To understand Evagrius’ asceticism we must first of all understand his psychology of man as he himself taught it.
Evagrius’ psychology is essentially Platonic, as understood through the lens of the Cappadocians and Clement of Alexandria—one might say neo-Platonic. Man is composed of a mind (Greek: nous) and an emotional part. The mind or nous is capable not only of reason but also of the direct spiritual sight of spiritual things—what the philosophers call intuitive cognition. What this means is that the mind of man not only can reason about things but also can directly see spiritual truths. When a man directly sees spiritual things he has spiritual knowledge. This is important, for the goal of Evagrian asceticism is the spiritual sight of God—a direct spiritual knowledge of God with the mind or nous. What Evagrius teaches is that this sight of God depends both on Grace (the Holy Spirit) and on a natural capacity in man for such knowledge (which knowledge is called in Greek gnosis).
Now the role of the emotional part of man is this. Every man is born with emotional tendencies to sin based on pleasures of the senses. We spoke about this in the last post. These emotional tendencies to sin, because they are connected to pleasures of the senses, tie a man down to his world of sense impressions. This is the ordinary world that we and you live in. The world of cups and saucers.
However, as we discussed in the last post, as long as man is tied down to the world of cups and saucers he cannot ascend to the spiritual sight of God. This is because the sense impressions of the cups and saucers block the spiritual sight of spiritual things, ultimately the spiritual sight of God.
So what to do? We must purify ourselves of our emotional tendencies to sin in order to free ourselves from our enslavement to the sensible world of cups and saucers. The result of this purification is not a freedom from emotion or an emotional emptiness, but an ordering of all our emotional drives to virtue, ultimately with the assistance and presence of the Holy Spirit. The offspring of this condition is Christian spiritual love for all men.
As we pointed out in the last post, this purification from our emotional tendencies to sin so as to free ourselves from the world of cups and saucers emphatically does not mean that we should enter into the world of fantasy. Quite the contrary. We must combat the world of fantasy when it intrudes on us. The world of fantasy presents itself to us as a temptation to a pleasure of the senses—an illicit pleasure of the senses—or else as a mistaken idea of reality, what the Greeks call plani or deception. The world of fantasy is the world inhabited by demons.
This understanding of human psychology is at the heart of the tradition of the Philokalia in the Orthodox Church. It is at the heart of St John of the Ladder’s ascetical theory; it is at the heart of St Hesychios’ hesychasm; it is at the heart of St Maximos the Confessor’s asceticism. Moreover, since this theory is at the heart of the tradition of the Philokalia in the Orthodox Church, it is at the heart of the practice of the Jesus Prayer in the Orthodox Church.
In other words, in the Orthodox spiritual tradition the foundation of the practice of the Jesus prayer is the psychology that we have just given a thumbnail sketch of.
It is interesting to note that this psychology differs in several important respects from the received psychology of Western Christianity as espoused by St Thomas Aquinas. First of all, St Thomas rejected the notion that man has a natural capacity for intuitive or spiritual cognition—except for the most elementary axioms of logic. Man’s mind, according to St Thomas Aquinas, is limited to the intellectual knowledge obtained from logical reasoning about propositions—all that scholastic building of intellectual systems is based on this view. Lest this seem a trivial point, that was exactly the objection of Barlaam, a proponent of Western Scholasticism, to Hesychasm; and St Gregory Palamas was obliged to defend the Orthodox notion of a direct intuitive sight of God, which direct intuitive sight of God could begin even in this life.
Moreover, there is an even more subtle difference between the psychology that underlies the Philokalia and the psychology of St Thomas Aquinas. This has to do with the nature of the emotional drives in man.
Following the received neo-Platonic psychology, both Evagrius and later St Thomas Aquinas (St Thomas formally following the neo-Platonic St Augustine but modifying St Augustine on the basis of his own Aristotelianism) agree that the two basic emotional drives in man are the desire and the temper.
But Evagrius and St Thomas Aquinas have a very different idea of the nature of these two emotional drives and the connections between them. St Thomas treats the basic emotional drive in man as desire and the temper as having to do with the difficulty of attaining one´s desire (i.e. I get angry when I can’t get what I want). Evagrius certainly recognizes that sort of thing but treats the temper as housing autonomous emotional drives that do not depend on the desire. For him the desire has to do with the desire for food or for sex and the temper has to do with the six other emotional drives we mentioned—anger, sorrow, avarice, sloth (accidie), vainglory and pride.
This is important because Evagrius’ asceticism is directly keyed to his psychology: because we have two basic emotional drives, desire and the temper, we have two basic tools to purify our emotional tendencies to sin: temperance and meekness. We exercise temperance to control the desire and we exercise meekness to subjugate the emotional drives related to the temper. This is the foundation of asceticism.
St Thomas´ psychology is quite different. Necessarily, then, a person brought up in Western Christianity who approaches the practice of the Jesus Prayer will be bringing with him, perhaps unconsciously, a quite different idea from the historical tradition of the Orthodox Church concerning ‘how a man is put together psychologically’.
It should be pointed out that Evagrius’ asceticism was taken up by St John Cassian, St Maximos the Confessor and St Isaac the Syrian. These are some of the leading lights of Orthodox monastic spirituality in the tradition of the Philokalia. This ascetical tradition culminates in the Hesychast controversy of the 14th Century, where the Orthodox point of view is defended, as we said, by St Gregory Palamas against an essentially Thomist point of view defended by Barlaam. In the midst of the controversy were not only the issues that we all talk about nowadays but also the different psychologies of man that Barlaam and St Gregory each understood. It should now be clear why Evagrius’ psychology is important.