For a long time now, I have been obsessed with trying to understand the relationship between Evagrius’s ancient demons (catalogued by him as eight logisimoi: Anger, Pride, Vainglory, Sadness, Avarice, Gluttony, Lust, and Acedia) and the passions of the modern Enneagram (arranged on the Enneagram symbol by Ichazo: Anger, Pride, Vanity, Envy, Avarice, Fear, Gluttony, Lust, and Sloth).
If you haven’t met Evagrius yet, or heard about his eight logisimoi, you really must: he is basically the father of the Enneagram, or at least that’s how I think of him. Evagrius was one of the wave of men and women who moved out of the cities and into the desert in the 300s, trying to find a new way to live and love.
In Evagrius’s time, Christians who fled the cities to seek God met and learned from natives of the desert who possessed generations worth of knowledge about how to survive in their extremely harsh environment. For the Christians, demons were theoretical, a concept that had been developed as part of Greek philosophy. For the desert natives, demons were entities that could and would physically harm you.
In the years that Evagrius lived in the desert, praying, teaching, and writing, he gradually integrated these two different knowledge traditions into a theory and practice that focused on logisimoi, or “evil thoughts”. Evagrius identified and described the logisimoi in great detail. His list gradually evolved into the Catholic Church’s seven deadly sins, and also served as the basis of the modern Enneagram, but that is another story.
The terms “demons” and “evil thoughts” were basically interchangeable for Evagrius, while for us, in the modern world, they are most definitely not. If I tell you that I am writing a book about the Enneagram and demons, you will probably look at me sideways (or, if you don’t, I will probably look at you sideways – do you actually believe demons exist?!) But if I tell you that I am writing a book about the Enneagram and evil thoughts, you might ask what I mean by “evil”, but the concept of “thoughts” is probably not going to alarm you. If anything it will probably bore you.
Evagrius believed that the physical world had been created to serve as a “book” that humans could learn to read, and by reading, learn about their true nature. Evagrius spent a lot of time observing himself and the other humans around him, trying to understand why they did what they did. Why did people, including himself, come into the desert with the intention to pray and contemplate God and then just leave? Or fall asleep? Or get in a fight with another monk? Why? And what was to be done about it?
Evagrius developed an awesome body of work around these questions. Evagrius explained that originally, all that existed were “intellects” hanging out in perfect contemplation with God. It was bliss. But then, for some reason, the intellects started to slip away from this perfect state. The intellects who had fallen furthest away from contemplation became demons, the intellects who fell partly away became humans, and the intellects who stayed closest to God became angels. Jesus was the only intellect who didn’t fall away from God at all, but that’s a different story.
So that’s the set-up. Evagrius believed that ultimately all the intellects would return to perfect contemplation with God. But in the meantime, humans are in a precarious position. The demons have fallen furthest from contemplation with God and they can’t even image angels. They can only observe human behavior. And their intention in observing humans is to understand everything about them in order to deter humans from returning to a state of contemplation with God. That’s all they want to do, keep humans from learning their true nature and returning to a state of contemplation with God. Evagrius described how the demons use their formidable observational skills to study humans relentlessly, and to figure out what situations and experiences will distract humans the most. In Evagrius’s world, demons are continually observing humans, devising strategies for distracting them, observing the results, and refining their methods based on what works and what doesn’t.
At the core of the demons’ methods are thoughts. For example, if a demon determines that a monk will get thrown off by anger, the demon might point out to him that “his cattle aren’t walking in a straight line” and will go on to point out how upsetting this is, how wrong it is that the cattle aren’t walking in a straight line. And pretty soon, the monk, if he is having a bad day maybe, will find himself enraged at the poor cows, screaming at them, screaming at the other monks who try to help him. And screaming at himself for getting angry in the first place.
Or take another example. A monk completely understands and believes that his vow of poverty is important. Maybe he took the vow when he came to the desert, gave away all his possessions, and entered a new life based on trust that God will provide for him. The monk understands that this vow is a core part of his commitment to give himself fully to contemplation with God. But then one day a demon points out to him that while of course his vow of poverty is really important and all, can he imagine how awful it would be if he fell sick, and became a burden on the other monks? The other monks have also taken vows of poverty that are sacred to them. They have nothing to share. And if the monk falls sick, he would put his brother monks in peril if they had to care for him. So it really might be better if the monk just sets aside a little extra, nothing much, just a little extra, just in case something should happen… And then the monk all of a sudden finds that he has broken his vow of poverty, and is hoarding food or money or water. And he feels ashamed, and yet, it seems so important…
It’s like that, all the way through the list.
