Source: Trans. Asterios Gerostergios, Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, (Institute For Byzantine And Modern Greek Studies, 1997), pp. 117-168
Excerpts from the essay The Theory of Knowlege of St. Isaac the Syrian, by Saint Justin Popovich
The Sickness of the Organs of Understanding
The characterof a man's knowledge depends on the disposition, nature, and condition of his organs of understanding. At all levels knowledge depends intrinsically on the means of understanding. Man does not make truth; the act of understanding is an act of making one's own a truth which is already objectively given. This integration has an organic character, not unlike that of the grafting of a slip onto a vine, or its life in and from the vine (cf. John 15:1-6). Understanding is, then, a fruit on the tree of the human person. As is the tree, so are its fruits, as ar the organs of understanding, so is the knowledge they engender.
Analyzing man by his empirical gifts, St. Isaac the Syrian finds that his organs of understanding are sick. "Evil is a sickness of soul," whence all the organs of understanding are made sick. Evil has its perceptions, the passions, and "the passions are illnesses of the soul. Evil and the passions are not natural to the soul; they are accidents, adventitious, and intrusive, an unnatural addition to the soul.
What are the passions in themselves? They are "a certain hardness or insensitivity of being." Their causes are to be found in the things of life themselves. The passions are the desire for wealth and amassing of goods, for ease and bodily comfort; they are thirst for honor and exercise of power; they are luxury and frivolity; they are the desire for glory from men and fear for one's own body. All these passions have one common name--"the world." "The world means carnal conduct and a carnal mind." The passions are the attacks of the world on man by means of the things of the world. Divine grace is the only power capable of repulsing them. When the passions make their home in man, they uproot his soul. They confuse the mind, filling it with fantastic forms, images, and desires, so that his thoughts are disturbed and filled with fantasy. "The world is a prostitute," which, by means of its soul-destroying desires, beguiles the soul, undermines its virtues, and destroys its God-given purity. Then, the soul, having itself bcome impure and a prostitute, gives birth to impure knowledge.
A feeble soul, a diseased intellect, a weakened heart and will--in brief, sick organs of understanding--can only engender, fashion, and produce sick thoughts, sick feelings, sick desires, and sick knoweldge.
The Healing of the Organs of Understanding
St. Isaac gives a precise diagnosis of the sickness of the soul and of its organs of understanding, and just as clearly he gives the remedy, offering it categorically and with conviction. Since the passions are a sickness of the soul, the soul can only be healed by purification from the passions and from evil. The virtues are the health of the soul, as the passions are its sickness. The virtues are the remedies that progressively eliminate sickness from the soul and from the organs of understanding. This is a slow process, deamnding much effort and great patience.
The Soul is made drunk by the passions but can recover its health if it will use the virtues as the path to sobriety. The virtues, however, are woven through with sorrow and afflictions. St. Isaac says that every virtue is a cross, and even that sorrow and afflictions are the source of the virtues. He therefore expressly advocates a love of oppression and sorrow, so that by them a man may be freed from the things of this world and have a mind that is detached from the world's confusion. For man must first free himself from the material world in order to be born of God. Such is the economy of grace; such, too, is the economy of knowledge.
If a man resolves to treat and heal his soul, he must first apply himself to a careful examination of his whole being. He must learn to distinguish good from evil, the things of God fro those of the devil, for "discernment is the greatest of the virtues." The acquisition of the virtues is a progressive and organic process: one virtue follows another. One depends on the other; one is born of the other: "Every virtue is the mother of the next." Among the virtues there is not only an ontological order, but also a chronological one. The first among them is faith.
It is by the ascesis of faith that the treatment and cure of a soul which is sick with the passions is begun. Once faith begins to live in a man, the passions begin to be uprooted from his soul. But "until the soul becomes intoxicated with faith in God, until it comes to feel faith's power," it can neither be healed of the passions nor overcome the material world. There is both a negative side to the ascesis of faith, freedom from sinful matter, and a positive side, oneness with God.
