On the Soul and its Powers

Author: Esther Ehrman, Tishrei 5768/Oct 2007

Aristotle and Maimonides describe man's Soul

Shemone Perakim. Ch.1

Maimonides writes Eight Chapters (shemone perakim) as an Introduction to the Mishna, Ethics of the Fathers, (Pirkei Avot). He examines the function of ethics for the well being of the soul, the necessity of such well being for the person who seeks to understand the Creator and states a theory of behaviour to be followed in order to achieve that goal. Chapter one is largely descriptive.

1. Know that the soul of man is one.

This chapter deals with man's nefesh. The word means 'soul'; it also means 'character' or 'person' or 'personality'. It translates the Greek word 'psyche' (defined as 'breath, life, soul' in the Oxford Dictionary). The point that Maimonides (Rambam) is making is that, while there are many facets to our psyche - he uses Aristotle's division of basic areas of activity - we should not see these as independent of one another, or indeed of the physical person. Just as there are many body parts, heart, legs, brain, eyes etc that constitute areas of 'one body', so we must understand that there is one 'soul/psyche'.

Indeed, as Rav Aviner stresses in his edition of the Shemone Perakim, man is one, where body and soul interact. It is significant that the Aristotelian divisions of the 'soul' that Rambam adopts are largely physical. Early philosophers, we are told, were confused and believed that the various active areas of functioning indicated a plurality of souls in man. To understand man, we need to know that he is one whole.

2. Know that the improvement (tikkun) of our character traits (middot) is brought about by curing the soul (refuat ha nefesh).

As the title of the Mishna, Ethics of the Fathers, indicates, the subject is 'ethics', morality, the middot. We are dealing with a Rabbinical work, part of the Talmud, not with the Torah and its commandments (mitzvoth). There is a basic difference between a statement like asei lecha rav u knei lecha chaver, adhere to a teacher and acquire a friend (pirkei avot) and a statement such as ve ahavta le reieicha kamocha, you shall love your neighbour as yourself (Torah). The function of Pirkei Avot, as Rambam sees it, is to improve the (sick) soul. A person without the morality taught in Pirkei Avot is 'sick'. A moral person has a 'healthy' soul/psyche. Rav Aviner suggests that healthy here is normative. If a soul is not in a normal healthy state, i.e. if his morality is not 'fit', he needs to be dealt with. We now accept this in that we send criminals to have psychiatric treatment.

Rambam explains that, just as a physician needs to know the details of physiology before he can cure anyone, so the rofe nefesh 'soul doctor/psychologist/moralist' needs to know and understand the functions of the soul/ psyche. There are five of these; they control:

a. sustenance (nutritive)

b. the senses (sentient)

c. the imagination

d. stimulation

e. the intellect/conceptualisation

3. Man's nutrition stems from the nutritive faculty in the human soul, whereas a donkey...derives its nutrition from the nutritive faculty in the donkey's soul.

In a discussion of character, the soul, morality, man is not just a superior animal species. Just as the food of animals suits their need, the food of humans, their intellectual and emotional needs are not those of a donkey, a horse or an eagle.

NB the use of the word nefesh when referring both to humans and to animals. Both have a 'soul', but they are not comparable. We use the words, 'food', 'sensation' for both, but only the term, not the meaning is common to both. Every species has a soul, a way of behaving, specific to it. Rambam illustrates this with an example, - not his - of light that lights up three dark places, one is lit by the sun, one by the moon and one by fire (man made). There is light in all three, but in each case it is of a different kind, though we use the word 'light' for all three. Similarly, we use the word nefesh and, as with the light, only the term is common to man and animals.

4. The element that controls nutrition includes the power to ingest, store food, digest, excrete, grow, reproduce and the ability to distinguish liquids that sustain and those to be excreted.

Rambam now lists the functions of each area of control. There is a clear link with the physical; he is concerned with 'healing', i.e. doing what is 'good' for the body.

Sentient. This area refers to the five senses throughout the physical body. The 'soul' interprets and reacts to these, Rambam implies.

Imagination. Rambam defines this as memory able to recall sensations, to combine or divide up such sensations and thus create impossible combinations - an iron ship flying in the sky, for example. This faculty can delude man (the intellectual function is able to sort this out). Rambam makes the point that not everything that it is possible to imagine may be real, even if all the constituent parts of something may have been real. Science was to grapple with this question for several hundred more years.

Stimulation. A person is stimulated to desire or to reject things. Thus one may love or hate, desire or fear something and the physical organs, legs, hands, eyes will react accordingly; the physical heart is responsible for courage.

5. The function of thought/conceptualising is the power given to man....

Know that this one soul, described above, can be compared to matter, for which the intellect serves as form.

This faculty is granted to man alone. It gives 'form' (tsura) to the other aspects of the soul, decides on action and deliberates on what is possible. It discriminates and makes judgments on the basis of knowledge and thus imprints a character (form) on the soul/psyche. Man has an individual soul and therefore an individual character. But man has features that are common to mankind and therefore it is possible to say that certain actions will have certain consequences, so the middot can be applied to anyone.

The intellect can deal with the abstract notions, understand the eternal values and thus acquire wisdom - knowledge. The intellect can also determine life style in a concrete way (applied, ma'asi) and thus a. discriminate between true and false ( as e.g. when the imagination presents impossible things and

b. determine practical matters suited to it, lifestyles, careers, such as carpentry, seafaring etc. One needs to be careful not to confuse the guiding intellect with the soul/psyche. The intellect is a function of the soul.

6. If the soul be without knowledge, it is not good (Prov.19,2)

'Even without knowledge the soul exists but it is not good' (transl. Eliahu Touger). It would seem that a soul that has not acquired a 'form' is a soul without knowledge, as it were. The intellect has not 'shaped' it and it thus remains without direction, characterless, incomplete. The word 'good' is ambiguous. Without direction it cannot be good in the moral sense - or bad - and the situation of a soul that is directionless is a waste, it can have no contribution to make. As Rav Aviner points out, man is born with middot and these are neither good nor bad, but have the potential for either. The positive direction is ours to work at.

The details, says Rambam, are not important here, since they are not needed for a discussion about middot (ethics). However, the difference that exists between the functions of the soul need to be clear to the teacher of ethics to enable him to 'heal' that soul and ensure its 'health'.

An interesting philosophical perspective emerges of the Greek and Jewish attitudes to the 'soul', the essence of things. Plato sees this world in terms of the shadows of a cave reflecting the essentially real Ideas outside of it. Aristotle speaks of the essential, the real within a being. The Torah teaches that man was created 'in the image of G-d' . Maimonides is telling us that the healthy, ethical soul is the real essence of the person and that once it is achieved it will constitute that 'image of G-d'.