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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. XI:
The Works of John Cassian.: Chapter I. The Life of Cassian.

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter I.

The Life of Cassian.

Cassianus natione Scytha” is the description given by Gennadius 530 of the writer whose works are now for the first time translated into English. In spite, however, of the precision of this statement, considerable doubt hangs over Cassian’s nationality, and it is hard to believe that he was in reality a Scythian. Not only is his language and style free from all trace of barbarism, but as a boy he certainly received a liberal education; for in his Conferences he laments that the exertions of his tutor and his own attention to continual study had so weakened him that his mind was so filled with songs of the poets that even at the hour of prayer it was thinking of those trifling fables and stories of battles with which it had from earliest infancy been stored; “and,” he adds, “when singing Psalms or asking forgiveness of sins, some wanton recollection of the poems intrudes itself or the image of heroes fighting presents itself before the eyes; and an imagination of such phantoms is always haunting me.” 531 Further evidence of the character of his education is also supplied by the fact that in his work on the Incarnation against Nestorius he manifests an acquaintance not only with the works of earlier Christian Fathers, but also with those of such writers as Cicero and Persius. 532

These considerations are sufficient to make us hesitate before accepting the statement of Gennadius in what would at first sight be its natural meaning; although from the fact of his connection with Marseilles, where so much of Cassian’s life was spent, as well as the early date at which he wrote (a.d. 495), it is dangerous to reject his authority altogether. It is, however, possible that the term “Scytha” is not really intended to denote a Scythian, but to refer to the desert of Scete, or Scitis, 533 in Egypt, where Cassian passed many years of his life, and with which his fame was closely associated; and, therefore, without going to the length of rejecting the authority of Gennadius altogether, we are free to look for some other country as the birthplace of our author. But little light is thrown on this subject by the statements of other writers. Photius 534 (a.d. 800) calls him Ρωμαῖος, which need mean no more than born within the Roman Empire; while Honorius of Autun (a.d. 1130) speaks of him as Afer. The last-mentioned writer is, however, of too late a date to be of any authority; and it is just possible that the term “Afer,” like the “Scytha” of Gennadius, may be owing to his lengthy residence in Egypt.  535 In the writings of Cassian himself there is nothing to enable us to identify the country of his birth with certainty; but, in describing the situation of his ancestral home, he speaks of the delightful pleasantness of the neighbourhood, and the recesses of the woods, which would not only delight the heart of a monk but would also furnish him with a plentiful supply of food; 536 while in a later passage he says that in his own country it was impossible to find any one who had adopted the monastic life. 537 From these notices, compared with a passage in the Preface to the Institutes, where p. 184 the diocese of Apta Julia in Gallia Narbonensis is spoken of as still without monasteries, some ground is given for the conjecture that Cassian was really a native of Gaul, whither he returned in mature age after his wanderings were ended, and where most of his friends of whom we have any knowledge were settled. On the whole, then, it appears to the present writer to be the most probable view that Cassian was of Western origin, and, perhaps, a native of Provence, although it must be freely acknowledged that it is impossible to speak with certainty on this subject. 538

Once more: not only is there this doubt about his nationality, but questions have also been raised concerning his original name. Gennadius and Cassiodorus 539 speak of him simply as Cassianus. In his own writings he represents himself as addressed by the monks in Egypt more than once by the name of John. 540 Prosper of Aquitaine (his contemporary and antagonist) combines both names, and speaks of him as “Joannes cognomento Cassianus.” 541 In the titles of the majority of the mss. of his own writing he is merely “Cassianus,” though in one case the work is entitled “Beatissimi Joannis qui et Cassiani.” 542 Are we, then, with the writer of the last-mentioned ms., to suppose that the names John and Cassian are alternatives; or, with Prosper, that John was his nomen and Cassianus his cognomen, or, more strictly, agnomen? The former view is, perhaps, the more probable, as he may well have taken the name of John at his baptism or at his admission to the monastic life. The theory which has sometimes been advocated—that he received it at his ordination by S. John Chrysostom—falls to the ground when we notice that he represents himself as called John during his residence in Egypt, several years before his ordination and intercourse with S. Chrysostom.

To pass now from the question of his name and nationality to the narrative of Cassian’s life. Various considerations point to the date of his birth as about the year 360. Of his family we know nothing, except that in one passage of his writings he incidentally makes mention of a sister; 543 while the language which he uses of his parents would imply that they were well-to-do and pious. 544 As we have already seen, he received a liberal education as a boy, but while still young forsook the world, and was received, together with his friend Germanus, into a monastery at Bethlehem, 545 where he spent several years and became thoroughly familiar with the customs and traditions of the monasteries of Syria. Eager, however, to make further progress in the perfect life, the two friends finally determined to visit Egypt, 546 where, as it was the country in which the monastic life originated, the most famous monasteries existed, and the most illustrious Anchorites were to be found. Permission to undertake the journey was sought and obtained from their superiors, a pledge being required of a speedy return when the object of their visit was gained. 547 Sailing from some port of Syria, perhaps Joppa, the friends arrived at Thennesus, a town at the mouth of the Tanitic branch of the Nile, near Lake Menzaleh. Here they fell in with a celebrated Anchorite named Archebius, bishop of the neighbouring town of Panephysis, who had come to Thennesus on business connected with the election of a bishop. He, on hearing the object of their visit to Egypt, at once offered them an introduction to some celebrated Anchorites in his own neighbourhood. The offer was gladly accepted, and under his guidance they made their way through a dreary district of salt marshes, many of the villages being in ruins and deserted by their inhabitants owing to the floods which had inundated the country and turned the rising grounds into islands, “and thus afforded the desired solitudes to the holy Anchorites, among whom three old men—Chæremon, Nesteros, and Joseph—were famed as the Anchorites of the longest standing.” 548 Archebius brought them first to Chæremon, who had already passed his hundredth year, and was so far bent with age and constant prayer that he could no longer walk upright, but crawled upon his hands and knees. The saint’s hesitation at allowing himself to be thus interviewed by strangers was soon overcome, and he finally p. 185 gratified their curiosity by delivering three discourses, on the subjects of Perfection, Chastity, and the Protection of God. 549 From the cell of Chæremon Cassian and his companion proceeded to that of Abbot Nesteros, who honoured them with two discourses, on Spiritual Knowledge, and Divine Gifts; 550 and from him they repaired to Joseph, who belonged to a noble family, and before his renunciation of the world had been “primarius” of his native city, Thmuis. He was naturally better educated than the others, and was able to converse with them in Greek instead of being obliged to have recourse to the help of an interpreter, as had been the case with Chæremon and Nesteros. 551 His first question referred to the relationship between Cassian and Germanus: were they brothers? And their reply—that the brotherhood was spiritual and not carnal—furnished the old man with a text for his first discourse, which was on Friendship, and which was followed up on the next day by one on the Obligation of Promises, 552 called forth by the perplexity in which the travellers found themselves owing to their promise to return to Bethlehem,—a promise which they were loth to break, and which yet they could not fulfil without losing a grand opportunity of making progress in the spiritual life. In their difficulty they consulted Joseph; and, fortified by his authority and advice, they determined to break the letter of their promise and make a longer stay in Egypt, where they accordingly remained for seven years in spite of their brethren at Bethlehem, whose displeasure at their conduct, Cassian tells us, was not removed by their frequent letters home. 553

