Ethics in everyday life: what is a soul?
It’s that time of year again for Halloween.
The holiday originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III made November 1 a time to honor all saints.
I like to think of Halloween in a more universal way, as a time to remember and honor all souls.
But what is a soul?
This is the kind of question a child asks that shocks parents. It’s like asking other big questions that kids ask and adults try to answer, like asking what happens to someone after they die or what was there before there was nothing.
It may be that asking the questions is important even if the answers are difficult to answer. Philosopher Aristotle once said that philosophy begins with wonder, so perhaps retaining a sense of wonder is at the heart of what it means to be fully human.
I once asked students in a philosophy class if they had a soul, and most responded with puzzled, blank eyes. While we were discussing the question, the students said that they often wondered about the question but no one had ever asked them to answer it.
We had talked about some of the early philosophers’ reflections on the soul, many saying simply that the soul was spiritual to show its difference from body or matter. The soul was conceived as the immaterial part of the human being and, indeed, of all creatures.
The word “soul” is “nephesh” in Hebrew and refers to each person’s inner self – mind, will, and emotions. When Jesus warned against losing one’s soul in search of other physical benefits such as the accumulation of wealth, it was this notion of the soul as an authentic self or a real person.
In the past, caring for the soul was essential to well-being. Plato and Socrates believed that this effort was the most essential need of human beings. Socrates believed that the practice of philosophy – questioning and seeking the truth – took care of our souls, a kind of therapy to promote healing and wholeness.
Of course, in some other traditions, the soul is the spirit that animates the entire cosmos, including plants and animals. Our dog and cats seem to have more soul than some people I have known, and even the trees feel full of a lively spirit. Perhaps this is why writer Alice Walker was able to write: “I know if I cut down a tree my arm would bleed.
It has also been written by historians that a nation can have a “soul”, a web of animating principles, in our case the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This is why it hurts when people violate these basic standards by their actions – they damage our collective soul.
I guess you can spend your life trying to define what soul is. It’s the same kind of effort some criticize for focusing on questions with no clear answers, like debating the number of angels on the head of a pin.
But taking care of your soul or inner spirit is just as important as taking care of your body. A regular practice of taking the time to reflect on one’s life, living ethically, and honoring the soul inside and out is essential.
It may never be possible to find a definition of soul that is intellectually satisfying for everyone, but that misses the point. As an essential principle of life, the soul cannot be reduced to a simple formula. Perhaps this is why one of my students came up with the wisest answer: “I cannot define what the soul is, but I know it when I feel it. “
John C. Morgan is a writer and teacher whose weekly columns appear in this and other journals.