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Chapter V -- 3

Let us see how St John continues, no longer quoting St Gregory the Theologian:

He, then, made him a sinless nature and a will which was self-ruled (autexousion). I say ‘sinless’, then, not as ‘not being receptive of sin’ (for only the Divine is not receptive of sin), but as ‘not having it in his nature to sin, but rather in his deliberate choice’, that is, having the authority to abide and progress in the good, working together with the Divine grace, and similarly also to turn from the good and to come to be in the evil, God permitting these things on account of the self-rule (autexousion); for that which occurs by violence is not virtue.[1]

Here St John is saying that it was not in man’s nature that on account of his nature he necessarily sin: sin arises from the self-rule (autexousion)—free will, free decision, deliberate choice—which is an inalienable characteristic of man, one which preserves in him the image of God; sin does not arise from the very nature of man. St John describes having this self-rule as ‘having the authority to abide and progress in the good, working together with the Divine grace, and similarly also to turn from the good and come to be in the evil’. This is a doctrine that man can choose to abide in the good, working with God, or choose to turn away from God and to come to be in evil. There is nothing here of a doctrine that the human will necessarily tends to its final end, beatitude, the Beatific Vision, or that the human will is an appetite which necessarily tends to an end, the good—although, as we have seen in Chapter IV, St John does, following Aristotle, define the will as an appetite. However that definition of the will as an appetite must be understood in the context of St John’s doctrine of the absolute freedom of man to choose either to abide in the good or to come to be in the evil. ‘For that which occurs by violence is not virtue.’ God gave man this freedom so that man’s virtue might be a free act of love towards his Creator. We think that this is a sounder doctrine than that of St Thomas Aquinas.

The next passage of St John of Damascus is important:

The soul, therefore, is a simple, living substance (ousia zosa aple); bodiless; in its own familiar nature invisible to the bodily eyes; both rational and spiritual (logike te kai noera);(aschematistos); making use of an organic body and able to provide this with life, increase, sense-perception and generation; not having the mind (nous) something different than itself, but having it the part of the soul which is most pure (for just as the eye is in the body, thus is the mind (nous) in the soul); self-ruled (autexousios); having will and action; mutable, that is, changeable according to the movements of the will—for it is created—: all these things according to nature having been received from the grace of him who created the soul, from which grace it also received both being and being thus according to nature. formless [2]

This definition of the soul is quite similar to the definition provided by St Macrina in On the Soul and the Resurrection that we saw in Chapter I. The probable line of transmission of this definition is from St Gregory of Nyssa to St Maximos the Confessor to St John of Damascus. Note the description of the soul as a ‘simple, living substance’. It is the soul, in this definition, in this tradition, that provides life to the body, not the chemical reactions of the body that provides life to the ‘soul’.

The soul is both bodiless and in its own nature invisible to the bodily eyes. We have already seen these characterizations: St Thomas told us that the soul was bodiless; St Macrina taught us that it was intelligible and therefore invisible to the bodily eyes. For St John of Damascus, however, as we shall see below, ‘bodiless’ is a relative term with respect to the immateriality of the soul, just as it is with respect to the immateriality of the angels. Of course the soul is ‘formless’: it does not have a shape. However, we have already remarked in the previous chapter that some Elders with the gift of clairvoyance say that the soul has the same form as the body, as is also taught in the Spiritual Homilies of St Makarios. Since the gift of clairvoyance is not a matter of the bodily but of the spiritual eyes, this does not necessarily fly in the face of St John’s definition: as will be seen below, the soul is only in a relative sense ‘formless’.

‘Making use of an organic body’: this ambiguous phrase can also be rendered ‘making use of the body as a tool’. In the first case, St John is merely stating that the body is biological. In the second case, St John is opting for a Platonizing description of the relation between soul and body as being the relation between an artisan and his tool, as we discussed in the previous chapter. This second interpretation accords with what St John says further on. It is quite possible of course that St John means ‘organic body’ in the biological sense even while adopting a Platonic interpretation of the relation between soul and body.

The soul is able to provide this body with life, increase, sense-perception and generation. The reader may recall from previous chapters that these were the Aristotelian categories of the vegetative and animal souls that both St Macrina and St Thomas discussed. Here St John of Damascus is simply saying that the human soul provides all of these operations to the body. This is much the same as St Thomas Aquinas’ own doctrine in the Summa, although St John never descends to the level of detail of St Thomas.

However, the soul is ‘both rational and spiritual’. This is the essentially human aspect of the soul of man. Moreover, it is clear that St John of Damascus does not limit himself to St Thomas’ notion that in this life man can only know intelligible realities by means of ratiocination working with propositions based on concepts abstracted from sense-perception: the word ‘spiritual (noeros)’ conveys the distinctively spiritual aspect of man—what we have ourselves called his capacity intuitively to apprehend intelligible realities, including God himself; what St Augustine called the intelligence or intellect or superior reason. That this is so can be seen from the fact that St John proceeds to describe the mind (nous) of man as the eye of the soul. Surely this implies more than the power of reasoning with propositions, more than the power to intuit that that the whole is greater than the part, that the law of the excluded middle is valid and that there is a law of cause and effect. There is no sense in St John—given his emphasis in his description of the life of Adam and Eve in Paradise, how could there be?—that ‘noeros’ is limited to ratiocination, and that ‘logiken te kai noeran’ is merely pleonastic: man has both reason and the natural power intuitively to cognize both God himself and his ‘intelligible effects’—although surely by grace.[3]

Note the very important remark of St John of Damascus concerning the relation of mind (nous) to soul (psuche). As we have seen, for St John the image of God is found in the whole soul, not just in the mind (nous). Although a good case can be made that St John of Damascus’ definition of the soul derives from St Gregory of Nyssa by way of St Maximos the Confessor, here, St John departs from the Nyssian (and Thomist) notion that the most distinctively human part of the soul, the only part of the soul which is characteristically human, is the mind (nous): for St John, the mind (nous) is the most pure part of the soul, the eye of the soul, but the soul itself is a unity which taken as a whole bears the image of God. The reader might recall that St Thomas posited that after death man loses, at least provisionally, the lower non-intellectual functions of the soul, those that depend on the body, and that St Gregory of Nyssa had a similar doctrine that the lower functions of the soul were merely a certain enlivening operation honoured with the name of soul. St John does not have such a doctrine: for him the soul, which is both rational and spiritual, is a simple substance, and the most pure part of it, its eye, is the mind (nous). The difference between St John of Damascus and St Thomas Aquinas on this point can be construed to be a matter of the adoption by St John of Damascus of a more Platonic conception of the soul than that adopted by the more Aristotelian St Thomas. In the case of the difference between St John of Damascus and St Gregory of Nyssa, the difference seems to be due to the simpler analysis conducted by St John of Damascus: it may be that St John is writing for a simpler audience and that he has no real difference from St Gregory of Nyssa.

It would be fair to say that St John of Damascus’ definition of the soul entered into the Orthodox tradition as the received definition of the soul, including that aspect of the relation of mind (nous) to soul (psuche).

St John continues that the soul is self-ruled: man has free will. Moreover, the soul also has action. We have in Chapter IV already discussed St Thomas Aquinas’ very detailed analysis of human action. St John himself does not provide in the Exposition such a detailed analysis of human action; we quoted the most important part of his analysis in Chapter IV, the part that deals with the will, with deliberation and with opinion.[4]

St John then makes some important philosophical remarks. The soul is mutable. This is important for the convert’s understanding of the nature of Baptism: although he is renewed in the salvific waters of Baptism, his soul is mutable: he cannot remain static: he must go forwards or back. This is also important for an understanding of the day-to-day vicissitudes of the spiritual struggle: some days are easy; some days are not; that is because the soul is intrinsically mutable. Of course by nature some people’s souls are more mutable than other’s. This mutability of the soul St John assigns to two causes: to the free will of man and to the fact that the soul is created. Only God is immutable. This was one of the foundation-stones of St Augustine’s own theology.

Finally St John remarks that the soul is what it is because of the grace of its Creator, who both gave it being, and being what it is in its nature. This is the mystery of existence: a child confronts the mystery of his own consciousness; he wonders how he came to exist: God his Father gave him both being and being what he is in his nature. May the child not forget.

St John of Damascus now explains how we are to take ‘bodiless’, ‘invisible’ and ‘formless’:

We understand the expressions ‘bodiless things’ and ‘invisible things’ and ‘formless things’ in two ways. First, those things which are so according to their substance; second, those things which are so according to grace. Moreover, those beings which are so by nature; and those beings which are so in respect of the grossness of matter. Therefore, with regard to God, these things are said to be so by nature; with regard to angels, demons and souls, these things are said to be so by grace, and that in respect of the grossness of matter.[5]

God has the characteristics ‘bodiless’, ‘invisible’ and ‘formless’ by nature; angels, demons (fallen angels) and souls have them by grace, and that in reference to the grossness of matter, not absolutely. This doctrine is usually expressed nowadays by the remark that angels, demons and souls are considered by the later Greek Fathers to be semi-material, although St John himself does not use that expression. It would be possible for a clairvoyant Elder to see a soul.

St John continues with some basic Aristotelian philosophy, which we omit. He then turns to a discussion of the relation of man, according to his dual nature, both bodily and spiritual, to the different orders of creation:

It is necessary to know that man communicates with those creatures that are without souls and participates in the life of those creatures that lack reason and shares in the intelligence or thought (noesis) of those that have reason. For he communicates with those creatures that are without souls according to his body and according to its constitution from the four elements; with the plants, then, according to these aforementioned things and according to the power of nutrition and increase and procreation, that is to say generation; with the irrational animals, then, in these very aforementioned things, but, over and above them, according to appetite, that is to say temper (thumos) and desire (epithumia), and according to sense-perception and according to movement according to impulse.[6]

This, of course, is Aristotle’s psychology, and we have seen it both in St Macrina’s adaptation of Aristotle’s psychology to the Genesis account of creation and in St Thomas Aquinas’ more frankly Aristotelian account of the nature of man.

From the point of view of the Christian doctrine of the relation of man to the findings of modern science, it is important to grasp that already in the Eighth Century in St John of Damascus, it was understood, following Aristotle, that man communicated with—shared in the nature of—lifeless creatures such as stones and rocks and running water and fire and winds by virtue of his being a creature with a body. Nothing in the findings of modern science would disturb these men. That they speak of four elements does not change their point of view: as many elements as there might be, following as many laws of physics and chemistry as there might be, man participates in this order of creation with all the other bodily creatures, both living and lifeless, by virtue of his body and by virtue of its constitution from those elements. Moreover, man participates with the plants in the basic functions of nutrition, growth, and reproduction. He also participates with the irrational animals in having temper, desire, sense-perception and voluntary movement from place to place.

St John later turns to the characteristics of the soul:

The proper characteristics of the soul are piety, and intelligence or thought (noesis). The virtues are common to the soul and to the body, these very things, the virtues, also having their point of reference in the soul, since the soul uses the body.[7]

The characteristics which apply especially to the soul are ‘piety, and intelligence or thought’.[8] The virtues are common both to the soul and to the body, but the virtues have their point of reference in the soul just as piety and intelligence or thought do, since the soul makes use of the body. We can see here that St John does have a Platonic notion of the relation of the soul to the body, that the soul uses the body as a tool. It would be fair to say that this notion has passed into the Orthodox tradition as the received understanding of the relation between soul and body.

St John continues, in a passage that we do not quote, that by nature the rational powers of the soul rule completely over the irrational powers of the soul. Of the irrational parts of the soul, there are two, one which does not obey reason and one which does. The part of the soul which does not obey reason, St John describes in this way: the vital, or pulse, functions; the procreative, or generative, functions; and the vegetative, or nutritive, functions. The part of the soul which does obey reason is the desire (epithumia) and the temper (thumos). The irrational part of the soul is commonly called, says St John, the passionate part of the soul or the appetitive part of the soul. We have already seen these Aristotelian distinctions in Chapters I and II in St Macrina’s psychology, in Chapter III in Evagrius Pontikos’ psychology, and in Chapter IV in St Thomas Aquinas’ psychology. It would be reasonable to say that St Thomas’ description of these powers of the soul could in its broad outlines be accepted as expressing the Orthodox tradition, although his treatments of cognition and of the passions surely diverge from the Orthodox tradition.

St John of Damascus then proceeds to discuss within a roughly Aristotelian framework the details of human psychology. In Chapter IV, above, we quoted part of St John’s discussion, that on will, deliberation and opinion. In his psychology, St John is neither so rigorously Aristotelian nor so detailed as St Thomas Aquinas. Moreover, since the authors we will be dealing with in the rest of this study do not dwell on the additions of Aristotle to the Platonic tripartite soul of man (mind, temper and desire), the only thing which need detain us is St John’s treatment of free will in Chapter II, 25.[9] In brief, St John does not consider God to be the author of man’s actions, since God is only the cause of substances and of Providence and since it would be absurd to ascribe man’s bad actions to God; moreover, St John does not accept a variety of other causes such as Fate or Chance as determining man’s actions. The only possible explanation, says St John, is that man himself is the author of his own actions in virtue of the self-rule that he has. Note that there is no notion in St John, who also was an Aristotelian philosopher, which corresponds to St Thomas Aquinas’ very detailed theory of the nature of the human will as a power which is set in motion by God, the universal cause, and which necessarily tends towards the Beatific Vision, but to which the intellect presents its secondary object, which secondary object itself has a metaphysical relation of goodness to the final end, the Beatific Vision. These doctrines must be considered to be the doctrines of St Thomas Aquinas, and that in view of the fact that St Thomas was adapting St Augustine’s psychology to the metaphysics of Aristotle.[10]

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[1] Exposition, II, 12, cont’d.—Damascus p. 77, ll. 36–43.

[2] Exposition, II, 12, cont’d.—Damascus p. 77, ll. 44–52.

[3] The phrase ‘rational and spiritual (logike te kai noera)’ is found in St Gregory of Nyssa (Making G p. 45, l. 16; = Migne 44, col. 176D) and also several times in the Ambigua (Peri Diaphoron Aporion) of St Maximos the Confessor (E.g. Ambigua 7: Migne 91, col. 1092B): it may be that St John of Damascus has taken the phrase from St Maximos. Moreover, we saw in Chapter III that the phrase is the underlying Greek of a phrase used in Anathema 9 of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod, where the use of the phrase is clearly connected to a technical theological description of Christ’s soul.

[4] Damascus p. 89, l. 51–p. 91, l. 83.

[5] Exposition, II, 12, cont’d.—Damascus p. 77, ll. 53–57.

[6] Exposition, II, 12, cont’d.—Damascus p. 78, ll. 71–77.

[7] Exposition, II, 12, cont’d.—Damascus p. 79, ll. 91–3.

[8] We have used the two English words ‘intelligence’ and ‘thought’ to translate the somewhat ambiguous Greek word noesis.

[9] Damascus pp. 96–7.

[10] St John of Damascus would never have read St Augustine, since his works had not yet been translated into Greek.


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