Tag Archives: Evagrius Pontus

Five themes in Christian humanism (III)

“Dante and His Poem,” Domenico di Michelino (1417-1491); wikipedia, public domain

Continued from part II

4. Grace and virtues (the Christian moral life and Christian social ethics)

Other than dissenters such as Tertullian, the early church was happy to absorb and adapt much of the non-Christian knowledge of the time (classical philosophy). This included knowledge in the realm of ethics and politics (e.g. Aristotle’s Ethics – see e.g. Robert Louis Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought). Thus the substance of Aristotelian virtue ethics was absorbed into Christian ethics, culminating in Aquinas’s Summa.

More recently, Protestant as well as Catholic readers of Elizabeth Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre, and other modern Christian virtue ethicists have also been willing to consider the older Christianized classical virtue ethics tradition as important and helpful for today. However, there is still a tension between that tradition and the Augustinian understanding of the primacy of grace (given the extreme effects of the Fall) in human moral life. Again Christian humanism has worked to sustain a synthesis in this tension of virtue and grace, to various degrees in various phases of the tradition.

[list of potential subtopics follows]

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Vanity, all is vanity – the precision of a medieval concept


Continuing work on the “morality chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I come now to an illustration of the great precision and practicality of the medieval tradition of moral teaching. This is post 1 of 2 on the vice of “vainglory.” Post 2 is here.

In setting up this medieval section of the chapter, I’ve talked about the absence of objective value/truth in our modern reality, and Lewis’s recovery of that objective value from classical and medieval sources. I’ve also talked about how virtue gets taught in stories in the Middle Ages. But these are not the only things—maybe not even the most valuable things—we can learn from the characteristic “moral fabric” of the medieval world. For as I came to discover a few years ago in a wonderful summer seminar at Calvin College, that tradition contains riches of precision, practicality, and passion that can equip us for tremendous progress in our moral lives.

This came to me as a thunderclap out of the clear blue sky. I was born in 1963 and came of age in the 1970s. I didn’t even like the word “responsibility,” let alone anything that cramped my freedom to self-express, to enjoy the good things of the world. It has been easy for me to write the “getting earthy” chapter about enjoying God’s beauty and the “getting passionate” chapter about the emotional riches of medieval faith. Those are natural values not only of my coming-of-age but also of my entering the charismatic movement in the 1980s. But this stuff about moral correction and transformation is a whole different deal. It confronts me quite uncomfortably with the ways in which my character has been deformed by my roots in the “me generation.”

The scene was the Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar of summer 2010, a gathering of scholars in philosophy, theology, and literature to discover and discuss this particular part of the medieval moral tradition. As we gathered around this material through the sultry summer days, reading late into the evenings and rejoining the group each morning, most of us reported the same thing: at every turn we found both illumination and conviction. Continue reading

Seven deadly sins: anger

Here’s a clip from our Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar today–Rebecca DeYoung presenting and a number of seminar participants posing questions on the nature of anger, especially as described by Thomas Aquinas (and to a lesser extent, John Cassian). As usual, this is in note form, gaps, elisions, and all:


More than any other vice, there is a debate over whether this is a vice at all.

Evagrius: anger at a brother is the single dominant obstacle to pure prayer. Like Cassian, he says: get rid of anger altogether. Cassian: you can be angry at your own sin. You can be angry at the demons. For Evagrius, that’s the function of the irascible appetites.

Cassian, p. 196, chap. 6. He is SO categorical against anger! NO exceptions as to utility, etc. Also metaphor re: the blinding effect of anger. “Blinds the eyes of the heart. Obstructing the vision by the deadly beam of a more vehement illness . . . it is irrelevant whether a layer of gold or one of lead or of some other metal is placed over the eyes; the preciousness of the metal does not change the fact of blindness.” Continue reading

On Evagrius, the Desert Fathers, and the seven deadly sins: An afternoon with William Harmless

A couple of days ago, on Day 4 of the Calvin Seven Deadly Sins Seminar that I’m currently attending, we were treated to a visit from William Harmless, author of the superlative guide Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Bill spoke with us about the context and habits of the desert fathers, their therapeutic methods for dealing with sin and holiness, and the development of Evagrius’s early version of the seven deadly sins: the “Eight Thoughts.”

Bill’s presentation, accompanied with a slide show, was captivating. We also had the pleasure of hanging out with him in Bob Kruschwitz’s rooms afterwards for a pizza party. Wish I’d had my digital audio recorder on for that one! Here are my notes on the formal presentation. You’ll find the usual bits where I got a little behind the conversation and missed something, but since the presentation was very well-structured, I think you’ll get the gist of it. I’ve included the free-flowing Q&A as well, since he continued to fill in fascinating details of his portrait of the desert fathers during that time.

He started by telling us a story from Macarius of a monk being told by his abba to go to a cemetery and praise the dead. The monk did so, then returned to the abba. “What did the dead respond?” said the abba. Why, nothing of course, said the monk. They were dead! “Then go back and curse the dead,” said the abba. Same thing. The monk returned. “What did the dead respond?” Still nothing. They’re dead! Concluded the abba: “I want you to be like those dead, giving no response to praise or blame.”

That’s a diagnosis of the soul. That’s how to read these things. You’re getting a graced insight. Macarius’s nickname was “spirit-bearer”—reading people’s souls as if they were open books. That captures what was going on in the desert. This was Evagrius’s story. Continue reading

The seven deadly sins: Gregory the Great

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 Gregory the Great. He mentions all of them in only one place, in the Moralia on Job. But other mentions are scattered throughout. Bob Kruschwitz mentioned between sessions today that Aquinas, in “On Evil,” his own most thorough treatment of the capital vices, cites Gregory 500 times, mostly from all over his Moralia. It is Gregory who reduces Evagrius’s & Cassian’s eight down to seven, and sets a number of the ways that thinkers thereafter (including Aquinas) will talk about the seven. I was getting sleepy (and recording the session with my digital audio recorder for later review) and less was said about Gregory than Evagrius and Cassian, but what I scribbled down is here:

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

Gregory’s Moralia In Iob

There is one big 19th-century translation, being scanned in sections onto the computer. Google Books has a searchable version.

The Moralia on Job is a medieval commentary. Strange bird. Baptists preaching verse by verse—even the most dedicated don’t preach some verses. But Gregory always has a clue for every verse. He always does a moral interpretation, five pages on each one! Not anagogical. But moral, about how you’re supposed to live. So the capital vice stuff is scattered all over this big honkin’ commentary on Job.But the section Aquinas refers to almost half the time when he quotes Gregory is the one in our pack (Moralia Book XXI, 84-91).

This’ll preach!

Job is whining. God shows up: doesn’t say “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Gets in his face, says “I created the world. Do you have any idea what you’re doing.” And goes several more verses: I made Leviathan for fun. Take the war-horse.” And Job says Gotcha: you made the horse. But we made the war-horse, culturally.

And God replies: here’s what’s important about the warhorse–it’s things you humans can’t do, Job! Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading