BMCR 2010.09.24

The Afterlife of the Platonic Soul: Reflections of Platonic Psychology in the Monotheistic Religions. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition 9

, , The Afterlife of the Platonic Soul: Reflections of Platonic Psychology in the Monotheistic Religions. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition 9. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009. vi, 236. ISBN 9789004176232. $147.00.


This dense and stimulating collection illustrates how the Platonic conception of the soul (outlined by the editors in the introduction) proved fruitful and worked in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinkers from the first century BCE to the Middle Ages.

As Dillon rightly points out, Philo was the first thinker in any monotheistic religion who assimilated Greek philosophical psychology. He “Hellenized the Bible.” Indeed, he saw in it a Mosaic philosophy that takes the shape of Platonism. Dillon deems him influenced by Platonism of Antiochus of Ascalon as modified by Eudorus of Alexandria. Thus, Philo adopted Stoic concepts such as that of the Logos of God, which he saw as the seat of the κόσμος νοητός, an idea that became distinctive of Middle Platonism. As for psychology, Philo related the rational soul to God and identified the irrational with blood. Like several Christian Platonists after him, he accepted Plato’s tripartition of the soul, but rejected metensomatosis. Dillon is right that although Philo maintained the immortality of the rational soul, for him “the soul of the evil man perishes on death and enjoys no personal immortality” (23).1

Van Kooten shows that Paul’s anthropology and psychology, even in terminology, depend more on Greek than on Jewish Semitic concepts. Especially his Letter to the Romans shows the Greekness of Paul’s view of human soul, the inner human being, and its relation to virtue and sin. Van Kooten offers a thorough discussion of Paul’s uses of ψυχή, showing that they are not simply drawn from the Septuagint, and of the trichotomy σῶμα, ψυχή, πνεῦμα, which he regards as a Jewish adaptation of the Greek distinction σῶμα, ψυχή, νοῦς.2 Parallels with Philo are usefully adduced. The main difference separating Paul from Philo and Greek Platonists is that Paul is less elitist: for him, the noetic/pneumatic dimension is open to all believers. Van Kooten’s account of Paul’s notion of “pneumatic body” is particularly interesting; the notion derived from the Greek idea of a spiritual vehicle and exerted a strong influence on Patristic thinkers. Van Kooten is right to argue that Paul’s concept of σάρξ is not distinctively Jewish. Indeed, I have even pointed out a close similarity on this score with a Roman Stoic, Persius, a disciple of Musonius;3 both were contemporaries of Paul.

Krausmüller deals with a problem that Patristic thinkers had to face regarding the human soul: how to maintain its immortality without accepting metensomatosis. He does so in light of the “perishability axiom,” i.e., “all that has existed in time must also perish in time.” The human soul seems to be an exception: it is created and not eternal, but can nevertheless have an eternal life. Krausmüller focuses on later thinkers, such as Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Nemesius, Aeneas of Gaza, for whom the perishability axiom had become meaningless, John of Scythopolis, and John Damascene. I would like to remark thatthe much earlier Christian philosopher Origen (well known to Basil and Nyssen) was perfectly aware of that axiom, but in his view souls, or better νόες probably already endowed with a spiritual body, were created prior to this world and time. However, he admits the mortality of the soul, not qua substance (since God created it that it might exist and if it went into non-being this would be a debacle for the Creator), but in that it is liable to the death of sin, which Origen calls “the real death.” Krausmüller is right to note (49) that “there is plenty of evidence that Gregory [of Nyssa] held no such view” as the rejection of the eternity of the soul and the denial of its coming into existence apart from the body; it is difficult, I think, to overstate Origen’s influence on Gregory.

Kavanagh focuses on the ninth-century Irish philosopher Eriugena’s psychology and its relation to the third Neoplatonic movement of return, ἐπιστροφή. This, I observe, is Eriugena’s version of the doctrine of apokatastasis, and I argue that it has deep roots in Origen and, more recently, in Ps.-Dionysius.4 Kavanagh does well to emphasize Plotinus’s impact on Eriugena and highlight Neoplatonic influence on Patristic thinkers. She is also right to remark that for Eriugena the most compelling interpretations of Scripture are allegorical and eschatological (80). This, I note, is Origen’s heritage. Indeed, I argued that Eriugena in his Periphyseon followed Origen’s Περὶ ᾽Αρχῶν both in its title and general project and in many details.5 Eriugena’s identification of the Father with Plotinus’ One and of the Son with the Logos in whom the world is created is said to be Augustinian (83); it goes further back, however, to Origen (Greogry of Nyssa , though a deeply faithful Origenian, came after Plotinus and thus assimilated all the Persons of the Trinity to Plotinus’ One). Eriugena’s Periphyseon 3.729C-730A, on how the soul continues to govern a body dispersed among the elements, is traced back to Maximus the Confessor; I add that Maximus, and probably Eriugena himself, relied heavily on Gregory of Nyssa in this respect. Origen and Gregory also provide Eriugena with the notion, discussed by Kavanagh (89-90), that the body we have now is different from that which we were intended to have and shall have at the resurrection. I agree that in the final θέωσις, for Eriugena just as for Maximus, individuality will be preserved (92); this, I remark, was already true of Origen’s eschatology.6

Adamson and Pormann offer the first English translation of a short treatise of al-Kindi, There Are Substances which Are Not Bodies. Al-Kindi, basing himself on Aristotle’s Categories, demonstrates here that incorporeal substances (“separate substances”) exist, one of which is the human soul. My competence in Arabic is unfortunately far from being enough to evaluate the reliability of the translation; what I can say is that the English is clear and the notes extensive and helpful. The authors point out some weaknesses in al-Kindi’s argument, but recognize that he is the first Muslim philosopher who provided logical proofs for the thesis that the human soul is a substance, and an incorporeal substance. Earlier Muslim theologians, on the contrary, did not accept the soul-body dualism and the immateriality of human souls. Indeed, al-Kindi, in the ninth century, is the first Muslim thinker who joined Greek philosophy to the Islamic tradition. His cultural and philosophical enterprise seems to me to be comparable, on the Christian side, to that of Origen and the best Patristic philosophers who followed him.

Netton expounds the myth of the two islands – an elaboration of Plato’s cave myth – invented by the “Brethren of Purity” (X-XI cent.). These Muslim thinkers were influenced by al-Kindi’s psychology and created a mixture of Aristotelianism, Neoplatonism, and Islamic thought that also included variousPythagorean insights. They regarded human souls as parts of the universal soul, and as such eternal and incorruptible, and identified their principal task on earth as the search for knowledge. This is what the myth aims at illustrating. Physical death is good for the soul, which can return to its homeland from the exile of the present life; the soul’s homeland is the seat of knowledge, which in this world is thus recollection. An illuminating parallel seems to me to be Gregory of Nyssa’s De anima et resurrectione, a Christian remake of Plato’s Phaedo, with an insistence on the theme of the soul’s homeland and its return to it.7 It is also very interesting that the Brethren argued for accepting both the physical and the spiritual resurrection, and here I find again a close parallel, within the Christian tradition, with Origen and his closest followers, especially Gregory of Nyssa. Precisely such a holistic conception of the resurrection allowed them to admit of the eventual apokatastasis.8

Elkaisy-Friemuth examines the theory of the soul developed by the Muslim thinker Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (+ 1209), who was influenced by Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali. He embraced the Greek notion of the immateriality of human souls, but endeavored to reconcile it with that of their corporeality, by postulating a soul composed by al-nafs and al-ruh, the latter being a mediator between al-nafs and the bodily organs and corresponding to Aristotelian πνεῦμα. This structure recalls Aristotle’s anthropology in the interpretation of Abraham Bos.9 Human al-nafs can be eternal only through possession of knowledge. Al-Razi’s study of the human soul best shows his originality as a thinker. Against Aristotle, Plato, and also Al-Farabi and Ibn-Sina, he maintained that animals, too, have a rational soul.

Hughes analyzes Jewish Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Neoplatonic psychology; among the vegetative, animal, and human/rational part of the soul, only the last will be granted immortality, and only in the case of prophets and philosophers. The souls of the wicked will perish (this reminds me of an earlier Jewish Platonist: Philo, who, as I have mentioned, maintained the same). An examination of Judah Halevi’s critique of Ibn Ezra’s psychology follows; advocating a distinctively Jewish psychology, he claimed that only Scripture, not Greco-Arabic philosophy, can teach the truth on the soul.

Leaman explores how Moses Maimonides worked with references to the soul and its eschatological destiny found in the Talmud. Maimonides (like Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Eriugena, and other Christian thinkers who also shared Gen 1:26-27, I observe) identified the “image of God” in the human being, not with the body, but with the faculty of thinking. However, a sharp dichotomy is detected, and denounced, between Maimonides’ philosophical view of the soul (Aristotelian) and his religious view, in which he also maintained the Judaic principle of the resurrection of the body, with otherworldly rewards or punishments. Leaman is not convinced that the former is Maimonides’ own view and the latter is merely that which he expressed in more popular works.

Aquinas reconciled philosophy and religion. Taylor follows the line of those who see the positive value of Averroes’ philosophy to the development of Aquinas’ thought and offer a reassessment of Aquinas’ criticism of Averroes. He convincingly argues that Aquinas did not fully understand Averroes’ thought on the Agent Intellect: Aquinas’ critique, based on his principle of intrinsic formal cause, works in the Aristotelian framework conceived by him, but Averroes also imported insights from Themistius, the Neoplatonist who commented on Aristotle. On the other hand, Quinn points out that Aquinas also used Platonic insights, especially to explain how human souls function independently of the senses in the visio Dei ( Verit. 13.3).

This is a fascinating exploration in the reception of Platonic psychology in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As for Christianity in particular, this book provides valuable contributions to Patristic philosophy, a discipline that still requires many major and systematical investigations.


1. For the reason why Christian philosophers who knew Philo well and shared much with him, such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, nevertheless maintained that not even the souls of the wicked will perish, see my “Philosophical Allegoresis of Scripture in Philo and Its Legacy in Gregory of Nyssa,” Studia Philonica Annual 20 (2008) 55-99.

2. For a similar thesis see my “Tricotomia,” in Enciclopedia Filosofica, ed. Virgilio Melchiorre (Milan: Bompiani/Centro di Studi Filosofici di Gallarate, 2006) 12: 11772-11776.

3. Cf. my Stoici Romani Minori (Milan: Bompiani, 2008) 1361-1515.

4. In a forthcoming monograph on the Christian doctrine of apokatastasis.

5. In “Origen, Patristic Philosophy, and Christian Platonism,” Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 217-263.

6. Ilaria Ramelli, “Deification/Theosis,” forthcoming in EBR: Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010).

7. See my Gregorio di Nissa Sull’Anima e la Resurrezione (Milan: Bompiani/Catholic University, 2007) and the reviews by Panayiotis Tzamalikos, Vigiliae Christianae 62 (2008) 515-523, and Mark Edwards, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 60 (2009) 764-765.

8. As I argued in “Origen’s Exegesis of Jeremiah: Resurrection Announced throughout the Bible and its Twofold Conception,” Augustinianum 48 (2008) 59-78.

9. The Soul and its Instrumental Body (Leiden: Brill, 2003); idem-Rein Ferwerda, Aristotle, On the Life-Bearing Spirit (De spiritu) (Leiden: Brill, 2008).