Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Reply to Bonnie on the Aristotelian Soul

Dear friend and frequent interlocutor, Bonnie, posted a long comment connected with this blog at the International Political Science Association Research Committee 12 Facebook page.  I am replying here. 
Others whose scholarship has focused on Aristotle propose that the Latin version of Aristotle differs from the Greek in ways that are significant for biology. For instance the concept of soul (psyche) about which Aristotle wrote in De Anima in Greek means breath (or life). The Latin Aquinas proposed that soul is autonomous and independent of the body. Thus a shift of that kind implies dualism in Aquinas translation of Aristotle that was not included in the Greek. Ken you know far more than me so correct any misunderstanding…
John Herman Randall, a great scholar of Aristotle who taught at Columbia where another friend of mine studied philosophy, taught that the Greek version of Aristotle is a kind of process philosophy. One small example of a translational conundrum is that the concept of soul (psyche) in Greek means breath (or life). The Latin Aquinas understood soul as autonomous and independent of the body. Thus, Aquinas’ translation of Aristotle leads to a dualism that, according to Randall, does not appear in the Greek Aristotle.
I cut and pasted out of order to focus on this central point.  I am marginally competent in classical Greek.  I have no Latin.  For a number of reasons however I do not think that the translation of Aristotle’s word for the soul‑ψυχή‑into the Latin anima was responsible for a more dualistic concept of soul. 
All words for soul are grounded in the distinction between the external, visible aspects of beings and the internal, invisible dimensions of those beings.  The soul explains two basic phenomena: why some things are alive rather than dead and how human beings and animals (and perhaps even trees or fresh springs) can have an internal consciousness and intention.  That these phenomena are real in the case of human beings we know firsthand.  That they are real in animals we know from analogy.  As for plants and sacred mountains, I remain agnostic. 
As soon as a culture becomes aware of this distinction between the visible and invisible aspects of the human being, it is almost inevitable that someone will imagine that they can exist apart from one another.  What, after all, is a corpse but a body from which the soul has departed?  If the soul departs, where does it go?  Perhaps it is as the Buddha suggested with his powerful question: where does the candle flame go when it is blown out?  The Greeks and the Romans certainly imagined that there were realms where souls exist without bodies.  I seem to recall Achilles complaining about the lodging in Hades.  Moreover, ghosts are ubiquitous in all cultures that are aware of the body/soul distinction. 
Philosophical accounts of dualism are another thing.  To my knowledge, the closest one comes to dualism in classical philosophy is Lucretius’ reading of Epicurus.  Lucretius is one of the rare examples of a genuine materialist.  All aspects of real beings are the consequence of their atomic components.  The soul, he supposed, was fine, invisible cloud of particles that escapes from the body at death like air from a balloon.  I suppose you will find more in the Neoplatonists; however, whatever they were, they weren’t Platonists. 
Aristotle’s account of ψυχή is not at all dualistic.  He says that the soul is the actuality of a body with potential for life.  To unpack this, ask yourself “what is a church?”  It’s not the bricks and boards, for these could have easily been assembled into a bank or a brothel.  It’s not the completed building, for a church has to have people and the building could be just as easily used by the bankers or the working girls.  The church is a group of human beings gathering together to do something, in this case, to worship.  Likewise, an Aristotelian animal is a specific kind of matter, organized in a certain way, and actually doing certain kinds of activity: breathing, metabolizing, sensing, etc. 
Aristotle’s soul is quite complex.  It encompasses three distinct explanatory causes: the species form (it’s a cat and not a catfish), efficient causation (the form is constantly pushing it to grow, feed, etc.), and final causation (the form directs the growth and activities of the organism towards certain ends).  It is very difficult to imagine how this kind of soul could exist apart from a material body.  To deploy a simpler analogy, a bowl has to have a convex shape; that means, however, that something must exist to be shaped into a bowl.  You can’t pour milk over cereal contained in an abstract geometrical form. 
I have read enough Aquinas to be astounded at the power of his thought.  I don’t know him nearly well enough to comment on his view of this matter.  I do know the New Testament and I read in the wee books at the end that Jesus was come in the flesh.  This was the result of a long struggle between the early church and the Gnostics.  The latter believed that all material was vulgar and bad; what was spiritual and good could exist only in the spirit.  So if Christ was the son of God, then he must have existed in spiritual form alone.  To this 1st John 4:3 says:
κα πν πνεμα  μ μολογε τν ησον Χριστν ν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθτα, κ το Θεο οκ στιν κα τοτ στιν τ το ντιχρστου, ὃ ἀκηκατε τι ρχεται, κα νν ν τ κσμ στν δη
And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
I find it fascinating that the early church was fighting explicitly against the dualism of the Gnostics.  Furthermore, to my knowledge, all major Christian churches confess the resurrection of the body.  Our souls don’t float off to heaven.  When we gain resurrection, we get our bodies back.  I am hoping for two things.  One is that the standard of admission, when it comes to opinions about these things, is lax.  The other is that I will be a bit taller and that I can sing. 
I don’t know what the nature of life after death might be but I agree with Aristotle’s model of the soul and I think that it is incoherent to imagine a human being without a human body.  The notion that the soul is a vaporous self that can float away from the body after death (or maybe from time to time during life) is probably what most contemporary Christians believe; however, that owes more to Descartes and his dualism than to the history of the Church or its doctrines.  The soul as milky, transparent self is what I like to think of as the Gospel according to Walt Disney.  It is easy to imagine a dog soul with tiny wings and a halo just as it is easy to imagine a centaur.  Both are logically incoherent. 

Nor am I convinced that all dogs go to heaven.  My mother-in-law had a dog that came straight from Hell and, gracefully, went back.  I am pretty sure that most dogs go to heaven.  

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