Catholic Encyclopedia: Spirit
(Lat. , , "to breathe"; Gk. ; Fr. ; Ger. ).
As these names show, the principle of life was often represented under the figure of a
breath of air. The breath is the most obvious symptom of life, its cessation the
invariable mark of death; invisible and impalpable, it stands for the unseen mysterious
force behind the vital processes. Accordingly we find the word "spirit" used in several
different but allied senses: (1) as signifying a living, intelligent, incorporeal being, such
as the soul; (2) as the fiery essence or breath (the Stoic ) which was supposed
to be the universal vital force; (3) as signifying some refined form of bodily substance, a
fluid believed to act as a medium between mind and the grosser matter of the body.
The hypothesis of "spirits" in this sense was familiar to the Scholastic age, in fact down
to the end of the eighteenth century, "animal spirits", "vital spirits", "natural spirits"
were acknowledged agencies in all physiological phenomena (cf. Vesalius, Descartes,
Harvey, Erasmus, Darwin, etc.) "Magnetic" spirits were employed by Mesmer in his
theory in very much the same way as modern Spiritists invoke the "ether" of the
In Psychology, "spirit" is used (with the adjective "spiritual") to denote all that belongs
to our higher life of reason, art, morality, and religion as contrasted with the life of
mere sense-perception and passion. The latter is intrinsically dependent on matter and
conditioned by its laws; the former is characterized by freedom or the power of self-
determination; "spirit" in this sense is essentially personal. Hegelianism, indeed, in its
doctrines of Subjective, Objective, and Absolute Spirit, tries to maintain the categories
of spiritual philosophy (freedom, self-consciousness and the like), in a Monistic
framework. But such conceptions demand the recognition of individual personality as
an ultimate fact.
In Theology, the uses of the word are various. In the New Testament, it signifies
sometimes the soul of man (generally its highest part, e. g., "the spirit is willing"),
sometimes the supernatural action of God in man, sometimes the Holy Ghost (" the
Spirit of Truth Whom the world cannot receive"). The use of this term to signify the
supernatural life of grace is the explanation of St. Paul's language about the spiritual
and the carnal man and his enumeration of the three elements, spirit, soul, and body,
which gave occasion to the error of the Trichotomists (1 Thess., v, 23, Eph., iv, 23).
Matter has generally been conceived as in one sense or another the limitation of spirit.
Hence, finite spirits were thought to require a body as a principle of individuation and
limitation; only God, the Infinite Spirit, was free from all admixture of matter. Thus,
when we find the angels described as or , in the writings of the
Fathers, this properly means only that the angels do not possess a gross, fleshly body; it
does not at all imply a nature absolutely immaterial. Such Scripture expressions as
"bread of angels", "they shall shine as the angels", as well as the apparitions of these
heavenly beings, were adduced as proofs of their corporeality. So speak Sts. Ambrose,
Chrysostom, Jerome, Hilary, Origen and many other Fathers. Even in Scholastic times,
the degree of immateriality that belongs to finite spirits was disputed. St. Thomas
teaches the complete simplicity of all spiritual natures, but the Scotists, by means of
their famous , introduced a real composition, which they
conceived to be necessary to a created nature. As regards the functions of spirits in the
world, and their active relations to the visible order of things, see GUARDIAN
ANGELS and DEMONOLOGY. Scripture abounds in instances of their dealings with
men, chiefly in the character of intermediaries between God and His servants. They are
the heralds who announce his commands, and often too the ministers who execute His
justice. They take a benevolent interest in the spiritual good of men (Luke, xv, 10). For
these reasons, the Church permits and encourages devotion to the angels.
BERKELEY, Siris in Works, II. See also bibliographies, SPIRITUALISM; SOUL.
Transcribed by Scott Anthony Hibbs
Taken from the New Advent Web Page (www.knight.org/advent).
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