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TPL (Commentary) -- 8.1

On the Signs of Dispassion

63 When the soul begins to make the prayers without distraction, then the whole war is constituted night and day round the irascible part.

Let us suppose, since we do not precisely know the external details of how Evagrius prayed, that we are praying in a quiet hermitage the Prayer of Jesus in the heart. Even then we can be distracted. When Evagrius says that we begin to be undistracted in our prayers, he means that the whole man is undistracted: the man is at peace with himself; the Prayer of Jesus goes easily; the man does not have intrusive thoughts to take his attention away from the words and the spiritual sense and the focus of the Prayer. Then, evidently because the desiring part is more or less permanently quiet, the whole battle is constituted round the passions of the irascible part. Here we take Evagrius to mean: ‘round all the passions related to the irascible part of the soul, not just anger’, but he could very well mean: ‘just anger’. Be that as it may, the battle is constituted round the irascible part: avarice, anger, sorrow, accidie, vainglory and pride. That Evagrius says ‘night and day’ suggests that the monk is praying night and day, that this is a serious and unremitting battle fought on the field of these passions, and that the battle occurs both in thoughts and in demonic apparitions during sleep. This corresponds to Evagrius’ earlier remark that the passions of the body—gluttony and fornication—retire the more quickly.

64 A sure sign of dispassion is a mind that has begun to see its own light and which remains still in regard to the apparitions which occur during sleep and which remains in an undisturbed state when it sees objects.

Evagrius here provides a triple criterion of dispassion (apatheia). A mind (nous) which satisfies the three criteria together, not just one of them—so it appears, but it would be wrong to make of Evagrius such a cut and dried thinker—has surely attained to dispassion (apatheia). The three criteria are:

1. The mind begins to see its own light in prayer.
2. The mind remains still in regard to apparitions in sleep.
3. The mind remains undisturbed when it sees objects.

The first criterion we have already referred to in the commentary on TPL 49. It is that of OTT 39 and 40. The mind spiritually perceives its own light, although Evagrius himself seems to have wondered about the connection between this light of the mind and the grace of God.1 It is not evident that Evagrius here means the Uncreated Light. It might be taking the matter a little far—since the Uncreated Light is fundamentally a gift of the Holy Spirit—to give this criterion that significance. However, Evagrius does in general identify the light of the mind (nous) in prayer with the Light of the Holy Trinity: see the commentary on OTT 40, especially the passages from the Skemmata there quoted and discussed.

If here the light of the mind is taken to be the light of God, then a question arises about the nature of Evagrian dispassion (apatheia). For, as we shall see, Theology, mystical union with the Trinity, is the goal of the ascetic, and that goal is consummated in the Light of God. That would suggest that dispassion (apatheia) is a state to which we attain in Theology. But that flies in the face of what Evagrius says elsewhere. The alternative explanation is that even before he has attained to Theology, the ascetic who is dispassionate can experience union with the Trinity. Given Evagrius’ comments in the Kephalaia Gnostica concerning the effects of Theology on the mind (nous),2 this seems inconsistent with Evagrius’ own doctrine. What Evagrius must mean here, then, is that the dispassionate monk, although he must still proceed through the stages of natural contemplation and Theology to consummate the mystical journey, still experiences a light in prayer which, while it is genuine, does not confer on him the perfection of mystical union.

The second criterion we have already in part encountered. The apparitions during sleep are precisely the dreams that Evagrius began to discuss in TPL 54, above, in language that suggested that they were something that happened to the sleeping person and to which he responded.3 In our discussion we advanced the timid hypothesis that these apparitions were not simple dreams, but something different provided by demons. If you have attained to dispassion (apatheia), Evagrius is saying, the apparitions that occur in your sleep will not disturb you. What does he mean?

What he means is very important. Evagrius will develop this topic in OTT 27–9, but let us here introduce it. It is a peculiar aspect of these ‘dreams’ to which we respond—perhaps by running towards the tableau—that depending on our spiritual state, we respond differently. Hence, what Evagrius means when he advances this criterion as a criterion of dispassion (apatheia) is this: when in sleep we see ‘meetings with acquaintances, and banquets of relatives and choruses of women and as many other things as result in pleasures’,4 if we do not run towards the tableaux, then we are dispassionate. If we have attained to dispassion (apatheia) we are indifferent or detached—dispassionate—in our response to the tableaux. St John of Sinai himself, in the Ladder, remarks that the ascetic who is dispassionate in the desiring part may admonish a woman seen in such a dream concerning chastity. And this applies also to the other types of such dreams: in TPL 54, Evagrius especially referred to dreams related to disturbances of the irascible part.

