The Pre-Socratics’ and the Soul

Posted by on July 11, 2011

The content of various subjects, such as sciences or natural philosophy is contingent upon the time in which it is studied.  The study of the mind in the 20th century has brought deep questions to the relevance of concepts such as the soul or the mind in explaining human existence.  The current reductive studies and theories appear to be proving ideas such as the soul to be nominal danglers which complicate concepts in explaining our world, more than anything else.  These ideas are quite contrary to those of many Pre-Socratics’. The authors in the Ancient Greek Philosophy textbook explain in the introduction that Pre-Socratic philosophers would “not have thought of astronomy, physics, practical engineering, and what we would call philosophy as separate disciplines” (5). As this quotation is further explored in the rest of the essay, it will become clear how the soul was a natural part of philosophy and of science for several Pre-Socratics’; four such philosophers to be discussed are Thales, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, and Heraclitus.

From the text that is used in our course, the concepts of the soul appear to start with Thales and evolve through Anaximenes, Pythagoras, and Heraclitus.  In Thales’s fragment 4, Aristotle provides an explanation for Thales’s view that all things are full of gods by stating that people think the soul is mixed in with the Universe.  In fragment 5, Aristotle mentions that from what is known of Thales, it is supposed that Thales thought the soul produced motion because he stated that magnets had souls.  These views presented by Aristotle provide us with a basic framework for Pre-Socratic conception of the soul in reference to the Universe; that the soul is a part of the mixture with the Universe and is present in things such as magnets.  Following Thales is Anaximenes, in fragment 17, in which now the view of the soul is not just it being mixed in with the Universe but being a part of the arche of the cosmos, aer.  Anaximenes appears to have evolved the concept by personalizing souls to humans as something that controls and holds them together; making aer the arche of the cosmos and the soul just one transformation of aer.  So far, what is observed is that the soul is one of the very rational parts of the Universe to the Pre-Socratics, and also therefore of their natural philosophy.  The discussion of the Universe, the material, continually includes thoughts on and analogies to the soul.

Pythagoras and Heraclitus are where the concepts of the soul begin to be fun, with Heraclitus’s concept of the soul being the best. Pythagoras is known for his doctrine of the transmigration of the souls.  This doctrine is explored well in fragments 1, 6, and 7.  Fragment 6 provides the basis of his doctrine, that the soul is immortal and that it changes into other things as the body loses life.  Fragments 1 and 7 are both quite intriguing in that they reveal an expanded conception of the soul from the previous philosophers.  Pythagoras takes the personalized view of the soul, from Anaximenes, and expands it to everything that has life.  The fragments regarding Pythagoras continue with the theme of the previous philosophers that the soul is a natural part of the Universe and their philosophy.

The most interesting of these philosophers, though, appears to be Heraclitus.  Fragments 95 – 97 are why I consider Heraclitus’s theory of the soul to be the best.  In these fragments, Heraclitus takes the views of preceding philosophers, changes them some, and creates a practical application for them, the latter being what I think makes his theory the best.  So far, all of the other philosophers have offered intriguing theories, but nothing that appears to be relevant to reality in terms of daily practical life.  Heraclitus’s views were that instead of aer, fire was the arche of the cosmos, with the soul being a form of fire.  Following this view, the above-mentioned fragments can be understood.  If water is to be put on fire, it will extinguish the fire.  Therefore it would make sense that “it is death for souls to become wet” (33). I would take this to mean that “souls should not become corrupted or immoral.”  Further proof for this view comes from the following fragments, 96 and 97, where wisdom is attributed to a dry soul and an example is given of a drunken man whose perceptual abilities are attributed to a moist soul.  All of these seem to suggest that yes a soul is a part of the Universe, but even more importantly the state of the soul is something to be taken care of, leading to ideas relating the soul and morality.

While none of the views of the Pre-Socratic philosophers can be justified as being rational explanations in the modern sense, it is apparent that the Pre-Socratics’ increasingly attempted to rationalize views of the soul with the limited observations and knowledge they could obtain at the time.  In understanding and analyzing their theories it is important to “remember the limitations on observation about the stars and planets that the ancient Greeks lived with” (Freeland – Cosmology). Evident from these limitations is that they attempted to develop theories such as the soul or arches that would explain the world around them, which seems very rational as this is exactly what we do with modern science.  Only difference is that we are more “advanced” in our technology, but maybe in another 1000 years our current conceptions of the Universe and human existence will become equally antiquated and alien.

 Work Cited

Ancient Greek Philosophy, from Thales to Aristotle, Edited by S. Marc Cohen, Patricia Curd, and C.D.C. Reeve (Hackett 2005).

Freeland, Cynthia. Philosophy 3383: Ancient Greek Philosophy. Unit I – Introduction to the Presocratics: Cosmology.  2009.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *