<a href="" target="_blank">Ensoulment at conception.</a> from Jean Mansel. Fifteenth century.
Ensoulment at conception. from Jean Mansel. Fifteenth century.
The soul, according to many religious and philosophical traditions, is a self aware ethereal substance particular to a unique living being. In these traditions the soul is thought to incorporate the inner essence in each living being, and to be the true basis for sentience. In distinction to spirit which may or may not be eternal, souls are usually (but not always as explained below) considered to be immortal and to pre-exist their incarnation in flesh. The concept of the soul has strong links with notions of an afterlife, but opinions may vary wildly, even within a given religion, as to what happens to the soul after death. Many within these religions and philosophies see the soul as immaterial, while others consider it possibly material.

Note: This article uses the word “soul” in the common form, and deals largely with varied concepts from which the concept originates, and to which it relates. The use of the word soul often does not explicitly correspond to usage associated with any particular view or belief, including usage in Western and Eastern religious texts, and in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, or Plotinus.


The current English word “soul” may have originated from Old English sawol, documented in 970 AD, which has possible etymological links with a Germanic root from which we also get the word “sea”. The old German word is called ‘se(u)la’, which means: belonging to the sea (ancient Germanic conceptions involved the souls of the unborn and of the dead “living” being part of a medium, similar to water), or perhaps, “living water”.

Ancient Greeks sometimes referred to the soul as psyche (as in modern English psychology). Aristotle’s works in Latin translation, used the word anima (as in animated), which also means “breath”. In the New Testament, the original word may sometimes better translate as “life”, as in:

“For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

If you exchange the word “soul” for “life” in the sentence above, the statement may seem less profound. Also, Jesus said, “He who saves his life will lose it”, which means that a faithful believer must be ready to sacrifice his life in order to preserve his soul.

The Latin root of the related word spirit, like anima, also expresses the idea of “breath”. Likewise, the Biblical Hebrew word for ‘soul’ is nefesh, meaning life, or vital breath.

The various origins and usages demonstrate not only that what people call “soul” today has varied in meaning during history, but that the word and concept themselves have changed in their implications.

Rutland Weekend Television. Eric sells his soul to the devil. (6 min.)

Philosophical views

The Ancient Greeks used the same word for ‘alive’ as for ‘ensouled’. So the earliest surviving Western philosophical view might suggest that the soul makes living things alive.

Francis M. Cornford quotes Pindar in saying that the soul sleeps whilst the limbs are active, but when man is sleeping, the soul is active and reveals in many a dream “an award of joy or sorrow drawing near”. [1]

Erwin Rohde writes that the early pre-Pythagorean belief was that the soul had no life when it departed from the body, and retired into Hades with no hope of returning to a body. [2]

Socrates and Plato

Plato, drawing on the words of his teacher Socrates, considers the soul as the essence of a person, as that which decides how we act. He considered this essence as an incorporeal occupant of our being. The Platonic soul comprises three parts:

1. the logos (mind, nous, or reason)
2. the thymos (emotion, ego, or spiritedness)
3. the pathos (appetitive, id, or carnal)

Each of these has a function in a balanced and peaceful soul.

The logos equates to the mind. It corresponds to the charioteer, directing the balanced horses of appetite and spirit. It allows for logic to prevail, and for the optimisation of balance.

The thymos comprises our emotional motive, that which drives us to acts of bravery and glory. If left unchecked, it will lead to hubris — the most fatal of all flaws in the Greek view.

The pathos equates to the appetite that drives humankind to seek out its basic bodily needs. Yet when the passion controls us, master passion drives us to hedonism in all forms. This is the basal and most feral state.


