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“Origen’s Resurrection of the Rational Soul and Its Ascent to the Likeness of Angels”

Jonathan Young

University of Iowa, Department of Classics

Scholars argue that Origen of Alexandria conceives the soul’s spiritual progress within a modified Platonic paradigm (Marx-Wolf; Ramelli). Others have been more skeptical of Origen’s Platonism (Edwards). According to Ramelli, Origen advances that the rational soul occupies an earthly, human body only once (ensomatosis), rather than a cycle of multiple bodies (metensomatosis). This notwithstanding, Marx-Wolf argues that the soul, separated from the body at death, still is capable of spiritual advancement.

Origen suggests that rational human souls are capable of ascending to higher states of being. One can partake in the Divine by properly understanding the true hierarchy of beings (from highest to lowest): God, the Logos, the rational souls of angels, daemons, humans, and the irrational souls of animals. By employing this knowledge, one can, in a sense, move up the divine hierarchy by turning away from the lower daemons, and instead praying to the higher angels and especially to Jesus. In this hierarchical arrangement, Origen, in his Contra Celsum, characterizes rational human souls, according to his hierarchy of beings, as below that of the angels. Eventually, the purified souls of the good will ascend to the “likeness” (ἐξομοίωσις) of angels and become their equals (4.29; I Corinthians 8:5-6). This full ascension of the human spirit to the realm of angels, according to Origen, will not occur during a human’s lifetime, but rather at its hopeful resurrection (Contra Celsum 4.29).

The ascent of the soul occurs elsewhere in Contra Celsum two additional times. First, Origen alludes to Plato’s Phaedo 80d-81d at which Socrates contrasts the pure and impure soul (Con.Cels. 7.5). Second, Origen refers to Plato’s myth of the soul’s ascent from the Phaedrus 247b-c). The third reference is to the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 8:5-6) and his argument concerning our ascent to the “likeness” (ἐξομοίωσις) of angels. We see that Origen appeals to Plato and Paul as bases for the ascension of the human soul. When these three passages are taken collectively, we see that Origen reframes the soul’s ascent as described by Plato to imply the ascent to the realm of the angels, wherein the body has its resurrection.

Origen insists that the Christian teaching of the resurrection should contrast with metensomatosis (Con.Cels. 5.29, 3.75). Origen’s Contra Celsum and De Principiis, however, belie full disavowal of metensomatosis. Instead, he harmonizes Plato’s “cycle of generation” (Phaedrus 249a) with the Christian teaching of the soul’s resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15). Additionally, like Plato, Origen preserves the idea of the soul’s future embodiment (cf. Phaedrus 247b-c). For Origen, however, one obtains this spiritual body at its resurrection in heaven, not on earth (Con.Cels. 7.32, 7.44). Origen contends that the body must undergo some sort of qualitative change. Accordingly, the soul needs a body better suited to its purer state. Thus, the soul dons a “spiritual body” in its new embodiment which is better suited to “ethereal” area of heaven (Con.Cels. 5.19; 7.32).

This new embodiment of the soul after its ascent is only available to those who have purified their minds according to reason and who are ready to undergo the steps of initiation into the mysteries of Christian community dependent upon their level of spiritual progress. Origen argues that it is imperative that those of the Christian community spread the message of the Logos to everyone and not admit only those who are pure of soul.  He extends the soul’s ascent even to so-called sick souls. Origen sees the hope in helping such sick souls lacking reason (Con.Cels. 8.50). The goal, then, according to Origen, is for them to progress to a state of irrationality to a state of reason. Thus, while the healthy, rational soul might attain progress upon death, might then fully realize the soul’s ascent and become like the angels, which serve for Origen the highest of the rational souls.

Origen limits spiritual resurrection to rational souls. Barred from the ascent to heaven are the irrational souls of animal. Origen disagrees with the idea that the irrational soul can ascend or descend into multiple incarnations, i.e. the suggestion that the human soul is born into animals or vice versa (e.g. Plato, Phaedo 81d-82b, Phaedrus 249b). Origen frames his refocusing of metensomatosis within the context of a philosophic debate over the spiritual capacity of animals’ souls, which Origen characterize as irrational. Origen solves this conundrum by incorporating the Stoic distinction between the spiritual abilities of the rational human soul and the irrational animal soul (cf. Gilhus; cf. Con.Cels. 7.17, 8.18). Thus, Origen adopts this Stoic dichotomy to preserve the paradigm of metensomatosis, whereby its scope is limited only to the rational soul. The soul’s future embodiment occurs at its heavenly resurrection and not in another human lifetime. This study provides a window into not only third-century CE debates among Platonists and Stoics regarding the spiritual advancement of animals, but also the interpretation of Plato’s writings.

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Soul Matters: How and Why Does Soul Matters to the Various Discourses of Neoplatonism?

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