You are here

25: Christians on Moderation versus Eradication

PART IV: From Stoic Agitations to Christian Temptations
25: Christians on Moderation versus Eradication
Unfortunately Evagrius’ aspiration of eradicating emotion got him into trouble. As we have noticed in AD 553 he was anathematized. To see what happened we should take a look at Christian attitudes to the Stoic ideal of apatheia freedom from emotion. I shall confine myself to apatheia in humans referring only when necessary to apatheia in God or in Christ. To trace the developments in Christianity we need to go back to the first century AD and to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria.
The Alexandrians: Philo and Judaism

Philo started a tradition which is still found in his Jewish successor Maimonides in the twelfth century of seeing moderation and eradication of emotion (metriopatheia apatheia) as ideals for different people. In his view Aaron and Abraham represent moderation Moses and Isaac eradication1 and Maimonides also adopts Moses as his model. Philo we saw in Chapter 22 classed Abraham as practising only moderation2 despite his mourning of Sarah being a mere pre-passion.3 Augustine similarly argues on behalf of (propter) other people that Abraham's fear is a prepassion but regards that pre-passion as a form of emotion.4 Philo uses the Stoic term ‘progressing’ (prokoptōn) for the person who achieves only metriopatheia as if the full ideal was apatheia.5

Philo none the less makes concessions. He considers that emotions are helpful (boēthei) to humans.6 He also follows Plato in recognizing some pleasures along with food and drink as necessary7 a subject taken up we shall see by Clement of Alexandria. What is necessary can be refused sometimes but not all of the time. Philo adds repentance to the list of states of the wise but only as a second best to sinlessness and as a mark of improvement.8 And he ascribes pity to the wise man too.9 Maimonides is less compromising requiring even those in the lower of the two states he recognises to be free of pride and anger.10
Concessions in later writers on natural emotions
Philo's recognition that emotions are helpful became common among later Christian champions of apatheia. Some emotions were recognized as natural11 or necessary and useful to nature:12 gluttony lust anger and appetite. Some thoughts were recognized as natural rather than bad.13 This was not to deny that in apatheia emotions could be transcended. We shall notice below in Gregory of Nyssa the idea that when appetite and anger are put to good use they are not pathē.14
The Alexandrians: Clement and Origen
The Christian school of Clement and Origen in second-to third-century Alexandria paid close attention to Philo. Clement15 and Origen16 both adopted the ideal of apatheia freedom from emotion. This was something not possible for humans before the resurrection of Christ.17 It requires God's grace18 and results from faith.19 It is distinct from mere continence (enkrateia) which retains emotions but keeps them suppressed.20 Clement's fullest description is in Stromateis 6. 9. Christ was completely free of emotion. Perfected humans retain hunger and thirst which are needed for the body but they lack any emotions: anger fear appetite (epithumia) desire in general (orexis) including the emotions commonly considered good determination (tharsos) emulation (zēlos) and even cheerfulness (euthumia—the term used by Democritus and Plutarch and translated by Seneca for tranquillity). More than this perfected humans actually do without the eupatheiai which the Stoics distinguished from emotions as being good states of feeling (Chapter 2 above). For example they will lack caution (eulabeia) joy (khara) and euphrosunē which the Stoics gloss as joy at the deeds of the temperate.21 Strangely if the manuscripts can be trusted he adds an un-Stoic item to the list katēpheia a kind of dejection that no pagan Greeks would have approved.22 Elsewhere Clement concedes that eulabeia brings benefit (ōpheleia) but only because it brings strength from God (theia dunamis).23 Despite all this in 6.9 Clement regards his extreme apatheia as after all compatible with both hope (elpis) and love (agapē) for God a qualification to which I shall return in a few moments.
There was a choice of models for apatheia because the Gospel of Luke says that those who attain to resurrection are equal to the angels.24 Clement does not feel he has to choose between saying that apatheia makes humans like angels or like God since he offers both models in the same breath.25 On the other hand he does qualify the likeness to God. Human virtue cannot be like God's as the Stoics suppose he says.26 We can become like God but only as far as our capacity allows.27
Clement takes up the question whether some pleasures and desires are natural or necessary. In a certain sense he would deny that pleasure is necessary. It has been attached as an accompaniment to certain needs (epakolouthēma khreiais) which are natural (phusikai) such as hunger thirst coolness and sex. It thus provides a service (hupourgia) for our life. If it did not there would be no need for it.28 In the next chapter we shall see Augustine tempted by a similar view about sexual pleasure. He is undecided whether it would have been needed for sex before the Fall and even now sex is not itself a need.
