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Chapter XXV.—Tertullian Refutes, Physiologically, the Notion that the Soul is Introduced After Birth.

I shall now return to the cause of this digression, in order that I may explain how all souls are derived from one, when and where and in what manner they are produced. Now, touching this subject, it matters not whether the question be started by the philosopher, by the heretic, or by the crowd. Those who profess the truth care nothing about their opponents, especially such of them as begin by maintaining that the soul is not conceived in the womb, nor is formed and produced at the time that the flesh is moulded, but is impressed from without upon the infant before his complete vitality, but after the process of parturition. They say, moreover, that the human seed having been duly deposited ex concubiterin the womb, and having been by natural impulse quickened, it becomes condensed into the mere substance of the flesh, which is in due time born, warm from the furnace of the womb, and then released from its heat. (This flesh) resembles the case of hot iron, which is in that state plunged into cold water; for, being smitten by the cold air (into which it is born), it at once receives the power of animation, and utters vocal sound. This view is entertained by the Stoics, along with Ænesidemus, and occasionally by Plato himself, when he tells us that the soul, being quite a separate formation, originating elsewhere and externally to the womb, is inhaled 1670 when the new-born infant first draws breath, and by and by exhaled 1671 with the man’s latest breath. We shall see whether this view of his is merely fictitious. Even the medical profession has not lacked its Hicesius, to prove a traitor both to nature and his own calling. These gentlemen, I suppose, were too modest to come to terms with women on the mysteries of childbirth, so well known to the latter. But how much more is there for them to blush at, when in the end they have the women to refute them, instead of commending them. Now, in such a question as this, no one can be so useful a teacher, judge, or witness, as the sex itself which is so intimately concerned. Give us your testimony, then, ye mothers, whether yet pregnant, or after delivery (let barren women and men keep silence),—the truth of your own nature is in question, the reality of your own suffering is the point to be decided.  (Tell us, then,) whether you feel in the embryo within you any vital force 1672 other than your own, with which your bowels tremble, your sides shake, your entire womb throbs, and the burden which oppresses you constantly changes its position? Are these movements a joy to you, and a positive removal of anxiety, as making you confident that your infant both possesses vitality and enjoys it?  Or, should his restlessness cease, your first fear would be for him; and he would be aware of it within you, since he is disturbed at the novel sound; and you would crave for injurious diet, 1673 or would even loathe your food—all on his account; and then you and he, (in the closeness of your sympathy,) would share together your common ailments—so far that with your contusions and bruises would he actually become marked,—whilst within you, and even on the selfsame parts of the body, taking to himself thus peremptorily 1674 the injuries of his mother! Now, whenever a livid hue and redness are incidents of the blood, the blood will not be without the vital principle, 1675 or soul; or when disease attacks the soul or vitality, (it becomes a proof of its real existence, since) there is no disease where there is no soul or principle of life. Again, inasmuch as sustenance by food, and the want thereof, growth and decay, fear and motion, are conditions of the soul or life, he who experiences them must be alive. p. 206 And, so, he at last ceases to live, who ceases to experience them.  And thus by and by infants are still-born; but how so, unless they had life? For how could any die, who had not previously lived? But sometimes by a cruel necessity, whilst yet in the womb, an infant is put to death, when lying awry in the orifice of the womb he impedes parturition, and kills his mother, if he is not to die himself.  Accordingly, among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all, and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, 1676 by means of which the limbs within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fœtus is extracted 1677 by a violent delivery. There is also (another instrument in the shape of) a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: they give it, from its infanticide function, the name of ἐμβρυοσφάκτης , the slayer of the infant, which was of course alive. Such apparatus was possessed both by Hippocrates, and Asclepiades, and Erasistratus, and Herophilus, that dissector of even adults, and the milder Soranus himself, who all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive. Of the necessity of such harsh treatment I have no doubt even Hicesius was convinced, although he imported their soul into infants after birth from the stroke of the frigid air, because the very term for soul, forsooth, in Greek answered to such a refrigeration! 1678 Well, then, have the barbarian and Roman nations received souls by some other process, (I wonder;) for they have called the soul by another name than ψυχή? How many nations are there who commence life 1679 under the broiling sun of the torrid zone, scorching their skin into its swarthy hue? Whence do they get their souls, with no frosty air to help them?  I say not a word of those well-warmed bed-rooms, and all that apparatus of heat which ladies in childbirth so greatly need, when a breath of cold air might endanger their life. But in the very bath almost a babe will slip into life, and at once his cry is heard! If, however, a good frosty air is to the soul so indispensable a treasure, then beyond the German and the Scythian tribes, and the Alpine and the Argæan heights, nobody ought ever to be born! But the fact really is, that population is greater within the temperate regions of the East and the West, and men’s minds are sharper; whilst there is not a Sarmatian whose wits are not dull and humdrum. The minds of men, too, would grow keener by reason of the cold, if their souls came into being amidst nipping frosts; for as the substance is, so must be its active power. Now, after these preliminary statements, we may also refer to the case of those who, having been cut out of their mother’s womb, have breathed and retained life—your Bacchuses 1680 and Scipios. 1681 If, however, there be any one who, like Plato, 1682 supposes that two souls cannot, more than two bodies could, co-exist in the same individual, I, on the contrary, could show him not merely the co-existence of two souls in one person, as also of two bodies in the same womb, but likewise the combination of many other things in natural connection with the soul—for instance, of demoniacal possession; and that not of one only, as in the case of Socrates’ own demon; but of seven spirits as in the case of the Magdalene; 1683 and of a legion in number, as in the Gadarene. 1684 Now one soul is naturally more susceptible of conjunction with another soul, by reason of the identity of their substance, than an evil spirit is, owing to their diverse natures. But when the same philosopher, in the sixth book of The Laws, warns us to beware lest a vitiation of seed should infuse a soil into both body and soul from an illicit or debased concubinage, I hardly know whether he is more inconsistent with himself in respect of one of his previous statements, or of that which he had just made. For he here shows us that the soul proceeds from human seed (and warns us to be on our guard about it), not, (as he had said before,) from the first breath of the new-born child. Pray, whence comes it that from similarity of soul we resemble our parents in disposition, according to the testimony of Cleanthes, 1685 if we are not produced from this seed of the soul? Why, too, used the old astrologers to cast a man’s nativity from his first conception, if his soul also draws not its origin from that moment? To this (nativity) likewise belongs the inbreathing of the soul, whatever that is.



“Inhaled” is Bp. Kaye’s word for adduci, “taken up.”






Ciborum vanitates.






Anulocultro. [To be seen in the Museum at Naples.]


Or, “the whole business (totem facinus) is despatched.”


So Plato, Cratylus, p. 399, c. 17.




Liberi aliqui.


See Pliny, Natural History, vii. 9.


See above, ch. x.


Mark xvi. 9.


Mark vi. 1-9.


See above, ch. v.

Next: Scripture Alone Offers Clear Knowledge on the Questions We Have Been Controverting.