These are not ordinary dreams.

Let us leave a more detailed discussion until Evagrius reintroduces the topic in OTT 27.

The third criterion is that the mind remains in an undisturbed state when it sees objects of sense. Readers will recall that according to Evagrius the passions are set in motion by sense-perception. Here, Evagrius is saying that when the ascetic is dispassionate his mind (nous) is not set in motion in an impassioned way by objects of sense—whether the object of sense be a body (fornication), gold or money (avarice), he who has grieved the ascetic (anger or sorrow), a sign of human glory (vainglory), and so on. Here, it is a matter of an actual object of sense, not of a recollection of an object of sense or of an apparition in sleep.

What Evagrius has given is a threefold criterion of dispassion (apatheia): the mind sees its own light in prayer; it is undisturbed by the apparitions which occur during sleep; and it remains undisturbed when it sees objects which might give rise to an impassioned response. The first criterion is clearly one concerning the purity of the ascetic’s mind (nous), and the other two just as clearly show that in the ascetic the eight passions are no longer easily aroused or set in motion. Note that although dispassion (apatheia) is a state that concerns the soul, and especially the operation according to nature of the desiring part and the irascible part of the soul, and that although the stages of natural contemplation and Theology are the stages that concern the mind (nous) par excellence, this definition of dispassion (apatheia) implies that the ascetic has already achieved a certain progress in the purification of his mind (nous). Dispassion (apatheia) cannot be considered to be a state merely of the healing of the irascible and desiring parts of the soul. We will see this also in Evagrius’ discussion of the virtues in TPL 86 and 89.

65 The mind has its full strength when during the time of prayer it imagines nothing of the things which pertain to this world.

Fundamental to Evagrian spirituality is what is implicit in this sentence. The mind (nous) must leave the remembrance of sensible objects in order properly to pray, in order properly to contemplate, and in order properly to ascend to God. Much of OTT is dedicated to an explication of this sentence. Here, looking at the sentence as a criterion of the health of the mind (nous), we can say that that mind (nous) is healthy which during the time of prayer is free of the recollections of objects of sense, whether impassioned recollections or ‘mere’ dispassionate recollections. As we shall see in OTT 17, the ascetic is not supposed by Evagrius to continue twenty-four hours a day without contact with the things of this world; hence, he will, outside the specific hours of his more intense prayer, in both thought and action have some contact with those things that pertain to this world. But in Evagrius, despite this, when the dispassionate ascetic turns to prayer, he is free of the things of this world: his mind (nous) can easily leave them and ascend to God. There enters in a doctrine of sobriety, which we will discuss in the commentary on OTT 17. In regard to this chapter, the reader might like to ponder the passages in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers where the Elder is presented as being in a more or less continual state of prayer cut off from the things that pertain to this world, so that he forgets to eat, or even when he has last eaten.

66 The mind which has accomplished the practical life and which has drawn near to gnosis has little or no perception of the irrational part of the soul, gnosis having ravished it high above this world and having separated it from the things which are sensible.

This chapter is similar to the last. Here, Evagrius is clear that he is discussing the transition from the purgative to the illuminative stage, from the practical life of the acquisition of the virtues to the life of gnosis and contemplation. It is clear both in this chapter and in the last that when the mind (nous) enters into the illuminative stage, then there is a radical transformation: gnosis ravishes the mind high above this sensible or material world and separates it from sensible objects. We are reminded of St Arsenios the Great in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. We think that despite our modifications to the Evagrian doctrine of dispassion (apatheia) to render it compatible with Orthodoxy, we can still accept the notion that there is a distinct change in the character of the ascetic’s spiritual life when he makes the transition from the practical life to natural contemplation. This chapter has rendered precise the nature of that change in character: the mind (nous) no longer has perception of the irrational part of the soul, having been ravished by gnosis high above the world of the senses.

However, it is necessary to clarify a certain point: Evagrius here speaks of a transition from the practical life to a state of being ravished high above this world and of being separated from things that are sensible. Following the interpretation of St Isaac the Syrian5 we understand that the senses are divested not in the attainment of dispassion (apatheia), the goal of the practical life, nor in the transformation from dispassion (apatheia) to second natural contemplation, but in the transformation from second natural contemplation to first natural contemplation: Evagrius has jumped directly from the practical life to first natural contemplation in this and related passages of TPL. For the moment, however, it is reasonable to take Evagrius’ text as it stands: we will discuss this matter in detail both in the Digression to the commentary on OTT and in the commentary on OTT 38–43.

