Animals’ souls by Jean Nakos

, par Pierre

Article reproduced from Jean Nakos’ blog - Christianity and animals

[Editor’s note : This article is based on the chapter "L’âme des animaux" in Jean Nakos’ booklet "Plaidoyer pour une Théologie de l’animal" (out of print), Lyon 2001.
Copyright : Jean Nakos, 2001]

What is the soul ? From Plato and Aristotle to C.S Lewis and Maimonides, all those who believe in the existence of the soul agree that it is the very principle of life. But since human stupidity knows no bounds, many have found it necessary to ask aberrant questions such as : do women have souls ? Do black people have a soul ? Do Indians have a soul ? Do slaves have a soul ?

Many distinguished Christians fell into this trap.

Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote things about women that astonish us today. So did the great Scottish reformer John Knox. When it comes to blacks, the situation is worse. Even today, in the United States, members of certain small Protestant sects continue to discuss the question of the existence of the soul in black people !

Under these conditions, it’s not surprising that Christians can answer the following question in the negative : Do animals have souls ? Yet neither the Bible nor dogma allows us to draw this conclusion. And among those who do acknowledge the existence of souls in animals, ambiguity is cultivated, as is the case with women and blacks.

Saint Augustine tells us that animal souls are "irrational. » Didymus of Alexandria, for his part, believes that animal souls are "corporeal" and "mortal. » Saint Thomas Aquinas, more subtle, teaches that the animal has a living soul, but that this soul is not "subsistent". Aristotle’s influence thus paved the way for the animal-machine doctrine of Descartes and, above all, his followers.

This is how the negative opinion came to appear in Christian philosophical and theological texts in the West, without, however, committing the Faith of the Churches. Other texts that deal with the human soul carefully avoid dealing with the animal soul.

The theory of the "corporeal, » « mortal, » and « non-subsistent » soul of animals, i.e., the Aristotelian-inspired theory of the "material" soul, combined with the doctrine of the animal-machine of Descartes and his followers, has led to today’s terrifying situation. Billions of animals are cruelly slaughtered every year in slaughterhouses after being shamelessly transported. Animals are treated absolutely like objects in intensive breeding and laboratories (for random, mostly useless, sometimes harmful research). Industrial hunting and poaching are also horrors and abominations.

By observing the unacceptable, Professor Lynn White felt compelled to judge the main spiritual force of the West, i.e. the Christian religion, and to conclude that the latter, especially in its Western form, is the most anthropocentric religion in the world (lecture to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, December 26, 1955).

It is possible to go further than Lynn White and say that the proponents of the theory of the "material soul" of animals have gone beyond anthropocentrism. Indeed, by asserting that only the human soul is "non-material, » these people have steered the Christian religion towards anthropolatry, towards an idolatrous cult in which Baal increasingly takes the form of a non-Christian human being. It is no longer man who is made in the image of God. It is God who is made in the image of man according to his likeness.

The arguments of the proponents of the "material" animal soul theory have another root in the rather scholastic translation of the Hebrew word "néfèch. » Western translators would not have taken into account the other terms used to designate the soul. Nor do proponents of the "material" soul theory consider the nuances of the following terms : néfèch, rouah, nechama, haya, yehida.

Thus, proponents of the material soul of animals assign the word "néfèch" to the animal’s soul, while the appropriate term is "néfèch haya, » which designates any living creature, human or animal. According to some experts, "haya" refers to the flow of energy through the body. According to others, it is the intuition of being.

The animal possesses the four modalities of being, designated by the terms néfèch, rouah, nechama, haya. It does not possess the modality designated by the term "yehida". According to Marc-Alain Ouaknin, according to Hebrew tradition, yehida designates the way of being unique to each human being. Each human being has his or her own vocation, which only he or she can fulfill. This is where resemblance to God lies (Cf Marc-Alain Ouaknin, "Tsimtsoum", Spiritualités vivantes, série judaïsme, Albin Michel, Paris 1992, pp 182-186).

However, we must not lose sight of the fact that, according to Maimonides, "all existing beings, except for the Creator, from the supreme form to the puny insect that lives on the surface of the earth, all exist only by virtue of the reality of God". (Maimonides, "The Book of Knowledge, » translation by V. Nikiprowetzky and André Zaair, P.U.F, Paris 1961, p. 42).

The many nuances of terms concerning the soul are of secondary interest here. The main point is that Holy Scripture teaches that there is a soul in animals, a non-material soul. The thesis of the non-existence of the soul in animals and that of the material soul are unbiblical theses. Jean Gaillard writes : "The distinctions made by medieval theologians - distinctions of a philosophical rather than a theological nature - can be considered arbitrary, the result of abstract thinking that takes no account of reality" (Jean Gaillard, "Les animaux nos humbles frères", Fayard, Paris 1986, pp. 66-67).

Recently, the Churches have shown some willingness to clarify the confusion surrounding the question of animal souls. Pope John Paul II’s January 19, 1990 declaration is significant in this regard. In a public audience, the Pontiff declared that animals too possess a soul, and that we human beings must feel solidarity with our younger brothers.

In saying this, Pope John Paul II is following and passing on biblical tradition. This statement, along with others that run counter to an anti-animal Catholic current, is indications of a certain awareness, at the highest level of the Catholic Church, of the fact that the uncritical following of the Aristotelian-inspired theses of certain theologians of great prestige has led humanity to suicidal anthropocentrism. [1]


[1Some current theologians, both Christian and Jewish (e.g., Professor Andrew Linzey of Oxford’s Faculty of Theology, an Anglican priest, and Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok of Lambeter University, a rabbi) go further, advocating a total break with Aristotelian-inspired theses.