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Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa lived in the fourth century, and belonged to the group called the "Cappadocians". (Cappadocia is a region of Asia Minor, southeast of modern Ankara.) The three main Cappadocians of the fourth century were:

Nyssa is often confused by later writers with a certain Nemesius, because of the similarity of their names and of the titles of their works. (If their names don't look very similar to you, remember: you're not looking at a Greek manuscript.)

Nyssa, like Origen, is very neo-Platonic. Here are some of the main themes:

  1. Like Origen, Nyssa accepts the return of everything to God. Hence there is no Hell for Nyssa. Unlike Origen, however, Nyssa rejects the pre-existence of souls.

  2. For Nyssa, creation is a free act (contrary to Origen).

  3. Like Origen, Nyssa held that evil is the result of man's free will. In Nyssa's happy phrase, man is the "demiurge of evil". That is, just as the Platonic Demiurge (and, for that matter, the neo-Platonic Soul of Plotinus' doctrine) is responsible for what good there is in this visible world insofar as he is the one who shapes "recalcitrant matter" after the patterns found in the ideal Forms, so too human beings - or their souls - are "demiurges of evil" and are responsible for what is bad in this visible world insofar as they are the ones who mess things up in this world. They are the ones who stir up the waters so that the reflection of the Forms is all broken up and distorted.

  4. Nyssa held that matter is composed of intelligible qualities. It is not exactly clear (to me at any rate) how all this works, but it is clear that it is a kind of "bundle theory" of "material" things, and the ingredients of the bundle are Platonic intelligibles. Matter for Nyssa is not a dark, mysterious, "unintelligible" principle, as it is for some people (for some Aristotelians, for example). Nyssa appears to have held this view for basically theological, not philosophical reasons: it provided a way of handling the notion that at the end of the world, not only will our souls return to God, but so will our bodies. It is much easier to see how bodies can return to God in the neo-Platonic way if bodies are just clusters of intelligible, immaterial qualities to begin with. This rather odd doctrine does not have much of a future in the Middle Ages, although it will emerge again in John Scottus Eriugena, who read Greek and was very much influenced by Nyssa.

  5. Perhaps the most important contribution Nyssa made to mediaeval philosophy, however, was in his mystical theory. Using the old Greek equation of being with intelligibility, which goes back at least to Parmenides. Given this equation, you can do two things:

(a) If you think of God as a being, even as a being par excellence, then mysticism (or, in neo-Platonic terms, the "return" to God) is going to be interpreted in terms of intellect or understanding. The mystical experience will be thought of primarily as an intellectual experience. And so you will get all the standard intellectual metaphors - "light"-metaphors, primarily. The mystical experience will involve a "blinding light", "the sun". Similarly, the face to face experience of God that St. Paul promises to the blessed in the next life will be a matter of intellect, a "beatific vision". One important branch of the Platonic tradition, the branch including Augustine, will go in this direction.

(b) On the other hand, if you put God above being, with at least some of the neo-Platonists, then the mystical experience of union with God is not going to be an intellectual experience at all.

Nyssa adopts a somewhat different approach, which nevertheless has pretty much the same consequences for the way one describes the mystical experience. According to Nyssa:

(i) God is indeed most real, in conformity with Exodus. Sensible things are but pale reflections of God.

(ii) But our human cognitive powers are naturally geared to the sensible. It is the sensible world that we know best. Hence

(iii) Mysticism, even though it is going to be a search after or return to what is most real, in accordance with Exodus, is not going to be an intellectual experience.

For Nyssa, our intellects are simply not capable of reaching that far - to God. Hence mysticism will not be a matter of intellect but of will and love, which outstrips the intellect.

This is an important doctrine, with a big future - and not just in mediaeval thought. If, for instance, in Augustine mystical experience is going to be interpreted as a blinding light, etc., in Nyssa it is going to be put in terms of darkness, love, etc. It is from the Nyssa-tradition that you get later mystical talk about: the "Dark Night of the Soul"; the "Cloud of Unknowing"; the "Living Flame of Love"; etc.

This mystical tradition is a completely different stream from the intellectualist kind of mysticism in Augustine. It will emerge into the Latin tradition with the translation of Pseudo-Denis.

Here is a quite typical passage that illustrates this "darkness"-mysticism. It comes from The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous mystical treatise written in Middle English around 1370:

". . . And our soul, by virtue of this reforming grace, is made entirely sufficient to comprehend him completely by love, who is incomprehensible to any created knowing power, such as an angel or a human soul. (I mean by their knowing, and not by their loving. And therefore in this case I call them knowing powers.)

But see: all rational creatures, each one by himself, angel and man, has in himself a principal operative power that is called a knowing power, and another principal operative power that is called a loving power. To the first of these two powers, which is a knowing power, God - that is, the maker of [those powers] - is forever incomprehensible. And to the second, which is the loving power, he is altogether completely knowable to each one individually. . . ."

There is a highly developed mystical tradition in the West. And it is a theoretical tradition - that is, there is a large literature about what is going on in mysticism, not just on how to do it or what it feels like. Eastern philosophy has no monopoly on mysticism.

It is important to see exactly what Nyssa has done. He has tampered with the old Greek equation of being with intelligibility. There are two ways of viewing it. We may take Nyssa as denying that equation, so that while God is the most real thing around, he is nevertheless a dark night to the intellect. The most real is not the most intelligible. Or else we can also take it - and this is the way that will be most important and influential - that Nyssa has kept the equation but introduced a qualification:

It may very well be that being is in some sense equated with intelligibility, but not necessarily with intelligibility to us. God may be perfectly intelligible to himself. He may be the most intelligible thing there is, in that sense. But we don't and can't understand him, so he is not intelligible to us.

This is the distinction between intelligibility absolutely and intelligibility quoad nos ( = "with respect to us" or "as far as we are concerned") that Aquinas and the Aristotelians will make so much of later on.

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest