When my downstate Illinois grandmother talked about “keeping body and soul together,” she meant making enough money to put food on the table. In her day, most people assumed that God would take care of the soul. The body might starve, succumb to consumption or the flu, or be killed in an industrial accident—but the soul would live forever.
Grandma couldn’t foresee that for many the soul did die, at least as an object of belief. With the arrival of the Age of Reason and the waning of belief in a traditional God, scientific and materialist attitudes brought drastic changes in how we see ourselves, especially in terms of the time-honored conviction that our makeup includes a metaphysical dimension. My grandmother’s generation may have been the last group for whom this ancient view of human nature prevailed. Nowadays, the mechanistic view has become so widespread that alternatives are difficult to grasp, let alone accept. Although we don’t worry about the soul’s postmortem existence any more than my grandmother did, that’s because many no longer believe that the soul is real.
Our bodies, of course, are empirically verifiable objects, and we’re remarkably adept at seeing them as purely physical mechanisms. This is the viewpoint of science, and its benefits have been impressive. We live longer and healthier lives, and diseases that once carried us off by the millions have been relegated to history. We are much smarter than our forebears about the role of diet, exercise and environmental factors in the proper functioning of our bodies. When we talk about our improved “quality of life,” we almost always mean the quality of our physical lives. The well-being of our bodies has never been better.
We might wonder, however, whether such progress has made us any happier. We’ve beaten influenza, cholera and a host of other diseases, at least in the developed countries, but “depression” has emerged as the quintessential disease for our times—and the epidemic shows no signs of letting up. Despite enjoying levels of physical health unparalleled in history, many Americans have lost a sense of purpose. The news, with its relentless accounts of crime, greed and cynicism, constantly reminds us of the more extreme cases of such purposelessness. Even those of us who seem to be doing fine feel an ill-defined restlessness, an unscratchable itch in the heart. Most of us try to quell this vague unease by resorting to popular entertainment and commercial consumption. Many flock to spiritual and quasi-spiritual doctrines and self-help regimens, often careening from one program to the next. Still others turn to alcohol or drugs, a devastating commentary on modern life when you consider why people drink or take drugs. Millions of us have grown so dissatisfied with our lives that we routinely drop out of those lives altogether.
This epidemic of unhappiness suggests that the biggest danger to our biological future may be the assumption that a biological future is all we have. The real question is not whether there is more to us than biology. It’s whether we can continue to live as if there is not. Although I have no idea whether the “soul” actually exists, I do know that for centuries people like my grandmother believed that it did—and that such belief had decisive ethical and experiential consequences for their lives.
Living as if we contain nothing beyond the physical has equally decisive consequences. While our future as a population of physical organisms might seem reasonably assured, I’m not so certain about our future as human beings. This latter future, it seems to me, depends on the continued survival of that forgotten dimension of homo sapiens, a dimension that we once called the “soul.”
When people live as if they possess a spiritual dimension that cannot be reduced to mere biology, their actions reflect this belief regardless of its truth or falsity. Living as if —with an openness to the possible and the hypothetical —takes us into a realm in which mere factuality is animated by the imagination. This realm, this meeting place of the actual and the possible, is where our hominid ancestors evolved into people. If we wish to re-inhabit this realm, we would be wise to keep body and soul together.
Biblical writers asserted that human beings, though fashioned from clay, were animated—that is, made fully human—by the “breath” of God, a Hebrew word that also meant “spirit” or “soul.” Adam and Eve were the only creatures to receive this divine in-breathing. This old story defined the Western notion of the human being as a unique creature, part corporeal and part immaterial: a physical animal with a divine soul.
The Bible, of course, is a document of faith. Science cannot gauge the breath of God nor prove whether the soul exists. Still, we might learn from the ancients and reap the practical benefits of assuming the soul’s existence. Indeed, it might be necessary for our continued human existence to embrace what used to be called the “soul” as a thing to be taken on faith precisely because its benefits reach beyond the realm of faith.
