You are here

Lecture 8. Discovery of the Soul in Man and in Nature.

Lecture 8. Discovery of the Soul in Man and in Nature.

The Three Stages of Early Psychology.

WE saw in our last Lecture how man came first to speak about a soul, or, more correctly, about a breath. We saw that there was nothing altogether unreasonable in such a name. In fact, whenever we examine that autobiography which man has left us in his language, we shall always find some good sense, something reasonable, even in what seems at first sight most unreasonable or foolish.

If we only bear in mind, what is now a fact doubted by no one, that every word in every language had originally a material meaning, we shall easily understand why that which at the dissolution of the body seemed to have departed and which we consider the most immaterial of all things, should have been called at first by the name of something material, viz. the airy breath. This was the first step in human psychology.

The next step was to use that word breath, not only for the breath which had left the body, but likewise for all that formerly existed in the breathing body, the feelings, the perceptions, the conceptions, and that wonderful network of intellectual threads which constituted the man such as he was in life. All this depended on the breath. It certainly was seen to have departed at the same time as the breath.

The third step was equally natural, though it soon led into a wilderness of imaginations. If the breath, with all that belonged to it, had departed, then it must exist somewhere after its departure, and that somewhere, though utterly unknown and unknowable, was soon painted in all the colours that love, fear, and hope could supply.

These three consecutive steps are not mere theory; they have left their foot-prints in language, and even in our own language these foot-prints are not yet altogether effaced.

Let us look at Greek, as we find it in the Homeric poems. At present, I do not mean to speak of what the poet himself may have thought about the soul, about its work during life, and its fate after death. We shall have to speak of that hereafter. What we are now concerned with is what the language which Homer had inherited had to say to him on this subject.

The Original Meaning of Psyche.

The most common word for soul in Greek is psyche (ψυχή). This psyche meant originally breath. When a man dies, his psyche, his very breath, is said to have passed through the bar of his teeth, the ἕρκος ὀδόντων. Here we see the first step. This word ψυχή, as you know, assumed afterwards every possible kind of meaning. Even in this passage we might translate it by life, or by soul, without destroying the sense. But we can clearly see that what passed through the ἕρκος ὀδόντων was originally meant for the actual breath.

The Psychological Terminology of Homer.

Much has been written by Greek scholars about the exact meaning of psyche in every passage where that word occurs in Homer. I am not going to enter on that subject beyond stating my conviction that it is a mistake in poems, such as the Iliad and Odyssey, to look for a consistent use of words. It would be difficult even in modern poetry to find out what Shakespeare, for instance, thought about the soul, by collecting and comparing all the passages in his plays in which that word occurs. Poets are not bound by logical definitions, and if they used all their words with well-defined meanings, I doubt whether they could have written any poetry at all. They use the living language in which the most heterogeneous thoughts lie imbedded, and whatever word serves best for the moment to convey their thoughts and feelings, is welcome.

In the Homeric poems this difficulty is increased tenfold. Whatever may be thought about the final arrangement of these poems, no one can now hold that they were all originally the outcome of one mind. Nor must we forget that in epic poems different characters may be made to speak very different thoughts, and use the same words in very different meanings, as they best suit the circumstances in which they are uttered.

The Meaning of αὐτός.

I shall give you one instance only to show what happens, if we try to interpret Homer as we should interpret Aristotle's treatise on the soul. You remember how it is said in the beginning of the Iliad, that Achilles sent the souls of the heroes to Hades, but he gave themselves, αἰτούς, a prey to the dogs. It has been inferred from this and similar passages that Homer looked upon the body as constituting the true self of man. But this is to forget the requirements of poetry. Homer here wanted to bring out the contrast between the souls that went to Hades, and the corpses suffering the indignity of being devoured by dogs. ‘They themselves’ means here no more than ‘they themselves, as we used to know them in life.’

How free Homer feels in the use of such words, we can see from another passage. In the Odyssey, xi. 601, we read that Odysseus saw Herakles, or his eidôlon, that is, his psyche, in Hades, but he himself, αὐτός, he adds, rejoices among the immortal gods.

In one passage, therefore, αὐτός means the body, or even the corpse, in another, the soul, and to attempt to reconcile the two by any theory except a poet's freedom of expression, would lead, and has led, to mere confusion of thought.

I shall attempt no more than to give you the general impression which a study of the Homeric poems has left on my mind, as to what was thought about the soul, if not by Homer himself, at least by those whose language be used.

Psyche and Menos.

What strikes me as most characteristic of psyche in the Homeric Greek, is that, whether it means breath, or life, or soul, it is never localised in any organ of the body. It is not in the heart, or in the breast, or in the phrenes, where thought resides. It is in the whole body (σω̑μα), yet different from the body.

The Homeric language clearly distinguishes between psyche and menos, including under the latter name all that we should call mind.

But the most important distinction between psyche and menos, or any other name for mind, seems to me this, that the psyche is something subjective, while all other names express originally rather acts or qualities.


Take, for instance, thymos (θυμός). Of course, the Greeks had no recollection of the etymological meaning of that word, as little as we have of our own word soul. But there can be no doubt that thymós is derived from thýein, to move violently, from which we have also thýella, storm. In Sanskrit we have exactly corresponding to thymós, dhûma; but this has retained the material meaning of smoke, literally what moves about quickly. Dhûli, also, the Sanskrit word for dust, meant originally what is whirled about.

The Greek thymos, therefore, meant originally inward commotion,—you remember how in. Tamil the soul was called the dancer—and we find in consequence that it is chiefly used with reference to the passions. But though originally thymos meant simply what moves within us, it afterwards comprehended both feelings and thoughts, and has often to be translated by mind in general. It seems to me that it was only after it had assumed this meaning, that it could also be used in the sense of life. For if it was said that one man had torn out or destroyed another man's thymus, that was tantamount to his having taken his life1. Or when it is said that the thymós left the bones (λίπϵ ὀστέα θυμός), we know that what is meant is that his mind, and therefore his breath, or his life, had left his body. But it is important to remember that we never hear of a thymos continuing by itself after death, like the psyche, which shows, as I said, that originally the thymos was really an activity, and not, like psyche, a something active.


Another important word which Homer had to use is phrenes. It means literally the midriff or diaphragm, which holds the heart and lungs, and separates them from the lower viscera. It is therefore much the same as stêthos (στη̑θος), the chest, as the abode of the heart. We find it used of animals as well as of men, as when the lion is said to have a stout heart in his chest, ἐν ϕρϵσί, Il. xvii. 111. But it soon drops its material meaning, and is considered as the seat of all inward acts, both of feeling and of thought. The work of the menos, mind, of noûs, thought, and boulê, will, takes place within the phrenes, just as much as it takes place within the thymos. The Homeric Greek rejoiced, perceived, remembered, reasoned, ἐνὶ ϕρϵσίν as we should say, in the breast or in the heart. When we meet with such expressions as κατὰ ϕρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν, we should not try to distinguish between the two, as thought and feeling, but translate ‘in the heart and in the thought,’ the heart being the locality, the thought the activity. We find a similar juxtaposition in κραδίη καὶ θνμός.

But it is important to observe that the psyche, the soul, is never spoken of as dwelling within the phrenes, the breast, or within the heart (τορ), nor is the psyche ever spoken of by Homer as the abode of the mind.

It has been pointed out that while phrenes in the plural is often used in its purely physical meaning, as we use the words breast and heart, the singular phrên has always reference to the mind or the intellect.

The derivation of phrển and phrénes is not clear in Greek, but there can be little doubt that its meaning, like that of all words, was originally material. It meant the actual diaphragm; then, what was enclosed in the diaphragm, particularly the heart, and lastly what took place within the breast or the heart. To suppose that it was derived from phroneîn, to think, and meant originally thought, and afterwards only the seat of thought, the chest or the heart, is to invert altogether the natural order of things. It was only after phrenes had become familiar in the sense of mind in general, that we can account for a large number of derivatives in Greek, such as ἄϕρων, πολύϕρων, ϕρονϵι̑ν, and all the rest.

Soul and Ghost.

It would be easy to follow the same process in other languages, but the result would always be the same2.

It is unfortunate that our own words, soul and ghost, are not quite clear in their etymology. It is most likely, however, that soul, the German Seele, the Gothic saivala, meant originally, like the Greek θυμός, commotion, and that it is connected with the names for sea, the Gothic saiv-s3. And I feel inclined now to trace the English ghost, the German Geist, which, following an idea of Plato's4, I formerly thought connected with yes, to boil, with yeast, and German Gischt, back to the Sanskrit hîd, to be angry, heda, anger; so that it meant originally heat or commotion.

Differentiation of Meaning.

This linguistic process which led to the formation of words for the different phases of the intellectual life of man is full of interest, and deserves a far more careful treatment than it has hitherto received, particularly at the hands of the professed psychologist. What is quite clear is that all these words begin as names of material objects and processes, such as heart, chest, breath, and commotion, just as the names of the gods began with the storm-wind, the fire, the sun, and the sky. At first every one of these words was capable of the widest application. But very soon there began a process of mutual friction and determination, one word being restricted idiomatically to the vital breath or the life, shared in common by man and beast, other words being assigned to the passions or the will, to memory, to knowledge, understanding, and reasoning. This process of widening and narrowing the meaning of words goes on forever; it goes on even now, and can only be stopped by that dictatorial definition of terms which is so offensive to the majority of mankind, and yet is the sine quâ non of all accurate thought. Our own language is over burdened with an abundance of undefined names, such as soul, mind, understanding, intellect, reason, thought, to say nothing of breast, and heart, and brain, of passion, desire, and will. Who is to define all these words, and to keep one distinct from the other? There is hero a real Augean stable to be cleared out, and until it is cleared out by a new Hercules, all philosophy will be in vain.

The Agent.

For the purposes of Anthropological Religion we wanted to know how man, for the first time, came to speak and think about a soul as different from the body. We have now seen that the way which led to the discovery of a soul was pointed out to man as clearly as was the way which led him to the discovery of the gods. It was chiefly the breath, which almost visibly left the body at the time of death, that suggested the name of breath, and afterwards the thought of something breathing, living, perceiving, willing, remembering, and thinking within us. The name came first, the name of the material breath. By dropping what seemed material even in this airy breath, there remained the first vague and imperfect concept of what we call the soul.

This something breathing, living, perceiving, and thinking, or, as we may now say again, this postulated agent of the acts of breathing, living, perceiving, and thinking, was recognised as within the body during life, and as without the body after death. It went by the same name, being called psyche in Greek, while inside the living body, and likewise psyche, after having departed from the dead body.

In all this there is nothing strange, nothing which we cannot follow and understand, nothing, or almost nothing, that we cannot make our own. There is one step, no doubt, which we find it difficult to take. We may admit the agent within, we may admit the persistence of that agent after it has left the body, but we should probably consider its identification with the breath as too material. We stand here before the old problem whether the human mind can ever conceive anything, entirely divested of all material attributes. Certain it is, that language cannot express anything except with names taken from material objects. This is a fact to be pondered on by all philosophers, aye even by those who do not claim that proud title. Language, no doubt, can go on and negative all that is material. One of the poets of the Veda, when speaking of the Supreme Being, says ‘that it breathed without air’ (Rv. X. 129, 2),â´nît avâtám; and, if we want to follow his example, we may say of the soul after death, that it is a breath without air. Language will perform wonderful feats in that way. But the ancients evidently thought they had gone as far as they could, when they spoke of the soul after death as a breath, that is, as a breathing and as a breather, and with all due respect for modern metaphysical phraseology, I doubt whether, if we keep to positive terms, we shall ever find a better word for the agent within us than breath or psyché.

Different Origin of other Names for Soul.

But even though the process which led the ancients to a belief in a soul and in souls may not be quite perfect in the eyes of modern metaphysicians, to study it in the annals of language has one great advantage. It teaches us again and again that the first framers of our language and our thoughts, even though they were not philosophers by profession, were on the whole reasonable beings, men not very different from ourselves, though living in a very different atmosphere. W e cannot protest too strongly against what used to be a very general habit among anthropologists, namely to charge primitive man with all kinds of stupidities in his early views about the soul, whether in this life or in the next.


