BMCR 2009.05.03

Il Contra fatum di Gregorio di Nissa nel dibattito tardo-antico sul fatalismo e sul determinismo. Studi sulla tardoantichità, 2

, Il Contra fatum di Gregorio di Nissa nel dibattito tardo-antico sul fatalismo e sul determinismo. Studi sulla tardoantichità, 2. Pisa/Roma: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2008. 178. ISBN 9788862270847. €38.00 (pb).

Because of the particularity of its subject matter, this study of philosophico-religious history, as Claudio Moreschini says in his Preface, needs a special methodology and competence. Beatrice Motta interprets Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise against fate Contra Fatum as part of the great discussion about fatalism in Late Antiquity and Early Christianity. In fact, she aims to fill a gap signaled by David Amand in 1973, when he argued that a monograph about this particular treatise was a desideratum.1 According to J. Gaith, the Contra Fatum is the best treatise ever written on the question of fatalism by a Father of the Church.2 Motta is trying to demonstrate the originality of Gregory’s argument in relation to other Christian works such as Origen, Philocalia, 23; Methodius of Olympus, Banquet, VIII; Basil of Caesarea, Hexameron, VI, 4-7; Diodorus of Tarsus, Contra Fatum (see Photius, Bibliotheca, cod. 223), and Nemesius of Emesa, De natura hominis, 35-38. For her philosophical analysis, Motta is discussing the tripartite problem of determinism, fatalism and astrology, which has dominated Greek philosophical literature for a long time.

Gregory’s treatise is the description of a dialogue between a philosopher and the Christian Father himself. Motta divides the Contra Fatum in two parts: the philosopher’s argument and Gregory’s response and counter-argument (p. 13). Yet, the division, as it is shown later in the book and as it is clearly visible in the text of the treatise, is more subtle: one should rather divide the treatise into four parts, because of the philosopher’s retorts and the development of Gregory’s counter arguments. We do not know whether the work depicts an actual dialogue, and opinions of scholars on the subject are divided. Regarding the date the work was written, J. Daniélou has located it in the years 379 to 3873 but Motta follows the opinion of the Italian editor Michele Bandini, who dates the work in the years between 379 and 384.4 A large part of the first section of her book is devoted to the question of the astrological theory and practice in Late Antiquity and its refutation in Philo, De Providentia, I, 77-88, Origen, Philocalia, 23, Basil of Caesarea, Hexameron, VI, 5-7 .

In the second section, Motta analyses the position of the philosopher, the interlocutor of Gregory, who by and large accepts the theory of astral determinism, which consists of a combination of astrological practice and philosophical determinism. The philosopher’s argument is, according to Motta, of Stoic origin, and therefore she devotes a large part of this section to the exposition of the theory of Stoic determinism, which is in fact the stronghold of ancient determinism. The relation of Stoicism to astrology is more difficult to delimit, in spite of Bouché-Leclerq’s opinion that there was a natural alliance between Stoicism and astrology (p. 39).5 The textual evidence to support such a position is rather sparse, and A.A. Long has raised serious objections to it.6

The longest section of the book (pp. 43-103) is devoted to Gregory’s position in the second part of the narrated dialogue. Motta analyses Gregory’s thesis that there is no causal relation between celestial bodies and human actions. She refers to Diodorus of Tarsus’ Contra Fatum, a primary source of Gregory’s own treatise as Bandini has shown, and also to Gregory’s opposition to Aristotle’s theory of the celestial bodies’ movement as cause of generation ( De gener. et corrupt. 10). For Motta, this is not a direct anti-aristotelism, as Bandini has thought, but rather a refutation of the implications of Aristotle’s position. As to the question of the genesis of the world, the author sees a greater relation to Basil’s argument from the Hexameron, I. Motta shows also the presence of classical anti-astrological arguments in Gregory, such as the one concerning the impossibility to determine the exact moment of someone’s birth, with special reference to Sextus Empiricus, Adv. Math., V, 55-85, as well as Origen, Philocalia, 23, 17, and Basil, Hex., VI, 4-9. Another of Gregory’s arguments focuses on the event of collective deaths that prove the non-existence of particular destinies. Ptolemy’s universal astrology in the Tetrabiblos leads to Carneades’ refutation of astrology. Carneades had said that even the more barbaric laws and traditions exercise a much greater force on human destiny than any movement of the stars. Gregory concludes that destiny cannot be a god and states his conviction that godly nature must be simple and immovable, insisting on its substantial sufficiency.

