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Chapter III -- 1

III The Cosmology of Evagrius Pontikos

The cosmology of Evagrius Pontikos was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod in 553. It therefore has no interest to us from the point of view of an Orthodox anthropology. However, although Evagrius was himself condemned, along with the cosmological theories he seems to have been responsible for formulating in their final form, his ascetical psychology, based in part on that of Clement of Alexandria (c.150–c.215), has always exerted a very great influence in Christianity, whether in East or in West. A discussion of Evagrius’ cosmology will enable us to understand more clearly his ascetical psychology, with which we shall be dealing in detail in our second volume, The Evagrian Ascetical System. Moreover, a discussion of Evagrius’ condemned cosmology, which includes his anthropology, will enable us to refine and clarify by contrast certain aspects of our own Orthodox anthropology.

The main, and certainly the most elaborate and polished, work of Evagrius as regards his heretical cosmological theories is the Kephalaia Gnostica, or the Gnostic Chapters. This work is a set of six centuries of short, obscure paragraphs—chapters—which span Evagrius’ cosmological theories, his anthropology and his theories of asceticism and contemplation. However, perhaps intentionally, the chapters do not follow one another in serial thematic order: chains of chapters on different topics are interwoven and the chapters do not follow a developmental sequence within a topical chain, with the result that it is difficult for the reader to grasp Evagrius’ train of thought on any one topic without a great effort to disentangle the topical chains and to establish their internal thematic order. In this effort at obscurity, Evagrius may have been influenced by the similar effort at obscurity, achieved in much the same way, of Clement of Alexandria in the Stromateis.[1]

Moreover, the Greek original of the Kephalaia Gnostica appears to have been lost, and all that remains of the work are two different Syriac translations, one of which, the version commune (S1), which exists in several manuscripts, appears to be a bowdlerized version of the Kephalaia Gnostica, and the other of which, the version intégrale (S2), which exists in one manuscript alone, appears to be an authentic translation of the lost original.[2] We have translated into English the French translation of the Syriac of the version intégrale (S2)[3] and are here working from that English translation.[4] The reader should be aware, however, that we have not consulted the Syriac versions. Hence, the English text that we are dealing with is the English translation of the French translation of the Syriac translation of a lost Greek original. With such a long chain of translations, there is bound to be error. This is especially evident when questions of subtle differences in Evagrius’ terminology arise: it is never clear whether a slight difference in terminology reflects a nuance in Evagrius’ own thinking or is merely an artefact of the chain of transmission and translation.

We have provided the full text of our English translation of the Kephalaia Gnostica in Appendix 2 of Volume II, The Evagrian Ascetical System.

Evagrius refers to the Kephalaia Gnostica in his Letter to Anatolios, which in the manuscript tradition forms the preface to the Treatise on the Practical Life, itself presented and discussed in Volume II. The Kephalaia Gnostica is intended as part of a trilogy comprised of the Treatise on the Practical Life, The Gnostic, and the Kephalaia Gnostica. As Evagrius himself says in the letter:

Concerning, then, the practical life and the gnostic life, we are now going to narrate, not as much as we have seen and heard, but as much as we have learned from them [i.e. his gnostic teachers] to say to others, the practical in one hundred chapters, the gnostic life divided into fifty in addition to six hundred chapters passing through in an abridged fashion; and we have hidden certain things and obscured others, so as ‘not to give holy things to dogs and not to cast our pearls before swine’ [cf. Matt. 7, 6]. These things, however, will be clear to those who have followed in the same track as they [i.e. his gnostic teachers].[5]

In fact, the Kephalaia Gnostica is a classic of the genre of the deliberately obscure mystical treatise. To begin with, each century has only ninety, and not one hundred, chapters, as the word ‘century’ would lead us to expect. As can be seen from the quotation, this seems to have been intentional: Evagrius is announcing that he is hiding certain things.

It is well to remark that Evagrius is not a ‘gnostic’ in the sense of the gnostic movements and heresies which bedevilled Christianity in the first centuries of its existence and which were battled against by St John the Evangelist in his first epistle and by St Irenæus of Lyons (c.130–c.200). ‘Gnostic’ has a different sense with Evagrius, one which he appears to have taken from the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria: Clement uses the term to contrapose a Christian gnosis to the gnosis preached by the heretical gnostic movements prevalent in Alexandria in his day.

Given the deliberately obscure nature of the Kephalaia Gnostica, it is difficult to present a clear summary of its doctrine. We have benefited from the use of the cut-and-paste facilities of a common word-processing program to separate the 540 chapters that exist of the Kephalaia Gnostica into thematic groups, and then to rearrange the chapters within those groups. The program did not provide us with the themes for the thematic groups, nor did it provide us with the criteria for inclusion in or exclusion from one group or another, nor did it provide us with the criteria for the internal rearrangement of the groups; it merely allowed us, once we had entered the text of our translation into the machine, the possibility of doing, in a few tedious days, a very tedious cut-and-paste job that otherwise would have required a year to do. Needless to say, another person doing the same job would have come up with different thematic groups, different criteria for inclusion or exclusion, and a different internal rearrangement of each group. Human judgement enters into such an affair inextricably. However, we had read and translated the Kephalaia Gnostica before commencing the operation.

