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Alden A. Mosshammer

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

3. Time and Measure in the Sixth Homily

Gregory addresses himself to the Ecclesiastes second theme in the sixth homily. Here he begins a commentary, which extends through the remainder of the homilies, on the series of statements in Ecclesiastes that speak about 'times' and 'seasons'. The first is a general statement. 'For all things the time', says the preacher, 'and a moment for every activity under the heaven'. According to Gregory, the purpose of all that has preceded is revealed most clearly in the section introduced by this text. In the preceding verses, he says, everything pursued in life without advantage to the soul was condemned as futile. The good was demonstrated, towards which one should look with eyes in his head; and the nourishment of wisdom was contrasted with the things that offer bodily enjoyment. What remains is to obtain from the text some kind of art and method for the correction of life in accordance with virtue. Gregory claims that such a method is just what the Ecclesiast teaches when he says 'for all things the time, and a moment for every activity under the heaven'. Gregory urges the reader to look into the depths of meaning here, for he will find much philosophy, both theoretical and practical.
Gregory seems to find the theoretical philosophy in what the Ecclesiast says about time (χρόνος), the practical philosophy in the long series of verses about season or moment (καιρός). He discusses the meaning of 'time' in this text at some length, but leaves 'moment' less well defined. Gregory begins, as he so often does when expounding what he takes to be a philosophical text, by dividing existing things between the material and sensory on the one side and the intellectual and immaterial on the other. The immaterial nature lies above sensory apprehension, and we shall know it only when we have doffed the senses. Sensory perception has the material nature as its object, but it cannot cross the heavenly body so as to slip through to the things that lie beyond phenomena. It is for this reason, Gregory says, that the text deals with things 'under the heaven', so that we might get through life in this lower region without stumbling. Contemplation of the good is obscured by sensible things. We need some kind of science for the discernment of the good, something like a carpenter's rule against which to measure the correctness of everything that happens. Therefore the text shows us such a rule by means of which life may be kept straight along just the right line. The Preacher sets forth two criteria of the good for each thing pursued in this life -the commensurate and the timely.

This passage evokes the vertical structuring that dominates Gregory's earlier works. The intellectual nature lies literally and spatially above the material cosmos, separated from it by the body of heaven. Sensation cannot poke a hole through that barrier so as to reach intelligible reality. Since we live in the sensible world, the Ecclesiast gives us a rule for measuring the good within that world. Gregory says that the division between intelligible and sensible will be his 'method' for interpreting the text. We expect him therefore to go on to discuss further this distinction and to obtain from the text a method for moving from the multiplicity of sensible objects towards the apprehension, however dim, of the archetype of all good. Such a discussion would continue the line of argument, begun in the fifth homily and recalled in the opening sentences of the sixth, about those who have eyes in their head. Instead, Gregory abruptly drops the line of argument based on the division between intelligible and sensible and begins an extensive defence of his introduction of the notion of measure into the discussion of a text that speaks of time.

Gregory claims that the Ecclesiast makes the commensurate (σύμμετρον) and the timely (εύκαιρον) the two criteria of the good. By mentioning 'time' (χρόνος) the Ecclesiast implies 'measure' (μέτρον); because, Gregory says, time stretches out alongside everything that happens. Measure and season are therefore the two criteria of the good. 'These then are the criteria of the good,' Gregory continues. 'Whether they apply appropriately and absolutely for the correct establishment of every virtue Ι do not yet decide until the text in its course shall make clear. Nevertheless that the greater part of our assigned life is straightened by such an observance is clear for anyone to see.' Gregory then proceeds with a discussion of virtue as a golden mean between excesses that is reminiscent of the Nicomachean Ethics.(13) Virtue is the exercise of a faculty in the right quantity, as courage is a mean between cowardice and rashness. Similarly, Gregory explains καιρός or timeliness as the exercise of the right quantity at the right moment, neither too early nor too late. He uses the examples of harvesting, sailing, and administering medical treatment. The good and the right must be perfect in both respects, adhering to both measure and moment. Τo observe the one without the other would be like trying to hop on one foot.

