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Chapter I -- 10

having absolutely closed the senses [or, faculties] of the soul

Truly, modern philosophy rejects the existence of such senses or faculties: this is the significance of the insistence of Hume and of his successors on the exclusive role of sense-perception and on the exclusive role of the association of mental images of sense-perceptions, passions and emotions in concept formation. Hume and his successors are reacting vehemently against the very elaborate anthropology and psychology of the High Middle Ages, an anthropology and a psychology that were at once either Platonizing or Aristotelian, extremely logically refined, and, as Christian, accepting of such things as God, angels, intelligible (non-material) substances, and, in some cases, what might be called spiritual senses. However, these senses or faculties of the soul, which do not depend on sense-perception, will be very important to us as we develop the psychology of mental prayer in the heart.

and being able to see nothing of the intelligible and bodiless.

What does this mean? There is a basic polarity involved here: sensible – intelligible. The sensible is what can be perceived by means of the bodily sense organs. The intelligible is what exists but which can only be apprehended by thought or by a mental or spiritual faculty or sense. A rock is sensible. An angel is intelligible. An angel is also bodiless. The reason (logos) of the rock, what it was meant to be, is intelligible. What it means to be ‘apprehended by a mental or spiritual faculty or sense’ will be made clear with extraordinary precision by Evagrius Pontikos, whose ascetical system we will discuss in Volume II, although we shall also encounter the notion in this volume in Chapter III. In modern philosophical language, these mental or spiritual faculties or senses are said to involve apprehension by intuition—direct perception or cognition by the mind (nous) without the intervention of propositional reasoning (ratiocination)—; here, the intuition is applied to non-sensible (intelligible) things that exist.

St Macrina has responded to the materialistic arguments against the existence of a soul which survives death by immediately introducing the notion of the intelligible. She continues:

just as a person imprisoned in a small house remains unseeing of the heavenly wonders, being prevented by the walls and the roof from the view outside the house. Really, all sensible things are earthen walls, as many things as are seen in the universe, creating walls by means of themselves for the more mean of spirit in regard to the contemplation of intelligible things.

The last sentence has its roots in Plato, for example the Phaedo, where it defines the character of Platonic mysticism and asceticism. It will be of fundamental importance to us as we develop our psychological analysis of mental prayer in the heart, but let us let St Macrina finish:

Such a person sees earth only, and air and fire and water.

We would say today: carbon and oxygen and carbohydrates and nucleic acids and photons.

Whence come each of these things or in whom it is or by whom it is maintained, such persons because of their meanness of soul cannot discern. And one seeing a garment has reckoned the weaver; and through the ship has conceived of the shipwright; and the hand of the builder comes to the intellect of those who look, along with the sight of that which was built; but those who look at the world are dull of sight towards him who is declared by means of these things. Whence these wise and shrewd things are offered by those who proclaim the vanishing of the soul: the body from the elements, the elements from the body and the assertion that the soul is unable to exist by itself, but only if it is one of the elements or in the elements.

First, the Platonic idea that sensible things prevent one from seeing intelligible things: This is fundamental to the Evagrian ascetical system that is the subject of Volume II. It is fundamental also to the Hesychast method of prayer that we shall study in the work of St Hesychios in Volume III. In fact, we shall see that in this matter, St Hesychios makes explicit reference to passages of Evagrius. Since we will work with this idea continuously, we can continue without further discussion.

The next thing that St Macrina says is that these people—the materialists—see only the elements, but not the their Provenance. We will encounter this again.

We have now reached the argument of the Weaver from the garment.

St Paul writes in this way:

…[B]ecause what can be known concerning God is manifest among them, for God has manifested [it] to them. Those things which are invisible and apprehended by thought concerning him from the creation of the world, his eternal power and Divinity, are seen clearly in those things which have been made…[1]

This passage of Romans is the God-given argument of the Weaver from the garment for the existence of God that is the foundation of St Macrina’s own argument. Remember that St Macrina is responding to the materialistic philosophical programmatic assertion that only material things exist and that these occurred spontaneously and by chance, without a divine Providence pervading through things. She has responded by remarking on the blindness of the materialist to intelligible things and, in particular, to the presence of the Weaver, God, in the garment, the world. Evagrius will make much of this aspect of God’s presence in his creation, his presence as the source of the wisdom with which things are made; it is an important part of his system of contemplation.

St Paul does not argue: he states flatly that God has manifested to all men his eternal power and Divinity in creation from the beginning of the world. This means that by nature all men intuitively grasp the presence of God in creation. Let us see how the full quotation from Romans goes:

For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven upon every impiety and injustice of men who possess the truth in injustice, because what can be known concerning God is manifest among them, for God manifested [it] to them. Those things which are invisible and apprehended by thought concerning him from the creation of the world, his eternal power and Divinity, are seen clearly in those things which have been made, so that they are without apology, because knowing God, they did not glorify [him] or give thanks [to him] as God, but they were made vain in their reasonings and their heart which had no understanding was darkened; pretending that they were wise, they were made foolish, and they changed the glory of the incorruptible God in the similarity of an image of corruptible man and birds and four-footed creatures and creeping animals.[2]

This argument for the existence of God is God-given, but it has never been accepted by those who reject the existence of God. In post-Enlightenment Protestant apologetics it has been used; and it has such a hoary history that even today materialistic controversialists devote much of their time to devising proofs that it is possible for the wovenness of the garment to have occurred by a sequence of spontaneous and chance occurrences. What is important to understand is that the problem is old. The opponents do not accept—vehemently—each other’s reasonings.

Let us see how St Macrina continues:

For if those who contradict suppose that, since the soul is not of the same nature with the elements, then, on account of that, the soul is nowhere, let these men first dogmatize that life in the flesh also is soulless.

What does this mean? The gist of St Macrina’s argument is this: Her opponents say that the soul cannot exist after the death of the body because if it is of a different nature from the body then there is nowhere it could be. She says: well, in that case—if the soul cannot exist after the dissolution of the body because it is of a different nature from the body—then it neither can exist in the body when the body is alive. Since her opponents accept the existence of the soul in the living body, this argument obliges them to contradict themselves. St Macrina will go on to say, in a passage not yet given: well, if you accept that the soul is in the body while the body is alive, but say that it cannot subsist on its own after the dissolution of the body because the soul is of a different nature from the body, then by your own logic you are also obliged also to deny the existence of the Divine Nature, because it is of a similar nature to the soul in that it is not material. This last her opponents evidently did not want to do. Let us now see how the argument goes in detail.

St Macrina is saying: Those who say that if the soul is not of the same nature as the body, then it is nowhere, let them also say that the living body has no soul. As we pointed out earlier, in common with all the Ancients, St Macrina and St Gregory assume that a living body has a soul. The question is whether that soul survives death. St Gregory has put forth a very complicated argument—the materialistic argument—against the survival of the soul that hinges on the dissolution of the body at death and the implicit dissolution of a soul which would be of the same material nature as the body (one of the material elements or in the material elements). He has gone on to say that if the soul is not of the same material nature as the body, then it must be somewhat complex if it is to be able to connect into all the disparate parts of the material body and hence not immortal. Or else, he has said, if the soul is not one of the elements, nor in the elements, and if it is not connected into the body in the way we have said, then it must be separate from the body—but in that case where would it be? And that which is nowhere does not exist. While St Gregory appears to have emphasized the non-survival of the soul in his argument, St Macrina is looking at the matter in a slightly different light: she is saying that those who say that the soul, if it is of a different nature from the body, cannot survive the death of the body are also obliged to say that the soul cannot, for exactly the same reasons, exist in the body while it is alive.

St Macrina has replied to the arguments against the survival by the soul of the death of the body, first, with an assertion that intelligible things exist in addition to material things, especially God, and, now, she says, in a patent reductio ad absurdum: Let those who say that a soul which is not of the same material nature of the body is nowhere after death (and, hence, non-existent) also say that life in the flesh—in this living body—is also soulless! It is clear that for St Macrina the idea that a living body has no soul is absurd. Let us recall that for the Ancient mind the distinction between the living and the dead was irreducible and that giving an account of ‘soul’ was giving an account of ‘being alive’.

But as we have indicated, the paradigm in modern biology does just what St Macrina thinks is absurd: it denies the existence of a soul in the living body, reducing to biochemistry everything that might be construed as ‘being alive’.

Now for St Macrina and for all the Classical Greeks—St Macrina is of the late Classical Age and sharing as a Christian in its intellectual culture; that is why she is relevant today—one aspect of the soul is its vivifying character. As we remarked, Aristotle’s definition of the soul bases itself precisely on that criterion: for Aristotle, the soul is the first actuality, or form, of an organic body which has the potential of life. We need not enter into Aristotle’s metaphysics; the important thing is his starting-point: life. In modern biology, as we remarked, this is called ‘vitalism’. One of the pillars of the modern materialistic synthesis in science is the rejection of all forms of vitalism in all branches of science, especially biology. This includes in all the sciences the rejection of a ‘Providence pervading through things’. This rejection is not methodological but metaphysical. Modern science is resolutely materialistic.

For St Macrina, however, such a position is patently absurd. Hence the ironical force of the point she is making.

How can we bridge this gulf? Can it be bridged?

No. It is a fundamental clash of philosophical paradigms. St Macrina, however, will later speak to the idea that the living body has no soul in the following way: she will introduce the concept of something intelligible (i.e. not material) called mind (Greek: nous), and she and her brother will discuss what this might be. This will in fact include a discussion of the mechanistic interpretation of mental behaviour and phenomena, which St Gregory will put forth as a counter-argument on behalf of the materialist-mechanist, and in a very sophisticated way.

Let us therefore continue:

For the body is not some sort of thing other than the coming together of the elements. Let them therefore say that the soul is neither in these elements by means of itself vivifying the compound, if, indeed, it is not possible after death, as they suppose, that the soul also exists, given that the elements exist—that is to say, as being nothing else but a proof by them that our life is death.

This very difficult passage is important. First, let us look at St Macrina’s plain meaning. The sense of her argument is this: If those who contradict the survival of the soul after death say that the reason is that the soul is of a different nature from the elements and cannot subsist by itself after death without those elements, then let them also admit that the soul, for the same reason, cannot subsist in the body while the body is still alive. Implicit in what St Macrina is saying is this question: why should the soul, if it is of a different nature from the body and cannot exist on its own when the body disintegrates after death, be able to exist in the body before death? She says that the body is nothing other than the conjunction of material elements. She then says: Let those who say—evidently the Epicureans, who held that the soul dissipated after death—that it is not possible for the soul to continue to exist after the death of the body although the elements which make up the body continue to exist—let those say, then, that the soul is neither in the body while the body is alive, by means of itself vivifying the compound. The sense is that whatever would prevent the soul from existing after death, the fact that it is something different from the elements of the body, would also prevent it from existing in the body while the body is still alive. The force of St Macrina’s reductio ad absurdum is that a body composed of material elements without something to vivify it would simply be dead. Recall the passage 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.’[3] Without the breath of life to vivify the compound, man would remain dust: dead. This is St Macrina’s sense in the remainder of the passage: Let those who deny the continuance of the soul after death also deny its vivifying presence in the body while the body is alive, so that they will be seen to have proved that our life is death.

As we have already pointed out, this is precisely the position of the materialistic biologist today. What was deemed to be life, or the presence of a vivifying soul, is shown, on his account, merely to be biochemistry.

One part of this passage is extremely important, the part we emphasized with italics in our paraphrase: ‘by means of itself vivifying the compound’. The underlying Greek word for ‘vivifying’ is the same word, with a slight change for the grammar, used of the Holy Spirit in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. This creed is the creed known today in the Orthodox Church simply as the Nicene Creed and recited in the Divine Liturgy, among other places in the daily services, as a formal profession of faith. The original Nicene Creed was extended by the Second Ecumenical Synod in 381 at Constantinople to make clear the dogma of the Holy Spirit. In its present form, the Nicene Creed says of the Holy Spirit: ‘The Giver of Life’. The underlying Greek word is the one that above we have translated ‘vivifying’, and ‘The Giver of Life’ could well be translated ‘The Vivifier’. The person said to have been responsible for drafting the changes to the Nicene Creed at the Second Ecumenical Synod is none other than St Gregory of Nyssa, the author of our dialogue and St Macrina’s interlocutor. Hence we can conclude that the concept of the soul’s vivifying the body by means of itself is parallel to the concept of the Holy Spirit’s giving life to all of creation. In other words, it is inconceivable to St Gregory of Nyssa, and to his sister, St Macrina, that a body would be alive without the presence of a vivifying force. That the body is composed of elements they freely concede. That the elements work by means of natural laws would prove no obstacle. Aristotle said the same thing. That the body could be alive without a vivifying soul they reject. Again we encounter this conflict with the paradigm of biology of the materialistic and mechanistic school.

Let us look at how the soul might vivify the body, given the scientific data uncovered today in the laboratory. In his Mystagogia (Mystagogy), St Maximos the Confessor refers to the operation (energeia) of God which keeps in existence all existent things, since otherwise they would disintegrate on account of the natural tendency of dissimilar elements to fly apart from each other.[4] This operation (energeia) does not substitute for natural laws, but permits them to operate. One might even say that it creates those natural laws. By the analogy that we have just established, then, the soul does the same thing: it permits the laws of chemistry to maintain the body in existence.

Let us continue:

If they do not doubt that the soul is now in the body,

As we have said, for the Ancients, a body without a soul was dead. A discussion of ‘persons’ who were mere concourses of chemical reactions would be preposterous to them. Hence, even St Macrina’s opponents, evidently the Epicureans, wished to retain the belief that the living body was vivified by a soul.

how do they dogmatize the vanishing of the soul when the body dissolves into its elements? Then let them also dare to do the same against the very Divine Nature. For how do they say that the mental (noera) and immaterial and formless nature penetrating into the damp and soft and warm and dry holds together existent things in being, since they have it neither related to those things into which it penetrates, nor unable to penetrate because of its different nature? Therefore let them remove the Divine completely from their dogma—the Divine by which existent things are held firmly in existence.

We have already mentioned that St Maximos the Confessor makes use in his Mystagogy of this idea of the operation (energeia) of God which holds existent things in being.

Let us now turn to what St Macrina is saying. She has said that a soul different in nature than the elements, if it could not exist on its own after the dissolution of the body, also could not exist in the body before the dissolution of the body. She has said that the opponents of the survival after death of a soul different in nature from the body are therefore obliged to admit that the living body has no soul, something she treats as a reductio ad absurdum. She now says: But if our opponents do not accept that the living body has no soul, how can they assert that the soul vanishes upon death? If they accept that position, then they are similarly obliged to deny the existence of the Divine Nature. For they say that the mental[5] and immaterial and formless nature (this is clearly the Divine Nature) penetrates into the material elements (this is the significance of the qualities listed: ‘damp and soft and warm and dry’) and thereby firmly holds existent things in existence—as we said, the presumption is that the disparate and opposing qualities of the elements would cause them to fly apart without such a containing and maintaining power. But our opponents neither assert that the Divine Nature is related to the material elements nor do they deny that it is able to penetrate into the material elements. The sense is this: if the soul cannot exist on its own after the dissolution of the body because it is of a different nature from the body, then, given that the soul is of a similar nature to the Divine Nature, how can our opponents not also reject the possibility of the existence of the ‘mental and immaterial and formless’ Divine Nature, given that the Divine Nature, as our opponents themselves concede, neither is related ontologically to the material world nor is unable to penetrate into that material world so as to uphold it in the way we just have said?

A modern materialistic and mechanistic biologist would say: ‘Well, you’re quite right. No soul. No God. Chemical systems.’ Discussions of ‘person’ in the context of biology and medicine today have that concept of ‘person’ defined in this context. It will be extremely difficult for an Orthodox Christian to communicate with a modern materialistic and mechanistic biologist unless he have a clear understanding of the ontology underlying modern biology and medicine. It is in the context of an ontology manifestly absurd according to St Gregory’s presentation, that the concept of ‘person’ is defined in modern biology and medicine.

[1] Rom. 1, 19–20.

[2] Rom. 1, 18–23.

[3] Gen. 2, 7.

[4] Mystagogia p. 106, l. 5–p. 108, l. 25; = Migne 91, 664D–65B.

[5] Noera—this important word can also be translated ‘spiritual’; etymologically it means ‘possessing mind’.


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