Aristotle, following Plato, defined the soul as the core essence of a being, but argued against its having a separate existence. For instance, if a knife had a soul, the act of cutting would be that soul, because ‘cutting’ is the essence of what it is to be a knife. Unlike Plato and the religious traditions, Aristotle did not consider the soul as some kind of separate, ghostly occupant of the body (just as we cannot separate the activity of cutting from the knife). As the soul, in Aristotle’s view, is an activity of the body, it cannot be immortal (when a knife is destroyed, the cutting stops). More precisely, the soul is the “first activity” of a living body. This is a state, or a potential for actual, or ‘second’, activity. “The axe has an edge for cutting” was, for Aristotle, analogous to “humans have bodies for rational activity,” and the potential for rational activity thus constituted the essence of a human soul. Aristotle used his concept of the soul in many of his works; the Nicomachean Ethics provides a good place to start to gain more understanding of his views.

Aristotle’s view appears to have some similarity to the Buddhist ‘no soul’ view (see below). For both, there is certainly no ‘separable immortal essence’. It may simply become a matter of definition, as most Buddhists would agree, surely, that one can use a knife for cutting. They might, perhaps, stress the impermanence of the knife’s cutting ability.

Religious views

Christian beliefs

In Christianity, some believe that as soon as a person dies, their soul will be judged by God, who sees all the wrong and right that they have done during their lives. If they have repented (to turn away from) of their sins and put their trust in Jesus Christ before death, they will inherit eternal life in “Heaven” and enjoy eternal fellowship with God. If they have not repented of their sins, they will go to “Hell”, and suffer eternal separation from God.

Various opinions

Most Christians regard the soul as the immortal essence of a human – the seat or locus of human will, understanding, and personality – and that after death, God either rewards or punishes the soul. Different Christian groups dispute whether this reward/punishment depends upon doing good deeds, or merely upon believing in God and in Jesus. The imagery that Jesus used to describe the soul includes the “beautiful garments” of Revelation (“they [the saints] will be clothed in white”), which are “more beautiful than Solomon in all his glory” (Matthew). Jesus said, “Do not let anyone steal your garments” (Revelation). And in a parable about the master’s feast, Jesus (the master) has a guest thrown out by His servants (the holy angels) for showing up without his feast-garments. Jesus said, “And what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”, warning him that he could lose it (Matthew). The message is: don’t show up for the Judgement without your beautiful garments (the soul). The soul represents righteousness. The reward that the faithful Christian receives at the moment of his death, is the privilege to receive his soul, which was kept safe by Jesus, and to appear before God’s feast clothed in one’s soul.

“Be thou faithful unto death, and I shall give you the crown of life” (Revelation). The labour is to remain faithful, and the reward is to keep one’s soul. In the parable of the ten virgins, who are waiting for the return of the master (Jesus) with their lamps lit, Jesus warns them not to be foolish, and let their lamps go out, by pursuing after worldly things at such a critical time. The lamp represents the eye, and the oil represents the Holy Spirit of Jesus, from God. The soul is apparently the receptacle for the Holy Spirit; the body, which houses the soul, is the tabernacle, or the “temple of the Holy Spirit”.

Christian belief also holds that the soul cannot be bought; this is why money is not an accurate measurement of spirituality. You can be very wealthy, and still be “poor, and blind and naked” (Revelation). The notion that the salvation of the soul cannot be earned by good deeds can appear to contradict Biblical teaching, when Christians are instructed to “Love your neighbour as yourself” as the second most important command. However, scripture holds that only by grace directly from God the father are we “saved”, and to make the robe of the soul clean requires only an acceptance of this grace, which incidentally is a neutral deed, neither good nor evil.

Many Christian scholars hold, as Aristotle did, that “to attain any assured knowledge of the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world”. Augustine, one of the most influential early Christian thinkers, described the soul as “a special substance, endowed with reason, adapted to rule the body”. The apostle Paul said that the “body wars against” the soul, and that “I buffet my body”, to keep it under control. Philosopher Anthony Quinton said the soul is a “series of mental states connected by continuity of character and memory, [and] is the essential constituent of personality. The soul, therefore, is not only logically distinct from any particular human body with which it is associated; it is also what a person is”. Richard Swinburne, a Christian philosopher of religion at Oxford University, wrote that “it is a frequent criticism of substance dualism that dualists cannot say what souls are…. Souls are immaterial subjects of mental properties. They have sensations and thoughts, desires and beliefs, and perform intentional actions. Souls are essential parts of human beings…” [3]

The origin of the soul has provided a sometimes vexing question in Christianity; the major theories put forward include Creationism, traducianism and pre-existence.

