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Soul searching

Socrates: A “wise soul” regulates the body and its desires.

The concept of soul has preoccupied major thinkers throughout the centuries, before Christ was born. An understanding was sought on what constitutes soul, and how this ‘soul’ impacts or enhances what we understand the human being as. In this two-part series, Catholic News copy editor/writer Simone Delochan will first look at the interesting ways the concept of soul has been philosophised, and then the Catholic understanding of soul.

People often speak blithely about their souls: we have soulmates (we think); Trinis try not to “soil/sin their souls”; we make half-jokes about people selling their souls to the devil.

Perhaps it is imagined as a nebulous white, floating mist that inhabits the body. The thread that runs through however, is the indication of ‘soul’ as some higher, purer part of self that we want to retain and protect. It is an acknowledged depth of who we are—more than animated pieces of flesh.

The fifth and sixth centuries BC represented a marked development in the exploration of the concept of soul for the Greeks. The soul was the marker of life, and so an attribute of all living things. More than this, by the end of the fifth century, pleasure was said to emerge from the soul; the soul was satisfied with good food, drink, and sex.

The soul was also linked to specific characteristics of boldness and courage, and thereafter, in the expansion of the concept, became a moral centre. For the Greeks, a person who acted with temperance, or kindness, was exerting a quality of the soul. Soul, at this point, was then connected, not only to emotions, but “cognitive and intellectual achievements” (‘Ancient Theories of Soul’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Around mid-sixth century, Pythagoras-influenced philosophical thought now also became concerned with preoccupations of life after death and the possibility of the soul inhabiting other than human form. Pythagoras’ (570-495 BC) Transmigration of Souls (think, reincarnation in Hinduism and Buddhism) allowed for the soul’s inhabiting of different bodies, plants or animals.

In one anecdote, Pythagoras, witnessing a puppy being whipped, exclaimed, “Stop; do not beat it; it is a soul of a friend that I recognised when I heard its [the soul’s] yelping.”

The idea of immortality was fairly new to the discussion, even though in Homer’s poems reference is made to the soul’s existence post-death. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates asks the question: “Haven’t you realised that our soul is immortal and never destroyed?”. In the Phaedo, the issue is taken further. Does the soul, after the person has died, maintain some form of intelligence, still possess “some power and wisdom” (70b)?

Plato, Socrates and Aristotle

Plato (428–347 BC) then defines two categories of existence: one that can be seen (perceptible), made up of parts and is subject to destruction. The other cannot be perceived but is grasped by thought (intelligible) and is indestructible.

Socrates argues that the soul is like an intelligible being and it shares a function with the divine, to rule and lead both the body it inhabits, and on the other hand, other mortals. Interestingly though, the soul seems a thing apart from the body, for when it makes use of the senses “It strays and is confused and dizzy, as if it were drunk” (79c). A “wise soul” regulates the body and its desires.

Aristotle’s (384-322 BC) own view differs from Plato, in that he did not conceptualise the soul as disparate from the body, a sentient whole. It is incapable of existing or acting apart from the body.

The soul, to Aristotle, is essentially, a collection of abilities which animate bodies manifest (e.g. nutrition, movement, or thought). “Soul is that thing which makes a living thing living” (‘Aristotle’s Psychology: The Nature of the Soul, Sense, Perception, Thought’, ARI Campus)

His approach is more naturalistic as opposed to Plato’s supernaturalistic definition of soul: soul and body are an integrated unit. The physical body is matter for the form of the soul.

This verse from the Bhagavad-Gita seems to coincide with Plato’s elevated view of the soul:

Flame burns it not, waters cannot o’erwhelm,

Nor dry winds wither it. Impenetrable,

Unentered, unassailed, unharmed, untouched,

Immortal, all-arriving, stable, sure,

Invisible, ineffable, by word

And thought uncompassed, ever all itself,

Thus is the Soul declared!

There are many other classic approaches in this quest to understand soul, and the areas above are highly simplified but it is important to understand that the Christian understanding and definition emerges from a longstanding tradition.