John Flavel

A Treatise of the Soul of Man


The Preface


Among many other largesses and rich endowments, bestowed by the Creator's bounty upon the soul of man, the sentiments and impressions of the world to come, and the ability of reflection and self-intuition, are peculiar, invaluable, and heavenly gifts. By the former, we have a very great evidence of our own immortality, and designation for nobler employments and enjoyments than this embodied state admits. And by the latter we may discern the agreeableness of our hearts, and therein the validity of our title to that expected blessedness.

But these heavenly gifts are neglected and abused all the world over. Degenerate souls are every where fallen into so deep an oblivion of their excellent original, spiritual and immortal nature, and alliance to the Father of spirits; that (to use the upbraiding expression of a great philosopher) "they seem to be buried in their bodies, as so many silly worms that lurk in their holes, are loth to peep forth, and look abroad.

So powerfully do the cares and pleasures of this world charm all, (except a small remnant of regenerate souls) that nothing but some smart stroke of calamity, or terrible messengers of death can startle them; (and even those are not always able to do it,) and when they do, all the effect is but a transient glance at another, and an unwilling shrug to leave this world, and so to sleep again. And thus the impressions and sentiments of the world to come (which are the natural growth and offspring of the soul) are either stifled and suppressed, as in Atheists; or borne down by impetuous masterly lusts, as in Sensualists.

And for its self reflecting and considering power, it seems in many to be a power received in vain. It is with most souls as it is with the eye, which sees not itself, though it sees all other objects. There be those that have almost finished the course of a long life, (wherein a great part of their time has lain upon their hands, as cheap and useless commodity, which they knew not what to do with) who never yet spent one solemn entire hour in discourse with their own souls. What serious heart doth not melt into compassion over the deluded multitude, who are mocked with dreams, and perpetually busied about trifles? Who are, (after so many frustrated attempts both of their own, and all past ages) eagerly pursuing the fleeting shadows, who torture and rack their brains to find out the natures and qualities of birds, beasts, and plants; indeed any thing rather than their own souls, which are certainly the most excellent creatures that inhabit this world. They know the true value and worth of other things? but are not able to estimate the dignity of that high born spirit that is within them. A spirit which (without the addition of any more natural faculties or powers, if those it has be but sanctified and devoted to God) is capable of the highest perfections and fruitions, even complete conformity to God, and the satisfying visions of God throughout eternity. They herd themselves with beasts, who are capable of an equality with angels. O what compassionate tears must such a consideration as this draw from the eyes of all that understand the worth of souls!

As for me it has been my sin, and is now the matter of my sorrow, that while myriads of souls, (of no higher original than mine) are some of them beholding the highest Majesty in heaven, and others giving all diligence to make sure their salvation on earth, I was carried away so many years in the course of this world, (like a drop with the current of the tide) wholly forgetting my best self, my invaluable soul; while I prodigally wasted the stores of my time and thoughts upon vanities, that long since passed away as the waters which are remembered no more. It shall be no shame to me to confess this folly, since the matter of my confession shall go to the glory of my God. I studied to know many other things, but I knew not myself. It was with me as with a servant to whom the master committed two things, viz. the child, and the childís clothes; the servant is very careful of the clothes' brushes and washes, starches and irons them, and keeps them safe and clean, but the child is forgotten and lost. My body which is but the garment of my soul, I kept and nourished with excessive care, but my soul was long forgotten, and had been lost for ever, as others daily are, had not God roused it, by the convictions of his Spirit, out of that deep oblivion and deadly slumber.

When the God that formed it, out of free grace to the work of his own hands, had thus recovered it to a sense of its own worth and danger, my next work was to get it united with Christ, and thereby secured from the wrath to come; which I found to be a work difficult to effect, if it be yet effected) and a work of time to clear, though but to the degree of good hope through grace.

And since the hopes and evidences of salvation began to spring up in my soul, and settle the state thereof, I found these three great words, viz. Christ, soul, and eternity, to have a far different and more awful sound in my ear, than ever they used to have. I looked on them from that time, as things of the greatest certainty and most awful solemnity. These things have laid some weight upon my thoughts, and I felt, at certain seasons, a strong inclination to sequester myself from all other studies, and spend my last days, and most fixed meditations upon these three great and weighty subjects.

I know the subject matter of my studies and enquiries (be it never so weighty) doth not therefore make my meditations and discourse upon it great and weighty; nor am I such a vain opinionator, as to imagine my discourses every way suitable to the dignity of such subjects; no, no, the more I think and study about them, the more I discern the indistinctness, darkness, crudity, and confusion of my own conceptions, and expression of such great and transcendent things as those; but In magnis voluisse sat st, I resolved to do what I could; and accordingly some years past I finished and published, in two parts, the Doctrine of Christ; and by the acceptation and success the Lord gave that, he has encouraged me to go on in this second part of my work, how unequal soever my shoulders are to the burden of it.

The nature, original, immortality, and capacity, of mine own soul, for the present lodged in and related to this vile body, destined to corruption; together with its existence, employment, perfection, converse with God, and other spirits, both of its own, and of a superior rank and order: when it shall (as I know it shortly must) put off this its tabernacle; these things have a long time been the matters of my limited desires to understand, so far as I could see the pillar of fire (God in his word) enlightening my way to the knowledge of them. Yea, such is the value I have for them, that I have given them the next place in my esteem, to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and my interest in him.

God has formed me, as he has other men, a prospecting creature. I feel myself yet uncentered, and short of that state of rest and satisfaction to which my soul, in its natural and spiritual capacity, has a designation. I find that I am in a continual motion towards my everlasting abode, and the expense of my time; and many infirmities tell me that I am not far from it: by all which I am strongly prompted to look forward, and acquaint myself as much as I can, with my next place and employment. I look with a greedy and inquisitive eye that way.

Yet would I not be guilty of an unwarrantable curiosity in searching into revealed things; how willing soever I am to put my head by faith into the world above, and to know the things which Jesus Christ has purchased and prepared for me, and all the rest that are waiting for his appearance and kingdom, I feel my curiosity checked and repressed by shat elegant paronomasia, Rom. 12: 3. "Me uperfronein par ho dei fronein, alle fronein eis to sofronein," In all things I would be wise unto sobriety. I groan under the effects of Adam's itching ambition to know, and would not by repeating his sin, increase my own misery; nor yet would I be scared, by his example, into the contrary evil of neglecting the means God has afforded me, to know all that I can of his revealed will.

The helps philosophy affords in some parts of this discourse are too great to be despised, and too small to be admired. I confess I read the definition of the soul given by the ancient philosophers with a compassionate smile. When Thales calls it a nature without repose; Asclepiades, an exercitation of sense! Hesiod, a thing composed of earth and water: Parmenides, a thing composed of earth and fire; Galen says it is heat; Hippocrates, a spirit diffused through the body; Plato, a self-moving substance; Aristotle calls it Entelechia, that by which the body is moved: If my opinion should be asked which of all these definitions I like best, I should give the same answer which Theocritus gave an ill poet, repeating many of his verses, and asked which he liked best; Those (said he) which you have omitted. Or if they must have the garland as the prize they have shot for, let them have it upon the some reason that was once given to him that shot wide.óDitficilius est toties non attingere,óBecause it was the greatest difficulty to aim so often at the mark, and never come near it. One word of God gives me more light than a thousand such laborious trifles. As Caesar was best able to write his own commentaries, so God only can give the best account of his own creature, on which he has impressed his own image.

Modern philosophers, assisted by the divine oracles, must needs come closer to the mark, and give us a far better account of the nature of the soul. Yet I have endeavoured not to cloud this subject with their controversies, or abstruse notions; remembering what a smart but deserved check Tertullian gives those, Qui Platonicum et Aristotelicum Christianismum producunt Christianis. Words are but the servants of matter, I value them as merchants do their ships, not by the gilded head and stern, the neatness of their mould, or curious flags and streamers, but by the soundness of their bottom, largeness of their capacity, and richness of their cargo and loading. The quality of the subject necessitates, in many places, the use of scholastic terms, which will be obscure to the vulgar reader: but apt and proper words must not be rejected for their obscurity, except plainer words could be found that fit the subject as well, and are as fully expressive of the matter. The unnecessary I have avoided, and the rest explained as I could.

The principal fruits I especially aim at, both to my own and the reader's soul, are, That while we contemplate the freedom, pleasure, and satisfaction of that spiritual, incorporeal people, who dwell in the region of light and joy, and are hereby forming to ourselves a true scriptural idea of the blessed state of those disembodied spirits, with whom we are to serve and converse in the temple-worship in heaven; and come more explicitly and distinctly to understand the constitution, order, and delightful employments of those our everlasting associates; we may answerably feel the sound and inordinate love of this animal life sub-acted and wrought down; the frightful vizard of death drop off, and a more pleasing aspect appear; that no upright soul that shall read these discourses may henceforth be convulsed at the name of death, but cheerfully aspire, and with a pleasant expectation wait for the blessed season of its transportation to that blessed assembly. It is certainly our ignorance of the life of heaven, that makes us dote as we do upon the present life. There is a gloom, a thick mist overspreading the next life, and hiding, even from the eyes of believers, the glory that is there. We send forth our thoughts to penetrate this cloud, but they return to us without the desired success. We reinforce them with a sally of new and more vigorous thoughts, but still they come back in confusion and disappointment, as to any perfect account they can bring us from thence; though the oftener and closer we think, still the more we grow up into acquaintance with these excellent things.

Another benefit I pray for, and expect from these labours, is, that by describing the horrid estate of those souls which go the other way, and shewing to the living the dismal condition of souls departed in their unregenerate state, some may be awakened to a seasonable and effectual consideration of their wretched condition, while they yet continue under the means and among the instruments of their salvation.

Whatever the fruit of this discourse shall be to others, I have cause to bless God for the advantage it has already given me. I begin to find more than ever I have done, in the separate state of sanctified souls, all that is capable of attracting an intellectual nature; and if God will but fix my mind upon this state, and cause my pleased thoughts about it to settle into a steady frame and temper, I hope I shall daily more and more depreciate and despise this common way of existence in a corporeal prison; and when the blessed season of my departure is at hand, I shall take a cheerful farewell of the greater and lesser elementary world, to which my soul has been confined, and have an abundant entrance through the broad gate of assurance, unto the blessed, unembodied inhabitants of the world to come.