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TPL (Commentary) -- 7

On Those Things Which Occur During Sleep

54 When, in the imaginations that occur during sleep,

Here, Evagrius does not refer directly to dreams but uses a circumlocution. We shall have reason to discuss why he might have used this circumlocution.

the demons battling against the desiring part

These are the demons of gluttony and fornication.


Again, we will have reason to discuss Evagrius’ choice of verb here. The verb indicates that the demons show a fantasy to the sleeping person.

and we run towards,

In the dream, we as it were encounter a tableau vivant and we run towards it. The significance of this running towards is great and we shall refer to it later.

meetings with acquaintances and banquets of relatives and choruses of women and as many other things as result in pleasures, then in this particular part of the soul we are ill and the passion has strength.

This is clear enough.

When, again, they

The demons, but this time the demons related to the irascible part, that is, the temper, and to the passions of the soul—here, especially, the demon of anger.

greatly disturb the irascible part, forcing us

Again the indication that we are visitors, willing or unwilling, to a tableau vivant.

to travel roads on the edge of precipitous canyons

The classic anxiety dream.

and bringing forth armed men and venomous and carnivorous beasts,

The reader will recall that in TPL 11, Evagrius referred to attacks by venomous beasts on those who have let anger persist and be transformed into wrath, and that we wondered there whether he meant actual attacks or what he is referring to here.

and we, then, are frightened before such roads and we flee being pursued by the beasts and men, let us make provision for the irascible part and invoking Christ in vigils,

In extended prayer by night.

let us make use of the medicines already spoken of.

In TPL 15, Evagrius states that chanting of the psalms, long-suffering and acts of mercy put a stop to temper aroused. In TPL 91, we will see that a brother is cured of a serious and advanced case of the above disturbance of the irascible part by fasting and by ministering to the sick—by performing acts of mercy.

Before we continue, let us point out that in OTT 4 and OTT 27–9 Evagrius will cover in detail the material that he covers here in a summary fashion. Hence, we will leave a detailed discussion for our commentary there.

However, let us here raise the following issues:

Is Evagrius referring to dreams? The usual understanding of this chapter is that he is, and that he is enunciating a theory of dreams well before the advent of depth psychology.

We pointed out that Evagrius uses a circumlocution and expresses himself—and he is a writer of rare precision—in such a way as to suggest that these dreams are something the dreamer encounters in sleep.

We want to make a modest proposal. These are not dreams. These are demonic apparitions. Evagrius knows quite well what a dream is; he is referring to something allied to the dream but different. Now the reader can accept this proposal—or he can reject it.

The next chapter refers to the involuntary movements that men are subject to in their sleep.

55 The natural movements of the body in sleep that are free of images notify us that our soul is to a certain extent in health;

To the extent that the movement is unaccompanied by images (i.e. dreams), it is to be considered more or less healthy.

the fixing of images is a token of illness.

The erotic involvement in such movements via dreams is a token of illness.

And consider the vague and unformed persons a token of the passion which is old,

A bit like a painting on a wall which is fading through exposure to the sun and the rain.

but the persons in sharp relief a sign of the present wound.

The monk has an impassioned attachment newly formed in the latter case. These are rules for the evaluation of the significance of the emission.

The next chapter enunciates an extremely important rule for evaluating the general degree of dispassion (apatheia) of an ascetic, then proceeds to a formal definition—very important in Classical times to convey the essence of a thing—of dispassion (apatheia).

56 We will detect the sure signs of dispassion during the day, on the one hand, through the thoughts; at night, on the other hand, through the dreams.

We can assess a hermit’s progress, either another’s or our own, by discussing his, or observing our own, thoughts during the day. These are the thoughts sown by demons whose starting-points are the impassioned recollections of objects of sense. We can do the same by assessing the dreams that occur at night. Here, Evagrius does use the usual Greek word for dream.

We have discussed how we evaluate the thoughts: the object recollected indicates the thought; the thought indicates the passion or the demon involved. And, of course, Evagrius has commented on such things as the intensifications and relaxations, the interconnections and the causal linkages of the thoughts. Here he is adding this idea: how easily are the thoughts rebutted? Do they persist and are they difficult to block and rebut? Or are they easily rebutted? This is the measure of our dispassion (apatheia). But we must place a caveat here. In TPL 59, below, and in OTT 34, Evagrius remarks that the demons have changes of the guard, so that, having grown weak, the first demon is replaced by a stronger and more vicious demon. Hence, while we might be having an easy time of it now, other demons might come on the scene to change our evaluation. Moreover, it is well to bear in mind the case where the demons withdraw, either to observe how the ascetic behaves when he has a complete relaxation of the war, or to leave it to the demon of vainglory to trip him up from behind. Evagrius discusses the last case in TPL 57, below, and also in OTT 20; in TPL 57, he provides criteria for distinguishing between true dispassion (apatheia) and the false dispassion (apatheia) which is the result of the cunning withdrawal of all the demons except the demon of vainglory.

‘At night … through the dreams’: Evagrius has given a model analysis of dreams in TPL 54: dreams of desire and dreams of anger. In OTT 27–9, much will be made of how the ascetic responds in the dream to the tableau vivant before which he is found. What Evagrius means is implicit but undeveloped in what he has just said concerning the dreams here. Here, in TPL, Evagrius has said that we run towards the tableau. In OTT he will refer to the dispassionate response wherein we are unaffected by the tableau—let us say, dispassionate. It is not a matter of not having such dreams but of our response to them in the dream—not when we wake up! Moreover, in the previous chapter, he has carefully enunciated criteria for assessing the dispassionateness of the movements that men are subject to in their sleep. We will leave a full discussion of these matters until our commentary on the relevant chapters of OTT.

And we say that dispassion

This is the goal of the ascetic, especially in the purgative stage of the practical life. We discussed it in some detail in TPL 36, above.

is health of the soul

So that the soul is according to nature, as God intended, sound, working well. Note that this is health of the soul (psuche), not of the mind (nous).[1] We ourselves take dispassion (apatheia) to be something that cannot be attained in its fullness in this life. Moreover, following Evagrius, we restrict its content to the acquisition of the virtues that are the negations of the eight most general thoughts or passions, just as he himself will indicate later on.

and that its [i.e. the soul’s] nourishment is gnosis,

We mentioned this in the commentary on TPL 49, in discussing what Evagrius understood by unceasing prayer. We also mentioned then that St John of Damascus echoes this in the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, where he says that Adam and Eve’s food in Paradise was the contemplation of God.[2] So we think that on the surface, at least, Evagrius’ statement that gnosis is the nourishment of the soul is consistent with the Orthodox ascetical tradition. However, Evagrius has a somewhat unusual notion of the gnosis which is the nourishment of the angels and evidently of men’s souls: he emphasizes the gnosis related to the second natural contemplation.[3] We think that it is healthier to stick with St John of Damascus’ conception, and with the notion that it is gnosis in general, particularly the gnosis that comes from the contemplation of God, that is the nourishment of the soul.

We could say that the passions are the junk food of the soul and that gnosis—contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of existent things, then of angels, then of God—is the soul’s proper nourishment. That this is not merely a metaphor can be gleaned from the fact that accomplished ascetics ate nothing and were stronger than us, who eat everything. We see this in the life of St Paisios the Great[4] and in the testimony concerning himself of St Barsanuphios.[5]

which very thing alone has the custom to unite us to the holy powers,

The angels. This places the gnosis that Evagrius is referring to squarely in the illuminative stage, the second stage of the mystical ascent, the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of existent things and the contemplation of the angels, and indicates that it is not yet a question of the third or unitive stage, that of the contemplation of God, or Theology.

Given that Evagrius has the doctrine that the angels are nourished by the second natural contemplation of things on the earth, and that he here seems to be alluding to the nourishing of the soul of men by that same second natural contemplation, we wonder if there is not a sense in this passage that this is what makes men who are dispassionate like unto the angels. If so, the passage would be of doubtful Orthodoxy. However, the notion that a dispassionate man, having conquered the eight most general passions and having acquired the corresponding virtues, should have become like unto the angels, and should share with them the property of natural contemplation, seems Orthodox enough, it being understood that the angels also contemplate God, and that the road of the contemplative is towards the contemplation of God. Given St John of Damascus’ assertion that Adam and Eve were nourished in Paradise by the contemplation of God, there seems nothing un-Orthodox in the passage if it is taken in that sense. We will discuss the Evagrian theory of contemplation in detail in the Digression to the commentary on OTT and in the commentary on OTT 38–43. Here we are speaking broadly of the effect on the ascetic of contemplation.

if indeed it is natural that union with the bodiless [powers] should result from a like disposition.

To contemplate an angel, you must be like an angel: the ascetic has become angelic when he has reached the stage of the contemplation of angels—this is how we are taking ‘union with the bodiless [powers]’ here—and the passage seems to be suggesting that the ascetic reaches the contemplation of the angels in becoming like them through the practice of natural contemplation. That is to say, the ascetic is dispassionate; he has made his soul autonomous of the body;[6] and he has purified his mind (nous) sufficiently by second natural contemplation so as to attain to first natural contemplation, the contemplation of the angels. In this sense, Evagrius is outlining the road of gnosis after the attainment of dispassion (apatheia) and adding the further notion that the ascetic, in reaching the stage of the contemplation of the angels, has not merely attained to a subjective experience, but in some objective sense has become ‘angelic’. While the passage is difficult to construe, we have based ourselves on this interpretation in other comments in our work where we emphasize the objective transformation of the mind (nous) and soul (psuche) in the ascetical, mystical ascent, even while the ascetic is still in the flesh, so that the concept of ‘naked mind (nous)’ can be applied not only to the mind (nous) in the Restoration, but also to the ascetic contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

The reader should understand that the contemplation of the angels is a very high state of contemplation indeed, not one to be expected of a beginner, and certainly not one to be pursued on account of the danger of delusion from a demon masquerading as an angel. In On Sobriety 30, St Hesychios will provide criteria for voluntarily entering into contemplation.

The next six chapters, 57–62, discuss in greater detail various aspects of the stage where the ascetic is approaching dispassion. From our point of view, this is the real condition, in Orthodoxy, of any ascetic: he can never attain to complete dispassion (apatheia) in this life. However, Evagrius himself means a distinct stage prior to Evagrian dispassion (apatheia).

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

[2] Damascus p. 71, l. 2–p. 74, l. 87; see Chapter V of Volume I for the full excerpt.

[3] Sections 6 and 7, Chapter III, of Volume I.

[4] In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

[5] Barsanuphios.

[6] TPL 52, above.


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