What about *my* religious beliefs? — and a passage from Iamblichus

Today, there will be a lot of outrage about the Supreme Court decision about abortion. It is already overwhelming, and I am not even on social media — just in the family group text, a chat room related to my alma mater, and so on. My mother is the one who alerted us, actually, in the group text.

Throughout this American discussion, especially after the preliminary report on overturning Roe v. Wade, many religious leaders discussed the current thoughts on abortion within their own faith communities. Unsurprisingly, outside of Christianity, positions on abortion vary, and the life of the mother is usually prioritized over the fetus even in situations that posit ensoulment. While this is far from the only situation in which Christian supremacy dictates the law and infringes on minority religions, it is an especially dire one. Unfortunately, it’s also a situation where it’s not plausible that a pregnant person could sue her state for discrimination because her religious authorities say that aborting the fetus is not immoral, as it would require someone to make a sacrifice that nobody should have to make.

Personally, I do not believe that the soul can enter the body until birth — which, in my belief system, requires the fetus to be viable without the use of the modern contraptions that keep the extreme premature alive until they are physically self-viable. It has life, yes, but not personhood. A woman who wants an abortion should be able to have one. The fact that couples anguishing over extreme premature situations (late second trimester) can use medical interventions to coax a desired child to self-viability has no bearing on what a woman does outside of their situation.

After reading Iamblichus’ De Anima fragments with the Finamore and Dillon commentary over the past month, I’ve had opportunities to reflect on this further. I would like to close with a short passage from Iamblichus, followed by what the modern commentary says. This will be of interest to any polytheists of a Platonizing bent who are considering how to best explain to others why “religious freedom” “triumphing” due to the overturning of Roe v. Wade is actually the enshrinement of certain Christian sects over other belief systems.

According to Hippocrates the Asclepiad, life is actually created and the soul becomes present when the sperm is formed into an embryo (for it is then suitably disposed to share in life); while according to Porphyry it is as soon as the child is born. Some other opinion might arise, not expressed as yet, that there are very many powers and essential properties of the soul and that at critical moments, in different ways at different times, when the body that is coming into being is suited to do so, it partakes first of the vegetative life, then of sensation, then of the appetitive life, then of the rational soul, and lastly of the intellectual soul. These are the many opinions concerning the times at which the soul becomes associated in a natural union with the body

Iamblichus’ De Anima, fragment 31, translated by Finamore and Dillon

This [last one] is Iamblichus’ own opinion, as the use of the potential optative shows. Iamblichus appears to claim originality for this view, but it is hardly distinguishable from Stoic doctrine (e.g., SVF 2.83). In its claim that rationality comes late in human life, the doctrine is also in accord with Plato, Tim. 43a-44d. See section 15 (318.1-4 W).

Iamblichus does not, however, say when life begins. His point is that there are a number of powers and properties in the soul (as he has already shown in the De Anima) and that these become manifest in the human organism at different times. When precisely the soul housing these faculties and properties enters the body he does not say, but we may make an informed conjecture.

Proclus (In Tim. 3.322.18-31) believes that, according to Plato, the body is ensouled at the moment of birth. He argues specifically against the view that the gods place the soul in the sperm. Psellus (De Omniafaria Doctrina 115 = Porphyry, Fr. 267 Smith) records that while Hippocrates and Galen thought that the embryo was ensouled, Porphyry denied this, claiming that the embryo was not nourished by soul but by nature, as trees and plants are. Thus it was nourished through the mother, not through itself. Porphyry here is following the Stoic doctrine (SW2.806). It seems likely that Iamblichus would have followed this Neoplatonic tradition. (Proclus certainly gives no hint to the contrary, although he cites and contradicts Iamblichus on another matter a few lines later at 323.7-14.) It is interesting to note that Alcinous (178.34-39) believed that the embryo was ensouled. See Dillon (1993) 156. The view of Numenius (that the sperm entering the womb is ensouled) has already been noted. Clearly, as Iamblichus says, there are many opinions about the time of ensoulment.

Iamblichus’ view, then, will be that neither the sperm when it enters the womb nor the embryo is ensouled. Rather, the embryo is nourished by the soul and body of the mother. It is ensouled at the moment of birth, but not all at once. It develops first a vegetative soul, then a perceptive one, then a rational one (when it starts using discursive reasoning), and finally an intellectual one (which of course not all human beings actualize). The time interval between vegetative and perceptive soul cannot be very great, perhaps only a few seconds. It is intriguing that Iamblichus posits an interval at all. Perhaps he has in mind the time of the actual birthing process followed by the newborn’s subsequent cries. It is a fascinating question. If one assumes that life begins at birth, at what point does the child begin to feel and perceive as opposed to grow and feel hunger?

Iamblichus’ De Anima. Commentary from Finamore & Dillon, p. 163-164

Obviously, the strength of seeing arguments like this — of the broader context about what to think about the soul, the specifics of Iamblichus’ views, and so on — are best approached from a rational standpoint, where the essence of what the ancients are saying is preserved even though the accidentals (e.g., it’s 2022, not 322) may be different. There are places where I might disagree with the commentators — for example, I think Proclus’ position on some things can be improved on by reorienting towards the cosmic web, as it fixes many contradictions between the Republic and Timaeus concerning gender that he could not have foreseen while preserving the actual system’s core essence — and here, I have the most questions about what the commentators said regarding “which of course not all human beings actualize”, as it sounds like the kind of thing someone might say on Twitter to be edgy about feeling intellectually alienated, but I may be too battle-scarred by the Very Online to instantly get their intentions with that, as the specific line (44c, I think) of the Timaeus they’re referring to seems to me to be more about virtue-scale development (because Socrates says in the Phaedo that we go down to Hades with our education and nurture).

It’s safe to say here that the soul’s grasp of the body is at first shaky, but it becomes stronger as the brain develops, and the soul is eventually able to sustain all of what it needs for the specific human life it has chosen. This is parallel to how some faculties of the soul may be dormant when the soul is attached to animals that are not capable of higher-order cognition — the higher faculties will never be actualized in those lifetimes, but eventually, the soul may incarnate into a species with a broader capacity to receive itself, on whatever world it does so.

Situations like this, to be candid and slightly about-face re: topics, actually prove what Plato said in the Timaeus about being a woman in many of our societies. Incarnating as a woman, which Plato’s character Timaeus calls a punishment, is the surest way to develop grit and resilience and character because, while there are some cool things, sexist societal customs and the lack of legal equality are truly awful to deal with, even in societies in which we have some protections. This difference is not the way things should be, but it is the way things have happened. We can all build a better future if only we choose to do so, if only we start to judge people by their merits (like the example of men and women in the Republic, who have the same jobs even though women can’t lift as heavy as men can) instead of by creating false separations. Whether it’s discrimination in the workplace, not being heard by doctors, the medical field’s ignorance about how to treat perimenopause symptoms, or anything else, none of this stuff actually needs to happen. Nobody should have to deal with this, and the fact that it is still a thing proves just how far from just our societies are.

3 thoughts on “What about *my* religious beliefs? — and a passage from Iamblichus

  1. It should be noted that Porphyry’s “To Gaurus on How Embryos are Ensouled” does survive, and has been published in the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series from Bloomsbury. This essay contains his complete argument in defense of his view that ensoulment occurs at birth, and against the notion that it begins at conception, and is quite philosophically interesting. More people should be aware of it due to its relevance to contemporary debates.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, it’s on my TBR — I’ve read some of the passages from it (at least, what I think is that one) that Festugière put at the end of one of Proclus’ Republic commentary volumes, and the out-of-context section was very interesting.


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