Do you know, it’s almost every day that we talk of soul? It matters not whether you’re a ‘believer’. It matters not whether you’re inclined to talk of something called ‘life after death’, or whether you find any ready use for Epictetus’s notion that, as a human being, 'you are a little wisp of soul dragging a corpse about with you’ (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, book IV, XXXI). No; as novelist Jeanette Winterson said:

you don’t have to believe in God to know that you’ve got a soul. We know what we mean when we say, ‘This is soulless’ or, ‘I’ve sold my soul’ and we know what we mean when we say, ‘This has got soul’…

Here Winterson is, I believe, rather wiser than Catholic philosopher Peter Geach when he wrote that the

only tenable conception of the soul is the Aristotelian conception of the soul as the form, or actual organisation, of the living body; and thus you may say that a man thinks with his soul, if you mean positively that thinking is a vital activity of a living human being, and negatively that thinking is not performed by any bodily organ. (‘What do we think with?’ in God and the Soul, p. 38.)

Geach here construes our only options as being a spooky ‘Platonic-Cartesian’ conception of soul as immaterial entity, separable from the body at death, or a non-entitative Aristotelian conception of soul as man’s rational ‘form’. What gets lost with this rather restricted choice choice is, I'll suggest, precisely what’s ordinarily meant by ‘soul’.

We speak of soul in dozens of idioms - idioms such as ‘he’s the life and soul of the party’, ‘she was a lost soul’, ‘she possessed greatness of soul’, ‘the hard labour was utterly soul-destroying’. There are many of these - and it’s by exploring a good range of them in what follows that I hope to shed light on ‘soul’’s meaning.

An Individual Person?

Consider such phrases as ‘Over two hundred souls went down with the ship’, ‘He was the only soul on the lonely hillside’, ‘Old King Cole was a merry old soul’, ‘he’s a wise/sensitive/poor/good soul’, ‘Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand souls were added to their number that day’ (Acts 2:41). Regarding such uses the dictionary tells that here ‘soul’ means ‘an individual person’. Something similar can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (363) which has it that: ‘In Sacred Scripture the term ‘soul’ often refers to… the entire human person.’ And we can see why such sources speak thus: substitute ‘person’ for ‘soul’ in contexts such as the above and we’ll always be left with a truth. And yet when we invoke soul in these cases we’re doing more than deploying an archaic synonym. By bringing a person under the description ‘soul’ we’re doing something of semantic importance.

To get at what this is, consider the following: ‘5 souls were seen lurking round the children’s playground despite it being closed for maintenance’. Or ‘there were 15 souls swimming in the lido’. Such sentences immediate strike us as peculiar in a way that the previous phrases didn't. Why? Partly, perhaps, because we find ourselves imagining discarnate spirits floating about in swimming pools or futilely hovering over the swings! But also because we don’t understand why the word ‘soul’ has here been used, by contrast with the souls that went down with the ship or the single soul on the lonely hillside.

And why do we use the ‘soul’ word in such cases? What I’d like to stress is that when we bring a person under the ‘soul’ description, we're considering them under a distinctive aspect - as a unique mortal living her life well or poorly; sometimes suffering or experiencing joy, sorrow, conscience, self-consciousness; able or struggling to love; hoping or despairing; able to be kind or cruel, courageous or pusillanimous, introverted or extroverted; and sometimes trying, and sometimes failing, to do her best. (‘Indeed one might have seen that he was an honest soul, even at the distance of a thousand leagues’. M. de Cervantes Don Quixote II. iii. xv. 289) This, I suggest, is why it was (and sometimes still is) that ships, or aeroplanes coming in with mechanical problems, but not (say) carriages, typically had (a certain number of) souls in them (even when not sinking!): a journey over the sea or into the air takes us out of our everyday land life and highlights our vulnerability. Loneliness can do this too: throw us out of our lives and into contemplation of them; perhaps, we naturally imagine, something like this is the state of mind of the above-mentioned solitary man on the lonely hillside.

A Way In

The eyes, it’s said, are windows to the soul. The origins of the phrase are not clear (no, it's not Matthew's gospel, nor Shakespeare, although Cicero's (De Legibus §1:27) ’As for our two eloquent eyes, do they not speak forth every impulse and passion of our souls?’ shows the basic idea, if not the ‘windows’ metaphor, to have been alive in antiquity), but it (eyes as windows or mirrors of the soul) was in use in English and French by the 16th century. We also talk, by the way, of soulful glances or soulless eyes/expressions. In Samuel Richardson's (1748) Clarissa, Mr Belford says of Clarissa that ‘What she thought, I cannot say; but, in general, I never saw so much soul in a woman's eyes as in hers.’

Now it's sometimes said that all this simply has to do with the emotional expressivity of our eyes. And our eyes, in the context of our faces, are indeed highly emotionally expressive. Vertically widened eyes show more white (other animals show far less of their eyes' white), narrowed eyes show very little - showing us fear, surprise and awe, or disgust and hate, respectively. The eyebrows curve in sadness. The surround of the eyes wrinkles in joy. Furthermore, when we're engaged with one another in conversation, our pupils dilate and constrict in synchrony with one another - as does a portion of our neurological activity.

But, think about it for a moment, and you realise that a soulful glance, one that reveals so much of Clarissa’s soul, is not simply one that betrays or reveals whatever emotional state she happens to be in. A soulful glance expresses a restricted range of such states - including a deep pensive sadness or cynical despair, hopeful yet fraught expectation, a preoccupied yearning, or an open joyous lovingness and vitality. Passing annoyance, shock, surprise and disgust at others are simply not what we mean by ‘soul states’. Thus when someone lets us in, and bares her soul to us, she’s telling us not of her everyday pleasures and annoyances but of what she’s most ashamed about, what in her heart she allows herself to long for but fears to be ever unavailable, how she struggles to maintain her hope, and so on.

On What’s Innermost

The eyes, I mentioned, are windows to the soul - and part of what this metaphor does for us is highlight the way in which soul life is both essential and interior life. ‘By looking into my eyes she peered right into my soul’. And when we bare (or pour out) our souls to one another, we let the others into the truth about such of our secret guilt, shame and yearnings as we normally keep hidden - out of shame and fear of rejection. Ilham Dilman put this well:

People often speak of the soul when they wish to bring into focus those aspects of a person’s life in which he is most truly himself. ... To see a man’s soul is to see what he is really like - the fears behind the exterior assurance, the loneliness and the need for affection drowned in a busy public life, the callousness behind a facade of respectability, the kindness or the remorse in a heart caught up in a life of voice.

Especially when it follows ‘very’, ‘soul’ signifies our innermost depth and truest nature: His gaze pierced her very soul; the music stirred his very soul; ‘uncontrolled feelings of jealousy can ... blacken the very soul of the jealous’ (P M S Hacker), ‘we have had to dig deep and examine the very soul of our organisation and admit our mistakes.’ It’s worth noting here that the OED offers us, inter alia, for ‘soul’: ‘the central or inmost part of a person’s being’, whilst the Catechism of the Catholic Church (363) gives us this: ‘“soul” also refers to the innermost aspect of man.’

A cognate use of ‘soul’ which I find particularly evocative is for what otherwise and more usually is called the soundpost of a violin or cello. This soul is a wooden dowel which sits inside the instrument underneath the bridge, bridging the top and back, integrating it. (We also find this in French, with its talk of l’âme of the violin). It’s there to augment resonance, brightness and darkness of tone; without it the instrument sounds shallow and flat; positioning it correctly is an art. It’s not I think difficult to understand the rationale for this appropriation of ‘soul’ by the luthier.

Soul Life

Brevity … it is said … is the soul of wit. Such talk of soul references a life-giving germ. We also find this sense alive in the life and soul of the party. We might wonder if the latter phrase is rather oxymoronic (in the USA it’s just ‘life of the party’); the life and soul of the party is a lively and entertaining person who generates an infectious positive energy around them and sets a buoyant tone for the occasion.

It's worth noting that souls can sometimes receive or require stirring - especially when they're at a low ebb. Thus soul music can stir our souls, and we might say of a musician: ‘he’s got soul’. When? Does it just mean he’s emotionally expressive? No, for the emotions expressed by someone who ‘has soul’ must be deep. Especially in the inflection which soul talk receives in black America, such music is expressive of a wisdom that comes from such suffering as has become at least partly transcended through it. ( ‘The essence of life; feeling, passion, emotional depth - all of which are believed to be derived from struggle, suffering and having participated in the Black Experience. Having risen above the suffering, the person gains ‘soul.'' Geneva Smitherman, Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner (Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, N.Y., 2000. Rev Edn. p266).) Whilst dictionaries may tell us that soul-stirring experiences are those that arouse emotion, this is far too general: jealousy, despair, hate, etc., can't be a result of soul-stirring. Instead, when the soul is stirred, enthusiasm, joy and hope arise and sorrows are felt more honestly. Relevant here, I believe, is the fact that we sometimes shed tears of joy, that we're sometimes 'moved' or 'touched' by what we encounter or read about - by stories which tell of extraordinary hope, love, fidelity, courage, tenderness, comradeship, injustice, justice, perseverance, etc. There is, for what it's worth, a use of the 'soul-stirring' concept which references mere sentimentality, but the more standard use instead concerns the arousal of such emotion as indexes our honest encounter with what in life is most poignant, humanly significant, and of value.

Turmoil and Repose

St John of the Cross's own talk of the dark night of the soul carries few of the connotations of angst and despair that the phrase typically conjures today. We get closer to the latter with our talk of an unquiet soul, or when we pray for a soul's repose ('God rest her soul'. One version of the Eternal Rest prayer ends with 'may their souls, and all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace'). Psalm 116:7 tells us 'Return to your rest, O my soul, For the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.' And Matthew 11:28-30, gives us some of Jesus' 'comfortable words': 'Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.' Horatio Spafford, learning that the ship on which he was travelling to join his wife was over the spot in the Atlantic where his four remaining children lay dead (their boat went down the week before, only his wife survived), went back to his cabin and began to write his poem/hymn 'It is well with my soul'. The first verse:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say;
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Spafford gives pause for thought to anyone who carelessly takes wellness of soul to simply mean such happiness as requires sorrow’s absence.

With what is the unquiet soul burdened? Sometimes a troubled soul may primarily be afflicted by despair or deep lonesomeness; Spafford’s verse gives us another viable answer:

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!,
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! ...

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

The troubled soul whose trouble is sin has a bad conscience, is struggling to be its better self (e.g. to remain hopeful in troubled situations), and may be battling with its own animus (i.e. a driven disposition to hostility, schadenfreude, envy, etc). This soul suffers from wretchedness, and 'wretchedness' - along with 'yearning' and 'longing', 'lonesomeness' and 'melancholy' - is a piece of what I want to call 'soul language'. Its wretchedness is particularly powerful if it fears that what it did was not only unforgiven but also unforgivable.

I'd like to note, however, that it’s not enough, for being a troubled soul, that one be any old wrongdoer. For soul trouble essentially involves a certain kind of inner conflict. In fact, the greatest soul trouble comes from the double whammy, quite ordinary in human life, of both having a bad conscience and also being ashamed of this. ‘Confession’, it's said, ‘is good for the soul’. ‘By confessing his crime he lost his liberty but regained his soul’. And we engage in soul searching when we undertake a deep and anxious examination of our hidden motives, feelings, and ownmost desires. Confession and repentance not only do something to address one’s guilt; they also lance the boil of our shame. We persecute ourselves for our wrongdoings not simply because of their wrongness but because we fear being shunned for them. We are also tempted to deny their wrongness - and to the extent that we do this we are, as discussed above, left in further inner turmoil, the clash of conscience and denial kicking up a storm within. When we confess, however, we take a bold step of fully owning our guilt, so now we are once again one with ourself. And we also break out past our shame, daring to look up into the other's eyes again where we can experience rejection or, we dare to hope, forgiveness. Genius in the Christian message, I’d say, is its stress on redemption through sincere repentance. Such an approach to soul life is in fact life-giving in a way I’ll consider further later.

