Chapter I -- 12
Gregory now continues:
And how, I said, can the faith that God exists and that the human soul exists be demonstrated together
It is an interesting point, that faith in God and the human soul should be demonstrated together, one that shows the fundamental futility of Orthodox bioethics. For to those who refuse God, how will we prove the existence of a human soul in the embryo? And those who accept that soul’s existence—do they not also believe in God?
(for truly the soul is not identical to God)
Here we see an explicit rejection of pantheism by St Gregory.
so that if the one should be confessed to exist, then at all events the remaining one should be confessed together [with it to exist]?
She said: It is said by the wise that man is a certain small world containing in himself the same elements with which the universe is filled. If, then, this word is true, it would seem, perhaps, that we would have no need of another alliance so that there should be established in us that which we understood concerning the soul. We understood, then, the soul in itself to be in an unusual nature peculiar to itself separate from the grossness of the body. For as, wholly discovering the world by sense-perception, we are led, by means of this very operation according to our senses, to the conception (ennoia), which is above sense, of object (pragma) and thought (noema); and the eye becomes for us the interpreter of the omnipotent wisdom which, on the one hand, is viewed in the universe and which, on the other hand, declares by means of itself him who has grasped the universe by means of it—thus, looking towards the world which is in us, we do not have small starting-points to find, by means of those things which appear, that which is hidden. For that has been hidden, what in itself is intelligible and formless, and it escapes sensible comprehension.
St Macrina is making several points here. First, she is drawing a parallel between the presence of the soul in the living body and the presence of God in the world. This is the significance of treating man as a microcosm. She then goes on to give a preliminary definition of the soul. Although she uses the past tense—‘We understood’—this is the first time she or St Gregory has explicitly given a definition. This definition is important, although it will be refined later. It makes of the soul a substance ‘separate from the grossness of the body’—and hence not material—having an unusual nature peculiar to itself. The soul is not the brain or the functioning of a part of the body; it is not the DNA or the information content of the DNA; it is not an electromagnetic field or electromagnetic radiation; it is not of the same nature with God. It is something immaterial—intelligible—with a nature peculiar to itself. St Macrina will later elaborate at great length on this nature.
St Macrina then makes use of the intuitionist argument for the existence of God that she has just given to clarify how we can come to know the soul that is of this unusual nature. She says, first, that we can discover the world only by sense-perception. In this she agrees with Hume. However, she goes on to say: ‘For as, wholly discovering the world by sense-perception, we are led, by means of this very operation according to our senses, to the conception (ennoia), which is above sense, of object (pragma) and thought (noema).’ To paraphrase: We discover the world only by sense-perception. However, we are led, by means of this very operation of sense-perception, to the conception (ennoia) which is above sense-perception—the intelligible conception (ennoia)—which intelligible conception (ennoia) pertains to objects (pragmata) or to thoughts (noemata). That is, we can be led from sense-perception, our sole means of knowing the sensible world, to an intelligible conception (ennoia) which might pertain either to an object (pragma) or to a thought (noema). Here, St Macrina has departed from Hume, for this intelligible conception (ennoia) is not by any means arrived at by the association of the mental images of sense-perceptions, passions or emotions. Hume as it were knew it; that is why there is such a great insistence in his philosophy on the formation of concepts only from sense-perceptions and so on, and only by the association of mental images of sense-perceptions and so on: Hume and his school are attacking the existence of intelligible things, including mind (nous) and intelligible conceptions (ennoies) of the sort that St Macrina is discussing. This difference is quite important for the reader to grasp.
St Macrina then goes on to say that just as we see the omnipotent wisdom which is viewed in the universe and which declares by means of itself him who holds the whole universe in his hand by means of that omnipotent wisdom, so, in the same way, looking at the microcosm that we are, we can find, by means of those things that appear to us by means of our sense-perception of the living person, that which is hidden, the soul. For the soul has been hidden since it is intelligible and formless and therefore escapes sense-perception. This is the use of the intuitionist argument for the existence of God as a model for an intuitionist argument for the existence of the soul. This argument hinges on our being led by intuitive induction from the things we perceive about a living person to a conception (ennoia) of his soul, which conception (ennoia) is intelligible and not the product of the association of mental images of sense-perceptions and so on.
Now St Macrina says that the conception (ennoia) is of object (pragma) and thought (noema). It is not clear precisely what she means. She means, it appears, that we can have conceptions (ennoies), which are above sense-perception and to which we are led by sense-perception, which conceptions (ennoies) can refer either to a sensible object (pragma) or to a thought (noema).
We will see in Evagrius an idea, taken from the Stoics or the Neoplatonists, of the reason (logos) of a created object, what we might call, in its highest form, the object’s essence, or raison d’être, in the wisdom of God. This reason (logos) is on the one hand intelligible in quite the way we are discussing; on the other hand it pertains to a sensible object. Of course, a conception (ennoia) which referred to a thought (noema) would necessarily be intelligible, since a thought (noema), despite Hume, is intelligible. St Gregory himself will just below use much the same language of the reasons (logoi) of existent things, the contemplation of which reasons (logoi) of existent things allows us, according to him, to infer the Wisdom which lies over all.
Now, St Macrina’s point is this: By means of this being led from sense-perception to the intelligible conception (ennoia), we were led, just above, in her argument of the Weaver from the garment of creation, to the intelligible conception (ennoia) of the omnipotent wisdom, ‘that which is viewed in the universe and which declares by means of itself him who has grasped the universe by means of it.’ In other words, she is explaining that her description just above of the material creation led us to the intelligible conception (ennoia) of the omnipotent wisdom by means of which God has woven the elements together despite their contrary qualities into a harmonious whole with a single goal; and, from that omnipotent wisdom, to God himself. Now what she wants to do is to use the idea that man is a microcosm—that is, an analogy of the universe—to lead us from our sense-perception of the living person—let us say, of the living person’s behaviour—to an intelligible conception (ennoia) of that which is behind the person’s behaviour, namely the soul. For since the soul is intelligible, it ‘has been hidden, what in itself is intelligible and formless, and it escapes sensible comprehension.’ This conception of the soul is Platonic but not completely so. St Macrina will later, in fact, refer to Plato indirectly, but only—rhetorically—to dismiss him, and her final analysis will include elements of Aristotle. She is in fact eclectic. However, in Western philosophy, the doctrine that the soul is an intelligible substance of the sort that St Macrina is describing is associated chiefly with Plato.
This doctrine is very important for St Macrina’s, St Gregory’s and subsequent Christianity’s understanding of the soul.
St Macrina, to recapitulate, is saying that if some wise men have said that man is a microcosm—the universe writ small—then just as we discover the existence of God by the wisdom present in creation, which wisdom declares the existence of the unseen Creator, so in the same way we can also discover the existence of the unseen soul by its own operations (energeies) in the living person. For just as God is inapprehensible by the senses, so the soul is similarly hidden and inapprehensible by the senses.
Let us look again at a very important point. St Macrina says that we are led from sense-perception, our sole means of apprehending the world of sense, to a conception (ennoia), which is above sense, of an object (pragma) or thought (noema). We have already remarked that this process of induction is intuitive and not due to an association of mental images of sense-perceptions and so on. This intelligible conception (ennoia), at least at this stage, does not seem to be intended by St Macrina to be a Platonic form. So far, all that seems to be implied about these intelligible conceptions (ennoies) is that they are above sense. The notion, however, that one is led intuitively to the apprehension of an intelligible conception (ennoia) which is above sense has something in common with Plato and with Plotinus (205–270).
For Aristotle, only material substances exist, even though they instantiate intelligibles which have an objective existence: although, according to Aristotle, there is no such thing as the form of man, and only individual men exist (as against the supposed form of man), that men are men is objectively true: that intelligible thing that we call the species of man exists objectively, although not substantially in the same way that individual men exist, but in a secondary sense only; and that objectively existent species of man is instantiated in individual men.
Hume, of course, and along with him all those who stand in his tradition, reject the autonomous existence of the conception (ennoia) which is above sense-perception, even in the Aristotelian sense just explained. Hume’s theory of cognition grounds all conceptions (ennoies) firmly on sense-perceptions, passions and emotions, with no possibility within his philosophy of the autonomous existence of conceptions (ennoies) to which we are led by sense-perception but which are not sense-perceptions and so on, nor due to the associations of mental images of sense-perceptions and so on, nor even things strictly and directly dependent on the association of sense-perceptions and so on, nor even concatenations of independent ideas that are each a mental image of a disparate sense-perception, passion or emotion—but something autonomous.
The more philosophically minded Hesychast must grasp the significance of intelligible conceptions (ennoies). For the program that he will undertake is precisely to divest himself of conceptions (ennoies) or thoughts based on sense-perception so as to enter into the intelligible world of intelligible conceptions (ennoies) which are above sense-perception and which pertain in some fashion to God, and to proceed through that world to God himself. Even the unimpassioned conceptions (ennoies) the Hesychast has of sensible objects will impede him. However, both the intelligible conceptions (ennoies) pertaining in some fashion to God, and God himself, are apprehended intuitively in prayer or contemplation: it is not a matter of propositional logic. This is at the heart of the Evagrian ascetical program that we will discuss in Volume II.
Barlaam (c.1290–1348?), the major opponent of Fourteenth Century Hesychasm, in his polemic as it is presented in Huper ton Hieros Hesuchazonton (In Defence of Those Keeping Stillness in a Holy Manner) by St Gregory Palamas (1296–1359) at first sight has a somewhat similar program: through the intellectual sciences (in the mediæval Western speculative, propositional sense) to grasp truth. In Barlaam’s hands, this does seem to be a classically Scholastic educational program. The fundamental difference between Barlaam’s system and Hesychasm, it seems to us, is Barlaam’s refusal to see that knowledge of God is not propositional (intellectual) but intuitive (mystical), and that the program of ascent must be conceived of as a purification of the soul so that the eye of the soul (the mind or nous) can by grace intuitively apprehend the God who is One, and by a principle of ontological identification become united to God through this intuitive apprehension of God. Barlaam insisted on the importance of a program of intellectual studies which led to the accumulation of ‘higher’ conceptions (ennoies) of a propositional nature (i.e. propositions of a more general metaphysical and theological import), according to the model of the curricula current in the Western universities in Barlaam’s day, the High Middle Ages.
So we have here at the base of Christianity a certain understanding: the soul is something intelligible.
 We are using modern language here.
 St Macrina surely does not use this word here.
 Here, in the common acceptation.
 This intuitive apprehension of God is experienced as light. This light is a central aspect, already in the Eighth Century, of the Hesychasm of St Hesychios which forms the subject of Volume III.