Aristotle: On The Soul

In On the Soul, Aristotle approached the concept of the soul from an essentially scientific perspective, employing elements of biology and metaphysics that encompassed everything from the concepts of substance, form, and matter, to those of potentiality and actuality.

In On the Soul, Aristotle approached the concept of the soul from an essentially scientific perspective, employing elements of biology and metaphysics that encompassed everything from the concepts of substance, form, and matter, to those of potentiality and actuality. While Christians and other religious faiths have traditionally deemed the soul to be an immortal entity that lives on after physical death, Aristotle viewed the soul as united with the living body, and therefore unable to exist without a host. From his perspective, a soul is created merely for the purpose of development, which is only possible through the soul's connection with a body or some other type of container in the physical world.

Therefore if the soul is presumed to exist as the form of a body, the essence of the soul is then dependent on the body, or at least some entity that could be given life by it, for its own existence. Thus Aristotle purported that because a soul designates life, then every living thing, including animal and plant life, has a soul.

From a broad perspective, this would mean that the ability to think and reason is not part of the requisite makeup of a soul, nor are the faculties of belief or emotion. However within Aristotle's premise of all living things possessing souls, he explains that different entities possess different versions. He believed that what distinguishes the human soul from the animal or plant soul was its ability to hold rational beliefs and to exercise reason.

By classifying life into different levels, Aristotle was able to categorize plants as having the lowest level of soul, animals other than humans as having a higher level of soul, and humans, because of their capacity for reason, possessing the greatest soul. Therefore, according to Aristotle, the human soul is a reward based on the sum total of our biological nature and our unique capacities as humans to think and feel.

Aristotle writes, "We must maintain, further, that the soul is also the cause of the living body as the original source of local movement. The power of locomotion is not found, however, in all living things. But change of quality and change of quantity are also due to the soul. Sensation is held to be a qualitative alteration, and nothing except what has soul in it is capable of sensation. The same holds of the quantitative changes which constitute growth and decay; nothing grows or decays naturally except what feeds itself, and nothing feeds itself except what has a share of soul in it".

The traditional Greek conceptions of the soul were much less holistic, viewing the soul as a separate entity that did not require a body in order to exist. Aristotle countered these claims by suggesting that the soul moved the body and thus was incapable of surviving death in a detached form. Against popular opinion, Aristotle purported the soul to be mortal, and it was this ability to think for himself that made his philosophies and his writings so intriguing.

Another example of Aristotle's forward thinking is that contrary to Plato, Aristotle associated substance with specific forms and viewed abstractions as the creation of imagination. This substance was, according to Aristotle, not moved by some external force as Plato contended, but rather the soul itself was the "mover". Aristotle saw the soul as an embodiment of reason that was fueled by a sense of purpose. In other words, the soul was the culmination of an assortment of life forces, each of which was defined by its distinctive faculties.

Aristotle explains, "Among substances are by general consent reckoned bodies and especially natural bodies; for they are the principles of all other bodies. Of natural bodies some have life in them, others not; by life we mean self-nutrition and growth (with its correlative decay). It follows that every natural body which has life in it is a substance in the sense of a composite".

From this he concluded that the soul was a collective force that returned to this collective upon the death of an individual soul. He could not bring himself to believe in something created out of nothing. The only real mystical aspect to Aristotle's philosophies about the soul was that he believed its descent to earth in the form of life originated in heaven.

Aristotle also believed that the body developed before the soul and in turn, that one's ability to reason developed before one's ability to feel. Essentially, he was suggesting that the body must be trained to choose reason over emotion. He concludes, "The problem might also be raised, What is that which unifies the elements into a soul? The elements correspond, it would appear, to the matter; what unites them, whatever it is, is the supremely important factor. But it is impossible that there should be something superior to, and dominant over, the soul (and a fortiori over the mind); it is reasonable to hold that mind is by nature most primordial and dominant, while their statement that it is the elements which are first of all that is".

Thus individual differences were seen by Aristotle not as matters of preference but of vital necessity. Rather than focus on individual variability and individual parts, Aristotle thought it preferable to focus on the "final cause" of the whole organism, which he believed to be the soul.

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