THEOSOPHY, Vol. 28, No. 5, March, 1940
(Pages 195-203; Size: 28K)
(Number 3 of an 8-part series)

[Compiler's Note: All 8 articles have the same name.]



IN the Neoplatonic philosophy, the ineffable One produces the Universal Mind, which is the sum of the Ideas --the eternal archetypes of the forms of manifested existence. All the forms of matter are the result of pre-existing intelligences which shape matter to their various natures. The unity of all souls with the Universal Oversoul does not exclude spiritual individuality; in other words, the gross matter of earthly life is not the principle of individuation. Differentiation within the One proceeds on higher planes, prior to the objective differentiation of physical existence. Each plane of being produces another and inferior plane, until the lowest plane of matter is reached.(1)

This process of emanation is exemplified in the descent of the individual soul to incarnation. Proclus succinctly describes how the soul takes on sheaths of increasing materiality in its passage from spiritual existence to a body of matter:

The vehicle of every particular soul descends by the addition of vestures increasingly material; and ascends in company with the soul through divestment of all that is material and recovery of its proper form, after the analogy of the soul which makes use of it: for the soul descends by the acquisition of the irrational principles of life; and ascends by putting off all those faculties tending to temporal process with which it was invested in its descent, and becoming clean and bare of all such faculties as serve the use of the process.(2)
In the work from which this passage is quoted, the Elements of Theology, Proclus desired to present in a series of propositions the garnered wisdom of the ancient world. He was the last of the great Greek philosophers, and in a spirit almost prophetic of the coming dark period in human thought, he devoted himself to a synthesis of the work of his predecessors. How well he succeeded is shown by the extensive use H.P.B. makes of his writings in explaining the occult doctrines. Following is another passage from Proclus, with her interpolations:
After death the soul (the spirit) continueth to linger in the aërial body (astral form), till it is entirely purified from all angry and voluptuous passions ... then doth it put off by a second dying the aërial body as it did the earthly one. Whereupon, the ancients say that there is a celestial body always joined with the soul, which is immortal, luminous and star-like.(3)
In his Commentary on Plato's Timaeus, Proclus teaches the existence of "both an immortal vehicle and a perishable one which survives bodily death ... attaching the irrational soul to the latter while holding that certain roots of unreason are imperishable." This joining of the perishable vehicle with the irrational soul after bodily death appears to be a description of the union which takes place between the astral body and the Kama-rupa. The "imperishable roots of unreason" which also survive is doubtless a reference to the Skandhas, which await the ego at the door of its next rebirth. According to Proclus, the perishable vehicle "consists of successive layers of the four elements, which are successively attached to the immortal vehicle in the course of the soul's descent and discarded in the reverse order during the ascent."(4)

Plotinus, called by H.P.B. the "noblest, highest and grandest of all the Neo-Platonists after the founder of the school, Ammonius Saccas," gives an account of the sheaths intermediate between the higher part of the soul and the physical body. In the fourth Ennead he says: "The souls peering forth from the Intellectual Realm descend first to the heavens and there put on a body; this becomes at once the medium by which they reach more and more towards magnitude (physical extension) and proceed to bodies progressively more earthy." A little later he enters into a detailed discussion of that phase of the soul which is "required to produce life in the corporeal, and what there must be of soul present throughout such a completed organism."(5) This is the astral body, as the necessary model of the physical.

Elsewhere in the same Ennead he examines in detail the Aristotelian doctrine that the entelechy, or soul of the body, is dependent on the body for its existence. Plotinus shows that were soul and body but different aspects of the same thing, there could be sense perception but no intellection. For if, he says, the body and the soul are really one, "there is an end to the resistance offered by reason to the desires; the total (of body and Entelechy-Soul) must have one uniform experience throughout, and be aware of no internal contradiction." This is the classical criticism against all forms of materialistic and monistic psychology. If mind is but a function of body, exhibiting only responses to physical stimuli, there can be no such thing as thought, proper. A mind that is merely the reflex of bodily activity can have no thoughts about the body, because such thought is not independent, but entirely predetermined by the body itself. It is impossible for the Behaviorist to meet this argument except by asserting that he is independent of the laws of his own doctrine. Unless this is the case, he can tell us only things which are the result of his own unique bodily stimuli. As Plotinus says, "The very upholders of the entelechy are thus compelled to introduce another soul, the Intellect, to which they ascribe immortality." This is Aristotle's "Creative Reason."

Plotinus concludes the discussion with a clear distinction between the Aristotelian Entelechy-Soul and the Immortal Individuality:

The substantial existence of the soul, then, does not depend upon serving as Form to anything; it is an Essence which does not come into being by finding a seat in body; it exists before it becomes also the soul of some particular, for example, of a living being, whose body by this doctrine would be the author of its soul.

