Classic Kirk Essays

Lost Souls: A Meditation

National Review | December 31, 1987

In our village of Mecosta, this summer, the church was converted into an antique shop. During my lifetime Mecosta has had but one church, a Methodist meeting-house; now the village has none. It seems fitting enough that the Methodist church should be crammed with antiques, for most folk nowadays regard Christian dogmas as of an­tiquarian interest merely.

Over the decades, as I watched, Mecosta’s Methodist congregation shrank in numbers and grew aged, until at length there were no young communicants at all. John Wesley’s enthusiasm of two centuries gone expired from in­anition at Mecosta. Such is the drift of belief in the world generally, nowadays. Why?

The purpose of religion is to commune with the divine. The purpose of the church is the ordering of souls. If people cease to believe in the reality of souls, and the clergy themselves commonly are embarrassed by the notion of a spiritual animating power, the church loses its function. (In such circumstances, churchmen frequently grope about for some different function, and find it in the ordering of the state. Being unprepared in any way for this latter function, they bungle it badly.)

Belief in the soul’s existence has been declining among Americans all this century. William James’s empirical psychology has had much to do with the disfavor into which the doctrine of the soul has fallen. It was James’s argument (promulgated by Dewey and the educationist crew now called “secular humanists”) that nobody needs a soul. Even if souls may exist, nobody can prove it; so why bother about that which cannot be verified by scientific data? We will retain a sense of personal identity, James held, even if we dismiss the soul. And surely, he reasoned, we can be morally responsible persons without worrying about the state of our souls. 

Those pragmatic doctrines were disseminated widely during the early decades of this century. Painful experience begins now to teach us the insufficiency of this anti-soul preachment.

What is the soul? The old ten-volume Century Dictionary (printing of 1904) contains an article of two columns, in very small print, on the word’s definition. We must content ourselves just now with the first sentence of that complex definition: “A substantial entity believed to be that in each person which lives, feels, thinks, and wills.” Or as I might put it more simply, the soul is the essence of a human being, and from the soul arises consciousness; the soul animates the body, of which the brain is a part.

The ascendancy of pragmatism and positivism gradually diminished popular belief in, or even awareness of, the soul, so defined. From the age of Plato until late in the eighteenth century, the soul’s nature and destiny were subjects of consuming interest to all educated people. But with the coming of the Encyclopedists, the soul soon was flung into limbo. In the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911) there is no article on “soul” or on “spirit.” (An entry on “spirits” will be encountered, true—distilled ones.) Let it be said in praise of the current 15th edition of the Britannica (1974), nevertheless, that its Micropaedia includes a succinct impartial article on the soul, which even remarks Gabriel Marcel’s case for a non­-material essence of being that survives the body’s death. As material things fall apart in our time, and the center can­ not hold, perhaps the Encyclopedists begin to agree with Immanuel Kant that belief in the soul is the necessary footing for morals and ethics.

But it would take much wheedling and hammering to restore recognition of the soul among today’s theologians and liturgists. Until recent years, the Catholic canon of the Mass contained the ancient line, “Say but the word, and my soul shall be healed.” The several Catholic catechisms used to refer to the soul on page after page; such archaisms have been purged from the latter-day Catholic catechisms, and from the catechetical publications of most other churches—though not from the catechisms of the Eastern Orthodox. It would be reactionary for a church to concern itself with what can’t be weighed and measured. 

Thus by degrees the churches have abandoned their primary purpose of ordering the soul. Truly the hungry sheep look up and are not fed—and drift away elsewhere, perhaps to the grim tower of Giant Ideology.

The wise man, the intellectual, in Yeats’ play The Hour-Glass is saved when in the last moment of his mortal life he discovers one person who still believes in God and in the soul: Teigue the Fool. I have enjoyed from my earliest years the advantage of being a Fool. Born hard by the great railroad yards outside Detroit, I was exempted, in the days of my youth, from the latest intellectual fads and foibles, reading good old books instead, and talking with good old people. From the moment I could form coherent sentiments, I was aware that I was a soul. During my teenage years I had my doubts about God, but I never questioned the existence of my own soul: I was not that much of a Fool.

In Anno Domini 1987 I can look back with some amusement upon myself six decades ago. Permit me to employ the third person in my account of the little Fool who recognized his soul while the steam locomotives thundered past his house on the main line of the Pere Marquette.

