History of the Concept of Mind, v.1-Chap.4
- Chapter 4: Medieval Islamic and Christian Ideas
- by Paul S. McDonald, Lecturer in Philosophy at Murdoch University, Australia.
- published by Ashgate
- Contents: Ancient Hebrew and Homeric Greek life-force; Plato, Aristotle and Hellenistic thought; From the New Testament to St Augustine; Medieval Islamic and Christian ideas; Renaissance Platonism, Hermeticism and other heterodoxies; Mind and soul in English from Chaucer to Shakespeare; The triumph of rationalist concepts of mind and intellect; The empiricists’ advocacy of matter designed for thought; Bibliography; Indexes.
- ISBN 978-0-7546-1365-7
Islamic concepts: Alfäräbï, Avicenna and Averroes
The first great Islamic philosopher (as defined by Henry Corbin1) among those whom the Christian writers of the Middle Ages came to know was Alkindï (c.800– 73), who lived first in Basra and then in Baghdad. Alkindï was an encyclopedic writer and doctrine-collector, whose work covered almost the whole field of Greek learning: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, optics, medicine, logic and politics. One of his biographers prepared a calendar of his writings, totaling almost 250 separate treatises, of which only about twenty-five survive. Alkindï devoted fifty treatises to philosophical subjects, nearly one hundred to the various branches of mathematics, and thirty-five to medicine and the natural sciences. As someone concerned with philosophical issues he mentions almost no one by name aside from Plato and Aristotle. He appears to have known all of Aristotle’s works aside from the Politics, which was conspicuously absent from the Islamic corpus of Greek texts, two apocryphal works, On Plants and On Minerals, but not the highly popular Theology of Aristotle, probably written by Porphyry, itself derived from Plotinus’ Enneads, Books IV–VI. Another alleged Aristotelian work, the so-called Liber de causis, was largely excerpted from Proclus’ Elements of Theology. One consequence of this assimilation of genuine and apocryphal Aristotelian works with Neo-Platonism is that the Islamic philosophers circulated an amalgam of Aristotle, Plato and Plotinus under Aristotle’s name, from whence, through its Latin translations, it passed into the hands of twelfth-century Christian philosophers.
One of Alkindï’s works, De Intellectu, belongs in the family of commentaries on Aristotle’s De Anima, by way of the later Aristotelian expositor Alexander of Aphrodisias. The purpose of this work was to clarify the meaning of the Aristotelian distinction between the passive intellect which receives intelligible ‘species’, and the agent intellect which produces intelligible objects. Of special interest to the Latin translators, with their standing obsession about epistemic issues, was the light which Alkindï’s discussion of intellectual (or cognitive) operations threw on the function of abstraction, the ‘power’ which produces universals. Alkindï considered the agent intellect an intelligent or spiritual being distinct and superior to the soul, acting upon the soul in order to actualize its potency for thought. From its earliest phase Islamic philosophy admitted that there is only one agent intellect for all human beings; each individual possessed its own receptive power which the action of the agent intellect ‘changes’ from potency to actuality. In other words, all human concepts flow into our individual souls from a purely spiritual being, one and the same for all humans.3 Davidson attempts to make good sense of these ideas:
Al-Kindï, in sum, offered two theories of the source of actual human thought. According
to one, the human intellect is led to actual thought by the transcendental first intellect, by which he probably intended the Neo-Platonic Cosmic Intellect. According to the other, the human intellect is rendered actual by the ‘universals of things’ with no further clarification … Kindï [also] describes the heavenly bodies as the ‘agent of [human] reason’. There, however, he probably meant that the heavens generate the human rational soul with its potential for thought, not that the heavens lead the human rational soul to
The next important stage in Islamic philosophical-theological investigation of the nature and function of the soul is taken up in the work of Alfäräbï (c.870–950). Born about the time of Alkindï’s death, Alfäräbï was from a noble family, lived for some time at the Sämänid court in Baghdad, then under the protection of the Hamdänid dynasty in Aleppo; he made many other long journeys before his death at an advanced age in Damascus. He was known in his own lifetime as magister secundus, the second master after Aristotle, especially for his outstanding work on the Organon, or logical instrument. He also wrote comments on Porphyry’s Isagogë, much of the Aristotelian corpus, including the Physics, the Metaphysics, the Nichomachean Ethics, the Rhetoric, though not the Poetics, and others, all now lost. Amongst his extant works important for our purposes are the Harmony between the two sages Plato and Aristotle, the Little Book of Reasoning, the Book of Terms used in Logic, On the Intellect and the Intellectual, On Unity and the One, and the strange treatise known as the Book of Letters (Kitäb al-hurüf).5 By letters, Alfäräbï meant both the Greek letters under which Aristotle’s Metaphysics had been divided into chapters, and letters in the sense of tool-words by means of which logical operations could be encoded or equipped to express precise concepts. These include the particles and names of the categories and the interrogative particles modeled on the ‘what-is’, ‘how-much’, and so forth, of Metaphysics, Book Theta.
In his Letter on the Intellect, Alfäräbï says that the word ‘intellect’ has diverse senses, in much the same way that his master, Aristotle, refers to the way in which ‘being’ can be said of many things. He lists six main ways in which ‘intellect’ is used, although the greatest weight is attached to only one sense; the fifth definition receives the most detailed treatment. The first sense of ‘intellect’ is that by virtue of which an ordinary person characterizes human being as rational; the key Arabic word here is ta’aqqul, ‘prudence’, ‘discernment’, which connects this sense with the Greek concept of phronësis. The second sense is that which scholastic theologians state has a prescriptive function, that is, either in negative and dismissive or in positive and affirmative judgments. The third sense has the ordinary meaning of natural sensory perception; it is the faculty of the soul that enables humans to grasp the truth of universal, necessary judgments. It is that part of the soul (juz’ mä min al-nafs)7 described as ‘the faculty of perceiving the primary principles of demonstration, instinctively and intuitively’. The fourth sense marks out the mature conscience, the capacity to know good from evil; it has some overlap with prudence in the first sense. The fifth sense is by far the most important and complex in his sixfold scheme, and is explicitly fashioned to expand and systematize Aristotle’s discussion in De Anima, Book III. The sixth sense of intellect refers to the First Principle of Divine Reason, in other words, God himself, who is the source of all intellect and intellectual operation in the cosmos.
His analysis of the fifth sense of intellect itself comprises four distinct subdivisions or aspects: (1) the potential intellect (‘aql bi’l-quwwa) with respect to the knowledge that it can acquire; (2) the actual intellect (‘aql bi’l-fi’l) – not to be confused with the agent intellect – with respect to that same knowledge while acquiring it; (3) the acquired intellect (‘aql mustafäd), that is, the intellect considered as already possessed of that knowledge; and (4) the agent intellect (al-‘aql al-fa’äl), by means of which the soul ascends to the principle of all intelligible things. It is also identical to the Tenth Intellect (in the second register), an existent spiritual being, who presides over the world beneath the moon and confers both forms on its matter and actual knowledge on all its intellects. According to Gilson’s analysis,8 the agent intellect is immutable in its action and in its being. It eternally radiates all the intelligible forms and does not care in what pieces of matter nor in what intellects it happens to be received. When a certain piece of matter has been conveniently prepared by prior forms to receive the form of human-ness, an individual human is born. When an intellect has been conveniently prepared and trained to receive the intelligible form of human mind, it conceives the essence of human being. The wide variety of effects produced by an eternally uniform action of the agent intellect, namely the innumerable different particular humans, is simply due to the fact that the matters and intellects which come under it are not all, nor always, similarly disposed to receive it. However, one should not identify this agent intellect with the Uncaused Cause or the Prime Mover, in Aristotle’s sense, for other intellects ascend above it in rank upon rank. All other higher-order intellects are subordinated to the First Intellect, who resides in an inaccessible solitude. The ultimate end or final ‘cause’ of all humans is to be united to the separate agent intellect, who is the immediate immovable mover and the source of all intellectual knowledge of the world-whole in which humans live. According to Islamic religious beliefs, which are inextricably merged with this account of soul, the prophets and imams are the only privileged humans to realize this union with the godhead. In addition, Alfäräbï also claimed that there were two cities inhabited by humans, much as Augustine had also argued: one present here on earth, and another future city in heaven. When the souls of the living leave this world and join the dead in their other world, they are united with them on the level of intelligible being. Each one unites with another whom he most resembles, and through this ceaseless renewal of soul with soul, the joys of the dead are fostered, increased and indefinitely enriched.
Ian Netton has summarized the basic purport of Alfäräbï’s fifth sense of intellect within the sixfold scheme as follows. He
posits a fifth major species of intellection which has four different, but related and
developing meanings, aspects or qualities. The relation between each of these intellects is expressed in terms of matter and form, potentiality and actuality. This fifth type of intellection has two opposite poles, passive and active, receptor and cause, which are respectively the Potential Intellect and the Active Intellect. Between the two operate the Actual Intellect and the Acquired Intellect. We may thus define [it], even if somewhat simplistically, as follows: Potential Intellect is that which has the capacity mentally to abstract and know the essence of things. It is a passive or latent quality. Actual Intellect is that capacity in action. Acquired Intellect is the latter in an externally developing and developed mode, the external factor being the agency of the Active Intellect. The Active Intellect is the motor for this, the ‘efficient cause’ of thought, and also a cosmic link
between the sublunary and transcendent worlds.
Richard Walzer has made an eminently clear statement showing the intimate connection between Alfäräbï’s understanding of the active intellect and Aristotle’s difficult discussion of this concept in the De Anima passage: ‘The active intellect (nous poiëtikos) is no longer identical with the divine mind … but is described … as a transcendent immaterial entity placed next to the sphere of the moon and acting as intermediary between the divine mind and the human intellect in transmitting the divine emanation to the human soul once it has reached the stage of the acquired intellect.’11 If one thinks through this progression, from cause or motor to primary receptor, there is an archetype of intellect caused by the agency of the Active Intellect to develop as it activates its passive capacity. The linchpin of this double register or dimension is the Active Intellect as the chart opposite shows.
According to Netton’s excellent overview, there are two distinct registers in Alfäräbï’s account of the intellect in this complex text. There is the Aristotelian register, carefully underpinned throughout the main sections with references to the relevant De Anima passages, with four main entries. Then there is the second, parallel register with ten key terms, clearly indebted to Neo-Platonic sources, such as Plotinus’ scheme of cosmic hypostases. In what follows, the reader of Islamic medieval texts should note that Greek and Arabic did not have separate words for intellect and intelligence. A technical convention that originated in Latin medieval translators distinguished the two concepts with two terms, reserving the word ‘intelligence’ to designate the incorporeal, purely noetic beings that govern the celestial spheres.12 From God, the first intellect, emanates ten lesser intellects, culminating in the Tenth Intellect, which is the Agent or Active Intellect. This last power acts as a bridge between the heavenly world and the world below the moon,
The Active Intellect
and connects with the former register at the point where human intellect takes part in the divine agent intellect. Alfäräbï’s account of the soul and his theory of knowledge are blunt-edged mixtures of Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic doctrines, organized around two registers: one to account for the ordered appearance of the world-whole, and the other, to account for humans’ situation in this order. His perfect epistemic paradigm is ‘that in which the Being who knows (al-‘äqil), the intellect (al-‘aql), and the intelligible or that which is known or comprehended (alma’qül) are merged indissolubly and ineluctably in the One who is, of course, God himself’.
With the work of Avicenna (Ibn Sïnä) (980–1037) the Islamic philosophical vocabulary and conceptual apparatus achieves an outstanding degree of exactitude and rigorous exposition. Like his predecessors, Avicenna had polymathic ambitions and was an insatiable collector of Greek doctrines, commentator on ancient texts, and exegete of Koranic scripture. He was born in Persian Bukhara, the capital of the Samänid dynasty; his father was a member of the heterodox Ismä’ili sect whose theological doctrines drew heavily on Neo-Platonic sources. A precocious student, he was said to have mastered all the current disciplines by the age of eighteen, a report which brought him to the attention of the royal court. Within two years the Samänid dynasty succumbed to the onslaught of the Turkish forces and Avicenna fled, roaming for years in Transoxiana and the Iranian country. For seven years he acted as counselor and physician to Sham Al-Dawlah (Sol Regni in Latin), the ruler of Hamdän, but after his protector’s death he was thrown in prison. When the city was attacked by ‘Alä Al-Dawlah, the ruler of Isfahan, Avicenna was released from prison, and escaped disguised as a dervish. He moved to Isfahan to serve its prince, but the relative peace and calm of this period was rudely interrupted in 1030 when the Turkish forces attacked the caravan he was traveling with. Avicenna’s great encyclopedic work Kitäb al-Insäf, 28,000 questions in twenty large folio volumes, was destroyed by the soldiers. But most of his other work has survived: The Direction (al-Hidäya), The Cure (al-Shiftä’), The Deliverance (al-Najät) – all in Arabic – and the large Persian encyclopedia, The Book of Knowledge (Dänishnämeh). In addition, he wrote many commentaries on Aristotle’s texts, including the Metaphysics, On the Soul, the apocryphal Theology of Aristotle, and others, most of which belonged to The Book of Right Judgment. Avicenna constructed a comprehensive philosophical system that owed much to Aristotle, but modified and corrected (in his view) by Neo-Platonic arguments on the basic features of intellect and knowledge.14 Other influences that have been identified include Plato on his political theory, Galen on medicine and the account of soul, and the Stoics on logic and forms of reasoning. But what makes Avicenna’s work distinctive is the complex integration of Islamic theological and cosmological doctrine with Greek philosophical thought, especially through Alfäräbï’s concepts of divine essence and the dyadic emanation scheme.
