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The English word spirit (from Latin spiritus "breath") has many differing meanings and connotations, all of them relating to a non-corporeal substance contrasted with the material body. The spirit of a human being is thus the animating, sensitive or vital principle in that individual, similar to the soul taken to be the seat of the mental, intellectual and emotional powers. The notions of a person's "spirit" and "soul" often also overlap, as both contrast with body and both are imagined as surviving the bodily death in religion and occultism, and "spirit" can also have the sense of "ghost", i.e. manifestations of the spirit of a deceased person.
The English word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning "breath" (compare spiritus asper), but also "soul, courage, vigor", ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European וח (ruah), as opposed to Latin anima and Greek psykhē. The word apparently came into Middle English via Old French. The distinction between soul and spirit developed in the Abrahamic religions: Thus we find Greek ψυχη opposite πνευμα ; Latin anima opposite spiritus; Arabic nafs (نفس) opposite rúħ (روح); Hebrew neshama (נְשָׁמָה nəšâmâh) or nephesh (in Hebrew neshama comes from the root NŠM or "breath") opposite ruach (רוּחַ rûaħ).
Metaphysical and metaphorical uses
In metaphysical terms, "spirit" has acquired a number of meanings:
- An incorporeal but ubiquitous, non-quantifiable substance or energy present individually in all living things. Unlike the concept of souls (often regarded as eternal and usually believed to pre-exist the body) a spirit develops and grows as an integral aspect of a living being. This concept of the individual spirit occurs commonly in animism. Note the distinction between this concept of spirit and that of the pre-existing or eternal soul: belief in souls occurs specifically and far less commonly, particularly in traditional societies. One might more properly term this type/aspect of spirit "life" (bios in Greek) or "aether" rather than "spirit" (pneuma in Greek).
- A daemon sprite, or especially a ghost. People usually conceive of a ghost as a wandering spirit from a being no longer living, having survived the death of the body yet maintaining at least vestiges of mind and of consciousness.
- In religion and spirituality, the respiration of a human has for obvious reasons become seen as strongly linked with the very occurrence of life. A similar significance has become attached to human blood. Spirit in this sense denotes that which separates a living body from a corpse — and usually implies intelligence, consciousness and sentience.
- Various animistic religions, such as Japan's Shinto and various Native American and African tribal beliefs, focus around invisible beings which represent or connect with plants, animals (sometimes called "Animal Fathers"), or landforms; translators usually employ the English word "spirit" when trying to express the idea of such entities.
- Individual spirits envisaged as interconnected with all other spirits and with "The Spirit" (singular and capitalized). This concept relates to theories of a unified spirituality, to universal consciousness and to some concepts of Deity. In this scenario all separate "spirits", when connected, form a greater unity, the Spirit, which has an identity separate from its elements plus a consciousness and intellect greater than its elements; an ultimate, unified, non-dual awareness or force of life combining or transcending all individual units of consciousness. The experience of such a connection can become a primary basis for spiritual belief. The term spirit occurs in this sense in (to name but a few) Anthroposophy, Aurobindo, A Course In Miracles, Hegel, and Ken Wilber. In this use, the term seems conceptually identical to Plotinus's "The One" and Friedrich Schelling's "Absolute". Similarly, according to the panentheistic/pantheistic view, Spirit equates to essence that can manifest itself as mind/soul through any level in pantheistic hierarchy/holarchy, such as through a mind/soul of a single cell (with very primitive, elemental consciousness), or through a human or animal mind/soul (with consciousness on a level of organic synergy of an individual human/animal), or through a (superior) mind/soul with synergetically extremely complex/sophisticated consciousness of whole galaxies involving all sub-levels, all emanating (since the superior mind/soul operates non-dimensionally, or trans-dimensionally) from the one Spirit.
- Christian theology can use the term "Spirit" to describe God, or aspects of God — as in the "Holy Spirit", referring to a Triune God (Trinity): "The result of God reaching to man by the Father as the source, the Son as the course ('the Way'), and through the Spirit as the transmission"[cite this quote].
- In (popular) theological terms, the individual human "spirit" (singular, lowercase) is a deeply situated aspect of the soul subject to "spiritual" growth and change; the very seat of emotion and desire, and the transmitting organ by which humans can contact God. In a rare theological definition it consists of higher consciousness enclosing the soul. "Spirit" forms a central concept in pneumatology (note that pneumatology studies "pneuma" (Greek for "spirit") not "psyche" (Greek for "soul" — as studied in psychology).
- Christian Science uses "Spirit" as one of the seven synonyms for God, as in: "Principle; Mind; Soul; Spirit; Life; Truth; Love"
- Harmonism reserves the term "spirit" for those which collectively control and influence an individual from the realm of the mind.
The metaphorical use of the term likewise groups several related meanings:
- The loyalty and feeling of inclusion in the social history or collective essence of an institution or group, such as in school spirit or esprit de corps.
- A closely related meaning refers to the worldview of a person, place, or time, as in "The Declaration of Independence was written in the spirit of John Locke and his notions of liberty", or the term zeitgeist, meaning "spirit of the age".
- As a synonym for "vivacity" as in "She performed the piece with spirit" or "She put up a spirited defense".
- The underlying intention of a text as distinguished from its literal meaning, especially in law; see Letter and spirit of the law
- As a term for alcoholic beverages — stemming from medieval superstitions that explained the effects of alcohol as demonic activity.
- In mysticism: existence in unity with Godhead. Soul may also equate with spirit, but the soul involves certain individual human consciousness, while spirit comes from beyond that. Compare the psychological teaching of Al-Ghazali.
Related concepts in other languages
Some languages use a word for "spirit" often closely related (if not synonymous) to "mind". Examples include the German, Geist (related to the English word "ghost") or the French, 'l'esprit'. English versions of the Judaeo-Christian Bible most commonly translate the Hebrew word "ruach" (רוח; "wind") as "the spirit", whose essence is divine (see Holy Spirit and ruach hakodesh). Alternatively, Hebrew texts commonly use the word nephesh. Kabbalists regard nephesh as one of the five parts of the Jewish soul, where nephesh (animal) refers to the physical being and its animal instincts. Similarly, Scandinavian languages, Slavic languages and the Chinese language (qi) use the words for "breath" to express concepts similar to "the spirit".
- OED "spirit 2.a.: The soul of a person, as commended to God, or passing out of the body, in the moment of death."
- Eddy, Mary Baker "Glossary" (TXT) Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures p. 587 http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext02/shkts11.txt. Retrieved 2009-03-11 "GOD. The great I AM; the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-acting, all-wise, all-loving, and eternal; Principle; Mind; Soul; Spirit; Life; Truth; Love; all substance; intelligence." — "Glossary" entry for "GOD".
- RUACH: Spirit or Wind or ??? at Bibical Heritage Center