Philokalia Monday: Evagrius Ponticus on Discrimination and Demons

I return to blogging my way through, by reading and commenting on the four volumes of the English translation of the Philokalia. This work is, to quote wiki, “Other than the Bible, and a handful of writings by early Christian Fathers, the Philokalia is by far the most influential and widely admired example of Eastern Orthodox piety in print today. It is featured prominently in another much shorter well-known book called The Way of a Pilgrim, in which a Russian traveler learns to pray from various people he meets on his travels and by reading the Philokalia.” This work is a collection of writings from the fourth through at least the 15th centuries. The length of excerpts included in the Philokalia is somewhat indicative as to how large an impression they have made on the theology as practiced by the Orthodox. Our next author for today and the upcoming few weeks is Evagrios Pontikos.

It is said of Evagrios that “He possessed to an exceptional degree the gifts of psychological insight and vivid description, together with the ability to analyze and define with remarkable precision the various stages on the spiritual way.” In this work Evagrios talks extensively of demons. Today’s Freudian influenced materialist people would reject the notion that demons swarm around tempting us to do those things we should not. One might, at the onset of reading such texts, misquote Barth (on Genesis) who if I remember the quote correctly said, “I don’t care if the snake spoke, what’s important is what he said.” The point being, it’s less important whether demons are materially detectable, measurable, or “real”. What’s important is whether the psychological insights are useful and helpful in turning us and helping us center our thoughts on God and a Godly life. So with that in mind, we begin with 23 “texts” (short essays or thoughts) on Discrimination.

The first piece introduces us to the “three demons” in the front line confronting those who would practice the ascetic life. Those three are those of “appetites of gluttony”, “avaricious thoughts”, and “those who incite us to seek the esteem of men.” Anger and unchastity for example, are not aroused first before these others have made their inroads into our being.

In the second piece, we find out that the actions of demons and these temptations to turn us aside, they all operate with a common methodology. That is, each demon uses conceptions of sensory objects to trigger its action. In Evagrios words,

All thoughts inspired by the demons produce within us conceptions of sensory objects; and in this way the intellect, with such conceptions imprinted on it, bears the form of these objects within itself. So, by recognizing the object presented to it, the intellect knows which demon is approaching. For example, if the face of a person who has done me harm or insulted me appears in my mind, I recognize the demon of rancor approaching.

That is, the sensory images themselves as they begin to tempt us, betray to inspection which sort of temptation they are. Evagrios is quick to reassure us that all images of sensory things are necessarily demonic. Just those which cause us to turn from God or contrary to nature.

We cannot drive away impassioned thoughts unless we watch over our desire and incensive power. We destroy desire by fasting, vigils, and sleeping on the ground. We destroy our incensive power through long suffering, forbearance, forgiveness, and acts of compassion.

Thus in these three short pieces, we read that Evagrios tells us the three inroads to our falling away from where we want to be and what we need to do to avoid it. He’s pretty specific that this is the only way. Alas this is, also, in these modern days a road rarely taken. fasting, vigil, and “sleeping on the ground” or any measure of hardships are rare indeed. Indeed as well, the popular culture which surrounds us as well, fights us not just in this regard but as well the other. Victimology, and the cult of claiming victim-hood, shifting blame as well as bringing our plaint to foreground is expected. “long-sufferingness” and forbearance are virtues preached but rarely. In part this is because it takes a different kind of leader to preach the virtue of forebearance. One cannot be wealthy rich or privileged. It takes, essentially, the monastic ascetic to teach by word and example that this is a virtue and a exercise which is effective and works in those things which we value.

One might ask, how well the demons which inspire “appetites of gluttony”, “avaricious thoughts”, and “those who incite us to seek the esteem of men” have worked in our communities and fellowships and our country? Might Evagrios be right, that these methods are indeed the only bulwark against them?

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