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Do Animals Have Souls?

The word for soul in Greek (ψυχή, psyche) has an interesting history in literature and philosophy. We see it evolve from homeric usage to the early philosophers. From there, to Plato and Aristotle. But the use in the Old and New Testaments is striking.

This article was originally published as a part of a Round Table on ConciliarPost.com. It was reposted here by its author, Benjamin Cabe.

The word for soul in Greek (ψυχή, psyche) has an interesting history in literature and philosophy. In the Ancient Greek world, it was used synonymously with “life in the body.” To lose or risk one’s soul in Homeric literature (c. 1200–800 BC), for instance, would be to lose or risk one’s life [1]. Between 800 and 600 BC philosophers began to apply attributes such as courage to the soul—and gradually a moral quality as well [2]. Around the same time, linguistic developments made possible a distinction missing from the ancient understanding of the human being: a distinction between the body and the soul [3].

This evolution of thought allowed Plato (c. 428–347 BC) to develop his own philosophy: souls are immortal, souls pre-exist the body, the body is the prison of the soul, and so on. Not long after Plato, Aristotle (c. 384–322 BC) would make a further distinction between three kinds of life or three kinds of souls: the nutritive soul (one’s growth and nutrition), the sensible soul (autonomy in movement and perception), and the rational soul (one’s capacity to think rationally and reflect). Plants, animals, and human beings share the first category, animals and humans the second, but the third belongs to humans alone.

Old Testament usages of the word soul (Greek Septuagint: ψυχή; Hebrew: nephesh) generally resemble the simplicity of the homeric understanding: soul = life [4]. The mystery of the human being, we must remember, was not fully revealed until the Incarnation of Christ. New Testament usage of soul would be more informed than that of the Old Testament but would remain somewhat flexible, as writers used various words to describe the reality of the inner man (2 Corinthians 4:16, etc.). The Church Fathers, most specifically the Neptic Fathers, would go on to clarify much of the New Testament terminology. The point is that we should not be reticent to acknowledge the development of thought surrounding the soul even within the biblical canon. 

Thus, when we read in Genesis 9:4 that the souls of animals are in the blood, we should not be confused to think that animals have souls in the same sense that humans do. Animals have life and instincts but they are not made in the image and likeness of God. Man rules because he unites the spiritual and physical realm in his person; he bridges the gap between the material creation (the cosmos) and the intelligible creation (the angels) which situates him as the priest of creation—as the one who unites all of creation in himself and offers it back up to God as anaphora.


[1] See Hendrik Lorenz’s excellent assessment in Ancient Theories of the Soul, 1.1.[2] Ibid, 1.1–3, 2.1; Aristotle, De Anima 1.2, 405a19-21.[3] Ibid, 1.4, 1.6. [4] This of course is a generalization as the revelation progressed over time through the writings of the Psalmist, the work of the Prophets, and so on.

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