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Chapter III -- 4

1 The Evagrian Doctrine of God

To the First Good there is nothing opposed, because it is in its essence that it is the Good and to the essence there is nothing that could be opposed (I, 1). The opposition is in the attributes, for example, between hot and cold, and the attributes are in the bodies; the opposition is therefore in the creatures (I, 2). This is a rejection of Manichæan dualism, of any doctrine of an eternal principle of evil. There is implicit Evagrius’ philosophy of oppositions and their role in creation. These oppositions, he is saying, are necessarily in the attributes of created things and not in the essence of God; moreover, these oppositions cannot even exist in ontological relation to the essence of God. Hence, there can be no eternal principle of evil.

The mirror of the goodness of God, of his power and of his wisdom, is those things which in the beginning have from nothing become something (II, 1). This of course is a doctrine of creation ex nihilo on account of the goodness of God. Although Evagrius does not address the issue, the notion that this was a free act of God seems implicit. However, as we shall see, the Fifth Ecumenical Synod interprets Evagrius’ doctrine of the use by the Christ of what is called the second natural contemplation to create the worlds as a doctrine different from creation ex nihilo, so it is apparent that Evagrius’ views on the matter must be treated with caution.

Every reasonable nature is a substance that knows and our God is knowable; he dwells in an undivided fashion in those in whom he dwells, like terrestrial art, but he is superior to such art in that he exists as a substance and not in the way that art exists, as skill or knowledge, in that which has been made by the artisan on earth (I, 3). There is a class of creatures, called reasonable beings, which are substances and which have the possibility of knowing, and God is knowable by them. God is known in contemplation. The intuitive knowledge which comes from contemplation is called gnosis. Moreover, God exists in his creatures in the way that the art of the artist exists in his work of art, but with this difference, that God exists as a substance, whereas the art or skill in a work of art does not.

It is not that which is God’s nature that he knows who sees the Creator in the harmony of creation, but he knows the wisdom with which God has made everything; not the essential wisdom, however, but the wisdom which appears in creatures, that which those who are experts in these things are wont to call natural contemplation. And if that is so, what folly is it that those have who say that they know the nature of God! (V, 51). On the surface, this seems to be a statement by Evagrius that the nature of God is unknowable. We also see this assertion in Evagrius’ Exhortation 2 To Monks 31:

31 Just as an individual with many distinct parts is one in nature, so too the Holy Trinity, even though it has distinctions both with regard to names and hypostases, is one in nature. You could not comprehend the nature of God, not even if you flew on wings. God is incomprehensible, just as he is also our creator.[1]

However, this assertion must be taken in a restricted sense, for we have just seen Evagrius say that God is knowable, and he will go on to say that the Holy Trinity is ‘essential gnosis’, elsewhere stating clearly that the mind (nous) can attain to this essential gnosis. Hence, what must be understood in the chapter of the Kephalaia Gnostica under consideration is that the nature of God is unknowable through his creatures, through the harmony of creation, through the wisdom with which God has made his creatures. Moreover, the sense of the passage of Exhortation 2 To Monks just given seems to be ‘comprehend the nature of God intellectually or even, in an intuitive way, know fully’ in contradistinction to ‘see or know God intuitively’.

‘Essential wisdom’ in the passage of the Kephalaia Gnostica under consideration appears to be synonymous with ‘essential gnosis’, which we discuss below, and to have the sense of the substance of God that is the source of the wisdom seen in creation.

We here see in Evagrius’ thought a remnant of the doctrines of the Cappadocians, those doctrines which he took with him to Egypt; this remnant Evagrius later modified with his doctrine of ‘essential gnosis’, all the while retaining the doctrine of the Cappadocians. For the notion that the nature of God cannot be known from his creatures is definitely Cappadocian.

The next chapter is similar to this one:

All that has been produced proclaims ‘the most various wisdom of God’ (Eph. 3, 10), but there is nothing among all the beings which teaches us concerning his nature (II, 21). Here it is clear that ‘there is nothing among all the beings which teaches us concerning his [i.e. God’s] nature’. That is, God’s nature cannot be known from his creatures even analogically.

