Evagrius of Pontus on Exodus and the Virtues

In: Vigiliae Christianae


In On Prayer 1-4, Evagrius of Pontus reads the incense described in Exodus 30:34-37 as an allegorical type of the four cardinal virtues. This essay explains the logic of Evagrius’s interpretation, situating his argument in a longstanding philosophical debate about the interrelationship of the virtues. By reading the incense as virtue, Evagrius joins both Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa in interpreting Exodus as a source for virtue theory, as well as several ancient philosophers who explained the virtues and their interrelation by comparing them to physical substances combined in a mixture. Central to Evagrius’s argument is the compound ancient philosophers called a “juxtaposition” (σύνθεσις), the use of which term shows Evagrius’s knowledge of a well-attested hexaplaric variant in Exod 30:35. In sum, authorized by his text of Exodus, Evagrius suggests the virtues relate to each other in the same fashion that the ingredients of a σύνθεσις relate to each other.