The Immortality of the Soul
Why you will live forever. (Or, are we human, or are we dancer?)
It is a sign of backwardness that so many of us, unbelievably, affirm that human beings are only random collections of quantum particles.
Thus, when we die, nothing really changes – random and minute quarks just do a different dance. There is, apparently, no soul. Which ultimately leads to the inevitable conclusion that there is no me, there is no you, there is no love, there is no beauty, there is nothing after death – because no thing, and no person, really ever existed.
(Which is why rock ‘n roll band The Killers pose the question, ‘Are we human, or are we dancer?’)
Scientists are even going so far as suggesting there is no such thing as reality – see this latest piece from The Atlantic’. This would seem like nonsense to all sane people – but in fact these scientists are being completely logical given they have no belief in the soul.
Instinctively, we do not live this way.
We live as though people and things are real – that they have a nature or an essence. That when you club a baby seal, you are not simply re-organising matter, nor are you merely a piece of matter flowing in the world without any choice, will or responsibility.
For a pure materialist – who holds that there is only bare particles – life and death can only be illusory simulations. Flickers of smoky light on a quantum cinema screen.
This is not progressive thinking. If anything, it is a nihilism reminiscent of the pre-rational, pre-Socratic philophers who also did not believe in the soul, or anything for that matter.
The discoverer of electricity, Thales, believed everything was made of water, for example. Thinkers like Heraclitus believed everything was change – there were no things at all. Others said everything was made of fire or rarefied air – or tiny bits of Lego they named atoms. Still others said everything was just one substance – and diversity and change were the illusions.
When humanity discovered there is an Is
But with the advent of philosophy, in the person of Socrates, a tradition of rationality was born. It is intriguing to note that rationality and a belief in the soul’s immortality were born together. The two concepts almost depend on each other – if you are not a person, how can you deduce the general categories of thought that rationality requires? Who is there to do any thinking?
Socrates and his student Plato believed that everything on earth had a form, or an idea, which was its essence. Plato, in particular, believed that every thing was a copy or a shadow of an ideal essence that existed in some purer, non-material reality.
This sounds a bit strange to us, but for the Ancient Greeks this represented a giant leap forward in philosophical thought.
Plato, in a sense, saved reality, by working out that things are in fact things – people, trees, fire, were real. His theory of Forms made sense and made reality far more workable. Where otherwise do we get notions of equality, justice, blue-ness, humanity, if those things are not essences, real ideas? Without these ideas, how do you arrange politics around the concepts of humanity, justice, fairness etc?
The theory was further improved by Plato’s own student, Aristotle, when he noted that it was irrational to believe in a realm of Forms from which material reality was derived – as you would then need Forms of Forms forever – and how do we actually get to know the Form if all we see is the shadow? No, Aristotle said, we get our knowledge of reality from the reality we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.
Aristotle and a world of souls
If Plato saved reality, we could say Aristotle made reality real, with his insight that in fact the Form, or essence, of any thing resides in the thing itself. A tree is a tree because its matter is held in the Form of a tree – not because it is the shadow of an ideal Tree. In this way, a tree can be said to have its own vegetative soul, its own animator as a tree. We see and touch a tree. We know it to be a tree because the matter of the tree is organised by its essence into the Form of tree-ness.
The same goes for animals. There is a difference between a corpse of an animal and a live animal. Its being is its own animal soul, which includes the living qualities of a tree, but an animal soul also contains powers such as senses and mobility and instinct. (It’s worth noting that the word ‘animal’ comes from the Latin word for soul, ‘anima’.)
We also, as people, have souls – but souls different in kind to that of plants or animals.
Like a tree, your soul is the Form of your body. Because it is obvious you are not a mere collection of blood and bone, Aristotle would say your soul is the organising principle within your being. You grow like a tree. You breathe and sense and move like an animal.
And because you are an intellectual being, you reason and think. You weigh up concepts ‘in’ your mind. You have a consciousness which can never be reduced merely to the chemistry of your brain. Your soul is the rational, non-material essence of you – the part of you that knows and wills.
It is not some kind of magic liquid in your brain – it is not a seperate substance from the body. Together the body and the soul are a substance – together they make you human. We are soul and body, composite creatures. To be human means to be not just a body, and not just a mind.
Clearly there is interaction between the two. Our souls come to know via the work of our senses. Our will to do something will effect our bodily movements. But at the same time it is important to note that your mind, your soul or spirit, cannot be forced to believe anything by your body or even your brain, the most complex part of your body. Even if a neurologist were to tinker with your neurons, there is still a ‘you’ that knows and wills.
Nobody has really improved on this classical philosophical understanding of the human soul. And whatever the modern thinkers say, we all live, whether consciously or not, in the light of Aristotle’s theory.
The soul is immortal
But we do neglect some of the logical results of Aristotle’s thinking – namely, that if the soul is real, and non-material, it must also then be immortal. Because the soul is not made of parts, it cannot decay. Your soul can think about its own thoughts, reason about non-material things like justice and beauty – none of this would make sense unless your soul itself was not material, but a kind of spiritual reality, connected with matter, yes, but transcending it at the same time.
The soul of a tree passes away when it is cut down and burnt. The soul of a dog will die with the dog’s body. But our souls are intellectual. They are spiritual. In a way, they can contain the world because they can know the world. In fact our souls even thirst for a knowledge beyond this world – to which the belief of every historic culture in the after-life attests.
The great philosopher of the Middle Ages, a professor at the early universities in Cologne, Paris, and Rome, Thomas Aquinas, would complete the Aristotelian view of the soul by combining it with the Christian understanding of creation and resurrection.
For Aristotle, the soul is the form of the body. It is subsistent in itself. So how can the soul then continue its journey without the body, which decays after death? The answer is the eventual resurrection of the body. The soul lives on, and somehow, in the Spirit which originally brought it to being in the womb, it will draw to itself a new body.
I sense here is where I may lose some readers. How did we get to religion from philosophy? Aquinas would answer that there is no division between religious and philosophical truth – truth can only ever be one. And if we accept that we are real things, real people, it is hard how we avoid the Christian conclusions to such lines of logic.
Even Aristotle, writing in pagan times, understood there had to be one God to bring the souls of everything into being. This Prime Mover was not a personality for Aristotle, but the source of the good, the true, the beautiful – the absolutes for which the soul naturally strives.
The Christian belief is that the soul’s direction is revealed utterly when it is released from the time and space of the body. Is the soul being true to its nature in seeking Absolute Being – the God of Love, the I AM who lends existence to all things?
In a sense, Christian theology returns Aristotle to Plato – there is a place where the Forms find their home – the mind of God. And that is where we should all be headed.
Socrates and Jesus in Paradise
Before Socrates was condemned to death by the Athenians for questioning the mythology of his time, he delivered one of the greatest speeches of all time in his own defence.
He famously stated that he would never give up his philosophy because it was inspired by God – “I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state… arousing and persuading and reproaching… You will not easily find another like me.”
This was worth death because, he said, “The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death… Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know this of a truth – that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.”
These sentiments would be echoed a few centuries later by a convicted criminal on the brink of execution in a dusty outpost of the Roman empire. He had claimed to be a king of a kingdom not of this world and had been despised for it.
Two other criminals were executed alongside him, each nailed to a cross of wood, the traditional and savage means of Roman execution. One had mocked him, the other had, almost fantastically, believed in him and asked to be remembered when this Jesus of Nazareth came into his kingdom.
Jesus responded – “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
There is another world – and it is the home of all that is good. That is where your soul belongs.
Socrates knew this – and so do we, if we’re honest with ourselves.