The other day I made a trip to Royce Hall, the building that houses what is left of the UCLA French Department, to participate in a discussion of a paper on “The Soul” by my former Dean, Herbert Morris, one of very few people for whose sake I would travel to campus.
Whatever criticisms I might have of Herb’s paper or of the discussion it aroused are of a lower level of importance than two things I admire about Herb. The first is that if I were going to list people I know whose “soulfulness” or “magnanimity” I would vouch for, Herb would be right at the top of the list. I served under him as Chair for three years (1983-86), and knew him as a wise and caring administrator, a real mensch. And the second is the fact that at over 90 years of age, Herb continues to write on a variety of philosophical and esthetic subjects—he is Emeritus Professor of Law and Philosophy, but he has published widely on art and literature as well as on more predictable topics—and he is willing to let his intuition guide him to ever new areas of interest.
Herb told us that his curiosity about the soul was first aroused by The Devil and Daniel Webster, which came out in 1941, the year of my birth. In this film, Webster (Edward Arnold) has to use his legal skill to release a farmer who has sold his soul from his contract with the Devil. No one really believes in the Devil, yet as Herb did nearly 80 years ago, we all understand only too well what is involved—what it means to have, and to lose, one’s soul.
This Chronicle is an attempt to profit from Herb’s curiosity about a word that I don’t think I have used in years, yet that remains important to our self-understanding—our anthropology—today all the more by its absence.
GA is naturally suspicious of talking about words, since its principle is that, in order to avoid the trap of metaphysics that thinkers have been trying to extract themselves from for the past century or two, we must start from a hypothetical real-world situation that provides the precondition for words. It is no accident that philosophy as a discipline begins, precisely, by talking about words. The early dialogues of Plato, such as the Laches or the Lysis, are discussions of words (courage, friendship); more significantly, the Gorgias already shows that Plato’s work, indeed, philosophy as a whole can be understood as an attempt to define the Good as the objective striven for by the ideal polity or “Republic.”
As I pointed out in my “Plato and the Birth of Conceptual Thought” (http://anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap0202/plato), the underlying assumption of this procedure is a kind of ontological proof: if the word exists, then the Idea it stands for must be instantiated, not simply in a universe of pure abstractions like that of mathematics, but in the world itself. Thus Plato wants the existence in our vocabulary of the word good, which indicates that we all share the “Idea” of the Good, to show that what is “good” for each individual is what benefits the community as a whole, as opposed to a selfish “good for me,” since the Idea does not possess such indexicality. Today we tend to find this reasoning fallacious, as Kant found Anselm’s “ontological proof” fallacious; indeed, we banish any “Idea” lacking a concrete physical correlate from the realm of science, in an effort to free ourselves from the millennia of metaphysics that the philosophers bestowed on us, and whose benefits we would like to enjoy without its limitations..
GA is certainly in sympathy with the need to free ourselves from metaphysics, but we are not ready to remove from our vocabulary words like soul that have no clear physical correlate. The point of the originary hypothesis is rather to provide a pre-propositional point of departure for representation, language, culture as such, so that all words and cultural phenomena can in principle be traced to this hypothetical real-world correlate, which remains through however many layers of mediation their ultimate guarantee—not “logical,” but simply, historical. And conversely, the fact that it remains—that we remain—is the guarantee that the peace brought about in the originary event by the sacred/significant, despite our millennia of wars, has, at least thus far, been maintained. This always-relative peace is the condition of the continued existence of the deferral of violence through representation that is GA’s one-sentence definition of the human.
Herb, like Plato’s Socrates, wants to understand what it is we are talking about when we use the word “soul,” and like Socrates, he optimistically assumes that we all implicitly agree as to the meaning of the word, and in consequence, implicitly share the Idea of the Good to which “soulfulness” contributes. And the value of a discussion like this one is that this sharing is usually implicit; we take it on faith and don’t usually reflect on it, but when we do, we can reach an explicit agreement that reinforces our faith that the human community’s use of language guarantees its moral harmony. By agreeing on the sense of a word with moral weight like soul, the description of a “virtue” like courage, or a quality like beauty that enhances communal cohesion, we reinforce our faith in “the good society,” just as the non-indexical, socially harmonious Idea of the Good carries with it the implication that there are no essential obstacles to social harmony.
The possibility of discussing the soul as we did that afternoon implies that, even as we express differently our intuition of the term, all our separate intuitions can be integrated into a single whole. We may bring different ideas to the table, yet we do not expect to debate the concept, but to refine it and presumably improve its usefulness for all of us. For despite our dispersion, we all belong to a single linguistic community and ultimately, to a single human community, and coming together to demonstrate this is, as religious rites were for Durkheim, an occasion to reinforce our communal solidarity.
