The Golden Road To Unlimited Devotion”:

The Christian Neo-Platonism of St. Maximus Confessor

by Edward Moore

St. Elias Orthodox Theological Seminary


The Basic Ideas of Neo-Platonism

As a philosophical movement, Neo-Platonism is rich and complicated in its doctrines, with no two thinkers agreeing on more than the fundamental presuppositions of the tradition.  It is these presuppositions that I will examine, briefly, here.

            First, and most importantly, Neo-Platonists shared a belief in a hyper-transcendent ‘deity’ (though surpassing all deity) known as “the One” (to hen, monad, henad).  This entity is pure and impassible, beyond all efforts at contemplation and conceptualization.  The infinite power and goodness of the One produces, or emanates, a second divine entity known as the Intellect (nous) or Dyad.[12]  This entity is the being of the One hypostatized, and is accordingly both at rest, insofar as it contemplates the One, and in motion, to the extent that it gives life to the forms or logoi that it contains within itself as thoughts.[13]  These thoughts, when given independent existence in actuality, result in the third and final divine entity (the second emanation from the One), the World-Soul.  Like the Intellect, the World-Soul has two modes of being: at rest, insofar as it contemplates the Intellect as its principle and source, and in motion, since it is the productive principle of nature and life, i.e., of multiplicity (individual souls).

            This general schema, which is actually that of the ‘founder’ of Neo-Platonism, Plotinus, underwent many revisions throughout the late Hellenistic and Byzantine eras, yet without ever losing its general structure.  One very important revision we owe to Iamblichus of Apamea (d. ca. 330 A.D.), the student of Porphyry and the inspiration of Proclus.[14]  This consisted in the introduction of a ‘One-beyond-the-One,’ i.e., a One that is even more transcendent and primal than the Plotinian One.  This revision had the important consequence of making the “One-Intellect-Soul” triad of Plotinus into a more concrete, cohesive, and dynamic productive power; for by thus removing the burden of absolute origin from this triad, Iamblichus and, to a greater extent his successor, Proclus, were able to focus on the triadic dynamism pervading, as they believed, all reality.  This conception would have a decisive influence on Christian Trinitarian speculations, most notably in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius.

            The influence of Iamblichus and his ‘One-beyond-the-One’ is prevalent in Proclus (ca. 411-485 A.D.), who, according to G.W.F. Hegel, “differs ... from Plotinus in not making Being his principle or purely abstract moment, but by beginning from unity, and for the first time understanding Being or subsistence as the third; thus to him everything has a much more concrete form.”[15]  Indeed, in the philosophy of Proclus we encounter a triadic emanationism, in which a structure of unity, procession, and return (monê, proodos, epistrophê) is found at every level of reality.[16]  This sense of dynamism in existence, with the end result being a re-unification (or, in Hegelian terms, a conscious, reflective synthesis) with God, is the result of a renewed appreciation of Aristotelian metaphysics among later Neo-Platonic philosophers.[17] 

            St. Maximus Confessor is an heir to this Aristotelianizing Platonism, and his intellectual debt is nowhere more obvious than in his Ambigua (“Difficulty”) 10, which, along with the Chapters on Knowledge,[18] will serve as the basis for my summary of his philosophy.


The Philosophy of Maximus: A Summary

Maximus’ first principle, God, is described as beyond time and essence, and totally inaccessible to contemplation.  Though God does not possess essence, which implies circumscription and limit, He is nevertheless the creator and source of all essence.  Since God is the essence-less source of all essence, it follows for Maximus that He is also infinite, i.e., without the beginning, middle, and end characteristic of created, temporal beings.  By reason of His capacity to create and give life, God is known to exist, yet the manner of His existence, being infinite and beyond time and essence, renders Him conceptually unknowable.  Further, since God is the source of all motion and life, He is active, not passive like the beings who receive their essence from Him.[19]

            God is, by virtue of His generative activity, unaffected by motion, since He is the source of all motion.  In this conception Maximus is adhering to standard Aristotelian-‘Pythagorean’ doctrine regarding the “unmoved mover.”[20]  According to Maximus, God is properly understood in terms of monad, existing in and for itself and requiring no prior cause.  For the monad is the unmoveable source of motion, since it is the cause of all number, yet is itself not susceptible to numeration, for the monad is truly one and admits, as it is, of no other.  However, if the monad, being infinite by virtue of its productive possibility, were to fail to produce duality – i.e., the dyad – then it would, paradoxically, prove itself to be finite, due to its inability to produce motion.  Therefore, Maximus concludes, the monad is the infinite and unmoved source of all number, i.e., existence.[21]

