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Chapter III -- 35

We now look at another Evagrian typology of the mystical ascent:

The first renunciation is the abandonment of objects of the world, which is produced by the will for the gnosis of God (I, 78).

The second renunciation is the abandonment of vice, which is produced by the grace of God and by the effort of man (I, 79).

The third renunciation is the separation from ignorance, which is naturally made to become manifest to men in proportion to those men’s conditions (I, 80).

These three renunciations are important because they are quoted in one form or another by both St John of Sinai, in his Ladder of Divine Ascent,[1] and St John Cassian (?–435), in his Conferences.[2] They can be seen to correspond to the four transformations that we have just discussed. The first renunciation is that which corresponds to the beginning of the ascetical life; it is preliminary to praktike. The second renunciation is precisely praktike, the first transformation. The third renunciation spans the final three transformations; it refers to the stages of second natural contemplation, first natural contemplation and the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

In Volume II, we will learn that in the Treatise on the Practical Life, Evagrius calls the stages of the mystical life by the names of praktike, natural contemplation and Theology. Praktike, which in Volume II we have consistently translated ‘the practical life’, we have just seen to correspond to the first transformation and the second renunciation. Natural contemplation is second natural contemplation and first natural contemplation taken together. The second natural contemplation is the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of sensible objects; it is the result of the second transformation. The first natural contemplation is the contemplation of angels, the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of angels, the contemplation of worlds and, perhaps, the contemplation of intelligibles; it is the result of the third transformation. Theology is the contemplation of the Holy Trinity or Unity; it is the result of the fourth and final transformation.

The second nature is the sign of the body and the first nature, the sign of the soul; and the mind (nous) is the Christ who is united to the gnosis of the Trinity (I, 77). This chapter appears to establish a correspondence between the stages of contemplation and the body, soul (psuche) and mind (nous) of man. What it seems to say is this: The second natural contemplation corresponds to the body of man; the first natural contemplation to the soul (psuche) of man; and Theology, the contemplation of God, to the mind (nous) of man, in its turn identified with the Christ.

The second natural contemplation is the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of material bodies. Hence its correspondence to the body of man, received so that man might live in a material world.

The first natural contemplation is the contemplation of the angels and their reasons (logoi). Evagrius does not elsewhere make such a clear identification between the state of the man in first natural contemplation and the soul (psuche), although, as we have remarked, he does say that the soul (psuche) of the man who has attained to dispassion (apatheia), the precondition of natural contemplation, possesses its body in power. Under the identification that Evagrius here seems to be making, natural contemplation both second and first is the stage of the soul (psuche).

Theology is the contemplation of God. We know that it is the naked mind (nous) that contemplates God. Hence, Evagrius here seems to be saying that in passing from the first natural contemplation to Theology, the ascetic passes from the region of the soul (psuche) to the region of the mind (nous).[3] However, we have seen St Isaac the Syrian to assert that the ascetic attains to the state of the naked mind (nous) in passing from second to first natural contemplation, when he divests himself of the senses.

The connection here of the human mind (nous) with the Christ is that the Christ is a mind (nous) like all the other minds (noes), the only mind (nous) in the negligence of the Movement not to falter in its contemplation of the Unity, and that each mind (nous) is to be united to the gnosis of the Unity just as the Christ already is.

(This interpretation of KG I, 77 requires that we treat ‘second nature’ as corresponding to ‘second natural contemplation’ and ‘first nature’ as corresponding to ‘first natural contemplation’.[4])

KG I, 77 has certain similarities to the passage in the Letter to Melania that teaches that the Son and the Holy Spirit are as a divine soul (psuche) to the divine mind (nous) that is the Father, whereas the human mind (nous) is as a body to that divine soul (i.e. the Son and the Holy Spirit).[5] However, the extended doctrine of the Letter on the matter is not to be found in the Kephalaia Gnostica, and this chapter of the Kephalaia Gnostica is susceptible of a ‘non-Melanian’ interpretation, the one we have given.

That reasonable soul is sterile which is always learning and never wishing to come into a deep knowledge (epignosis) of the truth (VI, 62—Greek fragment). This does not require comment.

If sensible words (logoi) also make known objects in the world to come, it is evident that the sages of this world will also receive the Kingdom of the Heavens. But if it is the purity of the mind (nous) which sees, and the word (logos, i.e. reason) appropriate to that purity which makes known, then the sages of this world are kept at a distance from God (VI, 22). The Greek word for both ‘word’ and ‘reason’ is logos. Moreover, the Kingdom of the Heavens is defined in Chapter 2 of Treatise on the Practical Life as dispassion (apatheia) together with the gnosis that comes from natural contemplation.[6] Hence, this chapter is a statement that the condition for progress of the mind (nous) in gnosis is purity of mind (nous), not sensible words: book-learning.

