The soul is the form of the body

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Soul and Spirit

The Hindu (and, I think, Platonic) idea of the soul is that it is just a passenger along for the ride in a bodily vehicle. Plato said, "Soma sema": The body (soma) is a prison (sema). Just as drivers can get out of a wrecked car and climb into a new one of any type, so Hindus imagine that the soul escapes from one dead body and can take possession of any other type of living being.

The Aristotelian, Thomist, and Catholic philosophical tradition sees the soul as the form of the body. Every living thing, even plants, have souls. It is the soul that causes one living being to be a plant, another to be an animal, and still another to be a human being. Souls are not interchangeable parts. A plant soul always produces a plant; an animal soul always produces an animal; a human soul always produces a human being.

Catholic Encyclopedia, "Soul"
The soul may be defined as the ultimate internal principle by which we think, feel, and will, and by which our bodies are animated.
St. Thomas's doctrine is briefly as follows:
  • the rational soul, which is one with the sensitive and vegetative principle, is the form of the body. This was defined as of faith by the Council of Vienne of 1311;
  • the soul is a substance, but an incomplete substance, i.e. it has a natural aptitude and exigency for existence in the body, in conjunction with which it makes up the substantial unity of human nature;
  • though connaturally related to the body, it is itself absolutely simple, i.e. of an unextended and spiritual nature. It is not wholly immersed in matter, its higher operations being intrinsically independent of the organism;
  • the rational soul is produced by special creation at the moment when the organism is sufficiently developed to receive it. In the first stage of embryonic development, the vital principle has merely vegetative powers; then a sensitive soul comes into being, educed from the evolving potencies of the organism — later yet, this is replaced by the perfect rational soul, which is essentially immaterial and so postulates a special creative act. Many modern theologians have abandoned this last point of St. Thomas's teaching, and maintain that a fully rational soul is infused into the embryo at the first moment of its existence.

The Hindu (and Harry Potter) view of the soul ("jiva") is that the soul is trapped inside a living organism and may migrate to other living organisms ("transmigrate") without losing its own self-identity. There is no intrinsic relationship between the soul and the body; any soul can inhabit any body; when the vehicle is destroyed, the soul is released to be re-incarnated in another form of life.

Incidentally, this shows what nonsense there is in the Harry Potter books about breaking souls into parts and preserving those parts alive in horcruxes. A body has parts, and we can live if we lose some parts of our bodies, but a soul is simple and indivisible. To live is to be a body informed (inwardly formed) by a soul; when the soul is separated from the body, the living being dies.

On these grounds, it is also nonsensical to think that the same human soul could animate other forms of life. My soul can only cause me to be me, both in this present body (somewhat worse for the wear) and in my resurrected body in Heaven.

One physical reality, two metaphysical causes

The soul is not physically distinct from the body. It is not the union of two THINGS. The body is one thing with two principle causes--form and matter. We can only distinguish between the soul and the body metaphysically and metaphysically understand the spiritual powers of the human soul that cause us to be immortal.

Pious misinterpretations of "soul"

Because we are aware that God has given the human soul (the form of the body) spiritual powers that cause the soul to be immortal, and because we believe that the human soul can therefore continue to exist even when it is not forming a body, there is a lamentable tendency to lapse in Hindu forms of thought about our souls.

It is wrong to oppose the soul to the body, as if the soul exists apart from the body. The body without the soul is dead; the soul without the body is incomplete, for our soul is oriented toward the formation of a body. The soul is not at war with the body; our spiritual gifts (identity, intelligence, and free will; faith, hope, and love) are at odds with the tendencies of soul-formed-body, our animal life, with all of its disordered appetites, passions, and habits.

  • The soul is not the antagonist of the body. Without the soul, there can be no body. Soul and body are a metaphysical unity.
  • The body is not synonymous with the "flesh." The "flesh" is a spiritual tendency to sin, inherited among us as a consequence of Original Sin.
  • Sin is a spiritual choice. Sin may involve misusing bodily powers, but the body is always innocent.
  • I don't "have" a soul. That power in me that says "I" or "I have" comes from my soul. The inescapable structure of language, which demands a subject and predicate, compels me to talk about myself as if I were composed of parts when, in fact, I am simply and indivisibly me. So, too, I don't "have" a body. The soul is the form of the body; I am an incarnate being--"geist im welt," "spirit in the world." The mental, metaphysical, and verbal distinctions are useful and unavoidable, but in the last analysis, with St. Paul and Popeye, I must say, "by the grace of God, I am what I am" (1 Cor 15:10).
  • The expression "the soul is the form of the body" can make it sound like there are three things under consideration rather than two: soul, form, and body. The soul is nothing but a form. "Soul" is the name we give to the kind of form that gives life to plants and animals. We are not distinguished from other living things by having a soul; we are distinguished from them by having a different kind (species) of soul from them.
MacDonald, George.[1]
And here let me interrupt the conversation to remark upon the great mistake of teaching children that they have souls. The consequence is, that they think of their souls as of something which is not themselves. For what a man HAS cannot be himself. Hence, when they are told that their souls go to heaven, they think of their SELVES as lying in the grave. They ought to be taught that they have bodies; and that their bodies die; while they themselves live on. Then they will not think, as old Mrs Tomkins did, that THEY will be laid in the grave. It is making altogether too much of the body, and is indicative of an evil tendency to materialism, that we talk as if we POSSESSED souls, instead of BEING souls. We should teach our children to think no more of their bodies when dead than they do of their hair when it is cut off, or of their old clothes when they have done with them.

Comparative and Chronological lexicon

Here is a massive project: Sort out the biblical, philsophical, spiritual, cultural meanings of the world soul, heart, mind, spirit, flesh, body. Great confusion in our day. Start with Hebrew Scriptures. Mustn't imagine that they are against the Platonic or Aristotelian world view UNTIL P and A come on the scene. Only late Scriptures could be used to address that question. The earlier authors weren't denying the Greek theory of soul because they hadn't heard it yet (?). Just as wrong to use the Bible as a philosophical textbook as it is to use it as a scientific textbook--or as a simple history in our sense of the word "history." The biblical authors were writing spontaneously and had their attention focused on God and neighbor.

God's revelation is translatable.

NT lang is post-Greek phil, but not using vocabularly in the Thomistic sense, which comes 12 centuries later (!).

Swarm of associations infected by Eastern mysticism.

Task: for any author, determine what their meaning of soul is. Don't use the wrong dictionary to interpret what they are saying!

Cor ad cor loquitur--if we mean the same thing by "cor."

Herculean task. Augean stables. Big mess to clean up.

Those biblical interpreters who set the OT and NT against Thomas are just flat-out wrong.

"Distinctions without a Difference"

I am me.

I say, "I have a soul."

But I am a spiritual person.

I am me.

I am one living being.

I am composed of "soul and matter."

NOT "body and soul."

My body is the effect of my soul.

My body is the outcome of the union of soul and matter.

I am spirit incarnate.

"Spirit in the World."

I reify "myself," as if "my self" is something different from "me."

Soul and body do not line up precisely with "form and matter." The body is composed of soul-and-matter. The human being is NOT "body and soul," as if the soul was a separate reality from the body. The human being is a form of matter. The name of the human form is the soul. The body is caused by the soul. Not like "brick and mortar," both of which are forms of matter. A wall is made out of brick and mortar. The union of soul and matter in our living body is very different from a brick wall!


  1. (2010-01-01). The Complete Works of George MacDonald (50+ works with an active table of contents) (Kindle Locations 13868-13873). O'Connor Books. Kindle Edition.