Sites of the Ascetic Self

John Cassian and Christian Ethical Formation

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Niki Kasumi Clements
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , May
     294 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sites of the Ascetic Self: John Cassian and Christian Ethical Formation is a welcome addition to the reconceptualization of asceticism that has emerged in recent decades among scholars of late ancient Christianity, and also it is an open invitation to engage in a reformulation of the role of ethical self-formation in contemporary scholarship. By applying the seminal theoretical interventions of Patricia Cox Miller and Susan Ashbrook Harvey to the theological-philosophical and social-historical contexts of John Cassian, author Niki Kasumi Clements provides a model for balancing the ways in which we might understand the lived experiences of the body and the senses together with theological imperatives to have impacted the debates regarding the soul, the self, and the nature of embodiment among late ancient Christian communities. Sites of the Ascetic Self is also an invitation to reconsider the received wisdom of the dominant Augustinian tradition that has contributed to a soul/mind-body dualism that is neither completely representative of early Christianity nor productive in assessing the complexities of ethical transformation and agency available more broadly.

The introduction recounts the turn in the study of late ancient Christianity in regarding asceticism not strictly as an effort of renunciation or abnegation alone, but rather as structuring or disciplining the self and its environment in positive ways. Thus, rejection is reconceived in this scholarship in terms of transformation, a move away from the influential focus in Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber on the aspects of power and production. As Clements observes: “Transformation is part of the world-ordering and subjectivity-shaping effects at the heart of asceticism in these late ancient text and contexts” (15–16). The conception of a static personality, soul, or self that is the inheritance of Neo-Platonic influence on some early Christian thinkers, therefore, gives way to a processual, dynamic understanding of self among certain ascetics, for whom daily practices of ritualized engagement with the world signals its potential for assisting in self-transformation. Hence, the scholarship on which Clements draws, which more closely approximates the ascetic theology of Cassian, emphasizes notions of fluidity of identity that stand in rather stark contrast to the Augustinian-Cartesian legacy that looms large in Latin Christianity and its modernist heirs. In this way, Sites of the Ascetic Self extends this scholarship, which itself expands the insights of Peter Brown’s seminal The Body and Society (Columbia University Press, 1988) and Michel Foucault’s later work, to the specific case study, as it were, of John Cassian, the influential late fourth- to early fifth-century monk.

John Cassian, a contemporary of Augustine, stands in contrast to that dominant figure for his more optimistic view of human effort and potential, a position that—in the context of the condemnation of Pelagius for holding a somewhat similar view—proved controversial. This era would see the end of a true opposition to Augustine’s theological hegemony. Regarding Augustine, Clements observes that Cassian “contests his later views on the fallenness of human beings as instigated by the original sin of Adam, who condemned the whole human race. In Augustine’s late view, grace alone can instigate human good actions or good will precisely because humans are so fallen” (72). Clements summarizes the relevance of Cassian’s opposition, which contends that humans themselves must be capable of real change if free will has meaning: “if God created human beings with free will, such a will cannot be compelled to choose only bad and evil things.  Human will must be able to choose the good, since freedom of choice involves the ability to choose different courses of action . . . as humans have the capacity to change, they also have the capacity to cultivate particular ascetic ways of life” (69).

The second half of the book concerns the specific themes of ascetic practice and self-formation that flow from the possibilities related to Cassian’s views. It is important to note, then, that theory and practice are entwined, and therefore one can relate the more abstract principles of self-formation available in any religious tradition that offers them to the specific principles articulated by particular thinkers—as Clements does with Cassian. The material turn in religious studies in recent decades has done much to counter the belief-centered model that long dominated the field, but Clements provides an artful presentation of how the two, theory and practice, may inform one another. This is certainly not the only option; however, for a nuanced, contextual understanding of either of the two, Clements’ study displays the value of this one. Thus, the second half of the book considers, with respect to Cassian’s own writings, themes of bodily practices (chapter 4), affective practices (chapter 5), and communal practices (chapter 6). It is the sixth chapter, that on communal practices, that this reader finds most compelling, for the received vision of Christian asceticism, embodied by the desert fathers and most notably the mythic Anthony the Great, stresses the solitary nature of the career. However, that vision disregards the monastic communities that emerged from the early experiences of the desert fathers and focuses on the parallelism of Jesus’ own time in the desert. This emphasis on the solitary “great man” ignores the capacity for such efforts that Cassian, for one, indicates is shaped by communal practices that form the ascetic self in ways that make possible such noble efforts.

Clements accomplishes the goal of reading Cassian in relation to ascetic practices and reading ascetic practices in relation to Cassian’s writing. These twin aims are highly successful and provide scholars a model for following a similar path, the fruit of the maturing tree, as it were, of scholarship on asceticism. More than this, however, Clements reconsiders the late work of Foucault, extending the ongoing reconsideration of the work of Foucault from his earlier work on the machinery of power and control to his later emphasis on the self and its care. This is a valuable contribution in itself, even though not central. Lastly, Clements motions toward the ways in which the theology and philosophy, here articulated by Cassian, underlying the ascetic self resonate strongly with contemporary discourse regarding gender and sexuality fluidity. The anti-essentialism of that work, read together with late ancient Christian thinkers such as Cassian, offers an alternative to the essentialist genealogy coming from Plato, Augustine, René Descartes, and so forth. This alternative, grounded in bodily, affective, and communal practices of self-formation, offers a vision of a road not taken—one not of power, domination and rationality—in the Latin Christian tradition. That road is not lost, and Clements offers a compelling case for reconsidering, through Cassian, a possible future of Christian ethical formation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Edward A. Arnold is a research consultant with the American Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Columbia University Center for Buddhist Studies.

Date of Review: 
August 4, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Niki Kasumi Clements is the Watt J. and Lilly G. Jackson Assistant Professor of Religion and the Allison Sarofim Assistant Professor of Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities at Rice University.


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