Section Four, the second largest of the book (pp. 105-147) deals with the second stage of the dialogue between Gregory of Nyssa and the philosopher, focusing on Gregory’s discussion of nondeterministic philosophical explanations of astrology. The reason for this turn to Gregory’s argument is that the philosopher supports the idea that the validity of astrology may not be shown de jure but is evident de facto. Gregory’s refutation is now centered on the stoic notions of possibility and necessity, drawing from Alexander of Aphrodisias’ De Fato and Cicero’s De Fato. According to Gregory, the possible should not be restricted to astrological linguistic ambiguity but should apply also to the ontological level. Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos appears as a model of nondeterministic astrology. A second approach of Gregory to the notion of a possible astrology is based on Alexander of Aphrodisias’ De Fato. Motta deals with Gregory’s opinions on the limits of a larger debate on astrology where astrological fatalism, although nondeterministic, still has some validity. Two approaches are underscored here: the positions of Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos and Alexander of Aphrodisias’ De fato, which are very similar to each other, and the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. The key notions are the ἐνδεχόμενον (=the probable), which in Gregory replaces the notion of ἀμφίβολον (=doubtful) used by his interlocutor, and that of ἀνάγκη (=necessity). Motta examines the first notion in Alexander of Aphrodisias where we see it closely related to the term of δυνατόν (=the possible). It is a term proposed also by Chrysippus in Cicero’s De fato, where divination gives validity to fatalism, a position very close to Gregory’s interlocutor. The relation of the notion of ἀμφίβολον to prediction is the basis of Motta’s first interpretation of Gregory’s idea about a nondeterministic astrology that is not Stoic in its origin. In Ptolemy, such an astrology is a natural science while astronomy is a mathematical one. The first is the science of the unpredictable and the conjectural. The reference to Ptolemaic astrology is reminiscent of a discussion in Origen’s Philocalia that has to do with the divine prescience of future events and with the nature and contingency of these same events. In this light, Gregory’s objections may also have a different meaning: if we do not consider astrology in deterministic terms, then we deal with a completely different subject. Gregory avoids extensive discussion of a nondeterministic astrological fatalism. The nondeterministic astrology falls thus under the broader category of divinatory arts, which are in Gregory the subject of a strictly moral refutation. Alexander of Aphrodisias’ De fato, 30, treats the theory that gods predict contingencies qua contingencies, an idea that may clarify Gregory’s method of connecting prediction to possibility. To the question whether Gregory’s refutation of fatalism is influenced by Alexander’s anti-Stoic peripateticism, Motta’s choice regarding Gregory’s anti-Stoic anti-deterministic position points rather to his Christian philosophy. Here God is the initiator of a temporal seriality, ἀκολουθία, where human nature constitutes the final stage, that of human liberty. Thus, Gregory’s critique is shown to be primarily addressed toward Stoic determinism, while the nondeterministic astrological fatalism is not philosophically elucidated in his Contra Fatum. Motta concludes that there is an affinity between Gregory’s positions and Plotinus’ theory with regard to determinism and astrology and the use of the concept of a transcendental principle exposed in Ennead III, 1 on destiny and II, 3, on the influence of the stars. The transcendental principle becomes in Gregory of Nyssa a God that grants ontological liberty to human creatures, a view leading to a deeply rooted refutation of every sort of determinism.

