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Gregory of Nyssa on the Nature of the Soul

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St. Theodore the Studite and the Problem of the Paulicians

Gregory of Nyssa on the Nature of the Soul (1)

John P. Cavarnos,
Greek Orthodox Theological Review vol. I. March 1955, p. 133- 141


For Gregory, bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia, the problem of the soul is a pivot on which many an important subject is hinged. This preoccupation with the human soul is so prominent in the thought of Gregory, that a special study of his psychology offers a good approach to the teaching or paideia of this church doctor.

In the field of systematic psychology there was a wide gap separating Gregory's time from antiquity. Or better still, the Church had not as yet undertaken to develop a systematic psycho­logy of its own. The Cappadocian father felt the need for filling in this gap. Christianity, being concerned above all with man's destiny and salvation, must inevitably undertake to explain the mystery of life; and for the Christian that means more specifically the human soul: its nature, origin, destiny; the relation of the soul to the body and to God, etc. Though a central Christian problem, the study of the soul had not been taken up by the fathers of the Church in as comprehensive a manner as the sub­ject merited. That was essentially the task of Gregory of Nyssa.

That such an important matter should have been delayed so long can best be explained by the difficulty of its nature. It is a subject that involves a great deal of investigation in diverse fields-theology, philosophy, medicine. Practical experience and keen observation are also essential, besides the possession of an analytical and synthetic mind. Gregory combines in himself the streams of knowledge necessary for a comprehensive treatment of the problem. He is well versed not only in Christian and pagan theology, but also in the philosophies of classical Greece and of his own time. In contrast to the other two Cappadocians, his brother Saint Basil, who was more interested in the institution and training of the church, and Gregory of Nazianzus with his strong rhetorical and theological tendencies, Gregory of Nyssa had a decidedly strong philosophical bent. Gregory was perhaps better versed in heathen philosophy than any other church writer of the fourth century (2).

On various occasions Gregory showed his appreciation for the Ελληνική Παιδεία for its wealth and value, ( 3 ) without at the same time being quite free from that bias which is characteristic of the early church. However, notwithstanding some unfavorable comments (4) Gregory made on pagan learning, he believed that, to use one of his statements, τήν τε ἠθικήν και φυσικήν φιλοσοφίαν, γεωμετρίαν τε καί ἀστρονομίαν, καί τήν λογικήν πραγματείαν καί πάντα ὅσα παρά τοῖς ἔξω τῆς Ἐκκλησίας σπουδάζεται are very useful and de­sirable ὅταν δέῃ τον θεῖον τοῦ μυστηρίου ναόν διά τοῦ λογικοῦ πλούτου καλλωπισθῆναι (5). His entire work, above all his psychology, bears this out.

Besides his susceptibility to the masters of antiquity for many a concept in the field of metaphysics and speculation, Gregory also comes under the influence of the Hellenic ideal of the good and the beautiful. Armin Reiche, in a dissertation under the title of Die küinstlerischen Elemente in der Welt-und Lebens-Anschauung des Gregor von Nyssa, dwells at length on this important influ­ence on Gregory, pointing out the latter's originality and peculi­arity in this respect in contrast to the other church fathers. "Seine Verdienste liegen nicht nur auf dem Felde der reinen Spekulation, sondern er besitzt auch einen für alles Güte und Schöne höchst empfänglichen Sinn. In der Verbindung dieser Momente liegt das Eigentümliche Gregors gegenüber al l en anderen Kirchen-vätern (6). Here, as in many other instances, Gregory's dependence on Plato is observed : "In seinen Bestimmungen üiber das Schöne schliesst sich Gregor von Nyssa grösstenteils den Ausführungen Platos an." (7)

For an objective treatment of the soul, the physical nature of man, and of the universe, Gregory is compelled to go back to tradition: to study the psychology and theories on the universe of classical Greece and of the Hellenistic period; to go to the writers of medical literature for a comprehensive view of the physical nature of man and medicine in general; to pay attention to contemporary heathen philosophy.

