Mortal Soul and Mortal Psyche #3 Historical background

Historical background

In Roman mythology Psyche represented the human spirit and was portrayed as a beautiful girl with butterfly wings. Lots of elements people could not understand were solved by telling stories about it. As such Psyche, a princess of such stunning beauty that people came from near and far to admire her, became a beautiful mortal desired by Cupid, to the dismay of Cupid’s mother goddess Venus, who summoned that her son Eros (also known as Cupid), the god of love, to make Psyche fall in love with some ugly, mean, and unworthy creature. Eros prepared to obey his mother’s wishes, but when he laid eyes on the beautiful Psyche, he fell in love with her.

BLW Cupid and Psyche (2)

BLW Cupid and Psyche (2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The goddess of fertility or fruitfulness, love, marriage, family life and beauty Aphrodite (identified by the Romans as Venus) decided to punish Psyche. Psyche broke Cupid’s rule and lit a lamp to look upon his face. For this disloyalty, Cupid abandoned her. Psyche wandered through the world in search of her lover Eros, but could not find him. Finally she asked Aphrodite for help, and the goddess gave her a set of seemingly impossible tasks. With the help of other gods, however, Psyche managed to sort a roomful of grain in one night and gather golden fleeces from a flock of sheep. For the final task, Aphrodite told Psyche to go the underworld and bring back a sealed box from Persephone. This trip to the underworld may be the background to the belief that the human ‘psyche’ or ‘soul’ would also travel to the underworld. Psyche retrieved the box and on her way back, overcome by curiosity, peeked inside it. The box released a deep sleep, which overpowered her.

Venus, Pan and Eros

Venus, Pan and Eros (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By this time Eros, could not bear to be without Psyche. He flew to where she lay sleeping, woke her, and took her to Olympus, where Zeus, son and successor of Cronos/Cronus as supreme god, commanded, as master of heavens and earth, that the punishment of Psyche ceased and gave permission for the lovers to marry. The Romans equated Zeus with their own supreme god, Jupiter (or Jove). As the father god and the upholder of morality, he was the only one who could reward the good and punish the evil. Zeus, as the one who was worshipped in connection with almost every aspect of life, had the power to give life to people. He then gave Psyche a cup of ambrosia, the food of the gods, reunited her with Cupid and made her immortal.

The many stories about such a wandering ‘ghost’ or immaterial element of the human body made people believe it could wander when being on this earth in a person, but leaving the body when that person died.

These early ideas about psyche, born out of mythology, were later explored by the Greek philosophers. Plato [1] quotes his master Socrates as saying:

The soul, . . . if it departs pure, dragging with it nothing of the body, . . . goes away into that which is like itself, into the invisible, divine, immortal, and wise, and when it arrives there it is happy, freed from error and folly and fear . . . and all the other human ills, and . . . lives in truth through all after time with the gods.[2]

One can understand the attraction of such an idea as a departing spirit because it takes away the fear of the unknown at death.

Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, considered the soul the form, or essence of any living thing; that it is not a distinct substance from the body that it is in. That it is the possession of soul (of a specific kind) that makes an organism an organism at all, and thus that the notion of a body without a soul, or of a soul in the wrong kind of body, is simply unintelligible. Aristotle thought of psyche as referring to something like the “life-force”.

Portrait of Aristoteles. Pentelic marble, copy...

Portrait of Aristoteles. Pentelic marble, copy of the Imperial Period (1st or 2nd century) of a lost bronze sculpture made by Lysippos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his second book of his major treatise on the nature of living things “On the Soul” (Greek Περὶ Ψυχῆς, Perì Psūchês; Latin De Anima), Aristotle threw a spanner in the soup. Aristotle divides substance into its three meanings (matter, form, and what is composed of both) and shows that the soul must be the first actuality of a naturally organised body. This is its form or essence. It cannot be matter because the soul is that in virtue of which things have life, and matter is only being in potency. According to him there are different sorts of souls, possessed by different kinds of living things, distinguished by their different operations. He also looked at the psyche or soul as an element that people, animals and plants had to have or possess to be able to live, grow and reproduce. The lower animals as such would have the powers of sense-perception and self-motion (action), whilst the higher mammals or human beings have all these elements of plants and lower animals as well as intellect.

Plato and Aristotle argued that some parts of the soul — the intellect — could exist without the body and this gave way to the assumption that this ‘soul’ could leave the body (the other soul) to exist on its own.

Eventually the Platonic idea about the immortality of the soul was adopted within Christianity, as the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), Vol. XIII, pp. 452, 454 acknowledges:

The Christian concept of a spiritual soul created by God and infused into the body at conception to make man a living whole is the fruit of a long development in Christian philosophy. Only with Origen [died c. 254 C.E.] in the East and St. Augustine [died 430 C.E.] in the West was the soul established as a spiritual substance and a philosophical concept formed of its nature. . . . His [Augustine’s] doctrine. . . owed much (including some shortcomings) to Neoplatonism.

As a consequence of this Platonic heritage, modern translators render psyche as “soul”. Yet translators are often well aware that psyche does not carry this meaning. The Roman Catholic translation, The New American Bible, in its “Glossary of Biblical Theology Terms” (pp. 27, 28), says:

In the New Testament, to ‘save one’s soul’ (Mark 8:35) does not mean to save some ‘spiritual’ part of man, as opposed to his ‘body’ (in the Platonic sense) but the whole person with emphasis on the fact that the person is living, desiring, loving and willing, etc., in addition to being concrete and physical.[3]

[1] Greek and English Lexicon, 1836, p. 1404.

[2] Brain death is not the same as a vegetative state, but the two are often confused.

[3] Glossary of Biblical Theology Terms” (pp. 27, 28)

 

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Preceding:

Mortal Soul and Mortal Psyche #2 Psyche, the word

Next: Psyche, According to the Holy Scriptures

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Additional writings:

  1. Creation of the earth and man #9 Formation of man #1 Cure of souls
  2. Men as God
  3. Hellenistic influences
  4. A look at the Failing man

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4 thoughts on “Mortal Soul and Mortal Psyche #3 Historical background

  1. Pingback: Mortal Soul and Mortal Psyche #4 Psyche, According to the Holy Scriptures | Stepping Toes

  2. Pingback: Mortal Soul and Mortal Psyche #6 Summary | Stepping Toes

  3. Pingback: Creation of the earth and man #21 Man in the image and likeness of the Elohim #5 Spiritual and animal body – Messiah For All

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