The purpose of this very traditional discussion has little to do with the definition of virtue. Gregory's real interest is measure. The discussion of virtue serves only to demonstrate, on a common-sense basis of what is 'available for everyone to know' (375,3), that Gregory is justified in substituting μέτρον for χρόνος in the Ecclesiastes text. Whether it is true universally that measure and moment are the criteria of the good remains to be seen in the course of the analysis of the specific 'moments' of the text. Gregory does not conclude the argument and make his decision on this question until he comes to comment at the end of the eighth homily on the text 'Αll things which he made are good at his right moment'. Meanwhile, according to Gregory, there is certainly justification in supposing that by 'time' the preacher means 'measure', since even the outer philosophers have recognized this truth and divided it among themselves, the one saying 'Nothing too much', the other 'Measure is best'.

After this common-sense argument in support of his conclusion, Gregory returns to his own more philosophical analysis. He expands on his earlier claim that 'time' means 'measure' in this text, because time is co-extensive with all that happens. Time is an expression of measure, he says (376,23), because time is the measure of everything that is individually measured. Every particular thing has its own measure or quantity and these are different for every individual thing that is measured. Time itself, however, is the common measure (γενικόν μέτρον) because time contains all things within itself. The preacher did not say there is 'measure' for all things, because of the vast inequality of more and less among the things measured. Instead he said that time is for all things the common measure, by which every thing that comes into being is measured.

Gregory claims that the Ecclesiast is here defining virtue in a classical Aristotelian sense as a golden mean between excess and lack, between haste and tardiness. He himself echoes this traditional definition of virtue in other works. Gregory frequently uses καιρός and μέτρον, or their cognates, as closely connected pairs, sometimes when speaking of virtue, sometimes when discussing the harmony of disparate elements that come together to form material bodies.(14) Yet his subsequent exposition of individual verses makes no use whatsoever of this definition. Furthermore, while he lavishes his attention on defining χρόνος, he offers no definition of καιρός, although it is the latter word that the Ecclesiast uses in the following verses. Gregory is far more interested in the idea that virtue is a mean. In fact, Aristotle had not defined virtue as a μέτρον, but as το μέσον.(15) Gregory's real interest in this passage has more in common with the Aristotelian definition of time as the measure of motion (μέτρον κινήσεως).(16) His understanding of time is, however, quite different from Aristotle's, even if his definition suggests an Aristotelian influence. The origin and paradigm of all motion is for Gregory the motion from nοn-being to being.(17) Thus Gregory here defines time not simply as the measure of motion through physical space, but the measure that accompanies and defines all things that come into being. For Aristotle, time and motion are reciprocal relationships that numerically represent one another through the common attribute of the distance traversed. For Gregory, however, time is rather a kind of space in itself than a numerical representation of motion across space. One of the most interesting aspects of Gregory's all too brief discussion of time as measure is his use of spatial metaphors. He begins by stating that the Ecclesiast is instructing the reader about the material division of existing things. He makes little use of this distinction in the subsequent argument, but his discussion retains the spatial categories associated with the material nature. In effect, he applies the categories of place to time so as to generate a new understanding of space.

Already in his opening remarks Gregory had said that the Ecclesiastes text offers the reader something like a carpenter's rule or a chalk-line. For Gregory a μέτρον is not an abstraction like Aristotle's 'number', but something having a definite size. He often uses the word in reference to a defined and limited space. In the De Hominis Opificio (PG 44,201C-D), Gregory says that motion in evil is contained within a definite μέτρον. In a famous analogy, he then compares this measure of evil with the conical space of darkness formed by the interposition of the earth's body athwart the light of the sun. If one could cross the μέτρον of this shadow, Gregory says, he would again come out into the light. Τo speak of time as a μέτρον is to conceive of time as a kind of space.