Moreover, we did not use the computer to scan the text mechanically for certain key-words as a criterion for inclusion in or exclusion from a thematic group. Given that the Greek original appears to have been lost and that we are working from a third-generation translation, such a procedure, even if it could be justified intellectually, would be of very doubtful utility: one of the problems in understanding the Kephalaia Gnostica is precisely to discern where variations in terminology are due to Evagrius and where they are due to problems in transmission and translation.

We read each chapter and made an evaluation as to what the point of the chapter was. That was not always easy and the reader may not always be happy with our arrangement. Moreover, clearly, some chapters fit into two or more thematic groups equally well. This procedure was facilitated by the brevity of the chapters, which for the most part are highly focused and contain the expression of a single thought or idea, but there is no getting round the obscurity of Evagrius: some of the chapters eluded us, especially concerning eschatology.

Finally, for the purposes of this study, we ignored almost entirely the numerous chapters of the Kephalaia Gnostica which are devoted to allegorical interpretations of terms of Scripture and to definitions of a similar nature. They were not germane to the matter at hand.[6]

We had also read and greatly profited from Antoine Guillaumont’s study of the Kephalaia Gnostica, Les ‘Képhalaia Gnostica’ d’Évagre le Pontique.[7] Although our presentation of Evagrius’ doctrine does not depend on Professor Guillaumont’s conclusions, we agree with Professor Guillaumont in general, especially as concerns the legitimacy of what he calls the version intégrale (S2) over the version commune (S1) of the Kephalaia Gnostica. The reader is cordially directed to Professor Guillaumont’s study for further details. He is also cordially directed to a very good introduction by Professor Guillaumont to Evagrius Pontikos: ‘Un philosophe au désert: Évagre le Pontique’.[8]

In presenting this summary of Evagrius’ doctrine in the Kephalaia Gnostica, we are motivated by our wish to clarify certain concepts so as better to understand what Evagrius intends to say in his ascetical works, since we will deal with his ascetical doctrines in Volume II. However, we also wish to present Evagrius’ cosmological doctrines with a view to their use by contrast to the Orthodox doctrine of the person, so as to clarify further that doctrine, essentially by reference to On the Making of Man by St Gregory of Nyssa.

It might be wondered, given that Evagrius Pontikos is a condemned heretic, why we should want to bother with him at all. For what could be the profit in such an exercise? However, as we have already remarked, although his cosmological doctrines were condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod in 553, Evagrius’ ascetical doctrines have not only never been condemned but have exerted an immense influence on Christian asceticism in both East and West. This, as we shall see, is especially true in the case of the Philokalia. Hence, we are attempting to do what St John the Prophet, the fellow ascetic and disciple of St Barsanuphios (fl. 1st half of 6th C.), counsels in his answer to Question 602, to separate the good fish from the bad:

Question 602

Question of the same person: Must we therefore not read the works of Evagrius?

Answer of John: Do not accept the dogmas of that sort. If you wish, however, read his works that are for the benefit of the soul, according to the parable of the net in the Gospel, as it has been written: ‘…[O]n the one hand, the good [fish] they put into containers; the rotten, on the other hand, they cast out’ (Matt. 13, 48): do you also in the same way.[9]

The reader is cordially directed to Questions 600 through 604 in Barsanuphios on the matter of Evagrius and Origenism.

We will present Evagrius’ cosmological doctrines under the following headings: his doctrine of God, his doctrine of the Movement, his Christology, his cosmology, his doctrine of the minds (noes), his anthropology, his angelology, his demonology and his eschatology. Such extended presentation of Evagrius’ ascetical doctrines as we will make from the Kephalaia Gnostica, we will make in the Digression in Volume II, in the context of Evagrius’ two ascetical works that we there present and analyse in detail.

In the presentation below, parenthetical entries of the form (II, 83) refer to the century and chapter of the Kephalaia Gnostica being presented, here Century II, Chapter 83. A reference in the body of the text to KG II, 83 has the same meaning of course. In the cases that the reference has the form (II, 83—Greek fragment), we have provided our translation not of the French text but of the parallel Greek fragment. These parallel Greek fragments, when provided, are taken from the Greek texts provided in O’Laughlin or Dysinger and are also given in English translation in footnotes to the corresponding chapters of the Kephalaia Gnostica in Appendix 2 of Volume II.

We have not intended to give in this presentation a literal translation of each chapter of the Kephalaia Gnostica, but to give, as we think, the sense of the chapter. Hence, this presentation should be construed as an introduction to the cosmological thought of Evagrius. Readers should refer to Appendix 2 of Volume II for a full English translation of the work.

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[1] Stromateis.

[2] The reader could refer to Guillaumont for details.

[3] PO 28, 1.

[4] KG E.

[5] TPL E ‘Letter to Anatolios’.

[6] However, such chapters retain their rightful places in the translation in Appendix 2 of Volume II.

[7] Guillaumont.

[8] SO 30 pp. 185–212.

[9] Barsanuphios Vol. III, p. 146.


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