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Chapter I -- 1

I The Anthropology of St Gregory of Nyssa

The most philosophical of the Cappadocian Fathers,[1] St Gregory of Nyssa (c.331–c.394) wrote On the Soul and the Resurrection (c.386) to record a conversation with St Macrina (c.327–379), his elder sister, which occurred while St Macrina was on her deathbed. He wrote On the Making of Man (c.379) to complete his brother St Basil the Great’s commentary on the first part of the Book of Genesis, On the Six Days of Creation, interrupted at the making of man by St Basil’s own death.

While the form of dialogue between St Gregory and St Macrina in On the Soul and the Resurrection is usually considered to be a mere literary device for the presentation of St Gregory’s own views, we see nothing to prevent St Macrina’s being fully able to have participated, as the teacher of her brother younger than her by some years, in such a deathbed dialogue, to which in any event St Gregory refers in his life of St Macrina as having taken place. We will therefore report the views ascribed by St Gregory to St Macrina as her own, and not those of her younger brother. That is not to deny that St Gregory, who wrote On the Soul and the Resurrection some years after St Macrina’s death, did not form the dialogue or recall it with the prism of his own views before his mind’s eye.

The dialogue opens with the visit of St Gregory, grieving over the recent death of St Basil, to his sister, St Macrina, whom he finds also on her deathbed. He gives himself over to the grief that death occasions, to which St Macrina ultimately replies:

Surely what alarms and disturbs you is not some sort of fear that the soul, instead of lasting forever, ceases with the body’s dissolution?[2]

It is interesting that St Macrina answers her brother in this way: she takes the existence of a soul in a living person for granted, as did her brother in his final, preceding expostulation, but poses the question: Perhaps you fear that the soul does not survive death?

St Gregory has just remarked on the radical difference that all of us know who have lost someone we love: he, or she, who was alive, has been lost, and we see nothing but ‘the remains, already beginning to rot’. As St Gregory has already put it:

When therefore in these things the change is seen, and that vivifying principle, then, whatever it once was, all of a sudden becomes invisible and unseen, just as in the case of an extinguished lamp where the flame hitherto hanging from it neither remains upon the wick nor departs to some other place, but passes over to complete disappearance, how could it occur that one could bear without sorrow the change of such a great magnitude, being supported by nothing manifest beforehand?

The important thing to understand is that the Ancients were struck by the remarkable difference between the living and the dead.

That someone was alive they ascribed to the presence of a soul. That he was dead they ascribed to the departure of that soul. The soul was what made the person alive.

Even Ancients, such as Epicurus, who denied life after death did not doubt the presence of a soul in a living person.

Moreover, Aristotle’s (384–322 bc) famous definition of the soul—‘Therefore the soul is an actuality of the first kind of a natural body having the potential of life. Such a body would be organic.’[3]—is based on this distinction.

Moreover, the first sense of the passage in the Book of Genesis—‘And God made man, dust from the earth, and blew into his face a breath of life, and man became unto a living soul.’ (Gen. 2, 7)—is based on this distinction.

Hence, the problem for St Macrina’s reply is not whether a living person has a soul—this she, as her brother does, takes for granted—but whether that soul survives death.

In the passage of St Gregory that we just quoted, St Gregory referred to ‘that vivifying principle … whatever it once was’.

Here, St Gregory is posing the problem in this way: Granted that something, whatever it is, makes the person alive, when the person dies it seems to disappear irrevocably.

This is that irreducible distinction between the living and the dead: a book or pen is dead; a computer is dead; my brother or my mother is alive. The ancient mind could not get round this distinction.

Nowadays, in modern biology, as a matter of scientific paradigm, this distinction is abolished. It is called ‘vitalism’.

In the Fourth Edition of Molecular Biology of the Gene, a standard textbook of molecular genetics, we read:

Nonetheless, through the first quarter of this [Twentieth] century, many scientists thought that some vital force outside the laws of chemistry differentiate [sic] the animate from the inanimate. Part of the reason for the persistence of this ‘vitalism’ was that the success of the biologically oriented chemists (now usually called biochemists) was limited…[4]

Besides general ignorance of the structures of the large molecules in the cell, the feeling was often expressed that there is something unique about the three-dimensional organization of the cell that gives it its living feature. This argument was sometimes phrased in terms of the impossibility of ever understanding all the exact chemical interactions of the cell. More frequently, however, it took the form of the prediction that some new natural laws, as important as the cell theory or the theory of evolution, would have to be discovered before the essence of life could be understood. But these almost mystical ideas never led to meaningful experiments and, in their vague form, could never be tested.[5]

The author of the earlier editions of this textbook, and the main author of this, the Fourth Edition, is none other than James D. Watson (1928–), Nobel laureate for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, the chemical of which genes are made.

