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?

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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.

Platonism and Christianity

Why am I so wary of Platonism, as expressed in this post?

I am not actually wary of Platonism specifically.  Plato is a very skilled writer.  He writes with style.  In many of the dialogues, if you read with an attentive mind, then Socrates moves beyond asking questions of, say, Euthyphro, to asking questions of me.  What do you, mjjhoskin, think of holiness?  What is the basis for holiness?  What is the basis for this belief of yours? Foundational questions, all of them.  Questions that strike at the root of things.

Plato also has some interesting ideas.  There’s the ever-popular Cave in The Republic, for example.  Timaeus gives us a cosmology not entirely incompatible with reality.  Crito gives us the endlessly-speculated myth of Atlantis.

Plato also teaches transmigration of souls.  He teaches that this world is not the real world.  We have an idea of justice here, an idea of what a table is, an idea of what eros is, but these ideas are not the real things in themselves but shadows of the truth.  The true reality, according to Plato, is in the world of forms, where our souls dwell between transmigrations.  Platonism also teaches a dualism between body and spirit, between physical and metaphysical.  The spirit and the metaphysical are good, the body and the physical are bad.  This stems from the theory of forms.

This last paragraph is there to help show why traditional Christianity, “classic” Christianity, ought to be wary of Platonism.  Many Christians of the Patristic era liked Platonism too much and created bits of speculative theology that were not in line with Scripture, tradition, or the reasoned account of salvation.

Souls are immortal, according to Platonism — this means that they have a pre-existence in the spiritual realm before becoming incarnate in our bodies.  Such is the case in Origenism as well.  In fact, from what I’ve seen of Origen and his anathematised beliefs, a great many of them stem from an outworking of Platonist ideas.

One of the most pernicious and persistent Platonic ideas within Christianity is the dualism between body and spirit, between the physical and metaphysical.  I think this is in Origen, but it is definitely in the Gnostics and sometimes in the ascetics (but their pagan model was more frequently Stoicism).

The body is not bad.

This is part of true Christian doctrine.  In Genesis we are taught that when God created us, He said that His creation was “Very good.”  God Himself took on flesh in the Incarnation.  He became a man.  At the end of time, we shall all be resurrected in a new heaven and a new earth, and we shall have bodies.

The Platonist idea as it manifests itself in Christianty says that our bodies are “fleshly,” and anything that has to do with the body is to be rejected save those things that keep us alive.  Modern Christians who have maintained this dichotomy between flesh and spirit sometimes argue things such as, “Dancing is bad because it is all about your body.”  Ascetics, on the other hand, argue that you should ignore your body and discipline it.  What really matters, however, is mystical experience and seeking God through contemplation.  Neglect the body, therefore.  Some Gnostics, on the other hand, would argue that since flesh doesn’t matter, do as you please!

Classic Christianity argues that flesh does matter, so treat your body with respect, live morally, and enjoy yourself.  Dance.  Eat.  Drink.  Discipline the body, yes, but do so to discipline your whole self, do so to keep it healthy, not to ruin it.

The most pernicious Platonist idea to persist to today is this idea that we are all going to go to heaven when we die, we shall be disembodied and this will be great and this is what we were made for and this world will be destroyed by fire.

FAIL!

Patristic writers (I forget at the moment where I saw this, but it was one of them) lament death because when we die, our bodies and souls are separated, and this is not what we were created for.  We were created to have bodies, to walk on earth, to breathe air.  This is what the hope of Resurrection is.  We will have bodies, but they will be incorruptible.  The souls and bodies of the dead will be re-knit together for Judgement Day, and the saved will spend eternity living with those bodies and enjoying the world.

Thus, while there is much in Platonism to commend it, there is also much to be cautious of.  The same is true of Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Hinduism, Islam, or Buddhism.  Let us not forget that our first commitment is to Christ who was revealed in the Scriptures and has shown Himself through His people throughout history.  All pagan ideas, good or ill, are secondary.