            This argument of Maximus was part of a late contribution to the Christian polemic against the pagan philosophers who insisted on the eternity of the world.[22]  John Philoponus (ca. 490-570 A.D.), the great Christian philosopher and commentator on Aristotle, is Maximus’ precursor in this regard.  It is important to understand, however, that Maximus’ discussion of the monad did not imply that God is, Himself, the monad.  Indeed, Maximus makes it quite clear that the intention of his dialectic of the monad and dyad is to “provide ourselves with a sound definition of our faith in [the Godhead], accessible to us and within our reach.”[23]  In this, Maximus is following Pseudo-Dionysius, who viewed the Trinity almost as a working definition of God for the purpose of effecting mystical union with the ever hidden and ineffable deity.[24]  For Maximus, God remains hidden from the very beginning.  Like the monad, which is the source of all multiplicity and motion, yet itself ever unmoved, so God is beyond all time and motion and is Himself infinite.[25]  This conclusion leads Maximus to view the soul as being in motion from its very inception, and in this he is opposed to the Origenist doctrine of pre-existent souls.

            This philosophical position has a direct bearing on Maximus’ doctrine of the soul.  His highly Aristotelianized brand of Platonism required him to admit of no other being at rest before the beginning of creation but God.  Not only does this position completely rule out any form of Origenism, with its doctrine of the pre-existence of souls, but it also necessitiates the rejection of a notion of a perfect state of Adam before the fall.[26]  By thus refusing to admit any sort of human-divine alliance before the fall, Maximus renders the course of human existence as a progression into ever-increasing states of sin.  As Thunberg explains, “man’s state of sinfulness is not a stable one, and the fall is not only a matter of fact given once and for all, for it grows successively worse.”[27]  Since motion, in and of itself, can never lead to God, Maximus finds in the Incarnation of the Logos the opportunity for humanity to reject motion, and enter into divine repose in and as the body of Christ.[28] 

            For Maximus, the logical conclusion to all of this is that the goal of human existence must be repose with the divinity.  In true Neo-Platonic fashion, Maximus views motion, which requires a mover or source, as ontologically inferior to rest (stasis), which is self-sufficient.  In the next section of this paper, I will examine the manner in which this metaphysical doctrine of Maximus affects and informs his thought regarding the salvation of the human soul.

Meyendorff quotes Oscar Cullmann’s remark that for Hellenism the symbolic conception of time is circular, whereas for Christianity it is linear ascent: 

The Greeks cannot conceive that deliverance could result from a divine action within temporal history.  For them, deliverance resides in the passing from our existence here below, which is linked to the cycle of time, into the beyond, freed from time and always accessible.  The Greek representation of bliss is therefore spatial, defined by opposition of the beyond to the here-below; it is not temporal, defined by opposition between present and future.

However – and as even Meyendorff himself seems to suggest, in the passage immediately following our quote – Cullmann’s generalization may not be wholly accurate.  Indeed, certain aspects of late Hellenistic theurgical practice render Cullmann’s formulation suspect. 

For example, the fourth-century pagan Neo-Platonist Iamblichus of Apamea considered the “philosopher” to be “an operative dependent on the help of superhuman forces.”[4]  

In a similar fashion St. Maximus Confessor, writing approximately 300 years after Iamblichus, describes a striving toward God, the end result of which is a state of repose, understood as the concrete expression of salvific perfection.[7]  The opposition between present and future – or, in the Maximian formulation, between kinêsis and stasis – is, of course, fully present in the text of Maximus,[8] as it is in Iamblichus.  Both thinkers conceive of movement toward the deity as movement toward repose, staticity, with the resultant loss, or “sublimation,”[9] of unique, personal expression, or personhood

Yet in the writings of both the pagan Iamblichus and the Christian Maximus, this staticity is presented and described in positive terms as the union of the deity with humanity – i.e., theôsis.[10]  In this similarity between the two thinkers,[11] I believe we find a good reason to abandon the rather artificial formulation of Cullman regarding the circularity of “Greek” metaphysics versus the “linearity” of the “Christian” version. 

In this paper I will examine the place of Maximus’ thought in the development of Neo-Platonism, and show how his system is properly understood as the culmination of a gradual synthesis of pagan and Christian speculative philosophies. 


Maximus’ Doctrine of the Soul and Salvation

Maximus’ metaphysic is not intrinsically emanationist, for it does not imply an essentialism of pre-existent souls, in communion with divine being, that would eventually fall from their state of perfection and thereby bring into existence the material cosmos (as was the case with Origen and Origenism).  However, in reversing the Origenist ontological triad of rest, motion, and production (stasis, kinêsis, genesis) and replacing it by production, motion, and rest (genesis, kinêsis, stasis),[29] Maximus is, far more than Origen, interpreting Christian doctrine in terms of Greek philosophy.  Origen, as I have pointed out elsewhere, rejected the Platonic notion that salvation should consist in a total immersion in the Good, with a consequent loss of self-consciousness and self-determination.[30]  Maximus, in his zeal to present the post-salvation existence of the soul in terms of the Chalcedonian hypostatic union of natures in Christ,[31] ends up reducing the individual existence, i.e., personhood, of the soul to a function of the deity.[32]   

            According to Maximus, when the human being (understood as a composite of soul and body) achieves salvation “only God shines forth through body and soul when their natural features are transcended in overwhelming glory.”[33]  Lars Thunberg elaborates on this Maximian conception by stating that the human being “should receive Him [God] as a substitute for his own ego ...”.[34]  This idea should be set in sharp contrast to Origen’s belief that even after the apokatastasis the possibility for a second fall still remains.[35]  For Origen did not understand the salvific state as involving a loss of the individual will (or, as Maximus would put it, the gnomic will)[36] of human beings; rather, Origen viewed salvation as a conscious, self-reflective subsistence and communion with God in pure love.[37]  For Maximus, the end result of the human-divine relationship implies or suggests a very negation of the two modes of being – that of God and humanity – that made this relationship possible in the first place.  In this Maximus is closer to Iamblichus than to Origen.  Here is Iamblichus’ description of salvation:

Through the activities [of the divine creative power] and its reasonings and craftsmanship, the divinely aligned soul [theourgikên psukhên] is brought to final rest [teleôs histasthai].  And the soul is absorbed [entithêsin] into the divine power.[38]  

Let us compare this with Maximus: 

Those who have been drawn into the closest possible relationship to God, and through understanding of Him have born the fruit of blessedness, and are turned towards themselves alone and God, have completely withdrawn from the bonds of practical activity and matter by a sincere breaking with material relationships, and adapted themselves to contemplation and to God.  Therefore, they say, they remain changeless.[39]


In both of these passages reference is made to a “divinely aligned soul,” i.e., one having “the closest possible relationship to God.”  This clearly implies some act of will on the part of the individual.  Yet the contemplation (theôria) to which Maximus refers does not imply an actively engaged effort at penetrating or understanding the divine mind, but rather the clear and effortless presence of the divine mind filling the mind of the receptive soul – for, as he states, the souls “remain changeless.”[40]

As Plotinus stated, the end of all activity is contemplation, and “[a]ction seeks to achieve indirectly what it cannot achieve directly,” i.e., through contemplation.[41]  The highest contemplation, for Maximus, which is also understood as the highest state of being, is qualitatively akin to, if not identical with, the idea of the salvific state expressed by Iamblichus: absorption into the godhead.

Now there are certain passages in Maximus’ writings that seem to suggest a more dynamic understanding of humanity’s post-salvific state.[42]  However, when looked at more carefully in the larger context of his systematic philosophy, the end result of all human activity vis-à-vis the deity is always the same.  Here is Maximus describing the final state of the soul:


[I]t becomes God through participation in divine grace by itself ceasing from all activities of mind and sense and with them the natural activities of the body which become Godlike along with it in a participation of deification proper to it.  In this state only God shines forth through body and soul when their natural features are transcended in overwhelming glory.[43]


It is clear from this passage that the soul, in its salvific repose, can no longer be viewed as a distinct person, but rather as a function of the deity.  For while Maximus does seem to suggest that that the natural faculties of the soul – i.e., those parts of the soul which make of it a distinctive person – are deified in a manner that is in cooperation with the personal efforts of the soul, the fact that this cooperation is the end of all motion and becoming effectively renders any further role of the person null and void.

The ‘founder’ of Neo-Platonism, Plotinus, reached a similar conclusion, and remarked on his death-bed that one should “return the divine in oneself to the Divine in the All.”[44]  From our discussion thus far I believe it is correct to recognize Maximus as a thinker in the long and noble Neo-Platonic tradition.  It is now time to consider the philosophy of Maximus as it stands within this tradition.   


