What is the soul?

  • I guess that someone studying Epicurean Philosophy would fairly quickly grasp the general idea of how the soul is thought of being and dissolving in this materialist context.

    So, the Epicureans provide an answer to the questions of the soul, but don't say what it is (at least I think they don't), in a way of a redefinition of a previously superstitious and abstract concept, as they do with the gods (with the explanation of the natural evolution of humans into what they must be), into something related to nature.

    For me, it's not that this particular topic is of the utmost relevance, since I think these were just explanations needed to be given by Epicureans to previously existing superstitious concepts in order for the philosophy, and its most relevant contribution of ethics, not to be disqualified as "incomplete". But Still, the problem of superstition is still a real one these days, and being able to provide a bridge to someone to get out of it depends on being able to talk about the things most relevant to them. And I think the soul is one of them, usually.

    So, after eliminating what I think would be the previous or traditional conception of soul, a superstitious and abstract "spirit or essence", the only definition I could find (online) is that of the energy (a material thing) that causes the (biological) vigor (an observable and possibly measurable quality of strength of action) that all living things show in different ways.

    Is there an "official" one of the philosophy?

  • My understanding of the "official" description of the soul is that it's comprised of very fine atoms distributed (I think) throughout the body. This is off the top of my head; I believe Lucretius discusses it but I don't have a cite at the moment.

  • Yes I would say that the description in Lucretius Godfrey refers to is the basic material.

    If I had to summarize my understanding I would also refer to the "properties of the particles" and "qualities" / "events" of the bodies that are formed from the particles. Probably a large part of what most people are looking for is a discussion of how life arises from non-life, and that issue revolves around the "emerging" aspect of how bodies have qualities that are not inherent in the particles and void of which they are composed.

    It also seems that "soul" and "spirit" are used almost interchangeably.

    I note in the original post the reference to "all living things" having a soul, and I am not sure about that. Plants? I am thinking that Epicurus would not necessarily equate a soul/spirit to life, and that you might we'll be able to have life without having a soul - that soul / spirit might be why we call some but not all living things "animals".

    Also, following the point made in Long's "Chance and Natural Law in Epicureanism" I think it is important to keep in mind that "the swerve" does not exhibit itself to our view except in certain situations (free will of animals primarily). If they indeed thought that way, that would explain the emphasis on the soul being extremely fine / light / fast moving - characteristics in which the swerve might best "break through" to allow free will.

  • I don't have nearly as good a command of where things are in Lucretius as I should have. I just checked one of my references however and definitely Book 3 is the main text, but there is some material in Book 2, especially near the end, that discusses how the living arises from the non-living, and that is pretty relevant to the topic too.

    Here is one of my online topical outlines of Lucretius:

    Lucretius - On The Nature of Things []

  • Updating this old thread.

    I happen to have just read the passage where Lucretius explains about the soul and it being composed of both the spirit anima and the mind animus.

    Spirit, encompassing sensation, as feedback from the world, obtained (having its seat) through the whole body and Mind, encompassing reason and emotion, being felt (the seat, again) in the chest.

    I don't know and can't remember whether he (Lucretius) stated that the soul is the thing that inextricably correlates with animals being alive, that is interacting, and reasoning and feeling about this interaction, with the world (as opposed to plants that interact by means of sensation only, or rocks that don't do either), but that's the way I understand it, at this point in my journey anyway.

    Putting it less poetically, it seems to me that the soul is, among other things, but possibly primarily, our nervous system.

    Would love to read other's take on this.

  • I think your wording is good. As in other cases it seems to me that Epicureanism is practical. It does not represent to dwell on technical details but addresses big picture questions (what are we?) and answers them with a practical framework. In this case, that which we think of as uniquely "us" is composed of certain types of atoms arranged in certain ways that are entirely natural. That answer doesn't necessarily allow us to have sufficient knowledge to go out and build a human being from scratch, but it gives us an understanding of what to expect from life and excludes worries or fears of supernatural issues beyond our control.

    We can then choose to pursue the technical details as much or as little as we are able and as we prefer within a framework that makes sense.