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The Philocalia Of Origen -Origen

Of the question of things “good” and “evil”; that they partly depend on our own efforts and partly do not; and (that) according to the teaching of Christ, but not as Aristotle thinks. From the treatise on the 4th Psalm, at the words, “Many say, who will show us the good things?”

1. Seeing that there is so much discussion as to what things are “good,” what “evil,” some affirming that good things and the contrary do not depend on our own efforts, pleasure, for instance, as they declare, being a good thing, trouble an evil thing; while others identify “good” and “evil” with things dependent on our own efforts only, for they say that good things are the virtues only and virtuous actions, and that evil things are the vices and vicious actions; and a third set of thinkers unite the two views, and tell us that good and evil things partly depend on our own efforts, partly do not: no wonder, if distracted by these sophistries the majority of believers, longing to learn what are really good things, cry out with the psalmist, “Who will show us the good things?” That the good things naturally depend upon our own efforts, everybody who accepts the passage in the Gospel where the judgment is described, would unhesitatingly allow. For it says that a man is good, supposing him to hear the sentence, “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” And that is also good which proceedeth from the good man, out of his heart, as the Saviour says, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good.” And, in general, every fruit of a good tree, because it depends on a man’s own efforts, is a good thing: such as love, peace, joy, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; and the contraries are evil things. And if, according to the teaching of Christ, there is a something good and evil, and we must still look for it in things independent of our choice, and it should prove to be independent of our efforts, we shall on further investigation very quickly show. But, at any rate, things so called by those who unite what is within our choice with what is not, could not be good and evil; for they think that some good things pertain to the soul, others to the body, and that others are external; and similarly with evil things. And in respect of the soul, they speak of virtue and virtuous conduct, or vice and vicious conduct; as concerns the body, of health and vigour and beauty, or disease and sickliness and deformity; as regards externals, wealth, good birth and reputation, or poverty, humble origin and disgrace.

2. And some will suppose that likewise according to the Scriptures there are three kinds of good things, and three of evil; for while they allow that virtues and vices are “good” and “evil,” according to the recognised distinction between virtue and vice, and the corresponding conduct on either side, they will make use of passages which declare that even things pertaining to the body, and things external, are good or evil. And as regards virtues and vices, need I say anything? for we are taught by ethics that we ought to choose righteousness, and temperance, and prudence, and courage, and regulate our conduct according to these virtues; and that we ought to shun the contraries to them. We therefore require no illustrations of good things which are the objects of our own choice; but from many places they will adduce instances of good things which are bodily and external. On the present occasion it will suffice if we adduce certain passages from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, to prove that promises are made to those who keep the commandments, while there are threats and curses against those who transgress them; for example, that health is a blessing, and disease the opposite, the following quotation from Exodus will show: “If thou wilt keep my commandments and my ordinances, I will put none of the diseases upon thee, which I put upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord that healeth thee.” And the words also from Deuteronomy against sinners might be supposed to make bodily plagues and diseases an evil thing, and health and bodily strength, of course, a good thing. The passage stands thus: “If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law which are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and marvellous name, The Lord thy God; then The Lord thy God will make thy plagues wonderful, and the plagues of thy seed, even great plagues, and marvellous, and sore sicknesses, and very many. And he will bring upon thee again all the grievous plague of Egypt, which thou wast afraid of, and it shall cleave unto thee. Also every sickness, and every plague, which is not written in the book of this law, will the Lord bring upon thee, until it utterly destroy thee.” And again to transgressors it is said, “I will appoint over you even fever and jaundice, that shall consume your eyes, and make your soul to pine away.” Further, in Deuteronomy the Word threatens with incurable lockjaw those who forsake godliness.

3. And they who understand outward blessings to be promised by the Divine word in Leviticus, will make use of the following: “If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them: then I will give you the rain in its season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the plains shall yield their fruit. And your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall reach unto the sowing time, and ye shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely,” and so on. And from Deuteronomy they will take and use the passage, “And it shall be when ye shall pass over Jordan unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and ye observe to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God shall set thee on high above all: and all these blessings shall come upon thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God. Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, the herds of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. Blessed shall be thy garners and thy kneading-troughs,” and so on. And so again, on the contrary, it is said to the ungodly, “Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field. Cursed shall be thy garners and thy kneading-troughs. Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, cursed the herds of thy cattle and the flocks of thy sheep.” And countless other passages will be brought forward by those who will have it that good and evil things are bodily and external. And they lay hold of the Gospels also, and tell us that the Saviour when He came took away from men, inasmuch as He deemed them evil things, bodily blindness, and deafness, and palsy, and healed every disease and every sickness, and gave instead of the evil things which previously prevailed, clearness of bodily sight, and hearing, and every form of health and strength; and they will put you out of countenance by what they allege, unless we are prepared to admit possession by devils and lunacy to be evil things, and, on the contrary, deliverance from them to be a good thing. Nay, the Apostles also in exercising the gifts of healing, and in working miracles, by the very nature of what they did brought good things to men and freed them from evil things. And they who say such things will pass over to the world to come, and allege that because pain is an evil thing sinners are committed to age-long fire: and if pain is an evil thing, pleasure must be a good one.

