Book Review: The Philokalia: Volume One

The Philokalia:  The Complete Text:  Volume One, compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, translated from the Greek and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware

I suppose that even those this book is an exceedingly obscure one, it was only a matter of time before I came into contact with it.  My interest in the religious traditions of Mt. Athos (of which this book is a representative) was sparked by some of my own reading [1], and my knowledge of this book was sparked even further by its glowing account in a book I read about the travels of a simple and faithful Russian peasant [2].  Although my knowledge of the Eastern Orthodox tradition is not particularly profound [3], I did not find this book to be too difficult to understand.  I did, it should be noted, find this book to present a starkly different picture of asceticism than I was expecting, and a far more balanced picture of spirituality, for all of the flaws of its gnostic-inspired approach, than I was expecting either.  Moreover, this book gives some rather strong and pointed denunciations of some of the major negative tendencies of our own time, including our excessive interest in self-esteem and the rampant gluttony and sexual immorality of our times, as well as the tendency of people to desire to be gurus and leaders without any experience of living under discipline themselves, all of which I think make this book worth reading and taking to heart if not a perfect spiritual guide.

The contents of this book are pretty impressive, especially given that this is only the first volume of a multi-volume set.  The contents of this volume alone are over 350 pages in length, and include the writings of numerous ascetics who appear to be descended from the traditions of the Egyptian Desert Fathers.  From St. Isaiah the Solitary we have 27 short texts on guarding the intellect.  From Evagrios the Solitary we have an outline teaching on asceticism and stillness in the solitary life as well as some texts on discernment as they relate to passions and thoughts, extracts from his texts on watchfulness, and 153 short texts on prayer.  From St. John Cassian we have a discussion of eight vices and also a discussion on discernment as it relates to the spiritual leaders of Ketis.  From St. Mark the Ascetic we have 2000 text on the spiritual law, 226 on those who think they are made righteous by works apart from grace, and a letter to Nicolas the Solitary.  From St. Hesychios the Priest we have a note on watchfulness and holiness, from St. Neilos we have a discourse on asceticism, from St. Diadochos of Photiki we have 100 texts on spiritual knowledge and discernment, and from St. John of Karpathos we have a couple of notes written to encourage and instruct some monks in “India,” which may be a reference to Ethiopia.  In an Appendix we have a stoic collection of texts on the character of men and on the virtuous life that was attributed to St. Antony the Great, followed by a glossary and index.

Among the more fascinating aspects of this deeply interesting text is the way that the authors in general seem to be deeply interested in matters of spiritual warfare while also placing the intellect and the need for internal self-discipline to such a high degree given the fact that these figures, where known at all, are often seen incorrectly as seeking physical discipline largely to the exclusion of intellectual matters.  And although this book and its model of spirituality is very different from that of our own place and time, it certainly has a lot to say about tendencies that we can see in our own times that these figures fiercely criticize.  Self-esteem is considered as a great sin by these authors, and it is counted as a virtue in our fallen age.  Gluttony and sexual immorality run rampant, and here are pointed out as being signs of an immensely decadent spirit.  Even though not everything in this book can be taken at face value, including at least one author’s straightforward praise of gnosticism as amounting to another way to divine truth alongside theological study, this book contains a great deal that speaks with considerable insight about some of the more common and lamentable evils of our present age, which makes this a book worth wrestling with in the course of one’s own study and reflection.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/01/22/book-review-ethan-of-athos/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/01/21/book-review-the-way-of-a-pilgrim-and-the-pilgrim-continues-his-way/

[3] But see, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/12/08/book-review-what-is-the-bible/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/09/15/book-review-the-fault-line/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: The Philokalia: Volume One

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  2. Pingback: An Introduction To The Apostolic Fathers:  Part Two (Writings) | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov | Edge Induced Cohesion

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