Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Historical themes - Philosophy

 

Philosophical Tradition and the Self

By Henry Chadwick

Source: http://www.myriobiblos.gr/texts/english/chadwick_tradition.html

 

 

Neither classical Greek nor Latin had a word meaning "self" approximating the senses in which that term has come to be used in philosophical discussions since the time of Descartes in the 17th century. Nevertheless there were discussions especially in late antiquity which anticipate propositions heard in more recent times, and the Neoplatonists in particular explored ways and means of investigating the subject, not least because they had an interest in restating the mind-body problem in terms of a platonic dualism. They wanted to put distance between Platonism (received by them as authoritative truth) and both the materialist accounts of the soul characteristic of Stoicism and the Aristotelian middle position that the soul which gives life and form to the physical body cannot be thought of as existing apart from it and having sovereign independence, though it is not a physical substance.

In late antiquity the logical works of Aristotle's ¤rganon were read, and in Alexander of Aphrodisias in Caria, about 200, the master found a learned and very intelligent advocate whose writings on the subject were known to the Neoplatonists. In the interest of showing Aristotle to be in harmony with Đlato, they produced voluminous commentaries on his logic, metaphysics, and ethics. Nevertheless Aristotle was largely a philosopher's philosopher read by an educated elite, but not widely or popularly studied. Nemesius, the cultivated and widely read bishop of Emesa at the end of the 4th century, admired Aristotle's achievements.

Stoicism found influential expositors in Epictetus and Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Galen recorded attending good lectures by a disciple of a Stoic named Philopator. Philopator's book arguing that belief in fate was compatible with free will left Nemesius unimpressed. In the Latin-speaking world Seneca, in the Greek world Epictetus, enjoyed considerable popularity and influence. Writing in 248, Origen observed that Plato's dialogues were not found to be easy reading and that the discourses of Epictetus (written up by his disciple and admirer Arrian) were much more likely to be read and enjoyed. Stoic logic and ethics long remained influential in a way that the school's physics and metaphysics did not. Yet while in the early Roman empire of the 1st and 2nd centuries Stoic teachers ranked high in the popularity stakes, from the 3rd century onward Platonism became more and more dominant. In the Latin west of the second half of the 4th century, the legacy of Plotinus teaching in Rome and of Porphyry living in Sicily ensured that the new lease of life given to Platonic studies by Plotinus created a widespread Platonizing culture no less general than in the Greek east. Moreover, that educated Christians in Rome or Alexandria found much in the Platonic tradition with which they felt a deep sympathy helped to underpin their generalized assumption that Platonic ideas provided a good background for an appropriate way of life. This Christian sympathy was not welcome to the pagan tradition, within which part of the popularity of Platonism came from its potential to provide an alternative and rival to the rising power of Christianity. Just as within the boundaries of the church the most intense controversies were between those who stood closest to each other so also Christians such as Gregory of Nyssa or Augustine of Hippo could be particularly sharp in their negativity toward pagan philosophers -and Ýice versa. ┬§t the understanding of the mind-body problem on both sides of this kind of divide was really remarkably similar.

Accordingly the modern reader looking for a coherent account of the self in the writers of this period of antiquity needs to be willing to make some mental adjustment. The ancients were not students of neuroscience and did not comprehend the extremely intricate workings of the brain. They had long known the mind to be all-important in the human constitution, and acutely argued about freedom, responsibility, deliberation, intention, conscience, even consciousness.

One must not forget that although they had read neither Descartes nor Foucault they nevertheless had something to say. Embryonic elements of the theme of the self can be traced in classical authors. The dominance of Platonism among both Christian and non-Christian provided a milieu in which the soul or mind (n´§s) or self became a major topic with wide areas of agreement and common terminology. One pervasively influential text was the First Alcibiades of Plato in which, starting from the Delphic recommendation "Know thyself," the real nature of man is defined as the soul's making use of the body as an instrument (and therefore secondary). The knowing of oneself is the very first principle of philosophy, the self-understanding which determines a person's way of life, and is therefore also the ultimate ground of religious awareness. It is a widely diffused axiom that the purified soul is a mirror image of the divine, found for example in the apostle Paul (2 Cor. 3:18) or the Sentences of Sextus (450) in the 2nd century. The apostle's aspiration was to know the divine "as he himself is known" ( 1 Cor. 13: 12). In the Coptic Gospel of Thomas III the world is declared by Jesus to be unworthy of the person who achieves self-discovery, and through self-knowledge comes repose (anapaus▀s). Realizing oneself to be one of the elect is the gnostic message giving meaning and dignity to an other-wise dull and probably miserable existence. There are ethical consequences. In Poimandres, first tract in the corpus of Hermetic writings, this self-recognition entails awareness that the sexual drive is the cause of death (CH 1.18), and thereby the soul's elevation is weighed down. Bodily sensation has to be left behind (CH 13.10).

Porphyry, biographer and editor of Plotinus, began the Life of his master with the famous sentence that Plotinus always seemed ashamed of being in the body. His concern was with the soul which, true to Plato, he saw as being midway between the inferior flesh and the superior incorporeal mind. Moral choices are therefore decisions whether to follow the higher reason or lower bodily appetite. The self (for which Plotinus uses the word autos) therefore has levels and power of movement. But the true self is divine and the body no more than its temporary instrument (IV 7.1.20ff.). Naturally the union of soul with body makes for interaction between them. When ashamed we blush, when terrified we go white with fear. Conversely there are pressures which the body can put upon the soul, drawing it downward toward material satisfactions. But the soul's true home is in that higher realm which is not governed by the determinism of fate. Self-knowledge is synonymous with the soul's being identical in being (homoousios) with mind (IV 4.28.56; IV 7.10.19). Thereby salvation is the divinizing of the soul, a mystical union comparable to the merging of two torches (╔ 6.9.18ff.) "in the measure possible to the human soul" 12-9-9.45ff.). The route by which one returns to true being is self-knowledge (VI 5.7), and is a restoration of the unity from which the soul has fallen into multiplicity and has been torn apart in a "scattering" (VI 6.I.5). As the soul moves toward the good, it recovers freedom, which is a liberation from the constraints of the body (VI 8.6-7). Plotinus noted explicitly that in his doctrine of the soul's retaining its divine nature "undescended" he was departing from the normal view of the Platonic schools (IV 8.8.I). Origen (Prin. 3.4) shows that the idea was not new with Plotinus.

Iamblichus came to think Plotinus mistaken to suppose that a higher part of the soul does not descend to the body; the entire soul is responsible (Proclus, In Tim. 3.334.3-8). It retains choice, and descent is not to a determinist world. Plotinus's language was felt by some among his Neoplatonist successors to have offered a brilliant interpretation of Plato's Parmenides, taking the three hypotheses of that dialogue to speak of the One, nous, and soul, but nevertheless to have bequeathed some difficult problems. Iamblichus, contemporary with Emperor Constantine the Great, thought the language about the relation between nous and soul to be confused and confusing: Was it correct to say that the soul becomes "identical in being" with no§s, and if so, does that imply that in nous itself there are higher and lower levels? It seemed easier to hold that soul is in principle distinct from nous and on an inferior level of being. Then again, the Plotinian soul comes from and rises to such exalted heights as to force the questions how and why it could ever have descended to occupy the body, and how it could make gravely mistaken moral decisions so as to sin. Iamblichus's critique of Plotinus on these points does not survive ndependently of Proclus's summary in his commentary on Plato's Timaeus ( 3.231.245, and especially 333f.Diehl) and a fragment of Iamblichus "On the Soul" preserved in Stobaeus (I.365-66 Wachsmuth). Proclus warmly concurred with Iamblichus that it must be impossible to assert that "our soul" can be placed on an equality with the gods, identical in being (homoousios) with divine souls and on the same level with mind and indeed the One itself, leaving the lower world wholly behind it and by virtue of the union becoming "established." Plotinus's notion that at least the higher part of the human soul remains in the sphere of the noetic realm is impossible to reconcile with the sin and wretchedness of the human condition. It could even be questioned whether the human soul has inherent immortality.

