Superphysics Superphysics
Section 8

A Sketch of the Human Soul from the Starting-Point

by Avicenna
9 minutes  • 1841 words
Table of contents

A Sketch of the Human Soul from the Starting-Point whence it sets out until the End-Point whither it reaches its Perfection.

The speaking (rational) species of the [genus] animal is distinguished from the non-speaking (irrational species) by a power, through which it is enabled to imagine things rational, which power is called the speaking (rational) soul.

The custom has obtained of calling it the “hylik” mind, that is to say the potential mind, thus likening it to the hyle, which is potential matter.[J]

This power is found in the whole human species. It possesses in itself at the outset none of the mentally-grasped forms, but these arise within it after 2 sorts of processes:

  1. Through a Divine guidance, without effort of study, and without profitting from the senses

For example the mentally-grasped self-evident axioms, like our conviction that the whole is greater than the part, and that two contradictories (contrasts) do not come together at one time in one and the same thing; so that sane-minded adults share equally in the acquisition of such forms.

  1. Through earning [the mental thought or truth] by reasoning process, and by array of proof and demonstration.

Examples are the conception of logical truths, like genera, species, differentia, and properties, simple terms, and terms compounded in the various modes of compositions [of several ideas into one composite term], justly-moded syllogisms both valid and false, propositions which if moded into syllogisms lead to necessary demonstrated results, or to argumentative probable results, or to equally balanced rhetorical results, or to primary (axiomatical) sophistical results, or to impossible poetical results;[15] and such mentally-grasped forms as the recognition of the certainty of natural realities, like hyle (primitive matter) and form, privation (non-existence) and Nature, place and time, rest and motion, bulky bodies of the sky-firmament and bulky elemental bodies, absolute universal being and absolute nothingness, generation absolute and corruption absolute, origen of things generated that are within the sky, that are within the deepest depths of mines, and that are on the earth’s crust, amongst which last-named are plant and animal, the true conception “Man” and the truth of the soul’s conception of its own self;

Still further such mentally-grasped forms as the conception of ideas mathematical, amongst which are number, pure geometry, stellar geometry, harmonical or musical geometry, optical geometry; and again, further still, such ideas as the conception of divine affairs, like the knowledge of the principles of the absolute self-existent in so far as he exists per se, and of the principles consequently adhering to him, such as potentiality, power and efficiency, first cause and accounting cause, essence and accidens, genus and species, incompatibility and homogeneity, agreement and disagreement, unity and multiplicity; and, still further, the fixing of the principles of the speculative (theoretical) sciences, amongst which are the mathematical, the natural and the logical—all which cannot be attained save through this latter science;[16]

Still further, such as proving the first Creator and the first Created, the universal (generic) soul and how creation came about, the relative position of mind towards creation, and the relative position of soul towards mind, the relative position of hyle towards nature, and of forms towards the soul, the relative position of the skies, orbs, planets and all existing things towards hyle and towards form, and why and wherefore they differ so widely as they do as to forwards and backwards ([Greek: proteron kai hysteron: προτερον και ὑστερον]) of development;

The knowledge of the divine government, universal nature, primal providence, prophetic inspiration, the divine holy spirit, sublime angels, attaining to the certainty of the Creator’s being beyond all partnership and similitude [i.e. recognizing the truth that polytheism and anthropomorphism, are to be rejected]; and attaining to the knowledge of what rewards await the righteous, and what punishments impend the wicked, of the delight and the pain overtaking souls after their abandoning the bodies.

Further, this power which conceives these ideas does at times gain from sense forms mental, imaginative, and innate in (instinctive to) itself.

in such a case it does this in that it lays before itself the forms that are in the conceiving power and in the remembering (preserving) power, by employing the imaginative and the conjecturing power, and then contemplates them, and finds them to have participated in some forms and to have differed in some other forms; and finds some amongst the forms that are in these powers to be essential, and others to be accidental. And as to their participation in forms, it is like the participation of the form Richard and an ass, in the conceiver’s mind, in the idea of Life; and the differing of the two in the idea of speaking (rational), and non-speaking (brute).

As to the essential form, it is e.g. like the life that is in them both; as for the accidental, it is e.g. like their blackness and whiteness.

So that if we find the two aforesaid on this wise—i.e., as stated,—[the mind] makes each one of these essential and accidental, participated and peculiar forms, one universal mental form singly and alone, and thus through this working-over process, it gets at mental genera, species, differentia, properties, accidens;

then it combines these single notions into particular combinations; then into syllogistic argumentative combinations and deduces from them corollaries from the results—all which it gets through the service of the animal powers, with the help of universal mind, after the manner that we shall set forth later on, and through the intermediary of such necessary self-evident mental axioms as it has been endowed with.

