I’m guessing that like me, most readers of these pages might identify as somewhat-Western in outlook, somewhat secular-humanist, somewhat politically and culturally pluralistic. And even if they don’t, tough, because this outlook is going to rub off on us one way or another. All this means is that probably we’re not spending large parts of our day thinking about our souls. Or anyone else’s soul for that matter. I certainly don’t.
I’m guessing that like me, you probably identify as somewhat-Western in outlook, somewhat secular-humanist, somewhat politically and culturally pluralistic. And even if you don’t, tough, because this mindset is going to rub off on us one way or another. All this really means is that probably you’re not spending large parts of your day thinking about your soul. Or anyone else’s for that matter.
As Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro acknowledge (Goetz = god/good; Taliaferro = blacksmith – of the soul?) in their Brief History of The Soul, we live in an intellectual climate that is “quite hostile to the idea that we are embodied souls…that there might be more to us than our physical bodies.”
The ruling ethos now, they suggest, is that of materialism, and offer Daniel Dennett’s explanation of consciousness to encapsulate a view that has no place for Soul, other than as a metaphor, a fable, a koan:
“There is only one sort of stuff, namely matter—the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology—and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the mind is the brain. According to materialists, we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition, and growth.”
All well and good. But if talk of souls, even in a comprehensive materialist world can only be used metaphorically, doesn’t that still give us plenty to be getting on with?
For in the hours leading up to me writing this, I have been wholly immersed in the material dimension with all its easily-recognised and measurable physio-chemical processes: waking, urinating, exercise, cleaning, consuming and processing food + consuming and processing information (Radio 4’s Moral Maze), reading and writing.
Yet within this embodied framework, surely even the most ardent materialist would recognise that the experiential tenor of these activities was perceptually non-material, more metaphorical than anything else. In other words carried over, or transferred (Latin from Greek metaphora, metapherein “transfer, carry over; change, alter”. Or: “to use a word in a strange sense,” from meta- “over, across” + pherein “to carry, bear”).
The carrying over here being from the material realm (house, man, dog, food, toilet, park, book, pen) into one of thoughts, feelings, sensations. Ironically, the material only seems to truly matter to us when this transformative transfer has occurred.
There is also a linguistic and cognitive connection here to the word infer, another kind of carrying over from impersonal, meaningless materiality (a bunch of words signifying the Mu koan) into a realm of personal consequentiality and significance.
For yesterday I carried out exactly the same physio-chemical morning moves (just replace New Yorker Podcast for The Moral Maze) and felt pleasurably engaged, whereas today everything is laden over with a kind of grey fuzz, a kind of “soul-sickness” (in modern parlance: depression) which has no physio-chemical rhyme nor reason to it. So we ignore metaphor at our peril. Metaphor is everything, metaphor is Soul.
As we’re now in the run up to Christmas, how about I chart, advent-calendar style, the changing fashions, different outfits and metaphorical vehicles for this almost-intangible experience of Soul (or whatever you care to call it: psyche, spirit, anima, buddha nature, take your pick)?
For whatever secular, materialist, pluralistic endpoint we now inhabit, at our backs and under our feet still rests 2000 plus years of thinking and describing the attributes and place of Soul in our lives. When one examines our soul-journeys, our relationship to Soul over the last 2000 years, as I’ve been doing over the last few weeks, it strikes me as being very Mu.
Like that group of blind men let loose on an elephant, and then later asked to describe what they’d experienced, based on the parts they’d handled:
“The men who were presented with the head answered, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’ And the men who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush. Then they began to quarrel, shouting, ‘Yes it is!’ ‘No, it is not!’ ‘An elephant is not that!’ ‘Yes, it’s like that!’ and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.”
If Soul is the elephant, around which a few thousand years of philosophy, literature, and religion have squabbled, then here follows, in the form of an advent calendar countdown, my somewhat haphazard metaphorical précis.
Tomorrow: A Brief (Metaphorical) History of The Soul, Pt One: The Soul as Animator.