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On the Subtle Body in Neoplatonism
Felix Herkert: researcher in philosophy and Perennialism at the University of Freiburg, Germany
A subtle body located between the material body of flesh and the immaterial soul is an idea found in many traditions. In the Far East it plays a decisive role in various practices ranging from medicine and sexuality to spirituality and yoga (1), but is also found in both Islamic and Jewish mysticism. In the Western tradition, the idea of the subtle body is found particularly in Neoplatonism, in the Platonism of the Renaissance and in the Cambridge Platonists, as well as in Gnostic, hermetic, alchemical and esoteric traditions. Within the framework of Christianity, the subtle body appears in the context of how resurrection is to be conceived (2). If we regard this spectrum, we get the impression that the subtle body – as G. R. S. Mead very properly remarked – is “one of the most persistent persuasions of mankind in all ages and climes” (3) and has an exceptional potential for intercultural and comparative research.
The English term “subtle body” was coined in modern times. It can be traced back to a specific lexical option for sūkṣmaśarīra – an important concept in the Hindu tradition – within the framework of the Theosophical Society’s translations of Sanskrit texts (4). In the terminology of Neoplatonic thought, the terms ochema (that is, vehiculum, soul-carriage) or pneuma (that is, spiritus, life-breath) are used in the sense of subtle body, since they mean the form that clothes the soul as it descends through the heavenly spheres before becoming incarnate in a material body. Another term used to speak of this subtle body is ‘astral body’, in which the composition of this body from substances of the planetary sphere is taken for granted. What role is ascribed to this body by Neoplatonic thinkers and what are the sources of such ideas? We shall now take a closer look at this question.
In the first place, it is convenient to distinguish six functions of the subtle body:
1. From an ontological perspective, it is a mediation between the immaterial soul and the material body, and the descent of the soul through the spheres assumes a process of individualization.
2. From an epistemological perspective, it mostly appears as bearer of the faculty of imagination and perception.
3. From an eschatological and soteriological perspective, it acts as a medium to atone for wrongdoings and be able to return to the heavenly abode.
4. From a topological perspective, it enables movement of the soul within the cosmos and its emplacement beyond this universe after death.
5. From a theurgic point of view, it is the object of ritual practices aiming at self-purification.
6. Within the context of Neoplatonic demonology, it has a certain relevance due to the idea that such cosmic entities are also endowed with subtle features.
The philosophical foundations in Plato and Aristotle, on which later notions of the subtle body are based, are easily recognizable.
1. Plato’s use of the term ochema in his dialogues Timeaus (41e-2, 44e-2, 69c-7), Phaedrus (247b-2), Phaedo (113d-5), Epinomis (986b-5, a text long attributed to him) and Laws (898e-899a), which points to speculations on the existence of a soul-body made of light or air.
2. Aristotle’s definition of pneuma as an entity with a structure presenting a certain analogy with cosmic elements (De Generatione Animalium, 736b-37, 38). It is from a combination of these two notions – the Platonic ochema and the Aristotelian pneuma – that later doctrines on the subtle body were built. This should not however lead us to the conclusion that all the resulting ideas about the subtle body were the fruit of a synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian exegesis. The fact that many doctrines of the subtle body in late antiquity were elaborated in the form of commentaries does not mean that the inspiration of Neoplatonic thinkers (whose took the classical authorities as their point of departure) has to be reduced to an empty form of scholasticism. Their philosophical positions certainly cannot be fully explained by relating them exclusively to the heritage of traditional (classical) authorities. Even within the commentary tradition, the question of the relationship between ‘tradition’, ‘reason’ and ‘experience’ (5) should be thoroughly considered. This is even more ostensible in the case of Neoplatonic authors following Plotinus with regard to the axis of ‘experience’, mainly because in that case many religious and cultic elements ended up permeating the doctrinal and philosophical field. For this reason we must say that reconstructing the rise of the notion of the subtle body in the philosophical context of the Old Academy is one matter; yet another is to explain its success in Neoplatonic thought after Plotinus. Dealing with this subject exclusively on the basis of the history of ideas most probably risks excluding its experiential basis, that is, the close relationship between doctrine and life. Not by chance did Neoplatonic representations of the subtle body appear primarily in the religion of late antiquity, more precisely in the context of theurgy. The aim of theurgic practices was purification of the soul-body as a means of attaining visions of gods and the ascent of the soul to the higher spheres of heaven (6). In Plotinus such practices were not really essential, and his disciple Porphyry insisted on the primacy of philosophy over theurgy. Iamblichus however thought otherwise on this subject (7). In his opinion theurgy was the exclusive means of separating the soul from the body and of ensuring its ascension. Where do such ideas come from? Do they come mainly from philosophical discourse, from specific exegesis of authoritative texts, or from religious experience related to ritual practice? Do they have their place in the history of philosophy, or rather in the history of religion and cult? There is no doubt that they are relevant in the context of religious history, for example, if we consider the motif of the ascent and descent of the soul through the planetary spheres. It is also the product of various instances of transmission (8) and has its place in the world of archaic religions (for example in the context of Shamanism) and also in Abrahamitic monotheism (for example in the rapture of Enoch and Elijah or in Mohammed’s ascent to Heaven). In ancient philosophy this kind of conception is held mostly by followers of Plato, and it plays a role in different religious and philosophical trends of late antiquity, for example in the Chaldean Oracles, Gnosticism (Pistis Sophia), the Mysteries (of Mithras and Isis), in Hermeticism (Poimandres, Panaretos) and Alchemy (Zosimos). It is very difficult to separate the aforementioned world-visions of that period of history, since they develop (in terms of time) parallel to each other and (in terms of content) with reciprocal influences. This is also why the manifold versions of the doctrine of the subtle body prove to be a very fruitful terrain even from the perspective of history of religions and were widely discussed in the context of the topoi of heavenly ascent. We should also bear in mind that the motif of ‘stripping off the garments’ (periblêmata) (9) i.e. the different qualities relating to the body during its ascent through the celestial spheres, is closely connected with the context of the Mysteries, in which ritual correspondences may have occurred.
It becomes clear that the close relationship between the different conceptions of the subtle body and the complex interaction of religion and rite is a kind of red thread that enables us to grasp the whole scope of the question. Any detailed exposition will include different dimensions such as hermeneutics, religious experience and ritual practice. This can be clearly seen in Iamblichus’ work De Mysteriis Aegyptorum, Chaldaeorum, Assyriorum, a wide-scale justification of the soteriological dimension of theurgic practices. Even when Iamblichus attempts to express it in a (rationally elaborated) philosophical discourse, the effectiveness of theurgy for him is something that escapes all philosophical description or understanding and must therefore be carried out or experienced (10). In the third book, he deals thoroughly with different forms of divination and provides extensive descriptions of divine possession – defined as ‘illumination’ in the literal sense of the word:
This passage combines the main aspects of Iamblichus’ theory of inspiration. It is the etheric body of light enveloping the soul – which is the soul’s faculty of imagination – that plays a decisive role in ‘illumination’. In general terms, an epiphany is for Iambichus the luminous self-manifestation of a divine entity in the receptacle of the human imagination. The miraculous aspect of the epiphanic event revolves around ‘taking shape’, since that which adopts a form is something beyond all appearances. This coming-to-presentation has its location in the subtle body, since the imaginary power of the latter enables a transformation of intelligible gods into images, thus making them accessible in the realm of appearances. In this respect, Olympiodorus writes, “It is the imagination that clothes incorporeal realities in bodies” (12). And since the gods manifest themselves only according to the qualifications [epitêdeiotês]of the one receiving them, their different appearances refer to the degree of perfection of the theurgic practitioner as mirrored in his subtle body.
Similar elements are found in Proclus and Hermias of Alexandria. Both authors speak about the experience of daemonic or divine appearances, and the question arises as to how the gods can appear (even personified) if they are at the same time immutable in the Platonic sense of the word. For Proclus this is no exclusive contradiction, since the gods cast forth images in order to manifest themselves in the sphere of becoming. The ‘visions’ [theamata]can thus be said to depend both on the gods and on the human beings perceiving them. Proclus speaks quite explicitly of ‘seeing’ [horan], but it is indeed a special kind of vision (as confirmed by his remark concerning the ‘body of light’) of which not all human beings are capable. In fact, the qualified are those whose ‘body of light’ (as the organ of divine manifestation) is in good condition, and the kind of perception related to the divine vision seems to correspond to the faculty of imagination (13). It is this kind of perception to which Hermias also bears witness in his commentary on Phaedrus:
What conclusion can we draw from what we have examined so far? Basically, that the subtle body for Neoplatonic thinkers finds its place in the descriptions and philosophical explanations of religious experiences or epiphanies, thus appearing as the vehicle of imagination, since imagination is the faculty that enables us to establish contact with the gods. With regard to the experiential foundation of this idea, it is worth mentioning the parallels G. Shaw established with Eastern doctrines:
This last quotation inaugurates another dimension of our inquiry, since there are surprising correspondences between the Neoplatonic doctrines of ochema and pneuma and the doctrine of the subtle body in the Arabic and Persian traditions, especially bearing in mind the relevance ascribed to the sphere of the so-called ‘imaginal’. It was Henry Corbin who undertook a thorough research into the notion of a mundus imaginalis (clearly present in Persian philosophers and mystics) as a middle-realm between the sensible and the intelligible. According to him, the mundus imaginalis is actually the very place of religious experience and its manifold elements (theophanies, visions, eschatological events, etc.), as eminently described in books like Corps spirituel et Terre céleste: de l’Iran mazdéen à l’Iran shî’ite (1979) and L’homme de lumière dans le soufisme iranien (1971). The former contains a number of source texts from the pre-Islamic and Islamic period dealing with the question of the subtle dimension of the body. The latter was defined by Corbin himself as the ‘physiology of the light-man’ and directly concerns the ‘organ’ of the subtle body. We may conclude by saying that Corbin clearly shows how a phenomenology of mysticism and visions can be traced back to a metaphysical basis founded in the subtle physiology we have referred to throughout this essay.
