Over the past fourteen centuries, Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 330–390 C.E.) has been the subject of more than a dozen biographical narratives and monographs, beginning with the late antique hagiography of Gregory the Presbyter and concluding with the modern biography by John McGuckin. This is likely the result of Gregory's vast autobiographical corpus, which has provided scholars with a chronological narrative and character perspective from which to start their own secondary narratives. By examining this tradition of biography, I argue that two trends remain regularly operative. First, each biographer has consistently endowed his subject with his own values, ideals, and theological commitments. Second, each biography has given pride of place to Gregory's autobiographical voice. To make a precise demonstration of the latter trend, I follow the notorious Maximus affair from its presentation in Gregory's autobiography and in the biographical tradition, showing how Gregory's narrative remains almost entirely intact and unscrutinized. Ultimately I contend that the generic boundaries between autobiography, hagiography, and biography have broken down and suggest that readers subject autobiographical texts, along with their content, structure, style, and narrative, to rhetorical analysis rather than treat them as texts that reveal, with varying degrees of transparency, the authentic personality of their author.
So opens the most recent biography of Gregory of Nazianzus, written by the esteemed John McGuckin.1 It is a sweet and endearing sentiment marked by the resigned devotion that old friends can easily feel for each other. Gregory, we learn by reading through McGuckin's book, was complicated and sensitive, far too trusting of his contemporaries and much too lacking in self-awareness. Joined to an overweening sanctimony was an inclination toward emotional earnestness, a cohort of personality traits that attracted McGuckin to the task of biography in the first place. But confessing to a friendship with a subject sixteen hundred years dead—no matter how wearied, or begrudging, or imaginary it may be—is a strange footing on which to begin the most critical and expansive biography of Gregory ever written. His verses are as off-putting as they are charming, betraying a deep sympathy toward his subject. In fact, the reader encounters in McGuckin's biography a psychological portrait that looks strikingly similar to the one sketched by Gregory in his fourth-century autobiographical texts.
McGuckin ought not be singled out, though, since this basic paradox lies at the root of a biographical tradition extending back to the sixth or seventh century. On the one hand, Gregory's many biographers have endowed him with their own values and ideals (a practice sometimes referred to as automimesis), a tendency that features in all biographies regardless of the subject's identity.2 Biographical portrayal of a subject often amounts to a self-portrayal of the biographer, wherein the dynamics of family, or individual motivation, or animating emotions are the literary construction of the biographer rather than historical aspects of the biographed.3 This has proven true in the case of Gregory. Just as McGuckin identified him as a friend, so too his other biographers have cast him in a mold that suits their particular tastes. On the other hand, Gregory left behind a tremendous amount of autobiographical writings that work to collectively infuse the biographical tradition with a high degree of narrative uniformity. At all times throughout that tradition, the lines between hagiographical encomium and biographical narrative, between scholarly investigation and transcription of Gregory's perspective and self-crafted narrative, have remained blurry. From Byzantine hagiographers and panegyrists through the early modern Jansenist biographers through the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Romantics, Gregory of Nazianzus has enjoyed the good fortune of having sympathetic readers who are happy to reproduce the autobiographical portrait in the biographical one.
In this article, I show how this paradox has endured in Gregory's biographical tradition from the beginning, and propose a historiographically responsible solution for resolving it. First, I introduce the reader to the major biographers and their ideological commitments, showing how each one has superimposed his respective values and ideals on to Gregory. Then, I trace the transcription of Gregory's autobiographical voice, perspective, and narrative into the biographical tradition. It would be impossible to demonstrate this transcription comprehensively in a single essay, so I have chosen one episode—the so-called Maximus affair—to illustrate how this tendency has played out. I conclude by proposing and illustrating, vis-à-vis the Maximus affair, a new hermeneutic of suspicious resistance, to coin a phrase, with which scholars might approach Gregory's autobiographical writings. Of course, this method of critical reading can be applied to any other ancient or late antique autobiographer. In the case of Gregory, though, the hermeneutic of suspicious resistance strives to avoid the anachronism of automimesis and to de-privilege his autobiographical voice, which has come to dominate his later biographies. Ultimately I argue that the biographical tradition has been complicit in perpetuating Gregory's narrative and perspective, a complicity that has prevented any systematic scrutiny of his autobiographical narrative and rhetoric. While some scholars have begun to examine his writings in light of their persuasive and self-presentational force, such a critical stance never entered the biographical tradition and consequently biographers have underestimated and underappreciated Gregory's political and cultural savvy, not to mention his talent for so successfully disseminating his version of events, often to the exclusion of other versions.
THE TRADITION: FROM BYZANTIUM TO THE PRESENT DAY
The tradition begins in the Byzantine period with Gregory the Presbyter, an otherwise unknown author who, between 543 and 638, wrote the earliest surviving hagiography.4 Hagiographers drew on a well-established tradition of biographical writing in the ancient world, but adapted it by situating the subject-saint's virtue, piety, miracles, prayerfulness, and philanthropy within a Christian cultural and theological framework.5 Byzantine hagiographies in particular afforded their authors special opportunities to exploit the genre's structure and tropes with an eye toward spiritual edification; writing the vita of a saint was as much a devotional practice for the author as it was a way to engender piety in the reader.6 Few saintly subjects, though, had written as many autobiographical texts as Gregory of Nazianzus did, a situation that would have posed idiosyncratic challenges to his hagiographer had his subject not already invested so much authorial energy into self-fashioning through apologetic and polemical discourse.7 Gregory's autobiographical writings had already established the narrative and characterological framework for the Presbyter. As Xavier Lequeux has so meticulously demonstrated, the Presbyter heavily relies on Nazianzen's longest and most influential autobiographical poem, Carm. 2.1.11 (also known as De vita sua), along with a few other autobiographical texts.8 Even though there are places where the Presbyter inserts into his narrative additional episodes not found anywhere in Nazianzen's corpus,9 the hagiography reproduces its subject's autobiographical perspective. The Presbyter devotes only one chapter and the epilogue to the last eight and a half years of Nazianzen's life (Gr. Pres. V. Gr. Naz. 22) but nine chapters to the twenty or so months that he spent in Constantinople (Gr. Pres. V. Gr. Naz. 12–21). This imbalance reflects the influence of Nazianzen's autobiography: the lion's share of Carm. 2.1.11 dwells on the months in Constantinople (Carm. 184.108.40.2062–1918), while the final years fall outside the poem's purview, since it was written in late 381 or 382. Despite the thorough incorporation of Nazianzen's authorial voice, the Presbyter still finds room to portray him as an exemplary saint. No one comes close to his blessedness “because of the inaccessibility of his virtue”10 and because “he is perfect in every respect.”11 At Athens he predicted and denounced the impiety and faithlessness of the future emperor Julian.12 At Constantinople he “cleared souls of their impiety as a plough does with thorns” and “planted the seeds of divine speech” in the hearts of his hearers.13 He left the Council of Constantinople not because he had been defeated by his enemies, but because his episcopal position had become the ground on which a political fight was taking place and, blessed saint that he was, he sacrificed his own glory for the peace of the community.14 He personified the union of contemplative virtue, godliness, and eloquence to which the Presbyter himself aspired.
The next thousand years saw no major contributions to the biographical tradition,15 but at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, amid a spree of activity and sectarianism that sprang up in the wake of the Reformation, Gregory's legacy became a club with which Jansenists and Remonstrants could bludgeon Jesuitical claims to a patristic inheritance. The Jansenists consisted of French anti-royalists whose cohesion solidified in the 1640s after the publication of a book by Bishop Cornelius Jansen of Ypres. Against the Jesuits’ worldliness, allegiance to papal authority, and theology of divine leniency, free choice, and human goodness, the Jansenists constructed an idealized vision of the primitive church in which conciliar (non-papal) authority was supported by moral rigor, strict penance, sacramental purity, and theological austerity.16 Jansenists also established academic centers, which rejected secular education and embraced a more traditional curriculum, throughout France in direct competition with the Jesuits’. It was in this context that the Jansenist professor at the University of Paris, Godefroy Hermant, published his biography of Gregory,17 in which he polemically notes that a simple but honest telling of the church's history refutes any Jesuitical claim to a patristic inheritance. Clarity and accuracy are essential: “Just as it can well serve us to defend our religion, it must be written in a truly realistic (authentique) manner so that its enemies can be convinced, or at least so that we do not give them ground to say that we want to make facts come off as incontestable, facts that could still seem doubtful and uncertain after a long discussion.”18 And yet, Hermant permits Gregory's autobiographical perspective to determine the biographical dynamic. For example, Hermant uncritically reproduces Gregory's claim of intimacy with Basil of Caesarea not only within the text of his work, but also in an image of the two haloed men embracing each other that graces the biography's first page.19 A second Jansenist biographer, Louis-Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont, embeds his biography within a monumental church history20 and avoids the overt polemic employed by Hermant, opting instead to highlight the ease with which early modern biography could cross over into hagiography by saluting the Presbyter: “We claim only to follow in the [the Presbyter's] footsteps.”21 Thus Le Nain de Tillemont inherits the autobiographical perspective filtered through a hagiographical lens. In a different polemical context (but with the same anti-Jesuit invective as Hermant), the Remonstrant Jean Leclerc conscripts Gregory to refute Jesuitical arguments pertaining to how patristic texts authorize the Society's learning, way of life, and proximity to the Pope: that theology changes overs time (as Gregory's thought on baptism, for example, shows Leclerc's reader) reveals that “today's Society of Christians [i.e. the Jesuits], with absolutely no exception, are ignorant in their boast of following the doctrine of the Fathers in every respect.”22 In the sectarian conflicts that emerged in the centuries following the Reformation, the fourth-century Gregory became a cipher through which seventeenth-century biographers expressed their ideological commitments.