To talk about the soul is implicitly to define its moral code. For the soul is the bearer of our moral qualities. As Herb rightly points out, the soul is not identical with the conscience, which is rather a meta-agency that judges our actions and sentiments and therefore our soul in its totality. But when our conscience is troubled, we can say that it fears for the purity of our soul. And we all have pretty much the same sense of what this purity consists in, and what it means to abandon it for worldly benefits, to “sell our soul to the Devil.”
All this suggests that a discussion about the soul under the auspices of Herb Morris could not help but be a soul-enhancing occasion. Yet in listening to the discussion, I was a bit troubled by the fact that, although the soul’s moral valence was a major preoccupation, it was constantly spoken of as an individual possession, a personal essence that, for example, delights in esthetic pleasures as well as in moral actions, but rather as a mode of self-cultivation than of service to humankind. On a couple of occasions, Herb said that he often encountered young people who lacked passions, goals in life, pointing to this as a sign, not that they had no souls, but that their souls were “unoccupied.” Yet if someone is passionately interested, say, in playing tennis, or even in listening to Mozart, I would not, pace Herb, consider this a sufficient sign that his soul is appropriately “occupied.” We all know about the SS men who listened to Mozart in the concentration camps.
I would speculate that he idea of selling one’s soul to the devil aroused Herb’s youthful curiosity because the parable in question offers a simple dichotomous test of the soul’s value: do you cherish your soul as an instrument of love for your fellow man, or will you sell it for selfish gain, profiting from the ensuing lack of moral responsibility to acquire riches and bodily pleasures, but renouncing the joys of doing good to others, of reinforcing communal solidarity. Why indeed would the Devil be interested in our souls if not in order to destroy this solidarity, the work-in-progress of his enemy, God?
To remain within the realm of words, perhaps the term magnanimous gives a clearer idea than soul itself of the soul and its values. The sense of magnanimous, or great-souled, is not such that if a normal-souled person likes Mozart, a magnanimous one would like him more intensely, or enjoy Beethoven and Bach as well. Magnanimous means generous, giving to others, with the implication that the measure of one’s soul is not how many or refined the interests we have, but the degree to which we give of ourselves to others, to which we love our fellow men. Nor is such “giving” a one-way transfer; it is love-as-interaction that benefits the giver as well as the receiver.
Were I writing in another century, I would make reference here to Abou Ben Adhem, whose “name led all the rest”—but I’ll let you find him on the Internet.
When Herb quotes Jesus’ line in Mark 8: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” he is referring, precisely, to the loss of his soul as the loss of love. Whether or not we wish to imagine such a person burning in the fires of Hell, his soullessness is his estrangement from the human community and the love that binds its members.
GA began as a theory about the origin of language, but I have always made clear that formal and institutional representation are linked from the start; that language itself is not in the first place about transmitting information, but about demonstrating, from the sharing of the first linguistic sign, our human solidarity. Hence we can say that the ultimate purpose of the originary hypothesis is to provide a minimal anthropological model for the attitudes and behaviors that the term soul encompasses. That a group of university scholars can discuss this term for over an hour with so little focus on its agapic function strikes me as a sign that, in the absence of a publicly-shared religious discourse—for the individual religious commitments of any of the participants must remain mute in a context where there is no presumption that they are shared—GA is our last best chance to provide conditions analogous to the religious context in which the concept of the soul originated.
The alternative is to descend into the depths of evolutionary psychology and seek to solve the mystery of what thing (gene?) evolved (mutated?) to permit these mimetic Sapiens to live in relative harmony. Yet, as I have been saying for 40 years, biological evolution is not equipped to explain the emergence of the human, with its language and culture and… soul.
“Soul” is not a “scientific” term; it does not designate an organ or neural complex that can be given a material definition. The strength of the term’s relationship to transcendence is its weakness from the standpoint of positive science. Science seeks to define the essence of the human in the individual, which alone has material existence, whereas the notion of the soul embodies a religion-infused consciousness of the dependence of all individuals on the transcendental unity of the human community. As possessors of souls, we are beneficiaries of the unifying force supplied by the sharing of representations in formal and institutional contexts, “by word and deed,” in prayer and sacrifice.
But the very fact that there is no way to make this point without retaining the emotional warmth of the term soul, which is after all the reason behind Herb’s continued curiosity about the term and his desire to explore it, is one more proof that the human cannot be reduced to its lowest (material) terms. A minimal hypothesis that seeks the lowest human terms must respect notions like God, the soul, the spirit, salvation, sin and grace. And it must respect as well those like Herb, whose very attraction to the soul not only reminds us of the need for a humanist anthropology, but reflects his own magnanimity, for which this Chronicle expresses my appreciation and admiration.