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The Vice of Demons

The Vice of DemonsHad one asked Evagrios which vice, in his opinion, would unquestionably be the worst of all and have the most far-reaching effects on the spiritual life, he would have answered without hesitation: anger, and for this simple reason: “No other evil makes man in particular as much like a demon as anger.”

Certainly, all vices are ultimately of demonic origin. Yet the last two on the list of the eight “generic thoughts”—vainglory and arrogance—are not only the passions we feel to be most odious; they also possess a distinctly “demonic” character. Vainglory is, of course, intimately linked to pride, “the devil’s first offspring.” What is more, “pride is that arch-evil that flung to earth ‘Lucifer [himself] who rises early in the morning.’ “Accordingly, human pride along with its companion, vainglory, is primarily a vice of the perfect, who imagine that they have been able to scale the heights of the spiritual life by their own might. It thus appears for the most part only at the end in order to cause then the greatest fall, including hallucinations. Interestingly, such a fall is often followed by anger, a fact that also manifests the common “demonic” character of the two vices. But anger itself, while being a perversion of one of our natural powers/ lies in wait for man at all levels of the spiritual life. What makes it so unmistakably “demonic”?

A demon is a rational nature, which, because of an abundance of anger, has fallen away from the ascetic life (πρακτική).

It only follows that Evagrios should laconically declare: “The one who masters anger has mastery over the demons.” The above mentioned definition maybe explained as follows: in every being endowed with reason—angel, man, or demon—there is a “predominant” quality determining all its behavior. In a demon, this quality is precisely “irascibility” (θυμός), as Evagrios garners from Holy Scripture— always understood in “an intelligible and spiritual sense”:

“God . . . my deliverer from my raging enemies”: Those in whom anger predominates also have rage predominating in them. But when our “enemies are raging,” our enemies are also angry. It is said: “Their anger resembles that of the serpent,” and “when their anger raged against us.”

The “enemies” are of course the demons “in whom the irascible part predominates.” This wickedness is by no means theirs by nature; otherwise, God himself would be the author of evil. On the contrary, it is the result of an “evil decision of the will” that wrought this “change” in their existence. Consequently, they became the “adverse powers.” In Evagrius’ understanding, anger—like any vice—is not at all “natural,” but “contranatural,” opposed to its own created nature! Accordingly, the wickedness of a “reason-endowed being,” and therefore of man, is not found in his “being” (ουσία) but always in his “behavior” (έξις), which is a quality (ποιότης) one can acquire (or also lose). Since by “contranatural anger” we mean, as was said, a misuse of a power good in itself, a man can consequently become a demon through his evil way of life, be it after death or already in his lifetime.

When we are formed in the womb, we live the life of plants; when born, that of animals; and when grown up, that of angels or demons. The foundation of the first life is the animated substance; that of the second, the senses; that of the third, the fact that we are prone not only to virtue but also to vice.

With this statement, Evagrios emphatically declares—again apologetically against dualism—that we carry in us since our creation the “seeds of virtue,” but not those of vice. As said above, the latter arise from an “evil decision of the will.” God alone is essentially good and incapable of anything opposite; by contrast, each rational nature is “susceptible to opposition,” since it has received not only its being but also its condition of being good. But being susceptible entails changeability, the ability to improve one’s own “condition” but also to worsen it, in that on the basis of his conduct—of his life— man becomes an “angel” or a “demon.” “Think not that a demon is anything else but a man filled with anger who eludes our sense perception!”

For the demons also have a body, as it were, even if its composition is of a different type than that of ours (thus escaping our sense perception). What appears as a demon to many people is nothing more than an illusion, an alien body adopted for deception.

The one who abstains from food and drink, but provokes anger because of evil thoughts, is like a ship on the high seas with a demon for a pilot.

This insight is easily understood. After what has been said, however, it has become clear that a man who allows himself to be ruled by the demonic vice of anger becomes a “demon” through this behavior of his. Here too as always, Evagrios refers to Holy Scripture.” ‘The wine drinkers sang about me to the music of strings’: This ‘wine’ means29 the ‘anger of dragons.’ “

Hence anger is that “dragon’s wine” from which the true “Nazirite,” the monk, must altogether abstain, as Evagrios evinces from Numbers 6:3.

“Wine is an unruly thing and inebriation is brazen”: If the “anger of dragons is their wine,” but “wine is an unruly thing,” then anger is an unruly thing that makes people unruly, and rage is “brazen.”This inebriation is wont to come about through the boiling of the irascible power. Yet if the Nazirites refrain from wine according to the Law, then the Nazirites are also required to be free of anger.

Certainly, it is general knowledge that one can “boil with rage.” But very few consider that one can become not only drunk from this high-percentage “dragon’s wine,” but can also become a “serpent””” or demon. In this context, the utterance about “animal rage” comes unconsciously quite close to reality.

” ‘Their anger is like that of the serpent’: If anger triumphs, then the soul becomes brutish,” that is, it becomes a demon.”‘ Indeed, the “wild animal” (θηρίον) is the biblical symbol for a demon, whose “predominant” characteristic is precisely the wild, bestial and thus irrational anger.

