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?

Some Stoic wisdom from Seneca: We are but patients in the hospital discussing remedies

So-called 'Seneque mouriant' (it's not Seneca), 2nd-c Roman statue
So-called ‘Seneque mouriant’ (it’s not Seneca), 2nd-c Roman statue in the Louvre, Paris

As you know, I study Latin epistolography when I’m not blogging about everything else under the sun. This primarily comes in the form of the letters of Leo the Great and their manuscript tradition, but also involves placing Pope Leo within his literary tradition — papal as well as secular. And so I’ve been dabbling in a bit of Seneca today.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC – AD 65) is a very interesting character — tutor of the Emperor Nero, wealthy landowner, tragedian, satirist, philosopher. If you’re in the mood for some interesting reading and are not easily provoked to vomition, I recommend his play Thyestes. Seneca was a Stoic. Some people call Stoicism the unofficial religion of the Romans; I’m not entirely convinced, given the Epicureanism of Lucretius and eclecticism of the Academic Cicero. Nevertheless, it was a popular philosophy amongst the educated classes of Rome, and includes the emperor Marcus Aurelius amongst its adherents.

Stoicism has high moral ethics and is, therefore, a somewhat appealing philosophy for Christian writers. Indeed, they even tried to baptise the late Seneca by forging correspondence between him and St Paul!

In Letter 27,* Seneca responds to the query from Lucilius, ‘Are you giving me advice? Have you already advised and corrected yourself? Is that why you are at leisure to set others straight?’ To this, the philosopher responds:

I am not so persistent that I will seek out cures while I am sick, but I will talk to you about our common suffering and share remedies as if I am lying in the same hospital. So listen to me as though I am talking to myself: I will let you into my intimate thoughts and reckon up with myself in your company. (trans. Fantham 2010)

Seneca is not the master. Indeed, later (Letter 33) Seneca will argue that there are no masters (domini) but only guides (duces) — and if one finds a quicker route, he should take it. Seneca and Lucilius are fellow-patients in the hospital, and Seneca is discussing with Lucilius the different remedies that he has tried to cure his ailment.

This is not unlike the classic saying, ‘Evangelism is one beggar telling another where to get bread.’ However, it brings in the image of the hospital. We are not merely hungry — we are diseased. And all of us are seeking the cure — this is what the ancients were looking for in Stoicism or Epicureanism or (Middle, Neo-)Platonism or Mithraism; it is what people are seeking in the philosophical appropriation of science or in Hinduism or Buddhism or Taoism or Confucianism or New Age or Kumaré or Islam or Christianity or Hegel or Nietzsche or Hare Krishna or Wicca or Judaism.

The human race has a sickness. We all want the cure. And those who believe they have found it want to help their fellow humans get well. It ties into the classic Eastern Christian image of the Church as a hospital and Christ as the chief Physician very well. Let’s gently bring our friends to this Physician — and let’s continue to drink His medicine every day.

*I am working from the assumption that Seneca and Lucilius actually exchanged letters. If not, then the fiction is that Lucilius has said certain things to his philosopher friend.

Justin Martyr and the Philosophers

Justin Martyr

As interesting and rich as Justin Martyr’s First Apology is, my reference point today is primarily the so-called Second Apology — which may actually be a detached bit of the First Apology or may be a different genre from apology altogether, written in 154.

In this text, Justin espouses the monarchy of God over the entire universe, the rule of humanity over the rest of creation, and the unjust enslavement of humans to the demons. One goal of Christ’s coming is to free humans from the demons.

Part of Justin’s demonic slavery is paganism — especially the poets but also pagan cultus, mythology, and, to some degree, philosophy.

Not being the most plugged-in reader of ancient philosophy, I cannot engage with everything Justin says in the Second Apology about ancient philosophy, and certainly not every time he engages with it, since some of those times will be oblique references and allusions.

