Christian Views of the Soul

Note 1: Augustine. 1/13/99

Saint Augustine, who is often credited with saving Christianity from the threat of corruption from pagan and heathen influences, and it cannot go unremarked that Christianity which claims to have given (wo)man its one true savior also found itself in need of being saved, expresses more eloquently than most a blend of ideas about the nature of the soul, part Greek (from Aristotle and Plato) and part Hebraic, that came to be (re)guarded as the standard definition of that sacred, if somewhat elusive, concept. In On Christian Doctrine, for instance, he says that

"And so faith clings to the assurance, and we must believe that it is so in fact, that neither the human soul nor the human body suffers complete extinction, but that the wicked rise again to endure inconceivable punishment, and the good to receive eternal life."

There are two kinds of distinctions that can be drawn here between Aristotle and Augustine about the nature of the soul. Aristotle never suggests that the individual human soul is somehow immortal, or that it does not suffer "extinction." His concept, that soul is a universal substance which imparts "essential whatness" to the body and that the two are inescapably intertwined, does not accord well with the idea Augustine expresses here that the body and the soul, which stamps body as to kind, are both capable of surviving that moment called death when the classical view held that the one (soul) was separated from the other (body). Aristotle also rejected the notion that the two could be (re)united after death, or that the soul could rejoin its body, and the animal could be returned to life through resurrection. Augustine makes that claim here explicitly, as one would only expect, of course, since that idea was the primary ideological commodity that Christianity peddled to the people of the ancient world.

Also apparent in this same statement is the notion that individual souls exhibit, or possess, qualities that can be judged either good or evil, blessed or wicked, and so on, which determine how the person, both in body and soul, will be entertained by God in the afterlife. Aristotle never suggests that the soul inherits, acquires, or possesses qualities that can be judged good or evil and Greek society in general was content to punish evil-doers in life rather than waiting for a (super)natural entity to execute a sentence against them after they died. Aristotle's view of the soul tends toward seeing it as a universal, but essentially neutral, attribute of the animal and vegetable worlds.

In what may be a more significant departure from the position Aristotle argues, Augustine makes use of the notion that man was created in the image of God to formulate the argument that (wo)man's possession of the Godlike "rational soul" elevates her/him to a position "exalted in honor" above all other animals:

"For a great thing truly is man, made after the image and similitude of God, not as respects the mortal body in which he is clothed, but as respects the rational soul by which he is exalted in honor above the beasts."

Jacques Derrida (in Of Grammatology) has initiated a project to "deconstruct" what he calls "logocentrism," the practice in Western philosophy and metaphysics of appealing to the Logos, the Word of God, as a supreme, irrevocable authority which establishes the truth of any claim that can be referenced to Holy Scripture or otherwise shown to have been derived from Biblical or early Church sources. The use of this form of "proof" of a statement's validity can be either explicit, by actually quoting the Bible in support of an idea, or implicit, by simply repeating a concept well-known to the majority of one's potential audience which has its origin in Biblical or other sacred texts. Augustine's statement above is implicitly logocentric, since he does not directly appeal to Scripture in support of his position. He could have done so, of course, but probably believed that no one in his audience would question the validity of his assertion.

The ground for Augustine's argument is found in Chapter 2, Verse 19, of Genesis and forms an important part of the Myth of Eden:

"And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof."

The concept of naming in logocentric discourse, like the kind quoted here from Genesis, carries with it the implicit quality of conferring an hierarchical dominion down from the naming subject to the named object. In other words, Adam, as the first man, and Eve, as the first woman, both acquire the power of dominion over every animal that God allows or commands Adam to name. Augustine's assertion that (wo)man's rational soul is the cause of her/his exalted honor above every beast is derived from this Biblical "certainty." In his analysis of Levi-Strauss's work among a nomadic, primitive tribe in South America, Derrida makes note of the fact that the anthropologist suggests that the Nambikwara, before he "taught" them how to write, which was only a play-at-writing activity among the natives, "did not know violence before writing, nor hierarchization, since that is quickly assimilated into exploitation" (Of Grammatology, 135). The point Derrida makes is that Levi-Strauss reads pre-writing, primitive cultures as more innocent than ones which have developed writing and that the absence of written forms of the language prevent the development of violence, hierarchy, and exploitation among the people of the tribe.

