The First Volume of the Philokalia (Faber and Faber)

Some points about the first Volume of the Philokalia.

1. A collection of writings from roughly the Fourth to the Sixth centuries AD.

2. The men or saints who wrote these pieces are not exactly writers or theologians. They are hermits, monks, and men who have recognised the world as a barrier to their communion with God. They belong to the Roman or Hellenistic world still, despite being Christian. A work attributed to St Anthony the Great is in this edition put in the Appendix because it seems Christian, and yet was probably written by a Roman Stoic or Platonist.

3. But we know about this cross over, because, as Nietzsche had it, Christianity is ‘Platonism for the people’. These writers are some of those who, at the end of his sane period of life, Nietzsche described as the most exotic and strange, self-loathing and power hungry people who emerged from the late Roman Empire. They are ascetics. But Nietzsche spoke on the assumption that ‘God is dead’, and if we reject that idea, then we shall proceed only understanding that asceticism was an ancient world activity in general.

4. The collection is put together from writings by recluses and monastics for the encouragement and education of those who were going out into the solitude of themselves, or setting up monasteries.

5. They are mostly epigrams or aphorisms, and there is no page by page systematic philosophy.

6. The writers all accept that, when a man is alone with himself, he becomes conscious of demons. This can either be taken to be a feature of the rich pagan life of ancient Rome and Greece, where gods were prevalent in all aspects of living, and that the ascetic accepts their reality and takes them to be demons; or, we should accept that there are in fact demons within and around us.

7. The theme of the soldier of God is referred to frequently, as it is by Theophan the Recluse. Aiming to fight his way to a proper relation with God, and to be given Grace and friendship with God, the recluse or monk has to fight for his solitude and absolute stillness. The beginner in the act of prayer will have to struggle against the devil to attain to this stillness.

8. Unlike the Eastern mystics of India and Japan, the Christian saint does not think he will simply look for and find the kingdom of heaven and absolute being; he must be given it by God; the Holy Spirit must be acquired, but it also can distance itself from us.

9. They speak very little about what the saint will see when he is near to God. It is a principle that you don’t speak of this, or, the more spiritual power you have, the less you write or talk of yourself.

10. The highest virtue of these people, and by extension, of the most Christian people, is that they love God alone, and despise the world. It is a great warning to those who think that Christians love other people, and do good. Frequently, here, charity and alms are said to be only a means to the single and ultimate end: to be with God.

11. The collection is written for those who give up the world and the world’s demonic influences, in order to attain the highest point of being human: to become the friend of God.

12. And, all along, this ambition and the pride of the one who is thereby the supreme human being is warned against. For, the ideals laid out here are indeed the greatest things that a man can do, and the ascetic is the greatest species of man. But, being the most selfish, he attains this by renouncing his self and making way for God and the Spirit, thereby entirely disappearing.


Keith Patterson:

As you point out, the Philokalia is designed for the spiritual instruction of hermits and monks. Most of us are lay people living in the twenty-first century. We can read it for edification, ideally under the tutelage of a priest or spiritual elder, but with caution, not believing that its instructions and advice map directly onto our lives , living in society, today.

Jason Powell:

I thank you for this. You repeat the correct advice which I have read from Kallistos Ware and elsewhere, too. But this advice does rankle with me... for personal reasons, and I tell you why in the spirit merely of honesty, and not for controversy with you. In those cases where a spiritual guide is not available, due to the intense reclusiveness of the learner, such that he will not approach anyone; and the intense humility of the learner, such that he does not think himself worthy of a 'master' - which is in fact the condition of the ideal candidate for spirituality - then there is no chance of being guided, and a straight reading of the Philokalia and the application of it to your own life is possible. After all, the Philokalia is a written document, and those who wrote it meant that their instruction in writing could be of use. So it follows that it is useful.

I know that it can be dangerous to attempt spirituality in any age. I expect that for every saint, there were a thousand failures who came to grief with delusions and madness - what today would be called schizophrenia. .. The issue there, which is dangerous, is that the learner will consider himself entitled to see visions and hear voices during meditation and seclusion; the only antidote to this, it seems to me is an extreme humility of character, and, a cast iron scepticism and rationality about the approach to the self and to God. We do not look for miracles or visions, or anything else. And, by the time the learner is worthy of being given Grace, he will no longer have any self-assertion or pride in 'seeing visions', etc., even were they to come.

So in summary, I think that your careful and approved warning is right. But, one must try nonetheless, regardless of our time in history, and if one becomes a casualty along the way, falling into delusion, then this would be unforgivable amongst men, but but before God we would hope for forgiveness for the presumption. I think that is how I see it...

Design Jason Powell, 2020.

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