Friday, July 19, 2013

Macrina the Younger: Teacher, Philosopher, Saint

Today is the feast of St. Macrina the Younger. Sainthood doesn't generally run in families, although there are occasionally families with quite a few saints, like the Árpad dynasty of Hungary, for instance. But one of the greatest of all families of saints was that of St. Macrina the Elder. We do not know much about her, except that she and her husband (whose name we do not even know) were confessors, having suffered for the Faith. They had at least one son, Basil, whom we know as St. Basil the Elder. He married a woman named Emmelia, whom we know as St. Emmelia, whose parents seem to have both been martyrs whose names are no longer known, and Basil, Emmelia, and Macrina the Elder moved to Caesarea and became active participants in the life there. Basil and Emmelia had nine, possibly ten, children. (This may be counting children who died in childbirth.) We know the names of five of them, because they are all preserved in the calendar of saints: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Peter of Sebaste, Naucratius, and Macrina the Younger. (Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa are, of course, two of the three Cappadocian Fathers, the third being Basil's friend from an early age, Gregory Nazianzen.) Macrina the Younger was the oldest child. She seems to have had an especially close relationship with Gregory, and it is especially because of him that we know as much about her as we do; without Gregory we would perhaps know no more about her than we know about her grandmother, but he wrote two important theological works in which she is front and center: Life of Macrina and On the Soul and Resurrection. While Gregory's editorial hand should not be ignored (the Life is hagiography and On the Soul and Resurrection is at least partly modeled on Plato's Phaedo), we have every reason to believe that he is being accurate in his account of her, within the limitations of genre conventions. St. Gregory says of her, in the Life, that she raised herself by philosophy to the highest virtue, and that because of this he intends to save her name from oblivion.

Emmelia saw to it that Macrina was educated, but the primary foundation of this education Scriptural rather than classical. The difference is perhaps less than might be thought; Gregory notes the Wisdom of Solomon as being particularly important in the young girl's upbringing. This is actually quite important for Gregory's second work on Macrina: the Wisdom of Solomon, a philosophical work that arose in the context of Hellenistic Judaism, argues against Epicurean materialism, and insists that "God created us for immortality, and made us in the image of His own eternity" (Wis. 2:23). Gregory notes that the Psalms were also especially important for her, and that she prayed them daily. Basil Senior arranged a marriage with a suitable young man, but the young man died before the marriage could take place, and from that point Macrina refused to accept any other marriage proposals, saying that her betrothed was only absent, living before God's face because of the resurrection of the dead. She took care of her mother. Her brother Basil, the oldest of her younger brothers, went off to school and came back a bit full of himself, but, says Gregory, Macrina soon put an end to that:

He was puffed up beyond measure with the pride of oratory and looked down on the local dignitaries, excelling in his own estimation all the men of leading and position. Nevertheless Macrina took him in hand, and with such speed did she draw him also toward the mark of philosophy that he forsook the glories of this world and despised fame gained by speaking, and deserted it for this busy life where one toils with one's hands.

The second brother, Naucratius, became a holy hermit, but suddenly and unexpectedly died from illness while doing his usual rounds, by which he provided for old men and women living in poverty. Naucratius had been one of Macrina's favorite brothers, but she refused to give in to her grief and instead devoted herself to supporting Emmelia in hers. As time passed, Macrina and Emmelia devoted themselves to a more and more ascetic life, allowing themselves no more and no better than what slaves were typically given. You have to keep in mind throughout this that the ascetic life in this period is a philosophical practice: one denied oneself in order to focus one's mind on the most fundamental truths.

Macrina seems to have largely been the one to take care of Gregory and Peter. Indeed, this is precisely what Gregory says of Peter:

At one and the same time he received the names of son and orphan, for as he entered this life his father passed away from it. But the eldest of the family, the subject of our story, took him soon after birth from the nurse's breast and reared him herself and educated him on a lofty system of training, practising him from infancy in holy studies, so as not to give his soul leisure to turn to vain things. Thus having become all things to the lad---- father, teacher, tutor, mother, giver of all good advice----she produced such results that before the age of boyhood had passed, when he was yet a stripling in the first bloom of tender youth, he aspired to the high mark of philosophy.

Emmelia eventually died, and, some years after, Basil as well. Within a year of Basil's death, Gregory set out to visit his sister, and discovered her on her own deathbed. Well, she was not in a bed; Macrina lived ascetically and slept on the floor. But she was dying. Nonetheless, she greeted him cheerfully and they had a conversation:

And just as we learn in the story of Job that the saint was tormented in every part of his body with discharges owing to the corruption of his wounds, yet did not allow the pain to affect his reasoning power, but in spite of the pains in the body did not relax his activities nor interrupt the lofty sentiments of his discourse----similarly did I see in the case of this great woman. Fever was drying up her strength and driving her on to death, yet she refreshed her body as it were with dew, and thus kept her mind unimpeded in the contemplation of heavenly things, in no way injured by her terrible weakness. And if my narrative were not extending to an unconscionable length I would tell everything in order, how she was uplifted as she discoursed to us on the nature of the soul and explained the reason of life in the flesh, and why man was made, and how he was mortal, and the origin of death and the nature of the journey from death to life again. In all of which she told her tale clearly and consecutively as if inspired by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the even flow of her language was like a fountain whose water streams down uninterruptedly.

