Mind, body and soul are commonly regarded as the three indivisible components of personality, but what are they?  At the end of November,  I argued that mind was the brain in action, not just our conscious thoughts and actions but also our unconscious reactions, all of them responses conditioned by our experience of life (The Enigma of the Mind, 20.11.08).  The body, I suggested, is the medium by which we experience and react to events (The Eloquence of the Body, 23.11.08).  Everything that happens is sensed and expressed through the body and therefore shaped by the limitations and experience of that body, though this needs to be decoded by the mind in order to understand and learn from it.  In her book, Fractured, (see Fractured; the rupture of the body and of the mind,16.12.08), Ann Oakley described how losing the sensation in her right hand altered her perception  of the world and the way she engaged with it, changing her identity. 

 

So mind and body work together to understand what happens and respond to it.  But where does soul or spirit fit into this equation?  And are they essentially the same?  The problem is that soul and spirit have been so influenced by religion that it is difficult to comprehend them without evoking a particular set of beliefs.  But that may offer a clue to our understanding. 

 

In religious symbolism, the soul or spirit is often depicted as some kind of nimbus that surrounds a body in life and remains when that body has departed, like John Betjman’s description of the heart of Thomas Hardy flitting about Stinsford Churchyard.  But what remains after a person has died is the same as what represents them in life.  It is their identity, the meaning of their life, the sum total of their thoughts and actions, the kind of person they are or were.

 

We talk about departed souls, but in reality it is only the body that decomposes and departs.  The spirit, the essence of a person, what they represent, lingers on.  It becomes part of the landscape of the community.  Every one of us influences our family, our friends, our colleagues and in some major or minor way, the wider community.  We make our imprint and alter the lives of others.   Our influence is carried into the future by our children, our friends children, the changes we have brought about and the works we have created, consolidating the identity of family and community, contributing to the culture.  Scientists often perceive mind and soul as the same thing, but they are quite different.  If the mind is the brain in action, then the spirit or soul is the personality if effigy.  

 

When mountaineers, like Joe Simpson, gaze wistfully into the distance and say, ‘I don’t know why I do it. It defies all reason, all rational thought.’,  he is surely talking about his  spirit – what climbing means to him emotionally – what it is about his personality that makes him risk his life to get to the top of a large lump of ice and rock. 

 

Plato saw the soul, the essence of personality, as consisting of three components, logos or reason,  thymos, emotion and eros, appetite or desire.  This is a philosophical view rather than a theological one.  It views the soul as much the same as the spirit. So when we talk about somebody being spiritual, we don’t necessarily mean that they are religious.  Spirituality implies that a person leads a meaningful life.  They espouse a basic philosophy, whether it’s energy conservation, caring for the sick and needy, or an understanding of the meaning of things through science, art or writing.  So the spirit is about meaning. Showing spirit implies an enthusiasm for seeking out that meaning or living according to that meaning.   And spirits are like the ancient Gods; they represent meaning – good as well as evil.     

 

But the modern notion soul has been hijacked by Christianity to express an ethical dimension of personality.  It is about meaning and living according to that meaning, but in a moral sense.   Theologists weigh the soul, assess its quality.

 

The concept of soul was employed by the Christian church to deal with the horror of annihilation.  Only the body dies, the church decreed, but the soul, the essence of our identity, even our conscious sense of who we are, survives in some nebulous form.  And the quality of the soul – how well we have lived our lives – determines the direction it will take after death – whether it cavorts with the angels in the flamingo pink clouds of heaven or whether it is consigned to stoking the everlasting fires of hell.  Heaven or hell can certainly exist on earth, but there is no real basis for believing that they are extraterrestrial, except belief itself.  Through its supposed intercession with a single omnipotent deity, the Christian clergy has, through most of history, manipulated an ignorant and fearful populace, keeping them in control while accumulating power and riches from appeasement in the form of alms.  No wonder mediaeval Kings had problems with uppity archbishops.    

 

But it would be a mistake to imply that the notion of soul is just some self seeking artifice on the part of an avaricious clergy.  The influence of the church has dwindled in the UK, but the notion of soul is more important than ever.  It is often said that we are a  narcissistic culture, dominated by materialism and celebrity.  People seem to have lost their moral compass.  Without any collectively accepted spiritual guide, anything can go and often does.  They can appear driven by impulse to seek meaningless states of excitation. On the 27th of December, just a day after the commercial excesses of Christmas, there was a five mile tail back on the M1 outside Sheffield, queuing for the start of the sales at Meadowhall.  When did shopping ever yield lasting contentment?.  And when did drugs and alcohol facilitate meaningful relationships?      

 

But living a good life doesn’t so much depend on some religious dogma, it’s more about being oneself in the society of others; to care for people, to exhibit kindness and toleration, to collaborate, to tell the truth, to offer wise counsel.  Failure to do so may  not only mean exclusion from society, it will also incur alienation from the way we like to view ourselves, a loss of our soul.  The modern notion of soul has connotations of meaning, authenticity and personal integrity.  

 

Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, documented the recent alarming decline in community – what he termed social capital – in the United States.  The same has happened in the UK.  People are doing less together.  By 2010, 35% of us will be living alone. It seems that many people have lost or perhaps have never had the knack of living in the community of other people.  This may be due in part to their  current working and living environments, but it also represents how effectively they were socialised as children and how wary they are of  others.  It’s more of a case of every man or every woman for themselves, but in their selfishness and impulsiveness,  they can find it as difficult to live meaningfully with themselves as they do with others.

 

Dr Faustus sold his soul to the devil in return for power and knowledge.  It seems that many of us might be in danger of giving away our soul in return for excitement, materialism and a futile quest for celebrity?  But it’s a new year, time for resolutions.  Live the good life, enjoy yourself.  Nourish your spirit with meaning, and take care of your soul.   

 

 

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