Consider: ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed’. If we were asked to say whether, at this point in the communion rite, we are praying for our guilt, our shame, our hopelessness, or our loneliness to be healed, I think we shouldn’t want to choose. And yet it’s surely the forgiveness of our sins against God, those stemming from vicious pride, that are to the fore. We find a similar sentiment in the Anglican Prayer of Humble Access: 'We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.’

Damage, Blemish and Loss

A further range of idioms concern damage or blemish to the soul. Martin Luther King said this: 'Segregation is a blatant denial of the unity which we have in Christ. It substitutes an 'I-It' relationship for the 'I-Thou' relationship, and relegates persons to the status of things. It scars the soul and degrades the personality.' Here it’s not guilt but shame, a felt loss of dignity, that’s to the fore. But when Aquinas (Summa Theologiae I–II q.86 a.1 ad 3) talks of a stain on the soul, the stain is largely a matter of sin: “The stain ... signifies a certain privation of the soul’s brightness.… It is like a shadow, which is the privation of light because of the obstacle of some body, and which varies according to the diversity of the bodies which constitute the obstacle [to the light]." PMS Hacker provides a more recent example (see above quote) when he wrote of how 'uncontrolled feelings of jealousy can infiltrate the mind, dominate the will, and blacken the very soul of the jealous.' (p.227 of The Passions). Here the soul is considered as the organ not only of hope but also of love. We will consider later how all these moments of it interrelate. For now, though, let’s continue pursuing our idioms - such as the iron entered into his soul - as when you succumb to bitterness and despair after ill-treatment. (This one, interestingly, arose by way of a mistranslation of the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, the original matter having to do with oneself being placed into iron (i.e. into fetters) rather than iron being placed into oneself!)

Certain kinds of labour, abuse, or disappointment can be soul-destroying. We may sometimes say this of such work as is simply boring, when we feel our motivation and joy seep away. ‘The daily rat race is soul-destroying: you soon give up all aspirations and just try to survive the boredom.’ The destruction becomes more significant when our hope also gives out. (I want to note here that destroyed souls, like the morale of which they are constituted, may be rebuilt.) ‘Drag myself into the gym..and fuel myself with dread at the thought of facing another soul-sucking day in Hollywood.’ (OED: 2009 G. Bullock-Prado Confections of Closet Master Baker ii. 20)

Souls may also be given away, signed away, or sold. ‘Now he’s working 7 days a week in the factory for this tyrannical boss, he can't call his soul his own.’ Faust (a la Marlowe, Goethe, and Mann) may not have exactly sold his soul to the Devil, but to risk it on a bet with Mephistopheles was great sacrilege, and a Faustian bargain is now understood as one in which one sells one's soul for material gain. (Judas Iscariot also 'sells out', betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.) Mark (8:36; see also Matthew 16:26; Luke 9:24-5) records Jesus saying 'For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?' It’s useful here to think on the difference between the soul that's sold or signed away and the soul that's in turmoil. Someone who sells his soul deactivates his conscience in order to pursue hedonistic ends; he stops caring about the depravity into which he has sunk (see Ilham Dilman). He may at first have felt pangs of conscience, but he deals with the inner conflict by shutting down his fellow feeling. Oscar Wilde, looking back at the debauchery of his younger days, commented that ‘I ceased to be captain of my soul.’ Wilde, that is, had - under Bosey’s baleful influence - become moved simply by his base desires, and had given up on the regulative ideals of dignity and probity. (I'm informed that here Wilde is quoting from W E Henley's poem Invictus; last stanza: 'It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.') 

