But Mind the Father of
all, he who is Life and Light, gave birth to Man, a Being like
himself, and He took delight in Man, as being His own offspring; for
Man was very goodly to look on, bearing the likeness of his Father.
With good reason then did God take delight in Man; for it was God's own
form that God took delight in.
Corpus Hermeticum, Libellus 1
The ancient view of the soul was uncomplicated and
meaningful: the soul was the animating principle of the body. The
abruptness of death, like turning off a switch, provides the simple
intuition that something has departed. The soul was what made the
difference between a walking, talking human being, and a corpse.
the millenia many metaphysical and religious speculations have accreted
to this simple concept, so many people will be uncomfortable with the
word, being unsure what it means, or believing that it belongs to a
worldview they feel unable to relate to. Outside of religion it is
mostly unused, although we seem more comfortable referring to it in
being the root
of psychology and psychiatry, professions which, if we take the Greek
root seriously, minister to the soul. Oddly, the word retains much of
its original meaning when used in expressions such as "the life and
soul" or "it ain't got soul". We can interpret soul as the coherence of
disparate parts - party people, musicians, bodily organs - into
something larger, something that transcends the sum of the parts. This
idea of emergence,
cohering into a whole that exhibits a novel and unexpected richness, is
one of the key ideas behind the ancient concept of soul.
early development in the idea of the soul was the observation that it
is multilayered, like a wedding cake. Attempts to derive a structure
for the soul can be found in Platonism, and were very influential. A
simple way to explain this is that human beings can be viewed in
several different ways.
Firstly, we are matter, the chemical cookery of dead stars - carbon,
oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, iron,
sulphur, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and so on. We obey physical
laws. The human cannonball flies through the same parabolic arc as a
Secondly, we are a collection of cells
composed of a wide range of organic chemicals shared with all other
forms of life - proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and so on. Our cellular
processes are nothing special, and at this basic vegetative level we
can be compared with jellyfish and beetroot.
Thirdly, we are
mobile animals that seek food, reproduce sexually, defecate, groom
ourselves, and try to be comfortable in the face of heat and cold.
we are people. We talk about concepts, like fairness and law and
justice. We argue constantly. We make things for our comfort, for our
amusement, and to kill. We enact laws, and punish offenders.
and this has only recently become controversial, we are divine sparks.
This viewpoint is well expressed in the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of
Happiness." The Human Rights movement has deep historical roots in the
idea that all human beings are equal, and this equality goes much
deeper than superficial biological, psysiological, or intellectual
differences. Without a belief in a divine soul, this legislation is
Further layers can be postulated, graduations of the
divine essence. Discussions of this kind can be found in Kabbalah, and
will be touched on below.
subdivision of the soul, embodied in matter, into a vegetative or
nutritive soul, sensitive or animal soul, and rational soul dates back
to Aristotle (384-322 BC). His views were widely understood in the
medieval world and influenced Judaism, Christianity and Judaism
equally, so it comes as no surprise that the Kabbalistic understanding
of the soul is strongly influenced by Aristotlean and Platonic thought.
As in Greek philosophy, the parts of the soul can be thought of as
enclosing each other like Russian dolls, with the inner being closer to
the divine than the outer. The souls are normally given as Nefesh, Ruach and Neshamah, and have
an approximate relationship with the intellectual culture of the period
||Divine spark, higher self, direct,
intuitive apprehension of truth
||Discursive reason, conceptual and symbolic
language, self-awareness, morality
||Sense perception, instinctive drives
(sleep, food, reproduction etc)
R. Moses of Leon (c. 1250-1305 CE) comments:
"You ought to know and
the mystery of the nefesh, the ruach, and the neshamah. The nefesh is the power that is associated with the
sensations of the body in all matters that are connected with the
blood, and in all the factors that sustain the body throughout its
life, through perception of this world with respect to everything that
the body needs. This preserves the body ..... The ruach is the power that enables the nefesh to
maintain itself in the body, for the nefesh survives only through the power of the ruach, which acts like the breeze that blows.
It is because of the ruach that man is sustained by the power of the
nefesh , for if the ruach were witheld from the nefesh, this would bring death in its train, for
the nefesh would not be
able to maintain itself in the body. The neshamah is a matter of true intellect. It is hewn
from the source of life, and from the wellspring of intelligence and
wisdom [i.e. Binah & Chokhmah]. Glory comes to dwell in the body in
order to sustain everything for the service of the Creator, in order to
provide him with substance."
One of the fundamental ideas in Kabbalah derives from Genesis 1:27: "So
God created Man in his own image, in the image of God created he him".
The interpretation of this was not that God looks literally like a
human being (although this idea is used extensively in complex
metaphors), but that the human soul is a functioning, dynamic
simulacrum of God. This is a radical idea, so radical that Moses of
Leon wondered how God could judge and punish the soul since "it is
actually He Himself". A consequence of this idea is that, just as the
dynamics of manifest divinity are represented by the Tree of Life, so
the dynamics of the soul can be represented by the same divine
template: the "image of God" is the Tree of Life. Another consequence
is the extent to which the human soul is dignified and empowered ...
almost to the point of hubris it must be said (and beyond in some
cases). The human soul becomes a
vital participant in the drama of creation: there is a two-way exchange
between Man and God that in a most dramatic metaphor is envisaged as
sexual congress between the King and the Queen, Sun and Moon, Tiferet and Malkut.
This view on the dignity of the human soul fed into Renaissance
humanism, and created attitudes that are still with us today. Giovanni
Pico, Count of Mirandola (1463-1494), an enthusiast for
Kabbalah who commissioned
translations of parts of the
Zohar, provides a dramatisation of the
dialogue between God and Man in his famous Oration
on the Dignity of
given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly
your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts
you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and
possess through your own judgement and decision. The nature of all
other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have
laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by
your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for
yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the
very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with
greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We
have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal
nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of
your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be
in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will
be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior
orders whose life is divine.''
Shakespeare echoes similar sentiments through the character of Hamlet:
"What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in
faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how
like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!".
became much concerned with the soul: its origin in the upper worlds,
its lineage and affiliation to other souls, its theurgic capacity, and
the redemptive character of certain pure and enlightened souls, the tzaddikim.
In order to understand qualitatative distinctions in the
even the purest souls, more classifications were made, for example, the
of the neshamah",
and the chiah.
An important issue in Hermetic, Neoplatonic and Gnostic mysticism
(and Kabbalah shares characteristics with these) is the extent
which the soul knows itself. The ancient injunction to "Know Thyself",
supposedly inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, hints at what
one might call "epistemological mysticism". The idea that the
possesses undisclosed, "forgotten" knowledge about itself seems to be
pregant with meaning, while simultaneously being devoid of meaning. How
can one not
know oneself? Descartes makes the point that the only certain knowledge
we possess is about ourselves.
the idea that the soul has forgotten its true nature is ancient, and
formed an important part of Plato's theory of Knowledge. It is also
found in Gnostic sources, such as the famous Gnostic Hymn
of the Pearl,
supposedly sung by the Apostle Judas Thomas while in prison. In this
story, a boy is
sent to Egypt on a quest, but is seduced and forgets his origin and
mission. He eventually recalls who he is and what he is supposed to be
doing. This was taken as an allegory of the soul, which falls into
material existence and forgets its true nature. Libellus 1 of the Corpus Hermeticum,
the so-called Poimandres,
depicts the fall of the soul as a kind of narcissism:
Nature, seeing the beauty of the form of God, smiled with insatiate
love of Man, showing the reflection of that most beautiful form in the
water, and its shadow on the earth. And he, seeing this form, a form
like to his own, in earth and water, loved it, and willed to dwell
there. And the deed followed close on the design; and he took up his
abode in matter devoid of all reason. And Nature, when she had got him
with whom she was in love, wrapped him in her clasp, and they were
mingled in one; for they were in love with one another.
are two primary views about the soul's forgetfulness. The first view,
which we could label "neoplatonic", is that the soul forgets because of
its attachments to the physical, which it takes to be "real". This is
like watching a film, where we briefly "forget" our larger concerns,
and like the protagonist of the Hymn
of the Pearl, we may need to be reminded.
second view, which we can label "gnostic", is that the soul is deluded
by powers that are themselves ignorant and detached from the Real. Most
people are familiar with a modern version of this idea presented in the
film The Matrix,
where Neo takes the Red Pill and awakens to what he thinks is the "real
Real": a devastated world dominated by machines that synthesise reality
for captive humans. The
final film in turn reveals "the real Real" to
be only the
outward appearance of
an even deeper realer-Real. Neo is able to cognise three,
simultaneously existing, levels of "reality". The idea dramatised in The Matrix
has parallels with ancient tradition: the reality we experience depends
on the level of cognition we possess. Multiple levels of reality
interpenetrate, just as a child playing with toys has no awareness of
larger issues impacting her parents.
