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Chapter II -- 1

II The Anthropology of St Gregory of Nyssa

Part Two

I, then, taking up into my intellect (dianoia) the definition which in the discussion before this she had made concerning the soul (psuche)—which definition says that (the soul) is a mental (noera) substance and that it puts an enlivening power into the organic (organiko) body towards the operation of the senses—said that the definition did not adequately show to me the powers that are contemplated in the soul, for our soul is not only active round the scientific and contemplative intellect (dianoia), working such a thing as this in the mental part (noeron) of the substance, neither does it manage the senses only towards the operation that is according to nature, but much movement is contemplated in nature according to desire and also much according to anger; each of these things generically existing in us, we see in many and various distinctions the movement [of the soul] advancing in the operations of both desire and anger.

Many things are to be seen which are led by desire; many things again which spring up from the irascible cause; and none of these things is body. What is bodiless is at all events mental (noeron). The definition declared the soul to be a mental (noeron) sort of thing, so that one of two absurdities comes up from the chain of reasoning of the argument: either, both anger and desire are other souls in us, and a multitude of souls are to be seen instead of one; or, neither is the intellectual part (dianoetikon) that is in us to be deemed to be soul. For the mental attribute (noeron) applied in equal measure to all [i.e. intellect, desire and anger] either will prove them all to be souls, or will exclude each of these equally from the property of being soul.

What is this all about?

St Macrina has defined an intellectual aspect of man and said that it is the simple and formless soul. St Gregory says: well, wait, we have the aspects of man called desire and anger, and we see that much of human action is under the guidance or governance of desire or anger. However, since neither desire nor anger is the body, both must be mental (noeros). But the definition of the soul that you have given is such that either anger and desire are souls which are different from the soul which you have defined to be the intellect, and each man has a multitude of souls—St Gregory is essaying a reductio ad absurdum[1]—or else none of intellect, desire and anger is soul.

Before turning to the substance of the argument, we would like to address the concepts of ‘nature (phusis)’, ‘according to nature (kata phusin)’ and ‘contrary to nature (para phusin)’. Aristotle discusses these concepts in the Physics.[2] For Aristotle, nature is a given; he even goes so far as to say that to try to prove to someone that nature exists is to depart from the self-respect proper to a serious philosopher. In any event, a natural movement or motion, one according to nature, is one that happens ‘always or for the most part’. The movement of the moon is natural, according to nature. The sense of ‘for the most part’ includes, inter alia, biological phenomena, which do not have the absolute regularity of, say, the movements of the planets. A natural movement, one according to nature, is therefore one that a body will make ‘always or for the most part’ if ‘left alone’. Recall that in Aristotle motion is not merely motion in space, but includes both change, and generation and corruption.

The opposite of a natural movement is a movement that is contrary to nature. This is a movement in which some other object or force or power constrains the body to move in a way different from the way it would move if it were ‘left alone’. An upward movement of a heavy body is contrary to nature (‘contrary to gravity’) and presupposes some constraint—something that forces the body to move upward, contrary to its natural movement to the centre of the earth, its movement according to nature.

These concepts are defined by Aristotle in the broadest sense; their application to ethics is secondary. It seems that the ethical sense of ‘according to nature’ derives from the sense of ‘always or for the most part’. Of course, the concept of the work (ergon) of man also enters in here: an ethical action contrary to nature is one in which a man acts contrary to the work (ergon) proper to a man.

The next thing we wish to look at is the notion of the parts of the soul. Starting with Plato, who appears to have taken the notion from the Pythagoreans, we have in Greek philosophy a division of the human soul into the rational, irascible and desiring parts: mind, temper and desire. This tripartite division is what, in essence, St Gregory is introducing.

Now, St Macrina has made of the mind (nous) of man, the principle of human identity in a very broad sense; we have seen that it is in the mind (nous) that St Macrina has located the image of God in man. For her argument, this creates the problem of explaining the other two parts of the soul, the irascible and desiring parts, and this is what St Gregory’s question is setting the stage for a discussion of.

Before we continue with St Macrina’s response, we want to address this tripartite division of the soul directly, because the concept is fundamental to Orthodox anthropology.

In the rest of this work on the psychological basis of mental prayer in the heart, our program will be to follow the development of the ascetical and contemplative psychology of Evagrius Pontikos—based on this anthropology[3]—and the adaptation of Evagrius’ ascetical system to Hesychasm, as St Hesychios adapts it in his On Sobriety, a key early text in the Philokalia. The questions that will arise will be of this sort: Given the tripartite division of the soul, what is the operation according to nature of each part of the soul? What does it mean for a part of the soul to operate according to nature? What does it mean for a part of the soul to operate contrary to nature? Why should this have come about? What can we do to move from a condition wherein the parts of our soul operate contrary to nature to a condition wherein the parts of our soul operate according to nature? What does this have to do with virtue? What are the virtues? What is prayer? What does prayer have to do with all of this? What is the connection between virtue and prayer? What does this have to do with contemplation? How is God known?

From the above questions, it can be seen that we here mark a transition from a discussion of anthropology which has as central issues the Orthodox understanding of man in the context of Western philosophy and the image of man in bioethics—a transition from this sort of discussion to a discussion of ascetical psychology. Why is man put together the way he is? What is the ascetical program of the Orthodox monk? What is its motivation? How is it rooted in a psychology based on the Orthodox anthropology that we have just been discussing? These are the questions that we now begin to discuss.

Let us make some further remarks about each of the three parts of the soul, since, as we progress, it will be seen that the Orthodox ascetic has a quite specific understanding of their character.

The first is mind (nous). We have devoted considerable time to this concept. We began with a discussion of the existence of the mind (nous) based on its intellectual operations (e.g. medicine, astronomy). These operations lead to scientific knowledge. We will see as we progress another kind of knowledge—contemplative—which will be called gnosis (gnosis).

This contemplative knowledge—gnosis—is not propositional. It is not based on syllogisms, measurements, inferences, data. It is not the sort of knowledge recognized as knowledge by the positivist philosopher. In ordinary conversation, it might be called wisdom. It is recognized when one speaks with an ascetic who gives an ‘enlightened answer’ ‘full of wisdom’, an answer to a problem that human science does not address. The answer will not make you any the wiser what hour the sun will rise tomorrow, but it might help you to know what to do with yourself once the sun has risen. Moreover, it will be seen that the quintessential function or work (ergon) of the mind (nous) is to know God, and this not discursively but—in the philosophical sense of ‘directly’—intuitively. Hence, our program is directed towards answering the question ‘How can I know God in prayer?’, and also presupposes that the mind (nous) is such that it can know God, although much time will be spent precisely on this point: ‘What does it mean for the mind (nous) to know God?’

Similarly to the mind (nous), the irascible part of the soul, or temper, has a much broader character than we might suppose from ordinary usage in the West. Speaking informally now to motivate our discussion, we might associate the following with the irascible part of the soul or temper: anger, courage, steadfastness, manliness, resoluteness in battle. It can be seen that this is far more than mere anger; it has to do with the manly virtues; and we will see that the ascetic will use the irascible part of his soul in a manly way—even in the case of woman ascetics. The irascible part of the soul is often compared to a dog, and it will be seen that just as we want a trained dog, we will want to have a ‘trained’ irascible part of our soul.

The other part of the soul is the desiring part, or, simply, desire. This, of course, includes the urge to procreate. However, it also includes the appetite for food. Moreover, it will be seen that the desiring part will be assigned a positive role in the ascetic’s life. We will encounter ‘Eros (eros)’ spoken of in relation to the mystic’s aspiration for God. Eros (eros) is the word used in Greek for marital love; and when it is used in an ascetical context, it is used deliberately, in contradistinction to Christian charity (agape). This Eros (eros) is an operation of the desiring part of the soul according to nature, so that the soul desires—purely, without disturbance of the flesh—God himself, but on an analogy with the Eros (eros) that a bride feels for her husband. So we can see that these three parts of the soul have a much broader significance than might nowadays be understood.

Moreover, when we talk about the governance of the soul by the mind (nous)—this will be addressed at length—we need to understand that this is far more than living by some written code of rules according to a narrow logical program.

All of these ideas find their expression in Christian living: the men who expressed them, often clerics who frequently celebrated the Mysteries (sacraments), were active Christians who did not see any gulf between the life in Christ and the ascetical psychology that they were at great pains to discuss. While at times they might not refer specifically to Christ, it must be understood that Christ was the centre of their lives: they were baptized Christians who were speaking to Christians about the life in Christ, how to live it. We say this both because some of the concepts, especially those adapted from pagan philosophy, might be given by the reader a far narrower significance than the Christian author of the text being discussed intends—above we mentioned the notion that the mind (nous) should govern the other parts of the soul—and because, when we talk about the anthropology, the psychology, the mysticism, of these men and women, it might seem that they are not saying anything specifically Christian. Let us take as an example St Macrina. In her discussion up to this point she has not based her arguments narrowly on Scripture. She came, however, from a family that had suffered persecution for the sake of its faith in Jesus Christ and she would have found it preposterous that someone might think that she were a pagan philosopher. St Macrina is a Christian, indeed a Saint, and as a Christian she is discussing on her deathbed Christian theology with her brother, St Gregory.

We will see cases where it is not clear that the discussion is authentically Christ-centred. In these cases, it must be borne in mind who is speaking. These men and women had an authentic Christian culture, even, in the case of Evagrius Pontikos, when they had fallen into heresy.

Now let us commence the discussion.

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[1] According to St Thomas Aquinas, Plato taught a multitude of souls. See Chapter IV.

[2] Arist–Physics.

[3] We ignore here certain of Evagrius’ cosmological and anthropological ideas which we will discuss in the next chapter.


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