As well as it being possible to sell or lose one's soul, it’s also possible to be a lost soul. Souls may be lost in two ways, both of which concern the central themes we’ve already met. Either the lost soul is morally wretched, seemingly beyond retrieval (it takes amazing grace to save such a wretch as is lost thus). Or it’s lacking in hope: lonely, without self-belief, and without sufficient self-understanding, self-possession or wisdom to take stock of and make changes to a life which isn’t soul-nourishing.

The term soul murder was popularised by Ibsen and Strindberg. Ibsen defines it as the destruction of the love of life and capacity for joy in another human being. In his (1896) play John Gabriel Borkman, he has a character exclaim:

You are a murderer! You have committed the one mortal sin! You have killed the love-life in me. Do you understand what that means? The Bible speaks of a mysterious sin for which there is no forgiveness. I have never understood what it could be; but now I understand. The great, unpardonable sin is to murder the love-life in a human soul.

And in his 1903 memoir, judge Schreber wrote of how Flechsig, his psychiatrist, had committed soul-murder on him. Since that time the idea of soul murder has periodically been fashionable, especially to describe the deadly effects on the personality of pathological parenting.

We also meet with disquiet in the soul in those who suffer deep loneliness and shame. Such individuals struggle to believe in their lovability, yet still want love; they have not utterly turned their back on such a possibility. So their disquiet doesn't consist simply in their dismal lack of worth, their sense of friendlessness, and so on. It consists in this combined with a residual hope that things could be otherwise, a longing for friendship, a wish to be esteemed and loved by others. A dictionary entry for a ‘soul salve’ gives us this example of the idiom in use: ‘Whenever I feel alone in the world, I go to church. Each visit is a salve for the soul.’ (Someone who is troubled may also be in need of soul doctoring.) In the communion service, everyone is as one before God, equally in need, equally fallible and in need of grace, equally invited to know of God's love for them. This experience of solidarity, recognition and love, from neighbour and God, is the antithesis of loneliness and shame.

A Brief Metaphysics of Soul

This discussion of soul idioms has so far has been organised by sketching the families of metaphors in terms of which we articulate soul. I started there rather than by jumping into metaphysics because I wanted both to remind us of how we actually do all talk of soul in everyday life, and also to impress on us the true importance of what we’re doing when we do so speak. The aim, in short, has been to subvert that philosophical tendency to say ‘oh, but those are just idiomatic uses; when we really want to know about the soul itself, we should instead turn straight to metaphysics’. For our ordinary language, I suggest, often carries a deep wisdom in it - a wisdom which can be ours too if we halt the temptation to brashly presume that our reflective understanding of soul need learn nothing from the practical understanding shown in our intuitive grasp of soul idioms. If after having developed a clear understanding of what you’re doing in using it, you still feel minded to pursue metaphysical questions about soul which ignore that wisdom, then, well... knock yourself out. In what remains, however, I’ll begin to develop my own reflective appreciation of the nature of soul, first discussing some seemingly discrete themes before moving on to suggest how they’re unified in the “soul” concept. These themes have to do with the significance for our soul life of hope, love, core, conscience, and life. 

There are, so far as I know, no soul idioms that explicitly mention hope. Even so, an intuitive understanding of soul as, as we might say, the ‘organ of hope’ is common. Hence Emily Dickinson: ‘Hope is the thing with feathers - That perches in the soul’. Hence Gabriel Marcel: ‘hope is for the soul what breathing is for the living organism. Where hope is lacking the soul dries up and withers’ (Homo Viator p. 10). Uplift and despair are the soul’s ownmost moments. (See also Marcel’s note: ‘The soul lives by hope alone; hope is perhaps the very stuff of which our souls are made’ (Being & Having, p. 80). The ‘alone’ seems wrong to me, and the breathing analogy may also mislead, to the extent that they incline us to overlook the equal significance of love in the soul... of which more later.)

