Nary a Soul

Why is everything I teach such a minefield? In my honors seminar we've been reading Plato's Phaedrus, which contains a metaphorical description of the human soul. So, in passing, I mentioned that there's not a stitch of evidence that we actually possess a soul; nevertheless, the belief in one seems to be universal in human culture. That provoked a lot of furrowed brows and a few troubled rumblings in the response papers: What do you mean I don't have a soul? It says so in the Bible!

First, I never said human beings lack a soul. I said there is no evidence for it. These are separate points. Second, the biblical notion of the soul is, er, well, problematic. There are contradictory mentions of the soul in the New Testament, but nowhere in the Old Testament is there any idea that we possess a soul that can separate from the body. The Hebrew word nephesh, which is usually translated as “soul” in the Old Testament, tends to mean “self,” “person,” or “creature.” The noun was developed from the verb naphash, which meant to breathe, to take breath, to be refreshed. In most biblical usages, nephesh just means personhood. In other words, it’s not something we possess. It’s what we are. So instead of soul, a better translation from the Hebrew might simply be “selfhood” or “person.”

Ironically, the ancient Hebrew meaning of nephesh is not so different from the modern secular idea of "the self." Even people who profess no religious faith will say they have an essential self that exists separately from their body. Indeed, much of the modern concept of “the self” is a secularized version of the soul, a kind of cherished individual personhood.

So where did we get this notion of soul as a disembodied essence? Well, a lot of it came from the pagan Greeks. Plato posited a soul that survived the body and contained the higher elements of what it means to be human – namely rational thought. For Plato the soul (or anima) is more a philosophical or even biological concept. Those things that have volition (i.e., they can move without being moved) possess a soul. In this sense, a soul is merely what distinguishes living from non-living things.

Even so, you can see why the early Christians were attracted to Plato's ideas. His notion of an ideal good from which all things derive sounds a lot like Christian monotheism. Moreover, Plato’s goal was for humanity to suppress or even rid itself of the irrational elements until the soul became a kind of static fusion of reason and will basking in the eternal knowledge of pure goodness. Change the emphasis a bit, and Christianity can absorb the authority of a weighty intellectual tradition.

But woe to the professor who points out the utter lack of evidence for the soul, or who points out that there may be more than one way of conceiving it. Once again, I've stepped on a landmine. Yikes.


lover*of*lit said…
I'm doing a crossword puzzle, & a question asks: Nary a soul. It is a 6 letter answer, so I asked Google, & your Blog came up, well 2 make a long story short, I absolutely love your Blogg Post. How can I subscribe to your Blogg? Also maybe you know the answer to my question?, oh & I am a lover of Humanities and almost any educational subjects. I'm also on FaceBook> name is Tasha Marie Montelongo &
my e-mail address is:
Feel free to contact me.

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