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1177/0953946813484409Studies in Christian EthicsBlowers



Studies in Christian Ethics

Aligning and Reorienting the 26(3) 333350

The Author(s) 2013
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DOI: 10.1177/0953946813484409
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Paul M. Blowers
Emmanuel Christian Seminary, USA

This essay seeks to abstract from the works of Maximus the Confessor (580662) a theory
of virtue ethics that engages Maximuss own categories and language while still developing
conversation with contemporary virtue ethics. First is a reconstruction of the larger cosmological
(and moral) narrativethe oikonomia Maximus sees embodied in sacred historythat frames
his essentially teleological understanding of the formation of virtue in created beings. The second
part of the essay explores Maximuss doctrine of the moral self as a synthesis of diachronic and
synchronic dimensions, and details three identifiable protocols by which moral agents cultivate
the Christian virtues: first, the development of intellectual virtues such as prudence that serve
clear vision (theoria) of worthy moral ends; second, the appropriate use of the passible faculties
of desire and temper in alliance with reason; and third, the conditioning of the virtues within
moral communities (monastery or church) characterized by relations of accountability, imitation,
and the traditioning of moral wisdom.

Desire, imitation, incarnation, love, reason, virtue

Had Maximus the Confessor (580662) been asked what he thought about virtue ethics,
I am fairly certain that his response would have been, Is there any other kind? And,
unlike Aquinas (Summa Theologiae IaIIae.55-67), he ostensibly saw no need to set out a
formal exposition of virtue ethics. Today virtue ethics takes its place alongside two other
well-developed constellations of ethical theoryneo-Kantian deontology, and conse-
quentialismand is the subject of a growing array of critical studies, some of which
interface with Christian theology.1 But, generally speaking, we find little in the way of

1 For helpful explorations of the territory of postmodern virtue ethics, see e.g. Alasdair
MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edn (Notre Dame, IN: University of
Notre Dame Press, 2007); Rosiland Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University

Corresponding author:
Paul M. Blowers, Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, TN 37601, USA.
Email: pblowers@ecs.edu
334 Studies in Christian Ethics 26(3)

ethical theorizing as such in patristic literature. Even casuistic or pedagogic treatises like
those of Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria that deal with specific moral problems
(e.g. wealth, dress, military service, the snares of pagan culture) deal more with the for-
mation of Christian character than with abstract justifications of how Christian moral
norms operate. Patristic ethics built upon a venerable heritage of Christian moral wisdom
that drew broadly from Scripture, philosophy, and an emerging cult of saints, largely
with a view to inculcating Christianitys theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) and
cardinal moral virtues.
Living and writing in the first half of the seventh century, Maximus benefited from a
long prior history of patristic appropriation of elements of Platonic, Aristotelian, and
Stoic ethics that extended all the way back to Pauls own use of Hellenistic moral phi-
losophy. Even if he read some classical philosophers directly or used doxographies, his
engagement with them was primarily filtered through Christian sources.2 Maximus indi-
cates clear familiarity, for example, with the Aristotelian ideas that virtue is a habitus
() of the soul,3 that it intrinsically leads to eudaimonia,4 and that virtue is by defini-
tion a mean between dispositional extremes of excess and defect.5
Crucial as well to the tradition of patristic moral wisdom to which Maximus was
beholden was the ever-expanding repertoire of Christian exempla drawn from sacred
history and held forth for imitation () in biblical commentaries, homilies, and
hagiography.6 Patristic interpreters had developed sophisticated ways of intertextually
weaving the stories of extraordinary saints with the unfolding story of Christians in the
recent past and even in present circumstances.7 Maximus, like other monastic writers,

Press, 1999); Julia Annas, Intelligent Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011);
Michael DePaul and Linda Zagzebski (eds.), Intellectual Virtue: Perspectives from Ethics and
Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Robert Roberts and W. Jay Wood,
Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2 Besides the Cappadocian Fathers, see Nemesius of Emesas survey of pagan moral psychology
in his De natura hominis, ed. Moreno Morani, Nemesii Emeseni de natura hominis (Leipzig:
Teubner, 1987).
3 The term is pervasive in Maximuss aretology. See Philipp Gabriel Renczes, Agir de
Dieu et la libert de lhomme: Recherches sur lanthropologie thologique de Saint Maxime
le Confesseur (Paris: Cerf, 2003), pp. 267-313.
4 E.g. Ambiguum 10 (PG 91:1172D-1173A). Maximus, like other patristic authors, prefers
blessedness () to eudaimonia. Note: Abbreviations of series of critical editions
of Maximuss and others works in this essay are thus: PG = Patrologia Graeca; CCSG =
Corpus Christianorum, Series Graeca; CCSL = Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina; SC =
Sources Chrtiennes; PTS = Patristische Texte und Studien; GNO = Gregorii Nysseni Opera.
5 E.g. Quaestiones ad Thalassium 40 (CCSG 7:271); 64 (CCSG 22:211).
6 See R. Wilken, The Lives of the Saints and the Pursuit of Virtue, in idem, Remembering
the Christian Past (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 121-44; D. Krueger, The Old
Testament and Monasticism, in Paul Magdalino and Robert Nelson (eds.), The Old Testament
in Byzantium (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), pp. 199-221.
7 On this intertextuality, see Francis Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian
Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 11, 97-99, 103.
Blowers 335

regularly eulogizes biblical saints and holds them up as paragons of the Christian virtues,8
just as Byzantine hagiography in his time was increasingly adept at shaping narratives of
recent saints according to biblical prototypes. The profile of the Christian ascetical or
philosophical sage, with virtues fully intact, was readily available to Maximus not only
from hagiographical traditions but from the works of Evagrius Ponticus.
All this is to establish that the moral wisdom tradition in Maximuss background was
devoted much more to formation () and practice () than ethical theory per
se, though it was not without a strong component of theoria () in the sense of
contemplative insight. And yet simply recounting Maximuss own ascetical instructions
on various Christian virtues and their associated practices would scarcely do justice to
the larger cosmological, anthropological, and most importantly christological framework
within which he understands the virtues to be cultivated. In what follows I propose to
sketch how a theory of virtue ethics might yet be abstracted from Maximus, as a major
architect of Eastern Orthodox theological ethics.9

Maximuss Cosmological (and Moral) Narrative

The privileged role ascribed to narrative in postmodern virtue ethics, especially in its
Christian articulation, stems from the conviction that moral goods are inseparable from
the virtuous pursuit ofor vicious aversion tothem in the teleological context of a
vita, a life storied by concrete moral testing and interlinking with the storied lives of
others.10 The dominant concern in patristic ethics is the larger moral and communal nar-
rative weaving together the lives of the Christian faithful and engrafting them into the
sacred story revealed in Scripture. Wayne Meeks has shown how early Christian ethics
took shape from within a christocentric and universalizing moral story in which the
faithful could identify.11 I have argued elsewhere that the rich patristic notion of a divine
oikonomia, the economy or strategy of the triune Gods self-revelation in creation and
redemption communicated through catechesis and liturgy, functioned at one level to
mark the dramatic elements and turning-points in the thick narrative that is sacred his-
tory.12 To identify the oikonomia as a narrative may appear strange, since in patristic

8 Especially the patriarchs and Moses as proto-ascetics: e.g. Amb. 10 (PG 91:1145C-1148A;
1200A-B); Qu. Thal. 17 (CCSG 7:111-115); 28 (p. 203); 47 (pp. 313-15); Quaestiones et
dubia 39 (CCSG 10:32-33). The apostles Peter (Qu. Thal. 27, CCSG 7:191-199) and Paul
(Qu. Thal. 37, CCSG 7:247-249) also qualify.
9 For a survey of Orthodox ethics, see Joseph Woodill, The Fellowship of Life: Virtue Ethics
and Orthodox Christianity (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1998), a book
marred only by scant attention to Maximus.
10 See MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 204-225.
11 Wayne Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press, 1993), pp. 189-210.
12 See Paul Blowers, Drama of the Divine Economy: Creator and Creation in Early Christian
Theology and Piety (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 97-98, 228, 263, 309, 311,
335, 338; idem, The Regula Fidei and the Narrative Character of Early Christian Faith, Pro
Ecclesia 6 (1997), pp. 199-228.
336 Studies in Christian Ethics 26(3)

thought the oikonomia entailed candidly metaphysical predications, whereas for us nar-
rative does not self-evidently lend itself to those kinds of claims.
But in Maximuss case I will justify this broadened definition of narrative, a defini-
tion that doubtless stretches it beyond the conventions of contemporary virtue ethics, on
two counts. First, in Maximus as in his much earlier predecessor Irenaeus of Lyons, the
oikonomiawhile the subject of ontological claims about Gods vertical condescen-
sion into space and timestill takes on a linear progression in terms of beginning
( ), dramatic middle (), and consummating end ().13 Maximuss sea-
soned summary of the oikonomia in his seventh Ambiguum is renowned for challenging
the Origenist myth, which depicted the economy as a drama of spiritual creatures (
) falling from eternal bliss into material corporeality and striving to recover their
primordial unity through the incarnate intervention of the one unfallen spirit, Jesus
Christ.14 Maximus corrects the Origenist cosmology by proposing that rational creatures
are a constant composite of spirit and matter who have a definite beginning in time, and
who move through their moral history en route toward a glorious and unprecedented end
(deification).15 Building especially on Irenaeus, Athanasius, and the Cappadocians, he
posits that creation has already been invested with the divine purpose sufficient to endure
and transcend the Adamic fall and its repercussions. Christ the Logos, who already co-
created the cosmos with the Father and the Spirit, encoded his ultimate will for rational
beings in the archetypal principles () informing each and every created thing. Much
like the rationes seminales in Augustine, Maximuss logoi represent the archetypal pat-
terns, ontologically and morally, according to which creatures are to fulfill their voca-
tion.16 More importantly, Maximus believes, the Logos has invested or incarnated
himself in these logoi such that they are the pledges of his own abiding presence and
resourcefulness in all rational creatures as they pursue their telos.17
The deep internal relation between Logos and logoi thus constitutes a kind of grid or
map of the outworking of divine providence in Maximuss cosmology. But on the con-
crete level of morality, the level of the or modes of existence in which creatures
actualize the freedom grounded in the logos of their particular natures, the logoi set the
stage for the suspenseful drama of dynamic interaction between Creator and creatures,

13 Capita theologica et oeconomica 1.4-5 (PG 90:1084B-1085A); 1.10 (1085D-1088A); 1.69

(1108C-D); Amb. 15 (PG 91:1217C-D); and on Christ himself as the beginning, middle, and
end, see Qu. Thal. 22 (CCSG 7:139); 19 (p. 119). On the metaphysics of beginning, middle,
and end, see Torstein Tollefsen, The Christocentric Cosmology of St. Maximus the Confessor
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 114-18.
14 See the especially relevant passages in Origens De principiis (SC 252:166-275);
2.9.1-8 (pp. 353-73); 3.1.1-24 (SC 268:16-150); (pp. 218-54).
15 Amb. 7 (PG 91:1068D-1101C); Cap. theol. et oec. 1.69 (PG 90:1085D-1088A). See Polycarp
Sherwood, The Earlier Ambigua of St. Maximus the Confessor and his Refutation of Origenism
(Rome: Herder, 1955); also Adam Cooper, The Body in St. Maximus the Confessor: Holy
Flesh, Wholly Deified (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 66-95.
16 For Maximuss doctrine of the Logos-logoi relation, see Amb. 7 (PG 91:1077C-10); Qu. Thal.
2 (CCSG 7:51). See also Tollefsen, Christocentric Cosmology, pp. 64-137; Blowers, Drama
of the Divine Economy, pp. 161-66.
17 See esp. Amb. 7 (PG 91:1077C); 33 (1285C-1288A).
Blowers 337

a moral drama mirrored within Scripture and still playing itself out in the churchs
This brings me to my second justification for calling the oikonomia a narrative. For
Maximus, the cosmic order undergirding Christian ethics is anchored in the peculiar nar-
rative of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word incarnate.18 More than any of his Byzantine for-
bears, possibly excepting Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus envisions the life, ministry,
passion, and glorification of Jesus narrated in the Gospels as key to the larger mystery
of cosmic salvation.19 The entire universal orderthe diversity of created natures, the
networks and hierarchies that bind together intelligible and sensible creation, the har-
mony of virtues that integrate and unify creatures in their proper modes of existence
finds its ultimate coherence in the concrete particularity of Jesus, since nowhere was the
Logoss bearing of the logoi of creation more evident than in his incarnation, when he
assumed all the vagaries of historical existence.20 Only the believer, says Maximus, who
through virtue and discipleship has come to grips with the mystery of Christs cross and
resurrection, has any hope of knowing the logoi and ultimate purpose of creation.21
Moreover, when he speaks of a natural law embedded in the fabric of creation, it never
stands on its own terms but is inextricably and irreducibly bound up with the written
law, that is, the scripturally narrated economy of salvation, and with the law of grace
perfectly embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.22 In this case Christian virtues may very well
exhibit a morality that is natural to humanity, but they spawn little more than random
acts of kindness or justice unless they are reconditioned and recontextualized as real
presences of Christ the Logos, who, being the substance of all the virtues, incarnates
and differentiates himself in the virtues of the Christian.23

