Classical Views of the Soul

Note 2: Aristotle. 1/11/99

Aristotle's definition of the soul, that it is a substance which determines the "essential whatness" of the body (animal or plant) possessing it, while it reflects a concern for the universal nature of soul in a general sense, also fails to account for particular differences that might arise among individual bodies that possess the same kind of soul. In other words, Aristotle explains, or accounts for, the reason that the soul of a bear is different from the soul of a lion, a purely visual distinction on one level because the "body" of a bear is recognizably different from the "body" of a lion. It is also true that bears and lions display different behavioral patterns (bears hibernate; lions do not) which can also be attributed to the differences in the soul that each possesses. At the same time, however, Aristotle's account fails to explain how one kind of bear (brown or black for instance) can be markedly different from another kind, say a grizzly or a polar bear. As everyone knows, brown or black bears are relatively shy animals that rarely molest or attack human beings, a fact which has not saved them from near extermination at the hands of people who are afraid of them, which is, or may be, a trait one could attribute to the kind of soul such bears possess. Grizzlies and polar bears, on the other hand, are incredibly aggressive and dangerous animals that molest and attack people as often as the opportunity to do so arises. Some native Americans even believe that a grizzly will go out its way to attack a human being.

The problem, then, with Aristotle's definition is that it fails to account for the significant differences that can be observed in the way that both people and animals respond to their surroundings. If the soul determines how a person behaves, and Aristotle does not suggest otherwise, and the soul is a substance universally consistent with each of the various people or animals or plants in which it is infused, then every person ought to be like every other person, every animal and plant ought to be like every other one of its kind. This is clearly not the case, of course. One solution to this problem, a concept the Judeo-Christian tradition may have applied to Aristotle's position, suggests that good and evil choices can be made by people during the course of their lives which change the relatively neutral aspects of the universal soul, which is neither good nor evil in itself, into one or the other as each individual lives out his appointed time on the earth. This idea depends, of course, on the notion of individual freedom of choice between binary opposites (good/evil) which may reach beyond anything Aristotle was willing to grant as a necessary condition of the human soul. When this idea is applied to animals or plants, of course, it becomes even more problematic, especially from a Christian perspective, since Christian theology was never inclined to grant the existence of soul to animals or plants in the first place. Aristotle avoids the issue by suggesting that animals are not empowered with every aspect of soul and argues that ones which might make choice possible, functions of reason for instance, are possessed only by people and not by animals or plants.

In native American philosophy, problems of this sort do not generally arise because the concept of soul as Aristotle defines it, and as it later evolved in Christian theology, never entered the field of play prior to attempts by Europeans to (re)define native American concepts in Eurocentric terms. Native Americans believe that animals, plants, and many other natural powers and phenomena, like wind, mountains, deserts, rivers, lakes, etc., are infused with spirit, with a primary and fundamental power that both defines the nature of the entity in possession of it and which accounts for the way that entity can be expected to behave within the limits imposed on it by its natural environment. The idea that a mountain can be said to possess a spirit unique to its own character is to acknowledge nothing more than the fact that every mountain by virtue of its unique geophysical characteristics, its height, breadth, cardinal orientation relative to prevailing winds, whether it is forested or desert-bare, what kind of animals share its ecosystem, and so on, creates and maintains a system of power relations that directly influence and determine how a person passing through its environs needs to behave in order to take advantage of beneficial conditions and avoid those that are likely to be life-threatening. Spirit is a system of knowledge, a sign-system if you will, which makes it possible for a person who knows a mountain well to tell someone who speaks a different language and does not know the mountain at all how to approach its unique physical characteristics with the best possible advantage in making a successful crossing.

Is it necessary to point out the fact that the last sentence in the previous paragraph is a metaphor? Take the concept of the spirit-guide as an example. What does it mean when a native American says that he/she has one? Europeans assume that the person is delusional, given over to superstitious fantasies involving paranoia, or has fallen victim to devil worship and demon veneration. Every time I force myself to confront European ignorance, its arrogance and blind unreason, I fall silent. My voice is constricted by it. Why bother to explain something so simple and so obvious to a race of people whose only response to it in the past has been to kill the messenger for a perceived violation against the holy Word of God? I was browsing first-century Church Fathers yesterday, looking for material to include in this rambling account of native American concepts of spirit and found more and less than I had bargained for, mostly what I found only frightened me. Justin Martyr, for instance, in his exhortation to the Greeks (Christians were always trying to convert the Greeks in the early part of the Christian era) tries to convince them that "the Divine Word" will transform them from mortal to immortal, from mortals into gods, and will "[transport] them to the realms above Olympus."

"For our own Ruler, the Divine Word, who even now constantly aids us, does not desire strength of body and beauty of feature, nor yet the high spirit of earth's nobility, but a pure soul, fortified by holiness, and the watchwords of our King, holy actions, for through the Word power passes into the soul. O trumpet of peace to the soul that is at war! O weapon that puttest to flight terrible passions! O instruction that quenches the innate fire of the soul! The Word exercises an influence which does not make poets: it does not equip philosophers nor skilled orators, but by its instruction it makes mortals immortal, mortals gods; and from the earth transports them to the realms above Olympus."

It probably goes without saying here that you have to die before you can catch the bus to the magical realms above the mountain of the gods, which is a fitting qualification for someone named "martyr" to include in his oration, but the thing that bothers me the most about this statement is the contradiction inherent in the reference to the "trumpet of peace" in one sentence that turns into a weapon used against "terrible passions" in the next where the "pure soul" needs to be "fortified by holiness" against the possibility that someone, the Greeks presumably, will refuse to engage in the hubris and arrogance of believing they can become immortal gods above Olympus when all they may really want to be is poets or philosophers. I do not presume to speak for the Greeks, of course, but only for myself and what I say here is that a sign-system called spirit does not presume to transport anyone out of this world but only intends to get us safely and reasonably from here to there as we make our way in the world of the real and natural power relations that constitute the here and now of our daily lives. (My dog, Strabo, added this comment: "032222222." I have no idea what it signifies but I took him for a walk anyway since that seemed to be uppermost in his mind.)

Another aspect of spirit that escapes Aristotle's concept of soul, and Christian versions of it, has to do with the idea that native Americans have a tendency to identify themselves with a particular spirit, animal or otherwise, that formulates them in a social context as being one type of person or another. To say that a native American defines his/her personality by virtue of a particular spirit force or power, while probably an overdetermination of actual fact, is nevertheless the only useful way to approach the subject. The spirit, or spirits, a person acquires during his/her lifetime is an inborn, or innate, quality in only one respect. Every tribal person is born into a clan, by virtue of whom his/her mother and father are, and the totem of that clan, whether animal or not, can be said to possess that person's past, present, and future power relations in every aspect of his/her life. Many native people have only one spirit in possession of their lives and that spirit is the one that guides the members of the clan through the power relations that constitute every human life. There isn't anything mysterious or (super)natural about the clan spirit; in fact, the very opposite is true. There is nothing more natural, more grounded in earth-craft and day-to-day living experience, than the clan spirit. The superstitious mystery associated with the spirit world exists only in the minds of the Europeans who have never bothered to examine the concept except to prove that it is a devil-inspired, anti-Christian demon worship requiring periodic child-sacrifice and cannibalism to keep it going; a savage practice, in other words, that must be eradicated.

Take an example: since I was born and raised outside of my own tribal context, I had no connection to the clan spirit that guided my life. No one living then or now can tell me what spirit possesses me, what spirit guides me in the power relations that constitute my essential identity. I was truly lost without that knowledge, or would have been, had I not wandered down a game-trail on the sacred mountain of the Mescalero Apache when I was eight years old and put myself in the way of a she-bear and her two cubs out grubbing, literally, for their daily bread. She was digging grubs out of a rotten log for her children to eat. The fact that I lived beyond the encounter, whether or not by virtue of the fact that it was a brown she-bear and not a grizzly, bestowed on me the spirit of a clan to which I could belong in spite of the fact that the circumstances of my birth had made such a thing a virtual impossibility.

What kind of spirit is it that guides my life? The spirit of the brown she-bear who did not kill me when I blundered into her ritual grubbing to preserve the lives of her children. In the face of that reality, should I give up my belief in the spirit world to follow after a sword-waving maniac who promises me that the "Divine Word" will transform me into an immortal god living eternally above the realms of Olympus? I count myself among the truly blessed, and fortunate beyond measure that the bear found me before I found Justin Martyr.

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