Between Stockholm Syndrome and Lima Syndrome
Part 20: On Souls and Thanatophobia
What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.
-MARCUS AURELIUS (121-180)
Zoroaster's appealing tenets regarding heaven and hell, the last judgment, and the resurrection of the dead—eventually adopted by Judaism, Christianity and Islam—cannot be separated from the belief (more precisely, hope) that human souls survive death and continue to live in afterlife.
But what is actually a soul? Oxford defines soul as the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal. Merriam Webster defines it as the spiritual part of a person that is believed to give life to the body and in many religions is believed to live forever. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as (a) a part of humans regarded as immaterial, immortal, separable from the body at death, capable of moral judgment, and susceptible to happiness or misery in a future state, (b) this part of a human when disembodied after death.
In many religious, philosophical and mythological traditions, the soul is regarded as the incorporeal and immortal essence of a living thing. Abrahamic religions believe that immortal souls only belong to human beings. Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued that all organisms have souls, but only human souls are immortal. On the other hand, non-Abrahamic religions—especially Hinduism and Jainism—believe that all biological organisms have souls. Other religions with animistic flavor (such as Japanese Shinto) even believe that non-biological entities (rivers, caves and mountains) possess souls.
The first philosopher in the Greek tradition, philosopher and mathematician Thales of Miletus (624–546 BCE) even believed that any object that moved itself 'under its own power' showed evidence that it had soul. This caused physicist Jerome W. Elbert to ask (in his essay Does the Soul Exist: From the Mythological Soul to the Conscious Brain): "since a magnet can move itself toward a piece of iron, do magnets have souls?" Go figure.
Then there is the concept of anima mundi (the world soul), which is "an intrinsic connection between all living things on the planet, which relates to our world in much the same way as the soul is connected to the human body." Anima mundi originated with Plato who stated: "Therefore, we may consequently state that this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence ... a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related." To a certain extent, this Neoplatonic view is also shared by several Eastern philosophy and religions. Hinduism connotes the metaphysical concept of Brahman as a single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists in the universe.
In Chinese culture, qi or ch'i is recognized as 'material energy', 'life force', or 'energy flow' that is the central natural force in traditional medicine and martial arts as well as in Taoism. Mahayana Buddhism recognizes Dharmakāya which constitutes the "unmanifested, inconceivable aspect of a Buddha, out of which Buddhas arise and to which they return after their dissolution." Yogis believe that yoga a technique to align mind, body and soul. So far so good, but, still, what is a soul? (Full disclosure: Although I consider myself an agnostic, one of my favorite tunes is "Be Still My Soul" composed by Jean Sibelius.)
While Abrahamic religions believe that human souls will survive death and continue to live in afterlife, non-Abrahamic ones do not talk about afterlife souls or promise anything beyond death. There are a few exceptions, however. "Where does the soul go when the body dies?", asked Lutheran mystic Jacob Boehme (1575-1624). "There is no necessity for it to go anywhere," stated Boehme who once was enlightened in the oneness of man, God, and the universe upon staring at the light reflected in a pewter dish. Death, according to Boehme, is the end of the soul. Indeed in the age of 16th- and 17th-century Reformation Wars, Boehme's idea about the soul was considered scandalous, to say the very least.
Hence what is a soul? While there are multiple definitions in dictionaries, and many beliefs recognize its existence, has anyone actually ever seen, touched, or measured a soul? Is it in the form of solid, liquid, or gas? What is its color and shape? Is it opaque or transparent? Is it located in the heart, brain, or elbow? The only obvious thing is that we don't have a verdict on souls. But while we can never be sure about souls—much less where they go after death—we can be surer about death itself. An existentialist philosopher, whose name I don't recall, once mused that the minute a baby is born, he basically starts to crawl to his grave.
As cruel as this sounds—yes, philosophers can be unusually cruel—can there ever be life without death? Can there ever be renewal without regeneration? Can there ever be beginnings without endings? Can there ever be evolution without extinction? Obviously not. As the primary beneficiary of the evolution process, we, Homo sapiens, should know better, and overcome our thanatophobia or irrational and pervasive fear of death. Indeed this fear of death is a natural manifestation of our basic instinct of self-preservation, without which we would not have survived.
Yet, the death of a caterpillar means the life of a butterfly. The extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago spurred the rise of modern mammals, including us. Thus from a biological perspective, it can even be argued that death and extinction could be necessary evolutionary tools to maintain natural equilibrium and ecological sustainability.
[To be continued.]
Johannes Tan, Indonesian Translator & Conference Interpreter