Maximus the Confessor, on the trees of Paradise

If his interpretation of the trees of Paradise was central for Shestov, to the point that it informed practically all of his writing, curiously, the same was not the case for the Church Fathers.  So says Lars Thunberg in his magisterial book Microcosm and Mediator : The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor (2nd. ed., Chicago: Open Court, 1995):

Maximus says in one place that in relation to the interpretation of the two principal trees of Paradise, the doctors of the Church, though capable of dwelling at length on this element of Scripture, have found it wise to honour most of this mystery in silence.  This statement contains a remarkable historical truth.  There are, in fact, comparatively few interpretations of the tree of Paradise to be found in the writings of the Fathers of the Church.  This is rather surprising, since speculation upon this theme ought to have been central.  A certain hesitation before the mysteries of the economy of salvation seems to have exercised a restricting influence.  (p. 162)

But was this hesitation really due to “the mysteries of the economy of salvation?”  Or might it have been the case, as Shestov thinks, that the Greek Fathers sensed the danger that a literal reading of the trees of Paradise represented to their beloved gnosis, and so were reluctant to say much – and when they did, used ‘anagogical’ readings to keep gnosis safe?  Although to my knowledge Shestov never mentioned him, and he is less well known in Western Christendom, Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580-662) was a remarkable theologian and an incontestable pillar of the Church.  His influence on Russian spirituality was considerable, due in part to the fact that no other writer was given so much space in the Philokalia – the compilation of spiritual texts for Orthodox Christians, first published in 1782, and translated into Church Slavonic as early as 1793.  Maximus also influenced Russian religious philosophers Ivan Kireyevsky (1806-1856), whose wife was said to be the one who brought Maximus to her husband’s attention, and Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), among others.

For Maximus, it was not a question of whether the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would be enjoyed, but of when.   Thus, as cited by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his landmark book Cosmic Liturgy : The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), Maximus wrote:

So God postponed the enjoyment of this tree, so that – as was right – man should first, by sharing in the life of grace, become aware of his own origin and should be confirmed in freedom from sensual drives and unwavering commitment by the gift of immortality and so come to share in the being of God through divinization; at that point, he could see through created reality without danger, along with God, and gain an understanding of it as a god, and not as a man.  Through grace, and because of the divinizing transformation of his intellect and his senses, he would then have the same insight into the essences of things that God has: Wisdom.  (p. 181)

Postponed, you see, until such time as man could safely see through created reality.  But man, prideful and inflamed by his senses, “rushed things,” and thereby spoiled God’s plan of a carefully measured pedagogy.  On this interpretation, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil need not have remained a death-dealing poison indefinitely; Adam and Eve could have built up an ‘immunity’ to it (à la the fictional toxin, iocane powder?), if they had allowed the proper amount of time to pass, if they had learned to practice ascetic self-denial, and so on.  Or, as von Balthasar puts it, if “men would have possessed a balance in their relationships to the intellectual and the sensible worlds, by surveying both from the viewpoint of God’s transcendent realm.”

At this point von Balthasar poses a fascinating question: “Even so: did Maximus ever lament the fact that, through the failure of the first human beings, world history has been summoned into action?”  One could read the answer, “Not really,” between the lines, in the series of questions that von Balthasar then asks, by way of an answer:

But what Greek Christian, since Irenaeus, could tear free from the thought that man’s way, from Adam to Christ and on to the end of the world, amounted to a progressive unfolding and maturing, a growth to reality, of God’s “seeds of intelligibility” in the world?  (For Irenaeus and Clement, after all, Adam and Eve were children, who hardly knew what they were doing.)  Who could resist the idea that the “fall” itself contained, at the same time, the basis of a radical “beginning”?  And would it not, in some fashion, have been a reversal of the natural order of things if Adam, from the very beginning, had taken possession of nature simply by receiving it from God, according to his sense of who God was?  Does not man’s way lead rather through nature to God?  (Ibid.)

Despite the fact that Maximus considered the biblical text about the trees of Paradise a mystery “best honoured in silence,” and although he indicated knowledge of certain esoteric teachings about the trees that he preferred not to discuss, in the answer he gave to Question 43 of Thalassius, he provided his most complete interpretation.  Dumitru Staniloae, in his excellent book Orthodox Spirituality : A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Manual for the Scholar (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003), cites it as follows:

So in as much as man came into existence composed of an intelligent soul and a body endowed with feelings, according to the first meaning, the tree of life is the mind of the soul, in which it has its throne of wisdom; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the feeling of the body, in which it is obvious that the irrational movement has its stimulus.  Man received through experience the divine command not to be touched by this feeling; by tasting he disobeyed.  Both trees, namely the mind and feeling, have, according to Scripture, the power to distinguish certain things.  Thus the mind has the power to distinguish between things spiritual and things subject to the senses, between the passing and the eternal.  Better said, it is the soul’s power of discernment; it suggests that the former be laid hold of with all diligence, and the latter disdained.  And feeling has the power to tell the difference between pleasure and bodily pain.  Otherwise stated, it is a power of bodies endowed with souls and senses:  It convinces man to embrace the first (pleasure) and to reject the second (pain).  When therefore man isn’t preoccupied in making another distinction except that between the bodily sensation of pleasure and pain, he disobeys the divine command.  He eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  He has, in other words, the irrationality of feeling as the only norm of discernment in the service of conserving the body.  And by it he is totally captured by pleasure, as that which is good, and avoids pain, as that which is evil.  (p. 87)

Notice how Maximus immediately assigned ‘mind’ to the tree of life (i.e. safety) instead of to the tree of knowledge (i.e. danger), where ‘feeling’ ended up.  Notice how the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was deftly turned into the tree of the knowledge of ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’.  At the risk of sounding disrespectful to such a revered figure as Maximus, whom I respect enormously, I am reminded of what the character Kasper Gutman said in the film The Maltese Falcon, when describing a certain “sleight of hand” performed by one Miss O’Shaughnessy:

It was neatly done, Sir.  Indeed it was.

For a different view of the Fall, and one much more congenial to Shestov’s, we shall turn next to Fyodor Dostoevsky . . .

[Update: See my later post, in which my thinking has shifted to be much more receptive to Maximus’ position.]

This entry was posted in Fall of man, Fall of man, series of posts, Maximus the Confessor, Russian religious philosophy, Shestov, Lev. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Maximus the Confessor, on the trees of Paradise

  1. Pingback: Jean-Claude Larchet on Maximus the Confessor: The entitative dimension of the virtues | Extravagant Creation

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