Ancient Theories of the Soul

By the Maronite Seminarian
Alejandro Landin

Plotinus was a Greek philosopher that lived from 204 BC to 270 BC. One of his major principles of philosophy deals with the soul – what it is and its purpose. Plotinus’ views are similar to two other major Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. In this paper, I will discuss how Plotinus’ view of the soul draws on ideas from Plato and Aristotle’s writings and then goes on to elaborate them. I will conclude by discussing how Plotinus was able to reconcile a major problem connected with the soul: how the necessity of sense perception for knowledge can be consistent with the human soul as eternal and unaffected by the body.

I will begin by discussing Plato’s concept of the soul from his writings in the Phaedo. The topic of the Phaedo is the soul and its immortality. In the Phaedo, this topic arises out of concern for what happens to the soul after the body dies. Plato teaches that the soul is the seat of wisdom and reason and that the body only confounds truth: “the body confuses the soul”[1]. Plato believed that the body was evil, “we have a body and our soul is fused with such an evil.”[2] Plato believed that the soul reasons best without the body, that the senses and the body only get in the way of true wisdom, and that it is only through pure thought alone that anyone can accurately discover the truth: “the soul reasons best when none of these senses troubles it.”[3]

Plato says the soul is in a higher state of existence than the body and, as such, whenever the two are joined, one is subject to the other “nature orders the one to be subject and to be ruled, and the other to rule and be master.”[4] Because the soul is of a higher nature than the body (Plato even goes so far as to call it divine), then the soul rules and leads the body.

Plato believed in a process that has been a long-standing tradition of Greek philosophy: purification. For Plato, purification is the process of the separation of the soul from the body. Philosophy is the vehicle for separation, for through philosophy comes wisdom, and through wisdom the means of purification, which are the natural virtues: “moderation and courage and justice are a purging away of all such things, and wisdom itself is a kind of cleansing or purification.”[5] Thus, according to Plato, the true purpose of philosophy is actually to prepare the soul for death, “the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.”[6] Again, he states: “Philosophy persuades the soul to withdraw from the senses” and “to trust only itself.”[7] In other words, for salvation, it is necessary to separate the soul from the body, “there is no escape from evil or salvation for it [the soul] except by becoming as good and wise as possible.”[8]

In short, Plato believed that the soul is divine. He said it is something of a prisoner inside of the body, and that it is the duty of one to separate his body from his soul through wisdom. Let us now look at Aristotle’s view on the soul. I will be using Aristotle’s De Anima to present his views on the soul.

Aristotle says that the affections which the body feels find their source or origin in the soul: “all the affections of the soul involve the body”[9]. He calls the affections “enmattered formulable essences.”[10] He also states that the bond between the soul and the body via the affections is an inseparable bond: “The affections of soul are inseparable from the material substratum of animal life.”[11]

Aristotle then discusses the relationship between the body and the soul in terms of their substance. First, he explains that there are three kinds of substances: matter, form and a compound of both.[12] To matter, he prescribes potentiality and to form actuality: “Now matter is potentially, form actuality.”[13] Aristotle explains what he means by potentially and actuality by stating that potentially is like “knowledge possessed but not employed,”[14] and actuality is the employing or acting upon such knowledge, “the actual exercise of knowledge.”[15] To further explain, Aristotle makes the following analogy on the  relationship between soul and body: “Suppose that the eye were an animal-sight would have been its soul.”[16]

According to Aristotle, the soul is what gives the body its life: “The soul is the cause or source of the living body.”[17] He also states the soul is also the cause of the body in three different senses: It is the cause of movement, it is the end, and it is the essence of the whole living body.[18]

Aristotle speaks about “Mind” in relation to soul. He says that Mind is the rational part of the soul, “the part of the soul with which the soul knows and thinks.”[19] He says that Mind is not actually a part of the body, but “must be pure from all admixture; for the co-presence of what is alien to its nature is a hindrance and a block.” Here, we see an agreement between Aristotle and Plato – the body is a sort of a handicap in relation to the soul. For this reason, Aristotle says that this part of the soul, which he calls Mind, “cannot reasonably [be] regarded as blended with the body.”[20]

So, to summarize, Aristotle says the soul is what gives the body its life. All the affections of the body have their source in the soul. He says the bond between the soul and body is inseparable, but that there is a part of the soul, Mind, which is not blended with the body. This last point is very interesting because it introduces a concept that the philosopher Plotinus will develop further. Now, I will discuss Plotinus’ views on the soul and show how his views build off what Aristotle and Plato have previously taught concerning the soul. I will be using the Ennead to discuss Plotinus’ views on the soul.

