Platonic-Aristotelian Notion Of Man

Platonic-Aristotelian Notion Of Man [A Comparative Analysis]


1.1          The concept “Man”

Man by his very nature is an inquisitive being. The innate desire, says Aristotle, is both for pragmatic motives and for the sake of knowing. Man wants to know and conquer the realities around him and beyond him. But has not been able, even to unveil the mysteries of his own being “existence.” These various obscurities of man to himself, varied concepts and images of man have been presented according to various ages as below.




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1.1.1 The Ancient Notion of Man

The Greek philosophers, interpreted man from ontological perspectives Democritus and other atomists conceived man as wholly composed of atoms and matter. Man is a material reality and possesses characteristics such as singularity, individuality, and concreteness in its being. It is universal and abstract in its qualities.

Plato, the scribe of Socrates on the other hand laid more emphasis on the spiritual aspect of the being man. For him, the soul pre-existed the body before its union with the body. According to him, the soul pre-existed in the world of forms before it came into the world where it got imprisoned in the body, a vessel and from within this prison exercises its activity.

For Aristotle, however, man is the only being that has rationality: he reasons, deliberates, imagines etc and so is the only being, animal that possesses the soul, which is in the form of the body. He writes:

Man is a soul. The soul has two parts: the rational and the irrational. The rational soul has the power of scientific thought. The reason is capable not only of distinguishing between different kinds’s of things, which is the power of analysis. It is able also to understand the relationships of things to each other, able to deliberate and discover as well the guides for human behaviour.1

Irrespective of the fact that, no universal concept has been accepted, even the notion of science that man is a machine. Moreover, that man is a composite of cells predetermined by genes. This Aristotelian solution proves most satisfactory.

1.1.2 The Medieval Notion of Man

This is the period of the confluence of philosophy, and theology but more theologically dominated. The Christians, interpreted man as coming from God. For Augustine, because man is unique and unrepeated, he sees him as single specie. Boethius helped him by completing that concept to differentiate man from other animals such as rats, goats etc. For Him, man is not only an individual person but also a rational being. He said; The person is an individual substance of rational nature.2

For Aquinas, man is a rational subsistent. He is composed of body and soul in his capacity as a “physical substance.”3 He has his highest capacity in the intellect and this makes him a rational animal or a “subsistent rationale” (a rational subsistent).

Gaurdini in his elegant thought saw man as an autonomous being that decides for him. His notion about man is:

Person means that I, in my being definitively cannot be in habited by any other, but that in relation to me, I am only with myself, I cannot be represented by another, but I am guaranteed to myself.4

1.1.3 The Modern Notion of Man

Anthropomorphism rules this period. Here man is seen as man and later on, as a Supreme Being. He is the measure of all things. It is based on the gnoseological phase since it is all about psychological perspectives.

Descartes, the rationalist posited that there are two separated substances: the res cogitans et res extenza – The mind and body or the spiritual and corporeal. He says man cannot be composed of mind and body as in the scholastic sense but rather that the mind makes use of the body, as a pilot, would the Plane. He concluded, therefore, that man is the mind. His idea should not be accepted since the mind needs the body to actualize its activities hence function well.

Freud, thought man, the true “I” to be the subconscious. For in the subconscious, the requirements of the society and the subconscious meet.

1.1.4 The Contemporary Notion of Man

This is the period of dialogical concepts. It attacks vehemently the Psychological and ontological theories of man. Mounier, in his essay “le personalisme” (personalism) condemned the psychoanalysts, idealists and the Empiricists, who maintained either the concreteness or the spiritual substance of man alone. Rather, he embraced incorporate existence or incarnate existence of thought and body.

Other concepts are analyzed thus: economic man (Marx), existent man (Heideggar), symbolic man (Cassirer), Utopic man (Block), Problematic man (Marcel), Cultural man (Gehlem), A thinking reed (Pascal), An image of God (Origin), Will of Power (Nietzsche), Anguished man (Kierkegaard)5 etc.

