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ETHOS: Felsefe ve Toplumsal Bilimlerde Diyaloglar

ETHOS: Dialogues in Philosophy and Social Sciences

Ocak/January 2016, 9(1), 14-27


ISSN 1309-1328

EVOLUTION OF THE CONCEPT OF “PSYCHĒ”


IN PRE-SOCRATIC PHILOSOPHY
[Sokrates Öncesi Felsefede “Ruh (Psyche)” Kavramının Evrimi]

Ahmet Emre Demirci

Doç. Dr., Anadolu Üniversitesi

İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi, İşletme Bölümü

aedemirci@anadolu.edu.tr

ABSTRACT

Psychē (soul) is one of the key concepts in Ancient Greek philosophy. Starting from the Homeric
beginnings, the soul and the immortality of soul had been a significant question giving rise to many
debates, and the essence of soul had been a fundamental research topic for philosophers both before
and after Socrates. This essay provides the readers with a summary of how a variety of thoughts
flourished on soul through reference to exemplary pre-Socratic philosophers, and, by doing so, aims
to show that the concept of psychē has undergone an evolution throughout the philosophical-
scientific path followed in the ancient Greek thought.

Keywords: Soul, psychē, pre-Socratic philosophers, ancient Greek philosophy.

ÖZET

Ruh (Psychē) Antic Yunan felsefesi içerisinde ele alınan temel konulardan biridir. Homeros
geleneklerinden başlayarak ruh ve ruhun ölümsüzlüğü önemli tartışmalara neden olan önemli
sorulardan biri olmuştur. Ayrıca ruh kavramının özü, gerek Sokrates öncesi gerekse de Sokrates
sonrası filozoflar için temel bir araştırma konusu olmuştur. Bu çalışma, Sokrates öncesi dönemin
önde gelen filozoflarının ruh konusunda sahip oldukları farklılaşan görüşlerini okuyucu ile

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ETHOS: Felsefe ve Toplumsal Bilimlerde Diyaloglar
ETHOS: Dialogues in Philosophy and Social Sciences

Ocak/January 2016, 9(1), 14-27


ISSN 1309-1328

buluşturmayı hedeflemektedir. Böylece ruh kavramının felsefi ve bilimsel bir rota üzerinde
geçirdiği evrim gösterilmeye çalışılacaktır.

Anahtar Sözcükler: Ruh, tin, Sokrates öncesi filozoflar, Antik Yunan felsefesi.

According to the early Greek philosophical texts, immortality is an absolute feature of divinity
attributed to gods. Human beings are basically called as “mortals”. Although this categorization
based on the mortality and immortality of the physical body is clear, whether the soul is mortal has
been an unsettled issue in philosophy. Before we start investigating the immortality of soul in
ancient Greek philosophy, it is important to analyze the ancient philosophical theories of soul.

Homeric Beginnings on the Soul

From comparatively humble Homeric beginnings, the word ‘soul’ undergoes quite remarkable
semantic expansion in sixth and fifth century usage. By the end of the fifth century — the time of
Socrates' death — soul is standardly thought and spoken of, for instance, as the distinguishing mark
of living things, as something that is the subject of emotional states and that is responsible for
planning and practical thinking, and also as the bearer of such virtues as courage and justice.
Coming to philosophical theory, we first trace a development towards comprehensive articulation of
a very broad conception of soul, according to which the soul is not only responsible for mental or
psychological functions like thought, perception and desire, and is the bearer of moral qualities, but
in some way or other accounts for all the vital functions that any living organism performs (Lorenz,
2009).

