Cassianus (11) Johannes has been called the founder of Western monachism and of the semi-Pelagian school. More exactly, he was the first to transplant the rules of the Eastern monks into Europe, and the most eminent of the writers who steered a course between Pelagianism and the tenets of St. Augustine. Like St. Chrysostom, St. John Damascene, and others, he is usually designated by his agnomen. His birth is dated between a.d. 350 and 360; his birthplace is not known. Gennadius calls him "Scytha" (Fabric. Biblioth. Eccles. s.v.); but this may be merely a corruption from Scetis or Scyathis, where Cassian resided for some time among the monks of Nitria. His parents, of whose piety he speaks gratefully ( Coll. xxiv. 1), sent him to be educated in a monastery at Bethlehem; and there he would have frequent intercourse with pilgrims from the West. This cannot have been, as some have thought, the monastery of St. Jerome, for that was not then in existence, nor does Cassian ever refer to Jerome as his teacher. Here Cassian became intimate with Germanus, the future companion of his travels. The fame of the Egyptian monks and hermits reached Cassian and his friend in their cells. About a.d. 390 they started, with leave of absence for seven years, to study by personal observation the more austere rules of the "renuntiantes," as they were called, in the Thebaid. At the end of seven years they revisited Bethlehem; and thence returned very soon to the Egyptian deserts ( Coll. xvii. 31). Thus Cassian collected the materials for his future writings. Besides other voluntary hardships, he speaks of the monks having to fetch water on their shoulders a distance of three or four miles ( Coll. xxiv. 10). Evidently in his estimation, as in that of his contemporaries generally, the vocation of a solitary is holier than even that of a coenobite.
About a.d. 403 we find Cassian and Germanus at Constantinople, perhaps attracted by the reputation of Chrysostom. By him Cassian was ordained deacon, or, as some think, appointed archdeacon; and in his treatise de Incarnatione (vii. 31) he speaks of Chrysostom with affectionate reverence. Cassian and his friend were entrusted with the care of the cathedral treasures; and, after the expulsion of Chrysostom, they were sent by his adherents on an embassy to Rome c. a.d. 405 to solicit the intervention of Innocent I. No further mention is made of Germanus; nor is much known of Cassian during the next ten years. Probably he remained at Rome after Chrysostom died, a.d. 407, until the approach of the Goths under Alaric, and thus acquired a personal interest in the Pelagian controversy.
After quitting Rome it has been inferred from a casual expression in the de Institutis (iii. i) that Cassian visited the monks of Mesopotamia; some say that he returned for a time to Egypt or Palestine; and by some he is identified with Cassianus Presbyter. Probably Cassian betook himself from Rome to Massilia (Marseilles). In this neighbourhood he founded two monasteries (one afterwards known as that of St. Victor) for men and women respectively. Tillemont says that the rule was taken from the fourth book of the de Institutis; and that many monasteries in that part of Gaul owed their existence to this foundation. As Cassian is addressed in the Epistola Castoris as "abbas," "dominus," and "pater" it is argued, but not with certainty, that he presided over his new monastery. Here he devoted himself to literary labours for many years, and died at a very great age, probably between a.d. 440 and 450.
The de Institutis Renuntiantium, in twelve books, was written c. 420 at the request of Castor, bp. of Apta Julia, in Gallia Narbonensis (Praef. Inst. ). Books i.â€“iv. treat of the monastic rule; the others of its especial hindrances. The former were abridged by Eucherius Lugdunensis. The Collationes Patrum in Scithico Eremo Commorantium, in which Cassian records his Egyptian experiences, were evidently intended to complete his previous work; his purpose being to describe in the de Institutis the regulations and observances of monachism; in the Collationes its interior scope and spirit: in the former he writes of monks, in the latter of hermits. The Collationes were commenced for Castor, but after his death Collat. i.â€“x. were inscribed to Leontius, a kinsman of Castor, and Helladius, bishop in that district; xi.â€“xvii. to Honoratus, abbat of Lerins, and Eucherius, bp. of Lugdunum (Lyons); xviii.â€“xxiv. to the monks and anchorets of the Stoechades (HyÃ¨res). The Collationes have been well called a "speculum monasticum:" St. Benedict ordered them to be read daily; they were highly approved also by the founders of the Dominicans, Carthusians, and Jesuits. But the orthodoxy of the Collationes, especially of iii. and xiii., on the subject of Grace and Freewill, was impugned by St. Augustine and Prosper of Aquitania. [See Pelagianism.] An attempt was made by Cassiodorus and others to expurgate them. Cassian's last work, de Incarnatione Christi (cf. i. 3, v. 2), was directed against the Nestorian heresy, c. 429, at the suggestion of Leo, then archdeacon and afterwards pope. Probably Cassian was selected for this controversy as a disciple of Chrysostom, the illustrious predecessor of Nestorius in the see of Constantinople ( Inc. vii. 31). The treatises de Spirituali MedicinÃ¢ Monachi, Theologica Confessio, and de Conflictu Virtutum ac Vitiorum are generally pronounced spurious.
Cassian is remarkable as a link between Eastern and Western Christendom, and as combining in himself the active and the contemplative life. It is difficult to overestimate his influence indirectly on the great monastic system of mediaeval Europe. His writings have always been in esteem with monastic reformers; especially at the revival of learning in the 15th cent. Even his adversary Prosper calls him "insignis ac facundus." Cassian shews a thorough knowledge of the Holy Scriptures; often with a good deal of quaintness in his application of it. His style, if not so rich in poetic eloquence as that of his great opponent, is clear and forcible; and he is practical rather than profound. His good sense manifests itself in his preface to the Instituta, where he announces his intention to avoid legendary wonders and to regard his subject on its practical side. He insists continually on the paramount importance of the intention, disclaiming the idea of what is called the "opus operatum"â€”for instance, on almsgiving ( Inst. vii. 21), fasting ( Coll. i. 7), and prayer (ix. 3); and he is incessant in denouncing the especial sins of cloister-life, as pride, ambition, vainglory. The life of a monk, as he portrays it, is no formal and mechanical routine; but a daily and hourly act of self-renunciation (xxiv. 2). On the other hand, he is by no means free from exaggerated reverence for mere asceticism; and, while encouraging the highest aspirations after holiness, allows too much scope to a selfish desire of reward. As a casuist he is for the most part sensible and judicious, e.g. , in discriminating between voluntary and involuntary thoughts (i. 17). But he presses obedience so far as to make it unreasonable and fanatical (Inst. iv. 27, etc.), and under certain circumstances he sanctions deceit ( Coll. xvii.).
On the subject of Predestination Cassian, without assenting to Pelagius, protested against what he considered the fatalistic tendency of St. Augustine. In the Collationes he merely professes to quote the words of the Egyptian "fathers"; and in the de Incarnatione he distinctly attacks Pelagianism as closely allied with the heresy of Nestorius (i. 3, vi. 14). Still, it is certain from the tenor of his writings that Cassian felt a very strong repugnance to any theory which seemed to him to involve an arbitrary limitation of the possibility of being saved. It has been well said that St. Augustine regards man in his natural state as dead, Pelagius as sound and well, Cassian as sick. [See Pelagianism.]
The best critical ed. of Cassian's works is in the Corp. Scr. Eccl. Lat. xiii. xvii., ed. by Petschenig. In Schaff and Wace's Post-Nicene Library there is a translation of most of them, with valuable prolegomena and notes by Dr. Gibson, Bp. of Gloucester.