Apathy as a Christian virtue (Reflections on Gregory of Nyssa #6)
In his third sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, Gregory of Nyssa sets forth the quality of apatheia as the highest state for which Christians should strive in this life. In this the third of our reflections on his third sermon, we consider whether apatheia or ‘apathy’ really should be the goal of our faith.
Gregory of Nyssa was a fourth-century Christian theologian and one of the so-called ‘Three Cappadocians’ who made such a significant contribution to orthodox Trinitarian belief.
You can find a brief account of the life of Gregory of Nyssa in my first article here.
In our series of reflections on Gregory of Nyssa we have been working through his recorded sermons on the Lord’s Prayer.
Sermon #3 on the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed by Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come”
“To people in the UK who remember the 1980’s the word ‘apathy’ probably evokes Harry Enfield’s comedy character Kevin the Teenager, and to those slightly younger the Catherine Tate character Lauren whose every pronouncement was ‘wha’ever!’”
You may think of ‘apathy’ as an undesirable quality. To people in the UK who remember the 1980’s the word probably evokes Harry Enfield’s comedy character Kevin the Teenager, and to those slightly younger the Catherine Tate character Lauren whose every pronouncement was “wha’ever!”
The word apatheia (Greek ἀπάθεια) in Gregory’s third sermon on the Lord’s Prayer does not carry any such negative connotation.
For Gregory, apatheia is a virtue, a quality for which every Christian should strive; indeed it is the highest state of being for which Christians aim whenever they pray, “May your kingdom come.”
So if we ask that the Kingdom of God may come to us [as per the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:9-10; Luke 11:2], the meaning of our request is this: I would be a stranger to corruption and liberated from death; would that I were freed from the shackles of sin and that death no longer lorded it over me. […] Thus darkness vanishes before the presence of light, and illness passes when health has been established. The passions cease to be troublesome when apatheia has appeared; death is undone and corruption is no more when life and incorruption reign in us unopposed.
Now the ‘corruption’ of which he speaks isn’t the post-Nixon, post-Thatcherite, Wall Street idea of ‘bribery and corruption’ against which so many laws have been enacted around the world, and so many stories written over the years in the free press.
It is, rather, the inevitability of death, the inescapable ageing process to which all we mortals are subject; the human condition of which Paul speaks in his Second Letter to the Corinthians:—
Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
2 Corinthians 4:16b
Neither is apatheia here the ‘apathy’ that is understood by Westerners in the twenty-first century.
“The ‘apathetic’ Christian should in fact be all the more concerned to relieve the sufferings of others, being unconcerned with his or her own sufferings.”
Rather, it is that serene state of mind whereby we are emotionally unaffected by the things we suffer in this life. You might translate it ‘detachment’.
‘If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…’
Rudyard Kipling, ‘If—’
Hence the apatheia to which Gregory exhorts us to strive is not a callous imperviousness to the sufferings of others; rather, it is a serene calmness in the face of one’s own sufferings.
And so, on the contrary, the ‘apathetic’ Christian should in fact be all the more concerned to relieve the sufferings of others, being unconcerned with his or her own sufferings.
Apatheia as a New Testament virtue?
The word apatheia (ἀπάθεια) does not occur in the New Testament.
That, of course, is not a reason to reject the idea. There are lots of concepts and ideas present in the New Testament for which only later Christian theology would find a theological term.
“We certainly find the idea of ‘apatheia’ suggested in the New Testament. For example, when Paul writes, ‘I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me’ (Philippians 4:12-13).”
The most obvious of these is the word ‘Trinity.’ The doctrine of the Trinity states that the Father is God, the Son (Jesus) is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; yet we do not believe in three Gods, but one God. This doctrine was developed and formulated systematically in the 4th and 5th centuries — for example at the Council of Nicaea and subsequent Church councils — and finds expression in the great Christian creeds such as the so-called Athanasian Creed, a fifth-century statement of Christian belief.
The above understanding of God, about which the term ‘Trinity’ was coined (Latin Trinitas, Greek Τριάς (Trias)), is clearly there in the New Testament (see, for example, here) and was believed by the apostles and Gospel-writers who wrote the New Testament — even though the word ‘Trinity’ wouldn’t be coined until much later.
Coming back to apatheia — detachment from one’s sufferings — we certainly find the idea suggested in the New Testament. For example, when Paul writes:—
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
The above is, if you like, the classic New Testament text for the idea of ‘apatheia.’
However, many other New Testament texts suggest that our goal is not to reach a state of being insensible to our sufferings — but rather, to trust in the Lord and stay faithful to him in the midst of our sufferings.
Thus, see how Paul again writes about his own, severe grief, and both the Corinthians’ grief and zeal:—
For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn — fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it — though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.
