Publication details for Professor Christopher C. H. CookCook, C. C. H. (2010). The Philokalia and Mental Wellbeing. Theology and Religion. Durham University. PhD.
- Publication type: Doctoral Thesis
- Further publication details on publisher web site
Author(s) from Durham
The Philokalia is an anthology of texts which are concerned with finding God within the human soul. It is founded upon a philosophical tradition which draws upon Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, and a Christian tradition which, beginning with the New Testament authors, continued through Clement, Origen and the early patristic authors, and found its first flourishing in the Desert Fathers. In particular it draws upon the psychological insights of Evagrios of Pontus concerning the “eight thoughts” or passions.
The concept of the passions represents a sophisticated phenomenology of the inner life which explains why people fail to adhere to the virtues that they espouse and make judgements which do not withstand the light of reason. It thus provides fertile theological ground for exploring the process of temptation. An understanding of the role of demons in provoking the passions maintains the tension necessary to recognise both external influence and inner motivation; both the way in which human beings are acted upon, and also the way in which they must accept personal responsibility. The passions are both an aspect of the human soul, but also something external which influences from without. They are the focus of an inner struggle against an enemy that threatens to destroy and enslave. The passions are “hostile pleasures”. In a dynamic process, which invites comparison with the phenomenon of addiction, they both confer pleasure and pain, they attract and enslave, they seduce and destroy.
The Philokalia was compiled as a “guide to the practice of the contemplative life”. The radical remedies that it sought to provide for the passions were each included with a view to the fundamental vision of prayer which made radical sacrifice worthwhile. They are not cures which will simply make the problem go away, but they offer a way of life which may subdue and overcome the passions in pursuit of a theological vision of human well-being. They include a practical life of ascetic discipline, watchfulness, psalmody, and prayer.
According to the Philokalia, to be a flourishing human being is to participate as fully as human beings may in the life of God in Christ. To this end, it is concerned primarily with the flourishing or well-being of the inner life of human beings. However, this is an inner life of a different kind than contemporary discourse acknowledges. Although the Philokalia exercises a kind of reflexivity, it is not the radical reflexivity that Taylor traces back to Augustine. Although it offers an objectification of (what we would call) emotions, desires and feelings, it is not Taylor’s Cartesian disengagement. Perhaps most importantly, the expressivism that gives us positive cause to articulate our own unique understanding of the voice of nature within us is completely inverted in the world of the Philokalia, which is much more concerned with our awareness of the negativity of the passions within and reaching out to the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” beyond. But this is only to acknowledge its situation within an anthropology formed by Platonic philosophy and Christian theology in relative isolation from many of the trends that Taylor identifies. The Philokalia is nonetheless concerned with a radical vision of the inner life which shows as much perceptiveness of the subtleties, deceptions, intricacies and aspirations of human thoughts as anything that has come after it.
The Philokalia offers a kind of psychotherapy, but it has a vision of a radically different kind of therapy than contemporary psychologies acknowledge. The Philokalia insists on discussing everything in primarily theological terms. The effect of this is not simply to broaden the discussion in such a way that God must be included, but rather it offers an invitation to encounter God in prayer. It then understands the inner world of thoughts and feelings as something that must be discussed if a conversation about prayer is to begin. Rather than being a manual for psychotherapy, the Philokalia invites us to pray. In order that we progress in prayer, it advises that we will need to talk about things which are now more usually considered the domain of psychotherapy. Whereas Freud’s patient, Anna O, saw the treatment that she was offered as a “talking cure”, the Philokalia offers a “praying cure”.
The Philokalia demonstrates that thoughts are powerful. They have the capacity to enslave and control, to deceive, to blind, to make sick and to kill. But they also have the capacity to set free, to empower, to illuminate, to heal and to bring life. Thoughts have the power to deny prayer, and to enable prayer, to obscure God and to reveal God.
How may the Philokalia be interpreted for a post-Cartesian, post-Kantian philosophical age where dualism is frowned upon and the nature of the subjective self is no longer universally agreed upon? The language of inwardness is common to psychotherapy and the Philokalia, even if they have different emphases and interpretations to offer. Both worlds of discourse recognise that the psyche is in need of a cure, even if they have different anthropologies, diagnoses and prescriptions to offer. The Philokalia offers a non-dualistic way of discussing the inner life. Although it is pre-Kantian in its suppositions, its effectively “phenomenological” approach to the self works surprisingly well in a post-Kantian world.
The kind of “pure prayer” towards which the Philokalia leads its reader requires that prayers be purified of thoughts that are not true, and it is not possible to identify which thoughts these are without some kind of hermeneutical process by means of which to interpret their true meaning. Equally, to pray truly requires that a true interpretation of thoughts be made, in order that these thoughts may be offered to God in prayer. Eventually, however, thoughts in any ordinary human sense become inadequate for prayer, just as all human language is inadequate to express the superabundant excess of meaning that is God.
The Philokalia offers a therapeutic programme aimed at finding God in prayer. In order to implement this programme, it is necessary to undergo a kind of psychotherapy. The psychotherapy of the Philokalia is distinctive by virtue of its therapeutic focus on wellbeing understood in terms of prayer and union with God. Ultimately, this therapy leads to a breakdown in boundaries between inwardness and the outer world, between knowledge and unknowing, and between God and self.