19 March 2010

On the Teachings of Evagrius


While acknowledging that the Church has not recognised him as a Saint, in a previous post (here) I cautiously honoured the life of the 4th-c. ascetic theologian, Evagrius Ponticus. I also expressed my hope to revisit some of the controversial issues surrounding his teaching and influence, and that is what I intend to do in this post. This was initially prompted by a comment I received on a post back in January (here):

St Basil is ‘sidelined’ as the father of monasticism because he is the father of that monasticism that finally condemned Origen, Evagrius, Didimus [sic], that the ‘West’ annointed as the fathers of ‘Christian mysticism and ascetics’. [1]

Now, we all know that the speculative teachings of these three writers were anathematised at the Fifth Œcumenical Council, some of the most obvious problems in them being the preexistence of souls and universalism. But it is also clear that the Orthodox Tradition has not dismissed them entirely. Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian themselves compiled a collection of passages from Origen’s works called the Philokalia, both were early mentors of Evagrius, and the latter’s influential ascetic works were much later incorporated into the more well-known Philokalia compiled by Ss Macarius of Corinth and Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (though some of Evagrius’s writing was passed down under the name of St Nilus the Ascetic). (Most of Didymus’s works were apparently lost and as far as I can tell seem to have had little subsequent influence.)

But these observations hardly do justice, on the one hand, to the simple diligence of countless Orthodox scribes, monks, and even Saints in copying the words of these writers, without which none of their work would have survived, and on the other, to the well-documented influence they exercised on subsequent Orthodox Fathers throughout the centuries in their terminology, patterns of thought, and even their exegetical and spiritual teaching. All of this suggests that, while we accept the discernment of our Fathers in condemning the heretical teachings of these writers, there is yet something worthwhile in them from which we can profit. While I personally can’t say much about Origen, I have read quite a bit of Evagrius Ponticus (c. 345-399), and I would like to respond to what reads like a sneering dismissal of his writings in the above comment. As St John the Prophet of Gaza writes in response to the question, ‘Should we not, then, read even the works of Evagrius?’, in Letter 602:

Do not accept such doctrines [e.g., apokatastasis] from his works; but go ahead and read, if you like, those works that are beneficial for the soul, according to the parable about the net in the Gospel. For it has been written: ‘They placed the good into baskets, but threw out the bad’ (Mt 13.48). You, too, should do the same. [2]

Thus, Jean Leclerq, OSB, notes, ‘The writings left by Evagrius have contributed to the building of the spiritual tradition from which we all draw’, [3] and according to Fr Placide (Deseille), ‘The Greek hesychast tradition follows entirely in its wake.’ [4] Similarly, Fr Andrew Louth observes that Evagrius’s ‘mystical theology’, which ‘clearly arose out of his own participation in the lived tradition of the Desert Fathers, out of his own experience of the eremitical life’,

was gratefully accepted by Eastern monasticism and his most important works on the monastic way of prayer (as opposed to speculation about the metaphysical presuppositions of that way)—the Praktikos and On Prayer—were preserved in Greek, and exercised an enormous influence on Eastern Orthodox spiritual and mystical theology. [5]

Of course, this influence was not absolute. The editors of the Faber edition of the Philokalia note that St John Cassian, ‘transmitted the “practical” aspect of Evagrios’ teachings to the Latin West’, but abandoned ‘the suspect theories that Evagrios derived from Origen’. [6] Fr Andrew Louth sketches ‘the Evagrian pattern’ as it influenced St Maximus the Confessor, then observes:

But it is not present in Maximus’ writings unchanged. To begin with, behind Evagrius’ teaching on prayer and ascetic struggle there lay his ‘Origenist’ metaphysic, with which Maximus profoundly disagreed, and of which he was its greatest critic. But he was a critic with great sympathy for what he criticized, and extremely anxious not to throw out the baby with the bath-water. At the level of ascetic theology, Maximus is able to preserve most of what Evagrius taught, and he does. But he thinks it through again, and though many of the concepts and terms he uses are clearly Evagrian, what is expressed is no less distinctively Maximian. [7]

