The human spirit

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Soul and Spirit

God is pure, uncreated spirit.

The angels are pure, created, spirits.

We are incarnate (enfleshed) spirits--"geist im welt" (Rahner).

We are like God in our spiritual powers (intellect and will), but God is not like us (matter in-formed by soul).

The human spirit is not a byproduct of material complexity but is a direct, personal gift from God at the moment of our conception.

Our spirit is our deepest, truest identity.

Our spirit empowers us to receive God Himself. No other living beings on earth have this power; whether there are other incarnate spirits (extraterrestrials) in the universe remains to be seen. God is, of course, present to all created things, but He cannot dwell within them as He can in us.


Hayah is the verb "to be."

Wikipedia, "Soul--Judaism"
The Hebrew terms נפש nephesh, רוח ruach (literally "wind"), נשמה neshama (literally "breath"), חיה chaya (literally "life") and יחידה yechidah (literally "singularity") are used to describe the soul or spirit. The soul is believed to be given by God to a person by his/her first breath, as mentioned in Genesis, "And the LORD God formed man [of] the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Gen 2:7, NAB).

psyche and pneuma


"And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart [lebab], and with all your soul [nephesh], and with all your might."
וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ


The book of Daniel uses both "psyche" and "pneuma" in the same verse (3:86):

Spirits and souls of the just, bless the Lord;
praise and exalt him above all forever. (3:86)
εὐλογεῖτε πνεύματα καὶ ψυχαὶ δικαίων τὸν κύριον
ὑμνεῖτε καὶ ὑπερυψοῦτε αὐτὸν εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας


The Magnificat (Lk 1:46-47) uses both "psyche" and "pneuma" in the same sentence:

Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον,
καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμα μου ἐπὶ τῷ θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρι μου

In this prayer of Mary, "my psyche" and "my spirit" are different aspects of the same human being who is thanking and praising God with her whole heart for His goodness to her. It is probably an example of poetic reduplication or elegant variation, where the use of two different words do not point to two different realities.

Souls of the Martyrs

Rev 6:9
Καὶ ὅτε ἤνοιξεν τὴν πέμπτην σφραγῖδα εἶδον ὑποκάτω τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου τὰς ψυχὰς τῶν ἐσφαγμένων διὰ τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ διὰ τὴν μαρτυρίαν ἣν εἶχον.
When he broke open the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God.

Spirits of the Just Made Perfect

Heb 12:23
πανηγύρει καὶ ἐκκλησία πρωτοτόκων ἀπογεγραμμένων ἐν οὐρανοῖς καὶ κριτῇ θεῷ πάντων καὶ πνεύμασιν δικαίων τετελειωμένων
... and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, ...


Hebrew Greek Latin English


anima, mens psyche, soul, mind, heart
ruah πνεῦμα



spiritus breath, spirit
lev καρδία


cor heart
μορφή forma form
ὕλη materia matter
nephesh the whole human being: body and soul
hayah (×—Ö·×™Ö¸Ö¼×”) a living being

A body without breath is dead

James 2:26
The body without pneumatos is dead.
τὸ σῶμα χωρὶς πνεύματος νεκρόν ἐστιν

Flesh (sarx)

The Greek word, sarx, appears 149 times in the New Testament.[1]

It cannot mean something intrinsically evil, for "the Word became flesh" (Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο, Jn 1:14).

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

"Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light" (Mt 11:28).


II. Body and Soul, but Truly One[2]
The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that "then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being."[3] Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.
In Sacred Scripture the term "soul" often refers to human life or the entire human person.[4] But "soul" also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him,[5] that by which he is most especially in God's image: "soul" signifies the spiritual principle in man.
The human body shares in the dignity of "the image of God": it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit:[6]
Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day. [7]
The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the "form" of the body:[8] i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.
The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not "produced" by the parents - and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.[9]
Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people "wholly", with "spirit and soul and body" kept sound and blameless at the Lord's coming.[10] The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul.[11] "Spirit" signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.[12]
The spiritual tradition of the Church also emphasizes the heart, in the biblical sense of the depths of one's being, where the person decides for or against God.[13]

The soul is the form of the body

I very much dislike our habit of speaking of "body and soul" as if they were two unrelated things, like "bread and water" or "cake and ice cream."

The developed Catholic doctrine of "soul" depends on Aristotelian insights into form and matter (hylomorphism). Following Aristotle Aquinas, Catholics think of the soul as the form of the body.

The power of life comes from the organic form of matter, known as the "soul" (anima, psyche) in the Aristotelian tradition.

There are two kinds of living souls (or "organic forms") of matter: plant and animal.

The human soul has God-given spiritual powers that distinguish us from all other animals: intelligence and free will.

