Primitivism and Related Ideas in the Middle Ages
A change comes into chronological primitivism with Gregory, of Nyssa, for the pagan elements of his thought were drawn from Stoicism rather than from pagan mythology. Gregory's conception of the perfect man, a man whose perfection is, it goes without saying, largely moral, is the Stoic sage somewhat Christianized. Adam before the Fall was presumably such a being.
To begin with, Gregory points out that when God created the world, it was good; consequently everything in it, as it left the hands of the Creator, was in a state of perfection; among these creations was man. In fact, he argues, man must have been as much better tlian the rest of creation as his model. God, is better.
This appears very clearly in his commentary on the Song of Songs. Resembling his model, according to Genesis, man must have been created immortal, 'the image and likeness of eternal life.' Elsewhere he points out that Adam could have had none of the defects of human frailty now only too well known: no old age nor infancy, no bodily sickness, and above all, no passion; sexual intercourse, conception, parturition, impurities, suckling, feeding, evacuation, gradual growth, disease, like death, being but the accidents of corporeal life, were bound to be absent. Moreover, man must have been created beautiful in form, passionless, frank, and without envy, for thus alone could he have resembled,God. Gregory is particularly emphatic in declaring that envy did not exist in Adam's soul. Nevertheless, envy managed to enter Eden in the form of the Serpent and to cause the Fall, as it caused, says Gregory, most of the evils of human history.
The possibility of Adam's entertaining envy, in the absence of all emotion, is not clarified by Gregory. His ability to sin, however, was solved as it had been solved by other Christians, by the doctrine of his free-will. Adam must have had free-will, since he was made in the image of God; but for reasons which are not cited, his will was less able to choose the good unerringly than his Maker's. Hence the Fall. Adam was 'enslaved to no outward necessity whatever; his feelings towards that which pleased him depended only on his private judgment; he was free to choose whatever he liked; and so he was a free agent.' But why should he have liked to do evil? He had never experienced any; he could have never known its charm. The answer is that he was circumvented by cunning, a cunning inspired by the Serpent's envy. Here it would seem to have been weakness of intellect, rather than a faulty will, which doomed Adam and his progeny to a life of sorrow. Yet it is somewhat difficult to imagine how such a man could have had a weak intellect, since he is described by Gregory in this very passage as gazing without shrinking on God's countenance, which for the author of that metaphor meant that he had intuitive knowledge of all truth. 'He did not yet judge of what was lovely by taste or sight; he found in the Lord alone all that was sweet; and he used the helpmeet given him only for this delight...'
The consequences of the Fall in Gregory are naturally anything and everything which he happens to believe to be evil. 'In the beginning; human nature was golden and radiant with its similarity to undefiled good. But it turned colorless and black after it had been mixed with evil.' The lack of color, the blackness, are symbols of what Aristotle would have called 'privations,' in this case, the absence of the goodness which made the first man resemble God: mortality, moral wickedness, and passion which is its source.
Gregory's emphasis upon mortality as one of the results of the fall is unwavering, but in one place he interprets it as the necessary consequence of Adam's choice of pleasure in this particular life. God had offered Adam the choice between two lives, the terrestrial and the celestial. The terrestrial was by its very nature of limited duration and Adam's choice fell upon it. Here Adam does not sin through blind choice, but through deliberate choice; he was apparently faced with the alternative of a life of limited duration in which the pleasures would be mixed and which would terminate in death, and one of unlimited extent in which the pleasures were unmixed. It is difficult to understand how a soul as gifted as Adam's was held to be in other passages referred to in this essay could have made the decision which he actually made. Nor does Gregory illuminate this problem. The difficulty becomes the greater when one reads certain passages in Gregory in which it is clear that the human reason, even in its present debased condition, easily perceives the evils of a corporeal state; before Adam was condemned to a bodily, and hence short, life, and while he possessed a mind which was unclouded by matter and the evils implicated in it, he would, one might suppose have had no temptation great enough to induce him to choose the horrors which would inevitably ensue from the wrong choice. Only the beasts, says Gregory, are happy in a life of pleasure, and that is precisely because they are irrational. Must we not either conclude that the human reason since the Fall has the power, which it did not have before that event, to see the consequences of Adam's choice, or that Adam deliberately chose evil?
In spite of the incalculable misery of man's present life, Gregory believes that we are not so vitiated as to be incapable of returning to something similar to the life of Adam. It is here that his primitivism becomes a program, and not simply poetic regret. We can. divest ourselves, he says, of the 'coat of skins' and become once more like Adam before the Fall, a condition which can presumably be realized fully only after death. But we may begin our preparations, for that new life here on this earth. We must first begin by renouncing marriage; next we 'must retire from all anxious toil upon the land'; then we must renounce the life of sensation, 'the wisdom of the flesh,' and follow God's commandments alone. The closeness of such a regimen to that advocated by some of the Cynics needs perhaps no comment, but it will be observed that the motivating force in the two programs is quite different. The Christian is striving to attain, a return to primitive life as penance for. sin; the Cynic, of course, had no such idea whatever. Yet in both there must have been a contempt for civilized life and its pleasures antecedent to 'the development of the two systems of ethics.