Previous post: Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (II)
In the two previous posts, I looked at some of the comments St. Gregory of Nyssa made regarding science and being human in his book THE MAKING OF MAN. In this post, the last in this series, I want to note some of Gregory’s ideas about the human body. We do get the sense from his writings that Gregory is aware of the science of his day and values it. We have seen that he doesn’t assume just because something is claimed in scripture that we have to accept it as a literal truth. He does not try to oppose science to the bible, but rather wants to create a synthesis of the truths contained in the bible and those known from nature/science. His thinking might show us a way forward to day as the Church looks at scientific claims in the 21st Century. The Patristic writers were aware that their entire culture accepted the science/philosophy of their day and so knew the Church had to deal with accepted truths that were not derived from Scripture.
Regarding the relationship of the mind to the body, Gregory is aware that brain injuries do affect the mind of a person, but he is not convinced that the mind is restricted to the brain, rather believing that the mind is in some mysterious fashion found throughout the human body. The nervous system was not yet understand in his day, but they could observe that the mind did seem to control all voluntary movements of limbs and body parts.
“And although I am aware that the intellectual energies are blunted, or even made altogether ineffective in a certain condition of the body, I do not hold this a sufficient evidence for limiting the faculty of the mind by any particular place . . . for the intelligible nature neither dwells in the empty spaces of the bodies, nor is extruded by encroachments of the flesh . . . for the mind is somehow naturally adapted to be in close relation with that which is in a natural condition, but to be alien from that which is removed from nature.” (pp 54-55)
The nervous system was not understood in the 4th Century, and Gregory cannot account how the mind can work in all parts of the body, but he does believe that because the mind affects every part of the body, it has to be present everywhere in the body.
“… for the purpose of our argument was to show that the mind is not restricted to any part of the body, but is equally in touch with the whole, producing its motion according to the nature of the part which is under its influence.” (p 70)
The mind is related to the physical body in some fashion, but he treats it more as if the mind occupies the body. He is not sure why certain injuries stop the mind from working in different parts of the body. He does think it is the mind which makes the various limbs and body parts move. The mind seems more like a vital fluid which flows throughout the body, but that flow can be stopped by injuries.
Gregory does accept the basic idea that the health of the body is maintained by the body organs keeping a balance of the four humors of the body. The organs have the job of trying to keep the proper warmth and moisture of the body.
We see then that the powers which control life are three, of which the first by its heat produces general warmth, the second by it moisture keeps damp that which is warmed, so that the living being is kept in an intermediate condition by the equal balance of the forces exerted by the quality of each of the opposing natures (the moist element not being dried up by excess of heat, nor the hot element quenched by the prevalence of moisture); and the third power by its own agency holds together the separate members in a certain agreement and harmony, connecting them by the ties which it itself furnishes, and sending into them all that self-moving and determining force, on the failure of which the member become relaxed and deadened, being left destitute of the determining spirit.” (p 146)
This schema of the three powers that control life in a person are worked out in the body organs. The organs are compared to mechanical devices and thought to serve similar functions.
“The breath in the heart is supplied by means of the neighboring organ, which is called the lungs … draws to itself, somewhat as the bellows do in the forges a supply from the adjacent air ..” (p 150)
“…we understand the principle of heat is to be found in the heart…” (p 151)
He holds to the idea of the body organs maintaining the heat of the body, even seeing the blood being red – a sign of its fiery nature.
“… the artery … receives the heated air from the heart and conveys it to the liver, making its opening there somewhere beside the point at which the fluids enter, and, as it warms the moist substance by its heat, blends with the liquid something akin to fire, and makes the blood appear red with the fiery tint it produces.” (p 154)
Interestingly, the human digestive system is designed the way it is – the long colon – so that food remains in us for a long period, or otherwise we would want to eat all the time like wild animals. Because God designed the long colon in humans, our bodies retain the food, and this gives us humans a chance not to be preoccupied with food and to develop our rational nature. Even evolutionists do think that humans being omnivores, able to find many sources of food, and then learning to cook food, did in fact reduce the amount of time we had to forage for food and did enable the brain to grow larger. So having to spend less time on finding food and chewing it allowed the brain to grow and for reason to become more prominent in the human animal.
“… and expels the sedimentary matter of the food to the wider passages of the bowels, and by turning it over in their manifold windings retains the food for a time in the intestines, lest if it were easily got rid of by a straight passage it might at once excite the animal again to appetite, and man, like the race of irrational animals, might never cease from this sort of occupation.” (p 153)
Like many of the Patristic writers, who were monks, there is a concern that humans are too much like other animals. There is a need to try to separate humans from animal and animal behavior as much as is possible. Human appetite and eating are moral issues for Gregory rather than merely natural issues. He does believe that having to eat physical food is a sign of our fallen nature and is not how God intended humans to be. He does interpret much of the biblical account of the Garden of Eden as being a spiritual existence and not about eating physical food but about spiritual food.
“It may be, however, that some one feels shame at the fact that our life, like that of brutes is sustained by food, and for this reason deems man unworthy of being supposed to have been framed in the image of God; but he may expect that freedom from this function will one day be bestowed upon our nature in the life we look for; for, as the Apostle says, ‘the kingdom of God is not meat and drink’ (Rom 14:17); and the Lord declared that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Further, as the resurrection holds forth to us a life equal with the angels, and with the angels there is no food, there is sufficient ground for believing that man, who will live in like fashion with the angels, will be released from such a function.” (pp 91-92)
When humans are released from this world in the Kingdom, there will be no more eating or drinking – activities which belong to the fallen world. For many Orthodox it might be shocking to note that Gregory does not envision an eternal Paschal Banquet – because for him there is no food in the Kingdom! References to food and banquets for him are spiritual ideas. Humans are destined to become like angels and be freed from food or a desire to eat.
One way that ancient science differs from modern science is that the ancients believed one could derive moral lessons from observing animals. Animal behavior was anthropomorphized – seen as reflecting human life and values. The goal of the “rational” life for humans was to become less like the animals and more like angels. Gregory does see eating as a moral issue – it is a sign of the effects of sin on humans, so is something to be overcome in the world to come. The Fathers ideas of fasting are related to their thinking about animal nature. They are also related to their ideas about maintaining a balance between moisture and dryness, heat and cold in the body. Fasting might work to make us less dependent on our bodies. Drinking even water could throw off the moisture balance in the body which would lead to increasing one’s desires and passions. For the Fathers this was both spiritual and scientific. Our goal is to enter into a spirtual manner of living.