4. The foregoing clearly shows the arguments which mostly silence such readers as cannot dispose of the scriptural statements which are adduced in favour of there being three kinds of good things and three of evil things. Moreover, not only have confessedly unsophisticated believers been thus beguiled, but even some of those who profess wisdom according to Christ have fallen into the snare; for they suppose such promises as these to be made by the Creator, and that beyond their literal signification the threats have no meaning. Well, then, in reply to all who so strangely apprehend the Scriptures, we must further inquire whether the Prophets, against whom no charge is brought, kept the law; Elias, for instance, the poorest of men, so poor that he had not bread of his own to eat, and was therefore sent to a woman of Zarephath which belonged to Zidon; and Eliseus, who at the house of the Shunammite had a very little chamber, and a bed, and a cheap candlestick, who also fell sick and died; and Isaiah, who went three years naked and barefoot; and Jeremiah, who was cast into a miry pit, and was constantly derided, so that he prayed he might have a lodging-place in the wilderness; and John, who was in the deserts and ate nothing but locusts and wild honey, who had a leathern girdle about his loins, and was clothed in raiment of camel’s hair. They will, I suppose, admit that these men kept the law. And we will ask whether what our opponents consider good things, were the lot of those who kept the law. And if they cannot show that this was so, there will be no escape for them; they will have to allow either that the promises which are said to be given to the godly are false, or that being true they must be anagogically interpreted; and once they are compelled to resort to allegory, there is an end of their supposition that the law threatens the ungodly with bodily disease, and such external things as are reckoned to be evils, and that the promise of bodily health and wealth is for those who follow after God.

5. And is it not foolish to make such a point of the ills of life, and to boast of those who suffer from them? For if tribulations are evil, and the Apostle speaks of rejoicing in tribulations, it is clear that he rejoiced in evil things; but this is foolish, and the Apostle was not a fool; and it follows that such exercises of the Apostle as he speaks of were not evil; being pressed on every side he is not straitened; he is perplexed, yet not unto despair; tempted, but not killed; thought to be poor, he maketh many rich, and supposed to have nothing, he possesses all things; for the whole world of wealth belongs to the believer, and not an obol to the unbeliever. And further, they who suppose that according to Scripture there are three kinds of good and three kinds of evil, have to face another fact, viz. that the righteous are ever in the midst of evils, for the word of prophecy says truly, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous.” And they who suppose certain things to be evils might not unfitly remember what befell Job, to whom after that he had nobly borne the trials which compassed him about, the Divine word says, “And dost thou suppose that I dealt with thee for any other purpose than that thou mayest appear righteous?” For if Job is shown to be righteous no other way than through this and that befalling him, how can we say that the causes of his appearing righteous are evils to him? And it follows that even the Devil is not an evil to the holy man. At all events, the Devil was not an evil to Job, for all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. And we further say that it is far from clear that, if the blessings are taken literally, the “righteous” man will be a partaker of those things which in the Scriptures are considered “good.” For the story of many a holy man’s life contradicts such interpretations. It is absurd to suppose that the holy man will be a money lender, opening banks in many nations, in town after town, distracted over payments and receipts, and following a prohibited business; for “the righteous man putteth not out his money to usury, and taketh not rewards against the innocent”; and “he that doeth these things shall never be moved.” And, according to Ezekiel, “the holy man giveth not forth his money upon usury nor taketh increase.” And as for thinking that fever is inflicted on account of sins, that is an opinion of very ignorant people, for the causes of such a sickness are often clear enough; either the neighbourhood, or the quality of the water, or the character of the food. And if health and wealth are rewards for the righteous, no ungodly man ought to have health or wealth. But we must look for this health in the constitution of a man’s soul, and the wealth we must take to be that ransom of a man’s soul of which Solomon speaks,—“The ransom of a man’s soul is his own riches.” But we must shun poverty, which is thus described: “A poor man endureth not a threat.” And further, by wounds and bruises and sicknesses we must understand the evils which befall heedless souls through their wickedness; and the prophet blames the sufferers this way for being in such a condition, saying, “From the sole of the foot even unto the head, neither wound, nor bruise, nor festering sore (is healed); there is no plaster, nor oil, to put upon them, neither have they been bound up.”

