Evil and the Passions, an Orthodox, Patristic View

4 May 2023

In Orthodox Patristic Theology, evil is viewed as a consequence of our submission to the passions, which are inflamed by the demons, abetted by our wicked disposition. In the second volume of the Philokalia, in his work ‘400 headings on love’, Saint Maximos the Confessor tells us that three things move us to evil: the passions, the demons and our wicked disposition. He goes on to say that ‘a passion is the fulfillment of an irrational desire’.

The passions lurk in our soul and, according to the theology of Abba Isaac the Syrian, as described in his ‘Ascetic Writings’, the passions are ‘thorns arising from the seed in the body’, i.e. which we carry from the moment of our birth. So, according to the theology of Saint Maximos the Confessor, ‘when the demons see our spiritual negligence they attack us with great ferocity, activating the passions which then take over our life, if we’re susceptible to our wicked disposition’. According to the theology of the Fathers of the East, we have a wicked disposition if, while knowing what’s good we practice what’s bad.

As has been said, the passions engender evil, and arise in accordance with the dual nature of the human person. Saint Gregory the Theologian clearly states: ‘a human being is both visible and invisible, mortal and immortal, earthly and heavenly’. In other words, human beings are a mixture of the material and the spiritual, since they have both body and soul. So, the carnal passions are linked to the body: gluttony, avarice, sensuality and so on; while spiritual passions are associated with the soul, the greatest of these being haughtiness, that is conceit, which, according to the theology of Athanasios the Great, is directly linked to the devil.  In his work ‘On the appearance of the Word in the flesh and against Arians’,  he notes: ‘Pride is in the devil, just as humility is in Christ’.

So the passions generate evil, aspects of which are: wars, the various forms of discrimination, inequality, fornication, and so on.

In a profound discourse entitled ‘On Gratitude’, Saint Basil the Great states that, regarding the way in which we should deal with the passions, which, as we noted above, are the fount and origin of evil: ‘the mind which has been cleansed with the teaching of Christ should use reason like a fortress and, in this way, fend off the attacks of the passions’.

So, people who work at observing Christ’s commandments have nothing to do with the passion of selfishness which, according to Saint Nikolaos Stithatos, is ‘love for the body’, that is individualism. This passion of selfishness is the root of the evil of greed, which divides people into rich and poor. Speaking of this evil, Saint Basil says that: ‘greedy people are those who aren’t satisfied with what they have, but constantly want more’. He adds that things which belong to everybody are appropriated by greedy individuals through wicked means, in this particular case by exploitation and injustice.

Moreover, Saint Maximos the Confessor declares that the passions which generate evil dominate the lives of those whose minds aren’t connected to God: ‘A mind connected to God through prayer and love rightly becomes holy; but if it departs from God, it becomes bestial, brutish, feral, demonic, and sensual’.

Besides, according to Saint Gregory the Theologian, the evil that is war, which is related to the brutalization of the human person, is the consequence of the hatred that exists when people don’t respect the gift of peace which Christ left us. This is precisely why Saint Silouan the Athonite stressed that there’s no greater sin than war and no people worse than warmongers.

The Orthodox Church, which is a seedbed for the sanctification and deification of the human person and which is the sole means of expunging the passions which generate evil, invites people to participate in its liturgical, ascetic and sacramental life, in which people are cleansed of the passions, purified of evil and are glorified.