As mentioned above, soul as a problem has come to light with Homer. In the first sentence of the
Iliad, Homer urges an unnamed goddess to sing of the mēnis of Achilles, a wrath that sent many
worth souls – psuchai – to Hades. Although psuchē here does not directly refer to “soul”; it is
widely accepted that it refers to something like “the breath of life” (Davis, 2011). Snell (2012)
suggests that Greeks of Homer did not have the cognizance of the psychic whole, or of any notion
that corresponds to our word “Soul”. Homer distinguishes between a free soul, corresponding with
psychē, and body souls, corresponding with thymós, nóos, and ménos. The passages in Homer
reveal that without psychē, one cannot survive. The psychē leaves the body during swoons and it

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ETHOS: Dialogues in Philosophy and Social Sciences

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leaves forever and departs to Hades when a person dies. From this standpoint, psychē is closely
linked with aiōn, or in other words, the source of vitality. However, according to Homer, aiōn is
only possessed by the young while psychē does not differentiate between young and elderly. In
contrast with the free souls, body souls are active during the waking life of the living person.
Arbman suggests that the body souls are usually divided into two parts: the life soul which is
generally identified with the breath and the ego soul (Bremmer, 1987). The former classification
could be clarified through the etymology of the word breath in ancient Greek. Psychē (ψυχή) is both
breath and soul in ancient Greek, and for poets “the existential dimension of breathing” cannot be
underestimated as it is considered to be the “necessity of life” (Shopin, 2014). Other authors note
that there are three words referring to some form of “breath” in ancient Greek: pneûma, meaning
air, breath of life, vital spirit, soul, or innate heat; psychē, defined as breath of life, spirit, soul, and
later, mind; and finally ánemos, meaning “breath,” lent itself to Latin’s “anima,” from which
“animal” was later derived, and which means breath or soul (Mazzolini, 2009).

The latter part which is defined as the ego soul could be treated as a soul that imbues a person with
life and consciousness, or, in modern terminology, with “ego” or the “self” (Abusch, 1998). While
psychē that is defining the free soul did not have any physical or psychological qualities
participating in the consciousness of the living individual; consciousness, will, emotions, thought,
perception and etc. were taken care of by body soul. Thus, according to Homeric world-view, in
addition to having an eschatological soul, individual also had body souls which were necessary
parts of an individual as a living being. Those parts were thymós (breath, spirit), nóos (mind,
thought) and ménos (spirit, temper) as mentioned earlier. Among these parts, we can suggest that
the most frequently occurred form of the ego soul in the Homeric epic is thymós - a form which is
active only when the body is awake. Thymós is the source of all emotions (Sörbom, 1994). If it is
said that a person feels something in his thymós, the reference is to an organ which may translate as
“soul” provided that the soul is the seat of (e)motions. However, we should keep in mind that it also
serves as the name of a function that could be rendered as “will” or “character” (Snell, 2012). About
the other parts, as mentioned above, nóos refers to consciousness in a more intellectual direction
and finally ménos is impulses to act (Sörbom, 1994). Bremmer (1987) also suggests that Greek’s
belief in soul is not unitary. Thus, their belief is best characterized as multiple. It was not until the
archaic age that the unitary soul was found in Greek soul belief. Bremmer (1987) further claims:

After the end of that century (refers to the fifth century) there is no longer
the whole complex of the dualistic concept of the soul: a free soul

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representing the individuality in sleep, swoons, and trance without any


contact with the ego souls, thymós, nóos, and ménos.

As discussed above, early Greek poets and dramatists were highly occupied with soul. Although
their concept of soul was not perfectly matching that of the modern world, it is necessary to be
acquainted with their concept of “soul” in order to take further steps in time to understand soul in
ancient Greek philosophy. Because it is evident that soul was not less important for philosophers as
it was the theme for many early philosophical texts and discussions.

Thales and Soul

Before we start going into the immortality of the soul according to the pre-Socratic philosophers, it
is necessary to investigate how they define “soul”. From this standpoint, Thales can be the starting
point for our investigation as he is considered to be the first Greek physikos (natural philosopher),
the first to have revealed the investigation of nature to the Greeks. According to Aristotle, Thales is
the “founder of this philosophy” and he called Thales the “the first wise man” (Vamvacas, 2009).
Thales believed that a magnet possesses a soul as it is capable of moving iron (Aristotle, De Anima,
405-a19). Above all, Thales considered the power of magnet as an obvious manifestation of a
divine animating force that could be attributed to all things. Aristotle adds furthermore: “Certain
thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that
Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of gods” (Aristotle, De Anima, 411-a7). It is also
important to express that according to some traditions, Thales first declared souls to be immortal,
asserted that all things are full of gods. These claims clearly reveal that Thales seems to believe that
there is soul pervading the universe. Cicero comments:

Thales of Miletus, who was the first to investigate these questions, said
that water was the first principle substance, god being the mind which
fashioned everything out of water.

It is clear that Thales had sought an explanation of self-motion, and so he had supposed that the soul
to be the source of it. It is most likely that Thales had meant that there was a unitary cosmic
intelligence when he suggested that the soul pervaded the universe. Based on these arguments, it
could be suggested that the soul here would not be something separate or independent from water,
but would be an aspect or quality of water (Gregory, 2013).

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Anaximander and Soul

Anaximander, as the successor and pupil of Thales, said that the principle and element of existing
things was the apeiron which means indefinite, or infinite and he said that “the material principle
of existing things was some nature coming under the heading of the apeiron, from which come into
being the heavens and the world in them” (Hippolytus Ref. 1, 6, 1-2; DK12A11). On one of the rare
occasions when Aristotle mentions Anaximander by name he attributes to him the thesis that the
apeiron is immortal and indestructible. These were traditionally the attributes of divinity, and in fact
the same passage strongly implies that the apeiron not only encloses but also governs all things
(Taylor, 1997):

The infinite is thought to be principle of the rest, and to enclose all things
and steer all, as all those say who do not postulate other causes over and
above the infinite, such as mind or love. This is the divine. For it is
immortal and indestructible, as Anaximander says and most of the
physicists (Aristotle, Physics, 203b7ff).
Despite the lack of any further philosophical texts to inform us about the Anaximander’s definition
and notion of soul, he, like Homer, considered psyche as a form of respiration, breath and air. One
of the reports on how Anaximander defines soul comes from Aeitus. In Placita Philosophorum, it is
written that Anaximander along with Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, and Archelaus have said the nature
of the soul is airy (Aetius, Placita Philosophorum IV, 3, 2). Based on these arguments, it could be
suggested that Anaximander viewed soul as a principle of life and it is most likely to be an ancient
understanding of soul whereby the soul, warmth, movement, and life are all linked. Thus, the soul
could arise like vapor through the warmth of the Sun and its appearance could be associated with
some sort of boiling of water or the mud’s moisture (Kočandrle & Kleisner, 2012).

Anaximenes and Soul

Anaximenes was a pupil and most likely a student of Anaximander. Anaximenes declared that air is
the principle of all existing things. When discussing soul, Anaximenes has a distinctive position in
pre-Socratic philosophy as his assumptions on soul had become a generally accepted view in the
fifth century. As mentioned above, according to Anaximenes, everything inside and outside the
cosmos is based on air and its transformations. However, Anaximenes does not conceive of his air
as an inert substance that needs to be set in motion by another thing. For Anaximenes, motion is an

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intrinsic property of air. Thus, his definition of air as a live substance and the links he built between
the cosmic air and the human soul imply an assumption that became general in the fifth century.
According to Anaximender’s view, soul is not something apart from the material world, but it is a
natural part of it (West, 1991). Apparently, Anaximender considered soul as something that holds
the body together. In Placita Philosophorum, Aeitus further mentions about Anaximender:

Anaximenes his [Anaximander] fellow-citizen pronounceth, that air is the


[p. 108] principle of all beings; from it all receive their original, and into
it all return. He affirms that our soul is nothing but air; it is that which
constitutes and preserves; the whole world is invested with spirit and air.
For spirit and air are synonymous. This person is in this deficient, that he
concludes that of pure air, which is a simple body and is made of one
only form, all animals are composed (Aetius, Placita Philosophorum I,
3).