When we are told, for instance, that there was another road also on which man was led to his first discovery of the soul, by recognising it in his own shadow, we simply cannot follow. When man had once realised the idea of a soul and found a name for it, lie might liken that soul to many things, and we shall see that he did liken it to many things, such as a bird, a butterfly, a cloud of smoke, and also a shadow. But all this is poetical metaphor, and carefully to be distinguished from that process which we have hitherto examined. There we saw that breath, the actual breath, was identified with life, the individual breath with the living individual, and the departed breath with the departed individual. But to suppose that any human being should ever have mistaken the shadow of his body on the wall as the true agent within, and as that which would remain after his body had been burnt, or buried, or devoured, is more than we can father even on the most primitive savage. It is said that a savage does not know what a shadow is, and how it arises. I doubt it. He might fell a tree, he would never try to fell the shadow of a tree. Anyhow the very word, shade or shadow, shows that the primitive Aryan savage at least knew, even before the Aryas separated, that shade was simply a covering, whether the covering from the sun-light, given by the branches of a tree, or a covering of any light by an opaque body. The name is derived from a root meaning to cover. We can understand how the name of breath became the name of many things dependent on breath, from the breathing of the living man to the soul of the departed. But that any person should ever have looked on his outside shadow which came and went, and could be produced at a moment's notice, as something by which lie lived in this life, or something by which he would live in the next, is more than we can take in and digest, more than we ought to charge even against the most primitive savage.

The name of shade did not help the birth of the concept of soul, but the soul, having been conceived as breath flown from the body, was afterwards, for one of its qualities, its thinness or impalpableness, likened to a shadow. So long as the soul was in the body, no likeness was required, and shadow would have been the very last to answer the purpose. After death, however, such a simile became quite natural. The soul was supposed to be like the body, hence it was often called an eidôlon or likeness, and what likeness was so like as the shadow which bore the very outlines of the human body, and seemed always to be doing exactly what the man himself was doing? If, as we are told, shadows on a wall suggested to the early artist the first idea of a portrait, what better name could poetical imagination suggest for a disembodied soul than shadow?

We can watch this process in many languages. Thus ata, which in Maori means spirit and soul, is clearly identical with ata, shadow, image, with the Tahitian eta, cloud, with the Marquesan ata, likeness. In Mangaian ata has actually come to signify the essence of a thing, a concept which many people would consider far beyond the reach of these uncivilised people.

The Maori wairua also, which means a spirit, and the human soul, is clearly connected with wairua, a shadow, a reflection. In Hawaian waitua is a ghost or spirit of a person seen before or after death, separate from the body.

This will show how important the distinction between radical and poetical metaphor5 really is for a right appreciation of the thoughts of primitive man in their historical development. He, poor primitive man, can no longer defend himself, but his descendants ought all the more to stand up for his good name. If Mr. Herbert Spencer is right that our common ancestor could never have mistaken a dead for a living thing, how can lie believe that a mere shadow was mistaken by him for his own living soul, whether before or after death?

And here language comes again to our help. Though shadow becomes at a very early time a recognised name for the souls after death, its original character as a poetical metaphor is not yet quite forgotten, for instance, by homer. No doubt, the dead are to him skiai (σκιαί)shades, quite as much as psychaí, souls. But in certain passages we can still discover traces of the poetical metaphor. When Odysseus tried to lay hold on the psyché of his dead mother, then thrice it flew away from his hand, ‘like unto a shadow or even a dream’ (σκιῃ̑ ϵἴκϵλον ἢ καὶ ὀνϵίρῳ). And when she explains to him that this is the state of mortals after death, ‘that their nerves no longer hold the flesh and bones, for these the strong force of fire has consumed, what time their thymos first left the white bones,’ she adds, ‘but their psyche flying flits about, like a dream.’

All these were originally poetical comparisons. The souls were like shades, like dreams, like smoke (ἠΰτϵ κανός); but we never hear of shades, dreams, or smoke leaving the body6. That applies to breath only, to psyche, and these two processes must therefore be kept carefully distinct, if we wish to gain a true insight into the working and growing of the human mind in its earliest phases7.


I have still to say a few words with regard to another theory, according to which the idea of a soul in man is supposed to have been suggested for the first time by dreams and apparitions. What I said with regard to the theory that the soul was originally conceived as a shadow, applies with even greater force to this theory. Before primitive man could bring himself to imagine that his soul was like a dream or like an apparition, it is clear that he must have already framed to himself some name and concept of soul. All the illustrations which have been collected in order to prove that man's first conception of a soul was derived from what he saw in dreams and apparitions, leave no doubt on that point. They all presuppose some knowledge of the soul. When Mr. St. John8 tells us that the Dayaks think that in sleep the soul sometimes remains in the body, and sometimes leaves it and travels far away, it is clear that they must have elaborated their concept of soul, quite independently of its travels in sleep. They might indeed have likened it to a dream, but they could not have received the first intimation of a soul from hypnotic apparitions.

It is quite true that the separation of subjective and objective impressions is much less fully carried out by uncivilised than by civilised nations, by uneducated than by educated persons. But with regard to dreams the first impression, whether with civilised or uncivilised people, is that they are not like ordinary objective impressions. As soon as a man wakes even from the most vivid dream, he knows that it was only a dream. When, as Sir George Grey describes it, a savage jumps up to get rid of a nightmare, catches a lighted brand from the fire and flings it with many imprecations in the direction where the apparition was seen, he knows, as soon as he is fully awake and has quite shaken off his dream, that the spirit he saw in his dream is not like a real person whom he can lay hold of, punish, and kill. As soon as he is awake, he feels relieved. It was only a dream, he says, it was a nightmare, or whatever name suggests itself; and he comforts himself in his fright by saying: ‘the follow only came for a light, and having got it, having been hit by the lighted brand, he will go away.’

If people once possess the idea of something within themselves different from the body, even though they call it as yet a commotion or a mover or a dancer only, and if they have once brought themselves to believe that after death, though the body may perish, that which was in the body has not perished, then visions, whether by day or by night, will no doubt help to strengthen their belief in departed spirits, though alas! that belief would soon vanish like a dream, if it had nothing but dreams to depend on.

Once given the name and concept of soul, and of departed souls, there would be no limit to poetical metaphor. They might be likened to birds flying away, to smoke vanishing in the air, to shadows that can be seen, but cannot be touched, to dreams that come when least expected, but can never be called back. How far this popular poetry may be carried, may be seen from many popular sayings current among uncivilised and civilised people.

Superstitious Sayings about Shadows.

Thus Bastian states that the Benin-negroes regard men's shadows as their souls, that is to say, that they speak of the souls as shadows. Nothing can be more natural. But if he adds that the Wanika are actually afraid of their own shadows, that depends very much on the authority of the interpreter. In the presence of white people, the Wanika may have seemed afraid of many things, even of their own shadows. The reason given that ‘possibly they think, as some other negroes do, that their shadows watch all their actions and bear witness against them,’ shows that the explanation was a mere surmise, and all depends on who ‘the other negroes’ were meant to be. If Crantz tells us that the Greenlanders believe a man's shadow to be one of his two souls, is it not clear that they must previously have possessed an independent idea at least of one or the other of the two souls?

Most likely, however, the fact that bodies threw no shadows in the dark, was quite sufficient to suggest the expression, that during sleep and in the darkness of the night a man's soul left his body, just as the shadow did. When speaking of inseparable friends, we may say even now, one follows the other like his shadow, or that one never leaves the other, like his shadow. Even when their relations are less friendly, we speak of one man being shadowed by another. Why then should not the same simile have suggested itself to early thinkers, that in sleep the soul left the body as the shadow leaves the body during night?

There is another popular saying among the Zulus9, that a corpse throws no shadow. Is this really to be taken as a myth of observation, as Mr. Tylor would call it? Did any human being ever persuade himself that a corpse, when carried on the bier, threw no shadow, while the bier and those who carried it were followed by their shadows? Mr. Herbert Spencer, in spite of his repeated warnings against taking savages for fools, thinks it was so. I can see in it nothing but a perfectly intelligible process of language. People who had adopted shades as one of many idiomatic names for the souls of the departed, might very naturally say that the shade had left the corpse, or that the corpse was without its shade. Fond of riddles as ancient people are, they might even ask, ‘What is there in the world without a shadow,’ and the answer would be, ‘a corpse.’ When Eastern nations say now, ‘May thy shadow never grow less,’ they know perfectly well that a shadow never grows less by itself. What they mean is perfectly understood, namely, ‘Mayest thou thyself never grow less.’

There are many things which half-educate people repeat and which they pride themselves on believing, though they would often laugh at others for believing that they believe them. Think with how serious and almost solemn a face young ladies will tell ghost-stories in these days. Even though they have never seen a ghost themselves, they are fully convinced that their friends have, and it would amount almost to rudeness to doubt their good faith. However, I ought not to restrict these remarks to young ladies, for I see in the newspapers that the young men at Oxford have just carried a resolution in their Debating Society that they believe in ghosts. And yet they do not really believe in ghosts. They do not even believe that they believe in ghosts, unless they use ‘to believe’ in a very peculiar sense. They like to make believe that they believe in ghosts. To believe is always supposed to be more proper than not to believe. But ask them to bet one shilling on the due apparition of a ghost, and, if I know them well enough, they will decline. It is exactly the same with savages. They also are proud to believe or to profess to believe what ordinary people are not able to believe. The Zulus, for instance, not only profess to believe that a corpse throws no shadow, they look equally serious when they assure their European questioners that ‘as a man approaches his end, his shadow shortens, and contracts into a very little thing10.’ However, when Bishop Callaway spoke to his Zulu friend seriously, and asked him whether he really believed that the shadow thrown by his body, when walking, was his spirit, he soon collapsed, and falling back on his popular idiom, declared, ‘No, it is not your itongo or spirit (evidently understanding me to mean by my spirit an ancestral guardian spirit watching over me, and not my own spirit), but it will be the itongo or ancestral spirit for your children when you are dead.’ This is hardly more than if we were to say that after death a man's spirit would be to his children a mere shadow, or like a shadow.

Unless we study the wonderful ways of language, we shall never understand the wonderful sayings of men, particularly during the earlier phases of human speech. Here Mr. Herbert Spencer has deprived himself of a microscope that would have disclosed to him again and again perfectly organic thought, while he can see nothing but incoherent specks.

The Ci-pres in Language.

He often accuses savages of what he calls erroneous classing. He wonders that the Esquimaux should have taken glass for ice, and quotes this as an instance of their erroneous classing. I do not believe it for a moment. Do we not ourselves call glass crystal, and κρ㳐σταλλος meant ice, before it came to mean rock-crystal. This is not a case of erroneous classing; it is simply and solely a necessity of language. When we become acquainted with a new subject, such as glass, we have either to invent an entirely new name, and that, particularly in the later periods of language, becomes almost an impossibility, or we must be satisfied with what lawyers call a ci près, and in the case of glass the most natural ci-près, or the nearest likeness, seemed to be ice.

Thus again, when we say, ‘the wall sweats,’ it is not because we really assume that water comes out of the wall, after a frost, as perspiration comes out of our skin. It is simply a case of poetical metaphor, without which half of our language would become impossible.

I do not believe that because the Orinoco Indians call the dew ‘the spittle of the stars,’ they believe that the stars spit during the night. We speak ourselves of cuckoo-spittle, even though we know perfectly well that it is no more than a small grub enclosed in a slimy substance. Nor is it more than a poetical metaphor when we say, it spits with rain.

The Infinite in Man.

A student of language knows that all these expressions are not only perfectly natural, but simply inevitable. And the same applies to the words for soul. The soul was discovered in the breath, and hence it was called breath, or psyché, by people who at first really believed that that which left the body at death and continued to exist was the breath. This something, called breath, or psyche, was afterwards likened to many things, if they possessed certain attributes which seemed compatible with the nature of the psyche or soul. As the souls after death were supposed to fly away, they were called winged, or even birds, not because they were really taken for birds, or birds for them, but simply and solely because they were supposed to pass through the air, like winged creatures. Even biologists may sometimes speak of angels’ wings, but do they believe that vertebrate beings can have wings as well as arms?

The souls were called shades, not because they were ever supposed to be nothing but images thrown on the wall, but because they shared one attribute in common with the shadows, namely, that of being without a body, and almost unsubstantial. Another name, eidôla, meant really not much more than shadow. It meant likeness, such as the outline of a man's shadow, or his image reflected in the water. And if the souls were called dreams, this was again because they shared in common with the visions of dreams their unsubstantial nature, their withdrawing themselves from the touch and the embraces of their friends.

When mythology steps in with its irrepressible vagaries, or, what is even more serious, when art invests these unsubstantial similitudes with a substantial form, no doubt the souls often become in the popular mind actual shadows and dreams, birds and winged angels. But though such expressions may satisfy the human heart in moments of grief or hope, though they may inspire the poet with his happiest strains, the serious thinker knows that they are no more than relics of ancient poetry. The soul is not a bird, the soul is not a shadow, the soul is not a dream, not even the shadow of a dream. Here we have the same No, no, which in the Upanishads we saw applied to God. But when the ancients called the soul breath, they really meant what they said; at least, they meant it as much as when they spoke of Dyaus or the sky, meaning not the material sky, but the agent in the sky. No doubt, as the sky was recognised afterwards as only a vesture of God, the breath also was conceived, as early as the time of the Vedic poets, as ‘breathing without air.’ On this point we are not wiser than the most primitive savage. We retain his words, however knocked and battered during ages of intellectual toil and moil, and we shall have to retain, whether we like it or not, some of his thoughts also. If breath sounds too material to our ears, we may like the Latin word better, and translate breath by spirit. But so long as we think in human language, we shall never arrive at a truer expression than breath or spirit, unless we rise to a higher octave of thought altogether, and agree to call it the Infinite in Man, as we recognised in the gods of nature the ancient names for the Infinite in Nature.

Why a Belief in a Soul is necessary.

It has been asked what our belief in a soul can have to do with religion and with a belief in God, and what room there is for anthropological by the side of physical religion. To judge from many works on religion, and, more particularly, on the origin of religion, it might seem indeed as if man could have a religion, could believe in gods and in One God, without believing in his own soul, without having even a name or concept of soul. It is true also that our creeds seldom enjoin a belief in a soul as they enjoin, a belief in God; and yet, what can be the object, nay, what can be the meaning of our saying, ‘I believe in God,’ unless we can say at the same time, ‘I believe in my soul.’

This belief in a soul, however, exactly like the belief in gods, and, at last, in One God, can only be understood as the outcome of a long historical growth. It must be studied in the annals of language, in those ancient words which, meaning originally something quite tangible and visible, came in time to mean something semi-tangible, something intangible, something invisible, nay, something infinite in man. The soul is to man what God is to the universe, and as it was the object of my last course of Lectures to follow in the ancient languages and religions of the world the indications of man's progress towards a knowledge of or a faith in God, it is my object now to discover, if possible, in the same historical archives, some evidence that may be left there of man's progress towards a knowledge of or a faith in his own soul. The search for that evidence may often prove tedious, and its interpretation by no means so satisfactory as when we had to deal with the history of man's belief in God. Yet the subject itself is so important that we must not allow ourselves to be discouraged. It is a first attempt, and first attempts, even though they fail, encourage others to try again.

The Soul in Man and the Soul in Nature.

The problem which we have to face in trying to discover how the agent within us was first discovered, was first named and conceived, is really in many respects the same as the problem the solution of which we had to study when treating of Physical Religion. There we saw how the agent without, or, at first, the many agents behind the phenomena of nature, had to be named by the names of visible out-ward phenomena. There, too, if you remember, the question arose whether what had been called Dyaus, the sky, or in Chinese, Tien, the sky, was the actual, visible, blue sky, or something else, the Agent in the sky. That postulated Agent was actually called in later times the psyche, the soul of the sky.

In exactly the same way, we find that the question was asked whether what had been called prâna in Sanskrit, or psyche in Greek, or spirit in Latin, was the actual, visible, warm breath, or something else, the agent in the breath.

We, at our time in the history of the world, may smile at such questions. We know that if we speak of heaven, we do not mean the blue sky. We know that when we speak of our Father in heaven, we do not mean our Father in the clouds. We know that if we speak of the dead as ascending into heaven, as dwelling in heaven, we mean more than a mere ascension into the higher strata of our terrestrial atmosphere. We live in post-Copernican times. Still we must remember that what was once the language of the childhood of the world, will remain for ever the language of the childhood of every generation. A child will always look to the blue sky as the abode of his Father in heaven. A child will always lift his hands and his eyes upward, when praying to God. And no child could conceive the return of the spirit to God who gave it, the return of the Son to the Father, except under the image of an ascent through the clouds. Some bear these fetters of language longer than others. Some bear them all their life, without even being aware of them. Who would blame them, if only they would not grudge to others the freedom for which they have often paid a very heavy price!

In the same way, the soul or the spirit will with many people always remain a breath, an airy breath, for this is the least material image of the soul which they can conceive, just as the sky was the least material image of the deity which many of the ancient nations could conceive.

If we only remember this, we shall better understand how old age is able to use, and, from an historical point of view, to use honestly, the language of childhood, though with a deeper and truer meaning. An old man who prays, ‘Our Father which art in heaven,’ is not necessarily a hypocrite. It is a study of the ancient religions of the world that best enables us to see behind the imagery of their language, and the outward show of their sacred customs and ceremonies, something which we can at least understand, something with which to a certain extent we can even sympathise, something that is true, though expressed in helpless and childish words.

But there is another lesson also which an historical study of the origin and growth of the words for soul and for God may help to impress upon our mind. In teaching us how the concept of God arises of necessity in the human mind, it teaches us at the same tune that nothing can satisfy the human mind but what we mean by an agent, that is, a real, self-conscious, agent, or, as we express it, in more anthropomorphic language, a personal soul and a personal. God.

We have to guard here against two misunderstandings. There are theologians, oven Christian theologians, who hold that the concept of God was the result of a special disclosure, and made to Jews and Christians only. Such assertions can only be silenced by facts, such as I gave in great abundance in my Lectures on Physical Religion, though one would have thought that some of these orthodox sceptics would on this point have yielded more ready submission to the express teaching of St. Paul.

But there are other philosophers who hold that the concept of God, though, like the concept of soul, it may be the result of a long-continued historical development which can be traced in all languages and all religions, is nevertheless a name only, which we may retain for old association's sake, but which denotes merely the unity of nature and no more.

This has been repeated again and again, and yet a little reflection would have shown that this whole argument rests simply on a mistake in language and thought. If people prefer to call the agent of their own acts and the agent of the acts of nature a mere unity, modern languages allow such a licence. But we must remember that unity is an abstract term, and that we can never have abstract terms without concrete objects from which they are abstracted. Unity is nothing, if it is not a predicate.

We may predicate unity either when what is substantially one has become differentiated, or when what is substantially different has become combined. The latter is clearly impossible in our case when, if we may trust our reason at all, our reason postulates a self-conscious agent for everything that deserves to be called an act. To speak of an act that acts itself, or of an agent not different from his act, is not to speak, but only to use words. In the former acceptation of unity, we may predicate it of that which is one and the same in different acts, whether the soul in man, or God in nature; but in predicating unity we cannot predicate it except of a unit. We cannot define that unit, whether in ourselves or in nature, beyond saying what we mean by it, namely, a self-conscious agent, such as we know our self to be, apart from all other qualifications, and such as we require the self of nature to be, apart from all phenomenal attributes.

Now then we see clearly how closely what I call. Anthropological and Physical Religion hang together. The former teaches us how we have come to discover an agent within, and to call that agent soul or person, or ego or self, but not simply a cause, still less a mere unity. The latter shows us how we have come to discover an agent without, and to call that agent soul or person or ego or self, but not simply a cause, still less a mere unity. If in religious language we prefer the name of God, we may do so, but we must not leave out any of the elements of which it is composed. If soul is nothing except it be a self, a self-conscious agent, or a person, God would be nothing, unless He was at least a self, at least a self-conscious agent, or a person, in the highest sense which that word conveys to ourselves.

From the book: