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Philosophy: Soul Essay, Research Paper

The Soul

The question of the reality of the soul and its distinction from the body is among the most important problems of philosophy, for with it is bound up the doctrine of a future life. Various theories as to the nature of the soul have claimed to be reconcilable with the belief of immortality, but it is a sure instinct that leads us to suspect every attack on the actuality or spirituality of the soul as an assault on the belief in existence after death.

The soul may be defined as the ultimate internal principle by which we think, feel, will, and essence of the human body. The term “mind” usually denotes this principle as the subject of our conscious states, while “soul” denotes the source of our vegetative activities as well. That our vital activities proceed from a principle capable of subsisting in itself, is the thesis of the substantiality of the soul: that this principle is not itself composite, extended, corporeal, or essentially and intrinsically dependent on the body, is the doctrine of spirituality. If there be a life after death, clearly the agent or subject of our vital activities must be capable of an existence separate from the body. Even uncivilized peoples arrive at the concept of the soul almost without reflection, certainly without any severe mental effort. The mysteries of birth and death, the lapse of conscious life during sleep and in swooning, even the commonest operations of imagination and memory, which abstract a man from his bodily presence even while awake-all such facts invincibly suggest the existence of something besides the visible organism, internal to it, but to a large extent independent of it, and leading a life of its own. In the rude psychology of the primitive nations, the soul is often represented as actually migrating to and fro during dreams and trances, and after death haunting the neighbourhood of its body. Nearly always it is figured as something extremely volatile, a perfume or a breath. Often, as among the Fijians, it is represented as a miniature replica of the body, so small as to be invisible. The Samoans have a name for the soul which means “that which comes and goes”. Many peoples, such as the Dyaks and Sumatrans, bind various parts of the body with cords during sickness to prevent the escape of the soul. In short, all the evidence goes to show that Dualism, however uncritical and inconsistent, is the instinctive creed of “primitive man” (see ANIMISM).


Early literature bears the same stamp of Dualism. In the “Rig-Veda” and other liturgical books of India, we find frequent references to the coming and going of manas (mind or soul). Indian philosophy, whether Brahminic or Buddhistic, with its various systems of metempsychosis, accentuated the distinction of soul and body, making the bodily life a mere transitory episode in the existence of the soul. They all taught the doctrine of limited immortality, ending either with the periodic world-destruction (Brahminism) or with attainment of Nirvana (Buddhism). The doctrine of a world-soul in a highly abstract form is met with as early as the eighth century before Christ, when we find it described as “the unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought thinker, the unknown knower, the Eternal in which space is woven and which is woven in it.” In Greece, on the other hand, the first essays of philosophy took a positive and somewhat materialistic direction, inherited from the pre-philosophic age, from Homer and the early Greek religion. In Homer, while the distinction of soul and body is recognized, the soul is hardly conceived as possessing a substantial existence of its own. Severed from the body, it is a mere shadow, incapable of energetic life. The philosophers did something to correct such views. The earliest school was that of the Hylozoists; these conceived the soul as a kind of cosmic force, and attributed animation to the whole of nature. Any natural force might be designated psyche: thus Thales uses this term for the attractive force of the magnet, and similar language is quoted even from Anaxagoras and Democritus. With this we may compare the “mind-stuff” theory and Pan-psychism of certain modern scientists. Other philosophers again described the soul’s nature in terms of substance. Anaximander gives it an aeriform constitution, Heraclitus describes it as a fire. The fundamental thought is the same. The cosmic ether or fire is the subtlest of the elements, the nourishing flame which imparts heat, life, sense, and intelligence to all things in their several degrees and kinds. The Pythagoreans taught that the soul is a harmony, its essence consisting in those perfect mathematical ratios which are the law of the universe and the music of the heavenly spheres. With this doctrine was combined, according to Cicero, the belief in a universal world-spirit, from which all particular souls are derived. All these early theories were cosmological rather than psychological in character. Theology, physics, and mental science were not as yet distinguished. It is only with the rise of dialectic and the growing recognition of the problem of knowledge that a genuinely psychological theory became possible. In Plato the two standpoints, the cosmological and the epistemological, are found combined. Thus in the “Timaeus” (p. 30) we find an account derived from Pythagorean sources of the origin of the soul. First the world-soul is created according to the laws of mathematical symmetry and musical concord. It is composed of two elements, one an element of “sameness” (tauton), corresponding to the universal and intelligible order of truth, and the other an element of distinction or “otherness” (thateron), corresponding to the world of sensible and particular existences. The individual human soul is constructed on the same plan. Sometimes, as in the “Phaedrus”, Plato teaches the doctrine of plurality of souls (cf. the well-known allegory of the charioteer and the two steeds in that dialogue). The rational soul was located in the head, the passionate or spirited soul in the breast, the appetitive soul in the abdomen. In the “Republic”, instead of the triple soul, we find the doctrine of three elements within the complex unity of the single soul. The question of immortality was a principal subject of Plato’s speculations. His account of the origin of the soul in the “Timaeus” leads him to deny the intrinsic immortality even of the world-soul, and to admit only an immortality conditional on the good pleasure of God. In the “Phaedo” the chief argument for the immortality of the soul is based on the nature of intellectual knowledge interpreted on the theory of reminiscence; this of course implies the pre-existence of the soul, and perhaps in strict logic its eternal pre-existence. There is also an argument from the soul’s necessary participation in the idea of life, which, it is argued, makes the idea of its extinction impossible. These various lines of argument are nowhere harmonized in Plato (see IMMORTALITY). The Platonic doctrine tended to an extreme Transcendentalism. Soul and body are distinct orders of reality, and bodily existence involves a kind of violence to the higher part of our composite nature. The body is the “prison”, the “tomb”, or even, as some later Platonists expressed it, the “hell” of the soul. In Aristotle this error is avoided. His definition of the soul as “the first entelechy of a physical organized body potentially possessing life” emphasizes the closeness of the union of soul and body. The

difficulty in his theory is to determine what degree of distinctness or separateness from the matter of the body is to be conceded to the human soul. He fully recognizes the spiritual element in thought and describes the “active intellect” (nous poetikos) as “separate and impassible”, but the precise relation of this active intellect to the individual mind is a hopelessly obscure question in Aristotle’s psychology. (See INTELLECT; MIND.) The Stoics taught that all existence is material, and described the soul as a breath pervading the body. They also called it Divine, a particle of God (apospasma tou theu) — it was composed of the most refined and ethereal matter. Eight distinct parts of the soul were recognized by them: the ruling reason (to hegemonikon) the five senses; the procreative powers. Absolute immortality they denied; relative immortality, terminating with the universal conflagration and destruction of all things, some of them (e. g. Cleanthes and Chrysippus) admitted in the case of the wise man; others, such as Panaetius and Posidonius, denied even this, arguing that, as the soul began with the body, so it must end with it. Epicureanism accepted the Atomist theory of Leucippus and Democritus. Soul consists of the finest grained atoms in the universe, finer even than those of wind and heat which they resemble: hence the exquisite fluency of the soul’s movements in thought and sensation. The soul-atoms themselves, however, could not exercise their functions if they were not kept together by the body. It is this which gives shape and consistency to the group. If this is destroyed, the atoms escape and life is dissolved; if it is injured, part of the soul is lost, but enough may be left to maintain life. The Lucretian version of Epicureanism distinguishes between animus and anima: the latter only is soul in the biological sense, the former is the higher, directing principle (to hegemonikon) in the Stoic terminology, whose seat is the heart, the centre of the cognitive and emotional life.


Graeco-Roman philosophy made no further progress in the doctrine of

the soul in the age immediately preceding the Christian era. None of

the existing theories had found general acceptance, and in the

literature of the period an eclectic spirit nearly akin to

Scepticism predominated. Of the strife and fusion of systems at this

time the works of Cicero are the best example. On the question of

the soul he is by turns Platonic and Pythagorean, while he confesses

that the Stoic and Epicurean systems have each an attraction for

him. Such was the state of the question in the West at the dawn of

Christianity. In Jewish circles a like uncertainty prevailed. The

Sadducees were Materialists, denying immortality and all spiritual

existence. The Pharisees maintained these doctrines, adding belief

in pre-existence and transmigration. The psychology of the Rabbins

is founded on the Sacred Books, particularly the account of the

creation of man in Genesis. Three terms are used for the soul:

nephesh, nuah, and neshamah; the first was taken to refer to the

animal and vegetative nature, the second to the ethical principle,

the third to the purely spiritual intelligence. At all events, it is

evident that the Old Testament throughout either asserts or implies

the distinct reality of the soul. An important contribution to later

Jewish thought was the infusion of Platonism into it by Philo of

Alexandria. He taught the immediately Divine origin of the soul, its

pre-existence and transmigration; he contrasts the pneuma, or

spiritual essence, with the soul proper, the source of vital

phenomena, whose seat is the blood; finally he revived the old

Platonic Dualism, attributing the origin of sin and evil to the

union of spirit with matter.

It was Christianity that, after many centuries of struggle, applied

the final criticisms to the various psychologies of antiquity, and

brought their scattered elements of truth to full focus. The

tendency of Christ’s teaching was to centre all interest in the

spiritual side of man’s nature; the salvation or loss of the soul is

the great issue of existence. The Gospel language is popular, not

technical. Psyche and pneuma are used indifferently either for the

principle of natural life or for spirit in the strict sense. Body

and soul are recognized as a dualism and their values contrasted:

“Fear ye not them that kill the body . . . but rather fear him that

can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

In St. Paul we find a more technical phraseology employed with great

consistency. Psyche is now appropriated to the purely natural life;

pneuma to the life of supernatural religion, the principle of which

is the Holy Spirit, dwelling and operating in the heart. The

opposition of flesh and spirit is accentuated afresh (Romans 1:18,

etc.). This Pauline system, presented to a world already

prepossessed in favour of a quasi-Platonic Dualism, occasioned one

of the earliest widespread forms of error among Christian writers —

the doctrine of the Trichotomy. According to this, man, perfect man

(teleios) consists of three parts: body, soul, spirit (soma, psyche,

pneuma). Body and soul come by natural generation; spirit is given

to the regenerate Christian alone. Thus, the “newness of life”, of

which St. Paul speaks, was conceived by some as a superadded entity,

a kind of oversoul sublimating the “natural man” into a higher

species. This doctrine was variously distorted in the different

Gnostic systems. The Gnostics divided man into three classes:

pneumatici or spiritual,

psychici or animal,

choici or earthy.

To each class they ascribed a different origin and destiny. The

spiritual were of the seed of Achemoth, and were destined to return

in time whence they had sprung — namely, into the pleroma. Even in

this life they are exempted from the possibility of a fall from

their high calling; they therefore stand in no need of good works,

and have nothing to fear from the contaminations of the world and

the flesh. This class consists of course of the Gnostics themselves.

The psychici are in a lower position: they have capacities for

spiritual life which they must cultivate by good works. They stand

in a middle place, and may either rise to the spiritual or sink to

the hylic level. In this category stands the Christian Church at

large. Lastly, the earthy souls are a mere material emanation,

destined to perish: the matter of which they are composed being

incapable of salvation (me gar einai ten hylen dektiken soterias).

This class contains the multitudes of the merely natural man.

Two features claim attention in this the earliest essay towards a

complete anthropology within the Christian Church:

an extreme spirituality is attributed to “the perfect”;

immortality is conditional for the second class of souls, not an

intrinsic attribute of all souls.

It is probable that originally the terms pneumatici, psychici, and

choici denoted at first elements which were observed to exist in all

souls, and that it was only by an afterthought that they were

employed, according to the respective predominance of these elements

in different cases, to represent supposed real classes of men. The

doctrine of the four temperaments and the Stoic ideal of the Wise

Man afford a parallel for the personification of abstract qualities.

The true genius of Christianity, expressed by the Fathers of the

early centuries, rejected Gnosticism. The ascription to a creature

of an absolutely spiritual nature, and the claim to endless

existence asserted as a strictly de jure privilege in the case of

the “perfect”, seemed to them an encroachment on the incommunicable

attributes of God. The theory of Emanation too was seen to be a

derogation from the dignity of the Divine nature For this reason,

St. Justin, supposing that the doctrine of natural immortality

logically implies eternal existence, rejects it, making this

attribute (like Plato in the “Timaeus”) dependent on the free will

of God; at the same time he plainly asserts the de facto immortality

of every human soul. The doctrine of conservation, as the necessary

complement of creation, was not yet elaborated. Even in Scholastic

philosophy, which asserts natural immortality, the abstract

possibility of annihilation through an act of God’s absolute power

is also admitted. Similarly, Tatian denies the simplicity of the

soul, claiming that absolute simplicity belongs to God alone. All

other beings, he held, are composed of matter and spirit. Here again

it would be rash to urge a charge of Materialism. Many of these

writers failed to distinguish between corporeity in strict essence

and corporeity as a necessary or natural concomitant. Thus the soul

may itself be incorporeal and yet require a body as a condition of

its existence. In this sense St. Irenaeus attributes a certain

“corporeal character” to the soul; he represents it as possessing

the form of its body, as water possesses the form of its containing

vessel. At the same time, he teaches fairly explicitly the

incorporeal nature of the soul. He also sometimes uses what seems to

be the language of the Trichotomists, as when he says that in the

Resurrection men shall have each their own body, soul, and spirit.

But such an interpretation is impossible in view of his whole

position in regard to the Gnostic controversy.

The dubious language of these writers can only be understood in

relation to the system they were opposing. By assigning a literal

divinity to a certain small aristocracy of souls, Gnosticism set

aside the doctrine of Creation and the whole Christian idea of God’s

relation to man. On the other side, by its extreme dualism of matter

and spirit, and its denial to matter (i.e. the flesh) of all

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