The following is an excerpt from Patrick Harpur’s The Secret Tradition of the Soul.
The relationship between the Soul of the World and the individual soul is easy to put into words but difficult to picture: our souls are microcosms, miniature versions of the cosmos. We consist of levels of being that extend from the material body, through soul, to the intelligible level (nous) and finally to the One. The task of the human soul is simply to return from its exile in our shadowy, less than real material world to an ecstatic union with the One Source of all reality. It is a return because everything emanated from the One in the first place.
We can imagine the soulâ€™s journey as vertical, traveling upward through the vast architecture of the macrocosm. Alternatively we can picture the journey as downward, into our own depths, where the ever-living Forms or gods dwell and, beyond them, the ultimate Unity. These journeys are of course not actual. They are metaphors for the transformation of the soul. They are not really â€śupâ€ť or â€śdownâ€ťâ€”these are only ways of speaking in order that we can produce images of the soulâ€™s transformation. Soul is nonspatial1 but it always represents itself spatially, for example as â€śinsideâ€ť us or â€śoutside.â€ť A concentric model of the soul might be more apt, perhaps, than the vertical. We can see the body as in soul, soul as in nous, nous as in the One. Soul is not, as we usually think, inside the body because, as Plotinus reminds us, the Greek meaning of the preposition â€śinâ€ť does not so much refer to a place as to being in somethingâ€™s power. Body is â€śinâ€ť soul because it depends on soulâ€™s power.
So we have to make another leap of the imagination and picture the concentric model of the soul made dynamic and fluid, each of its levels co-inhering, to use an old theological word. Now we are no longer arranged hierarchically. We are all soul. It is just that each of us is an individual manifestation of the collective world-soul. Each of its levels is now a way that soul represents itselfâ€”now as an individual, now as collective.
When Marsilio Ficino began to translate the newly discovered Neoplatonist writings into Latin, making them available to fifteenth-century western Europeans, he was struck by the grandeur of their conception of the human soul. As a model in miniature of the cosmos, it is â€śthe greatest of all miracles in nature,â€ť he wrote. â€śAll other things beneath God are always one single being: but the soul is all things together.â€¦ Teherefore it may be rightly called the centre of nature, the middle term of all things â€¦ the bond and juncture of the universe.â€ť
Ficino is contemplating with amazement how we contain the immensity of the world-soul, a whole â€śinnerâ€ť universe whose study would become depth psychology. But we must remember, too, that we are also and paradoxically contained by the world-soul, like droplets in the ocean. This is the vision of traditional cultures whose members see the world-soul â€śoutsideâ€ť themselves as an ensouled Nature in which each person is only one soul among many.
For Plotinus, â€śtheâ€ť soul does not always need the definite article because it is at root the world-soul. It is the source of life not just in the body but in the whole universe. It goes without saying that it cannot die. By the same token it cannot come into being. Soul has always been, and always is, in its own timeless and nonspatial realm. The Neoplatonists thought it irrational of Christiansâ€”with whom they agreed about the omnipresence of the divine and the immortality of the individual soulâ€”to believe that this soul exists after death without also believing that it exists before birth. This discrepancy led to differing beliefs about how we acquire knowledge.
Aquinas followed Aristotle in thinking that we know nothing until experience informs us. Our souls come into the world like blank slates on which the data received through our senses writes. John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) made this doctrine central to the Enlightenment; and it remains, I suppose, pretty much the modern orthodox view. Plato and his followers, however, tell us that the soul carries into the world knowledge of the eternal Forms it had before birth. It is just that it forgets this knowledge in transit. However, by the exercise of what Plato calls anamnesis, or recollection, we know truth when we see it. Learning is less about cognition than recognitionâ€”something we hear or read about strikes us immediately as true, as if we had always known it but were only now remembering.
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