While I have become increasingly troubled by the idea of “soul” in western culture, I am painfully aware that I cannot just disregard the doctrine entirely because it is a biblical metaphor. I think too much of what we mean by soul is really encapsulated in the idea seat of reason. Yet, reason is viewed as a defining aspect of humanity and must figure into the definition of humanities essence in some sense lest our idea of humanity become a caricature.
What follows is my historical reflection on the genesis of these modern ideas. It briefly explains how these two ideas became so conflated.
I confess that in my brevity, certain matters must be laid aside and loose examples used. Yet, I have provided a reading list for further study.
By investigating the historical development of the doctrine (albeit with limited scope for a large subject), I hope to prove that in Western thought, “soul” and “reason” have become entangled in ways that will require serious debate within the theological community.
History of Rational Souls
Greek Influence (The official channels)
Our investigation begins by considering the contribution of Greek thoughts on the subject. These provided the framework for the argument in the entire age of Christendom through today.
The Greeks were not single minded on the subject.
During the pre-Socratic period, the Greeks believed both that souls were immortal and mortal and developed many dynamic systems to explain their existence. Among the early Greek thinkers there are a few themes that while attached to specific individuals, reoccur throughout the whole of antiquity.
First, among Greek thinkers was Pythagoras who preached reincarnation as the “transmutation of souls.” He believed that souls existed before time, and that they transmitted through animals and humans as they grew in wisdom. Empedocles built on this and even came up with the Buddhist-like system of “metempsychosis” where the souls grew towards godhood until they eventually gained immortal in bodies that reflected their perfection as Gods.
Not all Greeks followed these lines of thought.
Heraclitus believed that the soul was like a spider and the body a web that the spider minded and cared for, but that death was a result of the soul actually dying. Holding body and soul were elemental in nature, Heraclitus believed that within the great unchanging Logos (spiritual-world) elements swirled creating creatures and spirits that evolved in the flux. Democritus and Leucippus seized on his idea and created the idea that indivisible elemental “atoms” built up everything including souls. Only the soul atoms were immortal in their systems. In all these schema, souls are “scientific” explinations and not religious dogmas at all.
The Socratic thinkers had a big influence
Out of this backdrop of ideas arose the three main Socratic Philosophers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Socrates built on the ideas of Heraclitus. He had started to create a duality between bad material and good spirit, which lead Heraclitus to display a disdain for idols and sacrifices as material that could not hold spirits. Material religion to him was “washing mud with mud.”
Socrates took this thinking and declared the soul imprisoned within the body. For Socrates to die was even a good thing, because it freed the soul to go to the infinite realm of knowledge. Socrates’s methodology pulled together all the previous thinkers.
For example he used the Pythagorean notion of the preexistence of souls and reincarnation in a novel way. Socrates believed souls already knew everything and were ignorant because they became trapped in a dumb material body. Likewise, Socrates held that souls only fell into lower forms such as animals, when they became ghost haunting places by being too attached to their former lives.
Plato, Socrates’ student, was the first to posit a three-part soul that would be much more influential in Christian thought. Plato believed that the soul was broken into reason, appetite, and temper. For Plato, the goal of life was for the reason to govern appetite and temper in justice, which in other words is to control appetites and tempers with reason.
Aristotle took over the idea of a three-part soul from Plato, but split the parts as vegetable (responsible for growth/ body upkeep), appetite (desires and emotions), and reason (The seat of all virtue and mental capacity). It is important to note, that Aristotle saw all souls as merely an animate aspect of life.
He saw all animals as having a “type” of soul respective of what “type” of animal it was. Aristotle did however separated reason into potential, (such as the potential to learn), and actuality, (as in the potential to use). In this system learning meant a move from potential to actuality, and, therefore, a novice has more potential to learn than a master, but a master can actually do it far better than a novice.
The first two, Socrates and Plato believed immortal souls move from the material towards a Divine Truth as immortal minds. Aristotle’s beliefs where more convoluted but more down to earth. He saw all parts of the soul as mortal, but those parts that could grasp at eternal truths were held to be somewhat eternal by affinity to the eternal things they could think. Check out Stanford’s site for an enlightening breakdown of all the Greek thoughts on the subject.
The early church spoke Greek and the terms weren’t all just philosophical. They were everyday too!
In the Christian era, (CE for you Jokers), there were even more new Greek ideas in the world surrounding the early Church. Socrates was long dead and new thinkers had come up with new ideas.
The stoics held that the soul and mind were made of breath (pneuma), and that everything in the cosmos existed as a giant rational world organism, the mind and spirit of which was god. The stoics resigned themselves to fate and called the inner workings of this world mind “Nature,” which governed the universe.
This group was so popular, they even after Christianity came about produced the Neo-Platonists! Very novel, the Neo-Platonist held that the world was spirit and bodies existed inside the spirit. They saw a three-tier hierarchy of the universal one, spirit, and last body in descending purity.
The Church in this era struggled against the Gnostics, which is the term used for any variety of sects that tried to pull in any of the above mentioned Greek ideas into the Church beyond limits of Christian revelation. But they tended to extremely favor Pluto, Socrates, and Pythagoras’s ideas of immortal souls
This distinguished them as having strong tendency to see a duality between pure spirit and evil material and/or be given to esoteric ideas about hidden immortal knowledge.
This drove a wedge between the doctrine of the Resurrection and souls that remains in favor of “souls” in popular piety
Looking back to the Patristic age, we observe that the Church fathers were often on the defensive against this encroachment; nonetheless, Judaism had already been influenced by Greek thought and they could not resist the movement totally.
Gradually, Greek ideas of this type did penetrate the Church, even being used in defense against Gnostics! For better or for worse they also found use as a hermeneutical lens, or as an apologetic, etc.
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages are the epoch when Greek influence upon the church’s understanding of souls switched sides to Aristotle’s thinking. An exemplar is Thomas Aquinas. To understand Thomas Aquinas’ role here, however, we need to investigate the filter through which he received Greek thought.
The philosophy of Aristotle returned to medieval Europe through the Arab philosophers.
One of them, Alkindi, broke down the rational mind in Aristotle’s system into a passive and an active element, using obscure references to this by Aristotle. Alkindi’s system was further developed by Avicenna who saw the passive element of the human soul, which receives impute, being acted upon by the active giving element of the soul.
Avicenna, against Aristotle, believed only the vegetable and appetite aspects of the soul died with the body. He held that the rational passive parts of the human soul were immortal because they could reason with the one active intellect, Allah. In both Arab philosophers, there was a tendency to equate the one active intellect with a “world soul” like a super-intelligence.
Averroes the final Arab philosopher in the series, stripped the element of reason so far from human possession that he held all souls at death merged into the one, which was god. Averroes believed that because all intellect was inherently one it gave a mechanism for intelligent men to find outside verification of religious revelation through Muhammad. For him god in all recognizes god concentrated.
Important to us, is that all three is the tendency to merge the concepts of reason and god. This made Aristotle more palatable to Christians who found it difficult generations before to rectify Aristotle’s view of fully mortal reason and life in the hereafter. His was truly the first “rational soul.” It also charged the Greek thought of Aristotle with Persian strains of monism, and other philosophies that, while another paper, eventually put in place the impetus for the reformation against the “Aristotelian” thinkers.
Getting back to High Medieval Theology in Aquinas
The then new Roman Catholic outlook on souls focused around the works of Thomas Aquinas. That this was a forward development even beyond the Arabs is backed by the observation, one kind of entertaining, Aquinas often cites the Commentator, Averroes, who was the most extreme of the three Arabs in his modification to Aristotle.
A quick example
A good abstract of Aquinas’ resultant work, one that shows influence from foreign thought as regards his doctrine of the souls, is found in his Summa Theologica below:
[The good of nature, that is diminished by sin, is the natural inclination to virtue, which is befitting to man from the very fact that he is a rational being; for it is due to this that he performs actions in accord with reason, which is to act virtuously. Now sin cannot entirely take away from man the fact that he is a rational being, for then he would no longer be capable of sin. Wherefore it is not possible for this good nature to be destroyed entirely.] (bold mine)
Aquinas keeps the Socratic tendency to equate reason or rational thought with good and a natural inclination to virtue. But he ads in a bit of color to the language about reason and “non-destroyable” good (which is reason in so many words). This kind strain of thinking in Aquinas is again, a thesis paper itself; I think if one looks for a similarity with Averroes there is enough there to see it.
Trouble in paradise
Statements like these were later canonized by Trent, and as such, lie at the heart of the Roman Catholic conception of immortal souls being able to cooperate with grace through freewill and reason. Yet, the church had not always been Arab-Mediated Aristotle fans. Older theological issues from the days of heavy Platonism, stoicism, and now forgotten original Aristotle still lingered.
As the Reformation would later point out, the platonic fights of Augustine and Pelagius gained new life. Semi-Pelagianism really gained new life was Averroes’ little addition:
“But isn’t all reason part of the good one reason? So aren’t reason… and thus the reasonable human… good by proxy? And if not, is God good?”
I leave it to you, dear reader, to fill in all the “if there’s no freewill” then God is evil arguments, etc. that you’ve ever heard.
This is a meaty bit right here to contemplate.
The same trajectory through the Liberal church
Continuing on, the modern western theologian Schleiermacher forwarded a system that still used Averroes idea of reason and therefore has proxy relation to Aquinas’ thoughts.
Yet, he changed the language so greatly, that the protestant analogues of Thomism can only be discovered after some leg-work.
To understand how Aristotle’s ideas were being used in Schleiermacher’s day, we have to look outside of pure theology and into the philosophical schools of his era. I feel Kant is the best launching point
Immanuel Kant as exemplar of the enlightenment use of Aristotle
Immanuel Kant was arguably one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. While not particularly known for his metaphysics or his religious philosophy, his work on reason is important enough to flesh out for our investigation of developing ideals about rational souls.
Kant would not accept anything that was unreasonable as coming from God. In a way, this was simply a flip from Averroes’ idea that god is pure reason and all reason flows and returns from god. Kant mostly used logic that took a tact along the lines of if A+B=C then -A+-B=-C.
I can point to a singular example, yet there are many. While studied mostly because philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s career kick-started with a response to this thesis, Kant’s view of Abraham is self-important. It shows the contemporary thought patterns of his age.
Simply put, Kant could not believe the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. He refused to believe it because it would be unreasonable for God to ask such a thing was unreasonable and immoral. Oddly enough, this in and of itself was not totally novel; many theologians and heretics in church history refused through various methods any of the biblical stories that they felt made God look evil. Yet, Kant was the first major thinker to do so not because of a moral qualm, but rather because reason made the act bad.
Something important to qualify, is that for Kant reason, in this case, is not something purely human. He is not stating human reason can stand up against the divine reason. What Kant is really stipulating, and what puts him in as a descendant of Arab thought, is that he holds there is universal reason. This is reason that runs through everything and when grasped by humans is the same as God’s for God is reasonable.
Kant has his critics of this, but with the enlightenment and the dawn of the “Age of Reason” European thought developed a strong relation to the Arab philosophies, and by proxy, the reasoning of Aquianas.
Classical Theological Liberalism starts here
In the realm of theology, Classical Liberalism sired by Schleiermacher was to become the heir to this Kantian ethic that reason is naturally virtuous. Schleiermacher when finely combed actually uses Averroes’ thought patterns. Many scholars would initially reject such a statement off-hand, because Schleiermacher was not an Idealist and unlike Greek thinkers denied that pure undefiled reason was available to human faculties.
Yet, the Arab philosopher’s idea of a passive intellect being acted upon by the active intellect is core to Schleiermacher’s theology. Schleiermacher himself defined piety as a “sense and taste for the infinite”; moreover, Schleiermacher believed that the inner-self was shaped and given Identity from religion. In his denial of a rationally based religion, he is restating Averroes’ idea that we are only receptive to god in the Islamic sense that god gives law.
While the process to the argument and terms are different, Schleiermacher is still in keeping with the Thomistic pattern of thought as it developed in the Roman Institution. In liberal theology the emphasis shifted from a immortal soul, to a rational soul being formed in a realm of active reason to one of a passive mind being shaped by experience, yet the basic framework is much the same.
Up to the modern age: Classical Liberal Christianity
With the dawn of reason, the classical liberal Christian thinkers soon developed systems that focused on de-mythologizing. What this meant was that the unreasonable parts of scripture were viewed as false, acting virtuously or reasonably became the highest goal of religion, and an openness to religious experiences and plurality came into vogue.
This change launched of at least 300 years of fierce church debate that we still experience today. Outside influences like access to better manuscripts, wider education, and impulses to distance European religion from what colonist viewed as uncivilized created an environment where the ideal of a reasonable and often “socially polite” religion flourished.
There where reactions, some of them strong. Familiar movements like fundamentalism sought to counter this pull towards a completely secular ideal by many times “re-mythologizing” text even to the point of blunt literalism.
This was not without fall out in theology. Ideas of scriptural analogy akin to the early church’s plutonic thinking became anathema. These had relied on plutonic or Hebrew notions of a secret reality beyond the material and could thus claim a text to be part historically “t” true and part “T” spiritually True. Even today, the stigma remains that such is a cop-out from exegetes that faced a dichotomous political climate.
These kinds of trends effected conservative theological anthropology too. The human person was re-mythologized. Belief in supernaturalimmortal souls has become a litmus test for orthodoxy.
Likewise, human reason was knocked firmly back to an inferior position, and all products of it, for example the ascendant science, became perceived threats to the faith. And while they viewed with suspicion plutonic-style analogy exegesis as “un-scriptural,” the conservatives for the most part latched onto familiar platonic tropes to define the human person.
Effecting even Catholic scholars
Even Catholic dogma was drawn in. It now resided in lower Europe thanks to the reformation, but northern ideals finally won influence over Rome at Vatican II against previous attempts at the first Vatican council to stop it. Vatican II opened to baptisms based on reasonable desires or views of reasonable ethical behavior in outside religions being acceptable to God.
Beyond causing a similar reaction in the Vatican I camp as Classical Liberal Christianity caused among protestants, it shifted all parties much more favorably towards Aquinas’ works. He found his own contemporaries more critical of, yet because Thomism already had found entrenchment at Trent in multiple faucets it became the Roman point of agreement. For the Catholics, popular conservative things like transubstantiation based on Aristotle found in reasonable Aristotle derived Descartes and liberal moral systems enough relationship to glue disparaging opinions together under the pope.
the Post-modern critique of the Enlightenment
Reason and spirit have been interwoven in most Christian thought . A major problem with “reason” is it holds the keys to allow great evils. This is specifically the case when it becomes expressed as equivalent to Human self-awareness.
As Reinhold Niebuhr puts it, reason has a two-fold danger;
[…reason, which seeks to bring all things into terms of rational coherence, is tempted to make one known thing the principle of explanation and to derive all things from it. Its most natural inclination is to make itself that ultimate principle, and thus in effect declare itself God.]
Niebuhr states few pages later “self-consciousness represents a further degree of transcenden[ant Reason] in which the self, makes itself its own object in a way that the ego is finally always subject and not object.”
Niebuhr for us represents a corrective. He points out that reason as it exists in people is not the pure virtuous force of Aquinas, Socrates, or Kant, but it is rather that force which allows us to objectify other people and even God. And, as critiques the morality of the last centuries, he points out reason will try to make itself into a god and then deem all sorts of evils god’s will.
Considering just how much the historical and current development of the doctrine of souls focused on reason, this is a cause of concern. It is also an opportunity for forward movement in ethics, human rights, and other ethical and theological issues that contemporary “reasonable” culture is justifying. It is not for nothing that these early pivots towards the post-modern became labeled social gospel.
The Post-Modern is an open and exciting field for all parties. Despite suspicions, many so loosely define it and contradict other’s definitions to render the definition useless, the theological and philosophical aspects of it rest on solid ground. These attempts to turn reason in on itself. These ask “how do we know what is reasonable?” and how are we defining it as finite beings.
Such strips Aristotle of Averroes’ and the other Arabs “immortal reason” aspect, and return more to his original idea of a “mortal reason.” This is humanity looking out, not a reasonable observer looking in. Our last example is already old, but shows how the post-modern is coming into play
Where I see Developments Trending
What we witness today is in part a playing out of competing Socratic impulses. Arguably even these are preparing to morph yet again. Common roots in Arab takes on Greek philosophy, and current ecumenical movements demonstrate and promote a process whereby Catholics who on both sides of the debate ascribe and Classical Liberal Protestant theology heading towards similar ends.
Conservative Protestants and allies, meanwhile, see in all a break off from orthodoxy due to their ascription to more plutonic thought. As these scholars, have looked to shore up positions, the current trend of re-examining the early church that they had written off as to “papist’ will likely continue. The early Fathers, being dominated by plutonic thinking are in some ways natural allies as the debate becomes more Aristotle versus Pluto.
The protestant re-appropriation of the early church, which I view as paramount and most natural, is not novel in and of itself. For, the whole protestant impulse arguably has always rested there as witnessed by Luther, Calvin, and others common deference to Church Fathers in their works. This has always been a distinctive of the mainlines.
What remains to be seen, however, is if the radical-protestants, the Baptist, Anti-Baptist, Friends, etc. can follow suite in an exercise that their founders explicitly rejected. The growing Evangelical movement, typified by institutions like Fuller Theological Seminary, are going to increase the pressure on them. The Evangelicals typically enjoy buffet style religiosity, and they increasingly find tasty and novel morsels in the “unknown to them” Church Fathers, Creeds, etc. that the Mainline elements of the evangelical movement imported into the para-church movement.
With all that said, the issue is not static and stuck only working with what has already come before. Conservative thought, in my humble opinion, is on the cusp of become the “new liberal.”
What has got to change
This is not going to be a painless process. The “re-mortalizing” of Aristotle has birthed the secular and Neo-Atheist movements. These have been particularly thorny for the church on two fronts. First, the baseline sharing of Aristotle’s though makes ideological transfer from one party to the other relatively easy. In the case of the Neo-Atheist, even the devotion and dogmatic aspects of religion have crossed over because abilities to filter the cross pollination are limited. In the case of secularism, the issues arising are more multifold.
At the very least, however, there is some part in both movements that underscores events at the very top of our discussion. The early church found it impossible to mesh the “mortal reason” with Christian belief systems. And the conservative church, having re-mythologized in many of these aspects is particularly unable to capitalize on opportunities because of doctrines regarding the after-life,Heaven, Hell, or Immortal Soul.
Two ways forward
There are two major ways forward that I forsee:
- The reexamination of Christian doctrine considering biblical evidence that ultimately leads to a re-statement of Christian ideas regarding the afterlife. This project has some headway already, as represented by works like Immortal souls or resurrection of the dead?.
In another post, I delve into that book and truly examine its thesis and the issues it raises. This method is honestly my preferred method, as it would force the church to re-state what originally made it radical in the Greek world, and re-states the doctrines held in the apostles creed.
This is what I hold as the the Easter approach
- The second option. Try and see if Aristotle’s materialism can be re-integrated into Christian beliefs as they currently exist without doubling down on the immortal reason of the Arab influences.
This tact is valid in its own right as an apologetic that could rock the Liberal Christian and Catholic theologies, and all who have some nominal affiliation with them as they currently exist without requiring them to change paradigms per say.
This is the Souls and reason re-reasoned approach
This is therefore an attractive option as an intra-Christian and Western contextualization.
