The English word spirit (from Latin spiritus “breath“) has many differing meanings and connotations, most of them relating to a non-corporeal substance contrasted with the material body. The word spirit is often used metaphysically to refer to the consciousness or personality. The notions of a person’s spirit and soul often also overlap, as both contrast with body and both are understood as surviving the bodily death in religion and occultism, and “spirit” can also have the sense of “ghost“, i.e. a manifestation of the spirit of a deceased person.
The term may also refer to any incorporeal or immaterial being, such as demons or deities, in Christianity specifically the Holy Spirit (though with a capital “S”) experienced by the disciples at Pentecost.
The English word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning “breath“, but also “spirit, soul, courage, vigor”, ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European *(s)peis. It is distinguished from Latin anima, “soul” (which nonetheless also derives from an Indo-European root meaning “to breathe”, earliest form *h2enh1– ). In Greek, this distinction exists between pneuma (πνευμα), “breath, motile air, spirit,” and psykhē (ψυχη), “soul” (even though the latter term, ψῡχή = psykhē/psūkhē, is also from an Indo-European root meaning “to breathe”: *bhes-, zero grade *bhs- devoicing in proto-Greek to *phs-, resulting in historical-period Greek ps- in psūkhein, “to breathe”, whence psūkhē, “spirit”, “soul”).
The word “spirit” came into Middle English via Old French. The distinction between soul and spirit also developed in the Abrahamic religions: Arabic nafs (نفس) opposite rúħ (روح); Hebrew neshama (נְשָׁמָה nəšâmâh) or nephesh (in Hebrew neshama comes from the root NŠM or “breath”) opposite ruach (רוּחַ rûaħ). (Note, however, that in Semitic just as in Indo-European, this dichotomy has not always been as neat historically as it has come to be taken over a long period of development: Both נֶ֫פֶשׁ (root נפשׁ) and רוּחַ (root רוח), as well as cognate words in various Semitic languages, including Arabic, also preserve meanings involving misc. air phenomena: “breath”, “wind”, and even “odour”.)
Metaphysical and metaphorical uses
English-speakers use the word “spirit” in two related contexts, one metaphysical and the other metaphorical.
In metaphysical terms, “spirit” has acquired a number of meanings:
- An incorporeal but ubiquitous, non-quantifiable substance or energy present individually in all living things. Unlike the concept of souls (often regarded as eternal and sometimes believed to pre-exist the body) a spirit develops and grows as an integral aspect of a living being. This concept of the individual spirit occurs commonly in animism. Note the distinction between this concept of spirit and that of the pre-existing or eternal soul: belief in souls occurs specifically and far less commonly, particularly in traditional societies. One might more properly term this type/aspect of spirit “life” (bios in Greek) or “aether” rather than “spirit” (pneuma in Greek).
- A daemon sprite, or especially a ghost. People usually conceive of a ghost as a wandering spirit from a being no longer living, having survived the death of the body yet maintaining at least vestiges of mind and of consciousness.
- In religion and spirituality, the respiration of a human has for obvious reasons become seen as strongly linked with the very occurrence of life. A similar significance has become attached to human blood. Spirit, in this sense, means the thing that separates a living body from a corpse—and usually implies intelligence, consciousness, and sentience.
- Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith Jr. taught that the concept of spirit as incorporeal or without substance was incorrect: “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes.”
- In some Native American spiritual traditions the Great Spirit or Wakan Tanka is a term for the Supreme Being.
- Various forms of animism, such as Japan’s Shinto and African traditional religion, focus on invisible beings that represent or connect with plants, animals (sometimes called “Animal Fathers)”, or landforms (kami): translators usually employ the English word “spirit” when trying to express the idea of such entities.
- Individual spirits envisaged as interconnected with all other spirits and with “The Spirit” (singular and capitalized). This concept relates to theories of a unified spirituality, to universal consciousness and to some concepts of Deity. In this scenario all separate “spirits”, when connected, form a greater unity, the Spirit, which has an identity separate from its elements plus a consciousness and intellect greater than its elements; an ultimate, unified, non-dual awareness or force of life combining or transcending all individual units of consciousness. The experience of such a connection can become a primary basis for spiritual belief. The term spirit occurs in this sense in (to name but a few) Anthroposophy, Aurobindo, A Course In Miracles, Hegel, Ken Wilber, and Meher Baba (though in his teachings, “spirits” are only apparently separate from each other and from “The Spirit.”) In this use, the term seems conceptually identical to Plotinus’s “The One” and Friedrich Schelling’s “Absolute“. Similarly, according to the panentheistic/pantheistic view, Spirit equates to essence that can manifest itself as mind/soul through any level in pantheistic hierarchy/holarchy, such as through a mind/soul of a single cell (with very primitive, elemental consciousness), or through a human or animal mind/soul (with consciousness on a level of organic synergy of an individual human/animal), or through a (superior) mind/soul with synergetically extremely complex/sophisticated consciousness of whole galaxies involving all sub-levels, all emanating (since the superior mind/soul operates non-dimensionally, or trans-dimensionally) from the one Spirit.
- Christian theology can use the term “Spirit” to describe God, or aspects of God — as in the “Holy Spirit“, referring to a Triune God (Trinity)(cf Gospel of Matthew 28:19).
- “Spirit” forms a central concept in pneumatology (note that pneumatology studies “pneuma” (Greek for “spirit”) not “psyche” (Greek for “soul”) — as studied in psychology).
- Christian Science uses “Spirit” as one of the seven synonyms for God, as in: “Principle; Mind; Soul; Spirit; Life; Truth; Love”
- Harmonism reserves the term “spirit” for those that collectively control and influence an individual from the realm of the mind.
The metaphorical use of the term likewise groups several related meanings:
See soul and ghost and spiritual for related discussions.
Related concepts in other languages
Similar concepts in other languages include Greek pneuma and Sanskrit akasha/atman (see also prana). Some languages use a word for “spirit” often closely related (if not synonymous) to “mind“. Examples include the German Geist (related to the English word “ghost”) or the French ‘l’esprit’. English versions of the Bible most commonly translate the Hebrew word “ruach” (רוח; “wind”) as “the spirit”, whose essence is divine (see Holy Spirit and ruach hakodesh). Alternatively, Hebrew texts commonly use the word nephesh. Kabbalists regard nephesh as one of the five parts of the Jewish soul, where nephesh (animal) refers to the physical being and its animal instincts. Similarly, Scandinavian languages, Baltic languages, Slavic languages and the Chinese language (qi) use the words for “breath” to express concepts similar to “the spirit”.
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