“Do not deliver the soul that acknowledges you to the wild animals”: If the demons are called “wild animals,” and anger prevails in wild animals, then anger also prevails in demons. In Job it also says: “The wild animals of the field will be at peace with you.”

While the goal of the spiritual life is to elevate man to “an almost angelic condition,” even to make him “angel-like,” anger lowers him below his natural state, “renders him bestial” (άποθηριοΐ) and turns him into a “demon.”

The allegorical interpretation of Scripture, to which Evagrios owes his insights on the essence of demons and the metamorphosis of man into a demon, is for many modern readers perhaps no longer readily accessible. Nevertheless, in a letter Evagrios points to a context that even today commands our attention. He admonishes a certain Aedesios to “subdue his anger, which is a Judas’ who delivers the intellect to the demons.” Meant here is Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve apostles chosen by Christ himself, the one whom the Lord, in a dramatic moment and with an eye to his later betrayal, called a “demon”!

This betrayal of Judas is a mysterious event that already moved the first Christians very deeply, and is disturbing even today. Evagrios now implies that Judas delivered the Lord to his deadly enemies out of anger. How can he arrive at this? Let us inquire what the Gospels themselves say about Judas.

As “one of the Twelve,”Judas Iscariot belonged to that small group of followers who were especially close to Jesus. The Lord entrusted to these Twelve much that he explained to “the others”—the “outsiders”—only in parables. They accompanied him throughout the entire period of his public activity, thereby becoming his privileged witnesses. Judas left this group on his own impulse shortly before Jesus’ death, for which he himself was to blame in that he betrayed and sold the Master to the high priests.

In this context, a word found in the Gospel of Luke suddenly throws a glaring light upon the dark background of this betrayal. “Then Satan entered into Judas… ” In the Gospel of John also the text reads, “The devil had put it into Judas’ heart to betray [the Lord].” A little later, during the Last Supper, it is stated again that Satan had “entered” Judas when he accepted the morsel from the Lord’s hand.

Thus, the evangelists Luke and John are of the opinion that the one who actually manipulated the betrayal was “Satan,” “the devil,” that “murderer from the beginning” whom Christ accordingly designates as the actual “father” or those Jews wishing to murder him. Yet how has it come about that Satan found precisely in Judas the tool required for his murder of the “second Adam”? In general, what happens when a man becomes a demon? The question must be asked, for Judas is not the only one whom Christ designates as a devil. In a no less dramatic moment, he also called Peter “Satan”—one of the three apostles who stood closest to him!

The case of Peter gives us an important clue to understanding this frightening event. When Jesus speaks for the first time openly about his impending Passion, Peter tries—with the best intentions, it seems—to hold him back from this. Consequently, Christ rebukes him and calls him Satan because he is “thinking not as God thinks but as men do!” This same context is also assumed in John. When Jesus, in his famous “hard word,” alludes in a hardly veiled manner to his approaching violent death, many disciples are shocked and leave him. Peter then commits himself to him in the name of the Twelve as “the Holy One of God.” Christ indicates, however, that Judas—who had not left him—has already lost his faith and has become “a devil.”

Accordingly, the stumbling block for all the disciples—and not merely for Peter and Judas—is the passio Christi: the Cross. They saw in Christ above all a purely “human,” intramundane Messiah, a political liberator of Israel, linking to this “faith” very selfish expectations: not only Judas, about whose greed we hear, and Peter; but also, for example, the two sons of Zebedee. Such political expectations appear as “human” to us and therefore pardonable. Christ, on the other hand, calls them “satanic” and “demonic” since they are contrary to God. In like manner, the apostle speaks of a “wisdom” that is “earthly, sensuous, and demonic”—everything on one and the same level.

Let us return again to Evagrios. The fact that Christ himself, in a decisive moment in which the essence of his own mission was at stake, respectively calls Peter and Judas Iscariot “Satan” and a “devil”—since they entirely misunderstood this mission, going so far as to try to lead him away from his path—brings us to the secret motive of Judas’ betrayal. That high angelic being that once occupied an enviable place under “the trees of Paradise” fell, “forfeit[ing] his angelic dignity and becoming] a devil” because he gave himself over to the vice of pride (ύπερηφανία) and said: “I shall set my throne above the stars. I shall be like the Most High!” Instead of recognizing his own creatureliness in “thankful confession of God” and a “true recognition of nature,” and instead of recognizing “humbly [in] a stark admission [his] weakness”—that one’s own holiness is an “obtained” good, and not one’s own property—this leader of the angels exalted himself not only above the “stars,” but in a grotesque manner even above his Creator. And he who wanted “to be like the Most High” also seduced man, destined to be “like God,”64 into desiring to be “like God” by his own might!

