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Volume 2, number 3, Spring 2005

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Evagrius Ponticus and the Condemnation of Origen


Edward Moore, S.T.L., Ph.D.
St. Elias School of Orthodox Theology



Introduction

In an attempt to rehabilitate Origen and his works within the Church, certain scholars and theologians have argued that it was the systematic theology of Evagrius Ponticus (ca. 345-400 A.D.) - derived from his own dogmatical interpretation of Origen's writings - that led to the posthumous condemnation of Origen, and to the outright condemnation of Evagrius himself.[1] While the contents of Evagrius' theology are clearly derived from the writings of Origen, we must keep in mind that Origen remarks several times in his De Principiis (the most daring and speculative of his works) that he is merely making plausible suggestions, and that his reader is free to take what he finds valuable, and to reject what he finds offensive or useless. In all discussions of Origen's ideas, we must continually bear this fact in mind: he was not speaking as a dogmatic theologian, but as a speculative thinker - in short, a philosopher.[2] As Eusebius points out, in his History of the Church, regarding Origen: "the Greeks themselves acknowledged his greatness as a philosopher."[3] Indeed, we know that Origen attended lectures of Ammonius Saccas, the teacher of Plotinus, and that he possessed a large library of philosophical works, which he later sold to pay for his upkeep. Porphyry, the pupil of Plotinus - who claimed to have met Origen - gives us the following list of the philosophers with whose work Origen was familiar:

He associated himself at all times with Plato, and was at home among the writings of Numenius and Cronius, Apollophanes, Longinus, and Moderatus, Nicomachus, and the more eminent followers of Pythagoras. He made use, too, of the books of Chaeremon the Stoic and Cornutus, which taught him the allegorical method he applied to the Jewish Scriptures.[4]

We possess little information on most of these philosophers, but we have enough, on a few, to see that Porphyry's statement is very likely accurate. In the case of Plato, of course, Origen's debt is obvious.[5] I will comment briefly on the lesser known philosophers listed by Porphyry.

Origen shares with Numenius a basic assumption about bodily existence, reflected in their respective attitudes attitude toward the stars and planets. For Numenius, only the lower part of the soul is subjected to the fate (heimarmenê) regulated by the stars;[6] for Origen, the influence of the stars is benefic, insofar as they aid the soul in its striving for divine life.[7] These attitudes are due to their shared position that the incarnation of the soul in matter is bad; for Numenius, the incarnation of the soul is due to it's succumbing to temptation by malicious demons; for Origen it is the result of contemplative laxity or inattention. In the case of Numenius, the stars are responsible for doling out the fate that rules the lower portion of souls; in Origen's case, the stars are seen as partners with God, working for the perfection of souls. Both of these conclusions - while quite different - stem from a recognition that bodily incarnation is an evil.

Cronius denied the migration of souls into animals,[8] an argument that would have been helpful to Origen as he formulated his own doctrine of a special type of reincarnation, or recurrence of the soul, in multiple paedeutic aeons. And Origen would have agreed with - or perhaps he was inspired by - the lack of distinction "between a supreme and a demiurgic god" in the works of Moderatus and Nichomachus,[9] for we know that Origen, in his Commentary on John, identified Christ as both the demiurge or craftsman (dêmiourgos) and the origin (arkhê) of creation,[10] thereby denying any temporal or ontological distinction between God and the Logos - though Origen was clearly a subordinationist at the highest, metaphysical level of his thought.

It should be obvious, from these brief historico-textual observations of mine, that Origen not only considered himself a philosopher, but also researched and wrote as one. His desire, in my opinion, was to inspire his students to challenge him, and by so doing, to rise to ever greater heights of understanding and self-trancendence. However, in the case of Evagrius, Origen's almost Dionysiac dance of speculative ecstasy gave way to a sober, carefully considered formulation of doctrine, based on his personal understanding of Origen's texts, which he approached not as an inspirational source, but as dogma. Such was the root of his downfall.[11]

In this paper I will examine the sources of Origen's own speculative thought, and proceed to demonstrate how Evagrius' lack of acquaintance with the philosophical tradition drawn upon by Origen led to his slavish adherence to Origen's texts, to the detriment of his own creativity and speculative rigor - and ultimately, to his condemnation, along with Origen, as a heretic by the institutional Church. Finally, I will say a few words about the conciliar condemnation of these two thinkers, and its impact on subsequent Church history and dogma.


Origen's Philosophical Background, and the Formulation of Some of His Key Doctrines

I have already given brief examples of the correspondence between the thinking of some Middle Platonic philosophers and Origen. But although it is correct to call Origen a philosopher, he was definitely in touch with the more esoteric movements that blended what we today would call theology and philosophy into a grand cosmological schema. Most notable among these movements were the Gnostics, especially Basilides of Alexandria.

St. Irenaeus complained of these Gnostics that they were "inventing new tales every day," a reference to their highly speculative theorizing, which coupled the language of myth with that of philosophy. This sort of creative thinking is, to be fair, part of the philosophical tradition - one thinks immediately of the myths in Plato's Dialogues. However, in the case of the Gnostics, this mode of thought implied a radical allegorization of Scripture, not with the intention of making scriptural problems disappear (as was the case, largely, with Origen), but of adding a greater dimension to Scripture, insofar as the Gnostics posited a higher god above Yahweh, and saw the Biblical God of Abraham as a lesser deity, derived by accident from a higher realm, of which humans had been hitherto unaware.

This Gnostic idea is not as radical as it may seem. For example, Platonic philosophers had long tried to explain the presence of evil in the world, and the derivation of matter, the key text always being Plato's Timaeus (which the Gnostics re-interpreted along their chosen lines). Numenius, for example, argued that the demiurge possesses both a rational and an irrational part of the soul, thus accounting for the presence of evil in the world. Origen's solution to the problem was a bit different, yet still dependent upon Platonic myth applied allegorically to Scripture, as well as to certain fundamental doctrines of Stoic thought.[12]

First of all, let it be said that the Stoics used allegory to explain away certain odious characteristics of the Olympian gods, as protrayed in Homeric epic and Hesiodic cosmogony.[13] Origen and the Gnostics, on the other hand, are largely using allegory to inject Platonic philosophical concepts and doctrines into Scripture. Their motivation is quite similar to that of the Stoics: to play down the anthropomorphic elements of Scripture, particularly the seemingly unjust and brutal actions of Yahweh.[14] However, the result, in both cases (i.e., Origen and the Gnostics), is a quite mythical schema involving angelic and archontic powers, astral forces, and motifs of spatial (or temporal) and spiritual ascent and descent, including dotrines of reincarnation or metempsychosis.

The Stoics believed that the universe is composed of fire, and that the material universe as we know it is the result of an outward expansion and cooling off of this primordial, craftsmanly fire (pur tekhnikon). In keeping with his Platonic mindset, Origen could not accept the materialism of Stoic thought, but he did borrow the notion of "cooling off." However, rather than applying this to a materialistic schema, he applied it metaphorically to the moral and ethical state of the soul.

According to Origen, the souls of humans pre-existed with God, in a state of contemplation and proximity. Gradually, these souls became bored or disinterested in their contemplative activity, preferring a more active or creative mode of being. So they fell away from God and grew cold (psukhros). This is how Origen explains the presence of the soul (psukhê) in a material body; - to facilitate the soul's new, fallen existence, God gives the souls bodies ("garments of skins") tailored according to the extent of their fall. Angels received ethereal bodies; the stars and planets received circular bodies (the circle was a symbol of perfection); humans received bodies of flesh and blood; and, finally, demons received cold and coarse bodies, since they were said to have voluntarily rebelled against God, whereas the other souls fell away largely by accident.

On the basis of this mythically expressed anthropology, Origen developed his eschatological theory, which centered around his key concept of apokatastasis or "restoration of all things." The main point of this theory is that all souls will achieve salvation, including the devil himself; this is facilitated, Origen speculated, through a series of multiple ages (aeons), that will continually recur until all souls finally awaken to their divine nature and creative potential. Further, Origen goes on to declare that souls may backslide, and actually degenerate to a lower onto-theological status in the world, through the improper exercise of their free will; - and Origen absolutely refuses to deny the sovereignty of the soul's free will, even if this means declaring God's grace ineffective in certain scenarios.

It is easy to assume, from this, that Origen would have accepted a notion of reincarnation or metempsychosis, i.e., the passage of souls into various bodies, for the purpose of rehabilitation, throughout the ages. And he certainly did accept this idea. However, the problem that plagued such notions in Origen's era quickly arose - i.e., do especially sinful human souls ever enter the bodies of animals? And, if so, how do such souls ever return to human bodies; for animals are irrational, and in the absence of reason, how can the moral virtue that causes a soul to repent ever be present?

The Gnostic theologian Basilides of Alexandria had earlier formulated a doctrine of reincarnation based upon a passage in Romans:

Indeed, the apostle has said, 'I was once alive apart from the law,' [Rom 7:9] at some time or other. That is (Paul means), before I came into this body, I lived in the kind of body that is not subject to the law: the body of a domestic animal or bird.[15]

Origen himself preserves this fragment of a lost work by Basilides (labeled by Layton as "Fragment F," likely a quotation from Basilides' lost Commentaries)[16] in his Commentary on Romans, where he derides the doctrine as related to "irrelevant, blasphemous tales." However, as Layton points out, since Origen held a notion of reincarnation himself, he is not condemning the same in Basilides, but rather dismissing Basilides' elaborate Gnostic cosmology and theology.[17] Further, as discussed briefly above, Origen was familiar with the work of Cronius, who defended reincarnation at the human level, but rejected the notion of reincarnation into animal bodies. Origen agreed with Basilides on the basic notion of reincarnation, but parted ways on the matter of reincarnation in irrational animal bodies.

So from this it should be clear that Origen was himself well-read and in active touch with a living, dynamic philosophical-theological tradition - and from such he drew his strength as a thinker. He presented his ideas as reflections - highly plausible but not written in stone - to an audience that we can tell he respected and loved. Evagrius, on the other hand - to whom we now turn - codified Origen's speculations as an onto-thelogical and cosmological system, which he presented as dogma. For this he was condemned. Unfortunately, he (unwittingly) dragged Origen down with him.


The Origenism of Evagrius Ponticus

Discussing the Origenism of Evagrius Ponticus, Alexander Schmemann makes the following remark:

Along with the adoption of much that was valuable in Alexandrian tradition, [Origenism's] danger too might be discerned more and more clearly: it lay in the 'spiritualization' of Christianity, the very subtle and innermost 'de-incarnation' of man. This was a danger from Greek idealism which had not been overcome - the desire to replace 'salvation' by contemplation.[18]

Here it is important to remark that contemplation, for Origen, was seen as a means - indeed, the only true means - of authentic relation to God, i.e., a creative, self-exploratory relationship extending into infinity … an infinity marked by the continual experience of the human vis-à-vis the divine.

Contemplation, for Origen, was genesis - generative motion -: the opposite of St. Maximus' positing of stasis as the final salvific state. Contemplation or theôria ("thought-thinking-itself") was understood by Origen as the true fruit of salvation, when humanity achieves likeness to God. Since God is, primarily, the Creator, when humans achieve perfection (theôsis), they also receive the ability to be creative agents. Such a dynamic notion of the salvific state was lost on Evagrius, for whom contemplation implied a cessation of all "activity" - or praktikê, which, for Evagrius, meant willful activity toward the divine end - in the hopes of achieving a mode of existence that is theôrêtikê, or "contemplative."[19] Finally, this contemplative mode of existence, for Evagrius, must eventually give way to 'prayerful' existence (which is the fulfillment of contemplation as theologia). Andrew Louth describes the progression to this state as follows:

In this state of natural contemplation the mind begins to 'see its own radiance', begins to be aware of its own contemplative powers. From this point on, the soul can progress to the final stage of contemplation of God, of theologia. This is the realm of prayer, which Evagrius regards as a state rather than an activity, not so much something you do as something you are. In this state the soul recovers its true nature: 'the state of prayer is an impassible habit which snatches up the soul that loves wisdom to the intellectual heights by a most sublime love'.[20]

Evagrius' transformation of Origen's doctrine of absolute freedom of thought into a dogmatic formulation of thought as (divinely proscribed) prayer, effectively stifled progress in the Byzantine world, and provided fuel for the eventual 'humanistic' backlash against the Church and its institutionalized dogma in the Middle Ages.[21]

So Schmemann's remark that Origenism's danger lay in the desire to replace salvation with contemplation is not wholly accurate. The real danger, in Evagrius' interpretation of Origen, resided in the replacement of a salvific contemplation with a state of prayer in which the soul is essentially static. The human spirit - at least in the West - naturally rebels against such doctrines. Oswald Spengler claimed that Western man has a Faustian desire for infinity.[22] The value of Origen's work is that he is able to show us that this desire need not be Faustian.[23]


Some Concluding Remarks on the Condemnation of Origen and Evagrius Ponticus

Nicolas Berdyaev has compared the silencing of the Gnostics in the early Church to the suppression of free speech under the Communists in Russia. While he was likely employing a bit of hyperbole in that statement, his life and work testify to his love of freedom in all its forms. Yet we must beware when freedom leads to enslavement. The free expression of a thinker like Evagrius - although he was condemned - contributed to the eventual subordination, in Byzantine ecclesiastic theology, of the freedom of the person to the glorious expression of God.

The monastic mindset, especially (as we see most clearly in Maximus), had difficulty conceiving of any type of partnership with God in creative endeavor: prayer, fasting, denial of the flesh in all its forms, was the order of the day for monks. When this mindset was applied to theology, there ensued a doctrine of salvation in which the human person played no part. Unfortunately, Evagrius was not condemned for such a reason; rather, he was condemned because he taught a doctrine derived from a Hellenistic philosopher, namely, Origen.

Origen himself was condemned because he placed human freedom at the pinnacle of reality, to the extent that even God's grace may be ineffective in certain instances. Granted, he did make the remark that when salvation does take place, God's love will be so strong that, even though souls are free to fall again, none will. To me, this is either a cautious remark inserted in a work for popuar consumption (i.e., the Commentary on Romans), or else a pious insertion by his Latin translator, Rufinus. Origen's unblinking devotion to freedom singles him out as the greatest humanistic theologian the Church has ever known, and calls into question our traditional veneration for those so-called canonical Church Fathers who, as Berdyaev pointed out, were 'orthodox' in word, but wholly un-Christian in deed. The condemnation of Origen, in my opinion, struck a blow to the Church, from which she still needs to recover.

In closing, I would like to add that my interest in Origen arises not from any desire to start an Origenist movement in the Orthodox Church, or anything of the sort; rather, my goal is to urge Christians of an intellectual bent to examine, philosophically, doctrines of the Church that are harmful to the noble ideal of absolute human freedom, and also to call for compassion for sinners. No doctrine, in my view, shows more compassion for sinners than apokatastasis - a product of an intellect so inflamed with love for his fellow creatures that he could not even admit that the devil is damned forever.

That said, there is much in Origen that is quaint and outmoded, like his doctrine of the stars and planets, and his demonology, to give just two examples. But if one is prepared to make the effort, there is much fruit to be gathered in the pages of the writings of one of the greatest religious philosophers of the Hellenistic era, who was peerless among Christians, and whom only Plotinus matched in the pagan camp. He should be read far more often than Augustine, for example, who (as Berdyaev points out) was the most rigorous exponent of the doctrine of eternal damnation and suffering in hell - a concept that would later lead to so much scorn and mailce against Christians. And rightfully so. Luckily, Origen is the perfect antidote to such an inhumane version of 'Christianity'. This paper has been intended as a call for his rehabilitation in the Orthodox Church.


Bibliography

Boys-Stones, G.R., Post-Hellenistic Philosophy: A Study of its Development from the Stoics to Origen (New York: Oxford University Press 2001).

Dillon, John, The Middle Platonists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1977)

Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica; tr. G.A. Williamson, The History of the Church (New York: Penguin Books 1965).

Layton, Bentley, The Gnostic Scriptures (New York: Doubleday 1987).

Louth, Andrew, Maximus the Confessor (New York: Routledge 1996).

Moore, Edward, Origen of Alexandria and St. Maximus the Confessor: An Analysis and Critical Evaluation of Their Eschatological Doctrines (Boca Raton, Florida: Dissertation.com 2004).

Murphy, F.X., "Evagrius Ponticus and Origenism," in R. Hanson and H. Crouzel, ed., Origeniana Tertia (1981).

Origen, De Principiis; tr. G.W. Butterworth, On First Principles (New York: Harper and Row 1966).

Schmemann, Alexander, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, tr. L.W. Kesich (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press 1977).

Scott, Alan, Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (New York: Oxford University Press 1991).

Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West, tr. C.F. Atkinson, ed. H.S. Hughes (New York: Oxford University Press 1991).

Woodhouse, C.M., Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1986).



Notes:

[1] Nicolas Berdyaev has implicitly argued for a rehabilitation on these grounds, and the work of Henri Crouzel is quite sympathetic to Origen. The present writer is, as many know, a staunch defender of Origen. See, for example, my recent book Origen of Alexandria and St. Maximus the Confessor: An Analysis and Critical Evaluation of Their Eschatological Doctrines (Boca Raton, Florida: Dissertation.com 2004).

[2] Cf. Origen, De Principiis, 1.3.

[3] Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica 6.18.3.7f.; tr. G.A. Williamson, The History of the Church (New York: Penguin Books 1965), p. 195.

[4] Porphyry, quoted by Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica 6.19.8.1-8; tr. in Williamson, p. 196.

[5] Porphyry’s statement that Origen "associated himself at all times with Plato," may simply be taken to mean that Origen was a Platonist, i.e., one who elaborated upon Platonic doctrine as handed down from the Old Academy - albeit in a peculiar context, Christianity - and not necessarily that he read the works of Plato. Indeed, as we know, many Platonic "handbooks" where floating around in that period; it is likely that Origen gained his knowledge of Plato’s thought from such "handbooks." It is probable that Origen knew the Isagoge and Didascalicus of Albinus.

[6] John Dillon, The Middle Platonists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1977), p. 377.

[7] Origen, De Principiis 3.5.4; Alan Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (New York: Oxford University Press 1991), pp. 146-147.

[8] Dillon, The Middle Platonists, p. 380; cf. Origen, Commentary on Matthew 11.17.

[9] Ibid., p. 355.

[10] Origen, Commentary on John 1.22.

[11] As Francis X. Murphy has remarked:

[T]here can be little doubt that while Origen's speculations were put down as extravagant by succeeding generations, it was the bolder outreach of Evagrios in his attempt to encompass the whole of reality, divine and human, within a vast cosmological system that occasioned their common condemnation in both the fourth and sixth centuries (F. X. Murphy, "Evagrius Ponticus and Origenism," in R. Hanson and H. Crouzel, ed., Origeniana Tertia 1981, pp. 253-269).

[12] Such as the rationality of the universe, the symbiotic relationship between humanity and divine reason, etc., most notably in the concept of human souls as 'rational seeds' (logoi spermatikoi).

[13] The intention of Stoic allegory, as G. R. Boys-Stones has recently argued, may not have been apologetic in nature, but interpretive - i.e., as a response to the belief that the earliest 'philosophers' (such as Homer and Orpheus) deliberately couched their discourse in obscure terms, which it became the task of later philosophers to elucidate. - Boys-Stones, Post-Hellenistic Philosophy: A Study of its Development from the Stoics to Origen (New York: Oxford University Press 2001), pp. 32, 54.

[14] Boys-Stones helpfully reminds us that the authority of Homer and other Greek poets - for the pagans - was not analogous to the authority that the Bible held for Christians. Ibid., pp. 32-33.

[15] J.P. Migne, ed., Patrologia Cursus Completus: Patrologia Graeca, vol 14 (Origenes, Opera Omnia, vol. 4), col. 1015; tr. in B. Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (New York: Doubleday 1987), p. 439.

[16] Ibid., p. 438.

[17] Ibid.

[18] A. Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, tr. L.W. Kesich (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press 1977), p. 159.

[19] Cf. A. Louth, Maximus the Confessor (New York: Routledge 1996), p. 35.

[20] Ibid., p. 37, and notes.

[21] Notably in the work of Gemistus Plethon (d. 1452). See C.M. Woodhouse, Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1986).

[22] O. Spengler, The Decline of the West, tr. C.F. Atkinson, ed. H.S. Hughes (New York: Oxford University Press 1991), p. 201 ff.

[23] By which I mean: for Origen, humanity's desire for infinite personal extension is not ultimately self-destructive, but an eternal yearning for the divine. This concept was later taken up and elaborated - with amazing theological prowess - by St. Gregory of Nyssa. See Moore (2004), pp. 85-97.




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