Written by Eleonora Soteriou
The concept of soul or psuche has existed since the time of Homer but not in the way we think about the soul today. Within the sixth century BCE, philosophical theories that attempt to incorporate the soul into their cosmologies show an increasing interest towards the concept, meaning that the concept of a ‘soul’ evolves during this period. Homer’s presentation of psuche helps identify these changes. Subsequently, looking chronologically at Presocratic philosophical theories on the soul, moving from Thales to Anaximenes, Pythagoras and Heraclitus, can show its evolution.
There are difficulties in drawing the concept of the soul accurately through the Homeric texts, since our information about the Homeric soul comes from “stylised poems” rather the “daily life” of the Greeks. Therefore, it can often be hard to decern metaphors and literary ornamentation from what the ancient Greeks thought, but it still forms a general picture. In Homer, according to Bremmer, there are two kinds of soul: the “body-souls” (mainly thymos but also “phrenes, kardie and others”) and the “free-soul” (psuche). The term thymos was associated with intense emotions within consciousness and like all “body souls” did not survive after death. The term psuche was used in contexts of swoons, dreams, and death, or the ‘spirit’ in Hades after death – think Achilles’ spirit in Odysseus’ katabasis. There are however inconsistencies in the presentation of the soul after death, where some appear as “evanescent” and others with “considerable materiality”. Both Cairns and Lloyd agree that the psuche possessed corporeality or “properties of the living man” but that it was definitely “insubstantial”. In addition, the psuche was thought of as valuable since it was often considered as a “prize to be won” in Homeric texts. Thus, the psuche in Homer can be broadly thought of as a valuable non-substance which existed inside humans and which was strongly associated with life and being alive, (since its loss brought death, at least to the body). Moreover, it was not thought of as being responsible for any mental or physical functions in humans since those were associated with the ‘body-soul’, thymos.
As time went on, however, the properties of thymos gradually merged with those of psuche creating one ‘unitary soul’ recognised as the centre of consciousness. Bremmer explains the reason behind this unification using sociological evidence which suggests that members of less centralised societies tend to be less individualistic and, since their life is structured around defined rules, they do not require a centre of consciousness. Hence, with the rise of the polis in the sixth and fifth centuries, the soul rapidly gained multiple new meanings and properties which can be seen through the works of various philosophers.
The first one is Thales of Miletus, who lived in the early sixth century. He believed that the soul was that which caused all living things to move, and thus all things that moved possessed a soul. Stating motion to be the main characteristic of life therefore included – to name a few – things such as plants, magnets and water into the category of living things. Thales also believed that water is the primary principle of the world and even though he rejected the Olympian gods and had a “demythologized world view”, he considered water as divine. He believed that everything is made of water or ultimately arises from water and since water possessed soul, soul therefore permeated the whole world and could be found in all things.
The next philosopher who considers the soul is Anaximenes of Miletus, who believes, similarly to Thales, that soul is infused into the whole world. However, Anaximenes’ primary principle, air (aer), does not possess soul but is soul. Thus, the soul for Anaximenes is the life-force of both humans and the universe: “Just as our soul, being air, holds us together and controls us, so do breath and air surround the whole kosmos” (DK 13B2 – all DK translations taken from McKirahan). Therefore, Anaximenes ascribes even more functions and importance to the soul than his Milesian predecessor as he turns it from the thing that causes movement to the principal substance and life-force of the universe.
Following the Milesian philosophers, Pythagoras of Samos (born c.570) developed concepts and ideas about the soul to a great extent. Pythagoras believed in the immortality and reincarnation of souls. One of the sources which attest to his belief in metempsychosis of souls comes from a famous mocking anecdote made by Xenophanes of Colophon. Xenophanes writes that one day Pythagoras tried to stop a man from beating a puppy, claiming “it is the soul of a man, a friend of mine, which I recognized when I heard it crying” (DK 21B7). The idea of reincarnation had never been evident in Greek culture or religion before Pythagoras. So how and why did it emerge? On the one hand, McKirahan suggests that these beliefs might have been influenced by the Orphics (a mystery cult/religion which developed in the sixth century BCE, in the south of Italy where Pythagoras lived most of his life) but then admits that “we know too little about both Orphism and early Pythagoreanism to determine the exact links between the two movements”. On the other hand, Bremmer rejects the arguments of some scholars that reincarnation was influenced from shamanism, and although influence from India’s Buddhist culture is possible, he suggests instead that the belief in reincarnation possibly arose due to a rising interest in the survival of the individual within the Greek world. Pythagoras also believed in the afterlife of the soul, and life was thought of as a preparatory stage for the soul after death. In life, each person was to strive to be the best that they could be to secure a good afterlife and reincarnation for their soul. There are, however, some inconsistencies concerning the Pythagorean soul’s reincarnation process, such as how much time a soul spends in the afterlife (Hades) and how many years there are between two human reincarnations.
Next, through Heraclitus of Ephesus (born c.540), the soul “emerges for the first time as an integrated centre of motor, cognitive and emotive functions” gaining the sense of unity which it retains for at least most of Greek antiquity. The most important concept in Heraclitus’ theory was logos, a term that can be broadly thought of as the principle of reason which governs the universe. Logos is crucial when talking about Heraclitus’ idea of the soul, as he believed that humans should always be striving to understand both the logos and their soul, since by understanding one, they can gain insight into the other. Heraclitus believed that this insight into the workings of the soul and the universe could better the soul and this meant for it to physically become drier and more fiery, since “for Heraclitus, one’s moral and intellectual condition is identical with the physical state of one’s soul”. For the soul to become fiery and dry meant it became intelligent, “A gleam of light is a dry soul, wisest, and best” (DK 22B118), while “It is death for souls to become wet” (DK 22B77). In addition, the soul is connected to bravery, “Souls slain in war are purer” (DK 22B136) and to physical states “A man when drunk […] his soul is moist” (DK 22B117). Moreover, as argued by Betegh, the soul in Heraclitus was possibly realised as a quantified and countable mass rather than an abstract concept or unquantifiable substance as we have seen with his predecessors. Betegh claims that the change of the word soul from the plural to the singular form in the fragment DK 22B36 is notable in that the plural (‘souls’) refers to “individuated things”, thus establishing Pythagoras’ concept of individual souls semantically, while the singular form refers to the idea of a general soul entity existing in the universe (as his Milesian predecessors believed).
From the ninth to the sixth century BCE, the soul was reconceptualised to great extents, evolving from a divided concept of body-souls and free-soul in Homeric times, to a unified principle pervading the universe for the Milesian philosophers. Furthermore, Pythagoras introducing the idea of reincarnation and that one’s afterlife depended on how well they lived their current life, made the soul immortal, while Heraclitus reconceptualised the soul as a quantified mass substance and connected it to physical properties (eg. dry, wet). These determined the individual’s morals, intellect and emotional or physical state, making the soul responsible for all physical, emotional and cognitive human functions.
Betegh, G. (2007) ‘On the Physical Aspect of Heraclitus’ Psychology’ Phronesis 52, 3-32.
Bremmer, J.N. (2010) ‘The Rise of the Unitary Soul and its Opposition to the Body. From Homer to Socrates’ in Jansen and Jedan (eds.), Philosophische Anthropologie in der Antike. Frankfurt, 11-30.
Cairns, D. (2003) ‘Myths and Metaphors of Mind and Mortality’ Hermathena 175: 41-75.
Diels, H. and Kranz, W. (1934), Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker 5th ed., 2 vols., Berlin.
Lloyd, G. E. R. (2007) ‘Pneuma between Body and Soul.’ The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 13. Wind, Life, Health: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives: 135–46.
Mansfeld, J. (2015) ‘Heraclitus on Soul and Super- Soul’ Rhizomata 3; 62-93.
McKirahan, R.D. (2010) 2nd ed. Philosophy before Socrates, Indianapolis.