Greek Views on the Soul

by Peter Holleran


"Gnothi Seaton"


   The dichotomy of man as a psycho-physical unity arising in consciousness versus man as consciousness or a soul (or mind) in a body is a thread beginning in ancient Indian philosophy and continuing in a modified form in the west through the teachings of Plato and Aristotle that continues to this very day, and the understanding of which is the subject of this essay. [There are deeper views, which are beyond the scope of this paper, found especially in Plotinus, as described in the essays The Grandeur of a Sage: A Plotinian View, and PB and Plotinus: The Fallacy of Divine Identity on this website. The Platonic view on the Soul is also much more complex than that discussed here. This essay is written essentially to make some specific points about the nature of the 'I' and its relationship with the body.

   Socrates (469-399 B.C.) was the teacher of Plato, who in turn was the mentor of Aristotle. He left no writing of his own but became famous through the works of Xenephon and Plato. In this he was similar to his contemporary Confucius whose fame spread largely through the writings of Mencius. The particular teaching method of Socrates was to cleverly turn his students back on their own questions and opinions in quest of the truth. He made no profession of knowledge except of his own ignorance. That, in fact, was his true gnosis. It was from an apparent willingness to learn from anyone who professed to know that is derived the famous "Socratic irony," for the inevitable result of his conversations was the reduction of the would-be instructor to a state either of irritation at the unmasking of his pretensions, or of humility and eagerness to be instructed by his questioner.

   Socrates taught that one needed to encounter life directly, not through logic or "borrowed" experience. He believed in the pursuit of Ideal Beauty, first by knowing the beauty of the body, then the beauty of the soul, and, finally, the impersonal beauty of the cosmos pulsating within and without the "silent being".

   Known for his ability to drink his students under the table, Socrates would come home at six in the morning after a night on the town and conmence his usual philosophical dialogue [with anyone who could stay with him) without missing a step. He was married, and recommended the same to his students. He advised them that if they had a good wife they would be very happy, and if they had a bad one they would become philosophers. Legend has it that Socrates suffered from excessive nagging and therefore spent much time out of the house!

   The death of this great soul was recorded by Plato (1) in one of the most moving passages in western literature. Rather than recant his views, for which he was imprisoned by the State [his crime: introducing new gods and corrupting the youth], and, spurning banishment from Athens, or escape [which was encouraged, even by prison officials], Socrates drank poison hemlock and serenely passed out of this life. During his trial Socrates refuted the charges of impiety by maintaining that his entire life had been a mission to refom the degradation of the Athenian city-state. He argued that, rather than the death penalty, he should be awarded the highest honors. Under the inspiration of his daemon or inner voice Socrates made it his vocation to question the wisdom which others claimed to possess, a move that he knew would make him unpopular. In fact, he had stayed out of politics for this very reason. When the final count was in, 280 out of 500 jurors cast their vote against him. With the death of Socrates, "the pregnant theme that the individual conscience is the site of God-given wisdom gave birth to a new morality." (2)

   Through his disciple Plato the philosophical pursuit of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful reached new heights. Many today teach the first or second of these categories, few the third, but for Socrates and even more Plato, the beautiful was an integral part of the philosophic realization, something which the dry advaitist or brittle ascetic yogi might due well to keep in mind. Anthony Damiani states:

   "The ultimate beauty is the World-Mind. Did you ever read The Symposium by Plato? Do you remember how Diotima had to teach Socrates? She tells him that there may not be enough love in his nature to reach all the way up to ultimate Beauty." (3)

   And Socrates, in his prayer to the god of Nature:

   "O Pan! Do so that I become beautiful inside me. And all that exists outside and around me to be in harmony with what I have in me." (4)

   For Plato man was an intelligent being whose love of wisdom led to the soul's ascent to the intelligible realms of light above the sense-world. Aristotle argued that reason is the most divine part of human nature and that one should discipline the passions and sensation to further one's rational ends. Rather than assign Truth to a realm of its own, however, he argued for its contemplation in the context of the natural world. His philosophy had the greater influence and was more sympathetic to the scientific exploration of the realm of nature, since such a pursuit, according to him, was based on man’s inherent desire to know and understand.

