The popular concept of the existence of a “soul,” a person’s personality separate from the body, which 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 Torah has the Hebrew word nefesh, which means “soul” in Modern Hebrew, but only denotes a person in the Torah. The current idea was taken from ancient pagan cultures. The Greek philosopher Plato was probably the most responsible for influencing popular thinking. He helped mold this Christian, Jewish, and Islamic belief. However, not all people of these faiths accepted the idea, and some religious thinkers took the teachings of Aristotle.
The popular view about the afterlife is enshrined in the 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 does Aristotle say?
Like many people today, Aristotle’s teacher, the famous Greek philosopher Plato (428 or 427-348 or 347 BCE), believed that the soul exists independently of the body. The real me, the soul, 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 The Apology, Plato describes his teacher discussing death just before he died. Socrates said there are two possibilities: 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 false ideas, called “noble lies,” to control them from misbehaving and to weaken their worries.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) rejected Plato’s notion that the soul is an independent body. Aristotle contended that the “soul” is part of the body. It 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.” In humans, the soul comprises five parts or systems: the nutritional system, the appetitive (desires and passions), senses, locomotion, and thinking. Since they are alive, plants and animals have souls, but not all five parts. According to Aristotle, plants only have the nutritive part of the soul. Animals have four of the five. They lack thinking.
Aristotle stated that the “thinking” part cannot be destroyed. It will continue to exist after the body dies. Older people have difficulty thinking not because their mind deteriorates but because their bodies deteriorate. 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 thinking intellect survives the death of the body. However, it appears from his writing that he felt that this surviving intellect knows nothing about its prior existence.
Did the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204), who accepted many Aristotelian teachings, take this view of the soul? Scholars disagree. Some say “yes,” others “no.” I am convinced it is the former.
Reading this, I imagine that it reminds some readers that they fear dying. So, let me tell you a true story.
One night, when I was twelve years old, I awakened scared stiff. I feared that one day I would die. I thought of rushing into my dad’s bedroom and begging for help. I was sure my dad, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin, was more intelligent than me and could solve my fear. (Later, I found he was continually smarter than me.) But then I thought it would not be nice to awaken him.
So, I tried to solve the problem myself. And I did. I realized that there were two possibilities. One was that after I died, I would live a life of some sort after death if I was worthy of it. Two, there is no afterlife, and after death, I would have no feelings, so why worry? Since that time, I never feared death again.
Later, when I read Pato’s report of his teacher Socrates’ death, I discovered that Socrates said the same thing. In Greece, in 399 BCE, the Athenians forced Socrates to kill himself by eating Hemlock because they disliked his teachings. Before he did so, his disciples asked him if he was afraid to die. He gave them my answer.
This is one of two sayings I especially like about this brilliant scholar, Socrates. Plato reports that an inquiry was once made of the prophets at Delphi who was the most intelligent man alive. The response was Socrates because he realized that no human could know anything fully.
I did not know this until I was twenty when I read what Plato wrote.