- Ancient philosophical theories of soul are in many respects sensitive to ways of speaking and thinking about the soul [psuchê] that are not specifically philosophical or theoretical. We therefore begin with what the word ‘soul’ meant to speakers of Classical Greek, and what it would have been natural to think about and associate with the soul. We then turn to various Presocratic thinkers, and to the philosophical theories that are our primary concern, those of Plato (first in the Phaedo, then in the Republic), Aristotle (in the De Anima or On the Soul), Epicurus, and the Stoics. These are by far the most carefully worked out theories of soul in ancient philosophy. Later theoretical developments — for instance, in the writings of Plotinus and other Platonists, as well as the Church Fathers — are best studied against the background of the classical theories, from which, in large part, they derive.
- Adopting a bird's-eye view of the terrain that we will be covering, and setting many details aside for the moment, we can describe it as follows. From comparatively humble Homeric beginnings, the word ‘soul’ undergoes quite remarkable semantic expansion in sixth and fifth century usage. By the end of the fifth century — the time of Socrates' death — soul is standardly thought and spoken of, for instance, as the distinguishing mark of living things, as something that is the subject of emotional states and that is responsible for planning and practical thinking, and also as the bearer of such virtues as courage and justice. Coming to philosophical theory, we first trace a development towards comprehensive articulation of a very broad conception of soul, according to which the soul is not only responsible for mental or psychological functions like thought, perception and desire, and is the bearer of moral qualities, but in some way or other accounts for all the vital functions that any living organism performs. This broad conception, which is clearly in close contact with ordinary Greek usage by that time, finds its fullest articulation in Aristotle's theory. The theories of the Hellenistic period, by contrast, are interested more narrowly in the soul as something that is responsible specifically for mental or psychological functions. They either de-emphasize or sever the ordinary-language connection between soul and life in all its functions and aspects.
- The Greek Notion of Soul
→ Supplement: Burnet on the Greek Notion of Soul
- Presocratic Thinking about the Soul
- Plato's Theories of Soul
→ 3.1 The Phaedo's Theory of Soul
→ 3.2 The Republic's Theory of Soul
- Aristotle's Theory of Soul
- Hellenistic Theories of Soul
→ 5.1 Epicurus' Theory of Soul
→ 5.2 The Stoic Theory of Soul
Other Internet Resources
First published Thu Oct 23, 2003; see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archive: Ancient Theories of Soul.
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