It was while Cassian and his fellow-traveller were still in the neighbourhood of Panephysis that these energetic precursors of the modern “interviewers” paid a visit to Abbot Pinufius, a priest who presided over a large monastery. This man was an old friend of theirs, whose acquaintance they had previously made at Bethlehem, whither (after an ineffectual attempt to conceal himself in a monastery in the island of Tabenna) he had fled in order to escape the responsibilities of his office. There he had been received as a novice, and had been assigned by the abbot as an inmate of Cassian’s cell, until he was recognized by a visitor from Egypt and brought back in triumph to his own monastery. 554 To him, therefore, Cassian and Germanus made their way; and by him they were warmly welcomed; the old man repaying their former hospitality by giving them quarters in his own cell. While staying in this monastery they were so fortunate as to be present at the admission of a novice, and heard the charge which Pinufius made to the new-comer on the occasion; 555 and afterwards the abbot favoured them with a discourse “on the end of penitence and the marks of satisfaction.” 556 After this, resisting his pressing invitation to remain with him in the monastery, they proceeded once more on their travels, and, crossing the river, came to Diolcos, a town hard by the Sebennytic mouth of the Nile. Here was a barren tract of land between the river and the sea, rendered unfit for cultivation by the saltness of the soil and the dryness of the sand. It was, therefore, eagerly seized upon by the monks, who congregated here in great numbers in spite of the absence of water; the river from which it had to be fetched being some three miles distant. 557 In this neighbourhood they made the acquaintance of Abbot Piamun, a most celebrated Anchorite, who explained to them with great care the characteristics of the three kinds of monks; viz., the Cœnobites, the Anchorites, and the Sarabaites. 558 This discourse had the effect of exciting their desire more keenly than ever for the Anchorites’ life in preference to that of the Cœnobite,—a desire which was afterwards confirmed by what they saw and heard in the desert of Scete. They next visited a large monastery in the same neighbourhood, which was governed by the Abbot Paul, and which ordinarily accommodated two hundred monks, but was at that moment filled with a much larger number, who had come from the surrounding monasteries to celebrate the “depositio” of the late abbot. 559 Here they met a certain Abbot John, whose humility had led him to give up the life of an Anchorite for that of a Cœnobite, in order that he might have the opportunity of practising the virtues of obedience and subjection, which seemed out of the reach of the solitary. He was accordingly well qualified to speak of the subject which he selected for his discourse; viz., the aims of the Anchorite and Cœnobite life. 560 Another well-known abbot, whose acquaintance they now made, was Theonas, who, when quite a young man, had been married by his parents, and later on, on failing to obtain the consent of his wife to a separation, in p. 186 order that they might devote themselves to the monastic life, had deserted her and fled away into a monastery, where after a time he had been promoted to the office of almoner. From him they heard a discourse on the relaxation of the fast during Eastertide and Pentecost, 561 and, later on, one concerning Nocturnal Illusions, 562 and another on Sinlessness. 563 By these various discourses the two friends were rendered more desirous than ever of adopting the Anchorite life, and less inclined than before to return to the subjection of the monastery at Bethlehem. A far better course seemed to them to return to their own home, probably (as we have seen) in Gaul, where they would be free to practice what austerities they pleased without let or hindrance. 564  In their perplexity they consulted Abbot Abraham, who threw cold water on their plan in a discourse on Mortification, 565 which was entirely successful in persuading them to relinquish their half-formed intention. They, therefore, remained in Egypt for some years longer; and it is to the time of their stay in the neighbourhood of Diolcos that their acquaintance with Abbot Archebius must be assigned. This man, so Cassian tells us, 566 having discovered their desire to make some stay in the place, offered them the use of his cell, pretending that he was about to go off on a journey. They gladly accepted his offer. He went away for a few days, collected materials, and then returned and proceeded to build a new cell for himself. Shortly afterwards some more brethren came. He at once gave up to them his newly built cell, and once more set to work to build another for himself.

