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Chapter I -- 16

I myself say, then, that this thing is the way you say: that which does not appear sensibly is not the same thing as that which appears sensibly; but, truly, I do not see in this definition that which is being sought.

St Gregory is here agreeing with St Macrina but moving on to the next issue. ‘That which does not appear sensibly’ is the immaterial and sensibly inapprehensible mind (nous), the intelligible mind (nous). St Gregory is conceding that that intelligible mind is different from a sensible object (‘that which appears sensibly’). He is saying, however, that this account of the mind (nous) does not really explain just what mind (nous) is. He continues:

For it is not yet evident to me what in the world it is necessary to think that thing is which does not appear—but that it is not a material sort of thing, I have learned from the definition, not yet knowing whatever it is appropriate to say concerning it. And I certainly was wanting to learn this: not what the mind (nous) is not, but just what it is.

She then said: Many things, and concerning many things, we learn in this way: in saying that something is not this thing here, interpreting the very being of what is sought, whatever thing it is at all. For saying ‘not wicked’ man we have set before the mind the ‘good’ man, and calling someone ‘unmanly’ we have made known the ‘cowardly’ man; and in these matters many things are to be said in a similar way by means of which we take up the [morally] better sense from the negation of the [morally] wicked senses; or, in the other direction, we are turned in our suppositions to the [morally] worse sense, exhibiting the [morally] wicked sense by the deprivation of the [morally] good senses.

Therefore, having thus considered the present definition, one would not fail to reach the required conception (ennoia) regarding that which is sought. It is sought what mind (nous) must be thought to be according to its very substance. Therefore, he who on the one hand, by means of the operation which is manifested in us by it, does not doubt that this thing exists concerning which is the definition, but who wishes on the other hand to know what it is, would adequately find an answer in learning that this thing is not something that the sense comprehends, not colour, not shape, not hardness, not weight, not quantity, not something in three dimensions, not position in a place, neither any one of those things which in any way at all are comprehended in regard to matter, if, indeed, there is any quality other than these [which I have listed].

Where have we arrived? St Macrina has taken the position that the existence of the mind (nous) has been proved by its operations—the discussion has moved from a discussion of soul (psuche) to a consideration of the existence of mind (nous). Now the question is: well, what is mind (nous)? St Macrina proceeds apophatically. Indeed, she introduces the apophatic method, and very gently. The apophatic method is the method of negations, and is usually used in regard to God. It is the method of approaching what something is by stating what it is not. That the apophatic method is being used for the mind (nous) is relevant, for we shall see that the mind (nous) is the image of God.[1]

St Macrina has posited that the mind (nous) is an immaterial substance. Substances have qualities inhering in them; this is Aristotle’s metaphysics. What St Macrina is doing is negating all sensible qualities, that is, all qualities that a sensible substance might have inhering in it. Sensible substances are material; intelligible substances are immaterial. Hence, intelligible substances have no sensible qualities. St Macrina has listed the most obvious sensible qualities—which are not precisely a repetition of Aristotle’s categories—negated them, and then said: and I negate every other possible sensible quality, if in fact there should be one. The mind (nous) cannot be apprehended by the senses. By extension, neither can the mind (nous) be apprehended by scientific instruments. The mind (nous) is apprehended, just as God is, by the mind’s (nous’) operations in nature. That is, the mind (nous) is apprehended by its operations in the sensible world, which operations it carries out through the instrumentality of the body.

What is important to grasp is that the existence of mind (nous) is shown, in St Macrina’s argument, by its operations (energeies). What this means is that the existence of mind (nous) is manifested by those aspects of human behaviour that we refer to in either epistemological or ethical discourse. These are concepts of person, agent, act, action, responsibility, love, knowledge, reason, and so on. These things St Macrina takes to be neither manifestations of the sensible aspect of the person—the sensible elements of the body subject to cause and effect—nor things which can be reduced to those sensible elements and their causes and effects, nor merely a matter of how men use epistemological or ethical concepts in their ordinary language: for St Macrina, these things and others like them ‘point’ to the immaterial mind (nous) whose operations these things are.

Moreover, for St Macrina the mind (nous) is itself not subject to sensible predication, it itself not being sensible at all. Hence, the mind (nous) does not belong to the sensible order of the world. It is not subject to the laws of cause and effect at all; it is subject to the ‘laws’ of epistemological and ethical discourse, among other laws: the ‘laws’ of epistemological and ethical discourse manifest the nature of the mind (nous).

St Gregory now interrupts.

I said in the middle of her detailed account: I do not know how it is, all these things being abstracted from the definition, that that which is being sought [the mind (nous)] is not utterly destroyed along with them.

That is, by negating all sensible attributes of the substance called mind (nous), have you not negated the substance of mind (nous) too?

For according to my own conception (ennoia), when the comprehensive curiosity is attached to something without these things, it does not yet see. For everywhere in the investigation of existent things, handling by means of the examining intellect that which is sought, we always touch one of those things spoken, finding either colour or shape or quantity or some other of the things now enumerated by you, just like some blind men being led by the hand towards the door by means of the walls. When none of these things should be stated to be, we are brought round from meanness of soul not to deem that which is being considered to be anything at all.

This is an important objection. It is the final statement by St Gregory of the empiricist rejection of intelligibles. First let us note that the phrase ‘comprehensive curiosity’ means ‘attention of mind’ without necessarily implying ‘by means of the senses’. ‘When we consider an object’ might be a translation of the phrase’s meaning. What St Gregory is saying—obviously a literary device—is this: When we abstract away the sensible qualities of a substance, what is left? Moreover, when we mentally consider a substance, we are led to a comprehension of its nature by one or another sensible quality. When the object under consideration has no sensible qualities at all, we are led round to the point of knowing nothing about it and to thinking that it does not even exist. We think that those readers who do not accept the existence of mind (nous) or soul (psuche) as immaterial substances would agree with this objection.

We will find in Volume II, and even in Chapter III, below, that Evagrius Pontikos in his ascetical psychology deals explicitly with how sensible and intelligible objects or substances are cognized by the mind (nous). This is important for a clear understanding of how God is known by the mind (nous) of the mystic or contemplative.

She, then, complaining bitterly in the middle of the argument, said: Away with this eccentricity!

Let us also interrupt. We want to return to the topic of systems-theoretic representations in molecular biology. We do not wish to suggest that systems-theoretic models are invalid. We ourselves have proposed a theoretical model, developmentally based and systems oriented, for genetic theory in The Genetic Program, A Systems Approach.[2] However, we made our proposal with two reservations: First, such models are contingent—always partially true as man-made—and always used instrumentally in the comprehension of the reality that is modelled—there, molecular genetics. Such models may give very good answers over a certain domain of data, otherwise why would they be constructed? Second, in the specific case of the human, such molecular biological models address only the sensible substrate; they do not account for the mind (nous) or soul (psuche). Hence, we are further suggesting that the domain of such models is limited to the sensible and cannot as sensible models approach the non-sensible, the intelligible. For the intelligible operates by different ‘rules’. One finds hints of this in discussions of ethical language that view ethical language as being a different sort of discourse than language concerning inanimate objects, machines, plants and animals. Those discussions consider that concepts such as agent, person, act, action, and so on, are introduced into ethical discourse which are not the sorts of concepts with which we speak of the non-human things just listed, except perhaps by extension. We ourselves are saying that this feature of ethical language is strongly correlated to the fact that humans are in fact agents or persons who act purposefully, and we view this aspect of humans as deriving from their having a soul (psuche) or mind (nous), which soul (psuche) or mind (nous) is intelligible and which does not belong to the sensible world of cause and effect. While this view of humans has not been in fashion in Anglo-American philosophy since Hume, we think that it is necessitated not only by theology, but also by the very great difficulties that arise in the empiricist tradition concerning treating the human as a person or agent who acts purposefully when the initial model of the person (the philosophical psychology of the person) is materialistic and mechanistic, even should the model be modified in some slight ways. For, in the empiricist tradition, the assumption is that only sensible things exist—Locke is an exception—, that the whole man is sensible, and that the rules that apply to man are those that apply to sensible objects; the result is what we have called the impoverished philosophical psychology of Hume. In general, in a philosophical tradition which recognizes the existence only of sensible things, there will be always a tendency to treat man as one natural phenomenon among the many, as subject to an explanation according to cause and effect. However, in our view, since the soul (psuche) or mind (nous) is intelligible, it belongs to a different order of existence; it obeys different ‘rules’ and must be discussed with a different sort of discourse from talk about sensible objects: person, agent, act, action and so on. Of course, the empiricist program rejects the introduction of such intelligible things as the soul, establishing as a philosophical principle that only sensible things exist and that if something is not sensible, then it does not exist. Hence, our remarks about the problematical nature of a hypothetical systems-theoretic representation of the molecular biology of mind (nous): On the one hand, just what the mind (nous) is would continue to be disputed; and so perforce would the possibility of its being modelled in its actual mode of operation by a system that was logically limited to the power of the algorithm. As we have remarked, however, given a certain range of behaviours specified in advance, it might be conceptually ‘easy’, although difficult, perhaps, in time, money and talent, to mimic those behaviours with an algorithm that would be designed to mimic just those behaviours and nothing more. This was the import of our example of a computer that played jazz: that particular human behaviour could be mimicked relatively ‘easily’ without regard to the question of how it is that humans actually compose and play jazz.

However, in the case of mystical experience, the empiricist tradition makes it impossible to discuss the experience except in one of the ways we have already indicated—that is, in terms of a humanistic or similar psychology that reduces mystical experience to alterations of the normal biochemical functioning of the brain and nervous system. The empiricist philosophical tradition rejected the existence of God and the existence of intelligibles and it cannot form the basis of a serious analysis of mysticism, although it might form the basis of a ‘scientific’ study of mysticism that applied a cause and effect model to reduce mysticism to ‘psychology’ or ‘behaviourism’ or modifications of the molecular biology of the brain or something similar. This is the great problem with authors, and persons in general, who, dissatisfied with the barrenness of the empiricist world-view, turn to mysticism: they are crippled by the empiricist world-view from conceptualizing properly the mysticism in a religious tradition, and reduce it to something that is half-mystical and half-empiricist. They often turn to occultism in their naïveté. —But this is where St Macrina has interrupted angrily. Let us continue:

To what limit will this paltry and vulgar judgement concerning those things that exist destroy! For if there were taken out of the existent everything that is not recognized by sense, he who says this would not even confess the very Power overseeing all things and encompassing all things, but being taught the bodiless and the formless properties of the Divine Nature, he would reckon, from such a chain of reasoning as this, that that Power did not exist at all!

Which is what empiricists and their descendants do.

If, then, there [i.e. in the application of the apophatic method to God himself], the assertion that these things are not

That is: ‘If in the application of the apophatic method to God, the assertion that no sensible quality can be attributed to God’—

does not become a legal objection to God’s existence, how is the human mind (nous) squeezed out of that which exists, being expended together in the removal of the bodily properties?

The logic is this: We accept that God exists despite the application of the apophatic method, which negates of God all sensible qualities. How is it, then, that the human mind (nous) is lost to us from existence when we similarly apply the apophatic method to negate of the mind (nous) all sensible or bodily qualities? Later, St Macrina will posit that it is the mind (nous)—obviously with a much broader meaning than is given to ‘mind’ in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition—that is the image of God in man. Hence, given that the mind (nous), apprehended apophatically, is the image of God, who also is apprehended apophatically, a full analogy is made between image and Prototype.

St Gregory has a rather tart answer:

I said: Therefore, by means of this chain of reasoning, from one absurd thing we succeed to another absurd thing. For our logic has come round to consider even our own mind (nous) to be identical to the Divine Nature, if, indeed, each is conceived through the exclusion of those things which are found by means of the senses.

Although this has the air of a literary device, it is very important for the objection—that the apophatic method applied both to God and to mind (nous) leads to the result that mind (nous) and God are of the same nature—to be considered and disposed of.

The teacher said: Do not say this—for this word is impious—but as you have been taught by the divine voice, say that this is similar to that.

Does this mean: As you have been taught by Scripture, say that the mind (nous)[3] is similar to God? Or does it mean: Whatever you have been taught by Scripture about God—his attributes—say that the mind (nous) has similar attributes? We prefer the second reading, but the first may very well be the correct one. On either reading, but especially on the second, this passage is very important for it begins to give full force to the theological doctrine that the mind (nous) or soul (psuche) is the image of God. Moreover, epistemologically, the possibility of the mystic to know God is founded on this analogy of image and Prototype.

St Macrina continues with a very important exposition of the doctrine of the mind (nous) or soul (psuche) as the image of God:

For that which has come to be according to the image (kat’ eikona), completely has the similarity, by means of all things, to the Archetype: mental (noeran) to mental (noerou), bodiless to bodiless, completely freed of all volume just as he is, and escaping from all dimensional measurement similarly to him, being other, however, than he is according to the property of the nature, for the mind (nous) would not still be an image (eikona) if it were identical to him in everything; but in those things that he is viewed in his uncreated nature, in those same things the created nature shows this.

Let us take this passage slowly because of its extremely great significance.

The first assertion is that the image (eikona) has a complete similarity to the Archetype, mind (nous) to God. This of course is founded on the Genesis account of the creation of man:

And God said, Let us make man according to our image and likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the seas and the birds of Heaven and the animals and the whole earth and all the creeping creatures that creep upon the earth. And God made the man; in the image of God he made him; male and female he made them.[4]

St Macrina lists these qualities in which the mind (nous) has a complete similarity to its Archetype, God: ‘mental’ (noeros), ‘bodiless’, ‘freed of all volume’, ‘escaping from all dimensional measurement’. Let us take each of these in turn. Let us first note, however, that the ‘similarity’ that St Macrina is positing is actually an identity: both the mind (nous) and God are ‘mental’; both are ‘bodiless’; both are ‘freed of volume’; both escape ‘all dimensional measurement’. In other words, St Macrina’s ‘similar’ must not be taken in the sense that the mind (nous) merely resembles God, but in the sense that the mind (nous) has exactly the same attributes as God save one: the mind (nous) is created whereas God is uncreated.

As we have already remarked, the word we have translated ‘mental (noeros)’ etymologically means ‘possessing mind’. As an epithet it is here used of God and of mind (nous); it is used elsewhere of angels and demons. It could well be translated ‘spiritual’. It might be considered to include the idea of having consciousness or personhood. It is what makes a man a purposeful actor in the world. It is what grants him ethical responsibility. It is what gives him the capacity to know God. It is what gives him the capacity to reason. It is sometimes used instead of, or replaced by, ‘logiko’, a Greek word that means ‘possessing reason’ or ‘possessing speech’. Animals, plants and rocks do not have mind (nous); they are therefore not ‘mental’ or ‘spiritual’; by the analogy with ‘logiko’, they are considered not to have reason or speech. Animals are restricted to sense-perception; plants to vegetative life; rocks to mere existence.[5] Hence, we can here conclude that when the notion of ‘having consciousness’ is introduced in regard to mind (nous), it means, inter alia, ‘having spiritual consciousness’ or ‘being able to cognize non-sensible realities’. It does not mean merely ‘existent’, merely ‘being alive’ or merely ‘being sentient, having sense-perception’.

We have seen previously that ‘bodiless’ means ‘non-sensible’ or ‘immaterial’ and that it is usually predicated of God, the angels and demons. Men have a body, but they also have a mind (nous) which is bodiless. In the commentary, we have often used ‘intelligible (noetos)’ in preference to ‘bodiless’.

Readers wondering about the inclusion of demons here should recall that in Christian theology, demons are fallen angels. They have not lost the characteristics such as ‘possessing mind (noeros)’ and ‘being bodiless’ that they had before they fell. Hence God, angels (including those which have fallen, demons), and men ‘possess mind’ and the first three are in themselves bodiless, while man’s mind (nous) is bodiless.

‘Freed of all volume’ means that we cannot measure the volume of the mind (nous). It has no volume, although it would be better to say that it is free of the concept of volume. Today, we would say that the mind (nous) has no mass or that the concept of mass is irrelevant to discussions of the nature of the mind (nous).

‘Escaping from all dimensional measurement’ means that the mind (nous) does not have spatial extension. It is recognized by its operations (energeies). St Macrina is saying that the mind (nous) of man escapes from all dimensional measurement, just as God himself does.

Now St Macrina inserts an important qualification: the mind (nous) and God are different according to the property of the nature: the similarities that mind (nous) has to God are complete except that God is uncreated and the mind (nous) created. As St Gregory points out in On the Making of Man,[6] unless the image and the Archetype are completely alike, they do not bear the relation of image and Archetype. But unless they differ in something, they are not image and Archetype; they are the same thing. Hence, to preserve these two necessary aspects of the relation of image (mind or nous) to Archetype (God), St Macrina asserts that mind (nous) is similar to God in everything, with the sole exception that mind (nous) is created while God is uncreated.[7] Moreover, ‘similar’ is here not to be taken in the sense of ‘resembles’ but in the sense of ‘possessing exactly the same attribute’.[8]

What is being said with these words? We have reached the foundation of Orthodox anthropology: man is created ‘according to our image and likeness’. Man is created in the image of God. This image resides in the mind (nous) or soul (psuche) of each man. This image is a complete likeness except in this, that man is created and God, the Archetype, is uncreated. We can now see the dignity of man, a dignity that surpasses comprehension. Created in the image and likeness of God, by God, he has been granted rule ‘over the fish of the seas and the birds of Heaven and the animals and the whole earth and all the creeping creatures that creep upon the earth’. There is nothing—nothing at all—which shares this dignity.

What can we say about this? The dignity of man is unsurpassable. Man is not just one life-form among the many. He is not simply an evolved life form. He is not simply one more species of animal, a species with a fortuitously large brain. His dignity rests not on the size of his brain case, but on his mind (nous) or soul (psuche), created in the image and likeness of God. God, his Lord, has granted man dominion—rule—over all his material creation. What can surpass such a dignity as the dignity that a man has?

Moreover, man’s spiritual potential rests on this similarity between man’s mind (nous) and God himself. Let us see how St Macrina herself puts it:

And as indeed often in a small piece of glass, when it should happen to lie towards the ray [of the sun], the whole disk of the sun is seen in it, not appearing in it in the same size, but as the smallness of the piece holds the appearance of the [solar] disk, thus in the smallness of our own nature, the images (eikones) of those inexpressible properties of the Divinity shine out, so that, by means of these things, the reason, being led by the hand, neither should fall from the understanding with regard to the substance of the mind, the bodily property having been cleared away in the examination of the subject for discussion, nor again should lead the small and perishable nature to equality with the unseen and imperishable nature, but should deem the substance [of the mind] to be intelligible (noeten) since it is the image (eikona) of an intelligible (noeten) substance [i.e. God], truly, however, without calling the image (eikona) the same thing as the Archetype.

Let us first paraphrase this difficult passage. Just as a small piece of glass, when it lies towards the rays of the sun, reflects a complete but small image of the solar disk, so our own human nature reflects the inexpressible properties of the Divine Nature. Our reason, then, being led by the hand from these considerations, should not fall away from its understanding of the substance of the mind (nous), that it is not a sensible thing, sensible qualities having been eliminated by the consideration of the subject at hand, but our reason also should not construe the small and perishable nature of the mind (nous) to be equal to the unseen and imperishable nature of God. Rather, our reason should deem the substance of the mind (nous) to be intelligible (noeten), since the mind (nous) is the image (eikona) of an intelligible (noeten) substance, God—without, for all that, our reason calling the image (eikona) the same thing as the Archetype.

Let us now analyse this. The image of the reflection of the sun (God) in the small piece of glass (the human mind or soul) is very important, especially because St Macrina qualifies this reflection as being of the properties of God. That is, we say of God, ‘God is love.’ Then the reflection of God in the human mind (nous) or soul (psuche) is seen in the divine love that the person has and manifests. Similarly for ‘God is merciful, long-suffering, forgiving’: the reflection of God in the human mind (nous) or soul (psuche) is seen in those very qualities of the human person. It will not be lost on the reader that when viewed in the human person, these things are called virtues. Moreover, St Macrina’s image conveys the idea that the rays of the sun are what are reflected in the glass. That is, her image conveys the idea that the virtues of the human person are reflections of the same properties of the Divine Nature itself. We see here a beginning of a theology of virtue. The reader may recall that we earlier announced that we would see a sense for the term ‘virtue’ much deeper than a mere adherence to rules. Here is the beginning of that deeper understanding of what human virtue is. There are further aspects of this deeper understanding of human virtue, however, and we shall encounter them as we proceed. Moreover, we shall see in Volume III that St Hesychios uses the image of the small piece of glass and the rays of the sun to portray the way in which the Hesychast sees God. As indeed does St Paul: ‘For now we see by means of a mirror in a riddle; then, however, face to face; now I know in part, then, however, I shall look upon even as I was looked upon.’[9] However, let us remain with St Gregory and his sister for now.

The next point that St Macrina makes is the smallness of the image of the sun in the piece of glass. This is important for the doctrine of divinization (theosis), the doctrine of the attainment by the human person to a likeness to God, the kath’ homoiosin. We do not become God—we cannot, since intrinsically the mind (nous) is of a different nature from God, being created whereas God is uncreated. But even when the glass is completely clean—we will learn in Evagrius in Volume II what that means—the image is much smaller than the prototype, the sun, according to the size of the piece of glass. We are created and we cannot manifest the fullness of the Divinity even in the sense of an image: none of us is of the stature of God. Compared to God, we are very small, and the image we present of God, however perfect it might be, is itself much smaller than the Reality that is God. We cannot become God, nor, if we were to become perfect images of God, would we have the stature of God. We are small and finite and the image we present is intrinsically small and finite, however perfect it might be.

St Macrina continues that by means of the reflection of the properties of God in us, we are led by consideration of the matter to see that the mind (nous) is not bodily or material, but also to see that the mind (nous) is not equal to God: we are small and perishable; God is unseen and imperishable. So on the one hand both the mind and God are intelligible (i.e. not sensible but apprehended by their operations in nature), but on the other hand they are not the same thing: the mind (nous) remains an image of God, not the same thing, or of the same nature, or of the same substance. St Macrina continues:

Therefore, just as through the unspeakable wisdom of God which appears in all things we do not doubt that the Divine Nature and power are in all existent things, so that all things remain in existence—if, however, one should require a definition of the [Divine] Nature, the substance of God is exceedingly far distant from each of the things in creation which are manifested and apprehended by thought, but nonetheless that which stands apart in respect of nature [i.e. God] is confessed to be in these things—thus there is nothing unbelievable that the substance of the soul, being some other sort of thing in itself, whatever that might ever be guessed to be, is also not prevented from existing, although those elemental things that are seen in the world do not occur to it according to the definition of its nature.

This difficult passage needs explication. St Macrina’s first point is a repetition of her own and St Paul’s doctrine of God’s self-revelation in nature by means of his wisdom. We have already discussed this: we perceive in creation the unspeakable wisdom of God that appears in all things, and from that we are led to grasp that God upholds all creation by his ‘Divine Nature and power’, so that all things remain in existence. Evagrius will make use of this doctrine in his theory of asceticism and contemplation; it is the basis of his ‘second natural contemplation’, which we discuss in Volume II and to a certain extent in Chapter III, below. St Macrina then makes a very important parenthetical remark. She says: If you demand, however, a definition of the Divine Nature, that Divine Nature is exceedingly far distant from anything that is manifested (i.e. sensible) or apprehended by thought (i.e. intelligible) in creation. Nonetheless, that Divine Nature, completely sundered from all things in creation according to the nature of its substance, is confessed to be in all things upholding them. That is, the Divine Nature, being uncreated, is completely different from all created things but that completely different Divine Nature is nonetheless in all created things, upholding them. This is the fundamental Christian understanding of the Divine Nature. Leaving her parenthetical remark, St Macrina then says, in a very different statement: In the same way, then, there is nothing unbelievable about the existence of the substance of the soul (psuche), whatever that might be guessed to be, even though those elemental things which are seen in the world do not occur to it. St Macrina’s use of the phrase ‘whatever that might ever be guessed to be’ concerning the substance or essence of the soul indicates that for her the substance or essence of the soul is unknowable in itself. That it exists can be inferred from its operations, but the fact that all possible sensible predicates are denied to it means that it cannot be known in the way that a sensible object can be known. We take the ambiguous expression ‘elemental things’ to mean ‘sensible qualities’, especially given St Macrina’s use of the word ‘occur’, which in the Greek is connected etymologically to the Aristotelian word ‘accident’, defined as a quality which inheres in a particular substance not necessarily but sometimes. The Nineteenth Century translator, Moore, refers ‘elemental things’ to the elements themselves, construing the passage to say that the mind (nous) has nothing to do with the elements.[10] Surely the thought underlying the passage is this: God is not a sensible being, but we believe in him through his operations. Similarly, the mind (nous) is not a substance with sensible qualities, but there is nothing unbelievable in its existing, whatever its substance—not subject to sensible predication—might ever be guessed to be.

For, as has already been said, not even in regard to living bodies, in which the hypostasis is from the mixing together of the elements, is there in the simple and formless substance of the soul (psuche) any communion with the bodily grossness as regards the substance [of the soul], but it is not doubted, however, that the enlivening operation (energeia) of the soul is in these elements, the soul being mixed up [with the elements of the body] by a certain principle greater than human understanding.

Let us paraphrase this extremely important passage concerning the relation between soul and body. In living bodies, the hypostasis of the body—the constitution, the identity, the being as a whole, the system as composed of system components—is from the mixing together of the elements. That is, the identity of a living body is the molecular biology of that living body pure and simple. Moreover, with regard to the substance of the soul, the simple and formless essence of the soul, there is no communion at all between the soul and the grossness of the body: the substance or essence of the soul has no connection whatsoever with the molecular biology of the body whose soul it is. Despite that, it is not to be doubted that the enlivening operation of the soul is in those elements of the body, those molecular biological compounds, the soul being mixed up with those elements of the body, those molecular biological compounds, by a certain principle greater than human understanding.

We understand this passage to say that the substance or essence of the soul has no connection with the molecular biology of the body. The molecular biology of the living body does not determine the essence or substance of the human soul. We encountered this problem earlier when we discussed whether the soul was the DNA or the information content of the DNA. It is not. There is no connection at all—as concerns the substance or essence of the soul—between the soul and the molecular biology of the body. However, for all that, we do not doubt that the enlivening operation (energeia) of the soul is in the molecular biology of the body, being mixed up with it by a certain principle greater than human understanding. In other words, although the essence or substance of the soul has no connection at all with the molecular biology of the body, the soul enlivens the body by a principle greater than human understanding—by means of an operation (energeia) of the soul. Recall that we began with the notion that the soul had something to do with the liveliness of the person alive, and saw that the Ancients were struck by the irreducible difference between the living and the dead, and that they ascribed this difference to the presence or absence of something they called the soul. We have now arrived at a fuller understanding of that concept. The soul is intelligible and has no connection according to its essence with the living body; however, it enlivens, by an operation (energeia) that it possesses, that living body in the very matrix, let us say, of that living body’s molecular biology. As we have pointed out, this enlivening is not an invisible factor added to the chemical reactions, as the quotations we gave earlier from Watson and his fellow authors would have us construe such a ‘vitalistic’ role for the soul. It is not as if the soul were an extra non-sensible chemical compound or enzyme that would have to be included in the molecular-biological systems representation of the living body. St Macrina is clear: the hypostasis of the living body is due to the mixing together of the elements, due to the molecular biology, taken in and of itself, of that living body. However in some fashion beyond human understanding, St Macrina says, the soul enlivens the body, not by the soul’s essence but by an operation (energeia). As we ourselves have remarked, this enlivening, as regards the molecular biology of the living body, performs a role in the living body analogous to the conservatory role of God himself in creation: it upholds the possibility that that molecular biology might continue and that the body not decompose.

This is extremely important for bioethics. It contains all the problems of Orthodox reflection on the nature of the soul in the face of a materialistic and mechanistic (empiricist) metaphysic such as Orthodoxy encounters today in the West. Let us therefore look at this definition piece by piece.

First, the definition says that there is no communion of the soul according to its substance with the elements of the body. This would seem to give the better translation to Moore who construed that ‘elemental things’ referred to the elements. But those ‘elemental things’ were the sensible aspects of the elements, their qualities. That is what St Macrina meant. Now St Macrina is saying that the body is a mixture of elements. We would say: the molecular biology of the body, including the molecular biology of the nervous system. We can elucidate—with great toil—the molecular biology of the brain, nervous system, endocrine system, body. We can represent the reaction pathways systems-theoretically. They have nodes which are analysable in detail. These nodes are the intersections of reactions, and the analysis yields a systems representation which describes how the reaction network acts and will act. We can do all of that. These things describe the body.

St Macrina, however, says that there is no communion according to the substance of the soul between the simple and formless nature of the soul and the grossness of the body. An analogy might be recalled: God, whose nature is completely different from anything in creation, whether sensible or intelligible, has no communion according to his substance with anything in creation. The analogy that St Macrina is drawing is clear: just as God, who is completely different from creation, keeps the creation in existence, penetrating the creation not with his substance but with his operations (energeies), so the soul, which has no communion with the body according to the soul’s substance—that is, the soul is in no wise of the same nature as the body—enlivens the body.

What is the connection between this enlivening and molecular biology? As we have pointed out previously, modern molecular biology resolutely rejects—as a matter of philosophical and scientific paradigm—any concept of ‘vitalism’, which is precisely what this ‘enlivening’ of the body by the soul would be construed by a modern molecular biologist to be. But let us look a little more carefully at this. St Macrina has said that the hypostasis—this is a difficult word; we might say ‘identity’—of the body is the commixture of the elements. We would say: the body’s molecular biological substrate. St Macrina treats this as a physical or sensible affair. She says that the substance of the soul has no connection with this molecular biological substrate. She then says that the soul enlivens the body. Let us supply this interpretation: God upholds the universe so that natural laws work. As St Macrina has said, God interweaves the disparate elements with their opposed qualities into an integrated whole. Similarly, the soul enlivens the body so that the laws of molecular biology work, so that the body does not decompose. In this sense, the soul enlivens the body in exactly the same way that St Macrina—and St Maximos in his Mystagogia—say that God keeps the creation in existence: by upholding the elements of the body against their contrary tendency to disintegrate (i.e. to fall away from each other in compounds). Hence, in this view, the enlivening nature of the soul is what, in the general case when we are alive, prevents the tissue of an organ from beginning to rot. It does not change the chemical reactions but it supports the continued operation of the chemical reactions, just as God’s keeping creation in existence does not alter the physical chemistry of the sun, but keeps the sun with its physical chemistry going.

St Macrina says that the soul is simple and formless. These are ontological characterizations. ‘Simple’ is ‘without parts’: the simple cannot be decomposed into constituents. ‘Formless’ is ‘without shape in a sensible way’, but more fundamentally, ‘uncharacterizable’ or ‘uncategorizable’. In On the Making of Man,[11] St Gregory goes further: just as God in his substance is unknowable, so the soul in its substance is unknowable. In both cases only their operations reveal them and their presence in the sensible world. Moreover, just above, St Macrina has indicated the same thing by referring to the substance of the soul with the phrase ‘whatever that might ever be guessed to be’.

This position is sound theology. However, it is radically different from anything that anyone working in the current materialistic and mechanistic paradigm of biology would accept. Such a person might pose this question: well, what does your concept of an occult (i.e. hidden, since non-sensible and non-measurable) soul do? Given what you say, I can continue to do my molecular biology just as I was doing it before, since the substance of the soul that you claim exists has no connection with the molecular biology of the body. But you say that its operations—which I can’t measure anyway—are what make the human body alive. What’s the use of this concept?

The use of the concept of soul is not in molecular biology. It has to do with the human person: the person who is an autonomous actor, morally responsible for his actions, possessing freedom of will to choose his course of action; who was created in the image of God; who can know God both in this life and in the next; whose identity does not disappear with the fact of bodily death; who can love, serve others, both God and man; who has the freedom to turn to God in ascetical endeavour; who can purify himself so as to attain, by the grace of God, to an intuitive apprehension of God himself. The concept also enables us to understand the personhood of other persons, to evaluate our moral choices—especially, today, in bioethics—in a way consistent with the actual personhood of the other person, with the actual sources of the personhood of the other person.

To finish the definition, St Macrina says that, while according to its substance the soul has no communion with the elements of the body, it is mixed with them, in a way beyond human comprehension, by means of its enlivening operation (energeia).[12]

Some points here: Starting from the Classical Greeks, those philosophers who treated the soul as something other than the body have recognized that things that affect the body can affect the operations of the soul. We earlier mentioned damage to the eye.[13] Somewhere, also, drunkenness is mentioned, on which principle it would not be denied that drugs such as tranquillizers can affect the mood or disposition of the soul. Hence, there is no suggestion that, while the soul operates through the instrumentality of the body, what you do to the molecular biology of your body, nervous system or brain has no effect on your mood or disposition. But not on the substance of the soul itself: it is worthwhile to recall Aristotle’s remark that if the bad eye were to be replaced with a good eye, the mind (nous), which is what sees, would again see. When a man gets drunk, his mood is altered, but when he sobers up, his mind (nous) recovers its former faculties. Similarly in the case of illnesses, including illnesses of the central nervous system: these illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s Syndrome, impede the ability of the mind (nous) to express itself. They do not, however, disturb the substance or essence of the mind (nous)—what gives the human person his personal identity or personhood.

Next, it might be remarked that part of the problem in assessing St Macrina’s doctrine of the relation of the soul to the body has to do with the limitations of our scientific paradigms. When Galileo’s mechanics was new, for example, Hobbes constructed a psychology of man based strictly on that mechanics. Descartes himself constructed his anthropology on the premise that man’s body was a mechanical system of the sort that was discussed in the mechanics of Galileo, whereas his soul was the sort of intelligible substance that St Macrina has defined. However, since Descartes was restricted in his understanding of the human body to a rather primitive theory of mechanics in physics, he was faced with the conundrum of how the ‘ghost in the machine’ interacted with the machine; he came up with the solution that the soul acted on the body through the pineal gland. This is an example of an attempt to combine the notion of an intelligible, mental (noera) soul with a scientific paradigm in biology: the intelligible soul with the machine: this was the biological paradigm of Descarte’s time. Hume himself, drawing on what he understood to be the principles of Newton’s mechanics for his own paradigm of the human sciences, dismissed completely the existence of the intelligible soul and the intelligible mind (nous); this is a third example of the adaptation of a paradigm in physics to philosophical psychology.

Today, our understanding of both physics and molecular biology is more sophisticated, although the current paradigm in molecular biology is, as we have already discussed, systems-based and therefore productive of models equivalent in logical power to the algorithm. Again, however, the issue arises of how the soul communicates with the body. St Macrina asserts that this is a matter beyond human understanding. Here it must be remarked that just as the mechanics of Galileo was crude, and the psychology of Hobbes based on it, so the molecular biology of today will in five hundred years be seen to be crude, and the psychologies based on it: these are models, or paradigms, for the practice of ‘normal science’ and they are superseded the one after the other. Hence, the reader must be cautious: it is one thing to discuss in philosophy how the intelligible soul is related to the sensible body; it is another thing to attempt to harmonize the concept of the intelligible soul or intelligible mind with one’s current paradigm either in physics[14] or in biology. The paradigm is an unfinished business, whatever the paradigm; the reality is the object itself with which the paradigm deals—paradigmatically.

On this notion of the practice of ‘normal science’ according to sociologically defined and maintained paradigms, see, of course, Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.[15] We go a little further than Kuhn in treating all scientific theories as contingent approximations to reality, a reality that remains forever unknowable to us in its fullness: all biological paradigms are approximations to the reality that is the cell or the body itself.

We think that this is the great lesson to be learned from the transition from Newtonian physics to special relativity: the philosophy of nature underlying the two theories is not the same. A naïve view would be that the philosophy of nature underlying relativity is a ‘better’ view of nature than the philosophy of nature underlying Newton’s physics: each scientific revolution brings about a progress in our understanding of nature. We are not so sure. While it is surely true that each authentic scientific revolution brings about a greater ability to do, say, engineering on the domain being studied, we are not so sure that the philosophy of nature underlying the new mathematical formalism is necessarily any closer ‘to the Truth’ than the previous one. Since, for example, it is quite possible that both the special and general theories of relativity will one day be superseded, together with the philosophy of nature that underlies them, it is in no wise clear that the philosophy of nature underlying relativity is necessarily any closer ‘to the Truth’ than the philosophy of nature underlying Newton’s physics. This is how Kuhn himself expresses himself on this point:

…Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.

Compared with the notion of progress most prevalent among both philosophers of science and laymen, however, this position lacks an essential element. A scientific theory is usually felt to be better than its predecessors not only in the sense that it is a better instrument for discovering and solving puzzles but also because it is somehow a better representation of what nature is really like. One often hears that successive theories grow ever closer to, or approximate more and more closely to, the truth. Apparently, generalizations like that refer not to the puzzle-solutions and the concrete predictions derived from a theory but rather to its ontology, to the match, that is, between the entities with which the theory populates nature and what is “really there.”

Perhaps there is some other way of salvaging the notion of “truth” for application to whole theories, but this one will not do. There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like “really there;” the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its “real” counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle. Besides, as a historian, I am impressed with the implausibility of the view. I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s than either of them is to Newton’s. Though the temptation to describe that position [of Kuhn’s] as relativistic [i.e. not based on a single objective criterion] is understandable, the description seems to me wrong. Conversely, if the position be relativism, I cannot see that the relativist [in the philosophy of science, as Kuhn is espousing it] loses anything needed to account for the nature and development of the sciences.[16]

The next point is that this conception of the soul is going to have immediate consequences in the soteriological program of him who accepts it: it is going to affect how he understands the ‘Work out your salvation in fear and trembling,’ of St Paul.[17] It puts asceticism—and Hesychasm—on a soteriological basis. It orients the asceticism of the monk. The monk’s asceticism is inserted into the context of the Christian doctrine of salvation; it is no longer a matter of taking up an amusing hobby, as we might take up golf in preference to tennis. This is not to suggest that we all must become monks; that is another matter. St Macrina’s doctrine of the soul poses this issue: how am I going to work out my salvation in fear and trembling, I who am a soul mixed with a body in the fashion stated? As we proceed towards Evagrius’ psychology in Volume II, and towards the Hesychast method of St Hesychios in Volume III, we will see that this Orthodox conception of the soul will play a central role in the definition of the ascetical and Hesychast program.[18]

The final point is that this doctrine of the soul completely cuts off all Orthodox asceticism from the program of humanistic psychology to interpret religious experience as a physical state of the brain that can be induced by natural (physical) means. We shall see, for example, that Evagrius Pontikos posits, in the works that we shall study in Volume II, that the basic treatment for the passions (vices) of the soul is spiritual charity. However, the monk does not engage in spiritual charity to alter the biochemistry of his brain, but because spiritual charity is a therapy for his formless and immaterial soul.

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[1] Later we shall see the connection between mind (nous) and the broader concept, soul (psuche).

[2] Genetic.

[3] Actually, of course, the soul (psuche); we will later see the connection.

[4] Gen. 1, 26–7.

[5] This is of course Aristotle’s typology of soul (psuche), of which St Macrina will make explicit use below, without, however, ascribing it to its source.

[6] Making G.

[7] Consider in this regard St Thomas Aquinas’ own doctrine of the nature of the human mind as an inferior part of a grand mosaic of intelligence which extends from God through the various ranks of angels to man. This will be discussed in Chapter IV, below.

[8] Orthodox theologians will wonder about how St Gregory handles the distinction ‘in the image (kat’ eikona)’ – ‘in the likeness (kath’ homoiosin)’ and how he handles the consequences of Adam’s Fall. As far as we ourselves understand, the terminological distinction ‘kat’ eikona – kath’ homoiosin’ was established in Orthodox theology by St Maximos the Confessor, who, it will be seen, had read St Gregory. However, the distinction is made and used fully by St Diadochos of Photike (c.400–a.486) in the Gnostic Chapters, written c.450. Although it is certain that St Gregory never uses the term ‘in the likeness (kath’ homoiosin)’, only ‘in the image (kat’ eikona)’, it will be seen that he has the distinction embedded in his theology. Moreover, St Gregory, as we shall see, is quite clear about the consequences of the Fall.

[9] 1 Cor. 13, 12.

[10] NF 2, V.

[11] Making G.

[12] The distinction essence – energy (ousia – energeia), so important to the Fourteenth Century Palamite defence of Hesychasm, is therefore explicitly found in a text written c.386.

[13] That was certainly in the context of Aristotle, who however cannot considered to have treated the soul as something distinct from the body. However, the point remains.

[14] Today, we sometimes read that the mind is quantum leaps within the molecules that constitute the neurons of the brain.

[15] Kuhn.

[16] Kuhn pp. 206–7.

[17] Phil. 2, 12.

[18] We will address those aspects of Evagrius’ doctrine of the person that cannot be accepted by the Orthodox in Chapter III, below.


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