TPL (Commentary) -- 2
By the Same
1 Christianity is the dogma of our Saviour Christ composed of practical, natural and theological parts.
We will ignore in this commentary, as much as is practicable, Evagrius’ cosmological doctrines. However, it should be remarked that while this first chapter seems quite Christian, Evagrius’ Christology was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod. This need not concern us here, since here it is a matter of Evagrius’ ascetical psychology, which not only has never been condemned but has even exercised a decisive influence on Christianity.
The first thing this chapter does is place asceticism in a soteriological framework. The reader will recall our discussion in Volume I of the distinctively Orthodox soteriological emphasis on the restoration of the likeness to God. There, we mentioned the program of putting the mind (nous) illumined by God in charge of the whole person, and of restoring the impulses (passions) related to anger and desire to their operations according to nature.
This is precisely what Evagrius is now seeking to address. And he makes two points: first, that Christianity is the dogma of our Saviour Christ—we take this in its completely Orthodox sense—, which means that we are Christian ascetics; and, second, that this soteriological program is composed of the practical, natural and theological parts.
What Evagrius is saying is that the mystical ascent has three stages: the practical, the natural and the theological stages. Moreover, he is implying that this mystical ascent is not something apart from Christian dogma but an integral part of it. This is what we mean when we say that Evagrius places his mystical doctrine in a soteriological framework: the mystical ascent is how we work out our salvation; it is not something apart from our program of working out our salvation.
This tripartite division of the mystical life will become forever standard even in the West. There it is known as the purgative, the illuminative and the unitive stages. This terminology corresponds exactly to Evagrius’ basic meaning and can provide us with an interpretation of his terms. The practical life—of the monk—is the purgative stage, and the Treatise on the Practical Life is devoted to it. We shall see as we go on just how Evagrius intends the term.
The natural part is the stage of the natural contemplation of existent things, subdivided into the natural contemplation of such existent things as do not possess mind (nous) and into the natural contemplation of such existent things as do possess mind (nous). The first are rocks and trees and animals; the second are the angels. By the time we have finished, this will have become clear.
The third stage, Theology, is the contemplation of God himself.
What must be understood is that Evagrius is enunciating a detailed program for the accomplishment of the ascetical goal, the goal that we discussed at the end of Volume I.
This program will be enunciated in greater depth in Evagrius’ second work, On the Thoughts; and in On Sobriety, which we discuss in Volume III, St Hesychios will take up the Evagrian ascetical system and introduce the praying of the Jesus Prayer in the heart. This is our program.
2 The Kingdom of the Heavens is dispassion of soul with true gnosis of existent things.
St Maximos the Confessor will comment on Evagrius’ distinction between the Kingdom of the Heavens and the Kingdom of God. As far as we know, this distinction has never become standard. It is an application of the distinction between Heaven (something created) and God (something uncreated) to the distinction between natural contemplation (the contemplation of created things including angels) and Theology (the contemplation of God).
‘Dispassion’ is apatheia. Evagrius will give a quite precise meaning to this term in TPL, and it should be remarked that in the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St John of Sinai (523–603), although profoundly influenced by Evagrius, gives a different meaning than Evagrius to apatheia. In Evagrius, dispassion (apatheia) means freedom from the passions of the passionate part of the soul, namely the desiring part and the irascible part of the soul. St John of Sinai refers to freedom from the passions connected to the desiring part of the soul, although he remarks that some call it dispassion (apatheia), as purity (agnoteta), reserving dispassion (apatheia) for the final perfection of the ascetic, the complete restoration of the likeness to God (kath’ homoiosin). That is why St John can call dispassion (apatheia) the resurrection of the soul prior to the general resurrection and knowledge of God second only to that of the angels. For Evagrius, dispassion (apatheia) marks the end of the practical stage and the beginning of the natural stage of the mystical ascent. It is therefore more than purity (agnoteta) but less than the full restoration of the likeness to God (kath’ homoiosin). In Evagrius, the culmination of the theological stage of the mystical life corresponds to the restoration of the likeness to God (kath’ homoiosin); this is the meaning given to dispassion (apatheia) by St John of Sinai. The most likely explanation for the difference between Evagrius’ and St John of Sinai’s usages of the term ‘dispassion (apatheia)’ is that St John is dependant for his understanding of the term on St Diadochos of Photike. We discussed St Diadochos’ definition of dispassion (apatheia) in Chapter V of Volume I. It corresponds to St John’s definition. It should be recognized, however, that the meaning given to dispassion (apatheia) by both St Diadochos and St John of Sinai is that given by Clement of Alexandria (c.150–c.215), who appears to be the Christian writer who first introduced the term from Stoicism. Evagrius’ own use of the term is idiosyncratic, and depends on his own analysis of the mystical path.
3 The Kingdom of God is gnosis of the Holy Trinity coextensive with the constitution of the mind and exceeding its incorruptibility.
The Kingdom of God is for Evagrius the culmination of the theological stage of the mystical ascent. It corresponds to dispassion (apatheia) in the sense given to the term by St John of Sinai, by St Diadochos of Photike and by Clement of Alexandria. Gnosis might here be taken to be intuitive knowledge attained in contemplation. It is not discursive, propositional theological knowledge in the sense of the Thomist theology of the Trinity, but knowledge of God in the philosophically intuitive and mystical sense.