It is difficult to determine whether a stay in the desert of Scete was comprised in the seven years which the two friends now spent in Egypt, or whether they visited it for the first time during their second tour, after their return from Bethlehem. On the one hand, the language used in Conference XVIII. cc. i. and xvi. would almost suggest that they made their way into this remote district during their first sojourn in Egypt; and, on the other hand, that employed in Conference I. c. i. might imply a distinct journey to Egypt for the sake of visiting this region: and in XVII. xxx. Cassian distinctly asserts that they did visit Scete after their return to Bethlehem in fulfilment of their promise. On the whole, it appears the more natural view to suppose that their first tour was not extended beyond the Delta, more distant expeditions being reserved for a future occasion. Adopting, then, this view, we follow the travellers, after a seven years’ absence, back to the monastery at Bethlehem, where they managed to pacify the irate brethren, and, strange to say, obtained leave to return to Egypt a second time. 567 On this occasion they penetrated farther into the country than they had previously done. The region which they now visited was the desert of Scete, or Scitis; that is, the southern part of the famous Nitrian Valley, a name which is well known to all students from the rich treasure of Syrian mss. brought home from thence by the Hon. Robert Curzon and Archdeacon Tattam now more than forty years ago. The district lies “to the northwest of Cairo, three days’ journey in the Libyan desert,” 568 and gains its name of Nitria from the salt lakes which still furnish abundance of nitre, which has been worked for fully two thousand years. The valley has some claims to be considered the original home of monasticism. Some have thought that a colony of Therapeutæ was settled here in the earliest days; and hither S. Frontonius is said to have retired with seventy brethren, to lead the life of ascetics, about the middle of the second century. 569 Less doubtful is the fact that S. Ammon, a contemporary and friend of S. Antony, organized the monastic system here in the fourth century, and “filled the same place in lower Egypt as Antony in the Thebaid.” 570 Towards the close of the fourth century the valley was crowded with cells and monasteries. Rufinus, who visited it about 372, mentions fifty monasteries; 571 and the same number is given by Sozomen, who says that “some were inhabited by monks who live together in society, others by monks who have adopted a solitary mode of existence.” 572 About twenty years later Palladius passed a considerable time here, and reckons the total number of monks and ascetics at five thousand. 573 They were also visited by S. Jerome about the same time, and various details of the life of the monks are given by him in his Epistles. 574 Some few monks still linger on to the present day to keep up the traditions of nearly eighteen centuries. They were visited (among others) by the Hon. Robert Curzon in 1833; and an interesting account of them is given by him in his volume on “the monasteries of the Levant:” 575 but the latest and best account of them is that given by Mr. A. J. Butler, who p. 187 succeeded in gaining permission to visit them in 1883, and has described his journey in his excellent work on “the ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt.” 576 Four monasteries alone remain; known as Dair Abu Makâr, Dair Anba Bishôi, Dair es Sûrianî, and Dair al Baramûs; but the ruins of many others may still be traced in the desert tracts on the west side of the Natron lakes, and the valley of the waterless river which at some very remote period is supposed to have formed the bed of one of the branches of the Nile.” 577 The monasteries are all built on the same general plan, so that, as Mr. Butler tells us, a description of one will more or less accurately describe the others. Dair Abu Makâr (the monastery of S. Macarius), the first which he visited, which lies strictly within the desert of Scete, is spoken of as “a veritable fortress, standing about one-hundred and fifty yards square, with blind, lofty walls rising sheer out of the sand.” “Each monastery has also, either detached or not, a large keep, or tower, standing four-square, and approached only by a draw-bridge. The tower contains the library, store-rooms for the vestments and sacred vessels, cellars for oil and corn, and many strange holes and hiding-places of the monks in the last resort, if their citadel should be taken by the enemy. Within the monastery is enclosed one principal and one or two smaller court-yards, around which stand the cells of the monks, domestic buildings, such as the mill-room, the oven, the refectory, and the like, and the churches.” 578 The outward aspect can have changed but little since the fourth century. The buildings are perhaps stronger and more adapted to resist hostile attacks, but the general plan is probably identical with that adopted in the earliest monasteries erected in this remote region. Such, then, was the district to which Cassian and Germanus now made their way. Here they first sought and obtained an interview with Abbot Moses, who had formerly dwelt in the Thebaid near S. Antony, and was now living at a spot in the desert of Scete known as Calamus, 579 and was famous not only for practical goodness but also for contemplative excellence. After much persuasion he yielded to their entreaties and discoursed to them “on the goal or aim of a monk,” 580 and, on the following day, on Discretion. 581 They next visited Abbot Paphnutius, or “the Buffalo,” as he was named, from his love of solitude. He was an aged priest who had lived for years the life of an Anchorite, only leaving his cell for the purpose of going to the church, which was five miles off, on Saturday and Sunday, and returning with a large bucket of water on his shoulders to last him for the week. From him they heard of the “three kinds of renunciation” necessary for a monk. 582 They also visited his disciple Daniel, who had been ordained priest through the instrumentality of Paphnutius, but was so humble that he would never perform priestly functions in the presence of his master. The subject of his discourse in answer to the inquiry of the two friends was “the lust of the flesh and the spirit.” 583 The next ascetic interviewed was Serapion, who spoke of the “eight principal faults” to which a monk was exposed; viz., gluttony, fornication, covetousness, anger, dejection, “accidie,” vain glory, and pride. 584 After this they proceeded on a journey of some eighty miles to Cellæ, a place that lay between the desert of Scete (properly so called) and the Nitrian Valley, in order to consult Abbot Theodore on a difficulty which the recent massacre of a number of monks in Palestine by the Saracens had brought forcibly before them; viz., why was it that men of such illustrious merits and so great virtues should be slain by robbers, and why should God permit so great a crime to be committed? The difficulty was solved by Abbot Theodore in a discourse on “the death of the saints;” 585 and thus the journey was not taken in vain. Two other celebrated monks were also visited by the friends, whose discourses are recorded by Cassian: viz., Abbot Serenus, who spoke of “Inconstancy of mind, and Spiritual wickedness,” 586 as well as of the nature of evil spirits, in a Conference on “Principalities;” 587 and Abbot Isaac, who delivered two discourses on the subject of Prayer. 588 A few days after the first of these was delivered there arrived in the desert the “festal letters” of Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, in which he denounced the heresy of the Anthropomorphites. This caused a great commotion among the monks of Scete; and Abbot Paphnutius, who presided over the monastery where Cassian was staying, was the only one who would allow the letters to be publicly read in the congregation. Finally, however, owing to the conciliatory firmness of Paphnutius, the great body of the monks was won over to a sounder and less materialistic view of the nature of the Godhead than had hitherto been prevalent among them. 589

p. 188

These are all the details that can be gathered from Cassian’s writings of his stay in Scete, further than which he does not appear to have penetrated, as, when he speaks of the Thebaid and the monasteries there, it is only from hearsay and not from personal knowledge, although his original intention had certainly been to visit this district among others. 590

