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Topic #E43

Aristotle, On the Soul, I.1-3


14 January 2002
Scribe: Aris Demosthenous


These minutes were spoken on 16 January; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes


                  The professor began Monday’s lecture by stating that it was to be a question period to help us catch up.  He then started us off by clarifying that to Aristotle though nature is full of things with purpose, a coincidence is something that does not have purpose.  Luck is something that happens by itself; it’s something contingent.  Aristotle uses part of this idea in De Anima for the soul.


Question – Plato seems to remove pleasure and pain from the equation to try and find truth, whereas Aristotle says the opposite … why?

Answer – This is not actually the case.  Both Aristotle and Plato believe that human beings have an animal nature but also that we are rational.  They did differ on their view of the natural world however.  Plato thought it to be a theater for the drama of the human soul, whereas Aristotle thought it was a place of its own and not just a theater.  Also, animal creatures were very interesting to Aristotle and not to Plato, whereas our presence here was interesting to both.  Aristotle’s attitude towards pleasure is more favourable than Plato’s.  He believed that the value of each pleasure is measured by the value of the activity being performed.  In this way it is the activity that tells one whether a pleasure is valuable or not.  Conversely, though Aristotle did believe in reincarnation, he did not believe in being reincarnated into lower forms of life as punishment.


Question – What is it that confines the soul to the body?

Answer – The soul is not confined to the body as something chained up might be confined.  Again he doesn’t believe in punishment.  Here we have to take a step back for a moment.  The question must be reintroduced, what is a soul?  Here we must be careful not to add any Christian Theology because that would lead us astray.  The word soul in Greek is psyche which has the same root as psychology and psychic.  This immediately gives it a different outlook.  In Latin, the word is anima which has the same root as ‘animated’.  And so the soul is to be conceived as whatever is the cause of something to be alive.  So plants too have souls because they both live (when they have a soul) and die (when the do not).  The soul is not a separate thing in Aristotle’s account; it is the form of the body and not an independent substance.  If the soul were independent, then the question would have application but it isn’t on Aristotle’s view.  The soul is a manner of organization to bring about life.


Question – Are you reducing the soul to simply a form?

Answer – You can’t really reduce anything in Aristotle.  In Book 2, chap. 1 Aristotle tries to give a definition; in fact three were mentioned.  First, at 412a11-28: “the soul must be a substance in the sense of the form of a natural body which potentially has life”.  The second appears in the last line of the same paragraph: “The soul therefore is ‘a first actuality of a natural body which potentially has life’”.  And the third can be found in 414a14-28: “the soul is a kind of actuality and principle of whatever has the potential to be this sort of thing.”  Form doesn’t feature in these definitions.  Actuality is the feature to which there is a relationship.  The soul is the cause or actualization of the body to be alive.  This is a move from potential to actual.  In death the potential is no longer possible, but in life both the potential and the actual continuously exist.  The point of these definitions then is to give a framework of the proper approach to find the answer.  It is not a thing.  It is different in each species, of which human life is only one example.


Question – If the soul is not something confined, how does Aristotle view reincarnation?

Answer – In his work The Generation of Animals, Aristotle has a theory that the rational soul is transmitted through warm frothy semen (i.e. through material substances).  A modern example would be to say that my children look like me because of seaman and the female counterpart (i.e. our genetic makeup or DNA).  He guessed (rightly) that this is where the transference exists.  He unlike many of his contemporaries, though, believed in a single parent theory where the man plants the seed and the woman contributes nothing but the soil as it were.  Those who disagreed believed in a 2-parent theory (which turns out to be correct).  So, it might have been better for him to abandon reincarnation but instead he tried to give it a natural (biological) explanation.


Question – where in the text is soul described as being for both plants and animals?

Answer – I can find it given time (ed. note: the passage is II.2), but it can more quickly be recognized by understanding that he is speaking of plants at the beginning and end of the section while speaking of human beings in the middle of it.  This generates enough evidence to believe that the soul belongs to all living things and not just humanity.  Wednesday’s lecture will bring about a clearer definition of the soul.


                  Before ending the lecture the professor mentioned that in reading Aristotle you normally find an answer being stated without having noticed a question ever being asked.  That being said, we should continuously ask ourselves what the question is while reading his works.  And lastly, the professor mentioned that there is a chapter on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that he wrote for the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle that should prove helpful in understanding the text.