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Published in Contributors to the Philosophy of Humanism, M. Hillar and F. Prahl, eds, Humanists of Houston, Houston, 1994, pp. 51-82.

Marian Hillar


Life and death, generation and corruption are obviously universal experiences of mankind. Man had to deal with these phenomena and search for psychological accommodation to the objective facts. Man, however, has tremendous capacity for imagination and wonder -- so it is easy to let our imagination err in the gray zone, especially when it seeks to satisfy our deepest desires. Thus the notions of the soul as well as of God have mythological origins (1) and the fact that they survived in religions which are professed in the 20th century does not make them less mythical in the least.



In the Upanishads there is an idea of the descent of individual souls into the bodies which is an act of individualization of the Absolute, the One, the Brahman. The sages may achieve a state of mind when they learn that the individual soul is in reality one, the soul of the universe. Thus by contemplation one may realize that there is no diversity and multiplicity, only unity. Just like rivers which, when reaching the ocean lose their identity, so the sage when liberated from all earthly attachments approaching the divine Being, becomes Brahman.(2)


The same idea of the original ontological divinity of the soul is found in the new religion that became popular in the 6th century B.C.E. in Greece among the Orphic communities. Humans, according to their legends, were descendants from the bodies of Titans; the enemies of Zeus, who were killed by Zeus in retaliation for killing Dionysos. So humans contain in their nature the element of Titans - the evil, and the element of Dionysos - the good. The echo of this story survived in Genesis (6.5). Thus the soul is imprisoned in the human body and it has to be freed from it. But death is not liberation since the soul will go through a series of reincarnations -- the ultimate liberation is available only through the initiation into Orphic mysteries and asceticism.(3)


Pythagoras (b. ca 590 B.C.E.) founded a religious society, the prominent characteristic of which was the doctrine of the migration of souls. Just as the evil angels in the Bible, so the human soul was cast out from heaven and punished by being imprisoned in the human body. The soul is understood as the "substance" and its immortal energy, not as the personality of the individual. After death it remains for some time in the Hades and then returns back to the world filling the air. It repeats the cycle of reincarnation in humans or in animals remembering its past.(4) Similar doctrines were propounded by Empedocles of Agrigentium (Acragas) in Sicily (ca 495-435 B.C.E.).(5)


The greatest influence on the religious thought in Christianity was undoubtedly Plato (429-347 B.C.E.) and his followers. In Plato, the soul and the body are two different realities. The soul is divine by nature. It is eternal and immortal, but its association with the body is regarded as its fall from heaven. It has to be purified and if the purification is not sufficient, it has to undergo a cycle of reincarnations. The body is impure, it is something inferior to the soul. Accordingly, the sensual or experimental cognition is inferior to the one based only on the speculative, intellectual exercise of the mind. There is also another trend in Plato's writings in which he emphasized that the soul was sent by God to the world to link it with the world of ideas.(6)

Hebrew and Biblical Doctrine

The fundamental Hebrew doctrine is based on the assertion that eternal life is guaranteed by the bodily resurrection upon the condition of obedience to the word of God.(7) According to the biblical assertion, "the dead are truly dead in 'gravedom' and are sleeping until the coming of Christ, when he will awaken them."(8) The source of the biblical doctrines are the ancient Babylonian and Egyptian religious assertions, often quite elaborate, assuming the presence of immediate life after death in a form of some unspecified entities -- they were limited in space, had a substance and independent existence from the body.(9) These doctrines go back as far as 6 - 7 thousand years B.C.E. and survived in the biblical texts. In Egypt they were basis for religious rituals well into the Christian era. We find such a doctrine in the Homeric tradition of the shadows banished from the body at death and wandering in the underworld, the Hades.(10)

The Greeks were the first to postulate the "immortal soul" (psuche) in Orphic and Pythagorean tradition. In its Platonic version it was identified with the mind. The Platonic version of an entity "imprisoned in the body" was adopted by Roman Catholic and later by Protestant Christianity. The corollary to this idea was the doctrine of eternal damnation of nonbelievers, malefactors etc. who were to suffer physically in a place delimited by space, called in Latin infernum, in English hell and visualized like Greek region of shadows Hades. The souls, though supposedly immaterial and immortal, individually differentiated and limited in space are to suffer physically after death in hell or enjoy some physical bliss in heaven (again in a limited specific physical place) in the presence of the Trinity, in fact three persons of God, differentiated and separate.