Just as it is not the materials but their qualities that nourish the bodies, thus it is not the objects but the contemplations that concern them that increase the soul (II, 32—Greek fragment). This is an extremely important statement of the role of natural contemplation in the nourishment of the soul (psuche)—or, better, in the nourishment of the mind (nous). Moreover it is a reiteration of the Evagrian doctrine that the reason (logos) of a sensible object is not the same thing as the sensible object whose reason (logos) is being contemplated. As Evagrius states elsewhere, every contemplation except the contemplation of the Holy Trinity has an underlying object. Hence, Evagrius seems to be saying, what nourishes the soul or mind is the contemplation itself, not the underlying object. We have presented this passage as referring to all phases of natural contemplation, but Evagrius possibly intends only second natural contemplation: ‘object’ is ambiguous and could be either a material object only (hence, second natural contemplation), or also even an intelligible object such as an angel (hence, all phases of natural contemplation).

The contemplation of this world is double: one manifest and gross, the other intelligible and spiritual. The impious and the demons draw near to the first contemplation, and to the second the just and the angels of God. And just as, more than the just, the angels know the spiritual contemplation, so, more than the impious, the demons know the gross contemplation which, it is thought, they also give to certain ones who belong to them; and we have learned from the Divine Book that the holy angels do that also (VI, 2).

Those who apply themselves now to draw near to gnosis possess in common the water and the perfumed oil; but in distinction and in abundance, men possess the oil (III, 43). The water is an allusion to the waters of Baptism; and the perfumed oil, to the oil used for the Mystery of Chrismation, the Mystery of the reception of the Holy Spirit.[7] However, we do not understand what Evagrius wants to say here.

All those who are baptized in water receive the delightful odour; but he who baptizes is he who has the perfumed oil (III, 85). The delightful odour is the grace or presence (‘odour’) of the Holy Spirit, and the perfumed oil is the Holy Spirit itself, which Christ himself has, the Baptizer of Christians. But Evagrius’ deeper meaning is unclear to us. This chapter is very similar to a passage in Peri Archon.[8]

Blessed is he who loves nothing of the second natural contemplation if it is not the contemplation (III, 86).

Blessed is he who hates nothing of the first contemplation of natures if it is not their vice (III, 87).

Blessed is he who has come to the unsurpassable gnosis (III, 88). These three beatitudes are intrinsic to the Evagrian system of contemplation.

Men live three lives: the first, the second and the third. Those who belong to the first nature receive the first and second lives; but those who participate in the second nature receive the third life. And it is said that the first life proceeds from that which is, but that the second and third lives proceed from that which is not (II, 31). We are not sure what this means.

If the whole world of men is a world of children, one day they will arrive at the age of adulthood which pertains to the righteous and the impious (IV, 15). This has to do with the Evagrian eschatology, although it is unclear just which phase he has in mind. Here he seems to mean not the Restoration wherein all will return to the contemplation of the Unity, but the intermediate judgement after death that will assign anew to men, bodies and worlds according to their works, in the same sense as the following chapter:

Among men, some will hold festival with the angels, others will be mixed with the flock of demons, and others will be tormented with the defiled men (V, 9).

Those who are now under the earth will lead to an immoderate vice those who will now have done terrestrial things, the wretches! (III, 79.) This is a statement that men who behave viciously in this life will go to the demons in the next life, where their condition will be demonic. It might also be construed to mean that men who behave in this life in a worldly fashion, while still in this life will be led by the demons to an immoderate vice, to those men’s own misfortune and condemnation in the next life.

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[1] Ladder G Step 2, 14; = Ladder E Step 2, 9.

[2] Cassian C Conference 3, VI.

[3] The ascetic’s own mind (nous). There is no doctrine in Evagrius of a Neoplatonic divine nous.

[4] Cf. KG V, 85, III, 24, III, 26 and II, 31.

[5] Melania 1 189 ff. or Melania E ll. 113 ff.

[6] See Volume II.

[7] Corresponding to the Western sacrament of Confirmation, but always, in the Orthodox Church, administered immediately after Baptism—one week later in Evagrius’ day.

[8] Peri Archon II, VI, 6, p. 113–14.


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