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Ideas of Plato and Aristotle as a Basis for Medieval and Early Modern Period Concept of Soul

The problem of the concept of the soul is fundamental to philosophy. Depending on the solution to this problem, the emphasis is shifted either to the biological nature of a person, or to their spiritual essence. The question about the nature of soul was first raised in the works of Plato and Aristotle. Both Plato and Aristotle argue that by their very nature soul and body are different, but at the same time they maintain that there are things that are ‘common’ to soul and body. Both Plato and Aristotle laid a solid foundation for the development of philosophical thought on the concept of the soul. Medieval philosophers continued to develop their conclusions, adjusting them to the Christian traditional view of the human as a creation of God. However, in the early modern period, scholars begin to drift away from the Platonic or Aristotelian views, shifting the focus of the discourse to a more materialistic approach. Still, the influence of the two of greatest ancient Greek philosophers remains significant to the discussion. This paper seeks to examine the extent of that influence on the concept of soul in medieval and early modern philosophy.

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Early Concepts of Soul

The soul began to be viewed as a philosophical concept accessible to rational analysis by the ancient Greeks. All pre-Socratics wondered about the soul and especially about the relationship between it and the body – two fundamental dimensions of human existence. From Plato’s point of view, soul and body exist separately from each other, while for Aristotle, they are inextricably linked.

Plato’s Concept of Soul

The epistemological and ontological views of Plato echo his concept of the soul. The soul is incorporeal, immortal, it does not arise simultaneously with the body, but exists from eternity – and the body unambiguously obeys it. Each phenomenon in the Universe has its own meaning and purpose. Therefore, if this is right, then the soul must dwell in it. Meanwhile, the mind is the force that adapts the means to the ends, and it is the higher part of the soul, which is confirmed by the living example of man. It is composed of body and soul, and this shows a double character of Plato’s concept.

The soul, according to Plato, should be a part of the world soul, where it was taken from and where it will return after time. God, says Plato, took from eternity the existing principles: indivisible and unchanging, and divisible and changeable, which are embodied in ideas and in material form. By mixing these two principles, God received a third one – a something in between. Finally, from all these three principles, he created the world soul. Soul, therefore, consists of three elements, and each of them has its own separate area, which he gives life and cognizes. The first contains eternal and unchanging essences – ideas; in the second lie objects of sensory perception, and in the third – objects of a mixed nature, namely, mathematical ones.

Aristotle’s Concept of Soul

Aristotle like no one else understood the importance of the question of the categorical affiliation of the soul. “Our aim is to grasp and understand, first its essential nature, and secondly its properties; of these some are taught to be affections proper to the soul itself, while others are considered to attach to the animal owing to the presence within it of soul”, the philosopher wrote. First of all, he said, one must determine to which category the soul belongs. Is it matter or form, quality or quantity, existing in possibility or existing in reality? In the end, Aristotle gives such a solution to the problem: the soul is the form and entelechy of the living body. The first definition is quite easy to understand: the soul is the form of a living body – the essence of a living body and the reason for its existence. Without the soul, the body loses its life, but the soul itself does not exist without the body. However, this definition does not touch the essence of the soul itself: it concerns more soul’s relationship to the body. At this point, the concept of entelechy comes into view. Following some of the statements of Aristotle, entelechy could be explained as a way of being. “The way of being” is the name of the category to which the soul belongs.

The soul can be described by studying the movements and sensations of living beings. In this regard, Aristotle singles out the vegetable, sensing, and rational soul. He notes that the speculative part of the soul, or the mind, can exist separately – as the eternal exists separately from the temporal. As the driving force of the soul, Aristotle singles out striving and mind, but the latter also interprets it as a kind of striving, since the conformity of thought is also consistent with the will. Rejecting the concept of the world soul, Aristotle introduces, however, its replacement – the nature, which is immanent to the world just as a separate soul is to a separate living being.

Understanding of the Concept of Soul in Medieval Period

The medieval period of human history began in the III-V century with the fall of the Roman Empire and the establishment of Christianity. It ended in the XV century, when there was a revival of art, secular science, and the discovery of America occurred. The period of the Middle Ages lasted more than a thousand years and coincided with the era of the emergence, heyday and decline of the feudal system.

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The worldview and life principles of the early Christian communities were originally formed in opposition to the pagan world. However, as Christianity gained more and more widespread influence and distribution, it began to need a rational substantiation of its dogmas. Thus, from there began attempts to use the teachings of ancient philosophers for this purpose, which, of course, were given a new interpretation. Thus, medieval thinking and world outlook determined two different traditions: Christian revelation, on the one hand, and ancient philosophy, on the other.

A dogma that defined Christian anthropology was the dogma of the resurrection in the flesh. It rejects the previous pagan beliefs in the immortality of the human soul, which after the death of the body migrates to other bodies, such as Plato stated. Instead, medieval philosophy is convinced that a person will be resurrected entirely, in their bodily form, as, according to the Christian teachings, the soul cannot exist outside the body. This concept is much closer to the Aristotelian approach, which also claimed that there is no soul without body. The dogmas of incarnation and resurrection in the flesh are closely related. It was these dogmas that formed the basis of the medieval understanding of the problem of the relationship between soul and body.

Plotinus’ Concept of Soul

The Greek philosopher Plotinus is considered one of the first major ideologists of early Christianity. The doctrine of Plotinus and his followers was largely based on the ideas of Plato, therefore it went down in history under the name “Neoplatonism”. In the teachings of Plotinus, the divine principle was taken as the basis of all that exists. Thus, the human soul comes from the world soul and is not material – a concept of Plato is easily recognizable here. The soul’s main quality is unity, integrity: the soul can neither be generated by separate elements, nor be built from them. Turning to nature, the soul learns the world around it through sensations. This path is the basis for the formation of new knowledge about the surrounding world.

Aurelius Augustine’s Concept of Soul

The first scholar who, more than seven centuries after Aristotle, posed the main anthropological question in a different way – that is, in the first person (Aristotle speaks of himself in the third person), was Aurelius Augustine. Augustine asks the question: “What is man?”, and tries to answer it from the standpoint of patristic philosophy. Man, as he claims, is unique, inimitable – an original personality in which the physical and the spiritual are combined in an amazing way. The human soul is immortal, similarly to the Platonic understanding of it, and it has superiority over the body – it is the instrument that governs the body. For Augustine, body is more of a dungeon that holds the body. Such a view is reflected in first four lines of Marvell’s A Dialogue between Soul and Body:

“O who shall, from this dungeon, raise
A soul enslav’d so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fetter’d stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;”

Augustine argued that the basis of the soul is the will, which prevails over reason. The will of man, according to Augustine, is governed by God. All actions and deeds of a person are conditioned by their will that has descended from God. In addition to will, the soul includes thinking and memory, but only the will generate active actions, while the mind is passive. In the interpretation of the soul, Augustine is much more productive than Aristotle and the Neo-Platonists. He understands the soul as a living whole of a person, for which the most reliable truth is its own reality. The philosophical and psychological teaching of Augustine, combining the ideas of Christianity and ancient Greek philosophy, was an indisputable authority in the Middle Ages for several centuries.

Thomas Aquinas’ Concept of Soul

Thomas Aquinas, a follower of Aristotle, who again turned to the sources of ancient Greek philosophical thought, like Augustine, considered the problem of reason one of the most difficult in philosophy. Aquinas, while retaining Aristotelian terminology, essentially leaves Aristotle. For him, the soul is also a form of an organized body with life potential. At the same time, while rejecting the principles of Platonism, Aquinas at the same time preserves the position of the immortality of the individual soul, which can only be proved within the framework of Platonic philosophy. Just like Plotinus and Augustine, Thomas Aquinas believed that the soul is unified. It possesses beings, separate and independent from the body, immaterial and individual. The soul is primary in relation to the body, penetrates the body at the moment of birth due to the creative act of the deity, and acts as a source of body movement.

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Based on the views of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas identified three types of soul, differing in the degree of closeness or remoteness to God and to the body. He also arranged them in a hierarchical sequence, from the lowest to the highest. Plant or vegetative soul is the lowest one, inherent in plants and responsible for physiological functions. Next is the animal, or sensitive soul, inherent in animals and responsible for sensory perception. The highest is the intelligent soul, which only man is endowed with. An intelligent soul has intelligence and contains a vegetative and sensitive soul. Thus, Thomas Aquinas speaks of human consciousness, which exists separately both from the external world and from the bodily organism. He defines the human soul as an independent entity that exists above the corporeal world.

Understanding of the Concept of Soul in Early Modern Period

In the XV-XVII centuries, the Aristotelian and Platonic doctrines of the soul, “compromised” by medieval theology, begin to seem more and more outdated and even odious. In a situation where knowledge became more and more specialized, the traditional doctrine of the soul was increasingly forced out of the bounds of science. By the XVIII-XIX centuries, the opinion was established that the soul as an object of scientific research is nothing more than a fiction and a special teaching about it is impossible.

Brentano’s Views on Aristotelian Concept of Soul

However, in the XIX century, the Austrian philosopher Brentano again brought to life the Aristotelian doctrine of the soul. Starting with a desire to protect Aristotle from misinterpretations of his predecessors and his contemporaries, Brentano as a result built his own doctrine, largely based on the provisions of Aristotelian psychology. He points out the need for a special teaching about the human soul as a necessary foundation for the specific existence of a person and the beginning of all their life manifestations. According to Brentano, the Aristotelian doctrine of the soul to the greatest extent embraces all manifestations of human life and reveals knowledge about man in the greatest completeness. Brentano’s views largely coincide with those of Aristotelian, in particular: the doctrine of representation; the doctrine of the infallibility of sensory perception. Most importantly, his concept of the inner existence of mental phenomena comes from the Aristotelian concept of perception, therefore, from his definition of the sensible soul.

Subsequently, due to the controversy that arose between Zeller and Brentano on the point of the Aristotelian concept of the soul, it again became the central object of lively discussions. In Germany, in the XIX century, a lot of studies were published on the topic of the Aristotelian doctrine of the soul.

Platonic and Aristotelian Ideas in Works of Other Philosophers

In the same way as Brentano, Bessarion of Nicea defended Plato from the attacks of George of Trebizond, who argued the incompatibility of Platonism and Christianity. Plato and Aristotle regard the soul and the body as capacities, and that – in so far as they are able to act and to be acted upon – such is the ‘commonality’ shared both by soul and body. Nevertheless, Bessarion emphasizes that in the question of the preexistence of souls, as well as the existence of the souls of heaven and the luminaries, Plato contradicts Christianity. Still, later on, the natural philosophy of the Renaissance, resolutely challenging the scholastic – Aristotelian – concept of the soul, returns to the Plato’s idea of the world soul. The anti-church pathos inspires Giordano Bruno, who recognized the world soul, and in this connection directly referred to Plotinus as a follower of Plato.


The medieval teachings about the soul – in addition to the church tradition – were influenced primarily by the texts of Aristotle and the neo-Platonic commentaries on him. On the one hand, the concept of the soul as the form of the body is accepted, but the concept of the soul as the ruler of the body developed by Augustine, is basically platonic. This dualism of soul and body made it possible to consider the soul separately in all the diversity of its abilities.

Philosophers of the early modern period, with all their differences in understanding the soul, agree that it is no longer the substance of the soul as such that interests, as it was for Plato and Aristotle. They studied the manifestations of what was considered to be the soul instead – thinking, will, perception, and other abilities. From this time on, the soul is understood not in its own, customary meaning as the beginning and causes of life. Soul then is a designation of a certain special sphere or a certain conditional aggregate of the so-called mental manifestations of living thinking beings. Researchers were interested in the very manifestation of mental life as a process, and not its origins and foundations, which were the most important things for Plato and Aristotle. Nevertheless, it is safe to conclude that, while Plato and Aristotle’s concepts of souls were mostly rejected or modified, they were crucial for the formation and development of medieval and early modern ideas on the matter.

Reference List

Aristotle, De Anima (On The Soul) (London: Penguin Books, 1986)

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Boeri, Marcelo D., “Plato and Aristotle on what is common to soul and body. Some remarks on a complicated issue”, Soul and Mind in Greek thought. Psychological issues in Plato and Aristotle, 2018, 153-176. Web.

Marvell, Andrew, “A dialogue between the soul and the body”, Poetry Foundation, 2021. Web.

Plato, Phaedo (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017)

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