The Soul in Ancient Thought
I’ve been working my way through the complete works of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato of Athens and recently came to the famous middle-period dialogue, the Phaedo. Written in Athens sometime during the 4th century BCE, the dialogue is framed by a conversation between the philosophers Phaedo of Elis, for whom the dialogue is named, and Echecrates of Phlius. Phaedo was a student of the great philosopher Socrates and was present at his execution, and narrates to Echecrates the conversations that Socrates held with some of his other students just prior to his death.
Central to these conversations is a discussion on the nature of the human soul — indeed, among the ancients, the dialogue was known by the title On the Soul. That humans have souls is taken as a given (a fact I’ll be discussing more further on), and Socrates presents several arguments to demonstrate to his students that the soul is immortal.
Reading this dialogue, it struck me how similar Plato’s ideas about the soul are to those of Christianity, and this in turn led me to an investigation in which I compared ideas about the soul and the afterlife held by the ancient Hebrew people to those held by the early Christians, and those in turn to those presented in Plato’s dialogues and the other works of Ancient Greek philosophy.
I’ll begin with some historical contextualization, starting with the ancient history of the Jewish people, which I’ve drawn from The History of Ancient Israel (2012) by classicist and historian Michael Grant.
Between four and three thousand years ago, various nomadic peoples drifted into and out of the the lands including and surrounding what is now the nation of Israel, which were at the time occupied by a settled agricultural people called the Canaanites, who spoke a Semitic language (the same language family as modern Hebrew and Arabic) and followed a polytheistic religion. The Israelites emerged as a distinct group from among these nomads some time during the middle of this period. According to their founding myths, their differentiation from the other peoples of the region had resulted from their having been enslaved by the Egyptians and then led out of enslavement by Moses. Moses, according to this narrative, had then dedicated the Israelites to a new god, Yahweh, which combined traits of the Canaanite god El and the earlier polytheistic traditions of the Israelites. This religion was likely henotheistic in nature: the Israelites acknowledged the existence of other gods, such as those of the Canaanites, but worshipped Yahweh primarily.
The nomadic Israelites, who were not at the time a unified people but who had organized into twelve independent tribes, existed in tension with the agricultural Canaanites for the remainder of their shared history. Apparently as a response to external threats, the Isrealites unified under a monarchy, led by King Saul, and attained territorial dominance of the region. This kingdom split into two — Israel and Judah — following the death of the later King Solomon. Israel later fell to the Assyrians, and its people, which constituted ten of the original twelve tribes, were deported and assimilated into other cultures. Then, about 2600 years ago, the Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians and its people were deported as well, but they maintained cultural independence in exile. Just prior to the Exile, the henotheistic Yahwist religion acquired a more universal character, with the god Yahweh seen as having dominance over not just the Israelites but over all the peoples of the world. And during the Exile itself, the religion transformed into the monotheistic religion that we now call Judaism, under which the god Yahweh is seen as the only god that exists at all.
Several decades later, Babylon was conquered by the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great, who decreed that the deported people of Judah be allowed to return to their homeland. They did so in several successive waves, coming into conflict once again with the other peoples inhabiting the land, while others remained behind in Babylon. The Israelites then lived under Persian dominion for about two centuries, until Persia was itself conquered by Alexander the Great of Macedonia, at which point the lands of the Israelites fell under the control of the Greek-speaking Kingdom of Macedonia.
