Fiction Extract #3: Evil and Non-Being

Introduction on fictional extracts here

#3: Evil and Non-Being

So this one is much more in the works and is more a set of ideas. It’s from the final chapters of the novel which haven’t been written yet, so the odd style it’s written in will probably change. I wrote it when I was thinking about the nature of non-being and evil in Athanasius. I’m trying to do a paper on Athanasius and Maximus on non-being that was inspired by these thoughts. The idea was to create a devil-like figure but who is consistent with the idea that evil is non-being and ultimate absence. This devil-figure has been the long running antagonist in the story, but in fact is only made up of the evil choices that the protagonist characters in the novel have made. I may include a second post on this topic, because I had some interesting ideas on how such an antagonist would be ‘defeated’.

I talk a little about Athanasius’ understanding of evil here. The fantasy element here is the notion that the reality of evil could have personhood, but there has always been a confused indication that people like Athanasius and Maximus might in principle attribute a metaphorical personhood to evil. I haven’t done enough work on this to say so for certain, but I was more interested in bringing a traditional western view of the devil into contact with early Byzantine notions of non-being and evil. Also below is a reference to the logismoi, which are the ‘outside’ thoughts that fly to our mind and tempt us to evil. This is in Maximus, but I’m pretty sure is an already existing ascetic traditional term probably inherited from Evagrios of Pontos.

I was going to include a picture I drew of this figure but I realised its probably a bit disturbing. Its a six winged thing with a noh mask face for those who want a mental image.

He is nothing, but nothing is real because it has been chosen. And if there were no reality to those choices, then there would be no choice. So every choice must result in something, even if that something is nothing.

And he, or rather it, is that nothing. Nothing collated and made strong on the choices of millions to choose nothing. And in his strength he has extended himself beyond his own domain to course as whispers through the world and to blow seeds of himself into the minds of all. And ever the choice becomes more difficult with his temptations blowing where they will and his power to manipulate – never to force, only to tempt – becomes stronger and more cunning. His only desire is to be something, even though he is nothing. But he desires more and more real nothingness. The spread of chaos, the spread of death, the annihilation of all things, especially annihilation without purpose, all this feeds him and gives him strength. And he is the adversary of all things, because he is the absence of all things. He is their opposite and has no being and has no person, he is only present when chosen, he is only brought into existence through the will of others, and so is a slave to their choices, and above all desires to be a master of their choices, and to be a master of others.

And being nothing, he has many forms and shapes, but all are an illusion and behind them all is nothing. And he puts on natures as we put on clothes and gives himself limitations to appear as though he is one of those he craves. And he crafts for himself personalities and words and languages but all of them are hollow and can not stand up to anything but a surface scrutiny, and all too quickly his insatiable and only craving for all to be nothing becomes apparent. And at the same time he has no craving, because he is no one and he is dead to pleas, and dead to compassion, and dead to the lusts and loves of the world, because he has no kindred with them.

All his reality is bent on trying to remember what he is from moment to moment, much of his power is gone in trying to remain consistent from second to second. And it is already so difficult because he is the disparate choices of many and is their darkness in the world. And he is the manifestation of the many secrets that many keep and whilst he knows those things intimately, he has no comprehension of anything else and so does not understand their natures or whatever it is that they choose when they choose not him.

He has grown strong in this age, he has bound to himself servants and plied them with promises of power. They look upon his changing form and envy and he smiles with his stolen faces and plays the master, all the while he hates them even more passionately than any other, because they are close to him and have reality and form and nature which he does not. They bewail their solid form and being and look upon his insubstantial form with lust, and this of all things is an eternal mystery to him who must at every moment consciously recall what he has tried to make of himself for every fraction of a moment, lest his own reality of nothing lapse back into the void which he is.

