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Alden A. Mosshammer

Time For All and a Moment for Each:
The Sixth Homily of Gregory of Nyssa on Ecclesiastes

2. The General Theme of the Homilies

Gregory brought to his commentary on Ecclesiastes an unresolved tension between his vertical structuring of the universe with its impassable barrier separating the material from the intellectual natures and his conviction that the Christian could somehow rise to the heavenly life through a change not of place but of will. The juxtaposition in the text of the first three chapters of Ecclesiastes of two frequently repeated phrases forced Gregory to focus on this tension. The phrase 'futility of futilities' suggests the negative point of view, while 'a time for every activity under the heaven' might have more positive implications.

The main theme of the homilies on Ecclesiastes is that suggested by the opening lines of the text - futility of futilities, all is futility. Gregory defines futility as insubstantiality -that is, the lack of real being- and he defines the futility of futilities as a rhetorical hyperbole referring to the visible universe within which man, as a compound of body and soul, must live. The idea that the visible world is not finally real is a Platonising point of view consistent with a vertical structuring of reality and with a depreciation of the visible cosmos and the bodily life. The homilies offer many examples of Platonising expressions about the superiority of the permanent intellectual nature to the transitory nature of sensible.(11) What is distinctive about Gregory's approach, however, and what stands in tension with this vertical distancing, is his claim that the unreality of the visible cosmos does not derive from its material nature as such, but from distortion of the world as it was meant to be. Unless anything exists in its original state, Gregory says (Homily 1, 296,21), it does not truly exist at all. The purpose of the Book of Ecclesiastes is not to teach that the visible world as such is the futility of futilities, but that the distortion which sin has introduced has deprived the world of substance and caused it to become futile instead of productive. Thus (Homily 2, 301,3) the true Ecclesiast is the incarnate Christ who searched out the area beneath the heavens to find out how it is that non-being has become dominant over being, futility over substance.

Such passages belong to a now well established tradition, shared for example by Origen and Basil and to be adopted also by Augustine, that exculpates God from any responsibility for evil by defining evil as an absence. Gregory goes beyond this tradition; however, by developing the idea already suggested in his earlier works that what man requires is a change of will, not of place. The cause of evil, futility, and unreality, Gregory says in his second homily (301,17ff), lies in the free choices of the created will. This too is not an entirely original idea, but Gregory goes further still in claiming that evil is not merely an object of choice, but its product.(12) Whoever puts his lamp under the bed turns light into darkness, becoming himself the manufacturer of the unreal (358,14). The insubstantial nature of evil is given being in those who have fallen away from the good (407,9).

The possibility that the human will might itself be the author and receptacle of evil Gregory had already entertained in the Homilies on the Beatitudes (ΡG 44, 1256Β). It is the Ecclesiastes second theme -time and moment- that leads Gregory to develop these ideas and to find both the explanation and the remedy for the enslavement of being to non-being. If the futility of futilities is a perversion of nature and if created intelligence is responsible for the deformation of reality, then created intelligence also has the power to turn the process around. It is not space that defines and measures all things, but time. Within the dimension of time the material and intellectual natures share a common structure of being. What the physical barrier of space denies, the moral dimension of time makes accessible.


11. - See, for example, 325,1, where Gregory contrasts the archetype of beauty with its visible representatives, and 352,2-11, where he characterizes sensory perception as futile, unable to cross the heavenly boundary to contemplate the goods that lie beyond.

12. - On this subject see my paper, 'Non-Being and Evil in Gregory of Nyssa', Vigiliae Christianae 44 (1990) 136-167.

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