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22: First Movements as Bad Thoughts: Origen and his Legacy

PART IV: From Stoic Agitations to Christian Temptations
22: First Movements as Bad Thoughts: Origen and his Legacy
I shall now turn to the way in which the concept of first movements was transformed by Christian thinkers and how it was applied to a Christian debate on whether moderation or eradication of emotion was the proper ideal for humans in this life. Both issues relate to Augustine's distinctive and influential views on sexual desire.
First movements applied to Biblical stories

The idea of initial shocks or first movements was first taken over by Philo the Jewish philosopher and then by the Church Fathers.1 A special Stoic term pre-passion (propatheia or in Jerome's Latin propassio antepassio) is recorded by Philo Origen Jerome and as Simo Knuuttila has pointed out to me Didymus the Blind. Didymus like Origen before him was head of the Christian catechetical school in Alexandria where he instructed Jerome so all four sources were linked with Alexandria.2 Origen at least in Rufinus’ Latin speaks of first movement (primus motus) as well as of pre-passion (propatheia).3 They and others apply Stoic ideals to biblical stories and sayings to the Psalmist's fear to the souls of the saints to Abraham's mourning Sarah to his fear to Christ's condemnation of the man who looks at a woman to lust after her to St Paul's injunction drawn from the Psalms ‘Be angry’ to Christ's enduring the cross and to Christ's weeping and distress.4 In fact Christ was grieved in at least three contexts.5 Some of these reactions it is said should be reinterpreted as no more than pre-passion. Mere titillation (titillare) at a woman without consenting to anything would be no more than a thought (cogitatio) and a pre-passion (propassio) not a passion (passio affectus). What Christ condemns according to Jerome and Augustine is looking at a woman in order deliberately to stir up one's own lust.6 But because the Stoic idea of pre-passion is reinterpreted the denial of emotion is less clear-cut than it would otherwise have been.

The pseudo-Pauline Epistle to the Hebrews it has been said hints at a different way of Stoicizing Christ's loud cries and tears at the prospect of his death. Instead of representing the first movements which Stoic theory had only recently distinguished they represent the Stoic eupatheia of caution or reverence (eulabeia). At least the Epistle uses the Stoic word eulabeia and says that his cries and tears were needed because of the godly fear (eulabeia) which presumably they manifested.7 If this is the Epistle's intention it will be clutching at straws. Appeal to first movements was an easier way to make Christ conform to the Stoic model.
Are biblical first movements distinguished from emotions?
Jewish and Christian thinkers were not always clear about Seneca's point that Stoic pre-passions are not yet emotion. And this is because pre-passions are not analysed in Seneca's crisp way but treated more vaguely as some kind of preliminary to emotion. Seneca had himself called them ‘preliminaries’ (principia).8 We can see the blurring happening if we take some of these religious authors in turn starting with Philo.
Philo of Alexandria
Although Philo at least in Procopius’ paraphrase already cited describes Abraham's bewailing Sarah in Genesis 23: 3 as merely a pre-passion9 he elsewhere describes it as a case of emotion moderated by-reason (meson metrion metriopatheia).10 Philo is equally vague when he describes how Abraham came to beat his breast and then stood up from Sarah's corpse. He puts this in terms of Abraham's not going all the way but turning back under the influence of reason.11 We are left unclear whether he suffered grief or not. The first two passages run as follows:
That Abraham's was a pre-passion not a passion is shown by its being said not that he beat his breast but that he came to beat his breast. And after ‘he beat his breast’ has not been preferred the point is also shown by the words Abraham rose up from the corpse’.12
When he had lost his lifelong partner whose qualities are revealed by our account and indicated by oracles distress like an athlete began to strip and dust itself in his soul. But he remained master strengthening and powerfully encouraging his reason the natural adversary of the emotions which he had used as his counsellor throughout his life. At that moment he thought it especially important to obey its advice on what would be beneficial and best. And that was neither to toss about beyond measure (metrion) as if at an entirely novel and spontaneous disaster nor to be emotionless (apatheia) as if nothing painful had happened but to choose the mean (to meson) rather than the extremes (akra) and try to be moderate in emotion (metriopathein).13
Philo adds two unconventional treatments of pre-passion both from the same work Questions on Genesis. We saw in Chapter 2 that he tries to fill a lacuna in the Stoic list of eupatheiai by inserting a propatheia or pre-passion namely bites and contractions to serve as a eupathic counterpart of the emotion of distress. The Stoics had denied there was any such counterpart for the sage to suffer since the sage is so far removed from any regret.14
Philo diverges from the Stoics again in a passage to which Margaret Graver has drawn my attention by treating hope not as an emotion but as a pre-passion preceding joy.15
Origen: first movements as bad thoughts
Origen if we can trust Rufinus’ Latin paraphrase makes a decisive change. In mentioning first movements he connects them with the idea of bad thoughts (logismoi Latin cogitationes)16 which he takes from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark who talk of bad thoughts coming from the heart.17 Origen sometimes talks of the bad thoughts in Rufinus’ Latin paraphrase as bad suggestions (suggestiones)18 a term echoed by Augustine.19 The same connections are found not only in Rufinus’ Latin but also in Greek in later Christians discussing emotional struggle in the same tradition like Climacus in the sixth to seventh centuries who also connects ‘first movements’ with thoughts.20 And it happens too with the other Stoic term ‘pre-passion’. For Jerome writing in Latin in the century after Origen connects ‘pre-passion’ with thoughts in no fewer than three of the passages which will be quoted below in this chapter.21
Origen's shift is a major one. We may possibly make it more intelligible by thinking of it as a change of focus from Seneca's first movement the shock to its cause (see Chapter 2) the appearance. But Stoic appearances are still different from Christian thoughts and are not subject to the Christian questions which I shall stress later in the chapter ‘Did you let it linger?’ ‘Did you enjoy it?’ ‘Did you put yourself in the way of it?’
