Spirit (Lat. spiritus, spirare, “to breathe”; Gk. pneuma daimon; Fr. esprit; Ger. Geist.) As these names show, the principle of life was often represented under the figure of a breath or 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: (I) as signifying a living, intelligent, incorporeal being, such as the soul; (2) as the fiery essence or breath (the Stoic pneuma) 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 physicists. Albertus Magnus distinguished corporeal and incorporeal spirits, and long after 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 physicists.
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 frame-work. 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 (I 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 asomatoi or auloi, 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 materia primo prima, 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 Angel 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.
MICHAEL MAHER. JOSEPH BOLLAND