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Chapter II -- 6

As many things, however, as lie on a boundary and which have a tendency towards either of the opposed extremes according to the nature of each, such as anger or fear or another of these sorts of movements in the soul without which it is impossible to view human nature, of which things the use in a certain fashion either towards the good or towards the opposite brings about the outcome—we reckon that these things came from without to be incident to the soul, for the reason that no character at all of this sort is to be contemplated in the Archetypal Beauty.

St Macrina makes two important points. The first is that those tendencies without which one cannot view human nature, those, that is, which are connected with the passions, lie on a boundary between extremes—this is the Aristotelian or even Platonic analysis of virtue as a mean between two extremes—and it is the use of these things which guides the outcome. For the ascetic this is important: he is always faced with moral choice. It is not enough to say: I am a spiritual man; whatever I do is correct.[1] There is a danger here that enamoured of the beauty of natural contemplation we begin to ignore the moral law of God, not only in the obvious way, but also to indulge our anger, our carelessness, our insouciance, our tendency to be dishonest, to lie, to cheat, to steal—even if in the obvious moral quality of a monk, chastity, we are blameless. This is the first thing.

The second is that these things are considered to be incidental to the soul, to come from without (in the sense of not being of the true nature of the soul) since they are not to be contemplated in the archetypal beauty of Adam and Eve before the Fall, or, more exactly, in the archetypal beauty of God himself, the Archetype. We have already seen this second point and have already discussed the ambiguity of St Macrina’s presentation. Here, she again seems to be saying that those very impulses which can be used either for virtue or for vice are foreign to the nature of man, not just the tendencies which are contrary to nature.

This second point is of fundamental significance to the Protestant who is considering Orthodoxy, either as a potential convert or as an ecumenist or scholar. There is a radical divergence here in the understanding of human nature between Orthodoxy and Protestantism. The full significance of Luther’s rejection of monkery and of his adoption of a doctrine of imputed justification on the basis of an act of faith, as is found among American Evangelicals even in our own day, is found here, as is the anthropological significance of the doctrine of the eternal pre-election of the saved in Calvin’s system. For according to the Apostle, the Christian is called to ‘work out his salvation in fear and trembling’.[2] What this means, however, as a soteriological doctrine depends on how one understands the passions ‘without which human nature is not to be contemplated’. And what we are saying is that the Protestant understanding is different from the Orthodox understanding of these matters.

St Macrina insists that the passions are not part of human nature, that they were not part of the archetypal beauty of Adam and Eve in Paradise. Moreover, in a step about which we ourselves have reservations, she goes further and says that the impulses involved, even when viewed as impulses according to nature, as virtues, were not part of the archetypal beauty of Adam and Eve in Paradise.

The significance of this can be seen by comparing the Greek Patristic doctrine of relations between man and woman—here about to be explained theoretically by St Macrina—with John Milton’s doctrine of relations between Adam and Eve in Paradise before the Fall, as Milton portrays them in Paradise Lost. There is a difference in understanding here as to what is intrinsic to human nature. Unless he grasps this fundamental point, the non-Orthodox would be well-advised to avoid the Philokalia. He will get lost. For the Philokalia is not a manual of yoga, but a doctrine of the purification of the soul from precisely those passions ‘which lie on a boundary and which have a tendency to each of the opposed extremes’—in this commentary taken by us to be the negative passions, the tendencies contrary to nature of the parts of the soul, the tendencies to vice.

What is in question is what it means to work out your salvation in fear and trembling. For the Orthodox, the ideal is the monk, the one who has begun to work out his salvation by working to restore himself to the archetypal beauty of Adam and Eve in Paradise before the Fall.

