The Immortality of the Soul In Plato’s “Republic” & “Laws”

Dryptosaurus Cope
As the philosophical question par excellence, the question of the immortality of the soul in Plato’s Republic is raised in conjunction with the rewards offered for living a just and a virtuous life. As an extenuating issue, the immortality of the soul derives its place in Plato’s discussion of the establishment of the Republic from the characteristics most essential to a consistent outcome of the philosophical/political experiment, and is no mere desultory component in the machinery of the well-governed state.

The characteristics most essential to the Republic are first, the fulfillment of the primary wants of mankind, which is an economic concern; second, the requirement of the proper sort of education that reveals the True and the Good for the kind of life most proper to the soul of men; third, the essential character of justice revealed as a consequent of the well-governed society in its totality; that is, justice, as a good in-and-of-itself, crowns the character of the state, which is the practice of, or carrying out of the per se principle of justice.

The well-governed society has an analogical correlate in the well-governed soul; its character, like that of the soul, is neither the product of an arbitrary decision, democratic arbitration, nor derived from existing models of government; the well-governed society operates only on the principles of reason, from which its character has been deduced.

The way or manner of living justly and virtuously within the confines of the state allows individuals to pursue the happy life collectively, and possibly achieve the happy life as a common goal. As Plato observes, the way in which men lives their lives makes them happy or unhappy, irrespective of circumstances. The accidental attributes of men’s lives, such as how they are benefited or rewarded according to the shape of external forces, are not what make for an unhappy or happy life — such external forces are put out of play when the life of virtue, like justice, is pursued as an end-in-itself.

Plato’s study of the character of the soul in relation to the nature of justice and virtue proceeds along similar lines, and concludes with the supposition that, like justice and virtue, when the soul is studied free of its material manifestations, viz., its association with the body, and the things of the body, its essential character is brought into focus far more clearly (611b).

Like the nature of individual constituents of a polis, the nature of the individual human soul may be investigated; this, however, does not suit Plato’s considerations of justice as it relates to the soul. As justice pertains less to the nature of the individual member of a society than to the whole of a society, so too does the character of the soul, which, in a state free of accidental associations, requires an analogical, rather than inductive strategy in order to be understood.

As the true nature of justice is not to be understood in terms of the reputation that it has acquired in the hands of such persons as Thrasymachus, likewise the soul, as Plato states, is not to be understood according to the life of the senses, or in terms of the goods and evils that collect around it, nor in terms of a “multicolored variety and unlikeness or that which differs from itself” (611a).

If the soul, as Plato argues, is an immortal entity, then it must be considered per se, as the nature of justice is considered per se, according to philosophic reason. If the soul is considered as finite and mortal, then an anthropological consideration of individual souls, with the goods and evils they collect in life, would be sufficient to account for soul as a material phenomenon, as something akin to personality or predilections, rather than something requiring a metaphysical foundation.

This, however, is not Plato’s method any more so than his methodic treatment of the question of the nature of justice stops with the early conclusion that justice is “benefiting one’s friends and harming one’s enemies.” Accordingly, Plato’s deliberation on the question of the soul’s immortality is no mere studied device to persuade people to adopt the just and virtuous life and reject the life of injustice and vice.

Because the per se nature of the soul is not self-evident, indeed no more so than the plan of the just society is obvious to the man in the street, it acts as a mirror of the form of justice to whatever degree its bearer acts in accordance with the equally shadowy ideal of the virtuous life.

As the life of virtue, which is lived for its own sake, brings about the best end of the rational soul in the afterlife, so too does the just life most accurately reflect its analogical relation to justice, which undergoes neither alteration nor change according to external material circumstances.

The counter-intuitive argument presented in the Republic, to the effect that the individual man out of joint with the popular pursuit of selfish desires and inclinations is, in the final analysis, happier and better rewarded than those who do not resist their desires and inclinations, argues for the necessity of presupposing the immortality of the soul.

If the belief in the immortality of the soul is mediated or decided only by the existing tradition that maintains that it is immortal, then what is to prevent one from arguing crab-wise that the conception of justice maintained by the existing tradition, such as “giving back what is owed,” is not valid on the grounds that it satisfies what is required of it by the tradition, i.e., belief? The per se character of justice, virtue, and the immortal soul land on shaky epistemological grounds if what is employed as a valid line of reasoning for one, such as justice, is refused as a valid line of reasoning for another.

Throughout the Republic, Plato emphasizes that neither justice, virtue, nor the soul can be rightly understood according to the received opinions about them, nor according to how what is called just or virtuous, or what the soul is, seem to differ according to different times and places, in which opportunity takes precedence over strictly rational considerations.

Plato advances an argument in book ten of the Republic regarding how the immortal nature of the soul is brought to light against the claim that “a thing [i.e., the soul] is destroyed by the badness proper to something else when it is not destroyed by its own” (609d; brackets mine). Clearly, what Plato argues is that what exists per se cannot be corrupted per accidens, and remains unchanged in its essential nature, irrespective of whether “something that has an evil… makes it bad” (609b).

What exists as an evil or corruption in a thing, such as sickness in a body, or blight in the grain, “injustice, licentiousness, cowardice, and lack of learning” (ibid.) in the soul, either destroys, or it does not. The body exists materially, and is destroyed materially; licentiousness, cowardice, and all other vices that pertain to the soul’s pursuit of its desires and inclinations manifest themselves in physical ways as well; the soul itself, however, does not cease to be what it is essentially by the evils that attach to it.

The evils implanted in the soul are proper to the soul in the same way as rottenness is an evil proper to food; but Plato is clear on the point that maintaining that the corruption of one thing comes from something that is not essentially a part of that thing is an ontological fallacy:

…since the body is one thing, and food another, we’ll never judge that the body is destroyed by the badness of food… by the same argument, if the body’s evil doesn’t cause an evil in the soul that is proper to the soul, we’ll never judge that the soul, in the absence of its own particular evil, is destroyed by the evil of something else… We mustn’t say that the soul is even close to being destroyed by these things until someone shows us that these conditions of the body [such as disease, or indeed affections of the soul such as licentiousness, cowardice, and injustice] make the soul more unjust and more impious (609e-610b).

The preceding argument can be extended to anything, including the nature of the republic itself. The corruption of a just state founded on rational principles, such as that formulated by Plato in the Republic, comes about according to some evil implicit in itself, such as injustice, which is a badness external to it, rather than something appointed to destroy it. Justice itself, as an object of philosophic reason, like the soul itself, must always be, and cannot undergo corruption or dissolution.

The state can be corrupted by an evil present in the polis, even while calling itself just; and by that same token, the body can be corrupted while the soul is immune to the evils that dissolve the body. But justice itself, like the number of souls (611a), cannot be made more or less just, or it would differ from itself, which is a logical impossibility; or, according to the same line of reasoning, Plato maintains that if “anything immortal is increased… the increase would have to come from the mortal, and then everything would end up being immortal” (ibid).

In short, the question of the immortality of the soul in Plato’s Republic is answered in a way that does not permit the casual reader to disengage the arguments for immortality from the preceding arguments in the dialogue that lead up to the formulation of the nature of justice, and the explication of the just and virtuous life as a logical corollary. Socrates’ admission that we can know nothing about the nature of the soul may call into question those parts of the dialogue based on the understanding of the soul, such as where the education proper to the citizens of the polis is concerned.

However, the discussion of the immortality of the soul, particularly in the “myth of Er,” serves the dual purpose of causing persons of an un-philosophic nature to worry over the state of their soul in the next life, and causing philosophers to turn and address the question of the soul, rather than conclude that it has been resolved. The “myth of Er” is clear on the point that fulfilling one’s duty to the republic is not sufficient for Plato’s version of salvation and damnation in the next life.

Plato writes that unless one has strained every nerve through philosophic contemplation here on earth, the voyage into the next life will be profitless. The republican nature of the well-governed state corroborates Plato’s account of the soul throughout the Republic; hence, the conclusion that the well-governed state is a just state founded on rational principles, and that the soul and its immortality, upon which the former rests, is the necessary foundation for the just state.

In Plato’s dialogue the Laws, the state, if it is to be a just state, must be a true polity; thus, democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny, as opposed to a republic, are all undesirable as forms of governance in light of the fact that they are class states; and due also to the fact that their laws are passed for the good and benefit of particular classes, rather than for the good and benefit of the whole state. States that hold to such laws, according to Plato, are not true polities, but rather parties; consequently, their conception of justice is ultimately without meaning.

Plato’s definition of the well-legislated state in the Laws derives from his discussion of the character of the truest form of polity in the Republic. The state exists, then, not for the good of any one class of men, but for the leading of the happy life. In the Laws, Plato renews in unambiguous terms his conviction as to the importance of the soul, and the importance of the sort of governance proper to the soul (726a-728a). According to Plato, the life lived according to virtue, the happy life, is inconceivable apart from the well-being and just administration of the polis.

When Plato takes up the issue of the immortality of the soul in book five of the Laws, he does so not as if he were making a casual perusal of the subject, but as a necessary philosophic consequent to the project of establishing laws and customs appropriate to the character of the best kind of polis. Even though, in the Laws, Plato replaces the rule of the philosopher kings from the Republic with the rule of law, the role of the concept of the immortality of the soul in the dialogue remains consistent with the role of the arguments put forth for the soul’s immortality in the Republic.

The minor amount of space given to the subject of the honoring of the soul in the Laws ought not be taken for a measure of the importance of the issue to Plato’s philosophic investigation of the laws of the state, as Plato had previously addressed the same subject, albeit in differing thematic contexts, in previous dialogues, such as the Phadeo and the Republic. The Athenian stranger’s treatment of the various subjects in book five of the Laws is discursive, and seem to be addressed not systematically, but taken up severally, and dealt with as they occur to him. Book five, which early on contains a very brief discussion of importance of the soul may thus be read as a preamble to the unfolding of the grand, and equally discursive code of legislation that follows it.

Plato’s treatment of the subject of the soul and the proper way that it should be honored is a heavily weighted theme throughout the Laws. The question of the soul’s immortality, however, only receives passing mention by comparison. One mention of the soul’s immortality comes in book five of the Laws, and this in regard to men’s uncertainty as to the nature of the life to come:

Nor does he do it [the soul] any honor if he thinks that life is a good thing no matter what the cost. This too dishonors his soul, because he surrenders to its fancy that everything in the next world is an evil, whereas he should resist the thought and enlighten his soul by demonstrating that he does not really know whether our encounter with the gods in the next world may not be in fact the best thing that ever happen to us (727b; brackets mine).

One point that deserves mention in this passage is that the man who does not know whether the next world will be evil or good is someone neither philosophically, nor theologically minded. The philosopher, as well as the theologian may very well have much to say on the subject of the afterlife; indeed, more than the person who stakes all on the present life alone. One can enlighten one’s soul in terms of acknowledging the fact that one does not know what the nature of the life to come will be; one can also enlighten one’s own soul in terms of investigating into the nature of the life to come; taking the converse of the beliefs of the ignorant person who too highly values the present life because it is the only one they have experience of, this last point is implicit in the passage quoted above.

The discussion of the immortality of the soul in the Laws is, needless to say, not as fully developed as the discussion that we find in the Republic. That is not to say that a discussion of the immortality of the soul in the Laws, on par with that what we find in the Republic, would be out of place, as Plato’s favored themes of education and the life of virtue, both of which refer to the well-governed soul, figure in the philosophical apparatus of the Laws with as much weight as in the Republic. The rule of law does not insuperably displace the doctrine of the soul’s immortality, as Plato concludes book twelve of the Laws with a final notice on the importance of theology in relation to the ordering of the state, and choosing of its leaders and legislators:

No mortal can ever attain a truly religious outlook without risk of relapse unless he grasps the two doctrines we’re now discussing: first, that the soul is far older than any created thing, and that it is immortal and controls the entire world of matter; and second… that reason is the supreme power among the heavenly bodies… No one who is unable to acquire these insights and rise above the level of the ordinary virtues will ever be good enough to govern an entire state, but only to assist government carried on by others (967c-968a).

This passage indicates that although the question of the immortality of the soul does not figure heavily in the dialogue as a theme, its importance in relation to the meta-theme, i.e., the success of the well-legislated state, can be affirmed with confidence. The leaders and legislators of the state are absolutely essential to political life, and must be individuals of a far higher caliber than any other member of the state.

In terms of Plato’s conception of the state, its laws, and the nature of its leaders, any point is open to disagreement and dispute from any quarter; but in terms of philosophical and rhetorical consistency, Plato’s discussion of the soul’s immortality in the Laws is nevertheless significant because the just state depends on it. How crucial the formulation of the immortality of the soul in the Laws turns out to be depends not so much on the whether Plato “proves” the immortality of the soul— and he offers no such proof— but on the fact that the nature of the just state demands the presupposition of the soul’s immortality.

Review of “Religion: If There Is No God” by Leszek Kolakowski

In his book, Religion: If There Is No God, Leszek Kolakowski addresses large theological problems such as Evil, the nature of God, mystical experience and the language of the sacred are addressed by juxtaposing philosophical and ideological (as opposed to anthropological) ideas in a type of point/counterpoint comparison and discussion.

Treating of these philosophies in such a way provides a condensed historical representation of the great effort and curiosity that has always gathered round such problematic issues. These dialogues are important because they attempt to answer questions that perpetually plague the minds and souls of men. These questions include “Why am I here, what is my purpose, are humans alone, or unique, in the universe and how did this all come to be?” Kolakowski demonstrates the incompatibility of the answers given to these questions by the skeptically minded, as opposed to the religiously minded, and he also remarks upon the traditional resistance on both sides of the argument to bend to the will or logic of the other. Kolakowski concludes that from these philosophical and religious conflicts have arisen many illuminating responses that go toward providing logical, as well as moving responses to the large questions and problems that flood religious and scientific discourse.

Chapter one discusses the concept of theodicy and the different philosophies that spring from the problem of evil, pain and suffering as experienced by humans, as well as other members of the animal kingdom. The philosophers mentioned in conjunction with the concept of theodicy include most notably the Epicureans, Leibniz, Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, and others. God’s essence and attributes range (depending on the philosophy) from necessary and benevolent to indifferent, distant, arbitrary and evil. In opposition to humans who find themselves subject to the ready-made laws of God, that God should be bound by his own laws does not necessarily put limitations on Him, as he, by definition, embodies those laws; that is, He not only creates them, but is them as well. Kolakowski suggests that the only way to reconcile the idea that God’s way is the right way with the evil that is ever-present in the world, is to trust that God’s way is the right way. To believe that out of all the possible worlds God could have created, this was the most perfect, or would result in bringing about the most good, requires more than empirical or logical proof. Proof that God has performed the calculation necessary for bringing about the greatest good is not available to the human understanding — to reach this conclusion one must have faith (more so moral than intellectual) that this is indeed the best of all possible worlds.

The subject of faith is investigated further in chapters two and three. The God of reasoners is reached in a decidedly different fashion than the God of believers or devotees. Through logical proofs found in such sources as Aquinas, Anselm, Descartes, Kant, and others, Kolakowski plots the courses taken by philosophers who have tried to devise a path that leads from this world to God, using as their primary stepping stone reason, as opposed to believers who use “humility, repentance, recognition of one’s own sinfulness and impotence.” Proofs for the existence of God, whether cosmological or ontological, eventually break down under the scrutiny of skepticism due to man’s lack of experience which such stuff as infinity, perfection, or first causes. Paradoxically, the lack of knowledge in such areas often times is the crux of the argument.

How does one trace a line from the corrupt effect (humans and their imperfectness), back to a cause that is completely different and divine in nature? First one must make the assumption that indeed human life is finite and insignificant, which leads one to understand the possibility of the infinite. Or if the converse direction is taken, humans understanding God as a necessary being are made able to see their lives as contingent. The difficulties in making truth statements or proposing an Absolute truth when trying to sway the disbeliever are insurmountable. In the face of empirical or scientific analysis of the possibilities of God, the scientific mind creates a different God than the one of the Bible, and this positioning of one God against another fails to produce converts to either side. It is for these reasons that reason alone does not create belief, and to provide a portion of the missing equation Kolakowskiy turns to the mystics.

Contrary to the logician’s method of speculating on the nature of God by reasoning from their subjective experience, the mystic’s understanding both begins and ends with God, as the mystic in no way initiates their understanding or their experience of the divine. In moments of ecstasy the mystic losses all sense of self, including their power over the will; the mystic’s will is replaced by God’s, and so the union with, or abduction by God is a participation of the mystic with the infinite. These moments, Kolakowski suggests, are what give a foundation to religion and make up what is universal in religion.

The ramifications of the mystical experience for the world of the ordinary believer are unsettling, even more significant is the threat they represent to the Church. The Church and its hierarchy must stand apart from the mystics and their experience. Even though the mystic(s) may act in accordance with a different moral line, one that is divergent from the prescribed one of the church, the Church must govern over them. Those that have undergone a mystical experience desire to experience only this state of grace, forsaking the traditional ways of trying to obtain a closeness with God, such as taking sacrament or making confession. Lastly, the mystics that belong to the body of the Church no longer need an intermediary and become dangerous to the meticulously fashioned hierarchy when the adherence to traditional values and deferment to religious superiors becomes a trite substitute for God.
Unlike the skeptic mind, discussed in the previous chapter, the mystic does not find himself deserving of the knowledge gained by his experience. The mystic does not need to go about creating a syllogism to prove the existence of God; for the mystic, this would be a ridiculous past time — meaningless compared to the real knowledge they have first hand. Indeed, anything that takes them away from the absorption or decimation of their own will by God becomes repulsive. The body is one such obstacle and is often an object of repulsion that is greatly chastised and maligned.

The mystic can only affirm his existence when placing it in relation to God and to stand apart, is not really to stand at all; without God there is no meaning, and no reality. And this harkens back to proofs carefully created to put our existence and experience of the world into some larger context. Descartes’ reasoning touches on this in his Meditations: he could not have proven his own existence if God had not supplied him with the clear and distinct idea that a being more noble and perfect then he exists. The mystic may forgo the reasoning to gain the same conclusions.

Kolakowski deals with the problems with mystical and sacred language in chapters three and five. The problem is simply that the words used to describe religious experience or religious understanding must often break down to metaphors, or at the very least they often lack a succinctness, that is not able to correctly or fully express religious feeling or ideas. It is only through participating in the sacred that one may understand what is meant by such language, and the secular empiricist has no way to interpret this type of language when standing outside of its religious context. The semantics used in religious language are in line with a specific psychological perception. Kolakowski writes,

“Religion is not a set of proposions, it is the realm of worship wherein understanding, knowledge, the feeling of participation in the ultimate reality…and moral commitment appear as a single act, whose subsequent segregation into separate classes of metaphysical, moral and other assertions might be useful but is bound to distort the sense of the original act of worship.”

This serves the subject of sacred language as well. To break this religious or sacred language down and turn it inside out does not produce a greater understanding, but segments both the content and the intent of the language. The perception of this language as it is initially presented, that is, intact, is part of the moral act. To dissect it would completely miss the point. Kolakowski does not hold up sacred language as being superior to cut and dry logical proofs but demonstrates the unbridgeable difference in between the two when subjects like God or the sacred are being described or written of.

Kolakowski concludes the book with an analyses of the division between the skeptic and believer, and surmises that the two types of philosophy are irreconcilable because they each have different criteria for determining the value and validity of experience and reason. Both make significant contributions to theology and the world of thought in general, but however significant their arguments may be, they are each unable to sway the opinions of the other. These separate groups of philosophy may then be able to regulate each other’s ideology by trying to refute the other, solidify the contrary groups position, and in turn make them consistent. Kolakowski suggests that new forms of truth in debate may be reached: the believer will eventually know that they are dealing with a skeptic and say that they have no irrefutable proof of what it is they are trying to convince the other of, and the skeptic may in turn say they have no real understanding of the position of the believer, and both can, to a degree, come to terms in this way. Kolakowski in placing the two types of arguments against each other, that is one answering the other and vice-versa strains out the value of each statement. The method and resources for these two groups cannot be any more opposed than they are, however, the conclusions that are reached are often similar in that, the existence of a creative/necessary being, the presence of evil in the world, and the drive for understanding of these phenomena cannot reasonably or religiously be denied. While certainly there is a cleft between the two groups there is a meeting in the human curiosity and capacity for seeking out answers to questions that perplex the human mind.

Spinoza & Leibniz on the Nature of God

In his Ethics, Spinoza argues that substance is that which is independent of all contingent properties or accidental attributes. As something that neither comes into being nor passes out of existence, substance is something that necessarily is, and must be independent of necessity.

According to Spinoza’s account of substance, “thought” and “extension” are two fundamental properties, or qualities of substance. Spinoza extends his account of the nature of substance to the question of the nature of God, inquiring as to whether God, as an incorporeal entity, can create material things. According to the division of substances into two types, thought and extension, Spinoza maintains that no two substances can possess the same nature or attribute, or they would necessarily be the same thing. Nor, Spinoza adds, can one substance be the cause of another, for there again, the substance causing and the substance caused would be identical.

Thus, Spinoza argues that substance must be self-caused because existence, by definition, belongs to the nature of substance. The properties of being “eternal” and “infinite” also belong to the nature of substance, as the existence of substance is contingent upon nothing other than itself. If substance were finite, then it must be caused; but this is not the case, so substance must be a single infinite thing. According to Spinoza, the more reality a thing has, the more attributes it has; hence, substance, being a single thing, must possess all infinite attributes.

If it is granted that substance is simple, eternal, and infinite, then it follows that there is no other substance but God. As the only substance, God possesses all attributes infinitely and eternally. Accordingly, from the necessity of the divine nature, there must come an infinite number of attributes, expressed in an infinite number of ways. As there are only two types of substance— thought and extension— then it follows that everything that is possible is actual and necessary.

God, according to Spinoza, is the efficient cause of all things per se, or through Himself, rather than per accidens, or through secondary causes. God is free in the ultimate sense, constrained under no force external to Himself. Human beings, on the other hand, do not possess the same freedom as God, but only believe ourselves to be free agents and the executers of our actions. Because God is the only free being, human beings are necessarily determined beings. As there is no substance but God, it follows that there is no mode of the single substance that determines itself. According to the rule of sufficient reason, a thing determined by God cannot be otherwise, or it would not be possible; and a thing could not be possible if it were not otherwise.

In his Discourse, Leibniz takes issue with the fact that Spinoza denies God a moral nature. According to Spinoza, human beings are not free to choose, and are therefore not possessors of a moral nature. By the same token, God, as the determiner of all things possible, and manifestation of all things actual, is the only free being as such; but God’s freedom is not such that some choice is involved in what is actualized, since there is nothing which is not possible which is not actual.

For example, goodness, as an attribute of the nature of God, would only serve to restrict the infinite power of God, which is not possible, since there is no other substance but God, and thus no delimitation in the nature of God whatever. According to Leibniz, God is infinite and is lacking no possible perfection. However, Leibniz maintains that “Goodness” is perfection, and so to deny this attribute to God’s nature would be to somehow place a limitation on God’s perfection. Things are not good because God loves them, but because they are good in themselves, and thus perfect in terms of God’s infinite creative power. It is necessary for Leibniz to show that the world that exists is the best of all possible worlds— or that the world that exists lacks no possible perfections.

Like Spinoza’s God, which is pure intellect, Leibniz maintains that the best possible world is created of intellects, or finite substances (monads). As a purely intellectual being, God cannot create anything but intellects; hence, the creation, under Leibniz’s system, of an infinity of minds begets an infinity of perspectives. “Minds,” according to Leibniz, means anything constituted with the faculty of perception, and everything that God creates, perceives. The physical world is therefore a vast perceiver of sorts that is harmonized together in its respective perceptions. Discord of perceptions amongst what God creates would not be in accordance with his infinite perfection, and thus all harmonized perceptions beget in turn the observable uniformity in the laws of nature.

Because God, using the fewest number of principles, creates the infinite of perspectives in nature, and the world that God creates is the best of all possible worlds, monads, being substances, never come or go out of existence, and are each unto themselves like a complete world. Like an infinity of mirrors of God, each monad reflects the entire universe from its particular perspective. As we observed, God has made the best of all possible worlds, and accordingly, God wills the most good possible. Leibniz overturns Spinoza’s amoral universe by noticing that any being possessed of a rational intellectual nature must, like God, have a free nature, and this means that every creature with a rational intellectual must be a freely choosing moral being.

It is logically impossible to bring about the greatest good without freely choosing moral beings, and thus Leibniz introduces his conception of theodicy to account for the existence of evil in the world. If every event and action were determined by God, anything He creates, whether possessed of an intellectual nature or not, would be a kind of puppet rather than a free agent. Because God, in order to bring about the maximal good in the best of all possible worlds, creates beings that are free moral agents, absolves Himself of responsibility for the evil that exists in the world. Leibniz notes, however, that even what appears to be evil is actually, in the end, turned to good, and is thus an evil necessary to bring about the maximal good in the created world.

On the Evolution of the Soul: Descartes Versus Aristotle & St. Thomas Aquinas



In his Discourse on the Method of 1637, Descartes ridicules the Aristotelian/Thomist maxim, “there is nothing in the intellect that is not previously in the senses.” Descartes intended to expose the logical absurdities that follow from giving sense perception priority in the rational soul’s operation of understanding:

The reason for this is that they never raise their minds above things which can be perceived by the senses: they are so used to thinking of things only by imagining them (a way of thinking specially suited to material things) that whatever is unimaginable seems to them unintelligible. This is sufficiently obvious from the fact that even the scholastic philosophers take it as a maxim there is nothing in the intellect which has not previously been in the senses [Ce qui est assez manifeste de ce que mesme les Philosophes tienent pour maxime, dans les Escholes, qu’il n’y a rien dans l’entendement qui n’ait premierement este dan le sens]; yet it is certain that the ideas of God and the soul have never been in the senses.

According to Descartes, the soul knows neither itself, nor God through sense images because it is not the substantial form of the human body— certainly not in the Aristotelian/Scholastic sense of the soul as the form of the body. Descartes’ methodological doubt furnishes him with the requisite conditions for dispensing with the Aristotelian theory of knowledge that asserts the primacy of sense images in matters of rational intelligibility. If the soul knows nothing through sense-images, the only available avenue for indubitable knowledge of the existence of God and the soul is via “separation of the mind from the senses” [abducere mentem a sensibus] to discover the innate knowledge of the existence of God and the separabilty of the mind from the body.

Like his Regulae, Descartes’ Meditations become intelligible when read as a conversation with Aristotle and his Scholastic descendents, such as Scotus, Ockham, and above all, Aquinas. When Descartes broaches the question of the nature of the soul in his prefatory letter to the Sorbonne in the Meditations, he has nothing other than the opening of Aristotle’s De anima in mind, writing, “As regards the soul, many people have considered that it is not easy to discover [non facile investigari] its nature…” Aristotle’s procedure for inquiring into the soul in De anima begins with what is perceptible and moves to the underlying principle or mechanism that makes objects intelligible to the mind: “…in the order of investigation the question of what an agent does [movement] precedes the question, what enables it [i.e., the soul] to do what it does.”

The completely separable and independent essence of the mind, Descartes argues, involves two modifications of the Aristotelian/Thomistic account of man as a rational animal. First, Descartes rejects the Aristotelian/Thomistic conception of the rational soul, whose mode of understanding is “through an intelligible species,” or “turning toward phantasms” [se ad phantasmata)]. Second, Descartes rejects the Aristotelian/Thomistic conception of the substantial union of rational soul and body by denying not only the verity of the knowledge of species gained through the senses, but also entertaining the possible non-existence of all bodies. The two latter steps are necessary for Descartes to affirm the superior epistemological status of “the thinking thing” [res cogitans] over extended things [res extensia]. Only the “thinking thing” distinguishes the true from the false and uncovers the ontology of the soul in an intuitive, self-reflexive act (Descartes’ cogito). Only when the mind is free of sensory interference can it apprehend the innately contained ideas of the existence of God and the separability of the mind from the body.

On the contrary, Aristotle and Thomas assert that the soul is the mover of the body. The soul/mind, according to Descartes, is not responsible for the movement of the body; rather, the mind’s only operation is thinking. That is the reason why, after rejecting the Aristotelian/Thomistic account of the soul as the mover of the body, Descartes’ chief problem in the Meditations is demonstrating how the soul or mind is connected to the body. The circulatory system, Descartes argues, is responsible for the movements of the body; the mind is only aware of the body in respect to the sensation of pain, or other corporeal necessities, such as the body’s sensation of hunger or thirst. Aside from the rational mind’s embodiment in the human animal, the mind, so to speak, owes nothing to the body, and vice-versa. Hence, the mind, Descartes, argues, has no need of the bodily senses to grasp the essential nature of objects. The senses do not think, only the mind does. Thus, the mind’s innate ideas of concepts such as the existence of God, the ego, or the essence of wax need no corresponding tie to objects in the material world (which, for Descartes, may not even exist). Accordingly, the ego’s act of existence cannot be said to depend on the beginning or end of the body to which it is somehow attached. The very nature of the Cartesian mind is found through foundational ideas that have no exact correlative in the material world, such as the existence of God and the separability of the mind from the body.

Like Descartes, Thomas Aquinas’ obligation to abide by the Catholic Church’s dogma of the soul’s immortality required demonstrating that the soul, as the form of the human body, is separable from the body. Reckoning Christian doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy necessitated Thomas’ modification to Aristotle’s account of the soul in De anima. Because the question of the immortality of the intellective soul is left open in the Aristotelian account, Thomas argues for the substantiality of the rational soul per se. On the other hand, Descartes’ theory of cognition presupposes the body and senses as being obstacles to the mind’s knowledge of the truth. The mind can continue all of its cognitive operations independent of any contribution from the body’s sense organs because the objects of cognition do not come without, but from within the mind (“only the mind inspects” [inspectum mentus; or alternately, sed solius mentis inspectio]). Descartes seeks to demonstrate that the mind alone understands, and that only knowledge contained innately in the mind is indubitable. Confirmation of this fact is stated explicitly by Descartes: “…it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it.” The “soul as the form of the body” [anima corporis forma] of Aristotle and his Scholastics descendents is eradicated by the first act of Cartesian doubt— calling the reliability of the senses into question. The only operation of the Cartesian mind, thinking, does not require a substantial union with a particular kind of body, or a body at all. In spite of his claim that the soul forms a substantial union with the body, Descartes broke the substantial union.



To gain the commendation of the Sorbonne for his Meditations, Descartes required a subtle method of aligning his ostensibly anti-Aristotelian conception of God and the human soul with the views upheld by the conservative Aristotelians of the Sorbonne faculty:

…I have noticed both that you and all other theologians assert that the existence of God is capable of proof by natural reason, and also that the inference from Holy Scripture is that the knowledge [cognitional] of God is easier to acquire than the knowledge we have of many created things…”

Descartes presents his conception of man’s knowledge of God’s existence and the immortality of the soul in an attempt to persuade the theologians that his metaphysics does not diverge from the main topics of prior systems, but serves to reckon together and codify all “arguments that have been put forward on these issues by the great men.” Descartes praises his predecessor’s arguments as having “the force of demonstrations.” But Descartes’ claim of upholding orthodoxy in his dedicatory letter should be considered further alongside the claim he makes in his Letter to Voetius. In his letter, Descartes argues that Thomas’ proofs for the existence of God have all been found to contain invalid conclusions, and are therefore inconclusive, if not faulty proofs. If anyone is guilty of Atheism, Descartes declares, Thomas is the more culpable, pointing out that Thomas’ proofs for the existence of God have been disproven, whereas his never can be.

In his prefatory letter to the Sorbonne, Descartes strategically combines established doctrines of the Church with the traditional Scholastic endeavor to generate proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. However, in his Meditations, he ingeniously modifies the purpose of speculative philosophy and natural theology to support the practical ends of science. It is noteworthy that the Sorbonne letter only contains one passing mention of science, when in fact, the purpose of the Meditations is an attempt to establish a firm foundation upon which to raise the sciences.
Because Descartes’ physics derives entirely from his metaphysics, he is able to sidestep the fact that his speculative metaphysics overturns the speculative physics of Aristotle. The two main points Descartes addresses in his dedicatory epistle to the Meditations are proving the existence of God and demonstrating the immortality of the soul. He frames the latter problems in terms of the historical search for definitive philosophic proofs. If the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are provable, then atheism and religious skepticism can be combated with the assurance of victory. Descartes’ project of providing a firm metaphysical foundation for the sciences is carried out according to the established template of the Scholastic philosophers, and consists of a synthesis of speculative metaphysics and Christian theology. But by taking a reductionist approach to the history of philosophy and, indeed, to the act of philosophizing itself, Descartes is able to critique and sweep aside the writings of his Scholastic predecessors with his claims of logical soundness and indubitability for his proofs in the Meditations.
Descartes’ conception of one universal science, whose “roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences…,” requires that the method used for augmenting the sciences be single, in order for truth to be demonstrated in a systematic order. The indemonstrability of Aristotle’s first principles for reasoning is transformed, under the auspices of the Cartesian method, into the test of indubitability for arriving at epistemological certainty in derived propositions. Descartes’ synthesis of speculative metaphysics and Christian theology differs from the Scholastic’s metaphysics and theology in the respect that the aim of discovering a method to derive indubitable metaphysical principles to augment the sciences was never present for Scholastic philosophers. For Descartes, the theological imperative to demonstrate the existence of God and the immortality of the soul developed out of a rationale opposed to the Aristotelian/Scholastic concept of theoria (the contemplation of truth) as the utmost goal of philosophizing.

The philosophers of Antiquity commonly divided human activity into two spheres derived from two modes of understanding: the active life, derived from “opinion,” or subjective experience, and the contemplative life, derived from the mind’s rational faculty to apprehend objective concepts and objects. For Aristotle, life begins in the sphere of practical activity and ends in the act of philosophic contemplation of the unmoved Divine. For Aristotle as well as Thomas, metaphysics is the most logical and objective of the sciences, and crowns the investigation of being as being. The other sciences, which take practical activity as their end, are naturally inferior to metaphysics, and form a basis for the rational investigation of the Diving.

Descartes accepts the premise that metaphysics is superior to all the other sciences. Yet metaphysics is, as he calls it, the roots of his system, and not the speculative crown that metaphysics represents to Aristotle and Thomas. Philosophy, for Descartes, need no longer be speculative; first principles need no longer be sought for their own sake. The tradition of speculative philosophy is no longer viable in the scope of a theoretical philosophy with practical ends. For Descartes, the end of philosophy is not the science of the search for first principle— or, the speculative exploration of Divine attributes. Rather, the practical end of philosophy is the project of applying indubitable principles to formulate and discover practical aids to remedy the ills of human existence. In his Discourse on the Method, Descartes states that raising the sciences on a rational and indubitable foundation will recapture for man the position he once owned in the Garden of Eden— “master and proprietor of nature.”

By replacing speculative philosophy with practical philosophy, Descartes rejects not only the contemplation of truth as the goal of philosophic activity, but takes religious and philosophical skepticism as his chief enemy from the beginning, rather than the thought of Aristotle and the Scholastics. Descartes held that the proofs found in the writings of the Schoolmen for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul failed to attain their objective, and amounted in the end to a mere demonstrations that the truths of faith and the truths of reason do not lie in opposition to each other. Such demonstrations, Descartes held, were insufficient to combat the tendency in the 17th century toward atheism and religious skepticism. The only sufficient criterion for the test of indubitable knowledge is the mind’s perception of a truth that impresses itself with such force and vivacity that the mind cannot help but assent to the validity of the proposition (e.g., that God exists). According to Descartes, such truths are what the mind perceives “clearly and distinctly.” All other families of propositions fall within the realm of Aristotle’s indemonstrable first principles and Thomas’ secondary causes.

In his Dedicatory Letter to the Sorbonne, Descartes presents his Meditations to the Dean and Doctors as a work of Christian apologetics. However, he is not forthcoming about his incendiary goal of demolishing the whole of the Aristotelian metaphysics, physics, and psychology. Descartes’ principle of “methodological doubt” [rationem dubitandi] functions as a tool for overturning what Aristotle and his Medieval Scholastic followers took for granted — the reliability of the rational soul’s knowledge of the material world acquired through the senses. In the 17th century, Aristotelianism and Thomism predominated among the faculty members of the Sorbonne. According to the prevailing Aristotelian doctrine in the Schools, the first principle of man’s knowledge is the sensible apprehension of objects in the material world. The sensible apprehension of objects depends upon the sensible object received by the agent intellect via the phantasm, or image. Without the sensible object, neither the agent nor the possible intellect could be, in a sense, activated. Without the particulars of sense knowledge, the intellect’s abstraction from particular objects to grasp the intelligible species could never take place. Cognition as such would be impossible for Aristotle’s man. Except as a peripheral question, neither Aristotle nor any Scholastic philosopher prior to Descartes ever took seriously the question of the reliability of sense perception as a conduit of genuine knowledge.

Descartes begins his Meditations by inquiring into whether the rational mind is capable of a type of purely rational mental activity comparable to Aristotle’s conception of contemplation [theoria]. To do so, however, Descartes reverses Aristotle’s procedure for inquiring into the nature of the soul. To see how this is done, it is necessary to point out that Aristotle does not begin his inquiry into the nature of the soul with cognition, since thought itself is neither perceptible, nor is it an intelligible species that takes itself as its own object. In other words, Aristotle’s account of the rational soul does not begin with a demonstration of rationality. Philosophy begins, according to Aristotle, by setting out principles that, for the rational mind requiring material particulars to abstract universals from, are indemonstrable principles. The famous principle of non-contradiction is one example of Aristotle’s indemonstrable “first principles.”

In the Sixth Meditation, Cartesian philosophy’s crowing project of the “mastery of nature” ends up where Aristotle’s philosophic project (in De anima) begins. Descartes’ last chapter in the Meditations gives an account of the movement and activity of the animal possessing a rational mind. The purpose of his account is twofold: first, to developing cures for the infirmities of the body to which the mind is attached as “a pilot in his ship”; second, Descartes hoped to raise man through the development of the sciences to the status of the “master and proprietor of nature.” Descartes’ theory of the separability of the mind and body stands in opposition to his theory of the substantial union of the mind and body, which, he writes, is not merely the relation of mover to the thing moved, but a relation where the mind and body are “very closely joined” so as to “form a unit.” Translated into the Aristotelian vocabulary, the Cartesian theory of cognition states that the universal or essential nature of an object is known prior to, and more easily, than the particular material object in the world grasped through the corporeal senses. The first principle of knowledge, according to Descartes, is not objects in the material world or concepts that abide the principle of non-contradiction. Rather, the first principles of knowledge are contained in the innate ideas that the mind has of all objects, including God and the self, independent of all sensory perceptions. These principles, Descartes holds, are indubitable, and therefore more logically consistent than Aristotle’s indemonstrable first principles that seem to assert the priority of the objects of knowledge over the knower.
In the Dedicatory Letter of the Meditations, Descartes’ argument from the Bible regarding the mind’s intuitive or innate knowledge of the existence of God implicitly corroborates the argument given in the Meditations for why the soul’s nature is easily discovered. The mind’s innate idea of God is demonstrable from the essence of the mind itself, which, as an incorporeal thinking substance, is entirely distinct and separable in its operations from the body and its senses. Descartes’ celebrated phrase, sed solius mentis inspectio, or “the mind alone inspects,” reverses the Aristotelian order of operation by which the rational soul understands external objects. To meditate, according to Descartes, is to detach the mind from the senses, because the sensory-dependent body is an obstacle to knowing the truth.

Descartes sought to align his proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul with the long-accepted proofs of his Scholastic predecessors. In his dedication, Descartes calls his addressee’s attention to the fact that his project of proving the existence of God and the immortality of the soul corresponds to the traditional Scholastic enterprise. Further, Descartes cites the eighth session of the Lateran Council held under Pope Leo X (Apostolici Regiminis, 1513) to legitimize his philosophical investigation into the existence of God and the human rational soul. By adopting Leo X’s mandate for Christian philosophers to refute the arguments of irreligious philosophers who hold “that the soul dies along with the body,” Descartes hoped to gain the commendation of the Sorbonne’s Aristotelian/Thomist faculty members.

Be that as it may, Descartes’ mission as a philosophical apologist for the truth of Christian doctrine involved more than simply upholding the tenets of the Faith with rational arguments, as there was nothing innovative in doing so. The sense that Aristotelian philosophy was a stagnant body of knowledge prompted Descartes to look afresh at the foundations of philosophy. In making Thomas Aquinas its representative theologian, the Church had implicitly “Christianized” the thought of Thomas’ master, Aristotle. Descartes considered the alliance of Christian and pagan philosophy to be hazardous to the central doctrines of Christianity. Making Christian philosophy dependent in crucial ways on the philosophic principles and reasoning of a pagan philosopher left the Faith vulnerable to the attacks of atheist and religious skeptics. In his Meditations, Descartes hoped to free Christian philosophy from the bonds of Aristotelian philosophy by abrogating its epistemic foundations. By framing the traditional questions of philosophy in a Christian context, Descartes hoped to secure an indubitable foundation for the two main tenets of Christian philosophy: that God exists and that the soul is immortal. Descartes demand for an undiluted foundation for religion set the stage for a new philosophy that depended on neither sense perception, nor the dogmas of Aristotelian Scholasticism.



The publication of Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind (1949) originated the analytic approach to Cartesian thought. Unfortunately, analytic commentators of Descartes’ writings take little account of the historical background of the 17th century in formulating their interpretations; nor do they give little more than a sign of acquaintance or interest in the writings of Thomas or the Scholastic philosophers. Such interpretations have little to offer the historian of philosophy. Commentary that ignores the anti-Aristotelian/Thomist position of the Meditations arrives at conclusions that are conceptually dazzling, but ultimately refer only back to themselves, rather than the historical sources of Descartes’ writings. The validity of Descartes’ arguments have been borne out or disproven according to the whims of History’s mistress, lady Fortune. The internal logical consistency or inconsistency of Descartes’ Meditations does not illuminate the main themes or reason for his writing the book. No does the analytic approach consider for whom Descartes wrote the book. An historian of philosophy might fruitfully beg Aristotle’s question, “were the Meditations persuasive to Descartes contemporaries?” Descartes aimed to construct a metaphysics that did not depend on the Aristotelian account of material reality or the speculative metaphysics and dogmas of the Schools. To do so, he had to contend with the prevailing thought of the Schools, which happened to be principally Aristotelian/Thomist. Reducing the status of Cartesian metaphysics to a sterile series of mental acts of consciousness misses Descartes’ dual point that a metaphysical foundation must first be in place in order to generate indubitable scientific principles. Only after a system of metaphysics is in place can the programme originating in the writings of Francis Bacon, viz., making man “the master and proprietor of nature,” be realized.

In the Sixth Meditation, Descartes’ demonstration of the separabilty of the mind/soul from the body consists precisely in the clarity and distinctness of the perception of what belongs to the essence of thinking things [res cogitans]. Regarding extended things [res extensia], the same clarity of perception does not apply. Extended things are perceived only distinctly, which is to say, not essentially. The meditator’s essence consists in “absolutely nothing else” than that he is “a thinking thing…” Descartes cancels Aristotle’s formulation of the soul as the form of the body, which assumes the givenness of the objects of perception, in his demonstration of the incorporeal existence of mind/soul as being more clearly and distinctly known than the existence of objects extended in space and perceived by the corporeal senses. In Aristotelian teleological thought, the difficulty in giving an account of the soul lies with the process and methods of investigation: beginning with sensible perception of particulars, the faculty or ordering principle (soul) is abstracted from observing the respective activities of sentient beings. Conversely, in order to determine the existence and nature of the soul, the Cartesian method bypasses the information gathered through the senses and inquires instead into the origin of the mind’s ideas, which are divided into three types: adventitious, composite, and innate.

Turning to the Aristotelian conception of the soul, in De anima II, Aristotle formulates his doctrine of cognition through abstraction as, “the soul never thinks without an image.” In other words, the intellect, whether human or animal, is activated by sense images, and neither cognizes nor wills prior to the mind’s reception of sense data. Like the sensitive soul of animals, Aristotle’s third type of soul, the rational soul, is dependent on the image, or phantasm, gathered by means of the senses. The rational soul’s faculty for abstract cognition is activated by sense images and impressions. Considering the operations of the rational soul (movement, sense perception, abstraction), the cognizing activity of the potential intellect called abstraction cannot take place without the object of thought having first passed through the agent intellect, whose activity is the passive reception of sense data. However, for its abstract cognitive operations, the rational soul is exempt from further dependence on sense impressions. Insofar as the rational soul neither grows nor senses as such, its operation of abstraction from sense images does not dependent on further contribution from the body’s sense organs.

Aristotle’s proof for the soul begins with evidence derived from motion in the order of corporeal being, such as the fact that animals possess the power of self-movement and growth. The empirical fact of motion is requisite to all of Aristotle’s claims about the soul. If nothing were in motion, as in the static world of Parmenides, the senses would have no purpose for existing, as there would be nothing to sense. Thus Aristotle states that the sense’s primary reason for existing is to convey images of objects in motion to the passive intellect. Abstraction of images from the passive intellect are understood by the active intellect, the faculty of the mind responsible for rational thought. On the basis of movement, Aristotle causally deduces the formal principle from the material principle. For example, creatures that grow and reproduce must themselves be animated by some kind of mover, which Aristotle tells us is the soul. Moving creatures are animated by two of Aristotle’s three types of soul: the nutritive and sensitive. The existence of the soul proven from the evidence of motion in the sensible world is a naturalized account of the soul. Because objects are intelligible, sense perception has, for Aristotle, the nature and value of a principle of knowledge. Consequently, to gain any certain knowledge of what the essential nature and properties of the soul are, the operations of the senses must be considered.

In response to Aristotle and his Scholastic followers, Descartes’ treatment of the soul in the Meditations begins with the question of what, if anything, can be known with any epistemological certainty, and proceeds by applying the methodological doubt to everything dubitable by the light of valid reasoning (propter validas & meditates rationes). The possibility of material objects serving as the source of the first principle of metaphysical knowledge is rejected, and the project of discovering a source of indubitable knowledge on which to found the sciences is directed toward the discovery of the innate cognitive perceptions of God and the ego. The methodological doubt and the hypothesis of the malin génie, detailed in the first two Meditations, furnishes Descartes with the necessary conditions for abrogating any theory of knowledge that asserts the primacy of sense images in matters of rational intelligibility. Descartes’ argument against the soul as the form of the body reverses the Aristotelian/Scholastic axiomatic sense of the soul as the form of the body [anima corporis forma]. According to Descartes, information or data derived from sense-images is subject to the methodological doubt precisely because the soul is understood to be something other than the substantial form of the body. Hence, any dependence on the senses to confirm the truth or falsity of ideas must be forsworn at the outset if the criterion for telling the true from the erroneous has premises more robust than a posteriori. If the soul cannot know anything through sense-images, the only available avenue for indubitable knowledge, particularly indubitable knowledge of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, is through “separating the mind from the senses.”

