Chapter V -- 1
In the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, II, 11, St John of Damascus describes Paradise:
Since, then, out of the visible and the invisible creation God was going to fashion man in his own image and likeness as a kind of king and ruler of all the earth and of those things which are on the earth, he first made for man a sort of kingdom, inhabiting the which man would have a blessed and truly happy life. This is the divine Garden (paradeisos) which has been planted by the hands of God in Eden, a treasury of every joy and gladness of heart. For ‘Eden (Edem)’ is interpreted ‘voluptuousness’. It was in the east, lying higher than all the earth, temperate, illumined with an air fine and most pure, adorned with ever-blooming plants, filled with a pleasant odour, full of light, surpassing the thought of every sensible grace and beauty, being a divine place, really, and worthy of the inhabitant made in the image of God, a place in which none of the animals took up its abode, but only man, fashioned by the divine hands.
In the middle of this Garden, God planted the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. The Tree of Knowledge was a certain trial and test and exercise of the obedience and disobedience of the man. Wherefore it has also been called the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil, for to those who communicated of it, it was wont to give a gnostic power concerning their own familiar nature, which very thing is good in the perfect, bad, however, in the more imperfect—and even in those also who are the more gluttonous for sensation—as solid food is in those who yet require milk. For God who created us did not wish that we be anxious and troubled about many things, neither that we should become persons who took care for or were the administrators of our own life. Which very thing, indeed, Adam also suffered. For tasting, he knew that he was naked and he acquired for himself a girdle about his loins: for taking leaves of the fig tree, he girded himself [cf. Gen. 3, 7]. Before the knowledge, however, ‘Both Adam and Eve were naked and were not ashamed.’ [Gen. 2, 25.] God wished us, then, to be dispassionate (apatheis) in this way—for this is of extreme dispassion (apatheia)—, and even without care, having one work (ergon), that of the angels: to hymn continually and without cease the Creator and to delight in the contemplation of him and to throw upon him the care of ourselves. Which very thing the Prophet David also plainly spoke to us, saying: ‘Cast your care upon the Lord and he will feed you.’ [Ps. 54, 23.] And in the Sacred Gospels, teaching his own disciples, he says: ‘Do not take care for your soul (psuche), what you will eat, and for your body, with what you will clothe yourselves.’ [Luke 12, 22.] And again: ‘Ask for the Kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be added to you.’ [Cf. Matt. 6, 33.] And towards Martha: ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; there is need of one thing, then. Maria chose the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her,’ [Luke 10, 41] that is to say, to sit by his feet and to hear his words.
The Tree of Life, then, was either a tree having the operation (energeia) that provides life, or edible to those alone who were worthy of life and who were not subject to death.
At all events, certain persons have imagined that the Garden was sensible; others, however, that it was intelligible. However, it seems to me that just as the man was created both sensible and intelligible, thus also the most sacred temple of this man was both sensible and intelligible, having a double appearance. For, in body having his abode in the most divine and exceedingly beautiful place as we described, in soul (psuche) he sojourned in a more noble and incomparable and much more beautiful place, having as a dwelling God, the Indwelling, and having him as a glorious covering and having been encompassed with his grace and delighting as a sort of other angel in the sole fruit of his contemplation and being nourished by this.
Which very thing, truly, was also called worthily the Tree of Life. For life not having been interrupted by death, a share in the sweetness of divine participation is given to those who communicate [in the fruit of the Tree of Life, that is to say, in the contemplation of God himself]. Which truly God also called ‘every tree’. He says: ‘Thou shalt eat of every tree which is in the Garden.’ [Gen. 2, 16.] For he is the All, in whom and through whom is the all.
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, however, is the discrimination of the contemplation split into many parts. This, then, is the full knowledge of one’s own nature, which is good in the perfect and in those who have lived in the divine contemplation, from itself publishing the magnificence of the works of God, in those who have not feared a change since through time they have come into the habit of the contemplation of this sort. It is not good, however, in those who are yet youths and the more gluttonous for desire, for on account of the uncertainty of the sojourn in those things which are better and on account of their not having taken up their place firmly in sitting by the Sole Good, this solicitude for their own body by nature draws them towards that body and distracts them.
