Pre-existent Souls?

Source: A.A. Long, “Roman Philosophy,” The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 210.

“Tertullian in his work On the Soul draws heavily on Stoicism, aligning himself against Plato with the Stoics’ identification of the soul with ‘breath’ and also with that school’s doctrine that the soul originates at birth.”

Did we pre-exist? That’s something I’ve always wondered. Suppose I were not born to my parents, either because they didn’t meet or the James Pate sperm didn’t make it to my mom’s egg. Would my soul be someplace else? Because I have an elevated sense of my own importance (unfortunately), I’d like to think I’m not the product of chance or other people’s decisions.

Plato believed that the soul is immortal, meaning it pre-existed our birth and survives our death. He talks about this in Phaedo and the Republic. But the Stoics apparently maintained that our existence originated at birth, and the Christian father Tertullian picked that up. I wonder what other Christians thought about this issue.

What’s the Bible say about this? The King James Version of Ecclesiastes 12:7 states that “the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” Is the spirit the soul? Or is it the breath of life, which God gave to each human being when he animated him or her in the womb? Maybe it can be either one.

In either case, God is intimately involved in our creation, meaning we’re not accidents, whether our souls pre-existed our births or not.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to Pre-existent Souls?

  1. Michael says:

    I’m not sure if Plato believed this exactly but I believe that time as we understand and experience it is a result of our mind.

    In other words the time before we were born and after we die doesn’t take any part in our physical/phenomenal reality, the shadows on the cave wall.

    Therefore we could suggest that in any attempt to discuss the soul in terms of relative before or after our deaths would lead to strange answers like infinity.


  2. Michael says:

    I just thought of another interpretation.

    I think the Neoplatonists might have argued that our actions in the world emanates from the soul and touch other souls.

    For example, you exist in my mind. After you die, I may still remember this conversation.

    Obviously I barely know you. A much better example would be your immediate family.

    If you are survived by your family, part of your soul carries on as part of their soul.

    And in that same token, our souls may pre-exist in the sense that rather than every human being 100% completely unique, we tend to have a lot in common, like culture, and therefore our souls in many ways are composites of many of the souls that have come before.

    That’s two rational ways the soul can pre-date birth and survive death.


  3. James Pate says:

    I don’t know. What you said reminds me of Maimonides’ view on the afterlife–we go to a soup of souls.


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