In a common religious concept of the soul it is defined as a static, vague entity supposedly consisting of the consciousness or personality, able to exist separately from the living body, limited in space, having an immaterial substance, the existence of which is tacitly assumed, and being a carrier of certain functional attributes of human personality: emotions and feelings, sensations, intellect. It is also considered to be an entity that gives life to the inert, lifeless body. Such a traditional concept does not consider a human being or any other animal or plant as a functional, dynamic form of existence of matter. The representation of the living body is similar to an amorphous, structureless, motionless solid figure -- just like Geppetto's wooden puppet - shaped by God but animated by his "breath."

And here we come to the origin of the whole concept. The Hebrew, biblical term for all living organisms is "nephsh" (Gen. 1:21; Lev. 11:46; Gen. 2:7), though it is often translated by the term soul but it means a living organism and by extension, a life-giving principle, the whole personality in humans. Thus the Hebrew usage of the term technically means a "vital force" animating the living creatures, men and beasts that was imparted by the God's breath, "ruach," (Gen. 2:7; Ecclesiastes 3:19). It does not seem to have the divine nature, is not immortal, and does not seem to have a divine origin. The Hebrew tradition does not know the concept of the fall of the soul.

Similarly there is no term in Hebrew for the body. The term which is usually translated as the body is basar, "sarx" in Greek and in Latin caro. But basar means a whole man, the whole living being, human or animal, the body and the soul as one psychosomatic entity. In Aristotle it corresponds to the living body or syntheton. In Hebrew tradition, the functions or sensations which are ascribed in the dualistic tradition to the body, are ascribed to the nephesh. In turn, the functions and sensations, that in the dualistic tradition are ascribed to the soul, in the Hebrew tradition are ascribed to the organs of the body. Thus there is a close affinity between the Aristotelian tradition and the Hebrew tradition.

The Hebrew term "ruach" is often translated by the term spirit, Latin spiritus, or the Greek pneuma. The Greek term too, etymologically means breath, breathing, as it was easy to associate the action of breathing with the regeneration or maintaining of life by the divine element contained in the surrounding air, some sort of "spiritual" substance. There is no separate Hebrew term for the air. But this term has a new supernatural dimension as a principle by which we are able to receive what God communicates to us, and in general to communicate with God.

The Hebrew concept of death is associated with the cessation of nephesh to exist -- it is spoken of figuratively as going to the grave "sheol" from which God will redeem it (Psalm 16:10; 49:15). So in the Hebrew, biblical tradition there is no dualistic, Orphic concept of man as a separate substance, the body and a separate substance, the soul -- rather one single entity.

In the Platonic tradition, the Greeks considered the body to be inferior to the soul, especially its intellectual faculty, and thus held it in contempt. Once the soul was released from the body, it became free and could fly to the higher realm of the consciousness. So there was no need for the bodily resurrection, and in such a context the idea of the bodily resurrection preserved in the orthodox Christianity, becomes a superfluous and awkward assertion. The importation of the Neoplatonic doctrine of the soul was probably done by Athenagoras of Alexandria (127-190 C.E.), a Greek Neoplatonic philosopher converted to Christianity. Other Church Fathers -- Tertullian (160-240), Augustine (354-430) -- followed his footsteps. Augustine, before he became Christian, listed 16 reasons for the immortality of the soul based on Platonic thought. The orthodox Catholic and Protestant ecclesiastical doctrine of the soul found its full expression in speculations of Thomas Aquinas, who accepted the Aristotelian concept of the soul in animals and in plants, but the Platonic concept, augmented by biblical mythology in man.(11)

But in the early days of the Church the dominant theory was the doctrine of conditional immortality, which meant that no one will live forever, unless Jesus Christ one day gives him eternal life. This was the doctrine of the Scripture represented by Lactantius (ca 250-330) that disappeared between the 4th and the 6th centuries. It was revived during the Reformation movement when some theologians attempted to return to the Bible as the source of their doctrines. The doctrine of conditional immortality was revived by Martin Luther, William Tyndale and some Anabaptists. It is especially important to mention here Michael Servetus as the one who gave the most complete theoretical formulations for such an orientation. He integrated the physiological knowledge available to him and the biblical assertions about the soul in one system.(12) From him the doctrine was developed further by Socinian tradition (13) and survived in some Christian churches with biblical unitarian orientation.

A strong proponent of the Platonic doctrine was John Calvin. According to Calvin, the body weights down the soul and confines it to an earthly habitation, limiting its perception. Once the soul is free from its prison "it consents to the will of God and is no longer subject to the tyranny of the flesh; thus dwelling in tranquility with all its thoughts fixed on God."

Norton Raxworth explained why the Greek doctrine was accepted in the Church and the Hebrew biblical doctrine of the resurrection was neglected: "Why has this glorious and practical truth of the resurrection became so diffused and neglected in the Church today? The reasons for this situation go back into history. In the 3rd century, Christian apologists sought to defend Christianity within the framework of Greek philosophy. Origen (d. 254) for example freely adopted Platonic thought as a means of explaining Christian doctrine. To the Jews it was argued that Christ was the fulfillment of prophecy and a Christian understanding of the Hebrew scriptures was developed. To the Greeks, however, the argument was that Christianity was not only consonant with Greek philosophy, but the culmination of it. Thus the Hellenists were able to accept a Christianity that taught soul-survival as the hope of the believer rather than resurrection (an idea repugnant to much of Greek thought). So Paul was reconciled to Plato. As a modern scholar comments: 'Not surprisingly the Greek view of the soul had infected the early Church, whose catch-phrase was "soma--sema" (the body a tomb). To their minds the soul was released from its prison at death."(14)



The psychology of Aristotle is the first coherent study of the life-giving principle or of life itself based on biological phenomena explained in empirical, physiological terms. It is more profound and more consequential than any previous account. Aristotle's study includes primarily De anima and two other scientific works -- De partibus animalium and De generatione animalium. Some differentiate three stages in the evolution of the Aristotelian conception (15):

1. In Eudemus, an early dialogue written ca 354 B.C.E. in the purely Orphic and Platonic spirit, some 20 years after Plato's Phaedo, Aristotle accepts the Platonic concept of the temporary imprisonment of the immortal substance. It enjoys its true life only before birth and after death;(16) 2. In the biological works Aristotle considers the soul as an immaterial substance constituting with the body a living organism, it utilizes the body and is located in specific parts e.g. in the heart; 3. De anima (Peri Psuches) (17) is a full empirical exposition of the Aristotelian concept in line with his philosophy of universal ontological principles of form and matter. Aristotle uses the term, the soul, but it has a different meaning than in previous accounts: The soul now being the form or actuality of the living body, the body itself being the matter or potentiality. Aristotle completely rejected the mythical thinking of his precursors about the original divinity of the soul, its preexistence, immortality and the imprisonment in the body.

Aristotle attributed primary importance to the study of the soul -- it contributed to the knowledge of the truth and in general to the knowledge of nature. Soul, psyche, is the principle (arche) of living beings. Aristotle first delineates the methodological rules and procedural approach to the study. We have to grasp the nature, essence and properties of affections, some of which are proper to the soul and some are proper to the animal. This study is as difficult as to learn about the essence and form of things. Then one has to determine the genre to which the soul belongs and what it is. What is a substance, its category: whether it is a potential thing or it is a certain act (complete reality, fullness). Whether it is divisible or it is indivisible, or they are the same species or they differ generically, or specifically. One should not ignore the other souls e.g. animal's or God's. Whether there are many souls or many parts of the same soul, so one has to examine the parts and their functions (activity) e.g. intellection or intellect, sensation or the faculty of sensation (sensitive faculty).

There is no state or condition of the soul that could be affected without the body, though it seems to be such a function -- the intellection. Nevertheless, there is among the functions or affections none that could exist without the body. It is clear that the states of the soul are the forms (logos) realized in matter. The notion (logos ) is the form (to eidos) of the thing (pragma), but to be the form it has to be realized in the matter (hule). Thus, properties or functions are inseparable from the bodies. If they are separated -- this is done only by abstraction. So the states of the soul cannt be regarded as separable from the physical atter.

Review of Old Theories

Aristotle's intellectual ancestors differentiated all objects into two classes: the inanimate objects and the animate objects. The main characteristic of the animate objects is the possession of ability to move and sensation.

The soul, according to such a view, was the motor because what is not in motion cannot move other things and was made of fire and heat. The body was made of a mixture of elements or principles called variously rhizomata (Empedocles differentiated 4 such elements), archai by Thales, or since Plato stoicheia. Leucippus considered the soul as made of spherical atoms, Pythagoreans maintained that the soul was in the air. The soul was in motion by itself. Anaxagoras held that the intellect nous is the driving motor. Also the intellect, is the cause of what is good and beautiful in the superior and inferior animals. Intellect is the principle of the totality of things, pure and simple, it moves the universe. Thus the soul is the most movable, it knows things, and has at least one principle.

Plato probably gave the most detailed description of the soul: it is constituted of the elements, the animal is a result of the idea of the One, of the First Idea. The principles are in quantity and in quality, some are corporeal, some are incorporeal.

According to Democritus the soul and the intellect are the same thing, it is formed of the indivisible primary elements, spherical since they are most movable and of fire.

Diogenes claimed that the soul is the air, most subtle, leptotaton, from all other bodies, made of the smallest particles, and for that reason it knows and moves.

Heraclitus claimed the soul to consist of hot vapor, the most incorporeal, asomatotaton.

Alcmaeon claimed that it is immortal, moves always and is the whole firmament.

Thus according to Aristotle various authors considered the souls made of one or of several elements: fire, water, blood, air, except the earth. They did not clearly perceive that the soul of an individual living thing is a unity, though possessed of parts or faculties which do not have independent existence. All these definitions have three things in common: Movement, Sensation, Incorporeality or the least possible corporeality. If we consider that the soul knows all things and follow the rule that the like knows the like, then the soul must be composed of all things. Only Anaxagoras maintained that the intellect nous is impassible (apathes) and has nothing to do with other things. But how it can know and by what cause -- no clear answer was given to this.

Aristotle tries to explain the origin of the term life and soul. If the soul were considered to be made of principles e.g. heat, then the term (zen) was created, if of the cold -- then it is involved in the respiration (anapnoi) and cooling (katapsyxis) and hence the term psyche was created.

Further analysis by Aristotle causes him to discard movement as the essence of the soul. It cannot be a harmony or a mixture of contraries either, because then the souls would be in every organ.

If it is intellect, then it is something more divine and impassible; in animals it is the motor. Three characteristics are fundamental for the definition of the soul: the substance most mobile; most subtle, and most incorporeal; composed of elements. These would apply to the soul if it were a body, but the soul knows and senses the elements of things by proportion and assemblage. Then it seems that there are no common elements in the soul with other objects. Therefore, the opinion about the composition of the soul is not valid. Also the Orphic opinion about the soul, as introduced from the outside during respiration by the flow of air, is not valid either since it is not possible in plants. Thales said that all things are full of God -- the air inspired is homogenous, but the soul is not of the same nature. The soul is responsible for our recognition, sensation, opinion and desire, but also for locomotion, growth, maturation, nourishment -- life as such belongs to the soul. Some divide the soul into parts with different activities but when it separates from the body, it is according to them, one unity. Parts of plants or of animals may survive. Thus the soul must be every part of the body and in every part, all parts of the soul are contained. Thus, is the soul divisible?

Definition of the soul

Aristotle next comes to the definition of the soul. To understand it one has to grasp how Aristotle visualized all beings. He differentiated all kinds of beings into three categories of substances (ousia):


                                      existing substance



1. in a sense of non determined matter (hule);

2. as essence or form (eidos), due to which an object is the-what-it-is (to te estin); an assembly made by one and the other (amfoin).



Moreover, matter was characterized by the possibility, potentiality

(dunamis) and the essence, form is realization, actualization or the act (entelecheia). Form in turn can be understood in two meanings:






as knowledge or cognition


    as contemplation of acts

    to theroin



Natural bodies in turn seem to be more properly substances constituted of principles:



                                               physical bodies (natural)

                                                  ta somata fusika




   not animate


 possessing life (zoen)

with many characteristics


The expression "we live and feel" has two meanings: one is by what we know -- knowledge of one by the other; the second meaning is by what we are healthy -- i.e. by part or by the whole of the body. The knowledge of health is the form/essence, the notion. The soul is primarily this by which we are alive, we think and we feel. Hence, the soul is a notion and a form and not matter.

It is not possible to have a notion of a common soul -- as by analogy there is one notion of the geometrical figure. Soul is not a concept determined outside of diverse souls. As for figures, we have one

concept of the figure, but it would not correspond to any of the particular figure. By analogy of figures with the human beings we can say that the anterior is always contained in the potentiality: so as the triangle is contained in the square, so the nutritive soul is contained in the sensitive. Next, what is the soul of each of the three categories of the living things: plants, animals, humans? The reason for this hierarchy is that without nutritive soul there is no sensitive soul, without tactile sensitivity no other sensitivity is possible and so on.

Living being syntheton, empsychon is a substance composed of matter and a form. The body is not the soul and does not have all the attributes of a subject, but plays a role of the subject, is substratum, matter.

First definition: The soul as a substance is the form (sometimes called ousia, sometimes logos) or actualization of natural bodies that have life in potentiality.(18) Only the essence eidos is the formal act. But there are different stages of actuality e.g. a man has life even though he is asleep. Thus the soul is an act entelecheia of the natural body in the sense of knowledge or cognition and contemplation as in a sleep hypnos and in the wake egrigorsis:


                      sleep (hupnos)                               wake (egrigorsis)



analogous to possessing knowledge but is not thinking actually; is anterior to action


    analogous to          



Second definition: The soul is thus the lowest, first stage of actualization of the body that potentially has life.(19) The actual precedes the potential chronologically and logically. The member of the species must exist before it can reproduce itself. But for the entire species the actuality of life is prior [even in time] to matter. With the universe the temporal priority does not arise since it depends on the Primary Mover, pure act (energeia) and life itself. The body is something that is organized -- even plants have parts analogous to organs.

Thus the third definition: Common to every type of the soul is the first act of the natural organized body.(20) The soul and the body are not the same thing, neither is the wax and an imprint in it. Chiefly it is an act entelecheia. Thus the soul is the substance of the living body as a form giving it the characteristics of what it is -- quiddity. For example for an axe, its quiddity would be its soul. The axe exists because the form of the axe is not the natural body. The soul is the quiddity of a living body that has the principle of movement and all the rest characteristics for life. "If the eye were an animal, its vision would be its soul." Thus vision is the formal essence of the eye and the eye is the matter of vision.(21)

What is true of the parts one has to apply to the whole of the living body. Sensitivity is of the whole sensitive body as a possibility of what is capable of living that is of what has a soul e.g. of a seed or a fruit. The state of being awake is an act as the cutting and vision. The soul is like vision and the property of a tool. What is alive is the soul and the body. If the soul is divisible it is not separable from the body, or at least from certain parts of the body. Act of the parts of the soul is an act of the parts of the body. But it is characteristic that Aristotle says that we do not know if the soul is the act of the body as the pilot is that of the ship.

The living being is thus an assemblage of the matter and of form, and the body is not the actuality of the soul but the soul is actuality of the species of the living body. Hence the soul cannot exist without the body, nor can it be a body. The doctrine of the soul as a form or entelechy of the body is denying the immortality of the soul. Soul is not the body, yet it is something of the body that resides in the body -- in such a body and it cannot use the other receptacle. The same conclusion is obtained by the analysis of actuality and potentiality: the actuality of every object ought to be naturally produced in what this thing is in potentiality and in the proper matter -- it is entelecheia. The soul is a certain actualization and the essential form of that what possesses a potentiality to be what it is (in act). In a more general function the soul acts as a vital principle in animal life through a corporeal medium that Aristotle calls connate spirit (sumphuton pneuma) or vital heat (sumphuton thermon), located in the heart but also in the semen as a fertilizing element.

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