Section 2

The General Definition of the Soul

by Avicenna

The 3 Classes of Spiritual Faculties


Some have one thing in common and differ in another.

The one in common is other than the one differed in.

Then we found compound ensouled bodies—I mean possessing souls—to have agreed and differed in the properties both of their impulsion and their perception.

As to impulsion, they agree and differ, in that one and all of them has in common that they move in quantity the motion of growth.

They differ, in that one set among them moves, together with that growth, in local motions according to the will; and one other sett among them does not so move, such as plants.

Likewise, living beings have in common that they are both sentient and perceptive, up to a certain sort of sensuous perception. Then afterwards, they differ in that one sett among them perceives, together with that sort of sensuous perception, by intellectual perception.

One other set among them does not so perceive, such as the ass and the horse.

The power of impulsion is more widely embracing than the power of perception.

  • We found plants to lack the power of perception utterly.

Hence we knew for certain that the faculty in which the animal agrees with the plant is more general than this perceptive faculty, and than the impelling faculty which is in the animal;

each one of them is more general than the speaking (rational) faculty, which belongs to man.

Thus, the spiritual faculties come forth (or stand out) before us set and ranged, in respect of the common and the peculiar, i.e., according to the general and special[C], under three classes or ranks:[D]

  1. The plant or vegetable power

This is participated by the animal and plant.

  1. The animal power

  2. The speaking power or rational faculty


What is the universal, absolute, generic soul?

This will become apparent, according to the tenets I hold, that among truths that are plainly manifest one is that every one of all natural bodies is compounded of “hyle” I mean matter, and of form.

As for hyle, one of its properties is that through it a natural body is affected (or acted upon) in its very self;

For example, the sword cuts because of its form of sharpness, not because of its iron.

  • It gets jagged because of its iron, not because of its form.

Another of those properties is that bodies do not differ through the hyle.

Earth does not differ from water through its matter, but through its form.[9]

Still another property is that the hyle or matter does not afford (supply, furnish) natural bodies their characteristics peculiarly belonging to them, save potentially; since in man, e.g., his humanity—his being man—is not actually derived from the four elements, save potentially.

As for the form, its peculiarity is

1.o that through it bodies put forth their actions (or perform their manifold deeds and workings) since a sword does not cut through its iron, but through, its sharpness; and

2.o that bodies differ one from the other only through their genus or kind, I mean the form, since earth does not differ from water save through its form, whereas in its matter it does not; and

3.o that natural bodies get (derive, acquire) their being what they in fact are from the form, since as to man, his being a man (his humanity) is in fact through his form, and not through his matter, which is of the 4 elements.

Let us proceed a little further.

A live body:

  • is a natural compound body that discriminates the non-living through its soul, and not through its body
  • performs multifarious animal works through its soul, and not through its body
  • is alive through its soul and not through its body
  • has its soul is within it.

What is within a thing, while this form of its continues, is its form [or, this its form being so and not otherwise, is etc.].

Thus, the soul is a form.

Forms are realized perfections (enteléchia), since through them the features (identities, characteristics) of things become perfect.

The soul, therefore is a perfection (realized identity).

Perfections (enteléchias) have 2 divisions:

  1. The principles underlying the doings and their effects, or
  2. The very doings and effects themselves.

In this sense the soul is a first perfection (or prime actuality); for it is a principle (source), not an outcome of a principle (source).

Both bodies and incorporeal substances have perfections. In this sense, the soul is a prime perfection attaching to a body.

Among bodies, there are such as are artificial, and such as are natural.

The soul is not a perfection of an artificial body.

Hence it is a prime perfection attaching to a natural body.

Again, among natural bodies there are such as perform their multifarious workings through organs (tools, instruments), and such as do not perform their workings through organs (tools); as, for example the simple bodies, and those acting through the prevalence (constraint) of the simple forces.

In other words, among natural bodies there are those whose design is, among other things, that they produce of themselves [whose task or business is to perform animal acts voluntarily, of their own will,] manifold animal actions; and there are those whose design is, among other things, not so to produce. Hence again, the soul is not a perfection attaching to the two last divisions in both the foregoing manners of statement. Therefore its full and finished definition is to say that—

It is a prime perfection (consummation, realization) attaching to an organic natural body.

A prime perfection attaching to a natural body having a life potentially (a first, perfection belonging to a natural body which body may have life) – a source of the manifold animal actions potentially (it is the source and origin of the deeds done by such beings as may be alive). Thus then we have divided (described) the generic soul, and defined it—which is what we had undertaken.


[C]Logical intension and extension.

[D]In this section the soul-powers are at first separated into Three Chief Classes; afterwards, in the following sections, each one of these is again sub-divided into several parts.

[E]Doctor S. Landauer, in the Notes to his German Translation, quotes fully from the Greek text of Aristotle’s «De Anima,» and comes to the conclusion that Ibn Sînâ has, in the first sub-section, given the contents of de anima II, chap. 3, but has changed the order of the ideas; and to the further conclusion that the second sub-section, dealing with the definition of the soul, is nothing more than an extract from de anima II, chap. 1.

[9]«differs, not through its matter, but through its form»: this resolves matter back to One Element; but he has already named Four, viz. Earth, Air, Fire, and Water; or rather he has declared the elements to be Four.


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