Classical Views of the Soul

Note 1: Aristotle. 1/6/99

At the beginning of Book II of On The Soul, Aristotle makes the following statement about the progress of his inquiry into the nature of his object:

"Let the foregoing suffice as our account of the views concerning the soul which have been handed on by our predecessors; let us now dismiss them and make as it were a completely fresh start. . . ."

What strikes me as significant about Aristotle's (dis)missal of his predecessors in early attempts to define the soul is the fact that virtually any philosopher at any point in time can review previous statements and reach the same conclusion that Aristotle does; that "a completely fresh start" is necessary if there is to be any hope of resolving the issues standing in the way of consensus over what exactly the sign "soul" signifies. On another level of discourse, one not necessarily determined by rigorous philosophical methodology, most people would probably find any number of statements about the nature of the soul that violated in one way or another what they personally held to be true about the object of Aristotle's scrutiny. Some people might even (dis)allow scrutiny altogether in the belief that philosophical analysis of the sacred content of the human entity is exactly the point of (wo)man being kicked out of the Garden of Eden when she/he ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the first place. Better not look too closely at the ideas and concepts that form the ground of belief where the sacred material of faith comes in to play because we might well be confronted with so many conflicting opinions and contradictory assertions that it becomes impossible to maintain any confidence whatsoever in the reality of the object we are trying to grasp. Body, without soul, after all, reduces (wo)man to just another animal in a world that takes little or no notice of the ones already here who do not possess a soul and who, therefore, have no hope of obtaining eternal life.

Aristotle, for his part, and mostly because of the strength of the tradition he inherited, did not restrict the existence of soul to human beings. At the very beginning of his discourse on the soul Aristotle states that

"The knowledge of the soul admittedly contributes greatly to the advance of truth in general, and, above all, to our understanding of Nature, for the soul is in some sense the principle of animal life."

Linking knowledge of the soul to a general advance of truth in our understanding of Nature raises the stakes of the game to a level any player welcomes and fears simultaneously. Making soul the principle of animal life, as Aristotle does here, opens his discourse to the possibility of a supreme success, if he can manage to formulate a definition of it that satisfies the need for a consensus among conflicting points of view but, at the same time, creates the possibility of profound failure, if his definition falls short of settling the issue once and for all. He also states, furthermore, that "the soul plus the body constitutes the animal" and suggests thereby that all animals have both constituent parts since no one objects to the notion that animals have an obvious physical presence and reality. Whether the quality of being physically present constitutes, in and of itself, the fact or necessity that body also has or possesses a soul seems to be an issue more difficult to establish.

Aristotle goes about that task by drawing on previous arguments, or at least those elements of them that he does not reject out of hand, when he notes that

"All [prior philosophers], then, it may be said, characterize the soul by three marks, Movement, Sensation, Incorporeality, and each of these is traced back to the first principles."

Aristotle addresses the issue of sensation first by noting that "there seems to be no case in which the soul can act or be acted upon without involving the body; e.g. anger, courage, appetite, and sensation generally" can be seen to affect body and soul together. He also notes that "the affections of soul involve a body-passion, gentleness, fear, pity, courage, joy, loving, and hating; in all these there is a concurrent affection of the body." These observations, of course, make the case for body and soul being united and inseparable in every animal. One cannot be said to exist without the other and the animal itself cannot be said to exist unless both components are present together in the physical reality of the animal's being.

With regard to the idea of movement in the soul, or as an attribute of it, Aristotle refers to Democritus who argued that

"the spherical atoms are identified with soul because atoms of that shape are most adapted to permeate everywhere, and to set all the others moving by being themselves in movement. This implies the view that soul is identical with what produces movement in animals."

Aristotle, as noted earlier, does not accept the notion that the force which motivates animals to movement is identical with soul. He cites several other earlier philosophers (Alcmaeon and Heraclitus among them) who have also argued that movement is a primary evidence and description for the soul. One argument he uses to cast doubt on this idea is worth repeating because it distinguishes his position clearly from later Christian perceptions of the same issue. He notes that a body is moved, or moves itself, by means of locomotion, which is one of the classes of motion recognized by classical philosophy. He then says

"Hence it would follow that the soul too must in accordance with the body change either its place as a whole or the relative places of its parts. This carries with it the possibility that the soul might even quit its body and re-enter it, and with this would be involved the possibility of a resurrection of animals from the dead."

For Aristotle, the possibility of resurrection is, in itself, reason enough to reject the idea that soul can be equated with movement.

He reaches this conclusion in part as a response to Alcmaeon, who argues that the soul is immortal because it

"resembles 'the immortals,' and that this immortality belongs to it in virtue of its ceaseless movement; for all the 'things divine,' moon, sun, the planets, and the whole heavens, are in perpetual movement."

Aristotle does not specifically reject the argument for the immortality of the soul but, because he rejects the notion that movement is a defining characteristic of it, he implies that its connection to "'things divine'," which are in "perpetual movement," is a less than compelling argument. He approaches Plato's observations in the Timaeus in much the same way. He notes that Plato's insistence on an harmonic model to define the relationships inherent in celestial motion "implies that the movements of the soul are identified with the local movements of the heavens," a notion he has already rejected in Alcmaeon's version, and concludes by stating that "[i]f the unit is both originative of movement and itself capable of being moved, it must contain difference," a fact which, in itself, precludes the validity of Plato's position because harmony itself removes the possibility of there being any difference in the structural reality of the cosmos.

Finally, Aristotle turns to the matter of the incorporeal nature of the soul. He cites Heraclitus in this context, among others, and notes that the Greek champion of "ceaseless flux" and contingency in all areas of human experience argued that

"the first principle-the 'warm exhalation' of which, according to him, everything else is composed-is soul; further, that this exhalation is most incorporeal and in ceaseless flux; that what is in movement requires that what knows it should be in movement; and that all that is has its being essentially in movement (herein agreeing with the majority)."

Two points can be made here. First, that Heraclitus can be given credit for the notion that soul and the breath of life ("the 'warm exhalation'") are one and the same thing. And second, that Heraclitus is responsible for the notion that movement and "ceaseless flux" are bound together in the incorporeal "body" of the soul, an idea that poses a significant threat to the ground upon which all epistemology is based. The soul is the first receptor of truth in the human organism, the first "organ" of sense that receives knowledge of the external world, and when Heraclitus describes the soul in these terms, he implies that knowledge, and the truth derived from it, are essentially impossible to obtain. This is true because his concepts of "ceaseless flux," constant motion, and perpetual change in nature produce a contingency in the world so radical, so pervasive, that knowledge of anything in itself becomes impossible. Knowing that which changes into something else even as it is being appropriated as knowledge makes it impossible to know anything at all.

Aristotle, of course, rejects Heraclitus's position, and must reject it out of hand, because to do otherwise would remove any reason he has for pursuing his inquiry into the nature of the soul, since neither it, nor anything else, can be known when it changes into something else before it can be appropriated as an object of knowledge.

Like Aristotle, then, we have made our way through some of the notions that have informed the development of the concept of soul in Western metaphysics. One reason for examining the ideas that Aristotle rejects concerns the need to understand some of the pagan, non-Christian, concepts that have contributed to the debate over the nature of (wo)man in Western civilization. Seeing how some aspects of the Greek debate itself are connected to Christian perceptions of the same problem helps, as well, to round out, or paint in broader strokes, the essential differences that appear when this view of the soul is compared to native American perceptions of spirit. To say that one cannot be understood without the other, however, which is certainly not what I am suggesting, is the same a surrendering oneself to the fallacy of differential reasoning that characterizes every aspect of any theoretical position that claims to be "post" to this or that prior ideology. Native American spiritualism exists in its own right, and on its own terms, without any necessary reference to Western ideology.

Aristotle defines soul as a substance which corresponds to "a thing's essence." He states, at the beginning of Book II, that

"soul is the first grade of actuality of a natural body having life potentially in it. The body so described is a body which is organized. . . .If, then, we have to give a general formula applicable to all kinds of soul, we must describe it as the first grade of actuality of a natural organized body. . . .[Soul] is substance in the sense which corresponds to the definitive formula of a thing's essence. That means that it is 'the essential whatness' of a body of the character just assigned."

Soul, then, is a naturally occurring substance that gives the animal in possession of it those distinguishing characteristics, "'the essential whatness'," that makes it possible for anyone to apprehend what kind of animal stands before him/her. Presumably, a person would not be in possession by any natural means of a soul that rightly belongs to a bear or a lion. A bear or a lion would not possess the soul of a person, and so on. The soul, then, of the individual animal, and type of animal, determines the way in which the Other determines its nature, its "essential whatness." Soul projects the essence of the animal from the inside out and creates or determines the shape the animal has in its body. As Aristotle puts it,"the body cannot be the actuality of the soul; it is the soul which is the actuality of a certain kind of body."

One problem that goes unanswered in Aristotle's universalist approach to fashioning a description of the soul, from an ethical or moral point of view, a problem which must emerge when soul is related to concepts of good and evil in later Christian views of the subject, concerns the fact that particular differences in the way individual people behave, in as much as the soul influences a person's behavior, cannot be accounted for if everyone possesses the same substance as a determining factor in the kind of "body" they possess. If the class of animal referred to as human being is determined in its character by a universal human soul, and if soul is a substance occurring without noticeable or detectable differences from one person to the next, then there would be no possibility of one individual being, or becoming, distinct from any other. One way around the problem of difference, and the way Greek philosophy generally solved it, is to argue that a person who exhibits obvious differences from behavioral norms is cursed with a deficiency in the substance of the soul that accounts for his/her bad behavior. The barbarians, people who were not Greek, were perceived as being in this class of animal.

A final point, and one which will be addressed more fully elsewhere, is that Aristotle's view of the soul, as a substance that determines the "essential whatness" of a person, is not that (dis)similar to native American views of spirit. Take away the universalist aspect of the argument, that everyone who is human has the same soul, or type of soul, and make it instead a particular substance that belongs to a specific type of entity, a clan animal or totem for instance, and one could almost agree with Aristotle that the individual person is determined or defined by the attributes of the spirit he or she possesses in his/her body. To say that a person's "essential whatness" is determined by the clan spirit which possesses them would not be the worst way to comprehend native American perceptions of personal identity.

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