What is passionlessness (apatheia), Clement?

This Thursday, my students are reading some excerpts from Clement of Alexandria (saint of the week here) and Origen in Stevenson’s A New Eusebius as we discuss the rise of intellectual Christianity. These are very interesting documents that give us a bit of a view into the intellectual climate of third-century Christianity.

While the rise of Christian asceticism and mysticism are often popularly portrayed as having their roots solely in the so-called ‘Desert Tradition’ (ie. Antony and the Desert Fathers and Mothers), it is clear to me as I read Clement of Alexandria that his thoughtworld is the same, and he no doubts has precedents himself.*

The word that hit me in this regard as I was reading the assigned selections from his Stromateis was passionlessness — a rendering of apatheia, also sometimes rendered dispassion. Clement writes:

Such an one is no longer continent, but has reached a state of passionlessness, waiting to put on the divine image. (IV.22.138.1; Stevenson p. 185)

What is apatheia, though? It is a word with an unhappy future after Clement, getting caught up in the First Origenist Controversy of the late 300s and early 400s, and no doubt in the sixth-century Second Origenist Controversy. It figures large in the work of Evagrius Ponticus, the learned spiritual master of the Egyptian desert who has left a mark on Eastern Christian spirituality directly, on Western through our old friend John Cassian. Cassian renders apatheia into Latin as puritas cordis — purity of heart.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8), after all.

Here is one of Clement’s descriptions of his gnostic as he progresses:

He, then, who has first moderated his passions and trained himself for impassibility, and developed to the beneficence of gnostic perfection, is here equal to the angels. Luminous already, and like the sun shining in the exercise of beneficence, he speeds by righteous knowledge through the love of God to the sacred abode, like as the apostles. (VI.13.105.1; Stevenson p. 185)

Apatheia is the moderation of the passions, then. And what are the passions? The selections I see before me do not tell, but I’ve blogged about my own perspective thereon before. They are the unreasoning movements within and without that assail us and can lead us down different paths, at times bad ones. Evagrius and Cassian give us eight deadly thoughts, or logismoi, to watch out for as we go about our lives. Avoiding these thoughts and exerting our intellect in a good way will help us navigate the world of the passions.

… the perpetual exertion of the intellect is the essence of an intelligent being, which results from an uninterrupted process of admixture, and remains eternal contemplation, a living substance. (IV.22.135.4)

The goal of passionlessness is contemplation, is, as in Cassian, is the vision of Heaven:

At any rate, after he has reached the final ascent in the flesh, he still continues to advance, as it fit, and presses on through the holy Hebdomad into the Father’s house, to that which is indeed the Lord’s abode, being destined there to be, as it were, a light standing and abiding for ever, absolutely secure from all vicissitude. (VII.10.57.5; Stevenson p. 187)

I have not read the entirety of Clement’s Stromateis, but I do know the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) provide a good place to start for thinking on these things, as does Evagrius’ Praktikos and the Chapters on Prayer.

*If we believe Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, these are Platonic. Given Clement’s use of the terms gnosis and gnostic, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is not appropriating Gnostic ideas for (proto-)orthodox ends.

 

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4 thoughts on “What is passionlessness (apatheia), Clement?

  1. When I teach church history at our local church I mention both the Stoics and Platonic thought as providing the Greco-Roman background…I tell the Stoic story of when a Stoic is provided with the news that his son died and his response was, “I never thought I had begotten an immortal.” This usually gets a laugh, but makes the point.

    • This is a good idea. We’ve discussed the Stoics a bit, especially last week in connection with Justin — albeit not concerning apatheia. Tying them and the Platonists in is a good idea as well as helping bridge the gap so they understand that to the ancients, this isn’t ‘pagan’ philosophy but was thought of as we think of science.

      • That’s an interesting analogy, the modern obsession with the scientific materialism to reach knowledge as akin to the Stoic denial of the passions in search of true wisdom…I wonder if anyone has written a book or a journal article about this, and how “there is nothing new under the sun…?”

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