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Chapter XXIV.—Plato’s Inconsistency. He Supposes the Soul Self-Existent, Yet Capable of Forgetting What Passed in a Previous State.

In the first place, I cannot allow that the soul is capable of a failure of memory; because he has conceded to it so large an amount of divine quality as to put it on a par with God. He makes it unborn, which single attribute I might apply as a sufficient attestation of its perfect divinity; he then adds that the soul is immortal, incorruptible, incorporeal—since he believed God to be the same—invisible, incapable of delineation, uniform, supreme, rational, and intellectual. What more could he attribute to the soul, if he wanted to call it God? We, however, who allow no appendage to God 1665 (in the sense of equality), by this very fact reckon the soul as very far below God: for we suppose it to be born, and hereby to possess something of a diluted divinity and an attenuated felicity, as the breath (of God), though not His spirit; and although immortal, as this is an attribute of divinity, yet for all that passible, since this is an incident of a born condition, and consequently from the first capable of deviation from perfection and right, 1666 and by consequence susceptible of a failure in memory. This point I have discussed sufficiently with Hermogenes. 1667 But it may be further observed, that if the soul is to merit being accounted a god, by reason of all its qualities being equal to the attributes of God, it must then be subject to no passion, and therefore to no loss of memory; for this defect of oblivion is as great an injury to that of which you predicate it, as memory is the glory thereof, which Plato himself deems the very safeguard of the senses and intellectual faculties, and which Cicero has designated the treasury of all the sciences. Now we need not raise the doubt whether so divine a faculty as the soul was capable of losing memory: the question rather is, whether it is able to recover afresh that which it has lost. I could not decide whether that, which ought to have lost memory, if it once incurred the loss, would be powerful enough to recollect itself. Both alternatives, p. 204 indeed, will agree very well with my soul, but not with Plato’s. In the second place, my objection to him will stand thus: (Plato,) do you endow the soul with a natural competency for understanding those well-known ideas of yours? Certainly I do, will be your answer. Well, now, no one will concede to you that the knowledge, (which you say is) the gift of nature, of the natural sciences can fail.  But the knowledge of the sciences fails; the knowledge of the various fields of learning and of the arts of life fails; and so perhaps the knowledge of the faculties and affections of our minds fails, although they seem to be inherent in our nature, but really are not so:  because, as we have already said, 1668 they are affected by accidents of place, of manners and customs, of bodily condition, of the state of man’s health—by the influences of the Supreme Powers, and the changes of man’s free-will.  Now the instinctive knowledge of natural objects never fails, not even in the brute creation. The lion, no doubt, will forget his ferocity, if surrounded by the softening influence of training; he may become, with his beautiful mane, the plaything of some Queen Berenice, and lick her cheeks with his tongue.  A wild beast may lay aside his habits, but his natural instincts will not be forgotten. He will not forget his proper food, nor his natural resources, nor his natural alarms; and should the queen offer him fishes or cakes, he will wish for flesh; and if, when he is ill, any antidote be prepared for him, he will still require the ape; and should no hunting-spear be presented against him, he will yet dread the crow of the cock. In like manner with man, who is perhaps the most forgetful of all creatures, the knowledge of everything natural to him will remain ineradicably fixed in him,—but this alone, as being alone a natural instinct. He will never forget to eat when he is hungry; or to drink when he is thirsty; or to use his eyes when he wants to see; or his ears, to hear; or his nose, to smell; or his mouth, to taste; or his hand, to touch.  These are, to be sure, the senses, which philosophy depreciates by her preference for the intellectual faculties.  But if the natural knowledge of the sensuous faculties is permanent, how happens it that the knowledge of the intellectual faculties fails, to which the superiority is ascribed? Whence, now, arises that power of forgetfulness itself which precedes recollection? From long lapse of time, he says. But this is a shortsighted answer. Length of time cannot be incidental to that which, according to him, is unborn, and which therefore must be deemed most certainly eternal. For that which is eternal, on the ground of its being unborn, since it admits neither of beginning nor end of time, is subject to no temporal criterion. And that which time does not measure, undergoes no change in consequence of time; nor is long lapse of time at all influential over it. If time is a cause of oblivion, why, from the time of the soul’s entrance into the body, does memory fail, as if thenceforth the soul were to be affected by time? for the soul, being undoubtedly prior to the body, was of course not irrespective of time. Is it, indeed, immediately on the soul’s entrance into the body that oblivion takes place, or some time afterwards? If immediately, where will be the long lapse of the time which is as yet inadmissible in the hypothesis? 1669 Take, for instance, the case of the infant. If some time afterwards, will not the soul, during the interval previous to the moment of oblivion, still exercise its powers of memory? And how comes it to pass that the soul subsequently forgets, and then afterwards again remembers? How long, too, must the lapse of the time be regarded as having been, during which the oblivion oppressed the soul? The whole course of one’s life, I apprehend, will be insufficient to efface the memory of an age which endured so long before the soul’s assumption of the body.  But then, again, Plato throws the blame upon the body, as if it were at all credible that a born substance could extinguish the power of one that is unborn. There exist, however, among bodies a great many differences, by reason of their rationality, their bulk, their condition, their age, and their health.  Will there then be supposed to exist similar differences in obliviousness? Oblivion, however, is uniform and identical. Therefore bodily peculiarity, with its manifold varieties, will not become the cause of an effect which is an invariable one. There are likewise, according to Plato’s own testimony, many proofs to show that the soul has a divining faculty, as we have already advanced against Hermogenes. But there is not a man living, who does not himself feel his soul possessed with a presage and augury of some omen, danger, or joy. Now, if the body is not prejudicial to divination, it will not, I suppose, be injurious to memory. One thing is certain, that souls in the same body both forget and remember. If any corporeal condition engenders forgetfulness, how will it admit the opposite state of recollection? Because recollection, after forgetfulness, is p. 205 actually the resurrection of the memory. Now, how should not that which is hostile to the memory at first, be also prejudicial to it in the second instance? Lastly, who have better memories than little children, with their fresh, unworn souls, not yet immersed in domestic and public cares, but devoted only to those studies the acquirement of which is itself a reminiscence? Why, indeed, do we not all of us recollect in an equal degree, since we are equal in our forgetfulness? But this is true only of philosophers! But not even of the whole of them. Amongst so many nations, in so great a crowd of sages, Plato, to be sure, is the only man who has combined the oblivion and the recollection of ideas. Now, since this main argument of his by no means keeps its ground, it follows that its entire superstructure must fall with it, namely, that souls are supposed to be unborn, and to live in the heavenly regions, and to be instructed in the divine mysteries thereof; moreover, that they descend to this earth, and here recall to memory their previous existence, for the purpose, of course, of supplying to our heretics the fitting materials for their systems.



Nihil Deo appendimus.




In his, now lost, treatise, De Censu Animæ.


Above, in ch. xix. xx. pp. 200, 201.


Or, “which has been too short for calculation.”

Next: Tertullian Refutes, Physiologically, the Notion that the Soul is Introduced After Birth.