Alexander died less than a decade later and the regions that he controlled were divided up by his followers. The Israelites, whose land was then called Judea, fell under the control of the Ptolemaic dynasty, based in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. This people, whom we can now refer to as the Jews, once again faced questions of how to co-exist with a people of a different religion and different way of life. Over the course of this history — though the exact timeline is heavily disputed — they had maintained their identity in part by collecting and perserving in writing the myths of their origin, the subsequent history of their people, and various other prophetic, poetic, and philosophical texts that they had composed. A collection of these texts — I doubt the full collection — is the Hebrew Bible, and in the mid-3rd century BCE the Jews translated this text to Koine Greek, which had become the lingua franca of the region. This translation is called the Septuagint, from the Latin septuaginta, meaning “seventy,” based on the legend that the text had been translated by seventy Jewish scholars, each of whom miraculously created the exact same translation as the others. This translation will be especially relevant to our work today, as it is written in the same language (though a different dialect) as the works of Plato, and as it was the form of the Hebrew Bible studied and quoted by the Jews of 1st-century Roman Judea, as well as the early Christians.
Looking now to the history of the Greeks: about 2600 years ago (close to the time of the Babylonian Exile of the people of Judah), in the city of Miletus, which lay along what is now the western coast of Turkey, a man named Thales studied mathematics and astrology and speculated as to the underlying metaphysical nature of the universe. We take Thales’ work as the starting point of the Western philosophical tradition. About two hundred years later in the city of Athens, a student of the philosopher Socrates named Plato united the various strands of inquiry that philosophers had explored in the intervening centuries under a single discipline, establishing him as the de facto father of Western philosophy. The 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously quipped that “[t]he safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (1978, p. 39). Plato wrote his philosophy in the form of dialogues, almost all of which feature his teacher Socrates as a central character. Socrates — on whom I have a separate episode, largely concerning his appearance in the dialogues the Euthyphro and the Apology — never wrote anything down himself and was known to have practiced philosophy chiefly by publicly engaging in philosophical discourse with those whom he encountered around Athens. Having caused many powerful people a great deal of irritation, he was, in the year 399 BCE, tried, convicted, sentenced, and executed for the crimes of impiety and corrupting the youth.
The Academy that Plato founded went through a long period in which its leaders taught philosophical skepticism, the view that certain knowledge of truth is impossible. In 90 BCE, the Greek philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon, a student of the Academy, rejected skepticism, thus initiating the philosophical period referred to as Middle Platonism, and this is where our two histories connect, as Antiochus was a Greek born in Ptolemaic Judea who founded a school in the Ptolemaic capital of Alexandria. And while the Jews of the Ptolemaic Kingdom maintained a separate ethnic identity and at times came into conflict with the Greeks, they largely assimilated into Greek culture, and those Hellenistic Jews privileged with an education studied not only the Septuagint but the classics of Greek literature as well, including the dialogues of Plato. Indeed, the philosopher Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jew and contemporary of Jesus who lived from the mid-1st century BCE to the mid-1st century CE, famously sought to merge the teachings of the Hebrew Bible with those of Plato, and there are many significant terms that appeared in both corpora of texts, such as those regarding concepts of the self and the soul.
To better understand these terms and concepts through the language, let’s examine a Bible verse in which they play a central role: Genesis 2:7, which describes the creation of the first human (Adam) by God and which is translated from the Hebrew in the New Revised Standard Version as “…then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” “Breath,” as in “breath of life,” is translated from the Hebrew word נשמה (neshamah). Neshamah appears to be very close in meaning to the English word “breath” but also takes on a spiritual meaning as a result of its involvement in the creation of the first human. This word is translated into English similarly throughout the Old Testament, excepting Proverbs 20:27, which the NRSV renders as “The human spirit [neshamah] is the lamp of the Lord….” Neshamah is translated into the Septuagint as πνοή (pnoe), which likewise means “breath.” The aforementioned verse Proverbs 20:27 in the Septuagint translates neshamah to pnoe as well, which presents something of a conflict between the Greek and the English, as pnoe lacks the spiritual implications of neshamah and thus is not properly rendered as “spirit.”
So, God forms a human body from the dust of the ground and breathes the breath of life into it, and then what happens? “[T]he man became a living being.” In the Hebrew, what Adam becomes is a נפשׁ (nefesh), which just means a living being or creature of some sort or another. In Genesis 1:20, nefesh is used to describe the various creatures that God has created. Often, nefesh refers to a person or persons, as in Genesis 14:21: “Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.’” But in some translations, nefesh is also sometimes rendered as “soul,” such as in Genesis 12:13 in the King James Version: “Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul [nefesh] shall live because of thee.”
