Four vices

The whole treatment of the “eight vices” in John Cassian’s Institutes, is efficiently reduced to a short summary by the compilers of the Philokalia. The first four are: gluttony, lust, avarice, and anger. The rest will be reflected upon in another post.

Though John Cassian is writing for monks, there is no reason to not reflect on the significance of his thoughts for a lay person, for after all, a monk or nun is a matter of degrees and circumstances. We must consider how these observations and their counterpart “anti-vices” benefit our solitude. Are not virtues (employing the old Roman sense of “strength” or vir) best cultivated with solitude? This is the import of classic texts like John Cassian, even when his particular theology seems so rooted in a distant time, vocabulary, and mindset.

John Cassian argues that control of gluttony or the appetite for food is as much a necessary spiritual practice as control of emotions and passions. Perhaps it is a prerequisite, in that spiritual practice cannot evolve if obstructed by desires rooted in physical mechanisms.

But with lust one encounters a passion so strong, says, John, that one despairs of resolving it by avoidance or distraction and must rely on the grace of God. This is in part because John places the origins of this vice in the work of the devil, which removes it from the sphere of human resistance. It is not a failure of his psychology of human nature, for no one has gotten round the advice of restraint and vigilance straight through to Freud and beyond. Though we can at least acknowledge the power of primitive drives, there is no antidote better than John’s advice of spiritual practice — and avoidance. Perhaps age and the displacement of the libido and hormones (slower in men), coupled with the physiological changes brought about by work, diet, and meditation, will encircle this vice.

Avarice or greed ought not to disturb the monk because poverty is built into the material circumstances of his life. But in fact it does. Avarice does not arise from bodily desires and stirrings but from a perversion of intellect and will. Unlike the poor who are driven to want to acquire what they do not have (whether out of justice, envy, or foolishness), the monk is struck by a more basic distrust of poverty and lack of confidence in God’s providence.

John Cassian notices that clergy and monks argue that they must retain and gather up wealth in order to better serve the poor through distribution. He refutes this argument with biblical passages and moral exhortations, at most recommending life in the monastery as a way of averting temptation.

These arguments do not extend to the heart of the issue of ecclesiastical property in late medieval debate extending into the Reform and beyond. So for John Cassian avarice remains a temptation, not a dramatic issue with a social or political context.

For the solitary, however, the larger context of institutional affiliation and material support may well rest on the larger social context. Our avoidance of avarice must today directly engage with the world of consumerism and desire. This is a third dimension — between socio-economic poverty and evangelical poverty on the one hand and enormous ecclesiastical and private wealth on the other — that John Cassian could not foresee but which we in the modern world must take into account. Because avarice is a matter of intellect, it becomes a matter of social and cultural debate and not just abstract ethics.

Anger is a blinding passion obliterating any other comportment or vice. But anger is usually ascribed to the provocations of others, to their morally outrageous actions or attitudes, thus justifying anger as righteous or excusable. This view of anger only sinks the angry person into a trough of resentment. Solitude becomes an escape from those who provoke our patience. Says John:

When we try to escape the struggle for long-suffering by retreating into solitude, those unhealed passions we take there with us are merely hidden, not erased; for unless our passions are first purged, solitude and withdrawal from the world not only foster them but also keep them concealed, no longer allowing us to perceive what passion it is that enslaves us.

This motive for solitude is what John Cassian calls “an illusion of virtue” that assumes the mantle of long-suffering and humility. If this is our case, solitude only festers this illusion. “Our passions grow fiercer when left idle through lack of contact with other people,” he notes. This clearly cannot to be the solitary’s motive. Ironically, such a motive provides a criteria for distinguishing genuine solitude from mere aloneness and misanthropy.

John Cassian puts the issue of anger into perspective with a candid anecdote about himself:

I can remember how, when I lived in the desert, I became angry with the rushes because they were either too thick or too thin; or with a piece of wood, when I wished to cut it quickly and could not; or with a flint, when I was in a hurry to light a fire and the spark would not come. So all-embracing was my anger that it was aroused even against inanimate objects.

There is no cure for anger except to eliminate all rationale for it. To stoke ourselves into righteousness invites anger at those who are evil as much as creating a vice in ourselves. Engaging evil passionately we are ensnared by it. We cannot respond to anything with anger. “The final cure for this sickness,” John says, “is to realize that we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust.” We must disengage from the inevitable flux around us so that our passions will be controllable.