Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge (St Maximos the Confessor Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Second Century)

There will be a Philokalia session tomorrow (March 8) at noon

anna-karenina-illustrated-and-russian-editionIn Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, we are gripped by the passionate story of the heroine who abandons an oppressive marriage to flee with her lover, Count Vronsky. We follow the triumph of passion over banal domesticity until we witness the eventual unravelling of Anna’s life that, stripped of meaning and virtue, leads to her tragic suicide. The antithesis to her character is a shy and awkward landowner, named Konstantin Dmitrich Levin, for whom farming and rural life are the greatest pleasures in life. As Anna succumbs to a downward spiral that eventually leads to death, Levin embraces Christian love and ascends upward to a union with God, transforming his life from one of loneliness and atheism to one of love, marital companionship and faith.

For St. Maximos, Anna Karenina’s course in life would represent her choice of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (cf. Gen. 2:9), and rejection of the tree of Life. Levin, in contrast, takes a journey in the opposite direction, abandoning the tree of knowledge and embracing the tree of life.

There is “a great and unutterable difference” between these two trees, St. Maximos says. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is “the seat of mindless impulses” while “the tree of life is the soul’s intellect, which is the seat of wisdom.”

The problem with the tree of knowledge is that, judging by our senses alone, we can only discriminate between pleasure and pain. We, therefore, naturally cleave to pleasure and avoid pain. Ironically, we live in a society that has embraced the same choice. In it avoidance of pain of any sort and the pursuit of comfort, convenience and pleasure are the ultimate goals and are treated as inviolable rights.

In contrast, by embracing the tree of life, we are able to discriminate between the eternal and the transitory. Our purpose is not simply to avoid pain and increase pleasure but to “cleave to the glory of what is eternal as something good and avoid the corruption of what is transitory as something evil.” Hence, we often choose to accept pain for a higher good.

Yet the real tragedy of limiting knowledge to the senses is not only that we succumb to passions. It is that our perception of the world becomes blurred and illusory. Our understanding becomes corrupted and distorted so that, unknowingly, we embrace death rather than life.

If a man exercises only sensory discrimination between pain and pleasure in the body, thus transgressing the divine commandment, he eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that is to say, he succumbs; to the mindless impulses that pertain to the senses; for he possesses only the body’s power of discrimination, which makes him embrace pleasure as something good and avoid pain as something evil. But if he exercises only that noetic discrimination which distinguishes between the eternal and the transitory, and so keeps the divine commandment, he eats from the tree of life, that is to say, from the wisdom that appertains to his intellect; for he exercises only the power of discrimination associated with the soul…


An even greater tragedy is when our corrupted, limited, sensual understanding forgets and reverses the true distinction between good and evil. As we immerse ourselves to the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, we see our choices—whether becoming workaholic, possessive, obsessed with praise or material good—as good, and use our intellect in the wrong way, to justify our actions.  All of us are vulnerable to this corruption of perception and lack of discrimination.

Nazi Germany justified the holocaust as economic necessity and scientific progress; ordinary citizens were in denial about the extent of the evil surrounding them; slave-owning societies saw slavery as the divine order of human relations. This is why St. Maximos sees the pursuit of pleasure as a grave danger and evil distortion of God’s intention for the capabilities he endowed us with:

He who persuades his conscience to regard the evil he is doing as good by nature reaches out with his moral faculty as with a hand and grasps the tree of life in a reprehensible manner; for he thinks that what is thoroughly evil is by nature immortal.

Anna Karenina justified her choices in terms of the freedom to love and act. It was only later that her lonely existence, on the fringes of good and decent society, and deep despair were revealed for the evil that they were.

Unquestionably, the tree of life is productive of life; the tree that is not called the tree of life, and so is not productive of life, is obviously productive of death. For only death is the opposite of life.




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