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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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They wipe the stain from steel and so make it shine like silver: so has the gleam of thy life grown brighter, ever carefully cleansed from the rust of wealth. We leave that to those who can enlarge upon it, and also upon your excellent knowledge of the things in which it is more glorious to gain than to abstain from gain. Grant me, however, leave to say, that you do not despise all acquisitions; that there are some which, though none of your predecessors has been able to clutch, yet you and you alone have seized with both your hands; for, instead of dresses and slaves and money, you have and hold the very souls of men, and store them in the treasure-house of your love. The essayists and pamphleteers, whose glory comes from such laudations, will go into these matters. But our pen, veteran as it now is, is to rouse itself only so far as to go at a foot's pace through the problem which your wisdom has proposed; namely, this--what we are to think of those who are taken prematurely, the moment of whose birth almost coincides with that of their death. The cultured heathen Plato spoke, in the person of one who had come to life again [1534] , much philosophy about the judgment courts in that other world; but he has left this other question a mystery, as ostensibly too great for human conjecture to be employed upon. If, then, there is anything in these lucubrations of ours that is of a nature to clear up the obscurities of this question, you will doubtless welcome the new account of it; if otherwise, you will at all events excuse this in old age, and accept, if nothing else, our wish to afford you some degree of pleasure. History [1535] says that Xerxes, that great prince who had made almost every land under the sun into one vast camp, and roused with his own designs the whole world, when he was marching against the Greeks received with delight a poor man's gift; and that gift was water, and that not in a jar, but carried in the hollow of the palm of his hand. So do you, of your innate generosity, follow his example; to him the will made the gift, and our gift may be found in itself but a poor watery thing. In the case of the wonders in the heavens, a man sees their beauty equally, whether he is trained to watch them, or whether he gazes upwards with an unscientific eye; but the feeling towards them is not the same in the man who comes from philosophy to their contemplation, and in him who has only his senses of perception to commit them to; the latter may be pleased with the sunlight, or deem the beauty of stars worthy of his wonder, or have watched the stages of the moon's course throughout the month; but the former, who has the soul-insight, and whose training has enlightened him so as to comprehend the phenomena of the heavens, leaves unnoticed all these things which delight the senses of the more unthinking, and looks at the harmony of the whole, inspecting the concert which results even from opposite movements in the circular revolutions; how the inner circles of these turn the contrary way to that in which the fixed stars are carried round [1536] ; how those of the heavenly bodies to be observed in these inner circles are variously grouped in their approachments and divergements, their disappearances behind each other and their flank movements, and yet effect always precisely in the same way that notable and never-ending harmony; of which those are conscious who do not overlook the position of the tiniest star, and whose minds, by training domiciled above, pay equal attention to them all.

[1534] i.e.Er the Armenian. See Plato, Repub. x. ยง614, &c.

[1535] An anecdote resembling what follows, but not quite the same, is told of Xerxes in aelian's Var. Hist. xii. 40. Erasmus also refers to it in his Adagia.

[1536] te aplanei periphora. This is of course the Ptolemaic system which had already been in vogue two centuries. Sun, and moon, and all, were "planets" round the earth as a centre: until the 8th sphere, in which the stars were fixed, was reached; and above this was the crystalline sphere, under the primum mobile. Cf. Milton, Par. Lost, iii. 481: "They pass the planets seven, and pass the fix'd:" and see note p. 257.

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