What Is the Soul?

Fire, air, water, earth, are in themselves soulless . . . and there are no other forms of body than these four. . . . None of these, then, having life, it would be extraordinary if life came about by bringing them together; it is impossible, in fact, that a collocation of material entities should produce life, or mindless entities mind. No one, moreover, would pretend that a mere chance mixing could give such results: some regulating principle would be necessary, some Cause directing the admixture: that guiding principle would be—soul.

- Plotinus, Fourth Ennead (250 C.E.), VII, 2

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Soul. In his poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ WB Yeats wrote:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.

For Plato it was the immortal seat of reason, for Aristotle it could be found in plants and animals and was the essence of every being - but it died when the body died. For some it is the fount of creativity, for others the spark of God in man. What is the soul made of and where does it live? Is it the key to our individuality as humans? And when we die will our souls find paradise or purgatory, rebirth, resurrection or simply annihilation?

Listen to the In Our Time episode on The Soul

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

The nature of the human soul has been the subject of religious belief and scientific investigation for millennia. We feel as though definitive answers should be at hand since each of us seems to have relevant experiential insights. But certainty remains elusive...

Continue reading Mark Goldblatt's article: On The Soul

Further Reading

...From comparatively humble Homeric beginnings, the word ‘soul’ undergoes quite remarkable semantic expansion in sixth and fifth century usage. By the end of the fifth century — the time of Socrates' death — soul is standardly thought and spoken of, for instance, as the distinguishing mark of living things, as something that is the subject of emotional states and that is responsible for planning and practical thinking, and also as the bearer of such virtues as courage and justice. Coming to philosophical theory, we first trace a development towards comprehensive articulation of a very broad conception of soul, according to which the soul is not only responsible for mental or psychological functions like thought, perception and desire, and is the bearer of moral qualities, but in some way or other accounts for all the vital functions that any living organism performs. This broad conception, which is clearly in close contact with ordinary Greek usage by that time, finds its fullest articulation in Aristotle's theory. The theories of the Hellenistic period, by contrast, are interested more narrowly in the soul as something that is responsible specifically for mental or psychological functions. They either de-emphasize or sever the ordinary-language connection between soul and life in all its functions and aspects...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Ancient Theories of Soul by Hendrik Lorenz

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