The Prime Mover

As I was walking into the bookstore this evening, what I wanted more than anything else was to forget about every second of job searching from the day. Often in that mood I will head for Calvin and Hobbes, to spend an hour speeding down snowy hills and thinking about monsters in the darkness, instead of monsters in office buildings.

But then I had a dilemma as to which philosopher I was in the mood for, Calvin or St. Augustine. As it happened, this time I chose St. Augustine, who I could not find, and instead I took a small book by Aristotle, De Anima. This is an interesting title for a book in English. Instead of the more sensible title On the Soul, it is translated into Latin, a language most English readers will obviously not know, and a language that Aristotle never even heard of. Perhaps it is just an accident of literary history that even in English the Latin title is used, but it does have the effect of making the book seem even more distant and therefore intellectual. It also gives readers a chance to think “aren’t I smart?” for knowing what it means. (I didn’t know.)

I read a few pages, remembering what it’s like to read Aristotle and his divisions of everything into this or that. Since I only read a few pages of the book, I know almost nothing about it. What I’m writing here is a blog, however, which technically means that even if I know absolutely nothing about a topic, and even if I have a stupid, uninformed opinion about it, I can write on that topic anyway. In fact, I’m supposed to.

I admire Aristotle, and I admire his exploration of knowledge, but he’s certainly not a clear or easy writer. He is also adamantly logical, and I’m not so sure that’s a good approach in pondering the soul. Or perhaps his logical approach worked, at least in his time. Aristotle did not grow up in a Southern Baptist church, lucky bastard, and he did not later in life read bits and pieces of Buddhist writing or Hindu theology, so he must have had a very different conception of the soul than I have.

Nevertheless, he considered some questions that I have dwelled on too long myself. At times the discussion—and granted, he was at first merely reviewing ideas of other people—seemed to regard the soul too much in physical terms, as a product of the earth. The idea I could get of soul here would be closer to my idea of a life force, but also a force that generated motion and volition.

In the section I read, it seemed granted that the soul and the mind are different, and I even found a very interesting quote, which I can repeat accurately from writing it down on a napkin. “But intellect would seem to be developed in us as a self-existing substance and to be imperishable.” As I read it, this regards our mind as the source of immortality, which makes it all the more interesting when Aristotle says that not only do some animals seem not to have minds, but some men do not either. Maybe he did attend a Southern Baptist church.

He does grant them all a soul, however, animals included, which probably goes beyond what most of us would do. Do you believe, truly, that the squirrels you see running across the grass have a soul?


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