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The Theory of the Soul-Vehicle in Late-Antique Platonism and Islamicate Medical Sciences

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Your host was recently invited to speak on the subject of the soul-vehicle/ὄχημα-πνεῦμα at a workshop on Islamicate Medicine, Magic and Healing, hosted by the University of Exeter Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, 29-30 November 2021. The workshop was organized by Nahyan Fancy in his capacity as the al-Qasimi Visiting Professor of Islamic Studies.

As becomes clear in the course of the talk, I don’t really know medieval Islamicate medicine, though I’m a bit better on the magic side, but I raise some, I hope, interesting paths for further research. There isn’t that much in here that we didn’t cover in our two previous episodes, but we still thought it worth posting here. For listeners to the podcast this paper may serve as a little window onto ways in which esoteric thought among late Platonists (and second-century medical writers, for that matter; and if Galen thinks we have a soul-vehicle, how esoteric is this thing, really?) filtered into the Islamicate world.

Works Cited in this Episode:

  • Al-Kindī explicitly refers to the theory, in order to deny its validity: Peter Adamson. Al-Kindı̄. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007, pp. 112-13.
  • The Theology of Aristotle includes the few passages where Plotinus speaks of the theory of the vehicle, or rather, of the astral body. This occurs in Enneads IV.3 and IV.4, the only major loci where Plotinus addresses the astral body. However, Walzer’s conjecture that the Theology is based on a lost ὑπομνήματα or κεφάλαια of Porphyry (see Plot. 26 29 ff.) on the Enneads (reflected in the text, which calls it Porphyry’s tafsīr), makes things potentially more interesting, and more ochēma-ish. See Walzer 2012.
  • We also know that Porphyry’s Letter to Anebo was available in Arabic translation, although none is known to survive today (See Walzer 2012: ‘The Letter to Anebo (recent edition of the Greek and Latin fragments by A. R. Sodano, Naples 1958) is referred to by al-Masʿūdī, Kitāb al-Tanbīh wa’l-is̲hrāf , 162, 6 (p. 222 of Carra de Vaux’s French translation). A rather long fragment of it is quoted by al-S̲hahrastānī K. al-Milal wa’l-niḥal, ed. Cureton, 345, 8-347; German translation by Th. Haarbruecker, Religionspartheien, Halle 1850-1, ii, 208 ff.; Italian translation by F. Gabrieli, La parola del passato, i, 1946, 344 ff. Muḥ. b. Zak. al-Rāzī wrote a refutation of the book. Cf. P. Kraus, Jābir ibn Ḥayyān II , in MIE, xlv (1942), 128, n. 5. These passages are not mentioned by Sodano’). This being the case, the central conversations found in that work about the vehicle of the soul will most likely have been widely available as well.

Recommended Reading:

  • P. Adamson. The Arabic Plotinus: a Philosophical Study of the Theology of Aristotle. Duckworth, London, 2002.
  • J. Dillon. Iamblichi Chalcidensis in Platonis dialogos commentariorum fragmenta. Brill, Leiden, 1973.
  • Michael-Sebastian Noble. Philosophising the Occult: Avicennan Psychology and ’The Hidden Secret’ of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī. Studies in the History and Culture of the Middle East. De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston, MA, 2021.
  • Richard R. Walzer. Furfūriyūs. In P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W.P. Heinrichs, editors, Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2012.