Desire: The Tragedy of Passion and the Splendor of Love

John Brodeur

Honors 201 Dr. Georgedes 5 November 2009

Brodeur 2 Desire, emotion, and passion: these are words that would make any true Neo-Platonist or Stoic cringe. Commonly understood as being directly opposed to rational decision making, these fleshy components of the human person had been held in low esteem long before the coming of Christ. After his ascension – as the early church began to bloom and develop doctrine – the church fathers had much to think about. It would be their task to confront and evaluate these philosophies in light of Christian revelation. This was no trivial task. What they would pass on in both oral tradition and in writing would forever shape how the Church understood the role of human desire in Christianity, and the result is truly astounding and wonderfully consistent: passion, the irrational ordering of desire perverts the soul and damages it, while Love, which is rational desire, culminates in an ever-developing union with God. It is not at all difficult to see how Neo-Platonism influenced the early Church. “Passion” almost seems synonymous with “evil.” In his letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius of Antioch calls down blessing “on a mind so turned towards God,” because he could “recognize its perfections and the passionless serenity of a life that is lived in such heavenly mildness.” 1 Likewise, Gregory of Nyssa, after admitting that the gnawing of desire was active even among the faithful, asserted that “the person who looks to the One lifted up on the wood rejects passion…” 2 Both these statements, and many like them, appear almost entirely consistent with the reflections of the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who wrote, “The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure.” 3 Initially, it appears the church fathers are in complete agreement with Marcus Aurelius. They associate “passionless serenity” with perfection and claim that a true follower of Christ is one who rejects passion. The primary difference is revealed in Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary on the security of the soul in the allegory of the doorposts during Passover: “Safety and security consist in marking the upper doorpost and the side posts of the entrance with the blood of the lamb…. Of [the parts of the soul] we are told that the spirit and the appetite are placed below supporting on each side the intellectual part of the soul, while

Brodeur 3 the rational aspect is joined to both so as to keep them together and to be held up by them, being trained for courage by the spirit and elevated to the participation in the Good by the appetite. As long, therefore, as the soul is kept safe in this manner, maintaining its firmness by virtuous thoughts as if by bolts, all the parts cooperate with one another for good. The rational for its part furnishes safety to its supports, and in its turn receives from them equal benefit.” 4 It is important to grasp the relationship of the “lower” parts to the rational part in this example which, for the purposes of this paper, can both be understood as components of desire. Not only does the rational aspect securely join the lower parts together, but the lower parts in turn provide an equal benefit to the rational part by providing it courage and elevating it to participation in the Good. Gregory goes on to discuss how this agreement in the soul is only possible if the rational part remains on top. If the upper doorpost should fall, it will be trampled upon and the “destroyer slips inside.” 5 Without the upper doorpost, the side posts are utterly useless. They offer no benefit, and collapse atop the fallen rational part, oppressing it and smothering it: “For uncontrolled passion is a fierce and raging master to the servile reasoning, tormenting it with pleasures as though they were scourges.” 6 The analogy is quite a remarkable one. It clearly illustrates how desire, when rightly ordered toward what is rational, is not only good but beneficial to the soul, whereas when it is without reason, it becomes destructive. It essentially becomes “passion” – the phenomenon of disordered desire which wreaks havoc in the soul. Gregory continues by observing that “of the many passions which afflict men’s thinking there is none so strong as the disease of pleasure.” 7 How true this is! What could be worse than the soul experiencing contentment in its disorderly passionate state? The desiring parts, the very things which once reciprocated the benefits of reason, now betray reason with a false sense of purpose while it lies crushed beneath the oppression of passionate desire. No longer is there a doorway; there is

Brodeur 4 simply a pile of boards heaped upon the muddy ground. The order that once defined the soul and made it recognizably human is gone. Nor is reason any longer concerned that it has lost its participation in the Good: “Pleasure showed that she makes men beasts. The irrational animal impulse to licentiousness made them forget their human nature; they did not hide their excess but adorned themselves with the dishonor of passion and beautified themselves with the stain of shame as they wallowed, like pigs, in the slimy mire of uncleanness, openly for everyone to see.” 8 The allegorical devastation that results from uncontrolled desire in the soul is very effective in providing further insight as to why passion is so ardently discouraged by the church fathers. Passion, as characterized by oppressive desire, is in fact extremely dangerous for the soul, especially when it involves pleasure. One can greatly sympathize with Marcus Aurelius’ declaration that “for rational creatures, anything that obstructs the operation of the mind is harmful.” 9 It is precisely the rational function of the mind and its ability to effectively govern the desiring parts which conveys human dignity. There are numerous examples in early church history of how men and women toppled their doorposts and allowed their passions to overwhelm them. Eusebius recounts how the unbridled ambition of Montanus – his excessive desire to excel – filled him with spiritual excitement and caused him to fall into a trance of unnatural ecstasy during which he spoke nonsense and preached “in a way that conflicted with the practice of the Church handed down generation by generation from the beginning.” 10 Irenaeus reports a similar situation in which the Gnostic Marcus deceitfully aroused a young woman to the prospect of prophesying until overcome by passion, her heart rate drastically increased and she began to utter “nonsensical things… heated by an empty wind.” 11 What is particularly striking in both these examples is the way both individuals spoke unintelligibly, abandoning all vestiges of their human dignity by which they could exercise intelligible speech. So overwhelmed were they by passion that not even their speech could disguise the state of their souls.

Brodeur 5 Furthermore, the destructive power of their passion is evident in the way Montanus began leading others into error and in the way the young woman allowed herself to be violated by Marcus. How does one avoid such passionate excesses of desire? Marcus Aurelius’ solution is to engage in perpetual “disinterest” 12 in order that the intelligence might remain above the flesh. He seeks to rid himself of desire altogether so that he might never experience the passion he so rightly abhors. At first glance, this seems to be an honorable solution. Not only is he effectively avoiding the occasion of passion, but, according to Irenaeus, he is also likening himself to God: “The Father of all is far removed from the affections and passions proper to human beings… He is wholly intellect, wholly spirit, wholly mind, wholly thought, wholly reason…” 13 Nonetheless, his solution remains ultimately frustrated by three important considerations. The first is the reality of the Incarnation: “as man He suffered with us, so as God He might take pity on us” 14 The God-man Jesus Christ experienced emotions and desires, and he did so in perfect reasonableness. By virtue of his incarnate flesh, God himself is no longer far removed from affections and desires, while remaining eternally removed from any and all unreasonable passions. The second consideration is the fact that God himself created the emotions and desires which man has, and everything that God creates is for the good. Origen puts this second consideration very elegantly: “God, the Maker of the universe, created all the emotions of the soul for good; but because of the way in which we exercise those emotions, it often happens that things which are good by nature lead us into sin through our bad use of them.” 15 This bad use is best understood in light of the third and final consideration. As was discussed in the allegory above, the lower desiring parts equally reciprocate the benefits of the rational part. How can a doorpost function as a doorpost if there are no sides to bear it up? It is impossible. Likewise the rational part has no hope of being elevated to participate in the Good without properly ordered desire. Although Marcus Aurelius is clearly at odds with what the church fathers have to say about the matter, he does make one curious allowance at the beginning of his Meditations which is worth

Brodeur 6 some attention. In his lessons from Sextus he lists: “Not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of passion and yet full of love.” 16 This lesson is peculiarly similar to Ignatius’ own appeal to the Magnesians: “You must show every consideration for one another, never letting your attitude to a neighbor be affected by your human feelings, but simply loving each other consistently in the spirit of Jesus Christ.” 17 In considering the nature of love, Origen describes love as an emotion with a particular end: “One of the emotions of the soul is love; and we use this emotion of love well if its objects are wisdom and truth.” 18 If Origen is right in positing love as an emotion whose end is wisdom and truth, then he is essentially saying, in light of the discussion above, that love is right desire, desire that is perfectly ordered toward what is reasonable. This makes sense in the context of Ignatius’ statement. He is asking that the Magnesians desire the best for one another in the spirit of Jesus Christ who is Love himself. While it is difficult to imagine Marcus Aurelius making this same claim, it is not unreasonable to imagine he had at least some grasp on the underlying dynamic. As right desire, love’s rationality is constant, but as Origen suggests above, there is a hierarchy of rational desires. For instance, one can rightly love something temporal, but as Augustine points out, such things leave the desire wanting: “[Transient things] rend the soul with pestilent desires; for the soul loves to be in them and take its repose among the objects of its love. But in these things there is no point of rest: they lack permanence” 19 Augustine makes it very clear in his Confessions that although he continually sought to order his soul toward rational objects, his desire remained unsatisfied until it rested in the person of Wisdom and Truth. 20 It is as Gregory of Nyssa says: “Hope always draws the soul from the beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype.” 21 This is ever-consistent with the original allegory. The benefit of right desire, namely love, is the elevation of the rational part to the Good, the Good which is truly rest, but never exhausted: “This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire

Brodeur 7 to see him. But one must always, by looking at what he can see, rekindle his desire to see more. Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the Good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the Good brought to an end because it is satisfied” 22 What advantage there is, then, in loving well – in desiring what is rational to the fullest extent – not becoming content with what is constantly perceived, but ever being moved to desire Reason itself which is God, who is the archetype of all Good! It is now so very easy to see why Ignatius of Antioch would cry out, “He who died for us is all that I seek; He who rose again for us is my whole desire… Leave me to imitate the Passion of my God. If any of you has God within himself, let that man understand my longings…” 23 Likewise, how easy it becomes to take offense at Marcus Aurelius’ admonition: “Blot out your imagination. Turn your desire to stone. Quench your appetites. Keep your mind centered on itself.” 24 If love is truly right desire, and God is the endless adventure of desire and satisfaction, then let one ever resolve to desire the archetype of reason, not only to avoid harm in his soul, but to ever advance in the desire which unites the soul to God.

Brodeur 8 Notes 1. Ignatius of Antioch, “Epistle to the Philadelphians,” in Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, revised by Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 93. 2. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, trans. and intro. by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 125. 3. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. and intro. by Gregory Hays (New York: Modern Library, 2003), p. 111. 4. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, p. 76. 5. Ibid., p. 77. 6. Ibid., p. 85. 7. Ibid., p. 131. 8. Ibid., p. 132. 9. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, p. 109. 10. Eusebius, History of the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson, revised by Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 161. 11. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies Book I, Ancient Christian Writers 55, trans. Dominic J. Unger, revised by John J. Dillon (New York: Newman Press, 1992), pp. 56-7) 12. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, p. 134. 13. Irenaeus of Lyons, The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies, trans. John Saward, edited and intro. by Hans Urs von Balthasar (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), p. 19. 14. Ibid., p. 49. 15. Origen, The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, Ancient Christian Writers 26, trans. R. P. Lawson (New York: Newman Press, 1956), p. 284. 16. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, p. 7.

Brodeur 9 17. Ignatius of Antioch, “Epistle to the Magnesians,” in Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, revised by Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 72. 18. Origen, The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, p.284. 19. Augustine, Confessions, trans. and intro. by Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 62. 20. Ibid., p. 3. 21. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, p. 114. 22. Ibid., p. 116. 23. Ignatius of Antioch, “Epistle to the Romans,” in Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, revised by Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 87. 24. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, p. 119.

Brodeur 10 Bibliography Augustine. Confessions. Trans. and intro. by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Trans. and intro. by Gregory Hays. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Eusebius. History of the Church. Trans. G. A. Williamson, revised by Andrew Louth. New York: Penguin Books, 1989. Gregory of Nyssa. Life of Moses. Trans. and intro. by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson. New York: Paulist Press, 1978. Ignatius of Antioch. “Epistle to the Magnesians.” In Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, revised by Andrew Louth, pp. 69-75. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. ---. “Epistle to the Romans.” In Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, revised by Andrew Louth, pp. 83-89. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. ---. “Epistle to the Philadelphians.” In Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, revised by Andrew Louth, pp. 91-97. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. Irenaeus of Lyons. Against the Heresies Book I. Ancient Christian Writers 55. Trans. Dominic J. Unger, revised by John J. Dillon. New York: Newman Press, 1992. ---. The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies. Trans. John Saward, edited and intro. by Hans Urs von Balthasar. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990. Origen. The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies. Ancient Christian Writers 26. Trans. R. P. Lawson. New York: Newman Press, 1956.

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