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Chapter I -- 13

Let us continue. St Gregory is speaking:

And I said, it is possible to infer by means of the wise and skilful reasons (logoi) which are contemplated in the nature of existent things, in this very harmonious adornment, the Wisdom which lies over all. How, however, might the gnosis of the soul come to occur to those who trace the steps of the hidden from those things which appear, by means of those things which are shown by the body?

We have left untranslated ‘gnosis’. The meaning of this word, of course, is ‘knowledge’. We felt, however, because there is an English word, ‘gnosis’, and because what is involved is not propositional but intuitive knowledge, that it was well to leave the word as is. Moreover, we shall find in Volume II that in Evagrius’ system, the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of existent things leads to a partial intuitive knowledge—gnosis—of the wisdom of God.

And the virgin said: Most certainly the soul itself is an adequate teacher of notions concerning the soul for those who desire according to that wise commandment to know themselves: that it is something immaterial and bodiless, operating appropriately in its own nature and setting itself in motion and by means of the bodily organs manifesting its own movements. For the very instrumental (organike) apparatus of the body is nothing less even in the case of those bodies which have been made insensible through death, but the body remains motionless and without operation when the power of the soul is not present in it. The body is set in motion at the time that sense is in the organs and insofar as the intelligible (noete) power by means of the sense pervades it, the intelligible (noete) power setting in motion with its own impulsions the instrumental (organika) faculties of sense towards that which seems (good to it).

Let us take this definition apart.

St Macrina says that the soul—your soul—will teach you what it itself is.

The soul is ‘immaterial’: It is not sensible.

The soul is ‘bodiless’: This is an adjective that is applied to the angelic powers, and indicates man’s relatedness to the angels. Our soul is related to the angels in a way which will become clear as we proceed. The plain meaning, of course, is that the soul is not the body or a part of the body, nor does it have its own sensible body perceivable by the senses. A bodiless power such as the soul cannot be perceived by the senses. Neither can an angel.

The soul operates ‘appropriately in its own nature’: This means that the soul has its own ‘rules’, its own laws of operation. These are not the laws of the world of objects of sense. For example, photographing the soul would be impossible. The soul itself is not subject to the laws of chemistry or physics or biology. It is subject to spiritual laws.

‘Setting itself in motion’: The soul sets itself in motion. In accordance with Platonic doctrine, St Macrina has the soul able to initiate its own movement. This corresponds to our notion of free will and to our experience that we are able to decide to do something and to do it. The word that St Gregory, the author, uses is somewhat ambiguous and might also be interpreted ‘being set in motion’. We have translated according to sense, given St Gregory’s known Platonizing tendencies.

The soul manifests its own motions by means of the bodily organs: This is very important. We cannot see the soul, since it is immaterial and bodiless. Moreover, the soul is a self-mover: when I move my hand my soul has itself initiated the movement and nothing has put my soul into motion. But we do not see the motion of my soul; we see the movement of my hand. This movement of my hand manifests the motion of my soul, which itself has not been put into motion by another agent. Moreover, the speech of a man manifests the movements of his mind (nous). This analysis of human action should be borne in mind when in Chapter IV we look at the doctrine of the person in St Thomas Aquinas.

‘For the very instrumental (organike) apparatus of the body is nothing less even in the case of those bodies which have been made insensible through death, but the body remains motionless and without operation when the power of the soul is not present in it.’: St Macrina is referring to the state of the body when a person has died: the body is motionless and without operation.[1] When the power of the soul is not present in it, the living body is exactly the same as a dead body. That is, it is only the presence of the soul which gives life (‘motion and operation’) to the body of the living person. If we remove the soul, then the body is motionless and without operation, just as it is in the case of a cadaver. It is the soul that gives life to the body. It is well to recall here the rejection, as a matter of paradigm, of the vivifying role of the soul by the school of materialistic and mechanistic biologists represented by Watson and his fellow authors of Molecular Biology of the Gene. As we have pointed out, the vivifying activity of the soul does not displace the laws of chemistry, but enables them to operate, just as that Divine Power which upholds the universe, the Holy Spirit, does not displace the laws of nature, but allows them to operate or even founds them. ‘Instrumental (organike) apparatus of the body’ here means that the soul uses the body just as a person would use a tool. This is a Platonic conception.

‘The body is set in motion at the time that sense is in the organs and insofar as the intelligible (noete) power by means of the sense pervades it, the intelligible (noete) power setting in motion with its own impulsions the instrumental (organika) faculties of sense towards that which seems (good to it).’: This is a little difficult. The first part of this sentence refers to the cases where a person is sleeping or unconscious. When a person is asleep or unconscious, his senses are not in his organs. Here ‘organs’ is ambiguous: it is not clear whether St Macrina renders ‘sense organs’ with this term, or more generally ‘organs of the body’. Certainly, for the soul to operate, the senses must be in the sense organs, both with the meaning that the person must be alert and with the meaning that the sense organs must not be damaged. However, St Macrina means, more generally, that the senses must be in the parts of the body. If my arm is damaged, and paralysed, so that sense is absent, then my soul cannot move my arm. The next part of the sentence is quite significant: it advances the doctrine that the soul is an intelligible (noete) power which by means of the senses pervades and governs the body just as if the body were its tool. Of course, this is very similar to our understanding of the connection between the central nervous system and the organs of sense and, more generally, the parts of the body. However, as should be clear, St Macrina is speaking merely prescientifically only on the basis of the most rejectionist stance on the part of her reader: St Gregory as author has already advanced with great cogency an argument why the soul cannot be the body or a part of the body, so we must not take what St Macrina is saying simply to be a prescientific grasp of the biology of the nervous system. Certainly the soul makes use of the nervous system; about that there is no dispute. However, the soul is not the nervous system, nor the functioning of the nervous system. The soul is an intelligible (noete) power which pervades the body by means of the senses, and it is the soul, that intelligible (noete) power, which by means of its own motions sets in motion the instrumental (organika) faculties of sense towards that which seems good to the soul. It is curious that St Macrina has the soul set in motion the faculties of sense towards what seems good to it. We would have thought, say in the case of my raising my arm, that the she would have had the soul set my arm in motion, not my faculties of sense. Perhaps she means that my arm is set in motion by my soul through the instrumentality of my faculties of sense. We have supplied ‘good to it’ to complete the meaning of the sentence. This should not be taken to be an assertion that all men aim towards the good, or that St Macrina, here at any rate, is advancing such a notion. The phrase she uses, ‘pros to dokoun’, has the clear meaning that the soul, being a self-mover, sets the parts of the body in motion however it wants, towards what seems good or appropriate or desirable or useful to it. There is no further sense of ‘The Good’ here; quite the contrary, the term is used most often for an opinion. This analysis of human action should be contrasted with St Thomas Aquinas’ own theory of human action.[2]

St Gregory is speaking:

I said, what therefore is the soul, if it is possible with a certain definition to portray its nature, as would occur to us a certain comprehension of a subject by means of a portrait?

And the teacher said: Some in one way, others in another way, declared the definition concerning it, as it seemed good to each one defining it. Our own opinion is of this sort: The soul is a substance (ousia) which has come to be (genete), a living substance (ousia), mental (noera), implanting a force which is full of life and which supports the senses in an organic (organiko) and perceptive (aisthetiko) body as long as the nature receptive of these things appears constituted.

This is St Macrina’s formal definition of the soul. Let us analyse it piece by piece.

‘The soul is a substance (ousia)…’: The soul is not a quality. We here take Aristotle’s definition of substance, namely something which exists and in which qualities inhere.

‘Which has come to be (genete)…’: Due to the Aristotelian provenance, as it seems to us, of the term genete, we have avoided translating it as ‘created’. Unfortunately, there is no stylistically good way to render the term in English if ‘created’ be avoided. The meaning is that the soul is not eternal. There was a time when it was not. The Aristotelian sense of the term ‘genete’ is that the object to which it is applied has had—as that object—a beginning. In Christian metaphysics, of course, this implies ‘created’. Hence, the soul is not coeternal with God. (St Gregory himself has already stated that the soul is not of the same nature as God.) The soul had a beginning. We will discuss the beginning of the soul in Chapter III. We will later, in Volume II, encounter in the writings of Evagrius a category of things—‘those things which have come to be’—the word for which has the same etymological root as genete.

‘A living substance (ousia),…’: This means that the soul is self-moving in a very deep sense: it is alive in and of itself—although certainly not in the same sense, since it is genete, that Jesus Christ is the ‘Way, the Truth and the Life’.[3] The soul is a substance one of whose properties is that it is alive.

What does the soul eat if it is alive? Gnosis. This we will study in Volume II.

‘Mental (noera)…’: As we have already said, ‘noera’ has the basic sense of ‘possessing mind or nous’. Not only is the soul alive, but it also possesses mind. St Macrina clearly is delineating those qualities that we would associate with a living human person. The Fathers in general do not use the concept of ‘consciousness’, but ‘possessing mind’ certainly would include that idea; we will study this in more detail below. We will see that the Patristic concept of mind (nous), as indeed the Classical Greek concept of mind (nous), is far broader than what today in English we ordinarily convey with the term ‘intellect’. What ‘intellect’ conveys is the power of ratiocination—propositional reason or analysis. While that which possesses mind (nous) certainly also possesses intellect (Greek: dianoia) in this sense, the concept of mind (nous) involved in this formal definition of soul is far broader than the concept of intellect: it includes, among other things, both the power of intuitive apprehension of intelligible conceptions (ennoies) and the power of intuitive apprehension of God himself.

There is an unfortunate tendency among Western translators in rendering such terms as ‘rational’ or ‘logical’, when referring to a quality characteristic of man or of the bodiless or angelic powers, to render the terms in the sense of ‘intellect’ that we have just given. The proper meaning is what St Macrina is now saying: ‘possessing mind (nous)’, where mind (nous) has that broader sense that we have just indicated. This tendency of Western translators of Classical and Patristic texts arises from the rationalism of Western philosophy and theology, this rationalism having developed in the High Middle Ages with the application of intensive logical techniques to philosophy and theology and having reached its apogee in the psychology of St Thomas Aquinas.[4]

There is an equally unfortunate tendency, however, on the part of some Western converts to the Orthodox Church who, reacting against the rationalism of their previous cultural milieu, bring with them to the Orthodox Church an anti-intellectualist ideology that would make of the Orthodox Church a place of mystical pietism. Both tendencies are wrong. Reason has a place in the Orthodox Church.

‘Implanting…’: This need not be taken as anything other than ‘imparting’. The implication, however, is that life comes to the body from the soul. Hence, St Macrina’s previous assertion that the body without the soul is dead. This is of course quite Platonic, even Neoplatonic.

‘A force…’: We would say, a power. An energy. Remember that we are well before the definition of force in Newtonian mechanics; hence, the word has the significance that it has in Classical philosophy.

‘Which is full of life…’: We have translated this according to the dictionary, but it seems to be stated on the analogy of ‘vivifying’. It is this force which enlivens or quickens the living body.

‘And which supports the senses…’: Again translating literally, we infer that what is meant is that the sense organs do not operate without this force or power. When we are sleeping or unconscious, this power is not in the organs of sense. When the sense organ is damaged, this power no longer is able to support the sense of that organ. According to Aristotle, ‘The mind sees,’ not the eye.[5] The mind sees through the instrumentality of the eye when the eye is functioning according to its work (ergon). Aristotle himself explains what he means in this way: if a man should go blind because of damage to his eyes, nonetheless, were he able to change his eyes for new ones (!) he would see again, for it is the mind that is the agent of perception whereas the eye is the instrument.[6]

‘In an organic (organiko)…’: ‘Organic (organiko)’ here has the Aristotelian meaning that the body is biological, that it has organs, but the meaning of organiko could also be taken to be ‘of the nature of a tool’—that the body is used by the soul as a tool, the Platonic conception. We have earlier adopted this second sense of organiko as better fitting the context.

‘And perceptive (aisthetiko)…’: The body has sense organs. It should be clear that we are talking about the human soul here. Aristotle introduces distinctions of which St Macrina will later make use.

‘Body…’: The body whose soul it is.

‘As long as the nature…’: The bodily nature.

‘Receptive of these things…’: In On the Making of Man, St Gregory discusses the necessity of the integrity of the body for the soul to be able to express itself.[7] Just as the mind (here, soul) needs the eye, and cannot see if the eye is damaged, so in general the bodily nature which is receptive of these things—here we take this in the broad sense of all those aspects of the body which serve to allow the immaterial soul to express in the sensible world its own self-moved motions—must be intact for the soul to be able to express itself. In modern language this would include the nervous system; however, it should be evident that for St Macrina the soul is not the nervous system, nor its functioning. The soul is an immaterial substance, ‘genete’, mental, possessing and implanting in the body a force which is full of life and which supports the senses. This immaterial substance, the soul, makes use of the nervous system and all the bodily organs, by means of the instrumentality of the nervous system[8] in order to express in the sensible world its self-moved motions. If the faculties of sense[9] are damaged, then the soul cannot express itself, not, however, itself being damaged in any way. The same is true of the bodily organs—say, the arm—: if they are damaged, then the soul cannot express its self-moved motions, not, however, for all that, itself necessarily being damaged.

‘Appears constituted.’: This appears to include the notion that we have just discussed of the necessity of the integrity of the body for the soul to be able to express its self-moved motions, even in the case where the body, and the person, are still alive. It also covers the case where the person dies and the body disintegrates: the soul is no longer able to do anything, since the ‘nature receptive of these things’ no longer ‘appears constituted’.

Now, what really is St Macrina saying?

First, she has avoided the Aristotelian definition of the soul, which, while difficult to understand, tends to a ‘function of the body’ conception of the soul.[10] St Macrina’ definition is quite Platonic.[11]

Next, St Macrina has given primacy to the soul. The soul enlivens the body.

Next, St Macrina clearly states that the soul works through the body. The body is the soul’s instrument. Moreover, the soul is limited in its expression but not in its integrity by the integrity of the body. In On the Making of Man,[12] St Gregory is quite clear that damage to the body may prevent the soul from expressing itself, but, for all that, the soul retains its own integrity. This Patristic position is quite important to understand with respect to discussions of bioethical issues concerning brain death as a preliminary to removal of organs from an otherwise living person for the sake of transplant.

In St Macrina’s and St Gregory’s view, damage to the body—say to the fore-brain—does not imply damage to the soul. This of course is completely alien and contrary to the materialistic philosophy underlying the paradigm of brain death in medicine today: as we have pointed out, that paradigm treats, as an ethical judgement, the patient as having lost his ‘personhood’ when his higher brain centres no longer show electrical activity, although his lower brain centres may continue to show electrical activity and his respiration may continue, perhaps with technical assistance. The criterion that the current medical paradigm provides for is based both on the concept of a humanly meaningful life and on the utilitarian benefit to others who have need of the patient’s organs. The patient’s life, from a humanistic point of view, may not be meaningful, but that does not mean that the patient is dead—that his soul has permanently departed. There is an unavoidable clash here between two philosophies of man, one humanistic and based on pragmatic, utilitarian considerations, and the other Orthodox Christian. We cannot in this study enter into this matter in depth; we will do so in another work in which we will deal with bioethical issues in general. Moreover, since St Macrina’s definition is a thoroughgoing vitalist definition of the soul, we would do well to postpone a detailed discussion of its implications in regard to the molecular biology of conception and in regard to related bioethical issues in the genetic engineering and cloning of humans. We will touch briefly on these matters in Chapter III, however, when we look at On the Making of Man.

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[1] ‘Motion’ throughout has the broad Aristotelian sense of displacement in space, change in quality, or generation or corruption.

[2] This analysis, which can be found in St Thomas’ Summa Theologiae, is summarized in Chapter 33 (‘Thomas Aquinas on human action’ by A. Donagan) of The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy (Medieval). We will discuss St Thomas’ theory of action in detail in Chapter IV, below.

[3] John 14, 6.

[4] See Chapter IV.

[5] Arist–Soul.

[6] Arist–Soul I, 4, 408b20–6; discussed in Joachim pp. 289–90.

[7] Making G. See Section 12 of Chapter III, below.

[8] St Macrina says: by means of the instrumental faculties of sense.

[9] Let us say today: including the nervous system.

[10] See Copleston Volume I, Chapter XXX, Sections 11 and 12, pp. 329–31 and Chapter XLVII, Section 5, pp. 497–8 for some remarks on this tendency of Aristotle.

[11] For a broad treatment by Fr Copleston of the tension between the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of the soul in Classical philosophy, see the whole of Section 5 just cited in the previous fn.

[12] Making G.


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