Of all philosophers of antiquity, Plato was the thinker who impressed Gregory the most. In this respect Gregory may well be regarded the climax of that dominating interest in Platonism of the church fathers from Justin Martyr down to his own time. Towards the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century, a change is sensed. A definite interest in Aristotle is felt in the work of Nemesius, (8) an interest which becomes more and more a preference with writers like Leontius of Byzantium and John of Damascus as time goes on.

Plato influenced our author to such a degree, that on various occasions some students of Gregory (9) have undertaken compar­ative studies to prove Gregory's dependence on and even imitation of Plato. However, although it is true that Gregory has been influenced to a great extent by Plato both in thought and style, (10) it should not thereby be inferred that the Christian doctor was a mere imitator of the classical philosopher. Our study will en­deavor to indicate at the appropriate places the essential points of contact between the two men, as well as the uniqueness of Gregory. This will prove that Gregory was not only an admirer of Platonic thought, but also a Christian father who did his best to make good use of classical and contemporary material for giving form and expression to accepted Christian doctrines and concepts. He endeavored to give to the entire system of church doctrines, to the greatest degree possible at the time, what rational foun­dations heathen philosophy ( ἡ ἔξω σοφία ) could provide, without, at the same time, doing violence to faith. ( 11)

In a word, Gregory was a Hellene "par excellence" in that he gave new meaning to old concepts. He saw a permanent value in the classical paideia, and in his thought he strove to make good use of it by choosing and appropriating for himself what­ever portions of it seemed to him to possess the essential qualities of reason, beauty, and form.

Ninety-seven years ago a German scholar, Stigler, ( 12 ) dealt with the psychology of Gregory. Unfortunately we have not been able to avail ourselves of this work. However, on the testimony of B. Domanski, ( 13 ) this treatise was defective in that Stigler used as source material the "libelli de anima", a portion of Nemesius ' work (chapters II and III of De Natura Hominis ) falsely assigned to Gregory of Nyssa in some of our manuscripts and still to be found in the Migne edition of the works of Gregory. ( 14 )

Stigler ' s treatise is further unfavorably criticized by Franz Diekamp ( 15 ) for having used the unauthentic work De eo quid sit, Ad imaginem, etc., falsely attributed to Gregory. We may add that the portions of this spurious work concerned with the soul, where the trinitarian doctrine of the Godhead in type takes the place of the classical tripartite division of the soul, are far from being in harmony with the rest of Gregory's writings. ( 16 )

Of the works of Gregory which serve as the chief sources for our material on the subject of psychology, the dialogue entitled On the Soul and the Resurrection can be considered as the most important one. This work, a dialogue between Gregory himself and his sister Macrina, was modeled on Plato's Phaedo and shows quite clearly the debt our author owes to Plato for his literary form, besides the borrowing of ideas. ( 17 ) Two other very im­portant works are the Catechetical Oration and On the Making of Man. Other pertinent works are: On Virginity, On Perfection, On the Life of Moses or concerning Perfection according to Virtue, Canonical Epistle, To the Sayings of Scripture: Let us create Man in our Image and Likeness, On the Dead, Against Eunomius, Con­cerning the Children that die prematurely.



Our study of the nature of the soul in the thought of Gregory will avoid as much as possible the time- and space-consuming dis­cussion on the sources of our author. Akylas, Cherniss, Gronau, and others have already made important contributions to this end. Their conclusions form an important foundation for subsequent studies on the psychology of the Cappadocian father. Akylas in his Plato's Opinion concerning the Immortality of the Soul compared to that of Gregory of Nyssa points out with parallel passages the influence of Plato's psychology on that of Gregory. It is shown, in fact, that Plato's Phaedo served as a model for the church father's treatise, On the Soul and the Resurrection. (18) Another scholar, K. Gronau, though establishing Gregory as an imitator of Plato in his De Basilio, Gregorio Nazianzeno Nyssenoque Pla-tonis Imitatoribus, (19) attempted unsuccessfully to prove in another work, Poseidonios und die Jiidisch-Christliche Genesisexegese, (20) the indebtedness of Gregory to Posidonius the Stoic. (21)

For Gregory, as for the ancients, the science of the soul has two great divisions, the metaphysical and the psychological proper. The first is concerned with the nature or essence of the soul, its origin, and destiny. The latter division is primarily concerned in determining, defining, and classifying the diverse faculties of the soul.

