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Topic #E43

Aristotle, On the Soul, I.1-3


14 January 2002
Scribe: Suzanne Dhaliwal



These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes


Today rather than a conventional lecture, Professor Hutchinson decided to deal with any troubles that anyone has been dealing with regarding the Aristotle readings for this week.


The first question that a student asked concerned the differences between Plato and Aristotle.  The student made the comment that Plato talks of ridding of pleasure and pain such that one can reach toward truth.  Aristotle, however, reverses this; although Aristotle was Plato’s student they have differing ideas.  The Professor remarked that that this was not necessarily true.  The student then made a comment about the soul being shackled to the body and it therefore being beyond the senses according to Aristotle.  To this the professor made the following reply: Plato and Aristotle both believe that there is an animal nature in human beings that we transcend to become a rational, divine being. The difference is that Plato had little interest in nature; he regarded it as a ‘theatre for the drama of the human soul’.  Aristotle had a broad interest in nature, including insects, fishes, shellfish etc.  He observed that one of the eight tentacles of the octopus was linked to its process of sexual reproduction which during intervening centuries was thought to be ridiculous; however, it was later found to be a correct observation.  Aristotle had an interest in the natural world in itself, much like the modern biologist.


The Professors’ reply continued: Aristotle was not in fact hostile toward pleasure.  In Book 7 and Book 10 of the Ethics he replaced Plato’s definition with his own.  It is not a hedonistic pleasure for Aristotle but rather this: the affinity to take pleasure in things that are fine.  The value of the pleasure comes not from the amount but the value of the activity which one is finding pleasure in.  Therefore as the value of the activity increases the value of pleasure one receives also increases from engaging in that activity.  In Arisottle’s view there is reincarnation of human beings, which are the nearest things to God and therefore closest to the divine realm; but there is no reincarnation across species.


The next question from a student was: if the soul is independent what makes the soul confined to the body?  The professor’s reply was that the soul is not in chains, there is no punishment involved, Aristotle does not believe in punishment.  The soul is viewed as something ‘weird`.  The word ‘soul’ is a translation of the Greek word psyche (radical of psychology, psychotic), which means to Aristotle what ever causes the living thing to be alive.  Psyche was translated in Latin as anima, therefore making ‘animator’ the best translation (except that it has Disney undertones). 


The Professor’s reply continued: that the force (soul) causes living things to be alive; that is whatever variable that when missing, causes the thing no longer to be alive.  Plants have souls, all living things do, and this therefore requires a reason why animals evolve (although not across species) and why things are alive.  This is a misleading definition; the soul is not a thing, a form of a body, or an individual substance.  If the soul were an individual substance, i.e. a homunculus, then what stops it from going about?  Souls need to be chained it seems.  There is soul in things, animals, plants; the soul is whatever organization keeps it in the life that it tends to have, whatever keeps that specific life going.  This is a general definition of the soul, which cannot remain focused on particular types of living thing.  The definition requires something for why both the cat and the daughter looking at the cat are alive.


A student then asked if this wasn’t reducing the idea of the soul?  To which the Professor replied, no, that this is a very complex treatment of the soul.  After Book 1 Aristotle explores failed questions of the soul.  Book 2 gives positions in a series of drafts.  The following definition of the soul was referred to in Book 2, chapter 1, page 24 in our translation, “the soul is an actuality like knowledge; for both sleeping and waking presuppose the existence of soul, and of these waking corresponds to contemplating, sleeping to knowledge possessed but not employed, and the knowledge of any one thing is temporally prior < to the contemplation of it>.  The soul therefore is ‘a first actuality of a natural body which potentially has life.’  The soul does not have any form in this definition.  For Aristotle the soul means that it is an actualization, which is the cause of living things to have the potential to be alive.  The many processes where potentials are realized into ‘actuals,’ constitute the life of a thing.  Death makes potentials ‘un-actualisable’.


A student commented that it was empty to say that at one level life is what there is prior to death, and death is what there is after life.  To this the Professor remarked that the definition is not to make progress in an intellectual framework but to reject previous ideas.  The soul is not a thing transplanted into a thing.  The soul is the thing, which differs from species to species because the soul is whatever causes the living thing’s life processes to continue. This is a view of human life in a generalized explanation, the soul is not a resident being translated.


A student then made a comment that Aristotle’s ideas about reincarnation are not reconcilable with a soul not being translated.  To which the Professor stated that while Aristotle in his scientific work does not go into the question; he believed that Aristotle continued to believe in reincarnation.  He was interested in embryology and the generation of animals.  The theory Aristotle maintained was that the rational soul of a human is transmitted to the next generation via “warm, frothy semen”, therefore a transmission of the creature’s soul.  The question then arises as to how the ‘spark` gets into the semen?  A modern analogy is that children look like their parents; it is through the transmission of genetic material that human qualities are passed on in the semen.  The information encoded in DNA, which has only this century been decoded is a modern conventional truth.  All plants, animal, humans have transmitted their genetic information through their continuance of DNA.  Aristotle guessed that it was located in a ‘primitive substance’.


The professor then continued with noting that there have been one- and two-parent theories of reproduction.  In the two-parent theory the female exerts an influence, but in the one parent theory it is the male which plants its seed in the ‘furrow’ of the woman.  Prior to the microscope this discussion continued before the two-parent theory was validated.  It therefore seems rational to abandon reincarnation in an astral sense and replace it with a sort of ‘reincarnation’ as a genetic transmission across generations.


A student brought up the topic that the souls differs from species to species, i.e. animals, human.  The professor remarked that this being the general enterprise of Book 1, it follows that all creatures are included in the ‘seed theory`, and the seeds are specific to each creature.  Many thinkers began broadening their definition of the soul, including Empedocles and Pythagoras, Aristotle however, felt that they did not account for thinking; Book 1 deals primarily with the human soul.


We shall continue with the definition of the soul on Wednesday.  The Professor noted that a problem with Aristotle is that often it is hard to tell what kind of question he is answering; this is something one should pay attention to when trying to understand Aristotle.  “After 20 years I’m still baffled by some paragraphs, so relax.”


The Professor directed our attention toward a student-eye-view of the Ethics, which he published in the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, the Barnes edition.  It is approximately 15,000 words and is a valuable introduction to Aristotle’s ethics.