But both of these comments assume an absolutely Origenist reading of Evagrius’s Kephalaia Gnostika, a reading which also calls the framework of the Pontian’s other writings into question. This reading has, however, itself been called into question. Fr Placide observes:

Nowhere has Evagrius given a systematic exposition of this cosmology, nor of the Christology integral to it. Rather than accepting it as a literal doctrine, he undoubtedly understood it as a ‘myth’ in the Platonic sense, refracting it through the thousand facets of his Gnostic Chapters. Reduced to a system by later agitated disciples of Evagrius in the first half of the sixth century, the doctrine was first condemned in 543, then in 553, at the Fifth Ecumenical Council. [8]

Augustine Casiday has gone even further in discussing the lineaments of this Origenist reading of Evagrius. He notes that the contention of Antoine Guillaumont that the more Origenist of the two texts of the Kephalaia Gnostika was the original and, furthermore,

was directly responsible for the Christological controversies that resulted in the anathemas promulgated against Origen in 553 . . . relies on configuring Evagrius’ disconnected utterances in a specific way and (perhaps more troublingly) claiming that hostile statements resolving the Second Origenist Controversy provide the correct template for this reconfiguration. What justification have we for thinking that the later crisis provides us with the best pattern for Evagrius’ beliefs? [9]

Casiday notes that there are, in fact, ‘multiple traditions—some in direct competition with each other—that look back to Evagrius for inspiration’, thus contradicting ‘the idea that a privileged insight into his thinking was preserved by a single school of thought.’ Confronted with the task of interpreting Evagrius’s work as a whole, Casiday argues that ‘it is surely better to rely on the core of undisputedly authentic texts’. [10] He concludes:

In the light of how trenchantly orthodox Evagrius is shown to have been by his letter On the faith [Epistula fidei]—in which, incidentally, he has already begun to use the categories for the mystical contemplations that are found in his Great letter [Ad Melaniam] and Gnostic chapters [Kephalaia Gnostika]—it seems more sensible to begin our attempts to understand his admittedly obscure writings from the presumption of Cappadocian orthodoxy rather than to work backword from the presumption of Origenist heresy. This is not to cast doubt on the claim that Evagrius himself drew inspiration from Origen, which is beyond dispute. It simply means that we are now able to work forward from Origen (via the Cappadocians and Egyptians) to Evagrius and reconstruct Evagrius’ thinking with reference to a reasonably large corpus, without having to rely upon subsequent interpretations or evaluations of Evagrius’ writings. [11]

The ‘presumption of Cappadocian orthodoxy’ is greatly helped of course by the letter ‘On the faith’. Indeed, William Harmless recalls Palladius’s comment that Evagrius was ‘most skillful in confuting all the heresies’, noting: ‘The accuracy of this assessment has become clear with the discovery that a famous letter probing subtle aspects of Trinitarian doctrine, a letter long attributed to Basil, was in fact composed by Evagrius.’ [12] In other words, if Evagrius was capable of writing such a letter, was he capable at the same time of teaching that Christ is ‘different to all other rational beings only insofar as the human soul of Christ is further along the spectrum of spiritual progress that all rational beings must inevitably make’? [13]

I do not offer the opinions of Fr Placide and Casiday to say that I accept them whole-heartedly, but merely to call attention to the fact that there is another approach to be considered. To tell the truth, I have rather avoided looking into the Kephalaia Gnostika precisely because of its ‘suspect’ nature. What little I have seen confirms Harmless’s evaluation:

Unlike most literature of the desert, Evagrius’s works are not easy reading. . . . We know that he consciously cultivated a certain obscurity, at least on some matters. . . . This studied obscurity poses a real challenge for contemporary commentators. One has to decode Evagrius. [14]

One point that I do feel I can pronounce to be right on target, however, is that made by Marcus Plested in the chapter on ‘Macarius & Evagrius’ in his study of the Macarian Homilies. Plested notes the tendency, apparently initiated by Irenee Hausherr in a 1935 article, to bifurcate the entire history of Eastern spirituality into ‘Evagrian’ and ‘Macarian’ traditions. Thus, Fr John Meyendorff claims ‘writers can rightly be classified as disciples of Evagrius or of Macarius’. [15] Plested points out that Fr Alexander (Golitzin) has been one of the few ‘to seriously detract from what we might call the “dichotomist viewpoint”’. [16] Fr Alexander sees the Evagrian/Macarian dichotomy as perpetuating a false dichotomy between Hellenistic and Semitic traditions in Christianity—a dichotomy he has eloquently dismissed in the note I have quoted here, as well as in the following passage quoted by Plested:

The contradistinction of ‘mind’ and ‘heart’ reflects the Medieval Western opposition between ‘intellective’ and ‘affective’ mysticisms a little too much for my comfort. Evagrius is not an Eckhardt, nor is Macarius a Bernard of Clairvaux […]. Then too, the contrast implicit in this definition between a ‘biblical’ and a ‘platonizing’ Christianity strikes me as very questionable. Plato and company were quite as much involved in first-century Palestine as they were anywhere else in the Graeco-Roman world, and the ‘Greeks’ thus had a say in the formation of both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. I do not, in short, believe that Evagrius’ nous and Macarius’ kardia are all that different from each other. [17]

But Plested finds Fr Alexander’s closing statement ‘too simple’. He agrees, ‘It is debatable whether either of the authors with whom we are dealing perceived any opposition between “head” and “heart”, between “intellective” and “affective” mysticisms.’ But then Plested adds, ‘In fact, Evagrius’ nous is contained within Macarius’ kardia—as we shall see.’ [18] Having considered the ‘intellectual-immaterial element in Macarius’, including the statement in Collection 1, 3.6.1 ‘the soul has been overpowered by material and unclean thoughts’ and that it must ‘rise out of such materiality’, [19] Plested writes:

It is misleading to depict Evagrius’ nous as straining to be released from the material creation—the body and soul are there to help the intellect and not to hinder it. Evagrius insists that to denigrate the body is to blaspheme the Creator and to deny the workings of providence. Evagrius has, in his own way, a unified understanding of the human person. Intellect, soul, and body form a whole: the intellect is directly linked to the rational part of the soul, the body to the irascible and desiring parts of the soul. Thus the soul constitutes the bond uniting the human person, taking a comparable role to that of the heart in Macarius. Furthermore, the quest for apatheia does not ential the quenching but rather the harnessing of the passionate parts of the soul—a Platonic insight—so that the soul desires knowledge and virtue and is angry and fights against the thoughts. . . . The spiritual life is not a struggle to transcend but to transform body and soul. This process is fulfilled in the eschaton. [20]

As promised, Plested has a number of things to say about Evagrius’s use of the words nous and kardia. He notes that in the Kephalaia Gnostika, Evagrius writes, ‘According to the word of Solomon, the nous is joined with the heart.’ [21] But Columba Stewart, OSB, believes that Evagrius ‘read “heart” as the biblical equivalent to “mind”’, [22] citing a comment from the Commentary on the Psalms: ‘it is customary in Scripture to have kardia instead of nous’. [23]

But at any rate, Plested’s conclusions are quite enlightening. He argues that ‘both may be seen as groping towards the expression of the same spiritual reality’, and notes: ‘In this light the Byzantine reading of Macarius and Evagrius (often under the guise of Nilus) becomes more readily comprehensible. Far from distinguishing ‘currents of spirituality’ the classical Byzantine approach was one of synthesis.’ [24] Finally, Plested concludes:

This interaction [between the Evagrian and Macarian teachings] was not one of opposing—or even sharply contrasting—spiritual currents, but rather the interplay of distinctive yet complementary insights into the nature of the Christian life. Despite coming from very different angles, the teachings of our authors—both of whom have nourished many generations of Christians . . . –are far from incompatible. [25]

I wish Plested’s approach was more common among patristic scholars, particularly those who claim to be working within the Orthodox Tradition. Alas, it seems so many are more interested in finding, first, handy but oversimplified classification schemas that cater to modern intellectual fashions, and second, the ‘originality’ and ‘uniqueness’ of the various patristic authors, that they are completely blind to that truth noted by St Ignatius (Brianchaninov):

When on a clear autumn night I gaze at the clear sky, sown with numberless stars, so diverse in size yet shedding a single light, then I say to myself: such are the writings of the Fathers! When on a summer day I gaze at the vast sea, covered with a multitude of diverse vessels with their unfurled sails like white swans’ wings, vessels racing under a single wind to a single goal, to a single harbor, I say to myself: such are the writings of the Fathers! When I hear a harmonious, many-voiced choir, in which diverse voices in elegant harmony sing a single Divine song, then I say to myself: such are the writings of the Fathers! [26]


[1] Of course, attributing this ‘sidelining’ to Western scholars is an over-generalisation, and was not meant to be pressed too far in my initial post. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, even in the middle of his ‘Introduction’ to Evagrius, uses a footnote to discuss the monasticism of St Basil in some detail (see The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, by Evagrius Ponticus, tr. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981), p. xxxvii, n. 56). Furthermore, it is by no means clear that he in any way prefers Evagrius's to St Basil's.

[2] Ss Barsanuphius & John, Letters, Vol. 2, tr. Fr John Chryssavgis (Washington, DC: Catholic U of America, 2007), p. 183; see Fr Louth on St Maximus, p. 38

[3] Jean Leclerq, OSB, ‘Preface’, The Praktikos, p. vii.

[4] Archimandrite Placide (Deseille), Orthodox Spirituality & the Philokalia, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008), p. 18.

[5] Fr Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor, Early Church Fathers Series (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 113.

[6] G.E.H. Palmer, et al., tr. & ed., The Philokalia, Vol. 1 (London: Faber, 1983), p. 30.

[7] Fr Louth, pp. 37-8.

[8] Fr Placide, p. 18.

[9] Augustine M. Casiday, Evagrius Ponticus Early Church Fathers Series (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 28.

[10] Ibid., p. 29.

[11] Ibid., p. 30.

[12] William Harmless, SJ, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (NY: Oxford U, 2004), p. 313.

[13] Casiday, p. 28.

[14] Harmless, pp. 321-2.

[15] Qtd. in Marcus Plested, The Macarian Legacy: The Placeof Macarius-Symeon in the Eastern Christian Tradition (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 60.

[16] Ibid., p. 61.

[17] Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin), ‘Hierarchy vs. Anarchy? Dionysius Areopagita, Symeon the New Theologian, Nicetas Stethatos, & Their Common Roots in Ascetical Tradition’, St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38,2 (1994), p. 153; qtd. in Plested, pp. 61-2.

[18] Ibid., p. 62.

[19] Ibid., p. 65.

[20] Ibid., p. 66.

[21] Qtd. in ibid, p. 67.

[22] Columba Stewart, OSB, Cassian the Monk (Oxford: Oxford U, 1998), p. 42.

[23] Ibid., p. 166, n. 13.

[24] Plested, p. 70.

[25] Ibid., p. 71.

[26] Qtd. in Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), Father Seraphim Rose: His Life & Works (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2003), p. 464.

11 comments:

Exile Bibliophile said...

You always use beautiful images on your blog, but this one is a favorite! Thanks for sharing.

aaronandbrighid said...

Glad you liked it, Ben!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Yes, that's a nice one. I'd bet that it's a Rallis Kopsidis piece.