And what’s hope? The hopeful soul is buoyant; it finds itself wanting to populate the future with potential meaning, opening up possibility spaces before it into which it and others may move. It lives in eager anticipation of good things. We may, if we wish, use the words ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’ to mark the poles of a conceptual contrast (see e.g. Eagleton’s Hope Without Optimism). The optimist, let’s say, has a Pollyannaish attitude: their anticipation of the good takes the form of positively skewed empirical prediction. Accordingly they’ll be not only disappointed, but also surprised, when reality doesn’t sufficiently respect their enthusiasm! The optimist populates the future with supposedly likely meaning. The hopeful subject by contrast knows full well the merely potential nature of this meaning; and yet they’re no less realistic in their attitude toward what shall happen for all their hope; even so they willingly move toward such a future. Their anticipation of the good takes the form of an eagerness for it and a willingness to be disappointed if that shall be their lot (they're not refusing to ‘get their hopes up’ by never looking forward to anything). The hopeful person is able to spot opportunities, and the life in them autocatalytically begets more life. The above-mentioned Horatio Spafford, because - (and despite the death of his son, the drowning of his four daughters, and the loss of all his investments in the great fire of Chicago) - he could say ‘it is well with my soul’, could also go on in hope to father another three children (one of whom also died), move to Jerusalem with his wife, and set up the American Colony, an extraordinary philanthropic enterprise.

Interesting about hope is that we hope not only ‘for’ or ‘that’ but also ‘in’. Thus we might put our hope in the Lord (or in a worldly ruler). This is akin to the distinction between believing that and believing in. If I believe or have faith in you, then inter alia I put myself, including my hope, in your hands. And if my hope is in you, then I live in trust of your redemptive potency. I labour this here only because I want to urge that hope takes significant forms that transcend any particular ‘hope that’. Yes, of course, I can hope that - say - you get better soon. But more than that, the hopeful person is alive to potency and not mere actuality; they’re nourished in their action not simply by some particular thing which may lie before them but more generally by the ‘promise of things’. They're alive, in short, to that inner force or figure (that ‘internal object', to speak with the Kleinians) which the psychoanalyst Neville Symington calls ‘the lifegiver’. Life's meanings have not crumbled away for this person; they are, naturally, less prone to hope’s antitheses: paralysing fear and despair. By placing my hope in what lies beyond me and beyond worldly satisfactions, my pusilla anima (oligopsykhos) grows into a magna anima - my pusillanimity is replaced by magnanimity.

In talking of hope I’ve talked already a good deal of life. Hope, that is, gives us energy; it makes for (not-unwarranted) enthusiasm (en-theos: divinely inspired).That which is soul-destroying or soul-sucking deprives us of ready energy for life; our soul then is at a low ebb. If you want an epitome of the soulless, think on the lifelessness of hospital rooms and corridors filled with machines, nothing organic, no view of the natural world, perhaps a few weeds growing up between concrete slabs outside the window. If however our soul is stirred by a rousing speech, or if we enjoy the company of the life and soul of the party, we at least temporarily regain our appetite for life. Hope, that is, is no mere abstract attitude toward the future; it’s a lively state in which one thrums with 'vitality affects' (Daniel Stern). The life of the soul is this joy at life that transcends despair and awakens us to possibility. Such soul energy has no empty manic tinge to it, and far from depending on inwardly splitting the psyche to avoid contact with despair, or outwardly splitting off the psyche from a difficult reality, it inwardly integrates us and promotes our willing participation in what lies outwith our control.

In Psalm 23 King David sings ‘He leads me beside still waters, He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.’ And in singing thus he’s not talking about two separate matters - the restoration of his soul life and being led in the paths of righteousness. We see this confluence of morality and hope reflected in many of the idioms considered earlier: the soul is scarred, destroyed, blackened, sold, lost and stained through sin, and is restored, washed, provided with a salve, doctored, healed, regained, by he who confesses. He whose soul is washed of its sin can once again feel hope, can participate gladly in life again. He who has corrupted his soul must now, in his small-souled way, gain his appetite for life not from hope but from the satisfactions of power and sensory pleasures.