(1) A significant example is S. Syman’s Story of Yoga in America, published under the title The Subtle Body (New York 2010).
(2) St Paul (cf. Corinthians 15, 42-44) refers to a ‘pneumatic body’. At the same time the identity between the earthly and the resurrected body is explained in terms of the relationship between seed and plant. It should be noticed that Paul Deussen uses the same allegory in his Philosophie der Upanishad’s (Leipzig 1922, p. 239) in order to illustrate the doctrine of the subtle body in Vedānta.
(3) G. R. S. Mead, The Doctrine of the Subtle Body in Western Tradition, London 1919, p. 1. This opinion is shared in the collective volume edited by G. Samuel and J. Johnston, entitled Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West. Between mind and body (London/New York 2013).
(4) Cf. G. Samuel/J. Johnston, Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West, p. 2. It is not surprising that the idea of the subtle body has always aroused particular interest in theosophical circles, and that the only attempt to use this notion in a broader transcultural investigation was carried out by a Theosophist: J. J. Poortman, who wrote the monumental book Ochêma (original in Danish, 1954), known in English as Vehicles of Consciousness. The Concept of Hylic Pluralism, 1978.
(5) This point is closely related to A. H. Amstrong’s question concerning Plotinus in his essay “Tradition, Reason and Experience in the Thought of Plotinus”, in: Plotino e il Neoplatonismo in Oriente e in Occidente, Roma 1976, pp. 171-194.
(6) In his De civitate Dei (X, 9 and 27) Augustine characterized theurgy – after the fashion of Porphyry – as a purification of the ‘spiritual’ (pneumatic) part of the soul enabling the individual to “perceive spirits and angels and have vision of gods”. In this respect wrote Psellus (Commentarius, 1132a): “The Chaldeans say that we cannot be borne upwards towards god, unless we strengthen the vehicle of the soul by material sacraments”.
(7) Cf. De mysteriis, II-11, and also Proclus, Theologia Platonica, I-25.
(8) Cf. F. Cumont, Afterlife in Roman paganism, New Haven 1922, pp. 91-109, pp. 148-169, pp. 206-213; C. Colpe, “Die «Himmelsreise der Seele» als philosophie- und religionsgeschichtliches Problem“, in: Festschrift für J. Klein zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. by E. Fries, Göttingen 1967, pp. 85-104. See also I. P. Culianu, Psychanodia I: a survey of the evidence concerning the ascension of the soul and its relevance, Leiden 1983.
(9) Cf. Iamblichus, De anima, 38 / 385; Corpus Hermeticum, X 17; Porphyrius, De Abstinentia, 2, 46; Proclus, Elementa theologiae, 209; Marsilio Ficino, De amore, VI, 4.
(10) Cf. Iamblichus, De mysteriis, III-6; III-18; V-21.
(11) De mysteriis, III-14.
(12) In Platonis Phaedonem, 6-2.
(13) Cf. Procli Commentarium in Platonis Rem Publicam, IV-39, 3-10; Procli Diadochi In Platonis Timaeum Commentaria, III-286, 20-29.
(14) In Platonis Phaedrum scholia, 69. Cf. also Procli Commentarium in Platonis Alcibiadem, 80, 4-13.
(15) G. Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, Pennsylvania 1995, 222. Cf. also I. P. Culianu, Eros und Magie in der Renaissance, Frankfurt/M. 2001, 172 and 195.