2 Corinthians 7:5-11
So if you ask me, “Is ‘apathy’, detachment from one’s own sufferings, a New Testament ideal?” then I would have to answer, “Not really.”
It is the ongoing trust in the Lord Jesus, and faithfulness to him, which should be our goal.
Where does apatheia as a virtue come from?
Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, by the Edict of Milan promulgated by the Emperors Constantine and Licinius.
Prior to this, it had commonly been the lot of Christians within the Empire to be tortured or martyred for their faith. Many were fed to wild beasts in the arena, as famously decried by Tertullian (circa 197 A.D.) in his mocking quip, “If there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straight away the cry is, ‘Away with the Christians to the lion!’ What! Shall you give such multitudes to a single beast?”
“One of the ideals of monasticism — and this would certainly have influenced Gregory — was that of apatheia, reaching a state whereby one was no longer blown about and beaten by the temptations of the flesh.”
After the Edict of Milan, martyrdom was not generally available as an option to Christians within the Empire as a way of attaining to a greater degree of eternal glory. So they had to find other ways to express and to practise a high level of spirituality — hence the increasing popularity of monasticism.
One of the ideals of monasticism — and this would certainly have influenced Gregory — was that of apatheia, reaching a state whereby one was no longer blown about and beaten by the temptations of the flesh.
Hence one of the very first writings on monasticism, Athanasius’ Life of Antony — a production of the mid-fourth century, although much of it is set well before the end of the third — tells of Antony of Egypt’s battle against the temptation of seeing silver laying in the desert (put there by Satan, Athanasius states!), as well as his various combats against demons in his desert cell.
Palladius’ Lausiac History, a fifth-century work, is an account of the lives of many male and female ascetics of the fourth and fifth centuries — as well as the spiritual contests in which they battled. He writes in praise of apatheia as a Christian virtue in the Prologue of this work.
Although apatheia — detachment — is an obvious virtue to be aimed at in monastic life, and indeed a noble aim for anybody: it is not so much a New Testament idea as an idea grafted into Christianity from the Stoic philosophy.
“There were certain natural affinities between the ethical ideal of Stoicism and Christianity — a faith which placed great emphasis on suffering — which inevitably led Christian thinkers to regard the Stoic apatheia as a worthy Christian virtue.”
Stoicism was a whole philosophical world view — in that sense it had a much richer meaning than the word ‘stoic’ in English today. But the ethical result of its particular world view was more or less what we call ‘stoicism’ today: the ability to remain calm and resolute in the face of one’s sufferings.
There were certain natural affinities between this ethical ideal and Christianity — a faith which placed great emphasis on suffering — which inevitably led Christian thinkers to regard the Stoic apatheia as a worthy Christian virtue.
Thus Justin Martyr, the first Christian ‘philosopher’ (c. 165 A.D.), describes apatheia as a characteristic quality of Christians. This idea was later given a much fuller development by the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 — c. 215 A.D.).
What is really important?
Whilst apatheia is a noble aim in life, and there are definite suggestions of it as a noble virtue in the New Testament — see above — yet it is not the ultimate goal of the Christian life. It is not even necessarily the mark of a really mature believer.
“The goal of the Christian life is to know Christ and his power working in us.”
The goal of the Christian life is to know Christ and his power working in us:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
And how can we do that? — by prayer, by meeting his gathered people, by repenting daily; perhaps supremely, by reading his word daily and asking his Holy Spirit to enlighten us as to its meaning.
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin…”
Why not pick up a Bible today in modern English, and start with one of the Gospels (I would suggest John), and find out what it really means to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?
The reflections in this series are based on Gregory’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer and on the Beatitudes, which can be found in Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.
You can read Gregory of Nyssa’s Third Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer online in another translation at https://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/GregoryNyssa-Homily3%20Lords%20Prayer.html.
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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ (henceforth referred to as ‘ACW 18’): pp.51-52
 ACW 18, p.187, n.68 to Gregory’s ‘The Lord’s Prayer’
 Tertullian, Apology, ch. 40. From The Ante-Nicene Fathers (10 vols.). T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1996 (henceforth referred to as ANF). Vol. III: p.47. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.iv.iii.xl.html. Note: I have very slightly adapted this quotation into more modern English.
 Athanasius, Life of Antony. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series II, Vol. IV: Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Life of Antony, ch. 11. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xvi.ii.viii.html
 Ibid., chs. 8—9. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xvi.ii.vii.html
 ACW 18, p.187, n.68 to Gregory’s ‘The Lord’s Prayer’
 Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (henceforth ANF Vol. I). Justin Martyr, Introduction. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.i.html
 ANF Vol. I. Justin Martyr, 2 Apology 1. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.iii.i.html
 ACW 18, p.187, n.68 to Gregory’s ‘The Lord’s Prayer’
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