18 See the incisive study of D. Yeago, Jesus of Nazareth and Cosmic Redemption: The
Relevance of St. Maximus the Confessor, Modern Theology 12 (1996), pp. 163-93.
19 On Jesus birth, baptism, and miracles, see esp. Amb. 42 (PG 91:1316A-1321D, 1145C-1149A);
5 (CCSG 48:22-23); specifically on his transfiguration, see Amb. 10 (PG 91:1125D-1133A);
on his passion, see esp. Opuscula theologica et polemica 6-7 (PG 91:65A-89B); and on the
cosmic repercussions of his ascension, see Amb. 41 (PG 91:1308D-1312B).
20 See esp. Qu. Thal. 60 (CCSG 22:73-81).
21 Capita theologica et oeconomica 1.66 (PG 90:1108A-B); cf. also Amb. 32 (PG
22 On the interplay of the three laws, see Qu. Thal. 19 (CCSG 7:119); 39 (p. 259); 64 (CCSG
22:233-237). See also Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe according
to Maximus the Confessor, trans. Brian Daley (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2003),
pp. 291-314; Paul Blowers, Exegesis and Spiritual Pedagogy in Maximus the Confessor:
An Investigation of the Quaestiones ad Thalassium (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre
Dame Press, 1991), pp. 117-22.
23 Amb. 7 (PG 91:1081D); Expositio orationis dominicae (CCSG 23:59); Capita de caritate
4.76 (PG 90:1068A); Qu. Thal. Prol. (CCSG 7:23); 41 (p. 281); 61 (CCSG 22:105). On virtue
as the flesh of the Logos, see Qu. Thal. 33 (CCSG 7:239-241); 40 (p. 273); cf. Evagrius, Ad
Monachos 118-120. On the Logoss proportional indwelling of the virtuous (1 Cor. 9:22),
see Qu. Thal. 47 (CCSG 7:325). For further analysis, see Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and
Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor, 2nd edn (Chicago, IL:
Open Court, 1995), pp. 323-30. On the Holy Spirits indwelling the virtuous, see Qu. Thal. 3
(CCSG 7:59); 7 (p. 75); 59 (CCSG 22:45-51).
338 Studies in Christian Ethics 26(3)

Transforming the Passible (and Desiring) Self into a

Virtuous Self
For Maximus, the human self as a moral subject and agent is both diachronic and syn-
chronic. The self is diachronic as always being the accretion of its pastthough not
primarily in the sense of a trajectory of personal formation, like Augustines self in the
Confessions, distended over a lifetime and struggling to be gathered into its true iden-
tity in God.24 Maximuss diachronic self is a person (u), to be sure, but a
person who, instantiating human nature () as a whole, carries the collective marks
of the history of that nature before and after the Adamic fall. It enjoys the endowments
of the image of God (intellect, reason, freedom, etc.).25 It has a logos, the natural
principle ( ) that predisposes the human being toward a final telos in
God, as well as the freedom to act within the parameters of that logos.26 But it also
bears the stigmata of human nature stunted by fallenness and disorientation (misdi-
rected desire, deviance of the passions, etc.).27 Whereas Origen had defined the rational
creature as a graduated composite of pure spirit ( or ), soul (), and
material body (), soul and body having been provisionally added to the spirit after
its primordial lapse, Maximus understands human nature from its inception-in-time to
have all three as constitutive and as created in integral relation to each other.28 And yet
Maximus affirms the souls mediating function between spirit and body, as well as the
Platonic hierarchy of the soul comprising reason () and the lower drives of desire
() and temper ().29
What I want to call the synchronic self in Maximus is the self-conscious moral
agent, which at any given point in time finds itself in an immediate existential condition
(),30 the subject of an acquired configuration of dispositions and habits, with
a mixed record of virtues and vices and a conscience to varying degrees tainted and con-
victed. In ascetical terms, this is the self constantly on the threshold of assimilation to

24 Confessiones 11.29.39 (CCSL 27:214-215).

25 Maximus, like Origen, distinguishes the image () and likeness () of God in
Gen. 1:26-27, considering the former an endowed gift and the latter the dynamic vocation
of assimilation to Gods virtues. See Amb. 7 (PG 91:1084A, 1092B); Cap. car. 3.25 (PG
90:1024B-C); Qu. et dub. III,1 (CCSG 10:170). See also Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator,
pp. 113-29; Jean-Claude Larchet, La divinisation de lhomme selon Maxime le Confesseur
(Paris: Cerf, 1996), pp. 161-65.
26 On this logos of nature, which is typically distinguished from a creatures mode of existence
( u), see esp. Amb. 7 (PG 91:1077C-1080A, 1080C); 42 (1341D-1344A,
1345A-C); Expos. orat. dom. (CCSG 23:65, 69). Cf. Qu. Thal. 47 (CCSG 7:321), on how the
mind () must teach the corporeal faculties to function by their .
27 Qu. Thal. Prol. (CCSG 7:29-37); 21 (pp. 127-29); 42 (pp. 85-89); 61 (pp. 85-97).
28 See e.g. Amb. 7 (PG 91:1089D-1101C); 42 (1321D-1325C).
29 See esp. Amb. 10 (PG 91:1196C-1197D), which depends on Nemesius, De natura homimis
15-22 (ed. Morani, pp. 72-82); also Amb. 10 (PG 91:1193D-1196A), noting how the
intellectual soul (i.e. + ) mediates more broadly between divine and empirical
30 E.g. Qu. Thal. 3 (CCSG 7:55); cf. his similar use of in Qu. Thal. 21 (p. 127).
Blowers 339

God,31 which Maximus in one place sees exemplified in the figure of Moses, a proto-
ascetic struggling at this threshold where the only way forward is perpetual striving
toward virtue, since immobility in virtue is the beginning of vice.32 In Maximuss ascet-
icism, the synchronic self perennially strives to take ownership of the diachronic self,
using and aligning all the natural faculties, even in their stunted condition, to cultivate
virtue and spiritual knowledge, thus putting the inner house in order, which always
entails, simultaneously, the healthy realignment of moral relations with other created
Both in its diachronic and synchronic dimensions, the moral self is a passible self.
Passibility ( ) is a complex notion in Maximus. Negatively it signals humanitys
postlapsarian condition, its susceptibility to pain and suffering, to deviant passions or
emotions, and ultimately to death itself.33 But even more basically and positively for
Maximus, there is the passibility that consists in created natures utter ontological
dependence on the Creators gracious activity (), which funds creatures own
potency (), actuality (), and movement ().34 This includes the
creatures passivity to its own engrained desire (; ) for God. Since crea-
tures are not self-moved, creaturely desire is secured and ultimately sated only in relation
to its divine telos.35 Though Maximus uses the language of natural desire and will, such
as found perfection in Christ the New Adam,36 he also concurs with Gregory of Nyssa
and Dionysius the Areopagite that there is a deep passion or eros at the core of the crea-
ture that launches and energizes the whole passible self, preparing it for ecstatic union
with God.37
So how precisely does this passible self become a virtuous self? I propose that there
are three major protocols for the cultivation of virtue in Maximuss ascetical teaching,
each of which will warrant closer analysis. First is the discipline of targeting appropriate
ends, or goods, since virtues are, as in Aristotle, teleologically constituted and directed.
This involves sanctified reason but also a deeper seeing or contemplation () of
the self and of the salutary order embedded in the logoi of all things, as well as develop-
ing a practical wisdom () that merges contemplation and practice (). A
second protocol is the appropriate reconditioning of human desire and the beneficial
use of the passible faculties and the emotions themselves, since emotion factors

