Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Apatheia: Monasticism and Stoicism continued

Perhaps the clearest confluence of thought between the ancient Stoics and the monastic fathers is in the advancement of the goal of apatheia. Literally, this word means 'no pathos', i.e. no passion. The word is handled with caution bordering on apology by some contemporary writers on monastic spirituality (among those who mention it at all). Indeed, one of the primary caricature of Stoics is based on this goal: they are thought of as Vulcan-like party poopers who never smile and never weep and never scowl.

Were the goal an absolute void in one's emotional life, this criticism would hold. However, what is meant by apatheia is rather sovereignty over one's passions. In an older terminology, 'passions' were to be shunned as uncivilized, and perhaps this is where we went wrong. To give way to the passions in not merely uncouth, but is in fact acquiescing in sin. Anger, for example, is one of the Deadly sins; in our modern culture, sadly, you can have your anger recognized as a virtue as long as you can claim to be a victim of something, and the perceived grievances are legion.

The monk who has achieved apatheia is not immune from feelings of anger, sexual attraction, hunger and other signs that we are human beings inhabiting bodies. However, he is able to discern and channel his emotion into virtuous behavior: patience, love and kindness, self-sacrifice and joy.

More on apatheia to come!

"In front of love, apatheia marches,
in front of knowledge, love."
--Evagrius of Pontus

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