The soul, which was dispersed by the senses among the things of this world, is brought back to itself by the ascesis of faith, by fasting from material things and by devoting itself to a constant remembrance of God. This is the foundation of all good things. Freedom from enslavement to sinful matter is essential for advancement in the spiritual life. The beginning of this new way of life is found in the concetration of one's thoughts on God, in incessant pondering on the words of God, and in a life of poverty.
...In the ascesis of faith, man is asked to act according to a pardox that denies understanding: "Be dead in your life, and you will live after death". By faith the mind is healed and acquires wisdom. The soul becomes wise when it stops "consorting shamelessly with promiscuous thoughts." "Love of the body is a sign of unbelief." Faith frees the intellect from the categories of the senses and sobers it by means of fasting, by pondering on God, and by vigils. Intemperance and a full stomach cloud the mind, distract it, and disperse it among fantasies and passions. The knowledge of God cannot be found in a body that loves pleasure. It is from the seed of fasting that the blade of a healthy understanding grows--and it is from satiety that debauchery comes, and impurity from excess.
...Shame and the fear of God steady the tumult of the mind; the lack of this shame and this fear disturb the balance of the understanding, making it fickle and unstable. The mind is only on a firm foundation if it keeps the Lord's commadnments and is ready to endure suffering and affliction. It is enslaved by the things of life, it is darkened. Collecting himself through faith, a man awakens his intellect towards God, and by prayerful silence cleanses his mind and overcomes the passions. The soul is restored to health by silence. It is therefore necessary to train oneself to silence--and this is a labor that brings sweetness to the heart. It is through silence that a man reaches peace from unwarranted thoughts.
Faith brings peace to the intellect and, in bringing it, uproots rebellious thoughts. Sin is the soruce of restlessness and strife in the thoughts and is also the source of man's struggle against heaven and with other men. "But at peace with yourself, and you will bring peace to heaven and to earth." Until faith appears, the intellect is dispersed among the things of this world; it is by faith that this fragmentation of the intellect is overcome. The wandering of the thoughts is provoked by the demon of harlotry, as it the wandering of the eyes by the spirit of uncleanness.
...The passions can only be overcome by the practice of the virtues, and every passion must be fought to the death. Faith is the first and chief weapon in the struggle with the passions, for faith is the light of the mind that drives away the darkness of the passions and the strength of the intellect that banishes sickness from the soul. Faith bears within itself not only its own principle and substance, but the principle and substance of all the other virtues--developing as they do one from the other and encircling one another like the annual rings of a tree. If faith can be said to have a language, that language is prayer.
It is by the ascesis of faith that a man conquers egotism, steps beyond the bounds of self, and enters into a new, transcendent reality which also transcends subjectivity. In this new reality new laws rule; what is the unknown depths of this new reality, the ascetic of faith is led and guided by prayer; he feels, thinks, and lives by prayer. Tracing this path of faith in the intellect of man, St. Isaac notes that the intellect is guarded and guided by prayer, every good thought being transformed by prayer into a pondering on God. But prayer is also a hard struggle, calling the whole person into action. Man crucifies himself in prayer, crucifying the passions and sinful thoughts that cling to his soul. "Prayer is the slaying of the carnal thoughts of man's fleshly life."
Patient Perseverance in prayer is for man a very hard ascesis, that of the denial of self. This is fundamental to the work of salvation. Prayer is the fount of salvation and it is by prayer that all the other virtues--and all good things--are acquired. This is why a man of prayer is assailed by monstrous temptations from which he is protected and saved only by prayer.
The surest guardian of the intellect is prayer. It drives away the clouds of the passions and illumines the intellect, bringing wisdom to the mind. Unceasing abiding in prayer is a true sign of perfection. Spiritual prayer turns into ecstasy in which are revealed the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, and the intellect enters that sphere of holy unknowing that is greater than knowledge. Begun thus by faith, the healing of the organs of human personality are pushed wider and wider, self-centeredness being progressively replaced by God-centeredness.