What, then, is the soul's Being? If it is neither body nor a state nor experience of body, but it is act and creation; if it holds much and gives much, and is an existence outside of body; of what order and character must it be?

Clearly it is what we describe as Veritable Essence. The other order, the entire corporeal Kind, is process; it appears and it perishes; in reality it never possesses Being, but is merely protected, in so far as it has the capacity, by participating in what authentically is.(6)

The doctrine of the astral body was known and taught by the Neoplatonists of Athens, Alexandria and Rome. It appears in the works of the Christian Fathers who had come under Neoplatonic influence, as in Origen, who used it to explain the apparitions of the dead, citing in Plato's Phaedo the description of the fate of the unpurified psyche. It appears in the Commentary of Macrobius on the Dream of Scipio, and in Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy. Throughout the Middle Ages it was a familiar idea. In Dante it occurs in the Purgatoria xxv, 88. When, in the eleventh century, there was a revival of Platonism in Constantinople, the doctrine of the astral body emerges in the works of Psellus.(7)

With the rise of Christianity, the demiurgic work of Universal Mind was assumed by Jehovah, the tribal god of the Jews. Thus, instead of an omnipresent principle of Reality as the source of all, there appeared the Personal God, an individual Being, separate from all nature. The endless hierarchies which in pagan thought were the manifested creative powers became the angels and demons of Christian theology -- all created out of nothing by God. The soul of man likewise became a creation. The source of all forms was thus the mind of God, whose ways may not be inquired into by man.

Medieval philosophy was an endeavor to decide between a corrupt Platonism and a misunderstood Aristotelianism. To adopt wholly the Platonic teaching meant Pantheism, which would be fatal to the priests who claimed to be intermediaries between man and God. For if God is in all, he is in man, too, and then what need of any priests? Thus Cassiodorus, in the sixth century, taught that the soul is created by God, but that it is an error to suppose that the soul is part of God. God, he argued, could not give way to the sins of the body, as does the soul of man in submitting to the dictates of the passions. Cassiodorus was unable to decide whether each soul is an individual creation or is generated by its parents. The latter explanation, he thought, might account for the transmission of the original sin.(8)

The origin of all the contradictions in Christian doctrine can be traced to three basic distortions: first, the separation of Deity from the spirit of man; second, the personification of good and evil in God and Devil; and, finally, the denial of a plurality of creative powers, making of man a mere "creature." The warping influence of this latter idea is illustrated in Augustine of Hippo, who joined the devotional doctrine of mystical union, borrowed from Plotinus, with the vicious belief that man's destiny is wholly dependent on the will of God. The whole meaning of the doctrine of emanations for further evolutionary development was thereby lost. Salvation became a purely personal issue.

The tendency of medieval theology was to eliminate gradually the Platonic conception of subsistent Forms, making every creation the direct act of the will of God Himself. This came about largely as a result of the adoption of the Aristotelian metaphysics following the infusion of Arabic learning in Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Platonic realism led to Pantheism, whereas the Aristotelian doctrine, in which forms achieved reality only by union with matter, fitted nicely with the Church teaching that God is the only creative power. The Forms, then, were in God's mind, and when He invested them with matter, souls came into being. How the soul could have no actuality except as the soul of some body, yet could be immortal after the death of the body, was a question that puzzled some of the critics of Thomas Aquinas, who gave the doctrine its final form. For some, the dogma of the resurrection of the flesh was a simple solution to this problem.

Alain of Lille, an ecclesiastic who died about 1200, was the author of some Latin verses which quaintly set forth the medieval view of creation. The sense of his poem, with a passage put into English, is given by Henry Adams:

Alain conceded to the weakness of human thought, that God was working in time and space, or rather on His throne in heaven, when nature, proposing to create a new and improved man, sent Reason and Prudence up to ask Him for a soul to fit the new body. Having passed through various adventures and much scholastic instruction, the messenger Prudence arrived, after having dropped her dangerous friend Reason by the way. The request was respectfully presented to God, and favorably received. God promised the soul, and at once sent His servant Noys -- Thought -- to the storehouse of ideas to choose it:
God Himself pursues the task, and sets in act
What he promised. So He calls Noys to seek
A copy of His will, Idea of the human mind,
To whose form the spirit should be shaped,
Rich in every virtue, which, veiled in garb
Of frail flesh, is to be hidden in a shade of body,
Then Noys, at the King's order, turning one by one
Each sample, seeks the new Idea.

