Sunday 1 February 2004

Imagining the Soul

Rosalie Osmond

This account of the soul and its associated imagery in Classical and Christian culture is an unsatisfactory mix of bald description interspersed with the occasional unjustified assertion. Osmond, a lecturer at the University of London, and a regular contributor to the Roman Catholic magazine The Tablet, draws the erroneous conclusion from her survey that the longstanding reign of the soul in the West has been recently diminished by the rise of science. Instead, the mysterious soul has been dented by a contemporary upsurge in irrational anti-humanism.

From the outset, Osmond announces that she doesn’t intend to deal with any Oriental form of the soul, such as the reincarnated ‘atman’ of the Hindus. The book therefore commences with a brief allusion to the emergence of the soul among those primitive people who aspired to a life after death, and then rapidly proceeds – via ancient Egypt’s dual souls ‘Ka’ and ‘Ba’ – to a discussion of Greek philosophy’s divergent contributions to the familiar Christian notion of an individual soul belonging to each person.

Plato used the soul to distance mankind from ‘superficial’ materialism and physical relationships, and connect us – albeit tenuously – to the ‘reality’ of his elusive pristine Ideal Form. Aristotle, on the other hand, connected the soul – and therefore humanity – intimately to all Natural matter. So the fact that every acorn can potentially grow into an oak tree is proof enough that it possesses a soul acting to realise that latent aspiration. Medieval Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas incorporated elements from both these traditions in order to establish the orthodox Roman Catholic stance on the soul. Platonic polemics privileging a vast cosmic deity were spiced with a hefty dose of Aristotelian pragmatism emphasising the incarnation of God as man in Jesus Christ, and the reincarnation of souls that would follow the Last Judgement. It was during the Middle Ages that the Christian soul and its fate played its largest role in people’s lives. Unfortunately, Osmond doesn’t say why she thinks that the soul was so important to that world.

The bulk of Imagining the Soul is taken up with descriptions of the various ways that people have depicted the soul throughout the ages. There are chapters on the soul as a beautiful woman; literary ‘debates’ between the body and the soul over who is the most responsible for evil; the soul as portrayed in medieval mystery and miracle plays; the soul as an art motif (a bird, a butterfly, a bridge, etc); the soul at death; contemporary visions of hell and paradise; and finally modern conceptions of the soul.

Osmond alludes in passing to the Romantic vision of a neo-Platonic soul serving as an inspirational font for creativity, but she dismisses this view as representative of the secular Enlightenment. Her conclusion is that every source of alienation we suffer is a product of the diminution of the soul by rationalism. The mind has been elevated over the soul, in Osmond’s opinion to the detriment of humanity. In many ways, her book could have been written fifty or even a hundred years ago. At least back then her complaint would have made sense.

‘Hell is other people’ quipped French existentialist John-Paul Sartre. It is modern misanthropy that diminishes Osmond’s soul, not scientific rationalism. The contemporary ‘self’ may fearlessly challenge the cosmologies of the established religions. But that vulnerable self also fears every other self it ever meets. Which is why contemporary humanity prefers to relate to itself (that is, individuals relate to each other) virtually, via imagery.

When Aristotle contended that everything natural has a soul, he was following a trail pioneered by primitive philosophers or shaman. If trees and mountains and animals can have feelings, in our modest times that permits humans to be soulful too. But the contemporary microcosm also upholds neo-Platonic anti-materialism in believing that only culture can be truly perceptive. So nowadays the arts cleverly manufacture a host of lifestyle identities with which we can distract unwelcome attention away from our fragile personae. In the end, we are hiding from ourselves.

The soul – what is it good for? Any decent rationalist should dismiss such a question out of hand with a resounding negation. And it is true that a rational society would have no need for souls, since in it humanity would always relate to each other consciously. But we don’t live in such a Utopia. To paraphrase Marx’s critique of Feuerbach, it is not enough to state that man makes religion. We also need to know why such creations are necessary to a particular society.

Like the contemporary self, the mystical mind which believed its soul would last for eternity was not a rational mind, yet that soul also reflected a progressive human trait which has been lost in our contemporary times – the sense that humanity at least shares some common interests.

It was the Metaphysical poet and Protestant convert John Donne who proclaimed that ‘No man is an island entire unto himself’. From primitive times to the Middle Ages human beings related to each other and to their society through the medium of their ‘souls’. It was this universalistic aspiration, rather than the prospect of eternal paradise or the fear of hell-fire after death, which explains the longevity of the medieval passion for souls. Eventually these relations came to be superseded by more potent ties promulgated by the nationalisms launched by the Enlightenment. Multicultural society, unlike previous societies, is unique in loathing itself. When the authorities treat us like beasts, they merely reflect the awful fact that we already regard each other in that way anyway. Our selfish soul is even more shrunken that the primitive soul, which could at least transcend itself and become a tree, a lake, a stream or a mountain. The doleful contemporary soul abhors itself. That’s about all it does. Imagine that.


Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.