What Is The Soul?

Does death have meaning?

This may seem an inane or even a pointless question. And yet, an understanding of death determines how humans live. Consider the fact that mankind has come up with only two answers for death.

First, that death has great meaning, because it is the transition to an eternal, extra-corporeal, or spiritual realm. The quality of this everlasting existence is determined by moral choices made by individuals during life on earth. In other words, the life of the soul depends upon morality.

This also means that the role and purpose of civilization becomes twofold: To look after the body and to care for the soul – to ensure that its citizens not only enjoy a happy earthly life but also have the assurance of a happy eternal existence.

humans are innately moral creatures

Civilization has a higher calling than simply managing modes of production, for it also needs to transition into its own eternal form by way of its earthly citizens. Civilization must concern itself with the Kingdom of God.

The second answer, which is more recent, maintains that death is final; there is nothing that comes after. Thus, there is no soul, and death is really meaningless, since it is the final end of life.

This answer dismantles the need for a morality attuned to eternity – and makes civilization into nothing more than civic space where individuals consume and produce, and thus no value is higher than this consumption.

Life is simply the pursuit of individualized pleasure; and the point of civilization is to set up structures that enable the satisfaction of sensual urges and desires.

The contemporary world is struggling with both these answers to the question of the soul.

Those that belong to the second camp justify themselves by asserting that humanity has matured into soullessness – to worry about the soul is to be childish, superstitious, and therefore regressive. Those that worry about the soul are deemed mythologizers whose day has long vanished.

to live the life of the mind, to use reason, by necessity means acknowledging the soul

Those that cultivate the soul, in turn, have history on their side, because mankind has always shown itself at its most refined and the most generous when the soul is not forgotten.

Indeed, where would the West be if it did not worry about the soul throughout its history?

But what is the soul?

The English word “soul” is an ancient one, descending from the Proto-Germanic, *saiwalo, which reaches far back into the Bronze Age. Its Indo-European cousins are the Greek aiolos and the Russian, sila.

During Indo-European antiquity, “soul” likely meant, “speedy,” or “energetic” – that is, the quickening energy of the body. There is no connection between the “soul” and the “sea,” despite popular etymologies.

It was the Greeks who first clarified and identified the immortal part of the human body.

Earlier ancient civilizations (Mesopotamian and Egyptian) also delved into notions of life after death, but their concepts did not gain currency beyond their own particular cultures, because they could not clarify the nature of the soul.

The Greeks however created explanations and ideas that would persist through space and time and thus become universal.

The two terms that they used for the soul were psyche and pneuma. The former gained greater currency (via psych-ology), but the latter actually defined the soul itself.

the contemporary world is struggling with… the question of the soul

The psyche is emotions, understanding and sensibility. Humans, as well as animals, possess psyche, which is also known as the animal-soul. The psyche animates the carnal body and, since it is not immortal, it dies and disappears at the time of death.

The pneuma, on the other hand, is the mind, which is a complex unity of the conscience, reason, and will. Only humans possess the pneuma, or the rational soul, which is immortal, and which therefore continues existence into eternity.

The pneuma is also understood as being the resurrected spirit-body in Christianity, which is not fleshly, but is governed by the Holy Spirit (the Pneuma Hagion), through which it unites with God into eternity.

Christianity collapses the two Greek terms (psyche and pneuma) into one – psyche, which now comes to carry the meaning of the rational-soul.

Thus, true to its Indo-European root, the soul carries still a quickening energy, for it determines not only the quality of an individual’s life, but also the very character of civilization itself.

Further, the soul broaches two deeper questions – how shall we live and what must we do? Is an animal existence enough for human beings?

But to live the life of the mind, to use reason, by necessity means acknowledging the soul.

In the words of Thomas Aquinas: “The human being abounds in diverse types of potential: namely because humanity is on the frontier between spiritual and corporeal creatures, and thus the powers of each are joined in it.”

Civilization has a higher calling than simply managing modes of production

But what is meant by the soul, whose presence or absence delimits how humans live?

The earliest civilizations, Mesopotamian and Egyptian, recorded the first understandings of the meaning of death – that it is a process whereby mankind transitions into its eternal abode, whether among the stars or in the netherworld.