The Place of Maximus in the Neo-Platonic Tradition

Neo-Platonism is a philosophy of salvation.[45]  While it is true that the thinkers in that tradition discoursed on a wide variety of topics including mathematics, astronomy, rhetoric, literature, and history, they were concerned, above all, with the manner in which the soul will effect its release from the bonds of the material realm in order to re-attain its true mode of existence: subsistence within the godhead.  This concern is variously addressed by Porphyry (the pupil of Plotinus) and Iamblichus.  The former thinker was, as Copleston has adequately summarized, more concerned with the religious and ascetical aspect of the philosophical life than his teacher had been.[46]  Porphyry, in a manner very similar to Maximus, stressed the necessity of apatheia, or the absence of passion or desire directed toward that which is lower than God.[47]  This emphasis on ascetical discipline lost its centrality in the doctrines of Iamblichus, for whom theourgia (divine activity or ritual) played a more central role.[48] 

            I have already mentioned Iamblichus’ positing of a ‘One-beyond-the-One,’ i.e., of a One even higher and more transcendent than that posited by Plotinus.  According to Iamblichus, this hyper-transcendent One is beyond even the Good, and is the source of the Plotinian trinity of “One, Intellect, and Soul.”[49]  By positing a source for the very foundation of Plotinus’ metaphysic, Iamblichus effectively circumscribed the very locus of human salvation, and rendered it determinate.  In a similar fashion, Maximus, as we have seen, located all determinate existence within the realm of the dyad – i.e., in the realm of motion, becoming.  Beyond this realm there is God, the wholly transcendent and ineffable source of Being.  Salvation, according to Maximus, consists in leaving this determinate realm of motion and change behind, and uniting with the godhead.

            The great successor of Iamblichus, Proclus (in a move that likely provided the indirect inspiration for Maximus’ analysis of the monad and the dyad) posited a ‘One-in-itself’ (to auto hen) which is responsible for the production of the units (henades) that are themselves the source of all intellectual existence.[50]   The concrete emanatory expression of these henads is the triad “Being, Life, Thought” (i.e., noêtoi, noêtoi kai noeroi, noeroi).[51]  For Proclus, these three stages of emanation from the ‘One-in-itself’ serve as the productive ground of every successive emanation, to the extent that a monad is recognized as subsisting as substrate at every level of existence.[52] 

Such a notion of imminent causality is surely at work in the Maximian triad of “Being, well-being, and Eternal Being” [to einai kai eu einai kai aeai einai].[53]  For with Maximus the intellectual life is most clearly defined as that mode of existence most adapted to the salvific struggle.  Therefore, “Being and Eternal Being” are identical, being distinguished only qualitatively by the soul that is always already suspended between Being and non-being – i.e., from the perspective of a fallen soul that is, accordingly, ontologically neutral.  “Well-being” is understood as the mediator between these two complimentary poles of Being, insofar as it is the expression of the concrete ontological reaction (on the part of the human soul) to the realization of a dynamic existence or existential possibility.[54]  For Being and Eternal Being belong, according to Maximus, to the essence of the human being, while “well-being” is an attribute only of the “willful (self-)determination” (gnômikê epitêdeioti)[55] of the soul as it strives to find a place within and amidst the ever-shifting morass of hylic existence.  For my well-being has meaning, at any given point, only to the extent that my conscious actualization of that being bears out the possibilities of and for a self-determinate (even unto the point of transgression) life that reflects the monadic source of all life and ek-sistence:[56] God.

This “willful (self-)determination” or gnomic will, however, is not recognized by Maximus as the seat of the person.  Rather, he understands this aspect of our nature as having arisen only through sin, and therefore does not consider this will to be an essential component of our nature.[57]  It follows that the person is not, for Maximus, an active, self-authenticating existent, but a hypostasis; and it is in this capacity as hypostasis that the soul attains communion with God.  While Meyendorff insists that the hypostasis is understood by Maximus in a dynamic fashion,[58] it is hard to escape the implications of the following passage from Maximus, which Meyendorff himself quotes:


[N]othing that is natural, and certainly no nature itself, would ever resist the cause of nature, nor would the intention [gnômê], or anything that belongs to the intention, if it agreed with the logos of nature.[59]


The Stoic tenor of this passage is unmistakeable.  Here Maximus, like the Stoics, is equating natural existence with alignment and agreement with the logos.[60]  Yet while, for the Stoics, this logos was the impersonal source of all being,[61] for Maximus the Christian, this logos was the second person (hypostasis) of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, who voluntarily took on human nature to effect our salvation.  The differences, as well as the similarities (between Stoic and Maximian conceptions), are important and instructive; for while the Stoic logos was impersonal, it nevertheless permitted the preservation of a rudimentary conception of personhood in the doctrine of eternal recurrence, which held that an individual would continue to exist throughout countless ages, albeit in an identical and cyclically determined manner.[62]  

