Body and Soul
The word “soul” has too much baggage in English. First encounters with it usually come in the context of religious instruction, maybe at a parochial school, or in some vague discussions about a certain, indefinable verve in music or performance. Similarly, there’s the entire genre of ‘soul’ music, which has very specific stylistic and even racial associations.
When I was in elementary school, I remember flipping through a science textbook with diagrams of the body and looking in vain for the physical location of the soul. It had to be large, I thought, so why was there nothing big and yellow (not sure why I thought it would be this color, but who knows what makes a 7 year-old think what he does) labeled “soul.”
Over the ensuing years, I felt stupid for having expected to find it on a diagram (‘souls don’t exist, silly’), but in retrospect I think my feelings were due to the religious connotations of ‘soul’ in English. In Greek, “soul” is not bound-up with the notion of something contained in the body that escapes it upon death and is “judged” by an egotistical maniac. This is clear from its etymology; psyche, the Greek word for ‘soul,’ has meanings that suggest “breath” and “life,” even “refrigeration,” kinda (katapsuxis).
The Mass-Production of Souls?
After finishing Aristotle’s “On Interpretation,” which I talked about yesterday, I moved on to “On the Soul,” in which the author seems as fascinated with the soul’s relationship with the body – irrespective of religious design – as I was as a kid. He even takes some of the Presocratics to task for not making any specifications of “the bodily conditions required for it”:
“[T]hey do not try to determine anything about the body which is to contain it, as if it were possible, as in the Pythagorean myths, that any soul could be clothed upon with any body – an absurd view, for each body seems to have a form and shape of its own. It is as absurd as to say that the art of carpentry could embody itself in flutes; each art must use its tools, each soul its body.”
I like this observation since it argues against a sort of “mass-production of souls.” I have always been bothered by the idea of a god, any god, making humankind in an absurd assembly line in the sky, putting a standard-issue heart, brain, and soul into each one. I need to do more research here, but this strikes me as simultaneously an old notion (the prerequisite to the egalitarianism of ashes-to-ashes/dust-to-dust) and a new one (informed by the industrialization of the 19th century).
Totalitarianism and the Soul
One of the fundamental problems with monotheism is that it is so dictatorial. “God” is a male deity whose authority can’t be challenged and whose every absurd whim (the Abraham/Isaac story is the best example) must be obeyed.
Being in charge of a dark factory of mass production seems right up this god’s alley, as he amasses the masses that must be at his beck and call. The other overarching implication of the one-size-fits-all soul is that we are all limited to a laughably narrow range of options: do this and go to heaven, do that and go to hell.
Aristotle spends much of Book I of “On the Soul” reviewing Presocratic notions of the soul and whether it was fire, air, or water (the fourth element, earth, was apparently not put forth as a serious candidate as the essence of the soul, as Aristotle notes). This Presocratic notion of the soul somehow coming up from the elements, rather than down from some dictatorial headmaster, is refreshing and liberating, one that I wish I had learned in the first grade instead of “where” my soul was destined to go.