In considering the date of Cassian’s visit to Egypt there are various indications to guide us. In Conference XVIII. c. xiv., S. Athanasius is spoken of by Abbot Piamun as “of blessed memory;” and the language used of the Emperor Valens in c. vii. is such as to imply that he was already dead. The former died in 373, and the latter in 378. Again, in Conference XXIV. c. xxvi. Abbot Abraham is made to speak of John of Lycopolis as so famous that he was consulted by the very lords of creation, who sought his advice, and entrusted to his prayers and merits the crown of their empire and the fortunes of war. These expressions evidently allude to John’s announcement to Theodosius of his victory over Maxentius in 388, and his success against Eugenius in 395. 591 If they stood alone, we could scarcely rely on these indications of date with any great confidence because the Conferences were not written till many years later, and it is impossible to determine with certainty how far they really represent the discourses actually spoken by the Egyptian Fathers, or how far they are the ideal compositions of Cassian himself. But, as we have seen, it is certain that Cassian was actually in Egypt at the time of the Anthropomorphite controversy raised by the letters of Theophilus in 399; and, as the other notices of events previously mentioned coincide very fairly with this, we cannot be far wrong in placing the two visits to Egypt between 380 and 400. About the last-named date Cassian must have finally left the country; and we next hear of him in Constantinople, where he was ordained deacon by S. Chrysostom, 592 and, together with his friend Germanus, put in charge of the treasury, the only part of the Cathedral which escaped the flames in the terrible conflagration of 404. Thus Cassian was a witness of all the troublous scenes which attended the persecution of S. Chrysostom, whose side he warmly espoused in the controversy which rent the East asunder. And when the Saint was violently deposed and removed from Constantinople, the two friends—Germanus, who was by this time raised to the priesthood, and Cassian, who was still in deacon’s orders—were chosen as the bearers of a letter to Pope Innocent I. from the clergy who adhered to Chrysostom, detailing the scandalous scenes that had taken place, and the trials to which they had been exposed. 593 Of the length of Cassian’s stay in Rome we have no information, but it is likely that it was of some considerable duration; and it may have been at this time that he was ordained priest by Innocent. Possibly, also, it was now that he made the acquaintance of one who was then quite young, but was destined afterwards to become famous as Pope Leo the Great; for some years afterwards (a.d. 430) it was at the request of Leo, then Archdeacon of Rome, that Cassian wrote his work on the Incarnation against Nestorius. Leaving Rome, Cassian is next found in Gaul, 594 which (if we are right in the supposition that it was his birthplace) he must have quitted when scarcely more than a child. When he left it monasticism was a thing almost if not quite unknown there, but during his absence in the East a few monasteries had been founded in the district of the Loire by S. Martin and S. Hilary of Poictiers. Ligugé was founded shortly after 360, and Marmoutier rather later, after 371; and about the time of his return similar institutions were beginning to spring up in Provence. In 410 S. Honoratus founded the monastery which will ever be associated with his name, in the island of Lérins, and, in the eloquent words of the historian of the monks of the West, “opened the arms of his love to the sons of all countries who desired to love Christ. A multitude of disciples of all nations joined him. The West could no longer envy the East; and shortly that retreat, destined in the intentions of its founder to renew upon the coasts of Provence the austerities of the Thebaid, became a celebrated school of theology and Christian philosophy, a citadel inaccessible to the waves of barbarian invasion, an asylum for literature and science, which had fled from Italy invaded by the Goths;—in short, a nursery of bishops and saints, who were destined to spread over the whole of Gaul the knowledge of the gospel and the glory of Lérins.” 595

It must have been about the same time—a little earlier or a little later—that Cassian settled at Marseilles; and there, “in the midst of those great forests which had supplied the p. 189 Phœnician navy, which in the time of Cæsar reached as far as the sea-coast, and the mysterious obscurity of which had so terrified the Roman soldiers that the conqueror, to embolden them, had himself taken an axe and struck down an old oak,” 596 two monasteries were now established,—one for men, built it is said over the tomb of S. Victor, a martyr in the persecution of Diocletian, 597 and the other for women. Cassian’s long residence in the East and his intimate knowledge of the monastic system in vogue in Egypt made him at once looked up to as an authority, and practically as the head of the movement which was so rapidly taking root in Provence; and, although his fame has been overshadowed by that of the greatest of Western monks, S. Benedict of Nursia, yet his is really the credit of being, not indeed the actual founder, but the first organizer and systematizer, of Western monachism: and it is hoped that the copious illustrations from the Benedictine rule given in the notes to the first four books of the Institutes will serve to show how much the founder of the greatest order in the West was really indebted to his less-known predecessor. “He brought to bear upon the organization of Gallic monasteries lessons learnt in the East. Although S. Martin and others were before him, yet his life must be regarded as a new departure for monasticism in the land. The religious communities of S. Martin and S. Victricius in the centre of France were doubtless rudimentary and half-developed in discipline when compared with that established by Cassian at Marseilles, and with the many others which speedily arose modelled upon his elaborate rules.” 598 The high estimation in which his work was held throughout the Middle Ages is shown not only by the immense number of mss. of the Institutes and Conferences which still remain scattered throughout the libraries of Europe, but also by the recommendation of them by Cassiodorus, and by S. Benedict himself, who enjoins that the Conferences should be read daily by the monks of his order.

At Marseilles, then, Cassian settled; and here it was that he wrote his three great works,—the Institutes, the Conferences, and On the Incarnation against Nestorius; the two former being written for the express purpose of encouraging and developing the monastic life. Of these the Institutes was the earliest, being composed in “twelve books on the institutes of the monasteries and the remedies for the eight principal faults,” 599 at the request of Castor, Bishop of Apta Julia, some forty miles due north of Marseilles, who was desirous of introducing the monastic life into his diocese, where it was still a thing unknown. 600 As Castor died in 426, 601 and the work is dedicated to him, it must have been written some time between the years 419 and 426. When it was first undertaken Cassian’s design already was to follow it up by a second treatise containing the Conferences of the Fathers, to which he several times alludes in the Institutes as a forthcoming work, 602 and which, like the companion volume, was undertaken at Castor’s instigation. But, before even the first part of it was ready for publication, the Bishop of Apta was dead; and thus, to Cassian’s sorrow, he was unable to dedicate it to him, as he had hoped to do. He therefore dedicated Conferences I.–X. (the first portion of the work) to Leontius, Bishop (probably) of Fréjus, and Helladius, who is termed “frater” in the Preface to this work, though, as we see from the Preface to Conference XVIII., he was afterwards raised to the episcopate. 603

This portion of Cassian’s work must have been completed shortly after the death of Castor in 426. It was speedily followed by Part II., containing Conferences XI. to XVII. This is dedicated to Honoratus and Eucherius, who are styled “fratres.” Eucherius did not become Bishop of Lyons till 434; but, as Honoratus was raised to the see of Arles in 426, the volume must have been published not later than that year, or he would have been termed “Episcopus,” as he is in the Preface to Conference XVIII., instead of “frater.”

