Blog Archives

The Etymological Soul

For those who don’t know, Etymology is the study of words, their meanings, and their roots. I’m going to attempt to use it to define the soul. The earliest English version of the word “soul” shows up as early as the 8th century. Its roots are similar to the Germanic, Norse, and Lithuanian words of similar meaning. The oldest form of “The Soul” that I can find is in Greek, and goes back to Plato’s philosophy, and the word Psyche.

  • ψυχή (psūkhē), or Psyche as we would say it, is the Greek word for soul, translating to breath, or to cool/to blow.
    • Psyche in the English sense is the mind and personality of someone.
  • Hebrew has the word Nephesh, referring to aspects of human life, but is most commonly referring to “life” or the “vital breath”
    • However, the English translations of Nephesh encompass “soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion” (wikipedia)
  • Psyche (the Greek variant) was later translated to Anima in Latin
    • Latin’s Anima translates (similarly to Greek and Hebrew) as “a current of air, wind, air, breath, the vital principle, life, soul”
      • Anima became the etymological root for several words including: (wikipedia)
        • Animal – “Of or relating to animals”, “Raw, base, unhindered by social codes”, and “Pertaining to the spirit or soul; relating to sensation or innervation“.
        • Animatus (Animate) – “to fill with breath, quicken, encourage, animate”
        • Animus – “the mind: the rational soul in man, intellect, consciousness, will, intention, courage, spirit, sensibility, feeling, passion, pride, vehemence, wrath, etc., the breath, life, soul”
          • English Animus has 2 definitions worth noting.
            • The basic impulses and instincts which govern one’s actions;
            • and A feeling of enmity, animosity or ill will.

After looking it over and comparing a few examples, while noting the common points, the oldest form of the soul seems to be Breath, the Air, the Mind, and Personality. However, I’d like to take it a step further. Later versions, the Hebrew, and English, and Latin derivations all seem to suggest something else. The soul isn’t just the self, but emotion. The idea of Animus (Latin and English) could be more spot on, but there is conflict.

Animus in Latin means the Rational part of man, but later becomes basic impulses and instincts in English, similar to Animal (Latin). However, if we were to consider the Rational side of man as a survival instinct related to preserving oneself in situations (versus doing what they want), then we can understand the idea of soul as being basic instinct and emotion, raw and without hindrance. Another way to explain it might be with the Taoist concept of wu wei (a simplified understanding)

Wu wei (Chinese: 無爲; a variant and derivatives: traditional Chinese: 無為; simplified Chinese: 无为;English, lit. non-doing) is an important concept in Taoism that literally means non-action or non-doing. In the Tao te Ching, Laozi explains that beings (or phenomena) that are wholly in harmony with the Tao behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way. As the planets revolve around the sun, they “do” this revolving, but without “doing” it. As trees grow, they simply grow without trying to grow. Thus knowing how and when to act is not knowledge in the sense that one would think, “now I should do this,” but rather just doing it, doing the natural thing. The goal of spiritual practice for the human being is, according to Laozi, the attainment of this natural way of behaving. (wikipedia)

With that in mind, I would say that etymologically, the soul is not what makes us who we are, but is actually the most primal form of human life, uncontrolled except by the desire for survival which we cultivate with societies. To risk my point and branch out, it could then be inferred that our passions are directed by the way society has forms around us, and thus we see people studying music, art, medicine, literature, culture, etc., as a means of survival, directing those passions to find a better place in the world around us. We are social creatures, because with those we find the idea appealing that we can band together. Friends can make us stronger, or at least out number the other guy.

However, we consider this innate desire for survival to be another instinct, and thus it makes it as wild as any emotion. What does that mean for my definition of the soul? It means it needs to be redefined of course. My new definition is that the soul is only the primal form of human life, acting and reacting with regards to our survival.