Recuperating the soul, even as just a working model or construct, might check the rampant body-ism that currently grips us, the tyranny of a philosophical materialism that values only what can be seen and measured. Embracing the soul as a useful fiction would surely temper our obsession with gratifying physical desires at the expense of other needs, less tangible but equally pressing. The alternative, with its continued focus on materialism as the source of our values, will likely produce only more of what we already see: stress, cynicism, directionless lives—and unhappy people.
The recuperation of the soul might also counter the popular emphasis on external appearance. When physicality is idealized, individual bodies are disrespected to the degree that they veer from the ideal. Millions of young women suffer from eating disorders linked to our unreasonable concern with just this sort of physical ideal. Millions of young men—and not-so-young men—are caught up in a mania for body-building that places appearance above health and common sense.
The body-obsessed nature of contemporary culture puts middle-age people at risk, too. In a youth-oriented society that values physical appearance above all else, aging is a thing to be denied, resisted or concealed. A recovered belief in the soul—in something that transcends the body—would surely diminish the popularity of cosmetic surgery. It might also calm those of us who are obsessed with “beating” death, keeping one step ahead of the Reaper in our sweats and running shoes.
Within a soul-less culture, death is a failure and an embarrassment. Science, for all its benefits, unwittingly reinforces this view. Mainstream medical science, exclusively physiological in its assumptions, can keep us alive, but it cannot tell us how to live. “Alternative” medicine is even worse, unchecked as it is by reason and discretion. The embrace of “health” foods and “organic” supplements reflects a denial of the immaterial as sweeping as that pursued by the health care industry. The buyer of St. John’s Wort and the mainstream neurologist would agree on one thing: Everything that ails us has a physical origin and a physical remedy.
In essence, the drug and alcohol epidemic is merely the flip-side of scientific and medical materialism—of the conviction that we are soul-free, the sum and substance of cells and the electrochemical processes by which those cells function. Whatever interferes with such functions can be fixed with a drug. A doctor usually prescribes the remedy, but the more desperate among us medicate ourselves, often illegally. Convinced that the human machine can be revved up, tuned down or shifted into neutral for a bit of tranquility, we try to change our lives by manipulating our bodies, whether we get what we need from the pharmacist, the herbal therapist or the corner dealer.
The tyranny of mechanistic thinking also has affected contemporary social policy and moral discourse. Political definitions of health and well-being tend to be quantifiable, an understandable tactic given the need to assess results. But policy decisions based exclusively on statistical premises are limited to things of the body. They have little to do with souls —that is, with the peace of individuals. An equally obvious result of a soul-less society is our national obsession with sex, especially as promulgated by the popular media. Contemporary morality, based as it is on what can be seen, is ill-equipped to handle such intangibles as "love"—a force that dwells in the non-measurable realm of the soul.
The question of how to live in ethical balance with the natural environment also has been influenced by body-centered thinking. To deny the soul’s existence is to deny a unique status to humanity. This has been a useful notion for heightening our ecological awareness. Still, taken to extremes, the people-as-animals model begs the hard questions regarding our relation to other species. The more radical environmentalists claim that the life of a human being is worth no more than the life of a laboratory rat. If the human/animal relation is considered solely in physical terms, this conclusion is perfectly logical. But how many of us could actually live under that premise? And what would life be like if we did?
At root, the denial of the soul reflects a misguided rage for order. It is an attempt to assert control over what cannot be controlled. But if we trust only what we can observe and predict, we will have an excessive fear of the random, the unusual and the abnormal. This fear, when applied to the challenge of easing human suffering, has done much good, as in our progress in eliminating birth defects and congenital diseases. But taken to a mechanistic extreme, bioengineering runs the risk of applying a perfectionist aesthetic to human beings. That could lead to the devastating moral consequence of moving from ensuring healthy babies to insisting that all babies meet a cultural ideal of beauty.
