Gregory of Nyssa
A reading of this letter which dates from approximately the year 378 (1) has a certain relevance for today's audience because it defends freedom of the human will against astrological fatalism. Apart from those instances involving superstition, most people in modern societies do not subscribe to the influence of stars and planets over their lives. Despite this fact, modern developments in both science and psychology which abrogate the role of free will compel us to confront the perennial question of freedom versus determinism. One example of the latter point of view is expressed by a noted molecular biologist, Jacques Monod, who claims that "Man...lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings and his crimes" (2). In his critique of Monod's opinion, the biologist Rupert Sheldrake has observed that in the course of human history the indeterminate forces of nature which Monod so graphically described have assumed personalized patterns as in the forms of gods and goddesses (3). If, as some scientists maintain, the neo-Darwinian view of evolution depends upon the revelation of eternal forms, we do not have true creativity but the manifestation of patterns. It is precisely this (Platonic) conception of determinism which Gregory of Nyssa seeks to refute in his letter, Against Fate.
Gregory employs this form "as a simple, unelaborated presentation" to a pagan philosopher in Constantinople. This man, who assumes the role of Gregory's antagonist, believes that the position of the stars at a person's birth determines his or her destiny. That is to say, free will is basically irrelevant in our lives. In his opening remarks Gregory gives the example of "the most wise Eusebios" (4) who has formerly been influenced by fate yet later "prevailed against infidelity through his great faith." Gregory does not elaborate upon the Christian faith in his letter by employing one of his favorite means, quotations from the Old and New Testaments. In fact, the reader is struck by the paucity of biblical citations in Against Fate. Instead, we have a lengthy epistle which contains both a philosophical and scientific approach to the problem of astrological fatalism. The role of astrology has had a long history dating back before the fourth century and can be traced to Chaldean-Babylonian astronomical speculation (5). The Greek speaking world employed such terms for the notion destiny as moira (literally, 'part' or 'portion'), anagke (necessity), and heimarmene (fate) (6). Gregory employs the last term in the title to his letter, Kata Heimarmenes. The very use of heimarmene reveals that he is concerned with combatting that particular form of fatalism founded upon the ordered, irrevocable movements of the heavenly bodies which basically form a primitive type of cosmological mechanism (7). As Jerome Gaith has observed, these Greek terms are combined with Chaldean-Babylonian astronomy which, in turn, lays at the heart of that particular astrological determinism as articulated by the Stoics (8). In Gaith's words, "Il signifie donc la negation pure et simple de la liberte de choix, et, par la, de la responsabilite et de la vie morale." Such determinism presented by astrologers of the fourth century signifies the beginning of that conflict between science which proposes necessity (anagke) and free will which affirms contingency. A reading of Against Fate reveals that Gregory of Nyssa had an awareness with astrology even though he claims ignorance of the subject ("I am neither acquainted with it nor instructed in these matters," J.35.17-19). Despite such protestation, Gregory nevertheless demonstrates considerable knowledge with regard to his opponent's theories on destiny.
The philosopher Plotinos manifests a similar affinity for determinism as we see in his doctrine of the soul's restoration to its primitive state. This duality explains his view of astrology: the sublunary world (matter and spirit) are under the stars' influence but the soul, influenced by divine impulse, escapes into the world of the stars which, being divine, are exempt from change (9). Thus the stars are not the cause of evil since they receive their impulse from the One. Although they cannot produce future events, they can announce them. As a result, each star lacks astrological significance since they all carry out the work assigned to them by the First Principle. Because of this transcendental influence, magic and divinization are legitimate pursuits because they enjoy unity with the One (10).
The position taken by the philosopher in Gregory's treatise exhibits a vigorous defense of fate primarily based upon Stoic Platonic principles. As we have already observed, the bishop of Nyssa could have strengthened his Christian position by offering more relevant passages from the Bible. Despite this deficiency (11), he nevertheless takes the traditional Christian stand in defense of human free will. Gregory re-enforces his belief by ascribing to the Stoic concept of universal sympathy (sumpatheia) within a Christian context (12). We can also see a similar argument from the Stoic point of view in the following passage taken from the pagan philosopher's argument in defense of sumpatheia as applied to destiny:
Rather, since created beings have a unique affinity (sumpatheia) which brings the universe into harmony (suneches) and since everything forms one body where each member is in accord with the other (sumpnoia mia (13)), the more prominent element above arranges what lies on earth. Against Fate, (J.37.13-20)
We may contrast this passage with a Christian interpretation of Stoic sumpatheia which correlates to God's ordering of the world and human circumstances (oikonomia). Refer to the following two excerpts from Gregory's writings:
If the entire world order is a kind of musical
harmony whose artisan and creator is God, as the
Apostle says (Heb. 11.10), then man is a microcosm,
an imitator of him who made the world. The divine
plan for the world sees this image in what is small,
for the part is indeed the same as the whole.
