#profile-container h2.sidebar-title {display:none;}

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


Let us again look at these two passages in Passage A concerning points of view of the Christ:

If, therefore, whatever God is, is said to be known by God of himself and that which he is not, not to be known—then our Lord, according to the notion (kata ten … epinoian) of the Incarnation and the grosser teaching, is not the final object of desire; and therefore our Saviour did not know the end and the final blessedness.

For they say that the Kingdom of Christ is all the knowledge (gnosis) that is implicated in material [objects] and that the Kingdom of the God and Father is the immaterial contemplation, and, as one might say, the contemplation of the very Divinity. [23] Our Lord, however, is himself the end and final blessedness according to the notion (kata ten epinoian) of the Word.

Just what does the author of Passage A mean from a Christological point of view? If we take into consideration KG IV, 18, cited earlier, then one interpretation is that the author is saying the same thing here: the Christ as seen from the point of view of the created mind (nous) which, united to the Word of God, took on human flesh for the salvation of men is not the final object of desire; but the Word to which that mind (nous) called the Christ is united is the final object of desire. Consider the following passages of the Kephalaia Gnostica:

KG III, 72 The heritage of Christ is the gnosis of the Unity; and, if all should become coheirs of Christ, all will know the Holy Unity. But it is not possible that they should become his coheirs if they have not previously become his heirs.[1]

KG IV, 21 The unction either indicates the gnosis of the Unity or designates the contemplation of beings. And if more than the others Christ is anointed, it is evident that he is anointed with the gnosis of the Unity. On account of that, he alone is said ‘to be seated at the right’ [Mark 16, 19] of his Father, the right which here, according to the rule of the gnostics, indicates the Monad and the Unity.[2]

These passages create a serious caution for the student of the Basil Letter 8. Although the Letter is adamant that the Word of God, the Son, is God, it does not automatically follow that the author believes that the Christ is that Word of God incarnated into human flesh in the way that orthodox Christians traditionally understand. That is a different doctrine, one which the author might or might not hold.

Let us continue to look at the content of Passage A.

The passage contains a succinct description of first natural contemplation, the contemplation of the angels themselves and of their reasons (logoi):

‘But neither the angels know,’ [Jesus] said—that is, neither the contemplation which is in them nor the reasons (logoi) of their ministries are the final object of desire.

In the Evagrian system, first natural contemplation is a very advanced stage of contemplation, just prior to the mystic’s entry into the contemplation of the Divinity.[3] The two parts of first natural contemplation are the intuitive sight of the actual angels themselves[4] and the intuitive apprehension of the reasons (logoi) of the angels’ ministry,[5] what the angels are all about.

This brief reference in Passage A to first natural contemplation is far more than an immature foreshadowing of a later mystical system; it is a very sophisticated, concise description of a major part of that system. Moreover, there is no such doctrine of first natural contemplation in the Theological Orations. Hence, the assertion that Evagrius wrote the whole text of Basil Letter 8 in Constantinople before he went to Egypt is problematical.

Next is this part of Passage A:

But because our mind (nous), having being made gross, has been joined to the dust and is mixed up with the clay and is unable to gaze in bare contemplation, therefore being guided by means of the adornments which are related to the body[6] it understands the operations (energeies) of the Creator, and in the beginning it understands these from the results (apotelesmata), so that, thus having increased little by little, it might have the strength at some time to advance even to the naked Divinity itself.[7]

Consider the first part of this sentence: ‘our mind (nous), having been made gross’. The text has the aorist participle pachyntheis. The author of the text is introducing a temporal sequence of events in a very concise way. Given this temporal sequence, we can see this passage as an allusion to the doctrine of the pre-existence of the minds (noes) and their descent into bodies.[8]

In other respects, this excerpt from Passage A is a very concise presentation of the Evagrian doctrine of the mystical ascent to God through second natural contemplation, apart from our reservations about terminology that we discussed earlier.

These concepts are not to be found in the Theological Orations of Evagrius’ teacher.

Let us give another example:

For it is necessary that that prayer of our Master be brought to its end. For Jesus is he who prays: ‘Give them that they may be one in us just as you and I are one, Father.’ For being one, God, coming to be in each, makes all one and number is destroyed in the sojourn in the Monad.[9], [10]

The last sentence of this excerpt is a clear allusion to the doctrine of the Restoration (apokatastasis), when all the minds (noes) will become one in such a way that there will a loss of number—i.e. a loss of individual identity—among the individual minds. Now one might suppose that the sentence should be taken as a statement that when a person has a mystical experience, then he subjectively feels the unity of all Creation and all men. However, such a subjectivism would be completely foreign to the philosophical and spiritual tradition of which Evagrius was a part, from Plato through Aristotle through the Cappadocians. Admittedly, the author’s construction ‘epidemia tes monados’, which we have rendered ‘sojourn in the Monad’, is grammatically difficult, but a familiarity with the Kephalaia Gnostica immediately raises the question whether the author is not alluding to the Restoration (apokatastasis).

Let us consider a passage of the Theological Orations that is similar to this doctrine of the mystical ascent as we find it in Passage A:

‘For God will be all things in all persons’ in the time of the Restoration (apokatastasis), not the Father, the Son being dissolved in him completely, just as a torch in a great fire which has for a time been separated and then rejoined—for let not the Sabellians be destroyed by this saying—but all of God, when we will no longer be many things[11] just as now in the movements and the passions, bearing in us, ourselves, nothing of God or very little, but we will all be God-like [theoeideis], capable of containing all of God and him only. For this is the perfection towards which we hasten. Paul himself, certainly, gives the proofs, for here he speaks indeterminately of God, elsewhere he restricts himself clearly to Christ. Saying what? ‘There where there is not Greek, neither Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free,’ but all things and in all persons, Christ.[12]

This passage of the Theological Orations would seem to give support to the assertion that various suspect passages of Letter 8 or even the later Evagrius are to be interpreted in a completely Orthodox way. For St Gregory seems to be hinting at the abolition of number in the Restoration (apokatastasis).

However, let us first look at a salient difference. In this passage of the Theological Orations, St Gregory is clear that it is not merely a matter of being united to the Father, in whom the Son has dissolved, but to all of God, which, it is clear, is for St Gregory the Trinity. Moreover, consistently in the Theological Orations St Gregory is emphatic that there is no end to Christ’s Kingdom.[13] Contrast this to the emphasis in Passage A on the Christian’s encounter with the Monad and Unity, which the mature Evagrius identifies with the Father.

With regard to St Gregory’s assertion that we will no longer be ‘many things’ in the Restoration, his remark is very brief and hard to interpret. St Gregory glosses, it seems, his remark when he quotes the passage of Paul which ends the passage. The impression we have is that St Gregory is not advancing the assertion that number will be abolished in the Restoration (i.e. individual differences of personal identity among souls), but the assertion that ‘accidental’ characteristics will be abolished.

Does Letter 8 mean the same thing as St Gregory when it says:

For Jesus is he who prays: ‘Give them that they may be one in us just as you and I are one, Father.’ For being one, God, coming to be in each, makes all one and number is destroyed in the sojourn in the Monad. For being one, God, coming to be in each, makes all one and number is destroyed in the sojourn in the Monad;[14]

and are we are necessarily to take Letter 8 as perfectly orthodox? This would seem an a priori approach to interpreting texts.

The issue here is this: Should we assume, on the basis of his association with St Gregory and St Basil, that Evagrius is orthodox and give him the benefit of the doubt in interpreting such passages as these of Basil Letter 8, and then continue with that orthodox interpretation into the Kephalaia Gnostica, denying the a posteriori template that the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod supposedly put on the Kephalaia Gnostica?

We ourselves think that when one has a familiarity with the Kephalaia Gnostica, even in the French of Guillaumont, then when he is reading Basil Letter 8, he can easily spot allusions to the system of the Kephalaia Gnostica. It does not seem to us methodologically sound to impose on Evagrius the a priori template of orthodoxy. We must confront the issue that the Kephalaia Gnostica, taken on its own terms, can tell us something about what Evagrius thought, even in Basil Letter 8.

