JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Gregory of Nyssa, Synesius, and Nemesius.

§ 71.

1. Gregory of Nyssa is the third member of that remarkable group -- "the three great Cappadocians" (Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa). He deserves from us a notice apart, because his place in the history of philosophy is much more important than that of the other two, whose renown was achieved principally in the field of theology and rhetoric. His philosophy is characterised by a strong leaning to the views of Origen and the Neo-Platonists, a tendency which led him to introduce into his writings many opinions which do not merit unqualified approval. It has, no doubt, been contended by many critics, that Gregory's writings have been largely interpolated by the Origenists; but many opinions derived from Origen are so closely identified with his whole line of thought that their introduction cannot be accounted for by any theory of interpolation.

2. Gregory of Nyssa, horn A.D. 331, was a younger brother of St. Basil. At the close of his school career he adopted the teaching of rhetoric as a profession. Later on, he became Bishop of Nyssa. He was one of the a blest supporters of the Church against Arianism, and maintained strenuously the struggle for the Faith during the lifetime of his brother Basil, and more strenuously still after his death. It was his endeavour to prove by philosophic arguments, to believers and unbelievers alike, the truth of the Christian religion and its divine origin, and then to make it acceptable to all. He took a prominent part in the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381). He died A.D. 394.

3. The writings of Gregory of Nyssa are very numerous. We shall mention only those that are of special interest to the philosopher. To this class belong: (a) The Dialogue De Anima et ejus Resurrectione; (b) the treatise Contra Eunomium; (c) the Hexaemeron; (d) De Hominis Opificio; (e) the Oratio Catechetica (logos katêchêtikos); (f) De eo, quid sit Ad imaginem et similitudinem Dei; (g) De Anima; (h) De iis qui praemature abripiuntur; (j) De Mortuis; (k) Contra Fatum; (l) In dictum Apostoli, Tunc etiam ipse Filius subjicietur, etc.; (m) De vita Mosis; (n) In Christi Resurrectionem; (o) In verba, Faciamus hominem, etc.; Oratt., etc.

4. Like Basil, Gregory of Nyssa controverts at every point the pretensions of the Anomians, who claimed to have comprehensive knowledge of the being of God. He calls constant attention to the limits imposed on human knowledge. It is certain that sensible objects exist: it is equally certain that we have not an exhaustive knowledge of their being. Nay, we do not even possess perfect knowledge of our own being; we cannot, for example, understand fully the mode in which our soul is united with our body. How much farther are we from possessing a comprehensive knowledge of God! The incomprehensibility of God is a point which must be unequivocally maintained.

5. While thus restricting the compass of human knowledge within due limits, Gregory is far from denying to man all power of attaining truth. He holds, on the contrary, that man's knowledge is his highest privilege -- that gift in which the lofty nature of man's soul and its resemblance to God is made manifest. He dwells at length on the proofs which establish the existence and unity of God. The leading proof for God's existence appears to him to be the skilful and wise disposition of things in the universe; his proof for the unity of God is founded on the "Supreme perfection of God in power, goodness, wisdom, eternity and every other attribute -- a perfection which vanishes if we suppose the Divinity divided among a plurality of gods."

6. But in combating the polytheism of the heathens we must not be betrayed into the abstract monotheism of the Jews. Christianity holds an intermediate position between these two extremes, teaching as it does the triple personality of God. "God possesses a Logos," says Gregory. "He cannot be without reason. This Logos cannot be a mere attribute of God; it must form a second Person in God. God is infinitely perfect, His Logos must be infinitely more perfect than the logos in man. It cannot, as in man, be something limited, nor can it, like speech in man, possess only transient existence; it must be an eternal and living Hypostasis (Person), endowed with the same power and the same will as the Father." We may reason in like manner with regard to the Holy Ghost. Instituting a comparison with the breath we draw -- which, however, is merely a current of air, an object quite different from ourselves -- Gregory endeavours to prove the identity of substance between the Holy Ghost and God. In this way he establishes his contention that Christianity occupies an intermediate position between Judaism and paganism -- holding with the Jews as to the unity of nature, holding with the pagans as to the plurality of persons. The question why the three Divine Persons are not three Gods, is answered by the statement that these three are not individuals of one species, but different Hypostases of one and the same Divine Essence.

7. Creation is a work of Divine power, wisdom and love. The world was created by the Divine Logos, not from necessity, but from an excess of love. God wished to share the riches of the Divinity with other beings. Participation in these riches only rational beings are capable of; it follows that the whole visible world is destined for the service of man. For man's sake the world was created -- to enable man to know God through the work of creation, and, ultimately, to share in God's eternal happiness.