Plotinus agreed with Aristotle and Plato on many points concerning the soul. Plotinus says that the soul is immortal, imperishable and impassive.[21] Plotinus begins by posing the question of where in the body the affections are located. Plotinus suggests that they are either “in the Soul alone, or in the Soul as employing the body, or in some third entity deriving from both.”[22]

Plotinus then makes an important distinction between “Soul” and “Essential Soul”. The Soul of which he speaks very much resembles Mind from Aristotle’s De Anima, while the Essential Soul resembles the type of soul that Plato discusses in his Phaedo. I will show this connection below.

Plotinus continues to hypothesize about different possible relationships between the soul and the body.  His hypotheses are that the soul uses the body as an instrument; complete coalescence; an interweaving of soul and body; a scenario where the soul acts like a pilot for the body (the “Ideal-Form”); and that there are two parts to the soul, one attached and one detached to the body.

Plotinus ultimately rejects the idea that the soul and body are interweaving or are mixtures, “An essential is not mixed.”[23] he says. For, if the soul is immortal it would not “be seeking the destruction of its own nature.”[24]  This very much resembles Aristotle’s reasoning for why “mind” and body cannot be mixed or forming an ‘admixture’ as he called it.

As for interweaving, Plotinus quotes Plato to refute that hypothesis, “it is absurd to suppose that the Soul weaves.”[25] Plotinus confirms by explaining that the emotions are things that would be the province of what he calls the “Animate”.

Thus, by coming up with the concept of the “Animate”, Plotinus can theorize a way in which the affections can pass from the body to the soul, a problem which Aristotle and Plato had trouble reconciling. He explains it as such: there is a lower part of the soul that is in contact with the body, meanwhile, the higher part is detached. This lower part has to do with sense perception and it is the Animate Soul. The higher part that is the Essential Soul.

Plotinus further expands on the Animate and the affections. Of the Animate, he says that it “might be merely the body as having life: it might be the Couplement of Soul and body: it might be third and different entity formed from both.”[26] After a short discourse, Plotinus rejects the idea of a Couplement by saying that it cannot contain all the affections, “Reason, then, does not permit us to assign all the affections to the Couplement,”[27] because “the impulse towards The Good cannot be a joint affection, but, like certain others too, it would belong necessarily to the Soul alone.”[28] In other words, a judgment about Good is something that belongs to soul alone and not to the body. This echoes Plato’s hypothesis that the soul alone, and not the body, is the seat of wisdom. However, the idea of the Couplement Plotinus does not dismiss entirely. As we will see below, the Couplement does have a place within the body.

To this problem, Plotinus proposes the following solution: “when any powers are contained by a recipient [the body], every action or state expressive of them [anger, desire, sexual passion, etc.] must be the action or state of that recipient, they themselves [the Essential] remaining unaffected as merely furnishing efficiency.”[29] In other words, there is a one-way street, so to speak, between Essential soul and Animate soul. Essential soul furnishes the Animate soul with, for example, the desire for justice or beauty, and the way the Animate soul reacts to the desire, with anger, frustration, despair, etc., does not affect the Essential soul.

So, the affections, such a fear, and anger, reside in the body alone. The Animate soul is the seat of sense-perception, and as such reacts to the affections. The Essential Soul, which is the causing principle of the Animate soul, remains unaffected by the affections. If we could borrow some of Aristotle’s terminology, one could say that the Essential soul is the form of the Animate soul; that the Animate soul is potentiality, and the Essential soul is actuality.

Plotinus goes on to discuss the “We”. The ‘We’ is the reasoning faculty of the soul, “it is this “We” that reasons.”[30] It reasons by way of discursive reasoning. The ‘We’ is necessary to the soul because the body and the Animate soul cannot comprehend the things of the Essential Soul. Rather, it discerns impressions, which could be thought of as trying to comprehend a thing by looking at its shadow. It receives these impressions by way of the senses.

But, Plotinus goes on even further to connect the Essential Soul with what he calls the “Divine Mind.” The Divine Mind is something of a source for all individual souls. It is “the undivided Soul – and that Soul which is divided among [living] bodies.” Plotinus explains the effect on the Divine Mind to individual souls by likening it to a light that irradiates down and affects everything onto which it shines, “it [Divine-Mind] shines into them: it makes them living beings not by merging into body but by giving forth, without any change in itself, images or likenesses of itself like on face caught by many mirrors.”[31]

So, Plotinus describes a hierarchy here: at the bottom we have the Animate soul, which uses discursive reasoning by way of the ‘We’ to discern higher knowledge, knowledge that is known to the Essential Soul. The Essential rules over the Animate soul, “it wields single lordship over the animate.”[32] But the Essential Soul itself belongs to a collective soul, so to speak, the source of which is Divine Mind. Essential soul, however, is individualized in human beings and manifests itself in bodies in so far as they are Animates. Once again, we find Aristotle’s terminology useful: Divine Mind is the actuality of Essential soul, which is the actuality of Animate soul. And thus, in this hierarchy, we observe that actuality descends and is the cause of the next actuality, and so on and so forth.

