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Chapter III -- 44

10 Evaluation of the Evagrian Cosmological System

Evagrius is ‘New Age’. Much of the cosmology he propounds is current in ‘New Age’ circles today. Many of his cosmological ideas bear a striking resemblance to Buddhism. In fact, the resemblances are so striking we wish to remark that Tibet was converted to Buddhism several hundred years after Evagrius’ death. Moreover, Evagrius’ life is well known and without unexplainable gaps. He lived in Asia Minor, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Egypt just south of Alexandria. There is no record of his having had contact with Buddhists—although the religion is referred to as existing by writers in Alexandria and Jerusalem before and during Evagrius’ time. It was referred to in passing c.200 by Clement of Alexandria, whom Evagrius is known to have read.[1] It was known by St Cyril of Jerusalem (313–386) in his Catechisms (spoken 348, very close to the time when Evagrius was in Jerusalem) as one of the sources of Manes, the founder of Manichæism. But there is no record of Evagrius’ having met with Buddhists or of his having been influenced by them.

Possibly, this resemblance of Evagrius’ cosmological theories to Buddhism has something to do with the influence of Plotinus on Evagrius. This is a somewhat difficult matter, because both Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, and Origen were fellow students of Ammonius Saccas, so there are bound to be similarities between their two cosmologies. There are nonetheless striking parallels between certain of Evagrius Pontikos’ positions and those of Plotinus. And Plotinus’ Neoplatonism is similar to Buddhism, as indeed to the sorts of teachings that are found in ‘New Age’ circles today.

The similarity of Evagrius to Plotinus is especially evident in Evagrius’ system of contemplation: Evagrius’ doctrine expressed in Chapter 40 of On the Thoughts that the mental representations of sensible objects must be put off so that the ascetic can receive the mental representations of intelligibles[2] is both Platonic and Plotinian. However, taken as a whole, the ‘atmosphere’ of Plotinus is quite different from that of either Origen or Evagrius: the latter two are definitely Christians, even if heretics, whereas Plotinus is definitely a pagan.

In the matter of contemplation there is also clearly a direct influence on Evagrius of Clement of Alexandria. Many of Evagrius’ basic concepts, such as ‘dispassion (apatheia)’, the ‘gnostic’ and the three stages of the spiritual life—‘praktike’, ‘natural contemplation’ and ‘Theology’—, are taken directly from Clement. Clement himself had a Platonic orientation joined to an openness to the truths in Stoicism, Epicureanism and Aristotelianism. However, while Clement seems to have laid the theoretical foundation for Evagrius’ ascetical and contemplative doctrines, Evagrius developed them far more intensively than Clement: Clement did not have the intense experience of asceticism that Evagrius had.

Evagrius is traditionally believed to have built his cosmological doctrines on those of Origen and we certainly see that many of his key cosmological ideas are to be found in Peri Archon, even in the form that that work has come down to us. However, Evagrius himself seems to have been responsible for the development of those ideas into the form in which they were condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod: the fit between the Kephalaia Gnostica and the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod is remarkable.

Didymus the Blind does seem to have been Evagrius’ teacher and he also was condemned for Origenism at the Fifth Ecumenical Synod, but there is nothing, apparently, in the extant writings of Didymus that would make of him an Origenist of the sort of Evagrius. That, of course, is not to say that in his lost writings or in his oral teachings Didymus was not an Origenist, nor a key link in the development of Origen’s ideas into the form in which they are found in the Kephalaia Gnostica.

It would appear, then, that in cosmology Evagrius took his foundation from Origen and that he then elaborated that material on the basis of the theological formation that he had received at the feet of the Cappadocian Fathers; on the basis of the oral teachings of the Egyptian fathers that he met personally, including Didymus and the two Sts Makarios;[3] on the basis of his own readings in other philosophers and theologians, including the Stoics, Clement of Alexandria and, we think possible, Plotinus; and on the basis of his own personal experience of ascesis in the Egyptian desert. He obviously was a very intelligent man, and he was renowned, at least among his followers, for his charism of discernment.

As concerns his ascetical psychology, Evagrius does not seem to depend on Origen but on the other sources named. To a great extent, however, in the higher stages of contemplation, Evagrius has attempted to integrate his understanding of contemplation with his Origenist cosmology.

A key difference between the Kephalaia Gnostica and Peri Archon is that Origen comes across as a speculative thinker—as a speculative theologian—whereas Evagrius comes across as a practising ascetic and mystic: Evagrius’ formulation of Origen is much more focused, much more oriented to ascetical concerns, than we find in Peri Archon. This difference permeates the whole of the Kephalaia Gnostica.

Moreover, Origen, at least as Rufinus presents him, draws a sketch of a system, and that much more diffidently than Evagrius—if, indeed, Origen’s protestations that he is presenting speculations for discussion only are not to be taken as interpolations by Rufinus. Evagrius himself is outlining, even if in a deliberately obscure way, a highly articulated system, one that he knows by experience to be true.[4] However, it is a system based on Peri Archon.

In Peri Archon, Origen’s sole sketch of a system of contemplation is given in the context of the ascent of the soul after death. There is nothing in Peri Archon that corresponds to Evagrius’ system of ascetical contemplation, which has direct roots in Clement of Alexandria and which resembles Plotinus’ method in the Enneads. However, Origen’s sketch of the contemplative ascent of the soul after death could well be taken to be a Platonic system of contemplation transposed to the condition of the soul after death.

It would be outside the scope of this work to present a summary of the dogmatic teaching of the Orthodox Church as a counterfoil to Evagrius’ own dogmatic positions. The reader wishing such a summary of the dogmas of the Orthodox Church is referred to the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith of St John of Damascus.[5]

Let us now look at the fifteen Anathemas directed against Origenism by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod. This will enable us to isolate quite quickly the unacceptable parts of the system of which we have just made a tour.

It is clear that the Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod were not concerned with developing an Orthodox cosmology or anthropology or with producing a general dogmatic treatise of any kind, or even with condemning the Kephalaia Gnostica per se. They were faced with a concrete heretical movement in a specific time and place, and they were concerned with combating that heretical movement. Hence, the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod are directed against a concrete historical movement, and they must be read with that in mind; otherwise their content will be quite misunderstood. A very close perusal of the Kephalaia Gnostica in conjunction with the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod makes that clear. Moreover, it should also be clear that since the Anathemas are directed against a movement and not against a literary work per se, it is possible for the Anathemas to present the Origenist doctrines somewhat differently from the Kephalaia Gnostica. We will see a divergence on some minor points.

We follow the text of the Anathemas in Acta Conciliorvm Oecvmenicorvm.[6] It might be remarked before we begin that if a person is ‘anathema’ he is accursed and hence excommunicated—cut off from the Body of Christ.

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[1] Stromateis I, 15: Migne 8, col. 780A.

[2] See Volume II.

[3] We are not suggesting that the two Sts Makarios were Origenists; we mean that in cosmology Evagrius was influenced by the atmosphere of the Egyptian desert.

[4] Cf. KG III, 47.

[5] Damascus.

[6] ACO 4, 1 pp. 248–9.


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