6. This will be enough to enable any but the very dull, when they read the distracting passages of Scripture, to arrive at a worthy conception of the action of the Holy Spirit. But in order to silence those who think that in these passages we have the good things which shall be given to the saints, and, on the other hand, the evil things which shall be awarded to sinners, we must further observe that everything which exists on account of a given object is less important than that for which it exists; for instance, surgical operations, cauteries, and plasters, which are means to health, are less important than the health in view. And even supposing that regarded as remedies of the physician these things are called “good,” we must understand that they are not the final good things of the healing art, but causes of them; from the physician’s standpoint bodily health is the final good. Similarly, if we must keep certain commands for the sake of securing certain blessings, and the rewards are bodily and external, the good actions will not be good as ends in themselves, but only as productive of the blessings; and the wealth which our opponents suppose the Scripture to promise, and the bodily health, will excel the righteousness, and the very holiness, piety, and fear of God which constitute the upright and virtuous conduct. It is for men who do not know the dignity of virtue, but prefer material things to virtue itself, to accept such doctrines; for of all things it is most absurd to say that wealth and bodily health surpass upright and virtuous conduct. And, in fact, it is on account of these detestable opinions that some persons have come to believe that even after the Resurrection one of the first things promised is that we shall eat and drink such and such things, and some hold that we shall even beget children. As soon as ever these opinions reach heathen inquirers, they will make Christianity appear a very foolish thing; for some who are strangers to the Faith hold far better views.

7. Now we will apply what appears to be the results of our investigation of the sacred oracles. We alleged that we were content to say that “good” things and “evil” things, partly depend on our own efforts, and partly do not. We did not, however, reckon among the blessings which do not depend on our efforts, health and beauty and high descent and riches, and, as best we could, we endeavoured to briefly solve these perplexing passages. We must now say what the good things are which do not depend on our efforts; for it is true that “except the Lord build the house, they labour but in vain who build it”; and “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” Every one who is making progress is building a house, and every one that is perfect keepeth a city; and the work of him that buildeth is in vain, except the Lord build and the Lord watch. The power of the Lord which assists in the building of him that buildeth, and which cooperates with him who is himself unable to complete the edifice, is one of the good things which do not depend on our efforts; and we must take the same view of the city which is being watched. And just as if I were to say that the “good thing” of agriculture, that which produces the fruit, partly depends on ourselves in respect of the husbandman’s skill, and partly does not so depend, in respect of the working of Providence for a genial atmosphere and an abundant supply of rain: so the “good thing” of the rational creature is made up of man’s purpose, and the Divine power assisting him, when he has chosen the better life. There is need, therefore, both of our own purpose and of the Divine assistance, not only that we may become good and upright, but also that having become good and upright we may abide in virtue; for even if a man has been perfected he will fall away, if he be puffed up over his goodness and accounts himself the cause thereof, and does not fitly ascribe glory to Him who contributes more than all besides to the acquiring and keeping of his virtue. Something like this, we think, explains how it was that he who in Ezekiel is said to have walked blameless in all his ways, until iniquity was found in him, fell from heaven, viz., as Isaiah tells us, Lucifer, once a morning star, afterwards, undone and cast down to earth. For not only of the sons of men is it true that if a man be perfect and have not the wisdom of God, he is accounted but a thing of nought; but it is true even in the order of Angels, and of sovereign Powers, and in every rank of being that is Divine so far as God is with it. Anyway, perhaps because the holy Apostle sees that our purposing counts for far less than the power of God in the acquisition of the good things, he says that the result is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy; not as though God showeth mercy without our willing and running, but because our willing and running is as nothing in comparison with the mercy of God; and therefore, as is light and meet, he gives the credit of the good result rather to the mercy of God than to human willing and running.

8. Although we knew we should seem to be widely digressing, we have gone into all these details, for we are convinced of the necessity of the inquiry, if we are to handle the words, “Many say, who will show us the good things?” As far as we could we have clearly pointed out to the many who say “Who will show us the good things?” what the good things are, and, consequently, also, what are the evil things, in order that through our exercises and prayers we may acquire the good things, and repel the evil things from our souls. But since in speaking men sometimes use literal expressions, and sometimes, I suppose, even use words in a wrong sense, we must not be surprised if occasionally we find those who hold unsound opinions applying the terms “good” and “evil” to bodily things, and what we call things external. For example, in Job we read, “If we receive good at the hand of God, shall we not endure evil?” And in Jeremiah, “Evil came down from the Lord to the gates of Jerusalem.” Instead of saying, “If we receive such and such useful and pleasant things at the hand of Providence, shall we not put up with the unpleasant and painful ones?” Job says, “If we receive good at the hand of God, shall we not endure evil?” And instead of, “These particular events providentially happened to Jerusalem for the chastisement of its inhabitants,” we have, “Evil came down from the Lord to the gates of Jerusalem.” So then, readers who understand the facts must not quibble over the names, but must ascertain when the names are to be taken literally, and when on account of their limited connotation they are not taken in their strict sense. And even if the Saviour healed some of these disorders, and gave health, and sight, and hearing to men, we must look chiefly for their spiritual meaning, since the narratives prove that the word of the Gospel does heal the disorders of the soul. And there is no absurdity in supposing in such cases that what is related in the narrative was done to astonish the men of that time; so that if any were not convinced by argument and instruction, they might be silenced through the marvellous miracles, and yield assent to the teacher.

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