As we have seen above, Gregory Nazianzus was an original thinker in his own right with a subtle rhetorical style, and a powerful symbolical imagination: ‘the greatest stylist of the patristic age’ (McGuckin, 2001, xxi).1

Corrigan’s adulation — with which of course I agree — qualifies Gregory’s originality as a thinker with his prowess as a speaker. Yet, ever since I read Susanna Elm’s book Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church, I find myself wondering why Gregory’s subtle and powerful thought is praised far less. This all reminds me of a passage from Gregory’s poem De se ipso et de episcopis (PG 37.1116–1227). At one point (lines 262–329), Gregory writes:

So much for your argument, which is the sort one expects from the ignorant. Let me give a brief exposition of what one must take as the real facts here. Those men [the disciples] were well-trained, outstandingly so, but not in the sense of making a display. It works this way. All composition is twofold really, made up of thought and expression. Expression is like an outer garment: thought is the body which it clothes.

In some compositions both elements are good, in others one element or the other; or it may happen that the whole thing is bad, like its author’s training. When we compose, the outer element gets little consideration but the inner one a great deal; because for us salvation depends upon that inner element, the thought.

But it must of course be expressed and communicated. A stopped-up spring is not of much use, or sunlight obscured by clouds: so with wisdom that is inarticulate. When a rose is sheathed by its calyx the beauty does not appear; but when the winds dissolve the calyx and the bud is displayed, then we perceive its charm. If the beauty were always sheathed what would become of the celebrated charms of spring?

The expression we require is simply that of straightforward speakers. If your style is otherwise, let me discern in you the inspiration of the apostles — I should like a tincture of your enlightenment. If the doctrine set down in writing amounts to nothing, then how did I waste so much time counting in vain the sands of the sea, joining night to day in my endeavor to bring some learning to these wrinkles. If those writings are worthwhile, as indeed they are, then do not abandon to the spiders the works the good have wrought.

Your style may be pedestrian, your speech rustic, it makes no difference to me. I, too, know the lowly pathways. A frugal table often pleases me more than one decked out artificially with dainties. The same with clothes, natural beauty is so much superior to what artifice can produce. Give full rein to the thought, and I am satisfied: let those who like that sort of thing have ornament, it counts for nothing.

Don’t entangle me in the language of a Sextus or a Pyrrho: deuce take Chrysippus, and let the Stagirite stay far away: don’t attempt to imitate the smooth style of Plato. If you disapprove of a person’s ideas, reject his ornamental style as well. Do your philosophizing in simple language, and, however untutored your style, you will satisfy me.

Provide you instruct me, then you may teach in any style you wish. Tell me what the Trinity is, how God is one but yet divided, one majesty, one nature, a unity and a trinity. What is the nature of angels, of the twofold world, how providence is righteous even though much seems unjust to the multitude? What is the principle of soul, of body, of the old and new testaments? What is this incarnation that so far transcends understanding, this mingling of disparate elements towards a single glory, the dying towards resurrection, the return to heaven? How explain the resurrection itself, the judgment: what will be the life of the just, of sinners? Tell me, if in the Spirit you have any glimmering of an explanation, what is the principle of change in the universe, of stability? A full explanation, a partial one, or a deficient one, according to the limits of your mental purification; don’t deny me this. But if you are completely blind, why in your sightless state presume to guide? What a darkness besets people whose teacher is himself blind. How both are doomed to fall together into the pit of ignorance.2

There is much here worth discussion. Some may question Gregory’s sincerity since he himself expressed many of his ideas in polished prose and poetry. I am more interested in the fact that Gregory draws a distinction between the ideas and the form they take in speech. This of course is a standard distinction in elementary rhetorical education. Before one composes a speech, one must get to the idea first, and then express the idea in whatever genre the speaking situation calls for. That Gregory invokes this distinction is not in itself surprising. My interest in this passage is that Gregory is clearly aware of and praises the grasping of lofty ideas. If Susanna Elm is correct in her portrait of Gregory — and I believe she is — then I think one should take this passage by Gregory just as seriously as we take his rhetorical skill and consider him not just a subtle and powerful speaker, but a subtle and powerful thinker as well.


Notes:

  1. Kevin Corrigan, Evagrius and Gregory: Mind, Soul and Body in the 4th Century (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009), 28–29.
  2. Denis Molaise Meehan, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: Three Poems (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1986), 57–59.

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