In these early civilizations, both the body and its inherent life-force (the soul) shared in immortality. This explains the grave-goods that were left with the departed.

Eternity and humanity were forever linked, which then justified the importance of morality (the me-s among the Sumerians; the ma’at for the Egyptians), which in turn was established by the gods for the structuring and maintenance of human civilization.

Thus, to live was to practice and follow divine laws. The breaking of such laws had immediate social as well as eternal consequences.

a complex unity of the conscience, reason, and will

It would be easy to say that the first answer affirming the soul is hopeful, while the second one denying the soul is bleak. But that would be misguided.

Rather, what we have are two answers that express the same reality (a hendiadys). In other words, both the denial and affirmation of the soul are really two sides of the same coin.

What coin is that? The coin of faith, or belief. Both answers are, of course, valid because both are expressions of human faith, either in the material or in the spiritual. Is life even possible without belief? Even the denial of belief is belief.

But the results of both beliefs are the important thing. The denial of the soul leads to a grim immediacy, where appetitive satiation is the only goal of life, encapsulated by the fatuous maxim, “Live each day to the fullest.” In other words, self-indulgence is the sole reason for being alive.

To say that each human body houses a soul leads humanity elsewhere – towards morality, for life is not about fulfilment, but about pursuing the truth and, though actions and ideas, adding to the goodness of the world, even if doing so harms or even kills the body.

As stated already, belief in something that survives death has always been part of the human condition until recently, when an unthinking sort of atheism took hold.

Thus it is not surprising that humanity has always cared to construct some version of morality because it lends stability to society and builds civilization, and because it determines how we are to live and what we are to do.

Does the denial of the soul benefit humanity? No, because humans are innately moral creatures, and when they are asked to live without morality, they veer into existential absurdity – in other words, a soulless life of relentless satiation, as embodied by the so-called celebrities of this age.

What, then, is the soul? It is the very essence of what it means to be a human being – in this world and the next. The soul is the summary of that we are and shall be. How shall we want to be summarized? That is the real question of what it means to be a human being.


The photo shows, “The Empty Tomb,” painted in 1889, by Mikhail Nesterov.

Who Is God?

John Climacus, in his Ladder of Divine Ascent, makes the observation that God is love, and whoever seeks to define God further is like a blind man on a seashore trying to count the grains of sand.

And yet God, as both hidden and universal, has occupied the mind of mankind for as long as the time of Socrates, the ancient Hebrews, and the early Christians. These three traditions, rooted in Athens, Jerusalem and Rome, have together provided a robust definition of God over the millennia.

First, the intellectual descendants of Socrates (Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Philo) created not only the conceptual vocabulary to describe the nature of God, but they also demarcated the broader outlines of how we are to understand who and what God is. This is the God of the philosophers.

growth of humanity towards perfection is both beauty and truth

He is the ultimate Cause of all becoming and all motion, the Unmoved Mover, Pure Form, the Idea of good. Because of him, all things strive to realize their true potential, just like an egg must become a chicken. In brief, God is the unifying principle of all creation.

As such, he is one, undivided, and the ultimate guarantor of morality, because he loves mankind, and he is all-knowing because he is the Being of all beings, namely, the logic and the Logos (truth) of all creation.

It was Philo of Alexandria who successfully integrated Jewish monotheism with the God of Greek philosophy. This interfused God is all-pure but ultimately unknowable by human effort because matter is inherently impure (or fallen) and cannot fully understand, let alone know, the transcendent. Perfection cannot be known by imperfect means.

Philo describes God as all-powerful, all-good, and all-holy (God’s holiness is entirely missing in Greek thinking). Power flows from him, like light from the sun, and it fashions and creates matter and, thus, things. These powers, Philo calls God’s “Logos,” and they comprise various “doers,” such as, angels, souls and even demons.

nothing cannot create something

Philo derives his understanding of Logos both from Plato’s concept of the realm of Ideas (perfect Forms that are the blueprints of all that exists), as well as from the Stoical concepts of the logos spermatikos (God’s wisdom, or word, acting upon matter), and the logos prophorikos (the world-soul, the power of God that gives life to all things and flows through all things). Why did God create the world? In order to signify his goodness, which is his love.

Thus, Logos is the begotten of God, even the Son of God, but it is not God. Rather, it stands as the mediator between the Creator and his creation.