   Medievalists Moses Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas attempted to intellectually justify the Old and New Testaments, respectively, on the basis of Aristotelian philosophy. To Aristotle man is not merely a soul trapped in a body, but, rather, "the soul is the form of the body." [Ludwig Wittgenstein reversed this and said that the body is the truest form or picture of the soul]. One could perhaps argue that for Aristotle the whole person is a total presentation or art-form that can more and more approximate the divine by the perfection of its intelligence. Such a view fit very well with exoteric Judeo-Christian and Islamic thought (identified as it was with a bodily-based point of view) where man was originally a "psycho-physical unity 'breathed to life' by a creator-god", rather than a prodigal soul fallen from its spiritual home (as the mystic might argue). Aristotle regarded the soul as the inmost center of man's being, whereas for Plato it was a fragment of the Divine, a pre-existing entity which enters the world of Becoming from the world of Being. Later neo-Platonic philosophers, such as Plotinus, while expressing a doctrine of the One, at times spoke of the soul as being a stranger on this earth which had fallen into matter through its 'audacious self-will', and even that "the body is a tomb" (or "soma sema").

   This type of view appears foreign to Aristotle, for whom the soul can be known in the context of the body-mind. Aristotelian philosophy, furthermore, can be considered an early argument in favor of the psycho-physical unity of the body-mind and ego-I itself, which contemporary scientific thought is in agreement with. For Aristotle there was no body-mind split (a dilemma which those of the gnostic or mystical schools often suffer); mind is a purely bodily function, and its center is at the heart:

   "Aristotle regarded the heart and not the brain as the thinking or control centre of the body. He also spoke of certain very fine thread-like tendons that went from the heart to all the larger tendons of the body as in a marionette. Hence the notion of one’s ‘heart-strings’ being tugged." (5)

   This has some parallels with some of the ancient Upanishadic descriptions of the Heart of consciousness.

   Of course, the work of Aristotle, as commonly understood, fails to point to, or offer means to realize, the source and ultimate nature of the body-mind and ego-I, and in this regard it remains bound to the gross plane, and, therefore, could be considered inferior to the views of Plato (which, inasmuch as they have been aligned with gnosticism, may also fall short of ultimate truth). Moreover; the concept of Aristotle that the primal (Divine) Mover could never enter the realms of manifestation became a dominant tenet of Christian doctrine (through the efforts of Thomas Aquinas), and because of this for centuries mystics of the Church who spoke of breathing in and receiving the holy spirit, or divine life and light, into their bodies were accused of blasphemy, for God was considered to be eternally apart from the domain of the flesh. Only Christ was the divine incarnate. (Aquinas, it seems, was moved to change his views when, near the end of his life, he had a spontaneous experience of infused mystical contemplation, which caused him to confess that all that he had previously written was "mere chaff").

   The mechanistic views (of which Aristotle and his descendants in the contemporary scientific community are proponents) are arguably more true than conventional soul theories, in that at least they argue for the unity of the body-mind. The 'I' itself, Sri Nisargadatta would say, is inseparable from a body-mind, in any manifest realm in which it appears, and is not, in truth, inside or separable from it, in precisely the way popular soul-theory suggests. Adi Da similarly argued:

   “The self is only independent as the body. Prior to the whole body, or birth in any realm, there is no separate self or consciousness or mind. The whole body, or the self, is simply the sense of separation or independent existence."

   "The whole body is a psycho-physical event. The lie is that its psychic aspect represents an independent being - that is, an elusive, subtle person or specific soul that is separable from the complex whole body or born body-being, just as the elemental body, or physical aspect, appears separable from all other bodies and things. Traditional religion and spirituality generally argue for the seniority and separability of within, and modern "materialistic" science seems to argue for the irreducibility of the flesh, and thus the mortality of the psycho-physical "soul." In truth, both arguments are false, since neither is founded in realization of the Truth or condition of the whole body. But the so-called "materialistic" view is at least more correct in its analysis of the singleness of the whole body-being."
(6)

   [This is only partly true. The first paragraph stands on its own,but the second gives the impression that there is no subtle psyche transcending the physical body,which is not true according to most traditional yogic sources. The 'whole body' contains several bodies or koshas. Therefore, the 'I' that is separable from a body-mind may be an illusion, conceptually created by the act of psycho-physical recoil from life, along with mistaken identification with the primal I-thought, whether gross or subtle. But it is not dependent just on the physical body]. As far as the physical body goes, when the reflexive identity as the body relaxes, even before complete dis-identification with the thought 'I', the being enjoys a natural condition of psycho-physical unity and harmony. The chronic stress of the thinking mind winds down, and the 'I', or 'ego-I' , is felt to be coincident with the bodily being or person, rather than a 'ghost in the machine' as Descartesian philosophy would have us believe. it's boundaries become vaguely defined. This is the relative radiance of the child before the age of two and the development of a personal story which the current non-dual teachers talk about. However, the true nature of this 'I' is not merely identical with the body-mind, but, rather, is identical with, and arises within and as, consciousness. Thus, a two-stage process usually occurs. Ramana Maharshi advised his disciples to ask, "To whom does this arise?" or "to whom do these thoughts arise?", and then, when it is discovered that it is to "I" that they arise, the 'ripe soul' inquires, "Who am 'I'?", or “who is this ‘me’?” The first contemplation establishes the unified ‘I' as the center-pole of the bodily-being, and the second leads to the direct intuition of awareness. [These are not the only forms of inquiry one can use; one is free to choose or make up whatever forms work for himself. Or even a different form of practice or simple affirmation.The point is to bring attention to self-attentiveness, and allow the intuition of consciousness to come forth].

   It must be noted that the ego-'I' is more than a mere thought, but a complex pattern of destiny manifested as (natural) but limited feeling identification with the body-mind. This is not wrong, but it must bemade conscious. To inquire of this is really equally a form of submission to the core of one's being, and is not merely a mental or intellectual search for the source of an "I-thought", as Maharshi's teaching is often misconstrued. In his form of inquiry it was advised to "hold onto the ego", the apparent separate I, until a divine power pulled it into the heart, or made the heart or unborn Mind manifest. The caveat is that this must be the 'ripe' ego, in whom the faculties of thinking, feeling, and willing are matured to a significant degree, and who has essentially rotted through much of his self-identity and willfulness. "Weld into one the vessel so that it may be fit to contain truth," said Rumi.

   Aristotle, by a perhaps most generous interpretation, would have the psychophysical unity of the "ego-I" (realized to be one with the body-mind in its naturally relational, and not separate, condition) become the be-all and end-all (or felt basis) of perceiving the natural world and discovering its secrets, thereby glorifying the individual man of the senses. For Aristotle,

   "The soul does not exist without a body and yet is not itself a kind of body. For it is not a body, but something which belongs to a body, and for this reason exists in a body, and in a body of such-and-such a kind." (7)

   For Aristotle, while the soul is not a material object, it is inseparable from the body, and comes into existence after the body, although one can not say it is an epiphenomenon as such. What it is exactly is difficult to determine, but the implications of his philosophy down through history inclines towards materialism, or at least, empiricism. [In this light, one may wonder how history would have turned out if Plato rather than Aristotle had been the teacher of Alexander the Great. Might the great warrior have become a mystic or sage? As an interesting aside, anthroposophist Rudolph Steiner alluded to himself being the reincarnation of both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. Maybe that is why his teachings were more practical and earth centered than that of theosophist H.P. Blavatsky.]

