image with the sign of Myriobiblos

Main Page | Library | Homage | Seminars | Book Reviews





Internet Dept.



Main page of text | Previous Page
Peter C. Bouteneff

Essential or Existential: The Problem of the Body in the Anthropology of St Gregory of Nyssa

From: Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Beatitudes".
Edited by Hubertus R. Dröbner and Albert Viciano. BRILL, Leiden-Boston-Köln 2000.

I. The body and the soul: symbiotic unity - II. The body and the image: icon by association - III. The body,materiality and morality.

Essential or existential: this is the distinction upon which Gregory of Nyssa's anthropology hinges. He sees certain aspects of our human nature, in particular those reflected in the divine nature, as being inherent or essential to the human nature. Other, "existential", characteristics - including both those which concern the inner life (the passions) and the spatio-temporal condition of human life (sexual reproduction, birth, growth, the various nutritive functions, and death) - are understood as belonging to our nature in a secondary or provisional way.

As set out in the De hominis opificio (DHO), this distinction arises out of Gregory's concern to explain how humans, made in the image of the good, passionless God, can in fact be observed to be evil-tending, passionate creatures: Gregory supposes that the un-Godlike in us results from additions given in prevision of (and as a provision for the results of) our decision to fall away from God. Yet the same "essential" vs. "alloyed" distinction is expressed in different terms in the De anima et resurrectione (DAR). There the distinction is set out in terms not of theodicy but of protology and eschatology: the state of the human person in the resurrected life corresponds to the state - not "before" the fall but "before" the accretions of passion, the nutritive functions, birth and death (1). In between these two states is the human person as we know him - subject to zeal and desire, subject to the cycles of birth and death, eating and eliminating, and so forth.

Gregory's anthropology has a certain logic: it explains, in its own way, the puzzle of an evil-tending humanity in the image of the good God, while following a recapitulation" or "restoration" model of salvation. Yet one significant aspect of the human person remains difficult to fit within his schema, and this is the human body. The problem can be described as follows: if divine nature is the criterion for essential human nature, and if God cannot by any means be considered corporeal, then corporeality would not be inherent to human nature but rather a secondary addition. Yet insofar as Gregory holds that we have our bodies in the resurrection, and the resurrected state is a return to the original, essential state, it should follow that we are bodily in our essential nature.

The main focus of this paper will be to investigate how Gregory finds his way through this apparent conundrum, focusing primarily on the DHO and the DAR.

Ιn general, Gregory of Nyssa's stance concerning the human body can at times appear at odds with itself in this he is no different from his Cappadocian colleagues. It is not difficult to find contrasting sentiments, emanating on the one hand from Christian imperatives to affirm the body as good and worthy of eternal association with the soul in the resurrection, and on the other hand from a combination of ascetical concerns and the habit of Platonism, where it is considered an encumbrance to be endured until we are finally freed from it. This familiar ambivalence can be partly accounted for through the distinction, acute in Nyssen's writings, between the "spiritual body" and the "carnal body". More will be said about this distinction below, but for now let us begin by examining some of his basic presuppositions about the human body and its relation to the soul.

Ι. Τhe Body and the Soul: Symbiotic Unity

The first mention of the body in the DHO comes in the third and fourth chapters, where it is seen to be created beautiful, tailored for the "royalty" that is the soul. The very shape of the body, upright and upward-tending, befits a royal dignity (§ 8) (2). Α more detailed treatment of the question of the body begins in §§ 9-10. These sections speak of the body in terms of its necessity to the soul. The soul is full of grace in its image-bearing character but, being immaterial and incorporeal, this grace is incommunicable and isolated (ακοινώνητον ... καi άμικτον), thus requiring an
instrumental organization (οργανικής ... κατασκευής) (3) The material body, Gregory continues, is therefore like a musical instrument which the soul plucks like a string. The νους could not "make its music" without the body, neither could it receive information without the body and its senses. Ιn these chapters, Gregory thus describes the body as an instrument of both communication and reception, often setting out these functions in detail that can only be described as medical, yet not without reverence or a sense of mystery.

The sense conveyed here is therefore that the body and the soul are a symbiotic unity: in our present life, the two decisively belong together. This trend is re-emphasized later οn when Gregory stresses that the body and the soul have a common beginning. Ιn his refutation of the pre-existence of souls οn the one hand and their transmigration οn the other, Gregory suggests that the truth lies in between those two ideas (4). This assertion goes beyond the mere refutation of Origenistic teachings: it portrays a holistic understanding of the human person and a departure from Platonism generally. The body and the soul have a single beginning, writes Gregory, so that the human should not be found to be antecedent and posterior to himself (ως αν μη αυτός [ο άνθρωπος] εαυτού προγενέστερός τε και νεώτερος γένοιτο) (5). Ιn other words, his concern for their simultaneous beginning arises from the sense that the body and soul naturally belong together, and only together do they constitute the person. This is a far cry from the Neo-Platonic dictum "the soul is the human".

Even in the foreknowledge of God - for Gregory holds that there is a kind of pre-existence of the πλήρωμα of all humanity - the human person as body and soul is a reality. The simultaneous beginning of body and soul in the conception of each human person in time is related to their single foundation in God's eternal will for humanity:

There is one beginning of both [body and soul], which from the perspective of heaven was laid as their foundation in the original will of God, and from the [temporal] perspective, came into existence οn the occasion of conception (6).

As Gerhart Ladner aptly notes, "the body is not an after-thought" of God (7).God's design of the human person consists in the soul as well as in the είδος, the form which is to be made visible in the body.

From what has been shown so far, the body does not seem to be treated as one of the nοn-essential additions to our nature. Is it then a part of the divine image? This question needs to be explored further, partly in terms of the interrelationship between soul, είδος, and body.

ΙΙ. Τhe Body and the Image: Icon by Association

The human form (είδος), says Gregory in the Oratio catechetica, "was beautiful, for it was created as the image of the archetypal beauty" (8).This statement echoes an early passage of the DH0 (9). Is the είδος to be understood as the body, and is the archetypal beauty the divine image?

The twelfth chapter of the DHO addresses this question, concluding that the body is in the divine image, as it were, through the soul. It reflects the archetypal beauty insofar as the soul does, due to the nature of its relationship with the image-bearing soul. Nyssen calls the body "a mirror of the mirror", an "image of the image" (εικών εικόνος), a relationship which has both stipulations and repercussions: even the νους itself is not God's image unconditionally, it must partake in its likeness to the archetype (10). It must govern the body, not be governed by it, or else the soul will also lose its iconic beauty (11). The body is therefore in the divine image by extension, or through association with the soul, and the soul in its turn has the capability of choosing to turn to God or to turn away from divine likeness.

The body is in this way kept one step away from being in the divine image, and thus the essentially corporeal human nature can still in a way be seen as being in the image of the non-corporeal God. Yet what is the nature of this corporeality that belongs to the essential human nature?


1. "Before" is in inverted commas, because Gregory does not hold that any human person actually existed solely in his essential nature, devoid of gender, reproducing as the angels. The "essential" state is the divinely foreordained condition of humanity, in which the human person reveals purely the image of God, the God with whom he communes freely in love.

2. See also Basil, Hom. 319,8 (Rudberg 36).

3. § 9,1 (PG 44, 149 Β); cf. also DAR (PG 46, 29 Α).

4. DHO 28 (PG 44, 229 Β-233 C).

5. § 29,1 (PG 44, 233 C).

6. § 29,3 (PG 44, 236 Β).

7. Gerhart Ladner, The Philosophical Anthropology of Saint Gregory οf Nyssa: DOP 12 (1958) 59-94 [p. 90 n. 141].

8. § 6 (GNO ΙΙΙ/IV 25).

9. § 3,2 (PG 44, 136 Α).

10. Basil of Caesarea held similar views. His references to the body as a "sepulchre" were only partly due to the Platonic legacy, for to Basil the body was a tomb only when it reflected a sinful, tortured soul - cf. Hom. 354 (PG 29, 448 Α).

11. We are told here several times that this loss of archetypal beauty means that the body then displays "the misshapenness of matter". This involves Gregory's curious understanding of matter as void of its own form, being itself nothing but a conglomerate of είδη. See below, at nn. 29-31.

Main page of text | Previous Page