Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume III/Apologetic/A Treatise on the Soul/Chapter LIII
Chapter LIII.—The Entire Soul Being Indivisible Remains to the Last Act of Vitality; Never Partially or Fractionally Withdrawn from the Body.
But where at last will the soul have to lodge, when it is bare and divested of the body? We must certainly not hesitate to follow it thither, in the order of our inquiry. We must, however, first of all fully state what belongs to the topic before us, in order that no one, because we have mentioned the various issues of death, may expect from us a special description of these, which ought rather to be left to medical men, who are the proper judges of the incidents which appertain to death, or its causes, and the actual conditions of the human body. Of course, with the view of preserving the truth of the soul’s immortality, whilst treating this topic, I shall have, on mentioning death, to introduce phrases about dissolution of such a purport as seems to intimate that the soul escapes by degrees, and piece by piece; for it withdraws (from the body) with all the circumstances of a decline, seeming to suffer consumption, and suggests to us the idea of being annihilated by the slow process of its departure. But the entire reason of this phenomenon is in the body, and arises from the body. For whatever be the kind of death (which operates on man), it undoubtedly produces the destruction either of the matter, or of the region, or of the passages of vitality: of the matter, such as the gall and the blood; of the region, such as the heart and the liver; of the passages, such as the veins and the arteries. Inasmuch, then, as these parts of the body are severally devastated by an injury proper to each of them, even to the very last ruin and annulling of the vital powers—in other words, of the ends, the sites, and the functions of nature—it must needs come to pass, amidst the gradual decay of its instruments, domiciles, and spaces, that the soul also itself, being driven to abandon each successive part, assumes the appearance of being lessened to nothing; in some such manner as a charioteer is assumed to have himself failed, when his horses, through fatigue, withdraw from him their energies. But this assumption applies only to the circumstances of the despoiled person, not to any real condition of suffering. Likewise the body’s charioteer, the animal spirit, fails on account of the failure of its vehicle, not of itself—abandoning its work, but not its vigour—languishing in operation, but not in essential condition—bankrupt in solvency, not in substance—because ceasing to put in an appearance, but not ceasing to exist. Thus every rapid death—such as a decapitation, or a breaking of the neck, which opens at once a vast outlet for the soul; or a sudden ruin, which at a stroke crushes every vital action, like that inner ruin apoplexy—retards not the soul’s escape, nor painfully separates its departure into successive moments. Where, however, the death is a lingering one, the soul abandons its position in the way in which it is itself abandoned. And yet it is not by this process severed in fractions: it is slowly drawn out; and whilst thus extracted, it causes the last remnant to seem to be but a part of itself. No portion, however, must be deemed separable, because it is the last; nor, because it is a small one, must it be regarded as susceptible of dissolution. Accordant with a series is its end, and the middle is prolonged to the extremes; and the remnants cohere to the mass, and are waited for, but never abandoned by it. And I will even venture to say, that the last of a whole is the whole; because while it is less, and the latest, it yet belongs to the whole, and completes it. Hence, indeed, many times it happens that the soul in its actual separation is more powerfully agitated with a more anxious gaze, and a quickened loquacity; whilst from the loftier and freer position in which it is now placed, it enunciates, by means of its last remnant still lingering in the flesh, what it sees, what it hears, and what it is beginning to know. In Platonic phrase, indeed, the body is a prison, but in the apostle’s it is “the temple of God,” because it is in Christ. Still, (as must be admitted,) by reason of its enclosure it obstructs and obscures the soul, and sullies it by the concretion of the flesh; whence it happens that the light which illumines objects comes in upon the soul in a more confused manner, as if through a window of horn. Undoubtedly, when the soul, by the power of death, is released from its concretion with the flesh, it is by the very release cleansed and purified: it is, moreover, certain that it escapes from the veil of the flesh into open space, to its clear, and pure, and intrinsic light; and then finds itself enjoying its enfranchisement from matter, and by virtue of its liberty it recovers its divinity, as one who awakes out of sleep passes from images to verities. Then it tells out what it sees; then it exults or it fears, according as it finds what lodging is prepared for it, as soon as it sees the very angel’s face, that arraigner of souls, the Mercury of the poets.
- We have made Tertullian’s “cervicum messis” include both these modes of instantaneous death.
- Phædo, p. 62, c. 6.
- 1 Cor. iii. 16; vi. 19; 2 Cor. vi. 16.