The boy Russell’s cast of mind was more mystical than metaphysical. Now and again he would stand between two tall mirrors, glimpsing the terror of infinity—diminished image reflecting dwindled image, until the optic nerve could not suffice to detect what presumably continued ad infini­tum. “We see through a glass, darkly”—or, as a recent translation has it, “Now we are looking into the riddle of a mirror.” What was infinity? What was eternity?

Or little Russell would stare puzzled at his mirrored face—with which he was not pleased—asking himself silently who or what he was. Cogito ergo sum? (Two decades later, the boy would read Descartes, who held that the soul was mind or understanding; but the little Fool knew better than that, at the age of seven or the age of 27.) The boy had filled himself with Marchen, better guides than Reason. Russell knew that he possessed an organic thinking-contrivance called a brain; yet he knew, or rather was aware somehow, that he was more than brain. Confronting the mirror, he obtained the intuition that he had a soul; no, that he was a soul. No one had told him so, yet he knew it for a truth absolute. Sum ergo cogito.

The doctrine of the soul, which the old Plato declared to be his principal teaching, is denied by the Wise Men nowadays—the Wise Men, that is, who have imposed their own spiritual blindness upon their pupils, after the fashion of the Wise Man in Yeats’s play. The Christian dogmas of the soul and of the resurrection of the flesh, preached early in three continents, created a new order for human­kind. Men and women are made for eternity: such was the first postulate of that moral order. How so? Because they are souls.

For expression and action, Aquinas instructs us, the soul requires a corporeal envelope. That premise is more readily apprehended today than it was in Saint Paul’s age; for physicists tell us that we of this seemingly too-solid flesh actually are collections of electrical particles, held in an ephemeral arrangement by some “laws” that we do not understand. We are energy—and energy, which we can neither create nor destroy, is being transmuted incessantly into fresh forms.

No longer need we say, with Tertullian, Credo quia absurdum est. For the science of quantum mechanics has undone nineteenth-century concepts of matter; and it becomes conceivable that whatever power has assembled the negative and positive charges composing us may reassemble those electrical particles, if it chooses, in eternity. What survives this present existence is the anima, the animating soul that transcends body and mind. The Shroud of Turin, confounding men of science and technology, is perhaps a spiritual time-bomb meant to disclose, after two thousand years, the soul’s immortality.

The seven-year-old Russell knew nothing of atomic theory or Platonic insights or the Shroud. Nevertheless, in erring reason’s spite the boy found in the riddle of a mirror the answer to his inquiry, “What am I?” He was a soul; if a soul in a fleshly prison, still a soul.

Knowing what he was, the Fool never was afflicted by that “identity crisis” so much written about in recent years. It is daring enough nowadays to venture to analyze “consciousness,” let alone analyze the soul. But if the soul’s reality is admitted, mere consciousness ceases to be a problem.

This precocious insight gave the boy whatever strength he was to possess in later years. The insight did not make him religious: a few Sundays he attended a Baptist Sunday school—encouraged by his parents, though they never entered any church themselves—but he drifted away. Skeptical from early years, in his teens he would twit his elders by professing atheism; actually, he was far too skeptical to accept atheism’s dogmas.

This brief essay, then, is my testament to the soul’s actuality. Some months ago, in the federal courthouse at Mobile, Alabama, I bore witness to this truth—as the court’s expert witness, that is, not as witness for either plaintiff or defendant. Judge Brevard Hand inquired of me, during the testimony, why I found the alleged religion called “secular humanism” baneful. This is what I replied:

“Why, sir? Because it omits what Plato said was the really important thing in all his writings: the doctrine of the soul. We find in secular humanism no recognition of the soul. There is only the human animal—the naked ape, if you will. What really distinguishes us human beings from the brutes is possession of a soul. Thus the development of the spiritual is the highest aim of a good education. That is not taken into account at all by the secular humanists. They think of man as a mechanism, a fleshly computer. That is my primary objection.”

The Supreme Court in its infinite wisdom, and the Wise Superintendents of our educationist apparatus, have made it indecent and unlawful to discourse of the soul in schools. So things continue to fall apart; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

“Either we have an immortal soul, or we have not,” Coleridge says in his Table-Talk. “If we have not, we are beasts; the first and wisest of beasts, it may be; but still true beasts.”

Just so. And as awareness of the soul fades among us, derided by the Evangels of Modernity, we exist as dogs do, from day to day. 

Copyright © The Russell Kirk Legacy, LLC


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