There are ancient traditions that the highest level (neshamah)
of the soul presents itself in a revelatory form as an image of
oneself. For example, the prophet Mani (210-276 CE), influenced by
early Jewish mysticism, and who founded what was possibly the first
world religion, received revelations from his celestial twin, double,
guardian angel or true self, the terms being conflated in a way that
remains true today. This experience was documented in medieval
kabbalah: the pinnacle of ecstatic trance was the experience of a doppelganger
that was simultaneously the bearer of prophetic revelation, but also a
trance image of the mystic. This phenomenon has been labeled
"autoscopic", and was sufficiently well documented to have been
investigated - see Speaking
with Oneself by Arzy, Idel, Landis and Blanke.
Scholem has collected these Jewish mystical traditions in his essay Tselem: The Concept of the
traditions have survived to modern times. Various members of the Golden
Dawn, Aleister Crowley in particular, were much influenced by a
fourteenth century magical text, of possible Jewish
called the Book of Abramelin the Mage.
This text contains a description of a lengthy procedure used to summon
one's Holy Guardian Angel (HGA), for purposes both of revelation and of
practical magic. Crowley followed ancient tradition by conflating the
HGA with the Higher Self and the neshamah.
There are interesting overlaps with modern psychotherapy.
Freud's threefold layering of the psyche into Id, Ego and Superego can be
compared with nefesh,
The fit between Id and nefesh,
and Ego and ruach
is plausible, but the Superego is what one might call "a rational
materialist's projection of the neshamah".
That is, Freud's Superego, like the Wizard of Oz, is a blown-up
fabrication that has the appearance of power and authority, but has no
Another interesting view comes from Freud's contemporary C.
(1875-1961) who was well read in Alchemy, Kabbalah and Hermeticism. He
concluded that the psyche was composed of several parts that were
dissociated and unconcious. Because these parts were dissociated, they
appeared to the conscious ego in dreams, images, fantasies, myths and
projections as autonomous characters of great fascination and power. He
named these figures archetypes,
and the more important archetypes are the Anima, Animus, Shadow,
Persona, Wise Old Man, and Mother. He also believed the psyche
possessed an organising principle, an teleological attractor, which he
called the Self. The Self appears to the ego as a symbol of wholeness.
It is in fact identical with the ancient gnostic symbol of the redeemer
that rescues the soul from the chaos of a world ruled over by evil
daemonic powers - Jung's dissociated archetypes. The value in Jung is
not that he supplants ancient traditions of the psyche, but that he
understands them in sufficient depth to act as a modern taxonomist. His
immersion in mysticism has been widely criticised, his work has been
viewed as unscientific, but it is difficult to study the strange mythic
worlds of the Zohar
and R. Isaac Luria, without respecting Jung's intentions and insights.
One could take the view that Luria's dynamics of the Partzufim
in a fractured creation, and Jung's dynamics of the archtetypes and
individuation, are narratives of a similar type and content, with only
five hundred years and a sheet of paper between them.
An important aspect of Jung's work is his understanding that the
wholeness of the soul is a potential,
not something one can take for granted. The soul, like an
is largely concealed, with only the ego visible to self-consciousness.
When we imagine the missing parts, we imagine externalised projections
embodied as autonomous archetypes woven into mythic narratives - Satan,
Gaia, Jesus, Abraham, Mary Magdalene, Lilith, Arthur, Orpheus and so
on. Or to the modern cinema-goer, Neo, Morpheus, Cypher and Trinity, or
Luke Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi, Princess Leah and Darth Vader. Behind
the myths and the projections lies a reality that is accessible, but in
order to regain the lost unity of the soul one must undergo what
kabbalists call yichudim,