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Monday, July 18, 2016

Soul (continuing my next project)

I remember as a child being angry and spanking my coat when it jumped off the hook on which I placed it. I was assigning the same kind of agency to my disobedient clothes that I felt in myself after I learned to sense agency through my interaction with caregivers. I can easily understand how primitive tribes credit all the elements of nature with separate agencies and even divinize those agencies. Psychologists call it “theory of mind.” It is fine for other persons but not so useful for things.

Ancient philosophers explained all beings as composed of form (morphĂ©) and matter (hulĂ©). Putting a specific form to matter is what gave existence to a being. And the form was the essence of it. In animals, the form animated the being or gave it life. The Greeks call it psyche and the Romans anima. In humans the form gave intelligent life. In English we call that form “soul.”

Perhaps it was the encounter and realization of death that shaped our notion of the soul beyond that of agency and form. Archeologists often look for signs of human life in burial places and ceremonies. We experience a person dying by exhuming his last breath. Breath or air is translated as spirit. In Hebrew the wind and air was the breath of God, ruah or spirit, which filled the earth and animated all living beings. When the soul or spirit leaves the body, the person is dead.

Whether the soul persists somehow and is immortal is a mystery and was imagined differently in the stories of different traditions: for some the soul was a thing in itself and could live in some supernatural space, for some the soul as animator of the body required resurrection, for some the soul was a tongue of fire returning to the divine conflagration.

In the Christian Roman Empire influenced by Greek and Latin philosophy, the dualism of flesh and spirit, body and soul, the physical and the spiritual became a matter of faith and led to a hierarchy of beings. God, Absolute Form and Pure Spirit, at the pinnacle of all being. Then came the angels, immaterial forms, but imperfect and capable of defying God. Next came human souls which like angelic and divine forms were immortal, imperfect because of their connection to matter and, yes, sinful. Animals with their mortal souls followed and then all the soulless creatures. And within each of these categories there were also hierarchies, all part of the great chain of being.

This was not a “Manichaean” dualism between absolute principles of good and evil as distinguished from many pagan cultures of the East, some of which did not include the Judeo-Christian matter/spirit dualism. For in Christian orthodoxy, while proclivity to matter and to the affairs of the body, especially sex, could lead to evil, evil was not absolute as is the form of the Good itself, namely God, as taught by Plato and his followers.

At the beginning of the modern era, Rene Descartes, explained the dualism of material body and spiritual mind not by faith, but by reason. He thought about thinking and gave evidence through experience and deduction for the duality of human nature by inquiring into the human mind. While doctrines of religious belief cannot be disputed, the doctrines of reason can. Descartes, along with many other Enlightenment thinkers, opened the Pandora’s box on inquiry into the nature of things, including human beings. He invited challenge to the doctrine of the split between body and soul which now bore his name: The Cartesian divide.

After Descartes, “materialists” reduced mind to behavior determined by natural law and “idealists” argued that mind was working its way through history. Physics and psychology developed as independent disciplines while attempting to show that matter could explain mind or mind could explain matter.

It was the development of biology and especially Darwinian evolution of both body and mind over hundreds of thousands of years of human development that built the basis for a reunion. The Darwinian insight led to the organismic or holistic paradigm of the 20th century. The soul is more than agency or form or spirit. It is the human organism as it has evolved in conscious relationship to its environment. I am embodied soul. I am my body conscious of myself, others, and my world. Pragmatism, existential phenomenology, and constructivist epistemology expressed this new unity in philosophy. Evolutionary psychology and neuroscience now studies the brain and human behavior to understand mind and consciousness.

We now see death not as giving up spirit (breath) because we have revived persons even when their breathing stopped--and even when their heart stopped. We now define death as irreversible brain deterioration often caused by lack of oxygen to the brain by the stopped heart. 

In our postmodern era, “soul” has less scientific and more poetic uses as in having soul, soul food, soul music, soul mate, and soul sisters. The contention is less between materialists and spiritualists and more between fideists and experimentalists. Belief through scientific verification is contrasted with belief through religious faith, which in many traditions still accepts immaterial immortal souls separable from the body and other supernatural spirits created by God. Many common folks believe in ghosts whether holy or not. But it is not my intent to dispute or demean them. Here I am more interested in exploring the psychological and philosophical notion of soul or spirit which is identified with mind and consciousness in human being and behavior.

Psychologist James Hillman spent a lifetime reflecting on soul. The theory he used in his practice and which he articulated in many books is that the human soul is the character of a person. He uses the analogy of an acorn that grows into a mighty oak tree. But it must be constantly nourished, watered and fed. The tree it becomes is unlike all other trees—its branches, its roots, its longevity, and the other acorns it provides are similar, but part of a unique configuration.

At first I did not like his analogy because I read it as making the soul a sort of permanent nugget, a homunculus, the real person within the body. Or like a core of seeds in an apple. But following his analogy I realized that the acorn, like the original seed for the apple tree, became the tree. It was not separate or even distinct from the tree it became. That helps me think of what we call the character or personality of a person. There are traits, preferences, characteristics, habits, and attitudes that develop as the genotype accommodates, and accommodates to, its environment. The soul is the integrated cluster of these traits, preferences, characteristics, habits, and attitudes. That which makes the person whole and wholly unique.

And how much choice the person exercises in the development of her character is disputed by scientists and philosophers. Is the person in charge beyond her genetic inheritance and environmental conditioning? This is usually asked by the question of free will. But I content myself by both experiencing and thinking that, while “free will” is a misleading concept, freedom is the process of thinking persons who progressively remove illusions and obstacles with the help of others.

And here is where I draw the difference of “great-souled” persons like Mahatma Ghandi, Jesus of Nazareth, Buddha Gautama, and other great saints and sinners, leaders and artists, with “weak-souled” persons like me and most of us. The great souls have achieved such a level of freedom and integrity that they have a core of seeds that can be spread to many. We weaker souls are in process of developing a core of integrity and can learn from the example and teaching of the great souled ones—and use the exercises that enlarged their souls.

The heightened state of consciousness of the great ones is in total presence—although they express this in different ways and words. But there are two kinds of being present that we must not confuse. Presence is being here, now, with, and towards. The presence of the great ones holds the interior/exterior tension of being-here, the past/future tension of being-now, the individual/social tension of being-with, and the real/ideal tension of being towards. In other words, the great-souled are persons who have a vigorous interior life in dynamic action in the world, who are ardently learning from history while intending the future, who are uniquely individual while fully oriented to others, and who are pragmatically realistic in pursuit of high ideals. They have integrated the tensions and their opposing poles; and they have overcome the illusions and obstacles that back their progression.

There is another way of being present, which is being insensible, oblivious, isolated, and unresponsive. A thing that is just out there without an animating core, cold, insensitive, and unmindful can be said to be present. But it is an object that is not integrating and liberating. It has no soul.  The first kind of presence is a transcending presence. The second kind is just stuck in an identity given by others and by circumstances. 

Are there no-souled persons? People who do not transcend, who have no or little integrity and are just creatures of outside influences. Well, the other day I met a man without a soul. Let me describe him to you as a way to explain having and being soul.

Next: The Man With No Soul

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