Psychosomatic Hedonism*

How did ideas of the soul affect attitudes to the body?

I have been interested in ancient ideas of the soul for a while and was wondering how they came to affect attitudes to the body. This can be seen most clearly in attitudes towards the various pleasures which are associated with the body and how they contrasted to those of the soul. The title Psychosomatic Hedonism is self explanatory, psyche being the Greek word for soul and soma for body, so my title refers to the tension between the different pleasures (hedonai) of the soul and body which I shall explore here.

While reading around the subject, the same thing keeps coming up. There seems to be an idea prevalent throughout the texts, whether  medical, philosophical or religious of a need to overcome the “lower” pleasures of the body, called the paulas hedonas by Aristotle (eating, drinking, having sex) in order to attain the “higher” ones of the soul. So my main focus will be to contrast these ideas. 

Let’s look at a few quotes. Firstly Plato:

Οὐ δὴ ἀλόγως, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, ἀξιώσομεν αὐτὰ διττά τε καὶ ἕτερα ἀλλήλων εἶναι, τὸ μὲν ᾧ λογίζεται λογιστικὸν προσαγορεύοντες τῆς ψυχῆς, τὸ δὲ ᾧ ρ τε κα πειν κα διψ καὶ περὶ τὰς ἄλλας ἐπιθυμίας ἐπτόηται ἀλόγιστόν τε καὶ ἐπιθυμητικόν, πληρώσεών τινων καὶ ἡδονῶν ἑταῖρον.

“Not without reason,” I said, “will we claim that they are two separate forces, differing from each other, on the one hand in calling that part of the soul which does the calculating the reasoning faculty, and on the other where desires such as love, hunger, and thirst are found and which is aroused over other passions too, the irrational and appetitive, related to certain gratifications and pleasures.”

Plato, Republic (4.439d)

His idea of the soul instantly contradicts any simple body verses soul argument that I thought that this investigation would entail. He talks about two different parts of the soul, the rational and irrational which both have their own hedone. The irrational part is responsible for our bodily desires which are defined as the same three that come up most frequently in the sources, namely food, drink and sex, being the most difficult to control. Plato sees an inner conflict between these two parts.

A modern reader may well ask what is wrong with the bodily pleasures. Isn’t this just prudishness? The issue with bodily pleasures is spelt out in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, particularly in the last book, where he classifies the highest pleasure and happiness (eudaemonia) as contemplation (theoretike), so the lower pleasures are problematic only in so far as they distract from these higher ones. There is good potential here for a sensory studies approach to our experience of embodiment, as many of us still have these same struggles today. In fact, Aristotle would probably consider most of us as lost causes who have not had the correct training (askesis) since birth and have minds that are enslaved to the lower biological instincts. Towards the end he poses an important rhetorical question: 

πάθει γὰρ ζῶντες τὰς οἰκείας ἡδονὰς διώκουσι καὶ δι᾿ ὧν αὗται ἔσονται, φεύγουσι δὲ τὰς ἀντικειμένας λύπας, τοῦ δὲ καλοῦ καὶ ὡς ἀληθῶς ἡδέος οὐδ᾿ ἔννοιαν ἔχουσιν, ἄγευστοι ὄντες. τοὺς δὴ τοιούτους τίς ἂν λόγος μεταρρυθμίσαι; 

Living as they do by passion, they pursue the pleasures akin to their nature, and the things that will procure those pleasures, and avoid the opposite pains, but have not even a notion of what is noble and truly pleasant, having never tasted true pleasure. What theory then can reform the natures of men like these?

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (10, ix, 4)

 He seems to wonder how the majority can be brought over to the higher pleasures and saved from their enslavement by the lower ones. Just as with his ideas for public education, no such reform program came about and these ideas only ever remained the reserve of a tiny philosophically educated minority, although it could be argued to have gone mainstream with Christianity. 

Christians have often been criticised as “despisers of the body” as it was put by Nietzsche:

To the despisers of the body will I speak my word. I wish them neither to learn afresh, nor teach anew, but only to bid farewell to their own bodies,—and thus be dumb. “Body am I, and soul”—so saith the child. And why should one not speak like children? But the awakened one, the knowing one, saith: “Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body.”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Of the Despisers of the Body, 1.4)

But what reason could there have been for this attitude having come about? Christianity did not develop in a void, but rather out of the mixing pot of ideas throughout the Roman Empire. The New Testament was written in Greek, the lingua franca of the times, and is full of similar ideas found in Greek philosophy. A few interesting clues are found in John’s gospel: 

ὁ φιλῶν τν ψυχν αὐτοῦ ἀπολλύει αὐτήν, καὶ ὁ μισῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ τούτῳ εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον φυλάξει αὐτήν.

The one loving his life (psyche) will lose it, and the one hating his life in this world will keep it forever.

Gospel of John (12.25)

This passage, as with much of the New Testament, seems paradoxical at first, but suddenly becomes a lot clearer when considered through the lens of ancient ideas concerning higher and lower pleasures. This passage could refer to those who engage in bodily pleasures as incapable of focusing on higher things, but those who are able to refrain will get eternal life, which could be interpreted as the sensation which contemplation gives us as inhabiting an eternally present moment, lost in thought and oblivious to the physical universe. Bodily pleasures are, as Heidegger would put it, “being in the world” (dasein). Contemplation is a state where the self loses itself and perspective on the outside world and is instead caught up in its own private inner space. In the next passage John specifically states Jesus’ mission on Earth:

Ταῦτα ἐλάλησεν Ἰησοῦς καὶ ἐπάρας τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εἶπεν Πάτερ ἐλήλυθεν ἡ ὥρα δόξασόν σου τὸν Υἱόν ἵνα ὁ Υἱὸς δοξάσῃ σέ καθὼς ἔδωκας αὐτῷ ξουσίαν πάσης σαρκός ἵνα πᾶν ὃ δέδωκας αὐτῷ δώσῃ αὐτοῖς ζων αώνιον.

These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee: As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.

Gospel of John (17.1)

Jesus is an authority over all flesh because in Christian mythology he is the higher mind type who is in total control over the lower animal self. So it is not that we go to heaven or hell as punishment or reward for the kind of life we have led, rather that the life we lead determines the kind of pleasures we are drawn towards, the higher ones leading to  the kingdom of god (basileia tou theou) whether interpreted as a state achievable in this life or the next.

We have seen philosophical and religious responses to the pleasures. How about medical ones? On the whole, doctors agreed with the philosophers about the need to overcome the body, but that is clearly not how they sold it to  their patients. They put these ideas across more in terms of ill health: 

Some have pronounced permanent virginity healthful, others, however, not healthful. The former contend that the body is made ill by desire. Indeed, they say, we see the bodies of lovers pale, weak, and thin, while virginity because of inexperience with sexual pleasures is unacquainted with desire. Furthermore, all excretion of seed is harmful in females as in males. Virginity, therefore, is healthful, since it prevents the excretion of seed.

Soranus, Gynecology (1.30)

Soranus is quite revealing here as to why doctors thought the lower pleasures were bad for us. They seemed to think that semen was made up of breath (pneuma) an idea taken from Democritus’ theory of the soul as made up of atoms which enter us through the breath:

ὅθεν Δημόκριτος μὲν πῦρ τι καὶ θερμόν φησιν αὐτὴν εἶναι· ἀπείρων γὰρ ὄντων σχημάτων καὶ ἀτόμων τὰ σφαιροειδῆ πῦρ καὶ ψυχὴν λέγει, οἷον ἐν τῷ ἀέρι τὰ καλούμενα ξύσματα, ἃ φαίνεται ἐν ταῖς διὰ τῶν θυρίδων ἀκτῖσιν, ὧν τὴν πανσπερμίαν στοιχεῖα λέγει τῆς ὅλης φύσεως. ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ Λεύκιππος. τούτων δὲ τὰ σφαιροειδῆ ψυχήν, διὰ τὸ μάλιστα διὰ παντὸς δύνασθαι διαδύνειν τοὺς τοιούτους ῥυσμούς, καὶ κινεῖν τὰ λοιπὰ κινούμενα καὶ αὐτά, ὑπολαμβάνοντες τὴν ψυχὴν εἶναι τὸ παρέχον τοῖς ζῴοις τὴν κίνησιν. διὸ καὶ τοῦ ζῆν ὅρον εἶναι τὴν ἀναπνοήν· συνάγοντος γὰρ τοῦ περιέχοντος τὰ σώματα, καὶ ἐκθλίβοντος τῶν σχημάτων τὰ παρέχοντα τοῖς ζῴοις τὴν κίνησιν διὰ τὸ μηδ᾿ αὐτὰ ἠρεμεῖν μηδέποτε, βοήθειαν γίγνεσθαι θύραθεν ἐπεισιόντων ἄλλων τοιούτων ἐν τῷ ἀναπνεῖν· κωλύειν γὰρ αὐτὰ καὶ τὰ ἐνυπάρχοντα ἐν τοῖς ζῴοις ἐκκρίνεσθαι, συνανείργοντα τὸ συνάγον καὶ πηγνύον· καὶ ζῆν δὲ ἕως ἂν δύνωνται τοῦτο ποιεῖν. ἔοικε δὲ καὶ τὸ παρὰ τῶν Πυθαγορείων λεγόμενον τὴν αὐτὴν ἔχειν διάνοιαν· ἔφασαν γάρ τινες αὐτῶν ψυχὴν εἶναι τὰ ἐν τῷ ἀέρι ξύσματα, οἱ δὲ τὸ ταῦτα κινοῦν. περὶ δὲ τούτων εἴρηται, διότι συνεχῶς φαίνεται κινούμενα, κἂν ᾖ νηνεμία παντελής.

