EducationRoman Catholic

In Memoriam, Prof. Philip Rousseau

Early Christian Studies has just lost an important voice. No one will ask me to write a remembrance of Prof. Philip Rousseau, who passed away on September 3rd, 2020. I cannot claim to have been a family member, close personal friend, PhD directee or professional peer. Although I worked alongside him for seven years, I was formally his student for only a single semester—my first at the Catholic University of America—in 2008. Still, such is my esteem for the man, and such was his impact on my life and scholarship, that I feel the need to write this remembrance anyway.

A New Zealander by birth, he attended Oxford in the 1960s. Once, when a student asked if he had known J.R.R. Tolkien, he replied, “Oh, yes. He used to throw the most tremendous parties. He’d sit there in the corner and puff his pipe, and everyone would sort of be ‘Lord of the Rings’ey’ around him.” At Oxford he obtained a lifelong friend and collaborator in his doctoral advisor, Peter Brown. Beginning with his seminal article “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” (1971), Brown became the person most identified with the great rethinking of Sir Edward Gibbons’s venerable concept of the end of the Roman world, present in the title of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. With Rousseau and several others, Brown forged the concept of “Late Antiquity,” and set about applying social-historical tools, particularly those borrowed from anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, to the hagiographical and theological literature that Gibbon had so famously despised.

Rousseau did this to great effect in his first and most important book, Ascetics, Authority and the Church in the Age of Jerome and Cassian (1978), in which he set out the three big ideas upon which he would build his long career. First, Romanitas far outlived Constantine, and even Odoacer. Although polities undeniably shifted, Western European elites of even the sixth century, such as Gregory of Tours, still had more in common culturally with their first-century Roman counterparts than their tenth-century medieval ones. Second, where earlier confessional scholarship had emphasized the differences between the behavior of pagan Roman elites, the large landholders of the Senatorial and Equestrian classes who dominated that society, and the Christian princes, bishops and abbots who replaced them between the late third and sixth centuries, Rousseau pointed out the continuities. They often came from the same families. They spoke the same language. They fulfilled many of the same social functions as judges, magistrates, priests, patrons, diplomats, generals, etc. If they were clerical and not military elites, they even continued to wear the same Roman style of clothing—they still do. Finally, and most important for that book, Rousseau showed just how inimical the monastic movement had been to the secular clergy at its roots. Closely reading the letters of Jerome, Cassian, Augustine, Evagrius, Basil and others in the first generation to join asceticism with priesthood, he uncovered the points of conflict between the older and newer forms of holy power, a struggle that by no means excluded deep devotion and real holiness, but could also display a face of ugly ambition and even hatred. 

His teaching career was long and distinguished. After Oxford, he taught at the University of Auckland in New Zealand from 1972 to 1998, with stints at prestigious institutions such as Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies. In 1998, he moved to the Catholic University of America, where he taught until his retirement in 2019. For the last eighteen years of that tenure, he was the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor of Early Christian Studies, meaning, among other things, that we were all treated to a public lecture from him near the opening of each academic year. These were lively events, since, with such a thorough explanatory framework and the encyclopedic knowledge of the lives and correspondence of early Christian luminaries that he eventually attained, Rousseau humanized the Fathers to a degree that I have never encountered anywhere else. He was helped in this respect, at least when I knew him, well on into his 70s, by his appearance and affect. He was tall – about six-foot-three – straight and thin, with large, expressive eyes and hands. He wore his hair cropped short, with a wispy grey beard. In short, he looked just like a Caravaggio Saint Jerome, if you somehow happened to catch him clothed in a sweater vest instead of a hair shirt. He spoke with an Oxford accent, yet, even after forty years of lecturing, he still had a ghost of a stutter, which kept him from seeming altogether too Olympian. 

