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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : Chapter XVIII.--Plato Suggested Certain Errors to the Gnostics. Functions of the Soul.

A Treatise On The Soul by Tertullian

Chapter XVIII.--Plato Suggested Certain Errors to the Gnostics. Functions of the Soul.

I turn now to the department of our intellectual faculties, such as Plato has handed it over to the heretics, distinct from our bodily functions, having obtained the knowledge of them before death. He asks in the Phædo, What, then, (do you think) concerning the actual possession of knowledge? Will the body be a hindrance to it or not, if one shall admit it as an associate in the search after knowledge? I have a similar question to ask: Have the faculties of their sight and hearing any truth and reality for human beings or not? Is it not the case, that even the poets are always muttering against us, that we can never hear or see anything for certain? He remembered, no doubt, what Epicharmus the comic poet had said: |It is the mind which sees, the mind that hears -- all else is blind and deaf.| To the same purport he says again, that man is the wisest whose mental power is the clearest; who never applies the sense of sight, nor adds to his mind the help of any such faculty, but employs the intellect itself in unmixed serenity when he indulges in contemplation for the purpose of acquiring an unalloyed insight into the nature of things; divorcing himself with all his might from his eyes and ears and (as one must express himself) from the whole of his body, on the ground of its disturbing the soul, and not allowing it to possess either truth or wisdom, whenever it is brought into communication with it. We see, then, that in opposition to the bodily senses another faculty is provided of a much more serviceable character, even the powers of the soul, which produce an understanding of that truth whose realities are not palpable nor open to the bodily senses, but are very remote from men's everyday knowledge, lying in secret -- in the heights above, and in the presence of God Himself. For Plato maintains that there are certain invisible substances, incorporeal, celestial, divine, and eternal, which they call ideas, that is to say, (archetypal) forms, which are the patterns and causes of those objects of nature which are manifest to us, and lie under our corporeal senses: the former, (according to Plato,) are the actual verities, and the latter the images and likenesses of them. Well, now, are there not here gleams of the heretical principles of the Gnostics and the Valentinians? It is from this philosophy that they eagerly adopt the difference between the bodily senses and the intellectual faculties, -- a distinction which they actually apply to the parable of the ten virgins: making the five foolish virgins to symbolize the five bodily senses, seeing that these are so silly and so easy to be deceived; and the wise virgin to express the meaning of the intellectual faculties, which are so wise as to attain to that mysterious and supernal truth, which is placed in the pleroma. (Here, then, we have) the mystic original of the ideas of these heretics. For in this philosophy lie both their Æons and their genealogies. Thus, too, do they divide sensation, both into the intellectual powers from their spiritual seed, and the sensuous faculties from the animal, which cannot by any means comprehend spiritual things. From the former germ spring invisible things; from the latter, visible things which are grovelling and temporary, and which are obvious to the senses, placed as they are in palpable forms. It is because of these views that we have in a former passage stated as a preliminary fact, that the mind is nothing else than an apparatus or instrument of the soul, and that the spirit is no other faculty, separate from the soul, but is the soul itself exercised in respiration; although that influence which either God on the one hand, or the devil on the other, has breathed upon it, must be regarded in the light of an additional element. And now, with respect to the difference between the intellectual powers and the sensuous faculties, we only admit it so far as the natural diversity between them requires of us. (There is, of course, a difference) between things corporeal and things spiritual, between visible and invisible beings, between objects which are manifest to the view and those which are hidden from it; because the one class are attributed to sensation, and the other to the intellect. But yet both the one and the other must be regarded as inherent in the soul, and as obedient to it, seeing that it embraces bodily objects by means of the body, in exactly the same way that it conceives incorporeal objects by help of the mind, except that it is even exercising sensation when it is employing the intellect. For is it not true, that to employ the senses is to use the intellect? And to employ the intellect amounts to a use of the senses? What indeed can sensation be, but the understanding of that which is the object of the sensation? And what can the intellect or understanding be, but the seeing of that which is the object understood? Why adopt such excruciating means of torturing simple knowledge and crucifying the truth? Who can show me the sense which does not understand the object of its sensation, or the intellect which perceives not the object which it understands, in so clear a way as to prove to me that the one can do without the other? If corporeal things are the objects of sense, and incorporeal ones objects of the intellect, it is the classes of the objects which are different, not the domicile or abode of sense and intellect; in other words, not the soul (anima) and the mind (animus). By what, in short, are corporeal things perceived? If it is by the soul, then the mind is a sensuous faculty, and not merely an intellectual power; for whilst it understands, it also perceives, because without the perception there is no understanding. If, however, corporeal things are perceived by the soul, then it follows that the soul's power is an intellectual one, and not merely a sensuous faculty; for while it perceives it also understands, because without understanding there is no perceiving. And then, again, by what are incorporeal things understood? If it is by the mind, where will be the soul? If it is by the soul, where will be the mind? For things which differ ought to be mutually absent from each other, when they are occupied in their respective functions and duties. It must be your opinion, indeed, that the mind is absent from the soul on certain occasions; for (you suppose) that we are so made and constituted as not to know that we have seen or heard something, on the hypothesis that the mind was absent at the time. I must therefore maintain that the very soul itself neither saw nor heard, since it was at the given moment absent with its active power -- that is to say, the mind. The truth is, that whenever a man is out of his mind, it is his soul that is demented -- not because the mind is absent, but because it is a fellow-sufferer (with the soul) at the time. Indeed, it is the soul which is principally affected by casualties of such a kind. Whence is this fact confirmed? It is confirmed from the following consideration: that after the soul's departure, the mind is no longer found in a man: it always follows the soul; nor does it at last remain behind it alone, after death. Now, since it follows the soul, it is also indissolubly attached to it; just as the understanding is attached to the soul, which is followed by the mind, with which the understanding is indissolubly connected. Granted now that the understanding is superior to the senses, and a better discoverer of mysteries, what matters it, so long as it is only a peculiar faculty of the soul, just as the senses themselves are? It does not at all affect my argument, unless the understanding were held to be superior to the senses, for the purpose of deducing from the allegation of such superiority its separate condition likewise. After thus combating their alleged difference, I have also to refute this question of superiority, previous to my approaching the belief (which heresy propounds) in a superior god. On this point, however, of a (superior) god, we shall have to measure swords with the heretics on their own ground. Our present subject concerns the soul, and the point is to prevent the insidious ascription of a superiority to the intellect or understanding. Now, although the objects which are touched by the intellect are of a higher nature, since they are spiritual, than those which are embraced by the senses, since these are corporeal, it will still be only a superiority in the objects -- as of lofty ones contrasted with humble -- not in the faculties of the intellect against the senses. For how can the intellect be superior to the senses, when it is these which educate it for the discovery of various truths? It is a fact, that these truths are learned by means of palpable forms; in other words, invisible things are discovered by the help of visible ones, even as the apostle tells us in his epistle: |For the invisible things of Him are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made;| and as Plato too might inform our heretics: |The things which appear are the image of the things which are concealed from view,| whence it must needs follow that this world is by all means an image of some other: so that the intellect evidently uses the senses for its own guidance, and authority, and mainstay; and without the senses truth could not be attained. How, then, can a thing be superior to that which is instrumental to its existence, which is also indispensable to it, and to whose help it owes everything which it acquires? Two conclusions therefore follow from what we have said: (1) That the intellect is not to be preferred above the senses, on the (supposed) ground that the agent through which a thing exists is inferior to the thing itself; and (2) that the intellect must not be separated from the senses, since the instrument by which a thing's existence is sustained is associated with the thing itself.
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