Two views of body and soul: Psyche versus Nefesh

The earliest mention of the soul in Greek literature is Homer's morbid picture of the unhappy shadowy existence of the Trojan War heroes in Hades. Later Greek literature accepts the existence of souls. As in Plato it views the soul as very lofty and sacred, but sees the body as the soul's gross earthly prison.

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The earliest mention of the soul in Greek literature is Homer's morbid picture of the unhappy shadowy existence of the Trojan War heroes in Hades. Later Greek literature accepts the existence of souls. As in Plato it views the soul as very lofty and sacred, but sees the body as the soul's gross earthly prison.

Homeric souls disappear like smoke, in the manner of ghosts, if someone attempts to touch them. (Odyssey 11.206) They dwell in Hades and can only regain their vitality and memory by drinking blood. (Odyssey 11.25)

The Homeric notion of the soul remained current down to Plato's times when an important change occurred. The soul was then "elevated" from a materialistically conceived double to a dematerialized divine being, of a nature totally different from the body (soma). Plato tells us that the Orphics (the followers of Orpheus) called the body a prison of the soul, and that others with comparable ideas called it a tomb. (The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1969, p. 895)

In Plato's thinking, the relationship between body and soul is conflictual and unfortunate. "The soul is a helpless prisoner chained hand and foot in the body, compelled to view reality not directly but only through its prison bars, and wallowing in their ignorance." (Phaedo, 839)

For Plato (Phaedo, 83a), the evil acts of the body pollute the soul and prevent it from achieving a complete and clean separation and returning to the world of Ideal Forms. Only the soul can perceive Ideal Truth, but it cannot do so as long as it must perceive Reality by use of the five bodily senses. Thus, the real attainment of truth can come only in the higher world when souls can perceive directly without interference of the body. This idealizing of a state of existence after life is not necessarily a direct call to suicide, and the philosopher is encouraged to believe that separation from earthly life is the only road to the ideal human existence.

Thus, Plato calls philosophy "preparation for death." Socrates, while awaiting his execution, maintains that "other people are likely not to be aware that those who pursue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead. Now if this is true, it would be absurd to be eager for nothing but this all their lives, and then to be troubled when that came for which they had all along been eagerly practicing." (Phaedo, 64a)

Later in this dialogue, Socrates further explains the linkage between philosophy and death—death frees the soul! "For, if pure knowledge is impossible while the body is with us, one of two things must follow, either it cannot be acquired at all or only when we are dead; for then the soul will be by itself apart from the body, but not before." (Phaedo, 66e)

In Hebrew thought, the human body and soul are both sacred, both created by God. They can and must function in harmony to fulfill God's purposes in the world. Emotion, intellect and body are all integral components of a human being. Hebrew thought sees no opposition between body and soul, or flesh and spirit. Israeli scholar Ephraim Urbach argues that the Hebrew term nefesh must be understood as the whole of man rather than a disembodied psyche or anima. (Urbach, 1979, pp. 214-215)

From the rabbinical point of view, body and soul should function together harmoniously. Though the body supports the soul in their joint service of God, there is none of the Platonic sense that the body must die to liberate the soul. Body and soul may or may not be different but need not be in conflict. Man must keep his body both physically and morally clean (Buchler, 1922, 14-20).

Hillel described the soul as a guest in the body; the body should keep itself fit in order to offer hospitality to so distinguished a guest. To Hillel, the body was neither an evil to be repressed nor a bastion of heroism to be glorified by Olympic victories. For him, both physical and spiritual activities were part of man's fulfillment of his obligation to God. Just as a king appoints someone to keep his statue clean, man, created in the divine image, must certainly keep his body clean. (Avot D'R Nathan, 2.33)

In later Talmudic thought body and soul are differentiated somewhat, but with none of the flavor of complete disconnection so prevalent in Platonic writings. The contrasts between Greek and Biblical views regarding the body-soul relationship are exemplified in the following passage, which contains a discussion between the Roman Emperor Antoninus (perhaps Marcus Aurelius) and Rabbi Judah the Prince, the man credited for composing the Mishna:

Antonius said to the Rabbi: 'The body and the soul can both free themselves from judgment. Thus, the body can plead: The soul has sinned, [the proof being] that from the day it left me I lie like a dumb stone in the grave [powerless to do aught]. Whilst the soul can say: The body has sinned, [the proof being] that from the day I departed from it I fly about in the air like a bird [and commit no sin].' He replied, 'I will tell thee a parable. To what may this be compared? To a human king who owned a beautiful orchard which contained splendid figs. Now, he appointed two watchmen therein, one lame and the other blind. [One day] the lame man said to the blind, 'I see beautiful figs in the orchard. Come and take me upon thy shoulder, that we may procure and eat them.' So the lame bestrode the blind, procured and ate them. Some time after, the owner of the orchard came and inquired of them, 'Where are those beautiful figs?' The lame man replied, 'Have I then feet to walk with?' The blind man replied, 'Have I eyes to see with?' What did he do? He placed the lame upon the blind and judged them together. So will the Holy One, blessed be He, bring the soul, [re]place it in the body, and judge them together, as it is written, He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth, that he may judge his people: He shall call to the heavens from above—this refers to the soul—and to the earth, that he may judge his people—to the body.'" (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 91a - b)

The implications for modern psychology are self-evident. A biblical psychology does not fall into the classical Greek trap of seeing psyche and soma as conflictual or unrelated. Rather, it offers the potential of a holistic vision of body and soul, and treatment of both.

Kalman J. Kaplan, Ph.D. is professor of Psychology at Wayne State University and clinical professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. He is currently a visiting lecturer and Fulbright Scholar in the department of Psychology at Tel-Aviv University.


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