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St Augustine’s Theory for the Soul’s Existence

An exploration of the soul’s existence, according to Early Church theology.

St Augustine of Hippo was a theologian from the Early Church, who later became an authority during the medieval times. His work on the soul is a mix of Platonic, rational, theological and psychological arguments. This was a major subject, discussed throughout his various works. In his work De Trinitate he acknowledges that man is both body and soul. This soul is a unique entity in its own right, it does not belong, nor should it be classed with beings/substances of the divine realm, or the physical world. He wrote extensively during his life, and produced detailed work on the psychology of man. He presented a theory of knowledge the aim of which was to provide evidence for God’s existence. This same rational theory can also provide evidence for the soul’s existence.

He developed Plato’s philosophical work combining with Christian belief, and is an influential authority to this day. He believed that our knowledge of God comes from our soul. He argues that as we cannot gain intimate knowledge of God from sensory experience, there must be a way of knowing God from within us. The Platonic belief that the spiritual soul is seen to be superior to the physical body is also found in Augustine’s work, also the theological concept of the soul and its connection to the supernatural realm and physical world has vague similarities with the Platonic system. The soul for Augustine is created by God, and enters the body at conception. It is the divine connection to God; through which He communicates His divine will straight to His mortal, human creatures. The purpose for the soul on its earthly journey is to become more like God, so that after death it can enter into the heavenly realm, to live for eternity. Thus the soul is everlasting after its creation.   

Augustine also explored the concept of the soul in terms of anthropology and psychology. Here the soul is presented not as a divine connection to God, but as an essential part of being alive. It is the existence of the soul which distinguishes between a live and a dead body. Thus this second facet of the soul is not contained to humans alone, but encompasses all living things, creatures and plants. However Augustine does not explore this in great detail, preferring to focus his attention on rational souls within humans. Reason is a key characteristic of the human soul, as it is a sensory perception which is connected to what Augustine calls our ‘inner sense’, through which we are able to discover truth. Connected to this is the doctrine of illumination; if we by free choice remain open to God by grace, then He rewards us with an insight of true wisdom. Augustine described God in similar terms to Plato, despite the fact that in Plato’s case the Highest Good was a principle, not a personal being.
Augustine’s argument is that there is an innate thirst for truth, knowledge and happiness built within human nature. However this quest for knowledge is not just limited to the world, and sensory experience. He maintains that no matter how long we search, we never find complete wholeness, contentment and happiness on earth. We always want more; he argues that we will only find this happiness we seek when we turn our search to within us, instead of in the external world, and it is within us we find God. This illumination quenches our thirst and brings peace, ultimate knowledge and happiness. It is also a way by which souls can connect and unite, for when they enter the physical world there are alienated from each other by the body. This train of thought has roots in Socratic thought; to know thyself. 

On the surface this doctrine can be critiqued in the light that Augustine is not clear in the details of this illumination. This can weaken the validity of the soul’s evidence, for it could be said that Augustine is simply underestimating the freedom, independence and even the intelligence of humanity’s cognitive ability, placing such a strong reliance on God’s divine revelation, in order that we are truly satisfied intellectually.

However Augustine’s doctrine of illumination can be seen as logical and plausible by believers, as it consists of a Platonic and a Christian background combined with the study of human behaviour and nature. I can see also that there is a strong rational argument to Augustine’s doctrine; for he does not simply use religious belief to reach the conclusion of the soul. He instead gathers complex information from various sources involving the study and psychology of man and behavioural patterns, theories of Platonic philosophy and Christian belief, which fit together with a logical conclusion of the existence of the soul. It cannot be denied that as a species we are unique in that we are not content with the knowledge and the world around us. Animals live purely in the moment and in this world, however the human mind and curiosity is never satisfied. It is built within our nature to question, probe, and to want more than the world gives us. We innately believe that there exists something out there beyond the world, which is why we believe in religions, cults, new age etc. for this helps to satisfy this search. Mankind will never be completely happy or content until it can explain and conquer everything, even though there exists things which can never be explained and accounted for. Augustine recognised this need in man and logically connected it to a supernatural/spiritual realm, concluding that there is a link between mortal beings and the spiritual world which is intrinsically part of our being. He noted that socially constructed religions were not a necessary part in the equation, that it is part of man’s make up which renders them unsatisfied with knowledge on earth. The equation for Augustine goes as follows: this insatiable need in man + Greek rational philosophy + Christian belief in the afterlife and personal relationship with God = the existence of a soul within man which is not only a life force, but which has a spiritual and rational dimension to it as well.

The existence of the soul is also a logical conclusion for Augustine’s argument that although knowledge of God cannot be found in the physical world, millions of people still believe in the concept. In Augustine’s mind since the concept of God must have origins, the reality of God must exist, and the only other way to gain knowledge of this being is to look inside ourselves, to the divine connection within us. This rational conclusion to a religious premise can be further strengthened as Plato made a similar rational conclusion; that we can only know of the concept of perfection from within us as it does not exist in the physical world, and yet it is an accepted state.   

Interestingly both in Greek philosophy and Augustine’s work, the soul is indistinguishable from the spirit. It is an undeniable fact that there is a stark difference between a corpse and a live person. Not only does the heart cease beating, but at the time of death it is plain to see the departure of the person’s essence, their spirit, who they were. A corpse is not a dead person; it is their shell, their physical body. The person within has vanished, having moved on from this life. This is widely accepted, however here this essence is described as the soul, where usually the soul and the spirit is distinct. Platonic and consequently Augustinian thought named it the soul, which is present within each living thing, animal, plant and human. However the human being has the most advanced version of a soul which is capable of rational and religious understanding. This is an exploration of the existence of the soul not involving the theological, cognitive or rational aspects. It is referring to the undeniable core essence of a human being. Whether this argument can be considered evidence for the soul depends entirely on the acceptance of the premise that the soul is the life force of a person.

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