On the Soul and the Elements, or, Farewell to the Tripartite Anthropology, Part I

“Tripartite Anthropology” is a standard, although pompous, name for the concept held by the pre-Socratic philosophers 2500 years ago (and no doubt by people  long before then) that humans consist of body, soul, and spirit. Using those terms now is as inadequate for our times as using Empedocles’ four-element model would be for doing chemistry. We do have a physical body, obviously. The problem is with the other two terms.

 People now use the terms “soul” and “spirit” more or less interchangeably, but for the Greeks they were distinct. The Greek for “body” is soma, for “soul” is psyche, and for “spirit” is pneuma. Psyche also meant “mind” (as in psychology) or “personality”. Pneuma actually meant “air” (as in pneumatic), as did the Latin anima and the Hebrew ruach, which is what God blew into Adam to animate him.

 Back then, these terms were used to explain the difference between life and death: Body plus soul is alive; body minus soul is dead. In Greek, soma plus psyche plus pneuma was the living person; soma lacking psyche and/or pneuma was a dead person. We do not now need that sort of concept to explain the difference between live and dead bodies. We explain it instead by the concept of process. Actually, Herakleitos understood the concept of process quite well. That is what he meant when he wrote Panta rhei, “All things flow,” as well as his “You cannot step twice into the same river.”

 It has taken quite a while for the concept of “process” to become the basis for biology. It wasn’t long ago that someone tried weighing people as they died, in order to find out how much the soul weighed. What we understand now is that life is a process comprising a hierarchy of processes; our bodies must continually change in order to stay the same. In fact, after seven years, every molecule in our bodies has been replaced. For that reason, my dear friends Larry and Catherine Shaw have renewed their marriage vows every seven years since 1963, when I had the honor and pleasure of writing a Goddess wedding ritual for them.

 There is no “soul” that leaves the body at the moment of death. Instead, at that moment the processes of life end and the processes of decay begin. But, of course, we are not just physical bodies that can be described completely in terms of the laws of science. I know there are fundamentalists (Humanists, largely) who devoutly believe we can be thus described. They also tend to believe that human consciousness and thinking can ultimately be duplicated by computers (that’s the quest for “artificial intelligence”) and that consciousness cannot exist except within a human (or at least mammalian) brain. A person can hold such beliefs only by denying the existence of the facts to the contrary, on the assumption that denial is an adequate explanation. And of course such people always, these days, call themselves “scientists.” I will now cease wasting your time and mine on snarkiness.

 In order to deal with the eternal issue of “life after death,” we will do better to consider the other meaning of psyche, that is, “mind” or “personality” (not butterfly; that’s a different story) or, more broadly, “consciousness.” In other words, since there is no “soul” that survives death, is there any aspect of ourselves that might? In yet other words, the actual question is always, “If something survives death, would that something still be me, my self-awareness of myself as a person who is different from all other persons?” The proposal in some Eastern philosophies that the something melts into the substrate of reality and is no longer a distinct, separate, self-aware entity is definitely not attractive to the Western mentality. Perhaps the Western traditions value individuality more than some Eastern traditions do. One thread in the Jewish scriptures is the idea that God calls us each by name, that is, values us as distinct individuals; I believe this is connected to the Jewish saying that “To take a human life is to destroy the entire universe.”

 Obviously there is not now and perhaps never will be a definitive answer to that question of “Will I, the real me, somehow survive death?” I can offer here only my own experience, from my own Awakening at age 14: in that moment of bliss, I was aware that I was simultaneously, paradoxically, incomprehensibly both myself and yet not different from the vast caring person I was immersed in. I suppose that knowledge is a corollary of the conclusion, reached by the pre-Socratic philosophers 2500 years ago, that the ultimate reality needs to be simultaneously One and Many.

 Just in case you don’t get that, let me summarize their reasoning. They said, suppose the ultimate reality is just a Oneness. Then why is there so much diversity? Why isn’t our cosmos just a homogeneous blob like a sea of mud? On the other hand, if our cosmos is formed out of the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, why doesn’t it fall apart into four separate universes, each consisting entirely of just one element? They concluded that a Oneness must be holding the Manyness together, that the ultimate reality, the “Zeus,” must be both One and Many.

 Perhaps someone else might experience an Awakening quite differently from me, might see and hear and feel in utterly other ways, but I conjecture from my experience that in the reality we can almost never be consciously be aware of, we are each simultaneously ourselves and inseparable from that compassionate consciousness I felt. Further,our paradoxical twofold nature need not be experienced only after death. Instead, I know—and this is what makes me a Gnostic—that any person can fall into that bliss and yet be given themselves back, now with total freedom, simply by letting go absolutely and allowing that to happen. “Pride” is the traditional name for our inability to just let go; the “mystics” figured that out centuries ago.

 None of this should be hot news. Kant deduced about two centuries ago that our concept of ourselves as being different from God is not an objective reality, but instead is one of the a priori assumptions built into our consciousness—but, I know, who reads Kant these days?

 The point I want to make here is to challenge you, dear reader, to consciously, purposely, and stubbornly stop using the word “soul.” It is obsolete. If you use it, you might as well be assuming that the Earth is flat, that the Sun revolves around the Earth, that the stars are points of light on a crystal sphere that surrounds our solar system. If you use it, you are not dealing with reality—and that’s a common-sense definition of mental illness. If you use it, you are contributing to maintaining the endemic mental illness of most people. Is that an exaggeration? Unfortunately, it is not.

