Up the Endless Mountains of Desire: Perpetually Progressive Love
Posted on August 5, 2016
We can turn to Gregory of Nyssa’s “perpetual progress” (epektasis) for help in thinking about the perpetuity of pleasure, of desire escalating without exhaustion. As a part of his symbolic reading of Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai in Exodus, Gregory puts forth the idea that with each new spiritual height the soul reaches in its yearning for God, the pleasure that vision affords amplifies the soul’s capacity to yearn more intensely and reach ever new heights:
If nothing comes from above to hinder its upward thrust (for the nature of the Good attracts to itself those who look to it), the soul rises ever higher and will always make its flight yet higher—by its desire of the heavenly things straining ahead for what is still to come, as the Apostle says.
Made to desire and not to abandon the transcendent height by the things already attained, it makes its way upward without ceasing, ever through its prior accomplishment renewing its intensity for the flight. Activity directed toward virtue causes its capacity to grow through exertion; this kind of activity alone does not slacken its intensity by the effort, but increases it.
We should notice several features of perpetual progress. The first is that life with God (as the Good) is intrinsically desirable as the ultimate end in itself, and not merely for escaping hellfire (which Gregory, as an upholder of apokatastasis, rejects). The second is that this desire is transformative and escalating, such that the more we desire to see God the more we see to desire. The third, following logically from the first and second, is that this ascending desire is identical to being a better and better person, and thus one increasingly participates in the divine nature of the Good, becomes more like God. The fourth point is that God’s infinite and inexhaustible nature means that one is never done becoming more like God and closer to God, but always on the way to greater intimacy and virtue. One is already close to God, and at the same time not yet close enough to God. This leads to a fifth point, that one can and should begin this process of progress in this lifetime, and the afterlife will be a continuation of it, rather than a discontinuous break with the work of virtue in this life. A final point, explained well by a commentator named Jean Daniélou, is that the infinity of this ascent does not occur to the believer as a demoralizing or exhausting, but invigorating and peaceful:
Thus each stage is important: it is, as Gregory says, a “glory”; but the brilliance of each stage is always being obscured by the new “glory” that is constantly rising. So too the sun of the new creation, the New Testament, obscures the brightness of that first sun, the Old Law. And the laws of the soul’s growth are parallel with those of man’s collective history. And yet this is by no means to depreciate the value of each particular stage—all are good, all are stages of perfection. But the mistake would be to try to hold on to any one of them, to put a stop to the movement of the soul. For sin is ultimately the refusal to grow.
Perpetual progress is a peaceful process, one marked by intensity without impatience and satisfaction without stagnation. Perpetual progress is not restless dissatisfaction with the present, but calm and peaceable joy amidst the immanent within its larger and mysterious context of the transcendent. It is not the insatiability of the bad infinity Hegel criticizes, because at no moment does the anticipation of greater future joy sour the great joy of the present; it is not the gigantism of Enframing that Heidegger criticizes, because the joy is not an object to be stowed away for our own manipulation and reproduction, but instead stems from and makes sense within a relatedness to another, an infinite Other; it is not the mummified stasis of “Platonism” in Nietzsche’s caricature, because it is perpetually active tranquility and not a permanently inactive tranquilization; it is not the restlessness of the performance principle Marcuse criticizes, because it is an activity that is not driven by anxiety about scarcity or salvation but by assurance about salvation as something to be savored through becoming more like the Good to oneself, to others, and to the infinite Other. Perpetual progress is unlike anything we are accustomed to contemplating in modern academic philosophy.
We can learn more about perpetual progress by reflecting on Gregory’s demarcation of it from the sort of desire it is unlike. Gregory thinks that trying to find satisfaction through bodily pleasure puts us in the situation of the Hebrew slaves trying to keep up with the pharaoh’s productivity quotas for brick-making:
It is clear to everyone that whatever belongs to material pleasure consists assuredly of earth or water, whether one is concerned with the pleasures of the stomach and the table or with the pleasures of wealth. The mixture of these elements becomes clay and is so called. Those who yearn after the pleasures of clay and keep on filling themselves with them never keep the space which receives them full; for although it is always being filled, it becomes empty again before the next pouring. In the same way the brick maker keeps on throwing yet more clay into the mould while it is constantly being emptied. I think that anyone can easily perceive the meaning of this figure by looking at the appetitive part of the soul.
Using imagery much like Socrates’ description of the hedonist living like a stone-curlew, Gregory here thinks the soul’s appetite for bodily pleasure is intrinsically insatiable. Elsewhere, Gregory acknowledges that bodily pleasure can last for a while, but only at the expense of the desire that drove one to satisfy it: “A greedy appetite for food is terminated by satiety, and the pleasure of drinking ends when our thirst is quenched. And so it is with the other things…. But the possession of virtue, once it is solidly achieved, cannot be measured by time nor limited by satiety. Rather to those who are its disciples it always appears as something ever new and fresh.” Here we might do well to wonder with Spinoza whether Gregory characterizes bodily pleasure this way because he has a limited understanding of what the body can do. Saving this matter for a future discussion, we can nonetheless pull out of Gregory a threefold taxonomy of desires according to their temporality:
- cyclical desire: desire that expends itself without escalating
- insatiable desire: desire that escalates while exhausting
- perpetual desire: desire that escalates without exhaustion
The first and second kinds of desire are both Sisyphean, because one either repeats the same activities over and over, or one never finds contentment in one’s restlessness, and in both cases all the future offers is more of the same. Perpetual progress is the third kind of desire, a desire whose futurity is one of qualitative progress (“something ever new and fresh”). In the course of rightly critiquing insatiable desire (time as a joylessly ascending line), Marcuse thinks his only alternative is cyclical desire (time as a circle of joy and suffering), which puts him at odds with his trust in Eros’ capacity for self-sublimation as perpetual desire (time as a joyfully ascending line).
