While our concept of self perhaps lacks the ethical connotations of the soul, both embody our search for transcendental values and meaning. The self is not something fixed and static, but something we seek to develop in ourselves and others.
“This me [ce moi] … by which I am what I am”. This was the strange and resonant phrase Descartes used in the seventeenth century to characterise the unique individual subject of conscious experience – what is often called the self.
Some have sought to question the very idea of the self. In the Buddhist tradition, there is no such thing: there is simply a succession of psychological states that arise and pass away, but no enduring subject. The philosopher David Hume took a similar line in the eighteenth century, arguing that the idea of an enduring self is a kind of fiction or illusion. But the fact that our experience is constantly changing is no reason to deny that there is an enduring subject which undergoes these changes. Each of us has a powerful sense of a “me”, something that makes me what I am, a core self, which may no doubt change and develop over time, but which nevertheless retains its distinctive identity.
But what exactly is this “me”, this self? Descartes called it the soul: “this me, that is to say the soul by which I am what I am.” And he famously, or infamously, went on to argue that the soul is an entirely non-physical substance, capable of existing independently of the body. Given our modern knowledge of how intimately our conscious awareness is related to the brain and its workings, the Cartesian idea of an immaterial soul has today lost much of its appeal.
Each of us has a powerful sense of a “me”, something that makes me what I am, a core self, which may no doubt change and develop over time, but which nevertheless retains its distinctive identity.
But we do not have to think of the soul as a ghostly immaterial substance. There is an alternative tradition, with roots going back to Aristotle, which thinks of the term “soul” as referring instead to a set of attributes or powers belonging to the human being. On this view I am not an immaterial soul but a human being, a creature of flesh and blood; but in virtue of the way my brain and nervous system are configured, I am able to think and feel and reflect – to be conscious. I am not a soul, but (to use an Aristotelian term) I am ‘ensouled’ – that is to say, possessed of faculties of thought and feeling and consciousness that depend on the intricately configured physical and biological processes that underpin them, but which are not reducible to mere physical processes. To speak of the ‘soul’ in this sense is thus not to commit to the dubious idea of ghostly immaterial substances, but to point to those distinctive human capacities that enable us to engage in the whole rich human repertoire of conscious activities.
Perhaps the most supremely important of these activities is the search for meaning and value in our lives, and this may help to explain why the terminology of ‘soul’ is still found in many different contexts in our contemporary culture where something of deep moral importance is at stake. In his powerful study The Hungry Soul (1994), Leon Kass argues that that all our human activities, even seemingly routine ones, like gathering around a table to eat, can play their part in the overall “perfecting of our nature.” In a more recent book called Places of the Soul (2014), the ecologically minded architect Christopher Day speaks of the need for humans to live, and to design and build their dwellings, in ways that harmonize with the shapes and rhythms of the natural world, and thereby provide nourishment for our deepest needs and longings.
The language of “soul” found here and in many other contexts, ancient and modern, speaks ultimately of the human longing for meaning and completion. We find the term occurring in literary and poetical writings, as well as in ordinary speech, when human beings speak about matters of central moral significance. It surfaces when people talk about the powerful human need to find our true identity; when they wrestle with the task of leading integrated and morally worthwhile lives; when they search for the love and affection that can give meaning to our existence, or the joy that arises from the sense of being at one with another human being, or, as in Wordsworth’s poem Tintern Abbey, the “serene and blessed mood” where we feel at one with the natural world around us.
It is a mark of our human nature that when we seek for the good we can never rest content with achieving a predetermined set of goals.
Using the terminology of soul in connection with these widely shared human experiences and aspirations need not necessarily imply any explicit commitment to a religious worldview. And certainly the religious believer has no monopoly on those profoundly human moral aspirations which Socrates described in terms of ‘the care of the soul’. Nevertheless, it is a mark of our human nature that when we seek for the good we can never rest content with achieving a predetermined set of goals. Even if all the conditions for welfare and comfort were secured for us, there would remain a restless longing for something more. There is that strange forward reaching of the human mind, described in many spiritual writers, a longing for something we dimly glimpse as out of our final reach, yet in which we somehow participate, in so far as our mental reach can never be finally closed off or circumscribed.
Talk of the soul is thus connected with the human longing for transcendence. In our perennial human search for truth, beauty and goodness we yearn to align ourselves with something beyond ourselves, and in the transformative human experiences and practices we call “spiritual”, we glimpse something of transcendent value that, as Iris Murdoch once put it, may have the power to “purify our desires”. Holding on to the language of the soul is way of empowering us to acknowledge and foster these deep human longings that are an ineradicable part of our nature.
There is an ancient question from the Gospels, “What does it profit a human being to gain the whole world and to lose his or her soul?” Though the idea of the soul may seem problematic to many people today, we all still grasp the underlying challenge posed by this question. We intuitively grasp what is meant by the loss in question—the kind of moral disorientation and collapse where what is true and good slips out of our grasp and we find we have wasted our lives on some specious gain that is ultimately worthless.
The self is not something fixed and static, but is something whose growth and maturity we seek to foster in ourselves and encourage in others.
This brings us back to the idea of the self, which we started with. The self is not something fixed and static, but is something whose growth and maturity we seek to foster in ourselves and encourage in others. That is why many people find it natural to see life as a kind of journey, where we strive to learn from our mistakes and reach towards the best that we can become. And this in turn may explain why the term “soul” still has a valid role to play in our understanding of what it is to be human, and why the term “self,” though it has sometimes been used interchangeably with “soul,” does not serve as well.
For not all conceptions of the self necessarily carry the strong ethical and evaluative connotations associated with the idea of the soul: the self might, for instance, simply indicate an individual’s psychological profile or personality, whereas the use of the term “soul” very often points us not just towards the selves that we are, but towards the better selves we ought to be. So to say we have a soul is partly to say that we humans, despite all our flaws, are fundamentally oriented towards the good. We yearn to rise above the waste and futility that can so easily drag us down, and to reach towards something of transcendent value that draws us forward. In responding to this call, we aim to realize our true selves, the selves we were meant to be.