Podcast episode

Episode 131: Soul-Flight, Noetic Bodies, and Pneumatic Vehicles: Toward a History of the Platonist Subtle Body

Turning from the general, theoretical concerns of the previous episode, we dive into the evidence for subtle-body theories in antiquity.

Firstly, in Part I, we review the evidence for ‘soul-flight’ in our testimonies about the ancient Greek iatromanteis; for fuller discussion of these fascinating characters, please see this episode.

In Part II we draw up an intellectual lineage for the Platonist idea of the ochēma-pneuma or ‘pneumatic vehicle’ of the soul. After a short, potted history of the development of the idea of pneuma from earliest recorded instances, through Stoicism, and into the Abrahamic sphere, we look at the scholarship on the ochēma-pneuma and discuss the evidence for subtle bodies in Plotinus and Porphyry. As it turns out, there’s more going on here than the theory of the soul vehicle, most notably Plotinus’ outrageous idea that there are bodies in the noetic world, and that we all have one.

Part III and IV in the following episode will round out this first survey of subtle bodies and provide us with a basis upon which to build as our history of western esotericism progresses.

Works Cited in this Episode:

Primary (in roughly-chronological order):

Plato: Phaedo 113d, Phaedrus 246a-249d, Timaeus 41d-e. Cf. Tim. 44e, 69c; Laws X, 899a: ‘Athenian: This soul [sc. of the sun] – whether it is by riding in the car (ἐν ἅρμασιν) of the sun, or from outside, or otherwise, that it brings light to us all – every man is bound to regard as a god. Is not that so?’

Aristotle: The Aristotelian pneuma (πνεῦμα), which is the place of the nutritive, sensitive and imaginative soul, is generated from something analogous to the fifth element, aithêr, from which the stars are made (De gen. anim. 736b29-38, esp. 29: ἀνάλογον τῷ τῶν ἄστρων στοιχείῳ). Cf. De cælo 270b.

Atticus and Albinus: Proclus In Tim. Book IV, 234, 9 ff. attributes the theory of the pneumatic vehicle of the soul to ‘Atticus and Albinus and certain [others] of theirs sort’.

Galen: the luminous and aitheric body: De Placitis p. 643 Kühn : αὐγοειδές τε καὶ αἰθερῶδες σῶμα.

The Chaldæan Oracles: Fr. 158 Des Places = Synesius, De insomniis 140c-d, trans. Majercik. Cf. Psellus Exeg. 1124a6, pp. 162-3 Des Places.

Alexander of Aphrodisias: Apud Simp. In Phys. 964, 19 ff. Diels: knows of the theory of the ochēma and opposes it.

Pseudo-Plutarch: Plato and Aristotle both state that the soul takes to pneumatikon with it at death, which acts as its ochēma. De vita et poesi Homeri (see Diels Dox. Græc. 99 for 2nd century dating).


Pneumatic Bodies:

  • The pneuma surrounding the soul: II.2[14]2.21-22: In a discussion of why the heavens have a circular motion, but the human being does not, Plotinus points out that the pneuma surrounding our soul perhaps moves in a circle. Ἴσως δὲ καὶ παρ ́ ἡμῖν τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ περὶ τὴν ψυχὴν τοῦτο ποιεῖ. Armstrong translates ‘And in us, too, it seems that the breath which is around the soul moves in a circle.’ He notes (footnote 2, p. 46, that this is a reference to respiration as a circular process at Tim. 79a5-e9.
  • Accretions acquired in the soul’s descent are stripped away in the approach to the Good: I.6[1]7.10: Successive ‘garments’ assumed by the descending soul and laid aside by the soul in its ascent toward the good. ἐπιστραφεῖσι καὶ ἀποδυομένοις ἃ καταβαίνοντες ἠμφιέσμεθα. Followed by an ‘alone with the alone’ reference at line 10.
  • The soul first taken on a body when entering the ouranos, uses that body for further travel into other, lower bodies
    IV.3[27]15.1-8: Armstrong translates: The souls when they have peeped out of the intelligible world go first to heaven, and when they have put on a body there go by its means to earthier bodies, to the limit to which they extend themselves in length. And some souls [only] come from heaven to lower bodies; others pass from one body into another, those whose power is not sufficient to lift them from this region because they are weighed down and forgetful, dragging with them much which weighs upon them. Dodds (1963), 366, traces this multiple astral bodies theory to Poseidonius.
  • Accretion-bodies acquired and stripped off in descent/ascent: IV.3[27]9 where he speaks of successive somata assumed and laid aside by the descending soul.
  • Purification of the pneuma: III.6[26]5.24-9: In a discussion of purification of the soul through separation (cf. Phæd. 67c5-6). My trans: ‘And the purification of the passions is awakening from strange images and not seeing them, and separation through not inclining downward very much [note Sethian term νεύσει] nor forming images of what is below in the imaginal faculty. But ‘separation’ could also mean stripping away the things from which she was separated when she was not upon a pneuma turbid from gluttony and surfeited with impure flesh, but that in which she is is so fine that she can ride upon it [ἐπ ́ αὐτοῦ ὀχεῖσθαι] in peace.’

Noetic Bodies:

  • IV.3[27]18.13-15: Seemingly, humans have bodies there in the οὐρανῷ. 20-22: ‘But there each body is all pure and like an eye, and nothing is hidden or feigned, but before speaking to another that one has seen.’
  • IV.4[28]5.13-20: humans will recognise each other there, ‘especially if they must necessarily be clothed in bodies of similar form’. And perhaps the bodies will be spherical; we will still recognise the ēthē, which survive death/ascent.
  • VI.7[38]6.7-9: Plotty seems to equivocate about noetic bodies here; cf. 7.25. HS1 have asōmata, Armstrong, HS2, and Ficino sōmata.
  • But clearly affirmed at VI.2[43]21.52-53.
  • The noetic bodies (not just ours, but everything in the nous has a body!): VI.2[43]21.52-53. Noetic synæsthesia: VI.7[38]12.20 ad fin.


  • We obtain the ochēma, which is astral, during the descent (Sent. 32; Procl. In Rem Publ. II, p. 161).
  • We also obtain multiple bodies, which seem to be the same thing as the ochēma. There are several grades of body we can get; we need not descend all the way to the lowest (See Sent. 29.22-31. Cf. Porph. apud Proclus In Tim. III, p. 234, 18-32, where the vehicle becomes progressively more material as it descends, which is probably the increasing moisture found in De antro 11.8-12.1 and Sent. 29.14.22).
  • The astral potencies have major effects on the ochēma (271F 68-71 Smith, On What is Up to Us).
  • The ochēma can survive the death of the material body – indeed, it is through it that we suffer posthumous punishments and through it that the soul can re-ascend (Sent. c. 32; Philoponus In de anima I) – but is eventually recycled into the universe (see Iamb. de An. §§10, 13 and 37; Proclus In Tim. 3.234,18-26).
  • The rainbow-coloured pillar in the Myth of Er (Pl. R. X 616b-c) is the ochēma of the Soul-of-All or World-Soul: 185aF Smith = Simplicius in Phys. (corell. de loco) 615,32-35.

Macrobius: luminosi corporis amictus: De somn. I.12.13.


  • John Dillon shows that subtle-body ideas were around already in the second century: John Dillon. Iamblichi Chalcidensis in Platonis dialogos commentariorum fragmenta. Brill, Leiden, 1973, pp. 371-2.
  • Dodds on the Poseidonian origins of Plotinus’ astral body: 1963 (see below) p. 366.
  • Kissling 1922 (see below) 318: ‘The theory of the ὄχημα-πνεῦμα, as met with in the Platonic writers, represents the reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle on a subject which the former never taught a latter was incapable of defining.’ Scholarship has mostly repeated this formula (E.g. Dodds 1963, 315-18; Schibli 1993, 163-5). Ibid. 322: It seems that the identification of Plato’s ochēma and Aristotle’s pneuma is posterior to Plotinus. Ibid. 318: ‘the melting-pot of Neo-Platonism’.

Recommended Reading:

Relevant to Specific Points Raised in the Episode:

  • H. J. Blumenthal. Neoplatonic Interpretations of Aristotle on “Phantasia”. Review of Metaphysics, 31(2):242–57, 1977.
  • Anne Sheppard. Phantasia and Mental Images: Neoplatonist Interpretations of De Anima 3.3. In Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy Supplement, pages 165–74. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991.
  • Gerard Watson. Phantasia in Classical Thought. Officina Typographica, Galway, 1988.
  • G. Verbeke. L’évolution de la doctrine du pneuma du Stoïcisme à S. Augustin. Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1945, esp. pp. 359-85 on the ochēma.

On the Subtle Body in Antiquity Generally:

  • Crystal Addey. In the Light of the Sphere: The ’Vehicle of the Soul’ and Subtle-Body Practices in Neoplatonism. In Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston, editors, Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body, pages 149–67. Routledge, London, 2013.
  • Ioan Petru Culianu. Psychanodia I. A Survey of the Evidence Concerning the Ascension of the Soul and its Relevance, volume 99 of Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’empire romain. Brill, Leiden, 1983.
  • Idem. Out of this World: Otherwordly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein. Shambhala, Boston, MA/London, 1991.
  • W. Deuse. Untersuchungen zur mittelplatonischen und neuplatonischen Seelenlehre. Frank Steiner Verlag, Wiesbaden, 1983, esp. pp. 218-27.
  • Maria Di Pasquale Barbanti. Ochema-pneuma e phantasia nel Neoplatonismo: aspetti psicologici e prospettive religiose. CUECM, Catania, 1998.
  • E. R. Dodds. Proclus: The Elements of Theology. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1963, pp. 315–18.
  • John Finamore. Iamblichus and the Theory of the Vehicle of the Soul. Scholars Press, Chico, CA, 1985.
  • Jens Halfwassen. Seelenwagen. Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, 9:111–17, 1995.
  • Robert Christian Kissling. The OXHMA-ΠΝΕΥΜΑ of the Neo-Platonists and the De insomniis of Synesius of Cyrene. American Journal of Philology, 43(4):318–30, 1922.
  • Hans Lewy. Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 1978, pp. 449-56.
  • J.J. Poortman. Ochêma. Geschiedenis en zin van het hylisch pluralisme, VI-A. van Gorcum, Assen, 1967.
  • H. S. Schibli. Xenocrates’ Daemons and the Irrational Soul. Classical Quarterly, 43: 143–67, 1993.
  • Andrew Smith. Porphyry’s Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition: a Study in Post-Plotinian Neoplatonism. Martinus Nijhoff, den Haag, 1974, pp. 152–8.
  • M. Stéphane Toulouse. Les théories du véhicule de l’âme dans le néoplatonisme: genèse et évolution d’une doctrine de la médiation entre l’âme et le corps. PhD thesis, École pratique des hautes études, 2001.
  • Idem. Le véhicule de l’âme chez Galien et le pséudo-Plutarque. Les linéaments physiologiques et eschatologiques d’une doctrine d’un corps intermédiaire. Philosophie antique, 2:145–68, 2002.
  • J. Trouillard. Réflexions sur l’Ochēma dans les ‘Élements de Théologie’ de Proclus. REG, LXX:102–107, 1957.


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