Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Siiri Toiviainen: The Demands of Nature and the Christian Life in the Ethics of Gregory of Nyssa

In Hellenistic philosophy, perhaps most prominently in Stoicism, “life according to nature” was often cited as the ideal of ethical conduct. For the Stoics, nature was an all-encompassing force of growth and change that could not be overcome. It manifested itself, for example, in the fluctuating life of the body with its recurring needs. Since nature could not be ignored, the Stoics taught it was better to obey calmly its demands and focus one’s efforts on those things which could be freely chosen.

The ideal of life according to nature was adopted also in patristic thought. My paper looks at Gregory of Nyssa’s notion of nature, offering brief comparisons to both Roman Stoics and Clement of Alexandria whose thought bridged the ancient philosophical tradition and early Christian ethics. I will argue that Gregory adopted many of the key features of the Stoic concept of nature. He viewed nature as the source of inevitable bodily needs but, like the Stoics, emphasised that the “debt of nature” was small and reasonable, and would not distract humans from their spiritual calling.

However, Gregory’s treatise De virginitate seems to diverge from the paradigm. In this early work, Gregory recommends a lifestyle that goes against ”the order of nature” and leads ”outside nature”. Reflecting on the relationship between nature and virtue, I will offer suggestions as to why Gregory might hold such a conflicting view.

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