Reviews of

Philosophy at the Festival

In Brill, Byron MacDougall, Festivals, Gregory of Nazianzus, Patristics, Robert G. T. Edwards on February 9, 2023 at 11:31 am

2023.02.03 | Byron MacDougall, Philosophy at the Festival: The Festal Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus and the Classical Tradition. Mnemosyne Supplements 461; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2022.

Review by Robert G. T. Edwards; University of Göttingen.

Gregory of Nazianzus’ seven Festal Orations, preached at Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost during his short-lived episcopacy in Constantinople from 379 to 381, have received minimal scholarly attention, especially compared to Gregory’s more famous Theological Orations. However, as Byron MacDougall shows, the disparity between the fame of the Theological and the Festal Orations is a decidedly modern and western phenomenon: Gregory’s festal sermons were hugely influential in the Byzantine world already in the fifth century. This book is not a general study of these orations, but focuses on a single aspect of them, namely how Gregory “performed philosophy at the festival.” This phrase, repeated in various iterations throughout the book, refers to Gregory’s participation in a longstanding Greek tradition in which philosophical—especially Platonic—speculation (theōria) was closely associated with festival-going. From classical antiquity until late antiquity, there was every expectation among the learned (pepaideumenoi) that the festival should include spectacles both corporeal (games, shows, races) and intellectual (philosophical discussions and orations). And Gregory’s orations, delivered at newly instituted Christian festivals, unquestionably played to these expectations. Through six chapters, MacDougall highlights in lucid prose Gregory’s participation in this long tradition of philosophizing at festivals.

The first chapter, “Mediterranean Festival Culture and Imperial Greek Rhetoric” (22–40), sets the scene for the following chapters: by presenting his festal oration as speculative philosophy, Gregory “perform[s] precisely the same role as that played by earlier generations of rhetors at public festivals” (32). Highlighting several of the earlier (pagan) festal orations to which he will compare Gregory’s orations in the following chapters (works of Menander Rhetor, Dio Chrysostom, Aelius Aristides, Libanius, and Himerius), MacDougall argues that there is not one Christian and another pagan tradition of delivering festival orations, but a single tradition of “performing philosophy” inclusive of these two (sometimes competing) religious traditions. To emphasize how deep MacDougall thinks this continuity runs, the author writes variously, “his language was completely in keeping with the practices of festival oratory” (36); and “Gregory’s role as a Christian preacher maps precisely onto that of the festival rhetor” (39).

The second chapter, “Festival Spectatorship and Philosophical Theoria” (41–57), brings more than just other orations and rhetorical handbooks to bear, and draws especially upon Platonic sources to demonstrate “the cultural background against which Gregory’s project in his festal orations must be considered” (56). Specifically, especially among philosophers in the Platonic tradition, there was a long-held association between festivals’ public spectacles (and sometimes those of mystery rites) and philosophical speculation of the divine. MacDougall argues convincingly that “the link between theoria as spectatorship at festivals and theoria as contemplation of the divine was strongly felt” (55). As is made clear throughout the chapter, such an association is especially felt by philosophers—a group of literati with whom Gregory comfortably fits.

The third chapter, “The Prooemia of Gregory’s Orations and Traditions of Exegesis” (58–97), draws attention to a number of ways that Gregory in these orations draws on the tradition of writing a careful prooemion that allusively initiates the listener into the into the oration’s larger themes: “Gregory writes prooemia that prefigure the themes he will treat and that offer the audience the opportunity to engage in an initial act of theoria” (71). Especially convincing is MacDougall’s reading of Or. 40, in which Gregory opens by cataloguing “worldly” feasts, and follows this with an oration that allusively exhibits the superiority of the rite of baptism over all these other worldly celebrations. MacDougall also carefully reveals Gregory’s allusions to classical literature, with some of the suggestions being more convincing than others (but such is the nature of allusion: it is not always clear!). Those allusions that are most convincing are the specifically Platonic ones.

The fourth chapter, “Performing Philosophy: Purification, Contemplation, and Assimilation to the Divine” (98–119), contextualizes Gregory’s well-known emphasis on the necessity of purification (katharsis) prior to theoria, theologia, and assimilation to God within a longer philosophical—again, mostly Platonic—tradition of the same. The bulk of the chapter is taken up with the philosophical tradition itself, including discussions of Dio Chrysostom, Plutarch, and Apuleius. Though the process of purification is naturally important for Gregory, it is not always clear in this chapter how this idea is related to a festal context.

The fifth chapter, “The Rhetor’s Art: The Audience as Theoroi” (120–142), shows how Gregory’s rhetorical forms contribute to the vision (theoria) that he is presenting to his audience, such his audience becomes not only hearers of his oration, but also spectators (theoroi). As he would be expected to do, Gregory especially employs ekphrasis (description) and enargeia (vividness of expression) “to assist in the contemplation of [the] spiritual counterpart[s]” of what he describes (123). For example, in his sermon on New Sunday, Gregory provides an extended ekphrasis of the new life that comes in Spring, not as “an inert or dispensable flourish of schoolroom rhetoric” (124) but to “[implant] images in the minds of his audience” (132) of a physical, material new life that corresponds to the invisible, spiritual life that is given by the Logos.

The sixth chapter, “Gregory’s Festival Theoria in Byzantium: From Pseudo-Dionysius to Photius” (143–159), traces the afterlife of Gregory’s “philosophical performance” at the festival in Byzantium (143). Drawing attention to receptions of Gregory’s festal sermons in Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, Andrew of Crete, and the Patriarch Photius, MacDougall shows how enduring is not only Gregory’s corpus as a whole, but also his festal orations and his performance of philosophy within them. By tracing this longer reception, MacDougall also shows how Gregory is instrumental in the continuation of a philosophical tradition that begins in classical antiquity and endures beyond even Photius in the ninth century.

While this book is exemplary in many ways (of which I highlight some momentarily), I found myself wondering whether this book is about Gregory’s orations or whether it is in fact about the longer tradition of performing (Platonic) philosophy at the festival. MacDougall is so focused on Gregory’s continuity with this philosophical tradition that little is said about other aspects of these few orations, or other ways in which they fit into festal discourse. Perhaps this is the complaint of a theologian, but I am left wondering what, if anything, is novel about Gregory’s festal orations—especially as they are some of the earliest exemplars of the genre of Christian festal sermons. I was also surprised to see almost no mention of these orations’ relationship to Christian liturgy—since these liturgies were in fact quite different than the urban festivals that predated Christianity around the Mediterranean (and that continued in many places despite the Christianization of the Roman Empire).

Nevertheless, this book is highly impressive, and not only in the author’s lucid prose and mastery of materials spanning more than a millennium. The idea of “philosophy at the festival,” which (as MacDougall lays out so clearly) is well established by Gregory’s time, is patently of central importance to Gregory’s festal orations. Although one might have expected Gregory’s festal orations to be more popular than, say, his Theological Orations, they were also very much directed to the pepaideumenoi. This observation takes on added significance when compared to the wider phenomenon of Christian festal preaching in late antiquity: whereas other Christian preachers roughly contemporary with Gregory, such as John Chrysostom or Augustine of Hippo, took a largely catechetical approach to festal preaching, Gregory chose to craft his festal sermons as learned philosophical tracts. There were multiple options available to Gregory, and he opted to position himself, and the Christian festal tradition, within the long philosophical tradition of “performing philosophy.” This book thus represents a contribution on multiple fronts—Gregory of Nazianzus, the Platonic tradition, festal orations, and early Christian preaching—for which we owe MacDougall a debt of gratitude.

Robert G. T. Edwards 
University of Göttingen
robert.edwards [at]


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