He works through his servants which are much better at remaining consistent and convincing others, because they move and live in time and know the minds of others, and are familiar with those things which are utterly foreign to him, and so have a much greater advantage when it comes to manipulation. And in this age he has set up schools of deception and corruption and extends schemes and ploys far and wide, and wrapped himself in the history and subtleties of beings. Ever he desires to bring them to chaos and nothing and so to consume them into himself, and ever he is lonely, because as soon as he succeeds they are gone and they are him and they are nothing. And so his fury and rage is insatiable.

He has walked with princes and kings, with travellers and children. He has taught secrets of nothing to those who have used this knowledge to tarnish natures and bring them to the brink of non-existence. He has walked alone and unharmed in the smoke of dragonfire and stood upon the ice of the sea as it cracks and breaks from the cliffs of the world. He looks upon all with nothing in his heart which does not exist, and nothing in his eyes which do not exist, and nothing in his body which does not exist.


Fiction Extract #2: Magic

Introduction on fictional extracts here

#2: Magic

A young acolyte of the elvin people known as the mi’skei explains to her travel companion what magic is and how people interact with it.

The fictional concept of magic in this story was always meant to be an exploration of miracles and the supernatural. However, when I first began studying Byzantine theology I decided to incorporate panentheism, theoria physike, the place of the logoi and the grace of the Spirit into a fantasy language of magic. I intended to explore the idea that remarkable ‘miracle’ events only appear to be magic, and are in fact right relation with all around us. The concept of God is very quiet in the novel, so much of this right relation takes the form of relationships with others and the natural world (like many of the stories in the hagiographies of the celtic saints). ‘Using magic’ however is a petition directed to it (the Spirit), in which all nature might respond and come to the aid of the petitioner. The passage below focusses on magic (The Arcane Arts) as a complete way of seeing what is already present, and the role of the person as priest and mediator on behalf of the rest of the natural world.

“… The Arcane Arts is the term we use to describe the relation between us and the real world. The world in its completeness as both the physical world we see with eyes, and the immaterial world we must learn to see by maintaining right attitude to all things.”

She thought he might scoff at this, but he seemed rather to be in awe,

“And can you see it? This immaterial world?”

“Not exactly. And not in the way one sees with these.” She pointed at her eyes. “But one becomes more attuned to the reality of things as being whole, but existing in these two different ways. Like…” She thought for a moment, “… imagine a cube, but one you could only see from straight on. You can touch it, but you can only see one of its faces. One really only has a very limited idea of its true properties until one’s position changes, and the other dimensions of the cube become known. In this way, one has gained more true knowledge of the cube, one knows it more intimately for what it is. The Arcane Arts are when one calls or responds to those things which one has come to know more intimately.” Up until now, she had been enrapt in her explanation, at last coming into her own area of deep fascination. As she spoke this last sentence however, her face became more and more sad. “It is said that, in the days of old, the mi’skei did not only do as we do now, and catch the drifting insinuations of meanings and contemplations stirring in the world about, but did commune with all the creatures and natural world. All spoke freely in conversation and knew the purpose of one another. The mi’skei then were revered even by the stones and the earth and the sky, and all these and more besides would come to them, and ask of them such things as ‘sing a song for me in your chapels, where the lights and the shadows all dance as one’, or ‘come down beside my banks where I empty into the great lake, and say a blessing over my waters, which have travelled from the highest peaks in all Forsantica’. And a mi’skei would gladly do such things, and in return the trees would bend their branches together into mighty palaces like Ilindar, and the waters would cradle these homes and never run dry even in the hottest summers, and the wind would whisper lullabies to send the elvin young to sleep.” She stopped. Her gaze had once more been on the old blue mountains as she spoke all this in wistful sorrow. “But those times are gone now. The Arcane Arts are not what they were.”


Fiction Extract #1: Sketches

Whilst trying to write a PhD, I have inadvertently devoted a lot of time to writing a rambling theologically inspired fantasy atrocity. Given that it eats so much of my time, I thought I’d share a couple of the theological analogies that I made to help myself think more clearly about the theology I’m studying. I don’t know how many I’ll share, but I’ll include a brief preface to each explaining the fictional context and the Byzantine parallel it is roughly trying to depict.

 #1: Sketches

This is the most obviously explicit parallel to be found in my novel so far. In the novel it is an ancient fable that has been illustrated and is kept as a children’s fairytale.

I originally conceived of it whilst writing my Master’s thesis on Maximus’ logoi to help me think about the ‘preconceptions’ that Maximus and Dionysios talk about. These are the ideas for creation in God’s mind that are both united in Christ and yet form the unique idea according to which ever creature has been made. They also outline the hoped for trajectory of every creature. I found this metaphor useful, and still often refer to the logoi as sketches when explaining them.

There once was an artisan. He had plans to create beautiful things. He first took a pen and ink and parchment and sketched. He sketched many thousands upon thousands of sketches with his pen. Each was a plan for his creations and when he put the sketches side by side they appeared to him to make a beautiful picture. So he set about creating the things in his sketches and they were exactly as he imagined: beautiful and perfect. And the created things moved with a moving grace according to the sketches imagined for them. They were multitudinous and different, but because they were like those sketches, they formed all together one beautiful picture, which the artisan took great joy in looking upon.

But some chose not to be like those sketches so when they took up pens of their own, as many of the created things were want to do in honour of the artisan, they instead drew on their own faces and obscured their own beauty. Then they drew on the faces of their brothers and sisters and defaced the things about them until all were drawing and painting their own designs upon whatever they saw fit and thinking only of their own mastery over other things.

These are the terrible times where all is black with the ink of destruction. There is a dark one who delights in this picture and orchestrates the damage, but he is just as all the rest, defacing the beauty with shadows. There is still a place for those who would be true artisans but it is hard to paint things like those sketches through the screen of dark ink. But the sketches persist somewhere. It is said even the dark one has an archetype.


Eternal Progress: Where Spirituality Meets Ethics

Eternal Progress: Where Spirituality Meet Ethics

Gregory of Nyssa and Petyr Kropotkin Compared

They are both balding men with big beards. The end.

In a blog I wrote last year, I finished with a question wondering whether Gregory of Nyssa and Petyr Kropotkin could be friends. In this blog I answer that question: yes.

The theology of eternal progress, or epektasis, was worked out by Gregory of Nyssa, who drew on this passage by Paul:

Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before (ἔμπροσθεν ἐπεκτεινόμενος). (Philippians 3:13)

In The Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa interpreted Moses’ theophany of the pillar of cloud in light of this Philippians passage and the story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10-19). Gregory described Moses’ seeing God’s back as part of the understanding that even in encounter with God there will always be part of God that is unknowable. He wrote:

The soul rises ever higher and higher and will always make its flight yet higher – by its desire of the heavenly things straining ahead for what is still to come, as the Apostle says Made to desire and not to abandon the transcendent height by the things already attained, it makes its way upward without ceasing, ever through its prior accomplishments renewing its intensity for the flight… Once having set foot on the ladder which God set up (as Jacob says), he continually climber to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained.1

Gregory’s understanding of spirituality involves this perpetual reaching for what will ever remain elusive. Importantly, however, this is never a task performed in vain. The process of transformation, learning from, and overcoming errors may be eternal, but each step is a worthwhile one that brings us closer to holiness. There is always hiddenness in God, is Gregory’s point, but this may be something beautiful in our relationship with Him, rather than something alienating or frustrating.

I would like to draw some comparisons between Gregory’s spiritual account of the movement of the soul, and the vision Petyr Kropotkin has for human society. Kropotkin was a geographer, revolutionary and anarchist who lived in the latter half of the 19th Century. In his autobiography, he wrote:

this society will not be crystallised into certain unchangeable forms, but will continually modify its aspect, because it will be a living, continually evolving organism; no need of government will be felt, because free agreement and federation take its place in all those functions which governments consider as theirs at the present time, and because, the causes of conflict being reduced in number, those conflicts which may still arise can be submitted to arbitration.2

Following on from his evolutionary theory of mutual aid, Kropotkin believed that human societies should have the capacity to continually change, and to have a structure that facilitates this self-criticism. The best form of society, in his mind, was one that knew that it was not best, and had the ability to structure itself according to the fluctuating needs of its populace. Under Kropotkin’s analysis, he believes that this would result in the self-structuring of workplaces and, as a consequence, a more even distribution of resources to those in want.

The similarity between Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of epektasis and Petyr Kropotkin’s vision of an anarchist society is entirely coincidental. What is important is the way in which we, looking back at these figures in history, might choose to read their thoughts as complimentary. What Gregory is saying about ascetical holiness and what Kropotkin is saying about human society is that a propensity toward humility and passionate hope for better living are fundamental to our development as people. Who we are to become as individuals and within our communities is shaped by our ability to recognise the faults in ourselves and in what we perpetuate.

The similarity between Gregory and Kropotkin’s ideas is not merely methodological however, but also extends to what they wish to see. Gregory’s holy person and the example they create in human society, has much in common with the free association and organisation that Kropotkin envisaged. I have already reflected on the political implications of Gregory of Nyssa’s Sermons on the Beatitudes and the radical world they envisage. Let us remember for example, the passage when Gregory writes that living out mercy would create a community where:

Life would no longer be lived in diametrically opposite ways; man would no longer be distressed by want or humiliated by slavery, nor would dishonour sadden him. For all things would be common to all, and his life as a citizen would be marked by complete equality before the law, since the man who was responsible for the government would of his own free will be on a level with the rest.3

Gregory of Nyssa’s work is full of places where an intense and personal spirituality spills over into the communal ethics of the many. I’d like to think that that there’s nothing fundamentally different between those reflections and the anarchist principles in much of Kropotkin’s thinking. Both of them have that very important quality that is essential, I think, for any ethics; which is the ability to reflect very penetratingly on the injustices in the world, and the belief that perpetually working for better is always a worthwhile task.


1Gregory of Nyssa, life of Moses, ch 225, 227. 113-4.

2Kropotkin, Memoirs, 399.

3Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon 5 On Mercy, 134.


Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Life of Moses’ in Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, Malherbe, A.J & Ferguson, E. (trans.) New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Sermon 5′ in Ancient Christian Writers: Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer and The Beatitudes, H.C. Graef (trans.) New York: Paulist Press, 1954.

Kropotkin, P. Memoirs of a Revolutionist.Dover Publications, 1971, (1st ed., 1899).


Max’s Metaphysical Ethics

This is unashamedly an excuse for me to try and think out what is going on in Maximus the Confessor’s metaphysics.

Here’s a diagram I’ve made to try and get to grips with it:


Being – Well-Being – Eternal Well-Being
This is Maximus’ triad from Amb. 7, and is the proper movement of all creatures, he believes. This is the way things should move naturally. Being and Eternal Well-being are gifts from God, and Well-Being is the choice we can make to live well. We are granted being, but must decide if we wish to live well, and naturally and with directivity toward God. The ability to reach for Well-Being is a capacity restored to humans through and in Christ. For Maximus, this is characterised by choosing to love. If we choose this, then we can lay hold of Eternal Well-Being. If we do not choose this, eventually we fall into non-being (this is because creatures are made from nothing, and perpetually preserved by God, if we choose to cut ourselves off from him, we fall into non-being. This is Maximus, but also Athanasius).

 Logos – Tropos
This is the distinction between the way in which God has created us to live (logos), and the way in which we choose to live (tropos). Logos is the potential purposeful existence of a creature, should it choose to follow the sketch created for it. Tropos is the actual movement of a creature – it is its mode of living. When our tropos is aligned with our logos, we live with directivity toward God and can reach for Well-Being.

 Nature – Hypostasis
Hypostasis is a particular instance of a universal nature. Nature (physis) has no reality aside from its manifestation in particulars. Similarly, a logos has no real ontological existence unless it is chosen by a particular hypostasis. Likewise, we can not talk of hypostasis as separate from nature. These two are simultaneous, but the distinction is useful to make, because those things we call ‘natural’ are those things which we have the capacity to do. Things pertaining to hypostasis are things we choose to do in a certain way. (Most of this is from the Disputation with Pyrrhus). For example: we have the natural capacity to walk, but this capacity remains inactive, unless we personally choose to go somewhere and move. We can ascribe the capacity to walk (generally speaking) to human nature, but particular activities and instances of this capacity in practice, belong to specific hypostases (people).

 Why do I care about this stuff?
Because in articulating this, Maximus explains how there can be divine care and maintenance at every level of existence, without ever threatening to take away human free will. It also means that he can talk about things being natural to us whilst also explaining how there can be so much particular diversity. For example, Maximus believes that virtue is natural to us. This is because naturally we move in accordance with our logos, and logos for Maximus is inseparable from the being, life and activity of Christ, who is The Logos. We follow Christ’s loving activity when we act in accordance with our logos and become like him. As I’ve discussed in other blogs, the virtues are also logoi in Christ, and naturally a part of who we are for Maximus. This makes a massive difference to our conception of metaphysical ethics, because it means that Christlike love is natural to us, and that the ability to love is like another sense or capacity that we take for granted. When we do not love, it is like we are choosing not to walk, not to see or not to smell. In not loving we are cutting ourselves off from our natural co-existence with others and with God.

6a0120a69a468c970c01a73db8ef6b970d Some natural co-existence with fellow partakers in universal human nature.


The Dualist tendencies of Iconoclasm

The Dualist tendencies of Iconoclasm

Throughout the 700s there were periods of militant iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire. Varying movements of varying fervour and for varying reasons propagated the destruction of icons and other depictions of Christ and the saints. On the whole, there are some reasonably sound theological reasons offered by the iconoclasts of this time to justify their positions. However, they were eventually shown to be unimaginative, thoughtless and heretical by writers such as John of Damascus, who pointed out the long term implications of the (by comparison) simplistic readings that the iconoclasts offered of Scripture.

IrenekirkenThe iconoclast cross in Hagia Eirene that was installed after the icon of Christ was torn down from the apse

In this blog post I’m going to present the main arguments of both the iconoclasts and John of Damascus (these are greatly redacted as both sides have extensive, more nuanced arguments, but most of them boil down to the two positions represented here). My main point however is to demonstrate that John of Damascus’ argument actually accuses the iconoclasts of a dualism not dissimilar to that of the early Gnostics. This in turn has big implications, I think, for later iconoclast positions in Christian history as well.

The iconoclast view relied on equating icons with idols that are being worshipped. In their eyes, icons were being revered as additional gods. They supported this condemnation with quotations from Scripture. Verses picked out in particular by the iconoclasts were: “The Lord our God, the Lord, is one” (Deut. 6:4); “You shall adore the Lord your God, and worship Him alone”; “You shall not have strange gods” (Deut. 6:13); “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath” (Ex. 20:4); “All worshippers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols.” (Ps. 97:7).

On this latter point, John of Damascus was more than happy to concede ground – it was indeed heretical to worship anything other than God, or to set up idols. Instead, however, John attacked the starting iconoclast presumption that an icon could be equated with an idol. John talks extensively of what we mean by the word ‘image’ and the way we define it in relation to a prototype or archetype: “An image is of like character with its prototype, but with a certain difference. It is not like its archetype in every way” [DI 1.9]. The word ‘image’ has a much more complex meaning than just referring to something that is drawn, John explains. The iconoclasts had already extended this word’s usage to include mosaics and statues, but why stop there, says John, “The Son is the living, essential, and precisely similar Image of the invisible God, bearing the entire Father within Himself, equal to Him in all things, except that He is begotten by Him, the Begetter” [DI 1.9].

Furthermore, John argues, we do not worship (latreia) an image, but rather we venerate or honour (proskinesis) it. The icon is not an idol for worship, but an image that reflects an archetype and therefore the veneration one gives to the image passes over to the depicted. John defends this argument by maintaining that the material world is not set apart from the spiritual, but is brought together in the one Christ, who brought together the created and uncreated and sanctified all matter. Christ Himself is God and yet was enfleshed – he became God incarnate. This then is John’s primary argument – that matter is sanctified by God through Christ. In the incarnation, matter was deemed worthy to become an icon of God above. In one of John’s most moving passages, he makes extensive poetic discourse on the importance of matter. “I do not worship matter;” John writes in one of these famous passages, “I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honouring the matter which wrought my salvation!” [DI 1.16]

So John links the iconoclast position to one that rejects matter. The iconoclast position becomes one that believes that matter has not been sanctified by God and in fact posits that matter can never have anything to do with God – since if it has not been made holy by the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, then how could it ever have anything to do with the divine? The primary accusation implied by John then is that to be an iconoclast and to reject the depiction of Christ is actually to be a dualist – it is to maintain that the incarnation was not enough and to reject matter as deplorable and beyond salvation. Put more simply, the iconoclast position relies on the idea that what is down here on earth is too lowly to depict anything that is up there in heaven. The material and spiritual are so far separated from one another that there can never be any relationship between the uncreated and the created. The point of councils like Chalcedon (451) was to say that the distinction between created and uncreated always remains preserved, but the original communion intended between these two has been renewed in Christ’s being fully God and fully human. Therefore, I suggest that, if one takes John of Damascus’ line of argument, iconoclasm actually falls into that dualism that the early Church dealt with in Gnosticism (where matter was considered to be evil and radically opposed to the divine).

This may seem like a somewhat extreme conclusion, given the well-meaning concerns of the eighth century iconoclasts. However as soon as one accepts the position that matter is not good enough to contain or depict God, when God Himself chose to become matter and sanctify the world, one directly challenges the extensiveness of the salvific power of Christ and the legitimacy of the incarnation. If matter has not been saved by Christ, then it is beyond consummation. In so far as one could call anything evil, then ‘that which is beyond consummation’ fits the bill.

If one reads John of Damascus’ Treatise on Divine Images, from which all the quotations in this blog come, one can see just how persuasive John’s argument is and consequently how problematic the iconoclast position is when it comes to the accusation of dualism. Of course, John is very careful to remove the veneration of icons from the sphere of idol worship, and would readily condemn anything that veered into this latter category. That said, the dualist tendencies of iconoclasm are not only very problematic but also very transferable to later Christian movements that sought to destroy images of Christ and the saints (John has a whole section devoted to how we also extend these arguments to images of the Mother of God and the saints). I am thinking particularly of the Protestant Reformation. I think perhaps the iconoclast riots of the 1500s have cemented a strong spiritual inclination toward dualism and the belief in the depravity of matter, and that those countries where riots took place are still feeling the effects of this today. This is a position that needs much more support in order to be made successfully, but I am inclined to believe that there is much underlying problematic dualism in my own home in Scotland that can be linked directly to the 1559 iconoclast riots that swept the country here.

Riot_against_Anglican_prayer_book_16371637 riot in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh


The Unity of the Cosmos

The Unity of the Cosmos:
Maximus’ Concept of the Universal Explained with Reference to Dogs

In Tollefsen’s recent paper on ‘The Concept of the Universal in the Philosophy of St Maximus’ he wrote that “It is important for Maximus to stress generic unity… Generic unity is the basis of cosmic unity in general.” (p14).

Tollefsen’s paper sought to locate the importance and place of the ‘universal’ in Maximus’ thought, by which it is meant the categories of species and genera into which the natural world is divided.

In Maximus’ thought is has always been clear, like in Aristotle, that particulars are ‘more real’ than universals (See Ambiguum 10, 1189C-D). By this it is meant that, if every dog in the world ceased to exist, there would be no such category as ‘dogs’. (This is in general opposition to Platonic and some Neoplatonic ideas that hold the ‘form’ of dog-kind to have more reality than any particular dog itself. This would mean that our dogs are only dogs because they fall into the category of dog-kind that already exists and happen to meet the description of what we already know a dog to be.)


If Gyp ceased to exist I would be sad.

Tollefsen’s paper, however, suggested that while “the richness of being” is still to be located in the particular, we might consider again the importance of the universal within Maximus’ thought. “When it comes to Maximus,” Tollefsen writes, “the universals are not transcendent Forms, but rather immanent essential wholes consisting of parts.” (p16). Our category ‘dog-kind’ then, is not a fractured concept that consists of every single dog, but rather a whole that comes into being because we can identify many parts within it. There are dogs and so there is dog-kind. The latter concept is a whole one, even if it is still reliant on the former particulars. Tollefsen says this is likewise the case for universals further along in our understanding of natural categories: “The whole of what it is to be the genus fills the whole of what it is to be each species.” (p16). This means that, for instance, our category of ‘mammals’ is a whole concept in and of itself, even though it is reliant on there being species such as ‘dogs’ that make it up. It is not as though however, only a little bit of the concept of mammals refers to dogs. The whole of what it is to be a mammal is understood in what is to be a dog, even though we might say the same of a different species, such as that of ‘cats’.

Additionally, Tollefsen suggests that Maximus’ description of categories might be less akin to the more familiar model of a hierarchical tree (in Neoplatonic thought known more familiarly as the Porphyrian Tree) and more like a lateral system that does not place any particular superiority in either the discussion of universals or particulars. The importance of this observation is that it is not so much that beings are more individuals than they are united species or vice versa, but rather that the expression of genera, species and particulars are instead a way of talking about how similarities and differences coexist and interdepend on one another.


Gyp in Lake Ullswater awaiting her reunion with a particular stick.

Tollefsen’s point doesn’t really require us to think of natural categories in a radically different way. There is no reason why, for example, it is essential that we should think of the category of ‘mammals’ as above that of ‘dogs’, or ‘dogs’ above that of my particular dog, Gyp. Likewise there is not necessarily a huge leap of thought in thinking of universals as whole concepts rather than fractured composites. I do however think that there are important repercussions for this understanding of entirety and wholeness in every concept that may come to bear on our comprehension of the world. There is a genuine unity of particulars in species and of species in genera that is more than just semantic. There is biological identity between all these creatures that is distinguished by a matter of degrees. There is actually a very close unity between all things on our planet that often seems neglected when we instead focus on the separateness of every single particular. Our biological categories are not simply arbitrary semantic categories, but descriptive of the similarities we have found in all things around us, including us ourselves.

I suggest that Tollefsen’s restatement of Maximus’ concept of the universal is one that is very retrievable in this day and age and very much compatible with our biological understanding of the world. The observation could be important for the way in which we choose to look at the natural world around us and this in turn may have a significant impact on the way in which we choose to live and act in the world. In today’s world, there is, I think, a very definite focus on the importance of the individual human, and at a push, the species of human beings. For Maximus, the world seems to be a balance of real, distinct creatures, bound in relation to one another and united by the properties they share. Perhaps retrieving Maximus’ awareness of our very real relatedness to every other particular through the unity of universals is one that might encourage us to see the integrity of one another and the world around us. Acknowledging the commonalities we share with others is not a denial of who we are as unique people, but for Maximus, an affirmation of who we are in relation to an other.


Sources: Tollefsen, T. ‘The Concept of the Universal in the Philosophy of St Maximus’ delivered to The Architecture of the Cosmos, International Conference on St Maximus the Confessor, Helsinki 2-4th September 2013.