We say then, that whether Psychological or ontological, all human beings whether, he or she, white or black, Christian or Moslem, is globally a person made up of four indubitable fundamental elements: autonomy in being, self-consciousness, communication, and self-transcendence. He is free and social. In communication, he intersubjectivises with others in correspondence to love, friendship etc. In self-transcendence, he climbs the ladder of God. He meets the real absolute and eternal.

Nonetheless, Man as man, as Higgins formulates, means nothing less than the fact that man is also a moral being. He summarized man by the means of Aristotle’s four causes: the material, formal, efficient, and final causes. These four causes make the boldest attempt at satisfying every branch of study that claim to have the concept man. Higgins sees man, in Aristotle’s sense, as a unified whole, a complete substance formed by infusion of two widely differing constituents. One of this is the material element, the undetermined and determined part of him-his body.

…by union with a formal or determined cause, this material element put life into a human body, of which its end is a rational animal. This formal cause or soul is a life principle, the absolute, internal reason where man performs his vital action.6

As for theologians, the efficient and final causes may be regarded as indispensable aspects of man. Augustine (St.), for instance believed that our souls will never rest until, they find rest in Him from whom they come.

1.1.5 Igbo Notion of Man

In every age, every culture around the world has a certain picture of man, vis-à-vis his essential nature.

Conceptually, the Igbo equivalent meaning for “man” is “mmadu.” Dr. E. M.P. Edeh gives an analysis of the concept mmadu (mma-di), meaning “good that is.”7 Implying that he shares in the being of his maker, the highest good (God).

Another school of thought gives the analysis of “mmadu” as “mma-ndu,” “the goodness of life.” Here, the concept “the good” is a quality associated with man. He is considered the highest good of all creatures. This concept has a profound implication for the Igbo. If “man” (mma-ndu) is the greatest good,” it follows that for the Igbo, the being of man is an indubitable fact since His life (ndu) is an issue for him (man)8

Concisely, there is one indubitable truth about man:

There is man. He is there, I am here. Man is a man in the world as J.F. Douceel, noted of the trend of contemporary philosophy. Man does not simply live in the world. He also made us live in it.9

Thus he writes:

Man essentially lives in the world that is made up of complex sets of horizons. Man lives in a certain situation in which he can generally not change. It is up to him to assume this situation and make the most use of it.10

The Platonic-Aristotelian notion of man is therefore crucial with regards to the human existential understanding and our discussion that will be made clear as we proceed.

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1.2 Body and Soul

The body is one of the elements of man that is naturally sensible and clear in existence. It is the concrete part of man, yet it does not constitute the human reality absolutely. It exists with the soul to make the actual human being. With this fickle nature of the body and soul, we shall look into, the body and soul as a problem; it’s relationship and functions.

  • The Soul And Body Problem

Philosophy and anthropology have problem on the usage of the term that designates the psychological faculty in man. Anthropology speaks of mind, philosophers and theologians refer to it as “spirit.” For the scientists, it is operational (i.e. the both terms). It is then left to the philosophers, theologians, and scientists to choose the best, concerning the nature and origin of man.

The issue of body and soul, at one extreme is the attempt to separate the human body and soul by the Platonic idealism, using the dualism of Descartes. At the other end is the attempt to reduce the mind and body relationship to animal psychology and behavior giving no acknowledgement to man’s soul as truly spiritual entity. “Neither pure spirit nor brute animal, man is an organic spirit and spiritual organism.11

 1.2.2    Soul and Body Functions

The body performs both external function as walking, talking, hearing, seeing, taste, smell etc and internal activities as biochemistry and the metrics of genetical informations etc. The somaticity of man transcends and develops into nuclear operations. Mondin. B writes; “Man is able to manage his body, train it, and render it capable of performing movement of admirable perfections”.12

He is a symbolic being, which is a sign of life health, vigilance, and command. However, man has some characteristics in common with the animals such as growth, reproduction, movement etc.