Like Jerome, he could be forbidding. Characteristically, though, he was kind and generous. I will never forget how he helped me through the greatest blunder of my graduate career. Ignorant of what a “seminar” was, I registered for two in the first semester of my Masters degree in Medieval Studies: Regis Armstrong’s seminar, the Cistercians on the Song of Songs, and Rousseau’s own Merovingian Asceticism. Rousseau, it so happened, required his students to give a seminar presentation early in the semester, complete with a draft paper and texts, then to turn in a completely different paper at the end of the semester, based on thorough revisions. In effect, he required two seminar research papers. I had just enough Latin not to utterly disgrace myself, and I still remembered a bit of seminary Greek, but my only research language besides English was Spanish, which is all but useless when the subject of study lies outside Iberia itself. I confessed all this to Rousseau, who nodded calmly and suggested I write my paper on an early monastic figure from Iberia. I chose Fructuosus of Braga, a fascinating elite abbot/bishop/wonder worker from the seventh century who deserves to be better known. With my paltry tools, I was able to learn quite a lot. I even made my first visit to the Library of Congress for scholarly purposes, to giddily read an obscure Spanish festschrift in its grandiose reading room. But there were gaps. One day in a meeting, Rousseau passed across the desk a review copy of Adalbert de Vogüé’s new edition of his Histoire littéraire du mouvement monastique dans l’antiquité. It was the kindest nudge, a necessary addition to my bibliography. “But Professor Rousseau,” I protested with the ignoble defeatism of youth, “I don’t read French.” 

“Well,” he replied, “have a bash at it.” 

I had a bash, and was amazed at how much I was able to learn from the Latin, the footnotes, from the many sentences I was able to understand. I have never again simply accepted defeat when confronted by a language I haven’t studied. That new intellectual courage was the only way I survived those two premature seminars, and the experience, though harrowing, gave me a deep and lasting joy that I carry with me still.

One might think that Rousseau and his ideas would have little relevance for the later middle ages in which I work, but it has proved otherwise. His first big idea, the idea of “Late Antiquity” shared with Peter Brown, has revolutionized medieval history as well, since it overturned the Pirenne thesis that saw Western Europe as emerging from “the closing of the Mediterranean” in the wake of the Islamic conquests of the seventh century. Michael McCormick has since demonstrated that the new order established by the emerging kingdoms and city-states of Europe was built on a lucrative trade with the wealthier Eastern and Southern Mediterranean: a trade in European slaves. His second big idea prepared me to read the Church Fathers. As it turns out, when one reads medieval exegesis, that is mostly what one does. His third big idea, that asceticism confronted (and confronts) clerical authority, prepared me to study Francis of Assisi, who set out to imitate the life of Jesus as closely as possible, but is in many ways a closer imitator of the Desert Fathers. Clare’s life has striking parallels to the lives of Late Antique aristocratic virgins. 

Although he was by no means a confessional scholar, Rousseau’s Catholic faith was never left to one side. In his youth, he had entered the Jesuit novitiate. Although he did not stay with the Order, the experience deeply marked him. He once explained the meeting between Anthony of the Desert and Paul of Thebes by recalling an occasion when he had been tasked with taking an old Jesuit Father, who no longer drove, to visit a friend. The two old gentlemen had greeted each other, and then sat in companionable silence for hours, no words being required. Rousseau and his wife Thérèse led RCIA groups, an experience I can only imagine was a great one for the catechumens, although it may also have been extremely rigorous. He directly professed faith in my presence exactly once. I cannot remember what we were talking about: it may have been the lurid miracle stories in Gregory of the Great’s Life of Benedict, which the pope used to such careful theological and ethical effect. In any case, the question of the balance of credence and credulity was raised. Rousseau said, “you know, I had to step back for awhile and ask myself whether I really believe all this.” By “all this” he meant not St. Maur running across a lake, but Christianity itself, which Catholics, at least in principle, accept as a whole, not picking and choosing between doctrines they personally accept and those they reject. After a pause, he continued: “I decided, yes, I do. I do.”

Resurgat cum Christo in novissimo die.


Aaron Gies is visiting assistant professor of theology at St. Bonaventure University.

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