"Love is born of prayer," just as prayer is born of faith. The virtues are of one substance, and are thus born of one another. Love for God is a sign that the new reality into which a man is led by faith and prayer is far greater than tha which has gone before. Love for God and man is the work of prayer and faith; a true love for man is in fact impossible without faith and prayer.
By faith man changes worlds: he moves from the limited world to the limitless, where he lives no longer by the laws of the senses but by the laws of prayer and love. St. Isaac lays great emphasis on the conviction he came to through his ascetic experience: that love for GOd comes through prayer--"Love is the fruit of prayer." One can receive love from God through prayer and cannot in any way acquire it without the struggle of prayer. Since man comes to the knowledge of God through faith and prayer, it is strictly true that "love is born of knowledge".
...Love is of God, "for God is love" (1 John 4:8). "He who acquires love puts on with it God himself." God has no bounds, and love is therefore boundless and without limit, so that "he who loves by and in God loves all things equally and without distinction." St. Isaac says of such a man that he has achieved perfection. As an example of perfect love, St. Isaac quotes the wish of the holy Abba Agathon: "to find a leper and change bodies with him."
In the kingdom of love the antinomies of the mind disappear. The man who strives in love enjoys a foretaste of the harmony of Paradise in himself and in God's world around him, for he has been delivered from the hell of self-centeredness and has entered into the paradise of divine values and perfections. InSt. Isaac's words: "Paradise is the love of God, in which lies the sweetness of blessings." Hell is the absence of the love of God, and those tortured in hell are tortured by the whiplash of love. When a man acquires perfectly the love of God, he acquires perfection. St. Isaac therefore recommends: "For acquire love, which is the original form of man's contemplation of the Holy Trinity."
Freeing himself from the passions, man disengages himself step by step from tha self-absorption that characterizes humanism. He leaves the sphere of death-dealing anthropocentrism and enters the sphere of the Holy Trinity. Here he receives into his soul the divine peace, wherein the oppositions and contradictions that arise from the categories of time and space lose their death-dealing power, and where he can clearly perceive his virtory over sin and death.
Faith has its own thought-forms, having as it does its own way of life. A Christian not only lives by faith (2 Cor. 5:7) but also thinks by faith. Faith represents a new way of thinking, through which is effected all the work of knowing in the believing man. This new way of thinking is humility. Within the infinite reality of faith, the intellect abases itself before the ineffable mysteries of new life in the Holy Spirit. The pride of the intellect gives way to humility and modesty replaces presumption. The ascetic of faith protects all his thoughts through humility, and thereby also ensures for himself the knowledge of eternal truth.
Drawing its strength from prayer, humility goes on growing and growing without end. St. Isaac teaches that prayer and humility are always equally balanced, and that progress in prayer means progress also in humility and vice versa. Humility is a power that collects the heart within itself and prevents its dissipating itself in proud thoughts and lustful desires. Humility is upheld and protected by the Holy Spirit, and not only draws man to God but also God to man...
Humility is a mysterious, divine power which is given only to the saints, to those who are perfected in the virtues, and it is given by grace. It "contains all things within itself." By the grace of the Holy Spirit "the mysteries are revealed to the humble, and it is these humble ones who are thereby perfect in wisdom. "The humble man is the fount of the mysteries of the new age."
...When turned towards the world, a humble man reveals the whole of his personality through humility, imitating in this God incarnate. "Just as the soul is unknown and invisible to bodily sight, so a humble man is unknown among men." He not only seeks to be unnoticed by men but to be as utterly recollected within himself as is possible, becoming "as one who does not exist on earth, who has not yet come into beign, and who is utterly unknown even to his own soul." A humble man belittles himself before all men, but God therefore glorifies him, for "where humility blossoms, there God's glory sprouts abundantly," and the plant of the soul produces an imperishable flower.
Grace and Freedom
The person of Christ the God-man presents in itself the ideal image of human personality and knowledge. The person of Christ of itself traces and defines the path of a Christian's life in every way. In Him is found the most perfect realization of the mystical union of God and man, while at the same time He reveals both God's work in man and man's in God.