It is important to recognize, here, the implication that personhood, for Maximus, is not something attained, but rather something possessed by all human beings, essentially, by virtue of their creation.  We have seen, above, how Maximus viewed the soul as in motion from its very inception, yet caught up in a motion that is away from God, not toward Him.  The Incarnation is the remedy for this transgressive state.  However, instead of recognizing the Incarnation as healing the individual human being as such (with its gnomic will or ‘attained self’ intact),[63] Maximus understands salvation in a cosmic manner, i.e., as healing the nature of humanity in the abstract and returning that nature to its originally intended function as a more or less transparent image of the glory of God.  But this is not the only purpose of salvation.  According to Maximus, the Incarnation would have occurred even if the fall had never happened, for God’s purpose in creation is to provide Himself an occasion for a ‘bodily manifestation’ (ensomatosis).[64]  Again we encounter, in perhaps the strongest terms yet, the Maximian subordination of the human being to a function of the godhead.

Now while Maximus certainly considered the human soul as a partner or ‘co-operator’ with God,[65] his understanding differed significantly from that of the earlier Neo-Platonists, especially Plotinus, insofar as the latter was convinced that each human soul was a co-creator of the cosmos, while Maximus held (conformably to Christianity) that every soul is a creature of God but nonetheless endowed with the ability to unite all of nature and creation and bring all into harmony with God.[66]  According to Plotinus, the individual soul is a renegade emanation of the deity.  But unlike Maximus – and the Christian tradition in general – such renegade activity, for Plotinus, does not warrant divine intervention, but merely a dialectic of salvation that arises from the purely human level.[67]  Yet, as we have seen, such was not the case with those philosophers working after Plotinus, particularly Iamblichus.  Like Maximus, Iamblichus stressed the total lack of motion, becoming, at the highest level of divinity, with the implication that it is impossible for the self-authenticating person to achieve true communion with the deity as such

In the grand flourish of pagan Neo-Platonism, before the closing of the Athenian Academy by the Emperor Justinian in 529 A.D., a final development (or perhaps devolution) took place that had a direct effect on Christian theology through the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

The Athenian scholarch Damascius (fl. ca. 520-529 A.D.) was the last great pagan Neo-Platonist, and surely had an influence on Maximus, most likely through Pseudo-Dionysius.  In an argument virtually identical to that of Maximus (discussed above), Damascius identifies the source of all multiplicity or becoming as the monad, yet he does not assign number to the ineffable One, which is beyond the monad, and hence supra-transcendent and unpredicable.[68] 

The main tendency of Damascius, however, was to downplay the efficacy of dialectic as a means to understanding the deity, for he did not believe that human words are capable of expressing the essence of the transcendent source of all things.  The best that we can hope to achieve are plausible analogies.[69]  The unaided human intellect – the true logos of Classical Greek philosophy – is now explicitly recognized as not up to the task of understanding and contemplating the godhead.  Theôria, in the sense of pure contemplation, is now replaced by theosophia and mustagôgia (“theosophy” and “mysticism”).[70]  That is to say, “wisdom” is no longer humanly attainable, but must proceed from the divinity; further, this “wisdom” is a mustêrion, and is therefore unspeakable and indescribable.  Finally, since the inadequate human intellect plays no part in the union of the finite with the infinite, the determinate with the ineffable, etc., the intellect is just as well discarded.  We have now entered the realm of the Christian Neo-Platonist par excellence: Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

In his De mystica theologia Pseudo-Dionysius describes the salvific state of the soul in the following manner:


[R]enouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he [the saved soul] belongs completely to him who is beyond everything.  Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.[71]


In this passage it is almost possible to discern an element of post-modernism, particularly Foucault’s notion of the “death of the subject.”[72]  In post-modern ‘theory’, the “death of the subject” is the result or side-effect of the extinguishing or extinction of thought through thinking:


I think, therefore I am not.  I think, therefore I do not exist.  Who am I?  A blank domino, a joker, that can take any value.  A pure capacity.  There is nothing more abstract.  I am just the plain whore of the thoughts that accost me.[73]


This passage from Serres is, of course, operating on the assumption that the so-called “death of God” has left the human being with only a constructed existence in which any and all conceptions of the nature of humanity and its purpose are narratives imposed upon us by socio-cultural forces, etc.  In such a context, the loss of any authentic sense of personhood is understandable.  The same cannot be said for a context in which God is seen as the ultimate source and end of all existence.  The problem is, the Christian Pseudo-Dionysius and the agnostic Michel Serres arrive at disturbingly similar conclusions.[74]  In his own way, I believe, Maximus recognized and attempted to overcome this problem of the loss of personhood.  The question is: was he successful?



