Work on St. Maximus
April 28, 2009
Since Easter, I have been busy working for a woman who has finished a translation of a work by St. Maximus the Confessor, and who plans to publish it; I have been hired to check the translation. It probably is best not to mention the name of the woman or of the work. I have been finding the text (mostly a series of biblical and patristic comments) extremely interesting, although the translation has needed a lot of correction, and Maximus’s Greek is notoriously difficult. The work makes clear Maximus’s deep indebtedness to the Greek philosophical tradition, showing the very subtle ways in which he integrates that tradition with Christian theology and with a reading of Scripture. For instance, in his understanding of spiritual progress, he continually draws upon the distinction between ethics, natural philosophy, and theology (ontology) that Aristotle had made some eight or nine centuries earlier. Natural philosophy corresponds to a specific stage in spiritual life: in one place Maximus says that, although we were created so that we should start with the cause of all things and descend from there to understand things of experience in the light of their cause, we became entranced by the things of sense perception and took them as ends in themselves, as things no longer implying a reference to their transcendent source. What Maximus calls “natural contemplation,” φυσικὴ θεωρία, is the process of raising up the mind, through the things of sense perception, to their cause; it is a way restoring to the senses their right use.
In one difficult passage I was reading yesterday, Maximus considers a text from St. Gregory the Theologian, which asks how a word is begotten in one mind and yet begets a word in another mind. Maximus approaches the question, first by noting that only God is perfectly free and simple; everything else, having its being from God, exists as a combination of essence and quality (or potentiality, or accident). Then Maximus seems to speak of mind as, in some sense, unbegotten (or ungenerated) and, in another sense, as begetting itself, or begetting a word in itself; the passage is sufficiently obscure that the editor proposes an alternative reading for part of the text. But it occurred to me, in reading it, that what Maximus may be speaking about in the passage is what Aristotle called “active” and “passive” mind. In De anima, III.5, Aristotle distinguishes a sense in which mind creates the forms from a sense in which mind receives the forms of things. I have never been entirely sure what Aristotle means by this distinction — it is at least clear that Aristotle does not mean that the perceptual world depends upon human subjectivity for its reality* — but it does seem to me that that is the thought that St. Gregory’s question has raised in St. Maximus’s mind.
Anyway, if I have not been posting much to this blog, it is because I am supposed to be getting this work done by the end of April, i.e., in two or three days, and I still have a long way to go.
*My guess is that what Aristotle means is that the common intelligibility of things, and the common intelligibility of language, implies a transcendent source, something actively making the world intelligible.