31 Thunberg (Microcosm and Mediator, pp. 231-330) has outlined Maximuss spiritual
anthropology in terms of a threshold between disintegration through the passions and
reintegration through the virtues.
32 Qu. Thal. 17 (CCSG 7:111-115, quoted at p. 115). Cf. Gregory of Nyssa, De vita Moysis lib.
1 (GNO 7.1:3).
33 E.g. Qu. Thal. 61 (CCSG 22:85-87).
34 Amb. 7 (PG 91:1069B-1073D); 20 (1237D). On Maximuss positive conception of creaturely
passivity, see also Larchet, La divinisation de lhomme, pp. 540-45; V. Cvetkovic, St.
Maximus on and in Ambiguum 7, in Jane Baun et al. (eds.), Studia Patristica
48 (Leuven: Peeters, 2010), pp. 95-103.
35 Amb. 7 (PG 91:1069B-C, 1072B-D, 1073C-D, 1076C-1077B, 1089B).
36 See Qu. Thal. 42 (CCSG 7:285-289); 54 (p. 459).
37 For further analysis, see P. Blowers, The Dialectics and Therapeutics of Desire in Maximus
the Confessor, Vigiliae Christianae 65 (2011), pp. 425-51.
340 Studies in Christian Ethics 26(3)

decisively into the habituation of virtues. Third, the cultivation of virtue presupposes a
moral-communal context marked by relations of accountability, the traditioning of moral
wisdom, and the imitation of those already advanced in Christian virtues (on all of which
points Maximus clearly presages postmodern virtue ethics).

Intellectual Judgment and Contemplation

Virtue is a matter of seeing well, not just doing well. While Maximus hardly believes
that only the most spiritually astute Christian (the gnostikos) can exercise sufficient
insight and foresight to cultivate virtue, he does assume that a maturing intellectual
judgment is requisite for determining the appropriate ends that govern the virtuous life
and ones particular moral acts. Much of the real mental labor in turn consists in con-
forming the mediate ends of the particular mental, volitional, and practical operations
that cumulatively make up that virtuous life to its indisputably supreme end, the triune
God. Even if this supreme telos is encoded in the very nature of a human being, and is
discernible through reason and contemplation, the mind even of the advanced ascetic
is invariably beclouded by distracting thoughts (), errant representations
() of reality, demonically-inspired barrages of passion, and habitual vices.38
Maximuss debt here to Evagrius and the wisdom of desert eremitism is profound. The
mind () must cut through this psychological morass, overcome its alienation from
itself, and see everything, within the soul and without, in the perspective of divine
wisdom.39 Such requires, at bottom, the cultivation of virtues at the level of perception
itself, such as self-mastery (), and especially prudence (), which
Maximus dubs the foundation of reason and the very act and manifestation of
wisdom,40 just as virtue itself is the concrete realization (u) of this wisdom
and wisdom is the essence of virtue.41 Such wisdom requires taking command of
sense experience () and the individual senses from the inside out. Every pas-
sion, he writes, is invariably an interconnected composite of a sensible object, sense

38 As attested throughout Maximuss Cap. car., Liber asceticus, Qu. Thal., and Qu. et dub.
Good overviews of Maximuss instruction on these ascetical challenges are Thunberg,
Microcosm and Mediator, pp. 231-84; and Walther Vlker, Maximus Confessor als Meister
des geistlichen Lebens (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1965).
39 Cap. car. 1.96 (PG 90:981C), 1.100 (981D-984A); Myst. 5 (CCSG 69:21-31). See also A.
N. Williams, The Divine Sense: The Intellect in Patristic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2007), pp. 190-231, for background on Greek monastic notions of the
intellects functions.
40 Mystagogia 5 (CCSG 69:25-26, 28); cf. Cap. car. 2.26 (PG 90:992B-C), referring prudence
to the practical (), and knowledge to the contemplative () life of the
Christian. On the intellectual virtues in Maximus, see F. Aquino, The Philokalia and
Regulative Virtue Epistemology: A Look at Maximus the Confessor, in Brock Bingaman
and Bradley Nassif (eds.), The Philokalia: Exploring the Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 240-51; idem, Maximus the Confessor, in
Paul Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakley (eds.), The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western
Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 104-120.
41 Secunda epistula ad Thomam, Prol. (CCSG 48:37).
Blowers 341

itself, and a natural facultyirascibility (), desire (), or even reason

() deviated from its natural function. By a kind of intro-circumspection, the
mind can nonetheless contemplate the true synthetic end ( ) of
the sensible object, sense itself, and the implicated faculty, and thus remove the souls
impassioned disposition so as to see all of these clearly according to their natural
purpose, which also has the effect of clarifying the image of God within the mind
itself.42 Self-knowledge and the contemplation of the external nature of things are of a
The mind in this process is thus no passive receptor. Its seeing is active, probing,
discerning, which is more plausible on the analogy of ancient notions of physical optics,
whereby vision went out from the eyes like a beam and returned again with percep-
tions.43 But, like other ascetics of his time, Maximus knew that physical sight, with its
moral precariousness, could muddle clear intellectual vision.44 In order to see through to
appropriate moral ends, the minds eye requires its own conditioning, not only by intel-
lectual virtues like prudence but even more basically by faith itself, which Maximus calls
true knowledge from undemonstrated principles, since it is the substance of realities that
are beyond intelligence and reason (cf. Heb. 11:1).45 Faith provides the mind its bear-
ings as it contemplates the profoundly diverse logoi of created things and begins to
fathom the Creators economy and ones place within that economy. Rather than simply
scoping out evidences of a Creator, natural contemplation is a sanctified intuition of the
strategy of divine activity, providence, and judgment, and of the intended relations
among created beings. The goal of natural contemplation, which stops short of direct
knowledge of the Creator,46 is the cosmic perspective or spiritual vision necessary to
form virtues.47 The contemplation of Scripture ( ), moreover, is bound up
with natural contemplation both because Scripture contains the so-called logoi of the
commandments,48 the deeper divine instruction of the Logos immanent in the various
virtues,49 and because Scripture narrates how virtue and knowledge have been concretely
embodied by exemplary saints.

42 Qu. Thal. 16 (CCSG 7:109).

43 See Nemesius, De natura hominis 7 (ed. Morani, pp. 57-62).
44 Cap. car. 2.53 (PG 90:1001C).
45 Cap. theol. et oec. 1.9 (PG 90:1085C-D); cf. also Qu. Thal. 33 (CCSG 7:229-231); Myst. 5
(CCSG 69:25-26).
46 See Cap. car. 3.45 (PG 90:1029B-C): Virtues are based on knowledge of created beings;
knowledge is based on a knower; the knower depends on him who is unknowably known, him
who himself knows beyond all knowledge.
47 Maximus frequently pairs the logoi grasped by contemplation with the tropoi, or modes, of
the virtues: e.g. Qu. Thal. 51 (CCSG 7:397, 399-401, 407); 52 (pp. 425-27); 54 (pp. 457,
461); 56 (CCSG 22:9, 11). On Maximuss doctrine of interconnected natural and scriptural
contemplation, see Blowers, Exegesis and Spiritual Pedagogy, pp. 137-45.
48 E.g. Qu. Thal. 54 (CCSG 7:461). He also speaks often of the logoi of the virtues grounded in
the natural order or law: e.g. Qu. Thal. 25 (CCSG 7:163); 34 (p. 235); 54 (p. 463); 55 (p. 497).
49 Qu. Thal. 47 (CCSG 7:319); and above, note 23. The self-differentiation of the Logos in the
virtues is also his active procession () into the commandments (Qu. Thal. 62, CCSG
342 Studies in Christian Ethics 26(3)

This simultaneity of practicing the virtues and contemplating their underlying reality
is accented in a comment of Maximus on the seven spirits of Isa. 11:2-3:

We go from abstention from evils through fear to the practice of the virtues by strength; from
the practices of the virtues to the discretion of counsel; from discretion to the habitus () of
the virtues, or knowledge-by-experience (); from the habitus of the virtues to the
knowledge () of the principles () in the virtues; from this knowledge to the habitus
transformed to the principles so known, which is the same as understanding; and from this
understanding to the simple, precise contemplation of universal truth Ascending through the
eyes of faith, or illuminations, we are drawn together toward the divine unity of wisdom. And
we ourselves gather this differentiation of gifts, which was instituted for us, together with the
particular ascents in the virtues, toward the [divine] Cause of those gifts, and, in cooperation
with God, neglect none of them, lest by becoming gradually negligent, we make our faith blind
and sightless, devoid of illuminations by the Spirit through our works50

Integrating contemplation and moral praxis () or performance requires, in

Maximuss view, the mediating role of reason. He recurs to the Christianized Stoic con-
cept of right reason ( ) such as judges the proper use () of all things,
beginning with ones thoughts of those things.51 Just as the divine Logos governs the
movements of beings within the macrocosm of creation, sanctified reason umpires the
different movements and functions within the microcosm of the soul, and serves, in
Maximuss evocative description, as the interpreter and exegete of the virtues.52 This is
because moral acts require not only right ends but also right motives and intentions,
which must be continuously and scrupulously tested.53 Even agap-love can become
culpable if not properly motivated and oriented.54

Emotion and the Cultivation of Virtue

In English colloquial usage, many virtues sound simply like healthy emotional states.
The Christian virtues that Maximus sees comprehended under the supreme virtue of
lovehope, humility, meekness, self-mastery, patience, longsuffering, kindness,
peace, joy55all conjure up not simply dispositions of character but identifiable emo-
tions. Rosiland Hursthouse notes that a virtue, as a deeply entrenched disposition to act
in a certain way, actually presupposes a host of interrelated activities: emotions and

50 Qu. Thal. 54 (CCSG 7:463). On the mutual insinuation of virtuous practice () and
contemplation (), see also Qu. Thal. 58 (CCSG 22:31).
51 Cap. car. 1.92 (PG 90:981B); 2.73 (1008A-B); 3.1 (1017B).
52 Capita theol et oec. 1.14 (PG 90:1098C). On reasons agency in virtue, see also Qu. Thal. 16
(CCSG 7:105); 18 (p. 117); 54 (pp. 445, 461, 493); 55 (p. 497).
53 Cf. Cap. car. 2.9 (PG 90:985C-D); 2.32 (993D-996A); 2.37 (996D); 3.48 (1032A). Maximus
presumes a virtue can have a whole mishmash of concurrent motives, good and bad (Cap. car.
3.77, 1041A).
54 Cap. car. 3.71 (PG 90:1037C-D). This is also true of good works (fasting, almsgiving, etc.)
that can be surreptitiously motivated by vainglory: Cap. car. 2.35 (996C).
55 See Ep. 2 (PG 91:393C-396B).
Blowers 343

emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expecta-

tions and sensibilities. To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain
complex mindset.56 For Aristotle too, she suggests,

The virtues (and vices) are all dispositions not only to act, but to feel emotions, as reactions as
well as impulses to action In the person with the virtues, these emotions will be felt on the
right occasion, toward the right people or objects, for the right reasons57

Aristotle, and later on the Stoics who critically built on his virtue ethics, aspired to intel-
lectual techniques to identify, modulate, and control emotions, and patristic moralists,
including Maximus, were well aware of these.58 While Stoics and Platonists had debated
whether emotions are diseases of the soul, misfiring judgments of the mind, or inevitable
registers of the souls passible faculties () of desire and temper, Maximus, like
the Cappadocians and Evagrius before him, saw relative value in all these definitions,
and concurred with the Stoic axiom that the mind is morally responsible for the emotions
and that emotions can have moral value determined by their trajectory or end.59 This is
fairly simple to see in the case of the vicious passions, or vices, in which the passible
faculties cheat their natural function for the sake of an illicit or illusory end. Envy is a
good example, and was for patristic moralists a particularly deadly passion, in which
reason permits the desiring faculty to pursue violence (attitudinal or physical) against the
one envied, as if that will bring the pleasure of assuaging the emotional distress ()
of resenting her for the good she is enjoying.60 Virtues, on the other hand, require not
only morally worthy ends, but the sustained conditioning of the passible faculties to elicit
healthy projections of desire or aversion; and for Christian theologians like Maximus this
entailed not only the intellectual preempting of unhealthy passions, or the trickle down
effect of the minds own stability, but also the ground up ascetical disciplines of psalm-
ody, prayer, and acts of self-mortification such as fasting.61
Maximus gives substantial attention to the inner processes by which virtue, as a habi-
tus () or disposition () of the soul, focuses the will and uses the passible
faculties well. Even though passions or emotions by definition indicate something the
soul experiences or suffers, and over which it often has no immediate control, the core
faculties that underlie themviz. desire () and irascibility ()can be
trained, aligned, and reoriented so as to provide the needed affect that textures and

56 Virtue Ethics, 2, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/

57 Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, p. 108; emphasis original.
58 See Richard Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitations to Christian
Temptations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
59 See P. Blowers, Gentiles of the Soul: Maximus the Confessor on the Substructure and
Transformation of the Human Passions, Journal of Early Christian Studies 4 (1996), pp.
60 See P. Blowers, Envys Narrative Scripts: Cyprian, Basil, and the Monastic Sages on the
Anatomy and Healing of the Invidious Emotions, Modern Theology 25 (2009), pp. 21-43.
61 E.g., Cap. car. 1.45 (PG 90:969A); 2.70 (1005D-1008A); 3.13 (1020C-D); 3:50 (1032B);
4.48 (1058C-D).
344 Studies in Christian Ethics 26(3)

enriches moral action.62 Charity, for example, requires a particular quality of mercy,
something well beyond what pagans meant when they described pity (a point to which
I shall return). Under the guidance of graced reason, the passible faculties could actually
help to interpret and embrace the good. As Martha Nussbaum has noted within ancient
theories of emotion, emotions could be viewed not as pure disturbances or blind surges
of affect but as having a certain moral intelligence or vision of their own.63
Maximus understands the role of the passions or emotions in the cultivation of virtue
and virtuous acts in terms of the challenge of dialectically negotiating the complexity of
human passibility and seeking clarity amid its ambiguous moral status. Aristotle had
understood this ambiguity vis--vis the position of the emotions on the borderland
between the rational and irrational (animal) soul.64 But as I explained earlier regarding
the diachronic self in Maximus, the moral agent is a composite of the prelapsarian self,
whose reason, passible faculties, and free will have been ordered according to an original
or natural integrity and interconnection, and the postlapsarian self in which these facul-
ties, stunted by Adamic sin, function in a fallen mode ().