Similarly, a piece of small, transparent stone
reflects like a mirror the entire sun in the same
way a small object reflects God's light. Thus I
say that in the microcosm, man's nature, all
the music of the universe is analogously seen in
the whole through the particular inasmuch as the
whole is contained in the particular. The
structure of our body's organs follows this
example, for nature has skillfully constructed
it to produce music.
Commentary on the Inscriptions of the Psalms (J.33-34)
The universe contains everything, and its harmony
does not admit the dissolution of created beings;
instead, we have concord between them all. Neither
is the universe severed from any of its parts;
instead, he who truly exists holds all things by
his power. God indeed is true existence or
absolute goodness; also, any name we ascribe to
him points to his unutterable reality.
Commentary on Ecclesiastes (J.406)
Here Gregory has expunged God's care for his creation from the Stoic identification of matter with spirit as well as the potential for astrological determinism which he refutes in his letter. Those persons engaged in such practices as divinizations and prophecies seek a connection or pattern (akolouthia) between heavenly bodies and human events and endeavors. However, they are ignorant of God's plan and strive through their prophecies to discern a connection by means of the stars. In his treatise Concerning the Soul Gregory laments this fact by saying, "It is without reason, oh men, that you afflict yourselves and moan before the necessary sequence (akolouthia) of things. You are ignorant of the goal towards which the universe moves. The wise Artisan directs it in order to be united to the divine nature" (14).
Despite his adherence to the Stoic concept of nature, Gregory does not acquiesce to its proclivity for astrological speculation which, as he shows, is ultimately accountable for immoral behavior because the element of human responsibility has been abrogated. For example, refer to the following passage from Against Fate:
If fate directs the universe, then no other higher
principle exists. But if the stars' movement
affirms that destiny governs them with coercion,
it would be better to attribute this power to the
stars instead of an all-powerful force. In this
instance either the stars, the firmament's
rotation, the movements within it or the
revolution within its axis are responsible.
This excerpt also discloses Gregory's first argument against destiny. He employs legitimate Stoic insights into the nature of reality (minus its astrological speculations) and demonstrates that movement is an essential component for the created realm:
Once the inferior [light of a star] becomes
obscured, the following is supposed to happen:
a different form appears when the star's
revolution encompasses the one lying behind it
so that the greater either immediately over-
shadows it or makes this star turn aside. The
orbit occurs in either a brief or longer
temporal interval (tou chronikou diastematos)
according to the revolution's size which bears
a necessary correlation to the speed or slowness
of each circuit. (J.36.6-13)
As Gregory has pointed out in another place (15), the created realm is subject to one and the same kind of time. He perceives all creation as in a state of movement, that is, from one point in time to another. The most common term for this movement is diastema as found in the above mentioned passage. T. Paul Verghese has observed that diastema may also be used as "a unilateral gap--from the side of the creation. It is a 'standing apart,' a diastasis or an apostasis from the Creator, but the Creation being fully, i.e., with arche, telos and all in between, immediately present to the Creator" (16). But if fate essentially consists in movement, why, Gregory asks, is not the name of fate given to all the movements pertaining to the created realm? For this argument refer to the following passage:
If fate were a guiding principle, it would not
follow but precede the order of creation. In
this light fate exists before a person is born
although it plays no role in supporting such a
birth. If is unclear here whether fate [or
birth] comes first since both occur simultan-
eously...If the stars are responsible for
bringing man to birth, human nature would
always be the same, and the process of human
generation would not occur within an interval
of time. (J.40.4-12 & 22-24)
Gregory's second argument against fate's determining power treats the immoral consequences of his opponent's justification. If, as this philosopher maintains, fate dispenses adultery and vice, we have here an obvious proof that it is corrupt and evil:
If anyone who willingly does evil and inflicts
injury admits to his behavior, he is indeed
miserable. Instead of choosing the good, he
has opted for ignominy brought on by pleasure.
