Thursday, 30 April 2015

Daniel Robinson: Clement of Alexandria on Voluntary Akrasia

In Stromateis 2.13-15, Clement of Alexandria addresses the problem of distinguishing voluntary and involuntary sins. He follows, through the handbooks available to him, a handful of passages from Aristotle in which the latter discusses various aspects of this distinction through the terms ἀτυχεῖν, ἁμαρτάνειν and ἀδικεῖν (NE 1113b-14a; NE 1135b 16-18; EE 1223a 23; and Rhet. 1.13.16). Clement interprets these Aristotelian passages through a Stoic concept of the passions, as is evident from his quoting a source very similar to Arius Didymus’ Stoic handbook (Str. = Ar. Did.; Str. = Ar. Did. 2.7.10a.32). The Stoic point in that handbook was that passions are impulses that are disobedient to logos, reside in the hegemonikon, and consequently overpower and tyrannize human conduct. Clement appropriates Aristotle’s discussion of ἀτυχεῖν, ἁμαρτάνειν and ἀδικεῖν to explain how this passionate disobedience to logos, which subsequently tyrannizes us, is in itself up to us.

This appropriation of Aristotle is evidence of an early Christian position, at least in the Alexandrian church, concerning the problems of akrasia and moral progress. Clement’s un-Aristotelian and un-Stoic conclusion deems the phenomenon of akrasia subject to a human authority over deciding between rational and akratic action. This authority over akrasia bears significant implications for Alexandrian Christian anthropology and the subsequent monastic project of attaining theosis through apatheia.

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