Thus I deem the divine Garden to have been double. And the God-bearing Fathers instructed truly, some teaching in this way and some in that way.
It is possible to conceive of ‘every tree’ as the full knowledge of the divine power occurring from all the creatures, as says the divine Apostle: ‘Those things which are invisible and apprehended by thought concerning him from the creation of the world, his eternal power and Divinity, are seen clearly in those things which have been made.’ [
1, 20.] Rom.
By nature, the contemplation which pertains to us, I say, that which is of our constitution, is loftier than all these conceptions and contemplations, as the divine David says: ‘The gnosis of Thee out of me has been wondered at,’ [Ps. 138, 6] that is, [the gnosis] which is out of my making. This [gnosis], then, was precarious for Adam, being newly fixed, for the reasons that we said.
Or, the Tree of Life was the more divine conception occurring from all sensible things and the ascent by means of them to the Author and Creator and Cause of all things, which very thing he also called ‘every tree’, the full and undivided, bearing participation only in the good.
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, then, was the sensible and pleasureful food, that which sweetens in appearance but which in reality establishes him who partakes of it in the communion of evil things. For God says: ‘From every tree which is in Garden you may eat for food.’ [Gen. 2, 16.] I deem this to mean: ‘By means of all the creatures ascend to me, the Maker,’ saying: ‘And thou shalt reap one fruit from all of them, me, truly Life. Let all things bear Life as fruit for thee, and make participation in me the constitution of your own existence; for thus shalt thou be immortal.’ ‘From the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, however, thou shalt not eat from it. In that day, then, that you eat from it, you will die with death.’ [Gen. 2, 17.] For naturally, sensible food is the restoration of that which passes away, and it proceeds into the privy and into corruption; and it is impossible for that which has come to be in the communion of sensible food to remain incorruptible.
What is St John saying? First, let us note the polarity of the ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible’ both in the creation and in man’s nature. The visible is that which is sensible; the invisible is that which is intelligible. Right from the beginning of St John’s approach to the creation of man, we see this distinction between that which is sensible in man and that which is intelligible: man’s body and man’s soul. St John then proceeds to a very poetic description of the sensible aspects of Eden. It should be understood that St John will proceed to a very elevated discussion of the intelligible aspects of Adam and Eve’s sojourn in Eden; here he is merely describing the sensible aspects of Eden.
We next see the two trees described in the account of Eden in Genesis. Note that the Tree of Knowledge is described, in accordance with the tradition of the Fathers, as a ‘certain trial and test and exercise of the obedience and disobedience of the man’.
St John then proceeds to a description of the nature of the Tree of Knowledge. Following St Gregory the Theologian, he describes the Tree of Knowledge as providing to those who partook of it a ‘gnostic power concerning their own familiar nature’. What this means is that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge made the one who partook of it able to contemplate his own nature. Evagrius Pontikos, who was a student of St Gregory the Theologian, refers in the Kephalaia Gnostica VI, 72 to a contemplation of the body that seems to be related to this idea that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge purveyed a gnosis of the human constitution—for that is what St John of Damascus means.
St John makes clear that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was good for those who were perfect, but bad for those who were not—with the clear implication that Adam and Eve were not yet ready to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, but that at some future time they would have been.
He then returns to the Genesis account, saying, in what seems a bit of a non sequitur, that God did not wish us to be anxious and troubled about many things, nor persons who cared for or who administered their own life. For, St John says, when Adam ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge—evidently thus having attained to a gnosis of his own constitution—he realized that he was naked and he took care for his own life, that he be clothed on account of the shame of his nakedness. St John then remarks, quoting Genesis, that before the knowledge, ‘Both Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed.’ He then, in a very important remark, connects this lack of shame before the tasting of the fruit to the concept of dispassion (apatheia): he says that it is of extreme dispassion (apatheia) not to be ashamed of one’s own nakedness: this was the condition of Adam and Eve before they received the gnosis of their own constitution purveyed to them by the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Moreover, St John remarks, God wanted us to be dispassionate men and women of this sort—so dispassionate that we would not be ashamed of our own nakedness. It is important to note the use of the concept of dispassion (apatheia) in such a central work as this of the Orthodox Patristic tradition.