On this supposition Democritus argues that the soul is a sort of fire or heat. For forms and atoms being countless, he calls the spherical ones fire and soul, and likens them to the (so-called) motes in the air, which can be seen in the sunbeams passing through our windows; the aggregate of these particles he calls the elements of which all nature is composed. And Leucippus adopts a similar position. It is the spherical atoms which they call the soul, because such shapes can most readily pass through anything, and can move other things by virtue of their own motion; for they suppose that the soul is that which imparts motion to living things. Hence they consider also that respiration is the essential condition of life; for the surrounding atmosphere exerts pressure upon bodies and thus forces out the atoms which produce movement in living things, because they themselves are never at rest. The resulting shortage is reinforced from outside, when other similar atoms enter in the act of breathing; for they prevent the atoms which are in the bodies at the time from escaping by checking the compressive and solidifying action of the surrounding atmosphere; and animals can live just as long as they are competent to do this. The theory handed down from the Pythagoreans seems to entail the same view; for some of them have declared that the soul is identical with the particles in the air, and others with what makes these particles move. These particles have found their place in the theory because they can be seen perpetually in motion even when the air is completely calm.

Aristotle, On The Soul (404a 1-21)

Since it is breath that gives us life, iatroi saw too much emission of sperm as potentially dangerous. We can see in Soranus’ suggestions that he considered abstinence the best practice if not outright virginity for both men and women (for Soranus, both men and women emitted sperm). So later Christian sects emphasising sexual asceticism was nothing new.

We can see here the logic of how religious leaders arrived at the idea that bodily pleasures denied us access to heaven. The idea of pneuma as the breath of life related to the Christian idea of pneuma hagion (usually translated as Holy Ghost or Spirit, although here could mean something like “sacred breath”). There seems to be evidence (Rousselle, 1988) that Christian monks thought the more sperm they saved up the less Holy Spirit they wasted and hence came closer to eternal life in the kingdom of god (or were less distracted by sexual thoughts and could focus on prayer, contemplation or meditation) Again, here in John we see the contrast between the breath and flesh and the need to be reborn from the pneuma in order to get into the kingdom of god:

ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς· Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν το θεο. τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τῆς σαρκς σάρξ ἐστιν, καὶ τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος πνεῦμά ἐστιν.

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit (pneuma). Flesh gives birth to flesh (sarkos), but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 

Gospel of John (3.5-6)

Let’s get back to the doctors. Galen thinks similarly to Soranus. He is the typical over achiever repeatedly criticising those who never get anything done because they are too distracted by bodily pleasures:

καὶ μὴν οὐκ ἐνδέχεται φιλόπονον εἶναί τινα μεθυσκόμενον, ἐμπιπλάμενον, ἢ ἀφροδισίοις προσκείμενον, ἢ, συλλήβδην εἰπεῖν, αδοίοις κα γαστρ δουλεύοντα. σωφροσύνης γοῦν φίλος, ὥσπερ γε καὶ ἀληθείας ἑταῖρος, ὅ γ’ ἀληθὴς ἰατρὸς ἐξεύρηται.

And one cannot be hard­working if one is continually drinking or eating or indulging in sex: if, to put it briefly, one is a slave to genitals and belly. The true doctor will be found to be a friend of temperance and a companion of truth. 

Galen, The Best Doctor is also a Philosopher (1, p.59)

We also see here a theme that reoccurs elsewhere, the human mind enslaved to the body. This may also clarify why Paul called himself a “slave” (doulos) of Jesus in his epistles. We are all slaves, but he is enslaved to the higher rather than lower type. Another curiosity is that the very name he chose for himself upon conversion to Christianity was “Paulos”, literally the word used in “lower” pleasures (paulas hedonas). As this idea seems central to his thought, could he have chosen a better name for himself?

The last thread here is in later antiquity. All of these earlier Pagan and Christian ideas seem to synthesise in Plotinus’ Neoplatonist mythology. He sees our true self as the higher mind which came down from the sky, heaven or outer space (however you prefer to translate ouranos), to the corruptible lower earthly world. The more we associate with the body, the heavier our souls become and end up getting trapped here below rather than reascending to the eternal celestial spheres above. For him, the mind is our highest part connected to “the one” (to hen) and the soul is the part which connects the lower body to its higher mind, so quite a different relation between mind, body and soul. Plotinus uses a metaphor to describe our state as embodied beings:

Ἀνθρώπων δὲ ψυχαὶ εἴδωλα αὑτῶν ἰδοῦσαι οἷον Διονύσου ἐν κατόπτρ ἐκεῖ ἐγένοντο ἄνωθεν ὁρμηθεῖσαι, οὐκ ἀποτμηθεῖσαι οὐδ᾿ αὗται τῆς ἑαυτῶν ἀρχῆς τε καὶ νοῦ. οὐ γὰρ μετὰ το νο ἦλθον, ἀλλ᾿ ἔφθασαν μὲν μέχρι γῆς, κάρα δὲ αὐταῖς ἐστήρικται ὑπεράνω το ορανο. 

But the souls of men see their images as if in the mirror of Dionysus and come to be on that level with a leap from above: but even these are not cut off from their own principle and from intellect. For they did not come down with Intellect, but went on ahead of it down to earth, but their heads are firmly set above in heaven.

Plotinus, On The Difficulties of The Soul (1.17)

 “The mirror of Dionysus” was something the Titans used to distract Dionysus with his physical bodily appearance in order to kill him. So we get the idea of the physical self leading to death and, as with Aristotle, the things of the body as distractions from the higher and more important things of the mind (nous) which he says is still up there in the sky. Every time that we think, we are reconnecting with our higher self.

So let’s recap. For philosophers, food, drink and sex were considered dangerous as they distracted the mind from its higher pursuits. Doctors agreed, but put it across to their patients more in terms of weakness and ill health resulting from a loss of pneuma through sperm emission. This led to an ascetic tradition of men and women renouncing bodily pleasures to accumulate Holy Spirit (pneuma hagion) which, for Christians, would get them eternal life in the kingdom of god or, for neoplatonists, would let them return to their “true” self as pure mind, floating about in outer space.

* (This post is a transcript from a talk originally presented at Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, 8th May 2019).

Further Reading:

Blumenthal, H. J. (1993) Soul and Intellect: Studies in Plotinus and Later Neoplatonism, Variorum.

Emilsson, Eyjólfur Kjalar. (2007) Plotinus on Intellect, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Foucault, Michel (1986) The Care of the Self: Volume 3 of the History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley, Parthenon Books, New York.

Rohde, Erwin, (1925) Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality among the Greeks, trans. W. B. Hillis, Harcourt, Brace & Company, London.

Rousselle, Aline. (1988) Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity, trans. Felicia Pheasant, Blackwell, Eugene, Oregon.

Simmons, Michael Bland. (2015) Universal Salvation in Late Antiquity, Oxford.

Snell, Bruno. (1953) The Discovery of The Mind: The Greek origins of European Thought, trans. T. G. Rosenmeyer, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Verbeke, V. (1987) L’évolution de la Doctrine du Pneuma, Garland Publishing, inc, New York & London.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. classicalfix says:

    Reblogged this on ClassicalFix and commented:
    I’ve read this a few times now and I still find it to be a thoroughly engaging and in my opinion, deeply interesting post on the nature of the soul and body in antiquity.


  2. Hi Tony, thanks for reading! This article is playing with some provisional ideas for my dissertation, which has now changed significantly, but still retains a similar central thesis. I’m now focused on pneuma rather than soul, which has led me in some unforseen directions!


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