8. The question here arises: how composite, changeable, in a word, corporeal beings could be produced by a Being who is Himself absolutely simple, incorporeal, and immutable? We may not be able to say how all this has been effected, but we can give a sufficient answer to the question proposed if we consider the nature of the body. The body is composed of constituent elements which, considered in themselves, are purely of the ideal order, mere potencies, such as quality, quantity, figure, size, colour, etc. If, in thought, we abstract these elements from the body, nothing whatever remains. The body is, therefore, constituted by the combination of these qualities which, in themselves, are incorporeal. Fundamentally, therefore, and considered in its elements, it is something incorporeal. If this is so, the problem is solved; it becomes intelligible that the body, being in its essence something incorporeal, can have been created by an incorporeal being. This explanation, it is evident, rests wholly on notions derived from Origen and the Neo-Platonists.

9. Gregory holds the soul of man to be an incorporeal, spiritual essence. In proof of this he appeals to the function of intelligence, to the faculty of speech, to the erect posture of the human body, to the conformation of the bodily organs, especially of the hand which is clearly destined to serve the needs of a rational being, and lastly to the fact that the soul does not subsist by material food, that it feeds on what is incorporeal -- on ideal truth. If the soul were a composite being there would exist some principle of unity within it. And were this principle composite, a further principle of union would have to be supposed, and the hypothesis before made would have to be repeated. The process cannot be prolonged into infinity, and we must, therefore, ultimately arrive at a principle which is simple and immaterial.

10. There is but one soul in man. Man consists of body and soul. Gregory knows nothing of a third constituent element. The body has life from the soul, and from the soul only; the soul is its principle of vitality, and this one soul possesses at once the vegetative, sensitive, and intellectual powers. As regards the vegetative and sensitive faculties, the soul is dependent upon the body, and can exercise these faculties only in and through the body; in its intellectual functions it is superior to the body, and is unaided by corporeal organs. Man is thus the Microcosm -- he represents in himself the being of inanimate things, the life of plants, the sensitive nature of animals, and the intelligence of the angels. Furthermore, he is created to the image of God, inasmuch as the unbegotten Psyche gives birth to the noeros logos, and the nous issues from both. We cannot fully comprehend the mode of union between soul and body, but this at least is certain that the soul is substantially present in every portion of the body. The body is the mirror of the soul, and the soul being the mirror of God, the body is the mirror of this mirror.

11. It is not by mere chance that the soul is united to the body; it is of its nature destined to this union. The doctrine of the pre-existence of souls is, therefore, absurd. A further argument for this view appears in this, that the hypothesis of pre-existence makes sin the sole explanation of man's origin -- an explanation which is not only absurd in itself, but, furthermore, makes it impossible that man should be delivered from sin, for it makes sin the very condition of his existence. The soul came into existence with the body; living things generate only living things: it follows that the human embryo must be animated from the beginning. The origin of the soul must not, however, be accounted for by generation, the soul is created immediately by God.

12. Gregory maintains the freedom of the human will. Reason essentially implies liberty, for the power to distinguish good from evil would be meaningless unless the will could elect between the good and the evil. Moreover, without liberty, all virtue, foresight, merit and culpability would be impossible. In liberty we have, therefore, the source of evil. The body is not evil in itself, and is not the cause of evil; for it is God's creation. Evil is not a positive entity. It is the absence of good, the deflection of the will from the good which is positive being -- that which ought to exist.

13. Up to this point Gregory's psychological views are above reproach. But other opinions follow which cannot receive the same commendation. Gregory distinguishes between the true nature of man, and other elements which may be regarded as a superadditum. The true being of man consists in his reason, which is created like to God; what is irrational in man, v.g., the material body with its sexual differences, and the faculties of sense, are extraneous to the reason or true nature of man, an adjunct of it, something superadded to it. Gregory compares the irrational faculties, with their appetites, tendencies and passions to ulcers which have fastened on the original nature of man, and which are, therefore, opposed to reason. In accordance with these notions he interprets the double narrative of the creation of man which we find in Genesis. He holds that the "man created after the image and likeness of God" is the true man, the ideal man whose being is reason; whereas the "Adam" whom God formed from the earth, and into whom he breathed the soul, is the man of our experience, the man who is burdened with a material body and unreasoning faculties. But the question immediately presents itself: Why is the true nature of man burdened with these additions? This question Gregory answers as follows: --

14. The first man was placed by God in a state resembling that of the angels. His nature was pure and was not disfigured by union with elements extraneous to itself. He had not a material body, nor was there in him any mark of sexual difference; he was free from unreasoning passions, not subject to suffering and death. In a word he was the perfect, the ideal man. If he had not sinned he would have continued to live in this state. Mankind would not have been propagated by the sexual reproduction of individuals, the existence of individual men would have been effected as the angelic nature is multiplied; they would have been produced at once as a large but numerically definite multitude of individuals.

