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23: From First Movements to the Seven Cardinal Sins: Evagrius

PART IV: From Stoic Agitations to Christian Temptations
23: From First Movements to the Seven Cardinal Sins: Evagrius
The Christian treatment of first movements was enormously advanced by the desert Father Evagrius of Pontus (AD c. 345–99).1 He wrote his own graphic advice for desert dwellers on the spiritual exercises needed to combat emotions. Evagrius’ work was at first widely read in the West to Jerome's displeasure because of Latin translations by Rufinus.2 Moreover his ideas on emotion were confirmed in the West by John Cassian. But his eventual condemnation in 553 led to many of his works being suppressed some being preserved only through being ascribed to someone else (Nilus) or in oriental translations. His corpus has only recently been reconstructed.

Evagrius was ordained by the Great Cappadocian Fathers Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus. They had been fellow pioneers of monastic retreat near Evagrius’ original home. Basil's Longer and Shorter Rules codified behaviour in monasteries and treated of the monks’ emotions. Evagrius was ordained first as a reader by Basil and then in 380 as a deacon by Gregory. In 382 after an affair with a married woman in Constantinople Evagrius fled and was cared for in Jerusalem by Rufinus and Melania who ran monasteries there one for men and one for women. In 383 he moved to a desert monastery for two years and then spent his last fourteen years in even greater solitude in the desert. Besides the monastic communities of cenobites there were in the desert semi-anchorites who lived in huts meeting only once a week which was Evagrius’ later practice and anchorites (anakhōrētai) who lived in total solitude (anakhōrēsis). Such practices went back long before Evagrius and his Cappadocian mentors in the fourth century. Already in the first century AD Philo of Alexandria wrote a treatise On the Contemplative Life extolling a semi-anchorite community living not admittedly in the desert but in solitude outside Alexandria.

Evagrius’ Practical Treatise and the seven cardinal sins
Evagrius wrote a number of treatises on how to deal with what Origen following the Stoics had called first movements and on how to work towards the Stoic ideal of apatheia or freedom from emotion. I shall start with the best known the Practical Treatise.3 That he is talking of first movements in the new Origenist sense I shall argue shortly. He talks of eight thoughts (logismoi) which assail you: there is the thought of gluttony (gastrimargia) the thought of fornication (porneia) the thought of avarice (philarguria) the thought of distress (lupē) the thought of anger (orgē) the thought of listless depression (akēdia) the thought of vainglory or vanity (kenodoxia) and the thought of pride (huperēphania).4 In later Christians these eight became the seven cardinal sins by a series of adjustments. The number eight was however preserved in the Greek tradition through ps.?—John of Damascus and within the Western Latin tradition by John Cassian founder of the fifth-century monastery at Marseilles. It is said to have lasted in the British Isles until the twelfth century. Cassian's On the Institutions of the Monastic Communities and on Eight of the Principal Vices and his Conferences so influential on Western monastic life both have substantial sections expounding Evagrius’ eight thoughts.5 Evagrius echoes the Stoics on emotions when he calls his eight thoughts the most generic (genikōtatoi) which include all the others.6 But he does not like the Stoics try to show how the others are species of these generic ones.
Evagrius was not alone among the desert Fathers in making a list of sins. A set of six appears in contemporary writings from the 370s or 380s wrongly attributed to his mentor Makarios.7 But this list did not have the influence of Evagrius’.
Evagrius’ eight thoughts as first movements
Evagrius’ eight thoughts have to do with emotions like lust distress anger or vain feeling. But they are not themselves emotions as is shown by their being called bad thoughts of these emotions. Not only does the ‘of’ distinguish them from the emotions but also the idea of bad thoughts is derived from Origen who so much influenced Evagrius an influence which led to his later condemnation. And Origen in Rufinus’ version treated the bad thoughts we have seen as first movements.8
Evagrius’ bad thoughts are like Origen's in another way too: he sees them as being injected (emballein) in many cases though not in all by demons9 and his Practical Treatise is to a large extent about how to outwit the very clever demons.