Clement confronts the objection29 that one cannot achieve even the loftiest ideals without anger determination (tharsos) and desire. He replies there is no need for these because someone who by exercising love (agapē) is already in the midst of the very thing desired. For such a person lacks nothing.
Concessions on love
Clement I have said regards this love for God as erotic and yet as compatible with apatheia. It is not a desire (orexis) he continues because perfected humans already possess the object of desire. The idea that they therefore lack nothing contains a danger as Origen later points out the danger of satiety. Clement already claims that perfected humans feast without satiety (akorestēs) on the euphrosunē of contemplation.30 Origen offers an explanation but one that does not fit with Clement that there can be a desire which avoids satiety by ever increasing an idea developed by Gregory of Nyssa by reference to the idea of infinity: satiety is avoided because there is no limit to the desirable aspects of God that can be discovered.31 Instead of being a desire Clement claims borrowing two Stoic ideas this love for God is an oikeiōsis sterktikē. Stoic oikeiōsis it will be recalled is the process of welcoming all other humans as belonging metaphorically in the household and the model for it is precisely family affection (stergein philostorgia) especially that of parents for children. I explained in Chapters 2 and 13 why I believe against Bonhöffer that in the ordinary person such family affection is a pathos but that as transformed by the sage it is not. The sage though vigorously pursuing his family's life and welfare will have learnt to treat them merely as preferred indifferents a concept well known to Clement32 not to be grieved over if lost.
The Stoics had other reasons for treating certain kinds of love as compatible with apatheia. They so treated aspasmos and agapēsis as being forms of eupatheia (Chapter 2) and I argued that they viewed a certain kind of Platonic homosexual love similarly (Chapter 18). But none of this will have appealed to Clement who rejected the Stoic idea of eupatheia.
The compatibility of love for God with apatheia remained standard among later Christians33 although there were differences on whether love for God bestows apatheia34 is bestowed by apatheia35 or even is apatheia.36
Concessions on pity
Pity we saw in Chapter 19 played a central role in Aristotle's theory of catharsis. The cathartic effect of tragedy depends on our sympathy and pity as do some of the effects produced by the rhetorician and pity for Aristotle is often appropriate and sometimes beneficial. By contrast for adherents of apatheia pity can constitute a problem. We have seen that Philo thought pity compatible with apatheia. This was contrary to the Stoics whose ban on emotion explicitly included pity (eleos Latin misericordia).37 In a passage translated in Chapter 15 Epictetus told his students to take a walk at dawn and practise examining what appears to them:
What did you see? A man grieving at the death of his child? Apply the rule. Death is not subject to your will. Move it out of the way.38
There were several Christian paraphrases of Epictetus’ Handbook. One of them suppresses (although one does not) the famous remarks on pity there:
Whenever you see someone weeping in grief because his child has gone on a journey or he has lost his property pay attention in case you too are caught by the appearance that his external situation is bad. Let the following be immediately to hand (prokheiron): this man is under pressure not from circumstances since someone else would not be under pressure but by his belief (dogma) concerning them. Do not hesitate however to go along with him within reason and even if need be to groan about it with him. But pay attention (prosekhe) in case you also groan from within.10
There is an alternative view of pity or at least of sympathy which would so distinguish it from emotion as to make it compatible with apatheia after all. Max Scheler in his book The Nature of Sympathy40 has made the excellent point that when we sympathise with someone in pain we do not need to have a small replica of their pain. Similarly it may happen that people feel ill anxious or afraid when they sympathize with those who are ill anxious or afraid. But this is not likely to be of help to the object of their sympathy and it is almost a side-effect of sympathy. Concern does not require emotion at all. If that view had been taken of pity the Stoics would not have needed to ban it.