The third and last part of the work, containing Conferences XVIII. to XXIV., is dedicated to Jovinian, Minervius, Leontius, and Theodore, who are collectively styled “fratres.” Leontius must, therefore, be a different person from the bishop to whom Conferences I.–X. were dedicated; and nothing further is known of him, or of Minervius and Jovinian. Theodore was afterwards raised to the Episcopate, and succeeded Leontius in the see of Fréjus in 432. This third part of Cassian’s work was ready before the death of Honoratus, Bishop of p. 190 Arles, who is spoken of in the Preface as if still living; and, therefore, its publication cannot be later than 428, as Honoratus died in January, 429.

Thus the whole work was completed between the years 426 and 428; and now Cassian, who was growing old, was desirous of rest, feeling as if his life’s work was nearly over. 604 But the repose which he sought was not to be granted to him, for the remaining years of his life were troubled by two controversies,—the Nestorian, and the Pelagian,—or, rather, its offshoot, the Semi-Pelagian. Into the history of the former of these there is no need to enter here in detail. It broke out at Constantinople, where Nestorius had become bishop in succession to Sisinnius, in 428. The immediate occasion which gave rise to the controversy was a sermon by Anastasius, the Bishop’s chaplain, in which he inveighed against the title Theotocos, as given to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This at once created a great sensation, as Nestorius warmly supported his chaplain, and proceeded to develop the heresy connected with his name, in a course of sermons. News of the controversy was brought to Egypt, and Cyril of Alexandria at once entered into the fray. After some correspondence between the two bishops, both parties endeavoured to gain the adherence of the Church of Rome early in the year 430; and now it was that Cassian became mixed up with the dispute. Greek learning was evidently at a low ebb in the Roman Church at this time; 605 and it was, perhaps, partly owing to Cassian’s familiar acquaintance with this language, as well as owing to his connexion with Constantinople, where the trouble had now arisen, that Celestine’s Archdeacon Leo turned to him at this crisis for help. Anyhow, whatever was the reason, an earnest appeal from Rome reached him, begging him to write a refutation of the new heresy. After some hesitation he consented, and the result of his labours is seen in the seven books on the Incarnation against Nestorius. The work was evidently done in haste, and published in 430, before the Council of Ephesus (for Cassian speaks of Nestorius throughout as still Bishop of Constantinople), and, judging from the way in which Augustine is spoken of in VII. xxvii., before the death of that Father, which took place in August, 430. A great part of the work is occupied with Scripture proof of our Lord’s Divinity and unity of Person; but, taken as a whole, the treatise is distinctly of less value than Cassian’s earlier writings, and betrays the haste in which it was composed by the occasional use of inaccurate language on the subject of the Incarnation, and of terms and phrases which the mature judgment of the Church has rejected. But the writer’s keen penetration is seen by the quickness with which he connects the new heresy with the teaching of Pelagius, the connecting link between the two being found in the errors of Leporius of Trêves, who, in propagating Pelagian views of man’s sufficiency and strength, had applied them to the case of our Lord, not shrinking from the conclusion that He was a mere man who had used his free will so well as to have lived without sin, and had only been made Christ in virtue of His baptism, whereby the Divine and human were associated in such manner that virtually there were two Christs. 606 The connexion between Nestorianism and Pelagianism has often been noticed by later writers, but to Cassian belongs the credit of having been the first to point it out. Of the impression produced by his book we have no record. He appears to have taken no further part in the controversy, which, indeed, must have been to him an episode, coming in the midst of that other controversy with which his name is inseparably associated; viz., that on Semi-Pelagianism, on which something must now be said.

The controversy arose in the following way. During the struggle with Pelagianism between the years 410 and 420, Augustine’s views on the absolute need of grace were gradually hardening into a theory that grace was irresistible and therefore indefectible. “Intent above all things on magnifying the Divine Sovereignty, he practically forgot the complexity of the problem in hand and failed to do justice to the human element in the mysterious process of man’s salvation.” 607 The view of an absolute predestination irrespective of foreseen character, and of the irresistible and indefectible character of grace, was put forward by him, in a letter to a Roman priest, Sixtus, in the year 418. 608 Some years afterwards this letter fell into the hands of the monks of Adrumetum, some of whom were puzzled by its teaching; and, in order to allay the disputes among them, the matter was referred to Augustine himself. Thinking that the monks had misunderstood his teaching, he not only explained the letter but also wrote a fresh treatise,—“De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio” (426); and, when that failed p. 191 to satisfy the malcontents, he followed it up with his work “De Correptione et Gratia” (426), which, so far as the monks of Adrumetum were concerned, seems to have ended the controversy. Elsewhere, however, hesitation was felt in going the full length of Augustine’s teaching; and, in the South of Gaul especially, many were seriously disturbed at the turn which the controversy had lately taken, and were prepared to reject Augustine’s teaching, as not merely novel, but also practically dangerous. “They said, in effect,” to quote Canon Bright’s lucid summary of their position, “to treat predestination as irrespective of foreseen conduct, and to limit the Divine good-will to a fixed number of persons thus selected, who, as such, are assured of perseverance, is not only to depart from the older theology, and from the earlier teaching of the Bishop of Hippo himself, but to cut at the root of religious effort, and to encourage either negligence or despair. They insisted that whatever theories might be devised concerning this mystery, which was not a fit subject for popular discussion, the door of salvation should be regarded as open to all, because the Saviour ‘died for all.’ To explain away the Scriptural assurance was, they maintained, to falsify the Divine promise and to nullify human responsibility. They believed in the doctrine of the Fall; they acknowledged the necessity of real grace in order to man’s restoration; they even admitted that this grace must be ‘prevenient’ to such acts of will as resulted in Christian good works: but some of them thought—and herein consisted the error called Semi-Pelagian—that nature, unaided, could take the first step towards its recovery, by desiring to be healed through faith in Christ. If it could not,—if the very beginning of all good were strictly a Divine act,—exhortations seemed to them to be idle, and censure unjust, in regard to those on whom no such act had been wrought, and who, therefore, until it should be wrought, were helpless, and so far guiltless, in the matter.” 609 Of the party which took up this position Cassian was the recognized head. True, he did not directly enter into the controversy himself, nor is he the author of any polemical works upon the subject; but it is impossible to doubt that the thirteenth Conference, containing the teaching of Abbot Chæremon on the Protection of God, was intended to meet what he evidently regarded as a serious error; viz., the implicit denial by the Augustinians of the need of effort on man’s part.

Augustine was informed of the teaching of the School of Marseilles, as it was called, by one Hilary (a layman, not to be confounded with his namesake, the Bishop of Arles), who wrote to him two letters, of which the former is lost. The latter is still existing, and contains a careful account of what was maintained at Marseilles. Towards the close of it Hilary says that, as he was pressed for time, he had prevailed upon a friend to write as well, and would attach his letter to his own. This friend was Prosper of Aquitaine, also a layman and an ardent Augustinian, whose epistle has been preserved as well as Hilary’s. 610 From these letters, and from the works which Augustine wrote in reply, we learn that the “Massilians” had been first disturbed by some of Augustine’s earlier writings, as the Epistle to Paulinus; and that their distrust of his teaching on the subjects of Grace, Predestination, and Freewill had been increased by the receipt of his work “De Correptione et Gratia,” although in other matters they agreed with him entirely, and were great admirers of his. 611 Personally, they are spoken of with great respect as men of no common virtue, and of wide influence; and, though Cassian’s name is never mentioned in the correspondence, yet it is easy to read between the lines and see that he is referred to. 612

Augustine replied to his correspondents by writing what proved to be almost his latest works,—the treatises “De Prædestinatione Sanctorum” and “De dono Perseverantiæ.” In these volumes Augustine, while freely acknowledging the great difference between his opponents and the Pelagians, yet maintained as strongly as ever his own position, and “did not abate an iota of the contention that election and rejection were arbitrary, and that salvation was not really within the reach of all Christians.” 613 Thus the books naturally failed to satisfy the recalcitrant party, or to convince those who thought that the denial of the freedom of the will tended to destroy man’s responsibility. Prosper, however, was delighted with the treatises, and proceeded to follow them up with a work of his own, a poem of a thousand lines, p. 192 “De Ingratis,” by which he designates the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians, whose opinions he speaks of as spreading with alarming rapidity. The date of this publication was probably the early part of 430. It was certainly written before the death of Augustine, which took place on August 28 of the same year. The removal from this life of the great champion of Grace did not bring to an end the controversy to which his writings had given birth. The school of Marseilles continued to propagate its views with unabated vigour, in spite of the protests of Prosper and Hilary, who finally took the important step of appealing to Pope Celestine, from whom they succeeded in obtaining a letter addressed to the Gallican Bishops, Venerius of Marseilles, Leontius of Fréjus, Marinus, Auxonius, Arcadius, Filtanius, and the rest. 614 Celestine speaks strongly of their negligence in not having suppressed what he regarded as a public scandal, and says that “priests ought not to teach so as to invade the episcopal prerogative,” an expression in which we may well see an allusion to Cassian, the leading presbyter, of the diocese of Marseilles, whose Bishop is named first in the opening salutation; and the letter concludes with some words of eulogium on Augustine “of holy memory.” Never, perhaps, was Gallican independence shown in a more striking manner than in the sturdy way in which the Massilians clung to their views in spite of the authority of the Pope now brought to bear upon them. Prosper and Hilary on their return found the obnoxious teaching daily spreading, so that the former of them finally determined to put down, if possible, the upholders of the objectionable tenets by a direct criticism of Cassian’s Conferences. This was the origin of Prosper’s work “Contra Collatorem,” against the author of the Conferences, a treatise of considerable power and force, although not scrupulously fair. 615 The respect in which Cassian was held is strikingly shown by the fact that his antagonist never once names him directly, but merely speaks of him as a man of priestly rank who surpassed all his companions in power of arguing. The work consists of an examination of the thirteenth Conference, that of Abbot Chæremon, on the Protection of God, from which Prosper extracts twelve propositions, the first of which he says is orthodox while all the others are erroneous. 616 He concludes p. 193 by warning his antagonist of the danger of Pelagianism, and expresses a hope that his doctrine may be condemned by Pope Sixtus as it had been by Celestine and his predecessors. The last statement fixes the date of the book as not earlier than 432; for Celestine only died in April in that year.

Cassian was evidently still living when this attack upon him was made; but, so far as we know, he made no reply to it. Its publication is the last event in his life of which we have any knowledge. He probably died shortly afterwards, as the expression used by Gennadius in speaking of his work against Nestorius would seem to imply that it preceded his death by no long interval; for he says that with this he brought to a close his literary labours and his life in the reign of Theodosius and Valentinian. 617

The controversy on Grace and Freewill lingered on for nearly a century longer, and was only finally disposed of by the wise moderation shown by Cæsarius of Arles and those who acted with him at the Council of Orange (Arausio), in the year 529. 618

While it cannot be denied that the teaching of Cassian and his school in denying the necessity of initial and prevenient grace is erroneous and opens a door at which Pelagianism may easily creep in, yet it was an honest attempt to vindicate human responsibility; and it must be frankly admitted that the teaching of Augustine was one-sided and required to be balanced: nor would the question have ever been brought into prominence had it not been for the hard and rigorous way in which the doctrine of Predestination was taught, and the denial that the possibility of salvation lay within the reach of all men. While, then, it is granted that a verdict of guilty must be returned on the charge of Semi-Pelagianism in Cassian’s case, we are surely justified in claiming that a recommendation to mercy be attached to it on the plea of extenuating circumstances. Since his death Cassian has ever occupied a somewhat ambiguous position in the mind of the Church. Never formally canonized, his name is not found in the Calendars of the West; nor is he honoured with the title of “Saint.” He is, however, generally spoken of as “the blessed Cassian,” holding in this respect the same position as Theodoret, of whom Dr. Newman says that, though he “has the responsibility of acts which have forfeited to him that œcumenical dignity,” yet he is “not without honorary title in the Church’s hagiology; for he has ever been known as the ‘blessed Theodoret.’” 619 In the East Cassian’s position is somewhat better. He is there regarded as a saint, and may possibly be intended by the Cassian who is commemorated on February 29. 620 It is only natural that this difference should be made, for the Eastern Church has always held a milder view of the effect of the Fall than that which has been current in the West since the days of Augustine; and, indeed, Cassian, in making his protest against the rising tide of Augustinianism, was in the main only handing on the teaching which he had received from his Eastern instructors.



Gennadius Catalogus, c. lxii.


Conference XIV. xii.


