Ed. by Anna Marmodoro and Sophie Cartwright

CUP (2018) h/b 428pp £74.99 (ISBN 9780107181212)

The relationship between body and ‘mind’ (roughly the rational part of the soul) has occupied, hardly surprisingly, philosophical, ethical, psychological, anthropological, metaphysical (carry on at your leisure) thought for as long as thoughts have been recorded. So it should not be a surprise that there are tot sententiae on the matter, and a similar amount of subject specific vocabulary to manipulate in this pursuit. This is by way of notification that the book’s approach is detailed and rigorous, and that the reader’s should be that, too.

It starts with a review of the physical context of philosophising in Late Antiquity. Teaching may take place in schools or universities, be publicly or privately funded, and may be enhanced and augmented in a range of social settings, like walks or parties, and, thankfully for the subject’s legacy, in distance learning mode via letter writing.

We begin with Hellenistic philosophers, more specifically Stoics and Epicureans, whose interest in body-mind interaction can be easily demonstrated (it is assumed that the reader is acquainted with the key points, at least, established by Plato and Aristotle on mind-body activity). The following seven chapters consider the writings of pagan, Neo-Platonic philosophers. 

Numenius is well within the Pythagorean tradition, with the soul both as prisoner of the body and a hybrid of divinity and matter. Plotinus picks up Plato and Aristotle, with a tripartite system, in descending order, of The One (The Good, the cause of being), the soul (intelligibility) and the intellect, the cause of ‘all embodied desire’—embodied being a key word in a book with this title. Porphyry again posits a descending, tripartite of Intellect which does not change, logismos, which deals with discursive reason, and the alogia, the irrational, with its concomitant effect on the corporeal, so that the soul has active power over the body. 

Iamblichus, too, divides the soul into functions, and majors on the role of theurgy (ritual, religious practice) in facilitating the soul’s reascent to Intellect. Indeed, individuals can perfect their corporeal existence by means of theurgy and philosophy, whilst gods, angels, daemons and heroes (as a kind of buffer between the soul and intellect) can support this process. 

The subsequent eleven chapters consider Mind and Body in early Christian thought. Whilst it is clear how much pagan philosophy might sit comfortably alongside the Christian, the incarnation, resurrection and creation in the image of God proved to be, and not just in philosophy, something of a game-changer. So, for instance, Irenaeus found it impossible to denigrate the role of the body, though he could admit of good and bad natures. Resurrection is bodily, the soul being already immortal.

For Origen, whilst our souls have fallen from God because of our sin, Christ’s soul never fell. We are all in earnest pursuit of imitation of God, but it is not the flesh that is raised, but rather the metaphysical principle, the eidos.

The Christian ascetics sought the imitation of Christ in their own lives, and, on the grounds that God does not suffer from the actions of another being, apatheia was their main objective. Interestingly, Gregory of Nazianzus decided to stop talking for 40 days, and found that the practice calmed his nous, and that the nous calmed his body. With Augustine it is back to a tripartite system, with deus, anima and corpora, whilst history went into the mix with Adam and the concept of original sin.

This is the first integrated history of the subject and will prove to be an extremely valuable resource for some time to come, but it does demand rigorous reading, and will best suit those with an interest in and some knowledge of the history, philosophy and theology of Late Antiquity.

Adrian Spooner


We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room