The irrational part of the soul is here the desiring part. That the ascetic has little or no—an important qualification—perception of this part should not be taken as his repression of those instincts, but as a transcendence of them preceded by great purification. That this is so can be seen from the fact that within the dreams, the ascetic has a dispassionate response to the material portrayed: in line with depth-psychological theories of repression, we would expect that if repression were involved, then in his dreams the ascetic would have a greatly impassioned response to the material presented. This, in fact, as he develops his analysis in OTT, Evagrius treats as a sign of great illness on the part of the ascetic, as an illness demanding treatment.

As we saw in TPL 61, above, it is evidently possible for the ascetic by his own power and will to enter through the door into natural contemplation, but if there has not preceded adequate purification then trouble with the irrational part and the irascible part of the soul—movements of the eight passions connected to them—will draw the ascetic back down to earth. That this is a dangerous move on the part of the ascetic—to enter into natural contemplation and its gnosis before he is ready—can be seen both in the passage in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that when one sees a young monk ascending by his own power to Heaven, then one should drag him back down by main force, and in Gnostic 25:

And it is necessary not to say anything to young men concerning gnostic things, nor to permit them to touch books of that sort, for they are not able to resist the falls that this contemplation entails.

We will address the more exalted aspects of this passage in the Digression to the commentary on OTT, when we look at the higher stages of natural contemplation.

This chapter should also be read in the context of OTT 17, where Evagrius enunciates his doctrine of sobriety.

67 The soul has dispassion, not the one that does not suffer in relation to objects, but the one that also remains undisturbed in regard to their memory.

This should be clear. The passions are in the first instance set in motion by sense-perceptions of objects of sense; this is the war waged in and through objects. The immaterial war, the more difficult one, is the one waged through impassioned recollections of objects of sense. In addition, the import of what Evagrius is saying lies in this: when the passions are somewhat purified, it might be that they are set in motion less easily by the sense-perception of an object of sense; however, just as the immaterial war is more difficult, so it is easier to set an impassioned recollection in motion—that is, the thoughts are naturally more sensitive to arousal than the senses. Hence, not to have impassioned recollections of objects of sense means that one has been completely purified. Of course, there are eight passions and each must be purified: we might have an impassioned recollection of him who has grieved us without, say, any longer being troubled by impassioned recollections of money or gold coins.

68 The perfect [monk] does not keep continence and the dispassionate [monk] does not endure patiently, if, indeed, patient endurance pertains to him who suffers and continence pertains to him who is disturbed.

What is Evagrius saying here? He is establishing the significance of continence, the therapy of the disturbed passions of fornication and gluttony, to him who is no longer disturbed; and of patient endurance, of patiently enduring what is not according to his preference,6 to him who, being freed of movements of the passions of the soul, no longer has, as it were, preferences that might be gone against.

This chapter should not be taken as an antinomian tendency of Evagrius but as a statement that once a man has attained to dispassion (apatheia) and to perfection, then he is free of movements of the passions that are on the one hand restrained by continence and on the other hand endured with patient endurance. That this is the proper interpretation of this passage can be seen in part from Gnostic 5 and 37. It is important to understand this difference, lest the young monk be tempted to give up his continence and patient endurance on the grounds that he is perfect. Such temptations occur to young monks.

69 It is a great thing to pray without distraction. It is a greater thing, however, to chant psalms without distraction.

This is simple. There are more distractions when you chant psalms. Hence, it takes more dispassion (apatheia) to chant psalms without distraction than it does to pray without distraction.

70 He who has established the virtues in himself and who is wholly permeated by these virtues no longer has remembered law or commandments or hell, but he says and does these things as much as the excellent habit dictates.

This is quite important, both for the hope it conveys and for the danger that it creates. First of all, it is very similar in content to TPL 68, above, and the two chapters should be considered together.