In both passages of the sixth homily where Gregory says that χρόνος is the μέτρον that accompanies all things, he uses a word of spatial extension, of stretching along (συμπαρατείνεται, 374,20; 377,3). In the first passage he says that χρόνος stretches along together with each thing coming into being. In the second it is the interval of time (το διάστημα του χρόνου) that stretches alongside the position of each of the things that come to be. Gregory uses this word of chronological extension in earlier works also. In the De Hominis Opificio (PG 44, 205C; 208A), he says that God foreknew the time commensurate (σύμμετρον) with the making of men; and he urges the reader to await the fulfilment of this time, which is necessarily coextensive (συμπαρατείνοντα) with the increase of humanity. In his commentary on the sixth Psalm, Gregory says that the seventh day, being the end (πέρας) of creation, circumscribed within itself the time that stretches out alongside (συμπαρεκτεινόμενον) the construction of the cosmos. For this reason we measure the whole διάστημα of time by sevens. (18) In the homilies on Ecclesiastes, the spatial language that it is so natural to use when measuring intervals of time lead Gregory to conceive of time itself as a kind of measured space.

The merging of spatial with temporal categories in the sixth homily reflects a fundamental shift in Gregory's understanding of the nature of reality. The key concept is measured differentiation. The key word is διάστημα, which literally means a 'standing apart'. Gregory often uses διάστημα as a spatial term. The word is virtually synonymous with μέτρον in the passage of the De opificio where Gregory speaks of the extension of evil. But he just as often in his earlier works uses διάστημα to refer to an interval of time.(19) Both are well established usages. Polybius, for example, uses the word to refer both to the four-year length of an Olympiad (9.1.1) and to the geographical space separating one place from another (4.39.5). Methodius of Olympus gave the notion of chronological interval a specifically Christian content by characterizing ordinary time as divided into intervals of past, present, and future, whereas the time after the general resurrection will be more like God's time, in which everything is simultaneously present with no such διαστήματα.(20) As Gregory's commentators have often pointed out, his use of the word is reminiscent of the Stoic definition of time as the διάστημα of the motion of the cosmos.(21) Plotinus (ΙΙΙ 7,7.8.35) criticized this definition as yielding a spatial measurement of motion from one point to another, but not a satisfactory definition of time itself. Plotinus himself (ΙΙΙ 7,11) thought of time as an image of eternity produced by the soul in its motion towards multiplicity.(22)

Some scholars have seen in Gregory's usage a synthesis of the Stoic with the Plotinian understandings.(23) It is difficult to assess what influence, if any, earlier philosophical views of time may have exercised on Gregory. In fact, Gregory's understanding is distinctively his own and bears little relationship to Aristotle, the Stoics, Methodius, or Plotinus. For Gregory, time is not, as for Aristotle and the Stoics, the measurement of motion across the extension of bodily space. Nor does he share the view of Plotinus that time is the image of eternity under the conditions of multiplicity. In the homilies on Ecclesiastes he goes beyond his own earlier usage, which he shares with Methodius, Basil, and the common language of the period, that the διάστημα of time is a measurable interval or gap between one event and another. For Gregory, time is itself a kind of defined space like the conical shadow of the earth. Time is the μέτρον, Gregory says, containing all things in itself (377,14). In the eighth homily he makes the metaphor more explicit, saying that time is an extensional idea (διαστηματικόν, 440,3), which signifies the creation that comes to be within it. By mentioning the container the Ecclesiast therefore includes all that is contained therein. This language anticipates a famous passage of the first book against Eunomius (GNO Ι, 136,8-12), where Gregory says that God prepared the aeons and the place (τόπον) within them as a kind of space to be a receptacle (χώρημα δεκτικόν) for things that come into being. The metaphor echoes a well-known passage of the Timaeus (52Β), where Plato speaks of space as the receptacle of sensible being. Gregory goes beyond both Plato and the text of the Ecclesiast. Time is a receptacle that provides a home not only for all sensible being 'under the heaven', but for all things that come into being. As the measure that contains all things, the διάστημα of time is the essential characteristic that distinguishes created reality from the unchanging and unmeasured being of God. Gregory takes this next step in the seventh homily, where he says that the creation is nothing other than διάστημα (412,14). Having in the sixth homily conceived of the διάστημα of time as a kind of measured space, he now generalizes further and makes the idea of dimension itself an ontological category. What is most significant about his discussion in the sixth homily is not that time is the measure of all things, but that all things are measured.