The study of the nature of the soul in the work of Gregory of Nyssa is essentially a metaphysical one, inasmuch as it en­deavors to comprehend the essence of an immaterial entity. In his conception of the human soul, Gregory makes a sharp and clear-cut distinction between the soul on the one hand, and the body on the other; the first being spiritual and incorporeal, and the latter material and corporeal. The soul is in and by itself peculiar and distinct from the corporeal coarseness. (22) It is called the cause of life ( τό ζωτικόν αἴτιον, ζωοποιόν αἴτιον ); ( 23 ) while the body is termed a compound ( σύγκριμα ) or concourse of elements ( συνδρομή τῶν στοιχείων ). ( 24 ) The soul, then, is the principle that gives life to the body. It is from this very principle of life and activity that the existence of the soul in the body is made known to us. Heat, energy, and motion give evidence of life. On the other hand, the lack of heat and motion is an indication of death. (25) This definition of the soul as a life-giving principle is in accord with that of Plato . In Cratylm, where the origin of the word "soul" is considered the soul is called the cause of life for the body. (26) Then the absence of the soul is the cause of death. (27)

In a precise resume form, the nature of the soul is defined as οὐσία γεννητή, οὐσία ζῶσα, νοερά, σςώματι ὀργανικῷ και αἰσθητικῷ δύναμιν ζωτικήν καί τῶν αἰσθητῶν ἀντιληπτικήν δι ' ἑαυτῆς ἐνιοῦσα, ἕως ἄν ἡ δεκτική τούτων συνέστηκε φύσις . (28) Here we shall confine our­selves to the essence of the soul and take up in subsequent articles the origin of the soul, its relation to the body, its faculties.

Gregory, like Plato, desirous of stressing the immortality of the soul by pointing out its simple and uncompounded nature, insists strongly on the indivisibility of the soul. (29) Though he at times may speak of parts of the soul in discussing its activity in connection with the body, he hastens on appropriate occasions to state that one should not be led to believe that in man the soul is divided into parts or that man consists of a compound of many souls. "The real and perfect soul ( τελεία ψυχή ) is one in nature, the spiritual and immaterial, which mingles with the material nature through the senses". ( 30 )

The soul proper is the rational faculty: κυρίως ψυχή, ἡ λογική καί ἔστι λέγεται· αἱ δε ἄλλαι ὁμωνύμως κατονομάζονται . ( 31 ) And, more­over, in its association with irrational faculties, the rational fac­ulty suffers no change in its essential nature: τό δέ διανοητικόν τε και λογικόν ἄμικτον ἐστι ἰδιάζον . (32) The rational and spiritual faculty is the ruling principle ( πρωτερεύει τό νοερόν ), and whatever irrational element is encrusted on the soul proper is simply the product and result of the soul's association and connection with the body. ( 33 ) Therefore, everything irrational connected with the soul is not part of the soul itself, but a vital activity ( ἐνέργεια ζωτική ) es­sential to the existence of man in this world; for "neither do the senses exist without a material substance, nor the rational faculty without the senses". ( 34 )

With arguments similar to those of Plato ( 35 ) Gregory con­tends that the passions and desires are distinct from the soul and cannot be considered parts of the soul (36). . . ταῦτα ( πάθη ) ἔξωθεν ἐπιγενέσθαι αὐτῇ λογιζόμεθα, διά τό τῷ ἀρχετύπῳ κάλλει μηδένα τοιοῦτον ἐνθεωρηθῆναι χαρακτῆρα (37). Gregory supports his point here with the argument that the passions have no resemblance to the archetypal beauty, God. Moreover, states Gregory, the spiritual and inseparable nature ( ἀδιάστατος φύσις ) does not permit the changes which result from disintegration and separation (38) .

