.Macrina the Younger, On the Soul, (c. 379 CE)

(From the translation by Anna M. Silvas, in Macrina the Younger, in the series Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts, Brepols Publishers, 2008.)

Macrina comes from what is now Turkey, in the region bordering the Black Sea. Macrina came from a family of big thinkers - her grandparents, parents, brothers, and other relatives were important figures in the intellectual history of the Eastern Mediterranean. In a way, philosophy (and theology) was the family business.

Many pre-modern philosophers known to us nowadays are known to us through their students - the philosopher taught in an oral tradition, and students remembered the ideas and wrote them down later. So, too, for Macrina the Younger, who is known to us through the writing of her little brother, Gregory of Nyssa.

A few days before Macrina died, Gregory arrived to visit her at the family's estate - which she had turned into something in between a shelter, a hospital, a library, and a spiritual retreat center. The family had been separated geographically by their various duties and commitments and certain political complications in the region, and it had been some time since they had seen one another. Gregory brought news from the broader world, including news of their brother Basil's death less than a year before. 

As part of processing their grief over Basil's death, Gregory inquired of his elder sister - who had been an important teacher for him previously, and whom he still looked up to as a role model and source of guidance - how to make sense of death, the afterlife, human nature, and the relationship between body and soul. They had many long conversations about these topics before Macrina's death. These are the conversations that became On The Soul. 

This is almost certainly not a perfect account of Macrina's exact words - much as the classic dialogues of Plato are not perfect accounts of Socrates' exact words, nor are the Analects perfect accounts of Confucius' exact words. This is what Gregory remembered, and while his memory is well-trained (educational norms in his place/time included a lot of practice memorizing spoken lectures without notes) he wasn't a human tape recorder. 

If you look in histories of philosophy published in the 20th century, you will see this work attributed to Gregory of Nyssa, as if these ideas were originated by him - but the text itself (written by Gregory) explicitly represents Macrina as the creator of these ideas. Gregory frequently refers to her as "the Teacher," references this work in letters as an effort by Gregory to get Macrina's ideas to reach a broader audience after her death, and uses other rhetorical devices that situate her as the main speaker in the dialogue - he is asking the questions, but it's her answers that are featured. Current scholarship is divided over whether this should be regarded a collaboratively-constructed text (giving credit equally to Gregory and Macrina) or a text attributed principally to Macrina. In our class, we give her "top billing," but we recognize Gregory as well. 

NOTE FOR READING: The translator, Anna M. Silvas, openly acknowledges that her translation attempts to preserve the complex sentence structure and advanced vocabulary of the original, in an attempt to be faithful to the original text and get as close as possible to the conversation that Macrina and Gregory actually had. As a result, it's a very dense read. Be patient with yourself; this is probably going to require slower reading, more re-reading, and more looking up of words in the dictionary than usual. Remember, I'm always happy to walk through the reading with you in a supplemental session on Thursday, Friday, or Sunday, as you prepare for class on that coming Monday.   

Chapter 3: The Emotions and Passions 

Gregory: 1. I then took up again in my mind the definition of the soul which [the teacher Macrina] had given earlier in our discussion and said: 'Your argument does not tell me enough about the powers contemplated in the soul when it says that the soul is an intellectual substance endowing the organic body with a life-giving power ordered to the activity of the senses. 2. For our soul is not only active in scientific and contemplative thought, being activated in such thinking by its intellectual substance, 

and it does not only deploy the organs of sense for this activity according to its nature. 3. Also contemplated in our nature are the great emotions [literally, 'movements' - same root word as 'kinetic', similar sense to being 'moved' emotionally] of desire and of anger. While both of them have a distinctive existence in us, we observe that the stirring of both is expressed in activities of many and varied differences. One can see that many activities are led by desire, while again many others spring from a basis of anger. None of these is the body, and yet the bodiless is plainly intellectual. 

4. 'But since our definition puts the soul forward as something intellectual, then one of two alternatives, both absurd, must result from the logic of this argument. Either anger and desire constitute other souls in us, and a plurality of souls is to be discerned instead of one, or not even the faculty of thought in us is to be regarded as soul, if the intellectual cleaves equally to all of them and reveals them all as souls or else excludes each of them equally from what is proper to the soul.'31 

Macrina: 5. Macrina replied: 'You quite fittingly raise this question already examined by many others: what are we to consider the faculties of desire and of anger to be? Are they found together with the soul's substance and do they take their existence with it at its first constitution, or are they something distinct from it, only coming to be in us later? 

6. 'That they are discerned in the soul is acknowledged equally by everyone, but reason has not yet accurately discovered what we ought to think of them, that any firm conception about them can be maintained. 7. The many still fluctuate in their opinions about them, which are shifting and variable 


16. 'What, then, do we claim? That this rational animal, the human being, is the recipient of intelligence and understanding is attested [by everyone], and this definition would never have described our nature in this way if it had contemplated anger and desire and all such emotions as sharing the sub- stance of that nature. 17. For no one would give a definition of any other subject by invoking common rather than specific qualities. But since the principles of desire and anger are observed equally in the irrational and the rational natures, one could not reasonably characterize what is common as specific. 18. How can what is surplus to and excluded from the description of a nature be validly used, as if part of that nature, to overthrow the definition of it? For every definition of a substance examines what is specific to the subject in hand. Whatever is outside that specificity is disregarded as extraneous to the definition. 

19. 'And yet these activities of anger and desire are acknowledged to be common to all irrational nature. But whatever is common is not the same as that which individualizes. Necessarily therefore, these activities may not be reckoned among those by which human nature is especially characterized. 20. But just as anyone who sees the principles of sensation and of nutrition and of growth in us does not on that account discard the given definition of the soul — for it does not follow that because this is in the soul that is not — so, when one detects in our nature the marks of anger and desire, one may not on that account reasonably make war on the definition, as if it failed to fully express that nature.' 

Gregory: 21. 'What therefore,' I asked the teacher [Macrina], 'is one to make of this? For I am not able to see as yet how we can fittingly reject as alien to our nature that which is actually within us.' 

Macrina: 22. 'You observe,' she replied, 'a kind of battle of the reason against them and a struggle to rid the soul of them as far as possible. And indeed there are some in whom this struggle has been achieved, as we hear for example [Macrina here tells some stories of exemplary figures who 'freed' themselves from anger and desire] 23. This could not have been so if these faculties were nature and traceable to the principle of substance. For it is impossible for one who has departed his nature to continue to in being at all. But if [a person] was both in existence and yet without these, then it follows that they are something other than nature and not nature itself. 24. For nature is truly that in which the existence of its substance is comprehended, and if our estrangement from these emotions lies within our power so that their removal not only does not injure, but is even beneficial to the nature, it is clear then that they are to be considered as externals. They are affects39 of the nature and not its substance, for the substance is simply that which it is. 

25. 'As for anger, many think it a ferment of the blood round the heart; others a keenness to inflict pain in retribution for pain received. We ourselves would take anger to be an impulse to hurt someone who has provoked us. But none of these [equate] with the definition of the soul. 26. Again, if we were to define what desire is in itself, we shall call it a seeking for what one lacks, or a yearning for the enjoyment of some pleasure, or a grief when something on which we have set our heart is not in our power, or a habituation towards some pleasure which it is not possible to enjoy. All these and similar descriptions do indeed indicate desire, but they do not touch the definition of the soul. 

27. 'Moreover, among all the other emotions discerned in regard to the soul, some mutual opposites are observable, such as timidity and boldness, grief and pleasure, fear and disdain, and so on. Each of them seems akin to the principles of desire and of anger, while their own nature is identified with an individualizing definition. 28. Daring and disdain, for example, suggest a certain accentuation of the irascible impulse, while the dispositions arising from timidity and fear suggest a diminishing and weakening of that same impulse. 29. Grief on the other hand draws its material from both of them, for the weariness of anger, which comes of powerlessness to punish those who have grieved us, itself becomes grief, and our despair of having the things we desire and our privation of the things on which we have set our heart instils a sullen cast of mind. And what is considered the opposite of grief, I mean the thought of pleasure, is similarly divided between anger and desire, for pleasure governs the both of them equally. 

30. 'All these emotions are around the soul and yet they are not soul, but only like warts growing from the soul's thinking part. They are reckoned to be parts of it because they are growing on it, and yet they are not what the soul is in its substance.' 

Gregory: 31. 'And yet we observe,' I replied to her, 'that [emotions] make [a reasonably big] contribution to the betterment of those dedicated to virtue. [Here Gregory tells several stories of exemplary figures in their tradition where feelings of anger or desire led the person to do a good/virtuous/courageous act.] ... in all these instances that such qualities are not to be considered passions, for passions would not have been employed to accomplish virtue.' 

Macrina: 33. 'It seems that I myself have occasioned this confusion in reasoning, by not making those distinctions in the argument of the case which would have imposed a certain logical order on our considerations. But now, as far as possible, some such order shall be devised for the investigation, so that by advancing logically in our considerations there may be no more room for such contradictions. 

34. 'We assert, then, that the contemplative, critical, and all-surveying power of the soul is proper to it by its very nature, and that it is through these that the soul preserves in itself the image of the deifying grace, since reason surmises that the divine itself, whatever it might be in its nature, is these at least in these, that is in universal supervision and in discrimination of the beautiful from the worse. 35. But when it concerns what lies on the borderland of the soul, capable of inclining to either of two opposites according to its particular nature, the way it is used determines the outcome whether for the good or its opposite. Such for example are anger and fear and any other such emotion of the soul without which human nature cannot be studied. 


[A human has their] nourishment and growth from plant life, for such processes can be seen even in plants as they draw in nourishment by their roots and send it forth in fruits and leaves. [Their] constitution as sensate [they] have from the irrational animals. But the power of thought and reason is unalloyed and particular to [human] nature, being contemplated by itself. 41. However, just as this nature has the instinct of drawing what is necessary for the material life, which, when it is manifested in us, we call appetite, and we assert that this is an aspect of plant life, since we can see it there too as certain impulses working naturally to secure their proper nourishment and to swell in germination, so too all that is proper to the irrational nature is mingled with the intellectual part of the soul. 42. Among these,' she said, 'is anger; among these is fear and all the other counterbalancing activities within us — everything except the power of reason and thought. That alone is special to our life which bears in itself, as has been said, the stamp of the divine character. 

43. 'But since, according to the argument which we have just been expounding, the reasoning power cannot otherwise come to be in the bodily life except that it comes into being with the senses, and since sensation already had subsistence in the nature of the irrational animals, a necessary consequence of this alone is our soul's communion with all that accompanies it. 44. These are the incidence within us of what are called "passions", which have not been allotted to human life for any bad purpose at all ... Instead, these emotions of the soul become the instruments of virtue or of vice according to the way we order our choice, 45. just like the iron that is forged according to the intention of the smith, which takes whatever shape the conception of the smith wills, whether it becomes a sword or some agricultural implement. 

46. 'Well then, if reason, that special property of our nature, were to maintain governance over these emotions which have been added to us from without, none of these emotions would be active in the service of vice. Fear would only generate obedience, and anger courage, and timidity caution, and the impulse of desire would sponsor the divine and undefiled delight.

47. 'If reason, however, casts away the reins like a charioteer who has become entangled in his chariot and is dragged behind it wherever the irrational movement of the yoked horses carries him, then these impulses are changed into passions, just as we see happens with irrational animals. [...] 50. So it is with us too, if these impulses are not led by reasoning in the right direction and if the passions prevail against the mastery of the mind, the human being is changed from the rational and the godlike to the irrational and unthinking, being reduced to the level of an animal by the force of these passions.' 


[Now, we might think that the emotions] if cultivated for the good, necessarily put forth in us the fruit of virtue. 57. But... there has been sown among these a thoroughly mistaken judgement as to beauty and that alone which is truly beautiful in its own nature has been thrown into shade by the sprout of delusion springing up along with it, 58. for the principle of desire has not sprung up and matured towards that which is beautiful by nature because of which it was sown in us, but it has altered its growth towards the beast-like and irrational, the desiring impulse being steered in this direction by the mistaken judgement as to beauty, 59. and in the same way the seed of anger has not been forged into courage but has only armed us to fight against our own kind, and the power of affection has deserted the intellectual and gone completely mad for the enjoyment of the sensual beyond all measure, and in like manner the other emotions have [resulted in bad consequences] 

60. [To summarize Macrina's next argument: Macrina argues: one might say that we should try to rid ourselves of emotions entirely - uproot them, root and stem, because emotions cause so much bad! Yet this is not so.]

61. 'For if human nature underwent this [uprooting of the emotions], what would there be to raise us up [..]? If affection is taken away, in what way shall we [experience the sublime]? If anger is extinguished, what arms shall we take up against our adversary? [...] 63. Accordingly if someone uses these emotions with due reason, holding them in their own power rather than becoming subject to their power, like a monarch who uses their subjects' many hands for assistance, then they will succeed more easily in their efforts towards virtue. 64. But if someone is taken hostage by their emotions [...] then of necessity that person will turn to whatever the domination of these new masters impels them.

65. 'Now if this is how things are, we shall not pronounce these emotions of the soul to be of themselves either virtue or vice, since they lie in the power of those who use them for good or for otherwise. But whenever their movement is towards what is better, then they become matter for praise, as desire and anger were for [specific praiseworthy figures in traditional stories] and as grief is for those who mourn worthily. But whenever their inclination turns for the worse, then they become and are called passions [as in animals.]


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