The seven deadly sins: Evagrius

Here I am at the Calvin seminar on the seven deadly sins, at Calvin College. What are we talking about? Here’s a sample, on the deadly sins (better: “capital vices,” that is, dispositions from which a bunch of other nasty dispositions and sins flow) in the thought of Evagrius Pontus, whose list included eight of the suckers:

Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar Day 2

A survey of the seven deadly sins (capital vices) in Evagrius’s Praktikus, Gregory the Great’s Moralia, and John Cassian’s  Conferences, conference 5

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

Evagrius (345 – 399; died as Origenist controversy breaking out) inherited and joined well-established desert tradition. Showed up in late 300s. Not an innovator re inventing the desert experience.

What he did do was try to gather, systematize, innovate a bit, but right down what was going on already. Compiler in a creative way.

Cassian (365 – 435?) joined him out in the desert for around 2 decades. When Evagrius died, he set out for Southern France, set up a monastic version of the desert tradition out in France.

Gregory the Great (540 – 604) the next big one in the tradition. Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences were canonical readings, so G knew them inside and out.

So today: who was influencing Evagrius?

He’s extremely well educated, interestingly. Coming from Cappadocian fathers in his theological training. Also philosophical: knows Aristotle, Stoics, Platonists. Holding those elements together.

Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen were the people who trained him spiritually. He had a relationship with a married woman. Fled. Then Melania the Elder, then Rufinus. They sent him off to the desert. Comes from church hierarchy.

Evagrius had a lot to leave behind: more than our PhD training, networks, etc. Really abandoned world to get to desert.

Also interesting to know where his philosophical training came from. Platonic, Stoic. The Aristotelian faculty psychology of Aquinias is not in Evagrius. Tripartite Platonic soul: Nous (the rational part of the soul—the real you; not seat of passions but rationality; susceptible to pride, vainglory, but also capable of contemplation), Thumos (used with area of “anger,” becomes “irascible” part in Aquinas), epithumia (desiring part, attracted to goods of the flesh). He tracks which vices are related to which part

From stoics you get the four cardinal virtues tradition from Plato. A bit sloppier in Aristotle, mixed up in 11 virtues, including “wittiness.” Virtues characteristic of apatheia, tranquility of spirit. NOT “apathy.” Passionlessness. Must understand difference between stoics and Aristotelians here. Aquinas makes much of this. For Aquinas, passion is trainable by reason. But his passions different from those of stoics/desert fathers: “disturbing, unruly” passions. If non-disturbing, then not a passion; part of apatheia.

From Origen, another theological influence, probably the main one in Evagrius, we get the inheritance of demonology. All this talk about spiritual warfare, demons, articulated by Origen, E’s main source on that stuff. Pieces feeding into Origen’s take on this stuff: biblical and traditional sources. Biblical sources: Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness: Matt 4 and Luke 4. Always fun puzzle for students: which 3 vices was Jesus wresdtling with in the desert. Tradition itself at odds with this: everyone agrees on gluttony for bread. Thrown from temple mount: vainglory? Avarice? And for the last one either vainglory or pride. Interesting discussions with evagrius and cassia on that.

The desert experience was imitation Christi of Christ’s own experience. Trying to get selves into psychological, moral state to be capable of contemplation. The stages oare Ascesis (praktike, according to Evagrius), the goal of which is contemplation (apatheia—virtue). The praktike is to purify the soul to contemplate first creation (natural contemplation) and then the Trinity. The praktike is the first stage of the monk’s training. Feels rationalistic

[Q: heavily derived from philosophical traditions, esp. Plato? She answers: Stoics too. Living life according to reason. Stoics aren’t as anti-body as Platonists will be. But they feel anti-emotion. Rise above the things not under your control. If someone dies, let it go. Feels more callous. Platonism more on vision of body. Look at Origenist theology: Origen’s cosmology has a two-stage creation. First stage is creation of spiritual creatures. Second stage is those creatures becoming embodied. Neo-Platonism: first emanation, second emanation (soul), then possibility of embodiment.

Bob: alost impossible to trace Evagrius’s sourcdes. Only one for sure is the pseudo-Aristotle source snippet in our sourcebook. Collective unconscious. We’re reading in a bit.