Epistemologically, the body is a vital instrument of acquiring knowledge to Aristotle and Hume, it is through the body that the world manifests itself to me and I project myself on the world (Phenomenology).

Lastly, the body is the source of evil and likewise a curse to the soul according to the Platonists and Manicheans doctrines.

  • The Relationship between the Soul and the Body.

The union of the soul and the body originates as a single being-man. For Aristotle, being soul alone is not man, nor to be body alone but the blend of these two elements. Other supporters of this opinion include; Cajetan, Albert the great, Aquinas and Rosmini. For Hume, their relationship is that of subjective and reflection.

Plato himself says that the soul is identified with the true essence of man. Freeing the soul is a necessary condition to eliminating the body. Other proponents of this opinion include: Spinoza, Augustine, and Descartes etc.

Kant, in his agnosticism rejected all attempts and regarded all soul-body reports as nothing but fallacious. At this point, we say that the soul-body relationship is substantial because the body and the soul cannot operate in isolation. The soul and the body is not a substance because neither the soul nor the body has atoms of autonomous existence or self-initiation. Both of them participate together at the moment of generation. Therefore cannot be identified as a simple accident or a complete substance.

1.3 The Origin of Man

The search for the origin of man dates back to at least the written history of man. This gave rise to some evolutionary theories under Psychological cum biological, scientific, theological, and philosophic thought.

  • Psychological Cum Biological Thought

In this approach, man (Homo erectus, Homo vivens, Homosapiens, Homo volens etc) is regarded as a unique composite of man and spirit, of body and soul.

For Traducianism, the parents generated both body and soul through the instrumental fission of the ovum and sperm alone. According to it, man originated from a complex structure of molecules called DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid).

On another note, the soul of man has a proximate spiritual source, the soul of the offspring, must be the soul, which must be an emanation of the souls of the parents.

  • The Theological Thought

According to the theological thought, it is believed the supreme being (God) from whom all things were made and who holds the entire universe in his hands also made man.

Let us make man in our image and likeness; let them have dominion over all other creatures… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.13

Right down the history, man is an indubitable being that exists in the world otherwise, there would be no history for there would be no man to talk about the past, the present or even predict the future.

1.3.3 Philosophical Thought

According to the emanation theory, human race emanated from some live forces in the world and some great men fashioned by the gods of Pantheon (The Early Greek pyramid text record). Also, the creationists, pictured man to be descendants or rather, products of Gods so that all things come from divine architecture and genealogy – Theory of creationism.

In the 19th century, man was believed to have originated from animals not from gods. An instance is the Darwin’s. “The Descent of man” Here Darwin treated man’s origin and history in the context of animal origins or evaluation. In the evolutionist, theory man is believed to have descended from common ancestors among the primates by natural evolutionary process like isolation, adaptation, natural selection, and mutation.



Plato, the Greek genius was realized with extraordinary completeness. He was the most influential idealist in the history of Western thought. In his metaphysical anthropology, he occupied himself with the being of man. It will be beneficial to us in this discourse to give a brief explanation of the term “form,” for in it, Plato rooted his idea of man.

The forms are those changeless, eternal, and non-material essences or patterns of which the actual visible objects we see are only poor copies. The “forms,” therefore is the true reality, and so are not objects of this world.

Currently with the knowledge of what “form” is and which Plato described to be the soul in man, let us then look at his notion of man. Man is a soul, the soul is fashioned and infused into the body by God (Demiurge), out of a mixture of ideas and matter, the Demiurge makes the Soul and distributes the soul throughout the space where he assigned them to the visible body. These bodies, he set in motion. It is by God’s providence that man is created a living being endowed with reason.”14

The soul is the spiritual principles, it is the form. This form is eternal because it essentially knows not only the natural and changing but also the changeless things like the numbers and geometrical, it is the immaterial reality that exists. Thus: Basically, the forms or ideas are those changeless, eternal and nonmaterial essences or patterns of which the actual visible objects we see are only poor copies.15

The forms (soul) are the real man not the copies of things that we see. From this vein therefore, Plato, negated the materialist, Marxists, and the structuralists. However, the existentialists and the phenomenalists posited that it is what exists and appears that is the true reality.

