25 June 2012

St Cyril on Philosophy, Revisited

I actually wrote this post last week, but for some reason it seems our Internet connection woes have not entirely come to an end. Having spent the weekend in a long-needed pilgrimage to Holy Archangels Monastery in Texas, we returned today and my brilliant wife was able to get things working again. So, here you go.

In a post I wrote quite some time ago, I noted an interesting similarity between the definition of philosophy offered by St Cyril the Apostle-to-the-Slavs in his Vita, and two of the definitions of philosophy found in the ‘Philosophical Chapters’ of St John Damascene’s Fount of Knowledge. In connection with St Cyril’s definition, I mentioned that I hoped eventually to read an article devoted entirely to that subject by Ihor Ševčenko. Well, I did indeed finally read Ševčenko’s article, and it more than explains the similarity between St Cyril’s definition and those of St John. Both it seems were drawing on definitions given in various commentaries on Porphyry’s Isagoge, commentaries which served as the standard textbooks in Byzantine philosophical studies. Here is St Cyril’s definition, first in Ševčenko’s translation from the Old Church Slavonic, then the OCS text transliterated, then Ševčenko’s hypothetical Greek version:

Knowledge of things Divine and human, as much as man is able to approach God, for it teaches man by deeds to be in the image and after the likeness of the One who created him. 
I vъprosi ego jedinojǫ, glagolę: filosofe, xotelъ byxъ uvěděti, čьto jestь filosofija. On že skoromь umomь reče abije; božijamъ i člověčamъ věščьmъ razumъ, i jeliko možetъ člověkъ približiti sę boʒě, jako dětělijǫ učitъ člověka po obrazu i po podobiju byti sъtvorъšemu i. 
θείον καὶ ἀνθρωπίνων πραγμάτων γνῶσις, καθ’ὅσον δύναται ἄνθρωπος προσεγγίσαι (πλησιάσαι) θεῷ, ὅτι πράξει διδάσκει ἄνθρωπον κατ’ εἰκόνα καὶ καθ’ ὁμοίωσιν εἶναι τῷ ποιήσαντι (πλάσαντι, κτίσαντι) αὐτόν. [1] 

The first phrase, ‘Knowledge of things Divine and human’, originates with the Stoics, [2]. The second, ‘as much as man is able to approach God’, originates with Plato’s Theaetetus 176 AB. [3] These two phrases had been combined in a definition of philosophy by the 6th- or 7th-c. commentator David, who argued that it had the advantage of encompassing ‘both the subject matter and the purpose of the thing to be defined’. [4] The reference to ‘in the image and after the likeness’ is from the LXX text of Genesis 1:26, and had been combined with the Theaetetus passage by Clement of Alexandria and Origen. [5] With the exception of the Genesis quote, most of the definition St Cyril gives is found in Porphyry’s commentators. 

But one part of the definition that seems slightly less accounted for than the rest is the reference to man imitating God ‘by deeds’—dětělijǫ in the OCS. Ševčenko notes that the word—dětělь in the nominative form—usually represents either Gk praxis or energeia, arguing for praxis in this case because it is the term used in the philosophical manuals. But the use of praxis in the manuals as Ševčenko cites them is not really part of the previous formulae per se for defining ‘philosophy’. The closest they come is David’s comment that ‘the politic philosopher strives to immitate [sic] the Godhead in as much as it is possible for Man, both through knowledge and deeds (kata ten praxin)’, and Ammonius’s comment—‘as has been said, philosophy is the becoming like God according to man’s ability. The one who becomes like God strives to become like Him by use of Reason: he also wants his actions to be his adornment (praxesi kallopizesthai).’ [6] In neither case, however, is the reference to praxis part of the original formula, but rather an add-on or elabouration. 