For Gregory, far from having any affinity with the divine nature, the passions and irrational impulses are animal traits: anger is a canine quality; greed pertains to the wolf, etc (39) . Indeed, according to the Cappadocian, these irrational impulses consti­tute in man so many beasts which must be mastered if man is to enjoy an inner harmony (40) .

Now despite his repeated affirmation that the soul is an indivisible entity, Gregory does not find it inconsistent to speak of a tripartite division of the soul in the classical sense: τό λογιστικόν, τό ἐπιθυμητικόν, τό θυμοειδές ( 41 ). With respect to the use of the classical partition of the soul, Gregory is not less consistent than Plato. Both agree that the soul proper is indivisible and uncompounded, and both take this condition as a strong argument to prove that the soul is immortal ( 42 ).

On the other hand, the division that both accept and discuss frequently as if the soul itself were really composed of distinct parts is one that is based on the realization of the fact that after all the soul in man exists in association with a material body, and that the material accretions about the soul as μεθόρια can be referred to the soul in dealing with its activity in the human body ( 43 ) .

Here it must be stated that the Cappadocian father is in­consistent when he accepts Plato ' s division of the soul in so far as it explains certain phenomena in dealing with man as an earthly being, and then rejects this very division allegedly on the ground that it does not harmonize with the Scriptures where man is considered the image of God ( 44 ).

Gregory places his greatest reliance for proving that the soul is one and indivisible, and hence immortal, on the Scriptural af­firmation that man was made in the image and likeness of God ( 45 ). He devotes an entire treatise (To the Sayings of Scripture: Let us make Man in Our Image and Likeness) to dwell on this subject. The likeness of man to God consists in his possession of reason, for τό ἀρχικόν ἐν τῇ τοῦ λογιδμοῦ περιουσίᾳ . . . ( 46 ). Therefore, "let us make man in our image" means let us give him λόγου περιουσίαν . The passions and desires are excluded, since they can have no place in an image of God ( 47 ). Man possesses within him the divine beauty ( θεῖον κάλλος ) in the form of νοῦς καί λόγος (48) . It is seen then, that for Gregory man resembles God in so far as he possesses an in­dependent governing principle, namely reason, which in reality is the soul proper. Thus the spiritual and rational faculty of the soul, νοῦς, becomes the ruling principle, and alone comes to be called soul; everything else connected with this faculty is termed an ἐ νέργεια ζωτικῇ (49).


1. This article is a portion of my Ph. D. dissertation that was submitted to the Faculty of Harvard University in 1947. The first part of the article shall serve as a general introduction both to this article and the others that will follow on the psychology of Gregory of Nyssa.

2. Otto Bardenhewer, Geschichte der Altkirchlichen Literatur, vol. Ill, p. 192.

3. A passage in the Life of Moses (PG, XLIV, 360B-C) bears Gregory ' s strongest praise for pagan learning. Cf. PG, XLIV, 336Dff.; PG, XLVI, 901A-B.

4. PG, XLIV, 329B is an extreme case.

5. PG, XLIV, 360B-C.

6. Armin Reiche, op. cit . (Jena, 1897), p. 7.

7. Ibid., p. 9

8. Cf. Domanski, Die Psychologie des Nemesios (Münster, 1900), xv-xvi .

9. A. M. Akylas, Plato ' s Opinion concerning the Immortality of the Soul compared to that of Gregory of Nyssa (Athens, 1888) ; H. F. Cherniss, The Platonism of Gregory of Nyssa (Class. Phil. XI, 1930-33; Univ. of Calif. ); Karl Gronau, De Basilio, Gregorio Nazianzeno Nyssenoque Platonis Imitatoribus ( Gottingen, 1908)

10. In the matter of style the second sophistic movement is of special consequence for the Cappadocian . See Meridier, L'influence de la seconde sophistique sur I'oeuvre de Gregoire de Nysse (Paris, 1906)

11. Cf. F. Ueberweg, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophic, Zweiter Teil (1929), p. 84: " Niemand vor Gregor hat die rationale Begründung des Glaubens in so umfassender Weise durchzuführen gesucht".