From this perspective, plants and animals have souls, because they are an organic form of matter. The human soul is elevated above all other kinds of animal souls because it is given the power of intellect and free will at the moment of conception. Aristotle recognized that these spiritual powers make us immortal; they are simple and cannot decompose when we die, even though at death the soul ceases to form (in-form!) the body. Theologically, the conception of a new human being requires the personal action of God to infuse these spiritual powers into the soul. Intellect and will come "from the top down," as a gift of God, and not "from the bottom up" as a function of the complexity of matter.

Metaphysically, the soul cannot be opposed to the body. There is only one principle of life--the soul. The soul causes the body. There is only one living being as a consequence.

Council of Vienne (1315 AD) (emphasis added)
The only begotten Son of God, subsisting eternally together with the Father in everything in which God the Father exists, assumed in time in the womb of a virgin the parts of our nature united together, from which he himself true God became true man: namely the human, passible body and the intellectual or rational soul truly of itself and essentially informing the body.
We reject as erroneous and contrary to the truth of the catholic faith every doctrine or proposition rashly asserting that the substance of the rational or intellectual soul is not of itself and essentially the form of the human body, or casting doubt on this matter. In order that all may know the truth of the faith in its purity and all error may be excluded, we define that anyone who presumes henceforth to assert defend or hold stubbornly that the rational or intellectual soul is not the form of the human body of itself and essentially, is to be considered a heretic.
CCC #382
"Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity" (GS 14 § 1). The doctrine of the faith affirms that the spiritual and immortal soul is created immediately by God.

The soul is not part of the body nor is the body part of the soul. The soul is not located in any part of the body; the soul completely in-forms the body in all of its parts. In the sense, the soul can never be against the body, because the soul is the cause of bodily existence. The body can never stand against the soul, for without the soul, the body would not be alive.

The soul is not in the body because the soul is not in time or space. The body is in the soul, for the soul is the cause of the body. The soul animates, causes the life of the body. There never is a time when a living body exists separately from the soul; when the soul departs the body, the body is dead.

Frank Sheed, The Action of the Holy Spirit, pp. 103-104
By nature we are a union of matter and spirit--body "ensouled," soul embodied. The last four words are true of any living being with a material component, a body. We must not think that the words "soul" and "spirit" have the same meaning, are interchangeable. A soul is a life-principle in a body, human or animal or vegetable. A spirit is a being, not in space, that has abstract knowledge and love. Our bodies are "inlivened" by a spiritual soul as no other body is; our spirit "inlives" a body as no other spirit does.

The heart is a courtroom

"Heart" is not a metaphysical term, so far as I know.

The heart is the seat of our emotions. It is in our hearts that we come to grips with feelings, appetites, and passions.

The heart is where intellect and will meet.

Where judgments are forged.

"Order in the court!"

CSL: "Men without chests."

Spirit vs. flesh


The language of the Scriptures and of spirituality is non-technical. "Mind," "heart," "soul," and "spirit" are contrasted with "the flesh." It sounds as though the body is a principle of evil, but this is something that was vigorously denied by the Church in her struggle against gnosticism. The body is always innocent; it is the person who sins. When we decide to allow our bodily impulses to be our guide to live, we make a spiritual decision that has evil consequences. "But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile" (Mk 7:20-23).

Mt 26:41
"The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."
τὸ μὲν πνεῦμα πρόθυμον ἡ δὲ σὰρξ ἀσθενής.

This is from Jesus' Agony in the Garden; it is a word of compassion about the inability of His disciples to stay awake and pray with him.

The contrast between "spirit" and "flesh" appears in Paul as well.

This is metaphorical, not technical language.

We must not identify "flesh" with "body"!

"Spirit" refers to that part of our self-experience which is attracted to God as the beautiful, the good, and the true. Our natural spiritual powers are infused with the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and love.

"Flesh" in this context refers to the reality of concupiscence, which is a consequence of our fallen spiritual condition. We do not have full mastery of our minds and hearts; something in us resists the good and is attracted to sin.

The scriptures call that part of us which is drawn upward and which aspires to follow Jesus "the spirit." They call that part of us which resists repentance, conversion, and healing "the flesh." Carnality is a spiritual force that draws us into sin. Being embodied is good (Gen 1). Misusing the powers of the body is evil.

Galatians 5-6
Romans 6-8


Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2515; emphasis added.
Etymologically, "concupiscence" can refer to any intense form of human desire. Christian theology has given it a particular meaning: the movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of the human reason. The apostle St. Paul identifies it with the rebellion of the "flesh" against the "spirit." Concupiscence stems from the disobedience of the first sin. It unsettles man's moral faculties and, without being in itself an offense, inclines man to commit sins.


