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Navigating the Abyss: Evagrius Ponticus's Insights into Depression

Beth Bradford

Dec 21, 2023

Depression, or melancholia, is one of the eight thoughts that plague your spiritual journey.

Evagrius Ponticus, often referred to simply as Evagrius, was a Christian monk and ascetic philosopher who lived in the 4th century AD. He was born in Pontus, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), around 345 AD, and he died around 399 AD. Evagrius played a significant role in the development of Christian monasticism and asceticism, contributing to the spiritual traditions of both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Christian Church.

One of Evagrius's notable contributions to Christian theology and spirituality is his identification and classification of eight destructive or logismoi (thoughts) that he believed were the primary sources of temptations and sins. These thoughts are commonly known as the "Eight Evil Thoughts" or "Eight Logismoi." They are often considered a precursor to the later concept of the Seven Deadly Sins in Western Christian tradition.

The Eight Evil Thoughts identified by Evagrius are:

1. Gluttony (gastrimargia): Excessive or misplaced desire for food and drink.

2. Lust (porneia): Intense or inappropriate sexual desire.

3. Greed (philargyria): Avarice, the desire for wealth or possessions.

4. Sadness (melancholia): Sadness or frustrated desires.

5. Anger (orge): A strong feeling of displeasure, often leading to violence or revenge.

6. Despondency (acedia): Apathy, listlessness, and lack of care

7. Vainglory (kenodoxia): Attention-seeking and self-promotion.

8. Pride (hyperephania): Excessive belief in one's abilities, leading to arrogance.

Evagrius believed that these thoughts were interconnected and that they could lead to various sins if not controlled through spiritual discipline and ascetic practices. His teachings greatly influenced later Christian thinkers, including St. John Cassian and St. Gregory the Great.

It's important to note that while the concept of the Eight Evil Thoughts was influential in Christian monasticism, different Christian traditions may emphasize various aspects of Evagrius's teachings, and interpretations can vary.

Below is a rendering of how Evagrius conceived melancholia, or depression:

Spiritual pleasure is unknown to the depressed monk. Anger thoughts give birth to depression, which is a spiritual depression. Rage is the emotion that seeks vengeance; when it is not satisfied, it turns vengeful and causes sadness. If one isn't careful, depression can engulf them like a lion's mouth. The mother who has just given birth is devoured by the worm of the heart. The laboring mother will have less pain if she exerts herself during the delivery process. Depression is a very painful emotion to experience, and it's much more painful after giving birth.

Similar to how a monk in the middle of a fever cannot experience the sweetness of honey, a depressed monk cannot know spiritual ease. He can't bring himself to pray in a sincere way since his thoughts are always racing. All wonderful things are hindered by depression. He is unable to move about or think well due to the chains that bind him to his feet. Those enslaved by barbarians are bound by iron shackles, and those enslaved by their passions are bound by despair.

Like chains wouldn’t work if there were nothing to hold someone down, depression wouldn’t take hold if other vices weren’t around. When someone is depressed, they are bound by their feelings, and their chains show that they are powerless. When desires go unfulfilled, it shows up as depression. All passions include desire; the one who masters desire also masters passion, and the one who masters passion also masters depression.

A temperate person will not be sorry if they never develop a taste for delicate foods, just as a virgin will not be upset if they never have sexual desire, a self-controlled person will not seek revenge, a humble person will not be sad if they are deceived out of human dignity, and a person who hates money will not be sad if they lose money.

The dispassionate is impervious to despair, like a man wearing a breastplate who is impervious to arrow wounds. A soldier's breastplate covers his body, while a city wall encircles it. For the monk, non-attachment is the better of the two options. Although tremendous force can punch through walls and spears can pierce breastplates, depression cannot penetrate non-attachment. A person who is able to control their passions has triumphed against despair, whereas someone who is enslaved to pleasure will never be able to escape its grip.

Someone who is perpetually down and acts unperturbed is like a sick person who acts healthy on the outside. The same way that a sick person's skin color can be used to identify them, despair can be used to identify someone who is deeply affected by their passions. Someone who loves the world will suffer a lot of loss.

However, contentment is guaranteed for those who reject its contents. Those who hold wealth dear will feel immense loss when it disappears. No one who hates money will ever be depressed. Humility allows one to exist without glory, but a desire of glory makes one sad when they are inglorious. Depression impairs cognitive function, while darkness reduces visual acuity.

Deep water cannot be lighted by the sun's beams, and contemplation of the light cannot bring comfort to a hurting heart. While everyone enjoys the sight of the rising sun, a sad person's spirit can't take delight in it. Depression robs one of their spiritual senses, just as jaundice robs one of their taste buds. However, depressive thoughts do not affect someone who refuses to indulge in worldly pleasures.

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