Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume III/Apologetic/A Treatise on the Soul/Chapter LI
Chapter LI.—Death Entirely Separates the Soul from the Body.
But the operation of death is plain and obvious: it is the separation of body and soul. Some, however, in reference to the soul’s immortality, on which they have so feeble a hold through not being taught of God, maintain it with such beggarly arguments, that they would fain have it supposed that certain souls cleave to the body even after death. It is indeed in this sense that Plato, although he despatches at once to heaven such souls as he pleases, yet in his Republic exhibits to us the corpse of an unburied person, which was preserved a long time without corruption, by reason of the soul remaining, as he says, unseparated from the body. To the same purport also Democritus remarks on the growth for a considerable while of the human nails and hair in the grave. Now, it is quite possible that the nature of the atmosphere tended to the preservation of the above-mentioned corpse. What if the air were particularly dry, and the ground of a saline nature? What, too, if the substance of the body itself were unusually dry and arid? What, moreover, if the mode of the death had already eliminated from the corpse all corrupting matter? As for the nails, since they are the commencement of the nerves, they may well seem to be prolonged, owing to the nerves themselves being relaxed and extended, and to be protruded more and more as the flesh fails. The hair, again, is nourished from the brain, which would cause it endure for a long time as its secret aliment and defence. Indeed, in the case of living persons themselves, the whole head of hair is copious or scanty in proportion to the exuberance of the brain. You have medical men (to attest the fact). But not a particle of the soul can possibly remain in the body, which is itself destined to disappear when time shall have abolished the entire scene on which the body has played its part. And yet even this partial survival of the soul finds a place in the opinions of some men; and on this account they will not have the body consumed at its funeral by fire, because they would spare the small residue of the soul. There is, however, another way of accounting for this pious treatment, not as if it meant to favour the relics of the soul, but as if it would avert a cruel custom in the interest even of the body; since, being human, it is itself undeserving of an end which is also inflicted upon murderers. The truth is, the soul is indivisible, because it is immortal; (and this fact) compels us to believe that death itself is an indivisible process, accruing indivisibly to the soul, not indeed because it is immortal, but because it is indivisible. Death, however, would have to be divided in its operation, if the soul were divisible into particles, any one of which has to be reserved for a later stage of death. At this rate, a part of death will have to stay behind for a portion of the soul. I am not ignorant that some vestige of this opinion still exists. I have found it out from one of my own people. I am acquainted with the case of a woman, the daughter of Christian parents, who in the very flower of her age and beauty slept peacefully (in Jesus), after a singularly happy though brief married life. Before they laid her in her grave, and when the priest began the appointed office, at the very first breath of his prayer she withdrew her hands from her side, placed them in an attitude of devotion, and after the holy service was concluded restored them to their lateral position. Then, again, there is that well-known story among our own people, that a body voluntarily made way in a certain cemetery, to afford room for another body to be placed near to it. If, as is the case, similar stories are told amongst the heathen, (we can only conclude that) God everywhere manifests signs of His own power—to His own people for their comfort, to strangers for a testimony unto them. I would indeed much rather suppose that a portent of this kind happened from the direct agency of God than from any relics of the soul: for if there were a residue of these, they would be certain to move the other limbs; and even if they moved the hands, this still would not have been for the purpose of a prayer. Nor would the corpse have been simply content to have made way for its neighbour: it would, besides, have benefited its own self also by the change of its position. But from whatever cause proceeded these phenomena, which you must put down amongst signs and portents, it is impossible that they should regulate nature. Death, if it once falls short of totality in operation, is not death. If any fraction of the soul remain, it makes a living state. Death will no more mix with life, than will night with day.
- See below, ch. liv.
- Ch. x. p. 614.
- Vernaculam ecclesiæ.