09.11.22, Motta, Il Contra Fatum

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Ilaria L.E. Ramelli

The Medieval Review 09.11.22

Motta, Beatrice. Il Contra Fatum di Gregorio di Nissa nel dibattito tardo-antico sul fatalismo e sul determinismo. Studi sulla tardoantichità. Pisa and Rome: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2008. Pp. 178. ISBN: 9788862270847.

Reviewed by:
Ilaria L.E. Ramelli
Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan

Since David Amand's complaint, in 1973, that a study entirely devoted to Gregory of Nyssa's De Fato was still missing, [1] not very much has been done until the appearance of Motta's book, even though a critical edition was provided by J.A. McDonough in GNO 3.2 (Leiden: Brill, 1987). Some translations, with introductions and notes, followed: into Modern Greek, English, French, and Italian. The last one, by Michele Bandini (Gregorio di Nissa, Contro il fato, Bologna: EDB, 2003), is often referred to by the author. The book under review fills a gap especially from the philosophical point of view. In particular, as Claudio Moreschini remarks in his preface (9-10), this study is helpful in that it inserts the anti-astrological debate into the anti-fatalistic philosophical landscape of (especially Late) Antiquity, which has not often been done.

The author inserts Gregory's dialogue in the framework of the discussion about fatalism in Hellenistic philosophy, and late antique and Patristic philosophy prior to, and contemporary with, Gregory. She takes into consideration the debates on determinism, fatalism, and astrology. The Christian works on Fate treated by the Author are Origen (Philoc. 23), Methodius (Symp. 8), Basil (Hex. 6.4-7), Diodore of Tarsus (Katà Heimarménēs, ap. Phot. Bibl. cod. 223), and Nemesius (De natura hominis 35-38). Besides, the treatment of Philo (De Providentia 1.77-88) is particularly relevant to Patristic authors, in that it is certain that he was well known at least to Origen and to Gregory of Nyssa himself. [2] In respect to these earlier works, Gregory's treatise, as Motta interestingly observes (12 and passim), stands out for the following characteristics: it includes more philosophical arguments than the other Christian treatments do, and it is the only one among them that does not employ the so-called "moral argument of Carneades" (i.e., that Fate would render moral law, rewards, and punishments meaningless and useless) and does not explicitly refer to the theòs anaítios argument. The main and most common arguments used in anti-astrological polemics were the impossibility of determining the moment of one's birth with exactitude, the completely different behaviors and lives of people who were born at the same moment under the same constellations, and the unity of laws and customs within each people and nation, independently of the moment of each one's birth.

The first chapter (13-29), summarizing Bouché-Leclercq's fundamental work, presents the principles of ancient astrology, plus Philo's, Origen's, and Basil's anti-astrological arguments, which are partially based on Carneades' ancient objections to astrology. Basil's argument is grounded in Origen's, which is preserved probably thanks to Basil himself and Gregory of Nazianzus, the redactors (according to tradition) of the Philocalia, in which the aforementioned anti-astrological section almost entirely derives from Origen's lost commentary on Genesis.

The second chapter (31-41) analyzes the position of Gregory's pagan adversary in his De Fato. Gregory's work combines the genres of dialogue and epistolary treatise, the latter containing the narration of the former. For it is a letter addressed to a character called by Gregory timía moi kaì hierà kephalḗ and identified with his brother Peter in codex Vaticanus gr. 1907; this letter reports a whole account of the dialogue that Gregory entertained with a pagan perhaps on the occasion of the Council of Constantinople in 381, unless the dialogue itself is a literary fiction, which is also possible. Rather than following Daniélou's dating (379 to 387), [3] the author embraces Bandini's hypothesis, according to which Gregory wrote this dialogue between A.D. 379 and 384. [4] The philosophical characterization of Gregory's real or fictive interlocutor is correctly described by Motta as a simplified and radicalized version of Stoic determinism.

Also in the light of Cicero's role in drawing a close relationship between Stoicism and astrology (a hotly debated issue among scholars [5]) in his De Fato and De Divinatione, some more attention could have been paid to these works, the former of which [6] is touched upon as a tool to access Chrysippus' position concerning divination (110-111). Susanne Bobzien's discussion Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 1998) is felicitously mentioned on p. 112, note 1; I also refer the reader to the review of her book by Tad Brennan in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 21 (2001): 259-282, especially 268ff. Bobzien's study includes a detailed treatment of Chrysippus' ideas on a fundamental problem in ancient Stoicism: that of the compatibility between Fate and human free will. Chrysippus' "compatibilism" is defended in Chapter 6: it is true that everything happens according to Fate, but also that the moral agent is responsible for his/her own actions, insofar as these are not forced by external coercion. Indeed, Bobzien explains, necessity is defined by the Stoics according to the criteria of modal logic (i.e., a proposition is necessary only if it cannot be intrinsically false, or else is prevented from being false by external circumstances. Tad Brennan's objection is that what should be understood as "external coercion" is uncertain; psychological coercion, which influences one's assent, may be regarded as external in that it cannot be deemed part of one's decisional faculty. [7]