On the Incarnation, VI. ix., x.


Σκιαθίς, and Σκιαθική (v. l. Σκιθιακή) χώρα are the forms of the name given by Ptolemy. The Greek Fathers speak of the district as Σκήτις, while in Latin writers the name appears as Scythia, or Scythis; and, though the printed texts of Cassian give the form as Scitium, heremus Scitii, and heremus Scitiotica, yet we learn from Petschenig that in the mss. of his works it is not seldom written as Scythium. It should be added that in the text of Gennadius the reading is not absolutely free from doubt, as there is some slight authority for reading “natus Serta.”


Bibliotheca, cod. cxcvii.


Dr. Gregory Smith (Dictionary of Christian Biography, art. Cassian) thinks that ‘Cassianus’ possibly points to Casius, a small town in Syria; but, apart from the fact that the name was not uncommon in the West as well as in the East, the description of his home as being in a country where there were no monasteries is quite fatal to this idea.


Conference XXIV. i.


c. xviii.


No difficulty need be felt on the score of his thorough knowledge of Greek, for this could easily be accounted for by his education at Bethlehem, and prolonged residence in the East.


De Div. Lect. Pref., and c. xxix.


Conference XIV. ix.; Institute V. xxxv.




Parisinus. Nouv. acquis. Lat. 260, of the eighth or ninth century.


Institutes XI. xviii.


Conference XXIV. i.


See the Institutes III. iv.; IV. xix.–xxi., xxxi. Conferences I. i.; XI. i. v.; XIX. i.; XX. i. The date is too early for this to have been S. Jerome’s famous monastery, as that father only settled at Bethlehem towards the close of 386, by which time Cassian himself must have been already in Egypt; nor does he anywhere in his writings make any allusion to Jerome as his teacher, although he mentions him with great respect in his work on the Incarnation, Book VII. c. xxvi.


Conference XI. i. A good account of Cassian’s visits to Egypt is given in Fleury’s Ecclesiastical History, Book XX., c. iii.–vii.


Conference XVII. ii.


Conference XI. i.–iii., and compare VII. xxvi. for another description of the same district.


Conferences XI., XII., XIII.


Conferences XIV., XV.


Conference XVI. i.


Conferences XVI., XVII.


See Conference XVII. i.–v. and xxx.


Conference XX. i., ii. The story is also told in the Institutes, IV. xxx.


Institute V. xxxii.–xlii.


Conference XX.


Institute V. xxxvi.


Conference XVIII. On the Sarabaites, see the note on c. vii.


Conference XIX. i.


Conference XIX. i.


Conference XXI.


Conference XXII.


Conference XXIII.


Conference XXIV. i.


Conference XXIV.


Institute V. xxxvi. sq.


Conference XVII. xxx.


Butler’s Coptic Churches, Vol. I., p. 287.


Rosweyd, Vitæ Patrum; and the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum, 14 April, Vol. II., 201–3.


Dictionary of Christian Biography, art. Ammon; cf. Rufinus, Hist.: Monach, xxx.; and Palladius, Hist.: Lausiaca, viii.


Hist., Monach, c. xxi.


Sozomen, H.E. VI. xxxi.


Hist., Laus., c. vii.


Epp.: ad Eustochium, ad Rustic.


Part. I., cc. vii., viii.


The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, by Alfred J. Butler. 2 vols. (Oxford, 1884).


Curzon, p. 79.


Butler, Vol. I., pp. 295, 6, 7.


Conference II. ii.; III. v.


Conference I.


Conference II.


Conference III.


Conference IV.


Conference V.


Conference VI.


Conference VII.


Conference VIII.


Conference IX. x.


See Conference X. cc. i–iii.


See Conference XI. i.


Compare the Institutes, IV. xxiii.


On the Incarnation, VII. xxxi.


Palladius Dial. iii.; Sozomen, H. E. VIII. xxvi.


It is highly precarious to infer from the language used in the Institutes, III. that Cassian visited Mesopotamia before settling in Gaul. His departure from Rome may perhaps have been occasioned by the Gothic invasion of Italy and Alaric’s sieges of Rome, 408–410.


Montalembert’s Monks of the West, Vol. I. p. 464 (Eng. Translation). The names of Hilary of Arles, Vincent of Lérins, Salvian, Eucherius of Lyons, Lupus of Troyes, and Cæsarius of Arles, are alone sufficient to render the monastery of Lérins illustrious in the annals of the Church of Gaul.


Montalembert, l. c.


The Acts of S. Victor’s martyrdom given by Ruinart, Acta Sincera, p. 225, have been attributed by Tillemont and others to Cassian, but without sufficient reason.


The Church in Roman Gaul, by R. Travers Smith, p. 245.


This is the title which Cassian himself gives to the work in his Preface to the Conferences.


Institutes, Preface.


Castor is commemorated on the twenty-first of September. See the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum, Sept. VI. 249.


See the Institutes II. i., ix., xviii.; V. iv.


With Papa Leonti et Sancte frater Helladi, in the Preface to Conference I., compare beatissimis Episcopis Helladio ac Leontio, in the Preface to Conference XVIII.


See the Preface to the work On the Incarnation against Nestorius.


See the Epistle of Celestine to Nestorius in Mansi IV. 1026, in which he apologizes for delay by saying that the letter and other documents sent by Nestorius had had to be translated into Latin.


See On the Incarnation, Book I. c. ii. sq.


The Anti-Pelagian Treatises of S. Augustine; with an Introduction by William Bright, D.D. (Oxford), 1889, p. 1.


Epistle xciv.


Anti-Pelagian Treatises, p. liv., lv.


Epp. ccxxv., ccxxvi., in the correspondence of S. Augustine. Works, Vol. II. 820, in the Benedictine Edition.


Cassian himself quotes Augustine as an authority for the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation in his work against Nestorius, VII. xxvii. But it is remarkable that, whereas on all the other authorities quoted (Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Rufinus, Gregory, Nazianzen, Athanasius, and Chrysostom) a high encomium is passed, Augustine alone is alluded to with no words of praise, being simply spoken of as priest (sacerdos) of Hippo Regius. There is no authority for the reading “magnus sacerdos,” found in the editions of Cuyck and Gazet, which misled Neander. Ch. Hist. Vol. IV. p. 376, E. T.


The only person referred to by name is Hilary, who had just succeeded Honoratus as Bishop of Arles. This fixes the date of the correspondence as 429.


