The soul (from Latin anima, connected with Greek ànemos, “breath”, “wind”), in many religions, spiritual traditions and philosophies, is the vital and spiritual part of a living being, commonly considered distinct from the physical body. Typically it was assimilated to the breath (hence its etymology). Originally an expression of the essence of a personality, understood as a synonym of “spirit” or “I”, since the modern age was gradually identified only with the “mind” or consciousness of a human being.

Implicit in the soul is often the idea of an underlying unity and immutability that persists to the changes of the body and presides over its functions. Revealed religions affirm that it is God who creates or generates souls. In some cultures, souls are attributed to non-human living beings and sometimes even to objects (such as rivers), a belief known as animism.

The terms “soul” and “spirit” are often used synonymously, although the former may be more closely related to the life principle of a person, while in a tripartite view of the human being it performs an intermediary function between spirit and body.

The words “soul” and “psyche” can also be considered as synonyms, although “psyche” has relatively more physical connotations, while soul is more closely related to metaphysics and religion. In ancient Greece the soul was sometimes referred to by the term psyche, to be linked with psychein, which similarly to anemos means “to breathe”, “to blow”. In Hinduism in general reference is made to the Ātman.

A difference in conceptual extension then exists between the Italian terms “anima” and “animo,” from the same etymological origin, but the latter is used with more limited meanings than the former.

Philosophical point of view

According to Aristotle (De Anima, II, 414a, 12-13), the soul is the principle by which we first live, feel, and understand. From the earliest days of philosophical speculation, the concept of soul was determined within this definition. Among the pre-Socratics, whose main problem was the search for the principle of things, significant in this regard is the solution proposed by Anaximenes, who identified the soul with air (considered precisely as the first principle). In this sense, the soul had to be understood as the principle of life not only of single entities, but also of the world.

It was the Pythagoreans who reiterated that the soul is the principle of the world, when they saw in it the harmony that defines the relationship between all entities. To this order of thought certainly had to refer Plato, who, in the Phaedrus, wrote that “every body that moves of itself from within is animated; and such is precisely the nature of the soul”; he, moreover, affirmed the immortality of the soul as the cause of life, to which life is necessarily inherent; and, to explain the spiritual activities, added that the soul is similar to a pair of winged horses, of which the first tends towards the earth and the second towards the sky, guided by an auriga (charioteer).

The most famous (and the most enduring in the history of philosophy) definition of soul is the one given by Aristotle: “the final first act of a body that has life in its power”. Defined therefore as that which realizes the life of a body, the soul has, according to Aristotle, three functions: vegetative, common to all living beings; sensory, common to animals and man; intellectual, proper only to man. The Aristotelian concept of soul then passed to medieval scholasticism. In this period, although Aristotle’s approach to the problem was generally accepted, it was mainly to justify the immortality of the individual soul. Thus, for example, St. Thomas asserted that the soul, although the act of the body, is nevertheless incorruptible and, consequently, immortal.

Prior to Scholasticism, criticism of the Aristotelian concept of soul had been made by Plotinus, for whom the soul has no ties to the body, is not functional with respect to the life of the body, but is the seat of revelation of the divine. This idea can be found in St. Augustine, who stated in the Confessions that he wanted to know only God and the soul and added: “Do not go outside yourself, return to yourself, truth dwells within man”.

In the modern world, the first fundamental discussion about the concept of soul takes place with Descartes, according to whom the reality of the soul is known through an original intuition through which one is aware of his own existence (cogito, ergo sum). It follows that the soul is a substance and is the substance opposed to the body.

The concept of soul as a substance is maintained in the rationalist tradition that refers to Descartes, even if it is critical of his system. Hume, on the other hand, following the empirical tradition, dissolves the soul in the succession of psychic states. Kant moves to the concept of soul as substance a radical criticism, considering it an erroneous idea of reason produced by reason itself, when it substantializes the thinking subject that can not be grasped otherwise than as a true cognitive function.

It should not be forgotten, however, that Kant also reaffirms the immortality of the soul as the object of a rational faith, as a postulate of practical reason. Contemporary thought often refers to Kant’s approach to the problem: both to affirm that the soul is nothing but the unity of consciousness (as in Wundt and in the main currents of rational psychology), and to respond to some fundamental religious demands.

Religious point of view

In the Western religious tradition from antiquity to the present day, the soul is the vital principle and the element destined to survive the body. Conventionally, the term can also indicate religious conceptions of other cultures put in analogical relation with the western concept of soul. The variety of conceptions seems to arise from the different combination of two elementary ideas: “what makes one live” and “what survives”. The two elementary ideas give us two types of representation of the soul: the dynamistic (Greek dýnamos, force) that understands it as a vital force (also impersonal) and the personalistic that understands it as an ethereal image (or double) of the single person. To the first type corresponds the soul-spirit (or “breath”, “vital breath”): for example, the Indian atman, or the Greek psychè, or the same Latin anima, all words etymologically reducible to the idea of breath (Latin spiritus). To the second type belongs the shadow-soul, understood as “another” image of the person: the “shadows” of the dead, ghosts, spectres.

In the Old Testament there is no systematic theorization about the soul, but there is already affirmed the existence in man of two principles: one material (‘āfār, dust, earth, or bāshār, flesh), the other spiritual (rûaḥ, spirit, or néfesh, soul). The rûaḥ would be the vital principle that God insufflates into the human body; the term néfesh, on the other hand, would mean the vital principle of the lower activities (vegetative, sensitive). The two terms therefore do not represent two distinct substances, but rather two aspects of the activity of a single principle, so we can say that in the Old Testament the constituent parts of man are two and correspond to those of scholastic philosophy: body and soul. In contrast, the Old Testament does not pose the problem of the immortality of the soul.

In the New Testament, the concept of soul becomes more precise with the term pneuma, which captures the soul in its high intellectual functions and in its supernatural activity. Even the New Testament does not focus its attention on the immortality of the soul, but when it affirms that the pneuma, separating itself from the body, dwells with the Lord (I Epistle of Peter 3:19; Epistle to the Hebrews 12:23), it provides a valuable premise for the demonstration of the immortality of the soul.

Among the church fathers of the first centuries of Christianity, the argument of the soul in comparison with current philosophies and with the need to adapt to the expressive means of the time reveals uncertainty and sometimes dangerous slippages: this is the case of Tertullian, who maintains the corporeality of the soul; of Origen, who affirms the pre-existence of the soul in the body; of Apollinaris of Laodicea, who denies the spirituality of the human soul of Christ. However, apart from these cases, the Church’s doctrine on the soul receives from all patristic literature new light and more solid arguments: for example, in Claudius Mamertus (5th century) we already find the affirmation of the absolute spirituality of the soul. In the Middle Ages, the doctrine of the soul was elaborated by scholasticism. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the soul is an individual spiritual substance, the “substantial form” of the body (the influence of Aristotelian thought is evident) and the principle of spiritual activities: knowledge of bodies, knowledge of the universal, self-awareness. The soul and the body, together, constitute man as a unity; but the soul is independent from the body itself: it is for itself and gives being to the body and with death it separates from it and lives the afterlife; separation that is not definitive, but until the Last Judgment. Each individual soul, being a purely spiritual reality, is created directly by God. The Magisterium of the Catholic Church has made the Thomistic doctrine on the soul its own and consecrated it in the Ecumenical Councils XV (1311) and Lateran V (1513).


  1. Title: Psyche. Artist: Wolf von Hoyer (1806-1873). Year: 1842. Location: Munich. Country: Germany. Gallery: Neue Pinakothek. Source: own work – photo taken by Oliver Kurmis on 14 August 2005.
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Scroll to Top