15. But as God foresaw that man would sin, He invested the purer nature of man with a body of flesh. This was a new act on the part of the Creator, distinct from that act by which He created (the ideal) man after His image and likeness, and therefore it is related apart in the sacred narrative. The origin of man, as we now know him, is to be traced to sin, inasmuch as man's sin was foreseen by God, and God's action was determined in accordance with the prevision. In consequence of his descent to the level of the beast, man assumed the peculiarities of the brute. Unreasoning appetites and passions asserted themselves in him; he became subject to pain and death, and the human species became sexually differentiated. Human nature could no longer be multiplied in individuals after the manner of the angels, its increase would have to be accomplished by carnal procreation, and would, in consequence, be effected successively in time. Tbe story of man's fall, as narrated in Scripture, is, according to Gregory, an allegory in which all this is signified. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is sensuality, under the influence of which evil appears as good to the unreasoning appetites; the skins with which God clothed the first man after the fall are nothing else than the body of flesh; and so of the rest.

16. But though the material body with which man is invested and the unreasoning appetites that prevail in it are the consequence of sin, they, nevertheless, are not an unmixed evil for man. In God's design they are given as a means to moral perfection -- to virtue. The appetites of sense are not wicked in themselves, they become wicked only by the improper use made of them by the will. If reason asserts its authority over them, if it does not permit them unwarranted excesses, but uses them for purposes of good, they become the means and instruments of virtue. And such, in the plan of God, they should be. The grace of the Redeemer, is, however, necessary to enable man to carry out God's design in this respect. This leads us to Gregory's doctrine on the subject of Redemption:

17. It was intended that man should return to his original condition, and again attain supreme happiness in God. To make this possible for him, the Logos came down to earth, assumed human nature, and accomplished the work of redemption. He undertook to deliver man from the dominion of Satan, and to lead him back to God. But it was not by putting forth His power that the Redeemer set Himself to conquer Satan. By atoning for the sin of man, He would acquire a right over man, a right which would abrogate the power which Satan had acquired over man in consequence of his sin. For this purpose He gave His life as a ransom for us. By taking upon Himself human nature, and shrouding therein Ellis Godhead, He outwitted Satan, for Satan was thus led to incite his followers to bring about the Redeemer's death, and in this way co-operated in effecting the saving atonement.

18. That man may participate in the Redemption, he must, as a primary requirement, possess the grace that admits him to its benefits. When he has been sanctified by Faith and the Sacraments, it is then his duty to renounce the lusts of flesh, and to live for virtue. Christ has crushed the head of the serpent, but He has left the tail, that we may be confirmed in goodness by the struggle against passion. Man in his creation, was made the image of God; it lies within his own power to make the likeness perfect; to do this is the essential task set him in life. He will attain this end if he strives at all times, and according to the measure of his powers, to imitate Christ, the ideal and perfect model of Christian life.

19. Gregory's teaching closes in his eschatology: Christ having risen from the dead, and entered into glory, has in His own person restored human nature to that original ideal condition from which it fell through sin. But that nature, as individualised in the multitude of men, has not yet been restored to its primal state. Nor can it be thus restored till the number of the human race is numerically complete. Ultimately this race must attain numerical completeness -- this the law of human nature demands, for the number of individuals in whom this nature must attain actual existence is definitely fixed. It is only, when, by the process of carnal procreation, man's nature has attained existence in all the individuals who are destined to possess it, that it can return thus individualised to its formal condition. When this has been accomplished, the Apocatastasis (Restoration) will be universal, and will embrace all human creatures without exception.

20. It follows that the punishment inflicted on the wicked in the life to come, will be merely purificatory. After death they are subjected to the pain of fire, in the measure deserved by their misdeeds. This fire will gradually consume what is carnal and sinful in the souls of the wicked, at their departure out of this life, so that after a longer or shorter period of punishment these souls will be thoroughly purified, and delivered from everything that offends reason or partakes of sin. The cleansing pain to which the wicked are subjected in the life to come may be compared to the purifying of gold by fire. Fire separates the dross from the gold and restores the metal to its pure state: of like effect will be the process which the souls of the wicked are destined to undergo.

21. When the human race has finally reached numerical completeness, the Resurrection will follow. As to the possibility of a Resurrection no doubt is possible. For, though the elements of the body are scattered to all the winds after death, the soul, in virtue of its natural love for the body, in a certain sense remains united to them still. And this union is possible to the soul, because, being a simple substance, it has no need of actual extension to maintain union with these elements, wherever they may be. This union being maintained, the soul is enabled to draw to itself the scattered elements with which it is united. In this way we may assure ourselves of the possibility of the Resurrection. The body will, however, rise in the glorified state, and will not, therefore, exhibit difference of sex, nor any of the characteristics of irrational nature.

