Protology and Eschatology in Evagrius Ponticus

In my Praktikos blog (which has since then undergone radical change) I had written a few words (no longer available in that form) about Evagrian protology and eschatology. In doing so I quoted Evagrius at some length from his Epistula ad Melaniam which has recently been translated and renamed The Great Letter by Dr. Augustine Casiday:

Now it will happen that the names and numbers of ‘body,’ ’soul’ and ‘mind’ will pass away since they will be raised to the order of the mind ( as in, ‘Grant them to be one in us, as you and I are one); likewise, it will happen that the names and numbers of ‘Father,’ ‘his Son,’ ‘his Spirit’ and ‘his rational creation’ – that is, ‘his body’ – will pass away ( as in, ‘God will be all in all’).

But when it is said that names and numbers of rational creation and its Creator will pass away, that does not mean that the hypostases and names of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will be expunged. The mind’s nature will be united to the nature of the Father in that it is his body; likewise the names ’soul’ and ‘body’ will be absorbed into the hypostases of the Son and Spirit and the one nature, three persons of God and his image will endlessly remain, as it was before the Incarnation and will be after the Incarnation, because of the concord of wills (The Great Letter, 22-23).

In order to understand what is going on in this passage it may be helpfull to read a little further in this letter:

As we said of the mind it is one in nature, person, and rank. Falling at some point from its former rank through its free will, it was called a soul. And it descended again and it was named a body. But at some point there will be a time when the body, soul, and mind – because of differences of their wills – will become this. Since their differences of will and movement will at some point pass away, it will rise to its former creation: its nature and person and name will be one, which God knows. The thing that rises in its nature is alone amongst all beings in that neither its place nor its name is known; and again the naked mind alone can say what its nature is(The Great Letter 26).

And it may also help to hear Evagrius speak a few words on what we would call ‘original sin’:

As for us, because we willingly corrupted our own nature, we arrived at this conception and birth that is enclosed by the curse. As for him, while being what he is, in his grace he received at his birth everything that follows from birth to death. Now these things are not only unnatural to him, but I would even say that they are unnatural to us, too. Because of the transgression we committed we have willingly fallen in to them – from which we are freed. But he willingly took them upon himself without transgression, since on our own we are unable to rise from them. We fell into them because we committed a transgression, but he not only did not dwell among them, but even raised us up because (as we have said) in his own love he descended into them without transgression (The Great Letter, 58).

Now let us unpack these passages a little. It is clear that Evagrius perceives our present condition as fragmented by sin “we willingly corrupted our own nature” so that our manner of conception and birth is characterized by “the curse.” We have fallen from a former, better, state to the one we are currently in by our own freely chosen actions. This former state is characterized by oneness “the mind it is one in nature, person, and rank” and it will one day be characterized by oneness again and will be a “naked mind” rather than a mind clothed in a soul and body subjected to the “curse.”  The soul and the body will be “raised to the order of the mind” which in the Kephalaia Gnostica is referred to as “the destruction of bodies” which does not indicate the dis-incarnation of the body (and the soul) but rather its unification with the (Holy) Spirit. Just as there is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the eschaton so will there be mind, soul, and body. But just as the three Persons of the Trinity do not constitute three gods but one God, in like manner do mind, soul, and body not constitute three fragmented and self-contained realities but one reality (in the order of the mind). This is what a “naked mind” (nous) is.

The return of the fragmented mind to its “former creation” is the re-unification of mind, soul, and body with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because of this return of which Evagrius speaks (“it will rise to its former creation”) we know that the eschatological state is the same as the protological state (which he also indicates by saying things are the same before and after the Incarnation). Iow the standard interpretation of Evagrius’ doctrine which assumes that “naked” means dis-incarnate is mistaken. The fall of the mind into soul, and into body indicates the disintegration of the “naked mind” into three opposing realities not the incarnation of the mind into a soul, and then also a body. The human being is an incarnate mind from the get go: “The embodied (ἐνσώματος) mind is the spectator of all the ages (αἰώνων) (Skemmata, 35).

If we are to speak of Origenism in Evagrius we must keep in mind that his reception of Origen is mediated by two distinctly Orthodox traditions: that of the Cappadocians and later that of St. Anthony the Great the father of monks. Given this context, and given recent work on Origen (which suggest the “fall from pre-existence” was not part of his doctrine) it could shed a whole different light on Evagrius’ own doctrine.

It seems to me Evagrius is interpreting the story of Genesis as follows: God creates “naked minds” where embodied minds are one in name, and rank so that its soul and body are of the “order of the mind” in unison with the Son and the Spirit. These embodied beings freely come to sin against God and establish separation between themselves and God, each other, and even establish this fragmentation within themselves. A creative intervention of God prevents us from being lost alltogether and we are “clothed in garments of skin” the latter being a coarsening of our embodied state to adapt to our new mode of existence characterized by sin. To shed these “garments of skin” – their destruction – makes the mind naked once more (but not disincarnate).

Those are my thoughts on the subject. They are not (yet) final but are more of a “working hypothesis” as I continue to be immersed in Evagrius’ writings.

Dn. Gregory

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