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Nature of the Human Soul...Excerpts from Alexandrine Teaching

Excerpts from: Alexandrine R. B. Tollinton

p. 65

[Clement] sees life as a divinely ordered system of training for the human soul. There are stages, there are the several subjects in their order, there are the various lines of approach, but in all the Word is operative, leading men

p. 66

upwards, pointing the road towards final vision, deeming nothing unimportant and no man wholly incapable of higher things. Greek philosophy and the Old Testament were converging roads of progress which met in the highway of Christianity. Each had its place in the scheme of the divine Educator, so that Plato as well as Moses led their followers towards the Kingdom of God. Such teaching was indeed catholic in the highest sense, and was in that age probably only possible in Alexandria.
p. 78

Association with matter may corrupt the soul, so that it becomes unclean and ugly and acquires passions by too intimate converse with the body, but in its proper function soul redeems matter from its evil and imparts to it whatever is possible of the good. Thus soul is the active power in the creation of the universe and in its maintenance. It is with the universe that Time comes into being, so that time is only possible through the soul. In itself the soul is immortal, both the world soul and the soul of the individual, which is capable of existing apart from the body and may be reincarnate in another existence.
p. 100

If we ask what is the exact operation of the soul, the answer is that it gives form to matter.
p. 101

Soul gives form to matter. Matter is receptive. It must be there, in existence, if it is to receive. So, co-existent with spirit, matter would be eternal.
p. 117

Matter is contrasted more often than associated with form. It is the lowest constituent. It limits the spirit. It beguiles the soul that enters into it. It drags its spiritual visitor down to lower levels and even sinks it in the mud. Constantly the epithets applied to it are such terms as lifeless, shapeless, corruptible, base, despicable, shifting, defective. It is classed with vice and corruption. At best it is devoid in its own nature of all good. More often it is the positive cause of evil, restricting ideals, thwarting the purpose of the artificer, occasioning sin.
p. 124

Sensuous beauty was associated with the

p. 125

body and the body was the prison and impediment of the soul.
p. 134

What is man's origin? How does he come here? Plainly man is a composite creature, body and soul, or perhaps a trinity, as St. Paul spoke of his body, soul and spirit.
p. 135

But in the origin of the other element, the soul, the Alexandrines were more interested. Origen says that there were three possible theories on the subject. Either the soul came by creation, so that a new soul came into being for every body, or the soul came by what we should term heredity, which is the traducianist explanation and implies that along with the physical element spiritual qualities also came from parent to child, on which modern Eugenists have so much to say. Thirdly was the account that rested upon the supposition of preexistence; the soul came into the body ab extra, having lived earlier lives and bringing with it the qualities and a nature which it had acquired by its own conduct. There is an obvious similarity

p. 136

between this theory and the Buddhist doctrine of "Karma". It is an unsettled question whether on this point eastern and western doctrine arose independently, by a parallel growth, or whether they had a common source.

Between these different explanations opinions varied. Clement alone leaves us in no doubt that he believed each soul existed by separate creation; "God made us; we did not pre-exist. Had we preexisted we should have known where we had been and how and why we came here. If we did not pre-exist, God alone is responsible for our birth. "And all his references to Gnostic reincarnation are adverse. Nor has he anything to say for Platonic recollection.... On this point Clement's position is clear and defined.

Philo before him had been less sure. As so often Philo had learned something from Plato and something from the Scriptures, and the two elements remain in his teaching unreconciled. There are passages in which he fully accepts in Plato's way the independent existence of the soul. The soul was either etherial or wholly uncorporeal in nature; in either case it descended into the body from its own place and sphere.
p. 137

We have a more detailed account of the soul's descent to bodily conditions in the notices given us of the system of Basilides. The soul in this Gnostic theory dwells in the upper heaven which is fixed and immobile. Prompted by desire the soul seeks a less immaterial existence, first clothing itself with an etherial envelope of rarefied tenuity, then little by little acquiring more weight and solidity till it comes down to the planetary spheres in each of which it loses something of its pure spirituality.
p. 138

The soul with Origen also pre-exists. Originally God created a number, large but definite, of rational natures, all free, all equal. By their acts of choice they rose or fell in the spiritual scale and in the whole long process of many ages, many worlds, each soul is born into just that body which it has deserved and which will afford it the best opportunities of discipline and development. "I loved Jacob and I hated Esau," is a hard saying, but the difficulty vanishes if their different fortunes are due to their lives in an earlier world. The soul that is united to a human body has really made itself, and there is no great teacher who has laid so terrible a weight of responsibility upon man's free will as Origen.

In this point he is more definite than Plotinus, who recognizes more than one explanation of the soul's incarnation. Once, he tells us in an interesting reminiscence, that he had come down from a mood of contemplation to a more discursive

p. 139

phase of thought, and the change had forced upon him the question: How did any soul enter any body? He devotes a whole tractate to the answer, which is not so much final as suggestive. The soul descends into the body because of the necessity that lower forms of existence should come into being, or because itself it desired to have this experience, even at times deserting its higher loyalty. Or again the soul may have been sent; it comes on a mission, by a divine sowing. Or it comes to care for lower things, to order, to administer and rule. Perhaps its own audacity has caused its fall into material conditions. Perhaps it comes because the experience of this lower life will result in later advantage; pain is gain.... Thus a variety of causes may have brought us here.
p. 140

So, body and soul, man comes into being, a

p. 141

composite creature, a wanderer between two worlds, God's image stamped on clay. And yet our arrival here is no matter for unqualified gratitude. "Trailing clouds of glory do we come." Plotinus at any rate would have admitted Wordsworth's belief. But it is a descent. The soul comes down. Birth is a fall. We are prisoners and captives. Life is a dungeon, at best a school away from home. It is not "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given." There is no "joy that a man is born into the world". We do not "bless thee for our creation".

Individual souls, living in the spiritual world, make 'the downward journey and this is how Plotinus describes it: "There comes a stage at which they descend from the universal to become partial and self-centred; in a weary desire of standing apart they find their way, each to a place of its very own. This state long maintained, the soul is a deserter from the All; its differentiation has severed it; its vision is no longer set in the intellectual or spiritual; it is a partial thing, isolated, weakened, full of care, intent upon the fragment; severed from the whole....
p. 142

A like sentiment underlies a passage in Origen, where he quaintly remarks that only bad men celebrate their birthdays.

The estimate of life implied is surely very different from the teaching of Jesus on service and stewardship and the right

p. 143

use of this world's goods. Such other-worldliness is not unqualified. The Alexandrines have something to say on the other side. But on the whole the soul of man has come down. The body is limitation rather than medium and opportunity.
p. 145

All souls, with Origen, started in equality but differentiation came through freedom, the responsibility being entirely their own. For here there was a marked difference between the teaching of the Church and that of the Gnostics. The latter held that souls were born with different natures; some were spiritual, some hylic or material; between were the psychic or natural group, who could rise and fall, whereas a spiritual soul was spiritual

p. 146

always, and a material soul could never be anything else.

Moreover, Origen continued, it was plain matter of fact that character did change, the bad man became good, the good man bad. Thus when the soul enters into human conditions, its character is in no case so definitely determined as to leave it without moral freedom. Our salvation or election was not predetermined before our arrival here; it is of ourselves that we are thus or thus.
p. 155

Only the soul of man, said Philo, had received from God the power of voluntary movement, being in this regard made like unto God and liberated as far as possible-we note the limitation-from that stern mistress, necessity.
p. 168

Philo treats the soul as in its very nature immortal. It is of divine origin, existing before the body and outlasting it. Clement and Origen are of the same mind. For the Gnostics too the soul descends and the soul returns.

Thus their theory of immortality is not conditional. Annihilation, which some of us are now inclined to welcome as an alternative to Eternal Punishment, has no place in any of the Alexandrine schemes. It is quite true that Philo speaks of eternal death awaiting the impious. But this death is not extinction. It is the unending endurance of suffering, the permanent loss of pleasure, desire and hope. The soul is so its own hell. The mark God set upon Cain was indelible. Here, as in the Gospels, we have the unforgivable sin. Something like this condition is supposed in Neoplatonism,

p. 169

when the soul descends from body to body, ever more and more involved in matter till at last it loses all strength to lift itself aloft again. It is heavily burdened, numbed into forgetfulness; it carries a great weight that bears it down. But it does not die. There is no extinction.

So there is no Nirvana; the spirit of Origen was too intimately Greek for such a final stage. Perhaps in the case of Plotinus the point is less clear. The individual soul in this life, though it does not lose its relation to the world-soul, is still a distinct and separate self, but the conditions of this life are not those of another.

For Plotinus unity is the source and highest character of true existence, separation, the very sign of imperfection and defect of reality." "Soul Yonder," Plotinus says, "is undifferentiated and undivided." The conclusion may be that in another world the distinctions which separate one

p. 170

soul from another are not lost but latent, so that persons are persons still but liberated from much which here is isolating and restrictive in personality. With this possible exception it may be said that the Alexandrines in their teaching on the life of the world to come retain a place for human individuality:

"Eternal form shall still divide
And I shall know him when we meet."

In Christian writers this belief is strengthened by the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Philo knows nothing of any resurrection, and it has no place in the book of Wisdom. The Gnostics spiritualized the doctrine completely. Their resurrection did not involve the body. Plotinus was quite ready to allow many reincarnations, one life in the body after another. Death indeed is only a change of body. We go away earlier to come back sooner. We carry on into the next life the results of our actions in the life before. But it is always a fresh body, never a resuscitation of the old. The true resurrection is not that of the body but the soul's rising from the body altogether, when it passes, after many lives in many bodies, from the corporeal sphere and enters into the spiritual world. But of course for the Christian Platonists this purely philosophic position was not possible.
p. 171

The belief in the Lord's resurrection had been too long an established article in the Church's creed for it to be abandoned. That the Lord did truly rise from the dead was final truth, like other items in the Apostolic teaching. Clement proposed to write a treatise on the Resurrection, but if he wrote one nothing of it has survived. The task was taken over by Origen; he wrote two books on the subject, and has in several other passages made his views clear. He was in a difficult position, liable to offend the orthodox, if he questioned the church's doctrine liable to offend the educated if he defended the crude literalism of the simple believers.

He lays it down as a principle that, with. the single exception of the Trinity, all rational beings need a body. They cannot live without one. This rules out the purely Platonic immortality. Origen is prepared to assert that such an immortality, suppose it were possible, has value, and that St. Paul's doctrine does not compel us to believe that a disembodied life must be necessarily worthless. But that is as far as Origen ventures to go. He retains the resurrection, but he boldly abandons the literal interpretation of it. He dwells on the nature of the body: it is in a condition of constant flux and change. The same material atoms may conceivably have belonged to more than one

p. 172

human body, and if there is to be a reassembling of such material at the resurrection, the difficulty is obvious.
p. 177

The Alexandrine outlook was definitely individualistic and other-worldly. The real good for man was to "fly hence", and attain to spiritual communion in another world. Just as Plato cared only to be a citizen in the heavenly city, so the eyes of his followers were set upon a higher state of being, where stage after stage the soul might pass into indefectible blessedness. It was an individualistic ideal, the solitary flight of "the alone to the alone", the mystic union of the soul with God.
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