Aristotle's de anima

A summary of Aristotle's view on the soul

Urfan Ul Hassan
October 2023

Aristotle, "The Philosopher", does not need any lengthy introduction. You (should) have heard about him. To briefly comment on why his teachings are important, not only for history, science and philosophy, but for yourself: Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle, and by the age of 30, Alexander had conquered the world. He did this by first conquering himself through the teachings of Aristotle. Understanding and applying some of the principles of Aristotle, especially on virtue ethics, can give a flourishing life.

"I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self." -Aristotle

Aristotle’s methodology  

Aristotle’s methodology was mostly experimental and systematic. He had an axiomatic and deductive approach in his investigations; such an approach derives conclusions from premises that are necessarily true (logic). However, he also believed that there existed “first principles”, meaning that there are certain things one must assume to be true; an example of a “first principle” is the principle of non-contradiction: something cannot possess an ability or attribute, and not possess it at the same time; any scientific investigation must presuppose this principle to be true. The method of discovering the “first principles” is through an inductive type of reasoning; Aristotle believed that the human mind could draw true general conclusions from few, but systematic observations. Therefore, the assumption that humans can use induction to gain certainty about the world is a fundamental starting point. 

Aristotle & The Four Causes

Aristotle described four types of causes or explanations for things: 

Material: The matter of something explains material causes; photosynthesis is a process that is possible because of the material plants consist of. 

Efficient: Efficient causes refer to causes that change/move something else; the sun is the efficient cause for photosynthesis. 

Formal: The formal causes refer to the essence or form of a thing as the explanation; Socrates contemplated because it is in the nature of human beings to reason and think. 

Final: Aristotle believed that all living things were moving toward their end purpose; all things are continuously attempting to actualize their forms; a seed’s purpose is to grow into a plant or a tree, and human beings’ purpose is to grow the soul by way of reason and virtue.

Substance, Form and Matter  

Aristotle developed a theory about what it means to be, or to exist. In his work called Categories, Aristotle concludes that in existence there are substances that are primary and secondary; primary refers to substances that exist independently of other things, while secondary substances are dependent entities. The primary substances can undergo change. An example of primary substance would be an individual human being, and the secondary substance would be him or her being part of the animal kingdom. Furthermore, Aristotle argued that there existed form and matter; the form or essence of a thing is what is generally characteristic of that thing, for example that human beings have the ability to reason. Form and matter are dependent upon each other, but the form is actualized through matter. Finally, Aristotle concluded that all living things have an end goal; they are continuously attempting to actualize their innate potential; for example, a tree is an actualization of a seed’s potential.  


De Anima – On the Soul 

De Anima is Aristotle’s major work in which he investigates the nature of the soul. The investigation uses many of the metaphysical concepts from his previous works; Aristotle argued that soul and body have a relationship like matter and form, and like potentiality and actuality. Soul is the form, and the body is the matter; these co-exist in a mutually dependent relationship. Aristotle argued that the soul is what causes something to become alive, in other words actualizes bodily matter to life. However, the soul not only causes life, but also plays a crucial role in whether an organism flourishes in life or not. The flourishing is dependent on the nature of the living organism:

Aristotle identified three types of soul: the vegetative, animal and human soul. The vegetative soul is characterized by its ability to take in nutrition and grow; the animal soul by sense perception and movement; the human soul by the previously mentioned abilities, but also by reason and will. This means that for plants, to flourish (“be happy” - or to “live well”) would be to optimally take in nutrition and reach their biological potential. For the animal soul, it would be to develop good sense perception and movement. For humans, it would be to think, to engage in philosophy, and to reason well.

Aristotle used his theory on the soul to develop a practical philosophy such that both human beings and societies could flourish; one of the most important works written by Aristotle is the Nichomachean Ethics, in which he presents a practical understanding of virtue ethics and what it means to live well for human beings. As we have seen, the question of living well, or eudaimonia (to flourish), is about the soul actualizing its potential. Human beings’ soul is characterized by the ability to think and reason, this means that if human beings do not develop or use this ability to its fullest potential, then human beings will not flourish in life. Thus, for a human to flourish, he or she must:

  • 1) practice philosophy

  • 2) practice virtuous behavior

This is because philosophy and virtue is the highest expression of the human soul. Aristotle identifies many virtues, to name a few: courage, friendliness, truthfulness and temperance. See article on Aristotle and the 12 virtues.