St. Maximus the Confessor: Premier Ascetical Theologian of the Byzantine Orthodox Tradition

We now turn East in our series and consider the most brilliant Byzantine-Orthodox Ascetical Theologian of them all, St. Maximus (Maximos) the Confessor (580-662). He lived through the most catastrophic period the Byzantine Empire was to experience before the Crusades. He was highly educated and served as the executive chief-secretary of Emperor Heraclius but eventually abandoned this walk of life and became a monk. He wrote voluminous ascetical and theological works. He became a staunch critic of the Monothelite heresy:

The Monothelite heresy embraced by Heraclius was an attempt at a compromise between the Orthodox doctrine proclaimed at Chalcedon in 451, which declared that Christ is one Person in two natures, human and Divine, and the anti-Chalcedonian heresy of the Monophysites, who taught that Christ has had only one, Divine nature since His resurrection. Since the Greek-speaking provinces of the empire were mainly Orthodox, and the Syriac- and Coptic-speaking provinces – Monophysite, the Byzantine emperors, beginning with Heraclius (610-641), had a clear political motive in trying to find a compromise theological formula. That compromise was Monothelitism; it declared that while Christ has two natures, He has only one will.

Thus the Monothelite heretics wanted St. Maximus the Confessor, the main champion of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, to acknowledge the power of a Monothelite emperor over the Church, as if he were both king and priest like Melchizedek. But Maximus refused.

Attempts were made to break his resolve. When they failed, Maximus was tried again in Constantinople, tortured, had his tongue and his right hand —the instruments with which he had defended Orthodoxy (or to his judges proclaimed heresy) —cut off, and exiled to Lazica, the homeland of Cyrus of Alexandria. He died there, over eighty years old, on 13 August 662. He died abandoned, except for his two disciples: there was no protest from Rome or anywhere else. His memory was, however, treasured in Georgia (to which the province of Lazica properly belongs). Within twenty years the teaching for which he had given his life—the doctrine that Christ had two wills, a divine will and a human will—was vindicated at the sixth Ecumenical Council, convened at Constantinople in 680, though no mention was made there of the great confessor of Orthodoxy, St Maximus. (Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor, pg. 17)

Maximus’s Spiritual Theology was based on the works of Evagrius:

Evagrius sees the Christian life as passing through three stages. First there is the stage he calls praktikē, the term that classical philosophers had coined for the active life of engagement in the world in contrast to theōrētikē, used to designate a life of intellectual activity (contemplation.) The stage of praktikē is followed by that of natural contemplation (physikē, the Greek for ‘natural’): this is the beginning of contemplation, in which the purified mind is able to contemplate the natural order and understand its inner structure. This is followed by the final stage—that of theology, understood in the usual patristic sense, not as some kind of academic study, but as knowledge or contemplation of God, a knowledge which is transforming, so that the mind becomes God, or is deified. (ibid, pg. 35)

Of import to our readers, Maximus played a pivotal role in making the works of Dionysius the Areopagite acceptable to Orthodox spirituality; who wrote in his Divine Names, “But when our souls are moved by intelligent energies in the direction of the things of the intellect then our senses and all that go with them are no longer needed. And the same happens with our intelligent powers which, when the soul becomes divinized, concentrate sightlessly and through an unknowing union on the rays of “unapproachable light.” (Chapt 4, 11) But for now, in light of our present series, we shall turn to his own theology on the Soul:

In his brief treatise On the Soul, Maximus argues that the soul can only be understood by its acts, and this occurs not by means of the senses but by the intellect. Since the body is neither moved from without, like inanimate things, nor moved from within by its own nature, like fire, it must be moved by means of the soul which is its life-force. The soul is a substance identical with itself and it can receive contraries without losing its self-identity. The soul in its own nature is incorporeal, non-spatial, nurtured by reason, and without perceptible qualities. Since it is simple the soul is immortal, and in no way can any exterior thing cause its demise. Since the soul is self-moved, it cannot at any moment cease to be, for to be self-moved is to be in eternal motion. He borrows the Stoic thesis that sensation is a proper organ of the soul whose function is to receive external impressions; ‘sensation is the irrational part that stamps us with the image of the beast’. Intelligence comprises the rational aspect of the soul, its purest part, created to contemplate being and that which is prior to being, whereas spirit is still an unformed substance that precedes all movement. Maximus divides the soul along standard Neo-Platonic lines: logistikē, ‘the rational’, epithumētikē, ‘the optative’, and thumikē, ‘the reflective’.

These three are faculties or activities of one substantive principle, the rational human soul. Each of these faculties can turn to multiple activities: one is rational when thinking employs logical arguments to achieve understanding; one is intuitive (noētikos) when one approaches truth through the primary movement of the intellect, and so forth. Maximus contrasts mind (nous) with the soul (psychē): the mind designates the summit at which the soul is said to touch God and hence unite with him; the soul designates both reason and sensation. Tatakis comments that this contrast is analogous to the Platonic opposition of body and soul, where reason designates the intellectual and rational aspect of human, and sensation the irrational and sensory aspect. With regard to the soul’s origin, Maximus rejects the doctrine of pre-existence before embodiment, as well as the doctrine of postnatal animation. He affirms a version of elemental creation, according to which all elemental constituents of human nature come into being at the same time and are united in essence from the first moment of conception. In this manner, Maximus follows the views of the Greek Fathers on human nature, supplemented with some recent sixth-century medical advances. (Paul S. Macdonald, History of the Concept of Mind, Volume Two, pg. 192, 93)

Thus, for Maximus, the soul (like the ancient Greeks in our study) is the “Life-Force” that animates the body and its functions. As function it is mostly identified with Spirit and is non-corporal in nature. It is immortal in stature and cannot be soiled by any exterior phenomenal obtuse perceptions. It is a self-moving principle and thus exists the body upon death. But in death, it is just the beginning of being subjected to spiritual agencies that will judge and await its demise. Maximus writes,

In everything and everywhere remember death and the soul’s terror upon leaving the body, and how the powers of the air [Eph.2:2] and the dark forces come to meet it, all dissociated and cut to pieces in proportion to the disastrous familiarity with them through the play of the passions. Let us think of the bitterness of the soul in hell, in the awareness and recollection of all the evil it has done in its body. (Letters, no 24)

What he describes here is known in Orthodox circles as the Aerial Toll Houses—the exclusive feature of our next blog.

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