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The Irrational Parts of the Soul “Against Nature” in Christian Neoplatonism? Gregory Nyssen with Antecedents in Origen and Aftermath in Evagrius

Ilaria Ramelli

Christian Platonists generally rejected both magic and theurgy, which they associated with “pagan” religion, and tended to emphasize the preeminence of the Logos in every respect, including psychology. This preeminence in their case had the additional rationale that in their view the Logos is Christ; the rational faculty of the soul is rational insofar as it participates in Christ-Logos (the very category of participation, μέθεξις, which they abundantly deployed, was obviously Platonic). Gregory of Nyssa, who lived in the second half of the fourth century CE, is one of the most prominent Christian Neoplatonists; he was heavily influenced by the Christian Middle-Neoplatonist Origen of Alexandria († 255ca. CE), of whose ideas he is the most insightful and subtle interpreter. In turn, Gregory exerted a still significantly underestimated and underresearched influence on Evagrius Ponticus († 399 CE), whose reception has been unfortunately split into two: his ascetic production has been valued as immensely useful and “orthodox” and has been handed down in Greek virtually in its entirety; his metaphysical, protological and eschatological speculations, instead, have been regarded with suspicion as dangerously “heterodox” and mostly have been lost in Greek. Yet Evagrius’ psychology and particularly his reflections on the irrational faculties of the soul are to be found even more in the latter (especially his Kephalaia Gnostika or Chapters on Knowledge and his Letter to Melania or Great Letter) than in the former.

This paper will investigate Gregory of Nyssa’s presentation of the irrational faculties of the soul as unnatural for the human being and adventitious. These are seen as extraneous to the original structure of the human being in the beginning (ἀρχή) and as doomed to disappear in the end (τέλος). All irrational movements of the soul, all passions or bad emotions (πάθη) will utterly vanish in the eschatological scenario, apart from charity-love (ἀγάπη), which is no passion. Gregory’s relation to Plato’s psychology will be investigated, also in the light of Macrina’s statement in his dialogue On the Soul and the Resurrection that Plato’s tripartition of the soul will have to be set aside because it is not attested in Scripture. Gregory, however, regularly builds on Plato’s psychology; its influence on the aforementioned dialogue on the soul is paramount. Attention will be also paid to the impact of Origen’s doctrine of the soul, and his theory regarding the irrational faculties thereof, on Gregory of Nyssa.

I will finally examine Evagrius’ Platonic tripartition of the soul and theory concerning the irrational faculties of the soul and their eschatological elevation to the rank of the intellect instead of their utter destruction. This theory of the elevation of the inferior parts to the superior ones in the process of reversal (ἐπιστροφή, which in Christian Neoplatonism at least from Ps. Dionysius the Apreopagite onwards was conflated with apokatastasis or universal restoration) will be developed to a greater extent by the last Patristic Platonist, John the Scot Eriugena (ninth century CE).

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Platonism and the Irrational

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