Thanks for that. I'll have to read the Plested, but he does seem to be a bit too systematizing for my taste. That's so "old school". The usage of kardia and nous (and dianoia, etc) is typically slippery. I've been noticing that there's no single pattern of usage, and certainly no clear-cut definitions apppearing, as we see sometimes amongst those who'd map out the entire nature of man from sole to soul, with everything neatly organized. What are we? Thomists?

I wanted to mention, too, that a well-preserved cache of Didymus the Blind's exegetical works were discovered relatively recently. Some are published in the Source Chrétiennes series ("Didyme l'Aveugle" is the author), and I think some further bits were found within the last couple decades. The exegetical material is classically Patristic (mixed typological and allegorical) and unexceptional in that regard. Perhaps (I've only sampled very little) some excesses in his allegorical interpretation are preserved, but all that I read was not unorthodox.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks, Kevin. I know what you mean about patristic terminology. I really felt like the glossary of the Faber Philokalia was particularly misleading in this regard. To read it you'd think 1500 years of Neptic Fathers had shared a completely standardised vocabulary of technical terms!

Good to know about Didymus! Obviously, my efforts on here are quite provisional, based on the limited resources I have at hand and usually only a minimum of internet research. Corrections are always welcome!

I'm curious about the story behind the discovery of these writings. And has anyone yet compared them in depth with the teachings, real or supposed, of the 6th-c. Palestinian Origenists?

aaronandbrighid said...

Oh yes, and the art certainly is Kopsidis--the king of the line drawing! Soon I hope to scan some more of his illustrations to the Astir Philokalia.

Mark Montague said...

Aaron, I appreciate this post more than most of your posts, which is saying a lot. You've introduced me to a topic I know next to nothing about. And I'm sure I speak for many who won't comment. Thanks.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I think most of the work on Didymus has been in French, really. I've got an article here (somewhere!) that I couldn't find in ATLAS or JSTOR that summarized that kind of comparison. I need to find it.

The manuscripts were found in Giza, as I recall, in or near the ruins of a monastery near the pyramids. How romantic! This was in the 40s. But I think there were a few more bits found in roughly the same area in the 80s or 90s, too. His commentary to Genesis is one of the newly (40s) discovered texts. I should look into that one again.

I'll try to find the article I'm thinking of over the weekend!

On your point about standardized terminology, I was just inspired with a post myself. So, more on that soon!

aaronandbrighid said...

Mark> Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed it. To tell the truth, I was worried how this one would be received!

Kevin> That's really cool!

I look forward to your post on terminology. Perhaps I'll do my own as well!

Anonymous said...

You should look at "Dragon's Wine and Angel's Bread: The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness" by Gabriel Bunge ( St. Vladimir Press 2009). Fr. Bunge OSB is perhaps the leading expert today on Evagrius.

I wrote a master's thesis on Evagrius long before he became, as Fr. Francis Tiso states, a 'cottage industry". At the time I wrote it, one could basically count on one hand basic studies on Evagrius. Nowadays there are numerous books with some still being issued.

I remember wrestling with the Kephalia Gnostica, ( in Guillamont's translation). I came to the conclusion that it was more a "psychological" than a "metaphysical" work, describing the process of re-integration of the fragmented self. The foundation of this argument is stated by Hans Jonas' essay, "Myth and Mysticism: A Study of Objectification and Interiorization in Religious Thought" where he argues that Evagrius used the Origenistic myth as a template for his "psychological" insights.

Of course, one can easily confuse psychology and metaphysics and I think this is what happened by the sixth century.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for your comment. It's good to hear from a real expert on the subject, & nice to know that you seem to agree with Fr Placide & Casiday. I am certainly very interested in Bunge's book--it's been on my Amazon wishlist for some time now. But as evidence for what you say about the cottage industry, when I decided to do these posts on Evagrius it was one of the few times that I've ever been confronted with too many sources just sitting right there on my own shelves. Not too many for a Master's thesis, mind you, but too many for a blog post!

Andy and EmmaTrenier said...

You might also like Julia Konstantinovky's new 2010 book...