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'The Instigator of All Vicious Actions': Pleasure, Sin, and the Good Life in the Works of Gregory of Nyssa

TOIVIAINEN, SIIRI,HENRIIKKA (2017) 'The Instigator of All Vicious Actions': Pleasure, Sin, and the Good Life in the Works of Gregory of Nyssa. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Author-imposed embargo until 07 August 2019.


This thesis is the first scholarly assessment of the role of pleasure in the works of Gregory of Nyssa. The term ἡδονή occurs in Gregory’s works more than 300 times, almost always in a negative context. In Homily 12 on the Song of Songs, Gregory calls pleasure the ‘instigator of all vicious actions’. Thus, I set out to investigate what gives pleasure such a fundamental role in Gregory’s understanding of sin. Casting Gregory’s thought in the framework of ancient eudaimonistic ethics, I argue that the main problem with pleasure lies in the way in which it obscures that which is truly good: the life of virtue and the attainment of the divine likeness. Through its sensual appeal, pleasure projects a false appearance of beauty and goodness and confuses the mind’s judgment. This, for Gregory, is the origin of all sin, both in Paradise and in the life of every postlapsarian individual. I will show that in Gregory’s works the life of pleasure comes to denote a fundamental misorientation of the human faculties, the antithesis of the good Christian life. By pursuing sensual pleasure, the individual mistakes the sensible creation for the final level of reality and fails to access the most fulfilling forms of enjoyment. True insatiable enjoyment can only be attained in a spiritual communion with the limitless God.

The thesis is divided into three main parts: In Part I, I investigate Gregory’s notion of pleasure and lay the anthropological groundwork for his ethical considerations. Part II looks at the junction between pleasure and sin, showing how pleasure as the false good obscures higher ends, such as the life of virtue and the satisfaction of physical needs. Finally, Part III addresses Gregory’s notion of spiritual pleasure and its similarities to and differences from sensual pleasure.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:hedonism; pleasure; early Christianity; asceticism; ethics; patristics; Gregory of Nyssa
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > Theology and Religion, Department of
Thesis Date:2017
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:08 Aug 2017 11:32

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