God is known by the means of the contemplation of the corporeal nature (the material bodies) and by means of the contemplation of the incorporeal nature (the reasonable beings) and the two contemplations of these natures vivify the reasonable beings that enjoy the contemplations (IV, 11). A reasonable nature is one that has mind (nous). Although created beings cannot make known the nature of God, God can be known through his creatures. In the case of the corporeal nature, it is the wisdom of God that is known, which is not, Evagrius has already said, the ‘essential wisdom’ or substance of God. Evagrius is somewhat ambiguous whether from the contemplation of the incorporeal nature—we take this to mean the angelic powers—we learn the wisdom of God or else another aspect of God. On the one hand, as creatures, they manifest the wisdom of God. On the other hand, Evagrius says that God is more present in the angelic powers because he acts the more through them.[2]

In the Kephalaia Gnostica, Evagrius does not develop this last idea extensively enough for us to be clear to what extent we learn more than the mere wisdom of God in the contemplation of the angelic powers. However the very fact that he distinguishes between the two contemplations and makes the contemplation of the angels the higher contemplation indicates that in the contemplation of the angelic powers we learn something more about God than we learn in the contemplation of the corporeal nature. Moreover, we will also find that Evagrius teaches that from the contemplation of the angelic powers we learn the nature of the Christ.

There is the important point here that natural contemplation vivifies, as does natural gnosis, the reasonable being that participates in it.

God is everywhere, but he is not some part; he is everywhere because by his ‘wisdom full of variety’ (Eph. 3, 10), he is in everything which he has produced; but he is not some part, because he is not a creature (I, 43). Evagrius is very emphatic that it is the wisdom of God that is present in his creatures. There is no doctrine here of the operations (energeies) of God—the uncreated operations (aktistes energeies) of God of later Orthodox theology—which uphold creation, although the Kephalaia Gnostica does have several undeveloped references to that aspect of God’s providence. This concept of the wisdom of God present in his creatures seems to us to be a somewhat Stoic element in Evagrius’ thought. For we think that what Evagrius means is that the wisdom of God is precisely the reasons (logoi) of those things which God has created. If this interpretation be correct, it would clarify how the second natural contemplation, which corresponds to the wisdom of God present in his material creatures, comes to be used by the Evagrian Christ in the creation of the various worlds and bodies: the reasons (logoi) would correspond to the seed-reasons (spermatikoi logoi) of the Stoics. However, we see in this doctrine an aspect also of Cappadocian theology, for in Chapter I, above, we have already seen St Gregory of Nyssa to present St Macrina as speaking of the presence of God in all creation both as Wisdom and as Providence.

It is said that God is in the corporeal nature as the architect is in the things that he has made, and it is said that God is in the statue like the architect, if he should happen to make for himself a statue of wood (VI, 82). This evidently is a chapter against the ‘anthropomorphites’ of the Egyptian desert of Evagrius’ day.[3] In a more general context, it clarifies by means of a metaphor just how Evagrius conceives the wisdom of God to be in creation, as does the following:

The separable art of the artisan contains his work and the wisdom of God contains all creatures. And just as he who in logic separates the art of the artisan from the artisan breaks his work, so he who in his thought separates the wisdom of God from him destroys all (II, 46). Nonetheless, this wisdom of God is not the essence or substance of God. It is an operation of God. It might also be said to be the ‘essential form’ of creation.

Just as the light, while it makes us able to see all, does not have need of a light with which it might be seen, so God, while he makes all things to see, does not have need of a light with which he might be known; he, indeed, in his essence ‘is light’ (1 John 1, 5) (I, 35). We will see in Chapter IV that St Augustine has a similar doctrine.

Just as it is not the same thing for us to see the light and to speak of the light, so it is not the same thing to see God and to comprehend something intellectually concerning God (V, 26). Evagrius is here distinguishing between the sight of God and intellectual knowledge concerning God. Sight is direct intuitive knowledge (i.e. gnosis); intellectual knowledge is knowledge based on propositions manipulated by human reason. We will encounter in Chapter IV that great exponent of this second type of knowledge, St Thomas Aquinas. But Evagrius himself treats all stages of contemplation as being intuitive, not propositional.

The present chapter is very important for a proper understanding of Evagrian contemplation in all its stages: Evagrian contemplation is not discursive meditation, reflections on memories, events, experiences and the goodness of God, but direct (‘silent’) intuitive apprehension of the object of contemplation and, ultimately, of God himself. We will see as we proceed in this chapter, but especially in Volume II, just how Evagrius understands this silent contemplation, this intuitive apprehension of the object of contemplation.

The Holy Trinity is alone adorable for itself, it by which, in the final analysis, the incorporeal nature and the corporeal nature from nothing have in the beginning become something (V, 50).

The nature of the Trinity is not known with ascents and descents; there are not any underlying objects in the contemplation of the Holy Trinity, and its nature does not admit of analysis, because he who analyses material bodies makes them consist of matter and form; and if one resolves the incorporeal, or reasonable, nature, one reduces it to the common contemplation and to the intelligible substance susceptible of an opposition. But it is not thus that it is possible to know the nature of the Holy Trinity (V, 62). This is a very important but very difficult statement, repeated in different words in Skemmata 18.[4] Much of the latter part of Volume II of our work is dedicated to an elucidation of the principles involved.

A philosophical analysis of an object would make us reascend to the beginning of the object, and the gnosis which involves measure makes us see the wisdom of the Creator; but it is not according to these ways of seeing that we see the Holy Trinity. The Trinity, indeed, has no beginning, and we do not say that the wisdom which is in the object is God, if, in the philosophy of nature, the beginning agrees with the object of which it is the beginning. Such a wisdom is a gnosis without substance, which appears only in the objects (V, 63). Here, the wisdom which is in the object is the beginning (principle = Greek: arche?) of the object, and since the beginning must agree with the object, to say that that wisdom is God is to say that the object is God, something that is unacceptable. The last sentence appears to mean that the wisdom which is present in creation—that which is apprehended by the ascetic in second natural contemplation as the reason (logos) of the created object—is a wisdom which inheres in the object itself but without the status of substance (like the art of the artist in the object the artist makes). We will see in Chapter IV that St Augustine has a more elevated doctrine of the reasons (logoi) of created objects in the Mind of God, and that, hence, he makes their contemplation a more elevated attainment than Evagrius.

The Holy Trinity is not like a tetrad, a pentad or a hexad; indeed, these latter, being numerical, are forms without substance; but the Holy Trinity is essential gnosis (VI, 10; see also VI, 11–13). The Holy Trinity is beyond Platonic forms and so on. This is a very important statement both for the nature of God and for the nature of the contemplation of God.

The Trinity is not placed with the contemplation of sensibles and of intelligibles and no more is it counted with objects, because contemplation is a quality and the objects are creatures; but the Trinity is essential gnosis alone (II, 47). This chapter, very important but very difficult to understand, is saying that the Holy Trinity is classed neither with objects nor with contemplations. It is not an object because objects are creatures. It is not a contemplation because contemplations are qualities and the Trinity is ‘essential gnosis’.

The next chapter much the same meaning:

The Holy Trinity is not a thing which might be mixed with the contemplation that a man or an angel makes; that, indeed, does not occur except with created beings. The former, the Holy Trinity, will also be named, in a holy way, essential gnosis (V, 55).

Evagrius nowhere explains what he means by the oft-repeated phrase that the Holy Trinity is essential gnosis, essential wisdom or even, once, essential contemplation. It seems to us that he must be hinting, at least, that the higher forms of gnosis have the ontological status of substance, and that the substance of God is ‘essential gnosis’. We do not think that he is speaking in a metaphorical fashion. That seems to be foreign to his style. Moreover, the placement in KG VI, 10, presented immediately above, of the phrase ‘…the Trinity is essential gnosis’ in a passage clearly dedicated to ontology would make such an interpretation suspect.

It seems to us, however, that the doctrine that the Holy Trinity is essential gnosis must call into question the orthodoxy of Evagrius’ Trinitarian theology. For nowhere that we know of is the substance of God identified with gnosis except here.