There is another difference from Stoicism for the bad thoughts though suggested to us by various sources are sometimes proffered by the devil or demons or bad angels. Even then the bad thoughts provide only an agitation and incitement (commotio sola et incitamentum) which it is up to us to resist.22 At other times we derive the bad thoughts from our natural constitution. Then too they are merely the beginnings and seeds as it were (initia velut quaedam semina) of sin and it is only if we do not resist that the demons take advantage. This is the passage in Rufinus’ Latin paraphrase that explicitly uses Seneca's term ‘first movements’ (primi motus) for the bad thoughts.23 So it is not only in pagans but also in Christians that the term antedates the twelfth century:24
We find that the ‘thoughts (cogitationes) which proceed from our heart’ whether they are a memory of some actions or a contemplation of things and their causes sometimes come from us ourselves sometimes are stirred up by hostile powers and sometimes are introduced even by God or the holy angels.…
But we must think that nothing else happens to us as a result of the good or bad things that are suggested (suggeri) to our heart except a mere agitation and incitement that provokes us to good or bad things. It is possible for us when a malign power has begun to incite us to evil to repel the wicked suggestions (suggestiones) from us and to resist the worst blandishments and do absolutely nothing culpable.25
So it is a clear argument that just as in good things human intention by itself alone is inadequate for accomplishing good since it is always brought to full accomplishment by divine help so too in the opposite case we receive certain beginnings and as it were seeds of sin from those things which we are given by nature for our use. But when we have indulged them beyond the point of adequacy and have failed to resist the first movements (primi motus) of intemperance then the hostile power gains a position from this first offence [the over-indulgence] and incites and urges us on in every way eager to spread our sins more widely. Indeed while we humans provide occasions and beginnings (occasiones et initia) of sin the hostile powers extend them far and wide and if possible endlessly.26
Demons had already been given a role in producing emotions by Origen's teacher Clement of Alexandria (died before AD 215)27 and Origen was to be followed by the desert Father Antony (died 356)28 as well as by Evagrius. On the pagan side Porphyry agrees that bad demons stir up emotions in us.29
Talk of thoughts in this context also becomes standard after Origen. Antony speaks of demons or devils producing thoughts (logismoi).30 And the reference to thoughts (cogitationes logismoi) is echoed again in many others.31 Climacus uses Seneca's and Origen's term ‘first movements’.32
Origen's conflation of first movements with thoughts added to the unclarity over whether those undergoing first movements are experiencing emotion. Sometimes Origen reflects the Stoics very faithfully. He points out that one can resist movements (kinēmata) because one need not give them assent (sunkatathesis). But he obscures the situation by coupling kinēmata with pathē a word which in this context the Stoics would have reserved for full emotion and by allowing pleasure (hēdonē) to occur before assent.33 What is fully Stoic is his statement that one can sometimes avoid anger but cannot avoid one's heart being heated within one.34 He is accurate again in saying that pre-passion is involuntary and not a sin.35 He is careful to say that Christ was not saddened with the sadness of the emotion itself.36 He insists that the Gospel does not say he was afraid or sad but that he began to be afraid and began to be sad. On the other hand this clarity is slightly marred by Origen (in Rufinus’ paraphrase) using the rather vague expression again in the same passage that Christ did not suffer any more of sadness or fear than just its preliminaries (nihil amplius tristitiae vel pavoris pattens nisi principium tantum). The word ‘preliminary’ (principium) is exactly that used by Seneca (On Anger 2. 2. 2) but there the word is supported by further explanation. Origen or Rufinus on his behalf did not want to go too far because he had to insist against certain heresies that Christ had a human mind and a human body.37
On Christ's beginning to be sad:38
He ‘who has been tempted in every respect as we are yet has not sinned’39 is not saddened with the sadness of the emotion itself (passio ipsa) but is made in accordance with human nature only in respect of the very beginning of sadness and fear (ipsum principium tristitiae et pavoris) so that to his disciples who were present and especially to Peter who had a high opinion of himself he should show in actual practice what he would also say to them afterwards that ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’.40 One should never be confident in the flesh but should always fear for it. For incautious confidence leads to boasting but fear of weakness encourages us to flee to God's help just as it encouraged the Lord himself to go forward a little to fall on his face and pray.
So he did indeed begin to be sad and troubled (ērxato lupeisthai kai adēmonein; Latin coepit tristari et taediari)41 in accordance with his human nature which is subject to such emotions (passiones) but not in accordance with his divine power which is far removed from emotion of this kind.
And we say this of Jesus so that you should not think as some heresies do that he was a man but should think that God took on the true nature of the human body. He was able to suffer with our weaknesses since he himself was clothed with the weak nature of a human body sharing like us in a body and blood. For the children of whom he said ‘Behold I and the children whom God has given me’ also ‘share in flesh and blood’.42 So he saw the struggle confronting him which for him was ‘not against flesh and blood’ but ‘against kings of the earth’ ‘set against him’43 and princes gathered together against him in greater force than ever. And he began to feel afraid (pavere) or to be sad (tristari) without suffering anything more of sadness or fear than just its beginning. For it is not written that he was afraid or sad but that he began to be afraid and began to be sad44 when he actually said ‘My soul is sad unto death.’45 That seems to mean something such as if he had said ‘Sadness has begun in me so that I may not be altogether without a taste of sadness. This is in me not always but up to the time of death so that once I am “dead to sin”46 I shall also die to all sadness of which only the beginning was in me.’
On temptation:47
But if anyone should say that what comes from outside us is such that it is impossible to resist anything of that sort when it has happened let him pay attention to his own experiences (pathē) and movements (kinēmata) to see if there is not some approval (eudokēsis) and assent (sunkatathesis) going on and an inclination of his command centre to this particular thing because of these incentives (pithanotētes). For example if a woman displays herself to someone who has decided to be continent and restrain himself from sex and she invites him to do something contrary to his intention it is not she who is the perfect cause (autotelēs aitia) of his setting aside his intention. For he commits the licentious act (akolasia) after approving the titillation (gargalismos) and the smoothness of the pleasure (to leion tēs hēdonēs) come what may (pantōs) without willing (beboulēmenos) to resist it or ratify his decision. In someone else in the same circumstances on the other hand who has taken more lessons and practised the titillations and incitements (erethismoi) occur but his reason is better strengthened and nourished by practice and has been confirmed by doctrine towards the good or come near to being confirmed. And it pushes back the incitements and weakens the appetite.
On ‘my heart was heated within me’:48
It is possible when the demon of anger is standing over us not to get angry. But perhaps it is impossible not to get heated.
On ‘they bear a grudge against me.… My heart is troubled within me.… Fear and trembling came over me and darkness hid me’:49
Every good man knows that sinning in one's thoughts (logismoi) is one thing and is tolerable but sinning in word and deed is another and is a dangerous burden. And that is why if it sometimes comes about that there is turmoil (klonos) and harm (blabē) in his thoughts the wise man keeps this inside and utters no word as is the way with a hidden sin nor does he bring the act to completion for he knows that a thought (enthumēma) is curable. But a sin in word and deed is hard to cure and sometimes incurable. And that is why he [the psalmist] says ‘my heart is troubled within me’. For I did not announce my trouble (tarakhē) nor act in any way upon it. But when cowardice fell on me because of the death that follows sin I kept it within myself. For cowardice is made apparent by external signs and he who is thus revealed becomes a stumbling-block to others. ‘Fear and trembling came over me and darkness hid me’ belongs to human nature which possesses the emotional part (pathētikon) [of the soul] both irascible (thumikon) and appetitive (epithumētikon). If one progresses (prokoptein) in virtue the emotional part does not disappear but it comes to be in the state called sympathy (sumpatheia).
On ‘Be angry’:50
The words also refer to something unwilled (aproaireton) which some call the occurrence of pre-passion (propatheia; in Rufinus’ Latin prima commotio) and which drags us on the occurrence of certain incentives (erethismoi) to the type of anger which we defined earlier. So if we take ‘be angry’ in this second way I mean as something unwilled happening by way of pre-passion it is no sin to be liable to fall away from the good.