To say that the soul is the organ of hope is to say that we can’t understand what it is to ‘have soul’ unless we understand that it essentially involves our being able to experience hope (and dread and fear). But what form of hope is it that bespeaks the uncorrupted soul, and how does this axis of hope in the soul relate to its other axis, namely our conscience? My final suggestion is that the soul’s nourishment is love. What we ultimately hope for is: a life of love. What we dread is exile, existential death, being found unlovable. Shame alerts us to this dread. And one of the things we can be most ashamed by is our moral wrongdoing, our wrongdoing which breaks the bonds of love between ourselves and others.

As was the case with hope, our soul idioms also scarcely alert us to the centrality of love in the soul’s life. We have, to be sure, such notions as the soulmate (someone with whom we feel a great affinity, and with whom mutual recognition and understanding flows in a wonderful way. The term was coined by Coleridge (‘To be happy in Married Life... you must have a Soul-mate,’ (1822)), but the concept predates it (thus Montaigne writes of how, in the deep 'friendship which I'm talking about, souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found. If you pressed me to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed except by replying: ‘Because it was him: because it was me’.’ (1580 - On Friendship)). Similar notions are those of the kindred soul, or soul sister. Yet such idioms don’t by themselves take us where we need to go.

Love’s significance for our soul life can however be grasped more clearly if we ask whether we’d consider someone who had sold his soul, whose soul had become utterly corrupted, to nevertheless readily be able to love others? Or: could someone who was dead to love nevertheless give you a soulful glance? Consider too the unquiet soul, someone who suffers the soul’s dark night (i.e. who descends into depression): can we understand their loss of hope, their descent into despair, in abstraction from the question of whether they still enjoy a ready access to love in their heart, or whether they can trust in the intelligibility of the enlivening idea of their lovability, or whether they can trust that their love for another could be well-received? The answer to all these questions is, surely, ‘no’. (‘He who does not love remains in death’ 1 John 3:14; 'Love... has from everlasting come into existence from the soul aspiration toward the higher and the good, and he was there always, as long as Soul, too exist' Plotinus, Ennead III §5.9; 'My love is my weight' Augustine, Confessions XIII, 9).) Ilham Dilman notes: ‘when someone who has lived a life of pleasure discovers a limit to it in coming to care for others and he condemns his previous life, we say that he has found his soul.’ We intuitively understand, then, that it’s love - agape, caritas - which animates the soul, and that the soul is the site of love and hope’s mutual nourishment. Such hope as is of the soul is for a life lived out of and in receipt of love. (Borrowing from medieval philosophy, perhaps we could talk here of the ‘convertibility’ of such spiritual virtues as animate the soul?) To love is always-already to hope: it’s to want the best for someone and to want apt union with them. For one’s soul to be alive is for one to be alive to the significance of love in life, as a disclosive force which shows us the reality of others and which awakens us to life and to life’s value. We see something of this confluence or interpenetration of life, love, hope, and conscience in the soul when we consider that against which our souls rebel. Mrs Alving says to Pastor Manders: “Yes—when you forced me under the yoke of what you called duty and obligation; when you lauded as right and proper what my whole soul rebelled against as something loathsome…” (Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts). Our souls rebel against the lifeless and the loveless; if they do not rebel then they lose the hope that’s in them. The superego’s dominion involves the fear-based suppression of life, whereas the true conscience is the life-giving voice of love within.

Within the Old and New Testaments, ‘Nephesh’ and ‘Psyche’ appear 753 and 105 times respectively. The King James Bible translates these as ‘soul’ in 475 and 58 instances; the New International Version has 110 and 25 occurrences of them - i.e. other words (‘heart’, ‘yourself’, ‘himself’, etc etc) are more often used instead of ‘soul’ in the NIV. So far as I know it’s typically understood as controversial to assert that Biblical writers were working with the idea of a soul separable from the body. In this talk I’ve not attempted to answer the question ‘what is a soul?’; to be honest, I find the question to itself be unclear. I may have a stain on my soul; and I may ask you to do something for my sake; it’s not clear to me that asking ‘what is a soul?’ is a clearer question than asking ‘what is a sake?’ (W V Quine, Word and Object.) For this reason I'm tempted to put it in the 'more-confused-than-deep' box along with its notorious box companions: 'what's consciousness? what's mind?' Doing something for my sake means: doing it to help me; my soul being stained means that I carry a life-depleting guilt within me. I will confess that I myself find it no less confusing to be asked whether my soul, than my sake, outlives my body. Whether it be swept up into God’s eternity on my death (and in this sense 'puts on immortality') is, it seems to me, perhaps another matter, as is whether someone may meaningfully pray for my soul’s repose after I’ve died. (You can wrong - e.g. calumniate - me even when I’m dead. Why then can’t you also meaningfully pray for my soul after I've gone?) Instead of attempting to make sense of and answer the ‘what is a soul?’ question, I've instead looked at how we use the word ‘soul’. Whether that use is Biblical or is what's met with in everyday discourse, what I’ve hoped to bring out is how the term indexes our life as love-filled, hope-full, life-receiving-and-giving, conscience-bearing creatures. (And hence too as hate-and-despair-ridden egotistical creatures.)

With this mention of life, love and hope etc ... with this mention of 'the birth day of life and love and wings' (E E Cummings, 'i thank you god for most this amazing') ... I'm not trying to reductively analyse soul talk into what's intelligible otherwise, but instead suggesting how, in the soul, these themes are alive in irreducible interpenetration and mutual shaping. Tempting as it may be to cash out soul-talk in non-soul-referencing terms, there’s always then - as it seems to me - a ‘little wisp’ of meaning which then goes missing; the ‘subtle body’ of the ‘soul’ concept is trashed - or, as D Z Phillips once put it, we then risk losing the very soul of our soul language. In that process, I believe, we've lost something essential for our ‘anthropology’ - i.e. for our reflective appreciation of what it is to be a human being living a human life. Soul talk gains its value because of what in human life isn’t well captured by a simple enumeration of such other matters. Consider by analogy how, whilst emotional experiences (jealousy, anger) manifest themselves (not incidentally but) constitutively in this or that characteristic behaviour, even so the concepts of such emotions can’t be reduced without loss to a list of these behaviours. If articulating such a relation - between soul and feeling, or between feeling and behaviour - puts a strain on our analytical resources, then, well... so much the worse for our resources.


  1. A beautiful piece, Richard. There are lots of things wrong with Cartesian dualism but you really bring out how limited it would be to think of a human being as consisting of just a mind and a body. In your mediation on the word "soul" you sketch a much richer picture of what it is to be human. You deal lightly with the word obvious religious and specifically Christian connotations, but I think some will still hold back from the word from a fear that embracing it will be taken to imply a belief in God and specifically a Christian God. Perhaps for that reason it is not a word I use very often, although as I said earlier I am very sympathetic to the picture you sketch of what it is to be a human being. One odd thought that struck me - linked to Descartes - is whether you would say that animals have souls; I suspect you would :-)

  2. Thank you Paul! Would I (follow Thomas and) say that animals have souls? I just don't think I would! I don't mean that I think Thomas et al wrong, since he clearly used the word in a different sense when speaking of vegetative and animal souls. I mean rather that if we mean by it what we mean in the idioms in which it everyday features, then the kinds of feelings, the form of hope, and the concerns of conscience which soul talk indexes find little purchase in the lives of animals. Having said that, we can of course think of an animal whose liveliness has gone out of it, or who has a cheerful or grumpy disposition, and in these ways we get a little bit of purchase for the concept. (And this might indeed encourage us in talk of their 'animal soul' in ways that go beyond the mere wish to register animals' automotive (er, self-moving, not combustion-engine-touting) character.)


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