Pace Marcuse, even if Gregory is wrong about the body’s incapacity for perpetual desire, Gregory has a strong case for thinking that God is the ultimate (if not only) object of perpetual desire, because “the Divine is by its very nature infinite, enclosed by no boundary.” Indeed, God is encompassed by nothing because he is the All-Encompassing, including Nature within himself. It is not that finite things are not beautiful, because they are—but as Marcuse himself draws from the scala amoris (“ladder of love”) in Plato’s Symposium to describe Eros self-sublimation, the polymorphous beauties of physical things point upward to higher and higher forms, suggesting an inexhaustible wellspring of Beauty. Gregory identifies God as archetypal Beauty, through which we can adequately appreciate the ectypal beauty of finite things: “And the bold request which goes up the mountains of desire asks this: to enjoy the Beauty not in mirrors and reflections, but face to face.”
We are never done ascending the mountains of desire, because Beauty never tires of offering ever new kinds of beauty for us to partake in. Our tête-à-tête with consummate Beauty will never finish being consummated: “Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful.” Gregory’s word for loving here is eros. Here we come upon Gregory’s understanding of perpetual progress as a mystical marriage between Christ and his bride, not just the Church as a corporate body, but the individual soul as well. For Gregory, as for a great number of Christian mystics, the erotic is the best symbol we have for the love between God and the soul. “The bride then puts the veil from her eyes and with pure vision sees the ineffable beauty of her Spouse. And thus she is wounded by a spiritual and fiery dart of desire. For love [agape] that is strained to intensity is called desire [eros].” The divine Lover makes possible an infinitely escalating arousal that is endlessly restorative and restive to his bride. Using the Song of Songs as his symbolic framework, Gregory implies the sacred marriage of God and soul is a kind of eternal foreplay:
… even though she has enjoyed her share of good things as far as was in her power, He nonetheless continues to draw her on to participate in transcendent Beauty as though she had never tasted of it. In this way her desire grows as she goes on to each new stage of development; and because of the transcendence of the graces which she finds ever beyond her, she always seems to be beginning anew.
For this reason the Word says once again to His awakened bride: Arise; and, when she has come, Come (Cant. 2.13). For he who is rising can always rise further; and for him who runs to the Lord the open field of the divine course is never exhausted. We must therefore constantly arouse ourselves and never stop drawing closer and closer in our course. For as often as He says Arise, and Come, He gives us the power to rise and make progress.
The ecstasy of divine love the soul is called to experience and to reflect in benevolence to others will take on an evergreen and stable form in the life to come, and through hope for this perpetual progressive love the soul finds inspiration to be more living in the here and now. It is an eschatology of ecstasy, or if I can do that thing philosophers do and coin a new word, it is an eschatology of epecstasy—because in perpetual progress (epektasis) is not simply brought out of oneself in some static dislocation (ek-stasis), but one stretches (tasis) at (epi-) and beyond (ek-) to an ultimate and inexhaustible joy (ep-ek-tasis). It is always arriving and arising simultaneously, in the paradoxical already and not yet of the messianic One who is always coming, who loves unconditionally and allows for a utopia of unconditional liveliness, the kingdom of heaven.
According to Gregory, whereas the person who desires only immanent things is like someone trying to climb uphill in sand—toiling constantly but ironically getting nowhere—the person who desires the transcendent is pulled onto solid ground thereby, paradoxically steadfast and striving: “It is like using the standing still as if it were a wing while the heart flies upward through its stability in the good.” The restfulness Heschel finds within the Sabbath—so essential for remembering what holiness is amidst a lifestyle of toil and restlessness—exists here in perpetually progressive desire, allowing us to be at peace with the immanent and the transcendent alike in the time of the messiah that is already and not yet.
As Nietzsche rightly says, “… all joy wants eternity…wants deep, wants deep eternity.” Altering Spinoza a little bit, we could respond that Nietzsche and his followers do not yet know what eternity can do. The issue is not “Dionysus against the Crucified,” as Nietzsche claimed, but the recognition within Gregory’s Neoplatonism that the Crucified is more Dionysian, more ecstatic, more epecstatic, than Nietzsche’s blinkered anti-Platonism can recognize.
