John Cassian in The Philokalia: On the 8 Thoughts

St. Antony and St. Paul
St. Antony and St. Paul

My brother and I have been slowly working our way through The Philokalia. The last part we finished was the selections from St John Cassian. Those of you who have put up with my musings long enough know that I wrote a Master’s thesis on Cassian’s reception of Evagrius’ demonology. He’s a character I enjoy, a teacher I appreciate, a spiritual teacher who challenges me every time I read him.

There are two selections from Cassian adapted by Sts Nikodimos and Makarios in The Philokalia, one from The Institutes and the other from The Conferences. These are Cassian’s two major works, written in Latin in Gaul in the first half of the fifth century — John Cassian has the distinction of being the only Latin author represented in The Philokalia.

The climax and crowning moment of Cassian’s Institutes is a discussion of the eight vices, adapted from his never-named spiritual father, Evagrius of Pontus (‘the Solitary’) who immediately precedes him in this Athonite anthology. This is excerpted in The Philokalia. I’ve blogged about the eight thoughts before. Today I’ll briefly summarise the version in The Philokalia with some of my own thoughts.

The ‘Eight Thoughts’ (precursors to St Gregory the Great’s seven deadly sins) are: gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, self-esteem, and pride.

Gluttony

Frankly — more than just overeating. I’ve talked about this once before.

Unchastity

More than just sex (an idea I’ve talked about as well). Both of these first two logismoi, or thoughts, are battled by fasting. Cassian reminds us, however, that it is more than the bodily discipline that we need:

Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil, and manual labour. (p. 75 in Palmer, Sherrard, Ware translation)

Cassian tries to get at the root of the problem — the human heart.

Amidst the advice associated with this section is, ‘It is good to remember the sayings of the Fathers as well as the passages from Holy Scripture cited above.’ (p. 77)

Avarice

I’ve mentioned Evagrius and avarice here before. Cassian argues that, while some passions are natural to us, avarice is, in fact, foreign to our nature, so we must do our best to keep it from taking root in our soul. I found most of his advice on avarice unhelpful to the non-monk, unfortunately.

However, there is this good passage on the passions:

Even if we make bad use of these passions, nature itself is not therefore sinful, nor should we blame the Creator. A man who gives someone a knife for some necessary and useful purpose is not to blame if that person uses it to commit murder. (p. 78)

Anger

As you may know, I sometimes struggle with anger, and have enlisted the Desert Fathers and Evagrius in the past. Anger is considered part of our nature, and is not of itself evil. It exists to help us fight against sin, temptation, the other passions. However, it can easily cause us to go astray, even when we are angered about things that it is right be angry about — gold leaves blind the eyes just as well as lead ones (p. 83).

Dejection

This is the one where we feel discouraged and blame everyone else for our own failings. Says Cassian,

A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. (p. 87)

That idea, in fact, comes from Stoicism and is very prevalent in Seneca.

Listlessnessaccedia

This is the vice of getting a bit bored and frustrated, then dissatisfied with your own work or monastery. It is called the noon-day demon in Cassian’s Latin original. It is cured by hard work and forcing yourself to stay put.

Some years ago another blogger related this vice with the modern evangelical tendency to church hop. An interesting thought.

Self-esteem

This is seeking to be recognised by other people for being good at something — for monks, obviously the question is virtue. For the rest of us, no doubt it is whatever our occupation is. A job well done is not reward enough. Recognition of the self must follow.

Pride

This is the most subtle and serpentine vice of all. It can only strike you once you are holy, but is enough to drive you to the pit. This is the over-weening belief in your own holiness, an awareness of goodness — or rather, a false awareness, that leads you to believe yourself better than others.

These eight are intimately linked. And they are best fought by the cultivation of virtue. It is easier not to overeat by eating moderately than by fasting excessively. It is easier not to lust by consciously reading the Scriptures than simply trying not to lust. And so forth.

Next time, Cassian’s thoughts on discernment and the goal of the monastic life as excerpted in the next section of The Philokalia. The question is: How can we apply this to ourselves as non-monks, as laypeople?

5 thoughts on “John Cassian in The Philokalia: On the 8 Thoughts

  1. I note that the eight thoughts may actually be subsumed by four broader categories for which I have contrived the acronym “FAIL” (Fear, Avarice, [willful] Ignorance, Lassitude). See https://freedomisobvious.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-four-necessities.html

    Avarice is, of course, itself. Unchastity stems from avarice and is reasonably subsumed therein. The same may be said of pride, self-esteem, and gluttony.

    Dejection is of composite and conspiring causes that include avarice and fear.

    Anger is very often the result of fear, but also may have a component of avarice.

    Finally, pride has tentacles in avarice, as well as fear.

    All of these involve ignorance, very often of the willful sort, said will speaking to elements of avarice. When one wants something, certain elements of ignorance become convenient, as if by magic. We believe what we want to believe when it suits our ambitions. This is as common as dirt itself.

    Lassitude also plays a part all of the so-called “deadly sins”, as it is the seeking of ease. Therefore and once again, when it is convenient to our ambitions (our avarice), we become lazy with respect to our self-control and assumption of responsibility for our choices.

    In my opinion, the deadliest of all sins has been ignored in terms of the list in question, which means there should be nine: hypocrisy. To be a hypocrite is to have descended into a state so low as to lie beyond words. If one considers it carefully, hypocrisy underpins every human evil extant. Whether a child molester, bank robber, wife beater, rapist, or other form of criminal, the key and fundamental commonality between all crimes is trespass by one against his fellows. Hyocrisy underpins all trespass because the criminal holds himself to a standard of behavior and deserts different from that of his victims. For my money, there is nothing worse than this, nor as widespread in terms of “evil thoughts”. It is the utter and complete violation of the Golden Rule, which is itself a most explicit commandment against hypocrisy.

    I have long wondered what role degree and nature play in the assessment of hypocritical acts. The issue remains significantly opaque to me, as no clear answer has yet revealed itself. We all engage in petty hypocrisies on a more or less daily basis. I may smoke, but my six year old son may not, might be an example. Does this imposition of a double standard make me a hypocrite? Taken cursorily, it seems the answer is unequivocally “yes”. Assuming it is so, does the degree, nature, and ostensive reason for comporting myself in such fashion mean I have committed evil? Again, it maybe so, but if that be the case then we must then consider the notion of “competing evils”, or perhaps the commission of “little evils” for the sake of a greater good. As to the latter, I am not blind to the historical realities to which such intentions have given rise, such as hundreds of millions of people systematically slaughtered in the twentieth century alone.

    Our proclivities as human creatures, whether matters of our “nature” or of our training, render us largely despicable and unworthy of trust. FAIL summarizes as the most basic and broad levels the common failings of the average human being such that one man is ill-advised to lend complete trust to another in what I personally see as far too many cases. We fail ourselves and our brethren far too often, and oftentimes far too egregiously.

    God has contrived the most curious of creatures in his men.

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