Battling for the souls in a soulless age

(Image: Marek Piwnicki/

Speaking in Alaska on September 11, 2023, President Biden noted that the terrorists responsible for killing so many people 22 years ago “could not touch what no force, no enemy, no day ever could, and that is the soul of America.” In keeping with a central theme of his political campaign to be re-elected in which he identifies himself as a warrior in a “battle for the soul of America,” he asked rhetorically: “What is the soul of America?”

His answer:  “It is the breath, the life, the essence of who we are.  A soul is what makes us ‘us.’. . .. The soul of America is the fortitude we found in the fear of that terrible September day, the purpose we found in our pain, the light we found in our darkest hour.”

We find a similar metaphorical use of “soul” in Jon Meacham’s 2018 book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Here we also have a word, angels, used metaphorically. It only makes sense, if at all, to speak of the “soul of America” if we recognize the root meaning of “soul.” For many, the very notion of a soul is only an archaic reference.

In the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where art Thou?, set in Mississippi in 1937 during the Great Depression, there is a scene in which three convicts, who have just escaped from prison, pick up a hitch-hiking young guitarist who tells them that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the guitar. One of the convicts, who had converted to Christianity in prison, remarks incredulously: “For that you traded your everlasting soul!” The young guitarist responds: “Well, I wasn’t using it.”

Perhaps there is a sense in which contemporary human beings have sold their souls, so to speak, precisely because we do not see any need for them. In a world so persistently described by materialist and mechanistic principles, founded so it seems on the natural sciences, do we have any need for a soul? As the philosopher Paul Churchland, reaffirming the views of many, claims in Matter and Consciousness: “We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.” Or as he writes elsewhere, “The doctrine of an immaterial soul looks, quite frankly, like just another myth, false not just at the edges, but to the core. This is unfortunate, since that hypothesis is still embedded, to some depth or other, in the social and moral consciousness of billions of people across widely diverse cultures.”

A good survey of various ways in which “soul” continues to be used is set forth in “What Happened to the Soul” by Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. McGilchrist is an expert on the relationship between neuroscience and the humanities and he argues against the view that science has made the notion of the soul irrelevant.

To understand the power of metaphors, especially poetic ones, that employ the notion of soul, we need to recognize the foundational meaning of soul, that for which, like the guitarist in the film, many may think we no longer have any use.

The traditional notion of a soul is directly associated with the distinction between living and non-living beings. Biology presupposes a fundamental difference between the living and the non-living. The difference cannot be accounted for if we think that there is nothing more to the world than material realities organized in different ways. This is the poverty of materialist reductionism. There is something more to living things than their material parts. The “more” is not a material more; nor is it the mere arrangement of parts. Here we meet the soul–the unifying principle that makes the living thing be the whole that it is. This unifying principle is more than the sum of the constituent material parts; it is a principle necessary for each living thing to be actually what it is.

To account for the actuality of a living thing (plant, animal, or human being), philosophers of nature, at least in the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, speak of an intrinsic source or principle that constitutes the living body precisely as a living body. This principle intrinsic to living things that makes them to be alive is the soul. Hence, plants have souls, animals have souls, human beings have souls; these souls differ as plants, animals, and human beings differ, but they share the same function as the source of the characteristic features of a living thing and the source of its various operations.

Any living thing has only one soul, one principle by which it is the living thing that it is. The souls of animals incorporate the powers found in the souls of plants, and human souls incorporate the powers found in the souls of plants and animals.

Notice that this analysis is first of all philosophical. In fact, in what follows I will focus only on what philosophical reflection can tell us about the soul, leaving aside specifically theological notions about the human soul, including questions of its separability from the human body and its immortality. Such theological reflection, however, incorporates what philosophy describes. Thus, it is important to get the philosophy right.

The understanding of the soul that I am suggesting is different from that proposed by Plato or Descartes, according to whom the soul is a kind of separate substance united to the body. A dualistic conception that treats soul and body as two separate things fails to account for the essential unity of a living thing. Rather, the soul is the actuality of the whole; not separate from the whole, but an expression of the fact that the whole is a reality not merely reducible to its material constituents. To speak of “actuality” is to recognize that any natural thing (alive or not) requires some principle or source that causes it to be what it is. This kind of cause, known as a formal cause, is different from that of an agent. To use a felicitous distinction from philosopher Edward Feser, the soul as “formal cause” is “that by which” a living thing is the unified living thing that it is. The soul is not a “what;” it is “that by which.” A “that by which” is a real principle that is a necessary source of the actuality of a thing.

The soul is not some outer shell or structure; it is the intrinsic determining principle that actualizes the potentiality of matter to be a living being and thus radically constitutes an entity as a single individual living thing. Intrinsic does not mean merely internal; it points to a foundational principle of something. The recognition that the unity of a living thing requires a principle or source of its unity is a philosophical recognition, but all of the sciences accept, at least implicitly, that each thing they study is the one thing that it is and, thus, must have a source of its unity.

Even if we can describe characteristic behavior of living things precisely as living and distinguish them from non-living things, we need to guard against the temptation to think that it is sufficient simply to list the essential properties of living things: to think, for example, that a living thing is to be understood as a cluster of these properties. It is true, that we should begin an examination of life in terms of these essential properties, but we need to go further, to see the unity of a living thing, a living thing that possesses certain essential properties or capacities.

To speak of souls is to acknowledge that living things are not machines. A plant has an intrinsic principle of its own operations, whereas a machine’s operations are, in a sense, imposed from without. A plant carries out photosynthesis and a pocket watch displays the time of day, but these causal powers are not in the two objects in the same way. That a plant carries out photosynthesis is an observer-independent fact about the plant, whereas that a watch displays the time of day is not an observer-independent fact about the watch. The metal bits that make up the watch have no inherent tendency to display the time. This is a function we have imposed on them, from outside as it were. The plant, by contrast, does have an inherent tendency to carry out photosynthesis. This reflects the fact that to be a plant is to have a special unity and, thus, a source of that unity, a soul; whereas to be a pocket watch is to have a different kind of unity. Each of the metal bits that make up a watch possesses a fundamental unity, but the unity of the watch itself is simply the form imposed from without. The difference between a plant and a watch is emblematic of the fundamental difference between a natural thing and a machine.

The failure to distinguish living things from machines is the result of the loss of a sense of nature, that is, the loss of the recognition that there are existing things each of which has an intrinsic source of what it is and how it acts. Too often, we mistakenly conclude that the discoveries of modern science require us to abandon the distinction between living things and machines. The mechanization of nature, as it were, is really the result of a particular philosophy; it is not required by the empirical sciences.

One result of the loss of the soul is to treat all of nature, including human nature, as something to be manipulated–to be arranged and re-arranged simply according to what we might will or desire, and thus really to eliminate the notion of nature itself. All of this is a manifestation of what theologian Michael Hanby identifies as “technological absolutism.” We can see these ethical consequences in so many areas of our public life–even in, if not especially in, proposals about bioethics, sexual identity, and gender advocated by those who seek “to restore the soul of America.”

All ethical reflection depends upon our understanding who we are and what the world is like. Although the word “soul” may seem archaic, the reality to which it refers is an essential feature of our world. Souls continue to matter, since nature and living things continue to matter. To recognize that a living being is not a machine we need to battle for a robust philosophy of nature that affirms that each living being has its own intrinsic actualizing principle, in a word, its own soul.

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