 Next, or soon, I will deal similarly with the word “Heaven.” More will be revealed. (And I must thank my old friend Robert Mattheisen for assuring me he thinks what I’m doing with these blogs is important. Myself, I don’t know. I hope he’s right.)

A Choice for the Erinyes of Victimhood
How I Pray
Trekking Toward Nineveh, Mile One
“I Fell in Love with a Witch”: The Vision of Gerald Gardner
  • Kate Gladstone

    “a priori assumptions built into our own consciousness” — how would you ever know if gnostic/mystic experiences weren’t just another (though very different) set of “a priori assumptions”: not always operational, but simply “built in” latently, pre-programmed to temporarily take over under certain conditions … and, as part of the programming, pre-programmed to _be_ believed when they take over: whether the resulting beliefs are in fact accurate or not?

    After all: if we can have one set of “built-in assumptions,” we can have another set of “built-ins” that simply doesn’t always override the first set … But that can be _just_ as compelling when it _does_!

  • Ywen DragonEye

    In an Otherworld journey once I came upon Gawain sitting in a tree. I asked him how he could be in the Otherworld if there was such a thing as reincarnation. He said that the part of him that was “just Gawain” remained in the Otherworld, the rest of him then could reincarnate. This was a concept I had never heard before. I was not, at the time, familiar with the idea of spirit and soul being two different things. To me, this says that the spirit remains in the Otherworld, the soul goes on to reincarnate (or visa versa, terminology doesn’t matter). I think the part of us that goes on to reincarnate is the part of us that is Godde. The divine within us seeks life repeatedly in order to interact – to not be so alone.

  • Dave Burwasser

    ” A person can hold such beliefs only by denying the existence of the facts to the contrary, on the assumption that denial is an adequate explanation.”
    At the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton, that depends on what the meaning of “fact” is. Indications of something beyond the material are devilishly hard to replicate, let alone study in a controlled setting. And materialist science has a way of expanding its scope incrementally to eventually include stuff that would have sounded like mysticism half a century earlier: Dark matter, dark energy, cosmic inflation, the God particle, etc.

    Materialists can get very snarky about others’ “facts” but I’m not persuaded that counter-snark is a good strategy. YMMV.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    Aidan, you’re the third person in the past two weeks to bring up the question of the soul and what – if anything – survives death. I’m going to take that as a sign I need to quit stalling and start organizing my own thoughts on the matter.

    I will say I’m not sure the concept of a tripartite soul is totally wrong, though clearly the model described by the Greeks is obsolete. In particular, I’m intrigued by the Feri concept of a human soul, animal soul and god soul.

    And I think the word “soul” is so engrained in our culture that getting rid of it will be pretty much impossible. A more likely project is figuring out how we define “soul”.

    Like I said, it’s time to start organizing my thoughts. Thanks for the prompt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eala.ban Éireann Lund Johnson

    This indicates that the Greeks had different words for soul and spirit, but the writing here, discussing what made a body alive or dead in their estimation, doesn’t draw any clear distinction between the two. If the suggestion is that we ought to discard the notion of a death-surviving personality-type soul, then what of the spirit, the pneuma? Are we to assume this is part of the process, distinct from it, totally impersonal, an example of the One in Many, or something else altogether? I’m still not clear in the distinctions being made between the soul and spirit in this piece, as spirit is mentioned so little after asserting their separateness. Are we also to assume that the Eastern non-individualized after-death concept is somehow superior to the Western, individualized concept? Other than admonitions to drop a concept, what are the conclusions on the other matters raised in this article, or what is the position you are taking on them, Aidan? Thanks.

    • aidanakelly

      Good questions, Eireann, I do intend to continue working on this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dmitry.galtsin Dmitry Galtsin

    I’m sorry, but your demand to quit using the S-word sounds like power talk.
    Stalin proclaimed that in the 2nd 5-year plan (1934-1937) the word God should be banished from speech. Though God may seem much more obsolete.
    Then what shall we make of “psyche” as a psychological term? It has nothing to do with the traditional soul, but it does sound the same and for many has successfully replaced the latter.
    Not counting the fact that the meaning of “soul” is differens for a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim. Let alone, Pagans of different trads.

    • aidanakelly

      Wow, Dmitry, you do bring a different perspective to all this. I’m certainly not an atheist in the way tat Stalin was. I try to avoid using te word “God” without adding a definition, because most people cannot help assuming that I mean the problematic and arcobsolete as “Phlogiston” or “Luminiferous ether” . Using it immediately forces one to think in terms that are now just plain factually wrong.

      Your point that “soul” is defined differently in the Abrahamic religions is interesting. What are te differences that you perceive?

      • aidanakelly

        Okay, that got screwd up. The middle should read “problematic and archaic concept most people have of God as described in the Law and the Prophets. My point is that ‘soul’ is as obsolete a concept as ‘Phlogiston…’

  • Dave Burwasser

    Unforttunately, a lot of people do use “soul” and know what they mean by it. That which they mean cannot be pointed to, seen or weighed, but there’s a long list of things like love, compassion and so forth that fall into the same category, and thinking in that category is not enough to be declared mentally ill.

    As to weighing the soul, I recall that was an attempt to validate the rumor that a dying person becomes suddenly a bit lighter at the moment of death. (This was back when “moment of death” was a meaningful reference.) The enterprise was a last twitch of the kind of religiousity that tried to prove the existence of God from the nature of the world and to dictate that the Sun goes around the Earth to conform with their theology.