This effort to restore oneself to the archetypal beauty involves continual moral decision-making. It is not a matter of a little contemplation and doing whatever we please. Moreover, here there is involved a profound doctrine of the virtues—their nature—and of their acquisition. Life is a struggle; and the life of the monk the greatest struggle: to restore himself to the archetypal beauty of Adam. This is not to deny the role of grace. We do nothing—nothing—unless God loves us and gives us his grace in Jesus Christ. But we struggle in the hope of divine assistance: ‘Ignoring, then, what is behind and being extended in what is before, with a goal in mind I pursue the award of the higher call of God in Jesus Christ.’[3] For us Orthodox, this is the ‘higher call of God in Jesus Christ’: to restore the image and likeness of God in ourselves. The Jesus Prayer is prayed within this framework by the understanding monk and Orthodox layman (we are not suggesting that the Jesus Prayer is only for celibate monks). Let us now continue with St Macrina’s further development:

Let the discussion concerning these things be for us, in the meantime, as in the gymnasium, so that it might escape the abuse of those who listen calumniously.

We prefer Terrieux’ interpretation of this line, that ‘as in the gymnasium’ means ‘with great precision’,[4] not Moore’s interpretation, that the phrase means ‘hypothetically’.[5]

The account [in Genesis] narrates that the Divine made a start on the making of man with a certain road and sequence of order. After the universe was framed, as the [Sacred] History says, man did not directly come into being on the earth, but the nature of the irrational living beings [i.e. the animals] preceded him; and the plants preceded the animals. The account, I think, shows by means of these things that the enlivening force was mixed up into the bodily nature with a certain sequence, first entering into the beings without sense organs, after that advancing to the perceptive, and thus then ascending to the mental (noeron) and rational (logikon).

The living beings without sense organs are the plants; with sense-perception but without mind (nous) and reason are the irrational animals; with sense-perception and mind (nous) and reason is man alone on the face of the earth. St Macrina is saying that life entered into the material creation in that order.

St Macrina is here adapting Aristotle to the Genesis narrative. For these categories of living beings—the vegetative, the animal or perceptive, and the rational—are precisely Aristotle’s categories of soul.[6]

Therefore, of existent things altogether, there is the bodily on the one hand and the mental (noeron) on the other.

We must stop here. This is extremely important to understand. St Macrina is asserting here that among all existent or created things, some are bodily and some are mental (noeros) and that this is an exhaustive and complete listing of created beings.

As we have already pointed out, ‘mental (noeros)’ means ‘possessing mind’ and is often translated ‘spiritual’. Hence, St Macrina is dividing creation into the bodily and the spiritual. St Basil the Great in the Hexaemeron construes the first line of Genesis (‘In the beginning God made the Heavens and the Earth…’) to refer to these two creations: ‘the Heavens and the Earth’ are the spiritual creation and the bodily creation respectively: the angels, on the one hand, and the creation of which man is a part on the other. In his Confessions, St Augustine accepts the double creation but says that Scripture is silent about the spiritual creation: for him ‘the Heavens and the Earth’ of the first line of Genesis refers to the material, bodily creation: the stars and the earth.[7]

What is at issue here is the existence of a spiritual creation—the angels and, after their fall, the demons.[8] Since the Enlightenment, Western philosophy has been materialistic in its orientation, accepting the existence only of a material, sensible world subject to the laws of scientific investigation. St Macrina and the Orthodox Church accept the existence of a spiritual world which is apprehended intelligibly and not with the senses, and which therefore is not subject to investigation by the means of modern science.

This spiritual world, however, is not to be confused with the Platonic world of Ideas, which is a world of intelligibles which are not spiritual beings. What is the difference? The word translated ‘spiritual’—noeros—conveys the idea that these spiritual beings—the angels—have mind (nous). They can think, judge, decide, and act.

Of the bodily, the one is without soul; the other possesses soul. I say, then, that ‘possesses soul’ means ‘that which participates in life’.

St Macrina is bifurcating reality with successive bifurcations, following Aristotle. The first bifurcation was into the spiritual and the bodily. St Macrina then leaves the spiritual aside and turns to the bodily. The second bifurcation is of the bodily into the lifeless (the stones, the wind, the rain and so on) and those things which participate in life (all living things on the face of the earth).

Of living things, some live together with sense-perception; the others are without experience of this.

This is the next bifurcation, of the living things into those which have sense-perception (the animals) and those which do not (plants and such-like).

Again, of those things which have sense-perception, some are rational; the others lack reason.

This bifurcation of animals, all of which have sense-perception, into those which have reason (man) and those which do not (all other animals) is fundamental to the Orthodox conception of man and the animals. Until recently, it was fundamental to the Western philosophical conception of man and the animals.[9]

Since, therefore, life which had sense-perception would not have been constituted without matter, neither would the life which had mind (to noeron) have otherwise come to be in the body, if not implanted in the perceptive. On account of this, the making of man is narrated last, as containing in itself all the idea of the life which is contemplated in the plants and in the irrational animals.

St Macrina is saying that every branch of this tree constructed by successive bifurcations contains the preceding stages of its pedigree. Man is a rational perceptive living body and he must contain all the preceding stages of his pedigree. St Macrina refers explicitly to the perceptive and to the vegetative. Implicitly, she also refers to the fact that man is not a bodiless creature having mind (noeros): man is not an angel. Since angels do not have man’s pedigree—they diverged at the first, the bodiless – bodily, bifurcation—they are exempt from body, vegetative life and sense-perception. Angels know many things, but not by sense-perception.

So man has a logical pedigree: bodily, living (i.e. having vegetative life), having sense-perception, having mind (nous).

The reader will recall that we criticized St Macrina’s earlier argument that ‘mental (noeros)’ was the essential characteristic of man, saying ourselves that her argument was most likely fallacious from a Platonic or Aristotelian point of view. Here, St Macrina is presenting the correct Platonic or Aristotelian argument: each bifurcation is a bifurcation of genus, and the attributes of the genus continue to be attributes of the species. Here, the generic attributes—bodily (material), living (having vegetative life), having sense-perception—continue to apply to man as a bodily species characterized uniquely by the possession of mind (nous). Angels belong to a completely different genus than man, the bodiless intelligences.

From the vegetative life, Man has the capacity of being nourished and increasing, for one can see this sort of thing in the plants also, the nourishment being drawn in by means of the roots and being completed by means of the fruits and the leaves. On the other hand, from the irrational animals man has the capacity of being regulated according to sense-perception. The intellectual and the rational [power], however, is unmixed and a peculiar property of man’s nature contemplated in itself.

But just as the nature [of man] has the capacity to attract those things which are necessary to material life—which very thing when it occurs in us is called appetite; we say that this is of the vegetative type of life, since it is to be seen also in the plants, as for example certain impulses naturally operating in the plants in being filled with what is fitting and in ripening for the sake of generation—thus, as many things also as are properties of the irrational nature were mixed up with the mental power (noero) of the soul. Of those things, she said, are anger; of those things, fear; of those things, all the other things, as many as operate in us according to opposites, except the rational and intellectual power, which very thing alone of our life is exceptional, having in itself, as has been said, the representation of the Divine Character. But since it is not possible, according to the reason adduced beforehand, for the rational power to come to be in bodily life in any other way if it does not come to be by means of the senses, and if sense-perception subsisted beforehand in the nature of the irrational animals, necessarily, by means of sense-perception and in relation to those things which are joined together with it [i.e. the impulses which lie on a boundary between two opposites], the association of our soul comes to be. These things are as many things as are called passions (pathe) when they come to be in us—which things have not, by any means, together filled up human life towards some evil (for truly the Creator would have responsibility for the vices if from those facts the [causes] of the trespasses were necessities which had been laid down together with nature—but by the use of a certain kind of deliberate choice, the movements of the soul of these sorts become the tools either of virtue or of vice, just as the iron, being moulded according to the judgement of the artisan towards whatever the consideration of him who is executing the work should wish, is also shaped according to this design, becoming either a sword or some agricultural implement.

For Christian psychology, this passage is extremely important, if somewhat difficult to understand.