╔š Plotinus's doctrine of the soul it was important for him to affirm an intimate original link between soul and nous. He had to say that n´§s is the sun but soul is the sunlight. Above all, this connection with the nous was not destroyed or lost when soul became embodied (IV 3.11-12,). For as fire and air remain what they are without the mixture changing their natures, so also is the presence of soul to the body (IV 3.22,), and hence Plato was correct in Timaeus (36d-e) when he put the body in the soul, not the soul in the body.

In the Platonic tradition there was a tenacious belief that the body is a drag and a hindrance. It penetrated the Wisdom of Solomon that "the perishable body weighs down the soul" (9:15). In Phaedo (65a, 66c) the body's unremit-ting need for food, the diseases which beset it, passions, desires, and fears, the body's love of money "which causes all wars," all add up to a major distraction from philosophical thinking. Plato anticipated the Neoplatonists here in writ-ing of the need for the soul to "collect and bring itself together" from the separate parts of the body (67c).

Plotinus had no hesitation in labelling the body as an evil on the ground of its materiality, whereas the incorporeal soul is free of evil (╔ 8.4.1ff.). The temporal successiveness of bodily existence --"one thing after another"--created by our physical needs and external circumstances "drags the soul in all directions" (IV 4.17). In the Republic (10.603c-d) Plato observed that human beings can hold contradictory opinions at the same time, and that the strife is not merely between one person and another, but within the same person's mind.

Plotinus and the Neoplatonists did not doubt that in the soul or self there is a continuity which makes possible the act of remembering. At the same time, if asked whether this self is multiple or a single entity in a constant state, the answer would certainly have been that amid the distractions of this present physical life, with all the materialist suggestions coming to the soul from the body, the soul's experience is one of alarming multiplicity, and that coherence or unity is the goal to which the study of philosophy can help to guide. In Phaedo 78c Plato had based an argument for immortality on the axiom that the nature of the soul is to be a single entity, and that entities composed of a diversity of elements eventually disintegrate and come to destruction; they cannot then be eternal. The argument recurs in the tenth book of the Republic (609-610).

Plotinus's answer to the problems of multiplicity and radical diversity in the concerns of the soul is to declare that the soul needs to turn in on itself. Among the complexity of forces pulling the soul in different directions (IV 4.36.9), the soul which has descended from a higher realm rediscovers itself by a return. The self needs to get back to the dynamic source of its being and so to move from an inferior actuality to a higher potentiality. The "true self" is what at its best the soul aspires to be. And that means to return to what it once was, before the body beset and besieged it with distractions. It is, however, axiomatic for Plotinus that if the soul's prayer is answered, that is not a special intervention of universal providence but explicable on the principle of "cosmic sympathy." The soul should not ask for help or grace from higher realms. The calling is to rediscover the presence of the divine already present within the soul.

┴ century after Plotinus's time the pagan writer Eunapius commented that this philosopher was very hard to comprehend. The language of Plotinus is often sufficiently obscure to have a discouraging effect on would-be readers. It becomes more comprehensible when placed in its historical setting in the mid 3rd century. It should be added that gratitude to his clever biographer and editor Porphyry (who in the view of Eunapius had done much to bring light into dark places) is modified by his bizarre rearrangement of the order of Plotinus's discourses. He was capable of splitting up discourses, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence, and arranged the text into six groups of nine chapters each (hence the entirely non-Đl´tinian title Enneßds). Porphyry lived in an age when it could readily be taken for granted that aesthetic or philosophical truth had ultimately a numerological basis. Six was a perfect number.(1) At least it is clear that Aristotle's sharp criticisms of Plato found in Plotinus an eloquent challenger. Aristotle's negative criticism of the Đlatonic doctrine of the soul began from the utter rejection of the notion that a higher element wholly independent of the body constitutes everything of significance about a human being.

In the 2nd century Aristotle's critique of Plato had been restated and gravely debated. Its force is apparent both in the strenuousness of Plotinus's answers and in those areas where he found it necessary to compromise with so acute a philosophic mind. Plotinus was committed to the defence and restatement of the Platonic system, and could not countenance the dangerous commonsense opinion that the definition of human being must include the body. For him the self is surely more than meets the eye when one contemplates a living man or woman.

Plotinus was able to concede that in an important sense an empirical description of a human being includes b´th body and soul, soul being the living vitality with powers of choice, deliberation, inward discomfort at the memory of wrong choices, and often awkward emotional experiences of fear, grief, desire, envy, and jealousy. But Plotinus demanded recognition of a higher self, an intellect or nous which is no physical thing at all, and is even to be distinguished from the psychological experiences of a human subject. The ordinary embodied soul has powers, some of which are exalted and admirable, others inferior. But all such powers are to be described as the soul's possessions rather than its being. It has them and uses them. Beyond and above them, however, lies something which is more than the skills acquired by ß good liberal education. This is the true self.

Being sure that Plato was in essentials right and that if and when his words need correction one should not draw attention to that fact,(2) Plotinus affirmed that the soul has a heavenly and indeed divine origin, but has fallen to be incarcerated in the material body. Nevertheless something crucially important in its transcendent condition has survived, an "undescended" soul which shares in the eternity and immutability of the divine, very different from the time-conditioned existence of the composite empirical being that walks and talks, eats and sleeps, loves and hates, and is ravaged by despair and anguish as successive hopes are dashed.

This higher soul is untroubled by any tie to bodily life. In Theaetetus (176ß-b) Plato had spoken of flight or escape from this earthly habitat, where we axe troubled by pain and seduced by pleasure. Plotinus was surrounded by gnostics, even in his own lecture room, and was vehemently resistant to suggestions that this visible material order was the consequence of some superb or pre-cosmic smudge on the part of an incompetent creator. Some gnostics coupled incompetence with malevolence. His anger against gnostic estimates of the cosmos moved him to his most powerful and eloquent statement in 2.9. The material body deserves to be properly cared for and not rubbished. The composite human being should regard it with a certain detachment. Plotinus uses the paradoxical analogy of an actor who plays his part but, in his view wisely, does not become totally engrossed with it and identified with his theatrical role (III 2,15-18). However the body is to the soul a necessary and useful instrument-like a lyre. ┴ good man knows himself to be other than his body and is at any time free to abandon it (╔ 4.16.17-29). The cultivation of detachment makes possible a gradual purification which is also an awakening of the soul to its true destiny.

Plotinus discusses but is never totally clear about the relationship between the soul that uses the body as tool and the higher soul which aspires to union with the universal soul, which is the third primary hypostasis of the entire cosmic order. What he is perfectly certain about is that mind is not a physical thing, and accounts of it which make it physical end curiously by leaving the mental processes out of the story. He was sure there is something mental about the mind.

The empirical composite human being continually experiences not only fear, desire, pain, grief, and envy but also the relentless sensations of change, destroying any sense of self-sufficiency. How seldom people find satisfaction when they obtain their desires. By contrast the higher soul is self-sufficient and "remains what it always is" (╔ 12.25). The higher soul and the inferior reflection of it tied to the body are related in the way that in Platonism the intelligible and sensible worlds are related. So the undescended soul is truer in its being. "Intellect transcends us"; everywhere it is one and the same, and each of us has the whole of it (╔ 1.8.3). Accordingly, the most exalted powers of the composite soul-and-body are a reflection or image of the higher ideal self which is happily free of all the ills that flesh is heir to and sheds its light upon the lower soul (╔ 1.10.11). This ideal or true self is the god within, and to wake up to this degree of self-realization is to achieve some identity with the divine, even if the experience of mystical union is never, in this life, more than transient. The embodied soul is in a median position between body and mind (nous), and its destiny is decided by whichever of the two it turns toward. Plotinus (and the Neoplatonic tradition generally) therefore thought of the body as a cause of differentiation and division, while the soul's potential for union with nous led to a restoration of unity.

┴ problem in Plotinus's language is apparent, namely that although he uses strong terms to distinguish soul from n´us, the characteristics and functions of the two overlap. In part this difficulty interconnects with the wider question how far a concept of individuality can fit Platonic ideas or forms. The Neoplatonists speak as if all souls participate in one common soulness, and separateness or individuality is entirely a matter of body. Providentially (Nemesias and others say), faces are distinct to prevent confusion. But do all differences lie in accidents rather than substance?

Since Celsus in the late 2nd century Platonist critics of Christianity had particularly objected to the notion that after death the souls of the redeemed enjoy union with a resurrected body, a retention of individuality which contradicts any idea of the soul's being absorbed into a greater and amorphous whole or into some kind of Nirvana. The Neoplatonists found themselves divided by speculation about the individuality of souls hereafter. Damascius understood Numenius of Apamea (mid 2nd century) to hold that immortality and participation in the intelligible world extend from the rational soul to the animate body. ┴ less than lucid paragraph in Plotinus (IV 7.14) concludes with the proposition that "nothing of reality perishes." It was widely held among the Neoplatonists that after death the soul possesses a "vehicle," which in the view of (e.g.) Syrianus must be more than temporary and therefore is everlasting. Porphyry himself ascribed immortality only to the rational soul, but denied that this entailed the destruction of the soul's vehicle and irrational functions. So runs the report of Damascius in his commentary on Phaedo. The Christians who discuss these problems feared Platonic language about the inherent immortality of the soul because it was inextricably associated with belief in reincarnation and that, in turn, with belief in the eternity of the cosmos, whereas they understood the creation and the end of the world to be unrepeatable, not part of a fatalistic cycle of repetition. On the other hand, Christians could find a sympathetic chord struck in Plotinus's doctrine (V 1.1.6f.) that the initial fall of souls was an act of audacious self-assertion, delighting in the exercise of independence.

Plotinus saw two routes by which the soul is enabled to ascend. The first is to contemplate the world accessible to the five bodily senses and to realize both its beauty and its impermanence. In this process the soul can discern a higher realm belonging to the world-soul, serene and untroubled. The second route is by an interior contemplation leading to the awareness that the higher, indeed eternal world is already present within the truest and deepest self. This process of interior contemplation is also one of moral purification because the body's concerns are being set aside. And this setting aside of the physical means great restraint in food and drink and other bodily pleasures, with complete abstinence from sexual activity.

Porphyry's Life of PlotiÚnus depicts not only the sage's ascetic austerity but also his contact with the supernatural. During the six years of Porphyry's study with him, Plotinus had four experiences of ecstatic elevation to "a condition of good feeling," or joy, in union with the highest-admittedly transient, but for those moments liberated from passion and even from being a separate individual mind (VI 7.35.42-45), beyond time and space. The experience is like the melting down which separates gold from the dross (╔ 6.5.53). Plotinus's language here and in several other passages bequeathed a vocabulary for describing what later writers would call mystical union or beatific vision. Already in Plotinus it is called union with the One (also God), or vision. Following Plato's Symposium, he can use strongly erotic terms for his ecstatic experience. To touch the supreme good is a source of joy beyond the power of human words. This vision is on no account to be thought of as physical. God is everywhere because he is nowhere. In the Enneads the journey to this union ("not by carriage or ship," a phrase which captured Augustine's imagination) entails a gradual transformation of one's being and is achieved by stages, but ends in an ultimate bliss portrayed in the exalted imagery of earthly love; only there is no notion of the Absolute's reciprocating.

Plotinus was both a schoolman committed to expounding an authoritative Plato and also, like Aristotle, an investigator of difficulties (aporiai). His solutions were not necessarily watertight and consistent, especially on such speculative issues as the relationship between the soul qua third hypostasis after the One, and nous, the world-soul mentioned in Plato, and the share that individual souls might have in either or both. Plotinus III 9.1, containing a disconnected series of notes, could easily leave a reader bewildered on the question whether or not the divine Creator is n´us or soul.

There were other problems on which Platonists were divided among themselves, particularly the destiny of the human soul after this life. Would there be reincarnation and, if so, could it really be true, as Platonic dialogues suggested, that the rational soul could be reincarnated in animal bodies? or should Đ╔atonic language be glossed to have a demythologised sense, for instance that evil persons will be reincarnated as humans who behave like pigs or indeed other more fearsome creatures? In City of God (10.30) Augustine understood Porphyry to be decisively against the notion that the rational soul is capable of being reincarnated in irrational animals. Texts of Porphyry himself (e.g., on vegetarianism, De abstinentia 2.31f.) are hesitant. He either committed himself to no such denial or he simply contradicted himself.

Another debate was whether language about Hades and punishment hereafter should be taken literally or figuratively. Plato certainly regarded the myths of Hades as incorporating truth. The 2nd century Platonist Celsus mocked Christian talk of hell, but disowned the least intention to cast doubt on the judgment of the dead. Porphyry too was decisive for realism and literalism (e.g., Sententiae 29), hesitating only about the location of Hades. Porphyry held to the permanent return of the soul to its divine home (Augustine, City of God 10.30); Plotinus thought the highest part of the soul could not again fall. Iamblichus thought a fall was possible, but did not in fact occur. Damascius judged it impossible for a soul to remain forever either in the world of intellect or, unredeemed, in ďartßr§s, the destiny of the apparently incurable. For all in Hades there would be purification. Expounding Phaedo 114b-c, Damascius concluded that sinless and godly souls have tenuous spiritual bodies hereafter, the philosophic have luminous bodies at a higher level, while those purified return bodiless to the supramundane region.

By unremitting industry Porphyry was to become among the most influential of 3rd century writers. In the retrospect of the mid 6th century, Simplicius (╔n cat. p. 2.5 Kalbfleisch) called him "the person responsible for all our good things." He regarded himself as Plotinus's best pupil, not only author of Plotinus's Life and (three decades after Plotinu's death) editor of his discourses, but also a singularly clear-headed expositor of Aristotle's logical works. ┴ Platonist who thought most of Aristotle to be correct, he became an influential advocate of the conciliatory opinion that with one or two exceptions such as the reality of universals, Plato and Aristotle could be massaged to speak with a single voice on all essentials. His motives in presenting this last thesis were likely to have included the need to rebuff arguments from Sceptical or Christian sources that the disagreements among the warring philosophical schools of the past altogether discredited any claims they might have t´ provide reliable guidance. At one stage of his life he was considerably interested in Christianity but the diversities in the Bible persuaded him that allegorists such as Origen were unjustifiably embalming embarrassing texts with explanatory unction. On the eve of the Great Persecution of the church in 303 he composed a sharply negative critique of the Christian Bible. Among the numerous Christian authors mobilized to reply to him, Eusebius, the learned bishop of Palestinian Caesarea, was moved to give quotations of his works a fairly prominent place in his "Preparation of the Gospel," the main thesis of which was that he could find in pagan philosophers themselves witnesses to the truths of faith.

Porphyry did not consider Christians mistaken to think divine power had given holy books to help souls to salvation. Their error was to use the wrong inspired books. The oracles that for Porphyry truly revealed the divine way of salvation were either those of Apollo or the Chaldaean Oracles composed in the pagan interest late in the 2nd century. ┴ special work on "The Philosophy To Be Derived from Oracles," written before he came under Plotinus's spell, developed the theme of the guidance these inspired texts can give for the soul's health and for the purification of the self.

Porphyry's concern to present Plotinus's teaching to a wide public led him to produce a little book of "Pointers toward the Intelligibles" (Sententiae), beginning with terse maxims on the superiority of mental concepts to physical facts but going on to include quite long statements of high spirituality and ethics. The argument is repetitive; Porphyry evidently did not expect his readers to grasp the inferiority of the material world unless he said it many times. The debt to Plotinus is very large. One paragraph (32) outlines the frugal ascetic way of self-purification on the path to union with the ground of our being: the irrational passions have to be suppressed, pleasure is to be forgone, with the proviso that it is allowable as a natural concomitant of wholly necessary acts. Food and drink may be allowed to the extent necessary for good health, but sexual activity is unnecessary and disallowed (except that there is no responsibility in conscience for seminal emissions in sleep).

The Life of Plotinus portrays an elderly man practicing intense mental concentration and deliberate abstinence from meat and baths, and reducing hours of sleep by taking little food. In spirit he was already living in the divine realm, and was the recipient of special illumination and inspiration. His discourses came from the gods; he "loved the god with all his soul" (13). He had a firm belief that he was under the direction of a guardian daimon ("daemon," 10 and 22), and had inward power to frustrate the black magic deployed against him by a professional rival (10). When speaking, his face was radiant with light ( 13. 5-7). He was endowed with second sight and could discern the hidden thoughts of those he met, enabling him to realize that Porphyry was on the verge of committing suicide (11).

The first sentence on Plotinus's sense of shame at being in a physical body is more than an observation about Plotinus's psychology or inhibitions about sex. For Porphyry it is a basic principle of a sound doctrine of the soul that "everything physical is to be fled from,"omne corpus fugiendum in Augustine's lapidary version (City of God 10.29 and often). Augustine observes further that in Porphyry's eyes this basic principle of Platonic spirituality was the central ground on which Christian estimates of the body-soul relationship are to be rejected. Augustine himself was nevertheless clear that "we ascend to God not in body but by a likeness to him which is incorporeal" (9.18). Porphyry's personal belief surprised him by being so very close to his own. But Augustine found him -and was glad to find him- hopelessly inconsistent, juxtaposing beliefs that no doubt came to him by authority, as he understood it, but could not really be reconciled. Above all, his continual genuflections to the Chaldaean Oracles (10.32) and his defence of theurgy and the traditional rites of the old gods (e.g., De abstinentia 2.33-34) did not easily go with his affirmations that the way of ascent for the soul to union with nous is by philosophical reflection, not by theurgy, which he judged incapable of purifying the "intellectual soul" (City of God 10.27).

Despite the ascetic model of his hero Plotinus, in his sixties Porphyry married. His eye had fallen upon a well-to-do widow, Marcella, encumbered with children but a strong admirer of his considerable learning. ┴ late and not very trustworthy text says that she was Jewish and came from Palestinian Caesarea. Soon after the wedding Porphyry was called away on a long journey "by the affairs of the Greeks," a phrase suggesting that he was consulted about the persecution of the church unleashed early in 303. He was extremely well informed about the Christian Bible, and the same untrustworthy text says that at one time he had been associated with the Christian church, which is not at all impossible. The biography of Plotinus can be read as a veiled attack on the history of Jesus in the gospels. His wife looked to him as her guide in "the way of salvation," and to assist her spiritual progress during his unhappy absence he wrote her a striking letter of considerable length which survives in a single manuscript at Milan. His advice took the form of a chain of religious and moral aphorisms, some Epicurean, but the majority Neopythagorean, these latter also attested in other collections. One of these Pythagorean maxims runs, "The real ego is not this tangible person accessible to the senses, but that which is furthest removed from the body, without colour and shape, untouchable by hands, capable of being grasped only by the mind (dianoia)."Marcella's true teacher is within herself, and by concentrating on inward purity she will find Porphyry himself close to her day and night as in continence she gathers her disintegrated and distracted self. She should reckon that every good act has God for its author; evil acts we do ourselves and God is not responsible.

The Pythagorean aphorisms contained warnings that "it is impossible for one person to love both God and bodily pleasure or money" (14). Marcella should be reserved, not uttering even the truth about God to people corrupted by mere opinion. Indeed to be giving honour to God the sage does not need to break silence. God is pleased by works ´f devotion, not by sacrifices and participation in cults, whose worshipers may be very evil people. Nevertheless "the greatest fruit of piety is to honour God in accordance with ancestral customs," at the same time remembering that "God's temple is the mind within you," and that the four essentials are faith, truth, love, and hope (24). The quartet of virtues echoes the Chaldaean Oracles, on which Porphyry wrote a lost commentary.

The aphorisms which Porphyry found congenial for his wife's edification were also highly estimated by a Christian who about the end of the 2nd century made an adaptation of the collection for use in the church. The "Sentences of Sextus" became immensely popular among Christians, as Origen in 248 expressly testified, and the Latin translation by Rufinus ´f Aquileia enjoyed a large circulation. The collection was a Christianising of an originally Neo-pythagorean text. Sextus wanted a believer (his word to replace "sage") to realize the noble dignity to which he or she is called. In the hierarchy of the cosmos the believer is next to God. Only by this realization can the Delphic command "Know thyself" be fulfilled. The mind within is the mirror of God, and so the soul is to be "ever with God." Bodily appetites may be satisfied only to the extent necessary to maintain health, which is the meaning of Jesus' saying that one should render to the world the things of the world, while the soul renders to God the things that are God's. But the body is the door of temptation. ┴ man and his wife should compete to see which of them can most suppress the sexual impulse. Castration would be better than sexual incontinence. Meat-eating is allowable, but vegetarianism is more congruous with the higher life. Private property is incompatible with the ideal of universal brotherhood in the one family of God. Love of money is a snare; the desire to possess was never yet quenched by acquisition. Indispensable to the good life is almsgiving to the destitute and to orphans. The dignity of the true self depends on the practicalities of the moral life.

