Anatomy of the Soul

Throughout history, from the Greek philosophers to the Church theologians, the terms used to describe the various aspects or powers of the soul have expanded and evolved, and in some cases words have been used interchangeably. For example ancient terms like nous (νοῦς) have been used in reference to mind, intellect and spirit. This makes it challenging to sort through and understand the various aspects of the soul in ancient writings. So as not to lose your attention I will avoid the temptation of meandering into a lengthy and academic dissertation on the history of Greek and Hebrew terms. Knowing full well that I am marching into perilous scholastic territory, I will simplify 2,500 years of philosophy and theology. Here we go…

The Orthodox understanding of the human soul has its origin in Greek philosophy and is surprisingly similar to the concepts of the soul as laid out by Aristotle and Plato . This view starts with the notion that a human being has both body and soul. Aristotle defined the soul or psyche (ψυχή) as the essence or definition of a living being and Plato said that living is the function of the soul . Just as the body is the material aspect of human life, the soul is the immaterial or incorporeal aspect. The soul is an independent substance distinct from the body, and it is that which animates us. This is poetically described in Genesis when, after forming man, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”  About this Saint John Chrysostom (†407) says that the breath of God is the energy of the Holy Spirit, and this energy of God is that which creates the soul. This connection with God’s energy is precisely why we cannot talk about the soul without talking about God. The two are inseparable.

In the scriptures and in patristic literature the term ‘soul’ can have different meanings. In its fundamental sense anything that has life is called a soul. This life exists in every creature, including animals and plants. But soul can also refer to the spiritual element of human existence. Although ‘soul’ as life force is hugely important, with respect to one’s personal spiritual life the term ‘soul’ is referring specifically to the inner life of a human. Henceforward I will be using the term ‘soul’ in this manner. A vivid description of the human soul can be found in the writing of Saint John of Damascus (†749). In his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith he writes,

“The soul is a living essence, simple, incorporeal, invisible in its proper nature to bodily eyes; it is immortal; it is something logical and intellectual; it is without form. While it makes use of an organized body it is the source of its powers of life.”  

--St. John of Damascus

Although a person’s soul is singular or one, there are aspects or powers of the soul. The Church Fathers compare this to the body which is singular, but has many different organs and systems to function. As identified by Plato and augmented by the Church Fathers, the soul has three main faculties or attributes. In their simple form they are: the mind, the will and the heart (also known as the spirit). The Church Fathers make an astounding correlation between these three aspects of the human soul and the three aspects of God as Trinity. This is both incredibly awe inspiring and at the same time it’s somehow very obvious and natural. When talking about how humans are made in God’s image and likeness, the scriptures are speaking specifically of the soul and its three aspects. This reveals God as triune, human life as triune, and the intended or potential harmony between God and man. When I first learned of this triune connection with God and the human soul it blew my mind, or should I say ‘nous’.

Some of the most descriptive and insightful writings on the mind, will and heart are found in the writings of a 7th century Byzantine monk known as St. Maximus the Confessor (†662). He is called a confessor because of his stance against the theological status quo of the time that was veering into heresy. At the order of the Byzantine emperor, his right hand was cut off so he couldn’t write, and his tongue was cut out so he couldn’t speak. It’s ironic because his most popular writings are on love. In these writings St. Maximus gives us rare insight into the three aspects of the soul:

“The soul has three powers: the intelligence (mind), the incensive power (heart) and appetitive (will).”

He goes on to describe the natural purpose of these powers of the soul, as they pertain to our pursuit of God:

“With our intelligence (mind) we direct our search; with our desire (will) we long for that supernal goodness which is the object of our search; and with our incensive power (heart) we fight to attain our object. With these powers those who love God cleave to the divine principle of virtue and spiritual knowledge.”

--St. Maximus the Confessor

Having a deeper understanding of these three aspects of the soul is the way to discover one’s self and to be victorious in unseen warfare. Below will we avoid swimming too deep in the writings, translations and interpretations on this matter cause one to drown in terminology and concepts. For the sake of easy comprehension we will try to put forth some of the basic concepts in simple terms, as gleaned from the Church Fathers.