The seven deadly sins: Cassian

Here’s another sample of what we’re doing here at the Calvin seminar on the seven deadly sins, at Calvin College. What are we talking about? , on the deadly sins (better: “capital vices”) in the thought of John Cassian:

Presenters: Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung (Calvin College) and Robert Kruschwitz (Baylor University):

Cassian, Conferences 5

Is this stuff weird, or what? (Bob’s words)

Hard to know about Cassian: Apparently Greek his first language. Yet he also has Latin, with such mastery that people think it might have been a first language as well. So locating where he’s from is often for scholars taking bits and pieces of his story and triangulating where in the ancient world you could have learned both of these language as a child. Romania? Greek speaking, but Latin military presence, schools.

His writings have been described as the first modern writings. They are quite amazing. No parallel in the ancient world. Sometimes you get that story about Augustine, who connects thoughts in chapters, but then he launches into four chapters on genesis. But Cassian: it’s a book, with a plan. He tells us at the front: someone knew he’d been in Egypt. After he’d left with a controversy, went to Rome, sent from there to Constantinople, then back to Rome. Now at mature age, living in Southern France. Pope Castor he’s called in Institutes: bishop, says “You know how to get Christian intentional communities going, do it for me. Write it down before you die.” Then he says “some more guys came to me, wanted some more stories. And you get more conferences. There are three books of Conferences. Very thick volume. The fifth conference, with Serapion, is in the middle of the first set: a featured spot. So you have the Institutes, then the three sets of Conferences, then he quits.

In the Institutes, it sounds a lot more like Rebeccas DeYoung: the big deal here is prayer, this is how it works, how you dress. Then you have these eight thoughts. And for each of those he constructs fascinating chapter using various fascinating “sayings” stories, like the desert fathers’ apothegmata. You see patterns more and more as you read through this very occasional material. He’s trying to organize it.

In Conferences, different. He reconstructs materkal from Saturday hanging out before Sunday prayer. Hanging out with a senex (old guy; but in desert just means “smart guy, good guy”) who is an Abba. Serapion described to as a leader you pay attention to. So on weekend, you’d get in a room . . . nobody knows whether these things really happened, or is Cassian putting sayings together, constructing them for his audience in Southern France. So that’s a puzzle. Are you getting Cassian or Serapion, for one thing.

The characters at the conference are Cassian and his friend Hermanus, who traveled with him all around . . . not clear why, but Hermanus is the fall guy, who always asks the questions. Sometimes the smart ones, sometimes the dumb ones.

This Conf 5 is the most disorganized and weird of all the conferences. Struggles to find any coherence.

Two things scholars have said: the only place this guys mentioned elsewhere in Conference is a story by Abba Moses in Cof 2 about a young guy named Serapion, who was struggling with the fact that he would steal an extra biscuit from the Abba he lived with and save it for an evening snack. What happened: they had a conference, the boy attended it. The conference turned to vice of gluttony, need for compunction. And it was like a revival preacher: “He’s been watching me, is talking to me!” and the boy confesses before the abba he’s living with and others, and it is a wonderful transformative experience. So “the traces of the elders should be followed with care . . .” 2.11 that’s the conclusion.

So Bob sees the old guy with the mental rolodex, trying to cluster, organize the vices, and they don’t all fit together, like a physician doing a diagnosis . . . Then also this fascination throughout the conference with gluttony, avarice. Almost like the boy looking at you at the end: It’s really all about gluttony, avarice. Every time a scheme is suggested in this conf, this is where gluttony and avarice are going to end up being primary for Serapion.

This is the only conference that goes through the eight principal vices. Other vices show up in other conferences, but not all like this.

“Grace of discretion” he has: a person who can make discrimination among the vices, who you can talk to about the vices. Discretion . . . there are a couple of conferences on that: when you are doing brotherly correction, make sure you get a good guide, who loves you and has wisdom.

Numbering now is continuous: 1 to 24. But this is the middle of the first set of 9.

Audience: the monks themselves? Institutors of the monasteries in So. France? Bob: yes, all of the above.

We have more copies of bits of the conferences and institutes than any other book other than the bible in the medieval era from late antiquity. Partly because in the Rule of Benedict says you are supposed to read either the Bible, or Cassian, or the apothegmata partum.

Now, the weird groupings. List of vices in 5.2: almost exactly the reverse of Gregory’s list: starts with gluttony. Could be one reason gluttony a big deal in this thing. Then fornication, avarice (philiguria, love of silver), anger, sadness, akedia, kenodoxia (vainglory), then pride (superbia).

Cassian will use this order in the Institutes. This is either cassian’s or Serapion’s order. Very close to Evagrius’s list, though he seomtimes has envy.

Now, how to divvy them up. The natural/unnatural distinction. 5.4.4 there is a distinction between carnal and spiritual vices. We’re told this is important for the sake of a more refined understanding of their remedies and natures.

Aquinas really does almost nothing to suggest a remedy for a vice. He’s all about getting them figured out, how they’re related, offspring vices . . . Doesn’t tell you in De Malo how to fix your wagon. Cassian totally unlike this: he’s always giving you inspirational stories, passing on people’s advice about how to fix things . . . He does tell you here about why some things are carnal, some spiritual.

Immediately he switches to natural/unnatural. The carnal/spiritual stuff doesn’t really map. It just gets lost. 5.3 – 5.8 is on the natural/unnatural as mapped out below.