In the end, like cures like. Spiritual unease cannot be addressed through physical remedies. Nor would it help to swing to the opposite extreme and pursue an otherworldly asceticism that completely denies the body. The historical trajectory of Western civilization reveals the danger of both extremes. While the Middle Ages placed excessive stress on the soul, at the cost of immense physical suffering, modern heirs to the rationalist legacy of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment have made a fetish of the body, at the cost of a great deal of spiritual anguish.
I believe the answer lies in restoring a better balance of the material and the immaterial in our lives. This means keeping body and soul together in that mysterious and paradoxical tension that the ancients called mens sana in corpore sano —a sound mind in a healthy body. By reasserting this balance, we’ll have to give up some of our most cherished excuses. A body cannot feel guilt or assume responsibility for its actions. Such a response requires a human being—a body with a soul.
Admittedly, keeping body and soul together poses the challenge of living with more difficult choices. The body’s needs are easily tracked: When we’re hungry and thirsty, we eat and drink. But the soul has its own needs. It gets hungry and thirsty, too, and at such times it’s not easy to know what to do. Americans are confirming this hunger in the current popularity of self-esteem workshops, seminars and tapes, and books like Chicken Soup for the Soul. Millions of us are enacting a largely unconscious backlash to materialist philosophies and lifestyles. In so doing, we are seeking answers to precisely the sort of questions that mechanistic thinking cannot address, much less answer.
Too often, the answers offered by the new wave of popular spiritualities are suspiciously easy. We often turn to them because the answers posed by traditional religion are too hard. Moreover, we may have gone too far down the road of empiricism and rationality for traditional religion to offer a realistic alternative for many of us. Still, we would do well to confront the fundamental issues surrounding human nature that religion addresses. Chief among those issues is the possibility that our bodies are not the measure of all things human. Although many of us dogmatically hold to a _dis_belief in that possibility, even the most empirically minded among us would agree that when it comes to the existence of the soul, the data aren’t all in. Indeed, the data for proving or disproving the soul’s existence never could be in. Recognizing this fact might in itself prove liberating: Empirical criteria alone cannot answer every human question.
Even if we grant that what I’ve been calling the “soul” might be important for our happiness, however, our 21st-century minds will inevitably ask the question: Is it real? If by “real” we mean empirically verifiable, then the answer is no. But if by “real” we mean having an impact on our ethics and the quality of our lives, then the answer is a definite yes. This becomes obvious when the question is asked in the negative: Has the absence of a soul affected who we are and how we live? The anxiety and restlessness of modern life provide a fairly clear answer.
Anthropologists and psychologists tell us that we are not born knowing how to be human. This has to be taught and learned. The “soul” may well serve as ethical and metaphysical shorthand for our capacity to absorb this complicated bundle of lessons in the course of becoming fully human. Even if the soul is a fiction, a romantic and sentimental relic from bygone days, it may yet prove a useful and even necessary fiction for our survival, like those arbitrary chalk lines which make baseball or football possible. At the very least, the soul is a powerful and enabling construct that allows us to play the game of being human as deeply and completely as possible.
Many of us have tried to get by without souls for some time now, and it may seem that we’ve been doing just fine. The historical record and our current discontent, however, might be telling us that this particular game—the one with no chalk lines—is starting to grind down in restlessness, boredom and dissatisfaction. It might be time to reconsider the old rules. Even if we cannot bring ourselves to believe those rules in the same way my grandmother did, they might well serve us as they served her.
Grandma did not have an easy life, but she knew who she was and why she was here. She and Grandpa lived through two world wars, an economic depression and a Cold War in which nuclear bombs could drop at any moment. They went from horses and gaslights to jet aircraft and television. The changes they had to accommodate would surely have disoriented most of us beyond recovery.
Much of what my grandparents saw convinced them that things were going to hell in a handbasket, but they never got depressed. On the contrary, they were equipped to cope reasonably well even as the world grew increasingly alien to them. After all, they enjoyed the benefits of the oldest coping mechanism known to humanity: They had souls.
Jeffrey Hammond, a professor at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland, is the author of Ohio States: A Twentieth Century Midwestern. His articles have appeared in such publications as Salmagundi, American Scholar and Antioch Review.