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TPL (Commentary) -- 8

On the Condition Which Approaches Dispassion

57 There are two peaceful conditions of the soul, the one given forth from the natural seeds,

Of the virtues. This is a Stoic concept. Man has the natural seed of each virtue, the natural starting-point or nucleus of each virtue even without grace and even after the Fall (or, in Evagrius, even after the Movement): man is not depraved. This is very important in Evagrian psychology. We think that as far as it goes, and without the Evagrian cosmology, it accords with Orthodox anthropology: man is not depraved even after the Fall. What Evagrius is saying here is that the first type of dispassion (apatheia) he is discussing is a matter of the acquisition or flowering of the virtues in the ascetic. Note the intimate connection between the concept of dispassion (apatheia) and the concept of the acquisition of the virtues. We cannot take a short-cut to dispassion (apatheia) by engaging in exalted contemplations and intense use of the Prayer of Jesus, at the same time ignoring the virtues or even engaging in antinomian behaviour. Dispassion (apatheia) is the acquisition of the virtues, and it is a precondition of entry into contemplation and of the ascent to mystical union with God. Of course, since we are treating full dispassion (apatheia) as an unattainable goal, then what we must understand by dispassion (apatheia) is the substantial acquisition of the virtues. This is the health of the soul.

the other, however, coming to pass on account of the withdrawal of the demons.

I have faults; the demons withdraw; despite the faults I have, I seem to have a state of dispassion (apatheia) since I am not troubled by demonically sown thoughts.

And humility with compunction, tears, limitless yearning after the Divine and measureless zeal towards the work [of monasticism, ascesis, etc.] follow upon the first.

These are virtues, whose natural seeds have given forth. Note that ‘limitless yearning after the Divine and measureless zeal towards the work’ is the virtue of the desiring part which negates the passion of fornication. It is eros (eros) for God and virtue. It is important in the spirituality of the School of Sinai.[1]

Vainglory with pride, dragging the monk down in the elimination of the remaining demons, follows upon the second.

St Hesychios will refer in On Sobriety 24 to the possibility of the demons all withdrawing and leaving it to the demon of vainglory to trip the ascetic up from behind. He is saying virtually the same thing as Evagrius here, but with the added nuance that the demon of vainglory remains behind from the beginning of the withdrawal as part of the demons’ plan.

Therefore he who keeps the borders of the first condition

This indicates that the first condition is in fact dispassion (apatheia). Consistently in this section of TPL, Evagrius speaks of being at the borders of, or approaching, dispassion (apatheia), not of having attained it.

will detect more quickly

He will have a certain supernatural acuity.

the raids of the demons.

We stated that the ascetic knows the demon from the thought and the thought from the object of sense recollected. Here, as he approaches dispassion (apatheia), the ascetic begins to acquire a supernatural acuity which enables him to detect the approach of the demon even before it has sown the thought.

58 The demon of vainglory is opposed to the demon of fornication

This is an example of the structural opposition of temptations to which we have already referred. We wonder, however, whether it is not possible that this is true in one man and not in another. That is, we wonder whether to some extent these things do not depend on the character of the man.

and one of the things that are not possible

That is, an impossibility.

is that these should assault the soul at the same time,

In OTT 24 Evagrius will assert that no two demons can sow thoughts simultaneously on account of the actual cognitive structure of the mind (nous), but here we will discuss the matter in the sense implied, that the temptations of vainglory and fornication are structurally opposed the one to the other, and that they therefore cannot both tempt the ascetic at the same time. Evagrius wants to use this structural opposition as the basis of the method that he is now going to enunciate for combating persistent thoughts.

if indeed the first proclaims honours, while the second becomes the purveyor of dishonours.

The opposition is structural.

Therefore, whichever of these two, if it has approached, oppresses you,

That is, whichever of the two temptations of vainglory and fornication begins to press on you in a persistent way. We think that the method is sufficiently elaborate that it would not make sense for an ascetic to use it for a simple thought that could be blocked by rebuttal with anger. The ascetic would only use this method for a persistent thought that did not respond to simple rebuttal.

weave in supposition in yourself the thoughts of the opposing demon.

I have thoughts of vainglory that trouble me persistently, sown by a demon. I myself, without the assistance of the demon of fornication, weave in supposition thoughts of fornication. Or, I am tempted persistently by the demon of fornication—it sows thoughts; this is no longer supposition on my part—and I weave in myself in supposition thoughts of vainglory. The basis of this method is Evagrius’ assertion that the one type of demon—vainglory—prevents the other—fornication—from approaching: these two particular demons cannot on account of their opposed nature approach the same man at the same time.

If you are able, as they say, to drive out one nail by another, then know yourself to be near to the borders of dispassion, for your mind had the strength to destroy with human thoughts the thoughts of demons.

This is important. What Evagrius means is this: An external mind (nous), the demon, sows a thought; as Evagrius has mentioned, this has a force behind it, that of the demon: he has spoken of the demon of fornication’s bending the ascetic, the demon of accidie’s weighing heavily on him. The demon, as it were, presses hard upon the monk. As Evagrius remarks in TPL 45, above, the demons sometimes even bring up demons more savage than themselves as reinforcements.

The ascetic was counselled in TPL 42, above, to rebut the demon with anger. St Hesychios will say this is like a punch to the demon’s head. This is the strength of the ascetic. We discussed this.

Now Evagrius is outlining another method. Using the example of the thoughts of vainglory and fornication, which are structurally opposed to each other, he is counselling the ascetic, when tempted by one of a pair of structurally opposed thoughts, to weave in supposition the thought that is not tempting him. Evagrius goes on: if with your strength focused in the suppositional thought that you are weaving which is structurally opposed to the thought that is tempting you, you are able to expel the demonic thought, then you are near to the borders of dispassion since your mind’s strength was greater than that of a demon.

This clearly implies that an accomplished ascetic has some ability to govern his thought processes. In fact, there is a tendency in Evagrius in this direction, especially in the contemplations that he suggests. Evagrius goes on:

To repel, however, the thought of vainglory by means of humility or the thought of fornication by means of chastity would be a very deep token of dispassion.

This is the third method. It should be understood that this is a different method from the preceding.

Here, the ascetic draws on the virtue that negates the passion: humility negates vainglory; chastity negates fornication.

These virtues are operations (energeies) of the Holy Spirit, given to the soul that has been purified. Hence, here, the thought of a passion is sown by a demon—this is something that Eve could not avoid; it is without moral responsibility; it is not within our power not to be tempted[2]—and the ascetic, resting as it were in the virtue opposed to the thought, repels by the virtue, or by the virtuous thought, the thought of the passion that is sown by the demon.

In the preceding case, I repelled the thought sown by the demon that counselled that I commit fornication by weaving in supposition a thought of vainglory. In the present case, I repel the thought of fornication with my chastity, rebutting the thought of fornication with a thought of chastity. Or I repel the thought of vainglory with my humility, rebutting the thought of vainglory with a thought of humility. Here, there is no question of the use of anger; that was a matter of the original and primary method of rebuttal with anger.

A monk we know, since deceased, always used to answer someone who praised him, with these words: ‘I am a sinner.’ This is what Evagrius means: the humility was real and not feigned, and the rebuttal was a rebuttal of humility and not of anger. It preserved the monk, who when he died went quickly to Paradise, unharmed from all temptation. May Papa-Simon (1911–1998) rest in the glory of his Lord.

Evagrius then goes on that if you can repel the thought sown by the demon, by a thought truly founded in the opposing virtue, then this would be a very deep token of dispassion. That would be because the virtues in you had reached their ascendancy: they would be stronger than the corresponding passions in you. For as we have discussed, the demon sowing the thought is exciting a passion; the thought we experience in our consciousness is merely the tip of the iceberg of the passion excited. Of course this is not to deny that Evagrius says, quite correctly, that the demons have an objective strength and force. However, as strong as the demon is, if the passion in you is weak, the demon will get nowhere or only so far. And if the negating virtue is very strong in you, then you will have a very strong shield. That seems to be why, in the case of very dispassionate ascetics, the demons are reduced to trying to kill the ascetic bodily: they no longer can attack him through the thoughts and are reduced to crude violence.

Evagrius continues:

And try to do this concerning all the demons which are opposed the one to the other, for you will also know at the same time by what passion you have been conformed the more.

Here, Evagrius has returned to the preceding method—weaving in supposition thoughts of a structurally opposed temptation—and is recommending it for all cases where the temptation is one of a structurally opposed pair. Vainglory and fornication are merely Evagrius’ example of such a structurally opposed pair. Evagrius leaves it to the ascetic to find other such pairs experimentally. He adds that use of this method will enable the ascetic to assess by what passion he has been conformed the more: in what passion he is the more ill or more affected, in what passion he has his greatest weakness, by what passion he is the most conformed. If I can expel a thought of fornication with a thought of vainglory, but not a thought of avarice with a thought of vainglory,[3] then the passion of avarice is stronger in me than the passion of fornication, and so on for all the other passions.

However, Evagrius, evidently realizing that the method is a little dangerous, goes on:

However, with whatever strength you have, ask from God that the enemy be warded off in the second way.

By means of the opposed virtue. This is certainly the safer way.

It seems to us that a monk should be circumspect in weaving in supposition thoughts of an opposed vice. This seems to be the sort of thing that a man truly spiritually accomplished, approaching dispassion, and truly humble might undertake. For a monk young in the Lord to undertake such a task might, it seems to us, have the effect of exciting the passion whose thoughts the young monk were weaving in supposition: he might pass unawares to actual excitation of the passion whose thought he was weaving, of whichever passion he might be weaving the thought. In Skemmata 48, Evagrius himself says the following:

48 Of the thoughts, some are given birth from the soul when it is set in motion; others, however, come to occur from without, by the agency of the demons.

This seems to imply that a thought woven in supposition might in a passionate man be sufficient to excite the passion without the approach of a demon. Moreover, Evagrius is clear that monasticism is all about acquiring virtue, and his last remark indicates that the better way is praying with all our strength to acquire the virtue with which to ward off the thought.

59 In whatever degree the soul makes progress, to that same degree greater opponents succeed to it.

Let us suppose that, twenty years in the monastic habit, I finally decide to take my vows seriously and to begin to work on my salvation.

The demons until now have been amateurs. No one has bothered to send me a serious demon because I have not been serious. Monasticism is one of those things: what you put into it is what you get out of it, for good or for ill. ‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’[4]

So now I start to work seriously on my salvation and I begin to make progress. What Evagrius is saying is quite important for me to understand: to the same degree that I make progress, greater opponents succeed to the battle with me. I was an amateur monk; I had amateur demons fighting me. I became serious; the demons did not remain amateurs; they were replaced by professionals. This does not apply only to the case somewhat jocularly given here, but also to the case where a serious monk makes serious progress: he must expect that thoughts more difficult to rebut, demons more difficult to expel, situational temptations more difficult to confront will succeed to the battle. Evagrius discusses the matter again in OTT 34.

This also works for the transition from layman to monk and from monk of the small schema to monk of the great schema, but with the exception that, usually, the Lord lets the monk have an easy time of it for a period of, the Fathers say, seven years after his tonsure before the battle gets difficult.

So, having finally resolved to make my tonsure a serious factor in my behaviour, I begin to make progress. Lo! The demons have changed their guard. The thoughts are heavier—more savage Evagrius says—; the difficulties worked through objects or other men more difficult and more discouraging; the temptations more grave.

For I am not persuaded that the same demons ever stand by the soul;

What we have just been saying.

and this those know who more quickly give their attention to the temptations and see the dispassion which lies before them being levered out by the demons which succeed.

I have made some progress and am reaching the borders of dispassion (apatheia); I have begun to acquire some supernatural acuity which allows me the better to sense the approach of the demon which is sowing the thought. And what do I see? The dispassion (apatheia) which lies before me is being levered out—the word that Evagrius uses means precisely what we might do with a crow-bar in a window frame—by the new demons which have succeeded the old. There is a sense here of sitting helplessly by while your house is ransacked, an image that Evagrius himself will use in OTT 34.

Hence, the advice at the end of the last chapter takes on an added significance. The game of opposing the thought of an opposed passion to the demon that is tempting you is a game at which you might lose. Praying with all your strength to repel the demon with the virtue opposed to the passion being excited is a game at which you can never lose.

The next chapter is very important.

60 Perfect dispassion in the soul occurs after the victory over all the demons which are opposed to the practical life.

The demons which are opposed to the practical life are those which rule over the eight most general passions. There are other demons related to the mind (nous) which rule over ignorance and delusion and those have not been included in Evagrius’ eightfold typology. That eightfold typology refers to the passions of the passionate part of the soul, the desiring part and the irascible part taken together.

Imperfect dispassion, however, is spoken of in regard to the strength up to this time of the demon that is wrestling with the soul.

Let us suppose that I am sorely pressed by the demon of avarice. Then imperfect dispassion (apatheia) is an informal measure of the extent to which I am prevailing over that demon: as Evagrius has pointed out, the demons change their guard, so that a new demon of avarice might succeed the demon of avarice that is currently wrestling with me if the latter prove feeble. Hence, imperfect dispassion (apatheia) has this quite relative character.

Perfect dispassion (apatheia) is a state in which, having acquired virtue, I have conquered all the demons related to the practical life. Evidently I might still be tempted—in TPL 36, Evagrius has said that the demons which rule over the passions of the soul persist until death—and I might fall: above, we have seen passages from Evagrius’ Scholia on Ecclesiastes which say that very thing. Moreover, we cannot as Orthodox posit a condition of sinlessness or inability to sin before Heaven and the General Resurrection: there is no guarantee that I will not succumb: Adam fell; Eve fell; and they were quite dispassionate.

There is also an implication here that perfect dispassion (apatheia) does not render the ascetic free of temptations related to the demons which tempt the ruling part of the soul, the mind (nous).

