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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 Plato.

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 well—that 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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The Person in Greek Thought

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Dr. Nancey Murphy


See also:

The Cognitive and Neurosciences
What Makes us Human?
Are we Free?
Saint Augustine
Rene Descartes
Sir Isaac Newton
Books on Neuroscience and Theology