What is the Soul for? What were you born to do?
“…there’s no myth that holds our culture more firmly in its grip than that you are the result of your parent’s conditioning, just as you are the result of their bodies. That so permeates our thinking that we forget that our “calling” may have a completely different source. The soul may be responsible to a calling that is not only biological — your parents — or environmental. That’s what we have lost, that third thing. We have biology, or nature. We have environment, or nurture, parents and all the socio-economic things. But we forget that the soul, somehow, has a third aspect. It has its own ancestors, which may not be your own actual, physical ancestors.”
Robert Hillman, author, The Soul’s Code
The Men’s Movement
Last column, I had a lot to say about men and women, more specifically about certain differences I observe. In the early 1990’s, I was active in an emerging Men’s Movement, but by the end of that decade, the movement no longer held any attraction for me. A quick Google search of the topic will reveal how the movement has fractured, and turned quite nasty within the faction calling itself the “men’s rights movement” — as one can quickly see in its attacks on feminism. There is nothing so good in its origins that it cannot evolve in a negative direction, and I think that has happened. I dissociate myself entirely from the so-called MRM.
My own slice of the movement in the early days is labeled the “mythopoeic men’s movement”, due to the concerns of its major spokesman, poet Robert Bly. He had a firm ally in the writer James Hillman, and it is to Hillman I turn for persuasive insights on soul and destiny. He is a renowned American Jungian psychologist.
The Soul’s Code
I have written a fair bit in these columns about consciousness, spiritual reality, and human soul, never putting a strict definition on my terms. But the soul needs some kind of definition if I am to speak of it, and I know no better author to cite than James Hillman. His book The Soul’s Code introduces readers to the idea that inside each of us there is an “acorn” or core blueprint of who we are meant to be, like the grain in wood, or a seed ready to sprout. He cites Plato’s notion of the daimon or guide inherent within each of us that tries to keep us on a path congruent with the acorn’s intended growth. The daimon is the soul’s companion and tutor.
As you can see from the epigraph above, he asserts our soul is the “third thing” making us who we are. The process of incarnating in flesh robs us of all memory of our previous soul existence. This is not a new idea to many people. It is intrinsic to all Indian religious thought back to the Buddha and beyond. Karma would mean nothing without this conceptual foundation.
The Soul in Christian Thinking
Christianity is not monolithic in its beliefs across all people calling themselves Christian; its teaching does not usually seem to agree with Indian concepts of the soul. But here is a passage from the great Saint Augustine, a patriarch of the early Church, founder of some key doctrines, that indicates Christians believe that souls exist before they are born in bodies.
“Look inside yourself… Ask your own mind why it is so willing and eager to know what formerly existed, before you were born or indeed even before your grandfather was born… [I]t will answer you, if it is rational, that it wishes to know what was before us because it has always existed since God created the first man, and that it therefore strives after what it formerly was…”
Are you surprised by this teaching of Christian faith? I am.
I was fortunate to come across this in research into King Alfred the Great, an English king whose “greatness” is not military. He is great for his preservation of his land and people from conquest by barbarism, and for his work to uplift them with education and good government. Alfred was no Alexander or Napoleon.
Happiness and your “Calling”
If we live a life that is in harmony with the soul’s code, we are more likely to be happy, but if we spend our lives fighting against our character and optimal path of growth, we will be unhappy.
To quote James Hillman again:
“…we elected the body, the parents, the place, and the circumstances that suited the soul and that, as the myth says, belongs to its necessity. This suggests that the circumstances, including my body and my parents whom I may curse are my soul’s own choice—and I do not understand this because I have forgotten.
So the things that “happen” to us, beyond nature and nurture, beyond our genetics and our social conditioning, may be the “call” of the daimon, the soul-companion, calling us to our own character and our own destiny.”
We choose our parents and our environment before we move from the soul-realm into a physical body. As Hillman so rightly observes, we modern people know all about the effects of our biology (nature and genes) and environment (family and education and culture) upon our character formation. But what do we ever say about this “third thing” – the soul and its code – in the making of who we are?
