On Gender and the Soul
An exploration of sex/gender and Its relation to the soul according to the Church Fathers
This is a book about gender ideology and the Orthodox Christian Faith; it was initially conceived in 2017, written 2018–2019, and published in 2021.
Updated Preface (October 2022)
There have been a variety of publications detailing the dangers of gender ideology since the initial conception of this work in 2017. Although this work is primarily geared towards a Christian audience – and how our anthropological model precludes us from affirming any form of internal, self-defined gender identity distinct from biological sex – I thought it important to provide a brief summary of other important work here.
In 2018, Dr. Lisa Littman published a study revealing a major demographic shift in trans-idenitifying individuals. A key aspect of her research focuses on how gender ideology is affecting young, adolescent girls, most of whom had shown no evidence of gender dysphoria up until their seemingly out-of-the-blue proclamation of identifying as transgender. She termed this phenomenon rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD).
Other studies soon appeared in academia purporting to demonstrate that gender affirming care (providing hormone replacement and opportunities to transition medically) significantly improved mental health in adolescents. These studies have since been retracted.
Ryan T. Anderson made headlines when his 2018 book, When Harry Became Sally, was removed and subsequently banned from Amazon's online store. For his part, Anderson argues that transitioning does not actually solve the issues plaguing the individuals that transitioned in the first place. Saying that it does is an innacurate and dangerous claim.
Building on Littman’s research, American journalist Abigail Shrier published Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters in 2020, a chilling book that details the epidemic of ROGD in the United States. Likewise, in 2021 Canadian neuroscientist Dr. Debra Soh published, The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths About Sex and Identity in Our Society, wherein she claims that the ideology produced by transgender activists has no foundation in science. In 2022, British journalist Helen Joyce followed suit with her book appropriately titled, TRANS. To varying degrees, each of these works relate the same thing, including that every single long-term study that involved children who are uncomfortable with their sex demostrated that over 80+% resolved after puberty (called desisting). This was termed the wait and see approach, which is advocated for by Dr. Kenneth Zucker among others. Conversely, virtually all of the adolescents that socially transitioned and were put on puberty blockers (the effects of which, it is claimed, are completely reversible. They are not) later continued to medical transition. More than is admitted by the media later regretted it.
Soh and Joyce speak of autogynephilia and its relation to the gender confusion in men. And both believe that the popularity of transgenderism is more or less homophic. That is, young men or women who are gender non-conforming – and would normally grow into gay adult men or adult butch lesbians – are sold the idea that they are the actually the opposite sex. Dr. Soh backs this claim with brainscans of heterosexual women, heterosexual men, homosexual men, and trans-identifying (biological) men. The latter two are virtually identical.
As is likely clear, Littman, Shrier, Soh, and Joyce are all classic liberals; they have always been supportive of women’s rights and same-sex marriage. For her part, Dr. Soh was even a regular contributor to Playboy magazine. But something about the social dimension of gender ideology gave them pause. This pause led to research which led to their publications. In spite of being politically left of the aisle, each of these women were severely criticized, defamed, and demeaned in an attempt to silence them.
This attempt to silence opposing views points to a larger shift that happened in society that Greg Lukianoff began seeing on college campuses in 2013. Publications are no longer rebutted in normal academic dialogue, as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff note in The Coddling of the American Mind, rather there is a push to silence them entirely. There is much that could be said to tie together Haidt and Lukianoff’s work – and more recently, Dr. Carl Trueman’s and Dr. Jordan Peterson’s work – with the aforementioned work on gender ideology. Presently, I am beginning to weave these threads together in forthcoming talks and journal articles, and perhaps, if it gains traction, another book.
One last book I will highlight, which is also a documentary on DailyWire+, is What is a Woman? by Matt Walsh. This book, together with all of the other books and studies, form a compelling amalgalm of reasons why gender ideology is dangerous for our children and our society. While most of the work to this end comes from a medical, social, familial, govermental, and psychological perspective, there has not been a lot of conversation around the topic of theological anthropology. That is what this work is about.
Since the time of it’s publication through Fish and Vine Publishing in 2021, the first printing of On Gender and the Soul, has sold out. Additionally, I have had the opportunity to speak at a variety of places on the topic (conferences, clergy conferences, parishes, universities). For this, and all other opportunities, I am extremely grateful. Unfortunately, Fish and Vine Publishing – which was started by my friend to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude, Aaron Alford, on account of whom this work was published and not left in the dust bin of a completed graduate degree – will be closing shop indefinitely. And so at this point, a second printing is not possible. In order to keep it available to anyone that desires to read it, the present e-book/PDF is being published, with full permission of Aaron Alford and Fish and Vine Publishing.
If you know of a publishing company that may be interested in printing a second edition, or if you would like to book me to speak at your parish, conference, or university, please get in contact with me.
October 7, 2022
One last comment I should make is that we should distinguish between those suffering from persistent gender dysphoria, or early onset gender dysphoria (previously, gender identity disorder), from those wrapped up in the social contagion (ROGD). The former is a tiny population (predominately male) that show signs of this in childhood, all the way through puberty, and later in adulthood; the latter show signs of this only immediately preceding their social pronouncement of being transgender. Both gender dysphoria and general confusion over one‘s identity, as is common in adolescents, are painful realities. However, the gender dysphoria that I speak about in this book, as I relate pastoral care, is of the former kind – persistent gender dysphoria – not the latter (ROGD).
Finally, I hope and pray that this book is helpful to Christians seeking to understand the human person from the perspective of theological anthropology.
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Original Preface & Introduction: What is Sex? What is Gender?
Ask anyone on a college campus today to define sex or gender and you are bound to get a myriad of different answers: sex is biological and binary but gender is personal and exists on a spectrum; biological sex and gender alike exist on a spectrum and neither are binary; sex is something you do and is distinct from biology; gender is ever changing and is expressed individually in order to communicate personal identity.
What’s the Point Anyway?
What are we to do with such an ever-expanding variety of answers? How do we begin a fruitful discussion on the topic if we do not agree on a definition of terms? And even if we do agree in this regard, how do we communicate in a way that fosters mutual respect and love—even in disagreement?
These questions cut through the debris that litters the landscape of what has become a socio-religious battleground. Yet, an honest appraisal of our biased reactions might reveal that we are unconsciously disinterested in mutual respect or loving disagreement. We may find we do in fact view those who adhere to a stance opposite ours as enemies—and more times than not we treat them as such. Enemies do not have cordial conversations. They wage war.
It is of great importance to me that this work not be used as yet another weapon in what has turned into a modern Christian crusade. There have already been too many casualties. Rather, it should be used by those within the Orthodox Church to understand the topic at hand in order to offer a balm for the souls of those suffering from gender dysphoria. There are two parts to achieving this work of healing. First, the pastor or layman must understand the stance of the Church on the given subject; second, he must be given the tools to help those within his care or sphere of influence. This last part is vital: one cannot accomplish anything in the real world through abstract ideation.
The key is in how we act out what we believe. What is contained in these pages is from the worldview of an Orthodox Christian. While an Orthodox Christian is expected to rely on the Church, Scripture, and patristic witness to shape our worldview (and thus must follow where these lead), many of those we find ourselves interacting with on this subject do not have the same foundation. It would be a grave mistake to believe that we should hold those outside of the Church to the same standards we hold those within it. In the long run, it is far more important to accept human freedom as God accepts human freedom—a reality that will grant space to those around us and could very well lead to life-changing encounters.
History of the Terms Sex and Gender
The meaning conveyed by the signifiers sex and gender have undergone rapid changes over the last decade. But the initial redefinition started much earlier. In the 1960s, John Hopkins professor of pediatrics and medical psychiatry, John Money, linguistically severed gender from sex by suggesting that the former is seated in social constructs and the latter in biology. This bifurcation of sex from gender facilitated a second division between internal gender and biological sexes in order to explain gender dysphoria—a kind of body dysmorphia wherein one feels dissociation from, or incongruence with, the physical body over and against their internal identity. Though historical, professional psychiatric practice concerning treatment for gender dysphoria focused on helping the client come to accept himself in his embodied form, much of modern practice seeks to transform the body by supplementary or surgical means to conform to one’s individual perception of internal identity.
The entire conversation is made more difficult when the range of transgender theses are considered. There are two major schools of thought, within which there are countless variations: One, what I will call the popular approach, and two, the academic approach. The first is characterized by a kind of dualism between external and internal identities; it inadvertently tends toward a male-female binary wherein a woman can be born trapped in a male body or vice versa. The second rejects the male-female binary entirely, claiming that human embodiment itself, as well as gender, exists on a spectrum and is fluid; male and female bodies were developed and solidified by cultural re-enactment of gender roles. As culturally deviant gender identities come to be discovered, accepted, expressed, and reiterated, human biology will follow suit. In this view the sexed body is somewhat irrelevant to gender expression, as its sexual differentiation does not point to an objectively definitive sex, but rather reflects cultural norms.
Today, those who proffer transgender ideologies usually demonstrate an admixture of both the popular and the academic approach, claiming that the male-female binary does not exist but women can be trapped in male bodies—or vice versa—and must be free to express themselves in a culturally feminine or masculine way. This, of course, further complicates the discussion.
So where do we begin in our articulation of a theologically meaningful understanding of sex and gender? Certainly, we could point to the anatomical fact that male and female bodies exist. But not all men behave in culturally masculine ways, and not all women practice the same degree of cultural femininity. Additionally, patristic witness seems to further gender stereotypes by characterizing parts of the soul, passions, and virtues as masculine or feminine. Liturgical hymnography likewise calls female martyrs manly due to their courage. How are we to understand such gender reversals?
In defining our terms here, my proposal is twofold: First, to reconnect the terms sex and gender by admitting biological distinction together with semiological and theological contrasts of the male and female (genders) while admitting, secondly, cultural and patriarchal exploitation of the male-female distinction, variance in roles, and the artificial constructs of the pop-theologies of “biblical manhood,” “biblical womanhood,” and “purity culture.” Sex refers to biology and the physical body, and gender includes both the reality of biological sex and how it is manifested in theologically sound embodied action. This is worth briefly drawing out, as much could be lost in translation.
It seems undeniable to say that gender, as a social construct specifically, does exist. It is deeply embedded in our culture and in our own unconscious perception. Phrases like “men don’t cry” and “women need protection” are two common stereotypes. Nonetheless, one’s performance of these roles, as expected within certain circles, can be psychologically (and even physically) damaging.
To state it another way, what I am saying is that sex refers to the twenty-third chromosome pair—DNA written into every cell of the body—and is biologically unchangeable regardless of hormonal replacement or sex-reassignment surgery. On the other hand, gender includes more than just biology, as we are culturally conditioned to think of certain jobs, clothes, colors, and even mannerisms as masculine or feminine. Most of these tendencies are automatic—so much so that a conservative evangelical Christian meeting an Orthodox priest for the first time might be disturbed to see him with long hair and wearing what looks to be a dress.
By theologically sound action, I mean the exercise of human agency in choosing—with all the innumerable choices in life—how to individuate manhood or womanhood in one’s own sexed existence in a way that is in concert with the whole of the Christian faith. I would be remiss to make an attempt at penning exactly what that is or means here. Though I admit a distinction between sex and gender with these criteria (sex is biological, gender is embodied choice together with social constructs that attempt to place moral meaning on these choices), I have chosen to use the terms sex and gender interchangeably—namely because the soul is neither sexed nor gendered. This, with all its peculiarities, will be drawn out below.
What I will say here is that acceptance of a distinction between biological sex and social gender constructs is not an approval of a distinction between sex and internal gender identity. Simply because a biological male acts in a culturally feminine way does not mean that he is really a female, even if he feels like one.
Concerning cultural iterations of gender, I will only say I believe it morally irrelevant if men are homemakers or wear dresses and makeup or if women hunt, work to support the family, or go to the beach bare-chested. These are cultural stereotypes that, though they may be considered flagrant sins in some contexts, are perfectly acceptable in others. Much of the debate has been spent lampooning these culturally gauche decisions instead of getting at the actual point: how do we encourage human beings to thrive in every domain of life?
If the goal is to shield our eyes from what scares us or divert our attention from what we would rather not see, then we have already confused our purpose in the world as professing Christians. If we are Christians, our only baseline—and surely, our only purpose—in delving into this hot-button topic is to ascertain whether or not a biological male can claim internal femaleness, or vice versa, as a truthful identity. That is, does it contribute to the purpose of theosis and human thriving? Whether our answer is yes or no, we are accosted by yet another question: where do we go from here?
Chapter 1: The Initial Dispute: Sex, Gender, and Christian Anthropology
Is the soul gendered? Are the souls of men and the souls of women sexually differentiated? While various answers to this question have found their way into mainstream Christian media over the past few years, the question itself has remained unasked—and the broader implications inherent in our answer to it have been left unconsidered. Recently, it has become clear that even Orthodox Christians are confused on this topic. Because of this, my aim in the present work is to conduct an in-depth study on the subject using as our guides the Holy Scripture, the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church, and the writings of the divinely inspired Fathers, the Saints.
Contrary to what many may claim, there is a crystal-clear Orthodox position on this question—and when this position is articulated coherently, it casts light in the dark corners of the transgender debate, providing Orthodox Christians with a definitive answer to many of the questions that are now being raised. We need only draw out how this teaching is applicable to the situation we face today in order to outfit Orthodox pastors with the tools they need to provide adequate pastoral care to those who struggle with gender issues. Our goal, then, is to clear away the confusion caused by certain modern theories and certain aspects of current Orthodox scholarship in order to equip Orthodox Christians with the teaching of the Church on this subject of sex/gender.
The immediate context of the confusion surrounding this question was made evident to me while I sat in a seminary classroom in the fall of 2017 where it was posed by one of the brothers: “Is the soul gendered?” The class was split fifty-fifty. Those who proclaimed that the soul must be gendered were concerned about protecting the theological importance of gender. If the soul is not gendered, they argued, then one might also proclaim that gender has no ontological significance. And this could lead one to believe, as some Orthodox academics have proclaimed, that human beings become androgynous in the eschaton—which is to say that the body is resurrected without sexual differentiation.
Those taking the opposite stance argued that the question itself is flawed because, outside of analogical illustrations, one cannot apply corporeal attributes to an incorporeal reality. They quoted from the Church Fathers to demonstrate their point, noting that even though the soul is sexless, each human being will always have a definite sex, as the human being is made up of body and soul together, not one without the other. Human beings are sexed because they have a body. But the soul itself is sexless/genderless. These brothers inferred that refusing to place sex/gender in the soul does not denigrate it, provided that one holds to an Orthodox conception of the body. Sex/gender is important because the body is important—and anyone who professes that man becomes androgynous in heaven is not professing the Orthodox position on the resurrection of the flesh. While the sexless soul is and remains the consensus patrum, the idea of an androgynous resurrection is not.
After this brief explanation, those taking the latter position thought the question to be settled, with everyone content in following the testimony of the Church Fathers. And thus the class ended. That evening, I sent out a few quotations from the Church Fathers to provide the class with reference material for future pastoral ministry, since many of them will likely be dealing with such issues as the next generation of Orthodox priests. But several days later, one of the seminarian brothers emailed a response to the entire class with a quote from Tertullian supporting the position of the gendered soul.
This brother argued that it is dangerous to rhetorically separate the soul from the body since the human being is a single unit, and the two only part in the unnatural event of biological death. Concerning the reality of the latter, he was apprehensive what the sexlessness of the soul would mean for the interim between biological death and bodily resurrection. Would this mean disembodied souls are androgynous? What would this mean for the souls of the Saints? Do they cease to be recognizably male or female? If this is the case, how would we explain their appearances to the faithful or the use of pronouns in hagiography and hymnography?
He referenced modern Orthodox academics who use the Fathers’ teaching of the sexlessness of the soul in order to advance their own agenda. (It should be noted here that at the time of this writing, some of the only people who make a point to talk about the sexlessness of the soul are those who argue for an androgynous resurrection.) Such scholars usually hold up the teachings of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor (that the human race was divided into male and female as a provision for reproduction in the fallen world) alongside the tenet of the sexless soul in order to support the idea that human beings are resurrected as androgynous beings, and remain so in heaven for eternity. According to these scholars, sex has no ontological significance—a claim they make in order to promote a variety of fringe opinions.
It bears mentioning that an extension of this brother’s fear surrounding the confession that the soul is sexless might be how such a belief relates to the modern transgender debate, although he did not mention this specifically. As it happens, the aforementioned modern argument made by Orthodox scholars—which denigrates the importance of bodily sex—has been picked up by other Orthodox scholars whose agenda is to see widespread celebration of LGBTQ+ lifestyles within the Orthodox Church. Those familiar with patristic literature, however, will quickly see through these arguments. Surely one can make a case for almost anything if the witness of the Church, the Fathers, and the Scriptures are separated, sifted, and hand-picked.
Despite the countless conversations after this initial confrontation, he and I were not ever able to agree about the issue at hand; we agreed to disagree. Though this work has been approved and lauded by several philosophers, theologians, and clergy in the two and half years since its initial completion, I have met many other Orthodox Christians, laymen and academic alike, who have been unable to grasp the vision of patristic anthropology set forth within these pages.
There seem to be three principle objections or misunderstandings: One, the human being is a single unit—a unified whole—and thus body and soul should not be rhetorically distinguished so sharply (if at all). Two, if the soul is sexless, then the resurrection will be without sexual differentiation. Three, if the soul is sexless, then the disembodied souls that await for the resurrection would be androgynous. Regardless of emphasizing the first point with a few clarifications, rejecting the causal relationship of the second, and explaining the third by the soul’s continued relationship with the body even after death through the persistence of the person, there are still many prone to reject the patristic consensus. With regard to the third objection, specifically, one is forced to wonder if disembodied souls lose personhood. If not, why is it so difficult to think of the soul as sexless whilst maintaining the persistence of the person in all his or her distinctions, sex and otherwise?
Before diving into the patristic literature concerning these topics, I would like to indicate three different degrees of agreement or disagreement we see throughout the various writings of the Church Fathers. On the first level, we see great consistency among the Fathers, both East and West, on topics such as Christ’s deity and humanity and so on. This consistency, which we will call the patristic consensus, helps form the foundation for our Church. On the second level, we see what appear to be disagreements between various Fathers on a given subject. But when we take a closer look these supposed disagreements turn out to be variances in terminology or focus (as an example, this can be seen between St. Athanasius and the Cappadocians; the former uses ousia and hypostasis interchangeably and the latter distinguish between them). Finally, we must admit that within the vast corpus of patristic literature, there are some areas where the Fathers do not agree. On this third level there is a kind of theological boundary within which the faithful find themselves. Occasionally, this boundary which governs acceptable opinion may shrink, if the Church finds that certain theological opinions hinder our progress towards the goal set before every human being: theosis. Where the Fathers agree on a subject is of great importance for us; where they seem to disagree requires careful investigation, and where they actually disagree requires caution.
