Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Gesthemane and the Archetypal Existential Temptation

with 4 comments

“Christ’s temptation in the garden of Gesthemane constitutes the archetypal temptation of human existence. The The Garden of Gethsemane, Andrea Mantegna c. 1470temptation in that case was impending death by crucifixion and the fear produced as a result. However, Christ does not allow his gnomic will to overpower his natural will and thus prevents through free will the penetration of temptation into the heart where it inflames the passions which eventually lead to sin.  [See Maximus Confessor, Opuscule 3.]”

Source: Ilias Bantekas, “The Metaphysics of Temptation in Eastern Orthodox Monasticism“, Theandros, 4(2), 2006/2007.

The terms gnomic will and natural will require clarification:

  • Gnomic will:  false, egoistic will
  • Natural will:  our will when set into motion, guided, and energized by God

Despite its unfamiliarity as a term, ‘gnomic will’ is the perhaps the more experientially familiar.  This is our ordinary will in the fallen state.  Thus, in a sense, what St. Maximus calls “‘natural will” might be thought of as a supernatural will or divinely inspired will, and what he calls “‘gnomic will” might actually be considered the ‘natural’ (i.e., more associated with our usual, fallen nature) will.

The WikiPedia has two paragraphs on gnomic will, the more important one being:

“The notion of gnomic will belongs to Eastern Orthodox ascetical theology, being developed particularly within the theology of St Maximus the Confessor. The term ‘gnomic’ derives from the Greek gnome, meaning ‘inclination’ or ‘intention’. Within Orthodox theology, gnomic willing is contrasted with natural willing. Natural willing designates the free movement of a creature in accordance with the principle (logos) of its nature towards the fulfilment (telos, stasis) of its being. Gnomic willing, on the other hand, designates that form of willing in which a person engages in a process of deliberation culminating in a free choice.”

The main point is that Jesus Christ’s temptation in Gesthemane corresponds to a continuing existential struggle and choice of ours: to follow either false reasonings and false will, or to exercise the true (natural), God-led will, and thereby to act in the way God wishes, the former producing unhappiness and the latter leading to the Kingdom of Heaven — in our souls and in the world.

A fine point invites further attention:  may it properly be said that we exercise our natural will, or is it exclusively God who exercises it?  That is, are we merely passive bystanders when our natural will operates?  This seems like a very relevant question, even at first it might seem like something that smacks of excessive scholasticism.  At stake here are fundamental ideas about personal individuality.  There is no need to pursue this topic here — it’s enough simply to mention it.  Let it suffice to suggest that we should not make any limiting assumptions in this regard.  It is entirely possible — if not experientially self-evident — that natural will may be a joint activity of personal and Divine action.  Although the power of natural will — and certainly it’s direction, may come ultimately from God, nevertheless there seems a definite sense in which it is our will: our doing, making, intending, or effort. It does appear that we are contributing or committing something of ourselves.

Having gone this far into the subject of Gethsemane we may add a little more.  The struggle associated with the choice between following gnomic will and natural will is so basic to the human condition that we would expect to find it repeatedly, and perhaps centrally, addressed in the Bible.  And, indeed, the entire story of the fall of Adam and Eve  may be understand precisely in these terms.  The Fall itself corresponds to Adam and Eve choosing gnomic will over natural will.  The events of Gethsemane, and the subsequent passion, crucifixion and death (and resurrection) correspond to a reversal of Adam’s primal sin, and, in a sense, a restoration of what was lost.   What was lost in a garden is corrected in a garden.

In case it has not been mentioned before in so many words (most likely it has, but in any case it bears repeating), the process of reversing the primal psychological sin of egoism corresponds not just to the events of Gethsemane, but through the point of John 19:30:

When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.

The Greek word for ghost here is pneuma, or spirit, so one might understand this as corresponding to the relinquishing of control (“giving up”) of the spirit, letting thereby the spirit guide and energize our will and actions.

The Garden of Gethsemane, Andrea Mantegna c. 1470
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4 Responses

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  1. Actually Maximus denies that Christ has a gnomic will. The gnomic will in Maximus is not a result of the fall and so isn’t of itself sinful or opposed to God. The gnomic will is how a person uses a will as a natural power when that use has not been fixed through habituation with the natural good of a given nature. This is the reason why it was possible for Adam to sin since his personal use of his natural powers had not yet congealed with the telos of his natural power. Christ has no gnomic will since Christ’s person does not have a beginning and so there was never a time when his personal use of his natural power was unfixed. As Maximus writes, God never ceases to do goods, because he never began them. Consequently, there is no deliberation in Christ since that would imply ignorance in distinguishing between real and apparent goods.

    The natural will is simply the power of choosing. The view you seem to offer hereof divine led or inspired will is actually a species of monoenergism that Maximus opposed, namely that the divine will moves the human will, in his disputation with Pyrrus. Consequently for Maximus there is no personalistic predestination.

    Maximus holds that Christ actually chooses both options in the Garden, to save his life and to go to the Cross and there is no opposition, since to preserve human life is also willed by God and hence good. Christ is therefore freely choosing in each natural power between two goods.

    Perry Robinson

    March 7, 2010 at 2:23 am

    • Thank you very much for the informative and detailed comment. I readily — indeed eagerly — concede my ignorance concerning the doctrines of St. Maximus, and welcome such input. Also, while by no means denying the importance of the question, “did Christ have a gnomic will?”, my concern here is that ordinary human beings certainly do, and therefore we seek in example of Gethsemane insight into our own condition. We must accomplish an inner movement such that we too can say, “Not my will, but Thine be done”. What is this subtle movement? And from where does it come?

      I will have to learn more about monoenergism. To be clear, although I refer to a view that natural will is fully energized and directed by God, that seems to lead to a diminished concept of personal identity and seems difficult to hold, if not completely untenable. The view I tend to is that the relationship between God’s will and our (natural) will is complex, and perhaps not describable in simple terms. Surely God’s grace must figure into things somewhere — if not in the direction of the natural will, then in a change in heart such that we direct natural will properly(?) As always, definitions haunt us, and to do justice to this most worthy topic might require several pages just to clarify terms like natural will and gnomic will!

      John Uebersax

      March 7, 2010 at 4:49 am

      • My first impulse was to take the original post offline pending revision, but now I think I’ll keep it as a kind of topic starter, and leave suggested changes for the Comments, at least for now.

        To be clear, I think you’re probably right that I have not explained St. Maximus’s position accurately — and certainly not clearly — as regards the gnomic will of Jesus Christ.

        But, again, my main concern is that ordinary human beings do experience something like a conflict of wills, and Christians seek in the example of Christ in Gethsemane existential insight into this.

        So I propose to start again, this time attending more to clear definitions and ‘first principles’. With that aim in mind, it seems that a typical human problem is to some choice with ethical implications. This may take
        the form of a choice between acting according to a reasoned argument, or according to a subtle intuition — the two suggesting different things.

        For example, one may be approached to interview for a new job. Reasoning may say, “it is only prudent to consider the possibility and entertain an offer,” but a subtle intuition may hestiate ‘saying’ something, “You already have a job; concentrate instead on doing that well”; this is not suggested in words, but in some nonverbal manner; the words come afterwards, as one tries to justify the intuition. This example seems like a common and reasonably representative one.

        One way of seeing this is as a choice between following reasoning or following conscience (or perhaps ‘conscientia’ to affirm that this is a distinct faculty and to differentiate it from the modern idea of conscience, which is more vague). As I am a Platonist in epistemologically, I tend to see discursive reasoning here as an operation of dianoia, and the intuition as something more associated with the Nous, or perhaps synderesis.

        This models seems to imply three distinct operations or ‘judgments’:

        (1) To attend to the conclusion of discursive reasoning, and to assess its persuasiveness and genuineness

        (2) To attend to the recommendation of intuition; to recognize the presence of this recommendation, and to discern a valid intuition from from fantasy, imagination, or something else;

        (3) Then a weighing, such that a decision is made giving preference to one or the other recommendations, and to follow reasoning or intuition.

        If this is plausible, can it be placed in the context of ‘gnomic will’ and ‘natural will’?

        John Uebersax

        March 8, 2010 at 2:03 am

  2. John,

    In ordinary experience, Maximus would say it is ignorance about real goods as opposed to apparent goods that grounds our anxiety in choice. What is enlightening about Maximus gloss on the passion is that the choice is between two different goods. Different or otherwise doesn’t imply being contrary to or opposed. Consequently, in God there is a plurality of divine goods.

    As for the process of operations, Maximus has a detailed taxonomy worked out. This is discussed in most contemporary works on his refutation of monothelitism. You might find that helpful. As for your ending question, it would be in the gnomic will in so far as that is a personal employment of a natural power. The natural will is not a willing, but the power of choices used by the person. It has an intrinsic orientation, but the person uses the power.

    Perry Robinson

    March 8, 2010 at 5:44 pm


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