World soul

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The world soul ( Latin anima mundi , Greek  ψυχή τοῦ παντός psychḗ tou pantós ) is a religious and natural philosophical concept. It is based on the idea of ​​an analogy between the totality of the cosmos and the individual living being, especially humans. The universe as a macrocosm should be structured analogously to the human being, the microcosm . A soul is assumed for both of them as the principle of life and movement . Just as one imagines an individual living being to be animated and animated by its individual soul, the cosmos is understood as a living organism equipped with its own soul.



The term “world soul” was coined by Plato . In his dialogue Timaeus he developed a theory of the animation of the world. He described the world soul as self-moving; in their own movement he saw their main characteristic. He considered it necessary for two reasons. First, he believed that a principle on which movement in general can be traced was necessary; In his late work Nomoi he emphasized that the world soul is the cause of all movement in nature. He attributed the movements in heaven to them as well as those on earth. Second, he needed the world soul as the principle by means of which he linked the reason prevailing in the cosmos with world matter.

According to the myth told in Timaeus , the Demiurge , the world creator, created the world soul together with the cosmos. The demiurge did this by mixing different things in a mixing jug in a complex, four-step process. From indivisible and divisible being he formed a third form of being, from indivisible and divisible identical a third form of the identical, from indivisible and divisible different a third form of the different. He then combined these three mixtures in a fourth step to form the world soul. Thanks to this mixture, the world soul contains elements of everything and is thereby enabled to perceive and recognize everything. It is entitled to rule over the world body, just as the individual soul of the individual is entitled to rule over his body. The world soul penetrates and surrounds the body of the cosmos, its matter. It is the mediating authority between the purely spiritual world of ideas and the physical world body.

In the Nomoi Plato tested the hypothetical possibility that the world soul can also produce bad things or that there are two world souls, one of which does good and the other bad. Since the celestial movements are ordered and can therefore be described mathematically, he ruled out this possibility, because he was convinced that a bad world soul could only create chaos. From this it emerged for him that the world soul, as the administrator of the entire cosmos, must be the best soul. However, according to the Platonic philosophy of nature, for the orderly movement of reason, the nous . The nous, which is represented in the Timaeus by the demiurge, directs the world soul from outside as a higher authority. - The relationship of the world soul to reason raised questions that were not finally clarified by Plato. The problems of the world soul concept, which were not solved in his works, were discussed in later Platonism, with the Platonists arriving at different results. Among other things, it was about the question of whether the world soul also has its own reason or only behaves reasonably thanks to external guidance.

In Middle Platonism an attempt was made to trace the existence of evil back to a lack of the world soul. Plutarch took a dualistic position. Since good is mixed with bad in the sensible world, he adopted two opposing principles (archaí) and opposing forces (dynámeis) . One of the forces leads in the right direction, the other in the wrong. The negative force can normally only have an effect in the area below the lunar sphere, especially on earth; the area of ​​the sky beyond the lunar orbit is actually free from badness, but can be infected by it in certain periods of world events. Plutarch identified the negative principle with the original soul ("soul in itself", soul in its original state, world soul). This is by nature unreasonable, moves in a disorderly manner and is only oriented towards the good thanks to the rule of the regulating reason (which it constantly opposes) . Plutarch regarded the world soul as inextricably linked to the world matter belonging to it and animated by it. The Middle Platonist Numenios taught a similar dualism . He regarded good God and evil matter as equally original and assumed a bad world soul in which he saw the origin of evil. The effects of the bad that is inherent in the world soul and the matter animated by it can be felt in the entire cosmos.

In Neoplatonism, on the other hand, the world soul was counted among the perfect elements of the spiritual world. It was considered the lowest of the three hierarchically ordered "natures" or, as one used to say later, hypostases , which make up the spiritual world. Plotinus , the founder of the Neoplatonic tradition, said that the world soul differs from the individual souls in that it is constantly aligned with the spirit ( nous ) and always connected to its body, while the alignment and the body relationship of the individual souls are subject to changes. By animating the cosmos, she gives it divine quality. The interest of the ancient Neo-Platonists was mainly directed towards the individual soul and its fate; They discussed the world soul almost exclusively in the context of the Timaeus commentary.

Non-Platonic Traditions

Aristotle rejected the Platonic concept of the world soul and in particular rejected the idea that it not only moves, but is also itself in constant motion.

Derived from the Platonic concept, but greatly modified, was the Stoics' view of the animation of the world. They assumed an active fiery principle pervading the whole cosmos, the pneuma . With this they connected the idea that the world was an animated, immortal, divine living being, to which they ascribed senses and reason. They viewed the individual souls as parts of the world soul. For the Stoics, however, the world soul was not, as in Platonism, an independently existing spiritual substance with a certain rank and a special task in the hierarchical world order, but only a certain aspect of a unified, corporeal world. This materialistic, "physical" view competed with the spiritual one of the Platonists.

Judaism and Christianity

The idea of ​​a world soul was originally completely alien to Judaism and therefore also to ancient Christianity. This is why the Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria , who was strongly influenced by Platonism, wanted to use it only as a metaphor . The concept also found no approval with the various currents of Gnosticism ; only the particularly syncretistically oriented Manichaeism took it up. The Manicheans, however, did not regard the world soul as naturally associated with the world body like the Platonics and the Stoics, but considered their stay in the material world to be the result of a catastrophe, which, like the individual souls, could be reversed through redemption.

Among the ancient church fathers, Augustine , who, before his conversion, had initially confessed to Manichaeism and then to Neoplatonism, stood out for his positive relationship to the idea of ​​a soulfulness in the world. He considers it to be a bold hypothesis that can neither be reasonably proven nor derived from the Bible, but which may be correct. In his Consolatio philosophiae in the 6th century, Boethius expressly acknowledged the idea of ​​the “all-moving soul” of the world.

middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, the Platonic idea of ​​a soulfulness of the cosmos was known from some ancient works that were very popular at the time. In addition to the Consolatio philosophiae of Boethius, these included the Timaios commentary by Calcidius , the commentary by Macrobius on the Somnium Scipionis Ciceros and Virgil's Aeneid . In the 9th century, the Christian philosopher Johannes Scottus Eriugena , who was orientated towards the Neo- Platon, professed his idea of ​​the liveliness of the whole world.

In the 11th century, the Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol (Avencebrol, Avicebron), who lives in Spain , also adopted the idea of ​​a world soul as part of his reception of Neoplatonism.

In the 12th century the world soul theme was taken up again. The Platonist Wilhelm von Conches , who commented on the Timaeus , called the world soul an invigorating "natural force" and wrote that it was created at the same time as the world. He cautiously related it to the Holy Spirit, renewing a reflection that had already appeared in antiquity . However, he did not identify them ontologically with the Holy Spirit (which would be theologically problematic because of its imperfection), but left the question of their relationship to the third person of the Trinity expressly open. Petrus Abelardus emphasized that the Platonic doctrine of the world soul was not meant in concrete terms, but only as a parable; otherwise, in his opinion, it would be stupid. Nevertheless, his opponents assumed that he had ascribed a real existence to the world soul and identified it with the Holy Spirit; this alleged assertion by Abelard was ecclesiastically condemned in 1140. The influential theologians Bernhard von Clairvaux and Wilhelm von Saint-Thierry emphatically opposed the equation of the world soul with the Holy Spirit.

Early modern age

The philosopher and theologian Nikolaus von Kues (1401–1464) stands at the transition from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period . In his work De docta ignorantia he deals with the Platonic conception of the world soul. He regards the world soul as a "universal form" that is inherent in things but does not exist independently outside of them. He does not equate them with the Holy Spirit, but considers them to be his "unfolding". His younger contemporary Marsilio Ficino shares the Platonic conviction that the whole world is animated, as does Giovanni Pico della Mirandola , but these thinkers keep away from a pantheistic interpretation of this concept. The supporters of the world soul idea also include Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535), Gerolamo Cardano (1501–1576), for whom the world soul manifests itself in warmth, and Francesco Patrizi da Cherso (1529–1597).

Giordano Bruno is also of the opinion that one encounters soul and life in all things and that the soul, as the form of all things, orders and rules matter everywhere. He emphasizes the aspect of God's immanence in the world more than his predecessors . He attributes a “universal reason” ( intelletto universale ) to the world soul, which he describes as the general form of the universe , which he equates with the effective cause of the universe. He thinks that the world soul is everywhere, but its omnipresence is to be understood in a spiritual sense, not physically or in terms of expansion. Bruno only partially received the Neoplatonic tradition, but understood the world soul as a mediating authority.

In the 17th century, in the course of the increasing "mechanization of the worldview", the conventional panpsychistic conception of nature of the "naturalists" (natural philosophers) was either radically rejected or ignored by prominent thinkers and scientists. With the idea that the whole world is animated, the idea of ​​a world soul is also rejected. Marin Mersenne sees the world soul as a pure fantasy. As early as 1611/12, the poet John Donne lamented the "death" of the world soul in his poem An Anatomy of the World . The world soul motif continues to be well received in anti-Aristotelian natural philosophy, especially with Robert Fludd .

The world soul is artistically represented as a naked goddess, whose head is surrounded by a wreath of stars. On a wood engraving from the 17th century you can see her on a globe, with one foot in the water (sea) and one foot on the earth. The right breast is decorated with a star, the left with a sun, the pubic triangle with a moon. Representations of the world soul can mainly be found in alchemical books and grimoires .

In the Age of Enlightenment , the world soul is mostly viewed as a fantasy. Hermann Samuel Reimarus describes it as an invention resulting from ignorance that cannot explain anything. One defender of the world soul concept, however, is Salomon Maimon († 1800). He considers the world soul to be a substance created by God and interprets it metaphysically as a finite universal form. In his opinion, this understanding of the world soul is compatible with the scientific knowledge of his time.

In 1790 Immanuel Kant defined hylozoism as the physical variant of the realism of the expediency of nature. This realism bases "the ends in nature on the analogue of a faculty acting according to intention , the life of matter (in it, or through an invigorating inner principle, a world soul)". Accordingly, for Kant, the world soul is a physical, inner-worldly principle of the explanation of the usefulness of nature by an in itself being, in contrast to the assumption of a divine being that brings about intentionally according to the "hyperphysical" explanation offered by theism . The theory of the world soul describes the relationship between the world and God as a community (commercium) based on the model of the community of body and soul. In the Opus Postumum Kant defines the organic natural body as a machine, that is, as a body intentionally formed according to its form. According to his reflection, however, "having an intention can never be a faculty of matter". Thus, such a body “cannot get its organization solely from the moving forces of matter”. So a "simple, and therefore immaterial, whether as part of the sense world, or a being different from it, must be accepted as a mover outside or in this body". Kant considers it impossible to decide whether this being has “as a world soul” as it were, or only a “faculty analogous to the understanding”. In a reflection on anthropology , Kant considers the possibility of reducing what is common in human intellectual abilities to participation in such an overarching body. The “unity of the world soul” could be the explanation. Kant starts from the idea that the human spirit “goes towards the general” and is thus “drawn from the general spirit”.


Schelling took up the term “Weltseele” and even made it the subject of his work Von der Weltseele (1798). However, he only understood it as a metaphor for an organizing principle which, in his view, continuously connects organic and inorganic nature and links all of nature into a general organism . He attributed to the ancient philosophers an inkling of this principle, which led them to think of a world soul. Goethe , who valued Schelling and knew his writing about the world soul, renamed his poem World Creation , printed in 1803 for the first time, under the influence of his reading of Schelling, to world soul . In his poem Eins und Alles , composed in 1821, Goethe also referred to the world soul: world soul, come to penetrate us! It was about the experience of the unity and vitality of nature.

In romantic literature , in which “soul” is one of the key terms, the expression “world soul” occurs frequently, especially in Novalis . In 1800 Friedrich Schlegel wrote a poem Die Weltseele . Here we have a poetic usage that does not claim to be philosophical unambiguity.

Hegel (right) and Napoleon in Jena 1806. Illustration from Harper's Magazine , 1895

Hegel rarely used the term “world soul”. In a letter to Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer dated October 13, 1806, in which he reported on the occupation of Jena by Napoleon's troops , he wrote: (...); I saw the emperor - this world soul - ride out through the city to reconnoiter; - It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who is concentrated here on one point, sitting on a horse, reaching out over the world and ruling it. In his Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences in Outline he stated that the “general soul” need not be fixed as a world soul, as it were, as a subject , for it is only the general substance, which has its real truth only as individuality, subjectivity.

The American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) used the term "oversoul"; he described the all-soul as the life principle of nature and as a unity in which the individual existence of every human being is contained and united with all others. Another proponent of the idea of ​​the soulfulness of the cosmos was the natural philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887), an outsider in the scientific community at the time.

The Russian religious philosopher Wladimir Sergejewitsch Solowjew (1853–1900), who was influenced by Schelling, took up Gnostic ideas by assuming a collapse of the world soul; it fell out of the center of the all-unity of the divine existence into the periphery of the created multiplicity . In doing so, she had alienated herself from her own being and dragged all of creation down into disorder. Evil, the fruit of which is suffering, has arisen from the chaos that this creates.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) imagined the world soul as a collective reservoir of mental contents from human history to which the individual human souls would have access. The interpretation of Carl Gustav Jung , who related the concept of the world soul to the “collective unconscious” common to the individual souls , also aims in this direction .

"Anima Mundi" is the title of a 1992 animal film by Godfrey Reggio .