Regarding the current project, we might think of it this way: The sexlessness of the soul belongs to the first level, the resurrection of sexual differentiation belongs to the second (with the notable exception of St. Gregory of Nyssa), and the belief that sexual differentiation was a postlapsarian provision for procreation belongs to the third.
In most of the academic counter-arguments to my thesis I have encountered, this tendency seems to be heavily influenced by how many modern academics have interpreted Nyssa and St. Maximus—though, as I have noted, neither explicitly call the soul sexless. At the risk of belaboring the point, these academics tend to move from patristic consensus, to patristic opinion, to personal opinion; they move from solid ground (the sexlessness of the soul), to speculative ground (that resurrection does not include sexual differentiation via Nyssa following Origen—St. Maximus doesn’t actually teach this, if one looks closely), to uncharted ground.
All of this to say: those most vocal about the sexlessness of the soul tend to argue for a sexless resurrection, while those that speak loudest against the sexlessness of the soul are reacting against the former and take the opposite stance. Let me be clear: all of the Fathers who spoke about it agreed that the soul is sexless. None of them believed the human being will be resurrected to androgyny. Seeing some sort of relationship between the sexless soul and a sexless resurrection is simply a mistake of causality—one that lumps in with its argument an appeal against the idea of sexual differentiation as a provision for fallen man.
Interestingly enough, the sexlessness of the soul together with an Orthodox understanding of the cohesion of the sexed person in the resurrection solves all of the issues that concern such reactionaries, including my seminary brother. It also touches on the modern transgender debate by demonstrating that there can be any sex/gender in the inner man (save by analogy or relatedness to the body) or distinction thereof in Orthodox Christian anthropology—which renders moot the rhetoric of those seeking the approval of transgender body modification.
The foundation of transgender philosophy is the bifurcation of the terms sex and gender, where gender is taken to mean an internal sexual identity distinct from biological sex. Within this separation of gender from sex, some gender theorists proclaim that sex is biological and gender is not. Others claim gender normalizes and manifests itself in biology, over time, as it is performed in day-to-day life—an argument that seems to rely heavily on evolutionary anthropology. Either view denigrates the stability or purpose of bodily sex and thus blurs the line between the male-female binary. And such denigration of bodily sex is not an Orthodox view.
Since the time of the class discussion and this brother’s email, I was asked on more than one occasion by some of the other brothers to respond in written form. Because of this request, and because there are no existing works that compile and comment on the Fathers’ teachings concerning this subject specifically, I have endeavored to do so here. The brother I disagreed with gave me permission to relay the story in text here, for which I am grateful.
The completed work was presented in 2019 as my thesis for my Master of Divinity degree at Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Since that time, I presented a paper entitled The Engendered Soul in Apelles and Tertullian at Oxford University for the XVIII international patristics conference in August 2019 in Oxford, England, which was subsequently published in Studia Patristica. In November of the same year, I delivered a talk at Saint Tikhon’s “Speaking the Truth in Love” conference entitled The Sexlessness of the Soul and the Resurrected Body, in which I demonstrated that while the sexless soul is the consensus of the Fathers, the androgynous resurrection is not—and, in fact, depends on a specific (and disputed) reading of Saints Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor.
Having mentioned all this, as we progress in this journey, we should hold this in our mind: how we answer this question about the soul not only reveals but also affects, or infects, our theology, anthropology, and soteriology. And so, the importance of this issue cannot be overstated; an incorrect belief in this matter not only complicates the conversation between the Church and the modern world, but also leads to an incorrect vision of salvation. To quote Dr. Harry Boosalis, “The danger of heresy is that it does not work; it does not heal.” In order to successfully complete this journey as Orthodox Christians, we must first be willing to give up our individual opinions (those of the third level). For Truth does not conform to opinion, but it is up to us to conform our opinion to the Truth. We must seize our little ones—that is, our very own thoughts—and take them captive to Christ. Often, our thoughts are not even our own, but are sewn into our minds by the evil one with the hope that, given time, they might mature into heresy, the ultimate aim of which is to damn. When our personal opinions are shown to be at odds with the teaching of the Church, we must immediately uproot them—we must seize them in infancy and dash them against the rock of Truth before they take root and choke what sprouts of Truth and piety we are trying to cultivate. But if we neglect to do this we will, in the end, be crushed by the Truth.