Conf 5.5:

You aren’t ever really going to get beyond these, because you have a body. But you can get away from avarice, etc. (see below under that vice)



Conf. 5.8.1

Inst. 7.3

The following are thumotic, natural responses


Inst. 7.1

It looks like the following are parts of natural human nature



Conf. 5.8 . Inst., 7,5

So the following two are considered “unnatural”—belonging to culture. They can imagine that before the flood there were people with no stirrings of avarice, because of the ways the community was organized. Suppose that’s encouragement that you could do it again.

So how’s that related to original sin? (the question just after the break). What does this mean?

Thinks avarice related to original sin because there is a distortion of the self that opens us to that. But the real distortion of avarice comes from the constructions of a bent culture. That’s what allows this vice to “get you.” None of the rest of them are like that, it turns out. Or every culture has vainglory, etc.



So, the above (natural/unnatural) is just one of the puzzling classificatory systems in Conference 5. Sure there’s social construction around the vices designated as “natural,” but there’s something about avarice that you might be able to construct a community where you could do away with avarice. And perhaps envy arises in societies where avarice doesn’t exist.

LARGE amount of discussion

Other sorting devices that are equally troublesome/complicated:

2:15:50 on tape

Inner/outer notions. 5.3 – 5.9. Debate: are there things that might be called the motivated causes of these things?

Gluttony and lust must involve bodily action.

Vainglory and pride don’t need bodily action.

Aroused from outside us: avarice and anger. Even though anger is natural and avarice is unnatural ono the other sorting device, on this one they are paired. If you are going to get angry, someone is pushing your buttons

Aroused completely from within us. This will be fused by Greg/Aquinas: sadness and acedia

Now this is similar to the previous list if you just pair anger and avarice. Now you’ve got a nice set of four twos.

Some of this hinted at by Evagrius, who puts two vices together sometimes.

These are therapeutic devices to help people see their problems are linked to other problems.

Kevin Corrigan at Emory has a book on Evagrius and Gregory of Nyssa. He has this odd theory—Bob doesn’t think it works—that you can group these vices in pairs of 2s, 4 sets. He thinks they are some hidden (a bothersome adjective) list from Plato’s Republic—the cities, the four degenerate cities: tyranny becomes gluttony, fornication (you’re body’s running the show) etc. Bob just doesn’t see it. Still people today trying to help sort the list . . .

Other devices:

Causally. 5.10: one leads to the other if you pair them up. So you can kill two vices with one therapeutic stone.

Skipped 5.6.6: what was going on with Jesus: answer: same thing as was going on with Adam, because Christ is the second Adam.

This is the only place where you are finding, in Serapion, the use of Bible. Rebecca: Nation of canaan is the other place: Egypt matched with gluttony.

Craig: any sense of comparing the temptations of x to archetype in Hebrew Bible of children in desert, 40 years, etc. Bot: yes, you get this briefly here. Then sermon on the occasion of the birthday of Benedict of Nursia. Death day actually. Bob says it’s sermon 54 by Aelred of Riveaulx: an independent tradition: you have these nations you have to conquer to get into the promised land.

Rebecca: prayer is living in Zion (recapture, around 2:25:20)

Bob: there’s a good book on Scripture and the Desert Fathers [retrieve reference]

Cassian doesn’t use Apatheia. He uses “pure in heart.” Doesn’t think he’s shifting from Evagrius.

What does it mean to say these 8 vices are principal vices. 5.16. Aquinas gets this from Gregory. In 5.16 Cassian uses term “principal”—because these vices lead to other things.

Acedia leads to laziness, sleepiness, but also to restlessness, roving about, instability of mind and body, curiosity, being a pain to other people, being a hard case, etc. None of these are failing to have projects, a game plan, which is the way Taylor interprets this vice. So that’s a theme that gets picked up.

See 5.23, this reflection about which virtues would replace the principle vices. In midst of discussion of Exodus. Bob not a fan of thinking that opposed to a virtue is a vice, etc. These seem such complex aspects of human nature . . . not just one thing will do the trick. Lots of stuff needs to be developed against that.

Opposed to lust is chastity, anger is patience (a central Christian virtue; Tertullian writes on it—the first book entirely on one virtue), . . .

Tree metaphor, bottom of 186, also 189 in 5.VII: roots and fruits image. You often in art see seven capital vices being tree, with trunk being pride, and sub-branches being daughter vices.

Rebecca: that’s a huge development in the penitential systems by the time Aquinas is around: primary vices have these symptoms, offshoots, which are helpful in diagnosing, and then you cut the branch off. Part of this diagnostic pattern: getting the offspring vices right.

Bob: very last thing, greatest thing about Conference 5, just jerks the rug out from under most of the rest of the conference: this is Serapion’s idea that you need to go after the vice that’s really attacking you, and to tailor the whole complex system of stuff, of responses, around the idea that you have a vice that is most besetting to you. So I see here the boy saying “It’s really about gluttony and avarice—that’s what most gets me.”

You would have thought that you should go to the root to get the branches, or one vice to get the one paired with it. But SErapion says, manage the rest of the vices that wonn’t inflame/exacerbate the problem you have, but go after that one besetting vice. Rebecca: yeah, so don’t get caught up in the systems: if your case deviates, deal with your case. Like in medicine: if the symptoms present differently, then deal with your particular problem. Bob: yeah, and look for drug interactions.

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