   The misinformed Platonist, on the other hand, would attempt to bypass the revelation of this psycho-physical unity and seek to ascend to the realms of light as the ego-'I' , before its conditional nature is actually known. It never really happens, because the ego-'I' must die at every plane quit by the soul, or spirit (consciousness). It may arise or be born again on a subtler plane (after death, for example), but this is of little consolation to an individual still identified with life on the gross plane, who dies in the usual manner passing through a swoon of unconsciousness before awakening in one of the after death subtle realms, because having filed to die consciously and being 'born again' the conditions for the 'I' and its its manifestations there will be substantially different than one has been accustomed to. The only guarantee of a conscious death, as well as the vision of things-as-they-are, is, apart from the grace of a godman or other such agency, the transcendence of the binding force of identification with the ego-'I', on any plane in which it arises. This is only possible, however, if the first revelation (the realization of the ego-'I' as identical with the body-mind itself) is seen clearly. This requires a high self-understanding and healing of the body-mind split, which also implies a regeneration of the capacity for human feeling. When the ego-'I' is truly known then it is possible to transcend it, but not before. "Self-knowledge comes before God-knowledge," said Kirpal Singh." Or as the sign on the temple at Delphi reads, “Gnothi Seaton.”

   Thus, it is possible to see how Aristotle might have more in common with the non-dualist philosophers than those who propose an evolutionary spiritual path, who would find more affinity with gnostics such as Plato.

   Socrates is credited with the famous phrase, "the unexamined life is not worth living." The truth of this can hardly be questioned, yet the other side of the coin, "the unlived life is not worth examining, "is equally true. Without the richness of free participatory feeling of life and the bodily dimension, the (illusory) subjective ego, separate from the body (and other bodies) generally becomes our position. As psychologist Norman O. Brown wrote in Love’s Body), the feeling of an ego-I or soul separable from the body arises coincident with the feeling that one is a body separate from other bodies. Vedantist V.S. Iyer similarly stated:

   "When you get rid of the idea that your body is separate from that off some one else, then you can see that there is only one common soul." (8)

   The conscious being must first come forth as the bodily-being itself (realized to be non-neurotically, non-separate from the ego-'I'), before the source of that bodily-being can be enquired into and known as consciousness itself, the one Overself. Ramana spoke of this process obliquely when he said that inquiry was to “hold onto the ‘me’.” And what is the ‘me’, in essence? - the feeling 'I-am-the-body.' For Ramana, that feeling is to be held until it is resolved in its source, the heart,after which one is reborn as the conscious Self.

   While it can certainly be argued that Aristotle was less of a materialist (indeed, he said, "The universe unfolds out of its own essence, not being made" (9), and Plato less of a mystic (and perhaps more of a sage), than we have portrayed, it can nevertheless be maintained that the general impression on the nature of the human condition we have inherited from them is as described, and that the dichotomy of man as a psycho-physical unity versus man as a soul (or a mind) in a body is a thread beginning with these men and running throughout western philosophy and culture. It is a thread, moreover, which is only now being untangled through the work of many teachers, who are showing us that these views only represent arguments in favor of one or the other dimension of the human body-mind, its gross or subtle aspect, while the transcendent heart or consciousness is its source and very truth.

   Socrates himself was apparently a man of mystic experiences as well as philosophical insight. Plato reported that once the sage stood immovable upon one spot for a day and a half in a form of ecstatic trance. His action before his death suggested that he knew something of the yogic process and the withdrawal of the sensory currents from the body, for by his silence he essentially acknowledged his jailor when the latter explained that when the ensuing numbness proceeding from his extremities reached his heart he would be gone. Among his final words were, "catch me if you can find me."

   Click here for an historical overview of ancient Greek views of the soul (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

1. In this famous painting, Plato is portrayed as sitting at the foot of the bed, but according to other sources he was not present at the time of Socrates' death.
2. Denise L. and John T. Carmody, Shamans Prophets & Sages: A Concise Introduction to World Religions (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1985), p. 169
3. Anthony Damiani, Looking Into Mind (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1990), p. 156
4. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1987), Vol. 10, 6.87
5. Benjamin Walker, Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), p. 120
6. Bubba Free John, The Paradox of Instruction (San Francisco, CA: The Dawn Horse Press, 1977), pp. 37-46
7. De Anima
8. V.S. Iyer, Commentaries, Vol. 2 (edited by Mark Scorelle, 1999), 1838
9. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1988), Vol. 16, Part 2, 1.175