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On the Soul and the Elements

Or, Farewell to the Tripartite Anthropology, Part I

By Aidan Kelly

“Tripartite Anthropology” is a standard, although pompous, name for the concept held by the pre-Socratic philosophers 2500 years ago (and no doubt by people long before then) that humans consist of body, soul, and spirit. Using those terms now is as inadequate for our times as using Empedocles’ four-element model would be for doing chemistry. We do have a physical body, obviously. The problem is with the other two terms.

People now use the terms “soul” and “spirit” more or less interchangeably, but for the Greeks they were distinct. The Greek for “body” is soma, for “soul” is psyche, and for “spirit” is pneuma. Psyche also meant “mind” (as in psychology) or “personality”. Pneuma actually meant “air” (as in pneumatic), as did the Latin anima and the Hebrew ruach, which is what God blew into Adam to animate him.

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