On The Soul (Part I of III)

windmill of the soul “We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of a ship. So too, what we are, is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in our outward reflection of our own acts. We must find our real selves not in the froth stirred up by the impact of our being upon the beings around us, but in our own soul which is the principle of all our acts.”

- Thomas Merton (No Man is an Island)


 In modern-day Christendom scriptural words are frequently used as building blocks for doctrine, but rarely discovered for their experiential value. Having been in church from birth, soul for me was a given. Founded in the doctrinal viewpoint that I was raised to rely on, soul was simply another word for individual. Soul was lumped in with other “spiritualized” words such as heart, spirit, and relegated to parts of being a human that were hardly distinguishable from the whole. In the process of breaking free from the dark chains of fundamentalism I begin to discover that words such as soul, heart, spirit were rich in meaning and experiencing their truth would open up a whole new kingdom within.

 What is Soul?

Soul is a condition of being, more accurately it is the essence of being “what it is for it to be what it was.” The word (soul) is a parenthetical wrapper containing multiple parts or faculties. As a visual thinker, it helps to imagine soul like the windmill in the picture above, individual sails representing its faculties.

As for a methodology of understanding soul I have selected Aristotle’s De Anima chiefly because his word usage closely parallels that of the New Testament writers. If you are not familiar with Aristotelian philosophy, take a minute and refer to the links below explaining the terminology. They will assist in transitioning an otherwise bookish recite into a more coherent and practical discourse.

What It Is For It To Be What It Was
Aristotle De Anima
In *De Anima Aristotle applies hylomorphism based on relational contraries presented using potentiality and actuality combined with a myriad of examples to demonstrate his formula for soul. Aristotle’s formula is not only relevant to the human soul but that of animals as well.

From De Anima:
“It has then been stated in general what the soul is; for it is the substance, that corresponding to the principle of a thing. And this is “what it is for it to be what it was” for a body of such a kind. Compare the following; if an instrument, e.g. an axe. Were a natural body, then its substance would be what it is to be an axe, and this would be its soul; if this were removed it would no longer be an axe, except homonymously. But as it is it is an axe; for it is not of this kind of body that the soul is “what it is for it to be what it was”  and the principle but of a certain kind of natural body having within itself a source of movement and rest.” (412 10)
Those who say, then, that the soul is a place of forms speak well, except that it is not the whole soul but that which can think, and it is not actually but potentially the forms.” (429 18)

When viewed in the reductive manner that Aristotle lays out the soul forms a hierarchal structure of (nutrition, perception, thought, and movement). The hierarchy is derived from Aristotle’s formula “what it is for it to be what it was” and based on the principle that living things have life.

Nutrition:  Being the foundation i.e. the primary form of soul, the nutritive faculty. “Since there are three things, that which is fed, that with which it is fed, and that which feeds, that which feeds is the primary soul, that which is fed is the body which has this (primary soul), and that with which it is fed is the food.” (416 20)

Perception/Sense Perception:  “That which can perceive all things” The general and unified faculty of perception of which the individual senses are mere manifestations i.e.  sight, hearing, smell , taste, touch (413b 1,4)

 Thought/Intellect: “In respect to the part of the soul by which the soul both knows and understands” (429 10) “and I speak of as intellect that by which the soul thinks and supposes” (429 18). “Intellect is a potentiality for being such things without their matter.” (429 29) Here Aristotle identifies intellect with pure thought, contemplative knowledge being constructed as an exercise of pure thought. “Not the things themselves; for it is not the stone which is in the soul, but its form. Hence the soul is as the hand is; for the hand is a tool of tools, and the intellect is a form of forms and sense a form of objects of perception.” (431 24) The intellect functions to judge essences via reason.

Movement/Desire:That which produces movement will be one in kind, the faculty of desire as such – and the first of all the object of desire (for this produces movement without being moved, by being thought of or imagined).” (433 5) It is noted that the object of the desire, the end, is what we start from in calculating means to it, and we work back until we come to something which is immediately relevant and is therefore the starting-point for action. Desire is the generic notion; wishing covers the rational desires; and wanting irrational ones.

–Imagination– “Imagination is that in virtue in which we say that an image occurs to us” (427 27) Aristotle views imagination as a sort of residual faculty, a sub-faculty working in concert with the fully developed capacities of perception and thought. “To the thinking soul images serve as sense perceptions” (431 8)

Why Does Soul Matter?

There are many scriptures that reference the word soul, while I was writing this article Luke 10:27 dominated my thoughts. “…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Being intimately aware of one’s own soul and the sources of its movement is fundamental to the mystical journey. To experience soul is to enter into mansion one, as Teresa of Avila imagined in her writings on The Interior Castle. Soul is the castle through which budding mystics will pass into more interior chambers.

I will be continuing with discovering the heart of soul in my next installment , unfortunately Aristotle has a scheduling conflict and will not be able to join us, standing in will be the Early Desert Fathers.

 Pax Vobiscum
-C.M. Gregory

*Note: De Anima is intricately dependant on Aristotle’s examples and philosophical language. I really couldn’t do the work justice in my short summary, but if anyone is interested in completely absorbing this topic I would recommend reading De Anima a couple of times, this particular version is my favorite in so much as it includes corresponding translator notes for each page.

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2 Responses to On The Soul (Part I of III)

  1. bob knab says:

    greetings *

    Soul _____

    my soul
    where is thy soul ?

    a shadow only
    in total darkness -

    blessings *

  2. It’s been a long time since I read Aristotle in my philiosophy courses! I have to wonder where Christianity would have ended up without Aristotle and Plato.
    I like Aristotle’s concept of the body/mind (soul) synergy. Plato’s version was a bit dualistic for me, but I guess that’s where most of the Judeo-Christian tradition came from.
    If I have my Aristotle right, he seems to have taken a much more holistic view. For him the soul was the “form” or “actuality” of a being which, as you say, included animals as well. It was what made a living body animate. There is no artificial distinction made between mind (soul)/body. And, for him anyway, no separablility of soul from the body. So I guess for Aristotle, since soul was form, there was really no distinction between individual human souls, animal souls, or plant souls.
    So, if you’ve seen one soul you’ve pretty much seen them all.

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