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Digression -- 1

Digression: The Evagrian Doctrine of Contemplation

Although the transformations are numerous, we have received the gnosis of four only: the first, the second, the last and that which precedes it. The first is, as it is said, the passage from vice to virtue; the second is that from dispassion to the second natural contemplation; the third is the passage from the latter to the gnosis that concerns the reasonable beings (logikoi); and the fourth is the passage from all to the gnosis of the Holy Trinity (II, 4). The first transformation corresponds to the practical life, or praktike. We have already seen that the goal or flower of the practical life is dispassion (apatheia).[1] Hence, the second transformation is the transformation from the practical life to the second natural contemplation. The third transformation is that from the second natural contemplation to the first natural contemplation. And the fourth transformation is that from the first natural contemplation to Theology, or unitive prayer to God.

The virtues make the mind (nous) to see the second natural contemplation and that makes it to see the first natural contemplation; and the first natural contemplation in its turn makes it to see the Holy Unity (III, 61). This is an extremely important passage for its clear statement of the serial chaining of the last three of the four transformations given in the preceding chapter. These three transformations are the passage of the mind (nous) of the ascetic from dispassion (apatheia) to second natural contemplation—for the virtues are acquired in praktike and their acquisition constitutes dispassion (apatheia), the door to second natural contemplation—, the passage from second natural contemplation to first natural contemplation and the passage from first natural contemplation to the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

It is clear that the first transformation, that from vice to virtue, is precisely what we have already discussed, the practical life, praktike. The result of the practical life is dispassion (apatheia), here seen not merely as the divestiture of the passions but also as the acquisition of the virtues. This is a fundamental feature of Evagrian mysticism: The mind (nous) does not unite itself to gnosis before it should have united the passionate part of its soul to its proper virtues (V, 66).[2]

How is the practical life accomplished? Evagrius is clear: Faith is a voluntary good which leads us to the blessedness to come (III, 83). This corresponds to TPL 84, where Evagrius states that faith is the beginning of the practical life.

Moreover, Evagrius has a clear doctrine of the nature of the practical life: The second renunciation is the abandonment of vice, which is produced by the grace of God and by the effort of man (I, 79).

Conversion is the ascent from the Movement and from vice and from ignorance towards the gnosis of the Holy Trinity (VI, 19). This chapter is clearly inserted into Evagrius’ heterodox cosmology. However, it is useful for its description of conversion as the ascent from vice—a moral matter—and ignorance—an intellectual matter—towards gnosis of the Holy Trinity. If we put ‘sin’ in place of ‘the Movement’, then it is susceptible of an Orthodox interpretation.

Virtue, then, is the excellent habit of a reasonable soul according to which the soul becomes difficult to put into motion towards vice (VI, 21—Greek fragment). This is a definition of virtue, that virtue which is the goal of the practical life.

We now begin to examine how the practical life is accomplished.

Who knows the operation of the commandments? Who comprehends the powers of the soul, and how the commandments heal the powers of the soul and push the souls to the contemplation of the things which are? (II, 9). This is a very important statement why keeping the commandments leads to dispassion (apatheia), why keeping the commandments constitutes the practical life and why the practical life leads to contemplation. The practice of the commandments heals the powers of the soul; it is not merely a matter of keeping an external law. We discussed this in our commentary on TPL 79. Moreover, Evagrius here asserts that the commandments push the ascetic towards the second natural contemplation.

Let us recall these two chapters from TPL:

81 Charity is the offspring of dispassion. Dispassion is the flower of the practical life. The observance of the commandments constitutes the practical life. The guard of the commandments is the fear of God, which very thing is the child of correct faith. Faith is an indwelling good which very thing exists by nature even in those who do not yet believe in God.

82 Just as the soul, acting by means of the body, perceives the members which are ailing, thus so, the mind, operating its own native operation, recognizes its own powers and, through that which is hindering the mind (nous), finds the commandment which will heal the power.

However, Evagrius has a caveat in TPL 79:

79 The operations of the commandments are not sufficient towards healing completely the powers of the soul, if contemplations appropriate to these commandments do not also succeed to the mind.

We will discuss the particular types of contemplation below.

The perfect soul is that in which the passionate power operates according to nature (III, 16). This is a statement about dispassion (apatheia). The perfect soul—we have seen that the soul (psuche) and the mind (nous) are not spoken of in the same way in Evagrius on account of his unusual and heterodox anthropology[3]—is the dispassionate soul (psuche); the passionate power is the irascible part and the desiring part of the soul (psuche) taken together. Hence, dispassion (apatheia) is the operation according to nature of the irascible and desiring parts of the soul (psuche). The passionate part is not the rational part, the mind (nous): that power, in the Evagrian system, is healed in natural contemplation and Theology; that is why Evagrius has said in TPL 79, just quoted, that the mind (nous) of the ascetic must attain to appropriate contemplations for the powers of the soul (psuche) to be healed completely.

