OS (Commentary) -- 1
II On Sobriety (Commentary)
Nothing is known about who St Hesychios was. St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain writes in his prefatory note to the text in the Philokalia that he was Hesychios of Jerusalem and that he lived in the time of the Emperor Theodosios the Younger (5th C.). This is surely in error.
Some manuscripts say that St Hesychios was Abbot of the Monastery of the Mother of God of the Burning Bush, but nothing is known about this monastery. Today, at Mount Sinai in the Monastery of St Catherine, the faithful venerate a vine that is said by the monks there to be the Burning Bush. This is consistent with the word used in the Septuagint for the ‘Bush’, which word can refer to a vine rather than to a shrub or small tree. Paisy Azovkin has argued that there is evidence for an identification of the Monastery of the Mother of God of the Burning Bush with the Monastery of St Catherine. Hence, it is possible that the two monasteries are one and the same. This would make sense from the point of view of St Hesychios’ inclusion in the School of Sinai and his clear literary dependence on St John of Sinai (523–603), Abbot of the Monastery of St Catherine.
The title ‘Presbyter’ indicates that St Hesychios was a priest. Indeed, the diction of the chapter, 101, below, concerning the reception of the Holy Mysteries, the Body and Blood of Christ, is quite similar to the diction of liturgical texts even today.
Nothing is known about St Hesychios’ dates.
St Hesychios quotes St John of Sinai and St Maximos the Confessor (580–662), and we think that he was read by St Theodore Studite (759–826)—we will discuss the matter of St Theodore when we reach the appropriate part of the text. St Hesychios, as far as we ourselves are aware, does not quote any writer later than St Maximos.
Our own view is that St Hesychios was a member of the School of Sinai, and that he flourished around the beginning of the second half of the Eighth Century (fl. c.750).
Nothing, as far as we ourselves know, is known about this Theodoulos.
Treatise On Sobriety and Virtue
The topic, at least in the view of some editor, is ‘sobriety and virtue’, and we ourselves call this treatise On Sobriety. As for virtue, one of St Hesychios’ themes is that the practice of sobriety in itself leads to an increase in virtue. We will see how, in St Hesychios’ view, that comes about.
Useful to the Soul and Which Saves
We are familiar with the chapter form from Volume II, where we looked at works by the reputed inventor of the form, Evagrius Pontikos (c.345–399). In Evagrius’ hands, each chapter is a stone placed by a master builder to build a house. Evagrius’ work had a great intellectual and psychological coherence.
St Hesychios’ text, also in chapters, has been criticized as being entirely lacking in coherence, that is, in the sense of a logical chaining of each chapter with the others.
In our view, however, St Hesychios’ text has a wonderful spiritual coherence. The text flows from prayer—we will see which prayer—and the text is united to the breath of St Hesychios’ own prayer.
Some chapters are quotations; St Hesychios sometimes cites the author; most often, however, he does not.
However, the whole text has that wonderful integration that comes from a spiritual writing that is formed by the breath of prayer.
The Beginning of Illumination of the Soul and a True Teaching.
The So-Called Matters Pertaining to Rebuttal and Prayer.
The copyist—or even St Hesychios—views the topic of the treatise—sobriety and virtue—as leading to illumination. He also sees the main aspects of the treatise as rebuttal and prayer. The prayer we will discuss. The rebuttal we have already met in Evagrius in Volume II.
The Greek word is nepsis.
is a spiritual
Not a bodily.
method or way
The Greek word methodos, the root of our word method, means just that—method. However, St Hesychios, something of a learned man, will go on to make use of the etymology of the word methodos in Classical Greek: meta, ‘after or with’, and odos, ‘way’. Hence, we have translated the one word with two to support St Hesychios’ later play on words.
that entirely frees the man, with the help of God, from impassioned mental representations and impassioned words and wicked works (erga)
Compare Chapter 78 of Evagrius’ Treatise on the Practical Life: ‘The practical life is a spiritual method cleaning out the passionate part of the soul.’ Sobriety is praktike, which in Evagrius’ works we have translated ‘the practical life’. It is crucial to an understanding of St Hesychios’ treatise, On Sobriety, to grasp this identification between sobriety, a method, and praktike, the practical life, of Evagrius Pontikos. They are the same thing. St Hesychios has changed the terminology, and, as we will see, he has also extended the concept.
when it persists
It should be evident from our discussion of Evagrius in Volume II in the commentaries on the Treatise on the Practical Life and On the Thoughts, and even from some aspects of our discussions of the Kephalaia Gnostica, that praktike is a lifelong endeavour. There is nothing here of the easy.
and is willingly travelled upon.
This is the play on the root odos, way, of the word methodos, method. However, note the emphasis: willingly. This is a lifelong endeavour. You must want to carry it out. What will it give you?
Travelled upon, it bestows, to the extent that this is attainable, secure gnosis of the God who is inapprehensible
By the time we are finished, it should have become evident that St Hesychios uses Evagrian concepts of gnosis, although he also quotes St Mark the Ascetic, an author who in some cases uses the word gnosis somewhat differently and somewhat pejoratively.
Here, we can see that St Hesychios’ sobriety is not just praktike, but spans the whole Evagrian system from the practical life through natural contemplation (second and first) to Theology. Here, St Hesychios is referring to Theology. It is in this broad sense that praktike is a lifelong endeavour.
and the solution of divine and hidden mysteries.
This is natural contemplation. St Hesychios and St John of Sinai do not discuss the stages of contemplation in any great detail. However, it will become clear that in the present case St Hesychios had the Evagrian schema of the stages of the spiritual journey before his mind’s eye in writing these lines.
It is also worth remarking that the opening, introductory chapters of On Sobriety have the air of having been written by St Hesychios with great care at the end of the work: they are at the same time a very polished and a very concise summary of OS.
It is productive of every commandment of God,
Recall the emphasis that we noted in Evagrius in Volume II: praktike, the practical life, is the keeping of the commandments.
of the Old
As will become clear, St Hesychios means sin in act.
as well as of the New, Testament,
This is sin in thought. Recall that the hermit fights the immaterial war.
and causative of every good of the Age to come.
St Hesychios is very Orthodox; here, he means just what the Orthodox Church means. Moreover, St Hesychios is soteriologically oriented. He will go on to give instructions, literally, on how to die. He is very serious. He very soberly—as befits the author of such a treatise as this—gives instructions for prayer in all aspects of the life of him who reads this manual up to and including departure from the body for the next life.
In its proper sense,
That is, ‘I am now going to say what the real nature of sobriety is.’
it is purity of heart,
Dispassion. St John Cassian (?–435) also used ‘purity of heart’ as a substitute for the condemned—by St Jerome, not by an Ecumenical Synod—term, ‘dispassion (apatheia)’. We know that St John of Sinai had contact with St John Cassian’s thought—he refers to him in the Ladder of Divine Ascent—but we do not know how, and in what language. St John of Sinai, however, retains the term ‘dispassion (apatheia)’. St Maximos the Confessor uses the term ‘purity of heart’ in preference to ‘dispassion’ in some of the chapters by him quoted in this work by St Hesychios. We cannot know, however, whether St Hesychios made the substitution independently of St John Cassian’s writings, or even whether he had access to them; or whether he had access to an oral tradition which made the substitution; or whether he was influenced in this matter by St Maximos the Confessor.
We will see that ‘purity of heart’ is used by St Hesychios largely in the sense of the dispassion of St John of Sinai. That sense differs from the sense of dispassion in Evagrius, in that St John of Sinai’s sense corresponds to the consummation of the mystical ascent, whereas Evagrius reserved the term for an intermediate stage. We discussed this terminological distinction in Volume II in the commentary on Chapter 2 of the Treatise on the Practical Life. It is noteworthy that St Hesychios had read St Diadochos of Photike’s Gnostic Chapters for St Diadochos is the likely source of St John of Sinai’s meaning of the term dispassion. We discussed this in Volume II.
The use of ‘sobriety’ for both the spiritual method, the practical life, and the result, purity of heart, or dispassion, will create problems for us. For St Hesychios will even use the term as a synonym for something called the ‘guard of the mind (nous)’. This is sobriety in a sense that corresponds to Evagrius’ own approach to the concept of sobriety that we discussed in Volume II in the commentary on Chapter 17 of On the Thoughts. It is equivalent to Evagrian dispassion (apatheia).
Sobriety is a multi-valued word in OS. In translating, interpreting or reading, one must always ask: in what sense does the author, St Hesychios, mean ‘sobriety’ in this passage? Continuing our practice of standardizing our translations of technical terms, we have always translated nepsis by ‘sobriety’ and have not used ‘sobriety’ as the translation of any other Greek word, so the reader will himself or herself always be faced with the question: in what sense does St Hesychios mean ‘sobriety’ here?
which very thing because of its grandeur and beauty,
Purity of heart.
or, to speak more precisely, because of our negligence,
Nepsis is hard work.
is extremely rare today among monks.
This is true, unfortunately, even on Mount Athos today.
Christ blesses it when he says ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ [Matt. 5, 8.]
Clearly, St Hesychios means ‘in this life—and also in the life to come’. He is a soteriologically balanced mystic.
Being a thing of this sort,
Something that purveys the vision of God in this life and the next.
it is bought for much.
‘Sell all that you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come follow me.’ (Luke 18, 22.) ‘The pearl of great price.’ (Matt. 13, 46.)
But St Hesychios is also saying: it’s very hard work. You have to sweat to buy a bit of nepsis. You have to sweat.
Sobriety persisting in a man becomes the guide of a righteous life pleasing to God.
St Hesychios retains that very positive aspect of Evagrian asceticism: its extreme morality and emphasis on virtue as the goal of asceticism.
It is also the stepping-stone to contemplation;
Here it must be remarked that Evagrius largely had a schematic idea of the relation of praktike to contemplation: one completed the practical life, becoming dispassionate, then one entered into second natural contemplation, contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of created beings, and then into first natural contemplation, and so on.
St Hesychios is more flexible.
and it thoroughly teaches us to set the three parts of the soul
These are: the mind (nous), the temper or irascible part (thumike), and the desiring part (epithumitikon).
in motion justly
Recall that in Volume II, Treatise on the Practical Life, Chapter 89, justice was an overarching virtue that integrated all the other virtues.
and to guard the senses securely;
Evagrius, because he was writing for advanced monks, did not spend much time on the guard of the senses. Moreover, he was writing for hermits, who on account of the solitary desert life had little need at the simple moral level for a guard of the senses. St Hesychios envisages the eremitic life to be more severe, as regards its solitude, than what was actually the semi-eremitic life of the Cells of Evagrius’ time. In this, St Hesychios is far closer to the spirit of the Hesychasm of St John of Sinai as we find it expressed in the Ladder of Divine Ascent. Yet St Hesychios has more emphasis on the guard of the senses than Evagrius. We shall see why later.
and daily it increases the four cardinal virtues
Three for the parts of the soul: prudence for the mind (nous); manliness for the temper or irascible part (thumike); and chastity (in a broader sense than we understand it today) for the desiring part (epithumitikon). As we just remarked, justice, the fourth cardinal virtue, is an overarching virtue which integrates all the virtues into a harmonious unity. Although it is not explicit here, St Hesychios is retaining the Evagrian understanding that, to attain dispassion, one both divests himself of the passions, which call us to the use of the parts of the soul in a fashion contrary to nature, and acquires the corresponding virtues, which are the operations of the parts of the soul according to nature. St Hesychios plants himself firmly in the tradition of Evagrius in these matters.
in him who shares in it.
Usually, when the Fathers use a phrase such as this, they intend the Holy Spirit or a charism of the Holy Spirit. St Hesychios is pointing to a fundamental truth: it is ultimately Grace which is sobriety. This in fact is one of the final, highest senses of ‘sobriety’ that we will encounter in this text: the action of Grace, the presence of the Living God, in our hearts in a conscious manner in those of us who will have passed through all the lower stages of sobriety.
2 The great legislator, Moses, or, rather, the Holy Spirit, showing the blameless and pure and encompassing and uplifting nature of such a virtue as this, and teaching us how we must begin and accomplish this, says: ‘Attend to yourself lest there occur a secret word in your heart, an iniquity,’ [Deut. 15, 9]
As we mentioned in our discussion of Chapter 25 of On the Thoughts, there is a striking parallel between Evagrius and St Hesychios on this point. Evagrius introduces exactly the same quotation from Deuteronomy in exactly the same form in the midst of an extremely fine psychological analysis of the genesis in the intellect of the demonic thought (logismos), and St Hesychios here uses the quotation to introduce to the reader for the first time the idea of the demonic thought (logismos). We do not know what St Hesychios read, apart from those works which we find quoted in OS; we do not know with whom he spoke; but we do encounter throughout OS clear thematic indications that St Hesychios was familiar with and had assimilated Evagrius’ thought, and that he had integrated important aspects of it into his own ascetical psychology. We will later see, in addition, direct quotations from the works of Evagrius.
This quotation from Deuteronomy is also found in the Spiritual Homilies of St Makarios. There, however, the quotation is used in its extended form—‘Attend to yourself lest there occur a secret word in your heart, an iniquity; do not say in your heart: “This nation is numerous and strong.”’—and the passage, although it involves a discussion of thoughts (logismoi), is more concerned with questions of the ascetic’s courage than with the matter of the immaterial war, as is the case here and in Evagrius. In general, although some of St Hesychios’ images are already found in the Spiritual Homilies, there is no clear, direct and obvious dependence of St Hesychios on the Spiritual Homilies of St Makarios.
naming ‘secret word’ the one-worded appearance in the heart of some wicked object hated by God.
Here, St Hesychios has joined what seems to be a quotation from Evagrius (OTT 25) to a quotation from St Mark the Ascetic, On Holy Baptism, Question 11. The passage from On Holy Baptism reads as follows:
An assault of Satan, then, is the one-worded appearance of a wicked object…
St Hesychios has added ‘in the heart’ and ‘hated by God’, deleting ‘of Satan’ but referring to ‘the Devil’ immediately after, also referring to ‘assault’ immediately after. It should be noted that ‘appearance’ translates ‘emphasin’ in St Hesychios and ‘emphaneia’ in St Mark. Otherwise the diction of the two authors is the same.
Note that in the quotation from On Holy Baptism, St Mark implicitly accepts that the ‘wicked object’ will present itself to the mind of the ascetic as an image. His ‘assault’ is here quite close to the impassioned mental representation of an object of sense of Evagrius.
‘One-worded (monologistos)’ means ‘simple, not composite’. This relatively unusual word is the same in St Hesychios and in St Mark the Ascetic. The sense of the term is to be found in the notion that the initial appearance in the heart of an impassioned recollection of an object of sense has a simple, unitary and localized, not complex and diffuse, character in the mind or consciousness of the ascetic. The word is to be contrasted with a word, polunoia, that St Mark uses in the work cited some lines after the quotation given above and that St Hesychios uses in OS 143, below, a word difficult to translate into English but which might be rendered ‘much thought’. Polunoia refers to the state of the demonic thought (logismos) once it has been allowed to spread throughout the mind or consciousness of the ascetic: it then has a complex and diffuse character.
This very thing the Fathers also call ‘assault’, brought to the heart by the Devil.
The term ‘assault’ clearly belongs to St Mark the Ascetic.
The use here by St Hesychios of a quotation from On Holy Baptism by St Mark the Ascetic will create something of a problem for us later. For starting in OS 54, St Hesychios will quote extensively from St Mark, but from other works and not from On Holy Baptism. In those other works, notably On the Spiritual Law, St Mark has a somewhat different treatment of the assault, one that St Hesychios does not follow and does not quote. We will be obliged in the commentary just before OS 54 to discuss both of St Mark’s treatments of the assault, along with the analysis of temptation and sin of St John of Sinai. For the assault is the beginning of the temptation. For now, we can say that St Hesychios always uses the term ‘assault’ in the sense given here, a sense very close to that of Evagrius’ impassioned recollection of an object of sense. In the commentary just before OS 54 we will discuss how St Hesychios’ model of temptation and sin comes to be an amalgam of the model of temptation and sin of Evagrius Pontikos and of the model of St Mark the Ascetic in On Holy Baptism.
Our thoughts (logismoi) follow after this thing, directly it discloses itself to the mind (nous), and answer it in an impassioned way in conversation.
This is the schema of temptation and sin.
We have in this chapter of OS the introduction of the idea of the initial appearance in the heart—let us leave that for the moment and read ‘in the intellect’—of the demonically sown mental representation. Although St Hesychios goes on to use a schema of temptation and sin which is a bit different from that of Evagrius as found in the works we studied in Volume II, it is immediately clear that we are in the world of the immaterial war that we did study in Volume II, the war of the demonically sown thought (logismos).
It is necessary for the reader of OS to recall all of Evagrius’ analyses in TPL and OTT. They are relevant.
3 Sobriety is the road of every virtue and commandment of God. It is also called stillness (hesychia) of the heart and, accomplished without images, the very guard of the mind (nous).
We have seen the first sentence already. It is an extract from OS 1, above. What St Hesychios is doing is this: He must introduce as his basic method the keeping of the attention in the heart—let us ignore precisely what this is at the moment; St Hesychios will explain as he goes—and the concurrent rebuttal of the logismos; and he must introduce the idea that this very practice—the keeping of the attention in the heart and the concurrent rebuttal of the logismos—is the basis of ‘every virtue and commandment of God’.
‘Stillness of heart’: This is not Evagrian; it is a term found in the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John of Sinai. It means keeping the mind’s attention in the heart. It is the repose of the person’s inner condition when the person’s attention is in his heart. It is the opposite of psychological or spiritual disturbance, but experienced with the mind in the heart.
‘And, accomplished without images, the very guard of the mind’: The Hesychian method, in common with that of St John of Sinai in the Ladder, leads to what we might call an emptiness of mind. As we saw in Volume II, in the Evagrian system, the practice of the immaterial war leads to Evagrian dispassion. This dispassion is characterized, in Evagrian terms, by the putting off of the passions and by the acquisition of the virtues. The guard of the mind in OS corresponds to this state. However, St Hesychios and St John look at this state from the point of view of the subjective experience of the Hesychast: as he progresses towards Evagrian dispassion, the Hesychast experiences the reduction and extinction of the passions as a reduction and extinction in the frequency and intensity of impassioned ‘images’ in his intellect when with his mind he is keeping his attention in his heart. The culmination of this process, which in our view corresponds to Evagrian dispassion, is the exercise by the mind of attention in the heart in a condition in which the Hesychast no longer subjectively experiences the inception and evolution of impassioned images. This is the guard of the mind. The expression ‘guard of the mind’ is already used by St Diadochos in GC. It has much the same sense there.
The attention is in the heart, and the intellect—in Volume II in our discussion of Evagrius we called it the field of consciousness—is free of images. We then have the guard of the mind. However, although the mind is free of images, it is still possible for a demon to approach the ascetic to tempt him. However, the ascetic rebuts the demon immediately, having quite early recognized the demon’s approach: in that way the ascetic maintains the ‘imageless’ character of the attention that with his mind he is maintaining in his heart.
This is the highest state of sobriety prior to the advent of the Holy Spirit on the ascetic in a conscious way, when the ascetic will become consciously, habitually united to the Holy Spirit. Much of the latter part of OS is dedicated to a discussion of the guard of the mind.
It is worthwhile remarking that St Diadochos, in the place cited, ties the guard of the mind to the ‘remembrance of God’: while the ascetic’s mind is ‘empty’, he is always before the Lord. Recall Chapter IV, 73 of Evagrius’ Kephalaia Gnostica:
IV, 73 To him it pertains not to fear our adversaries who circle outside our body, him of whom the mind (nous) is at all times before the Lord, of whom the temper (thumike) is full of humility as a consequence of the remembrance of God, and of whom the desire (epithumia) is completely inclined towards the Lord.
The guard of the mind in St Diadochos of Photike, St John of Sinai and St Hesychios can be considered to correspond to this condition.
‘Without images’: This phrase deserves careful comment. The underlying Greek word is aphantastos, used in this chapter, OS 7 and OS 115. It is a word that is used by St Diadochos in GC. In this chapter and in OS 115 it is used in its adverbial form and rendered by us ‘without images’. In OS 7 it is used in its adjectival form and rendered ‘imageless’. Etymologically, aphantastos, whether as an adjective or adverb, means ‘without phantasia’. However, phantasia, the root of our fantasy, has a somewhat different meaning than our fantasy. Moreover, St Hesychios’ use of the word must be situated in his psychology of temptation. In other chapters, St Hesychios explains that the temptation initially presents itself to the mind as a ‘phantasia (fantasy or ‘imagination)’ brought to the mind by the Devil. Readers who have studied the psychology of Evagrius Pontikos in Volume II will grasp that this is the impassioned mental representation of an object of sense. Hence, for the monk to attain to a condition of ‘aphantastos’ mental sobriety is not merely, in our own everyday sense of the word today, to be without active fantasy in the mind: it is to be without impassioned mental representations of objects of sense, and even to be without unimpassioned mental representations of objects of sense. This is precisely the condition that Evagrius Pontikos explains in OTT 2 and 40 to be the necessary precondition for the contemplation of God himself, and in OS 89, below, St Hesychios will make a direct borrowing from those chapters of OTT. Hence our translation of ‘aphantastos’ as ‘imageless’ or ‘without images’: this rendering covers the whole spectrum of imagery that might be present in the Hesychast’s mind, and which must be absent for the condition called the ‘guard of the mind’ to be present. When we use the phrases ‘imageless’ or, notably, ‘without images’ in the translation or commentary, we have this precise meaning in mind.
St John of Sinai refers to the guard of the mind in the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and Step 27 of the Ladder, ‘Stillness’, has much in common with our text thematically. Now St Hesychios writes from experience; he is not a scholar. This is the School of Sinai, and this thematic continuity between the Ladder and OS is the reason we think St Hesychios was near to St John of Sinai spiritually and in time and place.
St Hesychios now repeats himself and then adds a remark about the passage of the soul when it departs for Heaven after death.
 Azovkin pp. 4–5.
 Cf. Azovkin pp. 5–7, where Azovkin dates St Hesychios to the period between c.580 and c.850.
 See Chapter 42 of Treatise on the Practical Life, including the commentary, in Volume II.
 TPL E 78. Henceforth it will be assumed that all quotations from the Treatise are from this source.
 Henceforth: OS.
 See, for example, Chapter 75 of On Sobriety—henceforth: OS 75—below.
 TPL C 2. Henceforth all references to the commentary on the Treatise will be assumed to be to the same source.
 Diadochos. Henceforth, the Gnostic Chapters of St Diadochos will be abbreviated GC.
 OTT C 17. Henceforth, all references to the commentary on On the Thoughts will be assumed to be to the same source.
 Henceforth: TPL 89.
 Henceforth: OTT 25. All references are to OTT E.
 Migne 34 Homily 31, B, col. 729B.
 Mark Volume I, p. 366, ll. 24–5.
 Diadochos Chapter 97, p. 159, l. 24. The whole of Chapter 97 explains St Diadochos’ meaning of the guard.
 Henceforth: KG IV, 73; see Appendix 2 of Volume II.
 Ladder G and E.