The Person in Greek Thought
One of the most important sources for Western views of the
nature of the human being is ancient Greek philosophy, especially
Plato (427-347 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE).
According to Plato's dualist view, a human being is a soul
imprisoned temporarily in a body. The soul is immaterial and eternal,
and accounts for human consciousness. Plato believed the soul
to have three `parts': 1.) reason; 2.) the spirited element, which
initiates action; 3.) and the drives and appetites.
Plato's dualist conception of the person fits well with his
dualist conception of reality in general. Beside this imperfect
and corruptible physical world, there is the transcendent realm
of the Forms or Ideas, which is perfect and eternal. According
to Plato, the soul's true home is in the realm of the Forms.
Plato's philosophy had a significant impact on the development
of early Christian thought, largely through the Neoplatonists
who elaborated his ideas and incorporated them into religious
systems. Augustine (354-430 CE), who has been called the most
influential theologian since the Apostle Paul, made great use
of Neoplatonist philosophy for treating theological issues. However,
Augustine was compelled to make some modifications to the Platonic
conception of the soul. According to Augustine, a human being
is a rational soul using a mortal and material body, so
it is not imprisoned in the body. Like Plato, Augustine's
view of the soul is tri-partite, but there are some slight differences
between the two thinkers. Whereas Plato saw reason as the highest
attribute, Augustine thought that the will was the highest or
dominant aspect. Finally, while the soul is immortal for Augustine,
it does not exist eternally before incarnation, as it does for
In contrast to Plato, the Greek philosoher Aristotle thought
of the soul not so much as an entity, but more as a life principle--the
aspect of the person that provides the powers or attributes characteristic
of the human being. Therefore, plants and animals have souls as
wellthat is, nutritive and sensitive souls.Our souls
incorporate the nutritive and sensitive powers, but also include
rational powers. Because the soul is a principle of the functioning
body, it dies with the body (although Aristotle speculated that
perhaps some aspect of rationality survives death).
Aristotle's conception of the soul and body also fits well
into his general conception of reality. All material things are
comprised of matter and form. The form is an immanent principle
that gives things their essential characteristics and powers.
So the soul is but one type of form.
In general, what we see in Greek philosophical speculation
is the recognition that human beings have some remarkable capabilities
all their own (such as doing mathematics and philosophy) and others
that they share with animals (sensation).
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| Contributed by: Dr. Nancey Murphy