There is further evidence that the eight thoughts correspond to first movements rather than to the emotions themselves. For Evagrius says that it is not up to us (ephhēmin) whether these thoughts disturb the soul but it is up to us whether they linger (khronizein)10 and whether they stir up emotions (pathē kinein).11 This last remark distinguishes bad thoughts from emotions decisively. Further on he reports a dispute on whether thought (ennoia) stirs up emotions (pathē) as he has said or emotions thought.12 Here is his opening account:
The most generic thoughts in which every thought is included are eight in all. First the thought of gluttony and after it that of fornication third that of avarice fourth that of distress fifth that of anger sixth that of listless depression (akēdia) seventh that of vanity eighth that of pride. It is not up to us whether any of these disturb the soul or not. But it is up to us whether they linger (khronizein) or not or whether they stir up emotions or not.10
That the thoughts are only first movements is further confirmed by Evagrius saying that the thoughts are only temptations (peirasmoi). Sin comes in only when assent is given to the pleasure of the thought.14 This talk of assent to pleasure incidentally tended to obscure the Stoic idea that pleasure already presupposes assent. Meanwhile the distinction of thought from sin meant that a further transformation was required before Evagrius’ thoughts could be turned into the deadly sins as they were by Gregory the Great:
For a monk temptation (peirasmos) is a thought rising through the emotional part (to pathētikon) of the soul and darkening the intellect. For a monk sin (hamartia) is assent (sunkatathesis) to the forbidden pleasure of the thought.15
Evagrius makes one passing reference in the Practical Treatise to the expansions and contractions which for the Stoics can either follow emotions or I have argued precede them as first movements. But he seems to be thinking of them as following emotion:
Distress sometimes occurs upon the frustration of appetites and sometimes follows on anger. It occurs in the following way upon the frustration of appetites. Certain thoughts take the soul by surprise and lead it into memories of home parents and its former life. When they see that it does not resist but follows and is diffused (diakheomenē) in the pleasures of thought then they seize it and plunge it in distress because those erstwhile things are no more and further cannot be because of the present way of life. The sorrowing soul is lowered and contracted (sunestalē) as much at these second thoughts as it was diffused at the former ones.16
Evagrius’ techniques for achieving apatheia
Evagrius’ aim is to achieve apatheia freedom from emotion. That can be achieved only by degrees. Evagrius’ technique is to play one bad thought off against another. And for this purpose he studies the causal interrelations among the thoughts. Reading the Practical Treatise is like passing in the different context of logic from Aristotle's logic of the terms that make up propositions to the Stoic logic of whole propositions. Evagrius goes beyond the Stoics who had been concerned with the internal structure of each type of emotion in order to discuss the interrelations.
In the process of playing one bad thought off against another vanity plays a special role. For if you have defeated the first six you are immediately open to vanity. To ward off vanity you may have to entertain some of the other bad thoughts e.g. that of fornication he says to remind yourself of your frailty. But almost any of the other bad thoughts can repel vanity.17
The special role for vanity had been anticipated by the desert Father Antony if we are to believe Athanasius’ life. For there Antony is presented as recommending monks to write down the movements of their souls so that shame at the thought of others knowing will cure them.18 The writing down of angry thoughts has also been recommended in modern psychotherapy19 but for the more Stoic reason of facilitating reappraisal rather than playing shame off against anger.
So long as you can ward off thoughts of vanity or fornication only by playing them off against each other you will not do more than approach the frontiers of freedom from emotion. Once you ward them off by the virtues of humility (tapeinophrosunē) and chastity (sōphrosunē) you have reached the most profound apatheia.20
The method of using opposed disturbances to knock each other out was ascribed to Hippocrates in a passage of Olympiodorus cited in Chapter 19. But it was known also in Evagrius’ circle to Palladius author of the Lausiac History and the ascription to Hippocrates is cited by Jerome.21
The following passage incorporates many of Evagrius’ ideas. It further incorporates Origen's idea that bad thoughts can be human in their provenance rather than inspired by demons a point that Evagrius also makes elsewhere.22
The demon of vanity opposes the demon of fornication and it is not possible for these to attack the soul simultaneously if one promises honour while the other is the ambassador of dishonour. So if either of these two approaches and puts you under pressure imagine in yourself the thoughts of the opposite demon. And if you are able to knock out the one proverbial nail with another know that you are near the frontiers of apatheia. For your intellect was strong enough to efface the demons’ thoughts by human thoughts.
