“It is our aim not that we should be persuaded to desire the things that are good; (for to incline towards the good is one of the inherent characteristics of human nature) — but that we should not be mistaken (hamartoimen) in our judgement as to what is good. It is here that our life is most subject to error, that we cannot clearly distinguish what is good by nature and what is imagined to be such because of deception.”St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on The Beatitudes, 5
Here St. Gregory tells us that we all clearly desire ‘the good’. By this we should not read that we desire ‘good things’, rather he is saying that we desire what is truly, actually Good in its being. We desire The Good, The Beautiful, The True (A concept that even the followers of Plato would adhere to). In other words, The Good is the ultimate reality and the underlying purpose of all existence. Thus it is interesting that St. Gregory says the inclination to the good is inherent, built into, our nature. We were made for this. We simply can not desire ‘not-good’ or ‘evil’ for its own sake.
Surely though, many of us know of those who have done evil and done it on unprecedented scales, something of a vogue in the previous century and a half. For those who are thinking about the atrocities of slave-camps, gulags, human experimentation, the death of millions of youth, etc, you likely dont sympathize with Gregory’s sentiment that inclination towards the good is built into us. But St. Gregory’s point is not that we don’t ever ‘do’ evil, rather that we don’t pursue evil for ‘evil’s sake’. It is not because one believes their action to be evil that they perform that evil. Rather one is always caught up in the ‘greater good’ that they are pursuing.
What does this mean for any of us? Are we mistaken as to what “The Good” is? Can we also not tell what is good by nature as opposed to what we are deceived into believing is good? When we think of all those occupations which ensnare us; other people’s affairs on social media, school, jobs, houses, new bags, designer shoes, new books, whatever it may be. No, these things are not ‘evil’ by nature. But let us ponder how much of our time, our energy, our being, our whole person gets poured into these things. Let us ask ourselves if we have become consumed by the accumulation of these things as though they will fulfill us, as though they are “just what I need” and how often is it that we tell ourselves this?
The problem is not that we have these things, not by a long shot. The problem is that we begin to believe that this is where our life lies, that this is “what it’s all about”. Many of us may not admit to this out loud but were we to take account of our lives, we would see a clear trend. Many of us have pursued all these things as though they were in fact The Good or Life Itself, God. We tell ourselves that it will “get better” or that so-and-so “has way more and still a good guy” or a litany of other excuses we are all guilty of making.
To St. Gregory’s point, our life is most subject to error when we believe our life lies in the objects around us and the fleeting pleasures we are seduced into chasing after. St. Paul famously tells us that it is in God that we “live, move and have our being (Acts 17.28.” Yet many of us end up looking more like St. Clement of Alexandria’s description,
“Most people are enclosed in their mortal bodies like a snail in its shell, curled up in their obsessions in the manner of hedgehogs. They form their notion of God’s blessedness taking themselves for a model.” St. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies V, II.
Thus as opposed to opening ourselves up to be receptive to God Who stands at the door and knocks (Rev 3.20), we are more like the snail curled up in its shell unwilling to allow anyone in. Moreover, when we finally begin to form a notion of God it seems that we have cast God in our image and in our likeness. We erect false gods and spend our lives in pursuit of them thinking that, in them, we might find Life.
If we are to turn back to Mathetes (disciple) and his epistle to Diognetus, what did life look like for those who could discern God, who could discern what Life actually consists in and where to find it? To this we turn in the next post….