In the Septuagint, nefesh is rendered as ψυχή (psyche), and this is where things get interesting, because the ancient Hebrew concept of nefesh and the ancient Greek concept of psyche, while certainly similar enough that a translation from one to the other is not unreasonable, have some very different implications.
First note that the Hebrew Bible was translated into Koine Greek, whereas the New Testament was originally written in that language, and psyche is the word used by its authors wherever the English uses the word life, but also where it uses spirit or soul; for example, in Matthew 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul [psyche]; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (NRSV). This appears to accord with the modern understanding we have of the word soul, as it is used in a religious or spiritual sense: “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal.” Something that is distinct from our bodies, something imbued into our bodies, which constitutes our true and immortal selves. I’ll be troubling this understanding further on. Psyche is also the word translated into soul in the works of the ancient Greeks, and I’ll have more to say about their concept of psyche further on as well.
As the Biblical scholar and Professor of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity James D. Tabor tells us, “The ancient Hebrews had no idea of an immortal soul living a full and vital life beyond death, nor of any resurrection or return from death” (2013). Remember that, according to the Book of Genesis, when Adam was created, he became a nefesh, which is to say that he became a living being. But in the Greek Septuagint, Adam became a psyche, which would be best rendered in English by saying that he became a soul.
Additionally, there are no explicit references to a spiritual afterlife in the Hebrew Bible. There are occasional references to a realm called שׁאול (Sheol), which is translated into English as hell, the grave, the pit, or transliterated into the Latin alphabet but left untranslated. The Septuagint renders it as ᾍδης (Hades), the underworld of the Greek polytheistic religion, but this translation (as well as hell) seem unsatisfactory as the text indicates (such as in Ecclesiastes 9:5, which is a text of fairly late authorship relative to the rest of the Hebrew Bible) that Sheol is not a realm in which the dead experience any kind of afterlife. If the word is to be translated into English at all, the grave seems most apt.
In the Book of Daniel, one of the prophetic texts of the Old Testament and one of the last to be authored, there is a reference to a physical resurrection: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2). Not only would this be a physical rather than spiritual afterlife, it actually seems to refute any remaining consideration there might be for a Hebrew belief in a spiritual afterlife prior to Hellenization.
Now let’s consider the concept of the soul as it exists in Christianity.
The earliest Christian writings of which there are extant copies are the Epistle to the Galatians and the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, both written by Paul the Apostle some time in the middle of the first century CE. Paul was a Hellenic Jew born in Tarsus in the Seleucid Empire, one of the other empires that rose from the ashes of the empire of Alexander the Great. Galatians 6:8 reads: “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” Spirit is translated from a form of the Greek word πνεῦμα (pneuma), which, like pnoe, means “breath;” and life is translated from a form of the Greek word ζωὴ (zoe), which means “life” in the literal sense with which English speakers are familiar (zoe is the root of the English words zoo and zoology). Psyche appears nowhere in the book.
1 Thessalonians 5:23 reads: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit [pneuma] and soul [psyche] and body [σῶμα, soma] be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is part of Paul’s conclusion of the letter, and he doesn’t present us with any ontology of this soul that he mentions, nor any psychology (here in its literal meaning as “the study of the soul”), but it is quite helpful regardless, as here Paul states explicitly that spirit, soul, and body are three different things, in apparent deviation from the beliefs of the pre-Hellenistic Jews.
Paul elaborates on this in his (probably) later First Epistle to the Corinthians:
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand these gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.
All of the translations into variations of the word “spirit” are rendered from variations on the Greek word pneuma.
The next line is quite interesting: “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14). “Those who are unspiritual” is translated all together from the Greek word psychikos. The root psyche we are, of course, quite familiar with by now, and the suffix -kos forms adjectives from noun stems. But there is nothing here performing the role of negation, nothing that we would translate into the English prefix un-. The New Revised Standard Version has a footnote to “unspiritual” offering the alternate translation of “natural”, but Koine Greek already has a word for “natural”: physikos. So 1 Corinthians 2:14 might be better translated “Those who are of the soul do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them….”
In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he presents the foundational mechanism of the Christian religion: humans are wicked and unworthy of God, both as a result of their failure to abide by God’s commandments and as a result of the original sin of Adam, but are redeemed through faith in Jesus Christ, who was crucified in atonement for those sins. Romans 6:23 states that “the wages of sin is death,” but the spiritual aspect that we understand as being present in modern Christianity — that it is our soul that is condemned to hell because of sin and that it is our soul that is redeemed by faith — does not appear in Paul’s letter. Romans 6:23 in its entirity reads “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our LORD,” with “life” rendered from the Greek zoe. Elsewhere in the letter, Paul speaks of being “in the Spirit” rather than “in the flesh,” but “Spirit” is always translated from pneuma and refers unambiguously to God rather than to what modern Christians understand as the human soul.
The Revelation to John was one of the last books of the New Testament to be authored, and in chapter 20, verses 11–14, we have a description of the judgement of the dead: the dead are judged “according to their works,” and all whose names are not found written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire. But these verses are not speaking of the souls of the dead but rather of τοὺς νεκρούς (tous nekrous), which just means “the dead.” This narrative seems more consistent with a bodily ressurection than with the judgement of immortal souls.
Let us return now to the Greek philosophical tradition, in which the word psyche makes a very early appearance in the works of Thales, whom I mentioned towards the beginning of this episode as the earliest of the Greek philosophers. We have nothing of the writings of Thales himself, if he wrote anything at all, but we do have early reports from other Greek philosophers and historians. In his book On the Soul (De Anima), Aristotle, student of Plato and tutor to Alexander the Great, wrote: “It appears from what is recounted of him that Thales too understood the soul [psyche] to be a source of motion, since he said the lodestone has a soul because it moves iron” (quoted in Graham, 2010). It is evident in reading the early Greeks that they took the existence of the soul as a given, and their reasoning, as I understand it, actually seems quite sound: there are living things and unliving things, therefore there is something that makes living things different from unliving things, and this thing, whatever its nature, is called the soul. It is from this stipulative understanding that philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle then reason, seeking to understand the soul’s nature. As Aristotle describes, there was not even agreement among the philosophers that the soul was anything incorporeal or non-physical.
This is the understanding of the soul that Paul the Apostle appears to have held when he said in 1 Corinthians 2:14 that “Those who are of the soul do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them….”: soul, for Paul, whether he believed it to be material or immaterial, is part of this life and this world, and separate from spirit, which is of God. But this is more of a pre-Socratic understanding of the soul and certainly not the one held by modern Christianity. In the Phaedo, Socrates’ companions are amazed at his composure and happy attitude as he faces his death, and he explains to them, proceeding through several arguments, that the soul is immortal, and that, as he has lived the virtuous life of a philosopher, his will be proceeding to a better place upon his death. This seems much more in line with the modern understanding of the soul, and was written a full four centuries before the epistles of Paul the Apostle. So why the conceptual disconnect?