In the fifth section, the author analyzes the idea of the de facto validity of astrology in Gregory of Nyssa as the outcome of demonic activity. This idea is part of Gregory’s theory of evil as non-being that may nevertheless accede to existence due to wicked humans and fallen angels, i.e. demons. Motta provides a brief history of pagan and Christian demonology, where the latter is seen as an important moment in the confrontation between Pagans and Christians. Gregory inherits the idea of divination as demonic work from previous Christian literature and presents it not only in the Contra fatum but also in the De pythonissa.

In conclusion, the author develops Gregory’s confutation and refutation of the concept of fate in the following manner: first, Gregory criticizes the philosophical ground of astrology, i.e. determinism. This is the most philosophical section of the treatise and includes a discussion on fate in Late Antiquity. Second, Gregory seems to accept the practical validity of the astrology, which from his point of view derives from demonic action. The paradoxical conclusion is that Gregory denies the deterministic basis of astrology but not the divinatory practice in order to continue an anti-demonic polemic. On the philosophical level, Gregory’s refutation is based solely on anti-Stoic anti-determinism without debating extensively the hypothesis of a nondeterministic astrology. Gregory was aware of a nondeterministic astrology and his acceptance of a limited value for astrology may be close to Alexander’s and Plotinus’ theories. Thus, there are two kinds of refutation in Gregory’s treatise, a ‘hard one’ concerning philosophical determinism and a ‘soft one’ with regard to practical fatalism. The latter is subject only to a moral rejection and not to a full philosophical refutation. Motta’s opinion is that this choice has been made in order to cut short a discussion that would have taken much broader dimensions than a representative of the Church like Gregory of Nyssa would have desired.

A list of Sources and a Bibliography of Secondary Literature conclude the book, but a Table of Persons and a Table of Notions would also have been very useful. As to the exposition of the general discussion on fatalism in Late Antiquity, the author’s effort is not exhaustive. A comparison between Gregory’s treatise and Hierocles’, On providence and On providence and fate (see Photius, Bibliotheca, respectively cod. 251 and cod. 214) would be fruitful, especially since J. Daniélou has made the hypothesis that Gregory of Nyssa was following a second tradition of Neoplatonism represented by his successor Hierocles that had its origins in the thought of Ammonius Saccas.7 Motta’s discussion of philosophical determinism misses some interesting references like the one to pseudo-Plutarch’s, De fato, 1-2, 568 C, where we see a distinction between fate’s essence and fate’s action that eventually would serve the analysis of the author. The difference between Stoic determinism and Stoic necessitarianism is not explored sufficiently, while the final distinction between a philosophical refutation and a moral rejection of fatalism in Gregory may be subject to objections. Overall, however, Motta’s book fulfills the desideratum for a monograph devoted especially to Gregory of Nyssa’s Contra fatum.


1. David Amand, Fatalisme et liberté dans l’antiquité grecque, Amsterdam, Hakkert, 1973, p. 423.

2. Jerome Gaith, La conception de la liberté chez Grégoire de Nysse, Paris, Vrin, 1953, p. 92.

3. Jean Daniélou, La chronologie des oeuvres de Grégoire de Nysse, in: Studia Patristica. Papers presented to the fourth international conference on Patristic Studies, ed. Frank Leslie Cross, Berlin, Akademie Verlag, 1966, pp. 159-169.

4. Gregorio di Nissa, Contro il fato, a cura di Michele Bandini, Bologna, EDB, 2003, pp. 33-34.

5. Aug. Bouché-Leclerq, L’astrologie grecque, Paris, 1899, reimp. Aalen, Scientia Verlag, 1979, p. 34.

6. A.A. Long, Astrology: arguments pro and contra, in: Science and Speculation: Studies in Hellenistic Theory and Practice, ed. J. Barnes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 165-192.

7. See Jean Daniélou, Grégoire de Nysse et le éo-platonisme de l’École d’Athènes, Revue d’études grecques, 80, 1967, pp. 395-401. See also, L’Etre et le Temps chez Grégoire de Nysse, Leiden, Brill, 1970, p. 13, which is a turn from Daniélou’s existentialism in the Platonisme et théologie mystique. Doctrine spirituelle de saint Grégoire de Nysse, Paris, Aubier, 1953 2.