Chapter 2: The Soul Throughout History
Homer on the Soul
In Ancient Greek society (c. 1200–800 B.C.), the soul was understood as something that “distinguishes a living human body from a corpse.” Homeric literature speaks of it as what one “risks in battle and loses in death.” The warrior who is struck down in battle loses his “soul,” which is to say, his “life.” At the time, it was believed that the soul might exist beyond the body in an underworld as a kind of shadow or image of that person. But generally speaking, for Homer, “someone’s soul comes to mind only when their life is thought, by themselves or others, to be at risk.” It is important to note that “Homer never says that anyone does anything in virtue of, or with, their soul, nor does he attribute any activity to the soul of a living person.” For Homer, “the presence or absence of soul marks out a person’s life, it is not otherwise associated with that life…[and] only human beings are said to have (and to lose) souls."
Classical Antiquity gave rise to several expansions of this ancient conception on the soul. In the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., everything alive was said to have a soul—though attributes such as courage and pleasure were applied to human souls alone. This development in the “connection between the soul and characteristics like boldness and courage” marks another turning point “whereby the soul comes to be thought of as the source or bearer of moral qualities.” In other words, souls themselves were believed to be capable of virtue or vice. Around the same time, actions such as thinking were also attributed to the soul. Further, developments in language and vernacular made possible one more important distinction missing from Homeric Greek—“a distinction between body and soul.”
Plato on the Soul
This distinction between body and soul allowed Plato (c. 428–347 B.C.) to develop his philosophical system which is largely based in the dichotomy between the sensible (material) and intelligible (immaterial) realms. Concerning the soul, which he believed to be an intelligible reality, Plato affirmed that it is separated from the body (which is a sensible reality) at death. But this separation is not to be mourned, for it is the soul’s freedom from the prison of the body.
Unlike those before him, Plato believed the soul is immortal. This led him to posit that souls necessarily pre-exist the body; they are only embodied because of a kind of pre-cosmic fall in which they have become prey to their own untrained appetites. But because the soul is immortal and the body dies—and because the human race continues to produce embodied souls—these souls exist in a cycle of biological birth, death, and rebirth. For this reason, Plato believed the same number of souls is always in existence.
If one takes Plato literally when he speaks of this cycle of rebirth (in Phaedrus 246–254; The Republic, 614–62, etc.), one might be able to say that if a soul is imprisoned in a man’s body in this life, it could be possible for it to be imprisoned in the body of a female or an animal in the next life. Because of Plato’s belief that the human being is a soul temporarily trapped in a material body (which is evil), we can surmise that he would not believe human beings (as sexless souls) have a fixed gender. Furthermore, while Plato’s distant progeny, Plotinus, does take his analogies to mean literal metempsychosis, scholars today are divided on this question.
Elaborating on the qualities of the soul, Plato notes that it is invisible, intelligible, and uniform—meaning it does not admit the division into, and dispersion of, parts. In addition, the soul does not change as the body changes. But even though the soul is without parts, as it is an intelligible reality, he argues that the structure of soul is threefold: rational (λογιστικόν), appetitive (ἐπιθυμητικόν), and spirited (θυμοειδές). For Plato, the rational aspect is to rule in the soul, and the soul is supposed to rule over the body. All philosophy is directed toward this end: to free the soul from the body—a task that is accomplished when the “soul… withdraw[s] from the senses.”