Both methods have means for success. The first, being extremely biblical would most likely find success by doubling-down on existing conservative protestant sentiments.
The second, is far more of a project. The immortal reason that Averroes put forward rest mainly in the monistic though of the near east. An attempt to replace it would most likely have to rely on a grounding in the pluralistic thinking of Western culture. Yet, if done correctly, this switch would make the replacement more “natural” and widely “reasonable” to the target demographic.
Conclusions on the soul
From Pythagoras to today, the Western thoughts regarding spirits, if human’s have souls, what is the nature of a soul, and their relation to reason has been a complex evolution far less linear than it appears in this study. For the ancient Greeks, it was a pseudo-science while for the thinkers of the Enlightenment all of it was the reasonable conclusion. And people still today find it is everything in-between including a marker of true religious faith.
Whatever method used to take the discussion forward, will have to wade through thought patterns and ideals that can pull from any and all steps along this less than linear evolution, and there remains always an outside chance that off-shots from any period may rise to renewed prominence.
What I hope to see
A single demand must be made. Christian and non-Christian thinker alike should no longer allow themselves to be ignorant of the histories and logic that runs behind their standing conclusions. The Greek influence is neither good nor bad, and it is neither liberal nor conservative in dogmatic position. What it is, however, is the story of how the people before us thought about themselves, about God, and about the world as it is ordered around us and we try to understand it.
Of the Classical liberal, I would ask that they question reason and how they are so certain of its reasonable conclusions. Of the conservative, that they question soul/spirit or at least “form” style thinking about “T” True realities.
And as the theologian, I ask that my peers all learn the ability to flow between both positions; the truth of the matter is that neither the Greek Plato nor the Greek Aristotle has the corner on reality. They can tell us what Greeks thought, but every context is different. Every human unique. And to try and force all thinkers to one or another banner does a great disservice to the enterprise of attempting to understanding the overall human experience.
Grenz, Stanley J., Theology for the Community of God (Cambridge: Eerdmans 1994)
Kant, Immanuel, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (Torchbooks)tr. By T.H. Greene and H.H. Hudson (La Salle, Ill: Open Court Publishing Company, 1960)
Kenny, Anthony, An Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy (Massachusetts; Blackwell 2006)
McManners, John, The Oxford History of Christianityed. John McManners (New York: Oxford 2002)
Murphy, Fredrick J., Early Judaism: The Exile to the Time of Jesus(Michigan: Baker Academic 2002)
Niebuhr, Reinhold “The Christian View of Man” from Readings in Christian Thought ed Hugh T. Kerr (New York: Abingdon 1966)
Niebuhr, Richard R., “Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion” ed. Dean G. Peerman and Martin E. Marty in a Handbook of Christian Theologians (New York: Meridian 1967)
 I have tried to leave out the influences of Biblical thought here, for clarity and brevity.
 Anthony Kenny Western Philosophy: An Illustrated Brief History (Massachusetts; Blackwell 2006), pp 1-2.
 Ibid. 14-17
 Ibid. 7-8
 Ibid. 17-20
 Ibid. 7
 Ibid 48-53
 Ibid. 83-90
 Ibid. 96
Fredrick J. Murphy Early Judaism: The Exile to the Time of Jesus (Michigan: Baker Academic 2002), pp. 95-105
 John McManners The Oxford History of Christianity ed. John McManners (New York: Oxford reissued 2002)
 Kenny 128
 Ibid. 129
 Ibid 140
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, English Dominican trans. (New York; Benziger Bros, 1947) I.967-71
 Immanuel Kant Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, tr. By T.H. Greene and H.H. Hudson (La Salle, Ill: Open Court Publishing Company, 1960)
 Richard R Niebuhr, “Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion” ed. Dean G. Peerman and Martin E. Marty in a Handbook of Christian Theologians (New York: Meridian 1967), pp. 25
 Reinhold Niebuhr “The Christian View of Man” from Readings in Christian Thought ed Hugh T. Kerr (New York: Abingdon 1966), pp 316-317
 Ibid. 318