Do animals have souls?
This question is quite easily answered using the writings of the Church Fathers. A soul is the life that exists in all things that participate in the life-giving energy of God. Plants, animals and humans have souls, but these souls are different as St. Maximus the Confessor explains:
Lower creatures such as plants have life and their souls have the power of nourishment and growth. The souls of animals also have the power of imagination and instinct. The souls of men have all these powers as well as the powers of intelligence and thought.Animals, therefore, have souls but their souls are different to ours. The human soul is rational and immortal whereas those of animals are irrational and mortal. What exactly do we mean by this?
In Orthodox terminology, the word ‘irrational’ in this context doesn’t mean that animals are incapable of making decisions, but that they cannot be held responsible for them. Animals cannot commit evil because they always act according to nature. Some animals can distinguish between 'right' and 'wrong' with training, but this is something that we have to define for them. The soul of the animal is irrational in the sense that animals cannot weigh up the rights and wrongs of their actions and come to a decision based on their understanding of good and evil.
Animals tend to act on instinct, but animals also show imagination and emotion which are attributes of the soul. Obviously, more complex animals have more complex souls. Higher mammals such as elephants and chimpanzees are well known for expressing their emotions as we can see in this video.
Animals can express love and anger often in ways that seem contrary to the animalistic nature that they should be expressing. The story of Christian the Lion video is a modern example. There are also many examples of animals reverencing the holiness of the saints. Saint Seraphim of Sarov was befriended by a wild bear that he named Misha. Saint Gerasimus had a pet lion called Jordan.
Animals have souls, but unlike our souls these souls are mortal. When an animal dies, it ceases to be in both body and soul. Our souls, on the other hand, have a beginning even though they are immortal. The Church does not accept the idea of human souls floating around waiting for a body to be attached to them because, as St. Anastasius of Sinai says, ‘neither does the body exist before the soul, nor does the soul exist before the body.’ This is one of the reasons why we reject the pagan idea of re-incarnation.
We have mentioned that life-giving aspect of the soul. When we breathe and when our heart beats it is the soul that gives the power of life, but in humans there are two types of life: biological life and spiritual life. In Orthodox Christianity, when we talk about the soul we are generally not referring to its power of giving biological life, but to that spiritual part of us that we call the inner man. When we eat or drink we are feeding the outer man. When we fast, pray and receive Holy Communion we are purifying and feeding the inner man: our soul.
Our souls are immortal, but they are not immortal by nature, they are only immortal because God has made them that way. The soul is not contained in the body in the same way as water is held in a glass, but acts through our whole body. This is why the Orthodox Church doesn’t teach that Christ rose from the dead to save souls, but that He rose to save mankind. The person that we refer to as 'I' is one person, but made up of body and soul. In a mystery beyond our comprehension, we believe that our body and soul are completely united, but remain separated.