St John continues, in a very important discussion of contemplation, that God wanted us to be without care, and to have only one work in our lives, that of the angels. This work of the angels is not only the traditional angelic work of hymning unceasingly and continually the Creator, but also the work of delighting in the contemplation of God and of throwing all one’s cares upon him. It is clear that here
St John then turns, after a digression on the dual nature of the Garden—both sensible and intelligible—, to a discussion of the Tree of Life.
First let us look at how St John describes the intelligible aspect of the Garden. He states that intelligibly Adam sojourned:
in a more noble and incomparable and much more beautiful place, having as a dwelling God, the Indwelling, and having him as a glorious covering and having been encompassed with his grace and delighting as a sort of other angel in the sole fruit of his contemplation and being nourished with this.
Is this the Beatific Vision of St Thomas Aquinas? Is it the ‘clear and stable contemplation of intelligible effects, which he [Adam] perceived by an irradiation of the First Truth, either by natural knowledge or by grace (gratuita)’ of St Thomas? St Thomas had clearly read—in Latin translation surely, for his Latin quotations are not easily matchable to the original Greek—the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. But the thought categories of St Thomas Aquinas are not exactly those of St John of Damascus: it is futile to discuss whether St John of Damascus is here discussing the Beatific Vision or the contemplation of God in his intelligible effects as these are understood by St Thomas. For St John clearly is referring to a contemplation of God which is comparable to the contemplation of God by an angel, and there is no sense that an angel contemplates anything other than God himself. Moreover, the description of Adam as dwelling in God, the Indwelling, and as having God as his covering and as being encompassed by God’s grace and as delighting solely in the contemplation of God and as being nourished solely by that contemplation of God, strongly suggests that St John of Damascus understands that this is the contemplation of God himself, and not a contemplation of God in his ‘intelligible effects’. But nowhere does St John of Damascus discuss the vision of God in his essence.
To return to St John, what St John is describing is Theology, unitive prayer to God. That is, he is describing the contemplation of God attainable in mystical experience in this life. Certainly he has put this description of the contemplation of God into the context of the condition of Adam and Eve in the Garden before the Fall, but just as certainly his intent is not so much to divert himself with a description of what man has irrevocably lost as to indicate what it is to which man must attain.
The next paragraph clarifies certain aspects of St John’s doctrine. The contemplation by Adam just described is identified with the Tree of Life. Moreover, St John goes on to identify the Tree of Life with God himself. The sense of this very elliptical passage is this: The contemplation of God is itself the Tree of Life. But since the contemplation of God, the Tree of Life, grants ‘a share in the sweetness of divine participation’, the Tree of Life is assimilated to God himself. The contemplation of God, the Tree of Life, is also ‘every tree’. But in
The contemplation of God is the Tree of Life. This Tree of Life is both God himself and the ‘every tree’ in the Garden from which Adam and Eve were allowed to eat. God himself is the ‘every tree’ in the garden from which Adam and Eve were permitted to eat. What St John of Damascus is driving at is that Adam and Eve were nourished exclusively by the very contemplation of God himself—hence, the ‘every tree’ from which they were permitted to eat was both God himself and the contemplation of God himself.
St John then goes on to discuss the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Here, he returns to his original description of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge as providing to the partaker a gnostic power concerning the partaker’s own familiar constitution. First, however, he describes the Tree of Knowledge as the ‘discrimination of the contemplation split into many parts.’ This refers to a contemplation of multiplicity. It should be understood that, implicitly, St John has described the contemplation of God, that which is purveyed by, or that which indeed is, the Tree of Life, as simple: not complex, not manifold, not multiple, not resting in multiplicity.
