Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

On the psychical man: a preliminary sketch

Posted by joespencer on November 21, 2007

In 1 Corinthians 2:14, Paul says (my translation): “But the psychical man does not receive the things of God’s Spirit, because they are foolishness for him; and he is powerless to know them, since they are critically regarded according to the Spirit” (psychikos de anthropos ou dechetai ta tou pneumatos tou theou, moria gar auto estin kai ou dynatai gnonai, oti pneumatikos anakrinetai). The mention of moria, foolishness, is important here, because it betrays the context: Paul mentions this question of the spiritual after discussing sophia, the wisdom after which the philosophers seek. The philosophers: as several important thinkers (Patocka most revealingly, I think, but Foucault just as importantly) have revealed, the very heart of Greek thinking, from the very birth of philosophy and onward into the whole history of European/Western civilization, is the care (melete) of the psyche. Paul, it seems to me, must be taken in his first epistle to the Corinthians as making an explicit statement about the relationship and distinction between the soul, mind, or psyche that is at the heart of Western civilization and the Spirit that inhabits Christian preaching.

But it must be clear that to raise questions about this passage is not to involve oneself merely in the analysis of a single verse: not only does this question of the psychical and pneumatic (spiritual) appear in chapter 15 of the same epistle–in a passage that is of infinite importance for any interpretation of what Joseph Smith understood to be the heart of the restoration: cf. D&C 128:14, where it is quoted at the heart of an enormous argument–but since the KJV translation of what I have translated as “psychical man” is “natural man,” we are here touching on what is, in the (remarkably Paulinle) Book of Mormon, a central theme. I would propose giving extended attention to this Pauline intervention on the question of the psyche, a term that I would suggest–and I am quite aware that this is a wager, indeed, a remarkably risky venture–can only be addressed satisfactorily by a careful analysis of the history of Western philosophy. That is, I am suggesting that the meaning of the Pauline gospel (something to which I give myself without reserve) is predicated on a particular relation to Western civilization, or to the universal insights of Western thinkers (thinkers here, perhaps, in the sense Heidegger uses when he says that all thinkers think the same thing).

So I post this as a kind of announcement of a project, as a kind of manifesto: I would like to discuss this issue at some length, to sort out the meaning of the psyche and of the relation it bears to the Spirit, to develop a kind of theology that addresses the question of Western (European) civilization. The Book of Mormon, more than anything else, points in this direction: Nephi’s understanding of the Gentiles as a primarily European group that interweaves itself with the destinies of the two parts of the split kingdom of Israel would seem to suggest that there is something more to be said, theologically, about Europe than has previously been said. My hope is that an extended reflection on this play between the psyche and the Spirit that inhabits the Book of Mormon as much as Paul’s writings, and that apparently goes to the very heart of the Restoration as an event, would open up the possibility of thinking quite carefully about what Mormon subjectivity amounts to, and about a theology of writing or of the written word (something I can only mention so early in this project as a kind of teaser, though there is much more that needs to be said about it).

Anyone interested in following out this thread?

8 Responses to “On the psychical man: a preliminary sketch”

  1. robf said

    I’m game. Since our earlier forays into the psyche/pneuma realm seemed to take us down a rabbit hole that we never got out of, perhaps trying to approach it through this line of questioning may get us farther.

  2. Clark said

    Isn’t the use of sophia here very much in keeping with Jewish speculation on sophia? (A tradition I assume Paul was quite familiar with) The discussion of “God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” I recognize that there is still a lot of controversy and debate regarding the nature of sophia traditions in first century Palestine and surrounding areas.

    The second interesting question is regarding who the powers Paul talks of are. (The “rulers of this age” in the NIV) Are they merely philosophers being sophists?

    It’s also quite interesting comparing Paul here precisely to philosophers. There were, after all, quite a few debates among philosophers. And discussing hidden wisdom was common among some whereas attacks on competing intellectual traditions often played the sophistry charge (much like Paul does).

    It is interesting that the main discussion of “natural man” in the Book of Mormon does appear to lack the philosophical context that Paul’s discourse does. Perhaps there are more differences between the traditions than first appears? (Perhaps Joseph’s use of KJV language and parallels in translation obscures here as much as it illuminates)

    What’s very interesting to me is verse 4 & 5. I’ll give a few translations to highlight what I see as so interesting. (Sorry, I’m at work, so I don’t have access to my favorite translations)

    And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. (KJV)

    My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (NIV)

    …and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (NASB)

    What’s funny is how empirical this sounds! That is rather than giving pure logic and reason as the justification (a rather common tradition) he appeals to a pragmatic demonstration! Not quite how most see Paul. Yet very much in keeping with how we view religion (IMO).

    The reason I find this so funny is that it would seem to me that most would take the natural man as being an empiricist. Now of course I don’t think Paul’s arguing for empiricism. (Far from it) But what appears to be the opposition isn’t empiricism and faith but rather intellectualization independent of practice versus experience.

  3. Robert C. said

    I like the way Clark has framed this in terms of a split between intellect and practice. I think one of the most striking themes of the restoration is this notion that “all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal” in D&C 29:34. I think that this is a very difficult idea for those of us who have inherited the European/Gentile/Greek philosophical tradition to grasp. But, as we’ve discussed before, I think that trying to get to a state where practice, experience, and intellect are all purely integrated with one’s heart (is this simply the scriptural term for intentions?) is one of the most important calls for us Gentiles to heed.

    (To this end, I’m quite anxious to continue our lds-herm discussion of Eagleton’s article on J. L. Austin and Paul de Man since it seems he is, through these thinkers and the text of Job, trying to get at this notion of speaking in performative rather than merely reflective ways—and how should we think of the priesthood if not in terms of language collapsing into something that is radically performative in what is perhaps a covenantally/communally binding sense?)

  4. Clark said

    Robert, I’d be careful about the claim there was a temporal/spiritual divide in Greek philosophy. Sure there was in Platonism (although even there things are much more complex than they first appear) But recall that in the first century the dominate philosophy wasn’t Platonism but Stoicism. And Stoics were panpsychics with the entire universe being spiritual. So the LDS position is much more akin to traditional Stoicism. (I’ve elsewhere argued that Pratt’s ontology is very Stoic -minus the atomism)

  5. robf said

    Joe, come back!?! Don’t leave us hanging on this one!

  6. Joe Spencer said

    Sorry, I’ll get back to this tomorrow at last. I’ve tried to make comments on this and the stripling warriors thread for four or five days, but have lost my comments every time. It looks like the system likes me again, so I should be able to be involved again. But not until tomorrow will I have any real time!

  7. Robert C. said

    Clark #4, thanks for this correction—I definitely need to study ancient and medieval philosophy more because I have a tendency to think think too modernistically about all of the Western philosophical tradition (the problem is that there is so much to read and so little time!).

  8. Clark said

    Stoicism is very interesting and worth reading from a Mormon perspective. Both because we (unfortunately) tend to see the entire Greek world through Platonic glasses but because it is very worth understanding the mainstream philosophy Paul was encountering: which was basically a form of materialism. I also think Stoicism interesting because it offers so many parallels to Mormon theology. (I’d argue that the notion of unity in Stoicism is much more palatable to a Mormon thinking of the Godhead than the neoPlatonic form even though arguably a lot of the neoPlatonic doctrines of a world-mind arose out of Stoicism)

    As I said if you were to strip Orson Pratt’s theology of its atomism you basically have Stoicism.

    Of course as philosophy Stoicism has huge problems. And most Stoics were much more interested in ethics than ontology. But that’s an other issue entirely.

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