Didymus the Blind
Didymus the Blind Alexandrian ascetic teacher of Rufinus and Jerome and older contemporary of Evagrius gives one of the clearest Christian accounts of pre-passion.51 His examples are the Psalmist's fear (deilōthēnai) the souls of the saints Christ's enduring (hupomenein) the Cross his beginning to be distressed at his forthcoming betrayal (Mark 14: 33; Matthew 26: 37) and his being described as tested or tempted (peirasthai) like us but without sin (Hebrews 4: 15). The explanation of the last is that pre-passion is not yet sin.
Pre-passion must be ascribed to Christ or his soul would have a different substance from ours and there would be no glory in his comportment and no struggle on the Cross. But on the other hand it must not be supposed that his soul has an irrational faculty of desire (orektikē). For his reaction was a rational one. Mark and Matthew describe it with the verb adēmonein which Didymus defines as [distress] of something rational coupled with rehearsing (anapolein) the reasons for the distress. It is the substance of the rational soul that receives anger appetite distress disturbance (tarakhē) and fear.
What then is pre-passion? Is it as in Seneca something of a quite different kind from the emotion? No for the Psalmist's fear (Psalm 34: 17 in the Septuagint) is called a pre-passion. Moreover Didymus speaking of disturbance (tarakhē) which he has just listed along with clear examples of emotion says that when something which excites fear is at hand the rational soul is inevitably disturbed. But sometimes it stops the disturbance at once so that nothing comes after. That is pre-passion:
[Question…] Since ‘in all things he has been tempted like us without sinning’ [Hebrews 4: 15] we ascribe to him pre-passion (propatheia). But pre-passion is not sin. If you do not ascribe this you introduce into him a different soul substance and it has no glory and is not worthy of praise and crowns because it is not troubled. At any rate you have in the Gospel [Hebrews 4. 15] ‘he began to be troubled (thambeisthai) and perplexed (adēmonein)’. Beginning is not something different from pre-passion. This beginning is just that a beginning only and has nothing after it. Only this [soul] chose good in preference to the choice (haireisthai pro haireseōs) of evils.
[Question…] This has often been said. The substance of the rational (soul) is receptive of what it is its nature to receive. It is receptive of anger appetite distress disturbance (tarakhē) fear. When something exciting fear is at hand the rational substance is disturbed (tarattesthai) come what may. But sometimes it halts the disturbance (tarakhē) at once so that nothing more happens after it. They call this pre-passion.52
Jerome as already remarked connects pre-passion with thoughts (cogitationes). As with Origen his accuracy in reflecting Stoicism is variable. He insists that Christ's beginning to be sad was only a pre-passion but adds that Christ was truly saddened (vere contristatus) because he had taken on genuine humanity. It was merely that emotion did not dominate in his mind (ne passio dominaretur).53
But Jerome reflects Stoicism accurately some of the time despite this distortion. He correctly notes that the transition from pre-passion (propatheia propassio) to emotion (pathos passio) is marked by assent (consentire) will (voluntas)54 decision (decernere)55 and judgement (indicium).56 He is in line with Stoicism in saying that pre-passion cannot be avoided and would not be punished by God.57 Yet he adds a thoroughly Christian idea that some fault (culpa) attaches to it even though it is not a matter for accusation (crimen).58 Jerome we shall see in Chapter 24 is like Augustine in recognizing degrees of sin.
It is just as well that the mere occurrence of the bad thought involves no sin given that Christ was himself subject to first movements yet sinless. Christ spent forty days in the desert where he was subjected by the devil to three temptations which are described and he was tempted throughout the forty days59 which some took to imply further temptations. The desert Father Evagrius to whom I shall devote the next chapter tried to identify the temptations with various of the eight first movements which he distinguished.60 And before him Origen had already correlated the temptations with various vices.61 Yet Christ was free of all sin even of original sin which the rest of us supposedly inherit from the first human Adam. Augustine had a rationale for this exemption namely that Christ was not conceived through a human father and so was free from the mechanism of lust which transmits original sin.62 Christ's temptations and first movements will need to be ones that he spat out at once without allowing them to linger in order that he may have remained sinless. And if he was tempted for forty days this needs not to have been through his continuing to dwell on the same temptations. The following are some of the passages from Jerome.