The nineteenth century saw new developments in biographies of Gregory that map on to broader cultural and literary trends in Europe. Whereas biographers in classical antiquity had focused mainly on constructing portraits of their subjects’ public and professional lives for didactic purposes,23 biographers of the Romantic period drew on theorists like Walter Raleigh (ca. 1554–1618) and Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), who championed investigating the private life of a subject in search of good and bad, the complete composite of a personality. Raleigh believed that, because “there being nothing wherein Nature so much triumpheth, as its dissimilitude,” the biographer's job was to sift through a person's external actions and identify the “forme internall.”24 Over a century later, Samuel Johnson held up biography as a genre that directed the reader's gaze to the very idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, and personal blemishes of real human life “as it really was” that encomia and hagiography sought to obliterate.25 Alongside changes in the biography's subject and tone (no longer external actions, but internal character; no longer praise, but sympathetic regard for individuality) came the broader aesthetic mandate of Romanticism, which valued introspection and imagination as well as internal struggle and torment. Indeed, Romanticism endowed autobiography with the ability to successfully mediate personal experience in such a way that the likes of Johnson could claim that “the most truthful life-writing is when ‘the writer tells his own story,’ since only he knows the whole truth about himself.”26
Perhaps because of Gregory's autobiographical self-fashioning as a heroic figure, struggling on behalf of virtue in the face of overwhelming odds and in spite of inevitable defeat, the German Pietist Karl Ullmann (1796–1865) wrote his biography with a focus on the contours of his subject's soul.27 His goal was to portray the good and the bad in Gregory's character, “to portray him as he was, to give a living and true reproduction of his inner self (seines Inneren), and to draw his intellectual portrait from the noble and the beautiful, as well as the less attractive features of his nature.”28 Gregory was an individualist who opposed the spiritual decay of his fractious era and, consequently, struggled with the flux of his emotional life. Corresponding to his Romantic aesthetic, Ullmann made his subject into a fourth-century Pietist: Gregory subordinated dogmatic disputes to personal religiosity and living the Christian life, and cared only to guide his flock into “the spirit of active Christianity (des thätigen [sic] Christenthums), so that their faith might be especially preserved and commended through their own lives.”29 Gregory's foibles and weaknesses, like those of every other human being, precluded him from being designated a saint, but he was still “a venerable man … a warm friend to active Christianity.”30 Even his bodily appearance testified to this underlying truth. His thin white hair, short thick beard, prominent eyebrows, and the scar above his right eye work in harmony to produce a simple unaffected demeanor: his soul was ardent and devoted to God, while “the fundamental tone of his inner nature was piety.”31
By linking Gregory's internal psychological conflicts with his exterior social struggles, Ullmann's work marks a turning point in the tradition: every subsequent biography more or less aimed at depicting Gregory's soul. For the late nineteenth-century Catholic abbots Alphonse Benoit and Louis Montaut, the contours of his soul were smooth and polished, those of a saint committed to the orthodox vitality of the church. Benoit's work in particular is little more than a hagiography, which corresponds to contemporary biographical trends in Victorian England and the United States that Nigel Hamilton has called “life-laundering.”32 Biographical writings constructed their subject's reputations out of the building blocks of idealized Christian piety, education, nationalism, and vice-less zeal. With miracles to confirm its soundness,33 Gregory's preaching defended the Catholic Church and betrayed no trace of compromise or heresy.34 His individuality comes through not in the tortured combination of good and bad features, as Ullmann would have it—someone who, along with other Protestants, Benoit characterizes as “generally hostile to St. Gregory”35 because he made such a faithless portrait—but in “his noble character and his great virtue, joined to his rare genius.”36 Two years after Benoit published his biography in Marseille, Montaut published his in Paris. Montaut would not, as Benoit did, garner a bishop's praise for “using a truly priestly manner,”37 but he did vouch for Gregory's orthodox soul, untouched by heresy or paganism.38 The biographical task for these two Catholic writers was to trace Gregory's personal sanctity (as it had been for Le Nain de Tillemont and the Presbyter before him) and frame it in terms of nineteenth-century ideas of Catholic patriotism, so to speak.
Byzantines, Jansenists, Pietists, and Catholics all made their claim on Gregory by subjecting his life and perceived personality to their own values and theological commitments. That trend shifts gears in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with the emergence of a new hermeneutic through which writers begin to examine Gregory's life—“psychography.”39 Psychoanalysis and character study became the very point of writing any biography at all. From a literary perspective, this “New Biography,” as Virginia Woolf would term it, expanded the genre's conventions while subverting the old propagandistic designs of Victorian biography.40 The pendulum had swung back from the polished portraits of the late nineteenth century, and now joined the “authentic” depiction of “real” and messy lives with Freudian concepts and categories. This far-reaching trend emerged in Gregory's biographical tradition: the fragility of his personality that sprang forth from his deeply emotional self-writings. The earliest such writer was Eugène Fleury,41 who, like all others before him, still used his subject as a vehicle for his own values: Gregory is now a humanistic writer, a gentle man of letters (much like the author!).42 Fleury explicitly avoids the hagiographical presentation of Montaut and Benoit, opting instead for an application of Ullmann's “strictly objective method” in the service of composing a “psychological essay.”43 Gregory must be treated in the same way as any other writer from antiquity, and what emerges is an accessible anti-hero, someone never locked up “at the top of an ivory tower, never hidden behind the gate of an enclosure, the walls of a school, the doors of a palace. We find him at our side.”44 Many of his personal qualities, Fleury approvingly concludes, “quite curiously make him resemble” the Romantics, specifically “his morbid emotionality (son émotivité morbide), his feminine flightiness (sa mobilité feminine), his revulsion toward the active life, his love of solitude, taste for [personal] confidences, and some kind of overdevelopment of his emotional self (je ne sais quelle hypertrophie du moi sentant).”45 With this first biography of the modern era, Gregory is no longer the church's theologian or saint, but a Romantic soul whose “feminine nature—delicately nuanced, emotive and quivering, friend to solitude more than action, made for intimacy's affections more than the fight's clashes—shunned the mountaintops that, with a manly leap, the likes of a Basil or Chrysostom would attain.”46
Over a decade later, Paul Gallay would dismiss Fleury's work as more a “literary study than a historical one” and publish the first non-apologetic and historiographically transparent biography.47 Here the focus still remains on Gregory's individuality, but now identified as the product of the various influences (social relationships, provincial and civic culture, contemporary events, etc.).48 Gallay is far more interested in determining the chronology and events of Gregory's life without letting dogmatic concerns affect his historical conclusions, and yet he still falls prey to the hagiographical tendency built into the biographical tradition: like Benoit and Montaut, he identified the mark of Gregory's individuality as his “saintly interior, drawn from the contemplation of divine realities and forcibly obtained out of fights against the flesh.”49 But reflecting more contemporary developments, Gallay still searches for Gregory's authentic personality and devotes his final chapter to sketching “the principal feature of [Gregory's] physiognomy, … the nobility of his soul,” which is built on the foundation of a “delicate and tender nature.”50 (Fifty years later, in another biography written for a popular but pious audience, Gallay identified Gregory's “simplicity, his high-mindedness [son élévation d’âme], his sensitivity” as “the principle traits of his moral physiognomy,” features that a reader can know because “he easily opens up his soul to us”).51 Gallay settles on a portrait of his subject as an underdog, someone whose anguish the “most refined souls” would understand and “men of a less nuanced nature could hardly have a fair idea,” because “they would be tempted to laugh at him, or at least smile at him and chalk up [his anguishes] to a sickly condition, to a certain nervous imbalance.”52 The very qualities that others would find risible are what Gallay characterizes as the marks of beatification. Saint Gregory, it seems, was not made for this world, nor this world for him.
The psychography of Gregory hit its high-water mark at the end of the twentieth century in the work of Jean Bernardi, whose self-proclaimed task was to chart the travails through which the “hypersensitive soul” of a “man simultaneously seducing and irritating” went.53 Bernardi subjects the psyche of this “romantic, displaced in the middle of the fourth century,” to the rigorous methods of unnamed and uncited “specialists in characterology”54 and after noting the histrionic discourse so characteristic of Gregory, puts the following plea to readers:
We ought not judge [Gregory's tears] with our modern sensibility because all the men of antiquity let themselves go to tears much more naturally than we do, but if we are to believe the frequency of words in [his writings], we ought to note quickly that they are a major feature of his sensibility. Egocentrism (hypertrophie du moi), an exaggerated sense of being a victim of some sort, [and] tears for oneself are well known traits of romanticism. The “superstition of difference,” to speak like one of them, that is, the certainty of not being made like others, is also a characteristic trait of our author.55
From describing Gregory's emotionality to his self-centeredness, Fleury's influence on Bernardi is clear, and yet the latter goes even further than his predecessor: Bernardi unequivocally diagnoses his subject with deep-seated and long-lasting depression, caused by “the sudden awareness of a deep gap between his aspirations and reality.”56 But he also embraced and made explicit the long-standing habit of discovering the biographers’ interests and values in their subject: Bernardi confesses that “we generally love to transmit to others what sits near our own heart” (that is, he embraces the biographer's ability to exploit his subject as a vehicle for his own views) and attributes to Gregory his own pedagogical vocation.57
Now we finally return to John McGuckin, who wrote the first biography of Gregory in English. McGuckin takes Gallay's move toward contextualization even further: here Gregory's life and thought is presented against the sweeping backdrop of imperial politics, provincial society, literary culture, and theological conflicts. And yet, despite being tuned into the rhetorical key and literary register of Gregory's orations (for which he provides detailed exegesis and contextualization), even McGuckin cannot escape the tendency to psychologize his subject. Gregory's distinctive feature still remains his wavering sensitivity and world-weariness in a fast-moving era that valued hard resolution and confrontational readiness from its public figures. Portraying Gregory as a well-intentioned idealist fighting above his political weight is perhaps what draws McGuckin into an imagined friendship with his subject. That Gregory lost so many of the conflicts into which he stumbled shows that he was, unlike nearly all his contemporaries, constitutionally incapable of lowering himself into the seedy muck of ecclesiastical politics. Consider the concluding lines of McGuckin's opening poem:
Whereas Bernardi kept analytical distance from the mental struggles of his patient, McGuckin takes Gregory's elevated sensitivity as the endearing feature of his personality. Of course, psychoanalyzing his subject does not drive his biography as it did for Fleury, Bernardi, and to a lesser extent Gallay, but at various points in the work, McGuckin indulges himself: Gregory's major contributions to Nicene Trinitarian thought are motivated by a deep-seated desire to erase the errors of his father's “theological monism”;59 his obsequious remarks about Basil in 372 ooze sarcasm that thinly veils a seething disdain for his old friend;60 his return to Cappadocia after the tumultuous months in Constantinople was marked by a need to “vent his feelings” about the poor behavior of bishops.61 By reading between the lines, with little interpretive justification other than his own sense of things, McGuckin tries to discern the authentic, true, and stifled feelings that lay behind Gregory's ornate discourse.
From Byzantine saint to anti-Jesuit standard-bearer to Romantic Pietist to Tridentine Catholic saint to humanist, teacher, psychoanalytic subject, and finally world-weary idealist—the hallmark of Gregory's individuality, paradoxically enough, has always been his resemblance to his biographer, whoever that may be. The sense of intimacy ginned up by Gregory's personal discourse and the feeling of closeness engendered by someone spilling his guts and wearing his heart on his sleeve have perhaps been the cause of biographers feeling like they are writing the life of someone they know well, someone who believes and values the same things as they do. All the tales of woe, expositions of hardship, and claims to have endured tremendous suffering, illness, and grief that populate Gregory's autobiographical writings have seduced his biographers into believing that they have encountered something unflattering and therefore unquestionably authentic. Into the narrative of his own life Gregory inscribes piety, tragedy, and conflict, and those are what the biographical tradition transmits to greater or lesser degrees.62 No matter how much scholars have become attuned to social, cultural, political, and literary context, no matter how honed the critical interpretation of late antique scholars has become, Gregory remains self-typecast as an emotional naïf focused on God alone and shoved about by self-serving worldly knaves. Even outside the biographical tradition and within other sectors of Gregorian scholarship, this depiction endures. Analyses of Gregory's poetry are rife with praise for his honest self-depictions. Henry Musurillo, for example, has noted that within Gregory's autobiographical poems we find the “warm human expression of his love for men and women, the friends of his loneliness and of his retirement. With the exception of Augustine, no other Father of the Church reveals so much of his own interior longings, his doubts, and his anxieties. Thus the greatest value of Gregory's poetry is the personal insight into the heart of one of the most brilliant of early Greek theologians.”63 Such piercing psychological investigation even serves literary history, allowing Adrian Hollis, for instance, to track, “how deeply [the Hellenistic poet] Callimachus had entered Gregory's mind” (a literary relationship that Christos Simelidis has declared to be “an obsession”).64 In social history, too, Raymond Van Dam asserts, Gregory's “personal sensitivity and introspection” have made him “a wonderful guide to relationships between friends, ideas about classical culture, and attempts to find a consistent self.”65 This tendency to use his self-writings as windows on the inner life of a man beset by struggle and torment shows us that, more than sixteen centuries later, the Gregory presented in the biographical and scholarly traditions is not too far from the self-presentation found in his autobiographical writings.
THE MAXIMUS AFFAIR IN THE BIOGRAPHICAL TRADITION
The very quality that allows biographers to inscribe their subject with their own values—the autobiographical texts’ supposed transcription of Gregory's authentic character—is that which allows them to trust, and thereby reproduce, the apologetic rhetoric, narratives, perspective, and character-casting of the autobiographical narrative. As discussed above, this presumption has pushed Ullmann, Fleury, and Bernardi, as well as Gallay and McGuckin to lesser extents, to take his self-pitying cries and tales of woe as the “authentic” laments of a suffering soul and ultimately to transcribe Gregory's autobiography into his biographies. To demonstrate this point, this article follows one episode from the autobiography through the biographical tradition—his dealings with Maximus the Cynic in the summer of 380, which would eventually play a large part in his decision to compose apologetic autobiography. There are no separate contemporary accounts of Gregory's interaction with Maximus, and so our knowledge of the affair rests exclusively on his autobiography; his account in Carm. 2.1.11, replete with narrative suspense and intrigue, with good guys doing the right thing and bad guys doing the wrong thing, is our only source for a narrative of the events surrounding him.66 What I show is the consistency of the episode as it is transmitted from the autobiographical poetry to the Presbyter's hagiography and to the various biographies of the early modern and modern periods.
Gregory's account begins in Constantinople, with the demonically-inspired arrival of Maximus, that “phantom from Egypt, a pestilential fanatic, a dog, a puppy, a street walker, a disaster with no sense of smell, no bark, a great hulking monster.”67 He was “a sophist, a contriver of evil deeds,” someone guilty of “incessant envy”;68 even before he came to Constantinople, he had been involved in a number of unspecified misdeeds, including sexual misconduct with certain “Corinthian women.”69 When it came time to enact his plan to “cast me from the [episcopal] throne,”70 he conscripted the Devil and a nefarious priest into his service, and bilked another priest (this one from Thasos) out of his gold, with which Maximus purchased the support of some of Gregory's supposed friends.71 His plan failed because the consecration proceedings were interrupted by the protests of officials and clergy loyal to Gregory as well as those belonging to “so many foreigners and illegitimates,”72 which forced him to finish them in the house of a flute player, a deed that naturally would not stand up to canonical scrutiny.73 Maximus fled to Thessalonica and then back to Alexandria, where before the governor sent him into exile he made a vague threat against the bishop Peter, whom Gregory accuses of switching allegiances from him to Maximus but stops short of condemning him as anything more than “thoughtless.”74 Stitched into the narrative of events is a robust apologia. Gregory implicitly compares himself to Moses,75 and indicts himself of a “good shortcoming[,] …being readily drawn to piety.”76 Indeed, his disposition toward virtue has rendered him “unfamiliar with these matters, a complete stranger to this concoction, accustomed to appreciating another cleverness: speaking a wise word, and admiring the speaker [of a wise word], and pulling the true meaning from the divine scriptures.”77 All of this makes him “slow and disinclined by nature to suspect the worst”78 and consequently “prey for evil folk.”79 Moreover, when Maximus began to act on his plan, Gregory had been laid low by illness, unable to counter the unjust treatment to which he was being subjected.80 Gregory saw in the affair's aftermath a chance to resign and to return to his true vocation of isolated contemplation, but his attempts were thwarted by his ever-loyal congregation, who bemoaned the fact that, if Gregory were to leave, so too would the Trinity!81
The Presbyter's hagiographical presentation, as expected, wholly appropriates and expands Nazianzen's highly crafted and deeply apologetic perspective.82 The episode's protagonists and antagonists play the same roles to which Gregory had originally assigned them, while the tenor, dynamic, tone, and outcomes of the conflict remain unchanged. For the Presbyter, Gregory is the Moses to Maximus’ Jannes; he is the Jesus to Maximus’ Judas.83 Motivated by avarice and impudence, he fleeced the Thasos priest out of his gold, and used it to bribe Bishop Peter of Alexandria into supporting his claim to the Constantinopolitan episcopate and dispatching the requisite entourage of suffragen bishops.84 The farcical consecration occurred in the house of a flute player, and was scorned by the city's populace. The episode had the positive consequence of giving Gregory an opportunity to both sow with his eloquence the divine word into the souls of his congregation and to solidify his standing because the populace rejected his voluntary resignation.85 Ultimately, the Presbyter reproduces and intensifies Nazianzen's apologetic polemic by writing Maximus into the hagiography as a hypocritical Egyptian interloper who feigned piety in order to usurp Gregory's divinely authorized episcopal position.86
The biographical tradition follows the authorized-autobiographical narrative closely, with some details added or others slightly altered. To work through each of the early modern and modern biographies would take far too much space, so I have created an amalgamation of the biographical tradition, noting where variations appear. All the biographers establish the cast of characters and their respective roles even before the narrative of Maximus’ treachery starts. Gregory had a “good soul”87 that enjoyed the tranquility of walks along the beach;88 he was “the good guy” (le bon), as Le Nain de Tillemont would call him, and Maximus “the bad guy” (le méchan [sic]).89 Ullmann claims that Maximus was driven by envy90 while Hermant and Le Nain de Tillemont also note that he exploited the service of his longstanding partner, the Devil.91 Bernardi calls him a “swindler”92 always looking to deploy his lies and intrigues on new dupes, and Fleury and Leclerc would agree,93 with the latter castigating his soul as “deceitful, ambitious, malignant, avaricious, and full of the most shameful desires.”94 Leclerc and Le Nain de Tillemont claim that Maximus lied about his noble family of martyrs95 and Benoit, Fleury, and Bernardi assert the same with respect to the wounds that Maximus claimed came from the stripes of anti-Nicene persecutors.96 In fact, Hermant and Le Nain de Tillemont even suggest that Maximus had been an Apollinarian before he came to Constantinople!97 Having grown sated by his customary diet of “crimes and deceptions,”98 Hermant says, Maximus saw an opportunity for self-advancement in the Nicene divisions exposed at Antioch in 378.99 All the biographies agree that Maximus tricked Gregory into a friendship after he arrived in Constantinople in 380, but a few of the details vary. For Le Nain de Tillemont, Fleury, and Leclerc, the Thasos priest from whom Maximus got the gold to purchase the support of partisans comes off as wicked in his intention,100 while for Hermant, Ullmann, Benoit, Gallay, and Bernardi, he is merely duped.101 Ullmann and Bernardi present Peter of Alexandria as complicit in supporting Maximus’ bid for the episcopate,102 while Le Nain de Tillemont, Benoit, and Gallay let him off the hook,103 for, as Hermant writes, he too was tricked by “one of the great deceivers of his century.”104 Finally, Hermant, Leclerc, and Benoit see no damage done to Gregory's reputation as a result of the affair,105 while Le Nain de Tillemont, with McGuckin's approval, argues that Gregory underwent tremendous embarrassment.106 Fleury declares that Gregory “lost confidence” in himself,107 while Bernardi and Ullmann see the affair as a trigger causing him to sink into “real moments of depression”108 because “it left even deeper wounds in his mind.”109 However embarrassing it may have been, all the biographers agree that Gregory should bear no responsibility for the fiasco, for Gregory's virtue kept him from seeing the vice in others.110 After all, Benoit concludes, even the other great church fathers had been tricked: Basil “let himself be tricked by the appearances of austerity and mortification,”111 while Maximus himself, Gallay adds, had also duped Peter of Alexandria and Ambrose of Milan.112 Gregory's only fault, Benoit declares, “if there is one, is that he let himself be tricked by a deceiver,”113 something for which, Gallay believes, he deserves our “indulgent sympathy.”114 In the end, Bernardi squarely recognizes him as “the victim.”115
Without exception, Gregory's narrative voice has been interpreted as candid, honest, and trustworthy, thereby allowing for the easy migration of his self-presentation from autobiography to hagiography to critical biography. Carm. 2.1.11 couches the Maximus affair as the beginning of the evils that beset Gregory in Constantinople, and therefore Gregory both deploys acerbic polemic against his friend-turned-enemy and adopts a defensive posture with respect to his own quickness to trust someone who would betray him. That perspective, as we have seen, survives the biographical tradition intact, beginning with the Presbyter, who puts a positive spin on the episode by having it conclude with the congregation affirming their love for Gregory. For his early modern and modern biographers, this episode became a chance to showcase Gregory's sanctity in the face of demonic wickedness, as Benoit and Montaut would have it, while for Ullmann, Fleury, Gallay, Bernardi, and McGuckin, the episode gave the clearest proof that Gregory's pious and delicate soul was not made for the rough-and-tumble world of ambition and imperial politics.
READING AGAINST GREGORY
The transmission of the autobiographical perspective through the biographical tradition, however, has created a troubling collusion between biographer and subject: to the extent that a biographer ignores the inherent rhetorical—that is, persuasive—force of the autobiographical narrative and treats Gregory as a disinterested narrator, not as someone arguing to contemporary and future readers on his own behalf, biography dissolves into propaganda. This is particularly true in the case of the Maximus affair, in which Gregory emerges as a hapless but indisputably virtuous victim of a conniving villain bent on self-advancement. What makes the continuation of such character-casting even more troubling is that, with respect to Maximus, there is minimal external evidence for his activity in Constantinople. Historians are largely dependent on Gregory's heavily biased report about him;116 the reproduction and repetition of his polemical discourse, as if it objectively describes what happened and warrants no critical scrutiny, reveals a biographer's partisanship.
To avoid such complicity in Gregory's apologia, I suggest that readers approach his autobiographical writings with suspicion and even resistance, while keeping in mind their own cultural location and ideological commitments. Put differently, we must assume that the content, style, and structure of Gregory's autobiographies are constituent parts of broad rhetorical strategies, that Gregory has shaped the narrative and the characters therein according to his apologetic, and polemical, interests. As Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have warned, all the constituent elements of autobiography—the identities of the subject and the people with whom the subject engages over the course of her life; the chronology that structures the narrative and the geography that locates it; the very discourse(s) with which the narrative is told—comprise the building blocks of a literary construction made with direct and intentional correspondence to the author's interests, concerns, and goals at the time of composition. Readers must resist reducing autobiography to “facticity,” for autobiographers are always and inevitably “justifying their own perceptions, upholding their reputations, disputing the accounts of others, settling scores, conveying cultural information, and inventing desirable futures, among others.” Smith and Watson promote the adoption of “reading practices that engage the narrative tropes, sociocultural contexts, rhetorical aims, and narrative shifts within the historical or chronological trajectory of the text.”117 Doing so resists the authorial/authorized presentation of the “truth” by recognizing that self-presentation of experience is itself “an interpretation of the past and of place in a culturally and historically specific present.”118
At all times, interpreters must subject Gregory's autobiographical discourse to rhetorical scrutiny, asking why he writes what he does, when he does, in the way he does. A hermeneutic of suspicious resistance must also be constructive, able to contribute plausible alternatives to Gregory's version of a given episode or narrative, especially when no other source illuminates it (as with the Maximus affair). In such cases, alternative narratives will be inherently speculative but ultimately necessary as a counterbalance to Gregory's prevailing one. Without treating his autobiographical writings as a photographic negative of themselves—wherein the author plays the antagonist and his opponents the protagonists—or acquitting those opponents of any wrongdoing, the hermeneutic of suspicious resistance tries to lower the volume of his authorial voice and to call the clarity of his perspective into question; it also assumes that Gregory's antagonists were rational actors motivated by concerns sensible within their political, social, cultural, or spiritual context. The interpretive upshot is twofold: readers can better observe how Gregory responded to the events, relationships, and developments in his career and life, and also give a fair hearing to those individuals whose character and motives have been maligned in the auto/hagio/biographical tradition (in the case of the Maximus affair, I have in mind specifically Maximus himself, Peter of Alexandria, the priest from Thasos, and the cohort of priests and bishops whose support was supposedly purchased).
Such an interpretation of the Maximus affair should start by recognizing the similarities between Gregory and Maximus. Each man was an outsider who came to Constantinople to claim leadership of the pro-Nicene community after Emperor Valens died in battle on August 9, 378. In August 379, a council of pro-Nicene bishops convened at Antioch that counted among its attendees one of the city's bishops, Meletius, as well as Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius of Samosata, both colleagues of Nazianzen. They decided to establish a pro-Nicene presence in the capital during the run-up to the arrival of the new emperor Theodosius.119 Peter of Alexandria was notably absent from the council, and he likely got word of its proceedings after the collective decision had been made to send Gregory to Constantinople. At any rate, whoever Peter would have sent had to wait until the sailing season re-opened in the spring of 380,120 a delay that Gregory avoided by land travel. And so Gregory enjoyed the luck of good timing: he arrived in Constantinople by October 379, some six to eight months before Maximus would show up. The city was hardly yearning for his leadership, though, for before Emperor Theodosius arrived in November 380, Constantinople's Christian population had been overwhelmingly Homoian and governed by Bishop Demophilus, who continued the vision of Christian orthodoxy actively championed by Valens during his reign. That situation relegated Gregory's fledgling pro-Nicene community, which he called the “Anastasia,” to the estate of his cousin Theodosia.121 Amidst the majority Homoian population, pro-Nicenes were a small, bishopless minority, who may have held communion with Constantinople's Novatian community prior to or even during Gregory's tenure there.122 This was the state of things when Maximus arrived in the summer of 380, who formed a quick friendship and theological alliance with Gregory.
Maximus noticed Gregory's reluctance to promote himself from priest to bishop of Constantinople, and thus to directly challenge Demophilus’ position. He decided, it seems, that Gregory's hesitation was a liability for the community, and so he made a quick trip to Alexandria to secure Peter's support for putting himself forward as bishop and then returned to begin the consecration proceedings. Obviously, those proceedings were a mess and met with far more resistance than Maximus could have predicted. But why? Whereas Gregory claims that Maximus’ consecration was a demonically-inspired act of betrayal, we ought to de-privilege Gregory's polemical voice and assume that Maximus was a sensible actor. He saw his consecration as a claim to leadership (one that Gregory was unwilling to take), but he failed to realize its larger political ramifications. Gregory intimates that a large crowd of pro-Nicene clergy, government officials, pagans, and Homoians loyal to him and his leadership formed to protest the consecration.123 While this could be apologetic exaggeration of the support he had, I am inclined to think that Gregory's description of the resistance is accurate, just not for the reason that he thought. The crowd protested Maximus’ consecration not because they recognized Gregory's rightful claim on the position (a claim that he had not yet formally exercised) but because they recognized Demophilus’ lawful claim to it. Perhaps the pro-Nicenes were loyal to Gregory, but the Homoians certainly regarded the current bishop as the rightful bishop, and the pagans and government officials who protested Maximus likely recognized the threat to civic peace posed by the consecration of a competing bishop. After all, there had already been friction and even violence between pro-Nicenes and Homoians earlier that spring.124 Whether Gregory himself avoided episcopal consecration because he recognized the fraught political reality, or whether he was demurely waiting for someone to initiate the consecration proceedings so that he could go through the choreographed performance of accepting the episcopate only after the populace so begged him125 is unclear. Whatever the case, Gregory seemed surprised by Maximus’ actions. Nevertheless, the outcome did not affect his standing in the least: once Emperor Theodosius arrived in November, it was Gregory whom he installed as imperial preacher (after giving Demophilus the opportunity to “convert” to pro-Nicene Christianity), and it was Gregory who, at the Council of Constantinople in the summer of 381, would be briefly elevated to the city's episcopate and eventually the Council's presidency after the death of Meletius of Antioch.
The Maximus affair caused no short-term problems, as evidenced by the trajectory of his career in the subsequent months, and yet Gregory devoted nearly twenty percent of Carm. 2.1.11 to a tirade against Maximus and an exoneration of himself for any wrongdoing. Even further, in the autobiographical poem, written perhaps a year after he resigned from his position in June 381 and returned to Cappadocia, he chastises Maximus: “You merchant of evil! You slanderous demon! / How could you enact so much evil?”126 How could Gregory have had immediate career success even though he had just finished dealing with someone who caused him so much trouble? I suspect that several things lie beneath this contradiction. First, in the time between Gregory's association with Emperor Theodosius in November 380 and his resignation from the capital in June 381, opponents (particularly Egyptian ones, it seems) raised objections to his episcopal appointment. Timothy of Alexandria (the successor to Peter, who had supported Maximus’ claim to the episcopate) issued a canonical challenge, noting that Gregory's previous consecration as bishop of Sasima in 372 disqualified him from being bishop of Constantinople, and perhaps even argued in favor of installing Maximus in his place.127 That suggestion was dismissed out of hand according to a later church historian, but the canonical challenge—whatever its legitimacy—may have tarnished Gregory's standing. In fact, had Maximus and Gregory been as close as Gregory's Oration 25 intimates, written in praise of Maximus before his consecration, perhaps it was Gregory himself who had informed Maximus of his controversial appointment as bishop of Sasima.128 Maximus could have taken that information back to Peter, who then passed it along to Timothy, who then raised it as an objection to Gregory's legitimacy in the following summer.
The second motivation for discussing Maximus at length in Carm. 2.1.11 may be diversionary. At the Council of Constantinople in May 381 (nearly a year after the Maximus affair), the presiding bishop Meletius of Antioch died, and Gregory was appointed to lead the Council. When it came time to appoint a new Antiochene bishop, Gregory supported the intensely unpopular Paulinus while the clear majority of the Council's attendees supported (and eventually appointed) Flavian. Filling the episcopacy at Antioch was a thorny issue because the city had been divided over the question for most of the second half of the fourth century. In 361 Meletius, then a Homoian Christian, assumed that episcopacy after being transferred from Syrian Beroea. However, due to a nebulous theological statement in front of Emperor Constantius that satisfied none of the competing groups (Homoousians, Heteroousians, Homoiousians, and Homoians), Meletius was sent into exile, at which time Paulinus was consecrated by Lucifer of Cagliari with the support of Homoousian westerners.129 Neither Meletius nor Paulinus recognized the other's authority, and each developed a cohort of followers: bishops from Cappadocia, Armenia, Palestine, and Syria supported Meletius, while those from Egypt and Italy backed Paulinus. The two reached a deal at the council of Antioch in 379 (the same one that sent Gregory to Constantinople), in which each would remain co-bishops, and one would assume sole authority after the death of the other. When Meletius died in May 381, Gregory acknowledged the existing deal by recognizing Paulinus’ claim, but none of his colleagues and allies—the very men who voted to appoint him bishop of Constantinople and president of the Council—did so. They all recognized Flavian's claim over that of Paulinus, and they likely saw Gregory's support of Paulinus as an act of betrayal. The event hardly figures into Carm. 2.1.11, but Gregory does note that all his friends, young men and old men together, turned against him while keeping silent about the specific cause of their betrayal. During the interim, after he left Constantinople and before he published Carm. 2.1.11, Flavian had become a popular bishop in the East and now it surely reflected poorly on Gregory that he backed Paulinus. So in order to shift the story—away from Gregory as the betrayer of his friends, and toward Gregory as the betrayed—he focused on Maximus, which permitted him to frame the narrative as virtue against vice, godliness against demonic forces, philosophical contemplation against worldly action, and thereby pinpoint the moment of his trouble not on his disastrous choice to support Paulinus but on the nefarious Maximus, whose pseudo-consecration came back to haunt him at the Council of Constantinople when Timothy challenged Gregory's legitimacy.
With its readiness to present its author as the victim of the malfeasant ambition of worldly bishops and government officials, as the martyr for piety and godliness slayed by demonic forces, Gregory's autobiographical poetry has lured readers into accepting the narrative of his life as he tells it. Thus, his autobiographical narrative, along with his authorial tone and dynamic, has been transposed into biographies for over fourteen hundred years. Perhaps it should not be surprising that anyone interested enough to take the time and effort to read his, frankly, obscure autobiographies may already bear the bias of sympathy toward the subject. But perpetuating Gregory's autobiographical narrative is not unproblematic, for it involves not only picking sides in age-old conflicts and affirming the roles, motivations, and personalities that Gregory himself assigned to the characters he describes, but also a willful neglect of alternative possibilities to the received narrative. This is the real benefit, I think, of a new hermeneutic built on resisting an autobiographical perspective and voice. It allows readers to identify, deconstruct, and make sense of the contradictions and puzzles that linger in Gregory's text, as we saw in the example of his description of the Maximus affair. As a result, we remain self-aware enough to realize that Gregory's inner self or soul lies, and will always lie, outside the reader's view. His authorial interests and rhetorical aims so pervade his autobiographical texts as to make any glimpse of his authentic personality impossible. What we can identify, however, are the ways that Gregory manipulates autobiographical discourse so as to engender particular responses in his readers, as well as the social, cultural, and political dynamics at play in his writings. Ultimately, resisting the autobiographical voice breaks the enduring tradition of collusion between Gregory and his biographers.
The argument made here is indubitably specific to Gregory and his biographical tradition, but it may prove useful to historians more broadly, inasmuch as it provides a methodological model for navigating the apologetic currents of autobiography and identifying the pitfalls of a biographical tradition that leans too heavily on the autobiographical perspective. The utility of the hermeneutic of suspicious resistance is determined not by chronological or geographical context, but by the autobiographical genre itself. Historians of Josephus, Augustine, Libanius, or any other ancient or late antique writer whose autobiographical perspective has become ingrained within later scholarship might apply this method of critical reading in their own historiographical enterprises. The hermeneutic of suspicious resistance insists that all aspects of the text—narrative, plot, and pace; the descriptions of historical figures and their internal motivations; the author's voice, style, and tone—are parts of an integrated literary construction built on a foundation of self-presentational concerns and designed to resonate in a meaningful and effective way with contemporary readers. Autobiographical texts can play an important role in constructing the past they narrate, but only so long as that construction remains persuasive to contemporary readers. To come off as incredible, impossible, or mendacious—that is, as forcefully propagandistic or entirely fabricated—would undermine the apologetic work that late antique autobiography, at its most basic level, wants to accomplish.