The Soul as Sphere

14 09 2008

Christian Platonic Tiptoeing Around the Transmigration of Souls

One issue that most concerns any person who is both an advocate of Platonic doctrines and a Christian is the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. The most famous crystallization of this idea comes in the Phaedrus myth, where the soul falls into matter and takes 10,000 years to ascend back to the heavens. This doctrine, shared with the divines of the East, was first formulated explicitly in the West many years before Plato in the doctrine of the Pythagoreans. When the fullness of Platonic writings were recovered by many intellectuals in Renaissance Florence in the fifteenth century, these scholars had to invent ingenious if at times inaccurate explanations to reconcile this heretical doctrine with Christian cosmic principles. Their solutions, however, always affirmed the dignity of man as made in the image and likeness of God, having a nobility and mutability that can create, encompass, and rule all things.

The Florentine Marsilio Ficino saw that the greatest insight of Platonic philosophy was the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. His philosophical magnum opus was precisely on this topic, trying to prove it against the arguments of the radical Aristotelians of his time who thought that the soul, being the form of the body, disappers into nothingness when matter disappears. According to the scholar Christopher Celenza in his article, Pythagoras in The Renaissance: The Case of Marsilio Ficino, Ficino’s first proof of the immortality of the soul was that the soul, like the heavens, moves in a circular motion, as expounded in the axiom: “quia per se movetur et in circulum” (“because it is moved through itself, and in a circular fashion”). Or rather, the visible heavens move in a circle because all souls move in a circle, having neither beginning nor end, and they continually collect their powers within themselves and continually renew themselves. There is thus a cosmic play between the heavenly spheres and the human soul, one reflecting the other as in a mirror.

The problem with this theory becomes obvious when reflecting on the idea that the soul is created by God ex nihilo in the Christian system. The same theories were the foundation of the idea that the soul continuously reincarnates itself into inanimate objects, beasts, and various men, according to the original myth in Platonic theology of the fall of souls from the One. Only after a certain number of incarnations did the soul make it back to the heavens from which it fell. Considering the soul is a sphere and the metaphysical implications that Greek thinkers saw in this, the cyclical death and re-birth of the soul seemed to make perfect sense. The question then became how to reconcile this model with the Christian idea of the uniqueness of historical time. The answers were often fairly inconsistent, and at times far from convincing in terms of the positions of the ancient theologians. They are, however, worth a short examination in philosophical terms.

The first response was one of simple denial. Ficino tried to deny that the mature Plato taught such a doctrine, or if he did, he did it as an allegory. Ficino laid the blame for such doctrines on Pythagoras, and saved Plato from being the source of such a heretical belief. Ficino tried to illustrate that Plato changed his mind later in life regarding this doctrine, and there was no shame in a philosopher changing his opinions as he gets older. Indeed, he himself has done so. In this way, he wanted to save outright the reputation of the Platonic doctrines that he was so desperate to recover.

Knowing, however, that they had to come up with a better explanation for why some ancients would fall into these gross errors, the new Platonists had to elaborate the principles behind them in order to salvage this shipwreck of philosophical reflection. For them, the many incarnations of the human soul that the Pythagorean system posited were really a reflection of the powers of the human soul to alter and re-create itself. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola develops this idea in one passage in the Oration on the Dignity of Man:

This is the source of those metamorpheses, or transformations, so celebrated among the Hebrews and among the Pythagoreans; for even the esoteric theology of the Hebrews at times transforms the holy Enoch into the angel of divinity which is sometimes called “malakh-ha-shekinah” and at other times transforms other personages into divinities of other names; while the Pythagoreans transform men guilty of crimes into brutes or even, if we are to believe Empedocles, into plants…

Who then will not look with wonder upon man who, not without reason, in the sacred Mosaic and Christian writings, is designated by the term “all flesh” and sometimes by the term “every creature,” because he molds, fashions and transforms himself into the likeness of all flesh and assumes the characteristic power of every form of life? This is why Evantes the Persian in his exposition of Chaldean theology, writes that man has no inborn and proper semblance, but many which are extraneous and adventitious: whence the Chaldean saying: “Enosh hu shinnujim vejammah tabhaoth haj”- “man is a living creature of varied, multiform, and ever-changing nature.”

The mistake then concerns man’s existence in time, not the soul’s mutability and power. Even in this life, the soul can change itself either into the likeness of a beast or an angel. It all depends on the struggle of the soul for virtue or its tragic fall into vice.

Purgation is also a major theme that had to be explained by the Christian followers of Plato. Celenza cites in his essay Ficino’s reflections on the Pythagorean Golden Verses on the importance of purgation and the powers that the soul derives from the stars. For example, Ficino interprets the Pythagorean maxims, “do not urinate against the sun” and “do not pare your fingernails during sacrifice” explaining that:

Urinating is purging; cutting your fingernails, too, is removing worthless superfluities from yourself. Do not put off purgation and loosening till that time when you must look at the sun and contemplate sacred, that is divine, things. For it is more important to purge oneself and get rid of superfluities than it is to tire your concentration in the matters to which you are attending

Again here, the error of the old Pythagoreans was in the time-line, not the process itself. Man is purged in this life of all things earthly that hold him down from his ascent back to the One. What would take in the Greek system thousands of years has to be done for the Christian Neoplatonists in one lifetime. The process was the same, only the means were different.

Through this purgation, man recovers his celestial dignity which allows him to perform such tasks as divination and other feats of natural magic. Calenza explains that this is how Ficino saw the Pythagorean saying, “nourish the cock, but do not sacrifice him, since he is sacred to the sun and the moon”. Ficino states that this doctrine of the Pythagoreans is interpreted to mean that:

There is a certain power of the soul which by a kind of affinity of celestial bodies and spirits is often summoned in such a fashion that it may predict the future…Still, it is a recognition which is sometimes so confused and ambiguous that one can scarcely affirm what it predicts. This is the source of auguries in dreams, of various sorts of visions, of mutations of souls. For sometimes the mind, foreknowing of evil, seems to instill grief, but foreknowledge of good seems to instill a certain happiness

The cock, being the sacred animal of Apollo, and able to predict the sunrise, thus represents a natural power of divination in the soul. This power is the result of the purification of the soul that enables it to be in harmony with the music of the spheres. Once he is purified, man, like the cock, is able to move with the motions of the sun and the moon, the two bodies by which God’s life and light are mediated to the world. When writing against some astrologers, Ficino expounds further upon this principle saying,

Ptolemy said about this, “knowledge of the stars comes both from you and from them,” as if he were saying that you are truthful in judgement not so much through inspecting the stars as through a certain foreknowledge innate in you. For he explains that you will follow this knowledge at one time through your diligence, at another you may possess it through the stars’ natural benevolent action.

For Ficino, then, the soul’s spherical nature does not entail a cycle of incarnation, death, and re-birth, but rather signifies the connaturality between the heavens and man. Since the heavens govern all things that are below them through their motions, so man too can harness this power since his soul is made of the same substance. Thus, man can see into the future and into the past, can cure ailments, and acquire divine knowledge, by communion with the same force behind the visible sun and the stars.

Of course, all of these ideas seem to us to be borderline lunacy. Even if we readily admit that man is made in the image and likeness of God, we have long ago ceased to relate this doctrine to the world around us. In our day and age, modern quantitative science is sufficient to explain our relationships with the Creation that God made for us. Mystery, however, is still there, and the human soul is one that modern science has yet to penetrate, if it can do so at all. Perhaps these ideas of the Neoplatonists are the best mental bridge to understanding from a Christian perspective the beliefs in reincarnation in other religious systems such as those of the Far Eastern religions. When we finally enshrine the soul in its rightful place and acknowledge its almost divine powers, we can then open up and better respect the range of human experience in all of its frightening wonder. If the soul is as mutable and wondrous as the Neoplatonists thought, we have only scratched the surface of our existence and its potential for continuous re-shaping and re-creation.


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