Pneuma (πνεῦμα) is an ancient Greek word for "breath", and in a
religious context for "spirit" or "soul". It has various
technical meanings for medical writers and philosophers of classical
antiquity, particularly in regard to physiology, and is also used in
Greek translations of ruach רוח in the Hebrew Bible, and in the
Greek New Testament. In classical philosophy, it is distinguishable
from psyche (ψυχή), which originally meant "breath of life", but
is regularly translated as "spirit" or most often "soul".
1 Classical antiquity
Ancient Greek medical theory
1.4 Stoic pneuma
Judaism and Christianity
3 See also
5 External links
Pneuma, "air in motion, breath, wind," is equivalent in the material
monism of Anaximenes to aer (ἀήρ, "air") as the element from which
all else originated. This usage is the earliest extant occurrence of
the term in philosophy. A quotation from Anaximenes observes that
"just as our soul (psyche), being air (aer), holds us together, so do
breath (pneuma) and air (aer) encompass the whole world." In this
early usage, aer and pneuma are synonymous.
Ancient Greek medical theory
See also: Pneumatic school
In ancient Greek medicine, pneuma is the form of circulating air
necessary for the systemic functioning of vital organs. It is the
material that sustains consciousness in a body. According to Diocles
and Praxagoras, the psychic pneuma mediates between the heart,
regarded as the seat of
Mind in some physiological theories of ancient
medicine, and the brain.
The disciples of
Hippocrates explained the maintenance of vital heat
to be the function of the breath within the organism. Around 300 BC,
Praxagoras discovered the distinction between the arteries and the
veins. In the corpse arteries are empty; hence, in the light of these
preconceptions they were declared to be vessels for conveying pneuma
to the different parts of the body. A generation afterwards,
Erasistratus made this the basis of a new theory of diseases and their
treatment. The pneuma, inhaled from the outside air, rushes through
the arteries till it reaches the various centres, especially the brain
and the heart, and there causes thought and organic movement.
See also: Spontaneous generation § Aristotle, and On Breath
The "connate pneuma" of
Aristotle is the warm mobile "air" that in the
sperm transmits the capacity for locomotion and certain sensations to
the offspring. These movements derive from the soul of the parent and
are embodied by the pneuma as a material substance in semen.
necessary for life, and as in medical theory is involved with the
"vital heat," but the Aristotelian pneuma is less precisely and
thoroughly defined than that of the Stoics.
In Stoic philosophy, pneuma is the concept of the "breath of life," a
mixture of the elements air (in motion) and fire (as warmth). For
the Stoics, pneuma is the active, generative principle that organizes
both the individual and the cosmos. In its highest form, pneuma
constitutes the human soul (psychê), which is a fragment of the
pneuma that is the soul of God (Zeus). As a force that structures
matter, it exists even in inanimate objects. In his Introduction
to the 1964 book Meditations, the Anglican priest Maxwell Staniforth
Cleanthes, wishing to give more explicit meaning to Zeno's 'creative
fire', had been the first to hit upon the term pneuma, or 'spirit', to
describe it. Like fire, this intelligent 'spirit' was imagined as a
tenuous substance akin to a current of air or breath, but essentially
possessing the quality of warmth; it was immanent in the universe as
God, and in man as the soul and life-giving principle.
Judaism and Christianity
Soul in the Bible
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In Judaic and Christian usage, pneuma is a common word for "spirit" in
Septuagint and the Greek New Testament. At John 3:5, for example,
pneuma is the Greek word translated into English as "spirit": "Verily,
verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the
Spirit (pneuma), he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." In some
translations such as the King James version, however, pneuma is then
translated as "wind" in verse eight, followed by the rendering
"Spirit": "The wind (pneuma) bloweth where it listeth, and thou
hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and
whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit
The Pneumatic or "spiritual human" of Gnosticism
The concept of Christian pneumatology
Pneuma akatharton, unclean spirit
Pneuma (journal), subtitled "The Journal of the Society for
Suneidésis (συνείδησις), higher inspiration or conscience
of the mind, alongside 'nous' & 'pneuma'
^ Entry πνεῦμα, in Liddell-Scott-Jones, A Greek–English
Lexicon, online version.
^ See pp.190, 195, 205 of François, Alexandre (2008), "Semantic maps
and the typology of colexification: Intertwining polysemous networks
across languages", in Vanhove, Martine, From Polysemy to Semantic
change: Towards a Typology of Lexical Semantic Associations, Studies
in Language Companion Series, 106, Amsterdam, New York: Benjamins,
pp. 163–215 .
^ a b Furley, D.J. (1999). From
Aristotle to Augustine. History of
Philosophy. Routledge. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-415-06002-8.
^ Silvia Benso, "The
Breathing of the Air: Presocratic Echoes in
Levinas," in Levinas and the Ancients (Indiana University Press,
2008), p. 13.
^ Benso, "The
Breathing of the Air," p. 14.
^ Philip J. van der Eijk, "The Heart, the Brain, the Blood and the
pneuma: Hippocrates, Diocles and
Aristotle on the Location of
Cognitive Processes," in Medicine and Philosophy in Classical
Antiquity: Doctors and Philosophers on Nature, Soul, Health and
Disease (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 131–132 et passim.
^ One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text
from a publication now in the public domain: Hicks, Robert Drew
(1911). "Stoics". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 25
(11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 942–951.
^ "Stoicism," Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Taylor &
Francis, 1998), p. 145.
^ David Sedley, "Stoic Physics and Metaphysics," The Cambridge History
of Hellenistic Philosophy, p. 388.
^ John Sellars,
Stoicism (University of California Press, 2006), pp.
Marcus Aurelius (1964). Meditations. London: Penguin Books.
p. 25. ISBN 0-14044140-9.
The dictionary definition of pneuma a