In the Second Meditation, Descartes’ phrase, “the mind alone inspects” represents a kind of pastiche of Aristotle’s definition of the soul in De anima II, where the soul defined as “the form of a natural body having life potentially within it” (or capable of living). Aristotle’s formulation precludes the question of “whether the soul and body are one”— which question, he concludes, is as meaningless as inquiring “whether the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp are one.” The view of the wax as inseparable from the stamp given to it assumes, by analogy, that that which organizes (soul), and that which is organized (body) cannot be distinguished. In two ways the Aristotelian rational soul is inseparable from the body: first, because the soul is the form of the body; and second, because the soul depends on the corporeal sense faculties in order to satisfy the goal, or telos toward which its operations of growth, nutrition and reasoning tend.

When Descartes exposes a quantity of beeswax to fire, the intention is to distinguish two separate modes of perception, sensuous and cognitive, and thus argue for why the demonstration of the distinction between the soul/mind and the body is necessary. The perceptible “stamp” of the beeswax remains even once its recognizable qualities have been altered by exposure to the fire; viz., its taste, fragrance, odor, figure, sound, &c., are not done away with because the essence of the beeswax is not contained in any of its innumerable accidental properties. Descartes states, “the perception I have of it [wax, or any material object] is a case not of vision or touch or imagination — nor has it ever been, despite previous appearances — but of purely mental scrutiny [sed solius mentis inspectio]…” Objects, such as the beeswax, can be “sensed”; but the corporeal senses do not “think.” Hence, the ideas of objects perceived by the mind cannot bear any relation to the properties of objects perceived by the corporeal senses: “perception derives not from their [objects] being touched or seen but from their being understood.”

Moving from the idea that the mind alone inspects the essence of objects, Descartes is in a position to inquire into the essence of the rational soul. If the mind alone knows objects through their essences, the mind can presumably inspect itself, or perceive its own essential nature. “I know plainly that I can achieve an easier and more evident perception of my own mind than of anything else,” Descartes concludes. He then overturns the common sense opinion that “the bodies which we touch and see” are perceived aright by the senses. The mind or soul grasps the essential nature of material objects without the aid of the corporeal senses. Thus, a question considered by Aristotle to have a self-evident answer, namely, whether the soul and body are joined in an interdependent relation, is considered in Descartes’ inquiry into perception to have been given a less than satisfactory answer.

In the case of man, according to Aristotle, rationality is not a superficial addition to animality, but rather comprises a substantial union proper to man alone. Aquinas’ account of the soul follows Aristotle’s on this point, maintaining that, “it is with respect to the intellective soul that we are said to be men; to the sensitive soul, animals; to the nutritive soul, living beings.” Descartes’ attack on Aristotle in the Meditations first addresses, and then overturns specific Aristotelian doctrines with the intention of starving out the roots of Aristotelian first philosophy by destroying its branches — namely, the somatic and psychic doctrines associated with Aristotle’s conception of man. Aristotle’s doctrine that states, “the soul never thinks without an image” is connected in every respect with the doctrine of the soul as the form of the body, and with his conception of man as a rational animal.
Descartes does not recognize the validity or the self-evident empirical nature of Aristotle’s first principles. On the contrary, his refutation in the Second Meditation of the Aristotelian doctrine that the soul never thinks without an image sets up a reductio ad absurdum chain of reasoning that destroys Aristotle’s conception of man by calling into question the reliability of the senses to convey any true knowledge to the understanding. If Descartes rephrased Aristotle’s doctrine of cognition, it might have read something like, “the soul knows nothing through the medium of an image.” Indeed, the meditator discovers that the mind’s essential understanding of objects only resembles the world of material objects. Accordingly, Descartes infers that “what is called ‘having sensory perceptions is strictly just… thinking.”

In the First Meditation, Descartes’ hypothesis of the ‘evil genius” [malin genie in the French edition] raises Pyrrhonian skepticism to a new pitch of intensity. If it were the case that all knowledge, and the faculties for acquiring and judging knowledge, were under the influence of some malicious deceiver “of the utmost power” [summe potens], the mind’s criterion for examining its ideas, and the source of its ideas is open to question on every conceivable level, and at every point. The force of Descartes’ argument lies in the fact that it would be impossible for the mind to know or tell if it were under the control of a most powerful deceiver. The Aristotelian theory of cognition, which emphasizes the primacy of the individual senses and their particular objects in the process of “coming to know,” has no defense against Cartesian skepticism. Descartes’ cogito necessarily has neither a basis in, nor any reference to the world of material particulars. In the Second Meditation, Aristotle and his 17th century adherents are parodied by Descartes in such questions as, “What then did I formerly think I was? A man. But what is a man?”, “what is an animal?”, and “what is rationality?” Descartes concludes that he “does not now have the time to waste on subtleties of this kind.” Under Descartes’ hypothetical circumstance, grounds for discovering any epistemological certainty are theoretically impossible.



In the Meditations, the doctrine of the cogito, flanked by the doctrine of “the mind alone inspects,” represents a thoroughgoing epistemic critique of the Aristotelian empiricist doctrine of “the soul never thinks without an image.” That Descartes overturned centuries of philosophical reliance on Aristotelian physics and metaphysics is well documented in the literature of the history of ideas. What is less obvious is whether Descartes’ attack on the philosophy of Aristotle in the Meditations was meant as a covert attack on the philosophy of St. Thomas. We can ask whether Descartes’ self-professed intention of offering the Meditations to the Dean and Doctors of the Sorbonne as work in the grand Scholastic tradition of giving demonstrative proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul can be taken at face value.

In both the Meditations and the Discourse on the Method, Descartes’ attack on Aristotelian realism is waged, in part, through the terminology he adopts to undermine the claims of Aristotelian philosophy. For example, certain recognizable Aristotelian phrases and terms occur in the Meditations, such as “rational animal,” “power of self movement,” “common sense,” “nutrition,” and “imagination.” Descartes’ technical use of these terms and phrases were no doubt adopted for either one or both of the following reasons. First, the term “imagination” and the phrase “rational animal” are characteristic of the language of the Scholastic opponents Descartes is attempting to refute. By employing the Aristotelian language, Descartes caricatures his opponent’s views. The second reason that Descartes adopts the Aristotelian terminology, particularly in the Second and Sixth Meditation, is likely because of the fact that no other terminological apparatus was available in the 17th century. Moreover, the philosophical tradition frowned upon the invention or introduction of novel terms for the sake of novelty. As previous commentators have noted, Descartes’ terminology in the Meditations contains next to nothing in the way of novelty. Only his unique redefining of the battery of pre-existing Ancient and Scholastic terms can be said to be original. Descartes’ acceptance of what the primary goals of philosophy are, as well as the standard array of terminology, as handed down from both the Ancients and their Scholastic descendants, is explicitly present in the Meditations.

Even Descartes’ earliest commentators and critics recognized his subversive use of Aristotelian/Scholastic terminology in the Meditations. When Descartes topples Aristotelian realism in the Second Meditation by demonstrating that the nature of the soul/mind can be asserted as an object of knowledge prior to the knowledge of bodies, he is attacking the classic Aristotelian doctrine of “the soul never thinks without an image.” As a close reader of the writings of Aristotle, Descartes was likely acquainted with the phrase, “the soul never thinks without an image.” However, when the Meditations and the Discourse on the Method are searched for the classic Aristotelian phrase, one finds that Descartes never uses the phrase as it occurs in Aristotle’s writings. In the fourth partition of the Discourse on the Method, Descartes has instead rendered into French a Scholastic variant of Aristotle’s phrase:

“…there is nothing in the intellect which has not previously been in the senses [qu’il n’y a rien dans l’entendement qui n’ait premierement este dan le sens].” Again, in the Sixth Meditation we find it worded thus: “In this way I easily convinced myself that I had nothing at all in the intellect which I had not previously had in sensation [facile mihi persuadebam nullam plane me habere in intellectu, quam non prius habuissem in sensu].”

In the latter two examples, Descartes employs what previous commentators have noted to be a Scholastic variation on Aristotle’s phrase. As these commentators indicate, a likely source for the variation used by Descartes is the writings of St. Thomas.

In Thomas’s writings we find a variation on Aristotle’s phrase that silently introduces the terminological and verbal modifications that Descartes was to later adapt into his writings: “There is nothing in the intellect that is not previously in the senses” [nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu]. Although Thomas nuances the phrasing of the established idiom, he does so without corrupting Aristotle’s empirical doctrine. The question arises: if, in his Discourse on the Method and the Meditations, Descartes’ use of the phrase as it occurs in Aquinas’ writings is deliberate, is it meant as a shrewd critique of the Doctor angelicus? Does Descartes inadvertently strike a blow at the foundation of Catholic orthodoxy by refuting Aristotle via the doctrines of Thomas?

To the extent to which Thomas’ conception of the soul agrees with or derives from Aristotle’s account of the soul, this is the conception of the soul Descartes attacks in the Second Meditation. However, Descartes’ proof for the separabilty of the mind from the body, or of the mind’s self-subsisting nature, agrees with Thomas’ account of the separable soul, on the point that both are an affirmative answer to the Christian theological imperative to uphold the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. We may point out, however, that the theological imperative to argue for the soul’s immortality was not present for Aristotle as it was for Thomas. While there are passages in De anima that seem to promote the idea of the rational soul possessing an immortal nature, other passages clearly associate the mortality of the body with the mortality of the soul. Yet in De anima Aristotle states that, “that while the faculty of sensation is dependent on the body, mind is separable from it.” It was a matter of dispute among the Scholastics whether Aristotle meant that the intellect only engages in operations in which the body has no part, as when he writes that, “…some [parts of the soul] may be separable because they are not the actualities of any body at all.” Also open to dispute among the Scholastic philosophers was Aristotle’s opinion on whether the rational soul could be classed as a substantial form: “When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears as just what it is and nothing more: this alone is immortal and eternal… mind in this sense is impassable… and without it nothing thinks.”
In any case, the question whether the soul survives the body’s death, and whether the rational or intellectual soul is mortal or immortal necessitated Thomas’ chief modification to the Aristotelian conception of the soul. Indeed, Thomas’ modification involved altering the ontological status of the rational soul, thus disengaging it from the questions of mortality and substantiality. The soul, according to Aristotle, is a faculty of thought that makes up a substantial form only when united to the matter of the human body. In Thomas’ account of the rational soul, he argues that the soul itself is a substantial form in its own right. That is, the intellective soul is non-destructible, self-subsisting and immortal by definition. Yet the conversion of a rational faculty of thought into an intellectual substance does not resolve the inherent difficulties in how the separable soul operates after the death of the body, since Thomas retains the Aristotelian doctrine that “there is nothing in the mind that was not previously in the senses.” In sum, the active and possible intellect, and the bodily sense organs on which the soul depends for the delivery of its proper object are inseparably connected.



The question of the soul’s immortality in Descartes’ Meditations is a reiteration of a long-standing theme of the Scholastics. The means by which Descartes goes about proving the immortality of the soul constitutes a departure from the accepted convention of either lending ultimate support and authority to a rational proof of the soul’s immortality. In his Sorbonne letter, Descartes cites relevant passages from Scripture and rejects the teaching that no rational proof of the soul’s immortality is available to the natural light of reason alone, as did Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. In any case, no Scholastic discussion of the soul’s immortality ever sought to supplant the doctrine of immortality that the Church maintained is revealed through the Scriptures, and held as a verity of religion by faith alone. Scholastic proofs adduced for the existence of God or the immortality of the soul were “demonstrated” a posteriori to the belief that God exists and that the soul is indeed immortal — that is, these proofs assume the validity of what they have yet to prove.

Descartes’ demonstration of the existence of God in the Third Meditation is an a priori proof that precludes the presupposition of any “long-standing opinion that there is an omnipotent God,” and proceeds from the starting point that “everything said about God is a fiction,” including his existence. Similarly, Descartes’ proof for the separability of the mind from the body in the Second Meditation begins with the meditator’s categorically doubting the existence of all extended bodies in order to uncover, in the order of being, the nature of the soul per se.
The investigation of the soul, under the respective considerations of Aristotle and his Scholastic followers, had traditionally begun with sensible particulars, applying an inductive method of examination to such phenomena as the perceptible self-movement of living things, and proceeding to inquiring as to the cause of movement. The somatic psychology of Aristotle and the Scholastic philosophers offers a naturalized account of the soul. As the form of the body, the soul of man is a rational faculty that depends on the sense’s apprehension of material particulars in order to operate. Knowledge, in this sense, is essentially embodied, and in De anima, Aristotle writes that the soul has been justly referred to as “the place of forms,” on account of the fact that the rational intellect has no organ, and hence no operation apart from the medium of the phantasms intuited by the sense organs.

According to Aristotle’s account of the soul, the nature of the substantial union of the soul and body is a union of such a kind that the corruption of the instantiated soul cannot occur without corruption coming to the body as well, and vice-versa. Plato’s celebrated metaphorical image of the relation between the soul and body as a sailor in a ship is a negative example in Aristotle’s usage, for the union between soul and body is not such that the soul directs the movements of the automaton body in which it is emprisoned. What connects the soul and body in Aristotle’s account, and in Thomas’ account as well, is the fact that the intellectual soul requires the faculties of imagination and sensation in order to operate, and imagination and sensation are carried out through corporeal organs; hence, as Thomas puts it, the formal principle, the soul, and the material principle, the body, are “joined together in the unity of one act of being.”



For Descartes, the emphasis in the Sixth Meditation is on the problem of how the soul is joined to the body, and stands in contrast to the operations of the pure understanding (Meditation Two), where the mind is shown to function independent of any attachment to a body, and is thus by definition separable. For Thomas, the soul is joined in a substantial union with the body, and the existence of bodies is self-evident, and therefore indubitable. Regarding the question of the soul’s immortality, Thomas emphasizes the issue of the soul’s separability from the body. The intellectual soul first needs to be demonstrated as substantial per se. Substantiality, according to Aristotle, is tantamount to self-subsistence and impassibility, and the status of substantiality that Thomas grants to the intellectual soul provides the gateway for his proof of the soul’s immortality.

Generally, then, the difference between Descartes’ revival in the Meditations of the question of immortality addressed by Thomas and other the other Scholastic philosophers is the question of how the soul’s immortality can be demonstrated. Descartes agrees with the Scholastic philosophers about the immortality of the soul. The point at which Descartes diverges from Thomas and the Scholastics is in method rather than principle. The meditative exercise of withdrawing the mind from the senses is an epistemological method that neither Aquinas nor any other Scholastic philosopher ever employed to arrive at the conclusion that the intellectual soul is separable from the body, and that God exists.

The efforts of Thomas Aquinas to solve Aristotle’s open question of the immortality of the soul involved modifying two notable doctrines of Aristotle. The first point, that the soul is the form of the body, argues that the soul and the body form a substantial composite that cannot be split apart or corrupted without destruction coming to the whole. Hence, neither the body nor the soul is self-subsisting, due to the function of each being wholly dependent on the other part for its respective operation. Briefly then, the rational soul that animates the human body, and the sense organs of the human body that supply the rational soul with phantasms, from which operation all intellectual knowledge derives, are co-constitutive. Man, in the last analysis, is human on the condition that he comprises a particular substantial combination of rationality and animality.

It follows from this that decay in the function of the sense organs, or the total demise of the body, erects an insuperable barrier between the operation of the rational soul, and the sense object upon which its operation depends. There is indeed nothing for the rational soul to think without the senses first receiving the phantasm of a sensible object. On two counts, then, it would seem that the soul could not legitimately be a substance by definition; first, by virtue of the material nature of the sense organs, and second, by virtue of the phantasm’s origination in corporeal objects.

Thomas begins to resolve the question of the soul’s apparent mortality by establishing the soul’s subsistence thus:
I answer that, it must necessarily be allowed that the principle of intellectual operation, which we call the soul of man, is a principle both incorporeal and subsistent. For it is clear that by means of the intellect man can know all corporeal things. Now, whatever knows certain things cannot have any of them in its own nature, because that which is in it naturally would impede the knowledge of anything else… Now every body has its own determinate nature. Therefore it is impossible for the intellectual principle to be a body. It is also impossible for it to understand by means of a bodily organ, since the determinate nature of that organ would likewise impede knowledge of all bodies…

A number of important points are asserted here. First, Thomas writes that the substantial composite of the body and soul (the soul being the form of the body) is separable. Second, he asserts that this separation does not impede the action of the intellective operation of the soul. Last, it follows from this that the operation of the bodily senses that the gathering of phantasms is not essentially prior to the operation of the intellectual soul. Following Aristotle, Thomas proceeds to elaborate the separability of the intellectual soul from the body by making a crucial distinction between the operations of the soul that are dependent on the senses, and those operations of the soul in which the corporeal sense organs have no part, such as understanding and willing:

Therefore the intellectual principle, which we call the mind or the intellect [mens vel intellectus], has essentially an operation in which the body does not share. Now only that which subsists in itself can have an operation in itself. For nothing can operate but what is actual, and so a thing operates according as it is… We must conclude, therefore, that the human soul, which is called intellect or mind, is something incorporeal and subsistent.

Sense images are the first principle of the intellectual soul’s knowledge, but the action of the intellectual soul is rendered neither substantial nor mortal according to the mode by which it wills and understands; rather, this is precisely the point by which the intellectual soul is known to be separable and self-subsisting after the death of the body. Thomas likens the per se mode of understanding in the separated soul to a similar mode of understanding found in separate substances. The separated soul, like the separate substance, receives a “more abundant influx” of those objects known only by the pure understanding, and furthermore, Thomas asserts that,

…the more the soul is freed from preoccupation with its body, the more fit does it become for understanding higher things… Consequently, when the soul shall be completely separated from the body, it will be perfectly likened to separate substances in its mode of understanding, and will receive their influx abundantly.

This fragment provides an outline of the intellectual soul in a state of separation from the body; but a disembodied state is not the existence proper to the intellectual soul, defined as such, and Thomas points out that the existence of the intellectual soul neither predates its being united to a body, nor will it subsist apart from the body without end, but it will instead be clothed once more with an imperishable body; and in this is the separated soul wholly distinctive in its mode of being from separate substances.



Concerning the survival of the incorporeal soul after the dissolution of the body, Aristotle does not give a consistent opinion in De anima, except on the point that the rational soul is “capable of existence [i.e., functioning] in isolation from all other psychic powers [i.e., those faculties of the soul involving such things as nutrition and sensation].” The demonstrable fact that the rational soul engages in operations such as calculation, speculation and contemplation, in which the body has no share, is not tantamount to the Thomistic claim that the soul has an existence — not merely an operation — entirely independent of the body that it is the form or actuality of. If the human intellectual soul, as the actuality of the human body, possesses operations that are in no way dependent on the body’s operations, then it follows that the intellectual soul is capable of continuing its operation of intellectual apprehension (intelligere corrumpitur) after the dissolution of the body.

In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas arrives at conclusions about the human intellectual soul that are contrary to the views of Aristotle. Thomas iterates Aristotle’s conception of the soul that has no operation apart from the body:

Further, if the soul were something subsistent, it would have some operation apart from the body. But it has no operation apart from the body, not even that of understanding; for the act of understanding does not take place without a phantasm, which cannot exist apart from the body.

Thomas offers two solutions to the problem of how the soul in a state of separation from the body operates. Thomas’ first answer situates the problem in a specifically Christian context: the resurrection of the body and the reuniting of body and soul is a tenet of the orthodox Christian faith, and Thomas was bound to uphold its truth. The second answer, also supporting the resurrection of the body, is found in Thomas’ demonstration:
…the soul is naturally united to the body, for in its essence it is the form of the body. It is then contrary to the nature of the soul to be without the body. But nothing which is contrary to nature can be perpetual. Perpetually, then, the soul will not be without the body. Since, then, it persists perpetually, it must once again be united to the body; and this is to rise again. Therefore, the immortality of souls seems to demand a resurrection of bodies.

Considering that the dubitability of the evidence obtained through the senses calls into question the validity of any proof presupposing the reliability of the senses (such as Thomas’ proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul), Descartes considered finding indisputable proofs for the existence of God and the separability of the soul from the body of particular importance. Descartes maintains that such a posteriori proofs are inconclusive because man’s knowledge of ontological objects is made to depend on the perception of the fallible senses as the first principle of knowledge.
In his letter to the Dean and Doctors of the Sorbonne, Descartes claims that the existence of God and the immortality of the soul “are prime examples of subjects where demonstrative proofs ought to be given with the aid of philosophy rather than theology;” and further,

…that the only reason why many irreligious people are unwilling to believe that God exists and that the human mind is distinct from the body [mentemque humanam a corpore distingui] is the alleged fact that no one has hitherto been able to demonstrate these points.

That no prior proof for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul is immune to contradiction or refutation is precisely what Descartes is claiming to be the case, stating that, “I would add that these proofs are of such a kind that I reckon they leave no room for the possibility that the human mind will ever discover better ones.”

However, a rational proof for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul would invalidate the necessity for God’s participation in revealing Himself to man. Nor would the soul’s survival or salvation require God’s grace or intervention after the death of the body. Aquinas was particularly aware of the fideistic dimension to the question of the soul’s immortality. If the self-subsistence of the soul could be conclusively demonstrated, then God’s act of preserving the soul after the body dies would be rendered unnecessary, since the soul would invariably be immortal, and would not need divine support to secure its subsistence.

In the dedicatory epistle to the Sorbonne, Descartes maintains that man’s rational knowledge of the true distinction of the mind and body is an antecedent evident enough to validly deduce the soul’s immortality as a consequent, without any further recourse to the Scriptures or the teaching of the Church. In a letter to Mersenne on December 24, 1640, roughly four months before the Meditations received its finishing touches, Descartes responded to Mersenne’s disappointment at not finding the immortality of the soul demonstrated as promised in the proofs of his Meditations:

You say that I have not said a word about the immortality of the soul. You should not be surprised. I could not prove that God could not annihilate the soul, but only that it is by nature entirely distinct from the body, and consequently it is not bound by nature to die with it. This is all that is required as a foundation for religion, and is all that I had any intention of proving.

As a theological matter, the immortality of the soul is guaranteed by an act of faith in what the divinely revealed Scriptures declare to be true, rather than reason’s discovery that the soul persists after the death of the body. Descartes’ statement that a philosophical demonstration that the operations of the mind are distinct from the mechanical operations of the body does not violate or infringe upon the domain of the soul’s immortality as a religious doctrine held by faith. As the doctrines of the Church command the faithful to believe without rational or visible proof, Descartes’ reproach of Mersenne for his improbable expectation that the Meditations would contain a certain proof “that God could not annihilate the soul” is in accord with the doctrinal mystery of the soul’s immortality.

Philosophically, Descartes justifies the consequent that the soul “is not bound by nature to die” with the body with his demonstration in the Second Meditation of the mind’s separability from the body. Descartes is not ignorant that since the soul’s immortality is a religious question of fundamental doctrinal importance. However, the issue of whether God can or cannot annihilate the soul is ultimately a theological concern that goes beyond what is “required as a foundation for religion.” According to Descartes, a foundation for religion is simply no more than adherence to the tenets and doctrines as established by the Church. In his letter to Mersenne in December 1640, Descartes addresses a charge regarding “to what extent the immortality of the soul can be demonstrated in light of man’s necessarily incomplete knowledge of the infinite will and mind of God”:
…you [Mersenne] go on to say that it does not follow from the fact that the soul is distinct from the body that it is immortal, since it could still be claimed that God gave it such a nature that its duration comes to an end simultaneously with the end of the body’s life. Here I admit that I cannot refute what you say. For I do not take it upon myself to try to use the power of human reason to settle any of those matters which depend on the free will of God.

The consideration given so far to those features of the Cartesian doctrine of the mind’s separability from the body, and the fact that the doctrine was a reaction to Scholasticism, open up the question of whose conception of the separated soul Descartes’ account better corroborates. Aristotle claims in De anima that mind is separable from the body, but what status it holds after the death of the body is ambiguous. Thomas deduces the immortality of the soul from the fact that it is separable from the body. The answer to this question does not lie in the novelty of the idea of the soul’s separability from the body, for this idea is common to Aristotle, Aquinas and Descartes. The answer lies in Descartes’ hesitancy to attach to his doctrine of the mind’s separability from the body the immortality of the soul as a necessary or a logical consequent.

Even though Descartes’ account of the soul in the Meditations agrees with Aquinas’ account of the soul on the point that the Church’s dogma of the immortality of the soul established a necessary starting point for both philosophers, the vision of the human soul in the Meditations is a secularized one, stripped of its sacred origins and theological definition. Under Descartes’ considerations, the beatitude of the soul is not a necessary consequence of its separability from the body any more than that the soul be the individuating or animating principle of any specific kind of body. The rational mind could just as easily be housed in the body of an ass, as in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.
Descartes’ proof for the separability of the mind from the body contains a nominalistic tendency wholly lacking in Thomas’ account of the separated soul. In the Synopsis of the Meditations, Descartes maintains that “the premises that lead to the conclusion that the soul is immortal depend on an account of the whole of physics,” which, in Aristotle’s and Thomas’ minds, includes final causes. In the Fourth Meditation, Descartes states,

For since I know that my own nature is very weak and limited, whereas the nature of God is immense, incomprehensible and infinite, I also know without more ado that he is capable of countless things whose causes are beyond my knowledge. And for this reason alone I consider the customary search for final causes to be totally useless in physics; there is considerable rashness in thinking myself capable of investigating the [impenetrable] purposes of God.

If we read the fragment from the Synopsis into the passage from the Fourth Meditation, it becomes apparent why a demonstration of the immortality of the soul is impossible. The nature of such a demonstration would mean answering the question of why the soul is not by nature bound to die with the body, which would be the same as grasping the final cause, or end, of the soul separated from the body.

In the Second Meditation, the soul’s separability from the body is accounted for from within the order of essential causality in a way strikingly similar to the means by which the meditator in the Third Meditation proves the existence of God from the essential order of causation. This in turn accounts for the reason why the meditator is able to “perceive that likeness, which includes the idea of God, by the same faculty which enables me to perceive myself.” Descartes pays no mind to the reasons for why the soul is separable from the body, only the means of how it is, or can be known to be separable, which he demonstrates in the Second Meditation with the example of the wax. In his thought experiment, the essential nature of the wax is perceived by detaching the mind from the senses (abducere mentem ad sensibus), and the experiment concludes with the doctrine that the mind alone inspects (sed solius mentis inspectio) the essential nature of objects as ideas.

However, there is no account in the Meditations of the final cause of the mind separated from the body. Descartes gives his reason: “I have tried not to put down anything which I could not precisely demonstrate.” The ideas innate in the mind are secondary to God, who is the first cause in the order of causes. Descartes characterizes all ideas as secondary causes throughout the Meditations. The case with Descartes’ proposition that the investigation of final causes in physics is useless covers the same ground as the inscrutable futures of Thomas’ separated soul. To give an account of final causes in physics would be probing into the infinite and incomprehensible nature of God. If man is incapable of accomplishing that, then his knowledge of how the soul will subsist in a future state can be illuminated no further.

Descartes regarded the defense of the dogma of the immortal soul of man as a theological responsibility more than a philosophical one. That the soul of man is imperishable is a teaching and dogma of the Church known by the light of Scriptural revelation, and held to be true by the light of faith alone. Descartes’ demonstrative proof in the Second Meditation that the soul “is not bound by nature to die” with the body can never amount to an indubitable guarantee that the soul is not bound by nature to die with the body. The rational soul is not necessarily immortal, but it is, as Descartes demonstrates, separable. Considered independent of its Scriptural and theological underpinnings, the doctrine of the separabilty of the mind from the body is a doctrine no more specifically Christian than the proof for the existence of God as an innate idea in the mind in the Third Meditation is the same God as that of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

When confronted with the theological implications of his philosophic doctrines, Descartes expressed little more than diffidence towards spinning out the theological implications of the philosophic doctrines established in his Meditations. He was aware that he would have show how the principles of his philosophy could either establish that the truths of faith and the truths of reason are not mutually contradictory, or that his philosophy lends explanatory support to the type of theological issues “where it is notoriously difficult to reconcile philosophy to theology,” such as the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Eucharist. As a theological matter, the immortality of the soul is not guaranteed by the powers of reason’s discovery that the soul persists after the death of the body. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is, properly speaking, an act of faith in what the divinely revealed Scriptures declare to be true. Descartes’ statement that a philosophical demonstration of the fact that the operations of the mind are distinct from the mechanical operations of the body does not violate or infringe upon the domain of the soul’s immortality as a religious doctrine held by faith. As the doctrines of the Church command the faithful to believe without rational or visible proof, Descartes reproach of Mersenne for his improbable expectation that the Meditations would contain a certain proof “that God could not annihilate the soul” is in accord with the doctrinal mystery of the soul’s immortality.

Philosophically, Descartes justifies the consequent that the soul “is not bound by nature to die” with the body with his demonstration in the Second Meditation of the mind’s separability from the body, reminding Mersenne that since the soul’s immortality is a religious question of foundational importance doctrinally. For Descartes, however, the issue of whether God can or can not annihilate the soul was ultimately a theological concern that goes beyond what is “required as a foundation for religion,” which is simply no more than adherence to the tenets and doctrines as established by the Church.
The Church’s doctrine of the soul’s immortality, as derived from the teaching of Thomas, underwent a radical transformation in the Cartesian synthesis of the Scholastic doctrine of the immortality of the soul with the epistemic critique of knowledge. In the Synopsis of the Meditations, Descartes asks his readers not to mistake his proof for the mind’s separability from the body as a demonstration of premises that he does not endeavor to prove. These premises are those “which lead to the conclusion that the soul is immortal,” and which depend for their validity on “an account of the whole of physics,” or, in other words, the clear knowledge “that absolutely all substances, or things which must be created by God in order to exist, are by their nature incorruptible and cannot ever cease to exist unless they are reduced to nothingness by God’s denying his concurrence to them.”

Descartes aimed to give an account of the whole of physics, and thereby establish the immutability of the laws governing the universe. However, in order to accomplish this, Descartes needed to prove, as he endeavors to do in the Meditations, that God, while not bound to abide by the laws that He has instantiated in creation, is not a deceiver, and therefore will not alter or change laws He has established. The clarity and distinctness of the mind’s perceptions of its own ideas is the benchmark for determining that not only does God exist, but also that the mind is separable from the body. Recalling Descartes’ letter to Mersenne in December 24, 1640, we can conclude that what is at stake in an irrefutable proof of the soul’s immortality is whether the soul is by nature immortal, and without any need for God to lend His concurrence for it to survive, or whether the soul does require God’s intervention to survive. Descartes concedes that the survival of the soul after the death of the body presents too large a task for philosophy to accomplish:

I could not prove that God could not annihilate the soul, but only that it is by nature entirely distinct from the body, and consequently it is not bound by nature to die with it.



Descartes’ doctrine of the mind’s innate knowledge of essences states that the mind or understanding knows or inspects those ideas that are innate within it. Accordingly, once the soul is separated from the body, its mode of understanding is not mediated or impeded by anything external to it. On the contrary, according to Thomas, the intellectual soul depends on intelligibles taken from sensible things in order to activate the understanding, or possible intellect. However, when in a state of separation from the body, the soul

will understand through itself, in the manner of substances which in their being are totally separate from bodies… And from those substances… the separated soul will be able to receive a more abundant influx, productive of a more perfect understanding on its own part.

Since Aristotle did not consider the rational soul to be a substance in its own right, it was a necessary precondition of Thomas’ ontology to demonstrate that the soul is a substance. Thomas accepted Aristotle’s doctrine of the soul as the form of the body, as well as his doctrine that the body and soul are united in a substantial union; the question that remained for Thomas was, how is it possible to divide an indivisible substantial union without corruption coming to the whole? Thomas’ answer was this: while the body is itself divisible, being a composite of matter and form with many accidental parts and qualities, the intellectual substance, which is not composed of matter and form, is indivisible since “all corruption occurs through the separation of form from matter.” When the intellectual soul is separated from the body, its substantial character, its per se unity, persists in the same respect that “roundness is in a circle through itself, but is by accident in a coin; so that the existence of a non-round coin is possible; whereas it is impossible for a circle not to be round.”

In Thomas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, the discussion of separate substances (angels) comes right after his considerations concerning the union of the human body to the intellective, or rational soul. Thomas’ discussion of separate substances treats the question of whether a form can exist apart from matter; and if so, what sort of nature that form would have:

That which is by itself [per se] must be prior, in the order of being, to that which is by accident [per accidens]; incorporeal intellectual substances [or separate substances] exist per se, while material being exists per accidens; there must exist intellectual substances, prior in nature to souls, which, by virtue of the nature of their being, enjoy a higher substantial form without participation in a lower material nature.

A comparison of Descartes’ rational soul to Thomas’ separate substances can be made under the following points. First, Descartes’ rational soul differs in the order of existence from Thomas’ separate substance in the respective degrees of perfection accorded them by their Creator. The rational mind of man is the highest grade of intelligence accorded to the sphere of corporeal nature. The intellect of separate substances is more perfect than man’s intellect, yet they are less perfect than the intellect of God in the sphere of intellectual nature. In the case of man, angels, and God, the difference in intellect is one of quantity as measured by infinity. Man’s rational mind is to an angel’s as a finite nature is to an infinite nature; and the intellect of angels is distinct from the intellect of God, again, magnified by an infinity. Hence, intellect in the order of existence can be measured on a scalar magnitude of perfection, from highest to lowest.

The second point of comparison of Descartes’ rational soul to Thomas’ separate substances comes from Descartes’ hypothetical consideration of an angel joined to a human body. Writing to Regius, Descartes states that, “if an angel were in a human body, he would not have sensations as we do…” The reason that an angel in a human body would no have sensation is because of the distinction between the rational soul and Thomas’ separate substance, namely, the respective mode of understanding that each enjoys, but does not share with the other. The nature of the act of understanding in rational soul and separate substance can be distinguished in terms of their respective objects. Separate substances apprehend intellectual things because they are intellectual natures; they do not uncover the intelligible buried in the sensible by means of abstraction, which is the mode of the rational soul inhering in a material nature. The respective mode of understanding of the rational soul and the separate substance is marked by the difference between discursive reasoning and a priori reasoning. An intellectual nature does not acquire a sensitive soul merely by means of accident, and vice versa. Sensation in the human body is a necessary component for the rational soul’s mode of understanding, because sensation is the means of the rational soul’s acquiring its object, viz., intelligibles, by means of phantasms. Accidental properties inhering in matter individuate things, and the task of the rational soul is to abstract from material particulars in order to make them intelligible to itself. The perception of a plenary of distinct objects does not amount to categorical knowledge; that is to say, knowledge of universals. Thus, sense perception is the first principle of human understanding, and via a series of channels, we come to knowledge of things per se, or free of matter. The mode of understanding for angels, on the other hand, is not discursive or subject to the vicissitudes of corporeal organs, but rather a perception of intelligibles per se. Thomas states that angels know material things, and further, that they know particular material things. But this scale of intellective competence is not vertical; rather it is descending. The higher species (i.e., a specific kind of intellectual nature) must contain in some way, and to a greater degree of perfection, what is contained in the lower (e.g., a form in material nature). Whatever exists in material substance in a material way is present to intellectual substance in an intelligible way. Accordingly, angels, and God for that matter, do not require corporeal sense organs in order to know particular material things. Because there is no principle in nature that unites an intellective nature whose mode of understanding is pure to an intellective nature whose mode of understanding depends on bodily senses, it is unnecessary, as it is impossible for an angel to dwell in a body.
Thomas’ rational soul in a state of separation from the human body does not make a good parallel to the embodied/disembodied Cartesian mind for the following two reasons. First, God must preserve the separated soul after the death of the body. Without Divine support to conserve it, the separate soul has no more way of existing than members of either the vegetative or the nutritive category of soul. Second, Thomas’ separated souls require “an influx of divine species” to understand. In other words, to know anything at all, separated souls require images that come from something besides material objects of perception. God must both conserve and feed images to the human mind after the death of the body. Consider Thomas’ own comparisons of separated souls to separate substances:
To exist apart from bodies is an accidental competence on the part of souls, since they are naturally the form of bodies — this indicates that intellectual substance is neither equivalent to the rational soul of man, since it does not inhere in any material form, nor, on the contrary, do souls, after the body dies, qualify as substance occupying a corresponding division of existence to that of intellectual substances.

The characteristic act of intellectual substances is the act of understanding; we can specify the nature of this act from its object: things can be grasped by the intellect insofar as they are free from matter. Separate substances apprehend intellectual things because they are intellectual natures; they do not uncover the intelligible buried in the sensible by means of abstraction.

Concerning the origin of the Cartesian mind, Thomas’ separated souls bear a certain likeness to Descartes’ concept of mind, but fail to explain many characteristic features of the Cartesian mind, such as the fact that the rational mind does not require external objects of perception to know anything. The noetic contents of the Cartesian mind are not activated by external objects of perception. The Cartesian mind understands all concepts per se, without mediation, and it does not cease to understand when in either a temporary or a permanent state of separation from the body.

We have shown that Descartes’ rational mind is comparable to something like Aristotle’s rational soul turned inside out. To find a likely source for the origin of the Cartesian mind, another source closely allied to Aristotle’s rational mind must be considered— Thomas’ separate substances (otherwise known as angels ). The superior correspondence of Thomas’ separate substances to Descartes concept of mind can be seen in Thomas’ contrast between the separated soul and the separate substance’s respective mode of understanding:

The operation of understanding exercised through a corporeal organ is an imperfect means by which to understand. The substance of a thing must be commensurate to its operation, and understanding is the only proper operation of an intellectual substance… intellectual substances have no need of a body to apprehend their object [i.e., insofar as intelligibles are taken from material things, the faculty of understanding is imperfect, as is the case with the rational soul]. The proper objects of intellectual substance are things that in their very nature are intelligible, or things that are intelligible in themselves. In contrast, objects grasped by rational souls are things known by the intellect through the intermediary means of phantasms [i.e., images of objects of sense perception] received through sense organs. So, things in this way are not known through themselves, but through abstraction [i.e., conceptually].

Accordingly, Thomas himself argues that his separate substances are not equivalent to Aristotle’s rational soul. Separate substances are not formed of a compound of soul and body, while the rational soul, as Aristotle defines it, is always the form of the human body. Thomas’ separate substances bear a far greater likeness to the Cartesian mind in the respect that separate substances understand all essences directly (thus, they know material things and singulars as well ), and they understand without Divine mediation. From here we can draw the further parallel of the Cartesian mind to the Divine mind.



In order to build a case in his letter to the Sorbonne for the proof for the existence of God he gives in the Third Meditation, Descartes draws on Biblical citations that assert man’s knowledge of the existence of God to be “manifest.” Indeed, Descartes’ proof for the separabilty of the soul from the body in the Second Meditation hinges dialectically on his proof for the existence of God as an innate idea of the mind in the Third Meditation. Descartes’ substitution of the Scholastic term “soul” with the term “mind” is present in the Sorbonne letter, and so too is his doctrine of innate ideas: “everything that may be known of God” through the Scriptures, including man’s knowledge of God’s existence, “…can be demonstrated by reasoning which has no other source than our own mind.”

Descartes’ curious phrase, “no other source than our own mind,” introduces a subtle shift in his argument to the Sorbonne Dean and Doctors. Man’s empirical knowledge of the existence of God, according to Thomas and his 17th century adherents at the Sorbonne, is derived from God’s sensible effects throughout His creation. Under the idealist auspices of the Cartesian method, Thomas’ empiricism is abrogated to the realm of a fiction of the mind. According to Descartes, the mind’s knowledge of God’s existence is not discursive. According to Descartes, the Aristotelian/Thomistic claim that the mind’s knowledge of the existence of God can be derived from His sensible effects is a fallacy in the order of knowledge. The corporeal organs of sense only sense what is sensible; and God, who is incorporeal, cannot be apprehended in His existence through the corporeal senses. The dubitability of the objects of sense perception undermines the validity of knowledge derived from the material world. If man’s knowledge of the existence of God is drawn from sensible effects, then the existence of God can be called into doubt through the same channels by which His existence was asserted. Famously, Descartes does precisely this in his Mediations. Yet what was taken as evidence of Descartes’ atheist-skepticism by his critics was in reality Descartes’ rejection of Aristotle and Thomas’ rational soul that understands itself though the senses in favor of the understanding of the undiluted rational mind. The question of how good a Catholic was Descartes becomes clear when it is realized that the answer has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with competition between schools of thought. Competition between the Aristotelian and Platonist/neo-Platonist schools of thought was extremely wide-ranging in the 17th century. The Church’s shadow over intellectual life has been equally over-exaggerated by both commentators and historians of philosophy. In 1641, Descartes celebrated the birth of his mechanical man animated by William Harvey’s discovery of the heart that pumps blood. Such a conception of man represented a triumph over Aristotle’s rational soul animated by the fantasy of phantasia, not a victory over the claims of man’s revealed religion.

Of the three types of intellect treated in Descartes’ writings (Divine, angelic, and human), it is the Divine mind that most closely parallels the ego of the Meditations. Like the Divine mind, the Cartesian mind requires no medium, sensory or otherwise, to be activated. The ego, like the Divine mind, knows its essence directly. As opposed to the Aristotelian soul, the ego has no need of sensory or bodily organs to transmit images to the agent or passive intellect. Nor does the Cartesian ego require universal forms, as do Thomas’ angelic minds. Because no image is necessary to activate the Cartesian ego, it “does not ‘traverse,’ as do Thomas’ separate substances, the ontological distance from potentiality to actuality.” Nor is the Cartesian mind divided into the agent intellect and potential intellect. The Cartesian mind is always actual in the same way the Divine mind is, but in a finite, as opposed to an infinite sense. The ego is always, first and foremost, an act or intuition of existence, and is in act prior to any conscious mental act. The Cartesian mind, unlike the Aristotelian God that is thought thinking itself, is actualized before it thinks itself. One might ask what thought thinking itself was before it thought of itself. Finally, the Cartesian mind does not require a body (and therefore the external world) to be.

The nature of the ideas innate in the Cartesian mind (God, the ego, wax) are all encompassing, in the sense that the mind has an idea of all essences. In other words, the mind does not require the particulars of sense perception to grasp universal concepts. Logic, for instance, is not based on the particulars of sense, but on concepts reducible to mathematical or physical principles and properties. Cartesian man’s act of being— thinking— is not a bodily act. The self, or the mind, is not individuated by matter, whereas material objects are. The Cartesian mind knows the same universals as the Divine mind, but the difference is that the Cartesian mind is embodied, and thus subject to error: long as I think only of God, and turn my whole attention to him, I can find no cause of error or falsity. But when I turn back to myself, I know by experience that I am prone to countless errors.

In terms of further limitation, the mind is created by God, as Descartes states in the Third Mediation; Cartesian man’s act of being is not an act of self-creation, but an intuition of the self and an understanding of the essential nature of all things (e.g., Descartes’ experiment with the wax in the Second Mediation). In this respect, Descartes’ proof for the existence of God from the principle of causality in the Third Meditation is the only way of measuring the powers of rationality and the contents of the mind that has a rational understanding of all things.
The approximate identity of the Cartesian mind with the Divine mind is further underscored by Descartes’ emphasis on the ease with which the existence of God is “thinkable.” To discover the existence of God, Descartes substitutes the chain of causes in the sensible order for the chain of causes in the order of ideas. That the existence of God, according to Descartes, is more self-evident than the existence of the sensible world contradicts the Aristotelian/Thomist conception of the intellectual soul, which apprehends its object via the simple class of objects that Aquinas refers to as “sensible by accident,” or objects which are intelligible in themselves. Thomas argues that man’s knowledge of the existence of God, deriving from the order of created things, points to the necessity of His existence as the first cause of the material world, and the requirement that there exist in the universe intellectual creatures that bear “a likeness to its source, according to its being and its nature, wherein it enjoys a certain perfection.”

In the Third Meditation, the necessity of the mind’s a priori knowledge of the existence of God is deduced from the infinite nature of God. Descartes argues that the rational mind possesses the idea of an infinite being; the rational mind is finite, hence the finite mind’s idea of an infinite being must have a source outside of itself. Because a finite mind cannot generate the idea of an infinite being, it stands to reason that God put the idea of Himself in the rational mind. There is no other means, Descartes argues, by which a finite mind could be in possession of the idea of an infinite being. Descartes maintains that,

…the mere fact that God created me is a very strong basis for believing that I am somehow made in his image and likeness, and that I perceive that likeness, which includes the idea of God, by the same faculty which enables me to perceive myself.

The proposition that the mind is made in God’s image and likeness rests upon the assumption that the mind possesses judgment, rationality, and will — in other words, those communicable attributes that God possesses infinitely and perfectly, and the human mind to a limited and finite degree. Because the meditator perceives both God and the ego through the same faculty (the understanding), what is predicated of God (infinity and perfection) is also predicated of the mind, but to a diminished degree of perfection. The intuitive assertion of the “cogito” is ego cogito, ego sum; je pense donc je suis; I think, therefore I am. The parallel of Descartes’ philosophical doctrine to God’s answer to Moses on Mount Sinai was probably not lost on him. After all, the title of his Le Monde de M. Descartes ou le traité de la lumière, too, was intended as a reference to the command of God Himself, on the first day of the world, “Let there be light!”

In the final analysis, the Cartesian mind is not identical to the Divine mind, but bears a similarity to it in the same respect that the mind’s idea of extension only bears a similarity to extended things. An analogous parallel can be found in the cognitive lacuna that divides Thomas’ Divine mind from his separate substances, the angels. We can formulate a tripartite ontological lacuna in Descartes’ distinction of the thinking thing as such, and extended things as such; second, his distinction between the mind’s ideas of extended things, and extended things as such; and third, his account of the mind’s idea of God, and God as such.

The rational mind is, as Descartes phrases it after Augustine, caught between “being and nothingness.” The lacuna between the mind’s ideas of essences and material objects existing in time and space is the same ontological lacuna that obtains between being and non-being. What commentators term the “similarity thesis” refers to the objects of sense experience bearing a similarity to the mind’s ideas of objects of perception; the two are not identical, and therefore not dependent on one another for their respective operations. The body is a mechanism that functions on the circulation of blood, performing all of the same movements even if there is no mind in it. Hence, the lacuna between the rational mind and the body-machine is identical to the lack of correspondence between being and non-being as such.

Like Thomas’ separate substances, the Cartesian mind is caused by the Divine mind, and reflects the Divine mind in an imperfect, finite way. The difference between the modes of being enjoyed by God, who possesses both an infinite will and mind, and the limited faculties and powers enjoyed by man is such that “no essence can belong univocally to both God and his creatures.” What can be predicated essentially of man depends, according to Descartes, on the rational clarity by which the truth is perceived by the mind. “No actions,” Descartes claims, “can be reckoned human unless they depend on reason.”

The distinction again applies in the case of the ontological lacuna between the rational mind and the Divine mind. What is predicated of the rational mind, such as the mind’s knowledge of the truth or falsity of ideas, cannot likewise be predicated of the Divine nature. The mind and will of God is free in the absolute sense, and beyond truth and falsity. Thus, the limitless will and power of God enjoys an indifference to the created and uncreated as such. God, considered as an infinite, perfect substance, determines the order of things to be such for no other reason than that He wills it to be so. In the Sixth Set of Replies Descartes states, “the way in which it [viz., the freedom of the will] exists in God is quite different from the way in which it exists in us.” Descartes’ admission that he could not demonstrate that God could not annihilate the soul stems from his conception of the absolute freedom of an infinite God.

God’s freedom derives from His absolute indifference, or in Descartes’ words, “it is impossible to imagine that anything is thought of in the divine intellect as good or true… prior to the decision of the divine will to make it so…there is no “priority of order, or nature, or… rationally determined reason [that] impelled him to choose one thing rather than another.” Lastly, the rational mind is distinguished from the Divine mind in the respect that the rational mind perceives concepts that are immutably true, while the Divine mind, the infinite, perfect, incomprehensible originator of all is omni potens, and above rationality. Rationality is by definition a property of finite creatures that observe rules and operate according to mechanistic laws. God’s essence, according to Descartes, is not identical to the universal laws of mechanics; God’s essence consists of a will of “inexhaustible power,” hence the “cause or reason why he requires no cause.”


Aquinas, Thomas, St. 1956. Translated from Latin and edited by James F. Anderson.

On the Truth of the Catholic Faith: Summa Contra Gentiles, 4 vols. (Image
Books, Garden City, New York).

Aristotle, 1956. Richard McKeon (ed). The Basic Works of Aristotle (Random
House, New York).

Boehner, Philotheus, O.F.M. 1990. William Ockham: Philosophical Writings: A
Selection, translated and edited by P. Boehner, O.F.M. (Hackett Publishing
Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge).

Copleston, Frederick, S. J., 1960. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy:
Descartes to Leibniz, volume 4 (Image Books, Garden City, New York).

Descartes, Rene, 1964-71, Œuvres. Ed. by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery. New
edition 12 vols. (Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, Paris, 1996).

—. 1984. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Translated by John Cottingham,
Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Mardoch, and Anthony Kenny. 3 vols. (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press).

Fowler, C.F., 1999. Descartes On the Human Soul: Philosophy and the Demands of
Christian Doctrine (International Archive of the History of Ideas, 160; Kluwer
Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston, London).

Marion, Jean-Luc, 1986. “The Essential Incoherence of Descartes’ Definition of
Divinity, trans. by Frederick P. Van de Pitte, in Essays on Descartes Meditations,
ed. by Amelie Oksenberg Rorty (University of California Press, Berkley).

Popkin, Richard, 2003 (revised and expanded edition). The History of Skepticism:
From Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford University Press, New York, New York).


On Sir Thomas Browne, Francis Bacon, & Michel de Montaigne

Picture 580

The claims of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to seats among the moderns can hardly be denied– Montaigne is the heir of Sextus Empiricus, Bacon the father of Descartes and the modern experiment. Together, skepticism and the experimental method align as the twin pole stars of modern science. Sir Thomas Browne (1602-1682), a writer and thinker of unique power and extreme sensibility, occupies a more dubious position in relation to modernity. This is in spite of the fact that he outlived Bacon by sixty-four years, that he knew, at least partially, the writings of both Bacon and Montaigne, and was himself a contributor to several divisions of science and scholarly learning. He was also ever conversant with the latest advances in the sciences, as well as possessed of an intimate knowledge of the classics.

For Sir Thomas, Heaven was the abode of the mystic as well as the natural philosopher; but on earth, neither science nor the physician could change the destiny of any man, nor do anything to alter or destroy the truths of his mystic, apocalyptic faith. It is in this light that we must approach with caution the writings of Browne; particularly in those moments when he derides the Scholastics, seems to echo Montaigne, or speaks the language of Bacon and the Cartesians. The rejection of authority– be it the Divine Right of princes, the Ptolemaic system of the cosmos, or Aristotle’s concept of soul– was the common road traveled by those who made the so-called scientific revolution in the 17th century. Francis Bacon famously claimed that the Ancient natural philosophers had actually contributed little to the inquiry into the secrets of nature through their method, which Bacon styled “anticipations of nature.” If nature is not purpose-driven, if “soul” is not specific to anything, then nature is a machine made of parts that are separable and re-organizable. Like Galen’s medicine, or Pliny’s history, Aristotle’s theories of teleology and psychology, exhaustively elaborated through the period of the Middle Ages, faced its final opposition in the 17th century. Yet it was not on account of a rejection of religious faith and devotion that the change from Ancient to modern science came about, but through the division of the two spheres, faith and natural philosophy, into two vast categories of things relevance to the human condition.

In Montaigne, Bacon, and Browne, the arguments for the rejection of authority of the Ancients, and authority in general, come down to the notion that the hitherto unrealized worth of experience and experiment relieves contemporary intellectual life of its burden of gratitude and dogmatic adherence to the writings and opinions of the Ancients. Yet Browne’s rejection of Ancient authority, and authority in general, does not extend beyond what any sober-minded scholar might object to in the writings of an historian with a penchant for interjecting folklore into his narrative. On the other hand, derision of the authority of the Ancients is arguably a necessary component of the idiosyncratic style in Montaigne’s Essays — indeed, the belittling of authority, be it ancient or modern, religious or political, is the primary way to elevate the “self,” the “I,” to a new level of confessional authority, which is synonymous with autonomy. Bacon’s rejection of authority lends itself to his aphoristic style, which, in its “interpretive” lack of systematization, makes a mockery of Aristotle and the Scholastics for prematurely “anticipating nature” in their vast, artificially constructed systems. Thus, Montaigne, Bacon and Browne invoke the theme of the rejection of the authority of the Ancients to differing ends. In the final analysis, the rejection of authority is not so much a thematic parallel between the three writers, but rather a tendency in intellectual life distinguishing the 16th and 17th centuries from the Medieval era, when the writings of the Ancients were still being assimilated and commented upon.

The similarity of Browne’s writings to those of Montaigne and Bacon coincides in terms of a muscular skepticism.  The main differences lie in Browne’s deference to the authority of religion. The authority of religion is arguably the meta-element in the thought of Browne; it is according to the precepts of religion that the world of ideas and opinions are entirely subordinated in his writings. This fideistic dimension is not a main characteristic found in Montaigne or Bacon’s writings, even though both frankly and regularly confess their lifelong devotion to the Christian religion. Allegiance, however, does not dictate the subject of their respective inquiries, whether it is the self or nature. Thus, by applying the fideistic distinction, some characteristic differences can be isolated between the thought of Browne and the early-modern thought of Bacon. In so doing, a more general concluding distinction can be drawn, and that is to identify an intellectual characteristic that differentiates the intellectual attitude of fully fledged modernity, such as we find it in the writings of Montaigne, from an attitude that points back to an earlier time in pre-modern intellectual life, such as we find it in the writings of Browne.

I. Science and Faith: Browne and Bacon

Browne recognizes in the precepts and dogmas of Christianity an absolute and final authority on all matters pertaining to man’s existence. It is perhaps on this characteristic head that Browne’s position is the most easily distinguished from the respective positions of Montaigne and Bacon. Browne never wavers in his application of his religious position to whatever the subject of his writings may be. On the other hand, Montaigne and Bacon vary from one work to the next in regard to the presence or absence of religion in the treatment of their respective subjects; they are resolute only on the point of obedience to the will of the Christian church. On the other hand, fideism begins and ends Browne’s argument — the ever-present memento mori and the consuming totality of an eternal God serve as a backdrop and a foil to the mutable aspirations and vanities of mankind.

The impotence of philosophy to lend support to faith or serve as the handmaid to theology is a notion that follows thoroughly in the wake of the activities and writings of Luther and Calvin. Following a notion found in the thought of both Luther and Calvin, Browne proposes that the Christian faith should be subjected to all the tribunals of history, as well as the scrutiny of science and philosophy, so that there might not be a single doctrine left intact or standing before the hubris of man, who pretends to the measurement of all things:

“As for those wingy mysteries in divinity, and airy subtleties in religion, which have unhinged the brains of better heads, they never stretched the pia mater of mine. Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in religion for an active faith: the deepest mysteries ours contains have not only been illustrated, but maintained, by syllogism and the rule of reason. I love to lose myself in a mystery; to pursue my reason to an O altitudo! ‘Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity — incarnation and resurrection. I can answer all the objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with that odd resolution I learned of Tertullian, Certum est quia impossibile est.”

Certain contemporary critics of Religio Medici mistook Browne’s purpose of examining his religious opinions for a work of theology, yet in this fragment, Browne expressly abjures theologizing in his exclamation of “O altitudo!” The conditions of rationality set down by logic and syllogistic reasoning are not conducive to an active faith, which naturally repulses any rational explanation of faith’s irrational mysteries — rational thought is destructive and antithetical to the truths of faith. When, for example, the existence of God and the immortality of the soul can be proven through reason alone, faith ceases to act as knowledge without proof, and instead becomes certain knowledge. Religion, according to both the Reformers and to Browne, squanders its raison d’être, which is to say its veracity, when the truths of faith are changed to rationally acquired truths — the realm of faith is by definition irrational when opposed to the kingdom of reason, which is governed by empirical and logical norms. The authority of religion, based on the sovereignty of faith as opposed to the sovereignty of reason, must at least keep philosophy accountable, or enmity between the truths of faith and the truths of reason could give rise to the paradoxical possibility of the “double truth.”

In his Advancement of Learning, Bacon circumscribes the truths of faith without questioning the Scriptural authority from whence those truths issue. He does so in order to demonstrate that theology has nothing to add to natural philosophy, and certainly nothing to add to the investigation of empirical nature though methodic experiment. All observable phenomena stand outside the compass of divine knowledge for two reasons: there is no ascent from particular things and principles to universal things, or the first principles of science; second, knowledge of such things as the soul and its immortality cannot be acquired through knowledge of empirical particulars — the former species of knowledge is given through apocalypse, the latter through experience. Moreover, according to Bacon, the “light of nature” declares the existence of God to be self-evident because a creator is necessary to explain the existence of the material world; but the natural light is predictably silent on such things as the immortality of the soul and miracles. Through the light of nature, the knowledge of the existence of God is impressed on the understanding; hence, if nature can be explained by science without recourse to the miraculous or the divine, one has merely to accept the explanations of science, which do not require a miracle.

In the Religio Medici, Browne maintains a similar opinion on the self-evident nature of the existence of God; but rather than exclude God from participation in “the ordinary course of nature” (viz., laws of nature), “the effects of nature” are in every sense the “works of God, whose hand and instrument she only is; and therefore, to ascribe his actions unto her is to devolve the honor of the principle agent upon the instrument.” The difference between Bacon and Browne then, in respect to the authority of religion is, to take the case of Browne first, the function of religion as a totality beyond which nothing has meaning or reference. Science, history, and philosophy are all subsumed under the purposive ends of divinity, and employed as instrumental or artful servants. Divinity breaks in on Browne as he reviews his opinions touching hermeneutics, literally interrupting the flow of his discourse with, “thus I teach my haggard and unreclaimed reason to stoop unto the lure of faith,” and, “this, I think, is no vulgar part of faith, to believe a thing not only above, but contrary to, reason, and against the arguments of our proper senses.” Bacon, on the other hand, seeks to neither supplant religion with science nor make science accountable to religious principles — rather, he seeks to free scientific inquiry from any consideration of religion. Bacon’s programme of dividing disciplines in order that each may proceed in the most efficacious way requires that arts that were formerly joined, such as the “three knowledges; divine philosophy, natural philosophy, and human philosophy, or humanity,” pursue their respective ends individually, and draw their conclusions uninhibitedly.

The Baconian experimental method narrows the scope of what can be legitimately investigated by science, viz., the method begins and ends with the evidence of empirical phenomena.
While Browne’s approach to science in Pseudodoxia Epidemica includes experiment, induction is held to serve as nothing more than a corrective to man’s ignorance of phenomena — Browne is a castigator of false opinion sans the concern for generating a method or principles whereby science, or the inquiry into phenomena, will ultimately be freed from the bonds of superstition. In Religio Medici, Browne cavils about the same difficult doctrines that innumerable commentators have caviled on, but then invites the “gentle reader” to laugh with him at the folly of those who take such quibbles too seriously by holding the indubitability of the Scriptures too lightly. We find that Browne affects a similar pose in the empiricism of his scientific writings. The care for knowledge gained through the senses should be worn on the shoulders like a light mantle, to be cast off when the infallible truths of Scripture contradicts the fallible judgments men make of their experience. In his panoramic view of the charnel house of human history, Browne the Christian, and Browne the secular physician and scientist keep uncertain, even antagonistic company. Nature, as Browne writes in Religio Medici, is the work of God, and man cannot comprehend how the Creator works, save analogically, nor can he appropriate the tools of the Creator to achieve his own ends. Medicine is an artifice, and as such acts as a kind of mimesis of the infinite artificer; yet the application of medicine’s purgative and restorative powers, according to Browne, while beneficial to the cure of bodily infirmity, is adversative to the cure of souls. Medicine, according to this view, is antithetical to the plans of the Creator, as it necessarily works towards a greater human good, rather than as a means of serving a purpose in a transcendent teleological design that excludes individual human interests and desires. Browne has a different prescription for addressing the seeming irreconcilable differences of faith and reason, which is for each to keep to its respective place so as not to unnecessarily undermine the tenets of the one, while illegitimately raising the claims of the other.

II. Browne and Modernity

Browne is a paradoxical figure, but not in the same sense as Montaigne, who both refuses and accepts whichever category he is put into. The paradoxical nature of Browne is part and parcel of the age in which he lived, which is best understood in terms of irregularity rather than contradiction. The 17th century did not abide the kinds of impassible — which is to say, fashionable — cultural distinctions enjoyed in our current age between religion and science, the sacred and the secular, the state and the individual, &c. Certainly there were other sets of cultural distinctions particular to Browne’s time, but these are no longer operatives in our time.
Browne is ultimately an ambiguous figure, and is, to a certain (though not measurable) degree, representative of the paradoxical age in which he lived. Science lived in tolerable domesticity with religion; empiricism held rationalism at bay with its principle of bon sens; one could entertain Cartesian reductionist notions of thought and extension and still be a loyal Aristotelian. Browne may present himself in the guise of the scourge of vulgar and popular error, but he is never willing to sacrifice his religious faith, or even suggest such a desperate outrage to promote man’s self-important ends, or mix the tenants of faith with the necessarily imperfect principles of the natural sciences. Rather, Browne’s singular principle of the inevitability of the grave, and the eternal life to come, stands above rational judgment altogether, and does not waver or equivocate at any turn — hence, this may be justly set down as Browne’s “Archimedean point,” the negative principle with which all positive knowledge must be reckoned. But death does not admit of any “sic et non,” or any logical conveniences like the universal or particular affirmation or negation. The study of life and death, Brown writes in the Epistle Dedicatory to Thomas Le Gros in his Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial, makes up the daily operation of men such as themselves. The locus of their enquiry is the whole of the earth, for as such, it is but a vast tomb. The ax, spade and brush are but tools for exhuming the curious relics of man, the rational animal, whose dual essence gives him over to the ceremonialization of his own transience, yet whose fondest wish is but to continue in existence, and perpetually evade the extinction that mortal destiny carries with it. Funeral customs are geographically and chronologically particular things, but “the end of all, the poppied sleep” that gives occasion for so much variation in man’s funerary practices, is an ultimate and universal phenomenon. Browne’s Platonism is borne out by his persistent opposition of the fleeting to the eternal. The sensuous curtain of the phenomenal world, according to Browne, is a deception and a cheat when considered superficially, or as its own end. The immutable truths of the existence of a Creator that is both transcendent and participatory in the created order, and an immortal human soul, are necessary foundations for any kind of inquiry into the truth of things. In Browne’s writings, it is this particular combination of objective fact and religious devotion — les extrêmes qui se touchent — that renders the scope of his writings at once wider and narrower than the scope of Montaigne in the Essays, and Bacon in his scientific treatises. For instance, Browne’s objective inquiry on funerary urns rapidly gives way to a lengthy meditation on the gloomy spectacle of other men’s relics, ashes, or tombs, as the case may be. His most well known writings, the Urn Burial and Religio Medici, consist mainly of sustained digressions on his preferred themes of God, the mysteries of the faith, and mortality and immortality; but perhaps this is so only because his subjects inevitably relieve themselves of their particularities in the ubiquitous lap of the Creator.

On A. C. Swinburne’s Poems & Ballads & the Theory of the Monodrama


I. Why a Classification of the Love Poems is Needed

A passing examination of A. C. Swinburne’s scandal-inspiring Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866), reveals a volume of poetry consumed with describing the experience of love. To this end, Jerome McGann summarily observes that in the “…deliberately varied love lyrics… Swinburne represents many types of love relations, from the lightest and most inconsequent… through all sorts of more serious passions, tender, frenzied, and otherwise” 1 A corresponding point is made by David G. Riede, who punctuates the driving force of Poems and Ballads more directly, remarking, “The central theme of Poems and Ballads is love, and the moral position, constantly reiterated, is that love made life more beautiful in the days before a restrictive, oppressive morality set in.”2 While the consequent point is arguably untenable for understanding the diversity of the “love relations” described in Swinburne’s “deliberately varied love lyrics,” Riede’s assertion concerning the central theme of Poems and Ballads raises a question that goes to the heart of Swinburne’s love poetry— what is the nature of the experience of love that Swinburne elaborates; and is the nature of that experience static, or does it evolve?

John Rosenberg argues that Swinburne is “the poet of love’s impossibility,” and that in Swinburne’s love poetry “[t]here is much passion, but little conjunction,” adding that, “emotion is felt but not communicated and not returned.” 3 The experience of love, under the rubric of its “impossibility,” indicates that love, for Swinburne, a point fixed in the most Northerly of the heavens. Rosenberg’s formulation implies that Swinburne conceives of love as a predestined failure, and that the poet’s experience of the failure of love is transmitted uniformly throughout all the love poems. This formulation may be a suitable assessment for certain love poems in Poems and Ballads, but Rosenberg’s critical meta-theme fails to accurately characterize or categorize a considerable number of that work’s large stock of love poems. Swinburne’s first published collection of poems is arguably as committed to a versified exploration of love in its many guises as Ovid’s Elegies, or Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. For instance, in some of Swinburne’s love poems, love is intermittently cast in the mold of a concentrated focus of desire that ends in frustration, as in “The Triumph of Time,” or the pathological and unrequitable experience of love in “The Leper.” Yet such is not the case in other love poems, such as “A Ballad of Life,” “Rococo,” or “Dolores.” Swinburne is not consistently driving home a single moral or fatalistic point about the experience of love; rather, he is dealing with love as an evolving, yet recurring constellation of emotions and experiences. Thus, Swinburne’s treatment of love in poems such as “A Leper,” and “The Triumph of Time” can be disengaged from his treatment of love in other such poems as “A Ballad of Life,” “Rococo,” or “Dolores.” In comparison to poems where one version or another of ill-fated love is the principle theme, the three latter poems (to take a few chief examples) present the reader of Poems and Ballads with wholly distinct settings and situations in which Swinburne explores love in a dramatic fashion.

As the meta-theme of Poems and Ballads, the poems treating of love dominate both the political poetry and the poems in praise of Swinburne’s literary heroes by a considerable percentage. The volume is Swinburne’s oeuvre on love, par excellence; and as the overriding theme of Swinburne’s first volume of lyric poetry, the poems treating of love can arguably be sub-grouped according to thematic similarities. Grouping the love poems systematically highlights the four claims that Swinburne makes about love in Poems and Ballads. I propose a provisional fourfold division in which to approach the love poems individually: 1. “impossible love;”4 2. “violent love;”5 3. “light love,”6 and 4. “transforming love.”7 Each group consists of poems that, while containing a complex web of verbal and imagistic parallels to the other three groups, nevertheless constitute a thematic unit that invites the reader to consider them as an independent and cohesive sub-group, or movement, within the larger context of Poems and Ballads.

In the book, love is cast in various scenarios to dramatize key problems concerning the nature of love, and these scenarios can be categorized according to the type of problem addressed. Dividing the love poetry into four groups provides a provisional analytical map of the characteristics and themes I have chosen to treat under the four categories of love poems. These are by no means the only ones available to readers of Poems and Ballads. Nevertheless, highlighting certain characteristics and themes demonstrates how seemingly disparate poems can be easily integrated into respective categories, based on how the theme of love is handled, and a corresponding narrative drawn up in respect to Swinburne’s assertion that Poems and Ballads constitutes a single, cohesive dramatic narrative of love’s birth, death, and redemption.

II. The Love Poems and the Problem of Swinburne’s “Monodrame” Theory

What commentators have found justification to accept or deny regarding Swinburne’s “monodrame” theory comes primarily from the loose sketch that Swinburne provides in his Notes on Poems and Reviews. The “monodrame’ theory is arguably one of the least theoretically grounded points in the his reply to his earliest critics, driven, as it is, by rhetorical effusions and a spirit of righteous indignation. While considering how to respond to critics of Poems and Ballads, Swinburne, in a letter of the 28th September, 1866 to William Michael Rossetti, writes,

I should not like to bracket “Dolores” and the two following [“The Garden of Proserpine” and “Hesperia”] as you propose. I ought (if I did) to couple with them in front harness the “Triumph of Time” etc., as they express that state of feeling the reaction from which is expressed in “Dolores.” Were I to rechristen these three as trilogy, I should have to rename many earlier poems as acts in the same play.8

Rossetti changed Swinburne’s mind on the matter, as his discussion of “Dolores,” “The Garden of Proserpine,” and “Hesperia,” as a “lyrical monodrame” in Notes on Poems and Reviews bears out; Swinburne does not, however go so far as to rename any of the earlier or later poems in the book to flesh-out or fortify his conception of the three poems as constituting a “trilogy.” The phrase, “acts in the same play,” indicates that Swinburne considered more than just the latter three poems to be related, although he does not indicate which poems he has in mind, or precisely how these unnamed poems are to be grouped, phalanx-like, behind the troika.

Reviewing Swinburne’s remarks upon the dramatic character of his poems in Notes on Poems and Reviews, a number of commentators on Poems and Ballads have debated whether Swinburne’s classification of the poems “Dolores,” “Hesperia,” and “The Garden of Proserpine” can be understood as acts in a “lyrical monodrame,”9 or if Swinburne’s claim that Poems and Ballads comprises a monodrama is simply untenable. Nicholas Shrimpton claims that Swinburne’s defense of his book as a monodrama acts as “a mere subterfuge, or convenient mask, for the expression of inconveniently controversial impulses and opinions.”10 In his early estimate of Swinburne’s poems, Rossetti maintains that,

[a]n attentive perusal of the volume will, we think, disclose in it four main currents of influence and feeling … 1. the Passionately Sensuous; 2. the Classic, or Antique; 3. the Heterodox, or religiously mutinous; and 4. the Assimilative or Reproductive in point of Literary Form.11

It is notable that Rossetti places at the head of his list the category of “the Passionately Sensuous,” or in other words, that constellation of poems whose primary focus is love. With Rossetti’s review of Swinburne’s first volume possibly in mind, Samuel Chew remarks in his literary biography of Swinburne that, “No success has attended the efforts of the critics who have attempted a formal classification of the various poems: Classical, Medieval, Pre-Raphaelite, and so forth; for there is much overlapping between these categories.”12 This general feeling is echoed in Jerome J. McGann’s critical assessment of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads:

…the only real problem with accepting the ‘monodrame’ theory… is the heterogeneous character of the book. Swinburne seems not to have made up his mind about its main focus— whether it should concentrate itself in its indirect social attack, or in a virtuoso technical display, or in dramatic autobiography.13

Most critics who have accepted Swinburne’s “monodrame” theory have merely repeated and recycled the tripartite rhetoric-driven “plot” that Swinburne gave in Notes on Poems and Reviews. Such is the case in David G. Riede’s assessment that “The last three stanzas of “Sapphics” describe the death of passion and, as in ‘Hesperia,’ the love that revives as a ghost rearisen.” Riede goes on to note that this “same basic pattern recurs persistently…,” adding,

The essential ideas underlying that dramatic pattern can now be briefly summarized. The first stage, that of passion… shows man tormented by his divided nature, by the incompatibility of soul and sense. The second represents man exhausted by passion and willing to still the battle within himself by destroying both body and soul. At this point he comes to the crucial recognition that body and soul are equal, at least insofar as both are perishable. In the final stage, the first is seen muted by the second, and it is here that art, carrying passion through death, redeems the soul. This phase provides at least a meager consolation for existence, the consolation that something of a man lives on in the record of his passion commemorated in song.”14

Riede is correct to observe a recurring thematic pattern in Poems and Ballads, but Swinburne’s claim that the three poems, “Dolores,” “The Garden of Proserpine,” and “Hesperia” form a kind of “monodrame” rests, it should be observed, on the a posteriori invention of a general hermeneutical framework first suggested to Swinburne by William Rossetti. A further complication in the “monodrame” theory is due to the fact that Swinburne only applies his hermeneutical framework to a tripartite group of poems situated near the end of a volume of verse containing a total of sixty-two poems. With the exception of the tripartite “monodrame” of “Dolores,” “The Garden of Proserpine,” and “Hesperia,” Swinburne’s “heterogeneous” collection of verse does not impose on the reader any formal framework or map of how the poems, as a unified work, are associated, or how they should generally be understood. It would appear, then, that Swinburne’s poems are vexed to explain how they should be read as a “lyrical monodrame.”

In terms of formalized structure, Swinburne’s suggestion that his Poems and Ballads contains “a more extensive monodrama,”15 and that many poems can be read as “acts in the same play” has yet to be explored in depth in critical commentary. The way in which the poems in Poems and Ballads are organized warrants a structured reading of the predominate category of poems in the book; in this case, the love poetry. The majority of love poems are either grouped into repeated subsets according to genera, topic, or the strategic placement of poems (the beginning, middle, and end of the book),16 or grouped into pairs, triads, or mini-cycles. Given the bare theoretic outlines Swinburne provides in letters and Notes on Poems and Reviews, the reader of Poems and Ballads is at liberty to construct, or otherwise sort out which “earlier poems” Swinburne may have had in mind as constituting “acts in the same play,” and what that arrangement might look like.

In Poems and Ballads, Swinburne asserts four major claims about love, which correspond to the division of the love poems into four distinct categories. From this division, a dramatic structure is generated out of the poems themselves. When placed in relevant groupings, the four categories of love poems reveal characteristic features between themselves that may not be evident in Swinburne’s original ordering of the poems.

III. Poems of “Transforming Love”

The poems classed under “transforming love” are the only poems in the division that are either directly or indirectly organized around a single person: Lucretia Estensis Borgia.17 The poems in this category include: “A Ballad of Life,” “A Ballad of Death,” and “Love and Sleep.” In addition to the three Lucretia Borgia pieces from Poems and Ballads, First Series, we include two extant poems by Swinburne on Lucretia Borgia not contained in the 1866 collection, but known to date from the period that the rest of the poems in the volume were composed: “By the Sea-Side,” and the sonnet, “Ah face & hands & body beautiful.”18 Grouping these poems together is justified by the unusual, almost miraculous attributes Swinburne consistently attributes to the figure of Lucretia Borgia. It is evident that the speaker (granting the supposition that it is consistently the same speaker) in the Borgia poems perceives her as a Christ-figure; she is “righteous,” fashioned like no other woman, and “more than peace” are “the passage of her days.” To this end, in his “A Ballad of Death,” Swinburne reinvents the “historical” Lucretia Borgia in order to rewrite the scene surrounding the nativity of Christ, even adding veiled allusions to the crucifixion (“spikenard bruised for a burnt-offering”) to round out his portrayal of her as an effective surrogate for Christ:

Even she whose handmaiden was Love— to whom

At kissing times across her stateliest bed

Kings bowed themselves and shed

Pale wine, and honey with the honeycomb,

And spikenard bruised for a burnt-offering;

Even she between whose lips the kiss became

As fire and frankincense;

Whose hair was as gold raiment on a king,

Whose eyes were as the morning purged with flame,

Whose eyelids as sweet savour issuing thence.19

According to Swinburne’s conception of Lucretia Borgia, she is a mediator between the certainty of the death of the living, and the death of love, intervening on behalf of man’s fallen body rather than man’s fallen or corrupted soul.

In his poem, “A Ballad of Life,” the respective personifications of fear, shame and lust are made to say, “I am Pity that was dead,” “I am Sorrow comforted,” and “I am Love.” These indemnified transformations do not find any echo in Swinburne’s representative poem of hope from his trilogy, “Hesperia.” Like “The Garden Of Proserpine,” “Hesperia” is a-historical, even a-temporal, and completely the product of Swinburne’s own mythopoetic enterprise. On the other hand, the poems concerning or addressed to Lucretia Borgia are firmly anchored, by inclusion of an historical personage, in 16th century Italy. Even the form of verse Swinburne chose to employ in “A Ballad of Life” and “A Ballad of Death”— the Italian canzone— is significant of the historical backdrop of the poems. Yet Swinburne’s vision of Lucretia Borgia is based on the romanticism of Blake, and has very little to do with her as an historical person. Swinburne re-invents the historical Lucretia Borgia, thus synthesizing historical biography and Blakean mytho-romanticism. The miraculous redemption of fear, shame and lust at the hands of the mytho-historical Lucretia Borgia do not return pity, sorrow, and love to the realm of “the beyond,” to the inaccessible status of the “thing-in-itself.” The virtues Swinburne embodies in the person of Lucretia Borgia radiate from her, and they cannot properly exist for the poet outside of her type, symbol, or otherwise in her absence. Let the second to last stanza of “A Ballad of Life” provide a representative example of the first group:

Then I said: Now assuredly I see

My lady is perfect, and transfigureth

All sin and sorrow and death,

Making them fair as her own eyelids be,

Or lips wherein my whole soul’s life abides;

Or as her sweet white sides

And bosom carved to kiss.

Now therefore, if her pity further me,

Doubtless for her sake all my days shall be

As righteous as she is.20

In this fragment, love is neither illustrative of an unachievable union of the lover with his beloved, nor a conventionalized romantic love in which both participants delight in the transformation undergone by virtue of the power of their mutual affection. Rather, this stanza, and indeed the whole of the poem in question, describes a quasi-hierophany in which the sacred, manifested in the perfection and righteousness of Lucretia Borgia, miraculously alters shame to “Sorrow comforted,” lust to love, and converts “All sin and sorrow and death” to their opposite values. The power of her beauty and her song causes the personifications of shame, fear, and lust to become “as men raised up among the dead,” and their “fair cheeks made red/ With child’s blood come again.”21 The tone of “A Ballad of Life” has a gospel quality to it; but in the stead of the miracles of Christ, Swinburne places the miracles of Lucretia Borgia.

Contra the union of lover’s souls in the Platonic system, it is the union of bodies, or the possibility of some form of commerce with the physical embodiment of beauty, that Swinburne emphasizes in his Borgia poems. As Swinburne never tires of repeating, the heart wears out; expectations are frustrated, and it is not the love of souls that survives in the fluctuating world of appearances, but the mingling of the fleshly senses with the object of desire.22 In his sonnet, “Ah face & hands & body beautiful,” a number of parallels to “A Ballad of Life” and “A Ballad of Death” are evident, making this poem a fit companion piece to the latter two poems. Even though she is not named, given the significant parallels in terms of the perfections that Swinburne attributes to the woman in his sonnet, it is reasonably certain that he again had his half-mystical, half-bestial conception of Lucretia Borgia in mind. Swinburne inverts the Platonic ontology of “forms” in order to “naturalize,” or instantiate the divine in his portrait of a woman whose physical perfection and amorous virtues are a boon to her lovers, even unto the grave:

Ah face & hands & body beautiful,

Fair tender body, for my body’s sake

Are you made faultless without stain or break,

Locks close as weed in river-water cool,

A purer throat and softer than white wool,

Eyes where sleep always seems about to wake,

No dead man’s flesh feels the strong sweet ache

And that sharp amorous watch the years annul

If his grave’s grass have felt you anywhere.

Rain & the summer shadow of the rain

Are not so gentle to the feverous year

As your soft rapid kisses are to men

Felt here about my face, yea here & here,

Caught on my lips & thrown you back again.23

Once the “sharp amourous watch” of her love has been experienced, or “felt anywhere,” time cannot annul or efface the love she gives to her lovers. She is the embodiment of perfection, a quasi-hierophic figure, and thus there is no need for her lovers to look to heaven or await salvation in the hereafter, as that condition is realized in her marvelous being. Swinburne makes a skillful pun on the words flesh, grass, and grave, implying that all flesh is as grass, and that the body is itself a sort of grave that the “strong sweet ache” of love can no longer be harbored in after the body dies. According to Swinburne, the experience of the divine and its pleasures need go no further than the body. The quasi-divine experience of love both transforms one’s experience of the phenomenal world and, in so doing, fabricates a kind of permanence in a world of fleeting, mutable meanings and things.

In his sonnet, “Love and Sleep,” the image of the perfect lover is taken up even more directly:

Lying asleep between the strokes of night

I saw my love lean over my sad bed,

Pale as the duskiest lily’s leaf or head,

Smooth-skinned and dark, with bare throat made to bite,

Too wan for blushing and too warm for white,

But perfect-coloured without white or red.

And her lips opened amorously, and said—

I wist not what, saving one word— Delight.

And all her face was honey to my mouth,

And all her body pasture to mine eyes;

The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire,

The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,

The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs

And glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.

Coming to the speaker’s “sad bed,” the object of his desire completely satisfies him with the sight and enjoyment of her body. Love is not innocent in this poem, as words and phrases such as “bite,” “Too wan for blushing,” and “hotter hands than fire” make clear. Swinburne’s ironically idealized conception of love as being brought to perfection in strictly a corporeal sense is a complete antithesis to any conception of love that exalts the love souls over the love of bodies. Swinburne produces a fantasy world in the Borgia poems that, according to Baird, hearkens within certain limits back to “a lost golden age,” somewhat after the fashion of Blake’s Songs of Innocence.24 Swinburne’s visionary reverse-apotheosis of Lucretia Borgia as a corporealized, rather than a spiritualized saint is reducible to a particularity of his own mythopoetic enterprise.

IV. Poems of “Impossible Love”

As a negative corollary to the poems of “transforming love,” the poems representative of “love’s impossibility” explore the event of love failing between people. They also trace the moral and psychological consequences that come with love’s defeat at the hands of fate, time, and death. In this second group of poems, Swinburne displays less of a tendency toward mythologizing the object of his desire, which characteristic features prominently in some of his other poems, and instead deploys throughout the poems of “impossible love” certain devices and conceits originating in French Troubadour lyric poetry. As Antony H. Harrison observes regarding Swinburne’s creative relationship to the Medieval Troubadours, “Like the troubadours, Swinburne defines passion as a source of suffering…,” with only the prospect of total freedom allowing “a release from the material sufferings of life.” Harrison further observes a connection between suffering and total freedom, noting that, “Achieving freedom from a cruel or unattainable lady (the archetype in troubadour poetry) requires precisely what achieving freedom from cruel tyrants necessitates: self-immolation.” 25 While Harrison’s estimation tends to ascribe perhaps too much in Swinburne’s love poetry to the influence of Courtly Love and the French Troubadours,26 the connection is nevertheless invaluable for understanding Swinburne’s astonishing homage to courtly love taken to its horrifying, logical extreme in his poem, “The Leper”:

Six months, and now my sweet is dead

A trouble takes me; I know not

If all were done well, all well said,

No word or tender deed forgot…

Six months, and I sit still and hold

In two cold palms her cold two feet.

Her hair, half grey half ruined gold,

Thrills me and burns me in kissing it.

Love bites and stings me through, to see

Her keen face made of sunken bones.

Her worn-off eyelids madden me,

That were shot through with purple once.27

Swinburne’s use of phrases such as “half grey half ruined gold,” underscore the indeterminacy of even the body’s relationship to death, indicating a sort of lacuna between the “reality” of life and the “reality” of death.28 Colors, emotions, indeed any object of sense perception are all constantly in a state of metamorphosizing into some other color, emotion, or type of object other than the object-as-such that the senses present to the mind, until the whole perception of reality is renovated at the end:

I am grown blind with all these things:

It may be now she hath in sight

Some better knowledge; still there clings

The old question. Will not God do right?29

This might be taken to mean that the grounds of existence are illusory and deceptive, after the fashion of Heraclitus, but Swinburne’s conception is different. For Swinburne, the grounds of existence are not determined by absolutist dualities like life and death. He envisions life and death as being added to, subtracted from, multiplied, and divided according to an inscrutable calculus, with life ever shading into death, and death forever shading into life:

I vex my head with thinking this.

Yea, though God always hated me,

And hates me now that I can kiss

Her eyes, plait up her hair to see…

God, that makes time and ruins it

And alters not, abiding God,

Changed with disease her body sweet,

The body of love wherein she abode…

Yea, though God hateth us, he knows

That hardly in a little thing

Love faileth of the work it does

Till it grow ripe for gathering.

Swinburne’s piling of adjectives in “The Leper,” such as “Thrills me and burns me,” and “Love bites and stings me,” erect an insuperable barrier between the one desiring and the object of desire. One never experiences the thrill of love itself; the simulacrum of love burns, bites, and stings. Given that love as such can only be experienced through a simulacrum, the unattainable/attainable love that the scribe extends to the leprosy-stricken woman itself becomes another version of “half grey half ruined gold,” always sensibly grading into pity, hate, fear, or frustration. The love of the scribe for his patient is as pathological as her condition. The phrase, “To do the service God forbids,” indicates two acts on the part of the scribe— one, sacrilegious, and the other, a perversion of the proper relationship between man and wife. God forbids the clerk to nurse the leper because He has inflicted her for her illicit affair with a knight; but in spite of God, the scribe hides her out of sight from all who have rejected her, including God, in a “wattled house.” He incurably loves the thing that God hates, and his unfailing devotion to her is, in every sense, a satanic parody of the traditional marriage contract. He loves her in sickness and in health, and cleaves to her as a degraded and obscene version of husband and wife; and yet not even while she is alive, but after she is dead. This can be the only meaning of, “And she is dead now, and shame put by.”

In Poems and Ballads, the poem “Hemaphroditus” is the example par excellence of Swinburne’s conception of love as an experience of both psychic and physical confusion.30 In the opening stanza, Swinburne underscores the disparities inherent in the nature of love itself, be it in the vanity of desire, the smoldering fire of delight, or the lack of equality between the object of desire and the one desiring:

Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love,

Blind love that comes by night and casts out rest;

Of all things tired thy lips look weariest,

Save the long smile that they are wearied of.

Ah sweet, albeit no love be sweet enough,

Choose of two loves and cleave unto the best;

Two loves at either blossom of thy breast

Strive until one be under and one above.

Their breath is fire upon the amorous air,

Fire in thine eyes and where thy lips suspire:

And whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,

Two things turn all his life and blood to fire;

A strong desire begot on great despair,

A great despair cast out by strong desire.31

What has been thought of as Swinburne’s answer to the hardship love imposes upon existence— the joining of two humans into one being— is untenableon closer examination. 32 According to Swinburne, even the complete fusion of the lover with the beloved does not make an end in itself: “Yet from them something like as fire is shed/ That shall not be assuaged till death be dead,/ Though neither life nor sleep can find out this.”33 In this fragment, Swinburne’s conception of life as ever shading into death, and death forever shading into life is apparent— nothing comprises an end-in-itself because there is no basis or validity, empirical or otherwise, to the ontological principle of the “thing-in-itself”; hence, the fusion of two lovers into one body can not beget a unified being, only an indeterminate, divided, and irreproducible mode of being— somewhat akin to the life of a flame and a wick. As a specimen of psychic and physical confusion, “Hemaphroditus” is an “impossible love” precisely in the sense that, even though the unrequited Salmacis is granted her wish by being united bodily with Hemaphroditus, the creature that comes of this strange union retains the genitals of a man and the breasts of a woman. Being neither man nor woman, neither divine nor human, Hemaphroditus is “a thing of barren hours” after the metamorphosis. Swinburne’s phrase, “the fruitful feud of hers and his,” is deceptive in this context because he is not referring to romantic love between men and women as “fruitful” in the sense of biological reproduction,34 as some commentators have read it; rather, Swinburne is comparing requited love, or love with the possibility of requiting— “Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his”— against unrequitable love— “To the waste wedlock of a sterile kiss…”35

As was pointed out before, Swinburne does not so much tend to mythologize women in his poems of “impossible love,”36 as he tends to spin one version or another of the very indeterminacy of the foundations of love. Love, as such, is unattainable, unrequitable, and ultimately a form of solipsism— to experience the burn, bite, or sting of love for another is an incommunicable inward experience. “The Triumph of Time” is illustrative of this, particularly the famous lines,

Yea, hope at highest and all her fruit,

And time at fullest and all his dower,

I had given you surely, and life to boot,

Were we once made one for a single hour.

But now, you are twain, you are cloven apart,

Flesh of his flesh, but heart of my heart…

And deep in one is the bitter root,

And sweet for one is the lifelong flower.37

The object of the speaker’s love, having been an object of his love, is no longer possessed even of herself, but is “cloven in twain” as a result of loving and having been loved. This speaks to something particularly Swinburnian about the character of love. As an experience of the ineffable involving the whole person, love, like poetry, according to Swinburne, has the power to alter material as well as spiritual circumstances. One’s very being, through the act of loving, is no longer fully one’s own, but is partly become, for better or worse, the possession of another, as in the lines, “But now, you are twain, you are cloven apart,/ Flesh of his flesh, but heart of my heart.” This conception of love as self-alienation implicitly extends to Swinburne’s republican poetry as well, where tyranny of any kind is viewed as a cleaving in two of the physical and spiritual body of man. Thus, even on a psychic level, love is ultimately a form of tyranny in the sense that the willing/unwilling act of cleaving in order to give some measure of oneself over to another ambiguates and confuses two otherwise distinct beings.

In “The Triumph of Time,” Swinburne compares love as an experience of self-alienation and indeterminacy with love as an experience of the divine and the ideal. Take for instance the following stanza:

I had grown pure as the dawn and the dew,

You had grown strong as the sun or the sea.

But none shall triumph a whole life through:

For death is one, and the fates are three.

At the door of life, by the gate of breath,

There are worse things waiting for men than death;

Death could not sever my soul and you,

As these have severed your soul from me.

The speaker allies himself with his beloved in the most elemental terms: dawn, dew, sun, and sea. She is the sun of his dawn, and she is the sea of which he is as drops of dew in. Yet in spite of their connection on the most fundamental of levels, the fates have intervened and severed their love irreparably:

Yea, hope at highest and all her fruit,

And time at fullest and all his dower,

I had given you surely, and life to boot,

Were we once made one for a single hour.

But now, you are twain, you are cloven apart,

Flesh of his flesh, but heart of my heart;

And deep in one is the bitter root,

And sweet for one is the lifelong flower.

In the above stanza, Swinburne depicts love as an experience of self-alienation and indeterminacy, and draws a contrast with love as an experience of the divine and the ideal through a brief recounting of the story of the Medieval troubadour poet, Jaufre Rudel. Rudel, having heard marvelous accounts of the Countess of Tripoli, fell in love with her sight unseen, and voyaged to meet her, but suddenly died before he arrived at her city. Upon being brought ashore, the singer miraculously revived long enough to kiss the woman with whom he had fallen in love, and then expired forever. Swinburne responds to this story of the ideal in love by comparing his troublesome experience of love to that of his fellow poet who he admonishes to “Give thanks for life, and the loves and lures,” and to

Rest, and be glad of the gods; but I,

How shall I praise them, or how take rest?

There is not room under all the sky

For me that know not of worst or best,

Dream or desire of the days before,

Sweet things or bitterness, any more.

Love will not come to me now though I die,

As love came close to you, breast to breast.

The speaker has ceased to believe in the ideal of love, or that love will ever be a substantive part of life, on account of his love disappointment. As a result of this breaking of trust, all moral categories have also been effaced in the mind of the speaker— if love does not exist, than neither does hatred, nor good or evil. As Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov, “if there is no God, than everything is permitted,” and according to Swinburne, if love does not exist, or only its simulacrum exists, then God is either evil, or impotent, or both, and this effectively does away with the existence of God and morality.

V. Poems of “Vicious Love”

As an instinctive corollary to the poems of “impossible love,” this third category of poems maps the trajectory of love turned vicious on account of its failure. Both Swinburne’s foes and accomplices in these poems are women of titanic stature, sometimes referred to by critics as Swinburne’s “fatal women.” In a number of these poems, the respective speakers openly declare themselves in rebellion against the hypocritical institutions of God, religion, and morality. The implicit connection to love is that God, religion, and morality make up the bedrock for the family, the home, and civilization in general. Further, according to the Christian worldview, God, religion, and morality are all founded on the principle that God is loving, and that the invisible code of morality and the visible church are the repositories of God’s love on earth. Yet God, religion, and morality have all failed because love qua love is either unrealizable in the phenomenal world, or is simply doomed by fate to fail. Under these circumstances, love, or its simulacrum, becomes an instrument of torture, after the fashion of the insatiable agony of Tantalus. Swinburne’s conception of love as an instrument of torture in a world not governed by a providential god is especially evident in his poem, “Anactoria,” where the speaker, Sappho, reviles God and attributes to Him the cause of every misery and evil in the world:

Is not his incense bitterness, his meat

Murder? his hidden face and iron feet

Hath not man known, and felt them on their way

Threaten and trample all things and every day?

Hath he not sent us hunger? who hath cursed

Spirit and flesh with longing? filled with thirst

Their lips who cried unto him? who bade exceed

The fervid will, fall short the feeble deed,

Bade sink the spirit and the flesh aspire,

Pain animate the dust of dead desire,

And life yield up her flower to violent fate?38

Swinburne’s Sappho is the fatalism of Lucretius personified, and in Swinburne’s hands she becomes a figure of almost an omnipresent magnitude, herself a fate of sorts. The rebuking words of God to Job from the whirlwind are recast by Swinburne as a blasphemous parody of the Christian conception of theodicy, and put into the mouth of Sappho. Swinburne accomplishes, in effect, a reverse-theodicy, as it is God who must justify His ways to His accuser, Sappho. As God tortures Sappho, so does Sappho in return, in a perverse mimesis of God, hurt and envisage vexing Anactoria “with amourous agonies,” and shaking life at her lips, and leaving it “there to ache.”39 Because Sappho is tortured by her insatiable love of Anactoria, she longs to “find grievous ways” to torture and slay her in revenge. In the world of Swinburne’s “Anactoria,” cruelty is love, and love is cruelty. Sappho’s lover, Anactoria, tells her she is cruel, and Sappho replies,

Cruel? but love makes all that love him well

As wise as heaven and crueller than hell.

Me hath love made more bitter toward thee

Than death toward man; but were I made as he

Who hath made all things to break them one by one,

If my feet trod upon the stars and sun

And souls of men as his have alway trod,

God knows I might be crueller than God.40

Even the death of Anactoria would not satisfy Sappho’s lust for cruelty; she would extend her lover’s suffering unto the point of “Intolerable interludes, and infinite ill.”41 Sappho’s lust for cruelty indicates that she knows that the answer to “The mystery of the cruelty of things”42 in the kosmos is that the underlying first principle of creation is unbounded cruelty and evil, which are the cosmological accomplices of time and fate. In Swinburne’s “Anactoria,” the frustration of desire is the primary cause of human suffering, because it blindly seeks to be satisfied, regardless of the expense. This conception of desire shows remarkably well in Swinburne’s sonnet entitled “A Cameo”:

There was a graven image of Desire

Painted with red blood on a ground of gold

Passing between the young men and the old,

And by him Pain, whose body shone like fire,

And Pleasure with gaunt hands that grasped their hire.

Of his left wrist, with fingers clenched and cold,

The insatiable Satiety kept hold,

Walking with feet unshod that pashed the mire.

The senses and the sorrows and the sins,

And the strange loves that suck the breasts of Hate

Till lips and teeth bite in their sharp indenture,

Followed like beasts with flap of wings and fins.

Death stood aloof behind a gaping grate,

Upon whose lock was written Peradventure.

In the scheme of this nightmarish world, the first twelve lines provide the key to the lock upon which is written “Peradventure.” Stripped of its imagery, the question the poem poses is, what is the nature of desire, and desire’s will? The answer to the fable of “A Cameo” is that “insatiable Satiety,” or desire, ever holds out the ironic promise of “Peradventure,” or intimating that there is always somehow a chance of coming upon an immutable source of satisfaction. The subsequent irony to this is that even the hope of satiating desire with love is an impossibility in a world where God, who is the sole guarantor of love, does not exist.

VI. Poems of “Light Love”

In his poem modeled after the illustrious ballads of Villon, Swinburne’s “A Ballad of Burdens” begins in each stanza with an itemization of the pleasures characteristic of “every man’s desire,” namely, fair women, bought kisses, sweet speeches, long living, and bright colours, respectively. These things are “burdened” in that their respective endings in the ashes of death are as interchangeable as the refrain at the end of each stanza:

The burden of much gladness. Life and lust

Forsake thee, and the face of thy delight;

And underfoot the heavy hour strews dust,

And overhead strange weathers burn and bite;

And where the red was, lo the bloodless white,

And where truth was, the likeness of a liar,

And where day was, the likeness of the night;

This is the end of every man’s desire.43

This poem has a function akin to that of a charnel-house anatomy lesson, with Swinburne surgically dividing the skin from the skeleton underneath to reveal the antithesis of every example of desire that he raises: fair cheeks made grey, kisses put up for hire, sweet speeches that resound in no one’s memory, and the bright face of youth grown hoary and old. The poem has a moral as acerbic to the pleasures of life as that of the “Ecclesiastes” of Scripture, repeating the same point in variation— hence the title of “burden”— throughout the poem: “For life is sweet, but after life is death./ This is the end of every man’s desire.”44 The last two lines are punctuated as though complete in themselves, with a full stop coming between them, as if Swinburne means to punctuate the insuperable barrier of unquenchable desire and death that comes between every man and the object of his passion. The manner in which Swinburne addresses the frustration of not only love, but every form of desire in “A Ballad of Burdens” makes as good of an introduction to the poems treating of “light love” as it does for a conclusion; and indeed “A Ballad of Burdens” can be situated parenthetically in relation to any of the poems treating of “light love,” since in each case, the inference-styled maxim Swinburne offers is the same: “For life is sweet, but after life is death./ This is the end of every man’s desire.” Because the object of desire is partly indiscriminate to the character of the life of pleasure, the heart desires what is desirable, which, in reductionist terms, can be cashed out as the desiring of the experience and sensations of desire as such.

In contrast to the emphasis of the blindness of human desire in the poems treating of “light love” stand the poems of “impossible love,” in which all of the discrete characteristics of desire are gathered together and focally concentrated through a lens at a single object; this, in the final analysis is, for Swinburne, the fulcrum of “impossible love.” The fulcrum upon which “impossible love” operates makes, on the other hand, a stark contrast to love as “a jest,” a drama of seduction, or an erotic mimetic activity that indifferently exploits the ever-present stereotypes of gender roles, as is the case in Swinburne’s poem “Stage Love”:

Time was chorus, gave them cues to laugh or cry;

They would kill, befool, amuse him, let him die;

Set him webs to weave to-day and break to-morrow,

Till he died for good in play, and rose in sorrow.45

By juxtaposing two relevant fragments from poems that fall outside of the scope of the present essay, namely “Hesperia,” and “A Forsaken Garden,” with the poem “Stage Love,” the contrast between the theme of “impossible love” in poems such as “The Leper” and “The Triumph of Time,” and the theme of “light love” may be further developed.

First the lines from the latter two poems: “For desire is a respite from love, and the flesh not the heart is her fuel…”;46 and, “…men that love lightly may die— but we?”47 These lines stand in stark contrast to the relevant fragment from “Stage Love”:

Pleasure with dry lips, and pain that walks by night;

All the sting and all the stain of long delight;

These were things she knew not of, that knew not of her,

When she played at half a love with half a lover.48

In the former fragment from the poem “Hesperia,” Swinburne explicitly asserts a distinction between love and desire, and makes a corresponding second distinction between the passions of the soul and the passions of the body. In the latter fragment from “A Forsaken Garden,” Swinburne contrasts the loves that live for an hour and die, against the loves that would be as “deep as a grave,”49 if such a thing were possible. Again, there is an implicit contrast made against the passions of the soul and the passions of the body in the fragment from “A Forsaken Garden.” One half of Swinburne’s two-part distinction applies well to his poem “Stage Love,” where an unnamed woman is disabused of the notion that the transitory commerce between bodies will not only never outlast the grave, but is, by definition, incomplete to the degree to which naked desire is easily distinguished from love, as labor from respite. Hence the relevant contrast between the lines, “…men that love lightly may die— but we?”, and, “When she played at half a love with half a lover.”

By way of a final specimen from Swinburne’s poems of “light love,” his masterly exercise in romantic negligibility, “Rococo,” gives a picture of the dealings between lovers whose relationship is shallow and transitory as the gaudy, gilded ornaments of Rococo art:

Time found our tired love sleeping,

And kissed away his breath;

But what should we do weeping,

Though light love sleep to death?

We have drained his lips at leisure,

Till there’s not left to drain

A single sob of pleasure,

A single pulse of pain.50

One might maintain that “leisure” is the keynote of this poem. As both the source of licentious love’s opportunity and the cause of its boredom, the leisure-based duration of the “light love” shared between the speaker and a woman named Juliette does not extend beyond a mere three days time.51 In this poem, licentious love is treated as momentary and forgettable, even to the extent that the name of Juliette’s “first lover” must be recovered by “remembrance,” which word implies a certain strain upon her faculty of recollection. Insofar as love inhabits a world of pleasure and swiftly passing fancy, lovers as such are forgettable and forgotten. In “Rococo,” love in any permanent sense is impossible, but only because “light love” is not worth the trouble of investment to begin with. Indeed, one commits one’s body (but never one’s heart) to an experience that depends for its continuation on the presence of lovers and mistresses as unreliable and untrustworthy as the selective reality the memory assiduously presents to itself:

Light love’s extinguished ember,

Let one tear leave it wet

For one that you remember

And ten that you forget.52

Swinburne’s poems of “light love” reflect the moral and psychological aporia of Poems and Ballads. The edifice of memory is broken down, which is in effect the shattering of personal identity; and in the place of the self stands desire, naked, blind, and insatiable. The status of love has been dramatically reduced from the positive enjoyment of pleasure and love, to love as cruelty, bound to the fatalistic inevitability of love’s failure. The lovers in “Stage Love” are memorable only insofar as they were cruel. Swinburne effaces the dualities of joy/sorrow and pain/pleasure by confusing joy with sorrow, and pleasure with pain in the ubiquitous realm of unappeasable desire, which is the only abiding principle in the “heaven we twain have known”:

The snake that hides and hisses

In heaven we twain have known;

The grief of cruel kisses,

The joy whose mouth makes moan;

The pulse’s pause and measure,

Where in one furtive vein

Throbs through the heart of pleasure

The purpler blood of pain.53

VII. Conclusion: Swinburne’s Monodrama of Love

Reading the love poems in Poems and Ballads as associated orchestrated movements gives a fresh perspective on the book because the successive stages through which love evolves are not readily apparent in Swinburne’s arrangement of the poems. Thus, poems such as “Anactoria” silently comment on and critique such seemingly unrelated poems, such as “A Ballad of Life,” or “Rococo.” Even though Rossetti rightly points out that there is generally much overlapping between the poems, the dialogue between Swinburne’s love poems, and their allusions to one another, become muted and convoluted in a critical apparatus of categories such as the “classic,” “heterodox,” or “reproductive.” Love may arguably be the central concern of Poems and Ballads, but the dramatic movement of the love poems would simply not register very strongly, or would become a sidetrack in the context of a broader critical spectrum. The common critical focal points of Swinburne’s anti-theism, or his republicanism, or his views of sexuality, are all topics that bear on what Swinburne has to say regarding love, and vice-versa. Yet, in the world of Poems and Ballads, it is love and desire that, like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, propels the evolution of human belief and activity. As Swinburne writes of the ubiquitous conjunction of love and life in his poem, “Before Dawn,” “…all who find him lose him,/ But all have found him fair.”54

The advantage of categorizing the love poems and reading them as a monodrama over Swinburne’s monodrama of “Dolores,” “The Garden of Proserpine,” and “Hesperia,” is that reading the love poems as a monodrama throws Swinburne’s conception of love in sharper relief. In his love poems, Swinburne makes distinct ontological statements about the nature of love, such as that love is cruelly ideal, disillusioning, and ideally cruel. In his Notes on Poems and Reviews, Swinburne tells us that his tripartite monodrama traces the transient conditions of one spirit; but in Poems and Ballads taken as a whole, a wider net of ideas is cast. The poems may or may not theoretically be the words and internal dialogue of a single voice, but in any case, that voice is making important claims about ontology and cosmology through the magnifying lens of love.

Though not as bewilderingly varied in dramatic situations as, for instance, the love poetry of John Donne, Swinburne’s love poetry is full of aporias built out of a small number of different climactic situations wherein love operates, respectively, as an occult power that can transform the very character of existence itself, or love is tragically taken away, or indulged in to the point of excess, or found to be fleeting and hollow. The experience of love is never static, but subject to the ravages of time and fate. Love qua love always remains out of reach of the respective poem’s persona, because Swinburne holds that, in man’s experience, any attempt to formulize or otherwise arrest the evolution of love only uncovers the limitations of desire, and reveals an experiential horizon still further off. This is the essence of Swinburne’s anti-historical doctrine of continual change without progress, from which experience of the diverse conditions of love are not exempted. According to Swinburne, man’s experience of love is not an experience of love as such; if it were, such an experience would amount, in philosophical terms, to actively experiencing a potentiality, which conflates the subject with the object, thereby universalizing all experience. Rather, man’s experience of the potentiality of love is the experience of the act of loving snatched, like fire, from out of the “multitudinous monotony of things.” Swinburne’s love poems constitute a four-part series of evolving stages and scenes that ultimately constitute a unified meta-drama within the book as a whole

Now Swinburne’s tripartite monodrama can be reformulated according to the four-part theme of love. Swinburne’s Borgia poems constitute a beginning within the symbolic crosscurrents of the monodrama of love, and stand as a harbinger or intimation of the unattainable ideal and the impossible in love. Swinburne’s Borgia poems are the perfect and positive reflection of all of the other negative, indeterminate and imperfect states love passes through in the drama of the poems. The poems of “impossible love” confuse the amorous ideal world of the Borgia poems with the themes of loss, grieving, and disappointment. The psychological transition from the Borgia poems to the poems of “impossible love” involves a shift in the worldview of the speaker from idyllic hedonism to an opaque nihilism. If love exists at all, it only exists as a form of humiliation, or as a perversion in the order of nature. Poems such as “Anactoria” and “A Cameo” give further support to Swinburne’s nihilistic conception of love. In addition to lending support, the poems of “vicious love” introduce the themes of anti-theism and anti-morality. Under this equation, love does not fail by chance, but is in reality doomed by fate to fail, and becomes an instrument of torture. The only way to be rid of love as an instrument of torture is to give desire sovereignty over love. The poems of “light love” treat of the conditions of the heart that has worn out, and the beliefs and ideals that have been consumed by long experience. This set of poems constitutes the terminal point in the monodrama of love in Poems and Ballads. The stages of idealism, nihilism, and violent hedonism have been passed through, and the speaker in the poems of “light love” is now accomplished in the sport of love, playing out his part as lover/tormenter in a cosmos that neither abides nor can contain any moral principle or providential god. In the final analysis, Swinburne’s conception of love contains no answers, and no doctrine; it is founded on the paradox of pleasure and pain, fueled by insatiate desire. Plying the deadened senses with the extremes of sensation is the only confirmation that life is still occurring, and that time has not yet triumphed.

1 Jerome J. McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism, (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London, 1972), p.225.

2 David G. Riede, Swinburne: A Study in Romantic Mythmaking (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1978),

3 “This Stoicism of the heart, which falls short of bitterness on the one hand, and the sentimentality of unregistered regret on the other, is the defining note of Swinburne’s love poetry… Swinburne has mistakenly acquired the reputation as an erotic poet; he is rather the poet of love’s impossibility. Perhaps this is why, even in his most sensual verses, one feels a particular innocence, just as in his most moving love poetry one feels a profound barrenness…” (Swinburne: Selected Poetry and Prose, edited and introduced by John D. Rosenberg.

4 The poems, in no particular order, considered as relevant to this category run as follows:“The Triumph of Time,” “A leave-Taking,” “Hemaphroditus,” “Satia Te Sanguine,” “In the Orchard (Provencal Burden),” “The Leper,” “Rondel” (“These many years…”), “Song Before Death (from the French),” “Rondel” (“Kissing her hair…”), “Before the Mirror,” “Erotion,” “April (from the French),” “The Year of Love.”

5 The poems, in no particular order, considered as relevant to this category run as follows:“Dolores,” “Anactoria,” “Faustine,” “Phaedra,” “Laus Veneris,” “A Cameo,” “Les Noyades.”

6 The poems, in no particular order, considered as relevant to this category run as follows:“Rococo,” “A Match,” “Stage Love,” “A Ballad of Burdens,” “Before Parting,” “Fragoletta,” “Felise,” “An Interlude,” “Before Dawn.”

7 For the five poems considered as relevant to this category, as well as discussion of the basis for their inclusion in the present consideration of Swinburne’s monodrama, see section IV below.

8 A.C. Swinburne, The Swinburne Letters, edited by Cecil Y. Lang, 6 volumes (Yale University Press and Oxford University Press, New Haven and London, 1959-62), vol. 1, p. 197. Brackets mine.

9 Cf., A. C. Swinburne, “Notes on Poems and Reviews,” in Swinburne Replies, edited by Clyde Kenneth Hyder (Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York, 1966), p. 23.

10 Nicholas Shrimpton, “Swinburne and the Dramatic Monologue,” in The Whole Music of Passion: New Essays on Swinburne, edited by Rickky Rooksby and Nicholas Shrimpton (Scolar Press, England, 1993), p. 53. Shrimpton’s article supplies a useful summation of previous opinions both for and against Swinburne’s claim for the dramatic character of his poems.

11 William Michael Rossetti, Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, in Clyde K. Hyder, Swinburne: The Critical Heritage (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1970; reprinted 1995), p. 62. Brackets mine.

12 Samuel C. Chew, Swinburne (Archon Books, Hamden Connecticut, 1966), p. 80.

13 Jerome J. McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism, p. 208. Cf. A. C. Swinburne, “Notes on Poems and Reviews,” in Swinburne Replies, where Swinburne himself refers to the collection of poems in Poems and Ballads, First Series, as “heterogeneous” (p. 91). It should be noted that McGann, while discussing the theme of unattainable women in Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, First Series, seems to accept the “monodrame” theory: “For the fact is that Swinburne’s work is dominated from the start by a cast of characters which make up the monodrama of Poems and Ballads, First Series” (p. 216).

14 David G. Riede, Swinburne: A Study in Romantic Mythmaking, pp. 70-71.

15 Nicholas Shrimpton, “Swinburne and the Dramatic Monologue,” in The Whole Music of Passion: New Essays on Swinburne, p. 57.

16 Julian Baird rightly observes that, “Since Swinburne placed the paired “A Ballad of Life” and “A Ballad of Death” at the beginning of Poems and Ballads, there is a strong possibility that he intended them as thematically prefatory to his major poetic concerns in the volume as a whole” (“Swinburne, Sade, and Blake: The Pleasure-Pain Paradox,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 9, numbers 1-2, pp. 49-76, Spring-Summer, 1971, West Virginia University ), p. 56.

17 “Lucretia Estensis Borgia (1480-1519) was the daughter of Rodrigo de Borgia, Pope Alexander IV (1431-1503), and was born before her father became pope in 1492. She was used as a political pawn by her father and by her brother, Cesare (1476-1507), and was married three times, the last time to Alfonso de Este, the ruler of Ferrara. In her later years she was know for her piety and her patronage of arts and letters; but in her earlier life she is reputed to have been guilty of sexual license and even incest with her father and two brothers” (quoted from A.C. Swinburne, Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, edited with an introduction and annotation by Morse Peckham((The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., Indianapolis and New York, 1970), p. 5).

18 These two poems date, respectively, from 1859-60, and from the early 1860’s.

19 Lines 61-70.

20 Lines 61-70.

21 Lines 58, 59-60.

22 Cf. Julian Baird, “Swinburne, Sade, and Blake: The Pleasure-Pain Paradox,” in Victorian Poetry: “There is… no doubt that Swinburne was fascinated by Lucretia Borgia and her court, and that she became for him a Blakean symbol of the holiness of the things of the flesh,” p. 57.

23 Algernon Charles Swinburne, Major Poems and Selected Prose, edited by Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2004), p. 411.

24 Julian Baird, “Swinburne, Sade, and Blake: The Pleasure-Pain Paradox,” in Victorian Poetry, p. 56.

25 Antony H. Harrison, Swinburne’s Medievalism: A Study in Victorian Love Poetry (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge and London, 1988), p. 30. For Harrison’s erudite discussion of the influence of French Troubadour lyric poetry in the poems of Swinburne, see pp. 26-36.

26 Ibid., “Nearly all Swinburne’s major poems reveal the courtly influence through their radical emphasis on the interrelatedness not only of passion and politics but also of all actions, all ideals, all life,” p. 31.

27 Lines 69-72; 93-96; 101-108.

28 Cf. “Hemaphroditus”: “Where between sleep and life some brief space is…” (line 15).

29 Lines 137-140.

30 The Latin root of “confuse” derives from “confound,” which means to pour or mix together.

31 Lines 1-14.

32 “Fully understood, Swinburne’s description of hedonistic lust is, in fact, a death wish, for if the desire is fulfilled, the strife of desire ended, it is accomplished only because the soul has been destroyed. The only way in which sexual desire can be quelled in life is by complete mergence of the lovers, and this is achieved only in “Hemaphroditus.” But the resulting satiety, though beautiful, is beautiful as objects are beautiful. Hemaphroditus is a “thing of barren hours”… it is a sterile object… in which all productive striving has been stilled…” (David G. Riede, Swinburne: A Study in Romantic Mythmaking, p. 57). Italics in original.

33 Lines 20-22.

34 Cf. “Dolores,” lines 153-160:

For the crown of our life as it closes

Is darkness, the fruit thereof dust;

No thorns go as deep as a rose’s,

And love is more cruel than lust.

Time turns the old days to derision,

Our loves into corpses or wives;

And marriage and death and division

Make barren our lives.

35 “Hemaphroditus,” lines 17-19.

36 Swinburne’s poems of “vicious love” are the primary poems in which women are aggrandized and mythologized.

37 Lines 97-104.

38 Lines 171-181.

39 Lines 29, 30.

40 Lines 145-152.

41 Line 32.

42 Line 154.

43 Lines 69-71.

44 Lines 75-76.

45 “Stage Love,” lines 9-12.

46 “Hesperia,” line 57.

47 “A Forsaken Garden,” line 44. Cf. the following relevant stanza from “The Triumph of Time”:

And I play not for pity of these; but you,

If you saw with your soul what man am I,

You would praise me at least that my soul all through

Clove to you, loathing the lives that lie;

The souls and lips that are bought and sold,

The smiles of silver and kisses of gold,

The lapdog loves that whine as they chew,

The little lovers that curse and cry ( lines 241-248).

48 Lines 5-8. My emphasis.

49 “A Forsaken Garden,” line 54.

50 “Rococo,” lines 17-24.

51 Juliette is, of course, the name of de Sade’s heroine in the novel Juliette. Although it is a well-known fact that Swinburne was a reader of de Sade’s writings, there is not enough internal evidence in “Rococo” to ascribe to the Juliette of Swinburne’s poem the identity of de Sade’s iconic heroine.

52 “Stage Love,” lines 77-81.

53 Lines 49-56.

54 Lines 79-80.

Desiderius Erasmus & Martin Luther: The Debate Over The Ancients

22A valuable contrast between Erasmus and Luther’s conception of Christianity can be found in their respective views on the question of whether the writings of the Ancients have any use or value for Christians. The two distinct conceptions of Christianity that emerge from Luther and Erasmus’ critique of the freedom of the will is both symptomatic and a consequence of how they handle, respectively, the debate over the value of Ancient writings within Christianity.

Why should the treatment of Ancient writings be thought of as pivotal in understanding the respective writings of Luther and Erasmus? The writings of the Ancients acquire new importance when one considers that what occurs in Christianity in the 16th century is a shifting and re-ordering, a re-assimilating of ideas and information handed down from the Scholastics who, in their own time, enacted a similar organizing process on the writings handed down from the early Church Fathers and the Ancients.1 The social and economic forces that give rise to such revolutions and re-configurations of thought go far beyond the scope of this essay, but let it be taken as fact that such large-scale events in the history of ideas occur and are treated in modern scholarship. Neither Luther nor Erasmus’ concepts of the freedom of the will are unique to the Sixteenth Century, nor do their differing conclusions have origins in their respective writings. Their respective ideas on the freedom of the will come from either the re-instituting of St. Augustine’s late writings on grace, as is the case with Luther, or in the case of Erasmus, it is a buttressing and shaping of ideas stemming from Scholastic Theology and the early Church Fathers. In either instance, the question of the value of Ancient writings for Christians is implicitly assumed; for what occurs in the writings of Luther and Erasmus is either the conditional inclusion or explicit rejection of Ancient writings, thus indicating the writings of the Ancients is not simply a benign subject in Sixteenth Century Christianity — in any case, the writings of the Ancients are anything but ignored by Luther and Erasmus. Thus, by including or excluding the writings of the Ancients in Christian thought, Luther and Erasmus re-institute and reshape ideas that neither originated, and they reshape or reject such things as the writings of the Ancients depending on where the answer to a certain question is punctuated (like the freedom of the will).

Luther insists on a sharp distinction between faith in the benevolence of God and faith in the strength of one’s good works to rouse God to an act of benevolence or mercy. Luther insists on man’s incapacity to influence the possibility, or impossibility, of his salvation, and he states categorically that man cannot raise the soul out of the mortal, sinful body through acts performed by the body:

It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties…or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body.2

Luther has only provided a negative definition of man’s situation thus far, and the question remains, what can man do for himself? The answer Luther gives is that one can do nothing but hope for God’s grace:

God has put my salvation out of the control of my own will and put it under the control of His, and has promised to save me, not according to my effort or running, but…according to His own grace and mercy…3

Thus, Luther conceives of man’s will as bound and unable to do anything good outwardly. Yet, are man’s actions toward reconciling himself to God the product of man’s incapacity to do well (which would render such actions innocent but nonetheless meaningless), or are man’s actions necessarily evil and nothing more, the consequence of original sin? Luther is resolute on the question of how man’s actions are received by God:

[I]f it be proved that our salvation is not of our own strength or council, but depends on the working of God alone…does it not evidently follow that when God is not present to work in us, everything we do is evil, and that we of necessity act in a way not availing unto our salvation? For if it is not we ourselves, but God only, who works salvation in us, it follows that nothing we do before His workings in us avails unto salvation.4

It is clear that actions give no answer to the question of whether one will or will not receive God’s grace, for actions have no effect upon God who is not moved by actions any more than His ways and reasons can be apprehended by human reason. The result of this view is Luther’s rejection of all forms of pious activity, except perhaps the activity of hating the fallen world and the fallen men who inhabit it. The following citations give a more complete picture of the degree to which man errs in his estimation of himself in relation to God: “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God,” and further, “[t]o love God above all things by nature is by nature a fictitious term, a chimera, as it were.”5 Such errors, resulting from the corrupt nature of anything willed by man, are the objects of Luther’s hatred and scorn. Yet there exists a paradox of sorts in the temporary remedy Luther offers for the problem of man’s corrupt will that cannot love God wholly and desires to replace God: “To love God is at the same time to hate oneself and to know nothing but God.”6 The paradox of the command to hate the world and the self is that neither of these acts implies God will accept man on account of his actions, no matter how extreme or honestly intentioned, for salvation is beyond man’s control. Like Luther’s conception of the human will bound to the very source of evil itself (pride), Luther’s conception of how man is to approach God, if such possibility even exists, is through mortification and complete effacement of the self. The absolute divine freedom of God’s power to bestow or refuse grace to man is all that is left for man, and nothing in between; except self-hatred as a spiritual exercise. Luther, in raising the concept of grace to the level of apotheosis, almost precludes for man the necessity of living, or even ever having been born.

In the exchange of ideas between Luther and Erasmus on the question of grace alone versus free will, Erasmus is in earnest to point out to Luther the paradoxical nature of what Christian life becomes in light of man’s evident inability to do anything good or beneficial for himself. Upon this head, Erasmus writes,

Let us assume the truth of what Wycliffe has taught and Luther has asserted, namely, that everything we do happens not on account of our free will, but out of sheer necessity. What could be more useless than to publish this paradox to the world?… How many weak ones would continue in their perpetual and laborious battle against their own flesh? What wicked fellow would henceforth try to better his conduct?7

Indeed, this strikes at the heart of the matter. Erasmus does not concede to Luther’s implicit assumption that Luther has found out the mind of God, i.e., the necessity of grace, through some undisclosed means, and that Luther’s assumptions are necessarily infallible. Man thinks himself free, but such is not the case, says Luther. Man, by Luther’s definition of him, has become the very mechanism of sin, and God has all but abandoned man in his corrupt condition, leaving behind only the faint hope in man of receiving an unpredicated salvation.

Erasmus observes that Luther marginalizes a large portion of Revealed theology in his radical claim that man’s will is implacably bound by evil and only God’s grace can save souls otherwise justly bound for hell. Erasmus’ response to the entirety of Luther’s anti-theology of grace is thus summarized:

It is incompatible with the infinite love of God for man that a man’s striving with all his might for grace should be frustrated”, and, “it results that no sinner should be overconfident, none should despair. No one perishes except through his own fault.8

Clearly Erasmus understands salvation is what is at stake in discerning what underlies the debate over the will as free versus the will as bound; it is precisely what salvation means to Christians, and where and how to seek salvation that is the issue upon which all other issues in the lives of Christians rests. Erasmus concludes, contra Luther, that actions qua actions in Christian life are neither detrimental nor vain, as Luther has it, but indeed such things as religious ritual and acts of piety, Erasmus maintains, are all necessary for Christians to live a life of obedience to God. Erasmus sums up his position on the issue of how the freedom of the will leaves ample room for virtuous actions to operate as a conduit for Divine grace:

Sin has corrupted [free will], but not extinguished it…Even the most obstinate sinner will retain this grace which is common to all mankind. Thus, everyone is free to speak or to keep silent, to sit or to stand up, to help the poor, to read holy books, to listen to sermons. Some now hold that such acts in themselves can in no way lead to eternal life…[but] such works, because of God’s immense goodness can prepare for the reception of grace, and move God to be merciful.9

It could be suggested that ‘immense goodness’ is precisely what Luther’s God is lacking. That Erasmus does not deny the function of grace for salvation is evident, yet Erasmus maintains that man, while divided from a perfect union with God, must take certain steps toward the repairing of the schism between God and man that had its origin in man’s first disobedience. Men’s good works are, to Erasmus, symbolic gestures that declare an intention contrary to the will to sin and do evil — that is, contrary to the example of Adam and Eve. Though man can never cure himself of sin, Erasmus has Luther and Wycliffe in mind when he maintains that living should not be discarded as a vain and worthless endeavor in lieu of “the private opinions of one or two men” that stress what is wicked and damnable in man. Let this stand as a sufficient account of Erasmus’ position on the freedom of the will, and press ahead to the issue of whether the writings of the Ancients have any use or value for Christians. By doing so, more light will be shed on the consequences that follow from Luther and Erasmus’ contrary positions on free will versus grace alone.

To what extent the writings of the Ancients should be tolerated or proscribed in the practice of Christianity is the hub around which many of Luther and Erasmus’ contentions on the matter of the freedom of the will revolve, and is central to what both Luther and Erasmus conceive Christian life as ultimately representing. Scholastic philosophy and theology provide a touchstone of where Luther and Erasmus are apparently in agreement, for both soundly reject what Scholasticism can be generally taken to stand for: the conjunction of the Christian faith with Aristotle. Luther’s position on the question of Scholasticism is wholly negative, and can be briefly summarized by citing a few of Luther’s sweeping pronouncements against both Aristotle and his inheritors:

It is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle…Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle…Briefly, the whole of Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light. This in opposition to the Scholastics.10

These pronouncements encapsulate Luther’s abhorrence of Aristotelian philosophy and its influence on Christian thought; additionally, and on a more personal note, Luther declared Aristotle to be a “damnable, arrogant, pagan rascal,” and a “beast” to boot. To round out Luther’s condemnation on the possibility of fides and ratio in union, a few passages touching directly on Luther’s reaction to the Scholastic influence in Christianity are necessary:

For over 1,200 years the church remained orthodox. On no occasion, and in no place, do the Fathers mention the word transubstantiation—monstrous whether as a locution or as an idea—until the specious philosophy of Aristotle took root in the church, and attained a rank growth in the last three hundred years. During this time, many other perverse conclusions were arrived at. Examples are: “That the divine Being is not begotten, nor does it beget”; “That the soul is the form to which the human body corresponds as the substance”; and the like.11

The period of 300 years mentioned by Luther corresponds to the age in which Scholastic philosophy flourished in Europe. This business of philosophy, viz., pagan philosophy (no other kind exists for Luther), Luther understands as a fraudulent activity that signifies nothing about, nor avails the condition of the inner man, which is one of sin and failure. Thus, in Luther’s view, the writings of the Ancients, be it in the shape of pagan philosophy or any other, can do nothing to gratify man’s need for salvation; philosophic endeavor only places in man a false sense of confidence and a false sense of attainment. In short, there is, for Luther, neither justification for philosophy, nor any endeavor that places itself between the individual and God. To theologians,

…the blind pagan teacher, Aristotle, is of more consequence than Christ. Aristotle’s writings…should be set aside along with all others that boast they treat of natural objects, for in fact they have nothing to teach about things natural or spiritual…God has made him [Aristotle] a plague on us on account of our sins.12

Throughout the work entitled The Pagan Servitude of the Church, Luther battles the doctrines taught by Scholastic Philosophy by using the same Aristotelian jargon employed by the Scholastic philosophers themselves in his effort to demonstrate the absurdity and uselessness of Aristotelian and Scholastic teaching. After a lengthy stint of criticism, Luther tires of the issue he has been battering away at and mordantly remarks,

Out of this theory has arisen that Babel of a philosophy of a constant quantity distinct from substance, till the stage is reached when they themselves do not know which are the accidents and which the substance…[b]ut let us not carry on our dialectics too long.13

The doctrines elaborated in the Scholastic tradition are to Luther nothing more than brazen complications of the simple precepts contained in Scripture, precepts that beg of no further elaboration. Luther draws the conclusion that, “[t]hough philosophy cannot grasp it [the precepts of Scripture], yet faith can. The authority of the word of God goes beyond the capacity of our mind.”14 Faith, then, is what’s necessary concerning salvation, not philosophy. All reliance on the power of reason, and similarly, the power of the will, Luther tells us, are acts of “concupiscence against God,” and reliance on reason or the will is “evil and a fornication of the spirit.”15 Luther views Scholasticism and piety as expressions of man’s desire to be God, to topple God from the seat of Judgment. The unapologetic rejection of any function of reason has its parallel in Luther’s rejection of all outward displays of piety — and both intellectual pursuit and piety are finally condemned under Luther’s doctrine of grace. Such is Luther’s grand thesis by which he refashions the Christian faith from the top down.

The absolute rejection of Church tradition and traditional forms of wisdom as practices or statements without authority or necessity is the bedrock of Luther’s radical conception of Christianity. Responding to Luther’s writings on grace, Erasmus points out this position: “Luther recognizes no authority of any author, however approved, except that of the canonical books…”16 Erasmus, too, accepts the canonical books as the final authority, but he also recognizes the decisions of the Church as authoritative, and the acceptance of such decisions indicate toleration of sources of wisdom peripheral to the canonical books. Erasmus addresses the use of the writings of the Ancients in a way that is superficially similar to the methodology employed by Luther, yet Erasmus comes to conclusions very different from those drawn by Luther. Some of the similarities should first be noticed. Erasmus denounces the Scholastic’s penchant for interpreting Christian doctrine through the lens of pagan philosophy. Writing in an incredulous vein, he ponders the possibility if ever “the apostles, who baptized far and wide…taught what are the formal, material, efficient, and final causes of baptism.”17 The following is a prime example of Erasmus’ derision of the Scholastic philosophers, and will be sufficient to understand his view and see that he accords with Luther on this point:

Then…putting on a whole new face, they propose some question of theology ‘never heard of before on earth or in heaven,’ and this they take for an occasion to show off the higher reaches of their art. This is where they attain the peak of theological pomposity, battering our ears with majestic titles and citing Distinguished Doctors, Subtle Doctors, Supersubtle Doctors, Seraphic Doctors…They scatter over the unlearned audience their syllogistic majors and minors, their conclusions, corollaries, ridiculous hypotheses, and hair-splitting distinctions….And this is how they assemble their chimera, a monster such as Horace never imagined…18

Clearly Erasmus wants to refute the use of Aristotelian logic by theologians as a tool that, for no other reason, guarantees the theologian possessing the greatest subtlety triumph in religious controversy. The mysteries of the Christian faith contain for both Erasmus and Luther mysteries that, like the peace of God, surpass all understanding. Erasmus does not assume such mysteries exist merely for the sake of man’s finding an efficient and tidy solution for them. He states his position on the question of religious mysteries, though he is vague in defining boundaries on which to judge, saying,

Some deserve study, perhaps a solution: I don’t deny it. But there are a great many others that are better ignored than explored (it’s an important part of knowledge not to know certain things), and still others were better off withholding judgment than making a decision. Finally, if a question does have to be decided, I’d like to have the decision reached reverently, not peremptorily, and on the basis of Holy Scripture, not some petty rationalizations worked out by men.19

Further, Erasmus poses a question that is also implicit in those writings of Luther that treat of Aristotle and the Scholastics, “What…does Christ have in common with Aristotle?”20 Luther’s reply: Aristotle has nothing to do with Christ, for “the Holy Spirit is greater than Aristotle”(viz., greater authority than Aristotle). 21

One final passage from Erasmus may be cited to connect what has already been mentioned on this point, and advance yet a step further. The following passage has a two-fold significance in this account of Erasmus’ thought, for not only does it express what has already been made clear regarding Erasmus’ criticism of Aristotle and Scholasticism, but it indicates that Erasmus has in mind concerns of a more scholarly nature, and in this respect he goes far beyond the single-mindedness of Luther’s thinking:

[T]he present mode [of theology]—not to mention the base barbarity of its crude and artificial dialect, its deliberate ignorance of all good literature, its indifference to languages—is so contaminated with the teachings of Aristotle, the inventions of petty human beings, and the laws of pagans, that I can hardly taste in it a faint flavor of the pure undiluted Christ. (Emphasis added).22

What is most important to notice here is what Erasmus affixes to the criticisms of Aristotle we have already seen so many examples of, and that is his criticism of the modern ‘mode’ of theology for its barbaric ignorance of languages and literature. The next question must necessarily be, which languages and which literatures, does Erasmus have in mind? Erasmus is probably not referring to Latin since it was the ‘universal’ language of the Church, of men of letters, and of scholars in the Sixteenth Century. Considering that the “five-languaged Saint Jerome” stands as an exemplar of Biblical scholarship in many ways to Erasmus, the languages referred to must be the original languages of the Scriptures, Hebrew and Greek. Erasmus’ letter to Martin Dorp defending his ‘mock encomium’ bears this out, for Erasmus several times admonishes Dorp to add to his studies “at least the study of Greek literature.” But Erasmus fine-tunes his persuading of Dorp to take up Greek by baiting his request with something more compelling than the study of Greek literature — the study of Scripture:

[I]f you imagine that, as things stand, you can gain real knowledge of the art of theology without command of the languages, especially that in which most of the holy scriptures are written, then you are badly mistaken….without knowledge of Greek, scholarship is lame and blind.23

For Erasmus, knowledge of Hebrew and Greek may indeed be primary to understanding the Scriptures, but Erasmus is also completely familiar with the writings of the Ancients, both Greek and Latin. His book of Adages contains a wealth of quotations drawn from Greek and Latin sources, and the Praise of Folly is littered with references to Classical literature, to say nothing of the numerous other works of Erasmus which contain similar matter.

Erasmus may deny the possibility of the conjunction of faith and reason, but that does not prevent him from conjoining the character of Christ with an allusion to Silenus, the drunken and obese companion of Bacchus, “I myself in my collection of Adages…have called the Apostles Sileni, and indeed referred to Christ himself as a sort of Silenus.” The interest here lies in the implicit reference made to Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, wherein Socrates’ speech-loving interlocutor, Phaedrus, compares Socrates to Silenus in the same context as Erasmus regarding the Apostles and Christ. This kind of allusion would be unthinkable if Erasmus holds the same view as Luther, where the activities of mankind are rendered incomprehensible and useless in light of the corruption of original sin and God’s pending judgment. The scholarly interests of Erasmus have no abiding place in Luther’s view of the world, where the learning of Greek in order to read Classical literature must be considered a malfunction of good sense, or worse. Luther recognizes this malfunctioning of good sense in Erasmus, for Luther takes him to task many times for committing what he views as nothing short of idolatry of Ancient writers:

What shall I say here, Erasmus? You ooze Lucian from every pore; you swill Epicurus by the gallon. If you do not think this topic [free will] a necessary concern for Christians, kindly withdraw from the lists…Plato and Socrates may be good friends, but truth must be honored above all.24

Luther, though characteristically extreme, rightly understands Erasmus in this latter assertion, for Erasmus himself confesses as much of his own accord, “so great is my dislike of assertions that I prefer the views of skeptics whenever the inviolable authority of Scripture and the decision of the Church permit.”25 With this confirmation by Erasmus we are immediately back in the company of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus, all of whom defended in various ways the freedom of the will, but more to the point, Erasmus’ distaste for assertions recalls the Ephectic School of skepticism, who taught the suspension of judgment in all things.

Now, having taken notice of some of Erasmus and Luther’s arguments, we have a solution to the question posed from the beginning, i.e., whether the writings of the Ancients have any use or value at all for Christians. The answer to this particular question, though, is only meaningful in light of such particular views on the freedom of the will contrasted to the necessity of grace alone. Without two such opposing suppositions, how the writings of the Ancients are used (or not used), and by whom, is an unsupportable topic to give attention to, for it is difficult to locate, presently, two individuals with precisely this sort of concern weighing upon their minds. But with Luther and Erasmus we have two definite positions to consider on the question of whether the writings of the Ancients have any use or value for Christians. So the next consideration is to give an account of how Luther on one hand, and Erasmus on the other, envision the lives of Christians to be — with and without the writings of the Ancients, with and without the freedom of the will.

Erasmus’ phrase, the ‘pure undiluted Christ,’ can be understood as a line that demarcates how Luther understands the lives of Christians to be, opposed to how Erasmus conceives of Christian life. But what does the phrase the ‘pure undiluted Christ’ mean? In the case of Luther and Erasmus, it means two very different things, and points to two different conceptions of Christianity, as I will try to illustrate. The figure of Christ purified of everything worldly, philosophical, sinful, Aristotelian and Scholastic, is Luther’s model of rebellion, Luther’s revolutionary archetype. Although Luther conceives of man’s will as unfree and bound by the shackles of sin, Luther nevertheless has the project for humanity to work on. His tyrannical concept of God leaves nothing for men in the sphere of action, not good works or any other act that can be thought of; Luther’s morality is a morality of intentions and nothing more.26 Faith, then, not philosophy, reason, or the will, is what must rule men’s hearts and minds. But faith cannot abolish sin, only grace can. So the project for Luther becomes, in his righteous indignation, the overturning of every bastion of worldliness, from the Church to the universities, all of which he views as “but wide open gates to hell.”27 Faith in the figure of the pure undiluted Christ is the antidote to the poison of reason and the will; He represents the infallible, eternal judgment of God, as well as Luther’s paradigm for religious revolution. A Christian may no longer find the trappings of his faith in the world, for Christianity can not be practiced, works are of no use to man. Faith and hope in God alone is what is left for Christians, and the necessity of rebellion from any authority that is not God pure and undiluted:

Furthermore, to put aside all kinds of works, even contemplation, meditation, and all that the soul can do, does not help. One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ.28

Erasmus’ knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, the original languages of Scripture, is employed in his research and efforts to sort out the errors contained in the Vulgate, errors which have complicated Scriptural hermeneutics and led theologians into voluminous disagreements. All such problems Erasmus undertakes to disentangle through his translating of the New Testament into Latin from the oldest known Greek and Hebrew sources, an effort akin to the thirteenth labor of Hercules. Uncompromising scholarship is, for Erasmus, a way to seek out the ‘pure and undiluted Christ’ of whom he speaks. This does not imply the advantage of study for its own sake, or as an end in itself, nor study as the highest good (theoria), as Aristotle has it, but study and learning for the sake of understanding what God desires for man, how God wants man to live. In Erasmus’ letter to Martin Dorp, Dorp is castigated for asserting that no one should “put any trust in the books of those who have deserted the Roman church.” This is an absurdity to Erasmus, and he counters with,

What are you saying? That we shouldn’t read the books of those who have deserted the Christian faith? Why then is so much authority granted to Aristotle, a pagan who never so much as heard of the Christian faith? The entire Jewish race departed from Christ; are we to pay no attention to the psalmists and prophets who wrote in their native language?29

The correction of the young Dorp’s opinions does not stop there, for the use and value of the writing of the Ancients still remains to be demonstrated, in light of what the Ancients can teach about Scripture:

Saint Augustine in his last years, when he had long since been created a bishop, expressed grief in his Confessions that as a young man he had avoided works of literature which would have been of the greatest use to him in interpreting Scripture.30

Here, then, in Erasmus’ arguments for how the writings of the Ancients benefit the Christian understanding, is his answer to Luther’s vision of man as a creature of untold misfortune, paralyzed in thought, word, and deed. Erasmus’ Christian man has living blood in him because he does not, and cannot, possess all the answers to the mysteries of religion, but his will is nevertheless free, even in a state of semi-ignorance. Because man’s nature contains many facets and complexities, so too, thought Erasmus, must his life in the practice of Christianity; to reduce the profundity of the Gospel message to a deterministic formula that precludes more in the practice of Christianity that it admits would imply the abrogation of the practice of the Christian faith itself. What would be left of man qua man? Acts of piety, like the activity of scholarship, is beneficial in turning individual men toward God; man, for Erasmus, cannot understand the deepest things of God, that is clear; but he can, in his thoughts and deeds, undertake to fulfill the sort of life exemplified by the ‘pure undiluted Christ.’

1 Ref. Josef Pieper, Scholasticism, translated by Richard and Clara Winston (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend Indiana, 2001), pp 22-5:

Probably the boundary line marking the end of the Middle Ages can be more distinctly discerned if we keep our eyes fixed on the second factor we have been discussing. I mean the astonishing fact that the young peoples who penetrated into the Roman Empire from the north should have considered it their task to master and assimilate the accumulated body of tradition they found, including the enormous harvest of patristic theology as well as the wisdom of the ancient world. For only in the light of this fact can we understand one decisive trait of medieval thinking: its ‘scholarly’ aspect—to which, after all, the name ‘scholasticism’ refers. Truly to understand Scholasticism, we must bear in mind that it was above all an unprecedented process of learning, a scholarly enterprise of enormous proportions that went on for several centuries. If both the pagan and the Christian heritage of the ancient world were to be truly incorporated, ordering of the existing material undoubtedly came first and foremost. Moreover, that material had to be ordered in terms of being made accessible to teaching and learning. Inevitably then, the whole prosaic work of organizing, sorting, and classifying acquired a hitherto unknown importance.

This passage relates in many ways to the task Erasmus undertook in collating a great number of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts for his translation of the New Testament into Latin. This passage also seems to spell out the existence of an underlying mindset or attitude that may have been more pervasive in the Middle Ages, but existed nonetheless into the Sixteenth Century and beyond. The example of the Seventeenth Century Encyclopedists stands out especially when one considers the hypothesized origin of the ‘encyclopedic’ attitude for the collecting and ordering of information is imputed in the above passage to the Scholastics. Such an idea takes on profound relevance because the perpetuation of the ‘encyclopedic’ attitude itself becomes so central to the proliferation the history of the arts and sciences in the West.

2 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Anchor Books, New York, 1962), p 54.

3 Erasmus/Luther: Discourse on Free Will, translated and edited by Ernst F. Winter (Continuum Publishing Company, 2002), p 136.

4 Ibid. p 111.

5 Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, # 17-18.

6 Ibid. #95

7 Erasmus/Luther: Discourse on Free Will, trans. and ed. by Ernst F. Winter, p 11

8 Ibid. p 29-30.

9 Ibid. pp 28-29

10 Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, # 43,44,50.

11 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 267.

12 Ibid. p 470.

13 Ibid. pp 268-9. See also S. T. Coleridge’s comment on Luther: “Luther—a hero, fettered, indeed, with prejudices—but with those very fetters he would knock out the brains of a modern Fort Esprit.” From S.T. Coleridge, Anima Poetae, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (The Folcroft Press, 1969), p 11.

14 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 270.

15 Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, # 22.

16 Erasmus/Luther: Discourse on Free Will, trans. and ed. by Ernst F. Winter, p 13.

17 Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, ed. Robert M. Adams (Norton Critical Editions, New York, 1989), p 59.

18 Ibid. p 65.

19 Desiderius Erasmus, Letter to Martin Dorp, in The Praise of Folly, ed. Robert M. Adams, p 239.

20 Ibid. p 239.

2118Martin Luther, The Pagan Servitude of the Church, in Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 270.

22 Desiderius Erasmus, Letter to Martin Dorp, in The Praise of Folly, ed. Robert M. Adams, p 239.

23 Ibid. p 244.

24 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 175.

25 Erasmus/Luther: Discourse on Free Will, trans. and ed. by Ernst F. Winter, p 6.

26 This idea of a morality of intentions in Luther was drawn from the lectures of Dr. Janowski.

27 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 476.

28 Ibid. p 54.

29 Desiderius Erasmus, Letter to Martin Dorp, in The Praise of Folly, ed. Robert M. Adams, p 247.

30 Ibid. p246.