This is not the place to essay a comprehensive discussion of the use of the word διάστημα in Gregory's works or of the interpretative significance of his usage.(24) The interest of the sixth homily on Ecclesiastes lies in its witness to a transitional stage in Gregory's thought, when he had not yet invested the word with the full significance which it carries in his most mature works. Gregory arrives at his new usage not through philosophical speculation on the nature of time in the manner of a Plotinus or an Aristotle, but by a process of fusing, perhaps indeed of confusing, the spatial and temporal connotations that the word διάστημα carries in ordinary usage. This fusion permits Gregory to unite once separate aspects of his own thought. The text of Ecclesiastes confronts Gregory with the unresolved tension between his understanding of the sensible order as the source of a physical limitation which prevents the human soul from rising to its true home among ineligibles and his teaching that, as he puts it in the second homily (302,1), the sovereign motion of the human mind is itself the cause of this separation. He finds in the Ecclesiastes emphasis on time an art and a method not only for escaping the futility of futilities, but also for resolving this tension in his own thought. By making time, rather than place, the essential dimension of all becoming, Gregory is able in the seventh homily to rise to a higher philosophy in which the distinction between sensible and intelligible is no longer supreme. This he accomplishes by combining the spatial and temporal usages of διάστημα to generate a new kind of space, which imposes upon intelligible the same kind of limits he had once applied only to the sensible order.

We can better appreciate the critical shift in perspective that seems to be under way in the sixth homily by briefly comparing Gregory's use of the term διάστημα in his earlier works with that which emerges from the homilies on Ecclesiastes. In the second homily on the Beatitudes (PG 44, 1209Α), commenting on the super heavenly land that one would find if he were able to take wing and stand on the back of heaven's shell, Gregory says that all sensible phenomena are akin. However high anything might seem to be in spatial διάστημα, it remains nevertheless below that
intellectual essence which reason cannot attain without crossing first all that sensation can reach. In the De Opificio (PG 44,209D), Gregory discusses the problem of whether the material nature can be a product of the divine. The divine nature is simple and immaterial, uncompounded, without quality or size, whereas the material nature is apprehended in a dimensional arrangement (εν διαστηματική παρατάσει) with its qualities of colour, shape, weight, size, hardness, and so forth. Ηow is it, Gregory asks, that matter can be fashioned from the immaterial, that which is dimensional from that which is not (εκ του αδιαστάτου την διαστηματικήν φύσιν)? Gregory discusses the same issue in the De anima (PG46, 124B-C). There is no difficulty, he says, in understanding how the intellectual part of creation comes from the divine nature, because the intellectual nature has a kinship with the divine in that it is immortal, uncompounded, and without dimension (αδιάστατον). The dialogue on the soul is difficult to date, except that it must have been written after the death of Macrina in 378 at the earliest. The absence of the new definition of created διάστημα that appears in the seventh homily suggests that the dialogue antedates the homilies on Ecclesiastes. In the De Mortuis, generally considered an early work, Gregory asks what qualities must characterize the soul in its likeness to God. It must not, he says (GNO IΙΧ 41,20-25), exhibit the qualities of body, shape, thickness, space, or time that characterize the material creation, but must rather assimilate itself to the intellectual, immaterial, and no dimensional (αδιάστατον) qualities that are left when all notion of body has been removed. Again, Gregory is contrasting the material nature with the divine, but again it is as an intellectual nature, not as an uncreated nature, that the divine is without dimension; and it is noteworthy that time is among the dimensions associated with body. The most striking example of Gregory's earlier usage appears in the Αpοlοgia in Hexaemeron (PG 44,81 C-D), where Gregory defines the firmament that divides the upper from the lower waters as the boundary between the intellectual and the sensible natures. The intellectual creation beyond the firmament is not characterized by shape, size, position in space, measurement by διαστήματα, colour, figure, thickness, or any of the other things that exist beneath the heaven.

A comparison between these passages and what Gregory says in the seventh homily shows the merging of spatial with temporal categories that are taking place in the sixth homily. Gregory generalizes the qualities that he had previously associated with the spatial dimensions of the material nature to include the more generic dimension of time and with it the whole of created reality, intellectual as well as sensible. Previously he had emphasized the kinship of all that is sensible and its estrangement from the undimensional nature of all that is intellectual. In the seventh homily he characterizes the whole created order as dimensional and therefore akin to itself (411,15). In the homilies on the Beatitudes it was not possible to escape the sensible order however far one travelled in spatial extension. In the seventh homily on Ecclesiastes it is the created intellect that cannot pass beyond its own boundaries (412,7-9). Just as in earlier works Gregory had said that sensory perception is possible only because of the finite qualities of shape and size that define objects and separate one thing from another, so now he says human intellection in general is possible only because the whole created nature is defined and marked off by limiting qualities. The physical definition of matter is what both makes sensory perception possible and prevents the senses from direct apprehension of ineligibles. Similarly the finite dimensions of the whole created order, summed up in the now general term διάστημα, make human thought possible and prevent the intellect from apprehending the uncreated nature in which there are no such demarcations. He uses the same phrase to characterize the activity in dimensional arrangement (εν διαστηματική παρατάσει 412,13) of the human mind that he had applied in the De Opificio to sensory perception.

What makes this new understanding possible is Gregory's definition of time as the common measure of all things that come into being. Within the text of the sixth homily we can almost detect the shift-taking place in Gregory's thinking. His description of the differentiation between the Intelligible and the sensible natures, separated by a physical boundary that sensation cannot cross, retains the vertical structuring of the earlier works. He states that the Ecclesiast is here speaking about things under the heaven, that is about the sensible world, so that he might well have gone on to describe the measured limits of the sensible order in much the same way as in the earlier works. Measure is one of the attributes that Gregory associates with the spatial extension of the material order.(25) But it is time, not space, that the Ecclesiast makes the key to understanding the futility of futilities. Gregory has already attributed this futility to a distortion of nature caused by the created will. Virtue or its absence is a quality only of the intellectual nature, as Gregory says elsewhere.(26) If time is the measure of virtue, then measure must be an attribute of all things that come into being, the intellectual as well as the sensible, whether or not they are confined to the physical space beneath the body of the heavens. In the process of explaining why the Ecclesiast substitutes χρόνoς for μέτρον, Gregory begins to move beyond his earlier understanding of the intellectual and the sensible as two distinct orders of reality and to see them instead as sharing a single order of reality defined by a common measuredness of which space and time are but different aspects. It is not until the seventh homily that Gregory explicitly states that this measuredness applies to the intellect as well as to the senses, and it is not until he wrote the first book against Eunomius that he explores the dimensions of time in any detail. Gregory's thinking on this point is in transition, and he may very well not have realized the full implications of his definition of time in the sixth homily as the measured extension of all things until he came to write the seventh. Gregory was beginning to think along new lines even as he himself peered into the depths of philosophy suggested by this text.

It is a mistake to suggest, as von Balthasar does, that Gregory distinguishes between the material διάστημα that separates the sensible from the intelligible and the created διάστημα that separates all contingent being from God.(27) It is true that Gregory understands the intellectual and the sensible as limited in different ways, and he discusses this problem in a well known passage of the sixth homily on the Song of Songs (GNO VI, 173-174). But the explanation for the different understanding of διάστημα in the Αpοlogia in Hexaemeron as compared with the first book against Eunomius is that Gregory changed both his usage and his whole way of thinking about the nature of reality. The homilies οn Ecclesiastes reflect a crucial stage in this intellectual development - the generalization of spatial categories to include the measured differentiation of all contingents being. Α passage in the homilies on the Lord's Prayer (PG 44,1 145B) may represent the immediately preceding logical step. The separation between the earthly life and the heavenly kingdom, Gregory says, between God and man, is not a spatial gap (ου τοπική η διάστασις) so that we require some kind of machine by means of which we might elevate this heavy and material dwelling or change it into something immaterial and intellectual. The difference lies entirely within the will (προαίρεσις) of man. Whither it turns, there will it dwell.(28)


13. - Aristotle, Eth.Nic. ΙΙ 6,1 106 a 26, cited by Alexander ad locum.

14. - In De Virginitate GNO VIII.1,25, he defines virtue as being 'in the middle' and adduces examples similar to those that appear here. In De Ηοminis Opificio PG 44,165Α, he attributes the human body's very ability to survive to a measured balance of opposites conjoining at the right moment. In the commentary on the Inscriptions to the Psalms (GNO V, 33,13-25) he likens virtue to a musical harmony neither beyond nor beneath the right measure.

