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The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece believed that breath played a fundamental role in structuring ...
2019-03-22 10:00:00

The Breath of the Universe
The Ancient Theory of ‘Pneuma’

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
The Breath of the Universe
The Breath of the Universe

Breathe in, breathe out. Let us breathe with relief: the pneuma unifies us humans and the universe, guiding us wisely. That is of course, if you believe ancient philosophers.

Read in 9 minutes

The blurred figures of a few, semi-legendary great thinkers active in the 6th century BC in Greek cities on the Aegean coasts of Asia Minor loom over the beginnings of the philosophical reflection of our cultural milieu. Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes (all three of Miletus), Xenophanes of Colophon, and Heraclitus of Ephesus gave rise to intelligent reflection upon the world and human existence. What they also have in common is their search for the basic element, the so-called arche, from which everything in existence originated, and which is present in everything. To put it in slightly simpler terms and to avoid complex discussions, this element was, for example, water for Thales and fire for Heraclitus. Here, however, we are interested in Anaximenes, about whom we know little more than that he was most likely a pupil of Anaximander and was active in Miletus.

Anaximenes was the author of a philosophical tractate praised for its clarity and simplicity of argument, but unfortunately this text has not been preserved. Of his views, we know only as much as his contemporaries have recorded. If that were Aristotle or Cicero, it wouldn’t be so bad. However, as we are forced to rely on accounts by Christian writers (e.g. Augustine), it is not so great – they clearly intended to ridicule the ancient teachings, and thus mercilessly simplify and primitivize Anaximenes’s work. So, while there are many uncertainties, one thing seems certain: Anaximenes recognized that air is the primordial element. In the state of perfect dispersion, invisible, rarefacted it turns into fire, and condensed it produces fog, clouds, water and so on. The process continues until the air is condensed enough to form solids.

In these latter solid forms, it can be sensed and is visible. In our philosopher’s opinion, the density of materials was influenced by temperature and humidity, while movement was responsible for creative mechanisms. If one thinks of ‘gas’ instead of ‘air’, one can understand the ingenuity of his intuitions – he did in fact discover the mechanic of how gas works. Using modern terminology, we would say that Anaximenes believed that the forms of matter depended on pressure, temperature, humidity and motion (i.e. the mixing of various components).

Anaximenes did, however, move even further in his speculations. In his opinion, air, or the primordial element, had divine features. After all, it was eternal, infinite, always in creative movement, creating everything. Even the gods of the Greek pantheon were derived from it!

Cosmic breath

It is not entirely clear what term the philosopher used to describe his super-element. Perhaps he even used two: aer and pneuma. It seems that he used the former in reference to the elementary, invisible, creative principle of everything, and the latter to name a certain form of already thickened air that holds the world together. One of the ancient authors conveyed the following ambiguous sentence of Anaximenes: “Just as our soul [psyche], being air [aer] holds us together, so do breath [pneuma] and air encompass the whole world.” For centuries, scholars have been striving to correctly interpret the thought contained in these words. Perhaps the philosopher wanted to convey that both man and the universe are, respectively, a micro- and macrocosm created of the same primordial element (air), and that the same laws govern both. In the case of man, he is held together and directed by the soul (psyche); in the case of the world, by breath (pneuma). In this way, the idea of cosmic power permeating the universe as a breath to which the human soul, similar to that of nature, corresponds, appeared in our cultural circle.

The world lives and ‘breathes’ thanks to pneuma, and we humans breathe thanks to the soul. But let’s leave the soul for now. At any rate, the concept was later developed in its own, separate way in ancient thought. Let’s stay instead with pneuma. Another great thinker, Heraclitus of Ephesus, used elements of Anaximenes’ theory in his writings on the fiery Logos – the ‘reason’ that penetrates and guides the universe. This itself is the very notion of pneuma, only it is given a fiery form and a more ‘rational’ modus operandi. This idea was later developed, returning to its origins, in Stoic philosophy. A 3rd-century BC representative of this school, Chrysippus of Soli, believed that “the whole of substance is unified by a certain pneuma which extends throughout it and by means of which it is held together and remains together and by which the whole is in sympathy with itself.”

That’s all when it comes to the cosmic dimension, but what about humanity?

The greatest ancient authority in the field of natural sciences, Aristotle, used the notion of pneuma to explain the functioning of living organisms, including humans. In his treatise On the Parts of Animals, he writes of how all sensory organs are connected to the heart (or, in some animals, an analogous organ). He repeated this several times in his other works (Sense and Sensibilia, Youth and Old Age, Life and Death). Aristotle located the ‘centre of management’ around the heart, rather than the brain. There, one can find something the philosopher wrote about in the aforementioned text, namely the pneuma that in some organisms causes pulse, and in others causes breathing and excretion. These are selected examples of its influence, because this pneuma is the cause of all locomotion and other movement in organisms, for example their sexual desire.

When asked about the origins of pneuma, Aristotle responded by claiming that it is received at birth and its influence ceases with death. In On the Motion of Animals, he adds: “[…] the functions of movement are thrusting and pulling. Accordingly, the organ of movement must be capable of expanding and contracting; and this is precisely the characteristic of spirit. It contracts and expands naturally, and so is able to pull and to thrust from one and the same cause, exhibiting gravity compared with the fiery element, and levity by comparison with the opposites of fire.” Thus in living bodies, pneuma contracts and expands, driving everything, and it has the form of a breath – a little heavier than fire, but much lighter than its ‘opposite’, earth.

What was floating on the waters of chaos?

In antiquity (and long afterwards), the conviction that the breath of life penetrates and directs the world and man, thus giving life to both, was rather widespread. Even the demise of the old gods and the slow rise of Christianity did not diminish this belief. It was sufficient to recognize that the miraculous breath comes from ‘our’ God. After all, in the Bible there are innumerable references to a Holy Spirit that, for example, according to the Book of Genesis, “swept over the face of the waters” before the act of creation. It is him who later descends to Earth and to selected people to direct the fate of the Earth. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the word ‘pneuma’ was used to describe the Holy Spirit. Thus, in the prior quote from the Book of Genesis, the pneuma of Theou appears over the waters of chaos.

Christianity, having emerged as a sect of Judaism, took over the concept of pneuma without hesitation. In the scene of the descent of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts, we read: “And when the day of Pentecost was now come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them tongues parting asunder, like as of fire; and it sat upon each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Under a fiery guise and with a loud breeze, pneuma descends upon the apostles. This Holy Spirit will later be passed down to their successors and so on, until today, to the entire Church.

However, there is a certain ‘but’. The Hebrew word ruah (‘spirit’) has a female genus, while the Greek pneuma is neutral. The first Christians were Jewish; they spoke Aramaic and read the Old Testament in Hebrew. The gradual influx of the Hellenic element and the Greeks themselves, however, necessitated the use of Greek. What about the female ruah then? In the quoted fragment about the descent of the Holy Spirit, there seems to be no problem. Yet when it comes to the fundamental issue of the conception of Jesus, the incompatibility of the Hebrew and Greek genus of this word has great consequences. Here, in the description from the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel says to Mary: “The Holy Spirit [Pneuma hagion] shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God.”

Many of the first Christians were aware of the problem posed by this message. How could Mary conceive Christ through the feminine element? In fragments of the now lost, so-called Gospel of the Hebrewswritten in Aramaic in the second half of the first century and representing the views of the Jewish followers of the new religion – Jesus himself refers to the Holy Spirit as his ‘mother’ (Greek: meter). Not everyone appreciated this. In another apocryphal text, the Gospel of Philip, its author rejects the conception by the Holy Spirit, writing: “Some said Mary became pregnant by the holy spirit. They are wrong and do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever get pregnant by a woman?” Because of this, many of the first Christians were convinced that Jesus was born just like an ordinary man through the relationship between Joseph and Mary, and only later did the Holy Spirit descend upon him. Fortunately, Christianity quickly became the religion of the Greek-speaking world. Subsequently, Latin, and other national languages in which the word ‘spirit’ is masculine, have solved the problem.

Regardless of all the rambling human thought I describe above, a conviction about the existence of a vitalizing power, equally affecting the universe and man, remains one of the most enduring elements of such speculations. In principle, such a notion is still valid – we are still searching for a causative factor in the material structure of the universe. This could however, at the very least, be the law of physics.



Translated by Joanna Figiel


Paweł Janiszewski

is a historian at the Institute of History, University of Warsaw. He sometimes studies the Roman Empire, and is particularly interested in its religious phenomena, systems of philosophy, and culture.