Other Christian beliefs differ:

  • A few Christian groups do not believe in the soul, and hold that people cease to exist, both mind and body, at death; they claim however, that God will recreate the minds and bodies of believers in Jesus at some future time, the “end of the world.”
  • Another minority of Christians believe in the soul, but don’t regard it as inherently immortal. This minority also believes the life of Christ brings immortality, but only to believers.
  • Medieval Christian thinkers often assigned to the soul attributes such as thought and imagination, as well as faith and love: this suggests that the boundaries between “soul” and “mind” can vary in different interpretations.
  • The soul sleep theory states that the soul goes to “sleep” at the time of death, and stays in this quiescent state until the last judgment.
  • The “absent from the body, present with the Lord” theory states that the soul at the point of death, immediately becomes present at the end of time, without experiencing any time passing between.
  • The “purgatory” theory states that the soul, if imperfect, spends a period of time purging or cleansing, before becoming ready for the end of time.
  • The present Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the soul as “the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image: ‘soul’ signifies the spiritual principle in man.”
  • Swedenborgianism teaches that each person’s soul is created by the Lord at the same time as the physical body is developed, that the soul is the person himself or herself, and that the soul is eternal, and has an eternal spiritual body, that is substantial without being material. After the death of the body, the person becomes immediately conscious in the spiritual world.

In favor of a conscious non-material entity (“soul”) that survives bodily death

Some traditional Christians argue that the Bible teaches the survival of a conscious self after death. They interpret this as an intermediate state, before the deceased unite with their Resurrection bodies and restore the psychosomatic unity that existed from conception, and which death disrupts. These Christians point out:

  • Rachel’s death in Genesis 35:18 equates with her soul (Hebrew nephesh) departing. And when Elijah prays in 1 Kings 17:21 for the return of a widow’s boy to life, he entreats, “O LORD my God, I pray you, let this child’s nephesh come into him again”. So death meant that something called nephesh (or “soul”) became separated from the body, and life could return when this soul returned.
  • Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross, “I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Interpretation: that very day, the thief will in a conscious way have fellowship with Christ in Paradise, despite the apparent destruction of his body. According to the apostle Peter, Jesus descended (upon His death) into Hades, which could not hold Him, and led the souls of the righteous dead (including the thief on the cross) which were imprisoned in Paradise (a compartment of Hades, which was reserved for those righteous dead) out of captivity, and “led captivity captive” (thus emptying Paradise, according to the apostle Paul), who also claimed that Jesus was King not only by birth, but “by nature of an indestructible life” (in the letter to the Hebrews, if it was written by Paul). Afterwards, in John’s vision of Revelation, Jesus appeared to John and claimed that He had “the keys of Hades”.
  • Jesus’ account of the rich man and Lazarus, who were both still conscious at the same time as the rich man’s brothers, who lived on. This scenario preceded Jesus taking the souls of Paradise with Him to heaven, therefore Lazarus remains in Paradise. The rich man stood in another compartment of Sheol where he could see Lazarus, but could never cross over. The patriarch Abraham comforted Lazarus, whereas the rich man remained in torment. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, how difficult it is for a rich man to enter into Heaven,” (although Lazarus was not there yet).
  • Matthew 10:28: Jesus says, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Here, the soul (Greek psychē) appears as something distinct from the body, and something which survives the death of the body.
  • Phil. 1:21-23, depicting the believer to “depart and to be with Christ”, where the aorist infinitive (to depart) links via a single article to a present infinitive (to be with Christ). This linkage shows that the departure, and being with Christ, occur at the same moment. And, since Christ dwells in Heaven, Paul anticipated going to Heaven at death.
  • Revelation 6:9-10 portrays the souls (Greek psychas) of martyred saints as conscious, and as asking God how long He will refrain from smiting the wicked on Earth. Once more, these saints consciously exist with God in heaven, at the same time as evil people exist on the earth.
  • Matthew 22 : 23That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him (Jesus) with a question. 24“Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. 25Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” 29Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31But about the resurrection of the dead – have you not read what God said to you, 32‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’[Exodus 3:6]? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” 33When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.
  • 1 Corinthians 15 : 12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (…) 29Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31I die every day–I mean that, brothers–just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”[Isaiah 22:13] (…) 35But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. 42So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45(…) 46The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

Christian Gnosticism: Valentinus

In early years of Christianity, the Gnostic Christian Valentinus of Valentinius (circa 100 – circa 153) proposed a version of spiritual psychology that accorded with numerous other “perennial wisdom” doctrines. He conceived the human being as a triple entity, consisting of body (soma, hyle), soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma). This equates exactly to the division one finds in St. Paul’s Epistle to Thessalonians I, but enriched: Valentinus considered that all humans possess semi-dormant “spiritual seed” (sperme pneumatike) which, in spiritually developed Christians, can unite with spirit, equated with Angel Christ. Evidently his spiritual seed corresponds precisely to shes-pa in Tibetan Buddhism, jiva in Vedanta, ruh in Hermetic Sufism or soul-spark in other traditions, and Angel Christ to Higher Self in modern transpersonal psychologies, Atman in Vedanta or Buddha nature in Mahayana Buddhism. In Valentinus’ opinion, spiritual seed, the ray from Angel Christ, returns to its source. This is true resurrection (as Valentinus himself wrote in The Gospel of Truth: “People who say they will first die and then arise are mistaken. If they do not receive resurrection while they are alive, once they have died they will receive nothing.”). In Valentinus’ vision of life human bodies go to dust, soul-sparks or spiritual seeds unite (in realised Gnostics) with their Higher Selves/Angel Christ and the soul proper, carrier of psychological functions and personalities (emotions, memory, rational faculties, imagination,…) will survive – but will not go to Pleroma or Fullness (the source of all where resurrected seeds that have realised their beings as Angels Christ return to). The souls stay in “the places that are in the middle”, the worlds of Psyche. In time, after numerous purifications, the souls receive “spiritual flesh”, i.e. a resurrection body. This division appears rather puzzling, but not dissimilar to Kabbalah, where neshamah goes to the source and ruach is, undestructed and indestructible, but unredeemed, relegated to a lower world. Similarly, according to Valentinus, complete resurrection occurs only after the end of Time (in the Christian worldview), when transfigured souls who have acquired spiritual flesh finally re-unite with the perfect, individual Angel Christ, residing in the Pleroma. Valentinus sees this as final salvation.

Many non-denominational Christians, and indeed many people who ostensibly subscribe to denominations having clear-cut dogma on the concept of soul, take an “a la carte” approach to the belief, that is, they judge each issue on what they see as its merits and juxtapose different beliefs from different branches of Christianity, from other religions, and from their understanding of science.


According to the pantheistic view that Buddhism follows, as well as Gnosticism (combining pantheism with monotheism like some Christian Gnostics, being clearly visible in Gospel of Thomas, or rejecting monotheism completely in favor of pantheism, having many things in common with Buddhism), Soul is synonymous with Mind, and emanates (since it is non-dimensional, or trans-dimensional) from the Spirit (the essence that can manifest itself through any level in pantheistic hierarchy/holarchy – as a mind/soul of a single cell (with very primitive, elemental consciousness), a human or animal mind/soul (with consciousness on a level of organic synergy of an individual human or animal), or a (superior) mind/soul with synergetically extremely complex and sophisticated consciousness of whole galaxies involving all sub-levels. Spirit (essence) manifests as – Soul/Mind. And the (non-physical) Soul/Mind is a ‘driver’ of the body. Therefore, the body, including the brain, is just a ‘vehicle’ for the physical world (if we, for example, have a whole planet as a ‘body’ then its brain is the synergetic super-brain that involves all the brains of species with a brain, on that planet).