Porphyry's letter to Marcella is so close in spirit to the kind of Christian spirituality found in Clement of Alexandria and later ascetic texts that it is no wonder to find later pagan Neoplatonists regarding his writings with mixed feelings. In correspondence with Iamblichus he put a series of awkward questions about polytheistic ritual. Following a lead given by the Chaldaean Oracles, Iamblichus and others in the Neoplatonic tradition fused Plotinus's highly philosophical path, bringing the self to realize God within the mind, with a zealous justification of the rites for the old gods, under the name of theurgy. The term theourgia is ambivalent in meaning, signifying both human rites to persuade (or according to the Chaldaean Oracles to compel) the gods, and also the willing cooperation of the gods in bringing about certain effects. Insofar as the rites are understood to compel divine powers, theurgy is hard to distinguish from magic-white in polytheistic eyes, black in the view of monotheists. Theurgy depended for its credibility on the general ancient belief that between the various constituent parts of the cosmos there is a hidden sympathy. The argument could be used by a disbeliever in astrology to explain why the forecasts of some horoscopes turn out to be correct (Augustine, Confessions 4.3.5 ).

Porphyry's defence of theurgy was embarrassed. Iamblichus, who settled at Apamea in Syria, had no hesitations or blushes. Iamblichus's defence of theurgy coheres with his generally more pessimistic estimate of the capacities of the human soul as compared with Plotinus's and Porphyry's. Whereas his predecessors wrote as if the soul possessed innate powers to rise to union with nous or even the One, Iamblichus took a more sober view, and therefore thought fragile souls needed propping up with old cultic rites.

In the Republic (10.000b) Plato had written of the Pythagorean life as a known frugal lifestyle. Iamblichus wrote an impressive, repetitive work on this way of living, insisting on Pythagorean respect for the traditional rites in the temples, with the correct white vestments and the right images. "The fruit of piety is faith in the gods" (148). With this goes an austere way of life which reads as conscious rivalry to incipient Christian monasticism. Requirements are little food or sleep, no meat or wine, contempt for money or fame, control of the opposing powers within the body (69, 229), chastisements to check self-indulgence and greed, and property held in community (168, 257). There are Pythagorean hermits in the desert (253). The rule on sex is that a woman who has slept with her husband can go to temples the same day, but never if she has slept with someone else (55,132). ┴ procreative intention is also indispensable (210). It is presupposed that the majority of adherents to the old religion are women (54-56). The goal is purification of nous and soul together (68-70). In the 2nd century Lucian observed that Pythagoreans were generally regarded as superhuman (Vit.Auct.2,).

The notion that formulas and rites and amulets could compel the gods seemed very difficult to Porphyry in his questions to Iamblichus. Nevertheless he could concede that theurgy could bring some degree of purification to the soul, even if it could not actually achieve a return to God. Augustine (City of God 10.9) thought Porphyry wavered between superstition and philosophy, granting with embarrassment that a kind of magic, though without influence on the nous of intelligible realities, does something for the inferior soul, putting it into a prepared state for angelic and divine visions; but he goes on to say that the spirit powers influenced by these rites are inferior daemons inhabiting the lower air. Even Porphyry thought it strange that the rites of the gods needed herbs or stones, special forms of words and gestures, and celestial observations of the configurations of the stars. Iamblichus, who was certainlŃ much impressed by the Egyptian hermetic tradition, seemed to Porphyry to have gone altogether too Egyptian.

To Iamblichus, on the other hand, Porphyry was capable of expounding Đlat´nic dialogues in a sense which was neither Đlatonic nor true and manifested barbarian arrogance -this last phrase, Emperor Julian's and Iamblichus's label for Christianity, suggests that he regarded Porphyry as influenced by Christian notions and terminology.(3) His sceptical questions were playing the Christians' game for them (De mysteriis 10.2). There are also places where Iamblichus judged Porphyry's doctrine of the soul to be unrealistically exalted and his doctrine of inferior deities and daemons too pessimistic and perhaps akin to gnosticism. Proclus's commentary on T▀maeus frequently records Iamblichus's criticisms of Porphyry, some of which reflect the judgment that Porphyry was too detached toward religious practice. For pagans like ┼unapius, Iamblichus was supreme as a holy man, able to work miracles to call up spirits from the vastly deep, credited with powers of levitation (which he modestly disowned). Marinus's funerary panegyric on Proclus (d.485) is no less rich in anecdotes of his hero's powers as a thaumaturgy. Damascius once marked a clear line between the philosophers Plotinus and Porphyry and the "hieratics," Iamblichus and Proclus.

═´ Neoplatonist was so prolific in writing as Proclus, who, after studying in Alexandria, became head of the richly endowed academy in Athens. His commentaries on Plato's Timaeus, Republic, Cratylus, and First Alcibiades contain major restatements of the general Neoplatonic theses. In his large but unfinished six-book "Platonic Theology" he especially set out the theological exegesis of the Parmenides.

Proclus's commentary on the First Alcibiades (edited by L. G. Westerink, 1954; English trans. by William O'Neill, 1965) expounds the dialogue as a proper introduction to all Platonic dialogues and indeed to philosophy generally. He presupposes that in between Plato and Đl´tinus philosophers did not get many things right. The exchanges between Socrates and Alcibiades are treated as an elaborate allegory of the role of higher reason in moderating and healing the soul of an amiable but highly undisciplined person of considerable influence. Đlat´'s dialogue meditates on the Delphic command "╩n´w thyself." The primary task of philosophy is to make such self-knowledge possible. Throughout the commentary Proclus's discussion revolves around the question, What is the true self? On the one hand the mind's experience is marked by multiplicity, pulled in many diverse and contradictory directions and finding concentration hopelessly problematic as attention is captured by irrational pleasures and bodily appetites (245f.). Time for reflection on philosophy needs to be set free from the tugs of many loves (44f.-a phrase strikingly reminiscent of Augustine in the garden at Milan, Confessions 8.11.26). The soul, as in Plato and Plotinus, is in a middle position between mind and b´dy (116, 226). The body exerts a downward pressure on the soul and would bring the soul to "the region of dissimilarity" (Đlat´, Politicus 273d, cited by Đl´tinus ╔ 8.13.15f. and Augustine, Confessions 7.10.16).

Nevertheless, the soul's choices, which determine who we are, are freely made (144) and capable of being trained into good habits (224f.). The soul is self-moved. Irrational decisions result from the emotions, rooted in the world of matter (233), responsible for the incoherence and disconnectedness of experience (57), tearing us apart like the Titans (104). Each human individual has a restraining guardian daemon, one of a semi-divine order of spirits in six ranks watching over the souls as they descend and ascend (71ff.), but this daemon is not to be identified with the rational soul (73).

Proclus rejects both those who think the soul part of the physical organism and those who claim that soul is part of divine being (226). The ascending soul has the capacity to be united with higher intellect or n´us. Therefore the physical body is no more than the instrument being used by the soul (73), and only a strong dualism of soul and body can underpin the belief that it is never right to pursue private advantage at the expense of what is just (294, 315), or can justify the courageous confidence that death is no evil (332).