Personally, I find this view compelling. We are more than what nature and culture would predict. Human character and the paths it takes are deeply mysterious.
“Men of Destiny”
Some of the most murderous military and political careers in history – Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Hitler come immediately to mind – were the lives of men in the overwhelming grip of their sense of high destiny. Alexander believed himself a god and lost his army’s loyalty, and perhaps his sanity, in this delusion. Napoleon spoke constantly of his “star of destiny” and Hitler believed in his supreme fuhrer-right to rule the German nation with totalitarian control, and both were the cause, like Alexander and Caesar before them, of millions upon millions of deaths by warfare.
Did these men live the pattern of lives their soul’s code laid out for them? Just the mere fact of their improbable military and political successes would seem to argue that yes, their characters were apt to their times and in harmony with their potent leadership of nations and armies. Conquerors, murderers – even sociopaths – these three men lived according to their self-projection as Great History Makers.
Soul and Science Fiction
In modern Western culture, the literary genre that has wrestled with the meaning of “being human” most obviously in popular entertainments is Science Fiction. Who is not aware of Mr. Spock and Data, the non-human heroes of Star Trek tales who are constantly fascinated by the illogicality and mystery of human beings? They are in effect confronting the idea of human spiritual qualities and consciousness. Asimov’s I, Robot and Spielberg’s A.I. are other prominent examples of the genre.
My personal highest recommendation for fictional portrayal speculating how technology might allow human personhood to exist eternally: Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan, a futurist crime tale with reflections on soul and character.
Robotics and Humanity
The current techno-cult film hit dealing with human soul and soulless machinery is Robo-Cop, and herewith I warn my readers of “spoilers” in the paragraphs ahead. If you have not seen the film and intend to do so, do not read on unless you are okay with the plot surprises being spoiled for you.
Robo-Cop is a remake of an earlier film, and yet is so much affected by actual fact and advances in science since the 1980’s original was made, that it is almost a new film. In this year 2014, cell phones, universal surveillance cameras and computer use, and great leaps in knowledge of the human brain and mind, all combine to make the story here fairly unlike the original – and more compelling. Of course the CGI effects are far beyond what was possible in the 1980’s.
A clever plot device is the framing of the tale as presented by a rightwing TV talking head played by Samuel L. Jackson. In this imagined future, perhaps only five years from now, Americans are obsessed with fighting crime, and yet are the only nation where American-made robots are not allowed to do the work of police and soldiers. In Iran, the American military patrols the capital city with an army of drone machinery. The Jackson character rants about the weakness of America’s politicians because they will not legalize robots – pure robots, with no human parts – as police forces on American soil. Enter the machine with human parts…
Two bits of this film’s dialogue worth quoting:
Dr. Dennett tells an audience, “human consciousness is merely the processing of information.” This is a cheeky quip addressed no doubt to philosopher Daniel Dennett who thinks mind is merely a process of brain, not a quality of soul. (See his book, Consciousness Explained.)
Scientist: “… it was not in our control, it was not biological or chemical, it was – something else.”
Corporate witch-woman, with heavy sarcasm: “His soul?”
Is the resurrected cop with only a man’s brain, heart, and lungs a machine, or does it have a soul? Is the “man” with so little left of his body after an explosion nearly kills him, still human? Or has he become just a metallic, electronic, thing? When the doctor overrides his emotions with software programming and chemical intervention, is the robo-cop just a slave? (which is the meaning of robot in a Slavic language.) How can his will overcome his programming? Can he still love his wife and son? Wisely, there is ambiguity in how the film addresses these and other questions.
For many readers, the idea of soul is tainted by unfortunate associations with a religious upbringing they want to forget. But do not throw out the baby of this profound and ancient idea with the dirty bathwater of dogmatic religion.
There is much wisdom in Hillman’s idea that soul is the “third thing” in our being who we are. Meditate on what has made you yourself, and inquire whether nature and culture/nurture between them are not enough to explain your being.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of the Arc of the Cognizant can be found here.