St John of Damaskos: On the Virtues and the Vices (Part 1)

St. John talks about virtues and vices through an elaborate and precise classification of them and the many interrelationships among them.

The faculties of the soul, he tells us, are, intellect, reason, opinion, fantasy, sense perception. These allow us to cultivate virtues. Cardinal virtues are courage, moral judgment, self-restraint, and justice

These, in turn, give rise to many other virtues that include, faith, hope, love, prayer, humility, gentleness, long-suffering, forbearance, kindness, freedom from anger.

There are also bodily virtues such as, self-control, fasting, hunger, thirst, staying awake, keeping all-night vigils

There is a close interrelationship between bodily and spiritual virtues and vices. While bodily virtues, in themselves, do not bring about salvation they are, nonetheless, “the tools or instruments of virtue. When used with understanding, in accordance with God’s will, and without the least hypocrisy or desire to win men’s esteem, they make it possible to advance in humility and dispassion.

Among the passions of the soul, John includes forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance, and among the passions of the body gluttony, greed, over-indulgence, drunkenness, eating in secret, general softness of living, unchastity.

This is a long and exhaustive list of virtues and vices. As we go down the list, we are struck by the degree of detail and nuance in it.

Virtues, for example, include “eating slowly.” Quite logically, one of the vices is “eating in secret.” Today, we hear a great deal about bulimia and other eating dysfunctions linked to psychological dysfunctions. Yet long before these studies, St. John of Damascus perceived the pace of eating as an indication of one’s spiritual state–either inner restraint or loss of self in passions. Eating in secret is but a sign of complete submission to gluttony, shame, pretense, and isolation from others.

 In the same vein, John goes beyond the “giants” among vices, such as wrath, to delve into their small, daily manifestations that appear at most as minor inconveniences we often just swat away: bitterness, irritability, quarrelsomeness, ingratitude, grumbling.

John demonstrates enormous psychological and spiritual insight in elucidating the gradual process of enslavement in our souls.

Both virtues and vices are interconnected in ways that one generates others who, in turn, produce their own offspring so that they create a snowball effect that overwhelms and enslaves us.

The passions of the soul are forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance. When the soul’s eye, the intellect, has been darkened by these three, the soul is dominated by all the other passions. These are impiety, false teaching or every kind of heresy, blasphemy,

Another example is when St. John explains how al vices are generated by “the three powerful giants, forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance.”  The result is that our intellect thus becomes “dispersed and dissipated,” allowing us to become overpowered by their offspring,such as “frivolous talk and foul language.”

The same process takes place with sensual pleasure. “The roots or primary causes of all these passions are love of sensual pleasure, love of praise and love of material wealth,” St. John says. “Every evil has its origin in these.”

The sources of sensual pleasure, however, come in a variety of forms, many of them are nearly imperceptible:  just an hour longer in bed, a second helping of dinner, “wandering thoughts” about all the ways we could take revenge on someone who insulted us.  It is “when the soul slackens its vigilance and is no longer strengthened by the fear of God” that we begin engaging with such small, seemingly harmless pleasures.

Without vigilance and alertness, it is easy to overlook and minimize the small, everyday pleasures and transgression without realizing how they relate to each other and how the self-sustaining process of one generating another gives rise to an avalanche that overcomes us.

The last step in the process of enslavement is habit. St. John gives us a clear picture of how seemingly harmless indulgences become ensconced in our lives as habits while, at the same time, giving us a glimpse of the hope of breaking away: 

Every attachment to material things produces pleasure and delight in the man subject to such attachment… And if through such senseless attachment some small habit gains the upper hand, the man to whom this happens is imperceptibly and irremediably held fast by the pleasure hidden in the attachment until he breaks free of it.”

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