Physics and Metaphysics
Abstract and Keywords
This article demonstrates the wide-ranging importance of physical and metaphysical ideas in the history of Late Antiquity. It begins by reflecting on a well-known passage from Porphyry's Life of Plotinus. Plotinus and his followers were very interested in the relationship between body and soul. Since these men and women—the Neoplatonists—are considered the most important philosophers of Late Antiquity, their preoccupation with the question of body and soul was momentous not just for the period but for the history of philosophy.
The finest-particled kind of matter is air, the finest air is soul, the finest soul is mind, the finest mind is God.
—Stobaean Hermetica 12.14
There is a well-known passage in Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus that invokes some of the most important issues in the history of late ancient thought. That these are all more or less directly connected to problems we might label physical or metaphysical (or both) is not quite a coincidence, given the theme of the present contribution. But the wide-ranging importance of physical and metaphysical ideas in the history of Late Antiquity as a whole, not just the history of philosophy or science, is something that many readers may be reluctant to accept without the further demonstration that is one of this article’s primary goals. And since, as Plotinus discovered, some demonstrations can take a long time, it is best to reflect on Porphyry’s words without further delay.
(p. 514) The last sentence of this passage is probably the most quoted because it usefully underscores an important point: Plotinus and the philosophers who followed him were very interested in the relationship between body and soul. Since these men and women, the Neoplatonists, are widely recognized as the most important philosophers of Late Antiquity, exerting profound influence on premodern Christian thought in particular, their preoccupation with the question of body and soul was momentous not just for the period but for the history of philosophy.
When Plotinus spoke his mind was manifest even in his countenance, which radiated light; lovely as he was to see, he was then especially beautiful to the sight. Fine sweat suffused [his skin], and his kindness shone forth, and his gentleness displayed itself in answering questions, along with his vigor. Even when I, Porphyry, spent three days asking him how the soul is present to the body, he kept on explaining.1
This, then, is the first observation of central if basic importance. If, for the moment, we let the more specific categories of body and soul stand in for physics and metaphysics, as only the most important among a number of philosophical questions on related themes, we may reasonably (and, as it turns out, accurately) conclude that at least some people in Late Antiquity spent a lot of time thinking and talking about both physical and metaphysical things—and particularly about how these things were related to each other. That virtually all extant discussions addressed at least the possibility of a literal, physical connection between bodily and nonbodily things offers a salutary reminder that late ancient people did not think in the categories most of us assume more or less instinctively. True, many of the best-known discussions from Late Antiquity raise the possibility only to deny it: even if we cannot be sure exactly what Plotinus said on the occasion in question, it is safe to assume that he did not come down in favor of a physical link between body and soul.2 But it also took him three days to explain how an alternative might work. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Porphyry, at least, was still not quite sure about the answer.
And so to a second point, easier to miss than the first. Three days makes for a long discussion, especially when the question at issue is both familiar and precise. The primary point of the anecdote, to be sure, is to illustrate Plotinus’ exemplary character, his graceful and tireless dedication to the philosophical life. But even if we make allowance for the treatment of earlier theories and other reasonable digressions, this extended question-and-answer session would be remarkable for its length in the context of ancient philosophy—at least before the period under consideration in this book. What I want to suggest here is that the extent and persistence of Plotinus’ response to Porphyry might be used as a kind of rough index to the novelty of his answers and, more precisely, to the newly uncompromising rigor of his commitment to an immaterial (not just an incorporeal) soul.
Now it may well be that Porphyry’s reluctance was the principal bottleneck, but this comes to the same thing.3 For some reason, the Plotinian kind of distinction between body and soul seems to have been a hard sell, at least around the middle of the third century. This raises two further questions, both of which lurk behind the pages that follow. First, why should this be so? Was not “dualism” the order of the day in the later centuries of the Roman empire, especially for Platonists? Second, was the connection between corporeal and incorporeal things just as hard to explain at the end of our period as it was at the beginning? In other words, did Late Antiquity make a difference?
(p. 515) Before addressing these and related questions, however, I would like to draw attention to a third feature of Porphyry’s story, the part where Plotinus’ mind makes light shine out of his face. This was because of the luminous splendor of his intellect, Porphyry tells us, but we should not let our hackneyed image of a “brilliant mind” mislead us into thinking it merely a metaphor. There is, on the contrary, little reason to think that Porphyry meant the light (φῶς) coming from Plotinus’ face any less literally than the fine sheen of sweat (ἱδρώς) that covered it. We can be confident about this for two different kinds of reasons. First, comparable accounts in late ancient biography offer more examples, as well as more details, about luminescent sages, including philosophers, in ways that leave no doubt about their conviction that literal, visible light could be produced by a great man’s soul. Setting aside, for the moment, accounts of glowing Christian saints,4 the fifth-century life of the philosopher Proclus is decidedly more explicit than Porphyry on Plotinus.
Second, we also have detailed attempts to explain with more or less scientific precision the mechanisms behind the glow. A preliminary summary of the late ancient explanation is that an important class of late ancient things, occupying a pivotal place on the scale of being, was often equated or closely associated with light in one form or another. The fact that the human soul could be directly or indirectly included in this class, together with the related principle that higher and better things tend to be both clearer and brighter (not to mention more real), helps make a bit more sense of a visibly shining mind.
He was lovely indeed to behold, for not only did he fully possess that symmetry [of body], but also the force of his soul, blooming in his body like a living light, produced an astonishing radiance which it is scarcely possible to convey in words.5
This, then, is one of the places where late ancient physics and metaphysics merge, sometimes insensibly but always remarkably. Before we turn to fundamental principles, however, some further observations will help to clarify this chapter’s scope and approach.
First, the range and diversity of the available sources. Whose ideas are these, anyway? For several reasons, Plotinus himself dominates much of the discussion to follow.6 It is conventional, correct, and probably sufficient to observe at this point his abiding influence on both pagan and Christian thought from the third century clear through the Middle Ages and beyond.7 But it seems equally important to recall that Plotinus and what we call Neoplatonism (for Plotinus and his followers, it was merely Platonism, of course) represent less the ascendancy of a single school of thought, narrowly defined and scrupulous in its boundaries, than the culmination of a long process of consolidation. Frans A. J. de Haas has characterized the two or three centuries leading up to Plotinus as a time when “the vexed issue of the criterion of truth was surpassed by the growing belief in a universal truth from which all human wisdom had drawn from times immemorial.”8 Along with the retreat of skepticism, this entailed a considerable (p. 516) amount of latitude and even the combination of doctrines from previously disparate traditions.9 The intellectual debts of Neoplatonism itself extend well beyond Plato, to Aristotle above all, but also to Stoics and Pythagoreans.10
While I have tried to indicate a few places where later authors diverged from the acknowledged founder of Neoplatonism, it has also seemed important to read Plotinus (along with other sources) as a potential index of certain deep-seated assumptions that rarely made it to the surface of explicit discussion. More particularly, the centuries leading up to and including Late Antiquity have long been recognized as a period when a range of evidently related ideas, often labeled “Platonic,” spread well beyond the circles of professional philosophy. The varied texts of the Corpus hermeticum, the tantalizing fragments of the Chaldean Oracles, and the esoteric doctrines of gnostic masters like Valentinus, for example, have memorably been described in the aggregate by John Dillon as “the underworld of Platonism.”11 If we extend the shadow of this rather catholic Platonism only slightly to include its celebrated or notorious influence on Christian thought in the same period, it is easier still to justify an emphasis on Plato’s most important exponents after Aristotle. In any case, the methodological point should be clear: without wishing to elide crucial differences between any number of theorists and a still greater number of diverse sources from Roman and later antiquity, I would suggest that there are several common if not quite universal metaphysical and physical assumptions worth considering together, for their practical no less than their theoretical implications.
Another reason for lingering over deep-seated instincts is the fact that most of them are no longer with us. To modern people who have not spent their lives immersed in the ancient world, this distance can make a wide range of late ancient thought and practice seem alien or absurd. More dangerous still are those ideas that seem familiar but, in fact, depend on quite different assumptions about the world or the human person. In these cases, it is not always possible to argue for definitive and permanent change in Late Antiquity itself, nor has it always been easy to determine whether the most influential figures—Plotinus and Augustine above all—serve as normative representatives or extraordinary exceptions.
In fact, the rather old-fashioned problem of Plotinus as representative example or exceptional “man of genius” has turned out to be a good deal more central than expected.12 For all his influence, for all the (sometimes) sophisticated adoption and modification of his central ideas in his own and succeeding centuries, and for all his dominance of much of the discussion here, writing this chapter has strengthened a long-growing suspicion that certain crucial ideas or suggestions in Plotinus’ thought were rarely, if ever, taken as far as he meant them and that sometimes it is more helpful to understand him as a negative example, even as the exception that proves the rule. Similar things, I will suggest, might be said about Augustine. In both cases, I restrict myself to highly qualified conclusions about how both men approached the subject of material and immaterial things, especially the relationship of body and soul. I feel (p. 517) confident, in any case, that I am not the first to envy Porphyry his three days of questions.
Finally, to talk about a “scale of being” as I have already done is to talk about metaphysics, and it is hard to think of a period in intellectual history where scales of being were more important than in Late Antiquity. For better or worse, these sometimes elaborate rankings rank among the best-known features of late ancient thought. Not quite so well known, perhaps, is the fact that the hierarchies very often involved physical things as well—and not just as an undifferentiated mass on the bottom rung of the ladder. Familiar modern categories apply but poorly here or break down altogether. Moral, metaphysical, and material distinctions march together or entail one another in ways that can be hard to understand, at first. For this, with only slightly exaggerated specificity, we can thank Descartes.
Dualism and Descartes
Among Descartes’ many contributions to modern thought is a way of thinking about the world that is still very much with us, despite the fact that few specialists nowadays defend its original assumptions. Usually known as Cartesian or substance dualism, this view holds that there are two kinds of things in the world: things that think (minds) and things that have spatial dimensions (bodies). For Descartes, these were mutually exclusive categories, and this categorization has proven tenacious indeed.13 Upon being asked about the physical attributes of the human mind or soul, for example, an ordinary educated modern person will think this a mischievous or nonsensical question. Everyone knows that to describe minds as sharp or slow or brilliant or dull, or hearts as stony or heavy or light, is to speak figuratively, without any danger that people will think you are talking literally about squishy pulsing organs or physical qualities describing objects that can be located, seen, or otherwise measured in three-dimensional space.
In pursuit of late ancient mentalities, there are several reasons for pausing over what may seem obvious observations about how we ordinarily conceive of mind and body. In the first place, it is only a little misleading to suggest that Descartes got some of his most famous ideas from Late Antiquity.14 More important, it is essential to be clear about certain similarities and differences between the Cartesian sort of dualism and the several dualisms that have been ascribed to ancient thought. More often than not, the similarities are misleading. Differences, on the other hand, are everywhere to be found and are very often illuminating. In classical and later antiquity, for example, the question about the soul’s constitution would not have been nonsensical to many (and probably most) people. In fact, theorists like Plotinus and Augustine had to spend a good deal of effort trying to persuade educated and intelligent people that it was.
(p. 518) Thinking with Shadows
In Plato or Plotinus, one often encounters a basic contrast between intelligible and sensible reality, between the immaterial world of thought (more or less) and the tangible world of ordinary experience. At first, this seems very nearly the same as Descartes’ contrast between mind and body, but the similarity can be misleading. In what remains one of the best single introductions to Plotinus in English, Dominic O’Meara neatly summarizes the problem in historical terms:
While the ancient part of this sketch demands further attention, we cannot afford much more space for the Cartesian kind of substance dualism to which most of us instinctively revert unless we are trying very hard to avoid it. It must be enough to underscore, instead, the consequential fact that Cartesian dualism makes mind and body categorically distinct by definition. By definition, Descartes’ mental things cannot be described in terms of physics or biology or anything else that involves extension. No matter how kind or keen, a Cartesian mind cannot shine through a philosopher’s face. For all the same reasons, it follows that the Cartesian world can hardly be much like its ancient counterparts. Defined by extension and wholly real, its bodies cannot serve as the “shadow” of its thinking things, as the imperfect reflection of a purely mental world that is somehow more real or substantial than the bodily one. This is where modern differences with ancient and especially late ancient thought become especially important. In Late Antiquity, the distinction between true reality and its several shadows was as crucial as it was complicated.
For almost 2,000 years many philosophers took for granted the Platonic belief that the visible world is the shadow of a higher, more substantial, immaterial world. Even Aristotelians, inasmuch as they believed in the existence of a superior, immaterial divine substance, came near to this view, although they did not follow the Platonists in condemning the material world to a sort of semi-existence. A decisive change and a new beginning came only in the seventeenth century, with René Descartes. In his effort to break away from ancient and medieval philosophy and found a new, resolutely modern philosophy Descartes took as the fundamental metaphysical distinction that between mind and body. The question whether “mind” (however defined) is “different” (and in what sense) from body (whatever that may be) remains unresolved and crucial in modern philosophy.15
Being and Reality
“Semiexistence” seems particularly difficult nowadays, perhaps. How can a material world whose bare existence is not really in question be “less real,” by degrees, than the higher world or worlds of which it is said to be a shadow? (p. 519) After all, for most of us who are not professional metaphysicians, the question of being is roughly the same as the question of existence. Like the standard dualism of body and mind, the issue is a binary one. A thing either exists or it doesn’t. Either there is or there is not such a thing as a unicorn. In English at least, a common way of talking about this involves the words real or reality, often again with the assumption of two possible answers. Is a unicorn real?
Even in ordinary conversation, however, this kind of question can involve considerably more complexity than the yes-or-no matter of existence. Asking whether a man’s Christian faith or his Shaker table is “real” might conceivably expect a yes-or-no answer about the existence of his faith or the table, but it is considerably more likely to preface a discussion about the degree to which his faith or the table corresponds to some understanding of the essential nature or qualities of Christianity or Shaker furniture—qualities without which a thing is not really what it appears or is claimed to be. This kind of question is concerned with the distinction between reality and appearance rather than that between what does and does not exist. Unlike the question of existence, it is also the kind of question to which an answer somewhere between yes and no is conceivable, even likely. One might in ordinary conversation describe a man’s table or his faith as more or less real, or more or less genuine, without fear of absurdity or hopeless ambiguity.
Familiar enough from everyday habits of speech, these two approaches to the question of being and reality correspond broadly to two major ontologies or approaches to metaphysics, described with helpful clarity by Julius Moravcsik in one of the most important and challenging books on Platonism to appear in the 1990s.16 While many modern ontologies have focused on the contrast between real and unreal, aiming at an exhaustive inventory of existing things, Platonic metaphysics is not primarily interested in the question of unpredicated existence.17 It seeks instead to identify “the most fundamental elements of reality and then shows in terms of these how one can account for much that is less fundamental or merely surface appearance.” This in turn has important implications for the motivation behind doing metaphysics in the first place. For one thing, the Platonic approach is productive by design. Its conceptual structure is “explanatory rather than that of an inventory. It explains the less fundamental in terms of the more fundamental.” Among other things, this also means that Plato and his diverse successors (including late ancient ones) were less concerned with exhaustiveness, with making everything fit into its own “metaphysical cage,” than with the ability to get beyond appearances, to identify the essence of a thing in order to discover its fundamental relation to other things.
That these relationships are usually expressed in terms of priority or dependence will come as no surprise to anyone possessed of even a passing acquaintance with Plato, Plotinus, or especially the elaborate metaphysical hierarchies of later Neoplatonism. In the midst of Late Antiquity’s reputation for levels of being at untouchably distant levels of abstraction, however, it is easy to lose (p. 520) sight of the fact that what may seem at first to be obsessive taxonomy for its own sake has certain practical implications. The essentially explanatory framework of this sort of metaphysics has already been suggested—although a frustrated nonspecialist hunting for practical applications might well counter that the “explanations” in question seem quite technical or abstract, and usually both. The precise way in which or indeed the reason why the Neoplatonic One generates Divine Intellect, for example, has few immediately obvious implications for how even a thoughtful person should try to think, much less live as an embodied person in the material world. Although I address some objections of this kind in more detail later, here I want to draw attention to another implication of the Platonic way of doing metaphysics.
This depends on the commonsense observation that when we talk about things that are more fundamental or essential than others, we are usually also making a statement about importance. “Priority,” even before its conversion into a barbarous verb, has always had a practical side. Knowing what is fundamental or essential or substantial, in contrast to what is accidental or secondary or indeed the merest deceptive appearance, helps in any number of contexts to produce useful recommendations about where one’s energy is best directed—which is to say, about what a person ought to do. In other words, this kind of essentializing metaphysics can lead by easy, sometimes insensible steps, to ethics.18 When, as in Late Antiquity, this approach to reality is combined with a set of scientific ideas that assume that the physical world embodies, reflects, or otherwise reveals analogous principles of priority, the results can be more practical still.
But how can you tell if one thing is more fundamental than another? Much has been implied already, but it is time for a more systematic summary.
These are exciting times for the study of late ancient intellectual history, especially for scholars whose formal training lies outside philosophy itself. While the twentieth century as a whole witnessed a remarkable surge of professional interest in Neoplatonism and its precedents,19 the last four decades in particular have produced an especially useful array of authoritative introductions and syntheses.20 Monographs have multiplied apace, but some of the most promising and already fruitful developments have come in the form of collaborative translations, commentaries, and source collections whose utility extends well beyond the classroom.21 All of this makes it easy to justify the summary nature of this overview, and easier still to combine some potentially disparate strands of late ancient thought and practice in a relatively brief compass.
(p. 521) Unity, Simplicity, and Priority
It is hard to think of a philosophical axiom older or more enduring than what O’Meara has justifiably capitalized as “the Principle of Prior Simplicity.” The conviction that “everything made up of parts, every composite thing, depends and derives in some way from what is not composite, what is simple” is evident from the earliest phases of Greek philosophy through some of the most influential projects in modern science: in evolutionary biology or the “theory of everything,” for example, no less than in Presocratic attempts to explain the complexity of the cosmos by means of a single fundamental substance and the smallest possible set of basic processes.22 But it is also hard to think of a time when the principle of prior simplicity was applied with more consequential force than in Late Antiquity. Indeed, the simplicity of a thing (always a matter of degree) determined its place in the scale of being: the more complex, the less real.
Consider Plotinus’ insistence on the need for unity or oneness if a thing is to exist at all.
This is a distinctive way of describing and explaining unity. Decidedly more than a description or mathematical attribute, the unity of composite things comes from and depends on something else altogether, “oneness” or “the one,” an independent and prior thing that houses or flocks can have or lose. Of course, if they do lose their oneness—or, in Plotinus’ suggestive words, “flee” or “escape” it—they cease to exist altogether. “They are no longer what they were but have become other things, and are those other things in so far as each of them is one.”25 In other words, whereas most of us would probably say that there has to be a house before you can talk about its unity, Plotinus puts it the other way round. Oneness or “the one” comes before the house (and everything else that exists), in a very strong sense.
It is by the one [or “oneness’’23] that all beings are beings, both those which are primarily beings and those which are in any sense said to be among beings. For what could be anything if it was not one? For if things are deprived of the one which is predicated of them they are not those things. For an army does not exist if it is not one, nor a chorus or a flock if they are not one. But neither can a house or a ship exist if they do not have their one, since the house is one and so is the ship, and if they lose it the house is no longer a house nor the ship a ship.24
In this case, Plotinus borrowed his examples, along with the basic argument, from the Stoics,26 but the use of houses, armies, ships, and choruses helps to illustrate some further important points. In a way more immediately obvious, perhaps, than in the case of a rock, an organizing intelligence is responsible for the unity and order of these human creations. This intelligence is clearly prior and superior to the things that depend on it for their existence, structure, and so on. As the term is most characteristically used by Plotinus, however, priority suggests both less and more than we might suspect. “Priority (p. 522) by nature”—a concept used by Aristotle (with a nod to Plato) to indicate a thing’s capacity for existence independent of those posterior things that depend on it for their own being27—further entails for Plotinus “priority by power and dignity.”28 What may seem less obvious is the claim that prior things are necessarily simpler and more unified than the things that depend on them—but then for Neoplatonists, this amounts to something like a tautology.
It should now be clear that late ancient applications of the principle of prior simplicity leads to results quite different from those to which we have been accustomed by, say, atomic theory. As I understand it, when scientists hunt for the simplest particles of which compound things are composed, they generally expect the particles to outnumber the compounds. The entities multiply with the descent toward simplicity. Plotinus, again, has it the other way round. His path to simplicity (always described as an ascent, when a spatial metaphor is necessary) leads back from multiplicity through increasing unity to a single thing “existing by itself.”
There must be something simple before all things, and this must be other than all the things which come after it, existing by itself, not mixed with the things which derive from it, and all the same able to be present in a different way to these other things, being really one, and not a different being and then one…. For if it is not to be simple, outside all coincidence and composition, it could not be a first principle; and it is the most self-sufficient, because it is simple and the first of all: for that which is not the first needs that which is before it, and what is not simple is in need of its simple components so that it can come into existence from them.29
Part of the problem comes from the inevitably material metaphors that emerge in ordinary talk about parts and wholes. Plotinus knew this, of course; few ancient philosophers used metaphorical language more deliberately, critically, and fruitfully.30 In this case, however, the discussion of simplicity quoted in the previous paragraph avoids the material examples (houses and ships) used in the discussion of unity in Enneads 6.9.1. Even Armstrong’s authoritative translation might just lead us astray by rendering τῶν ἐν αὐτῷ ἁπλῶν as “simple components” rather than the more literal “simple things in it.”31 For “in” also has a special meaning in Plotinus, and these simpler, prior things must not be confused with material parts, analogous to the timbers, say, in a house or ship. For Neoplatonists, “simple” and “prior” point in exactly the opposite direction, to things that cause and unify rather than merely comprise what is complex and posterior.
Lloyd Gerson has aptly described this aspect of Platonism as “top-down,” by contrast to ancient and modern systems that find the world’s elemental building blocks in material particles and then move up the chain of complexity and sophistication. This top-down approach is, moreover, one of the most pervasive and distinctive features of Platonism in any period. Although it proceeds in the opposite direction, Platonic top-downism is quite as reductivist as materialism (paradigmatically “bottom-up”). But its ultimate irreducible principle is (p. 523) intelligible rather than material. Its simple or prior things impose unity from above, beginning with an ultimate and unqualifiedly simple explanatory principle on which all else depends. At the heart of Platonism, then, lies a consequential axiom inherited from the Presocratics, namely, that the universe itself, the kosmos, is an intelligible unity.32 And since it is evident that this intelligible unity could not emerge on its own, or as some emergent property of the parts it unifies, cosmic unity itself requires a cause outside itself or its parts, a prior principle of unity.33
Plotinus described the relationship between prior and posterior in terms that appear paradoxical in other ways, too. In one obvious way, the prior or higher levels of his metaphysical hierarchy can be said to “contain” everything below them, inasmuch as the prior is a sufficient cause of the unity and therefore the existence of what is posterior.34 In this sense, the posterior is “in” the prior.35 On the other hand, as evident from passages already examined, Plotinus is perfectly willing to describe a prior thing as “in” the things that come from it.36 Obviously, this second use of “in” is not to be construed spatially any more than the first one, nor does it imply containment or constraint. On the contrary, Plotinus insists in the strongest possible terms on the independent existence and superior power of prior things. But perhaps this is not so far from the way we habitually talk about people and their creations, after all. However much we might say that we see a man (his intelligence, his character, his skill, and so on) “in” the book he writes or the boat he builds, it is only in very special circumstances that we would claim that his actual existence depends on the book or the boat. The man was there, had to be there, first. Equally special circumstances would be required for us to say that his intelligence or character or skill has been diminished because of its evident “presence” in the book or the boat or, indeed, as a result of the process of making it. The parallel does not get us very far, perhaps, especially if the rather weak and figurative way in which we talk about this kind of presence obscures the remarkably pervasive if nonspatial sense in which Plotinus thinks prior things really are “in” posterior ones.37 By way of further illustration, then, let us turn briefly instead to the problem with which this article began.
“How is the soul present to the body?” Behind this question lies a good deal more than the status of body and soul in ordinary human life, including the problems of how the prior, superior soul comes to be embodied and why there are multiple individual souls at all.38 But setting the how-did-this-happen questions aside for the moment, Plotinus’ famously counterintuitive remarks on how things are remain instructive. First,
(p. 524) So much for any spatial sense in which soul is “in” body. But “how then is it that the soul is said by everyone to be in the body?” Ordinarily, Plotinus does not spend much time considering “what everyone says,” but evidently this was a more than usually important problem. Plotinus’ immediate answer, however, is quite simple: people say that the soul is in the body because they can see the body but not the soul.
We must say in general that neither any of the parts of the soul nor the whole soul are in body as in a place. For place is something encompassing, and encompassing body, and where each divided part is, there it is, so that the whole is not [as a whole] in any place; but soul is not a body, and is no more encompassed than encompassing. It is certainly not in the body as in a receptacle either.39
This is a consistent application of the principle of prior things described previously. Drawing on the analogy between the soul of the universe—for the universe, possessing both life and order, necessarily has a soul—and referring to the considerable authority of the Timaeus (together with the Parmenides, the most important Platonic dialogue in the late ancient curriculum),41 Plotinus then put the conclusion more strongly still. “Plato rightly does not put the soul in the body when he is speaking of the universe, but the body in the soul.”42 So also, necessarily, with human beings. Except in a qualified way,43 the soul is not in the body; better to say that the body is in the soul. Earlier in the same treatise, he famously illustrated the relationship by comparing the body to a net in the sea. “It is as if a net immersed in the waters was alive, but unable to make its own that in which it is. The sea is already spread out and the net spreads with it, as far as it can.”44
But if the soul was visible and perceptible, in every way surrounded by life and extending equally to all the [body’s] extremities, we should not have said that the soul was in the body, but that the unimportant was in the more important, and what is held together in what holds it together, and that which flows away in that which does not.40
Once the essential features of the top-down version of Prior Simplicity have been granted, the explanation works without a hitch—so long, that is, as one heads in the right direction, ascending from complexity and multiplicity to necessary levels or principles of increasing unity and simplicity. But if that were the only way to the view the problem, it seems likely that Plotinus could have explained it to a willing disciple in less than three days. To cite only one rather obvious question, why should there be a net in the sea in the first place?
Plotinus identified three levels of reality in the intelligible universe, usually known as the three “hypostases” or principles (archai).45 These are, in descending order of simplicity and priority, the One, Intellect, and Soul. Since the basic features of the archai, including their relation to one another and to the material world, have been particularly well served by both introductions and surveys in the last few decades,46 and since several key principles have already been introduced, what follows is a very brief sketch.
(p. 525) For all his attempts to demonstrate its consistency with and even its recognition by prior philosophers, especially Plato,47 Plotinus’ doctrine of the One that is above being itself has long been seen as his most important innovation. Indeed, together with its manifold implications, it is traditionally the doctrine par excellence by which Neoplatonism is distinguished from its precedents.48 The One is, as we have seen, the unqualifiedly simple first principle. It is “other than all the things which come after it, existing by itself, not mixed with the things which derive from it, and all the same able to be present in a different way to these other things, being really one, and not a different being and then one.”49 We have also seen that such a thing must exist. Unity and order, evident in the cosmos, the human person, and so on, demand an explanation that necessarily culminates in an ultimate simple.50 In the Republic’s Form of the Good, Plotinus found Platonic precedent for his assertion that the One is even “beyond being,”51 a claim that should not be taken to imply nonexistence but in relation to the One’s status as the ineffable cause of being itself, beyond any of the characteristics ordinarily predicated of beings. The One is literally unspeakable—even calling it “the One” is misleading if taken as a positive affirmation of its essence—and all language used to describe it is figurative and incomplete. Plotinus would prefer not to give it a name at all.52 Apart from necessarily ineffable direct apprehension, what we would call mystical experience,53 the One is therefore unknowable in any ordinary sense. When we do talk about it, we are really talking about things that depend on it and, above all, about ourselves.54
Being, in the sense that we can talk about it, as well as about the particular essence that makes various beings what they are, belongs instead to the second hypostasis or principle, Intellect (νοῦς). Intellect, to borrow from Gerson’s summary, is “the principle of essence or whatness or intelligibility in the world as the One is the principle of being.”55 In other words, Intellect unifies being and knowledge, or ontology and epistemology.56 This is the level of Plato’s famous Forms or Ideas, eternal paradigms that serve as the proper objects of knowledge. In one of his most important moves—characteristically both the culmination and an innovative synthesis of a complex tradition—in his second hypostasis, Plotinus linked the Forms with Aristotle’s God, a divine intellect that thinks itself and is wholly united with the objects of its thought.57 The Forms or intelligibles are Intellect’s thoughts. In the immediate intuitive apprehension of its objects, the “intellection” (νόησις) of Intellect is to be distinguished from ordinary reason, argumentation, or discursive thought. This suggests a more practical reason for positing Intellect as a higher principle. Most of the time, after all, we go about thinking or perceiving the sensible world in a limited and fragmented way. The processes of reasoning (διάνοια) itself, its “propositions and syllogisms,” work sequentially toward their conclusion rather than by a single act of apprehension and contemplation.58 Defined by the latter kind of thinking, Intellect is thus a higher, simpler, more unified principle prior to ordinary reason; it is also something whose existence and nature Plotinus knew by experience.59 In any case, whereas Aristotle and other predecessors (p. 526) had identified divine intellect with the first principle, for Plotinus the necessary multiplicity of the things Intellect thinks, as well as the inherent duality of subject and object, means it cannot be the ultimate principle of unity and simplicity.60 Its unity borrowed from the One, it remains the locus of both real being and perfect knowledge.
Apart from its dependence on the One, the principle of Intellect therefore remains as austere and simple and self-contained as it is possible for a self-thinking thinker to be. Its thoughts, moreover, are the paradigmatic structures of being, eternal and unchanging. What, then, about the world of growth and change we know from ordinary experience? To help explain this, a third principle is required, the hypostasis of “Soul.” In a fundamental sense, Soul is a principle of life itself: it “makes alive all the other things which do not live of themselves.”61 The inherent connection between soul and life is a basic axiom that Platonists share with virtually everyone else in classical or later antiquity. For Platonism, moreover, “the psychological constitutes an irreducible explanatory category.”62 Just as the unity of a thing or the cosmos cannot be an emergent property but demands explanation by a prior principle of unity, so the life of living things comes from Soul. As we might expect from the necessarily greater complexity of the third hypostasis, however, Soul is a good deal more complicated than this. Indeed, for most ancient thinkers, it accounts for or is closely involved in a wide variety of functions that few people nowadays are inclined to ascribe to a single thing: reason, sensation, passions, appetite, and so on, but also life and growth, the “vegetative” functions people share with plants and the living, growing earth.63
But there are distinctive Neoplatonic features. While Plotinus insists repeatedly on the unity of Soul (and all souls), he describes at least three distinct kinds: the transcendent intelligible hypostasis, whose activities are difficult to distinguish from those of Intellect; the world soul that animates the cosmos; and individual human souls.64 To this list might be added “nature,” a kind of embedded principle of growth and basic order in living things.65 In these forms, soul serves as the principle immediately prior to living bodies (of plants, people, earth, cosmos), unifying and organizing what it animates. To each living body, soul “gives it what is better in it.” A piece cut off from a living (ensouled) plant is merely a stick.66 Above all, perhaps, soul provides the crucial link between intelligible reality and the sensible world.
The way in which this link might work remained as problematic for Plotinus and his successors as it had been for Plato. Indeed, the problem could only be sharpened by the Neoplatonic insistence—much stronger than Plato’s, using terminology and concepts that emerged only after (and sometimes well after) Plato’s death—that soul is not just part of the intelligible world but wholly (p. 527) immaterial in all its manifestations and activities.68 Plotinus further maintained, in a position he knew to be suspiciously original (it would be rejected by later Neoplatonists), that the rational part of the human soul never entirely “descends” from the realm of Intellect, that is, from the unified ceaseless contemplation of the eternal Forms.69 Among other consequences, this meant that the path to union with Intellect and the One lay not just upward but within or, as Plotinus put it, “into the inside.”70 Turning in the other direction, to what is outside oneself, is pretty nearly the cause of everything that is wrong with or misunderstood by ensouled bodies in the sensible world. On the other hand, this outward turn or “desire for externals” is as much an inherent characteristic of soul as its all too often unnoticed or “forgotten” participation in eternal Intellect.71 Recognizing the danger, then, but also the fact that as an embodied soul even a philosopher has to think about externals every now and then, let us examine a few of them in more detail.
For it is the rational principle of all things, and the nature of soul is the last and lowest rational principle of the intelligibles and the beings in the intelligible world, but first of those in the whole world perceived by the senses.67
A Hierarchy of Bodies
Naturally enough, top-down Platonism—and the Plotinian kind of Platonism is about as top-down as it gets—emphasizes the exposition of things at the top of the scale of being. The three hypostases are all aspects of the intelligible rather than the sensible world. The principles we have discussed so far are thus metaphysical both in the strict sense, with their inherent relation to the nature of being and reality, and in the more general way the word is often used, to indicate something like the opposite of ordinary, visible, tangible life. To be sure, as the third hypostasis, Soul provides the crucial link between Intellect and the physical world of bodies—as we have seen, its nature is “twofold, partly intelligible and partly perceptible,” at once the lowest principle in the intelligible and the highest of the sensible worlds—but Plotinus repeatedly insists that Soul’s relation to material things is necessarily immaterial: as a primary hypostasis, world soul, or the individual human soul,72 its “presence” to body is in no way spatial, nor are its connections physical. While this entailed certain problems, related if not quite identical to those famously generated by Cartesian minds and bodies, for Plotinus, the absolute immateriality of soul was also the solution to other dilemmas.73
This kind of thoroughgoing attention to the intelligible rather than the sensible world suggests that we should not expect from Neoplatonists a detailed exposition of bodies. Equally forbidding are the famous opening words of Porphyry’s biography: “Plotinus, the philosopher of our times, seemed ashamed of being in a body.” But this does not mean that Plotinus, and still less his successors, thought human and other bodies unworthy of analysis. While the sometimes scattered remarks this occasioned are generally less known than the main principles of Neoplatonic metaphysics, they have much to tell us, especially when set in a broader context. But to make more sense of what are often technical explanations, it is more than usually important to understand how and (p. 528) why people came to think and talk about bodily and nonbodily things in the first place.
Body and Its Opposites
Late ancient discussions about the corporeality of things relied on a tradition that was long and complex but not sempiternal. Immaterial existence is, after all, deeply counterintuitive. In antiquity, the concept of the incorporeal first appears in Plato, who seems to have invented the word asōmatos, “not-bodily.”74 Robert Renehan may be correct in linking its emergence to the “reflection on the relationship between Body and Soul” characteristic of late Presocratic and Academic philosophy rather than to cosmological or theological speculations on the possibility of immaterial existence, but the word was never restricted to the human body as a whole.75 Instead, Plato and subsequent authors more often used it to negate or qualify specific bodily characteristics like visibility and tangibility.76
According to Aristotle, incorporeality could be conceived as a matter of degree; Democritus and the atomists considered the soul to be the “finest and most incorporeal” of bodies.77 This is an essential point. For materialists as well as the many people who reserved absolutely immaterial existence for God or a first principle, a thing that could not be seen or touched in the usual ways might nonetheless be described as “incorporeal”—not like an ordinary body but not strictly immaterial, either. According to Origen in the third century c.e., this usage reflected “general custom.”78 Origen knew better, but he also used “incorporeal” freely in reference to souls, angels, and other “rational natures,” despite his repeated insistence that absolute immateriality belongs only to God.79 The same equivocation was recognized as a problem in Late Antiquity, as Jerome observed in the course of a letter detailing his mature views on the followers of Origen.
According to Jerome, people who believe in the resurrection of “body” but not “flesh” will go along with orthodox doctrine only until the questions of visibility and tangibility arise. After this point, the heretics, unable to contain themselves, dissolve in laughter at the gross materialism of a literal belief in the resurrection of noses and toes. And thus their equivocal use of “body” is exposed, along with their heretical lack of faith in the letter of Scripture.80
“We believe,” they say, “in the future resurrection of bodies.” If this be rightly said, it is an innocent confession. But since there are both celestial and terrestrial bodies and since the air as well as subtle breath are called bodies according to their proper nature, they say “body” (corpus), not “flesh” (caro), so that the orthodox when hearing “body” will think “flesh,” while the heretic will understand it as “spirit” (spiritus).
The ambiguity of calling something “unbodily” thus generated questions and problems throughout classical and later antiquity; sometimes these are easy to miss. But the emergence of a rather different and stronger word adds to the complexity. Aristotle appears to have invented the concept of matter when (p. 529) he borrowed the word ὕλη (“forest” or “wood”) to indicate “the substratum to which change happens, including coming into existence and passing away.”81 To claim that something was “immaterial” was thus a good deal more precise and extreme than calling it incorporeal, although the terms were obviously related. Eἰ δὲ ἄϋλον, οὐ σῶμα, the Christian bishop Nemesius of Emesa could write against materialists near the turn of the fifth century. “If something is immaterial it is not a body.”82 But this was a formula whose strict logic worked in only one direction. Extremely fine or invisible bodies like air might just be called ἀσώματος, “incorporeal,” but not ἄϋλος (or ἄνυλος), “immaterial.” They may lack the usual bodily characteristics accessible to human sensation but still be made of physical stuff. In neither Greek nor Latin, however, did words for “immaterial” enjoy early or widespread popularity. The more familiar, accessible, and flexible “incorporeal” was much preferred.83
Characteristically, Plotinus anticipated and steered later trends by means of rigorous and sometimes radical application of principles inherited from predecessors. In the first place, his clear distinction between matter and body allowed him to refer to both without fear of equivocation. Matter’s utter formlessness led him to speak of it as “nonbeing,” as “privation,” and as “evil itself.”84 While matter’s nonbeing does not quite entail nonexistence,85 the important point for present purposes is that matter never really exists apart from some kind of qualification.86 In practice, then, the lowest level of being is that of bodies, organized masses with the characteristic property of magnitude or extension (μέγεθος).87 This conception of body means that anything that has any kind of magnitude, be it ever so small or fine or evasive to ordinary sensation, is necessarily corporeal. Plotinus therefore never uses “incorporeal” in the weaker sense described previously. An additional consequence of his rigorous definition, however, is that “incorporeal” and “immaterial” can be used interchangeably (unlike “body” and “matter”). Apart from the special case of matter itself,88 each negation implies the other. Not surprisingly, in Late Antiquity the two negations begin to used as synonyms, at least by those who talked about immateriality at all.89 A final consequence worth noticing here is that matter and body are conceived hierarchically, at the bottom end of the spectrum of being. If matter’s absolute deprivation of form, limit, and unity amounts to “nonbeing,” body’s possession of a minimal degree of structure, of “magnitude,” puts it higher on the scale—but only just. It is a “shadow” of being.90
The coalescence of “incorporeal” and “immaterial” appears to get us quite close to familiar modern ideas about matter and its opposite, body and mind, matter and spirit, and so on. Nowadays the terms are synonymous, and we are not inclined to think of them in relative terms. But then Plotinus says something that pulls us up short. Or at least it should.
(p. 530) This is not quite the same as saying that incorporeality admits of degree, but it certainly suggests that corporeality can be conceived on a sliding or graduated scale.92 More explicit still is the claim in Enneads 3.6.6 that fire is “already at the point of escaping bodily nature.” This is because it is lighter, less “earthy” (γεωδέστερος) than other bodies. In short, some things are “more body” than others, and this has important metaphysical consequences.93
Fire itself is more beautiful than all other bodies, because it has the rank of form in relation to all the other elements; it is above them in place and is the finest and subtlest (λεπτότατον) of all bodies, being close to the incorporeal (ἐγγὺς ὂν τοῦ ἀσωμάτου).91
I do not know enough about Descartes to assert with perfect certainty that he would never, after the Meditations, say such a thing, but it seems safe to assume that most of us would find it unscientific or illogical, a category mistake, perhaps, to talk about a material body “approaching” the incorporeal, especially when body itself has been defined and maintained with Plotinian rigor. But alleging absurdity does not get us much closer to a world where such a statement appears to have rarely been challenged. When, moreover, we find no less clearheaded and influential a champion of Neoplatonic immateriality than Augustine making just the same kind of claims for light and fire, above all, but also air and ether—based on the evidently axiomatic principle that “the finer the nature of a corporeal thing, the closer it is to the nature of spirit”94—it seems clear that modern categories will not get us very far.95 In search of an explanation, let us turn instead to some ancient precedents.
Air, Fire, and the Heavens
For the production of philosophical speculation, as well as less technical observations about the way the world is and how it works, it is hard to find a more fruitful topic than the heavens. When people went outside and looked up or around in classical or later antiquity, they arrived at a number of conclusions that are as remarkable for certain consistent patterns as for some unexpected metaphysical implications. It is important in the first place to recognize the importance of the moon, which according to a ubiquitous scheme marked the crucial division between the labile diversity of earth and its atmosphere, on the one hand, and the eternal permanence of the heavens, on the other. Aristotle’s postulation of a fifth element is only the most famous among many ancient theories advanced to explain the circular movement of the heavens.96 It was also a theory that inspired a notable flurry of sophisticated rebuttals in Late Antiquity, culminating in the consequential rejection of ether (among other major features of Aristotelian physics) by the Christian author John Philoponus in the sixth century.97 Classical and later ideas about the atmosphere of the sublunar world are less familiar, perhaps, but equally important for several of the issues just discussed.
If the moon marked the most important distinction between the terrestrial atmosphere and the heavens, layers of air could also be identified between earth and moon. The general model was quite simple: the air was known to get thinner the higher you went. Some of the most detailed descriptions appear in one of the classic sites of the Roman “underworld of Platonism,” the Hermetica, (p. 531) especially as providentially (or, for classicists of an older generation, diabolically) preserved in the excerpts made by Johannes Stobaeus, probably in the fifth century c.e.98 As we might expect, Hermetic accounts of the air have little to do with idle meteorological speculation. “Air is the instrument or mechanism of all the gods,” as one treatise puts it, “through which all things are made.”99 The text that follows this intriguing claim seems to be corrupt, but it can hardly be accidental that it is concerned with the interconnectedness of everything ab imo ad summum, “from bottom to top.”
Sorting out the hierarchy, however, could be complicated. Another Hermetic text describes four divisions organizing no fewer than sixty distinct layers of air above the earth. As evident from the ordinary experience of valleys and mountains, the air got thinner and better as one ascended, culminating in the finest, purest, clearest air of all.100 The telling technical term in these and related passages is λεπτός, “light, thin, delicate,” which, together with its usual Latin equivalent tenuis, is the most common word used for exceptionally fine material things that pass beyond the limits of ordinary human sensation but are bodies all the same. More telling still are comparative or superlative forms of the adjective—like Plotinus writing about fire, the Hermetist here uses λεπτότατος, “finest, thinnest”—indicating degrees of solidity and materiality.
These cosmological conceptions so far present only loose parallels with the metaphysical principles we have examined before: common features include an ascending hierarchy (literally ascending, in the case of the atmosphere), an evident conviction about the general superiority of higher entities, and an emphasis on simplicity—on being “unmixed,” to use a word favored by ancient cosmologists and metaphysicians alike. But three further observations suggest the need for deeper scrutiny. First, for the Hermetists at least, the metaphysical implications of a materially graduated world were patent, and they went all the way to the top.
Second, ideas about the ascending material hierarchy or continuum of the visible cosmos were hardly restricted to Platonic or other underworlds. They are, on the contrary, ubiquitous in the classical or late Roman world, a fact that doubtless owes much to the influence of Stoic cosmology, perhaps especially as mediated or transformed by authors like Posidonius in the final centuries of the Roman republic.102 Cicero, for example, has much to tell us about contemporary understandings of Stoic and other ideas about the importance of air, its density and rarefaction, and so on.103 Augustine reports that Varro divided the regions above the earth into two parts, consisting of ether and air, with two further terrestrial regions of water and land. Plotinus, too, envisions a hierarchical cosmos in which the fires of heaven are materially distinct from their analogous element beneath the moon. The quantity and quality of the air is essential to his explanation.
The finest-particled (λεπτομερέστατον) kind of matter is air, the finest air is soul, the finest soul is mind, the finest mind is God.101
But there is more to the story, for Cicero, Varro, and a broad range of authors in classical and later antiquity also populated this graduated world with souls whose natures (mortal or immortal) corresponded precisely to where they live: gods above the moon, invisible “aerial souls” (heroes, lares, and genii, in Augustine’s summary of Varro) between clouds and the moon, and mortal ones on the earth.105
(p. 532) We must not suppose that the flame down here mingles with the fires of heaven; it reaches a certain way and then is extinguished when it encounters a greater quantity of air, and as it takes earth with it on its ascent it falls back and is not able to get up to the upper fire but comes to a standstill below the moon, so as to make the air finer (λεπτότερον) there.104
This brings us to a third feature of the hierarchical cosmos. Owing above all to their constitutional likeness to air or ether, the intermediate regions between heaven and earth were very often seen as the natural home of souls and kindred spirits like demons and angels. Indeed, the idea that souls ascend after death to the airy or ethereal level of the cosmos best suited to their ambiguously material nature is attested on tombstones as early as the fifth century b.c.e.106 While Cicero again offers an evocative description of the human soul winging up through the atmosphere before coming to rest “among the rarefied air and the modified glow of the sun” in regions that most closely resemble its fine-material constitution,107 few ancient sources can rival Plutarch for details about how the process works. Among much else, he reminds us that a soul’s ascent is sharply conditioned by how one has lived while body and soul were still together. Souls that have become too enmeshed with bodily pursuits (including material substances, alcohol being a particular culprit)108 remain heavy and sluggish, unable to ascend to the superlunary zones reserved for purer souls or, indeed, intellect itself.109 By the middle of the fourth century c.e., this model of ascent was conventional enough that the emperor Julian could take it for granted by way of setting the celestial scene for a dinner party in his satire on the emperors. While the gods were placed at the highest part of heaven, Romulus, the symposiarch, decided to entertain his imperial guests in the upper air just below the moon. The lightness of the bodies with which they had been invested (after death, of course) held them quite naturally in place.110
For the idea that souls could be weighed down by immoderate living, later authors could rely in part on the authority of Plato, who had advanced the theory that some people allow their souls to become so “permeated with the corporeal” by overindulgence in food and sex that the soul itself becomes “heavy,” “dragged back to the visible region.” Evidence for this was as close as a graveyard, where the shadowy apparitions people sometimes see lurking around the tombs are just these wretchedly ponderous and visible souls.111 This account, from the mouth of Socrates in no less “dualistic” a dialogue than the Phaedo, remained current if not precisely popular throughout later antiquity. Origen, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Gregory of Nyssa, Proclus, and John Philoponus cite or allude to it with approval.112
(p. 533) It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that Plotinus’ closest allusion to the theory of visible souls is purely metaphorical.113 Nor should we expect his relentlessly nonspatial conception of soul to generate much discussion on the possibility of souls finding a “natural home” in the physical space of the heavens, once separated from the body.114 Once again, however, expectations may be misleading.
About “earthier bodies,” we already know a little: these are the tangible bodies of everyday experience. Their degree of earthiness or solidity corresponds to the literal proportion of earth, a physical element like water, air, and fire. But what about those souls that put on a manifestly different body in heaven before descending all the way to earthy bodies and terrestrial life? We are still a long way from Cicero or Plutarch, perhaps, and we can be certain that Plotinus will have rejected the Hermetic treatise that neatly assigned sixty ranks of fine-material souls to the progressively material regions of heaven we have already encountered, but once again it seems there must be something not quite Cartesian going on.
The souls when they have peeped out of the intelligible world go first to heaven, and when they have put on a body there go on by its means to earthier bodies (γεωδέστερα σώματα), to the limit to which they extend themselves in length. And some souls [only] come from heaven to lower bodies; others pass from one body into another, those whose power is not sufficient to lift them from this region because they are weighed down and forgetful, dragging with them much that weighs upon them.115
Between Soul and Body?
In Enneads 2.2, Plotinus takes up the problem of the movement of the heavens. Because of the world soul, he naturally has a good deal to say about the parallel between the cosmos and the human body, moved by their respective souls. For reasons that need not detain us, Plotinus concludes that the soul’s motion is circular, movement around a center.116 Because of their own tendency to move in a straight line, ordinary earthly bodies arrest this circular movement.117 In the case of heaven, however, things are substantially—and materially—different.
So much for the circular movement of the stars, but the passage has more to tell us. First, there is the telling word λεπτός again. “Easily moved” (εὐκίνητος) is another clue: bodies thus described are not only light in weight but also preternaturally agile. They are lithe and speedy in all the ways that a boulder is not.
There the body of heaven follows along with soul, being light and easy to move (λεπτὸν καὶ εὐκίνητον); why ever should it stop when it goes on moving, whatever its motion? And in us, too, it seems that the pneuma which is around the soul moves in a circle.118
More suggestive still, however, is the passing reference to the pneuma that surrounds the soul. This is (almost certainly) one of Plotinus’ rare references to something known to Neoplatonic scholars as the “vehicle of the soul.”119 Its (p. 534) precise origins are obscure, but the second-century doctor Galen may preserve one of the first unambiguous references to the theory, in a discussion of the “luminous and ethereal body” that is either the substance of the soul itself or else its “vehicle” (ὄχημα). Even if the soul itself is incorporeal rather than tenuously material (Galen was consistently agnostic on the subject), it still requires a material substance by means of which it can interact with the corporeal world. But a doctor need not be concerned about the metaphysical question, Galen continued, so long as he realizes that the soul’s role in vision and other sensory processes is to be explained by the luminous ethereal substance that pervades the human brain, identical or closely related to the pneuma or “spirit” that was essential to a host of biological and psychological processes in the human body.120 As we might expect, later Neoplatonic proponents of the vehicle of the soul found authoritative precedents in Plato,121 supplemented by Aristotle’s influential remarks linking pneuma both to “the element of the stars” and to the human soul.122
In its developed form, then, the vehicle of the soul is a semi- or quasi-material body that performs a number of functions. It surrounds or carries the soul on its descent from the intelligible to the sensible world, and then again, when properly purified or lightened, on the way back up. A second major set of benefits has to do with ordinary life on earth, for the vehicle is naturally intermediate between the incorporeal soul and the visible, tangible body.123 It can receive the literal stamps or impressions of bodily sensation and transmit them to the soul; it can also endow a soul with the shape and (limited) visibility associated with the apparitions flickering around a tomb, as Origen observed in one of his several allusions to the vehicle.124 The fine-material stuff of which it is composed was identified with pneuma or with the ethereal bodies of the stars, whence its frequent designation as the soul’s “astral body.” As we might expect from something made of ether or pneuma (generally conceived as a mixture of fire and air), the vehicle is frequently described as glowing or luminous.
It is hard to know whether to make more of the fact that Plotinus obliquely refers to the vehicle of the soul at several points or of the fact that it seems to play such a small role in his philosophy as a whole.125 The special body is evidently acquired, as we have seen, in that part of the heavens whose constitution corresponds to its own. Plotinus elsewhere alludes to how the process might work in reverse as the soul ascends, leaving its fine-material body behind. He begins, however, with what seems an unambiguously noetic account of ascent.
So far so good. And then this:
The purification of the part [of the soul] subject to affections is the waking up from inappropriate images and not seeing them, and its separation is effected by not inclining much downwards and not having a mental picture of the things below.
This presentation of two alternative (or are they complementary?) methods for promoting the soul’s ascent—easily obscured by confusion about what Plotinus could possibly mean by the second sentence—seems momentous, in retrospect. The first kind of purification relies altogether on the rigorously intellectual turn for which Plotinus is justly famous, but the second underscores the importance of a different kind of rigor, an ascetic discipline. Keeping your pneuma pure, fine, and buoyant demands sober appreciation of the bluntly physical effects of everyday life. For later Neoplatonists, at least, this also left the door open for alternative means of purification.
But separating it could also mean taking away the things from which it is separated when it is not [carried] on pneuma that is turbid from gluttony and (p. 535) full of impure meats, but that in which it resides is so attenuated that it can ride on it in peace.126
In any case, where Plotinus was content with cautious allusions, later Neoplatonism found the vehicle of the soul a useful theory indeed. Its attractions were strong and quickly felt. Porphyry appears to have linked the pneumatic ὄχημα so closely to the soul’s lowest part that the two were virtually equated. The crucial role of pneuma—according to Augustine, Porphyry distinguished the “pneumatic soul” (anima spiritalis) from the soul’s intellectual part—in the processes of perception suggests surprising affinities with Stoic psychology.127 Moreover, while Porphyry denied that theurgical rites could assist the higher intellectual soul in its separation from the physical body, he evidently accepted their efficacy for purifying the soul’s vehicle, together with the lower part of the soul itself.128 But it was Iamblichus who gave the vehicle of the soul its definitive form and central place in later Neoplatonism.129 He cited Plato’s Timaeus for his assertion that it was made of ether; elsewhere, he uses the traditional terminology of “luminous pneuma.”130 Immortal and permanently attached to the soul, the ethereal vehicle acquires additional bodies and powers in its descent, including bodies corresponding to various regions of the heavens.131 It can thus be weighed down with the pollutions of material life; these must be purged if the soul is to ascend from the terrestrial through the celestial to the intelligible realm.132 Iamblichus argued further that the vehicle transferred sensory impressions and other “images” to the soul, enabling not only sensation but also memory and imagination.133 A crucial doctrine undergirding his theory at many points is the principle (ubiquitous in Roman and later antiquity) that “like approaches like,” that constitutional and other similarities between entities enable communication, “sympathetic” interaction, and so on.134
Apart from certain minor changes to Iamblichus’ seminal conceptions, later Neoplatonists added little to the model, which they endorsed with enthusiasm. Proclus, to take only the most influential example, identified not one but two vehicles of the soul: a luminous astral body acquired in the upper heavens, as well as a thicker one made of pneuma for the soul’s lower part, the latter being the perishable material vehicle responsible for psychic functions.135 This is the basic theory adopted by Philoponus in the sixth century, who further elaborated on what several predecessors had suggested, namely, that the (p. 536) soul’s pneumatic vehicle could help explain how demons and other “spirits” (pneumata) interacted with the immaterial soul.136 But then demons had pneumatic vehicles, too.137
With the introduction of demons, we have moved into decidedly practical territory. I mention them only in passing as perhaps the single most important evidence of the practical importance of knowing what you were about, and what was about you. Knowing where you, and especially your soul, fit on the scales of both physics and metaphysics could make all the difference. Demons enjoyed all the advantages of a fine-material constitution: physical speed and astonishing mental agility, for example, combined with the possibility of direct interaction with the stuff of the human soul.138
But let us reflect instead on the further implications of the vehicle of the soul. It seems at first blush a paradigmatic example of Neoplatonic excess, a desperate theoretical construction that does little to solve the fundamental problem brought into such clear relief by the Plotinian conception of body and soul. Most modern readers will find it hard to disagree with the trenchant analysis offered by Joseph Priestley in 1777.
To this criticism, there is, it seems, no obvious response. Unless, that is, we are dealing with a different definition of matter or, less precisely (from a philosophical perspective) but more significantly (from a historical one), with different instinctive assumptions about just what it is that makes a bodily thing bodily. Plotinus, as so often, helps to put a finer point on it. As we have seen, his most consistent and technical accounts follow Aristotle in identifying magnitude or extension as the essential attribute of bodies.140 Bodies can be bigger or smaller, but according to this approach, corporeality itself cannot be a matter of degree. Reflections of this kind doubtless have something do with the fact that Plotinus nowhere relies on the vehicle of the soul as a kind of quasi-material hack in order to bridge (or disguise) the gap between bodies and immaterial things, in the way deplored by Priestley.141
The vehicle of the soul is altogether a creature of imagination and hypothesis, and in reality without explaining any one phenomenon, or removing one real difficulty. For so long as the matter of which this vehicle consists, has what are supposed to be the essential properties of all matter, viz., solid extent, its union with a truly immaterial substance must be just as difficult to conceive, as if it had been the subject of all our corporeal senses. To the vulgar, indeed, the attenuation of matter may make it seem to approach to the nature of spirit; but the philosopher knows that, in fact, no attenuation of matter brings it at all nearer to the nature of a substance that has no common property with matter.139
But Plotinus evidently found the vehicle congenial all the same. Setting aside the mind-body problem he addressed in other ways, the vehicle’s astral or pneumatic composition seems to have suggested advantages in quite a different direction. It should be remembered that Plotinus did not only talk about magnitude in relation to body. On the contrary, when the subject at hand approaches (p. 537) the possibility of relative corporeality—of things that have “more completely become body” than others, as he put it—the crucial attribute is “solidity” or “earthiness” rather than magnitude or extension. Let us stipulate at once that this does not form part of Plotinus’ formal definitions of body. It does, however, allow one to conceive more readily of material things, like fire, that ascend by degrees toward incorporeality. It is easier to imagine the subtraction of the last bit of “earth” or solidity from a substance, the incremental removal of all the stuff that makes for resistance and pressure, than the graduated diminishing of spatial extension until one arrives by degrees at a thing with no extension at all.142 In a tradition of enormously fruitful and broad-ranging speculation, Greek doctors and scientists had long made much of just such special bodies, of things like air and fire that seemed to lack either solidity or visibility or both. We have already encountered the special status of fire in Plotinus and the remarkable role of air in Hermetic physics and metaphysics. Air, of course, had a much older history in Greek science, as one of the several Presocratic substances that explained everything else. In the fifth or early fourth century b.c.e., the Hippocratic author of On the Sacred Disease identified air as the source of intelligence and reason in the human body; from it, the brain drew all its remarkable powers of intellection.143
But it was above all the development of the concept of pneuma—air in motion, in the first place, but also, for Aristotle and the doctors, the special airy substance that enabled a wide range of biological and psychological functions in the human body—that bore abundant fruit in Hellenistic and later antiquity.144 The Stoics are traditionally held to have defined pneuma as a mixture of fire and air;145 more certain is the Stoic identification of pneuma as the crucial fine-material element that causes the universe, as well as the human person, to cohere, to live and breathe, to move. The human soul was made of it. Pneuma’s constitutional similarities to air, ether, and fire help to explain the cogency of the belief in buoyant souls ascending to their natural place in the cosmos. Its malleability and other special properties account for changes of shape (in demons and souls, for example), as well as the ability of a pneuma-wrapped soul or pneuma-filled brain to generate, receive, and retain sensory and other data in the form of literal impressions. Its tendency to become “thickened” with corporeal accretions had all sorts of consequences, from the visible souls around tombs to the intermittent visibility of demons, angels, and other “spirits.” According to Origen and Porphyry, the pneumatic bodies of demons required sustenance in the form of sacrificial smoke and vapors; they could get fat and sink down toward the earth or be starved back into the heavens like an unballasted balloon.146 More prosaically, Galen observed that the respiration of ordinary air nourishes a person’s own pneuma in the same way air feeds fire.147
Appreciation for the importance of pneuma in Roman and Late Antiquity has been checked by at least four stubborn complications. First, readers familiar with the New Testament, early Christian literature, and especially with gnosticism will be surprised to find the moral and material implications of soul and (p. 538) “spirit” apparently reversed. The theological importance of the “Spirit of God” and the consequential language of 1 Corinthians 15 made “spirit” and “spiritual” higher, better, and (perhaps) finer than “soul” and its cognates. Second, when Augustine drew on the same traditions and defined “spirit”—for the first time in Latin Christendom—as an unqualifiedly immaterial substance, the confusion with traditional, fine-material, instrumental understandings of pneuma was institutionalized.148 Third, a rarely challenged stream of modern scholarship, doubtless influenced by the genius of Augustine himself, has presented the history of pneuma as one of progressive refinement and rarefaction: from a primitive material understanding involving air and breath and vapors to the sophisticated fine-materiality of the Stoics to its immaterial apotheosis in the bishop of Hippo and his numberless heirs.149 Fourth, is there not something vaguely disreputable in all this talk of not-quite-bodily bodies, with their intangible sympathies, their spherical shape-shifting, the suspiciously convenient breadth of their explanatory power?150 With some reason, it smacks of the heady days of the early twentieth century, when the deep erudition of the most serious scholars of ancient ideas detected “Iranian” influence around virtually every corner.151 In another, not unrelated vein, it was a learned member of the Theosophical Society, indeed Madame Blavatsky’s private secretary, who published The Doctrine of the Subtle Body in Western Tradition in 1919.152
There is, in fact, little hope of rescuing the pneumatic vehicle of the soul from the murky waters of late ancient theurgy (as it used to be seen). It is more productive, I suggest, to follow the lead of E. R. Dodds in paying more attention to the theory’s deep roots in classical philosophy and science.153 As we have seen, it is not much of a stretch to label empirical or experiential at least some of the evidence mustered in its support. Nor does it seem that the role of the vehicle as a convenient if logically dubious mediator between material and immaterial things was ever a primary reason for its development by later Neoplatonists. While Plotinus himself certainly did not rely on it to bridge an ontological gap, it is equally certain that he saw no reason to reject certain traditional notions of pneuma, together with some of its remarkable properties.154 Thus, while it must be admitted that Plotinus’ newly rigorous conceptions of an immaterial soul may have provided an impetus to later speculation about its vehicle as a kind of tertium quid—a substance that did not suffer from all of the disadvantages of the solid “earthy” body but enjoyed instead the special properties of fire, air, or ether, right on the border of corporeal existence—more interesting observations emerge from recognizing the degree to which the soul’s vehicle could promote the integration of a venerable and sophisticated tradition of thinking with pneuma while remaining within or very close to the intellectual austerities of Neoplatonic metaphysics.155 In the context of late ancient cosmology and physics—much of which we are only now beginning to understand and appreciate, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Richard Sorabji and his collaborators—the pneumatic vehicle of the soul is hardly an oddity at all.
(p. 539) Conclusion: Augustine and Cassiodorus
The second most famous conversion in Christian history was a conversion to the Neoplatonic version of strict immateriality. Or at least it began that way, in the story told by the convert himself. Augustine tells us that when he was a Manichaean, he was unable to conceive of mind except as “a subtle body.”156 Still worse,
The story of Augustine’s momentous encounter with “the Platonists” has been told many times, but it was François Masai in 1961 who built on the pioneering work of Pierre Courcelle to demonstrate more decisively than anyone else that the conversion of 386 was partly the result and partly a cause of nothing less than “les débuts du spiritualisme en Occident.”158 It need hardly be said that the spiritualisme of Masai’s title has nothing to do with séances or “spirituality.” It relies instead on the immaterial sense of “spirit” that was invented in Late Antiquity. But for all the importance of the word’s abrupt liberation from matter, this was no mere change of terminology. The ascendancy of the concept of immaterial spirit—or immaterial anything, in the strong Plotinian sense—was a revolution in Latin Christendom.159 Nor is there any need to hypothesize long impersonal changes in currents of thought or the spirit of an anxious (or ambitious) age. At the heart of the revolution were particular people known by name—Marius Victorinus, Simplicianus, Ambrose—people who had read Plotinus. Moreover, these Neoplatonic readings bore their firstfruits quite precisely in the Milan where Augustine encountered Ambrose.160
When I wished to think of my God, I was unable to think of him except as a bodily substance, for it seemed to me that no other kind of thing could exist. This was the most important and almost the only cause of my insurmountable error.157
There is much more to the story of Augustine’s conversion, but from the perspective of the ideas examined here, it hardly seems a stretch to propose it as a candidate for the single most important consequence of the kind of metaphysics developed by Plotinus and his successors. Of course, there was much in this metaphysics that had to be modified or rejected. The Neoplatonic One is decidedly not a God who might “relent” and pity Augustine after an indulgent laugh at his creature’s expense.161 Nor could Plotinus agree (without careful qualification)162 that the human soul “is the one thing in the universe nearest to God”—which Augustine tells us is something he first learned from Ambrose, together with the all-important principle that “when one thinks about God, one should not think about a body in any way whatsoever, and the same is true of the soul.”163
But the more important point for present purposes has less to do with the details of the Augustinian appropriation of Neoplatonic metaphysics than with the very long shadow cast by his conversion to immateriality. As with Plotinus, the chronological length of this shadow is easily mistaken for contemporary (p. 540) breadth, especially when its size is magnified through a Cartesian prism. But what Plotinus and Augustine bequeathed to Descartes and the modern world was less a set of convictions about body and the physical world than a relentlessly inward turn, an unprecedentedly rigorous conception of mind or soul occasioned not by the rejection of hierarchical or fine-material physics but by the consequences of introspection.164 The full implications of this introspection, especially as Augustine formulated them in his invention of the cogito argument from systematic doubt, would not be taken up or pressed to their logical end until the seventeenth century. Indeed, it is difficult to find any ancient thinkers apart from Plotinus and Augustine who explicitly took this path or directly confronted the problems we generally take for granted as the necessary result of making an uncompromising ontological distinction between body and mind.165
In Late Antiquity, it was a hard case to make. As I have suggested we might conclude from Plotinus’ three days with Porphyry, the enormous efforts Augustine expended in explaining and proving his new position might serve as a rough but useful indicator of what he was up against. It requires only a glance through book 7 of his treatise On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis to appreciate the depth of his commitment to the principle of an immaterial soul. In his view, potentially ambiguous allusions to an “incorporeal” soul do not suffice. Instead, Augustine demands explicit rejection of all the principal theories concerning material and fine-material substrates of the soul’s constitution: earth, air, ether, the substance of the stars, Aristotle’s quintessence. Here and elsewhere, he proposed a number of formal philosophical reasons for his position, some of them quite sophisticated.166 But the vehemence of his opposition, the voluble consistency with which he maintained its immateriality even in the face of unsolved difficulties and expunged persistent habits of thought hinting at psychic materialism from his writing, ought to give us pause.167
Augustine clearly found the flexible features of fine-material constitution appealing from a number of perspectives, along with the fundamental notion of a hierarchy of material existence from visible and thick to very thin.168 In fact, he very nearly tried to have it both ways, to locate the soul in a hierarchy like this (at the top of the thin list, naturally) while maintaining its difference in kind from all bodies. Light, for example, he recognized as a corporeal substance, subtilissimum in corpore, “the finest element in bodies and by virtue of this more closely related (vicinius) to the soul than the others.”169 Similar characterizations obtain for fire, air, and ether.170 Indeed, for Augustine, “light and air” constitute in their marvelous subtlety the crucial fine-material interface between body and soul.171 It need not be surprising, therefore, to find Augustine warning that demons, with their “airy” bodies, can enter human bodies unawares, “by means of the subtlety of their own bodies,” literally “mixing themselves with the person’s thoughts.”172 We have already encountered the physical principle underlying a process like this. “The finer the nature of a corporeal thing, the closer it is to the nature of spiritus”—“although there is a great distance in kind,” (p. 541) Augustine added, “since the one is a body and the other is not.”173 But quamvis marks a substantial leap indeed, from the flexible physics of daily experience to what seems here a metaphysical axiom rather anxiously maintained.
So did Late Antiquity make a difference? Of course, it did, but it is important to be clear about the nature and extent of innovation and tradition. Discussions of Christian Neoplatonism toward the end of our period, for example, seem necessarily to culminate in the late-fifth- or early-sixth-century achievement of Pseudo-Dionysius, whose famous hierarchies of heavenly and other beings are populated with thoroughly incorporeal beings, the physical or quasi-physical language used about them always symbolic. The influence of Neoplatonic metaphysics, especially as mediated through Proclus, is profound and everywhere apparent.174 Nor is there much sign of anxiety about creeping corporealism. But this is only part of the story, despite the fact that standard conceptions of late ancient and especially Christian Neoplatonism are deeply colored by the surpassingly top-down, apophatic, and intellectual hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius. To be sure, he engaged later Neoplatonic discussions of soul throughout his work, but the kind of practical or experiential speculation about the relation between material and immaterial things evident in earlier pioneers or indeed in near-contemporaries like John Philoponus is conspicuous in its absence. If you want to know how to deal with demons, how to recognize their materially subtle and mentally pervasive impact on the human person, Pseudo-Dionysius is not your man.175
By way of contrast and conclusion, then, let us turn to a different milieu, a bit later and further west. Setting aside a persistent if rarely noticed tradition of more or less overt materialism in the Latin West,176 there is much to be learned from one of those remarkable men who (as we might have put it before the discovery of Late Antiquity) seems to have had one foot each in antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Cassiodorus wrote his little treatise On the Soul in 538, a bit more than a century after Augustine’s death. Its theological and philosophical debts have been discussed from a number of modern perspectives and need not long detain us.177 “With few exceptions, the views he reports were the stock-in-trade of late ancient Platonism, readily assimilable and already assimilated to a platonizing Christian anthropology,” according to the recent summary of Mark Vessey.178 Augustine is in fact the only source Cassiodorus names explicitly, and the influence of the bishop’s early treatise Magnitude of the Soul in particular is clear throughout.179 In any case, few have wished to defend the philosophical rigor of this late Roman De anima.
But the “mistakes” Cassiodorus made, as a self-conscious heir of Augustine on the incorporeal soul, are suggestive indeed. He stoutly maintained the principle of the soul’s immateriality—including an Augustinian denial of spatial extension in three dimensions—throughout the treatise.180 Nonetheless, he used words that Augustine could not have countenanced. The soul is subtilis, for example, “thin” and thus comparable to the “angels and other aerial powers” (p. 542) who also retain powers of intellection apart from an ordinary visible body. By God’s will, it is “blocked” from escaping through the body’s numerous portals. Like fire, whose refined constitution makes it tend upward, the soul inhabits the highest part of the human body, the head. But the clearest clues to the persistence of fine-material instincts in the face of strong protestations emerge when Cassiodorus addresses the substance of the soul directly. Like Augustine, he proceeded apophatically, listing bodies and things that should not be equated with the soul’s constitution.
It is not part of the angels, since it is associated with flesh, nor of air, nor of earth, nor of things joined together in mutual combination; rather, it is a simple and unique nature and a substance distinct from other spirits.
Not quite content with this, however, Cassiodorus wanted to make the point perfectly plain.
While the first part of this passage depends quite directly on Augustine, the language of comparative subtlety and visibility represents Cassiodorus’ telling improvement on his model. One searches Augustine in vain for subtilior or even subtilissimus as a description of the soul’s constitution—except in reference to the exceptionally “fine-grained” arguments necessary to counter material or fine-material beliefs.181 He saw (correctly, we might think) that such comparative language fatally compromises the definition of immateriality itself—however “close” very thin but corporeal things like air, fire, and light came to its wholly spiritual composition.
We should take note of the fact that the soul is much thinner and more translucent (lucidior) than the air, since we commonly behold the latter but cannot see the former because of the condition of the flesh.
Things were easier for Cassiodorus. In the next chapter of his treatise, he went on to entertain (without rejecting) the identification of soul with a “fiery substance” before settling with more confidence on “substantial light.” While substantialis can mean a number of things in Latin, we need not rely on Augustine’s assertions that light is a body to draw conclusions about the luminous soul in Cassiodorus. It is something you can see and feel, if only just.
Nescio quid tenue, volubile, clarum: the glittering, tenuous “something” is the soul itself—almost but not quite an Augustinian one. It has more in common with Tertullian, perhaps, or the luminous vehicle of the soul from Galen to Philoponus.183 Is it so different, after all, from the kind of mind that could kindle the face of a Neoplatonic sage?
When deep in thought, we sense within ourselves something tenuous, agile, bright, something that gazes without the sun and sees without external light.182
One thinks finally of Descartes’ description of the soul as an “attenuated something” (exiguum nescio quid), that “spontaneous” product of inherited assumptions described and finally rejected with momentous clarity 1,103 years after Cassiodorus published his little book about the soul.184 The spontaneous (p. 543) description of the soul—“something tenuous, like wind or fire or ether,” “a kind of subtle air diffused throughout these limbs”—was a setup for one of the most famous punch lines in philosophical history. “I now admit nothing except what is necessarily true: I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thing that thinks, mind or rational soul or intellect or reason, words of whose meaning I have been ignorant until now.” It is one of the many paradoxical achievements of the period to which this book is devoted that the most important precedents for both res cogitans and exiguum nescio quid were to be found in Late Antiquity.
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(3) . For Porphyry’s abiding interest in the relationship between body and soul, and a case for the substantial agreement of his psychology with Plotinus, see Smith 1974, 1–19; see also 150, with nn. 2–3, for Porphyry’s reputation for hesitance and indecision; cf. Dodds 1951, 286–287.
(6) . Precedents need not be enumerated, but A. Smith 2004, for example, a useful and important introduction titled Philosophy in Late Antiquity, is devoted entirely to Plotinus and his successors, with some seventy pages for Plotinus himself and the rest (fifty-five pages) for “the diffusion of Neoplatonism”; see esp. the book’s preface (ix–xi) for defensible reasons for the book’s emphases. A similar ratio obtains, on a rather more focused topic but as part of a collection similar to the present volume, in Chadwick 1999. For a more balanced article-length survey of late ancient philosophy, see de Haas 2003; for themes treated in the present article, see especially the sections on physics (261–264), psychology (264–267), and metaphysics (267–270).
(8) . De Haas 2003, 251. After Plotinus, de Haas suggests, late ancient philosophers turned from establishing the essential principles of this “universal truth” (which Plotinus had synthesized so brilliantly and suggestively) to exploring its details and implications (242–251).
(9) . Once derided as confused and derivative “eclecticism,” this shift in emphasis has been recast in much more positive terms in recent decades. For the problem, and a set of important essays instrumental in turning the tide, see Dillon and Long 1988.
(10) . Porphyry, V. Plot. 14.4–7. See Gatti 1996 for a useful summary, equally rich in modern and ancient bibliography, as well as further details on how Plotinus “gathered the legacy of nearly eight centuries of Greek into a magnificently unified synthesis” (10). See also, for Aristotle, the articles collected in Sorabji 1990; Schrenk 1994; Blumenthal 1996; Karamanolis 2006; and especially the provocative case made for the Neoplatonic harmony of Plato and Aristotle in Gerson 2005a. For Stoicism, see Theiler 1960; Armstrong 1967, 129–131; Graeser 1972; Sorabji 2000; Gill 2003.
(11) . Dillon 1996, 384–396. Less cautious but equally memorable is Arthur Darby Nock on gnosticism: “Platonism run wild” (1964, xvi). Cf. Willy Theiler’s “Proletarierplatonismus” (1955, 78). Since it was the successors of Plotinus, especially Iamblichus and Proclus, who were responsible for the preservation (and celebration) of the Chaldean Oracles in the next few centuries, at least part of this underworld continued to flourish. For the Oracles and imperial Platonism, see Lewy 1978; Majercik 1989; Saffrey 1990; Dillon 1992; Athanassiadi 1999; Brisson 2003.
(12) . For a memorable statement of Plotinian exceptionalism, see Dodds 1928, 142: “If anyone doubts that Plotinus was a man of genius, let him study the efforts of Plotinus’ nearest predecessors and followers. Let him soak for a while in the theosophical maunderings of Philo and the Hermetists, in the venomous fanaticism of Tertullian, in the tea-table transcendentalism of Plutarch, in the cultured commonplaces of Maximus, in the amiable pieties of Porphyry, in the really unspeakable spiritualistic drivellings of the de Mysteriis—let him do that, and if ever he gets his head above water again, he will see Plotinus in his true historical perspective as the one man who still knew how to think clearly in an age which was beginning to forget what thinking meant.” Cf. Dodds 1951, 286: “Plotinus is a man who, as Wilhelm Kroll put it, ‘raised himself by a strong intellectual and moral effort above the fog-ridden atmosphere which surrounded him.’ While he lived, he lifted his pupils with him. But with his death the fog began to close in again, and later Neoplatonism is in many respects a retrogression to the spineless syncretism from which he had tried to escape.”
(13) . It is worth noting that some recent interpreters have argued that Descartes’ dualism was not so sharp as once thought. For discussion of these, together with a convincing case for the radical distinction between mind and body sketched here, see Rozemond 1998, 172–213.
(14) . The several important connections between Descartes and Augustine in particular—including, most famously, Augustine’s invention and use of the cogito argument (esp. Aug. Trin. 10.10)—cannot detain us here. The classic study is Gilson 1930; cf. Taylor 1989, chapter 7; brief remarks in Sorabji 2005, 1:12 (see 1:167–168 for the relevant passages in Augustine); Menn 1998 (a strong view of Descartes’ dependence on Augustine for both method and content); and Janowski 2004.
(17) . I have benefited from Charles Kahn’s stimulating investigations of the semantic and philosophical history of Greek words for “being”; relevant articles are now collected in Kahn 2009. Note that many of the basic points made in this paragraph apply with equal force to Aristotelian metaphysics; cf. Politis 2004, 3.
(18) . The possibility of discerning not only personal and otherworldly but also practical ethics in Plotinus has in fact received a good deal of attention in the last decade or so. See, e.g., A. Smith 1999; Schniewind 2000; 2003; Remes 2006; 2008, chapter 5.
(19) . Twentieth-century milestones include translations of Plotinus: two in English, Mackenna 1917–1930 (4th ed. 1969) and Armstrong 1966–1988; for other European languages, see Harder 1930–1937 (2nd ed. 1956–1967); Cilento 1947–1949; Hadot 1988– (an ongoing series by multiple authors). Influential studies and collections include Inge 1918 (3rd ed. 1929); Arnou 1921 (2nd ed. 1967); Dodds 1928; Bréhier 1928 (2nd ed. 1961); Kristeller 1929; Dodds 1933 (2nd ed. 1963); Armstrong 1940; Fondation Hardt 1960 (Entretiens 5); Hadot 1963 (Eng. tr. 1993); Theiler 1966 (reprinting several pioneering articles); Armstrong 1967; Rist 1967.
(20) . Some notable examples in English include Blumenthal 1971a; Wallis 1972 (2nd ed. 1995, with an updated, annotated bibliography by Lloyd Gerson); Dillon 1977 (2nd ed. 1996); Steel 1978; Lloyd 1990; O’Meara 1993; Gerson 1994, 1996, 2003; de Haas 2003; Smith 2004; Corrigan 2005; Remes 2008.
(21) . At last count, the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series overseen by Richard Sorabji numbered seventy-eight volumes of translation and commentary on some of the most important philosophy produced in any form in Late Antiquity. Up-to-date lists with much helpful information and supplementary material on the project can be consulted at www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/humanities/depts/philosophy/research/commentators.html. Developed from the same rich and underexploited material, Sorabji 2005 is a three-volume sourcebook whose wide learning and unexpected juxtapositions make it doubly useful, as reference and stimulus. Nor is Neoplatonic commentary on Plato being neglected: to cite only the most recent and substantial example, Dirk Baltzly, Harold Tarrant, and their colleagues have begun to publish a most welcome series of annotated translations of Proclus’ monumental commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. For a brief overview of the importance of philosophical commentaries in Late Antiquity, with a useful table of authors and commentaries, as well as a systematic list of factors involved in make the commentaries so popular, see de Haas 2003, 246–254. The “introductory readings” in Neoplatonism in Dillon and Gerson 2004 were collected and annotated expressly to complement a classic introduction to Neoplatonism (Wallis 1972).
(26) . For Stoic versions of the argument, see SVF 2.366–368 (von Arnim 1903–1924, 2:124), with important qualifications about the degree of “Stoicizing” by Graeser 1972, 74–75; cf. Wallis 1972, 48. The fragments from Plutarch (SVF 2.366–367) contain all of the examples used by Plotinus here.
(27) . Aristotle, Metaphysics 5.11 (1019a1–4); trans. W. D. Ross in Barnes 1984, 1609. Beyond the reference to Aristotle, the discussion of priority in the paragraph owes a great deal to O’Meara 1996.
(31) . The phrase, in full: τό τε μὴ ἁπλοῦν τῶν ἐν αὐτῷ ἁπλῶν δεόμενον, ἵν’ ᾖ ἐξ ἐκείνων. For an explanation of τῶν ἐν αὐτῷ ἁπλῶν as “simple components” in the ordinary sense, see Gerson 1994, 4–5; cf. O’Meara 1993, 46, on Enneads 18.104.22.168–15.
(33) . Cf. Enneads 4.3.9: “there never was a time when this universe did not have a soul, or when body existed in the absence of soul, or when matter was not set in order.” To this might be added Plotinus’ view that “the cause is not the same as what is caused” (Enneads 6.9.6); cf. Tornau 2005.
(34) . For a rather different (but important) sense of “contain,” see Enneads 22.214.171.124–18: ὥστε εἶναι μικτὴν ἐκ σωματικῆς καὶ ψυχικῆς, τοῦ μὲν σώματος εὐθὺ φερομένου φύσει, τῆς δὲ ψυχῆς κατεχούσης, ἐκ δ’ ἀμφοῖν γενομένου φερομένου τε καὶ μένοντος.
(35) . The posterior’s degree of unity and thus its perfection is necessarily inferior to the prior; it can only be an imperfect reflection or shadow of the higher thing on which it depends. It is to this extent less real, less perfect, although as we have seen, this imperfect being or reality should not be taken to imply nonexistence.
(36) . Naturally, the paradox appears sharpest when the thing in question is the first principle of all; see, e.g., Enneads 5.2.1.
(37) . For Plotinus’ remarks on the utility and inadequacies of a similar analogy (the skill of a pilot “in” a rudder), see Enneads 4.3.21. Cf. Blumenthal 1971a, 17–18. For a related analogy (a builder and his “beautiful and richly various house”), see Enneads 126.96.36.199–37.
(38) . See esp. Enneads 4.3–5 for detailed treatment of these and related questions. Blumenthal 1971a, esp. 8–19, remains very useful; cf. Emilsson 1988, chapters 2 and 5; 1991; Gerson 1994, 127–139; Clark 1996, 277–281; and, for a recent collection with several helpful and detailed articles, Chiaradonna 2005.
(40) . Enneads 188.8.131.52–51.
(42) . Enneads 4.3.22; Plato, Timaeus 36D-E.
(43) . Partial and qualified, that is, not because there is a part of body outside soul but because, while soul as a prior thing is pervasively present in (or to) the body, this does mean that all of soul is in the body. See, e.g., Enneads 1.1.2, 4.2–3.
(44) . Enneads 184.108.40.206–44.
(47) . Useful overviews addressing of all or parts of the established or probable pedigree of Plotinus’ doctrine of the One include O’Meara 1993, 46–49; and Gatti 1996, with detailed bibliographical analysis. Dodds 1928 is the classic study identifying Plato’s Parmenides as a fundamental inspiration.
(49) . Enneads 5.4.1.
(50) . For a discussion of reasons why there should be such a thing and why it must be unique, see Gerson 1994, 4–14. For Plotinus’ originality in posing the question of the reason for the One’s existence, see Gatti 1996, 28–29.
(52) . Enneads 220.127.116.11–35.
(53) . See esp. Enneads 18.104.22.168–20.
(55) . Gerson 2003, 311.
(57) . Aristotle, Metaphysics 12(Λ).7 (1072b19–21); cf. Enneads 5.4 and esp. 5.5.1–2. For the history of how the Platonic forms came to be identified with the objects of a divine intellect, see Armstrong 1960; Szlezák 1979; Emilsson 1988, 17–18.
(58) . Enneads 1.3.4.
(59) . Enneads 4.8.1.
(60) . Enneads 5.3.10. This is only one of several ways in which Plotinus finds multiplicity in Intellect.
(61) . Enneads 4.3.10. Entirely independent of their posterior principles, the higher “life” of Intellect and the One are, of course, excluded from this category; cf. Enneads 3.6.6; 5.1.4, 5.3.16, 5.5.1.
(63) . Enneads 4.4.27: “But what does the soul give to the body of the earth itself? One should not consider an earthy body the same when it is cut off from the earth and when it remains connected with it, as stones show, which grow as long as they are attached to the earth but remain the size they were cut when they are taken away from it.”
(66) . Enneads 4.4.27.
(67) . Enneads 4.6.3.
(68) . See esp. Enneads 4.7.2–8.
(69) . Enneads 4.8.8.
(73) . Notably, it helps solve the problem of the unity of Soul in light of the existence of the world soul, individual human souls, and so on. See esp. Enneads 4.9, with the conclusion in 4.9.4.
(74) . The word is used five times in Plato’s uncontested works and once in the Epinomis.
(76) . E.g., Plato, Phaedo 85e–86a; Timaeus 28b; 31b. Cf. Origen, Against Celsus 3.47.
(77) . Aristotle, On the Soul 1.5, 409b: οἱ [sc., Democritus and the atomists] δὲ σῶμα τὸ λεπτομερέστατον ἢ τὸ ἀσωματώτατον τῶν ἄλλων.
(79) . Origen, On First Principles 1.1.6, 1.6.4, 1.7.1, 2.3.3, etc.; Against Celsus 6.71; Exhortation to Martyrdom 47.
(80) . Jerome, Letters 84.5.
(81) . Aristotle, On generation and corruption 1.5 (320a).
(83) . Greek: ἄϋλος for “immaterial” is not attested before Plutarch; the alternative form ἄνυλος is later still; see Renehan 1980, 126. Latin: apart from a single instance in Ambrose of Milan and possibly one in Jerome, immaterialis is not attested in classical or Late Antiquity (TLL, q.v.), although it became popular in medieval Latin.
(84) . E.g., Enneads 1.8.3, 1.8.8, 1.8.13–14, 2.4.16, 2.5.4, 3.6.6–7. Gerson 1996 contains a particularly useful series of articles offering summaries of and different approaches to Plotinus’ views of matter, evil, physical substance, and related topics. See esp. the contributions by Corrigan, Wagner, and O’Brien.
(88) . That is, matter’s complete lack of form and being makes it incorporeal but not, of course, immaterial.
(91) . Enneads 1.6.3.
(92) . Plotinus elsewhere speaks more precisely of “solidity” (στερεότης) as the particular aspect of corporeality with which he is concerned in discussions like this one; see esp. Enneads 2.1.6.
(93) . “The thing which has most completely become body, since it has approached most nearly to non-being, is too weak to collect itself again into a unity,” Enneads 3.6.6.
(94) . Augustine, On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis 3.4.7. As discussed further later, for Augustine, spiritus is unqualifiedly immaterial.
(95) . Cf. Dillon 1998, in a suggestive article on “nuances of incorporeality in Philo.” Noting that Philo appears to describe stars as both “incorporeal” and as composed of fine-material pneuma or pure fire, he concludes: “This can be seen as a piece of muddle-headedness, and as a compromise with Stoic materialism, but it can also—more profitably in my view—be seen as an indication that the boundary between the corporeal and the incorporeal was not drawn by many ancient thinkers where we might think it should be drawn” (110).
(97) . Philoponus receives nothing like the attention he deserves in this article. Not surprisingly, he is the single most dominant figure in Sambursky’s pioneering survey of late ancient physics (1962). See also Wildberg 1988; the important collection of articles in Sorabji 1987; de Haas 1997; and recent translations of Philoponus in the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series directed by Richard Sorabji. For another major attack on the fifth element, see Proclus, On the Timaeus, especially 2.9ff.; cf. Baltzly 2002.
(98) . For Stobaeus and the Hermetica, see Fowden 1993; Ebeling 2007, esp. 7–36. Nock and Festugière 1938–1954 (3rd ed. 1972) is the indispensable edition, with French translation; Copenhaver 1992 is a partial English translation of the Hermetica but does not include the Stobaean excerpts; see Salaman et al. 1999 for additional translations, including the Armenian Definitions.
(101) . Stobaean Hermetica 12.14: ἔστιν οὖν τῆς μὲν ὕλης τὸ λεπτομερέστατον ἀήρ, ἀέρος δὲ ψυχή, ψυχῆς δὲ νοῦς, νοῦ δὲ θεός. For nearly the same formulation, see what appears to be the misplaced final sentence appended to Stobaean Hermetica 5: ὕλης μὲν γὰρ τὸ λεπτομερέστερον ἀήρ, ἀέρος δὲ ψυχή, ψυχῆς δὲ νοῦς, νοῦ δὲ ὁ θεός.
(102) . Although the study of Posidonius has been transformed by a sensible retreat from the speculative reconstructions of the first half of the twentieth century (see esp. Reinhardt 1926, more than usually relevant for topics considered here), the older literature is always suggestive and still useful if treated with caution; see, e.g., Cumont 1922, 98–100, for the importance of cosmological ideas in the context of Roman beliefs about the soul, its ascent, and its “natural home” at various levels of the heavens.
(103) . See, e.g., Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 1.103; 2.65, 84, 101, 117.
(104) . Enneads 2.1.7.
(105) . Augustine, City of God 7.6.
(106) . For brief discussion of this, the broader context, and further references, see Corrigan 1986, 367. Diogenes of Apollonia (fr. 4) had observed that people and animals require air to live and breathe; air “is for them both soul and intelligence (nous)”; Kirk, Raven, and Schofield 1983, 442.
(107) . Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 1.43; cf. Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 9.71–74.
(108) . For the material and detrimental effect of alcohol on the soul (not just the body), see Hippocrates, On Breaths 14; Aristotle, On Sleep and Waking 3 (456B-457A); Lucretius 4.476–483; Soranus, Gynecology 1.39, 2.19; Galen, The Soul’s Dependence on the Body 3 (Kühn 1821–1833, 4:777–779); Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 1.8, 2.36, 2.37; Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.1.11, 2.2.29, 2.5.48.
(109) . Plutarch, On the Face in the Moon 24 (943A-D).
(110) . Julian, Symposium or Kronia (Caesars) 2 (307C).
(111) . Plato, Phaedo 81B-D.
(112) . Origen, Against Celsus 2.60; Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 11 (a faint echo), Sentences 29; Iamblichus, On the Mysteries 4.13; Proclus, On Plato’s Republic 2.156–157 (also faint); Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection 6 (an extended and important discussion); John Philoponus, On Aristotle’s On the Soul 19.18–22 (also explicit and illuminating). See van der Eijk 2005, 125, n. 203, for further discussion and bibliography.
(113) . Enneads 5.9.1; cf. the index fontium in Henry and Schwyzer 1964–1982, 3:352. The allusion has little to do with the visibility of soul, being concerned rather with the effect of how one lives one’s life.
(114) . Plotinus explicitly rejects the idea that souls naturally inhabit the air at Enneads 22.214.171.124–31
(115) . Enneads 4.3.15.
(116) . The “center” is to be understood spatially only if body is involved; free of spatial constraints, souls “move” around God as their center.
(117) . Enneads 4.2.1–2.
(118) . Enneads 126.96.36.199–23.
(119) . Beginning with Dodds’s classic account in an appendix to his edition of Proclus’ Elements of Theology (1963, 313–321), the theory has received a good deal of fruitful attention in recent decades. See Kissling 1922 and Bidez 1913, 88–97, for important precedents to Dodds. More recent scholarship includes A. Smith 1974, 152–158; Finamore 1985; Di Pasquale Barbanti 1998; Bos 2003, 258–303; Zambon 2005; and Congourdeau 2007, 49–54. Sorabji 2005, 1:221–241, should be singled out for special recommendation as providing useful summaries and bibliography and also a broad array of sources suggestively juxtaposed under coherent headings.
(120) . The context is a discussion of the pneuma found in the eyes, whose constitutional similarity to light is a key part of the explanation of vision; optical pneuma is bright or luminous (φωτοειδές, αὐγοειδές), analogous and responsive to the sun’s rays (αὐγαί). Galen, On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato 7.7.25–26; ed. De Lacy 1978–1984, 474. For pneuma in Galen, see Temkin 1951; von Staden 2000; Rocca 2003, 59–66.
(121) . Plato, Phaedo 113D; Phaedrus 247B; Timaeus 41E, 44E, 69C; and especially Laws 898E-899A. As Dodds observes (1963, 315), none of these passages develops a full-blown theory of the vehicle as a pneumatic or astral body, but taken together, most of the important terms and concepts were available.
(123) . For details and further references for this summary, see the works listed in n. 119.
(124) . Origen, Against Celsus 2.60. For Origin on the vehicle of the soul, and especially its importance as the body received at the resurrection, see Festugière 1959; Crouzel 1977; Dechow 1988; Hennessy 1992; Schibli 1992. Alternatively, the explanation could also work the other way (ghostly souls prove the existence of the vehicle), as in Philoponus, On Aristotle’s On the Soul 19.18–22.
(126) . Enneads 3.6.5. Armstrong (1966–1988, 3:231) has “when it is not standing over a vital breath” for ὅταν μὴ ἐπὶ πνεύματος, but given the evident reference to a pneumatic vehicle and the use of ὀχεῖσθαι later in the sentence, “carried on” seems more appropriate.
(127) . Augustine, City of God 10.9. The problem of an evident confusion between psychic pneuma (or pneumatic psychē) and the soul’s own faculties is thoroughly explored by A. Smith 1974, 155–158, who notes important parallels between Porphyry and Synesius of Cyrene, among others.
(132) . For basic cosmology, as well as theurgical rites involved in this process, Iamblichus drew freely from the Chaldaean Oracles and the Hermetica; for a useful overview with additional bibliography, see Clarke et al. 2003, introduction.
(134) . Shaw 1995, 52. This was naturally a central principle for explaining of the efficacy of magic, as Plotinus had observed (Enneads 4.4.40), citing “sympathy and the fact that there is a natural concord of things that are alike.”
(140) . For Aristotle on matter, see the summary (with a view toward Neoplatonism) in Sorabji 1988, 5–22. It should be noted that magnitude (μέγεθος) is not quite the same as extension (διάστημα). As Sorabji summarizes it in his discussion of Simplicius (1988, 9–10), the former is definite while the latter is not; it is extension considered in itself without reference to particular measurements in length, width, or depth.
(141) . Indeed, Plotinus had little use for “mediation” as an explanatory device in itself, especially by contrast to his successors. See Emilsson 1988 for a convincing case that even Plotinus’ complex theory of sensation attempts to dispense with the “images,” impressions, or mental representations on which so many other ancient theorists relied; Enneads 4.5.4 is particularly suggestive in this regard.
(142) . Syrianus and Proclus in the fifth century seem to have taken something like the first route when they suggested that vehicles of the soul were “immaterial bodies” (ἄϋλα σώματα) endowed with the special (unique?) ability to interpenetrate other bodies. Cf. Porphyry, as cited by Proclus, On Plato’s Timaeus, 2.11.10–13, who suggests that some visible corporeal demons offer no resistance to touch; Sorabji 1988, 107.
(143) . On the Sacred Disease 16–17.
(144) . The classic study, still essential but now long overdue for an update, is Verbeke 1945. See Rocca 2003, 59–63, for an excellent overview and more recent bibliography on the medical context in particular.
(145) . Sorabji 1988, 85–87, suggests that this is not quite right: that the early Stoics, at least, used pneuma for air and fire and other very thin things, rather than positing a mixture of air and fire.
(148) . Joseph Priestley’s use of “spirit” in the passage quoted reflects the Augustinian definition, of course, sharpened still further by the Cartesian notion of mind.
(149) . See, e.g., Rüsche 1933, titled Das Seelenpneuma: Seine Entwicklung von der Hauchseele zur Geistseele. Verbeke 1945 is a more reliable source for the traditional model, although his conclusions are a good deal more nuanced than the summary presented here. For some necessary modifications, see Masai 1961, 15–31.
(151) . This is not meant as a characterization of Franz Cumont, but it is significant that his After Life in Roman Paganism (1922) remains one of the most important books to treat themes addressed in the second half of this chapter in broad and comparative detail.
(154) . In addition to the pneumatic soul vehicle references discussed, see Enneads 188.8.131.52–31 for pneuma’s role in vision, its special translucence, and the power of life or vegetative principle (φυτικός). Plotinus, of course, does not accept the full Stoic doctrine of pneuma; see Enneads 4.7.4, 7–8c, etc.
(155) . Consider, for example, Tertullian’s much-scorned materialist account of how the human soul gets its shape (recognizable after death as the individual person it animates). Starting as the breath of God, blown in through the nostrils (of Adam, in this case), it spreads throughout the body, “condensed by the divine exhalation and squeezed into every internal channel which the condensed [breath] had filled, and thus it congealed into shape” (On the Soul 9.7–8). This is precisely the process described by Philoponus (On Aristotle’s On the Soul 20)—including solidification of pneuma, compression into the body’s cavities, and the comparison with ice freezing into shape—to explain why certain souls appear in human form after death. The only difference is a reliance of the soul’s pneumatic vehicle rather than the soul itself, as in the Stoicizing Tertullian.
(156) . Augustine, Confessions 5.10.20.
(157) . Augustine, Confessions 5.10.19; cf. 3.7.12, 5.14.25, 7.1, etc.
(159) . This applies even to conceptions of God, as demonstrated by Griffin and Paulsen 2002; cf. Paulsen 1990 for “Origen and Augustine as reluctant witnesses” to widespread belief in a corporeal deity.
(161) . Augustine, Confessions 1.6.7.
(162) . To be sure, for Plotinus the soul in its pure essential state could be seen as part of the realm of Intellect. Cf. Steel 1978, 155–156: “Plotinus considered the soul as the great ‘traveler’ in the ontological scheme which, according to the faculty it actualized, could become anything at all.” If, moreover, we take “universe” to refer to the sensible cosmos, then Ambrose/Augustine’s remark presents few Plotinian problems.
(163) . Augustine, On the Happy Life 1.4.
(164) . See Emilsson 1991 for soul-body dualism in Plotinus, Augustine, and Descartes; see Matthews 2000 for similar conclusions about Augustine and Descartes. See also Emilsson 1988, 146: “What then does it take to have a Cartesian type of mind (soul)-body problem? I think that someone who uses introspection to make claims about the nature of the soul (or mind) and contrasts his findings with the nature of the body considered from an external and hence public point of view, is about to produce such a problem for himself—and for others too if others find his reasoning persuasive or challenging.” For Augustine’s “invention of the inner self” and its debts to Plotinus, see Cary 2000.
(165) . This is not to deny that closely related problems continued to stimulate productive discussion in later Neoplatonism, as demonstrated, e.g., by Steel 1978. Cf. Emilsson 1988, 147: “Plotinus himself was quite aware of the difficulties his position involved. And his claims against Stoic (and Stratonic) materialism could for instance easily and directly generate discussion of the relation between what goes on physically in the body and what goes on in the soul as viewed from inside or a discussion of the possibility of explaining the apparently non-physical features of the soul in terms of the physical. But these seeds did not sprout, no doubt because there were no materialists around who would respond to Plotinus and carry the dialogue further.”
(168) . Along with others mentioned here, agility and susceptibility to impression rank high on the list of fine-material advantages; by means of “subtle bodies,” for example, demons move very quickly indeed; On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis 12.16.33; 12.17.34–35. For sensation, see esp. 5.7.
(169) . On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis 12.16.32.
(170) . Fire: City of God 21.10 (how else can demons feel the pain of punishment?); Augustine glosses fire as “light and air” and calls it the chief instrument by which the soul governs the body at On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis 7.15.21. According to the early (unfinished) Literal Interpretation of Genesis, air and ether barely qualify as matter at all: “et aer quidem mobilior est quam aqua; aether autem ipso aere mobilior non absurde creditur aut sentitur; sed aeris uel aetheris nomine minus conuenienter appellaretur materies.”
(171) . On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis 7.15.21.
(173) . On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis 3.4.7.
(175) . Not that Ps-Dionysius has nothing materially interesting to say about angels and demons. While their constitution is never described in detail, demons are both without body (Divine Names 4.27) and “conjoined with matter” (πρόσυλος; Divine Names 4.18); the latter is an adjective commonly used of people not properly turned toward the divine and the good. For their part, angels are immaterial, of course, but Ps-Dionysius also links the symbolic name of “winds” to their surpassing speed (a classic property of fine-material things) just before observing that “wind” can also refer to “aerial pneuma” (Celestial Hierarchy 15.6).
(176) . Perhaps the most influential example, contemporary with Augustine, is John Cassian; see esp. Conferences 7.13.1–2: “For although we declare that some natures are spiritual—as are the angels, the archangels and the other powers, our soul itself and of course the subtle air—yet these are by no means to be considered incorporeal. They have a body appropriate to themselves by which they subsist, although it is far more refined than our own bodies…. From this it is clear that nothing is incorporeal but God alone.” To this could be added the dispute over the soul’s material composition in late-fifth-century Gaul, involving Faustus of Riez and Claudianus Mamertus, for which see, in English, Mathisen 1989, 235–244; and Brittain 2001 (with discussion of previous scholarship).
(180) . On the Soul 4; cf. Augustine, On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis 7.21.27. Unless otherwise noted, all citations in the following paragraphs come from chapter 4 of Cassiodorus’ On the Soul.
(181) . See, e.g., Magnitude of the Soul 31.63, 32, 68. On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis 3.5.7 comes close to using subtilius of the soul, but actually refers to the subtilius corpus by which the soul achieves sensation.
(182) . Cassiodorus, On the Soul 5.
(183) . Tertullian, On the Soul 9.4 and esp. 9.5: “Si enim corpus anima, sine dubio inter illa quae supra sumus professi, proinde et coloris proprietas omni corpori aderit. Quem igitur alium animae aestimabis colorem quam aerium ac lucidum?”
(184) . All quotations in this paragraph come from Descartes’ second Meditation.