Frank Sheed, The Action of the Holy Spirit, pp. 18-19
I had used the word "spirit" in a lecture and a questioner said, "What is a spirit?" I answered--a spirit has no shape, no size, no dimensions, does not occupy space." The questioner said, "That's the best definition of nothing I've ever heard." He shook me, all right. I had told him what a spirit isn't and doesn't, with no word about what it is and does.
What does the spirit do in us? It knows and loves and decides. A myriad ["10,000"] of activities flow from those three activities beyond the power of matter--general ideas, ideals and ideologies, mathematical and philosophical systems, moral convictions, the splitting of the atom, voyaging in outer space. In all these activities, mind and matter (including the matter of man's own body) are involved, but there is no question of which uses which. ...
Spirit is the being that has no parts. ...
The body has parts, each with its own function, which only it can perform. But all the things the soul does are done by the whole soul, for there is no element in the soul that is not the whole of it. It knows, loves, hates, wants, chooses, refuses to choose, decides, animates a body. And one single soul does each of these things with the whole of itself.
Two things emerge from the spirit's absence of parts--it does not occupy space; it is everlasting.
Jean Marc Laporte, Grace, Fall 1980
Chase away a person's natural disposition--and it returns on the run.

The Gnostic heresy

Spirit good, matter bad.

Soul good, body (σῶμα) bad.

Plato taught "soma sema": "The body is a prison."

Gnosticism dates from the second century of the Christian era. Its view of the relation between spirit, soul, matter, and body is found in Hinduism, Buddhism, the Harry Potter novels, animism, and many forms of New-Age religion.

The thought that matter can contain and control a spirit or a soul is ludicrous. Spirits can act on matter, but matter cannot bind spirits. The idea of a spirit contained in a physical reality--a tree, the moon, the ocean, a totem, an idol, a horcrux, a river, an ocean, a cave, a magic wand, a ring, or the like--makes no sense metaphysically.

The soul is not "imprisoned" in the body. It is the formal cause of bodily existence. The soul forms or in-forms matter to produce the body. The soul is "in" the body in a metaphysical sense, but not in a physical sense. No part of the body is absent from the soul. The human soul is not truly itself without the body, although it has a God-given principle of immortality as a consequence of the spiritual powers of intellect and will given to the person by God at conception.

Hindus and New-Agers teach that our true self is a spirit that can act as the driver of any living vehicle whatsoever. The same principle of life ("jiva") can inhabit any form of animal or human life. Jiva has no intrinsic principle within itself that is related to the body it inhabits. It can be any kind of animal, male or female. When the body dies, jiva is released to inhabit some other body in its next incarnation.

From the Aristo-Thomist standpoint, this is nonsense. Each soul has the power only to form the kind of living being that it has the power to form: a plant, an animal, or a rational animal. Without that form, the being would not be alive. No other form can take the place of the organic form. One soul, one kind of living being.

The Harry Potter heresy

The soul cannot be broken into parts and stored in containers. The soul has no parts. It is a simple, immaterial, metaphysical reality.

The belief that one can capture spirits in physical objects and gain mastery of the spirit by possessing the object underlies the stories of about Aladdin's lamp, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Holy Grail.

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)" employs the same primitive thinking about imprisoning and preserving souls in physical containers.

There is a mild form of this heresy in the "Rings of Power" in The Lord of the Rings.

Spirit in the World

One of Karl Rahner's early works was entitled Geist im Welt: "Spirit in the World." It is a beautiful expression, and the book is an excellent synthesis of the Aristo-Thomist vision of reality.

By nature, our minds are oriented toward knowledge of the material universe. "All knowledge begins in the senses" (Aristotle), and the senses operate through physical interaction with the material world. The physical sciences are ultimately based on sense knowledge--what we can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. We easily understand matter acting on matter because that is what we see all the time: my fingers tap the keys, the keyboard sends signals to the computer, the computer produces characters on the screen, and so on.

Science traces cause-and-effect in physical relationships. For the most part, we can readily envision one material thing or force acting on another material thing or force. The thought that everything we see in the universe is nothing but particles and forces is a comprehensive and attractive cosmology. Where a primitive mythology saw the earth as a flat plate standing on the back of a turtle, which in turn stood on the back of an elephant, which stood on a turtle standing on the back of an elephant, ad infinitum, so that it was "turtles and elephants all the way down," modern science says that everything is particles and fields, all the way down.

With this intense training and conditioning in the scientific outlook, it is difficult for the modern mind to understand how pure spirits (God, angels, demons) can act on matter, especially if by "understanding" we mean "drawing a picture." There is neither need nor room to invoke metaphysical activity when the universe is understood as a set of particles and fields that follow the laws of physics. The materialist may take refuge in a stoic outlook on life: "It is what it is."