My stated intention in this paper was to examine the place of St. Maximus Confessor in the development of a gradual synthesis of Neo-Platonic philosophy with Christian speculative thought.  The guiding question in my endeavor has been whether Christian ideas became Hellenized, or Hellenistic ideas Christianized.  As I believe I have shown, the shared philosophical fundament of these two intellectual movements does not permit a clear-cut answer to what now seems an overly simplistic question.  One thing is clear, however: Maximus inherited a set of problems – and solutions – bequeathed upon him by his Christian, as well as his pagan, precursors. 

            The main problem for Maximus, i.e., how to account for a distinct human nature after salvation, was theological and dogmatic, not strictly philosophical.  For Maximus had to be careful to avoid any crypto-Monophysitism or monenergism, while at the same time upholding the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ.  Yet to the extent that he drew upon Aristotelian arguments, probably culled from Damascius or Philoponus, in support of his argument that only God is beyond rest and motion, while all beings receive motion and rest from God, he is firmly within a late Neo-Platonic intellectual milieu.  However, Maximus realized that philosophy did not provide the answer to the profound question regarding the nature of our salvation in Christ.  Therefore, he wisely (or strategically) abandoned philosophy on this issue, and preferred to display the answer existentially, i.e., through the practice of asceticism and spiritual piety.[75]

            I will not be discussing these ascetical and spiritual doctrines of Maximus, for my concern here has been with Maximus and the history of Neo-Platonic philosophy.  However, since the ascetic doctrines of Maximus were, I believe, developed as a response to largely philosophical issues, it will be appropriate to provide a brief closing remark regarding the theoretical basis of his asceticism.

            We have seen that Maximus regarded the “willful (self-)intention” or gnomic will as a product of humanity’s fall into sin, and that this will had no place in a post-salvific existence.  Yet Maximus could not simply do away with human will altogether, lest the salvation of humanity be explicitly declared a function of the godhead.  So he developed the notion of a “natural will” (thelêma phusikon) which is essentially aligned with God and cannot be corrupted.[76]  This is the will that Jesus Christ was said to have assumed – it rendered him fully human in all things except sin.  According to Maximus, this is the will that fallen human beings (i.e., those still struggling with their gnomic will) must strive to recover.  For although the natural will is never lost, it is buried under layers of sinful sediment which must be cleared away through rigorous asceticism and piety before the soul can reunite with God. 

            In the final analysis it is difficult to see how a natural will that is not, strictly speaking, my own to will can possibly preserve me as a distinctive person.  This natural will has the characteristic of a metaphysical entity of which I partake, rather than a function of my mode of being.  Yet Maximus, like Pseudo-Dionysius before him and even Iamblichus with his theurgy and mysteries, is convinced that the Neo-Platonic “chain of emanations” – i.e. the circular, Plotinian schema of mutually subsisting entities all flowing from and back toward the One – is only properly understood as a linear ascent to God, a “golden road to unlimited devotion” – a devotion so intense and overwhelming that my own sense of self is subsumed by the glorious and ineffable object of my devotion.

            Is this conclusion truly Christian, truly Orthodox?  This question deserves, nay demands, an answer.  Our discussion here has been carried out in the hopes of providing, in a small way, the historical foundation upon which an answer may begin to be formed.




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Translations and Secondary Sources


Berthold, George C., Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press 1985).


Copleston, Frederick, S.J., A History of Philosophy, vol. 1, “Greece and Rome: Part 2” (New York: Image Books 1962).


Dillon, John, The Middle Platonists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1977).


Fowden, Garth, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (New York: Cambridge University Press 1986).


Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 2, “Plato and the Platonists,” tr. E.S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1995),

Jerome, Letters, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc. (

Louth, Andrew, Maximus the Confessor (London: Routledge 1996).


Luibheid, Colm, tr. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press 1987).


Meyendorff, John, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1975).


Moore, Edward (2001), Plotinus, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. J. Fieser and B. Dowden (


_______, “Salvation and the Human Ideal: Plato, Plotinus, Origen,” in Proceedings of the First Annual Conference of the Ancient Philosophy Society (Villanova University 2001).


