To begin I want to dwell for a minute on Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the human personality. It’s a secular formulation, not surprising as Freud was an atheist. I’ll get to more religious formulations in a bit but Freud shows how personality can be conceived as being made up of three ‘parts’: the id, or libido (sexual energy), the ego, and the superego. The ego, in this scheme of things as I understand it, is the part of the personality where the needs of the id and the superego are negotiated and worked out. The superego is that manifestation of the human personality that accounts for social norms, values and morality. The fact is that the id, ego, and superego are not really ‘parts’ of the human personality, but manifestations of the various and often contradictory needs inherent in the id and superego. In other words, they are not things and can only really be identified by what they do or manifest.
For example, the id of a young man (I can attest from personal experience) may be consumed, or at least, pre-occupied with thoughts of sex, sex and more sex. The superego, on the other hand says, wait up there cowboy, you can’t have sex with anyone or anything at any time. There are social rules around these things. Listen up! NO sex with your sisters, brothers, or your mother, nor with sheep, goats, or monkeys! You hear? The id counters by arguing: well, what am I supposed to do with all this energy? You tell me I’m not even allowed to masturbate! That’s not fair! In these ‘debates’ sometimes the id wins, more often the superego does. There are people who have no social conscience or social ‘brakes’ to their behaviour. We call them psychopaths or sociopaths. People with rampant, out-of-control ids can be very dangerous as sexual predators and can be uncontrollably violent. Freud’s scheme has to be considered along with other aspects of what it means to be human such as bodily integrity, intelligence, and upbringing. Personality is very idiosyncratic if you haven’t noticed. It’s all very complex but it’s what accounts for our individuality.
What Freud’s personality scheme does for my purposes here is to highlight the fact that we can easily conceive of our personalities made up of semi-independent parts. This idea is integrally important to the religious, spiritually-minded, and Christian (certainly) notion that we are made up of body, consciousness, and soul, different aspects of us that are related but have a life of their own, so to speak. To think of the soul as immortal, it’s critical to separate it from the body which dies although some religionists, especially Darbyists* (who would probably find the 1991 film Rapture right up their alley), would prefer to go to heaven with their bodies intact. Rapture (the film) depicts end-of-time second coming of Jesus and the ascension of the human body and soul to heaven. Some religionists are very keen to see their physical bodies live eternally but they’ll settle for their consciousness or soul carrying on after their bodies die.
This is the position of Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish Basque scholar who was for a long time the don of Salamanca University in Bilbao. I introduced you to Unamuno in one of my recent posts. I refer to Unamuno here because he is such a keen advocate for the immortality of the soul. He published The Tragic Sense of Life in 1920. It’s a rambling poetic rant and an impassioned plea to realize the limitations of reason in coming to grips with the most important problem he reckons facing us all and that is the immortality of our souls. For Unamuno, the longing for the immortality of our souls is what makes us human. He writes:
“That is to say that you, I, and Spinoza wish never to die and that this longing of ours never to die is our actual essence. Nevertheless, this poor Portuguese Jew, exiled in the mists of Holland, could never attain to believing in his own personal immortality, and all his philosophy was but a consolation which he contrived for his lack of faith. Just as other men have a pain in hand or foot, heart-ache or head-ache, so he had God-ache. Unhappy man! And unhappy fellow-men!” (from “The Tragic Sense of Life” by Miguel de Unamuno, Kindle Edition, page 43)
According to Unamuno, except for a few minor and aberrant individuals and groups, humans have throughout history consistently believed in the immortality of the soul. That commitment and longing for immortality that is at the very core of our beings and is effectively an instinct of perseverance as Unamuno sees it is our membership card in humanity. If we don’t believe or if we insist on finding a logical, reasonable explanation for the immortality of the soul then we are evil, wicked people who refuse to be a part of the human community. Unamuno can surely be called a hero in the social imperative of death denial. He finds atheists and non-believers of all sorts abhorrent. “If consciousness is, as some inhuman thinker has said, nothing more than a flash of light between two eternities of darkness, then there is nothing more execrable than existence” writes Unamuno. Life, for Unamuno is absolutely meaningless if the immortality of the soul is not the prime human fact and goal. Unamuno is very keen to separate reason from life. He says reason cannot prove one’s immortality, only life can, and it’s a question of faith. The soul has primacy in Unamuno’s scheme of things and is his ticket to immortality. Interestingly, he’s not as concerned with the existence of God as he is in his own immortality.