Rebecca: Also can find it in Paul, in that cultural milieu elevating the rational. The biblical sources are imbued in these sources too. Read the chapters on prayer: nice complement to the more technical treatises. The reason you want escape from disturbing passions is so that you can have apatheia, undisturbed prayer, which is the nature of things, an encounter with God, our created purpose. The reason anger so disturbing is that it has maximum power to disturb prayer.].

So you have discernment and resistance: demons, vices, eight thoughts (not even “evil thoughts”; Greek is logismoi) Demons challenge them. Evagrius giving the monk advice: how to recognize them when they come, and how to resist. Prof. Moody in Harry Potter: “Constant vigilance!”

Evagrius interesting, as with Cassian: he’s a tactitian. How to know what’s coming at you, how to recognize enemy, how to choose the appropriate weapon against each vice.

Collection: In the garden of evil: the vices and culture in the Middle Ages, by Richard Newhauser, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies–see essays by Stewart and one by Carole Straw on Cassian and Gregory. GET!

When he says Nous, he means the biblical sense of heart: David “man after God’s own heart.” Kierkegaard: Purity of hear is to will one thing.

In Evagrius, stoics have distinction between things that are up to us and things not up to us . . . and then indifference. Part of what you do in the stages of discernment is figure out what’s under your control and what’s not.

Are these demons? Evagrius talks about demons as if they’re physical demons, who throw rocks, have a certain smell. Sounds like African spirituality than the little demon on the shoulder whispering thoughts. Tough to call demons vice. Vice is to us internal. “thoughts”—is that thoughts suggested by demons? Or our thoughts?

So we distinguish external (demons making suggestions) from internal. If you hang onto the thought, make it your own, it will come out in sinful action. That’s the pattern you see. Part of the internal process will be to internalize the suggestion. Will talk about fantasy, memory, imagination, as way of taking thought in, making it your own, dwelling on it. This becomes inflamed in your passion of, say, anger, then into act of anger, gossip, slander, etc.

Greek for the vices that he’s using. Then particular strategies for resistance: one of the more interesting things in Evagrius. Who knew you could use vainglory against lust!

Huperephania = pride

Kenodoxia = vainglory

Akedia (a-kedia: lack of care; though this is simplistic; an invention of Evagrius. He inherits “laziness, slackheartedness” from Origen; you read in Cassian an antidote of this as manual labor. But Evagrius has something more complex in mind. Long paragraph in the Praktikus) = a kind of no-man’s land. Among rational vices? Vices regarding our powers of resistance? She’ll put it with thumos. You battle it with courage, perseverance, which are virtues of thumos

Orge (sometimes thumos) = wrath

Lupe = sadness

Vices of desiring part

Philarguria (sometimes pleonexia, which is the vice of injustice in the Republic of Plato, uber vice the way justice is uber virtue) = Avarice

Porneo (later fornicatio) Lust

Gastrimargia (Evagrius uses that one; later in Latin ventris something—which just makes it sound bad) = Gluttony

The order is, start with carnal vices at bottom in your training. Sommetimes he insinuates that sadness follows wrath, sometimes follows avarice. It’s the “fallout vice.” You get frustrated, feel bad about the whole situation, resent it. His big thing on these three, wrath, sadness, avarice, is incomplete renunciation.

Strategies of resistance:

Obviously fasting, vigils, psalmody. But antirrheticus the interesting example. She’s tried this with her students. Pedagogical experiment. For each of the vices . . . what does Christ do to respond to temptation: throws scripture at devil. For each vice, they picked a pithy “mantra” from scripture to repeat to self: Wrath: “Let your gentleness be evident . . .” Interesting as a tactic. Initially felt foreign, cerebral, possibly ineffective. But that internalization of Scripture: first defense. She’d recommend that to us. David Brakke just did first translation of antirrheticus. Great title “Talking back: A monastic handbook for combating demons.” Scripture variations for all the vices.

He’s a brilliant psychology: gluttony suggests to you you won’t get enough to eat, etc. Sounds like psychological discourse on fasting: not healthy, bad for body! Typical excuses. People coming to you who fasted too much and suffered in their bodies for it . . .

