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What is a Spirit?

Spirit, according to folk belief, is the vital principle or animating power that exists within all living things. As recently as 1628 and 1633, both William Harvey and René Descartes believed that a “vital spirit” or “vital force” existed somewhere within the body, in a specific location, that animated the entire corporeal frame, much like the engine in a factory moves the machinery. The term “spirit” has frequently been used to refer to a supernatural person or non-physical creature, such as a demon, ghost, fairy, or angel. However, in traditional Islamic language, the term spirit (r) refers to only “pure” spirits and not to other unseen beings such as jinn, devils, or angels. Historically, the term “spirit” has been used to allude to a “subtle” as opposed to “gross” material substance, as seen in Sir Isaac Newton’s famous final paragraph of Principia Mathematica. The term “the Spirit” (with a capital “S”) refers especially to the Holy Spirit in English Bibles. The terms spirit and soul frequently overlap, and some systems assert that both survive physical death. “Spirit” can also refer to a “ghost,” which is a manifestation of a deceased person’s spirit. The term “spirit” is frequently used interchangeably with “awareness” or “personality.”


In folk belief, the spirit is the essential principle or animating essence within all living beings. In 1628 and 1633, respectively, both William Harvey and René Descartes still inferred that somewhere within the body, in a particular region, there was a ‘vital spirit’ or ‘vital force,’ which animated the entire bodily frame, like the engine in a factory moves the machinery in it.

People have constantly conceived spirit as a supernatural or non-physical entity, for example, a demon, ghost, fairy, or angel. However, in ancient Islamic terminology, the phrase spirit rūḥ applies only to ‘pure’ spirits but not to other intangible creatures, like jinn, demons, and angels.

Historically, the word ‘spirit’ has been used to refer to a ‘subtle’ as opposed to ‘gross’ material substance, as put forth in the remarkable last paragraph of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Within English Bibles, ‘the Spirit’ with a capital ‘S’ mainly denotes the Holy Spirit.

The ideas of spirit and soul often overlap, and some systems propose that both survive bodily death. ‘Spirit’ can have the sense of a ‘ghost,’ i.e., a manifestation of the spirit of a dead person. ‘Spirit’ is also often employed to refer to consciousness or personality.

Etymology Of Spirit

Spirit means ‘animating or critical principle in man and animals ‘. It is taken from the Old French spirit, derived from the Latin word spiritus soul, ghost, courage, vigor, breath and connected to spirare to breathe. In the Vulgate, the Latin phrase spiritus translates the Greek pneuma and Hebrew ruach.

The word ‘spiritual,’ matters ‘concerning the spirit,’ is derived from Old French spirituel, which is taken from Latin spiritualis, which comes from spiritus or ‘spirit.’

The phrase ‘spirituality’ is taken from Middle French spiritualité, from Late Latin ‘spiritualitatem,’ which is also derived from Latin spiritualis.

Usage Of The Word Spirit

‘Spirit’ has acquired several definitions:

Christian theology can employ ‘Spirit’ to point to the Holy Spirit.

Christian Science employs ‘Spirit’ as one of seven synonyms for God: ‘Principle; Mind; Soul; Spirit; Life; Truth; Love.’

Latter-Day Saint prophet Joseph Smith Jr. 1805-1844 ignored the idea of spirit as incorporeal or without substance: ‘There is no such entity as immaterial matter. All spirit matters, but it is more fine or innocent and can only be regarded with purer eyes.’ Regarding the soul, Joseph Smith noted, ‘And the Gods created man from the dust of the soil, and took his spirit that is, the man’s spirit, and placed it into him; and breathed into his lungs the breath of life, and man transformed into a living soul.’ Thus, the soul is the amalgamation of a spirit with a body although most LDS followers use ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ as synonyms. In Mormon scripture, spirits are at times known as ‘intelligences.’ But other Mormon scriptures preach that God organized the spirits out of a pre-existing substance called ‘intelligence’ or ‘the light of truth.’ While this may look confusing, compare how a programmer creates an algorithm by organizing lines of logical code. The logic always pertained, independent of the programmer, but the creator contains it into a breathing spirit/intelligence/soul.

Several forms of animism, such as Japan’s Shinto and African traditional religion, concentrate on invisible beings that display or connect with plants, animals, or landforms in Japanese: kami: translators generally employ the English word ‘spirit’ when trying to show the concept of such entities. Compare the ideas of ancestral spirits and spirit creatures.

C. G. Jung in a talk given to the literary Society of Augsburg, 20 October 1926, on the topic of ‘Nature and Spirit,’ : The link between spirit and life is one of those problems involving factors of such difficulty that we have to be on our guard lest we get caught in the net of words in which we seek to ensnare these great enigmas. How can we take into the orbit of our thought those infinite difficulties of life which we call ‘Spirit’ or ‘Life’ unless we mask them in verbal ideas, themselves small counters of the intellect? The mistrust of said images, inconvenient as it is, nevertheless seems to be very much in place in speaking of fundamentals. ‘Spirit’ and ‘Life’ are similar enough words to us, very old acquaintances, pawns that have been thrown back and forth on the thinker’s chessboard for thousands of years. The issue must have begun in the grey dawn of time when someone made the bewildering discovery that the living breath that left the dying man’s body in the last death rattle meant more than just air in motion. It can be an accident onomatopoeic words such as ruach Hebrew, ruch Arabic, Roho Swahili mean ‘spirit’ no slight clearly than πνεύμα pneuma, Greek and spiritus Latin.

The psychical study, ‘In all the Society for Psychical Research publications, the term ‘spirit’ stands for the personal stream of consciousness whatever it may finally be proved to imply or require’ James H. Hyslop, 1919.

Paranormal spirits are generally a nickname for a ghost or other undead spirit.


Modern spirituality focuses on the ‘deepest values and meanings by which human beings live.’ It often embraces the concept of an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality. It envisions an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of their being.

Not all modern ideas of spirituality combine with metaphysical concepts. Secular spirituality focuses on humanistic ideas on moral character qualities like love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, responsibility, harmony, and concern for others. These are domains of life and human experience which go beyond a pure materialist idea of the world without necessarily developing faith in a supernatural reality or any divine being. Nevertheless, many humanists e.g., Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre who value the non-material, communal, and virtuous parts of life reject this usage of the term ‘spirituality’ as being overly broad i.e., it effectively amounts to nothing ‘everything and anything good and virtuous is incessantly spiritual’. In 1930 Russell, a self-described agnostic known as an atheist, wrote, ‘… one’s ego is no huge aspect of the world. The man who can focus his thoughts and desires upon something transcending self can find a particular kind of peace in the mundane troubles of life which are impossible to the actual egoist.’ Similarly, Aristotle – one of the first well-known Western thinkers to show that morality, virtue, and goodness can be taken without appealing to supernatural forces – argued that ‘men create Gods in their image’ not the other way around.


Cambiel Angel

Transpersonal psychology

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