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Chapter I -- 6

And the teacher, having sighed tranquilly at those things which had been said, herself said: Maybe these were the objections, or such as these, that the Stoics and Epicureans gathered at Athens made in answer to the Apostle. I hear that Epicurus carried his theories in this very direction. The nature of existent things was conjectured to be by chance and spontaneous, as if there were no Providence pervading through things. And, on account of this, by consequence, he thought that human life was after the manner of a bubble, our body enveloping a certain breath as long as the breath should be retained in that which enveloped it; and that with the collapse of the volume, then the contents were extinguished. For him, the limit of the nature of existent things was the phenomenon, and he made the measure of the comprehension of everything, sense,

Let us stop here.

The reference that St Macrina is making is to a passage of Acts of the Apostles, Acts 17, 16–32, wherein St Paul the Apostle, in Athens, vexed at the city’s being full of idols, preaches both in the synagogue of the Jews and in the Athenian marketplace, where he is met by some of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, who, indeed, being curious about what his ‘new teaching’ might be, lead him to the Areopagus, where St Paul makes a defence of the Christian faith to the Athenians there assembled.

Who were the Stoics? Stoicism was founded c.300 bc by Zeno of Citium (c.335–c.263 bc).

Stoicism can be described as follows: Stoicism is a monistic religious philosophy that posits as the ultimate reality, God or the Word (Logos) or World-Soul, which is to be identified with the primal fire of the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus (c.500 bc). The world is of the same substance as the Stoic God, which emanates the elements of the world and the world itself. The world is strictly subject to determinism, and the actions of men are strictly determined. However, having freedom of consciousness, men are able, if they wish, to submit to the dictates of Fate, and that is the goal of the Stoic. The world returns to the primal fire of the World-Soul in a cosmic conflagration, after which the World-Soul again emanates the elements of the world and the world itself. This cycle of world creation and world conflagration exists eternally towards the past and towards the future, each world thus created and annihilated being an exact duplicate of all the others, and including exactly the same actions of exactly the same men who are engendered in each creation cycle. We ourselves wonder whether this continual cycle of creation and annihilation of exactly the same world is not to be understood so much serially, as positing an ontological simultaneity of the creation and destruction of the one world, so that all phases of the creation and destruction of the one world would exist simultaneously in an ontological hierarchy. P. P. Hallie in his article on Stoicism in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy remarks: ‘For the Stoics, things do not happen in time; time is a dimension of things.’[1] We are not sure what that means, but perhaps it is an indication that the succession of identical worlds is not to be taken in our own modern sense, serially.

In Stoicism, men have a soul, of a material nature. The ruling part of man (hegemonikon) is a part of the World-Soul; therefore it is itself of the same nature as the Stoic God, fire. After death, man’s soul survives[2] until the next cosmic conflagration, at which time it is resorbed into the fire of the conflagration, when all things again return to the primal fire of the World-Soul.

The goal of man is to live according to Nature. This is not to be taken, as we might take it today, as living in a forest, since the Nature involved is precisely the World-Soul itself. Another way of putting the goal is to live according to Reason: Reason and Nature are synonymous with God, the World-Soul.

The Stoics developed a concept of ‘natural law’. This concept is precisely the concept of living according to Reason or the World-Soul. Connected to this concept is the concept of doing one’s duty (kathekon), which is not to be understood in our sense of ‘duty’, but as ‘what is right, proper or fitting’.

The concept of natural law is also found in St Paul:

For when the nations, those who do not have the [Mosaic] Law, by nature do those things of [i.e. required by] the Law, these who do not have the Law are the Law in themselves, who show written in their hearts the work of the Law, their conscience together bearing witness and the [i.e. their] thoughts among themselves condemning or justifying [them] in the day when God judges the secrets of men through Jesus Christ according to my Gospel.[3]

While there is obviously very little similarity between St Paul’s Gospel and Stoicism, we wonder whether St Paul’s reference to the natural law in this passage of Romans does not have some connection to the Stoic concept of natural law that was in the air in the epoch when he preached. The Pauline concept of natural law entered of course into Orthodoxy, and can easily be found in St John Chrysostom’s commentaries on Romans.[4] Moreover, as we shall see in Chapter IV, the Roman Catholic Church relies very heavily on the concept of natural law in its doctrine of man, especially in the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas, perhaps developing the concept of natural law in a far more intensive manner than the Orthodox Church, and moreover reducing the concept to a conformance with reason.

