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The Ethos Of Monophysitism


Monophysitism originated in a monastery. Eutyches, "the father of the
monophysites," was a monk. The monastic temperament is peculiarly
susceptible to this heresy, and the monastic element has always been
dominant in the monophysite churches. The cloister is the natural
habitat of the doctrine of the one nature. Monasticism is applied
monism. If the world's existence be a sham, if its value compared with
God be negligible, it becomes a religious duty to avoid all influences
that heighten the illusion of the world's real existence and intrinsic
value. The monist, like the monk, must renounce all secular interests
and "go out of the world." The path of renunciation had an additional
claim on the Christological monist. In his universal ideal, as
manifested in time, the human elements were sublimated into the divine.
Consequently his ideal of conduct imposed a negative attitude towards
the world and a merging of his ego in the universal spirit. These are
the ruling elements in the spirit of the cloister, and these are the
characteristics of the monophysite ethos.

Those men, to whom God is the sum of all reality and the world merely a
cosmic shadow, regard worship as the sole worthy activity of the human
spirit. In worship union with God is sought, a union so close that the
personality of the worshipper is absorbed into the being of the
worshipped. His experience of God is so intimate that his experience
of the world is reduced to insignificance. As an overpowering human
love welds two beings into one, and identifies their thoughts, wills,
springs of action and even feelings, so the amor dei identifies man
with God and makes possible a deification of humanity. Deeply
religious natures in all ages have heard this mystic call. To lose
their ego in the divine spirit is the height of their religious
ambition. The conception is lofty, but it is not the Christian ideal
of life and duty.

Mysticism and monophysitism are twin systems. Both are religious
phases of pantheism. As, to the intellect, acosmism is the corollary
of pantheism, so, to the heart, asceticism follows from mysticism.
Whether conceived in terms of existence or of value, the world for the
mystic is an obstacle to the unio mystica. It snares the mind
through the senses and creates a fictitious -appearance of solid
reality in sensuous objects. It makes pretensions to goodness and
attaches to itself a spurious value. The only remedy is self-denial,
denial of existence to the world, denial of credence to the senses,
denial of gratification to the passions, desires, and inclinations.
The monophysites were mystics. They were the rigorists of the eastern
church. They formed the "no compromise" party. They stood for a
thorough-going renunciation of the world and the flesh. Though they
did not officially lay down the inherent evil of matter, Manicheanism
is latent in their system. They did not explicitly identify matter
with the spirit of evil, but they had the spiritual man's suspicion of
matter and his contempt for the body of the flesh. Abstinence,
mortification of the flesh, and all ascetic practices flourished in
their communion. Art and culture were suspect; they had no eye for
natural beauty. Some of their hymn-writers possessed considerable
poetic taste; but poetry was discouraged by their leaders. Several of
the extant letters of Severus of Antioch show that that patriarch did

his best to banish that art from his church. His attitude may be
gathered from the following quotation.[1] "As to Martyrius, the poet,
... I wish you to know that he is a trouble to me and a nuisance.
Indeed in the case of the others also who follow the same profession,
and were enrolled in the holy clergy of the Church that is with us, I
have debarred them from practising such poetry; and I am taking much
trouble to sever this theatrical pursuit from ecclesiastical gravity
and modesty, a pursuit that is the mother of laxity and is also capable
of causing youthful souls to relax and casting them into the mire of
fornication, and carrying them to bestial passions." The result of
this asceticism was a jaundiced and inhuman outlook on life. There was
much piety among the monophysites, but it was confined to a narrow
channel. Their zeal for purity of doctrine amounted to fanaticism;
their hatred of the Nestorian and of the Melchite at times reached a
white heat. Toleration was almost unknown in their communion.