Another passage by Aetius regarding Anaximenes’ view on soul is as follows (McEvilley,


2012):

Anaximenes, son of Eurystratus, of Miletus, declared that air is the


principle [archē] of existing things; for from it all things come-to-be and
into it they are again dissolved. As our soul, he says, being air, holds us
together and controls us, so does wind (or breath) and air enclose the
whole world (DK 13B2).
The underlined part of the above paragraph is widely accepted to be as the only surviving sentence
of Anaximenes’ works (McKirahan, 2011). However, Anaximenes’ view on the relationship
between body and soul should be further investigated as his idea [soul holding together the body]
cannot be found in any other resources belonging to pre-Socratic period.

Orphism, Pythagorean Tradition and Soul

Through the inquiry of the soul in Ancient Greece, Orphic and Pythagorean tradition play a very
important role that affected the subsequent philosophers for centuries. Born in 570 BC in Samos,
Pythagoras had developed a philosophy to bring the soul into harmony with the divine. He also
developed important theories on music and mathematics. Pythagoras also is considered as the first
to call world “Kosmos” and linked with the concepts of “limit”, orderly arrangement, structural
perfection and beauty. Just as harmony between the ten cosmic opposites resulted in Pythagoras’
music of the spheres, so it was necessary for the human soul to attain an attunement of opposites
since the soul is a fragment of heavenly fire. Pythagoras had believed that the sick souls and mental

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problems could be cured through calm music (Violin, 1990). Pythagorean tradition about the soul
could be summarized with a faith in reincarnation, immortality of the soul and mathematics.
Pythagoras’ theory of soul was significantly affected by the Orphic tradition. Orphism could be
defined as a mystery cult and a Dionysiac worship that spread in the 6th and 7th centuries BC. This
worship revealed a new view on body and soul, and relationship between them. Orphics claimed
that the soul is the one that includes whatever divine there is in man. Their arguments do not refer to
breath of life or a dead man’s shadow or the abstract concept of life as suggested by other pre-
Socratic philosophers. Orphics followed an occult religious teaching that employs a view that
suggests a soul can survive only if it is maintained pure. They believed that the soul was united with
the body due to the sins committed at earlier times. Thus, for the Orphics, main problem was the
purification of the soul that in return saves the soul from cycles of births (Bekiari et al., 2009). As
suggested before this Orphic view of the soul was highly integrated in the Pythagorean theory of
soul.

Pythagorean tradition also claims that soul is immortal. Pythagoras’ views on the immortality of the
soul named him among the first of the philosophers who philosophized on survival after death.
However, unlike the other philosophers who believed that the soul would enter a different, obsolete
and shadowy world, he claimed that the soul returns to this world upon death yet in another body.
He even claimed to have inherited souls from a distinguished line of spiritual ancestors. According
to Pythagorean tradition, soul transmigrates not only between human, but also between other
species (Kenny, 2004). Based on these Pythagorean arguments about the transmigration of souls, it
could be inferred that it is most likely that reincarnation follows the soul’s judgment in Orphic and
Pythagorean tradition. This inference leads to the idea of immortality of the soul in Pythagorean
doctrine (Morrison, 1956). Another important issue in the philosophy of Pythagoras deals with how
the soul could be freed from the imprisonment in the body. As mentioned before along with the
immortality of soul, consideration of body as a prison for the soul had great impact on later Western
philosophical traditions. In addition to the immortality of the soul, Pythagoras also claimed that soul
migrates into other animals and all creatures with soul should be regarded as kin. The reason why
soul is imprisoned in body is its sins. However, he also claims that the soul is rational and
responsible for its actions. Thus, the soul can determine its fate. If it keeps itself free from
pollutions of animal flesh, bodily passions and maintains its purity, it will eventually rise its proper
god-like status (Violin, 1990). We should note that the teachings of Pythagoras significantly
influenced the thoughts of later philosophers including Plato. In a way, footprints of Pythagorean

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tradition can be traced to Plato’s philosophy and through Platonism, Pythagorean view was
introduced in the philosophy of scholastic philosophers including Augustine that in return
influenced Christian theology and eventually whole Western philosophy and mindset (Martin and
Barresi, 2006).