If he commits these deeds not through choice
but by necessity, then some other higher fate
has determined the attributes and capacities
proper to human nature. (J.48.1-8)
Here Gregory refutes the negation of human moral life which, from the Christian point of view, is an imitation of the divine life. Despite the dangers posed by astrology which submits us to cosmic determinism, the bishop of Nyssa is more concerned with the dangers stemming from Plato and Origen regarding the pre-existence of souls. With this important problem in mind, it is helpful to read Against Fate in conjunction with two major works by Gregory, Dialogue on the Soul and the Resurrection and On the Creation of Man. It does not lie within the scope of this Introduction to outline these two works but to simply draw attention to the fact that they deal with more immediate concerns encountered by Gregory and other Fathers of the Church.
For Gregory free will assumes particular importance because after mankind's fall, it is that one aspect of human nature which has remained essentially intact (17). Furthermore, free will is the principle means by which we return to God. Gregory takes pains throughout his writings to stress that humankind is free. Instead of being subject to an inexorable, blind power, God's mercy is the directing force. For example, refer to an excerpt from his Commentary on the Song of Songs:
God gave to rational nature the grace of free will
and bestowed on man the power to find what he wants
that the good might be present in our lives, not
coerced and involuntary, but the result of free
It is important to stress the phrase, "that the good might be present in our lives" because for Gregory the good is equivalent to God himself. Furthermore, we have already seen that astrological determinism represents a despair when confronted with cosmic forces; here any identification of these oppressive forces with goodness is simply out of the question:
They [various types of afflictions] all have one
cause, and our capacity for free choice with
regards to life accounts for nothing; rather,
everything is dependent upon fate's power...
all show that necessity (anagke) controls both virtue (arete) and evil. Thus the unchanging nature of fate establishes a person either in a loftier mode of life, poverty or freedom. Against Fate, (J.33.23-J.34.4)
This passage demonstrates Gregory's vigorous attack on the idea of pre-destination which sought to put the blame for unbelief in the world on the decree of God and not on a person's will (18). As Paulos Mar Gregorios has commented, "For Gregory, if that is what pre-destination means, then it is the chief sign of unbelief itself, to put the blame on God. The idea of pre-destination belongs to Hellenism, not to Christianity" (19). The bishop of Nyssa cites numerous natural disasters which were attributed to the stars:
If we could demonstrate that part of the earth, not
all of it, is subject to calamities, idle talk
would attribute that it is subject to a certain
conjunction of the stars or the compulsion of fate.
Each part of creation is interconnected, that is,
heaven, earth and the sea. (J.55.13-18)
Earlier in his treatise Gregory mentions those occasional correct instances of astrological predictions (J.49-50). He uses the example of physicians who "without having recourse to the stars' movements, they can predict the future from certain bodily qualities" (J.49.22-24). However, such predictions are too rare and can be only attributed to the result of accident or chance. As Dom Amand has pointed out, most of these arguments are not original with Gregory but are taken from Carneades of Cyrene, the founder of the Third Academy who was strongly opposed to Stoicism (20). The fatalism of Stoicism derives from the notion of causality and unity of the cosmos (sympatheia). Although human beings may by their free choice contribute to the outcome of events, these gestures participate, so to speak, in God's immanence within creation. Man must eventually conform to this presence and accept the inevitable results with indifference. On the other hand, Gregory offers the Christian belief that we are unfettered by external causes and can indeed make choices for the good. He says that God may be understood through this perception of the good:
We may perceive the divine nature in every good
thought and name manifested in our lives such as
light, truth, righteousness, wisdom, incorrupt-
ibility and any other good we can comprehend.
we recognize the divine nature and its attributes
by all those things which are opposite to it, for
example, death instead of life, deceit instead of
truth and every type of evil inimical to man.
After defending God's goodness as opposed to the apathy of determinism, the bishop of Nyssa perceives its influence in terms of deception which, in turn, is controlled by demons:
People rush after this deadly poison thinking it
to be good while it contains nothing beneficial.
Thus whenever we encounter anyone with the pretence
of knowing the future through deception which is
controlled by demons, for example, through
divinization, augury, omens, oracles about the
dead and genealogies, each one is different and
predicts the future in dissimilar ways.
We have yet another reference about this demonic deception towards the conclusion of his letter which may be contrasted to an excerpt taken from another letter by Gregory, A Letter Concerning the Sorceress:
The influence of fate turns man from God, the source
of every good, and makes them hasten after demons.
Therefore, people are easily persuaded not to direct
their lives according to God's counsel but by the
combination of stars. This depravity makes them
hasten after that deception so typical of demons.
Against Fate (J.62.19-J.63.2)
Persons who are pre-occupied with the body and who
want knowledge of the future, means by which they
hope to escape evil or follow pleasure, are
unmindful of God. In their treachery, demons
devise many ways [to thwart such unmindfulness]:
omens, divinizations, oracles, rites to conjure up
ghosts, ecstasies, possessions, inspirations and
many other tricks.
A Letter Concerning the Sorceress (J.103)
These deceptions which "avert us from the authority of God all-powerful" (J.63.10-11) are thus ultimately the reason why mankind, in Gregory's view, has remained subject to astrological determinism. To conclude with the opening words of Gregory's letter, it is only by belief in the living God that we can remove the "great mountain of faithlessness" (J.31.4) and transform it into faith.
The critical text of Against Fate was prepared by John A. McDonough, sj in Gregorii Nysseni Opera, vol. iii (Leiden, 1987), pp.31-63. Reference to the critical edition is designated within the translation by the page number. The letter "M," also followed by a page number, refers to the edition of J.P. Migne in Patrologia Graecia 45 (Paris, 1858), cols. 145-178.
[M.145 & J.31] You certainly recall the occasion when, if I may speak in accord with the Gospel, the great mountain of faithlessness in your midst was recently transformed into faith (cf. Mt 17.20). In his old age the most wise Eusebios pondered over the [M.148] necessity of human intention and what seems to be an apparent lack of divine direction with regard to our good. I was astounded at the way this man who had formerly been deceived by unfaithfulness later prevailed against infidelity through his great faith for in the course of our conversation we had discussed the issue of fate [J.32]. You have directed me, oh venerable and holy leader, to fully describe the discussion of certain philosophies in the great city of Constantine concerning this subject. Because I have do not have the leisure for composing a lengthy letter, I have kept the subject matter short by maintaining the form of a simple, unelaborated presentation. In this way I may retain the style of a letter without enlarging it into a book.
I have offered several observations about our religion to a certain man trained in pagan philosophy. In this way I strived to win him over from Greek [superstition] to our point of view, for [his belief] hinders many persons from using their own judgment and renders them powerless by subjecting them to necessity. Such superstition is contrary to my opinion. If a Christian subjects himself to fate, he will indeed fall into its trap which is clearly inimical to our position. On the other hand, if a person prevents himself from being governed by fate, it will have no influence at all. Having said this, I believe that we must shun knowledge of Greek [J.33] superstition which can captivate and hinder us from following our faith. Since fate is inexorable, people say that everyone is subject to its demand and that they are reduced to its domination. Included are our span of life, differences among people, the choices we make, the various kinds of bodies and their respective qualities. In this way fate maintains in control and bestows servitude, wealth, poverty, corporeal illness, health and a short or lengthy life span (for whether a person lives a short or long time does not depend upon his own impulse; rather, necessity determines the consequence). Whether death be voluntary or forced, its sentence is meted out in different ways, for example, by chance, hanging, a judge's sentence or by treachery. In addition to more general kinds of afflictions we have earthquakes, shipwrecks, floods, fires and other similar disasters. They all have one cause, and our capacity for free choice with regards to life accounts for nothing; rather, everything is dependent upon fate's [M.149] power whether it happens to be philosophy, public speaking, agriculture, sailing, marriage or the single life: all show that necessity controls both virtue and evil. Thus the unchanging [J.34] nature of fate establishes a person either in a loftier mode of life, poverty or freedom. It similarly applies to a grave robber, pirate, a person living profligately or someone characterized by effeminate behavior. No one should think that these examples compel us to accept fate where our capacity to make choices plays no role; rather, they demonstrate that we should depend upon necessity, the source of our impulses, which is imposed upon us against our will and abrogates our free choice.
Examination of these matters leads me to inquire whether or not we can ascribe fate to God who administers everything by his will. The [philosopher] who charged me with stupidity has said, "You seem to lack knowledge of celestial matters. If you were familiar with the power of fate, you would then know its source and unalterable nature." I am amazed at this and asked to clarify myself, that is, whether our capacity for free choice which appears sovereign and without master in its authority is governed by fate or whether something else is responsible. Once again [the philosopher] says, "When contemplating the heavens' movement, the zodiac's circle which is equally divided [J.35] into twelve parts, you are able to comprehend the power of each star and its particular energy. The union of their qualities produces a composite whether they are united or separated to another star, or the inferior star is subjected to a superior one, or whether the superior eclipses it. For example, we obtain a different result from what has either come together or has been separated as in a triangle with uneven sides or any other geometric shape." This person claims that fate interprets such matters because its unalterable nature is responsible for the union existing among stars. When told of such a novel idea (I am neither acquainted with it nor instructed in these matters), I was expected to know fate's intention as revealed through the stars. I will now clarify myself as follows. Other persons have informed me about the stars' motion with respect to one another, the opposite movement within them according to a fixed circuit [