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Book IV of the Dialogues attributed to Gregory the Great as a commentary on Ecclesiastes 9

Charles Kuper

Bryn Mawr College

If there a consensus among readers of the corpus of wisdom literature, it is that a proper understanding of these texts requires interpretation.  For Gregory the Great (d. 604), one of the earlier writers on wisdom literature, this drive often took the traditional form, commentaries composed in the form of a treatise such as the monumental Moralia in Iob and In Canticum Canticorum.  In this paper I shall give a reading of another text attributed to Gregory, the Dialogues, and argue that Book IV of this work can be better understood when read as a commentary on both the meaning and the literary form of a difficult passage from Ecclesiastes: uiuentes enim sciunt se esse morituros; mortui uero nihi nouerunt amplius, nec habent ultra mercedem, quia obliuioni tradita est memoria eorum (9:5, but also all of Chapter 9 in general). 

The Dialogues are a complex text.  Divided into four books, their aim was similar to standard hagiographical themes, to provide an exposition of the lives of the saints (in this case, those who had dwelt in Italy), which would serve as models for emulation by pious devotees, but also as reminders of the great distance separating the holy saints from their not-so-holy readers and listeners.   In response to Peter’s (Gregory’s sole interlocutor throughout the Dialogues) fears expressed at the conclusion of Book III (III.38.5) that the soul was extinguished at the death of the body, Gregory begins Book IV with a discussion of Ecclesiastes.  The reader of Ecclesiastes, Gregory says, can gravely misunderstand this text if he does not realize that Solomon has adopted the erroneous viewpoints of his students as a pedagogical strategy (IV.4.1ff).  In regards to chapter 9, the uninformed reader might believe (incorrectly) that the soul is mortal and perishes when the body dies.  This alarming problem requires clear interpretation.  To combat this difficulty, the author of the Dialogues untangles the ventriloquized voices spoken through the single persona of Solomon in Ecclesiastes by dividing them between the two interlocutors of the dialogue, a clever usage of ex utraque parte as a means of clarification of the form of Ecclesiastes.  Gregory adopts the voice of the teacher, while Peter voices the fears of the ignorant (cf. Petrus: Sed quaeso te ut me aequanimiter feras, si ipse quoque apud te more Ecclesiastis nostri infirmantium in me personam suscepero, IV.4.9), so that his readers might avoid the pitfalls the reader of Ecclesiastes might not.  The rest of Book IV represents a commentary on the meaning of Ecclesiastes 9, including extensive arguments for the immortality of the soul, some of which will be discussed over the course of my paper.

Session/Panel Title

Post-Classical Wisdom Literature (organized by the Medieval Latin Studies Group)

Session/Paper Number

36.1

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