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St Gregory of Nyssa On the Early Deaths of Infants, Complete

Translated by W. Moore and H. A. Wilson

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On Infants' Early Deaths. [1531]



Every essayist and every pamphleteer will have you, most Excellent, to display his eloquence upon; your wondrous qualities will be a broad race-course wherein he may expatiate. A noble and suggestive subject in able hands has indeed a way of making a grander style, lifting it to the height of the great reality. We, however, like an aged horse, will remain outside this proposed race-course, only turning the ear to listen for the contest waged in celebrating your praises, if the sound of any literary car careering in full swing through such wonders may reach us. But though old age may compel a horse to remain away from the race, it may often happen that the din of the trampling racers rouses him into excitement, that he lifts his head with eager looks, that he shows his spirit in his breathings, and prances and paws the ground frequently, though this eagerness is all that is left to him, and time has sapped his powers of going. In the same way our pen remains outside the combat, and age compels it to yield the course to the professors who flourish now; nevertheless its eagerness to join the contest about you survives, and that it can still evince, even though these stylists who flourish now are at the height of their powers [1532] . But none of this display of my enthusiasm for you has anything to do with sounding your own praises: no style, however nervous and well-balanced, would easily succeed there; so that any one, who attempted to describe that embarrassing yet harmonious mixture of opposites in your character, would inevitably be left far behind your real worth. Nature, indeed, by throwing out the shade of the eyelashes before the glaring rays, brings to the eyes themselves a weaker light, and so the sunlight becomes tolerable to us, mingling as it does, in quantities proportionate to our need, with the shadows which the lashes cast. Just so the grandeur and the greatness of your character, tempered by your modesty and humbleness of mind, instead of blinding the beholder's eye, makes the sight on the contrary a pleasurable one; wherein this humbleness of mind does not occasion the splendour of the greatness to be dimmed, and its latent force to be overlooked; but the one is to be noticed in the other, the humility of your character in its elevation, and the grandeur reversely in the lowliness. Others must describe all this; and extol, besides, the many-sightedness of your mind. Your intellectual eyes are indeed as numerous, it may perhaps be said, as the hairs of the head; their keen unerring gaze is on everything alike; the distant is foreseen; the near is not unnoticed; they do not wait for experience to teach expedience; they see with Hope's insight, or else with that of Memory; they scan the present all over; first on one thing, then on another, but without confusing them, your mind works with the same energy and with the amount of attention that is required. Another, too, must record his admiration of the way in which poverty is made rich by you; if indeed any one is to be found in this age of ours who will make that a subject of praise and wonder. Yet surely now, if never before, the love of poverty will through you abound, and your ingotten wealth [1533] will be envied above the ingots of Croesus. For whom has sea and land, with all the dower of their natural produce, enriched, as thy rejection of worldly abundance has enriched thee?

[1531] This treatise is written for Hierius, in Gregory's old age. It has been thought to be spurious (Oudin, p. 605), because of Fronto Ducaeus' insertion (p. 374) about the Purgatorial Fire. But Tillemont, Semler, and Schroeckh have shown that there are no grounds for this opinion. Anastasius Sinaita mentions it (Quaest. xvi.).

[1532] eiper hebosin hoi kata tous nun tois logois akmazontes. The Latin translator Laurent. Sifanus, I. U. Doct. (Basle, 1562), must have had a different text to this of the Paris Edit.: "si quidem ita floreret ut qui nunc eloquentiâ vigent."

[1533] plinthotes, playing upon plinthon just above; a word seemingly peculiar to Gregory. We cannot help thinking here of Plato's definition of the good man, tetragonos aneu psogou: though the idea here is that of richness rather than shape.

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