TOWARDS THINKING OF GOD: A FOCUS ON MAXIMUS THE CONFESSOR
Divna Manolova, Gergana Dineva
author: Georgi Kapriev
title: Maximus the Confessor. An Introduction to His System of Thought.
Sofia: Iztok-Zapad, 2010, pp.270.
In Journal extime, Michel Tournier makes the following analogy between literature and photography:
The smaller the aperture, the larger the depth of field, that is to say, the sharper the background will be. Conversely, a large aperture brings the subject into focus and blurs the rest of the picture. Stendhal: 3,5. Balzac: 16. Balzac’s characters are portrayed as inseparable from their complex milieu, environment, previous phenomena and facts, and so on (in other words, they are portrayed in depth, as with a closed aperture), while Stendhal’s characters stand out against the blurred background, against a background of desolation (no depth of field, wide-open aperture). (Tournier, 2005, p. 30).
In this monograph, we see a similar, if not entirely identical, transition from a ‘multiple-focus’ research viewpoint to a limited by the author, ‘single-focus’, and in this sense, in-depth study of the ‘system of thought’ of Maximus the Confessor (580-662), who is traditionally mentioned by scholars of Byzantine history and culture in connection with his participation in the disputes over Monotheletism as well as his central role in shaping the reception of authors like Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, and Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite.
In his monograph Maximus the Confessor. An Introduction to His System of Thought (hereafter abbreviated as MC), Georgi Kapriev has set himself a not entirely traditional research task: to affirm the systematic character of Maximus’ thought on God (the author uses the term ‘thought on God’ [bogomislie] since, he argues, it is closer to the Byzantine worldview than the commonly used in the Latin-language tradition ‘theology’ and ‘speculative philosophy’), and to examine its characteristics in detail. As the author notes, however, Maximus’ texts were not written systematically. On the contrary,, just like many other Byzantine philosophical and theological texts, Maximus’ works, too, were written on a particular occasion, in a particular, often polemic, context.
In its main intention as well as in its problematics and structure, MC continues the intellectual undertaking begun in Byzantine Philosophy. Four Centres of Synthesis (Sofia: Lik, 2001, in Bulgarian; hereafter abbreviated as BP). As in BP, in MC Kapriev again structures his exposition in four thematic sections which correspond to the four basic problematic units in Maximus the Confessor’s system of thought: (1) Knowledge; (2) Triadology and Ontology; (3) Anthropology and Christology; (4) History, Soteriology, Eschatology. The first section, devoted to knowledge, looks at a wider range of epistemological problems than those examined in BP. It makes the significant point that by the term ‘theology’, Maximus does not denote some human reflection, discourse or other type of rational activity but, conversely, ‘self-expression of God’ (Kapriev, 2010, p. 35), which also makes mystical experience possible. Kapriev also points out the characteristic of the Byzantine worldview distinction between ‘our’, that is, Christian philosophy and the ‘external’, Hellenic philosophy. As the author notes, Maximus ‘was probably the first to explicitly formulate and justify the term “Christian philosophy”’ (p. 46). This section ends with a chapter devoted to the arithmological doctrine developed by Maximus in which, according to the author, one can rightfully look for formal, but not for substantive, references to Pythagoreanism and Neoplatonism.
The other three sections offer few questions not already examined in BP. Still, one must note the inclusion of the subjects of time, of creation and eternity, of the human soul and body, of ἕξις understood as ‘the permanent personal disposition towards retaining and activating the natural powers of humans’ (p. 52) as well as of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. The distinction between ‘logos/principle’ and ‘tropos/way’ is reexamined as an ‘axis of thought on God in Maximus’ (p. 91): the logos of essence is the constitutive determinacy of essence, and the way of existence is the order of natural acts (p. 92). Also important is the emphasis on the terminological apparatus used by Maximus – namely, that it was Maximus who unified the terminology used in Christian philosophy. Kapriev uses this proposition as one of the main arguments confirming the systematicity of Maximus’ philosophical position.