Seneca however draws the line in a different way. He distinguishes pity which he sees as a form of distress not to be indulged in from mercy (clementia) which the good Stoic can exercise as it is not an emotion at all.41
Clement is like Philo in treating pity (oikteirein) as compatible with apatheia. The truly knowledgeable person is not angry even with those who deserve hatred but pities them for their ignorance.42 Pity is recommended to everyone even though in the strict sense only God pities us because only he is superior.43 People who pity (eleēmones) are praised in the Sermon on the Mount44 but it turns out that this pity is not a feeling of distress (lupē) but a matter of taking pity (eleon poiein).45
The Cappadocian Fathers on apatheia
The three great Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century were influenced by Origen. Two of them Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa made a collection of excerpts from him the Philokalia. None the less we find in the Cappadocians two very different contexts of discussion.46 One is that of consolation writings. The other is discussion of ideals. To take first Basil of Caesarea in his consolatory letters and addresses he often borrows the idea which the Stoics referred back to Anaxagoras that we should think of our children and loved ones as mortal.47 Yet he does not draw the Stoic conclusion that we should not grieve. On the contrary his consolations are carefully formatted so that they express his own grief or the rightness of grieving very near the beginning before he goes on to explain why grief should be moderated. This is a technique which in Chapter 12 we saw even Seneca using in his Consolation to Marcia. Basil is explicit in saying contrary to the Stoics that we must not react without emotion or feeling (apathōs anaisthētos).48
On the other hand there is an ideal of freedom from emotion which Basil says is not for just anyone (ho tukhōn) but for people like the Apostle Paul. Mankind surrendered the image of God and was dragged into emotional appetites (empatheis epithumiai) at the time of the Fall. But we can restore that image in our souls through apatheia becoming like God.49
In the longer Rules which he devised for the regulation of monasteries Basil sees it as an aim for monks to become free of emotion (aprospathēs).50 But he regards them as at this stage not having got beyond continence (enkrateia)51 and incidentally he allows them to grieve for others.52
As regards the final outcome Basil entertains in one breath the possibility that freedom from emotion may give us a place in the chorus of angels make us like God or make us God.53
The only startling thing about Basil's acceptance of apatheia as an ideal attainable in this life is that unlike Clement he does not think that Christ attained it. It is important for us he believes that Christ experienced real emotions.54 Christ's tears over Lazarus in Basil's view even when he was about to bring him back to life show that he believed in moderation not eradication of the emotions.55
We find the same division of contexts in Gregory of Nazianzus as in Basil. We are not to be passionless (apathēs) or unfeeling (analgēsia) so he says in contexts of consolation.56 Yet he approves an old friend Philagrius exercising apatheia in illness because he is a philosopher and that is right for him57 and he endorses apatheia elsewhere too.58
The idea of Basil that apatheia and metriopatheia are ideals for different people is reflected later in the same century (the fourth) by Nemesius bishop of Emesa.59
The position of Basil's brother Gregory of Nyssa is similar although there are some refinements. On the one hand in the context of consolation Gregory reminds us that there is a time for weeping. No one is so passionless (apathēs) as to hear of certain events without pain and our burden can be lightened only by tears.60 His sister Macrina is represented as letting him grieve initially at her impending death.61
On the other hand apatheia freedom from emotion is accepted as an ideal. It will be achieved in heaven by Placilla.62 After the resurrection the life of those who have achieved apatheia will be like that of the angels.63 A particularly full analysis of apatheia is put into the mouth of his dying sister Macrina and from this we learn that apatheia can be achieved at two different levels. At the higher level Moses succeeded in ridding (monōthēnai) the soul of appetite and anger (epithumia thumos).64 It is explicitly said that the result can be achieved either by care taken in this life (nun epimeleia) or through the purging (katharsis) of our souls in the next. This can make our souls free from kinship (sungeneia sumphuia)65 to irrational pathē so that they contemplate Beauty. And then there will be no appetite (epithumia) because we shall instead have actual enjoyment (apolausis) of Beauty. Instead of appetite there will only be will (thelein) and instead of hope (elpis) or faith (pistis) there will only be room for love (agapē).66 Neither thelēsis nor agapēsis is classed by the Stoics as a pathos.
The lower level of apatheia is presented in the dialogue as a concession to Gregory. He pleads that Daniel was praised for his appetite and Phineas for his anger. This looks like a plea for metriopatheia but Macrina converts it into a case for apatheia of a sort. She concedes that appetite and anger put to good use by reason are mere impulses (hormai). They turn into pathē only when put to wrong use.67 This allows Daniel and Phineas a lower kind of apatheia. I do not think there is any confusion with the apatheia of Moses who remains the ideal for which Macrina argues.68
Stoic and Cappadocian methods of consolation
The Cappadocian consolation letters and sermons provide a most interesting model.69 As already indicated they typically start by expressing the grievousness of the situation and sometimes the author's own grief.70 But then there is a reverse movement. Although we must not be free of emotion we must be moderate. Standard consolations are drawn from the pagans but reinforced by the Christian hope of resurrection. It might seem that this formula takes us a long way away from Stoicism.
In fact however if we look at Seneca's consolations the seemingly un-Stoic ideas are there. So far from drawing a veil over Marcia's loss as a matter of indifference Seneca acknowledges how great it is.71 He too affirms that apatheia would be too harsh and counsels only metriopatheia.72 Further he too urges that the soul of the lamented one survives in happiness73 although he has to concede this is only until the next conflagration.74 The Church Fathers would have had models for consolation writing from other schools too stemming ultimately from the Platonist Crantor. But in so far as they had Stoic-models they would not necessarily have had to adapt them as much as we might have supposed.
There was one text in Saint Paul which may appear to forbid Christians to grieve in order that they may distinguish themselves from pagans who do not believe in the resurrection. Saint Paul says: ‘Do not be sad like those who have no hope.’75 Many Christians besides Basil cited this text or pursued this line of thought: Tertullian Cyprian Ambrose John Chrysostom Jerome and Augustine.76 But except for Cyprian whose text has the special context of combating fear of a plague all these authors are advocating moderation (modus) not eradication of grief.77
At one point Basil outbids the pagans. Instead of asking ‘Who could avoid emotion?’ he says that even moderation would be stonyhearted.78 Ideas he takes from the pagan tradition are that suddenness is itself upsetting79 but we should have expected what is the lot of humans.80 We should recall that all humans are mortal.81 Grieving does not help.82 Others have coped;83 we too should set an example84 and we need to comfort others.85 There is even an analogue of the Stoic idea of conflagration but it is used quite differently. To emphasize that all humans are mortal Basil insists that even the sun moon and stars will perish.86
Evagrius and Jerome
Evagrius was doing nothing out of the ordinary in setting up apatheia as a goal for desert dwellers but merely continuing what the Cappadocians had done by whom he had been ordained. For a while Evagrius worked with Gregory in Constantinople. Other Desert Fathers were pursuing the same goal. Moreover Evagrius included the qualifications which we have seen to be normal in the tradition and more besides.87 He carefully points to the need for God's grace and help.88 He recognizes that there are degrees of apatheia and that one may merely be near to its frontiers.89 He knows the tradition according to which assimilation is only to the angels.90 But more than that Evagrius expects first movements to be retained at the stage of training which he is describing because his technique requires us to play one off against another. Even at a later stage anger will be retained for directing against demons and appetite for desiring virtue.91 And apatheia both produces and is produced by love (agapē).92
Despite this caution Evagrius fell foul of Jerome. Besides writing the Practical Treatise Evagrius had composed collections of Sentences with similar lists of temptations one addressed to monks and one to virgins. They were probably for the use of Rufinus and Melania the Elder in their monastic communities in Jerusalem. He had stayed there before his move to the desert and some of his subsequent letters are apparently addressed to them.93 Rufinus translated the Sentences and the Practical Treatise into Latin along with other works by Evagrius. He also translated much of Origen Basil's monastic Rules and some earlier Sentences by Sextus whose identity became a matter of dispute.
Trouble started in 393 and came to a head in 399 the year of Evagrius’ death when his companions were condemned and exiled for their adherence to Origen. Jerome had broken with his former friends Melania and Rufinus. Later around 414–15 Jerome attacked Evagrius three times mentioning his Sentences for Melania and Rufinus.
The context of this new attack was the Pelagianism which Jerome saw as related to Origenism and which will be the subject of the next chapter. Pelagianism started only after Evagrius’ death but Jerome detected similar attitudes in many earlier Christians. Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin dear to Jerome and Augustine. According to this doctrine original sin was transmitted to all humans from the sin of disobedience committed by Adam the first human and transmitted through the mechanism of the lust involved in procreation. Because of original sin according to its proponents humans cannot achieve the smallest thing without the grace of God. It became relevant whether humans could achieve freedom from emotion (apatheia) in this life at all. Jerome complains that Evagrius’ acceptance of apatheia as a possibility for ordinary humans would turn them into God and is one of Origen's hateful views.94
In the same breath Jerome attacks Rufinus for passing off the Sentences of Sextus as a Christian not a pagan work. Perverse though he is Jerome is not entirely wrong that the Sentences of Sextus would be congenial to Pelagius who quoted three sentences as if they were Christian.95 And Evagrius too can have a very Pelagian ring as when he says:
For no bad thought comes from nature. For we are not created bad from the beginning if the Lord sowed good seed in his field [Matthew 13: 24].96
Even Origen would not agree that no bad thought comes from nature if that means our nature as it is after the Fall.97
Jerome is not short of bile. Not only does he refer to Rufinus as ‘Grunnius’ (the Grunter) but he plays on the name Melania as meaning in Greek blackness. Jerome's vituperations run as follows:
