The Soul

But Mind the Father of all, he who is Life and Light, gave birth to Man, a Being like to 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 (Poimandres)

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.

Over 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 Greek, psyche 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, of parts cohering into a whole that exhibits a novel and unexpected richness, is one of the key ideas behind the ancient concept of soul.

An 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 steel cannonball. 

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.

Fourthly, 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. We worship.

Lastly, 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 ungrounded.

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.

The 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 as follows:

Kabbalah Epistemic
Tree of Life Approximate Scope Neoplatonic/Aristotlean Tradition
Neshamah Noesis Binah Divine spark, higher self, direct, intuitive apprehension of truth Intellectual Soul
Ruach Dianoia Tiferet Discursive reason, conceptual and symbolic thought, language, self-awareness, morality Rational Soul
Nefesh Aesthesis Malkut Sense perception, instinctive drives (sleep, food, reproduction etc) Vegetative/Animal Soul

R. Moses of Leon (c. 1250-1305 CE) comments:

"You ought to know and think upon 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 Man:

``We have 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!".

Later Kabbalah 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 nature of even the purest souls, more classifications were made, for example, the "neshamah of the neshamah", the yechidah, and the chiah.

An important issue in Hermetic, Neoplatonic and Gnostic mysticism (and Kabbalah shares characteristics with these) is the extent to 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 soul 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.

Nevertheless, 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:

And 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.

There 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.

The 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 Astral Body.

These 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 provenance, 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, ruach, and neshamah. 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 autonomous reality.

Another interesting view comes from Freud's contemporary C. G. Jung (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 iceberg, 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, unifications.