William of Auvergne, The Immortality of the Soul

Early in The Immortality of the Soul, William of Auvergne moves from a theological explanation of why the soul must exist to a practical one. The soul and the body are mutually affective, he argues; they not only depend on one another, but have an inverse relationship in terms of their health. While one might believe that a healthy body would produce a healthy mind, and an unhealthy body an unhealthy mind, William argues just the opposite:

If someone objects that the intellective power is impeded and weakened when the body is impeded and weakened, as in those who are ill, for example, in those who are delirious, out of their minds, melancholy and mentally alienated in some other manner, we answer that to impede or injure is not the same as to occupy… these sorts of emotions are like persistent dreams that recur on account of impressions that cannot be removed… they do not harm the essence of the intellective power, but impede its activity by occupying it. (29)

In this formulation, in other words, mental phenomena are not illnesses or negative experiences. They are not even actual events. They are dreams which have little effect on the long-term health of the person experiencing them. This is partly because the “brain” does not figure here; the intellective power is the soul, not the mind. Thus, even if the soul is temporarily inconvenienced by emotion, it still resides inside the body and does not diminish. Yet, the mind is still present for William: sufferers are “out of their minds”, their minds are “occupied”, they lose their minds. And at the same time, they are also “alienated” from their normal selves. Both the mind and the soul are described in explicitly spatial terms, but one stays present and only leaves when it can be productive, while the other wanders and does not necessarily bring anything back with it.

The subject of how such conditions are removed leads to another curious statement: “…when the animal power has been set free and cleansed completely from this sort of impression, the intellective power returns to its proper activities as though it had suffered no harm in its essence” (29). The mind, or the soul— again, not precisely the same thing— can completely recover in a way the body is unable to. This recovery is marked by “ecstasy” or passionate proclamations, which William sees as the strongest possible demonstration of life (30). These passions are framed as exploding the body, as involuntary as the emotions that come along with (or are) melancholy or delirium. These conditions are blocking sustained thought, which builds up in the brain and must eventually burst out; the soul must issue forth, or else it can’t prove its own vitality. This connection between mental conditions and an excess of work is not new, but it reverses the typical framing in which overwork causes mental exhaustion (and therefore leads to lowered productivity, a problem for many medieval writers). Here, it’s unclear whether mental distress comes from an excess of thought or causes it, but in either case it leads to a productive, sustained, and valuable “ecstasy”.

The distinction between the soul, mind, and body can be looked at as a division of purpose. The body conducts necessary sensory tasks (seeing, breathing), while the soul handles thinking, expression, and attitude. It is unclear what the mind actually does, apart from going wrong; it is the center of emotions, but not of personhood. It is paired with the body rather than with the soul, although— like the soul— it is intangible, can only be observed through external actions, and has the potential to be discarded as a “dream” or an unreal event. As well, because it recovers after the soul has been released in ecstasy rather than retaining injury, it is presumably incorruptible—“an impression of whiteness on what is white could only be whiteness” (31). The mind and the soul are both described as taking up physical space, as traversing through it, but they also defy physical space completely. The intellective power also has “complete solicitude and complete love” for the body it resides in, further complicating the relationship between the body, soul, and mind (30). How can the soul experience love? Is love an emotion or a considered position? Can the soul experience other things as well? And if the distinction between the actions of the mind and the actions of the soul is the ability to produce productive, rather than destructive, emotion, what is the utility of love?

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