In my critique of Evagrius’ scheme for understanding temptation (here), I found his insistence against images of any kind in prayer to be unpractical. Unpractical, that is, because I could not see how it was possible for a human to think (let alone pray) without any images. I wondered, though I did not express it in my paper, why Evagrius was so adamant about having perfect prayer be imageless. Some may argue that this is an influence of Platonism, so anticipating such a response I took a look at Plato’s Symposium on a hunch. That may seem like an odd place to start, but it will become evident why it is appropriate below.
First, however, it would probably be helpful to review how images worked in Evagrius’ scheme. Every action one makes is first prompted by an image which has within it a proposal for action. The proposal can either be good, bad, or neutral. The good proposal is good because it take the image and relates it back to the first cause of all creation. Thus, the created world is an instrument for the praise of God if one responds to the image appropriately.
But what about prayer? Can images in the mind bring glory to God when one prays? Evagrius says no, but why? It seems that Evagrius views prayer as a distinct type of action with certain limitations, namely, that which one holds before ones mind is the object of prayer. An image, which is intrinsically associated with the created order, would thus lead one away from God who is by nature invisible. If an image arises in the mind during prayer (which it will because the demons are constantly trying to tempt the monk), one must respond to the image appropriately, but the way in which one responds is not prayer, that is, the action resulting from the image changes from prayer to something else.
As for Evagrius being a Platonist, there is no doubt that he was influenced by Plato (namely the three-fold division of the soul). However, here I do not believe that some type of Platonic disdain for creation (if Plato actually thought that) is infecting his thought, mainly because for Plato (as seen in the Symposium) one can use the created order as a ladder by which one works his/her way up to contemplation of the Beautiful. I’m thinking specifically of the section starting at the end of 211b of Diotima’s speech:
The proper way to go about or be guided through the ways of love is to start with beautiful things in this world and always make the beauty I’ve been talking about the reason for your ascent. You should use the things of this world as rungs in a ladder. You start by loving one attractive body and step up to two; form there you move on to physical beauty in general, from there to the beauty of people’s activities, from there to the beauty of intellectual endeavours, and from there you ascend to that final intellectual endeavour, which is no more and no less than the study of that beauty, so that you finally recognize true beauty (Symposium, 55).
One sees in this passage of Plato that there is a movement away from the physical world through abstraction to ultimate beauty (in the Republic Plato details the same type of ascent but this time to the Good, cf. 511b-c; interestingly, in Evagrius’ description of the eight evil thoughts, there is also a move away from reality into abstraction but this seems to be a progression into a worse type of sin). An early Christian writer such as Evagrius would no doubt see God as the ultimate beauty (or Good), and so I think this passage is enlightening to see how good a Platonist Evagrius really was. To some extant, Evagrius uses this model of ascent as I described above. An image in the mind can lead to the praise of God though a recognition of God as the primal cause of the object which the image represents. However, because Evagrius would most likely see (and this is an important point which I have thoroughly evaluated and so am open to critique) God as the ultimate beauty (or Good), he must deviate from Plato because when contemplating God in prayer an image pulls one away from God and actually incites idolatry (I also need to strengthen the connection between contemplation and prayer, but I think for Evagrius they would be overlapping categories if they were distinct).
Is Evagrius a Platonist? Yes and no. There is an obvious influence on Evagrius’ thinking in general, but that may only be because of the influence that Platonism had on the broader culture of the ancient world (especially through the Neoplatonic synthesis of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism). Yet there is a striking difference noted above. What one sees in Evagrius is also a tendency seen in other Patristic authors: ancient or hellenistic philosophical concepts are filtered through biblical interpretation. Scripture, for these early Christians, became the control by which all philosophical ideas were reworked for the use of the Church. These are only casual reflections and much more work needs to be done. I still know little about Middle Platonism, and I don’t know enough about Neoplatonic psychology to determine whether or not what Evagrius is doing here is part and parcel of Neoplatonism. But for now, I think the example from the Symposium can answer the objection that Evagrius disdained images in prayer because he was corrupted by the Platonic disdain for creation. Instead, Evagrius was an ardent defender of the Christian doctrine of God as the one, true, invisible creator of all things who alone is worthy of worship.
Plato. Symposium. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.