Soul Searching

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The human soul has been sought after, debated, and speculated about for over 4000 years. Widely differing views of the soul are the cause of great dispute over issues such as abortion, the right to die, organ donation, stem cell research, genetic engineering, and cloning. What exactly is, if anything, is the soul? Where is it located? Where does it come from? What happens to it when we die? Scientists, theologians, and philosophers have pursued the answers to these questions throughout time, yet we are no closer to understanding the soul than we were 4000 years ago. Prior to the sixth century B.C. the soul was primarily associated with death or dying (Hendrik, 2003). It was believed that when a person died their soul parted from their body and traveled to the underworld, where it remained as a shadow image of the person that once was. Although loosing one’s soul meant the end of life, not much speculation was given to how the soul was connected to a person while they were alive. The idea that we each have some kind of ‘essence’ that makes us the individual that we are began to be explored in ancient Greece during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. The concept of ‘soul’ began as a broad concept, thought of as that which gives something life. It was considered to be responsible for all the vital functions a living organism performs, including thought, perception, desire, and emotions, as well as contained the virtues and moral qualities of the individual. A person’s character was often attributed to the condition of their soul. A strong and courageous person, especially one who came out of a battle undefeated, was believed to have a strong soul; likewise a weak soul would create a weak individual (Hendrik, 2003). Socrates was the first philosopher to assign a great deal of importance to the human soul. His philosophy equated the quality and goodness of one’s life with the condition of their soul. The soul, he claims, is what animates our body until death—upon which it experiences a bodily separation and then returns to animate another living thing (Hendrik, 2003). (He does not seem to propose where the soul goes, or what it does on this little hiatus.) He maintained that the soul is immortal, and because of this the greatest priority in life should be saving one’s soul. Socrates believed that the soul by itself has wisdom, clarity, and virtue, but when combined with perception it becomes impaired. To overcome this impairment, one has to realize the ability to ‘see’ with the soul alone (Solomon, R., Higgins, K. 1996). Plato continues with the idea of the physical body existing as a distraction to the soul, and claims that we should anticipate death as a removal of these limitations (Kemerling, 2002). Plato presents a concept that the soul is divided into three parts (Roberts, 1905). The first is the rational soul, which controls thinking, reasoning, and making decisions. The second part is the spirited soul, responsible for action and will. The final part is considered the appetitive soul, controlling wants, desires, and emotions. According to Plato, our spirited soul and appetitive soul often conflict with each other, causing the rational soul, which is in control of the other two, to make a decision. A person is deemed ‘just’ when all three parts of their soul function in harmony for the good of the self. Plato theorized that part of the soul is immortal and divine (Hendrik, 2003). This portion of the soul remains after death, but may transmigrate to either human, animal, or plant form. Any knowledge one possesses that is not obtained through bodily experience, is actually a recollection of information our soul previously knew. Aristotle follows Plato with a more abstract view of the soul. He does not try to separate the existence or function of the body and soul, and instead views the soul as a part of the body (Kemerling, 2002). The soul, he declares, is the cause and principle of all living...
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