The soul's upward ascent begins from a freely chosen decision to contemplate itself (17). It is axiomatic that while the first mover or nous is unmoved and physical entities are moved by external pressures, the soul in its intermediate existence is self-moved and so has the power to revert to itself. Soul is incorporeal and in principle independent of the body. The key to ascent is the power of self-consciousness. When the self authentically knows itself, it also sees the divine (20) and enters into a relationship of love (51).

The priestly rituals or theurgy of the traditional gods are means of elevating the soul to the level of and to union with nous. For Proclus, Iamblichus was right about theurgy. Its power is greater than all human knowledge attained by philosophical thinking (Theol. Plat. 1.25), able not only to thrill the ascending soul but also to be a means of divination. Cosmic sympathy pervading the realm of nature explains how what appears as (white) magic can assist the soul to be one with the highest. Syrianus of Alexandria and Proclus his pupil appear to have retained usage of the term "theurgy" for a transcendent mental experience in which, on the far side of the rituals of the old gods, the mind is carried up to an ecstatic knowledge of God.(4) Iamblichus in ¤š the Mysteries had written of divine epiphanies and visions granted through theurgy (2.9, 3.6).

Proclus was saddened by the negative attitudes of the "atheists," i.e. the Christians, who in his time had become a majority. They denied the very existence of the gods. Yet they said things marked by moderation and even divine inspiration (In Alcib. 264). This last concession is remarkable when one considers in Proclus's writings a number of veiled allusions to the Christians indicating ice-cold hatred for them. In his eyes they were a cultural and intellectual Black Death. But then the Christians made no secret of their belief that whatever merits there were in Neoplatonic religious philosophy (which might be deemed considerable), theurgy with the old rites was black rather than white magic, am invocation of spirits which, as one could see in the pages of Porphyry, were essentially inferior and malevolent, longing for their nostrils to be titillated by the blood and smoke of animal sacrifices, and needing to be placated if they were not to make life unpleasant.

Iamblichus's criticism of Porphyry's doctrine of the soul centred on the vulnerable notion that the true self is always constant and unchanging by virtue if its participation in the higher realm of divine entities. This, however, bequeathed a problem for his successors: If the soul is mutable and changeable, in what sense can it be said to remain the same throughout its existence? Can the soul undergo substantial changes and still retain its identity? The issue troubled Damascius, the last head of the Platonic Academy at Athens. During his tenure Justinian discontinued its large endowments, in part perhaps because of its militantly anti-Christian stance (529), in part because, after an undistinguished period of mediocre successors to Proclus after his death in 485, the Athenian school began to enjoy a dangerous revival led by Damascius and Simplicius. The closing of the school did not bring Neoplatonist teaching to an end. Damascius and Simplicius temporarily travelled to the Persian court, but soon found it better to return to the eastern Roman empire (exactly where is not known) and to continue working much more privately.


Damascius judged it necessary to grant that the soul can undergo considerable changes in its moral and spiritual life. Soul is not to be thought of as serene and secure, always gifted with divine illumination. For soul is not an order of being that remains ever attentive to the will of the gods without a touch of neglect or satiety. Soul is capable of going down a long way into the inferior realm of matter and the flux of "becoming," of the passions and inferior daemons. In a sober estimate of the depravity to which soul is vulnerable, Damascius can say that the very being of the soul is altered when matter and the daemonic spirits get a hold. And yet identity remains because free choice makes soul responsible for its actions. Damascius felt harassed by Justinian's Christianity. Nevertheless his estimate of human nature was remarkably close to the kind of language found in Augustine of Hippo or in some passages of Cyril of Alexandria.

The Platonic account of the relationship between soul and body and the dominance of Platonism generally among educated people of both east and west in late antiquity created problems for the Christians. They were committed to belief that the human body was made by the supreme Creator and, whatever problems it might cause, must be good. At the same time the Christians were also disinclined to think that the soul or psyche in its natural state, at least since Adam's Fall, was readily capable of knowing its Maker as it should. The natural order needed elevation by divine grace. The apostle Paul spoke ´f psyche as being on a lower level than spirit or pne§ma (1 Cor. 2:14). Psyche is the natural order of creation but flawed by human sinfulness; pneuma is the point at which humanity can touch the divine. And in 1 Cor. 15:44 the psyche can rise to the level of pne§ma in the life to come. To remain at the level of natural creation is not necessarily a permanent condition.

Third century Alexandria produced in Origen a commentator and theologian who was highly competent in his grasp of the classical Greek philosophers. There are Stoic and Epicurean doctrines which first become intelligible when his discussions of them are considered. He knew his Plato intimately. He built on foundations already outlined by two predecessors, Philo and Clement. Philo understood the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 to signify that the first and primary creation was spiritual, the second earthly and bodily. So there is an inferior soul giving vitality to the body, as to animals or plants, and a higher soul which is divine and has pride of place in the divine plan. (Paul in 1 Cor.15:46 opposes the interpretations that the spiritual creation preceded the physical.) In Philo, as mind ascends to God it comes to see the body to be an evil, presumably by comparison (Leg. Alleg. 3.71). The fall of souls began when they became sated with the divine goodness (Heres 240) so that they neglected to love God. Some souls fell further than others (Gig. 12). To know oneself is to realize one's weakness and dependence on God (Spec. Leg.1.263ff. and 293). God gives the soul illumination and grace, drawing souls up toward Being (Plant.21). No ascent is possible without divine aid (Migr. 170f.). ┴ real self-knowledge is self-despair (S´mn. 1.60), a realization of the nothingness of created thoughts in comparison with the transcendent uncreated mind (Congr. erud.107). But deep self-knowledge is impossible for the individual soul (Leg. Alleg. 1.91). Because mind has the capacity to know something of God it is necessarily incorporeal (Somn. 1.30f.). But all things human, including the soul, are unstable and mutable (S´mn. 1.192).

Most of these themes recur in Origen, who particularly took over the idea of degrees or levels of soul both in descent and in possible ascent. The notion that souls fell in consequence of satiety he found congenial. That souls fell varying distances from heaven helped to explain the diversity of humanity. Though all human beings have mind, soul, and body, the quality of each individual differs (Or.24.2). The human soul, being in God's image, possessing powers of reasoning, memory, imagination, and reception of impressions from the five senses, differs in kind from the soul or life principle in animals (C. Cels. 4.83). Therefore it cannot be true that all souls have the same "form" (eidos), a universal soulness in which all living things and angels share.

Origen thought it would be very difficult to maintain the goodness of divine providence unless free choices lay at the ultimate root of evil in the cosmos. The widely differing lot of human beings, where some live on fertile land in a kind climate while others do not, could be explained as the consequence of mistakes and sins in an existence prior to incorporation in this body of flesh (Prin. 2.9.3-6). Leviticus 17:14 (which says the soul or life principle is blood) ensured that Philo and Origen both knew of materialist conceptions of the soul, reinforced by Stoicism.

In the second book of his commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen gives a list of questions concerning the soul: Is it corporeal or incorporeal? composite or simple? created or uncreated? transmitted to the embryo with the physical sperm or independently from some external power? If the latter, is the soul given to the body ad hunc or ad hanc at the moment of conception? Or is it already in a divine storehouse ready to be supplied to a body when needed? Can it be reincarnated? Are all rational souls of the same ousia (being)? Do angels and human beings, both endowed with free will, share the same kind of soul? Or is promotion to angelic status a gift of divine grace transcending the created and natural order? Can a soul which has once acquired a state of virtue lose it? (Parallels to this list in C. Cels. 4.30 and in Seneca, Ep. 88.34, suggest that there was a standard list of questions in philosophical schools.) In Origen's commentary on St. John there is a catalogue of problems about reincarnation (6.14).

Origen's main polemical target in almost all his work was the predestinarianism of the 2nd century (and later) gnostic sects. They appealed to biblical texts, such as Paul in Romans 9:16-21 or Exodus 4:21 on God hardening Pharaoh's heart and held that the saved and the lost are determined from the beginning, so that free human choices play no part in the path to either heaven or hell. Both Clement of Alexandria and Origen declared against these views, and this argument on behalf of freedom became a dominant theme for both writers. The third book of Origen's De principiis presented the case for free choice and against the view that external impressions received through the body's senses can overwhelm individual judgment. ┴ chaste celibate confronted by a beautiful woman in undress inviting him to bed may find it impossible not to be stirred, but he still retains a rational power of decision enabling refusal both possible and responsible. Human beings are not automata, deterred from acts only by some external cause or consideration. In practice, moreover education and discipline can change even the most uncontrolled and uncivilized people so that after conversion, they surpass in gentleness the most courteous folk. Contrariwise, entirely respectable individuals in middle life can suddenly kick over the traces to live disordered and immoral lives. Their behaviour reflects their personal decisions. Such unpredictable changes constitute for Origen strong evidence for human responsibility and undetermined choice. And this choice is not simply a physical reflex. The decision is made by the mind, not by the body.

Platonic influence is evident in the conviction, common to both Origen and the pagan opponent of Christianity, Celsus, that God, being incorporeal, can be known only by the mind. Mind is no mere epiphenomenon of matter (Đrinz.1.1.7), a notion which is assumed by simple people who imagine God to possess physical characteristics -an old man with a long beard. The mind, being made in God's image (or, as the Platonists would say, having a kinship with God), is so constituted as to look toward the divine. Admittedly mind is hindered and rendered dull by contact with the body: "sea sickness makes the mind less vigorous" (Prin. 1.1.5). Nevertheless the ability of the brain to cope with arguments of extreme subtlety and to remember words and events of the past surely points to in corporeality.

Like pagan Platonists, Origen thought the soul midway between flesh and spirit, capable of ascending to be united with and even transformed into spirit (e.g., Commentary on Romans 1:5, or on John 32:18). It also has the capacity to be united with soggy materiality. Nevertheless, like Plotinus, Origen held that every soul has a guardian, a paidagogos, which is commonly called the conscience. This is an inner judgment, combining awareness of an action done or a word spoken with a sensation of pain at the memory, but also in certain cases vindicating the act or the word when others ace critical. The martyr was called to be true to his integrity. Origen was sceptical of the notion that conscience is a separate and substantial organ (Commentary on Romans 2:9). Everyone who goes against his conscience "kindles his own fire" (Prin.2.10.4). "Outer darkness" is a condition of the soul, not a place (2.10.8). ┴ "longing for reality" is implanted in us (11.4), and paradise will be a school in which holy people will learn the answer to many questions which baffle them in this life (11.5).

The majority of Origen's writings consisted of biblical exposition, either in the form of homilies preached to congregations in Caesarea (Palestine), whither he moved after difficulties with the bishop of Alexandria, or full-scale commentaries, all of which were too voluminous to survive intact. Scribes become exhausted. His understanding of human nature is therefore distributed over a wide area. But in the early work On First Principles and the late reply to the pagan Platonist Celsus a consistent picture emerges. He was passionately committed to defending the goodness of God manifest in providential care and the freedom of the rational being (angelic or human). "Take away freedom from moral virtue and y´u destroy its essence." Divine care is unendingly patient, and has a perspective far longer than "the fifty years or so of this life." Against the gnostic estimate of the total earthliness and irredeemability of lost humanity, Origen asserts that "a totally depraved being could not be censured, only pitied as a poor unfortunate" (In Ev.Job. 20.28.254). The entire process of human existence is a gradual education, and the miseries of human life are part of that operation, to prevent our being too comfortable and forgetting about higher things. Therefore Origen regarded as gnostic the idea that any fallen being endowed with rationality and freedom is beyond redemption, even including Satan. Like a wise tiller of the land, God is not in a hurry, and what seems difficult or impossible will simply require longer time. "Love never fails," wrote the apostle, and Origen thought it a fundamental principle, even if the retention of freedom as a permanent endowment of all rational beings must carry the corollary that they may choose to fall once again.

Augustine's critical comment was that Origen's concept of human destiny was "endless real misery punctuated by short periods of illusory happiness╗ (City of God 12.20). At a time of religious crisis while residing in Milan, Augustine was given by an anti-Christian pagan "books of the Platonists" in Latin translation (almost certainly pieces of Plotinus and Porphyry). Plotinus's account of providence and evil convinced him. Neoplaton▀sm brought to him the doctrine of the body as instrument of the soul, as taught in the Platonic Alcibiades. At the same time Bishop Ambrose of Milan was preaching eloquent sermons, of which he admired the oratory but went on to be impressed by the content. Ambrose found congenial matter in Plotinus and Porphyry and had a command of Greek greater than Augustine had acquired. Ambrose's discourse on the life of the patriarch Isaac was both Christian and Neoplatonic. The philosophical dialogues written by Augustine at Cassiciacum during the months between his conversion and baptism are also indebted to Porphyry and Plotinus, not least in the express conviction that the true self is the soul, to which the body is a distraction and at best secondary.

It remained Augustine's conviction that "our bodies are not what we are" (Vera relig. 89). The doctrine that the body is the instrument of the soul occurs a few times, but principally with the emphasis that when we do wrong the fault lies not in the body but in the soul which uses it. Augustine liked triads, and for describing the fragility of goodness especially cited 1 John 2:16, "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life." The primal sin of the soul is pride, which impels the soul to play at being God (Mor 1.12.20). The early writings of Augustine restate the notion, found in Philo and Origen, that humanity in Adam was originally created spiritual -that is, with a tenuous body of light such as the spirits in heaven possess- but this state was lost at the Fall. More mature texts affirm the positive qualities of the body as intended by the divine Creator. Sexual differentiation is in the body, not in the soul. Augustine insists that in mind and soul male and female are equal in the human race. The biological function of women as child bearers gives them a private and domestic role which has to be socially secondary to that of their husbands. Augustine knew of strong-minded women who wholly dominated their husbands (Gen.c. ╠anich, 2.29.). On the other hand more than one text speaks of women as possessing far deeper feelings about sexual partnership than many men are capable of achieving, and the tendency to have superficial and brief affairs is described as "a common male disease" (Adult.conjug.1.6). Against exegetes of 1 Cor. 11:577 (such as Ambrosiaster), Augustine devoted some part of his argument in De Trinitate (12.7.9f.) to opposing the notion that women are not in the image of God as men are. His doctrine that the image of God is entirely in the mind made that conclusion natural and inevitable.

Controversy with the Manichees (with whom he had been associated for a decade) ensured that Augustine affirmed the positive value and beauty of the human body, and was not inclined to think it a merely accidental or secondary element in the constitution of the human person. In oblique criticism of his elder contemporary Jerome he wrote a work of protest against the disparagement of marriage and its physicality. The early Augustine could echo Porphyry's advice that for the higher life "one must escape from the body." The mature Augustine could readily say that in the limitations of this present physical life there are hindrances, "ignorance and difficulty," where the latter term tends to mean the emotion of desire. But like Origen he did not believe that even a powerful sexual impulse was irresistible. That the human body was recalcitrant was evident, especially in the fact that the sexual impulse is not rational. Bat the fallen state of humanity is one of both body and soul together, not simply of body. And in sexuality the body manifests its fallenness by wanting sexual pleasure when the mind knows it cannot be, or in not wanting it when the rational mind knows that it would be appropriate (Nupt. et Concup. 1.6.7) and would have the procreative intention which was deemed essential by ancient moralists, both pagan and Christian. It was never Augustine's intention that posterity should associate sin and sex. In the Literal Commentary on Genesis (10.13.23) he wrote scathingly of some who talk "as if the only sins are acts performed with the genital organs."

┴ problem that much occupied Augustine's anxious attention, and on which he decided not to make up his mind, was how the soul and the body came to be joined together. Porphyry had written a small treatise for a friend named Gaurus on this issue; but for Christian thinkers the matter had special interest and importance because it had a bearing on human responsibility. The Platonist view was that the soul pre-exists the body, and from a storehouse somewhere a soul comes to animate the embryo. Among Christians Origen not only held to the pre-existence of souls but even thought divine providence would be very hard to defend without this doctrine. His critics however associated pre-existence with reincarnation, and cordially disliked the fatalistic treadmill which went with this view. Many texts of Augustine, especially in the Confessions, use language that comes close to the notion of pre-existence of souls, but the associations of the idea prevented him from giving assent. That left two remaining alternatives: traducianism, or the doctrine that the soul is transmitted from the parents with the seed and egg, a view which carried the implication that the soul has material qualities; and creationism, or the doctrine that the soul is created by the omnipotent Creator in response to the conception of the physical embryo. For Stoics traducianism explained why children frequently resemble their parents not only in physical appearance but in character. In his De Anima Tertullian provided an eloquent statement of a Christian doctrine of heredity; which for him explained the "fault in origin" (vitium originis) that Augustine would name original sin. Augustine conceded that traducianism made it easier to account for the church's practice of baptizing infants, which carried the implication of a stain to be washed away by the sacrament. On the other hand, traducianism sounded very Manichee to orthodox ears, and therefore there emerged a preference for the creationist view, even though it seemed to involve the Creator, or some angel delegated to take care of the matter in unending fuss, including the provision of newly minted souls for embryos conceived in immoral circumstances. The last point was easily answerable with the consideration that the bastardy of such children in no way added to the personal responsibility that they would come to carry.

Of the three possible hypotheses the doctrine of pre-existence carried the most pessimistic implications for human nature, traducianism being less sober. Creationism obviously asserted a clean start for the infant soul, and therefore made "original sin" a more social than individual thing, the child being sinful by becoming a member of the group which manifests egocentricity on a scale far beyond that of individuals.

Augustine's determined agnosticism about the bonding of soul and body showed that he regarded it as a secondary or insoluble question. What was certain to him about the self was the "inward war" that goes on within the individual person. The observation was as old as Plato (Laws 626d). Poor wretches, people sin in hope that it will help them out of a difficulty, and then find the situation far worse (City of God 14.4). Sin or wrongdoing is ultimately rooted in treating ends as means and means as ends (Against Faustus 22.78; again a Platonic echo, Republic 443d). The perversity of the heart is visible in the delight taken in performing an act which is known to be forbidden, and if that act is being done by a group of which one is a member, it can seem irresistible. (Hence the adolescent theft of bad pears described in Confessions 2.)

So the soul is beset by self-made problems, not merely human transience in a life which is "a race toward death," not merely the ignorance of the right and the good, but an actual resistance to what is right and the will of God when this is known. "Human beings are ambitious for nothing so much as power" (On St. John 43.1). Their lust for venting anger is sometimes directed at blameless inanimate objects (City of God 14.15). Above all, the fetters of habit bind the soul so that what begins as a free choice becomes necessity (Confessions 8, 5, 10). Humanity, social by nature, becomes anti-social by corruption (City of God (12.28).

Yet God has mercy and gives grace. The late works of Augustine say that this is given to God's elect. Earlier Augustine can write of a universal intuition in the human heart, brought from potential to actual by God's love and presence within. The innermost self is indistinguishable from this divine presence, "deeply hidden yet most intimately there within" (Confessions 1.4.4). So to love God is also to love oneself. "Love is within the mind, and therefore God is nearer than my brother" (Trin. 8.8.12).

In his work on the Trinity Augustine expressed reservations about the terminology for the Trinity, traditional in Latin theology since Tertullian -namely three persons, one substantia. But the thesis in that work that the persons of the Trinity are relations suggested to him that the term "person" could convey the meaning of a human self defined by relations, and in letter 137.11 this becomes explicit. The Latin word did not previously carry this meaning for the individual constituted of body and soul together. The context was one of mysterious and incomprehensible depth. ┴ frequent theme in Augustine's writings is the unfathomable depth of the human mind, knowing what it does not know it knows, remembering joys and grieves of the past, so that the memory can be described as "the stomach of the mind" (Confessions 10.13.20) but never capable of authentic self-understanding. "╔ do not know what kind of man ╔ am --how much less do you know" (Sermon 340┴ 8). ┴ fundamental mark of the human mind is restlessness, and the overriding theme of the Confessions is the incompleteness of humanity, which can find its true self and true rest only in God.

Although the Christians of late antiquity found themselves in much sympathy with the language of the Platonists, the generalization holds good that in the long run they were to take a more positive view of the physical realm of nature, and of the human body in particular. This is evident already in Nemesius of Emesa, On the Nature of Man, in which the debt to Porphyry is at least equalled by that to Aristotle. For the upholders of a dualism of soul and body, there was, perhaps is, always an issue in the background: human responsibility. An entirely materialist view of the mind or soul has acute difficulties in maintaining that a human being is actually a moral agent with capacities for deliberation and argument on grounds of reasoning, capable of changes of mind. Birds need feathers to fly. Human beings need brain cells to produce the most baffling of things in consciousness. But in consciousness there are aspirations beyond the material world.



 


NOTES


1. - In the 5th century ═eoplatonist Proclus, the number nine can carry a heavy weight of symbolism, e.g. in his commentary on Timaeus 3.193.17ff., where "ennead" signifies the creator gods. Porphyry was well known to have detected nine distinct hypotheses in the text of Plato's Parmenides (Proclus, TheoI. Plato. 1.10). In Đr´cl§s's commentary on Timaeus; 35b (2.215.20), reporting Iamblichus's views, it is said that "the ┼nnead has an affinity to the ╠´nad."

2. - Augustine (City of God 10.30) once allows himself a sentence of gentle mockery at the Neoplatonic reverence for Plato as a sacred text.

3. - J§lian Ep. 89ß Bidez-Cumont; lamblichus on ďimae§s 47b-d in Proclus, ╔n ďim. 153.10 (= frg.16 Dillon with his commentary, p.282).

4. - See Anne Sheppard, "Proclus' Attitude to Theurgy," in Classical Quarterly 32 (1982): 212-224.

 

Article published in English on: 13-2-2011.

Last update: 13-2-2011.

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