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penfold



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How widespread is the soul concept historically amongst the world's religions and how do they compare descriptively?

Anyone know?

i) The greek soul - psyche[1] this, as others above have already stated, was originally just the 'life force' which distinguished the animate from the inanimate. So a stone has no soul, a plant has some, an animal somewhat more, and humans the most. This general principle then gets 'reified' (made into a thing) in two different ways - Plato and later Platonist thinkers emphasized the soul as an immaterial unchanging object which constituted the true aspect of a person, in particular the rational aspect (as opposed to our corruptible 'false' bodies which would include our appetites and desires). This soul had the advantage of being 'immortal' (both preceeding and after death)[2]. Aristotle and later scholastic thinkers developed the soul as the 'potential' for a human (think of a factory mold, waiting to be filled by molten metal); this soul was philosophically subtler and did not hint at existence before life so was adopted by the Catholic church who, using some fancy footwork (Aquinas), claimed that this type of soul, while not able to exist without a body, allowed for the possibility of resurrection. These two versions of the soul dominate in the western world.

ii) The Hindu soul - From the Sanskrit word atman, in many regards very similar to Plato's notion of the soul, it is also an unchanging object which constitutes the true person; it is also opposed to the corruptible body (sharira in Sanskrit), also exists both before and after life; in this case in a cycle of rebirth (karma-samsara). One key difference is that this 'soul' is not the starkly rational aspect found in Plato but includes desires and appetites; thus the 'soul' keeps us bound to the cycle of death and rebirth. To a certain extent the goal of Hinduism is to overcome the drives of the atman, just as much as the sharira.

iii) The Chinese soul - There is no clear word meaning 'soul' - some people have associated the notion of Chinese word ch'i[3] but this is not really so; ch'i is basically all stuff - physical matter is just slow heavy ch'i - so our bodies are ch'i. If there is a 'soul' in Chinese thought it will be of ch'i too - but then everything is! Perhaps the best word to be translated as soul is shen[4]. However even here we run into difficulties - at one extreme shen can refer to folk story spirits and ghosts; hwoever it can also be an attribute: shen ren - soulful person, or even objects[5]. Here we do seem to have a notion of soul which is far from the Greek Soul (Platonic or Aristotelian); while it can refer to things (spirits) it is mostly used metaphorically, in the way we might use 'spiritual' in the West.

iv) The Pagan soul - While it is ridiculous to create such a category there does seem to be a distinct notion of 'soul' which appears in various animist and shamanic cultures (eg. Pre-Christian paganism, Siberian Shamanism, Japanese + Chinese folk religion, African Vodun, South American Shamanism, Australian Dreamtime etc...). So very loosely: there is a 'soul' world which exits parallel to the mundane everyday one. In this world all things have an attendant 'soul' even things we might think of as inanimate like stones, mountains, rivers etc... This world is mysterious and interacted with through ritual and Shamanic practice. Here the soul is not so much a part of a person, but an associated 'alter-ego', very unlike the Greek soul or the soul of Chinese philosophy. This 'soul' is mysterious and ambiguous existing, as it does, in an different world.



I'm sure I've made several errors of simplification and of course there are many more versions not mentioned
 1. anima in latin, from which we get words like 'animated', 'animal', 'inanimate', 'animatron' etc...
 2. A very similar soul was 're-discovered' by Descartes - see Meidtations on First Philosophy
 3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qi
 4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shen_(Chinese_religion)
 5. Chapter 19 of the Chuang-tzu gives the story of Engraver Chi'ing whose carved wood has shen - soulful carvings.
Changed Change Reason Date
Graybeard No one need read any further. A perfect answer. May 13, 2014, 09:45:19 AM
Disciple of Sagan Facinating May 12, 2014, 10:39:20 AM
junebug72 impressive May 12, 2014, 10:19:15 AM