But to drive away the thought of vanity through humility or that of fornication through chastity would be a sign of the deepest apatheia. Try to do this in the case of all the demons which are opposed to each other. For you will discover at the same time by what emotion you have been more affected. But as far as you can seek from God to ward off your enemies in the second way.23
Description of bad thoughts
It may be tempting to suppose we do not often suffer from bad thoughts. This enabled the Pelagians to say to Augustine's disgust that there are people who need not ask God's forgiveness in the Lord's Prayer every day.24 But Evagrius’ descriptions of bad thoughts are frighteningly familiar. As we read it becomes harder to deny that we may indulge in many of them a lot of the time without realizing it. He describes a monk devoted to poverty who thinks how useful it would be to do some fund-raising to alleviate the lot of the poor. He knows some wealthy ladies who would help. And if he succeeded how admired he would be. He would surely be given the ecclesiastical post whose incumbent is dying. He has now succumbed at least to thoughts of avarice and vanity.25 Another monk thinks it quite harmless to indulge in thoughts of home. Soon he feels pleasure at the memory of his past life and realizes he can never have it again. What follow are the demons of distress anger depression or fornication.26 Yet another monk is meant to be reading in solitude but entertains thoughts of akēdia or depression. He stares at the window and starts at every sound that might suggest visitors. He looks to see how much of the book is left and counts the pages. He puts the book under his head as a pillow and takes a nap but he can't sleep properly. He wakes with thoughts of hunger.27 Which of us has not counted the pages and wondered whether there are still any biscuits in the cupboard? Evagrius’ description in the same work of a seduction is surely based on personal experience.28
The eyes of the depressed [monk] continually gaze at the windows and his mind imagines visitors. The door creaks and he jumps up. He hears a voice and peeps through the window. He does not come away until numb with sitting. While reading he yawns repeatedly and easily slides towards sleep. He rubs his eyes and stretches his hands; he takes his eyes off the book and gazes at the wall. Turning back he reads a little. He takes a lot of trouble opening the ends of the sections. He counts the pages and calculates the quaternions. He complains of the handwriting and decoration. Then folding the book he puts it under his head and sleeps but not very deeply for hunger then rouses his consciousness and instils its own cares.29
The demon of avarice seems to me very versatile and ingenious at deception. Often when squeezed by [the monk's] extreme renunciation he at once assumes the mask of provisioner and lover of the poor. Strangers not yet present he receives with much sincerity and to others left behind he sends ministrations. He visits the prisons of the city and of course ransoms those who are being sold. He sticks to wealthy ladies and indicates people who deserve to be well treated and he advises others who have acquired a well-stuffed purse to renounce it. And so having deceived the soul little by little he subjects it to thoughts of avarice and hands it over to the demon of vanity. So the demon introduces a crowd of people praising the Lord for these provisions and gradually projects (proballei) others chatting about our ordination and prophesies the speedy death of the present incumbent.30
These last lines could have been written by Trollope. Susceptibility to homesickness has already been mentioned above:
There is a demon called the one who leads astray. He approaches the brothers especially at dawn. He leads the mind of the anchorite round from city to city from house to house and from village to village making the meetings simple at first of course then running into some acquaintances and chatting longer doing away with the proper position in relation to encounters.… It is not at random nor by chance that the demon works that long circuit but he does it from a wish to do away with the anchorite's position so that the mind may be inflamed by these events and drunk from the many meetings may at once fall to the demons of fornication or of anger or of distress which are especially harmful to the lustre of his position.31
Evagrius also explains the necessary countermeasures:
After the departure of the demon let this happen. Sit down by yourself and remember the things that happened to you from where you started and where you travelled in what sort of place you were caught by the spirit of fornication or anger or distress and how all the events happened and learn that distinctly and entrust it to memory so that you can catch the demon out when he approaches and point out the place which he keeps hidden. Then you will not follow him again. If you want some time to drive him mad catch him out as soon as he comes up and show him the first place he went to then the second and the third. He gets very angry and cannot bear the shame of it.32
Sequences timing which does not follow which
Evagrius tells us we must observe the sequences and timing of bad thoughts and note which does not follow which:
If any monk wants to experience the cruel demons and to get a grasp of their art let him observe the thoughts let him mark their intensification and their relenting and their interweaving and timing and which are the demons who do this and what sort of demon follows what and which does not follow which. And let him seek from Christ the reasons for these things. For the demons take it very ill when people pursue the practical art with more knowledge since they want to ‘shoot down the true-hearted on a moonless night’.33
As regards sequences I have already described the causal connection of thoughts of vanity and fornication and the sequences in thoughts of poverty avarice and vanity of boredom and hunger of home and many others. But there are many further sequences to study as well.34