My hypothesis is as follows, and I emphasize that this is indeed a hypothesis, not something of which I am certain: recall that Plato’s philosophy did not really catch on after his death, even at his own Academy, until many centuries later. Greek philosophy was, from Plato’s death forward until the advent of Middle Platonism in the late first and early second centuries, dominated by what we call the Hellenistic Schools. Among these were Epicureanism, cynicism, stoicism, and the already-mentioned skepticism. The Hellenistic Jews would certainly have found Epicureanism, which believes pleasure to be equivalent to the Good, to be distasteful; cynicism even more so, as one of its advocates, Diogenes of Sinope, had demonstrated his approach to philosophy by such means as masturbating in public (and cynicism had largely died out by that point anyway). Stoicism had been adopted by the Romans, to whom the Hellenistic Jews were not especially favorable, and stoicism contained other unpalatable doctrines besides, such as the immanence (rather than transcendence) of God; and skepticism denied the possibility of certain knowledge, including certain knowledge of God, which the Hellenistic Jews believed they possessed. Middle Platonism had arisen by then but only comparatively recently, and that school’s focus on the soul seems to have arisen chiefly at the end of the 1st century CE, after the writings of Paul the Apostle, and so the Hellenistic Jews, having inherited a prior thousand years of Hebrew culture absent any belief in the soul, were now working with translated documents in which the word had a central relevance but lacked the philosophical frameworks that had structured the word’s meaning for the Greeks, and so landed on a more pre-Socratic understanding. This may have made the Phaedo an appealing document to the Hellenistic Jews and the Christians of the first few centuries CE, as it was written to an audience of Greeks whose own beliefs in the soul, like those of the Hellenistic Jews, were still rather tenuous (cf. Lorenz, 2009: “It is probably true that in mainstream fifth century Greek culture, belief in an afterlife of the soul was weak and unclear”).
As to the later understanding of the concept of the soul among the Hellenistic Jews and early Christians, we could start with the most important of the Middle Platonists, Plutarch, who served as a priest of the god Apollo at the temple at Delphi in the late 1st century and early 2nd century CE. Plutarch seems to have developed his theories of the soul more from another of Plato’s dialogues, the Timaeus, and that understanding and its relationship to some of the central ideas I’ve expounded under the Satanist Reads the Bible project will be the subject of a coming essay. For our purposes today, we’ll have to move on to the 3rd century, at which point Middle Platonism had transitioned to Neoplatonism, and it’s in this era we find the work of the theologian, Neoplatonist philosopher, and Church Father Origen of Alexandria.
Origen was famously pious and immensely prolific, and his influence on the development of Christianity cannot be overstated. As a side note, the writing of this episode fluctuated between periods of research and periods of composition, as is often the case for me, and when I got to the works of Origen, I found someone who was, from his perspective as an early Christian, directly answering many of the exact questions I had posed earlier in the writing process, often referencing the very same verses from the scripture that I had. I felt almost as though I were having a conversation with him, and his answers, as I’m sure you’ll find, are fascinating. He was no stranger to the difficulties of translation: among his most renowned works was the Hexapla, a word-for-word comparison between the original Hebrew Bible, a transliteration of this text into the Greek, the Septuagint, and three other Greek translations.
I primarily worked from Origen’s book On Principles, the first systematic Christian theology. Sadly, the original Greek text of that work is almost entirely lost; what we have today is a Latin translation by the 4th century Roman theologian Tyrannius Rufinus, a translation which is notoriously editorial, as Rufinus aimed to make Origen more palatable to those of his day. My copy is an English translation from the Latin, and includes the Latin text, as well as what fragments of the Greek are still available. But even if the sections regarding the soul are more Rufinus than Origen, they still give us a good picture of the concept of the soul as its understanding evolved among the Christians of antiquity. And as the Latin words anima and spiritus map rather neatly onto the respective Greek words psyche and pneuma, the addition of a fourth language to our studies fortunately adds little additional complexity.
Origen was clearly familiar with Aristotle, as he defines the soul as that which supplies living things with the faculties of perception and movement, as Aristotle did in De Anima, working from the initial presupposition that the soul is that which makes living things different from non-living things. Origen also mentions Leviticus 17:14: “For the life of every creature — its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.” Life is rendered from the Hebrew nefesh — for which, you’ll recall, “life” is probably the most apt English translation — into the Greek psyche in the Septuagint, and then Rufinus renders Origen’s use of psyche as anima. Origen also mentions Genesis 2:7, the first verse I quoted in this episode, but curiously, that Adam became a psyche rather than having been imbued with a psyche doesn’t seem to register to Origen as being significant.
