Image of the soul in the Rosarium philosophorum.
In many religions, philosophical, and mythological traditions, the soul is the incorporeal essence of a living being. Depending on the philosophical system, a soul can either be mortal or immortal. In Judeo-Christianity, only human beings have immortal souls (although immortality is disputed within Judaism and may have been influenced by Plato). For example, the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas attributed “soul” (anima) to all organisms but argued that only human souls are immortal. Other religions (most notably Hinduism and Jainism) hold that all biological organisms have souls, as did Aristotle, while some teach that even non-biological entities (such as rivers and mountains) possess souls. The latter belief is called animism.
Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, understood that the soul (ψυχή psūchê) must have a logical faculty, the exercise of which was the most divine of human actions. At his defense trial, Socrates even summarized his teaching as nothing other than an exhortation for his fellow Athenians to excel in matters of the psyche since all bodily goods are dependent on such excellence.
Anima mundi is the concept of a “world soul” connecting all living organisms on planet Earth.
Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael.
Socrates and Plato
Drawing on the words of his teacher Socrates, Plato considered the psyche to be the essence of a person, being that which decides how we behave. He considered this essence to be an incorporeal, eternal occupant of our being. Socrates says that even after death, the soul exists and is able to think. He believed that as bodies die, the soul is continually reborn in subsequent bodies and Plato believed this as well, however, he thought that only one part of the soul was immortal (logos). The Platonic soul consists of three parts:
the logos, or logistikon (mind, nous, or reason)
the thymos, or thumetikon (emotion, spiritedness, or masculine)
the eros, or epithumetikon (appetitive, desire, or feminine)
The parts are located in different regions of the body:
logos is located in the head, is related to reason and regulates the other part.
thymos is located near the chest region and is related to anger.
eros is located in the stomach and is related to one’s desires.
Plato also compares the three parts of the soul or psyche to a societal caste system. According to Plato’s theory, the three-part soul is essentially the same thing as a state’s class system because, to function well, each part must contribute so that the whole functions well. Logos keeps the other functions of the soul regulated.
The structure of the souls of plants, animals, and humans, according to Aristotle
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) defined the soul, or Psūchê (ψυχή), as the “first actuality” of a naturally organized body, and argued against its separate existence from the physical body. In Aristotle’s view, the primary activity, or full actualization, of a living thing constitutes its soul. For example, the full actualization of an eye, as an independent organism, is to see (its purpose or final cause)
Avicenna Portrait on Silver Vase – Museum at BuAli Sina (Avicenna) Mausoleum – Hamadan – Western Iran
Avicenna and Ibn al-Nafis
Following Aristotle, Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Ibn al-Nafis, a Persian philosopher, further elaborated upon the Aristotelian understanding of the soul and developed their own theories on the soul. They both made a distinction between the soul and the spirit, and the Avicennian doctrine on the nature of the soul was influential among the Scholastics. Some of Avicenna’s views on the soul include the idea that the immortality of the soul is a consequence of its nature, and not a purpose for it to fulfill. In his theory of “The Ten Intellects”, he viewed the human soul as the tenth and final intellect.
An altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, Italy,
by Carlo Crivelli (15th century)
Following Aristotle and Avicenna, Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) understood the soul to be the first actuality of the living body. Consequent to this, he distinguished three orders of life: plants, which feed and grow; animals, which add sensation to the operations of plants; and humans, which add intellect to the operations of animals.
Concerning the human soul, his epistemological theory required that, since the knower becomes what he knows, the soul is definitely not corporeal—if it is corporeal when it knows what some corporeal thing is, that thing would come to be within it. Therefore, the soul has an operation which does not rely on a body organ, and therefore the soul can exist without a body.
Portrait of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
In his discussions of rational psychology, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) identified the soul as the “I” in the strictest sense, and argued that the existence of inner experience can neither be proved nor disproved. “We cannot prove a priori the immateriality of the soul, but rather only so much: that all properties and actions of the soul cannot be recognized from materiality”. It is from the “I”, or soul, that Kant proposes transcendental rationalization, but cautions that such rationalization can only determine the limits of knowledge if it is to remain practical
Ancient Near East
The souls of Pe and Nekhen towing the royal bargue on a relief of Ramesses II’s temple in Abydos.
In the ancient Egyptian religion, an individual was believed to be made up of various elements, some physical and some spiritual.
Similar ideas are found in ancient Assyrian and Babylonian religion. Kuttamuwa, an 8th-century BC royal official from Sam’al, ordered an inscribed stele erected upon his death. The inscription requested that his mourners commemorate his life and his afterlife with feasts “for my soul that is in this stele”.
Inscription of Prince Kilamuwa of Samal.
It is one of the earliest references to a soul as a separate entity from the body. The 800-pound (360 kg) basalt stele is 3 ft (0.91 m) tall and 2 ft (0.61 m) wide. It was uncovered in the third season of excavations by the Neubauer Expedition of the Oriental Institute in Chicago, Illinois.