On The Human Soul

Gaining an understanding of the human soul has been an undertaking that falls under the umbrella of the discipline known as “psychology.” In the Greek language, psychology stands for the words “psyche,” which translates into “soul,” as well as “logos,” the exact translation of which is “word of God.” Thus, psychology is essentially aimed at bringing out and identifying a divine meaning and purpose for human life from the human soul. Aristotle considered psychology, or the study of the human soul, to be the noblest of all sciences, because the knowledge pertaining to this particular branch of science is the hardest to attain. Moreover, psychology is a scientific discipline that is arguably in its infancy, and it is in a state of constant development as it produces and reinforces concepts that are perhaps intertwined with other scientific disciplines.

Psychology, or the science of the human soul, has its roots in Ancient Greece and it developed further during the peak of Islamic civilization, only to be bungled in Western Europe due to the predominant scientific outlook characterized by British empiricism until Sigmund Freud came into the scene and fostered an entire discourse stemming from the field of psychology. While an interest in psychology is now being rekindled in the Western world due to an ever-rising mental health epidemic particularly in the United States, a richer understanding of psychology and the human soul can come about only as a result of recourse to Greek and Islamic discourse on this science. After all, as Alfred North Whitehead has said, Western philosophy is merely a footnote to Plato.

Aristotle claimed that the soul is “everything that exists.” This claim by Aristotle plays into the novel concepts of “universal mind” and “universal soul” that will be touched upon shortly. There is, however, the problem of the mind and body in the sense that there has always been a debate as to whether the mind, which is a component of the human soul, is an entity that is dependent on the human body or independent of the human body. Nevertheless, the prevalent idea amongst the Ancient Greeks as well as Islamic philosophers such as Avicenna who wrote about the issue of the human soul is that the mind and body are “dualistic,” which means there is a “ghost in the machine” in the sense that the body is the container for the human soul. Aristotle was a proponent of this idea, otherwise known as “hylomorphism.”

Aristotle also suggested that the soul has three major characteristics, namely, movement, sensation, and incorporeality. The soul is what moves the body, according to Aristotle, and the movement of the soul originates in two things: appetite and thinking. Also, thinking has a resolute goal in and of itself, according to Aristotle, which is to “partake in the eternal and divine.” Whereas Plato, according to Karl Popper, was pessimistic about the outcome of human behavior and thinking, Aristotle was an optimist in the sense that human thinking would lead to progress and that it was aimed at the achievement of a higher meaning and purpose. Moreover, one can argue that there is a certain feeling of anxiety, guilt, and pain associated with the failure to think and to “partake” in the Aristotelian notion of the “eternal and divine” especially when one incorporates the discourse of Kierkegaard, who argued that anxiety is the result of sin, and later Freud who argued that underneath conscious behavior that manifests into aggression and infantile sexuality is a sense of anxiety and guilt.

On the other hand, sensation, or the five senses, are reactions to the environment which help an individual find higher ground for survival. Anger is often a reaction to a perceived threat to one’s survival, which at times can be founded and at times unfounded. Often times, anger is the result of misinformation. Nevertheless, the human soul is said to be divided into three parts, according to Avicenna, who wrote a treatise on the science of the human soul. For one, there is the “plant soul” that is tailored towards nourishment and reproduction. Also, there is the “animal soul” that is preoccupied with pleasure-seeking and survival. Finally, there is the “rational soul” that aims for character development and scientific awareness. Generally, the movement of the soul, due to the existence of the animal soul, is geared towards attaining pleasure and moving away from pain. It is believed that the motivation to seek pleasure is one of two powers embedded within the soul, with the other power being the power of perception that is generated by the five senses. Thus, both animals and human beings possess an “animal soul” that is geared towards pleasure-seeking and survival.

However, what distinguishes human beings from animals is what Avicenna called the “rational soul.” The human mind can be equated to the rational soul. There are three stages which the rational soul goes through as it develops, according to Islamic philosophy. First is the “Nafs al-Ammara,” in which the rational soul is in a state of complete submission to the animal soul. Second is the “Nafs al-Lawama,” where the rational soul is in a state of anxiety and guilt. Finally, the rational soul reaches a state known as “Nafs al-Mutmaina,” where the rational soul is relaxed as a result of conquering the animal soul and thus reaching full development. Without the development of the rational soul, the basis of which is character development and the pursuit of scientific awareness, the lines between “pleasure” and “pain” are blurred and as a result the soul is rendered imperfect. The imperfection of the soul resulting from the neglect of the rational soul that is in need of character development and scientific awareness is also a notion that was put forth by Plato.

The work of the philosopher is to “separate” the rational soul from the body through the development of the rational soul by way of abandoning the desires and pleasures deriving from the animal soul, according to Plato. Thus, the search for pure knowledge of reality and truth can be rendered a success only if the rational soul is isolated from the desires and pleasures of the body. As Plato suggested, all the world’s ills and problems stem from the fact that humans are confounded by the base desires and pleasures of the animal soul at the expense of the rational soul that seeks character development and scientific awareness. But due to the fact that the soul does not separate from the body until death, there are only two possible scenarios, according to Plato. One possible scenario is that pure knowledge of reality and truth is unattainable during one’s lifetime. The other possible scenario is that pure knowledge of reality and truth are attainable only after one’s death. The second scenario has been espoused by Islamic thinkers as well, the foremost of them being Al-Ghazali. In sum, the body is the “prison” of the soul, which can be free only after death.

 As mentioned before, Aristotle was one of the first to suggest that the soul is “everything that exists,” and this notion founded in antiquity has translated into novel scientific concepts such as the “universal mind” and the “universal soul” which suggest that there is an underlying and unifying essence to everything that exists. But the substance which this essence consists of is perhaps a mystery that has yet to be uncovered. The intellect is said to be the activity of the rational soul, or mind, according to Aristotle. It is also believed that the mind is separate from the body, and while it is separate from the body, the mind acts upon the body by virtue of it being separate.

Based on what a number of ancient philosophers have suggested regarding the human soul, the rational soul is founded upon notions of ethics and morality aimed particularly towards character development. For one, Democritus stated: “Men don’t get happiness from bodies or from money, but by acting right and thinking wide.” Another fragment from antiquity is: “Who chooses the goods of the soul chooses the more divine; who chooses those of the body chooses the more human.” Socrates then adds: “He who commits an act of injustice is more unhappy than he who suffers it.” Thus, the study of the human soul is not an abstract pursuit. It has material consequences and implications. As Democritus said:

“It is fitting for men that they should make a logos (theory and law) more about the soul than about the body. For the perfection of the soul puts right the faults of the body. But bodily strength without reasoning does not improve the soul.”

Hegelian idealism has its roots in the Aristotelian notion that the mind is the object that it thinks about. In other words, you are what you think about.

            In terms of the intellect, which is the activity of the rational soul or mind, there are two types, according to Avicenna. For one, there is the “theoretical intellect” that focuses on scientific achievement and awareness, and on the other hand is the “practical intellect” which seeks to achieve “God-consciousness,” known as “Taqwa” in Arabic, through the overcoming of character follies. Another task of the rational soul is to unify multiples through analysis and synthesis, the pinnacle of which is the view of humanity as a unified whole rather than atomistic parts which is undergirded by the concept of the “universal mind” or “universal soul.” Thus, the axiom of “the whole is the sum of its parts” understood in a scientific sense. Also, the perfection of the human soul can only come about as the result of the perfection of the rational soul, or mind. One property of the rational soul is that it enables an individual to transcend logical and syllogistic thinking through inspiration and revelation and work in conjunction with the universal soul, otherwise known as “spirit.” But Avicenna claimed that this ability to transcend through immersion into inspiration and divine revelation belongs only to the prophets of the past.

            In sum, there is a higher and immortal part of the soul on one hand, and on the other hand there is a lower and perishable part of the soul. Freud claimed that the sickness of the mind, otherwise known as “neurosis,” has a sexual origin in the sense that the aggression and infantile sexuality of the animal soul that stems from instincts geared towards pleasure-seeking and survival has thwarted the development of the rational soul, or mind. Freud also suggested that dialogue and “free association” will expose or uncover the sexual origin of neurosis. Hyper-religiosity was also considered by Freud to be the result of perversion or repression of the sexual instincts emanating from the animal soul. Culture is also believed to adversely affect the natural trajectory of the sexual instincts towards the development of the rational soul, thus rendering “love” to be unattainable. Freud did not deny the existence of love, but his focus on the inversion and perversion of libido and sexuality as determinants of neurosis was aimed at determining the roots of neurosis which in turn inhibited the cultivation of the rational soul.

As a result, developments in the field of psychology and the study of the human soul have suggested that the mind and thus the soul is striving for meaning and purpose, which in the Aristotelian sense is to “partake in the eternal and divine.” Thus, almost everything concerning the psyche, or soul, revolves around the belief or disbelief in an afterlife. Freud did not deny that the human mind was striving to fulfill a higher purpose. As Karl Popper noted, Freud, like Plato, “assumes a kind of class struggle between the lower and the higher parts of the soul.” But in line with the European existentialists, Abraham Maslow suggested that the higher and lower parts of the soul have to be “integrated” given that neither part can be denied. Once physical needs are met, however, the individual will seek to satisfy emotional needs. Upon integrating the two halves of the soul, namely, the rational soul and the animal soul, Maslow argues that the individual will turn “potentiality” into “actuality” in the sense that the individual will then go through an exhilarating experience of self-discovery.

In the end, however, there is a difference between conjecture and theory in the sense that the former is based on a hypothesis that has yet to be proven, whereas the latter is something held to be certain or true due to the availability of data and evidence that helps to uphold the underlying natural law embedded in a theory. Sir Isaac Newton, despite his profound contributions to modern science, claimed that his work in the Principia was merely conjectural and hypothetical. On the other hand, one can argue that the theory of the soul is based on certain and true conceptions of aesthetics, ethics, and morality in addition to acknowledging the most important fact of life, namely, death. Moreover, an explanation of the essence of being and existence, which is both ontological and metaphysical in nature, is superior to mere conjecture because “essentialist” explanations are searched for rather than being conjured up haphazardly. Thus, we can argue that the understanding we have of the human soul stemming from antiquity and going into the present moment is based on something certain and true.

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