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Secrets of Soul and Nous – Part 1


This article about Soul In its Relation to Nous, will save the seeker much time in deciphering alchemical texts, covering essentially the same ground. If this whets your appetite  more information (although un-formatted) can be found here, which I believe is the appendix to an unpublished work on Plotinus.

[There must be a principle before soul, because soul has an element of potentiality and changeability in it and needs an eternally actual cause to account for its existence; this cause is Nous.’]

 Why must we go higher than soul, instead of considering it as the first principle? First of all, Nous is other and better than soul, and the better comes first by nature. For it is not true, as people think, that ‘soul when it is made perfect produces intelligence’: for what could make soul in potency come to be in act unless there was some cause to bring it to actuality? If it happened by chance, it would be possible for soul not to come to actual existence. So we must consider that the first realities are actual and self-sufficient and perfect: imperfect things are posterior to them and are perfected by their producers who, like fathers, bring to perfection what in the beginning they generated imperfect: the imperfect is matter in relation to the principle which makes it, and is perfected by receiving form. Further, if soul is passible, there must be something impassable (or everything will be destroyed by the passage of time), so there must be something before soul. And if soul is in the universe, there must be something outside the universe, and in this way too there must be something prior to soul. For since what is in the universe is in body and matter, nothing remains the same; so [if that was all that existed] man and all the logoi would not be eternal or continue the same. One can see from these and many other arguments that Nous must exist before soul.

[Souls exist in the world of Nous, in the state of unity proper to that world: but they have the capacity to descend into the material world, where they are divided and separated spatially into different bodies: but even in this lower world they do not entirely lose their higher unity, but keep contact with the world of Nous.]

 In the intelligible world is true being: Nous is the best of it. But there are souls there too; for it is from There that they come here. That world contains souls without bodies; this one, the souls which have come to be in bodies and are divided by their bodies. There all and every Nous is together, not separated or divided, and all souls are together in the one world, without spatial division. Nous then is always without separation and undivided. Soul There is not separated or divided; but it has a natural capacity for division. Its division is departure from the intelligible world and embodiment. So it is reasonably said to be ‘divisible as regards body’, because it is in this way that it departs and is divided. How then is it also ‘undivided’? It does not all depart; there is something of it which does not come to this world, which is not divided. To say, then, that it consists of ‘the undivided and that which is divided in bodies’ is the same as saying that it consists of that which is above and that which depends Thence, and reaches as far as the things of this world, like a radius from a center  When it has come here it sees with the part of itself in which it preserves the nature of the whole. Even here below it is not only divided, but undivided as well: for the divided part of it is divided without division. It gives itself to the whole body and is undivided because it gives itself as a whole to the whole, and it is divided by being present in every part.

[We are not strictly speaking Nous, but soul, which is mid-way between Nous and sense-perception; in our normal life we are more closely connected with sense-perception; but we can become perfectly conformed to Nous by its own power, transcending our merely human nature, and then we do actually become Nous in a way.]

We are not Nous, we are conformed to it by our primary reasoning power which receives it. Still, we perceive through sense-perception, and it is we who perceive; surely we reason in the same way? It is certainly we ourselves who reason, and we ourselves who think the thoughts which are in our discursive understanding, for this is what we are. But the activities of Nous come from above, just as those proceeding from sense-perception come from below. We are the chief part of the soul, in the middle between two powers, a worse and a better, the worse being that of sense-perception and the better that of Nous. But it is generally agreed that sense-perception is continually our own possession; for we perceive continually: there is doubt about Nous, both because we are not always in touch with it and because it is separable. It is separable because it does not incline to us, but rather we to it when we look upwards. Sense-perception is our messenger: Nous is our king. Yet we are kings too when we are conformed to it. We are conformed to it in two ways, either by a sort of inscription, as if its laws were written in us, or by being filled with it and able to see it and be aware of its presence. And we know that we ourselves come to know other things by means of this vision of Nous. We either come to know the power which knows it by that power itself, or we ourselves become that vision. So the man who knows himself is double: there is the one who knows the nature of discursive reasoning, which belongs to soul, and there is the other who transcends the first one and knows himself according to Nous by becoming it: by it he thinks himself, not as man any longer, but as having become something completely different and as having carried himself off to the heights, bringing along with him only the better part of the soul, which alone can take wing to intuitive intellect, so that he can establish There what he saw. Does not the discursive reason know that it is discursive reason, that it gains understanding of things outside, and makes its judgments by the rules in itself which it has from Nous, and that there is something better than itself, which it does not seek but altogether possesses? But is there anything which it does not know when it knows what sort of a thing it is, and what its effects are like? If then discursive reason says that it comes from Nous and is second after Nous and the image of Nous, and has in itself all the characters which Nous has written and continues to write in it, will someone who knows himself like this stop at this point? Is it by using another extra power that we have the vision of Nous which knows itself, or do we share in Nous, since it is ours and we belong to it, and so know Nous and ourselves? This last must be the way if we are to know whatever it is in Nous that knows itself. A man becomes Nous when he puts away all the rest of himself and sees only this by means of this, himself by means of himself. Then he sees himself as Nous sees itself.

