Become Like the Angels: Origen's Doctrine of the Soul

Become Like the Angels: Origen's Doctrine of the Soul

by Benjamin J. Blosser


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ISBN-13: 9780813220017
Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 10/09/2012
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

BENJAMIN P. BLOSSER is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College where he teaches courses in church history, ecclesiology, and New Testament studies. He received his Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America.

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Origen's Doctrine of the Soul

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2012 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-2001-7

Chapter One

Soul Division

* * *

Before establishing Origen's own teaching on the soul, it is necessary to explore Origen's analysis of, and response to, the teaching of his Middle Platonic contemporaries, where these can be found. In the following three chapters, three distinct Middle Platonic formulations will be examined—soul division, embodiment, and dual souls—with a view toward grasping Origen's treatment of each formulation. As all three of these formulations are treated most explicitly in one section of his On First Principles (3, 4), that passage will be at the forefront of these chapters. A beginning will be made with the question of soul division, or soul composition.

A serious discussion of the soul and its purpose cannot go far without addressing the fundamental problem of the soul's composition. For the philosophical schools of the second century AD this meant the sometimes controverted question of whether the soul is divided. Origen himself recognized that a considerable amount of theological weight rested upon one's answer to this question.

The Middle Platonic tradition possessed no unanimous, coherent theory of soul partition, as this had long been a subject of contentious debate among the schools. Positions ranged from Platonic tripartition to Peripatetic bipartition and Stoic monism, not excluding numerous attempts to intermingle these models. Origen assesses each of these theories in light of the norm of biblical revelation, accepting insights from each theory while rejecting from each what is incompatible with this revelation. Origen's own position on soul division, taken as a general theory, is somewhat more complex than any of these alternatives, though it tends toward a modified version of soul bipartition, albeit inspired by motivations altogether different from those of the Middle Platonists. In the end, Origen attempts to incorporate the insights of these various philosophical schools into a genuinely Christian anthropological schema, a schema that is not only theological but fundamentally ascetic and spiritual. Origen views the soul as suffering not from an ontological partition into distinct metaphysical units, but rather from a moral crisis, the confrontation of its transcendent spiritual vocation with its current fleshly condition.

To establish this point it will first be necessary to survey briefly the doctrine of soul division as it emerged from Plato's dialogues and was further developed in the Middle Platonic schools, resulting in three distinct strands of speculation. An assessment of Origen's works will follow, focusing on his critique and partial assimilation of each of these three strands, and concluding with a general comparison of his doctrine with that of the Middle Platonic schools.

Plato and Soul Division

Origen, like most of his peers in Alexandria, worked in the shadow of Plato, whose unsystematic and often ambiguous body of philosophical teaching left to his successors as many questions as answers. Part and parcel of this ambiguity are the two different pictures of the soul that emerge from Plato's surviving dialogues: the apparent soul-body dualism of the Phaedo and the apparent soul tripartition of the Republic.

The Phaedo represents Plato's earliest, dualistic tendency of attributing all sins and sufferings of the psyche to pollution arising from contact with the body. In this view, moral conflict arises not from any irrational element in the soul itself, nor from any strictly interior conflict or division within the soul, but solely from the soul's regrettable association with the body. The soul itself is thereby preserved from any internal discord and remains entirely uniform throughout. As a result, for example, Plato is able to argue from the premise of the soul's homogeneity to its immortality: because the soul is incomposite (asyntheton), it cannot dissolve into component parts and hence must live forever.

In the later dialogues such as the Timaeus and the Republic, however, a different picture seems to emerge. Here moral conflict is no longer a mere epiphenomenon of the body but rages within the soul of man itself, a soul that finds itself divided into three "parts": the rational (to logistikon), the irrational (to epithumetikon), and the spirited (to thumoeides). The body in the later dialogues is not the enemy of the soul, nor do its demands represent threats to its well-being. Rather, each part of the soul possesses its own desires and ends, none of which is intrinsically evil or even unhealthy to the soul. The passions are thereby given a neutral, if not positive, significance. A certain degree of internal conflict is not seen as dangerous or even undesirable to the soul—it can be healthy and even productive. Virtue in the Timaeus is not the liberation of the soul from the demands of the body, but rather a rational harmonization of the desires of each of the soul's parts, as each is progressively brought under the supreme governance of reason. In fact, tripartition itself appears to function as a way of ensuring the greatest possible rule of reason, given the complications presented by the soul's embodiment.

The apparent soul-body dualism of the Phaedo is therefore enriched in Plato's later dialogues by the introduction of the third part, the thumos, to an independent status. The lowest part of the soul, for its part, does not represent the bodily constitution per se, but rather the experiencing of the sensible world apart from the guidance of reason, just as the middle part represents competitive action apart from reason.

Yet the exact nature of the soul's partition in the Republic (and, perhaps, the Timaeus) is not as self-evident as it seems. It does not seem that they could be "aggregative" parts (e.g., marbles in a pile of marbles) or "organic" parts (e.g., an organ in the body), since both of these would compromise the essential simplicity and irreducibility of the soul, both of which seem to be nonnegotiable for Plato. It is more likely that they are merely "conceptual" parts (e.g., a man's baldness, or the terminus of a line), since these would not exclude an essential, underlying unity. Even more to the point, each "part" represents an unrealized life choice, role, or mode of behavior. Each is a "possible self" to which the individual is drawn, and which he must harmonize into his life.

If this is the case, the apparent divergence between the unitary soul of Plato's Phaedo and the complex soul of the Republic and the Timaeus is more easily resolvable, since there is no reason to view the two models as incompatible. Plato's analogy of the sea-god Glaucus in the Republic implies that, for Plato, the soul is unified in its primordial essence, and that its parts (again, only conceptually distinct) are an accidental feature emerging from its embodiment, to be cast off once again in the soul's final disembodiment. Tripartition appears as a sort of "damage control" mechanism, actualized upon embodiment to minimize the encroachment of irrationality upon the rational soul. That is, a soul previously unified, when confronted with the hazards of embodiment, "differentiates itself" into three parts in order to provide a sort of "buffer" against the potential damage to its integrity. One might suggest, in addition, that the rational soul of the Phaedo is the equivalent of the highest, rational "part" of the soul in the Timaeus, and that the lower two "parts" described in the Timaeus are associated exclusively with the body, and have no function apart from it. In any case, all of this points to an essential and primordial simplicity in the soul, which precedes and underlies any superficial partition.

The intellectual inheritance left by Plato, then, is one of apparent ambiguity: an essentially unified soul that is conceptually divisible into three parts. This tension, however, is not without resolution, since it is possible that the unicity of the soul takes ontological (and perhaps chronological) precedence over its tripartition. While Plato was able to keep the two poles—i.e., unity and complexity—in creative tension, this tension was to be strained in the work of his disciples.

The Middle Platonic Schools and Soul Division

Plato's precarious balancing of the soul's unicity with its multiplicity, in the hands of the Middle Platonic schools that followed in his wake, suffers the fate of the syncretism that is so characteristic of these schools. In the end, we can detect the intermingling of three lines of thought amongst these thinkers: (1) soul tripartition, indebted directly to Plato; (2) soul unicity, indebted in part to Plato's Phaedo but more often to the rising influence of Stoicism; and (3) soul bipartition, indebted to an ascendant Peripateticism.

As for the first point, the ardent tripartism of the Middle Platonic thinkers, of course, hardly requires illustration, as it is the most apparent aspect of their anthropology. Alcinous, author of the second-century Handbook of Platonism, repeatedly professes a belief in Platonic tripartism. His defense of soul division is all the more spirited as a stratagem in his campaign against the Stoics, who defended a unitary, undivided soul. Of special interest regarding Alcinous's understanding of tripartition, as an illustration of his loyalty to the tripartite theory, is his extension of the concept to disembodied souls, or gods. The disembodied tripartism consists of the cognitive (gnostikon), appetitive/dispositional (parastatikon), and appropriative (oikeiotikon) parts, which are transformed into the more conventional rational, spirited, and libidinous parts upon embodiment. 15 In Philo, similarly, we find a clear repetition of Plato's tripartite formula (rational, spirited, and passionate).

Regarding the second strand of thought, the influence of Stoicism upon the Middle Platonists can hardly be overstated, and it is not difficult to spot the traces of a Stoicized view of the soul in many Middle Platonic thinkers. A detailed account of Stoic anthropology need not detain this analysis, except to note that its essentially materialist conception of the soul excluded any sort of partition, permitting only multiple "faculties," as the soul (conceived as psychic "breath," or pneuma) is spread throughout the body and takes up various functions in the process. Plato's Phaedo, of course, had also suggested a unitary soul, but on entirely different reasoning: Plato's soul was unified because it was incorporeal and impassible; the Stoics' soul was neither. Even if the Middle Platonic writers would hardly have endorsed the materialist underpinnings of the Stoic view, which they often go to great lengths to oppose, Stoic terminology is nonetheless adopted, perhaps unreflexively (especially, e.g., that of the highest faculty, the hegemonikon). Numerous Middle Platonists show influence of a Stoicized anthropology. We can note Antiochus of Ascalon, a typical Stoicizing Platonist, who speaks of the soul's uniformity. We might also point to Philo, who echoes the Stoic formula of a unitary soul with eight faculties, as an emblematic figure in this respect.

In the last strand of thought we shall consider, as regards the role of bipartition in Middle Platonic thought, reference must be made to the increasing influence of Peripateticism in the period under scrutiny. Aristotelian thinkers, because they thought along more traditional, dichotomic lines, never had much use for the tripartism of Plato's later dialogues and tended both to misunderstand and to misrepresent them. Peripatetic readings of Plato tended to blur and eventually eradicate Plato's distinction between the concupiscent and the spirited parts of the soul. Through terminological and redactive misreadings of Plato, Peripatetic thinkers collapsed the thumoeides and the epithumetikon into a single alogon, set in opposition to the logistikon, while at the same time explicitly attributing this soul bipartition to Plato himself. This created "a fundamental but most influential misrepresentation of Plato's psychology that obliterated the differences between Platonic tripartition and Aristotelian bipartition."

The Middle Platonists, for their part, tended to read Plato largely through Peripatetic lenses, with the effect that, while they often defended "orthodox" Platonic tripartition with great ardor, in practice they interpreted the doctrine in a functionally bipartite manner.

In Antiochus of Ascalon, by some accounts the founder of Middle Platonism, for example, we already find Platonic tripartism blurring into Aristotelian bipartism. Antiochus is certainly aware that Plato taught a tripartite soul, but he believes that Plato meant it in a purely mythological manner, and so prefers to speak of a bipartite, sensible versus noetic division.

In Philo of Alexandria, perhaps the most openly syncretistic of our thinkers, we find a free intermingling of multiple and often inherently contradictory anthropological formulas. Hence the tripartism already mentioned in Philo is mingled readily with Peripatetic (rational versus irrational) formulas, amongst others. But one quickly notices that the bipartite, rational versus irrational division is the most basic for Philo: he finds little reason to differentiate between Plato's two lower parts except in the abstract. In fact, the bipartite division sharpens with Philo: he can even speak of "two souls" in the human subject.

The same bipartism holds sway in Plutarch of Chaeroneia, who is heavily influenced by Aristotle and sincerely believes that Plato never meant to subdivide the irrational part at all. In his De virtute morali, for example, he divides the soul into the logistikon and the alogon, and either minimizes or altogether abandons tripartite terminology. But Plutarch's bipartism is hardened even further, with the rational part becoming an outgrowth of an entirely transcendent entity, the mind.

The anthropology of Alcinous is a thoroughgoing bipartism of rational and irrational (passionate: pathetikon) parts. He imagines this bipartition in crudely spatial terms, with the rational part located in the head. Although Alcinous is not without his spirited defenses of tripartition, which have already been mentioned, even he blurs tripartism on nearly every occasion by interpreting it along Peripatetic, bipartite lines.

Finally and briefly, mention must be made of Numenius of Apamea. Although we can hardly speak of soul division in the thought of Numenius, since he professed two altogether distinct souls, we still find the terminology of partition never quite expunged from his vocabulary. Even in a sentence defending two souls, he can speak of a "passible part of the soul" (patibilis animae partis) and a "rational part" (rationabilis animae pars), thus demonstrating the extent of Peripatetic influence. While other examples could be mentioned, the trajectory of the development is clear.

In sum, the confluence of these three strands—Platonic tripartism, Stoic unicity, and Peripatetic bipartism—was constitutive for the formation of Middle Platonic terminology for the soul. While we do not find all three influences in every Middle Platonic writer, and while we can hardly posit a "Middle Platonic psychology" broad enough to encompass every relevant figure, the combined effect is clear enough. And it was this synthesis (or, perhaps, syncretism) that was inherited by Origen of Alexandria.

Origen and the Tripartition of the Soul

Origen is highly conscious of the complex ambiguity of the Middle Platonic doctrine on the soul that he inherited, which would likely have been taught to him by his own teacher, Ammonius Saccas. As a Christian thinker, Origen would judge every aspect of this doctrine in light of biblical revelation, as appropriated by the Christian tradition. It is possible to detect Origen consciously interacting with all three of the elements we have noted with respect to the Middle Platonic doctrine: soul tripartition, soul unicity, and soul bipartition. Origen's own position is somewhat more complex than any of these alternatives, though it most closely approximates soul bipartition, without excluding the most beneficial insights of the other theories. In the end, however, Origen incorporates Middle Platonic thinking on the soul into a fundamentally Christian anthropological schema that is more ascetic and spiritual than it is philosophical. An assessment will follow of Origen's engagement with each of the strands we have noted in the Middle Platonic tradition, beginning with the most traditional, soul tripartition.


Excerpted from BECOME LIKE THE ANGELS by BENJAMIN P. BLOSSER Copyright © 2012 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

Part 1 Inner Moral Conflict: In Search of an Explanation

1 Soul Division 17

2 The Body and the Soul 38

3 Two Souls 60

Part 2 The Two Souls: An Analysis of Origens Explanation

4 Higher Soul 79

5 Lower Soul 100

Part 3 History of the Two Souls: An Examination of their Relationship

6 Preexistence of Souls 145

7 Descent of Souls 183

8 Destiny of Souls 220

Conclusion 265

Appendix: Influence of Origen's Anthropology on the Greek Patristic Tradition 269

Bibliography 275

Index 285

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