12. Die Psychologie des hl. Gregor von Nyssa (Regensburg, 1857).

13. Op. cit ., xi-xii .

14. Ibid., xii : "In Verkennung oder Unkenntniss dieser Thatsache [ the unauthenticity of the ' libelli de anima '] hat Stigler in diesen beiden Kapiteln die Lehre des hl. Gregor zu finden vermeint. Durch das Streben nun, einen Einklang in die Lehre Gregors liber das Entstehen der Seele zu bringen hat sich Stigler zu einer ganz eigentümlichen und unbegreiflichen Miss-deutung einer nemsianischen Stelle (s. Stigler S. 78F .) verleiten lassen . Cf. Ibid., pp. 43-44, where Domanski accuses Stigler of erroneous interpreta­tions and mistranslations of passages.

15. Franz Diekamp, Die Gotteslehre des Heiligen Gregor von Nyssa ( Mon-asterii Guestf, 1895), p. 67. footnote .

16. Franz Preger, Die Grundlagen de Ethik bei Gregor von Nyssa ( Würzburg, 1897), pp. 21-22, quotes this work (PG, XLIV, 1328B) in discussing the nature of man in the thought of Gregory.

17. See Akylas, op. cit., pp. 5-11

18. Cf. notes 9 and 17.

19. See note 9.

20. ( Teubner, 1914), chapters II-IV.

21. See R. M. Jones' review of the second work in Class. Phil. XII, Jan., 1917.

22. PG, XLVI, 28 C : αὐτήν καθ' ἑαυτήν ἐν ἐξηλλαγμένῃ τε και ἰδιαζούσῃ φύσει, παρά τήν σωματικήνπαχυμέρειαν .

23. PG, XLVI, 16B; 17B.

24. Ibid., 24B.

25. PG. XLIV, 237A. Cf . Ibid ., 236 D : Ἡ δε νεκρότης κατά στέρησιν ψυχῆς γίνεται. Ibid ., XLVI, 29 A - B : Ἡ γάρ ὀργανική τοῦ σώματος αὕτη διασκευή... ἀκίνητος μένει καί ἀνενέργητος, τῆς ψυχικῆς δυνάμεως ἐν αὐτῇ μη οὔσης .

26. Crat ., 399 d - e : ... ὅταν παρῇ τῷ σώματι, αἴτιόν ἐστι τοῦ ζῆν αὐτῷ ...Cf. Phaedo , 105c-d.

27. Crat . 399e. Phaedo , 105d. Phaedrus , 245c-246a. Laws, 893b-896d. Cf. Aristotle, De Anima, I, 5, 411b. Nemesius, De Natura Hominis, 38 (ed. Mat.).

28. PG, XLVI, 29B. Cf. Aristotle, De Anima, II, 1, 412b, where the soul is defined as "the first grade of actuality of a natural organized body" ( σώματος φυσικοῦ ὀργανικοῦ ).

29. In Phaedo , 78b-80b, Plato says that the soul is divine and therefore indivisible. Now only the composite is liable to dissolution. But the soul, being indivisible or incomposite, must be indissoluble.

30. PG, XLIV, 176B.

31. Ibid., 176C

32. PG, XLVI, 60B.

33. PG, XLIV, 181C . Cf. Plato, Politicus , 309c: There is the eternally existing part of the human soul ( το ἁειγενές ὄν τῆς ψυχῆς ) and the part which comes into existence with the animal existence ( τό ζωογενές ). In Timaeus 41a-42e, the Demiurge created the immortal, rational part of the soul. The mortal part of the soul ( τό θνητόν τῆς ψυχῆς εἶδος ) was created by the young Gods who created the bodies for the souls and at the same time the mortal part of the soul ( θυμός, ἐπιθυμία ).