Christians necessarily must believe that matter is open to the action of pure spirits, i.e., personal beings that possess intellect, will, and existence, but that have no materiality at all. If God and the angels are locked out of the universe by the principles of physical cause-and-effect, then God cannot have created the universe, cannot govern the universe, cannot have entered the universe in the Incarnation, cannot work miracles of any kind, and cannot answer our prayers. We don't know how pure spirits can act on the material world; we do know that they can and do act on matter.

The reason why have no picture of how a pure spirit can act on particles and fields is that only material particles and fields can be represented in pictures. A being that, by nature, has no extension in time or space cannot be shown in drawings; picture-thinking must give way to metaphysical reasoning. This is a "dark night" for the mind. It goes against the grain to abandon visual representations, models, or analogies. Physicists who do Quantum Electro-Dynamics (QED, Feynman) must make the same sacrifice. If we really want to know what ultimate reality is like in either the physical or metaphysical realm, we must give up imagery and be led by principles instead.

From the standpoint of natural theology, matter is disposed to the action of pure spirits because it is created by God. The five ways of Aristotle and Thomas show that there must be a single, infinite, existing, good, all-powerful, intelligent, spiritual being who is the cause of the material universe; if there were no First Cause, there would be no matter. But if there is a First Cause, it necessarily follows that spirit can act on matter. We have no picture of what the "interface" between spirit and matter looks like. All we can say is that spirit can produce and act on matter; we do not have, and cannot have, a scientific map of how this is so.

Besides this certitude that matter can be acted on by pure spirit because it is produced by pure spirit, we also have the evidence of embodied spirit acting in the world--all of our own consciousness of ourselves and our intelligent actions. Aristotle saw that the powers of intelligence and free will are spiritual in nature and, as a consequence, not subject to decay when we die. These spiritual powers act in and through our bodies, but do not come from the body. Our inner life is not a by-product of material complexity, as the materialists assert, but is the product of our spirit.

We cannot see that this is so, but we can know it by reasoning metaphysically. We cannot see our own spirit because it is the immaterial cause of our human nature. "The soul is the form of the body" means that our bodily life is caused by our soul, which has the distinctive spiritual powers of intellect and will that set us apart from all other animals. We reason to the existence of these spiritual powers by understanding the kind of cause that alone can account for the effects that we observe, just as we reason to the existence of force fields and quantum phenomena, which are, in themselves, invisible, by reasoning from the effects produced by these fields and phenomena.

There is a natural analogy that may, perhaps, help with the distress we are liable to feel about our inability to see our own spirit: we cannot see our eyes directly. The whole glory of the eye is that, even though it and the extraordinary neural processes that organize the eye's input are material in nature, and even though these physical things come between us and the visible world, the eye does not see itself but sees what is outside itself. We can only see our eyes in the reflection of a mirror; we can only trace the neural connections by believing that what is known about neural anatomy and neurology from the study of other people, living or dead, applies to what is happening in our minds. There is no way to cut into our own brains to see the neurons firing that carry the information from the eye to the brain or from the brain to the center of our self-consciousness.

The operation of our eyes is so natural and effortless that we never stop to express doubt about whether we have eyesight even though we cannot see ourselves seeing. In the same way, the fact that we cannot directly observe the spiritual powers that equip us to think, every thought we have is fresh evidence that we are, in fact, embodied spirits.

If God can act in the world, and if we can act in the world, so can angels, demons, the saints in Heaven, and, the souls of the damned in Hell.


  1. Strong's Greek Concordance.
  2. I've added a comma to the title of this section. It seems to me that the force of the "but" is misdirected without the comma to set it up. Without the comma, the sense of "nothing but" sneaks in for me: "Love is but a song to sing, Fear's the way we die" (Youngbloods, "Get Together").
  3. Gen 2:7.
  4. Cf. Mt 16:25-26; Jn 15:13; Acts 2:41.
  5. Cf. Mt 10:28; 26:38; Jn 12:27; 2 Macc 6:30.
  6. Cf. 1 Cor 6:19-20; 15:44-45.
  7. GS 14 § 1; cf. Dan 3:57-80.
  8. Cf. Council of Vienne (1312): DS 902.
  9. Cf. Pius XII, Humani Generis: DS 3896; Paul VI, CPG § 8; Lateran Council V (1513): DS 1440.
  10. 1 Thess 5:23.
  11. Cf. Council of Constantinople IV (870): DS 657.
  12. Cf. Vatican Council I, Dei Filius: DS 3005; GS 22 § 5; Humani Generis: DS 3891.
  13. Cf. Jer 31:33; Deut 6:5; 29:3; Isa 29:13; Ezek 36:26; Mt 6:21; Lk 8:15; Rom 5:5.