Chapter I -- 17
Let us continue:
Therefore, neither when the elements which are in the body are loosed towards themselves is that lost which binds them together by means of the enlivening operation (energeia), but just as each element is separately given life while the mixture of the elements is still constituted, the soul penetrating equally and similarly into all the parts that complete the body—and one would not say that the soul, that which is in all of these elements and which in each of them implants the enlivening force, is either solid or hard when it is commixed with the earthy element, or else moist or cold, or the quality which is opposed to cold—, thus also it is not beyond reason for that simple and incomposite nature to be deemed also to remain in each of the parts after the dissolution [of the body], when the mixture is loosed and returns again to its familiars, and that which once and for all, by some unspeakable principle, has become natural to the mixture of the elements also to remain forever in those things in which it has been mixed, by no means whatsoever having been diverted from the attachment which has occurred to it once and for all. For it is not the case, when that which is compounded has been dissolved, that that which is not compounded is at risk of dissolving together with the composite.
What is St Macrina saying?
Let us first give a paraphrase of this passage: Therefore, when the body disintegrates and its elements return to themselves, the soul, that which binds the elements together by means of its enlivening operation (energeia), is not lost; that is, it also does not disintegrate. Rather, just as the soul penetrates equally and similarly into all parts of the body and gives life to each of the body’s elements as long as the body is constituted, similarly, it is not unreasonable to think that the soul, that simple and incomposite nature, remains in each of the parts of the body when the body dissolves and the elements return to their like. Moreover, it is not unreasonable to think that the soul, that which once and for all has become natural to the elements of the body, also remains forever in those elements with which it has been mixed, the bond never being sundered which has been established once and for all between it and the parts of body. Moreover, it is not the case that when that which is compounded, the body, dissolves or disintegrates, then that which is not compounded, the soul, is at risk of dissolving along with the composite body. (However, one would not say that the soul, that which is in each of the elements and which imparts to each of them an enlivening force or power, is either solid or hard when it is commixed with the earthy element, or else moist or cold or hot. That is, one would not say that in penetrating equally and similarly into all the elements of the body and in enlivening all those elements of the body, the soul in any way takes on the sensible qualities of those elements.)
St Macrina is talking about the dissolution of the body and the result on the soul, and about the relation between the soul and the individual elements into which the body decomposes. She says, first, that when the human body is constituted, or alive, then the soul enlivens each and every element—we might say, atom—of the body individually, and binds all those elements together, penetrating equally and similarly into ‘all the parts that complete the body’.
She says, second, that when the body disintegrates—‘when the elements which are in the body are loosed towards themselves’—then the soul is not lost.
She says, third, that although the soul penetrates each and every part of the body it does not take on the sensible qualities of those parts (hard, soft, cold, hot and so on) even as accidents in the Aristotelian sense. This is merely a reiteration of the principle that the soul, being intelligible, is not susceptible of predication with sensible attributes.
St Macrina then says, fourth, that it is not beyond reason for the soul to remain with each part of the body as the body decomposes and its parts separate. This cannot be understood as a distribution of the substance of the soul among the parts of the body, in view of St Macrina’s earlier insistence that the soul is simple and incomposite, something that implies that any distribution of the substance of the soul would be impossible. This must therefore be understood as a specific operation (energeia) of the simple and incomposite soul. St Macrina does say that it is not unreasonable to think that since the soul has once and for all become natural to the body (or, grown up together with the body), then the soul, simple and incomposite, remains with all the parts of the body even after their dissolution, given that once-and-for-all union. However, St Macrina says, although the body is subject to disintegration, the soul most certainly is not.
What are we to make of this?
It is a theological explanation of why we venerate the relics and even the personal possessions of saints. Hence, while to the modern ear it may sound like nonsense, St Macrina is saying something quite sober. The soul of the saint is simple and incomposite and goes to Heaven; it is not distributed over the parts of the saint’s body. Moreover, only God is omnipresent, so that if the saint’s soul is here, it is not there, although this ‘being somewhere’ of the saint’s soul cannot be conceived in strictly spatial terms, given St Macrina’s previous assertion that the soul is not subject to being in a place spatially.
Despite its not being distributed over the parts of the disintegrating body, however, the saint’s soul retains a bond with all the parts of the body which is its own. Moreover, since the soul of the saint has become completely permeated by the operations (energeies) of the Holy Spirit, then these operations (energeies) spill over into the relics of the saint’s body, with which the soul of the saint has this bond.
What is this bond of the soul of the saint with the relic? Let us return to the analogy between the soul in the body and God in his creation. God penetrates creation not in his substance (completely sundered from all creation) but by his operations (energeies). Similarly, the bond between the saint’s soul and the parts of the saint’s body is an operation (energeia) of the soul; this bond does not affect the substance of the saint’s soul—this St Macrina takes pains to make clear—but it is nonetheless a real operation (energeia) of the saint’s soul.
Moreover, when we venerate a relic, we do not venerate something impersonal but holy—like holy water, say—but the relic of this or that saint. Hence, the operation of the saint’s soul is a personal operation (energeia) of the soul of this or that saint on the parts of the body that belongs to that saint. Hence, venerating the relic of a saint is not a matter of venerating something impersonal that has been sanctified impersonally by the operations (energeies) of the Holy Spirit. Rather, the relic has been imprinted by the operations (energeies) of this or that soul—and that soul, in the case of a saint, has been united to the Holy Spirit. Hence, in the case of a saint, the Holy Spirit participates in the bond between the saint and the part of the saint’s body that we venerate.
The same logic applies also to miraculous icons, that is, icons which are associated, on an ongoing basis, with miracles.
Now what St Macrina is saying is that in the case of every man, whether saint or sinner, the soul through its operations (energeies) has this unbreakable bond with all the parts of the body. Moreover, this bond is not lost when the body disintegrates, although the substance of the soul is not distributed over the atoms of the body: it is a matter of the operations (energeies) of the simple and formless soul.
St Gregory now poses the problem of the dissolution and scattering of the parts of the body:
And I said: But that the elements should coincide with each other and be separated from each other and that this should be the constitution and dissolution of the body, no one would contradict. Since, however, the distance is understood to be great between each of these elements which are heterogeneously disposed towards each other according to spatial position and according to the difference and property of qualities when they have come together with each other round the substrate of the elements, it is a logical consequence that this mental (noeran) and dimensionless nature we call soul (psuche) should be adapted by nature towards the united body. If, however, these elements should be separated from each other and become scattered wherever the nature [of each element] should lead each, what is the soul to rely on when its vehicle has been scattered from it into many places? Just as some sailor, when the ship has disintegrated in a shipwreck, is unable at the same time to swim on all the particles of the ship, they having been scattered in the sea, one in one place, one in another place—for at all events taking the one particle that chances he will abandon the rest to be borne by the waves—in the same way, in the separation of the elements, the soul, not having the nature to be split up together [with the body], will, even if it finds it difficult to separate itself from the body, be at all events split off from the other elements, having adhered to one certain element; and the chain of reasoning will not even give one more to deem that the soul is immortal, since it lives in one element, than mortal, since it is no longer in the many.
Let us paraphrase this text: No one would disagree that the constitution and dissolution of the body coincides with the conjunction and separation of the elements that make up that body. We understand, however, that there is a great distance between the elements of the body, which are variously disposed towards each other in regard to spatial position and in regard to the differences in qualities or characteristics that each element of the body has, when those elements come together to form the body. It is a logical consequence, then, that that mental (noeros) and dimensionless nature we call the soul should be adapted by nature to the united body. If, however, the elements of the body should become separated from each other and become scattered wherever the nature of each element should lead it, what is the soul going to do, its vehicle having been scattered into so many pieces? Like a sailor in a shipwreck who seizes any chance piece of wreckage that is at hand and abandons the rest to the waves, the soul will, even if it finds it difficult to depart from the body, seize on some part or other of the body and abandon the other parts—precisely because the soul is simple in nature and cannot be divided along with the parts of the body. But the logic of the situation is then such that we can no more say that the soul is immortal, since it lives on in one part of the body, the one that it has seized, than that the soul is mortal, since it no longer lives on in the other parts of the body, those which it has abandoned.
We find the logic of the passage somewhat difficult. The first sentence is clear. The next sentence posits the great distance that is understood to exist between the elements which are heterogeneously disposed the one towards the other, as regards spatial position, the differences of the qualities of each element and the properties of the qualities of each element, when the elements come together round the substrate of the elements. While these things are true, we ourselves do not see what they have to do with the conclusion, that it is a logical consequence that the mental (noeros) and dimensionless nature should naturally be united to the united body. Moreover, we cannot fathom what the substrate of the elements is that St Gregory is referring to. Recourse to the dictionary does not help, given the preposition, the case and the fact that the substrate, or even subject, is the substrate, or subject, of the elements. Possibly what St Gregory means is that the substrate is the soul, not in the Aristotelian sense of substrate, which is underlying matter completely without form, but in the sense that the soul acts as a kind of axis or pole round which the body as it were coalesces. Then the passage would be somewhat easier to grasp: since the soul acts as a pole round which the disparate elements form the body, it is natural for the soul to be united to the united body.
The rest is clear enough: St Gregory is saying that the soul will adhere at death to some one element or particle of the body and abandon the other elements or particles of the body, so that it would be equally plausible to say that the soul is immortal, since it adheres to the one particle, as it would be to say that it is mortal, since it has abandoned all the others. One point deserves comment: St Gregory says ‘[E]ven if it finds it difficult to separate itself from the body, having adhered to one certain element, [it will] at all events be split off from the others.’ What is involved here is St Gregory’s response to St Macrina’s claim that the soul has an unbreakable bond, not by substance (ousia) but by operation (energeia), with each element or particle of the body. St Gregory is counter-arguing that the soul has a more or less sensible or physical relationship with the elements or particles of the body, not an intelligible or suprasensible one; that the soul will adhere in a sensible fashion to some one particle of the body; and that, just as things do which are sensible, it will therefore necessarily break its connection to the other particles of the body when they are dispersed ‘even if it finds it difficult to separate itself from [the elements of] the body’.
This conclusion is not so simplistic as it might seem. St Gregory is insisting on complete clarity regarding the connection between the soul and the body. Here he is saying: well yes, the soul can be attached to an integrated body, but when the body disintegrates, is not the soul going to stick to some one part of the body and forget the others? The problem is deep. What St Gregory is driving at is a complete insistence on the spiritual nature of the soul. As St Gregory records, St Macrina has said that the soul has no participation of substance in the elements of the body.
Let us hear St Macrina’s answer:
She said: But that which is intelligible (noeton) and dimensionless is neither contracted nor dispersed, for contraction and dispersion is the property of sensible bodies. In equal measure, according to its own formless and bodiless nature, the soul is present in both the union of the elements round the body and in their separation, neither being straitened in the mixture of those elements which are compressed together, neither abandoning them when they depart towards those things that are related to them and that are according to their nature, even should it seem that that distance is great which is perceived in the otherness of the elements. For great is the difference of the upward tending and light element towards the heavy and earthy element, and the warm element towards the cold element, and the wet element towards its opposite. However, it is no toil to the mental (noera) nature [i.e. the soul] to be present in each element, in which it has been implanted once and for all by means of a mixing, not being split apart by the opposition of the elements. For it is not the case that, since these elements are thought to be far from each other according to spatial dimension and according to a certain property, the dimensionless nature for that reason labours in being united to these spatially separated elements, since now it is also permissible for the intellect (dianoia) both to be extended to contemplate Heaven and to be extended in its curiosities to the ends of the world, and the contemplative faculty of the soul is not fragmented being extended over such great distances. Therefore, there is no obstacle at all for the soul to be present in equal manner in the elements of the body both when they are joined by the coming together and when they are loosed apart from the commixture. For just as when gold and silver are fused together, a certain artful power is contemplated which fused together the materials, and if the one element is again separated from the other, the reason (logos) of the art nonetheless remains in each; and the material was distributed, the art however was not distributed along with the material—for how could the indivisible be divided? According to the same reasoning, the mental (noera) nature of the soul both is contemplated in the coming together of the elements and is not expelled when they have dissolved, but it remains in them; and in their separation, extended along with them, it is not cut off; neither is it cut into pieces according to the number of elements. For this is a property of the bodily and dimensional nature, whereas the mental (noera) and dimensionless nature [i.e. the soul] does not accept the passions from dimension. Therefore, there is in these elements [of the body] the soul which once and for all came to be in them, no necessity at all tearing it way from its common growth with them. What therefore is there gloomy in these things if that which is seen is exchanged for the formless, and in favour of what has your intellect (dianoia) thus slandered death to you?
Let us begin with a paraphrase: That which is intelligible (noeton) and therefore dimensionless, the soul, is neither subject to contraction nor dispersion, for contraction and dispersion pertain to something that is sensible. Because of its formless and bodiless nature, the soul is equally present in the elements both in the union of the elements in the body and in their separation; and neither is it compressed when it is mixed with the elements which are compressed together into the united body nor does it abandon the elements of the body when the body disintegrates and the elements depart towards those things that are naturally related to them. And this is so even though it should seem that that distance is great which is perceived in the heterogeneity of the elements. For the various elements have great differences from their opposite elements. Despite that, however, it is not difficult for the mental (noera) soul to be present in each element, in which it has been implanted once and for all by means of a mixing, the soul not being split apart by the different and opposed qualities of the heterogeneous elements during the dissolution of the body. For the dimensionless soul is easily united to those spatially separated elements, even though those elements are far from each other. As proof of this, consider how the intellect (dianoia) even now can be extended to contemplate Heaven, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, be extended in thought to the ends of the world, without for all that the contemplative faculty of the soul being fragmented by being extended over such great distances. Therefore, there is no obstacle at all for the soul to be present in equal manner in the elements of the body both when they are joined by their having come together in the formation of the united body and when they are loosed from the body through the disintegration of that body. To take an example, when gold and silver are alloyed, one sees the art of him who alloyed the gold and silver fused together with the gold and silver in the alloy. However, if the gold is then separated from the silver, the art of alloying still remains in each of the gold and silver: although the gold and silver have been separated from each other and distributed, the art has not been separated and distributed with the metals, for how could the indivisible art be divided? According to the same reasoning, the mental (noera) soul is found in the union of the elements in the united body and is not expelled from the elements when the body has disintegrated and the elements have gone their separate ways. Moreover, although the mental (noera) soul is extended with the elements both in their union in the body and in their separation and spatial dispersion, the soul is not cut off from the elements, nor is its substance cut into pieces according to the number of particles. For to be cut into pieces is a property of a bodily and dimensional nature, whereas the mental (noera) and dimensionless soul does not suffer the things that arise from dimension. Therefore, there is in the elements of the body the soul which once and for all came to be in them, no necessity at all tearing it way from its union with them. What therefore is there which is gloomy in these things if that which is lost in death, that is, that which is seen, is exchanged in favour of that which is formless, that is, the life of the soul after death; and in favour of what has your intellect thus slandered death to you as the destruction of the soul?
What is this all about?
We have on the one hand the body and the characteristics of bodily substances, expressed in Aristotle’s metaphysic. This is precisely the world of empiricism. On the other hand we have the mental (noera) and dimensionless soul. The whole argument is based on the assertion that the soul, being intelligible, and not sensible and possessed of dimension, obeys different rules from things in the sensible world.
St Macrina is quite clear that the elements—we would say, the molecular biological constituents—of the body are separated from one another in space and in quality. We would say, in physical and chemical properties. St Macrina goes on to say that when the body dissolves, then the like will join to like: the water over here, the fire over there. This is a direct borrowing from Aristotle. What St Macrina wants to say is that the body disintegrates. Aristotle expressed it in those terms.
Now what St Macrina is saying is that the soul is not subject to the laws of sensible reality; in particular, it is not governed by concepts of distance.
St Macrina emphasizes the ‘mental (noera)’ character of the soul—‘possessing mind’. This would give almost a conscious aspect to these operations; we might want to say that the soul knows the atoms of the body which belongs to it. However, ‘noera’ can be used for ‘noete (intelligible)’ and it may be excessive to dwell on the possible implications of the use of ‘noera’ here. What St Macrina certainly is saying is that the operations of the soul by which the soul knows or marks the atoms of its body are free of concepts of distance: the soul is free of the consequences of dimension.
Underlying St Macrina’s argument is the distinction between the substance (ousia) of the intelligible soul, which is neither dispersed nor cut into pieces, and the operations (energeies) of the soul, which are not subject to the constraints of spatial dimension. It is the operations (energeies) of the soul that accomplish the bonding of the soul with the elements of the body from conception, not the substance (ousia) of the soul.
Finally, it might be remarked that St Macrina’s last sentence hearkens back to the sentence with which we began: the fear that death brings about the destruction of the soul. St Macrina is saying: no, death brings about the true life of Heaven.
This passage closes this section of On the Soul and the Resurrection and marks a transition to the topic of the parts of the soul, for us in discussing Hesychasm a very important issue.
We have here finished our discussion of the basic issues in Orthodox theology concerning the nature of the soul as regards bioethics, with the exception of a discussion of when the soul begins to exist and how. We will discuss those matters, after we have discussed Evagrius Pontikos’ cosmology, in Section 12 of Chapter III.
Let us summarize the doctrine of St Gregory of Nyssa concerning the soul before we continue:
The soul is an intelligible and mental substance bonded once and for all by its own operations, but not in its substance or essence, to the body which is its very own from conception; that soul enlivens the body and operates through it insofar as the organs of the body are intact and thus permit it to operate; after death, the soul retains its own identity as a simple and formless and dimensionless and intelligible substance while at the same time retaining a bond with each and every atom of its body, however separated the atoms of the body might be the one from the other through the body’s decomposition after death. Moreover, the soul is created in the image of God, which means that in the creation of man, man’s soul shared in all the attributes of God save one, namely that man was created and God uncreated.
This is a convenient place to begin a new chapter. However, the reader should understand that we are not skipping any part of the dialogue: in the next chapter, we continue exactly where we have left off.
Let us now see how St Gregory makes the transition to the topic of the parts of the soul.
 At conception.
 From conception; St Gregory addresses this in On the Making of Man; we will discuss it in Chapter III.
 At conception.