Anaxagoras and Soul

Born around 500 BC in Clazomenae, near Izmir, Anaxagoras claimed that the world is organized by
Mind (nous) by saying:

“All things were together, then Mind (nous) came and gave them order” (Diogenes Laertius,
2, 6).

Anaxagoras distinguishes between souls, which belongs to the material world, and Mind (nous),
which is immaterial, or at least is made of a unique, ethereal, kind of matter (Kenny, 2004). His
view suggests that every material thing - no matter how great or small - that possesses a soul is
controlled by Mind. Thus, based on his views, we can argue that there is a hierarchy between soul
and Mind (nous) whereby Mind (nous) governs the soul. He argues that the soul is self-moving and
the intellect Mind (nous) is the driving force. Intellect is the cause of what is good and beautiful in
both superior and inferior animals. It is also the main principle of the totality of things, pure, simple
and it also moves the universe. Thus, the soul is the most movable (Hillar, 1994). At this point, it is
also important to indicate that Anaxagoras had claimed that because the soul is a moving principle,
animals as well possess a soul (Swartz, 2014).

Empedocles and Soul

Almost in the same period with Anaxagoras, Empedocles also has some important views on the
soul. Coming from an aristocratic family from Acragas, a town on the south coast of Sicily,
Empedocles was a pupil of Pythagoras, of Xenophanes and of Parmenides according to different
biographical sources. Thus, it can be clearly seen how Empedocles’ view on soul is highly shaped
by these philosophers, especially by Pythagoras. We can argue that Empedocles’ philosophy of
nature could be considered as a synthesis of the thought of Ionian philosophers. On the other hand,
although these philosophers singled out one substance as the basis of the universe, Empedocles
suggested that all these four substances are equally important as the fundamental ingredient of the

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universe (Kenny, 2004). Thus, Empedocles suggests that the existence of the soul in air, earth,
water and fire, which are the origins of the vital functions. He undermines the element of perception
(senses) and element of motion. He notes that these elements are imperfect. Empedocles rather
constitutes the soul in the element of blood (Swartz, 2014). In his poem Purifications, Empedocles
combined his physical theory with the Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis that refers to the
transmigration of the soul and its reincarnation after death. Sinners would be punished when their
souls are reincarnated in all kinds of mortal forms on land and sea. A cycle of reincarnation held out
a hope of eventual deification for privileged classes of men in which Empedocles feels he belongs
(Kenny, 2004). Empedocles tells us that his soul has previously resided in various orders of nature:

For before now I have been at some time boy and girl, bush, bird, and a
mute fish in the sea (Empedocles, B117).
In another fragment, his claims about his deification can be clearly seen:

My friends who live in the town of tawny Acragas, on the city’s citadel,
who care for good deeds, havens of kindness for strangers, men ignorant
of misfortune, greetings! I tell you I travel up and down as an immortal
god, mortal no longer, honoured by all as it seems, crowned with ribbons
and fresh garlands (Empedocles, B112).

