The Greek Discovery of the Soul

"The inflection or rupture between paganism and Christianity is... not in the rigorous distinction between the body and the soul -- the already ancient achievement of Greek philosophy..." -- Pierre Manent, The Metamorphoses of the City, p. 240

This historical fact, although it certainly is not a refutation of materialism, is somewhat of an embarrassment for the usual materialist etiology of ideas. The very idea of a "soul," per that materialist narrative, is some fanciful religious notion cooked up by primitive people to comfort themselves in the face of death. Once people begin to think "rationally," the obvious nonsensicalness of this concept becomes apparent.

Except, historically speaking, at least in the West*, that was not how things went at all: from Persia westward to Britain, there was no indigenous religion with the idea of a soul as something sharply distinguished from the body.** Instead, this idea was developed by a lineage of thinkers who put rational thought above their indigenous tradition, and sought to follow it where it lead them. One of the most famous of them, in fact, was executed for his "impiety."

It was only after the concept of the soul was developed by "irreligious," reason-worshipping Greek philosophers that it later was incorporated into Christianity, Islam, and post-Hellenistic Judaism.

Actually understanding the history of the idea of the soul certainly does not prove that those Greek philosophers were right! But it does utterly discredit the idea that this concept is some ancient, atavistic notion that is completely opposed to "reason."

* It would be a fascinating and worthwhile study to compare in detail the western development of the idea of the soul and the Indian evolution of an idea like "Atman," also created primarily by philosophers, as I understand it: but this blog post is not the place to write such a study!

** Someone might contend that Egypt was an exception here, but if that person can sort out how the categories of ib, sheut, ren, ba, ka, and akh relate to Greek philosophy, s/he is a better historian of ideas than me!


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