Jewish beliefs

Jewish views of the soul begin with the book of Genesis, in which verse 2:7 states, “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (New JPS)

The Hebrew Bible offers no systematic definition of a soul; various descriptions of the soul exist in classical rabbinic literature.

Saadia Gaon, in his Emunoth ve-Deoth 6:3, explained classical rabbinic teaching about the soul through the lens of neo-Aristotelian philosophy. He held that the soul comprises that part of a person’s mind which constitutes physical desire, emotion, and thought.

Maimonides, in his The Guide to the Perplexed, explained classical rabbinic teaching about the soul through the lens of neo-Aristotelian philosophy, and viewed the soul as a person’s developed intellect, which has no substance.

Kabbalah (esoteric Jewish mysticism) saw the soul as having three elements. The Zohar, a classic work of Jewish mysticism, posits that the human soul has three elements, the nefesh, ru’ah, and neshamah. A common way of explaining these three parts follows:

* Nefesh – the lower or animal part of the soul. It links to instincts and bodily cravings. It is found in all humans, and enters the physical body at birth. It is the source of one’s physical and psychological nature.

The next two parts of the soul are not implanted at birth, but are slowly created over time; their development depends on the actions and beliefs of the individual. They are said to only fully exist in people awakened spiritually:

* Ruach – the middle soul, or spirit. It contains the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. In modern parlance, it equates to psyche or ego-personality.

* Neshamah – the higher soul, Higher Self or super-soul. This distinguishes man from all other life forms. It relates to the intellect, and allows man to enjoy and benefit from the afterlife. This part of the soul is provided both to Jew and non-Jew alike at birth. It allows one to have some awareness of the existence and presence of God. In the Zohar, after death Nefesh disintegrates, Ruach is sent to a sort of intermediate zone where it is submitted to purification and enters in “temporary paradise”, while Neshamah returns to the source, the world of Platonic ideas, where it enjoys “the kiss of the beloved”. Supposedly after resurrection, Ruach and Neshamah, soul and spirit re-unite in a permanently transmuted state of being.

The Raaya Meheimna, a Kabbalistic tractate always published with the Zohar, posits two more parts of the human soul, the chayyah and yehidah. Gershom Scholem wrote that these “were considered to represent the sublimest levels of intuitive cognition, and to be within the grasp of only a few chosen individuals”:

* Chayyah – The part of the soul that allows one to have an awareness of the divine life force itself.

* Yehidah – the highest plane of the soul, in which one can achieve as full a union with God as is possible.

Extra soul states

Both Rabbinic and kabbalistic works also posit a few additional, non-permanent states to the soul that people can develop on certain occasions. These extra souls, or extra states of the soul, play no part in any afterlife scheme, but are mentioned for completeness.

  • Ruach HaKodesh – a state of the soul that makes prophecy possible. Since the age of classical prophecy passed, no one receives the soul of prophecy any longer.
  • Neshamah Yeseira – The supplemental soul that a Jew experiences on Shabbat. It makes possible an enhanced spiritual enjoyment of the day. This exists only while one observes Shabbat; it can be lost and gained depending on one’s observance.
  • Neshamah Kedosha – Provided to Jews at the age of majority (13 for boys, 12 for girls), and related to the study and fulfillment of the Torah commandments. It exists only when one studies and follows Torah; it can be lost and gained depending on one’s study and observance.


  1. Cornford, Francis, M., Greek Religious Thought, 1950.
  2. Rohde, Erwin, Psyche, 1928.
  3. Swinburne (1997). The Evolution of the Soul. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further Reading

  • Search for the Soul by Milbourne Christopher, Thomas Y. Crowell Publishers, 1979
  • Brain & Belief: An Exploration of the Human Soul by John J. McGraw, Aegis Press, 2004

External links

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It uses material modified from the Wikipedia article “Soul“.