According to Avicenna’s Liber de Anima, the soul considered in itself is a substance endowed with many powers from which flow many diverse operations. The distinct powers of the soul are (1) the nutritive and generative power common to plants and animals; (2) the sensitive power which embraces perception, imagination and memory, and the motile power responsible for self-movement, and (3) the capacity to know intelligible objects, to invent artifacts, to speculate about natural things, and to distinguish between moral good and evil. In agreement with Aristotle, Avicenna holds that there are three kinds of soul: (1) the vegetative soul, the prime perfection of a natural living body with regard to its vital functions; (2) the sensitive soul, the prime perfection with regard to its sensations and perceptions, and (3) the rational soul, the prime perfection enabling it to carry out deliberate actions and to acquire knowledge through meditation since its soul can grasp universals. The rational soul is possessed by humans alone and has two main faculties: the practical and the theoretical (which Gilson calls the ‘active’ and the ‘contemplative’) – they are both called intelligence with equivocation: ‘Our soul has two faces, one which looks downward to the body, and another which looks upward to the intelligible beings from which it receives its principles.’ The practical faculty is the principle of movement driving its host’s body into action; as such, it corresponds with the strictly animal faculties of appetite, imagination and estimation. The practical intelligence has to control the irrational tendencies and, by not allowing them to gain the upper hand, it disposes a human to consider theoretical knowledge.
The special service of the theoretical faculty is to receive the impressions of universal forms abstracted from material things. The functions of the theoretical intelligence occur in temporal stages; Avicenna sometimes says that potency or potentiality is itself equivocal. The first is absolute potency in an infant, the second that of relative potency in an adult, only when the instrument for reception of actual forms has been achieved, and the third is complete potency realized only by those who meditate. This power of the human soul is given different names according to its disposition with respect to intelligible objects. At the lowest level, it is called ‘material intellect’, not in the sense that it is corporeal or made from matter, but because it is in the same relation of pure potency to actuality as that of prime matter with regard to all its forms. At the next level, the ‘habitual intellect’ (al-‘aql bilmalaka) already possesses those thoughts that it can use, but does not actually use them; it can think of those forms whenever it wills without recourse to further perception. For example, someone who knows a certain principle can be said to know its valid consequences even when he has not yet thought about them. The habitual intellect remains in potency whereas the active or effective intellect actually knows and knows that it knows. Because intellectual cognition is granted to the intellect by a spiritual being above human nature, it can be called an accommodated intellect, that is, an intellect given to it from outside. At the last stage its relation to the intelligible forms may become completely actualized – when they are present to the intellect and the ‘objects’ of its contemplation. In this sense then, it is an ‘acquired intellect’ (al-‘aql al-mustafäd) in that it has acquired these forms from the higher spiritual being.
The plurality of beings in the cosmos proceeds in the wake of the First Intellect from a series of contemplative acts which transform the cosmological scheme into an account of angelic consciousness. The First Intellect contemplates its own internal principle, one that makes its being necessary, as well as the pure possibility of its own being, considered as outside its own principle. From the first act proceeds the Second Intellect, and from the second act proceeds the motive soul of the first heaven (the sphere of spheres); from the third act proceeds the ethereal, supraelemental body of the first heaven. This heaven’s body then derives from an inferior dimension, the dimension of shadow or non-being of the First Intellect. This threefold contemplative activity is repeated from Intellect to Intellect, until the double hierarchy is complete, that is, the scale of the ten cherubic (or angelic) Intellects (karübïyün or angeli) and the scale of celestial souls. These celestial souls (angels) have no sensory faculty, but they do have imagination and intellection; their desire for the Intellect from which they proceeded communicates to each heaven its own motion. The cosmic revolutions which initiate all observable motion are the result of the angelic beings’ aspiration to attain the status of the next higher intellect.
The Tenth Intellect no longer has the strength to generate another unique Intellect and another unique soul, so the chain of emanation ‘explodes’, as it were, into the multitude of human beings, while from its material dimension proceeds all matter below the moon. The Tenth Intellect is called the active intellect, since from it our souls emanate, and its illumination projects the ideas of forms of knowledge into those souls. But as the consequence of this ‘descent’, the human intellect has neither the role nor the power to abstract the intelligible from the sensible. Every particular item of knowledge and memory are, strictly speaking, moments of emanation combined with illumination which derive from the angelic intellects. In addition, the human intellect itself possesses the nature of an angelic potential intellect, as Corbin explains, ‘herein lies the secret of the soul’s destiny. Of the four states of the contemplative intellect, the one which corresponds to intimacy with the Angel who is the active or acting Intelligence is called the “holy intellect” (al- ‘aql al-qudsï). At its height, it attains the privileged status of the spirit of prophecy.’19 In this fashion Avicenna adopted the concept of a higher-order intellect that is separate from and extrinsic to the human intellect, and yet at the same time he did not identify this with the concept of God, as had Alexander and Augustine. Alfäräbï and Avicenna regarded this supreme intellect as an actual being in the pleroma, through which humans were linked to the pleroma itself. But they were not satisfied with the Aristotelian notion that the soul is the form of an organic body; the informing of bodily matter by its soul is only one of the soul’s functions, and in this they agreed with the Neo-Platonists.
It is clear that humans have the power to grasp intelligible objects by receiving them from without; for Avicenna it is also clear that such a power cannot reside in or exist in virtue of anything bodily. If it were extended in space, the immaterial forms could not be received in it without becoming extended, divisible and decomposable. Avicenna wants to draw the conclusion that the subject of the rational power that can grasp intelligible forms must be immaterial. One of his arguments for this is by way of an ingenious thought experiment, one whose later versions resonate in early modern western philosophy. Let us suppose, he said, that
someone was suddenly created complete, but with his vision veiled so that he could not
see anything, and then placed in a vacuum, where there would be no pressure for him to feel, and with paralyzed limbs so that he could not touch himself, nor do anything with them. Then he would see that he could be sure of his own existence. Indeed he would not doubt that he existed, even though he could not detect the exterior of his limbs, and his internal parts, his mind, and his brain would also be hidden, so that he could not feel their length, width or density. If at that time he was able to imagine a hand or some other limb, he would not imagine it to be a part of him or necessary to his existence … [Hence] he does not need the body to know and perceive the soul. [Liber de Anima, vol.
I, pp. 100–1]20
Several commentators on Avicenna’s account of soul mention the supposed similarity of this thought experiment with Descartes’ hypothesis about the real distinction between soul and body in the Second Meditation. But there are important differences, not the least of which is that Avicenna’s sense-deprived test subject begins the cognitive process as a whole person, that is, an ensouled body, instead of as a methodically reduced mind. He returns to this thought experiment later to make the further point that:
Our bodies are really only like that which if we had them for as long we would consider
to be parts of ourselves. Indeed, when we imagine our souls, we do not imagine them to be bare, but clothed in bodies, because of the length of time we have had them. We are used to taking off our clothes, which we have not done with our limbs. Hence the belief that our limbs are parts of our nature is stronger than the belief that our clothes are parts
Avicenna offers another proof for the immaterial soul by arguing that the soul cannot know itself by means of a bodily sense due to the fact that it knows itself and knows that it knows. The soul even knows that it does not need a bodily sense in order to know itself; it understands by and through itself. It always understands itself as an immaterial essence, that it is not attached perforce to a body of any kind, nor dependent on body in any way for its own being.21 Since all human souls have the same definition they all belong in the same species (or kind) and are, in the strict sense, one soul. There is no essential difference amongst souls, and their unitary form makes them all one thing. Their apparent multiplicity is due to the diversity of material bodies that they occupy. Since human (and animal) souls are individual and distinct only in virtue of the bodies they inhabit, they begin to exist at the very moment when the matter suitable to be animated by them comes into being. The body-host of each soul is both its domain and the instrument through which it takes care of the whole creature. Due to this natural affection between soul and its body, the soul renounces all other bodies but finds in its own body the origin of its future perfection.
After the death of its body, the rational soul remains numerically distinct, because it then receives from its creator a principle of individuation other than corporeal matter. What this principle is, we know not, but we know for sure that the soul sometimes perceives its own singular essence, when it become aware of affections that are proper to itself. Perhaps these affections, which the soul acquires in its capacity of ‘intellect in act’, are enough to render it numerically different from other souls. Whatever the reason for it, the intrinsic individuality of each separate soul is certain. As to its survival, it is equally certain.22 The soul is an autonomous self-subsistent substance in the same sense as the body, and its union with the body is an accidental one. Since the substance qua essence of the soul is simple, it cannot ‘contain’ the cause of its own destruction, as the subject ‘contains’ all its true predicates in Aristotle’s scheme. For Avicenna then, the soul’s existence depends on immutable and indestructible causes, that is, its own essence and the divine power by which it is maintained in being. Afnan says that, ‘The psychology of Avicenna aims to identify the human soul with the human intellect. It describes the soul as a self-sufficient intellectual substance, which needs a body in order to actualize itself, but not in order to subsist after it has achieved its self-actualization. No wonder then that the Liber sextus naturalium ends by describing the progressive acquisition of intelligible knowledge by the rational soul.’
Davidson elaborates on the discursive importance of the concept of conjunction or union of human with agent intellect in Avicenna’s demonstration of the soul’s immortality:
Conjunction with the active intellect and the resultant state of acquired intellect are
integral to all actual human thought. But acquired intellect, besides designating actual human thought at any level of intellectual development, is also the term for human thought at the stage where the soul has a full repertoire of thoughts and can dispense with its body. After the death of the body, a soul possessing acquired intellect in the narrower sense enters permanent conjunction with the active intellect and has ‘the intelligible order of all existence’ inscribed in it … Whether the soul with a fully perfected intellect can enter into permanent conjunction with the active intellect during
the life of the body or only after the body’s demise is not stated by Avicenna.
In order to understand itself the soul does not need to detach itself from the material world, for indeed souls are intelligible in their own right. The soul qua rational intellect does not become like the object it understands; the soul is like a mirror25 in that it conserves in memory the images of particular things, but not the intelligible forms that it has received from the spiritual intellect. When one says that the soul understands some thing this means that the form grasped by the intellect is in the soul. The form has no distinct existence of its own beyond the spiritual intellect that gives it and the human intellect that receives it. Insofar as humans are concerned, as soon as the form ceases to be known, it ceases to exist in the soul. For humans then, to learn is to acquire the perfect aptitude to conjoin the human intellect with the divine intellect in actuality, in order to receive from it the simple power of intellectual abstraction from which other forms will follow. Since Avicenna thought of the soul as one unitary and unified substance, he posited the one organic agency in the body through which it governed – not the brain, but the heart. It is through the heart functions that the soul is dependent on the body. The heart is the source of all the animal spirits and forces that flow into the limbs and other vital organs. The brain’s function is to prepare these animal spirits to enable the body to feel and move.26 In these terms, Avicenna takes up one of the main Stoic psycho-physical hypotheses about the reciprocal relation of animal body with its hegemonic soul, and bequeaths that medical-psychical model to Albert the Great.
The work of Averroes (Ibn Rushd) (1126–98) marks the high point of Islamic medieval philosophy in the century just before the introduction of Aristotle’s work to the European world. His pre-eminent status is due to his exceptional philosophical acuity, his meticulous scholarly analysis of Greek texts, and the influence which his systematic investigations exerted on European thinkers until the early 1600s.27 He was born in a family of learned jurists in Cordoba, Spain, and eventually became chief judge of Cordoba. His exhaustive education covered every aspect of Greek paideia, including mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and medicine. His scholarly reputation gained him an invitation to work at the court of the caliph Abü Ya’qüb Yüsuf who commissioned Averroes to summarize, with commentary, the extant Aristotelian corpus. At the end of his labors, he had written thirty-eight commentaries, sometimes two or three on one text. These expositions differ in length and are usually referred to as either short (or epitome), middle and long. There are five long commentaries, on the Posterior Analytics, the Physics, the Metaphysics, On the Heavens and On the Soul. It is generally thought that the variation in length is connected with different stages in the teaching curricula. He also wrote many other topical treatises, including a counter-attack against Al-Ghazälä’s attack on philosophical pretensions to understanding, The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahäfut al-tahäfut). Averroes’ death
coincided with the virtual disappearance of the dynamic speculative tradition evidenced
in Arabic thinking for the several centuries after 700. Interestingly, it also coincided with the bursting forth of a similarly active tradition in the Latin West, which was greatly stimulated by the translations of Aristotle and Greek science from Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts. All these events – the death of Averroes, the abrupt decline of Arab intellectual dynamism, the translation into Latin of Aristotle … and the exponential acceleration of Western philosophizing – occurred virtually within two decades. These are perhaps neither radically causative nor dependent events, but their close association is historically
In the Epitome or Short Commentary Averroes reiterates the familiar Islamic division of the human intellect which had been carefully interpolated into Aristotle’s De Anima, Book III, chapters four and five. This division comprises the ‘material’ intellect, the First stage of the potential intellect; the ‘habitual’ intellect (al-‘aql bi’l-malaka), the perfection of the material stage; the ‘active’ or ‘efficient’ intellect (al-‘aql al-fa’äl) which brings the material and habitual intellects from potency to actuality (in other texts he calls this stage in actu (al- ‘aql bi’l-fi’l)); the last stage is the Agent Intellect (al-‘aql al-fä’il), the eternally active separate substance.29 It is through the agency of the Agent Intellect that the human intellect, in all its divisions and functions, is perfected and actualized, reaching the ultimate stage of ‘acquired’ intellect (al-‘aql mustafäd), at which stage it is said to be conjoined with the Agent Intellect, that is, it is the final form of the human intellect.30 Averroes had some difficulty with the concept of the material intellect, the nature and location of which bothered him during his study of Greek texts, and for which he offered various, sometimes incompatible assessments.31 He considered the material intellect to have two faces, or aspects, the active and the passive, each of which was present in the human soul. Given the basic Islamic perspective that all Greek philosophical doctrines belonged to one overarching system, it is not surprising that Averroes favored one later Aristotelian exegesis at one time and another at another.
He definitely followed Alexander of Aphrodisias in thinking that the Agent Intellect is a divine celestial substance, which functions as kind of guarantor for the intelligible nature of all earthly forms, especially the form of reason in the human soul, that is, the rational faculty. It is wrong to think that this faculty is innate in human beings, rather, he said, it is on loan from the Agent Intellect. The material intellect in its potential for rational thought is only connected by accident with the human soul, but belongs by essence to the Agent Intellect itself. The material intellect is thus a temporary instance of the universal intellect, eternal and always actual; the material intellect is the first perfection whereas the Agent Intellect is the final perfection. Averroes thought that,
the material or potential intellect is best understood as a disposition or ability of the
human soul to represent imaginative forms intellectually. The material intellect accordingly relates to the intelligible or ideal dimension of imaginative forms, a dimension which these forms always possess, but only potentially at first. They await an intelligent mind to bring them to actuality by thinking them, even as the potentially intelligent mind
requires some active stimulation to become receptive.
The material intellect receives the intelligible aspect (intention) of the imaginative form, not the form itself, and thus the intellect keeps its distance from the material and particular character of worldly, sensible things. The objectivity of our thought, its ability to reach an intelligible ‘object’ and represent it in the mind, is assured by the essential separation of the rational faculty from the other psychical faculties. The nutritive, the sensitive and the imaginative faculties are connected with and affected by material things, both those which are external and those which are internal to the human organism. The human material intellect is the principle of potential thought, a principle that is given form and reality by the Agent Intellect, and by any other faculties with material connections to the soul. The material intellect, and the rational faculty in general, is thus in the human soul and person, and not of them. This line of argument leads Averroes to the conclusion that the human intellect must be fully immaterial and separate from anything physical in order to remain unaffected by particular, corporeal forms. Its passive nature is entirely that of universal receptivity, that is, it remains impassive to that which it receives, always able to receive new thoughts without bias or distortion from previous thoughts: ‘As such, the activity of the intellect, particularly in its initial phase of representing or thinking the intelligible, is inerrant; the thoughts (of a healthy person) are always accurate, or “true”.’34 The material intellect is no more than the potency to think, and its actual thinking requires an active agent. This is supplied by the one Agent Intellect who activates the potential, and thus allows the human being to realize the lifelong process of acquiring knowledge. The material intellect stands to the Agent Intellect as matter stands to form, as Ivry says; it supplies the basis or substrate upon which the Agent Intellect builds. But it does not accomplish this by emanating the forms directly upon the material intellect, rather it illuminates the ‘objects’ of understanding, it casts light upon them so that they can be received by an immaterial thing.
Averroes attempts to answer an important question which he feels has not been adequately addressed by Aristotle in the De Anima text. What is the origin of the form received by the matter prepared to receive it? The converse of this question would be: what accounts for this particular piece of matter having the disposition to receive the form appropriate to it? Averroes also feels obligated to accommodate any hypothesis about informed matter with the Almohad theological picture linking the Creator’s efforts with its worldly effects. In his view it is not an issue about the transmission of something from outside, but of bringing some thing from potency to actuality: ‘All forms and the relations between them exist in potential in the prime matter and to an extent in actuality in the Prime Mover which moves the Celestial bodies so that they free precisely those forms that are potential in matter. No immaterial being can act on matter, nor give it form, without using as instruments immutable immaterial beings, i.e. the Heavenly Bodies.’35 Urvoy comments that Averroes exaggerates the similarity between the Almohad creationist theory and the philosophers’ non-creationist theory: ‘If divine wisdom produces an ordered world, by bringing into actuality potential forms which group concrete individuals into genera and species, so, inversely, through the act of abstraction the human spirit can make these forms exist separately. This is both the most characteristic act of [human] and that which brings him closest to divinity.’ This sounds very much like Neo-Platonist doctrine (at least what they understood through the sometimes faulty texts), but Urvoy argues that the pertinent issues arise within Averroes’ own metaphysical problematic: ‘If Ibn Rushd’s solution has been seen as neoplatonic in tone, it is because he wishes to take into account all the interpretations and do justice to each one, not through syncretism, but by integrating the particular aspect that justified its formulation.’
The Agent Intellect is the last principle in the celestial hierarchy of beings; each sphere has its own regnant principle responsible for the formal nature of that domain. Strictly speaking, the human material intellect does not think ‘under its own power’; it is only the disposition or capacity to think, since the Agent Intellect establishes the potential form of human being as a rational animal in each individual. To represent a form in the intellect is thus an active as well as a passive force, which consists first in abstracting the essential and universal aspect of an imaginative form and then receiving it as an intelligible form. For the human soul to grasp such forms brings the individual closer to the Agent Intellect, affording it the chance to conjoin with the universal eternal Agent: ‘Unlike Avicenna’, Ivry says, ‘Averroes does not believe the acquired intellect establishes an identity which can transcend the death of the individual, at most for Averroes one is granted a glimpse of eternity, of eternal truths, while alive.’37 The imaginative faculty serves as the material substrate for the material intellect, just as the sensory organs are the substrate of the imaginative faculty, providing it with the intentions contained in sensory forms. In this context, Averroes is less naturalistic than Aristotle, who in each field of study drew inferences from observations about specific psychical functions. According to Jolivet, Averroes’ grand synthesis attempts to state a unified theory under which accounts of intellectual knowledge, cause and effect, and astronomy are subsumed:
Situated, by virtue of his imagination (which is corporeal) and his contact with the
Intellect, between the material world and that of the Intelligences, human’s function is to take back forms to their origin by thinking them. This vision is characteristic of neoplatonism, in which the dispersal of the intelligible in the sensible must be compensated for by a reunification and a return to [its] source, of which the agent is none other than
Averroes’ proposed location of the material intellect is one of the most unique features of his approach, and distinguishes his theory from that of his predecessors. Both the active and passive powers of the Agent Intellect, according to the Long Commentary, are located in the heavens, and the material intellect is called ‘the last of the separate intellects in the celestial hierarchy’, located immediately under or after the Agent Intellect. In positing the Agent Intellect as an entirely separate and eternal substance, he guaranteed the incorruptible nature of the material intellect, but retained its character as the psychical disposition to integrate the rational faculty with the whole process of cognition along Aristotelian lines. In the Middle Commentary, he located the imaginative faculty in the human soul as such; but unlike the Neo-Aristotelians he does not consider this disposition to be an extant substance in its own right, neither in the soul nor in the body. In the Middle Commentary, the material intellect’s ‘place’ is not clearly defined, and functions as though it belongs to the human soul, since this makes the best sense of its immaterial, intelligible functions.39 In the Long Commentary, the material intellect is posited in the celestial realm, as a fourth kind of being, in order to preserve its substantial autonomy. It is clearly the case that humans have the capacity to think in abstract and intelligible concepts, and Averroes must now account for its power to do so.
He attempts to resolve some of these problems by positing various surrogates for the material intellect by means of which the power of thinking can be regarded as corporeal and hence located in the brain. At the same time he thinks that it has the capacity to perceive intelligible intentions within particular forms, thereby engaging the process of abstraction that the material and agent intellect combine to complete. The Agent Intellect is not present in its essence in the human soul, for its activity is entirely bound up with that of the material intellect, such that they appear to be two in one way, and one in another way. Thus, according to the Long Commentary, the rational faculty and the passible intellect suffer the same mortal fate as the imaginative faculty. As Ivry observes:
It could hardly have escaped his notice that this very corporeality and corruptibility of
the cogitative faculty and passible intellect render them unreliable as objective, unaffected transmitters of intelligible forms, however preliminary and restricted their role in abstracting universal intelligibles was conceived. The material intellect is not any more protected from material particularity by relating to the cogitative faculty or to the
passible intellect than it is in relating to the imaginative forms themselves.
So this new attempt to resolve an old problem throws up an unexpected new problem: ‘The passible intellect and/or cogitative faculty face the same dilemma Averroes first encountered with the material intellect, that of bridging corporeal and incorporeal reality. Averroes has created a second bridge to do so, with these quasi-immaterial powers, but it is no more sturdy than the first bridge, now relocated in the heavens.’
He argues for the soul’s immortality by turning to Aristotle’s notion that the active intellect (nous poëtikos, more properly the ‘maker mind’) alone is spiritual and hence immortal, but modifies it such that the soul has an impersonal immortality, since the ‘maker mind’ is alien to everything that makes an individual an individual.42 With regard to the other aspects of the soul, that is, the other psychical functions considered as specific subjacent forms, insofar as each is linked to one or more sensory organs, they can grow weak and lose their effective function. This question is beyond the limit of scientific inquiry; Averroes declares only those with special gifts of insight can discern an answer. But the Koran does provide an image that can be used to draw an analogy: in sleep the soul has no activity because it does not use its sensory organs, and yet the soul subsists. Averroes reviews the various proposals put forward by the Greek and Islamic philosophers and concludes that each offers only hints or indications that ultimately can be reconciled with Koranic images from revelation.43 With regard to the question of resurrection, he says that, ‘our existence there is another creation, superior to this existence’; in agreement with Christian doctrine he claims that in this superior life each human regains its body, but not the spiritual body, rather the original, earthly body.
Averroes’ greatest influence, however, was not on Islamic thought but on European Latin philosophy after its transmission through the Spanish schools, especially in Toledo, after 1200. In MacClintock’s limpid words, ‘the dynamic speculative activity vital for five centuries in the Arabic tradition, which was founded in large part on Greek writings in philosophy and science … disappears after 1200, reappearing almost immediately in Western Latin thought.’ In the centuries after Averroes’ death, a large number of translations were made from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin, from Greek originals that had already been translated into Syriac and Arabic. These efforts caught the attention of powerful rulers who wanted to establish centers of excellence in research and recruited talented polyglot scholars to assist their endeavors: ‘The impact of this solid and integrated corpus of natural science on the Western intellectual world was enormous, coming as it did into a climate where for centuries scholars eager for knowledge had had to content themselves with third-hand encyclopedic compilations of inadequately developed science and scientific methodology.’
Latin translations of Aristotle’s texts were usually accompanied with their attendant later commentaries; those by Alexander and Simplicius were common, but Averroes’ had the most influence.45 Much of Averroes’ work was eagerly taken up by young scholars hungry for new ideas, but it also met some strong opposition. His writings were banned by the University of Paris in 1210 and again in 1215, deemed usable only with corrections in 1231, and not officially sanctioned until 1255. Several significant thirteenth-century theologian-philosophers studied Averroes with great attention, including Albert the Great, William of Auvergne, Alexander of Hales and Robert Grosseteste. Albert the Great felt strongly enough about the Second Master that he published one tract, Against Averroes, and his student Thomas Aquinas also devoted enough attention to this opponent to merit a special title, Treatise on the Unity of Intellect against Averroes. In sum, the Islamic commentator’s principles were thought to run counter to some basic Christian doctrines: the world was eternal, and not created in time; individual immortality was not possible; the very existence of the world was deeply contingent, and faith and reason each accorded with a separate standard of truth.46 In the 1270s the Paris Council again condemned Averroes’ position and university masters, such as Siger of Brabant, Boethius of Dacia and Bernard of Nivelles, were indicted. The last self-proclaimed Averroist was Cesare of Cremona (sadly famous perhaps for his refusal to use the ‘stupid’ telescope), whose name as late as 1631 could be linked with Galileo himself as an enemy of orthodox Christian teaching.
Urvoy argues that in addition to the Latin Christian writers there were at least two other continuators of Islamic philosophy in the thirteenth century: Raymond Marti (c.1230–c.1285) and Raymond Lull (1232–1316). Marti, like Albert and Aquinas and Bacon, was a Dominican monk, an expert in Arabic, Hebrew and even Aramaic. He studied with Albert the Great and must have known Thomas Aquinas in Paris; his major work The Fight for Faith employs many Islamic works, including Averroes’ The Incoherence of the Incoherence, otherwise little-known to his contemporaries. Raymond Lull was more of a maverick, unaffiliated with any university; he issued various demands for the creation of colleges of oriental languages to train missionaries, the unification of military religious orders, and the allocation of budgets for the Crusades to the Holy Land. It is unfortunate that Lull relied quite heavily on faulty summaries of Islamic philosophical opinions and hence condemned Avicenna and Averroes for mistakes they never made: ‘Thus, on one hand, Ramon Marti makes use of Ibn Rushd in a scrupulous but impersonal way … Ramon Lull, on the other hand, is guilty of grave factual errors – even dishonesty – but sets out a completely new path which was to have considerable repercussions, although it was marginalized by the “philosophically nonprofessional” character which permeates it.’