I emphasise this point because apart from his very careful and—to my mind—irrefutable research on the origins and history of the various components of St Cyril’s definition, at the beginning and end of his article Ševčenko has used this philosophy textbook provenance of the Saint’s statement to make an argument about the historical context of the latter’s personality. I myself can’t help but think, however, that this word praxis might contribute something to our portrait of that personality that Ševčenko has either overlooked or deliberately suppressed. The opening paragraph of his article reads: 

To a cultivated Byzantine of the ninth century, philosophy could mean at least two different things: It could be defined as the ‘discipline of disciplines’ providing first principles for all the branches of knowledge, or it could be conceived as moral perfection based on the ‘true gnosis’ of Being, that is to say, on the tenets of Christianity. [7] In the first case, philosophy meant primarily a technical rational activity, and the philosopher was a learned intellectual, dealing with a precious part of antique heritage which he might use for a better understanding of Christian truths. In the second, philosophy was synonymous with an intense spiritual life: the best philosopher was the ascetic monk, and his ancestors, the first true philosophers, were the disciples of Christ. [8] 

Then, having demonstrated that St Cyril’s definition of philosophy falls into the first category, Ševčenko concludes: ‘From his university years on, St Constantine [Cyril] belonged to the “intellectual” strain in the Byzantine milieu of the ninth century. He was a Christian philosopher-scholar, not a “philosopher” of the monkish ascetic kind.’ [9] 

Ševčenko has the advantage over me of a good deal more learning and access to a good many more books, so I admit there will be an enormous gap between his article and what I am capable of proving in this post. But for a number of reasons, this placing of St Cyril in an intellectual, philosophical as opposed to a spiritual, ascetic tradition does not sit well with me. Of course, it is obvious that St Cyril was not a desert-dwelling hermit, taken up solely with ascesis and unceasing prayer. It is also obvious that he was an intellectual. But this distinction between monks and intellectuals seems a little too neat. Clearly, there were examples of both. The greatest theologian of the 7th century, St Maximus the Confessor, who had an enkyklios paideusis, was a simple monk. St John Damascene, a monk of St Sabas Monastery in the Holy Land, is clearly well acquainted with the philosophical literature of the ‘intellectual milieu’. Perhaps most importantly, St Cyril himself went to a monastery very shortly after completing his studies (more on this below), though he was not tonsured until the end of his life. 

Let us not forget, however, that there was an ancient tradition of association between ascesis and philosophical endeavour. It seems unlikely to me that most philosophers, from Pythagoras and Plato, to the Stoics, right up to Porphyry’s commentators, would have agreed that philosophy was primarily a ‘technical rational activity’. Even if it is pointed out that Porphyry’s Isagoge and its commentators—apparently the object of St Cyril’s studies with St Photius the Great [10]—represent that part of philosophical study that could most justly be characterised as ‘technical rational activity’, logic, Ševčenko himself observes that even for them logic was but a ‘tool’ of philosophy. [11] 

At any rate, according to Douglas Burton-Christie, ‘By the second century CE the philosophical schools were not thought of merely as intellectual schools of thought but as something broader—bioi or ways of life....Conversion to philosophy meant then, as it had for some time in the Greek world,...“a turning from luxury and self indulgence..., to a life of discipline and sometimes to a life of contemplation...”’. [12] This is so true of Porphyry himself, that the very first line of his Vita of his master, Plotinus, notes that the great Alexandrian philosopher ‘seemed ashamed of being in the body’. [13] To quote, once again, C.S. Lewis: 

A world-renouncing, ascetic, and mystical character then marked the most eminent Pagans no less than their Christian opponents. It was the spirit of the age. Everywhere, on both sides, men were turning away from the civic virtues and the sensual pleasures to seek an inner purgation and a supernatural goal. The modern who dislikes the Christian Fathers would have disliked the Pagan philosophers equally, and for similar reasons. [14] 

Note that Lewis links the Fathers and the philosophers together via this ‘world-renouncing, ascetic, and mystical character’. But while for the philosophers, asceticism was, perhaps, the activity of an intellectual elite, [15] for the Fathers it was more or less the way of life of all Christians, including the simple and unlearned. Commitment to Christian faith necessarily entailed some ascesis. One would think that St Cyril and all of his teachers, as members of an intellectual elite and as Christians, would have been doubly committed to the ascetic life. I admitted earlier that St Cyril was not a desert-dwelling hermit, engaged solely in ascesis and unceasing prayer. But that is not to say that he was not occupied at all with ascesis and unceasing prayer. 

Furthermore, recall St Cyril’s definition itself. Is it possible that he or any of the Byzantines, or any of the pagan philosophers for that matter, believed that becoming like God was a ‘technical rational activity’ that required no ascetic struggle? Indeed, to see that they did not I would like to discuss that word praxis that St Cyril incorporates from elabourations of the definitions of philosophy into his own definition proper. 

