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Chapter III -- 15

4 The Evagrian Cosmology

We begin with the more philosophical parts of Evagrius’ cosmology, which for the most part we present without comment, as being of scholarly interest only.

Everything which has been engendered, either is susceptible of an opposition or is constituted of an opposition. But it is not all that is susceptible of an opposition that is also joined with those things that are constituted of an opposition (I, 4).

The principles do not engender and are not engendered, but the mediateness engenders and is engendered (I, 5).

The next two chapters, however, we think are important; we have already discussed them:[1]

Only fire is distinct of the four elements, by reason of that which in it is living (I, 30). One part of the fire is capable of burning and the other incapable of burning; capable of burning is that which burns the sensible matter, and incapable of burning that which is capable of consuming the trouble of those who are troubled. And the first does not burn the whole sensible mass, but the second is capable of burning the whole mass of trouble (III, 39).

The vehicle of gnosis is fire and air; but the vehicle of ignorance, air and water (II, 51). For us, the significance of this passage lies in the relation between gnosis and fire.

Gnosis is not an attribute of bodies; nor are colours attributes of incorporeals; but gnosis is an attribute of incorporeals and colour an accidental attribute of bodies (IV, 84). This is an important statement in Evagrius’ philosophy for it distinguishes between certain aspects of the intelligible order of creation and certain aspects of the sensible order of creation. Gnosis is an attribute of the reasonable nature. This means that only the reasonable nature—the minds (noes)—can attain to gnosis or participate in contemplation. Sensible bodies cannot. Conversely, colour is an attribute that pertains only to the sensible order of creation, and not to the intelligible order. Only sensible bodies of whatever kind, material bodies in general, can have colour. Intelligible bodies—minds (noes)—cannot.

The gnosis which concerns the reasonable nature, the minds (noes), is more ancient than duality, and the knowing nature more ancient than all the natures (II, 19). This gnosis is the gnosis that pertains to the minds (noes)—that is, first natural contemplation, in particular the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of the minds (noes). This gnosis is prior to duality. We are not sure what that means. It seems to mean that before the Movement the minds (noes) did not exist vis à vis God in a state of duality. This is an unusual doctrine, and we originally thought the absence of duality implied that the gnosis being referred to was not first natural contemplation but Theology, the essential gnosis that in the Evagrian system is both the knowledge of and the substance of the Holy Trinity. The sense of the chapter might very well be, however, that since God used the first natural contemplation to create all the minds (noes) in his very first act of creation, then that contemplation—that gnosis—existed before all created natures. The statement that the knowing nature is more ancient than all the natures seems to reflect the doctrine that the minds (noes) had their genesis prior to the Movement, whereas all bodies and all worlds were created after the Movement. Conceivably, the term ‘knowing nature’ might refer to God himself.

The gnosis of the first nature is the spiritual contemplation of which the Creator made use in making only the minds (noes) which are susceptible of his nature (III, 24). We understand this passage to be parallel to the previous passage, with the interpretation we there somewhat hesitantly gave. Here, the interpretation that the gnosis being referred to is first natural contemplation is certain. What Evagrius is here adding over the previous chapter is the notion that from this contemplation only minds (noes) capable of knowing God could have been created. Recall that God himself created the minds (noes) in a single act prior to the Movement; after the Movement, he gave all judgement and creation into the hands of his Christ. Here we see that God himself uses a certain contemplation, the first natural contemplation, to create those minds (noes).

The next chapter elaborates on the notion of the contemplations used in creation:

The first contemplation of nature has sufficed for the genesis of the reasonable nature, and the second suffices also for its conversion (II, 13). The first contemplation of nature is the first natural contemplation, the contemplation of angels—in a broader and more elevated form, the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of the minds (noes). It has sufficed, in a way that Evagrius never explains, for the creation of the minds (noes). The second natural contemplation suffices for the creation of the bodies and worlds after the Movement. The first contemplation was used by God himself to create the minds (noes); the second natural contemplation, by God in his Christ to create the bodies and worlds. That the second natural contemplation should suffice for the conversion of the reasonable nature seems to be based the spiritual transformation accomplished in those who participate in that contemplation.[2]

The importance in the Evagrian cosmology of the three contemplations or gnoses—the essential gnosis which is the substance of the Trinity, the first natural contemplation of the reasonable beings and the second natural contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of created objects—can be seen in Skemmata 1, where they are used to provide a fundamental characterization of the Evagrian Christ:

1 The Christ, in that he is the Christ, has the gnosis which is essential; in that he is the Creator, the reasons (logoi) of the Ages; in that he is bodiless, the reasons (logoi) of the bodiless [powers].[3]

