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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731

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Aristotle's On the Soul exists as his personal discourse on what the soul truly is. He begins the text stating that "knowledge of any kind is a thing to be honoured and prized." Therefore, he admits that knowledge on the soul is priceless. His discussion acknowledges that he is only offering his ideology on what the soul is, which is not what all may believe it to be.

Aristotle goes on to state that to understand the soul one must possess an understanding of Nature and animal life. He sets a very specific expectation regarding his examination of the soul through making the following statement: "aim is to grasp and understand, first its essential nature, and secondly its properties; of these some are taught to be affections proper to the soul itself, while others are considered to attach to the animal owing to the presence within it of soul." Therefore, this provides a summary of what the purpose of On the Soul is.

Essentially, Aristotle admits that defining the soul is "one of the most difficult things in the world." Aristotle continues with the idea that to define the soul one must define what "class" the soul belongs to. That said, after trying to define what class the soul belongs to, one must also define if the soul possesses "parts." This question forces both Aristotle and the reader to consider the "body." Does the soul exist independent of the body, as part of the body, or is it dependent upon the body for survival?

Aristotle decides that the study of the definition of the soul must be grounded solely in that of the "science of Nature." By grounding the study of the soul in the science of Nature, Aristotle gives others a definitive set of rules and standards to use. (He does this based upon the fact that people within different schools of thought will take those specific rules to define the soul.)

Aristotle, in Part II, opens by stating that the ideologies of "our predecessors" are of the utmost importance. By examining what has already been stated, one can "profit by whatever is sound in their suggestions and avoid their error." This allows Aristotle to learn from and internalize what has already been suggested about the soul.

Later in Part II, Aristotle states the one way of defining the soul is through what moves it [the soul]. He goes on to define this movement as being two-fold: the soul itself moves and things are moved by the soul. He also states that growth only comes from the soul.

In Part III, Aristotle also states that "four species of movement-locomotion, alteration, diminution, growth exist." These movements are especially important in the soul, and that the soul must be responsible for moving itself. That said, as with any movement, the movements of the soul possess countermovements (or effects). He goes on to tie the movements of the soul to earthly elements: fire moves the soul upward and the earth moves the soul downward.

Part IV discusses the harmony of the soul. Here, Aristotle discusses the actual movement of the soul. He states that the soul cannot move "in harmony," but moves as it wills itself to. This idea suggests that the soul, although not stated by Aristotle, possesses the ability to think in order to make thoughtful movement. Later in this part, he discusses that the soul is incapable of being destroyed. This gives the soul an almost supernatural and god-like existence.

Finally, in Part V, Aristotle begins to solidify his defining of the soul. Yet, he ventures off this defining through questioning the existence of a soul within "everything." He questions, specifically, "Why has not everything a soul, since everything either is an element, or is formed out of one or several or all of the elements."

In the end, Aristotle leaves readers with no real answer to the question of the soul. He successfully asks and answers questions regarding the soul without defining it in its entirety. Instead, he leaves readers with a single final thought: that when some plants and animals "when divided into segments" go on living, each segment now possesses its own soul. This idea forces readers to come to the conclusion presented in the opening of Aristotle's essay: "To attain any assured knowledge about the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world."


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1136

Aristotle’s works on politics, ethics, and metaphysics have made him one of the most widely read of the Greek philosophers. The title of this book, On the Soul, is a signal to the reader that the topic is critical to understanding humans. Some scholars believe On the Soul was part of Aristotle’s general lectures on biology at his institution of learning, the Lyceum, while others place the work at a later point in his life. Aristotle typically wrote and then revised many of his works, and this book likely was revised several times as well.

On the Soul is divided into three books with several chapters in each. Book 1 begins with Aristotle’s assertion of the importance of his topic. Understanding the nature of the soul, he claims, is important to understanding the principle that animates all animal life. He is quick to acknowledge that the topic is a difficult one; but its importance is obvious. Equally important, he argues, is how one approaches the topic of understanding the essence of the soul, its form or true nature. Accounting for the properties that make up that essence can lead a person to understand the soul itself.

The balance of book 1 is taken up with Aristotle’s effort to obtain an understanding of these properties through the works of other philosophers. While he advances his reasons for disagreeing with their wisdom, Aristotle concludes from his survey of their thinking that all are in agreement that the soul is in some way joined to the body and is therefore the origin of movement. He rejects this conclusion for several reasons, however, not the least because it would mean the soul would have to have a location or place in the body, a conclusion he doubts. In other words, Aristotle makes it clear from the beginning of On the Soul that he believes the essence of the soul is not a material thing.

Aristotle ends book 1 by arguing against what he considers the implausible belief that the soul is created through parts of the body or a mixture of parts of the body, corresponding to the elements of fire, water, and air (earth, he acknowledges, has no advocates on this point). Instead, he argues, the soul is unified in its essence.

After disposing of the thoughts of others on the soul, Aristotle sets out in book 2 to make a fresh start on his subject. He proposes to study the nature of the soul in all living things, arguing that the soul is the source of all movement and the essence of life. From this, he goes on to examine life in terms of growth, finding that all living things possess a nutritive soul that urges them to feed themselves and to reproduce. In this sense, he concludes, all living things, both plant and animal, are animated by this type of soul.

Animal life can be distinguished from plant life, however, by virtue of the possession of sense. All animals have senses, he observes, which plants lack; whether the sense is a potential feeling or an actual one, all animals possess them. Any object in nature is knowable to animals through the use of at least one sense, and often all senses. From this, Aristotle goes into a lengthy discussion of the senses, analyzing how each sense perceives objects in the world around it. Through this discussion, he finds that each sense involves receiving information about the form of things and uses some organ as the seat for that sense. Through these senses, the animal soul perceives things, and from the use of the senses, as well as feelings of pleasure and pain, all animals feel desire, and even a kind of memory and imagination.

With this new understanding of the soul in all living things, and the soul in animal life in particular, Aristotle begins book 3, the final book in On the Soul, with a discussion of the rational soul that exists only in human beings. To understand this aspect of the soul, Aristotle draws an important distinction between perception and thinking. All animals use their senses to perceive objects in the world around them, but only humans exercise their imagination and judgment to think. He makes this argument by noting that perception requires some object in the world for the senses to act upon, but thinking is different because it does not require an object; one can think of anything.

Aristotle divides this kind of thinking into two types, actual and potential. Actual knowledge and the sensation connected with it are associated with objects in the world, and potential knowledge and sensation are associated with potentialities. Potential knowledge, therefore, requires actual knowledge to trigger it. In other words, Aristotle is suggesting that each human has a collection of potential knowledge, concepts derived from experience, waiting to be triggered by actual knowledge; humans can also contemplate with this potential knowledge and combine these concepts in thoughts. However, potential knowledge is not directly connected to the senses and objects in the world around it; this side of the soul, Aristotle argues, is without material form and is able to exist without a body and its senses. Therefore, he concludes, this part of the soul is, in fact, immortal.

The movement Aristotle speaks of in book 1, therefore, is explained by both appetite and the rational mind. The first, appetite, moves all animals as they perceive the world through their senses, triggering the sense imagination. Calculative imagination, in which the rational mind deliberates on the world, is solely a human activity and, therefore, only human beings have movement triggered by the mind. In this sense, the human soul is the accumulation of all three types of souls: the nutritive soul, common to all plants and animals; the sensible (as relating to the senses) soul shared by all animals; and the rational soul, shared only by human beings.

Aristotle’s analysis of the human soul, therefore, has less to do with theology (the way many talk about “soul” in religious doctrines about an eternal “afterlife” of either reward or punishment) and more to do with psychology. He gives an explanation of the source of thought and the motivation behind movement in the world.

Although Aristotle is not giving a religious accounting of the soul, theologians have made use of his description of the soul, most notably Saint Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas had attempted to reconcile Aristotle’s observations about the soul with an understanding of Christian theology, which also acknowledges the idea of a soul that lacks materiality and is immortal. However, most modern discussion of On the Soul takes place in the field of psychology, and it is through the study of the human mind that Aristotle’s ideas still have an important part to play in human ways of understanding.