A Brief Primer on Patristic Greek Anthropology with an Emphasis on the Process of Contemplation and Obstacles to It
According to the Greek Fathers, the human being is a psychosomatic creature. To be human is to have a body (soma) and a soul (psyche). After the Fall, both of these are liable to corruption or disintegration (phtharsis). In this unnatural, subhuman fallen state, every human being eventually disintegrates completely. The body and soul separate. We call that moment physical death. But there are many lesser or greater moments of disintegration, when the body and soul are at war with each other or even with their own selves. Modern medicine might agree that the body is at war with itself in cancer and a host of other illnesses. And modern psychology might agree that the various parts of the “soul” also battle each other. Patristic Greek anthropology follows both classical and biblical categories (especially the biblical notion of humans being created according to the image and likeness of God (kat’ikona kai homoiosin tou Theou) and the idea that Christ, the new Adam, is the perfect human being and the model for one’s life. The image remains in the human being even after the Fall and can become tarnished or covered over by sin, but never completely destroyed. The likeness is understood dynamically by many Greek Fathers: it is something which must be realized, as human beings become more and more like God through the intense effort of self-discipline (askesis) cooperating with the Divine energies (grace understood not as a thing which is given to humans, but rather as the external workings of God (the root of the word energeia is ergon, which means work.) Such cooperation or synergeia, in which one fights the passions, seen by the great majority — though not all — of the Greek Fathers as entirely negative and disordered tendencies. This struggle against evil passions — called praxis or praktike— results in hesychia (inner quietude or stillness that is centerd on God, listening and open to His will) and apatheia (not to be confused with apathy, but rather a state in which one is not disturbed by passions.) By remaining in apatheia, via continual nepsis or watchfulness and praktike, which one must continue throughout one’s life, it is possible to achieve contemplation (theoria) of nature (physike theoria) and then of God (theologike theoria or simply theologia). This contemplation of God is sometimes described as spiritual knowledge (gnosis), and is considered immediate and direct. Through this contemplation, the highest human intellectual faculty recognized by the Greek Fathers, the nous, experiences God without the mediation of words or even concepts, by means of complete union with God — divinization or theosis. We need to be very careful when we use English terms that are loaded with theological and other meanings that are odds with the original, Patristic Greek ideas. Some good example of such easily misunderstood terms can be found in the section above. “Theory” and “praxis” in modern English usage are very different from the praxis and theoria described by the Fathers. Apatheia is by no means equivalent to “apathy”. When John Cassian translated this notion into Latin he called it “purity of heart,” so as not to allow it to be confused even with the notion as taught by the philosophical school of the Stoics, which was actually somewhat closer to the patristic understanding of apatheia than today’s English word “apathy”.
When speaking of the parts of the soul, the Greek Fathers relied on categories developed by classical thought, as exemplified by Plato’s tripartite division of the soul, which is presented in Book IV of The Republic. The Greek Fathers described the following constitutive elements in the soul. The logistikon, the intelligent aspect or power of the soul, consisting of the nous and the dianoia, the incensive or irascible aspect of the soul, known as the thumos or to thymikon, and the appetitive or desiring power (to epithymitikon).
The nous (a Greek term that is really best left untranslated because no single English word can express all the nuances of its meaning and the translation “intellect” is dangerously misleading) is the part of the soul which is capable of the most subtle knowledge, of a kind that goes far beyond words and concepts. It is through the nous that human beings unite with God, according to many of the Fathers, especially those who follow Evagrius of Pontus, although a significant stream of ascetics, following the so-called “Macarian Homilies” locate the place of union in the heart (kardia). These two, nous and kardia, probably should not be set too radically in opposition to one another, but rather should seen as two complementary expressions of the seat of the most subtle human faculties of knowing and loving for the purpose of union. Some Fathers speak of the nous being the “eye of the heart” or use similar phrases to show this complementary relationship. In addition to the nous, the intelligent aspect of the soul is described as also having another level, far lower than the nous. This is the faculty of discursive reasoning (dianoia), which uses concepts and logic and is quite incapable of the kind of direct cognition and spiritual knowledge which is the realm of the nous. In Patristic Greek thought, such realities as the fundamental dogmata of Christianity (e.g., the Triune God, the Christ who is simultaneously perfectly human and perfectly divine, or the saints’ complete union with God, in which one nevertheless retains one’s own personhood, and many others) are impossible to deal with adequately when using rational discourse. They are antinomies, or apparent contradictions, which cannot and must not be resolved by means of discursive reasoning. These truths are apprehended by means of the direct, simple cognition of the nous. The dianoia is considered useful in formulating concepts based on the data received by the nous or by sense perception, and it is used in everyday communication among human beings, but it can never attain to the kind of spiritual knowledge which is the noetic realm, the working area of the nous.
Thus, the nous is the human faculty through which communion with God is achieved, and communion with God is seen as the ultimate goal of human life. The nous is involved in the most central of all human activities. However, the nous must guard itself,and so custody of the heart and intellect (phylake tes kardias /phylake tou nou ) must be practiced to protect against the entry of the evil one. All human beings undergo temptation (peirasmos), which was present already in Eden, according to Mark the Ascetic, one of the authors found in the Philokalia. Eastern Christian ascetical literature posits two types of peirasmos: a)tests or trial sent by God for the purpose of honing (and thus assisting) the human being along the path of salvation, and b) evil promptings or suggestions from Satan and his minions. Such promptings come in the form of thoughts (logismoi). While the term is inherently neutral and could denote even a thought that comes by way of divine inspiration, in Patristic Greek ascetical literature, such as we find collected in the Philokalia and elsewhere, it most often refers to promptings from the evil one. Thus, in English logismos is usually rendered “evil thought.” Eastern Christian tradition has preserved the ancient list of eight evil thoughts which appear to have been first delineated and put in specific order by Evagrios Pontikos c.345-399 in his work, the Praktikos. Evagrios not only lists and describes the evil thoughts. He also describes the process of temptation. First comes the demonic suggestion. At this time it is nothing more than that — a thought which suggests a disordered behaviour. Then comes a stage which involves a drawing near,a consideration of the positive and negative aspects of the suggestion and a sort of bargaining and playing with the idea. What follows is synkatathesis, a consent in the mind to engage in the forbidden pleasure which had been suggested. Unchecked, the repitition of this consent results in captivity of the heart and the establishment of a pathos or passion, which is not a single act but a deeply ingrained tendency to act in this disordered and destructive manner. Most of the process occurs in the human mind. The demonic role is mainly to offer a simple thought that gets the process started.
Evagrios also wrote the Antirrhetikos, preserved in Syriac, which offers 487 scriptural texts from the Old and New Testaments, organized in eight chapters, corresponding to the eight evil thoughts. These scriptural texts were to be used in antirrhesis (literally, “counter-speaking” or “speaking-against”) to combat each of the logismoi by using a particularly apt text against each, as Jesus had done in the course of his temptation by Satan.
Evagrios, an associate of the three great Cappadocians, was, like his mentors, an avid disciple of the teachings of Origen, the brilliant and highly speculative theologian and biblical interpreter of the Alexandrian school. Because he seemed to have accepted some of Origen’s private speculations about the pre-existence of souls and of the salvation of all (apokatastasis), Evagrios was condemned along with Origen and “origenism” by the fifth ecumenical council (Constantinople II) in 553, a century and a half after his death. Needless to say, Evagrios was not given the courtesy of defending himself.
With his name now despised, it is a testament to his powers of observation and practical psychological insight that his writings survived. Evagrios’ teaching on the eight logismoi was preserved in Greek under the name of St. Neilos the Ascetic of Sinai, who was not suspect in the eyes of the Church or the Empire. In the end, Evagrios’ personal reputation would become an obstacle to the continuation of his legacy. His teachings survived simply because they were treasured by so many generations of monks as a useful, insightful and realistic guide to living a completely God-centered life. This God-centered life is the only source of true happiness according to the Greek Fathers. It is, however, difficult to achieve and maintain due to the weakness of the human condition, inherited from Adam, as a result of the Fall, in the form of mortality and the fear of death which leads one to take refuge in a deranged, egotistical “self-love” or philautia. This is really no love at all, but a woundedness and fearfulness that allows evil to take root in the human heart, even though that heart (understood not as the physical organ, but rather as the center of one’s being) was created fundamentally good. For the Greek Fathers, it is mortality rather than guilt, which is inherited from Adam. That is why the Christian East retains to this day the notion of voluntary and involuntary sin. It is not the guilt of the sinner that is of central concern, but rather the ultimate hurt which sin causes because, as St. Paul emphasizes, “The wages of sin is death.”
©2003 Andriy Chirovsky