Powers of the Soul

We should use the three aspects of the soul fittingly and in accordance with nature, as created by God. We should use our incensive power against our outer self and against Satan. “Be incensed,” it is written, “against sin” (Ps. 4:4), that is, be incensed with yourselves and the devil, so that you will not sin against God. Our desire should be directed towards God and towards holiness. Our intelligence should control our incensive power and our desire with wisdom and skill, regulating them, admonishing them, correcting them and ruling them as a king rules over his subjects (The Philokalia, vol. 1, p. 184).

The Philokalia is a collection of texts by spiritual masters of the Eastern Orthodox Church hesychast tradition. The texts were written between the fourth and fifteenth centuries for the guidance and instruction of monks who undertook contemplative life. The Greek word “philokalia” comprises two separate words, which together signify love of the beautiful and the good.

In The Philokalia, the writers are agreed that the soul has three distinct aspects or powers: the appetitive, the incensive, and the intellect. (Greek Christian Fathers accepted this three-part formulation that originated with Plato.) The first two powers can be used naturally to one’s benefit, or unnaturally to one’s disadvantage. Using these powers naturally and beneficially prepares one to receive Christ. Unnatural use is the result of having been overcome by demons that adulterate these God-bestowed powers, and thus prevent those whom they corrupt from preparing themselves to receive Christ.

For example, the appetitive power is used naturally and beneficially when one loves and desires to know God with all one’s heart, or—for the yet unredeemed—when one loves the beautiful and the good. And conversely, the appetitive power is used unnaturally when one is driven by desires for worldly gain or sensory pleasures: for example, the desire that leads a person to crave admiration or to become gluttonous.

The soul’s incensive power is misused when it is directed toward those who interfere with one’s desire or conceit. This misuse is experienced as anger or rancor toward another whom one holds responsible for one’s discontent, having had one’s desire or conceit thwarted. Naturally and beneficially, the incensive power can be used to intensify one’s longing for God or to ward off demonic anger towards others. By relying on the intellect to redirect that anger, the intensive power turns against and expels the demons who’ve infiltrated the soul, and thus obstructed unity with Christ.

The intellect is the power that guides the appetitive and incensive powers. When it is exercised well, the intellect directs the two other powers away from the temptation to yield to demonic influence. If the intellect’s power is not exercised well, the person becomes unaware of his own sin—as if spiritually blind or asleep—and becomes corrupt. (In Quaker parlance, his conscience is “seared.”)

When one is targeted by a corrupt person who discharges cruelty and deceit, one can become distracted from the primal duty to maintain purity of heart, and instead resort to blaming the sinful other for one’s own distress. A way of dealing with this temptation to blame others (which is a misuse of the incensive power) is to avoid the temptation altogether by setting a hedge between one’s soul and whatever offends. That is to say, one can create a space wherein one more easily realizes one’s intent to receive Christ. By simply preventing extraneous threats from the demonic—as given conduit by others—one eliminates interference with one’s readiness to receive Christ. For this reason, the practice of withdrawing from the world has long been a monastic and hermitic technique.

Employing such a barrier against the world is an ascetic technique to foster growth (as is the general intent of The Philokalia); it is not, however, the state of wholeness or perfection to which we are called, and likewise find heralded in early Friends’ writings. Faith does not simply avoid the maligned but acts (when directed by Christ) to confront and overcome evil by speaking truth. Such maturity of faith is known only as one receives the power of God that overcomes the world, as Christ Jesus affirms when he states:

In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33).

This aim is aspired to when one strongly loves and desires God (and for the unredeemed: when one loves and desires the beautiful and the good) so that one’s attention and heart are purified through willing one thing (Mt. 5:8). Then is the intellect rightly used, the other powers of the soul well-ordered, and the soul prepared to receive Christ. In Christ, we are fully empowered to repel demonic infiltration of the soul, and to expel all sin. Through Christ, our savior, the demons are cast out, and we become perfect; our faith makes us whole. In a world that lies in wickedness (1 Jn. 5:19) and ignorance, Christ, the power of God, is the only power stronger than the demonic.

It is better to see the sin of the world as uniform and single rather than to view its manifestations as particular properties belonging to specific corrupted persons. That is to say, in its uniformity, the world’s sin is more like an expanse of mud than it is like separate rocks situated at intervals in a field! Seeing sin as a uniform force helps the intellect direct the incensive power toward sin itself, and away from particular offenders who have succumbed to and embody demonic power.

It is written that Jesus took on and overcame the sin of the world. It is germane to this statement that sin be considered a cohesive, single condition rather than a variety of particular disorders or deeds, each being the property or possession of individual persons, which is a psychological idea. Entertaining the prevailing modern notion of individual autonomy, one may be averse to yielding the claim of the self’s possessive power, even when that possession pertains to disorders of the self! It is a turnaround to accept that it is not people who possess sin but are, in fact, possessed by sin.

The older, biblical understanding allows one to see the world’s wickedness differently, and to replace the all-too-human response of resentment or anger towards the corrupt with a response of merciful pity and concern, as did our savior, who “knew what was in man” (Jn. 2:25). In unity with Christ Jesus, we overcome that which is in man; through Christ, we overcome the world.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn. 14:3).

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