What is a soul? Here are five theories from philosophy, religion, and science, along with quotations from the finest spiritualists of our time:
Deepak Chopra: The soul is the core of your being. It is eternal. It doesn’t exist in space/time. It’s a field of infinite possibilities, infinite creativity. It’s your internal reference point with which you should always be in touch.
1. What is a soul according to the Ancient Greeks?
By and large, the Ancient Greek tradition didn’t think of the soul in terms of a spiritual substance inhabiting the body of human beings alone, but rather as a life force which animates all living organisms, and which is one with the body.
Plato, who divided the soul into three parts (the logical, the spirited, and the appetitive) seems to have been the first to suggest that the soul is something immortal that could outlive the body, and which inhabits the body until death.
Aristotle also divided the soul into three degrees. The first degree, for him, was to be found in all living organisms, including plants, and this is what governed the natural functions such as reproduction and growth.
The second degree of soul was to be found in animals and human beings, but not in plants, and this was the soul that governed the senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.
The third degree was to be found in human beings alone, the intellectual or rational soul, and this soul gave the capacity for thought and reflection. Aristotle seems to have been opposed to Plato’s idea that the soul and the body were distinct from each other.
Eckhart Tolle: The soul is your innermost being. The presence that you are beyond form. The consciousness that you are beyond form, that is the soul. That is who you are in essence.
2. The view a soul in Hinduism and Buddhism
In Hindu and Buddhist worldviews, the Atman is the individual soul or self and the Brahman is the world soul. The Atman is the vital force that animates and operates in every form of life, not just in humans. It is the essence of all beings.
The Brahman is the one, supreme spirit that pervades everything and is the impersonal Absolute behind the origin of the universe. All life is seen as a manifestation of Brahman in different forms with a veil of illusion, known as Maya. Atman, in other words, is Brahman, but in its differentiated, seemingly individual form.
The aim of Yoga is union with Brahman. Atman is distinct from the mind, and on the way to achieving union with Brahman, the aspirant needs to go beyond his mind to reach his Atman. One of the key steps in yoga is the realization that the mind and the Atman are different things.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee: The soul is a divine part of our self. It is our divine nature. It is a part of us that is one with God. Everybody has a soul. It is the immortal internal part of ourselves. It never dies. It’s immortal. It belongs to God.
3. What is a soul in Judaism and Kabballah?
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the soul and the body are not distinguished from each other clearly. There is no separate word for the soul, but the word ru’ah which means ‘breath’ or ‘wind’ and nefesh, which refers to something animate as opposed to something dead, are used for the purposes of referring to the soul.
Jewish mysticism, or Kabballah, sees the soul as divine emanation that has evolved downwards to enter the body, and it’s ultimate goal is to return upwards to its source through the sephirot, or emanations of the divine, which form a tree and terminate at the bottommost level in the physical manifestation of earthly things.
Wayne Dyer: The soul is the birthless, deathless, changeless part of us. The part of us that looks out from behind our eyes and has no form. The soul is infinite so there is no in or out of it. It is everywhere. There’s no place that it is not.
4. How Christianity regards a soul
In Christianity, the idea of the resurrection had a great influence on the conception of the soul in general. The soul became associated with the belief that the person, including the earthly body, would be resurrected in their entirety in paradise.
At the same time, however, Christianity became strongly influenced by Plato, as the New Testament was translated into Greek and its spread very quickly became a Greek-led movement. The dualism of Plato, i.e. the idea that the soul was a non-material entity stuck in the material body, had a big influence on Christian thought.
St. Augustine, one of the most influential of Christian thinkers, wrote that the soul is immortal, as opposed to the body, which is not. However, he claimed that the soul derives life from God as the body derives life from the soul. He proposed that the soul could die if God abandoned it, just as the body dies when the soul abandons it.
Michael Singer: The indwelling consciousness that watches the mind come and go. That watches the heart come and go, the emotions of the heart. And watches the world pass before you. You, the conscious, the consciousness, the center of being, is soul.
5. Views of a soul in Science/Materialism
Materialists, using science to back up their claims, tend to believe that there is no distinction between what we call the soul and the functions of the brain.
In a debate with modern spiritualists and religious thinkers on the science behind brain and soul, neuroscientist Sam Harris makes the following argument:
‘Damage areas of the brain and faculties are lost, and they’re clearly lost. It’s not that everybody with brain damage has the soul perfectly intact but they just can’t get the words out – everything about your mind can be damaged by damaging the brain.
What we’re being asked to consider is that: you damage one part of the brain and something about the mind, subjectivity, is lost. You damage another and yet more is lost – and yet, if you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognizing grandma and speaking English?’
- Plato, The Republic, Book IV
- St. Augustine, City of God, Book XIII, Chapter 3
- Wong Kiew Kit – The Complete Book of Zen, Element Books, 1998
- The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions – Edited by John Bowker, Oxford Uni. Press, 1997
- Aristotle, De Anima
What is a soul for you? Which of these definitions do you agree with? Do you have your own definition?
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