  • Ludwig Ott : The Platonic world soul in the theology of early scholasticism . In: Kurt Flasch (Ed.): Parusia. Studies on the philosophy of Plato and the history of problems in Platonism. Festival ceremony for Johannes Hirschberger . Frankfurt am Main 1965, pp. 307-331
  • Mischa von Perger: The all-soul in Plato's Timaeus . Teubner, Stuttgart / Leipzig 1997, ISBN 3-519-07645-4
  • Heinz Robert Schlette : World soul. History and hermeneutics . Knecht, Frankfurt am Main 1993, ISBN 3-7820-0661-5
  • Henning Ziebritzki : Holy Spirit and World Soul. The problem of the third hypostasis in Origen, Plotinus, and their predecessors . Mohr, Tübingen 1994, ISBN 3-16-146087-1

Web links

Wiktionary: Weltseele  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. ^ Plato, Timaeus 29e – 37c.
  2. Plato, Laws 896a-897c.
  3. Plato, Nomoi 896d-899b. See Klaus Schöpsdau (translator): Plato: Nomoi (laws) Book VIII – XII. Translation and commentary , Göttingen 2011, p. 416 f.
  4. Michael Bordt : Weltseele. In: Christian Schäfer (Ed.): Platon-Lexikon , Darmstadt 2007, pp. 320–322, here: 321 f. See Michael Bordt: Platons Theologie , Freiburg / München 2006, pp. 222–226; John M. Dillon : The Heirs of Plato , Oxford 2003, pp. 22-26, 51-54, 172-174, 185-193; John M. Dillon: The Middle Platonists , London 1977, pp. 45 f., 83, 202-208, 254, 284, 287, 289, 374 f.
  5. On Plutarch's view, see Heinrich Dörrie , Matthias Baltes : Der Platonismus in der Antike , Volume 4: The philosophical teaching of Platonism , Stuttgart 1996, pp. 162–164 (source text and translation) and pp. 399–406, 458–465 ( Comment).
  6. On this view of Numenios see Heinrich Dörrie, Matthias Baltes: Der Platonismus in der Antike , Volume 4: The philosophical teaching of Platonism , Stuttgart 1996, pp. 124–127, 164–173 (source text and translation) and p. 466– 471 (comment).
  7. On the position of Aristotle see Heinz Robert Schlette: Weltseele. History and Hermeneutics , Frankfurt am Main 1993, pp. 80–85.
  8. ^ Heinz Robert Schlette: World soul. History and Hermeneutics , Frankfurt am Main 1993, pp. 118–122.
  9. Boethius, Consolatio philosophiae 3 m. 9, 13-14; this poem in the Consolatio is based on Plato's Timaeus .
  10. Virgil, Aeneis 6, 726 f.
  11. ^ Karl-Hermann Kandler : Nikolaus von Kues , 2nd edition, Göttingen 1997, p. 85 f.
  12. Images are provided by CG Jung: Psychologie und Alchemie ( Collected Works , Volume 12), Olten 1972, pp. 66 and 223.
  13. Immanuel Kant: Critique of Judgment . In: Kant's works (Academy edition), Volume 5, Berlin 1913, pp. 165–485, here: 392.
  14. Immanuel Kant: Reflections on Metaphysics. In: Kant's works (Academy edition), Volume 18, Berlin / Leipzig 1928, p. 551.
  15. Immanuel Kant: Opus postumum. In: Kant's works (Academy edition), Volume 22, Berlin / Leipzig 1938, p. 548.
  16. Immanuel Kant: Reflections on Anthropology. In: Kant's works (Academy edition), Volume 15/1, pp. 55–493, here: 416. Cf. Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter: Weltseele. In: Marcus Willaschek u. a. (Ed.): Kant-Lexikon , Volume 3, Berlin 2015, p. 2628.
  17. Schelling: From the world soul . In: Schelling: Works , Vol. 6, ed. Jörg Jantzen, Stuttgart 2000, p. 257.
  18. Johannes Hoffmeister (Ed.): Letters from and to Hegel , Vol. 1: 1785–1812 , 3rd, reviewed edition, Hamburg 1969, pp. 119–121, here: 120.
  19. Wolfgang Bonsiepen, Hans-Christian Lucas (ed.): Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse (1830) (= Collected Works , Vol. 20), Hamburg 1992, p. 390.
  20. Monika Fick : world of the senses and world soul. The psychophysical monism in the literature of the turn of the century , Tübingen 1993, pp. 41–44.
  21. See Johannes Madey : Wladimir Sergejewitsch Solowjew and his doctrine of the world soul , Diss. Munich 1961, p. 131 ff.
  22. CG Jung: Psychologie und Alchemie ( Collected Works Vol. 12), Olten 1972, p. 221.