Bright’s Anti-Pelagian Treatises, l. c.


The letter is given in full in Gazet’s edition of Cassian, with certain doctrinal articles appended, which really belong to a later date. See Dr. Newman’s note to the English translation of Fleury, Book XXVI. c. xi.


The treatise is given in Gazet’s edition of Cassian.


The propositions extracted by Prosper are the following:—

(1) That the initiative not only of our actions but also of our good thoughts comes from God, who inspires us with a good will to begin with, and supplies us with the opportunity of carrying out what we rightly desire; for “every good gift and every perfect gift cometh down from above, from the Father of light,” who both begins what is good, and continues it and completes it in us. c. iii. This proposition Prosper allows to be catholic and orthodox.

(2) The Divine protection is inseparably present with us, and so great is the kindness of the Creator towards His creatures that His Providence not only accompanies it, but even constantly precedes it, as the prophet experienced and plainly confessed, saying, “My God will prevent me with His mercy.” And when He sees in us some beginnings of a good will, He at once enlightens and strengthens it, and urges it on towards salvation, increasing that which He Himself implanted, or which He sees to have arisen from our own efforts. c. viii.

(3) Only in all these there is a declaration of the grace of God and the freedom of the will, because even of his own motion a man can be led to the quest of virtue, but always stands in need of the help of the Lord. For neither does any one enjoy good health whenever he likes, nor is he of his own will and pleasure set free from disease and sickness. c. ix.

(4) That it may be still clearer that, through the excellence of nature, which is granted by the goodness of the Creator, sometimes the first beginnings of a good will arise, which, however, cannot attain to the complete performance of what is good unless they are guided by the Lord, the apostle bears witness, and says, “For to will is present with me, but to perform what is good I find not.” Ib.

(5) And so these are somehow mixed up and indiscriminately confused, so that, among many persons, the question which depends upon the other is involved in great difficulty; i.e., does God have compassion upon us because we have shown the beginning of a good will, or does the beginning of a good will follow because God has had compassion upon us? For many, believing each of these alternatives, and asserting them more broadly than is right, are entangled in all kinds of opposite errors. For if we say that the beginning of free will is in our own power, what about Paul the persecutor, what about Matthew the publican, of whom the one was drawn to salvation while eager for bloodshed and the punishment of the innocent, the other while eager for violence and rapine? But, if we say that the beginning of our free will is always due to the inspiration of the grace of God, what about the faith of Zacchæus, or what are we to say of the goodness of the thief on the cross, who by their own desires brought violence to bear on the kingdom of heaven, and prevented the special leadings of their vocation? c. xi.

(6) These two, then, viz., the grace of God and Free-will, seem opposed to each other, but really are in harmony; and we gather from natural piety that we ought to have both alike, lest if we withdraw one of them from men we should seem to have broken the rule of the Church’s faith. Ib.

(7) Adam, therefore, after the fall, conceived a knowledge of evil which he had not previously, but did not lose the knowledge of good which he already possessed. c. xii.

(8) Wherefore we must take care not to refer all the merits of the saints to the Lord in such a way as to ascribe nothing but what is evil and perverse to human nature. Ib.

(9) It cannot be doubted that there are by nature some seeds of goodness implanted by the kindness of the Creator, but unless they are quickened by the assistance of God they cannot attain an increase of perfection. Ib.

(10) And for this, too, we read that in the case of Job, his well-tried athlete, when the Devil had challenged him to single combat, the Divine righteousness had made provision. For, if he had advanced against his foe not with his own strength, but solely with the protection of God’s grace, and, supported only by Divine aid, without any virtue of patience on his own part, had borne that manifold weight of temptations and losses, contrived with all the cruelty of his foe, might not the Devil have repeated with some justice that slanderous speech which he had previously uttered, “Doth Job serve God for nought? Hast Thou not hedged him in, and all his substance round about? But take away thine hand,” i.e., allow him to fight with me in his own strength, “and he will curse Thee to Thy face.” But, as after the struggle the slanderous foe dared not give vent to any such murmur as this, he admitted that he was vanquished by his (i.e., Job’s) strength, and not by that of God: although, too, we must not hold that the grace of God was altogether wanting to him, which gave to the tempter a power of tempting in proportion to that which he had of resisting. c. xiv.

(11) The Lord marvelled at him (viz., the centurion), and praised him, and put him before all those of the people of Israel who had believed, saying, “Verily, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith in Israel.” For there would have been no ground for praise or merit if Christ had only preferred in him what He Himself had given. Ib.

(12) Hence it comes that in our prayers we proclaim God as not only our protector and Saviour, but actually as our helper and sponsor. For whereas He first calls us to Him, and while we are still ignorant and unwilling draws us towards salvation, He is our protector and Saviour; but whereas, when we are already striving, He is wont to bring us help, and to receive and defend those who fly to Him for refuge, He is deemed our sponsor and refuge. c. xvii.

This last extract is in itself perfectly orthodox, and might be thought merely to express the distinction between “preventing” and “co-operating” grace; but the context makes it clear that Cassian means that in some cases grace “prevents,” while in others the initial movement towards salvation comes from man, and grace is only needed to “co-operate.”


Gennadius, in Catal., c. lxii. Ad extremum rogatus a Leone Archidiacono, postea urbis Romæ Episcopo, scripsit adversus Nestorium “De Incarnatione Domini” libros septem, et in his scribendi apud Massiliam et vivendi finem fecit Theodosio et Valentiniano regnantibus. The local commemoration of Cassian is on July 23.


On the history of Semi-Pelagianism see Bright’s Anti-Pelagian Treatises of S. Augustine, Introd., pp. xlix.–lxviii., and the Christian Remembrancer, Vol. XXXI. pp. 155–162.


Historical Sketches, Vol. III., p. 307.


The identification is anything but certain, for though there is no difficulty in the term Ρωμαῖος, as that is also applied to our author by Photius, yet the additional statement made in the Horologion, that he was originally στρατιωτικὸς τήν τάξιν, suggests that a different person is alluded to, possibly the same as the Cassian commemorated in the Roman martyrology on August 13.

A list of some twenty-five churches where Cassian is honoured as a saint is given in Guesnay’s Cassianus Illustratus.

Next: Chapter II. The History of Cassian's Writings, MSS., and Editions.

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