34. PG, XLIV, 176B: Οὔτε οὖν αἴσθησις χωρίς ὑλικῆς οὐσίας, οὔτε τῆς νοερᾶς δυνάμεως χωρίς αἰσθήσεως ἐνέργεια γίνεται . In Phaedrus , 246-257, the dis­embodied soul is represented as having as integral parts of it those which in Timaeus (41a-42e) are said to constitute the mortal parts of the soul. Cf. R. Demos, The Philosophy of Plato, p. 305: "It would seem that the junction of the immortal with the mortal soul is indissoluble."

35. Republic , 611D: The Glaucus simile illustrates how the soul is marred by its contact with foreign matter and the earthly accretions about the soul resulting from its association with the body.

36. PG, XLVI, 56A. Cf. Plato, Phaedo , 66c; Cratylus , 404a.

37. PG, XLVI, 57C . Cf. Ibid, 56C: Ἅ πάντα καί περί τήν ψυχή ἐστι καί ψυχή οὐκ ἔστιν ἀλλ ' οἷον μυρμηκίαι τινές τοῦ διανοητικοῦ μέρους τῆς ψυχῆς ἐκφυόμεναι . Ἅ μέρη μέν αὐτῆς εἶναι διά το προσπεφυκέναι νομίζεται, οὐ μην ἐκεῖνό εἰσιν, ὅπερ ἐστίν ἡ ψυχήν κατ' οὐσίαν .

38. Ibid., 48A-B.

39. Ibid., XLIV, 276ff.; XLVI, 66.

40. Ibid., XLIV, 277A-C.

41. Ibid., XLIV, 144D; 361C-D; 353C . XLV, 224 C ; 224 A - B : Τρία ἐστί τά περί τήν ψυχήν ἡμῶν θεωρούμενα κατά τήν πρώτην διαίρεσιν . . .

42. Plato, Phaedo , 78c: Οὐκοῦν ἅπερ ἀεί κατά ταὐτά καί ὡσαύτως ἔχει, ταῦτα μάλιστα εἰκός εἶναι τά ἀσύνθετα . Cf. Ibid., 80b. Timaeus , 41c-d.

43. PG, XLVI, 57C: Ὅσα δε τῆς ψυχῆς ἐν μεθορίῳ κεῖται πρός ἑκάτερον τῶν ἐναντίων ἐπιρρεπῶς κατά τήν ἰδίαν φύσιν ἔχοντα · ὦν ἡ ποία χρῆσις, ἤ πρός τό καλόν ἤ πρός τό ἐνάντιον ἄγει την ἔκβασιν... ὦν ἄνευ οὐκ ἔστιν ἀνθρωπίνην θεωρηθῆναι φύσιν . Cf. Plato, Timaeus , 70d-e.

44. PG, XLVI, 49C-52A: Οὐκοῦν παρέντες το Πλατωνικόν ἅρμα... σκοπόν τοῦ λόγου τήν θεόπνευστον Γραφήν ποιησώμεθα, ἥ ψυχῆς ἐξαίρετον μηδέν νομίζειν εἶναι νομοθετεῖ, ὅ μή καί τῆς θείας φύσεως ἐστιν ἴδιον . Cf. Cherniss, op. cit. (note 9), p. 12ff. This inconsistency of Gregory is clearly pointed out.

45. See Plato ' s arguments of the soul's likeness to the divine ideas and gods in Phaedo , 78b-84b.

46. PG, XLIV, 264A.

47. Ibid., 268 D : Ἄνθρωπος ἐστι ποιήμα Θεεοῦ λογικόν, κατ' εἰκόνα γινόμενον τοῦ κτίσαντος .

48. Ibid., 137B.

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