First, it could be argued that like Ševčenko’s account of ‘philosophy’ in his opening paragraph, the word praxis in the philosophical context, or at least its adjectival form, had at least two meanings. Fr Andrew Louth notes that for Aristotle it simply meant business or activity as opposed to philosophical contemplation, and that even St Gregory the Theologian uses it in that sense. But Evagrius Ponticus used the word to refer to ‘struggle with the demons, a struggle to overcome temptation and subdue the passions’, in other words, ascesis. [16] This is of course the normal meaning of the word in the spiritual writings of the Fathers. 

Now, according to Ševčenko’s distinction between intellectual and monastic ‘philosophy’, and his placing of St Cyril into the former category, Aristotle’s use of praxis would make more sense for a learned intellectual to employ. But even Aristotle would not agree that ‘business’ makes one more like God. If the aim of philosophy is to become like God, Evagrius’s use of praxis makes more sense. Read in the light of Evagrius and the Philokalic tradition, St Cyril seems to be saying, ‘Philosophy teaches man to be in the image and after the likeness of the One who created him by the practice of ascesis.’ 

This makes even more sense if we actually look at the example Ševčenko cites for the ‘monkish’ definition of ‘philosophy’—St Nilus the Ascetic (†430). St Nilus accuses some of ‘the Greeks’, by which he means the pagan philosophers, of imagining ‘themselves to be engaged in metaphysics [logiken philosophian]’ but ‘neglecting praxis entirely’. [17] On the next page, he writes: 

For philosophy is a state of moral integrity combined with a doctrine of true knowledge concerning reality. Both Jews and Greeks fell short of this, for they rejected Wisdom that is from heaven and tried to philosophize without Christ, who alone has revealed the true philosophy in both His life and His teaching. For by the purity of His life He was the first to establish the way of true philosophy....[T]he true philosopher must renounce all life’s pleasures, mastering pains and passions, and paying scant attention to the body... [18] 

The extraordinary thing about these passages from St Nilus is that they are in fact not altogether removed from the ‘intellectual’ conception of philosophy that Ševčenko contrasts so strongly with the ‘monkish’ one supposedly exemplified by St Nilus. Rather, it almost seems as if St Nilus is directly confronting and objecting to the notion of philosophy as primarily a ‘technical rational activity’ (note that he chastises the Greeks for studying logiken philosophian but neglecting praxis). 

Furthermore, I am not at all convinced that Porphyry’s commentators and St Nilus are employing the word ‘philosophy’ in two different, unrelated senses. St Nilus’s own definition of philosophy as ‘a state of moral integrity [ethon katastasis] combined with a doctrine of true knowledge concerning reality [meta doxes tes peri tou ontos gnoseos alethous]’, while it is worded very differently, is similar in import not only to Porphyry’s commentators but especially to St Cyril’s particular version of their definitions. Note that St Nilus, assuming of course the aim of becoming like God, has the statement of the content of philosophy—‘true knowledge concerning reality’, corresponding to ‘knowledge of things divine and human’. But, like St Cyril’s, his definition also tells us the means of becoming like God—‘moral integrity’, or as he called it a few paragraphs previously, praxis

Now, I don’t know whether St Cyril would have read Evagrius or St Nilus (though his teacher, St Photius, discusses some writings of the latter in his Bibliotheca). But it is interesting to note the similarities between his definition of ‘philosophy’ and the latter’s, especially when Ševčenko himself has paused so over St Cyril’s inclusion of the reference to praxis. I am almost compelled to believe that St Cyril has added this reference perhaps even as a nod to St Nilus. 

My suspicions would seem to be further confirmed when we turn again to St Cyril’s life. Anthony-Emil Tachiaos tells us that immediately after the little viva voce examination in which the young man produced his famous definition of philosophy, he was given an important position in the capital as Director of the Patriarchal Secretariat. [19] Now, if St Cyril had been interested in praxis in the Aristotelian sense of the active life of business, such a position would have been the ideal path to a promising career. But Tachiaos writes that ‘he soon resigned and withdrew to a monastery on the Bosphorus, which was probably Kleidion monastery.’ [20] 

Here is a striking evidence ‘indeed’ that the praxis St Cyril had just been advocating is likely to have been Evagrian asceticism! In this light, the reference to praxis in his exam almost seems like a kind of foreshadowing, and the great missionary's subsequent act of withdrawal looks a good deal like a gloss on the definition he he had just given.

