By Israel Drazin
The popular concept today is that there is a “soul,” a person’s personality that is separate from the body, survives the body’s death, and lives on for eternity. While accepted as axiomatic by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, is not in the Hebrew Bible. The idea was taken from ancient pagan cultures, and the Greek philosopher Plato was probably the person who influenced the popular thinking and helped mold this Christian, Jewish, and Islamic belief. However, not all people of these faiths accept the idea, and some religious thinkers prefer Aristotle’s teaching.
The popular view of an afterlife is enshrined in post-Hebrew Bible holy books. The New Testament speaks about Jesus going to heaven. The Quran proclaims “I swear by the day of resurrection.” Jews recite a prayer three times daily, “who caused the dead to come to life.”
This is the popular view. What did Plato and Aristotle say?
Aristotle’s teacher, the famous Greek philosopher Plato (428 or 427-348 or 347 BCE), seems to have believed that the soul is independent of the body. It the real me that is clothed in the body, which is not me. It may or may not have existed from the beginning of time, but it will survive for all eternity with the same personality it had when it was joined to the body.
In his The Apology, Plato describes his teacher discussing death just before he died. Socrates said that there are two possibilities: either there is nothingness after death or “as people say, a change and migration of the soul from this to another place.” Plato seems to believe the second because he also says that people “must bear in mind this one truth that no evil can come to a good man either in life or after death, and God does not neglect him.” However there is no certainty that Plato accepted the second possibility because, as Plato wrote in his Republic it is necessary to teach the masses ideas that are false, called “essential truths,” in order to control them from acting improperly and to weaken their worries. Additionally, everyone knows that even good people frequently suffer the hardships and other evils of life; thus by saying the opposite, it is possible that he is hinting that he does not believe in an everlasting soul.
In De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle (384-322 BCE), rejected Plato’s notion that the soul is an independent body. He contended that the soul is the life force that makes it possible for something to live and think. It is “the cause or source of the living body.” It is “the essential whatness of the body.” It is several items. In humans, the soul is comprised of five parts or systems: the nutritive system, the appetitive (desires and passions), senses, locomotion, and thinking. Since they are alive, plants and animals also have souls, but not all five parts. Plants, according to Aristotle, only have the nutritive part of the soul. Animals have four of the five and lack thinking.
Aristotle stated that the “mind” or “intellect” cannot be destroyed and it will continue to exist after the body dies. Old people have difficulty thinking not because the mind has deteriorated, but because the vehicle, the body, holding the mind has deteriorated. This is similar to what happens when a person is drunk or sick; the body does not let the mind work.
He agreed that the intellect does survive the death of the body. However, it appears that he felt that this surviving intellect knows nothing about its prior existence.