Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Macrina the Younger: Teacher and Philosopher (part 2)

A few weeks ago in several posts (January 27-February 11), I discussed the different interpretations by Thomas Aquinas and Wazo of Li├Ęge of the parable of the Wheat and Tares/Weeds. Macrina the Younger’s interpretation of this same parable takes us in a very different and much more philosophical direction.

Gregory and Macrina

In Gregory’s On the Soul and the Resurrection (discussed in the previous post on Macrina the Younger), Macrina presents the case for the resurrection of the dead, and she and Gregory discuss the nature and the immortality of the soul (e.g., the soul is “an intellectual essence which imparts to the organic body a force of life by which the senses operate”). But including aspects that dwell within us, such as desire or anger as being consubstantial with the soul, is incorrect (in contrast to Plato’s allegory of the chariot, in which a person’s reason seeks to guide the soul/chariot to truth, with two winged horses pulling the chariot—one horse is immortal and represents the soul’s moral/rational impulse; the second horse is mortal and symbolizes the soul’s immoral/irrational impulse; see Plato’s Phaedrus 246a - 254e). In contrast, Macrina observes that desire and anger are also found in animals (who do not possess souls), so the connection between the soul and such emotions cannot be made; passions must be separated from the soul’s essence, and, depending on how it is controlled, emotions can lead to virtue or vice.
Macrina builds upon this argument by interpreting the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. In this parable, the good and bad seed represent the corresponding natures of the soul, a reflection of Origen’s view of the nature of evil. The weeds that corrupt the harvest of the field represent the “weeds” of the heart:

Now we think that Scripture means by the good seed the corresponding impulses of the soul, each one of which, if only they are cultured for good, necessarily puts forth the fruit of virtue within us. But since there has been scattered among these the bad seed of the error of judgment as to the true Beauty which is alone in its intrinsic nature such, and since this last has been thrown into the shade by the growth of delusion which springs up along with it . . . on account of this the wise husbandman leaves this growth that has been introduced among his seed to remain there, so as to secure our not being altogether stripped of better hopes by desire having been rooted out along with that good-for-nothing growth. If our nature suffered such a mutilation, what will there be to lift us up to grasp the heavenly delights? If love is taken from us, how shall we be united to God? If anger is to be extinguished, what arms shall we possess against the adversary? Therefore the Husbandman leaves those bastard seeds within us, not for them always to overwhelm the more precious crop, but in order that the land itself (for so, in his allegory, he calls the heart) by its native inherent power, which is that of reasoning, may wither up the one growth and may render the other fruitful and abundant: but if that is not done, then he commissions the fire to mark the distinction in the crops. If, then, a man indulges these affections in a due proportion and holds them in his own power instead of being held in theirs, employing them for an instrument as a king does his subjects’ many hands, then efforts towards excellence more easily succeed for him. But should he become theirs, and, as when any slaves mutiny against their master, get enslaved by those slavish thoughts and ignominiously bow before them; a prey to his natural inferiors, he will be forced to turn to those employments which his imperious masters command. This being so, we shall not pronounce these emotions of the soul, which lie in the power of their possessors for good or ill, to be either virtue or vice. But, whenever their impulse is towards what is noble, then they become matter for praise, as his desire did to Daniel, and his anger to Phineas, and their grief to those who nobly mourn. But if they incline to baseness, then these are, and they are called, bad passions.

Gregory then steers the conversation to the “much-talked-of and renowned Hades” to which the soul might go after death. Macrina answers in a very interesting way—one which I will examine in the next post—and her interpretation of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus plays a key role.

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