Among so many images she hardly finds that
Which seeks; at last the sought one appears.
This form Noys herself brings to God for Him
To form a soul to its pattern. He takes the seal,
And gives form to the soul after the model
Of the form itself, stamping on the sample
The figure such as the Idea requires. The seal
Covers the whole field, and the impression
    expresses the stamp.(9)

Henry Adams gives the similar view of Thomas Aquinas on this subject:
The utmost possible relation between any two individuals is that God may have used the same stamp or mould for a series of creations, and especially for the less spiritual: "God is the first model for all things. One may also say that, among His creatures some serve as types or models for others because there are some which are made in the image of others"; but generation means sequence, not cause. The only true cause is God. Creation is His sole act, in which no second cause can share. "Creation is more perfect and loftier than generation, because it aims at producing the whole substance of the being, though it starts from absolute nothing."(10)
While the abstract idea or Form of the soul existed always in the mind of God, the soul itself did not come into being until the act of creation. What, then, made the individual soul different from other souls? These differences must exist, or there would be but one common soul for all mankind -- as Christians understood the Arabian Averroes to teach -- and this was the rankest heresy, for the salvation offered by the Church was for individuals. Thomas met this objection by finding the differences between souls in the matter they animate.
Individuality depends on matter signata quantitate, i.e., determined in reference to time and space. The matter of a man's body has been determined as to quantity by ante-natal hereditary and other influences. Matter, so determined, requires form to produce the individuality of this man, this embodied soul. The difficulty here soon became apparent. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that individuality depends on matter in a sense which puts immortality out of the question. But Aquinas and Albertus Magnus strenuously defend the incorruptibility and immortality of the soul against the materialistic implication of Averroism.(11)
The idea of God as an extra-cosmic being whose mind contains the vast pattern of the universe with all its diversity of form and degrees of intelligence is an insuperable obstacle to a philosophical cosmogony. To the question, Whence these forms? the only answer is, God in his greatness has them in his mind from all eternity. And if it be asked why He chose to create these particular forms and not some others, the believer must reply: God in his infinite goodness has made this the "best of all possible worlds." Such was the conclusion of Leibniz whose logical mind, once having accepted an all-good, personal God, demanded that the created world be consistent with the nature of its creator. The equally logical mind of Voltaire, who did not accept the orthodox conception of deity, then asked if the Lisbon earthquake was the final proof of God's infinite goodness!

The personal god idea renders impossible any rational conception of law and cycles. The Christian cannot entertain the Theosophical explanation of the source of forms, which says: "The previous objective Universe has dissolved into its one primal and eternal cause, and is, so to say, held in solution in space, to differentiate again and crystallize out anew at the following Manvantaric dawn, which is the commencement of a new 'Day' or new activity of Brahmâ -- the symbol of the Universe."(12) The immanence of Deity and the immanence of Law are interdependent conceptions. The cyclic re-embodiments of universal intelligence, each period of manifestation the outcome of the preceding cycle, give a logical explanation of the origin of forms. This is the teaching of the "reincarnation" of solar systems and universes, known by the Greeks and the Kabalists, but lost to Western civilization until the coming of H.P.B. The ancient doctrine of cycles is the missing link of every speculative cosmogonical doctrine; without it there are but two alternatives: a blind materialism postulating that all forms are produced by the fortuitous concurrence of atoms, or the dogmatic assertion of a personal creative intelligence to design the forms as absolute originals.

The creatures of the lower kingdoms, like human souls, are also special creations of God, according to Christian theology. In the Thomist system, the scale of animal creation follows the doctrine of Aristotle. There is the vegetative soul of the plant kingdom; the animal soul with the faculty of sensation common to all beasts; finally, there is the human soul of reason. With Aquinas as with Aristotle, all these forms "realize" their being in matter. But Aquinas had not Aristotle's uncertainty about man's immortality. The human soul, he taught, is at once the highest of the "inherent forms" (dependent on matter) and the lowest of the "pure forms" which can exist independent of material embodiment. It is both the entelechy of the body and the first of an ascending series of spiritual forms which include all the angelic powers described by Dionysius the Areopagite, right up to the absolute Form -- God.(13) (It will be recalled that the hierarchies of Dionysius were a Christian version of the teachings of Proclus.) But all these forms, whether of the material or spiritual world, were creations from nothing by God. The souls of animal and man gained their being by the divine act which united them with matter, the human soul somehow retaining its integrity after the body's dissolution. Thus was the Pantheism of Plato avoided, in that no work of creation was attributed to secondary causes: God was the sole creator of plants, animals, men and angels, not to forget all the powers of evil, too!

