The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

The nourishment and maturation of the soul is the stated aim of classic education. We had better know what we mean by it.

With both Halloween and Día de los Muertos right around the corner, it seems fitting to contemplate the soul. What do we mean when we say soul, or call something soulful, or for that matter soulless?

The soul is typically contrasted with the body. The Greek and Latin words for the soul—ψυχή, πνεῦμα, anima, and spiritus—all come from terms meaning “breath.” In its earliest usage, the soul of a thing means simply its life. Aristotle discussed vegetable, animal, and rational souls, each one including the powers of the one below it and exceeding them. Is the soul, then, material? Aristotle (for once following his master Plato!) thought not: he described the soul as the form, or substance, that gave the body its identity. 

Other philosophers would go further, largely under religious influence, imagining the soul as fully distinct from the body and even independent of it. In the Phaedo, Plato represents Socrates calmly accepting execution thanks to his firm belief in the soul’s immortality: it is there that he delivers the famous maxim, “Philosophy is preparation for death.” Many centuries later, Descartes found the reality of the soul, as a thinking entity, easier to prove irrefutably than matter itself, and Kant considered the existence of an immaterial and immortal soul a prerequisite for the moral code. Early atheists like Lucretius argued otherwise, accepting the soul but arguing that it was a material thing. After the Enlightenment, skeptical and materialist philosophers, taking the “immaterialist” definition of the soul for granted, simply denied its existence altogether.

Still, here we are living and thinking; for practical purposes, something roughly like the soul must exist. St. Augustine describes the soul as consisting in memory, intelligence, and will. Obviously these things are individual. Or is it obvious? Averroës, a twelfth century jurist and philosopher, thought not. St. Augustine had assumed an individual intellect; drawing on the newly reviving thought of Aristotle, Averroës proposed a single, unitary intellect, in which individuals participated to varying degrees. As a Muslim and a subject of Islamic Spain, he was well out of reach of the Catholic Church. But his idea of a unitary human intellect became fashionable for a time even among the theologians of the University of Paris, prompting significant backlash from none less than Aquinas.

Why Richard, it profits a man nothing if he sell his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre emphasized human freedom and individuality in the extreme. His novel Nausea is written in the form of a diary: the depressed narrator feels the individuality of everything, even inanimate objects, so acutely that it sickens him. He feels his very existence to be de trop (meaning “unnecessary” or “too much”).

But no one exists in total isolation. The soul is often held to be what distinguishes intelligent, social creatures from inanimate things—hence certain debates about whether higher animals have souls, as phrased in the childlike, reasonable question “Do dogs go to heaven?” Tellingly, the seventeenth century Platonists, who argued that the stars and planets have souls, also believed firmly in astrology: i.e., that these stellar and planetary souls relate to ours.

Morality is another dimension of the soul. Virtue ethicists, again in the tradition of Aristotle, treat the soul as the key to ethics. The reason that doing the right thing is important is not because it corresponds to an abstract duty or benefits the greatest number of people, but because it forms certain spiritual qualities. These qualities are good in and of themselves, and are the chief, though not the only, sources of personal happiness. Stoics like Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius would go further, stating that the virtues alone suffice to be happy. This could be regarded as the philosophical version of a saying among Christian mystics, that the fires of hell are nothing but the light of God as seen by those who reject him.

This in turn brings us back to the question of immortality. Most if not all cultures have told ghost stories, though the level of serious belief in ghosts varies today and probably always has. Those who reject the existence of the soul, or take more or less Aristotelian or Lucretian views of it, generally believe there is no afterlife.

Among those who believe in the soul, there are a few schools of thought. Plotinus, the great third-century architect of Neo-Platonism, believed that the soul—if properly trained in this life—could ascend to complete absorption into the deity. Failing this, it might be reincarnated in another body and make a fresh attempt. This forms a Western parallel to the mainstream religious thought of India: both Hinduism and Buddhism (which latter spread throughout East and Central Asia as well) affirm reincarnation, and pursue mystical union with the divine partly as an escape from this cycle. By contrast, the major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) teach that human souls have just one proper body, and that there will be a final judgment at which soul and body will be reunited.

Suggested reading:

Plato, Phaedo
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ I.76
Dante, Purgatorio
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
Martin Buber, I and Thou


If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this introduction to Plutarch, this “Great Conversation” piece on the idea of language, or this debate coach’s perspective on Classical education.

Published on 29th October, 2020.

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