The hope is this: When the ascetic has attained to dispassion (apatheia), which seen from the point of view of the passions is purification, then by the grace of God he will have established in himself the virtues: in TPL 89, below, Evagrius will give an account of the virtues, their functions (erga), and their relation to the various parts of the soul. In OTT, he will give a more detailed account. These virtues are both habits—this is Aristotle’s definition—and excellences—also an Aristotelian term—of the part of the soul to which they pertain. Hence, ‘excellent habit’ should be taken as synonymous with ‘virtue’. Now this does not mean that the ascetic has a revelation at every moment what to do; it means that since he has been permeated with the grace of the Holy Spirit and now lives according to nature—as regards the functioning of his soul—, then he can judge what is proper or fitting to say or do: among the virtues are prudence, wisdom and discernment, discernment here being taken to be synonymous with understanding (sunesis).

We have emphasized that dispassion (apatheia) is the state of being according to nature as regards the functioning of the soul because Evagrius makes a clear terminological distinction between the health of the soul and the health of the mind (nous). While for dogmatic reasons we cannot as members of the Orthodox Church accept this distinction as a distinction of fact, we must be aware of Evagrius’ thinking: To have reached health of the soul is not, for Evagrius, the end of the road; it is an intermediate stage which is followed by work in natural contemplation and Theology to reach health of the mind (nous). The end of the road is the complete health of the mind (nous) to which the ascetic attains in Theology, unitive contemplation of the Holy Trinity. From the Orthodox point of view, it would be reasonable to consider health of the soul to be the substantial restoration of the passionate part of the soul to its operation according to nature together with the partial acquisition of the intellectual virtues that Evagrius will discuss in TPL 86 and 89.

Evagrius’ meaning in this chapter is similar to that of St Anthony: ‘I no longer fear God; I love him.’ This chapter can be considered to be Evagrius’ presentation of the monk’s passage from slave to son in his relationship with God. For he who is remembers law or commandments or hell still fears.

The danger is this: For the immature monk with a high estimation of his own attainments, this chapter of Evagrius presents a temptation to antinomian acts ‘on the basis of discernment’. To this it must be remarked that Evagrius is speaking not to the immature monk, but to the dispassionate monk, and that there is a difference.

The next section, Practical Principles, TPL 71–90, is a long section which completes the Evagrian theoretical analysis. We have already included much of its content in our discussion and commentary, but it is useful to consider each principle in turn. TPL then closes with a section of ten chapters, a little Gerontikon, or Sayings of the Desert Fathers that illustrates the practical life of purification. This is Evagrius’ own Gerontikon, and the Guillaumonts observe that he appears to have invented the genre.

The reader may have noticed that we have referred to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers without giving any bibliographic reference. We quoted the sayings from memory—as is appropriate for such material—, and there is a bewildering number of recensions of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, not all of them translated into English, at least in their entirety. So the reader must take it that this author thinks that someone said somewhere that… That is, this author takes the Sayings of the Desert Fathers to exist somewhere in an ideal recension that he has never seen. That is why there is no entry in the bibliography for ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’.

After Evagrius’ Gerontikon, there follows the epilogue which need not concern us, after which we turn to the longer treatise, OTT, which is as it were the advanced treatment of the material we are now studying in TPL. OTT is extremely important for its treatment of thoughts—mental representations—in the face of the need to be completely without thoughts or mental representations in order properly to pray. This topic was introduced in TPL 65 and 66, above, but we can also see a connection, somewhat more indirect, with TPL 67, 68 and 70, above.

It is worthwhile to remark that although OTT appears to be a more advanced treatment of the material covered in TPL, our judgement, for what it is worth since we do not have evidence to back it up, is that OTT is the earlier work of the two. Rather than being an elaboration of material presented in TPL, OTT seems to us to be a more extensive work that is summarized in TPL. In this regard, it is necessary to recall that TPL is one part of a trilogy composed of TPL, the Gnostic and the Kephalaia Gnostica. In our view, this trilogy is surely Evagrius’ masterwork in which he puts forward his final and considered views. His other works must be considered in the light of this trilogy and given a subordinate position when it comes to evaluating what Evagrius really thought. We have applied this principle in TPL 36, above, in our assertion that the presentation of the passions in OTT 18 must be taken as metaphorical, and elsewhere, in our estimation of the value of the Letter to Melania.

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1See the commentary on TPL 49.

2See Section 5, Chapter III, of Volume I and also the Digression in this Volume.

3TPL 54: ‘and we run towards…’.

4TPL 54.

5Isaac Homily 3 p. 23, fn. 29.

6This is a matter of enduring an excitation of the temper. Patient endurance is the virtue par excellence of the cœnobitical monk.


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