It is in the context of the substantial nature of gnosis that the reader should consider the Evagrian doctrine that gnosis changes the mind (nous) that participates in that gnosis:

Just as the senses are changed when they apprehend diverse qualities, thus also the mind (nous) is changed when it ever gazes intently upon various contemplations (II, 83—Greek fragment). What seems to be hinted at here is that the substance of the mind (nous) is changed by gnosis, not merely the subjective disposition of the contemplating person. It is well to remember that the mind (nous), being an intelligible substance, is not subject to the laws that apply to the material creation. Mind (nous) and gnosis would both be intelligible substances.

The mental representations of bodies have need of a pure mind (nous), the mental representations of incorporeals have need of a mind (nous) that is more pure, and the Holy Trinity has need of a mind (nous) that is more pure than those (V, 52). This lays out the foundation of the Evagrian doctrine of the ascetic’s ascent to God in contemplation. In order to ascend through the various stages of contemplation to the essential gnosis of the Holy Trinity, the mind (nous) of the ascetic must be purified in successive stages. In its ascent, the substance of the mind (nous) is changed by the gnosis to which it attains and then is further purified to attain to the next higher stage of gnosis.

When we say that the substance of the mind (nous) appears in Evagrius to be changed by gnosis, we mean, in Aristotelian language, accidentally. This change is more fundamental, it would appear, than a mere change to the subjective disposition of the mind (nous), but not so fundamental as to make the mind (nous) something other than it is. But consider, in this regard, what Evagrius says concerning the change to the mind (nous) which enters into the highest gnosis, the gnosis of the Holy Trinity:

When the mind (nous) receives the essential gnosis, then it also will be called God, because it will also be able to found diverse worlds (V, 81). We take this to be a proposition of asceticism and not of the Restoration.[5] For a mind (nous) to be ‘called God’ does not for the Classical thinker mean that a moniker has been applied to that mind (nous) without regard to that mind’s (nous’) nature. On the contrary, the assertion is very strong and has much the same significance as in Luke 1, 35 (‘Therefore the holy thing born of you will be called Son of God.’): to be called something is to be characterized as to one’s very essence. However, we shall see that in the case of the Evagrian Christ, to be called God is to have the status of God in an improper sense.

The notion of the substantial nature of the various forms of gnosis appears to be consistent with what we see in Evagrius’ Christology, that the Evagrian Christ makes use of the second natural contemplation in the creation of the different worlds, as if that contemplation were a power or substance:

In the second natural contemplation we see the ‘greatly various wisdom’ (Eph. 3, 10) of Christ, that which the Christ used to create the worlds; but in the gnosis which concerns the reasonable beings, we have been instructed on the subject of his substance (II, 2). The gnosis which concerns the second nature is the spiritual contemplation of which the Christ made use in creating from it the nature of the bodies and the worlds (III, 26).

Here, perhaps, we see a Stoic or even Neoplatonic doctrine of the reasons (logoi) of the things which are created: attainment to the gnosis or contemplation of the Holy Trinity gives one the power to plant by means of the second natural contemplation the appropriate seed-reasons (spermatikoi logoi) of the world that one wishes to create. This would be true both of the Christ, who according to Evagrius has the gnosis of the Holy Trinity from his genesis, and of the ascetic who entered into the gnosis of the Holy Trinity.

We see two other chapters in Evagrius’ cosmology where he seems to have made a direct and non-Christian borrowing from Stoic cosmology:

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). This ‘living’ is a divine attribute, and, normally, that which consumes ‘the trouble of those who are troubled’ is the Holy Spirit. Hence, we here see a suggestion that the fire that we ordinarily see in creation contains the Holy Spirit. This certainly would correspond to the Stoic doctrine of the immanent divine fire, and it certainly is not Christian. However, all these points must remain speculation, since in the Kephalaia Gnostica, or even elsewhere, Evagrius is not on these matters explicit enough for us to ascertain precisely what he means.

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[1] Sinkewicz p. 222; Sinkewicz’ translation.

[2] See KG I, 42.

[3] The reader might refer to Guillaumont Chapter 1, 1 for details of the controversy.

[4] Appendix 3 of Volume II.

[5] Here and elsewhere we use the English words ‘Restoration’ or ‘Restoration of All Things’ to represent the Greek word ‘Apokatastasis’. See Section 9, below, ‘The Evagrian Eschatology’, for a discussion of the Restoration.


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