God and Mind from the Ancient Greeks to Augustine

SHAFAQNA – The idea of breath as soul is very ancient and can be found in many cultures. In the sixth century B.C., Anaximines declared the first principle of all things to be air or wind, from which all things come and to which they are resolved. “Just as our soul,” he is reported to have said, “which is air, holds us together, so breath and air surround the whole cosmos.”18Because of this report, Anaximenes is taken to have taught the correspondence of microcosm and macrocosm based on his view of air as the first principle (arche) of all things and divine and as the stuff of the human soul.

Anaxagoras (d. 428 B.C.) elevated nous to the status of first principle while sidelining psyche. He is reported to have begun his book on philosophy with the words, “All things were together, then nous came and set them in order.” Nous sets things in motion and out of the swirl comes the physical universe, which is then ruled by nous. Anaxagoras also attributes knowledge of all things to nous, because otherwise it would not have been able to fashion and govern. He also describes nous as powerful. However, according to Anaxagoras, nous is not immaterial, instead it is described as being of the finest material so that it can penetrate everywhere.

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates expresses approval of Anaxagoras for considering nous as first cause, but is disappointed that so much of the speculation of Anaxagoras is about mechanical forces. Guthrie explains that the disappointment was due to the lack of any discussion of teleological causation, which would seem to be the only way nous could control nature.

In the Republic, nous is distinguished from dianoia. Dianoia is discursive thinking, thinking that takes place step by step, thinking that wanders. Nous, by contrast, is all at once. So, the Muslim philosophers sometimes contrasted the knowing of dianoia and nous as detailed knowledge (‘ilm al-tafṣīlī) and concise knowledge (‘ilm al-ijmālī).

For Plato, what does not move is immutable and hence eternal. In the early dialogues, the soul and deity are both considered immobile, but in the later dialogues the soul is said to be self-moving. Finally, in the Timeus, there is an unchanging eternal God and a self-moving temporal but everlasting world soul. “The eternal God comprehends the entire realm of ideas—of pattern—and the world soul comprehends the entire realm of things.”

The break with the idea of God as unmoving and impersonal is stated clearly in the Sophist.

STR. I understand, this at least is true, that if to know is active, to be known must in turn be passive. Now being (ousia), since it is, according to this theory, known by the intelligence (logos), in so far as it is known, is moved, since it is acted upon, which we say cannot be the case with that which is in a state of rest.

THEAET. Right.

STR. But for heaven’s sake, shall we let ourselves easily be persuaded that motion and life and soul (psyche) and mind (phronesin) are really not present to absolute being (pantelus onti), that it neither lives nor thinks (phronein), but awful and holy, devoid of mind (nous), is fixed and immovable?

THEAET. That would be a shocking admission to make, Stranger. STR. But shall we say that it has mind (nous), but not life?
THEAET. How Can we?

STR. But do we say that both of these exist in it, and yet go on to say that it does not possess them in a soul (psyche)?

THEAET. But how else can it possess them?

STR. Then shall we say that it has mind and life and soul, but, although endowed with soul, is absolutely immovable?

THEAET. All those things seem to me absurd.

STR. And it must be conceded that motion and that which is moved exist.

THEAET. Of course.

STR. Then the result is, Theaetetus, that if there is no motion, there is no mind (nous) in anyone about anything anywhere.

William Reese comments that Plato’s theology turns upon two principles: “the pure being of the Forms and the supreme mobility or self-motion of soul.” Reese interprets Plato’s eternal God and world soul as distinct levels of ontological abstractness, so that “Plato’s assertion that the world soul and the eternal God are distinct divine natures and the assertion that deity possesses two aspects, one concrete and inclusive, the other abstract and independent” amount to the same thing. We thus find a duality introduced into the very notion of divinity that can be traced to Plato (at least on one interpretation), and that pops up subsequently throughout the history of philosophical theology, when the essence of God is said to be beyond description, while at some lower level, God is described as having nous, or mind.

The passage in the Sophist is also important because it suggests one of the most persistent reasons for ascribing mind to God, and thus, claiming that God is a person: it would be too shocking to deny. After the ascription of nous, life, psyche, and motion follow.

Nous as divine comes to the fore, again, with Aristotle. Myles Burnyeat has forcefully argued that God as presented in Aristotle’s Metaphysics is the Active Intellect, explained in On the Soul. The Aristotelian soul is divided by its faculties into vegetable, animal, and human. Everything that has life has a psyche. The intellect, nous, is understood in terms of the faculties that are not shared with lower animals and plants. The animal soul is characterized by perception and will. This leaves only reasoning and abstract thought as features specific to the human soul. Descartes, on the other hand, denies that animals perceive by mental imagery, and, thus, is able to expand the mental to include perceptions and imaginations that were absent from the Aristotelian nous. The verbal form of nous, noein, did not mean thinking in the post- Cartesian sense, but intellectual knowing.

As Burnyeat explains, Aristotle divided humans from other creatures because of the possession of a certain kind of thinking: calculation and reasoning, λογισμὸν καὶ διάνοιαν, logismos and dianoia, while other animals live only by imagination (φαντασία, fantasia), and yet others do not even have that. Aristotle continues that nous presents a different problem. The distinction between nous and dianoia is made repeatedly. Nous, but not dianoia, is divine.

Aristotle compares the employment of nous to that of perception. In both cases there is a unity between the known and the knower. However, in perception this unity is achieved only with the activity of sensual perception, so that it cannot function apart from the body, while in the case of nous, the unity is achieved as soon as one develops intellectual capacity, and no activity of intellection is required. Scholars agree that there are no material conditions involved in the unification of nous and its known object, and that the intellect (nous) is separate from the body. They disagree about the nature of the relation between sensory perception and the body.

In any case, since sensible objects are particular and external to the perceiver, unity of the knower and the known can only occur through a particular act of perceiving. Scientific knowledge (episteme), to the contrary, is said to somehow reside in the knower as soon as the intellect is sufficiently developed, so that knowledge of them is obtained as soon as the knower can make use of the appropriate universals, which occurs when the scientifically correct definition of an essence is mastered. Mastery of these definitions is no easy task, for it requires the grasping of the appropriate definitions as first principles of deductive science pertaining to the essences defined.

Aristotle also distinguishes nous, in contrast to dianoia, as being divine and immortal, as being like an extra substance that resides in a mortal substance, and as remaining unaffected by the death of its human vehicle. Neither is dianoia to be identified with nous, nor does it belong to nous. Thinking, believing, and judging are the work of dianoia. Nous is impassive and yet receptive to intelligible forms. Insofar as it is receptive, it is known as the potential (δύναμις, dynamei) or material (νοῦς, hylikos) intellect, and the intellect that actively makes things intelligible is the active intellect (νοῦς πολιτικός). The potential intellect is present in a person as soon as the person has the ability to acquire intellectual forms. The intellect becomes active when the forms are present in the intellect and available for application.

Light was not understood by Aristotle as energy in motion, but as the actuality of the transparent qua transparent, that is, as the condition that makes possible visible form. Nous is like light in that it is not in motion, but is the actuality of the intellectually knowable qua knowable, that is, it is the condition that actualizes what is potentially knowable so that it becomes knowable. It is a non-material medium through which intelligible forms become knowable in the human intellect, just as light is the medium through which perceptual forms become visible. This is the active intellect, and this, according to Burnyeat’s analysis, is what Aristotle considers to be God.

Aristotle thinks of God as the prime mover and final cause. Likewise, active nous is the final cause and actuality of what is intellectually known.

What is special about the exercise of nous, the highest form of cognition that humans can attain, is that it is no longer a more or less distant imitation of the divine life. It is a limited span of the very same activity as God enjoys for all time.

Nous, as active intellect and as divinity, is the immortal, impassible, immaterial actuality that comes to reside in us like a kind of separable substance, and this, Burnyeat tells us, “is the key to Aristotle’s recommendation of the contemplative life.”

As Burnyeat admits, his interpretation is controversial. Other interpreters have tried to construct a reading of Aristotle that is more in line with modern functionalism, and that tries to put distance between Aristotle’s psychology and theology. Regardless of the superiority of Burnyeat’s arguments against those of rival interpreters, his account would be worth our attention merely because it is in essential agreement to Alexander of Aphrodisias and other commentators who influenced subsequent discussions of the issue. On the other hand, it is generally admitted that the relevant passages are among the most difficult and obscure in the Aristotelian corpus and throughout the subsequent history of the discussion there is plenty of disagreement among commentators.

The next stop in our survey of the attributions of mind to God among the Greek philosophers is Plotinus (c. 205-270). Emilsson explains that Plotinus’ doctrine of the intellect draws heavily on Aristotle and his commentators, especially Alexander of Aphrodisias; specifically, “Plotinus follows Alexander of Aphrodisias in unifying the account of God as pure thinker in Metaphysics XII and that of the active intellect in De anima III, 5.” However, for Plotinus, intellect is not what is highest, for it is second to the One; and when Plotinus contrasts nous to the One, his language suggests that the intellect is imperfect. The One is identified with the Good; it is totally self-sufficient; and it is the final cause of all things.

Emilsson argues that another difference between Plotinus and previous accounts of nous is that in the previous accounts, there is no indication that nous takes a subjective stance or considers itself as “I”, while in Plotinus, there is consideration of thoughts of nous expressed in the first person, “I am this,” in which duality is introduced through the difference between the subject and object of thought.

Neo-Platonic thought is further elaborated by Proclus (412-485). The first principle of Proclus is the One, which is identified with the Good, and (as in Plato) is beyond thought and ousia. Ousia is generally translated as “being,” although the same word is used by Aristotle for substance, and it would make more sense to interpret the One as beyond substance than as beyond being. The second hypostasis is nous, and it is only here that self-knowledge occurs, for it is only through nous that there is the knowing (gnosis) that is the first principle (arche) of all knowing. The third hypostasis is psyche, through the presence of which bodies become self-moving. Hence psyche is that which is essentially self-moving.

An important source of neo-Platonic thought for Islamic philosophy can be found in the Uthūlūjiyā Arisṭūṭālīs (Theology of Aristotle), a summary of parts of the Enneads of Plotinus, and Kalām fī mahḍ al-Khayr (Book on the Pure Good), an Arabic commentary on Proclus’ Elements of Theology, attributed to Aristotle and translated into Latin under the title Liber de causis. When these pseudo-Aristotelian works are compared with their neo-Platonic sources, one finds a number of significant differences that make neo-Platonic thought more theistic.

For example, neo-Platonic principles are described as causes and the One is called “creator”. As in the neo-Platonists, God creates or emanates intellect directly, and then produces everything else through intellect. However, the Theology of Aristotle sometimes describes the first cause as an intellect, contrary to Plotinus and Proclus. Perhaps the confusion of intellect with the One has its source in the neo-Platonists’ ambiguities. With regard to Plotinus, Emilsson argues:

The One itself is in some sense a psychological entity too, even if Plotinus is wary of ascribing ordinary human psychological attributes to it, because they tend to be incompatible with its utter simplicity.

However, Emilsson qualifies this claim in a footnote:

In any case, my point is not that Plotinus after all means to say that the One thinks. It is rather that whatever it does, it is so close to thinking that it is very tempting to apply the vocabulary of thought to it.

The philosophical legacy from the pre-Socratics to the neo-Platonists is one that harbors numerous ambiguities regarding the intellect, nous, and the first principle or cause of all things. When this legacy was taken up by Christians and Muslims, the immediate tendency was to identify the first principle, first cause and prime mover with God, the Creator. As Gilson explains:

… any follower of the Jewish God would know at once that, whatever the nature of reality itself may be said to be, its religious principle must of necessity coincide with its philosophical principle. Each of them being one, they are bound to be the same and to provide men with one and the same explanation of the world.

When the existence of this one true God was proclaimed by Moses to the Jews, they never thought for a moment that their Lord could be something. Obviously, their Lord was somebody.

Gilson continues to explain how when Augustine (354-430) read Plotinus, he interpreted the One as the Father, nous as logos, as the Son, and also found a place among the neo-Platonic hypostases for the Holy Spirit, the world soul. This sort of neo-Platonist understanding of the Trinity was not original with Augustine. Arians and semi-Arians were Christian theologians who accepted a Trinitarian doctrine in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were descending forms of divinity that appear to be modeled on neo-Platonist views. Augustine argued against this sort of understanding of divinity, not by philosophical argumentation, but by marshalling scriptural evidence for the equality of the three persons of the Trinity.

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