However, Philo can only describe the actions of the Logos; he is rather confused about its nature.

The proper explanation will be given later by St. John, where Christ is identified as God’s Logos, not simply as an agent – but as God himself, who became matter for love of the world.

God does not have an origin

Nevertheless, Philo is the conduit through which the definitions of God, both Greek and Hebrew, flow into Christianity, where they achieve their perfected form, especially through the work of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

For Augustine, God is one, unchanging, immaterial and eternal. Drawing upon God’s revelation to Moses (“I am what I am), Augustine concludes that the very essence of God is Being itself (an “essence” is a definition that tells us what a thing is).

Since Being lies beyond all beings, God is without change and eternally perfect. Thus he is transcendent and all good, the great Something from whom all things were, and are, created. Truth and God are one; or, truth emanates only from God. As the all-wise Creator, God knows all that will come to pass, which means that history itself unfolds from him.

For Aquinas, God rules his creation through his will and is the source of all energy and movement (Unmoved Mover). He is also the power that brought all things into being, since nothing cannot create something.

Aquinas also set out his famous five proofs of God. The chief among them being the causal argument – that God is the necessary cause of all things, but he himself is not part of the chain of events. He has no cause (no one created him). He is the reason why all of creation keeps going.

But when we speak of God’s necessity, we are not talking about logic but metaphysics – we are speaking of God’s aseity (that God does not have an origin – he is an eternal I AM).

Both the Greek and the Hebrew thinkers agree on the inherent unity and oneness of God. But the Christian thinkers also needed to explain Christ, who is God-Man.

to create is to speak of purpose

Peter Abelard summarizes the explanation, when he defines the Trinity. God the Father is one and the good. God the Son is the Logos, who creates with his words. God the Holy Spirit is the world soul. In other words, the Trinity encloses the power, the will, and the wisdom of God.

This also raises the secondary question that if God is perfect, how can he become a man (Jesus) and therefore become imperfect?

This is where rational explanation must end, and we must move into mysticism, because we cannot know the great complexity of God through our minds. We must only experience him.

This is the God of revelation,the God of the personal, mystical encounter, who is not the same as the God of the philosophers. So, when Nietzsche famously announces the death of God, he is actually only proclaiming the death of the God of the philosophers whose “history” goes back to Socrates – and no further.

The God of the revelation remains unaffected by Nietzsche’s announcement, because mystical experience is beyond language.

It is said that the great philosopher of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, had such an experience, which he could not speak of – and he stopped writing theology. “I can write no more. I have seen things which make all that I have written seem like straw,” he concluded, and died not long afterwards.

Perfection cannot be known by imperfect means

But who is this eternal, enduring, un-Nietzschean, post-Socratic God?

This is the God beyond God, who is beyond all conceptualization, who always transcends all our ideas of transcendence, wrapped forever in the mystery of eternal existence, revealed now and then as by a sudden and brief flash of light. This revelation is in the person of Christ.

In the words of St. Paul: “One God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6).

Thus, in God the Father is found the origin of all creation. In God the Son, the incarnate God, is found the purpose of all things. In God the Spirit, is found both the urge and the necessity of our purpose – our perfected form so that we may dwell in eternity, with God. This growth of humanity towards perfection is both beauty and truth.

Gregory Nazianzen, in his eulogy for Basil of Caesarea, describes this great mystery in this way: “The human being is an animal who has been given the task to become God (zoon theoumenon).”

Now, with the death of the God of the philosophers – the God of revelation, the God of truth begins to unfold his mystery and we shall enter into a new phase of holy wisdom, a new experience of the eternity that lies beyond space and time.

What does this mean? That God is greater than an idea, because language is always inadequate. Whenever we try to speak of God, we at once resort to the limiting language of the philosophers: “Let us leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity…” (Hebrews 6:1a).

This leads us to a greater mystery, for God alone is the answer to the difficult question – why is there something when there could be nothing? Creation as the alignment of the material with truth – to create is to speak of purpose, which is meaning – and which humans imitate when they transform, through consciousness, the earth into the world.

This is why the God of revelation is the God of love, which is not a feeling, but a great mystical experience, an explanation that slips beyond words, like music.


[Photo credit: J. Struthers]