Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The love of apatheia

What if passion is an impediment to love? When studying the early church, students seem to find no idea as foreign to their own context as the counsel to put aside the passions. Sentiment, after all, is the only universal we have left. Having banished truth and beauty to the realm of the relative, the only appeal to a common humanity left to us is a single finger gesturing to the heart. Can we moderns say with the desert monastics that passion is demonic?

In the City of God, Augustine searches out the misery of the demons. The word daemon refers to "knowing", but theirs is not a dispassionate knowledge or a cold reason. What makes the demons miserable is that they are essentially all knowledge and all passion. Yet, one thing they lack. Citing 1 Corinthians 8:1, Augustine reasons with Paul to say that "knowledge is of no benefit without love. Without love... [knowledge] swells people up with a pride that is nothing but empty windiness." Bereft of love, the demons become the rage that is perfect knowledge united with frustrated passion. Demons are beings of knowledge unconditioned by love.

For Augustine, passions are sanctified by the godly mind, to be "instruments of justice... The question is not whether the godly mind is angered, but why; not whether it is saddened, but why." The passions are rightly utilised to the extent that they empower compassion. 

So we might ask: can apatheia enable love? Does the denial of passion open the door to compassion? Frances Young reflects on this question with reference to caring for her son, Arthur, who was born with a severe learning disability. For Young, Apatheia is not mere emotional suppression. “Apatheia, which Evagrius believes is never actually attained in this life, should be understood as ‘emotional integration’, or that detachment which is essential to true love” (God's Presence, 292). Not only does apatheia enable love, it reveals the true character of love to us:

“Sometimes what passes for love is really self-centred anxiety, as I have realized when time and again distressed by Arthur’s distress, finding it hard to cope when he is unsettled, unwell, or in pain, cannot express what is wrong, and the more we try to sort the problem the more frantic and furious he gets, hating to be handled, not understanding that we’re trying to deal with his discomfort. Frustration mounts, creating its own distress and anger, which hardly helps his—in fact, compounds it. Too easily inner demons of self-pity, a sense of failure, inadequacy and helplessness take over. So I recognize that I really need apatheia in order to love properly. Love requires a degree of detachment, an ability to let the other person be, to be ‘other’, to be what they are rather than what you want them to be.” (292-293).

The practice of apatheia might just be a way of laying down our lives for the sake of another.


Richard Beck said...

In psychology we'd talk about the tensions between sympathy and individuation. Our sympathetic responses create an emotional fusion between Self and Other. While vitally important, this ability to identify with and suffer with others, this fusion can be unhealthy. So for sympathy, compassion and love to be healthy some degree of individuation needs to be in place, a boundary between self and other.

Peter said...

Buddhist detachment, as I understand it, is closer to this notion of apatheia than to the indifference that many Westerners understand to be at the heart (!) of avoidance of suffering in Buddhism. Likewise, from a completely different perspective, is the existential approach to psychotherapy (the late Irvin Yalom was the master). I think it is also the key to the notion of "accurate empathy" in Counselling 101 - the ability to put into words or body language what another is feeling. (Perhaps this notion draws on the boundary-making to which Richard Beck refers in his comment.) It is a widespread, diverse notion, and it is nice to see how this post draws it out from the seemingly dense insights of the Desert Fathers and the fine applied wisdom of Frances Young. Good stuff, thank you.

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