A more contemporary aficionado of the immortality of the soul is Ram Dass who just died recently. He believes that the soul must exist and it must be immortal because otherwise our earthly lives are meaningless. He writes:
“To be here for fifty to eighty years only to be annihilated at the end just doesn’t make sense. Nothing else in the universe is that inefficient. We have to be here to learn; otherwise our difficulties are truly meaningless. For the Ego, the roles we grow into and the positions we hold at the pinnacle of aging are the culmination of life. For the Soul, learning is the culmination. When we expand our self-image to include the Soul, we notice a marked shift in our personal consciousness, a liberation from the small egotistical self into a far more spacious context. From this Soul level, we are able to view our Egos from the outside in. This allows us to observe our minds and bodies in ways that will seem new and surprising, as if the trapdoors of the “self” have been opened and we can finally step outside, enjoy the view, and put a welcome distance between who we are (from Soul’s perspective) and the suffering we experience at the level of body and mind. Thus, with practice, we cultivate the tremendous healing of knowing ourselves as spiritual beings, too.” (from “Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying” by Ram Dass, page 28)
Well, I see a lot of problems with Dass’ non-sequiturs to start off . Why doesn’t it make sense that we are annihilated at the end of lives? And ‘nothing else in the universe is this inefficient’? What kind of silliness is this? Efficiency as a criterion for the immortality of the soul is ridiculous. Dass would be much better off just borrowing arguments from Unamuno than putting forward illogical ‘reasons’ for the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, he argues that we can see ourselves from “this Soul level”. Magical thinking indeed! But Dass appeals to a large audience of people intent on believing that when they die, they don’t really die because their souls carry on into eternity. I can seriously say that I’ve explored the implications of this idea through years of study, introspection and meditation, including, like Dass, the use of hallucinogens. Frankly, I just don’t see the point in adding a fictitious construction called the soul to our personalities. In a way (and I’m sure I’ll get up some people’s noses for saying this) it strikes me that believing in the immortality of consciousness or the ‘soul’ requires a great deal of collective narcissism and chutzpah. Where do we get off thinking we’re so special under the sun that we get to live eternally and no other life forms do? Note that I write ‘collective’ narcissism. As individuals we have no reference other than social ones to decide what to believe. We can be the humblest of individuals yet still be trapped in the overarching cultural imperative for apotheosis via immortality.
Of course I DO argue that in a sense we DO live eternally, just not in our current human configuration or through the ‘soul’. I know that I’m now a long way from discussing myeloma and my daily grind under its treatments. That is so. However, it’s important for me, as I approach my inevitable death whether it happens in six months or ten years, to clarify my point of view. There’s a certain amount of catharsis going on here, no doubt. Most people want to live forever. Not me. I’m perfectly happy to see my consciousness evaporate when my heart stops and at that point all the atoms and molecules that made up my body will be free to go. Have fun, little buddies!
In the third post in this series coming up shortly, I reflect on the works of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker. Both worked as social scientists. Durkheim died in 1917, Becker in 1974. Both had a lot to say about the soul and the sacredness of society as a source of the personal sense of immortality. Both have played a large part in my intellectual life but Becker sticks with me much more viscerally than the cerebral Durkheim. Both argue in their own way that the power of religion lies in society.
* “Though Darby may have burned his bridges, his message gained a larger and larger following. Today his dispensational premillennialism is the view of many modern fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals.” From: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/pastorsandpreachers/john-nelson-darby.html