Justin views philosophy, I think, as partly tied into the truth but also partly false, depending on the sect. Epicureanism, for example, he condemns at 12.5, whereas his views on Stoicism are mixed, and his appreciation of Socrates borders on that old idea that Socrates was a Christian before Christ.*

The cynical (not necessarily the Cynics) reader of Justin will assume that he speaks well of Stoics because he lives under a Stoic Augustus with two Stoic Caesares — Antoninus Pius and his two adoptive sons Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius; M. Aurelius being one of the most famous Stoic philosophers of all time.

Nevertheless, I think he sees real good in the Stoics, even if imperfect. He disagrees with the Stoic concepts of the whole universe — the god included — resolving into the same essence at the end and fate. The creation is always distinguishable from the Creator for Justin, and human beings have free will:

And this is the nature of everything generate — to be receptive of vice and of virtue. For none of them would be praiseworthy if he did not also have the power to turn either way. (6.6)

Justin approves of Stoicism largely in its ethical terms. He is not alone; the approval of Stoic ethics led some Christians in the fourth century to forge correspondence between Seneca and St Paul; that pagan persecutor of Christians, M. Aurelius, made his way into a calendar of Christian quotations possessed by my parents:

Let thy thoughts run not so much on what thou lackest as on what thou already hast.

This is wisdom, the sophia of philosophia. In other areas, Stoic recommendations for lifestyle remind me of early Christian ascetics, calling for moderation in food and dress, or of Clement of Alexandria (saint of the week here), as when Seneca defends his wealth by arguing that it is not wealth itself but slavery to it (see my post Who Is the Rich Man Who Will Be Saved?).

How is it that Socrates and the Stoics grasp some of the truth?

This is part of Justin’s famous Logos theology, the spermatikon logikon, the seed of rationality that is in everyone. The Logos is Christ, as John 1 has made clear to Justin. But Logos is not simply some hypostasised word or utterance. Logos is the order and rationality and logic underpinning everything in the universe, holding it all together as part of God (God Himself?) and at God’s behest.

As the rational part of the universe, human beings have the strongest, most conscious vision of the Logos. We have an inborn rationality, given us by God, to be able to arrive at certain conclusions. We all have some grasp of the higher Truth that orders all things. Therefore, pagans — whether Socrates or the Stoics — have access to God and can discover the truly moral and ethical life.

And, for Justin, the moral life is what being a Christian is all about. We put our faith in Christ through our own free will, and then we are able to live holy, moral lives, following his teaching, which, as his First Apology makes clear, is the highest morality of all.

Through this, Christ becomes the hope of the nations and the fulfillment of all religions and philosophies. All truth is His. Through this, we are able to read the pagans — Greek, Roman, Hindu, Zoroastrian — without fear and without surprise when the Truth jumps out at us. Through this, we can find common ground with our friends of other faiths or none, common ground that can hopefully lead to the abundant life promised to all who follow Jesus, both here and hereafter.

*Although, given that Justin denounces ‘sodomy’, his reading of Plato’s Symposium was either very creative or non-existent.

The Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne (saints for the week)

This week, one of the classes I’m running tutorial seminars for is looking at martyrdom. Amidst the many interesting texts (from A New Eusebius, 2nd ed, 16-17, 20-24) was the account of the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, in AD 177 (#23). This account was contained in a letter sent to the churches of Asia (Minor) because the ties between the Gallic and Asian churches were strong, many Gallic Christians being in fact from Asia. Their next bishop, St Irenaeus, was himself from Asia.

This particular persecution seems to have broken out as mob violence at first; the Christians were attacked and dragged before the magistrates by their fellowmen. The authorities, now confronted with these Christians, investigated what the charges against them were — beyond the usual ‘Christians are bad as business’, as old as the riots at Ephesus in Acts.

Some of the Christians recanted their faith. Many did not. All of them, ‘apostate’ or not, were tortured and tried for their crimes — including not just being Christians and therefore not burning incense to the genius of the Emperor but also ‘Thyestean banquests and Oedipodean intercourse.’ Freud has made the second reference obvious to us; the former is to cannibalism, specifically of children; in myth, Atreus served up to his brother, Thyestes, the man’s own children. Read the play Thyestes by Seneca for the full horror of what that would entail.