Readers of this blog realise, I think, that I’m generally confined to working with whatever resources I have at home or manage to find online. With the exception of Ševčenko’s fascinating article itself, obtained with the help of my good friend, Chris Rosser, theological librarian at Oklahoma Christian University, this post is no exception. To come up with a truly scholarly response to Ševčenko’s conclusions would require some serious research that is not only beyond my printed resources, however, but beyond my linguistic skills! Nevertheless, as a reasonably well-read layman, I can’t help but think that I’ve got something here that perhaps he missed over there at the Institute for Advanced Study all those years ago. [21] 

[1] Ihor Ševčenko, ‘The Definition of Philosophy in the Life of Saint Constantine’, For Roman Jakobson: Essays on the Occasion of his Sixtieth Birthday, 11 October 1956 (The Hague: 1966), p. 450. 

[2] Ibid., pp. 450-1. 

[3] Ibid., p. 451. 

[4] Ibid., p. 454. 

[5] Ibid., p. 456. 

[6] Ibid., p. 455. 

[7] For this, Ševčenko cites St Nilus the Ascetic in PG, LXXIX, 720A; 721D—723AB (Ševčenko, p. 449, n. 2), about whom more below. 

[8] Ibid., p. 449. 

[9] Ibid., p. 457. 

[10] Ibid., p. 453. 

[11] Ibid., p. 453. 

[12] Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture & the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (NY: Oxford, 1993), p. 49; quoting from A.D. Nock, Conversion (London: Oxford, 1933), p. 179. 

[13] Porphyry, ‘On the Life of Plotinus & the Arrangement of His Work’, The Enneads, by Plotinus, tr. Stephen MacKenna, abgd. John Dillon (London: Penguin, 1991), p. cii. I should perhaps add, however, for readers that may lack the background in ascetic theology, that Porphyry’s statement suggests a literal contempt for the material body per se that is absent in the Fathers, even in their most ascetic moments. Having excerpted a passage from Evagrius in such a moment, Fr Placide (Deseille) notes (Orthodox Spirituality & the Philokalia, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel [Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008]): 

It would be a mistake to see in this bodily asceticism scorn for the body or a wish to ignore it. Quite the opposite, asceticism proceeds from a deep conviction about the unity of the human composite. For the Fathers, the link between body and soul is so intimate that all inner attitudes must “take shape” in an external behavior. (p. 119) 

Christian asceticism is based on the call to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ (Matt. 16:24), and St Paul’s example of bringing his body into subjection (I Cor. 9:27) and ‘bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body’ (II Cor. 4:10). 

[14] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Canto-Cambridge, 2002), p. 47. 

[15] They were also a socio-economic elite. Burton-Christie quotes Garth Fowden’s observation that most pagan ‘holy men do seem to have come from prosperous backgrounds’ (p. 50). 

[16] Fr Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Clarendon-Oxford, 1981), pp. 102-3. 

[17] St Nilus the Ascetic, ‘Ascetic Discourse’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 1, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1983), p. 200; Η Φιλοκαλία των Ιερών Νηπτικών, Τόμος A΄ (Athens: Astir, 1962), p. 190. The first phrase in quotes is taken from the Faber translation of the Philokalia, the second is my own translation from the Astir edition. 

[18] St Nilus, p. 201; GT, p. 191. 

[19] Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos, Cyril & Methodius of Thessalonica: The Acculturation of the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2001), p. 28. 

[20] Tachiaos, p. 29. 

[21] I take some comfort in the fact that it seems one F. Grivec, who published in the Orientalia Christiana Periodica, XVII (1951), seems to have agreed with me, though I don’t know whether he mentioned St Nilus at all. At any rate, Ševčenko mentions that ‘Fr Grivec arrives at an opposite conclusion [to me]. He sees in Constantine a philosopher after the fashion of the Fathers who identified asceticism, sanctity and philosophy, and writes quae philosophia Constantinum potius cum humilibus ascetis ac monachis quam cum superbis doctoribus sociabat’ (Ševčenko, p. 457, n. 61).

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