The idea that writing can be blamed for the appearance of violence, concepts of hierarchy, and practices of exploitation among a primitive, innocent people, a native people, people of color, that these activities and perceptions belong to more advanced civilizations and not to primitive or barbaric ones, simply because the advanced cultures have written forms of their language and primitive ones do not, is only another way of shifting the blame and responsibility for bad or destructive behavior away from the essential content of the discourse of the advanced culture (white European) and placing it instead on the technique through which those ideas (content) are preserved and (dis)tributed. This is worse than blaming the messenger for bringing forth a bad idea, an unwelcome piece of news, since he/she is judged and punished over the form in which the message is carried, verbal or written, and conceivably over the style (badly or well spoken or written) in which the verbal or written message was preserved. In the process of blaming, not the messenger, but the form and style in which the message is delivered (did he/she speak or read the message well or badly?), the content of the message itself is all but forgotten.

Derrida points out that Levi-Strauss's discussion of the Nambikwara contains numerous examples of those things he claims are absent from their culture prior to his giving them pencils and paper and "teaching" them to write. There was violence, a sense of hierarchy, and perhaps even exploitation among them before the concept of writing was introduced or, at least, Derrida claims he can detect evidence of such things in the anthropological discourse itself.

Any reading of the Myth of Eden raises a serious challenge to Levi-Strauss's assertion, and Derrida's concurring agreement with it, that writing, as opposed to speech, is responsible for the appearance of violence, hierarchy, and exploitation in human culture. Violence against the other, whether its object is animal or human, can be traced directly to the introduction of the notion of hierarchy in perceiving the power relations that obtain between members of unequal classes or strata of classes that constitute the structure of the hierarchy. The higher always already has dominion over the lower. This is the point of having the hierarchical structure in the first place. One can find any number of systems of ethical and moral argument that explain and limit the ways in which the higher are permitted to treat the lower members of the hierarchy. These systems are called legal or religious, depending on whether they are ethical or moral respectively, and have been present in Western culture from the beginning because without them there would be no way of regulating the power relations that exist in culture by virtue of the hierarchy itself. The idea that writing, as a form of presenting the content of the Word, is responsible for hierarchy in Western civilization is the same as saying that birds are responsible for the air in which they fly, that without birds to fly in it there would be no air at all.

The Word, the Logos, is responsible for hierarchy in and of itself because the author of the Word is God and the entity to whom it is addressed is (wo)man. To escape that instantaneous creation of hierarchical power relations one has to abandon the idea of God. It does not matter in the least whether the expression of God is spoken or written. And which was it? "God said: Let there be light." God created light by saying that. He did not write it down, he said it. The problem, of course, is that we have knowledge of what God said because someone (Moses?) wrote it down. Writing down the Word of God, however, apparently does not create the same kinds of problems that writing in general creates. When God took Adam aside to name the animals, and thus gain dominion over them, did Adam speak or write their names? If he spoke them, then he acted in pure innocence, on the one hand, because he spoke their names but did not write them down and, on the other, because he had not yet committed the original sin of gaining the knowledge of good and evil which only later got him kicked out of the Garden of Eden. But we know about Adam's naming of the animals because someone wrote it down.

If Adam spoke the names of the animals, in a pure and absolute state of innocence, how did he gain dominion over them when hierarchy can only come into existence after the act of writing has been introduced into human culture? To put this a different way: if naming animals in a pure state of innocence can, in and of itself, create violence, hierarchy, and exploitation, and that seems to be the case here since Adam spoke and did not write the names, then why did God take Adam aside so he (and He by proxy) could create, bring into being and presence in the world, violence, hierarchy, and exploitation? If naming creates dominion of the namer over the named, then God caused violence, hierarchy, and exploitation, laid the groundwork for it, so to speak, when man (Eve was "created" only after this act of naming took place) was still in a state of pure and absolute innocence. Only one conclusion can be drawn from this convoluted, irrational nonsense--the violence and exploitation which inevitably result from hierarchy were created or caused by God prior to man's original sin and therefore must be good and proper ways for men to behave in the power structures and relationships that exist in Western civilization. Drawing this out to its immediate and inescapable conclusion, it could not have been wrong for Cain to kill Abel because the Word of God demands that hierarchy result in violence and exploitation against the other, even when the other is your own brother.

The fact that Cain was condemned for murdering Abel only compounds the irrationality of the discourse. The least that can be said about any of this is that bad philosophy leads inevitably to bad behavior. This part of the Genesis myth bears the unmistakable touch of human frailty and fallacy, since it is even worst to believe that God, in His infinite wisdom, is little more than a philosophical moron who could not pass an entry level exam in a freshman logic course at a Community College.

From a native American point of view, of course, little more than that needs to be said. One word, however, might serve to take the edge off that statement: native Americans have always perceived the other, human, horse, bear, beaver, buffalo, crow, eagle, etc., as the brother of (wo)mankind and we have never treated our brother the way Cain treated Abel. We never heard or imagined, at least originally, the Word of God. We were never innocent. We were just lucky.

To return to Index click X in the upper right-hand corner of the page.

To view Myth of Eden Index click here.