The Principle of DignityFrom a

The Principle of Dignity

From a book by Benedict XVI, in which he quotes a man approvingly who says-

The body is the visibility of the soul, for the soul is the actuality of the body.

My thoughts:

– As noted below, English does not have a word in common usage that means what “soul” used to mean. If it did, then Atheists, Scientists, Catholics, and everyone ease would not be disputing over whether the soul exists, but what the soul is. The word “soul” used to mean “that by which living things live”, but over time, the word came to mean “a spiritual substance” or “the ghost of a man”. With this new imposition, the “soul” was by no means a self- evident thing, but a rightly disputable thing. We lost the root meaning of the word, and were left powerless to take that root meaning and expand its notion to include the particular truth that the human soul is immortal.

The concept and reality of the soul, however, remain- just without a single commonly used word denoting them. This wordless concept is an indispensable one- one that cannot be replaced by other terms like “person”. This lack of a word to denote an essential concept throws a thousand different all- important disputes into the shadows: it hamstrings any discussion of what a man is, or what human dignity is, or what a person is, or whether abortion is wrong, or embryonic stem cell research, or euthanasia, or the nature of life after death, or the place of the resurrection of the body, or the relation of God to man- and any other dispute that is related to these ones.

-I take issue with the theologians that claim the soul is “a Greek concept”. Strictly speaking, it’s not a Greek concept, it’s a Greek word. The Greeks simply had a word (“psyche”) for what English speakers have to understand without a single commonly used word. We have to get by with the clunky phrase “that by which living things live”. We can dispute about whether the presence of this is thing constitutes an essential difference from non- living things (that is, whether a word like “soul” is superfluous, or whether it should properly be said of machines too); we can dispute about whether this thing is the brain, or the order of the body; we can dispute whether this thing is spiritual or not- all these opinions are up for grabs just as they were when the Greeks used the word “psyche” or “soul” but what is not really open for dispute is that there is something in virtue of which a living thing is alive.

The theologians, however, do have point- even though we have access to what the concept of the Greek word “psyche” means, our lack of a single word to denote it affects our ability to know it, and structure our arguments, lives, and cultural practices around it. We also have words for things the Greeks had no words for- e.g., our word “right” which means “a man’s relation to justice inasmuch as something is owed to him”. The Greeks could dispute about, say, what was owed, or if anything was owed to a man simply in virtue of his humanity (they actually did dispute about these things, without recourse to the word “right”), the Greeks could have even gone further and asked if there was a “right to life” or a “right to affordable housing”- but they lacked the word “right” to use as a locus for discussion. If you tried to explain the idea of “human rights” to the folks in the Agora you would be met with a lot of confused faces. Anyone who wanted to understand what you were saying would have to study what you said for a few years. Nevertheless, the absence of a word for a concept doesn’t destroy the concept, only the quick access to it, and still less does it destroy the reality of the thing the concept represents.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: