A human being is defined as a rational soul combined with a physical body. As such, Iamblichus places the soul under the fifth Parmenidean hypothesis; irrational souls are “woven into” rational souls.
Essence, Power and Activities
All beings, including human souls, can be analyzed into three:
- Their essence/substance (ousia)
- Their power
- Their activity
I. The Soul’s Essence
All beings have essence (also called substance, or ousia), powers, and activities. The essence is a being’s inner-most or most fundamental self. Typically, an entity’s essence is difficult to access or even recognize. In humanity’s case, the difficulty is compounded.
Iamblichus follows Plato and the language of the Chaldean Oracles by dividing humanity into three different groups.
- The great herd of humanity, whose soul is combined with a body and self-identifies as that body
- The beginning theurgist and philosopher, whose soul is combined with a body and self-identifies as that body, however is midway to knowing their separateness.
- The theurgic sage, whose souls are the only ones who are fully and experientially aware of their ultimate separateness from the body which it inhabits.
The combined nature of the human soul, of humanity, is a unique trait of a unique kind of soul.
Where the soul comes from
Iamblichus writes that the human soul comes after Nous (the Celestial Demiurge). A soul is separate from all the greater kinds and is the mean between fully immaterial, indivisible beings and fully material, divisible ones. Further, the soul descends completely into a body upon incarnation, with none of it remaining outside of generation.
This tells us significant information about the nature of the soul.
- Firstly, the soul depends from the level of Nous as it extends into the Psychic Cosmos. This makes the soul distinct from, inferior to, and dependent upon the rest of the greater kinds.
- Although the human soul is connected to Nous it also exists on its own, separated from Nous beneath the World Soul, and so must participate in Nous in order to experience Intellect in its fullest. In this lower position, human souls are the mediators between the divine and physical realms and their inhabitants.
- This recalls Julian’s descriptions of King Helios as Celestial Demiurge as a mean between the Intelligible and sensible realms, leading and uniting these two otherwise separate levels. Just as the Celestial Demiurge leads the celestial realm, so too does the human soul participating Nous through demiurgic theurgy.
The soul descends by the will of the Gods for two reasons:
- The soul’s descent is to complete creation in a uniform manner, as in accordance with Plato’s Timaeus.
- The soul descends in order to manifest the life of the Gods in creation.
In both cases the will of the Gods is carried out by the soul in generation. Since the nature of the Gods is ultimately good, the descent of the soul is likewise good.
II. The Soul’s Powers
Power is an entity’s potential expression of its essence; essentially what a soul can do. The easiest way to understand an entity’s essence is through its powers and activities. Although the human soul eventually falls into generation and becomes incarnated into a physical body, the soul’s power only reside in the soul, and not the body and soul together. Some powers are expressed when the soul exists away from the body while others are expressed only when soul and body are conjoined. Further, incarnation causes some of the soul’s disincarnate powers to express differently while incarnate. This is in line with Plato’s Phaedo’s view of the soul’s ability to comprehend truth being lessened while incarnate.
Iamblichus’ De Mysteriis makes it clear that a human has two souls, one rational and one irrational.
- The rational soul “Partak[es] of the power of the Demiurge.” (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, VIII.6, 321) In Plato’s Timaeus, the Celestial Demiurge creates what is immortal. Meaning that it is He is responsible for the creation of the rational soul.
- The irrational soul “is contributed to us from the circuit of the heavenly bodies.” (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, VIII.6, 321) Going back to Plato’s Timaeus; while the Celestial Demiurge creates what is immortal, it is the Gods under Him who create everything that is mortal in the soul; that being the irrational soul. Through the irrational soul our irrational powers become active, either stemming from irrational powers found in the rational soul itself or originating in the irrational soul.
Plato gives a metaphorical tripirate division of the rational soul. This is not to be taken literally; as the rational soul is only one part. However, it is convenient to divide the soul into three to better understand the soul’s relation to the virtues:
- Reason: Which allows us to learn
- Spirited: Which allows us to feel strong emotions such as anger
- Appetitive: Which allows us to desire physical things
The soul’s actual powers, though, are different from the parts, and include:
- Thought that moves the body
- Desire for good and evil
- Memory or the mental retention of images
Just as the soul has a life alone and a life with the body, some of the soul’s powers are connected to one or the other of the soul’s modes of existence.
III. The Soul’s Activities
A soul’s activities are its power in expression, and can arise either from:
- The soul itself
- From the passions of the body
- A combination of the two
All the causes of activities are the soul. We can’t attribute any activity to the body alone, even those that arise from bodily passions, because bodies are incapable of self-movement. We can think of the soul as the batteries of the body.
Iamblichus likens the One of the soul, the soul’s principle of unity and Intellect, to a ship’s helmsman, and a ship to a body:
- The helmsman controls the ship and sets its course, even if wind and other factors influence the ship’s response to the helmsman’s command.
- The ship has movements proper to it when controlled by the helmsman, but the helmsman (the One of the soul) has activities proper to it when separate from its ship. These include divine possession, immaterial thinking, and union with the divine.
Unlike the activities of the Gods and Archangels, human activities, which only occur when soul and body are conjoined, are disconnected from the essence and life of the soul. Specifically, these activities include “change, divisibility, corporeality dimensionality, and extension.” (Iamblichus De Anima, III.16, 43) Such activities cannot belong to the non-physical soul as it exists by itself, as they are immortal, unchanging and unextended.
The human soul, a fallen divinity, is in its highest state the last of the Greater Kinds. To rise once again, one must engage in worship, or cultus. Cultus is steeped in theurgic activity and serves as the stepping stone for theourgia.
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Iamblichus. De Mysteriis. Translated by Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon and Jackson P. Hershbell. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
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