St. Gregory of Nyssa and the circumcision of Plato

So I just got back from a Fides et Ratio Seminar.  A big theme all week, as we read the “Fathers, Doctors, and Popes” (that was the title of the Seminar) was the meeting of the Christian Biblical tradition with Greek philosophy.  How is this to be thought of and worked out?  Here is a relevant and frankly amusing passage from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, with a few notes in brackets from me:  (St. Gregory of Nyssa, c335-394)

The foreign wife will follow him, for there are certain things derived from profane education which should not be rejected when we propose to give birth to virtue. Indeed, moral and natural philosophy may become at certain times a comrade, friend, and companion of life to the higher way, provided that the offspring of this union introduce nothing of a foreign defilement.

[Gregory of Nyssa comes down clearly on the side of appropriating what we can from the Greek.  Just as the Jews took the Egyptians gold and refashioned it into the tabernacle, so too should we take truth wherever we find it – though we should appropriate it to new and proper ends and should leave behind anything “foreign”.]

Since his son had not been circumcised, so as to cut off completely everything hurtful and impure, the angel who met them brought the fear of death.  His wife appeased the angle when she presented her offspring as pure by completely removing that mark by which the foreigner was known.

I think that if someone who has been initiated under the guidance of the history follows closely the order of the historical figures, the sequence of the development in virtue marked out in our account will be clear.  There is something fleshy and uncircumcised in what is taught by philosophy’s generative faculty; when that has been completely removed, there remains the pure Israelite race.

For example, pagan philosophy says that the soul is immortal.  That is a pious offspring.  But is also says that souls pass from bodies to bodies and are changed from a rational to an irrational nature [Plato’s transmigration of souls].  This is a fleshy and alien foreskin.  … …

So am I the only one that giggles at this?  Philosophy’s “generative faculty”?  And the “fleshy foreskin” of erroneous Platonic teachings?  That is some image to use!  Some may prefer the so-called “baptized Aristotle”, but what about the circumcised Plato?!

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

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