The Dialectics of Human Passibility in Maximus the Confessor

Creator (impassible)

Creature natural prelapsarian passibility

postlapsarian passibility body as agent of souls healthy desire healthy, virtuous emotions
(gnomic volition/desire, )
body as agent of souls deviant desire unhealthy, vicious passions Deification

natural will

gnomic will as servant of natural will/desire

as servant of self-centered will/desire (self-love)

The chart above shows the structural tensions and teleological vectors in Maximuss
doctrine of human passibility. He spends little time dwelling on the prelapsarian state of
human nature. Though by his original constitution Adam enjoyed a sublime passibility, a
capacity for uninterrupted spiritual pleasure, the instant he came into being he abused it,
thus orienting the passible faculties to fallacious goods and thrusting his human posterity
into an experiential dialectic of illusory pleasure () and multifaceted pain ().65
As a consequence, natural human desire and free will have deviated into a gnomic
mode ( ), meaning that, loosed from their natural function, they have fallen

62 On the good use of the passible faculties (along with the will), see Expos. orat. dom. (CCSG
23:55-56); Cap. car. 2.75 (PG 90:1008C); 3.3 (1017C). Maximus sums up (Qu. Thal. 39,
CCSG 7:259) the cooperation in which reason is used to seek, the desiring faculty to long
after, and the incensive faculty to struggle in pursuit of worthy ends.
63 Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 38, 369; see also her Upheavals of
Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp.
64 See Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, pp. 110-13.
65 Qu. Thal. 58 (CCSG 22:27-37); 61 (CCSG 22:85-89).
Blowers 345

into a pattern of obscured vision, private judgment of good and evil, and vacillation in
determining and willing worthy ends.66
Maximus nonetheless sees a unique providence operative here. Formally, he defines
as appetency internally predisposed ( ) toward that which is in our
moral power ( ), and the basis of our free choice (), or also as a disposi-
tion () toward those things in our moral power on which we have deliberated with a
desirous urge ( ).67 It is more in his later works, where he is keen on
recovering the absolute priority of natural human desire and will, that Maximus accentu-
ates the culpable dimension of , virtually equating it with vacillation or moral myopia
and denying its presence in Christ. Meanwhile, precisely the ambiguity of gnomic desire
and volition ironically signals their moral potentiality. As our Adamic inheritance,68
is what we immediately experience in our mundane life as free will, and presumes the need
to form good decisions and to learn to make virtuous choices. Deliberation over what is
good goes with the existential territory, even for the virtuous. Particularly in his earlier
works devoted to spiritual doctrine, therefore, Maximus affirms a beneficial deployment of
gnomic desire and will,69 and in these works credits Jesus himself with having perfected the
gnomic mode during his earthly ministry (something he famously retracted in his later chris-
tological writings).70 How could Jesus model virtue unless he fully appropriated the human
conditions for its realization? One lucid example is the gnomic mode of the emotion of fear,
technically defined as the desiring faculty anticipating an apparent danger or shame.71 Jesus
rescued this emotion in its gnomic mode from degenerating purely into a function of self-
interest and, in his Passion, converted it into a voluntary fear ready to face death with
resolve, this because he commanded his fear with a philanthropic disposition (
).72 In the utter passivity of his suffering servanthood (Phil. 2:7) he exercised an
active disposition ( ) enabling him to rule the carnal passions.73
In view of Jesus perfect reorientation of gnomic desire and will, Maximus envisions
the possibility for a broad array of human emotions to be enlisted in service of virtue. If
emotions are embodied expressions of natural passible faculties, albeit deviated into a
gnomic mode, they can still be used well, or more specifically, redirected to aid natural
desire and will in pursuing salutary ends. Referencing the four cardinal passions from
Stoic tradition, Maximus writes:

66 On as a legacy of the fall, see Amb. 8 (PG 91:1104A); as punitive, see Qu. Thal. 62
(CCSG 22:123).
67 Opusc. theol. et polem. 1 (PG 91:17C). See also Renczes, Agir de Dieu et la libert de
lhomme, pp. 271-81; Blowers, Dialectics and Therapeutics, pp. 435-36.
68 On as a legacy of Adams transgression, see Qu. Thal. 21 (CCSG 7:127-129); Ep. 2
(PG 91:396D-397A).
69 E.g. Cap. car. 1.25 (PG 90:965B); 4.90 (1069C); Expos. orat. dom. (CCSG 23:34); Ep. 2 (PG
91:396C-D, 400A-B); Qu. Thal. 55 (CCSG 7:511-513).
70 For its presence in Christ, see e.g. Expos. orat. dom. (CCSG 23:34); later retracted in Opusc.
theol. et polem. 3 (PG 91:56A-D); 16 (192B-C); Disputatio cum Pyrrho (PG 91:308C-309A,
71 See Amb. 10 (PG 1197B) Nemesius, De nat. hom. 21 (ed. Morani, pp. 81-82).
72 Expos. orat. dom. (CCSG 23:35); Disp. Pyrr. (PG 91:297B-300A).
73 Amb. 4 (CCSG 48:15-16), citing Gregory Nazianzen in Orationes 30 and 38.
346 Studies in Christian Ethics 26(3)

The passions...become good in those who are spiritually earnest once they have wisely separated
them from corporeal objects and used them to gain possession of heavenly things. For instance,
they can turn desire () into the appetitive movement of the minds longing for divine
things, or pleasure () into the unadulterated joy of the mind when enticed toward divine
gifts, or fear () into cautious concern for imminent punishment for sins committed, or
grief () into corrective repentance of a present evil. In short, we can compare this with the
wise physicians who remove the existing or festering infection of the body using the poisonous
beast, the viper. The spiritually earnest use the passions to destroy a present or anticipated evil,
and to embrace and hold to virtue and knowledge.74

As the souls two passible drives are capable of producing manifold passions or emo-
tional states, in which there is a psychological hierarchy of relations,75 there are also
multiple prospects for using these emotions virtuously or viciously, despite the vul-
nerability of human affections. Like the Cappadocians and Evagrius, for example,
Maximus seizes on anger, the primary expression of the incensive faculty (), as
useful for galvanizing moral resolve and for fervency in clinging to good.76 He gives
more attention, however, to the desiring faculty (; ), since the
diverse aspects of desire profoundly condition the manifestation of love, the begin-
ning and end of all the virtues, which cuts across all of the levels of the soul and of
the soulbody relationship, healing and reintegrating all the faculties in the pursuit of
virtue.77 Maximus thoroughly interweaves the erotic and agapeistic dimensions of
love, often treating them as inextricable.78 Not only ers but even agap he calls a
blessed passion ( ) indispensable to deification.79 Ers is not a
purely acquisitive appetite for the ultimate satisfaction of the souls aspiration. It has
a providential purpose.80 It names the souls deep longing for transcendence and
ecstasy, yes, but not apart from the refiners fire of ascetical training, through which
human desire is tested and rarefied. Passionate communion ( )
with God also presupposes a lateral communion, an infallible pleasure (
) and indivisible union, among all those who share this erotic grace.81 In one
of the scholia on Dionysius ascribed to Maximus, he even speaks of the cosmic