Darin: pitting vainglory vs. lust, p. 108, #50. Two demons, one that has to do with dishonor, and the other with honor, can’t attack at the same time. Puzzling. [discussion starts around 36/37 perhaps, on this]

A lot of discussion after that on physiological aspects of fasting, sexuality, etc. E.g. Rebecca: purpose of fasting is to be a little hungry all the time. Can actually extend the lifespan. Also FOUR hours of sleep/day! How do you function with that?

Question from participant; did these guys do this gradually in the desert? Rebecca: You had to be tested in a community before you came out as solitary. Even solitaries would come back weekends for shared meal, worship service, etc. Not like the life of Antony. It is a communal enterprise: must be tested and approved by community. Warned monks not to go out too early. If you fail, bad for you and the community. Nitria is where Evagrius first came, then out from there to Cellia (city of cells; sp?).

Bob: there are a lot of experiments. Pachomius, a military guy: 40 months in this barracks, 40 In that one. Bill Harmless’s Desert Christians is good on the broad swath of these practices.

Second question: in Aquinas, vices are result of habituation. Here not at all: either vices from outside, external suggestion, or built into our nature. But no discussion about gradually acquiring these vices over time as in Thomas. And Jonathan: no matter how much you get virtues, the assaults never go away. Their origin are from the outside, you internalize them. Interesting.

Rebecca: yes, the picture of warfare is consistent. And in some senses this is an affirmation of human nature, from outside us, a disordered aspect, not creation itself.

I ask: the visual, the imagination—is it always site of danger, demons, or can it be used as part of the solution, the prescription?

Rebecca: The imagination is a source of potential danger. Lots of images used by demons. If you get image of woman, can imagine her as allegorical symbol, then you’ve arrived at the boundaries of chastity. See p. 78, #19. But don’t spend too much time on that image. Won’t attribute faculties of the soul themselves with corruption, but there are dangers with particular ones.

Bob: on the imagination business: interesting place where Evagrius talks about songs, in the Praktikum, p. 109, 71: Notice the role of the song in shaping the imagination. BUT psalms, hymns, spiritual songs can clearly have the opposite effect, shaping the ways we think. Assuming they also give us new images. Also Evagrius: times he thinks of prayer as imageless. Some scripture passages you can think about if you’re praying. Others lead you off into the story. David & Bathsheba. You could get a lectio divina goingn on this. (He’s not sure where that is). Rebecca: In Thoughts, he talks about “mental representations,” along with thoughts, dreams, and demonic thoughts vs. good thoughts, and dreams as means of diagnosing soul. For example he’ll discuss in prayer: the reasons that persistence of mental images destroys knowledge. Me: one of them (Cassian, Evagrius), says when you dream with images, that’s a sign you haven’t reached apatheia, passionlessness yet.

Question on people rejecting their families. (Before a bunch of the above.)

Craig Boyd, p. 110: Love is the offspring of impassibility. Rebecca had said, it’s not the “disturbing passions.” But he sees this language as too stoic. He finds this deeply troubling. But in next line: fear of God . . . corrective aspect. Fear is OK, but love is product of impassibility. It’s too stoic for him. Too disengaged. The word impassibility.

Rebecca: If he’d used tranquility instead. That invokes the ability to be at peace in the Lord, undisturbed by the kinds of desired pushing against . . .  Apatheia evokes all the wrong things for her. The q is what are you disengaging too much. But when you hear about their love of brothers, the lengths to which they’d go to help others.

Craig: what about Jesus’ zealous love in the temple. That seems a disturbing kind of love. But what’s their canon within the canon. A stoicized version of Jesus? Too much on tranquility; we need zeal as an aspect of love. Even affection.

Rebecca: for him askesis gets to apatheia, to enable gnosis. So knowledge is the goal. For me it feels cerebral. For him knowledge of God is akin to/identical to love for the divine. In chapters he uses that word Love to describe the relationship we’re seeking with God. And if you use the word gnosis, it doesn’t come across right. Here again the ambiguous relationship with the body and the emotions associated with the body. This aversion to body, sexuality is present here again. I get uncomfortable with this.


Leftover discussion of Evagrius on nature, grace, fallenness (corruption, degradation, woundedness of human condition. Rebecca: Human nature will never cut it by itself; something is preventing us. Bob: these were written as manuals—like marching orders. Have already done theological background. But you’re right; little suggestion here reflecting on the doctrine of the Fall or its implications for the structure of the vices.

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