Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.09.50
Andreas Schwab (ed.), Gregor von Nazianz. Über Vorsehung = Peri Pronoias. Classica monacensia, Bd. 35. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2008. Pp. 140. ISBN 9783823364184. €39.90 (pb).
Reviewed by Kathleen Gibbons, University of Toronto Centre for the Study of Religion (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In Über Vorsehung: Herausgegeben, übersetzt und kommentiert, Andreas Schwab offers us a new German translation and commentary of Gregory Nazianzen’s poem, Peri Pronoias, a work which primarily focused on responding to astrological claims about the order of the universe. In doing so, Schwab offers us a study which will be of interest both to students of Gregory’s poetry and to those interested in late antique Christianity’s relationship to astrology.1 As Schwab notes, the poem previously has been translated into Latin, French, English, Polish, and Italian. Schwab’s contribution is to provide a German translation of the text, based on the critical edition of Claudio Moreschini,2 as well as to provide a thorough commentary. The book consists of a preface, introduction, a discussion of the manuscript tradition and the text of the poem, the German translation, and the commentary -- which is itself divided into seven shorter chapters – a conclusion, an index, and a bibliography.
In the introduction, Schwab begins with a short history of Gregory’s life and works, giving an overall context of Gregory’s corpus in order to help situate the cultural significance of the Peri Pronoias. Schwab notes approvingly Peter Gilbert’s assessment of Nazianzus as something of a culture warrior, who, in the wake of the reign of Julian the Apostate, appropriated classical literary forms, in particular that of the Greek poetic tradition from Homer on, in order to establish Christianity as a religion worthy of the educated elite of the late Roman empire. Schwab moves on to consider the Peri Pronoias’s manuscript tradition and its role in the collection of poems that have come to known as the Poemata Arcana.
The poem itself begins with a discussion of God as a divine mind before moving on to its main subject, a critique of astrology. Here, Schwab breaks down each of the points of Gregory’s argument, giving a meticulous discussion of its structure. In doing so, he offers a number of useful parallels to other Christian authors treating of themes which overlap with those Gregory considered. In discussing how the star of Bethlehem served as a topos for Christian rebuttals of astrology, for instance, Schwab notes the relevant discussions in other authors such as Ignatius, Chrysostom, Origen, Basil, and Eusebius (pg 116-120). Those wishing to explore the relationship between late antique Christianity and astrology further will no doubt find this work a useful tool for identifying many of the central texts.
Schwab also does a fine job observing the various rhetorical digs Gregory makes against his “fiktiv Gegenüber,” the astrologer. The alliteration we find in line 18, for instance, Schwab notes as a literary device meant to underscore the argument that explaining what happens in the material world by means of the movement of the stars leads to an infinite regress, in which other heavens must be posited to explain celestial events (88). Schwab also makes note of Gregory’s use of the possessive in line 30 to describe the astrologer’s relationship to the stars; by describing the astrologer as owning the stars, Gregory places his human interlocutor above the entities he worships (97). The concluding discussion of human freedom is also nicely done (123-128), though given that this topic is discussed by Origen in the material preserved by the Cappadocians in their Philocalia, there is certainly room here for comparison between the two.
Given that Schwab has in his introduction raised the issue of Gregory’s significance for understanding Christian reception of the classical tradition, and returns again to this theme in his conclusion, this angle might have been brought out to greater effect in a number of places in the commentary, in particular with respect to Gregory’s relationship to the providential debates of the Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic periods. For instance, a more detailed discussion of Plato’s Timaeus, the locus classicus for the providential debates in the Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic period, seems warranted. This is particularly felt in his discussion of Gregory’s play on the logos of Christianity and the muthos of astrology (lines 44 and 26, respectively). Schwab also notes at some length the ambiguity of the term logos, a term which refers not only to reason and to speech, but also to the Second Person of the Trinity. The play between the logos and muthos must surely also, however, be an allusion to the Timaeus’s self-description as a “likely story” (29d2), a point which opens up a number of questions for how Gregory understood his relationship to his classical heritage. Is the denigration of the muthos of the astrologers intended also as a subtle jab at pagan philosophy? Or is Plato understood as in on the joke against the astrologer? Given that this is a relatively short commentary, rather than a comprehensive study of Gregory’s thought, it is perhaps understandable that Schwab would not settle such an issue here. Yet discussion of this point might have helped Schwab develop in greater detail a sense of Gregory’s simultaneous reception and critique of the classical tradition.
We find similar brevity of discussion on Gregory’s identification of God with the divine nous in line 2. Schwab notes how the identification of God as mind is found in Anaxagoras, and points out how this discussion is developed in Aristotle’s Metaphysics Lambda (73). Yet given that Metaphysics Lambda becomes the locus classicus for later discussions of the divine mind, this later reception, in particular that represented by Plotinus and those who followed him, perhaps ought to also have been considered. To be sure, Schwab does note the fact that understanding the first principle as apeiros (or, in the epic form employed by Gregory, apeirôs) in the sense of unlimited is something Gregory shares with Plotinus. But like Aristotle, and unlike the later Platonists, Gregory does not consider the possibility of a first principle that transcends the divine mind. Does this raise questions for how we ought to understand Gregory’s relationship to the later Platonic tradition? Is this a conscious rejection, or, as John Rist has suggested in the case of Basil, might we read this as evidence that the Cappadocians did not have access to a great deal of later Platonic thought?3 Indeed, Rist’s influential study, which ought to have been considered in a work on this subject, is absent from the bibliography. Here again, it would be inappropriate to expect Schwab to have settled this very large question, but discussion of difference between Gregory and the Platonists of his era on this particular issue seems warranted.
Such observations on his commentary, however, are perhaps more than anything a reflection of the richness of the work’s material, and the need for further studies into Gregory’s poetry. Scholars of late antiquity no doubt owe the author a debt of thanks for further his dissemination and careful analysis of the work.4
1. For a recent study in English on astrology, see Tim Hegedus, Early Christianity and ancient astrology. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.
2. C. Moreschini, D.A. Sykes, St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Poemata Arcana. Oxford Theological Monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. See Ian G. Tompkin’s review, BMCR 1999.06.19.
3. See John Rist, “Basil’s Neoplatonism: Its Background and Nature” in Basil of Caesarea: Christian, Humanist, Ascetic: A Sixteen-Hundredth Anniversary Symposium. Ed. Paul Jonathan Fedwick. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1981.
4. All the more reason to look forward to Andrew Faulkner’s forthcoming work on the relationship between the Homeric Hymns and the Poemata Arcana in Philologus, “St. Gregory of Nazianzus and the Classical Tradition: The Poemata Arcana qua Hymns.” The reviewer thanks Professor Faulkner for allowing her to read his work in advance of publication.