In my last post, I talked about the different concerns people have had through history and how they applied the concept of “soul” to them. The Ancient Greeks seemed concerned with the issue of change. In this post I explore the origins of the idea of souls in the Greek context.
Some of the oldest references we have related to souls come from Homer’s Iliad, usually dated to the seventh century BC. The human psyche (soul) is an eidolon, the image or form of a person, which leaves them at death. For Homer, this is not a real thing, but a shadow of a thing, an echo of the original that slowly fades away. In the 21st century, we are accustomed to a Renaissance Christian picture of Hell, where everlasting souls suffer after death. The Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol are nothing like this. Rather, they are places where the images of the dead slowly fade away, like an echo in a valley. The falseness of the eidolon lies behind the modern concept of shade and the Christian notion of idol. For Homer, the soul is only invoked in reference to death. It leaves the body with the last breath and may be spoken of as an omen of things to come or a remembrance of things past. Notably the psyche is only invoked for humans (and only humans appear in Hades), but is associated with their life and not their intellect (nous).
Over the next few hundred years, the psyche slowly takes on a larger role in Greek thought. By the fifth century, having a soul (empsychos) was considered equivalent to being alive and applied at least to animals, and possibly to plants. Thales of Miletus attributes souls to magnets because they are capable of causing motion. I mentioned in the last post that classical Greek thinkers cared deeply about understanding change. For Thales and others, soul carried an idea of agency – the ability to bring about change in the world. Both acting on (action/agent) and a particular type of being acted upon (passion/patient) came to be seen as involving the soul. Thus the soul was tied to desire, motion, and satisfaction. It was a short step from there to notions of moral agency (strong virtue attributed to a strong soul) and moral purity (a pure soul unstained by evil deeds). Finally, some authors took the step from emotion and virtue to intellect and reason. We can see a constellation of ideas related to psyche, but as yet no clear consistent definition. Only at the end of this broadening of the concept do we begin to see people speaking of soul and body as complementary.
Pythagoras (570-490 BC) and Empedocles (490-430 BC) attributed souls to plants, animals, and humans, perhaps equivocally. Both suggested the possibility of a soul presently in one later moving to another (“metempsychosis” or the “transmigration of souls”). There is little direct evidence of Pythagoras’ thought on the matter, though evidence from his followers suggests an idea that some, but not all, aspects of selfhood persist after death and can appear in other living things. [Empedocles extends this to plants, but Pythagoras may only have extended it to animals.] The persistence of the soul after leaving the body can then be traced back to the Pythagoreans and a contemporary group called the Orphics (after the character Orpheus who returned from Hades, almost bringing his wife with him).
It became popular to see soul as the explanatory element of organisms – how they come to have properties different from those of rocks and other inanimate (Latin for without soul) objects. Such a principle need not be non-physical, however. Leucippus (5th c.) and Democritus (460-370 BC) [and later Epicurus (341-270 BC) and Lucretius (99-55 BC)] felt that souls, like everything else must be composed of atoms. They suggested atoms of fire, but contemporaries argued for other elements as well, while Lucretius proposed a soul-specific atom that could mix with air wind and fire to make the soul.
Most theories about souls treated them substantially, that is as specific things, rather than organizational patterns or some other abstraction. Democritus, perhaps with the majority, saw them as material substances. Only Plato, and possibly Pythagoras, saw them as immaterial, requiring the introduction of a new ontological category – things that exist but are not matter. The idea of things that subsist, as immaterial substances capable of existence without a material correlate, does not appear to have been developed until much later. It would be anachronistic to read substance dualism, whether gnostic (spirit and matter), Thomist (spiritual and corporeal), or Cartesian (mind and matter) into the classical Greek concepts.
Aristotle briefly mentions harmonic theories of souls, which he attributes to Empedocles (495-435 BC) and Philolaus (470-385 BC). In these theories the soul comes about as a proper ratio of the elements, earth, air, fire, and water.
This vast array of ideas formed the ground in which Plato and Aristotle developed uses of the word psyche (soul) about which we still argue. Plato gave us a picture or substantial and subsistent immaterial souls, ripe for dualistic interpretations. Aristotle gave us two pictures: one of soul as an explanatory principle for life, the other as a substantial but dependent colleague of matter (no form without matter, no matter without form) in the existence of individuals. Future posts will turn to those pictures.