Nemesius of Emesa

Nemesius of Emesa #

Introduction #

by William Telfer

Νεμέσιος, bishop and philosopher.

Life of Nemesius #

A number of manuscripts of the work On the Nature of Man are headed with the name of Nemesius, bishop of Emesa. The first mention of Nemesius by other writers is not until the 7th century, when Maximus the Confessor and Anastasius Sinaita cite passages from the work in question and name the author as Nemesius, bishop of Emesa. But they show no signs of knowing anything about him, and we must suppose them to have been, just as we are, dependent on the manuscript heading for their ability to name the author of the work.

Of the author’s see, at least, something is known. Emesa is a city on the upper reaches of the Orontes, where the river, emerging from the valley between Libanus and Antilibanus, flows through a fertile plain. It stood on the trade-route that ran southwards through Damascus, and at the point of shortest transit across the desert to Palmyra. From pre-Christian antiquity its celebrity arose from a famous temple of the sun-god, whose cult was served by a dynasty of Syrian priest-princes, who ruled over a sacred territory. How Christianity came to Emesa is not known, but it was probably before the third century. The Augustan History credits Elagabalus with intending to build at Rome a temple of all the cults, including the christiana devotion, and Alexander Severus with similar syncretism, embracing a recognition of Christ. Emesa claimed to have had martyrs in the last persecution, though whether belonging to the church fo the city is uncertain. Eusebius tells of martyrdoms at Emesa, including that of Silvanus “bishop of the churches about Emesa,” a phrase which is probably equivalent to “bishop of Emesa,” but might mean that within Emesa the church was not established in strength.

What does Nemesius’ treatise reveal about himself? First, Nemesius knows tha the name of Origen is breathed upon, but not that his memory has been subject to formal condemnation. He can hardly, therefore, have written later than the year 400 at least. He treats the heresies of Apollinarius and Eunomius as affairs of his own time, and seems to know about the Antiochene Theodore who became bishop of Mopsuestia in 392. All these facts point to the last decade of the fourth century as the time when Nemesius was writing his book. As to his own personality Nemesius had no intention of revealing anything. He writes in the impersonal style that was in the best literary tradition of his times, weaves together accepted views and ideas, and eschews all appearance of originality. Nevertheless, we cannot miss the fact that he is a man of liberal Greek education, widely read in philosophy, and having an independent and considered attitude toward the Neo-Platonic revival of philosophy that had been in progress from some two centuries. But the most striking fact about his learning is the extent of his medical knowledge. No less than fifteen treatises of Galen, the “father of Greek medicine,” have left their mark upon his pages, and he shows a power of going beyond Galen and even of correcting him.

The Work #

Hippocrates, who lived in the fifth century before Christ and may be called first father of scientific medicine, wrote a tract On the Nature of Man in which he argued that pleasure and pain would be inconceivable but for the differences between the material elements of which the body is composed, and that the physician’s work would fall to the ground if it did not lie in righting the maladjustment of elements in the human constitution. Equally, where there is suffering it must have a subject. This theme is the clue to Nemesius’ argument for the continual interaction of soul and body. Nemesius may, in fact, be taken to acknowledge his debt, in adopting the title first used by Hippocrates. But the interest of Nemesius is not purely medical, or even ethical. It is religious and spiritual.

Classical scholars have been apt to speak of Nemesius as a plagiarist and as having no great weight as a thinker. Their interest in him is due to the fact that something can be learned from him about the succession of Greek thinkers of the post-classical era. It is, however, quite out of reason to look for an acknowledged effort to break new ground in a fourth century writer. In that age, the unforgiveable sin was to innovate. The man of wisdom and learning looked to serve his day and generation by giving topical rearrangement to the accepted wisdom of antiquity. But while this was the approved course for every kind of writer, it had a double advantage when used by a Christian apologist like Nemesius. And we must give Nemesius credit for showing no small skill in so selecting passages from his library of past Greek thinkers as to make the mosaic which he constructs convey the message which he wants conveyed.

The originality of Nemesius lies first in the ethical aim which he set himself, in doing justice at once to the reality of soul and the intimacy of the union of soul with body. It was perhaps this that prepared him to see in the Chrsitian doctrine of the divine incarnation a profounder variant of the same theme. His second originality was to take the leap that carried him from the thought-world in which he had been confined into the new thought-world of learned Christianity. If we will stand back and take a view of his essential outlines, we find them faithfully representing the Christian outlook characteristic of the heyday of the Antiochene school.

From the Christian side, Nemesius has incurred a suspicion of Pelagianism. The ground is that, without referring to supernatural grace, Nemesius asserts that it is in man’s power to be good or bad as he chooses. This charge, like that of his lack of originality, arises from failure to take account of the apologetic nature of the work of Nemesius. Using, as he does, traditional Greek aretology to suggest to his readers that Christianity and virtue go together, it is an unavoidable consequence that Christian disbelief in the sufficiency of aretological ethics is obscured. On the other hand, the spirit of Nemesius is not that of Pelagius. Neither is there any expression relating to human free will in his work that cannot be parallel in the Greek Christian Father. None of these, even John of Damascus, the standard-bearer of Greek Orthodoxy, who resumes so much of Nemesius’ teaching, reaches such a conception of mysterious grace as was taught by Augustine. Neveretheless Nemesius, in his last chapters, so relates our free will to God’s providence, as to exhibit a faith in God’s mercy, and such humility regarding the powers of man for good, that he must be absolved from any real Pelagianism of mind. When he argues of free will, his view is limited to the realm of nature. Against the determinists, he demonstrates that man can by nature attain what the natural man calls virtue. He says no word of man being able to merit eternal life. To say so much would be cold defense, if we supposed Nemesius to be on trial for his doctrine as a Christian theologian. But as he writes as an apologist, his true defense is that sapere Pelagianismum is something which no Christian apologist can avoid, when he speaks of morality to non-Christians.

The work has qualities which may commend it to many modern readers who would find other patristic authors less congenial. It is liberal in spirit, and ready to follow scientific inquiry to its proper goal, to a degree that renders it surprisingly modern. It contains the fruits of a vast deal of human thinking in a very small space.

The present edition #

This is a trilingual edition of Nemesius of Emesa’s On the Nature of Man in Classical Armenian, Latin and English. The work was originally composed in Greek in the late 4th century by Bishop Nemesius of Emesa (modern Homs). The Classical Armenian text, composed in the so-called յունաբան (Hellenic) style, is from the 1889 edition published at the Monastery of San Lazzaro. The Classical Armenian text in this eBook is grammatically tagged and parsed. The translation is thought to be a work of the 8th century, completed or perhaps initiated by Stepanos Syunetsi. The Latin text was translated by Alphansus of Salerno in 1080. The English translation presented here is the 1955 English translation edited by William Telfer. The Classical Armenian text contains word-by-word grammatical parsing and English gloss.

References #

  1. Nemesius. (1889). Նեմեսիոսի փիլիսոփայի Եմեսացւոյ յաղագս բնութեան մարդոյ. Venice: The Monastery of San Lazzaro.

  2. Nemesius. (2019). Նեմեսիոսի Եմեսացի յաղագս բնութեան մարդոյ. Yerevan: Matenadaran.

  3. Nemesius. (1917). Nemesii episcopi premnon physicon a N. Alfano Archiepiscopo Salerni in Latinum translatus. Bibliotheca Teubneriana.

  4. Telfer. W. (Ed.). (1955). Cyril of Jerusalem and Nemesius of Emesa. Louisville: SCM Press.

Additional resources #