She died and Gregory performed the rites.

While Gregory had no chance to write down his discourse with Macrina in the Life, he returns to the subject in On the Soul and Resurrection. Again, we have to keep in mind that Gregory is stylizing somewhat in accordance with the genre he is writing, but, again, we have no reason to think that he is not giving us at least the substance of Macrina's views. In this dialogue he calls her "the Teacher". Having come upon her in her illness, he says, he was extremely dejected. She humored this for a while, then, admonished him to remember that the Apostle Paul had said we should not grieve for those who are asleep, as men without hope do. In distress, Gregory responds by asking how it is even possible for a human being to practice their life in such a way, given how terrible everyone recognizes death to be.

Macrina tells him to leave aside what everyone says and say in particular what he finds unbearable about death. When Gregory begins to talk about the awfulness of seeing life leave the body and not knowing what happens to it, Macrina cuts him off in surprise, saying that he surely does not believe that the soul ends with the body's dissolution. Gregory says that in his grief he responded rather boldly, saying that as far as he could see, the belief that the soul lasts forever depended solely on divine commands and not on any reasoning, so even if the mind accepts that the soul lasts forever, we cannot help but be in doubt as far as our natural impulse goes. Macrina, however, will have none of it:

Away, she cried, with that pagan nonsense! For therein the inventor of lies fabricates false theories only to harm the Truth. Observe this, and nothing else; that such a view about the soul amounts to nothing less than the abandoning of virtue, and seeking the pleasure of the moment only; the life of eternity, by which alone virtue claims the advantage, must be despaired of.

To which Gregory responds by asking how we could possibly have a firm belief in this that would be adequate to the life of virtue, asking her what could possibly be said against the materialist view. This brings us to the first major part of the dialogue, Macrina's argument for the immortality of the soul. There are several stages, but the essential thread is that the materialist view depends crucially on giving an excessive weight to the senses and insufficient weight to the intellect, without which we cannot understand the true character of the sensible world. On the basis of this she points out that once you believe in a God, you have already established that there is a stable immaterial and intelligible world, and thus it makes no sense to balk at the immortality of the soul. When Gregory points out that a person might well have doubts about the existence of God, Macrina responds that the entire world is an argument for God's existence. She develops this point at some length, and concludes that if our external senses recognize the sensible world and we can conclude that there is an immaterial God, we have no reason to shortchange our internal sense of our own minds, which give us reason to conclude that something about us is a matter not of the sensible world, in which we find decomposition and decay, but the intelligible world.

Macrina develops this analogy at some length, arguing that it is founded in the fact that in sensing itself we go beyond sensing, because sensing would tell us practically nothing if we did not also have intellectual understanding. To this Gregory asks her how she would respond to someone saying that in fact this intellectual understanding is all a matter of an impulse the body; and Macrina reponds by saying that if a materialist is actually willing to say this much, they have practically conceded the point, since this is as much as to claim that there is some non-sensible mental cause governing the sensible body but distinct from it in the strict sense, given that you can have the body without the impulse. When Gregory protests that this is more a matter of saying what the mind is not than what it is, Macrina replies that the two are not distinct. If I say that something that exists is not something else, I am interpreting its nature; as, for instance, if I say that a man is without guile, I have actually said something about what his character is. But the materialist has, ex hypothesi, conceded that there is a mind; this mind he claims is an impulse in the body, but that in itself requires that it be distinct from the body as such. This impulse in the body is known not by sensation but by reasoning, and thus is not sensed. To get to the impulse he has to be taking it as a cause. So we already are getting a picture of the mind: it is an unsensed perceptive cause governing the body and not strictly identifiable with it. Even if such a materialist were to try to salvage his position by additional assumptions, he has already given away the primary reason most people ever have to believe that the soul ends with the body, by making it something whose existence, being non-sensible, cannot be ruled out simply because the sensible processes usually indicating it have stopped. In other words, you can't have it both ways: either the mind is such that it just is the sensible processes, which requires denying our having any intellectual insight into our minds at all, or it can't be identified with them, and then one cannot have an argument for its mortality that is dependent entirely on those sensible processes themselves.

This is only about a fifth of the way through the dialogue, but I think it serves to give a general sense of it. It should be noted, incidentally, that analogues of Macrina's argument are found today, although it's usually not immortality itself that is in question; and it has been argued -- by materialist philosophers who have no sympathy whatsoever with Macrina's conclusion -- that at least many common forms of materialism make precisely the sort of mistake she notes: they concede to the mind features that effectively give away the store. This is not to say, of coruse, that modern materialists are making Neoplatonist arguments, but that in fact Macrina's argument, and arguments analogous to it, genuinely identify a potential failure-point of materialism that materialists must specifically build their materialisms to avoid.

Both of Gregory's works deserve to be read more widely than they are, and Macrina the Teacher herself deserves more study. I've only barely touched on the surface here, but one of the reasons I've gone to some length about it is in the hope that other people will dig a little deeper.

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