St Isaac the Syrian in one of his homilies discusses the difference between the simplicity of spiritual knowledge and the multiplicity of mere human knowledge:
Take care, lest you think in any wise that a man receives that other, spiritual knowledge through this merely human [in the Greek: psuchikos] knowledge of ours. But I say that not only is it impossible for that other, spiritual knowledge to be received by this merely human knowledge, but not even an inkling of it can be perceived by those who are zealous to train themselves in such knowledge. And if any one of these men should wish to approach the knowledge of the spirit, then until they repudiate human knowledge, all the intricacies of its subtlety, and all the convolutions of its method, and establish themselves in a childlike manner of thought, they will not be able to draw near to it, not even by ever so little. Even the customary employment of human knowledge and its notions are a great hindrance to these men, until little by little they erase these things [from their minds [interpolation of the English translator]]. Spiritual knowledge is simple and does not shine upon human conceptions. Until our mind has been freed from its many conceptions and enters the unified simplicity of purity [i.e. dispassion], it can never experience spiritual knowledge.
This order of knowledge is the experiencing of delight that belongs to the life of that other Age. Hence it holds multiple deliberations in contempt. But human knowledge cannot know anything else except a multiplicity of deliberations. It cannot know that which is received in the simplicity [according to the note of the English translator, perhaps: ‘limpid purity’] of the mind, according to Him Who says, ‘Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye cannot enter the
.’ [Matt. 18, 3.] … Kingdomof God
The simple contemplation of God in St John of Damascus purveyed by the Tree of Life corresponds to the spiritual knowledge of St Isaac; the contemplation of multiplicity in St John of Damascus purveyed by the Tree of Knowledge corresponds to the merely human knowledge of St Isaac. St John’s presentation of the way of life of Adam and Eve in Paradise, and of the nature of the Tree of Knowledge is connected to his understanding of contemplation in this life, and that understanding, as we see in the quotation from St Isaac the Syrian, is connected to Mesopotamian spirituality. But these connections are also evident in Barlaam and Ioasaph. It would be an interesting topic for someone to do a study on: the connections of St John of Damascus with Mesopotamian Christian spirituality.
Hence, there is a strong thematic polarity between the simple contemplation of God himself, associated with the Tree of Life, and the contemplation of multiplicity provided by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moreover, this polarity of the simplicity of the contemplation of God and the multiplicity of the contemplation split into many parts is a polarity between the intelligible and the sensible: the simple contemplation of God is intelligible whereas the complex contemplation split into many parts is sensible. St John again says that this latter contemplation was not intrinsically evil and that it purveyed to the partaker the full knowledge of his own nature—of his own constitution. Not only is this contemplation, in St John’s view, not intrinsically evil, but in those who are perfect and in those who have lived in the divine contemplation—in Theology, in unitive prayer to God—it is good, since it publishes the magnificence of the works of God. But St John qualifies his doctrine: the contemplation of one’s own constitution is good for those who need not fear a change for the worse since they have made the contemplation of God a habit through long exercise, that is, since they have attained to a habit of stability in their contemplation of God.
This contemplation of one’s own familiar nature—of the constitution or of the body of the one who is conducting the contemplation—is a kind of natural contemplation.
Continuing, in a discussion which applies more to contemplatives in this life than it does to the condition of Adam and Eve in Paradise before the Fall, St John states that this contemplation of one’s own familiar constitution is not good for those who are yet youths and those who are yet the more gluttonous for desire, or appetite, since because of their instability in the higher contemplation, that of God himself, and because of their not having firmly taken up their place in sitting by the Sole Good, they are wont to be drawn towards the body and distracted by the body from the true contemplation of God himself.
We are reminded of Chapter 25 of Evagrius Pontikos’ Gnostic:
25 It is necessary to make those who dispute without having gnosis to approach the truth not from the end but from the beginning. And it is necessary not to say anything to young men concerning gnostic things, nor to permit them to touch books of that sort, for they are not able to resist the falls that this contemplation entails. That is why it is necessary to say to those who are combated by the passions not the words of peace, but how they will triumph over their adversaries. In fact, as the Ecclesiast says, ‘There is no discharge in the day of battle.’ [Eccl. 8, 8.] Those, then, who are combated by the passions and who examine the reasons (logoi) of bodies and of the bodiless [powers] resemble those sick men who debate over health. But it is when the soul is moved with difficulty by the passions that it is appropriate to taste these sweet honeycombs.
