Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Patristic Psychology

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The ancients were far better psychologists than we give them credit for. It is a supreme folly of modern men to think we are vastly intellectually superior to the ancients. True, we are technologically more sophisticated, but there is no evidence that we are fundamentally better and deeper thinkers than they.

Indeed, there is good reason to think just the opposite. Modern culture suffers from the effects of three centuries of radical materialistic empiricism. It has reached the absurd point that we have a purported science, psychology, which barely acknowledges the existence of the psyche. We have fallen into the habit of believing that whatever we cannot touch, see, or measure does not exist.

One consequence of this is that centuries’ worth of sophisticated Western psychology originating in antiquity and developed by Greek and, later, Christian writers, has been entirely neglected in the curriculum of modern academic psychology.

It is now abundantly clear that we need to get beyond the limiting empirical-skeptical paradigm. But as we do so, we shall discover that we do not need to re-invent psychology: we instead need to pick up the thread where it left off (around the time of the Renaissance).

Briefly, what I propose here is that some department(s) of psychology — most logically located at a Catholic or Orthodox university or seminary initiate a special program in Patristic psychology. The aim would be to present, develop, and train students and future teachers in a full system of psychology — specifically that area of psychology that relates to personal spiritual development — based on principles found in the Patristic tradition, earlier Greek philosophy, and later writings of Doctors of the Church (St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, St. Gregory Palamas, St. John of the Cross, etc.).

Indeed, one of the first challenges would be to more clearly identify what this particular field of psychology is — it is not exactly clinical psychology, nor cognitive psychology, nor depth psychology, nor personality psychology, not transpersonal psychology. Rather it shares elements will all of these. For now, I propose to call this a psychology of personal spirituality or even the study of psychological salvation.

The book, Orthodox Psychotherapy, by Archimandrite Hierotheos S. Vlachos, appears to me the best one currently available that might serve as a starting point.

Orthodox Psychotherapy

From the Introduction:

The term “Orthodox Psychotherapy” does not refer to specific cases of people suffering from psychological problems of neurosis. Rather it refers to all people. According to Orthodox Tradition, after Adam’s fall man became ill; his “nous” was darkened and lost communion with God. Death entered into the person’s being and caused many anthropological, social, even ecological problems. In the tragedy of his fall man maintained the image of God within him but lost completely the likeness of Him, since his communion with God was disrupted. However the incarnation of Christ and the work of the Church aim at enabling the person to attain to the likeness of God, that is to reestablish communion with God. …By adhering to Orthodox therapeutic treatment as conceived by the Holy Fathers of the Church man can cope successfully with the thoughts (logismoi) and thus solve his problems completely and comprehensively.

Let’s consider a single example of where this might lead. Cigarette smoking is one of the greatest health epidemics in the world today. Yet modern medical psychology is unable to conceptualize or treat the problem adequately. One reason is that medical psychology here is ‘out of its depth’. Smoking can only be understood fully, and remedied, by understanding it in its spiritual context. Smoking is not just a physiological addiction, a habit, or a conditioned reflex. It originates with factors and forces the material level.

Let me make a statement boldly, but then allow me to qualify it: Smoking is a sin, and it is demonic.

Now what is meant by ‘sin’ and by ‘demonic’ here? That is precisely the question. ‘Demonic’ here, for example, doesn’t mean there are invisible goblins jumping around placing cigarettes in people’s paths and tricking them into smoking. The mere word ‘demon’, or, to use the original form, ‘daemon’ is a linguistic token, a symbol, used to denote a concept that is, at some level, experientially self-evident. There is a realm of mental experience and activity, with behavioral correlates, that, lacking any clearer term, we have come to describe with the word, demonic. One quality of this activity is that it is energized in a certain way as though coming from a force outside us. Basically, this much is all we can say with certainty — and in saying this much we have not committed ourselves to a specific metaphysical position.

In short, that smoking is sinful and demonic is known to us intuitively and experientially. This is present in our “folk wisdom” and manifest in colloquial language. If someone says of a person, “he has finally rid himself of his demons” nobody ever asks what that means. We ‘know’ what it means, at least roughly — we simply cannot explain it in words.

It’s even more obvious that smoking is sinful in the psychological sense of being self-destructive activity, and corresponding to a ‘fallen’ cognitive state — certainly one in which one is not being directed by anything like Wisdom or higher mental powers. It requires a turning away from God in the mind and heart to smoke. So while smoking a single cigarette perhaps isn’t much of sin, it is still, technically speaking a sin — and we shouldn’t lose sight of that or be too hesitant to apply the term.

Thus, it is more correct to say that “smoking is sinful and demonic” than it is to say, “all this talk about sin and demons is obsolete and unscientific — smoking has nothing to do with them.”

Another time we may pursue further this particular exampler. For now, let it serve to illustrate the broader point: that modern psychology, in trying to restrict itself to a narrow ‘scientific method’, has in the process rid itself of the power of human intuitive wisdom. Patristic psychology, among other things, can aid us in reacquiring a system of psychology that is at once scientifically, logically, and philosophically rigorous, and also more fully consistent with our experience as human beings. It can be, simply put, a psychology of both the mind and the heart, in contrast to modern version of psychology that is only a science of the mind (and only a portion of the mind, namely the rational mind, at that).

But the other point illustrated is the practical relevance of this proposed enterprise. How many lives are wrecked, and how many hundreds of millions of dollars are lost due to the effects of cigarette smoking? It is a huge problem. We have, in our arsenal of weapons to levy against it, a 2000-plus year old tradition of thought developed by the keenest psychological minds the West has ever produced — and, for reasons already alluded to above, these ideas have been put aside. Isn’t it only logical that we now make a most serious effort to see if these ideas can help us overcome the scourge of tobacco smoking?

And this is but one example. We could also list among the current psychological problems that debilitate modern society alcoholism, depression, materialism, despair, and apathy. All of these are addressed by Patristic psychology, and none are adequately addressed by modern psychological theories.


Written by John Uebersax

September 25, 2008 at 5:12 pm

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