O’Brien, Elmer, S.J., tr. The Essential Plotinus (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company 1964).


Scheck, T.P., tr., Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 1-5, in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 103 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press 2001).


Siorvanes, Lucas, Proclus: Neo-Platonic Philosophy and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press 1996).


Thunberg, Lars, Man and the Cosmos: The Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1985).



Other Works Consulted


Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things (New York: Random House 1994).


Serres, Michel, Genesis, tr. G. James and J. Nielson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 1995).



[1] “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” is the title of a song by the Grateful Dead, from their first album.

[2] J. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1975), p. 57.

[3] O. Cullmann, Le Christ et le temps (Neuchâtel: Paris 1947), p. 36; quoted in Meyendorff, p. 57.  Cf. also Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor (London: Routledge 1996), p. 75, for another example of this oversimplification of Neo-Platonic thought.

[4] Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (New York: Cambridge University Press 1986), p. 132.

[5] Or “theurgy” – literally “divine works” or rituals, akin to magical practice but without any direct practical outcome.  Rather, theurgy was intended to raise the soul of the practicioner to proximity to divine beings.

[6] Iamblichus, De mysteriis 1.12.42, tr. in Fowden, p. 133.

[7] Maximus, Chapters on Knowledge 2.86, tr. G.C. Berthold, in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press 1985), p. 166.

[8] Cf. Meyendorff, p. 133.

[9] Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor, p. 41.  Cf. also Lars Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos: The Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1985), p. 89, where Maximus is paraphrased as stating that the human being, through mediation, “should receive [God] as a substitute for his own ego.”  Such a notion certainly strikes me as involving the loss of personhood, even though Louth uses the term “sublimation” precisely to avoid this charge.  However, I am not convinced that this subtle apologia is sufficient or accurate.  But I will examine this question in more detail below.

[10] Iamblichus, De mysteriis 10.5; Maximus, Chapters on Knowledge 2.88, and elsewhere.

[11] My choice of Iamblichus for comparison is not arbitrary, but made on the consideration that he had a decisive influence on the thought of Proclus, who in turn influenced Pseudo-Dionysius, one of the main influences on Maximus.

[12] Plotinus, Enneades 5.2.1; cf. also the section on Speusippus in John Dillon, The Middle Platonists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1977), esp. p. 12.

[13] Plotinus, Enn. 6.9.2; cf. also Edward Moore (2001), Plotinus, “Part 1: Metaphysics and Cosmology,” in Fieser, Dowden, ed., The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

[14] Proclus, Theologia Platonica 3.44.1-5.

[15] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 2, “Plato and the Platonists,” tr. E.S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1995), p. 435).

[16] Proclus, Institutio theologica 31.1-34.15ff.; Theologia Platonica 2.4, 3.14, 4.1.

[17] Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, vol. 1, “Greece and Rome: Part 2” (New York: Image Books 1962), pp. 221-226; also Lucas Siorvanes, Proclus: Neo-Platonic Philosophy and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press 1996), pp. 114-121.

[18] An alternate English title for this treatise is Centuries on Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation of the Son of God.  I prefer the less unwieldy alternative.

[19] Maximus, Chapters on Knowledge 1.1-10.

[20] Aristotle, Physica 256a4-21ff.; Simplicius, In Physica 620-25ff.

[21] Maximus, Difficulty 10, 1184B-1185C.

[22] For the entirety of Maximus’ argument, begin at Difficulty 10, 1176D.  This particular train of thought ends at 1188Cff.

[23] Difficulty 10, 1185C, tr. Louth, Maximus the Confessor, p. 143. 

[24] Ps.-Dionysius, De mystica theologia 141.2-142.4; and on the monad and the trinity, De divinis nominibus 229.3-5.

[25] Difficulty 10, 1185D-1188A; Louth, p. 143.

[26] Maximus, Quaestiones ad Thalassium 61.111ff.; also Thunberg, pp. 59-60.

[27] Thunberg, p. 56.

[28] Chapters on Knowledge 2.84, 86.

[29] Meyendorff, pp. 132-133.

[30] Edward Moore, “Salvation and the Human Ideal: Plato, Plotinus, Origen,” in Proceedings of the First Annual Conference of the Ancient Philosophy Society (Villanova University 2001).  Cf. also Origen, De Principiis 2.11.7, where Origen discusses the “spiritual food” that will nourish the soul once it has achieved salvation.  While Origen understands this “food” as the eternal and inexhaustible mysteries of the divine creation, which will be actively contemplated by the mind of the soul, Maximus considers this “food” to be merely sustenance, maintaining the soul in staticity for all eternity (Chapters on Knowledge 2.88). 