Here, the argument is that there is no ultimate difference between the living and the dead; it is all a matter of biochemistry; and the distinction between the living and the dead that was irreducible to the Ancients is quite irrelevant, a matter of the state of biochemical systems.

Certainly—ignoring here questions of when a person dies, the so-called question of brain death—these men, like anyone else, would recognize that someone they knew was alive or dying or had died.

However, they would not see the matter as the presence or absence of the person’s inner being, whatever that might be and whether or not it were considered to survive dying.

They would see the matter as biochemistry.

This point of view is very important.

It places biology squarely in the scientific and philosophical paradigms that have dominated Western thought since Newton and the empiricists.

Newton (1642–1727) introduced mathematical models into physics and gave good quantitative answers, basing himself on a mechanistic interpretation of and motivation for those models.

Hume (1711–1776), for us the most important of the empiricists, rejected the existence of non-sensible objects, and, wishing to emulate Newton’s methods in physics, developed a theory of cognition that was based strictly on sense-perception.

Newton’s theories were modified, first by Einstein (1879–1955) in the special theory of relativity (1905) and the general theory of relativity (1915), and then by quantum mechanics (1926).

In the same period, Hume’s theories, having passed through English Utilitarianism, developed into the logical positivism of the early Wittgenstein (1889–1951) and the Vienna Circle (1920’s and ’30’s), and the ordinary language philosophy of the late Wittgenstein.

The result today is an intellectual climate in the West quite consistent with the remarks quoted above from Watson and his fellow authors.

Let us look more carefully at the rejection by this school of thought of the existence of a soul, even mortal.

It is clear from the quotations above that this school’s intellectual program entails the reduction of the phenomena of ‘life’ to biochemical reactions. This is even clearer in other passages of Molecular Biology of the Gene. An example might be the history of the scientific study of fermentation: the description passes from the discovery of the necessity of the presence of yeast for the fermentation of grapes into wine to the discovery that ‘the living cell per se is not necessary for fermentation and that a cell-free extract from yeast can, by itself, transform glucose [the sugar component of grapes that is transformed into alcohol] into ethanol [alcohol]’. The authors continue: ‘Not only was this step conceptually important, but it also provided a much more practical system for studying the chemical steps of fermentation.’[6]

In their conclusion to their historical introduction to their book, the authors of Molecular Biology of the Gene state:

Now all major features of living cells—the generation of useful energy from food molecules and the sun, the ways energy-rich molecules promote the making of desired chemical bonds, and … the functioning of genes—can be understood in terms of well-defined chemical principles…

…[I]t is only because the basic facts of biochemistry are now so firm that we shall soon be able to move on to attack the still unsolved major biological problem of how fertilized eggs develop into the marvelously complex forms of higher plants and animals. Only by feeling that the essence of the living single cell is now well within our grasp [as a matter of biochemistry], can we so optimistically proclaim that the essence of multicellular existence may now be an achievable objective.[7]

This program includes a materialistic and mechanistic interpretation of biochemistry. The philosophical paradigm involved is a materialistic and mechanistic one. Part of this paradigm is the rejection even of Aristotelian philosophical concepts.

This is important because Aristotle’s own definition of the soul tends to, although it does not attain to, a functionalist interpretation of biological phenomena that might be called materialistic. For the most part, Aristotle did not accept the Platonic definition of the soul as an intelligible substance that inhabits the body.

Hence, the rejection of ‘vitalism’ and a fortiori of the existence of the soul is based in modern biology on a materialistic and mechanistic philosophical paradigm. ‘Soul’ as a concept would interfere with the intellectual program, based ultimately on Newton’s mechanistic program in physics: materialistic and mechanistic models base themselves exclusively on sensible phenomena, and the soul is commonly understood to be a non-sensible sort of thing.

Sensible phenomena can be measured.

There is also underlying this the philosophical climate related to the materialistic and mechanistic paradigm that rejects formal religion in whole or reinterprets it in part in a manner more consistent with the presuppositions of the materialist-mechanist. Here, ‘vitalism’—and the ‘soul’ a fortiori—are seen as relics of the old way of thinking dominated by one or another religious orthodoxy. This, of course, is the intellectual legacy to the West of the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment which placed human reason first. This can become quite emotionally charged. We need only mention Darwin’s theory of evolution and the controversies that surround it to make that clear.

Now in fact the materialistic and mechanistic paradigm was not unknown to St Gregory and he puts it forward as a possible explanation of the liveliness of the person alive; we shall see this shortly.

However, although St Gregory’s presentation of the materialistic and mechanistic paradigm could have been written today, more than 1600 years after his death, today, as we have already commented, the intellectual climate in the West is quite hostile to the very concept of soul, and this marks a significant change from St Gregory’s day.

Let us look more carefully at this hostility.

In his private affairs, and in his mind, the biologist certainly makes judgements whether the fellow next to him, the experimental animal or the experimental fungus or microbe is alive or dead. As things get smaller, the judgement may get more difficult; and the precise threshold may be difficult to define in any case. But were Jim lying on the floor—well, dead!—the biologist would not say, ‘Hum, Jim’s biochemical state seems to have altered.’ He would, if he were a normal man, say, ‘Jim’s dead,’ and seek help. If he were trained, he might check Jim’s breathing. If he were a medical doctor, he might attempt cardiac massage. These examples are not meant to exclude other possible, and normal, responses. The biologist would not, however, unless he were a religious man, light a candle for the repose of Jim’s soul. If he were a religious man, he might say a prayer, again for the repose of Jim’s entity called ‘soul’. He might say a mass if he were a priest besides being a biologist. He might recite a sutra if he were a Buddhist in addition to being a biologist, and so on. But if he were a materialist—even one who practised the form of a religion for private motives of gain or other benefit or social solidarity or atmosphere in the family home or whatever, without believing—he would simply shrug his shoulders and say: ‘Jim’s bought it.’ We do make intuitive natural judgements—again ignoring for the present technical procedures in the matter of brain death as being the threshold between being alive and being dead—whether a person is alive or dead.

For the Ancients, these intuitive natural judgements were phrased as ‘His soul is present.’—being alive—and ‘His soul has departed.’—being dead. The judgement whether the soul was present or absent did not necessarily involve a belief that the soul—here taken above all as a vivifying principle—survived death. Nor did it necessarily involve a judgement or belief that the soul was a ‘ghost in the machine’. The question what the soul was, was open to debate, as indeed was the related question whether the soul survived death and, if so, how and where. The reader can now see the significance of what St Gregory is going to say below. However, let us continue with this analysis.

Given the intellectual climate in Ancient Greece, it did not seem strange to the Greeks to consider the possibility that the soul was susceptible of a materialistic and mechanistic explanation. It did not seem to them self-contradictory to consider such a possibility. Today, in the universities of the West, in intellectual circles, such a consideration would be snorted upon as ridiculous and infra dig., a sign of a lack of intellectual culture and respectability.

In ancient times, ‘soul’ had the meaning ‘being alive’, and ‘being alive’ could be construed—if one wished, consistently with one’s philosophy—in a materialistic and mechanistic way. And it is on this basis that St Gregory and St Macrina discuss the soul. The difference today is that the materialistic and mechanistic paradigm is very defensive on such issues. It has passed through a period of great fertility—Newtonian mechanics and Einsteinian relativity, the revolution in biology occasioned by the discovery of DNA are among its achievements—but it cannot handle the broader questions. It simply says that they are meaningless. To the extent that the inquirer aspires to the transcendent, he is told that it does not exist. Moreover, since the present-day materialistic and mechanistic paradigm arose in reaction—severe reaction—against the religious orthodoxy of the Western High Middle Ages, the period of the flowering and ascendancy of the Scholastic method in philosophy, it has retained a very hostile attitude towards both religion and Scholastic philosophy, the latter seen in the first place as accepting non-material entities as existent, in the second place as Aristotelian and in the third place as depending on an over-refined deductive reasoning instead of on the measurement of sensible phenomena. ‘Soul’ is today seen by the materialist-mechanist as part of that religious orthodoxy and as part of that philosophical tradition. Hence, although in ancient times ‘soul’ could be discussed with openness, today, the religious orthodoxy, intervening, has made the materialist-mechanist to feel that it is infra dig. even to consider such a thing: the soul, as we said, is non-sensible.

That is not to say that today there are no non-sensible concepts in science—in physics, say. But they do not threaten the materialistic and mechanistic paradigm, having arisen from within it. They are licit.

This is our explanation of the intellectual hostility in the West today to the concept of ‘soul’.

[1] The other two being St Gregory the Theologian (329–389) and St Basil the Great (c.330–379), the elder brother of St Gregory of Nyssa.

[2] Soul G 17, p. 320, ll. 31 ff. Our text continues from here with the breaks indicated.

[3] On the Soul, II, 1, 412a28–412b1, in Arist–Soul.

[4] Watson p. 25.

[5] Ibid. p. 28.

[6] Ibid. pp. 31–2.

[7] Ibid. p. 61.


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