Category: Persons

Cappadocians and Platonism

The thought of the Cappadocian Christian thinkers of the fourth century (especially Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus) was pivotal for the development of Christian thought. In their work is evident the dialogue with ancient Greek philosophy, especially with the later Platonic tradition, although each Cappadocian Father defines this dialogue in a different way and utilizes to a different extent the Platonic doctrines of God, world and man.

The Cappadocian thinkers constitute a decisive moment in the shaping and articulating the Christian doctrine in the golden age of the early Fathers (fourth to fifth century). Thanks to their erudition based on a theological, philosophical and rhetorical education they attempt to clarify –with the help of the philosophical vocabulary of the prevailing then Platonism– key issues both of “theology” (the nature and relations of the three hypostases of the deity) and “economy” (the relationship of divinity, hypostases and divine energies with the world and man). Their thought, mainly biblical but bearing the stamp of their philosophical culture, is distinctly impressed to the whole theological literature and spirituality of Eastern Christianity; and the appeal to their authority is still very common.

Basil of Caesarea

Basil, called the Great, was born in Caesarea of Cappadocia, about 330, into an active Christian family. Among his siblings were Gregory (later of Nyssa) and Macrina. From an early age he became friend with Gregory (of Nazianzus), and studied at Caesarea, Constantinople, and Athens (351) rhetoric, philosophy, astronomy, geometry, etc. He left his promising career as a rhetoric teacher and his fortune, and retired to monastic life (theoretically and practically contributing to the reform of monasticism). Upon returning due to a religious situation in Caesarea (362), he devoted the rest of his life in pastoral, charitable and literary work, especially fighting against the Arians. He died on January 1, 379.

Basil uses his philosophical knowledge in the wider context that he has create concerning the use of the classical ancient Greek culture by Christians –as it is expressed programmatically in his famous Address to young men on how they might derive benefit from Greek Literature. The Platonic narrative of creation in Timaeus is amply used in his Orations on Hexaemeron, directly or through the commentary of Poseidonius; echoes of Timaeus are found scattered in other works of Basil. The motifs of the theory of what lies beyond heaven, the two horses chariot (Phaedrus), the body as a barrier and prison of the soul (Phaedo) are also dear to him. More important is probably the influence of Neoplatonism, namely Plotinus: Basil seems to have in mind the theory of the three hypostases in his analysis of the Spirit as the third hypostase of divinity.

Gregory of Nazianzus

Gregory was born in Arianzos, near Nazianzus Cappadocia, in 329/30, into a wealthy family. His father was the bishop of Nazianzus and his mother Nonnus initiated him to Christianity. He studied rhetoric in Palestine and in Caesarea, in Alexandria he became familiar with the work of Origen and in Athens he spent his student years next to Basil and for a short time with their common known, Julian. Poetic and emotional in nature, Gregory avoided public activity and quickly abandoned teaching rhetoric for an ascetic life, without the extremities of the hermits of Egypt and Syria; he was devoted in a life of (in Neoplatonic terms) purification of the soul, idleness (apraxia) and contemplation. He returned to his solitude from time to time even when at an older age and out of neccessity, was ordained priest. He fought against Julian, preached in Constantinople against the Arians (378), elected Patriarch (381), but he was also slandered by the plotting of other Church officials. Embittered and over-emotional, he wrote that all the circumstances of his life impelled him to an active life while his true love was good and quietness and his genuine desire was to become a philosopher. In 381 he dropped his office and, devoted to study, poetry and contemplation, he died in his hometown shortly before 390.

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory, a brother of Basil, was born around 335 in Neocaesaria of Pontus. Not much is known about his life, since autobiographical elements are missing from his work and his public activity was not memorable. Undoubtedly he studied in philosophical schools and received a rhetoric education. After the death of his wife he retired and dedicated to the spiritual exercises and the study of theology. He was not a man of action, but was to become bishop in Nyssa (371), with increased responsibilities and involvement in major dogmatic conflicts with Apollinarius –something that gave him widespread recognition. He died around 394.

Given his knowledge of Plotinus and his work, Gregory is often called a “Christian Platonist”, although the importance attributed to his Platonism varies. Sometimes the emphasis is put on the rational and philosophical nature of his views and the way he deals with theoretical issues; sometimes (as if they are contradictory) on their mystical dimension. The most important Platonic conception in his work is the correlation of the substance with the good, the true and the beautiful –in God who is their source. However, the world is a product of God’s will to create and not the result of a chain deriving from the substance. Gregory upgrades (compared to Plato) the value of creation, both intangible and material, which is considered good as a creation of God.

The dialogue On soul and resurrection is considered the most Platonic philosophical moment of Gregory. Its dramatic setting (which narrates a discussion at the deathbed, just before the death of his sister Makrina in 379), the recurring motifs (such as the chariot), the dialogue form itself and the content have led scholars to call it a ‘Christian Phaedrus’. Gregory denies materialism and reincarnation, accepts the immortality of the soul and ultimately (and anti-platonically) the bodily resurrection. Despite his initial criticism of the uncontrolled emotions he defends their positive role. Like another Socrates, but Christian and feminine, the dying Macrina discusses and solves her brother’s questions.

Despite the conscious and creative assimilation of Platonic elements in his thought, Gregory, in the context his public controversy with Eunomius, does not hesitate to accuse his opponent as a Platonic Phaedrus, while in other cases he produces as adequate textual evidence from Plato. They are also samples of his –and of other Fathers– ultimately eclectic attitude to ancient philosophy and especially Platonism.

The impact of Gregory’s work throughout the Byzantine period was significant in many fields, such as mystical theology and anthropology. It has also influenced Western thinkers like Erigena.

Author: George Zografidis
  • Cherniss, H. The Platonism of Gregory of Nyssa. New York, 1934, επανέκδοση 1971.
  • Pelikan, J. Christianity and Classical Culture. New Haven, 1993.
  • Rist, J. Platonism and Its Christian Heritage (Basil’s ‘Neoplatonism: Its Background and Nature). London, 1985.
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