Furthermore, Plato explicated that it is the off springs of Demiurge that created mortal man. And when the offspring were imitating him (god), he put on the immortal principle of soul and around this, they proceeded to fashion a mortal body. The soul  of the mortal are implanted in bodies and depending on their behaviors, either of them, return to the blessed life or incarnate another mortal body, first in a woman, then in a beast which is the closest to the vicious soul whereas fishes habour the soul of the stupidest.16

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Indicated here, is that Plato’s notion of man is that Demiurge, created his offspring and as the offspring tried emulating their father’s architecture, they created the imperfect mortal man due to their mistakes as they tried creating.

2.1 Body and Soul in Plato

On a general note, the soul is said to be the principle of life, it is a kind of harmony in man. Harmony is a blend of contraries (i.e. the soul and the body). The body is compounded of opposites. Hence, harmony is a composition of the constituents blended, of which neither the soul nor the body can exist in isolation as a substance of its own.

Plato being influenced by the Orphic Pythagoreans believes that the soul is divine in man; it is immortal, immaterial, and spiritual like the gods. The soul formally existed in the ideal world before its union with the body and will continue to exist after its separation from the body. Hence, the soul’s existence is prior to that of the body. Therefore, the soul has control and dominion over the body. He writes:

The kingship of the soul with the immutable and non-visible forms shows that the soul has an entirely different nature to the body. The soul being pure thought is divine. It rules the body. In other words, the soul is immaterial, thus it cannot perish as the body does.17

The soul is movement perse. It is a self-moving principle that is identified with life. It is a substance in itself and is substantially identified and accidental to the body. Nonetheless, man is a being who aspires to a life of perfect happiness not of this world but of the transcendental world. This is why the soul fights to be liberated from the body.

Furthermore, the soul is defined in essence as that power which can imitate self-movement to this sense; movement is the closest to the nature of the soul, who resembles the divine, the prime mover of all things including the soul. The nature of the soul, gives it the power to blend with an object and transform it into movement. Therefore, the soul is the powerhouse of the body. Its absence ceases the body from movement. Here Plato argues that nothing originates a movement that first does not move itself.

In the Phaedo, Plato reminds his students; Simmias and Cabes of the difference between the unstable bodies. The body is subject to dissolution and the soul is immortal with the likeness of the “Divine.” The soul not being mortal should be separated from the mortal, the perishable. It (soul) is destined for the blissful realm, the company of the gods. The body is totally shackled and deceived by the senses and enslaved by its own desires. The body is non-being. It is a mere generation and motion. In fact because of the evils of the body, it has to be separated from the soul so that it does not harm the soul. He said:

If the soul lies on the sensation (i.e. body), she is dragged down to earth, as it were to the unstable and confused; but if she relies on her own reason, she approaches the pure and the eternal.18

Summarily, we say that the body and the soul are two complete substances each on its own. Therefore, they are contingents and are accidentally united in the terrestial life without effectively forming a single substance. The soul by its nature constitutes the true essence of man. The elimination of the body has become necessary to enable the soul attain its eternal perfection and happiness.

  • Parts Of The Soul

According to Plato, the morally and the virtuous life are the most apt for human existence. In trying to combine this with the ordinary virtue, the divided the human soul into three: The rational part, the spirited part and the appetitive part of the soul. The division he said accrues because of the common experience of internal confusions and conflicts in man. Let us see the parts of the soul.

2.2.1 The Rational Soul

This is the highest part of the soul. It is the part of the soul, which is indestructible, immortal and which should control the whole man. It is the part of the soul that distinguishes man from animal. Its function is mainly to guide the whole man and bring the other parts under control. All the activities of awareness are carried out in this part. In fact, it is the seat of wisdom. It is the intellective soul of Aristotle.

