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Chapter I -- 14

Let us continue:

And when she said this, she showed with her hand the doctor occupied with the treatment of her body, who was sitting there, and said: The testimony is near to us of those things which are being said. For how does this doctor, placing on the artery the touch of his finger, hear after a fashion by means of the sense of touch when the nature [of the body] cries out to him and narrates its own passions? For the illness is in intensified state in the body and the illness leaps from these very entrails, and by that much more the intensification of the fire [in the arteries] is extended. He is taught by the eye other such things, looking at the figure of reclining and at the rotting of the flesh, and how the kind of colour, pale and bilious, indicates the disposition within, and the gaze of the eyes, being spontaneously inclined towards sorrow and pain; and in like manner the hearing becomes the teacher of similar things, recognizing the passion from the denseness of the laboured breathing and the sigh that accompanies the breath. One would say that not even the sense of smell of the scientist is neglectful of the passion, but that, by means of a certain quality of the breath, it recognizes the sickness hidden in the entrails. Therefore, if there were not an intelligible (noete) force which were present in each of the senses, what would the hand of itself teach us, unless the conception (ennoia) were not guiding the touch towards knowledge (gnosis) of the subject? What, then, would the hearing divorced from the intellect (dianoia), or the eye, or the nostril, or other faculty of sense, work together towards the knowledge (gnosis) of what is sought if each one of these faculties were by itself only? But the most true thing of all is what one of those who have been educated in pagan letters is well recorded as having said: ‘Mind (nous) is what sees and mind (nous) is what hears.’

If you will not grant that this is true, how, tell me, looking towards the sun as you have been taught by the teacher to see, not as much as it appears to the many, that much you say it is in the measure of the circumference, but that in measure it exceeds by many times the whole earth? Is it not that you have had the confidence to declare that it is this way, having followed a certain kind of movement and the temporal and spatial intervals and the causes of eclipses in your intellect through those things which appear? And when you see the waning and waxing of the moon, sight teaches you other such things by means of the shape which appears around the element, that in its own nature the moon is not radiant, that it rotates round the earth and that it shines from the rays of the sun as by nature happens with mirrors, which, accepting the sun on themselves, do not give back their own rays, but the rays of sunlight, which are reflected back from the smooth and polished surface? Which very thing appears to those who see without examining, that the light is from the moon itself. It is shown that the matter is not so, for when the moon happens to be facing the sun across a diameter it is illumined in the whole disk which faces us…

[We omit a discussion of the phases of the moon.]

Do you see of what things sight becomes for you a teacher, not, however, as if providing by itself the contemplation of matters of this sort, if there were not something [in addition] which were seeing by means of the eyes and which, making use, as of some guides, of those things which are perceived according to sense-perception, were penetrating through those things which appear to those things which do not appear?

First of all, we have eliminated solely because of its length the discussion of the phases of the moon. It is a quite accurate discussion of the phases of the moon based on the geocentric model, in which the moon revolves round the earth in an orbit which is inside the orbit of the sun, which also revolves round the earth. Otherwise the discussion is quite useful. In general, astronomy in St Macrina’s time had reached a very high level: St Augustine, writing in the Confessions within twenty-five years of the time of our dialogue, remarks that the astronomers of his time had reached the stage not only of predicting partial eclipses, but of specifying which part of the celestial body would be eclipsed. The problem, St Augustine says, is that the astronomers in their pride did not give the glory to God.

What is St Macrina saying, however? The gist of what she is saying is this: ‘Mind (nous) is what sees and mind (nous) is what hears.’ We have already stated that Aristotle says this in On the Soul, which is true. The French translator of On the Soul and the Resurrection, Terrieux, states, however, that the source of this adage is Epicharmos, a Pythagorean.[1] Whence we conclude that one quoted the other, something that shows the hoariness of this adage in Greek philosophy.

The point that St Macrina is making is that the doctor would get nothing of value from his sense organs in the examination of the patient (St Macrina herself), unless he had both mind (nous) and a conception (ennoia) in his mind (nous) which were guiding him in the use of his sense organs in the examination. Similarly, St Gregory himself, says his sister, understands the relative sizes of the sun and the earth because he has a conception (ennoia) in his mind that he has been taught which interprets the data of sense-perception; and, similarly, he understands both the phases of the moon and the fact that the light of the moon is the reflected light of the sun because he has been taught a conception (ennoia) which interprets appropriately the data he has from sense-perception.

Now, the significance of these things for St Macrina’s arguments for the existence of the intelligible soul is this: There is a certain connection between soul (psuche) and mind (nous). Let us leave that for the moment, since St Macrina herself will later address the relationship between these two things. She has said, however, that the soul, which possesses mind (nous), is immaterial and inapprehensible by sense-perception and that it can only be discovered by its operations or motions in the world of sense. Here, the soul of the doctor, and his mind (nous), are inapprehensible in themselves. However, that the doctor can make a diagnosis by means of his sense organs indicates his possession of mind (nous), and proves that he must have in his mind (nous) a conception (ennoia) which is above sense-perception and which is guiding the use of his senses in his examination of his patient. For what does the doctor’s eye or ear know about medicine? Similarly, the knowledge that St Gregory himself has of astronomy cannot be reduced to sense-perception, since the simple sense-perceptions in these cases are in fact deceiving: the sun, contrary to the simple sense-perception of the solar disk, is many times larger than the earth; the light of the moon, contrary to simple sense-perception, is reflected sunlight; the waning and waxing of the moon, the basic datum of sense-perception, is explained by the rotation of the moon about the earth; and so on.

St Macrina’s point, therefore, is that without sense-perceptions, we do not learn anything about the world of sense, but that without mind (nous), we can do nothing with our sense-perceptions. ‘Mind (nous) is what sees and mind (nous) is what hears.’ Mind (nous) is the agent of perception, and the sense organs are the instruments of sense-perception.

Now St Macrina has said that the doctor examining her has a conception (ennoia) in his mind (nous) guiding the use of his sense organs in the examination. What does she mean? What is this conception (ennoia)? In the case of the doctor, this is clear: his conception (ennoia) is his medical knowledge. As St Macrina herself points out, the doctor in placing his finger on the artery has a conception (ennoia) of the physiology of the body wherein the fire courses through the artery, and in the case of an intensification of the illness, the fire which springs forth from the entrails courses through the artery with a greater intensity: by means of his touch on the artery, the doctor is measuring the intensity of the fire coursing through the artery. Speaking in a crude way, we can say that the doctor’s conception (ennoia) is a model of the physiology of man, a model which includes interpretations of symptoms of illness as variations on the normal physiology of man. Now, this model is something that the doctor has in his mind (nous). In the present case, it is propositional and it is something that can be taught. This is even clearer in the astronomical examples, where St Macrina refers explicitly to the interpretative nature of the model with respect to sense-perception and to the fact that St Gregory was taught the model. However, the model is not merely propositional, and this will be important for us later, when we comment on St Gregory’s presentation of a mechanistic theory of mind (nous). The doctor certainly makes intuitive judgements,[2] and he certainly combines disparate elements, even propositional, of what he has been taught and of what he has learned by experience, into something which we might call, informally, ‘judgement’ and which is not exercised by means of syllogisms or even algorithms (computer programs), but intuitively. And, as we shall see, it is the mind (nous) that makes these judgements. The content of mind (nous)—crudely, the modelon the basis of which the judgement is made—say, in the use of touch on the artery in making a diagnosis—is the conception (ennoia).

Now, it surely has not been lost on the reader that neither the medicine of St Macrina’s time nor the astronomy of her time has survived. These models have been superseded by other models. It is even fashionable to disparage the models of former times, as if today’s models will not themselves tomorrow be superseded—and similarly disparaged. The models in the examples given are contingent. This of course raises the question—well, then, what is the significance of the conception (ennoia) that St Macrina is talking about, since it itself is contingent? In the cases given, this is true. However, despite the contingent nature, in the examples given, of the conception (ennoia) that the mind (nous) has, St Macrina can still assert the autonomous existence of the mind (nous) apart from sense-perception and can also still assert the necessary role of the conception (ennoia) in the interpretation of sense-perception, a conception (ennoia) which is not reducible to sense-perception. Moreover, when, in Volume II, we turn to the ascetical psychology of Evagrius, we will see that the mystic is interested in conceptions (ennoies) which have a more absolute character. For if the conceptions (ennoies) that a mystic had of God and the angels were merely contingent, or even merely subjective, why would the mystic waste his time in the desert? That is not to say that mystical knowledge is complete from the first instant of illumination, but that is another matter.

We used the term ‘intuitive’ just above. This deserves some comment. We spoke earlier of the mind’s (nous’) having the potential to apprehend intuitively, intelligible conceptions (ennoies). In our discussion of St Macrina’s examples just above, however, we had in mind a somewhat less exalted sort of intuition: when the doctor places his finger on the artery, he does not engage in syllogistic reasoning—although, to an extent he might—: he forms a judgement. This judgement is formed, we want to say, ‘intuitively’. Here, we are using ‘intuitively’ in opposition to ‘by means of a formal logical procedure or deduction’. The doctor is not a computer; he does not have a program embedded in his brain which systematically lists all the possible cases and evaluates the touch on the artery systematically on the basis of all the possible cases. The doctor forms a judgement, although, as we said, he might engage in some syllogistic reasoning; he might recall some things that he had been taught; he might recall some things that he had seen in other such cases; he might recall some medical adages and rules of thumb. The judgement the doctor forms intuitively, however. Very few doctors today in making a medical visit would blindly follow a strictly mechanical procedure, imitating a computer.

It is clear from the context that St Macrina means her examples to be examples of conceptions (ennoies) which are above sense-perception. However, when we, in our commentary, earlier spoke of the intuitive apprehension of intelligible conceptions (ennoies) which were above sense-perception, we had in mind more the conceptions (ennoies) which were of spiritual realities; that is, we were referring to the content of contemplations in the spiritual sense. In the case of spiritual contemplations, the mind (nous) is led to the conception (ennoia) independently of sense-perception, and, as we shall learn in Volume II, sense-perception impedes the process. In St Macrina’s examples of the doctor and astronomy, however, sense-perception is the necessary starting-point for the mind (nous). In the case of the doctor, sense-perception is a starting-point in two senses: First, when he is learning medicine, the doctor must be led by means of sense-perception to intelligible conceptions (ennoies) of a propositional nature. Second, when he is applying his now-existing medical knowledge to a patient, he must, in the interpretation of the primary data of sense-perception, be guided by the intelligible conception (ennoia) which is his medical knowledge; and he must be led by sense-perception to an intelligible conception (ennoia) which gives him an understanding of the patient’s condition and prospects.

It is important to understand, however, that, even in the examples given by St Macrina, there is a gulf between what St Macrina is saying and what Hume is saying in his empiricist program. For Hume explicitly rejects the existence of mind (nous) and bases all cognition strictly on sense-perceptions, passions and emotions, and on the association of the mental images of these things; here St Macrina is asserting that the intelligible conception (ennoia) is not what Hume asserts it to be.

In St Macrina’s view, those things which appear—that is, the phenomena given in sense-perception—act as guides to the mind (nous) to arrive at conceptions (ennoies) which are not sense-perceptions. Thus the doctor is led from the touch on the artery to a judgement as to the interior condition of the entrails. Although the doctor has been trained in medicine and does not receive his medical knowledge by mystical revelation, these medical truths are not, for St Macrina, due to the association of mental images of sense-perceptions, passions or emotions, which is Hume’s position. For St Macrina, the sense-perceptions act as guides—pointers—for the mind (nous). Furthermore, for St Macrina, the mind (nous) has an autonomous, objective existence although it is intelligible and not subject to apprehension by the eye or ear: its existence can only be inferred from its operations in the living body of a person; those operations of the living body are what can be seen or heard. Hume and all those who stand in the empiricist tradition vehemently reject this position. This is a fundamental difference between the anthropology of St Gregory of Nyssa and the anthropology that we have ascribed to the materialistic and mechanistic philosophical paradigm underlying modern biology. In the anthropology of St Gregory of Nyssa, man is characterized by the possession of a mental or spiritual substance (noera ousia), a substance which ‘possesses mind’—this is the soul of man—whereas in the anthropology that we have ascribed to the materialistic and mechanistic school, man is simply one species of material animal, a species characterized by a large brain, this large brain having evolved fortuitously. The very existence of an intelligible substance such as the soul (psuche) or mind (nous) of man is vehemently rejected in this second anthropology, all the operations of mind (nous) that St Macrina is ascribing to a mental (noeros) substance being ascribed by this second school to the functioning of the brain: Hume’s anthropology, his psychology, his theory of cognition, his ethics represent an early modern attempt to delineate a theory of man which is consistent with this materialistic philosophy. The consequences of this fundamental difference in philosophical anthropology or psychology are immense.

St Macrina, in her examples, has used two illustrations—that of medical diagnosis using sensible signs to point to the illness and that of astronomical observation to point to the theoretical understanding of the heavens—wherein the conception (ennoia) that the mind (nous) attains to is propositional: the patient has such-and-such an illness and will not survive; the sun is so large. We might say that what the mind (nous) attains to is a conceptual model which provides an interpretative framework for the comprehension of sense-perceptions. Moreover, as we have pointed out, the model in both cases is contingent.

We take the position that human conceptions (ennoies) are always contingent, that another model is always to be expected. In a thousand years, will the general theory of relativity be the orthodoxy in cosmology? We doubt it. A sophisticated empiricist would say, however: It is the empiricist program that must remain, not a certain model, for the models are contingent.

We shall see, however, that for the religious monk the attainment of his mind (nous) to intelligible conceptions (ennoies) will include not only contingent human propositional conceptions (ennoies), but also spiritual conceptions (ennoies) concerning created things (the reasons (logoi) of created objects), of the angelic powers and, finally, of God himself. We will also see that these higher conceptions (ennoies) are no longer propositional. These higher spiritual conceptions (ennoies) enlighten the mind (nous) so that the mind (nous) apprehends intuitively[3] those truths that are attained in contemplation. However, as we will discuss later, these spiritual intelligible conceptions (ennoies), although apprehended intuitively, are partial: man cannot contain in himself either in breadth or in depth the knowledge that God has.

Let us continue. St Macrina is still speaking.

Why is it necessary to add the geometrical proofs which lead us by the hand from the sensible engravings towards those things which are above sense, and countless other things in addition to these things, by means of which things the proposition is constituted that comprehension concerning the mental substance (noera ousia) hidden in our nature occurs by means of those things which are set in motion in us bodily?

This of course is the final formulation of the program. ‘Mental substance’ might also be translated ‘spiritual substance’. It is the soul, in accordance with St Macrina’s formal definition. We comprehend the mental substance which is the soul by means of those things which are set in motion in us bodily, and hence sensibly, by the immaterial, and hence sensibly inapprehensible, soul.

We do not think it necessary to dwell on the proof from geometry: St Macrina’s sense is simply that geometrical—and, in general, mathematical—truths are by their nature not sensible—nor even, we ourselves might add today, due to the association of the mental images of sense-perceptions. They are examples of conceptions (ennoies) that only an intelligible mental substance (noera ousia) might have, to which the mind (nous) that the mental substance (noera ousia) possesses is guided by means of the sensible geometrical—or, in general, mathematical—diagrams and examples. Note however, that while the argument for them bears obvious resemblances to an argument for Plato’s theory of Forms, these conceptions (ennoies) have not been defined nor have they been connected specifically either to Plato’s Forms or to any theory of innate ideas. Moreover, nothing has been said about their relation to knowledge (gnosis). Let us ourselves leave these matters alone for the moment. Let us remark, however, that we are clearly a long way from any treatment of geometry or mathematics as a formal system. It is well also to remark that the example of being led from the geometrical diagram to the abstract geometrical conception (ennoia) clarifies for the reader who is uncertain what St Macrina means by an intelligible conception (ennoia), just what an intelligible conception (ennoia) is. For it is clear that St Macrina considers that it is an abstract conception (the geometrical concept), one to which the mind (nous) is led by a consideration of sense-perception (the geometrical diagram) but which is not sense-perception (the geometrical diagram itself) nor due to the association of mental images of sense-perceptions (the geometrical diagram seen many times): the geometrical diagram ‘points’ to the intelligible conception or ennoia (the geometrical concept or truth), which must be grasped mentally by the mind (nous).

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[1] Soul F p. 80, fn. 1.

[2] In the everyday acceptation of the phrase.

[3] Not propositionally; here we intend ‘intuitive’ in its philosophical sense.


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