Let us start from the beginning. The basic principle is this: We bifurcate created things first into bodily and bodiless (spiritual, angelic) creatures. We leave the angels aside and look at the bodily creatures and again bifurcate, this time into lifeless and having life. But since we have bifurcated the bodily creatures, this means that both the lifeless and living have material bodies. We have left the angels aside; we are dealing with the material creation. On the Platonic and Aristotelian principle that one retains the characteristics of one’s antecedents in one’s logical pedigree, this means that we are dealing only with material creatures. Some material creatures have life; some do not. We leave the lifeless aside. We again bifurcate, this time the living material creatures. We again get two classes: those living material creatures which have sense-perception and those which do not. Those which have sense-perception we call animals; those which do not (in this bifurcation of living material creatures) we call plants. But on the principle that one retains the characteristics of one’s antecedents in his pedigree, the animals still have vegetative life. We again leave aside the living material creatures without sense-perception (the plants) and bifurcate the animals (which have sense-perception). Here we get the animals with mind (man) and the animals without (all the others). Now we can discuss what St Macrina is trying to say.

‘Man has [the capacity of] being nourished and increasing from the vegetative life.’: In Aristotelian psychology, being nourished and growing larger are vegetative functions. St Macrina remarks that we see that plants draw in nourishment through their roots and complete the processing of that nourishment in their leaves and fruit. Man does these same things—without leaves and fruit, surely. This is a level of analysis similar to that of the molecular biology of the cell. On the principle of the logical pedigree that we outlined above, man has these nutritive functions because of his vegetative nature.

On the other hand, the capacity of being regulated according to sense-perception—that is, the fact that man has sense-perception—man has from the irrational animals. ‘Irrational’ here means ‘without speech’, and, by implication, ‘without mind (nous)’. In his pedigree, man passes not only through the plants but also through the animals without speech, those that have, however, sense-perception. This sounds like evolution. It is Aristotle. Darwin acknowledged a debt to Aristotle.

However, the intellectual and rational capacity properly belongs to man; he alone among material creatures has it. This capacity is what makes man, man. Here we must take ‘intellectual’ to mean ‘having mind (nous)’ and ‘rational’, which literally means ‘having speech’, to be pleonastic.

Now St Macrina proceeds to repeat the pedigree of man. The capacity to attract those things which are necessary to material life is a feature of the vegetative life. St Macrina implies that this capacity requires material existence (the pedigree again); she also observes that the same attraction when found in man is called appetite, but that it is a feature properly of vegetative life since we see in the plants certain impulses naturally operating towards their being filled with what is fitting and in the ripening of their fruit for the sake of generation. This is a level at which modern biology has made great strides in the comprehension of life.

Now St Macrina proceeds to make the point she has been leading up to. Man has a vegetative nature; he also has an animal nature since his pedigree takes him through the animals, which have sense-perception. Hence, man also has whatever things are properties of the animals which have sense-perception—anger, fear, and all those things which work by opposites according to the ethical schema of virtue as a mean between two extremes, an excess and a deficiency of a naturally occurring impulse. However, man also has the rational and intellectual power, which power man alone has and in which resides the representation or image of the Divine Character, the image of God, which man alone has among the bodily creatures. (Recall the three attributes of the mind (nous) which preserved the image of God in man: the contemplative, the discriminative of the good from the worse and the contemplative of existent things.)

Now St Macrina makes a very important assertion. If, for the reasons already given, it is not possible for the rational power (mind or nous) to come to be in bodily life unless it comes to be by means of sense-perception—this is the principle of retaining the previous stages of one’s logical pedigree—and if sense-perception existed beforehand in the nature of the irrational animals, then necessarily the constitution of the human soul, which is primarily mental (noeros), is effected on the basis of both sense-perception and those things which are joined together with sense-perception in the irrational animals, namely the impulses which lie on a boundary between two extremes. To be able to be a mind (nous) in a material body, man has to have the life of sense-perception that he shares with the irrational animals. That life of sense-perception brings with it to man all those other things which are joined together with sense-perception in the irrational animals, those things which in man lie on a boundary between two extremes and which come to be called passions (pathe) when they are seen in operation in man. Although St Macrina passes it over in silence, it is equally true that to have the life of sense-perception in a body, man has to have the vegetative life.

Now St Macrina makes an important statement about the nature of the passions (pathe). They are not intrinsically evil. They ‘have not, by any means, together filled up human life towards some evil.’ For, otherwise, if, from the reasons given, the causes of our moral trespasses were necessities that had been laid down together with nature—if moral evil were due purely and simply to what we took from the irrational animals when we took up sense-perception—then God himself would have the responsibility for the evil that man does since he it is who created man with sense-perception and the passions—clearly an unacceptable alternative. But by the use of a certain kind of deliberate choice, the impulses of the soul that man took up from the irrational animals along with sense-perception become the tools either of virtue or of vice. That is, yes, man has these impulses. But it is what he does with them that makes those impulses either virtuous or vicious. This is fundamental to our approach to the psychological basis of mental prayer in the heart: the ascetic is engaged in a battle to make use of these impulses for virtue and to avoid making use of them for vice. However, this psychology is relevant to all Christians, not only to tonsured monks. Every Christian is called after Baptism to this struggle. That is why we commented several times that the anthropology that one adopts has a pervasive influence on his soteriology. Here, we see that the Orthodox Christian has a certain understanding of the passions, or, better, of the ‘animal impulses’. He sees them not as determinative in themselves of his behaviour—forces over which he has no control, forces which determine his conduct in a fatalistic way—but as drives which, according to his conscious deliberate choice he can turn to good or to evil. Moreover, as a Christian he is called to exercise his conscious deliberate choice in a manner consistent with his Christian vocation; the monk who practises mental prayer in the heart is merely a Christian who has dedicated himself completely and unreservedly to the Christian project of working out his salvation ‘in fear and trembling’.[10]

However, there is a structural problem in the way that St Macrina has adapted Aristotle here. Aristotle did not have a Christian cosmology, and his view that the passions are neutral, their goodness or badness depending on the deliberate choice of the person who has them, is based on his own more naturalistic cosmology. An indication of the sort of problem that arises can be seen in the fact that St Thomas Aquinas, as we shall see in Chapter IV, modifies Aristotle here: some passions, for example envy, are intrinsically vicious, whereas other passions, for example modesty, are intrinsically virtuous. The problem here is the Christian notion of the condition of Adam and Eve in Paradise before the Fall, the Fall and Adam and Eve’s condition after the Fall. While the psychological insight of Aristotle concerning the role of deliberate choice in moral behaviour is important in Christian moral psychology, his moral psychology must be modified to be adapted to a Christian cosmology. This St Macrina does not do here. What must be taken into account is the operation of the parts of the soul according to nature before the Fall and their tendency to operate contrary to nature after the Fall. These are not Aristotelian concepts.

To go on, St Macrina then uses the example of the artisan who moulds a piece of iron. By conscious, deliberate choice, the artisan decides what he wishes to make, and moulds the iron accordingly, making it either a sword or an agricultural implement. Similarly, each Christian is always faced with the choice: what am I going to make of myself—of these impulses which I find in myself—in the present concrete situation in which I now find myself? Sometimes the struggle can be very intense indeed, the more so for the monk. However, it is important to understand that this is the foundation for all Christians not only of the life in Christ but also of the spirituality of the Philokalia. It is also important to understand that both the monk and the lay Christian await and ask the grace of God to do the will of God and to make what God wants of the impulses that are to be found in them in the current concrete situation. This is the foundation of cœnobitical asceticism. An attempt to pray the Jesus Prayer would be fraught with peril did it diverge from this understanding.

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[1] Evagrius will say this about the perfect.

[2] Phil. 2, 12.

[3] Phil. 3, 14.

[4] Soul F.

[5] NF 2, V.

[6] Arist–Soul.

[7] However, Fr Copleston writes that St Augustine treated the ‘Fiat lux,’ of Gen. 1, 3 as referring to the angelic creation (Copleston Volume II, p. 274).

[8] ‘I saw Satan fallen like lightning from Heaven.’ (Luke 10, 18.)

[9] See the discussion in Chapter I, above, of questions raised today by a Western philosopher whether a man has any more right to life than a dog.

[10] Phil. 2, 12.


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