22. The Resurrection is followed by the Last Judgment. Those who are then found entirely pure will enter forthwith into glory -- the rest are gain consigned to the punishment of fire. But their punishment will not be eternal. A time must come when evil will be utterly extirpated from the realm of being, for as evil has not been from eternity, so will it not exist for eternity. Those therefore who, after the Last Judgment, are consigned to further punishment, will, sooner or later, be wholly purified and enter into glory. And man's nature in every individual in whom it is represented will finally be glorified to the measure of the glory of Christ. Even the demons themselves will at length acknowledge the sovereignty of Christ, and the Apocatastasis will be universal, without any exception whatever. When this consummation has been achieved, then will God be all in all, for all will be in God, and God will be in all.

23. We have here set forth the doctrines of Gregory of Nyssa as we find them in his works. Whether we take these doctrines as his own throughout, or whether we hold that much has been interpolated by the Origenists, we cannot but allow that the general tone of his philosophical opinions indicates the influence upon his mind of the doctrines of Origen and the Neo-Platonists. Wherever he deals with purely dogmatic questions we find him entirely in harmony with the sense of the Church; where he enters upon the field of philosophic speculation, the peculiar opinions of Origen and the Neo-Platonists appear prominently in his teaching. The peculiar views which he was thus led to form seem to have been regarded as mere eccentricities of private opinion. This is proved by the high reputation for orthodoxy which he has always enjoyed in the Church. His faith in the dogmas of Christianity being above suspicion, the Church did not make much account of the peculiarities of his philosophical opinions.

24. The same cannot be said of Synesius of Cyrene, for this philosopher set his own opinions above Christian truth. He was born in the year 375, was first a Neo-Platonist, then became a Christian, a priest, and finally a bishop. The lady-philosopher, Hypatia, was his teacher, and throughout his after-career he maintained a friendly intercourse with her. He did not believe in the ultimate destruction of the world, was inclined to a belief in the pre-existence of souls, admitted the immortality of the soul, but held the doctrine of the Resurrection to be merely a sacred allegory. In his public teaching he taught the current dogmas of belief, on the ground that myths are necessary for the crowd; the pure unimaginative truth is accessible only to a few, and would only blind the weak eyes of the multitude. His notion of God is more Neo-Platonic than Christian. He represents God as "the unit of unities, the monad of monads, undifferentiated in contrarieties, which, issuing forth in ineffable fashion in the forms first-born from it, receives a three-fold shape -- the transcendent source of Being crowned by the beauty of its children, which come forth from its centre, and stand in order around that centre. This eternal spirit, divided without division, entered into matter, and the world received form and motion, and in those who have fallen to this nether world it became a force to raise them again to heaven."

25. The same Neo-Platonic views are shared by Nemesius, bishop of Emesa, in Phoenicia, who lived, it is probable, towards the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century. In his work De Natura Hominis, he combats the doctrine of the creation of souls on the ground that everything which has a beginning in time must be perishable and mortal, and that the created world must be supposed imperfect if souls are constantly being created. He, therefore, declares himself in favour of the doctrine of pre-existence. Everything supersensuous is eternal, the soul as well as other things. The corporeal and the incorporeal alike have been created from nothing, but the former has a beginning and an end, the latter has neither. The corporeal world will not, however, perish, for God will not destroy what rightly fulfils its end.

26. Origen's theory of the pre-existence of souls had, as we have seen, many supporters, but it had also many antagonists. Foremost amongst these was AEneas of Gaza, a teacher of rhetoric in Egypt (about A.D. 487). He contends, in his work Theophrastus, that the soul, if it had existed before the body, would preserve a recollection of this earlier life; and besides it is contrary to reason to inflict punishment for a fault of which the delinquent has no recollection. The life of the soul in the body cannot be a punishment, For the differences of external fortune, to which appeal is made, are not evidence of good or evil; free will explains everything. Furthermore, the life of the soul before its union with the body would have been useless and superfluous, since the soul is of its nature prepared for union with the body. AEneas also combats the doctrine of the eternity of the world. To the objection that in the supposition of a beginning of the world, God must previously have been inactive, he replies by reminding us of the life in the Trinity of Divine Persons -- which God has lived eternally, and in which He is eternally active.

27. Following in the line of argument indicated by AEneas, in his attack upon the theory of an eternal world and of the pre-existence of souls, we find Zacharias Scholasticus, bishop of Mytilene (about A.D. 536), and Joannes Philoponus of Alexandria, a Monophysite (about the middle of the sixth century) and a commentator of Aristotle. The last mentioned writer incurred the accusation of teaching Tritheism, from the manner in which he applied to the Trinity the Aristotelian doctrine, that "substantial existence in the fullest sense of the word belongs to all individuals." He also adopts the theory of a triple soul in man -- the vegetative, the sensitive, and the rational; and holds that they are described as one soul because all these are mutually interdependent, and united by mutual sympathy. He explains the Resurrection, not by the restoration of life to the bodies formerly possessed by men, but by the creation of bodies entirely new.

<< ======= >>