Just as a mirror remains unspotted by the images which are seen there, so the dispassionate soul remains unspotted by the things which are on the earth (V, 64). The dispassionate soul is no longer imprinted[4] in an impassioned way by the things seen on the earth. Since, however, the soul is still in a body on the earth, it is not a question of no longer being susceptible to sense-perceptions. The sense-perceptions, however, are unimpassioned.[5]

The mind, being impassioned, moves round and round and becomes difficult to restrain when it looks on the materials which are productive of pleasure. It ceases from its wandering when it has become dispassionate and when it meets with the bodiless powers, those who satisfy its spiritual desires for it (I, 85—Greek fragment).[6] This passage is very similar to TPL 48. It is an example of this curious fact: when Evagrius wants to indicate how the pleasures of contemplation or gnosis displace the pleasures of the passions he proceeds directly to the first natural contemplation, overlooking the second natural contemplation. We will see in the commentary on OTT 40 why this is so.

The solitary who loves vainglory is he who, before dispassion, searches to be glorified by men in the things which do not happen for dispassion and for the gnosis of God (V, 86). This is a definition—or description of a type—of vainglory in the case of the anchorite. Although he has gone to the desert, ostensibly to be alone to seek after dispassion (apatheia) and after the gnosis of God, he wishes to be glorified by men in things which do not happen for dispassion (apatheia) and for the gnosis of God—let us say that he flatters himself on his chanting of the service when he assembles with the semi-eremitic brethren on the weekend, and wishes men to glorify him on account of this chanting. This is what it means for a solitary to love vainglory. Or he might write books; he might be a good calligrapher; a good wood-carver.

Who will understand the constitution of the world and the activity of the elements? Who will comprehend the composition of this body, this organon or tool of our soul? Or who will scrutinize how our soul is joined to our body, what is their empire and their participation the one in the other, in such a way that the practical life might become a vehicle for the reasonable soul which applies itself to come to the gnosis of God (I, 67)? Here we see that the practical life is the presupposition of the gnosis of God, and that the body is the tool of the soul for the exercise of the practical life. This is a very important aspect of Evagrius’ anthropology: although the human soul is a mind (nous) which has descended to the rank of the practical life on account of its negligence, by the providence of God it has been given a human body as a tool with which to exercise the practical life. In other words, the body is given to the soul for the soul to work virtue, to acquire virtue, to bring the parts of the soul into their functioning according to nature. If we strip off the heterodox elements of Evagrius’ anthropology, this attitude towards the body is quite Orthodox.

Just as the knife circumcises the sensible Jew, so the practical life circumcises the intelligible Jew, that which symbolically Christ has named the ‘sword’ (Matt. 10, 34) which he has cast into the world (VI, 6). To understand this passage, it is well to recall that the practical life is the keeping of the commandments. The sword that Christ has cast into the world is the Gospel. Here, Evagrius is identifying the commandments with the Gospel. The circumcision of the intelligible Jew is dispassion (apatheia), which cuts off the pleasures of the senses.[7]

If the bread of the reasonable nature is the contemplation of beings and if we have received the commandment to eat that ‘in the sweat of our face’ (cf. Gen. 3, 19), then it is evident that it is by praktike that we eat it (V, 35). What Evagrius means is that to enter into second natural contemplation, for him the spiritual nourishment of reasonable beings, including angels,[8] the ascetic must first fulfil the practical life, so as to attain to dispassion (apatheia). The practical life is laborious, but it gives forth a harvest of natural contemplation.

He who battles for dispassion will arm himself with the commandments, and he who battles for truth will exterminate his enemies with gnosis. There will be the overthrow of the first man when he will do that which is reproved by the law, and the overthrow of the second man when he will become the head of lying doctrines and opinions (V, 38). This is a good summary of the differences in the Evagrian system between the practical life, the end of which is dispassion (apatheia), and the life of gnosis or natural contemplation, the end of which is contemplation of the Holy Trinity. Evagrius says that he who battles for dispassion (apatheia)—he who is in the practical life—will arm himself with the commandments, precisely because the practical life is the keeping of the commandments. He then goes on to say that he who is battling for truth—this is the ascetic who has passed through the second transformation into second natural contemplation and beyond—will exterminate his enemies with gnosis, precisely because the life of natural contemplation is centred no longer on the moral virtues but on the intellectual virtues. Evagrius then indicates the nature of the vices both of the practical life and of the life of gnosis: The vice of the practical life, which overthrows the ascetic who is waging the war of the practical life, is that which overthrows the law of God, that which overthrows the commandments, which are essentially moral commandments. The vice of the gnostic, on the other hand, is that which is contrary to truth, the lying doctrine, what is today called on Mount Athos delusion (plane). Evagrius says that the gnostic will become the ‘head of lying doctrines and opinions’ because the gnostic, for Evagrius, is a teacher of others.

The Divine Book has not made known what is the contemplation of beings; but how one draws near to it by the practice of the commandments and by the true doctrines, it has taught in a manifest fashion (VI, 1). This is an important statement that there is one road to contemplation, the keeping of the commandments in the context of true doctrine. This, Evagrius says, has been made known by Scripture, although, he says, Scripture gives no instruction on natural contemplation—‘beings’ is ambiguous here as to whether it refers to created objects or, as often in the Kephalaia Gnostica, to the angelic powers.

Those who have inherited the Promised Land will with all their strength kill the Philistines who are there, for fear lest, when Joshua grows old in them, he should cease to go out with their force (cf. Josh. 13, 1) and lest they again become slaves of the Philistines (V, 36). This says that those who have attained to dispassion (apatheia) must make every effort to eliminate all traces of passion in themselves so as not to give the demons an opportunity against them, especially when they grow old and lose the strength of body necessary for ascesis. It also indicates what Evagrius means in the chapter previously presented: Scripture instructs us on these matters allegorically.

Complete solitude softens the desiring part of the soul (epithumia) and renders hard the irascible part (thumike) (VI, 41). Evagrius thinks that complete solitude is a bad thing and he is adducing as reasons the softening of the desiring part—the monk becomes more susceptible to being inflamed with desire—and the hardening of the irascible part—the monk becomes more irascible, not less. We can take this as a caution that one must not go to extremes in pursuing dispassion (apatheia). Recall OTT 35, above, where Evagrius discusses temptations to an excessive fasting and to an excessive solitude.

The soul which with God has accomplished the practical life (praktike) and which has been loosed from the body comes to be in those places of gnosis in which the wing of dispassion (apatheia) will bring it to rest (II, 6—Greek fragment). This is quite similar to the passage that we saw at the end of OTT 29. The sense is that dispassion (apatheia), the fulfilment of the practical life, is the door to gnosis. Dispassion (apatheia) is the presupposition or foundation of gnosis.

The ascetic who is engaging in the practical life is the servant of the separation and the gnostic the helper of wisdom (V, 65). The separation being referred to is that proper separation, or loosing, of the soul from the body through ascesis.[9] Evagrius is saying that that is the goal of the practical life. The goal of the gnostic, however, is to help wisdom: he undertakes the teaching of others.

The reader might like to read the Gnostic for Evagrius’ views on the role of the gnostic as a helper of wisdom. Some of what Evagrius says there is sound; some of it is to be treated with caution. However, the work does not have the obviously heterodox content of the Kephalaia Gnostica and we wonder why the Greek original was lost.

The glory and the light of the mind (nous) are gnosis but the glory and light of the soul are dispassion (apatheia) (I, 81—Greek fragment). Here we see a parallel construction, one of a number of such constructions in the Kephalaia Gnostica which contrast the perfection of the mind (nous) with the perfection of the soul (psuche). This supports our contention that Evagrius understood the mind (nous) to be different from the soul (soul), so that dispassion (apatheia) is to be understood as perfection of the soul, whereas gnosis, the intellectual virtue par excellence, is to be understood as the perfection of the mind (nous). Moreover, the present passage clarifies what gnosis is: the illumination and glorification of the intellectual part of man. Recall that dispassion (apatheia) is the putting off of vice and the acquisition of virtue as concerns the passionate part of the soul: these are the moral vices and virtues, those that pertain to the eight passions that we have encountered in the two works of Evagrius that we have been studying.

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[1] See TPL, especially TPL 81.

[2] These virtues are discussed in TPL 89.

[3] See Sections 6 and 13, Chapter III, of Volume I.

[4] We will discuss this concept in depth in the chapters of OTT which follow the Digression.

[5] In this regard, it is well to recall the commentary on OTT 17.

[6] = OTT 26.

[7] Cf. OTT 19.

[8] We have already seen this idea in Chapter III of Volume I.

[9] See TPL 52.


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