The concepts of soul, mind, and body have been troubling the greatest thinkers and philosophers of all times. The main dilemma that precludes people from identifying the relationship between these concepts, and agreeing upon a unified interpretation thereof, is the theoretical, metaphysical nature of notions discussed. Though the human body is physical, and the majority of its secrets have been unveiled up to date, there are still some uncovered mysteries such as the secret of origination of new life, the afterlife, and the enigma covering the mechanics of brain activity. However, many philosophers have tried to touch upon this topic, and have worked out a set of theories on the relationship of body and soul, their significance, and the role of each of them in the overall human life.
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Socrates about the Relationship of Body and Mind
The study of the relationship of the human body and soul dates back to antiquity. The first philosopher who started to make an inquiry in the metaphysical issues of this relationship is Socrates; he was the first to infer that the human soul is not identical with the body, and it rules it from ‘within’ (McPherran, 1996). Socrates repeatedly noted in his works (Crito – 47d-48a, Laches – 190b, 185e, 192c, Protagoras – 312c, 313a-314b, 351a-b) that the human soul is a distinct governing agent lodged in the body (McPherran, 1996). Therefore, Socrates has made an overall conclusion that soul represents the locus of what makes life worth living. The morale of the philosopher is that the main human virtue is to value the human soul more than the physical health of an individual.
Nevertheless, Socrates also includes considerations about a much more complex relationship between the human body and soul; he goes much farther than the admission of simple non-identity. The conventional approach to the soul-body relationship is that the former simply ‘inhabits’ the latter. More than that, Schmid (1998) admitted the tension in Socrates’ writing about the relationship of body and soul. As noted by the author, Socrates depicted the human body as the part or an instrument of the soul, admitting at the same time that the corporal health depended directly on the wellness of the soul: “For he said that everything starts from the soul, both bad and good things for the body and for the entire human being, and they flow from there just as from the head to the eyes” (156e6-157a1, as cited in Schmid, 1998, p. 17). Socrates noted the dominance of soul over the body, but at the same time, the wholeness of the human body also stands out as a priority. Hence, there is a widespread dilemma accompanying the analysis of Socrates’ ideas about the discussed relationship.
Plato’s Teaching about Mind and Body
The follower of Socrates, Plato, also dealt with the problem of the body-soul relationship in his writings. According to Humphrey and the State University of New York at Stony Brook (2007), Plato insisted on the ontological distinction between the human body and soul. The present distinction refers to the immortality of the human soul, and the implicit identification thereof with the ‘human soul’ or ‘intellect’ (p. 24). Therefore, the historians, philosophers, and critics commonly attribute the negative relation between the human body and soul to the philosophy of Plato. This ancient philosopher associated the presence of the human soul in the human body with incarceration of the immortal and omnipotent spirit.
Moreover, Plato insisted that the human soul could exist without the human body. He stated that the human soul and body were different in nature, thus being able to exist separately. Therefore, according to Harris (2004), Plato considered the human soul a subject at least of ordinary working consciousness. There was a set of functions and manifestations that Plato ascribed to the human soul; he considered its most characteristic functions as knowing, and the best revelation of the soul’s excellence in the acquisition of the human wisdom (Harris, 2004). Therefore, one may note the distinguishing peculiarity of Plato’s approach to the human soul – the notion Plato characterized was not associated with the spiritual essence of a human being, but only with his or her ability to think logically and rationally.
The overall consideration of the human soul by Plato was focused on the soul being distinct from the human body, and the ability of the soul to use the human body as its instrument (Harris, 2004). Plato considered the human soul immortal, and akin to all eternal and divine. Moreover, Plato thought of a human soul as prior to matter, which implies the common vision of the human soul as an abstract and heterogeneous notion, and claimed that it inhabited the body only temporarily, disintegrating with it at the event of the human death. However, the period of human life was characterized by the mutual compounding of the human soul and body, and their effect was intimate and harmonious. The overall morale of Plato’s philosophical teachings about the relationship of the human body and soul can be focused on the invariable understanding of the human soul as the principle of life as well as of mind (Harris, 2004). Therefore, one can see the dilemma inherent in the philosophy of Plato as well; the human soul used the body as its instrument; body is mortal, while the soul is immortal; however, at the same time, the soul functions in congruence with the human body for the sake of empowering the human mind, which was the utmost value in Ancient Greece for philosophers.