This is where the Enneagram as we know it began. Sitting with Evagrius in the desert, watching how humans behave, talking with people about their suffering. Offering advice sometimes, in a very gentle, roundabout, humble way. Seeing how the advice played out – did it help? Did it make things worse? Evagrius contemplated humans and their suffering, and out of that contemplation he developed a cosmology of demons and angels and humans and God and Jesus. It is a great story. It is compelling, and coherent and it actually helps me a lot, when I am having troubles, to think of myself and my world and my suffering the way that Evagrius would have seen it.
When I tell you that I am a Type 6, I am telling you that I have observed in myself a somatic-affective-cognitive pattern that I believe is a product of interactions between my genetic makeup and my environment, especially my social environment. I believe that these patterns go so deep that they have become trait-like in me.
When I am having a Doubt attack, the somatic-affective-cognitive pattern is so strong that it feels like something is happening to me from the outside. Thinking about it in terms of demons makes a hell of a lot more sense in those moments than thinking about it in terms of patterns that I developed as an infant in order to ensure proximity to my mother.
But when I am not having a Doubt attack, I know that I need things to make sense in terms of the Theory of Evolution. And evolution is not intentional. So I am obsessed with finding something that has grown out of evolutionary theory, something that is not intentional but provides the same explanatory power and coherence as Evagrius’s logisimoi.
Recently, I came across something Antonio Damasio wrote about Freud. Damasio is recounting a story in which Einstein writes to Freud to ask if Freud thought there was any hope for humans. Freud answered, “not really”. Damasio believes that Freud’s pessimism grew out of what Damasio describes in humans as an “unrestrained triggering of a specific set of negative emotions, their subsequent disruption of homeostasis, and the overwhelming havoc they cause on individual and collective human behaviors.”
When I read this I thought, “Oh, Damasio has found the demons!”
“the unrestrained triggering of a specific set of negative emotions, their subsequent disruption of homeostasis, and the overwhelming havoc they cause on individual and collective human behaviors.”
To me, it seems obvious that Damasio is perfectly describing, in neurobiological terms, what Evagrius was describing in terms of demons. I believe that Damasio is describing what was going on inside the monks when they experienced themselves as being attacked by demons.
But Damasio understands this “unrestrained triggering of a specific set of negative emotions” as an unfortunate side effect of the evolution of consciousness, not as something that evolved because it served an adaptive purpose in itself. A bug, not a feature.
Evagrius believed the opposite, that the demons were an essential aspect of the human condition who served the purpose of enabling humans to learn about their true nature. A feature, not a bug.
I am looking for something that can reconcile these worlds.
Evagrius saw a monk screaming at cows because they weren’t walking in a straight line. He understood what was happening in terms of an interaction between the monk’s intention to be in a state of contemplation with God and a demon’s intention to keep the monk from that contemplation.
Damasio observing this monk would say that the monk was experiencing an “unrestrained triggering of a specific set of negative emotions”.
What would my understanding be, from the perspective of the modern Enneagram?
I would be thinking the monk’s attention was being drawn to focus on everything that was wrong with the situation. And that this focus of attention on error was causing the monk to fall into a state of physical, emotional and mental dysregulation. I would also assume that this particular monk, when he was very young, had unconsciously learned to focus on error, as the best possible way, available to him at the time, of having any hope of returning to a state of love.
What I would be seeing and thinking and feeling would be rooted in my understanding of the Theory of Evolution, and Attachment Theory, and Affect Regulation Theory, and Mentalization Theory, and my own years and years of observing myself and talking with others about our troubles.
My understanding would still not be complete. I am still obsessed. But I am getting close. I know it.
Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self by Peter Fonagy, György Gergely, Elliot L. Jurist, and Mary Target, Other Press, 2005
Affect regulation theory: A clinical model by Daniel Hill and Allan N. Schore, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015
Demons and the making of the monk: Spiritual combat in early Christianity by David Brakke, Harvard University Press
Desert Christians: An introduction to the literature of early monasticism by William Harmless, S. J., Oxford University Press, 2004
The Enneagram: Understanding yourself and others in your life by Helen Palmer, HarperCollins Publishers, 1991
Hidden in plain sight: Observations on the origins of the Enneagram by Virginia Wiltse and Helen Palmer, in The Enneagram Journal, 2011.
Mystics by William Harmless, S. J. Oxford University Press, 2008
The Sapphire Light of the Mind: The Skemmata of Evagrius Ponticus, by William Harmless, S. J. and Raymond R. Fitzgerald, in Theological Studies, 2001.
The strange order of things: Life, Feeling, and the making of cultures by Antonio Damasio, Pantheon Books, 2018