Dante, in the Purgatoria, follows Aquinas and Aristotle in his account of the generation of creatures. The discourse of Statius in Canto xxv describes the functions of the vegetative and animal souls. In the animal body, the blood receives from the heart the "virtue" by which it gives form to the various members of the body. Man has both vegetative and animal souls, and to these are added the powers of mind. The lower souls in man are but the "matter" in which is realized the Form peculiar to him -- the Reason. Statius says:

But how from an animal it becomes a speaking being thou as yet seest not; this is such a point that once it made one wiser than thee to err, so that in his teaching he separated from the soul the potential intellect, because he saw no organ assumed by it.(14) Open thy heart unto the truth that is coming, and know that, so soon as in the foetus the articulation of the brain is perfect, the Primal Motor turns to it with joy over such art of nature, and inspires a new spirit replete with virtue, which draws that which it finds active there unto its own substance, and makes one single soul which lives and feels and circles on itself.
Dante now turns to Plato for Statius' description of the soul after death: "And when Lachesis has no more thread, this soul is loosed from the flesh, and virtually bears away with itself both the human and the divine." The soul arrives to its place of destiny, where the "formative virtue" gives the soul the likeness of the man as he was on earth. "As the air when it is full of rain becomes adorned with divers colors by another's rays which are reflected in it, so here the neighboring air shapes itself into that form which is virtually imprinted upon it by the soul that hath stopped." Thus the form of the Shade is shaped "according as the desires and other affections impress us ..."(15) Here Dante is describing the surviving astral body as taught by Plato in the Gorgias.(16)

These illustrations of the doctrine of the astral body or its substitutes in medieval thought show how the scholastic philosophers retained the shell of pagan ideas, making them serve the purposes of Christian theology. In later times, when the shackles of dogma had been thrown off, there was little possibility that the scientifically minded men of the Renaissance would give attention to conceptions that had become familiar to them under the auspices of the Church. While there was a real revival of Neoplatonism in Florence, beginning toward the end of the fifteenth century through the work of Ficino, Pico, and others, the influence of these few could no more overcome the enthusiastic materialism heralded by the "mechanical philosophers" than the Athenian School could withstand Justinian's imperial edict banishing the Neoplatonists of a thousand years before. While Henry More might be inspired by the Florentine school to write of the Immortality of the Soul as a true Platonic Philosopher, and Ralph Cudworth devote a lengthy section of his Intellectual System to an explanation and defense of the astral body, the work of the Cambridge Platonists was leavening rather than dominating; the "mechanical" philosophy had won the field. After the seventeenth century, the astral body finds few supporters who have any hope of influencing orthodox science and philosophy, until the time of H.P.B.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


Man was not "created" the complete being he is now, however imperfect he still remains. There was a spiritual, a psychic, an intellectual, and an animal evolution, from the highest to the lowest, as well as a physical development -- from the simple and homogeneous, up to the more complex and heterogeneous; though not quite on the lines traced for us by the modern evolutionists. This double evolution in two contrary directions, required various ages, of divers natures and degrees of spirituality and intellectuality, to fabricate the being now known as man. Furthermore, the one absolute, ever acting and never erring law, which proceeds on the same lines from one eternity (or Manvantara) to the other -- ever furnishing an ascending scale for the manifested, or that which we call the great Illusion (Maha-Maya), but plunging Spirit deeper and deeper into materiality on the one hand, and then redeeming it through flesh and liberating it -- this law, we say, uses for these purposes the Beings from other and higher planes, men, or Minds (Manus), in accordance with their Karmic exigencies. 

--The Secret Doctrine.

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(1) For an excellent summary of the Neoplatonic teachings, see Thomas Whittaker, The Neo-Platonists (London: Cambridge University Press, 1928).
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(2) Elements of Theology, translated by E. R. Dodds (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933), Prop. 209, p. 183.
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(3) Isis Unveiled I, 432.
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(4) Dodds, op. cit., p. 307; cf. Whittaker, op. cit., p. 293.
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(5) Fourth Ennead III, 26, 30. From Plotinus on the Nature of the Soul, translated by Stephen Mackenna (London: Medici Society, 1924).
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(6) Ibid. Cf. The Secret Doctrine I, 174-5 fn.
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(7) Dodds, op. cit., p. 321.
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(8) E. S. Duckett, The Gateway to the Middle Ages (New York: Macmillan, 1938), pp. 142-5.
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(9) Henry Adams, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1933), pp. 352-3.
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(10) Ibid., p. 354.
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(11) Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, "Scholasticism."
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(12) The Secret Doctrine I, 41.
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(13) W.Windelbrand, History of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1910), pp. 149-50, 324.
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(14) This refers to Averroes.
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(15) These passages from the Purgatoria of the Divine Comedy are from the translation by C. H. Norton (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1902).
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(16) Isis I, 327-8.
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