This time I’m going to use this space for thinking allowed about some ideas I need to unpack for my doctoral studies. Please excuse my calloused selfishness in dumping such abstraction on you here, and feel free to skip over this one if you’re bored by theoretical matters of religious philosophy. But before you go, stop for a minute to think about one basic question: When we refer to a soul, what the hell are we actually talking about?
I’m not going to provide any complete survey of the religious or philosophical consideration of that question here, obviously, but in the process of opening up my thinking on this question I believe it is important to go back to one of the earliest extant consideration of the subject: Aristotle’s On the Soul (Greek: Psyche / Latin: De Anima). I’m not going to pretend to be a scholar of the ancient text in terms of deep nuance of the original language and all that, but I feel as though a careful consideration of its translation is a necessary task for me to take on this spring. I don’t think we can really intelligently discuss the basic concepts of human rights and social ethics without considering the basis of the value of human life; I don’t believe the basis of the value of human life can be discussed without at least some reference to the concept of the soul as it is used in western philosophy; and I don’t believe the concept of the soul can be intelligently discussed in much detail without an awareness of the ancient understandings and presuppositions related to the term that trace back to the writings of Aristotle. So with the goal of building a workable foundation for discussions of human rights and human value in this regard, I’ve set myself the task for this week of reading through and intellectually digesting the text in question.
Interested? Keep reading. (And if philosophy students start finding this to be a valuable cheater’s resource, I’ll be flattered.) Bored? Bye for now.
The soul, in all of the various senses in which Aristotle uses the term (psyche) in his study of the subject, is what makes living things fundamentally different from non-living things: it is the basic life principle in the broadest sense of the word. In a basic Greek way of thinking, if it is alive, it has soul. Aristotle’s starting point in investigating this phenomenon is the premise that knowledge itself is a wonderful thing, and knowing is something that, near as we can tell, only living things can do. In fact it seems that it is a tiny minority of living things that are capable of knowing anything, at least in the sense we like to think of knowledge. So how does the capacity for knowing relate to what makes living things… live? That is the essential matter that Aristotle sets out to explore here.
It should go without saying, but it needs to be said right from the start anyway: this text was written at a time when the Ptolomean view of the universe –– everything “out there” just spinning around a completely unmoving earth –– was accepted as self-evident truth; long before neurology, genetics, cosmology, nuclear physics, behavioral psychology or medicine developed into sciences as we know them today. But even without what we would now consider to be a proper scientific understanding about these matters, in the process of trying to work out the essence of what makes living things live Aristotle speculates a bit about all of these fields, basing his conclusions about the human soul on what we must now consider largely mistaken observations and conclusions. One particularly interesting example of this is the following:
“Empedocles… was wrong in speaking of light as ‘travelling’ or being at a given moment between the earth and its envelope, its movement being unobservable by us; …where the distance is from extreme East to extreme West, the draught upon our powers of belief is too great.” (book II, 7)
Thus the task of sorting through all of the mistaken observations and erroneous speculations here to find concepts that have had strong seminal influence on Western thought, and especially those which remain potentially viable, is actually a rather daunting one. Still, for reasons already stated, I believe this is a project worth tackling.
Among the starting questions Aristotle tosses out are whether soul, in the broader life-principle sense, is a homogeneous general category or not. Is livingness somehow the same in all living things? For that matter how reliably can we divide such livingness into useful sub-categories? And can such “livingness” properly exist outside of a particular sort of living body?
Aristotle’s starting point in all of this is surprisingly conservative in a materialistic sense: “Soul,” in the sense in which it is definitive of all living things, is analogous with “straightness” –– it means nothing unless there is some material embodiment of the principle. You can’t find “straightness” floating around in some mystical unembodied form; only in rulers and plumb lines and arrows and the like. For the same reason it is rather problematic to talk about souls outside of bodies. Beyond that, every manifestation of the soul in the sense of human personality –– anger, courage, desire, love, fear, pity, etc. –– has a certain biological component to it, which is, as the man says, “precisely why the study of the soul must fall within the science of Nature.” The one possible exception to this principle, he notes from the start, is thinking, but if thinking inevitably involves the processing of input received through our five senses, it’s sort of hard to imagine it not being body-based at least in some senses.
Not that this speculative materialist perspective was particularly more reliable than a more “spiritual” speculations of the time. The physical explanation given for anger for instance, would be a build-up of particularly hot liquid around the heart (book I, 1).
So how do we go about distinguishing between living and non-living things –– between things with soul and things without? The established state of the art in addressing this question in ancient Greece came back to two primary characteristics: independent movement and sensation. By these standards a vast variety of man-made devices these days could be said to have “soul”: production robots, security cameras, vending machines, etc. Whether Aristotle would be naïve enough to consider such things to be truly “alive” is another question. Actually he probably wouldn’t. Aristotle dismisses Thales’ speculation that magnets are alive, or have souls, because of their capability to sense and move iron, so intuitively he knows that there has to be a more precise definition for soul in terms of livingness. But as he pursues these arguments they become thoroughly entangled with speculation about which of the four primordial elements –– earth, air, fire or water –– the soul’s function should be associated with. Suffice to say in this regard that the ancient Hebrew theories of breath (Genesis 2:7) and blood (Leviticus 17:11) alternatively being seen as the primary physical manifestations of soul were well represented within the Greek world as well.
Another interesting aspect of these speculations is the idea that the motion of living beings would somehow reflect something divine, seen especially in the motion of the sun, moon and planets above. Aristotle cites Plato’s Timaeus dialog as an example of belief in the soul reflecting the pattern of the movements of these heavenly bodies –– these tracing back to the Demiurge bending the primordial straight line into a circle, bringing about various sub-divisions of that circle from there, and on that basis setting important spiritual forces in pleasing circular motions. Thus the motions of the planets would be inherently related to the actions of our souls, providing what passed for a rational justification for astrology for the next couple thousand years, even among Christian theologians as it turns out.
There are many things about this understanding of soul that Aristotle finds dissatisfying however. To start with, the motions of plant and simple animal souls are not really circular in any meaningful sense. The only justification he finds for speculating that the highest part of the soul of man is in circular motion is that it obviously is not entirely at rest, and if complete rest is not possible then circular motion is the next best thing. It is in this context that Aristotle begins to speculate about the possibility that the mind –– the highest functioning part of the soul –– might be happier if it could escape from the continuous restless motions of the body. He goes on from there to reject the premise the soul having a circular motion and to theorize about thought, motivation, anger, fear, pleasure and pain as the proper movements of the soul –– or at least movements originating in the soul.
Mind (nous) is a separate matter for Aristotle: “It seems to be an independent substance implanted within the soul and to be incapable of being destroyed. […] Thinking, loving and hating are affections not of mind, but of that which has mind, so far as it has. That is why, when this vehicle decays, memory and love cease; they were activities not of mind, but of the composite which has perished; mind is, no doubt, something more divine and impassible.” Thus in many respects it would be this “mind” aspect of the soul which is uniquely valuable in human beings, and which from a traditional Christian dogmatic perspective would be “absent from the body, present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) at the moment of death.
Going back to Aristotle’s speculation on the essence of soul though, at the end of the first of the three books within this work he lays out four essential functions of the soul:
– Cognitive functions: knowing, perceiving, opining
– Emotional functions: desiring, wishing, appreciating, longing
– Movement functions: animal body motions
– Lifespan functions: growing, maturing, reproducing, decaying
From there he leaves two relevant questions about the soul somewhat hanging: Can the soul –– the life principle in plants, animals and humans alike –– be meaningfully and usefully divided into sub-sections? Then secondly, does the function of knowing require a sort of affinity between the knower and the known which would in turn imply that there must be some sort of soul imbedded in everything in the universe that we are capable of knowing?
Book 1 is the part of this investigation where Aristotle allows himself to get bogged down with the critical consideration of all earlier Greek studies and speculations about his topic. He attempts to critique them in ways that his students can learn something from these old masters in spite of their mistakes. He clearly would not like it to discover that his own ideas would someday be considered among learned men and women with the same assumption of pervasive error throughout, and effort to locate useable lessons regardless, with which he considers the works of Thales and Empedocles, but such is life. (I, on the other hand, hardly expect to be read in any other way than with a presumption that I am by and large wrong about things, but that there might be something useful within my perspectives regardless, so…) In books 2 and 3 he proceeds to lay out his own scholarly perspective on the matter from scratch, so to speak.
The analysis above is based just on book 1, and that’s probably quite enough text for any blog reader to deal with in one go of it. It would be most fair then for me to give my analyses of books 2 and 3 as separate posts then. Meanwhile corrections and feedback here are more than welcome.