15. - Cf. the comments of Rachel Moriarty above, p. 32.

16. - Aristotle, Phys. 220b25. See John F. Callahan, Four Views of Time in Ancient Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass. 1948) esp. 50-82. Paul Zemp (see above note 5, p. 91) has drawn attention to the parallel between Aristotle and Gregory.

17. - De Hom. Opif. PG 44,183C. Gregory repeats this idea frequently in the Catechetical Oration (e.g. PG 45,28D.40A.57D.100D).

18. - In Sextum Psalmum GNO V 188,20-189,4. That this work belongs to a group of commentaries to be dated before 381 is the general consensus. E. Mühlenberg (see note 3 above,) has suggested that this piece presupposes both the Homilies on the Beatitudes and the commentary on the Inscriptions to the Psalms.

19. - E.G. In Hexaemeron PG 44,77B; De Anima PG 46, 101B.

20. - Methodius, De Resurrectione ΙΙ 25 (380-82 Bonwetsch). Gregory perhaps echoes this definition of time in the homilies on the Lord's Prayer, PG 44,1 125Α.

21. - Chrysippus apud Simplicium, Stoίc. Vet. Fr. ΙΙ, n. 509; cf. Zeno Stoicus Fr. i. n. 93. See especially H.U. vοn Balthasar, Presence et pensée. Essai sur la philosophie religieuse de Grégoire de Nysse, Paris 1942, 6-7. Cf. also Brooks Otis, 'Gregory of Nyssa and the Cappadocian Concept of Time': St Patr 14 (1976) 327-57.

22. - See John F. Callahan, Four View of Time (above, note 16).

23. - Von Balthasar, Présence et pensée ... , 6, note 1.

24. - For discussion see in addition to von Balthasar, Otis, and Zemp (above, notes 21 and 5), John F.Callahan, 'Gregory of Nyssa and the Psychological View of Time': Atti del ΧΙΙ Congresso Internazionale di Filosofia νοl 11 (Firenze 1960) 59-66; Lloyd G. Patterson, 'The Conversion of Diastema in the Patristic View of Time': Lux in Lumine, ed. Richard Α. Norris, New York 1966, 93-111; and Τ. Paul Verghese, 'ΔΙΑΣΤΗΜΑ and ΔΙΑΣΤΑΣΙΣ in Gregory of Nyssa': Gregor von Nyssa und die Philosophie, ed. Η. Dorrie/Μ. Altenburger/Α. Schramm, Leiden 1976, 243-258. Α comprehensive study, which would analyse the nuances among Gregory's usages and seek to trace the development of his thought through an examination of this verbal cluster is still lacking. Attention has focused instead on Gregory's mature usage. Zemp's is the most satisfactory discussion of the earlier usage. See especially pp. 63-72. Ι have not had access to the unpublished dissertation (Louvain 1966) of Paul Dandelot, La doctrine du diastema chez S. Grégoire e Nysse, cited by Verghese (p. 244) as leaving 'a great deal to be desired'.

25. - See for example De Hominis Οpificiο PG 44, 185Β.

26. - See for example De Hominis Οpificiο PG 44, 135B-D, 184B-C.

27. - See note 21 above.

28. - Scholars generally agree that the homilies on the Lord's Prayer belong to the period between 379 and 381; see the discussion of Μay (above, note 7). Jean Daniélou has suggested a date during the Lenten season of 379; see his 'Chrismation prebaptismale et divinité de l'esprit chez Grégoire de Nysse', RechSR 56 (1968) 177-98. The homilies on Ecclesiastes may very well have been written shortly after those on the Lord's Prayer. There is a striking verbal similarity between the two works in Gregory's comparison of the beginnings of evil to the head of a snake (Homily 4, 348,16: cf. De Or. Dom., PG 44 1 172Α). The metaphor appears also in the Life of Moses (GNO VII 161,21). The passage in the homilies on Ecclesiastes shares phraseology with both of the others, which however have little verbal similarity with each other. Ηοw far one can press such comparisons into the service of chronology is of course problematic.

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