‘Coextensive with the constitution of the mind and exceeding its incorruptibility’ means completely filling the mind (nous) and overflowing, since God is greater than the mind which beheld him on Sinai. Moreover, this expression conveys Evagrius’ understanding both how the mind (nous) is the image of God and how it is receptive of the gnosis of God.
4 Whatever one loves (eros) he certainly aspires to, and what he aspires to he struggles to attain. And desire is the beginning of every pleasure; desire, then, begets sense-perception, for that which is without participation in sense-perception is also free of passion.
The word here translated ‘loves’ has as its root eros, which means ‘passionate, desiring love’. A synonym given in the dictionary is desires, but that would make the passage incomprehensible. We could translate: Whatever one loves with a passionate love he certainly aspires to; and what he aspires to, he struggles to attain. So the first point is that whatever one loves with a passionate love he wants, and what he wants he struggles to attain. This brings us right back to where we left St Macrina in Chapter II of Volume I: the nature of desire, the nature of the passions, and their connection to the animal soul that provides man with the sense-perception that he must have in order to have mind (nous) in a material body.
Here, Evagrius, the master psychologist, is beginning a very refined analysis of passion. Let us take his first sentence as a definition of desire. Then his thought has this structure: definition of desire – desire is the beginning of pleasure.
Now the next clauses are difficult. ‘Desire then begets sense-perception for that which is without participation in sense-perception is also free of passion.’ The second part is easy: the passions are inextricably linked to the senses and that which is free of the senses—that which is intelligible—is free of the passions. This is fundamental to the Evagrian ascetical program of mystical ascent.
‘Desire then begets sense-perception’ has the meaning that the fulfilment of any desire is accompanied by a pleasure of the senses, a pleasure related to some bodily organ of sense.
Hence, whatever one loves with a passionate love one wants, and whatever one wants one struggles to attain. This desire is consummated in pleasure, pleasure related to some bodily organ of sense. Desire begets sense-perception: the pleasure related to some bodily organ of sense. For that which is without participation in sense-perception is free of passion: one cannot experience passion in regard to those things, the intelligibles, that are unconnected to sense-perception. The passions are intimately related to sense-perception.
The Evagrian ascetical program is based on the understanding contained in this chapter: the ascetic will purify himself in such a way as to pass from sense-perceptions and their related pleasures, to intuitive cognitions of intelligibles. This purification from the senses, however, is dependent on the ascetic’s prior purification from the passions. The Evagrian ascetic does not purify himself from the senses (say, by yogic practices) so as to free himself from the passions: he purifies himself from the passions so as to free himself from the senses.
5 The demons wrestle nude with the hermits; they arm the more negligent of the brethren against those in monasteries and entourages who are working on virtue. The second war is much lighter than the first since it is not possible to find on earth men more bitter than demons, or accepting at one time all their villainy.
The primary schema of Evagrian asceticism, which he certainly inherited from the Desert Fathers, is the rebuttal of temptation. We referred in Chapter II of Volume I to the model of Eve’s temptation in Eden. There, implicitly, the Devil tempted Eve. Here we have the demons—the Devil’s minions, the lesser angels that fell with him when he rebelled against God in Heaven—fighting against the monk. This schema is basic to Evagrian and Philokalic spiritual and ascetical theology. Not even today do the Elders depart from it, even when they allow psychological factors in the modern sense a role in the evaluation of a person’s state or behaviour.
What Evagrius is saying is fundamental to an understanding of the three types of monastic life: the eremitic, the cœnobitical and the life of two or three together (the entourage, the small brotherhood round an Elder); it will be repeated by St John of Sinai in the Ladder.
‘The demons wrestle nude with the hermits…’: ‘Nude’ is an allusion to Græco-Roman wrestling, where the wrestlers were nude. It implies direct, hand-to-hand combat. We will see as we go how Evagrius understands this direct, hand-to-hand combat between the demons and the hermit.
‘The demons arm the more negligent of the brethren…’: This means that those monks who are working on virtue—note the expression here for the ascetical life; it will be fundamental to our conception of the mystical ascent as a morally directed activity—in monasteries and entourages are afflicted for the most part not directly by the demons but by the demons as they work through the more negligent brethren. This means that the odd behaviour of the brother that is directed against the ascetic in the monastery or entourage may be prompted by some demon or other: the ascetic is not afflicted by the demon in hand-to-hand combat as the hermit is, but through the normally unwitting instrumentality of the brother through whom the demon works. The demon is the moral agent; the unwitting—negligent—brother is the demon’s instrument. This second war is much lighter than the first. This is fundamental. The cœnobium may be rough, but wait till the demons get their hands on you in the desert—then you’ll see what war is really all about. The reason? ‘It is not possible to find on earth men more bitter than demons, or accepting at one time all their villainy.’ Even the most negligent brother has some good in him.
This makes sense if demons objectively exist and are fallen, corrupt intelligences (minds or noes) with an implacable hatred for God and man.
It does not make sense at all if ‘demons’ is merely another word for ‘drives in the unconscious’.
That is to say: the Fathers accept the existence of these malicious unembodied minds. Certainly the whole of Evagrius is about how to win the war against them, and so is all of the Philokalia.
 Henceforth: TPL.
 Henceforth: OTT.
 And at the same time critical of his theories.
 Ladder G Step 29, 2; = Ladder G Step 29, 4.
 Cf. Stromateis IV, 23: Migne 8, col. 1356C–D.
 Aristotle’s sense.