Since he believes that Empedocles was the same soul in each creature, it makes no sense to
differentiate between human soul and animal soul. The only difference between man and animal is
the physical make up. Empedocles considers series of reincarnations as punishment that lasts until
reaching a purification that in return refers to an elevation to the highest level of nature and recover
former divine status. Empedocles believed that he served his sentence and completed thirty-
thousand season-long series of reincarnations during which his soul is purified and became eligible
to transform into a god rather than be reincarnated again. Now, in his final reincarnation he assumes
some responsibilities for teaching others the nature of the universe, the nature of the soul and the
correct way to live that in return enable them to purify themselves (Campbell, 2008). Empedocles
was also a vegetarian due to his belief that holds eating meat as a principal sin. Believing in the
transmigration of souls between human and animals, Empedocles’ view suggests that sacrificing
animals and eating their flesh equal to cannibalism and those acts are far from being religious
(Campbell, 2005).

Democritus and Soul

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In addition to these various views on the nature of soul, Atomists had a different approach.
Democritus was a follower of Milesian tradition of philosophy which could be represented with a
scientific rationalist perspective. As a leading atomist philosopher, Democritus stated that the soul
and the mind are of the same essence, composed of primary and indivisible bodies (Boner, 2005).
However, Democritus does not imagine that individual atoms were capable of affection as Aristotle
tells us and the relationship between individual atoms and movements in the soul is not clear in the
writings of Democritus (Horky, 2006). Aristotle says that the animate is different than inanimate
primarily in two respects which are motion and perception and he continues by saying that these
two marks of the soul were inherited from his predecessors including Democritus. Thus, in De
Anima (403b25-404a16), Aristotle says:

…..which is why Democritus says that it [soul] is hot, a sort of fire; for
while there are infinitely many shapes, i.e., atoms, he says that the
spherical ones compose fire and soul (like the so-called motes in the air,
which are seen in sunbeams coming through windows (De Anima
403b25-404a16).

The reason why Democritus claims that the soul is composed by spherical atoms is again explained
in De Anima:

…..but the spherical ones compose the soul, because such rhythms
[shapes] can most easily penetrate through everything and move the
others, being themselves in motion. They conceive that it is the soul
which gives motion to animals (De Anima 403b25-404a16).

Democritus believes that respiration prevents the soul from being squeezed out. As there are great
number of spherical atoms in the air that he calls mind and soul, these atoms come in along with the
air when one breathes, and by resisting the pressure, prevent the soul from slipping out. This is why
death and life depend on respiration. Death is the loss of spherical atoms from the body due to the
pressure of the surroundings as in that case respiration would not be possible (Taylor, 2010).

Conclusion

In conclusion, it could be argued that the concept of psychē has always been among the central
topics in philosophy. The concept of psychē itself as well as its consideration in philosophy has

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gone through an evolution in the history of philosophy. As discussed in the papers, earlier
considerations of psychē in Greek philosophy can be seen in Homeric texts where the concept is
rather ambiguous and broad concept which is comprehensively articulated. Distinct from the Greek
poets and dramatists, ancient Greek philosophers had a more focused approach toward the concept
regardless of its singular or plural structure.

Starting from Thales and throughout the Milesian and Ionian Schools, thoughts on psychē had been
based on cosmological and philosophical grounds. Concept of psychē was closely linked with the
fundamental principle (archê) according to pre-Socratic philosophers. In many cases, as it can
clearly be seen in the paper, it is extremely challenging to distinguish between their views on archê
and psychē. These two main concepts were interlaced due to the cosmological view whereby the
survival of humankind as a part of universe heavily depends on the existence of psychē. It could be
argued that such a conditioning had built the solid links between different views on archê (air,
water, breath and etc.) and psychē. In addition to these differing views, discussions about psychē in
pre-Socratic philosophy has also reached beyond fundamental or material principles and emerged as
a central philosophical inquiry regarding its nature and immortality (through transmigration rather
than completing a single life and vanishing).

Philosophical inquiry regarding the nature and essence of psychē has certainly evolved further in the
history of philosophy and we can note that it remained on the agenda of more recent philosophers.
However, how the concept of psychē and other relevant issues such as the immortality of soul were
evolved in the history of philosophy after Socrates could be studied in other papers.

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