The claims of humanity appeal less to a monophysite than to other
Christians. He places all life's values in the other world. He has no
motive for trying to ameliorate the lot of his fellow-men. Social
service has to him little or no divine sanction or religious value. We
are speaking only of general tendencies. No follower of Christ,
however perverted his views, could be totally indifferent to the
welfare of other men; but it came natural to the monophysite to think
that it does not matter much how a man lives in this world of shadows,
provided he holds communion with the world of unseen realities. The
same motive accounts for the rapid decline of missionary activity in
their communion. The Nestorians were far more active propagandists.
Worship is a very high type of service; but worship becomes selfish and
sickens into sentiment, if it neglects the inspiring tonic of contact
with human need. The monophysite Christology encouraged that form of
self-sacrifice, whose goal is Nirvana, which lapses lazily into the
cosmic soul and loses itself there in contemplation and ecstasy. It
supplies no motive for that finer piety which manifests itself in
ethical endeavour and practical philanthropy. His Christ had not
partaken of the cup of suffering. His Christ's advance to human
perfection was illusory. So the monophysite could not look for the
sympathy of Christ in his own struggles, nor could he appeal to
Christ's example in respect of works of human charity. Monophysitism
considers only the religious nature of man, and takes no account of his
other needs. We must therefore characterise the system as unsocial,
unlovely, unsympathetic.

The uncompromising attitude of the individual monophysites was
reflected in their ecclesiastical polity. We cannot but admire their
sturdy independence. The monophysite church stood for freedom from
state control. Her principles were the traditional principles of the
Alexandrian see. Alexandria would not truckle to Constantinople, nor
let religion subserve imperial policy. She would allow the catholic
party to be Melchites (King's men) and to reap all the temporal
advantages accruing to the established church. In this matter the
monophysites took a narrow view; but their narrowness evinces their
piety. They felt the evils attendant on Constantine's grand
settlement, and they made their ill-judged protest. They made it for
no unworthy motive. There are always such thinkers in the church. A
spiritual enthusiast despises the outward dignity that the church gains
from an alliance with the State, and is often blind to the spiritual
benefits conferred on the nation by that alliance, while he
concentrates his gaze on incidental evils. To connect with Christology
such an attitude towards the principle of Establishment may seem forced
at first sight. The connection, however, exists. Independence of the
temporal power is symptomatic with that unworldliness which, as we have
shown above, characterises monophysitism. Its adherents paid no
respect to the human as such. They attached no value to merely human
institutions, and made no attempt to see or foster the divine that is
in them. The argument that because the State is a human institution it
should have no voice in ecclesiastical policy is typically monophysite;
it is the argument of one who could draw no inspiration from the human
life of the Son of God.

Mysticism and rationalism have much in common. They both are elements
in the mental composition of almost every serious thinker. The
sterility of logic often drives him to seek a higher and surer
instrument of knowledge. So there is no inconsistency in further
characterising the monophysites as rationalists. The intellectuals of
the eastern church were found mostly in their communion. Theirs was
the formal logic point of view. Christ, they urged, was one and not
two; therefore His nature was one and not two. They could not see that
He was both. In Bergsonian language, they used exclusively mechanical
categories. Intelligence, an instrument formed by contact with matter,
destined for action upon matter, they used on a supra-material subject.
Their thinkers were highly trained logicians; they revelled in abstract
argument; theirs was a cold intellectual metaphysic, unwarmed by flesh
and blood empiricism.

Their narrow outlook on life, their religious zeal and their
rationalist philosophy combined to produce in them sectarianism of an
extreme type. Party spirit ran high among them. They fought the
catholics; they fought the Nestorians; they fought one another. The
list of schisms that occurred in their communion is of amazing length.
The letters of Severus of Antioch make sad reading. They show us that
the patriarch had constantly to interfere in cases of disputed
succession to bishoprics. At almost every vacancy in the provincial
dioceses there were parties formed each with their own nominee, ready
to schismatise if they could not secure recognition and consecration
for him. It is evident that monophysitism does not foster the
generous, tolerant, humane virtues of Christianity. It is the creed of
monks, mystics, and intellectualists.

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