Moreover this power, although it derives help from the sensuous power when getting out single mental forms from the sensuous forms, yet it does not need the sensuous power for conceiving these ideas (notions) within itself and for setting up syllogisms out of them, neither when affirming, nor when conceiving the two dicta [of abstraction & generalization], as we shall afterwards explain.

And to whatever extent it derives sensuous corollaries, for which there shall be need, through the said working-over process, yet it dispenses with the employment of the sensuous[Pg 74] powers, nay it is even sufficient for and in itself, for the carrying on of all its manifold activities.

And just as the sensuous powers perceive solely and wholly through an assimilation of that which is felt, so also do the mental powers perceive solely through and wholly through an assimilation of the mentally-grasped;

This assimilation is the abstraction of the form from matter, and the adhering to it; only that the feeling power does not get the sensuous form through willed motion and voluntary action on its part, but through the arrival of the very thing felt unto it, either by chance or through the intermediary of the motion-promoting power, and laying bare of the forms unto it (abstraction) through the help of the media that connect the forms with it; whereas, in the case of the mental power, (Reason Understanding) this process is otherwise; for by and through itself it at times does itself perform the abstraction (laying bare) of the form from matter as often as it wills, and then clings unto it.

This is why it is said that:

  • the sentient power is more or less passive in its conception [or, that the feeling power is after a fashion acted upon when it conceives]
  • the mental (understanding) power is active
  • the sentient power cannot do without instruments (organs), and has in itself no efficiency; and how is it[Pg 75] possible to apply such a statement (proposition) to the mental (understanding) power?

The mind (Understanding, Reason) is wholly and solely nothing else than the forms of mentally-grasped things, if these be arrayed in the very mind potentially, and through it they are brought out to effective action; and hence it is said that the mind is in fact and deed at once both understanding and understood.

Amongst the properties of the understanding power is this, that it unifies the many and multiplies the one through analysis and synthesis. As to multiplication, it is such as the analysis of one man into essence, body, nourishment-getting, animal, speaking (rational). As to unification of the many, it is such as the composition (synthesis) of this one man out of essence, body, animal, speaking (rational) into one notion which is mankind (human being).

Moreover the mind, although it applies its activity within a duration of time in arranging syllogisms, through using reflection, yet the result itself, which this reflection obtains, and which is the fruit of thought and the end sought after, is not dependant upon time, nor is it obtained save at an instant; nay more than this, the mind itself is wholly above and beyond all time.

The reasoning (speaking) soul, if it engages itself upon the sciences, its activity is called mind or intellect, and it is accordingly called speculative or theoretical mind: which I have already described.

If it engages itself upon overcoming blameworthy powers, that entice unto wrongdoing through their excess, unto folly through their abandonment, unto impetuosity through their agitation, unto cowardice through their indifference or lukewarmness, or unto wickedness through their excitement, or unto degeneration through their smouldering, and leads them over into the paths of wisdom, endurance, chastity—in short unto righteousness, then its activity is called ruling or governing,

It is accordingly called practical mind or reason.

Again, the reasoning (speaking) power is sometimes so fitted out in a few persons through[K]vigils and conjunction with the universal mind as to be quite independent of taking refuge unto syllogistic argument and reflection, but rather is sufficiently stored with inspiration and revelation to render it wholly absolved from such ordinary means as mental ratiocination: this peculiar property of the reasoning mind is called hallowedness or sanctity, and it is accordingly called Holy Ghost. Unto such a favoured rank and degree none shall attain save prophets and apostles, upon whom be peace and blessing.


[J] Avicenna in his “Kitâb-ul-Najât” says: «Indeed it has been called «hylik» by way of likening it to primitive hylik matter, which in itself has no form at all and yet is the substratum of each and every form.»

[15]This passage as to syllogisms and conclusions may be made clearer by rendering it thus:—«which, if arranged syllogistically, allow of getting to conclusions that are (a) necessarily true and valid, viz. apodictic; (b) most always true, viz. dialectic; (c) both true and false, viz. rhetorical; (d) preponderantly false, viz. sophistical; and (e) merely false, viz. poetical.»

[16]In his «Najât» Ibn Sînâ says of this science:

«Logic is the theoretical speculative science that teaches out of which forms and materials there will come about satisfying argumentation, of which argumentation that which is strong, and imposes an assertion resembling certainty, is called dialectic; and that which is weak thereof, and imposes a prevailing opinion, is called rhetorical.»

His compendious Essay on Logic remains to this day one of the clearest and best that beginners can find in the Arabic language on this abstract science of the Laws of Thought.

[K]fasting, prayer, night-watchings.

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