Evagrius evidently conceptualizes the use of a contemplation to create something in the following way: The substance of God is ‘essential gnosis’; hence, gnosis, while it does have the characteristics that we ordinarily associate with intuitive knowledge, has other attributes also that make it a far stronger thing than a mere disposition of the knowing mind (nous), that make it something like the very fabric of reality or the universe. Therefore, in the unfolding of the fabric of reality in creation, gnosis plays an ontological role in giving both form and substance to the reality unfolded, be it the noetic world (first natural contemplation) or the material world (second natural contemplation). However, the agent in the unfolding, whether it be God himself in first natural contemplation or the Christ in second natural contemplation, has a basic relation both to the reality to be unfolded and to the gnosis that is the instrument of the unfolding, of a knower to the gnosis known (with the proviso that the very substance of God is gnosis, so that God knows in a different way from created minds (noes)). Thus, the gnostic reasons (logoi) of the material world and the gnostic reasons (logoi) of the reasonable beings are seen to be the essences of the reality unfolded not by an Aristotelian process of abstraction from the reality unfolded but because reality itself has a gnostic character. By this we mean that that reality itself, its very fabric, is gnostic in nature. We live in a universe woven from gnosis. Or, we live in a universe whose ultimate fabric has a fundamental relation to the human mind (nous) of gnosis. This doctrine would be a sort of idealism or mentalism. And this despite Evagrius’ strictures that the material universe does not have the possibility of gnosis since it does not possess mind (nous); that gnosis cannot be predicated of material objects, only of minds (noes); and so on. It is in this context that the Holy Trinity is ‘essential gnosis’.

Among the beings, some have been produced before the judgement and the others after the judgement. And no one has given information concerning the first genesis, but with regard to the second genesis, he who has been on Horeb, Moses, has made a narrative in Genesis (II, 64). We have already seen what the first sentence of this chapter means: the minds (noes) were all created by God before the Movement; after the Movement, God gave to the Christ the judgement of all the minds (noes) according to their degree of negligence in the Movement; and in that judgement, the Christ created appropriate bodies and worlds for each of those minds (noes). The significance of the second sentence is that Scripture has reported on the second creation, the one we know from the opening chapters of Genesis, that of bodies and worlds, but is silent on the first creation, that of the minds (noes). In this regard it is worth recalling from Chapter II, above, that both St Basil the Great and St Augustine of Hippo accept a separate creation of the angelic natures, the first stating in the Hexaemeron that ‘the Heavens’ in the first line of Genesis refers to this spiritual creation, the second stating in the Confessions that Scripture is silent on that spiritual creation. Hence, in our view, the idea of a separate spiritual creation of the angels is not in itself heretical. However, the content of that first spiritual creation in the Kephalaia Gnostica, where it includes all the minds (noes) that ever were created including those of men, certainly is heretical.[4]

Just as he who by his Word has given us a revelation concerning the things of the world to come has not given us an account concerning the genesis of bodies and of the bodiless powers, so also he who has taught concerning the genesis of this world has not made known the passage of the bodies and the bodiless powers but he explains their division and transformation (II, 73). The first part of this passage indicates that divine revelation—we here take ‘Word’ to refer to the ‘word of God’ in Scripture, not to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity—has not spoken of the genesis in the First Judgement after the Movement of the bodies and the bodiless powers—we here take ‘bodies’ to be all the bodies and all the worlds appropriate to them, and the bodiless powers to be the angels, the minds (noes) which after the Movement were given angelic bodies and placed in angelic worlds by the Christ. The second part of the passage refers, we think, to the account of creation by Moses in Genesis, which, in fact, is silent on the passage of bodies and the bodiless powers, evidently from world to world by reincarnation. According to Evagrius, however, Moses explains the genesis of this world and the division and transformation of the bodies and bodiless powers. One would need to know much more of the Evagrian system than is easily to be found in the Kephalaia Gnostica to understand precisely what is meant by this chapter. One possible help is Gnostic 48:

48 The great and gnostic teacher Didymus said: Ever exercise the reasons (logoi) concerning providence and the judgement when you are by yourself and try to carry about the materials of these by means of the memory, for almost all stumble on these things. And you will find the reasons (logoi) concerning judgement in the difference of bodies and worlds, the reasons (logoi) concerning providence, however, in the ways which lead us from vice and ignorance back to virtue and gnosis.[5]

We can see in this passage that the reasons (logoi) of the judgement by the Christ are to be found in the differences of bodies and worlds, since each judgement of a mind (nous) leads to the awarding to that mind (nous) of a body and a world according to its negligence and since different judgements necessarily lead to different bodies and different worlds. This is the division of bodies and bodiless powers to which the chapter of the Kephalaia Gnostica under consideration refers. Moreover, the reasons (logoi) concerning the providence of the Christ are to be found in the pushes that the Christ gives to each mind (nous) to turn it to the upward ascent to God: the upward ascent is accomplished by the transformations of bodies and bodiless powers to which the chapter of the Kephalaia Gnostica under consideration refers. Hence, the division of bodies that Moses is said to report on in Genesis is the judgement that God executes in his Christ, while the transformation of bodies and bodiless powers that he is said to report on is the mystical ascent under the impulsion of the divine providence that God also has given into the hands of his Christ. It is not clear to us exactly where Moses explains these things in Genesis. Most likely, allegorical interpretation is required. It is also not clear to us what the difference is between the ‘passage’ and the ‘transformation’ of bodies and bodiless powers as given in the text.