Views of Aristotle on the Body-Mind Dilemma
Aristotle’s approach to the consideration of the discussed relationship differs greatly from that of Plato and Socrates. In contrast to them, Aristotle viewed the body-soul relationship in terms of the philosophy of life, that is, as a biologist; his famous citation implies his clear attitude to the soul as dominant over the body: “living is what distinguishes things with souls from things without souls” (DA, II, ii, 413a21-22, as cited in Humphrey & State University of New York at Stony Brook, 2007, p. 23). Aristotle thought of the human soul as the cause of life; in addition, Aristotle thought of soul as possessing the form of the body for the sake of achieving the natural harmony of the two (Humphrey & State University of New York at Stony Brook, 2007).
Aristotle also accepted the idea that the human soul could exist without the human body, and coined a term choristos, which meant ‘separate’. However, the philosopher noted that the human soul could function separately only in case it was not the function of the body, which means that it was not directly related to any physical human body (Humphrey & State University of New York at Stony Brook, 2007).
The chief idea governing the philosophy of Aristotle regarding the relationship of the human soul and body was that the soul performed a set of functions during its existence in the body. Thus, Aristotle supposed that the majority of functions programmed for the human soul (e.g., anger, love, hatred, interest, etc.) could not occur without a body that would perform those activities physically (Polansky, 2007). Thus, the philosophy of Aristotle contains a series of integral unification issues that dictate the unity and mutual need of the human body and soul.
Muslim Philosophers’ Approach to the Relationship between Body and Mind
The Islamic philosophy is relatively young (in contrast to the Antique philosophy that emerged prior to religion, Islamic philosophy stemmed from the religion of Islam). However, it has adopted a set of teachings from the period of antiquity; Islamic philosophers have mostly agreed with the dualism generated by Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. Thus, according to Ma’ruf (n.d.), the father of Muslim philosophy, al-Kindi, stated that the human soul is separate from the human body, and that it is inherently different. Famous Islamic philosophers al-Farabi and Ibn Sina also adopted classical dualism; Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi made the dualistic position regarding the body-soul relationship the basis for their idea of “disembodied survival” compliant with the position of Plato.
However, one should note how strong the influence of Islam is in the formation of the Islamic philosophical framework; in addition to the classical philosophical position, there are many considerations of spirituality of human beings. According to Naseem (2001), al-Farabi thought of people as being composed of two principles, namely, the human body and the human soul. The human body is composed of parts, limited by space, measurable, and divisible (Naseem, 2001). The human body is created in the physical world by means of enactment of basic biological processes. however, the human soul belongs to the last separate intellect of the supersensible world.
Other Philosophers about the Body-Mind Problem
As one can see, the ancient philosophic tradition established the trend called ‘dualism’ dictating the difference between mind and body of human beings. A later contributor to the body-mind research was Rene Descartes; his ideas are now called Cartesianism. His famous postulate “cogito sum” gave rise to dualism between two substances – matter and mind (Robinson). Descartes was a mechanist of the Middle Ages, so he and his followers, Arnold Geulinecx and Nicholas Malebranche, held that the interaction between the human body and mind is impossible without the intervention of God (Robinson). Later philosophers expanded these dualistic ideas, and more some more contribution to the dilemma’s consideration; e.g., Locke claimed that there are both material and immaterial subjects in the world, Berkeley rejected the material things and accepted only the mind, and Hume dedicated his philosophical research to the issue of unity of mind (Robinson). Dualism is still prevalent in the philosophical thought nowadays.
As it comes from the present analysis, Greek philosophers did not deal closely with the humanity and spirituality. The most popular angle from which they considered the human soul was the one of ethics, vice, and virtue. Therefore, people could live an intelligent life, studying and thinking, for the sake of becoming wise, thus virtuous. However, the notion of soul did not come into play in full, since the notions of soul, sin, salvation, etc., were introduced later with the introduction of global religions, e.g., Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. With the introduction of religions, the approach to considering the human body in relation to the human soul has changed fundamentally; the human soul remained immortal in the vision of the humankind, and the human body also remained mortal and weak. However, the vision of nurture that the human soul required for the sake of a person’s acquisition of wisdom and virtue has changed.
Harris, E. E. (2004). Nature, Mind and Modern Science. London, UK: Routledge.
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Humphrey, P., & State University of New York at Stony Brook (2007). Metaphysics of mind: Hylomorphism and eternality in Aristotle and Hegel. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest.
Ma’ruf, M. (n.d.). Muslim Contribution to Philosophy. Web.
McPherran, M. L. (1996). The Religion of Socrates. University Park, PA: Penn State Press.
Naseem, H. (2001). Muslim philosophy: science and mysticism. New Delhi, India: Sarup & Sons.
Polansky, R. M. (2007). Aristotle’s De anima. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Robinson, Howard, “Dualism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Web.
Schmid, W. T. (1998). Plato’s Charmides and the Socratic ideal of rationality. New York, NY: SUNY Press.