While it would be difficult to say that St John of Damascus had this chapter of the Gnostic before his mind’s eye when he wrote the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, the similarity between the two passages is striking.
What the two authors are saying is this: To those who are ‘combated by the passions’ (Evagrius Pontikos), ‘those who are yet youths and the more gluttonous for desire’ (St John of Damascus), ‘it is necessary not to say anything … concerning gnostic things, nor to permit them to touch books of that sort, for they are not able to resist the falls that this contemplation entails’ (Evagrius), ‘for on account of the uncertainty of the sojourn in those things which are better and on account of their not having firmly taken up their place in sitting by the Sole Good, this solicitude for their own body by nature draws them towards that body and distracts them’ (St John). Of course, there is a difference: Evagrius is referring to all gnostic things, all contemplations, as being ill-advised for the young and the passionate, that is, those combated by the passions, whereas St John of Damascus is saying that a specific natural contemplation, that of the contemplator’s own constitution or body, is ill-advised for those who are still passionate (that is his clear meaning), and for those who are not able easily and firmly to maintain themselves in the contemplation of God.
St John of Damascus then returns to the dual nature—both sensible and intelligible—of the Garden. He introduces the idea that the ‘every tree’ of the Genesis narrative refers to the full knowledge or gnosis of the divine power that results from all the creatures. This clearly is equivalent both to the contemplation of the ‘intelligible effects’ of God that St Thomas Aquinas concedes to Adam in
In the language of the West, in St John of Damascus’ view, the highest contemplation of God in his ‘intelligible effects’ is the contemplation of the constitution, of the making, of man himself. We remarked in the previous chapter that St Thomas Aquinas had placed man as a very small and inferior part of a grand mosaic or hierarchy of being, whereas the Greek Patristic tradition was more anthropocentric, treating man as the crown of creation. Here we see an example of that: ‘By nature, the contemplation which pertains to us, I say, that which is of our constitution, is loftier than all these conceptions and contemplations…’ St John of Damascus is here teaching us that we ascend to God through the contemplation of God’s ‘intelligible effects’—through the contemplation of his creatures: natural contemplation. Moreover, St John is saying that the contemplation which is of man’s own nature, of man’s own making by God, is the highest natural contemplation, the highest contemplation of God in his ‘intelligible effects’. It is in this sense that he quotes the psalm of David: ‘The gnosis of Thee out of me has been wondered at.’ (Ps. 138, 6.) St John means that the gnosis of God which is purveyed by the contemplation of the constitution of man himself is a source of great wonder to him. However, in St Thomas Aquinas, and even in Evagrius Pontikos, the highest contemplation of the ‘intelligible effects’ of God, or the highest natural contemplation, is not be the contemplation of man’s own constitution or making by God, but the contemplation of the angels—for in those authors the angels are higher than man, even in the capacity of their being to reveal God. But St John of Damascus himself is saying that since man is the crown of creation, the contemplation of his constitution and of his making is higher in its capacity to reveal God even than the contemplation of the angels.
However, St John of Damascus says, this gnosis by Adam of his own constitution—this is how St John has consistently understood the gnosis which Adam received from the Tree of Knowledge and by which Adam understood that he was naked—was dangerous for Adam since he was newly fixed or newly made. This is to be understood in the context of
At this point St John introduces with an initial ‘Or’ a second interpretation of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Possibly, he considers that he is entitled to provide a dual interpretation, one part corresponding to the intelligible aspect of the Garden, that of the gnosis purveyed to Adam by the fruit of each tree, and one part corresponding to the sensible aspect—the interpretation which he now proceeds to give.
St John begins with the Tree of Life, saying that the Tree of Life was ‘the more divine conception occurring from all sensible things and the ascent by means of them to the Author and Creator and Cause of all things’. This is natural contemplation taken as an ascent to God from sensible things, an ascent to the contemplation of God from the contemplation of all sensible things: here, natural contemplation is ‘the more divine conception occurring from all sensible things’.
