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How does Aristotle’s Approach to the Nature of ‘Soul’ Differ from Plato’s?

In fifth-century Athens, the first philosophers believed that “…everything was really water, or air, or fire, or perhaps a combination of these” (Trigg: 5). Atomists taught and believed that “…everything was composed of indivisible atoms” (Trigg: 5). There were other views, but it was Socrates and Plato who were to look to the spiritual world for their answers. Athens was a place where “… a citizen with the gift of persuasion could quickly rise to prominence” (Trigg: 7). This essay discusses the radically differing views of Plato and Aristotle on the nature of ‘Soul’.

Plato lived between 428 and 348 BCE. He was concerned with an ultimate reality. He believed this did not exist within the physical world, but in a spiritual one. Socrates was Plato’s teacher and was responsible for changing the direction of philosophy, but he was executed for his beliefs and the alleged corruption of the youths of Athens.

Plato believed that this world is an imitation of the ‘real’ one. He believed in a world of ‘forms’ where ultimate reality is to be found: the physical is not to be trusted and is imperfect. This system is known as ‘dualist’ – the imitation world and the spiritual world of ‘forms’. In this spiritual world exists the essence of everything physical - their perfect ‘forms’. He believed that our souls existed before they entered our bodies and that they are eternal. We already possess all knowledge, which returns to us during our lifetime.

However, he sees the soul as a captive of our bodies: there is conflict, which comes from tensions within us. These tensions he puts into three categories: the upper part is said to control our thoughts and reflections, the chest area controls our spiritual side, and the lower area controls our appetites – such as our material needs and sexual appetites. Plato believes these tensions are not in harmony with each other. He believes that if the three tensions were brought into balance, we would find stability and peace.

He describes these tensions in the Phaedrus, using an example of a charioteer and his two horses. “One horse is bad and one not” (Plato in Reader: 8). The bad horse resists moving forward, and this creates disharmony between, the charioteer and the good horse and himself. In human terms, this example could be described as our appetitive side wanting more food than it needs and our spiritual and rational sides may resist the temptation. The result is conflict.

Aristotle’s (384-322 BCE) views are very different to Plato’s. Aristotle was Plato’s student at his school ‘The Academy’ until he died. He once believed in Plato’s views, but diverged from these as he matured. When Aristotle was almost 50, he set up a school called ‘The Lyceum’. Instead of looking at the mystical, his view was more “down to earth” (Trigg: 21). This could be because he was the son of a doctor – his father’s practical influence perhaps - and therefore he had a need for a more scientific approach in searching for answers regarding the nature of ‘soul’. He redefines the words ‘soul’ and ‘form’ in a completely different way to Plato’s beliefs and teachings.

Aristotle makes a distinction between ‘matter’ and ‘form’. Form is what makes anything what it is – gives it its nature. It is the essence of anything. These ‘forms’ do not exist independently of the physical. Matter is best described in Aristotle’s words. He tells us that if the eye were an animal “sight would have been its soul” (Aristotle in Reader: 18). The eye is “merely the matter of seeing” (Aristotle in Reader: 18). Without essence or soul it cannot possess vision and is therefore incomplete.

Aristotle believes there are three types of soul for living things – human, animal, and vegetative. The soul cannot exist without the body, and the body (matter) can’t exist without the soul. They cannot be separated. He tells us “the actuality of any given thing can only be realised in what is already potentially that thing, i.e. in a matter of its own appropriate to it” (Aristotle in Reader: 19). What this means is that a human soul would not be suitable for a plant, or a dog’s soul would not give a human body its true nature.

Vegetative souls are characterized by their own ‘form’ and animals theirs. Vegetation has only a nutritive soul: animals also have ‘desire and appetite’ and humans the highest form which gives us all our characteristics including appetite or desire, nutrition, sense, movement and the power of thought and reason. Aristotle uses an expression “…’final’ cause” (Trigg: 21) to describe a final purpose. Roger Trigg states that “Aristotle gives an example of walking to be healthy, where health is the final cause” (Trigg: 21). It is reasonable to assume that this final cause applies to life in humans as Aristotle does not believe that the souls exists without a body – this must mean that the soul dies with the body.

Plato’s views are radically different to Aristotle’s. Plato looks to the spiritual world for perfection and Aristotle to the physical. Plato believes that the soul not only survives after the death of a human body, but that it sees the death as a kind of release from the prison it had been held in; it can return to the world of perfect ‘forms’. Aristotle looks to the physical world for his answers. This does give a purpose to life, in as much as we learn and progress and strive to achieve perfection. Perhaps we achieve that by teaching our children, who in turn teach their children - they would question and search more, as it is human nature to question and seek answers.

In conclusion, Aristotle’s approach does have some substance to it, and if we look back in history, progress and change have been on-going, and will continue to be so in the future. This is all very well if our purpose on earth is to gain knowledge and progress, but it answers no questions on how we evolved in the first place: where did life begin?  Plato’s views seem pessimistic. If his views are correct, there is little point to life. If our souls already possess all knowledge, how can we gain more and what is the purpose of our soul or life? Plato’s optimism lies in his belief that our souls will find stability and perfection in a world of ’forms’ after this life.

Aristotle., ‘De Anima, Book 2’. The Reader (2002)

Plato., ‘Phaedrus’, The Reader (2002)

Trigg, R., Ideas of Human Nature (1999)

By  Penelope Page 2003