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Preliminary Remarks on the Analysis of Internal Evidence in Basil Letter 8 for Evagrian Authorship and Dating, with reference to the Theological Orations of St Gregory the Theologian


To continue with this philological analysis of Passage A, the author of passage A emphasizes the recognition of God in second natural contemplation in the ‘operations (energeies) of the Creator, and in the beginning it understands these from the results (apotelesmata)’.[1] In the other works of Evagrius that we have studied, Evagrius does not discuss the role in second natural contemplation of the ‘operations (energeies)’ and ‘results (apotelesmata)’ of God in Creation. In the indices to Greek words in the critical editions that we referenced above for epinoia, this is confirmed: these words are not used. If they are used, they are used in a completely ordinary way. Unfortunately, we do not have a critical edition of Evagrius’ Scholia on Psalms, and since those who have been working on the critical edition have not written anything that we are aware of on the use of the words ‘operations (energeies)’ and ‘results (apotelesmata)’ in the Scholia on Psalms, our analysis is necessarily incomplete.

St Gregory the Theologian does not use this language in the Theological Orations, although it might be argued that he does use related concepts.

When discussing second natural contemplation in his other works Evagrius discusses the ‘reasons (logoi)’ of created objects. These reasons (logoi) are the essences of created objects embedded in the material created object and accessible to the mystic through the mystic’s contemplation of the material object itself in second natural contemplation.

It is clear from the following passage of the Theological Orations that, although he does not dwell on it, St Gregory is familiar with this concept of the reasons (logoi) of created objects:

He is called ‘Wisdom’ as the science (episteme) of divine and human things, for how would he who has made [all things] be ignorant of the reasons (logoi) of the things he has made?[2]

As we have pointed out elsewhere, second natural contemplation is not a discursive meditation on the ‘meaning’ of an object, but a direct encounter by the intuitive spiritual eye of the mind (nous) with the reason or essence (logos) embedded in the object—to the extent that this is possible to a created mind (nous) and according to the degree of the spiritual purity of the contemplator.[3]

A case can be made that the author of passage A is not Evagrius: he is not using words as the late Evagrius used them. There is an inconsistency in the diction of Basil Letter 8. There is clearly a difference in Passage A from the way that Evagrius normally writes.

Finally, more generally, the passages that constitute Layer 3 of the Letter are somewhat imprecise as concerns the stages of Evagrian contemplation. For example, in the conclusion of the Letter we see this:

and by means of the bee hints at natural contemplation, in which also is mixed the reason (logos) concerning the Holy Trinity, if indeed from the beauty of creatures the Generator is proportionately seen.[4]

In Evagrius’ other writings, there is no concept of the intermixture of the ‘reason concerning the Holy Trinity (o peri tes hagias triados logos)’ with the material creation. Neither does St Gregory use this language in the Theological Orations. The ‘reason concerning the Holy Trinity’, if there is such a concept in Evagrius, refers to the mystic’s experience of union with God. On this, see, for example, Peri Logismon 41, where the experience of union is spoken of as the ‘mental representation (noema) of God’.[5]

As concerns the expression ‘from the beauty of creatures the Generator is proportionately seen’, a quotation from Wisdom,[6] there is no use of this concept in other works of Evagrius that we are aware of. St Gregory does use a similar expression in the Theological Orations, although not so highly developed.

The one reference in the Kephalaia Gnostica to God the Father as Generator is this:

KG VI, 28 The Father is the generator of essential gnosis.

But ‘essential gnosis’ is the mystic’s direct apprehension of the Holy Trinity without discursive reason. Moreover, in the Kephalaia Gnostica it is the Christ who is the creator of the material world, not the Father. That is, second natural contemplation, in which we contemplate the essences (logoi) of material objects, is the province of the Christ. Even Basil Letter 8 clearly teaches this.

A little earlier in the conclusion to Basil Letter 8, the author has just spoken this way:

And concerning the Trinity Holy and Worthy of Worship, for the present let so much be said to us. For it is not now possible to examine more extensively the reason (logos) concerning it.[7]

Here, the ‘reason concerning the Holy Trinity’ has the nature of a discursive argument or discursive contemplation. But this usage is just a little different than the one we have just been discussing, which usage occurs just a little further on in the text of the Letter. This imprecision of diction is again not typical of Evagrius.

There are at least two passages in the Kephalaia Gnostica which seem to warrant this use of ‘the reason concerning the Holy Trinity’:

KG I, 10 Among the demons, some are opposed to the practice of the commandments, others are opposed to the mental representations of nature, and others are opposed to the logoi which concern the Divinity, because the gnosis of our salvation also is composed of these things.[8]

KG IV, 40 The ‘key of the Kingdom of the Heavens’ [Matt. 16, 19] is the spiritual gift which partially reveals the mental representations of praktiki and of nature, and those of the logoi which concern God.[9]

However, in other parts of the Evagrian corpus, including the Kephalaia Gnostica, we see that the logoi which concern the divinity’ that constitute a part of the gnosis that is our salvation are not discursive in nature. While an interpretation of the ‘logoi which concern the divinity’ or ‘God’ as sound Trinitarian doctrine seems plausible, that is not the nature of Evagrian mysticism: the gnosis of the Trinity that Evagrius foresees in the Kephalaia Gnostica is direct intuitive intellectual union with the Trinity:

KG I, 19 The gnosis which is in the four is the gnosis of the mental representations of creatures, and the gnosis of the One is the gnosis of him who alone is.[10]

The problematical part of the logoi which concern the divinity’ is here:

KG V, 55 The Holy Trinity is not a thing which might be mixed with the contemplation; that, indeed, does not occur except with created beings. The former will also be named, in a holy way, essential gnosis.

This passage depends on the notion in Evagrius that the knowledge (gnosis) of the Holy Trinity is not like the knowledge (gnosis) of a created object. Hence, it is impossible to know the Holy Trinity in the same way that a creature is known.[11]

However, even more importantly, there here seems to be some confusion in the mind of the author of these passages of Letter 8 about the nature of the presence of the Holy Trinity in Creation. The author has begun by referring to the ‘reason concerning the Holy Trinity’ in a discursive sense and very soon proceeded to discuss how the ‘reason (logos) concerning the Holy Trinity’ is mixed into natural contemplation, ‘if indeed from the beauty of creatures the Generator is proportionately seen’. Moreover, he emphasizes the ‘beauty’ of creatures, whereas the late Evagrius emphasizes as a part of second natural contemplation the reason or essence (logos) of creatures.

There is a doctrine in the Kephalaia Gnostica of the presence of God in Creation the way that an artist is present in his work of art. Evagrius is explicit that this does not entail the actual presence of God in Creation, and, as far as we know, he never describes that presence of God in Creation as the ‘reason (logos) concerning the Holy Trinity’. Moreover, he never states in the Kephalaia Gnostica—or anywhere else that we are aware of—that the presence of God in his creation the way an artist is present in his work of art allows the contemplator to perceive in natural contemplation the reason (logos) concerning the Holy Trinity—or even God proportionately.

The difference seems to be this: On the one hand, the late Evagrius wants us to engage in second natural contemplation because the spiritual knowledge (gnosis) that we receive from it nourishes our soul and purifies our mind (nous). On the other hand, he is adamant that we do not know God himself in second natural contemplation. At most, it would appear, in second natural contemplation we know God the way we know an artist by viewing a sculpture that the artist has done. And moreover, in his later thought at least, Evagrius is clear that once we have progressed beyond second natural contemplation, especially to the stage of union with God, then second natural contemplation is seen to be nothing. This doctrine seems far from the notion that in natural contemplation we perceive the ‘reason (logos) concerning the Holy Trinity’ or the Generator proportionately:

KG II, 21 All that has been produced proclaims ‘the most various wisdom of God’ [Eph. 3, 10], but there is nothing among all the beings which teaches us concerning his nature.

Or again:

KG VI, 82 It is said that God is in the corporeal nature as the architect is in the things which have been made by him, and it is said that, like the architect, God is as in the statue, if he should happen to make for himself a statue of wood.

Evagrius teaches in the Kephalaia Gnostica that God is ‘essential gnosis’. That would seem to preclude the notion that the ‘reason concerning the Holy Trinity’ is something that might be cognized by the mystic about God, or even that it could be an argument concerning the nature of the Holy Trinity that might be formulated by him. Consider for example:

KG V, 51 It is not that which is his nature that he knows who sees the Creator after the harmony of beings, but he knows his wisdom, that with which he has made everything; and I wish to say not the essential wisdom [= essential gnosis, the godhead], but that which appears in the beings, that which those who are experts in these things are wont to call natural contemplation. And if that is so, what folly is it that those have who say that they know the nature of God![12]

This wisdom in the harmony of beings is the reason (logos) of each created being that the mystic contemplates in natural contemplation.

Layer 3 thus seems to have a somewhat imprecise presentation of the stages of contemplation as compared to other works of Evagrius.

However, when compared to the Theological Orations, the presentation in Basil Letter 8 of the stages of contemplation is far more articulated and definite than we would expect from a student of St Gregory writing within a year of the Orations. For the Letter delineates a progression from second natural contemplation as the contemplation which is ‘implicated in objects’ to first natural contemplation as the contemplation both of the angels and of their reasons—an explanation of first natural contemplation is developed at great length in On the Thoughts—to the contemplation of the Godhead expressed as contemplation of the Monad and Unity, terms used in the Kephalaia Gnostica, although certainly not in the Theological Orations.

Moreover, this passage of Letter 8 outlines the whole mystical ascent as delineated by the mature Evagrius:

And he says: ‘He who eats me will live on account of me.’ For we eat his flesh and drink his blood when we become communicants by means of the Incarnation and of the sensible life of the Word and of Wisdom. For ‘flesh and blood’ he called his whole mystical sojourn; and he made known the teaching constituted from praktiki, physiki and theologiki, by means of which the soul is nourished and in the meantime prepared for the contemplation of beings.[13]

‘Praktiki, physiki and theologiki’ are the three stages of the mystical ascent delineated by the mature Evagrius. To suggest that this particular passage was written by Evagrius before he had left Constantinople is to suggest that he had developed the lineaments of his mature mystical system, and had them approved by St Gregory when the latter read Letter 8, before he had left Constantinople, become a monk and gone to Egypt. But the Theological Orations do not present such an articulated analysis of the mystical ascent as this. Moreover, as we shall discuss later, what we know of Evagrius’ personal history in this period of his life is just simply not consistent with such advanced mystical rumination on his part—rumination that not even his master manifests in the Theological Orations.

It might be wondered if the Letter’s problems with diction constitute immature foreshadowings of a later mature mystical doctrine. It seems to us no. The presentation in Layer 3 of the Letter is quite sophisticated and definite, as if the author knows the system quite well, not as if he is yet to think it through. We can see this in the immediately preceding example and will further see it when we discuss the content of the Letter, especially Layer 3, in comparison with the Theological Orations. It is just that the author of Layer 3 understands the Evagrian system a little differently from Evagrius in the genuine works that we know of Evagrius, and perhaps in a somewhat less mystically accomplished way.

In regard to this question of whether Layer 3 constitutes immature foreshadowings of Evagrius’ later mystical doctrine, let us consider the following excerpt from Passage A:

Because this is so, again, in the Acts of the Apostles, to his disciples who are asking, ‘When will you restore the Kingdom to Israel,’ he says ‘It is not yours to know times and seasons which the Father has set in his own authority.’ That is, this sort of knowledge (gnosis) of the Kingdom is not for those who are joined to flesh and blood. This contemplation the Father has placed in his own authority, calling ‘authority’ those who are subjected to his authority, ‘his own’ those who do not participate in ignorance of the lower things. [25] Do not understand sensible ‘times’ and ‘seasons’ for me, but certain dimensions of knowledge (gnosis) occurring under the intelligible sun.

Consider this passage of the Kephalaia Gnostica:

KG III, 44 The intelligible sun is the reasonable nature which contains in itself the first and blessed light.

Here we have a passage of the Kephalaia Gnostica which explains terminology used in Basil Letter 8. Are we to take this to mean that Evagrius wrote Passage A in a groping way in Constantinople and throughout the remainder of his life kept the notion of ‘intelligible sun’, returning near the end of his life to provide a definition in the Kephalaia Gnostica? Or that Passage A was written by Evagrius near the end of his life? Or that someone else who had read the Kephalaia Gnostica wrote Passage A?

This excerpt from Passage A contains a succinct description of the mature Evagrian doctrine that the spiritual knowledge (gnosis) of God that is the seeker’s goal depends not on the Christ but on the Father. That is the significance of the ‘authority of the Father’; the ‘ignorance of the lower things’ seems to refer either to those who are accomplished in natural contemplation or to those who have surpassed it. Moreover, in the doctrine of the Kephalaia Gnostica, the only intelligible sun (and even in Evagrius there is only one sun, not a plethora) is the Christ.

Can this excerpt from Passage A legitimately be called a mystical groping brought to fruition in Egypt under the tutelage of the Desert Fathers?

[1] Basil Letter 8 ¶7 [23]. See below for the full excerpt.

[2] SC 250 Oration 28 (= Theological Oration 2) 30, 15 – 16, pp. 268.

[3] Cf. Gnostic 40, quoted above.

[4] Basil Letter 8 ¶12 [37].

[6] Wisdom 13, 5. Thanks to Dr Kalvesmaki for pointing this out.

[7] Basil Letter 8 (12 [36].)

[8] Constantine Vol. II p. 367.

[9] Constantine Vol. II p. 394.

[10] Op cit. p. 368. Cf. KG I, 38, loc. cit. p. 369.

[11] This is the basis of Skemmata 18, On the Thoughts 41, and these two passages of the Kephalaia Gnostica:

KG V, 62 The nature of the Trinity is not known with ascents and descents; there are not there, indeed, any underlying objects, and its nature does not admit of analysis, because he who resolves the nature of bodies makes it consist absolutely in matter and form; and if one resolves the incorporeal nature, one brings it to the common contemplation and to the substance susceptible of an opposition. But it is not thus that it is possible to know the nature of the Holy Trinity.

KG V, 63 The analysis makes us re-ascend to the commencement of the objects, and the gnosis which is according to measure makes seen the wisdom of the Creator; but it is not according to these signs that we see the Holy Trinity. It has not, indeed, commencement, and we do not say to any further extent that the wisdom which is in these objects is God, if the commencements agree, in the theory of nature, with the things of which they are the commencements. Indeed, such a wisdom is a gnosis without substance, which appears only in the objects.

[13] Basil Letter 8 ¶4 [15].