[31] Thunberg, p. 64.

[32] Such is my contention.  While I recognize that Maximus sought to avoid this impasse, I do not believe he was successful, as I will explain below.

[33] Chapters on Knowledge 2.88, tr. Berthold, p. 167.

[34] Thunberg, p. 89.

[35] Jerome, Letters 124.3.

[36] Capita de caritate 3.25; Meyendorff, p. 136-137.

[37] Origen, Commentary on Romans 5.10.15.

[38] Iamblichus, De mysteriis 10.6.10-13, my translation.

[39] Difficulty 10, 1109C-D, tr. Louth, p. 99.

[40] Cf. also Iamblichus, De mysteriis 10.5.31-35.  Here, henôsis is spoken of in terms identical to the Maximian theôsis.

[41] Plotinus, Enneades 3.8.6, tr. Elmer O’Brien, The Essential Plotinus (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company 1964), p. 167.

[42] Difficulty 10, 1113B-C; Chapters on Knowledge 1.35, 1.47.

[43] Chapters on Knowledge 2.88, tr. Berthold, p. 167.

[44] Porphyry, Vita Plotini 2.26-27, my translation.

[45] Copleston, p. 216: “Neo-Platonism was really the intellectualist reply to the contemporary yearning for personal salvation.”  Cf. also Moore (2001), Neo-Platonism, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: ; and Dillon, p. 27. 

[46] Copleston, p. 217.

[47] Porphyry, Ad Marcellam 29.  Cp. Maximus, Capita de caritate 1.2, 2.58, 3.9.

[48] Copleston, p. 220; Hegel, p. 432.

[49] Cf. Damascius, De principiis 1.86.3-6.

[50] Proclus, Institutio theologica 3.7-4.7; Theologia Platonica 2.4.

[51] Theol. Plat. 3.14.4-9, 4.1.5-12.  Cf. also Copleston, pp. 222-223.  This triad is perhaps better translated as “Thought, Thought-Thinking-Itself, Understanding” (cf. Hegel, p. 449). 

[52] Inst. theol. 27.

[53] Capita de caritate 3.23.2-3.

[54] Difficulty 10, 1193D.

[55] Capita de caritate 3.25.5; my rendering.

[56] By ek-sistence I mean the inherent insistence and persistence of the human being as s/he strives heroically to maintain and sustain Life.

[57] Meyendorff, p. 137, 149.

[58] Meyendorff, pp. 145-147.

[59] Maximus, Opuscule 7, 80A, tr. Louth, p. 185; Meyendorff, p. 147, quoting a different translation.

[60] Cf. Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum 7.87.1-5ff.

[61] Ibid., 7.147.1-12.

[62] Chrysippus, Fragmenta logica et physica 625.1-15; cf. also Simplicius, In Aristotelis physicorum libros commentaria 10.886.11-16.  In entertaining this question, the Neo-Platonist Simplicius reveals himself as particularly sensitive to the issue of the preservation of the person, and the manner of existence of the virtuous soul, i.e., whether it is a unified or fragmented existent.

[63] Cf. Thunberg, p. 146, where he insists that the human effort to attain communion with God is not negated, but rather maintained by a “gnomic emigration” toward God, which is somehow supposed to be understood as preserving the freedom of intention of the individual.  The “satisfaction” of this human desire for God, however, is still described in terms of loss of personhood, insofar as the end result is rest, repose, the cessation of all self-determinative activity.

[64] Thunberg, pp. 74-75.

[65] Ibid., p. 66.

[66] Ibid., p. 73.

[67] Cf. Plotinus, Enn. 4.8.4.

[68] Damascius, De princ. 1.2.17-25.

[69] De princ. 1.85.8-15. 

[70] Damascius, In Parmenidem 212.17-19, 10.17-25; De Princ. 1.284.22-285.4.  Cf. also Copleston, p. 224.

[71] Ps.-Dionysius, De mystica theologia 144.12-15 (1001A), tr. C. Luibheid, in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press 1987), p. 137.

[72] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Random House 1994).

[73] Michel Serres, Genesis, tr. G. James and J. Nielson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 1995), p. 31.

[74] I am not seriously suggesting a rigorous comparison between these two thinkers, but rather simply endeavoring to provide a sufficiently shocking point of agreement between two very different thinkers.

[75] On this topic see Louth, pp. 43-47, where he arrives at a rather different conclusion, with which I disagree.

[76] Meyendorff, pp. 137-138.