2.2.2 The Spirited Soul

This is other wise called the courageous soul. It corresponds to man’s higher emotions. Its drive is towards an action, and equivalent to the Freudian “id” The responses of the reason are received in this part.

2.2.3 The Appetitive Soul

This part corresponds to man’s lower emotion or sensual desires. Plato ascribed this assumption that the soul is the principle of life and movement. Often times the appetitive, part pulls the goal of the soul through its evil passion. It is equivalent to the Aristotelian sensitive part.

 2.3 Notions about Dualism As Applied To Man

Dualism is a theory applied to any philosophical doctrine that holds that there is in the universe or some significant part of it, an ultimate and irreducible distinction of nature between two different kinds of thing. In other words, it is the idea that there are two or more substances in nature. Thus dualism is:

…Any system that holds that all phenomena in the world can be explained in terms of two fundamental and exclusive principles such as body and soul.19

Such that, as a theory opposed to monism and pluralism, dualism is mostly applied in reference to the study of compositions and nature of man, discovered to study the component entities-body and soul. Most theories on the nature of man, capitalizes on this prepositional thought that two entities are found in man. This signifies that dualism denies any theory that identifies each of them as a physical machine.

According to Plato, on the general note, the soul and body are substances, which exist on their own account, but joined in accidental and casual manner just as the horse man (charioteer) in relation to his horse or the captain with his ship. Descartes pronounced this doctrine in his “res cogitans” and “res extenza” as dualism – the thinking being and the extended being. As such they affirm that man’s nature is dualistic. The dualistic nature of man as discussed by philosophers includes: Interactionism, psychophysical parallelism, occassionalism and epiphenomenalism. Each of these theories is studied in consonance with how it handles the soul and body.

2.3.1 Interactionism

This form of dualism holds that the soul and body are causally related and thus causal relationships are in two ways; the body affecting the soul and the soul affecting the body. An instance is when the sensual passions override the soul, there is confusion and conflict in both the soul and body consequently, it is the widely expounded form of dualism and the type most often linked with the soul and the body.

2.3.2 Psychophysical Parallelism

This theory holds that there are two corresponding sets of entities: mental and physical entities. However, there is no causal interaction between these entities. The advocates of this theory hold that each of these entities acts on its own without influencing the other.

2.3.3 Occasionalism

This theory holds that all apparent links between the mind and physical events are because of divine interventions. Obviously, this theory does not solve the body and soul problem, the body having resort to the divine causal role over them thus denying them the power of self-sufficiency.

2.3.4 Epiphenomenalism

This theory holds that the mind and body are causally related, but the causality goes in one direction, that is from the body to the mind, so that the mind is merely an offshoot of the body. (Epiphenomenona). The relationship is a one sided interaction and such mental activities are effects, not causes of the brain events.

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Strictly speaking, epiphenomenalism is a theory, which asserts that the occurrence is completely dependent on physical events. As such, physical events are the primary phenomena, whereas mental events are by products. This view is often mistakenly thought to be a kind of extreme materialism. The various types of dualism as aforementioned were geared towards solving once and for all the soul-body problems.

  • Immortality Of The Soul

Etymologically, the term immortality comes from “in (non) mortality,” that is “lack of death,” – (carentia interitus). In another sense, it means perenity of life. The immunity from death or unceasing duration of life. It differs from “eternity” in that; the later applies to no beginning or end. It is specially an attribute of an angel or God. Sometimes, it refers to transmigration into another being, pertaining to man, the spiritual soul endures forever, regardless of biological “death” and subsequent resurrection of the body. It does not mean mere temporal survival after death or continuation of some function for a short time. It does not also mean the absorption into the external existence of God and transmigrating into another being. Immortality means actual continued existence in one’s own identity.

The nature of the human soul makes it incorruptible. Being simple, it lacks any spatial or constitutive parts into which it can break up. Being spiritual, at the death of the body, it is not subject to corruption or incidental to any intrinsic dependence on matter, for its spiritual intellection and volition shows it to have only extrinsic dependence on matter.

The only way the soul can cease to exist is by annihilation, but the failure of God to conserve it in being is impossible to God. It is argued that the existence of the immortal soul after death of the body would be meaningless because the soul would be without its proper operation like the perpetual knowing derived from the senses. But it is made known that ones personal identity when the soul is no longer united with matter is not any human soul but it is identifiable as the soul that is united with matter to or this person in a certain place at a certain time.

For a clear understanding, Plato comes in with his arguments about immortality. In Plato’s works-Phaedo and Pheadrus, Plato first thinks immortality-survival of the human soul after the death of the body. He said: There is in man, spirituality of the intellective act through which he knows the good, the beautiful, the just, the Holy, the being, and the one.20

They are not known by the senses but by the soul. They should therefore, be separated. He asserts:

When returning to herself, the soul reflects, then she passes into the other world, the region of purity, eternity and immortality and the unchangeableness, which are higher kindred, and within them, she ever lies, when she is by herself and is not led or being in communion with the unchanging.21

Hence our soul is a spirit that feeds and lives for the life of the spirit. It is akin to that which is eternal and unchanging.

As the foundation of his ethical theory, Plato, uses the doctrine of the soul’s immortality. He reasons as follows, if death had only been the end of all things, dying would have been a good sent to the wicked. However, in as much as the soul is manifested immortal, there is for her no release or salvation from evil except the attainment of highest virtue and wisdom. “The soul when on her progress to the world beyond, takes nothing with her but nurture and education, and these are said to greatly benefit or in fire the departed.”22

After mans death therefore, his soul is set off under the guidance of the “genius” assigned to it during mans life on earth, to a place of judgment and then to a habitation. Consequently, a corrupted soul wonders alone in eternity of distress, until certain things are fulfilled and when they are fulfilled, the soul is taken irresistibly to her fitting habitation, as every pure and just soul which has passed through life in the company and under the guidance of the gods has also her own proper home.

At this point, Plato threatens wrongdoers with punishment in the next world and promising reward for merits. He intends to make sure men are righteous. He therefore set out to develop the principles of moral behavior that is the doctrine of good. He also maintained that goodness was the unity of virtue and happiness, the beautiful and the useful, the morally good and the pleasant.

Plato’s idea of the immortality is that death frees the soul from the tyranny and imprisonment of the body. Immortality rids the soul off passions based on the desires and vice of the body. For Aristotle, there is a sign of spirituality in the intellective operation, that which is not liable to confusion. For Augustine and Aquinas the soul obtains truth in the intellective knowledge because it is spiritual.

The 19th century thinkers thought of death as not corrupting or destroying the soul but that is impossible to demonstrate the survival of the soul. Death is the total worldly end of man, of his entire psychosomatic reality. Death contributes much to man’s state of immortality for without death, there would be no life after. So that, death warrants immortality of souls. And projects man to go beyond the space and time. Through death, the soul fulfils absoluteness. The good ones have access to happy life after, whilst the vicious ones face eternal punishment or damnation.

2.5 Neo-Platonism

This is a philosophical movement, which combines Platonic and Aristotelian ideas and maintains that reality is an absolute oneness. That matter is the negation of being and that the one creates an order of being by a non-temporal process of emanation.

For Plotinus, man is the soul, every thing is merely accidental. The soul is not an entelechy but an emanation. However, it was forced to descend to the body by way of punishment. He writes:

The soul is never separated from the body of wholly immersed in matter. Its union with the body is natural and necessary although it does not form with the body a new reality.23

St. Thomas Aquinas, a Christian theologian, sees man as an embodied spirit. Reality for him is the essential unity of man. The same concrete man appears in his bodily presence is also the person who thinks. The transcendence of the spirit over the material reality is manifested by the immateriality of thinking. Man is a component of body and soul of which either has no right to necessary existence, but contingent to each other.


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