[Soul is directed to and is like Nous in its inward part; but even in that part of it which is directed to the outside world, and in its external activities, it keeps a sort of likeness to Nous.]

Once again, then, Nous is a self-contained activity, but soul has what we may call an inward part, which is that of it which is directed to Nous, and a part outside Nous which is directed to the outside world. By the one it is made like that from which it came, by the other, even though it has been made unlike, it becomes like, here below too, both in its action and its production. For even while it is active it contemplates, and when it produces it produces Forms (a kind of completed acts of intellect). So all things are traces of thought and Nous; they proceed according to their original pattern; those which are near imitate Nous better, and the remotest keep an obscure image of it.

[The soul is illuminated by Nous’, and, being so illuminated, is raised to its level and becomes an image of it.]

This light [of Nous} shines in the soul and illumines it: that is, it makes it intelligent: that is, it makes it like itself, the light above. You will come near to the nature of Nous and its content if you think of something like the trace of this light which is present in the soul, but still fairer and greater. For it is this illumination which gives the soul a clearer life, not, however, a generative life; on the contrary, it turns the soul to itself and does not allow it to scatter itself abroad, but makes it love the glory in Nous. It is not the life of sense-perception either, for this looks outwards, to the external world where its particular activity lies. But one who has received that light from true being looks, we may say, not particularly at visible things but just the opposite. It remains, then, that he must have received an intellectual life, a trace of the life of Nous: for true being is there. The life in Nous is also activity, the first light which lightens itself first of all and shines turned towards itself, at once enlightening and enlightened, the truly intelligible, thinking and thought, seen by itself and needing no other to enable it to see, sufficing to itself for seeing; for it is itself what it sees. It is known to us too by its very self; through itself the knowledge of it comes to us. Otherwise, from where should we get the means to speak of it? It is of such a nature that it grasps itself more clearly, and our apprehension is by means of it. By reasoning of this kind our soul is led back to it, by considering itself to be an image of Nous and its life a trace and likeness of Nous, and that whenever it thinks it becomes godlike and Nous-like. If anyone asks it what sort of thing is that perfect and universal Nous, the primary self-knower, the soul first of all enters into Nous or makes room for its activity; then it shows itself to be in possession of the things in Nous of which it holds in itself the memory, and, by means of its own likeness to Nous is able somehow to see it, being brought to a more exact resemblance as far as any part of the soul can come to resemble Nous.

[Nous is fully immanent and transcendent: the (common Hellenistic) idea of ‘presence by powers’ does not really apply to spiritual being: where the ‘power’ is present, the being is present as a whole, but the recipient only receives as much as it is able; the soul is present in the body in the same sort of way.]

Shall we say that it [the All, or Real Being, i.e. Nous] is present, or that it remains by itself, but powers go out from it to all things, and so it is present everywhere? In this way they say that souls are a sort of rays; the all remains established in itself, and the souls are sent out, each to a corresponding living being. Now in things which do not preserve the whole nature of the One Being as it is in itself, only a power of it is present where it is present; yet this certainly does not mean that it is not wholly present, since even in this case it is not cut off from the power which it gave to the other thing: but the recipient was only able to take a certain limited amount, though all was there. Where all its powers are present, it is clearly present itself, though at the same time separate: for if it became the form of a particular thing it would cease to be all and to exist everywhere in itself (though being incidentally the form of something else too).But since it belongs to no one particular thing, when something wants to belong to it, if it wishes it draws near to it, as much as is possible, but does not become the property of that or any other thing but remains the object of its desire. There is nothing surprising in it thus being present in all things, because it is in none of them in such a way as to belong to them. So perhaps it is not unreasonable to say that the soul has the same sort of relationship of accidental sympathy with the body, if we say that it remains by itself and does not become the property of matter or body, but the whole body is illumined by it in every one of its parts.

On the Soul and breaking its relationship to the ouside world…To be continued