Aristotle’s On the Soul

Some thoughts upon reading Aristotle’s Περί Ψυχής…

There has been a lot of debate surrounding the concept of soul in both religious and philosophical traditions. Yet we should perhaps remember that our English word soul is a translation. Going back to the original sources can help us to see more clearly what the term used to mean as opposed to that which it has come to mean to our present culture. Concepts change and evolve through different periods, this is all well and good. Nevertheless, we should get a better idea of these things by understanding just how this evolution took place.

Our word soul comes from the Greek ψυχή which was more accurately rendered into modern languages by Freud as psyche. Consequently we have developed a somewhat separated account of soul and psyche/ mind as distinct things, which were originally translating the same concept. All human cultures have had similar ideas about soul, yet the one which we have inherited is the Greek one. Even amongst the Greeks there is no unified opinion as to precisely what it is. However we can see a clear development of the idea from the Pre-Socratics through Plato and Aristotle (who of course had opposing views about it) on to the Stoics and later Neo-Platonists such as Plotinus, which then led on towards the more mystical interpretations of the Gnostics and St. Paul. We should not forget that Christians of the late Roman Empire period were also writing in Greek using Greek concepts and so these Christian ideas too should count as part of Greek literature and the development of its conception of soul, or at least what it ended up becoming and therefore meaning to us.

Aristotle’s work on the soul is the first to really make a sustained analysis of just what it is. His work is illuminating as it is not the theological work that one might expect, it is rather a work of biology. The soul is a part of the body and could be understood to be its essence. He also states that the mind is the soul, but it is only a part of the soul. We will look at key passages from Aristotle’s περί ψυχής to see if we can see more clearly what it meant to him. Here are some of my notes from reading Aristotle’s περί ψυχής.

Book One

και ποτερον τα μόρια χρη ζητειν πρότερον η τα έργα αυτων, οιόν το νοειν η τον νουν και το αισθάνεσθαι η το αισθητικόν. (402 b 10) The soul is clearly considered by Aristotle to be that part of us which thinks and feels. He mistook the heart to be the organ which contains the mind, leading to all sorts of other confusions between brain and heart. For instance, it’s commonly said that one thinks with the head and feels with the heart, yet technically we do both with the mind, regardless of which part of the body it is thought to inhabit. We also say to learn something by heart, which is a nice poetical expression, but it serves to remind us that it was originally meant literally. The soul here then, is that part of our consciousness which experiences the world through the medium of the body.

και δια ταύτα ήδη φυσικού το θεωρησαι περί ψυχής, η πάσης η της τοιαύτης. (403 a 25)
Aristotle specifies that the investigation of the soul is a work of biology, or something for the “natural philosopher” this is as the soul is effected by the physical world resulting in manifestations such as anger. A sign of the non physical detectable through the physical.

το εμψυχον δη του άψυχου δύουν μαλιςτα διαφέρειν δοκει, κινήςει τε και τω αισθάνεσαι (403b 25) There are two qualities which differentiate things with a soul to those without: movement & sensation. Anything which is self moved must have a soul as it is the soul which drives a being on to fulfil its biological purposes. The Greeks reasoned from this very point that the planets were gods and were living beings, since they appeared to be self moving and consequently must be ensouled.

Φαίνεται δε των πλείστων ουδέν άνευ σώματος πάσχειν ουδέ ποιειν, οιόν οργίζεσαι, θαρρειν, επιθυμειν, όλως αισθάνεσθαι. Μάλιστα δ εοικεν ίδιον το νοειν. (403 a 5) The soul cannot be separated from the body, as it is made up of the bodies affections. It would make no sense for the soul to be separate from the body and still have sensations such as anger, courage and desire, which are bodily sensations provoked by physical causes. Interestingly enough he considers mind to be the one part of the soul which could potentially be an exception. Thinking takes place in the mind, yet there could be some sort of pure thought that has nothing to do with the body. It is easy to see here the development of other ideas of the soul, that if we focus on things of the mind and not on those of the body we will somehow be living in an eternity. In fact it is possible to see the later Christian idea of the kingdom of heaven as a mental place where those who focus on the contemplative life, can experience the constant present moment as an eternity.

οθεν Δημοκριτος μεν πυρ τι και θερμον φησιν αυτήν ειναι. (404 a) The idea of soul goes back to the Pre- Socratics. Democritus thought it was a kind of fire or heat.

ατόμων τα σφαιροειδη πυρ και ψυχήν λέγει (404a) Democritus used the word “soul” to describe spherical atoms. While Aristotle disagrees with Plato about the soul being something immortal and separable from the body, he also distinguishes himself from the earlier philosophers who described the soul in purely physical ways. He occupies, as usual, the middle ground. It is non physical yet not incorporeal.

υπολαμβαντος την ψυχήν ειναι το παρέχον τοις ζωοις την κινησιν. (404a) The soul is what makes us move, hence the ancients idea that the planets were gods. The reasoning here is that if they moved by themselves they must have souls.

εκείνος μεν γαρ απλώς ταυτον ψυχήν και νουν. (404 a) Democritus identified the soul as the mind.

Πυθαγορείων λεγόμενον την αυτήν εχειν διάνοιαν. εφασαν γαρ τινες αυτών ψυχήν ειναι τα εν αέρι ξύσματα, οι δε το ταύτα κινούν. (404 α 15) The Pythagoreans thought that soul was particles in the air which animated bodies which breathed it in. Hence the development to later ideas that the soul can leave the body. This was originally in a quite literally materialistic sense by breathing out or expiring. Expire later took on the meaning that when somebody died their soul left the body.

ουτοι δε λεγουσι την ψυχήν τας αρχάς (404 b 10) Some regarded the soul as the beginning of all things hence the development of Greek philosophy into later gnostic and Christian thought about the mind of God etc (the opening of John’s gospel is pure Greek thought. Both the concepts and vocab are the same, but of course, this is not easily noticeable in translation, but obvious in the Greek originals.)

´Ηρακλειτος δε την αρχήν ειναι φησι ψυχήν (405 a) Heraclitus considers the soul to be “the first principle” which is something in need of a deeper analysis, but clearly something which influenced later Christian ideas about God. In this sense the soul is the pure disembodied consciousness from which everything arouse in certain hermetic philosophies.

και ασωματώτατον δη και ρέον αεί (405 a) It is “incorporeal” yet always in flux. Heraclitus’ flux of the mind seems quite similar to the Buddhist conception to their being no consistent self only a flux of present perceptions in the mind. There is no real or permanent self only an every changing present moment. The soul then, would be that consciousness which perceives the eternal present, constructing a self or ego out of the accumulation of past experiences.

την γαρ του παντός δηλον οτι τοιαύτην ειναι βούλεται οιόν ποτ εστιν ο καλούμενος νους. (407 a) Speaking of Plato’s Timaeus, he quotes Plato as having also believed the soul to be a mind, albeit one that is universal. We individuals have souls which make up a part of the larger “world soul”, or a kind of collective unconscious as Carl Jung would have put it. As we have seen, if the planets could be considered to be ensouled beings due to their self movement, that principle would apply to the earth as well. The elements and all natural forces would have seemed very much alive to anyone with such an understanding of living beings. Our whole Gaia thesis, would also seem to originate in these ideas, that the earth itself is some kind of living organism possessed of its own form of awareness. A lot of Christian thought is also based on Plato’s “world soul” ideas equating them rather to be some such thing as a universal mind.

Αλκμαίων εοικεν υπόλαβειν περί ψυχής. φησι γαρ αυτήν αθάνατον ειναι δια το εοικεναι τοις αθανατοις, τούτο δ υπάρχειν αυτή ως αει κινούμενη. κινεισθαι γαρ και τα θεία πάντα συνεχώς αει, σεληνην, ήλιον, τους αστερας και τον ουρανόν όλον. (405 a 25) Alcmaeon’s ideas are interesting as they give us an insight into how it is that we came to have such a notion of the soul being immortal. The idea that the soul is immortal came from the observation that the planets (which move and thus must have souls) are in a state of perpetual motion. This origin of the immortality of the soul was later forgotten by those who had inherited the idea of the human soul’s immortality. This is also why the gods were considered to be “athanatoi” undying or immortal as they were originally considered to be the planets who never stopped moving (our father who art in heaven…)

Αναξαγόρας δ εοικε μεν έτερον λέγειν ψυχήν τε και νουν (405 a 10) Anaxagoras seems to think that soul and mind are different, yet in his analysis he treats them as the same.

βέλτιον γαρ ίσως μη λέγειν την ψυχήν ελεειν η μανθάνειν η διανοεισθαι, αλλά τον ανθρώπων τη ψυχή. (408 b 10) Here we get a good idea of Aristotle’s own idea of what the soul is: Probably it is better not to say that the soul pities, or learns, or thinks, but to say rather that the soul is the instrument whereby man does these things. It is therefore the instrument through which we think and learn.

το γινώσκειν της ψυχής εστι και το αισθάνεσθαί τε και το δοξάζειν (411 a 25) Knowing, perceiving and forming of opinions are functions of the soul.

Book 2

αναγκαιον άρα την ψυχήν ουσίαν ειναι ως είδος σώματος φυσικου δυνάμει ζωην εχοντος. η δ ουσία εντελέχεια. τοιούτου άρα σώματος εντελέχεια. αυτή δε λέγεται δίχως, η μεν ως επιστήμη, η δ ως το θεωρειν. (412 a 20) This is a key passage and is worth reading carefully. With book two Aristotle moves on from what others have thought the soul to be putting forward his own ideas. The soul must be substance in the sense of being the form of a natural body, which potentially has life. In a way it is the idea of a person, the what whatness or quiddity that defines a being’s essence. The soul of a cat then would be that which makes it do catlike things. Cats tend to follow catlike goals. That is their entelekeia, a word coined by Aristotle to describe this phenomena, their pursuit, through life of particular ends. The same applies to humans, although we do not all seem to have the same human goals. We share with the other animals the basic entelekeia of looking for sustenance and procreating etc, but we also have what could be considered higher individual goals, or the need to achieve excellence in a particular field, this is what Aristotle would have understood as virtue. This means that a violinist, a chef and a jockey all have their own virtues or distinct conceptions of excellence towards which they strive. It is their unique soul which drives them on towards achieving such varied entelekeia or end based behaviourisms. In simple terms we could define Aristotle’s soul as his “Aristotleness” just as we could with any other member of the human race to define the unique essence that their soul drives them towards.

τούτο δε το τε ην ειναι τω τοιωδι σώματι, καθάπερ ει τι των οργάνων φυσικον ην σώμα, οιόν πέλεκυς. (412 b 10) As we have seen, Aristotle thinks about the soul in terms of teleology, what is the end meaning of a biological entity? According to him the soul is the essence of a body. The soul of a pen would be its ability to write, the soul of an eye would be its ability to see. The soul therefore is the essence of its function. The soul of a human being would be the essence of that person’s teleology. A monkey climbs, a fish swims, a man thinks. Aristotle’s phrase the “to te en eivai” is a key expression, and was of particular importance to other philosophers, notably Heidegger. It could be described literally as that which makes something what it is, or it’s beingness.

οτι μεν ουν ουκ εστιν η ψυχή χωριστή του σώματος, η μέρη τινα αυτής, ει μεριστη πέφυκεν, ουκ αδηλον. ενίων γαρ η εντελέχεια των μερών εστιν αυτών. (413 a) This is where we get to the main point. It is quite clear that if the soul is the body’s essence they cannot be separated from each other.

Book 3

ο άρα καλούμενος της ψυχής νους ουθέν εστιν ενεργεία των όντων πριν νοειν. (429 a 20) This is a very interesting passage, which bears thinking about. It suggests that the part of the soul, which we call mind, has no actual existence until it thinks. Just like in Buddhism the mind does not have thoughts, but is in fact the thoughts themselves. It is not any kind of I, self or ego which does the thinking, rather thinking just happens or takes place. Just like in certain scientific theories of mind the thoughts which we are going to have are predetermined by brain processes before they seemingly occur to us. The thinking then constructs an ego out of the totality of its thoughts and opinions which it has formulated. The brain is obviously where this “thinking happens” yet we cannot say that we possess a mind until we use it. This is apparent when we consider situations in which we were not thinking, just operating on manual. Driving home for example, which having become a habitual action, one often arrives home and reflects that one hasn’t any memory of the drive, as our mind was not present. We often notice the passage of time as being radically different when we are focused, paying acute attention, to when we are otherwise operating on autopilot and thinking about what we are doing. In a non reflexive state, years can fly by as we are just going through the motions. Yet if we force ourselves to observe things, look and consciously perceive all the details a moment can seem an eternity. This can be seen in both good and bad senses, everyone has experienced how long water “seems” to take to boil when we stand there waiting. Yet if we do something else to occupy ourselves in the meantime we may forget about the water altogether and need to boil it up again. This is the experience of losing one self in an art work, staring at a painting for hours mesmerised by its colours, tones and composition. Most people have experienced this with music, when we focus on the music we are aware of the present as an eternal moment. This is something which Christianity inherited from Aristotle, as we have already said, the kingdom of heaven is when we are engaged in the higher matters of the mind/ psyche / soul, contemplative behaviour which takes us into other non physical realms of thought. As opposed to the here and now, lower perceptions of the body. All of this of course begs the further question. If it is not the self who does the thinking, then where precisely does it come from? There are various responses to this. The more theological would of course be God or gods, whereas a more scientific point of view would say that these are thoughts which have come to us through chemical processes in the brain. In fact Aristotle’s concept of pure thought is quite similar to both a Buddhist conception and also a modern scientific one of thoughts naturally and spontaneously occurring in the brain without there necessarily having been any provocation from the outside physical world.

η γαρ επιστήμη η θεωρητικη και το ούτως επιστητον το αυτό εστιν. (430 a 5) Aristotle says that in the case of things without matter that which thinks and that which is thought are the same. The mind is identical with the objects of thought and is nothing until it thinks. It is the ideas themselves, which exist in the brain which the mind is composed of.

Furthermore, we could take from this the notion that the mind itself is an object of thought in the sense that the mind doesn’t really exist, as it is one of our ideas. The mind is an idea which our thinking has come up with in order to explain itself. We have the sensation that our mind/ psyche/ soul is real, yet as neuro scientists would show us, we are not really as expert on our own consciousness as we’d like to think. The mind then, could be a trick of the biological brain having evolved to the stage where it is self aware, an object that can observe itself in a way that the senses cannot. As Aristotle says, the eye cannot see itself and so isn’t an object of vision. The same applies to the other senses, yet the mind is an object of its own perception and is thus distinguished from the sense organs.

To sum up.

The Pythagoreans had the idea that the soul was materialistically made up of air which is breathed into and out of the body. Hence the notion of the soul being able to leave the body and the later Christian use of the Greek word pneuma (the breath) to refer to the “Holy Spirit”.

The idea of the soul’s entering and exiting the body was then combined with a conception of its immortality which was originally attached to the planetary gods, who possessed soul as they were self moved and whose immortality came from this movement being perpetual. This is why Zeus, Cronos and the other deities (Latin Jupiter, Saturn etc) are considered “hoi athanatoi” the undying ones. The immortality of the planets’ souls lead to the pagan deitys’ souls’ immortality, and later to human souls also sharing part of this divine “undyingness”.

In contrast to these conceptions Aristotle sees the soul as the whatbeing of a biological entity, its essence or that which drives it on towards specific end based goals. It is therefore inseparable with the body, as the soul cannot have any sense of purpose apart from a physical body and the conditions of physical life. A disembodied spirit would have no objectives and no sense of self and therefore no direction, whatness or essence. We see this clearly in the Greek conception of the afterlife in which the disembodied spirits of the Greek heroes are literally shadows of their former selves. In the eternity of the afterlife they have lost their purpose driven sense of being which they had in life. This is further apparent in the Christian notion of the afterlife. Even those who go to heaven have a fixed soul which is whatever it became during mortal embodied life. It is life in the body therefore, even in religious terms, that defines the essence of what each individual soul is, and will remain so after the death of the body. When Dante meets the souls of various famous people in either heaven or hell, even after thousands of years they are still whoever they became whilst living on earth. Contrast their rapid personal growth here on earth with the lack of any further development once disembodied, regardless of which afterlife realm they ended up in.

It is then, our entelekeia or end based purposefulness during embodied life, which comes to define the quiddity of each individual soul.

The soul then, is a human meme that is of great importance to many of our great civilisations. In order to see how this idea developed further a reading of later Neo-Platonism should be considered along with those of St. Paul and the early Christian theologians to understand how our modern notions of brain/ heart, mind/ soul/ psyche ended up getting separated until they came to be seen as distinctly different things.

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