As for timing the time of prayer is crucial for many emotions.35 Akēdia is the noonday demon and lasts for four hours.36 The demon who leads astray visits at dawn.37 We must notice which thoughts start suddenly (fornication blasphemy anger) which more gradually and which are frequent38 which can be got rid of in youth (passions of the body: fornication gluttony) and which last all one's life (passions of the soul: anger etc.).39
As to which thought does not follow which Evagrius gives a special role to the three demons who he says tempted Christ those of gluttony avarice and vanity. These demons form the front line of the attack because they alone can open the way to the others.40 Thus the demon of fornication cannot attack those who have resisted the demon of gluttony.41 Nor can the demon of anger or of depression attack if one has already abandoned desire for food possessions or esteem. Equally the demon of pride will have no success if one has no wish for possessions. Elsewhere avarice is called in St Paul's words the root of all evils with other emotions depending on it like so many branches.42 By contrast distress is very derivative depending on the frustration of other emotions.43 So we should reject the worldly pleasures whose loss occasions grief.44
The demons’ tricks
The demons play tricks. They can bring to their aid incompatible demons for whichever of them prevails our soul is lost in any case.45 We have noticed other tricks to do with thoughts of home or of fund-raising. The demons can also retreat to see which virtue is being neglected and then rush back in.46 They can weaken us by wrongly encouraging us to sing psalms standing up and to control ourselves.47 In fact it is dangerously debilitating to fast keep vigil (agrupnein) work continuously or engage in excessive solitude.48 We can give away to them by a word or gesture whether we are harbouring their thoughts.49 But since they cannot see directly into our minds they wait for our uttered speech (prophorikos logos—a term much used by Stoics)50 as opposed to our inner thought (endiathetos logos). They deceitfully suggest to us retiring (anakhōrēsis) which is the worst treatment for anger or sociability which is the worst for lust.51 Against the demons’ tricks what the angels can do is remind us of spiritual pleasures so that we may turn our anger against the demons.52
The monk must avoid leaving his cell not only when faced with the demon of lust but still more when faced with akēdia or depression.53 On the other hand visiting the sick can overcome stubbornness and repel disturbing dreams. Solitary anchorites do not have as much opportunity for this as monks in a community.54 In general pity reduces anger and hate.55 Evagrius is also aware of the importance of diet.56
Evagrius tells us of further remedies. He wrote an Antirrhetic surviving in Syriac and Armenian with biblical texts to repel each of the eight bad thoughts. His idea was that you have to be able to find the right words against the demons very quickly57 just as the Stoics Musonius Rufus and Epictetus insisted that you needed the rules of conduct ‘to hand’ (prokheiron). In other works too Evagrius recommends hymns and psalms against lust58 and anger59 and reciting the words of David against akēdia or depression.60
A quite different remedy is to raise our mind to a higher level by analysing bad thoughts and asking questions about them. We must see that the avaricious thought is not the mere thought of gold nor is it the thinking intellect nor the gold both of which are created by God. We may ask why demons can make us worse but we cannot do the same to them.61 Different again is the response quoted above to the demon who leads us astray. Next time we should tell him at once just which places he made us visit in our imagination and he will go away ashamed.62 Evagrius also fortifies us by warning us in advance of the physical sensations we may suffer after repulsing this demon63 as well as of the physical movements we may suffer at the touch of the demon of lust.64
Influences from Stoicism
Evagrius was steeped in philosophy unlike many of the desert monks around him who were illiterate. He is not of course a Stoic any more than he is a Platonist. What is interesting is rather to see what a different thing he makes of Stoic materials. Sometimes he merely borrows Stoic language but in the examples we have been looking at he makes something substantial of his own out of ideas that originally come from Stoicism. It is worth seeing what his diverse borrowings are.
We have already noticed the role played by the Stoic ideas of first movements which are not up to us of assent to them of apatheia of generic emotions and the reference to inner sinking and expanding and to speech as externalized thought (prophorikos or proenekhtheis logos).65 Freedom from emotion (apatheia) would be health (hugieia).66 Apatheia is the flowering of the practical art and the harbour to arrive at.67
In his On Various Bad Thoughts Evagrius speaks like the Stoics of the need to make progress (prokoptein).68 He uses the Stoic term ‘command centre’ (hēgemonikon) for the mind although he does not like them think of the command centre as unitary.69 He uses the Stoic term eulabeia for godly fear and warns that we may lose it.70 He uses a term common to the Stoics and others when he says that avarice is born by our voluntary self-determination (ek tou autexousiou).71
None of this is to deny that Evagrius is equally steeped in other Greek schools and especially in Platonism but the Platonist links have been very fully documented by others.72 One Platonic influence however deserves further remark the acceptance of a Platonic division of the soul into rational and emotional (pathētikon). For if there is an emotional part of the soul this affects the sense in which a human can hope to achieve freedom from emotion. Atrophy or total subordination to reason of the pathētikon would give us different interpretations.