God and man working together is the basic indication of Christian activity in the world. Man works with God and God with man (cf. 1 Cor. 3:9). Working within and around himself, the Christain gives himself entirely to ascesis, but he does this, and is able to do it, only through the ceaseless activity of the divine power that is grace. For the Christian no thought, no feeling, no action can come from the Gospel without the help of God's grace, and it is from this mutual activity, or synergy, that Christian personality is born.
On every rung of the ladder of perfection, grace is essential to the Christian. A man can make no single evangelical virtue his own without the help and support of God's grace. Everything in Christianity is by grace and free will, for all is the common work of God and man. St. Isaac particularly stresses this common work of man's will and God's grace in the whole of a Christian's life. Grace opens a man's eyes to the discernment of good and evil. It strengthens the sense of God within him, opens the future to him and fills him with mystical light.
The more grace God gives to the man of faith, the more He reveals to him the abysses of evil in the world and in man. At the same time, He allows greater and greater temptations to assail him, that he may tesst the God-given power of grace and may feel and learn that it is only by the help of grace that he can overcome the ever more fearsome and scandalous temptations. For as soon as grace perceives that a man's soul is becoming self-sufficient, making him great in his own sight, it leaves him and lets temptations assail him until he becomes aware of his sickness and humbly takes refuge in God.
By working together in God's grace and his own will, a man grows in faith to perfect stature. This happens by degrees, for grace entres into the soul "little by little," being given before all else to the humble. The greater the humility, the greater the grace, and wisdom is contained within grace. "The humble are endowed with wisdom by grace."
Grace-filled wisdom gradually reveals the mysteries to the humble, one after the other, culminating in the mystery of suffering. The humble know why man suffers, for grace reveals to them the meaning of suffering. The greater the grace that a man has, the greater his grasp of the meaning and purpose of suffering and temptation. If he drives grace from him by sloth and love of sin, a man drives from himself the only means he has of finding meaning and justification for his sufferings and temptations.
The Purification of the Intellect
By an unceasing renewal of self through a grace-filled asceticism, a man gradually drives sin and the passions from his whole being and from his organs of understanding, in this way healing them of these death-dealing illnesses... Especial care must be taken with the chief organ of understanding, the intellect, for it has a particularly important role in the realm of human personality... Fasting is... the chief means of purifying the intellect... It is through prayer that the intellect is refined and rendered clear... Transforming himself with the help of grace-filled ascetic effort, a man acquires purity of intellect and with this purified intellect "comes to see the mysteries of God."
...Only the mind that has been cleansed by grace can offer pure, spiritual knowledge... Few there are who are able to return to man's original purity of mind. Perseverance in prayer cleanses the intellect, illumines it, and fills it with the light of truth. The virtues, led by compassion, give the intellect peace and light. The cleansing of the intellect is not a dialectical, discursive and theoretical activity, but an act of grace through experience and is ethical in every respect. The intellect is purified by fasting, vigils, silence, prayer, and the other ascetic practices...
The Mystery of Knowledge
... According to St. Isaac the Syrian, there are two sorts of knowledge: that which precedes faith and that which is born of faith. The former is natural knoweldge and involves the discernment of good and evil. The latter is spiritual knowledge and is "the perception of the mysteries," "the perception of what is hidden," "the contemplation of the invisible." There are also two sorts of faith: the first comes through hearing and is confirmed and proven by the second, "the faith of contemplation," "the faith that is based on what has been seen." ... When a man begins to follow the path of faith, he must lay aside once and for all his old methods of knowing, for faith has its own methods...
The chief characteristic of natural knowledge is its approach by examination and experimentation. This is in itself "a sign of uncertainty about the truth." Faith, on the contrary, follows a pure and simple way of thought that is far removed from all guile and methodical examination. These two paths lead in opposite directions... this natural knowledge, according to St. Isaac, is not at fault. It is not to be rejected. It is just that faith is higher than it is...
At its lowest level, knowledge "follows the desires of the flesh," concerning itself with riches, vainglory, dress, repose of body, and search for rational wisdom. This knowledge invents the arts and sciences and all that adorns the body in this visible world. But in all this, such knowledge is contrary to faith... From the first and lowest degree of knowledge, man moves on to the second, when he begins both in body and soul to practice the virtues: fasting, prayer, almsgiving, the reading of Holy Scripture, the struggle with the passions, and so forth... The third degree of knowledge is that of perfection...
The first knowledge comes "from continual study and the desire to learn. The second comes from a proper way of life and a clearly held faith. The third comes from faith alone, for in it knowledge is done away, activity ceases, and the senses become superfluous." ...It is very difficult, and often impossible, to express in words the mystery and nature of knowledge. In the realm of human thought, there is no ready definition that can explain it completely... But the most profound, and to my mind the most exhaustive answer that man can give to this question is that given by St. Isaac in the form of a dialogue:
Question: What is knowledge?
Answer: The perception of eternal life.
Question: And what is eternal life?
Answer: To perceive all things in God. For love comes through understanding, and the knowledge of God is ruler over all desires. To the heart that receives this knowledge every delight that exists on earth is superfluous, for there is nothing that can compare with the delight of the knowledge of God.
For human knowledge the most vital problem is that of truth. Knowledge bears within itself an irresistible pull toward the infinite mystery, and this hunger for truth that is instinctive to human knowledge is never satisfied unto eternal and absolute Truth itself becomes the substance of human knowledge--until knowledge, in its own self-perception, acquires the perception of God, and it its own self- knowledge come to the knowledge of God. But this is given to man only by Christ, the God-Man, he who is the only incarnation and personification of eternal truth in the world of human realities...
What is truth? St. Isaac answers thus: "Truth is the eprception of things that is given by God." In other words: the perception of God is truth... In the philosophy of St. Isaac, the problem of the nature of knowledge becomes an ontological and ethical problem which, in the last resort, is seen to be the problem of human personality. The nature and character of knowledge depend ontologically, morally, and gnoseologically on the constitution of the human person, and especially on the constitution and state of its organs of knowledge. In the person of the ascetic of faith, knowledge , of its very nature, turns to contemplation...
...According to [St. Isaac], contemplation is the sense of divine mysteries hidden within things and events. Contemplation is found in the finest workings of the mind and in continual pondering on God. Its abode is unceasing prayer, and thus it illumines the spiritual part of the soul, the intellect... By the help of a good life lived in grace, the ascetic of faith ascends to contemplation... "After this there arises in him the sweetness of God and a burning love for God in his heart, a love that burns away the passions of both soul and body." ... Human nature is capable of true contemplation when it is cleansed from the passions by the exercize of the virtues.
St. Isaac's theory of knowledge is dominated by the conviction that the problem of knowledge is fundamentally a religious and an ethical one... One thing is certain: that knowledge, on all levels, depends on man's religious and moral state. The more perfect a man is from the religious and moral standpoint, the more perfect is his knowledge. Man has been made in such a way that knowledge and morality are always balanced within him.
There is no doubt that knowledge progresses through man's virtues and regresses through the passions. Knowledge is like a fabric woven by the virtues on the loom of the human soul. The loom of the soul extends through all the visible and invisible worlds. The virtues are not only powers creating knowledge; they are the principles and source of knowledge. By transforming the virtues into constituent elements of his being through ascetic endeavor, a man advances from knowledge to knowledge. It could even be possible to say that the virtues are the sense organs of knowledge. Advancing from one virtue to another, a man moves from one form of comprehension to another...
Healed and made whole by the religious and moral power of the virtues, a man gives expression to the purity and intergrity of his person particularly through the purity and integrity of his knowledge. According to the evangelical, Orthodox understanding found in St. Isaac the Syrian, knowledge is an action, an ascesis, of the whole human person, and not of one part of his being--whether it be the intellect, the understanding, the will, the body, or the senses...
In this theanthropic way of life and knowledge, there is nothing that is unreal, abstract, or hypothetical. here all is real with an irresistible reality, for all is based on experience... This reality has no bounds, for the person of Christ is limitless.