It is, most likely, a tactic as old as history.
Incite questions, or clear attack, as to the motive and character of your opponent, discredit him, and thereby circumvent addressing any viable and legitimate topics or issues he may raise or present. In modern times this is called character assassination. In the study of fallacies, it would fall under the ad hominem fallacy.
It enjoys wide usage because it is effective. Quite possibly, given the rise of technology and the advent of online platforms and social media, it simply has more expansive ground in which to grow.
Of course, character or motive cannot be totally ignored. Nor should it. As a drastic example, no one would listen to a pedophile on the topic of caring for children. And rightly so.
Yet, in most circumstances the varying character weaknesses or flaws that each of us inevitably bear do not serve to automatically discredit a speaker and his points.
When such flaws, or some personal situation, sometimes greater than the control of the person, are used as tools to silence and discredit a valid topic, something is wrong. When there is little to no attempt to actually engage the idea presented, rather the focus becomes to subvert the speaker by any means possible, then something is wrong. Frequently this happens simply to shut a conversation down with the goal of completely silencing the speaker. In such circumstances it is profitable to ask, what is it the person is trying to say that is so concerning to those who are trying to forcefully shut down all discussion?
We live in an age of hyper ad hominem fallacy. An arsenal of labels are bombarded on someone who does not think and do as certain powers feel they should. Shaming is a very useful means of control; thereby core issues are seldom addressed.
Ideas have always been dangerous. For the good or the bad.
Moreover, in true Christianity, we have the standard of Revelation by which to test and weigh whatever may be said or written. Is it in direct contradiction to the Faith? If so how and why? Yet, sadly, we also easily fall into an ad hominem trap. Sometimes we become more intent on shooting the messenger than trying to hear what he may actually be saying. Shoot first – ask questions later, this may work well in Westerns but for productive and conciliar addressing of pressing issues of the times it does not work so well.
Of course, if someone is clearly and blatantly opposing the established teachings of the Faith, there is a real problem. Yet, we should endeavor to bring forth reasonable proof how and why a statement, or whatever it may be, is violating the Faith. We are not required to give ear to those who are clearly opposing the Faith. The Faith is not relative.
A Lesson from Sacred History
In Byzantium, in the 600’s, a teaching called “Monothelitism” was developed. Its intent was to reconcile the Orthodox with those who had embraced the heresy of Monophysitism. It was intended as a compromise. Monothelitism – One-willism – basically taught that the Incarnate Lord had only one will, and that it was the Divine will. It stated that there was no human will in Christ Jesus. This teaching was opposed on many levels and simply acted to introduced new conflict within the Church and the Byzantine Empire at that time.
In 648 AD, the Emperor Constans II issued an edict known as the “Typos,” in which he simply forbade any discussion for or against Monothelitism. He hoped that forcing people to not talk about the issues, would make any problems and conflicts go away. It, as in most cases, did not.
A number of saints opposed and condemned the Typos, such as St. Martin, the Patriarch of Rome. In 649 AD he convened a council, known as the Lateran Council, at which both Monothelitism and the Typos were condemned. St. Martin was arrested, condemned without a trial, exiled, and died a confessor of the Faith. A sacrifice to forced silence.
The great confessor and teacher of Orthodoxy, St. Maximus, was in Rome at the time and also participated in the Lateran Council. He also was a staunch opponent of the Typos. St. Maximus, together with two of his disciples, was also arrested and brought to Constantinople. The account of his life during this time offers very helpful instruction to us today. The tactics used by the Emperor’s committee as it strove to discredit and manipulate St. Maximus are worth a brief examination. Its goal was to trap St. Maximus by various means. In many ways, they reflect the plethora of tactics still in use today. For this article I have simply highlighted a few tactics and the saintly response to them by St. Maximus. May it help to instruct us.
Tactic 1: Isolation
The committee appointed by the Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople (who was championing the Typos) first of all attempted to isolate St. Maximus and make it seem as if he were the only one (or one of very few) who opposed the Typos.
“On arrival they announced that they had been sent by the Patriarch, and they said to the saint, ‘To which church do you belong? To that of Byzantium, of Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, or Jerusalem? For all these churches, together with the provinces subject to them, are in unity. There fore, if you belong to the Catholic Church, enter into communion with us at once, lest by fashioning for yourself some new and strange pathway, you fall into that which you do not expect’” (Life, pg. 14)!All quotes from the life of St. Maximus for this article are taken either from The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints. Vol. 5, January. Compiled by St. Dimitry of Rostov; or The Life of … Continue reading
First of all, we see it is a common tactic to try and make one’s opponent feel isolated and on the fringe; in essence it is “Everyone else is with us, why aren’t you? You are the only one with a problem.” Sometimes, if it is possible, the opponent will be literally isolated, in St. Maximus’ case he was exiled. Today, since literal exile is not very viable, people may be instructed to have nothing to do with the “problematic” person, all the while, the issues he may have raised remain predominately unaddressed and he is persistently painted as a “problematic person.” The goal is to create a feeling and environment of isolation in the hopes that he will recant his stance (whatever it maybe).
St. Maximus’ reply is very worth reading, “Christ the Lord acknowledges as Catholic that Church which maintains the true and saving confession of Faith. He called Peter blessed for his correct confession of Him, upon which He built His Church. But tell me: on what basis have all the churches, as you say, entered into communion? If it is on a foundation of truth, I do not wish to be separated from them.” (Great Collection, pg. 366). The saint aptly directs the course of discussion back to the central matter – the confession of faith. What are the issues at hand? Whether he is indeed the “only one” or not does nothing to truly address the core issues.
It is worth noting, that if someone, after due and proper investigation, is found to be in fact teaching things opposed to the Faith, and they remain unrepentant, then it is proper to avoid fellowship with such ones. St. Maximus refused fellowship with a number of Patriarchs of Constantinople precisely because they stubbornly would not reject the heresy of Monothelitism. But St. Maximus did so on the principle of his Christian conscience, regardless of what “everyone else was doing,” and not with a driving intent to isolate the Patriarch.
Tactic 2: Exaggerated influence
It is interesting to consider that after the method of isolation failed, a course of mild flattery, in the form of exaggerated influence, is pursued. One of the appointed persons, Theodosius, said to St. Maximus, “’We have a proposal to make, and hope you will agree to it and delight the world.’ ‘What is it’ … said the saint, ‘and who am I that my concurrence will please the world? … ‘The Emperor and Patriarch want you to explain why you have cut yourself off from communion with the see of Constantinople,’ Theodosius said” (Ibid. pg. 369). In another section it was claimed that he was subverting the Empire.
An exaggerated influence of the person is presented, either for good or bad. By recanting one’s stance it is presented as if the “whole world will rejoice.” And if it is not recanted the same person becomes a terrible stumbling block for untold multitudes and a leader of everyone into error!
St. Maximus’ reply is of great edification, “Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, published the Nine Chapters, which were approved by the see of Constantinople. Soon the novelties proposed in that document were followed by others, overturning the definitions of holy councils. These innovations were devised by the primates of the Church of Constantinople: Sergius, Phyrrus, and Paul, as all the other churches know very well. This is the reason I, your servant, am not in communion with the throne of Constantinople. Let the offenses introduced by those men be rejected and the abettors deposed; then the way of salvation will be cleared, and you will walk the smooth path of the Gospel unhindered by heresy. When I see the Church of Constantinople as she was formerly, I shall enter into communion with her uncompelled, but as long as the scandal of heresy persists in her and her bishops are miscreants, no argument or persecution will win me over to your side” (Ibid).
The Saint once again brings the topic around to the vital issues. He, in both the above cases, avoids the trap of either intentional isolation or flattery/accusation. Indeed, he states that it is not his upholding of the faith that is the scandal, rather it is the innovations that were introduced, and in this case they are heretical. The Saint then goes on to give a beautiful outline of the Orthodox confession, which I will not reproduce for this article.
Tactic 3: It’s not dogmatic
Once again St. Maxmius’ adversaries make a shift in their tactics, “Accept the Emperor’s Typos not as an expression of dogma, but as his personal interpretation and a means of silencing controversy.”
St. Maximus replies, “’If the Typos is not a dogmatic definition establishing that our Lord has a single will and operation, why have I been exiled” (Ibid. pg. 371)?
St. Maximus further states, “If the Emperor commands me to do something temporal and of transitory significance, and if it be not opposed to God or harmful for the eternal salvation of my soul, then I will gladly fulfill it” (Life. pg. 25).
The keen sighted Saint understood the significance of the Typos, that it indeed has deeply influenced the very manifestation of the life of the Church, and thus was dogmatic. His opponents attempted to down play the Typos so to make it appear that St. Maximus was over reacting. He was making much ado about nothing. But if it were as they claimed, why was so much effort being put into discrediting, silencing, and opposing him? Although St. Maximus’ opponents claimed the Typos was not dogmatic, their actions clearly indicated otherwise. Their great effort to enforce it evidenced that for them it was a matter of faith. St. Maximus understood this very well.
Moreover, decrees that have bearing on the life of the Church inevitably enter into the realm of dogma, such as the Typos. St. Maximus shows us that any decree, be it Imperial or Patriarchal, should and must be evaluated in the light of the standard of the Faith. When any decree or teaching is enforced simply for the sake of authority and at the expense of the Faith, there is no sin in questioning it. If it is valid and reasonable, then let it prove itself as such in light of the Faith.
