7 Questions on the Powers of the Human Soul Compared to Other Souls

 1. What is a soul?

The soul is the principle of life. Aquinas defines the soul as “the first principle of life in those things which live.”1 In Latin, the word for soul is anima, from which English derives words like animated and animation – to have an anima is to be animated. In contrast, something that does not have a soul, like a table, is considered an inanimate object. It is therefore held that all living corporeal things are animated by a soul. “Living things” is, however, not limited to humans, but includes plants and animals as well. Consequently, plants and animals must also have souls, because they are alive. The question raised is what type of soul does a plant have? What type of soul does an animal have? And how are these souls different than the soul of the rational animal – the human?

2. What type of soul does a plant have?

Plants are living beings—they are animated by an anima, a soul; however, is the soul that animates a plant the same soul that animates animals or humans? One consideration is what type of “powers” the life of a plant demonstrates. The Latin word for power is potentia. The term potentia is underneath the English word potential, because if an entity can act on its potential then it has the power to do the act. If there is no potential there is no power. So what is the potential of life in a plant? Imagine a large oak tree. The oak has the power to reproduce via its acorns, it has the power to grow as demonstrated by it moving from acorn to a large oak, and it has the ability to nourish itself via its leaves and deep roots. The ability to reproduce, the generative power, is how the plant soul gains existence. The ability to grow, the augmentative power, is how the oak grows according to its proper size or quantity. The ability to nourish, the nutritive power, allows the soul of the oak to preserve its existence.2 These powers are rooted in the soul of the plant, which is called the vegetative soul. Note that the three powers are able to be distinguished from one another because they all act toward a different object. Imagine still that there is a beehive in the large oak or a horse grazing nearby. The bees and the horse are also alive, but they seem to have powers that go beyond simple growth and preservation.

3. What type of soul does an animal have?

Horse, Feliciano Guimarães, Flickr.

Animals are animated by the sensitive soul. First, animals have the ability to reproduce (generative power), grow (augmentative power), and nourish (nutritive power) as plants do. A horse, however, may reproduce quite differently than an oak tree. Though the powers act toward the same end, the matter of the body the soul acts upon may have a very different means to that end. For example, the sensitive soul typically demonstrates the power oflocomotion – to be able to move; however, the tiny wings of the buzzing bee are quite different than the taunt muscles of a galloping horse. Another power that distinguishes the vegetative soul of the plant from the sensitive soul of the animal is its namesake power – the senses. Unlike the oak, the horse is well aware of the world around it. The horse can see, taste, hear, smell, and touch. These five powers under the particular sense act toward a particular object. The power of taste knows the flavor of grass, and the power of sight knows the rolling green hills. The eye, however, only knows its own object. The eye can distinguish between green hills and a blue sky, but it cannot distinguish between green grass and sweet grass. Since every power is distinguished according to its own object, there must be something common to all the senses that distinguishes between all the sense objects; moreover, not only is it able to distinguish between the objects, what is green and what is sweet, but also able to combine the senses into one harmonious sense perception. The power that perceives all the external senses is called the common sense. A horse, much like a dog, may start to associate certain perceptions and remember them; thus, the sensitive soul may also have the power of memory. A dog may even recall what it has perceived through its senses at night in a dream; thus, the sensitive soul may have the power of imagination. In short, animals demonstrate a degree of knowledge, though it is the lowest form of knowledge in Creation.3

4. What type of soul does a human have?

There is something uniquely remarkable about the human soul. Aquinas observes that the sensitive souls of animals are driven by natural impulses or instincts. A deer darts at a strange sound, and a colony of bees builds a hive. Humans, however, are different. Like the bees, humans seek shelter, but with one crucial difference. The bees have the natural impulse to build the same hive over and over again. Humanity, however, does not build the same shelter over and over. Humanity has risen from huts to penthouse apartments. How? Humanity is able to reflect upon the shelter as a shelter and the art of making a shelter. Humans can contemplate the very art of shelter construction and may reason about different materials and techniques. A bee does not know itself as a hive-maker or reflect upon the art of hive-making. A bee is a slave to its instincts. A human, however, is a rational animal, and it is in rationality that it can reflect upon the world. The human’s ability to reflect upon his or herself as a person and upon the actions that person takes sets the human apart from the other animals. The ability to reflect is rooted in the hallmark power of the human soul – the intellect. Unlike any other power, the intellect may know itself. It is precisely in this self-reflection, that mankind is able to reason. Humans have a rational soul. Consequently, the ability of humanity to reflect upon its actions is the basis for all morality. Unlike the deer that darts at a sound, a person can reflect upon their actions. Maybe it is more rational to stand and fight, like a soldier fighting alongside his comrades. The reflection upon actions serves as the foundation of moral inquiry, and in this context there are four primary powers of the rational soul to consider: the senses, the passions, the will, and the intellect.4

5. What are the passions?

The passions are movements of the soul. A passion could be an immediate inclination toward a sense object. For example, a person is walking down the road and they sense warm buttery bread and immediately feel drawn toward the bakery. There is a movement in the soul toward the bread. A passion could also be an aversion to a sense object. A person walking down the road turns the corner and sees a large snarling hound. The immediate reaction is a movement of the soul away from the sense object. Passions are movements of the soul that affect the soul. A person could feel fearful all day due to an upcoming test. A person could feel joy all day due to an upcoming dinner party. Note in both cases that the person is not stating, “there is a test coming up, I choose to be fearful” or “there is a dinner party coming up, I choose to be joyful.” Rather, it is the object affecting the soul in a different way – either an inclination toward an object or a aversion from an object. Typical passions include love, hatred, desire, fear, joy, sadness, and anger.5 Aquinas places both the senses and the passions in what he refers to as the sense appetite of the soul, which simply means there exists an inclination toward an object apprehended by the senses.

6. What is the will?

Whiskey Shots Kirti Poddar Flickr.

The will is the mover of the soul. According to the Angelic Doctor, “the will is a rational appetite.”6 An appetite is an inclination toward a good; thus, the rational appetite of the will moves the soul toward things that are good. Following Aristotle, Aquinas agrees that all men seek the good.7 If, however, all men use their will to seek the good, why does it appear that humanity so often chooses what is evil and self-destructive? Does an alcoholic will the good when he reaches for another drink? Does a suicide victim choose the good when he takes his own life? Aristotle and Aquinas would both agree on the caveat that while all men seek the good, it is not necessary that the goods they seek be actual goods in truth – only that the person’s will sees the object as an apparent good. The will moves the soul of the alcoholic toward the next drink, because he believes the drink to be a good. The drink, in turn, is affectinghis soul. The alcoholic has a developed a passion toward the drink and is now inclined toward it. If, however, the alcoholic tried to remain sober, note that there would be a struggle between his will wanting to move his soul toward what is truly rational, and his passion moving his soul toward the sense object of alcohol. When speaking of the soul and morality, the questions of whether the passions will enslave the will to their inclinations or the will will discipline the passions into a rational order lays at the heart of moral inquiry and act. The rational soul is able to reflect upon its own actions and is so charged with choosing the rational and moral act.

7. What is the intellect?

The intellect is the power of the soul to understand. The intellect may be divided into two powers. First, every rational soul has the power of the passive intellect. The passive intellect is the potential for the soul to understand the intelligible. It is a receptive power. The second power, the active intellect, is the power that allows the intellect to abstract the form from the intelligible thing and understand it. For example, a person who has never seen a horse has the passive power to understand what a horse is. If the person then sees a horse, the active intellect allows the soul to abstract from the horse the intelligible form of the horse. For the mind does not take in the actual material horse, but it does take in an intelligible form of it. If the person goes back and tells his friends about the horse, he is recalling that intelligible form through the power of memory. If he theorizes that there must be black horses and brown horses and even horses with wings, he is using the power of his imagination. What if the person pondered whether or not you could eat a horse? Could you hunt a horse for sport? Could you tame it? The person’s power to reflect upon what is a proper act toward the horse, a moral act, is powered by reason. Is reason then a power of the intellect? No. Reason is a movement from one truth to another in order to understand. The person faced with a horse could reason the horse was a living being, an animal, a horse, and even a certain species of horse. Reason allows the mind to come to understand a truth. The intellect, however, simply knows the truth attained. Reason is not a power of the intellect, the reason is to the intellect as movement is to rest.8


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  1. Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, ST I-I.75.1 []
  2. ST.I-I.78.2 []
  3. Aquinas on Common Sense, ST I, 78, 4, ad.2. []
  4. The Rational Soul: Following Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas gives five genera of powers in the rational soul: vegetative, sensitive, appetitive, locomotion, and intellectual. Note that the higher souls take on the powers of the lower souls: plants have the vegetative powers, animals have vegetative and sensitive powers, and humans have vegetative, sensitive, and intellectual powers. Aquinas refers to these souls as higher and lower based on the object of the their powers. The vegetative powers – which characterize the vegetative soul – have only the body as their object. The sensitive powers go outside the body and have as their object sensible things. The intellectual powers go even further to have as their object universal being. Another consideration is that the ability for man to reflect, the power of the intellect, is in a real way the Imago Dei in man – the image of God. It allows us to create and to be moral. A final consideration here is that the art by which man learns to reflect better – to reason more properly – is logic. Aquinas gives a brief summary of the difference between animals and the rational animal as an introduction to logic in the prologue of his commentary on Aristotle’s Organon. []
  5. CCC § 1772 []
  6. ST.II-I.8.1 []
  7. Id., citing “the Philosopher says (Ethic. i, 1) that ‘the good is that which all desire.’” []
  8. Reason & Intellect: Boethius gave the analogy that the reason was to the intellect what time was to eternity. []

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