Perfect dispassion (apatheia) is a victory over the passionate part of the soul: the desiring part and the irascible part. Moreover, as Orthodox, we modify Evagrius so as to say that perfect dispassion (apatheia) is a goal which can never be attained in its fullness in this life. However, that having been said, we can view the state of perfect dispassion (apatheia) as being a condition in which the monk has substantially accomplished the goal of defeating the demons related to the practical life, the demons of the eight passions related to the desiring part and to the irascible part, so that he can substantially enter into the illuminative stage of the mystical ascent.

It is well to recall that Evagrius’ use of the term dispassion (apatheia) differs from the acceptation in Clement of Alexandria, in the Gnostic Chapters of St Diadochos of Photike and in the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John of Sinai, where the term refers to the consummation of the mystical journey, the union of the monk with the Holy Trinity in contemplation. We discussed this earlier.

61 The mind will not advance nor depart that good departure and come to be in the land of the bodiless [powers] if it has not corrected what is within. For the disturbance of the familiar [parts of the soul] is accustomed to return it to those things from which it has departed.

The first sentence should be read in the context of TPL 52. What Evagrius is saying is that when dispassion (apatheia) has been attained, then the soul separates itself from the body—not by suicide, God forbid!—but, nonetheless, really, actually, in point of fact, the soul is rendered autonomous of the body and enters into the state that pertains to natural contemplation: here Evagrius is emphasizing first natural contemplation, the contemplation of the angels.

Now the first point that Evagrius is making is that the soul cannot do this, cannot enter into natural contemplation, especially first natural contemplation, if it has not corrected what is within: the eight passions of the practical life. What he is saying, therefore, is that the ascetic must correct the eight passions, must attain to the virtues that negate the eight passions, must attain to dispassion (apatheia), which he has defined as health of the soul, before the ascetic can safely enter into natural contemplation.

Evagrius goes on to say that even if a monk enters into natural contemplation—evidently, the monk can to an extent guide his mind (nous) to where he wants—without having corrected the eight passions of the desiring part and the irascible part, disturbances related to the eight passions will as it were drag him back down to earth. Evagrius does not speak of presumption on the part of the monk, nor does he speak of the return as a being cast out due to presumption. He simply says that even if you do enter into natural contemplation you are fooling yourself if you have not corrected the eight passions, because a disturbance connected with them will bring your mind (nous) back down to earth. You are not ready.

One might place in the context of this chapter the instruction to St Silouan: ‘Keep your mind in Hades and despair not.’[5] In the case of St Silouan, rather than ascending to contemplation, the monk descended to Hades.

The monk has a certain ability to direct his mind (nous) where he wants. This chapter of Evagrius counsels the monk not to ascend to contemplation before he has healed the passions; the Lord counselled St Silouan, at a late stage of his monastic career, to descend to Hades.

Whatever the merits of the procedure adopted by St Silouan—and we are not casting doubt on them—in the two authors we are discussing, Evagrius and St Hesychios, there does not appear to be a doctrine that the monk should descend to Hades.

In St Hesychios, the emphasis is on a sobriety that neither ascends nor descends but remains attentive in the heart. St Hesychios counsels ascent, in cases of relaxation of the war, only with circumspection and only with the concurrent opinion of the Lord—that is, only with a plerophoria (inner spiritual assurance) that such an ascent would be pleasing to the Lord.[6] St Hesychios’ method is that of an attentive sobriety in the heart which leaves it to the Lord to raise the mind (nous) of the ascetic to contemplation whenever the Lord wishes, by grace.

The next chapter is quite useful:

62 Both the virtues and the vices blind the mind.

There is a virtue for each vice and a vice for each virtue.

The virtues, so that it does not see the vices.

This is quite true. A virtuous man, in the virtues with which he is virtuous, does not perceive the corresponding vices. He is blind to them. We all know the virtuous man—we ourselves have in mind a certain saintly metropolitan, still alive—who passes through situations with a seeming naïveté that makes him ‘naïvely’ blind to the evil around him.

The vices, again, so that it does not see the virtues.

A vicious man, truly vicious, will not understand virtue. For him it is folly.

This makes it difficult sometimes to speak with those immersed in sin or passion. They do not have any idea of what we are talking about. To speak spiritually with the other man, we must be able to communicate with what the other man understands in his own soul. If his soul is full of vice, he will not understand virtue.

Of course, great saints can speak to sinners and inspire repentance. For in no case is a man completely depraved.

The next eight chapters, 63–70, make a transition from the state which approaches dispassion (apatheia), the topic of the chapters we have just discussed, to the state which is dispassion (apatheia). While the title speaks of the ‘signs’ of dispassion (apatheia), this section has a deeper significance.

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[1] See Volume III.

[2] See TPL 6, above.

[3] A chance example: ‘As a holy monk, I’m not avaricious.’ We do not know whether the passion of avarice is structurally opposed to the passion of vainglory; we have merely used it as a chance illustration.

[4] Gal. 6, 7.

[5] See Silouan.

[6] On Sobriety 30.


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