Macrina the Younger

Macrina the Younger
*ca. 327 (Caesarea)
†July 19, 379 (Pontus)

 

Macrina the Younger, so called to distinguish her from her grandmother Macrina the Elder, was a member of a family very significant in the history of Christian theology. Her two brothers Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea are considered as Greek Church Fathers. Though we have no works by Macrina herself, her ideas are presented in two treatises by Gregory: the hagiographical Life of Macrina and a dialogue On Soul and Resurrection. While the Life is devoted to her piety, her conversion of family members to a life of Christian devotion, and her miraculous deeds, the dialogue represents her as a philosopher arguing for the immortality of the soul, even as she lies on her own deathbed. The dramatic context obviously alludes to Plato’s Phaedo and casts Macrina in the role of Socrates, though scholars have also seen resonances with Diotima from Plato’s Symposium. While Macrina is an emphatically Christian philosopher, who confirms all her conclusions in light of Scripture, her proofs for soul’s immortality are rational ones and not grounded directly in revelation.

Macrina understands the human soul to be primarily its rational part. The two lower powers of soul relate it to body and its passions, but she encourages us to turn away from bodily concerns and identify ourselves with our intellective minds alone. In doing so the soul discovers, and increases, her similarity or “likeness” to God (an idea also taken from Plato, in this case the Theaetetus, which by late antiquity had become a commonplace). The soul’s likeness to God also establishes its incorrupible nature: as an immaterial and intellective substance it can no more be destroyed than God can, and it relates to the human body much as God does to the world, as a pervading immaterial presence that accounts for good order in the physical realm. Thus Macrina, at least in her brother’s representation of her, can be seen as one of the late ancient Christians who adopted and adapted Platonist ideas within a Christian context.

 

Peter Adamson (LMU)

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