Online Problem #5

Is the Soul Immortal?

What is it that brings life to a body?
So whenever soul is present, so is life?
And what is the opposite of life?
Now, would soul ever admit the opposite of what invariably accompanies it?
So, would the soul ever admit death?
And that which would never admit death, we call immortal.
- Plato, Phaedo

If the eye were a living thing, its soul would be sight ... . Just as the eye is constituted by the pupil plus the faculty of sight, so the animal is constituted by the soul plue the body. And it follows from this that soul and body are inseparable.
- Aristotle, On the Soul

[ All quotations from Aristotle are paraphrases of The Basic Works of Aristotle, W.D. Ross, ed., Random House, New York, 1941.]

Can the soul (if there is one) exist separately from the body? Most Christians believe the soul to be immortal-that it is the aspect of a person that survives- bodily death. Others believe in resurrection, a rather different concept. Socrates and Plato believed that the soul is like an idea, and is therefore changeless and eternal like an idea, a "form." A form is a clear idea, like the definition of a circle or like the pure ideas of justice, truth and beauty. Such forms outlast the corruptible things in the visible world. In the same way, the visible part of a person dies and decomposes, but not the soul. The soul goes to a kind of heaven of ideas, where it converses with the souls of the past dead, or it may be reincarnated. At least Socrates seemed to believe this. Aristotle, on the other hand, looked at ideas or forms in an entirely different way. For him the form of a thing was part of it-for example, a coffee cup is composed of its form (cup) and its matter (ceramic). Drop the cup and break it and you destroy its form. In the same way, when a person dies his or her form, or soul, is destroyed, too.

This disagreement gives us some insight into the Greek notion of the soul as the form or essence or idea of a person--what we call personality. But does this personality survive bodily death? Does it ever make sense to think of a person, or anything else, living after death? This is really a contradictory idea, after all : a dead person is no longer alive. Perhaps a person could be said to survive death in the memories of those who knew him,-- his family, friends and neighbors. But even such a memory doesn't last forever. But we have no proof that souls go to Heaven or Hell. No one returns to tell us of that road. If we could just make sense of the notion that the soul, the essence of a person, is really like an idea-the idea of a circle or of truth or justice, then we might have more hope of a life beyond the grave. Is the soul immortal? Who is right, Plato or Aristotle?


Aristotle, The Basic Works, Random House, New York, 1941. See De Anima (On The Soul).

Plato, The Collected Dialogues, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1961. See the Phaedo..