110. De Anima (On the Soul) by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

My copy is the Penguin classic edition translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (ISBN 0140444718)

My thoughts:
Aristotle, student of Plato, was Renaissance Man 1800 years before the Renaissance, with writings on biology, physics, philosophy, ethics, literature and politics. While scholars cannot agree in what order his surviving works were written, it seems like De Anima was the beginning of a series of lectures on the biological sciences so I thought this would be an easy introduction for me. Wrong.

The first thing to note is that the word ‘soul’ in the English title is not analogous to the religious meaning we currently associate with it, but translated from the Greek psyche as some sort of life force, which endows the body with the abilities of movement and perception. While reading On the Soul, it is very hard to keep reminding oneself that it is life force we are really discussing.

Aristotle starts by reviewing the works on the subject by earlier authors, most of whom concentrate on the material composition of the soul on the atomic level. As I discovered earlier in Plato’s Timaeus, the Ancient Greek view of the universe included a belief in solids being composed of atom-sized particles, with different sorts and shapes for fire, water, earth and air. Dust motes in the air were taken to be visible atoms. This was also taken further to suggest that some objects were made from a combination of different sorts of atoms, in fixed proportions. Genius stuff!!

Other suggestions on the nature of the soul include that it is the ratio of the mixtures of various elements of the body, and different parts of the body (muscle, bone, etc.) have different ratios and therefore different souls (life forces) throughout the body; or that the soul is the intellect which is set on a circular course like the heavenly bodies (which Aristotle dismisses as it would mean that we would think the same thoughts repeatedly – circular thinking, indeed!) An even more outlandish theory was that the soul is a number, and I won’t even try to explain that!

Suffice to say that Aristotle is not having any of this. His theory introduces consideration of the type of body the soul is attached to; so he proposes three levels of soul, one for plants which provides only a nutritive drive (to seek sustenance and reproduce), a higher level for animals which also allows both perception (desire, pleasure, pain) and movement, and the highest level for man allows belief and imagination.

The last two thirds of the work dwell on the five senses  – how they work, and their importance. Much of this seemed almost within my grasp but slid away – all the more frustrating than Plato as this was based around the biological sciences which I should have a grasp on. Does not bode well for the coming weeks.

Favourite lines/passages:

“[Reproduction] is the most natural of the functions of such living creatures … namely to make another thing like themselves, an animal an animal, a plant a plant, so that in the way that they can they may partake in the eternal and the divine”         II, 4 (page 165)

Personal rating:  3.

Kimmy’s rating:  A wet rainy day for the last day of summer, so Kimmy wisely stayed wrapped in her blanket and conserved her life force.

 Next :  Aristotle will dominate the posts for the next couple of months, but the end of the Greek era is in distant sight. Next will be his Parva Naturalia.


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