Another example of how Kapriev argues in favour of the systematicity of Maximus’ philosophical position is the exposition of the relationship between the cognitive powers and the cognitive movements of humans in their general aspiration towards God, which is discussed in the largest section in the monograph, devoted to the epistemology of the Byzantine monk. Maximus’ systematicity is marked by the rhythm determined by the interconnection of the concepts that are basic for Kapriev’s overall interpretation: essence, force, energy, as well as the above-mentioned stable inner state, ἕξις, expounded in two modes by Maximus the Confessor – practical and contemplative hexis (p. 52).
This problem is centred around elucidation of the thesis that truth cannot be possessed by reason (λόγος), which elucidation is based upon the difference in cognitive movements according to their different ontological limits (Kapriev, 2010), which are determined by the two ways of revelation of God – as truth, i.e. essentially, and as good, i.e. by energy (Mystagogy V, p. 164). Each limit contains a separate cognitive movement, and the two are unified in the human ἕξις through its two modes (practical and contemplative) – that is how true knowledge is formed, which is also the limit of divine philosophy as understood by Christians (Kapriev, 2010, p. 52). On the one hand, rational movement has thinking as its force, its inner stable state is praxis which allows the activation of virtue which is determined by its limit – the good. On the other hand is the movement of the mind (νοῦς), whose force is wisdom through which the mind attains its inner stable state (ἕξις) – contemplation that, in turn, allows the activation of knowledge (γνῶσις), which is also the energy proper of the mind. Having unlimited truth as its limit/aim, the mind engages reason, and hexis allows the unification of sensory and rational movement through transformation into the rational; this is how ‘logical’ knowledge is possible at all, insofar as such knowledge is possible for humans (p. 61).
Of course, MC offers an exposition of the historical, political and cultural context of Maximus’ works, as well as a review of previous studies on Maximus’ texts and an exhaustive bibliography on the subject. Still, considering the importance of the central thesis, it could have been supported even more convincingly through two formal rather than substantive methods: in the first place, introduction into the text of full quotes from the commented text instead of isolated phrases and terms. Considering that some of Maximus’ main works have not been translated into Bulgarian, the inclusion of full quotes from the original Greek text would also have been useful, even if not for non-specialist readers. In the second place, considering that the systematic character of Maximus’ thought on God is proved on the basis of an ‘unsystematically’ constructed source material, we believe that more extensive methodological notes preceding the strictly philosophical analysis would have been in order: for example, how was Maximus’ system of thought reconstructed, what is the research method that led to the results presented in MC?
The interpretation proposed by Georgi Kapriev elucidates many elements in Maximus’ cognitive theory which remained not entirely clear in BP and, in this sense, this part of the monograph is especially noteworthy in that it clearly shows the inseparability of the theological substratum from every philosophical effort in Maximus. The reader is left with the impression that the correct historico-philosophical understanding of Maximus’ philosophy is inseparably bound to profound knowledge of his theological concept – an idea that is not taken for granted outside of the mediaevalist philosophical community, nor for that matter, necessarily by mediaevalists themselves – especially when speaking of a systematic philosophy – and which usually requires special argumentation. At the beginning of his study, Georgi Kapriev offers a brief introduction in this direction, declaring at the end that he will present his ‘personal entrance’ (p. 11) into Maximus the Confessor’s system of thought – a promise he has indeed fulfilled, insofar as the speculative approach and identification of systematicity in Maximus has not been the subject of research to date – especially in such scope and depth – in the comparatively stable tradition of philosophical and theological studies on this author.
Kapriev, G. (2001) Vizantiyskata filosofia. Chetiri tsentara na sinteza [Byzantine Philosophy. Four Centres of Synthesis]. Sofia: Lik.
Kapriev, G. (2010) Maksim Izpovednik. Vavedenie v mislovnata mu sistema [Maximus the Confessor. An Introduction to His System of Thought]. Sofia: Iztok-Zapad.
Tournier, M. (2005) Х-timen dnevnik [Journal extime]. Sofia: Pulsio.
- Divna Manolova, Gergana Dineva
- Georgi Kapriev – Maximus the Confessor