At some point St. Maximus’ opponents simply beat him up physically because he would not cease to call the discussion back to the reason and standard of the Faith. Thus, the beating of an opponent, today primarily verbally, is also an indicator that the opponents have no reasonable answer to the issues being addressed. Whenever a person is primarily lacerated with words, and no substantial or reasonable response is given to whatever topic may be at hand, then you know the opponents have no true substance.
Tactic 4: Don’t talk about it, if you do you are divisive
Once again an amicable demeanor is assumed by the opponents and a more nuanced approach is undertake to shake St. Maximus. “The Typos does not deny the two wills in Christ, but merely orders that there be no discussion of them, for the sake of peace” (Great Collection, pg. 374). It is implied again that St. Maximus is being overly scrupulous, the issue is not “dogmatic,” the Typos does not outright deny the dogma of the two wills in Christ, anyway the goal is noble – that of peace. St. Maximus is disturbing the peace. His insistence on addressing the issues of the Typos is making a mountain out of a mole hill. At the center of the Typos was a gag-order not to discuss the issue of Monothelitism. It was claimed that this decree was only concerned for peace, thus anyone who persisted in speaking against it is opposed to peace. Who doesn’t want peace? Although from our historical vantage point, it is clear the the Typos was more an effort to silence the voice of the Orthodox who opposed the heresy of Molothelitism. By forcing silence, the promoters of heresy hope it would take root without further great opposition.
St. Maximus answers, “’To suppress confession of the faith is to deny it. The Holy Spirit declares through the prophet, There are no tongues nor words in which their voices are not heard (Ps. 18); consequently if a word is not uttered, it is not a word at all” (Ibid). Silence in the face of the compromise of the Faith is a public statement. To suppress a correct statement of the faith is, as St. Maximus says, to deny it.
“Troilus said, ‘Believe what you wish in your heart. No one cares what you think, as long as you do not stir up trouble.’ ‘Our Salvation does not depend merely on faith of the heart,’ said St. Maximus. ‘The Lord teaches, Whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father Which is in heaven. Furthermore, the divine Apostle tells us, With the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. If God and the prophets and the apostles command that the mystery of faith which is the salvation of the whole world be confessed openly, then our salvation is hindered when its proclamation is forbidden” (Ibid. pp 374-375). Believe whatever you want in your heart, no one cares, just don’t vocalize it! Of course, if no one really cared then such great lengths would not be taken to silence St. Maximus.
Essentially, St. Maximus responds that neither an Emperor or a Patriarch have the right to silence a correct proclamation of the Faith. The true statement of faith trumps an Emperor or a Patriarch. If a statement or decree is false and outside the boundaries of the Faith, it first must be reasonably shown to be so by the standard of Faith, and if it indeed is thus proven, it should be totally rejected. But a correct statement of Faith is not divisive, and never can be, it is rather the introduction of novelty that is the source of division. “People must not be forced to keep silence with regard to confession, lest the salvation of people be hindered,” says St. Maximus (Life. pg. 29).
Forced silence on the matters of Faith will never bring peace and will never heal a situational wound. Those who introduce novelties will strive to make it appear as if the “divisive ones” are those who strive to hold to the correct confession of faith.
Tactic 5: You are condemning others
The Saint was then accused of condemning, hating, and anathematizing both the Emperor and the Patriarch. The Saint makes a very important distinction – a person can strongly disagree with a decree of someone (and even cease fellowship) while at the same time not condemning or hating that person or persons. To speak against an error that a person promotes is not de facto a condemnation of that person, rather one may condemn an error without condemning the person promoting it. But frequently those in error take the condemnation of their idea or stance personally, and will claim that their opponents hate and condemn them personally.
“‘If you are a Christian,’ objected the treasurer, ‘then why do you hate the Emperor?’
‘Whence is that evident?’ Asked the Saint. ‘Indeed, hatred is a hidden feeling of the soul, just as is love.’
‘From your deeds,’ replied the treasurer, ‘it has become known to all that you are an enemy of the Emperor and the empire …’
‘Where is there reliable proof of this?’ asked the Saint.” (Life. pp. 33-34).
Very sadly the Emperor and his men were so invested in the Typos that they took any criticism of it personally, to the extent that anyone who opposed it was labeled an “enemy.” In such an environment, it is very difficult to have any productive Christian discourse. Of course, no substantial proof could be made that St. Maximus was indeed a true enemy, and the only “deeds” to condemn him were his refusal to compromise the faith even under pressure of imperial decree, together with his persistence in holding to the standard of Orthodoxy.
“‘Did you anathematize the Typos,’ asked Troilus.
‘I have confirmed several times that I did,’ answered the Elder.
‘If you anathematized the Typos, it follows that you anathematized the Emperor,’ asserted Troilus.
‘I did not anathematize the Emperor, but only a scrap of parchment which overthrows the Orthodox teaching of the Church,’ explained the godly one” (Great Collection, pg. 383).
And thus we see that one may condemn a decree or teaching of error without condemning the person who is promoting it. At times, a person who persists in unrepentant heresy may eventually be condemned but this is the work of the Universal Church. Or it may be said that by willfully clinging to heresy a person removes himself from the Church. Disagreeing with a decree or teaching is very much possible while one refrains from condemning the person(s) behind them. This is a very important point. To reiterate the teachings of the Faith is not a condemnation of persons, rather to uphold the teaching of the Faith is proper, most of all, while leaving all persons in the Merciful hands of God. Sadly, but it is not unusual, a firm statement of Faith may be construed as an arrogant condemnation of others that is disturbing the peace, as the life of St. Maximus shows us.
St. Maximus’ opponents accused him of arrogance, implying that through his holding to the Faith he thought he was the only one who would be saved.
“‘So then, you alone will be saved, and all others will perish?’ they objected. To this the Saint replied, ‘When all the people in Babylon were worshipping the golded idol, the Three Holy Children did not condemn anyone to perdition. They did not concern themselves with the doings of others, but took care only for themselves, lest they should fall away from true piety. In precisely the same way, Daniel was cast into the lion’s den, he did not condemn any of those who, fulfilling the law of Darius, did not wish to pray to God, but he kept in mind his own duty, and desired rather to die than to sin against his conscience by transgressing the Law of God. God forbid that I should condemn anyone or say that I alone am being saved! However, I shall sooner agree to die than to apostatize in any way from the true Faith and thereby suffer the torments of conscience’” (Life. Pg 38).
At times, it may be that even a simple restatement of Faith, by one who desires to hold to it, is interpreted by his opponents as a condemnation because their own consciences are ailing them.
St. Maximus teaches, “There is nothing more burdensome and grievous than when the conscience accuses us in anything, and there is nothing dearer than the calmness and approval of the conscience” (Ibid. pg. 40). Whenever a Christian is told that his conscience does not matter, something is very ill. In fact, whenever Christian conscience is trampled and disregarded – flee far away!
The lives of the saints are full of so much instruction! I recommend reading the life of St. Maximus in its entirety. From the small portions presented above we may learn how important it is to hold to a true confession, and how even small compromises, even in the name of peace, can be detrimental. We learn a few of the tactics used to leverage a person into denying his stance and submitting to the one that his opponents desire. Frequently all direct discussion of the actual issues are suppressed and various means of intimidation and character assassination are exploited. The extremes of both flattery and degradation are used. Most of all, we learn from the life of St. Maximus that it is never wrong to speak on the correct teachings of the Faith, and that when these are being compromised it is a betrayal of the faith to remain silent. Further we see that every Christian is given the freedom to speak openly about the correct teaching of the Church, while at the same time not condemning any people to perdition. We can leave them to God, but as St. Maximus says, we must given an answer for what we have done and said.
St. Maximus eventually had his tongue cut out and his right hand chopped off. All in the name of keeping the peace. He was exiled to a desolate place and there died in poverty, despised and neglected by the majority of people. Yet, today we remember him as one of the preeminent defenders of the Faith, and all those who persecuted him in the name of peace and obedience to the Emperor are (because they did not repent) remembered as betrayers of the Faith. May the Lord help us to stand in a humble but steadfast confession of His Divine Truth. The honors given by earthly authorities fade away; the honor bestowed by the High King of Heaven abides forever.
About the author
Husband, father, and Priest.
Schooling: Kharkov State University (Ukraine); Brownsville School of Ministry; St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary (M.Div.).
Author and illustrator of St. Patrick, Enlightener of the Irish Lands (Conciliar Press, out of print) and illustrator of The Life of St. Brigid (authored by Jane G. Meyer).
Proprietor and writer at the Inkless Pen Blog, at which, based on the foundation of the teachings of Orthodox Christianity, a wide variety of topics are addressed. Fr. Zechariah has translated some works by St. Dimitry of Rostov and New Hieromartyr Seraphim (Zvesdensky), these translations are also available on his blog.
|↑1||All quotes from the life of St. Maximus for this article are taken either from The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints. Vol. 5, January. Compiled by St. Dimitry of Rostov; or The Life of our Holy Father Maximus the Confessor. Holy Transfiguration Monastery. In the text I will note either Great Collection or Life and provide the page number.|