It is difficult for us to appreciate the intricacies of the Byzantine state, without sometimes looking at the simple lives of people, who shared in its 1000-year history. Over 1,600 years ago, our modern concept or understanding of the seven deadly sins, is linked to the work of the 4th century monk Evagrius Ponticus, also called Evagrius the Solitary. In 375 AD he developed eight evil thoughts (Logismoi) or terrible temptations, from which all sinful behavior springs. In no particular order his eight patterns of evil thought were gluttony, lust, greed, pride, sorrow, wrath, vainglory and sloth. How much credit Ponticus owes to the oral monastic traditions of the day, it is impossible to know. Why he only chose eight thoughts is also a mystery.
Evagrius began his career under Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus, serving with the latter in Constantinople through a turbulent period that concluded with the Second Ecumenical Council (381). As a gifted theologian, he rose through the ranks of the church and in Constantinople, he attained the position of archdeacon. Here, in Constantinople, he was highly praised by his peers for his skills as a philosopher, a polished speaker and a gifted writer. It is said that this flattery gave rise to Evagrius believing in his own self-importance and after some time, he almost acted on his infatuation with a married woman. Overwhelmed and in a state of personal crisis, he left a promising ecclesiastical career in Constantinople to live in a monastery near Jerusalem. But even while in the monastery, he wasn’t able to renounce his ‘vainglory’ and pride, eventually becoming seriously ill. Only after he resolved to become a monk, did his health return. As a monk he spent the rest of his life as an ascetic, in an Egyptian monastic communities of Nitria and Kellia, where he practiced severe self-discipline and abstention until his death in 399.
In the centuries after his death, Evagrius legacy was tainted by his purported association with a theological strain known as Origenism, which was condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. As a result, much of his speculative writings fell out of favour in Byzantine Greek manuscript tradition. Though these speculative writings survived in Syriac, Armenian, Georgian and Arabic forms. His writings, nonetheless, profoundly influenced many theologians and monastic writers throughout the Middle Ages.
Interestingly, during the reign of Pope Gregory in around 590 AD, he would revise and rename Evagrius Ponticus’ Logismoi as the Seven Deadly Sins. Throughout this period and onwards, the Church focused its attention on teaching all lay people the Seven Deadly Sins, as envy, greed, gluttony, lust, pride, sloth and wrath. Pope Gregory and the generation of Popes that followed believed that educating their Christian subjects about these sins was important, so that one would not commit them. If they inadvertently did they would be given the opportunity to confess any such sins and gain absolution.
Notes and Further Reading:
Augustine Casiday, Evagrius Ponticus, Taylor & Francis, 2006.
Augustine Casiday, Reconstructing the Theology of Evagrius Ponticus, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
George Tsakiridis, Evagrius Ponticus and Cognitive Science : A Look at Moral Evil and the Thoughts, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2010.
Photo credit: The status of the header image is unclear. I make use of it under the fair use rationale to help illustrate an important figure from late antiquity. No other credible image of Evagrius seems to appear in the public domain.