On the Human Soul

A most vivid passage in Scripture, one often repeated by St. Ignatius, reads: “What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his immortal soul.” (Mark 8:36) Some translations want to make the “soul” translate by the word “life.” And it is true that the soul is a Greek concept, not so much a Hebrew one. But if we say: “What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his life”, the whole meaning of the passage is changed.

We are going to lose our lives one way or another, sooner or later. The word “soul” has to do with whether this ending of our human life is the end – period – or whether something existentially transcendent about each of us is implied in the notion of soul.

Further, the soul is not a “spirit” that lives by itself in our bodies or floats around outside of us. Angels are spirits. We are not. Our souls always retain their reference to the body that makes us whole persons of our kind. The old Manichean notion was that matter was evil, so that the perfection of man was to escape from matter.

When “spirituality” has this overtone of something intrinsically evil about the body, it is not Christian. This view does not mean that our bodies and its passions cannot cause us problems. It means that one of the functions of the soul, or man through the powers of his soul, is to rule himself, to be virtuous. The significance of the soul’s immortality is, as it were, that the record of the acts of virtue and vice that we put into the world is permanent through time and eternity.

The soul is the animating principle that makes us what we are. We are finite beings who will live forever. The soul is the form that guarantees the continuity between this life and the next. Otherwise, when we “lose” our lives, we just lose them. Nothing more is to be said. The whole drama of what our being really is no longer has any grounding.

Not a few scientists over the centuries have looked for the soul under the microscope or other such device. They never found it. The methods used to find it are based on the premise that the soul will contain some sort of matter. It doesn’t. How do we know?

         Resurrection of the Dead from the Dura-Europos synagogue (c.100 B.C.)

The most common experience that implies our immortality is thinking. When we reflect back on ourselves, we find that we encounter principles that remain the same always and everywhere. So? So how is it that we can do this unless we somehow also belong to a realm of the unchangeable?

Over the course of our lives, we remain the same person while every atom in our physical make-up is frequently replaced. Something abiding over time is making us to be and remain the same being that we were when we were first conceived, in spite of all the changes of age and health.

Let us suppose we have no souls so that our death is simply the end. If we universalize this supposition, no human life ever lived makes any ultimate difference. No reward comes to the just or punishment to the unjust. Human existence is basically “in vain,” under this hypothesis.

But again, the soul is not the man. Neither John nor Suzie is a “soul.” Each has a soul. We are each one being, body and soul. This fact is why the revelational doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body is both so remarkable and so logical. It is remarkable because it addresses the meaning each person gives to his own life by his thoughts and actions. These latter indicate what he has made himself to be, a good or evil man.

It is logical because it indicates that God never intended man to die in the first place. Death, as Pope Benedict remarked in Spe Salvi, is both a blessing and a punishment in our present condition. It is a blessing because to live on and on and on in this world is a hell. It is a punishment, but a punishment in line with God’s original purpose in creating us, to associate us in His Trinitarian life as the whole beings He created in the first place.

Yes, “What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his immortal soul?” The answer is: It profiteth him not at all. The very posing of this question witnesses our dignity. We do not choose to come into existence. We do not choose to be what we are. But we do have to choose to be what we were intended to be. No one else can do it for us.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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