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The Seventh Letter of St. Maximos the Confessor

On How Even After Death the Soul Retains its Noetic Activity, and in no Way Loses its Natural Power

To John the Presbyter,

On the second day of this August in the current first indiction, our mutual friend handed me the honorable letters sent by your fatherly holiness. Naturally, I was comforted to read that you are in good health; since after God, you, my master, are the cause of every good thing [in my life]. So much has the Holy Spirit of God united Himself to you, that even when you are absent I behold you with my mind’s eye alone. I order my life and my speech [or reason] using what strength I possess, because when I remember you, it is as if I am seeing God before me, and I am filled with reverence.

I was not a little disturbed to learn that the [heretical] doctrine concerning the soul is shamelessly being preached in your parts with the same support and boldness as it is here. In fact, I am filled with grief, and a weight has settled on my mind like a cloud, because this novel doctrine about [the state of the soul after] the resurrection is being advocated by almost everyone here, in particular by the supposedly most distinguished monks. One would not be far off if he supposed that this was the first sign of the coming of the Antichrist. Indeed, anyone who is able to reason should affirm this to be the case, since he has as a witness to the great evil the absurdity of the things they say.

 

These people shamelessly sharpen their tongues against everything, and do not consider anything irreverently said or done to be terrible. Thus they claim that after the resurrection bodies will continue to subsist by means of phlegm, blood, yellow and black bile, breathing, and tangible food. They say that in the resurrection, nothing will be different from this present life, except that no one will die again. I do not know how they can stop their ears and close the eyes of their souls so as not to understand everything written in Holy Scripture about the soul and the resurrection through the prophets and apostles, through the Word of God Himself speaking in the flesh, and especially through the divine Paul when he expounds on the resurrection to the Corinthians. These passages are crystal-clear and very well known. They do not require an exegete. Moreover the nature of reality itself, no less than the divine oracles, teaches about the resurrection and leads even barbarians to the knowledge of the truth. Nevertheless, [the heretics] feel no shame in ignoring these self-evident proofs.

Is there anyone who is not completely bereft of reason and yet does not know that every nature is essentially distinguished by its own characteristics? For the characteristics show the mode of the nature’s own existence, as well as the difference which separates it from other natures. When a nature loses the component characteristics of its essence, it either ceases to exist, or becomes what it was not assuming one could stand to speak about removing natural characteristics at all. For every subject is dissolved when its natural characteristics are dissolved.

 

How could an ox or a horse or a lion or anything else exist without the characteristics which comprise their respective natures? I cannot imagine anyone would dare to say that natures could exist without characteristics, unless they are raving mad. If it is true that no reality can exist or be known without those things which naturally and chiefly characterize it, then those who remove what is essentially planted in soul (I mean the rational and noetic faculties, since the soul is always active thinking and reasoning) obviously remove the soul’s very existence, even though they do not admit it. According to this view, then, the soul must be corruptible and mortal, and after the death of the body has no existence. What could be more absurd?

If they admit that the soul continues to live which they do in word only, not in reality, because otherwise everyone would oppose them then the soul must have movement. For the life of every creature is manifested in motion. If it moves, it must act, for every motion is shown through activity. If it acts, it must move by its own natural power, not driven by an external source of motion or by happenstance. Nor does it move in a cyclical manner or from one location to another; or to put it simply, in a bodily fashion. It can only move rationally and noetically.

If it lives and moves and acts rationally and noetically, then it must reason and think and know. If it does not know or reason, neither does it act, move, or live. For it is impossible for life to exist without its natural movement, or for natural movement to be present where its corresponding activity is not.

Moreover, the soul is either rational and noetic through itself, or through the body. And if it is rational and noetic through itself that is, through its own essence then it certainly exists in and of itself [i.e., it does not depend on anything else to hold it in existence]. If it exists through itself and through its own essence, then whether or not it acts together with the body it will still think and reason according to its own nature, and never cease possessing the noetic powers that belong to it by nature. For the properties which by nature belong to any subject cannot be taken away so long as the subject [in which they inhere] continues to exist. Since the soul, after it is brought into existence, always continues to exist through [the power of] God Who fashioned it, it therefore always thinks and reasons and knows both by itself and in conjunction with the body. It performs all these functions itself and by virtue of its own nature. Nothing can separate the soul from the characteristics which belong to it by nature and not through its union with the body and this holds true even after the soul leaves the body. If the soul is rational and noetic only insofar as it is united to the body, then first of all, the body is more worthy of honor than the soul, because the soul is only brought into being by being united to the body. In such a case, it will derive its rational and noetic powers from the body, since it has only just come into being by virtue of [inhering in] the body. For if the soul cannot think or reason without the body, then its properties of thinking and reasoning must be derived from the body. And if the soul acquires its powers of thinking and reasoning from the body, since according to these people, it cannot think or reason apart from it, then it certainly does not exist in and of itself. For how can it exist in and of itself if without the body it does not possess those qualities, which characterize it? Now if it does not exist in and of itself, it is surely not a substance [or essence]. And a substance, which is not self-existing, is an accident. An accident exists only by being implanted in the body, such that after the body’s dissolution, it cannot exist at all. Thus, these madmen who deny the immortality of the soul have arrived at practically the same conclusion as Epicures and Aristotle, whose vain writings they revere. So much for that subject.

 

As far as their ideas concerning the resurrection go, is there any lover of virtue and piety who will not gain a state of dispassion through passion; that is through being indignant against them?1 For if, as they aver, the body will rise in the image of this present life without undergoing any change in its conflicting humors and, in the dread presence of God after the end of the world will eat and drink, I think (to put it succinctly) that they are advocating nothing other than eternal death and endless corruption. For death is the corruption of the body’s component parts, and the body is continually being corrupted by the food it digests, on account of the natural antipathy between its humors. Thus, they preach death after the resurrection for any body, which will eternally subsist in such a state. But we ought rather to believe that the body will rise in its own essence and species incorruptible and immortal, or as the Apostle phrases it, spiritual instead of natural. It will not possess any property, which could alter towards corruption, as God, who designed the body for dispassion and honor, well knows. More than this we should not pry into.

I see many people relishing these ideas, but I was dumb and humbled, and held my peace, even from good (Ps. 38:2), because I consider silence to be more profitable than speech for a sensible man. Nevertheless, I mourn to myself, and go about with a downcast face (Ps. 38:6), pondering how these arguments go unopposed; and darting about like sparks, cause the destruction of souls. There is no one willing or able to defend endangered reason because of the evil prevalent in our times. That is why I lament all the more my separation from you. I miss having your fatherly guidance close by to protect me, snatch me from harm, and support me when I stumble.

[1] Text is obscure; perhaps the saint means that indignation against a heresy and zeal for the faith can contribute to the purification of the soul and thus lead to dispassion. 

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