In Chapter 3 (43-103) Gregory's position in his debate with his "Stoic" interlocutor is investigated, beginning with his philosophical refutation of determinism through the argument that there is no necessary causal relation between the movements of stars and human vicissitudes, which Motta reads in the framework of ancient discussions on the generation of the world. The same connection between these themes is found in Diodore of Tarsus' Katà Heimarménēs, as Motta observes, following Bandini in considering this work to be a main source of Gregory's treatment. I would like to add that Diodore, in turn, was certainly influenced--as I have demonstrated--by Bardaisan's work, which bore the same title as his own treatise and was surely known to Gregory as well (see below).

Motta also points out Nyssen's dissent from Aristotle's doctrine that the movement of stars is the cause of generation, but concludes that this should not be taken as a sign of opposition to Aristotle, but rather to the implications of Aristotle's doctrine. On the genesis of the world, Gregory is closer to Basil's position; both of them refute pagan doctrines on the origin of the world in that they advocate the Christian concept of creation. Wisely, Motta does not add "ex nihilo," which would have opened up a complex question in respect to Christian doctrine(s) of creation in the first four centuries. Moreover, the comparison (62) with Gregory's Apologia in Hexaëmeron, which is contemporary with Gregory's work under examination, is especially opportune. Motta then studies the "classical" anti-astrological arguments taken over by Gregory, especially those of collective deaths and of nómima barbariká, and his references to the impossibility of determining the exact moment of someone's birth. Gregory's assertion that time is dependent on God rather than being an independent force to be divinized under the name of Fate, rightly highlighted by Motta (67, 84-86) and related to Gregory's very different conception of divinity from his opponent's, seems to me very close to Bardaisan's transformation of Fate from a divinized independent force to a course of events dependent on God's will. Notably, Bardaisan's argument was also based on his Christian, monistic conception of God. [8]

In Chapter 4 (105-147) Motta examines Gregory's discussion of non-deterministic philosophical theories of astrology. She refers to the Stoic notions of endekhómenon and dunatón according to Alexander of Aphrodisias' De Fato, Chrysippus' idea of "possible" in Cicero's De Fato, and Ptolemy's non-deterministic astrology, on which Gregory draws. Gregory prefers the concept of "probable" (endekhómenon) to that of "doubtful/ambiguous" (amphíbolon) employed by his opponent. In Ptolemy's view, astronomy is a mathematical science, while non-deterministic astrology is conjectural. Motta mentions, and seems to share (118), E. Junod's interesting hypothesis that Origen knew and utilized Alexander of Aphrodisias' De Fato 30. Indeed, for my part I found several hints and reasons to confirm this and to suspect that Origen knew Alexander's work, and not only this one, but also that on the first principles of the cosmos, and others. Gregory in turn knew Origen's works very well, and had access to Alexander's ideas on Fate at least from Eusebius' reports.

Motta is right, I think, to maintain that Gregory's opposition to Stoic determinism has its roots in his Christian thought, which is rather based on the notion of serial continuity (akolouthía), a sort of chain, initiated by God at creation. This chain is not the Stoic chain of Necessity and Fate, but its final stage and culmination is human nature, which is endowed with free will. I think that Gregory was inspired by Origen in his concept of akolouthía, which in Origen too depends on God's plan, all revolving around human free will and divine Providence. Motta interestingly underscores the similarities between Gregory's and Plotinus' rejections of determinism and astrology; the latter's idea of the transcendental principle exposed in Enn. 3.1 and 2.3 corresponds to Gregory's notion of God, who is the giver of free will to all rational creatures. I only add that this notion of God as the author of human free will was central in Bardaisan's refutation of astrological determinism, and that a close correspondence with Plotinus in this respect is already to be found in Origen's thought.

Chapter 5 (149-164) finally deals with Gregory's idea that pagan astronomy is a deception performed by demons, which is part of Gregory's conviction (common to Origen and Bardaisan as well, I note) that evil is ontologically non-subsistent and ultimately is non-being; its only form of surrogate existence is in the wrong choices of free will of humans and angels, of course evil angels, that is, demons. In this connection, a survey is offered of pagan and Christian demonology and a short conclusion (165-166) rounds off the book along with a bibliography.

An important point made in this book is that Gregory does not provide a philosophical refutation of non-deterministic theories of astrology and Fate. His strong arguments are all directed against deterministic theories (Stoic, "Chaldaean"), just as, I note, those of Origen, Bardaisan, and Diodore were. His practical acceptance of a non-deterministic astrology is in line not only with Alexander of Aphrodisias and Ptolemy (as is plausibly suggested by Motta: for Gregory surely knew their ideas), but also with Origen's and Bardaisan's views, with which Gregory was very well acquainted.

Motta omits to discuss, not only Hierocles' On Providence and On Providence and Fate (ap. Phot. Bibl. cods. 251 and 214), which might have influenced Gregory according to a suggestion by Daniélou (George Arabatsis already pointed out this omission in his review of this book in BMCR), but also Didymus the Blind's refutation of astrological determinism, which, as I demonstrated elsewhere [9], depends on both Origen and Bardaisan and was known to Gregory of Nyssa. It is found in Didymus' commentary on Genesis, which relies--albeit with many simplifications and cuts--on Origen's own lost commentary on Genesis, from which the Philocalia passage with the refutation of astrological determinism is drawn.

Above all, the Author overlooks (apart from a short mention on p. 23 and 81) Bardaisan's own Katà Heimarménēs, which Gregory surely knew, at least from Eusebius' excerpts, if not perhaps from a full Greek version of his work. Bardaisan's work is preserved by Eusebius in two Greek excerpts and survives in Syriac in a Platonic dialogue known as Liber Legum Regionum from the title added by a later hand in the only Syriac manuscript in which it was handed down; in addition, this work is also known from some Latin adaptations. Bardaisan is indeed an all the more interesting voice in this debate in that he was influenced by Middle Platonism, and Origen seems to have known his ideas, both in respect to Fate and in respect to the doctrine of apokatastasis and else. [10] It is to him that the diffusion of a new argument against Fate is due: that which contrasts the theory of climatic zones, each one allegedly influenced by a heavenly body. In order to demolish this argument, Bardaisan had recourse to the examples of the Jews and the Christians, who are spread in every region of the earth, and yet follow their own laws, respectively that of Moses and that of Jesus, everywhere, rather than those allegedly imposed by the stars. Bardaisan's argument was taken up by both Gregory and Diodore of Tarsus; the former adduced only the example of the Jews, the latter those of both the Jews and the Christians. Such possible shortcomings, however, do not detract from the interest and usefulness of this study, which is also careful from the editorial point of view. [11]


Notes: 1. Fatalisme et liberté dans l'antiquité grecque (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1973), 423.

2. See my "Philosophical Allegoresis of Scripture in Philo and Its Legacy in Gregory of Nyssa," Studia Philonica Annual 20 (2008): 55-99.

3. Jean Daniélou, "La chronologie des oeuvres de Grégoire de Nysse," in Studia Patristica, ed. Frank Leslie Cross (Berlin: Akademie, 1966), 159-169.

4. Gregorio di Nissa Contro il Fato, 33-34.

5. Basing himself precisely on Cicero, the above-mentioned A. Bouché-Leclerq, L'astrologie grecque (Aalen: Scientia, 1979 reprint), 34, maintained that Stoicism largely supported astrological determinism, while Anthony Long, "Astrology: arguments pro and contra," in Science and Speculation: Studies in Hellenistic Theory and Practice, ed. J. Barnes (Cambridge: CUP, 1982), 165-192, argued against this thesis.

6. Cicero's position vis-à-vis Fate is the object of the rich analysis offered by Magnus Schallenberg, Freiheit und Determinismus: ein philosophischer Kommentar zu Ciceros Schrift De fato (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008), which of course Motta could not know while writing her book, and which also provides a good discussion of the debate over Fate in Hellenistic philosophy.

7. See also Tad Brennan, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate (Oxford: OUP, 2005), in which he tackles again the problem of Chrysippus' "compatibilism."

8. See my Bardesane di Edessa Contro il Fato (Bologna: ESD, 2009) with edition, translation, and commentary.

9. Bardaisan of Edessa: A Reassessment of the Evidence and a Reinterpretation. Also in the Light of Origen and the Original Fragments from De India (forthcoming), 42-46.

10. See my "Origen, Bardaisan, and the Origin of Universal Salvation," Harvard Theological Review 102,2 (2009): 135-168, on their convergence concerning the doctrine of apokatastasis, and my Bardaisan of Edessa for the influence of Middle Platonism on Bardaisan's thought and the close relationships between Bardaisan's and Origen's ideas in several aspects of their thought. Here I also argued against Bardaisan's characterization as a Gnostic, which seems to be shared by the Author (23: "[i]l cristiano gnostico Bardesane").

11. I found only few typos (such as zōdiakòs for zōdiakós, 19, "una caso" instead of "un caso," 67; "aversario" for "avversario," 95).

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Author Biography

Ilaria L.E. Ramelli

Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan