Origen and the Life of the Stars

Alan Scott sheds light on key problems in Hellenism by focusing on Origen’s view of the stars’ souls.  Ancient Greece certainly discussed the possibility that the stars are alive (and we will use the phrase” alive,” “intelligence,” and “souls” interchangeably in this review) but there was no consensus.

Plato

The presence of intelligence is the presence of a soul (Scott 9, cf. Soph. 249a4) and a mind must exist in the soul.  The universe, accordingly, must be ensouled since “mind was present in it.” aether: the body in which the soul operates.  The astral soul and aether co-operate.

A problem for later Platonists: if the “divine” is incorporeal, and if stars are divine, how can we see them in the heavens?  Jewish and Christian thinkers exploited this weak point.  The only way to respond to this criticism was to weaken the “divine claim” and see them rather as intermediate beings.

Origen

Scott argues against reading too much of any single school into Origen’s thought.  While he is close to Middle Platonism, for example, he was also very familiar with Jewish Apocalypticism and Gnosticism (54).

Philo

Philo’s sometimes wooden borrowing of philosophy allows us a “snapshot” of the Hellenistic classroom (63-64).

  • Earth is centre of cosmos
  • Yet Philo rejects the somewhat Stoic claim that the mind is material. The mind is neither pneuma nor matter.  
  • Stars are definitely living beings.
    • Ontologically superior to angels.
    • Not surprisingly, Philo was tolerant of those who worshipped heaven (something no biblical writer could say!), but elsewhere says it is wrong to do so (74).

“Philo is too good a Jew and too good a Platonist to take these arguments to their logical conclusions” (74).  Origen advances beyond Philo in seeing the possibility of evil in heaven.  

Heavenly Powers

Problem: how does the soul enter into the generative powers of the world?  Phaedrus said because of evil, whereas Timeaus said because of a good demiurge.  “The belief began to slowly evolve that the soul was joined to the body through the medium of an ‘astral body’” (77).  This became a major theme in Platonism after Iamblichus (79).

At this time Oriental sources entered Hellenistic thought, notably Mithraism, which taught that a gate corresponded to a planet (82).

However, once the idea of fate was firmly attached to the stars, and given that people have “bad luck,” many began to question whether the stars were truly benign.  This meant, among other things, that the neutral “daimons” in the heavenly realms could now be seen as demons in the traditional understanding (90-93).

Toll Houses (!)

A common theme in later Platonic and Gnostic thought is the soul’s traveling through planets after death.  The Apocalypse of Paul (Nag Hammadi Library) has Paul passing through toll collectors (98).  Granted, there are huge differences between this and the later Russian Orthodox teaching of toll houses.

Clement

Clement believes there are angels who oversee the souls’ ascent (106). Clement holds that stars are governed by their appointed angels (55.1; cf. p. 108).

Origen and the Stars

Origen divides the soul with a highest sense–mind (nous).  This is fallen and capable of sin.  There is an unfallen portion called “spirit” (pneuma).  Origen is aware that many of his views are speculative, and he is not setting them forth as doctrine (122). He is “thinking out loud” in the face of very difficult problems.  And compared to the current Alexandrian cosmology, Origen’s is quite restrained (124).

Are the stars alive?

Origen tentatively answered “maybe.”  But before we judge him, we must see that his answers are based on terminology that both Christians and pagans accepted.  For example, only rational agents are self-moving.  This would appear that the stars are in some sense rational agents.  But Origen was also aware of Jewish Apocalyptic and he would have been on better ground had he said that “angels move the stars.”

This really isn’t that problematic.  Scientifically wrong, to be sure, but that’s all.  The problem came when Origen had to account for why some stars are greater than others.  And is answer, of course, was of some pre-temporal fall.  And that is problematic.

The Stars and the resurrection body

Origen is actually very careful on this point.  He affirms the resurrection body, but he knows, as does Paul in 1 Cor. 15, that it isn’t the same type of body we have today.  But perhaps he gets in trouble with his discussions of the “astral body.”  All Christians have to believe in the post-mortem existence of the soul.  This is a mode of existence that isn’t bodily yet which the soul is in one place at one time.  

Given both Scriptural teachings, logic, and the experiences of wise saints, we posit that the soul has an existence after death.  But how does it exist?  Does it recognize other souls?  Surely it does.  Is it omnipresent in the spiritual world?  Certainly not, for not even angels (who are bodiless) are omnipresent.  Therefore, there must be some sort of identifiable mode of existing that is bodiless.  Origen called this an “astral body.”  

Conclusion

Does Scott fully vindicate Origen?  Not quite, but he does alleviate a lot of problems.  Origen was very reticent about using philosophy.  He didn’t innovate but rather held to established, conservative opinions in the intellectual world (even if they were wrong in hindsight).

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