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Origen's Philosophical Views

Origen's doctrine bears obvious resemblances to straight neo-Platonism of the Plotinian variety.This is perhaps not surprising, since Origen and Plotinus may both have studied in Alexandria under the same teacher - the very mysterious Ammonius Saccas. (There is considerable dispute about this.)

Ammonius Saccas is a very dark figure, one of those people who haunt the footnotes of books about this period. Plotinus' student and biographer, Porphyry the Phoenician, tells us a bit about him.

Origen drew a lot from Plotinus and other Neoplatonic , including the following triad: One/Intelligence(s)/Soul(s).

First of all, the triad obviously suggests the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which was just getting worked out during this period. Origen pushes this. For him:

  1. God (i.e., God the Father) is to be identified with Plotinus' One. Hence, for Origen the Father is above being. Contrast the passage in Exodus 3:14 ("I am that I am"), which Augustine and others would take as entailing that God is a being par excellence. Origen doesn't feel the pressure of that text quite so strongly.

  2. The One then generates or gives rise to (Origen doesn't want to say "creates") the Logos or Word, which is to be identified with Plotinus' Intelligence, and also with God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.

    The Word is, or contains, the exemplars (i.e., the Platonic Forms) of all creatures, in imitation of which creatures are fashioned in creation. Origen is here following the beginning of John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made."

    The Platonic Forms or exemplars are now in a mind and are to be thought of as divine ideas. Plato's "Ideas" were not originally ideas in our sense, that is, ideas in a mind. The move of putting Platonic Ideas into a divine mind goes back at least to Philo of Alexandria (an important Jewish thinker around the turn of the Christian era). The doctrine will become standard in the Middle Ages, through the influence of Augustine.

  3. Immediately below the Word is the Holy Spirit, which is to be identified with Plotinus' Soul. Below that are created and individual souls (that is, yours and mine).

Note two things about this doctrine. First of all, there is a tendency built in here to subordinate the Word and the Holy Spirit (the second and third "persons" of the Trinity) to the Father. They are not all of the same rank. This conflicts with the theological doctrine that the three persons were all on a par. This kind of thinking led to Arianism - a trinitarian heresy that grew out of a strong neo-Platonic interpretation of Christianity. At least it grew out of this when pushed by certain people.

Second, if we were being thoroughly neo-Platonic about this, we should say that, just as the Intelligence is identical with the intelligences (that is, the Word is somehow identical with its Ideas), so too the Soul is identical with individual souls (that is, the Holy Spirit is identical with human souls). (Don't worry too much at this point about how one thing can be identical with several distinct things; that's the least of our problems.)

There is thus some pressure here to view human souls as divine, at least as divine as the Holy Spirit. Origen fights this tendency by subordinating human souls to the Holy Spirit - that is, by breaking the second of the above identities. To this extent, he departs from the straight Plotinian line. Nevertheless, the pressure is there, and the tendency remains in this kind of neo-Platonizing Christianity to exalt the human soul to the extent that it becomes in effect divine. For more details, go to Augustine's theory of illumination.

Here are some other features of Origen's doctrine:

  1. Creation is necessary and eternal. This, to be sure, is just plain heretical (from the vantage point of hindsight, of course). Origen in effect has solved the problem of reconciling Christian doctrine on this point with Greek philosophy by simply giving up the Christian doctrine. If "creation" is necessary and eternal, how does it differ from the "generation" or "production" of the second and third persons of the Trinity? Well, the answer is: it doesn't. (As the theological doctrines eventually worked themselves out, the idea became this: The necessary relations that God enters into are the internal relations among the members of the Trinity; the contingent relations God enters into are exactly the relations between God and creatures.) But now, if the production of creatures cannot in the end be distinguished from the production of the second and third persons of the Trinity, we have the opportunity for two opposite heresies:
    1. The view that the second and third persons are, for practical purposes, creatures. This is Arianism, strictly speaking, the view that the Son (never mind the Holy Spirit) is a creature of the Father - a very special and exalted creature, to be sure, but a creature nonetheless.
    2. The view that so called "creatures" are really no different, for practical purposes, from the second or third persons of the Trinity. If the former view reduces the other members of the Trinity to the status of mere creatures, this view in effect raises creatures to the level of the other members of the Trinity. Once again, we find the tendency to treat creatures - and in particular, human souls - as divine.

  2. Creation is ex nihilo - that is, "out of nothing". To say that creation is ex nihilo is not to say that it violates the old Parmenidean principle that you don't get something from nothing. We would be violating that principle only if the doctrine were that first there was nothing at all, and then - presto! - there were creatures. (Ignore the problem about creating time itself.) But we don't have that picture at all. Rather the doctrine is that first there was God alone, and then there were God and creatures. So, to say that creation is ex nihilo simply means that creation is not out of some pre-existing, independent matter. In short, the point of the claim that creation is ex nihilo is simply that God's creative activity is not like the work of the Platonic Demiurge.

    Origen argues for this doctrine - or at least he argues that it is no more difficult to conceive than its contrary. Here is the argument:

    If you think creation ex nihilo is unintelligible, suppose the contrary. That is, suppose that matter always existed independently, as a kind of brute fact without any further cause or explanation. Then, of course, there would be no reason for its existence. But that is unintelligible - or at least it is no more intelligible than creation ex nihilo.

    For Origen creation is not contingent. Still, he seems to recognize that the notion of creation ex nihilo has the ring of paradox about it. There still seems to be no real accounting for creation - but neither would there be for the existence of matter, if we denied the doctrine of creation and just took that existence as a brute fact.)

  3. Origen affirms the immateriality of human souls, in good Platonic/neo-Platonic fashion. Others were afraid to do this in part because it would tend to give souls the mark of divinity. And, appropriately, we have seen just that tendency in Origen.

  4. All will be saved. For Origen, there is no doctrine of Hell. This, of course, is an echo of the neo-Platonic doctrine of the return of all things to the One, part of the mystical element in neo-Platonism.

  5. Evil is the result of the soul's free will, not the result of matter. In fact, for Origen, the soul pre-exists, and it is because of an evil choice on its part that it is put into the body in the first place. The embodiment of souls is therefore a kind of Fall. What we see in this view is an attempt to interpret the Christian doctrine of Original Sin in a way that preserves overtones of the Platonic doctrine that the body is a prison. But only overtones.

  6. God's power is finite. This perhaps sounds odd, or even paradoxical, to us, but Origen thought it was necessary in order for God to be perfect. What is going on here is this: the Greek notion of perfection required definiteness, clear limits, sharpness around the edges. Indefiniteness, blurriness, was an imperfection. (In Latin, 'perfectus' just means "complete", "completely made". So too, mutatis mutandis in Greek.) So if God's power were to be infinite, that would mean that it's rather hazy just what all God can do. And that haziness would be an imperfection, not a worthy thing to attribute to God. In general, Christian authors for a long time felt embarrassed over the need to say that God was in some sense infinite. It is only quite late that the notion of divine infinity gets separated from classical overtones. (I'm told the dividing line comes with Henry of Ghent in the late-thirteenth century.)

This sketch only hints at Origen's profundity. He was a very great thinker. From the point of view of later developments, his orthodoxy was perhaps rather borderline. But many of the tendencies or explicit doctrines we find in Origen we will also see haunting the rest of the Middle Ages.

Origen belonged to a school of Christian thinkers at Alexandria in the second and third centuries. They were called (appropriately) the Alexandrines. Besides Origen, the other main figure in this group is Clement of Alexandria.

On Origen, you may also want to consult A. H. Armstrong, The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, Ch. 11. (Ch. 10 is on Clement of Alexandria.)

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest