The ethos of our era is a myth of progress and a tyranny of the living, through which we are taught to believe that we exist at the pinnacle of history, that we know more and are more capable than any generation previous.
This is unfortunate. First, because it is nonsense and, second, because it has led us to forget the frameworks, definitions, and antidotes our ancestors developed for what ails us, which are usually superior to their modern counterparts. One such example is logismoi.
Logismoi is a Greek term for thoughts, specifically assaultive thoughts or temptations. A list of eight logismoi—eight evil thoughts—was compiled and refined by a monk named Evagrius Ponticus in 375 AD in an attempt to better deal with his sins. It was meant to be a diagnostic tool to identify a man’s strengths and weaknesses, what temptations he was being attacked by, and what remedies were available to help him overcome those temptations.
The list included:
(Side note: If this list sounds familiar, that’s because St. Gregory the Dialogist, also known as Pope Gregory I, rolled Vainglory into Pride, combined Discouragement and Sorrow into Sloth, and added Envy, naming them the Seven Deadly Sins.)
"Sin" is a loaded word nowadays and you might be tempted to think of this list as a set of legalistic restrictions. Don’t be a glutton. Don’t fornicate. Don’t be greedy, etc. But that isn’t the case. This should be seen, rather, as a list of disorders or diseases of the mind and soul. Moreover, this should be seen as a list of the inevitable. We may "contract" these diseases to a lesser or greater extent, but we are all assured of being infected at some point and on multiple occasions.
Why make a list of diseases? So that a remedy can be prescribed.
The Process of Logismoi
The process of overcoming logismoi was detailed long ago and occurs in five stages. It is described by Fr. Maximos of Mount Athos as such:
- The Assault: The thought/temptation in question attacks a man’s mind. That is, the thought makes itself known to him.
- The Interaction: The man opens up a dialogue with the thought/temptation. That dialogue can amount to a dismissal or a full-blown meditation and anything in between.
- The Consent: The man gives his consent to the thought/temptation, conspiring to do what the thought has suggested despite his own well-being.
- The Defeat: Having failed once against the thought/temptation, the man becomes a hostage to it. It is more difficult to resist a second round. Should another assault enter his mind, he may skip directly to consent.
- The Obsession: At this stage, the thought/temptation no longer has to enter the mind. It becomes an entrenched reality, a fiber within the character of the man.
Combating Assaultive Thoughts
There is no sin—no failure, no "contraction" of the disease—until the man has consented to what the thought/temptation suggests. For a weaker man, any interaction at all with that thought or temptation is enough to elicit consent.
Thus the best way to combat logismoi is to ignore them, to approach them with indifference. Easier said than done, but laying out the process of logismoi makes it easier to identify that moment when the thought first grabs hold. Becoming aware of that moment allows some control of the interaction that will follow, which ideally cuts off the evil thoughts. Instead of pursuing the thoughts all the way down to failure, it is, then, better to pray and to reflect on what is good by reading Scripture or studying the lives of the saints.
The Modern Equivalent
The idea of assaultive thoughts is tackled today by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a psychosocial intervention that aims to eradicate unhelpful thought patterns and disordered cognitions. In comparison, CBT seems absolutely toothless as it is framed within the clinical, self-help, positive-thinking secular world of modern psychology, which is a world generally afraid to talk about "sin" or "moral failure" or "disorder" in my experience.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy addresses obstacles to happiness with the ultimate goal of making a man feel better. Ancient philosophers and theologians didn’t make that mistake.
Defeating logismoi is about defeating a fallen human nature, returning to the fullness of humanity, achieving a certain kind of divinity that we robbed from ourselves. Happiness be damned.
Even within the pagan philosophy of Stoicism—a philosophy which aims in a more secular way to eradicate errors of cognition—one finds the belief in the logos, a Greek word with a broad definition that might be thought of as the cosmos or order. There is the logos and the logos sets creation in order. Everything and everyone has its place. Stoicism, then, aimed to put a man right with the logos. All that happens does so because it is ordained by the logos and our purpose is to play out our role as we should.
So within Stoicism, even, defeating assaultive thoughts isn’t far from the Christian approach. Defeating those thoughts is about defeating a fallen nature, returning to the fullness of humanity, taking your place and accepting your role and executing it faithfully.
(Another side note: Logos was a bit of stoic terminology borrowed by the writer of the Gospel of John when he writes, "In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word (logos) was with God, and the Word (logos) was God.")
The modern approach to problems of human nature—problems which have been amplified in the West over the last century—are absolutely inadequate for combatting what we now see.
This is why it is important for us to overcome the temptation to believe we have somehow figured things out to a greater extent than those who came before us. From then to now, human nature has not changed, and human nature is at the root of every problem we are trying to solve within ourselves and society (but especially within ourselves).
In order to go forward, we must go back.