Origen found the same discrepancy in Paul that I did, and references the same verse, 1 Corinthians 2:14. He wrestles with it a bit and then seems to settle into the Pauline and pre-Socratic understanding, but then doubles back to trouble this understanding with 1 Peter 1:9: “…for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls [psyche].” “If the soul neither prays nor sings with the Spirit,” Origen writes, referencing 1 Corinthians 14:14, “how shall it hope for salvation?” (2017, p. 227). This discrepancy doesn’t pose any trouble for us because we know that the writings of Paul and the pseudoepigraphic writings attributed to Peter were written by different people who might have had different understandings of the soul, but for Origen, both of these verses were part of infallible scripture and needed to be reconciled with each other.
Origen accomplishes this reconciliation in the following way: first, God is fire. Interpreting a multitude of verses, Origen understands the substance of God to be fire. Second, Matthew 24:12 says that “…because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold” (NRSV). Origen references other verses — some of which seem to have been drawn from sources that are now unknown to us — to indicate that, in accordance with God’s being fire, coldness indicates distance from God. The Devil, he notes, is called a serpent, which is cold-blooded. He then turns to Plato’s dialogue Cratylus to suggest that the very word psyche indicates a “cooling down from a more divine or better condition” (Origen, 2017, p. 231; and Plato, Cratylus, 399). I wish I had more room to talk about the Cratylus because it’s a really fascinating dialogue for those interested in the philosophy of language, but in general, it investigates whether the naming of things is arbitrary or if it is guided by some fundamental principles, such as Origen suggests.
What this all comes down to is that, to Origen, soul and spirit are two different words for the same thing as it exists in two different states, just as ice and water are two different words for the same substance in different forms. Soul which is properly warmed by the fire of God is properly called spirit, and spirit which has, for whatever reason, lost some of God’s warmth and cooled to a lesser state is properly called soul, and soul is saved by the grace of Jesus Christ by being transformed into spirit.
Now, Origen’s understanding of the soul is really far more complex than I’ve been able to indicate in the time available to me here, and I can’t say that I’m fully acquainted with it in any case: like I said, Origen was an immensely prolific writer, and I’ve only been able to read On Principles and some other secondary material in the time available to me to research for this essay. His ideas might sound a bit fanciful when I condense them into such a pithy format, but the extent and thoroughness of his research is really quite remarkable, especially given the time period in which he wrote, and I find his ideas to have a certain poetic beauty. But for our purposes here, the point isn’t to become fully acquainted with Origen’s particular understanding of the soul — that warrants an essay in itself — so much as to get a look at the process by which the concept of the soul migrated from the ancient Greeks to the Hellenistic Jews and early Christians through the medium of the Greek language, with the hopes of acquiring a better understanding of the concept of the soul as we encounter it in our contemporary world.
Works Cited or Referenced
Graham, D. W. (Ed.). (2010). The texts of early Greek philosophy: The complete fragments and selected testimonies of the major presocratics. Cambridge University Press.
Grant, M. (2012). The history of ancient Israel. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Lorenz, H. (2009). Ancient Theories of Soul. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2009/entries/ancient-soul/
Origen. (2017). Origen: On first principles (J. Behr, Ed.; First edition). Oxford University Press.
Plato, Cooper, J. M., & Hutchinson, D. S. (1997). Complete works. Hackett Pub.
Tabor, J. D. (2013, March 22). What the Bible Says About Death, Afterlife and the Future. The Jewish Roman World of Jesus. https://pages.uncc.edu/james-tabor/ancient-judaism/death-afterlife-future/
Whitehead, A. N., Griffin, D. R., & Sherburne, D. W. (1978). Process and reality: An essay in cosmology (Corrected ed). Free Press.