Interpretation and edification in Eusebius' Life of Constantine



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This dissertation approaches Eusebius’ De Vita Constantini (hereafter VC) as a literary work, focusing on the ways in which the concepts of interpretation and moral edification inform the text. In the tradition of Plutarchan biography Eusebius states that he writes for the sake of the reader’s moral improvement, but as a Christian theologian he assumes that moral improvement follows spiritual enlightenment. Thus his biography of Constantine not only portrays a virtuous life but interprets what it portrays in order to reveal underlying spiritual truths. This interpretive activity arises from a mental habit that Eusebius shared with others, Christian and non-Christian, in his Platonizing intellectual milieu and that I term “symbolic thought,” namely, a view of the material world as a set of signs representing supra-mundane reality. In Chapter One I examine Eusebius’ comparison of Constantine with Moses in VC 1 as an example of typology, a comparative interpretive strategy favored by Christian writers. Typology is often sharply distinguished from allegory in modern theological studies; I argue that both can be forms of symbolic thought, when they are used to direct the reader to a spiritual truth. In Chapter Two I discuss the ways in which Eusebius’ idealized portrayal of Constantine conforms to the literary stereotype of the philosopher. I argue that Eusebius viewed VC as a whole as a symbolic composition: through the accumulation of mundane details about Constantine, Eusebius claims to give the reader a glimpse of a profoundly spiritual soul. In Chapter Three I argue that Eusebius’ writings reveal a positive view of the capacity of the visual arts to function symbolically, despite the tendency of modern scholarship to associate him with iconophobia. I analyze several passages in which Eusebius makes artistic mimesis a significant adjunct to a Platonizing theory of mimetic relationships between the material and spiritual realms, in that he presents products of the visual arts (like VC itself, which Eusebius describes as a “verbal portrait” of Constantine) as able both to represent spiritual reality and to assist the viewer in the process of assimilation to the divine.