Subsequent developments: multiplication of stages
In Evagrius’ successors we find a multiplication of distinct stages in temptation far beyond necessity starting perhaps with Mark the Ascetic in the early fifth century.73 Climacus in the sixth to seventh centuries is not yet too far distant when he treats the first movement as the attraction exerted by an evil object and follows this with the thought's lingering then assent to the evil followed by captivation struggle and emotion.74 His younger contemporary Maximus the Confessor has assent (but this may be to action—he does not say) coming not only after the thought's lingering but after the emotion.75 Interestingly the assent is ascribed to intellect (nous) not to Maximus’ special protege the will. Ps.-John of Damascus has a plethora of stages first the suggestion and enjoyment of dwelling on it then emotion interpreted as the brooding of the imagination and assent to this emotion coming much later only after struggle and captivation. The distinctions lack the realism of Evagrius’ account.76
Akēdia: depression
I should say a little more about three of Evagrius’ thoughts partly because they underwent subsequent revision akēdia pride and lust. Akēdia or listless depression is distinct from lupē distress. We saw that distress was defined by the Stoics as situational. It consisted of judgements about a situation seen as bad. Akēdia is not situational but is a mood that can feed itself by latching on to any situation that comes to mind rather than being directed to a particular situation. It could be called for that reason a mood rather than an emotion. I have already commented that Chrysippus’ therapies cannot cope with moods because they concentrate on re-evaluating a particular situation. Evagrius has made a mood central.
Akēdia had already been treated by Origen who saw it as one of the general temptations of Christ in the desert if the relevant fragment is a genuine one.77 It had also been treated by Basil who recognised unlike some of his successors that akēdia might be dispelled by leaving one's cell.78
Akēdia we saw stopped Evagrius’ hermit from reading his text and Evagrius was aware that akēdia borders on (epikeitai) idleness (argia).79 But still in Cassian idleness (otiōsitas) is distinguished from akēdia as a consequence. Only once are the terms interchanged.80 In time however the concept and even the name of sloth came to replace that of depression. Two explanations of this change have been offered by Siegfried Wenzel.81 First in Benedictine monasteries the monks slept in dormitories with tasks to perform supervised by senior monks and were allowed siestas. So their life was quite unlike that of the hermit caught in solitude in the Egyptian heat by the noonday demon as the demon of akēdia was called. The non-performance of tasks became the more salient phenomenon in the new situation. Secondly by the ninth century it was found in confessions for lay people much easier to assess the non-performance of tasks such as going to church than the inner state of mind.
Pride (huperēphania superbia) is one of the bad thoughts listed in Mark 7: 22. The main difference I see between it and vanity is that vanity as in the example of Evagrius’ fund-raising monk always involves thoughts about the admiration of other people. Pride is in a way more sinister because it does not. It is as we saw often described as a turning away from God. It was perhaps vanity for which Evagrius had personally been rebuked when a priest told him after he had held forth ‘You would be a bishop at home but here you are a stranger.’82 Pride (huperēphania) had previously been a special interest of the Aristotelian school appearing as was seen in Chapter 15 in Theophrastus and Aristo of Ceos and then taken over by the Epicurean Philodemus.
We can now understand the changes introduced by Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century when he turned Evagrius’ eight bad thoughts into seven cardinal sins (principalia vitio).83 What Gregory did was to remove pride from the list as being the root of all the other sins to substitute akēdia for distress (tristitia) contrary to the original distinction and to fill the resulting vacancy with envy (invidia). In the Greek Church Gregory's contemporary Climacus though typically preferring Evagrius’ eight at one point congratulates Gregory on his reduction to seven on the somewhat different ground again contrary to the original concepts that pride and vainglory can be collapsed.84 On the only occasion on which he gives a list of seven he instead follows Gregory in collapsing distress into akēdia.85
Sexual thoughts were not for Evagrius one of the more dangerous temptations as we shall see they were for Augustine. Evagrius says that the demon of fornication cannot attack those who have resisted the demon of gluttony.86 He gives dietary advice to someone who asks how to avoid sexual dreams and says he has not himself been troubled by fleshly appetites for two to three years.87 We have seen him treating vanity as more dangerous than lust and in his Chapters on Prayer he views anger as a particular obstacle to praying.88 After Evagrius further distinctions were made about the sources of sexual dreams. In a letter said to have been written in 601 by Gregory the Great to the later Augustine Bishop of Canterbury it is said that sexual dreams may come from bad thoughts during the day and are worse according to whether the thoughts were the result of mere suggestion actual pleasure or worst of all consent to sin. So much is familiar ground. But Gregory also distinguishes sexual dreams due to gluttony for which the guilt is less and those due only to superfluity of seed for which there is no guilt. The last possibility had been mentioned by Cassian and is described in Plato's Timaeus.89