To summarize Plotinus’ view on the soul, we can say that the source of Soul is Divine Mind, which individualizes itself into a body. This individualized soul is the Essential Soul, and the affect it has on a body is the Animate soul. The “We” connects the Essential Soul with the Animate Soul. The purpose of the “We” is to guide our reasoning toward what is above, to “transcend the brute.”[33] That is because, “the body is brute touched to life,”[34] and the true purpose of man is to be pure of the body: “the true man is the other, going pure of the body, natively endowed with the virtues which belong to the Intellectual Activity [Divine-Mind], virtues whose seas is the Separate Soul, the Soul which even in its dwelling here may be kept apart.”[35] In other words, the soul should ‘radiate’ that from which it draws: wisdom and virtue. This again echoes Plato’s idea that man must withdraw the soul from the body as much as possible.

To further elaborate, Plotinus said that the body, more specifically the Couplement, of which we spoke above, to it… “belong the vices; they are is repugnances, desires, sympathies.”[36] And again, “all such evil, as we have seen, belongs only to the Animate, the Couplement.”[37] The Essential soul, however, “is sinless.”[38]

But, how can this be that one aspect of soul is guilty and the other is innocent? Plotinus explains that because the body is alien to Essential soul, the Essential soul itself can remain unaffected by turmoil in the body. Despite all, “the Soul is at peace as to itself and within itself.”[39] And, to illustrate this point, he uses Glaukos. Glaukos is a character of Greek mythology. He was mortal man who became a sea-god after he ate a magical herb. The man himself was eternal, much like the Essential soul, but the animated part of him, that is, his body, was corrupted, tossed about by waves (the passions), buffeted and covered by barnacles (vices). Yet, his divinity remained. However, it was covered over by the corruption of the Animate soul. It is thus, then, the purpose of the soul to retreat from all such vices and not to serve the body, for it leads to corruption.

In this essay, I have discussed the theories on the soul from three different Greek philosophers. I have shown how Plotinus was able to build on ideas present in Plato and Socrates’ work, and how he was able to reconcile a problem encountered by Socrates: the reconciliation between sense perception in the soul and body. Another very important point which I highlighted that all three philosophers had in common was they agreed the purpose of the soul was not to pursue the affections of the body, but rather to orient itself toward higher things – the divine.


Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York, N.Y.: The Modern Library Classics, Inc., 2001.

Plato. The Five Dialogues. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002),

Plotinus. First Ennead. Retrieved from:


[1] Plato, The Five Dialogues, Phaedo (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002), 66a, pg. 103.

[2] Plato, Phaedo, 66b, pg. 103

[3] Plato, Phaedo, 65c, pg. 102

[4] Plato, Phaedo, 80a, pg. 118

[5] Plato, Phaedo, 69c, pg. 106

[6] Plato, Phaedo, 64a, pg. 101

[7] Plato, Phaedo, 83a, pg. 121

[8] Plato, Phaedo, 107d, pg. 145

[9] Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, De Anima (New York, N.Y.: The Modern Library Classics, Inc., 2001), Bk 1: Ch. 1, 403a16, pg. 537.

[10] Aristotle, De Anima, Bk 1: Ch 1, 403a24, pg. 537

[11] Aristotle, De Anima, Bk 1: Ch 1, 403b18, pg. 538

[12] Aristotle, De Anima, Bk II: Ch 1, pg. 554

[13] Aristotle, De Anima, Bk II: Ch. 1, 412a10, pg. 555

[14] Aristotle, De Anima, Bk II: Ch. 1, 412a25, pg. 555

[15] Aristotle, De Anima, Bk II: Ch. 1, 412a23, pg. 555

[16] Aristotle, De Anima, Bk II: Ch. 4, 412b19, pg. 556

[17] Aristotle, De Anima, Bk II: Ch. 1, 415b8, pg. 561

[18] Aristotle, De Anima, Bk II: Ch. 1, pg. 561

[19] Aristotle, De Anima, Bk III: Ch. 4, 429a17, pg. 589

[20] Aristotle, De Anima, Bk III: Ch. 4, 429a25, pg. 590

[21] Plotinus, First Ennead, First Tractate, trans. By Stephen McKenna and B.S. Page, Part 2, pg. 2

[22] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 1, pg. 1

[23] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 2, pg. 2

[24] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 2, pg. 2

[25] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 4, pg. 4

[26] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 5, pg. 4

[27] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 5, pg. 5

[28] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 5, pg. 5

[29] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 6, pg. 5

[30] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 7, pg. 6

[31] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 8, pg. 7

[32] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 7, pg. 6

[33] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 10, pg. 8

[34] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 10, pg. 8

[35] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 10, pg. 8

[36] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 10, pg. 8

[37] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 9, pg. 7

[38] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 12, pg. 9

[39] Plotinus, First Ennead, Part 9, pg. 8

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