A central element of Gregory’s theology is that there are is always more of God for us to discover, that God remains perpetually mysterious even in the midst of revealing himself; with every step the soul takes in perpetual progress, it is encouraged and strengthened all the more by the grace of this divine generosity, and thus perpetual progress is a kind of re-creation through which new qualities of the self, the world, and God emerge. The heaven Gregory envisions is never boring, never harping, never just more of the same—it is qualitative progress. God’s hiddenness does not menace the present as godforsaken, but rather upholds and inspires the present as godbesotted, God-intoxicated.
The transformative inspirations of eros, in its perpetual self-sublimation or flight upward after an ever-mysterious divinity, make of eternity a perpetual and liberated play, wherein one can keep on grasping time instead of being grasped by it. This peace that passes all understanding will not just simply show up one day like Godot, but can and has to be sought after here and now in the desire for infinite Beauty that includes and grounds the myriad finite beauties, through which we strive to create a community of love that refuses the Happy Consciousness not for desiring too much, but for not desiring enough. Faith in the divinity of romance—Romanticism—is not escapism, for it envisions within this world its unrealized potential for the new Jerusalem that includes all and works for it where one is:
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
Let us overcome the seductive false consciousness that equates the eternity of the messiah with dead time. Let us see that perpetual desire—the divinity of (and who is) infinite Love—is capacious enough to include everyone and everything. The spiritual is not threatened by the physical, it is simply not exhausted by the physical: “As Charles du Bos…has defined the spiritual, it is ‘the presence of more where there had been no awareness of less.’” Let us not condemn any of the dohakei haketz who have no time for the spiritual. I believe that even when people find the language of faith too dead a language to hear it this way, ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Ama, et fac quod vis.
This rhapsody of mine does not settle the issue of whether divine grace alone could make it possible for the soul to desire in the manner of perpetual desire. Nor do I take myself to have proven God’s existence, nor the truth of Christianity in this series of reflections. Instead, this has been an experiment to open up the range of what Christian eschatology—and the God at the head of it—can mean, to shed light on the radical change our restless and imperial way of being in the world would need to undergo, in order to have life and have it to the full. I do not consider myself to have finished unpacking the resounding truth of Marcuse’s statement that “Timelessness is the ideal of pleasure.” I look forward to hearing your corrections in fiery friendship. Not binding myself to whatever mistakes I have made behind me, and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal of a Wisdom I can always come to love more.
Part 1: Free Time for All Time
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses §§225-226, p. 113
 Jean Daniélou, From Glory to Glory, p. 60
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses §§59-60, pp. 67-68ß
 Plato, Gorgias 494b
 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes, sermon 4, PG 44.1244D-1245A. Quoted in From Glory to Glory, p. 70
 Spinoza, Ethics IIIP2S
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses §236, p. 115
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses §236, pp. 115-116
 Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, p. 211. Notably, Marcuse leaves out the form of Beauty in his retelling of the ladder of love, perhaps to make it more conveniently fit his denial of Platonic metaphysics.
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses §232, pp. 114-115
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses §231, p. 114. The translator notes that Gregory uses the word eros here, which for him means “an intense form of agape”
 Gregory of Nyssa, sermon 13, 1045D-1048D, in From Glory to Glory, p. 272. It must be remembered that Gregory sees eros as a symbol. Gregory associated sexuality with irrational passion, and therefore as something ungodly; his praise of virginity as an approximation of the angelic superiority of being agender, alongside his stance that sexuality was not a part of human life in Paradise, reads the text of Genesis against itself. See Hans Boersma, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach. Oxford University Press. 2013. Pp. 107-108 and p. 112. Nonetheless, we ought to note that the dichotomy between eros and agape that seems intuitive to us—and is repeated ad nauseam in sermons and lapidary asides in philosophy classes—is actually a false dichotomy from Luther, one that has become sedimented over time and fossilized in Anders Nygren’s popular account. See Daniélou p. 43. Given our earlier analysis of parallels between Marcuse and Christian eschatology, it is significant that Marcuse cites Nygren as proof that Christianity rejects eros in favor of agape (Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, p. 126). Perhaps without this misinformation from Nygren, Marcuse might have seen these parallels.
 Gregory of Nyssa, From Glory to Glory, pp. 190-191.
 Daniélou, From Glory to Glory, p. 59.
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses §245, p. 118
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann. 1977, pp. 339-340
 Nietzsche, Ecce Homo IV.9
 Daniélou, From Glory to Glory, p. 66: “Thus the notion of epectasis as a perpetual creation sets Gregory’s theology of man directly in the line of Biblical thought and the history of salvation. Indeed, it shows how the history of salvation is made up of a series of divine acts which are continually new achievements.”
 Building off of the myth of Poros and Penia in Plato’s Symposium, as well as Plato’s theory of divine madness, Plotinus talks about the difference between carefully composed reflection and carefree contemplative absorption in the One as the difference between sober nous and drunken nous. Gregory taps into this Neoplatonic imagery to describe the wild abandon of the soul’s union with God as a relationship of eros, symbolized in the Song of Songs. See Daniélou’s introduction, From Glory to Glory, p. 39.
 William Blake, preface to Milton, in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman. New York: Anchor Books. 1988. Pp. 95-96.
 Daniélou, p. 63.
 Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, p. 231
 Philippians 2:13-14