Written by Emma Coffinet, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
From the meaning of life to the art of politics and the nature of friendship itself, the iconic Greek philosopher Aristotle imparted much wisdom. So much of the great man’s work, penned over two thousand years ago, remains relevant, interesting, and inspiring to this day.
Countless texts and articles have been written on Aristotle’s views and ideas across all kinds of subjects. His influence has spread throughout the ages, even penetrating multiple religious bodies of thought in the process.
Indeed, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all took influence from the man known to many as ‘The Philosopher’, and some of his most intriguing comments concern the subject of the soul, a concept that has been envisioned and interpreted in countless ways over the years.
Here we break down Aristotle’s view of the soul and his breakdown of it in three distinct ‘psyches.’
An Etymological Introduction
In order to fully understand Aristotle’s views of the soul, we must first pay close attention to the words he chose to use and how we interpret those words. The Latin title of his famous treatise On the Soul is De Anima, but the original Greek title is Peri Psyches.
Aristotle, however, has a very specific definition in mind when he makes use of the word ‘psyche’ or ‘soul’. He argues that there are three types of substance: matter, form, and the compound of both matter and form.
On the Soul focuses on living beings, such as plants and animals. In Aristotle’s view, living beings have souls and these souls are what makes them alive. For Aristotle, the soul or psyche can be classified as ‘form’. It is a living entity, that which essentially makes it a living thing.
The Three Psyches
For Aristotle, a soul is not an interior, ghostly agent acting in a body. It is an integral part of every living entity, and such an entity may be a plant, an animal, or a human. This is where Aristotle’s ‘hierarchy’ or categorization of the psyches comes into play. He postulated that there were three main types of psyche:
- Those of plants
- Those of animals
- Those of humans
We can look at these three forms in a different way:
- Nutritive – For Aristotle, a nutritive soul could only be found in plants and was essentially the most basic kind of soul, focused purely on growth, nutrition, and reproduction.
- Sensitive – Sensitive souls represent the next level for Aristotle. Aside from being focused on growth and survival, they also incorporate movement and perception of the world around them, via sensory experiences. Animals can see, feel, hear, and so on, and so have sensitive souls.
- Rational – The rational soul, found in humans, is the highest tier of psyche. It involves all of the aforementioned abilities and processes, including growth, locomotion, reproduction, and perception, but also include intellect, thought, reasoning, and rationality into the equation.
Essentially, the simplest way to look at Aristotle’s so-called soul psyches is to think of them in the form of a hierarchy of living beings, ordered by cognitive abilities, with humans at the top, animals beneath them, and plants at the base.
In Aristotle’s view, all of these different living beings have souls or psyches, which make them alive and drive them to remain alive by nourishing themselves, reproducing, moving, and so on, but these souls can come in different tiers, or levels.
The more advanced souls, found in humans, are capable of more functions and processes than those found in animals and plants, while those of animals are more capable than those found in plants. The rational soul is the highest form, followed by the Sensitive soul and then the Nutritive soul.
It’s also interesting to note that, unlike many of his contemporaries and other philosophers throughout history, Aristotle felt that the soul cannot exist independently of the body. He argued that it is not a body in and of itself, but rather that it ‘belongs to a body’ and must therefore always be present in that body. Should the body cease to exist, the soul goes with it.
Aristotle’s interpretation of the soul makes for fascinating reading and his treatise continues to be read and closely studied by scholars and students the world over. The soul may forever remain something of a mystery, but it’s clear that the great philosopher had a clear view of what it was to him.
Emma Coffinet is a content creator for a range of sites and blogs, responsible for writing articles, social media content, white papers, essay paper examples, and contributes to the platform “write my thesis”. She likes to share the benefits of her experience with others by offering assignment help to students.