Be that as it may, the Stoic concept is a concept of living, or law, according to the dictates of the World-Soul, who is also Reason or the Logos. Hence, the Stoics had a great interest in logic, and made significant contributions to formal logic, and in a form different from the Aristotelian syllogism.

There are several other Stoic concepts that must interest us. The Stoics’ had a theory of cognition that was essentially empiricist; they spoke of the ‘representation’ of the object which ‘imprinted’ the mind; this imprint was either accepted or rejected according to the judgement of the man receiving the imprint. The Stoic psychology of cognition continues with the stages of ‘comprehension’ and ‘science’. Evagrius Pontikos adopted at least the terminology of ‘representation’ and ‘imprinting’ on the mind; he placed it in the context of an ascetical psychology which seeks to surpass the imprintings of sensible objects, so that the mind might attain to the imprintings of intelligible objects and ultimately to the imprinting that comes from God himself. This clearly is the putting of the initial Stoic psychological analysis into the framework of a Platonizing ascetical psychology. This matter forms a major topic in Volume II and it also forms the basis of the Hesychasm of St Hesychios that we discuss in Volume III.

The Stoics had a concept of ‘passion (pathos)’. They recognized four passions: pleasure, desire, sorrow and fear. St Augustine of Hippo (354–430), as we shall see in Chapter IV, has a similar doctrine of the four passions, one which he bequeathed to St Thomas Aquinas. For the Stoics, the passions were negative and to be eradicated. Evagrius adopts the concept of passion but his typology includes eight primary passions, and his analysis, as we shall learn in Volume II, is very subtle: here he seems to have surpassed the Stoics.

The Stoics also had a concept of ‘dispassion (apatheia)’, and, indeed, the concept seems originally to derive from them. We have been unable to judge from the secondary sources that we have consulted on Stoicism[5] just what the Stoic concept of dispassion really was. Western sources are often very weak on such matters, tending to treat the concept as one of ‘apathy’, which we understand to be a pathological absence of affect.

Evagrius also adopts into his system the concept of dispassion (apatheia), but with Evagrius this is clearly the purification of the man from the tendencies to sin that he finds in himself, not a pathological condition of affectlessness. In Evagrius, the attainment to a state of dispassion is correlated with the acquisition of virtue and with the entry into the contemplation.

An article, ‘Apatheia’, by G. Bardy in the Roman Catholic Dictionnaire de Spiritualité,[6] indicates that the Stoic concept of dispassion (apatheia) was of a complete freedom from the four (Stoic) passions, this leading to a freedom to practise one’s kathekon (to do what is right, fitting or proper), to live in accordance with the dictates of Reason or the World-Soul and to be indifferent to the vicissitudes of life: ‘The true sage must therefore deliver himself from the passions, remain calm in the face of adversity and establish within himself a state of peace which nothing can disturb.’[7]

The Stoics also had a concept of virtue, for them very important. A significant parallel between the Stoic concept of virtue and the Evagrian concept of virtue is precisely that virtue is one although it has many names. For the Stoics, the four cardinal virtues were prudence (phronesis), courage (andreia), continence (enkrateia) and justice (dikaiosune). Evagrius makes use of this schema, as does St Augustine; however this schema of the virtues is already to be found in Plato’s Republic. The Stoics viewed the matter like this: either one had virtue, all of it, or one had none. Evagrius does not adopt precisely this position.

Although we have not been able to learn much about it from our secondary sources, the Stoics also had a concept and practice of asceticism. However, again, an article in the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, ‘Ascèse, Ascétisme’ by M. Olphe-Galliard,[8] helps us to understand the outlines of Stoic asceticism. The function of ascesis in the Stoic system was to regulate the choice and use by the man of things which were neither good nor bad in themselves. This required the use of discernment, which is something that could be taught to a man; and asceticism was the training of the judgement or discernment of the man. Hence, the thrust of Stoic asceticism was in the training of the inner man: the Stoic ascetic applied the ‘rule’ of discernment to all that he saw, to all that affected him emotionally whether for good or for ill. This was the ascesis proper to the soul, distinguished from the ascesis of the body, which was based on gymnastics and bodily endurance, although that bodily ascesis was indeed considered to have a positive effect on the soul. The goal of the ascesis of the soul was that the man judge things in their reality: this was the discernment that could be taught. This ascesis of the soul reached the stage of the training of the man’s very thought processes. There was also an emphasis on continence and moderation in one’s way of life, a de-emphasis on learnedness. This asceticism was to produce constancy, equanamity, an abiding moral rectitude and an impassibility in adversity. While there is not much that this sort of asceticism has in common with the asceticism of Evagrius Pontikos or of the other authors we shall study, the emphasis of the Stoics on training the thought processes is interesting, for we shall see that a very important part of Evagrian asceticism is concerned with the thought processes of the ascetic. Moreover, there is a similarity in the emphasis on moral rectitude.

To continue, the Stoics had a concept of the spermatikoi logoi of things in the world. Fr Copleston remarks that this appears to be the injection of the Platonic forms into Stoic materialism.[9] These spermatikoi logoi constitute the perfect exemplars of each thing in the world and are contained in the Logos or World-Soul. As Fr Copleston puts it:

These active forms—but material—are as it were ‘seeds’, through the activity of which individual things come into being as the world develops; or rather they are the seeds which unfold themselves in the forms of individual things.’[10]

Fr Copleston continues that the concept is also to be found in Neoplatonism. This is important, for it seems to us that the spermatikoi logoi of the Stoics are in Evagrius the objects of contemplation known as the reasons (logoi) of created things. We do not know whether Evagrius took the concept directly from the Stoics or through the medium of the Neoplatonists or otherwise. St Augustine takes the concept of the eternal reasons (logoi) in the Mind of God from the Neoplatonists, but, as we shall see in Chapter IV, his concept is somewhat different from that of Evagrius: possibly Evagrius was influenced on the matter both by the Neoplatonists and by the Stoics, or even by others.

In their ethics, the Stoics viewed moral culpability strictly on the basis of the disposition of the man who committed the act. The various acts themselves they viewed as being, in and of themselves, morally neutral. This is consistent with the Stoics’ notion that a man’s acts are determined, although his conscious attitude towards his acts is free.

The Stoics had a concept of the sage. The sage is the man who has acquired dispassion and virtue and who lives in accordance with the World-Soul or Reason. Such sages were quite rare if they were to be found at all. Evagrius has a similar concept: it is the concept of the ‘gnostic’, the man who has attained to dispassion, who has entered into the first stage of contemplation, the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of created things, and who has undertaken to teach others. The similarity of Evagrius to the Stoics in this matter, as in the other matters discussed above, appears at least in part to reflect Evagrius’ own dependence on Clement of Alexandria (c.150–c.215), who himself was directly influenced by the Stoics, and, again in part, also to reflect Evagrius’ dependence on his master, St Gregory the Theologian, who also was influenced by Stoicism.

Finally, in middle Stoicism, the Stoic teacher Poseidonius (c.135–51 bc) introduced the idea of man as the bond between the infralunar world, the earthly and perishable world, and the supralunar world, the heavenly and imperishable world.[11] Composed of body and spirit, man stands at the border of the two worlds, being the highest element of the perishable infralunar world and the lowest element of the imperishable supralunar world. Moreover, man’s knowledge includes the knowledge of the infralunar world and the knowledge of the supralunar world and therefore binds the two worlds together. This concept of man as the connecting link between the material and the spiritual worlds is also to be found in the works of St Gregory the Theologian. Moreover, this position of middle Stoicism seems very close to St Maximos the Confessor’s (580–662) own doctrine of the ‘cosmic liturgy’ of man, wherein the vocation of man is to act as the connecting link between the material and spiritual worlds and as the focal point for the divinization (theosis) of all creation. We will see these things in Chapter V, below, where we will see that even St John of Damascus (680?–789?) has an echo of the doctrine of man as a connecting link between the material and spiritual worlds.

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[1] Encyclopedia Volume 8, p. 21.

[2] This appears to be a doctrine which varied among Stoics in time and perhaps place.

[3] Rom. 2, 14–16.

[4] Chr–Rom G.

[5] Encyclopedia and Copleston.

[6] Dictionnaire Volume I, cols. 727 ff.

[7] Ibid. col. 727.

[8] Dictionnaire Volume I, cols. 936 ff. Section: ‘Le Stoïcisme’, cols. 953­­–7.

[9] Copleston Volume I, p. 388.

[10] Ibid. p. 389.

[11] See Copleston Volume I, p. 423.


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