Through the front door’s smeary glass and between the leaps of our self-appointed guard dog, I could just make out the hope-brightened faces of two middle-aged men. Then I glanced down and saw a fat leatherbound book with gilt lettering tucked under one man’s arm.
“Aw,” I thought, silently quoting a line from The Simpsons, “this isn’t about Je-sus, is it?”
Indeed it was. The gentlemen were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I preempted their evangelism by blurting, “We’re Jewish”—which was half a lie, so I will burn for half of eternity. All for naught, because my deceit failed to deter them. One began an enthusiastic monologue about the Jewish belief that the soul represents the whole of us, and how it was only later that Christians separated the soul from the body.
Intrigued, I admitted that I knew nothing about the Jewish concept of soul. My husband was Jewish; I was the shiksa. We continued talking, noting how language held that original sense, counting the population of small towns in the number of “souls.” And the minute the evangelists left, I looked up the Hebrew word for soul.
Nephesh. It refers to a living, breathing, conscious body, not some misty immortal spirit. The Old Testament makes no reference to an immortal soul. Neither, to my surprise, does the New Testament. The Greek word for soul is psyche, otherwise translated as breath, spirit, mind—which need not imply immortality at all.
All these years we Western Christians have spent baring our souls, seeking our soul mates, and God-rest-ing our loved one’s souls, we have been applying a later construct. We argued till the prodigal cows came home about exactly when the soul enters the body and when it leaves, because the Church Fathers had decided that was what happened. Soul was not the sum of us; rather, it was separate, something poured into us and surviving our death. Something we could, in a pinch, sell to the devil.
What took the soul on such a journey?
The first quest was to find it a physical home. Ancient philosophers thought it resided in the liver. Egyptians said the heart. Plato plumped for the brain, and Herophilus narrowed it to the fourth ventricle, right above the brain stem. Descartes went even tinier: the pineal gland. And he used that little gland to split the mind from the body and the spirit from the flesh. Animals could not have souls, because they belonged only to the material world. We, with our immortal spiritual souls, had a foot in heaven already. All those philosophical real estate agents could relax.
The movement away from physicality had been a gradual one. Aristotle had linked the soul to pneuma, the air that flowed through and animated the entire body. His “soul” needed the body’s organs and could not survive without them. But Plato complicated things by insisting that the human soul was divine in nature. Also, that it had three parts: the logos, or rational soul, which occupied the brain; the thymus, or emotional soul, which rattled around in the chest; and the epithemitikon, source of desire and unconscious thought—cleverly sourced from the belly button, the site of our first connection to the world.
All of this—emotion, desire, thought—we now understand as generated by the brain. So what is left of the soul?
Immortality. Which was not even part of the original equation. Thomas Aquinas took Aristotle’s idea of a soul that animated the body and Christianized it, linking it to the eternal life Christ had promised. In the second trimester of pregnancy, Aquinas announced, the fetus was given a soul, and this was what allowed it to perceive and move. The soul was not physical, simply infused into the physical.
Thomas Aquinas also counted angels waltzing on pinheads and measured the length of time an incubus needed to inseminate a sleeping woman. We need not take his lead. But after all these years of dualism, how do we put body and soul together again?
Honestly, I am not sure I can. I have spent so long thinking of the soul as a trick of light, like swamp gas, flickering in some of us and glowing strong in others—or as a swirl of energy that shoots off into space when the body dies—that I am having trouble closing the gap. Is soul the sum of us, the gestalt magic that happens when all our wet bits come alive together? Does the soul grow stronger in a self that keeps its balance, seeing the world whole? Does soul exist only between us, in the ability to connect without exploiting or objectifying? Is it love burning at the highest temperature, purifying us, bringing us as close as we can get to God’s love? A fine thought, except that it takes us right back to the notion of a dirty, corrupt body and a clean, immaterial soul. Why was that division so appealing, anyway? Because our bodies disgusted us? Because we wanted a guarantee that death could not end us?
I hate the idea of the soul as remote, separate from the body, sealed up in some holographic tabernacle inside us. But I am afraid to lose the idea of soul altogether. I have always been quite fond of it, mainly because I thought it could not be reduced to the material world that weighs us down. The body can be a chaotic mess, as can the country and the planet, while the soul’s light stays steady and clear.
Light. Illumination, clarity, vision. The soul’s light shines through the eyes, poets tell us. But I suspect it shines through someone’s ability to meet your eyes, to hold steady and not avert their gaze, hiding, as Sartre warned we would, because we are terrified by another human being’s knowing look.
Soul in this sense is self-possession, stiffened by courage. But soul also shines through every time someone reacts to suffering with love and laughter, refusing to whine, enduring with patient grace, not reaching for distractions or nervous fixes. We seem to be soulful in degrees. Some folks have more resonance, as though suffering has clarified something deep inside them.
But see? “Inside them.” I am still using container words. What would it mean—I test the question on my tongue—what would it mean if the soul were not something stuck inside us, but the sum and substance of everything we are, the energy generated when all our parts are working in concert? That would allow for degrees of soulfulness, because so often some of those parts get stuck, inhibited, scarred, lost. But would the soul then diminish at times of illness or unconsciousness? That feels harsh, ungenerous. Soul associates with music, food, passion, depth—all that is most richly human. Horrid to think of it drifting away just when someone needs it most….
Maybe it is soul’s very nature to elude our grasp, to avoid being pinned down or separated or withheld. Maybe that ability to escape our categories is how it holds us together.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.