new, paradoxically privatized political authority. Thus, in the churches of the late-fourth-century west, these aristocrats discovered—and likewise contributed to—an emerging sense of Christian identity that was, like their


secular identity, not only private but also anti-public. Indeed, for many privately identified Christians, the experience of alienation from the structures and concerns of the public sphere proved crucial for the social and theological self-definition of the church. Men and women like Priscillian were quick to perceive themselves as separate from or even in opposition to the institutions of secular authority—although at the same time they unhesitatingly made use of social networks to influence officials. They also demonstrated considerably less interest than their opponents in the authority of ecclesiastical office or the rituals reinforcing that authority. But it was in their theology that they most freely expressed their sense of self-chosen alienation, drawing upon particular dualistic strains in the cosmological heritage of Christianity in order to articulate an embattled hostility toward the controlling demonic forces that they perceived to dominate their age, and from which they could hope to win liberation only through the power of the fully transcendent Christ.

Significantly, the Priscillianists' alienated cosmology and their ascetic lifestyle struck their opponents as dangerously heretical. Views of the relationship of the Christian community to the larger world it inhabited thus constituted a second major point of divergence between Priscillian and his opponents. While Priscillian's opponents seem to have been generally optimistic about the convergence of Christian and secular society and culture, Priscillian and his followers were driven by a sense of alienation that expressed itself in their asceticism, in their cosmology, and in their relationship to both secular and ecclesiastical political structures.

It is crucial to acknowledge that the ascetic renunciations of such alienated Christians were very differently experienced by men and women. For men, the pursuit of Christian ascesis entailed the rejection of public life and therefore of the hierarchies of office and gender; in this respect, their opponents were not far off the mark when they insinuated that male ascetics were feminized by their rejection of the most basic cultural expressions of male identity. For women, on the other hand, asceticism involved not so much a rejection of public life—from which they were always in theory excluded—as a rejection of the dominant ordering principles of the public sphere—for example, the restriction of women to the private sphere or the intrusion of patriarchal structures of male dominance into the private sphere. A masculinization of the role of the women took place insofar as women resisted subordination and privatization.[49] For both sexes, asceticism initially involved radical withdrawal from the public sphere; ultimately, however, it threatened to subvert the very distinction between public and private and to destabilize the gender roles


and relations supporting that distinction. Thus it is that Priscillian's detractors emphasize the untidy mingling of men and women within the movement, symbolized above all in imagined expressions of unbounded sexuality.


Preferred Citation: Burrus, Virginia. The Making of a Heretic: Gender, Authority, and the Priscillianist Controversy. Berkeley:  University of California,  c1995 1995.