Let us illustrate what we are saying with another passage from Letter 8, this time not from Passage A but from another part of the Letter:

He bore with these things on account of his great love for mankind concerning his creature, so that he recover the lost sheep, and so that he combine that which was saved; and so that he lead healthy again to his familiar homeland him who descended from Jerusalem to Jericho and for that reason fell into the hands of robbers.[15]

The author of this passage uses an unusual word in context, katamixei (καταμίξ), for what he expects Jesus to do with the lost sheep that Jesus has recovered. We have rendered that word ‘combine’. A person familiar with the Kephalaia Gnostica can immediately detect an allusion here to Evagrius’ version of the Restoration (apokatastasis), when all the minds will enter without individual characteristics into an henad of naked minds, just as we have discussed above.

Moreover, Letter 8 immediately goes on to use another Gospel image, that of the traveller who descended from Jerusalem to Jericho. In the Kephalaia Gnostica we find this:

KG VI, 49 Egypt signifies vice; the desert, praktiki; the land of Judah, the contemplation of bodies; Jerusalem, [the contemplation] of incorporeals; and Zion is the symbol of the Trinity[16].

KG V, 88 Zion is the sign of the first gnosis[17], and Egypt is the indication of all vice; but the symbol of the [first] natural contemplation is Jerusalem, where is the Mount of Zion, the summit of the city.

KG V, 6 The contemplation of angels is named the celestial Jerusalem and the Mount of Zion, for if those who have believed in Christ draw near to the Mount of Zion and to the City of the Living God, then it is in the contemplation of angels that those who have believed in Christ have been and will be, that contemplation from which their fathers have gone out and descended into Egypt.

As can be seen, the image of the descent from Jerusalem to Jericho is pregnant with meaning in Evagrius’ mature system. Jerusalem is taken to be symbolic of the Restoration (apokatastasis), or, more precisely put, of the contemplation of the angels which is just prior to the sojourn in the Monad, which itself is identified by Evagrius with the Mount of Zion. Moreover, the expression ‘familiar homeland’, which is a literal translation of the text of Basil Letter 8, then alludes to the doctrine that the Restoration (apokatastasis) is a return to the original state that the minds had before their fall from the Monad—as is clearly indicated by KG V, 6, cited above. The verb ‘descended’ in the passage of the letter under consideration would then refer to the descent of the fallen minds into bodies. Finally, the thieves that fall upon the traveller who has descended from Jerusalem to Jericho[18] are the demons. Elsewhere in Letter 8, as we have already pointed out, the author has spoken thus: ‘But because our mind (nous), having been made gross, has been joined to the dust and is mixed up with the clay and is unable to gaze in bare contemplation…’.

It might be thought that the following passage from the Theological Orations gives a completely orthodox interpretation to the descent from Jerusalem to Jericho in Basil Letter 8:

He hears [himself called] ‘Samaritan’ and ‘demoniac’ but he saves him who descended from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers; and he sends demons away and drowns a legion of spirits and ‘sees fallen as lightning’ the ruler of demons.[19]

It is clear, however, that St Gregory’s purpose in referring to the descent from Jerusalem to Jericho is to portray Jesus Christ, pejoratively called a Samaritan, as the Good Samaritan, just has his purpose is to portray Jesus Christ, pejoratively called a demoniac, as him who expels the demons and even sees the Devil fallen like lightning from Heaven. There is nothing in the Orations that corresponds to the use made of the image in either Basil Letter 8 or the Kephalaia Gnostica.

Fr Gabriel Bunge takes the position that since Basil Letter 8 was written under the eye of St Gregory the Theologian in Constantinople, all the concepts expressed in it are orthodox.[20] In his view, we cannot use an interpretation of the Kephalaia Gnostica which yields a heterodox Evagrius to interpret Basil Letter 8: on the contrary we must use the fact that Basil Letter 8 is orthodox to interpret the rest of the Evagrian corpus in an orthodox way.

One can see that a key element in the establishment of the School of Bunge’s interpretation of Evagrius is precisely to remove the possibility of interpreting Evagrius on the basis of the Kephalaia Gnostica—‘it is too difficult a work’—while simultaneously establishing that Basil Letter 8 is an unequivocally orthodox work written by Evagrius under the watchful eye of St Gregory the Theologian, a work that is to be used as an orthodox template to re-interpret Evagrius as an orthodox thinker. We have not done as much work comparing the Theological Orations to Basil Letter 8 as we might, yet it is clear that here is the ‘sleight of hand that beguiles the audience’.

What we ourselves say is that since we have no documentary evidence that St Gregory approved of Basil Letter 8 in the form we now have it, we can use the doctrines found in the Kephalaia Gnostica—much more clearly than either Fr Gabriel or Dr Casiday care to admit—to shed light on the meaning of passages of Letter 8, and even to raise the possibility that some passages of the letter, expressive of mature Evagrian doctrine as found in the Kephalaia Gnostica, are in fact late interpolations in the letter, perhaps by Evagrius, perhaps by one of his circle. For it is from a familiarity with Evagrius’ later works that the reader can spot elements of Layer 3 of the letter that might reflect Evagrius’ later heterodox views on cosmology—or indeed even his later more orthodox views on contemplation.

But as we said, we have no way of knowing when these Layer 3 passages were put into the text of Basil Letter 8 and by whom.

In any event, it cannot blithely be asserted that the author’s reasoning is inherently orthodox both in the Letter and throughout his life, and must be presumed to be orthodox, because of Evagrius’ early association with St Basil the Great and St Gregory the Theologian. People change over the course of their life, for the better or for the worse.

In this regard, it is useful to consider Evagrius the person at the time he was with St Gregory the Theologian in Constantinople and is supposed to have written Basil Letter 8. Evagrius at the time that he was in Constantinople with St Gregory the Theologian was not, from what we know of his personal history, an advanced mystic. He was known in Constantinople for his vainglory. He got involved with a married woman and while the affair was never consummated, as far as the sources tell us, he was in danger of his life and had to leave Constantinople the next morning after experiencing a monitory dream. He went to Jerusalem, where he put off his clerical garb and led a worldly life; he was then sick in bed for six months because he was not living up to his vow to become a monk, the vow that he had made in the dream that had prompted him to leave Constantinople. After a heart-to-heart talk in Jerusalem with Melania the Elder about his condition, he consented to be tonsured a monk and after his tonsure went to Egypt to live as a monk. This biography is just simply not consistent with his having articulated an advanced mystical system before he left Constantinople, a mystical system that on the face of it is more advanced than the doctrine advanced in the same period in the Theological Orations by his teacher in Constantinople, St Gregory the Theologian. Hence, we have to consider whether the passages of Basil Letter 8 expressive of advanced mystical doctrine were not written later than Constantinople, after Evagrius had spent some time in asceticism in Egypt, whether by him or by one of his circle.

Given that before he came to Constantinople, Evagrius was in the circle of St Basil the Great, a complete study of the matter would require study of similar elements in St Basil’s own writings. But then that would lead us to study the writings of St Basil’s brother, St Gregory of Nyssa.

A complete analysis of Basil Letter 8 would be much work. In the footnotes to the translation, however, we will point out what we think are elements of Layer 3.


ACO 4, 1 Acta Conciliorvm Oecvmenicorvm. Ivssv atqve mandato Societatis Scientiarvm Argentoratensis. Edenda intitvit Edvardvs Schwartz. Continvavit Johannes Straub. Tomvs Qvartvs. Volvmen Primvm. MDCCCLXXI. In Aedibvs Walter de Gruyter & Co. Berolini. (Tome 4, Volume 1. 1971. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.)

Basil 1 Basil the Great. Collected Works. Volume 1. Under the direction of Stylianos G. Pappadopoulos. Editor of Volume I: Nikodimos (Mpilales), Monk of New Skete, Mount Athos. Text: Y. Courtonne (edition of Budé). In the series: Bibliothiki ton Ellenon, Apanta ton Hagion Pateron. No date. No place: Ellenikos Ekdotikos Oikos.

Bousset Bousset, Wilhelm. Apophthegmata: Studien zur Geschichte des Altesten Munchtums. Tubingen: Mohr, 1923.

Casiday Casiday, A. M. Evagrius Ponticus. 2006. In the series: The Early Church Fathers, edited by Carol Harrison. London and New York: Routledge (Taylor and Francis Group).

Constantine (Constantine), Fr Theophanes. The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart. Volume I: The Orthodox Doctrine of the Person. Volume II: The Evagrian Ascetical System. (Volume III: Hesychian Sobriety). 2006. Mount Athos, Greece: Timios Prodromos. http://timiosprodromos4.blogspot.com/ et seq.

Melcher Melcher, Robert. Der achte Brief des hl. Basilius: Ein Werk des Evagrius Pontikus. Münsterische Beiträge zur Theologie 1. Münster i.W: Aschendorff, 1923.

Pitra Origenes in Psalmos. Pitra, éditeur. Analecta Sacra Vol. 2, pp. 444 – 483 and Analecta Sacra Vol. 3 pp. 1 – 364.

Rondeau Rondeau, Marie-Josephe. Le Commentaire sur les Psaumes d’ Évagre Le Pontique. Orientalia Christiana Periodica 1960 pp. 307 – 348.

SC 170 Évagre Le Pontique. Traité pratique ou Le moine (Practical Treatise or The Monk). Tome I. Introduction. Antoine Guillaumont et Claire Guillaumont. 1971. In Sources chrétiennes, No 170. Paris, France: Les Éditions du Cerf.

SC 171 Évagre Le Pontique. Traité pratique ou Le moine (Practical Treatise or The Monk). Tome II. Édition critique du texte grec… Antoine Guillaumont et Claire Guillaumont. 1971. In Sources chrétiennes, No 171. Paris, France: Les Éditions du Cerf.

SC 250 Grégoire de Nazianze. Discours 27 – 31 (Discours Théologiques). (Orations 27 – 31 (Theological Orations)). Introduction, texte critique … par Paul Gallay avec … Maurice Jourjon. 1978. In Sources chrétiennes, No 250. Paris, France: Les Éditions du Cerf.

SC 340 Évagre Le Pontique. Scholies aux Proverbes (Scholia on Proverbs). Paul Géhin. 1987. In Sources chrétiennes, No 340. Paris, France: Les Éditions du Cerf.

SC 356 Évagre Le Pontique. Le Gnostique ou A celui qui est devenu digne de la science (The Gnostic or To Him who has Become Worthy of Gnosis). Antoine Guillaumont et Claire Guillaumont. 1989. In Sources chrétiennes, No 356. Paris, France: Les Éditions du Cerf.

SC 397 Évagre Le Pontique. Scholies a L’Ecclésiaste (Scholia on Ecclesiastes). Paul Géhin. 1993. In Sources chrétiennes, No 397. Paris, France: Les Éditions du Cerf.

[1] Constantine Volume II, p. 387.

[2] Ibid. p. 392.

[3] For a discussion of the cognitive psychology of these stages of contemplation, see Peri Logismon 41. Discussions of this stage of contemplation can be found in the Kephalaia Gnostica. For a discussion of specific chapters of the Kephalaia Gnostica which pertain to the stages of contemplation, see our ‘Digression’ in the Evagrian Ascetical System (Constantine Vol. II).

[4] This is the intelligible intuitive apprehension of a created intelligible being with mind. ‘Intuitive’ is meant in the philosophical sense, precisely in the way the conclusion of the letter asserts that the mind (nous) has been created by God to grasp its own materials without being taught. This is not a matter of discursive meditation on the angels or of seeing them in fantasy.

[5] The intuitive apprehension of the reasons (logoi) of the ministry of the angels is by analogy with the intuitive apprehension of the reason (logos) of a material object in second natural contemplation. For a full discussion, see Peri Logismon 41.

[6] Evidently, these ‘adornments which are related to the body’ are the beauties of the material world which manifest the operations (energeies) of the Creator.

[7] Basil Letter 8 ¶7 [23].

[8] This doctrine was condemned in Anathema 1 of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod. See Constantine Vol. I, Chap. 3, Section 11, ‘Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod’, p. 243 ff.

[9] Literally, ‘of the Monad’.

[10] Basil Letter 8 ¶7 [25].

[11] The critical edition of Gallay has polla without alternative readings, which seems odd. We would have expected to see polloi.

[12] SC 250 Oration 30 (= Theological Oration 4) 6, 31 – 44, p. 238.

[13] See, e.g., SC 250 Oration 30 (= Theological Oration 4) 4, pp. 230 - 232.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Basil Letter 8 ¶5 [18].

[16] I.e. the contemplation of the Trinity.

[17] I.e. Theology, mystical union with God.

[18] Here taken by the author to be praktiki, although Jericho is treated in Peri Logismon 20 as a symbol of second natural contemplation

[19] SC 250 Oration 29 (= Theological Oration 3) 20, 12 – 17, p. 220,

[20] Personal Communication. But this point of view is also to be found in Casiday.