Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. V:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Philosophical Works.: To those who say that souls existed before bodies, or that bodies were formed before souls; wherein there is also a refutation of the fables concerning transmigration of souls.
XXVIII. To those who say that souls existed before bodies, or that bodies were formed before souls; wherein there is also a refutation of the fables concerning transmigration of souls 1730 .
1. For it is perhaps not beyond our present subject to discuss the question which has been raised in the churches touching soul and body. Some of those before our time who have dealt with the question of “principles” think it right to say that souls have a previous existence as a people in a society of their own, and that among them also there are standards of vice and of virtue, and that the soul there, which abides in goodness, remains without experience of conjunction with the body; but if it does depart from its communion with good, it falls down to this lower life, and so comes to be in a body. Others, on the contrary, marking the order of the making of man as stated by Moses, say, that the soul is second to the body in order of time, since God first took dust from the earth and formed man, and then animated the being thus formed by His breath 1731 : and by this argument they prove that the flesh is more noble than the soul; that which was previously formed than that which was afterwards infused into it: for they say that the soul was made for the body, that the thing formed might not be without breath and motion; and that everything that is made for something else is surely less precious than that for which it is made, as the Gospel tells us that “the soul is more than meat and the body than raiment 1732 ,” because the latter things exist for the sake of the former—for the soul was not made for meat nor our bodies for raiment, but when the former things were already in being the latter were provided for their needs.
2. Since then the doctrine involved in both these theories is open to criticism—the doctrine alike of those who ascribe to souls a fabulous pre-existence in a special state, and of those who think they were created at a later time than the bodies, it is perhaps necessary to leave none of the statements contained in the doctrines without examination: yet to engage and wrestle with the doctrines on each side completely, and to reveal all the absurdities involved in the theories, would need a large expenditure both of argument and of time; we shall, however, briefly survey as best we can each of the views mentioned, and then resume our subject.
3. Those who stand by the former doctrine, and assert that the state of souls is prior to their life in the flesh, do not seem to me to be clear from the fabulous doctrines of the heathen which they hold on the subject of successive incorporation: for if one should search carefully, he will find that their doctrine is of necessity brought down to this. They tell us that one of their sages said that he, being one and the same person, was born a man, and afterwards assumed the form of a woman, and flew about with the birds, and grew as a bush, and obtained the life of an aquatic creature;—and he who said these things of himself did not, so far as I can judge, go far from the truth: for such doctrines as this of saying that one soul passed through so many changes are really fitting for the chatter of frogs or jackdaws, or the stupidity of fishes, or the insensibility of trees.
p. 420 4. And of such absurdity the cause is this—the supposition of the pre-existence of souls for the first principle of such doctrine leads on the argument by consequence to the next and adjacent stage, until it astonishes us by reaching this point. For if the soul, being severed from the more exalted state by some wickedness after having once, as they say, tasted corporeal life, again becomes a man, and if the life in the flesh is, as may be presumed, acknowledged to be, in comparison with the eternal and incorporeal life, more subject to passion, it naturally follows that that which comes to be in a life such as to contain more occasions of sin, is both placed in a region of greater wickedness and rendered more subject to passion than before (now passion in the human soul is a conformity to the likeness of the irrational); and that being brought into close connection with this, it descends to the brute nature: and that when it has once set out on its way through wickedness, it does not cease its advance towards evil even when found in an irrational condition: for a halt in evil is the beginning of the impulse towards virtue, and in irrational creatures virtue does not exist. Thus it will of necessity be continually changed for the worse, always proceeding to what is more degraded and always finding out what is worse than the nature in which it is: and just as the sensible nature is lower than the rational, so too there is a descent from this to the insensible.
5. Now so far in its course their doctrine, even if it does overstep the bounds of truth, at all events derives one absurdity from another by a kind of logical sequence: but from this point onwards their teaching takes the form of incoherent fable. Strict inference points to the complete destruction of the soul; for that which has once fallen from the exalted state will be unable to halt at any measure of wickedness, but will pass by means of its relation with the passions from rational to irrational, and from the latter state will be transferred to the insensibility of plants; and on the insensible there borders, so to say, the inanimate; and on this again follows the non-existent, so that absolutely by this train of reasoning they will have the soul to pass into nothing: thus a return once more to the better state is impossible for it: and yet they make the soul return from a bush to the man: they therefore prove that the life in a bush is more precious than an incorporeal state 1733 .
6. It has been shown that the process of deterioration which takes place in the soul will probably be extended downwards; and lower than the insensible we find the inanimate, to which, by consequence, the principle of their doctrine brings the soul: but as they will not have this, they either exclude the soul from insensibility, or, if they are to bring it back to human life, they must, as has been said, declare the life of a tree to be preferable to the original state—if, that is, the fall towards vice took place from the one, and the return towards virtue takes place from the other.
7. Thus this doctrine of theirs, which maintains that souls have a life by themselves before their life in the flesh, and that they are by reason of wickedness bound to their bodies, is shown to have neither beginning nor conclusion: and as for those who assert that the soul is of later creation than the body, their absurdity was already demonstrated above 1734 .
8. The doctrine of both, then, is equally to be rejected; but I think that we ought to direct our own doctrine in the way of truth between these theories: and this doctrine is that we are not to suppose, according to the error of the heathen that the souls that revolve with the motion of the universe weighed down by some wickedness, fall to earth by inability to keep up with the swiftness of the motion of the spheres.
Otherwise Chap. xxix. The title in the Bodleian ms. of the Latin version is:—“Of different views of the origin of the soul.”419:1731
Cf. Gen. ii. 7419:1732
S. Matt. vi. 25420:1733
That is, the life of the spirit before its incorporation.420:1734
In the discourse that is contained in the next chapter. The point has been mentioned, but the conclusions were not drawn from it in the opening section of this chapter.
Next: An establishment of the doctrine that the cause of the existence of soul and body is one and the same.
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