Book Review: The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea

Today’s post features a book review by Adam Renberg, a postgraduate research student in St. Mary’s College. We are grateful to Adam for his contribution.


Johannessen, Hazel. The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016. Hardback. 272 pgs. $91/£71. ISBN: 9780198787242.

The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea by Hazel Johannessen serves “to explore the ways in which Eusebius’ ideas about the demonic influenced and interacted with his thinking on a range of other subjects that comprised his political ideas” (203). Johannessen’s main emphasis focuses on correcting (in her view) the unfair assessment of Eusebius as a naïve triumphalist by arguing that Eusebius’ conception of the demonic suggests “doubts, fears, and hesitations” (16) concerning the state of the Church and the world in the Constantinian Empire.

In the first chapter, ‘Eusebius’ Works,’ Johannessen discusses the Eusebian corpus, including questions of genre, dating, and composition. She reviews the relevant debates for these issues with focus on Historia Ecclesiastica, Praeparatio Evangelica, Demonstratio Evangelica, De Laudibus Constantini, Vita Constantini, and Contra Hieroclem—the works most relevant to her study. Lastly, she considers methodology, identifying the potential pitfalls of surveying a scholar’s works and forcing them into a philosophy or theory. This chapter introduces readers to the political thought of Eusebius, arguing that he remained largely consistent, despite living in turbulent political times.

Chapter two, ‘The Nature of Demonic Threats,’ provides the foundation for Eusebius’ understanding of the demonic in its various facets. While Johannessen notes similarities with Neoplatonic conceptions of demons, especially in Porphyry, she argues that Eusebius primarily follows Origen’s conception of the demonic in a characteristically Christian cosmology. Demons, for Eusebius, are physical, present, and external beings who hate goodness and use their status above humans to lead them astray. Demonic beings (demons and Satan) led primitive humanity away from God and are likewise seeking to do so in the present age.

‘A Divided Universe,’ the next chapter of this book, sketches out Eusebius’ cosmology. Johannessen argues that his conception of the universe is “fundamentally divided between hostile spiritual opponents” (74). She notes that Eusebius speaks of angels and demons in opposites: rational vs. irrational, light vs. darkness, good vs. tyrannical. Then, she discussed Eusebius’ dualistic tendencies, emphasizing his view of the division between the spiritual and physical realms. Ultimately, she clears Eusebius of proper dualism as God maintains complete control throughout Eusebius’ oeuvre and theological system, despite his discomfort with and sidestepping of the implications of God creating and using evil. Demons, then, are a real presence who seek to deride God’s plan, but ultimately serve his purposes.

After surveying Eusebius’ cosmology, Johannessen moves onto the demonic in other facets of his thought. Chapter four, ‘Demonic Influence and Human Responsibility,’ surveys demonic influence on humankind. To do this, she discusses an important word for Eusebius’ conception of free will, προαίρεσις, which becomes the foundation for her discussion. Johannessen argues that Eusebius is positing an understanding of free will as a deliberate choice between good or evil. Demons do not impede this decision (Eusebius leaves little room for demon possession), but they do seek to deceive human beings. Johannessen then writes about the nature of moral character, noting a person’s ability to succumb to or escape from demonic influence. In other words, Johannessen traces the implications of the demonic for an individual who has changed their moral behavior, from immoral to moral and vice versa. Then, she makes certain claims about Eusebius’ soteriology founded on his conception of free will and the demonic.

Chapter five, ‘Demonic Activity and Historical Progress,’ argues that Eusebius does not see the Roman empire as the triumphal end of history, directly challenging scholarly consensus that Eusebius was a political optimist. She does this by showing how demons interacted in history before and after the incarnation. This includes demons leading people into polytheistic worship before Christ, while after the incarnation engaging in persecution and heresy. She briefly engages with Christology in this section, yet emphasizes the role of bishops as the present (intellectual) key to salvation.

The final body chapter, ‘Demonic Tyranny and Virtuous Kingship,’ discusses Eusebius’ political conceptions. Here, Johannessen examines Eusebius’ conception of virtuous kingship through the negative: by his understanding of tyrants. Johannessen argues that readers gain a stronger understanding of virtuous kingship by showing what poor kingship looks like. She discusses broader non-Eusebian conceptions of tyrants and what constitutes a ruler being labelled as such. Then, she argues these tyrants were enslaved to demons in Eusebius’ thought and therefore were unfit to rule. This unqualified rule is not based on a king’s vices but on the ruler’s relationship to demons. The following section places significant importance on μίμησις (imitation), as leaders imitated either the divine or the demonic and their subjects followed suit. A virtuous king imitates God, while tyrants imitate the devil and the demonic.

Johannessen writes succinctly and clearly, but this work contains significant shortcomings. Like many other monographs adapted from PhD theses, this book is at times redundant, overly-qualified, and oversteps the boundaries of what she is able to say about Eusebius’ thought. While focused on the demonic, she flattens other facets of Eusebius’ thought, such as soteriology and Christology, to serve her purposes. While she rightly seeks to push scholarship towards a healthier understanding of Eusebius’ political theory, she reduces the political to the demonic alone. In other words, the demonic becomes the primary source for understanding Eusebius political theory and cosmology, which neglects other aspects of his thought that are more prominent throughout his work. She also tends to read the demonic into texts that are not immediately relevant.

Johannessen succeeds at her goal to discuss facets of Eusebius’ thought in relationship to the demonic, but she places the demonic as the key to understanding Eusebius correctly. She thereby reduces broader facets of his thought into oversimplified argument which better accommodates her non-triumphalist reading of Eusebius. More positively, she evens out an area of Eusebius’ thought which was largely ignored, opening up further research and understanding of Eusebius’ theology. This monograph also provides an interesting window into Neoplatonic and Christian conceptions of angels and demons in the fourth century, containing quality word studies and insights into this turbulent time. Despite the pitfalls in Hazel Johannessen’s The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea, the study is enjoyable, fresh, and well worth a read.

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