Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Evagrius Ponticus and the ‘Wanderer’ Demon

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The Wanderer Demon

Evagrius Ponticus is an important but (in Latin Catholicism) under-appreciated Church Father. An astute psychologist, Evagrius analyzed in exacting detail the cognitive psychology of religious life. One major legacy is his formalization of the idea of the seven deadly sins. This is a more sophisticated concept than people often realize; his purpose was not merely to supply a catalogue of sins, but rather to explore the subtle mental dynamics by which the mind is led away from remembrance of God. To appreciate the full significance of the seven deadly sins, that is, one must understand Evagrius’ basic system of psychology, at task, however which must await another opportunity to pursue.

Here we briefly mention one detail of Evagrius’ system. Essential to his psychology is the idea of logismoi. This Greek term refers to a certain class of thoughts. As is usually the case with mental phenomena, it is not easy to give a precise definition of logismoi, despite the fact that we are confronted with them as mental experiences almost continually. One short, literal definition might be “discursive thoughts” or “reasonings.” The latter is misleading, though, because logismoi also include things like imaginings and fantasies. Perhaps it is better to define logismoi, then, by examples. Logismoi include: worries, ruminations, daydreams, angry thoughts, temptations, doubts, self-accusations, cynical thoughts, mental “stewing”, rehearsal of past injuries, scheming, imagined conversations, distracting or obsessive thoughts, and so on. In short, logismoi encompass a wide range of maladaptive and distracting thoughts. This long list of examples helps make clear exactly how significant a problem this is for us, and in what great need we are of psychological salvation, which, in part, involves a purification from logismoi. As long as logsmoi are dominant, the mind is distracted or cut off from gnosis, angelic thoughts, the mental fruits of God’s grace, and discernment of God’s will.

For Evagrius, the logismoi were the result of demons (or, more accurately, daemons). In late antiquity, much was written about daemons. Often it is not clear whether “the daemonic” was always understood as referring to sentient, spiritual beings, or merely to “energetic forces.” That is, we may potentially understand the term “daemonic” simply to denote a class of observable phenomena, for which no more suitable term exists, without being committed to any particular metaphysical position. For example, we still speak of a person with an addiction or similar problem as struggling with “demons”, without necessarily implying the involvement of any sentient spiritual beings.

In the case of Evagrius one does get the impression that he understood logismoi as being caused by literal demons. We, on the other hand, might be more inclined to see them as the result of daemonic forces within the human psyche: a class of autonomous mental patterns, including intrusive, distracting, or tempting trains of thought, which occur as though energized by some external source; they are not set into motion by our own conscious choice, and generally work against our psychological growth, development, and wellbeing. To say this another way, all we actually know, empirically, is (1) that we are frequently subject to such thoughts, and (2) they operate as though with the intention or express purpose of opposing our spiritual growth. Whether they are actually associated with spiritual beings called demons is of only secondary interest; our primary interest is to rid ourselves of these thoughts.

The “Wanderer”

In his work, On the Thoughts (Peri Logismon), Evagrius refers to a special kind of daemonic thought, which he called the “wanderer”. This, he noted, affects contemplatives in the morning and distracts their attention from religious attention by degrees, until they fall into a state of “forgetfulness” (lethe) towards God. The reader may easily verify for himself or herself that this phenomenon exists; upon waking not infrequently our minds are turned toward God, resolved to live for Him that day, to perform various good works, etc. But soon our attention becomes distracted in certain regular ways that Evagrius describes.

The text below comes from Fr. Luke Dysinger‘s translation of On the Thoughts.

9. There is a demon known as the one who leads astray, [‘wanderer’] who especially at dawn presents [himself] to the brothers, and leads around the nous of the solitary from city to city, from house to house, from village to village, pretending at first to simply carry on [holy] conversation; [but] then recognizing those it meets and talking at greater length: and in time it happens that, little by little it incurs forgetfulness of the knowledge of God, of virtue, and of its calling.

Therefore the solitary must watch this demon, noting where he comes from and where he ends up; for this demon does not make this long circuit without purpose and at random, but because he wishes to corrupt the state of the solitary, so that his intellect, overexcited by all this wandering, and intoxicated by its many meetings, may immediately fall prey to the demons of unchastity, anger or dejection – the demons that above all others destroy its inherent brightness.

But if we really want to understand the cunning of this demon, we should not be hasty in speaking to him, or tell others what is taking place, how he is compelling us to make these visits in our mind and how he is gradually driving the intellect to its death -for then he will flee from us, as he cannot bear to be seen doing this; and so we shall not grasp any of the things we are anxious to learn. But, instead, we should allow him one more day, or even two, to play out his role, so that we can learn about his deceitfulness in detail; then, mentally rebuking him, we put him to flight.

Comments:

A casual reading might intepret this “wandering” as physical activity — a monk who travels early in the morning to visit other monks, becoming distracted in the process. Yet Evagrius clearly refers to the nous (the higher intellect) as what wanders. Thus, this more accurately describes a problem of mental wandering and distraction to which the religious soul is subject shortly after awakening. Evagrius’ goal here is to make a person conscious of this process, so that one may more readily detect and interrupt the it. In the following paragraphs Evagrius presents his counter-strategy: let the daemon proceed without interference a few times and observe how it works and what its effects are. Then, alert to its mode of operation, resist it.

But because during temptation the intellect is clouded and does not see exactly what is happening, do as follows after the demon has withdrawn. Sit down and recall in solitude the things that have happened: where you starred and where you went, in what place you were seized by the spirit of unchastity, dejection or anger and how it all happened. Examine these things closely and commit them to memory, so that you will then be ready to expose the demon when he next approaches you. Try to become conscious of the weak spot in yourself which he hid from you, and you will not follow him again.

If you wish to enrage him, expose him at once when he reappears, and tell him just where you went first, and where next, and so on. For he becomes very angry and cannot bear the disgrace. And the proof that you spoke to him effectively is that the thoughts he suggested leave you. For he cannot remain in action when he is openly exposed. The defeat of this demon is followed by heavy sleepiness and deadness, together with a feeling of great coldness in the eyelids, countless yawnings, and heaviness in the shoulders. But if you pray intensely all this is dispersed by the Holy Spirit.

More of Luke Dysinger’s translations of On the Thoughts (and other works of Evagrius) can be found here.

Another translation of On the Thoughts by Fr Theophanes (Constantine), can be found here, with accompanying commentary here

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Written by John Uebersax

November 11, 2008 at 10:40 am

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