That being, then, who made “the beginning” of that “movement” and who hurled “the seal of likeness and the crown of beauty from heaven to earth, now reveals the secret driving force behind his “evil decision of the will.” He is “enflamed with great anger” and his symbol is the “serpent,” the “dragon.” His hatred is directed first at the “second Adam” who came to raise up the “fallen image” and to lead it to its original destiny, the “likeness to God.” As soon as the devil catches sight of him, he pressures him who said of himself, “I am gentle and humble in heart,” to betray his true mission and establish his kingdom by his own authority in this world: first in person and then through his most trusted disciples. The anger and “envy” of the fallen prince of the angels are then directed against all those whom the Messiah, who is “gentle and humble in heart,” will redeem through his perfect self-emptying even to the cross. The devil found his first victim in Judas. How so?

We have seen already that there exists a secret connection between pride and anger. Such a link also exists, however, between pride and avarice, that vice to which Judas had yielded, according to the testimony of the Evangelists. Evagrius finds a hint of this connection in the temptation story of Jesus himself.

No one escapes pride, the first offspring of the devil, unless one has banished “avarice, the root of all evil,” since, according to Solomon the wise “poverty makes a man humble.”

Avarice belongs to the three temptations by which the devil sought to make Christ fall in the desert. The one who yields to them—or to one of them—becomes prone to the others! This now also clarifies Judas Iscariot’s fall.

“Let the devil now stand to his right”: Satan stood at the right of those whose “right” works he cuts off. In Zechariah it reads: “And the Lord showed me Joshua, the high priest, standing before the presence of the Angel of the Lord, and the devil stood at his right hand”—not in general, but “to resist him.” But he does not “resist” Judas, for Judas “had no clean hands, nor was his heart pure. He was namely a thief and took away what was laid aside.” The life—Christ—that he too carried in himself, “and the intelligible riches and the spiritual goods” which had been bestowed on him as well, were of no use to him, “since he had betrayed the wisdom and the truth of God for the sake of gain.” However, he did this not only on account of the thirty pieces of silver, but because he was driven by the devil’s anger and pride, to whom greed, this “mother of idolatry,” had delivered him.

Peter and Judas Iscariot were both indignant—though for different reasons—at the thought of a suffering Messiah. The idea that Jesus would not be the hoped-for political “King of Israel,” but would end up on the cross, deeply wounded their “self-love” (φιλαυτία), in which Evagrius sees the hidden root of all the passions—even that of anger and pride, which he draws closely together. Since this self-love is only “a friend to itself,” Evagrius fittingly calls it the “hater of all.”

At this point, however, the two apostles part ways. Despite dangerous oscillations, Peter remains faithful to his Lord, while Judas delivers him to his deadly enemies. Two things are characteristic of the proud man. He is marked by a self-overestimation allowing him to deny God’s help and ascribe to himself what has been accomplished, and a disdain for others who are unable to appreciate his own greatness. Once again, anger is the hidden motive of his contempt.

It is easy to see how the proud man can transfer his dreams of omnipotence to others, whose “prophet” he then becomes and in whose retinue he himself hopes to become great. One only has to think of “the places on the right and the left.” If these vain expectations are disappointed—and this disappointment was prepared for the disciples by their suffering Messiah Jesus—then anger appears and the wounded love of self suddenly turns into hatred for the “one who failed” and who must now be destroyed. That Judas then literally sells the Lord proves that he was already enslaved to one of the basest but most serious vices: greed. Philargyria is not simply mere stinginess, but (literally) “love of silver,” of money. Why does the miser love money? Ultimately it serves him only as a means to an end, namely, as the means to achieving his own ambitious and proud desires. Power needs money, and money strives for power—the power that enslaves the other and which Christ, who of his own will became poor, consciously refused when the devil offered it to him in the desert.

With the destruction of Christ, “the one who was a murderer from the beginning” has not yet completed his work. When Judas sees how the matter will come to an end, he does not, for instance, shed bitter tears of repentance like Peter (as when the latter shamefully denied his Lord and became aware of his deed). Rather, true to his own self-overestimation, he attempts by his own might to undo what had been done. When this proves to be impossible, he takes his own life, since sadness and despair arise as a result of disappointed pride after anger. Then the final evil comes: mental disturbance and demonic visions. After Satan has ended his work, he can discard his disguise.

In this uncanny manner, the parallel between the tempter and the tempted is fulfilled. Just as the lofty prince of the angels lost his preeminent place under the “trees of Paradise” on account of pride, so too does Judas on account of pride lose his chosen place among the twelve Apostles.

Consequently, the sins of a misguided irascibility are something truly frightening. “The one who has become a slave of this passion is absolutely alien to the monastic life” and has nothing in common with the “ways of our Redeemer.” His supposed “spiritual life,” especially his prayer, is nothing but a mimicry of reality, provoking God’s anger against the insolent man. Whoever wants to pray in this frame of mind resembles a man who would like to see clearly and puts out his own eyes. Indeed, how could such a “demon” even pray? It is profitable to investigate in greater detail this vice, all too frequently misunderstood since it is easily underestimated.

—Hieromonk Gabriel (Bunge): Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread: The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness

St. Seraphim of Sarov with bear