74 Qu. Thal. 1 (CCSG 7:47-49); trans. Paul Blowers and Robert Wilken, On the Cosmic Mystery
of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor (Crestwood, NY: St.
Vladimirs Seminary Press, 2003), p. 98 (emphasis added).
75 See Amb. 10 (PG 91:1196C-1197D).
76 Cf. Capitum quinquies centenorum centuria 3.54 (PG 90:1284B-C); Cap. car. 2.48 (PG
90:1000C-D); 4.15 (1052A); Exp. orat. dom. (CCSG 23:58); Qu. Thal. 49 (CCSG 7:355).
77 See Blowers, Dialectics and Therapeutics, pp. 434-42.
78 E.g. Cap. car. 1.10 (PG 90:964A); 2.48 (100C-D). Maximus approvingly quotes Dionysius
the Areopagites assertion that the theologians sometimes call God himself Ers, other times
Agap, because he is the beauty and goodness that attract human yearning and love (Amb. 23,
PG 91:1260B-C, citing Dionysius, De divinis nominibus 4.14, PTS 33:160).
79 Cap. car. 3.67 (PG 90:1037A-B); also 3.71 (1037C-D).
80 Amb. 8 (PG 91:1104C).
81 Qu. Thal. 54 (CCSG 7:451). On Christs display of this unifying on a cosmic scale, see
Amb. 41 (PG 91:1308B).
Blowers 347

character of this erotic communion, the ers that passes from God, to the angels, to
Christians, and even to irrational and inanimate creatures.82
For Maximus, numerous passions or emotions can become virtues through good use,
and edify and enrich the outworking of love as the archetypal virtue.83 Some of these are
considered only marginally or provisionally virtuous in Greco-Roman moral philosophy.
Hope, for instance, was for Stoics a throwaway emotion useful only to philosophical
novices,84 whereas Maximus cherished it as vital along with the other theological vir-
tues.85 Grief (), a shattering emotion for Stoics that demanded precise methods of
modulation (), was claimed by Maximus, like other ascetics of his time, as
transmutable into godly sorrow for sin, a sine qua non of repentance.86 Mercy (),
which endured in pagan tradition as occasionally meritorious but never intrinsically vir-
tuous, and which Stoics criticized because we customarily pity persons for misfortunes
outside their control that have no moral consequence, took on a whole new life in patris-
tic ethics.87 Gregory Nazianzen, one of Maximuss theological heroes, called mercy,
especially deep compassion (u) for the poor, the supreme manifestation of
agap.88 Maximus amplifies the properly empathetic dimension of this mercy, calling it
voluntary self-identification ( ) with another who suffers, and
treating it as a consummately deifying virtue.89

The Formation of Virtue within Christian (and Human) Community

The reorientation of human desire and free will requisite for the formation of Christian
virtue is unimaginable for Maximus apart from imitation, accountability, compassion,
and traditioned moral wisdom within communities, monastic and ecclesial. His asceti-
cism presupposes the Eastern desert tradition, where the wisdom of the elders was passed
on, through aphorisms and object lessons, to monastic disciples held in rigorous account
for their every thought and action. Maximuss Liber Asceticus (Exposition of the Ascetic

82 Schol in Dion. div. nom. 15 (PG 4:268C-269A). On this text and the centrality of ers in
Maximuss vision of creaturely community, see Christos Yannaras, Person and Eros (trans.
Norman Russell; Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2007), pp. 120-22.
83 See P. Blowers, Hope for the Passible Self: The Use and Transformation of the Human
Passions in the Fathers of the Philokalia, in Bingaman and Nassif, The Philokalia, pp. 216-
29, esp. pp. 224-27.
84 See Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind, p. 235, citing Seneca, Ep. 101.10; De beneficiis
85 E.g. Cap. car. 1.2-3 (PG 90:961B); Qu. Thal. 49 (CCSG 7:353).
86 See Ep. 4 (PG 91:413A-420C); Qu. Thal. 58 (CCSG 22:37). Maximus dubs compunction
the mother of virtues (Ep. 4, PG 91:413B), humility as well (Ep. 37, 632B)all without
subverting the primacy of love ().
87 For discussion, see P. Blowers, Pity, Empathy, and the Tragic Spectacle of Human Suffering:
Exploring the Emotional Culture of Compassion in Late Ancient Christianity, Journal of
Early Christian Studies 18 (2010), pp. 1-27, at pp. 5-9.
88 Oratio 14.5 (PG 35:864B).
89 Myst. 24 (CCSG 69:67-68). See also Blowers, Pity, Empathy, and the Tragic Spectacle, pp.
348 Studies in Christian Ethics 26(3)

Life), a work fashioned in the genre of monastic conferences elsewhere exemplified in

the Apophthegmata patrum and the Collationes of John Cassian, sets forth the instruc-
tions of an elder sage in dialogue with a younger disciple. Lying behind this genre, the
rich young rulers paradigmatic question to Jesus (Matt. 19:16-22 and par.) was often
rephrased by monks in the Apophthegmata as What must I do to be saved?echoing
the axiom that monastic philosophia was a royal road to salvation, not just virtuosity.
Maximuss monastic disciple opens the dialogue of the Liber Asceticus, I beseech you,
father, what was the purpose () of the Lords incarnation?followed by What
commandments ought I to perform, that I may be saved?90 The abbas subsequent
instruction frames the life of monastic virtue in terms of the imitation of Christ, a well-
worn theme in patristic ethics to which Maximus adds his realist mysticism, his convic-
tion that Christ the Logos not only sanctions and models the virtues but also incarnates
himself in the logoi of the commandments to virtue.
Maximus takes for granted that the imitation of Christ plays out, communally, in obe-
dience to the abbot, or, in the ecclesial context, to the bishop, as well as in the emulation
of biblical saints and martyrs. But first there is the much larger, macrocosmic perspec-
tive. Indeed, the whole of creation is pre-designed to be a matrix of assimilation to the
Trinity. Maximus thoroughly embraces Dionysius the Areopagites vision of the world
(and of the cosmos mirrored in biblical revelation) as a grand theatre of cosmic mime-
sis, in which lower creatures imitate the virtues of higher creatures (including angels and
heavenly beings) by a graceful, proportional, and worshipful hierarchy encompassing
sensible and intelligible creation alike.91 At this macrocosmic level, Maximus imagines
all creatures, in their diverse levels and stations, to be summoned to the imitation of
Gods virtues and to the surrender () of their personal, gnomic will to the
work of God within and among them.92 Lovethe cosmic virtuedescending into its
multiple forms and converting the fragmented, individuated wills of all creatures, brings
about the universal transformation.93 In his encomium on love, Maximus writes:

For nothing is more truly Godlike than divine love, nothing more mysterious, nothing more apt
to raise human beings up to deification. For it has gathered together in itself all good things that
are recounted by the logos of truth in the form of virtue, and it has absolutely no relation to
anything that has the form of wickedness, since it is the fulfillment of the law and prophets. For
they were succeeded by the mystery of love, which out of human beings makes us gods, and
reduces the individual commandments to a universal meaning (logos). Everything is
circumscribed by love according to Gods good pleasure in a single form, and love is dispensed
in many forms in accordance with Gods economy.94

90 Lib. ascet. (CCSG 40:5, 7).

91 Cap. car. 3.33 (PG 90:1028B); 3.80 (1041B), on the influence of divine and angelic ;
3.94 (1045B); Amb. 37 (PG 91:1293A-1296D).
92 Amb. 7 (PG 91:1076B), describing the gnomic surrender ( ) of creatures
to God; cf. Qu. Thal. 2 (CCSG 7:51); Ep. 2 (PG 91:396C).
93 Qu. Thal. 40 (CCSG 7:269-271), calling love the most universal virtue ( ),
which works in concert with reason, the most universal natural faculty (
94 Ep. 2 (PG 91:393B-C), trans. Andrew Louth in Maximus the Confessor (London: Routledge,
1996), pp. 85-86.
Blowers 349

The immediate focus of Maximuss teaching on love and the formation of virtue, how-
ever, is their cultivation within the microcosm of the human person and human commu-
nity, be it the monastery, the church, or social interactions beyond sacred precincts. The
internal integrity of the human microcosm is altogether bound up with the state of ones
relationships. Nowhere is this more evident than in Maximuss treatment of apatheia
(), dispassion, which he knew from Evagrius and others to be the consummate
ascetical virtue of rising above the fray of passions. Maximus envisions apatheia more
robustly and positively as a virtue of the well-ordered soul that has used the passions to
good purpose and fixed the hearts desire on the love of God and neighbor. Apatheia is
not, then, just a state of serenity or detachment at the end of ascetical combat but the very
condition out of which virtue and love arise and thrive.95 Indeed, it is not a personal
achievement but a grace operative in the synthesis of individual ascetical discipline and
social intercourse.
Within the intimacy of Christian friendship, ones virtues are more immediately in
evidence and more rapidly brought to fruition.96 The real test of the integrity of love and
virtue is the struggleprobably the most salient in Maximuss entire ethicsto over-
come illicit self-love,97 and to love all persons equally.98 The struggle is heightened if we
recall that love subsumes the other virtues as well, and, in the context of any one relation-
ship, bears the weight of cosmic reconciliation. Equal love is first and foremost an imita-
tion of Gods own indiscriminate and philanthropic love,99 but it is also the key agent for
healing the displaced desires and fragmented inclinations () that alienate crea-
tures from one another.100 Loves scope is not only moral but also ontological, since it
works under divine providence to assuage the bodily as well as existential inequalities
among human beings, and to recover their natural equality and kinship.101 This is how
Maximus understands the apostle Pauls admonition in 2 Cor. 8:14 for Christians to fill
up others deficiencies with their own abundances. Such cannot be exclusively a matter
of almsgiving or eleemosynary acts; it requires the full panoply of virtues arising from
prudent, well-ordered, and compassionately disposed selves.

Concluding my attempt to abstract a theory of virtue ethics from Maximus the
Confessor, let me return to Rosiland Hursthouses deduction from Aristotle and other

95 See esp. Cap. car. 1.2 (PG 90:961B); 1.25 (965B); 2.30 (993B); 4.91 (1069D).
96 Cap. car. 3.79 (PG 90:1041B); 4.93 (1072A); 4.99 (1072D).
97 A major theme in Maximus, since self-love is the matrix of all deviant passions: cf. Qu. Thal.
Prol. (CCSG 7:33); 40 (p. 271); Cap. car. 2.8 (PG 90:985C); 2.59 (1004B); also Thunberg,
Microcosm and Mediator, pp. 232-48.
98 E.g. Lib. ascet. (CCSG 40:19-23); Cap. car. 1.17 (PG 90:964D); 1.25 (965B); 1.71 (976B-C);
2.10 (985D-988A).
99 Liber ascet. (CCSG 40:23-35); Cap. car. 1.25 (PG 90:965B); 1.61 (973A).
100 Cap. car. 1.71 (PG 90:976B-C); Ep. 2 (PG 91:396C-D, 400A-B); Ep. 3 (408D-409A).
101 Amb. 8 (PG 91:1105A-B); Ep. 2 (PG 91:400A-B). See also P. Blowers, Bodily Inequality,
Material Chaos, and the Ethics of Equalization in Maximus the Confessor, in Frances Young
et al. (eds.), Studia Patristica 42 (Leuven: Peeters Press, 2006), pp. 51-56.
350 Studies in Christian Ethics 26(3)

classical thinkers that to possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain
complex mindset. Any virtue entails a constellation of perceptions, desires, aversions,
dispositions, emotional impulses, expectations, and so on aligned toward morally appro-
priate ends. Though Maximus draws broadly and often unsystematically from the philo-
sophical traditions, he too understands virtue to be a complex construction, a configuration
of intellectual insight, healthy interplay of the souls faculties, divinely redirected desire,
emotional stability, alliance of soul and bodyall of which are deepened and sharpened
by sheer moral experience (). For Maximuss moral subject, however, this configu-
ration is couched within the larger economy that enfolds both the prelapsarian and post-
lapsarianor natural and gnomicdimensions of the moral self. The ultimate
horizon of Christian virtue, moreover, is defined once for all in the new theandric mode
of human existence inaugurated by Jesus Christ.102 His incarnation both brings to fruition
the latent moral resources of human nature and radically liberates passible human beings
to cultivate love and all the virtues, and to the perfection of passibility itself. One is pas-
sively seized by God, says Maximus, precisely to the extent that one actively manifests
God by performing the virtues.103
Distinctive also in the Confessors virtue ethics is his customary juxtapositioning of
the universal and the particular, the macrocosm and the microcosm, in the outworking
of the triune Gods creative and redemptive economy. The larger, cosmic dimension of
reconciliation and redemption, embracing the whole hierarchy of creation, constantly
weighs upon the local manifestation of love and the virtueswhether in the deserts, the
monasteries, the churches, the networks of Christian friendship, even individual human
relationships. But the converse is true as well. In view of the historical particularity of
Jesus of Nazareth, there is also a privileging of the perspective of the instantiations of the
virtues from below, since these are the concrete means of healing and transforming
creation patiently and incrementally. Maximus indicates that each individual embodi-
ment of virtue is tributary to a comprehensive, indivisible unity of divine wisdom.104
In all of this, the true center of gravity is the mystery of love, which situates all the
salutary expressions of human love and virtue in the context of the revelation and embod-
iment of Gods own philanthropia. In this mystery, divine kenosis and human ascent in
deification intersect and mirror each other. Furthermoreand here is truly a centerpiece
of Maximuss virtue ethicsChrist the Logos condescends to dwell in the virtues of the
virtuous, availing himself personally and intimately to those drawn to him by reason,
desire, fervency, and the full array of psychic and somatic faculties. Few would want to
dispute that this mystery of love is, in the long run, Maximuss signature legacy in
Eastern Orthodox ethics.

102 Cf. Amb.5 (CCSG 48:29-34), where Maximus elaborates on Dionysiuss idea of the
new theandric energy ( ) by which Christ instituted anew
() the mode of human existence.
103 Amb. 10 (PG 91:1113B-C).
104 Cap. quinquies cent. 3.44 (PG 90:1280A-B). See also Yannaras, Person and Eros, pp. 288-90.