Rachel Kelsall. 21 November, 2016.
The concept of a soul has been continuously defined and debated throughout the course of human history. The Oxford Dictionary defines a soul as the:
“The spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal. A person’s moral or emotional nature or sense of identity.”
However person to person the definition is different, as is the belief. Many people believe in the soul due to their religion, many believe in it because it is an answer to some of life’s unanswerable questions, and many believe that we do not have a soul that is ‘spiritual’ or ‘immortal’ but simply that we have a consciousness that will cease to exist when we die. This article aims to portray these views and their origins as well as some of their more vocal supporters.
Souls cannot be measured scientifically, this means we cannot prove that they exist, however the arguments for the existence of souls follow a more logical path than it first might be assumed. E. B. Tylor explains this in his 1871 book Primitive Culture in which he suggests early man came to the conclusion that humans have souls after observing two universally occurring phenomena: Dreaming and Death. He suggested that early humans would observe dreaming as the ‘self’ leaving the body during sleep. And that death would be viewed as some vital part of the body, a part that is linked breathing and the heart, leaving the body. This dreaming ‘self’, that will exit the body permanently at some point, leading to death, would become the concept of the soul.
Many Philosophers throughout history have believed in the presence of a human soul and have based their ideas and teachings on this idea. Aristotle suggested that love between two people comes from having one soul in dwelling in two bodies, this links to the idea of the ‘soulmate’ that is still persistent in popular culture today (e.g Jim and Pam from The Office). Whereas Plato describes ‘Thinking’ as the talking of the soul with itself, this belief that our consciousness is a part of our soul also persists in the modern day. Just think of the last time you heard someone say they put their ‘heart and soul’ into a piece of work, an expression that portrays that a person put all of their effort and affections into something. My final quote linking to the importance of souls in Philosophical teachings comes from Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman Philosopher, who stated “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” This shows how important a part it was believed the soul played in the body, as he describes the soul as intrinsic and important, (trust me Marcus Tullius Cicero really, REALLY, liked books).
And now onto philosophers who were slightly less keen on the idea of a soul. Firstly Voltaire who argued that souls are not necessary to explain thought and consciousness, it is simply a part of the body. He explained this viewpoint in 1764 when he wrote ‘’Thought is something distinct from matter,” say you. But what proof of it have you? Is it because matter is divisible and figurable, and thought is not? […] Weak, reckless reasoners! Gravitation is neither wood, nor sand, nor metal, nor stone; movement, vegetation, life are not these things either, and yet life, vegetation, movement, gravitation, are given to matter.” Secondly, Nietzsche who wrote “I consist of body and soul — in the worlds of a child. And why shouldn’t we speak like children? But the enlightened, the knowledgeable would say: I am body through and through, nothing more; and the soul is just a word for something on the body.” He claimed in his work a similar idea to Voltaire, and disregarded the idea of a soul based on the concept that everything we attribute to the soul is simply a part of the body.
These contrasting ideals can have no solid conclusion as souls are not solid and are not measurable and because of this they may not even exist. But this is something that by nature we can never truly prove. And so the cycle continues…