The genesis of bodies is not made known by the genesis of the reasonable nature; but it introduces the nature of names, and the composition of the bodies shows the difference in rank of the minds (noes) (II, 66). This is a restatement of the Evagrian doctrine that the reasonable nature—the minds (noes)—were created by God before the Movement, whereas their bodies were created by the Christ after the Movement, in the First Judgement. The introduction of names has this significance: after the Movement, the minds (noes) have a ranking based on the degree of negligence that each mind (nous) had in the Movement, a ranking that they did not have before the Movement when they were all equal. The significance of the composition of bodies (i.e. from what proportions of the four elements they are made) is this: the bodies are assigned by the Evagrian Christ to the minds (noes) on the basis of his judgement of each mind’s (nous’) degree of negligence; the body that a mind (nous) is given therefore shows the difference in rank between it and the other minds (noes). This difference in rank is reflected in the difference in name. Recall that for the Ancients a name is not merely a moniker but reveals the essence of the thing. This chapter states part of the doctrine that was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod in Anathema 2.

Just as the various orders distinguish the minds (noes) the one from the other after the assignment of bodies after the Movement, so also the places which are appropriate to the bodies joined to the minds (noes) (II, 76). In the First Judgement, the Evagrian Christ assigns to the mind (nous) not only a body but also a world appropriate to that type of body. Hence, the world that a mind (nous) finds itself in after the judgement is also a distinguishing mark of its rank.

Those who live in equal bodies are not in the same gnosis but in the same world. And those who are in the same gnosis are in equality of bodies and in the same world (II, 14). This chapter is a clarification of the preceding one. Although the type of body and the world manifest the rank of the mind (nous), that mind (nous) nonetheless may have a different gnosis, a different spiritual attainment, from another mind (nous) with the same type of body in the same world. However, Evagrius says, if two minds (noes) have the same gnosis, they are necessarily in the same type of body and in the same world. Two men or two angels of the same order may have an equality of types of bodies, but they may (the two men or the two angels) have different gnoses. However, a man and an angel cannot have the same gnosis, because that would imply that they had an equality of types of bodies and worlds. This being said, it seems to us that according to Evagrius, the man who advances on the mystical path actually does enter into the angelic world spiritually even while in this flesh.[6] Hence, the deeper meaning of this passage becomes this: when a man attains to angelic gnosis, he is equal in body and world to an angel, even if he is still in this flesh. However, this final point is somewhat uncertain.[7]

The equivalent of a body is that which is equal to it in attribute (VI, 78). The equivalent of a reasonable substance is that which is equal to it in gnosis (VI, 80). The first passage merely states that two bodies are equal which are equal according to sensible criteria. The second chapter, however, gives the first its full significance: two minds (noes) are equal only when they have the same gnosis. The deeper meaning of these chapters is that the mind (nous) is not a sensible thing and cannot receive predication with sensible attributes. Similarly, the sensible body is not a knowing thing and cannot receive predication concerning gnosis, for that pertains only to knowing things, to the minds (noes).

[1] See Section 1.

[2] See Section 5.

[3] This passage of the Skemmata parallels and explains KG VI, 16.

[4] This chapter of the Kephalaia Gnostica is found, in part, in Greek in Question 600 in Barsanuphios, as is, in part, also KG II, 69, presented below under the topic of the Evagrian eschatology. This constitutes one item of evidence that the version intégrale (S2), this version of the Kephalaia Gnostica, is in fact the authentic version, since the version commune (S1) does not at all reflect the quotations in Barsanuphios. One could consult Guillaumont for more such details, or even the notes to the French translation of the Kephalaia Gnostica in PO 28, 1, which contain references to the known fragments. In Appendix 2 of Volume II, in footnotes to the related chapters of the Kephalaia Gnostica, we have provided in English translation many of the Greek fragments, including the Greek fragments just referenced.

[5] See Appendix 1 of Volume II.

[6] See, in Volume II, Treatise on the Practical Life, e.g. Chapter 61.

[7] This chapter will be important in Volume II for an understanding of the Evagrian doctrine of contemplation.


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