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Reading John Climacus: Rhetorical Argumentation, Literary Convention and the Tradition of Monastic Formation (review)
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Reviewed by
Henrik Rydell Johnsén Reading John Climacus: Rhetorical Argumentation, Literary Convention and the Tradition of Monastic Formation Lund: Lund University Press, 2007 Pp. xv + 303.

John Climacus, the name by which we know the author of the work examined in the volume under review, was a monk of the monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai and wrote The Ladder (of Divine Ascent) sometime during the early decades of the seventh century, probably after he became the abbot of his community. In its essence the Ladder is a moral and ascetic treatise, presented in thirty steps or chapters, on the various virtues and vices that are central to the life and conduct of a monk. We know next to nothing for certain about Climacus's life, but if one is to judge by the content and quality of his writing, there can be little doubt that he was highly educated, at the very least in rhetoric.

A report in one contemporary source suggests the possibility that he had been a married man and embarked on the religious path only after the death of his wife. The scenario is not out of the question and must have been a not uncommon occurrence. One good example, from precisely the early seventh century, is provided by the case of the famous patriarch of Alexandria, John the Almsgiver.

Whatever the facts of Climacus's curriculum vitae, the success of his book is easy to gauge. In Greek alone, not to mention versions in several eastern and western languages, the number of surviving handwritten copies amounts to more than seven hundred, an enormous tally that surely provides one of the main reasons why no critical edition of the Ladder has ever been attempted. There are a few serviceable texts of the Greek available in print, and fortunately at least two very good modern English translations to meet the needs of the student and general reader.

For readers of the Greek original Climacus has always posed something of a problem, because quite apart from the rich and somewhat unusual style of language, it has never been plain sailing to come to grips with the work's structure. In fact, some scholars, such as the late Alexander Kazhdan, ended up by declaring the presentation of the book's subject matter to be "unsystematic." Others have spent much time and thought in trying to map out some basic order overall and within the individual steps, but none of the proposals seems to have [End Page 145] gained general acceptance. The latest attempt has been undertaken by H. R. Johnsén (J.) in a Lund doctoral dissertation published as a monograph, and his work should be warmly welcomed as the most sustained and detailed effort up to now to unravel and explain the pattern and threads of a much-variegated text. It draws on earlier scholarship in the small field of Climacus studies, but goes much beyond what has been achieved to date, and always in a spirit of complete fairness to previous endeavors.

J. divides the main part of his study into four chapters, the longest of which and the one containing the most original contributions to the subject is the first, under the title "The Ladder and Argumentation." In it he makes the case, through detailed analysis and carefully selected illustrative examples, that Climacus employs two rhetorical patterns in presenting his discourses on virtues and vices and that these play fundamental roles in the textual "steps" of the Ladder as a whole and in their various parts. The patterns in question are the common property of late antique rhetorical theory and practice, namely, a four-fold schema prescribed for a speech or written discourse, and an elaboration pattern that may take different forms for the marshalling of arguments: 1) accumulation, 2) plaiting, and 3) spiral arrangement. It must be said that J.'s application of these schemata to the Ladder is very convincing and he has managed thereby to throw more light on Climacus's method of procedure than any previous commentator.

There follow two shorter chapters. In "The Ladder, Gnomic Conventions and the Moral Treatise," J. argues plausibly, from a comparison...