Evagrius Ponticus of Ibora who writes to the virgins writes to the monks writes to that woman whose name of blackness attests the shades of faithlessness published a book and sentences On Apatheia which we can call impassibility or imperturbability when the mind is never disturbed by any thought or vice and is to put it plainly either a rock or a God.98
Not to mention… Evagrius… The opinion of all these is that human virtue and understanding can reach perfection and—I shall not say likeness—but equality to God's.99
When suddenly the heresy of Zeno and Pythagoras of apatheia and anamartēsia begins to revive that is of freedom from emotion and sinlessness which was once strangled in Origen and more recently in his disciples the Grunter [Rufinus] Evagrius Ponticus and Jovinian.100
The Latin tradition and Augustine
It was chiefly among Latin-speaking Christians that opposition to apatheia sprang up. Before Jerome Lactantius had attacked the Stoics for espousing apatheia.101 But even among the Latin speakers there was soon to be a counter-movement. For Cassian impressed the ideal of apatheia on the monastic tradition.102
In an early work Augustine like the Stoics and Clement distinguishes taking pity on people from feeling pity (misericordia from miseria) and asks ‘Who does not allow that the wise man should be free from all such miseria?’103 But in his Retractations he denies there are any such wise men. He had in the meantime become a defender of metriopatheia.104
Augustine's position was discussed in the last chapter and will be discussed again in the next. We saw him in the City of God defending his belief in moderate emotion for humans in this life by claiming (erroneously) that even the Stoics would allow a little fear in a storm at sea.105 That was how he (mis)—interpreted the Stoic recognition of first movements. He complains that the Stoics should also have allowed pity for fellow passengers and claims that Epictetus does in effect concede this when he allows the wise man to have rational emotions.106 If we take Stoic apatheia to involve freedom from love and gladness he says it is not desirable at any time. If it is freedom from fear grief and disturbing emotions it is still neither desirable nor attainable in this life. Rather it is to be hoped for in the next107 and it was attained before the Fall.108 Admittedly in the next life there will be the fear accorded by the Psalms which endures for ever but that is something different. Augustine calls it by the name of one of the Stoic eupatheiai a will (voluntas) not to sin and he says reminding us of Clement and Evagrius that it is due to love (caritas).109 Meanwhile in the next life joy and gladness will persist.
Some of this is explained by the earlier Confessions. As to why grief should be thought useful in this life Augustine there describes his grief at the death of his unnamed friend as leading him to God because he found in the end that only God was stable enough to rely on.110 As for the possibility of shedding disturbing emotions in the next life we get some insight into this if the saints are included in the heaven of heaven. For there there is no awareness of past present and future on which so many emotions depend.111
Returning to the City of God we find Augustine citing in favour of metriopatheia and against apatheia St Paul who told us to rejoice with them that do rejoice and weep with them that weep. And then there is the example of Christ himself. His emotions (affectio affectus) were real contrary to what is implied by those heresies which denied him a real human mind and body heresies attacked also by Origen in Rufinus’ version and by Basil and Jerome in passages cited above.112
We have already noticed another part of Augustine's attack on apatheia in which he says that outside the city of God residents of the city of the wicked may claim to be free of emotions. But they are not because this only leads in them to pride and vanity. Such people forfeit forgiveness.113 Later Augustine will accuse Julian as a Pelagian of thinking that he need not say the words in the Lord's Prayer ‘Forgive us our sins’ because Pelagians think that one can in this life become free of sin.114
Just as the defenders of apatheia made exceptions for repentance pity or love so the defenders of metriopatheia made exceptions. This started already with Aristotle the founder of the metriopatheia tradition who offered no room to envy or Schadenfreude.115 Among the exceptions to which Augustine allows no room two play a major role. One just mentioned is pride. We saw in Chapter 20 how in this same book of the City of God Augustine condemns pride as the root of all other sins including lust. Lust is the other most prominent exception. Augustine's condemnation of it will be the subject of the next chapter.
Augustine's own exceptions make his relation to the Stoics an intricate one. He is like them in rejecting pride and lust. He is like them verbally in saying that all emotions are acts of will although all that Seneca meant by his talk of will (voluntas) was the Stoic impulse (hormē).116 There is still a tenuous analogy when he says that one of these acts of will lust opposes the will. For we have seen that Chrysippus thinks reason opposes itself in that emotion involves going against one's better judgement. But Augustine defends his own view by a very un-Stoic idea that there are two wills a carnal and a spiritual will opposing each other.117 Moreover by and large Augustine sides against the Stoics in favouring moderation not eradication of emotion whereas his opponent the Pelagian Julian we shall see believes that even lust is acceptable in moderation.118