On Christ's beginning to be sad:63
‘He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee and began to be sad and sorrowful (coepit contristari et maestus esse).’ What we said above about passion (passio) and pre-passion (propassio) is revealed also in the present chapter namely that the Lord was indeed truly saddened (vere contristatus) in order that he might display the truth of the humanity he had assumed. But so that emotion should not dominate in his mind he began to be sad by way of pre-passion. For it is one thing to be sad and another to begin to be sad.
On looking at a woman to lust after her:64
There is this difference between pathos and propatheia that is between passion (passio) and pre-passion (propassio): passion is counted as a sin (vitium); pre-passion though it involves the fault (culpa) of something beginning is not treated as a matter for accusation (in crimine). So someone who on looking at a woman has his soul titillated (titillata) is struck (percussus) by pre-passion. But if he once assents and makes a thought (cogitatio) into an emotion (affectus) as is written in [the Psalms of] David ‘They have passed to an emotion (affectus) of the heart’ he has passed from pre-passion to passion. And what he lacks is not the will (voluntas) to sin but the opportunity. So whoever looks at a woman to lust after her that is if he has looked at her in order that he may feel lust and in order to dispose himself to act he is rightly said to commit adultery with her in his heart.
On the blamelessness of pre-passion:65
So God in no way punishes the first and second stimuli of thought (cogitationes) which the Greeks call propatheiai and which no human can be without. But he punishes if anyone decides to do what has been thought or is unwilling to correct by penitence what he has done.
On pre-passion:66
It is difficult or rather impossible for anyone to be free of the beginnings of emotion (perturbationum initio) which the Greeks more significantly call propatheiai and we in a word-for-word translation can call antepassiones. For the incentives to every vice titillate (titillare) the mind and our judgement is at the midpoint between accepting and rejecting what is thought (cogitata). Hence the Lord spoke in the Gospel and said ‘Out of the heart come bad thoughts murder adultery fornication theft false witness blasphemy.’67
This is what the mouth of the prophet refers to in different words when he says ‘I was disturbed (turbatus) and spoke not’ and in the same book ‘be angry and do not sin’.68 And it is what the remark of Archytas of Tarentum to the negligent steward refers to ‘I would have killed you dead with blows if I had not been angry.’ For the anger of man does not produce the justice of God. Let us apply what is said about one emotion (perturbatio) to the others. Just as it is human to get angry and Christian not to bring one's anger to completion so all flesh desires the things of the flesh and draws the soul by various enticements (inlecebrae) to deadly pleasures.
On ‘Be angry’:69
The word ‘anger’ is understood in two ways not only among ourselves but also among philosophers. For either when we are provoked (lacessiri) by an injustice and stirred up by natural stimuli (stimuli) or when the provocation (impetus) has quietened and fury has been quenched our mind can make a judgement and still desire revenge just as much on the person who is thought to have harmed us. I think the present saying concerns the former case. It is allowed to us as humans that we should be moved in the face (facies) of anything undeserved and that like a light breeze it should disturb (conturbare) the tranquillity of our mind. But in no way is it allowed that we should be worked up into swollen whirlpools.
Augustine will be the subject of Chapter 24 where we shall see that he was partly misled by taking Aulus Gellius rather than Seneca as his guide to Stoic first movements. We shall also see that even when he reports the Stoics correctly in applying their concept to Abraham's fear he still thinks that the difference between pre-passion and emotion is merely verbal.70 What we have noticed in this chapter is that Augustine follows Origen's talk of thoughts and suggestions and that like Jerome he recognizes degrees of sin. We also noticed earlier that he repeats from Plotinus the idea of a shock and of a shock that does not hurt. But there is one alteration to Stoicism that still needs to be identified. Augustine allows desire appetite and pleasure (desiderium appetitus delectatio) to precede assent (consensus consensio) whereas for the Stoics they are emotions that already involve assenting to the appropriateness of action. In the next chapter we shall see that in the seventh century assent is often listed as occurring long after the emotion. These variations are partly due we shall find to its not always being clear whether the assent is to the thought to its lingering to the pleasure of its lingering to the emotion or to the act. In any case it is seldom as with the Stoics to appearance.
Christian adaptations
I have stressed a number of Christian adaptations. First movements are associated with bad thoughts and suggestions. They can be induced by demons or devils. They involve a degree of sin but a lesser one. Assent of some kind may precede desire or pleasure.
The emphasis on initial thoughts may have helped Christian writers to ask new sorts of questions that are not prominent in the Stoics but are highly legitimate. They asked whether one dwelt on the thought71 whether one enjoyed the thought72 or whether one deliberately put oneself in the way of it.73 Here the grafting of Christianity on to Stoicism proved fruitful. Thomas Aquinas adds a further distinction. Is the pleasure taken in the activity thought of—a mortal sin—or in the thinking of it—a venial sin?74