In H. A. Wolfson’s famous phrase,48 Averroes was ‘twice revealed’ to European philosophy – first in the thirteenth century and again in the sixteenth century. With regard to the second event, his commentaries on Aristotle’s texts were widely read and studied and copied, despite the Church’s repeated condemnations of his doctrinal position. Many of the Arabic originals had been lost, but through Hebrew translations virtually all of his writings became available to Latin translators. Most of Averroes’ commentaries were included in sixteenth-century collected editions of Aristotle’s works; twenty-six out of thirty-four translations were made from Hebrew, six of which replaced older translations from the thirteenth century made directly from the Arabic. But the Islamic thinker’s reception the second time was much different than the first time: it was not the Christian scholastics who declaimed his heretical stance, but the classical scholars who decried his ignorance of Greek antiquity and lack of access to properly edited texts. Wolfson’s own painstaking studies led him to a contrary view: in his 1929 book on Crescas’ Critique, he said that the Arabic and Hebrew translators preserved clear-cut analyses, exact terminology, and forms of expression. The successive translators maintained a literal and faithful attitude, and the various versions ‘suffered comparatively little corruption’. More than thirty years later, Wolfson had not changed his opinion, but added that he was now convinced that there had been a continuous oral tradition which accompanied every translation, explaining all the new shades of meaning. It is in large measure due to Wolfson’s own efforts that there has been a third revelation, with the grand plan for publishing three series of texts, each with critical apparatuses and glossaries, devoted to Averroes’ monumental encounter with Aristotle’s philosophy.
Theological summation: Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas
The course of Albert’s life (c.1200–80) follows the course and fortunes of the entire thirteenth century; he was without doubt the dominant figure of his epoch, the most prolific writer, the most influential teacher; an experienced traveler, studious observer of nature, and the one person so consummately learned that he was called Magnus, ‘the Great’, even in his lifetime.49 In 1223 he entered the Dominican Order, studied at Padua and Bologna, then lectured at various convents in Germany; he was master of theology in Paris from 1240–48, when Thomas Aquinas studied under him. He was sent by his superiors to organize the plan of studies at Cologne in 1248, and in 1260 was consecrated Bishop of Ratisbon (Regensburg), which he resigned after two years, to devote all his mighty efforts to teaching and writing. His principal works include the Summa de Creaturis, several long commentaries, on the Metaphysics, On the Soul, the Ethics, on The Causes and Procession of the Universe (based on the pseudo-Aristotelian Book of Causes), on The Books of Pseudo- Dionysius, and The Fourth Book of the Sentences, as well as his final great summation, the Summa Theologiae. Although scholars have agreed in assigning him the central role in making Aristotle the supreme pagan authority for university studies, Albert’s grand Aristotelian system is actually mixed with many Neo-Platonic elements, sometimes muddled and confused. It is more clear now, however, that Albert did attempt to advance a bold view, not so much about specific problems in philosophy, but about the very nature and scope of philosophy as an intellectual activity.
The arrival of Graeco-Arabic scholarship in the form of Islamic treatises and commentaries posed some difficult problems for Christian thinkers, namely, how to reconcile conflicting statements about crucial Christian beliefs.51 In an overly simplified way, one could say that the books of the mystical Plato (for example, the Timaeus) and the Neo-Platonists, especially Plotinus, but also Porphyry and Proclus, had been accommodated into the Christian doctrinal framework through the syncretistic labors of the Church Fathers, reaching its brilliant culmination in Augustine. But Aristotle was another matter; reconciliation of his metaphysical principles with Christian teaching was one of the pre-eminent tasks for western theologians after the recovery and reception of Aristotle’s work via the Islamic route. The proliferation of Christian commentaries on Aristotle’s De Anima in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries testifies to their authors’ efforts to reinterpret the First Master’s understanding of the nature and functions of soul and mind. Their task was to make it accord with some of the basic tenets of the OT, especially the Genesis accounts, and the all-important NT statements about human soul and divine spirit.
In his early work, the Summa de Creaturis, Albert juggles several different approaches to account for the nature and functions of soul. In addition to the mainline Aristotelian account, he also tries to make good use of Neo-Platonic arguments, especially through the filter of St. Augustine and Pseudo-Denis, as well as Avicenna’s technical improvements on Aristotle’s hylomorphic scheme. One of his most ingenious efforts involves Avicenna’s distinction between partial form (forma partis) and total form (forma totius), applied to the composite of soul and body in the animate being. The partial form is the source of all the perfections that are present in the material and the composite, giving them their essence and ‘reason’. The form provides the essence by producing and diffusing itself in the whole; it is the main feature of the essence and reason of any animate thing. It is also the reason of the common nature, that is, the nature common to the composite of both soul and body; it is also the act of matter and the first act of the whole. According to Ducharme’s summary:
Within an individual being, form is the principle of unity and cohesion and identity, and
it gives the being to be what it is, sealing in perfection, so to speak, a separation which, of itself, it would not have produced. The division (divisio) is a result of matter, but the diversity (diversitas) of distinct identities is attributed to form. Earthly individual beings are true beings, and their diversity is not a screen which would hide a more basic identity. Their diversity and their unity have a substantial source, their form, which is part of them and gives them unity, just as it gives them esse [essence] and ratio [reason] … Even if that form is submitted to the laws of matter, it assumes them and elevates
them to perfection. Nothing is, but the individual, and it truly is, thanks to its form.
In his Commentary on the Sentences, Albert compares the composition of human nature, in terms of soul and body, with the composition of the divine natures in Christ, carefully segregating the two concepts of composition according to partial form and total form:
The first composition, properly called, is that of soul and body; soul which is said to be
the act of an organic physical body, having life in potency. And to that composition follows the total form, which is ‘human’ or ‘humanity’, if one may speak about it in abstraction; and that form is the species in this particular individual. Indeed form is twofold (duplex), namely the form of the matter, or partial form, or potential; that form is the end of generation in nature, and it is a part of the thing, and such a form, the soul, is in a human. There is another form, which is the reason of the thing, and its whole essence according to its reason; that form follows the composition of the natural form
and of natural potency, which is matter. [III Sent., d.2, art. 5, sol.]
The first composition of natural matter and natural form gives an existent being its definite nature; that which gives this nature is the substantial form which radiates through the composite. The total form follows (in the logical sense) the partial form, and makes present the species in the individual, for example, ‘humanity’ in Socrates; it is the reason in Aristotle’s sense of logos as the archë of natural things’ nature.
Albert employs both the distinction between partial and total form, and the manner in which each gives ‘reason’ to the essence of both the species and the individual, in his intricate account of the identity of the concrete earthly human before and after his bodily death. He says one must counter the argument that either the substantial forms of an individual before and after death are different, or that the substantial form of humanity in the individual perishes with his death and hence can no longer be present. If (a) one agrees with Avicenna that the total form is other than the partial form, and if (b) the essence of the species ‘humanity’ can subsist without any individual instantiating it, and if (c) it is only the material elements that individuate particular humans, then (d) there is nothing in the individual human that subsists (survives) after the death of his material body. But, in contrast with this argument, if one agrees with Aristotle, as interpreted by Averroes, that (a) the total form is the substantial form of the whole composite, and (b) the whole composite is distinct from the matter component according to reason, and (c) the form only is destroyed with respect to its predication of the composite, then (d) the individual after death is identical with the one before death. Since Albert is primarily concerned with the Christian doctrine of resurrection and the soul’s immortality, the substantial form he has in mind is the spiritual nature of human being.54 Albert himself explains:
The soul is completely subject to suffering in the body … But one must understand that
two points are to be considered about the soul, namely that it is the nature of human, and the principle of human activities. From this point of view it can be considered in three ways: some features belong to it as substantial form, some as soul, some as human nature precisely as human. According to its being a substantial form, it is itself the perfection of the human body. The balance of temperaments that it produces in the human body amongst the various elements is superior to the balance obtained in other bodies due to their forms; in this respect the human body resembles celestial bodies.
Therefore the reason of form and act in it is the most noble of all.
This superior balance is closely tied to the goodness (nobility) intrinsic to the perfect state it aspires to attain:
As the soul, it is the act of a body, which is not only the result of such a balanced
composition, but also as having life; it is found in all organic things, and thus it belongs to the soul to radiate various powers in various parts of the body; the human soul possesses this in the most noble way. Since the soul is the nature of human as human, nature gives human being the essence and reason of human. And thus, the rational soul, considered as the nature of human, must have something more than a mere form, and
more than a mere soul.
The essence and reason of the noble or ruling ‘part’ partakes of both a nature dependent on a living body and a nature independent of any living body:
It must have, flowing from it, some powers that are linked to organs, because it is a form
giving essence as a nature does, and other powers that are not linked to organs; these are related to powers that are linked, inasmuch as they receive their [sensible] species from them, and they are related to separate substances, inasmuch as they participate in their light. And that is what the philosopher [Aristotle] says: the noble soul has three operations, viz. divine, animal, and intellectual; thus considered, the whole of a soul united to a body shares in the sufferings [of its body]. Soul is also to be considered as being the principle of human activities, and seen as such, it is not necessary that it shares in its totality the body’s sufferings, because some of its powers may be taken up with the contemplation of eternal things, and some others submitted to passivities proper to
bodies. [III Sent., d. 15, art. 3, sol.]
Albert sums up his whole philosophy of the human soul in these terms: soul is a true substantial form; it is even superior to all other forms; it is also an authentic soul, the act of a body; again, it is superior to all other souls. But it is also the ‘nature’ of human as human; it gives a human the esse and the ratio of human [being]; and, so considered, it appears as human’s very ‘substance’. Now, since it is rational, it is more than a mere form, and more than a mere soul. Albert, quoting an unnamed philosopher, goes on to say that, while some of that soul’s resources of activity are linked to an organic support, others are not. The latter are indeed related to the former, since they receive their ‘species’ from them, but they are also akin to separate substances and share some of the light which is proper to them. And so, the human soul, in most of its activities, is entirely involved with its body, but its ‘divine’ activity, the contemplation of eternals, is not impeded because of that involvement: its species may come from functions that are bound to a bodily organ, but its ‘light’ is of a different order.
For Albert, the existence of the soul (anima) is evident from the obvious fact that some creatures have an internal principle of motion and others do not; with some kinds of creatures this is clearly due to the presence of the will. Albert devotes one whole chapter to a review of the Church Fathers’ various definitions of soul, then another chapter to unpacking the definitions and subject-status of the soul in Aristotle. Irrespective of its eventual definition, it is clear, he says, that the soul is an immaterial substance united with a material body. Its first act is to give its own body being, and its second act is to give its body its own powers and operations. Albert says that Plato was right to define the soul as ‘an incorporeal substance that moves a body’, and Aristotle was right to define the soul as ‘the form of an organized body that is capable of life’. He uses Avicenna’s interpretation to reconcile these two seemingly incongruent statements: considered in itself, from the point of view of its essence, the soul is an incorporeal substance; but considered with respect to its body, the soul is its first act and its mover. In other words, there is a certain incorporeal substance which, insofar as it is the first act and mover of its body, is called the soul.56 He now has to account for this substance’s union with its body, on which point he says that Avicenna was right and Averroes was wrong. The soul, considered in itself, is a substance from which emanate operations and powers closely allied with its body; as an incorporeal substance it brings about secondary acts in which no bodily organ has any role.
He follows Aristotle to the letter when he says that there are three powers in the human soul: the vegetative, the sensitive and the rational. However, against Platonist opinions, these three powers comprise a single substance, a single soul and a single act. It is the one human soul that unites all three powers in one being.58 The five external senses are dealt with in some detail before he turns his attention to the nature and scope of sensory knowledge and its relation to intelligence. Although he argues that the sensitive power as such is both a material and a passive power, he admits that after it has been actualized by the sensible form of external objects it can make judgments; it does this through the communal sense. He accepts the argument that there is an agent intellect in the soul that abstracts and thus actualizes intelligible species, but rejects the parallel argument that there is an active sensory power that abstracts and thus actualizes the sensible species. Instead he claims that it is something in the nature of intellect that renders the potentially intelligible actually intelligible, whereas it is something in the nature of the external world that renders material things actually sensible. That which is present in the sensory faculty is definitely not the form united with the material properties of an externally existing thing, but rather an ‘intention’ or species of material thing that enables the soul to have knowledge of that thing.59 The concept of intention here follows the early medieval, patristic term for entity in receipt of sensory ‘species’, for example, in its earliest version as introduced by Augustine; its source is external to the defining essence of an ensouled being.
Albert expands on Aristotle’s views about the agent intellect insofar as it is given from without: ‘The intellectual soul is not educed from matter; instead, it enters from without; … the light of the agent intellect is its root, in such a way that [the soul] is sometimes called by philosophers the result of the divine intellect in the physical body that has life.’ The standard Aristotelian position is that the lower soul and the passive intellect are capable of destruction, whereas the active principle of the intellect alone, considered to be separate from the passive intellect and its phantasms, is not open to destruction. Albert thus adduces four groups of basic faculties in the human soul: first, the powers of knowing, perceiving and forming opinions; second, the generic power of appetite; third, the power of locomotion, and fourth, the power of growth (De Anima I, tract 2, cap. 15). This differs in significant respects from the general Islamic category of internal sense, and also from Aquinas’ later position.
The overriding philosophical questions and disputations in these twelfth-century writers were directed not at the nature and functions of soul, but at the powers and operations of the intellect. Gilson’s astute comment here is that
Albert’s approach to the problem of the intellect is typical of his general attitude.
Naturally, he has first exhausted all the literature available on the subject … But he also realized, with great acumen, that they did not all apply to the same problem. For instance, he clearly saw that the division of Avicenna and that of Aristotle did not add up, because Aristotle intended to divide the human intellect into its essential parts (the agent intellect and the possible intellect), whereas Avicenna intended to distinguish the various stages which attend the acquisition of learning … The same remark applies to the division of Averroes, which is taken from the degrees of perfection of the intellect. These penetrating remarks justify the extensive use which he himself occasionally makes of
several different divisions and classifications of the human modes of intellection.
Albert makes his own position quite clear: the agent intellect and the possible intellect are in the soul. The agent intellect is not a habit, that is, the permanent possession of certain intelligible thoughts, nor is it a separate intelligence which confers intelligible forms onto the possible intellect. The human intellect, he says, is ‘conjoined to the human soul; it is simple, it has no intelligible features, but it produces them in the possible intellect from the phantasms, as Averroes expressly says in his commentary on the De Anima.’ This is a peculiar assertion since Albert knows quite well that for Averroes the two intellects are separate substances; he thought that once this doctrine had been corrected it was more satisfactory than any other attempt to make sense of Aristotle’s remarks.
The agent intellect flows from the human soul insofar as the soul is an actuation of its substance; the possible intellect flows from the soul insofar as it is the soul’s potency. The proper action of the agent intellect is that of an efficient and formal cause whose effect is to draw the possible intellect from potency to actualization. Thus the agent intellect transmutes something in the possible intellect from potency to actuality, and Avicenna and Averroes are both correct when they claim that there are degrees in this transmutation. With regard to knowledge as such (scientia), the possible intellect has three degrees, not powers or faculties: first, since it is the potentiator for all intelligible things, the possible intellect is material (hylealis), that is, it resembles prime matter to the extent that its possibility is completely indeterminate. Second, the same intellect can be said to already possess the knowledge of principles which are necessary for the acquisition of secure knowledge (intellectus in habitu). Third, the same intellect can be said to already possess that scientific knowledge, with the ability to make use of it at will (intellectus in effectu). In Albert’s redaction of Avicenna’s scheme, he has omitted the latter’s highest degree of intellectual cognition, the accommodated or acquired intellect, since from Albert’s point of view it implies some sort of communication or alliance with an autonomous agent intellect. Since each human being has its own agent intellect, there is no reason to believe, with Avicenna, that humans must employ the power of a separate intellect every time it thinks an intelligible entity. On the other hand, Avicenna was correct to claim that the rational soul has no genuine memory, in which it could store its already acquired knowledge of intelligible things. The possible intellect already has that power; in this proper function it receives intelligible beings, retains them, and then reconsiders them through the soul’s own agent intellect.
Given his definition of soul as an immaterial substance, Albert offers various arguments to demonstrate its immortal status, some based on Avicenna’s view. The soul is not some sort of corporeal energy, the human intellect is not the act of any kind of body, the soul is not there in view of the body – rather, in each case, the reverse is true. In short, the rational soul is a substance that exists in itself, and since it has subsistence apart from its body, it can exist after its bodily host’s death. Albert quotes Avicenna with approval: ‘this name anima does not designate the essence of the thing that it names, nor is it taken from the category in which it is contained [substance]; it is taken from an accident that happens to it; and this is the reason why the name of the soul (anima) is derived from the verb, to animate.’ The same definition implies that soul qua substance is the mover of its body (movens corpus), in addition to being the first act of its body. One dimension of the intellect is called practical because through cognition and rational inquiry it directs the human will and actions. The practical and the theoretical intellect are one substance, they are the same intellect, at some times directed toward the good, at other times directed toward the truth. In Gilson’s words: ‘The practical intellect first turns toward the good in general, which is the prime mover in the order of actions and operations; then it turns toward good things which can be done or made, in which case it deals with singulars; thirdly, it moves desire toward these particular goods apprehended as desirable ends. Goodness is, in the practical order, what truth is in the speculative order.’
In the proper sense of the concept of will, it is the natural appetite of the rational soul and its objects are of three kinds: first, within the soul it holds sway over all other powers; second, outside the soul, the will applies to that which can maintain and protect nature; third, it concerns that which outside the soul is not required to maintain nature, such that it can tend towards impossible things (and thus become irrational) or towards possible but not actual things (and thus become inventive). Free choice then belongs to human beings alone; liberum arbitrium is the liberty to arbitrate (not ‘arbitrary liberty’), to decide by means of arbitration between what is good and what is evil. The liberty of desire consists in the rational power either to yield to the judgment of reason, or else to turn away from it. As an arbitrating power, it belongs to reason, and as free, it belongs to the will; but to be an act of arbitration is the very substance of the will, to be free is incidental to this main power. Free choice is the power to do what one pleases, without being under the sway of some higher power, whereas liberty must be defined with respect to some goal, and is the power to preserve the rectitude of the will, desired for the sake of uprightness itself.
With St. Thomas Aquinas (1224–74), our story reaches the apogee of medieval scholastic summation of then current philosophical and theological doctrines of the soul. Thomas was born into a noble family in the Kingdom of Naples; his parents initially opposed his decision to enter study with the Benedictines, but he spent several years at the monastery in Monte Cassino, before moving to the University of Naples. At the age of twenty he entered the Dominican Order and studied theology, first at Paris and then under Albert the Great in Cologne. After seven years’ teaching in Paris as master of theology, he moved to Rome and its environs continuing his prodigious teaching schedule amongst the monks at several locations. His enormous written output was achieved during his twenty years’ teaching (1252– 73), as well as sermons, notations, letters and other works.65 He held public disputations, the standard medieval component of university education, usually once every two weeks; the transcripts of two of these, Disputed Questions on the Soul and Questions on Spiritual Creatures, are of special concern here, as well as his meticulous commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, and relevant passages in two of his great works, the Summa Contra Gentiles (Book II) and the Summa Theologiae (Book I). One should bear in mind that Thomas always considered himself to be master of theology, or sacred doctrine, and not philosophy, but such a proviso should not diminish the respect that Thomas had for philosophy’s capacity to bring the student to correct insight. In Bertrand Russell’s evergreen History of Western Philosophy, Thomas is peremptorily dismissed from inclusion in the proper subject matter of the history of philosophical doctrines, but Anthony Kenny has argued forcibly for a more balanced assessment.
Thomas does not often use the word ‘mind’ (mens, mentis), preferring instead to talk about the rational soul (anima rationalis) or the rational part of the soul. Kretzmann opens his recent discussion of this issue with the remark that ‘Aquinas’s philosophy of mind can be understood only in the context of his more general theory of soul, which naturally make use of many features of his metaphysics.’67 Thomas’ formulaic definition of soul is ‘the first principle of life’, and much of his preliminary efforts are focused on the meaning of the concept of life in the basis of actual living things. There are, he says, vital activities that normally have bodies and bodily parts among their principles; some principles of life clearly are in bodies, and hence have material ‘natures’, but those are not souls. There are some bodies that are not only not principles of life but even by nature without life; thus no body considered solely as a body has life as its essence:
But a first intrinsic principle of life (which imbues everything else in an animate body
with life) must have life essentially. If it did not, its having life would be explained on the basis of something else intrinsic to that living body, and it would not be that body’s first principle of life. Therefore, no soul, no first principle of life, is a body. If a soul is in any respect corporeal … it will not be in virtue of its corporeality that it animates the
thing whose soul it is. [original emphases]
He accounts for the fact that only some specifically organized bodies have the principle of life by employing the Aristotelian concept of substantial form: ‘The first principle of life in a living body, its soul, is not a bodily part of that body, but rather its form, one of the two metaphysical parts of the composite of matter and form that absolutely every body is.’
The soul as the form of living organized mater is immaterial and incorporeal; as such it is the most humble of forms. However, all souls are graded according to their level in the hierarchy of ensouled beings, and the human soul is the highest of all souls connected to animate bodies (the angels do not have corporeal bodies, and hence are the highest of all). The human soul is capable of knowing many things, and since in order to know something it is necessary that the knower not be the same species as the thing known, the knower (or the knowing agent) cannot be a bodily thing. The power that humans have to know things is the operation of a substantial form that is alien to, that is, essentially different than, anything of a corporeal nature. To operate by itself it must subsist by itself, because being is the cause of its operations, and everything acts according to its essence. The only being that can subsist by itself is a substance, not an accident of something more basic, and hence the human soul must be both substantial and immaterial. For Thomas, to see that the human soul is an immaterial substance is, at one and the same time, to see that it is immortal.69 Since the human soul qua basic substance exists in itself, it cannot lose its nature by accident. Since the human soul is immaterial and only tied to its host’s body by an act of God, the death of the human body does not entail the death of its soul. In the strict sense, the rational soul qua immaterial form is not affected by the corruption or diminution of the animate body. The human body, that is, the corporeal component of the soul–body composite, exists in virtue of the soul, whereas it is not true to say that the soul exists in virtue of the body it is joined with.
Bernard Bazan has presented several attempts to reconcile two divergent views about Thomistic metaphysical principles, used in support of his account of soul: that the soul is the form of a body, and that a human is a soul that uses a body. One arbitrative interpretation distinguishes two types of metaphysical subordination: in the case of essential subordination, there is a direct relation between two forms; in the case of dispositional subordination, the forms are independent between them, but they maintain an indirect relation founded on their attachment to one and the same matter. Insofar as it concerns essential substance, it also makes a subdivision according to which the concept is considered either as a plurality of forms or a plurality of degrees of the same form. Bazan responds to this suggestion that the central point is the notion of an incomplete substance, susceptible to receiving successive perfect acts; it is never a question of admitting a relation between two substances. Rather, he argues, the intellectual soul is not only the last formal perfection, but a true substance, complete in itself; this accords with the ordered arrangement amongst the partisans of dualism as they have defined the concept. The thirteenth century thinkers considered the soul as a reality independent of the body, within the order of being, but also complete within the order of essence and the order of acts. The soul does not need a body as an extrinsic instrument to its nature as a spiritual substance. Since the universal matter-form scheme does not posit a plurality of forms, it prejudges nothing about the number of forms of composition, but only affirms the immateriality of separate substances. In terms of the infrastructure of constitutive principles, the rational soul plays the role of a competing form vis-à-vis a composite already actualized for inferior forms; pluralism supposes, then, the conception of the soul as a corporeal form.
The thesis of the soul’s autonomous subsistence has both an advantage and disadvantage to Thomas’ general theory about the human soul. The advantage is that it establishes one of the necessary conditions for the soul’s immortality, but the disadvantage is the implicit threat to the unity of the human being. Since the distinctively human character of human being is its having a subsistent, separable rational intellect or mind, it looks as though the human being is identified with its rational part. The fact that a human is united with its body appears to be an accident, though an accident of a special kind, namely through God’s grace. Thomas attempts to dispel the serious difficulties involved in this twofold picture by introducing a further distinction between a real particular, ‘this something’ (hoc aliquid) and the substance as such or in itself.72 Strictly speaking hoc aliquid applies to an individual in the category of primary substance, that is, if and only if it is not in something else as its subject, and it is something that occupies a place of its own in the natural order of things. In Kretzmann’s concise words:
The human soul is in the human being, not as heat is in coal, but as a part is in a whole,
such that it is capable of subsisting on its own. Moreover, the human soul as the form of its own body has the role of fulfilling or completing the human species, that is, the soul is not only the rationality but indeed, the full rational animality of the human body, specifying that corporeal thing as a human being. Without the soul that body is a corpse, which can be called a human body only equivocally. Although the soul itself has no place of its own among individuals sorted out in the species and genera of substances, it is what gives the human being its unique place in that system, what enables that human being to satisfy [the criterion], and so it is more nearly a hoc aliquid than any bodily part
Kenneth Schmitz has argued74 that Thomas formulated one of the strongest arguments ever presented for the immortality of the human soul. This proof proceeds through three moments: first, it establishes the immaterial nature of the intellectual operations performed by the human soul (its incorporeity). Second, it establishes the soul’s capacity to exist in and through itself (its subsistence), and third, it establishes the actual survival of the soul after death (its incorruptibility). One of the keys to understanding the distinctively rational appeal of Thomas’ argument is that worldly things, including human beings, are not merely limited substances of certain kinds of creatures, beings created by God, who possess a positive principle of existence received from another being. An additional key pertains to Thomas’ doctrine of self-knowledge; according to the principle of epistemic purity or transparence, only humans can know themselves and in doing so realize that the soul which knows, as both knower and known, is an immaterial being.
However, in satisfying his discursive requirement for a demonstrative proof, Thomas confronts an embarrassing aspect of the post-mortem soul’s separation from its body which only the Christian doctrine of resurrection can cope with. Thomas considers the hope for such a later state as ‘the vision of the way things really are, the glory towards which reason gropes, into which faith peers darkly, and in which the blessed take joy’. Thomas grasps this dilemma by the horns, not shrinking from the inevitable consequences of an attempt to reconcile two contrastive points of view. Schmitz says that:
The farthest he can go as a philosopher in parting the mysterious veil that lies at the
boundary of our present life, however, is expressed in his formula: the human soul, by virtue of its intellectual nature, is both a substance in its own right and yet the spiritual life of the body (forma et hoc aliquid). Without the body, it subsists only as a radically incomplete being, since it is by nature meant to inform, structure and vivify its human body. In the end, then, St. Thomas’ proof delivers to us something not unlike a Greek
And with this discursive end to Thomas’ incongruous demonstration, one could turn to the opening canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy, where the Christian pilgrim, in search of the philosophical truth at the heart of the strange Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortal status, encounters an entire realm of departed shades.
Thomas rejects any idea that matter as such is evil or deficient or imperfect:
It would be completely foreign to the Thomistic perspective to regard the material
universe as the result of some calamity and the union of soul and body as the consequence of a fall. A radical optimism runs through this doctrine because it presents a universe created out of pure goodness. It interprets all its parts, in the measure in which they subsist, as so many reflections of God’s infinite perfection. Origen’s teaching that God created bodies in order to imprison sinful souls in them is most repugnant to St. Thomas’ thought. The body is not the prison of the soul, but a servant and instrument placed in its service by Almighty God. The union of soul and body is no chastisement of the soul but a salutary bond through which the human soul will
reach its full perfection.
Since it is in the concept of the good that sufficient and final ‘causes’ must reside, one must examine the soul itself to uncover the body’s ‘reason’ for existing. If the soul were an intelligence of the same degree of perfection as an angel, it would be pure form subsisting and operating without the aid of an outer instrument, fully realizing its own definition, and thus concentrating in the individual the total perfection of an essence. But the human soul is lower on the ladder of being than the angels, midway between pure (though finite) immaterial intellect and insensate, inanimate material ‘nature’. The perfection to which the human soul can attain is achieved only through the successive generation of humans as the species, that is, the creation of an omnipotent and beneficent God. Each human being as an individual is only the incomplete realization of an ideal archetype: ‘Insofar as it satisfies its own essential definition, it is an act and has the pleasure of being what it ought to be. But insofar as it only realizes its definition imperfectly, it is in potency; that is, it is not all that it could be. Indeed, it is even in a state of privation, because it feels that it ought to be what it is not.’
Thomas’ discussion of the nature of human being examines certain typical activities and then, by means of persuasive reason draws inferences about what kinds of powers would be needed to explain these activities, and then concludes by offering the best candidate for what could be the subject of such powers. He classified human biological activities into three sorts: growth, digestion and reproduction; the next higher level comprised sensation, affections and locomotion; the highest level comprised the cognitive functions of understanding, judgment and reason, as well as the various correspondent appetites toward and away from the objects of perception and understanding. To these various functions he assigned generic powers or potencies in accord with the Aristotelian maxim that each potency is ordered towards its proper action, and the nature of each power derives from the action to which it is ordered. Thomas further distinguished five special sensory powers for perception of external particular things, and four special internal senses, or inner-directed powers: the communal sense, imagination, memory and practical reason (or cogitation). The appetitive power was divided into two versions based on the type of good or evil (moral or non-moral) perceived in the objects towards which or away from which desire was directed: either concupiscible or irascible, derived from the Classical Greek psychical concepts of thumos and epithumia. (Thus, concupio had already long stood for the notion of desire, in the sense of sensuous desire for some thing; and ira for strong-willed ‘anger’ or powerful petition to overcome obstacles – the Latin translation itself slants the interpretation of these two key aspects of the ‘lower’ soul.)
Thomas attributes eleven distinct types of emotion (‘passions’ in the original sense) to these two sensory appetites: love, desire, delight, hate, aversion and sorrow to the former; and fear, daring, hope, despair and anger to the latter: ‘Much of this psychological analysis is quite sophisticated, employing data from Greek, Roman, and early Christian thought and also using the physiological and psychological treatises of Islamic and Jewish scholars. It also forms the basis of the analysis of human conduct in Thomistic ethics.’78 At the highest level, which pertains to the human soul alone, the general capacity to understand (intellectus) comprises simple apprehension, judgment and reason. One version, that is, specific function, of this power involves the abstraction of universal meanings (intentiones) from the particular ‘objects’ of sense experience – this is the agent intellect. The other version or function of the intellect is the overall grasping (comprehensio, from com- and prehendo, ‘grasp’) of these universal meanings in one unified cognitive act – this is the possible or passive intellect.
Marenbon closes his succinct discussion of Thomas’ treatment of the nature and functions of the human mind and soul by knocking back the superficial view that Thomas did little more than express the fullest medieval version of Aristotle’s account of psychë. He says that, first, this neglects the extent to which the Aristotelian elements in Thomas’ discussion belong to a broader and fuller theory that depends on a Christian theologian’s concept of the grades of intelligent beings. These grades comprise humans in their earthly life, incorporeal souls (or angels), and the substance of God himself. Second, where Aristotle’s arguments for perception, memory and imagination, as well as the autonomous inorganic character of nous, have little resonance with modern, ‘scientific’ concerns about consciousness and its causal support, Thomas’ analysis of intellectual operations goes far beyond the ‘first master’, and poses questions more relevant today: ‘How might the ways of human thought – which seem to be intrinsically linked with the functioning of the brain and the senses – be related to the ways in which an incorporeal being would think? St. Thomas’ bold solution both underlines the distance and difficulty of the relationship, and yet uses it as a means towards understanding the slow, fallible and distinctively human activity of reasoning.’
Dante’s soul in the service of love
The great medieval Italian writer Dante (1265–1321) is not usually considered in histories of philosophical speculation, and yet he was more than a Christian poet with an acquaintance and interest in philosophy. Dante’s greatest achievements are philosophically inspired journeys of self-discovery. Many of his major works, such as The Banquet, On Monarchy, the Letters, and select cantos of The Divine Comedy, contain overt exposition and analysis of philosophical themes, and are well informed about the teachings of Averroes, Aquinas and Albert the Great. Two hundred years after his death, Marsilio Ficino referred to him as ‘by parentage celestial, by habitation Florentine, of a lineage angelic, and in profession a poetic philosopher’. Etienne Gilson and Bruno Nardi, perhaps more than any other contemporary scholars, established the very idea of the intimate connection in his works to then current debates in philosophy, theology and poetic theory. Gilson declared that ‘Dante’s conception of the nature and role of philosophy was such a personal one precisely because it was required for the solution of the essentially personal problem that he set himself in the Monarchy’ and elsewhere.81 Patrick Boyde says at the outset of his outstanding recent study, Dante: Philomythes and Philosopher, that, ‘Dante is first and foremost a poet of the intellectual life … most of the distinguishing features of his mature poetry derive from his study of philosophy.’82 It is one of our tasks to trace Dante’s informed philosophical understanding of the human mind and soul.
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence into a family on the fringes of the nobility, and received a rather patchy, nondescript education; he did not attend university and had no formal training in philosophy. His youthful decision to make poetry his vocation was given a personal focus and artistic theme in his rapturous love for the beautiful and unattainable Beatrice. When she died in June 1290, a few days after Dante’s twenty-fifth birthday, he felt that his ‘first age’ had closed; he chose thirtyone inter-linked poems to document all the main stages and events in the maturation of his vision of perfect love, and he called this work Vita Nuova. In an effort to overcome his all-consuming grief at Beatrice’s death, Dante turned to philosophy, especially Cicero’s On Friendship and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius’ dialogue with the allegorical woman Philosophia was an ideal introduction, since long passages of dense argument are regularly interrupted with meditations in verse form. Dante later spoke of his conversion to philosophy, his genuine love of wisdom (amatore di sapienza); the goal of philosophy, he said, is ‘that perfect loving which admits no interruption or shortcoming, that is, true happiness won through contemplation of the truth’.
For two or three years he attended the Franciscan and Dominican schools nearby, listening to the philosophers’ disputations, and began his long study of Aristotle’s works. But he could not equally well serve two mistresses, as Boyde puts it:
- so Dante had to choose between his love for Beatrice in glory and his new love for
philosophy. He had to say in effect that he loved Beatrice – amica quidem Beatrix – but he loved wisdom more – sed magis amica sapientia. In short, philosophy demanded that he should entirely forsake his early love, his early culture, and his early poetry … The second age brought a second love. It was only in his third age … and only in the Comedy itself, that he felt able to heal the breach and to reconcile the second Dante with the first.
In his lifelong study of philosophy Dante never committed himself to any one major figure or school. He was more like Cicero than any other classical exemplar, eclectic in his tastes and distant from any particular approach. Although he was especially devoted to Aristotle in his later thought, he turned more and more to Christian teachings and came to distrust the reach of unaided reason straining to understand through the intellect alone.
Florentine political intrigues embroiled Dante in some serious difficulties for several years, at the end of which he may have traveled to Bologna and Paris for further studies. Between 1304 and 1308, he embarked on two ambitious projects: the Convivio (or Banquet), prose commentaries on various philosophical topics (only four of fifteen projected books were completed), and De Vulgari Eloquentia (or The Eloquence of the Vulgar Tongue). These two original and audacious works are generally regarded as ground-breaking attempts to establish the Italian vernacular as a worthy language to rival Latin. With the election of Henry VII as Holy Roman Emperor, Dante had high hopes that a just and wise ruler would bring some peace to the troubled Italian North, hopes soon crushed with Henry’s premature death three years later (August 1313). In response to the promise of competent, temporal governance Dante wrote On Monarchy, but it was in his ‘third age’ that his most cherished dreams of a universal harmony of loving order were expressed. The Divine Comedy is an astonishing literary achievement that succeeds in extolling several messages on different levels. In what follows our attention will be focused on the explicit, acknowledged philosophical aspects of this (and earlier works). In Paradise the Beatrice-figure delivers five major treatises and Statius offers a sophisticated scholastic disputation worthy of any twelfth- or thirteenth-century master of arts:
- There is no escaping the fact that the author of the Comedy is a repentant sinner, but an
unrepentant intellectual. The Comedy is the story of a journey on which he traveled from ignorance and bondage to a state of freedom in the final apprehension of the whole truth, the full and simultaneous perception of all things seen in their unchanging essence in the mind of God. The protagonist is a philosopher in fieri. The philosopher who narrated that personal journey to the Truth was a philosopher in actu. To revert to the language of the Convivio, he was one who ‘by diligence and study had won the love of wisdom and received the gift of understanding’.
Dante blended Christian, philosophical and medical ideas in his various discourses on the human soul, its functions and its aspirations. One physical model standard at that time, ultimately derived from Galen’s medical works, posits three kinds of spirit as the means by which the soul irradiates its host body, equips its organs and causes them to discharge their functions. In several early works Dante clearly holds to the medical scheme enunciated most fully by Statius in the Purgatory: the natural spirit is generated from imperfect blood in the liver, the vital spirit is produced in the heart through the mixture of imperfect blood and air from the lungs, and the animal (that is, soulful) spirit is produced from the vital spirit in the rete mirabile at the base of the brain. The third highest spirit flows through the brain, filling the cerebral nerves and then flows down through the spinal cord into the motor nerves that activate and control all the diverse sorts of bodily movement (Purg. 25). This scheme appears as early as the Vita Nuova, when the adult Dante describes his reaction to his first sight of the beautiful Beatrice; in his internal dialogue, each spirit is given a voice in his recollection.
The vital spirit, which dwells in the innermost chamber of his heart, began to tremble violently, making his pulse flutter. This spirit calls the amorous thinker’s attention to the next higher spirit, who is like a god and rules over him. The animal spirit, whose seat is in ‘the high chamber where all the spirits of sensation bring their perceptions’, began to feel wonder, knowing that the lover’s true joy had appeared. The natural spirit, who resides in the nutritive parts, began to weep, knowing that it would often be obstructed, that is, overridden by the soul’s desire for the wondrous Beatrice. It is clear from this inner counsel that the god who comes to rule is love; forever after that initial encounter, love governed Dante’s soul. His natural spirit’s forecast, that his physical desire to see her again would be impeded, was correct – it was another nine years before he saw her again. After the young woman’s death, the poet’s spirit would have to wait even longer to see the glorious Beatrice in Paradise, and thus be reunited with his joy again in heaven. The young Dante calls his desire ‘the spirit of love’, and it was so strong that it ‘crushed all the other sensory spirits, and made possible a vivid vision of his beloved even when she was no longer present’86 – perhaps one of the poet’s greatest gifts.
Five or six years later, after his education in Aristotle and the scholastic commentators, Dante’s appreciation for philosophical definitions and arguments was much more sophisticated. In the Banquet he endorses the Aristotelian scheme87 of three kinds of soul, finding them equally present in human nature, with vertically arranged powers, each subsuming its next lower power. He abridges one of the main arguments of De Anima Book Two, that there are three capacities of the psychë: life, sensation and thought: ‘It is perfectly obvious that the powers are arranged in such a way that each one acts as the basis for the next. The first can exist independently, but the second must rest on the first. Thus the vegetative power, which is the principle of life, is the basis for sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch; but it can also exist as a soul in its own right, as we see in all the plants.’ Presumably Dante means that a substance with the vital principle can exist as such without ‘realizing’ either the second or third principles. Moreover, the form (forma or eidos) of some things, such as plants, comprises life-conferring properties, but without making that thing a soul. He continues this line of thought in comparing the three powers: ‘The sensitive power is the basis for the intellectual power, that is to say, reason. In mortal animate beings, the rational power is never found disjoined from the sensitive power; but the power of sensation does exist without reason, as we see in beasts, birds, fish, and indeed all brute animals. And the psyche which includes all these powers, being the most perfect of them all, is the human soul’
Although in his later work he will insist on the unified and single ‘nature’ of the human soul, in the Banquet he considers the soul’s three ‘natures’ to be united through Divine Wisdom by means of a miracle. The discrepancy between Dante’s two versions perhaps reflects some confusion about whether each form has its own nature (natura or ousia). In addition to the admirable harmony amongst the three forms of soul, he praises the harmony of soul and body, and the harmony that obtains among the various bodily organs. The soul is the form of its living body, the ground of its existence, the actualizer of its various potencies, the efficient cause of its organic functions, and the self-moving agent that employs these organs to carry out its operations.89 In addition to (or perhaps in parallel with) the perfection to which the soul can aspire through its most noble part (the mind) via its return to the divine source of its being, the soul-body composite has its own ‘idea’ of perfection, an outward beauty that radiates in the human face. Dante the poet surpasses Dante the thinker in superbly expressing the soulful beauty a human being can attain in these memorable images (it is conceivable that here his vocabulary was influenced by Biblical Wisdom texts, that is, by Hebrew verses filtered through Greek and then Latin concepts):
- The soul dedicates its greatest care and solicitude to those parts of the body where it
carries out its proper task most fully. That is why it lavishes such care on the human face, where the highest potentiality of its matter is actualized, such that no two faces are alike. Within the face there are two areas, the eyes and the mouth, to which the soul devotes its greatest efforts, since it could be said that all three powers of the soul have jurisdiction there. [Conv. 3. 8. 6]
He employs an elaborate simile comparing the human body to a domestic building, a set of images to which the section on medieval mentality returns at the close of this section:
- To adopt a beautiful simile, these two places might be called the balconies belonging to
the mistress of the body’s mansion, because it is there that she often makes her appearance, even though she is, so to speak, under a veil. She shows herself so openly in the eyes that any attentive observer can know her current state of feeling. And since there are six human passions … none of them can affect the soul without its likeness appearing in the window of the eyes, unless it is concealed by a great effort … She stands revealed in the mouth like a color seen through glass. For what is laughter but the coruscation of the soul’s delight, that is, a light whose brightness corresponds to its inner state? [Conv. 3. 8. 9–10]
Patrick Boyde provides a useful précis of Dante’s psychical vocabulary in the second and third chapters of the Banquet Book Three.90 Dante refers to the distinctly human power as mente (‘mind’, for Latin mens and Greek nous); it is only one part of the human soul, but with regard to the other powers, it is ‘the most excellent’, the most precious, the most perfect, the noblest, ultimate and sovereign. It is through the mind that humans are linked, in the great chain of being, to higher incorporeal beings: ‘Mind takes part in the divine nature like the sempiternal intellects [angels]; it is divine, and in this sense it is so ennobled and denuded of matter that the divine light shines into it as it does into an angel.’ Dante points out that due to the human mind’s interlinkage and participation in the divine intellect, some philosophers have called a human a god-like animal (Conv. 3.2.14–19). The significance that Dante accords to the human soul’s light-like character, to its infusion with the body of light, will become more explicit in his treatment of the resurrected good souls in the Paradise.
He adduces several powers (or virtues) specific to the human mind, that is, the human psychë ‘in virtue of’ its having a rational part. He makes a fairly standard distinction, also found in Averroes, between the speculative intellect (in the Banquet it is called the ‘scientific virtue’) and the practical intellect,92 though he draws very different consequences from this than does Averroes. The speculative intellect finds its raw material in the sensible species, the images and visible forms, received from the communal sense, and then directs its attention to some of these species, stored in the ‘treasure house’ of memory. It then compares and contrasts images derived from various things, or the same thing at different times, and thus grasps the intelligible species, that is, concepts that pertain to the thing’s inner nature or essence. In Boyde’s summary statement: ‘The goal of the speculative intellect is scientia, and that consists of a coherent set of acquired concepts and propositions which are “true” (verum). In this context, however, “truth” (veritas) entails a condition which is not necessarily required in ordinary usage: the concepts and propositions must be all-embracing, because “knowledge bears on universals”.’ In saying this, Dante, of course, agrees with the epistemic focus of the scholastics’ insistence on the close connection between perception via species and conception via invariant form: ‘“Truth” is the text “written within” the natural world. “Truth” is what the mind “reads” in the act of intellection (intus legere) and what it subsequently “gazes on” in the act of speculation (speculari).’93 Boyde, however, is incorrect in thinking that ‘intellect’ is from intus-legere; rather, it is almost certainly derived from inter-lectus (past participle of ligo), ‘gather from among’, thus closely allying it with ‘collect’ and ‘recollect’.
The other principal aspect of the human mind is the practical intellect; in the animal domain this corresponds with the estimative power carried out by instinct. In the human domain it is the power to make things and carry out projected courses of action; in both cases the exercise of these powers is based on rational decisions. Dante typifies the practical intellect with four main qualifiers; it is, in his words, either ragionativo, inventivo, consigliativo or giudicativo. The first term merely indicates its rational force and directedness; the second literally means to discover or uncover; that is, the mind finds out solutions to problems and answers to questions. The third means to weigh up in the balance, to deliberate (from libera, ‘scales’); the term consiglio (from consilium) refers to an internal counsel. And the fourth clearly indicates the notion of judgment in favor of the best option, the best way to achieve some goal:
- The practical intellect is ‘discursive’. But instead of moving ever further away from the
scattered phenomena of the material world towards an ordered set of abstractions and archetypes, it takes these ‘universal forms’ as its principia – its ‘points of departure’ – and it returns step by step towards the concrete world with the intention of working on particular bodies in a particular place and time, either by ‘making’ or by ‘doing’ (faciendo vel agendo).
The rational part, Dante avers, consists of the intellect and the will (voluntas), the power that grasps and the power that brings the body into freely chosen motion. The will comes into play when deliberation has resulted in a judgment about the best means to achieve a good discerned by the mind. When he refers to the ‘operations that are proper to the rational soul’, he clearly indicates that it is the manifest performance of speech and other forms of meaningful exchange. Rational operations are those in which ‘the divine light shines most clearly, that is, in speech and in the actions which are usually described as manners or conduct. For it must be made clear that, among animate beings, a human alone is able to speak, and a human alone is said to have actions or conduct called rational, because he alone has reason’ (Conv. 3.7.8).
Dante agrees with Averroes and Aquinas when he identifies the form proper to human being with the faculty or power of reason; and further he defines the life lived by humans, in the sense of the fullness of its potential, as the exercise of the reasoning power:
- Things should be defined and named in accordance with the highest perfection of their
form, as human is defined by his reason and not by his senses or any less perfect power. Hence, when we say that a human ‘lives’, we ought to understand that he is using reason, which is the life proper to his species and the actualization of his most noble part. And so the human who abandons reason and uses only the sensitive part of his soul does not live as a human but as a beast. As Boethius puts it so well, ‘he lives the life of a donkey’. [Conv. 2.7.3]
Dante ties his understanding of this essential definition with his reading of Aristotle in De Anima:
- Living is the mode of being proper to living things … It is clear that, for animals, living
consists in sensation, whereas for humans living is using reason. Using reason, therefore, is the human mode of being, and so to renounce that use is to renounce being, and therefore to be dead. And is it not renouncing the use of reason if one fails to take thought about the end of our life? And is it not renouncing the use of reason if one does not take thought about the route? [Conv. 4.7.12]
In his middle period work On Monarchy, Dante develops a more complex picture from the same premises as those in the Banquet.96 Each individual human endeavors to acquire a certain amount of knowledge through the exercise of his reason, but what he can acquire in this fashion is only a small portion of the total knowledge accessible to all of humankind. Only the human species as a whole can lay claim to this total knowledge, ‘but it may aspire to such an achievement only on condition that it exists as a universal community, endowed with a kind of existence of its own, and having this as its special function.’ The specific goal of this collective function cannot be realized by any portion less than the entire species, ‘for it is a question of organizing things in such a way that at every moment of its existence the human race, thanks to the great number of the individual intellects of which it is made up, is continually realizing the total power of the possible intellect.’ But in arguing in this manner Dante knew that he ran counter to Averroes’ controversial assertion that the possible intellect is a single entity and that an individual human’s knowledge is no more than a share in this permanent intelligible intellect. As Gilson says, ‘The possible intellect of Averroes presented Dante with a kind of individual human race whose unity would always be realized in a concrete way, while at every moment of its duration it would actualize the whole of the knowledge accessible to humans.’
If the inbuilt goal of the human species is to know all that it is possible to know, and the essence of human nature is defined in accord with its highest function, then the total possible knowledge would already exist eternally and permanently within humans’ intellectual grasp: ‘In short, to him what is involved is a multitude, that very multitude of individuals which the universal human community will render capable of attaining its goal by imposing on it the unity which is essential to the independent possible intellect of Averroes, though humanity as conceived by Dante does not yet possess it and will, moreover, enjoy it only if it accepts the unifying hegemony of the Emperor.’ If there is no peace in the universal human community, then there can be no chance for humans to develop to the highest degree their aptitude for discovering the truth or the attainment of their divinely designed endstate.
Human in its kind occupies the middle point between corruptible and incorruptible beings; he is at the horizon of two hemispheres, corruptible in terms of his corporeal nature and incorruptible in terms of his ensouled nature. Dante thus argues that humans alone have two final goals, as well as two natures, each dimension of which corresponds to the perfection of that nature:
- Ineffable providence has therefore set human to attain two goals: the first is happiness
in this life, which consists in the exercise of his own powers and is typified by the earthly paradise. The second is the happiness of eternal life, which consists in the enjoyment of the divine countenance, which human cannot attain on his own power but only by the aid of divine illumination, and which is typified by the heavenly paradise. [Mon. 3.15]
Dante’s teaching about the twofold ultimate goal (hominis duplex finis) of human nature is skillfully married with the idea that the pursuit of wisdom and the acceptance of Christian faith can coexist in harmony: ‘These two sorts of happiness are attained by diverse means … We attain to the first by means of philosophical teaching, being faithful to it by exercising our moral and intellectual virtues. We arrive at the second by means of spiritual teaching, which transcends human reason, insofar as we exercise the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity’99 (Mon. 3.16).
Although Dante has gone to some pains to carefully separate and analyze the three types of material spirits and the three powers of the human soul, he emphasizes that human being as such has only one soul, not three souls, one aspect for each level of activity. It is ‘one soul that lives and feels and reflects inwardly upon its own nature’ (Purg. 25.75). The unitary soul is the form of its human body, and the soul’s highest part (the mind) gives direction and purpose to that whole; however, the mind is neither composed of nor attached to any bodily organ. Dante thus agrees with his scholastic teachers that, since the intellect abstracts concepts from the species of material things, it cannot itself be material. Nor can the will be material since it is able to make decisions and bring about projected actions that are themselves denuded of matter, that is, they are merely phantasms ‘acted upon’ by the active intellect. There is no part of the mind (though not, of course, no part of the soul) that can be imprinted, impressed, stamped, sealed, influenced or impeded by images from any earthly or heavenly body (see Purg. 16.67–84; Para. 7.67–72).
In his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, Dante presents a more complex twofold picture of human nature, a picture articulated through several principal figures’ voices. It is complex also because it attempts the difficult task of interweaving both an Aristotelian matter-form account of psychical stages, and an essentially Christian account, filtered through his reading of Neo-Platonism, whose core doctrine is the post-mortem attainment of a glorious new body.100 The pilgrim’s initial entry into the underworld, in the opening canto of the Inferno, presents him and the reader with a profound conceptual problem. Patrick Boyde says that it is a ghost story in reverse: ‘Instead of the ghost returning to his earthly haunts to terrify the living, it is Dante, a creature of flesh and blood, who penetrates the realms of the afterlife and alarms the souls of the newly dead who populate the shores and lower slopes of Mount Purgatory.’ Where the dead souls marvel at the miracle that has brought a living soul amongst them, Dante does not express wonder that these souls have survived as individual beings. He does not marvel until he seeks to embrace his old friend Casella, and finds that three times his arms return empty to his own breast. This startling moment of insight, when the living soul confronts the ‘double’ of the dead soul, is modeled on similar incidents in the Aeneid and the Odyssey:
- The episode is a little unsettling to the reader[s] … They suspend disbelief, and they do
not ask how the shadow bodies may be visible and yet transparent, or intangible and yet subject to torments by the tangible qualities of heat and cold. Least of all do they ask what a good Aristotelian ought to ask: if the soul is simply the structure by virtue of which a living compositum exists, and is ‘what it is’, how can it take on an independent existence at the moment when that compositum ceases to be and its structure is destroyed?
Shapiro points out that, right from the start, the writer associates his guide Virgilio’s faintness with his form as a shade (ombra); he is a member of the ‘court of the silent’. She also argues, quite plausibly, that Dante was familiar enough with Virgil’s own philosophical thinking to reproduce the Virgilian (and hence Stoic) notion of the soul as a tenuous, indistinct body-double. Good evidence for this view is found in the ancient commentary on the Aeneid by Servius, who complained that poets have routinely confused the ideas of simulacrum and shade. According to Servius, ‘the souls of the dead are simply supposed to form simulacra. And later Charon [the ferryman in Hades] refuses to take living bodies across the Styx, stressing that only the bodily species, the simulacrum can go (Aen. 6.391). Here is the text that would most forcefully stimulate a reaction by the Christian poet seeking to reconcile imagery with doctrine.’
In his early work on Dante’s philosophical attitude to these issues, Etienne Gilson pointed out that there is no precedent in Christian literature before the Divine Comedy that presents any details about the corporeal semblance of the human soul after death – modern readers just assume that such iconic imagery was always there. Shapiro gives full credit to the thirteenth-century Italian poet for this precedent: ‘It is ultimately a poetic invention pure and simple, whose success is due to its distant but enduring provenance in human imagination, and in Dante’s case, to the astounding variety of significance Dante can attach to a few principal terms.’103 The poet quite obviously felt the need to explain his assumptions about the condition of human souls after their earthly death, but he does not feel that these early infernal encounters exhaust the subject. ‘Instead’, as Boyde states, ‘a delicate trail of reminders and anticipations leads from the encounter with Casella in the second canto to the twenty-fifth canto where Statius makes a detailed and authoritative statement on the subject’104 – one that a pagan thinker could simply not lay claim to.
In the Purgatory, Canto XXV, Statius is given a treatise-length speech that agrees closely in most details with then current scholastic descriptions of the development of the human soul, analyzed into three successive forms which are recapitulated in the maturation of a single living being: ‘The active power becomes a soul, like that of a plant, except that it has not yet reached its journey’s end, while that of a plant has already come to the shore. It goes on working until it can feel and move like a sea-sponge.’ (The sea-sponge was a standard, textbook example of something with a minimal power of sensation and movement.) The third stage is partly incepted with the formation of distinctly human organs and members, but the rational soul can only be informed through the active intervention of God. Statius concurs with Aristotle’s claim that the intellect cannot be transmitted by any material species, such as sperm, nor even by an ethereal, highly tenuous pneuma. Where Aristotle had said that such an intellect alone must enter from outside, Averroes had claimed that it was an entirely separate substance, one for all humankind.105 For Averroes, each individual human participates in the cosmic pool of intellect, but it was not an essential element of the human soul, and hence not related to the individuality of each human. However, Dante knew that Averroes’ denial of personal immortality was vehemently rejected by Aquinas, and he has Statius obliquely refer to Averroes when he says, ‘this is a point that led a wiser man [Averroes] than you into error, so that in his teaching he made the possible intellect distinct from the soul, because he could not see any bodily organ assigned to the intellect’ (Purg. 25.63–6).
At this juncture, Statius deftly weaves the Genesis story of human creation into his discourse. God, he says, ‘rejoices over such a masterpiece of nature’s handiwork, and he breathes into it a breath, a spirit, which is newly created and filled with power. The spirit draws up into its own substance all that it finds active in the foetus, and becomes a single soul that lives, feels, and considers itself within itself’ (Purg. 25.70–5). In making this synoptic statement, Dante has adroitly interlinked the Biblical, Pauline and Aristotelian strands of his multiplex account into one definition. In Statius’ discourse, Dante attempts to hold together, in careful balance, two otherwise opposite views about the human soul. One, that God alone created each individual human as an individual; and the other, that each human is produced by a natural physical process of generation. Boyde says that ‘this nine-line sentence contains perhaps the single most important doctrinal statement in the Comedy, and the vehicle is worthy of the content. It holds fast to the principle that the exact word is always best … But the language of Aristotle and his philosophy is enriched with Christian elements.’ The poet plays on the deeply buried, but always immanent ambiguity in the notion of spirit (pneuma) as breath of life and the Holy Spirit as God’s actual breath, giving life.106 In this way, ‘using the simplest prepositions, conjunctions, and verbs, he reproduces Aristotle’s characterization of the nutritive, sensitive, and intellectual powers in the human psyche; and yet the phrasing and rhythm of the line, coupled with the insistence that our psyche is formally one, recalls the language of Christian marvel and paradox in the presence of the mystery of the Three Persons in One God.’
Statius’ main ideas can be reduced to this three-pieced argument, according to Boyde. (1) Major premise: agens agit sibi simile; that is, every agent causes an effect by reducing something to its likeness, and therefore every effect must resemble its cause. (2) Minor premise: human alone has two efficient causes, since he is both generated and created. (3) Conclusion: human alone has a dual nature and a double goal. Statius claims that humans have three likenesses to the Creator God, or perhaps, they have a likeness to God in three dimensions. The first likeness is the capacity for self-awareness, that is, the actualization of the human potential for God-given intellect. The second likeness is through their intrinsic freedom; since human actions are as free as the original acts of the Creator; in claiming this, he rejects deterministic explanations of humans as merely animal beings. The third likeness is through the intellect and will whose source and goal is God; the highest perfection, or ‘final cause’, consists in becoming like God in truth and goodness. In the Banquet Dante had said that ‘God is the principle of our souls and he creates them in his likeness, as the Bible testifies … Therefore, the human soul desires above all other things to return to its beginning in him’ (Conv. 4.12.14).
The natural place toward which our desire should lead does not lie anywhere on earth, not even in the long-lost Garden of Eden, but rather in heaven with God. In the Divine Comedy, ‘Dante represents the “concreated and everlasting thirst for the kingdom that is like God” as the sole and sufficient cause of his ascent through and beyond the physical heavens to the Empyrean. When man is made whole, and the whole man chooses and loves God, there is no longer any impediment to restrain his natural movement.’108 This reference to the soul’s ascent indicates Dante’s intelligent appropriation of one of the main tenets of Plotinus and Porphyry, which Dante would have known through Augustine’s City of God. The soul at birth clothes itself in successive, cumulative bodies; these cloud-like envelopes descend through the atmosphere, become heavier with thicker layers of vapor, until they are captured by the earth’s surface or dragged yet deeper into the abysses. In addition to the idea of the soul’s return to its source through spiritual discipline, Dante’s use of the concept of person accords with Augustine’s new name for this special creation, one that captures the very essence of a being with a double life and a double death.
Dante’s doctrine of dual creation and generation gives prominence to the uniqueness of each individual human being. The substantial form of each person differs so greatly that it cannot be explained in terms of material-organic properties: ‘Each one of us originates in a distinct “idea” in the Divine Mind. And this is tantamount to saying that each one of us constitutes a distinct species, distinguished by our form, rather than by the composition and dimensions of the matter in which the common form of the species is individuated.’110 In The Eloquence of the Vulgar Tongue he says that, ‘human actions proceed not from natural instinct, but from reason. And reason is so diversified in individuals in respect of differences, judgment, and choice that it almost seems as if each human rejoices in his own distinct species.’ Boyde links this line of thought with Dante’s thesis about humans’ creation and generation:
- Dante gives great prominence to the fact that man is generated before he is created, and
to the fact that the qualities and powers in his generated nature are drawn up into the spirito novo to make the single human soul. He reminds us that we have no less than four natures lying below the fifth and last, the truly human or angelic, that is, the rational nature, and that the complexion of the elements, the formative power of the father’s seed and the influences from the heavens all help to determine our temperament and aptitudes.
Perhaps the most beautiful and stunning image that Dante employs to capture the dual nature of human being is through posing this rhetorical question: ‘Don’t you realize that you are worms born to form the angelic butterfly that soars without defenses to the seat of judgment?’ (Purg. 10.124–6). As the Psalms said, in the sight of God the supplicant is a worm (vermis) not a human (Ps. 21:7); Augustine, in his commentary on St. John’s Gospel had said that all humans born in the flesh are worms, and from worms God makes angels (in John 1.13). On one rare occasion, Aristotle referred to the psychë as a butterfly (HA 551a14) and Christian funerary imagery in the early centuries sometimes depicted the soul released as a butterfly soaring toward heaven.112 The worm crawls about, it is bound to the ground, it lives in the earth, it is an immature, rudimentary being, and so forth,113 whereas the butterfly (papilia) lives in the air, it can both ascend and descend, it displays the perfection and beauty of its form, it is the most mature realization of its created being. In the great scale of being, humans can exercise both their will and their intellect in attempting to achieve their souls’ greatest perfection, but our life here on earth is preparation for what can only be truly achieved in a better world yet to come. In Boyde’s dynamic words:
- Our role is to join the two halves of the Scale of Being in our persons … Our task here
on earth is to live out a life-span which will resemble that of all generated beings, except in the crucial respect that it will be guided by the dictates of reason. We are to live secundum rationem. We are to exist as conscious ‘agents’, and not as unconscious ‘patients’ of external forces or instincts. We are to live neither as caterpillars, nor as butterflies, but as ‘winged caterpillars’.
Dante expresses through his evocative and stunning imagery some of the central features of the late medieval attitude that individuals had toward their own human nature. Detailed examination of peripheral social, religious and material achievements of human activities, including sculpted and painted portraits, the syllabus of secular studies, personal records, the care of one’s body, and so forth, provide indirect evidence about the centre in which mediaeval mentality must reside.115 What one can reconstruct from this evidence shows that individuals’ attitudes toward their own bodies and the bodies of others were governed by the dualist conception upon which every representation of the world was built. No one doubted that each individual was composed of both body and soul, or flesh and spirit. The body was perishable and ephemeral, subject to disease and decay and would return into the dust. Yet, it is called upon to reform its ways in this life with a view towards eventual resurrection, and thus must be considered the immortal component. The person is weighed down by the burden of the ‘flesh’, by the heavy, inferior properties of carnal pleasures; but at the same time, the person aspires to heavenly perfection. In accord with this twofold picture, the body was deemed to be dangerous, susceptible to temptation; from the body’s parts, especially those below the waist, emanated animal impulses. Since it was the person’s body which was susceptible to disease and infection, it was toward the body that punishments were applied to wipe away sin and blame. The soul showed through its envelope of flesh, the body being merely its dwelling place, or rather, in an architectonic image, its court or enclosure. The human body was the outer zone of a protected core, restricted in a manner similar to the domestic space around the person.
One of the clearest and most illuminating accounts of the human body as the soul’s dwelling place comes from a medical treatise by Henri de Mondeville, written in Paris in the early fourteenth century.117 Mondeville’s terms and analogies provide the key to the symbolic system of which the body was a part, a system understood not only by learned scholars, but also by the ordinary person; in fact, the author claims to have included the layman’s thoughts and language into his treatise. It is immediately apparent that the human body was seen as some kind of residence – its interior is called ‘domestic’ and its exterior ‘sylvan’, terms which resonate with allusions from romantic literature, the court and the forest. The body’s interior is like a court, for the whole body is like a large and complex building which consists of a hierarchy of spaces or rooms. There is a noble portion, a service portion, and between them a wall (the diaphragm), similar to the wall which separated the workers from other tenants. Below this wall lie the body’s ‘lower’ parts which must be subjugated and dominated by the ‘higher’ parts. The most dangerous rebellions smolder in the lower or crude parts, the place where everything superfluous and noxious is eliminated. As in a noble residence, the lower section performs a nutritive function, furnishing food to the organs located in the noble space above, the delicate organs associated with the higher functions of morality and wisdom. In each of the two sections, there is an ‘oven’: the lower oven cooks the nutritive humors and, like a great kitchen fire, it is designed for slow burning; whereas the upper oven contains a blazing fire which lights the heart with joy. Here, as in a castle’s or monastery’s chapel, the humors are distilled in the upper reaches of the flame where tongues of fire lick the air and matter is made into spirit.
The bodily house is surrounded by an enclosure as secure as the wall around any private dwelling. The body’s envelope is the ultimate enclosure, the most secret and intimate place of all, and violating it is prohibited by the strictest taboos. The human body is a fortress or hermitage, but one constantly under threat, encircled with dangerous and wicked temptations. Hence it is important that the body is kept under surveillance, especially the apertures through which devilish forces might infiltrate the boundary walls. Moral dictates urged that a guard monitor the posterns and windows of the eyes, the mouth, the ears and the nostrils, portals through which worldly delights might enter. But, of course, the soul showed through this fleshly envelope, the eyes and mouth are the windows or balconies of the soul, in Dante’s beautiful image cited above. This complex of metaphors and analogies encapsulates an important cognitive and affective transformation in the understanding that humans had of their own ‘natures’, that each person’s human nature was similar to but different than Nature in general. One especially important shape this difference took was the production or generation of the very idea of an inner private sphere.
It is at about this time that one reads about private, inner rooms in the better houses; these studies were the equivalent of monastic retreats and permitted solitary meditation. According to the Vita Nuova, Dante closeted himself in his private room so that he could weep over his lost love without being seen by others. Petrarch became so absorbed in reading Augustine’s account of the inner torment leading to his conversion that he cried aloud, struck his forehead and wrung his hands. In such a personal retreat, an individual could eliminate every distraction in order to be fully prepared to receive Christ within. The great German mystic Meister Eckhart said that, ‘so high above the world and so mighty, this little castle is impregnable to all but the gaze of the Almighty. And because he is one and simple, he enters in his oneness what is called the fortress of the soul.’ The ideal retreat, of course, was not an actual room in a building, but the deeply inward, private sphere of one’s own soul. But the leisure for contemplation and meditation was not available to everyone, only those with both the education and inclination for such an intense endeavor. Many writers in this period testify to this turning inward: ‘they looked to the future with sincere and fervent anxiety. Indications of this can be seen in the revival of ascetic orders, the success of devotional confraternities, in some of the more spectacular aspects of the Mendicants’ preaching, and above all in innumerable manifestations of personal piety.’119 The epochmaking setting in which these private retreats and interior studies find their home is the Renaissance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.