Now St John changes his view of what the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was. St John now states that the fruit of ‘the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the sensible and impleasured food, that which sweetens in appearance but which in reality establishes him who partakes of it in the communion of evil things’. It is hard to see how this passage is consistent with what St John has just said about the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge’s being the gnosis of the constitution of man, good in the perfect but bad in the young and imperfect. This is a second, parallel interpretation. St John continues that the ‘every tree’ that was permitted to Adam was the ascent by means of the contemplation of sensible creatures to God himself, who is truly Life. This is the ascent to the contemplation of God himself by means of the natural contemplation of sensible things. The second interpretation of St John depends entirely on sensible things: the Tree of Life is the ascent by the contemplation of all sensible things to God and the Tree of Knowledge is sensible food.
St John then places in the mouth of God an important statement concerning the vivifying properties of the contemplation of God himself as attained through the contemplation of his sensible creatures: ‘Let all things bear Life as fruit for thee, and make participation in me the constitution of your own existence; for thus shalt thou be immortal.’ Here, Life and Immortality are assimilated to the contemplation, by Adam and Eve in
For, naturally, sensible food is the restoration of that which passes away, and it proceeds into the privy and into corruption; and it is impossible for that which has come to be in the communion of sensible food to remain incorruptible.
For St John has just established that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was sensible food. Here, again, St John is influenced by the image of the Hesychast who engages in the contemplation of God and who might be tempted to take care for sensible food. For we do not think that St John is saying these things merely for the sake of the past: he is pointing to the future.
What does St John mean?
St John is delineating the potentialities of man. That this is so can be seen from a consideration of Barlaam and Ioasaph. If one considers the catechetical purpose of that work of St John of Damascus, then when one comes to the end of the work one finds that St John delineates an icon of the Hesychast way of life of Sts Barlaam and Ioasaph in the desert, an icon that very closely corresponds to the description he has given here in the Exposition of the way of life of Adam and Eve in Paradise before the Fall. There is a basic difference here in the orientation of the Greek Fathers from the orientation of St Thomas Aquinas on the matter of the contemplation of God. For the Orthodox tradition is contemplative, not rationalistic. It does not limit the potential of man.
Hence, what we must understand from the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith is that man today, after the Fall, has the potential to live the life of Adam and Eve in
Here is the foundation of our remarks in the previous chapter on the St Thomas Aquinas’ psychology of man, of our remarks on his legalism, of our remarks on his model of human action, of our remarks on the particular or peculiar character of Thomism: for while the Roman Catholic Church did not discard contemplation with its reception in St Thomas Aquinas of a rationalistic, Aristotelian anthropology and psychology, it changed its anthropological and psychological orientation to an understanding of man that forecloses contemplation, reserving it for a strictly supernatural intervention of Grace.
We will now proceed to discuss the Orthodox conception of the vocation of man, but since St John of Damascus himself immediately proceeds to discuss anthropology and psychology, let us first continue with a brief outline of his anthropology.
 Exposition, II, 11—Damascus p. 71, l. 2–p. 74, l. 87.
 See Appendix 2 of Volume II.
 ST Ia, 94, 1: see Chapter IV.
 Cf. 2 Pet. 1, 4: ‘…so that you become by means of these things communicants of the Divine Nature…’.
 Cf. John 1, 4.
 Cf. John 1, 3–4.
 Cf. Isaac Homily 72, pp. 352–3.
 St John is alluding to Maria’s sitting by the feet of Jesus in the Gospel passage he has already quoted: Maria is a type of the Hesychast.
 See Volume II.
 Cf. John 1, 4.
 On the Divine Names, Chapter IV, 9.
 For it is a work of St John. For it to be a work of another hand, say that of St Euthymios of the Monastery of Iviron on Athos, then St Euthymios would have had to go to a great deal of trouble to forge the style of St John of Damascus, something that seems most unlikely.