This time, recantation did not help anyone. And some, when being tortured, and seeing how the faithful held up under torture, returned to the Christian faith that they had shunned to avoid a torture that had arrived anyway.

The faithful held up well in prison:

They went forth with joy, great glory and grace blended on their countenances, so that even their chains hung around them like a goodly ornament, as a bride adorned with golden fringes of diverse colours, perfumed the while with the sweet savour of Christ, hence some supposed that they had been anointed with earthly ointment as well. (ch. 35)

According to this account, people were converted to the Way by the bravery of the martyrs in the arena. I am reminded by the famous Tertullian quote:

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

For a population fond of Stoicism and its ideals of enduring with dignity any horrors and terrors of this life, the brave face put on by many Christians when faced by beasts — if non-citizens — or the sword — if citizens — would have been appealing. They would have seen that these dying people had found something truly worth living for; these Christians were people who were truly living according to the balance of nature, perhaps!

During this persecution, many members of the church at Lyons were gathered up by the authorities and tortured. 47 or 48 of them were slain for their faith. What makes this account notable for me is that many of them were afraid of torture and and actually cried out in pain — a far cry from Perpetua or Polycarp. Something a bit more human. For did our Lord not also cry out on the Cross?

Another realistic detail is the fact that while Blandina, after being tortured, is put in a basket to be tossed around by a bull. The text says:

For a time the animal tossed her, but she had now lost all perception of what was happening, thanks to the hope she cherished, her grasp of the objects of her faith, and her intercourse with Christ. (ch. 56)

I cannot help think that perhaps she was simply in shock. I know I would have been.

The martyrs were perceived as combatants. These, not monks, are the original milites Christi — soldiers of Christ. They are the brave souls whose faithfulness to and faith in Christ are truly put to the ultimate test. Are you willing to gain the world by renouncing him at the risk of your soul? What matters more — this earthly life or the heavenly life?

These are the questions posed to us by the martyrs. How faithful will we be today in our soft lives of ease?

And . . . done.

Yesterday I finished the Reading List Exams for U of T’s MA in Classics.  This was the conclusion of four days of intensity and spilling forth from my brain excessive amounts of information, some of which I wasn’t even sure was there until the pen hit the paper.  The Reading List looks like this.  My week looked like this:

Tuesday, 9:00 AM: Greek Verse translation exam.  Translate 2 out of 4 from Set A and likewise from Set B.  Passages taken from the Reading List, of course.  Did the passages from the Iliad, Hesiod’s Theogony, Tyrtaeus 9, Callimachus’ Hymn to Athena.

Wednesday, 9:00 AM: Greek Verse commentary exam.  Theoretically write something clever about 3 out 5 passages from sets A and B.  Only Emilia looks at it and says, “Hey, Set B only has four passages!”  Set A was similar.  Wrote the exam under much stress, wondering what would happen in these unforeseen circumstances.  Furthermore, would they discipline a prof who acts in such bad faith yet who is also published and publishing?  Commented on passages from Euripides’ Bacchae, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and Homer’s Odyssey, book 6 from Set A, and Mimnermus, Sappho 31, and the parabasis of Aristophanes’ Acharnians.

Thursday, 9:00 AM:  Latin Prose translation exam.  Same format as Greek.  Translated passages from Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Book 21, Suetonius Life of the Divine Julius, Cicero, and from a letter of Pliny the Younger.

Friday, 9:00 AM:  Latin Prose commentary exam.  Same format that Greek was supposed to be, not what Greek was. Thankfully.  Commented on passages from Cornelius Nepos’ Life of Atticus, Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae, Livy Book 1, a letter of Cicero to Atticus, Seneca Letter 47, and Cicero’s speech Pro Archia.

And now, I’m done the Reading List!