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Christianity and Hellenism, Part 3 of 3: On Human Nature

December 11th, 2010 | 7 min read

By Kevin White

One of the theological areas most likely to raise questions about the relationship between historical Christian teaching and Greek (especially Platonic) thought is that of human nature. Especially with regard to two related subjects:  the relationship between body and soul, and just how good or evil either part is. Most of this topic is Matthew’s bailiwick, what with his current book project. But I can’t rightly conclude this series without addressing it.

Plato gives a very stirring account of human nature and the challenge of human existence in the Phaedrus. He gives the following description of the human soul:

To describe what the soul actually is would require a very long account, altogether a task for a god in every way; but to say what it is like is humanly possible and takes less time… Let us then liken the soul to the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer. The gods have horses and charioteers that are themselves all good and come from good stock besides, while everyone else has a mixture. To begin with, our driver is in charge of a pair of horses; second, one of his horses is beautiful and good and from stock of the same sort, while the other is the opposite and has the opposite sort of bloodline. This means that chariot-driving in our case is inevitably a painfully difficult business. (Phaedrus 246a-b)

In this parable, he goes on to blame the weakness of the second horse for the soul’s fall from heaven and into an earthly body. Virtue helps the soul, so to speak, regain the power of flight, and vice destroys it. (247e) For Plato, there are three parts of the soul: the rational (the charioteer), the spirited (the good horse), and the appetitive (the bad horse). The rational soul is not, as we moderns might suppose, just the seat of logical thought. It is also the seat of illumination, as the part of a man that is closest to the divine nature. The appetitive is the seat of fierce desire, the wild riot of passion. Now, as people living in the shadow of Freud, we hear “passion” and mainly think “sex.” For the Phaedrus, that is not far off, as Socrates’ parable goes on to place a huge emphasis on reigning in sexual desire. But for the ancients the bigger, bad passion was anger. As one of my professors put it, lust makes you look stupid; uncontrolled anger leads to murder. The spirited is the middle thing that joins these two poles. It is the seat of noble feelings, of honor and courage.

For Plato, the rational (in the broader, pre-Enlightenment sense) part of the soul is to be in control, as a charioteer restrains and directs his horses. The lesser part of the soul, the one that most needs restraint, is the appetite. His diagnosis of the human problem is that our charioteer is too weak to restrain its team. The solution is to exercise and train our charioteer, through right thinking, right desire, and rigorous practice. For Plato, philosophy was no mere armchair hobby, it was the work of salvation.

And this problem comes before you even bring the body into the picture. Elsewhere, in the Timaeus, Plato says that embodiment and the physical senses disrupt and distort the natural harmony of the soul. (43a-44a) So, the body is a real problem for Plato, and embodiment is problematic, even if it is the natural order of things. Plato himself is not the source of the “fleshly prison” idea of the body, but a poor reading of Plato leads you in that direction. But, as I said, for Plato, the soul-body problem is also a soul problem. It’s really easy to read Descartes’ sharp mind/matter distinction back into older thought, and thereby iron all those wrinkles out.

In the Bible we see a different picture of the human condition, and of the quality of our various parts. Jeremiah provides an excellent example. All throughout the book, we see the prophet lament how the people are content with idolatry, injustice, and corrupt priests. He denounces lying prophets who proclaim “peace when there is no peace.” False prophets who preached complacency even as the bow of divine judgment was bent, with a Babylonian arrow on the string. Jeremiah is the “weeping prophet,” fearing his own words while begging to be spared the task of proclamation. He shows the courage to speak an unpopular word of wrath and the compassion to grieve over those words. So note how, after restating Judah’s sentence of exile, he writes:

Thus says the LORD: "Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. "Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit." The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? "I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds." (Jeremiah 17:5-10)

Jeremiah here shows what some might call “a pessimistic view of humanity.” Here, “flesh” is a stand-in for all about our humanity that makes us less than God. For another example of this use of flesh-language, see also 2 Chronicles 36:8, “With him [the Assyrian king] is an arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God.” So, by “flesh” the prophet means not just our bodies but our entire nature. We are embodied; God is not. We are inherently limited and unreliable even at our best. God is quite the opposite.

So, Jeremiah is saying, “don’t trust in human nature and human strength. Those who do have the staying power of an unwatered plant in a salt flat.”  In addition to his use of flesh-language, he also talks about hearts and minds. By “heart,” he does not mean so much the seat of our emotions, but the core of our being. Our innermost self. It’s a fairly all-encompassing term. So he is saying that our innermost being is deceitful and sick. Our general orientation is skewed, and we cannot fully know our own motives and desires. Only God can fully search our hearts and minds.

So we see that our bodily nature symbolizes our general limitations, even before we consider moral categories. What’s wrong with us can be crudely summed up as “everything.” In other words, our problem is at our root and touches on all parts of us. Heart, mind, and body.

Which bigger picture of human nature did the orthodox mainstream of ancient Christianity follow? A Plato-style picture, or one more like the Old Testament picture used in Jeremiah? The Fathers certainly tended to use the language of body, soul, and spirit. But did they mean the terms in the Platonic sense shown above, where the best part of a man is the least bodily part?

Let us listen to what G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man refers to as “The Witness of the Heretics.” We can learn much about the early Christians by observing what doctrines they condemned and why.

Take the case of Apollinaris of Laodicea. He and his skewed Christology gained quite the following, but were nevertheless denounced by the second, third, and fourth Ecumenical Councils. An impressive feat, to be sure. His idea was that there are three parts of a human being: the rational soul, the spirit (the breath of life that animates the body), and the body. Mix one of each together, and you have an Adam. (Or an Eve.) This is already very similar to Plato’s image of the charioteer.

Apollinaris said that sin disrupted our nature by inflaming our desires and appetites. Our reason (which, remember, is more than just logic) is no longer able to control them. The charioteer is not strong enough to hold his horses. What we need is a strong enough hand on the reigns. That, he said, is what we have in Christ. Christ is the Logos of God. (John 1:1) He assumed a body and a spirit, with His eternal Self serving in place of a rational soul. Thus, all three pieces are assembled. Our rational soul is an image of the Reason (logos) of God, so the Original can stand in place of the copy. Add a human rational soul, and you would just have a four-parted monster, not a man. Nothing of importance is missing due to the substitution, he said, because the real problem is in the body and its cravings.

Gregory of Nazianzus (AKA, Gregory the Theologian) among the Greek-speaking Fathers provided the definitive refutation of Apollinaris’ Christology, as well as the anthropology (doctrine of man) that it entailed. He offered instead his famous maxim, “that which is not assumed is not healed.” Christ became a man to heal human nature. In the Five Theological Orations, he repeatedly states that Christ assumed every part of our nature, sin alone excepted. He explicitly included the human mind in what was assumed, because it also needed to be healed. Our problem was not a charioteer that cannot control the enraged horses. No, our mind is just as prone to sin as the rest of us. Like Jeremiah, Gregory said that it is our nature, our entire orientation, that is sick. All of it needs the care of the Healer. That is why he could not accept Apollinaris’ formula.

In other words: this founding father of Christian orthodoxy rejected Apollinaris, because Apollinaris was too strongly influenced by Platonism.

Kevin White