In a dialogue with Glaucon in Book 5 of The Republic, Plato argues that men and women are both capable of being rulers of the state—something which would later gain him a number of feminist followers. The line of demarcation within the human soul, for Plato, is not so much in sex as it is in social class. But even the latter variances are not considered by him to be differences of substance.
Aristotle on the Soul
Aristotle (c. 384–322 B.C.) followed Plato in claiming that the soul is distinct from, and animates, the body. He noted, though, that “to attain any assured knowledge about the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world.” After pointing out that there exist a variety of prevailing opinions concerning the soul, he makes an important distinction between mind (νοῦς) and soul, but calls this distinction one of substance (οὐσία).
For Aristotle, there are three kinds of souls—based on capacity—which account for the three kinds of life in the world: the nutritive soul (which admits growth and nutrition), the sensible soul (which accounts for movement and perception), and the rational soul (which enables thought and reflection). The first belongs to plants, animals, and human beings; the second, only to animals and human beings; the last, only to human beings.
In contradistinction to Plato, Aristotle did not believe the soul to be a separate substance imprisoned in another (materiality). Rather, he asserted that the soul constitutes the form of the body; it is the blueprint of potentiality by which the matter of the body is organized and grows into the actuality of a specific human being. Thus, the soul itself is not separable from the body, as in Plato’s system.
While Aristotle is silent on sexual differentiation in De Anima, in Generation of Animals he postulates that men are conceived when the father’s seed is warm and in full form. But as it cools, it becomes less effective, loses form, and subsequently produces what he infamously calls the “mutilated male”—the female. In this case, it appears the differentiation is one of complete versus incomplete form (the soul) which informs and individuates each male and female.
Concerning differentiation of souls specifically, Aristotle sees a distinction between classes as well as among male, female, and child. Calling the souls of children incomplete, Aristotle distinguishes the souls of men and women by inferring that the female form lacks deliberative authority. For Aristotle, this is not a contrariety of essence but of form; likewise, the distinction of male and female is one of matter.
The question that concerns us becomes somewhat trickier when one considers that, for Aristotle, the soul isn’t necessarily immortal—and if any part of the soul does persist posthumously, it is only the nous. Consequently, in Aristotle’s system, though the soul is the form of the body, it would be difficult to distinguish between souls as male or female. Instead, it seems most in line with Aristotle’s thinking to draw the line between the perfect or complete human form or soul (the male) and the imperfect or incomplete form (the female).
Comparing Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies brings to mind Raphael’s famous fresco The School of Athens (1509–1511). The central figures are of course the two in question, with Plato pointing up toward the realm of ideas and Aristotle pointing down towards the concrete reality of the world.
The Soul in Scripture
To say the use of the word soul (ψυχή, psychi) in Scripture is complex would be an understatement. An exhaustive list of all the usages of ψυχή in Scripture and how it corresponds to St. Paul’s usage of νοῦς (nous), the role of the πνεῦμα (pneuma, spirit)—specifically in the case of 1 Thessalonians 5:23, where Paul mentions all three—or the various usages of καρδία (kardia, heart) sprinkled across the Old and New Testaments is beyond the scope of this work. Typically, the use of ψυχή (Hebrew: nephesh) in the Old Testament is far closer to Homeric than Classical usage; when used, it can refer to man as a living being (ψυχή ζωῆς), the man himself, or the mystery of that which animates the body (σῶμα). It descends into a kind of shadow world, or pit, after biological death. However, the reality of man’s ψυχή is not sharply distinguished from the physicality of the body.
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Further content includes:
The Soul in Scripture
The Church Fathers on the Soul
Chapter 3: Apelles the Heretic (the origin of this heresy)
Chapter 4: The Church Fathers on Sex/Gender and the Soul
Chapter 5: The Orthodox Church and Modern Gender Theory
Chapter 6: Towards Orthodox Pastoral Care of Gender Dysphoria
Appendix: A Reflection on the Human Being: Unity and Plurality